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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Douglas’

James Bridges’ 1979 film The China Syndrome opens and closes with the garish stripes and strident tone of a TV test screen, which is entirely appropriate given that most of what occurs in between is concerned with the media and its complex relationship with power (both literally and figuratively, in this case). This is a film which is very much of its period, but also one which remains entirely convincing and relevant to the world today. The film is mostly populated by characters either from the news media, or from large industrial concerns, and the conflict at the heart of the story is about just how much people deserve to be told about things which will directly affect them. Caught between the two sides is a decent everyman, played by Jack Lemmon. who realises the nature of the game but is perhaps not entirely capable of playing it.

To begin with we stay with the lead characters, Kimberley (Jane Fonda) and Richard (Michael Douglas); she is the on-screen talent for a roving news team, he is a freelance cameraman. As the film opens Kimberley is doing frivolous filler items, such as pieces on a singing telegram business, but would like to cover more serious news. She gets her chance when they are sent to the Ventana nuclear power plant outside Los Angeles, ostensibly to do a jolly where-your-power-comes-from piece. Everyone at the plant seems welcoming and professional, they are shown all the places security concerns permit – even into the gallery overlooking the main control room, which is thoroughly secure behind armoured doors and soundproof glass. Then there is what feels like a small earthquake. The PR man escorting them assures them it is nothing to be concerned about.

At which point the camera cuts to the room behind the soundproofing, where sirens are blaring, control boards are lighting up in red, and the technicians and shift manager Jack Godell (Lemmon) are desperately trying to keep the nuclear reactor from going out of control – faulty indicators have given a bad reading on the level of coolant in the system and their attempts to rectify the non-existent mistake have come perilously close to exposing the core and causing a catastrophe. They manage to salvage the situation and the reactor is shut down, but they are left badly shaken.

What nobody at the plant has noticed is that Richard has secretly filmed the whole thing, in the reasonable belief that a nuclear near-miss is newsworthy. He and Kimberley take it to their editors, only to find the network coming under severe pressure from the nuclear power industry to bury the story, arguing that the film was made illegally and the incident was not a serious one. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they; particularly so in this case, as the company is applying for a license to build another nuclear power plant in California and the last thing they need is any kind of bad publicity. Even keeping the plant off-line while the incident is investigated is costing them many millions of dollars every day.

Kimberley is bluntly told she is not an investigative reporter and should stick to the frilly human interest stories she was hired to do; Richard is incensed enough to steal the footage of the incident and show it to experts involved in the public hearings connected to the safety (or not) of the new plant. They are told that, based on the film, the plant came very close to a core meltdown and what is referred to as ‘the China syndrome’: the superheated core melting through the foundations of the plant and burning its way through the centre of the Earth to emerge somewhere in Asia. (This expression is only figurative – the culmination of this kind of accident would likely be the core reaching the water table, resulting in either rivers and lakes being poisoned with radioactivity, or an explosion producing enough radioactive vapour to render large regions of the continent uninhabitable for thousands of years to come.) Meanwhile, Godell has been carrying out his own investigation into the accident, and discovered that the plant’s safety records have been falsified in order to save money. If the plant is brought back on-line and brought up to full power, the same thing could happen again with cataclysmic results…

The element of The China Syndrome which has entered the public consciousness is the nuclear power angle, and rightly so: it does seem that every few years we get an ominous reminder of exactly what the forces are that we’re attempting to harness here, and the price of failure (the Chernobyl disaster came back into the public consciousness recently, and we are nearly a decade on from Fukushima). If the average person understands what the ‘China syndrome’ actually is, then it’s because of this film. The film’s producers, who were accused of slandering an entire industry by the operators of American nuclear plants, would doubtless say they were merely being socially responsible by drawing attention to the dangers involved – the film is not intrinsically anti-nuke, just opposed to these facilities being run by corporations putting profit ahead of any other concerns.

