Sunday, August 13, 2017

BLACK AND BLUE: a review of "Detroit"

"DETROIT"
Screenplay Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
**1/2 (two and a half stars) 
RATED R

It is more than fitting that the film "Detroit," the latest docudrama from Director Kathryn Bigelow would be released at this time. For not only does the film mark the 50th anniversary of the historical events as depicted within the film, therefore holding up a shattering mirror to ourselves in 2017 where the issues presented have not progressed even one millimeter. This film has also happened to coincidentally arrived, and I have even seen it for myself, at the same time that neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia carrying torches, sticks and whatever else, chanting Nazi slogans and driving a car directly into the crowd of protesters, murdering one.

Ain't a damn thing changed but the day.

Yet, somehow, I am troubled by this film. Deeply troubled. Not for entirely what was presented. I think my questions are housed more within Kathryn Bigelow's intents and purposes for even wanting to make this film--an issue I had powerful feelings about with her previous film "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), her critically acclaimed film concerning the hunt for Osama bin Ladin, which brazenly promoted the concept that United States interrogation tactics involving torture were directly effective and even responsible for our successful execution--an assessment that has been widely proven to vehemently false, a contradiction that Bigeow herself was unable to effectively address while on the interview circuit for that film. It was a cowardly move if there ever was one, especially considering the fact that she did indeed make a film that, while deeply effective and brilliantly filmed, was one that dangerously serves as jingoistic propaganda.

Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" was a film so disingenuous that it begged the question of why she even made the film when she was unable or unwilling to stand by what she had made. Unfortunately, I feel that we are again at this same conceptual crossroads with "Detroit."  There is no question that Kathryn Bigelow remains a searing filmmaker and I certainly do not feel that her sense of moral outrage is insincere. But I am, however, struggling with the experience of what she has amassed with "Detroit" to the point of again questioning why she even made the film to even who precisely is this film meant for.

Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit" with events that took pace on July 23, 1976, as the Detroit police staged a raid upon an unlicensed club during a celebration for returning Black war veterans. With this event serving as the proverbial straw that has broken the Black community's collective backs regarding the contentious relationship between citizens and the police department, the 12th Street Riots--complete with rampant firebombings and lootings, plus the arrival of the Michigan National Guard and Army paratroopers.

From here, Bigelow begins to introduce us to the collective of core characters within the film including Detroit police officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), who guns down a feeling Black male against orders yet is allowed to remain on duty until his superiors decide whether to file murder charges; Melvin Dismukes (an excellent John Boyega), a private security guard for a neighborhood grocery store, Larry Reed (standout Algee Smith), original lead singer of The Dramatics who dreams of a potential future life on stage and as a recording artist and his close friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore).

After making their way from the maelstrom of the riots to find refuge at the Algiers Motel for the night, Larry and Fred hook up with two White women, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), who then introduce them to their friends Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.) and Greene (Anthony Mackie), a returning Vietnam war veteran.

Once Carl stages a prank with a starter pistol and then further fires the pistol at the police, the s hots are mistaken as sniper fire forcing the troops to converge upon the motel with Krauss' Detroit police detail arriving soon thereafter during which Krauss murders Carl, plants a knife beside his dead body as "evidence" and finally rounds up the remaining patrons of the Algiers and faces them against a wall for a harrowing interrogation period during which all of the suspects are subjected to nothing less than the physical and psychological torture of "The Death Game," where Krauss and his men take one suspect at a time into a room for mock executions designed to terrify the others into confessions.

From here, Bigelow follows the characters through the aftermath of the events at the Algiers Motel.

Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit" is a brutal, unflinchingly painful film and so it should be considering the horror of the subject matter. It is a riveting experience, intensely written, filmed and acted by the entire cast and I especially liked how Bigelow began with a wide panoramic view of the events of the 12th Street Riots, and then gradually narrowed her focus to the tormenting intimacy of the Algiers only to widen it again for the film's final third, which examines the wider legalities of the Algiers aftermath.

Now, as with "Zero Dark Thirty" and even moreso with Clint Eastwood's downright irresponsible right wing propaganda fantasy "American Sniper" (2014),  B igelow has again demonstrated how effective of a filmmaker she is, especially as she has extended her cinematic vision from more genre escapism to more topical, political projects. For all intents and purposes, "Detroit" is as much of a war film as Bigelow's excellent "The Hurt Locker" (2008) but the war in question is the one waged upon the streets of the inner cities.

One of Bigelow's triumphs with "Detroit" is to show the parallels between then and now as frankly, if any of you have been paying attention to the news over these last few years, especially concerning the 2014 protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson (which incidentally reached its third anniversary on August 9th), it would not be at all surprising if some viewers thought that Bigelow had inserted present day riot footage of Black citizens clashing with militarized forces into her period based film.

Additionally, the film's final third, which features a series of police station interrogations, courtroom sequences as well as some especially fine acting work from both John Boyega and Algee Smith, Bigelow does wield some powerful drama showcasing the historically systemic, institutionalized racism at work within the police and justice system, arranged and designed to protect those in power and are ultimately based deeply within the constructs of the slave trade itself. And then, there is the work within the Boyega character, an officer of the law within a community that distrusts him and within an industry that will never view him as an equal player but even as someone who just may be expendable. Great work unquestionably.

But even with that much to feel positive about towards "Detroit," I still found myself feeling uneasy as if Kathryn Bigelow had somehow usurped something for herself, either through some misguided cultural appropriation, White guilt or White privilege.

I guess what I am wrestling with is the question of whether Kathryn Bigelow possesses the right to even tell this particular story about American history, or more specifically Black American history. Certainly, I firmly believe that any and ever filmmaker has the creative right to tell whatever stories that they wish to tell. No question. What I am pondering concerns a certain moral rightness. Of course, it could (and has) easily be argued that say Steven Spielberg should never have made "The Color Purple" (1985) or "Amistad" (1997) as he is not Black or definitely that Quentin Tarantino should never have even conceived of something like "Inglorious Basterds" (2009) or "Django Unchained" (2012) as he is not either Jewish or Black.

But for me, after having seen those films, both Spielberg and Tarantino showcased not only a greater humanity but a deeply moral and cerebral outrage that elicited to me that these filmmakers really turned themselves inside out for their material in order to unearth the unquestionable truths within their respective subject matters. Basically, regarding any of the racial and sexual differences between the filmmakers and the subject of their chosen material, is each instance it felt as if both Spielberg and Tarantino came upon stories they simply had to tell.  Yet, with Kathryn Bigelow and "Detroit," I am not so sure...and it showed, regardless of her cinematic heft and skill.

In an interview Kathryn Bigelow conducted with Variety, published on August 1, 2017, she openly pondered the following to writer Brent Lang: "I thought, 'Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No.' However, I am able to tell this story and its' been 50 years since it has been told." 

But, honestly, is that enough?

