After a slack period there’s some stirring in theatrical releases. Marielle (Diary of a Teenage Girl) Heller's A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood and Terrence Malick’s new A Hidden Life are both works of substance and are likely to be seen and discussed indefinitely.
A few of their running mates also rate consideration. Seberg has Kristen Stewart as the Corn Belt drama school graduate, who unexpectedly became the face of the 1960s. It sounds like an interesting project but what we get is a glum coverage of the period when the Breathless star became a subject of interest to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
We know we are in trouble when the film opens with Stewart as Joan of Arc at the stake - aw c’mon guys!
A more revealing comparison would be with Seberg’s contemporary and peer Jane Fonda who had a similar journey. Both found their movie star status making them a witness to history. Fonda was already a practiced celebrity/survivor. She married Roger Vadim and outgrew her tin ear political movies, revealing a steely ability to deal with hostility. Seberg married Romain Gary and acted out the pretty girl victim character that Otto Preminger first saw in her. She didn’t make it through. Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews seems baffled by all that.
The film follows her affair with Anthony Mackie’s Hakim Jamal, a moderate in the Black Power movement. Soon the FBI is killing her dog and bugging her bed to get “fuck tapes” to play to Mackie’s wife, attractive Zazie Beetz. Beetz shows up on the Seberg lawn with a pistol. Stewart’s Seberg crumbles into paranoia. The film maker seems to identify with suburbanite FBI Agent Jack O'Connell (the lost soldier in ’71) who can’t handle this and tries to blow the whistle in the least convincing of the film’s many sub-plots. He’s up-staged by the star power of Vince Vaughn as his less sensitive superior.
Interestingly it’s the usually inert Yvan Attal who manages to suggest extra dimension in his portrayal of Romain Gary - real life lookalike and unacknowledged son of Ivan Mozjoukine.
Gary is building up a curious screen dossier. This one joins Roots of Heaven, Lady L. The Longest Day, two versions of La promesse de l'aube,three films and a Broadway musical of Madam Rosa, Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou and Faux et usage de faux among a few more.
Also making her presence felt is Margaret Qualley, Andy McDowell’s daughter who was conspicuous as Manson girl Pussycat in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Transformed here, she again stands out.
Stewart is defeated, unable to convey Jean Seberg’s bewildered prettiness and not well-groomed in what the film thinks are sixties fashions. She manages to get a few moments, like her expression-changing audition, but mainly participates in the movie’s misery. If we are going to be offered a Jean Seberg portrait, how about Anne Andreu’s Éternelle Jean Seberg documentary?
On the other hand Roland Emmerich’s Midway met all expectations. People are saying it’s like a big video game and it shows the Yanks winning WW2 - like these were bad things. I’m a fan of Emmerich, thoroughly enjoyed Independence Day and watched with some satisfaction as all his detractors went quiet when he did an impressive art movie with Anonymous.
Midway is on familiar ground starting with a pre-WW2 meeting between intelligence officer Patrick Wilson and Etsushi Toyokawa’s Admiral Yamamoto ("Japan is at the cross wodes"). Hollywood has this curious habit of glorifying its country’s opponents - Yamamoto, Pancho Villa, Erwin Rommel, Che Guevera. (correspondence on this subject is definitely closed)
It’s not long before we are into what we laid out the ticket price for - (digital) air planes braving (digital) gun crews defending (digital) warships and this one delivers big time. The action is sustained and contextualised with the pilot’s eye views of the bombing runs on the carriers particularly grabbing. They manage to work in things which stand out from the norm - the glance back at the blazing US fleet inferno where escape is a line between a doomed ship and one still afloat while being strafed, Jonas Brother Nick piling into a parked on-deck fighter plane and blasting away at an approaching Zero in its hail of bullets, Mandy Moore in her kitchen garden staring at the blazing ships a stone’s throw away, Japanese gun crews jeering as US torpedoes bounce off their ship or the dive bombs fall in the water next to them, along with the runs at the red spot landing decks on the enemy carriers.
Men in uniforms still look alike but the familiar faces do get their moments – Woody Harrelson’s ironic view of the officer who is going to have to take command of the Pearl Harbour shambles before suddenly realising it’s going to be him, Denis Quaid carrying on with shingles, Luke Evans rallying the shattered pilot to be his wing man only to see him shot out of the sky.
In its comic strip simplification the film does put across the notion that the action is a turning point in history. The wedding invitation explanation of military intelligence is remarkably clear. Along with this, I’m told that they have taken trouble to get the staging right and we note that, despite the effort to humanise the Japanese side, they’ve got space to throw a downed US pilot chained to an anchor off a Nip ship . There’s China money in this one which makes the odd atrocity mandatory.
The film is a companion piece to WW2 productions like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo or Purple Heart in a way that intervening efforts are not. Think the Zinneman From Here to Eternity, Paul Wendkos’ B film Battle of the Coral Sea, Preminger’s In Harm’s Way, Shûe Matsubayashi’s Hawai Middowei daikaikûsen: Taiheiyô no arashi/I Bombed Pearl Harbor/Storm Over the Pacific, Jack Smight’s Midway, Hiromichi Horikawa’s Gekido no showashi 'Gunbatsu'or Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour. It has us cheering for our lot and admiring their derring-do. Sorry Ken Burns. I know you’re the one who got it right but Midway is the rousing one.
And to round out the week’s viewing we got the Chinese Wu sha/Sheep Without a Shepherd from Boon-lip Quah (Sam to his mates).
This one is going the Perfetti sconosciuti route with a Beijing-Shanghai adaption of Jeethu Joseph‘s admired 2013 Malayalam Drishyam coming after five versions in Indian languages. Cable Guy Yang Xiao is a respected small business man in his street level community overshadowed by the golden Pagoda of Redemption. Things were stressful at home with his rebellious school girl daughter Wenshan Xu demanding money to go off on her school camp. This didn’t work out too well with she’s doped and falls victim to Tianyang
Bian the no-good spoiled son of Chief Inspector of Police Joan Chen (where are those films she’s been doing all these years?)
The plot is basically father Yang Xiao protecting his family after they have caused the death of the privileged teenager. He has to train them in how to lie in the inevitable police interrogation where we will see them struggling to follow his instructions. The scenes with cowed pre-teener Xiran Zhang resisting imposing, uniformed Chen are particularly effective.
OK twists like excavating the disturbed grave in the rain, looking for the dead boy’s remains, only to find the carcass of the goat the mean street cop shot. The basic thriller plot is elaborated by the fact that both the protagonists are movie fans using what they’ve learned against the other. He cites Shawshank Redemption while she’s into Witness for the Prosecution. Throw in social concerns where the poor, uneducated family is set against the boy’s wealthy and powerful father running for political office. These boil over unexpectedly in the climax riot with the later vox pop among the locals who try to relate their sympathy with one of their own to the revealed facts.
Striking ‘scope images, deliberate movie citations and shock cuts, all book ended by scenes in the open air jail, this one is another departure from familiar mainland film making. Looks like these will come to a halt for the time being as China has stopped movie exports, having closed its home cinemas to arrest the spread of coronavirus, and being afraid the earning power of their new films could be wiped out by parallel imports coming back from overseas.