Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ is Wonderfully Unnerving

The Beguiled 2017 poster

Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is a movie I would describe as being wonderfully unnerving. Coppola takes her precious time setting up the story to where, when the situation worsens, we are left wondering how the characters can resolve it without anyone getting hurt. In the process, as the situation everyone is involved becomes increasingly chaotic, I couldn’t help but laugh. In a drama, this can be bad as a serious story which becomes laughable means the filmmakers failed in some way, but the laughs here serve as a release because the intensity of the story reaches a fever pitch to where we are unsure of how else to react. Plus, these are the kind of laughs which stick in your throat, and this means you would not laugh at what is going on here were this any other situation.

The word beguiled means being captivated, charmed, delighted, enthralled or entranced, and we see all of this on display right from the start. The movie is based on the novel “A Painted Devil” by Thomas P. Cullinan which in turn was made into a movie in 1971 directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. But while Hollywood has been remake happy for far too long, we know Coppola is going to take this material and make it her own. Plus, unlike other remakes, this one does not serve as a setup for a franchise desperate to match Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

“The Beguiled” takes us back to the year 1864, three years into the Civil War, in Virginia. While picking mushrooms in the woods, a young girl comes across a wounded soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), and takes him back to the boarding school she is staying at. It is a Southern girls’ boarding school which still has a few students hanging around even as many others have since gone back home, and they live a secluded lifestyle which keeps them from the front lines. Regardless, we can all hear the gunshots and explosions going off in the distance which remind us that while the danger might be far away, it could always spill over to their location at any given moment.

As John recuperates from his injuries, he gets to know the girls at the school much better. They include the headmaster Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the rather quiet Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), and the teasingly playful Alicia (Elle Fanning). Time goes on, and John begins to slowly insinuate himself into the girls’ lives as he senses their needs and desires, some of which have long since been repressed. Sexual tension is definitely in the air as the ladies look longingly at John, and Edwina in particular is looking for a way to escape the secluded existence she has been trapped in, but we can all sense from the start that things will not culminate in a satisfactory solution for anyone.

What is brilliant about Coppola’s direction is how she hints at the longings of each character just from a look in their eyes. Furthermore, she is not quick to pass judgment on any of the characters to where we are left to make up our own opinions about them and their actions. Of course, how we view them ends up saying more about ourselves than it does about anyone else. Whereas Siegel’s take on “The Beguiled” may have been quick to cast John McBurney as a villain, Coppola’s version leaves you to decide this for yourself as Farrell gives us a man who is thankful for the help he has received and also unable to keep his libido in check (that’s what I think anyway).

“The Beguiled” reunites Coppola with actresses she has worked with previously. Dunst starred in her films “The Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette,” and Fanning co-starred in “Somewhere” when she was just 11 years old. Here, they both get to act against type in a way which makes us appreciate their talents in a way we should have already. Dunst, who has played extroverts in a beautifully gleeful way, gives us a repressed and longing performance as Edwina, and it makes us question whether the perspiration on her face is the result of humidity or her strong desires she can only hide for so long. As for Fanning, she gets to portray a young woman entering her sexually aware phase in life, and she clearly relishes in playing someone ever so eager to explore her sexuality with a man, any man.

Coppola also gets to work with Kidman who plays someone religiously stern, but even John can see the longing in heart for something different. Kidman has always been a brilliant actress, and she has not lost any of her power as this movie shows. In her scenes with Farrell, she exhibits a desire she never has to spell out for the audience, and the scene where they are face to face is a wonderfully tense scene as you wonder if they will or they won’t. And as the movie reaches its unnerving climax, it is a gas to see her the devilish look on her face as she calculates how to best deal with the school’s unwanted guest.

After all these years, Farrell remains an infinitely charismatic actor, and he seduces not just the ladies in the movie but the audience as well with what seems like relative ease. While the rest of us men struggle to attract the opposite sex, he succeeds in doing so in a way we can’t help but be infinitely resentful of. Farrell insinuates his character of John McBurney into a situation he thinks he can control, but this is a movie told from a female perspective, and it makes his predicament all the more entertaining as he attempts to gain a hold on a living situation which is far beyond his grasp.

