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 Everyone from the matron Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) to the more withdrawn instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and even the eldest student, the precociously flirtatious Alicia (Elle Fanning), must draw the line for herself.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