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Indie Focus: Activism and betrayal in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Due to the strange release schedules forced on some movies by the pandemic and an extended award season, Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” one of my favorite movies of last year, is now reaching theaters and a special streaming platform before heading to VOD on Feb. 26.

Amy Kaufman spoke to the film’s delightful young star, Alan Kim, about his starring role in the film. Jen Yamato spoke to Yuh-Jung Youn, already a huge star in South Korea, about making her American film debut with “Minari.”

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As to what brought her to the project, Youn recalled her first time reading Chung’s semiautobiographical screenplay, saying, “I’ve been in this business for such a long time, and when you read a script, you can tell the difference. His story touched me. I am going to be the first audience for a script, and unless I got touched by that script, there’s no reason to do it. That’s my feeling. I thought maybe it was his story. It was so authentic.”

Lorraine Ali moderated the Envelope Actress Roundtable, with Andra Day, Rashida Jones, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kate Winslet.

This week on “The Envelope” podcast, Yvonne Villarreal spoke to actor Josh O’Connor about his role as Prince Charles on Netflix’s “The Crown.”

And special notice should go to “Dead Pigs,” the 2018 debut feature from Cathy Yan, who would go on to direct last year’s “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).” Set in China and featuring Vivian Wu and Zazie Beetz, Yan’s first film is an offbeat treat that has taken three years to come to American audiences. It is available at last on the streaming service Mubi.

Reviewing the movie for The Times, Carlos Aguilar wrote, “Dynamic in a Hollywood-friendly manner, the film has a deliberately broad tone, but by no means does that detract from its thematic acumen. Watching Yan’s first feature, one can indisputably appreciate why a studio would go after her talent and how compatible her style is with Christina Hodson’s writing for ‘Birds of Prey.’ Thoroughly enjoyable, ‘Dead Pigs’ arises as the origin chapter of a great storyteller and an opportune mosaic of people in a rapidly transforming superpower.”

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‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Directed by Shaka King, “Judas and the Black Messiah” intertwines the stories of Fred Hampton, the young activist and Black Panther Party leader who was shot dead by law enforcement at age 21, and William O’Neal, the man who betrayed him to the authorities. With powerful, haunted performances by Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as O’Neal, as well as a strong turn by Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s fiancée, Akua Njeri, the movie may be the most conversation-worthy new release of the year so far. The movie is in limited theatrical release and streaming on HBO Max.

Sonaiya Kelley spoke to Njeri and her son with Hampton, Fred Hampton Jr., who both consulted on the film. King said of their involvement, “Ultimately they were able to help us avoid so many pitfalls and so many mistakes that we would’ve thought were innocuous. [Despite] having done as much research as we’d done, there’s no substitute for the real person. We would’ve made a lot of mistakes and offended a lot of people but they were able to help us avoid that. They were incredible.”

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Fred, in short, is almost too singular and overwhelming a presence to be contained by this big, sweeping but inevitably circumscribed movie, which has to thread a needle not uncommon to biographical dramas of its sort. … The movie is both a portrait and a panorama, a story about Black self-determination as an individual and collective enterprise.”

For Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién wrote, “The civil-rights leaders of yore were titans: charismatic and forceful, intelligent and righteously determined. In the years since Hampton’s death, pop culture has mined the Black Panthers for their posture and aesthetic. … ‘Judas’ feels like an extension of the same idea: deploying the Panthers as symbols rather than people. The only things I felt as the credits rolled were a profound sense of disappointment and a frustrated queasiness at what happens when the industry seeks to adopt an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, undeniably radical figure such as Hampton. Hollywood is more of a capitalist enterprise than it is a haven for artists. What it can’t co-opt, it discards.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Though it plays at times like a crime thriller — with stakeouts and shootouts, chases and interrogations — the movie is better understood as a political tragedy. The script, by King and Will Berson, is layered with ethical snares and ideological paradoxes, and while King’s fast-paced direction doesn’t spare the suspense, it also makes room for sorrow, anger and even a measure of exhilaration. … ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ represents a disciplined, impassioned effort to bring clarity to a volatile moment, to dispense with the sentimentality and revisionism that too often cloud movies about the ’60s and about the politics of race.”

For Slate, Karen Han compared “Judas” to Aaron Sorkin’s recent “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which also featured Hampton as a character. “To wit, if ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is a simplification of events, then ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is the expansion and complication of Hampton’s legacy. Yes, Hampton was killed, and yes, O’Neal betrayed him. But there are infinitely more details to their stories, and King tries to get into as many of them as he can, aided by powerhouse performances from his two leads, as well as a remarkable supporting turn from Fishback. Though it’s early in the year, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to name it one of 2021’s best films. It may be one of the year’s most important movies, too, as a work created by Black artists about Black historical figures, and a full telling of the circumstances of and people involved in Fred Hampton’s death rather than a footnote in a white story.”