Along with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and the fact she shot this on 35mm film, Coppola gives “The Beguiled” a smoky and beautiful look few other filmmakers could have pulled off. The ladies in their costumes look those women from Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” to where the attention to detail meshes perfectly with a dreamlike quality. The soundtrack is mostly insects and birds making noises in the humid wilderness, but it is eventually punctuated by the subtle but powerful hum of the music by Phoenix which more than hints at the tension, sexual or otherwise, which is bubbling just below the surface.

There should be no doubt by now that Sofia Coppola is a born director, and I am not just saying this because her father gave us “The Godfather” trilogy (and yes, I like the third one). She has a signature style all her own, and she pays sharp attention to both the visuals and her cast with equal measure. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise she picked up the Best Director Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

In a summer which seems beleaguered by franchise fatigue, “The Beguiled” is a nice and unnerving surprise as the suspense builds to where characters, who at once seemed a peaceful bunch, seize on their animalistic nature for the sake of survival.

* * * * out of * * * *

NOTE: “The Beguiled” has been the subject of controversy recently as Coppola decided to exclude the character of Hallie, a black slave, who was featured in the 1971 movie. As a result, she has been accused of whitewashing the story and of downplaying the role slaves had in the Civil War. Coppola has explained she did not want to present slavery in a lighthearted way and was concerned she would not be able to give the subject the attention it deserved. This seems like a sane response as it shows her sensitivity to the issue of slavery, and it would be hard to see how she could balance that out with the story of the women in a successful way here. I don’t think she is whitewashing this story in the slightest. Besides, with all the unrest in the world of American politics right now, Coppola is the last person we should be accusing of whitewashing anything.

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‘Somewhere’ Finds Another Movie Star Lost in Translation

Somewhere movie poster

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

-Robin Williams from “World’s Greatest Dad”

“Somewhere” opens with Stephen Dorff’s character of Johnny Marco driving his Ferrari around in circles in some far-off place. It goes on for a while to the point where some in the audience might say, “ENOUGH ALREADY!!!” However, the length of the scene defines the state Johnny’s life. He’s a movie star with adoring fans, and getting women to sleep with him is easy as cake. But aside from being a successful actor, he looks completely lost compared to everyone else around him. Johnny has no direction in life, and emotion looks like a luxury he can’t afford. Even those beautiful female twins pole dancing in his hotel room at the Chateau Marmont can’t excite or arouse him, and they succeed in making him fall asleep more than anything else. We see him surrounded by so many people who profess to adore him, but all they do is make him feel more isolated from anyone and everybody.

But then one morning Johnny wakes up to find his 11-year old daughter Cleo signing the cast on his arm. From there, we see him come alive as he gets to spend time with the one person who loves him in a way no one else can. With his daughter, he gains some idea of adult responsibility, and a better sense of who he is and what he wants.

Now this may make “Somewhere” sound like a sitcom more than a movie as the story features a father getting closer to his daughter which changes his perspective and all, but it is anything but that. This is Sofia Coppola’s first movie since “Marie Antoinette,” and she makes this one anything but sentimental and manipulative. It’s more like she captures moments between Johnny and Cleo more than she films then, and it makes “Somewhere” feel all the more real.

Many have said “Somewhere” feels like a European film in how slowly it moves, and it is never in a rush to get to the next moment. This is correct, but I like the fact it takes its time. Today’s movies are always rushing from one moment to the next to where we never have enough time to digest everything we witnessed. That Sofia Coppola goes against this trend is very welcome, and it makes for a far more involving movie.

Seeing Cleo accompany her father to Italy for a movie premiere could have been clichéd and corny as hell, but seeing them together makes it feel intimate and far more original than any other filmmaker could have captured. Some will say this is autobiographical, but I believe Sofia when she says that it isn’t. Granted, she definitely has an insider’s view of show business being the daughter of Oscar winning director Francis Ford Coppola, but this story feels removed from her own life. Her parents never divorced, and she appears to come from a very loving family. Cleo, on the other hand, is a child of divorce, and we know she will suffer more from it that her parents will.

