“THE BEGUILED” (2017) Review

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“THE BEGUILED” (2017) Review

I have never been a diehard fan of Southern Gothic fiction. Not really. But there have been some fictional works in that genre that have appealed to me. In fact, if you ask me, I could come up with a pretty good list of Southern Gothic movie and television productions that I have always enjoyed. 

Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, “The Beguiled” aka “A Painted Devil” first came to my attention when I saw the 1971 movie adaptation of the novel years ago. I became an instant fan of the film and read Cullinan’s novel. Then I became a fan of the novel. So when I heard that director Sofia Coppola planned to direct her own film adaptation, I looked forward to it. One, I liked the story. Two, I am a sucker for a good Civil War film, being an amateur historian and movie nut. And I had also learned Coppola had won the Palme d’Or Best Director award (the second woman to do so) at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for this film.

Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation had made a few changes to Cullinan’s novel. One, he and the movie’s screenwriters made the story’s leading man an American of Irish descent, instead of the Irish immigrant portrayed in the novel. The story was set in 1863 Mississippi, during the Vicksburg Campaign. And two of the novels’ characters – the 17 year-old biracial Edwina Morrow and the nearly middle-aged Miss Harriet Farnsworth – were merged into a young white schoolteacher named Edwina Dabney. Sofia Coppola’s movie maintained the novel’s portrayal of leading man as an Irish immigrant and Cullinan’s setting – 1864 Virginia, during the Civil War’s Overland Campaign. However, Coppola’s movie followed Siegel’s example by merging the Edwina Morrow and Harriet Farnsworth characters into a schoolteacher.

“THE BEGUILED” began in the woods, near the Farnsworth Seminary, an all girls’ school in 1864 Virginia. When one of its students, a thirteen year-old girl named Amy is searching the woods for mushrooms to pick, she comes across a wounded Union Army soldier named Corporal John McBurney. He had been wounded in the leg before deserting the battlefield. Amy brings McBurney to the school where he falls unconscious. The school’s headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth, decides to heal the corporal’s wounded leg before turning him over to the Confederate Army as a prisoner. But Miss Farnsworth, Amy and the other females inside the school become “charmed” by the Irish-born soldier, as he slowly heals from his wounds. Amy, another student named Alicia and the school’s remaining teacher, Edwina Morrow, become especially captivated by McBurney’s charm. However, McBurney’s presence in the school generate a good deal of jealousy between the young students and the two women before an unexpected incident spirals the entire situation out of control.

Like the 1966 novel and its 1971 adaptation, “THE BEGUILED” took me by surprise in many ways. One of the film’s most noteworthy aspects was Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography. I have never seen any of his previous film work. But I must admit that his photography did an excellent job in creating this film’s Old South atmosphere:

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Le Sourd’s cinematography definitely helped setting up the film’s atmosphere, especially due to the lack of any solid score. I also have to give points to Stacey Battat for creating costumes designs indicative to the Civil War period – especially for women and girls. Mind you, I thought some of the costumes may have been slightly anachronistic.

I also cannot deny that “THE BEGUILED” featured some strong performances from the cast. Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst were top-notched, as usual. Kidman did a fine job portraying the no-nonsense and pragmatic headmistress, Martha Farnsworth, who seemed to have little problems with controlling those around her . . . including her only schoolteacher. Despite Martha Farnsworth being her second role as a Southerner (I think), I was surprised that Kidman’s Southern accent wavered a bit. Although Farrell is at least twenty years older than the literary John McBurney, he was free to portray the character as was described in Cullinan’s novel – an Irish immigrant recently recruited into the Union Army upon his arrival in the United States. However, his McBurney’s charm seemed to have more of an edge of desperation, due to his circumstances. And Kirsten Dunst gave a very competent performance as the emotionally repressed Edwina Morrow, a young schoolteacher who finds herself drawn to the handsome McBurney, despite her efforts to ignore him. Dunst also did a competent job in not only conveying Edwina’s growing attraction to McBurney, but also her wariness of being under Miss Farnsworth’s control.

The movie could also boast some surprisingly excellent performances from the younger cast members, who portrayed the school’s students. Elle Fanning gave a decent performance as the adolescent Alicia, whose attraction to McBurney partly stems from her growing awareness of her sexuality. However, there were moments when it seemed she was losing some control of the character. Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, and Emma Howard also gave very competent performances. But I was especially impressed by Addison Riecke’s portrayal of young Marie, an impish student who borrowed Edwina’s earrings for the dinner party with McBurney and managed to manipulatively avoid returning them to the schoolteacher. Excellent performance by the young actress.

