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The Screen Scene: New York Film Festival Part 2

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

Two weeks ago on The Screen Scene, I reviewed a couple of stellar new films from the 58th annual New York Film Festival. 

After briefly hitting the pause button to give you a scary recommendation for your Halloween enjoyment with my review of The Wolf of Snow Hollow, I’m continuing my look at the virtual festival from the Big Apple for my reviews this week.

MLK-FBI is a new documentary that takes a deep dive into the depths of    J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.  Internal memos from the Federal Bureau of Investigation regularly referred to Dr. King as the most dangerous Black man in America, but Hoover still needed a non-racial pretext to conduct surveillance against the minister and his followers.

The film focuses on Hoover’s efforts to link King to the Communist Party.  With Senator Joe McCarthy on his quest to root out the Communists allegedly infiltrating the American government, Hoover turned his sights to the members of the Communist Party who allied themselves with the Civil Rights Movement. 

Hoover claimed he was keeping a watchful eye on the Red Menace when in fact he was trying to spy on Dr. King and his closest confidantes.

However, history took an unexpected turn when the FBI’s surveillance failed to uncover any evidence of a Communist connection to the Civil Rights Movement and instead stumbled over correspondence from Dr. King’s extramarital relationships. 

MLK-FBI unflinchingly explores the blackmail efforts undertaken by J. Edgar Hoover to derail Dr. King’s work by threatening to expose the details of King’s personal life.

MLK-FBI is a fairly standard “talking heads” style documentary.  The film is narrated by a variety of journalists, historians and historical figures from the Civil Rights Movement.  The film wisely chooses to avoid showing the individuals providing the voiceovers until the final credits of the film.  The visuals are comprised solely of archival footage and still photographs. 

The film footage seems to be recently restored.  The black and white images are a revelation.  They’re so life-like that they transport the viewer to the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Many documentary films try to break the mold of the conventional documentary.  This is not such a film.  MLK-FBI is based on solid journalism and academic scholarship.  It can be a tad dry at times. 

It’s more History Channel than Netflix, but if you’re interested in this period in history, and the Civil Rights Movement in particular, you won’t want to miss this film.  MLK-FBI hits select theaters and VOD in January 2021 in time for Oscar consideration.

French Exit is a dramedy starring Michelle Pfieffer and Lucas Hedges, the young actor from Manhattan by the Sea and Lady Bird.  The film focuses on the exploits of Frances Price and her son Malcolm following the untimely death of her husband, Franklin Price. 

It quickly becomes apparent that the Price’s lavish lifestyle was built on a financial house of cards.  Franklin’s body is barely cold before the foreclosures and repossessions begin.

Frances quickly liquidates the household furniture and artwork before the family’s creditors can seize them.  She puts a dozen stacks of Euros in a carry-on and heads to Paris with her son.  Her unspoken plan is to enjoy her life for as long as the Euros last and then commit suicide.

French Exit falls in one of my least favorite film genres:  quirky people being quirky.  Seinfeld did it brilliantly for years.  French Exit can’t make it interesting for 105 minutes.  I will admit that I’m in the minority on this film. 

Dozens of critics lavished praise on this Closing Night film, but I don’t understand the hype.  I don’t identify with any of the characters, and I wasn’t amused by their irrational behavior.  I found it tedious.

Oscar history is littered with great performances trapped in mediocre films.  Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Renee Zellweger in Judy are just a couple that spring to mind.  Michelle Pfeiffer will likely snatch a Best Actress nomination for French Exit, and I agree that she is the only reason to watch the film. 

Lucas Hedges is one of my favorite young actors, but Malcolm Price is such a bland, boring character that I can’t grasp why his girlfriend would walk a single city block to reunite with him much less follow him to Paris.

If you want to see rich people behaving badly, just watch some reruns of Arrested Development, the first couple of seasons of recent Emmy-winner Schitt’s Creek or American politics on the TV channel of your choice.  The release date for French Exit has yet to be determined, and that’s fine with me.

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