film

‘Black Is King’: A Beyoncé Film With A Disney Twist

by Stephen Thompson, Kiana Fitzgerald and Soraya Nadia McDonald

Beyoncé in “Mood 4 Eva” from the visual album BLACK IS KING on Disney+

Last summer, Beyoncé Knowles released an album called The Lion King: The Gift. It was based around Disney’s remake of The Lion King — a film that included voice acting from Beyoncé herself, among many others. Last Friday on Disney+, Beyoncé released a movie-length video that’s meant to serve as a companion to the album. It’s called Black Is King, it’s visually grand and sumptuous, and it’s got a huge cast — you’ll see Lupita Nyong’o, Pharrell Williams, Kelly Rowland, and many looks at Beyoncé’s children, her mother, and her husband Jay-Z. Black Is King and The Lion King: The Gift both highlight many guest performers — including African stars such as Yemi Alade, Shatta Wale, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Busiswa, Mr. Eazi, and more. 

The audio was produced and edited by Mike Katzif and Jessica Reedy.

Terrific New Thrillers ‘Amulet’ And ‘Relic’ Explore Terrors Lurking Within The Home

by Justin Chang

Given how much time some of us are spending at home these days, there might be something a little perverse about watching a movie that takes place in a haunted house. That’s especially true of two terrific thrillers, Amulet and Relic, in which the characters’ living spaces are infected with dark spirits and become inescapable prisons.

The wilder and crazier of the two is Amulet, a strikingly assured writing and directing debut from the actress Romola Garai, known for her work in English period pieces like Atonement and the BBC series EmmaAmulet, an intensely creepy supernatural freakout heavily influenced by the Italian horror master Dario Argento, is a rather less well-behaved affair. It stars the charismatic Romanian actor Alec Secareanu as Tomaz, a man from an unspecified European country who’s now living in London. Tomaz suffers from PTSD, and he spends his days doing construction jobs and his nights sleeping in a refugee shelter.

One day, a kind nun, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), offers to help Tomaz and leads him to the nearby home of a woman named Magda. The house is practically a ruin: The walls are decrepit, the rooms are filthy, and Tomaz can hear loud wailing — the sound of Magda’s mother — coming from upstairs. 

Magda’s mother lives on the top floor of the house and isn’t long for this world. Magda is tasked with the sole responsibility of her care, but it’s a tremendous strain — especially as her mother doesn’t like Magda to socialize.

Imelda Staunton’s delightfully mischievous performance as Sister Claire is an immediate sign that all is not as it seems. But that’s true of Tomaz, too. Throughout the film, Garai keeps cutting back to troubling scenes from Tomaz’s past, specifically his time as a soldier in some distant conflict. She undermines our instinct to sympathize with him and assume that he’s the hero of this story.

Tomaz agrees to stay and help Magda with odd jobs around the house, in exchange for room and board. But some jobs turn out to be odder than others. It’s not long before Tomaz makes a ghastly discovery while cleaning out the bathroom, in perhaps the creepiest backed-up-toilet scene since Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Conversation

But Amulet is more than the sum of its visual frights. Garai sets you up to expect one kind of movie, but she’s made something else entirely: a nightmarish story of male violence that becomes an immensely satisfying story of female retribution. Amulet is hardly the first revenge thriller to come along in recent years, but it left me admiring its fantastical moral logic: Given the reality of the world we live in, it might take an act of supernatural will to bring about justice.

Relic isn’t quite as ferocious as Amulet, but its brooding restraint may be even more effective. The Japanese Australian director Natalie Erika James, who co-wrote the script with Christian White, has crafted a slow-burning story about three generations of women brought together under the same roof. 

Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote play Kay and Sam, a mother and daughter traveling from Melbourne to the countryside home of Edna, Kay’s mother. Edna, who’s dealing with the onset of dementia, went mysteriously missing a few days ago. A police search is under way, and Kay and Sam are desperate to find her and make sure she’s OK. 

The condition of the house suggests that she isn’t: The place is a mess and the walls are covered with a strange, dark mold. They find little notes that Edna has scribbled to herself, which suggest she’s being haunted by something far worse than memory loss. And things don’t get any better when Edna, played by Robyn Nevin, suddenly reappears, alive but far from well.

