Out on Friday July 14
Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell lead Sofia Coppola’s feminist thriller. Andy Serkis and some VFX complete the Apes trilogy. A deep look into the David Lynch’s passion for painting.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of The Beguiled, War for the Planet of the Apes, Cars 3, David Lynch: The Art Life, and The Death of Louis XIV, and Genocidal Organ.
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Sofia Coppola’s sixth film may exhibit her signature languid style, but it’s as tightly crafted as the corsets of the women at the centre of her accomplished study of repression and gender dynamics. That she’s succinct at exploring the female experience is a given considering her CV, but that she’s able to do it with such wit, subtlety and brevity is something of a refreshing surprise.
Taking Don Siegel’s lurid 1971 Eastwood starrer (sexually hysterical women hell-bent on sublimating the alpha-male predator), Coppola switches the lens from a masculine to feminine perspective, redrawing the characters as complex creatures trapped by their situation rather than dumb ciphers driven by animal desire.
That situation then… as cannon-fire thunders in the distance during the American Civil War, a seminary for young ladies sits marooned among the fighting in West Virginia. With the slaves gone along with most of the students, a small community of girls, their teacher and headmistress remain; isolated in a crumbling mansion, scratching around for food, trapped in a limbo of routine French and sewing lessons, trying to maintain their pre-conflict existence.
In this embryonic regime, head Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and tutor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) can beguile themselves that they have purpose, that the outside world does not exist. Until one of the girls brings a wounded Union ‘blue belly’ soldier home and the spell is broken. Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) reminds each of the school’s inhabitants (from tween to maven) of secret longings, provoking tension and ultimately violence. “There is nothing more frightening than a startled woman with a gun,” Miss Martha jokes at one point. Oh yes there is…
While Coppola’s update cleaves closely to the plot points and ending of the original, her casting and nuanced script gives the key players in this Deep South Lord of the Flies more understandable motivation and provides greater audience empathy. Make no mistake, a gender war is raging here among the dreamy Spanish moss; but culpability remains as shadowy as the school’s candlelit chambers.
While Eastwood’s infantryman was an unreconstructed sexual predator, Farrell is an Irish charmer who uses what he’s got to get the easy life. As an opportunist who’s taken another man’s place on the battlefield for 300 bucks, if a kind word here, a wanton stare there and the gift of a button here gets him a pass from the trenches, he’ll do it.
He is as much repressed by his social and monetary standing as the school residents are by their religious beliefs and social expectations. An unsophisticated man who’s already shown he’ll take gambles that don’t pay off, it’s not a question of whether McBurney will come unstuck trying to play the women off against each other, but when.
And those women… changing Miss Martha from a bitter crone to a worldly forty-something who had a man in her life before the war makes the competition between the residents all the more intriguing. Martha wants sex (a bed bath that she gives an unconscious McBurney is charged with eroticism as a puddle of water quivers in the hollow of his throat and her hand trembles over his hip) while Edwina’s after love and escape. Elle Fanning’s saucy teen Alicia craves seduction, and the girls, attention.
Though McBurney is the prize, the women are running the show. A dinner party where each of them jostle for his attention and slut-shame each other in the most courteous fashion is an absolute delight. Who knew a prestige period pic could mine such laughs from the decorous way in which apple pie is offered, or the cut of a dress dismissed?
Coppola’s lightness of touch and the skills of her uniformly excellent cast ensure this and other scenes (such as McBurney’s Diet Coke ad moment when he’s watched while sweatily gardening) are knowingly amusing rather than tacky. “Your flower garden needs tending,” Farrell manages to tell Kidman without making it Sid James smutty.
That said, the playfulness is always tempered by tension and a sense of foreboding, heightened by Philippe Le Sourd’s evocative cinematography and the stark sound design. As the cicadas reach their crescendo in the heat, so the pace picks up and before you can say “over in 90 mins”, folks have properly lost their shit. That too is a pleasant surprise – a Cannes favourite and awards season frontrunner that plays like a popcorn movie and leaves you wanting more.
