Thursday, 27 June 2013

Film Review - Behind The Candelabra

Its strange that in the 70's the world seemed to suffer from a collective gaydar malfunction. The UK for instance had popular entertainers like Frankie Howerd, Larry Grayson and John Inman who were as camp as a row of frilly, pink tents yet they weren't seen as homosexual.

Society felt more comfortable placing them in the less threatening "eccentric" category to make them more digestible to unsophisticated mainstream audiences. The performers in question had no intention of upsetting the applecart of their sexuality as gay bashing was still an operational hazard.

In the early 80's the spectre of AIDS ravaged the gay community and the public were forced to face facts: homosexuals existed and the public needed to take their heads so out of the sand and deal with it. It's a pity it took a devastating disease to change public perception but sadly we didn't always live in such enlightened times.

Steven Soderburgh's Behind The Candelabra is the biopic of Liberace and deals indirectly with such weighty issues. The larger than life showman was a huge star for the best part of three decades yet kept his homosexuality secret, even going so far as suing and winning a case against the Daily Mirror for even implying he was gay.

The self proclaimed "One man Disneyland" was a flamboyant entertainer and pianist whose kitschy showmanship made Elton John look like Nick Drake. He stage shows were an overdose of furs, sequins and gold that reflected his love of excess in both his professional and personal life.

Soderburgh picks up his story in the 70's with Liberace (Michael Douglas) ensconced in Las Vegas and selling out shows to an exclusively female audience. Matt Thorson (Matt Damon) is a naive country boy from California (whose tell all book the film is adapted from) who, once introduced to Liberace, is quickly seduced by his champagne lifestyle and soon becomes his assistant and lover.

Life, for a while, is great. Their relationship allows them both to fill a void (Liberace, despite his wealth, is a lonely man and Thorson is missing a father figure) and the blur of Jacuzzis, champagne and sex glosses over the rest.

Thorson: How do stay so hard for so long?
Liberace: I've had implants

However once the honeymoon period is over the egos, superficiality and jealousy poisons their relationship and results in dramatic consequences for them both. Liberace's penchant for younger boys doesn't help matters.

Liberace: I have an eye for new and refreshing talent.
Thorson: You have an eye for new and refreshing dick.

You know you are in for an entertaining couple of hours when a movie's opening scene involves Quantum Leap's Scott Bakula, sporting a lustrous handlebar moustache, cruising for sex in a gay bar. The film is at times very funny and at other times cringe worthy and I don't just mean the sight of Matt Damon in a sequined thong. Non-gay viewers of a certain generation may struggle to sit through some of the more risqué scenes.

Having two straight actors playing two raging queens is something of a novelty but Douglas and Damon take all the nudity, mincing and snogging in their stride and do a wonderful job conveying the couple's multi-layered relationship with a refreshing humility of performance. Douglas has never been shy of sex scenes but Liberace is polar opposite from the alpha males he normally portrays.

There is top notch support in the shape of Dan Akroyd as ball-busting manager Seymour Heller who tries to keep a lid on Liberace volatile private life with mixed results. Rob Lowe delivers some well judged comic relief as celebrity plastic surgeon Dr Startz whose face has been pulled so tight by plastic surgery he looks Chinese. Liberace and Thorson have a lot of work done and Liberace has concerns:

Liberace: "Will I ever be able to close my eyes?"
Dr Startz: "Not exactly. You'll always be able to see people's reactions when they see how wonderful you look."

Soderbergh is a director with many more hits than misses and lately he has become remarkably prolific, churning out five films in under two years including the excellent Magic Mike and Side Effects. His treatment reminds me a lot of Boogie Nights whose central character also rapidly descends from carefree 70's naviete into cocaine-fuelled 80's paranoia. They both depict the entertainment industry as minefield of back stabbers and burnouts although here the bitchiness is ramped up a notch.

I do feel Paul Thomas Anderson's film is more rounded and does a better job of conveying the highs and lows of life in the fast lane. The melodrama in Behind The Candelabra does tend to grate after a while (there is only so much squabbling about who gets which fur coat and who is shagging who I can tolerate). That said

Soderburgh goes to town on the make-up, effects and set design making Liberace's world of "palatial kitsch" a reality. The movie's tone is fair and even and Soderburgh goes out of his way not to exclusivley turn it into a chance to gawp and laugh at the dysfunction. Liberace may be a famous, talented millionaire but he has the same hang ups (if not the same penchant for chandeliers and jailbait) as the rest of us.

