Review: ‘Back to Black’ (2024), starring Marisa Abela, Jack O’Connell, Eddie Marsan and Lesley Manville

May 13, 2024

by Carla Hay

Marisa Abela in “Back to Black” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Back to Black” (2024)

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 2000s, mostly in England, the Amy Winehouse biopic drama “Back to Black” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: British singer Amy Winehouse becomes a Grammy-winning international superstar with her 2006 second album “Back to Black,” but her life is plagued by insecurities, drug addiction and a toxic relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, who would become her husband in a doomed marriage.

Culture Audience: “Back to Black” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Amy Winehouse, but the movie is mostly a superficial and glossed-over portrayal of her life.

Marisa Abela and Jack O’Connell in “Back to Black” (Photo by Dean Rogers/Focus Features)

The best things about the Amy Winehouse biopic “Back to Black” are Winehouse’s original songs, and the cast members put in very good efforts in their performances. But this disappointing drama does almost everything else wrong. It’s a movie that is so intent on glossing over harsh realities of Winehouse’s life, the results are very phony-looking recreations where the overall narrative of the movie can’t be trusted.

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and written by Matt Greenhalgh, “Back to Black” takes place in the 2000s, the decade when London-based Winehouse rose to fame as a gritty and sassy singer heavily influenced by American R&B and 1960s pop music. She also wrote very confessional songs about her life. Winehouse, who struggled with various addictions, died of alcohol poisoning in 2011, after having a period of sobriety. She was 27.

Marisa Abela has the role of Winehouse in “Back to Black” and does her own singing in the movie. Winehouse had a unique contralto that would be difficult for anyone to duplicate. Abela’s Winehouse impersonation is passable, but Abela’s singing is noticeably inferior to Winehouse’s real voice talent. (For the purposes of this review, the real Amy Winehouse is referred to as Winehouse, while the character of Amy Winehouse in “Back to Black” is referred to as Amy.)

“Back to Black” is a “checklist” celebrity biopic (with a lot of corny dialogue) that follows the usual formula of a celebrity who rises to fame and fortune and then comes crashing down because of various issues, usually having to do with addiction, money, egos, love life problems, or a combination of all of them. Movies like this usually end with some type of “redemption” or “triumph” arc. And if the celebrity is dead, the death and aftermath of the death are usually tacked on as an epilogue.

The “Back to Black” movie follows Amy’s transformation from a guitar-playing pop singer (whose 2003 debut album “Frank” was a big hit in the United Kingdom, but flopped everywhere else except Europe, Australia and Brazil) to ditching her guitar as part of her stage act (at the urging of her management) to become a sultrier R&B-influenced singer known for her 1960s-styled beehive hairstyle. The movie makes it look like Amy’s beloved grandmother Cynthia (played by Lesley Manville), the mother of Amy’s father, was largely responsible for Amy’s image makeover into a 1960s-inspired “bad girl” diva after Amy showed an interest in 1960s music.

Amy is encouraged and enabled by her taxi driver father Mitch (played by Eddie Marsan), who plays an increasingly influential role in her career. Amy meets Blake Fielder-Civil (played by Jack O’Connell) at a pub, and they have a volatile on-again, off-again relationship that leads to them eloping in 2007. Blake doesn’t seem to have a steady job (he describes himself as a video assistant when he first meets Amy), but he is a full-time drug addict, with Amy also indulging in the same addictions, including alcohol, cocaine and heroin. The movie’s depictions of Amy’s self-admitted eating disorders, self-harm and rehab stints are mostly superficial and fleeting.

The well-documented physical abuse in Amy and Blake’s relationship is only hinted at in the “Back to Black” movie, in a scene where Amy is seen running away in the street with bruises and cuts on her face and body. Amy is shown with some friends in the beginning of her career, but those friends eventually fade away in the movie and are replaced by Blake and people who work for Amy. Mark Ronson—one of the main producers of her breakthrough 2006 second (and last) studio album “Back to Black”—is mentioned but never seen in the movie. The same goes for Simon Fuller, the owner of 19 Management, the company that is most famous for managing the Spice Girls and Amy Winehouse.

The “Back to Black” movie sidelines Amy’s songwriting talent, her work in recording studios and her concert tours, in order to make the majority of the story about the dysfunctional relationship between Amy and Blake. The movie makes it look like Amy was much more in love with Blake than he was with her. And that is probably true. In real life, “Back to Black” was written during a period of time when Winehouse and Fielder-Civil had broken up, before they got married. Their marriage lasted only two years.

The movie only shows the stories behind only a few of her songs. The inspiration for “Rehab,” her biggest hit, is in a scene where Amy’s manager Nick Shymansky (played by Sam Buchanan) and other people in her entourage have an intervention to urge her to go to rehab, but Amy says “no,” and Mitch backs her up and says she’s just fine. In real life, Shymansky has given interviews saying that Mitch originally agreed to convince Amy to go to rehab during this intervention, but Mitch went back on his word and ended up by siding with Amy. By all accounts, Amy Winehouse in real life was not “just fine” when she recorded the “Back to Black” album but she was actually deep in the throes of addiction, which the movie constantly glosses over by downplaying how serious her addictions were.

The “Back to Black” movie dishonestly makes it look like paparazzi had more to do with Amy’s downfall during the height of her fame, instead of all the enablers (including her father Mitch) who pushed her to go on tour when she didn’t want to tour and she should have been getting necessary and proper medical care for her health issues. Amy’s mother Janis (played by Juliet Cowan), who separated from Mitch when Amy was 9, is depicted in the movie as mostly a passive bystander. Amy’s older brother Alex (played by Izaak Cainer), who was four years older that she was, is barely in the movie.

The movie dutifully recreates one of the high points in Amy’s career: the 2008 Grammy Awards, when Amy performed “Rehab” from London and then won the Grammy for Record of the Year for “Rehab,” with her parents in the audience cheering her on. She won a total of five Grammys at the ceremony, including Song of the Year (also for “Rehab”); Best Pop Vocal Album (for “Back to Black”); Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (for “Rehab”); and Best New Artist. She became the first British female artist to win all of these Grammy Awards in the same ceremony.

Taylor-Johnson and Greenhalgh previously worked together on the John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy” (about Lennon’s troubled teenage years), a drama released in 2009 in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia, and in 2010 everywhere else. Greenhalgh also wrote the screenplay for the 2007 biopic “Control,” a drama about Ian Curtis, lead singer of the British rock band Joy Division. Just like the “Back to Black” movie, “Nowhere Boy” and “Control” also had good performances in a movie with a very flawed screenplay. Although “Back to Black” certainly does an admirable job with costume design, production design and hairstyling, viewers are better off watching the Oscar-winning 2015 documentary “Amy” for a more insightful and more accurate story of Winehouse’s life.

Focus Features will release “Back to Black” in U.S. cinemas on May 17, 2024, with a sneak preview in U.S. cinemas on May 15, 2024. The movie was released in the United Kingdom and other countries in April 2024. “Back to Black” will be released on digital and VOD on June 4, 2024.

