BPM (Beats Per Minute)(11/11/2017)/The Square(11/12/2017)

Every year I follow the coverage of the Cannes Film Festival and every year I get excited.  2017’s festival didn’t seem overly notable while it was going on given that no one movie ever really stood out as being terribly important.  Everything seemed to just get a B or B+ from critics and for the most part people spent more time talking about Netflix than about the movies.  Still there were definitely a decent number of movies to look forward to and for a variety of reasons it seems that we’re actually having something of a banner year for Cannes competitors actually showing up in American theaters in a timely manner.  By my count eight of the nineteen movies that played in the main competition have gotten American releases including two movies that showed up in my city just this week: BPM (Beats Per Minute) and The Square.  Coincidentally those happen to be the two movies that ended up taking the Palme d’Or and the Gran Prix, which are the first place and second place at the festival.  BPM (Beats Per Minute) was the movie that seemed to get the most enthusiastic reviews while the festival was going on, but it was The Square that Pedro Almodóvar and his jury ended up selecting, a decision that most analysts thought was a surprise but one that made sense to them in retrospect.  These are both big and important movies that probably deserve to be looked at individually, but the novelty of being able to look at the top two films from Cannes side by side (plus, admittedly, the pressure to avoid getting behind on my reviews) inspired me to look at them together and decide whether the jury got it right.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is set in France during the 1990s and focuses on the Parisian branch of the famous AIDS activist organization ACT UP.  It begins with some new members being inducted and trained in the group’s mission and methodology but the film doesn’t necessarily focus in on those new members and instead becomes a true ensemble piece which becomes something of a procedural look at a year or so of the group’s activities including a number of scenes where you get to be a fly on the wall as the members debate strategy and group priorities.  The Square by contrast has more of a central character but also largely functions as a look into the inner-workings of a community of sorts, namely a modern art museum in Stockholm.  Our focus is a guy named Christian (Claes Bang) a curator who is getting the museum ready for its newest exhibit, a conceptual piece called “The Square,” which is a square drawn in the center of a room with a plaque next to it which reads: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”  While prepping for this exhibit Christian suddenly finds himself distracted from a number of personal and professional problems as he obsesses over retrieving his cell phone and wallet that were stolen from him during a pickpocketing.

It is probably worth noting that neither of these movies came from directors that I was eagerly awaiting new films from.  BPM (Beats Per Minute) was directed by a guy named Robin Campillo, whose directorial output I’m not familiar with but who was a co-writer and editor on a 2008 Palme d’Or winning film called The Class which I liked quite a bit but which never really made a big splash when it left the Croisette and went out into the world.  That film followed a teacher as he taught French literature to a class of urban students over the course of a year and the activist meetings in his newest film definitely share a DNA with the classroom sequences that made up the majority of that film.  The Square’s director, Ruben Östlund, is probably the guy the film world was more excitedly waiting for a new film from.  Östlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, was an extremely well received satire about a man who finds himself confronting his own shortcomings while on a ski trip with his family after he runs like a coward when his family is put in danger’s way.  I got what that film was doing and could see why people liked it but it didn’t really do much for me; I never really found it all that funny, I thought its sub-plots were unneeded distractions, and I don’t think its interest in the fractured male ego ever really went anywhere after the initial setup.

The Square, worked a lot better for me than Force Majeure in no small part because its humor just seemed a bit more on point but also because I found its anxieties more relatable.  I don’t have a family and I make no claims to being some courageous protector, so the concept of being exposed as a coward does not exactly hit home with me.  The Square on the other hand is about the prospect of being exposed as a jerk, as someone whose behavior doesn’t come close to matching your ideals and who maybe isn’t as brilliant and in control as you think you are.  The main character, Christian, seems like he should be the platonic ideal of an upper-class European.  He’s wealthy, attractive, intellectual, and somewhat powerful, and yet heavy rests the crown because he seems to spend a lot of the film trying to maintain his reputation despite everything going wrong.  Christian is not an asshole exactly; he certainly doesn’t go out of his way to hurt anyone and he generally doesn’t have evil intentions but he proves to be rather oblivious to the damage he occasionally causes and also proves to be rather flexible in his ideals when put to the test.  His solution to getting his wallet stolen, dropping a threatening letter into every mailbox in a low-rent apartment building, is a pretty good example of this.  It’s not exactly illegal and not entirely aggressive, but he certainly isn’t thinking about the distress he’s causing everyone else in that building and this comes back to bite him in a big way.

