Saturday, January 1, 2022

2021 #7 Film of the Year Malcom & Marie


Caterpillar House in Carmel, California

MALCOM & MARIE             B+                                                                                              USA  (106 mi)  2021  d:  Sam Levinson

A blistering reincarnation of George and Martha from Mike Nichols’ Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), a landmark Edward Albee play and film from the 60’s emphasizing emotional realism, introduced to an entirely new audience, a new generation, updated and modernized with a black cast of only two, starring Malcom (John David Washington) as a 30’s something filmmaker who is elated following the successful premiere of his new film, and Marie (Zendaya, the real surprise, showing surprising depth), his 20’s something girlfriend who has a bone to pick when they get home as he neglected to thank or even mention her in his lengthy speech afterwards, even though the lead character of the film was largely drawn from her own life experiences.  Like the play, though written by the white writer/director Sam Levinson (son of Baltimore filmmaker Barry Levinson) for a black cast, this is an emotionally shattering all-night fight that continually escalates into abusive low blows, playing dirty, getting out of hand, becoming a “searing drama that strips away the surfaces and artificialities and leaves the cast of only (two) players totally wiped out and devastated afterwards, disgusted with themselves and one another, as this kind of abhorrent behavior is the stuff of live theater.”  Similarly, the dialogue is “abusive and dehumanizing in every respect, as these characters learn to come after one another using words as claws, ripping into each other’s flesh until their souls bleed.  For some, it’s just a question of who bleeds more.”  There is no hint of subliminal messaging happening here, it’s all in-your-face direct hits, like darts to a bullseye, with plenty of fingerpointing directing the line of fire.  While not as ferocious as Albee, and let’s face it, no one compares to Elizabeth Taylor in what is arguably the peak performance of her illustrious career, it’s nonetheless an emotional tour de force that accentuates their naturalistic acting skills, all taking place over one night, moving back and forth between the two characters as they offer electrically charged, bravura performances, set in a palatial estate where everything is contemporary and upscale, 360 degree floor to ceiling glass windows, elegantly accentuating modernism, an architectural marvel supposedly rented in Malibu, which happens to be the Caterpillar House in Carmel, California (Caterpillar House - Feldman Architecture).  Shot entirely at night in stunning black and white by Marcell Rév using 35mm film during the Covid pandemic, one of the few films to get a green light, extreme safety precautions were taken to allow filming during a two-week period, where the small size of the cast along with the remoteness and spaciousness of the house may have been contributing factors.  Unlike Albee’s play, choice musical selections are mixed into the back and forth emotional marathon, at times intentionally chosen to reflect a character’s point of view, where the lyrics become part of their heated animosity, with Malcom choosing William Bell - I Forgot To Be Your Lover - YouTube (2:47) in an attempt to apologize and acknowledge his own shortcomings, while Marie contemptuously chooses Dionne Warwick – “Get Rid Of Him” (Scepter) 1964 - YouTube (2:16), sarcastically singing the repeated background chorus to rub it in even further.    

The film is something of a free-for-all, with each getting their opportunity to assault the other verbally, and while Zendaya’s vulnerable yet unflinching style is more discreetly laid-back, Washington, fueled by alcohol, offers a full-frontal body slam of character assassination, holding nothing back, going for the jugular in a full onslaught of personal accusations filled with a layered defense of all countercharges, where the specificity of detail is excruciatingly cruel and punishing, as his bullying inclinations are designed to hurt, unable to stop himself from steamrolling over her, perhaps even enjoying it, where we’ve seen this sort of toxic male behavior before, but rarely in this setting, so completely unguarded, where the target of his incendiary bombs is supposedly the love of his life, the idealization of all that he finds sensuous and beautiful.  This is no made-for-TV moment, but a lacerating assault to the senses that gets to the heart of their relationship, while also serving as an analysis of his filmmaking and human shortcomings, as he liberally borrows from others without paying them their due, a form of artistic plagiarism, and no matter how he huffs and puffs and sticks his chest out, he made a damning error in judgment that has a lifetime of repercussions, as he’s apparently taken her for granted before, which is what she’s really fuming about.  While his career is elevated by positive reviews and plenty of acclaim, her life is now an open book, naked for the whole world to see, including some of her lowest, most cringeworthy moments, feeling somehow violated in the name of art, with the artist receiving all the praise, while her life loses all aspects of privacy and the feeling of being safe around him.  While this may have originated as a discussion about cinema, using one particular female film critic known as “the white girl from the L.A. Times” as the consensus industry opinion, as her opinion can determine success or failure, yet the artist himself directs much of his animus towards this anonymous voice, feeling it is overpowered and often dead-ass wrong, where he hurls a heap of abuse directed toward her, though much of this is so hysterically exaggerated it plays out as human comedy, as he gets so carried away, literally frothing at the mouth in his detestation of what she represents in his business, as she has no appreciation for cinema history or even the extent of what directors actually do, bypassing any meaningful discussion of art, instead breaking it down into political or racial terms, even when they’re not applicable, as it’s easier for her audience to digest her meaning when she resorts to stereotypes.  Marie finds this amusing because the female critic actually praised his film, yet he’s going through all these painful, soul-searching gyrations over what she missed, all of which showcases the frail insecurity of an artist.  Unfortunately, despite the apparent history of cinema lesson, calling out specific directors and their known attributes, this is all a diversion from the actual argument going on with these two individuals attempting to eviscerate the other.  That’s the argument that matters, and everything else feels secondary, but it allows Malcom to elucidate knowledge in his chosen field, coming across as a supremely gifted and educated director, but he’s using that to draw attention away from Marie’s personal accusations.

