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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Queen & Slim

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

Release Date: November 27, 2019

Thoughts: There are so many interesting cooks in the Queen & Slim kitchen, I didn’t even need to see a preview to know it was something to take notice of.  This extremely timely tale was written by Emmy award winner Lena Waithe (Ready Player One) from an idea by infamous author James Frey (you know, the one that embarrassed Oprah) and directed by Melina Matsoukas who was a creative force behind many of Beyoncé’s most prolific music video experiences.   Matsoukas has put together a dynamite cast led by Daniel Kaluuya (Widows) and relative newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith (The Neon Demon) as a star-crossed Bonnie & Clyde for the modern age.  I’m quite looking forward to this one…and to the inevitable important discussions it will provoke.

Movie Review ~ The Dead Don’t Die

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane, Danny Glover, RZA, Austin Butler, Rosie Perez, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It isn’t often a movie about a zombie apocalypse gets a premiere at the fancy Cannes Film Festival but if you are director Jim Jarmusch you’ve earned a certain amount of street cred.  The famously indie auteur has been operating since 1980 and has delivered numerous cult faves, many of them originally received as complicated misfires.  Given it’s subject matter, starry cast, and B-movie aura, I’d imagine The Dead Don’t Die will join those cult classic ranks but you won’t find me lining up to see a midnight screening of this one anytime soon.  I had trouble enough staying awake during a daytime viewing.

Look, I’m about zombie-d out by this point and I don’t care who knows it.  I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I avoid all of the straight-to-streaming zombie flicks, I’ve long since sold-off any zombie video games I owned, and I keep my distance from television shows with a zombie premise.  I just think we’re moving on to different things by this point and the whole metaphor linking zombies to mass consumerism is entirely passé.  All I need to do is watch George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead and my craving for brainy material is satiated. (Heck, even Warm Bodies, the zombified Romeo & Juliet will do just fine if you don’t like the hard horror stuff.)  It’s so strange to me that Jarmusch, who has been on a critical uptick the past few years starting with the fascinating vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013, would find himself wanting to draw inspiration from this well.

Not much happens in the sleepy town of Centerville, OH.  As the film opens, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, Aloha) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, Midnight Special) are traveling out to find Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, The Old Man & the Gun), thinking that he stole a chicken from Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, Hotel Transylvania 2).  That’s the extent of the excitement going on until the Earth starts to experience a strange phenomenon caused by polar fracking and a shifting on its axis.  It’s this event that causes the town to lose almost all connection with the outside world and for the bodies in the cemetery to start inexplicably rising from their graves and feasting on the unsuspecting townspeople.

The next several days are captured in small vignettes of varying degrees of success from the large ensemble Jarmusch has assembled.  What Jarmusch does exceedingly well is attract top talent to his film and this is another example of an over-abundance of familiar faces popping up when you least expect it.  In addition to our two lead cops, there’s Chloë Sevigny (The Snowman) as another weary officer not used to so much action in town, Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) and Danny Glover (Monster Trucks) playing store owners who barricade themselves inside a hardware shop to fend off the walking dead, and Rosie Perez (Won’t Back Down) playing an informative newscaster named, wait for it, Posie Suraez.  Though many of the cast have worked with Jarmusch before, the only one that really feels like they know what movie they are in is Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as the town’s new mortician who takes a methodical slice and dice approach in handling the undead.  Some cast members come off as lackadaisical in their approach, which is very Jarmusch in style, but Swinton knows how to pitch that aloofness into something that makes you curious to know more.

Though it gives way to full blown horror in its final stretch, much of the film is paced and pitched at a low boil. There’s so much effort put into the set-up and an absurd amount of characters repeating back the same information on what’s going on to newcomers. Always one to look a little askew at midwestern America, it’s no surprise Jarmusch has cast the townspeople as a bunch of oddballs who get even stranger when death comes knockin’. For pure comedic effect, Jarmusch’s zombies rise up not just with a craving for human flesh but harboring the same obsessions they had when they were alive.  One zombie cries out for chardonnay, another asks Siri a question and these moments of levity are fun at first but begin to become as repetitive as some of the dialogue.  In a bit of supposed extra fun, Jarmusch has Driver and Murray break the fourth wall several times, often commenting as themselves…which might be interesting if they didn’t come off as just riffing off each other between takes.  I’m all for going meta if you can see it through but this continually fell flat.