Now dear readers, I have to again stress to you that I do not know Kathryn Bigelow in real life and I have absolutely nothing against her as a human being or as a filmmaker whatsoever. For all I know, the story of "Detroit" is indeed a story she may have felt that she had to tell. I will never know. But, something really felt off and even  hurtful to me as I watched the film, so much so that I wondered if it was even a film that was designed for me or any Black people to be viewing at all. Maybe, just maybe, "Detroit" was Bigelow's way, as a White woman, to speak to other White people about the historical realities of police brutality against Black people and the institutionalized systemic racism that remains paramount today. But then, it is more than conceivable that Black people WILL be seeing this movie and truth be told, I am conflicted and confused as to what exactly is in this movie that is designed for us.

What I am alluding to is the film's extended interrogation centerpiece at the Algiers Motel which runs over the course of one full hour or more of the film's entire running time. During that interminable stretch, we are subjected to varying levels of racist driven torture plus mental and physical brutality that is (rightfully) excruciating and exhausting but it was also (almost) numbing and even excessive to the point where I just had to ask the following question to myself as I watched: "How much Black suffering do I have to sit through just for Kathryn Bigelow and her White screenwriter, White producers and team can potentially receive awards?" 

By the nature of Kathryn Bigelow simply being who she is as a White woman and being a veteran filmmaker skilled enough to know h ow to make images resonate best, there was just something lost in the translation from her cinematic hands to endless scenes of Black torture and suffering with copious sweat, cowering, beatings, begging, praying, and pleadings for survival that all occurred without any sense of internalized context. This is not meant to suggest that Bigelow carried no sense of empathy but something just didn't feel terribly authentic.

Think of it this way: If you remember the horrific rape scene that opens her film "Strange Days" (1995), just imagine the difference if that scene had been directed by that film's screenwriter James Cameron instead of her. If that scenario played out, "Strange Days" ran the risk of coming off as exploitative and for me, that is how so much of "Detroit" came off to me. There is indeed a subjectivity at work and I feel that line, too often was dangerously crossed if not fully disrespected in "Detroit." Not maliciously, I do not think But if say Black filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen or Spike Lee had made this film, I feel that they woud have made different creative choices. As it stands, I could not shake the feeling that Kathryn Bigelow used the exploitation of Black suffering for White critical applause and acclaim. That is indeed an example of White privilege.

And even then, there was a  greater issue. Deep within the film's end credits, a notation scrolled past explaining that since not all of the events of the Algiers were properly documented, interviews were conducted with some of the real life principals and therefore some instances were dramatized for effect. Now, I know very well that films which are branded with the "Based On A True Story" moniker, the suggestion is implicit that events seen in the film have most likely been fictionalized. I get that. I know that in films based upon real events, sequences and characters are indeed dramatized or composites of real people are created to make one character for the film and so on. This is nothing new.

Yet, once I read those words in the credits for "Detroit," at a point when most people have exited the theater, I carried the same feelings I had when I saw Nate Parker's well intentioned but deeply troubled "Birth Of A Nation" (2016) as it was a film riddled with historical inaccuracies and inventions that undercut the truth and power of a story that inherently contained palpable truth and power.

For you see, even if the film is sitting thematically upon the right side of moral justice as I do feel that "Detroit" is, if so much needed to be invented to create a narrative, then that does not serve anyone any good whatsoever. What is disturbing in the case of "Detroit" is that one piece of end credit material as it did, whether intentionally or not, force the questions: "How much was invented?," "What was invented?," "Why was it invented?" and so on. At a time when Black people are still not considered to be human beings and the Black Lives Matter movement continues to be viewed with derision, how is a film like "Detroit" of any benefit when however much of it is essentially falsified?

Look, I do think that Kathryn Bigelow had her heart in the right place and "Detroit" does succeed upon its own sobering yet blistering force. But still, and going back to her own words, just because Kathryn Bigelow could tell this story does not mean that she should tell this story.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

SAVAGE CINEMA DEBUTS: "COLLATERAL BEAUTY" (2016)

"COLLATERAL BEAUTY" (2016)
Screenplay Written by Allan Loeb
Directed by David Frankel
1/2* (one half of one star)

Yes, Will, I understand the look on your face. Your movie really is this terrible, this insincere and definitely, this stupid.

Dear readers, I have to begin this latest posting with a statement followed by a question. First the statement:  It is truly rare to find a mainstream Hollywood movie so ill conceived, presented and executed as this one. And now the question: What in the world has happened to Will Smith? To begin, I have to address the question. For essentially 30 years, Will Smith has proven himself, over and over again, to being one of our most engaging, magnetic and consistently surprising performers in music, television and of course, the movies.

With regards to his work in film, he has consistently impressed with the sharpness of his specialized brand of humor, intensity, humanity and seemingly unshakable focus in work that is as widely varied as what he displayed in the chamber theater piece of Fred Schepisi's "Six Degrees Of Separation" (1993), the science fiction popcorn of both Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day" (1996) and Barry Sonnenfeld's "Men In Black" (1997), the romantic comedy heights of Andy Tennant's "Hitch" (2005), the wrenching drama of Gabriele Muccino's "The Pursuit Of Happyness" (2006), the solo existential horror of Francis Lawrence's "I Am Legend" (2007) and his startling, epic portrayal of Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann's brilliant, impressionistic art film "Ali" (2001).

Certainly, I have not been a fan of every film Smith has chosen to be a part of, but even so, he has continuously displayed an unquestionable command and charisma that makes him a compulsively watchable actor, one who is able to showcase a rapid fire wit and intellect, bracing physicality and a gravitas filled with power and poignancy. Yet, in recent years, whatever magic touch Will Smith happened to hold over critics and audiences has lost some of its luster with increasingly poor film choices, including David Ayer's disastrous "Suicide Squad" (2016). Yet somehow, Smith has now headlined what has got to be his most ridiculous, painfully manipulative, mind numbingly saccharine and stunningly insincere piece of clap-trap pablum to date.

Director David Frankel's horrifically titled "Collateral Beauty," is a would-be, two hankie, "inspirational" drama of love, loss and renewal but it is in actuality a tonal trainwreck filled from one end to the other with a cavalcade of selfish characters, a level of manipulation that steamrolls past normal cruelty and plot twists abound that will have you howling in laughter or agony or some variation of both at the screen. Yes, this movie is that bad. Just unforgivably bad.  In fact, I would claim that it is essentially a big budget, A list starring vehicle that is nothing more than the worst Hallmark or Lifetime holiday movie you've ever witnessed, but that would be an insult to Hallmark and Lifetime holiday movies. For you see, those movies are more honest than any one moment presented in "Collateral Beauty."

"Collateral Beauty" stars Will Smith as Howard Inlet, a high powered advertising executive who is thrown into a clinical depression after the death of his 6 year old daughter. Over the three year period during which Howard falls deeper into his grief, his estranged friends and business partners, Whit Yardshaw (Edward Norton), Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet) and Simon Scott (Michael Pena), all attempt to help bring Howard through his mourning process--which includes copious late night bicycle rides and the stalking of bereaved parents support group meetings--to absolutely no avail.

After desperately writing and mailing angry letters to nothing less than Time, Love and Death, Howard is soon visited by physical manifestations of each abstraction (played by Jacob Latimore, Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren, respectively)...or are they?

And of course, the whole story takes place during the Christmas season. Ugh!

