Queen & Slim (Canada-US, 2019)

Fateful meeting

African-American themed films tend not to play well at the UK box office and so it was good to see Cineworld taking a risk with what is essentially a throwback to the early ’70s New Hollywood movie; it’s certainly not straightforward multiplex fodder. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) meet on a Tinder date and then find trouble with a racist cop. What follows is a road movie, hopefully to freedom, where they discover much about each other and something about racially divided America.

There’s so much in this film that impresses especially as most of the principals are feature film debutants: director Melina Matsoukas (known for music video, particularly Beyoncé’s Formation), scriptwriter Lena Waithe (based on an idea by James Frey) and Turner-Smith who turns in a (hopefully) star-making performance. Kaluuya executive produced, no doubt helping get the reported $17m budget, and matches his co-star with another superb turn.

Although the film is set in the present, Matsoukas has made the mise en scene timeless to an extent: the cars are old fashioned; a youngster takes a photograph using a camera; the brilliantly chosen music runs the gamut of the last fifty years. In addition, the script isn’t particularly concerned with realism as some of the plotting strains credulity a little (the encounter with the sheriff for instance) however as the film is operating more an a symbolic level, rather than trying to convince us we are seeing a window on the world, that isn’t a problem. Occasionally, we hear dialogue which the characters aren’t speaking, though it’s relevant to the scene; another anti-realist device.

Road movies are usually about ‘finding yourself’ and/or the place the characters live in. Five Easy Pieces (US, 1970) and The Sugarland Express (which shares the outlaw narrative) are two examples from New Hollywood cinema where, it seemed, the director truly called the shots; Bob Rafelson and Steven Spielberg respectively. Ironically it was the latter’s Jaws (1975) that led to the producer-led Hollywood that still predominates; he has continued to churn out personal movies, some of which are interesting. The ending of Queen & Slim, in particular, reminded me of films from that time. Although a precursor of New Hollywood, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is an explicit reference point for the film.

Despite its sort-of timelessness, the film is obviously about #BlackLivesMatter and so is resolutely contemporary; it shares this theme with the also excellent The Hate U Give. Every review I’ve read has criticised the cutting between the sex scene (involving the protagonists) and a demonstration against police racism. For me it worked in contrasting the personal (these were two lonely people who were seeking love) and the political (the colour of their skin compromises their existence because America is a racist society): why should people have to protest to live their lives without police harassment?

The film’s done decent business in America and I hope it does so in the UK; if independent cinema starts channeling the aesthetics of early ’70s Hollywood we should live in interesting times.

Iconic image?

One aspect I wasn’t sure about was the image (above) that became representative, in the film, of injustice against POC; it’s obviously drawing on a negative stereotype of African-Americans as pimps and whores (the clothes were borrowed from Queen’s pimp uncle). Candice Frederick, in Film Comment, suggests, ‘Queen and Slim attempt to masquerade as the confident, badass celebrities their public expects them to be.’ That seems to be persuasive except it’s clear that when they put on their disguises they are in a hurry rather than choosing how to look. However, the film is too knowing not to be using this without intention. Presumably, because we know what the characters are actually like we can see beyond the representation and understand how reductive the stereotype is.

 

The Irishman (US, 2019)

The old school ride again

As I’ve been complaining that Netflix don’t give enough exposure in cinemas to their films I felt obliged to go and see The Irishman. ‘Obliged’ doesn’t suggest enthusiasm, the lack of which is partly explained by the 209 minute commitment but I was also wary of the film being compared to Goodfellas (US, 1990), which I didn’t like. My fears were well founded, though I do find myself way outside the critical consensus on this one. The first half an hour was so bad I considered leaving but it improved in the middle when political interference by the mafia became the film’s subject. I forced myself to finish the film when the social context disappeared toward the end.

I’m exaggerating, it’s not a terrible film: how could it be with a great cast at the top of their form? It’s particularly good to see Al Pacino, whose appearances have been infrequent recently, playing union boss Jimmy Hoffa. He dials down his sometimes over-the-top schtick to give nuance to a larger-than-life character. When Heat (US, 1995) was released it was hyped as the first time Pacino and De Niro shared a scene. They do so again, De Niro plays Frank Sheeran (the Irishman) who became Hoffa’s minder; this time they are in pyjamas. It’s a knowing touch that scriptwriter Steve Zaillian and director Scorsese (they also collaborated on the vastly superior Gangs of New York, US-Italy, 2003) bring to the film which gives it a valedictory feel. I wonder whether some of the lauding of the film is because it harks back to the (so-called) glory days of Hollywood where brilliantly produced and thought-provoking movies were made. It’s unlikely that the major studios would produce anything like this these days: $150m for a non-franchise film?! The opening shot reminded me of the dolly at the start of Mean Streets (US, 1973) with a pop song high in the mix; this was the director’s breakthrough film. It’s bravura filmmaking but also, because of its association with a movie from 50 years ago, old-fashioned. Scorsese’s association with the gangster film (Casino, US-France, 1995, was also better than this), as well as the lead actors, Pesci came out of retirement to appear, all give it an end of the road feel.

