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”)

 

ANT-MAN** Small Guy Meets Big Laffs


AntmanArt_article_story_large

It appears that superheroes now come in two basic molds: the dark, brooding, angst-ridden mold (Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine) and the wise-ass funny guy mold (Iron Man, Peter Quill – “Guardians of the Galaxy” – and now, the latest addition, Scott Lang, aka, Ant-Man)
“Ant-Man” is a great comedy routine in search of a story.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a burglar with a heart of gold and a daughter he longs to be worthy of. When we meet him, he’s now leaving prison, intent on going straight. Clearly, that’s never going to happen. And for reasons that defy logic, he’s recruited by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a highly principled scientist who’s invented a suit which can shrink its wearer to the size (and relative power) of an ant. He’s also, handily developed a means of communicating with and controlling ants. Hank wants Lang to break into a highly guarded facility to steal a similar shrink-to-fit suit developed by one of Dr. Pym’s assistants, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll from “House of Cards”). Cross has fewer scruples than Dr Pym and has sold the technology to a league of bad guys (all of whom look like bankers. I can only assume this was coincidental).

As an arch nemesis, Corey Stoll is dull and unconvincing. In terms of real bad guys (think Ultron), two men the size of ants wrecking a child’s play room somehow lacks the drama of the usual full scale destruction of cities we’re accustomed to.

And as the mastermind of the invention, Michael Douglas seems to have wandered in from another movie, emoting boorishly about a dead wife. For some reason, Dr. Pym has sought to lie about the reason for her death to his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly, still “Lost”). This is a sub plot that seems to have been sliced into the story to add some sort of emotional centre to the movie.

It doesn’t

Hope’s role (she mainly has to react to everything that’s going on around her) is part of the new trend in ‘love interest babes’. Whereas once these eye candy objects of romance simply screamed and looked vulnerable and fragile (Kristin Dunst as Spiderman’s girl), now, since this cliché probably isn’t doing well with focus groups, the new love interest type is the powerful boss bitch type (Bryce Dallas Howard of “Jurassic World”) who finally melts into the arms of the superhero.

And yet, almost despite itself, “Ant-Man” is quite fun. Paul Rudd is a charming, self-effacing, thoroughly unlikely superhero. Between his smartass repartee and the flamboyant storytelling of his excitable Latino friend Luis (Michael Peña of “Fury” and “American Hustle”), much of this movie is laugh out loud, funny. There are some very clever lines and superb visual gags. It’s as though the director (Peyton Reid who was shoe-horned into the role when the original director was fired) really wanted to shoot a comedy but had to pay lip service to a few superhero tropes.

More than this, some of the special effects (in particular, one sequence when Ant-Man shrinks to a sub atomic scale and enters a quantum universe) are imaginative and beautifully executed (much more interesting than the much lauded accuracy of the “Interstellar” black hole sequences)

And so, once again, with it $58M opening week-end, the Marvel hit machine seems to have turned an ant into its latest franchise giant.

 

 

BEYOND THE CANDELABRA: Show Stopper


matt-damon-and-michael-douglas-get-intimate-and-fight-in-behind-the-candelabra“BEHIND THE CANDELABRA”, Steve Soderbergh’s latest and (he says) last movie, is a biopic lite version of Liberace’s relationship with a young hunk, Scott Thorson. It follows their love life from Liberace’s first, flirtatious look of lust to his gaunt, AID’s corrupted death. We see Scott morph from a gauche, star-struck, love-besotted Adonis to an embittered, drugged out, washed-up wreck.

This is a move that comes with a huge wake of surrounding publicity: here are two of our most macho movie stars – Michael Douglas, recently returning to the screen after fighting stage four cancer, and Matt, Jason Bourne, Damon – making out convincingly on an oversized, plump-pillowed, satin-sheeted bed. Here is a movie that the self professed most fearless country in the world was too scared to air publicly (probably a good move as – judging from the audiences here in London – more people may have seen it on HBO). Here is a movie that seems to have garnered near universal praise from its recent premier at Cannes.

And was it all worth the fuss?

On the whole, definitely.

“…Candelabra” is an almost old fashioned outlet for a galaxy of stars turning in some stellar performances. We expect much of Matt; and he doesn’t disappoint. When we first meet him, the astonishing team of make-up artists Soderbergh has at his disposal (Kate Biscoe, BAFTA nominee for movies such as “Iron Man 3”. “Argo” and “Contagion” and heading a crew of twenty nine), ensures that he make a convincing eighteen year old. Damon, with blonde ‘big hair’, comes across as an absolute naïf – just the right kind of target for Douglas’ predatory, reptilian Liberace.

Matt

Michael Douglas himself gives us an uber camp Liberace, a man who, what with his glittering, fur swaddled flamboyance and his face lifts and wigs, has not only mastered his public image, but, even in private, has become it. This is not so much image management, it’s image dominance ! At one point, Liberace, sneaking a kiss with Scott in a public place tells him, “people see what they want to see”. Liberace knows exactly what he wants people – his fans, Scott, his queue of young lovers – to see.

Clearly people saw the rhinestones but never saw, could not imagine, that they showcased a randy, rapacious (homo) sexuality. Scott saw a glamorous, tender, generous lover, not the controlling egomaniac who even had his (Scott’s) face surgically altered to more closely resemble his own.

For at its heart, this is a story about self-deception. Liberace, seemingly just an overly sensitive, gregarious old queen, cultivates this harmless image to be able to insinuate himself into his willingly deceived fans, followers and fellaties.

Scott’s slow, reluctant acceptance that he’s been seduced away – from his foster parents, from a career he might have pursued, from actually earning his own money – drives him into drugs, paranoia and self-contempt (“I don’t even have my own face” he moans at one stage). There’s no deceiving himself though when the bubble bursts and this no longer beautiful man is heaved out onto the road and into the real world.

And even as we are repulsed by Scott’s physical and mental degeneration, Liberace remains unchanging. What with the wig and the face lifts, here is a man who seems to exist outside the pull of time. Douglas’ Liberace is a man who manages pretty much the same vocal inflection and emotional response for everything – from his mother’s death to his seduction of the many pretty boys around him. So it’s a shock when, seeing him through Scott’s eyes, we first see him without the wig – it’s a crack in his perfectly coiffured public image (he tells Scott that should be die, Scott’s first job would be to glue the wig on. Even in death the image must remain secure). And in the end, AIDS, the illness so beyond the control of this controlling man, reveals him for what he really is: an old, bald man, rotten to the core.

Douglas and Damon are at the center of the movie – it revolves entirely around them. But (and not unlike so many of Soderbergh’s movies) they’re surrounded by a who’s who of familiar faces: Dan Aykroyd is Liberace’s long-suffering, unsmiling agent, Seymour Heller, who tries even in Liberace’s death to protect the pianist’s public deception of his sexuality and project the image he’d so assiduously cultivated. Rob Lowe (where’s he been?) is a leering, creepy, predatory plastic surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz, the source of Scott’s drug habit.

RobDebbie Reynolds makes a nice guest appearance as Frances – Liberace’s domineering mother.

Debbie

And Paul Reiser comes in briefly as Scott’s Cassandra-esque attorney.

“Behind the Candelabra” doesn’t have the kind of resonance of some of Soderbergh’s other movies (“Side Effects”, “Contagion”), but it is certainly the work of a fine craftsman with a sure eye and a steady hand