There are no shocking twists or contrivances in store in Relic, and not a lot of gore, either. James excels at mining dread and tension from ordinary conversation, and she uses thriller conventions to get at something simple but shattering: the horror of watching a parent slowly deteriorate. The occasional flickers of tenderness that Edna shows Kay and Sam quickly give way to deep, implacable anger, some but not all of it rooted in past arguments and resentments. More often it stems from the fact that Edna no longer recognizes her daughter and granddaughter.

In the movie’s scariest and most ingenious sequence, Kay and Sam find themselves trapped in an ever-shifting maze of corridors and hidden passageways, as the house itself seems to mirror Edna’s increasingly unstable grip on reality. 

But as impressed as I was by the craftiness of Relic, I wasn’t prepared for how moving it would be. It’s not an easy thing for a director to pull off terror and grief, to let these two emotional registers coexist rather than fighting each other. But that’s exactly what James does here. She’s made a disturbing and ultimately devastating movie about what it means to love someone unconditionally, even when they’ve lost the power to love you back.

Delroy Lindo: I Think Of ‘Da 5 Bloods’ As ‘A Love Story’

by Scott Simon


Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s new film, follows five friends who shed blood, sweat, and tears together in the 1st Infantry Division during the Vietnam War — and who return, after 50 years, to bring home the body of a fallen friend, and perhaps a treasure buried with him. 

But is the treasure true riches, just reparations, or a curse?

Actor Delroy Lindo stars in Da 5 Bloods. He says it was a tough film to make. “When we wrapped in Saigon. I was aware of being quite fatigued emotionally, psychologically, somewhat physically, but I was not necessarily aware of that while we were filming.”


Interview Highlights

On Lindo’s character, Paul, wearing a MAGA hat

I didn’t want to do it, but I said to Spike, why can’t we make Paul, you know, an archconservative, an extreme conservative without going there, without my being a Trumpite? And he thought about it for a while. He called me back three days later and said he really needed Paul to be a Trumpite. And at that point, I read the script an additional two times, and I came to realize it’s just one component of this man.

On Paul and what he’s been carrying around for 50 years

I will say to you that that is part of the reason that I cast the vote that I cast, that Paul cast the votes that he cast. And during those 50 years, I have struggled. Now, let me just be clear what I’m saying, I am speaking as Paul. I struggle with a litany of betrayals and losses. One of the most significant betrayals is by the United States of America. When I came home from Vietnam after having volunteered — I was not drafted. I volunteered for three tours in Vietnam out of a love and sense of duty — coming back and being reviled and rejected constitutes for Paul a huge betrayal.

Then there is the loss of my wife. Then there is the loss of my son — and by loss of my son, what I mean is our relationship, as you see in the film, is fractious. There’s love there, but it’s very, very fractious. And here comes this individual in 2015 who says, I can make it better. And Paul needs a win. I need to believe what this man is saying, and that is what causes Paul to become that MAGA hat-wearing person.

On working with Spike Lee

Every time that I have worked with Spike, he is prepared to the max. He is detail-oriented so that when he shows up to begin work, and even in the rehearsal processes prior to filming, there is a clarity of vision, a clarity of purpose, which I find jibes with my own clarity of purpose on each of the projects that we’ve worked on. Coming to this project, there was that same attention to detail, that same passion, that same irrepressibility in service of the work. That was like oxygen for me. Beyond a breath of fresh air, it was like oxygen, in terms of once again being in the trenches with Spike and making this work.

On the timeliness of the film

It always seemed like a profoundly important film from the standpoint of presenting this story through the lens of the African American soldier’s experience, which does not happen for the most part. But you are right. The events of the last two, three weeks have made it even more acutely, timelier than it ever could have otherwise been.

On his hopes for the film’s audiences

This may seem like a very elementary thing to say, but in my mind it is not. I hope that they have an enhanced regard for these men in their humanity, because when I think about how we are presented in this film, and the dearth of stories through the lens of the black experience, what this film is doing in my mind is serving as a historical corrective.

