SEBERG (2020)

May 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Who is Jean Seberg?” A reporter asks the question to her, just before the movie star’s agent escorts him away as she prepares for publicity shots on PAINT YOUR WAGON, the outlandish 1969 musical-comedy in which she co-starred with Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. It’s also a question we expect a film entitled SEBERG to answer, though it never really does. Oh sure, we get the basics: small town girl (Marshalltown, Iowa), Hollywood starlet, activist, target of FBI, and tragic ending. Unwisely, the film tries to cram in too many other pieces of a puzzle – a puzzle plenty interesting on its own.

Kristen Stewart stars as Jean Seberg, the breakout star of the French New Wave Cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS (1960). Ms. Stewart brings much more than a short haircut to the role. It’s not a stretch to imagine Ms. Stewart has experienced some of the downside to fame that Ms. Seberg experienced during her career, so it’s no surprise that the moments of torment and frustration and anxiety are the film’s best. Even as a teenager in Iowa, Ms. Seberg showed signs of an activist-in-development. She ran off to Hollywood and was discovered by director Otto Preminger and cast in the lead role for his SAINT JOAN (1957). Seberg actually suffered severe burns during the filming of a key scene – one which is reenacted by Stewart for this film.

Director Benedict Andrews working with a script from Joe Shrapnel (grandson of actress Deborah Kerr) and Anna Waterhouse (they also co-wrote THE AFTERMATH and RACE), focuses mostly on the period of 1968-1971. We see Seberg’s first encounter with Hakim Abdullah Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on a commercial flight, and her follow-up pose with the Black Panthers for a publicity shot on the tarmac. This kicks off an FBI investigation, as well as an affair between Seberg (married to novelist and filmmaker Romain Gary, played by Yvan Attal) and Jamal (married to Dorothy, played by Zazie Beetz). We see how Seberg landed on Hoover’s FBI watch list, and how she was sincerely trying to help what she saw as a worthy cause.

We watch the FBI meticulously build a file on Seberg, albeit illegally under the COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program) program. Surveillance was used to work towards their goal of running a smear campaign against Seberg due to her support of the Black Panther Party. Jack O’Connell plays FBI Agent Jack Solomon, and Vince Vaughan plays his partner Carl Kowalski. Family dinner time at the Kowalski home is anything but leisurely fun, and it’s an unnecessary scene meant to contrast Kowalski’s character with that of Solomon. It’s here where the film falters. An inordinate amount of time is spent on Agent Solomon and his conscience and his med-student wife Linette (a sinfully underutilized Margaret Qualley).

The film would have been best served by focusing on either Seberg or Solomon. The two stories dilute the effectiveness, and beyond that, the Black Panther story line fades, as does the whole celebrity-as-an-activist subplot. Instead, Seberg’s breakdown and Solomon’s second thoughts share center-stage. The film does succeed in exposing the extremes Hoover’s organization would go to in order to discredit someone whose beliefs might not have meshed with what was deemed proper for the times. What happened to Seberg was a tragedy, and according to Mr. Gary, led to the loss of her career and eventually to her death.

The film bounces from Paris to Los Angeles, and the set decorations and costumes are picture perfect for the era. There are actual Black Panther clips shown, and Ms. Stewart also reenacts a scene from BREATHLESS. Regardless of the script and story issues, Kristen Stewart delivers a terrific performance as Jean Seberg, and keeps our attention the entire time. We like her and feel for her as she slips. The real Ms. Seberg was found dead in a car at age 40, and suicide was suspected, though mystery still surrounds her death to this day. Lastly, just a piece of free advice … if you are looking to do good things in life, having a marital affair is rarely the right first step.

Available on Amazon Prime beginning May 15, 2020

watch the trailer:


THE BANKER (2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The ‘long con’ usually doesn’t work for movies since the story must be told within a 2 hour window. However, writer-director George Nolfi and co-writers Brad Kane, Niceole R Levy, David Lewis Smith and Stan Younger deliver a story inspired by the true actions and events of men who found a clever way to circumvent a system designed to prevent people of color from succeeding in business.

