The Virginian Suicides

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Another enjoyable Wimbledon Tennis Championship draws to a close. Each year, as a racquet-ball widower, I draw upon the alternative entertainment on offer at the Curzon cinema – and by digital extension, Curzon Home Cinema – to help me through the fortnight of tennis. I’ve already reviewed The Midwife and A Man Called Ove; here’s the second rally, effected over two days. (As an embargo prevents me from reviewing Dunkirk until tomorrow, I feel I should honour the smaller films on offer.)

The “biggest” of the five films I’ve chalked up is The Beguiled, in the sense that it was directed by Sofia Coppola, who picked up an award at Cannes for the painstaking trouble she went to in remaking an ancient Clint Eastwood film for the Millennials. It’s certainly not the longest of the five pictures that entertained me over the weekend: at 94 minutes, it’s nine minutes shorter than Don Siegel’s 1971 version, but then, Coppola has chosen to excise the black slave character Hallie (Mae Mercer) for fear – I have assumed – of muddying the waters of the story for white liberal viewers. It really is gorgeous to look at. Coppola’s films tend to be. Shot in Louisiana, for Virginia (It was set in Mississippi in the original), it’s a fecund setting, all shafts of light and trailing fronds, a wall of natural beauty between the virginal/celibate, starched female inhabitants of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies (two adult tutors, five remaining young ladies) and the outside world ie. the grim reality of the American Civil War, fetchingly hinted at by photogenic wisps of smoke in the far distance and tiny thrums of gunpowder igniting. Colin Farrell plays Clint’s Corporal John McBurney, the injured Union soldier taken in by the seminary to convalesce and to ruin the hormonal balance of the plantation house.

I don’t object to beauty for its own sake. Film is a visual medium, after all. But The Beguiled lacks freight. It is almost weightless. Even when Farrell’s sap rises, it’s as glimpsed and hinted-at as the plumes of war. He has one outburst – the one with the pet turtle if you saw Clint in 1971 – but even that’s cauterised. His fate will come as no surprise to anyone who saw the original film on TV, as I did as a kid , or who saw this remake’s trailer, which gives the whole game away. It’s an oddly neutered version of the original film. When Nicole Kidman’s headmistress washes the war-filthy body of an unconscious Farrell (something the slave did in the first version), he looks like he’s already been pre-washed. When the ladies do what it’s clear they’re going to from the trailer, it’s all off-screen. A tale of violent coming-of-age in a violent era it may be, but the violence is not even worth mentioning on the BBFC classification card (only “infrequent strong sex” – if you insist!) It reminded me of Coppola’s delectably moody debut, The Virgin Suicides (which shares Kirsten Dunst with The Beguiled, now all grown up) – but that really was beguiling. It’s like she’s moved from art to home decorating.

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Get Out (released earlier in the year and out on DVD next week) is the polar opposite of The Beguiled in terms of squeamishness around race. Written and directed by feature debutant Jordan Peele – half of an acclaimed sketch double-act Key & Peele, yet to be exported here – this is a horror film about race. It comes on like a laser-guided post-Girls satire on the terror of white liberals around black people, with Chris (British export Daniel Kaluuya), the “black boyfriend” of Rose (Allison Williams), who’s taken to meet the rich parents in their cloistered suburban enclave, where the only black faces belong to “servants”, about whom Mom (Catherine Keener) and Dad (Bradley Whitford) are wracked with progressive guilt. (Rose tells Chris she never told them he was black, and why, as a colourblind liberal, would she?) From the get-go, Get Out is different. On first inspection, though drawn as figures of fun, the parents aren’t racist. The subservience of their black maid, and the compliance of their black groundskeeper, give cause for concern, but Chris is as blindsided by his own desire not to be reactionary to the casual stereotyping. (One white guest at party of Mike Leigh awkwardness actually hints at a black man’s fabled sexual prowess, while a golf fan claims to be a huge fan of Tiger Woods, as if that absolves him.) Without giving the game away, things turn nasty, and disturbing, and you won’t see the twist coming, I swear. It’s funny and terrifying, and has so much to say, it ought not be this fleet of foot. But it is. Peele treads on toes without tripping up. One of the most original films of the year.