Marie is insistent in her view that had they not been together as a couple, this film would never have been made, with Malcom creating a drama about a struggling black female drug addict named Imani, claiming she herself was a drug addict when they met.  Malcom dismisses her accusations, “You’re not the first broken girl I’ve known, fucked, or dated,” claiming the character of Imani is an amalgamation of different women he has known, even suggesting he has always been there for Marie, helping her get straight, and that his personal investment into her recovery led to his interest in the material.  While that may be true, Marie claims he basically stole her life without asking permission, and that she is the one person who provides authenticity to the role, wondering why he didn’t cast her, claiming she could have done a better job.  While he contends this is mere jealousy on her part, she surprises him, on the spot sliding into the scary role of a relapsed addict, so totally consumed in the damaged actress character that he wasn’t able to tell the difference, even though she was simply role-playing to make a point that the authenticity is her own.  While they go through changing moods, it’s not all verbal assaults, as there are moments of calm, where the accusations have a chance to sink in and be digested, each offering resurgent assaults, like surprise attacks, hoping to catch the other off-guard.  Their long-suppressed frustrations feel on the mark and scathingly honest, but neither one feels particularly empowered afterwards, or even better for having said it.  Much of the unresolved trauma from the fireworks simply lingers in the air afterwards.  From a viewer standpoint, it’s rare to get this kind of unfiltered personal dialogue in cinema that is more often associated with stage productions, where Maurice Pialat, Jean Eustache, and John Cassavetes are among the most ardent enthusiasts of this kind of raw emotional realism, yet each was heavily criticized, just like this film, for being overly self-indulgent and not being sufficiently cinematic, relying upon theatrical flourishes, yet the caliber of their choice of actors supremely excelled in making their films thoroughly cinematic, viewed today as iconic filmmakers.  What about Richard Yates’ excruciatingly personal 1961 novel Revolutionary Road (2008), made into a middle class malaise film by Sam Mendes that accentuates such a stirring performance by his then wife Kate Winslet, winning the Golden Globe Best Actress, but not even nominated by the Academy?  There are brief dramatic flare-ups in Noah Baumbach’s 2019 Top Ten List #3 Marriage Story, but certainly the entire film is not devoted to a sensory assault.  Malcom would never draw a comparison to those directors because he’s black, where race has a way of defining and categorizing one’s artistic stature.  Instead the names bandied about would be Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, or John Singleton.  There is really no one like those emotionally eviscerating artists working today, so this is kind of a throwback to a different era, and the choice to use black actors is a novel device, as it’s curiously not really about race, where Malcom as a black filmmaker is resistant to matters of politics and identity, yet the performances and personalities are so thoroughly entrenched in black culture, as is most of the accompanying musical soundtrack, from the sensuous delight of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane - In a sentimental mood ... YouTube (4:18), to a kind of ethereal mood changer with Chicago’s own NNAMDÏ - Wasted (Official Video) - YouTube (4:27), to the raw sexuality of Archie Shepp Goin' Home - YouTube (6:10), which is like a masterclass on what it is to be black.  The idea of opening oneself up to interior dissection and human exploration can fall on its feet or produce amazing results, largely inspired by the probing personal investment of the performances, where both rise to the challenge in this film, feeling genuine and unmistakably heartfelt to the core, which is the most essential truth one can express onscreen.   


Malcom’s rather personal remarks towards the Los Angeles Times are directly attributed to a real-life incident when guest critic Katie Walsh (the white girl from the LA Times) lambasted Levinson’s earlier film ASSASSINATION NATION (2018), which turned into a box office bomb.  While critics are having a field day with damning negative reviews, some criticizing the film for having an overprivileged white writer/director being the spokesperson for what is essentially a black story, but many more think this film is a pathetic attempt to get back at that white lady critic, like a debate the director is having with himself, publicly airing his personal grievances onscreen, where the industry as a whole seems to hold that against the film, providing instead a protective line of support for the critic, both of which shouldn’t matter, as that’s holding a grudge rather than objectively commenting on the material at hand.  More importantly, neither argument matters as they both miss the point, suggesting critics really missed the boat with this one, where the convincing performances of the black actors make this a black story, irrespective of who wrote the material, and the director’s self-involved rant against the critic was an ego trip excursion, a diversionary tactic used to avoid confronting his girlfriend’s accusations, which is what this film is really about.  This is a relationship film exploring their own power dynamic, which can get ugly, yet the real drama is about their own feelings for each other, expressed through a blistering raw honesty rarely seen in cinema.  The film scores points for emotional combustion, the ferocity of the performances, the art design with crisp black and white cinematography, and the eclectic musical selections, which are all in sync in this powerhouse drama, which will likely grow in stature over time, referred to more frequently in a positive light, offering a showcase on superlative acting.