The film came out at the end of the 70s (famously, only a matter of days before the Three Mile Island accident, after which industry complaints about the movie presumably became rather more muted), and the latter stages of the decade did give rise to a whole slew of slightly paranoid thrillers in which, post-Watergate, ‘deep state’ forces and the military-industrial complex are shown to have essentially unchecked power within American society – I’m thinking of films like Executive Action (though this predates Watergate itself), Capricorn One, and so on. What is striking about these films is that they do absolutely function as thrillers – and The China Syndrome is amongst the best of them – while still managing to address serious contemporary concerns. In this case, the film seems rooted in a profound distrust of the profit motive, certainly when it clashes with public safety: the big corporations are not above falsifying records and even attempted murder in order to guarantee their revenue stream. (There is also a secondary but still well-handled subplot about Fonda’s character struggling to be taken seriously as a journalist in a male-dominated environment: understated but still effective, a lot of modern films could learn a lot about how to handle this kind of issue without seeming preachy from older movies like The China Syndrome.)

The whole film is rather admirable for the way it takes care to function firstly as a thriller, with its political subtext left implicit – and, within the drama framework, equal attention is paid to basic but important things like characterisation and dialogue. None of it is over-the-top, all the characters are essentially credible and well-performed to boot – there are good performances from Fonda and Douglas, and a predictably excellent one from Jack Lemmon, particularly in the film’s very well-structured climax. No wonder the film was so acclaimed and successful on its release: it still seems credible and timely today.

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Even in our experience-intensive modern world, it turns out that people can go through their lives without ever having one of those normal, routine experiences that most of us take for granted. I’ve never ridden a bike, for example (well, to be honest there are many physical-type pursuits which are completely alien to me, mostly due to my total lack of coordination); I know other people who have never had a curry or flown on a plane. Nevertheless, the film-following contingent where I work were surprised to discover that in our midst was someone with a startling secret that they eventually decided to disclose. ‘I have never seen a Marvel Comics movie,’ our colleague announced.

I know, hard to believe, isn’t it? Well, we are a compassionate bunch and rallied round, providing advice and flow-charts about how best to rectify this, which films to watch first, and which ones to possibly skip (tougher than you’d think to decide on this stuff: personally, and I know this is controversial, I think Iron Man 3 is one of the studio’s most entertaining films, but it’s hardly essential to the ongoing meta-plot). It almost goes without saying that when the next Marvel film came around – and , let’s face it, it’s not like the wait is ever a particularly long one, even when the UK release gets delayed, as has been the case here – we took our colleague along to see it. ‘I can’t believe I’m finally going to see my first Marvel film!’ whispered our friend as the lights went down. There was much clasping of shoulders and smiling; we may actually have shared a moment, swept away on a tide of heady anticipation and self-regarding smugness.

The film in question was Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, the follow-up to the same director’s Ant-Man from 2015. Of course, much water has flowed under Marvel’s bridge since then, which the film does a decent job of attempting to accommodate. As things get underway, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, who also co-wrote the film) is coming to the end of a lengthy stretch of house arrest, as a result of his role in smashing up that airport towards the end of Captain America: Civil War. He is estranged from his former mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who are on the run from the authorities for providing him with the Ant-Man suit in the first place.

But Hank and Hope are not just quietly hiding: Scott’s visit to the quantum realm of the micro-universe at the end of the first film has given them hope that Hank’s wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) may still be alive down there somewhere, and having been working on a plan to rescue her. It turns out that in order to do this, they need Scott’s help, and so he is quietly extracted from house arrest and whisked off to assist.

However, it turns out that many people are aware of the potential value of Pym’s shrinking technology and keen to get their hands on it, which will inevitably complicate proceedings quite considerably. Around to help or possibly hinder the trio are Scott’s old cell-mate Luis (Michael Pena), criminal and restauranteur Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), Pym’s old associate Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), and an unstable young woman known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) – she’s not really evil, just going through a phase. Luckily Hank has provided Hope with her own (somewhat more capable) suit, and she has taken up her mother’s mantle as the Wasp…

Ant-Man and the Wasp is Marvel Studios’ twentieth film, although strictly speaking it should probably be the nineteenth: attentive readers may be wondering just how the plot outlined above meshes with the state of affairs pertaining at the end of Infinity War, the previous film in the series. Well, suffice to say that Marvel have got a little bit creative with the chronology of their films, and all is explained before the end of the credits (one can only hope that Ant-Man actually appears in the Infinity War follow-up). Possibly more important is another aspect of the relationship between Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp – to my mind, the first film rather benefited from being released immediately after one of the studio’s less accomplished and purely entertaining films (Age of Ultron), for its breezy lightness was a refreshing contrast. Infinity War, on the other hand, is a great summation of what Marvel have achieved over the last ten years, and surely Ant-Man and the Wasp runs the risk of seeming just a bit small-time and disposable in comparison?

