Friday, July 31, 2020

Painting Pictures of Paradise: BLACK IS KING

Beyoncé’s new film Black is King comes to us wrapped in the guise of a vague retelling of The Lion King, but that’s a simple way of stating the case, and just one element at play here. It’s more a string of sensational images and sounds—a feature-length visual album pouring out a proud celebration of the African diaspora, of Black creativity, exuberantly assembled in one eye-boggling music video after the next. Unlike Lemonade, her 2016 masterwork in which the personal and the political tightly intertwine in an allusive crescendo of pain and grace, there’s less of a narrative or emotional throughline at play in this new effort—even losing, for most of the back half, a thin motif of references to Simba’s story, including interpolated lines from James Earl Jones and others. It trades its conceit for an eruption of kaleidoscopic imagination. Like Lemonade, it studiously brings an album’s worth of songs to life in indelible visual creation. It, too, is strung along by Warsan Shire poetry coolly recited in hushed tones over a hodgepodge mixture of film stocks and shooting styles freely intercut. These shots, flowing with energy, show us a cavalcade of colorful choreography in stunning backdrops both real (stunning African vistas) and unreal (fantastical sets and CG extensions). It’s abstract and concrete— at times Koyaanisqatsi by way of Khalik Allah.

This may not have the focus and power of her earlier film, but Black is King has scope and eclecticism, just as likely to have Jay-Z rolling up in a leopard-print convertible as it is to look down on a line of blue-painted men carrying a spare white coffin across a pure-white space or a lone figure nearly lost in a drone shot of endless dunes. Drawn from The Gift, her 2019 album much better than Jon Favreau’s ill-conceived photo-real Lion King remake that was ostensibly its inspiration, the songs are a swirling mix of funky Afro-pop grooves, tribal drums, swaggering hip-hop, soulful R&B phrasing, and soaring Gospel choirs. They overflow with love for the act of creativity that birthed them, their subjects ("Brown Skin Girl" saying "They'll never take 'My Power'"), and the generosity of Beyoncé in being both ringmaster and host, the center of attention and the one inviting others to share in the spectacle.

She invites into the sequences a number of guest artists (Yemi Alade, Shatta Wale, Wizkid) and cameos (Lupita N’yongo, Kelly Rowland, family members), trading verses and ceding center frame to dancers echoing, incorporating, and conquering everything from Disney's animated big cat classic to Esther Williams aquatic ballets, from Hype Williams high-contrast, high-gloss videos to Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria’s Volk. They pose with Busby Berkeley symmetry or spring with loose-limbed alacrity. The fashions and style are similarly vibrant mashups donned with easy charm and effortlessly effortful beauty: blaxploitation fringes and Nefertiti hair, tribal face paint and rainbow leotards. We see rooms filled with geometric black-and-white-print prosceniums, a hearse lit up like a party bus, a basket floating down the river. We see a seaside baptism, a star field crossfade with old kings, a large snake slither up shoulders.

Throughout it all, Beyoncé is Earth-mother, spiritual advisor, sensual appreciator, tableaux icon, Queen. Her character shifts, but her presence is constant. On screen, she dominates, sharing space without conceding her point, inhabiting her frames. It’s a film full of her talent, yes, but also love for her collaborators, and for Blackness as a creative energy. Behind the scenes, she’s marshaling a small army of directors, cinematographers, and stylists. She's in total control of a film that's alternately moving, hypnotic, and overwhelmingly all over the place. Once again she’s made a film in which she gathers up the past represented in these layers of influence, and points a way toward a future reformed in the spirit of love and music. It’s self-mythology as world art, free-floating signifiers caught in the orbit of Beyoncé in all her glory.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Captain's Orders: GREYHOUND

