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 Everyone from the matron Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) to the more withdrawn instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and even the eldest student, the precociously flirtatious Alicia (Elle Fanning), must draw the line for herself.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

REVIEW: 20th Century Women

5 06 2017

20th-century-womenI’m a bit of a sucker for generation theory, which lumps together similarly aged cohorts and attempts to impose a coherent narrative on their lifespan. So it’s only natural that I’d fall head over heels for Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women,” a film that treats centuries, decades and generations like immutable facts. In his recreated 1979 Santa Barbara milieu, the accident of birth is destiny for every character.

This goes doubly so for the young protagonist of the film, Lucas Jade Zumman’s Jamie, born at the tail end of the Baby Boom and the cusp of Generation X. Unlike his mother’s Greatest Generation, which held together through the Depression and triumphed in World War II, Jamie’s coming-of-age sees the radical promise of the ’60s being subverted into the reactionary, turbulent ’70s. We are more than just our generation, writer/director Mills suggests, but the formative years of our lives explain so much more of us than we are willing to admit.

That’s why Jamie’s mother, Annette Bening’s steely Dorothea Fields, seeks out proper influences for him since she’s a single mother. Luckily, her boarding house welcomes an assortment of characters from punk photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) to wayfaring carpenter William (Billy Crudup). Dorothea’s permissiveness also grants plenty of leeway to the sexually forthright teen Julie (Elle Fanning) to come spend many a platonic night in Jamie’s bed as well. Together, their makeshift family helps prepare Jamie for a world that’s challenging for beta males – or at least male feminists – like himself.

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REVIEW: Live by Night

11 01 2017

A few years ago, some lawmakers courted controversy by hyping themselves up for a debt ceiling showdown with a scene from Ben Affleck’s “The Town.” In the clip shown, a character flatly states, “I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is. You can never ask me about it later. And we’re going to hurt some people.” When asked for comment, Affleck was easily able to brush it off as willful misreading; no one could accuse his film of making a pure glorification of criminal enterprise.

Yet if someone were to do a hype session with a scene from Affleck’s latest film “Live by Night” – using what scene, I have no idea – the same dodging maneuver would not be so easy. This Florida-set, Prohibition-era gangster tale feels like less of a movie and more of a fantasy realized with tens of millions of Warner Bros. dollars. Though a novel by Dennis Lehane may form its backbone, make no mistake that the only shape the film takes is the splattered vomit of its directors influences all over the screen.

One could invent an “Affleck Homage” Bingo game to liven up the experience of watching the jumbled mess. One scene might be a clear nod to Gordon Willis’ photography in “The Godfather” with heavy shadows and amber/sepia lighting. Another, a Steadicam journey through a hotel’s back corridors similar to the notorious “GoodFellas” tracking shot. But all the hat tips are masking Affleck’s true fascination in “Live by Night” – himself.

Don’t be fooled by the lack of a gratuitous shirtless shot that led to chuckles both in “The Town” and “Argo.” Affleck’s insistence on slow pushes of the camera in on his stoic face signal an obsession with the undeveloped interior life of deal-making gangster Joe Coughlin. The world around him, which involves a show of force by the KKK, proves far more interesting. Yet Affleck would rather dwell in a tormented state of displaced Boston accents, ethnic conflicts and a scenario where what we now consider to be “white people” could be victims of persecution and discrimination.

At least it’s not all bad – he pretty much gives Chris Messina, playing Coughlin’s portly henchman Dion Bartolo, free range to unleash the full range of his charm and humor. It doesn’t exactly work within the rest of “Live by Night,” but given that so little else works in the film … maybe the film should have been just all Chris Messina. C2stars

REVIEW: The Neon Demon

26 06 2016

Many working directors can lay claim to being a “man’s director,” but few own it quite like Danish pornographer of violence (his words, not mine) and general provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn. The films that have thrust him into mainstream attention on the stage of global cinema have all centered around tough, masculine men exerting their dominance over other people and their environment. Seriously, the narrative throughline is practically flowing with testosterone.

