Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen in Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas. Photo by Andre D. Wagner. (c) 2019 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Few images have the power to create such immediate feelings of fear and anxiety as blue lights flashing in a rearview mirror. While for white people this often means you're going to get an expensive ticket and you might be late for work, for black people it conjures up images of unarmed people of color who have been murdered by police officers for no other crime than driving while black. Black filmmakers understand this and have used that to their advantage in a post-Black Lives Matter world where such issues have received greater cultural attention. Nowhere was it more indelibly employed than in Jordan Peele's Get Out, which utilized the flashing blue lights to create perhaps the film's most memorable scare in a way that gave white audiences a brief taste of that sense of terror that black audiences understood on a much deeper, much more real level.

Whereas Peele used that moment to punctuate his film, first-time feature filmmaker Melina Matsoukas opens with it, and where Get Out later revealed it to be a fake-out, in Queen & Slim it is all too real. The film opens with a couple having their first date after matching on Tinder. On their way home, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are pulled over by a belligerent cop for swerving on an empty street due to a playful argument. The situation quickly escalates and the cop shoots Queen in the leg as she's trying to pull her phone out of her pocket to record the altercation, leading Slim to overpower the cop and shoot him with his own gun. And so two perfect strangers find themselves on the run from the law, unlikely heroes in a struggle against systemic oppression.

Like a black Bonnie and Clyde, Queen and Slim head across the countryside, and are elevated to folk hero status, inspiring demonstrations and riots nationwide as the police leave no stone unturned to track them down. Desperately heading for Florida so they can escape to Cuba, Queen and Slim find themselves falling in love, and Matsoukas positions their love story against a canvas of social unrest, where something beautiful is found even in the midst of hatred and oppression - Queen and Slim carry on because they have no other choice.

It's a satisfying inversion of the Bonnie and Clyde story, where the outlaws only become so through an act of self-defense, with Matsoukas displaying supreme confidence in her first feature film (she also directed Beyoncé's stunning visual album, Lemonade). The film does suffer from some structural issues; in one particularly troubling scene police dispatch peaceful demonstrators with tear gas leading to a shocking act of violence that is juxtaposed with the film's protagonists making love in a car.  While Matsoukas clearly wants to find beauty in the darkness, that melodramatic moment seems strangely incongruous with the rest of the film, and it falters when it pulls back from Queen and Slim to show their effect on the world around them. Its most powerful moments come from their own perspective, as they learn of the movement they inspire, and the conflict that causes within them. Are they heroes? Are they outlaws? Or are they something in between?

That inner conflict is what drives Queen & Slim. And despite any structural quibbles one may have with the film, it's hard not to be deeply by such an impassioned howl of grief and anger. It's raw and painful like a fresh wound, you can almost feel the deep-seated weariness of a filmmaker who is purely and simply tired of a world that punishes black people the color of their skin. Matsoukas, working from an incisive screenplay by Lena Waithe, not only explores themes of police violence and "driving while black," it also delves into ideas of the double standards placed on black people in American society, that one has to achieve some sort of perfection in order to be accepted by a predominantly white culture.

It's a damning indictment of white privilege made my a black artist who is fed up because she knows a white couple would never have been put in this situation in the first place. It's a haunting, devastating film, anchored by two incredible lead performances, especially from Jodie Turner-Smith, whose Queen is a fiercely determined lawyer who is through playing nice with structural racism and is ready to assert herself as an independent black woman.  I know the voice of a white male critic on a film like this is perhaps the last thing the world needs, but what the world does need is more films like Queen & Slim y filmmakers like Matsoukas, who are unafraid to bare their hearts and leave their anger and frustration on the screen in electrifying ways. It's a movie about our moment, certainly, but it's less a "ripped from the headlines" issue drama and more of an artfully crafted exorcism, a channelling of hundreds of years of systemic oppression into a blinding and beautiful work of art that feels like throwing a firecracker into a crowd. You can feel the weight and the rage in every frame, boiling over into something at once weary and unsettled, clinging to a shred of hope even when the darkness seems all but inevitable.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

QUEEN & SLIM | Directed by Melina Matsoukas | Stars Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Chloë Sevigny, Bokeem Woodbine, Flea, Indya Moore | Rated R for violence, some strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive language, and brief drug use | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Billed as an "anti-hate satire," Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit makes a seemingly rather bold attempt to set a comedy in Germany during the height of WWII. The problem is that its not particularly bold - Jojo Rabbit takes the story of Jojo (Roman Griffith Davis), a young boy whose passion for the Nazi party and the Hitler youth is manifested in his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). 

Jojo dreams of joining the army and killing Jews, whom he's taught have teeth and fangs and other outlandish attributes by the disgruntled commandant of his local Hitler Youth chapter (Sam Rockwell, who just keeps getting cast as racists). The problem is that he's small for his age and rather weak, making him a target for the older boys. His mettle is eventually put to the test when he discovers a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his attic who changes his life forever.