Of course Christian’s first world problems would seem to be even more pathetic when compared to the ACT UP members chronicled in BPM (Beats Per Minute), who are fighting very hard for their ideals but also for their very lives.  Campillo’s movie is at its best when it sits back and observes these activists’ interact with each other and plan their various protests.  These scenes capture both the youthful passion of these activists but also doesn’t depict them as immature fools and also has an interesting ear for the tempo of the kind of arguments that emerge in these settings.  The focus of the movie is ultimately on the people rather than the politics, the various issues being debated like the speed at which clinics share results with the public are not really explained to the audience and the movie isn’t necessarily trying to make much of a case for how effective ACT UP’s brand of confrontational demonstration were in the fight for AIDS research.  Where the film starts to falter a bit is when the group breaks up a bit and we start observing these characters act as individuals rather than as a group.  I’m thinking particularly of the film’s third act where we watch a character named Sean Dalmazo as his health deteriorates.  I wouldn’t call these scenes bad at all but they are a lot more conventional than the movie that surrounds them and feels a lot more like a generic tragic approach to the AIDS epidemic of the kind we used to see out of 90s movies.

If BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a very heartfelt and emotional movie, The Square is a bit brainier and leaves you with a bit more to interpret and dissect.  Key amongst its mysteries is what to make of the fictional art exhibit with which it shares its title.  Christian seems to view “The Square” as a piece with a rather utopian vision of human cooperation but I think he might be missing the larger point of the piece.  The plaque on The Square does read that “within [The Square] we all share equal rights and obligations,” but the implication there is that outside of The Square those lofty ideals are far from guaranteed and more than likely the only reason that those things apply inside The Square is because it sits in the middle of a big well-funded museum with a security team.  In some ways that feels like a bit of a metaphor for what these museum curators have always been doing: creating a bubble where various principles exist, but are contained, and then not putting a whole lot of thought into what happens outside of that bubble.  This pretty clearly makes the characters in The Square sort of the polar opposites of the ones in BPM (Beats Per Minute) who are if nothing else very dedicated to their ideals and are insistent to the point of sometimes being obnoxious and are very much trying to spread them into the wider world.

So, do I ultimately agree with the choice that the jury made at Cannes?  Yeah, in this head to head matchup I do, and of the eight films from that festival’s main competition I would say I liked The Square the best.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that The Square is quite the instant classic that some other Palme d’Or winners have been.  It is, however, a very clever and very entertaining movie that manages to critique the “elites” in a smart way that doesn’t resort to overstatement or unfair pitchfork waving.  This is not to say that BPM (Beats Per Minute) isn’t also a film that’s well worth your time.  Those scenes of the activists debating are great but the movie as a whole never quite manages to find an overall structure that really brings it together.  Still, it’s a fine movie and certainly a more worthy companion to the great ACT UP documentary How to Survive a Plague than the indie/Hollywood depiction of the era Dallas Buyers Club.  However, The Square is the more creative movie and the movie that jumps out at me and which I can see myself revisiting more often.  In some ways I think I might “get” Ruben Östlund now in a way I didn’t before and might even want to give Force Majeure another look.  Ultimately though these are both fine works of world cinema worthy of your time

BPM (Beats Per Minute):

The Square:

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Blade Runner 2049(10/6/2017)

It’s no secret that Hollywood is pretty desperate to make sequels to pretty much anything, but there are certain boundaries that they don’t cross every day, and in making the film Blade Runner 2049 they were certainly crossing into dangerous territory.  Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is a true science fiction classic.  It’s a film that has a truly remarkable look which holds up remarkably today and which has had a massive influence on pretty much every future city that has been seen on film since and its combination of science fiction with film noir was an incredibly smart move that was consistently fun to watch.  On top of that the movie is this really special, really deep mediation on what it means to be human and the ways societies abuse the disenfranchised and uncaringly discard unwanted elements.  It’s a brilliant movie and when I ranked my top 100 favorite films recently it came in at number 59, which also placed it as the third best movie of the last 35 years, it’s that good in my eyes.  I don’t think in recent memory I’ve been in the position or reviewing a sequel, made so long after the fact, to a top 100 caliber movie like this.  The last movie I can think of as being in a comparable position was probably 2010: The Year We Made Contact, the 1984 sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In short, the movie has some really big shoes to fill so I was certainly going into it with some a lot of skepticism.

