Movie Review ~ Queen & Slim


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple’s first date takes an unexpected turn when a police officer pulls them over.

Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Chloë Sevigny, Indya Moore, Bokeem Woodbine, Sturgill Simpson, Flea, Benito Martinez

Director: Melina Matsoukas

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: What most audiences don’t know is that by the time they see a film on opening weekend in a large multiplex with reclining seats and a big bucket of popcorn, the movie has been through a number of committees, approvals, screenings, edits, and adjustments.  From studio heads to a soccer mom recruited in the parking lot at a 7-11, someone has watched this movie already and had some sort of say in the final cut.  This is done to maximize the appeal in order to make the most money, hopefully in the first few weeks before something newer comes out to steal its thunder.  It’s filmmaking by committee and it’s a disappointing way to get things done – that’s why you may get the feeling of a certain staleness lately when you head to the theater.

Then there are the rare directors/producers that get “final cut” written into their contracts, making them the last word when it comes to how the movie will turn out.  If the film is a bomb, the buck stops with the director and the same goes if it’s an out-of-left-field success.  I was surprised and totally delighted to learn the filmmakers behind Queen & Slim had negotiated this clause with Universal Studios and it makes sense why they pushed for it.  The story being told is one that needed no outside tinkering or interference, no focus groups or market strategies…because sadly you can imagine opening up a paper tomorrow and reading about it happening in real life.

Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, Widows) has finally convinced Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith, The Neon Demon) to go out with him.  He works retail and she’s a lawyer that defends murders. He’s easy-going and passive, she likes restaurants to get her order right the first time.  Slim’s driving her home from their pleasant but fireworks-free first date when they are pulled over by a Cleveland police officer.  All Slim wants to do is take the ticket and go but the officer is clearly looking to make something more stick based on vague suspicion.  Within seconds the situation has escalated, the officer is shot with his own gun, and the young couple flees into the night.

So begins a cross-country crime drama that’s equal parts Bonnie & Clyde, Thelma & Louise, and Badlands but is delivered clearly in its own voice.  That voice comes from Emmy-winner Lena Waithe who came up with the story with author James Frey and has written a script that doesn’t pander to audiences.  Waithe has created two distinct main characters that represent differing points of view, not just simple devil’s advocate opposites.  Flipping gender roles on its head, Queen is the more aggressive and dominant partner throughout, often acting on impulse instead of taking time to consider the emotional consequences of actions.  Slim is the more sensitive of the two, holding off the shock of what he’s done by focusing on the growing feelings he has for Queen.

As they make their way from the Midwest down South, they encounter folks who have seen the dashcam video of their crime that has gone viral and want to offer solace as well as people who feel they are only contributing to the police violence against people of color.  Waithe isn’t afraid to introduce players that challenge her titular characters strongly because it shows all sides to the discussion…and allows the discussion to be had in the first place.  There’s nothing one-sided in Queen & Slim, which gives it greater distinction from similar “issue” movies that come with a clear angle and objective.  Waithe is obviously troubled by what is happening in the world and has used the film medium to express her frustration but it’s communicated in such a sophisticated way that you are compelled to lean forward in your seat and engage.

Directed by Melina Matsoukas, she brings her excellent eye from the music world (she’s behind Beyonce’s Formation video) but thankfully doesn’t fashion her feature debut as rapid fire head-spinner.  This is a finely crafted movie, conscious of how it develops and what path it turns down.  A trip to see Queen’s war vet uncle (Bokeem Woodbine, Overlord) living in New Orleans with a houseful of barely clothed ladies could have been a real low point but Matsoukas has paced it so well and Waithe provided such defined personalities for the women we meet that it doesn’t feel as exploitative as it could have been.  Only the drab taupe-ness of a visit with a husband and wife played by Flea (Boy Erased) and Chloë Sevigny (The Dead Don’t Die) is a bit of a yawn.  Likely the point, but the mundane parallel of this visit compared to their New Orleans layover is etched with fairly broad strokes.

It makes little difference who else we meet, though, because Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are in almost every scene and they are fantastic.  Kaluuya continues to show his strength at disappearing into any role he takes on, easily stepping into the soft-spoken Slim and your heart breaks watching him see his plans for the future fall apart with each setback they encounter along the way.  He’s got great chemistry with Turner-Smith and it’s her you’ll want to keep your eyes on because it’s a star-making performance if ever there was one.  Though she’s been in several movies already, this is her highest profile role to date and she knocks it out of the park.  As Queen, she’s often asked to be front and center, exposing herself (literally) in the most vulnerable of ways.  The icy front she has at the beginning isn’t totally an act and the reasons behind her emotions are made clear not just by Waithe’s late-breaking exposition but in Turner-Smith’s carefully constructed work.

It was an interesting experience to watch Queen & Slim with a packed house filled with responsive audience members.  I was surprised at how many of them weren’t on the side of our lead characters and it was an eye (and ear) opening experience to have running commentaries during the movie. Normally I would get frustrated at the talking while a film was going on but here it was helpful because it gave me greater insight into how another person was interpreting the film from a perspective I could never truly understand.  What’s happening with police violence is frightening and the growing number of deaths in the black community at the hands of police needs to be resolved.  Queen & Slim won’t stop it but it introduces necessary conversations for audiences as take-aways – my hope is that people see the movie and do something, anything, afterward in response.

