Thursday, April 1, 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah

Director: Shaka King
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom
Running Time: 126 min.
Rating: R 

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

During Shaka King's otherwise tremendous Judas and the Black Messiah, I couldn't help but roll my eyes in its opening minutes when Martin Sheen becomes the latest victim of the J. Edgar Hoover curse, stipulating that any actor portraying the former FBI director on film over the past thirty years must wear embarrassing prosthetics that severely alter their appearance for no particular reason. This despite the fact that the real man was relatively nondescript looking and few seem to really know or care anyway. He has to be the most unsuccessfully essayed figure in modern biographical movies in that the more we see of him, the less we learn or care. 

Fake nose and all, it's to Sheen's credit he survives this brief scene and is actually quite good in a more impactful one later. So while my petition demanding J. Edgar no longer appear in any 60's set period projects is pending, his presence is only a minor distraction here, serving once again as a gateway to far more intriguing figures. One of them, the "Messiah" of the film's title, is the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), whom Hoover spends his limited screen time galvanizing the bureau to take down. 

While Hampton was memorably depicted in another of the year's Best Picture nominees, The Trial of the Chicago 7, this provides a much deeper dive into what he stood for and exactly how his life was tragically cut short. And yet still the film isn't entirely"about" him, but rather the collision course he's unknowlingly on with petty criminal turned FBI informant William O' Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), whose infamous interview from PBS' 1989 documentary, Eyes on the Prize II also serve as the story's bookends. He'd end up taking his own life after it aired, and watching King's dramatization of events, it isn't hard to see how these events gutted him inside in the decades since. 

It's the late '60's when 17-year-old Bill O'Neal is arrested in Chicago after attempting to steal a vehicle while posing as a federal officer. At the station he's approached with a deal from FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who offers to drop all charges if he agrees to go undercover and infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party led by Fred Hampton. Quickly snuffing out that O' Neal appears to show little interest in politics or social justice, Mitchell's convinced he's found his informant, and one capable of divorcing himself from the emotions that would potentially compromise such a sting. 

With Hampton's influence growing as he forms alliances with gangs and various militia groups, the Panthers also establish community outreach programs for education and child care. But viewed by the FBI on the heels of Martin Luther King's assassination as a groundswell civil rights movement as violent and dangerous as the Klu Klux Klan, Hampton becomes the bureau and Mitchell's main target. Believably slipping into the role of a full-fledged Panther, O'Neal slowly gains Hampton's trust, collecting intel for Mitchell that could lead to far worse ramifications for the revolutionary than he ever anticipated. But that's assuming Hampton doesn't discover his identity first.

The events leading up to Hampton's death and circumstances surrounding his life have never been this thoroughly covered in cinematic form so it's easy to understand the temptation to label it as the first Hampton biopic. But even in covering such essential ground, it's more about O'Neal's betrayal, which link the two men in history and will undoubtedly draw comparisons to certain elements of Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman in terms of plot. But there's really no relation considering the stark differences between the two groups and the sense of tension and immediacy surrounding O'Neal's even deeper infiltration and how seamlessly embedded into the Black Panthers' culture he became. When he's in, he's all the way in, and despite his believability, there's hardly a moment where you're not thinking he'll be found out, regardless of anyone's familiarity with what actually occurred. 

Stanfield's giving a tricky dual performance, simultaneously playing this cornered criminal who's at least partially manipulated into doing the FBI's dirty work. Once inside, he has to be someone else entirely, legitimately fighting for a cause greater than himself and the actor subtly implies enough doubt that O'Neal's performance within a performance is starting to become the real thing as his allegiance develops. A self-professed blank slate going in, it was always going to be a tall order for him to not pick a side or have his moral compass broken with this much on the line. 

While the methods Agent Mitchell uses to convince O'Neal that he's protecting the sanctity of the country seem to justify Hampton's entire cause, Plemons performance grows colder and less sympathetic along the way, which is a good choice. Mitchell isn't O'Neil's friend and never will be, no matter how many times he invites him to his house or a posh restaurant. Mitchell's using O'Neal while the small-time crook sees dollar signs in his arrangement with Mitchell and a shot at a new start. Instead, he's in constant fear of being uncovered and killed, as his manufactured loyalty to the Panthers has him doubting how he somehow ended up on the wrong team. 

