ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2020)

January 10, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Four grown men hanging out in a Miami motel room may not strike you as a promising premise for a must-see movie, but this wasn’t just a group of random buddies. Inspired by what actually happened on February 25, 1964, the film takes us behind the closed door that sheltered newly crowned heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay, pro football superstar Jim Brown, singer-songwriter-entrepreneur Sam Cooke, and activist Malcolm X, as they met to discuss their burgeoning roles as leaders in the Black community.

Each of the four main characters gets their own introductory prologue so that we have a feel for them prior to their motel rendezvous. We watch as Sam Cooke, smooth voice and all, bombs at the Copacabana Club simply because most of the rich white folks in the audience don’t want to be entertained by a black singer. In London, we are plopped into the ring of the first Cassius Clay – Henry Cooper fight, so we can witness Clay’s remarkable athleticism and showmanship … and also the rare instance of his being knocked down. We then head to St. Simons Island, Georgia, an historic spot for both the American Revolution and the Civil War. Local football hero Jim Brown is invited to iced tea on the front porch by a local rich man (Beau Bridges) and his daughter (real life daughter Emily Bridges). They fawn over his prowess as a sports figure, but after a friendly chat, state matter-of-factly why Brown is not allowed into the main house. Lastly, we pick up with Malcolm X as he disagrees with Elijah Muhammed, and the subsequent conversations with his wife about the ramifications of leaving the Nation of Islam.

These vignettes set the stage for the four men to meet in Malcolm X’s motel room after Clay’s historic defeat of Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. Clay is portrayed by Eli Goree (RACE, 2016), who does a nice job of capturing the champ’s moves in the ring, as well as his charm, braggadocio, and intellect outside it. Cooke is played perfectly by Tony Award winner Leslie Odom Jr (Aaron Burr in both the stage and film version of HAMILTON), while Aldis Hodge (CLEMENCY, 2019) is Jim Brown and Kingley Ben-Adir (“The OA”) is a standout as Malcolm X.

Cooke and Brown are under the impression that this is going to be a wild Miami party, while Clay is in a celebratory mood, even though he knows the real reason the four men have gathered. Rather than a bash, Malcolm X has arranged an evening of “reflection” for the four men he envisions as leading the revolution of blacks against the devil known as the white man. What follows are multiple discussions – some deep, some angry, some both – about how the men view their position in society and culture. What Malcolm terms “The Struggle”, they each relate to, but have found their own personal ways of dealing. Brown wants to transition into acting as something less physically demanding, and Cooke is building his record label and buying cars to flaunt his success. Clay is young. He just turned 22 the month prior, and he is somewhat reluctantly buying into the Muslim Faith … quite the coup for Malcolm X’s plan.

The fun here is derived from the terrific interactions between four very different personalities, each with varying degrees of comprehension on their budding power. How best to utilize that power is the dilemma, and each man has their own opinions and perspectives. Cooke is on one extreme wanting to succeed in a capitalistic society, while Malcolm X is on the other extreme pushing activism and a full revolution (“blow it up”). The exchanges and conflict between these two are the highlights of the film, as Odom and Ben-Adir shine.

This is the feature film directorial debut of Oscar and Emmy winning actress Regina King, and while a screen adaptation of a stage play may be a risky first in the director’s chair, Ms. King handles the material expertly … as does the cast. Kemp Powers adapted his own stage production for the big screen, and he’s also a co-writer on the latest Pixar gem, SOUL. Supporting roles are covered by Lance Reddick (as Kareem X), Michael Imperioli (as Angelo Dundee), and Joaquina Kalukango (as Betty X). Sam Cooke was murdered later that same year. Malcolm X was assassinated by a Nation of Islam member one year later, and Cassius Clay of course changed his name to Muhammad Ali and passed away in 2016 at age 74. Jim Brown is still alive at age 84. These men each made their mark as leaders in the Black community, and even though we will never know what they talked about that night in Miami, the film digs in to personalities and leaves out the hero worship. Ms. King’s debut film will likely appeal more to history buffs and cinephiles, but it’s one that deserves attention.