What was so great about Jarmusch’s take on vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive is that he found an interesting angle into the story which allowed him to craft memorable characters within that framework. In The Dead Don’t Die, there’s no real easy way into a genre that’s been explored to the fullest if you don’t have anything new to add to the conversation.  Even when the tone switches to all-out horror there’s little tension created, and the production isn’t helped by hokey special effects and make-up meant to be impressive that’s hard to see in the dark.  What’s left is a pack of good actors stumbling around for 105 minutes with little to show for their effort.  The film may boast the “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled” but it just doesn’t come together in the end.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Snowman

The Facts:

Synopsis: Detective Harry Hole investigates the disappearance of a woman whose pink scarf is found wrapped around an ominous-looking snowman

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jonas Karlsson, Toby Jones, Chloë Sevigny, Val Kilmer, James D’Arcy, J.K. Simmons

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: Whoa…it’s been a long time since I’ve been to a movie this bad from the get-go. Yes, The Snowman is unquestionably as terrible as you’ve heard it is and it’s likely going to wind up the worst movie released theatrically in 2017. That the film is even getting a wide release is a bit of a miracle and one has to give major chutzpah props to Universal Studios for daring to send out this not even half-baked lame thriller. What’s especially depressing is that so many talented (and Oscar-winning!) people were involved with this both in front of and behind the camera. Collectively, someone should be made to give back one of their Oscars and I’ll leave it to the group to decide who is going to part with their little gold man. A movie this incompetently made demands a sacrifice.

Based on Jo Nesbø’s international bestseller but evidentially substantially changed by the three screenwriters attributed to the script, The Snowman starts on the wrong foot and never recovers. Not that it attempts to, jumping right into introducing boozy Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave) in Oslo as he stumbles back to the police force after a drunken bender. There’s little in the way of character introduction of any kind, the movie just happens to find recognizable faces along the way and incorporates them into the story when convenient.

There’s Rebecca Ferguson (Life) as, I think, a visiting detective with a secret agenda that still takes on local cases, such as the one with the missing woman that unites her with Harry. This investigation leads them to a possible serial killer who, Ferguson hilariously concludes, is triggered “by the falling snow”. Possible suspects include a suspicious husband of the missing woman (James D’Arcy, Cloud Atlas), a creepy doctor (David Denick, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and wealthy land developer played by J.K. Simmons (Patriots Day). Simmons is just one of the cast sporting a disastrous British accent, though the entire action takes place in Norway. Are these all just a specific band of ex-pats with a killer in their midst? Nah, all the signs and newspapers are in English…even the police station features no Norwegian signage.

I’ve always said I couldn’t get enough of Chloë Sevigny (Lovelace) but she’s playing twins here and it turns out…one Sevigny is more than enough. Then there’s the mysterious case of the nearly unrecognizable Val Kilmer seen only in flashback as a detective in neighboring Bergen. Looking shockingly sickly (the actor recently survived a throat tumor) and clearly dubbed, his performance is off the rails and just another piece of a puzzle that is just not meant to fit together. I can’t even go there with Charlotte Gainsbourg (Samba) as Fassbender’s old girlfriend, especially after witnessing a clothed sex scene between the two that’s as awkwardly uncomfortable to watch as seeing a lab rat trying to mate with a St. Bernard.

