UNLOCKED **Earnest


The plot of “Unlocked” has so many holes and is so complicated, it’ll take far too many words to untangle. Needless to say, there’s nasty double dealing that goes all the way to the top (of the CIA). But, though silly, it’s quite enjoyable…a piece of comfort food in a Bourne-deprived world.

Noomi Rapace (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) channeling her inner ‘Lisbeth Salander, is an emotionally distraught CIA interrogator, biding her time as a work centre counselor in London. She finds herself called back into action, and pretty soon realizes that all isn’t as it seems.

The arc of the movie then follows her as she tries to thwart a supposed jihadi cell, armed with a more virulent version of Ebola, even as she tries to figure out the source of internal CIA sabotage.

The story-line follows a fairly well trodden “find your mole” path. But the riveting and convincing presence of Rapace as the more-brain-than-brawn agent and her MI5 allay, played by Toni Collette (looking like an Annie Lennox’ gun toting doppelgänger) gives the whole enterprise a pleasant freshness. (It also passes the Bechdel test…which asks whether a movie features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man or boy). The A-list ensemble (Michael Douglas, Orlando Bloom and John Malkovich) add classiness to a clunky script and earnest if lackluster directing…

which is supplied by veteran director, Michael Apted. Apted started off his career directing “Coronation Street” fifty years ago, and has given us the magnificent “Gorillas in the Mist” and even a (mediocre) Bond, “The World is not Enough”. His directing in “Unlocked” is, if uninspired and entirely lacking in tension, at least brisk, functional and keeps the pace rattling along.

The movie ends in such a way that clearly suggests (and I’m sure the producers are desperately hoping) that this is the first of a multi-series franchise. And, though it really doesn’t aspire to be much more than pop movie entertainment (writer Peter O’Brien’s biggest script so far has been for “Halo: Reach”), the twin themes of weaponized plague and secret conspiracies touch on such ever present threats that “Unlocked” offers some semblance of reality.

UNLOCKED. Dir: Michael Apted. With: Noomi Rapace, Toni Collette. John Malkovich, Orlando Bloom, Michael Douglas. Cinematographer: George Richmond (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”)

 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2** For that space between the ears


SO, IF YOU liked “Guardians of the Galaxy I”, here’s version 2. It’s pretty much the same, but louder and much, much dumber. In 2, the pleasant shock of quirkiness is gone; the idea has become self conscious and laboured. The ironic wit has been replaced by scatology, plot has been left behind somewhere in the other galaxy and George Michael’s bouffant hairstyle has been repurposed to fit Kurt Russell who is Ego, the ‘dad’ of Chris Pratt (who, if there’s justice on the universe, should still be hiding under a rock after “Passengers”).

As expected, there are running gags. Zoey Saldana’s character, Gamora, now has a sister, Nebula (Karen Gillian). She keeps trying to eat some sort of (forbidden?) fruit. Gamora keeps her away from it on the ‘ruse’ that it’s not ripe.  Finally, Nebula grabs hold of the fruit, bites into it and exclaims, “it’s not ripe”. It took ten writers to come up with this gag.

People found this funny.

If you also do, director James Gunn (who also directed the first one), has a BIG treat for you.

If you don’t find this funny and if you aren’t waiting with baited breath to see a cameo with Sylvester Stallone, ’twere best you did something better with your time

 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2. Dir: James Gunn. With: Chris Pratt; Zoe Saldana; Dave Bautista; Vin Deisel; Bradley Cooper; Karen Gillan; Sylverter Stallone; Kurt Russell. Production Designer: Scott Chambers (“Tomorrowland”, “Star Trek Into Darkness”)

 

 

SO, IF YOU liked “Guardians of the Galaxy I”, here’s version 2. It’s pretty much the same, but louder and much, much dumber. In 2, the pleasant shock of quirkiness is gone, the idea has become self conscious and labored. The ironic wit has been replaced by scatology, plot has been left behind somewhere in the other galaxy and George Michael’s bouffant hairstyle has been repurposed to fit Kurt Russell who is Ego, the dad of Chris Pratt (who, if there’s justice on the universe, should still be hiding under a rock after “Passengers”).
As expected, there are running gags. Zoey Saldana’s character, Gamora, now has a sister, Nebula (Karen Gillian). She keeps trying to eat some sort of (forbidden?) fruit. Gamora keeps her away from it on the ‘ruse’ that it’s not ripe.  Finally, Nebula grabs hold of the fruit, bites into it and exclaims, “it’s not ripe”.