Although “THE BEGUILED” possessed some admirable traits, overall I was not that impressed by the film. Frankly, I am at a loss over how Coppola managed to win such a prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps the voters had no idea that the narrative for this film is basically a Southern Gothic tale? Who knows? Coppola had erased so much from Cullinan’s story.

One aspect of “THE BEGUILED” that came to my attention was the lack of background for most of the characters at the Farnsworth Seminary. Now, unless my memory is failing me, the movie only revealed the fact that Edwina Morrow had a father living in Richmond. I believe the movie also touched upon the wartime fate of Amelia’s brothers. I believe. To be honest, I am not that certain. Coppola deleted Martha Farnsworth’s family history – especially her incestuous relationship with her brother. After all, one of the reasons Miss Farnsworth eventually opened up to McBurney was his resemblance to this “much loved” brother. Although the film revealed the existence of Edwina’s father, the screenplay never touched upon his role as a war profiteer or his lack of concern toward his daughter. The movie revealed nothing about Alicia’s family background – especially her prostitute mother who had abandoned her at the seminary. The movie revealed nothing about the remaining students’ backgrounds. McBurney’s discoveries and knowledge of their personal histories played a role in the events that occurred in the movie’s third act. Without the revelations of the female characters’ backgrounds, Coppola resorted to whitewashing the reasons behind their actions in the film’s third act.

Coppola claimed that she wanted “THE BEGUILED” to give a “voice” to the story’s female characters. Why did she make that claim? Each chapter in Cullinan’s 1966 novel was written from the viewpoints of a major female character and NOT . . . from Corporal McBurney’s point of view. Although the 1971 film featured scenes from McBurney’s point of view, it also did the same for the female characters. Also, McBurney was the only major character who lacked an inner monologue. Since the novel and the 1971 film featured the females’ points of view, what on earth was Coppola’s goal? To portray her female characters as ideal as possible? I noticed that neither anger or jealousy played a role in the violence that marked the film’s third act.

Alicia slept with McBurney because she was an adolescent “exploring her growing sexuality”. Not once did Coppola’s screenplay hint how her past experiences with her prostitute mother may have influenced her behavior with the opposite sex. By removing Martha Farnsworth’s incestuous history with her late brother – the one whom McBurney resembled, Coppola removed any possibility of Miss Farnsworth being driven by anger and jealousy over his tryst with Alicia to amputate his leg. By having McBurney behave like a borderline stalker in one scene following his amputation, Coppola justified the females’ decision to kill him with poisonous mushrooms. It seemed as if Coppola’s idea of feminist sensibilities is to portray her female characters with as little flaws as possible. And this led to her portraying the female characters’ decisions in the film’s last hour to be marred by a lack of moral ambiguity of any kind. This decision on Coppola’s part strikes me as cowardly.

If Coppola’s decision to portray her females characters with as little ambiguity as possible was bad enough, she also eliminated the school’s remaining slave, an African-American woman named Matilda (“Mattie”). Coppola gave a reason for this decision in the following statement:

“I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”

What depiction was she referring to? Cullinan’s portrayal of Mattie in the 1966 novel? The only character who saw through McBurney’s charming bullshit and wanted nothing to do with him? Or Hallie (who was renamed) from the 1971 film, who also saw through his charm, despite their occasional bouts of flirting. I had no problems with either Cullinan or Siegel’s depictions of the character. Naturally, some movie reviewers supported Coppola’s decision, including one reviewer from the ALLIANCE OF WOMEN FILM JOURNALIST, who stated:

“The film has been criticized for its lack of comment on the Civil War or slavery. The war is a backdrop, the circumstance that isolated than part of the story. Unlike the 1966 novel and the 1971 movie, there are no African American characters in this film, explained by a single line says they left. Because it is set in the Civil War, it is a valid point but addressing the issue would have taken the focus off the women’s issues that are Coppola’s main point.”

Apparently, Coppola and her supporters do not regard women of color as a part of “women’s issues”. Or perhaps they feel that non-white women are not . . . women. White feminism at its height. If Coppola felt uncomfortable at the idea in exploring a non-white character, why on earth did she adapt Cullinan’s novel in the first place?