Director Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) has popped up in interviews saying that 15% of the script wound up not being filmed and that does not surprise me in the least. It at least explains how Oscar-winner and longtime Martin Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker (Cape Fear) managed to piece together a movie that makes almost entirely no sense. There are no scene transitions or establishing shots so it is impossible to determine where the characters are in relation to not only the plot but each other. There’s one sequence cut so poorly that you think two actors are in the same room but are in fact miles away from each other. Ferguson’s hair changes color several times, about as many times as Fassbender’s hair gets longer then shorter from one moment to the next. While Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (Into the Woods) captures some of the gloomier Norwegian vistas with a bit of flair, the visuals are weighed down heavily by the sterile production design from Maria Djurkovic and Tatiana Macdonald (Oscar nominees themselves for The Imitation Game) that heavily favors latte colored IKEA furnishings.

A competent creative team has crafted a truly incompetent film here, even the finale is botched with the suggestion of a sequel so laughably inserted that your heart aches for the Universal Studios executive that must have pleaded for it to be incorporated just in case.  I’m usually not a fan of audiences talking during a movie but as the film progressed the chatter became louder and louder as everyone began to question what in the actual hell was going on. This is terrible filmmaking, an embarrassment for every single person above and below the line.  While it’s bound to be mentioned in the same breath as other Scandinavian-set thrillers, it not even fit to be included in the belch that follows that breath.

Movie Review ~ Lovelace

lovelace_ver4
The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of Linda Lovelace, who is used and abused by the porn industry at the behest of her coercive husband, before taking control of her life.

Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Juno Temple, Wes Bentley, Hank Azaria, Bobby Cannavale, Chris Noth, Robert Patrick, James Franco, Eric Roberts, Adam Brody, Chloe Sevigny,

Director: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  This is the type of review that you hope your parents don’t read…because then you’ll have to admit you’ve seen Deep Throat and, well, will Sunday brunch ever be the same again?  So Mom, if you’re reading this (and, let’s face it, you probably opted for another round of Candy Crush instead) just know that I have seen the infamous adult film that made porno mainstream…but I watched it under duress, I swear.

The star of Deep Throat was Linda Lovelace and she didn’t fit the mold of the adult film.  Pretty but not desirably beautiful, she had one particular talent that earned her the starring role and gave the film its title.  Though she only worked in the porn industry for a total of 17 days, her legend would live on but her story hasn’t been told on screen until now.

It’s too bad then that, as presented by Lovelace, her story isn’t all that interesting or intriguing.  Though it pulls a Rashomon-style switcheroo ¾ of the way through, the movie can’t make…um…head or tails of its starry cast or soapy subject matter.  Turns out that Linda Lovelace was either a) a willing participant that rolled with the punches or b) a victim of abuse forced into a life of drugs and prostitution by her smarmy husband.  The film wants us to feel sorry for Linda so the “b” option is presented in a more heavy-hitting fashion but so much time is spent on the set-up of the “a” option that you leave the movie not really sure of where the truth falls on the spectrum of history.

Credit should be given to all involved for taking care with the period aspects of the film set in the 70’s and early 80’s.  The production design is restrained and just tacky enough to let us know feathered hair and bell bottoms didn’t look all that bad on the right person.  Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman come from the documentary world and one would think that they’d handle their narrative with a bit more efficiency and not as presentational as screenwriter Andy Bellin has made the biopic.

That leaves the cast to make some magic but strangely nothing seems to get their motors going.  Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables) has some nice moments in the last half of the film when we finally get to see a more vulnerable side of Linda but up until that point it’s not a very grounded character for her to work with.  Though the role is undeniably one-dimensional, as Linda’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard (Blue Jasmine) has never met a creep he can’t play to the hilt and that’s true here.  The rest of the supporting cast really are simply brief cameos as the 92 minute film can’t accommodate so many familiar faces with jettisoning some of their scenes (they should be thankful…Sarah Jessica Parker filmed her role as Gloria Steinem only to be excised in the editing room).  It was nice to see Sharon Stone, albeit in an awful wig from a community theater production of Grease, as Linda’s tough, gruff mother.

It’s not the revealing biography that it’s intended to be and honestly I can’t say I took anything of value away from the movie.  Though it’s interesting to get a behind the scenes look about that particular time in film history (however blue the films were), Lovelace leaves the audience unfulfilled.