Saturday, June 17, 2017

Sofia Coppola's THE BEGUILED




Sofia Coppola has not so much remade the 1971 Don Siegel film; she's re-envisioned it through a more modern and less sensationalistic lens.  It's still a Southern gothic, but it's no longer a B movie; as Sofia (only the second female to win Best Director at Cannes, for this project) said in a Q & A at the L.A. Film Festival on June 15, "I wanted to make something beautiful."  Since pictures are worth thousands of words, the differences between the two films is more than evident in their trailers.

First, the Siegel version of Thomas Cullinan's novel starring Clint Eastwood:



And Sofia's, with Colin Farrell (and the "vengeful bitches"):




Sofia's Beguiled is very much a corollary to her 1999 film The Virgin Suicides (based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides), and the two would make a superb double feature.  The 1999 film involves a group of pre-teen boys spying on the beautiful, cloistered Catholic girls across the street and becoming beguiled by them.  If you haven't seen it, it's wonderful--perhaps Sofia's best film after her superb Lost In Translation (which she disclosed she wrote at her dining room table in Los Feliz, feeling like a "lost trophy wife"--I presume when she was still married to director Spike Jonze).


Sofia Coppola initially studied painting at Cal Arts, then focused on photography, with particular interest in fashion photography (if you recall, she also made a foray into clothing design).  Sofia was influenced by photographers David Hamilton and Helmut Newton; she found the latter's work dramatic and liked how he saw women.  When Sofia began planning the look of The Beguiled, she revisited at lot of photographs and talked to DP Philippe Le Sourd about how she envisioned the movie's look and palette.  

Sofia wanted a film that was "stark," "naturalistic," "minimal," "tense."  (I might add that it also has humor.)  So she also opted for very little, subtle music (some source music and other music adapted by Phoenix, whose frontman Thomas Mars is Sofia's husband).  The most prominent sounds are those of the Civil War in the background and cicadas on the grounds of the house fallen into desuetude.

The stars of the film are Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, but the entire ensemble of females, from the 12-year-old who finds the wounded Union soldier on up, play democratic roles in this iteration of the plot--I loved that.  Their resident teacher, played by Kirsten Dunst, instructs them in everything from French to sewing (sewing skills turn out to be a trés important motif here).

Sofia has made a more emotionally complex film while respecting its genre roots.  Farrell's character's presence causes not so much a sexual hysteria among the females (well, at least the older ones), but more of a sexual awakening, and, for all of them, relief from their dogmatic slumbers and the isolation of the war.  And Farrell's character is far more complex--he initially alternates between sympathetic and manipulative. 

Sofia shared that re-making the 1971 film was originally suggested to her by her production designer-producer Ann Ross; the two are friends, and both have 6-year-old daughters who reportedly made their own 30-minute version of The Beguiled.  Now that's the one I'm really curious to see....


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Sunday, June 11, 2017

BRINGING UP BABY DRIVER



If Damien Chazelle revived the contemporary musical with LA LA LAND  last year, writer-director Edgar Wright has reinvented the getaway driver/heist genre film by turning it into a musical actioner with his audacious, jaw-dropping BABY DRIVER.  It focuses on a young  getaway driver who needs the right music in order to do his job.  (The need goes back to an early trauma, but you'll find out all about that when you see the film.)  


I titled this post "Bringing Up Baby Driver" because, beneath its genre clothes, it's not only the story of Baby (actor Ansel Elgort) being the victim/product of trauma, but also because the movie is, at its core, Baby's coming of age story--Baby loses his naiveté and resignation and guard--he falls in love (or at least with the idea of love), and ultimately evolves from what Wright termed the equivalent of an "unpaid intern" to achieve moral development and become a man after being put through a series of what the writer-director called "morally sticky" narrative grinders.

Shelley wrote in his Defence of Poetry that "the great secret of morals is Love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own" (in short, empathy).  


The objective correlative of this identification for Baby is a lovely young waitress, Deborah (Lily James).  As such, she is more than a mere romantic interest.  It's as if she's an unattainable ideal for Baby.  When he first spies her, she's wearing headphones and singing a period "baby" song.  Since Baby is never without multiple iPods and earbuds, theirs is an inevitable connection.  (She also schools Baby on how to correctly pronounce the name of an older rock band, but I won't spoil that moment for you.)



