THE BEGUILED** Dull


IT’S A SOUTHERN Gothic drama (brilliantly directed fourty years ago by Don Siegel with Clint Eastwood in the lead) that holds great promise: set in the Deep South during the American civil war, a wounded Yankee soldier has been separated from his platoon and is discovered, barely alive, by a young girl. She’s a pupil of a genteel Ladies’ boarding school, ensconced somewhere in the woods of rural Mississippi. And so, having taken pity on him, into this oasis of starched, vestal purity, comes this predatory man… a Northerner in a Confederate world; a wolf among sheep.

His recumbent, half naked sexuality and his aura of danger and the forbidden, lights the spark of desire in the breasts of his tightly laced, repressed rescuers. These souls of girlish purity long for the taint of his corruption; and become beguiled by his rakish ways. Until jealousy, armed with an adze of amputation has its way with him.

It would seem though from this anemic, insipid interpretation that director Sofia Coppola (“Marie Antoinette”) is having none of that. None of the raw, untamable passions of writer Thomas Cullinan’s novel. None of the sly seductions as Corporal McBurney (a dull as dishwater Colin Farrell, who seems to have grown out of his youthful bad boy charisma) samples the morsels of innocence. The central theme of “passion constrained” has been neutered of its sexuality and reframed as a carefully, meticulously storyboarded, bloodless lecture on deception and empowerment.

As the school’s headmistress, Miss Farnsworth, Coppola laces up the icy sexiness of Nicole Kidman so tightly that all we’re left with is the ice. There is no chemistry between her and Farrell. Nor for that matter is there much chemistry between Farrell and any of the other ‘objects of desire’ in Miss Farnsworth’s seminary (Kristen Dunst and Elle Fanning). It’s as though each of them were shot separately against blue screen and edited together in the final mix, the way they edit the voices in animated movies.

It is interesting to compare the female’s (Coppola’s) take on the story with the male’s (Siegel’s.) For Siegel, the Corporal’s symbolic emasculation and fatal comeuppance (that look of shock on Clint Eastwood’s face as he realizes the truth) was one of shuddering horror. For Coppola, it is one of moral triumph.

They’re both valid interpretations. But Siegel’s “horror” bristled with emotion; Coppola’s moral triumph fails to get the heart beating. That said, kudos to Ms. Coppola: many of the crew (production designer, editor, composers etc are women). And that’s an all too rare thing.

 

THE BEGUILED. Dir: Sofia Coppola. With Nicole Kidman, Kristen Dunst, Elle Fanning and Colin Farrell. Screenplay: Sofia Coppola (adapting Albert Maltz’ screenplay from the book by Thomas Cullinan). Cinematographer: Phillippe Le Sourd (“Seven Pounds”). Production Designer: Anne Ross (“Going in Style”)

 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES**** Outstanding


AFTER THE DREARY second ‘chapter’ of the (new) Planet of the Apes franchise (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a tremendous movie. It’s thoughtful, gripping, brilliantly acted and the quality of the CGI is unsurpassed.

Though it starts in a fairly typical action movie mode – guns a blazing, apes and soldiers dying in abundant heaps etc. – it soon morphs (after the capture by the apes of a few, defeated, soldiers) into a compelling drama.

It’s been fifteen years since the dawn of the Simian flu, which has resulted in a decimation of the human race and the flowering of simian intellect. The ape leader, Caesar (convincingly embodied by Andy Serkis…the genius who gave us Golum) is keen to avoid war and the ongoing skirmishes with humans. His plans are, like Moses, to lead his beleaguered tribe out of this Pharaonic war zone to a promised land, way over yonder, past an impassible (to humans) desert. This is the first of multiple Biblical and Greek mythological references (There’s even a frightening Red Sea moment when, like Ramses’ armies, Caesar’s tormentors are drowned in a deluge of snow and ice).

But his bête noir, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the bald, buff, increasingly deranged Kurtz- like leader of a Nazi-esque troop of rogue mercenaries, is intent on enslaving the apes (“They’re almost human” one of his mercenaries says…in an echo of the Christian apologia for slavery) before wiping them out. The Uncle Toms of this brave new world are turncoat apes, called Donkeys. They’ve turned against their own to save their own skins and will perform any task no matter how demeaning.

