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

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HAMILTON (movie, 2020)

July 4, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. You know what it’s like when people start talking about some great new restaurant that just opened (think back to pre-pandemic)? And then you start to hear your friends and co-workers raving about it … best ‘steamed broccoli’ (ok, insert your favorite entrée) I’ve ever tasted! Having been burned many times with high expectations, you remain skeptical, but make the reservation. Well, that’s been me with “Hamilton.” For almost 5 years, the hype was just too much. Surely folks were caught up in the frenzy, and peer pressure was such that no one would admit it wasn’t all that. So, now I’m here … throwing myself at the mercy of the Theater Gods. Thanks to Disney Plus, I only needed to invest a little (ok, a lot) of time, rather than a few hundred dollars for a ticket. This is me humbly admitting I was wrong. The show is fantastic, and I only wish my first viewing had been a live performance.

Unfortunately (because of what I mentioned above) this can’t be a comparison of a live stage performance and the film version. Instead, this will briefly outline what I noticed in the movie. First, and I believe this is key, the original stage director Thomas Kail is back to direct the film. It should be noted that the film version is a blend of a couple of recorded live shows, plus some recorded songs seamlessly edited in. This is the original cast doing what they do best, and the edits are imperceptible. Second, the main cast is filled with dynamic performers. In many stage shows, one or two actors are head and shoulders above the others. Not so here. At a minimum the top seven actors are as skilled and fun to watch as any you’ve seen. Third, this is a true musical in that the songs drive the story. Some of the early songs require serious concentration to catch the lines, but even if you miss some lyrics, the gist of what’s happening is pretty clear. These aren’t so much catchy sing-along types, but you’ll easily recall the scenes when you hear the songs again at a later date. We see a perfect melding of music-performance-story.

Of course most everyone knows that Lin-Manuel Miranda is the creative force behind the show. He credits writer Ron Chernow’s book on Alexander Hamilton as the inspiration for the production, but it’s Mr. Miranda that appeared on every talk show for a couple of years, and he also performs as Alexander Hamilton. Daveed Diggs has dual roles as the flamboyant Marquis de Lafayette and the equally flamboyant (at least here) Thomas Jefferson. Renee Elise Goldsberry takes over the stage with her powerful voice as Angelica Schuyler, and Chris Jackson is a dominating physical presence as George Washington. Jonathan Groff (from “Mindhunter”) is absolutely hysterical and unforgettable as King George III, both through song and strut. Everyone will have their favorite performers, and truly they are all exceptional, and I’d like to point out the two that took my breath away. Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton has a pristine voice that will bring tears to many eyes. She may not be as involved with the political elements of the story, but in the most emotional moments, she is front and center. Lastly, the passion Leslie Odom Jr brings to his role as Adam Burr is beyond description. He may be the “villain”, but he makes Burr accessible and easy to understand … plus Odom is a terrific singer and performer, and he lights up the stage.

It’s easy to overlook the dance and stage choreography since it’s never over-the-top, but the dancers are terrific and the performers make great use of the single set – although props are regularly brought in and taken away. Perhaps what really makes this click as movie entertainment is the expert use of cameras and editing. We see the full stage when we should, and we are offered close-ups when it’s most effective. I do hope to catch the live show at some point, but if my Hamilton experience is limited to this cinematic version, well … “that would be enough.”

available on DISNEY PLUS

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HARRIET (2019)

October 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. As far as I can tell, there has never before been a feature film profiling Harriet Tubman. Given her remarkable accomplishments and historic standing as an iconic American hero, we should all agree that it’s high time. The film plays as a passion project for writer-director Kasi Lemmons (EVE’S BAYOU, 1997) and her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (REMEMBER THE TITANS, 2000). Cinematically speaking, it’s a fairly formulaic biopic; however, from a historical perspective, HARRIET is story that was due to be told.

Cynthia Erivo (WIDOWS, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE) stars as Araminta Ross, known as Minty. She was born into slavery, and the film picks up in 1849 Maryland when she is being sold ‘down south’ by her heartless owner Gideon Brodess (an understated Joe Alwyn, THE FAVOURITE). Rather than be separated from her family, Minty runs (she does a lot of running). She runs until cornered, and then leaps from a bridge into rushing water. It’s only after her treacherous 100 mile walk to Pennsylvania that she becomes a free woman and changes her name to Harriet Tubman – in honor of her mother and husband.

She receives help along the way. Reverend Samuel Green (Vondie Curtis Hall) plays a recurring role in her escape and later rescues. Once in Pennsylvania, she meets abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, 2017), who runs the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and introduces her to fellow abolitionist Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae). Ms. Buchanan is a free black woman, as elegant in her manner as she is dedicated to the cause … and she’s worthy of her own story.