Well, to some extent this is true, at least – there are only a handful of characters with your actual superpowers in this film, as opposed to a couple of dozen (Fishburne does not actually get to appear as Goliath, who’s one of those characters most notable for the circumstances of their death anyway). And, like the first film, this is as close to being a pure comedy as anything that Marvel has released – although, to my mind, the films have generally been getting lighter over the last few years.

In many ways this one put me in mind of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, in that the key change behind the scenes is that different writers are responsible for the script. My main problem with the second Guardians film was that it didn’t feel particularly well-structured or cohesive as a story, and the same is really true here. The film kind of plays out as an extended farce or sitcom, with Scott more than once having to rush home to fool the FBI into thinking he hasn’t breached the terms of his house arrest – it’s much more about overcoming obstacles and minor antagonists than actually defeating a villain. Ghost (quite well-played by John-Kamen) isn’t actually malevolent as such, and may even strike some viewers as being somewhat sympathetic.

Certainly it’s not quite the radical development of the first film that the title might suggest: the movie still feels very much focused on Scott, although the Wasp does get some good action sequences. You might just as accurately call it Ant-Man, the Wasp, and the Wasp’s Dad (who was the first Ant-Man), because Douglas is doing good work in a prominent role. On the other hand, though, there’s a kind of conceptual progression here, building on ideas only touched on in the first film. The film’s plot may be a little underpowered and lacking in focus, but what keeps it very watchable and entertaining is the way in which the concept of things being grown and shrunk to the wrong size is explored. There’s a delightfully fantastical quality to it, particularly in the closing chase, with people, vehicles and even buildings undergoing rapid changes in scale at a frantic pace. And, of course, the film’s more comedic moments are solidly written and performed by people who are simply very good at that sort of thing. A lot of people in Marvel movies have been trying to be funny recently, but none of them are quite as good as Paul Rudd, if you ask me: one can only hope the studio makes more use of him in this respect (the campaign starts now: put Ant-Man in the Avengers!).

So, in the end, is this one of the essential keystone movies in Marvel’s project? No, absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an entertaining and very inventive addition to the MCU canon. I’m not quite sure where they can take these characters next, should a third movie prove forthcoming, but for the time being this is a fun, accessible, undemanding film that most people will probably enjoy.

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Never let it be said that this blog is unafraid to tackle the heavyweight questions of the day: for instance, is Orlando Bloom really an actor? Now, wait just a cotton-picking minute there if you think I am in any way casting aspersions on Landy’s abilities when it comes to the thespian department. No, the reason for my question is the simple fact that, for a major global celebrity, our man Bloom doesn’t really seem to turn up in many movies these days. I mean, there was his (I am tempted to say thankfully) brief cameo in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but outside of his appearances in the Hobbit movies I can’t think of much I’ve seen him in in the last ten years or so.

Well, I believe the answer may partly lie in the fact that, in addition to his other activities, Landy has taken up being a film producer (why do I suddenly suspect that becoming a film producer is not as difficult as I always thought?). As any fule kno, being a film producer involves lots of meetings and calls and discussions about movies which most of the time end up not being made at all, despite hefty development fees changing hands. So you might say that Landy has hit upon a wheeze where people are paying him not to make movies (I wish he had come up with that idea about fifteen years ago).

The flaw in this arrangement, unfortunately, is that one of Landy’s films occasionally slips through the net and ends up going into production, but I guess that’s a possibility we have to live with. Even then, it does look like not all of these films actually make it into cinemas, as in the case of Michael Apted’s movie from this year, Unlocked. If this film got more than the most limited UK cinema release, I didn’t notice it at the time, and was totally unaware of its existence until someone gave me it on DVD (presumably on the grounds that they think I don’t watch nearly enough movies these days).

Unlocked is a not especially sexy title for what aspires to be a taut and exciting contemporary thriller. Indeed, it’s not really a particularly pertinent title, given what goes on in the plot, but on the other hand it is amongst the least of this movie’s problems.