So what I hope there is a an enhanced recognition of, as a result of seeing this film, is these men, their contributions, their courage and their love of America, and their love of country in context of the presentation of their humanity. Because a lack of recognition of our humanity is exactly the reason, one of the main reasons why the country is experiencing the turmoil that it is experiencing right now. So I hope in this film there’s a recognition of: These men are human beings, courageous human beings, loving human beings. Certainly, problematical human beings with faults and foibles and pettinesses, but who also love deeply. Because I think of this film as a love story.

This story was edited for radio by Sophia Boyd and D. Parvaz, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Elisabeth Moss Shines As Writer Shirley Jackson In This Smart, Surprising Film

By Justin Chang

Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her long-term houseguest Rose (Odessa Young) form an unusual bond in Shirley. The film mixes fact and fiction to explore the life of the American writer best known for her short story “The Lottery.”
Neon

I first saw Shirley months ago, back in January. It’s strange to be revisiting it now. Like a lot of very good movies, it doesn’t speak to this extraordinarily fraught moment, and it doesn’t offer a mindless escape from it, either. What it does offer is a smart, fascinating glimpse into an artist’s mind, and I hope you’ll seek it out now or in the future.

The timing of the movie’s release (it begins streaming on virtual cinema platforms June 5) chimes with a welcome resurgence of interest in Shirley Jackson decades after her death in 1965. You might have seen Netflix’s popular adaptation of Jackson’s horror classic, The Haunting of Hill House, and 2019 brought us a movie, based on her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, that deserved more attention than it received.

Now comes Shirley, a new film directed by Josephine Decker, which stars an unsurprisingly superb Elisabeth Moss as Jackson herself. But this isn’t a biopic in any straightforward sense; it’s more of a biographical-literary fantasia that freely mixes fact and fiction.


Sarah Gubbins’ script, loosely based on a 2010 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, means to suggest the origins of Jackson’s gothic sensibility, as well as her special insight into the minds of lost young women who feel isolated from mainstream society. Jackson felt some of that isolation herself, due to her unhappy childhood, difficult marriage and frequent bouts of anxiety and depression.

We first meet Shirley in the early ’50s, living in a small Vermont town with her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. He’s played with great bon vivant gusto by Michael Stuhlbarg.

Stanley, a professor at Bennington College, has invited his new teaching assistant, Fred, and his wife, Rose, to stay with them until they can find a place of their own. But Fred and Rose, played by Logan Lerman and Odessa Young, soon become long-term houseguests, as Stanley pushes Rose into the role of Shirley’s caretaker and companion, so that he can pursue his work and his extramarital affairs in peace. Looking after Shirley is no easy task: She hasn’t left the house in ages, and her writing has ground to a halt. As Stanley knows all too well, even getting her out of bed for a meal is a chore.

The academic setting and the couple-on-couple dynamic are meant to remind you of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and for a while the movie plays like a furiously entertaining comedy of marital discord. But as vicious as Shirley and Stanley can get — and despite Stanley’s infidelity — their marriage is weirdly functional at its core: Stanley genuinely respects his wife’s intellect and wants her to thrive.

And Shirley’s writing does eventually get back on track. We see her writing her second novel, Hangsaman, which is inspired by the 1946 disappearance of a Bennington student, Paula Jean Welden. This detail is rooted in real life, but the movie adds its own wrinkle: Shirley comes to see Rose as a kind of muse, a stand-in for that missing student.

If all these layers of reality and artifice sound a little confusing, that’s very much by design. Decker previously directed Madeline’s Madeline, a dizzyingly meta experiment about an aspiring young actress and her opportunistic theater director. Shirley looks far more conventional by comparison, but Decker’s jagged aesthetics are still in evidence: intense closeups, a swerving handheld camera and a score that pulses with menace. And she is grappling with a lot of the same themes and conundrums she did in Madeline’s Madeline, from the blurring of art and life to the troubling idea that mental illness can be a source of creative energy.