Review: ‘Ferrari’ (2023), starring Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz and Shailene Woodley

October 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

Adam Driver (standing in center) in “Ferrari” (Photo by Eros Hoagland/Neon)

“Ferrari” (2023)

Directed by Michael Mann

Some language in Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Italy, in 1957, the dramatic film “Ferrari” (based on the non-fiction book “Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races”) features an all-white cast of characters portraying the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Enzo Ferrari deals with various challenges in his career and personal life, including financial problems for his family-owned Ferrari car company and juggling his volatile marriage to his wife with his other family that he has with his mistress.

Culture Audience: “Ferrari” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and biographical dramas about powerful people.

Penélope Cruz in “Ferrari” (Photo by Lorenzo Sisti/Neon)

“Ferrari” goes down many familiar roads that biopics take when they’re about egotistical business moguls with messy personal lives. Adam Driver gives a capable performance as Enzo Ferrari. The movie fares better on a technical level than an emotional level. Some of the movie’s scenes look authentic, while other scenes look overly contrived for drama’s sake.

Directed by Michael Mann and written by Troy Kennedy Martin, “Ferrari” is based on Brock Yates’ 1991 non-fiction book “Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races.” In the “Ferrari” movie, the story is condensed to the year 1957, when Enzo Ferrari was going through various crises and challenges. “Ferrari” had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2023 New York Film Festival.

“Ferrari” begins by showing black and white footage of Enzo as a young man in a racing car. The movie then abruptly jumps to 1957. Enzo is now 59 years old and leading a double life that will put his marriage in jeopardy. Enzo wakes up in bed next to his mistress Lina Lardi (played by Shailene Woodley), who has a semi-secret son with him named Piero.

It’s morning, and Enzo rushes out of the house to drive quickly back to the home that he shares with his fiery-tempered wife Laura Ferrari (played by Penélope Cruz), who is very angry because she knows that Enzo has spent the night with another woman. Laura won’t find out how serious this extramarital affair is until much later. And this revelation will affect her decision on what to do about her marriage to Enzo.

After Enzo arrives at his marital home, Laura then proceeds to shoot a pistol at Enzo, with the bullet hitting a wall near his head. In her rage, Laura reminds Enzo that they had an agreement: He could spend the night wherever he wants, as long as he gets home in time before the couple’s maid brings the morning coffee. The maid has already arrived.

If the maid didn’t suspect that Enzo is having an extramarital affair, she now knows because she is in the room to witness Laura’s ranting. For the rest of the movie, it’s a tug of war between Enzo and Laura over not only their marriage but also control of the Ferrari car empire. Laura has an ownership stake in the company. And she gave a lot of company’s first investment money when it was a fledgling business.

Laura and Enzo have other problems in their marriage besides his infidelity. Their relationship has never been the same, ever since the death of their son Alfredo Ferrari, who died of kidney failure in 1956, at the age of 24. Enzo and Laura are grieving in different ways.

Enzo has poured a lot of his energy into his work to the point where he’s a workaholic who has neglected his marriage. His emotional state is often cold and distant, as if it’s too painful to feel his grief, so he shuts himself off from his emotions. Laura is the opposite: Her grief has consumed her to the point where her emotions are out of control. She lashes out mostly at Enzo, but other people are also the targets of her bad temper.

Enzo’s mother (played by Agnese Brighittini), who doesn’t have a name in the movie, is an opionionated and influential force in Enzo’s life. (In real life, the first name of Enzo’s mother was Adalgisa.) However, Laura fights to maintain her status as the most important woman in Enzo’s life, even if their marriage is breaking down.

“Ferrari” also shows that in 1957, the Ferrari company is spending more money than it is making. Enzo is advised to increase production from 98 different models of Ferraris to more than 400 different models. Ferrari wants to invest more heavily in a different strategy: Win as many high-profile automobile races as possible with racers who will drive Ferraris. The publicity generated from these victories would be expected to boost sales of Ferraris.

Although there are several talented racers who are part of the Ferrari team, one in particular is Enzo’s biggest hope to take the Ferrari brand to a new level on the racing circuit: Alfonso De Portago (played by Gabriel Leone), a Spanish aristocrat/playboy, is seen by Enzo as a rising star who could take the Ferrari brand to new heights. Alfonso is one of the competitors in the treacherous 1957 Mille Miglia race. Piero Taruffi (played by Patrick Dempsey) is an Italian racer who is also competing in the 1957 Mille Miglia race. Peter Collins (played by Jack O’Connell) is a British racer who joined the Ferrari team in 1956. These two characters have supporting roles that aren’t as developed as the character of Alfonso.

In this male-dominated movie, the women with significant speaking roles are usually relegated to the role of wife, girlfriend, mother or employee. Laura is the only female character in the movie who is presented as being involved in business deals. Two of the female characters who appear briefly in “Ferrari” are Cecilia Manzini (played by Valentina Bellè) and actress Linda Christian (played by Sarah Gadon), who are in the movie with “girlfriend” roles. Cecilia is the fiancée of race car driver Eugenio Castellotti (played by Marino Franchitti), and she is a character based on real-life ballerina/actress Delia Scala, who was engaged to the real Castellotti at the time. In real life, as depicted in the “Ferrari” movie, Christian was dating De Portago at the time.

“Ferrari” alternates between Enzo’s worries in his business life and his problems in his love life. Eventually both sets of problems collide when Laura raises the stakes on what she might or might not do about her share of the Ferrari business ownership. Enzo is also facing allegations of Ferrari having faulty cars when one of the Ferrari cars is involved in a fatal accident during a car race.

People who want to see adrenaline-pumping car racing scenes won’t be disappointed in “Ferrari,” because these scenes are among the best in the movie. The direction and cinematography for these scenes give viewers the feeling of being fully immersed in the action. When tragedy strikes during a racing scene, the graphic way in which it is depicted can affect viewers of “Ferrari” on a visceral level.

“Ferarri” stumbles in depicting the love triangle between Enzo, Laura and Lina. Cruz (who is Spanish in real life) does a very convincing portrayal as an Italian and is the movie’s scene stealer. Unfortunately, American actress Woodley is not very believable as an Italian. The Lina character is also underdeveloped. Driver, who is American, is somewhere in between: He’s neither great nor terrible in the role of Enzo. “Ferrari” is ultimately a movie that can appeal to different types of people, even if there’s a lot in the movie that feels like the same old story.

Neon will release “Ferrari” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2023. UPDATE: The movie will be released on digital and VOD on January 23, 2024. “Ferrari” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on March 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ (2022), starring Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell

November 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jack O’Connell and Emma Corrin in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Netflix)

“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (2022)

Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1918 to 1919, in the United Kingdom, the dramatic film “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Lady Constance Chatterley’s sex life with her husband comes to an abrupt end after his World War I injuries leave him with paraplegia, and he encourages her to get pregnant by another man because he wants an heir, but the two spouses are not prepared when she unexpectedly falls in love with her secret lover, who is the couple’s gamekeeper employee.

Culture Audience: “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of the D.H. Lawrence novel on which the movie is based, as well as people who are interested in erotic love stories that are set in the early 20th century.