Women, meanwhile, take backseat to these public displays of machismo. In “Drive,” Carey Mulligan’s Irene fulfills the classic archetype of damsel in distress, and Christina Hendricks’ brief appearance in the film as Blanche is far more memorable for her character’s bloody exit than anything she does. Was there a woman in “Valhalla Rising?” Honest question. “Bronson” gets a slight pass since it takes place in a single-sex prison, though the same cannot be said for “Only God Forgives,” which grants Kristin Scott Thomas’ Crystal only a mere foul-mouthed scenery chewing bit amidst a marathon of close-ups on emotionless Ryan Gosling.

In Refn’s latest film, “The Neon Demon,” women move front and center as he peers into the nasty, competitive void where one might expect to find a heart in the fashion industry. But after witnessing Refn’s misogynistic, insulting views of the opposite sex, it’s safe to say they might be better left on the sidelines in his films.

In the aforementioned Refn films, he conveys the idea of masculinity as a renewable resource. One can earn their stripes through hard work and a strong exhibition of power. As time goes by, the essence of one’s manhood can grow in size. “The Neon Demon” shows that he believes the exact opposite about women. Their chief currency, that of beauty, is finite and withering away with each passing moment. To maintain their status, women have to either cheat, steal or lie. Some can buy time for themselves by trading sexual favors with men, but what takes those girls to the top is what will also ultimately make them drop.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 9, 2016)

9 06 2016

Young OnesThe recent hiring trend for studio tentpoles has been to pluck indie directors from obscurity, combining their strong imaginative knack with their weak negotiating power and strong incentive to roll over and obey for the career boost. Some of these moves make a lot of sense (Duncan Jones, Gareth Edwards) while others still feel strange, like transitioning Colin Trevorrow from “Safety Not Guaranteed” to “Jurassic World” or Marc Webb from “(500) Days of Summer” to the “Spider-Man” reboot.

I find it rather shocking that Jake Paltrow is hitting the press tour this week touting a new documentary about Brian De Palma (co-directed with the venerable Noah Baumbach) and not talking about some massive franchise flick. His prior film, 2014’s sci-fi/western “Young Ones,” plays like the perfect audition tape for a hit factory. The way he conjures an entire desert world on a small budget recalls some of Tatooine from George Lucas’ original “Star Wars.”

But this economy of scale and maximizing of impact alone is not the reason for choosing “Young Ones” as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” (As is customary at the beginning of the month, I’ll remind you that “F.I.L.M.” is a contrived acronym for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie.) Neither is it because the film features odd flourishes of De Palma-esque style, if you know to look for it – particularly during exciting or charged moments.

No, it’s because Paltrow takes the time to craft an intriguing human story in an environment where the dystopian agrarian society might overwhelm character. “Young Ones” puts interpersonal conflict first and foremost, pitting parents against children, families against outsiders, and even siblings against each other. Protection and survival guide most actions from Michael Shannon’s patriarch Ernest Holm and his son, Kodi Smit McPhee’s Jerome.

The real attention-grabber, however, is Nicholas Hoult as Flem Lever, who makes a deceitful journey from boy to man at the Holm family expense. He assumes the role of a patrician in a manner befitting “The Godfather,” although the frequent slow pushes Paltrow has director of photography Giles Nuttgens executes does recall Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood.” Flem seizes power far more frequently than he earns it, which puts him at odds with the more earnest Jerome.

But rather than devolve into shouting matches or stylized fighting, “Young Ones” simply lets their struggles play out naturally. Paltrow relies on the cut and the implication to convey what an action set piece would otherwise show. As blockbusters get noisier and more frenetic, executives ought to give this film (and filmmaker) another look if they want to appeal to a pendulum potentially swinging back the other way.


REVIEW: Trumbo

30 11 2015

TrumboThe potential criminalization of thought. The stoking of Americans’ fear of immigrants. The incessant blabbering that the media is infecting the world with its supposed invective.

