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A Boy With Powers? Run!

Imagine a remake of Cape Fear shot like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with Max Cady recast as a child, and you’ll have some idea of the strangeness of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It was one of the most divisive titles at this year’s Cannes festival, thanks to its delirious story and aggressively arty stylization — and it’s sure to continue to divide audiences now that it’s finally coming out. It’s the kind of picture where emotions are almost (almost) always played in cool, deadpan fashion — even as characters’ lives collapse around them — and narrative logic is strained until it goes fully absurd.

But I was mostly charmed (is that the word?) by this poisoned curio, in which brilliant heart surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) is told by Martin (Barry Keoghan), the young, troubled son of a patient who died at the doctor’s hands, that he must choose one family member to sacrifice in order to save the others. A sudden, mysterious illness has already robbed Stephen’s young son Bob (Sunny Suljic) of the use of his legs, and Martin says that the boy’s death is imminent unless Stephen makes a choice. Teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) soon becomes afflicted as well, and Martin assures everyone that Stephen’s wife (Nicole Kidman) will be next. How is Martin making this happen? Can he be stopped? These are questions for another movie. In Lanthimos’s oracular world, the boy’s power is total and unquestioned. And Keoghan (who demonstrated his remarkable range in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk earlier this year) walks a perfect line between awkward teen and metaphysical force.

Like all good parables, the premise of Sacred Deer has flexibility. You can read any number of political, historical, or religious overtones into it: broken children claiming a blood debt from those responsible for their agony, and the sacrifices that have to be made in return. And the director knows how to weave a spell, with his impeccably symmetrical frames, his precise camera moves, his careful blocking of actors, his sudden crashes of classical music. (Does it feel a little like he’s borrowing too much from The Shining at points? Sure, but if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best.) Plus, Lanthimos’s formal approach makes narrative and thematic sense: He crafts a cinematic world that can support his otherworldly scenario, while also creating genuine suspense.

For a while, at least. For most of its running time, Sacred Deer works as a series of actions and emotions and attitudes that, while taken to symbolic extremes, still feel vaguely rooted in recognizable reality. But as things spun out of control, getting ever stranger, I started to wonder if the director had merely written himself into a corner and was doubling down on weirdness to get himself out. And yet the film never quite loses its mythic drive. You walk out feeling like you’ve truly had an experience.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
A24
Opens October 20, AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13

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The Sofia Coppola Touch

We all have some idea of what the Sofia Coppola Style is like: dreamy, delicate, bathed in melancholy pop. But think of how different the plangent lyricism of The Virgin Suicides is from the digitized, fame-obsessed frenzy of The Bling Ring. Or the austere long takes of Somewhere from the gloriously colorful postpunk cacophony of Marie Antoinette.

The aesthetics are different, though each rendered with that impressionistic touch, somehow both buoyant and melancholy. Coppola’s films turn on the twin poles of solitude and solidarity. On one side, you’ve got the loners of Lost in Translation and Somewhere; on the other, the girl collectives of The Virgin Suicides and Bling Ring. But the boundaries blur: In Marie Antoinette, we see a lonely teen who’s been made queen of France find and build and lose her own little community.

Now Coppola has released what might be her most ambitious movie yet — a remake of the 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film The Beguiled, adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, A Painted Devil, in which a wounded Union soldier is sheltered by an isolated group of women in a Virginia girls seminary and slowly sows discord, sexual and otherwise. It’s a story with overtones of gothic horror, dripping with period detail. And, once again, the director has made it her own.

In The Beguiled, the loner and the collective collide: Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), understandably reluctant to be delivered either to prison or back to the battlefield, insinuates himself among these women, charming each in different ways — until they begin to resist. “He knows how to manipulate their weaknesses,” Coppola explains. Chief among his targets is the schoolteacher, Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a repressed, retiring woman who begins to see in him the possibility of escape and a better life. But even the seminary’s rational, exacting headmistress, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), isn’t impervious to this man’s charms.

