Sunday, February 14, 2021

Talkin' Bout Revolution: JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

A key sequence in Judas and the Black Messiah is a rally in which a charismatic leader of the Black Panther party, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), has the audience totally in his control. It’s the moment to which all emotional and dramatic through-lines in the tough, serious, and sensitive historical picture have built, and it’s the moment from which all of the major players are soon in position for the inevitable tragic end. His speech is a work of impassioned rhetoric, powerfully incantatory, delivered in commanding staccato and deep rumbling righteousness, sweat beading on his brow, building to climactic call-and-response. “I am! A revolutionary! I am! A revolutionary!” The crowd erupts, awoken with fiery political fervor renewed and refreshed. Among their number: Hampton’s pregnant fiancee (Dominique Fishback), his head of security (Lakeith Stanfield), and the FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) who has already put in motion the events that will, with information from a mole in the Panthers, bring this whole chapter to a bloody end. Told with the high-gloss appeal of any Hollywood true-story epic animated by politics, social upheaval, and startling tragedy — swooping camera, copious period detail, polished historicity, patient accumulation of cause and effect — director and co-writer Shaka King illuminates this pivotal moment in gripping characterization and mournful engagement.

It’s a Civil Rights story shorn of the usual white lenses that come with telling these stories at a level of studio prestige. (Not since Spike Lee's Malcolm X, really.) This film is alive with the particulars of injustice from the clear and angry perspective of the oppressed. Drawing the story in vivid recreation, King builds a portrait of a time through small spaces — intimate meetings, quiet dialogues, tense strategizing — as the Chicago headquarters of the Illinois Panthers slowly builds power. We see persuasive speeches, attempts to grow their base by teaming up with other mistreated groups in the city, time spent building programs for free breakfast for kids and free healthcare for seniors. We also see the growing suspicion of law enforcement, who somehow see the group as a challenge to their power — a reflection of violent racial and political prejudice. The film then positions itself at a point of view in the crucible between these poles. Caught impersonating an FBI agent in order to steal a car, a troubled young man (Stanfield) is hauled into the bureau’s local office and given an ultimatum: become a paid informant or go to prison for years. He takes the job. Thus he’s the bomb under the table, in the Hitchcockian sense, as he’s at first reluctantly, but then quite legitimately becoming a member of the Panthers. He was told they’re dangerous, but he sees the good they do and grows increasingly conflicted, torn between his growing political convictions and his sense of self-preservation.

As the film builds to its wrenching finale, King keeps the performances central to the powerful effect. We see the yearning for justice in the young men and women who are drawn into Hampton’s project. We see the older-than-his-years confidence of Hampton’s powerful presence; it’s easy to see why so many would place their confidence, their hope in him. We see, too, how he was made a scapegoat, how dogged the feds were in making him another figure to be brought down. Even if you don’t know your history, you know this story is moving nowhere good. With great clarity, the film consistently brushes past a legacy of easy historical assumptions and cliched Black Panther portrayals. King lingers generously in soft moments—a romantic interlude, an impromptu community restoration project, a poem gently read—before smashing into cruelty—a shootout with vindictive cops, or a vise-tightening moment of casual prejudice between high-ranking agents. The film is convincing in every moment, the ensemble so uniformly tuned into the tone of the endeavor. Its prestige pleasures of crackling design and grainy cinematography — Sean Bobbit catching beauty and grit with equally dexterous use of shadow and light — extend to a parade of great character turns in even small parts, like Lil Rel Howery in a fur coat like out of a blaxploitation classic as a shady dealer, or Alysia Joy Powell as a grieving mother. By centering the humanity of all the major players, and extending that grace to even one-scene figures, this becomes a film of impeccable craft that’s more than a reenactment; it’s an embodiment of these interpersonal stakes that exploded into something momentous for a movement.

Saturday, February 13, 2021


Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar is silly. Just plain silly. They don’t make them this loopy and loony and freewheeling good vibes nonsensical every day. It stars Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, co-writers, too, reuniting ten years after their hilarious Bridesmaids. That movie was a hilarious escalation of comedic scenarios in a conventional character-based way, a look at women’s friendships in a pressure-cooker of milestones. This one is more like an all-human Muppet movie with Austin Powers energy seeping in around the edges. It’s flat-out absurd in every second. Yet, it’s still about women, about best friends navigating aging and life changes. Barb and Star are melodiously accented Nebraskans fired from their jobs at a chain furniture store who decide to shake things up with a trip to a middle-aged paradise resort on the Florida coast. There they both fall in lust with a strapping secret agent (Jamie Dornan) who happens to be working for an underwater supervillain (Wiig in pasty pale makeup and a tragic hairdo) plotting to attack the local shrimp-based beauty pageant with killer mosquitos. So that’s going on, but really it’s just as much about: getting blackout drunk and dancing to a club remix of “My Heart Will Go On,” buying tacky seashell bracelets that are a little too sharp, sneaking out a window onto a pool raft and drifting past your friend practicing her calligraphy on the porch. Wacky developments, goofy voices, random asides, and daffy design abounds, with time for both funny background signs (a dumpy motel advertises “Some TVs”) and colorful dance sequences. (Dornan, freed from Fifty Shades, cuts loose with a ballad he addresses to some random seagulls, the highlight of the picture.) This jumble of nonsense is carried along simply by the strength of the fun the performers themselves seem to be having, a sense of wanting to keep the good times rolling just because everyone involved can effectively communicate just how enjoyable they find their own nonsense. It plays like one of those sui generis oddities — a Hot Rod, or Cabin Boy, or Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion — where comedic voices are given free reign to just do whatever. If you can get even a little bit on the wavelength it’s mostly a blast, even as it starts to wear a little thin in the back half. Wiig and Mumolo are confident enough in their own sense of humor to pull it off.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Washingtons State: THE LITTLE THINGS