No, that’s not the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s the late 1940s and early 1950s as depicted by Jay Roach in his new film “Trumbo.” But certain similarities inevitably come to light, of course. Fortunately for the team behind this project (but unfortunately for the world), the aftermath of the Paris attacks that occurred just a week after its theatrical release have only made this history lesson all the more pressing to revisit.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Communists were merely self-respecting left-wingers just slightly more extreme than the average Democrat. But once the Cold War began and the Soviet Union was no longer an ally, Communism was the primary menace to the security of the United States. A number of activists, such as Bryan Cranston’s screenwriting whiz Dalton Trumbo, were left to answer for a militaristic ideology they never intend to espouse.

The film shows, in heartbreaking detail, just how quickly the red panic overtook the country and instituted a reign of terror headed by Congress’ HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). Worse of all, Hollywood became complacent in imprisoning and exiling talents like Trumbo. These self-fashioned patriotic moralists, led by John Wayne (David James Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), drove the industry to create its notorious “blacklist” of known communists that could never be hired again.

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REVIEW: Low Down

9 12 2014

Low DownAs a general rule of thumb, I do not walk out of movies – or even turn them off when watching at home.  It’s a general sign of respect as well as perhaps a misplaced optimism.  You just never know when a movie might show the tiniest sign of redemption.

I was recently fortunate enough to receive an electronic screener link to view “Low Down,” which is now among the rare class of movies that I could not bring myself to finish.  The film is not actively, egregiously bad.  It is just never good, save a mildly impressive control of period atmosphere by first-time director Jeff Preiss.

I must have forgotten to hit the pause button when I left to get lunch or something because when I came back, I could not remember where I had stopped the screener.  As I was scrolling through different scenes, I honestly could not recall whether or not I had watched them.  “Low Down” left that soft of an impact on me.

I saw the writing on the wall when a character misquotes a line from Shakespeare (it’s “if music be the food of love,” not “fruit”) and no one, in front of or behind the camera, seems to bat an eyelid.  “Low Down” is a considerable squandering of talent, as it deploys the virtuosic John Hawkes as Joe Albany, a gifted jazz pianist struggling to kick a drug addiction.  Never seen that one before…

There are plenty of talented actors playing characters in his orbit, including Glenn Close as his mother.  But none is more disappointing to see go to waste than Elle Fanning, the talented young actress from “Somewhere” and “Super 8” who is well on her way to eclipsing her older sister.  She plays Joe’s daughter in what could arguably be considered a co-lead performance, yet she has little personality and might as well just be an accessory to her father.

I did, out of the mildest of curiosities, skip to the final scene of the film just to see the ultimate fates of the characters.  Spoiler alert: there’s nothing to spoil.  You know what’s coming, but I dare you to outlast the tedium of “Low Down” to make it there.  C-1halfstars

REVIEW: Maleficent

1 06 2014

What’s old must become new again in order to keep movie studios’ back catalogues fresh so they can earn money; thus, we end up with “Maleficent,” a reimagining of their “Sleeping Beauty” tale.  It’s a film that uses the same formula as “Oz the Great and Powerful” and then splashes it with flourishes from Tim Burton’s 2010 revisionist “Alice in Wonderland.”  It trots out the familiar mythology – only now in sleek CGI! – and then puts a few twists on it to justify the remake.

Analyzed in tandem with the Mouse House’s 2013 megahit “Frozen,” the film yields interesting insights into the psyche of Disney.  This marks their second straight tentpole that does not give the audience the expected male-female romantic ending, leaving them to ponder the many different forms love can take.  One can only wonder where these progressive messages will ultimately end.

But that’s about all the intellectual discussion I can pull out of “Maleficent.”  It’s a sloppily written film filled with feckless characters whose discernible motivations are few and far between.  The movie needlessly complicates the simple 1959 classic story, making it a slow plod.  And, from a perspective likely only depressing to me, it reduces great actors like Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville to playing cartoonish fairies in a failed comic relief subplot.

What should be the star in absence of these elements, the visual effects, are even quite confused.  Scenes designed to showcase the work of artists who work in the medium of pixels are cluttered with details that don’t cohere for a unified look.  At times, the film resembles the Pandora of James Cameron’s “Avatar;” at others, Burton’s “Alice.”  The opening scenes resemble an illustrated children’s storybook … and then, there are 3 mo-cap fairies.  The whole collective vibe recalls a 2002 video game like “Kingdom Hearts.”

