Wednesday, July 5, 2017

THE LONG AND SHORT OF SOME OF THIS SUMMER'S BIGGEST NARRATIVES


Legendary producer Robert Evans told a famous story in his biography The Kid Stays in the Picture about Francis Ford Coppola’s first cut of THE GODFATHER. He had finished his edit and showed it to the head of Paramount whereupon Evans blew his stack. “You shot a saga, and you turned in a trailer,” fumed the young mogul. “Now give me a movie!” Coppola insists in the current issue of Vanity Fair that he was delivering what the studio and Evans had demanded of him, a reasonable two-hour movie, but no matter, the director returned to the editing room to make more of it. What he returned with became the classic we all know and love today, a film that was just named the greatest of all-time in the current edition of Empire magazine. I wholeheartedly agree.

Some movies simply need to be longer. They have more story to tell, or they need the proper amount of time to build a mood, follow that trajectory, and fulfill its promise. I’m not sure that every Marvel movie, including the new reboot SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, needs to clock in continually over the two-hour mark, but an epic crime story like THE GODFATHER most definitely needed to do just that. Some movies this summer, Marvel aside, have the exact opposite problem – they are way too brief. One of those films that comes up short, ironically, is directed by Coppola’s daughter Sofia. It’s THE BEGUILED, the remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 classic, and it’s the first of four pictures out this July where length is an issue that The Establishing Shot is addressing today.

THE BEGUILED
I’m not sure why THE BEGUILED was remade, especially when the original was so terrific. Coppola has talked during the press junket for the film about wanting to direct a movie driven more by dialogue, especially when so many of her others have been more visually driven. Think about THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, MARIE ANTOINETTE and THE BLING RING and you'll likely remember the searing visuals more than a line or passage of dialogue. Still, THE BEGUILED didn’t need to be the one where she attempted something different. And frankly, as great as many of its parts are, her remake stumbles due to its lack of proper time management. The film is a scant 90 minutes, 15 minutes less than the 1971 original. And as the narrative just gets over the 30-minute mark, Coppola starts rushing her story's beats. Was timing an issue to her?  Did she think we'd be bored? One wonders what was left on the cutting room floor. Or, to paraphrase what Evans told Sofia’s father, where is the movie?

Many critics have sung the praises of Coppola’s adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s Southern Gothic novel (originally titled A Painted Devil), and indeed, there is much technical finesse in every scene. Coppola is superb at setting a mood and the look of her film here is hauntingly hazy. The story takes place in Virginia during the Civil War, and she filmed at a historic plantation house in Louisiana to conjure the time-period with a lush authenticity of drooping trees, overgrown foliage, and dilapidated elegance. 

Her cinematographer Phillipe Le Sorde makes everything gorgeous with his soft lensing, giving the whole show a painterly feel. Stacey Battat’s ladies’ costumes done are as a series of soft pastels that are both Old School and yet attractive by today’s feminine ideals. And Anne Ross’ production design expresses bygone gentility that was already in retreat in the middle of the war between brother and brother. Everything feels as authentic as a mint julip served in century’s old crystal. 

Coppola’s only failing is in how she times out her story and the mood that shifts with that haste. Any thriller or horror tale is  dependent upon setting up its premise and then taking the time to properly turn the screws for maximum tension. If the set-up for such key story beats are rushed, what’s supposed to be dramatic can quickly become unbelievable and play as silly. We must be given the time to buy into the spectacular story we’re being told. This film fails to do that after the first 30 minutes, and Coppola rushes one key scene after another. Characters become caricatured, performances seem overly done, and the film starts earning unintentional guffaw after guffaw. This is a drama, a battle of wills, a metaphor for two cultures at odds with each other, and it isn’t the kind of material that needs camp or parody. But that’s what happens with Coppola’s rushed pace to the finish line.

The group of seven Southerners at a girls’ school who turn from passive to murderous should play as tragedy, especially given the background of such a bloody war. Coppola’s cast, headed by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, start off seriously enough as their sheltered ladies take in the wounded Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). They fear the war and Yankees as well, but their maternal instincts take over and they attend his wounds and keep him alive. It doesn’t hurt that McBurney turns out to be kind and gentle, or the fact that he’s very handsome. And when they clean him up and shave away his ratty beard, they reveal an alluring figure that all start to regard as their leading man.

Kidman’s Martha Farnsworth, the proprietor of the school, and Dunst as teacher Miss Morrow, are borderline spinsters, standing a little too firmly on propriety, but McBurney melts them too. When Farnsworth sponge bathes the semi-conscious interloper, she caresses every inch of his body except for his genitals and it’s all so overwhelming, Farnsworth gets a bad case of “the vapors.” The scene, which is easily the best in the film, takes its time, elongating and even luxuriating over Farrell’s trim body. Kidman gives the scene a tense sexiness, and some of it elicits laughs, but they’re good giggles as we see her truly warming to her guest.  