Now, I have to admit, that as a concept, I really have no issue with "Collateral Beauty" (except for that downright awful title) at all. In fact, if it was a film that was perhaps handled more artfully-or even as a straightforward commercial feature for God's sakes, more honestly and much more willing to fully commit to the subject matter of this potentially powerful and disturbing existential material, we could have had a truly harrowing and/or heart-aching drama on our hands.

As I watched this film, I was reminded starkly of the visually dynamic and emotionally resonant life, death and afterlife drama, Vincent Ward's "What Dreams May Come" (1998) starring the late Robin Williams in a film that encompassed love, marriage, parental bereavement, suicide, Heaven, Hell and reincarnation and all presented with a palpable urgency, wonder and matter-of-fact quality that I believed in everything that I was witnessing regardless of how fantastical the sights.  For you see, "What Dreams May Come" was emotionally true.

David Frankel's "Collateral Beauty" is painfully artificial by contrast. Certainly I am somewhat able to see why Will Smith may have been attracted to a project like this one as it may have placed him back within the similar territory of a film like Gabriele Muccino's "Seven Pounds" (2008), a film that did carry a dark resonance even when it did show some strain with credibility due to the convolutions of its plot. "Collateral Beauty," however is nothing but the epitome of convoluted plots all crashing together without any sense of style, storytelling skill or semblance of how real people behave and for that matter, any honest empathy in a film riddled with so much conceived but ineffectual pain and suffering.

Yes, the film hinges on a few plot twists, so to speak...or better yet, some sense of revelation(s), which as a your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast, I will not reveal in full here--but I am so, so tempted to do so with the full intent of saving you from wasting one minute of your life on a film this ridiculous. But here goes...

Essentially, what I gained from "Collateral Beauty" is that the process of grief exists on a finite timetable as determined not by the one who is grieving but by everyone who surrounds that person in question. What I mean is how the characters all portrayed by Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Pena (who all clearly lost bets in order to be forced to appear in this nonsense) each talk a great game about how Will Smith's character is their great friend but they also complain bitterly about the lengthiness of his grieving process, a process that truly has left him in a clinically depressed state of mind and reason for three years. But hold on, their "concern" is not due to any worries about Smiths mental health. Oh no, everything is tied to a potential business deal that is crucial Smith's character needs to attend to post haste. (Granted, saving the careers of your employees is nothing to sneeze at but even so, every reference to Smith's character's grief is tied to the business. How heartwarming...)

So, essentially plot twist #1 involves the friends playing with Smith's mental health in order to declare him incapacitated...therefore nullifying his presence for any of his business dealings! With "friends" like these...

But what of Time, Love and Death? Well, they do figure into the film but mostly for Norton, Winslet and Pena who are all dealing with variations of those themes with regards to fractured family relationships, fatal illnesses and being a workaholic at the expense of having a family life. This is layered on as subtly as a vat of maple syrup on top of one lonely little pancake and it also creates a tonal mess for the film as a whole as we are subjected to passages of light comedy, romantic and otherwise, crashing alongside would-be wrenching drama. Furthermore, all of the story threads are present enough that it gives the film's core, Will Smith, complete short shrift in his own movie!

Then there is plot twist #2 which involves an extremely pushy bereaved parent's support group therapist (played by Naomie Harris) who just badgers Smith's character over and again throughout the film for some sort of psychological release he is unable to deliver, so much so that it again presents the idea that grief exists for others to determine how long one should grieve and how. But then, even this plot thread grows to the point of being an absolute howler in the final scenes. Trust me, you will raise your arms straight upwards in disbelief and reach for the first thing to hurl at your screens in protest.

But what of Will Smith's performance? Well...I guess it was fine but it is indeed all relative considering it is in the service of a film this dumbly shallow. I mean--he gives each moment that standard commitment and his requisite monologues are well delivered. But this seems to be a movie that again, knows nothing and cares even less about the nature of grief as Smith is essentially seen in the film with an ever present scowl, he looks sad, he rides his bicycle the wrong way in nighttime traffic, he barely eats and sleeps, and he makes elaborate domino mazes only to destroy them (like the building blocks of his life?). He is inconsolable because the script says he is yet he is also 100% cognizant when the script needs him to be and again, it is all so shamelessly shallow and not at all in the same league as his best performances by a long shot.

Dear readers, it was as if David Frankel had not even decided what kind of a film he even wanted "Collateral Beauty" to be for the subject matter needed to carry some weight but not too much weight as this is a Christmas movie designed to be a tear-jerker but nothing really depressing. For that matter, I don't even think that he even really figured out precisely what he even wanted that terrible title to even mean. It's just maudlin, saccharine safeness for the masses but really, the masses deserve so much better.

Monday, August 7, 2017

YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD...: a review of "Spider-Man: Homecoming"

"SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING"
Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Screen Story by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley
Screenplay Written by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley and Jon Watts & Christopher Ford and Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
Directed by Jon Watts
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED PG 13

OK...let's break down my personal "Spider-Man" movie scorecard, shall we?

With all of my superhero movie fatigue, there are two superheroes in particular that I truly have no specific need to ever see again for quite some time. The first is Batman. The second is Spider-Man. Now, this is nothing against either character as I love them both but in the case of Spider-Man, since 2002, we have been subjected to the release of no less than five Spider-Man movies, with two of those serving as full re-boots. Now for my personal tastes, Director Sam Raimi's celebrated trilogy is deeply flawed, with only the grand exception of his superlative "Spider-Man 2" (2004) existing as the truly successful one.  With Director Marc Webb's re-boots from 2012 and 2014 respectively, I still stand by his work, where even despite h is flaws, they felt to be ore seamless and carried a weightier poignancy for me.

So, now, and after his surprisingly entertaining appearance within Directors Joe and Anthony Russo's excellent "Captain America: Civil War" (2016) in which Tom Holland more than enthusiastically took over the role of our favorite wall crawler, Spider-Man has now been re-booted for the second time in what is essentially the character's sixth film in fifteen years. As you may be feeling yourselves, this is more than enough to make one swear off any Spider-Man features for a long, long time if not for good.

Well, as you can already gather, I am quite late to this particular party as Director Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Homecoming" has proven itself to be a critical success and box office smash and for me, I am thrilled to announce that I was exceedingly pleased with the results of this new effort. It is unquestionably the best Spider-Man feature since Raimi's second film and easily the most flat out enjoyable Marvel film I have seen since Director Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man" (2015), therefore making it a perfect addition to the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.

"Spider-Man: Homecoming," now with the aforementioned Tom Holland in the titular role as well as his 15 year old alter ego Peter Parker, takes our hero back to high school again but wisely eschews with the origin story altogether, and picking up events long after Parker was first bitten by the radioactive spider and has become a Queens neighborhood vigilante in an ill-fitting, makeshift costume combined with his technologically advanced webshooters and web formula, clearly the very elements that made him catch the eye of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in the first place.

Picking up shortly after the events of "Captain America: Civil War," Peter Parker is returned to his home, which he shares with his considerably younger, and definitely foxier, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), as well as back to his studies at the Midtown School of Science and Technology, where he is a member of the academic decathlon team.

