Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Early on in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, two fans from Baltimore on a trip to the big city, visit backstage at Cafe Society with the legendary singer (Andra Day in a star making debut performance). There’s wonder in the small talk they share, the awe they show her. She invites them to sip champagne and everyone in the room – including her entourage of husband-manger, dresser and assistant – talk about where in Baltimore they are from. We get to know what Holiday meant to Black people in America at that time; the late 1940s. And we know that she understood that and took her responsibility seriously. I smiled and settled in thinking “this is gonna be good.” Biopics rarely examine why celebrities mean so much to us. Alas it was not to be. That was it about Holiday’s giant place in Black people’s hearts in this country.

A good biopic is usually one that has a few revelatory insights about the life it’s trying to depict. Or is telling the story of a particularly interesting moment in that life. Cradle to grave biopics don’t work and filmmakers have mostly stopped making those. Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks – adapting the book by Johann Hari – have that particular story they want to tell. They chose the time in Holiday’s life when the FBI was trying to frame her for narcotics because they couldn’t stop her singing the wrenching ballad Strange Fruit. That song tells the story of a lynching in vivid detail and was a rallying cry for Black people fighting for equality at that time.

Unfortunately choosing to tell this story means that the film spends a lot of its running time focusing on Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), an undercover FBI agent who framed Holiday and eventually fell in love with her. The way they carried on their affair while Holiday was touring America and trying to kick her heroin addiction could’ve made for an interesting film. But the love affair doesn’t hold the audience’s attention. We never understand why Holiday liked Fletcher, except perhaps because he lookes like Rhodes. But there’s no heat. There’s more heat in Day’s scenes with Tone Bell who plays her abusive manager / boyfriend Joe Levy.

This is such a disservice to Day who gives a wondrous and fully committed performance. Lowering her voice to mimic Holiday’s gravely talking voice and changing her singing register to perform the songs, she’s never anything less than mesmerizing. Whether she’s on stage as Holiday singing or showing us the toll of heroin and abuse on her body, she knocks it out of the park. This is one of those instances when a first time actor finds a role that fits them like a glove and immediately becomes a star with the promise of years of spellbinding performances.

In choosing to center their story around Strange Fruit, Daniels and Parks know they need to withhold the song until just the right moment. However by the time we get there we have seen so many repetitively staged and edited scenes of Holiday singing that it loses some of its heft. Still Day delivers it beautifully and ensures it doesn’t lose any of its allure giving us a moving and enthralling moment. The song is preceded by a long winding scene in which a crane camera follows Day around through the big moments from Holiday’s life that led her to Strange Fruit. It’s brilliant and I loved it and snapped to attention recognizing this as a Lee Daniels film.

Daniels is a true auteur. There’s no mistaking his recognizable stamp on any film he makes. His filmmaking thrives in chaos. You’d think a story this sweeping, a personality this hypnotizing will play to his strengths. Instead of the enthralling chaos he gave us in Precious (2009) The Paperboy (2012) or even The Butler (2013) what we get here is haphazard storytelling. Only once in a while – like the scene mentioned above – does his brilliant chaotic filmmaking appear. Some scenes are strong, some are casually tossed off as if no director was present. Day is out of this world great but some of the other performances, from good actors with proven records  – Rhodes and Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead – feel like their worst takes made it to the finished film. While others – particularly Miss Lawrence and Da’Vine Joy Randolph – benefit from playing opposite Day and conjure easy rapport with her, elevating their scenes. 

Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Andra Day, and Miss Lawrence in THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY

The United States vs. Billie Holiday has talent with pedigree behind it and a fascinating icon at its center, but the result is not up to par. Still I wholeheartedly recommend it because Day’s performance needs to be seen and cherished.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday will stream on Hulu starting Friday February 26th.

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Sundance 2021 Wrap Up

In lieu of a regular episode this week we are discussing the many films we screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Murtada Elfadl welcomes back writer and critic Valerie Complex to discuss a few films including Rebecca Hall’s Passing, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah and Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, among many others. We also give out our awards for best perfromances and choose the one film you can’t miss at the festival.