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REVIEW: Somewhere

20 06 2013

SomewhereI’m not a fan of Sofia Coppola’s films – including “Lost in Translation,” which plenty seem to admire without caring for the rest of her work.  I find them vapid, vacuous, insipid … I could go through the whole thesaurus, but I think you get the point by now.  Whether it’s modern Tokyo or 18th century Versailles, the worlds she chooses to portray are often skin-deep and superficial.

Yet in “Somewhere,” those things aren’t nearly as brutal.  Coppola points her camera at the world of fame and excess in the Hollywood celebrity culture, which is by nature skin-deep and superficial.  The film finds a better link for Coppola between story and style, making her particular touch a little more purposeful.

That doesn’t make the film any less vapid, vacuous, and insipid, however; it just feels a little less aimless.  Coppola is as self-indulgent as ever in “Somewhere.”  A part of me wonders if she accidentally labeled her rough cut as the final cut.  There are extended sequences of Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco just riding around in his car.  We get to watch his daughter, Elle Fanning’s Cleo, do her whole ice skating routine.  Oh, and some terrible strippers get to perform their whole routine, totally uncut.

The film’s story, if you can even call it that, revolves around Johnny’s empty lifestyle as he fails at being a father, husband, and a functioning member of society.  In other words, “Somewhere” is totally pointless.  But that’s precisely Sofia Coppola’s point.  And despite the fact that I was often times tormented and agonized by Johnny’s lack of purpose or direction, I could at least take comfort in knowing that the woman behind the camera had one.  C+2stars

REVIEW: We Bought a Zoo

3 04 2012

Almost Famous” sure was a long time ago for Cameron Crowe, who has truly surrendered to hokey cornography with “We Bought a Zoo.”  Gone is the man who rocked our socks off with an autobiographical tale of coming of age and rock and roll, replaced with the spirit of “The Blind Side?”  Crowe deserves better than a straight shot for the tear ducts.  We deserve better, too.

He throws just about every banality in the book at us – the dad (Matt Damon) trying to be a good parent, the kids trying to thwart his every good intention, the ridiculous decision made on blind faith that just so happens to work while teaching them all valuable life lessons … only at the movies!  Especially when that crazy idea is purchasing, renovating, maintaining a zoo.  Oh, and there’s a snarky inspector played by John Michael Higgins who gets far too much screen time and threatens to destroy all their hard work.  Around his second minute on screen, you’ll want Scarlett Johansson to stop playing Kelly Foster the love interest and resume her role as the Black Widow from “Iron Man 2.”

The question here isn’t, will they succeed?  Will Damon’s Ben Mee make the zoo and his family function again?  Watch a trailer, look at a poster, read the genre on IMDb, and you’ll find out the answer to that.  The real question is why Cameron Crowe would sell his soul for “We Bought a Zoo.”  Look at his past movies and it’s clear that the man has a knack for narrative; this just plays on minimal satisfaction to the lowest common denominator at all times.  If he just wanted to make a family movie where the animals don’t talk, that wouldn’t bother me … but it’s clear that he needed to reach a little deeper into his script pile.  C+

REVIEW: Super 8

12 06 2011

I’m not exactly a romantic or a nostalgic, but I have to admit that I sure wish summer movies looked a lot more like they did back in the ’80s.  There are very few visionaries who take on blockbuster entertainment anymore, and save Christopher Nolan, you really can’t sell a movie on a director like you could with fearless masters like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  Few movies nowadays can produce the same wide-eyed wonder as classics like “Star Wars” and “E.T.” (in my mind, “Inception” is this generation’s equivalent).

But J.J. Abrams, the man who made us want to get “Lost” and made “Star Trek” cool again, is definitely trying to bring back some of that Spielbergian magic (and thus put his name on the poster) with “Super 8,” a movie that feels like it would have been a great way to spend $3 on a hot summer day in 1982.  It’s the kind of movie that a studio lets a director make after they deliver a big franchise hit, a true passion project that proves difficult to market because it has to be sold on Abrams’ name and story.  Using his suspense techniques from “Lost,” the character development of “Star Trek,” and the all-powerful weapon that is nostalgia, Abrams crafts a blast-from-the-past sci-fi movie that brings some substance and style back to a genre that has gone too long without it.