Despite his intense wishes, Peter is not yet allowed or remotely ready to become a full fledged member of the Avengers and is instructed by Tony Stark to just remain where he is in the neighborhood and school, while also under the protective eye of Stark's confidant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). And so, impatient and feverishly impetuous, Peter Parker continues his double life as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and as a hapless high school student with one best friend in Ned (Jacob Batalon), a serious crush in Liz (Laura Harrier) and a bully in his class rival Eugene "Flash" Thompson (Tony Revolori).

Springing back to the aftermath of the Battle Of New York as depicted in Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" (2012), we meet Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a salvager whose company is given the lucrative task of cleaning up the copious damage from the massive destruction until he is forced out of business by the Department of Damage Control, a partnership between Tony Stark and the government. Angered by the loss of his and his team's much needed income, Toomes and his gang covertly swipe some of the alien materials and begin to formulate an arms trafficking business with technologically advanced weapons, including items that allow Toomes to create a flying suit, complete with wings and talons, earning him the title of "The Vulture."

As Peter Parker continuously wishes to prove himself to Tony Stark by gradually discovering and vowing to stop the arms operation run by Toomes, he is tested more than ever before as he grows to understand what is means not just be Spider-Man but what it takes to be a real hero...while also figuring out if he has enough courage to ask Liz to be his date for the Homecoming dance.

Where Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy often seemed to struggle with its tonality as well as its overall storytelling (except for the brilliant #2), and Marc Webb's darker more tragic vision failed to connect with larger audiences, Director Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Homecoming" has more than discovered and therefore, richly succeeded with striking the finest balance yet between the popcorn and the poignancy within the daily adventures, hijinks and struggles of Peter Parker.

Watts has created a bright, often dazzling, seamless, high flying confection filled to the brim with laughs and thrills all anchored ..ahem...heroically by Tom Holland who indeed possesses the unenviable job of re-creating a character that we are all overly familiar with (and frankly, some of you just may be more than a little sick of seeing). Somehow, and marvelously, Holland magically makes the character his own and with no mental traces of either Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield whatsoever (no disrespect to either--intended or otherwise). In Tom Holland, Spider-Man is re-born for the moves and in a fashion that feels to be especially truthful to the source material while offering a fresh take.
 
Granted, my initial reaction of having Peter Parker return to high school all over again did cause me to exude a tremendously long eye roll. But, now having seen the finished film, it almost feels like a masterstroke. While not an origin film, "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is indeed a film about transformation, discovery as well as a coming of age film as Holland's Peter Parker is truly a teenager, where every emotion is dialed up to 11, where insecurities run rampant against potential growth and that eternal impatience that housed the burning desire for the fullness of life to being RIGHT NOW clashes with the avoidance of the knowledge that maturity and adult responsibilities have not yet been fully earned or even remotely understood.

And with that, the purity of Peter Parker's heart beats loudly through every decision he makes, even when he is dangerously misguided and immature-- a quality that not only allows for the Parker to exhibit some growth over the tenure of this new film but also within the growth of Tony Stark himself, who now finds his life in the role of mentor and Father figure, while also remaining the scoundrel we have come to love over all of the Marvel movies.

Watts has expressed in interviews that he wished for his film to carry a tonality that would not feel out of place in a John Hughes film and that specific quality is proudly upon display through its quicksilver light-footed pace, empathy and affection for all of its characters, and its often laugh out loud comedy. This is not to say that Jon Watts has made Spider-Man a joke, by any means. It is only that he has injected a sense of humor that is smartly tied to the realistic pressures of adolescence--especially ones that are as intelligent and intellectually gifted as the ones presented in this film--as well as the growing pains of growing up, especially when you are a superhero.

On a more significant note, I was so thoroughly pleased to see a cinematic vision of New York that is atypical to what is the norm. Yes dear readers, representation matters greatly and to witness a New York neighborhood and high school that is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and simply open to having several characters who just happen to be people of color as integral pieces of the main storyline was undeniably empowering to me.

And with race, I also enjoyed Watts' insertion of economic class into the proceedings, another quality that made "Spider-Man: Homecoming" a tad more multi-layered than it needed to be but definitely provided the film with its overall tonality. By keeping the action (mostly) in Queens instead of within Parker's Manhattan tales when he was working as the photographer of The Daily Bugle, we are given a Peter Parker, and an Adrian Toomes who essentially serve as grounded, working class heroes and villains, neither of whom are bound for any sense of world domination. Just the attempt to gain a prominent foothold in the larger world.

Additionally, "Spider-Man:Homecoming" is not a film that takes itself too seriously as the comic book movie genre's epic tonality is scaled down several notches, thus making the film more fun and less brooding and turbulent. Besides, the terrific casting of Michael Keaton more than certainly gave the film its own sense of meta satire as we all know of Keaton's past as Batman within Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989) and "Batman Returns" (1992) but also as the star of Alejandro G. Inarritu's ingenious "Birdman" (2014)! From bats to birds to vultures...

Well...color me so wonderfully surprised once again. Just as I was growing weary, the right filmmakers and the right time pull the cinematic rabbits out of the hat and in the case of Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Homecoming," the effect was enormously entertaining, so much so that I am actually  more than anxious to see where Watts, Tom Holland and the Marvel brain trust decide to take him next.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR AUGUST 2017

July was an absolutely stellar month at the movies for me with one groundbreaking feature after another, films that essentially re-invented their respective genres with high style, storytelling craftsmanship and innovation as well as that personal stamp that ensures the fullness of an idiosyncratic artistic vision at work and on display.

Now certainly, this winning streak cannot last forever but I am hoping that August will have something of quality to offer. Granted, with films like "Spider-Man: Homecoming," "War For The Planet Of the Apes," and "Atomic Blonde," I do have quite a bit of catch up to play...and with how rapidly films come and go these days, I hope that I am able to still get to them all as I really tend to see just one film a week!

That being said, I am curious about the following upcoming title...
"Detroit," Director Kathryn Bigelow's new politically themed powder keg centering around the race riots contained within the film's titular city in 1967 has already sparked its share of strong reviews as well as its inevitable criticism. Of course, I am unable to voice anything as I have not yet seen it, but after Bigelow's previous effort "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), a film which I felt to be irresponsible to the point of essentially existing as a propaganda film, I am indeed nervous about what is depicted and how she handles this particular subject matter.

Well...as the Summer Movie Season begins to wind down, please do wish me well in my endeavors and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

NOLAN'S GREAT WAR: a review of "Dunkirk"

"DUNKIRK"
Written, Produced and Directed by Christopher Nolan
**** (four stars)
RATED PG 13

What a month it has been for going to the movies everyone!!!

Yes, I do lament quite often about the status of the movies in the 21st century with their over reliance upon all things overly familiar and ready made, from sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, re-imaginings and so on and all at the expense of seemingly all other films that could be made, especially from filmmakers who really wish to utilize the language of cinema to express themselves artistically.

