‘Queen & Slim’ is an All-Too-Conceivable Vision of 21st Century Outlaws

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CREDIT: Andre D. Wagner/Universal Pictures

Starring: Danielle Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Flea, Chloë Sevigny, Indya Moore, Sturgill Simpson

Director: Melina Matsoukas

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for The Violence, Profanity, and Sexuality of Highly Stressful Situations

Release Date: November 27, 2019

Viral moments of people of color being fatally wounded by police officers are a depressingly common occurrence in America, and they have become fodder for similarly discomfiting moments in fiction. So when Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) is able to fire back at Officer Reed (Sturgill Simpson) during a simple traffic stop, it feels like a moment a triumph as a sort of wake-up call to the audience that things can be done differently. But that sense of triumph quickly gives way to a feeling of queasiness, both because no loss of life is preferable to some loss of life (even when it’s in self-defense), and because that moment feels much more like the prelude to a greater tragedy rather than the end of one.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim are bound by circumstance moreso than passion or really any sort of mutual attraction. Their encounter with Officer Reed occurs on the way home from their initial meeting with each other, and while it may not be the absolute worst first date of all time, it is pretty damn tense. Slim is generally go-with-the-flow, while Queen is all coiled, hardened intensity. That fire and ice combination is not often ideal for romance, and it is even worse when two black people are pulled over by a trigger-happy officer of the law. Slim is so casual nearly to the point of carelessness, while Queen cites legal rights as she aggressively demands to know why the situation is being escalated. But no matter how they react to the officer, you get the sense that they were in a trap the moment he pulled them over.

After they leave Reed on the side of the road, they ditch their phones and attempt to flee to some semblance of safety. Meanwhile, their story becomes headline news and they begin to be embraced by a not-insignificant portion of the population as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. Accordingly, you then get the sense that most of Queen & Slim is just a series of delays until an inevitable tragic end. In that sense, it plays like a fit of existentialism, sort of a more viscerally terrifying riff on No Exit. I cannot argue for the possibility of a happier ending, because that would have been something more fantastical than director Melina Matsoukas and screenwriter Lena Waithe are aiming for. As it is, this is not the most cohesive sort of cinema, but it has a fractured feel of intimate moments contrasting with wide-open spaces that captures a broken, but occasionally beautiful slice of Americana.

Queen & Slim is Recommended If You Like: Melina Matsoukas’ music videography

Grade: 3 out of 5 Escapes

Movie Review: ‘The Dead Don’t Die,’ And Neither Does the Droll Energy in Jim Jarmusch’s Zombie Goof-Off

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CREDIT: Abbot Genser/Focus Features

Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits, Austin Butler, Eszter Balint, Luka Sabbat, Larry Fessenden

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for Ironic, But Visceral Zombie Violence

Release Date: June 14, 2019 (Limited)

Sometime around 2010, it was determined that it was every filmmaker’s God-given right to make their very own zombie movie. In the case of Jim Jarmusch, he was divinely matched with The Dead Don’t Die, a droll, occasionally fourth wall-breaking portrait of ravaged-by-the-undead small town life patrolled by Police Officers Bill Murray and Adam Driver. In a post-Shaun of the Dead world, The Dead Don’t Die is far from necessary, but it is sufficiently diverting. It adds an environmental wrinkle to the zombie mythos, as fracking is implied to be the culprit behind the upending of nature. If Jarmusch is crying out for us to protect the Earth, that warning is perhaps a little too late, considering how disastrous climate change has already become. But that’s no big deal (for the movie, that is – the planet is screwed), as he seems to have more goofball ideas on his mind anyway.

The zombie blood and guts are sufficiently hardcore, with the bodily fluids as wet and unleashed as the dialogue is dry and bottled-up. But the main attraction are not the ghouls so much as the characters and their unique ways of being human and/or inhuman. That is to say, while Tilda Swinton has badass sword skills as the town’s new undertaker, it’s more amusing that she gets to lean into a hardcore Scottish persona. This is the type of movie in which Selena Gomez tells Caleb Landry Jones, “Your film knowledge is impressive,” after he mentions some pretty basic info about George Romero, and then Larry Fessenden refers to Gomez and her friends who are passing through town as “hipsters from the city” and “hipsters with their irony” (the odds seem to be that they’re from Cleveland). If that sounds hilarious to you, you know who you are, and you can expect to mostly be satisfied, though you may (or may not) have issues with the shaggy, shambling plot structure.

