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Schultz reviews: 'Seberg' and 'Thunderball'

Schultz reviews: 'Seberg' and 'Thunderball'

Carl Schultz

 

 

“Seberg”   Distributed by Universal Pictures and Amazon Studios, 102 Minutes, Rated R, Released December 13, 2019:

The good news about “Seberg,” the new movie biography of iconic actress Jean Seberg now streaming on Amazon Prime, is that it’s a virtual treasure trove of riches for people who enjoy bad movies.  Despite a strong performance from Kristen Stewart in the title role, the film is defeated by lurid dialogue, misinformation, and leaps of logic that would tax the imaginations of the Brothers Grimm.

“Seberg” depicts 1960s American expatriate actress Jean Seberg in the later stages of her career, during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  While flying to Los Angeles from the Paris home she shares with novelist Romain Gary and their toddler son to test for a role in the big budget Lerner and Loewe musical “Paint Your Wagon,” Seberg witnesses on the plane an act of blatant racial discrimination--a flight attendant attempts to evict black activist Hakim Jamal from the first class seat he purchased and reassign him to a more uncomfortable section of the plane.

Jean intervenes, and expresses simpatico with the black man.  And when on arrival at the Los Angeles airport the actress impulsively poses with Jamal for the assembled press corps with the raised fist salute of the Black Power movement, she’s marked by the FBI as a political agitator and enemy of the United States government.  Seberg’s friendship and developing romance with Jamal result in a decade-long campaign by the FBI to infiltrate her activities, destroy her family, and eventually ruin her life.

Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse and directed in his second filmmaking effort by Australian-born and Iceland-based theater director Benedict Andrews, “Seberg” sketches in very broad strokes and simplistic terms a complicated and troubling time in American history, and reduces a turbulent era in political awareness to stereotypes, with scenes almost more appropriate to a parody.  As a historical chronicle, “Seberg” is misleading at best, and as a biography it’s insulting...although some of the subject matter, much of it still disgracefully unresolved, will inevitably cause the picture to seem quite contemporary.  

The film is only watchable as a means of introducing to modern viewers a genuinely gifted American actress who needed to leave the United States to achieve her greatest success...and for a carefully shaded portrait by actress Kristen Stewart of a genuine icon of modern cinema.  You can easily see what drew Stewart to the role, and she contributes a solid performance.  But she’s hamstrung by a flawed and often sophomoric script, lurid dialogue, and a howler of a subplot about a conflicted FBI agent (Jack O’Connell) who becomes infatuated with Seberg and achieves both political enlightenment and spiritual redemption through stalking her. 

Still, Stewart successfully captures Seberg’s waif-like appeal, and despite being a little too forceful as a performer to accurately simulate the actress’ fragile persona manages to portray with sensitivity an actress who refused to play by the traditional rules of Hollywood convention, and ultimately suffered as a result.  Stewart’s terrific in the role (Time Magazine listed her performance among the Ten Best of 2019)...but the historical Jean Seberg might’ve been more accurately portrayed by actress Michelle Williams.

“Seberg” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August of 2019.  The picture was also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September before being distributed in December to select theaters in Los Angeles in order to qualify Stewart for Academy Award consideration.  The film was circulated sporadically to theaters across the United States in early 2020, but its run was truncated by the closure of movie theaters due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  During its release, “Seberg” earned only some $675,808 in box office receipts against a bare-bones budget of $8 million.

Jean Seberg is probably best known today for her role as the harried airline executive in unlikely love with Burt Lancaster’s equally-harried airport manager in the 1970 blockbuster “Airport”...although she’ll always be revered to cinephiles as the tragic heroine of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic of French New Wave Cinema, “Breathless.”

Also featuring performances by Anthony Mackie as Hakim Jamal, Vince Vaughn as a brutal and amoral FBI field supervisor, and Yvan Attal as writer Romain Gary, “Seberg” is rated R for thematic elements, language including crude racial epithets, and a scene of sensuality.

“Thunderball”   Distributed by United Artists and MGM, 130 Minutes, Not Rated, Released December 21, 1965:

With two dozen movies over 58 years, the James Bond franchise with the possible exception of Godzilla is the longest continual series of films in motion picture history.  And with over $7 billion in cumulative box office receipts, it’s also among the most profitable--in sixth place, actually, behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Wars saga, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the Marvel Avengers, and Spider-Man.

The countdown goes on (and on and on) for the premiere of the 25th film in the franchise--the pandemic-delayed “No Time to Die,” actor Daniel Craig’s reported final appearance bearing the 007 standard.  But while we wait, some viewers might enjoy a glance backward, and another look at one or two of the British superagent’s earlier movie appearances.  A good place to begin is with the 1965 blockbuster, “Thunderball.”

In “Thunderball,” while British MI6 troubleshooter James Bond is at a health facility undergoing convalescent treatment for injuries sustained during an assignment, the global terrorist organization SPECTRE manages to hijack a NATO aircraft and its payload of two nuclear warheads.  When the terrorists threaten to use the stolen weapons to destroy major cities in England and the United States, the resourceful Bond is recalled to duty and sent on their trail.

The fourth James Bond adventure is among the very best of the series, with an intelligent, timely, and fast-moving plot, exciting action sequences, exotic locations in England, Paris, and the Bahamas, and Academy Award-winning special visual effects by John Stears.  The 007 craze of the 1960s reached an apogee with this picture, the last installment of the series in which the gadgets served the plot instead of the other way around.

United Artists’ major Christmastime release of 1965, “Thunderball” also features one of Scottish-born actor Sean Connery’s very best career performances.  Having become a major global superstar because of the James Bond role, Connery was by the time of “Thunderball” yearning for assignments in more ambitious pictures, and feeling constrained by the Bond series...not because of money or boredom, but because the 007 productions almost invariably exceeded their shooting schedules and prevented the actor from accepting outside assignments.