Set thirty years after the original Blade Runner (which was set in what 1982 assumed 2019 would be like) this new film establishes that sometime after the events of the first film the old line of replicants prone to rebellion have been replaced by a new more obediant form of replicant that is allowed to operate within earth society.  One of those replicants is KD9-3.7 (Ryan Gosling), who is an LAPD “blade runner” tasked with tracking down the few remaining old world replicants and taking them out.  After the completion of one of his assassination missions KD9-3.7 finds a box filled with the remains of a long dead female replicant buried near a tree.  When these remains are discovered the autopsy shows something disturbing: this replicant seems to have died in the process of childbirth, implying that a replicant was somehow able to reproduce and also that the child that was born may still be out there.  His commanding officer, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), orders him to cover this up and tie up whatever loose ends exist so as to not cause mass pandemonium.  Meanwhile Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is also following these developments through various connections and plans to send his agent, Sylvia Hoeks (Sylvia Hoeks) to see to his own interests.

What’s immediately striking about the movie is, of course, just how well it manages of recapture the look and more importantly the feel of that original film.  That is no easy task as the set decoration of that original film is beyond iconic and Denis Villeneuve seems to realize this and is very careful to make this Los Angeles look like the Blade Runner Los Angeles rather than the various cityscapes that it inspired.  Part of the way Villeneuve accomplishes this is by knowing the value of restraint.  It would have been easy for him to pump up the CGI and gone full Fifth Element but he does hold back and it does look like that original film, but it also isn’t afraid to expand on the world of Blade Runner and show other areas of California and even another American city.  Even more impressive is that Villeneuve didn’t seem to bend to pressures to make the film more of an action movie and to speed the movie up to fit the pacing of modern blockbusters.  It’s a bit less indebted to film noir than the first movie but all the moodiness is still there and it also remains somber and doesn’t feel pressure to rush its way through its plot to appease short attention spans.

While he’s prominently featured in the film’s advertising, Harrison Ford actually has a fairly small role in the film.  Stepping into his shoes as a blade runner protagonist is Ryan Gosling, who unlike Ford is playing a character who is unambiguously a replicant.  To do this he adopts a sort of detached but not exactly robotic cool.  Unlike the replicants we saw in the last movie like Roy Batty he’s a newer model that “obeys,” but this is rendered more like a personality quirk than a hard-wired programing and Gosling does a pretty good job of rendering this spot between human and machine.  Also in a place of nebulous humanity is his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), another product of the Wallace corporation who certainly seems to have a higher degree of individuality than you’d expect from a literal consumer product and the bad guys played by Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks also prove to be interesting additions to the cast while smaller roles played by the likes of Dave Bautista and Robin Wright also fill in the world of the movie nicely.

When I first left the theater after seeing Blade Runner 2049 I was pretty high on it and was just gobsmacked that Villeneuve had managed to get something like this through the studio system and I pretty thoroughly enjoyed watching it.  In the week or so since then, my reaction has cooled on the movie just a little bit as I’ve re-considered some of its story implications.  I think in many ways the movie works better as a spinoff of Blade Runner than as a sequel to Blade Runner.  It’s great at recapturing the world of that first movie and populating it with new characters but I’m not a fan of what they do to connect all of that with the story of the original film.  Spoilers ahead.  I think the idea of a replicant having given live birth is… interesting, although it’s certainly never explained how a thing like that could happen which is perhaps understandable.  However, I kind of wish that the trail of clues related to this hadn’t led straight to Deckard and Rachael.  The romance between these two characters is not necessarily the most memorable part of the original film but it had a certain melancholy fatalism to it straight out of film noir.  This notion that they were in fact destined to give birth to “the chosen one” the whole time feels less like something from film noir and more like something out of modern franchise filmmaking.  The film also conveniently leaves certain plotlines like the fate of the Jared Leto character and the specter of a robot rebellion dangling, possibly for a future sequel if this thing does well at the box office.

Of course this movie’s box office success is far from certain.  Earlier I commended the movie for not pandering to the short attention spans of modern audiences, but truth be told this kind of pacing proved to be rather challenging for audiences in 1982 as well.  It was crazy enough that they managed to make a movie like this in Hollywood once much less twice.  If I have any reservations about where they took the story they’re more the kind of problems that emerge in hindsight than they are problems that really cloud the experience of actually watching the movie.  We don’t get movies like this every day and I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  This certainly isn’t the classic that the original film was but it’s entertaining, well-constructed, and just generally better than most of what we get from big budget movies like this.

