Queen & Slim(12/8/2019)
It feels like yesterday but apparently it was almost a decade ago when the name “Melina Matsoukas” first caught my attention when the music video for Rihanna’s “We Found Love” captured my attention and I felt compelled to look up who directed it and she has gone on to even bigger heights in that medium by directing some of Beyonce’s more viral music videos. Now she’s finally made her feature film debut in the form of a sort of Thelma and Louise for the Black Lives Matter movement called Queen & Slim, which is about a couple who find themselves on the run after their first date is cut short by a police stop which ends with one of them having to shoot and kill said cop in self-defense. On some level it’s easy to be impressed that this kind of movie even exists. Selling a movie that sympathizes with cop killers probably isn’t easy regardless of how clearly they’re actions are justified but on another level I might have liked the movie to focus on the complexity of character who have to do that in a less clear-cut case of self-defense like in the aforementioned Thelma and Louise. Beyond that I think the movie just has some tonal problems. Aspects of it like the costumes the characters end up in and the car they end up driving harken back to the exploitation movies of the 70s but it isn’t really fun like those movies are and doesn’t have that sense of danger that they had. It’s trying to be a more serious Black Lives Matter issue movie in its tone but I’m not sure it really makes a lot of terribly original or unique points about police violence in that regard. I guess I wanted the movie to either be trashier or more realistic, but it instead takes a sort of middle route that doesn’t entirely work. Still, I do think there’s going to be an audience for it that’s going to find catharsis in there simply being a movie that brings this sort of thing to the screen.
**1/2 out of Five
Richard Jewell tells the true story of a security guard who was working at a satellite event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when he found a bomb that had been planted and seemingly saved a lot of people by starting an evacuation but who then sort of had his life derailed when the FBI started to suspect that he planted the bomb himself in order to be a hero. This project has been floating around Hollywood for a while now and at one point even had Jonah Hill and Leonardo Di Caprio attached to star and people like Paul Greengrass and David O. Russell being considered to direct. It’s now being brought to screen in a slightly more scaled back form with the character actor Paul Walter Hauser starring and Clint Eastwood directing. But having seen the film I really don’t get why so many people have thought that a movie about this story would be such a winner because I’ve got to say it’s really not that interesting of a story. In the annals of people oppressed by the FBI Richard Jewell really isn’t very high on the list. He was never put in jail, never arrested, and it seems like he never even had his career affected. The full extent of his “oppression” was that he found himself in the center of a news cycle in which he was being reported as a suspect in the bombing (which he was) which no one remembers or cares about anymore.
Before the movie started there was a trailer for the movie Just Mercy which is about a guy who spent six years on death row based on a wildly unfair trial, compared to that this really doesn’t strike me as all that notable of an injustice. This matters because the film really doesn’t have that much dramatic interest outside of its righteous anger about the Richard Jewell case. The performances are generally quite good but I kind of hate what they did with Olivia Wilde’s character, who is depicted as a vapid bimbo motivated entirely by greed. The criticism this film has received for depicting this real life journalist exchanging sex for a lead is entirely valid and even if (big “if”) this sort of thing could be forgiven as dramatic license in other movies it is an unworkable hypocrisy here given that this is supposed to be a movie about the evils of character assassination and of misrepresenting people and yet it’s doing exactly that with this woman. Beyond that I guess there’s not a whole lot to say. The movie certainly isn’t unwatchable, the dialogue is mostly good and the acting is fine, I guess I just fundamentally don’t see why this needed to be a feature film with this level of talent behind it.
**1/2 out of Five
Director Jay Roach has had a strange little career where he began as a maker of commercial star vehicle comedies like the Austin Powers movies and the Meet the Parents movies and then transitioned into making serviceable but not overly inspired political docudramas like Recount and Game Change for HBO but he’s had less luck bringing that side of his career to the big screen. His most high profile political film for theaters is his latest film Bombshell, which details the sexual harassment scandal at Fox News and how it came to be national prominence before the advent of #MeToo. Roach’s political movies have always been pretty effective at making famous people look and sound like political figures from the recent past and this is not really an exception. Charlize Theron certainly looks a lot like Megyn Kelly (though I’m not sure she sounds quite right) and Nicole Kidman looks a lot like Gretchen Carlson and the film is generally populated by a strong cast of supporting players portraying other side personalities. The film also seems to recreate the Fox Newsroom plausibly and the script is generally written with a requisite degree of wit and clarity. People looking for another of Jay Roach’s HBO productions should be satisfied on that level, but this is a theatrical film and it never quite achieves that cinematic quality which would elevate it beyond that.
However, I think the bigger problem with this is that it’s a movie that requires its viewer to sympathize with Fox News anchors on some level and view them as remotely admirable people, and that is something that I don’t think I’m entirely capable of. Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are in fact terrible people. They knowingly worked for and helped advance a propaganda outlet that has coarsened out political discourse and has spread untold chaos and suffering across the country. Now let me be entirely clear, I am not in any way saying that this means they deserved to be sexually harassed, but there is something galling about people who spend their days advocating for hatred against people of color, immigrants, the LGBT community, and women who don’t work for Fox News suddenly deciding to care about this toxicity when it hurts them personally. There are ways a movie about this topic could have reckoned with that that and found ways to explore this conflict, but this movie never really finds a way to do that and can’t really find a way to make these people feel like anything other than heroic whistleblowers. If that doesn’t bother you, then this is a passable movie with reasonably good production values, but it does bother me.
**1/2 out of Five
The Cave is one of two major documentaries from this year about the conflict in Syria, the other one being For Sama and having now seen both of them it’s difficult not to compare and contrast. This one was directed by Feras Fayyad, who had previously directed Last Man in Aleppo, which focused on the “White Helmets” and this one looks at another group of humanitarians trying to do the best they can, namely a group of doctors working at the last remaining hospital in the city which is a makeshift operation in underground tunnels that can’t be as easily bombed. The focus is on the hospital’s manager Amani Ballor who seems like a fairly impressive person. It takes a while to get going but toward the second half it really starts to get dramatic and features some sad if exciting moments like when the hospital staff has to treat a bunch of people caught in a chemical weapon attack. It’s generally more professionally made than For Sama but can get a little pretentious in its construction in the way that the personal For Sama does not. On the other hand while both films have their rough moments For Sama has more graphic imagery in it so people sensitive about that sort of thing might be better served by The Cave. Looking past the comparison though this is still a strong look at life during a modern war and it makes you really really mad at Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.
*** out of Five