The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

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The Day of the Jackal (1973)

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Frederick Forsyth was my gateway drug to faction:  novels based more or less truly on historical incident. You could trust him because he had a long history as a respected and conscientious journalist. And what a way with plot! This story of a 1960s assassination attempt on the despised French President Charles de Gaulle by disgruntled members of the exiled OAS (the militant underground) would seem to have nothing much going for it on the surface:  the outcome, for one. But the trick here is brilliant.  These patriots hire a British hitman (Edward Fox) who is completely unknown to the authorities. And as he gathers the materiel required for such an audacious once-in-a-lifetime evenement and removes all the human obstacles in his path, we realise, at the foregone but nail-biting conclusion, that we know absolutely nothing about him at all.  This is narrative sleight of hand at its best. And it is crucial to the tension that the ruthless professional Jackal remains a complete enigma, a mystery at the heart of a brilliantly staged action thriller with a great supporting cast. His nemesis proves to be a Parisian police detective (Michael Lonsdale) determined to root out this threat to democracy.  Adapted by Scottish-American screenwriter Kenneth Ross who would perform the same miracle with The Odessa File. Gripping outing by director Fred Zinnemann who meshes his predilection for documentary-style realism with all the tricks of a cinema of attractions. Flawlessly executed.

The Odd Angry Shot (1979)

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When Nam volunteer Bill (John Jarratt) fetches up on duty with fellow Fosters drinkers courtesy of local politicians, he’s among a group of special air servicemen led by old geezer Harry (Graham Kennedy), numbed by boredom only intermittently relieved by occasional mortar attacks and booby traps set by the virtually invisible Vietnamese. His girlfriend sends him a barely comprehensible Dear John letter, the guys make a wanking machine for the padre, they get a scorpion and spider to fight to the death, and Bung (John Hargreaves) is distraught by tragic news from home. A night with whores in the city with some black American soldiers lifts the spirits. Rogers (Bryan Brown) loses his feet and jaw in a mine and then Bung is lost, pointlessly, when they take a bridge only to be told it’s not needed any more. This plays more like Dad’s Army than Platoon but under-budget and clearly not shot in Vietnam (it was made in Queensland) the limitations serve to amplify the sheer stupidity of this historic sortie and heighten questions of class and politics by dint of the relentless focus on a small group of men in this most irreverent of tragicomedies. Adapted from William Nagle’s autobiographical novel by director Tom Jeffrey. Artless, in every sense.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

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Charlie Hunnam is Conor McGregor;  Jude Law is a gay biker. Well, sue me, but that’s how it looks – at least when they eventually put the lights on. Anyone would think it was the Dark Ages!! I don’t like the aesthetics of this, several shades of gunmetal grey (not quite fifty) with CGI action sequences of swords and sorcery disguised in smoke-filled slomo montage concealing the joins. I needed a filter just to see those enormo elephants wreaking havoc on Camelot courtesy of Mordred. Uncle Vortigern (Law) murders King of the Britons Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) after Uther’s slain Mordred, in front of toddler Arthur (Oliver Zac Barker, an early Hunnam) and the boy is reared in a Londinium brothel. He becomes an MMA superstar until his whereabouts are eventually detected and he pulls the sword from the stone. Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) is the witchy figure who helps him find his true self while he gathers his father’s old circle including Little Finger, sorry Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), sorry,  and his East End Lock Stock geezer crew led by Neil Maskell, and eventually sees the path to taking power from his evil uncle. Not that he wants it because he can’t remember a jot. All of which is well and sometimes quite good. The symmetrical structure and the Oedipal narratives (more than one) make this potentially fertile territory – as if the Arthurian legends weren’t already sufficient. The backstory to Arthur’s situation is revealed in his relationship with the sword (stop me before I say Freud – TOO LATE!!!) and his regular dreams/visions supply the origins to the tale. And that contributes to the impoverishment of Hunnam’s inhabiting of the role:  aside from his problematic vocal delivery  (where was the director? and it’s not just him, a lot of people give bad line readings here not helped by being buried in the mix) he never has the epiphanies required in this heroic journey, their substitutes are inserted at the wrong times in the wrong way (sorry about the fixation issue) preventing full characterisation. He is a side character to the gathering visions when he should be leading the action. Every time there’s an exciting moment and a revelation it’s ruined by a stupid repetitive flashback. One great realisation, at the right time, would have made this work while his essential self emerged. Arthur never has his big orgasmic truth. The moments of personal evolution are soaked in stupidity and obliterated by the context. We know Hunnam can act so this is at the writers’ door. And I am chair of the Eric Bana fan club (ahem) so I wanted to see way more of him and his dastardly brother’s infighting. I’m loath to call this a remake since it’s been conceived as a wholly unnecessary origins story but it could have been made into a really decent piece of storytelling if Guy Ritchie had been taken away from it at some point instead of getting high on Game of Thrones (even Michael McElhatton has a role here as if we needed any more proof of where this is coming from) and going full throttle digital because there are scenes that really pull things together. And then … Sometimes less really is more. It’s not as bad as mainstream critics are claiming but it needed cooler heads in the editing room:  it’s a romance, Guy! Never mind getting the missus to drag Arfur into the lake! Give him some air! Written by Ritchie and Joby Harrold and producer Lionel Wigram from a story by executive producer David Dobkin, Harrold and some mediaeval dudes. There’s an outstanding score by Daniel Pemberton.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Sofia Coppola knows what it feels like for a girl. When the officials at Versailles gave her the very big keys to open up the palace and reimagine a little Austrian girl lost in the vicious and foreign French royal court working from Antonia Fraser’s biography, they probably didn’t picture this — a portrait of teenage decadence in the pastel palette of macaroons (magenta, citron, mint) scored to a New Romantic soundtrack as if she were making an Adam and the Ants video.  Kirsten Dunst is the kid sold to the gormless dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) in a strategic alliance organised by her mother the Empress (Marianne Faithfull). Her father in law the King Louis XV (Rip Torn) is like a Texan cowboy carrying on with Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Her husband has no idea what to do in bed and she’s a giggly kid who spends her nights drinking and gambling with her girly friends and it takes a visit from her brother Emperor Josef (Danny Huston) to explain to the mechanically-minded prospective king about locks and holes, and a year later, finally, the marriage is consummated and a baby girl is born.  Seven years of foreplay!  The life of conspicuous consumption of colourful costumes and cookies and candy is swopped for something almost rural and natural at Le Petit Trianon where the young mother holds a different kind of court and succumbs to an affair with the Swedish Count Fersel (Jamie Dornan) and frolics with her little girl in the meadows. The mood alters and the cinematography (by Lance Acord) attains the backlit flared quality of a nature documentary:  this is impressionistic and expressionistic all at once, reliant on Dunst’s face and the overall vision of a writer/director in sympathetic tune with her tragic protagonist whose perception of the vicious society over which she holds sway dominates the narrative. The final quarter hour is the nightmare:  people are starving because the peasants are bearing the cost of the war in America, and propaganda and lies, dead children and the baying mob are at the door. This is a fabulist film about fashion and feeling and food and it gets into your head and your heart. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go eat.

