Finding Strength to Pass on in The Beguiled and Moka

“I admire your strength,” Corporal John McBurney (a devilishly manipulative Colin Farrell) remarks to the headmistress while under the watchful care of the women and girls of the Farnsworth Seminary for ladies, a bastion of secluded tranquility hiding roiling pent-up emotions during the Civil War. He is an injured Union soldier (or perhaps an AWOL mercenary?) discovered in the woods by the nature-loving Amy (Oona Laurence…a stand-in perhaps for director Sofia Coppola?). They are self-sufficient well-bread Southern Belles shielded from the horrors of war, but full of fanciful imaginings and longing.

“I’m just trying to give them what they need to survive in these times,” Martha Farnsworth (a masterful modicum of repressed anxiety underneath a gauze of stern maternal stoicism as played by Nicole Kidman) replies.

Sofia Coppola’s re-imagining of the Southern gothic potboiler novel by Thomas Cullinan (previously brought to screen in 1971 by Don Siegal and Clint Eastwood) is a lean, mean, beautiful thing streamlined through white lace and steamy moss-strewn environs with seductive Louisiana plantation swamps draped in lush symbolism standing-in for war-torn Virginia. Every single meticulously composed shot…from Amy, both resting and sentinel, on the hulking branch of a giant moss-covered live oak…to ennui-suffering teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning) leaning back in her chair in the streaky sunlight while the younger girls play in the tall grass…to a candlelit dinner darkly roasted with insidious intentions…is like a moving painting. There’s not a single shot directed by Coppola and executed by Philippe Le Sourd wasted here, all ripe with symbolism or moving the plot along. Likewise, sparse to-the-point dialogue (the entire language of the film mirroring the bluntness of Martha’s speaking and pitting it against the flowery antagonism of Corporal McBurney’s invitations) moves everything forward. Music, be it wonderful renditions of the olde-timey standard “Lorna” or the suspenseful ambience of Phoenix’s barely-there musical score, is exactly where it should be and precisely where it’s not. Continue reading

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Dickensian Louisiana

Oak Alley 20

“It was the best of times…it was the worst of times.”

New Orleans has always been a city of extremes, and our recent visit proved that in spades.  It’s a place of both high-class Southern charm and “9th Ring of Dante’s Hell” style debauchery.  For me, it was a second visit to the fabled city that has been both blessed and cursed, and for my wife it was her first time.  She was greeted on the first night with a Carnivale parade – who knew the season was so raucous even with Mardi Gras still weeks away?  We erroneously stayed on the main parade drag on St. Charles Ave at an otherwise nice hotel where Murphy’s Law ruled the roost.  The next evening, my wife was paid a visit by yee olde food poisoning courtesy of a French Quarter Jazz Club that was otherwise lovely (tip: drink, don’t eat, at a jazz club).  Meanwhile, I was suffering from a head cold that started a few days earlier during a work trip to Jacksonsville, Florida.

Buuuut…once we survived all that and spread our wings to more relaxed environs (the Garden District, City Park, a tour of some of the grand River Road plantations, and Algiers)…it couldn’t have been nicer. Continue reading

It Happened Again on True Detective

True Detective - Rust and Marty in the Car

A Note to Readers: The following contains descriptions of events that have played out over True Detective’s eight-episode run and details on the finale.  Read with caution if you are afraid of spoilers before having seen the entire season.

“It Happened Again on True Detective”

About six months ago the initial previews for True Detective boldly announced The McConaissaince was coming to TV, and just look at how gristly Woody Harrelson had become!  It promised yet another slow-burning mystery…this one on the oilfield strewn and smokestack choked bayous of Louisiana (the cable network’s favorite homestead, seen also in True Blood and Treme).  The big boys at HBO were gonna show the basic cable boobs behind The Killing and The Bridge how it should really be done.  It all felt a little tired.  We’d seen this before.  And it was with a morbid curiosity that I tuned into the first episode.