The lack of Mattie/Hallie in Coppola’s adaptation raised other problems. One, the slave woman’s presence allowed both Cullinan and Siegel to portray the school’s other occupants with a level of ambiguity that Coppola lacked the guts to face. I wonder if Mattie’s presence would have robbed Coppola the opportunity to explore her fantasies regarding Southern white women. Mattie was one of two characters who knew why Martha Farnsworth was willing to amputate McBurney’s leg in the novel. In Don Siegel’s movie, she was the only one. This knowledge led to an interesting scene between the two women in both the novel and the 1971 film. In both the novel and the Siegel film, Mattie/Hallie was the person who actually prepared the poisoned mushrooms for McBurney . . . and she did it out of her own anger toward the Union soldier. Without the slave woman, who prepared the mushrooms in this film? Edwina Morrow, who had been serving as the establishment’s cook, following the slaves’ departure? At the time, she was busy enjoying lustful relations with McBurney. Miss Farnsworth? Did she know how to cook? The movie never established this.

“BEGUILED” did feature scenes of the students and the two teachers engaged in household and garden duties. First of all, none of them looked as if they knew what they were doing. Second of all, since they were such abysmal housekeepers, how did they managed to keep their clothing looking so pristine? Without the benefit of servants?

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Judging from the costumes worn in the above image, Dunst and her younger co-stars do not look as if they are dressed for household duties. Instead, they seemed to be dressed for Sunday church services in the mid 19th century, an afternoon tea party or a picnic. At least other Civil War movie and television productions have their Southern female characters dressed more realistically . . . even the 1939 movie, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. I find it difficult to believe that Miss Farnsworth and her fellow inhabitants were capable of keeping their daily clothes looking so pristine – with or without a servant. All of the look like figures in some Southern belle fantasy.

For me, there were other problems in Coppola’s adaptation. I had a problem with her characterization of McBurney. Both the novel and the 1971 presented the character as something of a snake-tongued charmer. Farrell’s interpretation seemed to present McBurney more as an obsequious man who resorts to slavish politeness, instead of charm, to win over the school’s inhabitants. Farrell had the skill to convey McBurney’s charm, but it seemed as if Coppola had somehow held him back. Worse, the movie barely touched upon the Civil War, despite the presence of a Union soldier. I also did not understand why Coppola maintained the character of Emily Stevenson, and yet transferred Emily’s “pro-Confederate” personality to a character created for the film. Why did she do that? Why did she film this movie in Louisiana? Coppola retained the setting from the novel – Virginia 1864. Yet, she shot the film in the Deep South – a region that looked nothing like Virginia. Coppola could have changed the setting to the Deep South or shoot the film in the Upper South. She did neither. I also need to rephrase my comments regarding Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography. Although I admired his exterior shots in the film, I cannot say the same about his interior shots. Quite frankly, I could barely see a damn thing, even when a scene was set during the daytime.

I am still at a loss on how Sofia Coppola thought she could improve both Thomas Cullinan’s novel and Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation. Granted, the cast – including Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst – gave competent performances. But Coppola stripped away so much from this story. She stripped away a lot of the characters’ ambiguity. She stripped away an important character who had the misfortune – at least in the director’s eyes – to be an African-American. Which meant that she stripped away the topic of slavery and to a certain extent, even the war itself. In the end, “THE BEGUILED” seemed like a Southern Gothic tale with barely any life. It struck me as a shell of Cullinan’s novel and Siegel’s own adaptation. After watching this film, I found myself asking why Coppola felt she could adapt the 1966 novel in the first place, considering that she seemed incapable of exploring it with any semblance of real honesty.

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“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

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“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

I tried to think of a number of movies about the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the Hollywood Blacklist I have seen. And to be honest, I can only think of two of which I have never finished and two of which I did. One of those movies I did finish was the 2015 biopic about Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo.

Based upon Bruce Alexander Cook’s 1977 biography, the movie covered fourteen years of the screenwriter’s life – from being subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 to 1960, when he was able to openly write movies and receive screen credit after nine to ten years of being blacklisted by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Protection of American Ideals. Due to this time period, it was up to production designer Mark Rickler to visually convey fourteen years in Southern California – from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. I must say that he, along with cinematographer Jim Denault and art directors Lisa Marinaccio and Jesse Rosenthal did an excellent job by taking advantage of the New Orleans locations. That is correct. Certain areas around New Orleans, Louisiana stood for mid-century Los Angeles, California. But the movie also utilized a few locations in Southern California; including a residential house in northeastern Los Angeles, and the famous Roosevelt Hotel in the heart of Hollywood. And thanks to Denault’s cinematography, Rickler’s production designs not only made director Jay Roach’s “Southern California” look colorful, but nearly realistic. But one of my minor joys of “TRUMBO” came from the costume designs. Not only do I admire how designer Daniel Orlandi re-created mid-20th century fashion for the film industry figures in Southern California, as shown in the images below:

