By turns a fugitives-on-the-run thriller, bickering-lovers comedy, jukebox musical, American South travelogue, and Black Lives Matter manifesto, Queen & Slim runs through almost every genre except holiday movie and yet emerges as an outstanding film of the season. I give credit for this success to the deliberately mismatched stars, Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, who engage mercurially with each other even though the first is made to look like a liquid-eyed church deacon on his way home from Wednesday night meeting and the second like a Dolce & Gabbana model who wandered onto the wrong set. Principal credit also goes to screenwriter Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas, who makes her feature film debut with Queen & Slim after a long career in music videos and television, including the remarkable “Thanksgiving” episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, cowritten by and starring Waithe.
If I mention the movie’s origin is in a story cowritten by James Frey, it’s to complete the proper acknowledgments while banging with all deliberate speed into the hurdle known as authenticity.
We’re talking about the James Frey whose book A Million Little Pieces, peddled as a shock-inducing memoir, turned out to be that drabbest of literary products, a first novel; the pink-cheeked Frey whose roots in African American experience presumably sank only as deep as was possible during a youth in the wealthier enclaves of the corporate Midwest. To the degree that Queen & Slim feels right to African American audiences—and to judge from the warm critical response, the degree is high—none of the praise would go to Frey, according to current strictures on the ownership of subject matter. Maybe his major contribution to Queen & Slim was limited to the initial concept, which seems to have traveled intact from treatment to script in the phrase “black Bonnie and Clyde.” If so, there’s still a catch. The truths that Waithe, Matsoukas, and the actors movingly imbue into Queen & Slim are necessarily mingled into the stream of Frey’s sensationalism. So, too, are the fantasies that the main creators indulge.
Let’s begin with the truths. Queen & Slim opens at night in a crisply observed Cleveland diner—Matsoukas has a rock-solid sense of camera placement—which serves as the unromantic setting for an equally drab Tinder date. Dressed in an immaculate white turtleneck and matching slacks, the woman poses her long frame stiffly in the booth with the air of someone enduring a self-imposed ordeal for which she has less patience than she’d expected. She clearly feels herself to be the intellectual, social, and economic superior of the man, who has shown up with a hopeful demeanor, modest blue sweater, prominently displayed necklace cross, and haircut that could use some cleaning up. Hunched forward more often than not, he exasperates her by saying grace over his low-price meal, which he’s too humble to return to the kitchen even though the eggs were fried instead of scrambled.
Matsoukas and the actors give themselves leisure from the start to establish a sustained push-and-pull rhythm—strong pushes on Turner-Smith’s part, half-defeated but persistent pulls from Kaluuya—and to let you savor the ironies and unspoken implications that Waithe has built into the dialogue. The scene breathes. So does the following one, though in increasingly sharp gasps, when a traffic stop by an overbearing white policeman turns deadly. The non-couple’s almost instantaneous decision to flee together may strain credibility—given a moment to think, Turner-Smith might realize she has a lot to lose, even in this terrible situation, and could be making things worse for Kaluuya—but the movie doesn’t grant that moment to her or to the viewer. Besides, the cop’s menace is all too real, and her mistrust of the criminal justice system makes sense both for the character and for any moviegoer who reads the papers. The new acquaintances take off, bickering all the way, and the movie takes off with them.
Many shots ensue of taillights disappearing into the distance along a lonesome two-lane blacktop, and many varieties of black music—’70s soul, contemporary Christian, electric blues—filter into the scenes, coming from the car radio, the soundtrack by Devonté Hynes, and whatever surroundings the characters enter. The impression you get, as the locations shift through Kentucky, Louisiana, and Georgia toward Florida, is of a grand tour of the heartland of black America: a country within the country, as Queen & Slim conceives it, where the fugitives are widely recognized and idolized by their people while being relentlessly pursued by the outside forces of white authority.
Matsoukas, Waithe, and the actors keep the movie feeling grounded as it opens into this wider territory, even during a few odd moments when the characters seem to communicate by telepathy. (They just look at each other, and their words magically resonate on the soundtrack.) But for all that, the movie does not entirely escape the preposterous. As inevitably as Harry will meet Sally, as surely as Donald Trump will lie, the ill-assorted fugitives at last fall into each other’s arms, with a turquoise Pontiac Catalina as their love boat. That’s the film’s harmless bit of artifice. In a more egregious act of fantasy, the movie cross-cuts between this consummation and a street protest against police violence, with a demonstrator’s explosion of murderous rage coinciding with the orgasm. Icky on many levels, including the factual, as any accurate history of Black Lives Matter will attest.
But the creators of Queen & Slim are not going for accuracy or history. They are aspiring to create a legend—the tale of black Bonnie and Clyde—and are prepared to hold hands together, Frey included, to walk into that sunset. Despite a few misgivings, I don’t fault them for wanting what they want. They have filled their mythmaking with more of a sense of life than I could have hoped for. I’ll leave the question of its authenticity for others to decide.
Also icky in its way—joyously, programmatically icky—and utterly obsessive about the way certain white Americans are obsessed with African American athletes, Benny and Josh Safdie’s Uncut Gems is the story of a middle-aged merchant in New York’s diamond district and his manic pursuit of various big scores. Sometimes the hustle involves paying an accomplice to steer NBA players to his claustrophobic shop, where he flogs gaudy wristwatches. Sometimes the play is to pile one more risky sports bet onto his pyramid of losses, hoping to hit before the goons catch up. Grandest of all is the scheme to auction an opal-encrusted rock he has just had smuggled to him from Ethiopia in the intestines of an iced fish.