THE VERDICT: Witty, menacing and steamy (in every sense), The Beguiled is an intelligent update and Coppola’s best work to date. Oscars await.
Director: Sofia Coppola; Starring: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell; Theatrical release: July 14, 2017
War for the Planet of the Apes
Nine films into the extended series, War for the Planet of the Apes finally features a monkey throwing poo. Be warned though, that faeces-flinging is one of very few moments of levity in what’s otherwise an extremely sombre closer to the reboot-trilogy. Beginning with some intense woodland warfare, and never really letting up, it’s a punishingly brutal, but largely satisfying resolution to a plot that was set in motion in 2011’s Rise (opens in new tab) and escalated in 2014’s Dawn (opens in new tab).
War picks up directly after the events of Dawn, with what remains of human and apekind battling for supremacy. Ape leader Caesar oversees a monkey stronghold, which finds itself under siege from human forces marshalled by Woody Harrelson’s callous Colonel.
Noble Caesar is still trying to keep the peace, but two too many ape deaths send him over the edge and into vengeance-seeking mode. He sets off after the Colonel with a few key allies, while the rest of his clan make their way to the promised land across the mountains. En route, Caesar encounters a young mute girl (Amiah Miller), and zoo escapee Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), before becoming embroiled in a species showdown.
Boasting more gravitas than many ‘real’ performers, Andy Serkis’ performance-captured Caesar remains an envelope-pushing marvel who keeps the Apes franchise grounded. Weta Digital has upped the ante again, with possibly the most impressive CG characters ever created. Stunning as the matted fur and creased skin is, it’s the soulfulness in Caesar’s eyes that validates Serkis’ commitment to the dotty-pyjama arts. Wherever the apes are going, it’s not the uncanny valley.
With Caesar struggling to reconcile his vengeful feelings with his desire for peace, the dramatic conflict is largely internalised. As such, it sometimes lacks the depth of predecessor Dawn, which had Caesar contrasted with bad ’un Koba, and found room for nuanced motivations within the humans. Here, it feels more clear cut: the innocent apes against Harrelson’s autocrat and his largely faceless minions.
Even adding a young human girl to the apes’ mix feels symbolic rather than substantial. The focus is very much on the monkey business this time, providing even more VFX to drool over, and there’s a very empathetic turn from Zahn as the timid Bad Ape (another rare source of comic relief). But it means there’s a lot of chatter before the plot really kicks into gear.
When things do get going, they lead to a suitably tense climax that matches anything in the series for scale. It’s fitting that it’s a decent send-off, as the whole film feels like a third act for the trilogy, rather than a standalone entry. Director Matt Reeves (next up for him, The Batman) ladles on the portentousness with many darkly violent moments – close-range executions, strangling, work camps, crucifixions – so much so it almost weighs the film down.
Artfully shot and mournfully scored, there’s no denying the craft that’s been poured into this, even if it’s set to be one of the summer’s more heavy-going blockbusters. Be thankful for Serkis’ powerhouse turn, which is all the more poignant because of the previous films’ investment.
THE VERDICT: This solid if unspectacular finish to the Apes trilogy features an A-game Andy Serkis and incredible VFX, but its darker excesses threaten to suffocate at times.
Director: Matt Reeves; Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller; Theatrical release: July 11, 2017
Midway through Cars 3, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) gets literally stuck in the mud. Unable to drive, he sits there immobile, spinning his wheels. As visual metaphors go, it’s a strikingly apt symbol for a series that’s both Pixar’s least-loved (by the critics anyway) and its most commercially, er, driven. You could even apply it to Pixar itself, which is in something of a creative slough only two years on from the highpoint that was Inside Out (opens in new tab).
The stats speak for themselves – five prequel/sequels in eight years, with two more (The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4) on the way before the end of the decade. That would be fine if the non-franchise stand-alones were all up to Inside Out’s standards. Brave (opens in new tab) and The Good Dinosaur (opens in new tab), alas, were anything but, putting pressure on the upcoming Coco to claw back some cred.
Cars 3, for what it’s worth, is a lot better than 2011’s Cars 2 (opens in new tab), which put aggravating tow truck Mater front and centre of a Bondian spy spoof that made next to no sense, even within the context of the property’s logic-skewing alt-verse.
For one thing, Cars 3 puts the spotlight back on race car Lightning, the race circuit itself and the gentle Americana of the 2006 original. It also improves upon its immediate predecessor by having a subtext; McQueen’s painful realisation that his powers are dwindling enables director Brian Fee to offer a thoughtful contemplation on what champions do when they’re past their prime.
One can possibly read from this that Pixar chief John Lasseter has read the runes himself and is anticipating the day when he will pass the reins to younger talents. (He’s started by letting Fee – a storyboard artist on the first two Cars films – fill his director’s chair.) If that’s Cars 3’s agenda, however, it’s one that comes with a heavy-handed sermon on the value of mentors, represented not only by flashbacks to Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson but also by grizzled old-timer Smokey (Chris Cooper).
The film rates higher by giving Lightning a sleek rival in hi-tech speedster Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), having a decent female lead in the form of peppy trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) and incorporating some self-knowing nods to its ranking in the studio’s pecking order. (Lightning’s new sponsor, voiced by Nathan Fillion, wants him to give up racing and focus his energies on flogging branded merchandise.)
But even at its best, Cars 3 is only a shadow of Cars – a film that, lest we forget, was hardly one of Pixar’s finest in the first place.
THE VERDICT: Pixar’s least essential franchise gets back on track with a polished but disposable threequel.
Director: Brian Fee; Starring: Owen Wilson, Chris Cooper, Cristela Alonzo, Armie Hammer, Nathan Fillion; Theatrical release: July 14, 2017
David Lynch: The Art Life
You wait 10 years for a David Lynch project and then what? Eighteen hours of Lynch-directed Twin Peaks arrives and, to top it off, this portrait-of-the-artist documentary. Largely set in his Hollywood Hills studio, The Art Life introduces us to Lynch’s paintings as he recounts his early years, from his picket-fence upbringing in Montana to his days in rundown Philadelphia, where he began crafting his student shorts.
The co-directing team of Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Rick Barnes and Jon Nguyen (who previously worked with cameraman Jason S. on the 2007 doc Lynch, shot during the making of Inland Empire (opens in new tab)) should be congratulated for getting the famously reticent Lynch to open up at all. Smoking up a storm, he gets personal too, talking about everything from his father’s outbursts to depression.
With the doc culminating in Lynch’s time on Eraserhead, fans expecting stories from the sets of Lost Highway (opens in new tab) or Mulholland Drive (opens in new tab) will be disappointed. This is Lynch: The Early Years, although some anecdotes do tap into his movies (that boyish dream of a naked woman arriving in his driveway? Think Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet (opens in new tab)). It’s all typically elusive fare from the enigmatic director, but as a window into his brain, it’s still fascinating.
THE VERDICT: An intriguing insight into Lynch’s genius, intimately crafted and leaving you wanting more. Sequel, please?
Directors: Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes; Starring: David Lynch; Theatrical release: July 14, 2017
The Death of Louis XIV
A real chamber-piece, which barely stirs outside the crowded bedroom of the slowly expiring king, Albert Serra’s stately drama is glacially paced.
Focused on the courtly rituals and medical squabbling that accompanied the royal decline, this is as gorgeous as an oil painting, and about as lively. But Jean-Pierre Léaud effortlessly summons up the iron ruler inside the failing man.
Director: Albert Serra; Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick d'Assumçao, Marc Susini; Theatrical release: July 14, 2017
Adapted from a Japanese novel and directed by anime veteran Shûūkôū Murase, Genocidal Organ is set in 2022: a time when nations are suffering from mysterious genocides.
Agent Clavis Shepherd (Yûichi Nakamura) has to find answers, but discovers only heavy questions of consumerism, language and evolution. Smart stuff, with parallels to (the original) Ghost in the Shell, only not as refined.
Director: Shûkô Murase; Starring: Yuki Kaji, Yûichi Nakamura, Takahiro Sakurai; Theatrical release: July 12, 2017