THE BEGUILED (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Sexuality

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

Written by: Sofia Coppola

(based on the novel A PAINTED DEVIL by Thomas P. Cullinan)

Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard & Addison Riecke

I’ve heard about 1971’s THE BEGUILED and apparently it’s known as an unconventional entry in Clint Eastwood’s filmography, though I have yet to watch it. I mention that tidbit to let you know that I walked into Sofia Coppola’s hotly anticipated BEGUILED remake with little-to-no preconceived notions about what I was about to watch. The trailer intrigued me as this basically looked like a psychological thriller that contained a tense war of the sexes at an all-girls school during the Civil War. While the first film told the story from Eastwood’s character’s point-of-view, Sofia Coppola aimed to tell this story from the girls’ points-of-view. Though it does have a couple of effective scenes, THE BEGUILED is mostly an underwhelmingly bland viewing experience.

In the midst of the Civil War, a small group of young girls and two adults take refuge in a Virginia all-girls school. The women make do with what they have and life seems almost tedious, until one of the students stumbles across wounded Union soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Taking pity on the poor soul, headmistress Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to his wounds, locks him in a bedroom, and kindly neglects to inform passing Confederate soldiers about the enemy in their midst. As the days go on, John’s wounds begin to heal and he desperately attempts to manipulate all of the women around him in order to stay alive. It turns out that John might have been better off in the war-torn landscape, because hell has no fury like a woman (or group of women) scorned…

THE BEGUILED has an intriguing set-up. From what I hear, the 1971 version is rather intense and strange. However, Sofia Coppola’s take on the material seems to be more in the form of a dark drama. When I say dark drama, I don’t strictly mean the story’s content. Though the trailer contained lots of well-shot and well-lit scenes, it’s hard to make out what’s happening in certain sequences. Those previously mentioned trailer visuals might have had added touch-ups, because I struggled to figure out what the hell was happening during many important (but poorly lit) moments. This might just be a sad side effect of the disc release, but I highly doubt that.

To further harp on this more-than-noticeable problem, a dinner scene appears to be authentically shot with candles as a sole light-source. It’s ambitiously realistic to the point where the viewer can’t see much of anything on the set. There are enough poorly lit scenes to become a big annoyance, especially as really crucial scenes happen during late hours of the night (with no light source). The Southern Gothic atmosphere doesn’t feel convincing either as the costumes feel stagey (even though they were crafted from period authentic material) and the locations seem manufactured (even though they shot this film in Louisiana and at a real New Orleans house).

At the very least, you’d hope that BEGUILED would successfully use big talent who are sure to deliver strong performances, right? Well, you’d also be sadly mistaken on that front as well. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman do the bare minimum of what’s expected of them in this story. Farrell’s character does seem like quite the scumbag, even though he’s fighting on the right side of the war. However, his ultimate desperation doesn’t feel nearly as desperate as it should feel (especially as he’s begging to remain as a gardener and avoid the rest of the war altogether). The same can be said about Nicole Kidman’s headmistress, who seems oddly wooden in her delivery. I should potentially be scared of her character, but she only seems tepidly threatening by occasionally flashing a stern look. That’s about all the darkness that she emotes in her performance.

What the BEGUILED gets totally right is a sense of believable connection between the students at the girls school. Apparently, Sofia Coppola worked on building a community of friendships between the young actresses and that comes across in their performances. Elle Fanning gets to play a real brat this time around too, while Kirsten Dunst is the most sympathetic character in the entire film. The rest of the young actresses also appropriately come off as either bitchy or charming, depending on the moment.

The BEGUILED’s biggest problem is that it’s too simple and, at points, noticeably dull. You can guess how this movie is going to play out well before the end credits roll. To make matters worse, the ride of getting to the all-too-predictable finale isn’t exactly a fun one either as it feels like Sofia Coppola is hitting things in a fairly safe by-the-numbers fashion. This material should feel far more interesting than it does here. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 1971 original is vastly superior to this 2017 remake, because a lot of this film’s problems mostly come down to its bland execution and poorly lit production values. Even though I had hopes for THE BEGUILED, I’d recommend passing up on this disappointment. If you don’t wind up seeing THE BEGUILED, you’re not missing much.

