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”)

 

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”)

 

 

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”)

 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2** For that space between the ears


SO, IF YOU liked “Guardians of the Galaxy I”, here’s version 2. It’s pretty much the same, but louder and much, much dumber. In 2, the pleasant shock of quirkiness is gone; the idea has become self conscious and laboured. The ironic wit has been replaced by scatology, plot has been left behind somewhere in the other galaxy and George Michael’s bouffant hairstyle has been repurposed to fit Kurt Russell who is Ego, the ‘dad’ of Chris Pratt (who, if there’s justice on the universe, should still be hiding under a rock after “Passengers”).

As expected, there are running gags. Zoey Saldana’s character, Gamora, now has a sister, Nebula (Karen Gillian). She keeps trying to eat some sort of (forbidden?) fruit. Gamora keeps her away from it on the ‘ruse’ that it’s not ripe.  Finally, Nebula grabs hold of the fruit, bites into it and exclaims, “it’s not ripe”. It took ten writers to come up with this gag.

People found this funny.

If you also do, director James Gunn (who also directed the first one), has a BIG treat for you.

If you don’t find this funny and if you aren’t waiting with baited breath to see a cameo with Sylvester Stallone, ’twere best you did something better with your time

 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2. Dir: James Gunn. With: Chris Pratt; Zoe Saldana; Dave Bautista; Vin Deisel; Bradley Cooper; Karen Gillan; Sylverter Stallone; Kurt Russell. Production Designer: Scott Chambers (“Tomorrowland”, “Star Trek Into Darkness”)

 

 

SO, IF YOU liked “Guardians of the Galaxy I”, here’s version 2. It’s pretty much the same, but louder and much, much dumber. In 2, the pleasant shock of quirkiness is gone, the idea has become self conscious and labored. The ironic wit has been replaced by scatology, plot has been left behind somewhere in the other galaxy and George Michael’s bouffant hairstyle has been repurposed to fit Kurt Russell who is Ego, the dad of Chris Pratt (who, if there’s justice on the universe, should still be hiding under a rock after “Passengers”).
As expected, there are running gags. Zoey Saldana’s character, Gamora, now has a sister, Nebula (Karen Gillian). She keeps trying to eat some sort of (forbidden?) fruit. Gamora keeps her away from it on the ‘ruse’ that it’s not ripe.  Finally, Nebula grabs hold of the fruit, bites into it and exclaims, “it’s not ripe”.

People found this funny.

If you also do, director James Gunn (who also directed the first one), has a biiiiig treat for you.
If you don’t find this funny and if you aren’t waiting with baited breath to see a cameo with Sylvester Stallone, ’twere best you did something better with your time

 

LADY MACBETH**** Bloody.Good


IT IS THE night of her wedding. Katherine (a stunning Florence Pugh), a demure, Botticelli-esque beauty, is asked whether the house is too cold for her and whether she is apprehensive as to what will transpire that night. She says “no” to both questions. Her proper Victorian blushes hide a heart much bolder and colder than either her questioner or the dark, stern, sour-faced family into which she has been ‘sold’ (along with a parcel of useless land) can possibly have imagined.

She is not so much a ‘bride’ with its connotation of love and affection, as a womb without rights or power…a mere child-bearing vessel whose owner (the father of the groom) is in need of succession.

That night, her reluctant husband simply goes to bed. On their first night of ‘intimacy’, he orders her to strip off and face the wall. “Don’t look at me,” he further commands, as he masturbates, sitting a few feet away from her naked body (His own pathetic rebellion against his father’s mandate that he produce an heir). The following day, her -black- maid (Naomi Ackie) – like her, just another piece of property – aggressively, hurtingly brushes her hair. Father, husband, maid…the sources of the house’s dark chill…need to establish from the onset where the power lies; they need to ensure that this newcomer to their airless country landholding, their kingdom, knows, like every woman should, her place in the pecking order of property and sex.

And for a while, Katherine – the perfectly beautiful precious object, (straight) laced tightly into her bustier, her wild flowing locks tamed into tight cords framing her porcelain face – succumbs to her role.

She is kept indoors (as if the propriety of property demands constraint within the property) and sinks into a dull languor. But, as the father says of one of his wild dogs, “the bitch has been kept chained for too long”.

Freedom will out.

But this woman’s liberation follows that of the eponymous Lady Macbeth, hatched as she roams free, away from the inhibiting house, upon the “damned heath”. The story follows her meticulous and carefully planned assumption of power through her brazen defiance of the roles written for her sex. If the Victorian norm was one of male power over her sex, she breaks away through the power of sex itself and begins a passionate affair with one of her staff, a mixed race laborer (Cosmo Jarvis). It is an affair that smashes all taboos: of class segregation, adultery and interracial sex.

And finally the taboo of murder.

It is as if, once unleashed from some rules, no rules further apply. “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. Her sexual lust soon morphs, or perhaps is the same as, her lust for power. Like Lady Macbeth, no damned Duncan will stand in her murderous way to power and (eventual ownership of the) property.

As Katherine, Florence Pugh (last seen with Maisie Williams in “The Falling”) is a tremendous presence. She exudes a compelling, lethal stillness; her gentle voice and mask-like calm never quite mask the wild anarchy residing within. Once Katherine has emerged from her society-demanded stupor, Pugh’s charisma is riveting. She effortlessly seduces us to her very dark side. She’s like a younger, more subtle, more lethal version of Natalie Dormer.

Naomi Ackie is Anna, the abused maid, a mainly silent witness (having been struck dumb) to Katherine’s bloody swath of destruction. She too (another relative newcomer) has a compelling presence and offers a nicely balance yin to Katherine’s yan.

The story is based on a mid-nineteenth century Russian novel, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk” by Nikolai Leskov, and, transferred to England in the movie version, has been brilliantly realized by two newcomers: director William Oldroyd (his first full length movie)and play-write turned screenwriter Alice Birch. Her script is at times overly theatrical…It’s a movie that is so heavily dependent on its layers of symbolism and its dramatization of the themes of power and repression that at times character takes back seat to message.

That said, it’s a well-made, thoroughly engaging and important film. Well worth seeing

 

LADY MACBETH. Dir: William Oldroyd. With: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie. Screenplay: Alice Birch. Cinematographer: Ari Wegner. Production Designer: Jacqueline Abrahams