As played by Elle Fanning, Cleo comes across as far more adult than her father and it’s a kick to see her prepare breakfast for him, showing she is easily more mature. She also makes what looks like a sumptuous Eggs Benedict, and anyone who knows me best is aware I order it whenever my parents are in town and take me out to breakfast. Of course, I’m on a diet now, but seeing her cook it so successfully makes me want to head out to the nearest restaurant which serves breakfast all day.

Fanning has been in the shadow of her older sister Dakota who has given strong performances in movies like Steven Spielberg’s “War of The Worlds” and “The Runaways.” I haven’t seen her in anything since “The Door in The Floor” where she acted opposite Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger, but she really comes into her own here with this character who is ever so charming. You never catch her acting here. She just inhabits her character with what seems like relative ease, and watching her come to life as Cleo is a joy.

Dorff is an interesting choice to play Johnny Marco. Best known for his roles in “Backbeat,” “Blade,” and “Cecil B. Demented” among other movies, Dorff does seem to have the “bad boy” image, though not necessarily to Charlie Sheen’s level. In “Somewhere,” he manages to find the right balance between being a nice guy and a thoughtless prick to where we empathize with him more than decry his irresponsibly selfish ways. Like Fanning, Dorff becomes his character more than plays him, and he keeps him from becoming a caricature of a movie star. We find ourselves wanting him to do right by his daughter even if he doesn’t always do so.

The other big character in “Somewhere” is the Chateau Marmont, a hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. It has a lot of history involving movie and rock stars, many of whom have lived here for a time. John Belushi famously died of a drug overdose at the hotel, and his death still haunts all those who were the closest to him. The history of the Chateau Marmont hangs over Johnny Marco’s head as we can’t help but wonder if the hotel will suck him up whole.

Granted, this film does share similarities to Sofia’s “Lost in Translation” as it also involves a movie star who seems emotionally dried up and a young girl who is quickly maturing into a woman. But Bill Murray’s character looks lost because he is in a different country. Johnny Marco, however, looks lost in the country he was born in, so imagine how he feels when he travels overseas. His situation feels especially dire because there doesn’t seem to be a place anymore he can truly call home. Directors in general deal with similar themes throughout all their movies, and Sofia is no exception to that. At least with this one, she has a different way of exploring it than before.

If there is anything which bothered me about “Somewhere,” it’s the conclusion is a little too open-ended. I left the theater with questions over what happened from there, and while change is coming for the characters, it’s not entirely clear what direction that change is going to take. Then again, there’s a lot going on we don’t have all the details to. We never learn why Johnny split with Cleo’s mother, and we are only left with an idea of how it happened. Looking into Cleo’s eyes, she may have a better idea than anybody else of what went down.

Regardless, “Somewhere” is a well thought out film which shows Sofia Coppola to be an excellent director confident in her abilities behind the camera. Looking back, I think it will have more of an effect long after you’ve seen it as it’s not the kind of movie which leaves your consciousness all that quickly.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The Performances Make ‘3 Generations’ Worth a Look

3 Generations movie poster

I prefer to review movies for what they are as opposed to what I wanted them to be, but with “3 Generations,” this proves to be a bit of a challenge. For the most part, I think it is a sweet and thoughtful movie about transgender issues. But yes, it could have dug deeper into an issue many struggle with in life as this one touches on the family dynamics at play when one member decides to transition to another gender. For many, this is a volatile issue with many psychological scars being inflicted on those who do not deserve to be misunderstood, but director Gaby Dellal and her co-writer Nikole Beckwith at times take this story in a comical direction to where it borders on becoming a sitcom. Still, I can’t help but like this movie for what it is as deals with its subject matter in a sympathetic way and features three terrific performances which alone make it worth the price of admission.

