Blockbusting

‘The Beguiled,’ ‘Wonder Woman,’ ‘Baby Driver’

In the world of moviemaking, where genre entertainments can rake in big profits but also grind a filmmaker’s artistic idiosyncrasies into pop mush, we may well wonder what happens to the likes of independent filmmakers such as Sofia Coppola, Patty Jenkins, and Edgar Wright when they embark on genre projects. Do they bring a personal touch or do their personalities disappear?

Sofia Coppola’s artistic personality has not been extinguished in the making of The Beguiled, but that’s not necessarily a good thing when you consider the material. The story, drawn from a Thomas Cullinan novel, is an uninhibited piece of Southern Gothic in the tradition of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” It was filmed as such in 1971 by Don Siegel, who milked the material for every drop of sensationalism, with Clint Eastwood cast in the only unsympathetic role of his career.

The year is 1864, and Martha Farns-worth presides over her Seminary for Young Ladies in a deserted area of Virginia as Union and Confederate troops chase each other through nearby swamps and forests. When she takes in a wounded “blueback,” intending to transport him to a prisoner of war camp as soon as he’s healed, the charming but amoral Corporal McBurney becomes a fox in an all too easily breached henhouse. Furtive sex ensues, then utter madness: gunfire, beatings, dismemberment, rape threats, poisoning.

Now, Sophia Coppola is a master of understatement and a fount of loving kindness for her characters—as witness her best films, especially Lost in Translation. But her Chekhovian qualities work against the special delights of the Gothic genre, and she smothers the story with her to-understand-all-is-to-forgive-all treatment. The new version of The Beguiled goes wrong in every department.

Screenplay: working from the 1971 script by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, she made few changes, but those few are decisively inept. Gone is the school’s black slave, a tough, shrewd woman whose sanity underscores the growing lunacy of the other characters. Headmistress Martha becomes a loving protector of her students instead of a sexually frustrated and vengeful fury. So, when McBurney makes it clear toward the end of the film that he’s leaving the school and will no longer molest the women, but Martha proceeds anyway with a plot to poison him, her vindictiveness makes no dramatic sense, since it no longer accords with Coppola’s gentler conception of the character.

Acting: Colin Farrell has a charming presence but he lacks macho force, so when McBurney threatens the entire household of females with reprisal, he comes nowhere near the scariness of Eastwood. This makes it hard for us to sympathize as much as Coppola clearly wants us to with a poisoning intended as self-defense. And while Nicole Kidman, in the role of the headmistress, occasionally flashes that wicked smile we all know and love, it doesn’t seem in keeping with her character as Coppola has reconceived it.

Photography and editing: Coppola loves cinematic stillness as evidenced by her employment of lengthy shots, editing that promotes slow tempos, a quiet soundtrack with little or no music, few pans, no zooms. This has served her well in the past, and perhaps she thought that if she made the first three-quarters of The Beguiled hushed and mannerly, then the climactic scenes would be even more shocking. Instead, the result is schizoid, as if Little Women were trying to morph into Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Sofia Coppola is a generous and brilliant filmmaker, but her The Beguiled is becalmed.

With her first feature film, Monster, Patty Jenkins gave us a portrait of a real-life female serial killer so raw that we may have been tempted to avert our eyes not from the violence but from the desperate neediness that precipitated it. Obviously, the Warner Bros. studio bosses weren’t looking for rawness in their gazillion-dollar Wonder Woman, but were perhaps counting on a dash of digestible feminism for this tale of how Diana, the Amazon princess, though deploring all war, is drafted by the good guys (the Brits and the Yanks) into their struggle against the bad guys (the Huns) during World War I.

To their credit, Jenkins and her special-effects staff have produced action sequences that don’t try to scam the audience into thinking it’s getting its money’s worth with a deafening soundtrack or editing designed to conceal how sloppy the staging really is. Here the clarity of photography and choreography and the generally fine use of digitalization make the semi-divine warrior’s leaps into action, bullets ricocheting off her shield and sword scything through the opposing ranks, fairly exhilarating.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

But hold on! Who are these evil Huns? Hitler’s SS? Wrong war. They are nothing but the Kaiser’s loyal cannon fodder, so I found it kind of hard to cheer on the extermination of troops as basically innocent as the doughboys and Tommies on the other side. True, Wonder Woman takes place in an alternate universe where General Ludendorff (in real life a typical Junker) is a psycho who shoots his staff officers on the spot when they express polite disagreement. But, even allowing for the simple-minded aims of any comic book movie, the script by Allan Heinberg should have been drastically revised before it went before the cameras. Its dialogue is clunky (“Is that all ya got?” jeers Mars, the majestic god of war), its mythology incoherent (Amazons with a non-aggression policy?), and its love scenes soggy. On the other hand, the title role is so commandingly filled by an Israeli actress, Gal Gadot, of such beauty, presence, and talent that we may cheer our heroine anyway as she enters what she believes to be the War to End All Wars. Since she shares his idealism as well as his initials, I’ll accept Wonder Woman as an avatar of Woodrow Wilson.

