Movie reviews: The Legend of Tarzan, Maggie's Plan, The Neon Demon

The Legend of Tarzan (12A)

The Legend of Tarzan 3/5
Maggie’s Plan 4/5
The Neon Demon 3/5

 

One of cinema’s most enduring characters returns in The Legend of Tarzan (12A), which opens in 1890 with our eponymous hero, aka John Clayton, the Earl of Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård), journeying from London to the Congo in an ambassadorial role for the British government. 

Accompanied by his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) and American emissary George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson), Clayton is ambushed by the dastardly Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a Belgian scheming to enslave the native Congolese population in order to swell the coffers of Belgium’s King Leopold. 

The history is as fuzzy as the CGI effects in this latest offering from David Yates (he also directed four of the Harry Potter movies), although it’s probably fair to say that historical accuracy has never accounted for the appeal of the Tarzan legend. 

Instead we’re fascinated by one of fiction’s great archetypes, a blend of nature and nurture, a man embodying the finest aspects of the human and animal kingdoms, and on that score Skarsgård doesn’t disappoint. 

A powerful, lithe creature of the jungle, he is a noble but flawed man — it’s easy to see why the idealistic Jane (a dazzling performance by Robbie) and the base Leon Rom (Waltz being as creepily salacious as ever) might both be entranced by the King of the Jungle. 

Those ropey CGI effects tend to undermine the more dramatic sequences, particularly when Tarzan is at war with various terrifying apes, but for the most part Yates has given us a good old-fashioned yarn that is a solid if not entirely spectacular addition to the cinematic Tarzan canon.

 

Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is a New York singleton desperate to have a baby, and Maggie’s Plan (15A) is straightforward: she’s going to get pregnant courtesy of former schoolmate Guy (Travis Fimmel). 

Things become complicated, however, when Maggie falls in love with aspiring novelist John (Ethan Hawke), not least because John is married to Georgette (Julianne Moore), and already has two children of his own … 

Writer-director Rebecca Miller’s film is something of an homage to mid-period Woody Allen, featuring ravishing shots of New York, a subdued jazz-influenced score and a wonky merry-go-round of intersecting relationships, failing marriages and bright young things determined to experience love on their own terms. 

Greta Gerwig shines in the central role, delicately tip-toeing through a performance that requires her to be emotionally clumsy as she pursues the naïve ideal of all-or-nothing love, and she gets very strong support from Hawke as a needy slob of a writer whose personal tragedy is that he can only ever see his mistakes in retrospect, and Moore, whose fragile Ice Queen façade is constantly cracking as her bottled-up desires well to the surface. 

Meanwhile, Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, playing Maggie’s married friends, provide terrific light relief with their vicious bickering; Travis Fimmel, despite being criminally underused, steals every scene he’s in with a blend of intensity and offbeat comedy. 

Poking gentle fun at its characters while also subverting the clichés of the conventional romantic comedy, Maggie’s Plan is an enjoyably spiky bedroom farce from the talented Rebecca Miller.

 

The Neon Demon (18s) is LA itself, a luridly beguiling siren that lures the young and the beautiful in order to feed on their life-force. 

That seems to be the thesis of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, which opens with 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) arriving in Los Angeles with dreams of stardom. 

Jesse has the ‘deer-in-the-headlights thing’ that Los Angeles loves, according to her new friend Ruby (Jena Malone), a quality that Ruby and her fellow coven members Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) — beautiful, but empty — have long since lost. 

As Jesse wends her way through LA, via photography studios, model agencies and increasingly bizarre parties, the cynicism of her new friends erodes her innocence, and Jesse, ostensibly a fresh-faced ingénue, comes to understand the corrupting power of her innocent appearance. 

Nicolas Winding Refn is a director fascinated by the striking image, and the first half of The Neon Demon is superbly set up as he chillingly deconstructs the fetishisation of women, the tone cold and almost mockingly intense as it investigates the shallowness of LA’s glitz and glamour. 

Fanning is stunning in the main role, protean in the way she so seamlessly evolves from terrified teen into fearless vamp, although Refn’s emphasis on the motifs of vampires and witches means the second half of the film rather loses its focus and becomes an overblown, metaphorical satire. 

Even so, The Neon Demon is never less than visually arresting, and Elle Fanning’s performance as Jesse morphs into a vapid narcissist is one of the finest of the year to date.


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