Emma Corrin and Matthew Duckett in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (Photo by Seamus Ryan/Netflix)

Gorgeously filmed and terrifically acted, this version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is the best movie adaptation of the book so far. Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell give sensuous and romantic performances as the secret lovers who are the story’s main characters. Everything about the movie is authentically detailed to the story’s setting of the United Kingdom in 1918 and 1919, even though the movie’s pace tends to drag in some areas. This movie version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” should please fans of D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel of the same name (on which this movie is based), as well as viewers who might not have read the book but are interested in early 20th century stories about torrid love affairs and women who unapologetically live their truths. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” had its world premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and then made the rounds at other film festivals in 2022, including the BFI London Film Festival and AFI Fest in Los Angeles.

Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is the fourth movie adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence book. The first “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” movie is director Just Jaeckin’s 1981 drama, starring Sylvia Kristel as Lady Chatterley and Nicholas Clay as Oliver Mellors, who becomes Lady Chatterley’s lover. Then came director Pascale Ferran’s 2006 French-language film “Lady Chatterley,” starring Marina Hands and Jean-Louis Coullo’ch as the two illicit lovers. There’s also the 2015 BBC TV-movie “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” directed by Jed Mercurio, and starring Holliday Grainger and Richard Madden as the lady and her lover.

The 2022 movie version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” directed by de Clermont-Tonnerre is a cut above the rest, in terms of overall quality on all levels. This movie is also faithful to the plot and tone of the book. As the non-conformist Lady Chatterley, Corrin’s wonderfully expressive performance skillfully conveys the inner turmoil and outer frustrations of an aristocratic wife who is often emotionally stifled in an environment where her husband and society dictate how she must live her life. As the movie’s title character O’Connell is pitch-perfect as the working-class employee who is acutely aware of the social-class minefield he is entering by having an affair with his wealthy employer’s wife.

“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” begins with the 1918 wedding of Constance “Connie” Reid to Clifford Chatterley (played by Matthew Duckett), a wealthy heir to a fortune made from mining. Because Clifford has the title of lord, Connie will have the title of lady when she becomes his wife. The wedding is a happy occasion, because Connie and Clifford seem to genuinely be in love.

But there are some clues about possible trouble in this marriage. On Connie and Clifford’s wedding day, Connie’s older sister Hilda (played by Faye Marsay) has a private conversation with Connie, who had her heart broken by a German ex-boyfriend. It’s implied that Clifford is a rebound relationship for Connie, and they had a whirlwind courtship. This courtship is never seen in the movie.

Hilda tells Connie with concern in her voice, “I don’t want you to get hurt again.” Connie assures Hilda that she made the right decision to choose Clifford as a husband: “He’s kind and thoughtful, and he makes me feel safe.” But is there romantic passion between Connie and Clifford? Connie is about to find out that her marriage to Clifford will come up very short in that area.

At the wedding reception, Clifford’s widower father Sir Geoffrey Chatterley (played by Alistair Findlay) gives a toast to the assembled guests. Observant viewers will notice that behind Geoffrey’s cheerful smile and pleasant mannerisms are a few signs of discontent. One of the signs is when Geoffrey has thanked many of the guests who donated their butter and sugar rations “to help us celebrate.” It’s an indication that although the Chatterley family is wealthy, World I has taken a toll on the family’s finances.

Before making the toast, Geoffrey also makes a snide remark about Connie marrying Clifford (who has no siblings) for the Chatterley family’s sprawling and rural Wragby estate, located in the Midlands of England. Connie laughs off this possible insult and tells Geoffrey and the rest of the crowd that she and Clifford have married for love. Geoffrey’s comment is also an indication that Connie was into a lower-ranking artisocratic family. Connie’s father is Sir Malcolm Reid (played by Anthony Brophy), who approves of the marriage and is briefly shown in the wedding scene. Geoffrey’s toast includes this statement: “To the next heir of Chatterley.”

After the wedding, Connie and Clifford live in London. In their bedroom, she asks him, “Do you want children, Clifford?” He answers, “Yeah, someday. I’m assuming you would.” Connie replies, “I think so, yeah.” The movie doesn’t ever show Connie and Clifford having sex, but it’s implied that they had a healthy sex life before Clifford went off to serve in the military for World War I.

Clifford goes away to war soon after the wedding. “I’ll write to you every day,” he promises Connie at the train station. But when Clifford comes back from the war, after it ends in November 1918, the marriage will be changed considerably. Clifford was wounded in the war and has paralysis from the waist down. He has to use a wheelchair to move around. Clifford’s widower father Geoffrey died during the war, and Clifford has inherited the Ragby estate.

Clifford and Connie both seem to take his paraplegia in stride and agree that he needs to be in a less hectic environment than in a city. They move from London to the Ragby estate, which had largely been unoccupied since the death of Clifford’s father. “I think he died of chagrin,” Clifford says of his father not living long enough to have a grandchild.

At the Ragby estate, Connie and Clifford promptly hire several new employees, now that Clifford and Connie will be living there full-time. One of the people they hire is Oliver Mellors (played by O’Connell), who served as an army lieutenant in the war and has been hired to live and work on the Ragby estate as a gamekeeper. When Connie and Oliver first meet, there’s no attraction between the. It’s strictly an employer/employee relationship.

At first, Clifford seems to be good spirits in adjusting to his post-war physical condition. He’s a writer who decides to expand a short story that he started while attending Cambridge University into a novel. The novel gets published, but Clifford goes into a state of self-criticism and despair after he reads a newspaper article that has a negative review of the book. Connie tries to cheer him up, but this negative review has seemingly damaged Clifford’s self-esteem and confidence as a writer.

Clifford is also feeling insecure because his paraplegia has made him sexually impotent. Connie is as understanding as possible when her attempts to have sex with him end with Clifford stopping and saying, “I can’t.” But this lack of a sex life eventually has serious repercussions on their marriage.

Clifford expects Connie to be his nursemaid because he doesn’t want to pay to hire someone to do this work. (it’s one of many signs that Clifford is a cheapskate.) But the strain of taking care of him has left Connie in poor health. She lost an alarming amount of weight, which has lowered her energy level and immune system.

Hilda comes to visit and is so horrified by Connie’s physical condition, she insists that Clifford hire a nursemaid. Hilda thinks the best choice is a middle-aged widow named Mrs. Bolton (played by Joely Richardson), who was Clifford’s nanny when Clifford was a child. Hilda is strong-willed and very opinionated. Hilda lets it be known that she thinks Clifford could be a more considerate husband to Connie.

With Connie now having more free time without the stress of being Clifford’s nursemaid, her health starts to improve, even if the couple’s sex life hasn’t. But then, Clifford drops a bombshell proposal on Connie: He tells her more than anything, he wants to have an heir (preferably a son), so asks her how she would feel about getting pregnant by another man.

Connie is completely shocked and says she can’t do have sex with another man because she and Clifford are married. However, Clifford cheerfully tells her that he will have her blessing to have an extramarital affair, as long as she’s discreet about it. He also tells Connie that she can choose who her lover will be, but he doesn’t want to know who it is or any other details about the affair. He also compares this arrangement of having sex with a man who’ll impregnate her to “like taking a trip to the dentist.”

