Tag Archives: Film

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

Wonder Woman

3 Jun

The beleaguered “Justice League” franchise, barely off the ground with the turgid “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” beatdown last summer, gets a much-needed shot in the arm from the feminine side side of the tracks. Fans can breathe a sigh of relief with the release of “Wonder Woman,” which proves far sharper and more fun than any of its DC predecessors. The big question will be whether a woman win over the fanboys who – if we use box office as an indicator – like their super beginnings beefy, cut and baritone.

A peek into the Magic 8 Ball says yes.

The film may be long for what it is (nearly two and a half hours) but it’s also lithe and imbued with deft nuggets of humor, and it keeps moving. The opening scene, in which we meet Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) in the present, proves to be a Justice League tie-in. It’s an odd, disjointed bit, but we don’t linger before getting whisked back to a young Diana on the island of Themyscira, which for all intents and purposes is the DC reimagining of the Isle of Lesbos as it’s occupied solely by female Amazon warriors led by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nelson) and General Antiope (Robin Wright). Besides being beguiled by Nelson and Wright, who speak with a weird accent and have fine, sculpted physiques that folks half their age would be lucky to have, we get mumbo jumbo about the rivalry between Zeus and Ares and the circumstances that produced Diana – the only child born on an island void of men. (A page from Amazon literature informs us they’re good for reproduction, but not pleasure.) Continue reading

Alien: Covenant

19 May

Almost 40 Years Since ‘Alien’ Brought Sci-Fi To Pop Culture, ‘Covenant’ Goes Back To Basics

"Alien: Covenant." (Courtesy Mark Rogers/Twentieth Century Fox)

It’s hard to believe it has been nearly 40 years since that little wiggle of a vorpal worm ripped its way out of John Hurt’s abdomen in “Alien,” the sci-fi movie experience that took the fun and fantasy of “Star Wars” and flipped it on its head.

That film’s helmer Ridley Scott, a genius by some accounts, a hack by others and now almost 80 years of age, has shown great commitment to the franchise returning again for “Alien: Covenant.” The film is the sequel to “Prometheus” (2012), which is the first chapter of a prequel series to Scott’s 1979 space chiller that kept audiences up at night, fearful of mutant xenomorph with cascading sets of jaws.

“Alien: Covenant” takes place 10 years after “Prometheus” and approximately two decades before Ripley and her salvage crew discover that wrecked ship loaded with leathery undulating egg casings that we now know better than to peer down into. Bolstered by an impressively eclectic cast, “Prometheus” was a quirky reboot and something of a meta contemplation on creationism and origins that didn’t resonate with a wide fan base — not enough aliens and too many hidden agendas.

The good news with “Alien: Covenant,” especially for loyalists, is that Scott goes back to the basics. But because he has to build off the groundwork laid by his 2012 effort, there’s also plenty of ideologue about man, his creations superseding him and his viability in the universe over time. Scott and his screenwriters — John Logan and Dante Harper — do a nice job getting the plot points to line up seamlessly, though pacing and character development are sacrificed as a result.  Continue reading

Free Fire

26 Apr

With ‘Free Fire,’ Ben Wheatley Puts His Bloody Stamp On Boston Crime Comedy

Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley in "Free Fire." (Courtesy A24)closemore

“Free Fire,” the plucky black comedy about an arms deal gone awry, just might be the most gonzo crime movie to be set in Boston — and it wasn’t even shot here.

Ben Wheatley, the hip noirish auteur who turned heads with “Kill List” and, more recently, the near-apocalyptic anthropology experiment “High Rise,” shot this battle royal in a dilapidated warehouse in England. Much of the cast too is European and thankfully, only one is tasked with attempting our infamous accent.

Early on, we get a slick nighttime glimmer across the harbor at a silhouette that looks vaguely like our stately Custom House Tower. Beyond that, nothing in the film feels remotely Boston. And to compound the foreign-familiar feeling, it’s set in the late-1970s when 8-track was king, and John Denver rules the soundtrack. Why the British director and his co-writer and wife, Amy Jump, decided to set such a caper in Boston probably had something to do with the allure of our rich criminal lore that has become boundless in its cinematic incarnations.

Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley in "Free Fire." (Courtesy Kerry Brown/A24)
Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley in “Free Fire.” (Courtesy Kerry Brown/A24)

The orientation doesn’t matter so much as we’re quickly inside an abandoned factory warehouse where practically all of the action takes place (the film’s only 85 minutes long and I’d say that 84 of them are in, or just outside the waterfront warehouse that you can imagine being in the now bustling Seaport back when it was a desolate industrial wasteland). What Wheatley and Jump serve up is a thick den of thieves with hidden agendas and a double dealer, a plot structure Quentin Tarantino made retro-hip with “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992 and his 2015 western redux, “The Hateful Eight.” Wheatley, a stylist of hyper violence in his own right, takes the barebones and puts his bloody stamp on it. Continue reading

The Lost City of Z

26 Apr

James Gray, who started out directing gritty New York-rooted crime dramas (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards” and “We Own the Night”) before branching out into matters of the heart (“Two Lovers”) and a “Godfather”-esque epic of sorts (“The Immigrant”), heads up river and into uncharted water with “The Lost City of Z,” a rewind of real-life adventurer Percy Fawcett’s trips to the Amazon in the early 1900s, when he claimed to have found the seeds of an advanced culture that may have predated western civilization.