Anthony Mackie puts on glasses and a few sharp suits to play Bernard Garrett. We see young Bernard as a shoeshine boy in Willis, Texas in 1939, eavesdropping on the businessmen as they chat about high finance, and then taking notes on subjects such as return on investment and calculating property value. Young Bernard grows into a math whiz adult … one whose ambition is hampered only by the color of his skin. He has a chip on his shoulder and is intent on proving the world wrong. His supportive wife Eunice (Nia Long) introduces him to Los Angeles entrepreneur Joe Morris (Samuel L Jackson), whose enterprising approach and bold lifestyle both complements and contrasts with Bernard’s ambition and straight-laced personality.

Bernard realized early on that in order to build the real estate portfolio he envisioned … one that could provide opportunity for others in the black community … he needed the face of a white man to handle the negotiations. Initially that white face belonged to Patrick Barker (Colm Meaney), and the business grew quickly. Things really take off for the Garrett – Morris partnership when they begin training Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) how to be the face of the company. Bernard’s shrewd business and financial sense flies over Steiner’s head, but with practice, he learns to “act” the part. Steiner’s training involves everything from golf to math to dinner table etiquette.

It was the late 1950’s and early 1960’s … racism was rampant. The Garrett – Morris story plays like an underground rebellion, and one that is surprisingly fun to watch unfold on screen. While the two men built their personal wealth, their actions also helped fight against racism and inequality. They ended up owning 177 buildings, and things might have continued on had Garrett not, against Morris’ better judgment, decided they were strong enough to change things back in his hometown of Willis, Texas. Morris labeled Garrett’s plan as “social activism” rather than business. Their real estate venture morphed into banking so that blacks could have access to business and personal loans. What seemed like a minor misstep from Steiner, blew the wheels off and created a worst case scenario for Garrett and Morris.

Mackie, Hoult and Jackson are all fun to watch here, with Mr. Jackson offering up many of his patented reaction shots and laughs. If anything, the filmmakers play things a bit too safe with the story-telling. It’s all a bit too slick and glossy, given the times. Sure, it’s a pleasure to see what amounts to a classic car show on the street, but it’s difficult to imagine things went quite this smoothly right up until they didn’t. This is an Apple TV production, and its release was delayed due to controversy surrounding Garrett’s second wife (not depicted in the film) and his son, who was originally listed as a Producer. An “Inspired by true events” banner to open a film typically means some dramatic license was taken, which we can assume was the case here. Regardless, the story of Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris and Matt Steiner is fascinating, and worthy of being told.

watch the trailer:


AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

April 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In what was originally titled “Avengers: Infinity War Part 2”, we get the much-anticipated conclusion to the most recent 22 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films … specifically Phase 3. Regardless if you are a deep-rooted fanboy or a casual viewer, you likely know the questions heading into this finale:

 

Can the Avengers defeat Thanos?

What role will Captain Marvel (and her pixie haircut) play?

Will those who died in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR be brought back to life?

Will Tony Stark/Iron Man make it back from drifting in space?

Who will survive this final battle?

 

We knew this one had to be big, and in fact, it’s colossal/humongous/monumental … whatever your preferred adjective might be. And you can rest easy knowing that all of the above questions are answered quite clearly in this 3 hour epic from co-director brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the same directors and writers behind AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and a few other MCU entries).

Marvel has excelled over the past decade plus by combining interesting characters, understandable story lines, visually stunning effects, and clever humor. This finale offers all of that and more. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect ending to this galactic odyssey … and I don’t offer that praise lightly. From the use of Traffic’s classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and a gut-wrenching opening scene that yanks us right back into that feeling of dread provided by ‘Infinity War’, we know we are in for a ride that is quite a bit more somber and even more emotional than what we’ve come to expect.

