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In Memoriam – Chimes at Midnight & Jeanne Moreau

 

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In honor of Jeanne Moreau’s passing, this week Kyle and Ben sit down to discuss one of Orson Welles’ crowing achievements, Chimes at Midnight (Fallstaff).  Having been released in Spain in December 1965, in France in May 1966, and in the United States in March of 1967, it was initially a critical failure and it did not achieve the box office success that Welles had sought.  Over time, critical reappraisal has lauded the film as one of Welles’ finest works.

BEN: I have to be honest, I’m not big on Shakespeare.  I read him when I was in school and he confounded me and my imagination.  I sincerely enjoyed Welles’ Chimes at Midnight.  I knew Shakespeare’s works were replete with intimate locations and rich characters, but I did not realize how sharp the tongues were.

KYLE: I’ve been revisiting all of Welles’ works recently and I was blown away by this one.  I think it is Welles’ finest performance and an honest masterpiece.  I absolutely adore the tonal shifts and the somber portrayal of Shakespeare’s legendary hedonist.

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BEN: Welles layers his story of a rebellious father, King Henry IV and a rebellious son, Prince Hal who is at the behest of a literal father figure, Sir John Falstaff.  The majority of the film is spent within the confines of the Boar’s Head Tavern carrying on the intimacy of a stage play, allowing our characters to develop their identities.  Hal, played by Keith Baxter is the roguish playboy, a philanderer without a care in the world.  He is encouraged by Falstaff to enjoy the spoils of life, without the responsibilities, nurturing his rebellious nature as well as his growing desire for power.  There was a point in the film where Hal nearly became a Robin Hood, but he started to see that his ways were not germane to his status as a future king.  Returning to his father’s side, he fought the noble Henry Percy, played by Norman Rodway in a stunning battle set piece.  I was surprised at the level of gruesomeness displayed; it served as a striking counterpoint to the jubilant celebrations that mark the earlier parts of the film.  Edmond Richard’s cinematography is simply gorgeous, from the placement of the camera, to the tracking shots to the use of light.  His outdoor work, especially during the battle sequence is something for the history books.

KYLE: I think the swing in tone is the best part of the film because it focuses on the point that Welles was making.  All good things come to an end, and while Hal’s journey from miscreant to monarch is a perfect example, I think the deeper meaning involves the trauma of responsibility and the death of innocence when adulthood, and all of its dangerous and wondrous revelations arrive.  This is highlighted during the battle scene that you mention.  I really enjoy the framing as well, particularly in the scenes at the inn because position is almost as important as dialogue, and of course the parody of the king scene is not only iconic, it is a wonderful summation of what is in store for the viewer.

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BEN: Of course, we wouldn’t be discussing this film if not to celebrate the life of Jeanne Moreau, who I confess to not having seen much of her work.  Here she plays Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute at the Boar’s Head.  She is as sensual as she is vociferous.  I liken her performance to being a chameleon, blending into the background in the beginning, falling for Falstaff’s charms.  Then, as events heat up, she raises her voice in protest.

KYLE: Pure icon.  My first film of hers was Jules and Jim and I was not only blown away by her free spirited and tragic performance, but I instantly respected her nuanced presence, something that I continue to enjoy each time I view one of her films.  From Jules and Jim, La Notte, and my favorite Diary of a Chambermaid, Moreau has left a legacy behind.  It is truly a thing of greatness to witness her layered performances, harnessing a variety of complex emotions and combining them into unforgettable characters…because they are so human, the viewer can’t help but to identify.  That was her talent.  She is incomparable and one of the truly great actresses of all time.

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BEN: I really enjoyed watching this film.  It’s amazing to learn that this film released over a three-year period.  Can you imagine something like that happening now?

KYLE: It still happens, with films debuting at festivals across the world and then not making it into the theater or on demand in different countries for several years, but technology has, for better or worse, changed distribution procedures across the world.

BEN: I’ve already found a certain affection for Welles’ works over the years and this is something that I will be revisiting again, especially with Criterion’s fine Blu-ray.  I will also be exploring more of Jeanne Moreau’s works in the future.  Something tells me I’m in for a treat.  Although this was a French-Spanish release, none other than Mr. Harry Saltzman was involved in its production.

KYLE: Touch of Evil is my favorite Welles’ film, despite the undeniable importance of Citizen Kane.  I recently viewed The Lady from Shanghai after learning about its history from the You Must Remember This podcast.  It is a very strange, yet fascinating film and I recommend that you start there on your journey through Welles’ legendary portfolio.

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Ben: Thank you for sitting down with me again this week, Kyle.  I know we were originally going to do a quick review of Umbrellas of Cherbourg this week, but we decided to hold that for now to do something a bit more special with it.  Later this week, we’ll be back with something timed for the upcoming Logan Lucky release.

KYLE: Looking forward to it!

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Kathryn Bigelow: Five Favorite Films

In their continuing series, Kyle and Ben sat down this week to discuss their five favorite Kathryn Bigelow films.  When you’re simmering over the controversy that is sure to arise from her latest film Detroit, reflect on this journey through her earlier works.

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Near Dark

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BEN: It’s funny.  I hadn’t seen this film prior to this year, but I’m glad I got to experience it on a theater screen.  Bigelow’s take on vampires is every bit as fun as Schumacher’s The Lost Boys.  Where Schumacher intentionally brought in a sexual overtone, Bigelow demonstrated her action chops while managing to combine a dramatic story.  Her characters feel real, thanks to her relationship with James Cameron.  Many of the actors he successfully used in prior films make an appearance here including Lance Henriksen, Jeanette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton.  Their respective performances really drive the dangerous side of vampirism.  Adrian Pasdar is Caleb, who unfortunately falls in love with Mae (Jenny Wright) and as their love grows deeper, Mae’s dark secret comes to light.  Tim Thomerson, who made a splash in smaller movies like this, plays Caleb’s dad.  His relentless concern is really the driving force in this film.  I thought it was a lot of fun to see Thomerson and Henriksen square off in the finale.  The film is dated and cheesy, but it cemented Bigelow’s status as a cult-action director with interesting stories to tell.

