Film review – The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

Sofia Coppola’s choice to take on ‘The Beguiled’, adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel ‘A Painted Devil’, could be considered a bold move. The novel served as the source material for Don Siegel’s 1971 film, also titled ‘The Beguiled’, with Clint Eastwood taking the lead role. Its popularity is evidenced by its 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating. A classic story about a soldier starring an all-time great film actor.

A simple remake would be drab, especially by Sofia Coppola. To reposition the whole story from the perspective of the women involved is a brilliant move and a gamble that pays dividends. The result is a swirling story of suspicion, falsities and lust that puts the central trio of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning at the forefront of the repositioned and wholly captivating story, reducing the central soldier figure to something akin to a supporting role.

The faded dresses the girls wear suggest a ghostly edge to their lives

The film is set in 1964 Virginia, USA, a prominent part of the Confederates States in the American Civil War. A young girl named Amy (Oona Lawrence) from a local Christian all-girls school is out picking mushrooms and stumbles across an injured solider. The man, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is a soldier fighting for the Union Army of the north who finds himself critically injured and behind enemy lines. She decides to help him by taking him back to the school grounds. The head of the school, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Kidman), treats his wounds and nurses him back to recovery, whilst teacher Edwina Morrow (Dunst) and older student Alicia (Fanning) become immediately interested in this mysterious man who has unexpectedly entered their lives. This is the perfect invitation for McBurney, with little to lose, to begin a charm offensive and attempt to stay at the school and avoid returning to the war.

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A captivating scene between Farrell and Dunst

 

McBurney may have been reduced to a supporting role, but Colin Farrell makes the most of his screen time to make sure the frenzy of interest is well justified. As in the novel, the character is a man of Irish heritage and Farrell plays on the stereotypes of a cheeky and charming Irishman to great effect. His character needs to stay in the school for as long as possible and he does his best to ensure everyone there doesn’t want him to leave. For Amy he offers a best friend and father figure, for Alicia he offers lust, for Edwina he offers the chance to escape and for Martha he offers intelligent conversation and companionship. This plotting is ultimately his downfall, and when it is abruptly halted Farrell is equally adept at exploding with anger – the juxtaposition against his charm making his performance all the more shocking.

 

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Dunst and Farrell

Coppola has crafted a film that lives in a completely different time to that of her last film, 2013’s The Bling Ring. It was a move she actively sought to make, that film inhabiting an entirely more ugly modern world of theft, celebrity and social media that marked a departure from the norm for the director. It was a very good film, but was less well received than the likes of Lost In Translation and The Virgin Suicides; films that have helped define her as one of the most distinctive and identifiable directors in modern cinema. If The Bling Ring failed to speak the language we were used to, Coppola makes sure her voice is deafening in The Beguiled.

It is Dunst that eventually becomes the standout performer in a strong ensemble cast. She has been through a lot on film with Sofia Coppola, from a 15-year-old lustfully oppressed girl in The Virgin Suicides, to a precocious queen in the form of the titular Marie Antionette. In The Beguiled, Edwina is a character that could feasibly be lost alongside strong showings from Fanning and Kidman in roles of women who more clearly know what they want. Edwina is far more nuanced, at a juncture in her life where she feels lost. She is a woman who feels she is losing time and wasting her best years in a place far removed from a life. When Farell asks her what her one truest wish is, she simply responds that she wants to go as far away as she can from her current life. In the end, it was this character that I felt most sorry for, far more so that McBurney or any of the other girls.

For anyone wondering whether or not Coppola had lost her knack after an extremely strong start, a steady middle and a potential blunder in the form of A Very Murray Christmas, you will be pleased to know that The Beguiled is 100% a return to form. It may not go down in history as a great – as is the case with Lost in Translation – but it’s a fine film indeed.

Note: For further reading on Sofia Coppola’s response to controversies surrounding the omission of a slave girl from the original novel, read this article. I don’t see it as relevant to the discussion on the film so haven’t mentioned it in the main body.

Film review – The Circle (James Ponsoldt, 2017)

“Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better.”

So says Eamon Bailey, Tom Hanks’s character in the new science-fiction thriller The Circle. Well, you should take his advice. Knowing that this film is one you should watch for yourself is better than believing the dismissive reviews, because the fast-tracking to direct-to-streaming does a vast disservice to film that is both thought provoking and well executed.