From there though, Coppola rushes the leisurely pace needed to become the slow burn of a Gothic potboiler, and in doing so, she loses the grips over her tension and her characters’ believability. Farrell starts slow and cool, but in the next scenes, he becomes a blatant flirt and his overheated pitch would make a car salesman blush. McBurney starts making absurdly overt advances on Farnsworth and Morrow, even going so far as telling the teacher that he loves her and wants to run away with her. Shouldn’t he be slyer? More insinuating? Wouldn’t his character let her fill in all the blanks rather than him playing it so on-the-nose? That’s the tone that Coppola sets up in that first half hour, but she starts betraying after that.

The audience starts teetering and never stops laughing as McBurney becomes a parodied wolf at the door. The oversexed vibe reaches its zenith when the ladies decide to throw a big fancy dinner for him and they all get gussied up like it’s prom. Coppola shows all the women in the house, even the youngest ones, trying their best to be attractive and it earns huge laughs. She even includes a bit where one girl pulls on the corset strings to make another girl fit into her corset a la Scarlett O’Hara, but the girl is reed thin. Plus, she’s probably 10 years old, so does that make any sense? It’s a cliché of the Southern vamp, true, but the instigator here is a child. It’s unseemly.

This film needed to be a very slow burn, letting McBurney’s cunning wrangling seduce us as well. Instead, he’s conveys  subtly as well as Donald Trump did in Billy Bush’s van. Coppola clearly has chosen to side with the wronged women here, but the loyalties in the audience need to be more challenging. She even shortchanges the scene when Morrow catches McBurney in bed with flirty teen Alicia (Fanning, playing it a bit too ripe throughout). The audience gets no sense of how he came to her room, conversed with her and started foreplay. The audience should see the skill with which McBurney talks the underage girl into sex. It’s Morrow who should be gob smacked, not all of us. It comes up so fast, out of nowhere, that we’re left laughing at it like it’s a “Three’s Company” bit where Jack tries to explain to Mr. Roper why he’s in the shower with Chrissie.

From there, the drama should continue to be devastating with Morrow pushing McBurney down the stairs and his leg being so damaged from the fall that Farnsworth decides to saw it off. Yet, Coppola doesn’t show the surgery. Morrow, responsible for inadvertently putting McBurney in such an awful situation, even must help Farnsworth with the removal, and we see none of it. Dunst’s potential best scene is nowhere to be found in this outing. Instead, Coppola cuts to the aftermath the following morning with McBurney throwing an over-the-top hissy fit upon the discovery of his lost appendage. A surgery scene could have been an unbearable echo of that sponge bathing scene, but Coppola misses inherent irony like that.

From there, it’s a dash to the film’s conclusion. Even if Coppola was going for something resembling horror, terror needs be built with proper time and dread. None of that is here. And if she was going for a comedy of manners, then where is the complexity of characters debating what to do in this battle of sexes? They all get onboard the train to become murderous mighty quick, even the young’un’s. Coppola needed to take more time to build to this tragic loss of innocence, and showcase the real education the girls get in that quaint old house. Instead, so much of it feels expedient, as if the filmmaker didn't trust herself with the material. If Evans oversaw this one, he’d be yelling at another Coppola to show him a movie.  


BEATRIZ AT DINNER
Another film that clocks in way too short is BEATRIZ AT DINNER. The whole thing is only an hour and 22 minutes, and that’s including its final credits scroll. It feels too thin, too light, especially given such a short playing time, even though it’s being marketed as the first film for the “Trump era.” Indeed, the villain character in the piece bares more than a passing resemblance to our 45th president. But this isn't an editorial cartoon going in for a quick hit job. It's a movie and it needs to be longer. 

The story concerns Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a gentle, kindhearted masseuse who’s invited to stay for a dinner party at a rich client’s mansion after she gives her a fantastic massage. Client Kathy (Connie Britton) loves what Beatriz does for her lower back and how she also helped heal her daughter years back when she was battling a serious illness. Thus, she believes that Beatriz is more friend than hired help and thinks she’ll fit it with her upper-class friends. Unfortunately, the rest of those at the party, including Kathy’s hubby Grant (David Warshofsky), don’t regard Beatriz with the same openness. They gaze upon her as an anomaly at best, a servant at worst. 

Even though Beatriz is a trained healer, an animal rescuer, and a spiritualist, all the rich guests rounding out the party can only see an immigrant woman, dressed in plain top and jeans, standing a foot shorter than most everyone else at the party. (Shockingly, no one ever remarks how stunning Beatriz is, easily the most beautiful of the women.) Beatriz even has a refined and regal bearing but all that is lost on real estate tycoon Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). 

