Freedom Riders

Queen & Slim

by George Wolf

“I’m not a criminal.”

“You are now!”

A white cop lies dead on a Cleveland roadside, while a young black couple is processing how a traffic stop escalated to the point of tragedy, and realizing they have a choice to make.

“Slim” (Daniel Kaluuya) is confident his actions were self-defense, but “Queen” (Jodie Turner-Smith) is a lawyer who knows what they’re up against.

They must run. Now.

The feature debut for both director Melina Matsoukas (TV’s Master of None, Insecure) and screenwriter Lena Waithe (Master of None, The Chi) has a righteous outrage that nearly burns through the screen. Working in beautiful tandem, they create a mix of gripping character study and urgent fable that speaks with brutal honesty about being black in America.

In Slim, we see the situation personally, while Queen is always there to remind him, and us, of the big picture, and why from now on, they can only go forward.

And from the moment we meet them – in the opening scene, out on their first date – Queen and Slim are real people we’re drawn to. Through wonderfully authentic dialog, they get to know each other (Who eats too loud? Who prefers “fat Luther?”) and we get to know them, all while they are running for their lives.

But honestly, it might still work if the two just worked in silence, as the chemistry between Kaluuya and Turner-Smith is a natural wonder. Her Queen is a smart, no nonsense woman who admits Slim wasn’t going to get a second date. But Turner-Smith allows Queen’s vulnerability to surface gradually, making her admission that she wants a man who will “cherish her bruises” all the more sympathetic.

Slim’s arc is equally valid with Kaluuya, who shot to Oscar-nominated stardom in Get Out, again flashing an admirable depth. As Slim softens Queen, he in turn absorbs her defiance, ultimately accepting their roles as cultural freedom fighters traveling a modern day underground railroad.

The effective contrasts aren’t limited to the main characters, as Matsoukas and Waithe populate their film with consistently resonant pushes and pulls, from romantic risk to shrinking options in wide open spaces.

A stop or two – such as Slim’s unlikely encounter with a gas station attendant – break the spell, but only for a moment. This is an unapologetic and purposeful first feature, as much a complex story of joy and love as incendiary protest parable.

And like Queen & Slim themselves, it matters.

Stranger than Fiction

Honey Boy

by Hope Madden

“The only thing my father gave me that was of any value was pain, and you want to take that away?”

In other hands, that line could be the beginning and end of a movie, a maudlin attempt to summarize a life of abuse.

In other hands, Honey Boy could have gone really, really wrong.

It did not.

Ostensibly the strung together memories of a damaged movie star committed to rehab, the script tells of the insidious relationship between child star Otis (Noah Jupe as the semi-autobiographical avatar for Shia LaBeouf) and his ne’er do well father (LaBeouf, basically playing his own father).

Are we watching LaBeouf work through his own issues with this remarkable act of empathy, or is this, too, just an act? Or is Honey Boy itself a blurring of the line between sincerity and performance? To director Alma Har’el’s credit, Honey Boy does not shy away from that question. In fact, at every turn it embraces it. Just don’t expect an answer.

Har’el weaves between past and present. Modern day (2005) Otis (Lucas Hedges) stomps, blusters and bullies his way through court-appointed confinement where certain triggers send the film back to 1995. There, mainly in a dodgy motel with prostitutes for neighbors, young Otis and his dad struggle.

Hedges and Jupe make for eerily strong choices to play the two younger versions of LaBeouf, each an actor of such remarkable range and talent that super stardom seems inevitable. Hedges’s turn brims with contempt and vulnerability, while Jupe seems to recognize the limits of his own character’s understanding. His performance is heartbreaking.

The showier work comes from LaBeouf, who delivers a truly compassionate if not entirely forgiving performance. Your dad can be a hard guy to understand. If this entire film is simply LaBeouf’s attempt to do that, we’re lucky we get to participate.

LaBeouf’s work as a child actor—his turn as Stanley Yelnats in the utterly charming Holes, for instance—solidified his standing as a talent. His mainly mediocre choices and flat performances in his young adulthood made his off-screen antics more worthy of comment. And though his personal life may not have steadied much (his last arrest was just two years ago), his 2019 cinematic output (including the endlessly delightful The Peanut Butter Falcon) is easily the most impressive of his career.

The feat here is not just the performance, but the script.

In other hands, Honey Boy is another look at the ugly familial dysfunction that both propels and destroys young actors. Instead, through mundane details, we’re offered an unsettling and candid character study and a finely written family tragedy.

I Don’t Want to Go Out – Week of November 25

Well, a lot of options for your time off this holiday. Too bad none of these movies are very good.

Click the film title to link to the full review.

Official Secrets

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Don’t Let Go

Angel Has Fallen


Being Alive

Marriage Story

by George Wolf

If plot is what happens and story is how it happens, there’s no better title for Noah Baumbach’s latest than Marriage Story.

For years, Baumbach’s films have probed characters struggling to live up to an image of themselves. It’s what he does, and now Baumbach has written and directed his masterpiece, a bravely personal and beautifully heartbreaking deconstruction of a marriage falling apart.