The film stars Emma Watson as Mae, a young woman who begins a career at the titular company The Circle, working as a help desk assistant. She is helped through the door by an old friend called Annie (Karen Gillan), who has a considerable level of seniority at the company. It is headed up by the Steve Jobs-like Eamon Bailey (Hanks), a believably powerful visionary and motivational speaker at the top of the company. We follow Mae as she journeys into the company, becoming the saccharine champion for its upcoming products and turning herself into a genuine celebrity by becoming “transparent” and having live videos of her life 24/7 on the platform SeeChange.

It’s like she looking in a Black Mirror

When I first saw the trailer for The Circle, I was sat in an AMC cinema in New York. It looked absolutely fantastic at the time and I’d already added it my my mental list of films I needed to see this year. I was, therefore, shocked to find out that it was side-stepping cinemas here in the U.K. and heading straight to Netflix. The production and distribution companies will certainly have their reasons for doing this – namely the critical planning and commercial failure in the U.S.A. – but I can’t help but think that it hasn’t been given a fair chance.

If you’re a fan of the Charlie Brooker series ‘Black Mirror’, you will be forgiven for feeling a sense of familiarity with the film. Not only is the story exactly the kind of thing that would be covered by Brooker’s brilliant series – indeed the recent episode Nosedive is a clear touch point – but the visual realisation feels like it is part of the same universe. As the page fills up with comments, likes, stats and charts, engulfing Mae as she carries on with her normal day-to-day life, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a common element across the two productions. That said, Dave Eggers’s original novel was released in 2013 so it is quite feasible that it served as inspiration to Brooker, though the visual similarities are inescapable.

Tom Hanks plays Steve Jobs

This is a film that utilises Watson’s undeniable talents as an actress to good effect. Her character goes on a journey and Watson’s performance allows us to join her on it, despite some convenient jumps in her development. Her changing relationship with her family and best friends Annie (Gillan) and Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) are the backbone of the film. There is, of course, an extra poignancy with her parents as both Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly unfortunately passed away after filming was completed.

John Boyega, through no fault of his own, is something of a let down. His character, Ty, is one of the more obvious loose ends in the film. There is almost certainly a cut of this film that exists with more Boyega included. Instead, we are left with a character that looks on with menace in the background as the plot develops around him. His character is a co-founder of The Circle but he has fallen out of love with what his company has become. There’s a lot to work with there. Why not have a meaty argument with Hanks’s Eamon to reinforce his feelings?

This is not the Star Wars and Harry Potter crossover you were looking for

Indeed, there also seems to be a whole segment dropped from the film where Annie spirals into depression following Mae’s developing successes within The Circle, which left me wondering if I’d missed a whole segment out of the film (I hadn’t). Her jump from focused career woman to nervous wreck happens in an instant, apparently in the space of one short seminar. It’s this kind of thing that makes me wonder exactly who was calling the shots on the editing and whether they’d be better suited as a tree surgeon.

The 18-35 market in the U.K. would have been excited by this kind of film and it’s a failing of the marketing research that this wasn’t spotted. Ironically, I’m confident they have looked at analytical data and spotted the popularity of ‘Black Mirror’ on U.K. Netflix, which has led them to releasing it directly on to the platform. It’s just disappointing that this will never be released at cinemas.

To look down the listings at my local cinema and see a summer schedule full of mindless sequels, I can’t help but think the audience’s lack of imagination is being encouraged and nurtured by the larger studios’ inability to take risks.

I’m sad for everyone involved that this film won’t get a wider audience and I’m sad it was critically panned. There is an important message about modern life and the role of social media here. It’s a warning. 

Short film review – Lou (Dave Mullins, 2017)

A sweet short film about a bully’s relationship with a lost and found box in a playground might just make your ticket to Cars 3 worth the entry fee.

Dave Mullins is a first time director but has been working with Disney since 1995 and Pixar since 2000, working in the animation department for the likes of Up, Monsters Inc., Ratatouille and Inside Out. It is clear that his attention to detail and love of a great story is at the heart of this film, which is brought to life wonderfully in a story that lasts only a few minutes.

The film opens with the lost and found box attracting the attention of the children in the playground of a school boy, encouraging them to play with the contents. However, the school bully J.J. begins teasing his class mates by taking away their toys and teasing them in the process. However, when the contents of the lost and found box come to life and start to turn the tables on him, he quickly learns a fast lesson in being nice to his peers, awakening memories he’s hidden inside himself that may be the real problem behind his poor behaviour.