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I was especially impressed by Orlandi’s re-creation of . . . you guessed it! Columnist Hedda Hopper‘s famous hats, as shown in the following images:

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I have read two reviews for “TRUMBO”. Both reviewers seemed to like the movie, yet both were not completely impressed by it. I probably liked it a lot more than the two. “TRUMBO” proved to be the second movie I actually paid attention to about the Blacklist. I think it has to do with the movie’s presentation. “TRUMBO” seemed to be divided into three acts. The first act introduced the characters and Trumbo’s problems with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, leading to his being imprisoned for eleven months on charges of contempt of Congress, for his refusal to answer questions from HUAC. The second act focused on those years in which Trumbo struggled to remain employed as a writer for the low-budget King Brothers Productions, despite being blacklisted by the major studios. And the last act focused upon Trumbo’s emergence from the long shadow of the blacklist, thanks to his work on “SPARTACUS” and “EXODUS”.

I have only one real complaint about “TRUMBO”. Someone once complained that the movie came off as uneven. And I must admit that the reviewer might have a point. I noticed that the film’s first act seemed to have a light tone – despite Trumbo’s clashes with Hollywood conservatives and HUAC. Even those eleven months he had spent in prison seemed to have an unusual light tone, despite the situation. But once the movie shifted toward Trumbo’s struggles trying to stay employed, despite the blacklist, the movie’s tone became somewhat bleaker. This was especially apparent in those scenes that featured the screenwriter’s clashes with his family over his self-absorbed and strident behavior towards them and his dealings with fellow (and fictional) screenwriter Arlen Hird. But once actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger expressed interest in ignoring the Blacklist and hiring Trumbo for their respective movies, the movie shifted toward a lighter, almost sugarcoated tone again. Now, there is nothing wrong with a movie shifting from one tone to another in accordance to the script. My problem with these shifts is that they struck me as rather extreme and jarring. There were moments when I found myself wondering if I was watching a movie directed by two different men.

Another problem I had with “TRUMBO” centered around one particular scene that featured Hedda Hopper and MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer. In this scene, Hopper forces Mayer to fire any of his employees who are suspected Communists, including Trumbo. The columnist did this by bringing up Mayer’s Jewish ancestry and status as an immigrant from Eastern Europe. This scene struck me as a blatant copy of one featured in the 1999 HBO movie, “RKO 281”. In that movie, Hopper’s rival, Louella Parsons (portrayed by Brenda Blethyn) utilized the same method to coerce – you guess it – Mayer (portrayed by David Suchet) to convince other studio bosses to withhold their support of the 1941 movie, “CITIZEN KANE”. Perhaps the filmmakers for “TRUMBO” felt that no one would remember the HBO film. I did. Watching that scene made me wonder if I had just witnessed a case of plagiarism. And I felt rather disappointed.

Despite these jarring shifts in tone, I still ended up enjoying “TRUMBO” very much. Instead of making an attempt to cover Dalton Trumbo’s life from childhood to death, the movie focused upon a very important part in the screenwriter’s life – the period in which his career in Hollywood suffered a major decline, due to his political beliefs. And thanks to Jay Roach’s direction and John McNamara’s screenplay, the movie did so with a straightforward narrative. Some of the film’s critics had complained about its sympathetic portrayal of Trumbo, complaining that the movie had failed to touch upon Trumbo’s admiration of the Soviet Union. Personally, what would be the point of that? A lot of American Communists did the same, rather naively and stupidly in my opinion. But considering that this movie mainly focused upon Trumbo’s experiences as a blacklisted writer, what would have been the point? Trumbo was not professionally and politically condemned for regarding the Soviet Union as the epitome of Communism at work. He was blacklisted for failing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Also, the movie did not completely whitewash Trumbo. McNamara’s screenplay did not hesitate to condemn how Trumbo’s obsession with continuing his profession as a screenwriter had a negative impact upon his relationship with his family – especially his children. It also had a negative impact with his relationship with fellow screenwriter (the fictional) Arlen Hird, who wanted Trumbo to use his work for the King Brothers to express their liberal politics. Trumbo seemed more interested in staying employed and eventually ending the Blacklist. I came away with the feeling that the movie was criticizing the screenwriter for being more interested in regaining his successful Hollywood career than in maintaining his politics.