McBurney’s seductions were handled rather bluntly in the atmospheric and somewhat hysterical 1971 film, which had Eastwood as a charismatic, lying sleazebag who, even as he lay nearly dying of a leg wound in the opening scene, found time to kiss the young girl who’d discovered him. (The film came out around the same time as the better-known Siegel/Eastwood collaboration Dirty Harry, and an entire cultural history of the United States could probably be written about how Eastwood’s scuzzy Sixties and Seventies antiheroes came to be blueprints for politicians in later years.)

It is interesting that the character of McBurney is somewhat more likable in the version of The Beguiled directed by a woman. Shouldn’t a feminist take on this material further indulge the male character’s villainy? Maybe not: The women of the 1971 Beguiled sometimes come off as weak, undone by their own need, as they fall for a man who is so clearly monstrous. “I wanted to see it from their view,” Coppola explains of her version. “You can see that he’s charming and understand why they get wrapped up in him. I want the audience to try to figure him out as the women do.”

Coppola is famously quiet and doesn’t like to analyze her work too much; she insists that much of what she does is intuitive. “There are all kinds of things that you do that you’re not totally aware of until stepping back,” she says. But don’t let the understated quality of her pictures, or her soft-spoken personality, deceive you into thinking that Coppola doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing. She’s been doing it for two decades, and she has produced one of the most expressive filmographies of any working American director.

When a director remakes a movie, they usually either completely love the original or feel it was missing something. Was either the case here?

I wouldn’t think to remake a classic film, but I feel like I was just doing it from a different point of view. I think The Beguiled is a classic in its genre for people that really know films — but a lot of people don’t know it, and it definitely has a very Seventies B-movie style. I wanted to go back to this story and retell it my way. And I felt like enough time had passed and my approach was so different that it could exist as a conversation with the other one — between the male and female point of view. I didn’t relate to how the Seventies film dealt with women’s sexuality, and I wanted to deal with that in a more relatable way.

Some people find the original really campy. I don’t know if it’s campy so much as just kind of…

Over the top!

Yeah. But you have a very light touch with this material.

I don’t ever want to be heavy-handed. The material is so melodramatic, or just dramatic — I didn’t want it to be full camp, but to still have humor and playfulness, and also connect with the more emotional side. So, a balance, just trying to find that tone….In life, you can have darkness and humor together, and I appreciate those contrasts. But I don’t really think too much about it; it’s just my sensibility.

What kind of inspirations did you draw on?

I always try to collect images with my art department — the photographer and the team that’s helping with the visuals — so we’re all on the same page. I also looked at other films: The Innocents with Deborah Kerr, and [Roman Polanski’s] Tess, for the natural photography. We looked at some scenes from Hitchcock for suspense. It’s a blur of stuff. I studied little images from some Italian films from the Sixties, Seventies. And [Polanski’s] Fearless Vampire Killers. I didn’t always revisit these; you just have references in your mind of things you’ve seen.

You seem fascinated by rituals. Virgin Suicides, Somewhere, Marie Antoinette — your characters, even when they’re loners, always find themselves at the center of different rituals.

I never thought about that, but it’s true. I could totally see that, now that you say it. There are so many rituals in life, and femininity is a lot about rituals.

So often your characters exist in groups. Is that something that you have to work with your actors on, to create that dynamic?

It’s just natural between girls and women. But definitely, with [The Beguiled], it was important. I had them spend some time together before we did the film. With the little girls, the students, they became friends and they hung out together on location. I wanted them to feel natural doing the things that women did at that time. They took sewing lessons and dance lessons or etiquette lessons. It helped them bond. You see that onscreen and feel like they have a familiarity.

When it comes to period detail, is there a point at which you have to step back and say, “OK, this is authentic enough, now I have to be freer and bring my sensibility to it”?

I always want it to be approachable, or naturalistic, in a way that you can connect with the characters. With the costumes, I decided that they shouldn’t wear their hoop skirts, because they’ve been working in the field — but also, it looks more like a silhouette that kids will relate to today. So that was a challenge: how to be authentic to the period, but also still relatable. And the dialogue, too: If we would change a line at the last minute, I’d think, “That has to sound like the period, but I also want it to sound naturalistic in a way that we can relate to as a modern audience.”

You’ve been criticized for cutting out the slave character.

The slave character was written in a really stereotypical way, and I didn’t want to make a movie about racial politics in the Civil War. So I decided just to focus on the women. When I went through the book I focused on the characters and sections I wanted to know more about and that I connected to. I left out the incest story, for example. I was very thoughtful about what I was going to include and not include. The process of adapting a book requires a lot of focus and thought on what you feel is at the core of the story you want to tell.

Some might say that by avoiding the character entirely, you’re helping to erase that aspect of history.

I thought it would be worse to make the stereotypical character and then not treat that story with respect, to just brush over it lightly. It’s too important. It’s another movie. I’m also trying to focus on the story about this group of women and this man. So to have a little side character I think would be disrespectful to that story….I thought a lot about it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’ll just snip that part out.” I just thought to do it in a light way without giving it respect would not be the right thing to do.

I’m intrigued by the way you use nature in the film. In the opening scene, the girl is picking mushrooms, and McBurney emerges from the mushrooms and the trees, like a force of nature. That’s in the Siegel as well, but I feel like you lean into that idea more.

These Southern ladies are so contained, and they’re cut off in their delicate world. So there’s this threat of nature, and the vines are growing in, and they’re going to take over the house soon. And the contrast of their inside, feminine world with the war and the brutal world outside.

You use sound interestingly to achieve that.

Oh, thank you. When I was writing the script, I thought a lot about that, because working with our sound designer Richard Beggs for so many years, he taught me to pay attention to those details, and I wanted that to be a key element. Because it’s so stark, and to keep the tension going, I wanted to really reflect a sense of the place with the cannons in the distance, and the sounds of nature.

In the first half, we hear the cannons in the distance. In the second half, we’ll see the outside of the house and hear the sounds of the domestic conflict coming from inside. So it’s as if the sound of warfare has infiltrated the house.

Oh, that’s interesting. I’m gonna use that! It wasn’t a conscious decision, but subconsciously it makes sense. I knew that I wanted the cannons to leave. The troops are moving on, so the women are really abandoned now. The war has moved on. But it’s true that then the war comes inside. There is more violence to the sound in that last section, and so it makes sense that it shifts. There’s a rhythm to the editing. But it’s intuitive; I’ve always tried to be open to what happens when you’re in the place, and not to plan it out too much. I never really plan out the shots until we’re there on the day with the actors and the setting, and then they rehearse. They’re going to have opinions about what feels natural to them, and then we figure out how to shoot it.

You’ve now made three films with Kirsten Dunst, all at different stages of her career. How has your relationship changed?

Knowing each other now for so long, we have a history and of course we have a shorthand. And when I met her she was a kid. And now, you know, she’s an adult woman, and she’s getting married, and so we relate to each other in a different way….As far as acting together, we always had a connection where she got me and I didn’t have to tell her that much. But on The Beguiled, more and more we can speak less. We have an understanding, a similar sensibility and sense of humor. There’s a trust there. I know that she’ll convey something in a way that I will like. But this was interesting to see her play so against type, which we haven’t done before. The character is so different from who she is. It was interesting to see her turn into this very other personality than what I know of her.

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Cannes’s Beguilements

Imagine a remake of Cape Fear shot like Kubrick’s The Shining, with Max Cady recast as a child, and you’ll have some idea of the strangeness of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The film has quickly proved to be one of the most divisive titles at this year’s Cannes festival, thanks to its delirious story and aggressively arty stylization. It’s the kind of picture where emotions are almost (almost) always played in cool, deadpan fashion — even as people’s lives collapse around them — and narrative logic is strained until it goes fully absurd.