With Greyhound, Tom Hanks has written a film perfectly fitted to his Movie Star persona. Like in his great recent films Sully and Captain Phillips, he’s playing a model of good leadership, built sturdily upon moral virtue, human and humane in the face of unbearable danger and terrible odds. This World War II thriller casts him in the role of a career Navy man captaining his first ship. The mission is to escort a convoy of supply ships from America to England. As the film begins, they’ve lost their air support from the States. It will be a few dark and stormy days until they meet up with the English planes that will take its place. During this time, they will be hunted by a pack of German U-boats, intent on picking off the convoy one by one, sowing confusion and wearing down their resources until they can move in for the kill. The enemy, heard only in ominous taunting radio transmissions, overtly declare themselves wolfish predators, but the sturdy filmmaking, from director Aaron Schneider (Get Low), makes them just as much shark-like, surfacing as if with a fin, circling like Jaws. Strategic aerial shots emphasize the game of cat-and-mouse on display, a bit of literal Battleship maneuvering. They’re on the open ocean, but the film is mostly claustrophobic. Close-quarters close-ups and medium shots in cramped situations have the men (from Hanks to second-in-command Stephen Graham and a host of young character actors) pressed against the bulkheads, straining against the waves, manning their battle stations.

The tension never slacks. It’s a barrage of snappy jargon and terse commands, every gesture and decision drawn with verisimilitude and effective B-movie snap. Based on a novel by Horatio Hornblower author, and WWII vet, C.S. Forester, it feels like it gets every detail right. The radar pings. The water crashes. The rudder shudders. Hanks commands the film with his quiet steady hand, a good man who feels the weight of responsibility, each life resting heavily on his shoulder, each mistake settling uneasily on his soul. His screenplay is a model of efficiency, starting as the mission crosses into its most dangerous passage, with only an exceedingly brief early flashback to humanize his character’s home life. It proceeds full steam ahead into an elegantly simple 80-minute suspense sequence. The clean, crisp frames and pulse-raising ticking clock make the slowly diminishing hours to rescue pass with the adrenaline of stalking enemies, exciting strategy, and painful losses. It’s an effective thriller, not because the whole war or a decisive battle is at stake, but because these particular boats, and the souls on them, matter. Because they’re full of people, and their captain cares, and every wasted round, every wasted second, is one precarious step away from their goal, we care. Every ounce of sentimentality, of relief, is hard-fought, and well-earned.


We’ve basically been here before, but, then again, so have they. “It’s one of those infinite time loop situations you might’ve heard about,” he (Andy Samberg) tells her (Cristin Milioti) the first time she joins him. Like Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, or a few of the best Star Trek episodes, though not quite in that league, Palm Springs is a story about a character reliving a day over and over and over. He’s used to it by now. (What a time for a movie about every day’s routine being exactly like the last.) We join him who-knows-how-long into this loop, on the day she eventually accidentally follows him into this temporal trap. Why are they there? It’s hand-waved immediately. Something about an earthquake, a weird orange light shining up through cracks in the desert, and a magic cave. We’ve seen other time-loop stories. We know what’s up. The two of them are lost souls careening recklessly through life, adrift on a sea of endless abyss. They meet at this wedding. It’s her sister’s (Camila Mendes). His girlfriend (Meredith Hagner) is the maid of honor. Neither lead really fits in at this party. They’d rather drink and mope, zone out and smirk sarcastically at the proceedings. They get along just fine. In fact, both performers bring big best friend energy to the film, simpatico before they know it, that rom-com fizz that feels like when you hear two acquaintances started seeing each other and you think, yeah, that seems about right. They fit right into each other's flaws, and with the trial-and-error allowances of their plight. They get up to trying new things, and taking a few big risks, each time waking up the next morning like it never happened. People in these types of stories often go wild for a while, with suicidal hedonism taking over now that they’re free of lasting consequences. I dunno, I’d be too scared that’d be the day the loop would end as suddenly as it started.

