In previous sequels, they’ve notched up an impressive list of casualties, among them Sarah Michelle Gellar, Bill Pullman and Jennifer Beals. Now this instalment puts Jacki Weaver, Britain’s Andrea Riseborough and the Mexican actor, Demian Bichir, in harm’s way.
A wan-looking Riseborough and Bichir, chain-smoking his way through the role, are playing police detectives investigating a succession of grisly deaths connected with a suburban house in Pennsylvania. It’s hardly a whodunnit, however. The suspense – what there is of it – is mostly to do with when and how each killing is to come about.
The film is by Nicolas Pesce, known for a couple of small but creepy essays in horror. His films point to a director who likes to play cat-and-mouse with his audience and The Grudge’s few real shocks are all in the timing. Yet after one or two screams, the audience at my screening seemed to decide that familiarity bred indifference.
Pesce has hired some fine actors and squandered them on a plot that isn’t ingenious enough to justify the heartlessness that’s all part of the package at this end of the horror movie market, where the desire to prop up a tired old franchise is more important than the film itself.
Don’t expect a biography. I mean, why would anyone assume that a film called Seberg was going to recount the life of one of the most luminous and tragic actresses of the 1960s?, deplores reviewer Paul Byrnes.
You will learn next to nothing about who Jean Seberg was before Otto Preminger cast her in Saint Joan in 1956; zero about working with Jean-Luc Godard on Breathless in 1960, the film that restarted her career; and forget also about her idyllic American childhood in Marshalltown, Iowa. As to her marriage to the novelist Romain Gary, her second husband, the film was half over before I realised that’s who Yvan Attal was playing.
On the big question – the cause of the emotional distress that killed her in 1979 – the film offers one simple answer: it was J Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s harassment of her, for her political views.
Never mind that she had shown signs of mental instability well before the FBI took an interest, even as early as 1959, after the breakdown of her first marriage. That mid-western freshness and vulnerability were not fake: she really was vulnerable, long before the G-men stuck a microphone under her bed.
Australian director Benedict Andrews, renowned for his theatre work, has every right to limit the film’s scope to the troubled FBI years. This gives Kristen Stewart a focus for her performance. She attacks the role with verve, taking us from Seberg’s return to the US in 1968 to film Paint Your Wagon, through to her comprehensive breakdown in the early ’70s.
Stewart plays her without impersonation, hoping that her commitment will carry us through. It does, almost. Stewart is passionately engaged with trying to figure her out, but she seems to be on her own. Andrews’ attention is on the film’s surfaces – the gorgeous modernist house she occupies in a Los Angeles canyon, or the series of skimpy negligees in which she wafts through it, a baby doll ingenue who wants to do something “important”.
It’s true that the biopic is generally a debased form of cinema, but in this case a little more bio might have made all the difference. It’s an indulgent picture, a performance in search of a vehicle, a feat of set-dressing rather than the engrossing drama Jean Seberg deserved.
A Hidden Life ★★★
A Hidden Life is a sober historical drama, as linear as anything director Terrence Malick has ever done and probably more morally straightforward, writes reviewer Jake Wilson. It’s the story of a real-life hero, Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl), a peasant farmer who refused to fight for the Nazis during the Second World War.
The film begins as a rural idyll, showing the simple but contented life Franz shares with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their family in the Austrian village of St Radegund (the filming locations were in Northern Italy, with an international cast speaking English almost throughout). Once again, Malick’s trademark wide-angle lenses are put to work, making the surrounding valley seem immense yet cosy.
Following the outline of the facts, the narrative is a series of stations of the cross. Franz refuses to swear loyalty to Hitler, is increasingly ostracised, and eventually goes to prison while Fani struggles on back home.
The running time of nearly three hours makes for a great deal of repetition: time and again Franz is asked by authority figures, religious and secular, what he hopes to gain through his protest – and can reply only that he has no choice.
Despite the intermittent stylistic thrills, the film feels like an opportunity missed. Though Malick’s latter-day earnestness might seem to preclude irony, some of his best work has centred on destructive, deluded characters viewed with mocking fascination: the spree killer (Martin Sheen) in his 1973 debut Badlands, or the bullying father (Brad Pitt) in his 2011 magnum opus The Tree of Life.