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We’ve already seen Elle Fanning in The Beguiled, and although I understand why her willowy presence is so fashionable right now, it’s a dangerous game to appear to be in everything. (I guess when you’re that thin you slot in easily.) She’s in 20th Century Women, a film you’d be certain from its title and its publicity was written and directed by a woman. It’s written and directed by Mike Mills, the one who isn’t in REM and who gave us the memorable Beginners, a film about men, a son and his gay dad. This is, inevitably, more female. Set in 1979 and appealingly soaked in punk and post-punk including Talking Heads, The Damned and The Clash. Fanning is a willowy occasional patron of Annette Bening’s free-for-all hippy boarding house in Santa Monica. Another tenant is Greta Gerwig’s pretentious cancer patient who discovers she has an “incompetent cervix” from her gynaecologist, dances to exorcise her anger, and, we’re told in voiceover, “saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and dyed her hair red.” Bening had her son (Lucas Jade Zumann) late and feels she’s too old to meaningfully steer him to young adulthood, recruiting the other women in her orbit to do it in shifts. So, it’s a coming-of-age, like The Beguiled, except the women are in charge of a teenage boy, not a wounded man. Ironically, he seems old beyond his years, confused that Fanning rejects him since he got “horny”. (“We don’t have sex!” she assures an adult who finds them in bed together.) Billy Crudup, another tenant, also a carpenter who’s renovating the tumbledown hotel California, is too obsessed with wood to find any traction with the kid.

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Pregnancy, cancer, menstruation, feminism, all are fit subjects for his ad hoc home-education, and you sort of envy him, as he drowns in radical thinking. I felt that the reliance on narration in the recent Bryan Cranston film Wakefield eventually did for it (it was adapted from a New Yorker short story, much of it word for word). But in 20th Century Women, it suits the quirky, episodic, Wes Anderson-indebted style. When the narration mentions a particular brand of fertility medication, we see a rostrum shot of a single pill from above; when Gerwig talks of a photography project, we see the Polaroids in sequence. That kind of caper. Mills also slots in genuine photos from the period (of Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols, that kind of caper), and it reminded me of the original of The Beguiled, which set its scene with genuine photos of the Civil War. There are no rules against it. I also loved Bening’s line about smoking: “You know, when I started, they weren’t bad for you.” Such economical signposting of age. She says, in narration, that she will die of lung cancer in 1999. It gives you quite a start: she’s suddenly omniscient. Bold writing, and worthy of its Oscar nomination.

In Get Out, Chris is lured into something unpleasant by psychotherapists. In 20th Century Women, everybody is either in therapy, or should be, or offers amateur psychoanalysis at the drop of a hat. If Get Out if post-Girls, this is pre-Girls. Jamie is artistically bullied by Black Flag fans – who spray-can his mother’s VW (“ART FAG”) – because he likes Talking Heads! (“The punk scene is very divisive,” observes Gerwig.) Jamie ends up telling his mom, “I’m dealing with everything right now. You’re dealing with nothing.”)

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My Cousin Rachel is the second big-screen adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel that’s actually a kind of “reverse Rebecca.” (Why wasn’t that on the posters?) Adapted and directed by Roger Michell, it’s as perfectly poised as The Beguiled, but its dramatic tableaux carry freight, emotional and narrative. Rachel Weisz was kind of born to play the title role, as she is also called Rachel, when Olive de Havilland wasn’t in the 1957 version. Sam Claflin in well cast from the neck up, in that he convinces as the orphaned heir of a wealthy cousin who inherits a Cornish estate and discovers another claimant on his inheritance, the titular cousin, half-Italian and suspected of foul play. When I say Claflin – who takes the role etched by Richard Burton in the 1957 one – is well cast from the neck up, I mean it literally. His face acting is first-rate – although when he has been a gullible fool throughout and finally admits, “I’ve been a fool”, one gentleman in the Curzon quietly exclaimed, “Yes, you have!” and other patrons laughed without malice. But at one point when, as in all costume dramas, he is forced by a sexist orthodoxy to take off his shirt, we see that his shoulders are not shoulder-shaped but triangular, as if perhaps this country fop was a bodybuilder. (In real life, like all young male actors, he presumably feels duty-bound to work out to within an inch of his life, and this often breaks the spell of costume drama. I mean there’s no way Ross Poldark got like that by cutting the grass.)

