Wow, this month has gone by quickly. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks catching up on movies in order to vote for the OAFFC awards and also to compile my own list of year-end favorites. I’m holding off on sharing that because I haven’t yet seen Little Women, and from all the advance raves, I have a feeling it might make my list. We’ll see. In the meantime, here are some brief reviews of three movies I saw recently . . .
Atlantics (2019) ★★★1/2
Director: Mati Diop
Writer: Mati Diop and Olivier Demangel
Streaming on Netflix
I heard someone describe Atlantics as a zombie movie, but it’s more like a ghost story. Really, it’s a love story, with a classic structure that follows two clandestine lovers who are briefly together only to be torn apart. They spend the rest of the movie trying to find their way back to each other. The story is set in an unnamed port city in Senegal, where a giant, futuristic glass-and-steel tower is under construction. The film opens upon a group of angry construction workers, who have stormed their foreman’s office to complain about three months’ of wages still owed to them. They set off to Spain in search of paying work, only to drown in the Atlantic Ocean. One of the lost sailors is Souleiman, the secret boyfriend of a young woman, Ada, who is engaged to marry a wealthy businessman, Omar. When Souleiman reappears on Ada’s wedding night, a series of strange, supernatural events are set into motion.
The otherworldly elements of this film are foretold by a number of witchy images and icons: the moon, candles burned to the wick, jagged mirrors, filmy curtains, and silvery light shimmering on the waves. These mystical images are in contrast to the costumes and set, which are so ordinary as to be banal, from the handbags, cell phones, and embellished tee shirts that Ada and her friends favor, to the décor of the apartments of the lost young men—their patterned bedspreads, cologne bottles, stereos, and mismatched pillowcases. This attention to everyday detail is what makes the supernatural plot believable and almost inevitable. When strange things started happened, I understood very quickly what was happening and why, and it was satisfying to watch it all unfold.
There were times when the pace of the story could have been more suspenseful and exciting with different editing and music choices, but this is a small quibble—especially considering this is a debut.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) ★★★
Director: Marielle Heller
Writer: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
Honestly, I’m still figuring out how I feel about this one, even though I saw it over three weeks ago. It’s my least favorite of Marielle Heller’s three films, which was disappointing, but I’m not sure that’s a fair way to look at this movie, which is doing something completely different from her previous two movies, and is also, in a way, more ambitious than either of them. Another bias I’m bringing to this movie is that I really loved last year’s documentary about Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which had the advantage of starring the real Mr. Rogers, rather than Tom Hanks pretending to be Mr. Rogers. I’m not sure that the documentary was fundamentally a better film than Heller’s, but I got more out of it because the material was fresh; when I saw it, I hadn’t thought about Mr. Rogers for decades, and I was blown away by the artistry and depth of the show I had watched as a child. Watching Heller’s version, I wasn’t as surprised.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I do think this movie was distinctive in the way that it was framed as an episode of Mr. Rogers, but for adults. The story is based on an Esquire profile of Mr. Rogers by Tom Junod. The drama does not come from information disclosed in the profile; instead it arises from the interpersonal dynamic between Junod and Rogers, which occurred off the page. Junod has said that profiling Rogers changed his life and taught him how to sincerely deal with his emotions, especially his anger. Given this source material, it would have been conventional to tell the story from the point of view of the cynical, repressed journalist, opening with the journalist receiving the assignment amidst particular life conflicts and ending with the journalist seeing the magazine on the newsstand after those conflicts had been addressed — and scenes like those do exist in this movie. But because the whole thing is framed as an episode of Mr. Rogers, we also have a sense of Mr. Rogers’s point of view, and how he copes with discomfort. We learn that Mr. Rogers is not a naturally chill person, and is in fact maybe not very easygoing at all. Instead his gift is that he is deliberate in his interactions with people, with an unusual ability to remain still and open-minded in uncomfortable situations.
Everyone who knows Mr. Rogers has said that he existed in his own time zone, a sort of thoughtful, mindful, unhurried space that allowed him to really pay attention to people and take them in. The thing I admired most about this movie is the way it was able to conjure this slowness, so that by the end of the movie, I felt calmed even as I had witnessed a lot of conflict and emotional stuff on screen. A friend texted me when it was over and asked what I thought and I was tempted to write back, “I want to be a better person.” Instead I wrote that it was mellowing, in the sense of the mellowing that occurs as you age.
Queen & Slim (2019) ★★★★
Director: Melina Matsoukas
Writers: Lena Waithe and James Frey
I went to see this on a cold, rainy Monday night when I really didn’t feel like going out. I had a bad cough and I felt like I was making a mistake when I got to the theater. I almost turned around and went back home. But I’m so glad I stayed. This was easily one of the best movies I saw this year, the kind that takes you out of your life and on a journey with its characters.
Queen & Slim follows two strangers who meet on a Tinder date. Queen is a lawyer who seems a little uptight, dressed in white pants and a turtleneck. Slim is more easygoing, openly religious, and close to his family. They don’t hit it off and Slim is driving Queen home when he is pulled over by the police for a reason that I can’t actually remember — I think maybe Slim forgets to signal a lane change? The officer is white, and the dynamic is immediately nerve-wracking. The officer accuses Slim of drunk driving and demands to search the trunk. Queen takes out her phone to record the incident, and the interaction becomes volatile, with the officer pulling out his gun and shooting Queen, wounding her in the leg. Slim attempts to defend Queen, and then things escalate so quickly that Queen accidentally shoots the officer as she’s trying to protect Slim. In the aftermath of the shooting, Queen insists that the most rational course of action is to flee the scene. So they do, beginning a road trip that takes them from snowy Cleveland all the way to the Florida Keys. As they drive further and further south, away from their lives and away from the people chasing after them, they fall in love.
Because of a dashcam video in the officer’s car, Queen & Slim are quickly identified and an interstate chase ensues. They become national news, with protests organized in support of them. But there’s also a bounty for their capture. After just a day, almost everyone they meet recognizes them, a situation which can be as helpful as it is harmful. They have several close calls, and I was often on the edge of my seat, but what I loved about this movie was that it gave its characters quiet, still moments, even as they were being chased. With their growing outlaw fame, the public refers to them as “a black Bonnie and Clyde” but they are actually more like Thelma and Louise, who choose to run because they know no one will believe their side of the story.
Like Thelma & Louise, Queen and Slim transform over the course of their journey, shedding their first date attire and becoming iconic in borrowed clothing and changed hairstyles. By the end of their journey, there’s no way they could return to their old lives– even if they were allowed to do so. I wished desperately for their story to end happily and felt almost hungry for an image of their escape. Director Melina Matsoukas seems to understand this, because the film closes with a powerful series of short scenes that include a snapshot portrait of Queen & Slim — the same one you see on the posters for this movie, but a lot more meaningful once you have the full context of their story.
As I write this supposedly brief review, I feel like I could write much more, which is always a sign of a good movie. It’s not perfect and there were some elements of the storytelling that seemed off, particularly a side plot that takes you out of Queen and Slim’s point of view, but even its messiness was interesting. I highly recommend seeing this in the theater, if you can.