Battle of the Sexes(9/30/2017)

I’m not exactly sure why it is that Tennis is the one sport where people seem to be genuinely just as interested in the female competitions as the male competitions, outside of certain Olympic events anyway.  The WNBA has a small fraction of the viewership of the NBA for example but at least there is a WNBA, I don’t even know if there’s a comparable league for female baseball players or hockey players and I don’t even know of any female football teams even at the collegiate and high school levels.  There’s some interest in female soccer in America, largely as a product of the U.S. female soccer team being noticeable better than the men’s team, but that also sort of seems to be a product of the European and Latin American markets that actually love soccer not really caring enough to build up competition for them.  As for other individual sports I know there are some female boxers and female MMA fighters, but again, they don’t seem nearly as popular as their male counterparts.  Clearly there must be something about tennis that leads to equal coverage, maybe it’s that it’s such a finesse sport that the difference in strength just isn’t apparent on TV… but then you’d think that female golfers would have more of a platform.  Maybe it’s just a matter of female tennis players having gotten a useful platform from early on in the sport’s history.  They play in the same Grand Slam tournaments at the same time as the men and tend to get coverage at the same time.  Whatever it was it was something unique and the new film, Battle of the Sexes is about (among other things) a moment where a major star in women’s tennis stood up to defend that one shard of relative gender equality in sports and managed to make a statement about gender equality in the rest of society as well.

Set in the early 70s, the film follows tennis great Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), who is already more or less at the peak of her career at this point and has just won a major tournament which has netted her a hundred thousand dollar check.  News of this gets to Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), a 55 year old man who was a tennis champion in the 1940 and was old enough to actually have his career interrupted by World War II.  At this point in life he’s playing on the senior circuit and is having marital problems caused in no small part because of his compulsive gambling.  Jealous that King is able to get those kind of paychecks he starts to get it into his head that even in his advanced age he could still beat her and feels like he deserves to still be making that kind of money because of it.  He approaches her with the idea of doing a “battle of the sexes” exhibition match but King has a million other things on her plate at that time.  She’s in the middle of a boycott of the main tennis authority because their director Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is refusing to offer them equal prize money with the men, and she’s also in the process of beginning an affair with a hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), unbeknownst to her future ex-husband (Austin Stowell).  However, when Riggs manages to win a similar exhibition match against the other female tennis great of the era, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) King decides that enough’s enough and accepts Riggs’ challenge.

Battle of the Sexes was directed by the husband and wife pair of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who are probably still best known for having made the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine and that gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of filmmaking you’re in store for with the film.  This is a pretty safe and pretty straightforward telling of this period of Billie Jean King’s life.  I’m sure some of the standard issue creative liberties have been taken (I think some of the events are compressed into a shorter period of time) but otherwise the film does not take too many risks in its format and aims.  Emma Stone does some of the best work of her career as King and does a good job of changing herself into this butch athlete and capturing the uncompromising but at times playful aura that King needed to take on through this whole episode.  Steve Carrell perhaps unsurprisingly emphasizes a lot of the over the top and comical elements Bobby Riggs’ persona and doesn’t need to go too far outside of his usual wheelhouse to do it.  The movie is a bit on the fence about how much of a sexist Riggs really was; on one hand it’s very clear that his main motivation for making this happen was money and that some of his “male chauvinist” bluster was not too far removed from the antics of a bad guy professional wrestler taking a heel turn.  On the other hand, some of his resentment does seem legitimate.  He sees himself as being equally talented to King (and given his performance against Court that might not have been completely irrational) and felt that because of this he was deserving of an equal amount of money and attention despite not being in the same league as younger male players anymore.

Ultimately I don’t think it matters too much what Riggs’ true motivation was because at the end of the day he was probably doing a lot of harm.  His trolling plainly brought out the worst in a lot of people (the number of people who showed up to the big match carrying signs like “Team Male Chauvenist” is kind of disturbing) and he also may well have done some real damage to the entirety of women’s tennis if he had actually won his big match against King.  At a certain point it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for greed, lulz, or genuine hate, the end result is still shitty and saying “I didn’t really mean what I said” just isn’t a good excuse.  That little observation is mostly something I’m bringing to the movie as the film itself is not overly hard on Riggs and instead largely just dismisses him as a clown rather than a truly insidious figure when compared to the real institutional sexism represented by Jack Kramer.  That would be easier to roll with if not for the fact that this country recently went through another battle of the sexes of sorts in which a vulgar self-promoting asshole challenged an over-qualified female to a contest of sorts in a cynical attempt to regain relevance in his old age, and unlike this event the heroine didn’t vanquish the unrepentant chauvinist.  Clearly this movie was already well into production before the final results of the 2016 election were known and had sanity prevailed during that contest I suspect that seeing the feminist kick the chauvinist’s ass would have had a lot more resonance, but the actual election results really just make the film’s “and then everything got better” ending ring kind of false despite obviously being historically accurate.