But I was mostly charmed (is that the word?) by this poisoned curio, in which brilliant heart surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) is told by Martin (Barry Keoghan), the young, troubled son of a patient who died at the doctor’s hands, that he must choose one family member to sacrifice in order to save the others. A sudden, mysterious illness has already robbed Stephen’s young son Bob (Sunny Suljic) of the use of his legs, and Martin says that the boy’s death is imminent unless Stephen makes a choice. Teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) eventually joins her brother in paralysis, and we’re assured that Stephen’s wife (Nicole Kidman) will be next. How is Martin making this happen? Can he be stopped? — these are questions for another movie. In Lanthimos’s oracular world, the boy’s power is total and unquestioned.

Like all good parables, this one has flexibility. You can read any number of political, historical, or religious overtones into it: broken children claiming a blood debt from those responsible for their agony, and the sacrifices that have to be made in return. And the director knows how to weave a spell. With his impeccably symmetrical frames, his precise camera moves, his careful blocking of actors, his sudden crashes of classical music, Lanthimos crafts a cinematic world that can support his otherworldly scenario, while also creating genuine suspense.

For a while, at least. For most of its running time, Sacred Deer works as a series of actions and emotions and attitudes that, while taken to symbolic extremes, still feel vaguely rooted in recognizable reality. But as things spin out of control, getting ever stranger, I started to wonder if the director had merely written himself into a corner and was doubling down on weirdness to get himself out. And yet the film never quite loses its mythic drive. You walk out feeling like you’ve had an experience.

Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are also center-stage in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a Civil War–set gothic drama about a wounded Union soldier who’s taken in by the headmistress and students of a secluded, all-female Virginia seminary. Based on Thomas Cullinen’s novel and previously filmed in 1971 by Don Siegel with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, it’s a tale of repressed desires and sexual power dynamics that could easily lead, on the screen, to over-the-top silliness. (Some consider the 1971 version campy, but I always found it more disarmingly sleazy than ridiculous.)

Coppola’s a master at taking something that could be portentous and rendering it delicate, thereby reclaiming its depth. (Think back to the lilting mood of The Virgin Suicides.) The emotions in The Beguiled are simple and understated, and you feel more for the characters as a result. As Corporal John McBurney (Farrell) is nursed back to health, he starts to toy with the women and young girls of the seminary, in an effort to get them to let him stay. But it’s not as if they needed much extra encouragement: They’re donning their nicest clothes and jewelry not long after he arrives. And everyone’s aware of it, too — the innuendo and stolen glances are quick and playful, not belabored or heated.

The character dynamics transfix — particularly the interplay between headmistress Miss Martha (Kidman) and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, excellent as always) — but I was most taken with the way Coppola uses style to create meaning. In the first half, we hear but almost never see bombs in the distance, a regular reminder of the battlefield’s proximity. As the story becomes darker and more violent, Coppola often cuts to exterior shots of the seminary, and we hear the shouting and stomping come from inside the building — as if the war has finally infiltrated the grounds and these girls’ reality.

But this isn’t an artificial, outside violence that has entered this sheltered idyll. Coppola’s foregrounding of texture suggests that this male intruder and all he’s come to represent is as much an organic, elemental fact as the mushrooms these girls pick in the nearby woods and the earth they dig in their garden. Meanwhile, the black smoke of war rising in the distance looks not unlike the silhouettes of the trees from behind which it emerges. The cruelties, jealousies, and manipulations of The Beguiled, the director implies, are natural — they come from within. And the haunting series of shots that end the film suggests that what’s emerged will never go away.

After the focus on lost children and failed institutions in the early days of the festival, Cannes now seems to have entered a phase of exploring broken families. (Even The Beguiled could be seen as a fable about the breakdown of a spiritual family.) Besides The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the two most notable works in that regard might be Michael Haneke’s sour, dour, impenetrable Happy End and Noah Baumbach’s ingratiating, touching The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).

