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 Everyone from the matron Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) to the more withdrawn instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and even the eldest student, the precociously flirtatious Alicia (Elle Fanning), must draw the line for herself.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

4 01 2017

Hidden Figures” features three black female protagonists – or, rather, the film features what feels like a single protagonist with three different facets all fighting different incarnations of the same struggle. During the heat of the space race, this trio of women little known to history played a tremendous role in boosting the fortunes and morale of a nation that still treated them like second-class citizens.

The mathematical calculations of Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson helped ensure that John Glenn could orbit the earth safely, but she had to contend with institutional racism and sexism that hampered her performance. Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn learned how to work NASA’s first IBM computer, primarily because discriminatory hiring practices prevented her from traditional professional advancement. Janelle Monáe’s Mary Jackson became one of the agency’s most brilliant engineers, although in order to do so, she had to fight segregation in the courts to get the education she needed for the job.

While Henson might get the most screen time of the three – she’s the one whose romantic interests that writers Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder care to develop – the film really does feel like it possesses a set of co-leads. Their day-to-day struggles might be different, as are the people keeping them from reaching their full potential. Yet together, they provide each other with the strength to tear down the limitations holding them back: first within themselves, then in their workplace, and soon enough the world.

Even as “Hidden Figures” hews closer to the sentimentality of “The Help” than the strategizing of “Selma,” the film gives specificity and definition to each character. Though their hurdles might look the same, Melfi’s direction never allows them to become flattened out or treated as one in the same. The film could have foregone many scenes so obviously built around a vamp up to a Civil Rights-era declaration of humanity, but the cumulative effect of this inspiration and representation is tough to deny. These women were owed respect in their time, not only for their work but also for all they had to do in order to perform that work. It’s wonderful that the film brings their lives into the limelight. B+3stars





REVIEW: Midnight Special

9 04 2016

SXSW Film Festival

NOTE: This piece is adapted from a piece I wrote for Movie Mezzanine at SXSW comparing “Midnight Special” to Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”

Midnight Special” owes a great debt to widely recognized commercial filmmaking styles of the 1980s – chiefly, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. Nichols makes no secret of his artistic touchstones for the film, even ribbing before the SXSW premiere screening that the poster “shamelessly rips off Spielberg.”

The film has many thrilling and breathtaking moments that deserve recognition as creations of Nichols’ and his creative team in their own right. Several crew members stuck with him through many projects for the past decade, which saw the director make the leap from $250,000 indies to $20 million studio fare. In his fairly unsubtle homages to films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (which was released in 1978, to be fair), “E.T.” and “Starman,” Nichols grants them a kind of aesthetic supremacy in his yearning for the paradise lost of this post-New Hollywood era.

This very specific window of studio filmmaking, after the “Movie Brats” took power but before the dawn of nonstop CGI interference, found a satisfying balance between artistic integrity and audience satisfaction. Nichols employs his post-“Mud” goodwill to attempt a return to such a happy median, injecting the American indie sensibility into Spielbergian conventions of storytelling and presentation. He favors suspense over scares and restraint over excess, in everything from Adam Stone’s measured cinematography to David Wingo’s affecting score.

These interventions revise – and perhaps even formalistically improve upon – the foundations of ‘80s commercial cinema. But the vague plot and characterization, along with the more complex tonalities, are to “Midnight Special” what the non-animatronic monster was to J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” That is to say, these aspects appropriated from modern filmmaking belie the original films being referenced and just throw into stark relief how the new creations are not like their forbearers.

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REVIEW: The Two Faces of January

18 06 2014

two_faces_of_january_ver5Los Angeles Film Festival

Hossein Amini makes his feature film debut by directing an adaptation of “The Two Faces of January,” an adaptation of a novel by “The Talented Mr. Ripley” author Patricia Highsmith. The film is understandably a natural cousin to Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-nominated 1999 dramatic thriller made from the latter of the aforementioned books. Amini did not, however, have to be so hopelessly indebted to the playbook that made that film work.

That’s not to say he made a carbon-copy; the two stories are very different. “Ripley” has shades of “The Great Gatsby” as it explores the psychology of the jaded upper class and one ambitious upstart whose desire to join them turns dangerous. “January,” on the other hand, is much more about the events and their sequence. There’s far less complex psychology or layered characterization to be found as a result.

The film’s three leads each play more of a type than a person. Oscar Isaac’s expatriate tour guide Rydal is quite a bit like Matt Damon’s Ripley but played with a penchant for larceny. He stumbles upon the MacFarlands, an American couple visiting Eastern Europe, and finds himself hopelessly drawn towards them.

Kirsten Dunst, as Collette MacFarland, has even less to do. She’s little more than an item for a childish game of tug-of-war between Rydal and her husband Chester, played by Viggo Mortensen. The film takes place in the early 1960s, and it would have been refreshing to see Dunst channel a screen icon of the time (say, Grace Kelly or Janet Leigh) to lend the film the feel of the period. But alas, Dunst retains the same sort of turn-of-the-millennium acting sensibility she normally brings to a part.