At this point in the marriage, Connie just wants to make Clifford happy. And although she’s uncomfortable with this plan, she goes along with it because she also wants to become a parent. Connie takes a mild interest in Oliver, who is a polite and reserved employee who lives in a cottage with his dog Flossie. Connie asks a schoolteacher acquaintance named Mrs. Flint (played by Ella Hunt) what Oliver’s story is.

And that’s how Connie finds out that Oliver is married but separated from his wife Bertha. According to Mrs. Flint, Bertha cheated on Oliver with several men when he was serving in the war. And now, Bertha is living with another man, but she won’t give Oliver a divorce. Connie’s German ex-boyfriend also cheated on her, so she immediately feels empathy for Oliver.

Connie comes up with excuses to visit Oliver or walk near his cottage. The first time she shows up at his place, she’s impressed that he’s reading a James Joyce novel. Over time, Connie discovers that Oliver is a caring and emotionally intelligent person, but he’s very wary about what Connie wants from him and how risky it would be for his employment status if they had an affair.

Of course, it should be no secret to viewers that Connie and Oliver eventually become lovers. When they begin their affair, she doesn’t tell him that Clifford gave her permission to have a lover so that she could get pregnant. She doesn’t tell Oliver because she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings by making him feel like he’s being used like a stud.

However, what Connie thought would be a “no strings attached” sexual relationship turns out to be much more complicated when she and Oliver start to fall in love with each other. Just as Clifford requested, Connie keeps the relationship a secret from him and other people. But the more emotionally distant Clifford gets, the more emotionally intimate Connie and Oliver get with each other.

Clifford seems to care more about writing, listening to the radio, and spending time with Mrs. Bolton (whom he sees as a mother figure/confidante) than he cares about spending time and paying attention to Connie. The movie has more than one scene of Connie being in a room with Clifford, and he acts as if she’s not really there. Feeling neglected and unappreciated just fuels Connie’s passion for Oliver even more because he’s completely present and attentive to her every time that they are together.

When the novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was first published in 1928, it was controversial because its erotic content was considered too risqué, which resulted in the book being banned in some places. The Connie/Oliver sex scenes in 2022’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” gradually get more explicit as they fall deeper in love with each other. The lover scenes include occasional full-frontal nudity (male and female), but the nudity and sex scenes are artfully filmed and never look exploitative.

One of the most striking aspects of this version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is Benoît Delhomme’s immersive and beautiful cinematography, whose use of certain palettes (especially blue and green) give the movie a rich vibrancy that is perfectly suited for this type of movie. Also impressive are the production design led by Karen Wakefield and the costume design by Emma Fryer. The attention to detail is impeccable.

All of these technical aspects of the movie just complement how well all of the cast members play their roles. Oliver and Connie might come from different social classes, but they are both an emotionally wounded in their own ways and find unexpected love with each other. The question is how far their loyalty to each other will go.

Connie also begins to understand that the true definition of “class” should not be defined by how much money someone has but what type of character that person has. Clifford is spoiled, self-centered snob who believes that aristocrats should treat non-aristocrats as inferior. Connie feels the exact opposite way and thinks that people should be treated fairly and equally.

It’s later revealed that Clifford exploits his workers by paying them well below a living wage. The movie doesn’t go too much into these worker exploitation issues, although there are indications that Connie becomes more aware as time goes on of the Chatterley family’s role in worker exploitation of the miners in the community. For example, when Connie first meets Mrs. Flint on the street during May Day, Connie is disturbed by the sight of a miner strike/labor protest that briefly becomes volatile. Mrs. Flint tells Connie that these miners have come from out of town, but Connie finds out that the miner’s problems actually hit much closer to home than she originally thought.

One of the main reasons why the “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” novel was so controversial at the time it was published is because it’s about a woman in search of autonomy over her sexuality. The right to control and the freedom to express sexuality have gender double standards that haven’t completely gone away just because there’s been progress made in female empowerment issues since 1928. People can certainly debate the morals of marital infidelity (especially if a spouse gives permission for the other spouse to have sex outside the marriage) and how marital infidelity is presented in this story. However, what this movie demonstrates so well is that the real morality issue in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is whether or not Connie can truthfully live according to how she really feels.

Netflix released “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in select U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022. The movie will premiere on Netflix on December 2, 2022.

Review: ‘Little Fish’ (2021), starring Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell

March 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jack O’Connell and Olivia Cooke in “Little Fish” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Little Fish” (2021) 

Directed by Chad Hartigan

Culture Representation: Taking place in Seattle from 2020 to 2022, the sci-fi drama “Little Fish” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A British woman and her American husband struggle with fear and health issues during a global pandemic of the fictional disease Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA).

Culture Audience: “Little Fish” will appeal primarily to people interested in well-acted apocalyptic dramas that have romance and surprises.

Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell in “Little Fish” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Little Fish” is the type of plot-puzzle drama that appears to be straightforward in its intentions but turns out to be quite different from what was initially presented. The movie succeeds largely because of commendable acting from Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell, who play a newlywed couple struggling with a health crisis when one of them becomes afflicted with the fictional disease Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA) during a global pandemic. Because the movie takes place primarily in 2022, with flashbacks to previous years, the parallels are eerily similar to the real-life COVID-19 pandemic, although “Little Fish” was written and filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic existed.

Written by Mattson Tomlin (who adapted the screenplay from Aja Gabel’s short story) and directed by Chad Hartigan, “Little Fish” is told from the point of view of a lively Brit named Emma (played by Cooke), who works as a veterinary technician in Seattle. The movie’s tone is fraught with anxiety because Emma starts to see signs that her worst fears are coming true: The two people she loves the most have become afflicted with NIA, a viral disease that causes dementia.

The movie is a series of scenes in non-chronological order, with the “present day” scenes taking place in 2022. Emma gives voiceover narration during much of the story, and there are many scenes where she is articulating her memories so that she can write them down for herself and her American husband Jude (played by O’Connell), a photographer who is slowly showing signs of having NIA. It’s an activity that she does with a heavy heart because she knows it might be a matter of time before Jude will forget who she is and everything about their relationship.

In addition, Emma’s mother, who lives in England, is also showing signs of NIA. Emma’s mother (whose name is not revealed) is never seen in the movie, but her voice is heard when Emma speaks to her on the phone or leaves a voice mail message for her. Emily Stott is the voice of Emma’s mother in the movie.

In the world of “Little Fish,” NIA does not have a vaccine or cure. And there doesn’t seem to be much knowledge about how it is spread, although people occasionally wear masks as a precaution. Because a lot of the movie takes place in flashbacks, viewers see in bits and pieces how Emma and Jude met and how their relationship evolved.

Emma and Jude met while she was sitting by herself on a deserted beach. She sees a dog nearby and asks the man walking near her if the dog is his. He says no. The way that Emma and Jude look at each other, there’s an obvious attraction. Emma is talkative, while Jude is a little bit more emotionally reserved.

Jude has a camera with him and asks if he can take her picture. She obliges, they talk, flirt a little, and they exchange numbers. There’s only one problem. Emma already has a boyfriend, but she doesn’t tell Jude that the first time that they meet.

