Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Nosh 71: 'The Beguiled,' 'The Hero' & More

By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews of The Beguiled and The Hero

The Beguiled
What do I recall of Don Siegel’s The Beguiled in 1971, my first full year as a film critic? I remember Clint Eastwood in one of his early efforts to actually act, as the wounded Union soldier at a Dixie women’s school run by Geraldine Page, who lady-lords over him and the smoldering (for Clint) girls. I remember some Southern flavoring of erotic tension, ripening into sadism. But mostly it’s vague – more misty than Play Misty For Me (same year, Eastwood directing) with Clint as the cool DJ fending off a crazy lover (Jessica Walter) straight from bachelor hell.

Now Sofia Coppola re-makes The Beguiled, her script modestly rehabbing the original by Albert Maltz (fabled blacklist victim) and novelist Thomas Cullinan. Colin Farrell is the leg-wounded Yank, McBurney, found bleeding by an academy girl. There are five students, plus headmistress Nicole Kidman and teacher Kirsten Dunst (the men are off serving Gen. Lee, the slaves have fled). The soldier’s wound is seen more viscerally than in 1971, if not 1864.

Mainly Coppola lays on her proven skill with female options and detailed atmosphere. Some images recall old photos by Julia Cameron and Clarence J. Laughlin. The school’s white Corinthian columns seem the last, imperiled totems of a racist nation, dying like the slave empires of Greece and Rome. The females wear lovely white, and their maidenly Christian piety (prayers, candles) is foreplay for lust.

As long as it is subtle and suspenseful, the new Beguiled is good work. Farrell radiates sly Irish charm as each fem (even the girls) schemes for his attentions. But then – the signal is Kidman barking “Bring me the anatomy book!” – it jolts into Dixie gothic gumbo: mutilation, rape, and Farrell in a manly storm of bad acting. We’re back on the plantation veranda with James Mason in Mandingo as he sips a mint julep, fondles a whip, and awaits his dear friend Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.   

The Hero
With his flowing silver hair, droop moustache and voice of a Marlboro cave man, Sam Elliott is less icon than logo. He’s an Old West brand, as potent as bull semen (and played a fine, hateful villain on TV’s Justified). In The Hero he is Lee Hayden, 71, a fading Western star. There are no movies to ride, and the golden voice is bored, recording a radio pitch for Lone Star BBQ sauce. Lee’s cancer (revealed early) promises no remission. No John Wayne “big C” bravado from Lee. But two good things happen: He gets a career award from a nostalgia group, and he meets a woman.

Savvy Charlotte (Laura Prepon) seems to be the sex sunset he needs, a hip-as-now wow, Bacall to his Bogart. Buzzed on desire, drink and her gift of “fairy powder,” Lee gives a unique acceptance speech, which goes viral. But then Charlotte (really director Brett Haley’s script) sinks it all with a crass, public faux-pas. Neither the movie nor the romance recover. You can’t heal a humiliation so wounding with Hallmark chatter about death, lovely shots of waves bubbling at the beach, or even Charlotte’s tender verse from Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Solid footnotes are Katharine Ross as Lee’s ex-wife, Krysten Ritter as his angry daughter, and Nick Offerman as a ganja-sharing, Buster Keaton-loving pal. Elliott does heartfelt underplaying as the old saddle champ haunted by his one mythic movie. In flashback it looks generic, like a TV dream of a weed trip fantasy. Any bid for Elliott’s late-career Oscar had better come with terrific BBQ sauce and a fat Jamaican spliff.

SALAD (A List)
Major Dixie Females of Film: Baby Doll (Carroll Baker, Baby Doll), Blanche (Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire), Carrie (Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful), Clara (Joanne Woodward, The Long Hot Summer), Clio (Ingrid Bergman, Saratoga Trunk), Daisy (Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy), Ella (Jo Van Fleet, Wild River), Frankie (Julie Harris, The Member of the Wedding), Julie (Bette Davis, Jezebel), Lady (Anna Magnani, The Fugitive Kind), Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Marjorie (Mary Steenbergen, Cross Creek), Minny (Olivia  Spencer, The Help), Pursy (Scarlett Johansson, A Love Song For Bobby Long), Rebecca (Cicely Tyson, Sounder), Regina (Bette Davis, The Little Foxes) and Scarlett (Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind). 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
As Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles, English actor Christian McKay was “a gift of the gods to the movie. Not quite as tall, nor as vocally supple, he is still the Big O in many ways: moon-faced Svengali charm, sardonic lift of the eyebrow, tantrums and endearments, blazing ego, the Borgian greed for food and work and women. Above all, McKay generates the almost un-matchable excitement that made many proud, gifted people ready, even eager, to eat some dirt for Wellesian creative gold.” (From my 2009 review.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
To young Matthew McConaughey’s clear strengths add “the virtues of absence: not agingly boyish like Tom Cruise, not middle-weight McQueen like Brad Pitt, not preppy-cute like Ben Affleck, not macho-stolid like Matt Damon, not fetchingly fey like Johnny Depp, not a goofball like Nicolas Cage, not a beef buffet like Channing Tatum, not a red-carpet media totem like George Clooney. Here was the best Texan for movies since Tommy Lee Jones, and far more likeable.” (From the McConaughey/Dallas Buyers Club chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation

Christian McKay as Welles as Brutus, in Me and Orson Welles (Isle of Man Films, 2009; director Richard Linklater, cinematographer Dick Pope).

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