Jul 2, 2017

The Beguiled

I saw the original Don Siegel movie with Clint Eastwood when I was in my teens and I was deeply disturbed by Geraldine Page's Miss Martha, headmistress of a boarding school for girls during the American Civil War. I'm pretty sure I didn't understand squat, but I could still sense that beneath her steely demeanor there was something very perverse going on. I have yet to see it again, but in the meantime, I cannot fathom why Sofia Coppola was given the best director prize at Cannes for her remake this year, unless for shameless tokenism.
I guess that Coppola wanted to retell this bizarre sexual cat and mice tale through the female gaze, an idea with enormous potential. I can imagine what a gritty, ruthless filmmaker like Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga) could do with this material.
Alas, Coppola's effete version is neither atmospheric, nor claustrophobic, nor creepy, nor disturbing, nor suspenseful, nor horrific, nor particularly interesting. It takes a lot of pointless effort to strip a Southern Gothic of camp and charisma, but that's what happens. Her actresses went to great lengths to perfect their genteel Southern accents, but none of them seem to have any concept of what it felt like to be from the South, and what that war meant to their world of cotillions and slaves. There is no real sense of loss, or humiliation, not even after Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman, miscast and misdirected) explains that her school once used to be a grand old antebellum mansion. No effort is made to impress on the audience what it meant for a woman alone to take on that job: much-diminished circumstances. There is no hunger for the world, no desperation. Instead, it all looks and feels like a Laura Ashley catalog. Coppola is not invested in psychological motivation, or in ambiguity. Hence, the reaction of the women at the arrival of a handsome wounded Yankee soldier is completely superficial. It's desire lite.
Now, if a wounded enemy soldier (the vulnerable, wounded male, an object of female fantasies since time immemorial) shows up at a secluded boarding school for girls in bloom and this soldier happens to be Clint Eastwood, people of all genders will understand how this could wreak havoc in all those straitlaced young bosoms. Had it been Michael Fassbender, that school would have exploded in a ball of fire the moment he crawled through the door. But Coppola makes the mistake of giving the honors to Colin Farrell, who is simply not worth the trouble. To be fair to him and to the rest of the good actors in this movie, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst (excellent), Elle Fanning and a gaggle of solid young actresses, it's not their fault. They have only been instructed to play the top note, and this story is all about the murky notes at the bottom, what oozes beneath those stuffy crinolines, what really flutters in the women's wildest hearts.

Wonder Woman

Deftly directed by Patty Jenkins, this DC Comics installment could use at least half an hour less of fights and a little more feminism. Having said this, and considering it's a superhero franchise, it's quite enjoyable. It is the rare movie with a good second act, and that is because we get to see Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (the wondrous Gal Gadot) swoon over pilot Steve Trevor (the very game Chris Pine) and be flummoxed by the ways of humans at the turn of the 20th century.
All I could think was that if Gadot and Pine were to have a child, it would be the most beautiful baby in the world. I also wanted to see them make that baby right then and there. No such luck. All we get is a hasty kiss, but there is plenty of witty flirty repartee, like in the classic Hollywood films of yore, and it works.
This movie, the first female-led superhero film in more than a decade, and the first one ever directed by a woman, was still written by three guys, and it makes charming, yet not enough fun of old-fashioned (read Edwardian) male attitudes about women, which haven't changed all that much. The joke is that Diana, who is an Amazon and grew up with fierce women warriors, is innocent of the ways of men, but so much less constrained and prudish than her human counterparts. But the script misses many opportunities to explore our gender issues. Perhaps the guys were afraid of focusing on what guys would focus, which is that she is physically spectacular (believe me, girls focus just as much - that's what superheroes in tight costumes are for). An invading army of Germans suddenly confronts a bunch of flying women in gladiator-wear and none of them even blink. They just keep shooting. Diana flies over enemy territory and the enemy treats her like another piece of ordnance. This makes no sense.
Gadot is very good in her quiet moments, when she doesn't understand why women wear corsets that are not armor, or why generals send millions to their deaths from the comfort of their chairs instead of going to battle. She is less convincing in more dramatic scenes, but she and Pine have great chemistry, without which this movie would be a total waste.
Her mother, played by Connie Nielsen, and aunt, played by Robin Wright, have accents as if they just got off the boat from a shtetl somewhere, and I assume that this was done perhaps to blend in with Gadot's negligible Israeli accent. Or perhaps the screenwriters decided that the Amazons were Ashkenazi Jews, which is perfectly fine by me. Who better to give the Germans grief?
At this point, it's clear that barring Steven Spielberg or John Woo, no one can stage coherent, let alone thrilling, action sequences anymore. There are so many digital effects that one cannot find one's bearings in the frame. Add to that an epically horrid music score (by Rupert Gregson-Williams, but could be anyone else) and super loud sound effects, and by the end, you feel you've been run over by a train. Jenkins fares well with one sequence where Diana braves the trenches in WWI. But all this over the top mayhem made me pine for truly riveting action such as the chases in The French Connection, with two cars in Queens and two guys in the subway.
Still, it's fun to see the Amazons leaping on air and kicking ass, and I loved that Diana uses her lasso and her chunky bracelets as weapons. Men being men, they use ammo.
I also loved seeing a woman with superhuman strength. I was thrilled when she picked up a tank and hurled it as if it were yesterday's undies into the hamper. One of my chief complaints about comic book movies that have female protagonists is that the women basically behave like men. At least here, Diana is a woman. She thinks and fights like a woman (that is, if we had wonder bracelets and iridescent lassos and krav maga experts for our relatives). She loves babies, cares for people and, in one of the best scenes, swoons over ice cream.
However, if someone steals the show, it's the wonderful Lucy Davis, as Etta, Steve's secretary. She nails the comic relief with great charm. I was also happy to see Danny Huston and David Thewlis not phone it in, like many great thespians could be tempted to do when acting against a green screen. Huston rather hams it up. Thewlis just brings it.
I was bored to death by the parts designed to please the guys, and very happy with the love story, the banter, the jokes and the quiet moments. Does this make me a chick?