Shortly after Jude and Emma meet each other at the beach, Emma is at a Halloween costume party. She’s dressed as Claude Bourgelat, the French doctor who was considered a pioneer of veterinary medicine in the 1700s. Emma looks bored at the party, and her boyfriend Tim (played by David Lennon), senses that she’s become emotionally distant. However, Emma insists that everything is just fine.

While at the party, Emma gets a call from Jude, who asks her to come over to his place because he’s feeling kind of lonely at his apartment. Emma doesn’t hesitate, so she ditches the Halloween party and goes to Jude’s place. Once he sees her, he immediately guesses that she’s dressed as Claude Bourgelat. It’s one of many indications of why Emma fell for Jude so quickly.

Jude and Emma then head to a nightclub, where she tells him that she has a boyfriend named Tim. When Jude asks Emma if she loves her boyfriend, she says no. Jude asks Emma why she’s with this boyfriend if she doesn’t love him. Emma tells Jude that it’s complicated. More than once Jude gets Tim’s name wrong (Jude calls him Tom), which could be a mental block or a deliberate attempt to show Emma that he’s so unconcerned about Tim that he can’t be bothered to remember Tim’s name.

While hanging out at the nightclub together, Jude and Emma’s attraction to each other continues to grow. They share a similar sense of humor, such as pointing out people in their sight and trying to guess what these people’s stories are. The movie doesn’t delve too much into Jude’s family background, but it’s implied he’s on how own, while Emma (who has a working-class northern England accent) only has her mother has her closest living relative.

During their flirtatious conversation at the nightclub, Jude asks Emma if she can kiss her. She says no because she has a boyfriend. Not long afterward, Emma says she has to leave, and then she surprises Jude by giving him a romantic kiss on the mouth.

Needless to say, Emma’s relationship with Tim doesn’t last. Jude and Emma’s romance quickly heats up, they end up moving in together, and then they get married. Emma mentions in the movie that their wedding was on October 14, 2021, which means that they were married for a year or less when Jude began showing signs of having NIA.

At first, Jude’s forgetfulness is about little things. For example, Emma and Jude have a dog named Blue. One day while riding together on a bus, Emma says it would be great if they could adopt another dog as a companion for Blue. Jude says no because they don’t have room in their apartment. They get into a minor argument about it, but Jude is firm in saying it’s not a good time for them to get a second dog.

But then, on another day not long after that argument, Jude mentions to Emma that they should think about adopting a second dog. Emma is shocked and reminds Jude that this has been an ongoing disagreement with them, with Jude being the one who was against the idea of getting a second dog. Jude tells Emma that he honestly can’t remember them disagreeing about this issue.

Emma and Jude never do get a second dog, because they have much the more pressing matter of how to deal with Jude’s disappearing memory. Jude shows other signs that his memory is slipping. He forgets where he lives and doesn’t think about looking at his driver’s license to get his home address. On another occasion, he’s very late for an important job to take photos of a wedding. And speaking of weddings, there’s a pivotal scene where Jude and Emma have very different memories of their wedding day.

While all of this is going on, Emma confides to her mother about her suspicions that Jude might have NIA. But to Emma’s horror, her mother starts to forget names and experiences too. And then, Emma gets a phone call from England and finds out how much her mother’s health is deteriorating. Emma has to decide if she should go to England to try to help her mother (who apparently has no other relatives to turn to) or stay in the U.S. to help Jude.

Emma and Jude’s closest friends are a couple named Ben Richards (played by Raúl Castillo) and Samantha (played by Soko), an alternative rock duo who are musical partners and love partners. Ben plays guitar and Samantha is the singer. Ben and Samantha knew Jude first, because Jude used to go on tour with them as the duo’s photographer.

As Jude reveals later in the story, during their touring days, Jude and Samantha got caught up in partying too much with alcohol and drugs, and they decided to “dry out” in Seattle, where Samantha’s parents live. By the time Jude met Emma, he had been clean and sober for a few years. In flashbacks, Samantha and Ben are shown to have a loving and harmonious relationship.

Unfortunately, things change when Ben’s mental state does downhill because he has NIA. At first, Ben’s forgetfulness shows up as not remembering the musical notes of his guitar strings, so Jude comes up with an idea to tattoo this information on Ben’s arms. But then, Ben’s memory loss results in a very disturbing incident that has Samantha questioning if she should continue to be in a relationship with Ben. And the dark turn in Samantha and Ben’s relationship has Emma worrying about how she and Jude need to prepare in case something similar happens to them.

Shortly after Jude began losing his memory, it’s in the news that the government is doing a clinical trial for a possible NIA vaccine. The clinical trial is open to people who show NIA symptoms. Emma immediately encourages Jude to apply for this clinical trial, but he’s reluctant, because he’s still somewhat in denial that he has NIA. How this issue is resolved is one of the turning points in the movie. There are a few scenes that also show how desperate people can become when they think there’s a chance that they or their loved ones have a chance to be cured of this terrible disease.

The heart of “Little Fish” is in the scenes that show Jude and Emma’s romance. They have a relationship that’s very realistic, such as an ease with one another in how they live as a couple, share emotional intimacy, and even how they handle disagreements. Despite their occasional conflicts, Emma and Jude are very much in love and committed to each other. And as NIA starts to take over their lives, the decisions they make are a direct result of their fear of losing each other.

The movie is titled “Little Fish” because of a scene in the movie where Jude proposes marriage to Emma. They are at a fish aquarium store when he pops the question, and she enthusiastically says yes. However, Jude tells her that he doesn’t have an engagement ring.

Emma is so happy that she doesn’t mind. She replies, “Then buy me a fish.” Later, Emma and Jude get matching tattoos of little fish on their respective right ankles to commemorate this special day. It should come as no surprise that there’s a scene in the movie where these tattoos are a way to see how much Jude remembers about his relationship with Emma.

“Little Fish” can be described as a sci-fi romantic drama, but there are parts of the movie that have the qualities of being an apocalyptic horror movie without all the bombastic “run for your lives” scenes that are usually in these types of apocalyptic movies. In “Little Fish,” the NIA horror sneaks up on people but shows up in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

In one of the flashback scenes, Emma is at her job and signs paperwork for a stray dog that is turned in by a city employee named Frank (played by Toby Hargrave), who works for the city’s animal control department. Emma is a little surprised that Frank can’t remember her name. Observant viewers will not be surprised later in the movie when another driver named Annie (played by Angela Moore) shows up and tells Emma that she’s Frank’s replacement because he stopped showing up for work. The implication is that Frank has NIA.

The horror of NIA is exemplified in real life-or-death situations. While taking a tourist-type boat ride to get their mind off of their troubles, Emma and Jude witness a woman run hysterically toward them because the woman doesn’t remember her husband and thinks he’s a stranger trying to kidnap her. The woman on the boat is so distraught that she does something desperate and tragic.

And there are also missing-person flyers that start to become more prevalent as the NIA pandemic worsens. That’s because the disease has spread at such a rate that more people forget who they are, wander off, and go missing. It’s something that Emma fears might happen to Jack, her mother, and other people she know, including herself.