The story twists and turns (including a thrilling “Great Escape” segment, as the apes tunnel through forgotten caverns in the quiet dark of the night) as it explores themes of slavery and freedom, mercy and vengeance, heroism and sacrifice.

And it all hangs around the grand, epic character of Caesar as he faces a personal challenge deeper than that of the Colonel’s mercenaries: his desire for vengeance. His people need the calm command of his leadership; but his dark, brooding heart drives him away from the leader’s responsibility as the protector of his clan to the hunter’s lonely quest to kill and destroy. His drive to survive long enough to rid the world of the Colonel is fueled by pure unbridled hate. (I am reminded by the exchange between Quintus Arrius – Jack Hawkins – and Judah Ben Hur – Charlton Heston – in “Ben Hur”. “You are full of hate,” Quintus tells Ben Hur. “That is good. Hate can keep a man alive”)

But in the end, it is the touching generosity of a young, mute girl (Amiah Miller), and a Messianic survival of crucifixion, that soothes the savage beast within. Spartacus turns into Henry V. Or maybe Christ. Hate, tenderness, rage, sorrow, joy. The little miracle of director Matt Reeves’ movie (he also co-wrote it) is how clearly these emotions play across Serkis’ ape visage. You feel for him in ways way beyond the faux emotions of the summertime blockbusters. Here on a planet of apes is the crisis of modern humanity writ large.

Reeves’ noble and very iconic vision (Imagine rows of crucified apes dying in their own Appian Way or chained, slave-whipped apes brutalized by their heartless overlords) is well served by the dark, atmospheric cinematography of Michael Seresin (“Dawn of the Planet…”, “Midnight Express”) and James Chinlund’s (“Dawn…, “Avengers Assemble”) convincing post apocalyptic world.

What a surprise to find such a gem among this year’s even more mindless blockbusters: “The Transformers”, “The Mummy”, “Alien: Covenant”, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Guardians of the Galaxy. Vol2”.

 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Dir: Matt Reeves. Writers: Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback (“Insurgent”, “Wolverine”). With: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller. Cinematpgraphy: Michael Seresin. Production Design: James Chilund. Music: Michael Giacchino (“Star Trek Beyond”)

 

BABY DRIVER*** High Octane


 

“Baby Driver” is a charming, amped up, non stop, music thumping, machine gun syncopating gangster, heist, rom-com, wanna be Bonnie and Clyde, kinetic explosion, sort of movie.

There’s a vague plot about a jive walking, withdrawn, tinnitus plagued youth – his “real” name is Baby- who’s forced into a life of crime (He’s the getaway car driver) as re-payment to a debt he owes to a soft-spoken crime kingpin (Kevin Spacey oozing avuncular menace). He falls for Debora (lily James from “Downtown Abbey”), a waitress in a diner –  an icon of guileless sweetness; a shining light in his dark violent life – and their grand, existential plan is to high tail it outta town…to anyplace that’s not “here”.

Baby seeks to drown out the tinnitus from which he suffers (the result of a car crash, fatal to his arguing parents) with a steady, carefully curated music mix; a beat that locks him away from his gangster surroundings and drives the rhythm of his life… as well as the tempo of the movie.

Director-writer Edgar Wright is mapping out an interesting space for himself in the Tarantino dominated world of pulp-fiction moviemaking. His previous movies, “Hot Fuzz” and “Dawn of the Dead” seamlessly morph into “Baby Driver”. These movies all take their cue from well-seeded movie tropes: the zombie movie, the cop movie and now the car chase/heist movie. Hs talent is to then turn clichéd convention on its head. The result are movies that are both pastiches of movie conventions as well as (his) launching pads. This is the heist movie as music video on steroids (with a riotous nod to the grisly killings you expect from the “Final Destination” franchise)

His cast of characters – all badass gangsta types (played without much humor in the “Fast and Furious” money spinners) – are all slightly crazier versions of a type…as if to draw attention to the silliness of the type, even while revelling in the silliness. The stand-out bad guy by far, from whom Baby must escape, is Buddy. This is John Hamm with a bad haircut and a Terminator’s refusal to stay dead. If ever he had to kill off his suave Don Draper character, “Baby Driver” delivers in spades.

The movie revolves around and dances to the beat of Ansel Elgort (from the vapid “The Fault is in Our Stars”) as Baby. He’s tremendous: a lithe, rhythmic presence, whose expressionless almost autistic look masks an unflinching determination and an ability to elude the tall shadows cast by his fellow powerhouse actors: Spacey and Jamie Fox.