Movie Review ~ Waves


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Traces the journey of a suburban African-American family as they navigate love, forgiveness, and coming together in the aftermath of a loss.

Stars: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alexa Demie, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Clifton Collins Jr.

Director: Trey Edward Shults

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: There’s a part of every movie going experience that I dread the most.  No, it’s not battling traffic to get to the theater or praying the person next to me isn’t a talker/texter/cruncher.  It’s not even a fear of being disappointed by a highly anticipated title I’ve been counting down the days to or hoping the seat I’m going to be occupying will allow me to cross my legs (I’m tall and these tree trunks need to be stretched!) that gives my brow a slight bead of sweat.  It’s the thought of being asked immediately by my neighbor when the credits roll “What did you think?” or worse, being asked to write it down.  I totally understand these quick takes are necessary for feedback and want to do my best to provide an honest answer but I usually need time to process what I’m feeling just a tad longer.  Often, my responses are pretty dumb (no, really) and I wind up feeling differently the more I ponder.

Take Waves, for instance.  After 135 minutes of fairly intense drama, my first reaction wasn’t entirely positive.  Knowing the film had strong buzz from its festival circuit debut coming in to the screening gave me a framework for what I was going to see but the initial response was in answer to the emotion I felt at the experience and not the movie.  Does that make sense?  The more I thought about the film and it’s complex look at a seemingly picture perfect family that begins to break down the less personal emotion I attached to it and the more critical analysis I was able to apply.  I still can look at the film for how it made it feel but the overall consensus is now based on more than that hot take in the moment.

Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce) is a Florida teenager in the middle of a successful senior year.  He’s popular, a good student, he’s in love with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and he’s a star athlete.  The achievements haven’t come without hard work and we see how much he’s pushed by his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown, Frozen II) to train and stay on task. Stepmother Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry, The House with a Clock in Its Walls) senses he may be taking on too much but doesn’t want to get in between father and son, and it doesn’t appear that his quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell, Escape Room) pays much attention to the comings and goings of her more outgoing brother.  Life for this family goes on without much disruption — everyone stays in their own lane.

An injury that threatens to derail his plans for the future is the first fissure in Tyler’s picture perfect life but it won’t be the last.  A physical set-back becomes the least troubling bit of business for the young man as what seemed to be a solid groundwork turns out to have been constructed on something entirely more delicate.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults takes Tyler down a believably troubled path of self-destruction that’s hard to watch, mainly because of how quickly it all happens.  From one issue springs two more, which open up old wounds that never truly healed.  What starts as a fall from grace for Tyler has a ripple effect for the entire Williams family and it leads to a devastating turn of events that changes all of their lives forever.

And that’s only half of the movie.

Around the midway point, Shults changes the protagonist to Emily to track her high school experience after the events that have already transpired, and it feels like an entirely different film all together.  Where the preceding hour was a vibrant mélange of a world constantly in motion that barely took a breath, the brakes have now been slammed and we’re slowly examining the aftermath of a tragedy with the people often left with more questions than answers.  Using Emily as a focal point for intuiting the grief that remains after a loss, Shults eschews making her a social pariah in her school but instead quickly gives her a confidant in Luke (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back) a socially awkward boy in her class that knows her story and likes her anyway, which comes as a surprise.

As their relationship deepens and becomes something more mature, Emily begins to see the difference between a partnership that is working and one that isn’t.  That’s how a subplot with Ronald and Catherine is introduced, giving Brown and Goldsberry a bit more to work with than they had earlier in the film.  It’s here where Shults starts to veer into overly familiar territory with the couple being written a little broadly and making discoveries that are expected and overly dramatized.  When Shults sticks with Tyler in the first hour and Emily and Luke in the second the real authenticity is found and from there comes powerful moments that will resonate with anyone wishing they had spoken up sooner or intervened on someone’s behalf earlier.

Leaving the screening of Waves I originally found myself favoring the first half because it was the more tangible piece, the easier and more straight-forward narrative to grab onto.  As he did earlier in the year with the underseen Luce, Harrison is an undeniable force onscreen and he’s someone you want to know more about, even if you already know you won’t ever truly figure them out.  The more I sat with the movie, though, I couldn’t get that second section out of my mind.  It’s not as easy to interpret and it goes slack far more than it should, but when it gets in its groove there’s some riveting stuff going on, providing Russell with a handful of excellent scenes that she often plays solo.  I’m not sure if it was Shults intention to make any scene featuring adults feel intrusive but they do, I kept wishing for less of Goldsberry (who is otherwise strong) and Brown (who pushes the dramatics too much) and more with the honesty of their children.

Released by the rising indie distributor A24, Waves fits perfectly into their model of championing burgeoning filmmakers like Shults and for his third high profiled film he’s shown continued advancement in storytelling and technique.  By and large, Waves finds Shults navigating new territory and even the small diversions into oft-traveled waters don’t take away from the lingering bit of sadness that follows you out of the theater. It’s also quite well made, another Shults trademark.  The cinematography and ever-present score are nigh-hypnotic and the performances from Harrison and Russell fuel the kinetic energy that keeps Waves riding high.

See, I just needed a little more time and then I could come up with something a little more thoughtful.  My apologies to my patient screening reps 🙂