It’s incredibly difficult to create something with such a large story and get the whole point across in a strictly limited timeframe, but Mullins and his team completely manage it. The short is, essentially, a silent film, but it has no difficulty in delivering a succinct but strong message.

The audience, which were mainly children, were completely captivated and gave a spontaneous round of applause at the end of the screening.

You can watch the opening 40 seconds below.

 

 

Kingdom of the Sun set for Blu-ray release

The moment has come for Disney fans! They will finally get a chance to see the lost animated film Kingdom of the Sun.

Originally set for release in 1999 and with a score of songs written by Sting, it was sadly axed after four years of production. It eventually was reworked and released in 2000 as The Emperor’s New Groove, which was well received on release and stood out as a highlight of a fairly mediocre period of the studio’s history. (My review can be found here).

The film has long been pined after by Disney fans and finally the studio has green lit a Blu-ray release date of 31st September for it.

Whilst the film isn’t a 100% finished production, it will be the entire film as far as it was completed. This means the full audio track is included, with the lead cast Eartha Kitt as the evil Yzma, Owen Wilson as the llama herder Pacha, Carla Gurgino as love interest Nina and David Spade as Emperor Manco. There’s no space for John Goldman and Kronk is also not featured. The lost songs by Sting are reinstated, including the tracks “Walk the Llama Llama”, “Snuff Out The Light” and the duet with Shawn Colvin “One Day She’ll Love Me”.

Excuse me? I can’t find my lines in this version.

Where animated sequences are incomplete, we will get either uncoloured hand-drawn sequences or storyboard images, although the latter of these will only account for “7% of why we’ll see”.

Even more interestingly, the double-disc release will features the infamous documentary titled The Sweatbox. Filmed by Sting’s wife Trudie Styler, the 95-minute film covers the entire production process, from initial concept to Sting writing and recording his music, and the infamous meeting where the Kingdom of the Sun is shut down and the reworking begins. This ha been available on various online platforms but never on home media and never in HD.

The entire list of features across the two discs are:

– The Kingdom of the Sun (unfinished but restored film)
– The Sweatbox – a 2002 documentary by Trudie Styler covering the production period and cancellation of the original project.
– Isolated audio tracks for the soundtrack with lyric videos for “One Day She’ll Love Me” and “Snuff Out The Light”.
– Introduction from directors Mark Dindall and Roger Allers.
– Kronk’s Not Groove – a short film reimagining sequel Kronk’s New Groove without Kronk existing.
– Concept art gallery, including designs for unused McDonald’s toys and other unreleased merchandise.
– All bonus features currently included on the Emperor’s New Groove Blu-ray/DVD release.

——————

Don’t you just wish this was a true story? The unfortunate reality is that this is an April Fools joke article.

However, like my joke article from last year for the Ewok Adventure Blu-ray release, I’m sure this will garner a lot of interest from fans around the world and will serve as evidence that something along these lines would be a great profit turner for Disney.

Film review – The Founder (John Lee Hancock, 2017)

John Lee Hancock is busily carving out a name for himself as the creator of sanitised versions of the most successful business men in the history of humanity, treading perhaps where no director would dare through a labyrinth of red tape.

In 2013 it was Saving Mr Banks, Hancock’s portrayal of an important segment of Walt Disney’s life as he helped convince P.L. Travers to release the rights to Mary Poppins and shaped the now-classic motion picture. This time around he’s tackling the origins of one of the biggest global brands of the modern world: McDonald’s.

McDonald’s hasn’t had a successful time thus far being portrayed on screen. Outside the overbearing product placement that everybody hates (even though they often pay for significant portions of films), if you ask anyone whether or not they’ve seen a film about McDonald’s, they will more than likely start talking about one of two films: McLibel or Super Size Me. Both are excellent as films and even better in showing the company in an extremely negative light.

Or you may remember this film…

 

The Founder isn’t quite as negative towards the iconic brand as the recent memorable efforts, going a long way to provide a balanced view of the origins of the story. It may be sanitised but it is at least reasonably based on facts (to our best knowledge).

