It may be the shortest month of the year, but don’t think that streaming platforms are taking a break. Here are our recommendations to get you through this chilly month: a would-be awards contender from Netflix, a homegrown coming-of-age drama that didn’t get the praise it deserved last year, and a brain-melting horror that’ll stick with you, even if you’d rather it didn’t.
Malcolm & Marie
Watch or avoid: Avoid
Why: Some are calling Malcolm & Marie the first great movie of 2021. It’s not.
This minimalist black and white drama from writer-director Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation, HBO’s Euphoria) takes place after the big premiere of a new movie by filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington), who returns to a swish condo with his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya). Over the course of one night, both voice their personal grievances and re-examine their relationship, all seemingly stemming from the fact that Malcolm forgot to thank Marie in his speech. Think Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ with significantly less alcohol, and you’re halfway there.
While this striped-down chamber play may sound alluring, don’t be fooled. Whereas Regina King’s recently released (on Amazon Prime) One Night In Miami felt like a theatre play deftly transposed onto the screen, Malcolm & Marie feels stilted, like you’re watching actors read out lines that might have worked on the boards but feel like bitty pontification dressed up as ranting on screen. Like the central protagonists, the film also seems to be an excuse for Levinson to air his grievances with the filmmaking world, and it’s petty, solipsistic axe-grinding at its worst. Injecting a reflection on the artist-critic relationship within a romantic drama is alluring, but the filmmaker aims for a frequently meta and supposedly erudite commentary that frequently shoots itself in the foot. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the line “Cinema doesn’t need to have a message, it needs to have a heart.” True, but Levinson disingenuously tries to crowbar his message into a film that needed much more heart.
Levinson bakes a certain get-out-of-jail-free card into his script: if anyone reviewing the film finds the characters or their blowhard monologing unengaging, then it’s because the critics – like the ones Malcolm references within the first five minutes – can’t get it and will bulk at the mere idea of being taken to task by him and his characters. It’s a cheap trick: film critics are not exempt from criticism and the industry we belong to needs to be interrogated and explored, and while the script does have its moments, the director’s childishly monolithic manner is vapid at best.
On the more positive side, Levinson shows some promise as a director, even if he’s dreadfully self-absorbed as a scriptwriter, and there’s no denying this is a stylish affair. Shot during the pandemic, Malcolm & Marie benefits in no small way from the high-contrast black and white cinematography by Euphoria DP Marcell Rév. And then there’s the acting. In many ways, this is an acting showcase, a vehicle for the best-looking onscreen couple in recent memory. Washington has a rougher time of it, as his tirades are ramped up to 11 for the get-go, with nowhere to escalate. By contrast, Zendaya’s Marie is a more measured sparring partner, and her performance is the main pull factor. Still, the style and performances can’t save this breakup story; even if cinema history is filled with bittersweet beauty that decries from the tiffs lovers have, Malcolm & Marie is just two people moving in and out of rooms, shouting wordy-yet-empty diatribes.
“I wrote and directed a movie that knocked the audience the fuck out tonight!”, exclaims Malcolm at the very beginning of the film. If only the same could be said about this tedious effort.
Also on Netflix: You’re much better off watching another two-hander of sorts, the far more compelling News Of The World. Based on the novel by Paulette Jiles and directed by Paul Greengrass, this lean Western set in 1870s Texas is about a Civil War veteran-turned-traveling newspaper reader (Tom Hanks) who rescues an orphaned girl (the brilliant Helena Zengel, of System Crasher fame). News Of The World might be a bit too linear for some, but it remains a touching story about doing the right thing and celebrating the comfort that strangers can find within each other, one that has an abundance of heart that’s hard to resist.
Where: Amazon Prime, Magenta TV, VoD
Watch or avoid: Watch
Sunburned is Hellsgård’s follow-up to 2019’s feminist post-apocalyptic zombie feature Endzeit (Ever After). It follows 13-year-old Claire (Zita Gaier), who is on holiday with her mother and sister at a resort hotel in southern Spain. Neglected by her mother (Sabine Timoteo), who is too busy flirting with a dishy instructor, and the fast becoming a source of embarrassment for her older sister Zoe (Nicolais Borger), she wanders the beach alone. There, she befriends Amram (Gedion Oduor Wekesa), a young Senegalese beach vendor. As their friendship develops, so does her desire to help him in any way she can, even if it means unintentionally making things worse.