As the title suggests, the latter is a self-consciously ambling comedy, one exploring the relationship between two very different brothers (Adam Sandler is the unemployed, divorced layabout, Ben Stiller the high-powered accountant to the stars) and their failed-artist father (Dustin Hoffman). It doesn’t quite have the drive and stylistic panache of other recent Baumbach efforts, but it makes up for it with sincerity. Sandler’s core as a performer has always been self-loathing; in his best comedies, he weaponizes it with humiliating ruthlessness. Here, however, he internalizes it, as his character struggles both to raise his precocious college-bound daughter (a wonderful Grace Van Patten) and bond with his judgmental, old-school–New York art-elite dad.

Baumbach perfectly captures the passive-aggressive and sometimes genuinely aggressive-aggressive back-and-forth between siblings and parents and children, plus the unstated hierarchies of the New York intelligentsia. When Hoffman attends a MoMA event for an old pal who eventually became an art-world big shot, the stew of feelings — entitlement, envy, judgment, regret — that plays across his face and in his words is nearly heartbreaking. That scene also contains one exchange that I have actually witnessed in real life: the pathetic sight of a famous artist walking past a curator in mid-conversation and casually saying, “I’m not talking to you,” thereby guaranteeing that the curator will stop whatever he’s doing and go talk to the artist.

I wish there were anything in Michael Haneke’s Happy End remotely as insightful and cutting as that one throwaway moment in The Meyerowitz Stories. Instead, Haneke has delivered the Haneke film that Haneke-haters see in their heads when they think of a Haneke film: a series of disjointed, narratively oblique episodes showing people being inhumane to each other. It all centers on a comically dysfunctional Calais family whose wealth comes from a construction empire. Everybody’s got something going on: Wheelchair-bound patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) wants to end his life, and even asks random strangers to do so; his daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) is trying to manage the family business; her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is carrying on a lurid affair, thus betraying his second wife; Thomas’s daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) has most likely poisoned her mother and is now trying to settle in with her father’s fucked-up family; Anne’s dopey grown son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) struggles to contain the damage caused by a horrific accident on one of their construction sites.

It’s a smorgasbord of privilege and isolation and incompetence and madness, often delivered via scenes shot from so far away that we’re never entirely sure what we’re seeing. The material — framed, subtly, against the European refugee crisis and the toxic racial inequities of our day — feels ripe for Haneke, whose previous films have so expertly cut through the hidden monsters of social ritual and acceptable behavior. But in spreading his focus around these different figures, he loses the slow-burning energy needed to convey his outrage, as well as the hint of perverse empathy that, no matter what his critics say, always lies beneath his work. Haneke’s not unfeeling; he usually just asks audiences to meet him halfway. But with the cold, messy, and fundamentally irritating Happy End, I can’t help but feel he’s abandoned us entirely.

 

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Jessica Chastain Saves Miss Julie From the Arcane

Strenuously acted dramas make for strenuous viewing, and Liv Ullmann’s rigorous adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which uproots the action to 19th-century Ireland, is no exception.

Jessica Chastain plays Julie, the lonely daughter of a baron, who enters into a night of drunken flirtation and emotional abuse with her father’s scummy, manipulative valet, John (Colin Farrell). Chastain is a veteran stage actress, just as Ullmann was before her collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, and Ullmann’s simple directorial style brings out the best in her: There’s just enough bite in Chastain’s arrogant, tempestuous Julie to save the film from being an arcane dramatic exercise with great art direction. As Julie moves from boredom and frustration to despair, the strain is visible in her unkempt hair, her shaking hands, and her face, eventually streaked with blood.

Through Ullmann’s lens, John is a less complex figure, whose grotesque misogyny overshadows the play’s commentary on class tensions. He’s a true, shuddering “shitpile,” as Julie calls him — beware a scene in which he administers a harsh fate to a pet bird — and Farrell plays him as a slick-haired, shifty-eyed charmer bent on destruction. Samantha Morton, meanwhile, wrings truth from a minor role as Kathleen, a pious cook whose steadfast morality clashes with the whiplash emoting of the leads; while all the crying, panting, and sadomasochistic boot-kissing is going on in the kitchen, Kathleen understandably retreats to her bedroom with Julie’s pet pug.