Platoon (1986)

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I wasn’t in Nam. Hardly. The closest I ever got was playing Quasar and once being chased near Central Park West by an old one-legged vet on cheap wooden crutches. Maybe I reminded him of someone. But a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, this won a slew of Academy Awards. This being the season for it, time to pull it out again. And like the other big Nam movies – Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket – it’s pretty schematised in its design. But the letters that Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) writes home make it more personal and immersive because he’s so very young and idealistic (and ridiculously handsome) and in his first experience of ambush he’s pretty much responsible for his new friend’s death. It’s unbearably tense. The guys are stuck between the noble warrior Willem Dafoe and the deranged psycho Tom Berenger – characterised as the good and bad fathers, thus giving us Chris’ Freudian perspective on the drama. The final assault, a raid on the Cambodian border, is bloody and unbound. It’s gripping, gritty and tense, the juxtaposition between the scenes of combat and those of male bonding is masterful and the emotion not supplied by the action is there in the incredible score by Georges Delerue, with Barber’s Adagio for Strings touching the parts even he can’t reach: you won’t forget this quickly, its imagery sears the brain. Simply great filmmaking by that old tyro Oliver Stone, based on his own Nam and the first of his trilogy. Now, on the same subject entirely, where’s my copy of Hamburger Hill?

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

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Writer/producer/director George Seaton’s penchant for realism and drama-documentary style gets a full airing here in an adaptation of Alexander Klein’s titular nonfiction book. The great (and prematurely aged – he was 44 and looks 64 at least) William Holden plays the American born oil man Eric Erickson, resident in Sweden and doing his usual cross-border deals – including with Germany – who is blackmailed into espionage for the Allies in the form of the smirking Hugh Griffith. In Germany he becomes involved with a religiously inclined agent Marianne Moellendorf (Lilli Palmer) who ends up being found out in a confessional, and Erickson then struggles to escape Berlin after betrayal by his friend’s son, a member of the Hitler Youth. This morality tale is long and engrossing and Holden gets the opportunity to play a whole range of emotions under Seaton’s careful direction. The camerawork (by Jean Bourgoin) is mostly static in keeping with this realistic mode but there are some great shots of the rubble of Berlin and the encounter in the church confession box is particularly well staged. It’s great to see these post-war cities in colour, another boon to an involving story. And the startling Klaus Kinski is key to the conclusion. If you ever want the dogs that torment you to take a walk on the wild side well away from you, try a combo of blood and cocaine. It’s amazing what tips you pick up in movies. Co-written by Charles Grenzbach.