KYLE: I don’t think it’s cheesy so much as a product of its time.  Bill Paxton gives one of the best performances of his career in this.  I love how it fuses the western genre with the bloated vampire catalogue to create an unforgettable experience.  It’s also shot remarkably well given the time.  One of my favorite parts is that the word “vampire” is never said, yet the viewer instantly knows that this is a vicious band of predators.  This was also Bigelow’s feature debut and it is the template for all of her films.  She’s a filmmaker who is interested in relationships and characters, and how the often overlooked ingredients are usually glossed over in favor of spectacle.  It’s what makes Near Dark work so well.  My only complaint is that the finale is a tad…abrupt given the setup, but regardless, this is a cult classic for all time.

Point Break

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BEN: I was too young for this movie, but the allure of this film was just overwhelming.  It still is.  Based on W. Peter Illiff and Rick King’s story, Bigelow’s action sense combined with dramatic tension truly drive this poetic cult classic.  Where she tried to bring in a troupe of actors in Near Dark, here she starts fresh with Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey, and Lori Petty.  The story is amazing, Donald Peterman’s cinematography is truly unmatched as he had to combine a wide range of shots from aerial jumps to bank heists and a lot of foot chases with handheld cameras.  As dramatic and action-oriented as the film is, it is just plain fun.  The actors all looked like they had a blast, especially Gary Busey:  “I don’t know why the agency has to have me train some snot nosed quarterback punk named Johnny Unitas.”  I could go on gushing, but you get the idea.

KYLE: Quintessential 90’s action.  The homoerotic (over)undertones are pure bliss.  I think one of my favorite things is the aesthetic.  Bigelow takes the surfer, California subculture, and builds it into a living organism.  I love how she takes classic crime and noir tropes and updates them for the 90’s.  It is also a testament to her skill how she is able to use both Reeves and Swayze’s well known flaws to her advantage.  This is a wonderful example of a director understanding the limitations of her cast and using them as strengths.  Busey is the standout, bringing his usual captivating insanity to bear and his performance is wonderful throughout.

Strange Days

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BEN: Before Virtual Reality exploded, Bigelow gave us Strange Days.  I hate to say this, but I don’t remember the movie very well.  I know I saw it when it first came out on home video and I know that the cast is a veritable who’s who.  I remember it being a bit noir-ish in its Sci-Fi approach.  Ralph Fiennes really lit the screen up while Angela Bassett just drove the story.  I also remember Matthew Leonetti’s camerawork, especially the POV shots during the SQUID sequences.  This was Bigelow’s biggest commercial failure at the box office and from what I understand it nearly derailed her career.  I guess I need to see it again.

KYLE: I think this is Bigelow’s greatest film.  The entire intro sequence is some of the best camerawork I’ve seen in her films.  It is most definitely a neo-noir and probably the best science fiction noir since Blade Runner.  I also see a lot of parallels with Detroit, which I’m screening tomorrow.  Fiennes is just outstanding as the underdog and I love how there’s not a lot of action.  His chemistry with Bassett is remarkable, and as you mentioned, she’s the center of this formidable machine.  Juliet Lewis and Tom Sizemore are also amazing additions, with some of the best performances of their rocky careers.  It’s also a great dystopian film that is extremely relevant of the current climate in America.

The Hurt Locker

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BEN: As with James Cameron, Bigelow started to form her own troupe of actors, namely Anthony Mackie and Ralph Fiennes.  She also would continue to use real-life situations, as she did in Strange Days, to influence her future narratives.  And, thus we begin her working relationship with Mark Boal, a freelance journalist who used his real-life experiences to write the script.  Set during the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker features Jeremy Renner, David Morse, and Guy Pearce as part of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team who are trapped by insurgents.  Boal’s story and Bigelow’s direction focus on the psychological trauma which results from the stress of combat.  The film would go on to win best director for Bigelow and best picture for the film, a distinction that Bigelow holds as the first and only woman to have won both.  Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography firmly places us in the middle of the action without losing the sense of perspective.  It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this one too.  I guess I’m due for a revisit.

KYLE: My favorite scene is when Renner and Mackie are trapped by snipers and Mackie is on the Barrett.  When Renner gives him the capri sun to drink, virtually ending their feud through an act of camaraderie is something you don’t see often in war films.  That is the genius of this film.  On the surface it’s a war film, but truly, at its heart, it is about the trauma that our armed forces experience every day when in combat.  The cinematography is outstanding.  You are, as you mention, right in the thick of things.  I remember not breathing for the duration of my screening and I was thinking about the film, about its implications on modern warfare, for days after.   While it’s not my favorite of hers, I think it might be her best made film.