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Topics Discussed:

  • Excellent virtual experience; Sundance presented the best experience of all festivals.
  • Documentaries are more innovative than narrative films at the festival.
  • Some docs discussed include Captains of Zaatari, Summer Of Soul, Misha and the Wolves and our favorite Flee.
  • We give out our own acting awards to Clifton Collins Jr. in Jockey, Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah and Ruth Negga in Passing.
  • Further discussion of Passing and its queer subtext.
  • Sundance awards winner Coda; why it won and did it deserve all these awards?
  • Movies that surprised us including Violation and Pleasure.

Further Reading:

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Sundance Review: Passing

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing by Rebecca Hall.

A few minutes into Passing, Ruth Negga appears. She’s Clare Kendry, who is in New York accompanying her husband (Alexander Skaarsgaard) on a business trip when she spots an old friend Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) in the lobby of the Drayton Hotel. Resplendent in 1920s garments, blond hair and a mischievous smile on her face, Negga’s the cat that ate the canary personified on screen. Over the next few minutes she flirts with, cajoles and charms Irene into visiting her suite, staying and having drinks despite Irene being very uncomfortable. Irene can’t resist Clare and we in the audience cannot take our eyes off Negga for a second for fear of missing a gesture or a look. This is a performance so electrifying it demands attention from the very first second the character appears. 

Passing, adapted from Nella Larsen’s novel and directed by Rebecca Hall, is the story of these two light skinned Black women living during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Irene occasionally passes for white for convenience. To take refuge in a cool hotel lobby during a heatwave. Clare passes for white all the time, she’s married to white man who doesn’t know she’s Black. When Clare moves to New York she decides to revive her friendship with Irene despite the latter’s discomfort with her lies and way of living. But close they become, as Clare longs to spend more time among Black people. 

Larsen’s novel is rich with themes about identity and race. About the masks people put on and take off to survive. The relationship between Irene and Clare is complex. Do they like each other? Are they jealous of each other? Does Irene want Clare’s daring and carefree attitude? Clare seems to covet Irene’s sense of purpose and satisfaction with her lot in life. Hall threads the very fine line of including as much as she can from the source while not overwhelming the film. More often than not, she holds back rather than spell out anything. Her script is so subtle demanding the audience pay attention. Not to the words the characters are saying but rather to the performances the actors are giving.

And in Thompson, and particularly Negga, Hall hits pay dirt. Thompson holds the film together with grounded feeling as she’s in every scene. Irene is a woman who doesn’t say much, who holds her cards close to her chest. Thompson manages to convey her inner turmoil with understated panache. Negga comes in with reckless abandon and steals the film. This is a showstopping performance. She conveys the utter chaos of the character while maintaining the actor’s exacting control. Negga drops her voice when needed to amplify a point. She looks straight into the camera to throw off the audience from the conclusions we thought we made about the narrative and her character. 

Everytime Negga looked at Thompson I thought to myself, “does she want to fuck her or kill her?” That sexual subtext was in the book but it’s more overt in the movie because of the performances. These women are clearly drawn to each other. They might want to trade places. The way they look at each and sometimes touch, they definitely feel a sexual charge. What I wish the movie had more of is the feel for Harlem in the 1920s. This is more a chamber piece set in a few rooms and hallways, concentrating on a few characters.  

I am also conflicted about the use of black and white. On one hand making a film about colorism and draining it of color seems strange. Yet the film looks gorgeous and the actresses would not have “passed” to modern eyes if not for the black and white cinematography. Aesthetically it’s definitely the right choice as it fits with the other austere and deliberate choices Hall makes. From her sparse script to the intimate atmosphere that’s all inside Irene’s mind. 

Passing is a confident, sometimes bold, directorial debut for Hall. It is also Ruth Negga’s most magnetic moment on screen. And for that it’s well worth cherishing.

Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit

We first meet Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) in her huge Upper East Side mansion. The brown wood and the enormous space she lives in indicates immediately how wealthy and insular she is. Her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) announce their engagement to each other but are afraid to tell Frances. Another indication that Frances might not be the easiest person to deal with. And when a few scenes later she calls her lawyer a pig in French to his face, making sure he knows it and she gets away with it, the characterization is complete.