Elle Fanning stars as Ramona who is now going by the name Ray because she sees herself as “a boy with tits.” Ray sees herself (excuse me, himself) as a boy trapped in a girl’s body, and he is determined to undergo gender reassignment to correct this. The main obstacle, however, is getting the consent of her parents to go through with it. His mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), is willing to sign off on the procedure even though her anxiety and concerns over Ray’s decision make her smoke close to a full pack of cigarettes a day. His father, Craig (Tate Donovan), has been out of the picture for so long that Maggie would rather everyone believe he is dead. As for Ray’s grandmother, Dolly (Susan Sarandon), she wonders why he can’t simply be a lesbian like her.

At the center of “3 Generations” is Fanning who gives an excellent and heartwarming performance as Ray, and she fully invests in her character’s commitment to changing his identity into something far more acceptable to himself. Watching her is also a strong reminder of how teenagers are brilliant at seeing straight through their parents’ hypocrisy and bullshit to where they threaten to be more mature than those raising them. Whereas the other characters around him face an intense level of worry and anxiety, Ray knows exactly what he wants and shows zero doubt over what he feels he needs to do, and it represents the bravery I wish I had as a teenager.

You can never go wrong with Watts in anything she appears in, and she inhabits Maggie as your average mother; always wanting the best for her child while constantly worrying about the future. Maggie is almost convinced Ray will come to her one day with a beard on his face saying he made a mistake, but she is also the one closest to him willing to grant his wish to become a boy. Watts makes Maggie’s suffering all the more relatable as she reminds us all of how life is all about suffering, but through it all, we can find a happiness which a lot of times feels out of reach.

Sarandon is a wonderful presence here as Dolly who lives with her lover Frances (Linda Elmond), Maggie and Ray all under the same roof in a big apartment in New York’s West Village. This Oscar-winning actress is always great at playing the veteran mother who has seen it all and approaches her daughter’s problems like the pro she is. At the same time, her scenes tend to get overwhelmed by sitcom-like humor which threatens to take away from this movie more often than not. Still, Sarandon won me over as she always does, and the moments with Elmond remind us of the constant struggles couples go through. And by this, I mean any couple.

“3 Generations” works best when it focuses on Ray and his struggle become the boy he was always meant to be. We see him working out trying to build muscle, and he is determined to switch schools in order to get a fresh start in life once his transition is complete. At times, it focuses a little too much on the adults in this situation, and this is even though their concerns deserve our attention as well. While humor does come in handy in stories like these as they can become painfully too real, the filmmakers go a little overboard especially in a scene where Watts and Sarandon try different ways to treat Ray’s black eye.

Yes, this is a flawed movie that should have been better, but I still found myself liking “3 Generations” quite a bit as the performances are strong, and it has some surprises up its sleeve as it heads towards the finish line where we are reminded of how parents are never, ever perfect human beings. It all leads up to a final scene between a mother and her child which brought a real smile to my face as the constant struggles we face in life can lead to moments of true happiness.

Perhaps the transgender community deserves a strong movie than “3 Generations,” or maybe there are several out there we haven’t bothered to watch yet. All the same, I enjoyed this movie for what it was, and for me, that was enough. Still, it is a little hard to believe a family like this can afford such a big apartment in New York. You know the rents out there are ridiculously expensive, right?

* * * out of * * * *

“3 Generations” was originally given an R rating, but The Weinstein Company managed to succeed in getting the MPAA to give it a PG-13 which makes a lot more sense. This movie is certainly appropriate for teenagers, and this subject matter really shouldn’t be off limits to them. Then again, the MPAA has made many mistakes throughout the years, and it is unlikely this will be their last.

The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon poster

This is a motion picture you will either be on the same wavelength or not. That’s usually the case with any Nicolas Winding Refn film whether it’s “Bronson,” “Drive” or “Only God Forgives,” but I imagine “The Neon Demon” will be his most divisive movie yet. As for myself, I was entranced with this movie from start to finish as it combines the visual aesthetics of a Gaspar Noe film with the dreaminess of a David Lynch one, and those elements come together to form something that is uniquely Refn. In a sea of movies out right now which feel largely underwhelming, “The Neon Demon” is a refreshing one with its undeniably strong visuals, and that’s even though it takes a very sharp left turn in the last half.