There are so many things the film gets right, chiefly its layered storytelling. There are echoes of Sebastian Schipper’s Roads, which also centres on a clash of continents, but Sunburned pushes things further. Everything from family dynamics to the interpersonal relationships are incredibly well executed, as a lot is left unsaid and expressed through micromovements. It’s a testament to Hellsgård as a storyteller that she trusts the script and her cast to convey subtle emotions without falling back on tell-don’t-show tactics. The sparse dialogue works in the film’s favour and is paired with two superb central performances from Zita Gaier and Gedion Oduor Wekesa (last seen in the brilliant 2018 Berlinale-premiering Styx). Gaier in particular, whose character finds herself in the knotty crawlspace between childhood and adolescence, sells her character’s loneliness without ever coming off as brattish or listless.
Of particular note is how Hellsgård and her DP Wojciech Staroń evocatively navigate the landscapes and locations. The stale architecture of the white apartment blocks and the hotel corridors feature omnipresent turquoise hues that tease a melancholic tone linked to a profound sense of loss, and allows a feeling of isolation to permeate. The preference on the indoors rather than the outdoors creates claustrophobia, and in some cases highlights the gulf between the so-called security of institutionalised tourism and the real world outside that facilitates a social status quo. This meaningful clash between the interior and the exterior is also mirrored in the fluorescent pink lights and sanitised dance bangers of the discotheque, which underline how stuck the three main female protagonists are in their existence.
Ultimately, Sunburned is a tender and nuanced story of family, the loss of childhood and of two outsiders whose backgrounds and situations couldn’t be more different, and who yet both share a longing for something more. At no point does Hellsgård equate their struggles and her approach to the material makes the film soar. Unlike her previous features, the director distances herself from ‘genre’ filmmaking here and shows to what extent she’s one of the most subtle storytellers and versatile filmmakers out there.
Also on Amazon Prime: Whatever you do, avoid Mike Cahill’s Bliss. Starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek, we’re introduced to a couple who believe they’re stuck in a simulated reality. What is real and what is manufactured? While the concept is interesting – especially in these pandemic times that may have led many to question whether we’ve been living through a particularly fucked up glitch in the Matrix – the end result is a clumsy, predictable, poorly-acted-and-executed-even-worse sci-fi parable. Ignorance truly is bliss.
Where: Amazon, Hulu, and available to buy on DVD
Watch or avoid: Watch
Why: Like his pops, writer-director Brandon Cronenberg (son of David, in case that wasn’t clear) is interested in the visceral space where mind and body collide, as well as the tensions between old and new technologies. If that sounds like something you’re interested in, look no further than Jr’s bloody and mind-bending second film, Possessor. If you have the stomach for it, that is.
Possessor follows Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), an agent who works for a secretive organisation that uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies. Why, you ask? Well, this shady cabal is interested in driving the unwittingly brain-jacked to commit assassinations for high-paying clients. Once Vos is finished puppeteering other people’s bodies, she dies by “suicide” and pops back into her own brain. However, something is amiss with this perfect crime technology: Vos seems to be losing touch with reality, her consciousness dangerously melding with that of her latest victim’s. Crudely, it’s Christopher Nolan’s Inception meets Cronenberg Snr’s eXistenZ, with a lot more gore.
Beyond that simplistic referential description and any comparisons with his legend of a father, this is clever and provocative horror-sci-fi. Brandon Cronenberg’s visceral and intoxicating high concept works not only on the page but pays off massively on the screen: your stomach will be turned upside down by the gruesome body-horror and the disturbing visuals, and your brain will be twisted into knots by the uncomfortable (if somewhat messy) ideas this film conjures up about one’s sense of self, and the control rich society has on the individual.
As you can tell, it’s not a feel-good film, rather a dystopian gem that’s oddly appropriate considering the anxiety-filled fucktastrophe we’re currently living. And like all great horror movies, it’ll haunt you for days. Don’t miss out, and best of luck.
There we have it. Stream merrily, continue praying to the celluloid deities that kinos will reopen soon, and don’t forget to check out our January streaming recommendations.