by Philip Price
Director: Sam Levinson
Starring: John David Washington & Zendaya
Runtime: 1 hour & 46 minutes
Charisma gets you a long way and it is this inexplicable attribute, this inherent talent and undeniable magnetism that John David Washington possesses that carries writer/director Sam Levinson's latest endeavor so much further than it would have gone without the actor. Though unfamiliar with Levinson's HBO series, “Euphoria,” which also stars Zendaya it is evident from experiencing his 2018 film “Assassination Nation” along with this dissection of perspective in relationships and the constant battle for higher ground - principle or enviable - that Levinson is a writer who likes to put it all on the table. His previous feature was a garbage disposal of ideas that only succeeded part of the time, but “Malcolm & Marie” is very distinctly the opposite of that, at least from the outside looking in.
Filmed last summer with a limited crew at the admittedly gorgeous Caterpillar House in Carmel, Calif. Levinson's "two people talking in a room" movie was bound to become mercilessly harsh at one point or another and would need to make its way through countless topics in order to sustain a feature running time, but while Levinson has plenty of different things for our titular couple to discuss he doesn't have as many varying avenues through which to drive these conversations. In addition, Levinson has imbued his film with a sense of divine knowing when it comes to how critics - specifically the white guy from Variety, the white guy from IndieWire, and especially the white woman from the LA Times - will respond to and quantify his "art" into a handful of paragraphs that seek to interpret his film and his script for more than what it is. Such disdain is in reference to a film our protagonist has written and directed in the context of the film, but Levinson takes few pains to mask his intent as he takes said stance within the first five minutes only to go further into detail and reinforce his point some forty-two minutes later. For someone seemingly so caught up in the function of a film critic though - someone who seeks to better understand a piece of art - it would seem Levinson should understand he's only doing the same with his own thoughts by writing a script as a critic might do with his film by writing a review. Both are taking something born from the unconscious, spawned from nature and ideas that are completely subjective and attempting to unite them with an objective point of view, with reason, and with the intent to craft them into something conscious; something that can be defined.
It is because Levinson explicitly mocks the seeking of an understanding (or maybe, more specifically, how that understanding is framed) only to then cycle through the same structure with (somewhat) different topics for the remaining hour and 45 minutes that the introspection of his dialogue doesn't earn as much appreciation due to his lack of latitude for those he's already deemed himself superior to. Needless to say, it's a damn good thing Levinson has Washington speaking his decadent dialogue otherwise this exercise in freelance psychotherapy would have become completely devoid of any charm in a matter of minutes and would have undoubtedly enveloped itself in its own hedonistic nature - which it still does, just not completely - by the time Outkast finally plays us out of this toxic hellhole.
From the outside looking in is a key phrase from the above paragraph given it would seem that Levinson has at least narrowed his focus to what he wants to discuss with “Malcolm & Marie” as opposed to his previous feature which hopped from one idea to the next as if they were apps on your iPhone. While “Malcolm & Marie” would at least give the impression that it's largely a late night diatribe between two people who saved one another at previous points in their lives but have since grown past who they were then and outgrown one another in the process, the movie in all actuality rarely works with the characters to gain insight into their relationship, resolve their conflicts, and/or improve their happiness. Despite the fact the film only features the two characters from which it takes its name, Levinson defines them less as individuals and more as couriers for his own grievances with both the film industry and - given the lack of subtlety regarding critics - what I have to imagine is or was a partner that didn't fuel his ego enough for his own liking. It's a strange mentality to work from let alone air out to all of Netflix, but it's made even more puzzling by the fact Levinson - as a white man - makes his character's black only so that he can then address how the industry and the press treat black filmmakers and how anything made by a black filmmaker is inherently boiled down to what contribution it makes to the ongoing conversation about race. It's not surprising that black filmmakers are strapped with this inherent balancing act as every successful black person is burdened with the responsibility of choosing to make the most of their opportunities by ensuring prosperity for future generations or simply focusing on their own legacy. While it's admirable for Levinson to attempt to shine a light on this type of discrimination that is emphasized further by his casting of two black leads in a film that is wholly and completely centered on those two leads it still fails to render as genuine. More, it feels like another way in which Levinson hopes to boost his appeal and an opportunity to receive additional praise on top of what he clearly already expects to receive for his writing and direction. It's just not his place to speak on the matter. Highlight it, sure, but to make your black leads conduits through which you can justifiably give your spiel on why film critics are a bunch of cucks that base their opinion more on where they think the director was coming from given the color of their skin rather than the choices, they make in the execution of their actual film just feels...icky.