There’s a humanist undercurrent in Ullmann’s portrayal of these very different women, but there’s precious little justice for either one of them. Despite a few dynamite scenes from Chastain, Miss Julie‘s cruelty is more potent than its craft.

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Winter’s Tale Is Pretty and not Much Else

It’s a little sad that Colin Farrell has outgrown roles that require him to wear raggedy sweaters and say things like “For fook’s sake!” It had to happen, though. Farrell has always made a terrific bad boy, but he clearly knows he couldn’t be a scamp forever, and he seems to be settling into some very serious, responsible-adult roles. Last year he played a doting, if heavy-drinking, father in Saving Mr. Banks. Now, in Akiva Goldsman’s Winter’s Tale, based on Mark Helprin’s bestselling novel set in a mythical version of early 20th-century Manhattan, he plays Peter Lake, a petty criminal who tries to go straight, much to the dismay of the demonic, supranaturally gifted crime boss Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), who raised him from boyhood. As it turns out, Peter has some fookin’ extraordinary powers himself, though he won’t find out what they are until well into the following century.

If you haven’t guessed already — and if you haven’t read Helprin’s book — you should know that Winter’s Tale is laced heavily with magical woo-woo. If you’re a reasonably rational human being, you may snort at the way Peter’s consumptive love interest, Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), exclaims to her newspaper-publisher father (William Hurt), “The sicker I become, the more clearly I can see that everything is connected by light!” as beams of CG radiance glint around her. But provided you know what you’re in for, the first chunk of Winter’s Tale — the romantic part, before Peter is consigned to being a boring old Jesus figure — offers some modest escapist pleasures, not least thanks to Farrell’s sweet, earnest intensity and the presence of a rather spectacular flying white horse.

Because if having a horse in a movie is almost always a good idea, having a flying white horse ridden by Colin Farrell is pretty much the ne plus ultra. Farrell is an extraordinarily appealing actor, a five-o’-clock-shadow charmer. But even with those mad, Groucho Marx eyebrows — like two fat black caterpillars meeting on a leaf and saying “How d’you do?” — and his (now diminished) party boy reputation, on film Farrell has always come off as a contemplative fellow, one who carries worry with him wherever he goes. The role of Peter Lake requires him to be a shy, sexy heartthrob in the movie’s first half and a savior in the second — he pulls it off as well as anyone could. And his first meeting with that white horse is more pleasingly earthbound than cartoonishly fantastical. Approaching this lovely creature, with its inquisitive eyes and fine, silver-gray forelock, he shows the humility of a stable boy and a sense of wonder at its otherworldly beauty. Horse and rider are a match — as you would expect, there’s a spiritual connection — though later, Jack will appear shirtless with the feverish heiress Beverly, which is a different sort of magic altogether.

Unfortunately, it all goes south when Jennifer Connelly shows up as a modern-day newspaper columnist and super-worried mom. That’s not Connelly’s fault; she’s a fine, luminous actress. But that’s when Winter’s Tale switches from a lavish mystical fantasy into a ponderous fable about destiny and miracles and stuff. Goldsman has written heaps of screenplays, and the list of movies he’s produced is even longer, but Winter’s Tale is his feature directing debut — he hits all the beats, which often makes the proceedings feel perfunctory, and in the clinch, he overreaches for pathos. Still, he keeps the story moving smoothly enough. And the picture has a rich, handsome look, courtesy of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Even though the super-magical stuff is highly infused with CGI, Deschanel blends it seamlessly with brick-and-mortar reality.