“TRUMBO” also scared me. The movie scared me in a way that the 2010 movie, “THE CONSPIRATOR” did. It reminded me that I may disagree with the political or social beliefs of another individual; society’s power over individuals – whether that society came in the form of a government (national, state or local) or any kind of corporation or business industry – can be a frightening thing to behold. It can be not only frightening, but also corruptive. Watching the U.S. government ignore the constitutional rights of this country’s citizens (including Trumbo) via the House Committee on Un-American Activities scared the hell out of me. Watching HUAC coerce and frighten actor Edward G. Robinson into exposing people that he knew as Communists scared me. What frightened me the most is that it can happen again. Especially when I consider how increasingly rigid the world’s political climate has become.

I cannot talk about “TRUMBO” without focusing on the performances. Bryan Cranston earned a slew of acting nominations for his portrayal of Dalton Trumbo. I have heard that the screenwriter was known for being a very colorful personality. What is great about Cranston’s performance is that he captured this trait of Trumbo’s without resorting to hammy acting. Actually, I could say the same about the rest of the cast. Helen Mirren portrayed the movie’s villain, Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper with a charm and charisma that I personally found both subtle and very scary. Diane Lane gave a subtle and very convincing performance as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, who not only stood by her husband throughout his travails, but also proved to be strong-willed when his self-absorption threatened to upset the family dynamics. Louis C.K., the comic actor gave a poignant and emotional performance as the fictional and tragic screenwriter, Arden Hird.

Other memorable performances caught my attention as well. Elle Fanning did an excellent job portraying Trumbo’s politically passionate daughter, who grew to occasionally resent her father’s pre-occupation with maintaining his career. Michael Stuhlbarg did a superb job in conveying the political and emotional trap that legendary actor Edward G. Robinson found himself, thanks to HUAC. Both John Goodman and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gave colorful and entertaining performances as studio head Frank King and Trumbo’s fellow convict Virgil Brooks, respectively. Stephen Root was equally effective as the cautious and occasionally paranoid studio boss, Hymie King. Roger Bart gave an excellent performance as fictional Hollywood producer Buddy Ross, a venal personality who seemed to lack Robinson’s sense of guilt for turning his back on the blacklisted Trumbo and other writers. David James Elliot gave a very interesting performance as Hollywood icon John Wayne, conveying the actor’s fervent anti-Communist beliefs and willingness to protect Robinson from Hedda Hopper’s continuing hostility toward the latter. And in their different ways, both Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel gave very entertaining performances as the two men interested in employing Trumbo by the end of the 1950s – Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.

I noticed that “TRUMBO” managed to garner only acting nominations for the 2015-2016 award season. Considering that the Academy Award tends to nominate at least 10 movies for Best Picture, I found it odd that the organization was willing to nominate the likes of “THE MARTIAN” (an unoriginal, yet entertaining feel-good movie) and “MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” (for which I honestly do not have a high regard) in that category. “TRUMBO” was not perfect. But I do not see why it was ignored for the Best Picture category, if movies like “THE MARTIAN” can be nominated. I think director Jay Roach, screenwriter John McNamara and a cast led by the always talented Bryan Cranston did an excellent job in conveying a poisonous period in both the histories of Hollywood and this country.

“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

 

“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

I am probably the last person on this earth who would associate Angelina Jolie with a Disney film, let alone one made for children. Then again, I have never seen Jolie in another movie like her recent film, “MALEFICENT”.

Despite some adult themes found in this new film, I honestly believe that “MALEFICENT” is basically a movie for children. It is not just based upon Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairy tale, “La Belle au Bois Dormant”, but also the Disney Studios’ 1959 animated adaptation, “SLEEPING BEAUTY”. Only this film is told with a twist. Some would say with a feminist twist. Linda Woolverton’s screenplay features the story’s main villainess, the evil and vindictive fairy, Maleficent, as the movie’s main protagonist. The film begins with Maleficent as a young and powerful fairy who serves as the main protector of a fairy realm called Moors that borders a human kingdom ruled by ruthless monarch named King Henry, who covets it. Maleficent befriends a young boy named Stefan, who works as a kitchen servant for the king.

The years pass as Maleficent and Stefan’s friendship grows to something close to a romance. But King Henry’s latest attempt to invade Moors leads him to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage and his kingdom to the man able to kill Maleficent. Ambitious and longing to rise above his station, Stefan sets out to collect the bounty on his old friend. Unable to kill her because of their friendship, Stefan drugs Maleficent and burns her wings off with iron (a substance lethal to fairies) and presents the latter to King Henry as proof of her death. Stefan eventually marries King Henry’s daughter, Princess Leila, and eventually assumes the throne following his father-in-law’s death. When Maleficent learns about the birth of Stefan and Leila’s infant daughter, Aurora, she appears uninvited at the christening and places a curse on the infant princess. On her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep. After Stefan is forced by Maleficent to beg for his daughter, she alters the curse with the addition that it can be broken by true love’s kiss. Stefan arranges for Aurora to be raised by three pixie fairies – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit. And despite her initial dislike of Aurora, Maleficent begins to secretly care about the girl, when the neglectful pixie fairies fail to take properly care of her.