Moss, who has been made to look uncannily similar to Jackson, has always excelled at playing characters with their nerve endings exposed. After the tense dramatic exertions of her recent movies, Her Smell and The Invisible Man, she gets to relax a little as Shirley, teasing out the odd flashes of warmth and tenderness beneath the author’s prickly front. She also has a strong screen partner in Young as Rose, who is awed by Shirley’s brilliance and inspired to pursue her own life of the mind.

Although the movie suggests an erotic dimension to the relationship between these two women, what binds Shirley and Rose more than anything is a shared sense of injustice. They both have flagrantly unfaithful husbands — it doesn’t take long for Fred to start cheating on Rose — and they both chafe against the supportive housewife role that so many women were expected to play during that era.

Despite Jackson’s enormous popularity as a writer, the horror elements in her work meant that she had to endure a lot of genre snobbery as well as gender snobbery. It wasn’t until well after her death that more critics came to appreciate her body of work. Like a lot of great genre writers, Jackson consistently used thriller conventions to illuminate the phantasms of the mind and turn her own demons into art. Shirley is a worthy testament to her legacy.

It’s Not Just A Phase: ‘How To Build A Girl’ Is About A Teen Still Figuring It Out

By Ailsa Chang

Beanie Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan in How To Build A Girl, adapted from Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel.
IFC Films

Beanie Feldstein does not like the way teenage experimentation and growth gets dismissed as just a phase. “There tends to be the sort of stigma or judgment,” she says, whether it’s about dress, mood, makeup, or music choice.

What she loves about her latest film, How to Build a Girl, is that it gives teen phases the respect they deserve. “Those phases matter,” she says. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to last, but they do matter. … I think we could all be reminded of that lesson — especially adults.”

How to Build a Girl is a film adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel about an awkward teen turned music critic. Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan, a 16-year-old growing up in England in the 1990s. Johanna “hasn’t found her people yet,” says Feldstein, and her closest confidants are her heroes (Julie Andrews, Freud, Sylvia Plath, Karl Marx) whose pictures are taped to her bedroom wall.

Feldstein admits she sometimes felt nervous during filming, but found thinking back to her own teenage years helped: “I would just say to myself: Imagine if someone had done this for you — or if this film had an opportunity to be made — when you were 14,” she says. “It would have changed my whole understanding of myself.”


Interview Highlights

On what guides her in choosing projects

I was a sociology major in college. And I think that side of me — that side of my brain is really on high alert every time I read a script. … I might … be kind of enthralled by the idea of this director, or this actor, or this DP, or whoever it might be that is kind of intoxicating. But is this script important for the world? Is this story important to bring into the world? Is it going to change things? Is it diverse? Is it inclusive? All of those things. … I really do make an effort to always come back to those questions that I feel like the sociologist in me would ask — or would hope that an actor would ask.

On her character Johanna

She’s genuinely a happy and joyful, optimistic, imaginative young girl. But she’s also fed up. … She’s busting out of her skin. She’s busting out of her circumstance. She wants more. But at the same time, she’s so joyful and she loves the world. And I think that was something I really related to. I think the most prominent connective tissue between me and the character are that I am also very, very naturally optimistic … but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen sadness or tragedy in my life. … The film itself and the character, they just give you permission to feel multiple things at once.

On playing a teen character who hasn’t found her people

Johanna is a young woman without her tribe. … I was lucky; I had my musical theater-loving tribe. … I was so lucky to find my people so early and to have a really loving, attentive, supportive family. But not everyone is that lucky. And that ebbs and flows throughout your life. And so I love How to Build a Girl because it celebrates those that had to go at it alone during their adolescence, and were kind of out there and paving their own path and being their own best friend.

On what the film taught her about forgiveness

I think [it] gives everyone permission to make mistakes and not feel defined by those mistakes. But to feel sort of empowered — to fold them into the identity of who you are so you can become stronger and learn from them. I feel like I learned so much from doing this movie in that, you know, you can be a little more forgiving of yourself sometimes — and it doesn’t mean that you’re excusing the behavior or the decision — but you can just kind of forgive and learn from it. … You have to apologize when you’ve done something wrong, profusely and honestly, and then just continue to lead your life with kindness and just know: This is who I am today and you don’t have to have it all figured out.