The lawyer was telling Frances that her wealth is no more. She’s forced to accept a friend’s offer of a free apartment in Paris. Across the ocean she and Malcolm go, bringing along their cat Little Frank, named after her dead husband. She plans to live in Paris as long as her money lasts which by the way she spends won’t be that long. The filmmakers behind French Exit, screenwriter Patrick DeWitt adapting his novel and director Azazel Jacob, understand  that these insular privileged characters would be odd. They would act idiosyncratically, they would be unknowingly rude, they would not have a concept for how much anything costs. They live in their own world. So when the cat starts talking – in the voice of Tracy Letts – you go with it. Looking at them with any real world framework or rule book is a futile task. You might as well turn off the movie. 

But Azazel also understands how perilous Frances’ situation is. So while the tone of the film is arch allowing the audience to laugh and enjoy how rude and cruel Frances can be. He also knows that he needs an actress to bring out the loneliness of Frances and he hit the jackpot in casting Pfeiffer who follows the film’s tone to a point. As we go along she slowly starts peeling off the affect, to show us the melancholic undertones of Frances. That’s when the performance finds its apex. 

In Paris Frances and Malcolm start collecting a few eccentric friends, building a sorta family. There’s a sad widow (Valerie Mahaffey) who’s very enamored with Frances. A fortune teller (Danielle MacDonald) who sleeps with Malcolm.  A soft spoken private investigator (Isaach De Bankole) who’s tasked with finding Little Frank when he runs away. Each of these characters brings another offbeat comedic note that provides levity but doesn’t add much to this quirky world we are watching besides showing us how isolated Frances increasingly becomes. She can’t make real connections, they have to be strange like her or she has to buy their companionship. 

Hedges plays Malcolm with limited expressions of exasperation and despondensy. You don’t understand why these two women would be attracted to him. We only get faint glimmers of the rich boy’s insouciance that could be what attracted them. But it doesn’t matter, the real showstopper here is Pfeiffer. She’s the reason to watch. She could have played this role like an imperious 1940s Bette Davis character; a Regina Giddens (The Little Foxes) or Fanny Skeffington (Mr. Skeffington). All haughty gestures and clipped tones. Perhaps that would have made it more memorable. It certainly would have made it more gif-able, more fun and catnip to awards bodies. But Pfeiffer is getting at something more interesting than paying homage to a proven screen persona. That would be expected, instead she’s interested in locating a center of sorrow and regret that drives this woman. She even recedes to the background in group scenes and lets Mahaffey steal their scenes together. She’s staying true to Frances’ nature, a rich woman used to having lots of space between her and others. A woman who can’t be bothered to react to people except with dismissal until she is forced to face reality. This is most evident in a heartbreaking scene where Frances acknowledges that her life is riddled by cliches.

French Exit is a film to savor and bask in. There are no immediate takeaways or blazing memorable scenes or even a loud performance to start a conversation. These are not characters you fall in love with or want to spend lots of time with. It’s not a film that elicits a definitive opinion right after it ends. However a few days later I keep thinking about it.

French Exit screened as the closing night selection of this year’s New York Film Festival will be released in February 2021.

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Review: Garrett Bradley’s Time

Once in a while a film comes along where the filmmaker has made every right choice. As I was watching Garrett Bradley’s Time I kept nodding my head. Of course black and white was the right choice to tell the story merging archival footage with new footage. Of course you plunge the audience into the story without talking heads or time markations. And most of all of course that’s how you end to achieve catharsis.

Let’s back up a little, I’m getting ahead of myself. A chronicle of the life of Fox Rich, an activist and mother of six boys, Time tells the story of a family and the grave injustice of a broken system. Rich’s husband Rob is serving a 60 year sentence for a robbery they both committed in the 1990s. She got out after serving more than 3 years and for the last 20 year has been trying to get him out while raising their family. At the same time she’s been documenting her life and her kids’ for Rob. 