Amazon Studios will release ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI… in Miami theaters December 25th, 2020, in select US theaters on January 8th, 2021 and on Prime Video January 15th, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


ELSEWHERE (2020)

January 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the best things about movies is that there are no rules. Most any story can be told by most any filmmaker in any way they see fit. Some people watch movies for escapism and purely for entertainment purposes, while others are looking for mental and creative stimulation. A separate category of movies would be what I call Lifetime Channel movies, which have been described by a friend as ‘melting brain cells faster than open bar night in Baton Rouge.’

Now to clarify, not all ‘Lifetime Channel movies’ are shown on that particular network. No, it’s more of a sub-genre that, when mentioned, is immediately recognizable to most movie lovers. As an example, take this synopsis: A handsome architect builds a seaside cottage for his beloved wife. She dies from a terminal disease, and the man goes into an emotional funk treating the house as a memorial to his wife. After two years, his wealthy in-laws evict him from the house. A spirited divorcee buys the house, and after their initial conflicts, the widower and divorcee hit it off. She brings the house and the widower back to life.  All of that is in the trailer, so I haven’t spoiled anything.

Heck, I wish there was something to spoil here, but writer-director-editor Hernan Jimenez knows what his audience wants and never leaves the path. He bookends the movie with the husband holding the urn containing the ashes of his deceased wife. We note he is surrounded by the wonder of nature: a forest of majestic trees, a gorgeous waterfall, and the picturesque coastline (filmed in Canada). Bruno is played by Aden Young, and it’s clear he has an unhealthy attachment to the house he designed and built on land owned by his wife’s parents. They give him two weeks to vacate, and Bruno moves in with his quite supportive parents (Beau Bridges, Jackie Weaver), while his loyal friend played by Ken Jeong is often close by.

Things pick up when Marie (Parker Posey) buys the cottage and hires Bruno as a contractor to bring her visions for the house to life. Of course, Bruno doesn’t tell her about his connection to the house, and somehow in this dinky little town where everybody knows everybody, no one else tells her either. As the two develop a relationship, Bruno never loses sight of his goal to get the house back. Marie is a charming and spirited woman who is writing a book on the link between moss and our lives. It’s really Marie’s outlook on life that makes the movie watchable at all, and in fact, focusing on her character likely would have provided more interesting options for the filmmaker. An even better scenario finds us crossing paths at that Baton Rouge open bar night.

watch the trailer:


ALL ABOUT NINA (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are dark comedies and then there is the first feature film from director Eva Vives (although she wrote the screenplay for RAISING VICTOR VARGAS). It’s really a dark drama with both feet in the stand-up comedy world, so we find ourselves laughing at the (profane) jokes, despite a lead character that is in desperate need of emotional salvation.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is dynamite as Nina Geld. And dynamite is meant to have two definitions here. She is terrific in the role, and she (her character) explodes with little notice. Nina Geld is definitely provocative. She is definitely a feminist. She is definitely funny, and she is most definitely messed up. We learn all of this in the first 5 minutes, and spend the rest of the movie waiting to see whether she self-destructs or is somehow saved.

We first see Nina as she delivers a set on stage at a comedy club. Her act is mostly about sex and the misery of relationships. We soon learn why she seems to have little happiness in life. The abusive married cop (Chace Crawford, Tony Romo’s brother-in-law) she has been seeing interrupts the one-night stand she was looking forward to. It’s quite unsettling to watch this unfold, and it seems to be the final straw needed to push Nina to relocate from New York City to Los Angeles. It’s southern California where her agent (Angelique Cabral) has arranged for to audition for “Comedy Prime” – a one hour comedy special produced by Larry Michaels (played by Beau Bridges).

In L.A., Nina rooms with a stereotypical southern California “New Age” type (Cate del Castillo) who senses energy fields and remains quite civil in her arguments with her partner (played by Clea DuVall). Mostly we see what a damaged soul that Nina is, and bearing an unfair brunt are her mother (Camryn Manheim), her mom’s friend (Mindy Sterling, AUSTIN POWERS), and a fellow comic (Jay Mohr).

When Nina meets Rafe (Common, in a rare leading man role), she begins to show her first signs of actual human connection. And of course she is confused by this, and her self-destructive being rears up. The big reveal as to the cause of Nina’s constantly confused state (I don’t believe the therapy sessions are working) is held back until late in the final act … and it’s a doozy that leads to a painfully honest on stage meltdown.