Like for Bill Murray’s cranky weatherman in Groundhog Day, there’s a clear sense Andy Siara’s screenplay is setting up this couple’s time loop as a form of moral instruction, having these characters make all kinds of mistakes until they finally figure out how to live right. Unlike that superior film’s philosophical picture of loneliness and self-improvement, this one is a cracked form of dating, as the two of them test out ways of being together, see new sides of each other, drift apart, and reunite under the umbrella of the high concept. It doesn’t exactly pile on the details like better stories of this ilk, taking little pleasure in the small repetitive details, to the point where side characters are mostly one-note toss-offs, no matter how nice it is to see Peter Gallagher. And, ignoring most farcical potential, there’s much more that could be wrung out of its complications. Though it does zig into some surprisingly open-minded and relaxed ideas about what they might experiment with, the movie's never as clever as its premise demands. But director Max Barbakow, in his feature debut, gives it such brightly-lit Instagram-filtered shine and low-key mood, a chill vibe even when escalating into comic sex and violence or spiraling into some dark implications of what it means to live trapped in this situation. It draws humor out of how casual Samberg can be about this—his own first reactions to his repetition having happened long ago. And it gets a tad serious as it allows Milioti to question her options. Does she really care about him, or is he the only other person who can understand their main problem? The movie is somehow light on its feet about bleak sci-fi concerns, a quirky rom-com arc polishing a Black Mirror loop-de-loop nightmare. If you see it, consider how tricky an initially-antagonistic role for J.K. Simmons is, burdened with its biggest swings and smallest emotional turns, and how he balances between over-the-top cartoony actions and sensitive despair. That’s pretty much the key to the movie right there, humble little character surprises in pleasantly predictable genre packagings.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Live, Die, Repeat: THE OLD GUARD

For a comic book action film, The Old Guard keeps its scale smaller than you’d expect, the better to remain atypically attuned to its characters and the consequences of their actions. Adapted by Greg Rucka from his own comic book, the screenplay about a quartet of immortal warriors is relatively down-to-earth for its outlandish premise. The tone is set early when we see Charlize Theron, as the haunted leader of the group, gunned down, contemplating if this is the time she dies. Smartly, the movie knows we might not care if invulnerable characters get hurt, and so makes them vulnerable in other ways. For one, we’re told that at some point, centuries in, they won’t wake back up after a fatal blow. They just don’t know where and when. Worse, they’re not exactly dreading that day. After hundreds of years alive, doing great violence at little physical cost, the psychological cost is weighing on them. Not to mention having to see humanity’s patterns of ugliness cycle again and again. Theron, taciturn and chilled, seems particularly worn down by this. She and the others (Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli) want to fight for justice, to make the world a better place. But one look at the news, and Theron wonders if all their fighting has actually made a difference.

Among these characters, there’s this palpable sadness and boredom with their long lives and strange powers; they’ve been there, done that. One spark of life comes from a potential new recruit (KiKi Layne), a solider who survives a surely fatal cut to the neck and starts communicating psychic visions with our lead quartet. That it's all new to her, giving her reluctance a different flavor, is a good contrast. When she marvels at their unflinching violence meted out against bad guys, she’s told Theron has “forgotten more about killing than entire armies will ever learn.” And yet, for all the action — blood and bullets spraying freely, at least when there’s not a battle ax around to do the job — the movie dreads it. How terrible that it has become old hat. How hard it is for our heroes to think all they’ve done is ultimately to little effect. Their newest member looks upon all this and wonders if she could ever be like them. After all, spectacular violence may come easy, but living with it is difficult. Credit for this unusual sensitivity to the effects of comic book violence surely goes to director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Up to now, she’s blessed us with warm, sensitive dramas like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, beautiful, romantic movies closely attuned to their characters emotions, every catch of breath, or shift of gaze. Here death may be old hat to her heroes, but it’s no laughing matter to the filmmaking. Every gun shot or blade slice hurts, even when it seals back up in time to keep the fight moving. She weaves in some horrific concepts in their backstories, and is keenly aware of how much they can lose in the present.

And yet the genre has its demands. The central action conflict of the film comes when an evil pharmaceutical company — led by a callow young tech (Harry Melling) — hires an investigator (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to capture these ageless warriors and drain them for research. That explains the waves of armored goons arriving periodically, and sets up a few fine set-pieces. But it all comes back to that mood, so well sustained throughout. Sure, the dialogue is frosty pulp, with a few terse one-liners sprinkled throughout. And the world it sets up has its intrigue. But it’s not in a hurry to balloon to apocalyptic stakes. Instead it sits with these characters and understands their reluctance, their pain, their confusion. It thinks somberly about the toll it takes to kill and be killed over and over and over. Sure, it’ll slay the bad guys with some style and choreography. But it’s committed to a low minor-key and small, contained sequences. In true modern comic book movie fashion, it sets up more than it knocks down, and even has a little teaser of a scene before the end credits that promises a sequel could be bigger, wilder, and deeper. What does feel complete is Prince-Bythewood’s vision, which extends her sense of thoughtful interiority to a genre that often lacks it.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Deux Thrillers de Netflix: WASP NETWORK and

