His movie has just had its big premiere. He gave a speech and forgot to thank his longtime girlfriend, the inspiration for his film.
“Malcolm & Marie” (106 minutes, rated R, watched on Netflix) is about the fireworks that ensue.
Sam Levinson, showrunner of HBO’s provocative “Euphoria,” wrote and directed this two-character piece. John David Washington, star of “BlacKkKlansman” (and Denzel’s son), plays the filmmaker, Malcolm. Zendaya, the lead in “Euphoria,” plays Malcolm’s muse, Marie.
The film, shot in glorious black and white, begins as Malcolm and Marie arrive home after the big event. It’s long past midnight. Malcolm, still in his tux, wants macaroni and cheese. Marie, still in her glittering gown, pulls out a box and makes him some.
He’s hoping to settle back and continue the celebration. Her stoic expression suggests he might not get his wish. Finally, the topic of his omission comes up. She forgave him earlier, but she’s changed her mind. And this triggers a war of words between the two, that go on … and on … and on.
Every once in a while it seems like they’ve settled down, forgiven and maybe forgotten, and will now commence to have sex. But then the words start flowing again.
Parts of their conversation are funny, and maybe a bit enlightening. Malcolm’s attack on a Los Angeles Times film critic — and, by extension, film critics in general — is a highlight. In a glowing review of his film, the critic makes assumptions about Malcolm’s motivations with his film, how his choices are informed by the fact that he’s black and a man. Malcolm goes ballistic — to Marie’s amusement.
During the evening Malcolm also makes references to various classic films and their filmmakers: “The Best Years of Our Lives” and William Wyler, “Do the Right Thing” and Spike Lee, “The Battle of Algiers” and Gillo Pontecorvo. If you’re into film history, it’s fun to hear such references from a movie character, and it’s appropriate in the context Levinson presents here.
Meanwhile, Marie essentially accuses Malcolm of a kind of vampirism, of taking her life story, squeezing it out for its possibilities and leaving her high and dry. (Hmm. Malcolm and Marie as a modern F. Scott and Zelda?) She accuses him of being hollow, a mediocrity who can only rely on others for inspiration.
Oh yeah, Malcolm says (more or less). And what about your needs?
And so it goes. And it goes on too long, as if we’re watching an extended acting exercise of Washington and Zendaya — both very good — performing a wannabe younger, hipper “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” It becomes tedious after a while, and it doesn’t seem like Malcolm or Marie, for all of their soul-searching, have much depth.
And the same goes for Levinson’s movie. ** (out of four)
I finally caught last year’s “Antebellum” (105 minutes, rated R, watched on Hulu), which I thought had potential, given its cast (magnetic Janelle Monae, Jack Huston and Jena Malone) and intense trailer. I still think it had potential, only it wasn’t fulfilled. Instead, what you get is a twisty thriller that becomes ludicrously contrived and falls flat as a result. Think of M. Night Shyamalan at his worst. Only, “Antebellum” is written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, both making their feature-film debuts.
Monae plays a slave on a Southern plantation run by a group of sadistic Confederate soldiers. She also plays a modern-day writer who deals with racial issues. How are the two characters and their situations related? Awkwardly. Unconvincingly.
The story is a metaphor of sorts suggesting that the past never really leaves us. It’s a worthy topic to tackle, and it’s a shame this film does such a poor job in its attempt. *½
Recently, I watched three classic movies in one day, and they reminded me of why I love film so much (not that I really need a reminder).
“Notorious” (1946, 102 minutes, not rated, watched on YouTube). Alfred Hitchcock’s classic stars Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman, the emotionally wounded, dissolute daughter of a convicted spy, who is recruited by a suave CIA agent (Cary Grant) to seduce one of her father’s fellow Nazis (Claude Rains). Hitchcock brilliantly combines romance and suspense while considering the conflict of love vs. duty, and the moral and emotional complications that result. Bergman, Grant and Rains are first-rate. ****
“Elmer Gantry” (1960, 146 minutes, not rated, watched on TCM). Burt Lancaster won an Oscar as the titular huckster who decides to give revival preaching a try. Written and directed by Richard Brooks and based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, the film also features Jean Simmons, as the sincere evangelist whose traveling tent show Gantry joins, and Shirley Jones, who also received an Oscar for her supporting work as a prostitute from Gantry’s past. The film intelligently wrestles with religion (Arthur Kennedy appears as a cynical newsman who’s a nonbeliever), while Jones, cast against type, steals the film as a tragic victim of judgment. ****
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958, 108 minutes, not rated, watched on TCM). Another Brooks film, this one an adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, set on a Mississippi plantation in the 1950s. Paul Newman plays Brick (Paul Newman), an alcoholic ex-football player struggling with his homosexuality (though not as explicitly as on the stage). Elizabeth Taylor is his wife, Maggie, who’s trying to win back Brick’s affections and have children with him. And Burl Ives plays Brick’s wealthy, domineering, larger-than-life father, Big Daddy, who doesn’t know he’s dying but is aware of how his family is vying for the inheritance he’ll leave once he’s gone. It’s a great drama about secrets, lies, greed, forgiveness, acceptance and so much more. ****
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Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He and music producer Tony Raine host “Tim ’n’ Tony’s Rock ’n’ Pop Show” from midnight to 3 a.m. Sunday nights/Monday mornings on WOMR (92.1-FM), WFMR (91.3-FM) and womr.org. Archived recordings of the shows can be found at https://womr.org/schedule/broadcast-archive/. He also teaches film at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic.