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Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Mackie’

When you give your movie a name like Chaplin or Ali, there is an implicit assumption involved that your subject is so famous and significant as to need no further introduction. There are multitudes of people in the world named Ali, and quite a few with the surname Chaplin, but it’s taken for granted that people are going to know who you’re on about. With both the films mentioned above, it’s a fairly safe bet, but there really are relatively few people with the same kind of mononymic recognition factor. It helps if you have a fairly distinctive name to begin with, of course.

Which brings us to Benedict Andrews’ Seberg. The name is certainly not a common one, but on the other hand its owner – the actress Jean Seberg – is a relatively forgotten figure these days, who stopped making movies in America nearly fifty years ago. I doubt many people could even name a Jean Seberg movie: I probably know a bit more about obscure old movies than the average person, and I would have really struggled. To be honest, I knew virtually nothing about Seberg (or Seberg) before going in to see the movie; I thought Jean Seberg was French, and that I would be in for something stylish and possibly a bit pretentious about French New Wave cinema of the late 1950s.

Mais non. The film takes place about a decade later, in a milieu vaguely similar to that of Tarantino’s last movie (I would imagine; didn’t see it), primarily Hollywood in the late 1960s. Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) is flying back to the States from her home in France, ostensibly to make Paint Your Wagon – but, rather to the despair of her agent, she is tired of just being decorative in dumb commercial movies and wants to use her celebrity and wealth to achieve something more worthwhile. On the plane she encounters Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a radical civil rights activist and sometime associate of the Black Panthers.

Seberg is attracted to the cause – and, not to put too fine a point on it, Jamal himself – and becomes a donor to the various programmes and other good causes he oversees. The two also begin an affair. However, Seberg’s involvement with a political radical brings her into the crosshairs of the FBI, which is in the process of implementing J Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO programme of targetting and disrupting domestic political organisations deemed to be subversive. Seberg is initially surveilled, then later finds herself persecuted by the agency, even as the agent in charge of leading the surveillance against her (Jack O’Connell) finds himself doubting the morality of the orders he is given.

So, not so much a floaty art-house thing about the French New Vague and Jean-Luc Godard as something verging on being another movie about the Plight of Black America (I get the sense there are a few of these imminent). Some of the publicity for Seberg describes it as a ‘political thriller’, which strikes me as pushing it a bit, but there are political themes here, as well as story elements which are often to be found in thrillers. That said, it’s also about Jean Seberg as an individual, and key events of her life, handled very much in the time-honoured biopic fashion.

Whatever else we say about this movie, I think the time has come for the world to stop squabbling, take a moment, and agree that Kristen Stewart is a very capable and charismatic performer. Yes, she started her career in the Twilight movies, but everyone has to take the breaks they’re given: Steve McQueen was in The Blob, Sandra Bullock was in Bionic Showdown, and Scarlett Johansson was in Home Alone 3, after all. I have been as guilty as anyone of yielding to a little internal ‘uh-oh’ moment when Stewart’s name appears near the top of a movie’s cast list, but as often as not she has turned out to be one of the best things in it. The same is true here: this is a serious and committed performance. Stewart is perhaps lucky that Seberg has really slipped from the collective memory, so she doesn’t have to go all out and attempt an actual impersonation, but this is still good work.

Better, perhaps, than the movie deserves. This is a potentially very interesting story, still quite timely and yet (I would suspect) relatively obscure. The early sections of the movie, when it resembles a thriller much more strongly, are genuinely involving and well-paced, asking all kinds of questions – not least about Seberg herself and what motivates her. Is she really trying to use her fame to further the common good, or just a restless young woman making a rather oblique cry for help? (I have to say that if there is any irony in Kristen Stewart playing a photogenic movie star who eschews mainstream work in favour of more personal projects, the movie does not really seem aware of it.) To what degree is her fascination with Jamal political rather than simply physical? The movie leaves the question open.

However, as it goes on the film becomes much more internalised and also slower – definitely more of an autobiographical drama than anything else. It handles the shift in gears moderately well, but the film becomes a lot less engaging. Throughout all this there is also the subplot about O’Connell’s decent FBI agent and his wife (Margaret Qualley), and the strains his assignment – not to mention some of his colleagues – place on their relationship. It breaks up the narrative a bit but doesn’t feel like its contributing a huge amount. I should add that the performances here are never less than perfectly fine, and occasionally rather better than that: Vince Vaughn appears as a veteran FBI agent who is also a prejudiced thug, and is completely convincing in the role – his transformation into a reliable character heavy seems to be complete.

In the end, Seberg is a film with lots of potential that is never completely realised. Perhaps it just assumes a little too much interest in and familiarity with the main character on the part of the audience – there’s something a little odd about this, given that it’s the comparatively little-known nature of the story that provides much of the movie’s appeal. As it is, it’s well-played, but not especially well-written or directed, and ends up feeling a little tonally awkward as a result. But the first half is very watchable – it just runs out of steam as it goes on.