Adam Driver is Charlie, a New York stage director. Scarlett Johansson is Nicole, an L.A. film actress who made the switch to NYC live theater when she married Charlie and they welcomed son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

We meet Charlie and Nicole in counseling, taking part in an exercise that reminds them why they married and reminds us how skilled Baumbach is at not only writing wonderfully organic dialog, but in bringing it to the screen with layer upon layer of authenticity.

Tremendous performances from Johansson and Driver cement our immersion into the lives of two people valiantly trying to retain some control over the process of splitting up.

Nicole hurts deeply but wears a brave face, unsure of how to approach a future without Charlie, but unable to deny that life with him has meant she “got smaller.” Johannson has never been better, successfully mining Nicole’s mix of pain and defiance with silent tears and impassioned outbursts alike.

Here’s something I’ve said a lot this year: Driver is one the most consistently impressive actors around. His skill at finding the human center of his characters is subtle but unmistakable, and here Driver never lets you abandon Charlie, most importantly when his refusals to face reality seem like cathartic soul-baring from Baumbach himself.

We see the details that make up the work of a marriage, and the subtle cracks that weaken the relationship and begin to pull two people apart. And with the break comes the battle for child custody and the business of divorce.

But even as their two opposing lawyers (Ray Liotta and Laura Dern, Oscar-worthy herself) bleed the couple’s finances and turn the fight dirty, Baumbach never gets petty. When you think the film is taking sides it makes a subtle change in direction, slowly building toward the brilliantly executed emotional tsunami you know is coming.

Will you need tissues? Oh yes. The story of Nicole and Charlie’s marriage will put you through the wringer. And every frame is absolutely worth it.

Late in the film, Charlie’s out with a group of theater friends and ends up joining a pianist to sing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” So we have a theater guy going through a tumultuous divorce taking time to sing a Broadway classic about the risk of commitment. It’s a sequence that could have easily devolved into self-indulgent excess, but instead only confirms the depth of Baumbach’s reach.

He lets another writer’s words brilliantly refocus what Charlie and Nicole will always mean to other, and like everything else in Marriage Story, it feels real, true and necessary.

It feels alive.


Knives Out

by Hope Madden

It’s interesting that three of the most deliciously watchable films of 2019 exist to question the societal value of the rich. Earlier this year, the action-comedy bloodbath Ready or Not pitted one regular schmo in a bridal gown against a mansionful of one-percenters looking to end her life.

Too bloody for you? How about Joon-ho Bong’s masterpiece of social commentary, Parasite? Who, exactly, is it living off the blood of others?

Rian Johnson follows this path with the hoot and a half that is Knives Out.

If you only know Johnson for his brilliant fanboy agitator The Last Jedi, you should give yourself the gift of every other movie he’s ever made, Looper and Brick, in particular. This guy is an idiosyncratic storyteller, one who balances style and substance to create memorable worlds you aren’t ready to leave when the credits roll.

Knives Out is his own Agatha Christie-style take on the general uselessness of the 1%. And it is a riot.

Christopher Plummer is Harlan Thromby, the recently and mysteriously deceased mystery novelist whose family is in a pickle. Though they believe their gregarious patriarch offed himself, the notion seems unlikely however clear the death scene seems to make it.

Renowned gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (that’s a name!), played by a priceless Daniel Craig, joins two police detectives (LaKeith Stanfield and Johnson go-to goof Noah Segan) to dig into the affair.

As little as possible should be said about the plot, as it is a whodunnit, but at the very least it’s appropriate to acknowledge this cast.

The spoiled and entitled are played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Jaeden Martell (from It), Toni Collette as well as Michael Shannon and Chris Evans and their sweaters. Each finds a memorable character and each clearly has an excellent time doing so.

Credit also Ana de Armas as Marta, the homecare nurse and anchor for the story. De Armas has previously been cast primarily for her looks (Blade Runner 2049, War Dogs, Knock Knock), but proves here that she can lead a film, even a film with this strong an ensemble. Her Marta is wholesome but funny, gullible but smart. Her chemistry with Craig is enough to generate some interest in their next collaboration. (Well, that and the writing.)

Johnson proves that you can poke fun without abandoning compassion. More than that, he reminds us that, as a writer, he’s shooting on all cylinders: wry, clever, meticulously crafted, socially aware and tons of fun.

Screening Room: Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Frozen 2, 21 Bridges & More

Do You Remember Me?


by Hope Madden

A loosely structured day-in-the-life, writer/director Ira Sachs’s Frankie drops in on a family vacation in lovely Sintra, Portugal.

It’s a posh event, no doubt, but the idyllic setting contrasts with the emotions roiling beneath the surface of the film. That is best depicted by cinematographer Rui Pocas, who captures the distance, the awkward directionlessness, and the isolation.

Pocas’s camera catches the meandering spirit of the film as it winds its way through the streets of this historic, mist-enshrouded city, catching up here and there with the different members of the party. Each arrives at the behest of family matriarch, Frankie (Isabelle Huppert), and her doting second husband, Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson).