Edgar Wright (who also wrote the funny script for “Ant Man” and Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin”) is a tremendous movie-maker: the breathtaking stunts, the whiplash editing and the good natured energy of the whole enterprise make for great fun.

Though I do admit, the five-star reviews and the suite of accolades the movie garnered, prepared me for something different and lead to some disappointment. Some of Tarantino’s movies are themselves five-star worthy…because they frame the experiences – of slavery, of naziism – through a lens of real insight and rich thematic seriousness…all as part of the gungo-ho carnage that mark his oeuvre.

“Baby Driver” certainly has a fresh distinctiveness to its style; and it’s endearingly engaging.
But it’s nothing more than that.

High craft, yes. High art, no.

 

BABY DRIVER. Dir: Edgar Wright. With: Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx. Cinematographer: Bill Pope (“The Jungle Book”) Editors: Jonathan Amos (“A United Kingdom”) and Paul Machliss (“The World’s End”)

 

MY COUSIN RACHEL****Did She or Didn’t She?


“My Cousin Rachel” is Roger Mitchell’s uneven adaptation (veering between sluggish cautious restraint and gripping story telling) of the book by Daphne du Maurier. At its heart, this is a story about cultural blindness…about our inability to see beyond the locked box of our inherited values. Set in mid nineteenth century England, the drama is centered around the arrival of the eponymous cousin Rachel – an exotic, beautiful and mysterious Anglo-Italian widow – into a small, very traditional farming community.

Just who is this Rachel? Grieving widow -as she appears to be – or calculating, possibly murderous, fortune seeker – as she is made out to be? We meet her via the letters of a wealthy English landowner and die-hard bachelor, Ambrose Ashley (Sam Calflin of “The Hunger Games”). He has fled the cold (read: inhibited) country for the sultrier, healthier clime of Italy. His letters describe the arc of his relationship with this mystery woman: first as charming friend, then beloved wife, then suspicious partner who may be poisoning him. Which is she? Could she really be poisoning him or is this merely the expression of a deranged mind, warped by the tumour that kills him?

Ambrose’s young, gormless nephew, Philip (also played by Sam Calflin) who will inherit his properties when he turns twenty five, is convinced that his uncle has been murdered by her. His guardian, Nick (Iain Glenn, who you’ll know as Jorah Mormon from “The Game of Thrones”) has also heard things: her profligacy, her sexual appetites. When she turns up at the ancestral estate (she claims it is to experience the presence of her deceased husband), her veiled countenance and enigmatic smile offer nothing to her suspicious hosts. Young Philip is determined to lift what is clearly the veil of her guilt.

In a world where the women are either dowdy or delicately virginal and certainly entirely submissive, can you really trust someone as darkly beautiful, experienced and self-possessed as Rachel? And a foreigner to boot! She must be harbouring secrets. Just who is the Italian gentleman that visits her? A lover? To whom is she sending such large sums of money, well exceeding the modest income she is given?

Bit by bit he is bitten by her bewitching charm. She is the unexpected antidote to his buttoned up word. She is the dark to his light, the experience to his innocence, the possibility of passion to his sense of restraint, the smell of sex to the stuffiness of his virginity, the maturity to his naïveté. Surely she cannot be the witch some (no longer him) make her out to be. Not surprisingly, he loses his heart to her; and in a spasm of infantile infatuation, he wills her his wealth… in exchange for her hand. She offers him instead her body. It is a signal he misreads. What for her is a repayment for generosity, he mistakes for love.

She, of course, is no naïf. He may have misread her intent. But that could not have been a surprise to her. For what’s a woman without fortune to do in a society stacked against such a creature? She can teach or become a governess or, again, seek to marry well.

In the end, her attractiveness to Philip lies as much in her – to him incomprehensible- “otherness” as in her brooding sensuality. He is after all, no more than a horny boy.

At a deeper level, the story wonders what it takes for one cultural frame of reference (the English farming community) to fully appreciate and align with another’s (that of the sophisticated Italian). For on the flip side of exotic attraction lies a world of misunderstanding (and suspicion). And by the time his own veil of ignorance has been lifted and he comes to his senses, Philip has put in play a sequence of events that will eventually prove fatal.

That beautiful English countryside, like its inhabitants, becomes a place of hidden malevolence that must protect itself against the antibodies that would do it harm.

