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Films I Neglected To Review: Winded
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Beanpole," "My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising," "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band" and "Seberg."

Yes, I realize that it is still only February but I have a sneaky suspicion that the title of Most Depressing Film of 2020 has already been locked up. That prize goes to "Beanpole," an unrelentingly grim and horrific film from Russia (it was that country's submission for this year's International Film Oscar) that paints a grisly and unflinching portrait of people struggling to process the horrors of war. Set in Leningrad just after the end of WWII, the film centers around Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse who is clearly suffering from a form of PTSD that leaves her nearly catatonic at certain times. Her only relief is the joy that she gets from her young child, perhaps the one sign of hope in her overwhelmingly bleak existence. As you can probably guess, that happiness is short-lived and while Iya is trying to deal with that tragedy that occurs, an old friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), returns after a long period of time at the front and with a number of traumas and a couple of shocking revelations of her own. As the film observes the two of them as they try to move on with their lives in wildly different ways, things get increasingly bleak and hopeless--so much so, in fact, that even the hardiest moviegoers may find themselves pondering at certain points whether they really want to continue on with it or not. Few would blame them for bolting but those that stay will be rewarded with a film that features two strong and brave central performances and an approach from director/co-writer Kantemir Balagov that does not shy away from depicting its horrors as graphically as possible but somehow manages to keep from descending into purely grotesque exploitation. "Beanpole" may not exactly be a light and refreshing night out at the movies but it is a thoughtful and provocative work that deserves to be seen by those with a stomach for strong and serious-minded material.

Having never seen an episode of the long-running anime series "My Hero Academia" before, I suppose that anyone who wants a detailed analysis of how its latest big-screen incarnation, "My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising," works in terms of the entire franchise will need to look elsewhere. And yet, while I confess that there are probably any numbers of subtleties that I inevitably overlooked while watching it that the fanbase will seize upon, that did not prevent me from having a reasonably good time watching it nevertheless. The concept, which will no doubt remind some of a certain Marvel Comics franchise, is that in the near future, a large percentage of the populace will have some kind of super powers (known here as "quirks") and that schools have sprung up designed to teach young people how to harness and use those gifts in order to graduate into full-formed heroes. In the film, a class of students has been sent to the super-peaceful Nabu Island in order to get them used to putting their abilities into practice in a low-key setting--they get calls to help find missing luggage or kids who have wandered away at the mall. This peace is shattered when the super-villain Nine arrives with his minions to steal the quirk of a young island boy whose gift could change the fate of the world is it falls into the wrong hands. Unable to communicate with the outside world, the students, led by the quirk-free Deku, are forced to band together to evacuate the island, protect the boy and defeat Nine before things go completely sideways.

In the past, when I have seen films based on anime shows that I am unfamiliar with--pretty much all of them--I have tended to grow frustrated with them because they have elected to play strictly to the fans and have made no discernible effort to reach out to newbies. Happily, the makers of "Heroes Rising" have, consciously or not, managed to avoid falling into this trap because while it no doubt has greater meaning for fans, the basic storyline is clear and concise enough for newcomers, presumably dragged along by well-meaning friends, to grasp without throwing their hands up in total confusion. The opening half-hour, in which we see the students go about their community outreach program--using their awesome gifts to essentially serve as lifeguards at the beach and whatnot--is really entertaining and if the whole film had gone along those lines, I would have enjoyed it quite a bit. Around the 30 minute mark, however, that is when Nine arrives and the film more or less turns into one massive action sequence after another and while they are colorful and exciting enough, I found them to grow a bit monotonous after a while. I cannot say that my affection for "Heroes Rising" is going to inspire to go back and take in the entire "My Hero Academia" saga--I still have a couple of episodes of "Riverdale" to catch up on--but if another film comes along at some point down the line, I will definitely make a point to check it out.

The rise and fall of The Band, the rock group that first became known for backing up Bob Dylan when he made the controversial decision to go electric and went on to record a number of acclaimed albums (essentially inventing the Americana genre in the process) before flaming out in a haze of booze, drugs and internal strife, albeit solidifying their place as rock legends when their star-studded final concert served as the basis of Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz," generally referred to as one of the greatest concert films of all time. In subsequent years, Afterwards, lead guitarist and chief songwriter Robbie Robertson went off on his own, working on the music for several of Scorsese's films, taking a high profile fling at acting with the bizarre "Carny" and recording a few largely underrated solo albums. At the same time, the other members eventually reunited without Robertson under greatly reduced circumstances while singer Levon Helm began a war of words with his former bandmate by suggesting that Robertson hogged the songwriting credits and the subsequent royalties. With the passing of Helm in 2012, following the deaths of fellow members Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, Robertson has spent the last couple of years trying to rehabilitate his reputation in this regard by presenting his side of the story, first in his 2016 autobiography "Testimony: A Memoir" and now with the new documentary "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band."