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Look at the above still. It’s a fabulous bit of location scouting in Devon, costume design, lighting, framing and cinematography. They have done Du Maurier proud.

I relish this Catholic spread of cinema. The most generic of all was Berlin Syndrome, a film I took to be German, as it’s set in Berlin, but turns out to be Australian, the third film of Cate Shortland, whose entire output I have seen without trying to. (She also made Somersault, set in Australia, and Lore, also set in Germany.) In it, an Aussie backpacker, Clare (Teresa Palmer) goes back to the flat of a German teacher, Andi (Max Riemelt); they sleep together; he goes off to work the next morning; she finds herself accidentally locked in his apartment. He gets home; she discovers that he has no intention of letting her out. (Imagine the torture of being a globe-trotting Australian traveller being locked into a flat with reinforced, acoustically soundproofed windows so no-one can hear you scream!) This film is a thriller, a chamber piece, and a very effective one. A touch of Rear Window about it, and a bit of hobbling that recalls Misery and The Beguiled.

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It’s not deep, but it is lyrically shot by Shortland, showing scenes of “normality” outside the flat that becomes Clare’s cell in slow motion, as if to underline the freedom of ordinary existence. There’s gore and terror, and more than a hint of Stockholm Syndrome – or is it? – to keep the otherwise claustrophobic story going. Andi is well played – he really is charming enough to convince girls back to his flat, and to keep his workmates in the staff room from suspecting (until he starts to unravel) – but it’s Palmer’s triumph. She is the victim, but does not play the victim. You’re willing her to get out.

The tennis is literally just finishing as I finish typing (Jamie Murray and Martina Hinglis are being interviewed after the doubles final). Five worthwhile films, two at the cinema, three at the laptop in coffee shops. If you’ve seen any of them, let me know what you thought.

Love film. Film love.

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TA127Wanna see something really scary? You kind of will, and you kind of won’t in my Halloween week Telly Addict, as I’ve been careful not to put in scenes of too much violence and horror that some viewers may find upsetting, from the start. There will be blood, though, with the choleric return of Ripper Street to BBC1, the nightmarish return of American Horror Story to Sky Atlantic, the imminent conclusion of Bates Motel on Universal, and the blood-sucking debut of NBC’s Dracula on Sky Living (if you can call it living etc.); also, a celebration of screwball dialogue on Veep on Sky Atlantic and some frankly terrifying lady-in-peril thriller cliches on The Escape Artist on BBC1. Don’t submerge your head in that bath!

Wrong on so many levels

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Tomorrow night, Tuesday, September 24, The Wrong Mans explodes onto BBC2, with only its own Hollywood-style trailer to beat. You can hardly have failed to notice that it’s one of many attempts on the popular imagination of Mr James Corden this autumn, which has also included the Toronto Film Festival premieres of imminent Billy Elliot-style Paul Potts biopic One Chance, in which he stars, and an American romcom Can A Song Save A Life?, in which he has a supporting role, plus a seventh run of A League Of Their Own on Sky1 as we speak. Of these, you get the feeling that, for the mutliple-stringed-bow-wielding Corden, The Wrongs Mans has the most riding on it, personally, and for self-evident reasons.

It’s a comedy thriller, in six parts, a feat that’s rarely attempted. A half-hour comedy that comes on like a Hollywood blockbuster – thanks to the resourceful acumen of director Jim Field Smith, and an injection of US cash from the Netflix-like Hulu. It stars Corden and co-writer Horrible Histories’ Mathew Baynton as two lowly Bracknell Council employees (actually, one actually works as a post boy for a company outsourced by the council) who get sucked into a dangerous underworld plot after Baynton picks up a discarded phone after a car crash in the opening minutes of Episode One that was make-or-break for the production. The pair almost talked themselves out of the expensive stage direction, second-guessing that it would prove a barrier to being commissioned. (It’s possible they’re being coy here – my fervent hope is that someone who co-wrote and starred in Gavin & Stacey has a bit of auto-clout in BBC pitch meetings.)