People found this funny.

If you also do, director James Gunn (who also directed the first one), has a biiiiig treat for you.
If you don’t find this funny and if you aren’t waiting with baited breath to see a cameo with Sylvester Stallone, ’twere best you did something better with your time

 

LADY MACBETH**** Bloody.Good


IT IS THE night of her wedding. Katherine (a stunning Florence Pugh), a demure, Botticelli-esque beauty, is asked whether the house is too cold for her and whether she is apprehensive as to what will transpire that night. She says “no” to both questions. Her proper Victorian blushes hide a heart much bolder and colder than either her questioner or the dark, stern, sour-faced family into which she has been ‘sold’ (along with a parcel of useless land) can possibly have imagined.

She is not so much a ‘bride’ with its connotation of love and affection, as a womb without rights or power…a mere child-bearing vessel whose owner (the father of the groom) is in need of succession.

That night, her reluctant husband simply goes to bed. On their first night of ‘intimacy’, he orders her to strip off and face the wall. “Don’t look at me,” he further commands, as he masturbates, sitting a few feet away from her naked body (His own pathetic rebellion against his father’s mandate that he produce an heir). The following day, her -black- maid (Naomi Ackie) – like her, just another piece of property – aggressively, hurtingly brushes her hair. Father, husband, maid…the sources of the house’s dark chill…need to establish from the onset where the power lies; they need to ensure that this newcomer to their airless country landholding, their kingdom, knows, like every woman should, her place in the pecking order of property and sex.

And for a while, Katherine – the perfectly beautiful precious object, (straight) laced tightly into her bustier, her wild flowing locks tamed into tight cords framing her porcelain face – succumbs to her role.

She is kept indoors (as if the propriety of property demands constraint within the property) and sinks into a dull languor. But, as the father says of one of his wild dogs, “the bitch has been kept chained for too long”.

Freedom will out.

But this woman’s liberation follows that of the eponymous Lady Macbeth, hatched as she roams free, away from the inhibiting house, upon the “damned heath”. The story follows her meticulous and carefully planned assumption of power through her brazen defiance of the roles written for her sex. If the Victorian norm was one of male power over her sex, she breaks away through the power of sex itself and begins a passionate affair with one of her staff, a mixed race laborer (Cosmo Jarvis). It is an affair that smashes all taboos: of class segregation, adultery and interracial sex.

And finally the taboo of murder.

It is as if, once unleashed from some rules, no rules further apply. “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. Her sexual lust soon morphs, or perhaps is the same as, her lust for power. Like Lady Macbeth, no damned Duncan will stand in her murderous way to power and (eventual ownership of the) property.

As Katherine, Florence Pugh (last seen with Maisie Williams in “The Falling”) is a tremendous presence. She exudes a compelling, lethal stillness; her gentle voice and mask-like calm never quite mask the wild anarchy residing within. Once Katherine has emerged from her society-demanded stupor, Pugh’s charisma is riveting. She effortlessly seduces us to her very dark side. She’s like a younger, more subtle, more lethal version of Natalie Dormer.

Naomi Ackie is Anna, the abused maid, a mainly silent witness (having been struck dumb) to Katherine’s bloody swath of destruction. She too (another relative newcomer) has a compelling presence and offers a nicely balance yin to Katherine’s yan.

The story is based on a mid-nineteenth century Russian novel, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk” by Nikolai Leskov, and, transferred to England in the movie version, has been brilliantly realized by two newcomers: director William Oldroyd (his first full length movie)and play-write turned screenwriter Alice Birch. Her script is at times overly theatrical…It’s a movie that is so heavily dependent on its layers of symbolism and its dramatization of the themes of power and repression that at times character takes back seat to message.

That said, it’s a well-made, thoroughly engaging and important film. Well worth seeing

 

LADY MACBETH. Dir: William Oldroyd. With: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie. Screenplay: Alice Birch. Cinematographer: Ari Wegner. Production Designer: Jacqueline Abrahams

 

THE HANDMAIDEN**** “Hell hath no fury…”


“THE HANDMAIDEN” IS Park Chan-Wook’s outrageously sexy retelling of Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith”, a story originally set in Victorian London, now transferred to 1930’s Japanese occupied Korea. The story – structured around the delicious contrasts of bright surface opulence with dark hidden deceptions – centres on the lusts, fantasies and longings of four main characters. Sookie (Kim Tae-ri) is a low life pickpocket in the pay of a con-man (Ha Jung-woo). She has been briefed to present herself, as a respectable handmaiden to the wealthy (and reputedly naive) heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee), in order to subtly woo her on behalf of her con-man boss, now disguised as the aristocratic Count Fujiwara. His intent is to seduce Hideko away from her uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), an old lecher and collector of erotica, who also has designs on Hideko’s fortune.