Mortensen also does a familiar act, although for him, what it recalls is his superb work in 2005’s “A History of Violence.” He’s great at playing collected everymen who prove themselves shockingly capable of savage outbursts, though it’s somewhat less exciting as a repeat in “The Two Faces of January.” His Chester sets the film in motion by retaliating brutally against an investigator sent on behalf of scorned clients, and he later carries the film by engaging in a battle of wits with Isaac’s Rydal.

Though Amini can get his actors to engage with each other, his direction doesn’t quite provide the spark necessary to light the fuse of the film. The tension dissipates quickly after the precipitating event of the film and then devolves into histrionics and cliches. Formulaic action film, beautiful European backdrop – sounds far less like “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and more like “The American.” Or dare I even say it … the much reviled (yet inexplicably Golden Globe-nominated) “The Tourist.”  C+2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 21, 2013)

21 06 2013

As I’ve said, I don’t like Sofia Coppola movies.  And I think I liked “The Virgin Suicides” not because of her but in spite of her.  Perhaps because the films feels nothing like the rest of her work it’s my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

I’m certainly glad I held out on watching the film until I completed Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, the source text for the film.  “The Virgin Suicides” is a richly observed tale of five sisters who each take their own lives over the course of a single year.  But it’s not from their point of view; it’s told from the perspective of their neighbors, observing their lives from a cool distance.  Specifically, it’s from the point of view of some young boys in the neighborhood who do not just watch – they peer, gaze, and spy.

Suicide becomes an excellent metaphor for the breakdown of community in modern America, a disease that grows when we place each other under a microscope.  It’s what happens when we treat the people in our lives as objects of fascination, not people.  Coppola bottles up this frustration with the suburban social dynamic and regurgitates it on screen with Eugenides’ vision totally intact.

She ultimately cannot compete with all the layers and detail of a novel, but film has never been a medium easily able to indulge in tangents and side stories.  Coppola aims to get at the feeling and mood of “The Virgin Suicides,” and she succeeds at communicating that eerie melancholy.  While we get to know the tragedy of the Lisbon sisters, we never really know anybody.  To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, we are both within and without of the story.

It turns out Sofia Coppola is actually a great narrative filmmaker, provided that narrative originally belonged to someone else.  Though “The Bling Ring” is adapted from a magazine article, so we will see if the streak continues.  But even if it doesn’t, “The Virgin Suicides” captures the improbable lightning of a novel in a succinct and memorable bottle of a film.





REVIEW: Bachelorette

8 09 2012

When “Bachelorette” begins, it’s easy to see the structural similarities to “Bridesmaids” … and then just totally laugh them off due to the two films’ vast tonal differences.  Kristen Wiig’s comedy is like being tipsy on wine: wild, but also controlled and somewhat classy.  Leslye Hedland’s movie, on the other hand, is like what I imagine being high on cocaine would be like: messy, strung out, and utterly chaotic.

The three bridesmaids here have little in common with the Wolfpack of “The Hangover,”  rather, they all bear more than a passing resemblance to Mavis Gary, Charlize Theron’s protagonist of “Young Adult” whose mentality is stalled in high school.  The mean girls of the ’90s are back to wreak havoc on the wedding of poor Becky (Rebel Wilson), a girl that they didn’t really seem to run with then and don’t seem to care any more for her in the present.  I wouldn’t want anyone who called me “Pigface” at my wedding at all, much less as a bridesmaid!

But for a while, I was willing to overlook the plot holes and strap myself along for the drug-fueled shenanigans of harlot Katie (Isla Fisher), sassy Rashida Jones placeholder Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and their seemingly sober-ish ringleader Regan (Kirsten Dunst).  The humor is at first stingingly acidic and bitingly true in a way that recalls Lena Dunham at her most sour.  Caplan is the scene-stealer of the bunch, lighting up every scene even as she drains it of a significant portion of happiness.

Once again for the record, I’ve never been on cocaine, but I’ve been led to believe the high is followed by a big crash.  And like I said, “Bachelorette” is like a few lines of cocaine, so for all the fun it brings, it comes down with a large thud.  All the energy gets sapped out of the film’s second half as it veers away from a significant look at relationships and takes a turn down Formula Lane.  By the end, I had all but tuned out of the three bachelorettes’ stories, which is disappointing.  The characters were relatively interesting, but Hedland fails them with a predictable script that tantalizes with promise at the beginning.  C





REVIEW: On the Road

2 06 2012

Cannes Film Festival

Jack Kerouac and his pals were some of the most interesting people to walk the planet in the 1950s. They did as they wanted, lived in the moment, and thankfully had the memory and the brains to put it all onto paper for their adherents in future generations to admire as a holy text. So why on earth is the film adaptation of his seminal text, “On the Road,” such a bore to sit through?

That’s the question that kept going through my mind as I went sporadically in and out of sleep during the film. (I would not have nodded off back in the States, but the feeling of boredom and tedium definitely would still be in the air.) Granted, I haven’t read the source material, but the general spirit of liveliness just seemed totally absent, replaced by the same ennui that hipsters rebel against. I’m now caught in a conundrum: should I read the book to redeem and perhaps better understand Walter Salles’ film, or is my lack of enthusiasm an indication that reading Kerouac’s prose would just be an exercise in futility?

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