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”)

 

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THE NEON DEMON**Devilishly Bad


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MY NON-PC synopsis of this very highly rated movie is that it’s a weird – bizarre even – story of our obsession over appearances, over the ideal of perfection and the predatory lusts they engender. My non-PC synopsis is that it’s overhyped rubbish

The highly stylized movie (every scene precisely and numbingly art directed) follows the life of Jesse (Elle Fanning, last seen in Trumbo) newly arrived in LA in search of a job as a model/ (We meet her initially as a corpse, blood gushing from her throat…all in the duty of art or photography). She’s an innocent fresh-faced, sixteen year old (“Tell them you’re nineteen” she’s told) whose flawless beauty, like her body has been untouched… by either zealous lover or perfection sculpting surgeon. She’s pretty immediately the talk of the town and the hit among the powers that be, much to the jealousy and consternation of the reigning beauty queens.

For them the pursuit of the ideal will stop at nothing…even to the point of cannibalism (in LA, innocence is always devoured by experience) or, for that matter, Sapphic necrophilia (don’t ask).

But Jesse is no innocent pushover. One night she opens her motel room to find a snarling mountain lion within. This (there are more symbols in the movie than a Robert Langdon symbology hunt) is her inner life: the inner beast ever guarding her precious virginity…itself a proxy for the uncorrupted soul

Unlike the uber corrupted soul: Hank (Keanu Reeves), the motel manager. He’s a crude predatory rapist, ever preying upon the innocents who drift into his web. His mirror image is Jack (Desmond Harrington), a trendy, feted photographer, whose predatory rape is of a more sophisticated nature. Both assume these young girls – mere bodies really – are there for their own forms of physical/artistic delectation.

The movie’s shot using only available light. So it’s either (when lit by day or moonlight) slightly obscure or (when lit by neon) garishly artificial: obscure or artificial – the binary world the movie suggests we live in.

In the end, after a grisly murder, guilt will out; which results in one of the models (who just can’t stomach it any more) vomiting up the eye of someone she ate. I guess, what you see is what you ate. Or something.

As the symbol of ideal beauty, Ellie Fanning is well chosen. She’s a stunningly beautiful, if lifeless beauty, in a role that demands little of her than to look innocent when she’s not looking scared.

Director/writer Nicholas Winding Ref (Drive) is to be applauded. He clearly speaks a good game…having managed to secure funding for this nonsense, and, all praise to him, plaudits by critics who, really, should know better

 

The Neon Demon. Dir: Nicholas Winding Refn. With: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves. Cinematographer: Natasha Braier (The Rover). Composer: Cliff Martinez (Only God Forgives). Production Design: Elliott Hostetter (Night Moves)

 

MALEFICENT: WOMAN EMPOWERED


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MALEFICIENT IS MAGNIFICENT.

It’s a clever pre-quel that gives us the ‘true’ story of the wicked witch and the curse she placed upon the princess. It was, you may recall, a curse that doomed the princess Aurora to unending sleep, pricked as she was fated to on her sixteenth birthday, from the needle of a spinning-wheel, and only to be awoken by the kiss of a handsome prince.

That’s the story we got back in 1959 when Disney spun its Grimm fairy tale of an evil witch bent on revenge, and foiled by true love.

Back then, all it took was one kiss from a handsome (and rich) man to awaken a dormant beauty. And that wicked witch was all bad all the time.

But Disney 2014 begs to differ that we (and they) got it all wrong. Actually, Maleficent was a wonderful, kind, winged faery, loved by all in her magical kingdom… until she fell in love with a stranger – a human – who had wondered, innocent and unprotected, into her realm. He, it would turn out was just another grasping, overly ambitious lout (Sharlto Copely of “District 9” and “Elysium”), who, to please a dying king and win his crown, was prepared to feign love and lull a naive Maleficent into a defenceless and drugged sleep. He had his way with this other sleeping beauty by lopping off her wings, thereby ridding her of her freedom… and her trusting, loving heart.

But Maleficent, clipped but unbowed and aided by the wings of a shape-shifting raven, learns that the lout has become king and a father. And it is on his sweet innocent child that, braving the bristling defences of the castle, all aglow and festive with the celebration of the birth, she brings down the curse of everlasting sleep.

This is Angelina Jolie’s movie. She plays the part without any hint of campness or self-irony; and offers us a woman made bitter by deception. She dominates the story and the screen as a towering figure of cold imperious hauteur. With eyes like icy lasers and with prosthetically enhanced cheekbones, Angelina’s face offers us a “don’t fuck with me” look that can (and does) wither plants and make grown soldiers pause before summoning up the temerity to attack. (Apparently, she looked so fearsome in her make-up that none of the children chosen for the part of the baby princess could bear to be near to her without crying. The only one who could still snuggle up to witch Angelina was her own daughter, upon whom was thrust a starring role) But she also offers us the other side of Maleficent: the one who cries in despair and agony when she awakens to find herself shorn of her wings; and the one whose heart softens as she warms to the sweet innocence of the hiding princess Aurora (a wimpy Elle Fanning of “Super 8” and “We Bought a Zoo”).

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Ms. Jolie is absolutely one of two very good reasons why this is a movie worth seeing. The other is the stunning production design. Director Robert Stromberg is an old hand at creating fabulous fantasy worlds – as he did with his production designs of “Avatar” (and there are certainly strong echoes of that design here) and “Alice in Wonderland”. He hews close to the original Disney movie designs, and there are moments when we see the towering horned Maleficent in her flowing black robes with curling tongues of green fire licking the air around her, that seem to slip effortlessly from the original animation. But whereas the Disney movie had the usual Disney froth of singing animals, this one has a wonderful variety of strange creatures that ooze both charm and menace.

To all the hordes of children who will see this movie, it’s a simple story of a woman who lost her heart and, in the end regained it, so that all could end happily after. Love will out.

But there’s another narrative at work:

Maleficent, is quite clearly, the ‘woman wronged’. She is all women who have ever been deceived by men and by a male power structure. When her wings are ripped off her (an act of symbolic rape), she is forced to be earth bound; and can no longer soar above the realm of men. Her kingdom is, by its very nature (a peaceful diverse place of evergreen abundance run by a woman) a threat to the warlike feudal society of the rapacious humans (who we know tend to destroy worlds). But after this initial lapse of trust, men can no longer penetrate her strong defenses, though she remains unafraid to penetrate theirs. As we saw in Frozen, the kiss of revitalizing love cannot be trivialized to the kiss of some pimply prince upon a (defenceless) sleeping beauty, but demands real, earned love and honest emotions. When Maleficent regains her full powers toward the end, she literally breaks thru a glass ceiling, to champion the unification of the two, once warring kingdoms into one diverse and harmonious place under the tender reign of a woman (Princess Aurora).

Maybe the meta-narrative is a prescient red-carpet roll out for the ascent of Hillary to the American throne

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