“The Beguiled”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

It’s almost as if Sofia Coppola ‘s period piece “The Beguiled” was tailor-made to divide audiences, and I place the blame solely on the studio’s marketing department. Chalk this one up for one of the most intentionally misleading movie trailers of the year. For the odd mainstream moviegoer who is tricked by the preview into buying a ticket, it’s going to be a near guaranteed letdown.

The Southern gothic, atmospheric thriller is Coppola’s take on remaking the 1971 Clint Eastwood film of the same name (which was based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan). The story takes place during the Civil War at a boarding school for girls. A group of students (Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice), their headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) take in Yankee soldier McBurney (Colin Farrell), who is wounded with life-threatening injuries.

The women agree to give him a safe place to recover but with a hunky (and forbidden) male in the house, sexual tensions begin to simmer beneath the surface, sparking unspoken jealous rage among the young women. After McBurney gets back on his feet, the story takes an unexpected “fox in the henhouse” turn with potentially dire consequences.

The idea and story are great, I just wish Coppola hadn’t been so restrained with the material. There is so much more that is begging to be explored here but her film only barely skims the surface. When the big “unexpected surprise twist” occurs, it’s a real letdown and quite frankly, doesn’t even make that much sense. Even the motivations and circumstances leave little impact. Oh what a disturbing and vengeful feminist rivalry tale this could’ve been.

Still, the film is beautifully shot and directed with its hauntingly pretty (if often claustrophobic) setting. Think of this film as refined without enough complexity. The underlying tension isn’t nearly tense enough, and there’s a lack of any sense of desperation. danger, or despair. At least the period costumes are intricately detailed, the acting is proficient across the board (with Farrell being the real standout), and the film’s deliberate pacing serves the story well.

This movie should’ve and could’ve been shocking, seductive and disturbing and while it’s a well rounded film, in the end there just isn’t much to it.

“Live By Night”

LOUISA: 2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Ben Affleck is one of my very favorite film directors, an artist with a distinctive, impressive style (that is on grand display in his previous films “Argo,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and “The Town”). His latest effort is the bloated, big screen adaptation of Dennis Lehane‘s crime novel “Live By Night.” And it is a disappointing, chaotic mess. The movie looks gorgeous but not quite good enough to completely carry the rest of the familiar story.

There’s an overwhelmingly arrogant, stuffy feeling that surrounds the entire project. The sprawling movie is unfocused and aimless, with mediocre performances from his horribly miscast actors (including Zoe Saldana as a Cuban love interest, Elle Fanning as a drugged-out ingénue who finds Jesus, and the unbelievably irritating Sienna Miller as a top gangster’s gal who speaks with a grating Irish accent).

Affleck himself seems divided into two halves: half of his onscreen acting scenes are good and the other half are terrible, and his performance is more than a little distracting. It’s the same thing with his direction: for every handsome, sweeping camera movement, there’s an oddly abrupt fadeout. It’s as if a split personality Affleck acted in and directed this movie. Just like its figurehead, the movie has no clear vision and rambles on and on and on — but somehow the story still manages to feel meagerly thin.

I will say this: Affleck has an incredible eye for directing, especially when it comes to thrilling car chases and elaborate, showy shootouts. These scenes are expertly crafted and choreographed in “Live By Night,” and there’s no denying his eye-popping visual style. Add to that the stunning costumes and impressively detailed set design and it’s impossible not to be wowed by the sheer visual beauty of this film.

Unfortunately, the movie quickly gets lost among every other crime drama from the last 30 years. There’s just nothing special enough about it to make it notable or even memorable. “Live By Night” isn’t rotten, it’s simply forgettable.

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“The Neon Demon”

LOUISA:  4 STARS  MATT: 4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

What…did I….just watch?

Not for the uninitiated or those with weak stomachs, everyone’s favorite polarizing surrealist director Nicolas Winding Refn is back with the lurid, gory, sadistic, and horrifyingly beautiful “The Neon Demon.” This film makes a bold statement about the shallowness of Hollywood and the fashion industry in the most violent, brutal, bloody and disturbing way possible.

The film’s strength is in its breathtaking visuals. Refn once again establishes himself as a true auteur at the top of the visionary food chain. Even if you are one of the many who see him as pompous and pretentious, there’s no denying that few have quite the mastery of the craft of the visual arts as he does. This film belongs in a modern art museum.