Noomi Rapace brings clinical intensity, memorable cheekbones, and a suspiciously Swedish accent to the role of Alice Racine, a CIA agent who has spent the last couple of years working undercover as a Citizen’s Advice bod at a London community centre. Pyoiiinnggg! (That would be the sound of my disbelief being stretched beyond its natural limits, and we’re only in the first line of the plot synopsis. Let’s press on.) Alice used to be a top CIA interrogator but after a traumatic incident she has taken a step back, hence the community centre gig.

However, when another top CIA interrogator unexpectedly carks it in London just before beginning a vital job, Alice finds herself dragged out of semi-retirement. An Islamic terrorist has laid his hands on one of those them-there doomsday viruses, and is awaiting instructions on what to do with it. The CIA have nabbed the courier due to give him said instructions, and want him breaking down so they can send the terrorist false information and stop the virus being disseminated. How much more straightforward can things get?

Well, quite a bit, it turns out, as events prove the CIA has been compromised, and when the courier and a bunch of other agents end up getting killed, Alice is the chief person of interest. Inevitably she ends up going on the run from her own superiors, in search of the traitors, with her main ally being Jack, an ex-marine turned burglar who she caught breaking into her flat. Could it look any bleaker? Well, Jack is played by Landy himself.

Yup, that’s Landy Bloom as a lovably roguish ex-marine hard man. Pyoiiinnggg! (Sorry – it might be a good idea to wear protective goggles, or something.) To be honest, the main thing to be said about Landy’s contribution to Unlocked is how superfluous it feels – you almost get the sense that the script came across Landy’s desk, and he liked it so much he not only decided to make it, but also insisted it was rewritten so he could be in it (shades of that story about the millionaire buying the American football team and then insisting on playing quarterback). He comes into it quite a long way in. He doesn’t do a great deal while he’s there. And then, well before the climax, he vanishes out of the film in very peculiar circumstances indeed, with the fate of his character obscure, to say the least. Still, his face is nice and big on the DVD cover, anyway.

(Hmm – my usual slapdash research suggests Landy didn’t actually produce this film, despite the fact that one of the production entities is named ‘Bloom’. Curiouser and curiouser. Well, sort of.)

Landy’s contribution aside, Unlocked is basically a fairly typical modern thriller, very morally neutral and crissy-crossy, wanting to be one of the Bourne movies so badly it probably physically hurts – in a couple of places the music is so obviously ripped-off from that franchise that I’m surprised writs didn’t change hands. In addition to aping the style of a major blockbuster, it also looks like the movie has managed to land a major blockbuster cast – quite apart from Rapace and Landy, it features Michael Douglas, Toni Collette, and John Malkovich.

Nevertheless, this is really quite a dull movie – it’s competently written and assembled, I suppose, and when Rapace is actually doing her interrogating there are some interesting nuggets of tradecraft in the script. But once it all gets going and she has to go on the run, well, it all becomes at best predictable and at worst rather preposterous. There’s a major plot twist, for instance, that I spotted the instant it was introduced. And the motivation of the bad guy, when it’s revealed, is really and truly absurd – he’s orchestrating a major biochemical weapons attack on US citizens basically as a way of whistle-blowing the dangers of viral terrorism. I would suggest a strongly-worded memo might be a somewhat saner method of achieving the same results.

As I say, most of the performances and so on are fine (although Noomi Rapace is perhaps a bit too much of a Proper Serious Actress to be entirely comfortable in the role of ass-kicking babe, which is basically what’s required of her here), but I strongly suspect that in a couple of days’ time I will have forgotten almost everything about the plot of the movie. It’s not actively bad, most of the time, but it doesn’t really do anything to distinguish itself from the dozens of other recent movies made with a similar style and ethos. If you haven’t seen another thriller this century, then Unlocked may prove to be a pleasant surprise, but even then, I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

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A few days ago I found myself thinking back to the heady days of Summer 2000, which don’t really feel like that long ago (not if you’re my age, anyway). The big event at the cinema was the release of the first X-Men film, and I recall my genuine sense of excitement and anticipation: after so many years of half-hearted TV movies with people like David Hasselhoff, someone had finally made a proper full-blooded adaptation of a Marvel comic book! I could hardly believe it.

