Film Review: “The Beguiled”

Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst
Directed By: Sofia Coppola
Rated: R
Running Time: 93 minutes
Focus Features

“The Beguiled” should be a haunting historical drama that finds malice, that isn’t war or slavery, during the Civil War but it doesn’t. It feels too safe to be a retelling of a 1971 movie and too by-the-books to be a modernization of a 1966 Southern Gothic novel. As far as I’m aware of there isn’t anything drastically altered or changed that makes the 2017 version of “The Beguiled” stand out from its predecessor other than a new cast and new eye for detail.

During a trot through the rich Southern landscape, with the sounds of war in the background, Amy (Oona Laurence) comes across an injured Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Farrell). Taking pity on the injured man, she helps him back to her home, a Virginia girl’s school. Miss Martha (Kidman) expresses concern about taking in the enemy, as well as some of the more impressionable young girls, but Edwina (Dunst) and Alicia (Elle Fanning) are more welcoming.

While not directly dividing the group, it’s the beginning of trouble for the young women and Miss Martha. There are plenty of moments of sexual frustration, passing giggles, and casual flirting through innuendo, which displays the feelings of each woman to McBurney. However, McBurney plays the field, finding ways to manipulate each of the women here and there to get one or two things he needs. The only one privy to his moves is Miss Martha, who struggles with her own temptations.

Despite the dry dialogue, watching McBurney creepily infect and use the women are some of the strongest moments in “The Beguiled,” but even at a brisk 93 minutes there’s a lot of monotony. The immense talent in front of the camera is left to retread plot points or gather together for group talk which devolves into allowing McBurney more freedom to wander the premises. It makes for a frustrating wait time before the exciting climax. But even the ending wastes it’s build-up of tension on predictability.

I’m usually one to defend the necessity of a remake, for bringing classic stories to modern audience, but “The Beguiled” isn’t one of them. I hate sounding like an old fogey, but I have to wonder what fresh take Coppola brought other than HD clarity and her knack for visual presenation. It’s framed wonderfully, explaining more in its establishing and framing shots than it does through any dialogue. While Coppola continues to demonstrate a unique vision behind the camera lense, her writing skills still need a little polishing.

Film Review: “20th Century Women”

Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig
Directed by: Mike Mills
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 59 mins
A24

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

In 2010, writer/director Mike Mills penned a film loosely based on his father called “Beginners,” with Christopher Plummer taking home an Oscar for his work. This week Mills has turned his pen towards his mother, with Annette Bening shining through in a performance that could end up the same way as Plummer’s did with Oscar gold.

Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is a 15-year old boy being raised by a less then orthodox mother. We learn from Jamie that his mom Dorothea (Bening) wanted to be a pilot but instead now holds a high position with a major company. Dorothea is 55 and divorced. She doesn’t date much and, when she does, it doesn’t last long. Her world is Jamie. Or so she thinks. Her world also consists of Abbie (Gerwig), a boarder dealing with the possibility of having cervix cancer, William (Billy Crudup), a former hippie with a knack for fixing cars and pottery bowls, and Julie (Fanning), a neighborhood girl that Jamie is helplessly in love with. As their stories intertwine, it’s hard to see who the mature member of the “family” is and who the child is.

Set in 1979, the film makes great use with its pop culture references. Musical acts like the Raincoats and Black Flag dot the soundtrack while references to President Ford falling down the stairs of Air Force One or President Carter addressing the nation and it’s “crisis of confidence” – now referred to as “the Malaise Speech” – help set the tone of the on-screen action. As someone who remembers these events, and the “groovy” clothes from the period, it triggered some fond memories of my youth.

The film does have some problems with its pacing, but the energy jumps up when any of the three female leads are on screen. Fanning and Gerwig are both solid, especially since neither one of them were born in the time the film takes place. But it is Bening, one of our most overlooked talents, who shines here. She mines her emotional depths as she tries to find ways to connect with her son while still trying to maintain a lifestyle she has reluctantly become accustomed to. It is one of her finest performances and one I sincerely hope the Academy recognizes this year.

Film Review: “Live By Night”

Starring: Ben Affleck, Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Rated: R
Running time: 2 hrs 8 mins
Warner Bros

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

If you don’t include the 1930s and 40s, the list of good gangster films is pretty short. Off the top of my head, I consider “The Godfather” trilogy, “Goodfellas,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Road to Perdition” and “Miller’s Crossing” to be among the best of the genre. I’m guessing that Ben Affleck also agrees with my list as his latest directorial effort, “Live by Night,” samples a little bit of all of them.

After serving his country in World War I, Joe Couglin (Affleck, who not only directed the film but adapted it’s screenplay from a novel by Dennis Lehane) decides he’s not going to take orders from anyone any longer. Wanting to “sleep during the day and live by night,” he decides to pursue a life of crime with two pals from the neighborhood. He doesn’t want to be a gangster. He just wants to be.

Of course, things never go according to plan and Joe soon finds himself in love with the boss’ girl, Emma (Miller). The boss finds out and, after a pretty good beating, Joe lucks himself into the hospital, where he plots his revenge. A revenge that’s not best served cold but one that emanates from the sunny prohibition streets of Tampa.

Directed with an obvious love for the genre, “Live By Night” is a stylish – man did they know how to dress back then – film that overcomes some obvious errors with a first rate cast. Affleck does fine as Joe and I couldn’t help wondering, as I watched the film, if he wouldn’t be perfect if they ever did a bio pic about Gene Kelly. He has the chin and he can certainly wear the clothes. Miller also excels as a girl who seems to be hiding a secret. As Joe’s rum-running partner and later wife, Saldana rises above what could have been a stereotypical “black woman in the south” caricature and makes her Gabriella a strong and equal partner. Other notable performances are turned in by Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson and Chris Messina.

Technically the film is quite faithful to the Tampa of the times and, as a Tampa native who once lived at Nebraska on 26th Street, I couldn’t help but swell with pride when I learned that Joe was selling his rum as far north as Nebraska and 27th Street. Not sure if I like rum – I’m not much of a drinker – but it’s nice to know that in the early 1930s I would have been able to have a drink every now and then!