It's certainly tricky territory for a film about the Holocaust, but it's not the first time Hitler has been targeted for laughs. From Walt Disney's Oscar-winning Der Fueher's Face, to Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, to Mel Brooks' The Producers, to the 2015 German film, Look Who's Back, Hitler has been the target of satirists since he was in power. Since fascists thrive on fear hate being laughed at, one of the best ways to rob them of their power is through laughter. Like Harry Potter's boggarts, dressing monsters up as clowns makes them harder to take seriously as human beings. The problem is that Jojo Rabbit neither has the courage of its own convictions or the tonal dexterity to navigate its own tricky waters. It's essentially toothless, neither edgy enough to break new ground or savage enough to leave any real wounds upon the hateful people it targets. Instead, it's a cloying drama dressed up as satire.

Waititi has displayed a unique sense of humor in films like What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Thor: Ragnarok, but he seems out of his element here, doing a Wes Anderson impersonation that ultimately falls flat. In fact, Anderson's own fascist satire, The Grand Budapest Hotel, did a much better job of walking the line between comedy and pathos, something that Jojo Rabbit fails to do, especially as it takes a more serious dramatic turn at the end.

The idea of Hitler as an imaginary friend isn't necessarily offensive, but the film is just too gentle-hearted to land any real punches. With the rise of white nationalism and the return of Nazism to mainstream discourse, turning Nazis into clowns may seem like a good idea on the surface, but Waititi avoids going for the jugular, choosing instead to craft a narrative about a young Nazi boys making friends with a young Jewish girl and learning to let go of his hatred. It's a nice sentiment, but the "why can't we all just get along" message at the heart of this thing feels hopelessly naive. There's something gleefully subversive about the idea of casting a man of color as Hitler, but that's about as radical as it gets, choosing surface level satirical signifiers over anything truly incendiary. It's somehow tasteless and yet not tasteless enough at the same time, it's core message never rising above a pat "Nazis are bad, mmmkay?"

Waititi's wonderfully idiosyncratic sense of humor often gets lost in his struggle to strike just the right tonal balance, ultimately a fool's errand to turn such heavy material into a charming coming-of-age tale that just so happens to feature Nazis. The film certainly has good intentions, but it gets woefully lost somewhere on the road to hell.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

JOJO RABBIT | Directed by Taika Waititi | Stars Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi ,Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen | Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language | Now playing in select cities.

Monday, December 02, 2019

It took Martin Scorsese nearly 10 years to develop and make his epic mob drama, The Irishman, a sprawling portrait of the rise and eventual decline of mafia hitman, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), and his friendship with two equally charismatic and powerful figures - mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and infamous union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

That the film reunites Goodfellas stars De Niro and Pesci (who came out of retirement for the role) is no mistake - The Irishman (or I Heard You Paint Houses as it's labeled in the opening credits) finds Scorsese in a deeply reflective mode, taking account of a long and storied career in his 25th feature film. It's almost as if he's getting the gang back together for one last hurrah, but The Irishman isn't all fun and games, it's a melancholy and mournful epic with the sweep of Visconti and the inner torment of the best of Powell and Pressburger. It's a group of aging legends all facing mortality, and the results are nothing short of electrifying.

Over the course of three and a half hours, The Irishman traces Sheeran's rise from a lowly truck driver to Bufalino's enforcer and right-hand man to Hoffa's best friend and confidant. The film spans decades, beginning with Sheeran as an old man in a nursing home and ending back right where it started, flashing back across the years like the fading recollections of an old man's final confession. It's all framed by a leisurely road trip taken taken by Sheeran, Bufalino, and their wives, slowly winding their way across the countryside toward some unknown destination with a dark purpose known only to Bufalino. The trip is marked by frequent pitstops along the way, much like the film itself, taking its leisurely time winding through the past toward a violent conclusion.

Rather than casting different actors to play the younger versions of characters, such as De Niro playing a young version of Marlon Brando's Vito Corelone in The Godfather Part II, Scorsese employs cutting edge digital technology to de-age the actors, shaving decades off the stars' septuagenarian faces. The technique has been met with some controversy, and there is a certain cognitive dissonance seeing actors we know to be in their 70s suddenly appear to be in their 30s and 40s, but it wears off quickly and never distracts from the story at hand.

The film's massive length may be a deterrent for some, but it's not without reason. Scorsese takes his time developing Frank's story, allowing the sheer weight of the time passed to weigh on both Frank and the audience. We feel the heaviness of the passing time, but it never feels ponderous thanks to Scorsese's impeccable pacing, aided by his stalwart editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Scorsese displays supreme confidence in his craft by allowing his story to breathe, the narrative unfolding gradually and deliberately like a great novel unfolding on screen. It allows the characters to build relationships not only with themselves but with the audience, which makes the emotional impact of the film's final act all the more powerful. It is here where The Irishman delves deep, interrogating a man whose life was defined by death at long last facing his own mortality. Scorsese slyly introduces each new character with an onscreen caption describing their eventual untimely death. In the mob, no one gets away clean, so to what does Sheeran owe his unnaturally long (by wise guy standards) life? Here is a man at the end of a long life, his friends long gone, abandoned by his family (Anna Paquin's near-silent role as his estranged daughter speaks more in her silence than any dialogue ever could) taking into account a life of murder and ultimately betrayal, for whom these sins are merely another day at the office.