Michael Keaton plays Ray Croc, a driven but unsuccessful salesman who happens upon the first McDonald’s restaurant whilst trying to sell milkshake making machines. This restaurant is owned by Richard and Maurice McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) and they soon go into partnership to franchise the company and start growing it across the rest of USA.

The biopic serves two purposes for the company. Firstly, it portrays the McDonald brothers’ story as being as wholesome and family-friendly as any of the McDonald’s adverts that are create today. This was a family company that didn’t want to be taken over by the global powers, resisting all the way and almost unbelievably against making any profit. Looking at it cynically, it serves as an advert that champions the company’s family values.

Secondly, it portrays the man who turned it into a global power as self-driven, full of business acumen but at his most basic a self-centred, cold and heartless money grabber. We aren’t supposed to like him, though I can’t help but think that the characterisation will be a template for those wishing to succeed in business. I hope not – it would be a poorly-chosen idol.

The overall result is that we don’t feel encouraged to like our central character and it feels like the side of a story that aligns with the global branding message rather than one we can truly enjoy. 

The problem is that Keaton is far too charismatic to not be liked and the Lynch/Offerman duo are sabotaging the success of the company at every turn. This makes the emotional journey slightly skewed as we try to take sides and don’t really know where to land.

Some will champion its subtlety but I don’t see it like that. I see it as a great actor shining through an advertising campaign disguised as a film.

Given the state of the political landscape right now, I don’t think it’s the film the world needs.

Film review – Ghosts of Mars (John Carpenter, 2001)

John Carpenter’s history as a filmmaker may have many blemishes on it. For every Assault on Precinct 13, there was a Village of the Damned. For every time Kurt Russell escaped from New York, he also escaped from L.A. Yet few of his films have stunk as badly as Ghosts of Mars, which, unlike most of his other films, hasn’t got better with time.

Set on a remote Martian mining town, the plot concerns police woman Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) transporting dangerous criminal “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube). However, upon arrival she realises that the planet has become infected, essentially, by zombies. She has to team together with a group of survivors including Jason Statham, Pam Grier and Clea DuVall.


The film was a box office bomb, making back just $14m of its $28m budget (global sales, according to Box Office Mojo). It’s hard to see why. Why it cost so much, that is. Conceptually, the mining town should look gritty, desolate and run down. It actually ends up looking more like a half-baked Crystal Maze set that was abandoned half-way through.
The plot isn’t terrible, and good movies have been carved out of much worse starting points. The soundtrack, provided by John Carpenter, is brilliantly varied.

What lets it down is dated visuals – they’re very 2001 – and an unreliable script. The actors do their best with it, but it simply doesn’t hit the marks.

It must be tough to turn down an offer to work with someone as great as John Carpenter. One can only assume that those involved looked at the script and were reminded of his best work. 

[Note] I hated all the official posters for this film, but unearthed the brilliant poster by Ralf Krause on the website AlternativeMoviePosters.com. Check out the website for more great alternative movie posters and order some to decorate your wall with something wonderful!

Film review – Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2017)

Barry Jenkins’s cinematic tryptich, which serves as a revealing cross-analysis of homosexuality in the black America community, is a film that will do nothing if not leave a lasting mark on your memory. It’s complex. It’s provocative. It’s beautiful. It’s absolutely brilliant.

Split into three equal sections, the film comprises extended vignettes based around Miami-based Chiron. As a child he is portrayed by Alex Hibber at a time in his life where he is a loner, lacking support from his drug-addict mother (Naomie Harris) and feeling isolated at school. As a college student he is portrayed by Ashton Sanders as he struggles to cope with his mother’s growing addiction but also has his first sexual encounter with a childhood friend. The third section of the film covers a late-20s Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now much hardened to life and living away from his home city in Atlanta, but returning to visit his mother and that same childhood friend.

Much like Lion earlier this year, Moonlight is a triumph due to several actors portraying its central character at different stages of his life. Each of the performances is well nuanced, but build up a complex picture of Chiron, the pay-off being in the final third as we realise what he has become is every bit influenced by what we’ve seen of him as a child.

Moonlight

Where Moonlight really excels though is its ability to steer away from the stereotypes almost every mainstream film portrays these types of characters as. This is a tale about a homosexual black American which allows neither the colour of his skin nor his sexuality to define him.