I didn’t like Goodfellas because I felt the film actually thought the psychopaths it portrayed were good fellas. That tendency is not so pronounced in The Irishman but it is still an issue when we are clearly meant to feel sorry for Sheeran at the film’s end. If I cannot care about a character then I have difficulty engaging in a film; by care, I don’t necessarily mean ‘like’. Why are we supposed to sympathise with a heartless relic?

The $150m has been well spent. In an interview in the current issue of Sight & Sound, costume designer Sandy Powell states that De Niro had 102 costumes, there are 160 speaking parts and 7000 extras. The film does look great. It’s a tribute to Scorsese and his crew that these vast forces, in a narrative that crosses five decades, cohere across the three and a half hours duration. However, it is Scorsese’s direction that disappointed me most. It was too workaday (shot-reverse/shot prevailed) and one high angle shot used to establish location (on the way to Hoffa’s final meeting) is used three times within a few minutes that, for me, simply emphasised how long everything was taking. There was none of the ‘operatic’ grandeur of Gangs of New York; though Bradshaw uses the term in his review.

The marginalisation of women is also an issue for me, but I’m not blaming the film for that as it is a result of the world being portrayed. That the marvellous Anna Paquin gets only six words of dialogue is worth remarking upon, especially as she is used as the film’s moral compass. However, that is the point, because women did not get a say in this world, violence ensued. It would be good if Scorsese, in his twilight years, revisited Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More (US. 1974).

The Report (US, 2019)

Nearly swamped by ‘intelligence’

Writer-director Scott Z Burns succeeds in The Report where he failed as scriptwriter of The Laundromat (US, 2019), directed by Steven Soderbergh, in presenting complex material in an engaging and dramatic fashion. The Laundromat floundered, despite Soderbergh throwing tricksy set-ups at the viewer and a stellar cast, because the attempt to tell the story of the Panama Papers through an ordinary person didn’t work. The Report tells of the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture in the ‘war on terror’ through the chief investigator, the dogged Dan Jones (the suitably taciturn Adam Driver), and this gives the film a central pillar at the heart of the narrative. It also benefits from a great performance from Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who has to negotiate between Jones’ determination to get the report published and Washington political machinations.

Both films are vital contributions to democracy as they attempt to inform the general public about corruption which is something corporate media, in general, fails to do. In the UK, where the BBC used to have a reputation for robust reporting, public service broadcasting fails to convey the complexity of these issues and the malfeasance of our ruling classes (the BBC recently edited out the laughter greeted by Boris Johnson’s statement that truth in politics is important thus saving the man from ridicule). Complexity does not sit well in the 24-hour news cycle (actually the cycle is much shorter these days) and much of the press in the UK is like Fox News in America: propaganda outlets for the powerful. Complexity is not easy for mainstream films either and I doubt The Report will pull up trees at the box office even though it deserves to. It’s not dissimilar to All the President’s Men (US, 1976) which dramatised the investigation into Watergate; the establishing shot of the brutalist concrete of the building Jones works in references the earlier film. It’s a damning sign of the times that Pakula’s ’70s film won Oscars and, despite the fact The Report is better, the new film’s shelf life in cinemas is likely to be short.

The inevitable wordiness is leavened, if that’s the right word, by re-enactments of the torture led by two contractors who convinced the CIA, post-9/11, that they had the ‘sauce’ which would get to the truth in interrogation. I was gobsmacked to learn they received $80m for their troubles. As soon as, in panic and desperation, they were given carte blanche to torture, the institutional momentum ensured they could not be stopped as no one in positions of authority wanted to admit they were wrong to go down that route in the first place. There is some wicked humour in scenes where one of the contractors states that they now know the victim of waterboarding is lying; Feinstein remarks that if one man was waterboarded 183 times, why didn’t they realise the technique doesn’t work?