 

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Even in our confuzzling world of social media and streaming-on-demand, some things, it seems, will never change. A few months ago I looked at the early 80s space western Outland, a film which was known for most of its production as Io. The name-change was made mainly because people kept looking at paperwork relating to it and mis-reading the title as ‘Ten’. Someone should have mentioned this to the makers of the shiny new rhymes-with-Get Clicks SF film IO: I googled this movie and the first comment I found on it was along the lines of ‘Shoulda changed the name I thought it was called 10 like the number LOL’. So it goes, I suppose – I have more of an issue with the all-caps styling of the title (just a bit shouty, if you ask me), but to each their own.

At least Outland had a good reason to be called Io, as it is set on the volcanic moon of Jupiter which has that name. IO‘s reason for being called IO is more tenuous. I suppose the plot just about justifies it, but I still think it’s mainly because the producers thought it was a cool-sounding name. Certainly no-one ever goes to Io, although they certainly talk about it a lot; the significance of the moon is largely emblematic in a script which is clearly trying hard to be about Profound Things.

The film is directed by Jonathan Helpert, and is set in a post-apocalyptic not-too-distant future. Something has caused a profound change in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, rendering it toxic for most forms of animal life; we are told of people dropping dead in the street at the time this happened. Now the planet is mostly wrapped in a poisonous veil, with only a few areas of high ground left habitable. Most of the surviving population has decamped to a space colony orbiting (wait for it!) Io.

However, our main person of interest, Sam (Margaret Qualley), has not. She is one of the few people left on the now empty and silent planet – the daughter of a scientist (Danny Huston), she is attempting to complete his work by creating a genetically-modified species of bee capable of surviving in the new atmosphere of Earth. She divides her time between working on this and making trips into the nearest city, which is of course deserted, and in her spare time exchanges email messages with her off-in-space boyfriend Elon (presumably named after the well-known litigant).

This early, world-establishing section of the film is mildly intriguing and certainly interesting to look at – this is one of those SF films with minimal ‘overt’ special effects and a tiny cast, so they can really put the budget to work in realising the empty city, which is rapidly becoming overgrown by mutant vegetation. The look of the thing is always impeccable, although you are always aware that this is a film trading in ideas and images already established by other, more prominent movies. I’m not sure whether it’s entirely fair to say that IO is very visually derivative – perhaps it is better to suggest that it mostly operates in terms of imagery which has acquired a sort of archetypal quality in recent years.

Anyway, everything changes for Sam (i.e., the plot kicks into gear) when word comes in over the radio that another Earth-like planet has been discovered only ten years away and a mission to it is being launched. One consequence of this is that shuttle traffic between Earth and Io is going to cease, and if Sam is going to escape she needs to get to a launch site in a matter of days. Matters are further complicated by the arrival by balloon of a stranger named Micah (Anthony Mackie), who says he’s come to see her father. Can they make it to the shuttle in time? Are they sure they even want to?

Hmmm – perhaps I was trying too hard to be generous when I suggested that IO isn’t actually as derivative as it seems, because on reflection it does feel very much like something stitched together from ideas and imagery from a bunch of other recent science fiction films, some of them quite distinguished, others definitely not. There’s an odd smorgasbord of Interstellar, The Martian, Oblivion and After Earth going on here, although I should make it quite clear that IO wants to be a serious and thoughtful movie – basically, there are no monsters in it.

I suppose we should be grateful for this. I myself am wont to grumble that all mainstream science fiction films tend to be action adventure movies (another reason why the Star Trek movie franchise is much less interesting than it should be), and occasionally trot out the related statistic that – a few years ago at least – around 50% of all SF movies were also, by any reasonable metric, horror films. So the fact that IO has such noble ambitions is obviously laudable.

It’s therefore simply a shame that the actual movie isn’t more palatable, because unfortunately the words that leap to mind when describing it are ones like ‘stodgy’, ‘dull’, and ‘predictable’. There is not a single plot development that isn’t easily guessable, which really just turns watching the film into an exercise in checking your answers. The tone of the thing is just barren – it has none of the leavening humour of The Martian or the vaulting metaphysical ambition of Interstellar. Now, to be fair to IO, it never quite topples over into outright silliness, which is no small achievement for an SF film that takes itself quite as seriously as this one does, but after a while you start to lose patience with the endless scenes of abstract dialogue and the film’s obsession with using Greek mythology as a metaphor for something-or-other obscure.

Oh well, there is a long and honourable tradition of SF films which aspire to be thoughtful, even profound, and basically just end up being impenetrably obscure and rather hard work to sit through, and IO is a decent enough 21st century addition to their number. But I have to say that, other than the general look of the thing, there is not a single element of the film I can single out as being particular distinctive or praiseworthy – not the plot, not the dialogue, not the performances, not the direction. It is like a study in hitting the targets of minimal competence – this is a movie which is not actually bad in any respect, but it really has nothing to commend it beyond that.

