REVIEW: The Beguiled

2 07 2017

I’m accustomed to having strong reactions to Sofia Coppola’s films, both positively (“The Virgin Suicides,” “The Bling Ring“) and negatively (“Lost in Translation,” “Somewhere“). So perhaps the most shocking part of her latest work, “The Beguiled,” was how ambivalent I felt towards it. Most moments landed, others didn’t … but nothing really had much magnitude.

I can attribute some of this to my subject position as the viewer; “The Beguiled” is not a movie for me as a male. And that’s ok! There are no shortage of movies that indulge my viewpoint and gaze. (Like, basically all of them.)

After finding and rescuing Colin Farrell’s “blue belly” Corporal McBurney in the Virginia woods, a group of Confederacy-supporting women residing in a schoolhouse must toe the delicate line between rehabilitation and accommodation. Is he their prisoner? Guest? Somewhere in between? Everyone from the matron Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) to the more withdrawn instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and even the eldest student, the precociously flirtatious Alicia (Elle Fanning), must draw the line for herself.

Coppola opts for a studied minimalism in “The Beguiled,” emphasizing the natural surroundings of the estate rather than any lavish decoration or dress. Most of the film focuses on the very thin veneer of southern gentility covering over the women’s pent-up sexual desires. The presence of a man, even the enemy, is enough to stir up some strange sensations not normally experienced in a single-sex environment.

At times, Coppola does let the libidinous activities overpower the psychodrama; it’s as if her characters slowly become little more than their sensual stirrings. And approaching the story with little first-hand experience of Southern culture, the coastal-based Coppola does tend to exoticize their particular strain of desire. But I’m happy to watch her explore these women’s impulses. They deserve treatment as subjects of erotic fantasy, not merely its objects. B

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REVIEW: The Nice Guys

17 05 2016

“Kids these days know too much,” bemoans Russell Crowe’s private enforcer Jackson Healey at the start of “The Nice Guys.” It’s the classic set-up for a film noir – a world-weary narrator imparts an unsolicited bit of cynical wisdom about the current state of affairs. Granted, Healey has the misfortune of cruising around 1977 Los Angeles, the city where the genre was born, at its smoggiest and smuttiest.

The setting is the perfect playground for writer/director Shane Black to collide many different scenes and styles into one another. There’s the pre-AIDS pornography crowd so memorably profiled in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” the Philip Marlowe detective escapades of “Inherent Vice” or Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” along with the ominously pervasive civic corruption of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.” And all the madness of the era gets filtered through the main narrative engine of a buddy cop film, the very genre that put Black’s writing on the map with 1987’s “Lethal Weapon.”

The film might sound like an odd grab-bag of references or – worse – an uninspired remix. “The Nice Guys” is anything but. Black, along with co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi, puts together a wild ride for two private eyes that tours the landscape with fun, laughter and insight to spare.

Though the unspectacularly effective Healey may be the first character introduced, Ryan Gosling absolutely steals the show as bumbling private eye Holland March. He whips out comedic chops that were only faintly glimpsed in previous films like “Crazy Stupid Love” and “The Big Short.” Remarkably, however, Black makes his incompetence and lacking masculinity a font of great humor – but rarely the punchline. Gosling willingly and gleefully sends up the hyper-macho persona he cultivated so carefully in films like “Drive,” adding a nice meta level to the performance as well.

March might blunder far more than his unwitting companion, yet “The Nice Guys” never falls into a simple comic man-straight man routine. Each characters gets their successes and their setbacks; not knowing whose will come at what moment makes the film even more exciting to watch.

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