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”)

 

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES*** Ends with a Bang not a Whimper


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FREE AT LAST! Free at last!

After about seventeen hours in dark cinemas, over a span of thirteen years, and with a body count of about at least a million dead Orcs, dwarves, elves, humans, hobbits and other random creatures, Peter Jackson’s massive, exhaustive reimagining of Tolkein’s Middle Earth has finally ended.

“The Battle of the Five Armies”, the final of the Hobbit trilogy, ends with the massive treble-underlined moral that has knitted the series together: GREED IS BAD.

We begin almost mid-sentence where the last one ended. (Has it been a year already?) Bilbo and the dwarfs are in Smaug’s treasure-filled cave and the Benedict Cummberbatch-voiced dragon has flown into the night’s darkness with menace on his mind and fire in his belly. The residents of a nearby village are the unlucky victims of the awakened dragon’s anger as it swoops down and rains upon them fiery hell and fury.

Jackson’s technical wizardry is awesome; the sheer imaginative spectacle and visionary scale of the production hits its high-water mark in this the final fling of the series: Smaug’s sinuous swoop into the stricken village and the resulting conflagration of homes, bridges, fragile towers and unlucky people is a visual masterwork.

It’s an exciting, well crafted first chapter, as it sets out the thematic and narrative journey that’s to follow: The Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) tries to sneak away from his burning village with as much gold as his laden barge can muster. In his gluttony for wealth, he’s prepared to kill anyone who gets in his way. At the same time as this storyline is unfolding, we’re reintroduced to his moral opposite: Bard (Luke Evans, “Dracula Untold”, “Fast and Furious 6”), the selfless, principled father figure who takes it upon himself to plunge into the flaming danger even as the Master flees it, in order to battle the odds and take down the dragon.

Greed and goodness.

In Jackson’s simple morality play, it is the toxic opposites of such greed and goodness that wrestle for supremacy. It’s not so much a battle of five armies but a battle of those two.

And they’re both at war for the soul of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), leader of the dwarfs, who, when we meet him, is sinking under the spell of Smaug’s limitless treasures. Whereas the ring was the object of dark and dangerous temptation in “Lord of the Rings”, here it’s simply gold. Thorin’s degeneration epitomizes the evils of greed, this fearless leader having become petulant, suspicious, inhuman and domineering.

It’s up to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the good-natured, naive, brave little hobbit to rekindle Thorin’s intrinsic decency and free him from his gold-drugged dependency.

This moral journey is set in a landscape of fragile alliances as armies battle to save Middle Earth from Sauron and the Orcs. In the midst of all this war is the briefly sketched – doomed – love story between a dwarf (Aidan Turner as Kili) and an elf (Evangelina Lilly of “Lost” as Tauriel). The elves are basically a snobby superior (and stunningly well dressed) species who won’t tolerate the purity of their blood-line being sullied by too much fraternization with dwarfs. Even in Middle Earth, inter-species/inter-racial relationships are infradig.

But, love will out, even amidst the anger of war.

And oh what a lovely war. The serried ranks of armoured men clash violently against each other, like metallic waves. Brave elvin and dwarfish heroes ride into bristling thorns of lances and slashing swords, lopping off arms and heads with daredevil impunity. Huge monsters charge and shatter fortifications as if they were mere children’s blocks; swift footed archer, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), fells anyone in his way; booming voices issue stentorian martial commands, “Fall back!” “Cut them off at the pass!” etc.

All very jolly and bloodless and epic and meticulously well staged.

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And we’ve seen it all before. There’s certainly a sense of déjà vu in the entire proceedings: if you didn’t really like any of the others, this last outing certainly won’t change your mind. But if Mr. Jackson kept dragging you back time and again to see his latest reiteration of basically the same old story with the same old cast, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is a fine note to end on.

And it ends as it began all those years ago. The shire’s undulating valleys are bountifully green and cheerful. Bilbo is at home, now an old man, fingering a ring when there’s a knock at the door.

“Who goes?” he asks

“It’s your old friend,” comes the reply from without, “Gandalf”

And we all know what comes next.

THE HOBBIT 2: Smaug the Magic Dragon


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THE PROBLEM WITH picaresque stories like “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is that there’s not much of a narrative arc. There is a lot of energy and loads of action, but the entire movie exists on one monotonous emotional level. Don’t expect much in terms of character development, story-line nuance or acting skills for that matter in this, Peter Jackson’s wearingly exhausting fifth version of Middle Earth and that damned ring.

The basic story-line centers around the need for the leader of the band of dwarfs, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, whose stellar CV includes masterpieces such as “Captain America: First Avenger” and various TV stints in “Spooks” and “Robin Hood”. This is an actor whose flaring nostrils and flashing eyes easily make him THE front- runner for the Rudolph Valentino award for swashbuckling excess) to steal a piece of bling – the Arkenstone – from Smaug, the dragon – a sort of reptilian wealth manager. Bilbo, the eponymous hobbit (Martin Freeman, wearing an expression of permanent worry, as if his bonus were in jeopardy) is the one entrusted with stealing into the bejeweled lair (a glittering cave from “Beyond the Candelabra”) and filching the gem. Of course, Bilbo himself is enthralled with his own piece of bling – the famous ring – that gives him the power of invisibility, and like all wealth has the power to corrupt.

Along the way, they are chased by elves, Orcs, sundry villagers and giant spiders. They run, they jump, the get caught, they escape, they get shot at and shot, they heal, they get chased again, they fight, they run, they swim…on and on and on for sixteen hours (OK, three).

There are certainly some brilliantly executed set-pieces, particularly a spectacular fight against the giant spiders (though there’s not a lot of tension as to who’ll win – unlike, say “Game of Thrones” where all the good guys seem to get killed) and a marvelous river chase where Legolas (Orlando Bloom, still struggling for a place in the firmament of top ranked Hollywood stars) hops between barrels (in which various dwarves are riding), shooting sundry attacking Orcs.

But we’ve seen it all before: in “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit 1”. And we’ll see it all again in the multiple other versions of “The Hobbit” to follow. Certainly Smaug is a delightful dragon (Jackson’s beasts – Golum, King Kong, Smaug – are far more interesting than his humans) with Benedict Cumberbatch’s smooth, silky voice purring reptilian threat and dread.

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But beyond that, it’s business as usual: Gandalf (Ian McKellen) emotes as usual with full theatrical, thespian melodrama, and flits away from the chase for obscure reasons which will probably never be explained (or even if they were, they won’t really matter that much): there are the Disney-esque dwarfs who huff and puff and there’s the ethereally beautiful elf, Tauriel (Evalgeline Lilly, from “Lost”, who, though she really can’t act, we deserve to see more of), who struggles to balance love-lorn romance with Wonder Woman.

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And to think, we’ve not seen the last of this yet.