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:


HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

November 3, 2016

hacksaw-ridge Greetings again from the darkness. Why doesn’t every high school student learn about Desmond Doss in History class? Beyond that, why isn’t Desmond Doss profiled in every Psychology and Philosophy class? It’s inexplicable that more Americans aren’t familiar with his story, much less failing to honor his legacy with a well deserved tribute. Fortunately director Mel Gibson (Braveheart) and screenwriters Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) and Robert Schenkkan (“The Pacific”) bring us a spirited look at this underappreciated American war hero.

Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) plays Desmond Doss and perfectly embodies the conviction and dedication of this extraordinary (not hyperbole in this case) man. See, Desmond Doss was one of the first conscientious objectors in the U.S. Army. His religious beliefs (Seventh Day Adventist) prohibited him from using a weapon or killing another person … two things that don’t go over well with fellow soldiers or commanding officers. Yet, Doss was committed to serving his country as a medic and saving lives, rather than taking them.

Unbelievable may be the best description even though his story is absolutely true. Credited with saving the lives of at least 75 wounded soldiers, Doss and his fellow soldiers are depicted in the film fighting the Battle of Okinawa at Hacksaw Ridge … a topographical challenge punctuated by the need to climb a rope wall in order to scale the face of the cliff. Their reward was facing thousands of Japanese hiding in tunnels and bunkers, waiting patiently to kill in mass. There will be no spoilers here on the courageous actions of Doss … you should see for yourself.

The early part of the film features a heart-warming first love story involving Desmond Doss and Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer, The Choice). Watching young love bloom is precious and provides a stark contrast to the battle scenes. The two make a lovely couple and we can’t help but root for them. Once Doss hits basic training, we find Vince Vaughn in the role of Sergeant Howell, Sam Worthington (failing to hide his Aussie accent) as Captain Glover, and Luke Bracey (Point Break, 2015) as Smitty, one of the soldiers who initially has no interest in serving with Doss. The Army Psychologist is played by Richard Roxburgh, whom movies lovers will recognize as The Duke from Moulin Rouge! (2001).

Some of the best scenes involve Desmond’s parents played by screen vets Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths. Both are excellent in roles requiring very different and extreme emotional moments. It’s a credit to Gibson’s filmmaking expertise that he is able to add depth to all aspects – family turmoil, a classic love story, the brutality of war, and the deep religious convictions. There are a few moments of “artistic license” and some of the CGI is inconsistent and even over-produced at times, but the intensity of the battle scenes rival that of Saving Private Ryan and the landing at Omaha Beach. It’s a passionate piece of filmmaking centered on a most passionate man. You may disagree with much of what Mel Gibson has said and done in his personal life (and I hope you do), but as a film director he has earned much respect. And speaking of respect … Desmond Doss. Enough said.

watch the trailer:

 


UNFINISHED BUSINESS (2015)

March 5, 2015

unfinished business Greetings again from the darkness. Just a little bit of creativity goes a long way in comedies these days, as it seems most just care about pushing the bounds of crude and raunchy humor. The premise of this latest from director Ken Scott (Delivery Man) and writer Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) teases us with the hope that it could be more Office Space than Neighbors, but the lure of cheap, bawdy laughs proves too great.

The story begins with Vince Vaughn’s Dan Trunkman having a Jerry Maguire moment in the middle of the office after being informed by his boss Chuck (Sienna Miller) of a 5% paycut. Dan’s Napoleonic charge to the parking lot results in his new company being staffed by Tom Wilkinson (fired for being too old) and a much younger and less-experienced Dave Franco. We follow the boys from St Louis to Portland, Maine to Berlin as they chase the ever-elusive “handshake” to seal their first big deal.

Featuring a near-endless stream of potential comedic elements, the film touches on: parenting, bullying, ageism, the G8 summit and corresponding protest/riot, a Fetish Festival, the Berlin marathon, a gay bar, marital challenges, small business ownership, mentoring, the politics of business, a unisex spa, a youth hostel, excessive drugs and booze, “maids” for hire, challenges for chubby types, and an introduction to inhabited art. Some of these are underplayed, while others go way over-the-top.

