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

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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.

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TOLKIEN (2019)

May 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. As fascinated as we are with great writers, the cinematic appeal of watching someone put pen to paper, clack away on a manual typewriter, or peck at their laptop keyboard is at best negligible, and more likely, non-existent. Still, award-winning Finnish director Dome Karukoski chose renowned writer J.R.R. Tolkien as the subject of his first English language film. Tolkien’s actual writing time on screen is mostly limited to a single shot at the film’s conclusion; however, the script from David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford attempts to connect the dots between his real world life to his Middle-earth characters and adventures from “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”.

Harry Gilby portrays the young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and then Nicholas Hoult stars from college age forward. The film bounces between Tolkien’s childhood as an orphan, his elite private school education at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, matriculating at Oxford University, and soldiering in WWI. It’s during his stay at Ms. Faulkner’s (Pam Ferris) boarding house when he meets Edith Blatt, the love of his life. While attending prep school, he and three friends: Robert Gilson, Christopher Wiseman and (poet) Geoffrey Smith, form the TCBS (Tea Club and Borrovian Society), a club dedicated to changing the world through art. It’s at Oxford where Tolkien’s love of language kicks into a yet higher gear, though it’s during his time in The Somme – one of the deadliest battlefields of WWI, that we see his ‘trench fever’ contribute to many of the visuals later associated with his books.

Lily Collins portrays Edith at the age where Tolkien must choose between her and his Oxford education, but as often happens with true love, the two later reconnect and remain married for more than 50 years (until her death). This film doesn’t cover their later years, and instead focuses on the formative ones – both for his imagination and their relationship. We see his early childhood games (The Shire inspired from his time in Sarehole outside Birmingham) and the film often slaps us with an ‘obvious stick’ on how certain segments of life translate directly to his familiar stories in future years. In fact, there is no mention of C.S. Lewis and The Inklings – his friends who later supported his writing efforts. We do, however, get a sequence with Tolkien and Edith backstage at Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle” Opera … a dot that requires the simplest of connectors.

The film looks terrific – especially in the battle scenes which are staged dramatically and horrifically (much as we imagine the war was) by cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannesson. Unfortunately, that’s the highlight. This is mostly a generic biography of an extraordinary writer. Adding to the frustration is the fact that Nicholas Hoult recently portrayed reclusive writer J.D. Salinger in REBEL IN THE RYE … roles too similar for the same actor.

“The Hobbit” was published in 1937 and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in 1954-55, the latter being the best-selling fiction of all-time before being overtaken by JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series. Tolkien’s key seems to have been his lifelong fascination with language. He even created his own – not just words, but complete languages. That would likely have made a better focus here. Seeing the foundation of “the fellowship” was somewhat interesting, although much of that segment came across like a poor man’s DEAD POET SOCIETY. Supposedly the Tolkien family has refused to endorse the film, likely placing the script “In a hole in the ground …”

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THE JOURNEY (2017)

June 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Only the rarest of fiction can match the depth and intensity of historically crucial watershed moments. A list of such moments would certainly include the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement that ended 40 years of violent civil war between the Unionist and Republican factions of Northern Ireland. Director Nick Hamm and writer Colin Bateman team up to bring us a speculative dramatization of the conversation that ‘might’ have led to the treaty.

Timothy Spall plays Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the Unionists and an anti-Catholic evangelical minister. Colm Meaney plays Martin McGuinness, the rebellious former IRA leader (“allegedly”, he clarifies) who leads the Irish Republicans (Sinn Fein). These two extremists have been at war for most of their lives, yet had never met until circumstances brought them together for negotiations.

One’s take on the film will likely be determined by the level of need for historical accuracy and any personal connection to long-lasting war in Northern Ireland. Either of these traits will likely have you scoffing at the backseat verbal sparring and the plot contrivances that allow the two mortal enemies to slowly break down the ideological barriers. On the other hand, it can be viewed as a mis-matched buddy movie featuring a game of witty one-upmanship with political and historical relevance.

Either way, the dueling actors are a pleasure to watch. Mr. Spall surely has the more theatrical role, and he revels in the buttoned-up judgmental nature of Paisley – a man loyal enough to be attending his 50th wedding anniversary party, and sufficiently devoted to his beliefs that his last visit to a movie theatre was in 1973 as he led the protests against The Exorcist. In contrast, Mr. Meaney plays McGuinness as both determined to find common ground and worn down by the years of fighting and lack of progress.

Toby Stephens plays Prime Minister Tony Blair, while Freddie Highmore is the young driver charged with surreptitiously igniting conversation between the two rivals. He is fed instructions through his ear-piece by an MI5 director played by John Hurt, in one of his final film appearances. Unfortunately, this bit of “narration” came across as condescending to this viewer who surely could have done without such elementary guidance. Still, the sight of Mr. Hurt on film is always welcome.

The infusion of humor is nearly non-stop. There’s a comical exchange about Samuel L. Jackson, a joke about the Titanic, and a Paisley diatribe at a gas station over a declined credit card that would easily fit in most any Hollywood buddy flick. However, these elements undermine one of the early on screen interviews we see when a citizen states bombs going off as you walk down the street is “part of life”. “You can almost taste the hatred” is a great line, but unfortunately doesn’t match the script of what we witness on screen. The two men re-hash some key events such as 1972’s Bloody Sunday, and it’s these moments that remind us just how important this new agreement was to the country. It’s understandable (and relevant today) how 40 years of hate can become a way of life and difficult to end, and it also shows us just how far actual communication can go in finding common ground between folks … even The Chuckles Brothers.