Bradley seamlessly integrates Rich’s video diaries with what she shot of her 19 years after the robbery. We are never sure when the diaries end and the newly shot footage starts. Just like time, an endless loop of memories filled with both heartache and joy. The black and white photography makes Time more mesmerizing and adds poignancy and heft to the story. 

This is a story ostensibly about Black suffering. The sentence that Rob gets does not equal the crime he committed in a moment of desperation. Rich knows this is a system continuing the enslavement of Black people and rightfully declares herself an abolitionist. What’s on screen though is not the suffering of this family. But rather the resilience, the fight and the hope. That’s what makes Time sublime. It gets to the bone of its message without hammering it through. It’s a gentle poke of a movie achieving catharsis with the cumulative emotions it elicits by the end.  We get there because Bradley deftly uses all her arsenal as a filmmaker to show the cost and the toll it takes for this family to have a moment of peace. 

Time will be available on Amazon Prime on October 16th.

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Frances McDormand in Nomadland

I recently saw Nomadand at the New Yorl Film Festival from the comfort of my couch.

“You know you are not watching just any old prestige drama when a film throws in a shot of its lead character – played by a 2-time Oscar winner – defecating a mere three minutes into its running time. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is a film concerned with the concrete realities of life. Things that might seem mundane or unmentionable but take up a big part of everyday life. How a woman carves a small place on earth to sleep, eat, work and yes defecate.”

Read the rest of my review at The Film Experience.

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A Misbehaving Blackbird

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehavior

September, even in this pandemic year, represents an interesting dichotomy in the film year. As news and breathless soundbites about new and exciting movies come from film festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York – the new movies becoming available are mostly mediocre. These are films stuffed with good intentions, socially relevant stories and celebrated actors. Yet something went amiss during the conception and/or production. So with little expectation I hit play on Misbehavior and Blackbird.

As usual my entry into these movies were the actresses. Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska are in Blackbird. I knew it was a family drama about euthanasia so I thought at the very least I’d get these three actresses dealling with dramatic material and maybe there will be fireworks. There weren’t any but the film delivered on the rest.

Sarandon and Winslet in Blackbird

The story takes place over the last weekend in the life of a matriarch (Sarandon) suffering from a terminal illness. Along with her doctor husband (Sam Neil), she has decided to end her life so she gathered her daughters (Winslet and Wasikowska, their spouses (Rainn Wilson and Bex Taylor- Klaus respectively) her grandson (Anson Boon) and best friend (Lindsay Duncan). Confrontations ensue, secrets are revealed and the deep ties that bind family are supposed to get us to an emotional end.

Alas, because the script never goes anywhere unexpected and director Roger Michell shoots with minimal flair it was left to the actors to provide both the pathos and entertainment. Sarandon is commanding and understated playing this woman with a permanent look of resignation and wisdom. Winslet goes into the other direction deciding to give us a CHARACTER. Her imperious and never relaxed older sibling is a mixture of tics and rigid movements. The performance works in fits and starts and she fares better in the many showdowns between the sisters. That’s because Wasikowska is given a sketch of a character. All the cliches of the younger sister; she’s rebellious, lost, deals with substance abuse but all that doesn’t cohere into a recognizable human being stranding Wasikowska in the process. 

Winslet and Wasikowska in Blackbird

For a film dealing with such a weighty subject Blackbird is too slight to leave a mark. The script – credited to Christian Torpe – never tries to make any bold statements relying on a quiet slice of life familial narrative. That might be commendable though it also leads to a rather forgettable film.

Misbehavior is grander and more ambitious in its storytelling and thus more affecting. Set at the !970 Miss World competition in London, the film presents its story through the eyes of four real life characters. 

Knightley and Buckley at the center

First we have two contrasting views from white women fighting for women’s liberation. Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley)  who wants to make change by joining places of male power like academia. Then Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) who’s more radical and looking to dismantle all institutions. The contrast is built rather simply as these two women meet and join forces within the same activist group despite opposing tactics. Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe’s screenplay does not invent the wheel and the scenes where we get to know these two are familiar but also rather engaging. 

