BEHIND THE CANDELABRA Drama. Starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Cert 15a
Just when we thought we'd seen the last of the prolific and eclectic Steven Soderbergh with Haywire – a movie which included a chase sequence involving Wynn's Hotel in Abbey Street – he's back again with this engrossing drama. In fairness, Soderbergh did say that he was leaving the Hollywood machine behind him and this modestly budgeted feature was financed by cable company HBO.
Apart from groundbreaking TV series such as Six Feet Under, Oz and The Wire, HBO's movie division has had plenty of success down the years, bringing us James Woods's greatest performance in Citizen Cohn, the award-winning Russian serial killer movie Citizen X and, most notably of all, John Dahl's noir classic The Last Seduction, which featured what would surely have been an Oscar-nominated performance from Linda Fiorentino had she been eligible for selection. Alas, those same rules look to deprive Michael Douglas of Oscar recognition for what is one of the best performances of his career.
Based on the memoir of the same name, Behind the Candelabra tells the story of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) a young animal handler who, on a trip to Las Vegas with his friend Bob Black (Scott Bakula) is introduced to the flamboyant pianist Liberace (Douglas), with the latter becoming smitten. Despite the 40-year gap in their ages – Thorson was 18 when they met – the young man is quickly seduced by the glamour and tacky opulence of Liberace's lifestyle and quickly moves in, becoming the entertainer's lover, assistant and chauffeur in a matter of weeks.
It would have been all too easy for Douglas to play the screamingly camp Liberace for cheap laughs but he and Soderbergh have wisely chosen against that. Instead, we have a portrait of a vain but at heart insecure man, cossetted in an unreal world of wealth and glamour but looking for something more. He thinks he's found it in the shape of Thorson but such is the bizarre showbiz cocoon he inhabits that it seems to him perfectly normal to have the young man undergo plastic surgery in order to have his lover resemble his younger self. This provides the opportunity for an hilarious cameo from Rob Lowe as a sleazy surgeon and a whole raft of psychological conundrums.
It should be stressed too that Matt Damon is excellent as Thorson. Initially somewhat innocent, as the relationship develops and he feels trapped by Liberace's constant attention – not to mention developing a debilitating drug habit – his cynicism oozes from every pore and Damon is bang on the money with his portrayal.
The film belongs to Douglas however, from his spot-on impersonation of Liberace's stage banter to showing us the steely side of his nature he's never less than riveting in a film which may well have been 'too gay' for Hollywood, but is a great testament to the talents of all concerned. If this is indeed Steven Soderbergh's final film then he's leaving with a flourish which Liberace himself would have been proud of.
AFTER EARTH Sci-Fi. Starring Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Zoe Kravitz, Sophie Okenedo. Directed by M Night Shyamalan. Cert 12a
Following his disastrous run of Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender, you'd like to think that M Night Shyamalan couldn't possibly deliver another dud, especially with the proven box-office heft of Will Smith on board. But he does.
Granted, After Earth isn't as awful as his three previous films (there's a free quote for the poster) but at no point does it feel like an M Night Shyamalan movie, being utterly devoid of the kind of set-up and twist which made The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable so compelling when he began.
Part of the problem here is that the story originated with Will Smith and the movie is blatantly a vanity project to get his teenage son Jaden's career off the ground.
Alas, while the lad was just about bearable in The Pursuit of Happyness and The Karate Kid, here he's horribly exposed, particularly as he's by himself for much of his screentime where all his limitations – he does the furrowed brow/wobbly lip thing and, er, that's about it really – are magnified to IMAX levels.
The plot is bog-standard, with humans having abandoned Earth 1,000 years ago only for super-duper space ranger Cypher Raige (Smith Snr) and his son Kitai (Jnr) to crash-land on the world where we're told "Everything on this planet has evolved with one purpose, to kill humans", which is a bit strange since we haven't been there for over a millennium. No matter, with father injured in the crash his son must prove himself by getting to another part of the planet to retrieve a rescue beacon, avoiding all manner of really bad CGI creatures along the way. Smith Snr drones his lines with zero enthusiasm, there's precious little genuine excitement and the father/son bonding plot is something we've seen done hundreds of times before and hundreds of times better. Avoid.
THE STONE ROSES: MADE OF STONE Documentary. Featuring Ian Brown, John Squire, Alan 'Reni' Wren, Gary 'Mani' Mounfield. Directed by Shane Meadows. Cert 15a
Men of a certain age got to relive their youth last year when, after years of hostility and a gradual thawing in relationships, the Stone Roses reunited for a tour and suddenly it was 1989 again.
Long-time fan Shane Meadows didn't need asking twice to record this resurrection of a band who, for a year or so, had the world in their hands, and while Made of Stone isn't without its flaws it does offer plenty of entertaining footage.
The band stipulated that they wouldn't do sit-down interviews and that's fine, because they don't really have much to say, and the film works best showing early home footage of singer Ian Brown and guitarist John Squire as scooter boys, the cool swagger and confidence of their ascent and – best of all – the build-up to a secret comeback gig in Warrington.
It's here, watching men in their 40s transported back to being teenagers as they scramble to get tickets for the gig at three hours notice that the magic of following a favourite band really comes across.
It's both touching and funny and the mark of a truly gifted film-maker, although Meadows missed a great opportunity to add some meat to the story when drummer Reni storms off after a show in Amsterdam and he doesn't delve into the reasons why as he "didn't want to intrude". Still, well worth a look, even if Ian Brown is somewhat suspiciously in tune these days.
THE LAST EXORCISM, PART II Horror. Starring Ashley Bell, Julia Garner, Spencer Treat Clark, Louis Herthum, Dave Jensen. Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly. Cert 15a
As an example of the 'found footage' genre, The Last Exorcism was an intriguing and unusual movie right until a final three minutes where it went off the rails but this sequel is atrocious.
Different writers, a different director and a more conventional approach means that it has little in common with the original bar the presence of Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), the possessed young woman who's now holed up in a home for wayward teenage girls in New Orleans and having flashbacks about her demonic past.
There are a couple of half-decent jump shocks in the first third before tedium and terrible plotting take over. Please God don't let there be another one. HHIII