The new Olivier Assayas film, Wasp Network, now on Netflix, isn’t one of his better works. It’s oddly paced, and sometimes inscrutable, in ways that resist drawing the audience in. But it all draws together with a satisfying melancholic snap in the end. It’s also threaded through with Assayas’ typical interests in a setting’s specificities, and in the subtle shifts of interpersonal power dynamics. It’s a worthy effort. This based-on-a-true-story quasi-thriller criss-crosses between Cuba and Florida during the 1990s, following a Cuban pilot (Edgar Ramírez, reuniting with his Carlos director) who escapes to Miami and defects. There he is drawn into a crowd of covert operatives working to subvert Castro’s grip on their home country. Or at least, that’s what they claim. The film moves with methodical procedural tension, slowly developing the characters’ plans and plots, while also cutting back to the people left behind, especially the pilot’s wife (Penélope Cruz) who kindly tells their daughter her father is a hero, while privately nursing a wounded pride over his desertion. Double and triple crosses are patiently teased out as we get a few gripping sequences of high-flying spy missions, small bright white planes dipping and rattling against the tropical blue sea and sky, with terse cuts between crackling radios. The performers (including Gael García Bernal and Ana de Armas) sink into their roles so that the high drama plays less like amped-up movie spy-craft, and more docudrama matter-of-factness most of the time. It sparks to life best when the filmmaking leans in harder: spilt screen heist-like exposition, or elaborate shuffling of allegiances revealed with a confident ta-da. The film is a professional, sharply photographed, competently designed work fitted to the story it tells. Assayas is too good a filmmaker to totally disappoint. This one just takes a little longer for its parts to click into place.

Slightly more lowbrow, and all the better for it, is a few clicks away from the Assayas: the terrific actioner Lost Bullet. This debut feature for French writer-director Guillaume Pierret is a tense B-movie, so lean and satisfying that it features a handful of exciting action sequences in a compellingly simple plot, wrapped up nice and tight in just under 88 minutes. Its lead is a prisoner (Alban Lenoir) allowed to work souping up the cars of a special cop brigade so that they can more effectively chase down high-speed criminals. These cops turn out to be mostly crooked, and, as one thing leads to another, our lead is on the run, framed for a murder he didn’t commit. The rest of the film is in a mad dash to find the eponymous lost bullet before the bad guys do. There are sensational car stunts on the regular, culminating in a great, crunchy symphony of squealing tires, revved engines, and vehicular destruction that literally tears cars apart and leaves them trailing glass, bleeding oil or even bursting into flame as they continue to race to their final destinations. It’s not non-stop car chases, as it pauses for just enough characterization to care about, and the occasional well-staged shoot-out or hand-to-hand combat. Meanwhile, the good apples back at the station don’t believe the only cop who knows what’s actually going on. (That she’s a woman of color (Stéfi Celma) plays potently in this summer of reckoning with police prejudice.) The action is portioned out perfectly, and the connective tissue is taut thriller plotting. There’s not a wasted second or spare shot to be found. It’s filmed in clean, bright, frames cut with quick, legible montage. It’s a blast. Pierret may be a first-timer, but he knows what he’s doing. It’s exactly what you’d want this movie to be.