Battle of the Sexes is the kind of movie that won’t really leave you with many concrete complaints.  The performances are all solid, the look is appropriate, it gets exciting when it needs to, it’s hard to really place your finger on a single element that you want to change really and yet it also leaves you wanting more.  The movie takes a pretty safe approach that guarantees it will be warmly received by most audiences but never really rises too much above the level of average.  Then again maybe that’s the right approach for this particular story.  This was after all a silly exhibition tennis match whose ultimate effect was largely symbolic.  Hyping it up further might not have worked and taking a more overtly satirical approach might have cheapened it a bit too much.  Maybe the light prestige approach was perfectly suited to the story but I consequently my personal response to it was a bit muted.

The Big Sick(7/16/2017)

If nothing else, 2017 has been a great year to learn about the lives of 30-something, male, 1st or 2nd generation American immigrants from the Indian subcontinent of Muslim origin who went on to become stand-up comedians. In May the second season of Aziz Ansari’s excellent Netflix series “Master of None” came out, a show that’s most about the romantic and professional life of a thinly veiled Ansari analogue but which also had a memorable episode about his childhood and his hesitance to tell his old school parents that he eats pork and has more or less abandoned his Muslim roots. Less than two weeks later Netflix also released “Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King” a strong one-man show from the titular stand-up comedian and Daily Show correspondent which focused largely on what it was like to be the only Indian and Muslim in town when he was growing up in Davis, California and about how difficult it could be to deal with his traditional and rather image conscious parents. And now, we finally get the much buzzed about and arguably most high profile of these projects yet which from Kumail Nanjiani, who is one of the stars of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Nanjiani is of course a little different from Minhaj and Ansari, firstly because he’s Pakistani rather than Indian and secondly because he was actually born abroad rather than in the United States and then emigrated in his teens, but based on the projects these various comedians have made I think there’s a good chance that all three would find some common ground in their experiences as his new film, the Sundance hit The Big Sick, looks at (among several other things) a by now somewhat familiar push and pull between American pursuits and traditional family norms.

The film is overtly biographical and follows Nanjiani (who literally plays himself, his character’s name has not been changed) during his pre-success years working in Chicago as an Uber driver while trying to make a name for himself as a stand-up comedian. Early I the movie we see Nanjiani hook up with a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan), who he meets at one of his comedy shows, and though both are a little leery about getting into a “real” relationship they do find themselves growing close over the next couple of months. Nanjiani is not, however, willing to tell all of this to his father (Anupam Kher) and mother (Zenobia Shroff), especially after his brother (Adeel Akhtar) warns him that they will never accept him again if he marries outside the faith. As such Nanjiani ends up sitting by as his parents present a series of Pakistani women of marrying age to him in hopes that he’ll go along to get along. Eventually Emily learns about this and storms out and strongly suggests that it’s over between them. The next time Nanjiani sees Emily she’s in the hospital with some unknown lung infection and as the first person on the scene he’s forced to give the doctors permission to put her in a medically induced coma. Soon Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) show up, both of whom know about the messiness in Kumail and Emily’s relationship, and wonder why he’s sticking around as long as he is.

The Big Sick has been described as a romantic comedy, which is accurate insomuch as it’s a comedy and it’s about a romance of sorts but insomuch as “romantic comedy” has come to be shorthand for a very specific formula it might be a bit misleading.  In film the “romance” is usually suggests a plotline wherein the boy wants to get the girl (or vice versa), roadblocks are placed in the way of this, and by the end we know if he or she has achieved their goal and lived happily ever after.  In the broadest of strokes that’s true of this film as well, but with one of the participants spending the majority of the film in a coma things play out differently… and not in some kind of creepy Talk to Her kind of way.  In many ways the film is less about Nanjiani’s pursuit of Emily and more about his own reconsideration of what he wants in life and what he’s willing to sacrifice to get it.  Specifically he needs to decide whether he’s willing to alienate himself from his family in order to date outside of the traditions of the home country, where he sees his stand-up career going, and what he really thinks about Emily now that he’s in this strange situation related to her.

