The Beguiled

Release: Friday, June 30, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Sofia Coppola

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

The Beguiled is an unsettling, moody drama set against the American Civil War that finds a wounded Union soldier being taken in and nursed back to health by the inhabitants of a secret all-girls school in Virginia. These women, who have lived a pious but sheltered life, find themselves irrevocably changed by the intrusion of the outside world upon their guarded stoop. Beware: the sexual tension can be killer.

It’s not often you see a film set during this period told from the point of view of women. History is never short of a few omissions, and here is a fictional yarn that seems to inhabit such a space. It tells a story not necessarily about the Civil War, per se, but one heavily influenced by it — a mirroring of war’s disruptive and destructive nature. The Beguiled is a movie chiefly about sexual repression, but if with that description you think you’ve got it figured out, think again. This is a much broader critique of society, for when our most basic needs are not met how desperate we become, how quickly we seem to forget our humanity. The Beguiled tends to prove how thin a veil civility really can be.

Colin Farrell inherits the part famously played by Clint Eastwood in an against-type role as Corporal John McBurney, a fighter for the Union cause who suffers a leg injury and, somewhat ignobly, abandons the war. (Cowardice is certainly not a trait you see Eastwood embracing all too often, though it’s even harder to picture him playing the part of an Irish immigrant.) When a young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), is out one day picking mushrooms, she comes across the bloodied man and bravely decides to help him hobble back to the school. There, the stern Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) assesses his condition and determines they have no choice but to tend to the wounded, but also that no other pleasantries shall be extended the stranger.

As he convalesces, McBurney begins having a strange effect on some of the girls — particularly the ones who are, in theory anyway, coming-of-age. The strictures of their daily existence have clearly stunted emotional growth. Natural instincts are bound like hands behind one’s back. The mere physical presence of the soldier, whose intentions are purposefully left unclear, introduces a palpable tension which the narrative relies increasingly upon as the film develops. The Beguiled doesn’t offer much in the way of visceral drama; the battles raging all around are so tangential they don’t even appear in frame. Inside this house a different kind of war is quietly being waged. And not for nothing, the injury the soldier has sustained serves as a pretty effective reminder of what he has left behind.

There is a caveat to unlocking the film’s dark secrets. To get to the good stuff, you have to endure an excruciatingly slow opening half hour. I sat through the entirety of The Bling Ring, but struggled not to walk out early here. Such is the meditative nature of the film. The deliberate pace and sparse action — even dialogue — remains a necessary evil if you are to appreciate the gravity of the simple act of betrayal that occurs later on.

Fortunately the impressive cast assembled makes even these drier, less eventful scenes more watchable. Coppola attracts a range of talent and ages to fulfill the roles of this tight-knit community still hanging on, tooth and nail, to their way of life while the unpredictable violence continues to rage on all around, shaping the world into something too ugly and dangerous for any of them to be a part of. But at what cost has this sheltering from perceived harm come?

Kirsten Dunst, a Coppola favorite (Marie Antoinette; The Virgin Suicides) once again delivers in a complex role as schoolteacher Edwina Morrow. Her character demonstrates stability, an unyielding devotion to the education of the young girls. But then she also has eyes for the newcomer. Dunst is a real stand-out in a pivotal role, whose conviction in the character is really only matched by Kidman’s impressive solemnity and Elle Fanning’s precariously hormonal state. The trio are given ample support from two young up-and-comers in Angourie Rice (the precocious young detective from The Nice Guys) and the aforementioned Laurence (Billy Hope’s voice of reason in Southpaw), who crucially contribute innocence and naivety to an increasingly hostile and unstable environment.

The Beguiled may be defined more by its cast than by anything it offers in the way of escapism. Drowned out by the indefatigable wave of superhero films that has been en vogue for close to a decade now, it’s something of an unconventional mid-summer release. You won’t have much competition for seats in the theater, that’s for sure. But don’t be like me. Don’t be so quick to judge the film by its tedious opening, by the preciousness of its appearance. This is a grim affair, whose wildly unpredictable shift in mood will linger long after credits roll. It’s arguably the darkest film Sofia Coppola has made thus far. That counts for a lot in my book.

