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Review: ‘Unlocked’

dfn_unlocked_poster-300In a summer of female-driven action spectaculars — Wonder Woman (2017) and Atomic Blonde (2017) — it only makes sense that things close with Unlocked.

Maintaining a distant third in relation to those other two tremendously entertaining films, actress Noomi Rapace joins the fray of strong, cutthroat women who rarely blink when confronted with violence and whose quick thinking deduction often prevails against any dangerous situation drawn up against her.

Playing an ex-CIA operative brought back into harm’s way when her special skill set is needed, Unlocked’s milieu is far from the grimy, fluorescent Europe of Atomic Blonde’s late 80’s or the heavily influenced CGI ‘yesterworld’ of Wonder Woman, but its intentions are the same. Kick butt, thrill and excite … which it does to uneven results.

Taking its place in the Europe of today (or rather, 2012, because it’s a film that’s been on the shelf for a while), the film opens with an emotionally scarred Alice (Rapace) keeping tenuous connections with her old MI6 boss (Toni Collette) while she works in a community outreach center.

Brooding and feeling responsible for a terror attack that happened under her watch several years before, Alice tries to repent by passing along tips or suspicions about possible terrorist suspects. It’s not long before she’s actively brought back into the intrigue circle when a special group captures an operative thought to be the message carrier for a chain of very bad guys with malicious intentions.

From there, Unlocked follows a routine digression of double and triple crosses as Alice becomes embroiled in a biological attack. Parading a host of highly familiar faces across its locale of expensive apartments, underground garages and unique boat yards is Michael Douglas, Orlando Bloom (as quite the charming burglar) and John Malkovich who, ultimately, ends up stealing every scene he appears in … naturally. Guessing which side anyone is on is another matter.

Directed by veteran journeyman Michael Apted, whose lengthy career has ranged from groundbreaking documentaries like the Up Series (1970-2012) to the questionable pulp of efforts such as Thunderheart (1992) and even a Bond and a Narnia film, Unlocked plays straight and fast. One can feel a determined hand behind much of the action, which is muted and not bombastic, focusing on hand-to-hand combat and outsmarting one’s opponent.

Outside of all that, the only problem with Unlocked is that’s is a good film until it’s not. After establishing a first half with intelligence and a smartly subdued Noomi Rapace, the film devolves into a series of shadowy men double-crossing each other and the threat of a large-scale terrorist attack with a head villain who barely registers as anything but sullen. Without giving too much away, the absolute best moments in the film are in its opening 45 minutes, especially a scene where Rapace uses her investigative skills to not only glean the appropriate information from her prisoner, but some important lessons about her bosses as well. Staged and executed with paranoid precision, I wished the rest of the film followed this template of intelligence.

Yet, even as Unlocked gets more and more action-film pedantic and the events around her get more and more inflated, Rapace maintains an authority of presence. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing her in a series of films as a female Bond. The rage and quiet intensity that helped her burst onto the scene with the Stieg Larsson The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series (2009) is still evident here. Or, perhaps we could get an indie-one off with her and John Malkovich just talking CIA lingo. Now that would be electric.

Unlocked opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, September 1 at the Studio Movie Grill Northwest Highway 14 and Studio Movie Grill Spring Valley 16. It also opens in the Tyler area at the Studio Movie Grill Tyler 12. Video-On-Demand platforms will stream the film on the same date.



Review: ‘Ant-Man’

Marvel Studios has now produced 12 movies since 2008, and it’s safe to say that they’ve developed a formula that pleases their fan base and generates a terrific return on investment.

Half their films have been origin stories so far, and the latest reveals that the formula is beginning to wear thin. Story-wise, Ant-Man sticks to the basics, introducing Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, a physicist who has developed a suit that allows the wearer to shrink in size while retaining his or her proportional strength. Pym, however, fears that the technology he has created could be used for evil purposes, so he withdraws the suit and is forced out of his own company.

His former protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), takes over control of the company and endeavors to replicate Pym’s technology. He is aided by Pym’s daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who is estranged from her father. When Pym becomes aware that Cross is on the threshold of recreating the shrinking technology, he recruits Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a master thief, to wear the old suit and steal Cross’ work to protect mankind.