Zero Dark Thirty

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BEN: And this is why I enjoy these conversations, Kyle.  Your insight into these films is spectacular.  Our final film is a doozy and it created such a firestorm over its authenticity with the federal government at the time of its release that Julian Assange probably could have leaked it and it would have attracted less attention than Bigelow received for Zero Dark Thirty.  Again written by Boal, who used information he had gleaned from a speech given by former CIA director Leon Panetta during a ceremony is the story of a fictional CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain who is on the hunt for Osama bin Laden after gaining new intel which spurred on the real-life incursion which brought the Al-Qaeda Emir down.  Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Strong, and Kyle Chandler co-star.  Greig Fraser’s cinematography in the desert is amazing as are his nighttime shots, especially the hand-held action during the final raid.  Thirty represented Megan Ellison’s first major production credit as her Annapurna Pictures independently financed the movie.  This film created quite a controversy with audiences as well, but it was well-received and was recognized with Bigelow’s second directorial Oscar nomination.  Chastain would win the Best Actress Golden Globe and cemented her work in A Most Violent Year, Interstellar, The Martian, and last year’s spectacular Miss Sloane.  She is as tough as they come.

KYLE: I think Jason Clarke was robbed of a supporting nom.  His scene with the monkeys is heartbreaking, and a simple, quiet symbol of the madness of covert warfare.  Chastain is cold, but intimidating in every scene.  I love how the entire film is an extended procedural, with the payoff being the hand held madness of the compound raid.  Hand held apparently plays a big part in Detroit, and I can’t wait to see it.  I think the aspect of this one that works so well is how it is very removed.  Outside of the chilling intro, with actual calls from victims in the towers, the entire film is sterilized; presenting a possible narrative on how the most wanted man in the world was captured.   This is Bigelow at her finest.  Meticulous, artful control and searing, unapologetic presentation.

BEN: Thank you for the amazing insight, Kyle.  A pleasure as always.  Next week we celebrate the life of Jeanne Moreau and a special review of Jaques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

KYLE: I’m looking forward to it!   Also, a shout out to K-19: The Widowmaker.  While it didn’t make the list, it’s a fun film for sure.  See you next week!

 

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Ladies of Espionage – Five Favorite Films

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Oh, what a tangled web we weave if only to deceive.  What better way to celebrate this week’s wide release of Atomic Blonde than to honor the lady spies of the silver screen.  While most of these femme fatales are modern in their respective incarnations, Kyle and Ben chose five films that they think are excellent showcases of powerful female characters in the male dominated genre of spy films.

 

Salt

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BEN: It’s hard to believe that Philip Noyce’s Salt was released to unassuming audiences just 7 years ago.  And yet, Angeline Jolie proved once again that she could kick ass and take names.  Noyce, who directed Harrison Ford to success as Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger used the same steel and grit here to tell the story of a supposed Russian sleeper agent on the lamb to clear her name.  The cast and the crew are a veritable who’s who of names, but the hero here is the uncredited Brian Helgeland who reworked the script for Jolie.  The role was originally written as a male and a Tom Cruise vehicle.  When they reworked the character and Jolie stepped into the role, Helgeland did a re-write to whip it in to shape.  Robert Elswit’s cinematography is a highlight in this globetrotting adventure and action editors Stuart Baird and John Gilroy really stepped it up in crafting a unique tale of intrigue.

KYLE: I think my favorite part about this one is how all of the players within the universe of the film are terrified of Jolie’s Salt.  While the script was reworked for a female lead, I feel that in the context of a spy microcosm, Jolie’s character is treated as an equal.  Aside from the subject matter having a not intended relevance to today’s headlines, it was nice to see a post-cold war action story with some thrills and albeit telegraphed surprises.  Jolie really is the whole picture, and this is one of her best roles, balancing the physicality of the action with the uncertainty of her character, with her ethos falling into question and it’s remarkable to see.

Point of No Return

 

 

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BEN: Absolutely amazing stuff, Kyle.  Jolie got us started with a bang.  Now it’s time to turn our attention to John Badham’s spectacular Point of No Return.  Bridgett Fonda electrifies the screen as another agent on the lamb after her death is faked.  The interesting twist here is her origins.  They are almost superhero in their quality.  Gabriel Byrne who made an appearance last week is back this week as her handler, Bob.  He is as smooth as she is.  Harvey Keitel is his usual bad-ass as the ‘cleaner’.  Audiences will be familiar with this film’s European origins as a reimaging of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikkita.

KYLE: Let’s not forget the amazing Anne Bancroft as Fonda’s etiquette trainer.  The training sequence is amazing, so much so that the actual espionage parts suffer, but Fonda carries the uneven script through to the end.  I also love the origin story and watching Fonda’s transformation.  While she becomes the ultimate operative, her street level beginnings pulse everywhere throughout the remainder of the film and it is her origins that ultimately define the character.

Spy  

 

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BEN: The next movie on our list, Spy, has a lot of heart, something Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy delivered in spades. It isn’t your typical spy movie and the comedy plays well to the film’s action pieces.  McCarthy is a CIA desk jockey who dreams of being able to save the day when her agent is gunned down during a mission.  The assailant is off camera, but she is adept enough at following the clues that she pieces together what happens and feels the need to vindicate her partner and herself.  This leads to bureaucracy and a hilarious pissing contest with Jason Statham.  A mix of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau, the cinematography here is breathtaking as are the action pieces.

KYLE: This is easily my favorite teaming of Feig and McCarthy.  As always, McCarthy’s performance is a profanity laced fireball, but it works so perfectly in this film.  Her chemistry with Byrne and Statham is palpable and I loved how it paid tribute to spy films of the past, but also was its own story, using Feig’s vulgarity to both inject irreverence into the action and bridge the gap of vintage tradecraft with modern technology.  Feig’s humor can be hit or miss at times, but I was genuinely shocked at how funny this film is.  It’s terrific, and as you mention, Statham’s performance is comedic perfection!