There is a good number of elements for “MALEFICENT” that I found very admirable. I believe it is one of the more visually stunning films I have seen in recent years. A great deal of credit has to go to Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman’s production designs. The pair did an excellent job in recapturing medieval life . . . at least in a fantasy world. Dean Semler’s photography of parts of rural England, which served as King Stefan’s realm, added to the movie’s visual style. But the work from the special effects team, especially for creation of the fairy realm and other sequences that featured magic, truly enhanced the movie’s visual style. I also have to add a word about Anna B. Sheppard’s costume designs for the film. I could wax lyrical on how beautiful they looked. But there are times when I believe that images can speak louder than words:

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I will not claim that Sheppard’s costumes are an accurate reflection of medieval fashion. But . . . hey! I cannot deny that I found them beautiful.

As for the plot for “MALEFICENT”, I cannot deny that it proved to be something of a conundrum for me. Woolverton’s screenplay and Robert Stromberg’s direction clearly seemed to hint that it is basically a movie for children. The dialogue, the movie’s style of humor and especially its use of the three fairy sisters as the movie’s comic relief practically screams “Kiddie Film” to me. And yet . . . Woolverton’s screenplay also featured elements that seemed to indicate a movie with strong adult themes. The most obvious element proved to be the theft of Maleficent’s wings. Unless I am mistaken, the entire scene struck me as a metaphor for rape. Think about it. Stefan drugs Maleficent (a stand-in for any rape drug) to knock her unconscious. Using iron – an indication of violence – he physically violates her by burning off her wings. The relationship that develops between Maleficent and Aurora not only proved to be unexpected, but is given a feminist twist. Aside from Maleficent’s relationship with her aide Diaval, a raven whom she had saved by transforming him into a human; the male-female relationships in this movie proved to be either ineffective or disastrous. Even the use of “True Love’s Kiss” had a twist I had failed to foresee . . . until several minutes before it actually occurred.

There have been other productions – both television and film – that mixed elements of children’s stories and adult themes. ABC Television’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” seemed to use a great deal of adult themes in its twist on fairy tales. Yet, the series continues to maintain some semblance of childlike morality in its portrayal of magic. J.K. Rowling’s “HARRY POTTER” literary (and film adaptations) series becomes increasingly ambiguous as the saga progresses. And aside from the first film, George Lucas’ “STAR WARS” film saga strikes me as a case study of moral ambiguity with touches of humor and characterizations for children. But these science-fiction/fantasy sagas seem capable of balancing humor and storytelling for children with adult themes.

I cannot say the same about “MALEFICENT”. The movie’s childish humor – courtesy of the three fairy sisters – struck me as heavy-handed and not at all funny. I also believe the movie’s 97-minute running time made it difficult for Woolverton’s script to maintain that balance between children and adult themes. More importantly, the movie’s running time forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the story forward at a unnecessarily fast pace, especially during the movie’s last half hour. Other aspects of the plot – Maleficent’s background, her relationships with both Stefan and Diaval, and especially her developing relationship with Aurora. But there are two aspects that struck me as rushed – namely Aurora’s relationship with the fairy sisters (which barely seemed to exist) and the last half hour in which the sleeping curse is played out. I cannot help but wonder if Disney’s penchant for cinematic penny-pinching forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the movie’s climatic act.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Angelina Jolie was outstanding as the movie’s protagonist, the fairy Maleficent. Being the top-notch actress that she is, Jolie effortlessly captured every nuance of Maleficent’s character – both the good and the bad. I have been a great admirer of Sharlto Copley in the past – with the exception of his villainous turn in the 2013 sci-fi movie, “ELYSIUM”. Thankfully, his complex portrayal of this movie’s villain, King Stefan, reminded me of his skill at portraying complex roles. At first, Elle Fanning seemed to be stuck with a role that struck me very sweet, kind . . . and boring. Fortunately for her, the Princess Aurora character became more interesting in the movie’s second half and Fanning got the chance to show off her acting chops – especially in the scene in which Aurora confronts Maleficent about the curse.

