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Last year came the global pandemic which we are still going through and have adapted to. Not only are a number of cinemas closed for obvious reasons, but the film industry has to adapt, in terms of how to produce and release films and announcements. This includes Warner Bros doing simultaneous releases of their big releases on both cinemas and HBO Max. With streaming services becoming more and more of a release vehicle for movies, there are have been films that were written, directed, and completed during the pandemic. Examples include the Michael Bay-produced Songbird to Sam Levinson’s Netflix outing Malcolm & Marie.
Because the pandemic foiled Levinson’s plans to produce a second season of HBO’s Euphoria – though two specials were released recently to critical acclaim – Levinson’s latest centers on a relationship between two lovers plays out in real time under the luxury of their expensive home. Filmmaker Malcolm Jones (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie Jones (Zendaya) return home from the premiere of his latest and await the critical response. The evening leads to an intense confrontation about their love with the past sins being brought to the front.
For a film with a running time of 106 minutes and featuring two lovers squabbling in one location, Malcolm & Marie could’ve been a chore to get through. The film does overstay its welcome with a narrative that can get repetitive due to the two lovers going from arguing with each other, to moments of pleasure to arguing again. It helps that the film is ultimately anchored by its two performers.
From its opening moments where Malcolm dances with such delight to the beat of James Brown, there is an energy that runs throughout the film at it’s hard to look away. As for Marie, who starts off in a passive mood cooking macaroni cheese for her beloved, you can tell there is tension and you’re awaiting to see which one of them snaps. From BlacKkKlansman to Tenet, John David Washington oozes with charisma as he continues to show here, with the addition of being vulnerable, showing a side to a role that is not just an egotistical filmmaker.
Zendaya is a revelation as Marie, whose side of the story is tragic from formerly being both an actress and a drug addict, which has been dramatized in Malcom’s movie. But is that what’s truly upsetting her? Considering the rapid-fire dialogue lends to the film’s sudden tonal shifts from tragedy to humor, Zendaya brilliantly navigates her way through the numerous stages where she can scarily show ferocity, to silently weep in a bathtub. All this while her co-star punches in the air in frustration to comedic effect. No doubt this relationship is a toxic one as well as an ambiguous one about what exactly is the outcome in this whole ordeal.
Since the subplot is about the wait for the critical response towards Malcolm’s movie, there is a recurring commentary about the psychoanalysis of filmmakers through their own work. It is a fascinating discussion that Levinson doesn’t know what to actually say. Instead, he lets the fictional director go off on a huge rant about whether or not his film being misinterpreted via race and politics.
Whatever muddled message about filmmaking there is in Malcolm & Marie, Sam Levinson uses cinematic tools to make something that could’ve been a two-person stage play. Shot on black-and-white 35mm, Marcell Rév’s cinematography showcases the power of the close-up with the unspoken looks of the two leads can say it all. The grandeur of the household visually conveys the distant feelings the characters have towards each other. As for the music, going from Labrinth’s score to the various jazz tracks, some of the musical choices are on-the-nose, but “Get Rid of Him” by Dionne Warwick is the funniest choice.
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