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

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BEN: We seem to have found our rhythm, Kyle.  Our second film this week to feature Angelina Jolie is Kerry Conran’s underappreciated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.  A technical marvel in its own right, I could spend hours talking about its use of CG to blend a living world with the performances.  Without intending it, Jude Law also makes his second appearance in our list.  Set in 1939, with WWII raging on, Sky Captain (Law) commands a private air force while Gwyneth Paltrow plays the spunky reporter, Polly Perkins as they battle the robots of the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf, posthumously played by Sir Laurence Olivier.  Jolie has an extended cameo as the commander of the Royal Fleet.  This film’s spy themes fit more in line with the time it is set in rather than the actions of the characters, but both Jolie and Paltrow’s character display tactical prowess and undeniable courage throughout.

KYLE:  This is probably the most controversial choice off the list and I’m glad we chose to include.  The film is a loving homage to the serials of the 30’s while using CGI to enhance the story, not overwhelm it.  This is one of a handful of films that was done entirely in the digital realm with green screens and seeing the final product shows that not only can heavy CGI films be done well, the medium can be used to transport the viewer to another reality.  Paltrow’s Polly is about what you would expect for a story such as this, but she does remarkably well with the material.  Jolie’s Franky is easily the best part.  Aside from being a strong presence whenever on screen, Jolie’s preparation for the role bears mentioning.  Even though Jolie only shot for a handful of days, she conducted several prolonged interviews with real pilots to ensure she had their terminology correct.  The off screen dedication paid off, with Jolie nearly stealing the show in every one of her (regrettably) few scenes.

The Long Kiss Goodnight 

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BEN: Our final film is what I consider the Gold Standard of modern femme fatales: Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight.  Written by Shane Black (Predator, The Nice Guys), Goodnight features Geena Davis, who has never really had a big screen presence, but when you see her she just lights the screen up.  Set in rural New England, we learn that housewife Samantha is not all she appears to be.  Through flashbacks, we learn about her past, which is covered up by a low grade form of amnesia.  She hires Mitch Hennessey, a foul-mouthed private dick to solve the mystery.  An accident brings Charlie to the surface and brings Timothy (Craig Bierko) on to their tails.  A stunning supporting cast including Brian Cox, David Morse (who saw a brief comeback after this film) and Patrick Malahide, the husband-wife team of Harlin and Davis worked wonders.  I was in college when this film came out and I just could not wait to see it.  The trailers didn’t disappoint. The ice and the blood glistened in a land of snow and fire – lots of action, lots of laughs; this film is what audiences wanted in an action flick at the time it was made.

KYLE: This movie is ridiculous and I love it!  Davis’ Charlie Baltimore is iconic from the first second she appears, forever vanquishing her quiet housewife persona to oblivion.  Davis and Jackson’s chemistry is off the charts, and it’s rare to see Jackson in a straight up sexual scene and he does remarkably well and allows Davis to remain in the focus throughout.  It’s easy, in an action film, to let the lead be invincible and over the top.  Davis lives in her character’s flaws, using them to fuel her hatred for those who wronged her Charlie.  Everything builds like a fuse heading into the over the top finale in which a torrent of blood and bullets blaze across the screen, allowing Davis’s assassin to unleash the rage that has been roiling under the surface.   This is one of Harlin’s best as well.  He’s very focused in this film and it shows in almost every scene.

BEN: This was a blast, Kyle.  Next week, we will look at five of Katherine Bigelow’s top films as we prepare for her new film, Detroit.

KYLE: I can’t wait!

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Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK

Dunkirk

2017.  Directed by Christopher Nolan.

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One of the first things that becomes clear, seconds into Christopher Nolan’s audacious thriller Dunkirk is that it is not a conventional war picture.  It may not even technically be a member of the genre.  Regardless, Dunkirk is Nolan’s crowning achievement.  A ferocious, tightly constructed tribute to one of the greatest acts of national heroism in the history of mankind.  Bordering on horror at times while exploring the darker side of survival and the effects of trauma, Nolan commands a cinematic arsenal in a symphony of destruction, balancing a pulse raising score, harrowing cinematography, and unparalleled practical effects.  These combine to form a living prison around the audience, forcing them to inhabit the souls of the combatants, both their acts of unthinkable courage and their primal need to survive at all costs.

400,000 allied soldiers are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.  What follows is a nonlinear recounting of the rescue operation that inspired the world to fight back against inhuman darkness.  The point of view is split between the soldiers on the beach, civilians mounting a rescue effort by sea, and the Royal Air Force pilots protecting the operation.  Nolan’s script is a showcase on minimalist storytelling, to the point that Dunkirk often feels like a silent film homage and this only furthers the oppressive feeling that pervades every frame.  There are no Nazis present on the screen; they are wraiths coming to reap the souls of the stranded.  There is no respite, no sanctuary, and from the first ear bursting gunshots, the film drops any sense of conformity with its predecessors.

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Some have commented on the film’s distinct lack of exposition and character development; however the lack of focus on a singular “hero” is what allows Nolan’s vision to truly shine.  Who these people were is not of interest to the master auteur, it is the sum of masses that is on display.  It would be unfair, however, to ignore the work of Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance.  Both of these talented performers have scenes that are so emotionally gripping, they manage to imprint on the viewer, despite the absolute bravura of everything else that is happening around them.  This was a day where men made the ultimate sacrifice for the many and where boys became men against their father’s wishes.

Hans Zimmer, who will hopefully garner awards gold this season, has created the best score of his prolific career.  Emulating the ticking doomsday panic that afflicts the soldiers, his ominous notes are relentless, taking the narrative into the depths of despair, only to then deliver the proceedings into hope.  The sound design is impeccable.  The viewer is there, on the beach when bombs cascade across the sounds, in the surf when ignited oil snatches away all hope of escape, and in the sky, where split second decisions decide the fate of thousands.  This is a film that requires IMAX viewing, if possible.  It is not only the reason these titanic theaters exist, it is a great example of the power of the big screen.