On Caitlin Moran’s guidance about how to inhabit the character of Johanna

She said to me … ‘This is loosely based on my life, but it’s not my life. And I am here for you whenever you want me, whenever you need me. … But I also want you to feel free to create her as you inhabit her.’ … I just couldn’t have been more lucky in that way. Because every question I need answered, she has answers to — and lived answers to — which is sort of the greatest gift to an actor. But at the same time, both Coky [Giedroyc, the director,] and Caitlin and the whole creative team never sort of said: Well, we need you to be like Caitlin.

On the day Moran came to rehearsal

I just froze. Like, I’m not being self-deprecating. I was awful. I was so nervous to have her in the room … I was shaky and not locked-in. … And Caitlin emailed me about an hour after we finished rehearsal and it just said: Do you like to swim? And I emailed her back, and I was like: I love to swim. And she was like, meet me at this place at this time on Saturday. And I met her at … a women’s only swimming pond. … And we didn’t talk about the movie. We didn’t talk about the characters. She just got me out of my head. We just had, like, a heart-to-heart, a true friendship conversation where we got to know each other on a more personal level. … I had this sort of remarkable, magical day with her. … And I think it really kind of relaxed my soul and my heart. … It was so unspoken and quiet, but it was really beautiful.

On why she wanted to make this film

I never saw a young girl who looked like me … I never saw anyone with my body on-screen and I never saw anyone with my ethos on-screen. … I just think there’s so many aspects of Johanna’s story that were never, ever given to me when I was younger. And whenever I was nervous, I would just think about if I could have had that film, how much it would have changed my sort of understanding of where I fit in the world.

Brian Dennehy’s ‘Driveways’ Performance Is Gruff, Graceful — And A Goodbye

By Justin Chang

When 8-year-old Cody (Lucas Jaye) temporarily moves into the house next door to Del (Brian Dennehy), the two strike up an unlikely, intergenerational friendship. Dennehy died April 15 at the age of 81.
Courtesy of FilmRise

When I first saw the lovely independent film Driveways last fall, I didn’t know that I was watching one of Brian Dennehy‘s final performances. I remember thinking he was wonderful in the movie, which in itself was no surprise. I also remember wishing that this great American actor, so acclaimed for his work on stage and television, had been given more of his due in movies. In Driveways, Dennehy gives the kind of graceful, deeply lived-in performance that reminds you why he was so often taken for granted: When you never hit a false note, you run the risk of making it look easy.

Dennehy plays a suburban widower named Del who befriends a woman and her 8-year-old son when they temporarily move into the house next door. Kathy, played by Hong Chau, and her son, Cody, played by Lucas Jaye, have driven some distance so they can clean out the house of Kathy’s late sister, April, and put it on the market. Easier said than done: April was quite the packrat, and the house is a mess, full of boxes and clutter, and with a dead cat lying in the bathtub.


We get to know the characters gradually. Kathy is studying to be a nurse, and we can sense immediately that she’s a great mom: She’s always looking out for Cody, nagging him to eat more and encouraging him to come out of his shell. Cody is a shy, sensitive kid who likes to keep to himself.

But then Cody meets Del, a Korean War vet who lives next door and spends a lot of his time sitting on his front porch. Things don’t get off to a promising start. In one scene, Cody gets water splashed on his T-shirt, and Kathy, mistakenly thinking Del was responsible, goes over to confront him.

Del might seem gruff at first, but it doesn’t take long for him and Kathy and Cody to warm up to each other. Kathy helps Del out by driving him to an appointment, and Del returns the favor by looking after Cody one afternoon following a babysitter mishap. Del and Cody bond naturally and with minimal conversation; sometimes Cody just likes hanging out on Del’s porch, reading a book while Del looks at his newspaper. “He’s good company,” Del says.

All this might suggest a sappy, paint-by-numbers setup, or maybe the indie dramedy version of Pixar’s Up: Cranky old man bonds with cute kid. But the movie is subtler and more delicate than that. The screenwriters, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, don’t try to engineer big emotional moments or shock us with cathartic revelations. They simply show us three people at different life stages coming together under imperfect circumstances and, somehow, fitting together perfectly.