Kaluuya gives off more than enough electricity as Hampton to let us see how he's able to wrangle such a devoted group of followers and why the Panthers attracted so much attention from law enforcement. Just as strong is a quietly captivating Dominique Fishback as Hampton's girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (for whom the actress is an uncanny lookalike), with their relationship providing many of the film's most poignant scenes, albeit ones tinged with a sense of impending doom that comes to fruition with his eventual death. It's also an event O'Neal has a far greater hand in than expected for those unfamilar with the exact history. To call him an active participant wouldn't be far off base, nor would labeling him a full-blown accessory to murder.

We do get an epilogue that seems to go on longer than usual under these circumstances, with title cards and actual footage, making you wonder if this ending is starting to become a prerequisite for any material based on a true story. Aside from the PBS clips of O'Neal, it may have been more powerful for King to just end it and let the enormity of what we've watched sink in. It's not a big debit, but sometimes the story has to stand for itself, and if you've succeeded, viewers won't be able to run fast enough to any available resource to explore the background.

More than anything else, Judas and the Black Messiah becomes about balancing the perspectives and movitations of its two main characters. Faced with what must have seemed like an agonizing choice, O'Neal made the wrong one, and many suffered from it. He also had Mitchell superficially propping him up and drawing false equivalencies to get what he wanted out of him. Whether O' Neal "sold out" or was taken advantage of, the end result's unchanged. And eventually upon realizing he couldn't live with himself, he administered the harshest form of self-justice. Ultimately, hate still lives to see another day and a more than a few decades, while senselessly adding these two casualties in the process.    

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Nomadland

Director: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, Derek Endres, Peter Spears, Tay Strathairn
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: R
 

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Chloé Zhao's Nomadland resides somewhere between a true life documentary, Into The Wild and About Schmidt while somehow not feeling like any mainstream feature at all. Some will be gutted and transfixed by the painfully realistic and depressing picture it paints of the displacement of older people in rural America, even as others tire of its non-linear narrative and lack of resolution. Place me in the former camp. Meandering, but in the best possible way, it kind of ambles along plotlessly in the vein of its protagonist, so effortlessly absorbing in its matter-of-fact storytelling that it's of little surprise Zhao adapted it from a non-fiction book (Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder).

With a cast full of untrained actors and hardly a traditional beginning, middle or end to speak of, there's something wonderfully straightforward about just observing this woman and the challenges she faces without any editorializing or cloying attempts at wringing sympathy. She is who she is, and two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand's face does all the work in conveying her experiences and what could possibly follow. The latter is tricky since most of time she doesn't know, and seems remarkably okay with that, if even occasionally proud. Of course, she's not okay and has been through a lot, making McDormand's naturalistic performance the movie's not so secret weapon, as she skillfully navigates what could have easily come off as a pity party in less capable hands.

Simultaneously a tribute to human endurance and the perseverance of strangers, the story's harsher realities are never ignored. Many lifelines are thrown this woman's way but she doesn't take them, perhaps partially out of stubbornness, but mainly because she values the independence of carving her own path. Beautifully photographed and edited, it's like watching life unfold in real time, with its sparse plot strangely increasing its staying power and our desire to eventually return for more viewings, in hopes we can continue peeling back the layers of its incredibly relatable characters. 

It's 2011 and Fern (McDormand) loses her job at the USG Corporation plant in Empire, Nevada when it shuts down, causing her to sell most of her belongings and hit the road in a van. Still mourning her husband's recent death, she lives out of her vehicle traveling and looking for a job when she finds seasonal employment at an Amazon fulfillment center. While there, friend and co-worker, Linda (Linda May) recommends she look into a desert community in Arizona run by vandweller Bob Wells (YouTuber Bob Wells, playing a version of himself). 

After initially dismissing Linda's idea, Fern changes her mind and ventures out to the community, learning crucial survival skills for the road while meeting other nomads, such as the ailing but feisty Swankie (Charlene Swankie) and David (David Strathairn), with whom she strikes up a close friendship. Fern's stay, much like everything else in her life right now, is temporary, before heading off for a new adventure. She'll encounter David again, but his somewhat strained relationship with son Peter (Peter Spears) unexpectedly prompts some self-reflection of her own. Torn between further asserting her independence or potentially putting down roots in a more traditional sense, she finds herself at a literal crossroads, open to wherever the journey takes her next.