Cooke and O’Connell (who are both British in real life) have the type of natural chemistry with each other that give their performances considerable authenticity. Because Jude and Emma are a very believable couple, audiences will be rooting for Jude and Emma to somehow make it through this crisis against all odds. “Little Fish” director Hartigan and film editor Josh Crockett skillfully weave the story in such a way that viewers of “Little Fish” will be engrossed in putting all the flashbacks together to find out who Jude and Emma are. What makes this movie memorable is how these perceptions compare from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie.

IFC Films released “Little Fish” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Jungleand’ (2020), starring Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell

December 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell in “Jungleland” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Jungleland” (2020)

Directed by Max Winkler

Culture Representation: The dramatic film “Jungleland” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In order to pay off a debt, two brothers who are involved in the world of underground bare-knuckle boxing are forced to go on a road trip with an unwilling young woman, so that the brothers can bring her to a crime lord. 

Culture Audience: “Jungleland” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted stories about hard-luck individuals and the sleazy things that they do to survive, but viewers have to be willing to tolerate how this movie can sometimes be too slow-paced and unfocused for its own good.

Jessica Barden and Jack O’Connell in “Jungleland” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the dramatic film “Jungleland” (directed by Max Winkler) will be packed with a lot of action-oriented boxing scenes. Boxing is not the primary focus of this movie, which is really a road-trip film about two tight-knit American brothers coming to terms with their co-dependency on each other. Their relationship might be permanently changing as one brother tries to become more independent from the other. It just so happens that the two brothers are involved in some shady criminal activities, so there’s an added “race against time before we get killed” aspect of the story.

The two working-class brothers at the center of the story are Stanley “Stan” Kaminski (played by Charlie Hunnam) and Walter “Lion” Kaminski (played by Jack O’Connell), who spent most of their childhood as orphans growing up in various parts of America. Their deadbeat father abandoned them as children, and they spent part of their childhood raised by a single mother, who died when Stan and Lion were underage. In the movie, Lion says that he’s 25, while Stan (whose age is not mentioned) looks like he’s in his late 30s. They only have each other as family.

When this story takes place, the Kaminski brothers are living together in a run-down house in Fall River, Massachusetts. They both work at a sweatshop-styled fabric sewing factory, where their job is to do things like sew bedsheets. And they have dreams of being rich some day, which Stan constantly talks about when he fantasizes out loud to Lion about all the walk-in closets full of silk suits that he would like to have.

Stan is supposedly a dedicated follower of high fashion, but you’d never know it because he looks and acts like a scruffy rogue. That doesn’t mean he has to look “rich” (because he’s not), but Stan doesn’t even seem to care about looking like he has good hygiene. Later in the movie, it’s revealed that the brothers have been sort-of planning to open a dry-cleaning business together. Their “business plan” is literally a photo collage that looks like something a 9-year-old child would do as an art project, which is an indication of how little these brothers know about business. Keep in mind, this is a drama, not a comedy.

Because he’s the older brother, Stan takes on the “alpha male” leadership role in their relationship, while Lion is the “beta male” follower. Stan is a big talker who likes to come up with “get rich quick” schemes, while Lion just passively goes along with whatever Stan wants. However, even though Stan comes up with ideas, he’s not that smart in making any of these ideas beneficial to him and his brother. Stan’s ill-fated schemes have landed the brothers in debt to a local criminal named Pepper (played by Jonathan Majors), who is the type of thug who likes to be smooth but menacing.

Lion has raw talent as a boxer, and Stan is his coach. Lion and Stan like to growl at each other like lions as a way of getting Lion psyched up before a boxing match. It’s revealed later in the story that Stan tried to bribe a referee in the past, so he lost his license to train boxers. Stan still has dreams of Lion making it big as a boxer. Until they can make it to the big leagues, Stan has been putting Lion in underground bare-knuckles boxing matches that don’t really pay enough to get the brothers out of their dire financial situation.

After one of these matches, which ends with Lion losing by getting pummeled by a man who’s about 20 years older than Lion, the brothers find themselves accosted and essentially kidnapped by Pepper and one of Pepper’s henchman. Pepper has grown impatient with the brothers for not paying their debt. Stan and Lion both get roughed up a little until they agree to do whatever Pepper wants.

Pepper tells Stan and Lion that the only way they can erase the debt is to do two things: (1) Enter and win a boxing match called Jungleland, which has a grand prize of $100,000, and (2) Take a young woman named Sky with them on their road trip to Reno, Nevada (where Jungleland takes place), and deliver her to a pet store. Pepper gives them a business card for the store. Why a pet store? That’s explained much later in the story.

Lion is very reluctant to go along with the plan, but Pepper says, “You’ve got no choice.” Stan asks Pepper if this task of transporting Sky is some type of human trafficking. All that Pepper will tell them is that Sky is a “family friend” who “can be a handful.”

When Stan and Lion meet this mysterious Sky (played by Jessica Barden), she is very guarded and aloof. She doesn’t really want to talk about herself at first. Sky is in her early 20s (she’s able to buy alcohol at a bar later in the story), but she looks like she could be 16 or 17. Even though Sky isn’t very talkative, one thing that she does make clear to Stan and Lion is that she doesn’t want to go on this trip. As an incentive, Pepper gives them quite a bit of cash and a fairly new-looking SUV to take on the journey.

The Kaminski brothers soon find out why Pepper made Sky a part of this road trip. She’s been hiding from a crime lord named Yates, who wants Sky brought back to him in Reno, where he lives. Pepper was supposed to complete this task, but he’s now handed off that responsibility to Stan and Lion, who are both furious when they find out that they’ve been tricked into doing Pepper’s dirty work. However, there’s no turning back from the road trip. Stan is convinced that he and Lion will be killed if they don’t fulfill their end of the bargain.

Stan decides that Sky cannot be let out of their sight, so he tells Lion to keep watch over Sky when Stan can’t do it, such as while Stan is asleep or not in the same room. Also along for the ride is Stan and Lion’s whippet dog named Ash. Stan senses that Lion and Sky are immediately attracted to each other, and he orders Lion not to let Sky tempt or distract him. Easier said than done.

Throughout this road trip, which sometimes wanders off into tangents that drag the film down, Lion and Sky become more attracted to each other. She tells Lion that he doesn’t need to be bossed around by Stan, and she encourages Lion to think for himself. Sky also makes Lion see that Stan tends to do a lot of impulsive things that end up making things worse for the two brothers—not just on this road trip but as a pattern throughout the brothers’ recent lives. And during this road trip, more of Sky’s past is revealed, including a secret that explains why Yates wants her in his custody.

“Jungleland” director Winkler co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Theodore Bressman and David Branson Smith. The screenplay could’ve used some definite improvements, because some parts of the road trip don’t make sense, according to the “race against time” aspect that is supposed to be a big part of the story. For example, if it was so urgent for Sky to be brought to Yates from Massachusetts to Nevada, they could’ve taken the trip by plane, which is faster and more convenient than driving by car.

But that would mean there would be no “Jungleland” movie, since the road trip is contrived so that all sorts of things can go wrong along the way. And they do. A big foreshadowing is when, at the beginning of the trip, Stan impulsively decides to blow a lot of the cash by splurging on the highest-priced suite available at the hotel that he chooses for himself, Lion and Sky. But when they get to the suite, they find out that there’s only one bed, because it’s meant to be a honeymoon suite. It’s an example of how Stan doesn’t plan and think things through very well.

