Month: March, 2020

Queen & Slim

QUEEN & SLIMVerdict: A well-meaning and beautiful looking disappointment.

As far as first dates go, this one’s a bit of a fizzer. No, I’m not talking about the titular Queen and Slim’s Tinder date from hell, to which this film explores. Rather, I’m referring to my first outing with promising first-time feature directing and writing duo Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe, whose woke sensibilities and vibrantly kinetic film-making style held so much promise. Add to the mix, two “it” actors—the eye-catching Jodie Turner-Smith and Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya—and you have a film that by all measures should be overflowing with style, sass and smarts.

The story follows the duo’s aforementioned first date which goes pear-shaped after they are pulled over by a racist white cop. Following some racial injustice, rash responses and a flurry of gunshots, Queen and Slim suddenly find themselves high-tailing it for the border. The film proceeds to make some fairly pointed comments on authoritarian prejudice as the couple’s panicked flight from the authorities garner a Bonnie and Clyde style posse of unsolicited support that usher them towards freedom.

There is plenty to like about Queen & Slim. For one, it’s beautiful to look at, drenched in silky imagery that dovetails nicely into Pete Beaudreau (A Cure for Wellness, Margin Call) well-considered editing patterns. I simply can’t emphasise enough how good this film looks, and for some, this alone will be worth the price of admission. Secondly, Daniel Kaluuya’s screen presence—anyone who’s seen him in Get Out and then Widows will know his significant range.

Unfortunately, all this is put to waste by Waithe’s patchy screenplay that ebbs and flows from moments of sublime enlightenment to cliched dashboard-thumping expletives and woefully signposted character motivations. I could hear the clunky gears turning.

It’s a classic case of style over substance. Shame, because Queen & Slim film does have a noble message, but it gets overexposed by Waithe’s overwrought dialogue. What’s more, Matsoukas shows her lack of feature-length experience, one that hasn’t yet captured the focussed subtlety of contemporaries such as Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk). As for a future second date with Matsoukas’ next flick? Weeell … for now, I’ll just be polite and say “it’s not you, it’s me”.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

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Color Out of Space

coosVerdict: A trippy tale of cosmic horror that occasionally rises above its B-horror roots.

You might think that a loopy Nicholas Cage, a herd of alpacas, and a half-baked woodland hippie might resemble some sort of comedy, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. Color Out of Space, the latest in many adaptions of H.P Lovecraft’s literary work, is a story of cosmic horror that picks at the raw nerve of our deepest existential fears. 

Lovecraft was indeed ahead of his time, his stories inspiring a wave of celluloid horror many years after they were written. Unfortunately, few are any good. Alex Garland’s recent masterpiece, Annihilation, being a notable exception (actually adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s book, but with remarkable similarities that capture the cosmic horror Lovecraft was aiming for), but most trip and fall into a mad scientist’s vat of cheap B-grade excess. 

Is this any different?  Well … kinda. It is relatively faithful to the source material, narratively speaking. But that’s not saying much as it has a very simple plot: When a strange meteor falls into the Gardner family’s front yard it contaminates the water supply, turning the flora and fauna into a wondrously indescribable hue. Yep, there’s something in the water alright (last week’s reviewed Dark Waters and this would make a terrifying double bill) and things from here begin to get pretty trippy for the Gardner family, giving way to a wild-eyed alpaca blood soaked dad that only Nicholas Cage could pull off. Even Tommy Chong (of dope-smoking duo Cheech and Chong fame) turns up. Again, no, this isn’t a comedy.

There are some exceptionally thrilling moments within Color’s psychedelia and director Richard Stanley (returning after a long hiatus) has wrangled a tsunami of sight and sound into some very experiential and mind-blowing sequences. Beyond that, unfortunately, the film rather predictably surrenders to the genre-revelling schlock of its cinematic forebears and never fully captures Lovecraft’s intended cosmic horror. Color just can’t seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be; a high-end sci-fi, or B-grade ham. It’s the lovechild of Alex Garland and Ed Wood and a very frustrating experience to boot. I loved it, and I hated it.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Dark Waters

dwVerdict: The murky waters of environmental law turn crystal clear in this efficiently told whistleblowing biopic.

How do you spice up the mundane subject of environmental law? Throw in a couple of A-listers, shoot them with provocative mood filters and set your story to the angsty backdrop of our environmentally frail times. Dark Waters is all this and more—a film that through its lid-lifting on the DuPont scandal has tapped directly into the zeitgeist of today’s environmentally savvy public.

Cut from the same cloth as movies like Erin Brockovich, The Insider, and more recently The Report, Dark Waters offers more of the same David vs Goliath whistleblowing narrative that, while not breaking new cinematic ground, is a compelling enough drama to have you questioning the safety of the water we drink.

Robert Bilott (played by a suitably driven, yet affable, Mark Ruffalo) is a corporate lawyer who defends chemical companies, but when a farmer thrusts into his reluctant hands compelling evidence for gross negligence of one of the world’s largest chemical companies, it causes him to sit up and take notice. The ensuing investigation into the chemical giant DuPont, who knowingly released dangerous chemicals into the public’s water supply, snakes its way down a river of shadowy conspiracies and paranoid side-glances.

Is this movie formulaic? You bet. But it’s a formula that works and director Todd Haynes (Carol, I’m Not There) has meticulously worked his craft with a laser-like (but very predictable) precision. From the do-I-turn-the-key-for-fear-of-the-car-exploding cinematic flash-points of tension to the seamless montages of Bilott pouring over legal documents, Dark Waters flows before your eyes ushering us from one complex plot-point to the next with effortless ease. In fact, this film almost feels too efficient and calculated for its own good. Which is why the more organic and messy relationships, such as Robert’s marriage to Sarah (Hathaway), feel disappointingly undercooked.

Despite this, Dark Waters still operates as a compelling and well-told whistleblowing yarn that explains the complex machinations of the DuPont case with aplomb. I will never look at my glass of water the same.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.