These days, of course, we live in a different world – it’s been a long time since a blockbuster season has gone by without a Marvel adaptation making its cash-hoovering debut, and you could readily argue that superhero movies, and in particular the ones from Marvel Studios itself, are the defining influence on summer films in general.

ant-man

Things have got to the point where virtually all of Marvel’s most famous characters have some kind of established screen presence, with the company turning to really quite obscure second- and third-stringers for new movies. Thus we have the release of Peyton Reed’s take on Ant-Man, starring and co-written by Paul Rudd. Rudd plays Scott Lang, an electronics engineer turned Robin Hood-ish burglar, who as the flm starts is being released from prison in San Francisco. The world being as it is, Scott finds it hard to find a legit job, but he desperately needs money if he is to get access to his young daughter. This leads him to contemplate one last extra-legal excursion, breaking into a vault in the basement of a retired millionaire. But all he finds within is a very peculiar suit…

It turns out the millionaire in question is Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), ex-SHIELD agent and scientific genius, who back in the 80s was rumoured to be very tiny special forces operative Ant-Man. Now Pym is concerned that his less principled former protege (Corey Stoll) intends to duplicate his research into shrinking technology, and needs someone to take on the mantle of Ant-Man and steal the prototype of the new equipment. Hank’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is somewhat aggrieved at not being offered the gig herself, but the trio nevertheless set about preparing Scott for his mission…

You would think, given the only place that Ant-Man is really prominent is in the A-Z index of the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe, that this movie was conceived relatively recently – certainly well after the start of Marvel Studios’ rise to dominance. But no: I distinctly recall having a conversation about the fact it was in development while going to see Casino Royale at the back end of 2006 (the general tenor of the conversation being ‘why on Earth are they making a movie about Ant-Man…?). This film has spent a long time coming to the screen, with a development process you would have to describe as troubled.

For a long time this was going to be Edgar Wright’s Marvel movie, with a script co-written by him and Joe Cornish, but director and studio parted company due to an inability to agree on the tone of the film. This was taken by many observers as an indication of the meat-grinder nature of Marvel Studios’ operations, with genuinely creative directors not being allowed to bring their own sensibilities to what is at heart a corporate franchising operation.

And yet it would seem otherwise. Wright retains not just a story and screenplay credit, but is listed alongside Stan Lee as executive producer on the film (how much he was genuinely involved it’s hard to say, of course), and there are sections of this film which genuinely do feel like they have his fingerprints on them: mostly some drolly comic scenes concerned with Scott’s largely useless team of accomplices, but also some inspired sight gags as well. Visually, this film does seem genuinely inventive – having a protagonist who spends much of the film only half an inch tall does allow for a new perspective, of course.

On the other hand, there are other elements of the film which do feel very much like business as usual for the company: I’d be prepared to bet that a sequence in which Ant-Man takes on one of the Avengers never appeared in any draft written by Wright and Cornish, while certain aspects of the central conflict do recall elements of the original Iron Man, flipped and twisted around a bit. But on the whole, elements of the wider universe are handled with a light touch – many of them are handled very subtly indeed, with some of the cameos and references possibly slipping by unnoticed by the casual viewer.

The film handles Ant-Man’s somewhat tangled history with commendable skill, as well, finding a way to incorporate the original Ant-Man (Pym – also, in the comics, the creator of Ultron) and his replacement, without it all feeling needlessly complex and involved. Some have grumbled about the non-appearance of the Wasp in this movie, but the door is left very wide open for the future.

In short, a few moments of tonal uncertainty excepted, there really isn’t very much wrong with Ant-Man at all: the balance of characterisation, humour, action, and spectacle is almost perfect, resulting in a film which is simply great fun to watch. It has a lightness of touch that simply wasn’t there in Age of Ultron, which often felt like it was in danger of collapsing under its own weight. Even if Ant-Man looks set to do only relatively modest business by the company’s standards, it is – as with Guardians of the Galaxy – the more obscure and off-the-wall property which has provided Marvel with its most creatively successful film of the year. Get going with that Squirrel-Girl adaptation, guys!

 

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Christmas is coming on apace (drop me a line via the comments if you would like my gift wish-list) and I am aware that some people are harder to buy presents for than others. What do you get, as the saying goes, for the person who has everything?

Well, here’s an idea (i.e. a cheap gag is en route) – get them a piece of card with ‘YOU ARE HERE’ written on it, and when they ask you what it is, tell them it is a fabulously rare and precious gift – nothing less than a life-size map of the world!