Some of Winter’s Tale is just flat-out pretty enough to work. Beverly and her family own a glorious fairy-tale mansion perched at the edge of a frozen lake — the scene is winter wonderland central, a confection of dazzling, sparkly whiteness. And while you wouldn’t call his performance believable or realistic, Crowe seems to be having a grand old time as a glowering villain. How often does he get to play the kind of guy who consults — and takes seriously — a bunch of enchanted glowing gems, or who has to bow and scrape when he meets with one of Beelzebub’s loyal servants (played by Will Smith)? Winter’s Tale, however imperfect, is that rare beast on the movie landscape: an unapologetic romance (for the first two-thirds, anyway), with attractive stars and special effects designed to give audiences something other than the experience of watching worlds get blown up. And even when he isn’t flying, the horse is still pretty magnificent. You don’t have to dress up nature that much to get close to magic.

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Dead Man Down is Not Movieland, U.S.A.’s Best Offering

Nominally set in Manhattan but in actuality taking place in Movieland, U.S.A., where the police don’t materialize even when exploding cars are rammed into buildings in order to instigate machine-gun shootouts, Dead Man Down posits a reality in which Colin Farrell is a Hungarian engineer-turned-criminal, F. Murray Abraham is his uncle, Noomi Rapace is a French beautician with a scarred face, and Isabelle Huppert as her near-deaf mother. The stateside debut of Niels Arden Oplev (responsible for the original, lousy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), this laughably plotted and miscast saga follows Farrell’s Victor as he attempts to orchestrate elaborate murderous revenge against current mobster employer Alphonse (Terrence Howard) for the slaughter of his wife and daughter. That course of action in turn bonds him with Rapace’s Beatrice, who blackmails Victor into killing the drunk driver who marred her visage. It’s all so much turgid brooding, dialogue underlined with import, and leaden symbolism involving Rapace’s white and red dresses, none of which is salvaged by a typically understated Farrell performance. There isn’t a moment that doesn’t seem to have originated in a prior, better film, save for a perplexingly random and unintentionally amusing scene featuring Huppert thanking Farrell for returning her Tupperware.

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Total Recall

Total Recall, directed by Len Wiseman, aspires to be less stupid than its 1990 predecessor and kind of succeeds for the first third of the film. If you subtract all the metaphysical illusion-versus-reality nonsense, Philip K. Dick’s Walter Mitty story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” on which both films are based is basically a middle-age power fantasy by a middle-age writer, in which an insignificant schlub discovers that his wife is a bitch and that his true identity is a secret agent. Infantile, but fun! The increasingly Fred Flintstonian Colin Farrell is Douglas Quaid, a discontented line worker down at the RoboCop factory, who visits a bento-bar-looking company called Rekall for an escapist memory implant. After going all Krav Maga on a futuristic SWAT team, he discovers that he’s actually a memory-wiped soldier in militant resistance movement. Or is he? Where Paul Verhoeven’s original was testosterone-stupid and, therefore, fun, Wiseman’s film is just boring-stupid. Instead of the planet Mars, this remake conjures Ye Olde Future Londontowne, and instead of Johnny Cabs and giant drills, it shamelessly recycles the exact same Maglev highway system from Minority Report. In fact, anything interesting is appropriated from better sources: the rain-and-neon set designs from Blade Runner, the udder-endowed prostitute from the first Total Recall, the floating platforms of Super Mario World, and the parkour-inflected action of the Bourne films. The nods toward memorable scenes from the Schwarzenegger film include one airport-security gag with an anticlimax so thunderingly dull that you wonder why they bothered. And why do all of the TV screens in the future go back to having visually discernible raster-scan lines? That is some dial-up-modem shit right there, but it’s obviously something Wiseman saw in some other film—Brazil, maybe—and snatched up, magpie-like, for reuse.

