The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

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Shampoo (1975)

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The unthinkable death of Carrie Fisher prompted me to put on one of my favourite Seventies film and the one which marked her striking debut.  She’s the spoiled precocious teenage daughter of Felicia (Lee Grant) and Lester (Jack Warden). The former is screwing her Beverly Hills hairdresser, George Roundy (Warren Beatty) and it is one of their couplings that opens the film in radical fashion – in the dark. Lester meanwhile is having his own adulterous affair with Jackie (Julie Christie) whose former BF is George, who is currently co-habiting with Jill  (Goldie Hawn). All the women think they are unique in George’s affections but one of the film’s good visual jokes is that he gives them all precisely the same hairstyle (and that’s not all he gives them…) They all meet up at a party  on Election Night 1968 and their complex roundelay of relationships and infidelities unravels piece by piece. Some of this arose from screenwriter Robert Towne’s experiences with a dancer whose former boyfriend was a Beverly Hills hairdresser, who, far from being gay, was like a rooster in a henhouse. Apparently there were quite a few of them around Hollywood at the time. The other influence was Restoration comedy.  Towne regretted giving co-writing credit to his star, Warren Beatty, but it does have a political component not evident in his other work. Directed with great finesse by Hal Ashby and boasting a host of marvellous performances in a naughty, caustic tragicomedy that just improves on every viewing, this is a key film of the period. You can read more about it in my book about Towne, https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1482705700&sr=8-3&keywords=elaine+lennon. Rest In Peace, Princess Carrie.

The Princess Diaries (2001)

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What a delight this is, another sweet-natured comedy from the house of Garry Marshall, late, lamented, etc. Striking the balance of humour with taste is a challenge for most filmmakers but he never seemed to hit a bum note, as it were. Thus we have in this adaptation of the Meg Cabot novel (in the days before YA was all violent vampiric dystopias) a hairy half Greek geek Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) living in a converted San Francisco firehouse with her alt-lifestyle mom (Caroline Goodall) and going to high school with BFF Lilly (Heather Matarazzo) where the mean girls led by Mandy Moore hold sway. Right before she turns Sweet 16 she’s summoned to a meeting with her utterly charming grandmother (Julie Andrews) who it turns out is Queen of Genovia, a small European principality – and she’s the Crown Princess and heir to the throne following her father’s death! Well! Isn’t it every little girl’s dream to don pretty pink dresses and a tiara? Not Mia! But there are cool handbags and a chauffeur Joe (Marshall regular Hector Elizondo) who’s a combo of Shaft and Fairy Godmother and Mia gets a makeover that has her secret crush, Lilly’s brother Michael (Robert Schwartzman) in a semi-swoon. This was the movie that properly introduced Hathaway to the world and it was all because Garry Marshall showed audition tapes to his granddaughters who told him she had the best princess hair (it was supposed to be Liv Tyler!). Mia has misgivings about such responsibilities and the rivals for the crown are delighted by her public displays of clumsiness which the press cover relentlessly. She needs to make a decision and even Fat Louis her delightful cat can’t make it for her as the future of Genovia hangs in the balance …  People who loved Cabot’s book (possibly that included Whitney Houston who co-produced) took issue with some of the changes including from NYC to San Fran but it makes for terrific tween (and older!) light entertainment with a nice uncredited cameo by Larry Miller. If cars are your thing there’s always that fabulous Ford Mustang to enjoy. And who doesn’t want to be the Queen?! You too shall go to the ball. Cinderella makeover movies rock!

Runaway Bride (1999)

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Julia Roberts famously did a runner from her fiance Kiefer Sutherland on the eve of their wedding a quarter of a century ago; it became part of what theorists call her star text and was wrapped into this delightful romcom, reuniting her with her Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall and co-star Richard Gere. He’s jaded NYC journo Ike who always files at the last minute and his attention has been drawn to a smalltown woman Maggie Carpenter working as a lighting designer who jilts men at the altar:  when he runs the convenient unresearched story he exaggerates the facts so she complains, his ex-wife editor Rita Wilson fires him and the photographer Hector Elizondo (a Marshall staple) encourages him to dig up the real dirt. Upon his arrival in smalltown Maryland her friends are protective and the hairdresser Peggy Fleming (‘not the ice skater!’) (Joan Cusack) together with Julia gives him a pastiche of the Pretty Woman makeover – only with red dye in his hair not his apparel. Her dad Paul Dooley (how nice is it to see him?) unwittingly aids his research by giving him the VHSs of the three weddings she ran out on but slowly Ike falls for her as he prepares to write the truth and she prepares for her wedding to mountaineering enthusiast Bob (Christopher Meloni). She runs out on Bob and Ike proposes and then she runs out on HIM …  She turns up at his apartment in NYC and explains … This seems like it was made for the cast but in fact is a screenplay by Josann (Three Men and a Little Lady) McGibbon and Sara Parriott that had been in development for more than ten years with so many different actors attached it would make your eyes water:  Anjelica Huston, Mary Steenburgen, Lorraine Bracco, Geena Davis, Sandra Bullock, Ellen DeGeneres, Tea Leoni … Christopher Walken, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Michael Douglas … And yet Roberts and Gere with Marshall in the hot seat is a combo just seems so obvious and right. McGibbon and Parriott would go on to adapt Gigi Levangie’s brilliant Hollywood satire The Starter Wife for TV (with Debra Messing in the lead) but for now this is light as a summer breeze and quite as refreshing.