Review: 'Assassination Nation' is exploitative horror that has ...

Review: ‘Assassination Nation’ is exploitative horror that has the gall to lecture us on grrrl power

By Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times

Sep. 20, 2018 1:05 PM PT

The one good thing to say about the slasher pop satire “Assassination Nation,” a badly bungled attempt at social commentary from writer/director Sam Levinson, is that it’s certainly got spirit. This energetic, blood-slicked horror flick substitutes internet hackers for knife-wielding maniacs, and leaked nudes for slayings. It’s a chaotic jumble of movie references, cellphone footage, emojis, trigger warnings and edgy teen content.

But it’s the fumbled “feminist” commentary that is just embarrassing to watch. The filmmakers have the gall to spend nearly two hours assaulting the audience with sexualized violence, only to turn around and offer up a patronizing lecture on the contradictory social conditioning of women as some kind of grrrl power rallying cry, like it’s a novel revelation. Dude really tried to mansplain the virgin/whore paradigm in the midst of this exploitative claptrap.

“Assassination Nation,” a mystery about a hacker targeting a suburban town, is a tortured, yet dumb metaphor for the Salem Witch Trials — we know this because the town where this takes place is named Salem. The idea seems to be that we’re still attacking innocent people based on rumor and hearsay. People are pilloried for the pics and texts found on their phone — from the mayor’s naughty cross-dressing, to the principal’s personal photos.

Attention quickly focuses on a quartet of smart, sexy, woke BFFs Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra), and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), because, well, they’re smart, sexy, rebellious young women hellbent on furthering their female pleasure agenda. Our heroine, Lily, makes impassioned arguments about the liberating and intellectual nature of nudity while simultaneously sexting nudes to the dad (Joel McHale) of a kid she used to babysit. Her friends hector her boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarskard) about orally pleasuring her.

Dude really tried to mansplain the virgin/whore paradigm in the midst of this exploitative claptrap.

They would ostensibly be the modern equivalent of witches, and Lily is first targeted by the angry mob that took down the mayor, the principal and the head cheerleader (Bella Thorne) when everyone identifies her in the sexy pics she sent to “Daddy.” Ostracized, she becomes a target for physical assault.

“Why do people see a picture of a naked girl and want to kill her?”

Good question, Lily, it’s one we’ve been asking for eons. She’s also falsely identified as the hacker, the cause of all this pain and discord.

Every now and then, there’s a flash of a great idea in “Assassination Nation,” whether it’s the revolutionary way the girls treat themselves as sexual subjects, or the bloody representation of female rage. But the logic and storytelling is too convoluted — conflating kink-shaming, homophobia and sexism without teasing out the nuance of how or why these individuals are burned at the stake by the mob.

That may be representative of the chaotic random evil of an anonymous attacker, and the hateful hetero white male mob, but visually, Levinson makes clear his target. He and cinematographer Marcell Rév, who establish a leering gaze directed at the girls’ nubile bods, take much delight in wringing every sexy moment out of attacking young women, shooting scenes of violence that are gratuitously pornographic.

This is common in the horror genre, but this goes above and beyond. And the difference is that Dario Argento never ended his films with a bone-headed lecture about feminism.

At the end of the film, Lily live-streams herself talking about the ways in which she’s been given orders as a girl, to be both sexy and pure, to never speak up or fight back, and for a quick second, an army of girls fall in line with their new leader. So the film both objectifies her and makes her deliver a speech about being objectified, and can’t have it both ways. That 180-degree turnaround is so contrived after the orgy of gore and booty shorts, that it can’t nail the landing on the flip from sarcasm to sincerity.

This film tries to create a B-movie heightened dystopian reality where the gals get their violent comeuppance wearing matching chic vinyl trenchcoats, but the violence is all too nauseatingly real and unsettling. It’s an ugly exploitation of sexual violence in a hollow quest to indict the way our culture pathologizes female sexuality.

“Assassination Nation” might argue that it’s about the internet mob, but its gaze reveals the true, lurid intention, while spewing misguided words to gesture at empowerment.

We see right through you.

‘Assassination Nation’

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes

Rated: R for disturbing bloody violence, strong sexual material including menace, pervasive language, and for drug and alcohol use — all involving teens

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