One such filmmaker that has valiantly escaped the clutches of being creatively marginalized is none other than Writer/Director Christopher Nolan, who has spent the entirety of his career masterfully blending the esoteric and the popcorn into powerfully artistic and enormously entertaining statements that has firmly established him as one of the finest, most visionary Directors working today, ensuring that the arrival of each new film from him is indeed a cinematic event. And now, Nolan has returned with an experience so riveting and ravishing that it is quite possible that he just may have even topped himself.

"Dunkirk," Christopher Nolan's World War II set epic, is not only one of the very best films of 2017, and re-established Nolan as a cinematic force to be reckoned with and then some, I think that this may be his tightest, tautest yet most experimental film to date and that includes his breakthrough feature "Momento" (2000), the brilliant psychological thriller of a man suffering short term memory loss in a narrative told backwards.

In many ways, with "Dunkirk," Nolan has devised of a war film told in a fashion that I know that I have never seen before and which made for a furiously paced dramatic intensity pitched so highly that it was nearly anxiety inducing. Yet, this is a profoundly excellent quality as well as yet another perfect example of why we still need visionary filmmakers like Christopher Nolan. In a genre that seems to feel as if everything that could have been said about war has been made, here comes an artist that boldly re-invents the genre itself.

"Dunkirk" examines the events of the Dunkirk evacuation during the Second World War when the Germans had 400,000 British and French troops trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France from three specific vantage points: the land, the sea and the air.

In the film's first section, entitled "1. The Mole," we follow the path of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), young British Army Private who emerges as the sole survivor of an ambush on the streets of Dunkirk onto the beaches where he befriends the silent young solider Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and the hotheaded Alex (Harry Styles) as they attempt to evacuate the beach via boats under the leadership of pier master Commander Boulton (a steadfast Kenneth Branagh).

The film's second section, entitled, "2. The Sea," focuses upon the rescue effort made by the Royal Navy and some civilian merchant ships, one of which operated by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), and his sons Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and 17-year-old George (Barry Keoghan). With German fighter planes sailing overhead ad British destroyers finding themselves bombed, Mr. Dawson remains sternly committed to the task of rescuing the soldiers, even when one shell-shocked sole survivor from a U-Boat attack (Cillian Murphy) wants nothing more than to return to England rather than set sights on Dunkirk again.

The film's third and final section, entitled "3. The Air," focuses on the aerial dogfights between the German and a trio of Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots including Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden).

Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is exemplary, brilliant, exceedingly well conceived and executed cinema. It is a visually resplendent experience and believe me, if you are fortunate enough to live in a city where the 70MM format remains available to you (unlike myself), then it would be imperative to see the film within this format as the panoramic vistas of the land, sea, and sky are awesome to behold in their simultaneous poetry and fury. At this time, talk of awards season coronations have been bandied about and deservedly so, for Nolan himself and tremendous credit must be bestowed upon Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and Editor Lee Smith have risen to the mountainously high challenges of this film with superb aplomb!

Yet for me, Christopher Nolan's extraordinary right hand man is none other than Composer Hans Zimmer, another cinematic legend who seems to relish in the opportunities presented within a new Nolan film as he has unearthed some of the most innovative scores of his career, from the knife's edge intensity contained within "The Dark Knight" (2008) and the swirling pipe organ dynamics of "Interstellar" (2014). For "Dunkirk," like Nolan himself, Zimmer has raised his own bar powerfully with his ferocious, white knuckle score full of (again) anxiety inducing crescendos set to the heart racing, palm sweat raising tempo of a ticking watch. Among the film's many gifts, "Dunkirk" is an exhilarating marriage of sound and vision and Hans Zimmer  more than deserves whatever acclaim that may flow in his direction as his work is exhilarating and exhausting.

Oddly enough, "Dunkirk" reminded me a bit of Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" as the music and the images congealed so brilliantly to the degree it sometimes felt as if I was watching a musical. The choreography, from the planes in the sky to the masses of soldiers all falling down to the grounds of the Dunkirk beaches in unison as the German fighter planes drop bombs all around them, are stunning to regard an din some respects, Nolan takes the music to image aesthetic, if not further than Wright, into an equally innovative direction.

For despite the film's immense volume (this being a Nolan film, it is indeed especially loud), "Dunkirk" almost functions as a silent movie, as it is a film with scant dialogue and characterizations that are more purposefully archetypal than three dimensional, all elements which make for a shatteringly visceral, and therefore, visual experience unlike much of what you will see this year and definitely not a familiar one to the war film genre.

So far, all of my praise has remarked upon the more technical side of "Dunkirk," yet what makes the film absolutely soar is what Christopher Nolan has done with the war film genre. War films have always fascinated and intrigued me and I am not terribly sure why as I do consider myself a pacifist and with that, the thought of being caught within a battlefield situation terrifies me. But still, I think of all of the war films--or are they all really anti-war films--that are indeed some of the great films that I have been exposed to throughout my life.

From the clinically surreal and satirical eye of Stanley Kubrick with "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb" (1964) and "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), to Oliver Stone's more intensely personalized portrayals within "Platoon" (1986) and "Born On The Fourth Of July" (1989) to Clint Eastwood two-sided "Flags Of Our Fathers" (2006) and "Letters From Iwo Jima" (2006), Michael Cimino's working class Vietnam opera "The Deer Hunter" (1978) to most certainly, Steven Spielberg's titanic "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), I have been exposed to one triumphant vision of humanity at its most perilous through one set of incredibly detailed and idiosyncratic eyes to another. What Christopher Nolan has done within the genre with "Dunkirk" felt to be altogether different.

In short, Nolan has utilized the film's triptych structure and the various storylines contained therein to not have the film run as three specific sections but as one, complete, non-linear narrative that plays with the structures of time, as the events of "The Mole" play out for the course of one week while "The Sea" and "The Air" play out over the course of one day and one hour respectively.

Certainly, this approach serves the Nolan aesthetic just as it did with his past cinematic jigsaw puzzles, like the dream world logic of "Inception" (2010), the quantum physics time travel of the aforementioned "Interstellar" as well as the backwards thrills of "Momento." Yet, Nolan has not utilized this technique solely for mere cinematic effect, as brilliant as it is. What Nolan has achieved is to miraculously merge the primal with the existential regarding the fight for survival and the randomness of death, where the anguish, violence, chaos and terror are all amplified into something that resembles the overall timelessness of war.

By juxtaposing all three story and timelines, Nolan depicts the primal nature with simultaneous elegance and rapaciousness, for one character who is alive in one scene set earlier or later, may be seen nearly drowning in another scene set earlier or later thus blurring the nature and concept of time completely. For within the urgency and horror of the battlefield, I can only imagine that regardless of the actual span of time being one hour, a day or a week, all of it feels interminable in its punishment and death is indeed instantaneous, occurring in less than a blink of an eye.

On a more existential level, the sheer randomness of violence and death is extremely palpable. The first scene of the film shows how young Tommy is the sole survivor of a small group of young men by either fate or dumb luck. Another who greets the day with eagerness might not survive until the next. A soldier may be a hero one moment and then a captive in the very next. I think that Nolan's technique in this regard brutally illustrates the nature of war itself, regardless of the actual time period the war is set, making "Dunkirk" not only representative of its specific subject matter but representative of every war that has ever been fought.

