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Indie Focus: Andra Day shines in ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’

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

For a number of reasons, things feel a little different this year around the Golden Globes, which are happening Sunday.

First, obviously, there’s the pandemic, which means that celebrities will not be tipsy and shoulder-to-shoulder around tables in a Beverly Hills ballroom.

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But also, Stacy Perman and Josh Rottenberg of The Times recently published a devastating report on the practices of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the organization responsible for the Globes. Perhaps most shocking for many were the payments made to members by the organization.

“It’s a beautiful idea to take the money from NBC and give it to good causes like tuition and to restore films,” said one member. “But there is a spirit now to milk the organization and take the money. It’s outrageous.”

Perman and Rottenberg also wrote about the personal eccentricities of certain members and the makeup of the HFPA’s ranks. Of its current 87 members, not one is Black.

By the end of the week the HFPA had released a statement vowing to change that. “We are fully committed to ensuring our membership is reflective of the communities around the world who love film, TV and the artists inspiring and educating them. We understand that we need to bring in Black members, as well as members from other underrepresented backgrounds, and we will immediately work to implement an action plan to achieve these goals as soon as possible.”

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‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’

Directed by Lee Daniels with a screenplay by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” tells the story of the singer (played by Andra Day in her film debut) through the lens of her addiction and with a focus on how the U.S. government hounded her in no small part due to her iconic song “Strange Fruit.” The film is streaming now on Hulu.

For The Times, Gregory Ellwood spoke to Daniels, who said that while the 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues,” starring Diana Ross as Holiday, was an early inspiration for him to become a filmmaker, he discovered there was more of the singer’s life to tell. “I found out that that wasn’t the real story, that Billie Holiday was a civil rights leader, that she wasn’t just a drug addict or a jazz singer,” Daniels said. “‘Strange Fruit’ kicked off the civil rights movement as we know it. When you think of civil rights leaders, you think of Malcolm X, you think of Martin Luther King. And to me, civil rights leaders come in all shapes, sizes and complexities.”

And Briana Younger spoke to Day, who said, “I think Billie Holiday’s life was already a fight in activism, but I think portraying her as well is also a fight in activism. Telling her story is always going to be defiant when it comes to the system, because that’s how she was, and that’s who she was by just living freely.”

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In his review for The Times, Kevin Crust wrote that in the film, “there is a struggle over how to tell that story. Within the confines of a straight-ahead, handsomely designed and photographed biopic beats the heart of a more adventurous presentation of Holiday’s tragic life. It’s hinted at in Day’s performance, the dreamlike memory sequences and a cheeky, meta-coda that plays out during the end credits but never quite pierces the film’s more varnished surfaces.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “What’s shocking about this movie, in the context of that arresting body of work, is how thin and wooden it is, how cautiously attached to the conventions of its genre. But it is not, for all that, entirely unwatchable. … The seeds of a satisfying and illuminating anti-biopic are scattered through those scenes, but ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ proves unable to rescue its heroine from its own confusion.”

For the Playlist, Valerie Complex wrote, “Every opportunity for nuance is squandered and sacrificed in the name of some spectacle. … What’s left is Billie Holiday’s pain, struggle, abuse, and heartache, which feels all too familiar, and sometimes even a little too gaudy; overly concerned with patina and sheen rather than the radical notion of a challenging cry against the inhumanity of racism and the bravery behind it. Sadly, Daniels’ film never does much symbolic or emotional justice to Holiday’s suffering, nor the evocative and wrenchingly imprinted trauma of blood on the leaves.”

A man and a woman dance close to each other in a dimly lit room.
Andra Day and Trevante Rhodes in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”
(Takashi Seida / Hulu)

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‘The Father’

Directed by Florian Zeller, who adapted his own play along with Christopher Hampton, “The Father” is a wrenching story of family and loss, with Anthony Hopkins playing a man struggling with dementia and Olivia Colman as his daughter. The film is playing at the Vineland Drive-In and will be on premium video on demand starting March 26.

For The Times, Gregory Ellwood spoke to Zeller, who said of working with Hopkins and Coleman, “The challenge was just to be as truthful, as sincere, as playful sometimes or powerful as possible for that scene. In a way, it was a very easy process in the work with the actors, because, of course, they are so good and so instinctive about how to make it work in a single room. We were like children playing with the material to make it work, to make it feel it’s real.”

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “This is, as its title suggests, the story of not just a disintegrating psyche, but also a disintegrating relationship between a father and a daughter whose love he can no longer see or feel. ‘The Father’ may be a remarkable feat of sustained identification, but beyond the margins of Anthony’s experience — and primarily in the figure of Anne, whom Colman brings to aching, tremulous life — we catch glimpses of other characters and other stories: a terrible accident, a broken marriage, a second chance at love. These stories may be half-buried memories or hallucinatory projections, but they are real enough to mark ‘The Father’ as more than just one man’s tragedy.”

For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “At once stupendously effective and profoundly upsetting, ‘The Father’ might be the first movie about dementia to give me actual chills. On its face a simple, uncomfortably familiar story about the heartbreaking mental decline of a beloved parent, this first feature from the French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller plays with perspective so cleverly that maintaining any kind of emotional distance is impossible.”

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For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “Zeller at least allows us in the audience to piece together some kind of vague timeline of real events, but linear structure is largely eschewed. This is a nervy approximation of what dementia may actually feel like, the mundane suddenly shifting into the unknown. It’s a much more interesting approach to the subject matter than something straightforward would have been, allowing for the scary stuff to exist in startling concert with the sad. … ‘The Father’ is an act of understanding, radical in its toughness and its generous artistry.”

An old man wearing a bathrobe stands in a home with his hands folded, his gaze downcast.
Anthony Hopkins in “The Father.”
(Sean Gleason/Sony Pictures Classics)

‘Night of the Kings’

Written and directed by Philippe Lacôte, “Night of the Kings” is the Ivory Coast’s submission for the international feature Academy Award and recently made it to the categories shortlist. In the film, a young man (Koné Bakary) who comes to be known as Roman is thrown into a brutal prison, where his skills as a storyteller allow him to survive. Beloved French actor Denis Lavant also appears in a supporting role. The movie is available now via virtual cinemas and will be on premium VOD on March 5.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Politics and mythology blur indistinguishably, and folkloric enchantment gives way to startling violence (and vice versa). Lacôte turns the prison into a teeming, quarreling microcosm of the country just beyond its barred walls, and turns his characters into stripped-down representatives of a traumatized, factionalized society struggling to reemerge. All this can seem like both too much and too little, which speaks to Lacôte’s curious mix of economy and ambition. … In capturing and preserving a long-standing oral tradition, he has arrived at both a persuasive vision of the past and a hopeful glimpse of the future. Like all good storytellers, he leaves you wanting more.”

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For the Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh wrote that Lacôte “packs in an incredible amount of character development and world-building into the 93-minute run time of ‘Night of the Kings,’ which is a relatively simple setup that unfolds layers and layers of lore, legend, spirituality and political context in this film that takes place over one night, in one setting.”

For rogerebert.com, Robert Daniels wrote that the filmmaker “uses Roman’s story to explain the historical cycle of violence, and how that cycle has affected his country. … With ‘Night of the Kings’ Lacôte collapses the bounds between eras, and dissolves myth and reality, performance and remembrance, into one whole. It’s an assured, energetic piece of epic filmmaking, one that celebrates how storytelling, oration, and folklore teach us about our past so we might change our present.”

Koné Bakary in "Night of the Kings."
(Neon)


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