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

The 10th Annual Davies Awards in Film

A Look Back at 2015:

Speak low…when you speak love…when you speak of the films you love…

There’s a film that was released in 2015 that hardly anyone is mentioning at year’s end.  It’s a film that for fans of a certain type of old-school cinema…those who love noir, Lang, Hitchcock and The Third Man…soared wafting in on the summer breezes to art-house theaters like a fresh breath of cool lake air.  And it features a singular performance (from the one and only Nina Hoss) and a closing scene, so haunting, so complete, so cinematic, so classy…it made those lovers of that refined kind of retro flick gasp.  “We didn’t know they could make them like this anymore…” we communally thought.  Oh, but they do…and it’s so very rare and precious when they do.  Phoenix (and for the legions who haven’t seen it, please do…it’s currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime) is the film of the year – hell, maybe of the decade.  My wife and I loved it so much we had “Speak Low” play as one of our wedding songs.  It’s that damn good.  And unforgettable. Continue reading

Survivor’s Guilt and a Phoenix Soaring to Rarefied Cinematic Heights

Phoenix - In the Ashes

War can change a person to where they become unrecognizable to their loved ones and to themselves.  It can ravage people and places.  It can disfigure a person’s body and soul.

Writer-director Christian Petzold takes this idea literally in his masterful new neo-noir, Phoenix, where his long-time muse, Nina Hoss, delivers a performance for the ages as Nelly, a concentration camp survivor who undergoes facial reconstruction surgery and then finds herself in the psychologically complex predicament of having to go under disguise as another woman pretending to be herself so as to find out the truth about her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis during the war.

Phoenix - Club

Despite the warnings of her friend and confidant, Lene (a bleak and soulful Nina Kuzendorf) who hopes for Nelly to rest and recover while she works out the legality of claiming Nelly’s family inheritance so that they can join the flux of survivors to Palestine, Nelly wanders the ravaged Berlin landscape mourning bombed out homes, hiding under a widow’s mask and traipsing through the shadows like a Frankenstein monster until she comes across the down-and-out Phoenix nightclub where American soldiers mix with the German underbelly looking to ply them with sex and show tunes.  Nelly, a former torch signer, and Johnny, a former pianist, find themselves in this hellish version of their former lives, both on the outskirts looking in, not able to perform.  He sees her as someone who looks vaguely like his dead wife, who he now wishes to resurrect so he can collect the inheritance (which he promises to split with her if she plays along).  She sees him as a shell of the man she once fell in love with and who she desperately wishes she could fall in love with again. Thus a grand charade begins, and they are soon caught up in perverse duplicity where emotions and guilt run high.

Petzold films scenes in perfect frames and shadows, evoking a chamber-piece version of The Third Man, without it ever seeming overly stylish.  Meanwhile Hoss’ physical stiffness is in stark contrast to her otherwise subtle performance where she speaks volumes with her eyes and facial expressions – expertly showing the audience the dichotomy of her predicament where she must hide herself from everyone while inside her inner turmoil runneth over (leaving Nelly to literally lurch).  It’s such a controlled performance (inside such a controlled, economic film where not a single shot or line of dialogue is wasted) that when Nelly’s full transformation occurs at the film’s end, it a pure moment of cinematic awe where the audience is left gasping.

SPOILER ALERTS – DO NOT READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM – It is highly recommended you see the film on as clean a slate as possible, then come back and read the following paragraphs to join the conversation.

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Somewhere Out There I Write a Letter to Sofia Coppola

Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning share some nice moments in Sofia Coppola's SOMEWHERE.

Somewhere out there a great film awaits Sofia Coppola.  In some parallel universe she’s directing a masterpiece.  But not here.  Not yet.

Somewhere is a film that just is what it is…which is a film about nothing.  Even in interviews, the oft-maligned auteur admits in no uncertain terms that the film is really about nothing.  It’s just about the mood…the moment.  And like all of Sofia Coppola’s films, it grows on you as it languidly progresses.  You get used to the cadence and the ennui, the repetitive imagery, the sometimes uncomfortably sustained shots (oh, imagine what she could do with neo-noir or psychological horror) that ultimately signify the vapid nature of isolating stardom and luxury.  And when the bored movie star (Stephen Dorff, scruffy but agreeable) is temporarily interrupted from his nothingness by his bright and mostly cheery young daughter (Elle Fanning), you get a muted fuzzy feeling, melancholy somewhat, and little bits of humor, embarrassment and do-nothingness fun contribute to a glazed, dreamy atmosphere where you like what you see, you get the feeling, and the mood is alright, baby.  But there’s nothing there.

Which brings me to this…which I touched on in some recent exchanges at Jason Marshall’s excellent Movies over Matter blog and have decided to elaborate on here:

Sofia! Stop writing your own scripts! I know, in the brutal irony of the biz, you won an Oscar for your writing…but you are a natural-born director.  With your screenplays you are stuck going around in circles just like your main character’s Ferrari in the opening shot of your new film.  In the end, he’s driving in a straight line seemingly getting as far away from Hollywood as he can.  I hope that is symbolic of you doing the same thing. Continue reading