More than most filmmakers Malick seems capable of imagining what it would mean to be a Nazi – a true believer in racial purity, strong leadership, and the defence of a beloved homeland against invaders. However, conveying the charisma of evil isn’t on his agenda: the case for Hitler finds no spokesperson more compelling than the town’s mayor (Karl Markovics), immediately recognisable as a drunken buffoon.
Consequently the drama lacks inner tension. Rather than wrestling with himself, as other Malick heroes do, Franz remains a noble waxwork helplessly true to his own convictions. And much of A Hidden Life is conventional and even techniques meant to undercut convention have hardened, to some extent, into a personal formula.
Director Roland Emmerich’s career has been marked by size rather than quality, writes Paul Byrnes. He gave us the first Independence Day, then stomped on Godzilla; he made the American War of Independence seem dull in The Patriot, then froze the planet in The Day After Tomorrow. More recently, he trashed the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue in White House Down. Emmerich, who’s German, makes the most patriotic movies in Hollywood, which tells us he knows something about butter and bread and which colours don’t run.
Midway is not bad, considering his whole career. Indeed, it’s one of his better films. It’s an enormous spectacle, filled with sound and fury and the best special effects not enough money can buy. Emmerich had to shave his budget by $US25 million ($37 million) to $US100 million to get a green light. For this kind of film, that’s almost low-budget. The FX sometimes reflect that: most of the aerials are spectacular, but not all.
Which brings us to the big question: why did Emmerich want to remake this battle, 77 years after the fact, if he did not have enough money? There are a number of earlier versions to pick from, including John Ford’s original 18-minute Oscar-winning documentary. We didn’t need a new one, unless he had something new to say or a new way to say it. To both questions, the answer is no. Midway is solidly, staunchly rooted in the past in terms of its storytelling. If it has any new ideas, they must have whizzed past me, like the low-flying Zeros bombing Pearl Harbour in the opening scenes.
The characters are all real, apparently. Woody Harrelson plays Nimitz, with Dennis Quaid as Halsey. Eckhart is Jimmy Doolittle, who led the famous raid on Tokyo, in which the pilots knew they would not have enough fuel to get home. Tadanobu Asano and Etsushi Toyokawa are stiff-backed as admirals Yamamoto and Yamaguchi, sailing into a trap set by the Americans.
Patrick Wilson is Edwin Layton, the intelligence officer who convinced Nimitz the Japanese would attack Midway, based on the work done by Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown) and his team of code breakers. Front and centre is Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a maverick pilot, with fellow airmen Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) and James Murray (Keean Johnson) trying to curb his bravado. Skrein is English, which might explain his ear-jangling Jersier-than-thou accent.
Midway is fun, if you like your war films loud, proud and in the cloud. Midway is just another video game substitute, an action distraction masquerading as history, draped in the flag.
The Peanut Butter Falcon ★★★
A title like The Peanut Butter Falcon promises whimsy and that’s what we get in this first feature from independent American directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz − a sentimental tall tale built around the disarming enthusiasm of their star Zack Gottsagen, whom they reportedly met while volunteering at a camp for actors with special needs, writes Jake Wilson.
As far as we can judge, Gottsagen is playing a character not altogether unlike himself: Zak, a good-hearted young man with Down syndrome who dreams of becoming a professional wrestler like the legendary Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), whose infomercial he watches constantly on VHS.
After breaking out of an old folks home, Zak heads down the coast of North Carolina in search of his idol, aided by his new friend Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a ne’er-do-well fisherman, and pursued by his well-meaning, college-educated carer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson).
Despite their differences, all three are lonely souls and, as you might anticipate, they eventually form a surrogate family.
Packaged for the arthouse crowd and as calculated as the film might be, it’s hard to dislike. And while Nilson and Schwartz use Gottsagen’s sincerity as a guarantee of their own good intentions, this never feels as exploitative as it might have.
Zak is a simple guy, unable to fend for himself out in the world. But he’s also a courageous underdog, a common-sense thinker and a trickster who regularly scores off his companions, meaning the laughs are never wholly at his expense.
As the surly but sensitive Tyler, LaBeouf carries more emotional weight than anybody else and looks more comfortable than he ever did in his days as a juvenile lead.
Johnson has not escaped typecasting to the same degree. Eleanor’s romance with Tyler isn’t exactly credible. But then credibility isn’t exactly the point and it’s pleasant enough to go along for the ride.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.