This Liberace biopic hits the right notes

Cert 12a | Charlie McCann
Two Stars

POST-APOCALYPTIC adventure After Earth has not got off to a good start. It made just $27m in its opening weekend in the US, coming third behind “Fast and Furious 6”. If even the highly bankable Will Smith can’t draw in the crowds, you know something’s got to be wrong.

Smith, who helped write and produce the film, stars alongside his 14 year-old son Jaden. It is set 1,000 years After Earth (or AE) was abandoned by humans hoping to escape an environmental catastrophe of their own making.

Hardly any acting is required in what is presumably an incredibly long trailer for the After Earth video game. Will Smith plays himself as some sort of intergalactic general and occasional father, while son Jaden plays his brash young son, Kitai. A crash landing on earth means the father-son duo have to confront the wilds humans once called Mother Earth and, in doing so, heal their fractured relationship.

Will is injured as a result of the crash, forcing young Jaden to trek 100km across hostile terrain, populated by scary, evolved animals and a dementor-esque alien to find the rescue beacon. But don’t forget, the film is set a millennium into the future, so Will can communicate to his offspring via the built-in Skype in Jaden’s space-age onesie.

Will Jaden prove he’s worthy of his father’s trust? Unfortunately both of the film’s major draws (the special effects and the Smith family) are lacklustre.

Rockwell House, EC2A 3NN
Four Stars

WHAT could be better than sitting in the sun in a hot tub, drinking cocktails and watching a classic movie? Hot Tub Cinema yesterday kicked off its latest season with a screening of The Italian Job.

The event sees nine gigantic tubs (each fitting between six and eight people) cover the roof of Rockwell House near to Shoreditch station. After you have stripped down to your bathing costume, simply lie back and wait for the hipster staff to ferry food and drink your way.

Upcoming movies include Trainspotting, Withnail & I and Human Traffic. Don’t expect silence during the movie, though: it is a carnival atmosphere, with people shouting along to famous quotes (“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”). Great fun, weather permitting.

• Single tickets are £30, a six person tub is £180 and an eight person super-tub is £240.

Cert 15 | By Alex Dymoke
Four Stars

MICHAEL Douglas’s on-screen sexual history features star turns from Demi Moore, Sharon Stone and Glenn Close – now Matt Damon can be added to the most illustriously pot-holed bed-post in Hollywood.

It’s a welcome and unexpected addition, arriving in the twilight of Douglas’s career, just three years after he announced on Letterman that he was suffering from advanced throat cancer. His hum-dinger of a performance rings with the freedom of someone who has narrowly escaped death. He revels in the ostentation but also plumbs the depths; nails both the grandeur and the delusion.

Damon plays Scott Thorson, whose memoir provides the plot of Behind the Candelabra. He’s a green 17 year old when he’s introduced to the ageing megastar and, while not immediately seduced by the glitz, it certainly tickles his curiosity.

The camera follows him as he wanders wide eyed around Liberace’s bejewelled Las Vegas home. Portraits of the artist hang on the wall and the Liberace insignia, a flamboyantly cursive “L”, is emblazoned across every fabric surface.

Liberace’s fascination with the impressionable midwestern lad leads to a weirdly paternal love affair. In between bouts of sex and hot-tub soaks, he promises first to employ Thorson and then to adopt him. He buys him mink coats, jewellery, a house and swears to be the father that Thorson never had.

By the time he’s warned of the capriciousness of his new keeper/lover/father, Thorson is comfortably settled into the lap of luxury. The deeper he descends into Liberace’s world, the less he’s able to resist the pianist’s increasingly extreme whims. He even goes under the knife to look more like the star, at the behest of Liberace himself.

It would be easy for Douglas to ratchet the camp up to cabaret caricature, but he successfully evokes the steely egomania lying beneath the flamboyance. He’s narcissistic and needy, though it’s not people he needs but parts of people: their youth, their bodies, their flattery.

Everyone – including Walter Liberace the person – is sucked into the orbit of Liberace the star. They all want a piece of him, but he belongs to the massive crowds of ordinary people who come to see him play every night; the middle-Americans conservative enough to have no conception of camp at all; the people who eliminate the possibility of him ever being open about his private life.

Beyond the Candelabra is outrageous and funny, but most of all, it’s an empathetic portrait of two vulnerable people.

Tate Britain | By Joseph Funnell
Two Stars

FOR A limited time only it’s buy-one-get-one-free at Tate Britain. For the price of one ticket you can see two exhibitions “in parallel”. The mass-media inspired artworks of Gary Hume serve as an adjunct to the commodity-filled visions of the late modernist painter, Patrick Caulfield.