The film is very good on the realpolitick that meant Obama, who’d portrayed himself as non-partisan when campaigning for the presidency, wanted to suppress the report; the references to drone strikes is also a useful corrective to that president’s saintly image (surely a result of his charm and the contrast with his successor). Zero Dark Thirty is given a justifiable poke as Bigelow’s film shamelessly lied about torture being instrumental in Bin Laden’s assassination.

Driver carries the film brilliantly. As the obstructions increasingly make it difficult for him to finish the report he slowly reaches (almost) boiling point in outrage that the truth is something that should be hidden from the people. It’s a vital film for the 21st century.

The Florida Project (US, 2017)

The sunshine state

Sean Baker (he co-wrote and directed) manages to get sensational performances from the ‘little rascals’ who live in motels adjacent to Disney World; the title of the film was Disney’s original name for his theme park. The adults are excellent too even though they are mostly inexperienced; Baker apparently found Bria Vinaite on Instagram. Willem Dafoe, as the exasperated and paternalistic caretaker, integrates his performance with the rest of the cast perfectly. While the film isn’t only about performance, this ‘slice of life’ of a Florida underclass has a somewhat fragmentary narrative; not that that is necessarily a bad thing but some of slices are a bit thin. Key to its success, is the (apparent) authenticity of life on the margins. The motels are garish in appearance, they are trying to compete with the sickly sweetness of Disney World, and rundown on the inside.

Brooklynn Prince plays 6-year-old Moonee who is a ‘wild child’, like her mum (Vinaite), that wreaks havoc in the area. At one point, when giving a guided tour to a new arrival, she says, “We’re not allowed in here so let’s go in.” She then proceeds to cut the power. On one level she is appalling but, then again, she’s only six so cannot be held responsible for her upbringing. That’s Halley’s responsibility but their relationship is more like mischievous teenage girls. Halley hustles a living and relies upon Dafoe’s Bobby to help her out; not that she ever shows any gratitude. In some ways she is a monster, her treatment of an estranged friend for example, but Baker never demonises her; these are people on the edge who graft for what they can get. Vinaite captures the stubborn self-absorption of a child-woman perfectly; I remember trying to teach similar characters, it bordered on the impossible.

What’s lacking in the film, and that’s not its fault as it wasn’t its purpose, is social context. Bobby’s boss gives an inkling about the way the poor are treated when, on his occasional visits, he rules to roost with contempt. The caretaker’s deference shows he’s standing on eggshells so as not to offend the man with power. In addition, the virtuoso shot at the end makes it clear that Baker is making a social comment. However, as is the nature of ‘slices of life’, the power structures that lead to lives being restricted in poverty, are mostly ignored.

On the other hand, it is better that such lives are dramatised (as in Leave No Trace) than not at all and Baker is clearly a talent to watch. His mise en scene perfectly captures the candy floss environs of lives that could be bitter but are generally shown to be full of fun.

Leave No Trace (US, 2018)

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Off the grid in the words

A film without antagonists is a rarity for where will the drama come from? That’s a slight exaggeration as there are narrative problems for the protagonists to overcome but the causes of them are never embodied in characters. Debra Granik’s, she directed and co-scripted (with her filmmaking partner Anne Rossellini who also produced), fiction film follow up to Winter’s Bone is an other superb examination of an American underclass.

The underclass are people who mainstream society disdain and social institutions discriminate against. They are Othered so often blamed for their own predicament. Ben (Dad) and Tom (daughter), played by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, live like survivalists in an Oregon forest only entering the nearby Portland for supplies and for Ben to get his medication; he’s a veteran suffering from PTSD. Tom’s a 13-year-old and questions immediately arise as to why she is having to live off the grid; the ‘leave no trace’ of the title is to ensure they aren’t discovered. However, despite the fact they are on public land they are camping illegally and so are captured by the net of social services. They are given dehumanising ‘true-false’ questions on a computer to answer; the right wing love using technology to replace people as empathy is no longer possible (and supposedly saves money). The social workers, though, are shown to be caring and struggle to bring humanity to their work in the face of institutional indifference; the latter is implied, not shown. The antagonist, uncaring social institutions, is barely shown in the film; it is its turn to be unseen like the underclass. Only in a few of scenes is intrusive institutional power dramatised: when Ben and Tom are captured and a minor is taken off a greyhound bus, but even then it’s arguable that young people are being protected. The fact that Ben is a loving dad could not be a ‘given’ for the authorities. Only when a homeless veterans’ camp is destroyed is it absolutely clear that wrong is being done and even here the driver of the wrecking machine is faceless; after all, he would simply be doing his job.