If you are a fan of the group, there is an excellent chance that you have heard many of these stories before--the wild times on tour with Dylan facing crowds that hated the noise they were creating, the showcase gig that Robertson was so sick for that he had to be hypnotized in order to make it on the stage, the various drug-related fuckups and fights and their final stand before Scorsese's cameras. Since there apparently was not a lot of quality performance footage of the group in their heyday, the hook here is hearing these tales in Robertson's own voice along with additional testimonials as to the group's importance from the likes of Scorsese, Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and more. This is entertaining enough on some fundamental level--the music remains as stirring and timeless as ever--but even though I am a huge fan of Robertson's work as an artist, he doesn't quite come off as well here as he probably thinks he does. Sure, he tries to stress the importance of the Band as a group--it seems at times as if every third sentence invokes some variation on the word "brothers"--but he always seems to be consciously placing himself at a slight remove from the others. (It is no coincidence that he gets billing over the group in the title). Granted, when three of your four fellow band members are dead and the other (Garth Hudson) is famous for never saying anything to anyone under any circumstances, a certain degree of one-sidedness is bound to creep in but Robertson really leans into it here--even his anecdote of his final deathbed encounter with Helm comes across as a bit on the self-serving side--and director Daniel Roher was evidently too infatuated by the legendary status of his subject to push him in any way. "Once Were Brothers" is a perfectly adequate Level One examination of the Band and its impact for newcomers and a warm bath of nostalgia for the faithful. However, those in the mood to celebrate the group without all the hagiography would be better served by loading up on copies of The Band's original albums and the Blu-Ray of "The Last Waltz."

For those who do not recall her, Jean Seberg was an Iowa teenager who was plucked from obscurity by filmmaker Otto Preminger to star in his heavy hyped 1957 film "Saint Joan." While that experience left her burned, both emotionally and physically (as the scene involving her burning at the stake went out of control), she achieved true international stardom soon afterwards soon afterwards when she went to France, starred in Jean-Luc Godard's landmark directorial debut "Breathless" and became the pixie-cut icon of the French New Wave. A decade later, Seberg returned to America to make the infamous "Paint Your Wagon" and, perhaps in response to the prefab nature of that monstrosity, became a high profile supporter of the Black Panthers, donating time and large amounts of money to the cause. Already known for her support of progressive causes, this support caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who elected to marshal the forces of the FBI to hound her relentlessly via surveillance and smears planted in the media in an effort to destroy her career. Sadly, it worked--after returning to France, she never worked in Hollywood again and eventually committed suicide in 1979. Consisting of equal parts tragedy and outrage, a film on Seberg's life and the persecution she faced from government forces should have made for a powerful and galvanizing work, especially with an actress as astoundingly talented as Kristen Stewart in the lead. And yet, "Seberg," which was once positioned as potential Oscar bait (presumably right up until the minute when people actually saw it for the first time) is an infuriatingly and almost insultingly bad movie, one whose flaws are so obvious that it is a little astonishing that no one involved with its making came on to them until it was too late.

The chief problem is that this is a film that is theoretically supposed to be about Seberg and how she was driven to near-madness by those in power and yet, there are large stretches of the film in which she comes across almost as an afterthought in what should be her story. Instead, director Benedict Andrews and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse have made the truly inexplicable decision to focus a large portion of the narrative on the character of a fictional FBI agent (Jack O'Connell) who is tasked by his superiors with performing the surveillance on Seberg and how he gradually begins to realize that there may be a dark side to his targeted harassment of a private citizen after all. Instead of sticking with Seberg, we get countless scenes of this yutz, his relationships with his vaguely liberated wife (Margaret Qualley) and loutish partner (Vince Vaughn) and his eventual attempts to redeem himself by surreptitiously warning Seberg about the FBI's plotting against her. Needless to say, this all reads as a crock as it attempts to add a redemptive arc to a story that did not exactly have any to speak of. Almost as disappointing as the screenplay is Stewart's performance--although she looks reasonably close to Seberg but there is never a single moment when I actually bought her in the role. You never get any real sense of the complex person that Seberg was in real life or what she is trying to put across by playing her. (It isn't even an especially good take strictly as mimicry.) There is a great and stirring movie to be made about Jean Seberg and the abuse that she suffered at the hands of Hoover and the FBI but "Seberg" is not even remotely close to being that film, though it might make for one-half of an amusing double-bill with "Mississippi Burning" one day.

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originally posted: 02/28/20 03:40:56
last updated: 02/28/20 05:20:03
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