THE BEGUILED (2017) – Showcases Talented Female Cast

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Director Sofia Coppolla and the cast of THE BEGUILED (2017).

THE BEGUILED (2017) is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name, directed by Don Siegel.

The Eastwood film, which is something of a cult favorite among Eastwood fans, is certainly one of the more offbeat and haunting movies Eastwood ever made.  It was a box office failure at the time, due to a poor ad campaign which marketed it as another Clint Eastwood action film, which it isn’t, and also because audiences in 1971 weren’t quite sure what to make of this dark tale of a Union soldier recuperating at an all-girl Confederate school.  Directed by Don Siegel, the film is steeped in atmosphere and style.

The 2017 version was directed by Sofia Coppola and tells pretty much the same story.

In Virginia, in the waning days of the Civil War, a young girl Amy (Oona Laurence) discovers a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods while she is picking mushrooms.  She brings the soldier back to her school, and the head of the school, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), decides it would be un-Christian of them to turn the Corporal over to the Confederate army until he has a chance to recuperate.  And so they tend to his wounds and nurse him back to health, with the intention of handing him over to the Confederate army once his wounds have healed.

But John is a man, and the school is full of women and girls who simply haven’t been around men all that much.  As such, during his stay, the sexual tensions build.  Not only is Miss Martha attracted to John in her own reserved way, but teen student  Alicia (Elle Fanning) can’t keep herself from openly flirting with him.  Even young Amy is attracted to him.

And matters become more complicated when privately John declares his love for teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who he says is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Edwina falls for John instantly, mostly because she is unhappy and sees John as her ticket out of her present life at the school. She would like to run away with him.

For his part, John remains quiet and polite, keeping things proper, except for his declaration of love to Edwina.  But one night he makes a fateful decision to enter a certain bedroom, and things change dramatically from that point on.

Director Sofia Coppolla, who also wrote the screenplay, gets the atmosphere right but struggles somewhat with the characterizations, specifically with Corporal John McBurney, who is too reserved to be effective.

THE BEGUILED is beautiful to look at.  Director Coppolla captures the essence of a school in the southern countryside, photographing the manor through abundant green trees and filtered sunlight.  There are also some nice shots of red sunlight reflecting off the front of the elegant structure.

But the majority of the film is shot in shadowy darkness, as the bulk of the action takes place inside the school, lit by low burning candles.  The look of this film drew me in immediately and kept me in its Civil War world throughout.

It is definitely slow-paced and plays out like the period piece Civil War drama that it is. This worked for me for the most part, but towards the end of the film when things get seriously darker, the film downplayed these heavy moments, which worked against the movie for me.  I expected things to get very ugly, but the horrible things that happen are only hinted at and not fully explored.  The film never really rises above its southern slice of life portrait.

As I said, Sofia Coppolla also wrote the screenplay, which is based on the screenplay to the 1971 film by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, itself based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan.   Coppolla does a nice job with the female characters, but Corporal John McBurney isn’t as defined as well as he needs to be.  In the 1971 film, you knew Clint Eastwood’s character was conning the women. Here, as played by Colin Farrell, the audience isn’t so sure.  Is he playing these women or not?  Since the screenplay isn’t clear, it makes what happens at the end of the film far less satisfying, because we don’t know how to react to John’s fate, since we really don’t know what kind of a person he truly is.

In terms of casting, you can’t ask for a better female cast.

Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha as a strong and independent woman.  She is clearly in charge of everyone at the school.  But questions remain about her character as well. For instance, would she do what John accuses her of doing at the end of the movie?  Or did she do it for the reason she said, to save his life?  The film isn’t clear.

Kirsten Dunst is also very good as Edwina, the depressed school teacher who is only too willing to fall in love with John.  And Elle Fanning is sultry and seductive as the young woman who is intent on getting John into her bed.

But it’s the younger girls who make an even stronger impression here.  Oona Lawrence is exceptional as young Amy, the girl who first finds John and really likes him throughout the movie.  Angourie Rice, who played Ryan Gosling’s daughter in last year’s comedy THE NICE GUYS (2016) is memorable here as Jane, the one girl in the school who is offended by the idea of housing a Union soldier at the school.  And Addison Riecke also has some significant moments as Marie, the girl who makes the ominous suggestion at the end of the movie on how to stop John.

As John, Colin Farrell is okay, but I’ve seen him deliver far better performances.  He was too calm and relaxed throughout.  The character seemed to be begging for a nefarious side, which doesn’t come out at all.  Towards the end of the film, when bad things begin to happen, we finally see John act passionately, which gives us some insight into his character, but it’s too little too late.  He remains polite to the last, apologizing after his deplorable behavior and sounding sincere in his apology, which makes the ending of this one all the more tragic.  Then again, without a clear-cut defintion of John’s character, it’s difficult to know how to feel about him.

In spite of this, when the women make their bold decision at the end of the movie, the coldness with which they proceed is jarring and potent.  The shot of the women around the dinner table afterwards is one of the more memorable images in the film.

That being said, the film would have been stronger had it gone to these dark places more often instead of avoiding them.

THE BEGUILED is a moderately entertaining movie, a showcase for its talented female cast and its female writer/director, Sofia Coppolla, but with a vaguely defined male protagonist, the story they are telling is far less potent than it should have been.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

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Stylish and Disturbing, THE NEON DEMON (2016) Is Difficult to Digest

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Beauty is power.

When you’re beautiful, people treat you differently, and in the fashion industry, where beauty is a much sought after commodity, people will kill to protect it.

That’s one of the themes in acclaimed director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest thriller, THE NEON DEMON (2016), along with the notion that the fasion industry really consumes— quite literally, in this case—the people in it.