The Dead Don’t Die is Recommended If You Like: Remaining at an ironic remove, but not being too-cool-for-school about it

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Diner Coffee Pots

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Lizzie’ Brings the Queer Subtext to the Fore in the Latest Telling of Ms. Borden’s Ax Murders

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CREDIT: Courtesy of Saban Films and Roadside Attractions

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Denis O’Hare, Kim Dickens

Director: Craig William Macneill

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Brutal Deadly Violence and Practical Nudity

Release Date: September 14, 2018 (Limited)

Lizzie is in some ways a throwback to an era when queer attraction was subtextual and coded and never explicitly acknowledged. Except that this time there’s a lot more nudity, which would seem to defeat the purpose, save for the fact that this lack of clothes is not about sex but rather avoiding the evidence of blood stains. Otherwise, the structure fits, as this telling of the Lizzie Borden story plays up the angle of an affair between Lizzie and her family’s housemaid without ever uttering the word “lesbian,” instead opting for whispers and implications and the occasional “abomination.”

The real Borden was accused and ultimately acquitted of ax-murdering her father and stepmother in 1892 Massachusetts. While popular perception has treated her as the no-doubt-about-it culprit, much of the case remains officially uncertain, lending fictional retellings a lot of leeway in how they approach the material. Director Craig William Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass choose to emphasize psychological abuse from Borden’s father Andrew that gradually wore Lizzie down to murderous intent. Chloë Sevigny plays Lizzie as a perfectly dignified and intelligent individual who cannot quite handle the cognitive dissonance of her father insisting that she in fact has no place in polite society. As Andrew, Jamey Sheridan actually finds some tender notes, but his foundation of disgust is just too implacable.

Of course mention must be made of Kristen Stewart as the Bordens’ maid, Bridget Sullivan. Most of the family call her “Maggie” instead, which might be an archaic form of discrimination I was previously unfamiliar with (any turn of the 20th Century American historians, please let me know). Her bond with Lizzie is forged a great deal by the latter making it a point to actually call Bridget “Bridget.” Alas, but unsurprisingly, their time together is not meant to last, partly because of their power differential, partly because of the fallout of co-conspiracy, but mostly because society would force them to remain a secret. Yet in the end that suppressive atmosphere is a double-edged sword: it allows Lizzie to get away with murder because her peers cannot believe that someone from such a respectable family could commit such a heinous act. If they knew her true orientation, perhaps they would have come to a different conclusion. That’s a warped sort of privilege that this version of Lizzie could never fully psychically bear.

Lizzie is Recommended If You Like: Twisty/twisted/stomach-twisting feminist narratives

Grade: 3 out of 5 Axe Chops

This Is a Movie Review: Bucking Concerns That It Would Be Derivative, ‘The Snowman’ Barely Even Qualifies as Storytelling

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CREDIT: Jack English/Universal Pictures

This post was originally published on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rachel Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones, Chloë Sevigny

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Rating: R for Snowman-Human Hybrid Tableaux

Release Date: October 20, 2017

The best part of The Snowman happens a few minutes when someone refers to Michael Fassbender’s lead character, “Detective Harry Hole,” by his full name. Shockingly, that is the only time we hear anybody say “Harry Hole” in its entirety. True, my enjoyment of that moment might be the most prurient form of punnery, and I probably won’t be able to convince who looks down upon crudeness and wordplay of its hilarity. But at least that name has personality, something which the rest of the film lacks entirely.

The Snowman’s poster reads, “MISTER POLICE. YOU COULD HAVE SAVED HER I GAVE YOU ALL THE CLUES.” The film itself acts upon the same instinct, essentially giving away the identity of the killer in the first scene. So clearly, the mystery is not the point of this ostensible mystery film. What then is it all about? Perhaps a deep (or at least shallow) dive into a murderer’s psychology? I imagine a fascinating dissertation could be written about a killer who carefully slices up his victims, builds a snowman after each kill, occasionally affixes parts of the victims into the snowmen, and always calls in a missing person report to alert the same detective to arrive on the scene just a little too late. But as for how it plays as narrative, well, the harsh Scandinavian winter must have made everyone too sleepy to craft any plot turns anywhere near compelling.