Vaughn is the leader of this “three amigos” triumvirate of misfits and is on a mission to put the welfare of his employees above company profits – all the while he is skyping with his wife (the underutilized June Diane Raphael) on the due date for private school tuition. Mr. Wilkinson plays the older guy looking for new experiences (as his marriage dissolves) and Mr. Franco is the most confusing of all characters – we are unsure whether he is absurdly naïve or somewhat mentally handicapped. The upstart company is competing directly against Chuck and the old company in a very confusing transaction involving “swarf”, which is described as metal residue from giant projects like bridges and skyscrapers. Because of this, the business element is really wasted and all we get is generic-speak about spreadsheets and profit margins.

Other supporting work is provided by Britton Sear and Ella Anderson as Vaughn’s kids, James Marsden as the prospective client, and a scene-stealing Nick Frost as Marsden’s operational sidekick with a lonely/wild side. In addition to the shenanigans mentioned above, the movie periodically throws up the stop sign for laughter in an attempt to mix in some real world family emotions – parenting via Skype is a bit challenging.

As one would expect, there are many laughs throughout, although Vaughn is working hard at evolving from the “zinger” guy he has been for two decades. Unfortunately the structure of the film is simply too loose to work as anything more than a few laugh-inducing comedy set scenes. Still, there is much to be said for a film and actors that can make us laugh … even with an unfinished handshake.

watch the trailer:

 


THE DILEMMA

January 15, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. On average, I see two new releases per week. Selections are based on subject matter, cast, director, and most often, the trailer. My two most recent viewings were BLUE VALENTINE and SOMEWHERE, both somber to say the least. So a light-hearted buddy flick with Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, and directed by Ron Howard, seemed like just the right change of pace.

Unfortunately, the actual film has little resemblance to the film advertised in the trailer. Sure the comedy scenes from the trailer are present: Vince gives an acidic toast, Kevin James does his fat-man dance, and Channing Tatum plays an off-center tattooed boy toy with a loaded gun and dead fish. Where the fraud comes in is with the rest of the film. This is a pretty dark, weighty relationship movie that poses quite the moral dilemma (hence the title) for Vince. Should he tell his best friend and business partner that his wife is cheating on him?

Rather than a few rounds of funny scenes with Vaughn trying to get it right, we get “deep” emotional wrangling of a poor guy who just doesn’t know the best solution. Along the way he hurts many people he likes, and a few he doesn’t. Please don’t take this wrong, I am fully onboard with dramas being mixed with comedy. In fact, Ron Howard has provided us with one of the best examples of this … PARENTHOOD. However, this is nowhere near that level, and in fact, misses the mark in both comedy and drama.

I spent much of the movie trying to decide who was most frightening, Winona Ryder or Karen Carpenter. What?? Oh wait, I meant Winona Ryder or Jennifer Connelly. Too soon? Come on, she died in 1983. The point is Ms. Ryder carries forth with her BLACK SWAN look and Ms. Connelly evidently hasn’t had solid food for at least a dozen years. Queen Latifah does her best to bring some energy to the film, but her character only has about 3-4 scenes. It’s always nice to see how Ron Howard works in his brother Clint and his father Rance … thereby keeping their actor’s guild cards current.

 There really was a good idea here, but the comedy and drama just weren’t meshed well. And Kevin James as a genius engineer? Seems a stretch from Mall Cop! Ron Howard has some classic movies to his name. Some funny ones like NIGHT SHIFT, and some dramatic ones like A BEAUTIFUL MIND and APOLLO 13. Unfortunately, this one falls flat and really provides little entertainment.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: umm … sorry, I’ve got nothing … just watch the trailer and save your money.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a slapstick comedy with Vince Vaughn, Kevin James and Queen Latifah.