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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LION*** Not much of a roar


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“LION” IS A pleasant enough, reverential, inoffensive weepie. The acting (it’s almost exclusively Dev Patel’s movie) is credible, but certainly not Oscar-worthy; fortunately, though the story sometimes veers toward sentimentality, it retains just about enough bite to keep the gag reflex under control.

It’s another true story (this we know, as it uses the rapidly aging device of showing video of the real people as the credits roll). Saroo (Dev Patel) was the younger brother (played as a kid by charming newcomer, Sunny Pawar) of a dirt poor family, living happily, if in squalor, in the slums of Central India. One day, having begged him to, he is taken by the brother, Guddu, on a nocturnal search (for whatever they can find to add to the family’s meager fare). But Saroo wanders off, away from the brother’s line of sight and, having fallen asleep in a nearby parked train, awakens to find himself locked in, and hurtling toward he knows not where. He ends up 1600k away in a teeming, alien city (Calcutta) where they don’t even speak his dialect.

He’s five years old.

Saroo is eventually adopted (Nicole Kidman – as compelling as always – is Sue Brierley, the adoptive mum) and grows up, along with another, mentally challenged, adoptee, in beautiful, bustling Tasmania.

The emotional guts of the movie centres on Saroo’s sudden awakening to the life he once lived and a suffocating sense of loss. It drives him obsessively (trigger images of an un-tonsured, somewhat deranged looking Patel, staring blankly at a wall of maps) to find his estranged family.

The whole enterprise is so respectful, so focused on the easy linear obviousness of familial separation that, despite a few subtle hints here and there, it eschews all the issues that could have lifted the story above its anodyne setting. We’re told that the movie is dedicated to the 80,000+ kids in India who disappear every year, and there are suggestions of pedophilia and the unlawful sale of kids; but the movie veers away from this darker side. Saroo (Spoiler ahead) eventually returns to his home village after various vignettes of “emotional stress”; he’s now a well- fed Australian who no longer has the language with which to communicate with his still poor, Indian family. He’s a being from an alien world. But this ‘slight’ barrier is glossed over. The orgasm of tearful and tear-inducing reunification neutralizes all further creative investigation. Maybe the movie’s deep thought is that, in the end, “love is all you need”.  There are hints that the adoptive parents are decidedly weird (and Saroo’s head banging fellow adoptee may be accurate but remains an entirely unexplored world in this family). But, out of respect, this storyline goes nowhere. And the, initially cute, romance between Saroo and Lucy (an under-utilised Rooney Mara) is really no more than an aside, relevant only for matters of historical, not creative, veracity.

In an age of great, thoughtful, emotionally robust TV, “Lion” feels like a throwback. Despite, the A-caliber star power, it lacks the ‘size’ to feel like the major movie it longs to be; the production feels cut-rate (the cinematography by Greig Fraser -“Foxcatcher”- isn’t even particularly good); and it never aspires to the subtleties and nuance we now come to expect of the best of TV.

Less a lion, more a pussycat

 

LION. Dir: Garth Davis. With: Dev Patel. Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara. Screenplay: Luke Davis (a well regarded Australian poet) adapted from the book by the protagonist, Saroo Brierley.

 

PADDINGTON****A Delight


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WHAT’S REMARKABLE ABOUT “Paddington” is not only the extraordinary CGI rendering of the bear, but the fact that it’s a joyfully funny, good-natured movie without a trace of schmaltz.

The writing (by Michael Bond who created the original character) and directing (by Paul King who co-wrote the script) is solidly aimed at what’s marketed as ‘family fare’… which is enough to run away from as fast as you can. But in this instance, the few tartly directed adult jokes and the pro-immigration, anti UKIP/Conservative sub-text are only there to fool the adults in the audience and lull them into their voluntary submission of adult-ness in exchange for regressive childhood fun.

Indeed, there’s a stand-out scene where Paddington is trying to find his way around the mysterious tools (toothbrushes) and equipment (the loo) of a modern bathroom. His clumsiness and curiosity result in the kind of hilarious chaos that the makers of “Horrible Bosses 2” strove so hard and earnestly to find and never did.

We saw the movie in a theatre-full of delighted kids, all of whom I guarantee will be seeing this again and again and again over the next year or so (I myself might)

The story centers around a young Peruvian bear with a love of marmalade and all things British. As is usual with kids’ stories, a sad parental loss precipitates the action: he’s forced to leave his ancestral homeland and stows away to London in the hope of reuniting with an explorer who had stumbled upon and befriended his family many years ago. Alone and abandoned in Paddington station, with a label around his neck that reads, “Please look after this bear. Thank you”, he’s ‘discovered’ by the Brown family who take pity on him for one night only.