I’ve seen the first two episodes and they work on all of the levels they’re supposed to work on. They’re funny and thrilling. The action and jeopardy are real, the reactions of the clownish lead characters are comedic, but no matter how stupid they are, their decisions drive the plot. It works. When I say I’ve seen the first two episodes, I’ve seen them three times, because I hosted a preview in Edinburgh at the TV Festival last month, and a follow-up at Bafta in London at the start of this month. The pics above and below were taken by official Bafta photographer Jamie Simonds and reflect the grandeur and high cast attendance levels of the latter gig. (James couldn’t get the day off of filming Into The Woods, the Hollywood musical shooting in Pinewood and starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, and sadly missed out on Edinburgh.)

For Bafta, we had Jim Field Smith, co-star Sarah Soleman, Baynton and Corden – with co-stars Nick Moran and Emelia Fox, script editor Jeremy Dyson and urbane BBC exec Mark Freeland in the audience, among other key crew – and it was a fine evening. I’ll give a few highlights of the conversation we had, but your best bet is to download or stream the Bafta podcast, which is available here. (There are plenty of others here on the Bafta Guru mini-site, too, including one from July with the cast and creators of Chickens.)

Corden and Baynton first met on the set of Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (a fine British music industry film, directed by Nick Moran, who challenged the three stars it is awarded in the Radio Times when I met him in the bar afterwards and proudly proclaimed it “a four star film”), but they came up with The Wrong Mans – terrible title, but you get used to it – when working together on Gavin & Stacey, where Baynton played Deano.

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Corden: “It was at that time when everyone was starting to watch those American box sets – 24 and so on … TV with higher production values and where the stakes seemed to be a lot higher. We wondered why no one’s trying to do that in a a half-hour comedy. We’d also been to see Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers film, and both really liked it and thought it was very funny and thought, ‘We should have a go at doing this.'”

“We had this great opening, and we wrote this script on spec. We didn’t pitch it as an idea to anyone, we just wrote 35 pages … We put in very specific details, like the fact that the car spins three times, because we wanted anyone who was reading it, a commissioner or anyone, to not be left in doubt as to what it would need to be made.”

Baynton: “Some of the stuff that you assume is expensive, isn’t. What is expensive is time.”

Field Smith: “With that car stunt we had one go at it. If that car doesn’t flip the way it’s rigged to flip, then we’re reverting to Plan B, which is a car skidding out of shot and a hubcap rolling back, which was exactly what we wanted to avoid. We tried not to make choices that are comedic choices. With so many actors coming and going some of them would show up and not necessarily know what the mood is. There were a couple of moments where I’d have to go, ‘No. Wrong show. We’re not making Naked Gun.'”

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While BBC2 is screening the episodes in traditional weekly instalments, Hulu is releasing all the episodes online at the same time so if you are resident in the US, or operate on the wrong side of the law, you can binge on it like it’s House Of Cards or Orange Is The New Black or something equally hip and glamorous. Baynton says: “That’s sort of how it was written. We want people to get to the end of the episode and go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to watch the next one!'”

I suspect you will.

I must admit, I’ve loved hanging out with the Wrong Mans cast, execs and crew. I’d been dying to meet Mat Baynton ever since he played Charles Dickens as Morrissey on Horrible Histories, and although we were denied James Corden in Edinburgh, he compensated in London by hanging around afterwards for drinks when, as a fairly new dad with a wife and a two-year-old son and someone who had been in Pinewood all day, he would have been forgiven for hopping it early. It’s been a while since he shook off the prima donna reputation that dogged him around the time of Horne & Corden (I’ve met Matt Horne a number of times too, and he’s an unassumingly nice chap, too), and if anything, with nothing to prove after One Man, Two Guvnors and its Tony-magnet success on Broadway, Corden has nothing to prove. And yet he behaves as if he has. I don’t believe this is an act.

Mind you, he is a good actor. I’ve admired his work since I saw his film debut in Shane Meadows’ TwentyFourSeven when he was 18 (he played Frank Harper’s kid Tonka). He’s continually played his weight to his advantage and even though he’s slimmed down, it’s his physique next to Baynton’s wiry frame that makes their chemistry so comedic. There’s something Laurel and Hardy about them. Having been involved in the show’s promotion within the industry, I feel quite attached to it, but if I’d never met anybody connected with it and just seen the first two episodes, I’d say: watch it. It’s right on so many levels.

