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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Judas & the Black Messiah

by A.R. Solar

Writer/director Shaka King (Newlyweeds [2013]) boldly avoids the sophomore slump with his ambitious and accomplished second feature. Judas & the Black Messiah, based on real events, is a big movie in several ways. In it, King depicts the dynamic rise (and eventual demise) of the Illinois Black Panther Party and its fervent chairman, Fred Hampton, in the 1970s.

Hampton managed to, among other things, bring together disparate sides of the Chicago slums—even a White people’s club—to address the needs of the community. Among those needs are ones that still exist today, of course. Putting an end to police abuse and corruption. Providing food and education to needy youths. Director King seamlessly weaves all these many elements and stories into a cohesive, taut historical thriller.

Maybe even more impressive are the performances of Daniel Kaluuya (as Hampton) and LaKeith Stanfield (as car-thief-turned-FBI-informant William O’Neal). The latter is a complex, often-conflicted personality that Stanfield embodies with aplomb. In a scene where Hampton waits like a coiled king cobra for his introduction on stage, Kaluuya plays him with the perfect swagger, beautifully inhabiting the role. He’s a treat to watch. 

Creative editing gives the film greater grit and provides ballast for Sean Bobbit’s slick cinematography. Here we see how slick doesn’t necessarily mean glossy, as the director and his production design team have chosen a muted palette of pastels and earth tones, for day shots, and long-shadowy blacks-on-black for night. 

But it’s neo-noir sans nostalgia (Sin City [2005], this is not). Judas & the Black Messiah’s story and action pack wallops more akin to Scorsese circa The Departed (2006). It would have made a good crime movie or an excellent historical biography—lucky for us, it’s both.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Dear Streaming Services: It’s About Your Menu “Design”

by A.R. Solar

Yes, I am about to complain about the menus on streaming sites, and I won’t apologize. Because: America. I even let HBO Max know that I’m fed up (details below).

There’s little danger that anyone would mistake what the streaming services do as curation—they’re dumps. One need only look at the “Recently Added” tray. Something like 20 movies, new and old, no rhyme or reason, dumped onto the menu. Do the services think we get a thrill from that, because we don’t.

Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and the others probably look proudly upon their pages, beaming about the plethora of choices. On every page! Under every category! Note: The industry word for the horizontal sections/categories/genres you see on screen is “trays.”

On Prime Video, the thumbnail (for each movie) is approximately 4.5 x 7 inches, or 0.22 sq. ft. on a 48-inch television screen. That means you can fit a little more than 34 streaming-service thumbnails on a standard movie poster. If your screen is smaller, you can fit many more. And, just for the record, any given screen view on Prime Video boasts 18 movie thumbnails.

It’s all too much too look at. Worse, it diminishes the grandeur and importance of cinema. How can the streaming services make their menus better? I don’t know, it’s definitely above my pay grade. But, would making the thumbnails bigger hurt? I don’t think so, and personally, I don’t need to see 18 choices on every view—of any type of menu, honestly.

I asked WarnerMedia Entertainment’s (HBO Max’s parent company) Communications VP Chris Willard about all this on December 30th, and he told me he’d “get back to [me] after the holidays.” When he did, as promised, Mr. Willard was actually quite helpful, if unmistakably being a good PR man for his company. He relayed that a whopping two-thirds of the time, viewers look for something specific they had in mind before even signing on. “They’re going back to something they were already watching or they’re seeking something in particular,” Willard said. As for the other third, he insisted they’re in the good hands of… HBOMax “curators.” I stand corrected!

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Quick Look Back: La cienaga (2001)

by A.R. Solar

Writer-director Lucrecia Martel (Zama, 2017, Argentina) didn’t ever attempt to answer the why about anything in her auspicious feature debut, most especially not its characters’ man vs. nature conflicts. Instead, in La cienaga, she seems genuinely uninterested in explanations of any kind. Relationships among family members – when they can be identified as such – are nebulous and lack archetypal social boundaries, including sexual ones.

A true absurdist artwork that’s message is clearer through what Martel subtracted – the “why” and the relationship boundaries. The focus naturally shifts to the strange ways in which the characters interact. In this way, La Cienaga acts as a sort of anthropological survey, but mostly outside the context of the people’s motives. The settings include characters’ homes, public nightclubs, and the natural outdoors; nothing really out of the ordinary. But Martel’s perspective makes these almost clinical.

As in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-end (1967), momentum flows from the central characters, bending and twisting through rivers and creeks of action, though not technically plot. The result is a purposely chaotic, yet sensitively observed work which boldly and incisively questions the interpersonal dynamics of the status quo.

the international CRITIQUE rating: ★★★★★

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Carmen & Lola

by A.R. Solar

The multi-nominated, double Goya-Prize-winning feature debut from Arantxa Echevarria caught me by surprise. I hadn’t heard of it and, if I expected anything, it was that it’d be a casual, modern romp-com told from an LGBTQ angle. It is, I’m happy to say, much much more than that.

Carmen is a vivacious almost-18-year-old who is, as her father has arranged, about to be engaged to a boy her age. Like her, he is part of the Romani culture in a poor section near Madrid. (In Carmen & Lola, the Romani call themselves “gypsies.”) Lola is an introspective almost-17-year-old trying to explore her lesbianism via cybercafe computer in a neighboring Romani area. The two meet by chance at Lola’s family’s vegetable stand in the bustling outdoor market. Though their encounter is brief, Echevarria conveys (in an extreme close-up) a tender, tiny, skin-to-skin touch that neither woman will soon forget.

It’s in those convincing, gentle, loving moments between the two girls that you first experience the deep insights of the director and the thrilling talents of Pilar Sanchez Diaz, the cinematographer here. 

In scenes where the men of Carmen’s family and those of her soon-to-be betrothed meet to formalize the engagement, what’s on display is tradition, yes, but also an entrenched, unapologetic patriarchy. When Carmen herself finally enters the room in her future-bride regalia and is “given” to her boyfriend’s father, any moderately enlightened viewer will feel queasy. As the relationship between Lola and Carmen develops ever so gradually, the patriarchal lash isn’t as subtle.

Two days after experiencing the film, I’m still haunted by a scene where Lola’s mother confronts her. Her mom – a previously balanced, if stern, figure – gasps, wails, and pleads with her in a harrowing conveyance of sheer internal terror. And that’s before the father, prone to disturbing violent threats, is brought into the hysteria.

By this point, we have seen the craft of Echevarria’s hand – effective whether the touch is delicate or ferocious. Sanchez Diaz’s camera, as it ought to, enhances the director’s voice through deeply felt angles on the characters and settings.

This is a Spain not often depicted on film. The Romani neighborhoods are crowded with people and even more packed with emotions. Perhaps the filmmakers’ greatest triumph is bringing to the screen such a real rendering of a culture that – at least as written in this movie – doesn’t balk at showing the rawest of emotions, whether it be joy, through Flamenco dance at a party, or pain, through the fear of being excommunicated from the culture itself, by the fathers and sons of the patriarchy.

the international CRITIQUE rating: ★★★★★