Hugh Bonneville of Downtown Abbey is the stern, accident obsessed father, Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”) is the mother, Samuel Joslin and Madeline Harris are the kids. They’re all there as foils for Paddington’s wild, anarchic introduction to a forgiving, accepting life in multi-cultural London. But, despite a stellar cast that reads like a who’s who of British film: Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton, Ben Wishaw – as the bear’s voice – Michael Gambon and Peter Capaldi, the CGI animated Paddington is the absolute star of the show. There’s nothing about the CGI effects of the bear (executed with mind-boggling skill by –mainly- Framestore, the company who brought us “Gravity”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Edge of Tomorrow”, “Sherlock Homes: A Game of Sorrows”) that allows you for a moment to think that you’re seeing anything other than a real bear.

Indeed, the range of expressions the bear displays: bewilderment, innocence, heroism, bravery, stoicism and what have you, are considerably more real than the range of expressions Nicole Kidman’s Botox allows her.

Nicole is Millicent, the daughter of the explorer who’d stumbled into the bears in the Peruvian forest. But she’s a taxidermist with a mean axe to grind and an eye to Paddington as a stuffed prize. She’s also the only figure in the film whose plastic animation makes her seem like an animation. She’s the only one whose acting looks like acting.

Paddington is of course an illegal Latin American alien (though a remarkably English sounding one at that). And, as we noted, the narrative has great fun with this. Because in the movie, so unlike the present mood of the country, Paddington’s accepted and after a pause of British reserve, fully welcomed as one of the family. The pro-immigration point is underlined by a brace of calypsos that bookend the film, and that act as a nice time displacement of the setting, which is part ‘now’ and part 1955 (the time when UKIP wants us all to regress to).

Paddington’s arrival is heralded by a calypso fresh from the Empire Windrush (that was the steamship that brought the first generation of West Indian immigrants to England in 1948) with the lovely lyrics, “I was never told that London could be so cold”.

Maybe we’ve been fooled all along. Paddington is no Latino from Peru. He’s really a Trinidadian.

 

it’s a noir: The Paperboy


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“THE PAPERBOY”, LEE Daniels’ latest work (he also gave us “Precious”), tells the story of two reporters – Matthew McConaughey as a slimy Ward Jansen and David Oyelowo (“Complicit”, “Lincoln”) as a faux Englishman, Yardley Acheman – who journey down to a hot, sweaty Southern swampland in search of an award-winning story and the truth: what they believe to be the wrongful imprisonment of one Hillary Van Wetter – a deranged, drooling John Cusak. Van Wetter is supposed to have disemboweled the local sheriff and is in death row.

They enlist the aid of Charlotte Bess, a highly sexed, bleached-blonde beauty (Nicole Kidman, steaming up the screen) who –for reasons that are never explained – has taken to corresponding with Van Wetter and has fallen in love with him. She becomes the central object of lust and desire, by the incarcerated Van Wetter and the Jansen’s young brother Jack (Zac Efron as an Oedipal stud, forever strutting up and down in his underpants, all hormones all the time).

The whole story is narrated through the memory of the Jansen’s maid, Anita (Macy Gray), a stoic figure who has managed to shoulder off racist abuse and simply carry on.

The search for the truth – set amidst the town’s close-lipped, prejudiced conspiracy of silence – is the movie’s central theme. Daniels introduces us to a world where the villains are as unattractive and unsympathetic as the protagonists and where, he suggests, the truth, never obvious, remains ever elusive and ambiguous.

All this in an atmosphere of sweaty (literally – as everyone sweats in the movie) lust and sex. In one, you could say climatic, scene Nicole Kidman reprises the “Basic Instinct” crotch shot as she titillates a shackled Cusak. The sex grows more and more debased as the movie heads toward its dark denouement, revealing as it goes, the grimy truths of Daniels’ characters.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that he chose Jimmy Stewart as often as he did in his movies because Stewart bought him ten minutes. By this he meant that Stewart’s persona was so well known and loved by the movie-going public that he came with huge positive affection…so as a writer, Hitchcock didn’t have to spend ten minutes creating a likeable film persona; Stewart bought him that. He could simply get on with his tale.

We saw this in “Arbitrage”, (even though this was just a passably average film) where Richard Gere is such a seductive personality that, even though we may disapprove of his character’s conniving, manipulative ways, he still manages to seduce the audience into rooting for him to ‘get away’ despite ourselves.

One of the problems with “The Paperboy” is that there is no Jimmy Stewart persona. The nature of the story demands this kind of obfuscation between truth and lies, good and evil. But Daniels so relishes showing us – exclusively – the nasty, seedy side of his characters (and we’re happy that McConaughey has finally moved away from gormless romcoms to playing seedy, which is his real métier) that he never allows us to empathize with anyone.

The result is a ‘caring deficit’. Basically, as an audience, we don’t give a shit about any of the people we’re spending this ninety minutes with; so that the emotional drama of the tale becomes seriously compromised.

Indeed, because he’s so intent on making his point about the hazy ground where truth and lies merge, the narrative truth of the story falls off the tracks. For as the story unfolds, there are multiple revelations and twists that take place. These make good intellectual/thematic sense – but they lack dramatic relevance. From a story-telling perspective, they become irritations and irrelevances; they contribute little to the plot.

Net, net, “The Paperboy” is a reasonably well-acted, seriously flawed, thematically overburdened movie.

It’s one, to be genre appropriate, I say “noir” to