To that end, this is why I feel that "Dunkirk" succeeds so immensely despite its lack of significant dialogue and fully developed characterizations (in fact, Cillian Murphy's character is only known as "Shivering Soldier") and for that matter, I also think that this is why the film happens to be Nolan's shortest film in quite some time as it runs under two hours. Nolan understands that "Dunkirk" is a film that needs to be furiously paced, filled with awe, power, reverence and a stunning, terrifying velocity that cuts down to the bone and he succeeded on every count artfully, skillfully and triumphantly.

Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is one of 2017's highest achievements.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA: a review of "The Big Sick"

"THE BIG SICK"
Screenplay Written by Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
Produced by Judd Apatow
Directed by Michael Showalter
**** (four stars)
RATED R

In our current age of big budget sequels, prequels, re-boots, remakes, re-imaginings and all manner of superheroes, Legos, Jedi Knights and wizards and warlocks running rampant among our multiplexes, it is really amazing if you take the time to look at the films that are now not being made--films that were once mainstream staples, and for the purposes of this review, I am specifically referring to the romantic comedy.

If you have been frequent visitors to this site over the years, you will already know very well that I have been extremely critical of the modern day romantic comedy for quite some time as those films have typically extinguished any sense of actual romance and anything resembling the behaviors and motivations of actual living, breathing human beings in favor of one impossibly wacky plot driven contrivance after another. For me, if I am going to bother with viewing a romantic comedy, the proceedings need to mean something. That is, the comedy and most crucially, the romance needs to be strongly earned.

Yes, I know, I know, I understand the desire to just go out and have some cinematic cotton candy and not be terribly mentally or emotionally taxed. I do  understand and I do not begrudge any of you in that respect. I just have no need for "attractive, likable" celebrities frothing around (and clearly having more fun on set than I am in the theater audience) when what I am wanting and needing is something that depicts the emotional messiness of love, a story that reaches further and deeper and feels remotely tangible to what real people experience. In short, I am more of a person who will watch Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy" (1997) ten times in a row than to ever sit through the nonsense of "Sweet Home Alabama" (2002) or, Lord help me, "The Proposal" (2009) ever again. And if those latter films are going to be the romantic comedy flagships, then it is a genre that truly deserved its near demise.

For a time, it was more than enough to make me swear off essentially all movie love stories altogether--especially as I am one that is not typically moved terribly much, or that often, by cinematic romance. I'm not heartless, by any means. When the stars are aligned, I can be deeply affected. But generally, those types of movies have been either too simplistic or too stupid or more than their share of both for me to give them any credence. Frankly, this particular genre had flown worlds away from the brilliant, hysterical, and downright aching honesty of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" (1977) and it seemed that there woud be no going back.

Over the last ten years, I would say--and aside from some strong, smaller scaled independent films like Writer/Director Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister" (2011) or Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener's excellent "Enough Said" (2013), for example--I have found that Writer/Producer/Director Judd Apatow has more than effectively taken up the mantle for how to effectively make genuinely funny and heartfelt romantic comedies.

As I have written in the past upon this site, Apatow instinctively understands that for these types of films to succeed greatly, they have to actually be romantic, sexy and sexual and the characters and their respective situations had to be grounded enough to allow any comedic proceedings--even when they escalate into madness--to carry any weight. At this time, I am just bursting with excitement to share with you that Apatow can now claim to be involved with not only the finest romantic comedic that he has ever been associated with, it is a romantic comedy that has beautifully resuscitated the genre as a whole.

"The Big Sick," produced by Apatow and directed by Michael Showalter, is a triumph, unquestionably for Co-Screenwriter Emily V. Gordon and Co-Screenwriter/Actor Kumail Nanjiani, whose real life love story is on which this film is based, but for all of us in the audience. As far as I am concerned, this creative collective have not simply made a good romantic comedy, they have made a GREAT one. One that deserves its place as one of the very best films of 2017 but also one that deserves to sit right alongside, and comfortably so, Allen's "Annie Hall," as it is a film that perceptive, multi-layered, laugh out loud funny and undeniably, achingly, provocatively, urgently romantic.

"The Big Sick" stars Kumail Nanjiani as well...himself,  a budding Chicago stand-up comedian struggling to reach the next rung within the industry while also working as an Uber driver. As Kumail is part of a traditional Pakistani Muslim family, he endures the matchmaking efforts of his parents Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) who wish for him to follow in the tradition of arranged marriage, a construct he secretly does not believe in but grudgingly endures for the sake of his family.

One night, while performing at the comedy club, Kumail is pleasantly heckled by a White, blonde audience patron named Emily (Zoe Kazan), with whom he hooks up with after the show and the two soon begin dating, a reality he keeps secret from his family for fear of being disowned by his parents and in turn, a secret he keeps from Emily for fear that she woud never understand his family or their Muslim culture. When Emily eventually discovers the truth, and Kumail admits his uncertainty concerning the possibility of a future together, she angrily breaks up with him, leaving him devastated.

Weeks later, Emily succumbs to a serious lung infection and is placed into a medically induced coma. Kumail is not only forced to confront his emotions towards Emily and her medical crisis directly alongside Emily's parents, Terry (an excellent Ray Romano) and Beth (the great Holly Hunter), he is forced to confront the full trajectory of his life, from his comedic aspirations to his trepidacious feelings towards aspects of his own heritage and family.

Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick" is a cinematic rarity, a romantic comedy that is brave and bold enough to weave a tale that speaks to the fantasies and realities of falling in love as well as the ebb and flow that occurs when attempting to stay in love, all the while finding ample room and space to explore the world of stand up comedy, inter-racial dating, a dramatic medical mystery, existential issues of life and death and most impressively, a matter-of-fact depiction of modern day, contemporary, 21st century cosmopolitan life of Muslim-Americans living in Chicago.

What begins as a genuinely witty urban romantic comedy becomes absolutely riveting in its authenticity and overall generosity of spirit as "The Big Sick" is a film that wisely possesses no villains or nefarious, duplicitous characters. Just a collective of individuals who are all simply trying to live their lives as best and as honestly as they are able, especially when and after tragedy strikes. Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani have composed a stunning, beautiful screenplay, as well as a document of the early days of their unconventional romance that also provides exceedingly rich, three dimensional characterizations of both of their families, respective friends and even potential love interests that "The Big Sick" becomes one of the most uniquely humane films that I have seen in quite some time.

Most crucially, and as previously stated, "The Big Sick" pulls off the revolutionary act of daring to showcase a contemporary world of Muslim-Americans through the essential lens of normalcy as we explore a family in which the tenants of their Islamic faith clashes against the influences Americanization. Kumail's romance and eventual devotion to Emily is not presented through any veil of Muslim self-loathing or as a rejection of self. What we are witnessing is a young man who simply wishes to fall in love with whomever he wishes, regardless of race, religion or faith.