There are also parts of the movie where it doesn’t look like Stan and Lion are really in that big of a rush to get to Reno, even though a lot of time is lost because of some unfortunate things that slow down the trip by at least three days. With that sense of urgency lost, the movie tends to wander into different directions that sometimes don’t really add anything to the story. It just seems like these unnecessary scenes are filler, because the screenwriters couldn’t think of anything better to increase the length of the movie’s total running time.

For example, Stan, Lion and Sky break into her former high school when no one else is there, for reasons that are shown in the movie but won’t be revealed in this review. But even then, that part of the story is questionable, because the trio ends up spending the night at the school, without any concern that school employees will show up in the morning and discover these three intruders. Even when a school is on hiatus (such as during the summer), there are still employees who work at the school to look after it.

And as for any intense training for this big Jungleland fight, forget about it. There are so many mishaps and shenanigans that happen to this trio on the road trip that Stan and Lion barely have time to do any training, except when they use the gym at the high school during their break-in. The Jungleand fight really takes a back seat to some messy drama involving Sky. It isn’t until the last few scenes of the movie that the Jungleland fight comes back to the forefront of the storyline.

What makes “Jungleland” worth watching, despite the flaws in the screenplay, is that Hunnam, O’Connell and Barden give very good performances as these troubled souls who have been thrown together in very tension-filled circumstances. Each of these actors shows some emotional depth to the insecurities that each characters has. Lion is questioning his identity as an individual and how he might have been living under the control of his brother for too long. Sky is running away from her past in more ways than one.

Stan likes to be in control of Lion, but deep down he’s envious of Lion because Lion has one thing that Stan doesn’t have: talent in doing something well. Stan tells Sky when they’re alone together how he feels about Lion: “That kid is better at fighting than I’ve ever been at anything in my life … He’s special, and I’ll never know what it’s like.”

In real life, Hunnam, O’Connell and Barden are British. Out of the three, Barden fares the best in mastering an American accent. (People watching this movie might be surprised to find out that she’s British in real life.) O’Connell’s American accent is also believable, but Hunnam’s natural British accent can occasionally be heard when he says some of his lines in the movie.

“Jungleland” is fairly adequate for its cinematography and production design. And the filmmakers try not to make this a completely boring and stereotypical “desperate people in debt to gangsters” movie. For example, the character of Yates (played by John Cullum) is not what a lot of viewers will expect for a crime lord. Boxing fans will probably be disappointed at how few boxing scenes there are in the movie. To use a boxing analogy, “Jungleland” doesn’t deliver a knockout punch as a compelling drama, but it brings out enough emotionally impactful jabs from the main actors to make an impression on viewers.

Paramount Pictures released “Jungleland” in U.S. cinemas on November 6, 2020, and on digital and VOD on November 10, 2020. The movie’s DVD release date is January 12, 2021.

Review: ‘Seberg,’ starring Kristen Stewart

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart in “Seberg” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Seberg”

Directed by Benedict Andrews

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, France and briefly in Mexico, the biographical drama “Seberg” has a racially diverse cast of white and black characters representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: The film tells the story of American actress Jean Seberg, who was the target of FBI surveillance because of her support of left-wing civil-rights groups such as the Black Panthers.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of Jean Seberg, Kristen Stewart (who plays Seberg in the movie) and people who like movies that have a very Hollywood version of real-life politically related events.

Jack O’Connell in “Seberg” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The title of the “based on true story” drama “Seberg” should have been renamed “Seberg and Some FBI Guy Who Tried to Warn Her That They’re Out to Get Her.” That’s because even though the movie is supposed to be about American actress Jean Seberg (played by Kristen Stewart) during the first few years that she was the target of a political FBI intimidation campaign, much of the movie also focuses on the life of fictional FBI agent Jack Solomon (played by Jack O’Connell), one of the people tasked with making her life hell but he has a guilty conscience about it.

It’s one of the many disappointing choices made by the filmmakers of “Seberg,” which was directed by Benedict Andrews and written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Based on the end results of how this movie was made, the filmmakers didn’t think Seberg was fascinating enough to show a more well-rounded view of her life, and instead they gave a lot of screen time to show the personal life of a fictional FBI agent.

Because Jack Solomon is a fictional character and the filmmakers want to make sure that his personal story is given almost as much weight as Seberg’s, the movie cheapens her real-life ordeal by spending so much time on backstories/subplots for other characters that were invented for this movie. There’s even a cliché “good cop/bad cop” duo that is the epitome of trite screenwriting.

Seberg was 40 years old when she died of an apparent suicide in Paris in 1979. The movie mainly depicts the years 1969 to 1971, when Seberg was one of the people targeted in the FBI’s then-secret COINTELPRO campaign, which investigated and harassed high-profile and influential people involved in left-wing politics. Because of the Freedom of Information Act, the media revealed details of COINTELPRO, which was under the leadership of then-FBI director Herbert Hoover, a known right-winger. The exposé of COINTELPRO happened after Seberg’s death.

“Seberg” begins with a brief scene with the actress filming her first movie, 1957’s “Saint Joan,” which was a critical and commercial flop, but that rough start to her movie career is not really mentioned in “Seberg.” The movie also skips over her turbulent first marriage to French attorney-turned-film-director François Moreuil (they were married from 1958 to 1960) and their contentious collaboration when he directed her in the 1961 film “Time Out for Love.”

Also omitted from the story is how she met and married her second husband: aviator/novelist/left-leaning political diplomat Romain Gary, who was 24 years older than Seberg. Gary was her husband from 1962 to 1970. (She gave birth to their son, Alexandre Diego, when Gary was still married to his previous wife.) And the movie definitely doesn’t show what happened to Jean after her much-maligned “Saint Joan” film debut, when she went on to experience international stardom with her breakthrough co-starring role in the 1960 French New Wave classic “Breathless.”

Instead, “Seberg” skips over all of that to show Jean, Romain (played by Yvan Attal) and their young son Diego (played by Gabriel Sky) at their home in France, where Jean says goodbye to them as she leaves to work on a movie in Los Angeles in 1969. (During most of her career, Seberg lived in France and made French and American films, so she spent a lot of time in the U.S. for work.)

While she’s headed to Los Angeles, two FBI agents (who are invented characters for this movie) are shown eavesdropping and doing surveillance recording of an African American political radical named Hakim Jamal (played by Anthony Mackie), who is a Black Panther supporter but not an official member of the Black Panther Party. (The Hakim character is based on the real-life Raymond Hewitt, who was a member of the Black Panther Party.) One of the FBI agents is the aforementioned Jack Solomon, and the other is Carl Kowalski (played by Vince Vaughn).

It’s established fairly early on in the movie who’s the “good cop” and who’s the “bad cop.” While Jack takes a more open-minded and methodical approach to his work, Carl takes a more aggressive “witch hunt” approach. While they’re spying on Hakim, the name of Jean Seberg comes up because the FBI has noticed that she’s been donating large sums of money to left-leaning civil-rights groups such as the Black Panthers and the NAACP. Carl thinks that the FBI should start spying on Seberg too, but Jack doesn’t want to rush to judgment and wants to see if there’s proof that she’s a threat to the U.S. government.

