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Sofia Coppola Films Ranked

June 3, 2018

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Rewind back to 2004 when Sofia Coppola was picking up her Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for Lost in Translation. Rather than the usual platitudes you hear in acceptance speeches where deities and sentimental personal-familial epiphanies are the usual inspirational cornerstones, Coppola’s reference to her cinematic forebears was a refreshing change, especially as the range of directors Coppola chose (Michelangelo Antonioni, Wong Kar-wai, Bob Fosse, Jean-Luc Godard) represents a cinephilia antithetical to the insular homogeneity the Oscars has become synonymous for.

It’s what makes Coppola’s filmography a compelling curio on the American cinematic landscape. Although her films have some degree of mainstream context in terms of their production, sheen and reception, she’s operating very much from an auteurist framework – hence why there’s a sameness to her films, but also why an auteur theory approach is justified in analysing her work. Her seven feature films released so far all have a clear through-line of form and content. Very loosely, Coppola’s work can perhaps best be described as more interested in existentials than politics. She likes capturing the ‘feel’ (as Nick Pinkerton perceptively identified) of her scenarios as much as of their dramas – Coppola’s lineage to Antonioni becomes apparent here.

Anyway, having finally caught up with The Beguiled, here’s my review of Coppola’s work – in rank order….

7. The Bling Ring (2013)

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The one Coppola film where I felt her style wasn’t justified and where her usual mastery of the rhetoric of her medium was misjudged. The film’s failure has nothing to do with the ideological merit of her subject matter (most of her protagonists are hardly paragons of virtue), but more to do with the fact that she never captures that detached, existential space between her players and their environment. And also she uses faux framing interviews – which is a cheat that Coppola the narrative sophisticate would usually never countenance.

Full review:

6. A Very Murray Christmas (2015)

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Admittedly, this was a playful little detour for Coppola, hardly a ‘major’ piece of work. It did though reveal the slightly diminishing end-game of her (and many other directors’) idolisation of Bill Murray. As Bill Murray is thrust into a scenario where his ‘Christmas Special’ TV show is put in jeopardy, A Very Murray Christmas ironically shows that Murray’s mordant persona is better used when on the fringes of a given drama, as a form of almost sardonic chorus, rather than being placed up-front and centre, where his detachment can ironically drain the film of its purpose.

Full review:

5. The Beguiled (2017)

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A gorgeous little chamber piece cleverly navigated by Coppola where she bypasses any critical or ideological import. It’s 85 minutes of lovely nothingness – where the design and the dreaminess is essentially the point, as a very low-key ‘battle of the sexes’ plays out in a southern idyll during the dying embers of the American Civil War.

Full review:

4. Marie Antoinette (2007)

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Coppola’s anachronistic, It-girl thesis for Marie Antoinette might initially seem like a narrow and indulgent means of dramatising that historical story, but Coppola’s method has deceptive import as we perceive her piece’s moral on the cocoon of privilege through aesthetic and experience as much as dramaturgy. Marie Antoinette is also thoroughly entertaining, funny and visually pleasing – what Coppola is essentially doing is remixing Marie Antoinette’s own historical joyride for us, the audience.

Full review:

3. Lost in Translation (2003)

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Ideologically, Coppola’s lead characters in Lost in Translation are actually quite a shallow and unattractive bunch, but the reason the film is so enduring is that – once again – Coppola is able to transcend the politics of her players to capture a very epiphanic sense of personal enlightenment that one can often tap into in unfamiliar, disorientating and transient experiences (namely, foreign travel).

Full review:

2. Somewhere (2009)

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Something of a distant cousin to Coppola’s earlier Marie Antoinette, this film is a deceptive existential portrait of how a dissolute materialist undergoes a gentle epiphany of growing consciousness. It’s essentially a riff on the Kierkegaard notion that “the greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all”. The fact that Coppola can take a protagonist and milieu that are superficially so seemingly irredeemable to locate a flash of transcendent redemption only attests to the strength of her craft.

Full review:

1.The Virgin Suicides (1999)

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Coppola’s debut film and something she hasn’t quite managed to surpass in terms of its perfect balance of aesthetics and dramaturgy, of sociopolitical commentary and a privileging of interior, personal pathology. It’s a beautiful film but a very meaningful one too.

Full review:

(June 2018)


The Beguiled

June 2, 2018

The Beguiled (2017)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Actors: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning

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Synopsis: Injured Yankee soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is taken into convalescence in an isolated Virginia girls’ school run by Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and her few remaining students and one teacher. Over a series of weeks, as McBurney recovers, the women respectively develop various bonds with their ‘captive’ male resident…

Review: Yet another variant on Sofia Coppola’s now highly specified signature of airless chamber pieces depicting cocooned malcontents, The Beguiled is unimpeachably attractive and conjures an almost wispy, dreamlike ambience that’s impossible not to sink into.

On the level the narrative operates at, it’s kind of perfect, though it’s also beautifully empty much like, for example, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow which was a delectably designed gothic spooker with nothing really at stake beyond its basic remit to please on a narrative and visual level. And maybe that’s right for The Beguiled too. Although it’s ultimately a light fairytale and Mills and Boon-style battle of the sexes, Coppola is wise not to pin a proto-feminist or political slant to it.

If there’s any import beyond what we see, it’s perhaps the subtext that this languorously isolated little outpost is a cocoon of softness and sensitivity amid a world of grime, brutality and the quagmire of war that is kept mostly out of shot. That reading honours the transcendence of the visual tapestry of the film – a work that could be tagged as an 1864 version of The Virgin Suicides, except this time it is the man under threat – and there’s even a hint of Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ in the gorgeous opening where one of the younger girls, Amy, comes across the Magwitch-style Yankee deserter, John McBurney. It’s the suitable opening informant to what is a casually beautiful film, and another notch in Sofia Coppola’s instantly recognisable and singular body of work. (June 2018)

Spider-Man 3

June 1, 2018

Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Director: Sam Raimi
Actors: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco

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Synopsis: Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) wrestles a number of foes old and new, while also struggling with a symbiote that has invaded his body and darkened not only his Spider-Man persona but his own psyche too.

Review: Anyone familiar with my cinematic tastes will know I’ve kept a steady distance from the slavish, fanboy reception of the decade-long superhero assault on the multiplexes with its barrage of MCU and DCEU packages. It’s probably one of the reasons I never followed up my relative admiration for Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man installments to see the final effort in his (and Tobey Maguire’s) run. Well, that, and the fact it’s always had such a maligned reputation anyway.

Correcting that omission last night, I can clearly see why it’s earned the mantle as by far the worst of Raimi’s trilogy, and it is clear evidence that Raimi and Maguire were right to close the iteration out from this point. The film is phenomenally poorly structured: it has far too many characters necessitating their own little arcs and epiphanies, and Raimi struggles to balance the dramatic integrity of each of those storylines by bouncing inorganically between them – he’s still desperately trying to handle half a dozen resolutions in the final furlong. This choppiness is probably best betrayed by the fact that, three films in, James Franco’s Harry Osborn-Green Goblin subplot still feels out of place and awkwardly tagged on, and Topher Grace’s character morphing into Venom (the obligatory villain origin shtick) occurs incredibly belatedly in the film – perhaps even in the last 30 minutes?

Spider-Man 3 is as rich thematically as the previous two films, but its over-condensed plot sees it speed past more fruitful avenues. The best scene in the whole film is Thomas Haden Church’s escaped convict’s emotional scene with his despairing wife (a great cameo by Theresa Russell) and sick daughter, but this pathos is never really tapped into again as the character soon transforms into Sandman – one of the crappiest villains imaginable both from a conceptual and visual perspective.

Also, the invasive symbiote that turns Peter Parker/Spider-Man to somewhat of a ‘darker’ side is an ingenious philosophical idea – especially when it passes from Parker to Topher Grace’s jealous photographer (a metaphor for your sins passing on to the people around you) – but it’s so lamely introduced (of all the places in the world this meteor could land, it ends up metres away from Peter Parker in New York!) and it gets largely forgotten amid all the other subplots – Sandman, Harry Osborn, Venom, Mary Jane Watson, Gwen Stacy etc.

Just a final thought: the film’s closing set-piece of Mary Jane in another ‘damsel in distress’ moment seems extremely quaint and dated. It’s a sign the intervening 10 years since this film was released have been stratospheric, and, I’m not entirely sure in the current climate that a female character being quite so helpless amid the cacophony of male protagonists and antagonists would be accepted.

Incidentally – here’s a good video essay on the film:

(June 2018)

Get Out

June 1, 2018

Get Out (2017)
Director: Jordan Peele
Actors: Daniela Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener

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Synopsis: Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is taken home to meet the family of his white girlfriend, and things start to unravel sinisterly from thereon….

Review: Writer-director Jordan Peele nails his colours to the mast with a very entertaining, but also very obvious, horror number that seeks to satirise contemporary American race relations.

In technical terms, it’s a fine piece of work. The pre-credits sequence is a clever way of thematising what is to follow as a ‘street’ black man conversely finds himself under threat while walking round a quintessential, white suburban idyll. Then, when the main body of the narrative charts another young black man, Chris, and his unfurling nightmare while at the waspish home of his white girlfriend, Rose, the scenes where Chris has his late-night stroll and is seemingly run straight at by the black gardener, then is sent to the “sunken place” by Rose’s hypnosis-inducing mother, are both unsettlingly surreal.

Dramatically, the film is more ragged though. Probably Peele’s biggest problem is that the racial conceit (and I use that in the truest sense of the word) protrudes too heavily from the off and is made too expository. The officer asking Chris for his ID, even though it was his girlfriend who drove the car into the deer, too neatly underlines the idea of police prejudice against young black men. And Rose’s family’s clumsily ingratiating remarks – which Peele, I think, intends to transmit as realistic representations of white insensitivity and a betrayal of their limited range of reference points to black experience (Obama as president, awkward use of the word “man” or “bro”, comments on Chris’ assumed athletic prowess) – these all come across, ironically, as unsubtle attempts to be subtle on the theme of racism.

Also, Peele paces his drama ineffectively, and there’s no delay or slow build up in his rhetorical attack. The obviousness of the family’s malevolence is signposted immediately by the gothically framed house, the portentous presence of the black servants, and the unnuanced depiction of Rose’s psychotic brother. If Peele had played the white family’s reception of Chris as initially more balanced and benign, then commenced a much subtler shift into co-option, it would have had much more dramatic merit. The allegory of the insidious continuance of a form of slavery is ingenious, but it’s how Peele gets to that point which feels unsatisfactory. (June 2018)

Tarkovsky Films Ranked

May 26, 2018

The films of Andrei Tarkovsky strike a personal resonance with me. They were the subject of my Master’s thesis, and one of the definitive memories of my wannabe bohemian student days in London is a hypnotic summer of Tarkovsky DVDs on loop in my little box room in Chalk Farm. For about three months, I was shrouded in the most baroque of fugues: lapsing in and out a world scored to the sombre, cerebral tones of Johann Sebastian Bach, or an enquiring, metaphysical monologue from the nasal tenor of Anatoly Solonitsyn.

Having recently re-watched Andrei Rublev for the first time in over a decade, I feel compelled to add Tarkovsky to my directorial ranking series, although I would qualify that the first three films feel pretty interchangeable, and the top five are bona fide masterpieces in my opinion.

In reverse order:

7. The Sacrifice (1986)

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Tarkovsky’s closing film, and, released in the year of his death, it has a suitably portentous and soothsaying feel about it. In its allegorical conveyance of a reckoning, it could almost be Tarkovsky’s version of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. Erland Josephson is Tarkovsky’s on-screen proxy, making an ambiguous bargain in exchange for the world not being destroyed in nuclear apocalypse. It perhaps lacks the emotional undertow of Tarkovsky’s better films, in exchange for an almost pulverisingly spartan moral terrain.

6. Ivan’s Childhood (1962)

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Tarkovsky’s first film was his most linear, formally rapturous and narratologically pure piece of work. It falls very much in the slipstream of the new wave of Soviet Thaw cinema. In fact, its dazzling cinematography, sharp editing and swooning sense of fatalism over the sacrifice of youth in the Second World War bears uncanny resemblance to one of the finest films of all-time and the archetypal Thaw film, Michail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (1957).

5. Andrei Rublev (1966)

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Andrei Rublev is one of the most cerebral historical dramas and biopics imaginable. It achieves the near impossible – telling a story of besieged Russian icon painter, Andrei Rublev, over a 25 year period, while also capturing something about not only the canvas of Russian history at the time, but also of its nationhood as a whole. It’s a film at once historically specific, but equally, incredibly abstract and transcendent.

Full review:

4. Nostalgia (1983)

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A mesmerising piece of interior, sensory cinema. It’s a relatively small, spiritual story of a Russian poet ghosting his way round some sites in Italy, that hallucinatingly segues into the same man intermittently slipping into a form of metaphysical dream state – the ‘Nostalgia’ of the film’s title?

Full review:

3. Solaris (1972)

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Perhaps the most beautifully sad film I’ve ever seen. This is sci-fi as it’s meant to be: nothing more than a macguffin around which to wrap the most age-old of human stories – in this case, the relativity of consciousness, the purpose of existence, and the transcendence of love.

Full review:

Feature article:

2. Stalker (1979)

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If Solaris is perhaps the most justified use of sci-fi for emotive, metaphysical purposes, Stalker is just so for its cerebral, philosophical musings. It’s a work of pure imaginative genius in the way it conceives of its post-apocalyptic scenario for a treatise on the fallibility of man. The film also saw Tarkovsky push his genre experimentations (the musical score, set design and use of film stock) to the maximum.

