(On Cable TV, March 2018) By now, Sofia Coppola’s female-centric, soft gauze, slow-pacing, contemplative style almost defies parody. But it happens to be the correct approach for this remake of The Beguiled, in which a wounded soldier comes to rest at an isolated house entirely peopled by women. The presence of a man in an otherwise all-female environment is a recipe for disaster, and the film follows this to the expected conclusion. Hugh Jackman is featured as the soldier, but he’s outclassed by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning. It’s not much of a story, but it’s deliberately told with plenty of atmosphere. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but it’s competent and daring enough to create discussions as to who, if anyone, was in the right here. I’d like to have more to say about it, but The Beguiled is the kind of film that can only be taken in, not picked apart.
(On DVD, October 2016) I’m not sure anyone was actively campaigning for a historical re-evaluation of Marie Antoinette (who never actually said “Let them eat cake!”), but she proves to be an irresistible subject for Sofia Coppola’s sympathy-for-the-devil approach. (Dovetailing in her latter The Bling Ring) Portraying a sympathetic young woman finding herself way over her head in the French royal court and the subsequent French Revolution, Marie Antoinette scrupulously ignores the less appealing aspects of the queen’s history (ending well before her execution by the guillotine, for instance, or ignoring the political role she eventually assumed) in favour of a poor-girl-lost routine. While lavish in its recreation of 18th century royal court (with numerous scenes filmed in Versailles itself), Marie Antoinette makes a play toward contemporary sensibilities through an aggressively modern soundtrack and a few deliberate visual anachronisms sprinkled among the pomp and pageantry of royal France. Contrary to some expectations, it actually works: it’s remarkably easy to empathize with a young girl forced to become the queen of a nation, even as she finds refuge in amusements more appropriate for her age, and then motherhood as a way to escape expectations. While it’s probably not a good idea to look upon Marie Antoinette as an accurate history lesson (Read Wikipedia’s entry for a complementary view of the character), it does plunge viewers in a very different time and place, with lavish sets and costumes to reinforce the strange conventions illustrated by the script. Kirsten Dunst is very good as the titular character, with some good supporting performances by Jason Schwartzman (as the meek Louis XI), an atypical role for Steve Coogan (as diplomatic counsellor) and a short but striking turn from Danny Huston. Even those who don’t fancy themselves fans of period pieces will find something to like in Marie Antoinette’s off-beat sensibilities and its compassionate portrayal of a reviled historical figure.
(On DVD, September 2016) Director Sofia Coppola’s films have been hit-and-miss as far as I’m concerned, and The Virgin Suicides won’t settle anything in either direction. I’m certainly not the target audience for a film trying to make sense of the suicide of five sisters, often seen from the perspective of the male teenagers who almost worship them. It’s a film that delves into nostalgia (as narrated from a perspective years later, looking back on the seventies), plays in nuances, doesn’t offer a definitive conclusion and likes to spend time with its characters without necessarily advancing the plot. Dramatic ironies abound—such as when the boys plan a rescue and find out that their help is irrelevant. The subject matter makes it a sad movie, but its execution is perhaps not always as sad as you’d suppose it from the premise. Kirsten Dunst is very good as the oldest sister, while Kathleen Turner and James Woods also make an impression as the parents; perhaps inevitably, most other performers recede in the background of an ensemble cast. The Virgin Suicides certainly offers a change of pace from strongly plot-driven film, so it takes a leisurely frame of mind to appreciate the film in its subtleties. As with other Sofia Coppola movies, I can’t help thinking that there is something in there that I can’t reach.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) I started watching The Bling Ring with fairly low expectations, pulled in by director Sofia Coppola’s name and not much else. But as the film advanced, I felt pulled in opposite directions; fascinated by the true story told relatively faithfully by the film, and exasperated at the way it was being told. The premise itself is a mesmerizing mix of modern technology, celebrity obsession and dumb teenage antics as a few fashion-obsessed high schoolers get the insane notion that they can just walk into celebrities’ homes and take what they want from their overfilled closet. The amazing, never-would-have-believed-it-if-it-wasn’t-a-true-story part is… it works. They find out Paris Hilton is out partying in a foreign country, find her house using Google, poke around the doors and windows until they find an unlocked way in (or a key under the mattress), party in her rooms, pilfer a few high-end items… and repeat the heists a few times. They flash their new wares and piles of cash on Facebook, party on, wear designer clothes, brag a bit, get caught on video with fewer consequences than they’d expect. It feels like a collision between two or three things that wouldn’t have existed a decade before, and there’s a bit of quasi-parental affection in the way the films look at its teenage hoodlums, who are more greedy and careless than outright evil or stupid. There is a good kernel of interest here, and one that makes the film stick in mind even a few days later. Unfortunately, The Bling Ring doesn’t exactly manage to do justice to its own subject. The cinema-vérité approach get dull quickly, the over-bright bleached cinematography calls attention upon itself without having much of an effect, and worse of all the film feels very long even if it doesn’t exceed 90 minutes. There is, granted, an aesthetic at play here that escapes me, as nice as it is to actually see the interior of Paris Hilton’s house. While the film hints at interesting ideas and offers the potential for a deeper thematic critique (or, heck, just a deeper exploration of its characters), it feels unsubstantial, unfulfilled, even a bit too superficial in the way it approaches its subject. Despite being light on moralism (although that segment where the police raids the protagonists’ houses is heavy enough to make parents have fits of anxiety), The Bling Ring disappoints more than it enlightens, and seems to set itself up for bad reviews by misusing the material at its source. Perhaps a wider deviation from the real events may have helped the film feel more substantial.
(On DVD, December 2009) This “Part III” has a bad reputation only when it’s compared to its two classic predecessors. While it’s pretty good filmmaking, it’s just not up to the standards set by its prequels. It’s not bad when considered as a straight-up epilogue, but then it runs into the vexing issue of being nearly three hours long, which really isn’t appropriate for the type of story it tries to be in the Godfather universe. Part of the problem is that by going to Italy and spending a lot of time dealing in Vatican business, The Godfather III gets farther and farther away from the all-American core that made the success of the first two films: The issues get more abstract and diffuse, and the plot seems to over-complexify itself. There is a noticeable lull near the middle of the film, and all of it contributes to the feeling of an overlong experience. Acting-wise, it’s Al Pacino and Andy Garcia’s show: Sofia Coppola may be the most attractive performer in the entire trilogy, but her much-derided performance, all mushy-mouthed and indifferent, is another of the reasons why she’s become a far better director than actress. More happily, though, the film works more often than it doesn’t, and while some elements that made the first film now feel familiar (the opening celebration/introduction scene; the final operatic barrage of violence), it’s handled with a lot of lavish skill by director Francis Ford Coppola. Conventional wisdom is correct: Not a bad film, but a let-down compared to its lineage.