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Hoyt van Hoytema’s pristine cinematography is breathtaking.  While the editing allows it to truly shine, there are a plethora of moments where the camera lingers on desolate beaches and aeronautical specters that enrich the three pronged approach with unflinching realism.  There are so many unique tactics employed, it seems daunting, but they flow together with a dangerous sense of truth.  While other efforts rely on tracking shots and shaky-cam trickery, Hoytema is interested in the soul of Nolan’s vicious poetry, and the result is a cold, omnipotent viewpoint that leaves everything on the table.  There are no favorites, no shining stars, and nothing but the events themselves matters.   This is a startling film, but one that is relentlessly human in its retelling and this is something that will either resonate with the viewer, or repulse.

In theaters now, Dunkirk is one of the few masterpieces of 2017, and the best film of Christopher Nolan’s fabled portfolio.  Every element of what mystifies and entices us to watch films is present.  There is tragedy and redemption, heroism and cowardice, and most importantly darkness and unyielding light.  If you see one film in the theater this year, this is the one.   If you’re looking for a traditional war film, look elsewhere.  Nolan’s masterful, tightly paced epic is an endurance test for the mind and heart.  Dunkirk is a retelling of history in a hands-off, brutally realistic manner that will leave you stunned for its duration, and long after the lights have come up.

Highly. Highly Recommend.

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OUT OF ORDER: FIVE NONLINEAR FAVORITE FILMS

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The art of storytelling has developed over the years and although there are only so many ways to tell a story, there are no rules as to how we as an audience witness a protagonist’s journey unfold.  D.W. Griffith experimented with nonlinear presentation with Intolerance in 1916, while Goddard branched out in the late 1950’s to this technique.  Quentin Tarantino modernized it with Reservoir Dogs and other directors have continued to expand the influence of in medias res to this day.  In celebration of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Ben and Kyle talk about five of their favorite nonlinear narrative films.

Pulp Fiction

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BEN: Though he introduced a modernized version of the nonlinear narrative with his first film, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction cemented its revolution.  The year was 1994, just before the dawn of the World Wide Web (in today’s parlance, the Internet). Buzz about films traveled at a snail’s pace, which is funny considering that this film won the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.  Okay, the joke’s not that funny, yet Tarantino’s sophomore film, a black comedy and a modern neo-noir was responsible for not only reigniting John Travolta’s career, but also for changing the way stories could be told, something that he and writing partner Roger Avary won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for in 1995.  It was the first film that Miramax fully financed and distributed, altering the way independent films were distributed.  And then there’s the nonlinear way that Tarantino tells his story.  The way the sequences are edited together, we’re never jolted out of the moment, which is why this film works so very well.  I think the key to his success here is in the characters and the settings.  I remember seeing the movie on VHS and in widescreen and being blown away by the change in perspective that it created.  At the time, it was one of the more unique movies that I had seen.  I think I’ll watch this again soon while enjoying a Royale with cheese.

KYLE: It’s an amazing film that has held up well over the years.  As you mention, the script, with respect to perspective is what has allowed it to endure.  Yes, there are endlessly quotable lines, but the magic lies in the well-defined characters and the unique presentation. Knowing the fates of certain characters increases the impact over other scenes when they transpire, which I think is one of the benefits of nonlinear storytelling and why so many carbon copy rip offs failed during the crime flick heyday of the 90’s.  Most auteurs tried to cash in on Tarantino’s ideas but failed to grasp the importance of the story as well as the characters.  There is a rotating door of VHS cult gems that each have memorable characters or scenes of violence, but they pale in comparison to Pulp Fiction because they don’t weave them together into a complete picture.  It also continued the tradition of building a stable of performers that Tarantino continues to use to this day.

The Usual Suspects

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BEN: Bryan Singer’s sophomore feature film is the electrifying The Usual Suspects which took the world by storm with the famous ending and the line, “Who is Kaiser Söze?” Based on the Oscar-winning screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie who also wrote Public Access for Singer, would use the nonlinear format to tell “Verbal” Kint’s version of events that would lead to a drug deal gone bad for the police involving a severely wounded Hungarian mob boss.  Throughout the story, McQuarrie and Singer lay clues as to who the mastermind is, resulting in one of the most celebrated plot twists in cinematic history.  The film works because of the sublime cast including Gabriel Byrne, the cool and collected one, Stephen Baldwin, the balls-out nut job, Benicio del Toro, whose broken English plays well into this collection of misfits.  Kevin Spacey plays “Verbal” and his Oscar-winning performance is the highlight of the film.  Chazz Palminteri does an exceptional job grilling “Verbal” and Pete Postlethwaite is pitch perfect as the ominous courier.  This is another one of those films that I saw in college on home video (I didn’t get to the theater as much as I do today for obvious reasons.)  Seeing this film on VHS was an eye opening experience.  Interesting note:  the title came from an issue of ‘Spy’ Magazine which lifted it from a famous line spoken by Claude Rains in “Casablanca”.

KYLE: While I don’t think it has held up as good as some of the others on this list over the years, Singer’s film is a masterclass in narrative construction.  Yes, the clues are easy to parse and in plain sight, but the totality is a precise formula that toys with the neo-noir genre to ultimately produce an inverted whodunit.  Palminteri, and his scenes with Spacey are the main event, while the lovable cast of rogues moves the story from one point to another.  The infamous line-up scene is my favorite sequence, because not only it is continually quoted by film lovers everywhere, it’s evident that the cast are having a good time filming it, which always enhances the mood of a film.  While this one is not necessarily nonlinear in the same manner as Fiction, it uses the fractured narrative as a device to explore perspective and truth with narrators who may be unreliable, one of the best attributes for a mystery.