This is Rachel Weisz’ movie. She is its magnetic presence: quiet, understated, ultimately mysterious. We are as seduced by her even as we remain in doubt as to her real intentions. She personifies ambiguity. This is certainly proving to be Ms Weisz’ time: coming so soon after the magnificent “Denial” and “The Light Between Oceans”. Perhaps, just perhaps, Hollywood is becoming French in its appreciation of women of a certain age (After all, Ms Weisz, Nicole Kidman, Isabel Huppert, Laura Dern, Halle Berry, Meryl Streep, Diane Lane, Robin Wright etc have all turned 50; and they’re all getting great roles…well overshadowing the superhero-chained pufferies of Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence etc)

Roger Mitchell (“Notting Hill”) both adapted and directed the movie…which could have been outstanding; but he seems so cautious of excess that there is often a slow stateliness to the directing where you wish there were more raw energy.

No matter. Rachel more than compensates for his stately restraint.

 

MY COUSIN RACHEL. Dir: Ropger Mitchell. With: Rachel Weisz, Sam Calflin, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger. Cinematographer: Mike Eley ( (“Marley”). Production Designer: Alice Normington (“Suffragette”)

 

 

WONDER WOMAN*** A Woman Worth the Wonder


WHEN IN THE dying months of the Great War, Diana (aka Wonder Woman) loosens her hair and, sword in hand, strides fearlessly into No Man’s Land, this just about OK movie, earned its price of admission. Israeli ex-soldier Gal Gadot (from some of the endless “Fast and Furious” moneymakers) is Diana, daughter of Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) queen of the Amazons…crafted in clay and brought alive by Zeus himself. She’s a statuesque beauty that exudes an on-screen presence that’s simply Wowza. More than that, she makes for a thoroughly convincing Amazon. Beauty meets badass like never before.


The movie was directed by Patty Jenkins (‘Monster”) and has, so far, proven to be the highest ever, grossing movie by a woman. To borrow from the old Virginia Slims slogan, “We’ve [OK, they’ve] come a long way babe!” Here’s a super-hero action movie that’s about a colony of warrior women who have chosen to do without men; and that features a fearless woman who doesn’t need the strong arm of a man to help her out as she does battle with the god of war (and most of the German army).

And one that’s had an opening weekend of +$180M.

“Wonder Woman” is both an origin myth (usually the strongest of the superhero tropes, which almost always trail off into repetition thereafter) and a coming of age story. We first meet Diana as a (rebellious) child, desperate to learn the pugilistic ways of her tribe of Amazons. They live in a sort of time-warp bubble in the paradisiacal island of Themiscyra… where they mainly seem to train in mixed martial arts (in a sort of Amazonian fitness centre); all in preparation for the possible return of Ares, the (defeated) god who brought war to the world. War comes to their paradise when Steve, an Allied fighter pilot (Chris Pine) somehow crashes through their invisibility shield. By now the child has morphed into a woman, well capable of plunging deep into the wine dark sea to rescue him. He speaks of a world at war; of terrible loss of life and human suffering. Perhaps the dread Ares (David Thewlis) has retuned. Diana feels she must leave her paradise and return with Steve to kill Ares and end the war. Or maybe she’s just motivated by the sight of her first naked man. He is, after all, above average he tells her, a piece of boasting she no doubt feels compellingly motivating.

And so it came to pass, Diana grew to experience both war and love.

Many battles ensued.

Director Jenkins stages some really impressive – often slo mo- battle scenes as Diana spins and somersaults her way to taking out legions of bad guys… with her sword, shield and Olympian lasso.

The weak link in the whole enterprise is its uninspired script. Alan Heinberg, whose main claim to fame is the ABC crime drama, “The Catch” is credited with the screenplay along with Zac Snyder (credited as story creator and director of the dreary Superman reboots and the turgid “300: Rise of an Empire”) and Jason Fuchs (who wrote “Rags: The Movie”, one of those movies seen only by his family). This trio never quite manage either to attempt at plausibility or even to give Diana’s character, character.

