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 Everyone from the matron Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) to the more withdrawn instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and even the eldest student, the precociously flirtatious Alicia (Elle Fanning), must draw the line for herself.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

3 08 2013

“Too many bowls of that grain, no Lucky Charms / the maids come around too much, the parents ain’t around enough,” sings Frank Ocean over the closing credits of Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” the perfect cherry on her blistering excoriation of millennial attention obsession disorder. It’s a quintessential Coppola story, containing an opportunity to reconsider the corrosive society of “The Virgin Suicides,” the clueless lives of the luxurious of “Marie Antoinette,” and the hollow celebrity culture of “Somewhere.” With her fifth feature, she swirls it all together into a darkly humorous fable with the pop of a tabloid headline turned music video.

The story is ever so lightly fictionalized from actual events where suburban L.A. teenagers harnessed the power of the Internet to rob celebrities while they were away from their homes. Curiously, they chose to steal from people who were mostly famous for their own fame, such as Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Audrina Patridge. They take plenty of clothing and accessories with them, but breaking and entering becomes like a hobby or a sport for them.

“The Bling Ring” is replete with relevant discussion topics, such as intimacy, narcissism, and connection in the era of social media – just to name a few. Nancy Jo Sales’ book, an expansion of her article from which Coppola derived the film, provides excellent commentary that manages a miraculous balancing act between rich cultural criticism and the breezy feel of a magazine article. Most of that depth is absent, however, in the film as Coppola opts to skim the surface on most issues.

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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: 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

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)

SAVE YOURSELF from “Lost in Translation”

5 09 2010

Plenty of people will tell you to run to “Lost in Translation;” I, however, am not telling you to walk. I’m telling you to run in the other direction and SAVE YOURSELF!

Now, by all means, if you want to spend an hour and a half of your valuable time watching an excruciatingly subtle movie that shows not the slightest bit of emotion, this could be your movie. Some people take pleasure in seeing movies like this because they, in some form or fashion, feel like they have power because the filmmaker has let them fill in the emotional blanks. I like movies that show people living their lives, no matter how dismal or boring that may be. Sofia Coppola gives us in this movie a portrait of two people who might as well be dead because they show such few signs of life.

It’s a 90-minute movie that feels like 90 hours in moviewatching hell – or, as Coppola sees it, Japan. We get to see plenty of a much younger Scarlett Johansson (here in her breakout role), but if you want to go ScarJo watching, there are plenty of magazines and websites for that. In “Lost in Translation,” Coppola gives us these ten minute asides of Johansson visiting various tourist locations looking perplexed and bored to tears. I’ll give her that she really communicates the later of the two emotions to the audience, as our impatient American mind yells, “GET ON WITH IT! SEE THE DARNED SIGHTS AND GET THE PLOT MOVING!”

The movie drags on following two bored souls in Japan, the photographer’s wife left to stew in her own juices played by Johansson and a burnt-out alcoholic actor played admirably by Bill Murray.  I won’t pretend like Murray deserved a Razzie for his work here because it wasn’t awful.  But in terms of the kind of performances the Oscars have rewarded and nominated in the past decade, this just falls short of expectations.  In essence, it’s Murray playing the same character we’ve laughed at for two decades, only now we are supposed to pity him because this funny guy has suddenly turned vapid.

The two strike up friendship unexpectedly and begin to converse on occasion.  Talking makes up only about a third of the movie, however.  Coppola left me wondering how on earth I’m expected to buy their relationship, but more importantly, why I should care an iota.  I’ve been more invested in the characters that populate corny romantic comedies than this, something that should not be able to describe any Best Picture nominee.  The counteracting of my argument is that Coppola is using the European technique of letting the dialogue provide the mood and the emotions to tell the story.  I have no problem with this, but “Lost in Translation” is so frigidly distant that I felt there was never an opportunity to make any sort of connection to it.

By the time the movie wrapped up, I could have cared less about how to interpret the open-ended conclusion. It’s as painfully reserved and wistfully distant as the shy kid in middle school.  All politeness aside, that’s NOT the person I want to spend my valuable time with.  The Coppola last name is the stuff of legends, and it’s a shame that Sofia can just tote it around because she was born with it, not because she truly earned it.