As Gray’s account (based on David Grann’s factually disputed novel) has it, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam from “Sons of Anarchy”), a British military officer with a calm demeanor but a chip on his shoulder because he felt passed over for assignments, reluctantly accepts a fluff mission from the Royal Geographical Society to map Amazonia as part of a larger effort to protect Britain’s rubber tree interests. His first mission, fraught with cannibals, piranhas and tropical ailments such as a face-eating flesh disease and gangrene, set off in 1906. Years later, upon return to Britannia, Fawcett is greeted by jeers of blasphemy for claiming traces of intelligent civilization in a jungle full of “savages.”

The trip obviously set something off in Fawcett, who becomes inexhaustibly determined to find “Z” – which many believe to be a fragment of the similarly elusive ancient kingdom, El Dorado. All in all, according to Grann, Fawcett would make eight trips to the Amazon, the last being in 1925 when he and his son (played by Tom Holland, who has newly taken over the webs of Spider-Man in the Marvel movie franchises) would disappear. Gray wisely pares down the octet of sojourns to three and in between stages some impressive World War I trench warfare, reenacting Fawcett’s short tenure as an artillery commander in Flanders. Waiting at home through all these ordeals is Fawcett’s loyal wife Nina (the lovely Sienna Miller), who tends to an ever-growing family without much protest. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more supportive life partner on screen.

The strength of “Z” lies in the bond Fawcett forges with his loyal aide, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) as they head repeatedly into the unknown with the promise of discovery and self revelation ever ripe. Such was the driving force behind “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979), but here, that current gets lost in the muddy roils of posture and pretense. The film, full of intent and admirable in so many ways, never delves into the darkness of Fawcett’s soul; equally as unsatisfactory, it fails to conjecture about his fate.  Cray and Crann have painted a handsome, humane portrait of Fawcett,  who by other accounts something of a controversial figure, accused of being a showman to garner funding and attention with claims of spotting strange beasts never before sighted and accomplishing improbable feats – including alleging that he shot a 62-foot anaconda. In the end “Z” becomes an entertaining travelogue of minor character in history that unfortunately turns back just as the water gets choppy.

Ghost in the Shell

1 Apr

Put a pretty girl in some Lycra and, poof, you got a movie, right? Well, yes and no. It worked with Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich in the “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” series respectively, but not so much for Charlize Theron in “Aeon Flux” or Halle Berry in “Catwoman.” You can add Scarlett Johansson to that “not” list with this live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga “Ghost in the Shell,” done more righteously in the 1995 animation feature directed by Mamoru Oshii. Sure, Scar-Jo looks fetching, much as she does as the Black Widow in the “Avengers” series, and the film, helmed by Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) with lush cinematography by Jess Hall, might even be more optically alluring. The “Blade Runner”-esque reimagining of a near-future Shanghai is a wonderment in its own right and perhaps worth the price of entry, but not enough to atone for an inert script and robotic acting.

Things begin promisingly enough when Scar-Jo’s Major rises elegantly out of a synthetic pool, the first cybernetic organism manufactured by the Hanka Robotics corporation. Major’s a leap forward in human and technology fusion (the flesh and steel body being the “shell,” with her computer-infused brain the “ghost”), yanked from her scientific incubators (a matronly Juliette Binoche among them) and appropriated as a weapon to fight cyberterrorists. The target du jour is an elusive entity known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), who’s out to hack Hanka and the government to pieces. Major’s barely out of the lab when we get a glimmer of her prowess, leaping from a tall building and taking out a room full of assassins with barely a hair out of place. It’s a fiery, kinetic jolt that perhaps comes too early for its own good. The shell in which the film operates becomes quickly inconsistent in tenor and tone, bouncing from somber, semi-serious oppressive future vision (back to “Blade Runner”) to hyperbolic free-for-all and, in the process, uproots the prospect of suspension of disbelief.

Sadly too, Scar-Jo, so fantastic in “Under the Skin” (2013) and normally quite capable, comes off Ben Affleck-wooden here and is further undermined by the film’s lack of an emotional core. The device of Major struggling to tap into her “ghost” to discover her true identity, much akin to Peter Weller’s cyborg in “RoboCop” (1987), piques interest at turns, but ultimately feels tacked on and beholden to the larger sheen. The corporate and governmental double dealings, which strangely seem apt as metaphor for the Trump presidency and its shadowy ties to Russia, also could have been played for greater satire and bite but also become lazy and lackluster plot points. By the end of the film, everything’s empty and contrived. Then the “spider tank” shows up and hyperbole takes off her gown to reveal a not-so-appealing figure.

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