(On Cable TV, September 2016) In one way, I’ve been waiting more than twenty-five years to watch Trading Places,—spurred by an intriguing comment in High-School economics class that it was a movie that featured a stock-market crash. But watching it today, the one distinguishing characteristic of the film, and the one that ensures that it’s still relevant today, is the charged racial humour, as a street-smart hustler is set up as a patsy for a stock-brokering scheme. Eddie Murphy is very good as the hustler made respectable, with Dan Aykroyd as the naïf who becomes far more world-aware after being disgraced. Jamie Lee Curtis also shows up (sometimes naked) as a prostitute with a solid plan for her future. Trading Places is obviously a product of its time—the technical references are charmingly dated, the portrait of a wintry Chicago is pure period, the World Exchange Towers show up in an eerie cameo, and much of its financial shenanigans aren’t revelatory given a few more economic crises and the rise of the day trader. Still, the class-warfare component of the film remains just as pressing today, and the jokes still work pretty well despite a slightly slower pace and some strange plot loops toward the third quarter of the film. Watching Trading Places has been worth the wait, though—Seeing Murphy in top form is always a delight.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) In the hands of HBO and Steven Soderbergh, made-for-TV movies clearly aren’t what they used to be: Here, with Behind the Candelabra, we get nothing less than two top-notch actors delivering a love story set against the flamboyant backdrop of Liberace’s career. Michael Douglas is a surprisingly good Liberace (embracing the skill and the generosity but also the pathos of the man), while Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, the (much) younger man who was his lover between 1977 and 1981. (If the film has a flaw, it’s that Matt Damon is considerably older than Thorson was at the time –this softens much of the tension that an accurate portrayal of the story would have given.) The doomed love story may be predictable, but it’s well-executed to make it dramatically interesting. The two main actors are also fearless in their performances, openly embracing (and demonstrating) the romantic relationship between their characters, but there are plenty of scene-stealing cameos elsewhere in the film, whether it’s Dan Ackroyd playing a mousy manager, or Rob Lowe’s plastic-faced surgeon/dealer. From a directing standpoint, Soderbergh delivers his usual brand of audience-riling iconoclasm, making the most out of his budget and crafting a film that’s more engaging than many of his last few colder efforts. But the star of the show, frankly, are the set dressers, makeup artists and costume designers that bring to life the famed excess of Liberace’s work and personal life. The camera moves through a lavish re-creation of Liberace’s homes, dwells on his spectacular stage outfits and convincingly recreates his performances. It’s -to take up a theme of the film- a grand show, and it’s easy to just enjoy the film for its moments of comedy and pure surface sheen. There’s more to Behind the Candelabra, of course: a reflection of that type of content that TV (well, HBO) audience are willing to embrace, a bit of a late screed against the unfairness of repressing one’s sexuality, a look at the way the rich and powerful can sculpt other people… this is a Soderbergh film, after all, and there’s a bit more behind the surface. So it is that we’ve come to this: A pretty good film, with big-name stars and impeccable technical credentials, delivered by TV. Given that I’m an HBO subscriber, I can only applaud this.