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The Beguiled

20 Jun

Nicole Kidman turns in a commanding performance as the matron of a Southern estate undone by the arrival of a wounded soldier

Focus Features

Nicole Kidman turns in a commanding performance as the matron of a Southern estate undone by the arrival of a wounded soldier.

 

Given Sofia Coppola’s penchant for strong female characters and repressed sexuality, be it the pairing of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (2003) or the alluringly perverse texture of The Virgin Suicides (1999), it somewhat makes sense that she set her sights on remaking Civil War Gothic The Beguiled, which starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. That 1971 film, based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel The Painted Devil was directed by Don Siegel — who would later that year pair with Eastwood for the maverick cop avenger fantasy Dirty Harry — who mined Eastwood for all his macho virility as a Yank soldier, wounded behind enemy lines and brought to an all-woman seminary to recuperate. Given the prim nature of the house, the sheer presence of male pheromones wreaks havoc on the females’ sensibilities as Eastwood’s Corporal John McBurney proves to be a feral manipulator, having his way with several of the women and even pitting them against one another. Coppola’s version throws a dash of saltpeter on the role here undertaken by Colin Farrell who turns the good corporal into a more humane, less lurid incarnation.

You’d think a softer touch might educe a deeper plumbing of the complex emotions that get brought to the surface by war, strictly imposed Christian values, and a member of the enemy — and the opposite sex — lying in the very next room, but that doesn’t necessarily prove to be the case. Coppola chases authenticity in small, subtle strokes. Siegel took a far different approach, creating something of a psychological thriller, inserting gauzy fantasy sequences and quick intercuts of the lean Eastwood in bed with one of the lasses as horror etches across the faces of the estate’s matrons attuned to the meaning of the giggles and bumps echoing from the far reaches of the house. The film, a box office disappointment that was to prove Eastwood’s range beyond revenge westerns, bordered on near spectacle, but it possessed an edgy energy that never flagged.  Continue reading

T2 Trainspotting

29 Mar
Johnny Lee Miller and Ewan McGregor reprise their roles as Sick Boy and Renton, both a little older but not much wiser

It’s been 21 years since Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor shocked audiences with that creepy dive into a fecal-fleeced toilet in Trainspotting, somehow making being a heroin addict a hilariously biting — albeit tragic — trip along the way. Part gonzo romp, part sad social satire, the stylish weave followed the vein-piercing antics of four Edinburgh junkies, slaves to skag and capable of doing anything to score their next fix — including ripping off their best mates. Not a great lot to throw in with, but a highly entertaining one as the fix-needing squabbles reached the near hyperbolic absurdity of the Three Stooges.

At the end of that 1996 adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s cult novel, one of the four is dead and another runs off with the group’s hard-earned drug money, which leave affairs in a difficult place to pick up, but Boyle and his screenwriter John Hodge, who adapted T1 and has collaborated with Boyle on several other projects, have a real feel for the lads and leverage Welsh’s 2002 follow up, Porno to give the middle-aged blokes a shot at redemption before heading off for the nursing home.

We first catch up with McGregor’s Renton (the guy who stole all the money and — as the film has it — ruined everyone else’s life) now living in the Netherlands and who appears to have made good on his promise at the end of Trainspotting to change, but a small cardiovascular event trips him up (literally) and sends him back to Scotland where he learns his mom has passed. A quick check in with old pal Spud (Ewen Bremner) finds unhappy times for the sweetly pathetic user who’s been unable to shake his monkey. The reunion is cemented by an uproarious eruption of vomit that becomes one of the film’s most lingering images the same way excrement took center stage the last time. Next up on the reunion tour is Sick Boy (Elementary‘s Johnny Lee Miller) who half wants revenge but also needs Renton to help launch a massage parlor that’ll offer happy endings to those in the know. Renton agrees partly out of remorse and old time’s sake but also because he’s drawn to Sick Boy’s girlfriend and house-madam-to-be, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova, who’s sultry, yet knowing presence lights up the screen). Continue reading

Logan

8 Mar
Hugh Jackman grunts and grimaces through his (possibly) final outing as the Wolverine

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Hugh Jackman grunts and grimaces through his (possibly) final outing as the Wolverine