In fact, “Super 8” may be the first neo-Spielbergian movie as Abrams grew up on the director’s early classics and is now using his maturity and filmmaking bravura to pay homage and honor to his style.  Yet while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, Abrams doesn’t just stick to Spielberg’s conventions like white on rice.  Rather, he expands upon them and takes them further to make his story appeal to a new generation of moviegoers while also maintaing the timeless appeal that made Spielberg’s movies so enchanting.

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Oscar Moment: “Somewhere”

21 09 2010

The big winner at Venice was “Somewhere,” which won the coveted Golden Lion there.  According to jury president Quentin Tarantino, the movie ” .  But does that mean anything?

The Golden Lion is hardly an indicator of Oscar success; the only winner to receive a Best Picture nomination in the prize’s history is “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005.  Other movies have received nominations, such as 2008 champion “The Wrestler” and 2004 winner “Vera Drake.”

In addition, the win for “Somewhere” was marred by accusations of favoritism and bias.  Here’s a report from the Los Angeles Times on the allegations:

..the Italian press has been in an uproar after it learned that some of the Venice Film Festival’s biggest prizes went to filmmakers with longstanding ties to jury president Quentin Tarantino. Sofia Coppola, who is close with Tarantino (the Reporter piece describes her as his former girlfriend), won the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize, for her new film, “Somewhere.”

Hmmmm. Did Tarantino really stack the deck? I’d say it’s hard to make that charge stick. Having been on a few minor-league film juries in my time, I’ve learned that it’s really hard for a jury chief, even one as passionate as Tarantino, to prod a group of independent-minded film nuts into voting for any movie they didn’t really like. Tarantino might well have pushed through a special prize for Hellman, who is beloved by all sorts of film zealots — even some who’ve probably never seen one of his movies. But promoting a pal for a special prize is one thing; steering the jury into awarding Golden Lions to the wrong movies seems far-fetched to me.

So there’s no indication that the Golden Lion is going to help “Somewhere;” in fact, it may wind up hurting the movie.  But to make up for that, there’s the prestige power of Sofia Coppola, Academy Award-winner for her screenplay of “Lost in Translation.”  While I’ll keep my biases out of this piece (for my opinion on the filmmaker, see the most discussed piece on this blog, a review of the movie that put her on the map).  Granted, her shining moment on stage was for one movie.  Her other two directorial efforts, 1999’s “The Virgin Suicides” and 2006’s “Marie Antoinette,” failed to receive any serious awards attention.  The latter, in fact, was largely critically derided.

I’ll pose the question, and don’t think it’s because I have anything against Coppola: is there anything that leads us to think that this movie has a legitimate shot at any Oscars?

Critical response was tepid at Venice; “Black Swan” was the movie on everyone’s lips.  I’m not really getting the feeling that this could be an audience favorite either.  The plot, which revolves around a self-absorbed movie star (Stephen Dorff) required to take on responsibility for his young daughter (Dakota Fanning’s sister, Elle), feels like something we’ve seen before.  “The Game Plan,” the campy Disney movie, anyone?  I’m sorry to say that I don’t see many Oscar vibes emanating from that storyline.  Then again, if it’s told with brutal Coppola subtlety, the Academy will go gaga.

I see the movie’s best chances being in the acting categories.  Best Actor will be a tight field, but Dorff could sneak in if his performance is a breakout.  Jeremy Renner did it last year, and he can do it this year.  Elle Fanning could find her way into the Best Supporting Actress category, which seems to be pretty unformed at the moment with no clear frontrunner or sure-fire contenders.  Not to mention I’d LOVE to see the “SNL” sketch that shows the fit Dakota throws when her sister gets an Oscar nomination before she does.

Although I will give “Somewhere” this – if all else fails, the movie will have an awesome soundtrack.  If it’s produced by Phoenix, one of my new favorite bands, I’m willing to buy it.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actress (Elle Fanning), Best Original Screenplay

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Stephen Dorff)