The fallout from the Thanos snap is clear as we catch up with Black Widow, Captain America, Thor and Hulk. Each is dealing on their own terms, and while the Banner-Hulk merger is quite something to behold, trust me when I say, you’ve never imagined seeing Thor in his current state. This marks Chris Evans’ 10th film as Captain America, and he is front and center through much of the film – as is, in a bit of a surprise, Karen Gillan as Nebula. It makes sense given her tie to Thanos, and Ms. Gillan holds up quite well in the spotlight.

Since the previous and speculation has been on time travel and the Quantum Realm, brace yourself for a bit of convoluted talk about how that works, but that’s the closest thing to a negative I have to offer – and even that is offset by numerous punchlines at the expense of BACK TO THE FUTURE and most every other time travel movie ever made.

The theatre was packed with Dallas area critics and industry folks, and there was a significant amount of cheering, applauding and more than a few sniffles. Yes, this one will take you on an emotional journey as well as a visual one. It has a tough/emotional beginning and a tough/emotional ending. These are characters we’ve gotten to know over multiple films … and you should know just about every major or mid-major character from every Marvel film makes an appearance, as do numerous minor ones. It’s quite a remarkable reunion. And yes, the brilliance of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One more than offsets the Pepper Potts scenes.

Creator Stan Lee does get his final posthumous cameo (good for more applause), and there is a ‘women’s movement’ moment that seems to be Marvel’s “we hear you” statement. Much of what we see is “inevitable”, but as the Avengers assemble this last time, we are there to laugh, cry and gasp. This is what happens when ‘over-the-top’ is ‘just right’.

watch the trailer:

 


MISS BALA (2019)

January 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the reasons I so enjoy movies is that I can usually find some positive to latch onto, even if most of the project fails to connect or generate much interest. Such is the case with this latest from director Catherine Hardwicke (the excellent THIRTEEN, 2003). Actress Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”, ANNIHILATION) is a joy to behold as she navigates her way through one perilous situation after another.

Ms. Rodriguez plays Gloria, a southern California resident whose particular set up of skills are utilized in her work as a makeup artist. Gloria drives across the border to Tijuana in support of her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) who is competing in the Miss Baja pageant. Their fun evening at the nightclub goes horribly wrong as evil-doers storm the club attempting to assassinate the director of the pageant. During the mayhem, Suzu gets kidnapped and Gloria proves for the first time (of many to come) that the film should have more accurately been titled “Miss Antibalas”. No matter the size of the shootout – and there are many – there are no bullets for Miss Bullet (Bala being Spanish for bullet).

Of course that’s not a spoiler because even in the trailer, it’s quite obvious that this remake of director Geraldo Naranjo’s 2011 Mexican movie sets out to become yet another action franchise. As a PG-13 film, it softens the edges from the original and seems to target younger viewers, possibly an attempt to empower teenage girls. It’s a worthy mission despite the disappointing execution of the first feature film screenplay from Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer.

Gloria’s attempts to rescue Suzu find her caught in a tug-of-war between Mexican crime lord Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova, “Ray Donovan”) and the DEA task force led by Matt Lauria playing an incompetent agent. Given today’s political climate, bad guy Lino is presented as half-American and half-Mexican to quell any cries of racial stereotyping. Also appearing are Aislinn Derbez (daughter of Mexican movie star Eugenio Derbez) as Isabel, another woman caught up in Lino’s web; and Anthony Mackie in an all-too brief two scenes that seem to play into the previously mentioned franchise hopes.