Chau, a great actress known for her work in the movie Downsizing and the TV series Big Little Lies, beautifully captures Kathy’s lingering guilt at not having spent more time with her sister. Cleaning out the house becomes her way of getting to know a sibling who was, in many ways, a mystery. Jaye is also terrific as a smart, thoughtful kid who doesn’t make new friends easily, but desperately needs the support and validation of others.


The movie was directed by the Korean American filmmaker, Andrew Ahn, who made the moving and perceptive coming-of-age drama Spa Night. It was Ahn’s decision on Driveways to cast Kathy and Cody with Asian American actors, a choice that enriches the film without calling attention to itself. It’s a gentle reminder that cross-cultural relationships happen every day in America, even if our movies don’t always reflect that reality.

Watching Driveways a second time recently, I found it even more emotionally affecting than before. That’s partly because its portrait of neighborly goodwill strikes a resonant chord at the present moment, when many of us are staying home and isolating from others. But mostly it’s because of Dennehy. At one point, Del gets a quietly stirring monologue in which he looks back on his life — his military service, his decades-long marriage, his blessings and failings as a husband and father — and sums it all up with an exquisite mix of joy and regret. Like all great actors, Dennehy left us far too soon, but it’s hard to imagine a more poignant farewell.

Troubled Teen Finds New Direction In Clear-Eyed ‘Bull’

By Scott Tobias

“Can’t you just take me to juvie?”

There’s a disturbing resignation to the way Kris, a 14-year-old white girl from a run-down Houston suburb, poses the question to a cop who’s picked her up for trashing a neighbor’s house. Her mother is already in jail and her grandmother, dirt poor and overtaxed in the best of times, lacks the health and the resource to look after her and her little sister. Kris’ academic prospects are so dire that her English teacher doesn’t even bother to call her out in class for watching a video on her phone. “I saw you, Kris,” the teacher says. “I’m just to the point where I don’t care anymore.”

Getting the audience to care is a challenge, too, though the two first-timers responsible for Bull, director Annie Silverstein and her lead actress, Amber Havard, are up to the task. Despite the sentimental outlines of the story, which ultimately centers on the redemptive relationship between Kris and an aging African-American bull rider, don’t actively court sympathy for her. They want to make her persuasive first, so they emphasize the deflating apathy of a girl who doesn’t believe her future will be any different than her mother’s. Kris doesn’t want to take even the minimal steps to keep herself out of trouble. She just wants to get it over with.

There are several recent points of comparison for Bull, like the Heartland drift of a traveling magazine sellers in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, the lost children in the shadows of Disney World in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, or the teenage girl fighting her way through meth country in Winter’s BoneBull could use more of the expressive spark of those great films — it’s humble and low-key to a fault — but it share with them a keen sense of what it’s like to grow up poor in America, and how even young children become aware of their narrowed options. What’s different about Kris is that she doesn’t have the will to fight for anything better, at least not at first.

South African ‘Queen Sono’ Is A Savvy Secret Agent — And A First For Netflix

by Michel Martin

Queen Sono is both a classic spy thriller and a ground-breaking entertainment endeavor. The drama is Netflix’s first commissioned script-to-screen series from Africa, and the first such show to get major distribution in the U.S.

Filmed across the continent with a diverse cast featuring multiple languages, the show stars Pearl Thusi as a South African secret agent with a complicated past.

Creator and executive producer Kagiso Lediga has a background in stand up comedy and says his jump to a crime drama is “just a graduation of storytelling.”

“Stand up was the cheapest way to tell a story because you don’t require crews and lights and cameras,” he says. “It’s just you, and the mic, and a spotlight.”

There are a lot more moving parts now, and he acknowledges that being the first comes with some pressure.

“If you do stand up, you get into a room, you perform and you’re … representing yourself … ” he says. “People laugh? Great. People, don’t laugh? You just avoid eye contact and keep it moving.”

But when you’re making the first Netflix original fully produced in Africa?

“Everybody’s coming with this expectation,” he says. “It’s like what is the first African original? … What are we going to see?”