I’ve laboured plot details somewhat to try and give a sense of how the film presents the world in a low key way. There is plenty of drama, though, particularly in the relationship between Ben and Tom which develops in an inevitable, and moving, fashion.

The acting is superb giving authenticity and emotional depth to the narrative. I was convinced that extras in a trailer park were ‘real people’ rather than actors, though the cast listing suggests otherwise. Granik can certainly get fabulous performances from her actors; American folk singer Michael Hurley plays guitar and sings. Most of all Granik challenges our ideas about these people who rarely figure on the radar of popular culture other than being backwoods villains in some Hollywood productions.

 

Detroit (US, 2017)

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Enduring racism

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (like Detroit scripted by Mark Boal) played loose with the truth when stating CIA’s torture was instrumental with bringing Osama Bin Laden to… well, it wasn’t exactly justice. She may well be doing the same with Detroit, as unpicking contested truth 50 years after the event is always going to be contentious, however here it is entirely justified because of the essential truth of a racist justice system.

In many ways it is an extraordinary film as the first 20 minutes or so is a mosaic of events and is as anti-Hollywood narrative as Hollywood gets; though producer Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures does strive to go beyond the mainstream. As Bigelow said, in a Sight & Sound (Aug. 2017) interview, her intention was to move from the macro, the riot, to the micro, the notorious events in the Algiers Motel. This is accentuated by the use of relatively little known actors (to me at any rate), it wasn’t until John Boyega’s appearance that I had a face to latch on to. Algee Smith plays would-be Motown singer, Larry, who becomes as close to a protagonist the film has; he is superb (as is Boyega).

Once the scene is set we are immersed in Bigelow’s trademark intense direction as racist cop, played with vital viciousness by Will Poulter, ‘interrogates’ the unfortunates in the motel. This viewer at least was mentally pleading for a ‘good guy’ to step in and stop the violence but reality isn’t Hollywood. I don’t know whether police violence against African Americans is on the rise, or whether social media is making it more visible, but the problem dramatised in the film has not gone away; see also The Hate U Give, which also featured Smith.

The Sight & Sound reviewer argues the final part of the film, the trial, is deal with in a perfunctory fashion. Court scenes are never my favourite and by eliding most of the discussion we get just enough to see that justice (mostly) wasn’t done and that is sufficient.

The relatively cheaply made ($35m) film bombed in North America. Was this due to the non-Hollywood opening or a reluctance to engage with depressing topic? Whatever the reason the film is an essential statement about racist America both in the 1960s and now.

Soni (India, 2018)

Strength in sisterhood

This low-budget, low key film about female police officers in Delhi lingers in the mind. Written, directed and edited by Chandigarh-born, and American educated, Ivan Ayr the film has an observational documentary quality that downplays potential drama; in one scene, the protagonists listen to corrupt cops extracting bribes. It is shot from their distant perspective and this serves to drain the drama but at the same time maintains a realist viewpoint. By subverting genre expectation, we expect the good cops to sort out the bad ones, the film signifies its realism. This is further reinforced by the use of sequence shots throughout; all the scenes are shot in one take.

Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) is a cop with a temper; she’s used as bait on the streets of Delhi to trap men who sexually abuse women. Her superior, Kolpana (Saloni Batra), tries to rein her in whilst protecting her from her the police hierarchy. Key to the film is the developing relationship between the women which is more important than the cop narrative. Both the actors are newcomers (it’s Ohlyan’s first film and Batra’s first feature) and they stand up very well to the strains of the long takes. Vikas Shukla is superb as Soni’s ex-boyfriend who’s trying to wheedle his way back into her affections.

David Bolen’s cinematography is excellent capturing the urban night-time wasteland of the streets that serves as Soni’s workplace.

I was surprised the film was authored by a male as he seems to me to capture a female point-of-view with great authenticity. He researched the police procedure thoroughly but also portrays the position of women, even putatively powerful ones as police, in patriarchal India. Radio news reports punctuate the soundtrack about having the apartheid of women-only public transport to protect them against men. At the film’s conclusion it’s clear that the film argues that the nepotism of Indian society has to change in order for there to be a fundamental improvement in the lot of women.

Ayr takes on not just the would-be rapists and the boys who know their influential parents will protect them should they get into trouble. Kolpana’s family gently hint that she’s not getting any younger (she’s 30) and so should be having children. The insistence on motherhood must, for some, become a stultifying bind and Batra subtly portrays her character’s frustration whilst trying to avoid confrontation.

The film was celebrated at some film festivals last year but not distributed in cinemas in the UK. It’s ‘washed up’ on Netflix.