Recommendation: Darkly and disturbingly seductive. The Southern gothic drama The Beguiled pairs a great cast with a director with an avant-garde style that is, notably, suppressed here in favor of allowing the performances to rise to the top. It’s not the film everyone’s going to this July, but it offers a lot to recommend for fans of Coppola, the cast and period dramas with a unique perspective. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “We can show ’em some real Southern hospitality . . . “

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

20th Century Women

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Release: Friday, January 20, 2017

[Theater]

Written by:  Mike Mills

Directed by: Mike Mills

Fun seems like a clumsy word to describe a film trading in themes such as female empowerment and disaffected youth. But let’s call it what it is; 20th Century Women IS fun. Enlightening, entertaining, satisfying, significant — all the above. It celebrates maturity and individuality with a blitheness that is completely disarming. Therapeutic, even.

Mike Mills’ Oscar-nominated, original screenplay explores the lives of three women living in sunny 1970s SoCal. Former President Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech serves as a tone-setter in this beguiling but often dark dramatic comedy starring Annette Bening as Dorothea Fields, a boarding house landlord who enlists two of her tenants to help raise her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann’s third feature film credit) during a period of sweeping social and political change.

Dorothea is divorced when she gives birth to Jamie at the age of 40. Coming-of-age story is mostly preoccupied with the evolution of this non-traditional mother-son dynamic, in which a substantial age gap presents many a unique challenge as Jamie starts coming into his own. But the film also uses its two other free-spirited principals in Greta Gerwig‘s photographer Abbie and Elle Fanning‘s girl-next-door Julie to stake out greater thematic territory, including gender politics, burgeoning sexuality and personal responsibility — although invariably each subplot circles back to the family dynamic and the challenges of parenthood.

Abbie finds Gerwig in her element, a character with all the hipster affectations and quirks we have come to expect of an actor who’s very much a hipster at heart. Abbie’s journey through the story mines some of the greatest emotional depths, what with her having survived cervical cancer but being told by doctors she can’t have children. Contrast her against Julie, for whom possibilities are almost too endless. She’s a leaf on the breeze, drifting between her own home and Jamie’s bedroom where she frequently spends the night to get away from her psychologist mother who is convinced her daughter’s behavior is diagnosable. Meanwhile Jamie finds himself firmly locked into the Friend Zone.

Billy Crudup also stars as Dorothea’s handyman, playing a role that similarly subverts expectations as a potential father-figure for Jamie. But his influence is frequently subdued by Dorothea who argues Jamie doesn’t need a male role model. That’s why she tapped the girls for their help. (Speaking of Crudup — how Almost Famous is his ’70s ‘stache in this movie?) Her would-be suitor isn’t on an island though; William is also in constant search of that thing that will give his life meaning.

Mills outfits a compelling story with an authentic, nostalgic retro flare. Black-and-white Polaroids occasionally punctuate the frame, convincingly meshing Bening’s ambassador for independent women with examples of actual people living the real thing; the use of soft color and lighting creates a visual collage of a bygone era rich in period detail. The soundtrack is an experimental mix of the California sound and punk-rock bands fighting back against the establishment. The harmony that is created out of all these elements is what is going to earn Mills a rightful spot amongst the Cameron Crowes and Richard Linklaters of the industry.

Scrapbook-like flourishes also downplay the weight of the material without ever distracting from or trivializing it. 20th Century Women is more often than not an upbeat adventure but don’t let all the conviviality trick you into thinking the movie takes its material lightly. This is a movie that wants to erase the word taboo from the dictionary. Bening fearlessly steers us through the rough waters of belated parenthood and single motherhood. Performances are uniformly outstanding, but she’s the rock, the rock her son so desperately needs, especially in these confusing times.

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4-5Recommendation: Refreshingly forward-thinking movie eschews traditional gender roles and provides an incredible showcase for Annette Bening’s considerable talents. I want to say all these fancy things about this movie, but what I need to emphasize is just how thoroughly enjoyable it all is. I really loved this movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to being depressed.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Live By Night

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Release: Friday, January 13, 2017

[Netflix]

Written by: Ben Affleck

Directed by: Ben Affleck

Even when Ben Affleck is off his game he still makes more thoughtful, involving pictures than many others who give it their all. Live By Night isn’t an example of Affleck giving it his all, but because the writer/director just does not know how to make something that’s not intriguing on some level his latest is a modest success.

