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 . . . “

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

Hidden Figures

hidden-figures-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 6, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Theodore Melfi; Allison Shroeder 

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

‘We go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’

Former President John F. Kennedy’s speech became a staple of American history the moment those words were uttered. The pep talk was designed to reshape public perception of where the country was headed in terms of its relationship with the Soviets, who in October of 1957 became the first to successfully launch an un-manned satellite into orbit. The above excerpt, taken by itself, has accumulated such weight over the years we recall the event more for the ethos and sense of national pride his words evoked rather than the place in which they were uttered (Rice University football stadium in Houston, Texas, incidentally).

Theodore Melfi’s Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures is nothing if not a potent reminder of the kinds of details that have been buried in the avalanche of time, how our understanding of history is often informed by supposition and omission, not necessarily what actually happened. Melfi’s historical drama tells of the accomplishments of three extraordinary African-American women who worked at Langley Research Center, a Virginia-based division of NASA, and how their gifted intellects and willingness to persevere helped galvanize a nation amidst the chaos of the Space Race.

Amazingly, their stories have never been shared — until now (okay, excluding the non-fiction book upon which this is based). Hidden Figures is set in 1961 and traces the trajectories of mathematicians Katherine Johnson (née Goble), played by Taraji P. Henson and Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer), as well as aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Each journey is an inspiration, whether it’s Johnson becoming the first African-American to work in the elite Space Task Group, Vaughan’s promotion to supervisor after taking significant strides in adapting to a rapidly changing technological environment, or Jackson’s acceptance into a traditionally all-white school to obtain her engineering degree.

What develops is a crowd-pleasing dramatization whose hagiographic tendencies are frequently pardoned because the whole thing is just so darn watchable, even when it’s hard to watch. The trio of actresses could not be more winning in their performances and hey, even that guy from The Big Bang Theory is pretty good as the archetypal petulant-child-as-immediate-superior. Kevin Costner tags along as Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group whose neck the American government is breathing down as they work to stay competitive with the Russians.

Melfi and Allison Schroeder’s writing paces the events so that the story steadily absorbs and the environments feel real and lived-in. Hidden Figures is brought to life through an exquisite combination of costuming and production design. The actors look the part even though accents aren’t very smooth and the dialogue tends to be clunky. Even still, when the film begins we find ourselves immediately transported. We are in the ’60s, marching along with these pioneers ever closer to that famed Kennedy speech, a speech that takes on new significance as the movie concludes.

Hidden Figures never amounts to the kind of confronting hyper-realism recent years have almost conditioned us to expect out of race-related historical dramas. The film’s complaisant tone doesn’t necessarily help to distinguish the product, yet Melfi’s treatment is an appropriately dignified and emotional account of three pivotal figures in the history of the space program. While a few details are left to be nitpicked, the film’s convictions shall go uncontested.

kevin-costner-in-hidden-figures

4-0Recommendation: Tonally familiar but not offensively so. Loaded with charismatic and touching performances and bolstered by a fascinating and incredible true story, the emotional engine driving Hidden Figures to its expected conclusion ultimately makes this an easy (and strong) recommendation. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” 

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

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, March 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Robert Carlock

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

The civilian translation of this film’s odd title applies to this strange concoction in more ways than I’m sure the filmmakers intended. I left the picture feeling more confused about American relations with the Middle East than I did entering it. Perhaps that’s the point? There’s also the pressing question of what Tina Fey is doing in a war film (oh, that’s right — this is a war comedy).

The latter is the lesser issue, as it is interesting seeing the former SNL Weekend Update star (and in this reviewer’s opinion, Amy Poehler’s better half) adapting to more serious material. Fey disciplines herself enough to seem 75% believable as Kim Barker, a TV producer (in reality she was a writer for the Chicago Tribune) who one day decides to volunteer as a war correspondent in Afghanistan in an effort to induce some excitement into her otherwise monotonous life. In New York. I’ll pause now to let you ponder the irony of that sentiment. In effect she becomes one of an elite few female embedded reporters in the region, often putting herself in harm’s way to get video footage she hopes will sell back in the States.

The 25% that does not work so well manifests as a combination of Fey’s inexperience in the genre and the film’s complete lack of focus. Schizophrenically it oscillates from championing 21st Century notions of ’embracing the suck’ and ‘living in the moment’ to somberly reminding the viewer of the devastating effects of war. A graphic scene towards the end feels like a clip from an altogether different movie as we watch a convoy fall victim to a short-range missile attack. When she’s not out in the field Fey’s still-adjusting-Barker is avoiding sexual advances from her international colleagues as well as a randy Afghan politician played for some reason by Alfred Molina. As she navigates her own personal minefield, soldiers are elsewhere in the background, maneuvering around actual ones. It’s an odd experience.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa adapt Barker’s memoir ‘The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.’ In it, Barker assumed a humorous tone as she relayed the oftentimes clunky process of assimilating to a part of the world where sanitation is a major issue, women have alarmingly few rights and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) litter the arid landscape. The story is fundamentally about orienting one’s self in an entirely disorienting environment but it also contends with a variety of other issues that play upon the psyche such as the presence (or lack thereof) of female reporters in this field — Australian correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) rounds out the numbers here — and how those who have had a lot of exposure to this kind of reality begin to view it as a normal routine, a psychological state not even Barker is immune to.