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72 Hours

Never mind 127 hours, this film does it in 72. Actually, it doesn’t. Most of the action in The Next Three Days – whose underwhelmingly generic title seems almost designed to induce indifference and prevent you from going in to see it – actually takes place before the three days in question, but hey. (It’s funny to hear people asking at the box office for “a ticket for the next three days, please.”) It’s the fast-turnaround Hollywood remake of a well-liked French directorial debut from 2008, Anything For Her or Pour elle, which is a better title either way. I didn’t see it, but I know it was about an ordinary, mild-mannered geography teacher who has to break his wife out of prison after she is wrongly convicted of murder. The American remake, written and directed by Paul Haggis, seems to be pretty much identical. Except Russell Crowe is an ordinary, mild-mannered English teacher, which gives him the opportunity to be shown teaching a class about Don Quixote and Haggis the opportunity to make some comparison between what he has to do and what Cervantes’ hero had to do, although to be honest, I’ve forgotten what profound thing this was.

It’s a pretty good thriller, actually, the sort that would work just as well when it turns up on telly, and which strives for Hitchcockian, as they all do, and never quite gets there. I haven’t seen the original, so I’ll take it on trust that it’s virtually identical, because I’ve read that it is; except it’s about 30 minutes longer. Why? What has Haggis added, or stretched out? I don’t know. But it seems a little self-indulgent, or flabby, to fail to wrap up the same film in roughly the same running time. Maybe the big stars like to be on screen for longer? Maybe a 122-minute film feels more important than a 96-minute one?

I have no problem with Russell Crowe. I didn’t like him in Robin Hood, but I’m generally happy to see his craggy, weatherbeaten features on the front of a leading man in general. He’s a big, Gary Cooper/John Wayne/Spencer Tracy beast, except with enough James Stewart everyman to carry off roles that exist beneath or outside the bluster of action man heroics, such as The Insider, or A Beautiful Mind. Here, he’s a James Stewart who has to find his inner Gary Cooper, and he manages both, notwithstanding his beefed-up bulk, which doesn’t exactly scream English teacher. At least he keeps his jacket on throughout. He can be a very quiet actor, which I like. Tom Cruise, who I like for different reasons, would struggle to convince as an English teacher. (And that’s a compliment to English teachers.) Anyway, I went to see The Next Three Days with virtually no foreknowledge of the plot, or even who was in it. So it was, for me, a pleasant surprise to find Elizabeth Banks as Crowe’s banged-up wife, Liam Neeson in a single-scene cameo as an old lag, our own Lennie James as the detective (he’s an honorary American now, as so many British actors are), and Brian Dennehy, House‘s Olivia Wilde and Daniel Stern in tiny parts, too. All this decent casting gives a thriller an edge, for me. No matter how unlikely the plot is. (Hey, I enjoyed the first two seasons of Prison Break – I don’t need it to be a documentary.)

All credit to Fred Cavayé, who wrote the French original: the essentially preposterous prison breakout plot unfolds with enough inconvenient setbacks to counter its convenient jackpots, and you won’t see Crowe’s Neeson-predicted Eureka moment coming (unless you saw the original, in which case, you will see it coming). No more plot details. Don’t want to spoil your fun. Paul Haggis is a capable action director, although is that really what he’s for? There’s a lot of air blowing through this one compared to the issue-heavy films he’s directed previously (Crash: racism comes in many forms; In The Valley Of Elah: war, what is it good for? + you can’t trust the US military to solve its own crimes). I guess we shouldn’t complain about that. It’s a functioning thriller, not a polemic. Also, some dislike Haggis’s finger-wagging. There is none of that here, just Russell Crowe running, driving, writing things on a map, trying not to get beaten to a pulp by Pittsburgh’s shady underworld characters while he attempts to buy false passports and successfully keeping his young son onside until those “next three days” kick in.

Unlike 127 Hours, I do not urge you to go and see it. I like to save up my urging. Although I enjoyed it.