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PELE: BIRTH OF A LEGEND (2016)

May 7, 2016

pele Greetings again from the darkness. From rags to riches … a common expression that often leads to a paint-by-numbers movie. Co-directors Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist are fortunate in that their “coming of age” subject is the globally famous Pele’ – often considered the greatest soccer/futbol player of all-time.

Rather than revisit the career of the transcendent player who later dedicated his life to humanitarian causes, the film kicks off with a 17 year old Pele trotting out onto the pitch at the 1958 World Cup. It then flashes back 8 years to when 9 year old “Dico” was growing up in the slums of Sao Paulo. We get to see his relationship with his family … his dad taught him to play, and his friends were loyal to him and encouraged him to pursue his dream.

There are some similarities to The Sandlot as we watch the joy these boys have in playing the sport whenever and wherever they can … plus the origin of the somewhat derogatory and now immortal nickname. It seemed that Pele’ was able to carry this love of the game throughout his career. We see boys huddled around a radio listening to the 1950 World Cup as Brazil’s team was humiliated … an event that played a role in Pele’ returning pride to a bruised country.

Kevin de Paula plays Pele’ as he works his way up through the age groups and national teams. Often the youngest and shortest player, the film depicts him as a shy kid often out of his element … the polar opposite to the beaming superstar we so often saw later in his career. There is an explanation of the roots of the “Ginga” style and its ties to the Brazilian culture and martial arts.

For some reason, Vincent D’Onofrio is cast as Brazil’s Coach Feola and we are forced to endure a tortuous accent that is basically inexcusable these days. There are also some exaggerations in the crowd scenes and shots of the press, though young de Paula underplays the lead. Colm Meaney plays George Raynor, the coach of Sweden in that infamous 1958 World Cup, and we do get a cute little cameo from Pele’ himself.

The film does a nice job with the young man’s childhood and progression towards superstar (the IOC named him the athlete of the century). He is presented as close to his family, and inherently quiet and calm. The match clips of Pele’ that play over the closing credits are proof that a movie just can’t capture the transcendence of his talent.  Pele’ is truly the reason it’s “the beautiful game”.

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THE CONSPIRATOR

April 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While not a historical expert, I commend writer James Solomon for his years of research into a fascinating, yet quite dark moment in America. Many have attempted to couch the film as presenting Mary Surratt as an innocent bystander. I would argue that the film is much less about her innocence or guilt, and much more about the state of our country’s leaders and the judicial system at the time of Lincoln’s assassination.

I found the two strongest elements of the film causing quite an internal conflict as I watched. First, the film is simply gorgeous. Costumes, props, sets and lighting all lead to a texture that puts the viewer right into the mid 1860’s. Second, the courtroom (and backroom) procedures generate a feeling of disgust. Although, we have had very recent examples of less-than-stellar judicial process in the U.S., we Americans still hold on to the belief that ours is the best and fairest system in existence.

 It was very interesting to see Kevin Kline as War Secretary Edwin Stanton. Stanton was the guy calling the shots during this time and evidently had quite a power hold on the military, as well as the government. His viewpoint that the country needed a swift and decisive conclusion to this tragedy makes absolute sense … unless you happened to be one of the accused, or their legal counsel.

The lead actors in the film do a very nice job of capturing their characters and holding us in time. In addition to Mr. Kline, James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, the Union war hero and reluctant defense attorney for Mary Surratt. Tom Wilkinson plays Senator Reverdy Johnson who, as Aiken’s mentor, recognizes all elements of the procedures. Evan Rachel Wood portrays Anna Surratt, Mary’s daughter. She has few scenes, but each is quite powerful. Danny Huston is Joseph Holt, the prosecuting attorney, who clearly has free reign to do whatever is necessary to ensure a guilty verdict. Other supporting work is provided by Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth), Norman Reedus (from Boondock Saints), Stephen Root, Johnny Simmons and Colm Meaney. The two miscast roles are courtesy of Alexis Bledel and Justin Long.

 I found Robin Wright‘s stoic portrayal of Mary Surratt to be quite mesmerizing. Her strength and motherly insistence on protecting her son was absolutely believable. In my opinion she should gather consideration for an Oscar nomination when the time comes. This is not a showy performance, but rather the foundation of the story.

Lighting of the time was thanks to candles and lanterns, and director Robert Redford masterfully captures that on film. We are always hoping for a bit more light on the characters or in the courtroom. Instead we get the feeling of being present. I did find some of the “buddy scenes” to be unnecessary, but the scenes with Wilkinson and Kline more than offset this weakness.

This is the first film from The American Film Company, whose mission is to present historically accurate films on American history. If their initial entry is an indication, we anxiously await their next projects.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are in the mood to be transported back to 1865 and come as close as possible to experiencing the conflict and grief of the young country just out of civil war.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you find it difficult to see the flaws within what is basically a very strong and judicious system