Kirsten Dunst

The Beguiled

15/07/17

In The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle, received wisdoms are questioned at every turn. For a start, we’re clearly positioned on the women’s side, with their talk of ‘our boys’ at odds with the dastardly Union soldiers and the havoc they wreak (disrupting schooling, stealing chickens, killing brothers – the list is long). It’s easy to forget, while watching, that history is on the Unionists’ side: Colin Farrell’s Corporal McBurney is fighting to end slavery. Even if he is a mercenary, he’s doing the right thing.

But this is history Jane Austen-style: the politics and horrors of the outside world barely penetrate these school walls. Oh, their impact is felt and heard: there is shooting in the distance; the girls can’t go home; soldiers pass by the house or come in to search the place – but the focus is on the interior domestic world of women, ostracised by the fighting, trapped indoors, biding their time.

Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is the headmistress; the school is her family home. She clings to a sense of tradition in the face of uncertainty, citing the lineage of everything, even her father’s desk and gun. There might be shells exploding on the horizon, but the gates are locked and the girls must learn their French declensions. Everything is very ordered and proper, and decorum is everything.

Into this world comes the injured Corporal McBurney, as charming and handsome as, well… Colin Farrell. He’s discovered by Amy (Oona  Laurence), one of the younger pupils, on a rare and forbidden foray into the woods. She’s looking for mushrooms, but she finds the wounded and immobile soldier instead, and takes him to the school for her teachers to assess. “I couldn’t just leave him to die,” she says, seeking approval, clearly conflicted. Miss Martha agrees: “The enemy, viewed as an individual, is often not what we expect.” (The same can be said, of course, of these privileged women, whose ‘side’ is that of the oppressor, not the oppressed.) But the act of charity is doomed: the house is a hotbed of repressed sexuality, from Miss Martha’s uptight propriety to Alicia (Elle Fanning)’s burgeoning self-awareness, not to mention Edwina (Kirsten Dunst)’s blushing neediness and the little girls’ barely understood desire for male attention. These are women without men in a patriarchal world: Corporal McBurney offers them the chance to relieve their frustrations. They vie for his affections, and begin to fall apart.

It’s a tense, exciting kind of film, in the same way as The Falling or Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s slow and sensual, forbidding and unsettling. The claustrophobia is palpable, and it’s clear that something must erupt from this seething undercurrent of repressed passion. The acting is superb, each character utterly and devastatingly believable. There’s a lovely ambiguity too: who’s really in the wrong? Does Miss Martha really have to take the drastic action she does (I can’t say more without revealing far too much), or is she acting to protect the girls and regain control? Is McBurney to blame for looking out for himself, for using what he’s got to keep himself safe? These are all flawed, credible people, acting and reacting to the cards they’ve been dealt, making mistakes and having to live with the results of them. It doesn’t pull many punches, and it’s really very good indeed. Sofia Coppola’s best director award at this year’s Cannes film festival is very well deserved – let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another fifty-six years before another woman gains this accolade.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Hidden Figures

17/02/17

Sometimes the biggest changes in history are achieved, not with violent rebellion but with quiet tenacity. Hidden Figures tells the real life stories of three remarkable mathematicians. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji Henson) is a mathematical genius, who from an early age could perform the most complex equations without breaking a sweat. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is a natural organiser, able to turn her skills to all kinds of problems, even the complexities of an IBM computer; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is a sassy young lady who dreams of one day being a fully qualified engineer.

The three of them are enlisted to work for NASA, but it’s not as straightforward as you might suppose – for they are not only women, they are African-American women and this is 1962, a time when (incredibly) segregation still holds sway. They cannot share bus seats, toilets or even, as it turns out, a coffee percolator, with their white colleagues. Meanwhile, the Russians have just sent Yuri Gagarin into space and the race is on to be the first country to put an astronaut on the moon… And as John Glenn embarks on his historic flight into space, only a complex mathematic equation stands between him and disaster…

Theodore Melfi’s film skilfully captures the period detail and there’s a nicely judged performance from Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the unfortunate man charged with heading up one of the most demanding projects in history. The main focus is on Katherine Johnson, her struggles with overbearing colleague Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and her frankly racist boss, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst, making the best of a difficult role). If the film occasionally has a tendency to stray into the realms of sentimentality, so what? This is an important and significant story, and even though these middle-class struggles may seem far removed from the historic marches of the  black civil rights movement, nevertheless the actions of these pioneering women paved the way for those who followed.