Scorsese shoots the film's murders with a dry sense of matter-of-factness, characters casually stroll into frame, gun down an unsuspecting victim, then calmly walk out of frame again, leaving the lifeless body to bleed out on the sidewalk. There's nothing glamorous about it, but neither is particularly repulsive - it's just business, nothing personal, and that's what makes it all so disturbing. What kind of effect does a life like that have on a man? That's the question that lies at the film's sorrowful heart. Frank Sheeran spent a lifetime painting houses (a mob term for caring out hits; in other words, decorating walls with blood), while Scorsese has spent a great deal of his career chronicling the lives of men like Frank, men whose lives are defined by those they take, in spite of (or perhaps because of) a strict, but perhaps misguided, moral code. In that regard, The Irishman feels like the summation of a career, a late-period masterpiece that takes into account a life's work. It is perhaps one of Scorsese's most reflective films, a broad-ranging meditation on life, mortality, and betrayal through the eyes of an old man in twilight, all his friends gone in violent ends, facing the end alone. Are we to feel sorry for him? To pity him? Or perhaps mourn the existence of the violent patriarchal power structures he spent a lifetime upholding? What are we to make of such a man? In Scorsese's masterful hands it becomes an American tragedy writ-large, a sweeping portrait of great potential cut down by greed and corruption, and a road to hell paved by the best of intentions. Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, four lions in winter, all deliver some of the finest work of their respective careers in a film that can only be described as a monument of American cinema.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE IRISHMAN | Directed by Martin Scorsese | Stars  Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Harvey Keitel, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci, Welker White, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston | Rated R pervasive language and strong violence | Now playing in select theaters and streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Sergio Pablos' new animated wonder, Klaus, feels like a film from another time, a gorgeous hand-drawn work of art that recalls everything from the Disney renaissance of the 1990s to the darkly beautiful work collaborations between Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg of the 1980s.

Klaus re-imagines the Santa Claus myth as the story of a spoiled young brat names Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) who gets banished by his father, the wealthy owner of a lucrative mail company, to be the postmaster of a remote Arctic island called Smeerensburg. Hoping it will teach the young man maturity, the father tells him that he must deliver 6,000 letters within a year or be cut-off from all financial support. Upon arrival in Smeerensburg, Jesper discovers that the grim, depressing island is populated with miserable people who never send letters because they're in constant feuds that are so ancient they no longer remember what they're fighting about.

Dejected, Jesper begins to wonder if he will ever return home to his luxurious ways - that is until he meets Klaus (J.K. Simmons), a reclusive woodsman with a house full of toys. After helping Klaus deliver a toy to a lonely young boy, Jesper concocts a plan, and soon he has every child on the island writing letters to Klaus for toys. But while Jesper is just hoping to meet his quota, his actions have the unintended consequences of bringing joy to the island's children, and in turn their parents, whose newfound happiness begins to melt old grudges and unite warring families, much to the chagrin of the village elders, who want to maintain the status quo at all costs.

The film hits a lot of familiar story beats - Jesper's true motives are, of course, revealed to Klaus and all his newfound friends, even after he has forgotten about his quota and is genuinely come to love them. But Pablos creates such an indelible world and handles the story arc with such grace that it hardly matters. The characters are so lovingly drawn, the landscapes so breathtaking in their idiosyncratic detail, that Klaus often feels like we're truly watching a myth being born. This unique take on the origins of Santa Claus examines the jolly old elf not so much as a literal person with magical powers, but as an idea of the spirit of giving, a fact that will likely go over many young heads but will hit adults square in the heart. This is the kind of animated film studios so rarely make anymore, a uniquely designed original story with a heart a mile wide.

It's almost a shame it's not getting a wider theatrical release, but thanks to Netflix it's available in every living room in the country just in time for Christmas. Klaus feels like a new holiday classic, a fresh new take on an ancient legend that finds new life in these hand-drawn images that gives Santa an origin story as heartbreaking as anything in Disney/Pixar's Up. You'll find no ironic pop-culture references here, no arch self-references or pandering humor - this is good old-fashioned storytelling that takes a look an ancient myth through new eyes, and emerges as a thoroughly charming and often quite moving tale of the power of simple kindness. It's a brand new Christmas tradition ready to be discovered.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

KLAUS | Directed by Sergio Pablos | Stars Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Joan Cusack, Norm Macdonald | Rated PG for rude humor and mild action | Now playing in select theaters and streaming exclusively on Netflix.