If nothing else, it should tell you how much the content outweighs the characters in “Malcolm & Marie” simply by virtue of the fact we haven't really discussed either of the characters yet. It should also be understood that not everything about the film is completely draining despite Levinson certainly testing his limits. The film feels cool as hell, but much like every facet of this movie the fact that it feels cool is immediately undermined by the fact that it knows it's cool. White critics shouldn't automatically assume films made by black people are a comment on the black experience, which the film states, but then the movie tries to be a film about "more" than just the central relationship as told by a white guy, so...you see what I'm saying. Grain of salt to all of it. That said, the film does feel cool and oftentimes in an effortless sense thanks in large part to the presence Washington brings and the attitude Zendaya brings. The black and white photography as shot by cinematographer Marcell Rév is as sultry and beautiful (and artistic! Don't forget artistic!) as the score from frequent Levinson collaborator, Labrinth. The way in which the camera moves around Washington as he dances through the glass-walled Caterpillar House to James Brown or as he sinks down on the couch to sing along with William Bell all feels synchronous in the most organic of ways. What doesn't feel organic is the relationship between these characters as the arguments they go through and then go through again make less and less sense the more we learn of their history together.
In other words, the truths they are uncovering about one another and the history being exposed are things that come out in the early disagreements of a relationship and not arguments that happen after you've been together long enough to have held one another's hands through rehab, recovery, and on into a successful career as a major film director. With the seeming history at play between our eponymous couple the arguments on a night such as the one in question would have strictly been relegated to why they weren't able to have a nice meal at a damn Hollywood movie premiere or, at the very least, why the driver couldn't pick food up so Marie didn't feel an obligation to whip up macaroni and cheese as soon as they arrived home. For context, “Malcolm & Marie” chronicles a single night in which filmmaker Malcolm and his girlfriend Marie return home from Malcolm's first movie premiere as they await his film's critical response. Naturally, the evening takes a turn as revelations about their relationships begin to surface and test the couple's love. It just doesn't track necessarily and by Levinson having made Zendaya's character the victim a la the damsel in distress who was in part saved by the display of commitment from Washington's Malcolm the dynamic is immediately perceived as one-sided. Marie has no ground to stand on and should simply be appreciative of being along for this incredible ride Malcolm is experiencing because he stuck with her through thick and thin and so she should reciprocate without expectation or conflict. Malcolm, whose mind and perspective Levinson obviously understands better, is a ceaseless thinker that can't help but to believe every thought that passes through his mind is genius and therefore feels the need to impress it upon whoever is around to listen. At certain times it seems it wouldn't matter if it were Marie or not who was on the receiving end of Malcolm's lectures as long as Malcolm had someone to spew his relentless ramblings to. When it comes to topics pertaining directly to their relationship though, Malcolm tends to follow the pattern of most men: defensive, proud, anxious, regretful, remorseful, before the natural longing sets in. Marie is measured in this regard where Malcolm is unrestrained, but Malcolm is unrestrained only because Marie seems determined to pick a new fight every time the dust settles on the last one. Besides the fact each of their positive attributes are undercut by their actions, the movie never convinces us there is any real reason these two were ever good together or why they should remain together. If nothing else, this isolated experience ostensibly proves these two couldn't be worse for one another.