Corruption, drug smuggling and human trafficking are rampant throughout. I have no personal knowledge of whether Tijuana is the lawless frontier presented here, but the focus is really on one woman’s ability to find her backbone – her inner strength – in a never-ending stream of dangerous situations. Despite the material, Ms. Rodriguez manages to hold her own and flash star quality. She is likeable and tough. On the other hand, Ms. Hardwicke’s choices beg for second-guessing – from the cheesy shootouts to the lame and too-obvious musical choices (especially at the film’s conclusion). She has certainly proven herself capable of better as a filmmaker, and will undoubtedly do so again.

watch the trailer:


AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

April 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are at the 10 year mark of the new Marvel cinematic universe that began with the revolutionary IRON MAN (2008). This 19th movie in the franchise is actually Part 1 of 2 films that will (supposedly) be the lasting legacy of The Avengers. The second “half”, much of which was filmed simultaneously with this one, is set for 2019. Co-directing brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo were responsible for the two most recent Captain America movies (and also one of my all-time least favorites: YOU, ME AND DUPREE), and have now taken on the biggest budget, biggest cast, and longest run time yet of any Marvel movie. In fact, it’s so big, it could only be named ‘Infinity’.

Being that the fan base for this movie is highly sensitive to anything resembling a hint, much less a spoiler, this review will tread very lightly, and instead function as an overview with very general observations. There are a few key points, most of which are quite obvious from either the trailers or the previous movies in the series. First thing to realize is that this is a Thanos movie. He’s the first big (I told you everything was big), bad, nearly omnipotent villain. It should be noted that Thanos sees himself as misunderstood, which leads to the second key point: melodrama abounds – moreso than any previous comic book movie. It seems to be reminding us that Superheroes are people too (but are they really?). The third point is that if every character with a speaking part simply said “I am Spartacus”, it would still likely be the longest ever comic book movie. There are at least 28 characters with “key” roles – and that’s not counting the end credit stinger, or the missing characters we thought we would see, or the one that gets a logo tease as a coming attraction for part 2.

Co-writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus had their hands full in working to come up with a coherent story, while allowing so many familiar characters to have at least one moment in the spotlight, if not a few. The fact that AVENGERS: CIVIL WAR divided the group actually allows for multiple segments to play out concurrently. Though we never doubt these fragmented cliques and isolated individuals will fight to save the galaxy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they get the band back together. In fact, it’s the Guardians of the Galaxy who are a much more cohesive group than our beloved Avengers. But fear not … there is plenty of fighting and action to go around.

Thanos claims he is saving many interplanetary civilizations and restoring balance with his plan to eliminate half of all living beings. While there might be some scientific evidence to back up his plan, it doesn’t sit well with the good guys. More focus is given to his cravings for ultimate control and power provided by tracking down all six Infinity Stones (Tesseract/Space, Mind, Time, Power, Reality, and Soul) to complete his Infinity Gauntlet. Many of these stones are in quite inconvenient locations and require some ingenuity and brute force from Thanos.

Perhaps the travel agent had the biggest challenge as portions of the film take place in New York City, Knowhere, and Wakanda (good luck finding a brochure on those last two).  We also get a budding romance from Vision and Scarlet Witch, as well as annoying quasi-romantic banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. And while we are on the “TMZ” portion of the review, it should be noted that both Black Widow and Captain America (introducing himself as Steve Rogers) both have new hair styles – though only one of them sports a beard.

In the realm of comic book movies, this would be considered an epic. It has stunning action sequences, remarkable special effects and some terrific comedy mixed in. Of course, you’ll have to accept the melodramatic emotions and fear that we haven’t been previously subjected, and know that the final finality doesn’t arrive for another year. It’s very long (more than 2 ½ hours) but it seems to go pretty quickly. The filmmakers have mostly succeeded in the monumental task of remaining true to the history in order to keep comic book fans satisfied, while also creating something that most should be entertained by. Despite lacking the upbeat, feel-good ending we’ve grown accustomed to, there is a welcome Stan Lee cameo, a post credit stinger (after about 10 minutes of rolling credits). And to top it off, we get “Rubberband Man” from The Spinners. Now that’s big!

watch the trailer:

 


OUR BRAND IS CRISIS (2015)

October 29, 2015

our brand is crisis Greetings again from the darkness. The world of political campaigns and elections is a never-ending treasure trove of material for movies. It’s a subject ripe for parody, satire, comedy, suspense and documentaries.  Need proof?  How about this widely varied list: The Manchurian Candidate, Bob Roberts, Wag the Dog, Bulworth, Welcome to Mooseport, and The Ides of March.  Director David Gordon Green has a resume equally as varied, ranging from Pineapple Express (2008) to Manglehorn (2014).

