The opening of The Beguiled is lush on every level: Mist hangs in the moss-draped trees as a young girl goes out mushroom-picking, her singing underscored by an uncanny low rumble. We’re in the Civil War South, so that rumble must be battle, a muffled sound that barely intrudes on the idyllic scene. This is director Sofia Coppola in signature mode, creating voluptuous sights and sounds that disguise a serious deficiency of ideas. The Beguiled may be the most inert of Coppola’s films, a vapid cruise through an isolated hothouse. Along with its other shortcomings, it’s not nearly as interesting (and nowhere near as perverse) as the 1971 film that precedes it, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood.
There’s a talking dog in Beginners, the 2010 movie that won Christopher Plummer a supporting-actor Oscar. To be precise, the dog speaks in subtitles, which might make the premise easier, or possibly harder, to take. As a general rule I am not opposed to talking-canine scenarios; for instance, the title pet of the cult picture A Boy and His Dog makes a strong argument for the idea. But in Beginners, it was one thing too many in a film that already pushed the boundaries of cuteness.
Its writer/director, Mike Mills, returns with 20th Century Women, a movie with an attractive premise and cast. It’s set in 1979—a cool time to be young, despite what you may have heard—and it puts three distinctive actresses at the forefront of a coming-of-age story.
The Neon Demon (Broadgreen, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.” We first meet Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old girl from Middle America looking to leverage her youth and innocent beauty into a modeling career in Los Angeles, made up as a glamorous victim of a decadent world. Sprawled out in designer clothes across an expensive couch with fake blood slathered across her neck and dripping down her arm, she could be shooting the ad for her own fate in the big bad city.
Nicholas Winding Refn, who wrote and directed his social commentary-as-heady horror film, isn’t big on subtlety. Elle Fanning is an enormously talented young actress who has become shorthand casting for innocence, youth, and authenticity, and that serves Refn’s purposes perfectly. She does indeed have that “deer in the headlights” look, as her agent says in one of the on-the-nose lines that fills the script, and her fresh look, not yet jaded by LA decadence, makes her the next big thing in a culture where the supermodels du jour age out of their prime at 20.
Maleficent (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD) does sort of a “Wicked” number on the story of Sleeping Beauty’s evil sorceress, casting her as the tragic figure of a dark fantasy (but not too dark for children—barely) of a revisionist fairy tale. Angelina Jolie plays the adult Maleficent, a fairy who watches over and defends the natural and supernatural wilds from human assault. With her magnificent leathery wings and curled horns, she has the look of a beautiful demon (even her cheekbones are sharpened to an edge that look like they could cut an unwary lover to ribbons) but is at heart an innocent, a primeval force whose emotions are pure and motives without guile. Her betrayal, at the hands of a human (Sharlto Copley) who was once a friend and lover, is an assault so personal and intimate and disfiguring that children can’t help but feel the transgression as a terrible, horrible wrong while adults see it as a form of rape. It is as powerful a dramatic moment you will see in an American film, let alone a mainstream spectacle, and coupled with Jolie’s committed performance (ripples of personality and conflicted emotions, as well as a playful sense of humor, play under even her iciest moments), it gives the film a power beyond the CGIed-to-monotony fantasy designs and magical creatures.
Not to slight Elle Fanning, who plays the princess Aurora as another innocent whose purity gets under Maleficent’s vengeful shell. Fanning has the ability to radiate pure joy and wonder and does so, but Jolie shows us that the potential for love is still within her, merely buried under rage and hatred and vengeance. It is a righteous revenge film, but with a feminist twist and a redemptive journey. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz: “The movie is a mess, but it’s a rich mess. It has weight. It matters.”
The five featurettes are quite brief (the longest, “From Fairy Tale to Feature Film,” runs only eight minutes) and there are five deleted scenes. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Disney Anywhere Digital HD copies.
A Most Wanted Man (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) will stand as the final film completed by Philip Seymour Hoffman before his untimely death in February and that alone is reason enough to see the film, adapted from the post 9/11 novel by John le Carré and directed by Anton Corbijn, a music video veteran who becomes more accomplished with each feature. Hoffman has the ability to lose himself in his roles and as Günther Bachmann, the leader of covert German intelligence agency that monitors potential terrorist activity, he seems to pare down a performance to give us a man who betrays nothing of what he’s thinking or feeling yet radiates a gentle warmth for his team (made up of superb German actors Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, and Franz Hartwig). All we really know is his loyalty to his country and to his crew, and they return that loyalty in spades.
The old postapocalyptic shuffle is alive in Young Ones, but this catastrophe is more credible than most such speculations. The problem here is water, which has evaporated, at least in this corner of the world. Patriarch Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon, apocalypse vet from Take Shelter) trades trinkets in exchange for supplies, and just manages to keep hold of his “farm”—a patch of brown desert—in hope that the soil needs only the rain to come back. But the film’s real attention is on the next generation, played by a trio of child stars aging into young adulthood. Holm’s patient son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee, the kid from The Road) and resentful daughter Mary (Elle Fanning) must negotiate their future with the ambitious Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult of Warm Bodies, soon to appear in the Mad Max reboot). Ernest isn’t crazy about Flem hanging around with Mary, for reasons that turn out to be pretty well-founded.