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New Release movie Reviews - July 24
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA ***1/2 (119 minutes) MA
Crammed with garish decor, wild costumes and some unapologetically affected central performances, the final chapter in the life of flamboyant pianist Liberace gets a feisty, full-bodied treatment here. Just bear in mind, this dramedy is a piece of entertainment, not a documentary.
Based on the book by Liberace's former lover/driver/houseboy Scott Thorson, the film charts their bumpy relationship as Thorson (Matt Damon) moves into the sprawling, glittering, gorgeously grotesque mansion of a self-consciously aging, impressively bewigged Liberace (Michael Douglas).
It's a quick and easy seduction as the showbiz animal trainer is instantly immersed in a dizzying world of money, golden bathroom fixtures, adoring media attention and sex with a major celebrity.
Convinced that he is special from the toyboys who have come before, Thorson becomes so besotted by Liberace's extravagant, eccentric lifestyle he agrees to extensive plastic surgery to make him look like his benefactor. Diet pills, however, leads to drugs and an increasingly frazzled mind as Liberace decides to move on to his next conquest.
As unlikely a casting couple as they might sound, Douglas and Damon come up trumps in this movie and really pull out all the stops, especially when it comes to scenes involving sex and intimacy. Douglas, in particular, captures that weird air of modesty and excess Liberace was famous for.
And director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic; Oceans; Erin Brockovich; etc) is not shy in amping up the camp value of his subject, often drawing titters from mannerisms, costumes and gestures as the pair joke and argue. But it's not a glorified exercise in mincing; there's a real edge to the drama as Thorson goes off the rails and Liberace moves to kick him out.
The film serves as an arguably overdue tribute to a dedicated entertainer who fought hard to keep his public and private lives seperate. Though based on his book, it's Thorson who comes out looking like the exploiter, Liberace as the kindly father-figure with a big, generous heart of gold-plated tinsel.
Behind the Candelabra also illustrates how biopics really work best when they concentrate on a given part of a person's life, and uses that to reflect on the rest. Thus, there are passing, poignant references to early events and achievements in Liberace's life - his libel suits; his work in TV - that are strategically dropped in to help advance the story. It's very well-researched.
Interestingly, Soderbergh spent about five years trying to get the film up and ended up making it for HBO after failing to find any major studio willing to back it as a cinema release. When aired in June, Behind the Candelabra went on to draw about 3.5 million viewers across two screenings, the biggest rating for a HBO film in a decade. It then secured theatrical releases in the UK (where Liberace was absolutely huge) and Australia.
It's a guess, but right about now there must be executives at those studios kicking themselves for not seeing the Oscar potential in what Douglas and Damon could do with their roles. To their credit, they signed onto the project early and refused to abandon it when Soderbergh ran into trouble raising the finance. Still, there's alway the Emmys.
And for what it's worth, the film holds up extremely well on a second viewing. Douglas really puts in some of his best, most surprising work here.
(Check out our list of Liberace Fast Facts)
THE WOLVERINE *** (126 minutes) M
Grrr. Hugh Jackman is back with his steak knives, those signature mutton chops, an angrier attitude and a weakening constitution in this pretty good sequel to his pretty good 2009 franchise-firing hit X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Suffering from what appears to be a touch of middle-age malaise, our hirsute hero (complete with Grizzly Adams beard) lurches out of the snowy forest suffering from nightmares and is taken to Japan where he is tasked with protecting the grand-daughter of his dying mentor.
Some terrific action sequences - one atop a bullet train; another engaging the services of a giant metallic samurai - are framed by an above-average character story where the mutant X-Man has to face up to possibly not being quite as immortal as he thought.
A very slick, entertaining, super-hero thrill ride, the only quibbles about the film are its length - every big film these days seems to be at least 20 minutes too long - and its 3D conversion. Really, it's another example of the marginal difference that process often makes.
Come on, Hollywood. Either design films that need to be seen in 3D, or stick to good old 2D.
WHAT'S IN A NAME? *** (110 minutes; subtitled) M
Here's a very funny, dialogue-driven French comedy about a gaggle of friends whose pleasant dinner gathering is derailed when they embark on an increasingly heated argument over the importance of an impending baby's intended name. After many barbed witticisms and exercises in twisted logic, things move on to broader, more embarrassing matters.
The chief cast - Charles Berling; Valerie Benguigui; Guillaume De Tonquedec; the fab Patrick Bruel; Judith El Zein - bounce off each other under the fizzy direction of Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patelliere, upon whose play the film is based.
A huge hit in France, where (according to Variety) it out-performed The Avengers, the film's verbal thrust-and-parry is so fast you do spend more time - too much time - reading the flashing of subtitles than looking at the gesticulations and exaggerated expressions of the players. Bring on the Americanisation, please.
CLOUDBURST **1/2 (89 minutes) MA
A rough-edged Olympia Dukakis steals much of this comedy road movie about two ageing lesbians (Dukakis and Brenda Fricker) who go to Canada to get married. Enjoyable, but unremarkable, with the cliche of the pushy granddaughter at odds with the film's progressive, with-it vibe. Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, based on his hit 2010 play. Made in 2011.
TO THE WONDER ** (112 minutes) M
Often looking like it was cobbled together from outtakes snipped from his previous head-scratcher The Tree of Life (2011), Terrence Malick's latest exercise in arsty, abstracted camera angles is a blurry, largely unstructured ramble.
Ben Affleck barely puts in a performance as a man who moves his new lover, played by Olga Kurylenko (Oblivion; Quantum of Solace) from France to America, where things don't quite pan out, despite the nice scenery.
This film apparently didn't have a screenplay (or much of one) and was originally much longer - though you don't need to be told that, really. You can sort of figure it out by the meandering, often aimless flow of the film, and by the fact that Affleck doesn't really say anything.
Though the film has some nice images, it's got to be said that Malick has now developed a cache of visual cliches. These include: warped camera angles; shooting shadows; sudden close-ups; jolting edits; follow focus; and scenic shots with either a heavy overlay of music or no music at all.
At times the film actually feels like a parody of an arthouse movie rather than a work produced by a director often unjustly described as a cinematic genius. There were signs of that in early films such as Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), but nothing here or in Book of Life, The Thin Red Line (1998) or The New World (2005) suggest anything other than a desire to be deciphered.