Joining the movie in its second half are Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents, and the movie does a pretty good job of making these two rather average people seem both interesting and likable.   Their presence serves as something of a “what if” scenario for Nanjiani and to make him consider the implications of monogamy and what he wants for his future.  Those two kind of steal the show when they show up but Nanjiani himself is no slouch either and Kazan is believably desirable as well. All told the romantic elements of this are pretty well thought out and interesting, it’s actually the comedy elements that disappointed me a little.  The film is intermittedly funny but for something with Judd Apatow’s name on it I maybe expected something that would be a bit more consistently hilarious than what I got.  Ironically given that complaint, I could have done with less stand-up comedy as well.  I know this is depicting a reality of Nanjiani’s life when this happened to him, but I’m sick to death of these insidery indie movies about struggling stand-up comedians and I just kind of wish they had turned that into some other career ambition.  Really there’s a lot of “autobiographical indie comedy” syndrome going on here and that’s not really a genre I tend to get too excited about unless it just so happens to hit me in just the right way.  It’s certainly an enjoyable little movie but is it one for the ages?  Maybe not, but it’s certainly worth a rental.

*** out of Five

The Beguiled(7/4/2017)

This review contains spoilers

I think it’s fair to say I’ve had something of a hot and cold relationship with the work of Sofia Coppola, one that has not always been in line with the rest of the critics.  I liked her debut feature The Virgin Suicides plenty and like most people I liked her breakthrough film Lost in Translation quite a bit though I maybe don’t quite put it into the same lofty realms of greatness that some of its bigger fans have placed it in.  I was not, however, a fan of her 2006 film Marie Antoinette at all and while I haven’t revisited it in a while I don’t think my opinion on that would change much.  I got even less out of her follow-up film Somewhere, a film I have actually never finished watching, so I’ll refrain from further comment about it.  Oddly enough though, I actually liked her last film The Bling Ring more than a lot of critics did, possibly just because my expectations were maybe a little lower than a lot of people’s.  Truth be told, I think the expectation game has frequently worked against Coppola.  People expected Marie Antoinette to be an attack on the vapidity of the upper class, it instead ends up being a defense of its protagonist’s naiveté (one that doesn’t even end with a beheading), and people are disappointed.  People expect The Bling Ring to be an attack on teen celebrity worship, it ends up essentially being a more traditional look at millennial ennui, and people are disappointed.   Coming out of Cannes there seems to have been a similar complaint against her latest film The Beguilled, in part because critics seem to have wanted something a bit pulpier and more outrageous than what we got.

The film is set in Virginia in the middle of the Civil War at a girls’ boarding school that has been largely abandoned save for the headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), one teacher named Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and five pupils.  One day one of the younger students named Amy (Oona Laurence) is scrounging in the woods when she stumbles upon a Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell) who is wounded and separated from his troops behind enemy lines.  She decides to bring him back to the school and Martha agrees to patch him up and make sure he’s healed before they attempt to turn him in to the local confederates.  Realizing that he’s something of a captive McBurney starts angling to manipulate his captors and find ways to endear himself to them.  It doesn’t go smoothly.

The Beguiled is an adaptation of a novel called “A Painted Devil” by Thomas P. Cullinan, which more than likely would have fallen into obscurity had it not been previously adapted into a film in 1971 (also called The Beguiled) which was directed by Don Siegel and starred Clint Eastwood in the role now played by Colin Ferrell.  That original film is not a great film or even a particularly good one so much as it’s an interesting artifact or sorts and it’s not overly popular and is mainly just discussed as a stepping stone in the evolution of Eastwood’s onscreen persona.  This would in many ways make this an ideal subject for remake as it isn’t an untouchable classic and there’s certainly room for improvement.  On top of that this is a story with a certain set of… let’s say “sensitive themes” which could make for an interesting update.  The original film is, after all, the work of two of the most masculine people in film history in Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, the very same people who would later that same year make Dirty Harry.  As such it would seem that, in the hands of a director who has been widely praised for adding a distinctly feminine touch to cinema, a remake of such a film would be a noticeably subverted adaptation.  There is indeed a little of that here, but I was actually surprised at how much Coppola actually didn’t change.

The crux of what makes this story interesting is that it inverts the usual gender power dynamics.  In this house, which seems almost entirely isolated from the outside world, the man present is wounded, outnumbered, and in a position where he’ll be sent to a brutal prisoner of war camp if he displeases the women.  In his desperation he’s left with the one option that women are often left with in literature: to use sex appeal as a weapon.  McBurney quickly assesses that the women in this school are rather thirsty and quickly engages in a degree of flirtation with them, especially with the relatively age appropriate ones.  It’s not particularly clear how much of this macking is done because of his own sexual desires and how much of it is done out of self-preservation but as the movie goes on all the games he plays with these women’s emotions become increasingly high stakes and start to backfire and he eventually tries to take back power in more direct ways, which also backfires eventually.  All of this is true of both the 1971 version as well as the remake, the differences are mostly a matter of focus.  Specifically the love triangle (love square) between McBurney, Martha, Edwina, Alicia is actually expanded on in the original film and because of this it’s less ambiguous (though not entirely) that Martha’s decision to amputate McBurney’s leg was out of jealousy rather than medical necessity.  This subtle shift has the effect of making the movie a bit less salacious and also justifies some of the women’s actions, but also makes the revelation that McBurney is sleeping with Alicia (who’s named Carol in the original) kind of come out of nowhere.