“Malcolm & Marie” has its compelling moments in between the more grating sequences to be sure and while Levinson's writing is always excessive it's not always in the worst ways. Furthermore, this doesn't stop Washington and Zendaya from delivering indisputably great performances that do their best to make these people if not necessarily bearable at least intriguing and of course, charming. I especially enjoyed when Zendaya would genuinely giggle at Washington expressing frustrations as Malcolm. The irony of it all though, is that Levinson clearly has some big ideas he wants to tackle here; ideas that are interesting not only in regard to the film industry aspect which is more centered on how journalists write about the film industry, but about relationships. There is a sense that Levinson wants to show his appreciation for the people in his life if not necessarily the person he's in a relationship with as, like his screenplay, he is more than aware that he couldn't do what he does without outside influence and inspiration despite how highly he may regard his own thoughts. And maybe writing a one hundred and twenty page screenplay that exhausts the issues he's experienced and tries to explain his egocentricities is his way of working through that appreciation and recognition, but the final product again undermines the intent as “Malcolm & Marie,” taken at face value, feels more self-aggrandizing than anything else. Levinson argues in his film that "She (the critic from the LA Times) is not looking at the film. The ideas in it, the emotions, or the craft. Cinema doesn't need to have a fucking message. It needs to have a heart and electricity. Morons like this sap the world of its mystery because they need everything spelled out with fucking A-B-C blocks." Unfortunately for “Malcolm & Marie,” Levinson then goes on to make a film about a single night that can't help but not only be emblematic of this relationship as whole as opposed to just the one instance, but he can't help but tie in a million other stands of extraneous themes and ideas that inevitably force the perception this is a film about more than what it is. Levinson is right about one thing though, "None of this shit is necessary."
"Malcolm & Marie" is streaming on Netflix.
by Philip Price
Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek & Jared Leto
Runtime: 2 hours & 7 minutes
In a genre where advancements in technology have alleviated many of the difficulties in getting answers to tough questions in criminal cases such progress has also forced writers to be doubly creative in their efforts to outwit the viewer when it comes to a good mystery and/or crime thriller. This may not wholly be the reason writer/director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) turned to his 28-year-old script for a film set some 30 years ago when looking for his next project, but as the film unfolds it begins to feel like one of the only reasons to justify re-visiting this story. It’s not that “The Little Things” is a bad movie. In fact, it’s quite an interesting one in terms of objective, but what it means to do and how successful it is at executing said intent are two entirely different things. There is real promise, real ambition in Hancock’s “too smart for its own good” approach to the screenplay that sees the filmmaker playing with the conventions of the B-movie crime drama and hoping to bring a real insight into the vastness of the world detectives inhabit rather than a single, insulated tale of good cops chasing down promising leads that inevitably lead to a successful capture. It wants to be about the lasting effects these cases have on detectives, the torture being unsuccessful can cause, but the idea becomes overshadowed by a million others as Hancock tries to convey his rather straightforward story of struggle through an overly complex guise; layers are needed sure, but to emphasize the point - not cloak it completely. Furthermore, this introspection as it were is executed in such plodding fashion that by the time interesting aspects concerning the core case do begin to introduce themselves the viewer is hardly invested in what’s happening...much less anticipating who might be the big bad wolf hiding under the covers. “The Little Things” is a film desperate to dissect obsession, guilt and the aforementioned torture spurned by as much. It means to tackle these generationally as the symptoms go hand in hand no matter the changing times: when it's your responsibility to prevent people from becoming victims, from becoming less than what their shells present what is it that can heal your soul and your self-esteem should you fail? These are interesting questions albeit ones that have naturally been explored before in plenty of genre flicks from the time in which this is set, but again - despite the good intent - the meaning can't help but get lost in the sluggish translation of the narrative. “The Little Things” is never not intriguing, this much is true, but given the depths it seeks to explore it shouldn't be nearly as forgettable as it is.