The third and perhaps most interesting point of view is introduced later in the film. Gugu Mbatha Raw plays Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten who becomes the first Black winner of Miss World. The tension comes from Alexander and Robinson leading a disruption during the ceremony to protest how it objectifies women. Hosten and the first ever Black contestant from South Africa Pearl Janssen (Loreece Harrison) are trying to use the competition as a springboard to more opportunities and to inspire young Black girls everywhere. The best scenes are when the women talk to each other; Janssen and Hosten, Robinson and Alexander and finally Hosten and Alexander. It’s all earnest and heartfelt but the actresses bring a sensitivity and understanding that make these scenes touching. The film tries to balance their views and critique both the exploitation of beauty pageants and the sometimes bird view of white feminism. 

Knightley and Mbatha-Raw in Misbehavior

Under prosthetics Gregg Kinnear plays the host Bob Hope presenting the fourth and last point of view. While the filmmakers might have been trying to present the waning world of male entitlement and misogyny with this portrayal it doesn’t add anything insightful to the story. All it does is strand Lesley Manvile in a thankless as his nagging wife, Dolores Hope. I guess they needed to insert a real life famous figure. A more interesting perspective is that of Julia Morley (Keeley Hawes) the wife of the competition’s organizer who recognizes that they must change with the time or become obsolete. I wish the filmmakers beefed up that part instead.

Similar to other small slices of a well known life British movies like last year’s Judy – also with Buckley – Misbehavior is watchable thanks to the charming performances by its leading ladies. Like Blackbird it will be forgotten by next week.

Blackbird is available now in VOD and in select theaters. Misbehavior will be released on September 25.

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Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock

A new Steve McQueen film is always reason for celebration and especially this one, his sexy and intoxicating swerve into joie de vivre. Lovers Rock which debuted as the opening night film of the New York Film Festival, is part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. The series comprises five original films set among London’s West Indian community in the 1970s and 1980s and inspired by stories remembered by McQueen and his family.

Distinctly a McQueen film with its long intense takes and shots that dissolve into one another. Though somewhat of a swerve for him into joie de vivre as these extended dance sequences show the euphoria and camaraderie of life, of people coming together.

Head over to Cup of Soul Show to read my full review…

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Introducing Murtada’s Corner

Let me introduce Murtada’s Corner which will be the new section where you can read about other topics. The podcast will remain all about Cate Blanchett but here I will branch into other writing – old and new – about other topics. Mostly cinema related.

Muligan in Never Let Me Go

I’m starting with another actress I admire, Carey Mulligan and a collection of articles I’ve written about her through the years. Happy Reading!

Carey Mulligan is an actress of immense range. Since her breakout at the 2009 edition of Sundance with An Education, she’s given us many tremendous performances. All of them heartbreaking and deeply felt in different ways, whether she’s a replicant trying to make human connections (Never Let Me Go), F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous Daisy (The Great Gatsby), a broken sister singing her heart out as a last cry for help (Shame) or a wife and mother facing the dissolution of her marriage and the paucity of choices after (Wildlife). And once again she gives an exceptional performance in Promising Young Woman

On her performance in Wildlife:

This is her shining moment. It’s her Blanche Dubois moment. Her Jeanette, a Montana housewife dealing with the repercussions of a crumbling marriage, is untethered yet Mulligan is in complete control. She holds the performance in her voice, as it trembles with emotion – hurt, confusion, anger, uncertainty  – all is clear to the audience through the timber of her voice.”

Click to read more…

and stream on Netflix

Mulligan’s performance is an emotional marvel and delivered with technical mastery. Her working class English accent is impeccable, her weariness and defeat is visible in her hunched back and heavy walk, her defiance rises to crescendo and is delivered with skillful control of her voice. This is why there are awards for acting.

Click to read more on Suffragette, also available to stream on Netflix.

And at this year’s Sundance Mulligan impressed me once more in Promising Young Woman.

Mulligan is engaging and ferocious throughout and the reason to immediately buy a ticket.

Click to read more….

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