But to get back to writer-director Edgar Wright (above left, in conversation with Elvis Mitchell post-screening of BABY DRIVER  at LACMA on June 9), Wright disclosed that the film had had its genesis when he was living in North London at age 21.  Wright had become obsessed with The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's song "Bellbottoms" (as you might expect, it figures prominently in the film), which caused him to visually associate a car case.  Over the 22 years that followed, Wright came to the U.S., drove by himself from New York to L.A. 10 years ago, and began writing, listening to the music of "state-specific artists" as he passed through each border. (Wright did not seriously decide to actually make the film until 4 years ago, thinking he had given away the concept for the music video he'd made for Mint Royale in 2003): 



Wright then began doing research, interviewing ex-cons about robberies and getaway drivers.  (His "technical" consultant on the film is an actual ex bank robber turned writer [who'd pulled 30 heists], with whom Wright first met over coffee at an Intelligentsia in Pasadena, and who has a cameo in the film.)

An obvious influence on the film is Walter Hill's minimalist masterpiece THE DRIVER (starring Ryan O'Neal), notable for its iconic parking garage sequence.  Both getaway drivers are laconic (Hill's in a more existential way); some characters in BABY DRIVER (i.e, Jamie Foxx's "Bats") wonder if Baby is "slow" (aka "retarded").  Other films that Wright mentioned as influences were RESERVOIR DOGS, KILLING ZOE, and HEAT.  Members of the standout cast include the menacing Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Eliza González, John Bernthal, and...Flea.

In an article in IndieWire, Wright is quoted as saying that, "I took that premise that Hong Kong movies are musicals that have about five big numbers, it's [BABY DRIVER] five action set pieces, a song for each." Plus, of course, the requisite three heists for the robbery genre film.  And for Baby, the classic "one last job."  Right....

The action sequence that the film opens with is a tour de force.  And that's before the opening credits!  Our audience erupted with cheers and applause.  It's stunning.  The meticulously curated soundtrack, already available as a playlist on Spotify, is diverse and outstanding. The music is married to, or rather, the action is dependent upon, the songs.  Baby needs his mix tapes.  You need to see this movie.



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Thursday, February 23, 2017

MY OWN PRIVATE OSCAR PICKS 2017






I was tempted to title this post F***K THE ACADEMY'S OSCAR PICKS, after one of my favorite ever site titles, Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table. (Full disclosure: I possess a bona fide knockoff [no, that's not oxymoronic; it's moronic to think that all knockoffs are created equal] of the above Noguchi table, which gives me pleasure to behold daily.  But it's effing heavy to move, so just fugettabout attempting it by yourself, not to mention it leaves permanent dents in your area rug.  But iconic design--it's totally worth it, you know?)

And iconic, to my mind, is what an Oscar-winning film or performance should be.  So here's my list.



ACTRESS

Isabelle Huppert, Elle



Yeah, I know Emma Stone will win, but as LAT critic Justin Chang put it, the heart wants what it wants. Huppert fearlessly took on and triumphed in an ambiguous role that scared off several other actresses who'd been approached. She said in an interview with Peter Travers that director Paul Verhoeven "...gave me that big piece of work like an unshaped form and let me shape it the way I wanted all the way through." Huppert's the actress as auteur, which = iconic. 



SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea



Williams' character's gut-wrenching confession to her ex-husband played by Casey Affleck is a short scene I will never forget. Not convinced? Consider what Williams ("Randi") brought to the dialogue below:

Randi:  Could we ever have lunch?
Lee:     You mean us? You and me?
Randi:  Yeah. I, uh...Because...I said a lotta terrible things to you. But--
             I know you never--Maybe you don't wanna talk to me--
Lee:      It's not that.
Randi:  But let me finish.  However it--my heart was broken. It's still  
            broken. I know your heart is broken, too.



ACTOR

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea



Viggo was excellent and looked real good; Garfield did a yeoman's job; Denzel declaimed vigorously; Gosling sang & danced & played piano while looking cute as hell in vintage togs.  But Affleck. Wow. Subtle, powerful--his character trying to do the right thing while tamping a lava flow of trauma and guilt. His performance took my breath away.


SUPPORTING ACTOR

Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals



Shannon is a chameleon--he completely transforms for every role. Even though all of the other actors in this category were excellent (Ali and Bridges in particular), Shannon's meticulously played "grotesque angel," as someone oxymoronically referred to his character, was unique and impeccable.


ANIMATED FEATURE

I don't do animation, but Zootopia will likely win, say those who do.  So here's a pic:




CINEMATOGRAPHY

Bradford Young, Arrival



Go ahead--check out the trailers for all the nominated films, and tell me the lighting in this one isn't amazing.  Remember the tunnel scenes?  Louise's house in the moonlight? And then the scenes like the one above--perhaps not as starkly memorable, but all exquisitely and moodily lit, composed, and shot. (Yeah, I know the guild gave it to Greig Fraser for Lion, the film with the really long scary train ride [I get it--mimetic] and interminable push-pin-mania scenes, but this is my own private list, remember? Besides, I liked Fraser's work in Zero Dark Thirty better.)