We are introduced to Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model looking to get into the Los Angeles modelling scene. Equipped with some striking pictures shot by her friend Dean (Karl Glusman), she succeeds in getting signed with top Hollywood agent Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) who encourages Jesse to lie about her age and is quick to dismiss other aspiring talents coldly and without a second thought. Soon Jesse comes to befriend makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who introduces her to the kinky club scene as well as a pair of models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), who are ruthless in their intent to stay relevant in an industry quick to chew them up and spit them out.

Essentially, “The Neon Demon” is Jesse’s descent into the hellish and shallow world of modelling as she becomes the envy of photographers and fashion designers in the industry and creates a cauldron of resentment for those who can only dream of having her natural beauty. That’s the thing; Jesse has a look that feels infinitely real compared to other models who have long since resorted to plastic surgery which has made them look like lifeless statues. How does a novice model make her way through such a cutthroat and friendless realm of existence? Well, Refn is not out to give us the definitive answer to that question, but the journey he takes us on gives us kind of an idea of what it could be like.

I loved the beautiful and yet clinical look Refn gives “The Neon Demon” as it is entrancing and immersive. We are sucked into a world that is not healthy for us, but we can’t turn away from it as, like Pandora’s Box, we have an insatiable desire to see what is inside. Colors abound as if he tried to combine the beautiful images from Noe’s and Dario Argento’s films (“Suspiria” in particular) and turn them into something original. This movie also benefits largely from the beautiful electronic score composed by Cliff Martinez which hugs these images while poking at the darkness lying beneath them.

Elle Fanning has long since distinguished herself from her equally famous sister Dakota, and her role here as Jesse is her most daring yet. Some will complain that all she does in “The Neon Demon” is just sit around and look beautiful, but that’s missing the point. What’s utterly fascinating about Elle’s portrayal is how she takes Jesse from being a seemingly innocent rookie in a business that can be quite cruel to someone who fiercely owns her beauty in a way that is as seamless as it is haunting. This is not a dialogue heavy movie, so Elle has to show this transition without words for the most part and she succeeds to where we cannot help but be horrified about what Jesse will become.

However, Elle is almost upstaged by Jena Malone who combines an earthly look with an almost alien one as makeup artist Ruby. Malone has always been a tremendous actress, and she makes Ruby a wondrous enigma of sorts as she reveals only so much about her character on the surface. As the movie goes on, Malone comes to exhibit a strong vulnerability as Ruby is denied the thing she desires most and ends up acting out in sheer desperation. Malone is riveting and fearless, and she shows no hesitation in embracing Ruby’s dark side.

Abbey Lee deserves credit for bringing unexpected depth to Sarah, a model slowly realizing she is now past her prime, as she sinks into a swamp of infinite envy and resentment. I liked how Bella Heathcote makes Gigi into a model who is unapologetic about the sacrifices she has made for her career and is fiercely defensive of her place in the industry. While Glusman doesn’t get to show a lot of range here as Dean, he does have some nice moments as a man trying to hold strong to his ideals of what real beauty should be. And even Keanu Reeves shows up as Jesse’s unsavory apartment manager Hank, a man John Wick would show no hesitation to beating the crap out of. Say what you will about Reeves’ acting skills; he’s much better here than he was in Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock.”

If there was anything that perplexed me the most about “The Neon Demon,” it was the last half where it suddenly turns into a Grand Guignol horror film. It’s like the movie suddenly turned into something completely different as we find the women in Jesse’s life determined to possess her natural beauty any way they can, and I mean any way. Granted, this is a Refn film so you have to expect the unexpected, but it bears repeating here as things take a direction that almost seems out of whack with what came before.

Many will keep trying to get answers from Refn in regards to the questions “The Neon Demon” casually leaves unanswered. Then again, this is not a movie designed to have easily answered questions as the viewer will have to use their own imaginations to decipher what they have just seen. The movie’s title alludes to an antagonist that can take on a variety of forms that even the real world can’t separate itself from. Or maybe it’s the one deep fear we have to conquer before moving on with life. Whatever the case, “The Neon Demon” in not a movie to be easily dismissed or forgotten. People will either like it or hate it, and I am not afraid to say that I liked it a lot.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.