Intersecting stories involve Frankie’s ex-husband Michel (Pascal Greggory) and their grown son Paul (Jeremie Renier); her step-daughter Sylvia (Vivette Robinson) and her family; and a close friend (Marisa Tomei) who’s surprised everyone by bringing along a boyfriend (Greg Kinnear).

The tiny yet formidable Huppert perfectly embodies her character, frail but decidedly in control. In fact, the size difference between the great Huppert and the also great Gleeson is in gorgeously inverted proportion to their stubborn resolve.

Gleeson is all gentle, heartbroken support while Huppert’s performance is removed stoicism, which makes her fleeting moments of vulnerability all the more human. Seeing these remarkable veteran talents and their love story is more than reason enough to experience this film.

Sachs’s greying narrative, while never pushy, feels determined to expose our personal desires to check off boxes and maintain the illusion of control. Frankie manipulates events to find solace in the idea that there are final solutions, or that a person may continue to be needed and useful, even present for our loved ones after we’re gone.

But life is untidy, and fittingly, so is Frankie.

Good Neighbors

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

by Hope Madden

My God, I love Fred Rogers.

I didn’t watch the show as a kid, preferring Under Dog, Scooby Doo and other dog-related animation. But the last time I cried, not from sadness but from gratitude and longing, was during Morgan Neville’s beautiful 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I sobbed. In public.

When news reached the world that Mr. Rogers was due for a biopic, surely each of us realized in our own separate ways that Tom Hanks was A) perfect, and B) going to make us sob all over again.

No way that was just me.

Hanks doesn’t love Fred Rogers as much as he entirely accepts him, and that’s the magic of this performance. While the rest of us may look on Rogers and his deep, genuine and implausible goodness with suspicion or awe, it’s nearly impossible to accept him as one of us. Hanks does. He doesn’t plumb for human frailty, he takes Fred Rogers on Fred Rogers’s terms, and that’s why Tom Hanks has two Oscars already. His performance here is unerring, eerily so.

Truth be told, though, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not really Fred’s story. Rather, Mr. Rogers is the transformative catalyst for cynical NY magazine writer Lloyd Vogel. Vogel is played by Matthew Rhys and loosely based on real-life journalist Tom Junod, whose Esquire article is the inspiration for the film.

Director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) structures the film much like an episode from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and that almost-surreal-but-not quality serves to underscore the absurdity of the situation as Lloyd sees it: Who is this guy? Is this really what he’s like?

That healthy skepticism and Rogers’s ability to break it down creates the thrust of the film, but it’s also a window for the audience to question, accept and then celebrate this lovely man.

With two films in two years, the late children’s programming icon is having quite a moment. It’s hard to be sad about that.

Blue Wave

21 Bridges

by George Wolf

Okay, huddle up.

Sometimes, your team comes in the underdog. They run the same old plays we’ve seen so many times, it’s not hard to figure out the game plan. But stack that team with enough talent, and it just might succeed anyway.

Hut 21, hut 21…Bridges!

That’s a cliched analogy, perfect for a cliched film. 21 Bridges lives in a familiar world of drug deals gone bad, hero cops who might be crooked, damaged cops who might be heroes, ticking clocks and killers on the run.

Chadwick Boseman stars as Andre Davis, a NYC detective with “cop in his DNA” since his father was gunned down on duty years ago. Andre has a reputation for being quick with the trigger, which is why Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons) is happy to see him at a bloody Brooklyn crime scene.

Eight of McKenna’s cops are dead, after surprising two drug runners (Stephan James, Taylor Kitsch) during a botched cocaine robbery. McKenna is confident Andre will enforce their right to remain dead, but the Mayor’s (“he eats pizza with a fork!” – nice) flunkies make it clear hizzoner wants the perps alive for a campaign-friendly show trial.

But first, they have to find the two cop killers. Forced to accept help from narcotics officer Frankie (“fight me or use me”) Burns (Sienna Miller), Andre is granted a five hour window to shut down every possible avenue out of Manhattan, flood the island with blue, and get his men.

Director Brian Kirk, a TV vet helming his second feature, has clearly seen a crime thriller or two. The aerial shots of the city and shaky cam pursuits are standard moves, but Kirk manages to add his own layers of grit and intensity without ever letting the pace bog down.

One half of the writing team, Matthew Michael Carnahan, has some impressive credits, and about half the time, it shows. But even when the dialogue reeks of recycled cop drama, the talent of this cast manages to put a shine on it.

Simmons adds his usual mastery to a role that could have easily been one-note, and Miller again proves how good she is at morphing into completely different looks and personalities.

But this is Boseman’s film to carry, a nice break from his run of biopics and superheroics. The film’s success at exploring the paradoxes of a life in law enforcement is due mainly to Boseman. He finds a mix of outrage and conscience for Andre that feels true, often when the story around him doesn’t quite keep up.

There’s not much freshness to be found in 21 Bridges, just the visceral satisfaction and forgettable fun of talent winning out.