Oh well, it’s a bit Zen, perhaps, but I like it. I was reminded of this dubious old gag while watching Traffic, a 2000 movie from the peak period of the Steven Soderbergh collective. This was the year in which the Soderberghs managed to get Oscar-nominated twice in the same category (which I would interpret as meaning that at least one loss was guaranteed to be on the cards, but then again I’m not known for looking on the bright side). This is one of the Soderberghs’ most sophisticated and complex movies, as befits its topic – this is a film attempting to deal seriously with the realities of America’s so-called War on Drugs.

Traffic-2001-movie-poster

It’s impossible to deal with a topic this broad and complicated using only a single viewpoint, and the movie doesn’t even try – instead, it has three parallel plotlines, which are only loosely linked, and together they offer a slightly more rounded perspective.

The movie opens with the realities of drug enforcement in Mexico, as careworn cop Benicio del Toro finds himself sucked into the darker side of the struggle with the cartels. Recruited by a high-ranking army officer for some, er, off-the-books work, he finds himself forced to confront the realities of torture and corruption, and the dawning realisation that one of the most active and vicious areas of the entire drugs conflict is the struggle between the various cartels themselves.

Taking place in a more familiar milieu is the story of affluent housewife Catherine Zeta Jones, who doesn’t look too hard at where her husband’s money is coming from. This changes when DEA agent Don Cheadle arrests Miguel Ferrer’s dealer. Ferrer gives up his boss in exchange for immunity, said boss being Zeta Jones’ man. She rapidly find herself not only having to accept her husband’s career choice, but actively involve herself in the business if she’s going to preserve anything of her family and its lifestyle.

Finally, the political angle is considered in a story concerning Michael Douglas’ judge, recruited by the President to head up the War on Drugs. He is, as you’d expect, full of high principles and strong rhetoric, but entirely unprepared for the revelation that his daughter (Erika Christensen) has a serious drugs problem of her own, and her descent into addiction and eventual prostitution compels him to reassess all of his assumptions.

Well, let’s not be under any illusions here: this is a movie featuring numerous mob executions, personal degradation of an intimate kind, torture (both psychological and physical), and very nearly industrial levels of hard drug use. This is not a movie to watch if you’re looking for a relaxing or escapist two and a half hours, as it is a gruelling and fairly demanding watch.

Now, the Soderberghs do their best to make the proceedings accessible – one of their touches is to, effectively, colour-code the three different storylines so you know (broadly speaking) which one you’re watching at any given moment – most of the scenes in the Douglas plotline are tinted a muted blue, while the one set in Mexico is primarily a hellish yellow-orange. This is reasonably helpful, but doesn’t really make any difference to the fact that this is a film attempting to cover an immensely big and complicated topic.

The individual storylines of the main characters are compelling and engaging enough, which is the film’s great strength, but it is also notable for the way in which it refuses to be just a character-based drama or thriller – it insists on addressing the wider issues of the topic. The internecine conflicts of the drugs cartels are just one, as equally under consideration are the effects of drug-related stereotyping on ethnic minorities, the essential futility of everything the DEA, as embodied by Cheadle’s character, are trying to do, and many other issues.

The result is not quite intellectual and sensory overload, but neither is it very far from it. The War on Drugs is a highly complex and potentially controversial topic, surrounded by questions to which there are no easy answers, and by dealing with it so honestly and fully Soderbergh has come up with a film which is highly complex and potentially controversial, full of questions to which there are no easy answers. In this respect it sort of resembles the life-sized map of the world I mentioned earlier.

This should not detract from the impressiveness of Soderbergh’s narrative achievement in making such a sprawling project cohere so well as a piece of storytelling, nor from the strength of the various performances. However, this isn’t a film you would watch for pleasure, nor really for information or a particular perspective on the problem. I think, to be honest, it’s a film you’d watch simply in order to be able to say you’d watched it, and thus capable of discussing it in an informed manner. As sophisticated talking-point movies go, though, it has a lot going for it.