I don’t really want to damn with faint praise something I quite enjoyed but there’s ample evidence throughout his second adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel — this time a Prohibition-Era, Florida-set thriller about a rum runner and reluctant gangster — to suggest Affleck is running a little low on the creative juices. Live By Night is a fine way to spend two hours but there’s not even an outside chance Affleck finds himself back up on the stage in the Dolby Theatre this February. The tale simply is unable to find any separation whatsoever from like-minded mob movies.

Live By Night opens as Affleck’s Joe Coughlin has returned to his native Boston from the Great War, scarred by the loss of life around him and by what he did — mercifully he never shows us what that was. He leaves that to our imagination. In a voiceover Joe reflects on how he has come back a changed man, vowing to never kill again. Perhaps the real erring on the part of Affleck, commander in chief, is in his failing to safeguard against our intense skepticism.

In fact the moment he tells us he won’t kill again is the same moment we become convinced that he will. This is that type of film, where the inevitable is just so obvious when it finally happens it is sort of underwhelming. The prodigal son of police captain Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson) finds himself blackmailed into doing the dirty work for a violent Italian mafia boss when he’s caught in a love affair with the mistress of a rivaling, Irish mob leader by the name of Albert White (Robert Glenister). Joe’s girl is an Irish immigrant, like himself, played by the chameleonic Sienna Miller. Joe must eliminate White, or face being . . . well. Yep.

His fortunes change when he is sent to Ybor City, a rough area just northeast of downtown Tampa, where he finds success expanding his employer Mr. Pescatore (Remo Girone)’s rum empire. With the help of his partner Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Joe helps to secure much of the southeast as a viable marketplace for other business ventures like gambling and drugs. But Joe constantly maintains he will have no part in the murderous aspects of his trade. He insists on being considered less a gangster and more an outlaw. He’s one cape and cowl away from becoming a bootlegging vigilante.

Speaking of outfits, everyone who appears in the film comes dressed to the nines. The costuming and production design are so authentic you feel as though you are walking these streets and enduring these hard times along with the characters. A few of the get-ups verge on the ridiculous — see Affleck in a white suit that’s the equivalent of NFL jerseys back in the ’80s and ’90s  — and more often than not you can’t help but think the lavish design is meant to distract from the lack of original material.

The trappings of the hard-knocked life are all here: the threats, the beatings, the back-stabbings. The boozing and the repentant behavior that’s far too little too late. The latter is of course what we’re ultimately anticipating, and what presumably Lehane’s book builds toward as well — the price tag attached to all this moral turpitude. In Live By Night it comes in the form of Chris Cooper‘s Sheriff Irving Figgis and his goody-two-shoes daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), both devout Christians whose own moral fiber becomes tested when daughter ships out to Hollywood only to return a drugged-out prostitute. At the behest of her father Loretta starts preaching the good word in Ybor City, vowing to put a halt on the development of the very casino Joe and his cronies are working to build.

Whatever is a non-violent (but very violent) bandit supposed to do when he’s shouldering the burden of one crime lord to get back at another? Turn to the Lord? Fall in love with another woman in a place where he is becoming a nuisance? (Spoiler alert: he does one of the two.) As with a great many gangster dramas, religion and family play a prominent role. There must be consequences to our actions. Affleck obligingly includes those elements as a measuring stick to help us judge how bad Joe really is, despite how gentle and caring he may seem when not on the clock.

Admittedly, subtlety is not among Affleck’s many (strong) suits this time around. Live By Night does not bow out gracefully. The way it ends is something close to terrible but it’s not quite enough to bring down the entire thing. It does, however, add an exclamation point on the argument that this is nothing more than a generic crime thriller. If you’re looking for shock value or inventive deaths, twists and turns you never expected — you won’t find them here. It’s not even really that violent. The action is kept to a minimum, which is actually refreshing in the sense that it allows Affleck to explore moods and mindsets rather than showcase how scary bad men are with guns.

Live By Night won’t be remembered for much, but it’s by no means a sign that Affleck has become truly lost (cue Liam Neeson from Batman Begins). It demonstrates a clear appreciation for the kinds of people and experiences that have shaped the nation into what it is today. Affleck taps into a period in American history in which drinking was outlawed but racism and violence were given the thumbs up. There’s something beautifully contradictory with the way he juxtaposes these realities. I just wish he did so with a little more inventiveness.