That’s a change but not really a major one.  Instead it seems that the appeal here is less a personal or political shift and more just the usual coat of paint that modern remakes of older films are given.  Were I of the belief that the 1971 version of The Beguiled were a particularly well-crafted movie to begin with I might have been less receptive to this, but that movie feels less “vintage” than simply “dated.”  Coppola ups the production values noticeably for the sets and the photography that she and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd bring to the film is excellent.  The movie was shot on 35mm and a lot of the scenes in it are lit by candlelight very effectively.  The casting is also an improvement this time around.  Clint Eastwood was probably miscast in the original movie and he’s said as much in interviews about it and Colin Ferrell probably works a little better in this role.  The women are all a little better here as well with actresses like Nicole Kidman, Kirstin Dunst, and Elle Fanning all bringing a lot to their roles and the younger actresses also doing well in the movie.

The Beguiled is an interesting case in that one’s enjoyment of it will likely be dependent in what you expect from it and your willingness to let it operate on its own terms.  Given that this source material with a rather loaded premise that’s rife for dramatic revision I suspect a lot of critics are going to go in expecting something a little more radical and will be disappointed as a result.  Those going in expecting something that operates on the same salacious and borderline trashy wavelength of the original film will not really be getting what they want either.  This is in fact something a little more straightforward than that: an adaptation that simply discards some of the bullshit from its source material and delivers a better told and more streamlined story and does it pretty well.  That’s not something to be completely overlooked and given that this is in many ways the closest that Sofia Coppola has gotten to making a more accessible genre exercise I’d say it’s a step in the right direction.

Baby Driver(7/1/2017)

I remember when I got my first mp3 player.  I was in high school, probably either a junior or a senior and I was late to the Ipod party but I had already been collecting song files for a while at that point through various less than legal sources like Limewire and Kazaa.  Rather than actually get an actual mp3 player when I was on the go I’d burn albums onto CD-Rs and carry a binder of these burned CDs around in my backpack and listen to them on a red Sony discman that would periodically skip if I bumped it around too much.  It was an astonishingly annoying way to listen to music but that didn’t occur to me until I finally got a 5th Generation iPod (the first model that also played video) and quickly began to wonder how I ever lived without it.  A few years later I gave that iPod to my father who traded me for the 80gb model that he bought without actually needing the extra space and I still have and regularly use that 80gb 5th generation iPod to this day.  I’ve never upgraded to the iPod touch because until recently they didn’t have the space capacity for my 12,000+ song music collection and even now they are making higher capacity touches I’m reluctant to switch to them as I enjoy the simplicity of a device with actual buttons and since my decade old iPod still hasn’t broken I don’t need to worry about replacing it.  Anyway, I bring this up because the new Edgar Wright film Baby Driver is, among other things, a celebration of music and the way we listen to it when on the move and it’s medium of choice is the same Apple product that revolutionized 2005 me’s various bus rides.

Baby Driver is set in contemporary Atlanta and follows a baby-faced young man who goes by the name Baby (Ansel Elgort).  Baby seems to be about eighteen and looks like he’s barely old enough to have a driver’s license and yet seems capable of driving with the speed and precision of Dominic Toretto, The Transporter, and The Driver from Drive all wrapped into one.  This skill seems to have been the result of an almost autistic drive to become a master after experiencing a traumatic car crash as a child and this has also led him to some other strange mannerisms.  He’s a very quiet person with a compulsion to record conversations he has and more importantly seems to be wearing earbuds and listening to music at almost all times.  This mix of skills have led him to be a rather unlikely getaway drivers for robbery crews and he’s currently doing this to pay off a debt to a mysterious heist planner named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who claims that Baby is only a few more jobs away from being square with him, but it quickly begins to look likely that he’s not going to let Baby get away so easily and given that Baby has recently met a young waitress named Debora (Lily James) that he’s thinking about running away with whether Doc wants him to or not.