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Time for yet another installment of New Cinema Review (it’s the summer, I’m living away from home, it’s inevitable) – this time, the Vue in the Westfield Centre (one of those big zombie malls you need a map to navigate around) in Shepherd’s Bush. I know I seem to be particularly partial to Vues, especially when there are lots of independent cinemas around that barely seem to get a look in, but Vue seems to be the best of the major UK multiplex chains and their website is extremely user-friendly.

Although perhaps not quite as good at flagging up the key information as it should be. I arrived in plenty of time for my film, which didn’t seem to appear on the main information screens behind the ticket desk. Nevertheless, when I reached the front:

‘One for Behind the Candelabra, please,’ I said.

The ticketeer checked his rinky-dinky little screen. ‘It’s showing in the Scene area,’ he informed me. ‘That’ll be nineteen pounds.’

‘Nineteen pounds for one ticket! Dearie me,’ I said, unprintably. Nevertheless, changing my plans for the day would have been a pain in the neck and possibly involved going in to see another film blind, which I didn’t much fancy. So I fished out my debit card.

‘Where do you want to sit?’ the ticketeer enquired.

‘On a throne, if I’m paying nineteen quid for it,’ I said. (The shocking news of this outrageous pricing policy had affected my usual courteous good temper in a negative fashion.) However, the ticketeer had been through the Multiplex Staff Personality Obliteration Process and just dumbly showed me the little screen with icons of seats on it.

Eventually I was allowed to trundle off to the VIP Scene area, which had a bar. (I initially thought this programme might be called Seen, as in ‘They Must Have Seen Me Coming’.) To be fair, the seats in the VIP screens are nice, and you do get a little table to put your soft rolls and lemonade on, but the screen itself wasn’t fantastically better than the one I saw Hummingbird on later that day. And even after paying nearly twenty quid, you still have to sit through the ****ing adverts: the annoying animated one for a carbonated orange drink, the weird one about the French social climber who prefers beer to women, the one with the talking Spanish beer, they were all still there. There was also one where the Cirque du Soleil play pelota on a bridge between a glacier and a volcano: this, obviously, is to advertise coffee. Honestly, sometimes I think civilisation has already collapsed into a decadent mire and we’re all just too self-absorbed to notice.

None of which is really very informative when it comes to Behind the Candelabra, which I suspect is what you’re actually reading this to find out about. This is another offering from the Soderbergh Collective – technically they’ve already retired, of course, and this film actually originated as a TV mini-series in the USA a few years ago.

candelabra

The reason why it didn’t make it into American theatres despite having a big-name director and two A-list stars in the lead roles is the subject matter. Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, a young Californian working as an animal trainer in the late 1970s. He is gay, and through a friend is introduced to the entertainment superstar Liberace (Michael Douglas).

(Do people these days need to be told who Liberace was? I suspect so. Basically, Liberace was a virtuoso piano-player and showman, who by the 70s had become a massive international star and an institution in Las Vegas. His act and public persona were noted for a degree of – er – ostentatious flamboyance, but such was the level of control he exerted over these things that when the Daily Mail printed an article revealing he was homosexual, he was able to sue them for libel and win.)

Well, Liberace and Scott hit it off almost at once, especially when Scott is able to procure some medicine for one of the star’s poodles. Very much at Liberace’s instigation, Scott moves in and takes on a job as his paid companion, confidant, driver, and wig-keeper. Their romantic relationship continues apace in tandem with this.

And what follows is essentially the story of their relationship over the next decade, until Liberace’s death from an AIDS-related condition in 1986: its development, which takes some decidedly odd turns, its decline, and its fractious ultimate collapse (although there was apparently something of a reconciliation prior to the very end).

Now, one thing you can say about the Soderberghs is that they are a fair-minded bunch who play by the rules: if they do an action movie, it’s going to have proper set-piece fights in it. If they do a movie about male strippers, it’s going to have some male stripping in it. And if they do a movie about a gay relationship, it’s going to have various scenes of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in bed (or a bubble bath) together. The movie walks the line between prudishness and prurience rather well, although some of the dialogue is still quite explicit – this is always a film focussing on the central relationship, the fact that it’s between two men is almost incidental.

As a movie about what I can only call an assymmetrical relationship (one of the participants is much older, wealthier, and more powerful than the other), there isn’t a great deal that’s very novel here – Scott’s falling more and more under Liberace’s sway (even to the point of having plastic surgery to resemble him) somehow doesn’t feel as peculiar or (in the circumstances) unsettling as it should. The eventual slide into drug addiction, infidelity, and an ugly legal wrangle feels rather familar too.