And even with that, I was amazed with the depiction of arranged marriages within the film as it is never once regarded as strange, odd, weird or wrong. It is simply seen as being a piece of a culture, one that is upheld by Kumail's parents and his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) and his wife, Fatima (Shenaz Treasury), a couple betrothed through arrangement, and is also the source of awkwardness, confusion, embarrassment and eve humiliation by Kumail and the assortment of young women who always arrive during family dinners, under the guise Kumail's Mother describes without fail with "I wonder who that could be?" and "Guess who dropped by?"  

All of the sequences between Kumail, his family and potential love interests are presented cleanly, honesty and with the utmost respect and authenticity, making the comedy and even the heartbreaking drama fully earned and believable, ensuring "The Big Sick" presents a rightful document of the Muslim-American experience (complete with elements of racism and post 9/11 fears) while also depicting the similarities and commonalities between Muslim and non-Muslim families as a whole.

And yes, the central relationship in "The Big Sick" is not necessarily between Kumail and Emily, but moreso between Kumail and her parents Terry and Beth, as they eventually bond while painfully awaiting Emily to wake from her coma. Certainly, there is the element of the culture clash but what is greater still is that as Kumail realizes that Emily is the woman he wishes to spend his life with should she awake, he is gathering a window into his own potential future by observing the scenes from the marriage of Terry and Beth, which indeed houses their own issues, complications, frailties as well as their endurance.

The fact that Holly Hunter remains a compulsively watchable and involving actress should come as no surprise to you. But it is the wonderful work of Ray Romano that often nearly brought me to tears with its genuineness and equal status to that of Hunter's work. Together, these two figures truly forged an honest dynamic that provided us in the audience with a history of their romance, marriage and their parenting of Emily that also superbly ran in tandem with the love story of Kumail's parents-a love story that flows between themselves as well as from parent to child.

And of course, what of the film's raison d'etre, the love story of Kumail and Emily? How rare it is to find a cinematic romance that is filled with such maturity, realism, palpable urgency and uncertainty, a remarkable feat especially as we already know the outcome considering the real world Kumail and Emily are indeed married and co-wrote the film's screenplay together.

Yes, it is indeed a characteristic of the (more recent) romantic comedy formula that we already know the film's ending from the one-sheet poster, which often makes watching the movie itself a 90 minute exercise in wheel spinning. With "The Big Sick," there is no such monotony on display whatsoever as we are given characters and situations that are as clever, intelligent, awkward, layered, engaging, difficult and as wrenching as real life as the movie's Kumail and Emily are forced to ask and confront hard questions and truths about themselves before they can fully embrace each other as a romantic couple.

In some ways, the film does indeed follow the romantic comedy formula of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl and so on but the film never descends into misguided, misbegotten misunderstandings. But for Kumail and Emily, what drives them apart and what could potentially bring them back together all rests within issues of race, religion, and family in addition to honesty, integrity, commitment and newfound maturity, which involves the taking of serious, painful risks in order to achieve a greater sense of personal ascension into adulthood. Please tell me the last romantic comedy that you've seen that has embraced those qualities so explicitly and completely?

Kumail Nanjiani, already a terrific presence in the ensemble on HBO and Mike Judge's "Silicon Valley" series, has made a wonderful, star-making splash as an actor and writer with "The Big Sick," as his wide ranging dynamic felt completely effortless, wholly inviting, comedically sharp and undeniably bittersweet and heartbreaking. Zoe Kazan, who already made a striking impression upon me with Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' criminally underseen, undervalued yet astounding "Ruby Sparks" (2012), which Kazan also scripted, is a formidable presence as well as a perfect on-screen match for Nanjiani as she simultaneously compliments and pushes him to become a better man, just as she is also discovering and re-discovering her own place in the world. Their's is a rare cinematic relationship to actually root for and celebrate and the two are absolutely sensational together--even as the bulk of the film keeps them apart.
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As with Judd Apatow's finest film and television projects and productions, including "Freaks And Geeks" (1999-2000), "Knocked Up" (2007), "This Is 40" (2012) and others, Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick" delivered a story and collective of characters that were vastly richer and more humane than I thought would have been possible. Additionally, the characters themselves are all more than deserving of having not only another hour's worth of screen time in this film, they are complex and compelling enough to house either a sequel or their own individual spin-off films. Frankly, I just did not wish for this film to end.

Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick" is a marvelous film, an experience filled with warmth, poignancy, a tremendous amount of empathy and realism that perfectly augments the romantic comedy. It is a film that contains not even a stitch of hyperbole, manufactured plotlines or contrived emotions as Screenwriters Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiami realize that their own real life situation, which they adapted for this film, possesses more than enough inherent comedy and drama that none needed to be forcibly injected.

So beautifully, they discovered ways to mine for the right amounts of comedy and even greater the truth of the proceedings in order to make the entire film resonate deeply.  And furthermore, with everything else that I have expressed to you in this posting, "The Big Sick" also offers a smart, sharp, astute and satirical look at the urban comedy club scene that is the equal to anything seen within Judd Apatow's sprawling "Funny People" (2009) and Mike Birbiglia's excellent "Don't Think Twice" (2016). When was the last time that you saw a romantic comedy film that even attempted to address, and therefore achieve, everything which I have described to you? I sincerely hope that should this film hit the mark with the masses as it already has seemed to accomplish with critics, the romantic comedy genre can look directly to this film as its proper rebirth.

"The Big Sick" is one of the finest films of the year.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

SOUTHERN COMFORT: a review of "The Beguiled"

"THE BEGUILED"
Based upon the novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan
and the film "The Beguiled" (1971) 
Screenplay Written by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp   
Directed by Don Seigel
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED R

For Exhibit B in my plea to the cinematic powers that be, as well as to all of you, as to why we still need to have strong, auteur directors and filmmakers creating movies, I gladly turn your attention to Ms. Sofia Coppola and her latest effort, the dark, atmospheric, grim Southern Gothic drama "The Beguiled," her remake of the 1971 Don Seigel directed film starring Clint Eastwood.

Now, of course, we do find ourselves during a period in cinema where originality has taken a severe backseat to all manner of remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, sequels, prequels and so on. But, that is not to say that all of those sub genres possess no value just in an of themselves. In fact, there are some stories more than worthy of re-telling and with "The Beguiled," based upon an original novel written by a man and a film directed by a man, Coppola's uniquely feminine (and I am certain some would say "feminist") perspective forces the material to be seen and experienced through a profoundly different lens, therefore making for an overall different experience whatsoever.

And in the case of Coppola's "The Beguiled," she has created a darkly artful, quietly disturbing, almost queasily intense chamber thriller which places the dynamics of the sexes front and center while also continuing to explore her consistent themes of female isolation and imprisonment, either self-imposed or otherwise. For those of you out there who are craving a movie that is decidedly more adult in tone, tenor and presentation, Sofia Coppola's "The Beguiled" will indeed serve as a grim antidote to the summertime superhero movie blues.

For those of you, who like myself, are unfamiliar with the original material, I will keep the plot description brief. Set in 1864 Virginia, three years into the Civil War, Sofia Coppola's "The Beguiled" stars Nicole Kidman as Miss Martha Farnsworth, headmistress of an increasingly vacant and isolated girls school, as all but five students and one teacher, Miss Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), have remained.