Logan, the third Wolverine spin-off from the X-Men movie empire, which has grown terribly long in the tooth (or is that claw?), does a nice job of righting the ship with this elegiac closing chapter. Part of the reason for the franchise’s demise has been its lack of innovation, but also, and more to the point, the superhero market oversaturation with the Avengers and Justice League entries out there chasing fanboy dollars as well. Besides Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) the best thing about the X-Men series has always been the tortured soul of Logan. Brought so palpably to the screen by Hugh Jackman, his badger-like sneer, tang of feral sexuality, and discernible sense of conflicted rage has always raced around inside the character’s metal-reinforced body.

The good news for fans, and even more so those losing faith, is that Xavier and Logan find themselves back together and without a cavalcade of other mutants and two-dimensional bad guys to weigh them down. It essentially allows the two classically trained thespians to dig in deep and get at the core of their characters’ beaten-down and mercurial personas. As far as acting goes, Logan may just be the grand dame of slumming it. It takes place in the not-too-distant future (2029) and finds our two uber-beings on tough times. Mutants and mutations have been culled way down, and we’re fed the factoid that there hasn’t been a mutant born in a decade or so, making Logan and Xavier perhaps the last of their line.  Continue reading

Rogue One

21 Dec
Diego Luna and Felicity Jones go rogue in this stand-alone entry in the Star Wars franchise

Walt Disney Pictures

Diego Luna and Felicity Jones go rogue in this stand-alone entry in the Star Wars franchise

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story postures itself as a one-off stand alone, the first (and only?) entry in the “anthology” series versus the “saga” series where the other seven franchise films fall. Just to set the table right, Rogue One does slide into the deck seamlessly in terms of chronology, just where exactly shall remain a mystery as one of the things Disney has done with this change-up is to pack it with nuggets of surprise — so much so that they pleaded with the critical masses to not burst their bubble in their reviews, “that you as press continue to be our partners on this journey.” Such requests generally go unheard as most critics are aware of their responsibility to audiences and art, but having seen the film I get it, and you will too. Though I am sure there are those out there who will spoil, I will not.

The big win for the series and fans overall when Disney took over the franchise from LucasFilms back in 2012, was the infusion of new blood and reined-in filmmaking. No disrespect to creator George Lucas, but Return of the Jedi (1983) couldn’t hold a torch to the darker and meatier The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the three films in the prequel trilogy (1998-2005) were wooden and so overpacked with CGI magic, that all the character and mythos that cemented the original series got lost in a vortex of filmmaking overindulgence. The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams’ 2015 initial go at the sequel series, was an admirable reboot, leveraging its ancestral roots while setting the stage for the next new adventure, even if it was too much a plot redux of A New Hope (the 1977 original that anointed and defined the blockbuster). Now comes Rogue One charging out of the gate, a breath of fresh air and more restrained in all the right places, but primarily in that it saves its best for last and is orchestrated in a way that every laser blast and saber slash bears profound impact. There’s nothing indiscriminate about what’s placed on screen. Continue reading

Jackie

19 Dec
Director Pablo Larrain has worked on political films before, like 2012's 'No,' about the 1988 Chilean Pinochet referendum

Director Pablo Larrain has worked on political films before, like 2012’s ‘No,’ about the 1988 Chilean Pinochet referendum

Adversity is a great yardstick for character. Filmmakers in on this nugget of wisdom understand that the more compelling route to showcasing a historic icon is in the moments or incidents that come to define them, not the rote, cradle-to-the-grave biopic format. Selma did that for Martin Luther King (2014) as did Loving — albeit on a much smaller scale. Now we have Jackie, an up close and intimate inside look at the famous first lady in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination.

The entire mood of Pablo Larraín’s film bears a thick, dour air atop a quiet, yet deep-rooted resolve. It’s an impressively bold attempt at such a revered presidency with much of the project’s success hanging on Natalie Portman’s fully-immersed and utterly mesmerizing portrait of the grieving first widow. Add to that Mica Levi’s beguiling score that palpably embosses the emotional undercurrent of every scene — if you’re unfamiliar with the composer, she brought a similarly aural pulse to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) and with Jackie will surely become a hotly sought resource.