Ms. Winstead is really terrific here, and she is absolutely believable in her stand-up bits. In fact, the montage of impressions and her constant fine-tuning of the act are almost as good as the heavy drama pieces she excels at. The film itself is kind of a mash-up of stories, but it’s her performance that keeps us onboard … even as we question her character’s stability (and incessant hair tussling).

watch the trailer:

 


THE DESCENDANTS

November 19, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ahh … finally! I was beginning to wonder if 2011 was going to produce a film that I could whole-heartedly recommend to both cinephiles and casual movie goers. Writer/director Alexander Payne has delivered a gem. And in a giant surprise, it stars George Clooney as a guy going through real life stress, and in his own words, “just trying to keep his head above water“.

Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii who is also the trustee of a family land trust. Only this is no typical family land trust. It involves thousands of pristine Kauai acreage that has been left untouched for hundreds of years. The endless stream of “cousins” want him to sell to a developer for enough gold to make them all filthy rich. The locals don’t want him to sell as they believe in the spiritual nature of land, not the green backs of hotels and beachfront homes. And Matt only wishes this was his biggest problem.

 Matt’s fun-loving wife has been injured in a speed boat accident. She is in a coma and the prognosis is not bright. She also has a living will that states no life-support, which is another of the problems Matt must face. Additionally, he must re-connect with his two daughters. See, Matt has been the workaholic attorney that has left the child-rearing to his wife. The two daughters prove to be more than a hand full for the clueless Matt. Scottie (Amana Miller) is the youngest and is struggling with how to react to the state of her mother. Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is off at boarding school in hopes that she can be tamed from her wild ways. These three must come together and really bond for the first time.

 Those three problems would be enough for any one man to handle, but Matt receives one more bit of information. Turns out his wife was having an affair at the time of her boating accident. So, “having a bad day” seems a little insufficient for Matt’s situation. At this point, the movie takes a sharp left turn turn and almost becomes a mini-road trip movie. Matt, his two daughters and Alexandra’s odd friend Sid (Nick Krause) take on the mission of informing friends and relatives, while also tracking down the “other guy”.

It may seem like I have given away much of the story, but in fact, all of that has been discussed in one of the trailers. What sets this film apart is how this web of stress is handled by Matt and daughters. The story is based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and the screenplay is co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Watching Matt as he struggles through each decision and situation makes us pull for him, even though he really isn’t anything special … he’s not all that friendly or charming (a rarity for a Clooney character), and certainly not a polished parent.

 Alexander Payne has given us About Schmidt and it’s been 7 years since his last feature, Sideways. Both of those excellent films, and this one, give us a character on the brink … full crisis mode. Some of his characters lash out (Paul Giamatti in Sideways), while others turn to introspection (Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt). Here, Clooney’s character seems to have many decisions to make, but the biggest one is reconnecting with his own soul and being the kind of man he needs to be, for himself, his daughters and the sacred land.

 In addition to Clooney’s fine work, I was very impressed with Shailene Woodley as his oldest daughter.  Veteran Robert Forster turns in a macho role as Clooney’s father-in-law, who harbors some resentment towards him.  Matthew Lilliard and the underrated Judy Greer play the crucial roles of Mr. and Mrs. Brian Speer. Beau Bridges plays the leader of the cousins, which also includes Michael Ontkean (from The Rookies in the 70’s).  You might also recognize surfing legend Laird Hamilton as Troy, the driver of the boat when Clooney’s wife is injured. The other two key characters are the beautiful state of Hawaii and the pitch perfect guitar and island music throughout.

The characters and story are so effective that you will find yourself tearing up in the same scene where you laugh out loud. And that will happen more than once. Few filmmakers can walk the high wire between comedy and drama better than Payne. We connect with these character as they are real people … we KNOW these people. And we know excellent filmmaking when we see it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy a multi-faceted script with realistic characters and dialogue that sounds like something any of us might actually say OR you would like to see Clooney’s best performance to date (even better than Syriana).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedy to lean towards slapstick and your drama to be a bit less real-world scenario

watch the trailer: