Reviews: “Beguiled,” “The Dinner,” “It Comes At Night,” “Aftermath,” “Mean Dreams”

By | October 30, 2017

A quintet of dark, mostly joyless dramas that are different degrees of downers, but there’s only a couple I’d recommend if you were on an airplane and had seen most everything else…

The Beguiled…I’ve liked every movie Sofia Coppola has made…until now. After watching this surprisingly bad remake, I sought out the original: Clint Eastwood’s far superior 1971 hot-house Southern Gothic drama (now streaming on HBO-Go if you want to see this material done right, which is to say “wrong”). The restrained, humanely empathetic, and sometimes-maddeningly nuanced Coppola may have been a uniquely bad choice to direct a Civil War-era psycho-sexual drama where a wounded Union soldier winds up being taken in at an all-girls school, lusted after by the teachers and some of the older students until things get violent. Coppola strips the material of its commentary on race (a female slave from the original is whitewashed out of this version), fading sexuality with age (the spinsterly matron character so hauntingly played by Geraldine Page in the original is now played by Nicole Kidman of all people, not even looking much older than Farrell or her closest romantic rival Kirsten Dunst), incest (that entire subplot is gone), rape (the rape of a female slave and Eastwood’s aggressiveness towards her is gone), and even the central plot has been mostly rinsed of the hysterical sexuality that gave so much of the 70’s version its charge. This is a Grindhouse movie remade as a Merchant Ivory “picture” and the most shocking thing about it is how boring it is, as nothing much happens for the first two-thirds and even the “explosive” last third feels overly muted, with several key scenes of violence actually coming off a little vague and unconvincing. Grade: C-

The Dinner…I might have been the only book reviewer in the world that didn’t like the Dutch novel “The Dinner,” but that book now seems like a masterpiece compared with the outright lousy film that’s been adapted from it. For starters, the book’s uniquely chilly and cynical European sensibility has been poorly Americanized by writer/director Oren Moverman (a director whose films I’ve never liked as much as I’ve wanted to), and you wonder why he didn’t just keep the Dutch setting or even move the story to England rather than force-in subplots about the Civil War or ask Steve Coogan to adopt one of the worst American accents you’re likely to hear in a movie this decade. [You wonder how a guy who can riff and do impressions with Rob Brydon in all those “Tour” movies can’t change his vowels to save his life.] And even beyond the accent, Coogan gives the worst performance of his career, turning the novel’s ingratiatingly psychotic narrator into a confused, bitter whiner it’s nearly impossible to feel anything for. Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall (Hall has a persuasive scene with Richard Gere that’s easily the best thing here) are solid, but even here the film doesn’t give the novel its due since their character’s devastating motivations for sanctioning a violent act in the finale of the book are softened in an ambiguous ending that undercuts the book’s bleak endorsement of sociopathy. A more faithful adaptation of the book may have been a tough sit for even indie audiences, but at least it had a worldview, and a tighter-focused plot (this thing is at least 30 minutes too long), actually letting its central quartet go at each other, whereas way too much of the film doesn’t actually take place at the title dinner. Grade: D

It Comes at Night…It’s not really a horror film at all, and I suspect part of the reason for its bad-audience grade from Cinemascore (polled audiences gave it a “D” and it fell off pretty quickly at the box office) is because the film’s ad campaign—and other critics—have failed to mention this. This has been sold as a zombie chiller right up there with early John Carpenter, but it’s much closer to a downbeat drama not totally unlike the rest of this list. The plague featured doesn’t turn its victims into zombies, just highly contagious carriers, and that means all of the scares (and tension) is provided by trying to figure out who has it among the two families who wind up living together. The movie introduces interesting ideas—like the main couple’s teenaged son spying on the newly arrived, young couple’s love-making, and possibly harboring feelings for the wife—but goes nowhere with them, and you keep waiting for Joel Edgerton’s over-protective father to clash more with Christopher Abbott’s new guest. [The movie doesn’t even have the dramatic sense to make them rivals, or even Abbott an annoying interloper.] I also didn’t like that this was the 4000th negative portrayal of an interracial couple as Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo start the movie sad and dealing with tragedy, and well…you fill in the rest…Grade: C-

Aftermath…The best of the bunch, and so, naturally, it has the worst reviews. But this film—based on a true story—stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a man whose wife and daughter are killed when two planes collide into each other, the fault of a mistake committed by Scoot McNairy’s air traffic controller, and the two begin a slow trek towards a fateful meeting. What works are the two central performances (McNairy is particularly heartbreaking), the real investment in character, the honest portrayal of grief, and the unexpectedly smart and subtle take on the material (there’s barely a cliche in this, right down to how the crash takes place, a scene of quietly muted tension that really does build into a believable, horrible “whoops” moment McNairy’s character could easily make). In a world of police shootings and asking questions about how accountable our positions of power should be for their mistakes, there may be more relevance to this film than other reviewers picked up on. Grade: B+

Mean Dreams…I mostly watched this film because it contains Bill Paxton’s final screen performance, and I suspect that might be true for a lot viewers that seek this out, but I’m glad I did. The film itself—in which Canada subs in for rural America, and a convincing coming-of-age romantic drama eventually morphs into a fugitive thriller—is only so-so, but Paxton shines in the role of a pitiful, charismatic, mean, and half-empathetic dirty cop. The kind of man that thinks nothing of breaking every law he’s supposed to be upholding, beating his daughter, drinking while nearly drowning her quasi-boyfriend, etc. but interlaces that bad behavior with moving monologues, wry charm, and a coldly pragmatic logic that makes the actual hero of the movie (a hard-working farm kid) look more than a little naive. Grade: B

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