This wide spectrum of possibilities seems to have confused screenwriter Peter Straughan (the excellent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) who used Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name as inspiration. It seems to be both a comedy that’s not too funny and a drama that not very dramatic. Casting Sandra Bullock in the lead probably created a certain feeling of security with the filmmakers, as they assumed audiences would laugh along at such creative moments as her predictable pratfall from a private jet, the sunglasses-on-the-nose look of consternation, and the rah-rah speech given to a group of campaign volunteers who don’t speak English. Even fans of Ms. Bullock will recognize the laziness.

Alvin Lee and Ten Years After delivered the anthem “I’d Love to Change the World”, and never before this movie had I placed it in such a negative manner … how the United States sticks its nose where it doesn’t belong in international elections. Ms. Bullock’s character Jane is a political strategist brought out of self-imposed exile to run the campaign of Bolivia’s former President (played by Joaquim de Almeida). See he is far behind the leader in the polls – a progressive candidate whose campaign is being run by Bullock’s long-time rival Pat Candy (played by Billy Bob Thornton). Let the juicy rivalry games begin!

The only problem is … it’s a wasted rivalry filled with mostly lame games and it’s often quite plodding (just like real politics!). The character of Jane is based on the real life efforts of James Carville to influence South American elections, and yet it’s Pat Candy who sports the look of Carville. The supporting cast is filled with talent: Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, and Zoe Kazan, yet none are given much to do other than play second fiddle to Bullock.

While the script offers no real surprises or twists, and the forced “message” at the end could be guessed by most any viewer 10 minutes in, it’s the amateurish ploys that make this one score high on the annoyance scale. Having Ms. Bullock sport the only blonde follicles in Bolivia, the over-use of super slow-motion to create some unnecessary effect, and using the word “crisis” the way Tarantino uses the f-word, all combine to give the film a very cheesy look and feel … and we aren’t even rewarded with a single memorable exchange between Bullock and Billy Bob. One thing for sure … this is not the garden spot of Bolivia.

watch the trailer:

 


AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

May 17, 2015

Avengers Ultron Greetings again from the darkness. Joss Whedon returns as writer/director for the sequel to his 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, and this time he juggles an exceptionally large, diverse and talented group of characters and actors who are not only involved in good versus evil, but also in the battle for screen time.

There is no shortage of write-ups from film critics and fanboys who have analyzed every aspect of the movie from every possible angle, and while I admit to taking that same approach to most movies, there is something about the Marvel franchise that cause me to flip off the film critic part of my brain and just sit back and enjoy. And enjoy I do. The characters are fun and interesting and the action is at times breath-taking.

Since there are, by my count, at least 23 actors who deserve mention, it makes little sense for me to list them here. It is worth noting that the key actors all reprise their roles as Avengers, and many of those in supporting roles are back as well. This time there are also many significant newcomers, and those include “The Twins” – Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch. Other newbies include Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men”,” Bloodline”) as Hawkeye’s wife, Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho, Thomas Kretschmann as Strucker, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Though each is a nice addition, it’s the stellar voice work of James Spader as Ultron that really makes this movie click. Somehow Mr. Spader manages to convey a powerful presence despite maintaining a (mostly) even keel throughout. It’s masterful voice acting.

Missing this time out are Pepper Potts and Loki, though we hardly notice thanks to the first look at Vision (Paul Bettany) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) … plus the unveiling of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. If you thought the first Avengers movie made it difficult to keep up with the characters, this one will have your head spinning. It’s probably the only quibble I have with it … character overload at the expense of character development. The Hawkeye family farm represents a meager attempt to have this group of superheroes set in a “normal” environment, but it just doesn’t quite work. The Avengers are at their best while snipping at each other or saving the planet … fortunately the movie offers plenty of the latter.

watch the trailer: