Opening this weekend:
The BFG—The title stands for “Big Friendly Giant,” and the title character is just that—a pleasant colossus (Mark Rylance) whose job is deliver pleasant dreams. A young English orphan girl, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) ends up as his houseguest and friend.
“Big” is a relative term, as it turns out. The BFG’s neighbors in giant land are much bigger than he is, and the monstrous, thuggish brutes (led by Jemaine Clement) routinely bully him. They’re also much less friendly, especially to humans—in the grand tradition of giants, they’re eager to eat Englishmen/women (and presumably any other nationality). The BFG won’t do this—he maintains a vegetarian diet mostly consisting of a revolting-looking produce item called a snozzcumber. He’s also fond of a carbonated beverage with downward-traveling bubbles that induce epic intestinal activity.
Steven Spielberg directed this adaptation of one of Roald Dahl’s strange tales for children. The script is by the great Melissa Mathison, who passed on last year, and to whom the film is dedicated. Mathison wrote the scripts for such kid-movie classics as The Black Stallion (1979) and E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), as well as the underrated 1995 The Indian in the Cupboard. At her best, she was able tap into the subconscious power of such tales. I never thought she got as much credit for, in particular, the success of E.T. as she should have; the best lines in that movie carry an almost Jungian tingle, without the slightest pretension.
Her swansong was another script for Spielberg with, curiously, another initialed title character who befriends a little kid. I wish I could say that the result was another classic, but I think this one falls a little short of their earlier achievement. Visually it has the feel of a throwback, to the sort of fantasy movies made in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Some of these were by Spielberg himself, in the worst phase of his career—like 1991’s Hook, probably my least favorite Spielberg film—and some of them were by other filmmakers trying to imitate Spielberg and his command of the box office. Like Hook, The BFG is all painterly colors and delicate compositions of the sort that wins Caldecott Medals for book illustrators, and the music, by John Williams of course, has the same soaring, leaping manner that Williams seems able to muster in his sleep.
As for the story, it has the free-wheeling, sometimes slightly sinister absurdity that is the trademark of Dahl’s stories for kids, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The BFG goes in for a degree of kid-pleasing scatology, as well. The Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) samples the BFG’s favorite beverage, for instance, with predictably Chaucerian results.
But somehow the energy just isn’t there with this one. There’s something muted and melancholy to the atmosphere of The BFG that makes it feel heavy and slow and draggy in its first half. Things certainly pick up in the second half, when the more broadly comic stuff kicks in, but even this shift feels vaguely forced—the dream-logic of the goofy narrative doesn’t seem organic.
All that said, there’s a redemptive virtue to The BFG, and that’s Mark Rylance. Endowed via CGI with a long nose and enormous ears below his sloping forehead and swept-back white hair, this great actor, who justly won an Oscar this year for his turn in Bridge of Spies, dries any schmaltz out of the film with his quiet, matter-of-fact line readings. And his young costar Barnhill is impressive, too—she’s a cute kid, but you never see her being cute on purpose.
The Purge: Election Year—Writer-director James DeMonaco’s Purge movies, of which this is the third, are dystopian chillers set in a not-too-distant future America wherein, once a year for twelve hours, law and order is suspended and all crimes are fair game. The supposed premise is that a wild night of unchecked murder and vandalism will exorcise everybody’s demons and society will be more stable the rest of the year.
This loathsome holiday is explicitly reactionary in origin. DeMonaco seems to think that it’s the natural extension of the hardcore Right’s gun fever and evangelical fervor and class and racial animus, if they ever decided to drop the self-righteous posing. I wish, in light of the current primary season, that I was more confident that he’s wrong about this.
But that doesn’t mean that the movie, set in Our Nation’s Capitol, isn’t exultantly stupid and disgusting. It’s also one of the more disingenuous films I’ve ever seen, inviting our contempt at a social outrage of its own invention, while eliciting bloodthirsty whoops of delight every time one of the “Purgers” gets flattened by the good guys.
Said good guys include a Senator (Elizabeth Mitchell, in the specs of a sexy librarian from an ‘80s video) who’s running for President on a vow to abolish the Purge, and her security man (Frank Grillo). These two, stuck on the street after an assassination attempt, are befriended by the owner of a D.C. deli (Mykelti Williamson) and his friends (Joseph Julian Soria and Betty Gabriel) who are trying to defend their store from vengeful Purgers. The whole gang gets swept up into a revolutionary movement against the creepy “New Founding Fathers.”
Ugly and satirically ham-fisted as the movie is, it would be useless for me to deny that I found it a perfectly well-made and exciting Jacobean bloodbath. The dialogue is a little stilted at times, but the actors are easy to sympathize with, the story is tightly constructed, and DeMonaco knows how to use horror shtick—scary masks, cheap shocks—to build an unsavory atmosphere of dread. Election Year—like this election year— may be improbable and revolting, but it isn’t boring.