Despite their stark social differences, dramatised by the dingy hovel of the one versus the palatial splendour of the other, Sookie and Hideko are both prisoners…of circumstance and convention. Both have been bred and trained, like decorative birds, to do the bidding of their breeders: Sookie to steal, Hideko to engage and entertain her uncle’s book-buying clientele with her lascivious readings of his erotica. To their male ‘masters’, they’re no more than beautiful, erotic routes to their deepest lusts…for money not sex. And as the handmaiden dresses herself in her mistress’ dresses, they both become interchangeable…almost mirror images of each other.

But the men, so wrapped up in their own sense of haughty masculine superiority (It would not be inappropriate in this context to describe them as “cock-sure”) have no inkling of the far deeper deviousness of these two trapped women. Freedom will out. In one glorious scene, Hideko -she who can go nowhere- introduces the bare-footed Sookie to her serried rows of shoes…and offers her a pair. Now they both have the -physical- ability to roam. And in their unspoken search to free themselves from society’s norms/masculine control, they discover the freedom in each other’s bodies. In the trust and tenderness of intimacy lies the healing measure of freedom. Park’s (and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon’s) sensuous, almost tactile cinematography delights as much in the tingle and shimmer of their naked bodies as it does on the textures and gloss of their clothes and surroundings.

Control (the first part of the story is very measured and mannered) gives way to love in a wonderfully, intricately plotted story that frequently loops back on itself, seen from differing points of view and with a single, gasp-inducing twist in the middle. One of the themes that drives the movie is that of the illumination or deception of storytelling (or the art of lying): each of the characters frames a narrative aimed at masking intent and creating a desired image; Hideko’s “role” in life is to seduce by her storytelling; The Count comes along with an entirely fabricated back story; the uncle’s tongue has been blackened with the stories he writes even though his library is a place of truth (in the same way the serpent brought truth in The Garden, etc.

It’s one of those movies that – like the best thrillers- makes more and more sense to the viewers (as susceptible to seduction as any one of the characters) the more privy they are to the layers of deceit that, like Hideko’s garments, are slowly removed, eventually revealing all.

This is certainly a “see it again” movie. Now armed with the knowledge of the end, and of Park’s sleight of hand’s deceptions of surface, there is so much more to be seen. Park’s production designs and clever symbols (Hideko lives in a home that’s part Japanese, like the colonial masters from whom, like her, the Koreans sought liberation, and part Western, like the story’s creator) are so overwhelming, that I’m sure I must have missed, and will now hopefully see with new eyes more of the director’s multiple signs and suggestions, all guiding (seducing?) me to his final vision of love, deception, seduction and money…

life’s four verities?

 

THE HANDMAIDEN. Dir: Park Chan-woo (“Stoker”, “Oldboy”). With: Kim Min-Lee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Tae-ri. Writer: Sarah Waters (from her novel), Jeong Seo-kyeong & Park Chan-woo. Production designer: Ryu Seong-hie. Cinematographer: Chung Chung-hoon

 

 

GET OUT****Something New This Way Comes


“GET OUT” – SCARY…hypnotic- makes for mesmerizing viewing. It’s one of those movies whose clever writing and meticulous direction seduces you away from what seems like an everyday, ordinary boy/girl romance into a world so bizarre you view it through unblinking, horrified eyes.

Writer/first time Director Jordan Peele signals from the very start that things aren’t going to end well. The movie begins at night with a black young man who has lost his way and has found himself in a dimly lit, tree-lined, affluent (for that, read, white) neighborhood. When a car arrives and slowly begins to trail him, you’d be right to be apprehensive.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya from “Sicario”) and Rose (the all-American Allison Williams) are the young, happy, flirtatious couple. They’re off for him to meet her folks (in their large, elegant, isolated home). She reassures him that the fact that he’s black (she’s white) is no biggie. Dr. and Mrs. Armitage (Bradley Whitfield and Katherine Keener), her parents, voted twice for Obama and would have voted for him again. They’re welcoming enough, though he’s a bit unnerved by the (all black) staff, who greet him with broad smiles and dull vacant eyes. A slightly deranged brother (Caleb Jones) turns up and wants to wrestle; and the following day, a queue of limos arrive, bearing their wealthy white passengers. It’s the Armitage’s annual get together, which Rose claims to have forgotten about.

