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Monthly Archives: June 2017

Sofia Coppola’s THE BEGUILED

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Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, fresh off of its Cannes World Premiere in May (where it deservedly won the Best Director prize), opens in Chicago theaters this Friday. It is a smart example of counter-programming on behalf of distributor Focus Features: viewers looking for an alternative to mindless summer blockbuster fare can do no better than to check out this visually sumptuous and surprisingly funny Civil War-era melodrama, which boasts a raft of great performances (from a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning) as well as enough provocative commentary on gender relations to ensure heated post-screening discussions; along with all of its other virtues, The Beguiled should prove to be a hell of a date movie.

Based on a novel by Thomas Cullinen that was previously adapted by the director/star team of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, Coppola’s film offers a refreshingly feminized take on a story that has long cried out for it: in 1864 Virginia, a wounded Union soldier (Farrell) is given reluctant sanctuary by the headmistress (Kidman) of an all-girls school. As he convalesces, the soldier insidiously sows mischief and jealousy in the hearts of everyone with whom he comes into contact: not only the headmistress but also a teacher (Dunst) as well as the students. The movie begins with Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the youngest pupils, picking mushrooms beneath moss-strewn trees while humming the song “Lorena,” a Civil War ballad whose melody also features in the opening of John Ford’s immortal The Searchers. This seems to be Coppola’s way of announcing that her film will take place within certain American narrative filmmaking traditions, which, over the course of a breezy 94 minutes, she then subtly and cleverly works to overturn. Her Beguiled, in fact, pointedly becomes an anti-western – taking place almost entirely in dimly lit interiors (gorgeously photographed by Philippe Le Sourd), where the war is represented only by the muffled sounds of distant canon fire, and focusing mostly on the intimate lives of her female characters.

Don Siegel’s excellent 1971 film version is a more erotic and disturbing horror show, centered as it is on a subversive interrogation of Clint Eastwood’s macho star persona. Sofia Coppola, being a very different kind of filmmaker (more sensorial and less interested in overt character psychology), wisely chooses to both eliminate “back story” and to make Farrell’s soldier more passive and even cowardly; this Irish immigrant, who took the place of a conscripted soldier for a $300 payout and desperately wants to avoid returning to the battlefield, does the bare minimum necessary to seduce the women and girls around him. He is little more than a slab of male flesh onto which these sheltered female characters inevitably project their romantic and sexual longings. The Beguiled is ultimately a film about the way these young women look at this young man, and there is a visual mastery at work in the way Coppola coordinates the gazes of her fine actresses that surpasses anything she has done before. In the young women’s attempts to one-up each other and jockey for favorable position with the soldier, Coppola also taps a surprisingly rich vein of dark comedy; this is nowhere more apparent than in the crack comic timing (physical as well as verbal) of the precocious Alicia, the student played by Elle Fanning, a terrific young actress who steals every scene she is in.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Nocturama (Bonello)
2. They Live By Night (Ray)
3. Portrait of a Young Man (Rodakiewicz)
4. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
5. The Devil’s Backbone (Del Toro)
6. A Page of Madness (Kinugasa)
7. Frankenhooker (Henenlotter)
8. Daughter of the Nile (Hou)
9. The Beguiled (Coppola)
10. Taipei Story (Yang)


INHERENT VICE in the Age of Trump

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which was greeted with incomprehension by many critics and viewers upon its first release in 2014, is one of the best and most underrated American films of recent years. I’m convinced that, like a lot of the Great American Movies, it was at least several years ahead of its time. If it had been released during the Trump administration, for instance, its resonance within our culture would have undoubtedly been much greater. This is because we are now living in an era that is more politically divisive than at any time since 1970 when the film (and Thomas Pynchon’s source novel) take place. The summer of 1970 was a schizoid time in America: it was halfway through Nixon’s first term, the height of the Vietnam War, and the first summer after the Manson Family murders revealed the dark, flip side of hippie culture. It was also the year that an arty, X-rated movie like Midnight Cowboy could win the Best Picture Oscar on the same night that John Wayne took home the Best Actor trophy for True Grit. This cultural schism is reflected in Pynchon’s novel but I think Anderson takes the concept even further in his deft adaptation by making it explicit that Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix’s hip, stoner private eye), and Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin’s ultra-square Dragnet-style cop) are each other’s doppelgangers; they literally speak in unison at the end of the film in an unforgettable scene where Bigfoot first smokes then eats all of Doc’s weed. The fact that this mismatched duo are forced to become uneasy allies in order to fight a common enemy is something that makes them similar to other private eye/cop pairs in classic film noirs before them but Anderson also seems to be saying that, taken together, these two are America, with each of them falling on a different side of an unbridgeable cultural divide. Which is perhaps why, even though Inherent Vice is hilarious throughout, the ending has always struck me as genuinely tragic.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Law of the Border (Akad)
2. Limite (Peixoto)
3. Revenge (Shinarbaev)
4. It Comes at Night (Shults)
5. Mysterious Object at Noon (Weerasethakul)
6. Insiang (Brocka)
7. Lost Highway (Lynch)
8. Basket Case 3: The Progeny (Henenlotter)
9. Alien: Covenant (Scott)
10. Mulholland Drive (Lynch)


BOB LE FLAMBEUR at the Siskel Center

I wrote the following review of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur for Cinefile Chicago. It screens twice in the next week at the Siskel Center in 35mm.

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Jean-Pierre Melville’s BOB LE FLAMBEUR (French Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 3pm and Tuesday, 6pm

BOB LE FLAMBEUR is one of the most important films ever made – although it’s probably also a case of a classic movie that’s been more influential than actually seen. The way writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville expressed a punch-drunk love for American genre fare, refracting crime/noir conventions through his unique Gallic sensibility to create something refreshingly new, would exert a massive influence on the directors of the nouvelle vague in just a few years time; in BREATHLESS, which features an extended cameo by Melville, Jean-Luc Godard cheekily implies that it was Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel who “ratted on (his) friend” Bob Montagne. Made at a time when most commercial French films were still shot on studio-constructed sets, Melville’s mid-‘50s depiction of the Montmartre demimonde is so pungent you can smell it, but his stylish mise-en-scene – with its chiaroscuro lighting and emphasis on black-and-white checkerboard patterns – set a whole new standard for cinematic cool. BOB LE FLAMBEUR would go on to be remade both officially (as Neil Jordan’s THE GOOD THIEF) and unofficially (by Paul Thomas Anderson as HARD EIGHT) though neither Nick Nolte nor Philip Baker Hall can quite match the combination of world-weary poignancy and super-coolness in their portraits of aging masculinity that Roger Duchesne offers here. Even though it was his fourth feature, and his previous work formidable, BOB LE FLAMBEUR is also, crucially, the movie where “Melville becomes Melville.” With a tip of his Stetson to John Huston’s THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, the brilliant French filmmaker crafted an irresistible shaggy-dog heist story about the titular character, a middle-aged gangster/gambler who dutifully maintains an impeccable sense of personal style even when on a losing streak – making him a forerunner of the stoic badasses essayed by Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Gian Maria Volontè in Melville’s mature masterpieces of the 1960s and early 1970s. Bob’s bad luck eventually causes him to hatch a scheme to rob the casino in Deauville, a journey to the end of night that leads to one of the wittiest punch lines in cinema. (1956, 98 min, 35mm) MGS

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