Liberace's epitaph that "Too much of a good thing is wonderful." sums up the film perfectly. In these austere times the movie, like the sentiment, is definitely a guilty pleasure.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

TV Review - The Call Centre - BBC3 9pm

The much maligned call centre: a 20th century institution that everyone despises, especially the people that work there. Even though it isn't the most glamorous of careers over a million people work in call centres in the UK, that despite their bad reputation, provide the public with all manner of essential services from sorting out your gas supply, providing legal advice to organising a tow truck when your stuck in the middle of nowhere.

Useful they may be but their very impersonal and sometimes labyrinthine set-up can make contacting them a f*cking nightmare.

However, there are call centres and then there is the lowest of the low: the cold-calling telesales call centre. These are the type of organisations who will interrupt in the middle of your dinner and try and sell you PPI insurance or persuade you to put in a personal accident claim for an accident you’ve never had. They are the human equivalent of pubic lice and are about as welcome.

One such parasitic battery farm, going by the name of Save Britain Money, is the setting for new docusoap The Call Centre BBC3 9PM. It is managed by Neville "Uncle Nev" Wilshire a self styled "Napoleon" who is the real life embodiment of everything that was excruciatingly wrong with David Brent. Such are the similarities, after watching Ricky Gervais tweeted:

“I honestly don’t remember writing it but I must have surely. I think it’s my best work but I can hardly watch it”

Nev is a balding blowhard of a boss full of motivational baloney like "Smile When You Dial", "Glide In Your Stride" and " PPPPPP -Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance!". He seems hell-bent on creating an office environment that is a cross between a school playground, a night down the pub and 2AM fumble behind a nightclub.

"I'm like Napoleon. His troops loved him"

Do be fair he has a tough job on his hands trying to motivate the predominately young, dumb and lairy staff from remaining in their jobs when they are routinely abused by disgruntled punters who don't appreciate having an episode of Eastenders interrupted by their requests to buy cavity wall insulation.

"I've been told to f*ck off a lot of times."

Says perma-tanned Jenni.

"An old woman once told me she hoped I get killed. I thought that was a bit much."

Says another staff member who goes by the name of Chickenhead.

Whilst you may be able to excuse the mass sing-along’s during induction meetings "I've sacked two people for not singing", the jokey "banter" and informal ambience as an unconventional means of ensuring his staff stay positive and motivated (SBM motto "Happy People Sell"), his incursions into their private lives are harder to justify.

After seeing that admin assist Kayleigh was recently dumped by her cheating boyfriend, Nev steps in to turn her frown upside down in his own unique way. First of all he parades her up and down the office asking if any of lads fancy her.

"Any single blokes? I've got a desperate female here"

He then organises a speed dating event subtitled GKL (Get Kayleigh Laid) where staff members are invited to get drunk and cop off with each other. Showing that she isn't the best judge of character she selects South African sleazeball Dwayne but before he is allowed to break her heart again Nev wades and threatens to "throw him down the stairs" if he messes her about. Dwayne sensibly cuts his loses and bails.

Nev is easy to caricature and a documentarians dream, just turn on the camera and let it roll. Despite being a colossal d*ck is heart seems to be in the right place and he engenders a remarkable amount of affection from his staff despite his short-comings. There was a brief glimpse into his soul when his laugh-a-minute persona dropped for a moment as he described his bankruptcy and subsequent divorce as a "hurtful" period in his life.

Don't worry though he was quickly back into a swing with some gentle sexual harassment and mild ABH with new staff members shortly after. One of these newcomers is asked how she feels about her new boss after he parades her through the office with shouts of:

"Make way, good looking Welsh girl coming through!!"

"He seems really cool...a great guy...unless it carries on"

Personally, I think Nev’s enforced hilarity would make working at SBM my idea of purgatory but amazingly it was ranked 2nd in the Sunday Times list of "Best Companies To Work For 2013". For now, the bland politically correct tentacles of human resources haven't penetrated as far as Swansea thus guaranteeing Nev's place a micro celeb for the foreseeable future. Tune in next week to see how much "fun" you are missing out on.