Chris, much to his consternation, is clearly the centre of attention (and is constantly reassured of the guests’ liberal creds: one guest boasts of having met Tiger Woods, another is fascinated by just how strong and firm he is; one asks him whether it’s better to be black ‘these days’). And we’ve clearly journeyed not just from city to country, but to the world of “Rosemary’s Baby”.

Soon enough, the initial slow drip of warning signs becomes a waterfall. These aren’t simply super rich white folks self consciously aware of a black man in their midst. There’s something amiss. Nothing here feels right. Get out now. Run. As he tries to figure out just what’s amiss, he isn’t even aware that one of those creepy white folks has ‘won’ him in a Bingo game. Just what do you do with a young, strong, black man? What the host (a neurologist) wants to do to him….that beggars description.

This is a movie with a B-movie format cleverly concealing A-movie insights. It strips away (bloodily) the well-heeled veneer of polite, white, some of my best friends are black, liberalism to reveal a darkness (a mix of hate confused with the envy of the black ‘super masculine menial’) far deeper than mere prejudice or hypocrisy. And, along with the always surprising, never clichéd score from first timer, Michael Abels, Director Peele keeps you suspended between laughter, outrage and shock horror. It’s a difficult balancing act that he pulls off with aplomb.

Daniel Kaluuya brings an engaging sympathetic performance. He’s without question, the good guy. But his Chris wasn’t markedly different from his character in “Sicario”. Allison Williams’ performance however is one to take note of. Her Jeckyll and Hyde character is a treat.

More than this, there’s something of historical significance at work here. It’s a first time outing for three new black movie talents: the director, the composer and the special effects artist. Not too long ago we were treated to the brilliance of another black directorial newcomer: Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight”. This is a good trend. Peele and Jenkins along with the likes of Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) and Julia Ducournau (“Raw”) begin to feel like a trend. May we be entering into a new (brash, young, challenging, not yet given over to commercial annihilation) era of filmmaking?

GET OUT. Dir: Jason Peele. Writer: Jason Peele. With: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitfield, Katherine Keener. Composer: Michael Abels. Cinematography: Toby Oliver

 

GHOST IN THE SHELL** Shell Game


Scarlett Johnson is Major, a cyber enhanced soldier ‘controlled’ by a human brain; one that has been altered by implanted memories (and regular doses of ‘medication’) so as to eradicate all traces – all ghosts – of her actual humanity. This is not an A.I that has achieved the singularity (consciousness), but a human who has been embedded into a robot. She’s an evolved version of Robocop.

The conceit that drives the story is Major’s intuition, fueled by dreams of a burning pagoda, that she isn’t who they (shady corporate villains) make her out to be. If she can only identify who she was before she became this hacked, carefully controlled consciousness, she can potentially free her ghost trapped within her shell.

And what a shell it is. Beneath her battle gear, Major wears an invisibility cloak that’s a gossamer thin extra skin that renders her invisible to all, but almost – but for the absence of nipples – naked to viewers. Far more compelling than the Blade Runner inspired futurescape (a crowded, though lifeless place, reminiscent of The Sixth Element, but with the wet, watery feel and Sino-Japanese iconography of Blade Runner along with CGI-clever holograms) a near naked Scarlett Johansson makes for attentive viewing.

But if the shell’s great, the acting’s no more than a ghost of a performance.  Though this isn’t exactly a character driven story, Scarlett Johansson seems to have put so much emphasis into the robot side of her character that she managers to drag her way through the entire one hundred minutes of the movie with but one facial expression and no trace of intonation in her voice. Ms Johansson’s recent oeuvre has majored in the ‘non-human’. She’s an Avenger, a superhuman fighter (“Lucy”), a disembodied voice (“Her”) and an alien (“Under the Skin”). Her last decent movie was “Vicky, Christina, Barcelona” in 2008. Based on this sorry performance, either she simply decided to flaunt her very flauntable bod and take the money (she earned $10m for this); or she’s simply forgotten how to act…since her public probably isn’t all that interested in that side of her talent anyway.

Whatever.

