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

1 Comment

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

This Is a Movie: Lucas Hedges Wades Through the Lies of Gay Conversion to Find Truth and Love in the Unsettling and Fulfilling ‘Boy Erased’

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Focus Features

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

Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan, Joe Alwyn, Flea

Director: Joel Edgerton

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: R for Intense, Sexuality-Focused Material

Release Date: November 2, 2018 (Limited)

Boy Erased demonstrates the dangers of putting the unqualified in charge, or pretending that it is possible to be qualified for something that nobody can possibly have experience with. With the suspensefully assured hand of director Joel Edgerton, it plays like a horror film in which the villain is the storm of forces that try to convince you of something that you know in your core not to be true. The setting is a gay conversion therapy program, which is basically the epitome of trauma born out of the most distorted of good intentions. Every story I have ever heard about gay conversion suggests that those involved with running them are either gay themselves or relatives of gay people. Boy Erased very much underscores how terrifying a curriculum designed upon internalized homophobia is.

The film is based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, with Lucas Hedges playing Jared Eamons, an adapted version of Conley. This isn’t the first gay conversion gay conversion-focused film this year, with The Miseducation of Cameron Post having arrived a few months earlier. Boy Erased manages to make a stronger impression thanks to heavier dramatic stakes. Whereas Cameron Post‘s protagonists were so strong-willed that they just ignored the program, Jared actually cares about satisfying the people who want him to go through with it. That especially includes his Baptist preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and his fiercely protective mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman). But at a certain point, he realizes that the so-called adult experts do not know what they are talking about if what they are asking him to do is ripping apart his soul. That means he must push back against head therapist Victor (Edgerton), a man who is frighteningly skilled at hiding internal conflict, and instead listen to the people who only offer him unconditional, recognizable love. It all leads to reconciliation scenes that you hope never have to be necessary for anybody but are all the more fulfilling for how genuine they are.

Boy Erased is Recommended If You Like: Heart-wrenching true stories, Familial reconciliation, Dramas that are secretly horror movies

Grade: 4 out of 5 White Dress Shirts

This is a Movie Review: ‘Baby Driver’ is a Fun Thrill Ride, But More Alarming Than Expected

2 Comments

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

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González

Director: Edgar Wright

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: R for Everything Spinning Out of Control

Release Date: June 28, 2017

I am not sure if the one nagging thing preventing me from fully embracing Baby Driver is a moral one or a storytelling one. I am also not sure if that thing matters and I should just embrace the film unabashedly. But either way, let me let you in on my thought process: am I bothered by not just all the bloody mayhem, but also that we are seemingly meant to cheer on all this violence? Or am I more flummoxed by the lack of context regarding Doc the crime boss (Kevin Spacey)? Part of the issue is that I was prepared for just a fun stylized thrill ride but what I got did not skimp on the consequences. In fairness, I should have been prepared, as writer/director Edgar Wright’s films always grapple with the practical and emotional fallout of even the most outrageous circumstances. While that is alarming, Baby Driver is frankly better for it.

But back to that highly stylized premise for a moment. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver with a drum in his hum (i.e., tinnitus sustained from a car accident that killed his parents) and thus always has earbuds in to keep himself centered and rhythmic. Accordingly, the soundtrack never lets up. It is a toe-tapping mix of classic rock, funk, and R&B that is never too familiar to be too tiresome. It would be impractical to list every track, but I will pick out a few favorites (Bob & Earl’s breezy “Harlem Shuffle,” Golden Radar’s ominous-but-in-a-fun-way “Radar Love,” Focus’ face-melting yodeler “Hocus Pocus”) and note that all of them have everyone’s heart ticking at just the right click.

This could all be a setup for a nearly dialogue-free sensory experience, but instead it has an honest-to-goodness narrative, and the result is more challenging than the alternative. It traffics in clichés, but it spins gold out of them. Baby never meant to get mixed up in this world of thieves, and he is going to get out of the game after ONE LAST JOB. Naturally, Doc threatens to break his legs and destroy his loved ones, but the two also seem to somehow have a genuine friendship. The contradictions are striking but lived-in and convincing. The love story is just as basic and formulaic, with Baby dead-set on driving out of town with diner waitress Debora (Lily James). But their attraction is sparkling and immediately filled with mutual respect. The only improbable thing is how they lucky they are to have met their perfect match by sheer happenstance.

Ultimately Baby chooses to resort to some extreme means to escape his lot in life, and the fate that then meets him somehow feels simultaneously black-and-white and filled with shades of gray. Herein Baby Driver reveals itself as an illustration of the tension between a decent man and an indecent world. We all need to something to keep us centered to get by. For Baby, that is not just his music. Even more so, it is a penchant for mutual acts of kindness and pleasantness. A valuable message absolutely, and one that makes the few moments when Baby slips into darkness so difficult to bear.

Baby Driver is Recommended If You Like: Its Trailers – this is a well-advertised movie

Grade: 4 out of 5 iPods