Still, in “Thunderball” Connery at age thirty-five genuinely hit his professional stride as a performer, with the easy confidence to inhabit the role fully, the acting chops to invest the part with heroism, emotion, and occasional caustic humor, and the showmanship to share with the audience the film’s enormous sense of adventure, romance, and plain old fun.  Reportedly “Thunderball” was Connery’s favorite film in the series...and it’s easy to see why.

“Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love” director Terence Young, usually credited as Connery’s role model for his characterization as Bond, returned to the 007 series with “Thunderball” after a one-film hiatus (1964’s “Goldfinger” was directed by Guy Hamilton).  This was Young’s final film in the franchise...although he was reportedly offered, but declined, opportunities to direct 1981’s “For Your Eyes Only” and 1983’s “Never Say Never Again.”  The film’s frequent (and effective) underwater sequences were directed by former “Creature from the Black Lagoon” Ricou Browning, also the creator of the 1964-67 television series “Flipper.”

“Thunderball” features an international cast, with effective supporting performances by Italian actor Adolfo Celi as SPECTRE strongman Emilio Largo, French actress Claudine Auger as Largo’s mistress (and eventual Bond ally) Domino Derval, Italian-American actress Luciana Paluzzi as formidable SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe, and American actor Rik Van Nutter as Bond’s perennial CIA sidekick Felix Leiter.  Also on hand to contribute their usual support are series stalwarts Bernard Lee, a distinguished Irish-born actor, as MI6 chief “M,” Canadian actress Lois Maxwell as the redoubtable Miss Moneypenny, and the Welsh actor Desmond Llewelyn as MI6 gadget guru “Q.”  Their scenes, as always, are a special delight.

James Bond’s traditional arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of the terrorist organization SPECTRE (an acronym for Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) made his very first series appearance in “Thunderball.”  While Blofeld’s face is never revealed in the picture, his ethereal, otherworldly voice is supplied by Scottish actor Anthony Dawson, who also played the villainous Professor Dent in 1962’s “Dr. No.”  The voice of Italian-accented Adolfo Celi is dubbed by prolific British character actor Robert Rietty, while the French-accented Claudine Auger is dubbed by German voice artist Nikki van der Zyl.

“Thunderball” was also the first film in the original series to have been based on a project written directly for the screen instead of adapted from one of author Ian Fleming’s novels...a fact which eventually resulted in some considerable legal contention.  Originally meant to be the first film in the series, author Fleming in 1958 with his friend Ivar Bryce, Irish writer Kevin McClory, and experienced screenwriter Jack Whittingham formulated a screen treatment for a possible 007 picture with the proposed title “Longitude 78 West.”  

When that project eventually fell through, Fleming adapted the screenplay into the 1961 Bond novel “Thunderball,” resulting in a plagiarism complaint filed against Fleming by McClory and Whittingham.  The case was settled out of court in 1963, with Whittingham accepting a cash payment, McClory awarded the literary and screen rights to the screenplay, and Fleming retaining the legal rights to the novel, with the proviso that all future copies of the book contain the copyright note “based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and the author.”  

This settlement cleared the way for the vastly inferior 1983 remake of the film entitled “Never Say Never Again,” again starring Connery.  Although Fleming, McClory, and Whittingham receive onscreen credit for the “Thunderball” story, the picture’s screenplay is credited to writers John Hopkins and Richard Maibaum.  Maibaum also toiled on twelve other films in the 007 franchise, beginning with “Dr. No” in 1962 and ending with “License to Kill” in 1989.

Memorable gadgets aiding Bond “in the field” in this outing include his customized and retrofitted Aston Martin DB-5 automobile, repaired, restored, and refurbished after its demolition in “Goldfinger,” a fountain pen-sized Very pistol, a pill-sized homing device (“Well obviously...you swallow it,” snaps Q), a wristwatch concealing a Geiger counter, a harmonica-sized scuba tank, and the real-life Bell Aircraft Corporation Rocket Belt and Jet Pack, used to great effect in the picture’s splashy opening sequence.

The scene in which Bond is trapped in a covered pool with a host of killer sharks was accomplished by keeping a clear plexiglass barrier between actor Sean Connery and the sharks.  During filming, one of the sharks managed to elude the plexiglass barrier into Connery’s section of the pool, resulting in considerable behind-the-scenes grouching afterward from the actor.  The shot with the shark swimming past the maskless Connery made it into the film, and the expression of alarm on Bond’s face is persuasive indeed.

“Thunderball” became by far the most profitable motion picture of 1966.  Filmed on a then-lavish budget of $9 million (about $74.5 million today), the film earned some $141.2 million in global box office receipts during its original theatrical release--$63.6 million of that total, or 58 million individual tickets sold, in the United States alone.  Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $1.162 billion in global ticket sales.

By 1965, the James Bond series of film adventures had become the flagship of a global mania for spy-related entertainment, with dozens of imitators, competitors, parodies, and copycats.  As an in-joke, the briefing scene about 40 minutes into “Thunderball” was originally written to feature cameo appearances by, among others, Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, James Coburn as “Our Man Flint,” Robert Vaughn and David McCallum of TV’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and Patrick McGoohan from British TV’s “Danger Man” (known in the US as “Secret Agent”).  But when contract negotiations and copyright issues proved nightmarish, the notion was abandoned.

Not rated by the MPAA but PG in nature for adult situations, action sequences, some violence, suggestive humor, and mild sexuality, “Thunderball” is available for streaming on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Prime.

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