The first thing you’ll notice about Baby Driver is that the thing has wall to wall music in the background.  There’s a very wide mix of popular music on the soundtrack from various decades and genres.  It will happily transition from The Damned to The Commodores to Beck to Young MC and more often than not it goes for the deep cuts from these artists rather than the super recognizable songs you might expect (though there are a few of those too).  At times it feels a little bit like Edgar Wright is just trying to show off how deep his knowledge of semi-obscure music runs, but he is at times able to capture what the experience of listening to pop music is like and how it can tap into your feelings and how you can use it to relate to others.  If Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was about what being a little too obsessed with videogames does to your mind Baby Driver is about what being a little too into music does to you.  What’s more Wright is able to use this music to choreograph both the action scenes and some of the quieter moments where Baby is just getting coffee or dancing around in his apartment because he’s pining for Debora.

The character of Baby is and remains a bit of a blank slate through much of the movie.  You get some sense of his past in the movie and a basic gauge of his morality but he is ultimately closer to being a collection of ticks and quirks than he is to being a fully human character and his past with the accident at times feels more like a contrivance than a believable backstory, but it is nonetheless a pretty interesting move to make an action movie starring someone like this.  I also don’t know that I really bought too much into the relationship between Baby and Debora, or at least I didn’t necessarily see what Debora saw in Baby.  There is definitely something of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl quality to Debora; she’s this amazing and almost angelic chick who just falls into Baby’s life and instantly falls madly in love with him for seemingly no reason other than that he’s nice and has cool taste in music.  That’s not a believable relationship, that’s a nerdy crate digger’s fantasy.  Granted, Edgar Wright already did try doing a dive deep into the push and pull of human relationships in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and I certainly didn’t need more of that, so maybe it’s for the best that he just stuck to a simple “boy meets girl, girl falls for boy” relationship this time around.

If the protagonist and love interest here don’t quite work perfectly Wright makes up for it by bringing a pretty entertaining assortment of colorful characters to fill in the heist crews that Baby works with.  Notably, Kevin Spacey is pretty interesting in the movie even if he isn’t really venturing too far from his usual on screen persona of being this sort of intense guy in a suit.  I guess what makes him interesting here is that he’s sort of a fish out of water; he’s ordering around these tattooed thugs and he doesn’t take himself as seriously as his exterior would have you think.  Jon Hamm also shows up playing a bank robber with a sort of Bonnie and Clyde thing going on with his girlfriend/partner in crime played by Eiza González.  It’s a pretty good vehicle for Hamm, who has been pretty desperate to show off his comedic chops after spending seven seasons playing the intense and tortured Don Draper on “Mad Men.”  This is a good vehicle for him because he can be this quirky presence while still playing things straight and using that intensity that he’s capable of.  Finally, there’s Jamie Foxx who plays this just completely unstable thug who adds a real streak of dark humor to the whole movie through his causal relationship to violence and general lack of control.

Edgar Wright is, above all, a filmmaker who is very interested in exploring genre tropes and seems particularly interested in the action movie.  With Hot Fuzz he tackled traditional action conventions through outright parody and he also examined action filmmaking in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World he also tried to examine action filmmaking by (in my opinion rather awkwardly) adding metaphoric action scenes to what is essentially a non-genre story.  With Baby Driver Wright comes closer to taking on the action movie in a more direct and somewhat sincere way.  The film is not really a comedy exactly.  It’s not aiming for a laugh at every turn and there are real deadly stakes involved in its various action scenes, but it’s not a movie that takes itself wildly seriously either.  Action movie tropes like bank heists, standoffs, and car chases are played straight but there is a subversion in that Wright seems to be removing a lot of the bravado from the proceedings.  Baby is not a typical action hero either in look or in attitude, he’s up against people who aren’t exactly the kind of evil we’re used to seeing our action heroes fight against, and by mixing almost all of them with pop music rather than Hans Zimmer scores or something Wright gives the movie an altogether different tone than someone like Michael Mann would.

As these things go I think it’s pretty to safe to say that Baby Driver is a very fun spectacle but also an ephemeral one.  It’s definitely style over substance and the character beats don’t really land as well as the themes of friendship did in Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End.  It’s been something like two days since I watched it and I can already sort of feel it escaping my memory despite how much I enjoyed watching it.  Edgar Wright has never been a filmmaker I’ve been terribly inclined to revisit the work of despite some pretty obvious talent on display and despite it in many ways his most shallow effort I can still probably see myself revisiting Baby Driver more than some of his other movies for reasons I can’t quite place my finger on.  It might simply be because it’s his least referential effort which is least reliant on overt references to other specific movies and pop culture (outside of the music).  That or maybe I just really like car chases.  Whatever it is that makes this stand out it’s probably the Edgar Wright movie I’ve most unequivocally liked since Shaun of the Dead, which was another movie that had to deal with the burden of a sort of terrible title that it will hopefully be able to overcome at the box office.