COSTUME DESIGN

Madeline Fontaine, Jackie



The costume design in this film wasn't just a matter of replicating, but rather of interpreting and rendering--you got it--iconic.  Like I said, not all knockoffs are created equal. 



DIRECTOR

Denis Villeneuve, Arrival



I deeply love this man's work (well, okay, I had some story issues with Prisoners, but man, oh man, Sicario!  And I can hardly contain myself for Blade Runner 2049).  Yeah, I know, Chazelle's gonna win for La La Land, and he did an excellent job. At least it won't be Mel....



DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

O. J.: Made in America



7+ riveting hours. The rise and fall of an American icon. And no glove is going to fit over latex, guys.



FILM EDITING

Joe Walker, Arrival




A story described as being "free of narrative," plus all those flashes. Gorgeously fluid.


FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Elle





It wasn't nominated, you say? Quel dommage! That means the I-thought-it-would-never-end Toni Erdmann will probably win. Not that Maren Ade's film is without merit--it's just 40 minutes too long until that last brilliant scene. It's like a film struggling to have a climax, whereas Elle is one confounding orgasm of a sequence after another--punctured with comic zingers.



ORIGINAL SCORE

Mica Levi, Jackie



"Micachu" also scored Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin.  She's only 29, so you'll be hearing a lot more from her. That intro to Jackie in the theater (shame on you if you watched it on DVD) made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Click here to jog your memory.



ORIGINAL SONG

"City of Stars," La La Land



Catchy tune from composer Justin Hurwitz (who, incidentally, was Damien Chazelle's roommate at Harvard. Just sayin'--that was a good career move. I recall being stuck with a college roommate who hardly ever spoke and would sit facing me in lotus position doing TM). But I digress...do you sense I'm sort of...meh about this song?  Yeah, well, I'm afraid this is the best the category has to offer this year, IMHO, even though I do love Justin Timberlake--just not crazy about his music.



PRODUCTION DESIGN

Patrice Vermette, Arrival



I guess you can probably tell by now that I really, really like this film. Seriously, though, wasn't this tunnel dope? It was inspired by artist James Turrell, whose light installation was admired in different places by both Vermette and director Villeneuve, described here. (I saw it at LACMA, where you put on slippers and, 3 or 4 people at a time, entered a room to be enveloped by slowly morphing soundless light. It was the closest to heaven I'm likely to ever experience.) 



VISUAL EFFECTS

Beats me; I didn't see any of the flicks nominated.  The Visual Effects Society chose Jungle Book over Rogue One.  But since I love Tilda Swinton, here's a pic from Doctor Strange:





SOUND EDITING/SOUND MIXING

War films tend to be highly regarded in these categories (Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now are considered among the finest examples of these crafts; I was particularly impressed with Paul Ottoson's sound design for Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty). So, Hacksaw Ridge may have an edge in this category, but to be honest, none of this year's films' sound design blew me away (although I did appreciate what I read of the sound editor and mixer of La La Land  creating car horns in the precise key for the opening traffic number, which you can read about here). My choice is to give you the iconic image below instead (yeah, I know there's also currently a Trump take-off meme). F***k this guy's Corbusier chair.





MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

I didn't seen any of the films nominated. I would have chosen Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals (The Society of Makeup and Hairstyling artists did)Aging Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal 10 or 15 years was beautifully and subtly done (with the help of lighting, natch). And Laura Linney with the bleeding lipstick lines as the mother-you-inevitably-turn-into was brilliantly rendered:





ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Eric Heisserer, Arrival



If you've ever tried to read Ted Chiang's sci-fi classic Story of Your Life, the basis for Arrival, you'll understand what a feat Heisserer's adaptation is. He won the WGA award for it.



ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea



Lonergan, right, also directed his screenplay. I thought Taylor Sheridan's Hell or High Water was also a gem of a script, but Manchester has more gravitas and resonates in ways that haunt long after viewing it.


BEST PICTURE

Arrival



La La Land is poised to win, and I found it charmingly engaging, blah, blah, blah. But Arrival's a smart, emotionally sophisticated film that inverts thriller expectations to give us a thoughtful, moving, spiritual, and meticulously crafted work.  It will be a sci-fi classic. (SPOILER ALERT! The studio execs wanted the daughter to get all better in the end--but the producers thankfully prevailed. Phew.)


ALMOST FORGOT THE SHORTS!

I didn't catch any of them, but here are the categories:

Documentary Short




In 1965, a frat boy found himself on a subway in a strange city....


Animated Short


The cat short is darling, don't you think?


Live Action Short



Who can resist the double feature of Chuck and iconic denim cutoffs?


Okay, now go fill out out your own damn ballot.  I've got a martini to drink....




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