Full review:

1. Mirror (1975)

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Tarkovsky’s most personal film and his most staggeringly experimental and expressionistic work too. He blurs all boundaries between fact and fiction, the past and present, black and white, dream and reality, for a quite mesmeric representation of personal rapture and historical artefact.

Full review:

Feature article:

Solo: A Star Wars Story

May 26, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Director: Ron Howard
Actors: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson

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Synopsis: The story of how Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) developed from a small-time player on Corellia into one of the finest smugglers in the galaxy, acquiring Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon along the way.

Review: The stakes are getting lower with Star Wars films now. Where once the opening, iconic “A long time ago” sequence would act as release valve to the audience’s collective sense of expectation, it’s now been reprised four times in the last two years alone – the loss of its mystique somehow symbolic of the willingness of the saga’s present custodians to flog the Star Wars brand for all its worth.

What’s surprising then is how refreshingly good Solo actually is. For this commentator at least, it makes a welcome change from the overthought, gurning pretensions of the Abrams-Edwards-Johnson fanboy exercises, and it catches something of the frisson of the original entry to the whole saga – A New Hope. It’s back to being just a simple, boy’s own, morally comprehensible action adventure, and none the worse for it. God forbid, but I actually found myself having fun while watching it.

Ron Howard – the ultimate Hollywood hack – was a good choice for the director’s chair when Phil Lord and Christopher Miller dropped out. He knows how to churn out a proficient popcorn thriller, and there’s a lot to be said for placing these sagas in the hands of consummate pros over genre nuts. It’s a similar paradigm to the Bond series where the best movies have been directed by Terence Young and Martin Campbell, not the more illustrious names of Michael Apted and Sam Mendes. Howard moves the story along breezily enough, there’s a great balance between action and drama, and the conceit of the interconnected that has weighed down the three previous Disney Star Wars numbers is less of a burden here.

Alden Ehrenreich does a commendable in the lead role. He’s clearly not trying to ape Harrison Ford, and his character’s sense of confidence and individualism feels natural and understated. Ehrenreich’s chemistry with Emilia Clarke is perhaps the film’s trump card though. Obviously, chemistry is subjective territory for a critic to be skating on, but this is a Star Wars love-match that actually feels like some stakes are involved and there is feeling, but also complexity, to how their relationship plays out amid the drama. It’s certainly a relationship I’d happily watch a sequel for.

Another pleasing little sub-detail of Solo is the amusing inclusion of a droid owned by Lando Calrissian called L3-37. Where the recent Disney films have had clunky group-think narratives to reflect zeitgesty agendas on race, gender, sexuality and history, this droid’s propensity to spout all those ideals is sent up in a very droll way. Its lightness of touch is emblem for the lo-fi, relaxed charms of this surprisingly enjoyable Star Wars saga. (May 2018)


God’s Own Country

May 20, 2018

God’s Own Country (2017)
Director: Francis Lee
Actors: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Ian Hart

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Synopsis: A dissolute young man, Johnny (Josh O’Connor), lives on his Yorkshire family farm with his cold, physically impaired father and grandmother. He is initially hostile to the arrival of a Romanian farmhand, but over a series of nights where both men are required to camp on the outer reaches of the farm, physical intimacy develops between them.

Review: God’s Own Country is one of a trio of serendipitous films, all released within a year’s period of each other, and all centred around a specific narrative – namely, British farming culture, and, very loosely, the dereliction of that way of life – especially the obsolescence of a certain form of troubled masculinity.

The three films are all allegories – the farm is one huge, extended metaphor – although the beauty of the comparison is that they’re all so distinctive in terms of style, sensibility and execution. God’s Own Country is just about the best of the three. Yes, it does the carry the conceit of the brutal through a lot of its running time (there are unflinching scenes of cows being fisted for medical purposes, lame calves being shot in the head, and, main character, Johnny, engaging in rough shags with any willing man he can pick up in the local area). It runs the danger of over-imprinting the notion of Johnny’s hyper-tactility as compensation for his buried emotionality (a legacy from his repressive father) – but crucially it lacks the portentousness and soapy bent of easily the inferior of the three farming features, Dark River.

This physical, material sensibility of God’s Own Country also works in setting up Johnny’s ‘confrontation’ with the soulful Romanian farmhand, Gheorghe, who proceeds to have a balm-like effect on Johnny’s volatility and the otherwise ailing farm too. The second half of the film is actually quite uplifting and conventional in the way that it induces conflict and reconciliation, but Francis Lee shapes the story so tenderly and poetically, and actors Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu generate huge pathos with two exceptionally well-judged performances: their gracefulness stands for the overall qualities of this – one of the finest British films of recent years. (May 2018)