Aside from the lead character, there is an exceptional contribution from Mahershala Ali as Juan, a drug-dealer who comes across a young Chiron hiding from some bullies in a property he owns. Rather than what we’d have come to expect, which would probably involve some amount of grooming and exploitation, instead we see him become a father figure for the child, teaching him how to swim and offering him a place to sleep and food to eat. It’s refreshing to see a character exist in this manner and hopefully this is a sign of things to come at cinemas. It’s no surprise that it has earned Ali an Oscar nomination.

It’s a personal film that deserves all the plaudits it has received. With a timely release during Black History Month, a film that challenges the status quo has to be welcomed with open arms by the forward thinkers of the world, even if it seems like backwards thinking is taking over the world.

Short film review – Donald in Mathmagic Land (Hamilton Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman, Les Clark, Joshua Meador)

As educational short films go, Disney’s animation about their ever-stressed duck taking a trip through a land filled with mathematical tales, quips and facts is pretty darn entertaining.

Released in 1959 alongside a poorly-remembered live action film called Darby O’Gill and the Little People, the film went on to receive a nomination in the Best Documentary – Short Subject category at the Academy Awards. [1] [2]

It charts Donald’s journey through Mathmagic Land, as guided by the voice of a spirit (Paul Frees). He learns about the origins of maths, starting with Pythagoras in Greece, then the pentogram and the golden section, the appearances of the golden section in nature, architecture and art, the application of maths in music and its relevance to games (especially chess, which features a nice reference to Alice Through The Looking Glass).

That the film covers a relatively thorough history of one of the most important and fundamental basic principals of life and remains interesting is somewhat of a miracle, so much so that the film went on to be used as an educational tool in schools across America. It’s easy to see why. Its relevance endures and it would still be useful in the modern education system.

Admittedly, the style is now somewhat dated but it has a classic feel of 1950s era Disney about it. This is hardly surprising. Two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” worked as directors on the film. [3]

It is a great shame that so many of these old Disney shorts are hard to locate in a good quality transfer and few are held in high regard, largely due to the lack of knowledge of their existence. Anyone who enjoys watching the early Disney animation films is doing themselves a disservice if they are yet to discover the shorts being released around the same time. These are the same animators, story writers and directors, throwing together ideas and experimenting with animation, perhaps to try something out for a future release, or maybe just finishing ideas that were started with a plan for a full release before ending up as a short instead.

There are so many to choose from, many of which were released in the UK on the Disney Fables series of DVDs. Owning all six of them is a great start – you will have in your possession six hours of short animated films, covering 25 animated films, several of which were Academy Awards nominees and winners. It’s about time that Disney worked out a way to get these out there again so yet another generation can enjoy them.

[1] I can’t imagine people were overly-fond of the film at the cinema.Having paid to see a film that’s 93 minutes long, imagine the dismay when you sat down and realised it had a 26-minute short film about maths tagged at the beginning of it.

[2] Quite why this wasn’t nominated as an animated short is beyond me. I incorrectly assumed that the category didn’t exist at the time but this proved to be an incorrect assumption, having been around for over 25 years in 1959.

[3] Wolfgang Reitherman and Les Clark were two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, a group of nine original animators that worked at the Disney company. Many of them went on to direct feature films themselves and every Walt Disney Animation film featured at least one of the nine until 1985’s The Black Cauldron.

Film review – A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)

An infrequent but nevertheless joyous family tradition of mine is to catch up with the tales of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker and his family in Bob Clark’s adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s semi-autobiographical stories. It covers his pursuits in the lead up to Christmas to convince his family, teacher and a department store Santa to deliver him a Red Rider Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas, despite the fact he will inevitably poke his eye out.

The famous tongue on the lamppost scene

The film was made in 1983, but is set in early 1940s USA. It is heaped in nostalgia for an era that many of us now can’t remember, but somehow feel represents our past. It is a past that is entirely more innocent: be it the kids crowding around the radio for their favourite show, or the punishment for swearing (the classic bar of soap in the mouth), the music and the cars. It sends a strange shot of emotion across me as it reminds me of growing up, despite the fact I was born after the film was released.

The script doesn’t really follow any real character development, instead taking on a mode of storytelling via a series of vignettes that dip into various tales. It works because each mini-tale is absolutely hilarious, and the actors are all clearly having a lot of fun with the material. I defy anyone to not find at least one part of the story they can relate to.

Above all else, it’s simply hilarious.

Please seek it out and spread the word. This film needs to be enjoyed by more people than are aware of it today.