Cinema reviews: Behind the Candelabra, The Stone Roses: Made of Stone and After Earth

The Financial Times, like many companies, urges its staff to disclose private interests. So here is mine regarding Behind the Candelabra. I once visited Liberace’s home. Not when he was alive, but when the late pianist-entertainer’s Las Vegas mansion, a sprawling mega-bungalow stuffed with chintz, kitsch and, yes, candelabras, had just become a de rigueur tourist site. Everything was white and gem-encrusted. Blue-rinse matrons off buses – “Lee”’s former fans – moved about the place gurgling, sighing, near-swooning. The place was awesome, with a side order of scary.

If showbusiness is the business of showing off, nobody did it better than Liberace. You cannot believe anyone thought him non-gay, yet millions did during his life. Every widow west of the Rockies wanted to marry him. So casting professional heterosexual Michael Douglas (Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction) as the pink-cheeked, mink-chic master of mincing, with those ring-barnacled fingers that could play a hundred Chopin notes a second, is counterintuitively inspired. Douglas sports the mile-high bouffant hair and mile-wide epicene grin, while Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, his boyfriend, memoirist and alleged (by Thorson) adopted son floats about Casa Liberace like an Adonis who has been to surgery heaven and back.

Director Steven Soderbergh had retired, we thought. But perhaps making a television film for HBO does not count. It’s only a TV film in America: elsewhere it has been fought over like cats by distributors sensing a box-office bonanza. Dream cast, top director, preposterous but true plot. Liberace did lead a double life: AC for the press, DC chez soi. He did wow the world – I grew up then, I remember – with loony outfits and camp pianism. He evidently doted on Scott, though Scott’s is the main word on the matter. He died of Aids, circa Rock Hudson, without Rock’s taboo-busting candour.

Richard Fisher King LaGravenese’s script treats the life as a fairy tale, though you could debate the happiness of the ending. Liberace lived and died a lie. He owned everything he wanted while little of himself, after cosmetic intervention and enhancement, was his own. Rob Lowe does a very funny turn as a plastic surgeon with a barely movable face and oriental, un-closable eyes. Damon himself endures a double makeover: first the film’s own victim – soft focus and CGI rejuvenation – and then his lover’s, shooing him off to the scalpel. Douglas, dapper, glowing, regal, directs the lives around him.

It’s all huge fun. In America everyone gets what he or she wishes for, or becomes what he or she wishes to be, provided the money is there, plus the will and the desire to be your own last testament and legend.

Shane Meadows of This Is England, master historian of modern Britain, a Holinshed in our back garden, is unsure what to do with the Stone Roses. Since he loves this Mancunian band almost religiously – they did die and rise again – The Stone Roses: Made of Stone, commissioned by the SRs, is deferential sometimes to the point of dippiness. Such is the long shadow of This Is Spinal Tap that nearly every rockumentary seems to imitate the master imitation: young twerps in medium-long hair make music and mouth on about life, meaning and the next gig. Thank goodness Meadows plants himself on screen too, a genial, medium-lugubrious ex-skinhead, confiding his worries about the purpose and likely outcome of his cine-mission.

The Stone Roses’ revival, when announced, caused hysteria in Warrington, Lancashire, and points surrounding. No wonder. The played-in-full numbers, accessorised with split screens, give you the full audiovisual bang for your buck. Meanwhile the soundtrack’s prose utterances range wide between the Confucian – “It takes time for people to fall in love with you” (a Stone Rose on the elusiveness of number-one chart hits) – and the Cro-Magnon: “F*** Oasis, f*** Man City!” crows a fan into the camera. Meadows vividly records the fury of the Amsterdam concert, when frontman Ian Brown pleaded with a near-rioting audience, robbed of encores by the drummer’s early departure due to a faulty ear-piece. (You couldn’t have scripted it in Spinal Tap.) Made of Stone should have poked its nose in the dressing room immediately after and caught the musicians’ meltdown, later well reported. But that isn’t Meadows’ style. Some audiences may feel short-changed by this niceness. As T.S. Eliot almost said: human reality cannot bear very much kindness.

After Earth
is a survival drama. How would we survive, the film posits, if left alone in a cinema for two hours with Will Smith, his son and the fantastically errant imagination of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, but also Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender)? Early on there is cloying dad-and-son shtick between Smith as a space hero and extraterrestrial colonist called “Cypher” (asking for trouble from critics) and his real and screen offspring Jaden, playing cadet exam flunker “Kitai” who must – for the story’s sake (otherwise no story) – be taken on Smith Sr’s next mission, in order that the boy grow up.

Cue asteroid storm. Cue crash landing on planet suspiciously like an Earth turned into critter-infested jungle. “Every decision you take will be life or death,” intones wounded Will as he sends Jaden on a foray deep into digitised-beast land to find a life-saving McGuffin fallen from the spaceship’s tail. The boy will be mauled, bruised, ripped, flung about and nearly killed. (Will Smith is credited with conceiving the original story. Something we should know about life in the Smith family?) It is all as predictable as Christmas, assuming your Christmases, like mine, start feral before turning cosy.

The Iceman
is a gangster film besotted with its own noir coolness. It struts about, sombre, laconic and dressed-down to kill, as if it is The Godfather’s long-lost godson. Michael Shannon, playing the true-life Mafia hit man Richard Kuklinski, proves that a good actor badly directed is – at least for the space of a film – a bad actor. Same for David Schwimmer, Chris Evans, James Franco, all contributing cameos. There is one funny moment. Shannon, threatening to shoot Franco, tells him to pray to God to save his life. Franco prays. Shannon says “I think God’s busy” and shoots him. It is a doofus kind of tombstone wit – the kind Stallone used to dispense – but at least it is something. Elsewhere The Iceman is like a gangster’s cold locker: all the nutritive items have been taken out to make room for the dead bodies.

June, for arthouse distributors, is a month for bedding out the dead. The bad films might grow; you never know. I doubt it with Claude Miller’s Thérèse Desqueyroux, drably adapted from François Mauriac’s novel about husband-poisoning, previously filmed by Georges Franju (1962). Audrey Tautou in serious drama has one expression, the solemn pout. Compare – if you find a DVD – Emmanuelle Riva, late Amour Oscar nominee, dazzling for Franju.

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