From the early 1960s, Caulfield developed an ultra-chic style that pared-down representations of everyday objects using simple black outlines and block-colours. While Caulfield has been misaligned with pop art, his more legitimate debt to cubist masters such as George Braques and Juan Gris, is made evident throughout the show. In later works we enter a world of visual games and clever technicolour tricks; hyperrealist elements are played off against basic forms in an incestuous battle to depict a simple scene.

In the Hume space, however, the credibility of “abstracting the familiar” begins to wane. As part of the 1990s’ YBA generation, Hume managed to fool the art world with a distinct brand of faux-intellectualism that involved making something pretty look “conceptual”. Admittedly, the high gloss finish of his paintings are alluring, but for all their brightness, the works quickly become dull.

One of these shows offers an enjoyable interrogation of vision, the other simply shows an artist plucking ideas out of thin air (or more accurately, the newspaper) and making them shiny and seductive. It all seems a little bland and commercial – maybe this is why Tate has already given us half of our money back.

Young Vic | By Alex Dymoke
One Star

AS I walked out of the Young Vic, covered in flour and onion fragments, I cast my mind over the most unpleasant events of my life: the panic attack I had two days before my finals… the time I had to get the piece of flesh between my two front teeth surgically sliced off to make room for metal braces... French GCSE… Where does sitting through 95 minutes of the Free Belarus Theatre’s anti-death penalty diatribe Trash Cuisine rank? It’s like a sixth form production, but one where the earnest 17 year olds were granted permission to take their clothes off and cover the audience in their mums’ groceries.

The occasionally inventive physical theatre doesn’t come close to saving the play from its astonishing moral naivety. The anti death penalty message is conveyed through sorrowful vignettes depicting notable miscarriages of justice, completely missing the most important point: if you believe state sanctioned killing is wrong, then it’s wrong regardless of whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. The stories are punctuated by Shakespearean monologues seemingly selected at random and surreal food-based scenes that try to draw some unfathomable analogy between regional cuisine and human rights abuses.

It was an odd experience, watching a group of people make passionate, inept arguments for something I agreed with in the first place. It makes the “hard-hitting” elements intensely aggravating. I don’t need to stare down the barrel of a nude, shackled actor to be made aware that capital punishment is humiliating. I get it. I really do. Now go away.

Cert 15 | By Alex Dymoke
Two Stars

CAN a psychopathic killer be scary if he's wearing brown tinted aviator shades, a Hawaiian shirt and cuban heels? What about if he has a dense handlebar moustache? If that psychopathic killer is played by boggle-eyed villain-specialist Michael Shannon, the answer is yes. After a long career playing sibilant baddies – fodder for more straightforwardly handsome heroes to casually bump off on the way to a happy ending – finally there’s a lead role bad enough to call his own. “The Iceman” is the nickname that was given to Richard Kuklinksi, a prolific contract killer who worked for various mafia bosses in the 70s. When he isn’t spreading cyanide in peanut butter sandwiches, he is a devoted husband and father to a blissfully ignorant family.

Ray Liotta is one of the few actors who could give Shannon a run for his money in a scary face competition, and he’s on great, terrifying form here as Kuklinksi’s boss Roy DeMeo.

A familiar-feeling true crime thriller elevated by two fearsome performances.

Lyttelton Theatre | By Charlie McCann
Four Stars

STRANGE INTERLUDE is long. The play is nine acts and the original 1928 Broadway production lasted over four hours. Clocking in at three hours, 15 minutes, Simon Godwin’s rendition is somewhat more sprightly. Nonetheless, I anticipated looking forward to the intermission.

Happily, the interval proved less of a strange interlude and more an unwanted one. Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer-prize winning play combines the structure of an epic with the pathos of melodrama, and is accented with just enough humour to complement the histrionics.

Nina Leeds, young, charming, besotted with her beau Gordon, is devastated when he is killed in WWI. The play explores the consequences of this loss for Nina and for the other men in her life: Charles Marsden, patient cynic, Sam Evans, feckless idiot, Ned Darrell, dreamboat doctor. All three adore her but she’s only got eyes for Gordon’s ghost. Years pass, the tussle with social norms waxes and wanes and the embrace of victimhood takes its toll in surprising ways.

The staging, the acting, the direction — all are excellent. Jason Watkins plays Sam to a tee and Anne-Marie Duff is superb as Nina.

Soutra Gilmour’s set is a technical marvel. Action plays out in a scholarly New England townhouse, a swanky Manhattan apartment and the deck of a yacht. It’s quite a display but, it never distracts from O’Neill’s realism.

There are flaws. O’Neill’s portrayal of women was scandalous in both his day and ours. Even so, if Strange Interlude is not quite “the essential play”, as O’Neill grandiosely put it, it’s certainly worth seeing.