“The Beguiled” Entrances, Though from a Distance

The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

With a feature-filmmaking career that began in 1999, with The Virgin Suicides, and has continued since then with Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette (2006), Somewhere (2010), The Bling Ring (2013) and now The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola – the youngest child, and only daughter, of filmmakers Francis Ford and Eleanor Coppola – has proved herself adept at a certain kind of dreamy exploration of female awakening, be it of the sexual or self-actualized variety, often in reaction to the male-dominated world. Her films are peopled by women – usually young – struggling with issues of personal agency and identity. Men play important parts in these stories, as well, but are often there as dramatic obstacles or opportunities in the path towards whatever destiny awaits. And though Coppola has come under some criticism over her lack of racial diversity in her films – and in The Beguiled, in particular – hers is one of many needed feminine voices in the cinematic patriarchy, articulating her characters’ often inchoate longing for something just beyond their as-yet-unarticulated understanding. And though I may not entirely agree with the Cannes Film Festival jury’s decision to award her its 2017 Best Director Prize (making her only the second woman ever to win) – as I find her latest work narratively remote, if also fascinating – I nevertheless concur that Coppola is in full control of her visual aesthetic and the performances of her actors. Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan (which was previously adapted for the screen in 1971), it’s a glorious, wild affair, much like the tendrils of Spanish moss that fill many of the exterior compositions.

The year is 1864 – “3 years into the Civil War,” as a title card informs us – and we are in Virginia, at the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Girls. Only five students remain, with but one teacher plus the headmistress as the two adult chaperones. The slaves, too, have long since fled, leaving the women especially alone (simultaneously removing racial tension from the story and opening Coppola up to charges of insensitivity), seemingly helpless. When one of the youngest girls, Amy (Oona Laurence, Lamb), comes across a wounded Union soldier in the woods – played by Colin Farrell (The Lobster) – she is at first afraid. Very quickly, however, he charms her with his gentle manner, and she agrees to help him hobble to the school. There, he collapses, and though the women consider handing him over, as a prisoner, to the nearby Confederate army, they agree to first heal him. Or rather, their formidable leader Miss Martha – played by the ever-powerful Nicole Kidman (Lion) – decides on the course of action, and undertakes the surgical repair of the soldier’s leg, herself. Seemingly capable of everything, she nevertheless swoons a bit as she cleans his body, lingering a little here and there.

And so the movie goes, with each character – even the small ones – confronting an unexpected rush of emotion and desire brought on by the mere presence of a captive male in their midst. Miss Edwina, the teacher – played by a restrained Kirsten Dunst (so fine in Season 2 of Fargo) – is more distraught than most, though the oldest of the girls, Alicia (Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon), is equally intrigued. The soldier, whose name, we learn, is Corporal John McBurney, flirts with all, indiscriminately, though his reasons, other than hoping that they not give him up to the Confederates, are unclear. Is he simply a man taking advantage of women, as is the wont and cultural prerogative of all men? Does he actually like any of them? Is he tired of war and looking for a refuge? It is to Coppola’s credit as writer and director that she successfully keeps us guessing, even after the film is done, about his motivations. The women, too, emerge as individually robust characters, each with her own distinct personality, who merge, collectively, into a daunting foe for Corporal McBurney once things turn ugly.

Which they do. Much has already been written about this film’s place in the Southern Gothic genre. Everyone is an hysterical mess, ravaged by loneliness, war and hormones. Add a drop of Y chromosome, and hysteria approaches madness. Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandmaster) often bathe the proceedings in gorgeous, calming natural light, as if in contrast to the roiling emotions within. They also have a penchant for studied compositions, frequently framing the women in tableaux vivants – and otherwise offering  up still lifes of various object and food, throughout, as well – as if to empathize that all that follows is part of a carefully constructed play within the movie, with each person playing a preordained part. It’s beautiful to behold, if also stifling, which is its point, I assume, but also dramatically inert, at times. I loved much of what I was watching, but felt simultaneously detached. This estrangement from the story left me laughing when things turned outrageously gory, rather than horrified. Was that the right reaction? I’m not sure. But it’s the feeling of distance that ultimately left me less enthusiastic, by the end, than I thought I would be, given my positive reaction at the start. All the while, I remain in admiration of Coppola’s technique. Strong women confronting a man’s world? Nothing wrong with that.

The Bouncy “Baby Driver” Speeds Marvelously Along, Occasionally Slowed by Soggy Sentiment

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)*

If only the entire movie were as good as its first act, Baby Driver would be a near-masterpiece of dazzling mise-en-scène and editing. Snappy, brisk and wildly inventive in its opening third, the film, from British director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz), follows “Baby” (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars), a getaway driver for a bank-robbing team headed by the shadowy Doc (Kevin Spacey, Elvis & Nixon). As two men and one woman make their way inside the target, Baby sits in the front seat, jamming to the tunes on his iPod. Wright cuts each shot to the sharp beats, shifting angles and frame sizes in a dizzying display of filmmaking bravura, subsequently upping the ante even more when the gangsters jump back into the vehicle, prompting one of the best car chases to make it to the screen in years (with more to come). Get ready for a wild ride, the director proclaims in bright, bold letters, and then more than delivers the goods. Later, Wright shows he can handle staging and blocking, as well as editing, when his camera pursues Baby on a single-shot pedestrian coffee run. Is it too much style, in danger of overwhelming the substance? You bet! Is it terrific fun, so you almost don’t care? I’ll see you and raise you another.