The opening credits embraced the conventions with seductive glee.  A creepy folksy tune titled “Far from Any Road” by the Handsome Family spun tales of a “poisoned Creole soul” and brooded over a graphic artist’s phantasmagoria of overlaid images, like a deadly serious realist flip side to the trashy-kitschy credits of the supernatural True Blood.  It was stylish and admirable…but predictable…HBO shows are known for their innovative and signature opening credit sequences.

True Detective - Opening Credit Shot Highway Face

True Detective - Opening Credit Shot Burning Face

It wouldn’t be until later episodes that I realized the credits’ subliminal power.  The image of a winding highway superimposed over Woody Harrelson’s face, in particular, was something that began to creep into my poisoned TV soul and became more unsettling every time I saw it.

The first episode, too, catered to the conventions.  Two prickly opposites were partnered to solve the murder of a drug-addled prostitute named Dora Lange who was found with antlers on her head and other cultish mumbo-jumbo casting a pall over the scene.  The story was presented in flashbacks as the elder versions of our detectives were questioned separately in 2012 about the case from the mid 1990’s hinting at something larger…a new copycat killer perhaps…and a current riff between the former partners.  Episode One was slow…methodical…well acted…well directed…tinged with nihilism…yet where was it going and would anyone care once we got there?

Eight episodes.  A complete story.  An anthology series in the style of American Horror Story – a title that could’ve easily been used here.  True Detective, unlike Twin Peaks and The Killing before it, promised completion…no long drawn-out anti-climax stretched over multiple seasons.  The approach was like that of an eight-hour film with one director, Cary Joji Fukunaga (the mastermind behind two stylistically disparate but equally compelling films, Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre), who armed with the scripts from under-the-radar novelist Nic Pizzolatto created a consistent and quietly thrilling tone.  So I stay tuned in…and slowly but surely I became addicted.  The communal fervor for the show bloomed along with my obsession.  Continue reading

People, Property, Propriety and Evil in 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave 2

Steve McQueen’s searing cinematic treatise on slavery will never be accused of holding back.  Classically the film opens in medias res showing small moments in the life of a man enslaved that lead him to flashing back to an idyllic moment with his wife when he had been a free man.  McQueen’s confident direction and John Ridley’s assured screenplay move cleanly back and forth in time to tell the harrowing story of Solomon Northup (an amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor), an accomplished violinist from Saratoga, NY with a loving wife and children who is lured to the nation’s capital on the promise of work only to get kidnapped into slavery.  The horrors, violence and depravity slowly escalate during the film’s runtime, with McQueen transmitting the details through clever points-of-view and camera angles, focusing on the screams and faces of the victims until by the end of the film all blood and flesh are left pooling on the dusty ground of the plantation hellscape run with diabolical vigor by Master Epps (a blisteringly despicable Michael Fassbender, stretching his acting muscle yet again to its darkest reaches under McQueen’s insightful and uncompromising eye).

12 Years a Slave is simultaneously a harrowing one-man-survival-tale and a bitter pill of a history lesson that reminds us it wasn’t so long ago that an entire culture in the Southern United States believed with all their rotten hearts that it was their right to hold other human beings as property.  Continue reading

New Orleans in November

What better way to cure a Hurricane Sandy hangover and escape a bitter Nor’easter than by flying down to the place that knows bad storms the best…New Orleans!  By pure happenstance (my little sojourn was planned about a month or so ago), I was flying down to the Big Easy for some rest and relaxation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and just before a Nor’easter battered my home state of New Jersey.  It was also Election Day – more on that later.  I had chosen New Orleans as my destination on a whim.  I had never been there (alas, an aborted attempt to go my junior year of college still haunted me) and I wanted to go somewhere different, somewhere a little more exciting…somewhere completely unlike my normal R&R spots in Upstate New York.  A morbid thought also burrowed its way into my mind, as New Orleans is one of the few places in the US that at some point in my lifetime might no longer exist.  Little did I know that much of the Jersey Shore and parts of NYC would fall into this category as well just a week before my trip.