Though much of what begins as inspired in “The Little Things” eventually turns into something maddening, none of this should have been surprising given the use of the B-52's song, "Roam" in the opening three minutes of the film. In a scene eerily similar to that of David Fincher's “Zodiac” (though “Se7en” is the Fincher film drawing more comparisons due to the time period) we are introduced to a young, innocent girl driving freely down the highway of the California desert in 1990 and rocking out to that 1989 hit. It's initially charming, placing us directly into the setting and reminding us what it was like to genuinely be disconnected from everything else - the FM signal your only link to mankind. Hancock quickly capitalizes on this frightening realization as a set of bright headlights come up quickly behind the only character we've been introduced to thus far. As the audience watches all of this play out though, the hook of that B-52's song continues to repeat itself again and again to the point of distraction which quickly evolves into irritation, and ultimately into a strong distaste. As stated, this goes on for nearly three full minutes until our heroine darts from her car in hopes of escaping her mysterious pursuer. Though not immediately recognizable, the grating quality of this choice is emblematic of the film as a whole as each act begins with such promise only to have either the hammering home of a certain theme, the compounding of one too many themes, or the general lack of any real propulsion drive the audience to a point of wondering how something seemingly so good on paper brought us to somewhere so baffling and tedious in reality. A nineties-set crime drama starring three Oscar-winning actors should be the furthest thing from either boring or uninteresting, but this is where we find ourselves some two plus hours after that B-52's single first blares from the soundtrack and into our ears; everything out on the table, scattered and disjointed, a fascinating array of facets, but none of it culminating in anything more than countless "what if" and "what could have been" scenarios.
Speaking of Oscar winners, the story deals in Denzel Washington's deputy sheriff Joe Deacon who works in Kern County a la Bakersfield, located near the southern end of the Central Valley in California. Soon after being introduced to Deacon he is sent down to Los Angeles where it's divulged that Deacon was once a well-renowned detective with the L.A. Sheriff's Department, but clearly departed on what were not the best of terms. What happened exactly? There's no telling as Deacon's past is obviously a narrative strand to be teased out over the remainder of the film for the purposes of intrigue and developing his character arc. It is upon arriving in L.A. that Deacon is introduced to the new wunderkind detective on the block, Jim Baxter (a completely miscast Rami Malek), who is working a serial killer case similar to one Deacon worked back in the day. Contrary to the initial positioning of the characters, Baxter and Deacon quickly become friends - or at least more than acquaintances - leading Baxter to ask Deacon for his assistance in solving the case despite the Captain's orders. The early scenes of Washington and Malek investigating crime scenes cover the familiar ground of women having been abused, though not sexually, despite their ending up naked and dead on the floor of their apartments. It all feels fairly rote with the hope being that once the duo hits on a certain clue or makes a certain connection that the energy of it all will begin to pick up and carry us through to what makes doing a job such as this exhilarating and worth the disappointment and heartache that is also sure to come along with it. Again, as with that previously mentioned opening scene, Hancock upends the audience's expectation while failing to build on that subversion in any interesting way. While this can be forgiven more easily in the prologue given it simply informs the audience this movie might not line up exactly with what it was expected it to be, but when it comes to introducing Jared Leto's character, Albert Sparma, some 40 minutes into the movie there is a need for him to be more than just a diversion, but a diversion with purpose. Hancock certainly seems to believe there is a purpose in the role Sparma plays in relation to Baxter and Deacon, but the connection doesn't present a strong enough case through which to justify its choices; the execution can't match the ambition.