He’s the Trumpian figure, even given a name that echoes the blunt cockiness of Trump. Strutt is so bigoted that the first words he speaks to Beatriz request her to freshen his drink. From there, he rides her about her heritage and whether she’s in the country legally. No one defends her, and snotty guests Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigny) chortle at Strutt’s interrogation like the kiss-ass business lackeys they are.

Lithgow always makes his villains charming, and here, he imbues Strutt with an easy-going, lofty arrogance. Even when he brazenly brags about his bank account or slurs minorities, he throws away his boasts, presenting a figure that fascinates Beatriz. She thinks she can change him, show him the error of his ways, but as the dinner continues, she realizes her work is cut out for her. Delicious tension builds with the promise of fireworks that will ruin the party. Writer Mike White and director Miguel Artera manage to draw out the steam rising in Beatriz with great aplomb.

Soon, she confronts him about his history of running roughshod over beleaguered communities with his hotels, and tells of how hers in Mexico fell directly victim to such an enterprise there. The straw that breaks her camel’s back is when Strutt passes around his smartphone showing off pictures of him posing with a rhino he cruelly killed for sport. This clash of cultures is palpable and seems to promise a thorough comeuppance for these vile one-percenters at the hands of the crafty Beatriz. But it never comes. Instead, it wastes its burn by failing to deliver legit verbal fireworks. Beatriz essentially gives up with 20 minutes left in the narrative.

This film has another timing problem in that oodles of its screen minutes are spent simply resting on Beatriz’s disapproving face. Why do so if she’s just going to accept she can’t win and say very little? I was hoping for a darkly comic Aaron Sorkin-esque tirade but it never materializes. White can take the piss out of any stuffed shirt as his Jack Black character did throughout SCHOOL OF ROCK, so why is he making Beatriz so mute here? One would expect Beatriz to at least triumph in exposing a weakness of Strutt and bring him down a few pegs, but the best we get is a fantasy scene where she stabs him in the neck. Fake news.

Mike White is a great writer, having penned articulate and witty works like FREAKS AND GEEKS and CHUCK & BUCK. So why is he so quiet here? Things turn positively funereal in the last reel, with Beatriz mourning the loss of decency and righteousness in the world, and she just drifts away. This should be a comedy of manners. And even with its truncated running time, so much of it feels padded. Trim 30 minutes out of it and you might have a smart, cynical short. But here, despite deft work by Hayek, Lithgow and Britton, this dinner feels like one puny and unfulfilling appetizer.


THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
Occasionally, The Establishing Shot delves into the small screen, and there is a BBC made-for-television movie that is now available OnDemand that is not only a must-see, but it demonstrates just how to make the absolute most of time. It’s a new version of Agatha Christie’s famed short story THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION and every second of its 120-minute length crackles with tension and mystery. 

This material has been done many times before, most notably in a superb 1957 production starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich. This take, written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Julian Jarrold, is closer to the original short story, which few realize is a mere 15-pages. And what they’ve done with that short is to blow out the little details in Christie’s writing to make it weightier and more substantial. Phelps remains loyal to the author’s intentions but adds her own twists and turns that enrich the material, so much so that the Christie estate gave this production its full cooperation and endorsement.

The story, as in all five previously done versions on the big or small screen, concerns Leonard Vole, a penniless Londoner who catches the eye of the wealthy Emily French and quickly becomes her boy-toy. When she ends up murdered, he becomes the prime suspect, especially when it’s discovered that French left the entirety of her estate to him. He’s arrested for murder. Meanwhile, Vole’s solicitor John Mayhew discovers he has a wife named Romaine, and not only is she unable to vouch for his alibi, but the vindictive woman has an axe to grind due to her husband’s infidelity. She ends up becoming the star witness for the prosecution and the namesake of the title.

This was shown in England in two one-hour parts on BBC One for the 2016 Christmas holiday, but it’s so sublime it could easily have been released in the theater. This period piece’s production values are exquisite and rival any Cineplex entry this season or last. And the acting is equally as impressive. The tony cast includes Billy Howle as Vole, Andrea Riseborough as his wife, Kim Cattrall as French, Monica Dolan as French’s maid Janet, and best of all, veteran character actor Toby Jones as Mayhew.

This movie manages its time superbly, not wasting one second in its telling. The story never feels rushed, even with a couple of jaw-dropping twists in the last 10 minutes, nor does it feel padded. Every detail that Phelps and Jarrold show us here are utterly crucial to the mystery. It’s a superior Christie production and one that can easily stand shoulder to shoulder with 1974’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS as well as the aforementioned 1957 film production.