Sunny 70-degree weather, cool nights and leisurely bustling but not overcrowded streets greeted me as I touched down in Louisiana.  Good food, good drinks, good people and a city like no other (this has to be the most laid-back city in the United States) – it was just what the doctor ordered. 

Below is the patented Schleicher Spin rundown of my time in NOLA. Continue reading

A Review of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

Cate asks Brad, Can we please be movie stars, even if just for today?

Cate asks Brad, “Can we please be movie stars, even if just for today?”

Nothing Lasts Forever, 28 December 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

On a cold night on the eve of WWII in Russia, a diplomat’s wife (Tilda Swinton) shares tea with a most peculiar tugboat man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). When she asks him where is he from, Benjamin replies, “New Orleans…Louisiana.” Swinton’s character replies, “I didn’t think there was any other.”

This moment comes about forty minutes into the film which has been established on the grounds of a woman (Julia Ormond) reading to her dying mother (Cate Blanchett) from the diary of Benjamin Button as Hurricane Katrina sweeps over New Orleans. The ghost of a New Orleans now lost haunts David Fincher’s lyrical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who ages backwards. There’s no denying this film couldn’t have been made five years ago, not only because the technology wasn’t there to make the process of aging backwards look real, but it would’ve also been a completely different movie as screenwriter Eric Roth wouldn’t have been able to bookend the film with Blanchett on her deathbed as Hurricane Katrina comes to literally wipe away her life. The story is hung on a gimmick, and the film told as a fable, but there’s grounding in the reality of life’s greater mysteries that speaks volumes about not just the death of a man or a woman, but the death of a city and the death of a way of life.

A big part of making the audience believe in the story falls on the film’s technical aspects: the make-up, the CGI, the period-piece details of the film’s set designs and costumes. If you look close enough, you can find things to nitpick, like the distracting disembodied voice of Cate Blanchett distorted onto a little girl, but for the most part Fincher constructs it all seamlessly. In terms of scope and sentiment, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems a complete departure for a director usually obsessed with darker more violent tales, but Fincher has always liked his plots to begin (think Seven or Panic Room) or end (think The Game or Fight Club) with a gimmick, and he’s always been a filmmaker obsessed with cutting-edge technology (think of the VIPER camera used to film Zodiac). Fincher does a superb job with his meticulous construction of these elements (complimented nicely by Alexandre Desplat’s subdued score), and he really wins the audience over with his flashbacks within flashbacks that are done in a charmingly stylized manner that remind us we’re watching a movie that’s meant to be enjoyed above any other pretense.

By shifting the central location of the story from the original setting of Baltimore to New Orleans, Roth opens the film up to a new layer of interpretation. Though the episodic tale of Pitt’s Benjamin growing younger while Blanchett’s Daisy grows older spans the globe from Manhattan to Russia to Paris, the characters’ hearts remain united in New Orleans. Roth, who also penned the thematically similar Forrest Gump peppers his screenplay with many momentous events from the 20th Century, but those moments ebb and flow through Benjamin’s life just as the other characters do showing us that life is made only of moments. None of them last forever.

The supporting players (including a gutsy performance from Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin’s adoptive mother who runs a nursing home) are wonderful and allow Pitt and Blanchett to shine as the movie stars that they are. Sure, these two have probably given better performances elsewhere, but here they have been given roles for which they might be best remembered long after their star-power has dimmed.

In a year when the films with the most impact (like The Dark Knight) have been those that have tapped into the fears and mindset of the times we live in, it’s rather fitting that a movie like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes along at the end of the year. It should be one of those movies that hold audiences rapt in hushed silence, but it’s also the type of movie that usually receives instant backlash. I wonder how it will stand up over time. On the surface it attempts to tell a timeless tale, but in a bittersweet way proves the opposite. Movies stars like Pitt and Blanchett, movies like this, stories, fables, dreams, cities like New Orleans…none of these things are timeless. Timelessness is just a flight of the imagination…like the idea of a man aging backwards.

But what a wonderful flight it is.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.