Thank the gods, Gal Gadot manages to pull it off despite them.
And now she’s off for lunch with Bruce Wayne. Those Amazons. They do get around

 

Wonder Woman. Dir: Patty Jenkins. With: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Danny Huston. Writer: Allan Heinberg. Production Designer: Aline Bonetto (“Pan”). Cinematographer: Matthew Jensen (“Fantastic Four”)

 

THE RED TURTLE*** Great Animation


“THE RED TURTLE” is the new animation movie from the famous Ghibli studio. It’s the first non-Japanese film produced by this studio and was directed by Dutchman, Michael Dudok de Wit.

Executed in a clean simple style that reminded me of the “Tin Tin” books it tells the fable of a shipwrecked man who is washed ashore having miraculously survived the pounding of a terrifying storm. The castwaway finds himself stranded on a lonely desert island; a place animated only by the winds that rattle its bamboos, the screeches of the birds – themselves symbols of freedom- that mock his landlocked incarceration and by the occasional downpours that rumble in like thundering threats. It is a place he must escape from. But every attempt – in large meticulously constructed bamboo rafts – watched over by a chorus of skittish crabs, ends in failure. Some unseen monster of the deep keeps, literally, upsetting his plans. The monster turns out to be a large red turtle which the shipwrecked man is moved to kill, as though the creature’s death could open the door to his freedom. But the turtle is less an animal, more a mysterious being, perhaps an incarnation of the synergy between nature and fate or destiny. Harm one and woe be unto you. And maybe the island itself represents the solitude of the self, from which the only escape can be in one’s dreams and fantasies.

As you’d expect from this studio, the animation (using only six animators) and an extraordinary sound design, is stunning. The entire movie, (especially with its incredible renderings of water – from the sea, both clam and furious to glassy reflecting ponds and lashing rain) is really a visual nature poem. The humans who ‘carry’ what little there is of the (entirely wordless) story are often insignificant specks…mere playthings of the elements which operate, like the ancient animist gods, on their own moral code.
And yet, there’s something slightly unsatisfying about the movie. For all its brilliant animation (and it’s worth seeing if only for this), the story feels muddled and unresolved. Perhaps in its inconclusive ending, there’s a zen dimension at work here: life ends without any real finality; even though there is death, nature simply rolls on in its implacable way.

Perhaps

 

THE RED TURTLE. Dir: Michael Dudok de Wit. Writers: Michael Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran. Animation Supervisor: Jean-Christophe Lie. Sound Editor: Alexandre Fleurant

 

UNLOCKED **Earnest


The plot of “Unlocked” has so many holes and is so complicated, it’ll take far too many words to untangle. Needless to say, there’s nasty double dealing that goes all the way to the top (of the CIA). But, though silly, it’s quite enjoyable…a piece of comfort food in a Bourne-deprived world.

Noomi Rapace (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) channeling her inner ‘Lisbeth Salander, is an emotionally distraught CIA interrogator, biding her time as a work centre counselor in London. She finds herself called back into action, and pretty soon realizes that all isn’t as it seems.

The arc of the movie then follows her as she tries to thwart a supposed jihadi cell, armed with a more virulent version of Ebola, even as she tries to figure out the source of internal CIA sabotage.

The story-line follows a fairly well trodden “find your mole” path. But the riveting and convincing presence of Rapace as the more-brain-than-brawn agent and her MI5 allay, played by Toni Collette (looking like an Annie Lennox’ gun toting doppelgänger) gives the whole enterprise a pleasant freshness. (It also passes the Bechdel test…which asks whether a movie features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man or boy). The A-list ensemble (Michael Douglas, Orlando Bloom and John Malkovich) add classiness to a clunky script and earnest if lackluster directing…

which is supplied by veteran director, Michael Apted. Apted started off his career directing “Coronation Street” fifty years ago, and has given us the magnificent “Gorillas in the Mist” and even a (mediocre) Bond, “The World is not Enough”. His directing in “Unlocked” is, if uninspired and entirely lacking in tension, at least brisk, functional and keeps the pace rattling along.

The movie ends in such a way that clearly suggests (and I’m sure the producers are desperately hoping) that this is the first of a multi-series franchise. And, though it really doesn’t aspire to be much more than pop movie entertainment (writer Peter O’Brien’s biggest script so far has been for “Halo: Reach”), the twin themes of weaponized plague and secret conspiracies touch on such ever present threats that “Unlocked” offers some semblance of reality.

UNLOCKED. Dir: Michael Apted. With: Noomi Rapace, Toni Collette. John Malkovich, Orlando Bloom, Michael Douglas. Cinematographer: George Richmond (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”)