Every bit, every shot, every piece shown, matters to the story. Everything is a shrewd clue, whether we realize it or not, from Mayhew’s consistent cough and why that’s important to his rise to power in the story, to just how Felix Wiedmann’s camera lingers on Riseborough’s face, even after her lines are read. Clearly, Jarrold had his editors Adam Bosner and Dave Thrasher do so to showcase her large, expressive eyes and their ability to speaks volumes without uttering a word. And when Wiedmann fills his frame with sunlight during the last 10 minutes taking place at a beachfront resort, its impact is as violent and shocking as the revelations that are brought to light in that setting as well.

If there is any rhyme or reason to this year’s Emmy Awards, THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION should be a frontrunner for top accolades in the TV-movie category. Jones and Riseborough certainly will earn nods as they give two of the year’s best performances. Count on THE CROWN to dominate the drama series categories, but look for this British import to make a dent in the American awards program as well. Indeed, if there is any justice, this WITNESS will persuade its jury of Emmy voters.


TWIN PEAKS
Finally, we come to Showtime’s reboot of the cult classic television series TWIN PEAKS. David Lynch and Mark Frost have been given carte blanche to bring their mystery/soap back to life for a third season some 25 years after ABC cancelled the two-year phenomenon. These filmmakers have been given 18 hours to tell their tale this time, and thus far, the eight hours already aired have been as fascinating as anything ever shown on series television. It may have even eclipsed the first-run series back in 1990-1992 in its talk value and fan determination to pour over what it all means online.

Granted, the new series is confounding some people as well, just like the first one did two decades ago. This is not a straight-forward narrative in the way we’ve come to expect TV to tell its tales. Instead, it’s complex, enigmatic, and even more than a little experimental. Lynch is a maverick who doesn’t like playing by the rules, and here, he may have achieved the ultimate expression of his artistry. Lynch calls it his 18-hour film, and he may be correct. It certainly doesn’t feel like a TV show, even one as elevated as premium cable generally offers.

There are no typical arcs in any given hour the way we are used to seeing in episodic television. Nor do characters get treated the way they do as most series regulars are on the main four networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX). A ton of new characters have been introduced this season, but whether they will return, or even mean very much, remains in question. Will they tie into the central murder mystery? We have yet to see. And Lynch has brought many of the original series’ beloved cast back, but they’ve barely figured in the narrative. Truly, they’re more like glorified cameos. Is Lynch making fun of our expectations of the reunion? And where is fan favorite Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn)? The blogosphere has created a whole world of memes based on that one question.

Most amazing or frustrating, depending upon your POV, is Lynch’s treatment of series lead Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). Instead of returning the dogged and idiosyncratic G-man to solve a new crime in the small Washington state town, Lynch and Frost decided to have the spirit of “Killer Bob” still inside him, where it was at the end of season two, and that inception has turned Coop into a murderous, drug-dealing thug for the past two decades. This “Bad Cooper” is something to see, echoing the long hair of the late, great Frank Silva who played "Bob" so effectively in the first series, and watching MacLachlan portray a venal shit is a genuine treat.

But then, he gets to play other Coopers as well. There’s another doppelganger named Dougie, a ne’er-do-well real estate hack in Vegas who cheats on his wife and racks up gambling debts. The real Cooper has been cosmically shot into his body and now is coming out slowly but surely. Everyone around Dougie thinks he’s just acting strange and it has given McLachlan showcase episodes worthy of awards attention. Still, we’re all left to wonder just when the fully restored “Good Cooper” will return and kick the procedural into high gear. Knowing Lynch, he may or may not make Cooper whole again. Some love that possibility, others can't stop bitching about it online. But those who know and love Lynch, no this is all part of the filmmaker's appeal.

And what are we to make of all that occurred in the already iconic eighth episode? Did that atom bomb test in 1945 release a new devastating strain of violence in the new world order? Was that cockroach/frog hybrid a monster that crawled out of the nuclear fall-out or merely a metaphor for the ungodly monsters created by man’s discovery that he could level the planet? And what did that filthy ghost hobo mean by repeatedly asking, “Got a light?” Are he and his filthy cronies supposed to be urchins of the devil, or man’s manifestation of lost morals? And what is the deal with all that skull crushing? No matter, it was disturbing as hell.


I hope we find out the answers and that this TWIN PEAKS uses its time remaining to be both Lynchian as well as cleverly procedural. We shall see, but no matter what, I’ll be watching. It feels like landmark television, which is really saying something in this new golden age. Let’s hope that Lynch and company make the most of the 10 hours they have left. That’s what I’m longing for - time well spent. With time enough to appreciate every moment of the story. 

"Got a light?"

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