 Memento

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BEN: I think we’re on a role with sophomore directorial efforts.  Our third film is another sophomore effort, this time by Christopher Nolan.  Starring Guy Pearce and Matrix co-stars Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano, this film is a look at anterograde amnesia, where the protagonist is unable to form new memories while suffering from short-term memory loss.  The way Nolan visually interweaves and ultimately intersects the two side effects of the amnesia is breathtaking.  In addition to interweaving the various vantage points, he differentiates the two side effects with color and black & white images supporting the deteriorating condition of our protagonist and his world. The narrative is cohesive in its progression, no matter which way you go.  While Nolan had a clear direction, Guy Pearce did such an exceptional job at conveying the events he experienced that we suffer right along with him until the last minute.  I expect we’ll see a similar style of storytelling in Nolan’s upcoming Dunkirk.

KYLE: Let’s hope!  I know a lot of readers are saying, it’s just told in reverse!  While this is true, linear stories are about going from A to B.  Memento goes from B to A in a puzzlebox presentation that requires multiple viewing to grasp all of its intricacies.  I remember seeing it in the cinema and being blown away by the implications of the ending, as well as how disturbing the mood is for the duration.  This flirts with psychological horror, dipping a toe into Lynch’s end of the pool, but then quickly reverts into a gritty neo-noir. Speaking off, our first three films have all been neo-noir.  Ben, do we have films from a different genre on the list?

Solaris (2002)

 

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BEN: As a matter of fact, we do.  This is also where we end our sophomore directorial efforts; however this film’s director is linked with another director we’re celebrating.  Soderbergh who has been established in Hollywood since the late 80’s when he broke out with Sex, Lies, and Videotape worked with producer James Cameron to bring a reimagining of the celebrated Solaris to modern audiences.  Featuring one of his mainstay actors, George Clooney, the story is centered around Dr. Chris Kelvin, a clinical psychologist who is called on by the DBA to review a disturbing message from a colleague, who along with a crew of astronauts is on a space station orbiting Solaris.  Kelvin travels out to the space station to determine why they stopped communicating.  Soderbergh’s script remains close to the original novel where he uses flashbacks to create a nonlinear story.  Solaris is capable of something greater than the human mind, and it is this existentialism that allows Kelvin to reconnect with his dead wife.  Cited as a love story in space, which Stanislaw Lem didn’t agree with, the 2002 version failed to connect with audiences, which is a shame.  It is an exceptionally well done film where we get to see Viola Davis in as strong a performance as she gave us in last year’s Fences. Jeremy Davies was amazing as Snow, one of the scientists on the station and although he has a small role, Ulrich Turkur had a lot of fun as Gibarian.  McElhone lit up the screen as Kelvin’s doomed wife Rheya.  What I liked most about this is its ambiguousness.  Is it a love story?  Is it a Sci Fi film?  Roger Ebert, who loved it, called it “the kind of smart film that has people arguing about it on the way out of the theater . . . . it is essentially a psychological drama.” I still revisit it and long for the day it is released in high definition.

KYLE: I’m a huge fan of both this and the original by Tarkovsky.  I actually find myself returning to Soderbergh’s version more often because I think he strips away everything but the raw connections at the heart of the story.  Tarkovsky’s dreamlike masterpiece is a lifetime on film, while Soderbergh’s version is a fading memory, and both of them have merit.  With respect to the 2002 version, I think the nonlinear presentation is essential in order for the release of the finale to impact the viewer.  Themes of love are actually a large part of the science fiction genre and Soderbergh keys into essential, base human emotions in this film.  It’s devastating, terrifying, and ultimately unforgettable because the viewer is treated to the gambit of not only the cycle of grief, but how love and loss filter differently through different kinds of minds.  Davis (who I also love in this) plays against Clooney so perfectly, I often feel her performance is undervalued.  You have science vs. psychological theory and both are plagued by the inevitable baggage we all bring to the table.  Davies, in the middle, is the film’s best surprise, bringing home the startling actions of Clooney during the first act.  Soderbergh’s Solaris is an organism connected by the fabric of mankind and I hope more viewers give it a chance after reading this.

Arrival

 

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BEN: Denis Villeneuve, who always wanted to do a science fiction film, gave it to us in spades with 2016’s Arrival.  Based on Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, Eric Heisserer delivers a top notch sci-fi film featuring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma.  Part Solaris, part Contact, part The Day The Earth Stood Still, Heisserer uses the nonlinear narrative to sew together a story of grief, love, passion, and empathy as Adams’ Elizabeth Banks races to develop a language database that the military can use to communicate with an alien race whose spaceships have settled above our most populous cities.  The structure of the story keeps you guessing what the true nature of the film really is, which is a beautiful thing.  Adams gave an Oscar-caliber performance as the emotionally wrecked and passionately driven Elizabeth Banks.  Villeneuve’s direction is exemplary here, and is the key reason why Heisserer’s story works as well as it does.

KYLE: Could not agree more.  I was shocked Adams was overlooked for an Oscar nomination. This is another…non-traditional choice.  The nonlinear narrative is integral to the story, but its reason for inclusion is the film’s most challenging revelation.  One of my favorite aspects of this film is how the scientific and military sequences are interspersed with intimate scenes of familial life.  This sets the stakes for the viewer, reminding them of the countless souls that hang in the linguistic balance.  Communication is the central theme, both in how we interact with the extraterrestrials, but also with each other as a species.   Given the divisive last couple of years, Arrival was a breath of fresh air that showed (not preached) love, mutual respect, and most importantly, tolerance.  I think it’s important to mention that Bradford Young was the first African American to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Cinematography.  It was some of my favorite imagery from last year’s awards season.