Malek and Washington's characters are so desperate to draw a conclusion to this case and to feel they've succeeded in putting away the bad guy that it almost doesn't matter if it's the right person or not. Someone needs to carry the weight and they've done it long enough. Baxter reaches and Deacon has far surpassed the point of what the evidence is telling them as both find their way firmly to the realm of believing their instincts over everything else. "The past becomes the future, becomes the past," Washington's Deacon mutters over and over again throughout the film as it is this crazed obsession not with justice, but more with reconciling his own guilt for what happened in the past that drives him. In order to explore what Hancock is attempting it's impossible to completely avoid spoilers, so fair warning. First and foremost, it bears noting that Leto's character does largely function as a misdirect. It's a bit of reverse psychology as far as the marketing is concerned given one doesn't expect a studio to throw the answer to the "whodunit" front and center on the poster, but by placing a greasy, straggly-haired, and very pale Leto on said poster it's not hard to deduce what character he's playing. That said, while Washington is more or less going through the motions here as a variation on the cops, he's portrayed in the past who grey the lines between good and evil it is legitimately confusing as to what Malek is trying to do with his role. Malek easily has the greatest distance to travel over the course of the film with Baxter going from the up and coming detective with the credentialed education, the perfect family, and a set of religious beliefs that align with the Captains to a man that mirrors his new mentor. By the end of the film, Baxter has lived out the arc Deacon experienced prior to being re-assigned to Kern County. Baxter now destined to forever deal with an immeasurable amount of guilt for the mistake he can't help but to justify just as we learn Deacon has had to cope with. And it's not that Malek doesn't pull off the arc or that he simply isn't right for the role, but more he's just not very convincing in it. The hotshot rookie is a role tailor made for someone cut from the same cloth as a Henry Golding or Charlie Hunnam - someone that can convincingly command a room, but also go to as dark a place as this role calls for. With Malek, Baxter seems to have been born and bred in a dark place; aspects of his performance making it seem as if the film might be suggesting he has more to do with the serial killer he's hunting than Sparma.
It is in Sparma that we have the film's hook though, the piece of the puzzle that finally brings the audience into the fold in a way that the narrative direction might seem to begin to fulfill its promise. Yes, Leto is notorious for being an unbearable method actor that takes things too far and much of the time goes so big that he misses "the little things" or nuances that make a character not only work, but recognizable. Authenticity is in the details, as they say, but fortunately for Leto Sparma isn't intended to be the most relatable subject in the film. As a matter of fact, Sparma is meant to fit the bill of the suspect Baxter and Deacon are looking for to such a specific degree that Hancock wants the viewer to go back and forth on whether or not this is the guy for nearly the entirety of the runtime. For every piece of evidence that would seem to pin Sparma as the prime suspect there is a rebuttal that is worth considering that would exclude him completely. To the point of Leto's performance though, Sparma is a self-proclaimed "crime buff" and pervert, a weirdo through and through by the definition set through societal norms, but does that really make him a murderer or does that simply make him an easy target for the police? Just because someone is odd and admittedly creepy doesn't make them a bad person and just because they appear guilty doesn't make them guilty, it just makes them a victim themself. Granted, Sparma isn't completely innocent as it is through the character's taunting of his own police pursuers that Leto is able to allow Sparma to shine. While the knowledge he's accrued from being a "crime buff" certainly helps in his quick-witted responses during an interrogation what really makes the character are the offhand comments that, in one way or another, all have to deal with food. "Holy guacamole" may be my favorite line reading in the entire film though, "That the place with potato skins?" is a close second given the editing around it. Although, "Oh poop. I think I made a boo boo" is definitely a strong contender as well. If it's the little things that get you caught, it's mastering those little things that help you win and while Leto doesn't ever let up on letting the audience know just how hard he's acting he wins the film by default simply by being the most interesting and strangely enough - the most sympathetic character - of the whole piece.
Hancock is a more than competent and skilled filmmaker who has obviously made strong if not fairly by-the-numbers of films for two decades now, beginning his career with what might be his best film in “The Rookie.” In contrast, “The Little Things” is a very different kind of film - in both make and model - than that Disney sports drama, but while Hancock, the writer, doesn't make the case for his thesis as well as he could have Hancock, the director, has a lot of ideas that help his film rise above being little more than a cable crime procedural condensed into two hours. Always a challenge given the premise is low hanging fruit for ongoing television series', Hancock's “The Little Things” as shot by frequent collaborator John Schwartzman relishes in the dark and the shadows as if paying homage to the black and white films of the noir heyday in the 1940s and ‘50s. It would be surprising to learn if Schwartzman used anything other than the lighting provided in camera for many of the scenes as much of the movie takes place in the dead of night with silhouettes often illuminated only by the plundering flashlight of detective Deacon. Hancock's tone matches the look of his film, the cynical attitudes of his leads, and the perverted motivations of his serial killer all to great effect with Thomas Newman's score being the real highlight of the film as a whole. The score is able to emphasize the tonal direction the film desires to go while also helping to reinforce the period setting. On the other side of the coin, the soundtrack has a penchant for ‘50s and ‘60s music that serves to alleviate Deacon of his failed present and transport him back to a more innocent time. This brings about the aching sense of regret in the characters that transcends the failed construction from what was clearly a compelling character study around cops and what they're haunted by which in turns only makes it all the more regrettable this isn't a better movie overall.