This is a yawn-inducing movie. And no amount of production expense ($110m) can plaster over what is essentially a rag-tag plot strung together with the clunky, forgettable dialogue of three B movie writers and a director (Rupert Sanders) whose last big hit was that instant classic, “Snow White and the Huntsman”.

Nevertheless, along with production designer Jan Roelfs (whose achievements offer an interesting balance between the big production visionary sagas such as “47 Ronin” and “Alexander” and much more intimate fare: “Dark Blood”) he certainly works hard at giving the enterprise the visual gravitas of “The Matrix” series (which apparently borrowed heavily from the original animie version of “Ghost…”). And many of his set piece action sequences are visual delights.

But visual delights alone do not a tolerable movie make. Let’s just hope “Ghost in the Shell” isn’t a quality indicator of what the rest of this year’s summer blockbusters holds in store

GHOST IN THE SHELL. Dir: Rupert Sanders. With: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche. Cinematographer: Jess Hall (“Transcendence”). Production Designer: Jan Roelfs

 

PERSONAL SHOPPER***Fancy Dress Ghost Story


WHEN YOU WANT something badly enough and your belief that that something is but a grasp away, then perhaps all signs point to that which is so obsessively desired. So it is with Maureen, (Kristen Stewart) who has persuaded herself and her friends that she’s a medium and who is convinced that her recently dead twin brother is reaching out to her from beyond the grave…scarily.

The scenes of Maureen wandering around in the large, dark lonely house in which her brother died are very, hold-your-breath spooky. Indeed, much of this movie grips one with the iciness of good old-fashioned horror.
Maureen is also a personal shopper for a haughty, bitchy woman, for whom money is no object. She is partly a messenger, ferrying bags of couture from exclusive ateliers in Paris and London to her boss, and partly also the curator to how her boss is seen by the public.

Director Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria” also with Kristin Stewart) offers us these two worlds: one world – the world of fashion obsessiveness- is one of pure external surface. What you see is shimmering glam. It isn’t what’s real. The other world is the invisible, purely internal one. And what you’re allowed to see may perhaps actually be real. Or at least Maureen thinks it is…to the extent that she can’t tell them apart.

The initial signs of what might be her brother’s spirit (whispy zephyrs of smoke and odd noises here and there) seem to harden into a disturbing series of texts that know where she is and that begin to commandeer her actions. Her need to get a sign is so strong that she seems to put her rational, sensible self on hold in the belief that the texts really are coming from ‘the beyond’ and as a result going, alone, to strange hotels at odd hours. This is less about communicating with the dead brother than being haunted by him.

Driven by the need to escape the texts, her personal haunting, and by her penchant for the forbidden, she violates her boss’ restrictions and begins to model her clothes. The sloppily dressed messenger girl morphs into an elegant, sexy ‘other’…as if this ‘other’ is just a disguise she can hide herself in. But these ephemeral surface changes are no barrier to the internal demons that haunt her and that ultimately result in a ghastly murder.

Kristin Stewart dominates the movie – is in every frame. And she’s watchably, seductively engaging. Her acting style works so hard at stripping away any thespian exaggeration that, when it doesn’t come off (as in “Certain Women”) it just feels flat. But here, she absolutely makes watchable what’s really an entirely silly movie.

The movie is atmospheric, often creepy, often best seen through narrowly parted fingers. But it’s a movie that’s just OK and which could actually have been quite good (It certainly isn’t worth all those five star reviews). “Personal Shopper” suffers from a few glaring problems: the characters are woefully underdeveloped, especially one central character who we glimpse only fleetingly, but who turns out (Shazam, gotcha!) into a major catalyst. It’s the “huh? Really?” factor. The idea of an obsession with the spiritual world is gripping. (After all, millions of Christians have intimate conversations with a God who’s ever interested in all their sordid little thoughts and activities). But this world is never presented with any hint of artistic ambiguity. Like any B movie horror, director Assayas offers the world of floating spirits and glasses that levitate at face value. These aren’t Maureen’s fantasies. We’re to take them as real phenomena. Assayas’ big potential revelation at the end (which modesty prevents me from spilling the beans on) is just a cheap cop out. And, the focus on Stewart so dominates the movie that we have to work too hard to salvage scraps of information to piece together the why’s and wherefore’s.

it’s just not worth all that effort.

 

PERSONAL SHOPPER. Dir (and writer): Oliver Assayas. With: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger. Cinematographer: Yorick Le Saux (“Clouds of Sils Maria”)