One morning as one of the students named Amy (Oona Laurence) is out in the nearby woods picking mushrooms, she stumbles across the wounded body of John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a corporal in the Union army, whose leg was shot and he has since deserted the battlefield. Out of kindness, Amy brings John to the girls school to the surprise, confusion and anxiousness of her classmates and teachers. John soon falls into unconsciousness and Miss Martha reluctantly houses him inside one of the school's rooms and tends to his wounds while all of the other women in the household gather outside of the door in extreme curiosity.

As John regains consciousness and slowly begins his healing process, the girls all take turns visiting him, showering him with attention, curious stares and affectionate wonderment, all of which John reciprocates individually and based upon each woman's particular interests, most notably the more amorous emotions and sexual tensions stirred within both Miss Farnsworth and Miss Morrow.

Conflicts begin to rise as John's health improves to the point where he volunteers to work in the school's garden, as he fears that he will have to return to the war, fears that are intensified by Miss Farnsworth's prompts for him to leave the premises.

And then, one night, after the girls, the women and John share a sumptuous meal together by candlelight, the gradually percolating tensions boil over...

As I have not seen the original film or have even read the original novel from which this material is based, I am unable to make any sort of comparative judgement for you. But that being said, Sofia Coppola's "The Beguiled" is an elegant pot boiler, one whose quietness and subtlety can often be disarming to the point of being somewhat lulling--as is a Coppola trademark. But rest assured, the power and overall disturbing nature of the film is not undone by the film's minimalism. In fact, the sparseness more than works to the film's advantages and definitely showcases Coppola's strengths as a filmmaker who has established and demonstrated her fully developed idiosyncratic voice from her very first film.

I do realize that for some viewers, perhaps even some of you reading this post, may feel that Sofia Coppola's style is artificial at best with a measured, deliberate pacing that can be numbing at worst. I get it. I understand. Yet, for me, that specific quality has never been a bother to me as her films have contained a certain dreamy haze that lends itself to her consistent themes of alienation, isolation and feeling completely remote from one's location or environment as a whole. With "The Beguiled," I felt that Coppola's understatedness and overall restraint--plus Cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd's cloudy, naturalistic palate, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" (1975)--were crucial to its drama, making the larger moments truly stand out without any sense of hyperbole.

Additionally, I do realize that there has been some rumbling controversy over Coppola's interpretation of this Civil War set material and the fact that there are no Black actors or characters present within the film, therefore making "The Beguiled" viewed as the latest attempt at Hollywood "whitewashing."  For me, while I do understand the criticism, I harbored no such emotions as I viewed the film as I do feel that the inclusion of racially based subject matter would have altered the story tremendously, opening the experience up to existing as a completely different kind of movie altogether. Essentially, in order to insert such material properly as well as artfully, "The Beguiled" would need to be fashioned into being more of an epic. In Sofia Coppola's directorial hands, her film is a chamber piece and intimacy is the key.

"The Beguiled" fits perfectly within the remainder of films in Sofia Coppola's oeuvre as we are again given a collective of characters who are essentially living life as if under a pristine casing of glass. From the over-bearing restrictive parents in Middle class White suburbia (1999's "The Virgin Suicides"), the fishbowl world of fame, celebrity and (it could be argued) White privilege (2003's "Lost In Translation," 2006's "Marie Antoinette," 2010's "Somewhere," 2013's "The Bling Ring"), wealth and power (essentially all of her films), Sofia Coppola's characters are sometimes victims, architects or even some semblance of both in regards to their collective states of isolation, misery and downfalls.

For me, "The Beguiled" fits best with "The Virgin Suicides" and "Marie Antoinette," as Coppola places her focus squarely upon women often trapped in worlds not of their making but are attempting to exert some sense of control regardless. For this film, I loved how that even though the film is set three years into the Civil War, we never see any of the battle whatsoever. We solely hear the gunfire and see the rising smoke from battlefields far, far off in the distance. Aside from John McBurney, we greet a few Confederate solders who pass by the schoolhouse where McBurney is hidden in secretive convalescence and that is really all we gather of anyone from the outside world. Coppola gives us a large school, surrounded by a gate and removed from absolutely everything pertaining to the war and inhabited by seven girls and women, who are mostly viewed from the indoors gazing out of the windows at the larger world they are not even connected with.  

The surprise arrival of John McBurney, a Union soldier no less, perfectly sets up the initial sense of conflict and distrust between the man and the females, plus within the females themselves. But when faced with their Christian values--a nice touch--the woman find themselves tested by the constructs and expectations of their own existence as Southern girls and women. Once the "other" has breached the threshold of their environment, the differing, conflicting emotions of simple curiosity and fascination soon flow into areas of sexual tension and dominance of one gender over the other.

And yet she gives men equal time to explore societal constructs and expectations. I found it fascinating how Coppola and Colin Farrell framed the McBurney character as one whose war wounds have clearly altered his feelings about his participation within the war, therefore making his character conflicted with his own feelings about his manhood. As tensions escalate and explode in the later sections of the film, Coppola slyly addresses male psychological fears of castration into the mix, therefore allowing McBurney to question his manhood regarding sexual power. But it is in those earlier sequences in the film, as the women of the school house visit McBurney one by one, how effectively he plays into their affection and attention through zeroing in on a certain attribute, fully specific to each female, therefore making the women feel as if they are the sole female figure in the house to have the entirety of his gaze and desires.

This is where "The Beguiled" finds its strengths, within Coppola's measured tone and meticulously perceptive examinations into male and female vanity, and as the film continues, the levels to which each gender will ensure their own sense of self-preservation.  

The entire cast of "The Beguiled" is first rate. Nicole Kidman, already raising her own bar through her searing work on HBO's "Big Little Lies," has turned in one of her most accomplished performances as the severely pragmatic Miss Martha Farnsworth. Colin Farrell also provides another high mark in his career, with a performance that is by turns sly, charismatic, polite, sincere, fearful, monstrous and even comical as the Union soldier who soon discovers that life inside of the female inhabited schoolhouse is more perilous than the Civil War battlefield. Kirsten Dunst, working with Coppola for the third time after "The Virgin Suicides" and "Marie Antoinette," again serves us an engaged, honest and empathetic gaze into the inner world of another of Coppola's "butterflies under glass."  

Dear readers, the movies are reaching a most critical period. Now I am not about to admonish any of you for desiring to see all manner of superheroes, sequels, and mainstream genre films, certainly not because I see the same films too. But as I have been expressing for the entirety of this blogsite, what troubles me is the increased focus upon those films at the expense of any other films being made, especially ones from filmmakers who clearly have a personalized viewpoint that they wish to create and share. Sofia Coppola is such a filmmaker, and especially within an industry where there are so shamelessly few prominent female filmmakers with Coppola's influence, clout and ability to get her projects made and released, she is someone I feel that we should treasure unquestionably.

Sofia Coppola's"The Beguiled" is an adult artistic statement from a filmmaker who has always been fortunate and skilled enough to create, explore and critique her cinematic worldview. We need filmmakers like her and what a shame it would be to have a voice like hers snuffed out in favor of the vacuously uninspired, the mindlessly gargantuan, and the blatantly anonymous.