Interview Highlights

On why he wanted to tell a spy story

I’ve always loved the spy genre. You know, I love everything from John le Carré-type of spy stuff all the way to James Bond. And you know, what I like most about it is that you can infuse it with history. … You get to tell the story of a culture very easily.

So I thought, you know, that the world doesn’t necessarily have like a context of Africa. You know, Africa is always this place over there with kids that are covered in flies. And I thought: Africa’s way sexier, and what better way to show it off than through a spy story where you have like this great female agent who traverses the continent?

On featuring a female protagonist

For African women and for little girls to see a woman do that — you know, punching people in the face — because [those are] the kind of roles that men generally play on this continent. I wanted to flip that. I wanted to have women see themselves or see another female that’s empowered and maybe that could make a difference. You know, for like a 15 year old, 16 year old seeing Queen Sono, you know, that’s a great image. That’s, I think, something empowering for them going forward. That was sort of a driving force for me.

It is the elephant in the room. The legacy of apartheid is everywhere.

On Queen Sono being haunted by the murder of her mother, an anti-apartheid activist

Our recent history is apartheid. And it kind of is like the ghost — it is the elephant in the room. The legacy of apartheid is everywhere. It’s pervasive in general society. And for me, it’s very important that that narrative doesn’t get lost.

You know, like for young people who … might have been born 10 years ago, for them, it might just be regular that black people are always working on the side of the roads while, you know, the yards and the spaces are owned by white people. If you don’t sort of explain why that is, people are just gonna think that’s how God intended it. … The universe just likes it that way, you know?

And so I felt in this piece of entertainment, it’s important to tell that history. … I thought it would be like a cool thing to imbue the story with the history and see how that goes.

On creating the first Netflix original series where the whole production is centered in Africa

So you come with a spy thing and people recognize all the tropes, then they’ll go: ‘It’s not original.’ … And then you get people who get it and they’re like: ‘Oh, my God, this is unbelievable to see ourselves, to hear our languages.’ …

So then at some point you just have to kind of grow a thick skin and go with it, because we knew that it was going to be a tightrope walk, because you can’t please everybody, but you’re going to try to make something very original and fun — and I think we succeeded in that.

On how he’s doing in Johannesburg, during the coronavirus pandemic

We’re good. In my town, it’s illegal to go jogging or to walk your dog. So luckily, my dog is really, really old. So walking it would probably kill it. But it plays a little bit in the garden. It’s winter — winter’s starting. So that could also be bad news because it’s when people get flus and all of that type of stuff. But I think as a nation people are staying at home. We’re doing our best.

Portrait Of The Outlaw As A Young Man: ‘True History Of The Kelly Gang’

By Ella Taylor

If you’ve read Peter Carey’s marvelous 2001 True History of the Kelly Gang, you’ll be aware going into a faithful new film adaptation of the novel that the word “true” is a signal to literary mischief and sly tampering with received history. Director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant mirror Carey’s grimly playful take on the myths that have grown around Ned Kelly, leader of the notorious Australian Kelly Gang.

In his second feature after the chilling 2012 horror movie Snowtown, Kurzel adds a ravishingly brutal visual grammar that pictures the country’s state of Victoria as a late 19th century Wild West with no clear boundaries between those who break the law and the British colonizers meant to enforce it. Not that there’s much law to start with. A former theatrical designer, Kurzel wrings a ravaged beauty from a rural landscape so blighted, its trees stick straight up in the air, leafless and barren. The soundtrack, by turns eerie and jangling, draws on the frantically nihilist punk canon of the 1970s, exactly a century after the Kelly Gang’s rise and fall. In a recurring, misleadingly romantic long shot we see Ned riding a white horse through the countryside.

Depending on your tolerance for savage mayhem, Ned Kelly — famous down under and overseas for the crude metal bucket he wore to butt heads with the Brits — was either a folk hero with Robin Hood tendencies or a murderous thug who spent his short, sharp life stealing horses, robbing banks, and whacking the constabulary who got in his way as reigning overlord of the Sons of Sieve, a ragtag band of Irish-born or bred resistance fighters whose odd signature was the frilly dresses they wore to battle the oppressor.