Daniel Kaluuya, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and LaKeith Stanfield in a car.
Daniel Kaluuya, left, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and LaKeith Stanfield in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
(Glen Wilson / Warner Bros.)

‘French Exit’

Directed by Azazel Jacobs from a screenplay by Patrick DeWitt adapting his own novel, “French Exit” is a bittersweet dramedy about an eccentric mother, Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer), and her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), who decamp from New York to Paris when their fortune has nearly run out. And there is a cat that just may contain the spirit of Frances’ dead husband. The movie is playing at the Vineland Drive-in and in limited release where theaters are open.

I reviewed the film for The Times, writing, “The misadventures of the eccentrically wealthy may not exactly fit the mood right now, but the new ‘French Exit’ is so genuine in its mix of arch and earnest, idiosyncrasy and earthiness that it creates a space all for itself. … The movie is rife with melancholy and whimsy, existing in a hermetically sealed world of privilege that everyday reality only occasionally punctures. Yet the movie still manages to create an emotional tug, an overcast feeling of loss, that makes it difficult to dismiss.”

For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “Pfeiffer is flat-out fabulous here, at once chilly and poignant. As Frances dispenses the last of her money to homeless men in the park, her largess seems more to do with weariness than compassion, her beneficiaries simply useful receptacles for something she no longer needs. A strange mixture of highbrow looniness and quiet rue, ‘French Exit’ is finally less about one woman’s desire to die than about her inability to summon the energy to live.”

For Rolling Stone, K. Austin Collins wrote, “Even a story as attractively unusual and unpredictable as this can fall prey to the quicksands of convention and lifeless resolution. … There’s a words-escape-me, tingling, offbeat something about this movie that reels you in — a something dimmed, maybe, by the brunt of the film so clearly guiding us toward this impression. Once it gets there, it doesn’t quite know where to go. Wit gives way to enervation. Frances, dead or alive, has spark to the very end. But by then, so far as the movie’s concerned, she’s on her own.”

Michelle Pfeiffer holds a martini.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Frances Price in “French Exit.”
(Lou Scamble / Sony Pictures Classics)

‘Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar’

Directed by Josh Greenbaum, “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is the first film written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo since their Oscar-nominated smash “Bridesmaids.” Best friends Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) go on a vacation together to Vista Del Mar, Fla., and much absurdist pastel-colored kookiness ensues. Jamie Dornan gamely plays along, including in his own elaborate musical number. The film is available now on premium digital and VOD.

For The Times, Katie Walsh described the film’s visual style as “gawd-awful on purpose,” going on to add, “The visual jokes are dense and the look works for the setting and comedic ethos, reflecting the junky tourist-trap aesthetic that Mumolo and Wiig celebrate. The film is the visual equivalent of a cheaply made, heinously charming and diverting trinket that one can buy at a beach hut boardwalk kiosk. And I mean that as a compliment. ‘Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar’ is an optimistic and unabashed celebration of many things that are taken for granted: culottes, friendship, women doing comedy so aggressively silly that you can’t help but marvel at whoever gave them the money to make this. Go ahead, laugh a little.”

For the New York Times, Beatrice Loayza wrote, “Barb and Star’s oddball palavering has its charms thanks to Wiig and Mumolo’s natural rapport, but the characters’ silliness is less gut-wrenchingly funny than it is mostly weird and whimsical. ‘Barb and Star’ offers a mixed bag of laughs, often feeling like a Frankenstein assembly of various sketches. Still, I can’t help but admire its commitment to the act, and its gloriously unhinged absurdity.”

For Vulture, Bilge Ebiri wrote, “There are almost no real humorous setpieces in ‘Barb & Star,’ nothing that achieves comic bliss by escalating to new levels of raucousness. … The comedy doesn’t build so much as it drones on, understated in form but preposterous in content. It wins us over not so much through belly laughs but by making us feel like we’re privy to a wonderfully bizarre in-joke. Or, to put it another way: This is a film that pauses for some extended wisdom from a sage old crab named Morgan Freemand (with a d) and then continues along as if nothing has happened. It’s funny enough in the moment, but it’s a lot funnier half an hour later, when you think to yourself, ‘This is a film that paused for some extended wisdom from a sage old crab named Morgan Freemand. With a d.’ It’s entirely possible that I’m laughing more about it now than I did during the movie.”

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo walk through a hotel lobby wearing leis and holding tropical cocktails.
Kristen Wiig, left, as Star and Annie Mumolo as Barb in “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.”
(Cate Cameron / Lionsgate)


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