 

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BEN: That’s about right, Kyle.  Oh!  I forgot to mention the connection that Soderbergh has to another of the directors we mentioned – he was one of the producers of Insomnia by Christopher Nolan.  We really do live in a small world.

KYLE: Most assuredly.  Thanks, once again for the engaging conversation.  I look forward to our next topic!

We hope you enjoyed this brief look at our linear list of nonlinear narrative films. As you’re venturing out to your nearest IMAX film to catch Dunkirk this weekend, what are your favorite nonlinear films?

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Christopher Nolan: Favorite Films

In honor of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Dunkirk, Kyle and Ben sit down this week to discuss their Top 5 Nolan films.  We culled from his library of works our respective Top 5 films. In doing so, we included those films that he’s produced, written and/or directed.  We both had the same consensus about a large majority of Nolan’s body of work and we diverge on at least one film.

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Insomnia

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BEN: Nolan’s sophomore directorial effort, Insomnia is a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film featuring Al Pacino, Hilary Swank and Robin Williams in one of his few dramatic roles.  Set in a small Alaskan frontier town, two Los Angeles detectives are sent to investigate a grisly murder.  Eternally suffering from guilt over another case, Pacino’s performance is a familiar one where he’s driven to the edge while maintaining his sharpness.  Swank is a nice balance to Pacino’s descending manic-depressive insanity while Williams just absolutely chews every scene he is given.  Wally Pfister’s cinematography and Dody Dorn’s tight editing add to the tension of torn personalities trying to find peace.  After writing this, I might just need to revisit it!

KYLE: This is an amazing film.  While I absolutely love the 1997 original, I really appreciate Nolan’s take on the material.  While a few of the darker scenes are excised from the narrative, Nolan’s focus on endless torment is framed in a fascinating, psychological manner that really allows Pacino and Williams a lot of breathing room with the script.  As you mentioned, I think is one of Williams’ best performances and I’ve watched it several times since he left us.

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The Dark Knight

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BEN: Following the immense success of Batman Begins, Nolan’s effort to build a modern Gotham City is rich with relatable characters and terror that mirror our everyday existence.  Christian Bale draws us in as both Batman and the torn Bruce Wayne, trying to find his place within his own demons.  Just as with Pacino in Insomnia, this is a character trait that Nolan has been able to tap into time and time again.  Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon is absolutely first rate.  This story allows him to portray a true detective, which is a key to this story.  Aaron Eckhart’s transformative performance as Harvey Dent only compliments the other characters as he struggles with his own demons.  Heath Ledger is the true star here as the Joker.  Maniacal and dangerous, Ledger’s final screen performance is near perfect and holds his own next to Bale.

This is in part to Nolan’s understanding of the psychological nature of each of the characters as well as their environments.  Nolan knows when to push his boundaries.  Wally Pfister was called to service again here and he answers the call of The Dark Knight with precision.  Hans Zimmer’s and James Newton Howard’s score help convey the beats and the lethality on the screen without ever overwhelming the action.

KYLE: It’s my favorite Superhero film and Ledger’s iconic performance is unforgettable.  I love how Nolan makes Gotham itself a character that lives and breathes around the larger than life personas that inhabit it.  There are so many iconic shots in this film it’s impossible to pick my favorite, but the scenes shot in IMAX, such as the initial bank heist are razor sharp proficiency.

I do think it stumbles, just a bit in the final act, but everything else is near perfect.  Nolan made a Michael Mann level crime epic inside of a DC comic book film before the term Cinematic Universe had been invented.  It’s definitely one of his greatest.

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Inception

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BEN: Following on the heels of his Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan began his foray into the realm of science fiction/fantasy with 2010’s Inception.  Part espionage, part thriller, Inception is the story of a troubled man (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has been trying to get home to be with his family, but because of a past transgression, he cannot.  He may have found a way home when he is presented with an opportunity to help a Japanese businessman with a corporate espionage job.  Full of wondrous special effects, Nolan’s efforts here are about smoke and mirrors, almost emulating Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven from 2001.

Carrying on the theme of a torn soul, DiCaprio’s motives are always front and center, but the layers that Nolan puts on each of the characters is beyond belief.  This is not a simple movie and it never claims to be such, especially with the closing frame.  Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Tom Berenger co-star.  Michael Caine, who was a staple of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and would also have a pivotal role in one of my Top 5 Nolan films, is along for this ride, as are his trusty cinematographer, Wally Pfister and Hans Zimmer, who creates yet another stunning score for the ages.

KYLE: I am in love with this film!  One of my favorite things about it is the layers.  There’s the main event tiered dream sequence, in which Joseph Gordon Levitt’s part is the whole ordeal, but for me, I really love how it gets into the concepts of perception and grief and how both alter one another in the flow of time.  Marion Cotillard’s specter is my favorite character and I love how her performance drifts between tragedy and horror seamlessly.

Also Pfister’s Oscar winning cinematography is breathtaking.  The slow motion scene where the van hits the water is a wonder to behold.  I also really enjoy the costuming and how it is vital to deciphering the mysteries of both the plot and its ambiguous ending.  While this is not my personal favorite Nolan, I think there is a strong case to be made for this being his most well-made feature.

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Interstellar

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BEN: This is the film where Kyle and I diverge just slightly.  Partially an environmental tone poem, partially an homage to Kubrick’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey and very much in line with the emotional roller coaster that Nolan’s protagonists seem to undergo, this science fiction film about life and death is set in the near future where we have decimated our planet and a crop blight ravages the surface.  As a result, we now seek to find other worlds beyond our solar system such that they are suitable for human life.