Harriet decides she must go back and rescue her family. She is told the trip is foolish and too risky – which doesn’t stop her from making 13 trips and saving 70 slaves. We learn of her work with the Underground Railroad – not a train, but rather a secretive organization committed to helping slaves escape to freedom. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Harriet’s work becomes even more difficult, as she must guide the slaves all the way to Canada. Omar J Dorsey plays Bigger Long, an expert slave hunter – yes, that’s an actual occupation – hired by Harriet’s owner to capture her. When Harriet converts Walter the scout (Henry Hunter Hall), the colorful character becomes a valuable ally and strong believer.

As a young girl, Minty/Harriet had her skull cracked by a slave owner whilst standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. After that, she experienced episodes, “spells” that she claimed were visions from God. The film captures quite a few of these and treats Harriet as someone “touched”. Was this the prophecy or was Harriet an extraordinarily resourceful and tenacious woman? The message of God is present throughout, and it’s difficult to not view this as unintentionally taking a chip out of what Harriet accomplished.

Slave owners were baffled by the rescues conducted by this mythic figure they named “Moses”. Of course, they assumed it was a man, and once Harriet’s identity was exposed, her former owner was held accountable by other slave owners. It’s at that point where Gideon Brodess’ mother Eliza makes one of the most cold-hearted, racist speeches we’ve seen on film. Eliza is played by Jennifer Nettles, the singer for C&W band Sugarland. In 1858, Harriet crosses paths with abolitionists John Brown and Frederick Douglas, and delivers an impassioned speech of her own in the presence of Senator William Seward (one of Booth’s targets in the Lincoln assassination). Harriet assisted Brown with recruitment for his raid on Harpers Ferry. In 1863, Harriet led the Comahee River Raid, which resulted in 750 slaves being set free.

The film might be a bit slick, but the acting is top notch, and Harriet’s story is remarkable. Director Lemmons forgoes the brutality of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, and tries to cover Harriet’s time as a slave, her first escape off the bridge, and her continued work freeing other slaves. Harriet went on to become a Civil War spy for the Union, and later a respected elder who worked for women’s voting rights and to make latter life a bit easier for former slaves. It’s possible a movie was not the best format to tell Harriet’s story … a story that continued to develop until her death in 1913 at age 91 (or thereabouts). But it’s important to have her story documented in some way other than the textbooks kids likely won’t read. A film that tackles such a towering historical figure deserves a little slack.

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MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

November 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who doesn’t love a good whodunit? Don’t we all find a bit of guilty pleasure in being the mastermind who solves a fictitious murder case? Has anyone ever been better at crafting an intricate murder mystery than Agatha Christie? Why all the questions? Well, that’s nothing compared to what “probably the world’s greatest detective”, Hercule Poirot, must answer amidst the foul play aboard the sleek, luxurious, and snowbound Orient Express.

This latest film version has Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN) with the adapted screenplay and Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as the fabulously mustachioed Poirot (with his own take on the iconic super-sleuth). Like the near-perfect 1974 version, this latest adaptation succeeds in capturing the theatricality, while avoiding any stodgy staginess. Director Branagh shot on film and it pays off in both the stunning snow-covered mountains and landscapes, as well as the tight, precisely-blocked interior shots around the exceptional set designs.

Fans of the novel will notice some shifting of character names, professions and backgrounds, although the vast majority of the story remains intact … including the early murder that occurs not long after the film ingeniously introduces us to each of the characters. The cast is strong and deep, and in addition to Mr. Branagh, features: Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Dame Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Coleman, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. All are suspects – well, except the victim.

If you haven’t read the novel or seen a previous version, know that the fun is in ride. Follow along as Poirot dispenses zingers throughout, while maintaining a most precise commitment to balance in all things. He is an exacting and fastidious man, and as entertaining as he is skilled in crime solving. Note that the photograph he keeps of his one true love Katherine, is actually a photo of young Emma Thompson (Branagh’s real life wife). Enjoy keeping track of the clues and hints, while also tracking the widely diverse personalities, excuses and alibis. Most of the many characters only have a couple of key scenes, and it’s quite fun to see what these talented performers make of their moments. Daisy Ridley, Lucy Boynton and Derek Jacobi make the most of their time, while Penelope Cruz overplays hers. Other than Branagh, the star who shines the brightest is Michelle Pfeiffer (fresh off a killer performance in MOTHER!). She continues to remind us just how talented she is, and no, your ears aren’t playing tricks … that’s Ms. Pfeiffer singing “Never Forget” (lyrics by Branagh) as the closing credits roll.

Ms. Christie’s outstanding novel was first published in 1934, and is somewhat based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and her own train-riding adventure. It’s a wonderful and perplexing read … one that will have you changing your mind multiple times on who you believe to be guilty of murder. It’s obviously a personal favorite. There have been numerous movie versions over the years, and none have matched the excellence of director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film with an incredible all-star cast alongside Albert Finney’s Poirot. Though this most recent movie doesn’t reach the timelessness of that one, no movie can be expected to capture the detail and maze-like structure of the novel. It’s still quite fun – and a true joy- to see the pages come to life (irony intended) on the big screen.

watch the trailer: