THE BEGUILED **1/2 (94 minutes) M
Sofia Coppola’s soft-focus, dumbed down take on the Civil War sex drama about a wounded Yankee soldier who is taken in by the students and staff of a remote Confederate girls school can’t hold a candle to the 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film (a classic now, though a flop at the time). Still it is a passable, pretty period time filler for the undemanding.
Nicole Kidman plays the no-nonsense headmistress whose feelings for Colin Farrell’s fallen fighter goes from hostile to romantic far too quickly. Kirsten Dunst’s emotionally stifled teacher and Elle Fanning’s flirtatious nymphet complicate matters no end once the soldier realises he can sit the war out while enjoying sex with these secluded women.
Unfortunately, Sofia Coppola does not share the sureness of touch of her famous father, Francis, with many of her supposedly dramatic highlights coming off as comic and the sense of threat, so palpable in the earlier film, being diluted by some poor dialogue.
The film has also been politically corrected to within an inch of its life: a key inciting incident involving animal cruelty has been removed as has, more controversially, the presence of a house slave (played in Siegel’s film by Mae Mercer). Why Coppola would chose to remake such a steamy story and then blunt so much of its edge remains a mystery. Siegel and Eastwood went on to make Dirty Harry. Here’s hoping she follows up with similar success.
BABY DRIVER ***1/2 (113 minutes) M
Terrific, character-driven action comedy from writer/director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead; Hot Fuzz; Scott Pilgrim: The World’s End; Ant Man). Ansel Elgort (Divergent; Fault in our Stars) plays Baby, a taciturn, hearing-impared getaway driver whose work for master criminal (Kevin Spacey) is so impressive he is not allowed to leave his employ.
Falling for a local waitress (Lily James), he grows apprehensive of the violent tendencies of his fellow gang members, especially Bats (Jamie Foxx), who likes punctuating petty crime by pummelling innocent cashiers.
Spacey makes a great, enigmatic villain – come on, Bond people, call him – while Wright again shows his mastery of blending comedy with high-octane action.
In one of the best car chases in years, he edits one marvellous sequence to the beat of Hocus Pocus by 1970s band Focus. Old-schoolers will love the treat, and the sound track – which Baby constantly listens to in order to block out his tinnitus – is crammed with golden oldies, the perfect offset to the film’s post-Tarantino vibe.
CHICKEN PEOPLE *** (82 minutes) M
Chicken pride and genetic engineering are at the heart of this winsome, semi-serious non-mocking documentary about the exacting preparations a very diverse group of chicken-loving yokels undertake for the 2015 Ohio National Poultry Show.
Though the film leans heavily on their near-obsessive love of chickens and their striving for perfection, it is careful not to mock them and so dives into their often moving backstories.
A similar approach was taken by the dog-show comedy Best in Show, where respect for the subjects keeps the enterprise from turning into a parody or an outright put down. The film’s highlight has each of the participants admitting whether or not they like eating chicken. Some of the answers are delicious.
A GHOST STORY ** (90 minutes) M
In a diverting, semi-successful, definitely unscary take on the ghost movie, a young husband (Casey Affleck, Oscar-winner for Manchester by the Sea) is killed in a car accident and returns as a spirit to watch over his grieving wife Rooney Mara (Lion; Una) as she tries coping with the loss.
The novelty of having the ghost appear in the traditional cartoon form of a bedsheet with two eye holes wears off very quickly and the mournful direction by David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) can’t really punch his deeper points about closure and moving on with enough impact to overcome an idea that must have looked good on paper, but which just doesn’t work in feature film. You expect Casper to show up at any moment.
And why the sheet? Wouldn’t the film have been more effective dramatically to have Affleck standing there as normal, though mute and unable to influence the world he sees?
The idea that the spirit inhabits the same physical space for all time is slightly interesting, though it begs the question of where all the spirits go of all the other people who die in the same place.
The film is a perfect example of a good idea, half-baked.
CARS 3 *** (110 minutes) G
In what is essentially a rerun of the first Cars film where new-school bravado clashes with old-school smarts, racing ace Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) finds a newer, brasher breed of arrogant high-tech cars are edging out the older guys.
His new corporate owner sees great brand value in McQueen, but after trying to get him up to speed realises it’s his legacy as a retired great that will sell tyres, not his losing presence on the track.
Desperate to prove he can still cut it, McQueen strives for retain his dominance through sheer force of will – but is it dogged persistence or is McQueen’s wishful thinking a symptom of ego-driven denial?
After the thundering mediocrity of Cars 2, Pixar delivers a satisfying, if over-long and largely predictable tale that balances nostalgia against the reality of accepting how, sometimes, your best days are behind you. The film brandishes a touch of “young-ism” – where the next generation is seen as patronising, scheming and self-obsessed – but the film comes good in its final stretch as McQueen learns to appreciate those half his age and realises how respect is best when it is mutual.
Thankfully Mater, one of Pixar’s most annoying creations, has a very small part here while a zesty new female character, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) plays his ambitious trainer and Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) is revived from the first film as McQueen’s Obi-Wan-type spiritual guide.
As usual with Pixar, the film looks like a moving work of digital art, though its inordinate length might test the patience of six year olds who will love the brilliantly staged action but not all the exposition-heavy dialogue.
MCLAREN *** (93 minutes) PG
Fine, straight documentary from Australian-born New Zealand feature director Roger Donaldson (Dante’s Peak; 13 Days; Smash Palace) about Kiwi racing car great Bruce McLaren who established the second most well-known racing Formula One brand after Ferrari.
Stacks of archival footage and interviews blended with contemporary interviews of his friends and collaborators show a man free of ego or even a dark side, and highlights the tragedy of his early death at 32 on 2 June, 1970 in a racing accident in England. Donaldson also draws heavily on McLaren’s 1964 memoir From the Cockpit. A terrific doc about a quiet achiever.
(Check out our interview with Roger Donaldson HERE)
TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT **** (149 minutes) M
In the latest whizz-bang swirl of A-grade visual effects and B-grade movie aesthetics, director Michael Bay and producer Steven Spielberg – let’s never leave that name out when talking Transformers – deliver another hugely pleasing assault on the senses, the scale of which actually dwarfs all previous adventures.
This time around the Arthurian legend is co-opted by the ever-growing Transformers backstory, which has also roped in the reign of the dinosaurs and the space race. Anthony Hopkins is on hand to lend the nutty, but crazily coherent story some gravitas as the ever-exasperated Mark Wahlberg leads the fight against the biggest Transformer threat yet as the robot planet of Cybertron heads directly for earth.
With the force of Industrial Light & Magic (the effects house created by George Lucas for Star Wars) at his disposal, Bay turns on the visuals and the action with peerless energy and spectacle. The film offers a really overwhelming visceral experience, with every corner of the screen crammed with detail.
Yet Bay also has a flair for comedy and grounded performances, even from the robots when they’re not fighting – something unfairly ignored by his naysayers (aka Baysayers) – that help sell the heart that makes these magnificently preposterous films work so well.
As immensely popular as the Transformer films are, the time is yet to come when they will no longer be seen as mutiplex fodder but be acknowledged as the breathlessly entertaining masterpieces of pop art that they are. Bay and his crew took a disposable plastic toyline from the 1980s and reforged it into a global corporate brand that crystallises the essence of 21st century franchise filmmaking. It’s a breathtaking achievement that should one day get its special Oscar.
Until then, what can be acknowledged is that the chasmic disconnect between the size of the Transformers fanbase and the near-universal critical disdain the films attract signals the on-going decline of the influence and quality of film criticism. These films turn over about a billion apiece before hitting home, with this latest one earning half a bill in three weeks. (And despite the title at least two more are planned.) So, somebody must be liking them.
It’s also got to be said that the film looks absolutely stunning in IMAX 3D. The chief point of distinction between this and previous Transformer editions is that Michael Bay shot it almost entirely with IMAX cameras. Hopefully, this will encourage others to do the same, and not merely convert them into an approximation of what good 3D should be like.
DESPICABLE ME 3 ***1/2 (90 minutes) PG
In this spright fouth entry in the Minions franchise Gru hooks up with brother Dru (both voiced by Steve Carell) and go to war with a former child star Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker, from South Park) hell-bent on wreaking revenge on society for taking fame away from him.
It’s more of the same, and lovingly done. After all, why upset a billion-dollar-a-film franchise? (Despicable Me 1 & 2, and the spin-off Minions together made $3.5 billion – and that’s not including toy sales, streaming or disks.)
One of the truly amazing things about this film, amidst all its gloriously exaggerated designs and caricatures, is the faith the directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin (who has directed all four and voices the Minions) have in just how much story material kids can absorb. At one point the film has five storylines going simultanesously, all of which collide for a typically explosive finale.
ROUGH NIGHT **1/2 (101 minutes) MA
In the latest post-Bridesmaids bad-girl comedy Scarlett Johansson plays a rising politician and bride-to-be who goes on a hen’s night in Miami with a bunch of college friends. Things go awry when they accidentally kill a stripper, giving the film a few moments of Weekend at Bernie’s lunacy.
Director Lucia Aniello also directed and wrote episodes of the hit TV show Broad City, the co-star and co-creator of which, Ilana Glazer, also stars here. So it’s no surprise that the level of comedy on show is chiefly pre-occupied with bad behaviour, swearing and an obsession with the male appendage.
American comedian and noted impersonator Kate McKinnon (forgettable in Ghostbusters) really proves her worth here with some nice low-level scene stealing as a brash Australian woman who is deeply offended whenever somebody confuses her for being a New Zealander.
WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME ***1/2 (105 minutes) M
Absorbing, unauthorised portrait of the carefully managed rise and chaotic fall of singer Whitney Houston. Veteran documentarian Nick Broomfield keeps himself out-of-frame for once to concentrate on paying tribute to his subject. The film includes exclusive footage from an unfinished Houston documentary that shows the singer heavily under the influence of bad drugs and bad people.
RINGS *** (95 minutes) MA
Pretty good reworking from the Japanese originals about a video that kills people seven days after they watch it. Johnny Galecki from The Big Bang Theory plays a teacher while Vincent D’Onofrio chews the scenery as a blind loner with dark secrets. The film keeps to the style of the Ring movies with effectively spooky images and sharp editing, the main difference here being the neat application of the series’ concept to the digital world. A good, polished spookster for most of its duration, it’s the killer ending that makes the film truly pop. It’s a good example of how the final few seconds of a film can lift it several notches above the routine. On disk & streaming now.
THE BOOK OF LOVE *** (102 minutes) M
Though likeable, funny guy Jason Sudeikis (Horrible Bosses) is miscast in this gentle, innocuous sentimental folly where he plays a by-the-book architect whose lovely wife Jessica Biel (also a producer) meets an early demise.
On her prompting, he strikes up a friendship with a wayward teen (Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones) who keeps collecting hard waste from the neighbourhood. Her plan: to build a raft and sail the ocean to where her lost father is.
Despite its flaws and over-supply of movie coincidences, this is finely prepared mush with some nice riffs about acceptance and moving on that unspools quite pleasantly in the home entertainment environment.
Oddly, the film has been at the receiving end of an almighty shellacking from critics for reasons that don’t quite square with what is a modest, well-made, small-scale film with a simple message. The film was written and directed by Bill Purple, a TV director whose credits include Fresh off the Boat and New Girl. Music is by Justin Timberlake. On disk & streaming now.