Sunday, July 5, 2020


Of course Family Romance, LLC is a Werner Herzog movie. It’s plain to see, even without his actual presence on screen or via voice over. This short Japan-set feature is an eerily calm vision somewhere between fact and fiction, interested in pinpointing woozy philosophizing that typifies the Herzog style. There’s a scene in which a man who makes his living renting actors to play the role of family or friend for important events — the film is built around a single mother hiring him to play her daughter’s estranged father — interviews the proprietor of a hotel whose front desk clerks are humanoid robots. As the rubbery mannequin slowly blinks in the background of the shot, one man looks at the other and deadpans “When will they dream?” The film plays like a doodle, a quick sketch, on the part of Herzog. It came together quickly, with some real people playing versions of themselves in improvised scenes with others playing roles. He was clearly intrigued by the ideas in this economic transaction, and about the ways in which we are all playing a part in our lives, putting on a false front in certain situations, code switching in others. Yet his camerawork—brightly lit, simply staged consumer digital— here finds less poetry than usual, and approaches a slapdash simplicity that’s strangely amateurish and rough realism. Stilted and static, with reality drifting through fictions on screen and off, the movie proceeds to unfold in scenes by turn fascinating and vacant. And yet, there’s that potent, eccentric Herzog mindfulness and madness simmering underneath. When the film ends, with a striking shot of a child mostly obscured through an opaque glass door, while our main character hesitates entering, there’s a stirring sense of wonderful deep confusion that draws the film's ideas together. I was reminded of Herzog inventing freed POW Dieter’s habit of opening and closing doors, just to prove again to himself that he’s free — one of the more evocative details in another, and better, of his documentary experiments, 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly. This new film's central figure makes a living selling artificial familial connections, and finds himself confessing in voice over that, in his darkest, quietest moments, he wonders if his own real family might be paid actors, instead. In typical Herzog fashion, it’s a moment of destabilizing whimsy, at once simple dorm-room pontificating, and a cavernous abyss of intellectual inquiry. What makes him a great director is his willingness to get there, in even his most threadbare efforts.

Friday, July 3, 2020

HAMILTON Tells His Story

Hamilton is a pop culture phenomenon that lives up to the hype. All but the most insanely hyperbolic are exactly right: it’s a major work. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history musical inspired by the life of Alexander Hamilton takes Revolutionary War history and projects it forward and backward in style, giving it Shakespearean dimension and modern musicality. Like the Bard’s History Plays, it’s a moment of our national story fitted to our times as a mirror and a comment. This is where we were, as told by where we are. The sung-through musical, written in verse dense with intricate clever rhymes and swirling motifs, is staged on a well-oiled machine of a production. The ensemble of characters has a depth of relationships, politics, and personalities as they circle each other, jabbing, hoping to build up their own lives with and against the politics of their moment, setting a scramble for status and satisfaction within the birth of a nation. You’ve likely heard the story by now. Hamilton (Miranda) has a lively, hard-charging ambition that sends him straight into pivotal roles in our nation’s founding, building his legacy and his family. The first act takes off with head-spinning rapid-fire biographical sketches and events in the overthrow of colonial control. The second act settles into the knotty political entanglements of forming a new government, and the increasingly complicated personal life of Hamilton. And all along it’s narrated by Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), who’s one part Judas, one part Iago, and two parts Salieri, whose jealousies and frustrations power his perplexed admiration for the title man.

Filmed over three days in the summer of 2016, the original cast’s performances in their original Broadway staging have been preserved in an excellent document of a movie. What prevents it from being a mere concert-film cash-in or a Fathom event live-stream is the way director Thomas Kail (also the show’s stage director) uses the camera to direct our attention and stay out of the play’s way. He uses his deep understanding of the staging to hang back in medium shot, capturing every bit of the theatricality in perfect proscenium awareness. It gives us the documentary sense of being there in the front row. But he also knows just when to get a tad closer, pushing in for a close up on a particularly emotional line, or slowly pulling back to capture the spirit of a moment. Kail allows this film’s audience to appreciate the craftsmanship and choreography, the theatricality on display, while following the fast-paced, densely plotted, endlessly quotable musical numbers and electrifying, deeply moving storytelling. The show is alive with possibility, with a haunting melancholy of historical inevitability hanging over it. Here are the founders’ great ideals, and here’s how far short they fell. In their greatness is also their fatal flaw. They were only human, after all.

We meet all sorts of characters from history books, brought down to life with human motivations and understandable urges — Washington (Christopher Jackson), Jefferson and Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), Madison and Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan). King George (Jonathan Groff) brings scene-stealing petulance, while Hamilton’s loves (Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry) get big beautiful ballads and a swaggering intro. Their lives play out on a stage that can slowly rotate subtly enhancing the blocking or emphasizing a moment. The set is simple, and props are kept to a minimum, the better to glide through time and space as quick as a couplet, and stretching, suspending, or reversing in key moments with nothing more than a flourish of melody and the glide of a dancer. This documentary recording finds the joy of live performance in every second — watch the performers belt out notes and spit out rhymes as they dance and emote while sweating (or, in the case of Groff, literally spitting); they’re astonishing — just as the show itself finds hope and solace in the potential and promise of an art form, a country, a legacy. How lucky we are to have this film keeping this production for posterity.