The Snowman is based on Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s novel of the same name, one of the many bestselling Scandinavian crime thrillers riding the coattails of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. One might imagine that a potential problem here would be falling into a trap of derivativeness, but The Snowman isn’t really a knockoff of anything, whether literary, cinematic, or otherwise. Instead, it is just a hodgepodge of elements that I cannot understand would be a part of any movie whatsoever. The cinematography is plain ugly, almost like specks of snow are constantly stuck to the camera lens. Then there is a whole subplot about Oslo’s bid to host the “Winter Sports World Cup,” which apparently exists because any press about the Snowman Killer cannot be allowed to distract from that bid. Maybe there is supposed to be a point here about government corruption, but it just comes off as narrative padding.

The Snowman’s greatest sin is stranding some very talented actors with absolutely nothing to do. It also calls into question the bona fides of its director, Tomas Alfredson, who had previously pulled off two solid adaptations (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Maybe this is just a hiccup, though if so, it is a big one. On the other hand, I have not read the novel, so maybe the problem is with source material that managed to be inexplicably successful. But at least we have Val Kilmer as a suicidal investigator, who is strangely compelling, with a freakish appearance that can only be described as “Haggard Vampire.” After watching The Snowman, you’ll certainly be able to relate to his fatalistic outlook.

The Snowman is Recommended If You Like: Despairing About the Pointlessness of Life

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Daddy Issues

 

This Is a Movie Review: With ‘Beatriz at Dinner,’ Salma Hayek Ain’t Taking No Guff From Racist John Lithgow

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This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, David Warshofsky, Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, John Early

Director: Miguel Arteta

Running Time: 83 Minutes

Rating: R for Verbal Knifeplay

Release Date: June 9, 2017 (Limited)

What would you do if you have had a chance encounter with the person who represents all that you oppose? I imagine that many people would feel quite strongly when responding to this question but also that it would produce a number of disparate, potentially conflicting answers. Beatriz at Dinner, the latest collaboration from the Chuck & Buck team of writer Mike White (School of Rock, HBO’s Enlightened) and director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids), fundamentally understands this tension, with conviction in its ideals and uncertainty about how to live by them.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a goat-owning masseuse/healer who makes a house call to her wealthy client Cathy (Connie Britton). When her car breaks down, she finds herself stuck at Cathy and her husband’s Grant’s (David Warshofsky) fancy dinner party. Cathy is happy to have Beatriz there, as she considers her family ever since she helped her daughter through cancer treatment. But Beatriz is culturally light years away from client’s friends and colleagues. Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker are right in their cluelessly arrogant upper class wheelhouses. (Sample dialogue: “I love psychic stuff.”) And then there is real estate mogul Doug Strutt, brought to gloriously, hideously racist life by John Lithgow.

Comparisons between Strutt and a certain current world leader are inevitable, among perhaps both his detractors and his supporters. But it is worth noting that Lithgow’s performance is as far as can be from crudity, in terms of style if not so much substance. His default presence makes him a natural at playing oddly trustworthy authority figures. He has a hint of eccentricity – not so much that he ought to be dismissed, but just enough that he is allowed to get away with it. That reputation is ripe for subversion, as in the NBC sitcom Trial & Error, where his eccentricity verges on bumbling idiocy, or here, where it is a cover for plain evil.

While Lithgow’s performance is impressive in the most expected ways, Hayek’s is fascinating for how surprisingly, and occasionally even bafflingly, Beatriz behaves. But there are not really any logical inconsistencies here, as there is no blueprint for how to act in this situation. Beatriz believes that she recognizes Strutt as the developer who destroyed her Mexican community, and so she viciously chews him in front of the whole party. In this game of chess, she may have sacrificed her queen too early, but perhaps it is all part of her strategy. She bobs and weaves, offering up apologies, or feigning them, or mixing legitimate apologies in with lip service. In the meantime, she gathers up evidence to potentially prove Strutt’s misdeeds. But to what end? This is a man who boasts of skirting, or even running roughshod over, the law.

Responding to this moral vacuum requires counterintuitive behavior, which inspires a career-best performance from Hayek but puts the film on shaky narrative ground. The story ultimately becomes just as untethered as Beatriz, and accordingly it cannot really figure out how to conclude. Should it go in for the kill and ramp up the intensity, or should it settle for the moral victory? It offers up both versions, which is a little frustrating, but the straightforward viciousness is fun while it lasts.

Beatriz at Dinner is Recommended If You Like: Enlightened, Evil John Lithgow, Clapping Back

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Aperitifs for Destruction