Unfortunately, this virtuosity falters midway through, when the script turns maudlin, and for a while we fear that Wright has lost his way. Fortunately, the ending sees him return to form, though the final scenes are still a bit soggy. Joining Elgort and Spacey – both excellent – in the madcap mayhem are Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained), Eiza González (El Rey Network’s From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series), Jon Hamm (AMC’s Mad Men), and Lily James (Cinderella), among others in a great supporting cast. If you like your adrenaline rush set to a catchy soundtrack (in many ways, the film feels inspired by Wright’s favorite playlist), and don’t mind the messy middle section, then this could be the film for you. Be forewarned, however, that like so many action-oriented films of today (and yesterday, to be fair), the gun violence is extreme, if cartoonish. Only you can be the judge of whether cinematic entertainment justifies the collateral damage … or not. I can guarantee that you won’t need caffeine when you leave the theater, however.

*Adapted from a capsule review I wrote for my post-SXSW coverage at Film Festival Today.

AFI DOCS (1 Interview/2 Reviews) & 1 General Interview/2 Reviews @hammertonail + 2 Reviews @filmfesttoday

In the past two weeks, here is what I’ve had published at Hammer to Nail: 1 phone interview (with Jeff Malmberg, co-director of Spettacolo) plus 2 reviews (Atomic Homefront and City of Ghosts) from the recent AFI DOCS film festival; 1 phone interview of a just-released film (with Eddie Rosenstein, the director of The Freedom to Marry) plus 2 reviews of just-released films (Score: A Film Music Documentary and Abacus: Small Enough to Jail). Film Festival Today published one review last week (The Book of Henry) and one this week (The Hero). Here are links to all 8 pieces:


@BaltimoreSun’s @RoughlySpeaking Podcast on Female Action Stars + Reviews of “The Mummy” and “My Cousin Rachel” @filmfesttoday

On Thursday, June 8, 2017,  Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” to discuss the new Wonder Woman and other female-centered action films, including the World War II classic Mrs. Miniver, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this month. Here is the link to the show. Enjoy!

Also this week, in addition to the review I published here on my blog (of It Comes at Night), I reviewed both The Mummy and My Cousin Rachel for Film Festival Today. Check them out at the links, below:

Minimalist “It Comes at Night” Showcases Directorial Brilliance Amidst Flawed Script

It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults, 2017)

There is much to recommend in director Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore effort (which follows his 2015 debut feature, Krisha). A master of the creepy, slow tracking shot married to eerie sound design, Shults creates an entire post-apocalyptic universe out of little more than sticks and stones, setting It Comes at Night in a lonely house in the woods, where the three surviving members of a family hide from marauders and disease. For two-thirds of the movie, Shults holds us in rapt attention despite the minimalism of the plot. And then, sadly, in the final act, he undoes much of the good that has come before, ignoring the carefully interwoven narrative threads in favor of an eruption of violence. Though disappointing, this failure of imagination does not entirely negate the promise of the earlier mise-en-scène.

Joel Edgerton (Loving) plays Paul, husband to Sarah (Carmen Ejogo, Selma) and father to Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr., The Birth of a Nation). As the film begins, they are forced to shoot, then burn, Sarah’s father, victim of a plague that has swept the planet, or at least the small portion of it we see. It’s a highly contagious illness, leading to the rapid onset of skin lesions and respiratory failure. When we first meet our main characters, therefore, we see them through gas masks and gloves as they perform the grisly deed that leaves them all traumatized. Poor teenage Travis gains meager solace in the company of Stanley, his now-dead grandfather’s dog, and seems the most affected by the event and the family’s isolation. He wakes up in the middle of the night from disturbed dreams, and one of Shults’ great accomplishments is how he blends reality and fantasy so that we’re not always sure which is which. When a visitor arrives in the dark, knocking at the door, we wonder if it’s a projection of Travis’ nightmare or something/somebody worse.

That intruder turns out to be a simple man, Will (Christopher Abbott, Katie Says Goodbye), a survivor like the others, who mistakes the boarded-up house for a deserted building and is surprised to discover the enraged and protective Paul when he breaks down the door. Though Will loses that scuffle, Paul doesn’t kill him, and Will is able to explain that he has a family of his own, miles away, awaiting his return with water. Six is better than three, says Sarah, and so Paul, always wary, sets off with Will to fetch the latter’s wife and infant child. It’s an uneasy alliance that will be tested at regular intervals throughout, before the harsh conditions of this frightening future bear their ugly fruit.

Every single one of the actors delivers an intensely committed performance, though the film really belongs to Harrison, whose eyes hold great reserves of pain, and who looks on Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough, Dixieland) with more than just the longing of adolescent hormones: he desperately needs a friend. As the film builds to its climax, Shults explores the relationships that develop in the confined space of the house, keeping us guessing as to what may happen. Unfortunately, he tries a little too hard to lead us first one way and then the other, casting suspicions on certain characters that ultimately do not matter, given the conclusion. I, for one, resent the red herrings, especially given the otherwise brilliance of the tone and pacing. Still, as a meditation on the madness that besets the human animal when all seems lost – the true sickness is within the soul, rather than in the world at large – It Comes at Night offers plenty of cinematic pleasures (perhaps the wrong word in a film where bad things happen to good people) that reveal a directorial talent to watch in the years ahead.