No Denzel Washington movie is all bad because, no matter what, at least it has Denzel Washington in it. His latest, The Little Things, tests the thesis a little. It is a slow, dreary murder mystery that’s yet another movie of cops with flashlights tromping around scenes in which corpses of young women are splayed out surrounded by inscrutable clues and a stringy-haired creeper lurks in the margins as the obvious suspect—or is he? The thing is a procession of cliches — interrogation scenes, press conferences, stakeouts, cat-and-mouse games, solemn autopsies, and crime scene photography, and all the while detectives frown and sigh and triangulate — propped up by workmanlike filmmaking craft from John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) with nary a surprise. Even the twists arrive with a dull thunk as the plot gears turn. 

 But then there’s a bit of an acting class going on in the center, in which Washington single-handedly puts the entire movie on his sturdy shoulders and almost makes the thing work. He seems to be doing very little—sitting still, talking slowly, moving deliberately. He quietly murmurs his lines. He’s interior to the point of flat. And yet he’s such a confident, capable Movie Star, that even tamping down his megawatt charisma, he holds every frame every moment he’s on screen. We’re told he’s a detective who dropped out the LAPD after a particularly troublesome case. Now his replacement, a buttoned-up serious investigator (Rami Malek), is looking into unsolved murders that point back to that case. It’s a nagging open wound for the both of them. The movie takes its simple stock premise and noodles around a character study at the margins, though we never learn overmuch about these men, and the ultimate question boils unsatisfyingly down to: does a tough case make a tunnel-visioned weirdo out of these guys, or are tunnel-visioned weirdos drawn to tough cases? Either way they pick at the faintest loose ends, pretty quickly zeroing in on a grade-A creeper of an appliance repairman (Jared Leto) who sure seems guilty. He’s so perfectly off in all the right ways; but so, too, is the case against him. What a conundrum. The shame, then, is that the whole lousy project goes pretty much nowhere and takes its sweet time getting there. What remains fascinating is how much Washington can do with so little, and how actors like Malek and Leto work so hard throughout and still have no chance of catching up.

Perhaps John David Washington has an unfair advantage in the department of younger stars hoping to follow in the great man’s footsteps and capture some of that natural charisma. He is, after all, the legend’s son. There’s something totally captivating about his screen presence, and malleable as he can be both full of wily bravado (like in BlacKkKlansman) or suave and coiled (like in Tenet). He’s so close to great. But there’s also a sense he’s not fully done cooking; he has the confident physicality of an athlete, and the soulful stares of a thespian, but he’s yet to have the exact right part to unlock his appeal. Seeing him in Malcom & Marie proves that maybe big meaty theatrical dialogue might get him there yet. The film teams him with Zendaya in a two-hander shot in grainy black and white for an authentic small-scale indie feel. It’s set over the course of a night as a young couple of Hollywood up-and-comers start off bickering and soon end up in a full-blown romantic argument that rumbles and rattles in long tangles of overwritten prose. 

 That the performers are two of the most promising new movie stars to come along in some time carries the movie — small, self-conscious, puffed up — much further than it deserves. Zendaya is a stormy, smoky inscrutable stunner in a gorgeous dress or less as she casually unravels her critiques and complaints about her swaggering, self-important director boyfriend. The film’s first twenty minutes or so are crackling with unspoken resentments and relational misjudgments expertly teased in these tense and sensual performances, the relationship’s flaws tensely embodied in unspoken shifts of weight and design. Alas, unlike the intensity and escalation of a John Cassavetes or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? argument, which are clear inspirations, this film’s bickering and bantering gets awfully tiresome and repetitive, failing to illuminate by minute 80 or 100 more than we’ve groked in the first flush of interest back in reel one. Writer-director Sam Levinson, who pulled off a much better two-hander in the great recent Zendaya-starring Special Episode of his otherwise overripe HBO show Euphoria, here finds moments of tight squirming intimacy, but ultimately can’t keep the novelty from wearing off fast. It becomes a case study of two fantastic performers easily outpacing their material. That it almost works anyway is to their credit.