In short, Jenkins has, for the moment at least, extinguished her artistic personality, but her movie is a good-enough accompaniment to the munching of popcorn.

What makes the British moviemaker Edgar Wright unique is that he can subvert genres without abandoning them. In fact, by the time a Wright film is over, you realize that the subversion has become an expansion. For instance, Shaun of the Dead (still his masterpiece) was a zombie horror show that became a comic and humane tribute to romance and bromance. But Baby Driver, his second American production (set in Atlanta), is different. For the first time, Wright is neither subverting nor expanding a genre—this time the heist thriller—but staying within its format. This contraction of his ambition would be sad except for the result: it’s the most continuously thrilling movie I’ve seen since Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). Utterly without longueurs, Baby Driver slips past your brain and dances upon your nerves.

The hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort), is a getaway driver for criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey at his icy best). Paired off with psychopathic stick-up men (including Jamie Fox and Jon Hamm, both scarily superb), the boy doesn’t enjoy crime per se (he’s working off a debt to Doc) but loves exercising his automotive talent. Then the love of a good woman both messes up and redeems his way of life. We’ve all seen this story before, but Baby Driver doesn’t depend on originality of plot any more than it does on psychological insight. (The feeble attempt to give a glimpse of the boy’s traumatic childhood is the movie’s one serious blemish.) This film is a whirlwind that sweeps you away.

Baby seems like a walking advertisement for the benefits of Attention Deficit Disorder. Motion is his drug; it makes him a genius at the wheel but he craves it even between jobs. While waiting in his car during a robbery with music blasting into his head through earbuds, he turns on the windshield wipers as a metronome, plays an invisible violin, bounces up and down, uses a water bottle as a mic and his own head as a bongo drum. And when the crooks pile into the car with the loot, the music becomes the soundtrack of his driving. Pursued by a police helicopter on the highway, he spots two red cars that look just like his, pulls between them, and keeps shifting lanes to make them constantly change places with him—all this performed with such speed that what the helicopter cops see is a virtual shell game. Between jobs, Baby doesn’t slow down even when he’s a pedestrian. Seeing him bop down a sidewalk, dance around other walkers, duck his head inches under slabs of lumber shouldered by a workman, skim insouciantly in and out of traffic, I felt I was watching the spryest choreography since Gene Kelly’s stroll through the rain. Appropriately, Elgort is still baby-faced and he can’t compete with the older actors in expressiveness, but he’s riveting as a body in motion. His inner motor is perpetual.

Composed of thousands of shots, many not even a second long, this movie feels like one continuous, tumultuous shot. This is the effect the Fast and the Furious franchise aimed for but never achieved because conventional imagery even at warp speed remains conventional. Wright’s stunts amaze, partly because, benefiting from actual stunt work instead of digitalization, they look more real and more swashbuckling, and partly because he varies the tempo instead of merely accelerating, but mainly because he doesn’t hesitate to interrupt the mechanized roar with moments of human interaction. When our hero, with the cops hot on his heels, commandeers at gunpoint a car from an elderly woman, we know we’ve seen that kind of moment in a dozen other movies. But then, instead of zooming away, Baby loses precious time trying to find a radio station playing music that will fit his driving. Then he takes another few seconds to return the purse the woman left behind. The quirkiness, gallantry, and ridiculousness of all this stays in our minds long after the squeal of tires has faded from our ears. Baby Driver won’t change your life or enrich your spiritual resources. But you may want to see it about twenty-five times.

In the previous century the marketplace of movies was in first-run theaters on big screens. After their first runs, films became the celluloid equivalents of retired people, old duffers only fit to be seen at home on small screens, in mangled versions, interrupted by commercials. Times change. Now multiplexes are merely way stations where new movies briefly disport themselves until they can get to the real marketplace: DVDs, cable channels, streamability. This change has brought loss—I miss the buzz of big audiences, especially at comedies—but one big thing is gained: classic films (often digitally restored) now exist on the same footing as the latest features; it just depends on what you’re in the mood for, some intelligent trash to relax you or a masterpiece, old or new, that might change your life.

After twenty-seven years of reviewing films for the print edition of Commonweal, I now depart that old marketplace for the new. From now on I’ll be writing for Commonweal’s website instead of the magazine. I’ll compare classics with the best of the new; I’ll dig up some forgotten gems; I’ll even provide lists of titles appropriate for the holidays and holy days. Let’s continue the conversation.

Published in the August 11, 2017 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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