While sitting in the first-class section on the plane to Los Angeles with her agent Walt Breckman (played by Stephen Root, in another of the movie’s fictional character roles), Jean notices a commotion on the plane. It’s Hakim, who’s very angry with a flight attendant because Betty Shabazz (Malcom X’s widow) has been seated in the coach section, when Hakim says that Betty should be in the first-class section. It’s a “don’t you know who she is/show some respect” moment that catches the flustered flight-attendant off-guard.

The flight attendant tells Hakim that she can’t make the accommodation without a first-class ticket, and Hakim gets even angrier and says that he will pay for the ticket himself and he’s not going to sit down until the matter is resolved. Hakim makes it clear that he thinks the flight attendant is being racist. Jean is intrigued by Hakim’s fiery passion and tells him that he and Betty can have her and Walt’s seats. Walt looks slightly horrified.

The next thing you know, after the plane disembarks, Hakim is among a group of Black Panthers on the tarmac holding a photo op with the press.  (Remember, this was back in the 1960s, when people were allowed to be in certain areas of an airport where they can’t go now.) Jean sidles up to the group and holds up her fist in a “Black Power” gesture with them to show her solidarity.

Of course, this bold move doesn’t go unnoticed by Jack and Carl (or should we say Mutt and Jeff), who now know that Jean Seberg has definitely made it known to the public that she supports the Black Panthers, who were considered enemies of the state at the time. And in case viewers haven’t figured out that Carl is a racist, he makes it clear when he speculates why Jean wants to hang out with Hakim and the Black Panthers: “Who knows? Maybe she’s got a taste for dark meat on the bone.”

And wouldn’t you know, it isn’t long before Jean shows up in the middle of the night at the house where a married Hakim is staying to meet with other radical activists. While alone in the house, Hakim and Jean spend a little time flirting, and then they hop into bed together. The FBI has recorded it all.

Carl is infuriated and immediately wants to put Jean under intense surveillance, since he’s decided she’s now a “danger to society.” The movie implies that what really triggered the FBI witch hunt against her wasn’t the monetary donations to activists but because this famous white actress slept with a known black radical.

Carl takes this information to his superiors, and it isn’t long before the FBI approves of spying on and harassing Jean Seberg. While she’s away from her rented home to work on a film set, Jack breaks into the home and plants a bugging device on her phone. Meanwhile, as Hakim and Jean continue their hot’n’heavy affair, Hakim warns her that because he’s under FBI surveillance, she’ll become a target too.

At first, Jean doesn’t believe Hakim, but she eventually finds out the hard way how correct he was. Jean starts hanging out more with radical activists and donating money to their causes. She doesn’t believe in violence and instead chooses to support causes such as educational programs for kids and raising money to help improve low-income African American communities. Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (played by Grantham Coleman) makes a very brief appearance in the story.

Hakim is more than happy to take Jean’s donations, but he tells Jean: “You’re running in here with nails looking for a cross to die on … You’re playing with fire.” We’ll never know if the real Jean Seberg ever received this type of corny lecture, but the words are particularly cringeworthy, considering that the real Jean Seberg starred in “Saint Joan,” a movie where she played French heroine Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake.

Another thing that Hakim says to Jean that sounds straight out of Hokey Screenwriting 101 is when he tells her his philosophy on civil-rights activism: “One mind at a time. If you can change that, you can change the world.” He sounds more like Mother Teresa than Malcolm X.

There’s also a soap-opera-ish subplot where Hakim’s wife, Dorothy Jamal (played by Zazie Beetz, in a thankless role), finds out about the affair. How does she find out? Carl and Jack call her anonymously and play her a recording of Jean and Hakim having sex.

Not long after Dorothy confronts Jean about the affair (and Dorothy is a lot calmer about it than most spouses would be), Jean and Hakim end their fling. But the wheels have already been set in motion for the FBI to make Jean’s life miserable. She’s followed everywhere she goes, and she knows her house is bugged. And one day when she’s away at work, a bumbling FBI agent kills her Chihuahua because the dog won’t stop yapping when the agent is snooping around the house.

Speaking of FBI agents, the movie wastes a lot of time showing the personal lives of Jack and Carl. Jack’s wife Linette (played by Margaret Qualley) is a medical student who becomes increasingly disturbed by the signs that the FBI is harassing Jean Seberg. How does she know? Because Jack brings home FBI files that show the FBI is stalking Jean, and her leaves this paperwork indiscreetly out on the kitchen table. When Linette asks Jack about these files, he snaps at her and tells her it’s none of her business. There are also a few unnecessary scenes of Jack and Linette socializing with friends.

Meanwhile, Carl is every bit the jerk at home as he is on the job. His wife and young daughter cringe in fear when he loses his temper, which is pretty much any time they don’t do what he tells them to do. It turns out that Carl has a particular hatred of left-wingers because his adult son (who lives in San Francisco) has become a radical hippie. Did viewers really need to know all of this information for fictional characters? No.

“Seberg” then goes to even more ludicrous levels when Jack takes it upon himself to anonymously call Jean and warn her that the FBI harassment will get worse unless she disassociates herself from the civil-rights movement. Jean’s response is to yell an obscenity at him. You can’t really blame her, because she doesn’t know if the call is a prank or not, since Jack doesn’t identify himself.

The constant surveillance and harassment take a toll on Jean’s mental health and her marriage. She starts to drink heavily and she becomes very paranoid. While on a film set, she demands that a cameraman be fired because she’s convinced he’s a spy planted by the FBI. She yells at people who she thinks might be staring at her too long. And there’s one melodramatic scene where she’s tearing up a room while looking for surveillance, and she ends up in a sobbing heap on the floor.

While in Mexico filming a movie, she has an affair with a local man. And when the FBI hears about her pregnancy, they make sure to plant a story in the media that Hakim is the father. The scandal resulted in a tragedy that won’t be revealed in this review if you don’t know what happened in real life.

Stewart gives a hit-and-miss performance in this film. She’s at her best in the first half of the story, when there are glimpses of the passions that drove Jean to do what she did, knowing that she would risk her reputation and career. But when Jean goes through her downward spiral in the second half of the story, Stewart’s performance becomes a not-very-convincing caricature of a woman having a nervous breakdown. And FBI agent Jack does something at the end of the movie that defies all credibility of what someone in his position would do.

Unfortunately, because the movie skips all of Jean’s life before she got involved in radical activism, it doesn’t provide any context over what led her to this point and how she came to have these political views. Her relationship with second husband Romain is also an incomplete sketch, since viewers never see how Jean and Romain fell in love, as a basis of their marriage that’s tested during this traumatic period in their lives.

The movie’s supporting actors, costume design and production design are all very good, but those assets are wasted on an uneven story that oddly seems too concerned with making a heroic figure out of one of the FBI agents who willingly participated in this psychological torture.

Amazon Studios released “Seberg” in select U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020. The movie originally had a very limited U.S. release in December 2019, to qualify for awards.

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