Matthew McConaughey is Joseph Cooper, a widowed, former NASA pilot who is trying to cultivate the land his home is on along with a failing father-daughter relationship.  When “Coop” is called to duty, he must leave his daughter (Mackenzie Foy) and father-in-law (John Lithgow) behind, potentially forever.  Michael Caine plays the reassuring father figure, given to quoting Dylan Thomas, while Anne Hathaway plays Coop’s co-pilot, Dr. Amelia Brand.  The supporting cast is a who’s who with Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Jessica Chastain, Topher Grace, David Oyelowo and William Devane who plays the same role he played in Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys, another film that Interstellar mirrors.

The story by Nolan and his brother Jonathan is intelligent sci-fi at its finest.  Yes, it is a bit preachy with respect to its environmentalism, but the notion of being able to see your daughter’s life through a looking-glass and to have that image reflected back to you is priceless.  Much like Bud in Cameron’s The Abyss, Coop knows this is a one-way trip for him.  However, because our characters don’t necessarily understand the true nature of the universe, they are given opportunities to correct past transgressions, or so it seems.  Taking a page from Inception, not everything is as it seems.

Hans Zimmer’s score is second to none, taking the heightened emotionalism to the next level.  But, it is Hoyte van Hoytema’s stunning cinematography that truly blasts this movie into another dimension.  Shot with IMAX cameras in the 1.43:1 aspect ratio along with the 2.39:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio, the film was exhibited on IMAX screens with a blending of the two formats heightening the images while traditional theaters ran the 2.39:1 aspect ratio.  On Blu-ray, the mixed aspect ratio has been retained, which I think highlights van Hoytema’s composition.  Its preachiness hinders in it comparison to other films of its nature, but it’s a ride well worth taking.  Just ask Matt Damon.

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The Prestige

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KYLE: This is my favorite Nolan by a mile.  It not only a remarkable cinematic experience, it’s a puzzle that requires multiple viewings in order to work through all of the clues.  As a colleague wisely pointed out, the entire film is a magic trick like the one described during the first act.  This realization makes the surprise twists more impactful, distancing The Prestige from other magic related pictures.

Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are wonderful as dueling magicians, fueled by vain composition and deadly vendettas.  Michael Caine and Scarlet Johannsen support with vintage appropriate turns that set up Nolan’s carefully planned bait and switch from the moment they appear on screen.  The great David Bowie has an esoteric turn as Tesla, whose electricity fueled pseudo-science is the key to one of the struggle at the center.

Nolan’s long time cinematographer Wally Pfister once again provides crisp visuals and haunting imagery, with the opening frame, a somber field of top hats sticking in the viewer’s memory for the duration.  It rivals The Dark Knight for atmosphere and world building, and for me, it takes top honors because it never falters and forms a perfect circle of deception and comeuppance.

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BEN:  I think we hit all the right notes here, Kyle.  I don’t know about you, but I am looking forward to seeing “Dunkirk” next week.  Despite the negative social media reaction to the film’s running time, I am a firm believer in Nolan’s story telling abilities.

KYLE: Once again, we’re in complete agreement!

We’ll see you at the movies.

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Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled

The Beguiled

2017.  Directed by Sofia Coppola.

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Sofia Coppola’s latest effort is an atmospheric pressure cooker steeped in sexual innuendo and madness. Fusing the Confederate origins of the original film with a Gothic, dreamlike presentation, The Beguiled presents a simplistic narrative of erotic vendetta that is enhanced with magnetic performances and ghostly cinematography that present a female focused incarnation of the iconic source material.

Wounded Union soldier John McBurney finds respite at a Southern academy for young women. In a crumbling manse enshrouded by Spanish moss, a dangerous game of amorous deceit plays out amidst a backdrop of a nation devouring itself. Coppola’s script trims every possible amount of fat from an already slim narrative to keep everything focused on the characters. Colin Farrell delivers another terrific performance as a lecherous victim of circumstance whose uses every possible advantage to ensure not only personal safety, but an unspeakable possibility. Nicole Kidman gives a restrained performance as the school’s headmistress that is the perfect counter, embodying a fierce protective spirit of lethal maternity that is not only a product of a nation gone mad, but a pragmatic force to be reckoned with.

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Kirsten Dunst gives an interesting turn as the school’s fractured teacher. She balances unrepentant desire and rigid etiquette with remarkable ease, bringing an intriguing angle to the social complexities on display. Elle Fanning does adequate work with what she’s given, however the narrative moves so quickly that the devious personalities often don’t have enough to develop and as a result, her performance suffers. This is a minor flaw that is quickly forgotten as the quiet nightmare of McBurney’s ordeal plays out in the mist. Stacey Battat’s period costume design is flawless, encasing each character in outfits that mirror the gender inequalities and high fashion of the time perfectly, which does an outstanding job are supporting each of the characters’ moments in the spotlight.

Philippe Le Sourd’s ethereal cinematography is the film’s strongest element. Beautiful wide shots of the exterior are sprinkled throughout, contrasting intrusive close-ups that dominate the bulk of the movie. Natural lighting is used whenever possible and Coppola’s intimate understanding of the material is always reflected in the muted imagery, perfectly emulating the fable-like story on display. This is made possible by understated editing and a haunting score by Phoenix that keep everything close to the chest.

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In theaters now, The Beguiled is an excellent addition to Sofia Coppola’s woefully small filmography. While the final act undoes the terse foundations of the preceding acts, the cathartic release is well earned, if a tad uneven. If you’re interested a whispered passion play that explores gender politics and spins a harrowing tale of revenge, this will not disappoint.

Highly Recommend.

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