Lang has his own problems. He’s an ex-convict who has been recently paroled and yearns to be reunited with his young daughter. His ex-wife Maggie (Judy Geer) remains suspicious of him, and so does her new husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), a police officer. Lang has been having trouble finding suitable employment, prompting him to return to his thieving ways with a small criminal gang led by his former prison cellmate Luis (Michael Pena). That introduces Lang to Pym, and eventually to an opportunity to become Ant-Man.

Long in development, the film once held the promise of standing alone, but with the passage of years and the success of Marvel’s blockbuster formula, priorities changed and the decision was made to fit Ant-Man safely within the company’s cinematic universe. While that’s understandable from a business standpoint, creatively speaking it reduced the storytelling options available.

Thus, Ant-Man very much feels like a minor entry in the Marvel canon. The familial conflicts are familiar, the development of the characters are familiar, and the action sequences are very familiar. As directed by Peyton Reed, there is little to distinguish the movie from the 11 entries that have preceded it, beyond the particulars of the titular character’s powers and the minuscule settings that it pretends to explore through the magic of computerized graphics.

Ant-Man is okay, nothing more than a safe and sanitized big-screen version of a comic book, and nothing less than a slick and tidy packaging of action-movie stereotypes.

The film has preview screenings at select theaters tonight before opening wide across the region tomorrow.

Review: ‘Beyond the Reach’

'Beyond the Reach'
‘Beyond the Reach’
The title of Joseph Losey’s unnerving and strange 1970 film Figures In A Landscape would be fitting for Jean-Baptiste Leonetti’s Beyond the Reach, which posits the same idea of man versus unrelenting nature. Yet, instead of an unexplained force of soldiers and a lone black helicopter stalking the runaway men in Losey’s effort, Leonetti pits man against man, or more specifically, good man against capitalist pig, in Beyond the Reach. With Michael Douglas as the über rich adventurer, out for some unlicensed hunting in the desert, guess who the capitalist pig is. Who knows…. it may even be a wry bit of casting, as if Gordon Gekko skated jail time and ended up here.

It’s this sudden presence of John Madec (Douglas) in a sleepy little town near the Mojave desert that brings young Ben (Jeremy Irvine) into the mix. Heartbroken and shouldering a melancholy hangover since his girlfriend (Hanna Lawrence) just left him for college, Ben shirks his better judgement and agrees to be the guide for hotshot Madec, reveling in his brand new hunting attire, sleek imported shotgun and Mars Rover-like vehicle that comes complete with an espresso machine, loudspeaker and panning light system.

It’s not long into the desert when Madec causes an accident and turns on Ben, partly because he’s written as a jaded megalomaniac intent on closing some shadowy deal with the Chinese, but also because the story demands its hunter-versus-prey theme evolve into something more sinister and emotionally viable.

From that point on, Beyond the Reach settles into thriller mode as young Ben tries to outwit his companion and make it out of the desert alive.

The first two thirds of Beyond the Reach is a taut, compellingly told story that relies on smart details and some genuine tension. We root for Ben and despise Douglas’ Madec, even though they’re one dimensionally drawn, simply because the foundations of good and evil are so assertive. It’s in the final twenty minutes that both the script and the logical trappings of the film are tossed out the window in several mind-numbing turns that not only deflates the good will established by its first half, but creates a lazy denouement that almost feels lazy or tacked on. It’s as if the test audiences violently opposed something more original or (gasp) morally ambivalent and the filmmakers made concessions to turn Beyond the Reach’s finale into a confused and utterly inane series of contrivances.

Director Frank Capra is quoted as saying “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” With Beyond the Reach the cardinal sin is betraying the first 80 minutes of a solid film with a dull final ten.

Beyond the Reach opens in limited release on Friday April 17th.

Review: Solitary Man

Solitary Man
Michael Douglas and Jesse Eisenberg in 'Solitary Man'

Michael Douglas is old.

Ben Kalmen, the former car dealer he’s playing in Solitary Man, opening exclusively at Landmark’s The Magnolia today, acts as though he’s a young man. He aggressively denies his age, which appears to be somewhere in the late 50s to early 60s. He stalks young women like a starving, sly lion, preying upon the weak and vulnerable. And he dispenses wisdom like candy to college-aged young men (see Jesse Eisenberg, above), who eat it up. Beneath his sleazy exterior, however, lies … wait for it … an even sleazier heart.

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