This is entertaining cinema with a powerful message, anchored by three excellent performances from the lead actors.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Midnight Special

Unknown

10/03/16

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has given us some fine movies over the last few years but one thing he’s not so good at is coming up with a decent title. Take Shelter? Not one of the best. Mud? A terrible title for an excellent film. And now, here’s Midnight Special, a title that for the life of me I can’t see the relevance of when applied to this absorbing story – but I suppose this is a minor niggle. The film this most reminds me of is ET… though I hasten to add, a much more sophisticated, grown up and gritty version of Speilberg’s sci fi tale.

Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is a very special boy. It has something to do with his eyes. He must be kept in darkness as much as possible and has to wear special goggles whenever he steps into the sunlight. When we first meet him, he’s been abducted by his biological father, Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend,  cop Lucas (Joel Egerton) from the religious community that has looked after him for the past two years. Because of the boy’s habit of ‘speaking in tongues,’ the cult’s leader,  Calvin (Sam Shepard) believes that Alton may be some kind of messiah and he and his followers will do just about anything to get him back, even if it means picking up weapons to enforce their will.

Sam and Lucas hook up with Alton’s birth mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and the four of them set off on a perilous journey to bring Alton to the special destination where he repeatedly tells them he needs to be – but how can they get there when the combined forces of the FBI, the US military and a bunch of religious fruitcakes are intent on intercepting them?

Midnight Special is expertly told, releasing nuggets of information bit-by-bit, just enough to keep you hooked and to make you want to know more. When the solution is finally revealed it is, quite frankly mind-blowing and at this point, will divide audiences into ‘hell yes!’ or ‘no way!’ categories. I, happily, belong to the former. There are compelling performances from all concerned (Adam Driver is particularly good as a baffled boffin trying to work out what’s happening) and the pace never flags.

This is a riveting story about the power of belief and the lengths to which people will go to honour it. It also confirms Nichols as a film maker at the height of his powers.

It will be interesting to see what he does next.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

All Good Things

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29/04/15

Here’s one I missed earlier. All Good Things was originally released in 2010 and it’s one of those ‘based on a true story’ films, so mind-bogglingly bonkers that it really only could be the truth.  Ryan Gosling plays David Marks (the name has been changed to protect the – allegedly – guilty), the older son of dodgy property magnate, Sanford Marks (Frank Langella). When we first meet David, in 1971, he’s determined to resist going into the family business and when he meets up with Katie (Kirsten Dunst) after popping round to mend her leaky pipes, they start a relationship. But as time moves on, Katie begins to appreciate that David has several unsavoury skeletons lurking in his cerebral closet (not least the fact that he witnessed his mother’s suicide) and when eventuality he’s forced to capitulate and go back to work for his domineering dad, it’s painfully clear that things are not going to end happily.

These days, Gosling is very much the sex symbol, but here he plays the moody, cross-dressing and decidedly repellent David with considerable aplomb (although the ‘old age’ makeup he’s forced to don for later scenes wouldn’t win any awards). The story covers a lengthy time period and takes in Katie’s mysterious disappearance and a couple of murders, while the script doesn’t hesitate to point the finger at the real life counterparts of these ‘fictional’ characters. All this may go to explain why the film had such a low key release – apparently there were many who were ready and willing to sue the production team. But director Andrew Jarecki (of Capturing the Friedmans fame) stuck to his guns and somehow managed to get it out there.

All Good Things is certainly worth catching, if only to marvel at the way in which ‘David’ managed to come out of the whole business with no more than eight months in jail. It tells an intriguing (and occasionally mind-blowing story and for the most part, tells it well.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Two Faces of January

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9/11/14

This labyrinthine thriller, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, treads similar ground to Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley – it has a stylish 60’s setting and takes place in a series of photogenic locations –  Athens, Crete and Istanbul; but it isn’t remotely in the same league as Ripley. It’s nonetheless handsomely produced and well-acted and though it wasn’t strong enough to make much of an impression in the cinema, it’s certainly worth checking out on DVD.

Athens tour guide, Rydal (Oscar Isaac) finds himself drifting into the orbit of American couple, Colette and Chester MacFarland (Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortenson), only to discover that Chester is a notorious swindler, who owes money to people back in the states. When the couple are apprehended by a private detective, Chester accidentally kills him and the MacFarlands are obliged to go on the run. Rydal, unaware of the full story and strongly attracted to Colette agrees to help them, only to find himself implicated as an accomplice. From this point, a devious game of cross and double cross evolves…

Ripley, mainly because of a mesmeric performance by Matt Damon, managed to achieve the near impossible, making an audience root for a character who is, quite clearly, a worthless lying scumbag. None of the performers here manage to generate sufficient charisma to make us care about the outcome of the story and anelement suggesting that Rydal perceives Chester as some kind of father figure (his own father has recently died) isn’t really explored enough to convince.

This is a decent movie, that entertains throughout but lacks the extra factor that would have made it a great one.

3. 6 stars

Philip Caveney