That said, there are some amusingly bizarre scenes with Rob Lowe as a plastic surgeon who has, perhaps, partaken rather too much of his own wares, and some of the fashions and hairstyles on display inevitably have a certain charm. On the whole, though, this is a movie which succeeds or fails largely on the strength of the central performances. And Damon is simply very good in what’s probably the easier and certainly the less showy role. Douglas is by no means bad, but it’s his replication of Liberace’s stagecraft and particularly his piano-playing which is most obviously impressive. Some of the rest of the time, his performance is almost that of a stereotypically needy and possessive older gay man.

The Soderberghs direct with their customary verve and skill and this is an entertaining and involving movie. But, once you take away all the rhinestone trappings and period styling, there’s nothing tremendously innovative going on here in terms of either characterisation or plot. The actors are very good, but they’re big-name stars in what ultimately boils down to quite a standard and formulaic bio-pic. Worth watching by all means, just not particularly essential.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 16th 2006:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another dose of out-of-date film criticism from the land at the root of the sun. My local cinema in Chiba is called the Rose, and very pleasant it is, too. However, for reasons doubtless to do with floorspace, it’s been split into two separate branches about fifty metres apart. The one at the east end of the building is known, reasonably enough, as Rose East. The one at the other end is, to English ears at least, less felicitously named.

However, it does show some good movies, such as Clark Johnson’s The Sentinel, which I caught there recently. At first glance, this just appears to be yet another oblique exploration of the male midlife crisis with Michael Douglas hogging the screen, but it thankfully has a little more to commend it.

Douglas plays veteran Secret Service agent and bodyguard Pete Garrison, a man so dedicated to his job that he took a bullet for the President, even though it was Ronnie Reagan at the time. There is trouble afoot in Washington, as there is a plot to murder the current incumbent, involving terrorists from Safelyfictionalistan (whose boss still manages to be Cockney, bemusingly enough) and, worse of all, a traitor inside the Secret Service. Soon the place is being turned upside down in search of a man with something to hide!

Unfortunately for Pete, he does have something to hide, mainly that he’s illicitly knocking off the First Lady (Kim Basinger, ageing gracefully) — students of cultural history may like to note how ten years ago the movie President was a heroic, dynamic figure, always punching out terrorists or romancing women (politely) or hopping into a fighter jet to save the world from aliens. These days he’s just a nonentity who gets cuckolded by the hero. I wonder what can have changed? Well anyway, this gets in the way and Pete is fitted up as the mole. So off he goes on the run to clear his name, pursued by his former friend and protege Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland, ageing pretty gracefully himself) and a perky young rookie (Eva Longoria, showing barely a wrinkle).

As I said, The Sentinel is pretty good for what it is, which is an action movie where the hero is visibly over sixty. The subtext is rather like that of the recent Harrison Ford movie Firewall: middle-age spread, crow’s feet and younger guys gunning for your job are no barrier to your being a great guy, saving the day and getting the girl (although Douglas and Longoria quite properly don’t get it on — she is, after all, young enough to be, erm, his wife, now I come to think about it). This message seemed precisely tailored to the bunch of middle-aged salarymen who comprised virtually the entire audience at the showing I went to!

This is, though, a rather better movie than Firewall— it has a visibly bigger budget, the story is slightly less hackneyed and it’s not so slavishly beholden to techno-zeitgeistery (word inserted just to annoy the spellcheck, I admit) for its plot twists. That said, there are a few fairly major holes in the plot and there’s a toe-curling bit near the end where the traitor is nearly overwhelmed with remorse at how un-American he’s been.

Douglas does a decent job as the lead, but Sutherland is rather better as his relentless pursuer, giving a very impressive performance. Longoria is, it must be said, largely ornamental — but what an ornament! You can sense Johnson’s frustration that she spends virtually the entire movie in a suit. Basinger is okay in an underwritten part, but I have to say that crucial though it is, the whole knocking-off-the-First-Lady subplot struck me as being slightly too implausible.

The Sentinel isn’t perfect, but it’s engaging and convoluted enough to hold the attention, the performances are appealing and in places it genuinely thrills. As thrillers go, above average.

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