Hero or villain, that duality has pretty much come to be a staple of any knowing 21st-century revision of the Western hero, and certainly in anyone as drawn to subversive subtext as Carey. Faithful to the writer’s sly vision, Kurzel pries loose the man from both myths and digs deeper to give Kelly an origin story in three parts, told by Ned himself in a letter he writes from prison to the baby daughter he will never see grow up. Woven into Ned’s earnest missive, an alternate tale unfolds as a black tragicomedy studded with the pathos of a frightened and confused boy forced into manhood far too early, with myth and reality all jumbled up in his addled head.

Carey’s Ned, expanded by Kurzel, is something of a screw-up as both saint and sinner. There’s something biddable about Ned that makes him both easy to love and fatally vulnerable to baleful influence. Which may be why Kurzel cast George MacKay as his lead and not the more dashing Nicholas Hoult, who plays a cruel and callow local policeman who preys on Ned’s mother. MacKay showed himself a versatile performer in Pride and 1917, but there’s an irreducibly sweet goofiness that serves him beautifully as Ned, an innocent warped into avenging angel by early trauma, destitution, and the brutal injuries of the colonial rule he was born into.

Played as a child by a seraphic Orlando Schwerdt, Ned is shaped early on by the loss of his father and the twisted devotion of his mother, played by the terrific Australian actress Essie Davis, recently seen as a harried single mother in The Babadook and as the sexy lay detective in television’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Davis’s Ellen Kelly may be the most bracing portrait of maternal devotion gone bananas on the screen today. A proud, wild-haired warrior, Ellen Kelly will do anything, including selling her body and her favorite son, to protect the little that’s hers. Even the religiosity that sustains her has gotten tangled in her head, and, inevitably, her credulous son’s.

A hyper-responsible little man of the house, Ned adores his mother back, and their mad kinship will remain the movie’s fulcrum, molding the eager-to-please lad into an adult who’s equal parts creative writer and bitter avenger. In the latter he’s helped along by bush ranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, vast in size and billowing rhetoric), whose sexual impotence feeds straight into a horrifying sadism that lands his young charge in prison. Years later Ned emerges a man of sorts but divided against himself, his most creative impulses twisted by circumstance into violence and a tendency to bend with every wind. Ned has been shown enough affection to enable him to fall in love and father a child with a sweet young prostitute (Thomasin Mackenzie). But his encounters with a viciously exploitive British constable, played wittily against type by Charlie Hunnam, will be the making of Ned, and also his undoing.

And so Ned’s story comes to an end, his account always refracted for us by the film’s visceral interpretation. True History of the Kelly Gang ends with a set piece that both tops and undercuts every bravura climactic gunfight you may have seen. The spectacle, at once brutal and absurd (here comes that metal bucket), affirms and demolishes Ned’s messenger-of-God fantasies and those of the Western too. Behind his dangling body we hear echoes of an earlier comment by a buddy with a clearer head. “None of this is the work of God,” he whispers to Ned. “You’re just a man.”

CorrectionApril 24, 2019

An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that George MacKay had appeared in Game of Thrones.

SXSW Film Festival Heads To Amazon

by Andrew Limbong

Amazon Prime Video will be hosting some of the movies that never got screen time at this year’s canceled SXSW Film Festival. Amazon and SXSW announced today that the online film festival will be free to all audiences for 10 days — but you will need an Amazon account. 

According to the statement, the slate of films offered will depend on which filmmakers choose to opt in to the festival. “Filmmakers who choose to participate will receive a screening fee for streaming their film over the 10-day period … SXSW has shared details on the opportunity with 2020 filmmakers, who can opt in starting today.” 

SXSW joins a number of canceled and delayed film festivals going the online route: the Tribeca Film Festival has been posting a short film every day, the Greenwich International Film Festival will be bringing its May festival online, and the Washington, D.C., Environmental Film Festival has posted a number of this year’s movies, along with an archive going back to 1990. And the film distributor Kino Lorber has begun working with independent and art house theaters across the country to “screen” current independent releases, starting with the acclaimed Brazilian movie Bacurau.