Two Kristen Stewart movies in one week, what a treat for fans… One brilliantly showcases her talents, the other is a sodden mess
Ironically, the far superior of the two earns a lower Rotten Tomatoes score (39% to 49%), what’s the matter with those reviewers? Though almost without exception, they’ve been kind to the wonderful Kristen Stewart, who doesn’t miss a beat in Seberg, which focuses on a particularly troubling period in the young actress’s short life. Intense, nervy characters who never quite seem at ease in their skin seem to suit Stewart, who like Jean Seberg herself, hasn’t always made wise career choices (Charlie’s Angels? Underwater!? Why Kristen, why!). But here, in capturing the confusion and paranoia of an intelligent and passionate woman driven to the edge by relentless persecution and media attention, she elevates a flawed movie to something that is almost sublime.
Directed by Australian Benedict Andrews, who made the equally tough Una, it’s starts in 1968 when Breathless-star Seberg, an American who had found fame in European art cinema, comes to LA for a Hollywood job. Influenced by the revolutionary turmoil in Paris, she instinctively supports a group Black Panthers in a small demonstration at the airport, thus earning the close attentions of one of the activists, Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) – who soon became her lover. The FBI noticed that too, and the cheques she was writing for activist causes, and the J Edgar Hoover-headed organisation wanted “to make an example” of someone famous. So it set a couple of agents (a nasty Vince Vaughn – reliably repulsive) and another nicer guy called Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), who later has doubts about his role, onto her case. They monitor her every move and strategically leak damaging material to the press.
Most critics have blasted the amount of time spent with those agents – and its true, their scenes and storylines do let Seberg down. Other, more interesting characters as well as the thorny political issues of those turbulent times are sketched thinly as a result. Seberg’s motivations and actions – her own role in her eventual downfall are far more intriguing than the banal marital problems of the entirely fictional “decent” Solomon. Margaret Qualley plays his wife, and she’s perfectly fine, but her role is superfluous. Was Seberg for real in her political beliefs, or just another Hollywood phoney? Hopelessly naive? Or as hard-core Marxists labelled white liberals like her – “a useful idiot”? Bobby Seale of the Panthers, in one revealing aside, seemed to think so, and certainly Hakim’s wife (Zazie Beetz) didn’t have any doubts, caustically labelling her “a tourist.” And, it has to be said, no matter how sincere she thought she was, there’s some truth in that.
The spying and the engineered take-down took a devastating toll though. Of course no one deserves to be vilified and hounded for their beliefs, but rather than its too-neat message, Stewart’s jittery performance is the real reason not to miss Seberg. She just looks fabulous in that pixie haircut and 60s mini skirts too – overall, the styling and production design is just dazzling. Some time after the events portrayed here at the age 40, Jean Seberg died from an overdose of barbiturates. It’s not hard to join the dots. M, on now in wide release. View the trailer. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Dendy Newtown, Broadway and Burwood. ★★★★
Made three years ago and in limbo ever since, this brazen Alien rip-off should have stayed on the shelf. Maybe the delay was caused by its makers (director William Eubank and writer Brian Duffield) fiddling with the cut so that it wasn’t a complete disaster – and to be fair, it isn’t, not totally… More likely the various controversies and scandals swirling around co-star, Silicon Valley’s T.J. Miller scared distributor (Walt Disney) off. Whatever, at least now our plucky heroine Kristen Stewart gets to prove she can do anything – even shine in a murkily-shot action-packed romp that lacks either originality or any sense.
When her character Nora isn’t encased in an awkwardly bulky diving suit – so that everything she says, or rather yells in truncated staccato, is pretty much indecipherable – she’s wearing next to nothing. Actually a very fetching sports training bra, and if you’re wondering why, just remember Sigourney Weaver spent a good part of her time fighting off drooling monsters stripped to her underwear too. Nora’s an engineer on a mining station here, deep in a vast dark ocean trench, clearly somewhere humans “aren’t supposed to be.” We know that because that’s one of the few of Nora’s lines that I actually heard with any clarity. Without much preamble or any exposition to speak of, there’s a huge explosion and she and a few other survivors (Vincent Cassell, John Gallagher, Jr and Miller, the one on the team there to provide the droll witticisms) have to desperately search for a way through the wreckage and get to the surface, all while being menaced by a roll-call of deep-sea creepy crawlies, all a bit Alien-like but nowhere near as scary.
They’re out to get the survivors because (and we know this), humans are greedy and have once again pissed Mother Nature off. The outfit Nora works for is a giant corporation too – extracting minerals and/or energy. So naturally it’s capital E Evil, because anything that charges our iPhones and digs up the metals they’re made from (and we know this too…) must be utterly, irredeemably beyond the pale. Just so that we don’t forget, snippets of corporate jargon spouting from the damaged PA system reinforce just how uncaring and avaricious this capitalist outfit really is.
Stewart commits herself 100% to this derivative dross, but if you’re a hard-core fan of her art-house hits (Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper) or even her flimsier post-Twilight outings like Charlie’s Angels, you could easily give Underwater a miss. It already appears to be sinking without trace – within a week of its opening, most multiplexes are only offering a single sessions per day. M on now, but not for long. View the trailer. Local cinemas include Broadway, Rhodes and Auburn ★1/2
Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life will delight admirers of his uniquely dreamy and highly stylised recent movies, even those who (like me) have hugely enjoyed them – but struggled to find a lick of sense or meaning in anything he’s tried to say since 2011’s magnificent Tree of Life. He’s been pretty prolific since, but his last directorial outing Song to Song, didn’t even get a single arthouse screen locally after its unheralded Sydney Film Festival debut. A Hidden Life in comparison is relatively straightforward in terms of plot and message, following the misfortunes of a pacifist and conscientious objector, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who refuses to swear allegiance to Hitler during the Second World War and as a consequence, pays the ultimate price. All of Malick’s divisive filmmaking tics – the multiple voice overs, whispered asides, the long languid shots, the choral soundtrack as well as his obsessions with nature and spirituality are on display here, exhaustively some would say (its hefty 174 minute running time is Malick’s longest to date). But it has a rare urgency and relevance too. What’s a man to do if our leadership is evil? Few of us would choose our hero’s path, which is probably why our political predicaments are as dire as they are today. PG on now – locally at Dendy Newtown and Palace Norton St (limited sessions, at its smallest theatre only) ★★★★1/2
Reviews – Russell Edwards