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London Boulevard

The gift William Monahan gets from the gods for winning his Departed-screenplay Oscar, this bristly Brit noir has a slick and dazzling chassis, from the Tarantino-esque opening credits to the Yardbirds songs to the torrent of East End profanity. The story, from Ken Bruen’s book, is in the end a little less substantial, a small-boned saga about an ex-con (Colin Farrell) looking to skirt the low life and stay clean, and landing an ill-defined job as Man Friday to an agoraphobic, paparazzi-besieged actress (Keira Knightley). Thanks to her wealth and unused luxury cars, our hero is pressured by underworld types, in particular Ray Winstone as the requisite soft-spoken psychopathic crime boss, to loot the premises. Monahan rather deftly conjures a novelistic raft of characters—David Thewlis as the actress’s dope-addled assistant, Ben Chaplin as Farrell’s sleazy Johnny Boy buddy, Anna Friel as a bipolar ditz, Eddie Marsan as a bent copper, etc.—but unfortunately also a novelistic slackness of purpose. Farrell’s brooder only wants peace—if he loves Knightley’s skeleton princess, he’s not saying—and Winstone’s rhino only wants Farrell as a henchman, so when he’s turned down, corpses pile up. So? A movie of 5,000 lit cigs, Monahan’s debut has verve and charisma, but, in the end, the tension of a late-night pub shrug.

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Former Drunk Colin Farrell Has the Hots for a Mermaid Lady (in Ondine)

A bad drunk dried out into a luckless loner fisherman, Syracuse (Colin Farrell) lives for visits with Annie (Alison Barry), his wise-beyond-her-years crippled kid stuck in the custody of her still-boozing mom. One morning, Syracuse pulls up his net and finds a shivering woman—or is she a mermaid?—and soon his fishing fortunes change. While Annie hits the books looking for a mythical explanation, her dad falls in love with the mysterious creature, who calls herself Ondine (Alicja Bachleda). Writer/director Neil Jordan gradually builds up the possibility of fairy-tale magic in an identifiably real world, and then systematically knocks it down. This might have played as a welcome correction to today’s brand of contemporary indie film, which pairs poverty and whimsy neatly, if Ondine didn’t indulge in its own modern movie claptrap. Eccentric yet unwittingly carnal, prone to atonal gibberish, Ondine is a grade-A manic pixie dream girl, bringing a curmudgeonly outcast back to life with her kindness, tolerance, and perfect breasts. Ciphers aside, Ondine effectively sustains a mood of a hazy melancholy most affecting when nothing much is happening: Colin Farrell has the Best Enigmatic Stare in current cinema, and Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous cinematography, all foggy blankets of blue and green, gives Syracuse’s uncertainty a tangible texture. The spell is broken with the plot’s final twist, which suggests that the film’s core mystery wouldn’t have been much of one had Syracuse been a fan of Icelandic ambient band Sigur Rós. Yes, seriously.

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Just Another Day in Michael Almereyda’s Paradise

Being trapped by a stranger’s home movies might ordinarily feel akin to the Ludovico treatment from A Clockwork Orange, but director Michael Almereyda’s exquisite scrapbook of lyrical vérité surprises—modestly recorded over a decade in nine different countries as he worked on other films/traveled, and then expertly curated—makes for both high art and rousing entertainment. Though he’s still best known for his cracked, contemporary Hamlet, Almereyda has long toyed with the rough-hewn textures of consumer DV (1994’s Nadja largely utilized the PixelVision camcorder), and the lo-fi immediacy of his occasionally auto-focused pixilation here feels purposeful, not amateurish. Rigorously edited so that no sequences run too indulgent and each smoothly fades into the next, this hodgepodge captures the expanse of human reactions.

We watch a lot of people—many wide-eyed kids—as they watch something/someone else, and that something/someone else is often the ordinary made extraordinary by Almereyda’s skilled eye. Iranian children in dress clothes play around a shallow pool until one falls in. Chaos ensues, but Almereyda keeps his camera on the kid, who, in the distance, is trying not to cry. Later, at a raucous Sonic Youth show, Almereyda zeroes in, not on the unruly crowd, but on the band, fumbling around onstage like befuddled roadies, trying to get their microphones working. Friends rally for fireworks that get lost in the L.A. skyline, and Colin Farrell continues smoking a cigarette even after Terrence Malick starts rolling on the set of The New World. Steadily maintaining momentum and a meditative mood without narration or editorialization is itself a feat, but more vitally, Paradise appreciates and shares the curious mysteries in the seemingly banal.