Grade: C-

JUMANJI (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Menacing Fantasy Action and some mild Language

Jumanji poster

Directed by: Joe Johnston

Written by: Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh & Jim Strain

(based on the book JUMANJI by Chris Van Allsburg)

Starring: Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, David Alan Grier, Jonathan Hyde & Bebe Neuwirth

JUMANJI is one of three films featuring Robin Williams that I wore out on VHS as a child (the other two being ALADDIN and HOOK). It was also from an era where family entertainment took more risks and didn’t mind having an element of real danger in any threats being shown. Based on a children’s book of the same name, JUMANJI can be considered somewhat of a scary movie for children. It doesn’t feature any out-and-out monsters, but the idea of having two kids exposed to deadly jungle animals unleashed from a supernatural board game isn’t necessarily going to suit all ages. However, if a child can handle the likes of GREMLINS or HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, then this should probably be fine. Despite being nearly two decades old, JUMANJI holds up remarkably well.

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The year is 1969. Alan Parrish is a young boy bullied by his classmates and living under the name of his rich factory-owner father. One day, Alan uncovers a mysterious board game called Jumanji buried at a construction site. After beginning to play Jumanji with his best friend Sarah, Alan disappears inside of the game and Sarah is chased out of his house by a pack of wild bats. Twenty-six years later, orphaned siblings Judy and Peter move into Alan’s old home with their aunt and stumble upon Jumanji.  Two rolls of the dice later and they realize that the game possesses some kind of supernatural power and releases something from the jungle each turn (e.g. dangerous animals or natural disasters). It’s up to young Judy and Peter, a now-grown Sarah, and a returned fish-out-of-water Alan to finish the game and end the chaos.

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I didn’t know that this film was directed by the same guy who made HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS and THE PAGEMASTER. While those films aren’t perfect by any means, they inject some palpable danger into usually safe kiddie fare. This film is far from your average kid’s flick. JUMANJI is full of creativity and imagination. The story is fast-paced and danger lurks around every corner. The various threats are likely to get the intended reaction of frightening kids or even scaring adults in some cases. Besides some expected animals from the jungle (e.g. a lion, some monkeys, rhinos, etc.), we do get deadly plants and some freaky looking spiders that pop up near the end. Though the film is not nightmarish, it could easily give kids bad dreams from those spiders alone.

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The characters are well-developed, despite a couple of iffy performances. Without a doubt, Robin Williams is the stand-out as Alan. He’s not so much a comedic figure, but a hero facing his fears. There’s an element of heartbreak to his character and Williams does the best he can with that. This is a kid who’s barely returned to the modern world and is adjusting to everything around him, including one of the more emotional moments of the film that winds up strengthening the relationship between himself and the two orphaned siblings. I didn’t care too much for Judy or Peter at the beginning as they come off as stereotypical kids. After the touching moment with Williams, I bought their characters. This is all in spite of shaky acting from both Bradley Pierce and Kirsten Dunst. Bonnie Hunt is solid as Sarah and delivers more comic relief than Williams, but it’s not enough to derail how dire the circumstances are in this film. Another wise move was casting Jonathan Hyde as both Alan’s tough father and a villainous hunter from the game.

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The movie is not without a few other problems that come in two areas. The humor can be a bit much at points. A band of monkeys make repeated appearances in jokey scenes that almost feel like they’re from a completely different film. Also, there’s an extended sequence with Van Pelt (Jonathan Hyde’s evil hunter) in a store that was too forced and played like a bad slapstick routine. To be completely fair, the movie is based on an award-winning children’s book, so some of the silliness can be seen from the source material. The effects are a blend of practical and CGI. Most of these hold up, but some CGI hasn’t aged too well (e.g. the monkeys and a comical moment involving quicksand).

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Distinct deviations were made from the children’s book and these benefit the movie as a whole. The story is more complicated, rules to the game of Jumanji drive everything forward, and the end result is as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids. The soundtrack is also great and conveys the danger/emotion of certain scenes very well, but not in any over-the-top way that might annoy viewers. Another cool thing is how little details occur around the characters. The movie doesn’t stay confined to within the walls of one house. The world outside plays a big part in the story and plot elements make it apparent that the perils of the game aren’t just affecting the main protagonists. A stampede of large animals running loose on the street and deadly bugs are attacking people around the town. It’s not only the characters’ lives are at stake, but the lives of everyone in the city around them.

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As the film comes down to an exciting climax, Alan’s home is in shambles and the experience has almost worn the viewer to exhaustion in a very good way. I was sucked into the world of this movie. It felt like I had gone on for the ride with these characters. The performances aren’t stellar across the board and some of the comedy relief falls flat. Not all of the effects hold up. However, a great deal of respect should be given to JUMANJI as it’s a piece of family entertainment that takes risks and is original. Rewatching a movie like this makes me wish that more films today were original adventures that had big budgets thrown into them. JUMANJI is a rollicking adventure that stands the test of time!

Grade: B+

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