The movie also featured solid performances from Sam Riley as Maleficent’s confidant Diaval, Kenneth Cranham as King Henry and Hannah New as Queen Leila. I have been longtime fans of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple. But I have to be honest – I was not that impressed by their portrayals of the three fairy sisters. It was quite obvious to me that Staunton, Manville and Temple did their best to make the three sisters – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit – interesting. Nor can I accuse them of bad acting. They were obviously giving it their all. There are times when external forces have a way of affecting an actor or actress’ performance, whether due to bad direction or bad writing. In the case of the three actresses who portrayed Aurora’s fairy guardians, I suspect their performances were sabotaged by Linda Woolverton’s writing. The screenwriter’s sense of humor struck me as subtle as a stampeding buffalo. I also believe that her screenplay may have hampered Brenton Thwaites’ performance as Prince Philip. How can I put it? Thwaites gave a bland and boring performance, because he was forced to portrayed a bland and boring character. The 1959 animated version of the prince had more zing than this latest version. And I blame Woolverton’s screenplay, not the actor.

Do not get me wrong. I rather liked “MALEFICENT”. I found it to be a visually stunning film with some strong moral ambiguity in its plot and in some of the major characters, and a solid cast led by outstanding performances from Angelina Jolie and Sharlto Copley. I also enjoyed the feminist twist on the “Sleeping Beauty” tale. But due to some flawed characterizations and a failure to balance both the children and adult theme in its plot, I can honestly say that I did not love “MALEFICENT”.

 

 

 

 

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1970s

1970-films-initials-and-graphics

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 

FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1970s

1 - American Gangster

1. American Gangster (2007) – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe starred in this biopic about former Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the Newark police detective who finally caught him. Ridley Scott directed this energetic tale.

2 - Munich

2. Munich (2005) – Steven Spielberg directed this tense drama about Israel’s retaliation against the men who committed the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds starred.

 

3. Rush (2013) – Ron Howard directed this account of the sports rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One auto racing season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl starred.

 

4 - Casino

4. Casino (1995) – Martin Scorsese directed this crime drama about rise and downfall of a gambler and enforcer sent West to run a Mob-owned Las Vegas casino. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone starred.

5 - Super 8

5. Super 8 (2011) – J.J. Abrams directed this science-fiction thriller about a group of young teens who stumble across a dangerous presence in their town, after witnessing a train accident, while shooting their own 8mm film. Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler starred.

6 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – Gary Oldman starred as George Smiley in this recent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole in MI-6. Tomas Alfredson directed.

7 - Apollo 13

7. Apollo 13(1995) – Ron Howard directed this dramatic account about the failed Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon starred.

8 - Nixon

8. Nixon (1995) – Oliver Stone directed this biopic about President Richard M. Nixon. The movie starred Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen.

9 - Starsky and Hutch

9. Starsky and Hutch (2004) – Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson starred in this comedic movie adaptation of the 70s television series about two street cops hunting down a drug kingpin. Directed by Todd Phillips, the movie also starred Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg.

10 - Frost-Nixon

10. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Ron Howard directed this adaptation of the stage play about David Frost’s interviews with former President Richard Nixon in 1977. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen starred.

“SUPER 8” (2011) Review

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“SUPER 8” (2011) Review

When I first saw the trailer for J.J. Abrams’ new movie, “SUPER 8”, I had a very difficult time generating any interest in the film. I would have easily ignored it if it were not for the fact that two or three of my favorite actors were featured in the film and that it was produced by Steven Spielberg. 

My feelings toward J.J. Abrams’ previous work are rather mixed. Yes, I realize that he was one of the creators of such television series as “ALIAS” and “LOST”. But Abrams ended up distancing himself from both shows before they eventually suffered from a decline in writing quality. I enjoyed his work on “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III”. But his “STAR TREK” reboot left me wondering about his talent as a writer and director. But after watching “SUPER 8” this summer, my faith in his talent has been fully restored.

Set in 1979, “SUPER 8” told the story of a group of young friends in their early teens filming their own Super 8 movie for a film festival for amateurs, when a train derails, releasing a dangerous presence into their town of Lillian, Ohio. The story began 13 year-old Joe Lamb dealing with the death of his mother in a factory accident. A neighbor named Louis Dainard appears at the wake, but Joe’s father a deputy sheriff named Jackson Lamb, leads him away in handcuffs. Jackson blames Louis for his wife’s death because he was absent during his shift and she had to fill in for him.