Jackie (2016)

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Did I really see this film?! That’s an appropriate afterthought given its hallucinatory quality, a narcotised morphine fever dream about a woman with a flip haircut, boiled wool suits and a voice from the Marilyn playbook. Natalie Portman doesn’t remotely resemble the upperclass journalist who married into the crass Kennedy family and wound up First Lady with her husband’s brains spattered into her lap on an ill-judged trip to Texas, home to LBJ. Yet that doesn’t matter because after a half hour of her narration you are sucked into this Warholesque meditation on fame and public approval. She lies constantly to journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) interviewing her for Life after the assassination and then tells him things she insists cannot possibly go to print. She will edit the image and control the myth – which she calls Camelot. That record spins as she cascades into a vortex of desperation and disbelief. This will be her version of events. She crashes around the White House, drunk; argues with Bobby and Jack Valenti about the funeral and changes her mind back and forth about how much of Lincoln’s leavetaking should be imitated, while the clodhopping Kennedy sisters try to manipulate the situation;  when her husband’s casket is put on public view she sympathises with LBJ that this should be the terrible beginning of his Presidency. One suspects it is precisely the beginning he desired. Real footage of her White House restoration tour for TV is intercut with a grainy impressionistic copy where she is coached and cheered from the sidelines by Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). Suddenly Portman’s embodiment doesn’t seem as mad. She retracts all the truthful statements from her account to White – what she did with her husband’s skull, the sound of the bullet – but it is to Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt) that she speaks about her loveless marriage, her insecurities, her need to have her dead children interred with their father. Their burial in the rainy hillside at Arlington feels like the ultimate cruelty. Archive footage is impeccably interwoven with this recreation of events in which we all have an investment, even those of us born long after they occurred. As she leaves the White House for the final time she passes Hamiltons department store and sees rows of window mannequins wearing her wigs and two-piece Chanel imitations. What is real? What is performance? she muses. One gets the distinct impression she knew more than most. And off she goes, homeless, to an unknowable, husbandless future. Written by Noah Oppenheim with a visceral arrest of a soundtrack created by Mica Levi, undercutting the sense of camp that this sad and crazy brilliance otherwise imparts. Andy Warhol is alive and well and still making movies. There is just one word for this: astonishing. Directed by Pablo Larrain. Oh!

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

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Most remakes are redundant. Philip Dunne did a cracking adaptation (1936)  of this captivity tale, the second of the Leatherstocking series by Fenimore Cooper that has occupied the minds of so many children. Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe took this classical Hollywood adventure and brought it up to date for the Nineties without losing any of its great elements – and adding an eroticism that is modern and eternal plus a portrayal of violence that is truly gruesome in its realism. It’s the middle of the eighteenth century and the Anglo-French wars are underway in the Colonies. Colonel Munro’s daughters Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) are being escorted to safety by Cora’s wannabe beau Major Heyward (Steven Waddington) through the Adirondacks when they are set upon by a Huron war party led by French scout Magua (Wes Studi). They are rescued by Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis), adoptive son of the last of the Mohicans, Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother to his son Uncas (Eric Schweig). They return them to Munro at Fort William Henry, under siege from the French and Cora and Hawkeye consummate their overwhelming attraction to one another. Munro wants Hawkeye hanged for sedition after Heyward lies about what they’ve seen done to a settler family whom Hawkeye knew well. Hawkeye is imprisoned. The French offer a peaceful and honourable surrender, having intercepted a message from Fort Webb stating that no English troops are coming to the aid of the garrison. But Magua has sworn revenge against Munro and raids the departing troops, carrying out his threat to take out Munro’s heart – while it’s still beating. He also wants to kill his seed because of what Munro did to his tribe, his wife and his family.  Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas rescue the women and take off in a canoe, catching up with Heyward, who has taken off without them. Their escape to a cave and waterfall leads to an inevitable outcome, Heyward continuing to wish Hawkeye hanged, jealous of what he deems to be Cora’s infatuation, with Magua and his men fast upon them … This is simply stunning. The cinematography (Dante Spinotti)  brings together a palette of scarlet uniforms in bright, musket-fired daylight with autumnal daubs appropriate to a landscape of the period; there’s a pulsating, throbbing score (by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman) that tightens the vise-like effect of the narrative; and there is a devastating eroticism between Day-Lewis and Stowe the likes of which hasn’t been seen this side of Garbo and Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil. Have there ever been more romantic lines than those of Hawkeye to Cora, No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you?! Beautifully made and performed, this is brutal, brilliant filmmaking from a master director at the height of his considerable powers. See it on the biggest screen you can. Breathtaking.

 

Barry Lyndon (1975)

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It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled;  good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now. An Irish lad on the make in eighteenth century English society. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s everything. Adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon, this is Stanley Kubrick’s most sumptuous production and my own favourite among his films (that poster dominates my dining room) and close to being my all-time favourite movie. Rarely appreciated, Ryan O’Neal is just perfect and wholly sympathetic in the role of the impoverished and ambitious social-climbing soldier who romances a wealthy widow. The candlelit interiors, the narration, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the performances – with so many striking cameos – all combine to create an incredible sensory achievement. Much misunderstood over the years, this was re-released to the big screen over the past year to fresh appreciation. It is stunning and enriching, in ways you have to see to believe.