Out this week in the UK
Behind the Candelabra (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
Most stars won’t touch an unsympathetic role, for fear of how it will play with their fans. Not so Michael Douglas. Again and again he’s waded in where others fear to tread, playing assholes, psychos and now Liberace, the gayest man in the world, if Steven Soderbergh’s film is to be believed. This is the movie that Hollywood wouldn’t fund, we are told, because of its gay subject. On the evidence of the movie it seems clear they wouldn’t fund it because of the way it portrays the flamboyant pianist – Douglas is majestically reptilian as Liberace and has clearly internalised the infamous lines from the Daily Mirror newspaper in 1956, written after a concert appearance by Liberace in London (which described him as “a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love” – Liberace sued, claiming the paper was insinuating he was gay. And won). In Richard LaGravenese’s script and Douglas’s performance, there is little affirmatory in Liberace’s behaviour, as he picks up bright, buff Scott Thorson (Matt Damon, every bit as good as Douglas), uses him and then throws him away, having had him surgically remodelled in the process. This isn’t a Brokeback world of candy-coloured intercourse, sex is right in our face, with the talk constantly of libido, anal sex, staying hard. Perhaps Hollywood balked at that too. This film is all about the hissing tiara. Behind it, there isn’t much to see. Around the edges, though, that’s where the fun really lies – Rob Lowe (hilarious) as a plastic surgeon who can barely move a facial muscle, Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” mother, Dan Aykroyd (particularly good) as his trusty, brutish manager.
The Wicker Man: The Final Cut (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
I’ve never quite bought into the cult of The Wicker Man, Britain’s most famous horror film, but this improved version has made me reconsider. The story of the prissy Christian copper who is monstered on a Scottish island full of pagans is bigger and better in this restored print, with newly found footage spliced back in (and this time, as opposed to the 2006 version, you can hardly tell where the newly found stuff is) There are more songs, more nudity, and a lot more shots of the locals pulling “we don’t like strangers” faces. There is also more footage of Britt Ekland’s topless front and her body double’s entirely naked rear. But most of all the born-again content has restored the sense of pace. As Edward Woodward (so brilliant at instant bursts of insane anger) goes about the island trying to find a missing girl, the film’s careful rhythm takes hold, building slowly towards what is still one of the grimmest finales in horror. I say horror, but director Robin Hardy conceptualised this adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play as a musical, which makes it a masterpiece of audacity, on top of everything else. Note: it is the Final Cut I am referring to, not earlier versions, all of which are now redundant.
After Earth (Sony, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
Poor Will and Jaden Smith, touring the TV studios of the world in an attempt to counter the poor reviews of this film with personal plugging on every show that would have them. It’s a surprise to finally see the film itself – it’s nowhere near as bad as it’s been painted. Though it is unusually downbeat for a sci-fi actioner and quite shamelessly constructed as a baton-pass from father to son. Jaden does all the running about, once the spaceship he and his gruff dad are on has crashed, while Will stays back at base, a broken leg meaning that, conveniently, the 15-year-old gets a big-budget movie all of his own, while the actual action star does little more than just sit there. Actually, Will Smith wrote the story too, which is a digest of Lost World-style films – Jaden is required to cross a jungle avoiding various beasties – and director M Night Shyamalan and the great cinematographer Peter Suschitzky drape everything in Malick-ish lushness. Perhaps After Earth’s real crime is that it’s a B movie that thinks it’s an A movie. I enjoyed it a lot more than I did Prometheus.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (4DVD, cert 15, DVD)
The spittle-flecked philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s follow-up to The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema is more of the same – a thought-provoking analysis of western capitalism using any pop-cultural tool that the Slovenian (and director Sophie Fiennes) can lay his hands on. After kicking off with an analysis of John Carpenter’s They Live (“one of the great forgotten left-wing classics of Hollywood”) while standing on a recreation of the set itself, Zizek continues in similar vein, talking about The Sound of Music while dressed as a priest. Then we’re onto Travis Bickle’s bed, into the Jaws boat, boarding Hitler’s plane, while Zizek waxes profound about how we are programmed by the culture we live in, so that “enjoyment is a weird perverted duty”. He analyses the meaning of James Cameron’s Titanic – “the supreme case of ideology in recent film”, all the while namechecking Lacan, Walter Benjamin and a few other cultural touchstones. For those who abhor the whole cultural studies, left-leaning direction of Zizek’s thought, some of his conclusions might be intriguing and unexpected – “the depressing lesson of the last decades is that capitalism has been the true revolutionising force.” Then he’s back to Kinder eggs, Brief Encounter, The Last Temptation of Christ. Amusing, exhausting, fascinating, worth watching a few times.
Pieta (StudioCanal, cert 18, DVD)
Korean master Kim Ki-Duk took a few years off film-making – his self-focused, if not self-obsessed Arirang saw him trying to come to terms with creative stasis – but returns with this frantic thriller about a brutal extortionist whose regular round of pressing money out of people, inflicting injury and casual sexual conquest is interrupted by the reappearance of his mother, who abandoned him as a baby. If you’ve seen The Isle, you’ll know that Kim is a master of dramas about unusual relationships, particularly between older and younger parties. Here the son forms an odd, mad bond with his mother – he rapes her, for instance, in an attempt to prove she is not actually his mother. Well, I’d call that odd. What then plays out is a strangely sentimental dance up against many scenes of bloody violence, a switchback of moods building gradually towards several climaxes, all of which could be tagged “overheated”.
Like Someone in Love (New Wave, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
The Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami’s latest flashes up its opening credits in French, before settling down to tell a Japanese story, about a young prostitute and the old guy she has been paid to pleasure. He, it turns out, doesn’t want sex (they never do in films), and after a bit of intervening dramatic business, he is mistaken for her grandfather by her fiancé, a game the old guy is happy to play along with. Shooting in lush colour, Kiarostami is working in a new country but it’s otherwise a case of old tricks – his concentration on people in cars, shot through windscreens, through car windows (windows of any sort), long, locked cameras held on impassive faces that dare you to make a guess as to what they’re thinking. We’re outside, in other words, in every respect. The only exception to this is a remarkable outburst from one of the old man’s neighbours, who delivers an entirely explicatory monologue about her feelings for the old man through an open window – we’ve been let in. This sort of structural mirroring is why Kiarostami is so revered by film critics, who fall hungrily on anything that breaks the run of otherwise barely differentiable product. And much as I enjoyed his formal foreplay, and the great performances, and the gorgeous cinematography, and the Japanese locations, I also itched for just a bit more to actually, you know, happen.
Spike Island (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
I reviewed this film at length here, when it came out on the big screen. Now, for its DVD release, I am even more convinced of what’s wrong with this story about a gang of Manc mates heading off to see the Stone Roses’ legendary 1990 gig. We have a bunch of “madferit” lads, who are engaging enough, a peripheral bunch of older geezers, who probably are Stone Roses vintage, who supply all the flavour and depth that’s missing from the leads. And we’ve got a love story focusing on the wrong person. The whole thing needed a rewrite to solve this problem and no amount of magic moments elsewhere (and there are quite a few) or music evoking happier druggier times can fix that.
© Steve Morrissey 2013