Four months later, Joe’s friend, Charles Kaznyk, makes plans to film a zombie movie on Super 8 mm film for an amateur film festival. Along with Joe, he hires Dainard’s daughter Alice to be part of the cast. After stealing her father’s car, Alice takes Joe, Charles, Preston, Martin, and Cary to an old train depot; where the group plans to film a scene. During the shoot, Joe watches a pick-up truck drive onto the tracks and place itself in the path of an oncoming train, causing a massive derailment. In the aftermath of the accident, the kids find the wreck littered with strange white cubes. They approach the truck and discover Dr. Woodward, their biology teacher, behind the wheel of the truck. He instructs them to never talk about what they saw; otherwise they and their parents will be killed. Moments afterwards, the U.S. Air Force, led by one Colonel Nelec, arrives to secure the crash site. The kids flee the scene. Over the next couple of days, a number of strange phenomena occur throughout the Lillian neighborhood. A good number of the town’s dogs run away. And kitchen appliances, car engines, and power lines vanish. Also, many people begin to disappear, among them the town’s sheriff. Joe, Alice and their friends start investigating the strange phenomenons around Lillian, as they continue to shoot Charles’ movie.

Not only has “SUPER 8” restored my faith in J.J. Abrams as a Hollywood talent, I believe it is one of the best movies I have seen this year. I really enjoyed. Abrams created a story that not featured mysterious happenings and an alien, but it also had plenty of human drama centering around Joe’s relationships with his recently widowed father and Alice Dainard; along with a delightful story arc featuring the group of friends’ attempt to film a movie. The interesting thing about “SUPER 8” is that all of the different story arcs in the movie – the personal dramas, the mystery surrounding the alien and Charles’ zombie movie – managed to connect seamlessly to form a first-rate movie. But more importantly, “SUPER 8” brought me back to the days of my childhood of the late 1970s – a time when many of my generation were first becoming fans of filmmakers like Spielberg and George Lucas.

Not only does “SUPER 8” has a first-rate story written by Abrams, it also featured a superb cast. I was surprised to discover that “SUPER 8” featured 15 year-old Joel Courtney’s film debut. Either Abrams has a talent for working with children, Courtney is a natural born film actor . . . or both. All I know is that his performance really knocked my socks off. I was especially impressed that he managed to hold his own with the likes of Kyle Chandler, who portrayed his father. Allie Fanning, who has more experience than Courtney, proved that acting talent obviously ran in her family (she is Dakota Fanning’s younger sister). She was very impressive as Alice Dainard, the daughter of the very man whom Joel’s dad hold responsible for his wife’s death. There were two scenes that really impressed me – her confession to Joe about the circumstances that led to his mother’s death; and her confrontation with her drunken father.

I have been fans of both Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard for a very long time. Chandler, who seemed to have a natural talent for portraying complex characters, displayed this talent again in his portrayal of Jackson Lamb, the deputy sheriff who finds himself as the leading law enforcement official following the disappearance of the sheriff. Chandler not only portrayed Jackson’s growing concern over the town’s strange incidents and disappearances with his usual skill, but also conveyed his character’s difficulties in dealing with the death of his wife and growing estrangement from his son. Eldard’s portrayal of Alice’s father, Louis Dainard, proved to be equally complex. He did an excellent job of conveying the character’s alcoholism, guilt over the death of Joe’s mother and his growing estrangement from daughter Alice. He and Fanning were absolutely superb in the scene that featured the explosive confrontation between father and daughter.

“SUPER 8” also featured first-rate supporting performances from another favorite of mine, Glynn Thurman, who portrayed the kids’ biology teacher and the man responsible for releasing the alien from the U.S. Air Force train; and Noah Emmerich, who portrayed the controlling U.S. Air Force colonel, Nelec. But the best performances came from the group of kids who portrayed Joe and Alice’s friends and fellow film fans – Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Remy Thorne. They were absolutely terrific. And more importantly, their performances were not tainted with any “cutesy” quirks that have made some previous child actors rather unbearable. Nor did they act like adults in children’s bodies – a phenomenon of which I have become increasingly intolerant.

The look of “SUPER 8” really brought back memories of past Spielberg films such as “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND” and “E.T.”. And considering that the movie is produced by Spielberg, I hardly find that surprising. A small part of me suspects that “SUPER 8” is a homage to those particular works. Many critics and moviegoers have compared it to Spielberg’s films. The odd thing is that the storyline for “SUPER 8” reminded me more of the “STAR TREK VOYAGER” episode called (4.16) “Prey”. Although not alike, the storyline for both the movie and the television episode struck me as surprisingly similar.

Whatever people might say about “SUPER 8”, there is no doubt that I really enjoyed it. And once it left the movie theaters, I had a hard time generating the patience to wait for its DVD release. Congratulations, Mr. Abrams. For once, you have really impressed me.