It doesn’t matter that there’s not much of a plot: teenage ingénue Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles to chase her dreams of becoming a model. She soon finds herself living in a sketchy motel with lecherous landlord Hank (Keanu Reeves) and surrounded by the seductive Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), a pack of shallow, jealous, beauty-obsessed women. It’s hard to evaluate the performances since most consist of nothing more than striking and holding a pose or staring longingly into a mirror, but I do think that Reeves has one of the greatest (if small) roles of his career.

There’s no escaping the true debate this movie presents: is this a shrewd feminist manifesto or is it grossly misogynistic? It’s taken me three days to reflect on this and I’ve decided that it sways towards the former rather than the latter.

First, the film celebrates the female form; the women in the film are beautiful set dressings, designed to be admired (and not treated solely as sexual objects). Yes, the women are one-dimensional but at the same time, that works as a harsh criticism of the narcissism that’s so prevalent in the fashion industry. Refn also artfully expresses the malice that is sometimes deeply hidden in the female psyche. The film is insightful too: women have a dark side and sometimes we do feel like we are in a girl-eat-girl world (a phrase that the film takes a bit too literally).

Refn’s hypnotic signature is all over this stylish, elegantly violent film. Cinematographer Natasha Braier adds a disturbing hallucinatory effect while Cliff Martinez lends a thumping, ear-splitting, ominous score that reflects the overall atmosphere of insanity.

As with the director’s other films (“Drive,” “Only God Forgives“), there are plenty of scenarios that seem to be present with the sole intent to shock, offend or disgust. (Do we really need an extended scene of lesbian necrophilia? I guess you can argue the point, but the scene goes on a bit too long to make it seem relevant to the plot or characters). The extreme last act feels more like a pointless gross-out than a thoughtful commentary think piece. I think this is a good place to mention that this film is a very, very hard ‘R’ rating; I am surprised it’s not NC-17.

“The Neon Demon” isn’t your run-of-the-mill art house film; it’s so far beyond the art house that it’s in another dimension.

MATT SAYS:

A teenage runaway from Sandusky, Ohio steps off a bus into the glittering lights of Hollywood. All of her friends back home tell her that she’s destined to be a star, and she believes them. But Hollywood does not bestow fame and fortune without a price. First it will take her innocence, then it will take all that remains.

So is the story of “The Neon Demon,” the new film by auteur Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive,” “Only God Forgives”). Elle Fanning is Jesse, the underage runaway that has been lured to Los Angeles by the whispered promises of becoming a famous model. She meets up with another innocent who was been lured to the city: photographer Dean (Karl Glusman), whose attempts at emulating the art he sees in Hollywood through pictures are met with sneering ridicule as “amateurish.” Dean hasn’t sold his soul, and those who have have nothing but contempt for him.

Jesse, on the other hand, makes the bargain readily: after being paraded before harshly appraising eyes and being judged a piece of meat worthy of notice, she willingly trades her virtue for empty glamour and attention. After having reborn on the runway, Jesse quickly learns that she has still not given enough: people continue to want more from her, and what they want she isn’t willing to give.

“The Neon Demon” is not for everyone. It’s not even for most. Even if you enjoyed “Drive,” you may find yourself frustrated and your patience tried by this movie. There is much to appreciate, but you will be challenged in doing so. In this film, Winding Refn has made an art piece that must be assessed, considered, and deconstructed. Those who are literal-minded will likely find their patience tried: the story isn’t about what’s happening on the surface, it’s about what’s happening underneath. You must watch, listen, and observe carefully.

One additional word of warning: “The Neon Demon” is highly disturbing and will upset many casual viewers. Apart from its gore and physical violence, the film pushes boundaries HARD. Terrible things are either shown or implied. I can’t for the life of me understand why the studio and theater chains thought that this was an appropriate film to release in nearly 800 theaters nationwide. One can imagine that of the few audience members who didn’t walk out during the first 20 minutes ran for the exits at its offscreen implication of child abuse.

If you’re still reading this review and haven’t been dissuaded yet, I recommend that you see this movie. It’s one of the most interesting discussion pieces in recent memory and it’s not one that I will soon forget.