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3-5Recommendation: Far from original or top-notch Ben Affleck in terms of his directorial prowess (though his performance is appropriately ice-cold, and in the same fascinating way he was in The Accountant as an anti-social enigma), Live By Night should suit fans of the writer/director/actor as well as those who don’t set their standards too high when it comes to the genre. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “This is heaven. Right here. We’re in it now.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Neon Demon

'The Neon Demon' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 

[Theater]

Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn; Mary Laws; Polly Stenham

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Elephant in the room: there are more lines of dialogue in Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film than there were in his last. That wasn’t enough to stop The Neon Demon from scoring Refn his second-straight booing at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is still delicate as fine china when it comes to plot but this is Refn as I like him: at least somewhat accessible. Booing him this time seems more like a ritualistic exercise than a just reaction.

Cautionary tale about a teen who puts her high school career on hold to take modeling gigs in Los Angeles epitomizes the Refn-ian vision: lots of bright, pretty colors colliding and compensating for the stark lack of light elsewhere on screen (i.e. each time there’s an alley, a corner or anything capable of throwing shadows); a heightened sexuality that frequently veers into the perverse before fully tipping over into depravation. Most characters stare more than they speak, their inactivity designed to draw attention to form, not function. A psychosexual soundtrack courtesy of regular collaborator Cliff Martinez.

Yeah, so . . . about that staring obsession. Unlike in Only God Forgives it actually serves a purpose here. The pulpiest bits of the story concern the danger young Jesse (Elle Fanning, who celebrated her 17th birthday during filming) finds herself in when she becomes the object of a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone)’s affections. Jesse’s natural beauty starts posing a major threat to other models, specifically Sarah (model-turned-actress Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), women terrified that their time in the spotlight is quickly coming to an end with the arrival of such an angelic, naive presence. Long, lustful stares carry a tension that’s more palpable than it is logical: are we really supposed to believe one of these women is better looking than the other?

Passing glances evolve into death stares as Jesse catches the eye of Alessandro Nivola’s brutally cold fashionista. If haughtiness is an indication of expertise, this guy has had all the experience. Refn, self-described as a pornographer, remains steadfastly committed to the physique: cameras ogle over Jesse’s long legs and Rapunzelian hair constantly. As we transform from viewers to voyeurs, we become haunted by this combination of wanting to stop watching but being physically unable to do so. There’s just something so watchable about The Neon Demon, an obsession to know more that gave me flashbacks of the 2011 haunting beauty that was Drive.

Refn may still be a few challenging movies shy of earning comparisons to contemporary provocateurs like Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier (a fellow Dane), but here he is, persisting anyway. Once again the world as he sees it is a brutal, cruel construct, a jagged jumble of broken hearts and heinous acts carried out in the name of self preservation. Malone’s necrophiliac tendencies demonstrate the depths to which these women will sink to obtain whatever it is they perceive Jesse having over them. (What that was was never clear to me but then again, it’s been awhile since I last thumbed through an issue of Vogue.)

The Neon Demon doesn’t break much, if any, new ground in its exploration of the vacuum of happiness that is the fashion industry. It’s neither a history lesson nor a revelation. Perhaps the movie is best when we consider the specifics of the clichés, like how Keanu Reeves takes a stock character and turns him into something we come to fear or the metaphorical beauty of Jesse’s fall from grace landing her at the bottom of an empty pool. Or how uncertain we are that her fellow models are even human. Given the potency of this hallucinogenic trip, it’s safe to say that in 2016 Refn is found reaching for his 2011 highs rather than stooping to his 2013 lows. Thank the neon demons for that.

Recommendation: The Neon Demon represents Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s most female-driven film so far. Some have dismissed this as a sexist, sadistic bit of pretense but that’s overly harsh. It may not be the most original film, nor one where we get all the answers to life’s problems but on the basis of its twisted, mesmeric visuals, The Neon Demon is further proof that Refn is a director to keep an eye on going forward. A great leap forward for the young Elle Fanning, as well. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “She’s a diamond among a sea of glass.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com