The assignment originally called for a three-month stay in Kabul. As she continues building her portfolio — candid interviews with soldiers voicing their opinion on the effectiveness of Operation Enduring Freedom; a chat with Afghan women who tampered with an American-installed water well in their village because they preferred to walk to the river as it offered them an opportunity to socialize with one another — Barker finds it increasingly more difficult to leave, to dispense with the chaos. (Plus, the parties in Kabul seem really, really fun.)

Generally speaking this is a sympathetic and optimistic portrait of the American presence in the Middle East. It offers viewers a closer look at the realities facing troops in one of the most hostile regions on earth while filtering it through the perspective of an inexperienced female reporter from Manhattan. It’s all too easy to make judgments about Barker’s presence — Billy Bob Thornton’s gruff General Hollanek immediately takes a disliking to her given her choice of brightly-colored travel luggage — but one of the advantages of the film hop-skip-and-jumping around its many themes is that we don’t spend much time focusing on the negatives.

However that’s one of the few advantages. More often than not WTF fails to settle into a comfortable rhythm, its meandering plot stringing together a series of skits without having much of a unifier to hold it all together. Fey is meant to be that element but the film spends so much time trying to address all of these societal issues she gets lost in the (Taliban) shuffle. Additionally, strange casting choices distract — the aforementioned Molina as a high-profile politician actually works fairly well once you get used to seeing the man in this setting and the Connecticut-born Christopher Abbott as Fahim, a friendly local Barker manages to bond with quickly. There are other questionable strategies that attempt to pull the focus back to Barker, though I’m unsure if forcing a potential romantic interest in the form of Martin Freeman’s Scottish reporter Iain MacKelpie was the best way to do it.

All in all, you could endure worse missions than Fey sticking out like a sore thumb in a film that has a difficult time finding its identity. There is quite a lot wrong with the production, there’s no denying it. The film has something to say but it’s such a shame it can’t express itself as clearly as it needs to.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 9.00.46 PM

Recommendation: Though Whiskey Tango Foxtrot never devolves into a SNAFU, it should still provide a more potent watch than what results given its ability to put us right there in the moment but for what it’s worth, Tina Fey makes up for a lot even though she’s out of her element here. The experience is certainly one you will remember but perhaps not always for the right reasons. Should make for a good rental if nothing else.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “Oh, that sucks. That sucks for women.”

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

Everly

Release: Friday, February 27, 2015

[Redbox]

Written by: Yale Hannon

Directed by: Joe Lynch

There’s an unshakable sense Joe Lynch and company didn’t fully appreciate the opportunity they had with Salma Hayek playing the lead in this economical, often comically violent home invasion thriller.

Despite having a strong presence Hayek is relegated to the role of Donkey Kong: all she must do is survive an incoming wave of bad guys and, barring something just completely off-the-wall in the script, she’ll be home free. Er, in a manner of speaking. She’s actually home the entire time, as Everly rarely leaves the confines of an upscale loft apartment, and when it does it saunters out into the hallway for a few long seconds just to see if the coast is clear. But it rarely is, and Everly is certainly not free.

If it’s not giving the film too much credit, Everly seems to harp on the idea of freedom more than its bloody special effects. On a small scale, Everly wants needs to be free of the physical and mental anguish brought on by her psychotic ex-boyfriend Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe). That her family winds up getting in the middle of several attacks (albeit on the back of some extremely foolish decisions) is surely reason enough for Everly to break free of her dark, dangerous past. Ironic that Lynch’s film can’t break free from the mould of the typical brainless action outing. Everly’s background is as unknown as the environment outside this building. And if there is freedom to be found it exists only in the physical: some way of escaping this hell-hole.

Everly’s ability to defend herself, while more often than not entertaining, makes her a thorough enigma if we are in fact meant to be rooting for her. Given the waves upon waves of attackers, each one seemingly more violent and depraved than the last, we want to assume Everly’s done something worse than cheat on poor Taiko; surely no degree of infidelity would justify this kind of a response. While the various intrusions mark Everly a prisoner in her own home her natural ability to quickly solve each recurrence of that very problem necessarily redirects a spotlight back upon her past. Alas, we don’t ever fully get to understand Everly.

As she exists in this version of the film — the final product, sadly — Everly is neither person nor prisoner. She’s a heavily-tattooed survivalist with no last name. Her current predicament, no more complicated than that classic video game. The controls are basically run, shoot/throw things, duck and hide. Despite Hayek’s faintly detectable humanity — even though, ew, she’s a hooker and shame on her for not being around for her young daughter — she doesn’t get to leave the stinging impression that the physicality of her performance wants her to. Drama is far more obsessed with getting even, an eye-for-an-eye when at least one of those eyes should be focused on the details. Like, why we should care about any of this.

While it’s good to see a female spin on this steadily-growing subgenre of action films popularized by Liam Neeson and his brand of vengeance-seeking, Everly overcompensates for its casting, eventuating in a grotesquely violent shocker that will be remembered less for Hayek’s energy than it will be for the blood stains it leaves behind.

“Say ‘Hola’ to my little friend!!!”

Recommendation: For those desensitized to brutal action, Everly delivers a lot of the good/red stuff. It’s suitably a short-lived home invasion and the experience packs in enough disturbing events to satisfy those sorts of fans but it’s a problem having someone as talented as Hayek in a role so poorly developed. She’s too mysterious to embrace but nowhere near sadistic to be rejected. Sad to say Everly is one to watch less for the character/actress than the crafty little kills she’s responsible for throughout.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

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