The film begins at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport, Mass. with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup, ostensibly based on Life magazine’s Theodore White who interviewed Jackie around that time). He arrives to get the scoop on the widow’s sense of loss. “There’s the truth that people believe,” Jackie tells him “and there’s what I know.” Thus setting the table for the back and forth parry, which while polite, often tilts towards the adversarial, though it does bear strokes of cathartic relief for Portman’s Ms. Kennedy. Throughout the interview the media savvy Jackie holds the reins tight as well as her inner turmoil. “You want me to describe the sound the bullet made when it collided with my husband’s skull?” she bluntly injects confronting the inevitable before the journalist can wind his way around to the question. From the journalist’s stunned face we then rewind to Dallas to that fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963. Continue reading

La La Land

1 Dec
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) fall in love after bumping into one another in traffic

The last time I was bowled over by a musical was back in 2002 when Chicago cleaned up at the Academy Awards. Going from there to the leg shaking mastery of Fred Astaire, there’s not a lot in between. But now, from Damien Chazelle, the directorial wunderkind who made banging a drum such a vicious game of egos in Whiplash (2014), the increasingly rare genre gets a slick revisionist redress that takes bold chances and wins on most counts.

Not much can prepare you for what goes on in La La Land. The film begins with a somber traffic jam as the camera slowly pulls through the gully between inert cars. The feeling of gridlock dread is overpowering, much akin to Jean-Luc Godard’s new wave classic, Weekend (1967), but then, as it settles in through the car window of one calm young woman in a sheer yellow dress, she begins to sing a wistful song in a soft, low key. Two minutes later the highway is abuzz in dance and a choral number (a kick up your heels tune called “Another Day in the Sun”) in a long shot that’s more audacious than the opening of Robert Altman’s The Player (1992). It’s hard to believe but true. There are so many performers and stunts going on — the parkour guy gliding smoothly across the hoods of cars with a half-pike twist over the jersey barrier as he flies in and out of frame so seamlessly, you wonder how exhausted he was at the end of the shoot and how it’s humanly possible to maintain such a wide ‘oh happy day’ smile on his beaming face — that the degree of difficulty during the song is off the charts. The retake quotient must have been high, and the result is so astonishing, it seems impossible to top. Continue reading

Birth of a Nation

5 Oct

Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation is as much a harrowing historical drama as it is a commentary on modern violence and race relations in America

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation is as much a harrowing historical drama as it is a commentary on modern violence and race relations in America

Birth of a Nation, the much-anticipated dramatization of Nat Turner’s bloody 1831 slave rebellion, has great timing and relevance in its arrival, especially given the spate of the blue-on-black violence that has swept headlines and caused angry protests all over the country. The film is both a look forward and back, with the promise of a unified nation, where all are treated equal regardless of color. It serves as a grim, yet provocative probe into the relationships between humans, where one owns the other in the manner of livestock, and holds the power to do with as they please — including slaughter — with righteous impunity.

The film, which in its branding boldly reclaims the title from D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent classic extolling the heroics of Confederates and Klansmen, also became the righteous answer to the “Oscars so white” outcry when it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. It went on to score the biggest purse ($17.5 million) for any picture snapped up in the snowy hills of Park City. Cause and effect? Much like the young Nat (Tony Espinosa) experiencing prophetic dreams of his ancestors, the film from that moment on, whether it desired to or not, had become anointed and earmarked for some greater purpose.

Nat is born and grows up on a Virginia plantation filling the role of a playmate to the owner’s young son, Samuel Turner (Griffin Freeman), who in a decade or so will become Nat’s master. Because of such proximity, Nat (Nate Parker, who also directs the breakout project) learns to read, and due to his master’s over-indulgence in drink and poor fiscal standing, is passed from plantation to plantation to read the scripture to fellow slaves in an effort to help calm and motivate them in their work. It’s a plan that initially works for all involved, though Nat, head hung, becomes painfully aware that he’s selling his brother out, if even for the ephemeral moments of solace. Continue reading