According to the merchant, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler, furnished with a dyed-black goatee and ratlike prosthetic teeth, a bejeweled ear stud, and a high-roller’s leather jacket), the rock is worth a million dollars. But consider the anatomical vehicle through which the piece entered the country, the views the Safdies have given us of the geological bowels in which Ethiopian miners labor and bleed, and the way the film has introduced Howard through a live video feed of his colonoscopy—right up the business end. This character is not just running toward the biggest stack of cash he can grab. Something in his guts keeps him running away from the certainty of death.
A holiday movie of sorts, if you accept that the celebration is Passover, Uncut Gems, like the Safdies’ previous Good Time, is a street-smart New York film about chasing around on an adrenaline high with time running out—a film full of breaking glass, rasping security-door buzzers, and pursuers with the mugs of concentration camp guards, presided over by a “crazy Jew” (in the words of his NBA wrangler) who seems to think he’ll die if his patter drops below 90 miles an hour. Characters crowd one another, the camera (in the masterly hands of Darius Khondji) crowds the characters, and the music by Daniel Lopatin occasionally breaks into a gamelan-inspired clatter to remind everyone to hurry the funk up.
It’s a movie that wrings sadistic humor out of a doorman’s routine question about whether anything’s in the trunk of Howard’s car (there was indeed an earlier load, and it was unfortunate) and builds suspense out of moments so small as a walk to the end of the driveway with the garbage cans. The standard response in this pitiless movie to the statement “I feel like an asshole” is “You are.” The appropriate way for Howard to thank his girlfriend for tattooing his name on her ass is to wail, “You can’t even get buried with me now.”
Is there a purpose to this marathon of sleaze, in which your pace may lag behind the tireless Safdies’? Does Uncut Gems show you anything beyond the universality of exploitation? I would argue that Howard, as embodied by Sandler with complete, fearless conviction, is an idiosyncratic but meaningful example of the American entrepreneur: in this case a physically unimpressive man enamored of the majesty of basketball stars, a highly cerebral man with no better use for his brain than to figure the angles, a Jewish family man who would pawn his wife and a Torah scroll for a hot night in a casino. The point is, this irredeemable character is human—and with furious cunning, the Safdies get you to feel for him in his rush toward the end.
To paraphrase Leo McCarey’s remark about Bing Crosby, Saoirse Ronan can do no wrong in front of a camera. She is reason enough to watch Greta Gerwig’s new version of Little Women, a genuine holiday movie, in which half of the main character’s memories seem to be of Christmases with her family in Concord, Massachusetts. An actress who can convey a full inner life even when standing silent and immobile, as she did much of the time in Brooklyn, Ronan in Little Women gets to run, romp, dance, clown, shout, argue, and eventually throw herself into the arms of the smoldering Louis Garrel, who in this remake plays Friedrich Bhaer to the star’s Jo March. Add Laura Dern as Marmee—she looks as if she really could be Ronan’s mother—and Meryl Streep in a ripe, small role as Jo’s terror of a wealthy aunt, and you have your year-end entertainment picked out, if you like this kind of thing.
With all respect to Gerwig, whose Lady Bird was one of the delights of 2017, I like her Little Women but prefer Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version, which has a more straightforward screenplay by Robin Swicord and the not unimpressive cast of Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and a promising young man named Christian Bale. You can learn a lot by watching Armstrong’s beautifully made adaptation of the novel; it’s a veritable graduate course in classical cutting on action.
Gerwig, by contrast, is a director of the jump-cut era, and as the screenwriter has chosen to leap back and forth in time. Jo is forever drifting off to sleep and living through flashbacks—her own, her sisters’, maybe the next door neighbor’s—and then waking up in a present where the characters have grown and changed, though you haven’t seen exactly how. There’s a method to this decision. Gerwig has chosen to focus the story firmly on Jo’s struggle to become a self-respecting author (in effect, to become Louisa May Alcott) while explicitly disavowing the convention that would make marriage this young woman’s goal. I can only applaud and wish the film a stupendous opening weekend.
After that, I hope, Gerwig will get together with Ronan and her very good younger male lead, Timothée Chalamet, and make another heartfelt, nervy contemporary story—one in which the message doesn’t have to be spoken aloud to the audience, twice.
Lush, dreamy, and tearjerking in the best way—which is to say, harshly and with full respect for physiological inconvenience—Karim Aïnouz’s Invisible Life is opening in the United States for a theatrical run as Brazil’s 2020 Oscar entry for foreign language film. Set in a lovingly reconstructed 1950s Rio, it’s a fable of two beautiful sisters: Eurídice (Carol Duarte), who aspires to study piano at a conservatory in Vienna, and Guida (Julia Stockler), who elopes with a passing Greek sailor (never the wisest life choice) and returns, alone and pregnant, to have the door slammed in her face. Ironies abound and are sustained over decades as the sisters search blindly for each other. One submits to male domination; one escapes from it, after much difficulty, into a microscale working-class matriarchy. Both suffer with a fierceness in their eyes that’s nothing less than magnificent.
But as fables go, nothing I’ve seen this season beats Jérémy Clapin’s animated feature I Lost My Body. Based on a book by Guillaume Laurant and a script cowritten by him, I Lost My Body is the tale of a poor, lonely young orphan—a pizza delivery man, pining for a spunky librarian—intercut with the adventures of a severed hand that’s scuttling and scurrying through Paris. The hand is at once droll, ingenious, and creepy. The character animation, done in a flat-planes style reminiscent of Alex Katz, is elegantly engaging. This is wonderfully imaginative filmmaking, put to the service of a story that’s melancholy, hopeful, and (except for the loose eyeball that gets stomped) clear-sighted.