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Spring 2016 may well go down in history as the point at which the superhero movie phenomenon became so all-pervading that the heroes themselves ran out of villains to fight and started beating each other up instead. We have already seen DC entering the fray with their Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, while right now Marvel are striking back with the Russo brothers’ Captain America: Civil War (there may well end up being a colon shortage as well as a supervillain drought).

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Civil War comes out at an odd time for the Marvel Studios juggernaut: their franchise-of-franchises seems to be as popular as ever, with a huge slate of movies planned over the next few years and even a goofy and obscure character like Ant-Man capable of scoring a significant box-office success – but, having said that, their last lynchpin movie, Age of Ultron, received only a lukewarm response from critics and did rather less well than the first Avengers movie. So the new movie has something to prove, even if it’s only Marvel’s ability to consistently make this kind of huge spectacle genuinely entertaining rather than simply an exercise in storyline management.

Things get underway with Captain America (Chris Evans – the other one) leading the Avengers into action in Lagos, taking down the high-tech mercenary Crossbones. However, in the process there is significant collateral damage and a number of civilian deaths. This only chimes with the somewhat gloomy mood of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), who is still struggling to deal with being responsible for the near-extinction of the human race in the last movie he appeared in.

It turns out the UN agrees and proposals are drawn up to place the Avengers under close governmental supervision, unable to go into action without official sanction. Obviously, this sits better with some members of the team than others, and the situation is only exacerbated when the meeting to ratify the new arrangement is bombed, seemingly by the Captain’s childhood friend-turned-cyborg hitman Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Needless to say, Cap can’t stand by and let his old pal be hunted down like a dog, which puts him and his latterday partner Falcon (Anthony Mackie) on collision course not just with Iron Man and his officially-sanctioned team, but the vengeful African superhero Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)…

You may already be thinking ‘Wow, for what’s supposedly a Captain America movie, there are a lot of other super-people in this film’. Well, you’re not wrong there: in addition to all of those guys, the rest of the current Avengers line-up – Black Widow, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and War Machine – also make significant contributions, while Hawkeye comes out of retirement too. Paul Rudd steals practically every scene he’s in as Cap recruits Ant-Man for his squad, while the film’s most heavily-trailed innovation is the introduction of Tom Holland as yet another new version of Spider-Man, on Iron Man’s team.

This is, to be fair, somewhat indulgently done, with Marvel clearly doing a lot of the prep work for their first Spidey film, due out next year. Spider-Man’s youth and chattiness are really dialled up to the point where it’s almost slightly ridiculous, but by this point the film is on such a bombastic roll that you either go with it, and most likely have a good time, or don’t.

The Russos pull off the neat trick of making a film which, in its initial stages at least, looks and feels rather like their previous film, 2014’s Winter Soldier, before escalating rather considerably to become something much on the scale of one of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies. If you were one of the people moved to sheer ecstasy by those sequences where the Hulk fought Thor (neither of whom appear here, by the way), or the big green guy took on Iron Man’s Hulkbuster suit, then this movie will be right up your street as it features full-scale superhero action on an unprecedented scale: Hawkeye vs Vision! Ant-Man vs Black Widow! Spider-Man vs Winter Soldier! It all kicks off and then some, and the colossal battle which concludes the second act of the film will take some topping.

It’s not entirely surprising that the actual villain of the piece, Zemo (played by Daniel Bruhl), rather vanishes into the background, but then the whole point of the story is that this is a guy who knows he has no chance of taking on the Avengers in a fight. To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely convinced that this story actually hangs together all that well – Zemo’s plan seems to be one of those entirely dependent on random events going in his favour, and characters behaving in very particular ways. Isn’t it all just a bit too convoluted and machiavellian to be plausible?

Hey ho. I must confess that while I was watching it, none of this really occurred to me, although even then I found myself wondering just how wide an appeal Civil War is going to have: for the many people who’ve been following the Marvel movies over the last eight years, and are heavily invested in these characters and their relationships, this will likely be an enthralling and impressive movie – but for everyone else, I wonder if it isn’t in the end just a bit too introspective and downbeat for its own good. How are they going to include the kind of massive collateral damage that characterises their movies from now, given that Civil War establishes that innocent people caught in the crossfire do get killed?

Nevertheless, this movie does everything you want from a Marvel release, and very little you don’t want. It works on its own terms as a spectacular action movie, with a serious core but plenty of crowd-pleasing action and humour (Anthony Mackie gets most of the best jokes), and also teases and sets up a couple of future movies in the series – it seems virtually certain that Spider-Man: Homecoming will be a massive money-spinner, and if Black Panther looks like less of a sure-fire hit, I’m intrigued so see what they do with the character. Some people are murmuring to the effect that we are reaching saturation point when it comes to superhero movies, and that people will soon start to lose interest: however, as long as Marvel keep hitting this standard of quality, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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