"The Little Things" is streaming on HBO Max for the next month.
by Julian Spivey
Malcolm & Marie (Netflix) – 2/5
Director Sam Levinson’s romance-drama “Malcolm & Marie,” which premieres on Netflix on Friday, February 5, has been drawing potential award buzz for its lead actors John David Washington and Zendaya. Washington plays a film director and Zendaya his girlfriend and the two see their relationship tested on the night of his latest film’s premiere while waiting for critical reviews to come in. On an interesting note, the film, which was made entirely in black and white cinematography, was the first feature film to entirely be written, financed and produced during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Deadline. “Malcolm & Marie” seems similar to other films released over the last few months “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “One Night in Miami in that it simply puts talented actors in a room and turns them loose
Judas and the Black Messiah (HBO Max) – 2/12
Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” will no doubt be a must-watch for Black History Month this year as it tells the story of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Black Panther Party in the late ‘60s and his betrayal at the hands of William O’Neal. Oscar-nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya portrays Hampton, while Lakeith Stanfield plays O’Neal. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is part of the deal between Warner Bros. Pictures and HBO Max to debut movies on the streaming service and in theaters (where they are open) during 2021 as a result of the ongoing pandemic in the country and as a result of that the movie will only be available on the service for a month. Recently “Judas and the Black Messiah” was listed as one of the 10 best American films of the last year by the American Film Institute, so it’s pretty much a must-watch for any serious movie watcher. It premieres on Friday, February 12.
Nomadland (Hulu) 2/19
When I was compiling a list of films that appeared on the most “best films of 2020” list for this website in late December the film that appeared on the most lists was Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” which is sure to be one of the front-runners during award season this year. Zhao’s film, which she also wrote, edited and co-produced, is based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder and stars multiple-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand in the lead role as a woman who leaves her small town to travel around the American West after some upheaval in her life. Based on the critical response to “Nomadland” I was thrilled to hear it was soon coming to Hulu. It premieres Friday, February 19.
“The Muppet Show” Complete Series (Disney+) – 2/19
For the first time ever all five seasons of Jim Henson’s original “The Muppet Show,” which aired from September 5, 1976 through May 23, 1981 in syndication in the U.S., will be available for streaming when it premieres on Disney+ on Friday, February 19. On one of my monthly recommendation lists last year the new Muppets series “Muppets Now” on Disney+ made the cut, but that turned out to be pretty disappointing with a much too frenetic pace that mimicked today’s fast-paced social media world. So, I’m hoping the original is more my style, and with special guests like Steve Martin, Elton John, Alice Cooper, Julie Andrews, Gene Kelly and more I’m sure it’s bound to be an awesome throwback. I’ve seen some clips on YouTube here and there over the years and particularly enjoy Roger Miller’s zaniness mixed in with that of the Muppets. It should be a lot of fun!
The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Hulu) – 2/26
I’ve been waiting for this movie for some time. The tragic story of jazz legend Billie Holiday and what the government of this country did to her is infuriating, but because of that it’s one that also makes for a supremely interesting story to be told. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” directed by Lee Daniels, premieres on Hulu on Friday, February 25. I can’t wait to see this film, as the story already interests me a great deal, but I do have a couple of question marks going into it: 1) Lee Daniels can at times delve too much into melodramatics (I’m thinking specifically of much of the run of his Fox TV series “Empire”) and Andra Day, who portrays Holiday in the film, is a terrific singer, but I don’t know yet what kind of acting performance she’s capable of giving. I hope these are things I won’t be worried about at all come February 26.