THE NEON DEMON  is the story of a young 16 year-old girl  Jesse (Elle Fanning) who leaves home and moves to Los Angeles to become a model.  She uses photos taken of her by a young man Dean (Karl Glusman) she met on the internet to get hired by a major modeling agency.

Jesse also meets a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) who takes a fancy to Jesse and basically offers to look after her.  Ruby also introduces Jesse to two other models, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).

Jesse meets with sudden success in the industry, as she is constantly showered with praises on just how beautiful she is, and that in terms of success, she has “it.”  When she enters a room, people notice.  A lot is made of her natural beauty, compared to the artificial beauty of most other models who undergo seemingly nonstop plastic surgery.

She’s suddenly the hottest new thing in modeling.  Eventually, her “friends” take issue with her success, Gigi and Sarah out of jealousy, and Ruby out of scorn since Jesse rebuffed her sexual advances.

THE NEON DEMON has a lot of things going for it, for a while anyway.  It loses steam during its second half, and then hits you in the gut with a jarring unexpected ending that works on an intellectual level but emotionally left me disappointed.

After all that had come before it, I expected more.

Still, for a while, I really enjoyed THE NEON DEMON.  It opens with the remarkable images of Jesse’s photo shoot with Dean, as Jesse is covered in fake blood.  It’s an incredibly stylish way to open the movie.  This style carries the film nearly all the way through, although during the second half things began to stall.

But early on, the film had me captivated.  I found director Nicolas Winding Refn’s work here reminsicent of the work of David Lynch.

The images in this movie dominate throughout.  From the various photo shoots, to the scene where Jesse kisses her reflected image, to the scenes of violence.

And there are plenty of  disturbing images.  There’s a scene of necrophelia, and also a frightening dream sequence in which Jesse’s creepy landlord, played with raw unpredictable brutality by Keanu Reeves, sticks a knife down her throat.  There’s also the shocking, vicious ending.

All of these images, for me, anway, are by far the strongest part of the movie.

“Beauty isn’t everything.  It’s the only thing,” says one of the characters in the movie.  I get the message this film is delivering.  Beauty is power.  As Jesse herself says at one point, she can’t act or write, and she isn’t particularly smart, but she is beautiful, and she can make money with her looks.  In a telling scene, at a restaurant, Dean argues with Jesse’s fashion designer, saying that he believes beauty isn’t everything, that it’s inside that counts.  The fashion designer disagrees, saying that he believes if Jesse wasn’t beautiful, Dean wouldn’t have even given her the time of day.  Jesse rewards Dean’s sentiments by telling him to take a hike.

And I get the ending.  Talk about a person being consumed by the industry she’s trying to break into!   Just before this ending, Jesse says her mom used to call her dangerous, and at that moment the audience senses that Jesse is feeling dangerous.  However, more importantly, Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah know she is dangerous, and for them, such a danger cannot survive.

The acting is all excellent.  Elle Fanning does a terrific job as Jesse, the stunning 16 year old who takes the fashion industry by storm.   She looks the part, because she was in fact 16 when she made this movie, making this an even more courageous performance when you consider her age.  I remember Fanning standing out as a child actor in the Steven Spielberg/J.J. Abrams vechicle SUPER 8 (2011).  As good as she was in that movie, she’s way better here.

I also really liked Jena Malone as Ruby, although her motives for taking a liking to Jesse were apparent to me from the get-go.  And I found both Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee— especially Lee— uber-creepy as models Gigi and Sarah.

Karl Glusman was very good as Dean, Jesse’s friend and initial photographer.  At first, especially since she met him on the internet, we’re not sure of his motives, but as the movie goes along, he reveals himself to be a decent guy, although Jesse hardly seems to notice and gravitates towards Ruby and her group, eventually severing ties with Dean.

Desmond Harrington is sufficiently cold and professional as top photographer Jack, and his nude photoshoot of Jesse is one of the more compelling scenes in the movie.  I also really liked Alessandro Nivola as the intense fashion designer.  In his brief time on screen, he gets some of the best lines in the movie.  It’s an unbilled performance.

And Keanu Reeves also makes an impression as the creepy landlord Hank at the seedy hotel Jesse stays at.  Reeves isn’t in the movie much, but when he is, he exudes raw animalistic ferocity.

For the first half of THE NEON DEMON, I was really into it.  Then, about midway through, things slowed down.  The strength of this movie is its visuals, and they remain strong throughout.  The screenplay however, by director Refin, and Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, isn’t as strong.  While I appreciate what it was saying about our attitudes towards beauty and the fashion industry in particular, the dialogue in this film, of which there’s not a lot, isn’t one of its strengths.  And so, after a while, the visually stunning scenes begin to collapse under their own weight without solid support from the film’s narrative.

And then comes the ending.  Jarring, disturbing, and in-your-face, it comes out of nowhere and wallops you in the gut, leaving an incredibly bad taste in your mouth— literally!  Again, intellectually, I get it.  The industry is all-consuming and eats up its own, and those in the industry prey upon those who they see as threats.  The film takes the figurative and makes it literal.

I don’t really have a problem with this.  The problem I have is in this two hour movie, I have followed Jesse’s story, gotten to know Jesse as a character, and looked forward to where she was going.  Where she ends up is ultimately disappointing.  Had this film been more about Ruby, then perhaps I could have digested— heh, heh– its ending better.

I just wanted more for Jesse.

One more positive is the film’s awesome music score by Cliff Martinez.  It really adds a lot to the movie.

All in all, THE NEON DEMON is a flashy, artistic tale that will dazzle, intrigue, and wow you before it ultimately hits you in the gut with a raw wrenching blow that will not only take your breath away but just might turn you off to all that came before it.

As for me, I liked THE NEON DEMON, even after the ending and its bitter aftertaste.

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