There's an awkward but moving early scene when Fern is approached in a store by a woman and her teen daughter she once tutored. Having heard Fern's living out of a van, the mother offers to let her stay at their place, even as we know there's no chance she'd ever accept. Her pride simply won't allow it. And then comes that word. "Homeless." Just hearing it stings, as she's quick to point out that she's "house-less," which sums up the situation of the various nomads we meet over the course of the film, older people who by choice or circumstance have found themselves on society's financial outs. The shutdown of Fern's plant has economically decimated her the town and its residents, and now, without a livable government pension and limited work options for someone her age, Bob Wells' roaming lifestyle looks superior to most alternatives.

Traveling from town to town in a van while taking one low-paying job after the next, we realize the true desperation of her predicament. It's easy to be lulled into viewing this as an entirely inspirational tale since Fern is such a headstrong, determined woman whom McDormand imbues with a level-headed optimism and toughness. But this isn't okay. There's a lot she doesn't know, and while the support system of fellow nomads provide valuable guidance, she's always half a step away from disaster, as are  many others who adopted nomadic life. A flat tire or any vehicular maintenance issue isn't a day at the beach for anyone, but it's especially catastrophic when every penny counts like this.

The authentic bonds Fern forms with Linda, Bob, Swankie and David are transient ones, both because of the nature of their lifestyles (as Bob says, it's "see you down the road" rather than goodbye) and her inability to let people in following her husband's passing. A fledgling romance with David seems destined to go nowhere as discomfort radiates through every interaction she has, closing her off from the rest of the world. There comes a point in the film where she has a shot at settling down into a comfortable existence and it's clear she just can't do it, no matter how welcoming the invite or warmth of hospitality. 

When Fern's life with her husband ended, so did she in a sense. The last act doesn't doesn't offer much in the way of closure, as it shouldn't for this character. It's a story still very much being written and far from completely resolved, following a cyclical pattern that keeps drawing Fern back to the road. While it's open for interpretation whether her decision to continue living like this is cause for celebration, what's harder is offering up another ending that would ring as true. Still, it's impossible to not see the bigger picture here in that many of these nomads have been unnecessarily relegated to the fringes for circumstances far beyond their control.  

Zhao, who previously directed 2018's highly acclaimed The Rider, emerges as the ideal fit for a specific type of project that could have turned out a myriad of different ways depending on who was behind the camera. A similarly themed entry in this sub-genre released that same year, Ani Simon-Kennedy's overlooked The Short History of the Long Road, covered a lot of intersecting ground, with a far younger character also learning tough lessons in self-sufficiency after tragedy strikes. Ironically, that effort, with which this would make a compelling double feature, ends in much the same way Nomadland begins, and also ends. Road movies seem to feature protagonists running from something, only to find themselves right back where they started, hopefully transformed and bettered from the experience. We're not sure Fern is, but the film finds serenity in the fact that she'll always be in the driver's seat.

Monday, March 15, 2021

2021 Oscar Nominations (Reaction and Analysis)


This morning's announcement of the 93rd annual Academy Award nominations by Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Nick Jonas saw the culmination of what's understandably been a fairly strange Oscar season that kicked off with confusion as to if or when the ceremony would take place. But it's happening, two months later than usual on April 25th, live from both the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and L.A's Union Station. The exact form the show will take remains somewhat of a mystery, but isn't it always?  This unprecedented timetable has led to some unpredictability among voters who no longer have a marathon of industry awards and in-person events to rely on before casting their ballots. Now, with only the Golden Globes and a handful of critics awards to go on, what the voters will do is anyone's guess. 

While it remains to be seen whether the theatergoing experience will become altogether extinct or irrelevant as we enter unchartered territory for movies, the availability of on-demand and streaming titles has made catching up on new releases easier than ever. So even if the circumstances causing that couldn't be worse, I'm still in the unique position of having my best shot yet at catching nearly all the contending films before the show. Whether this is of much help come prediction time remains to be seen, but as far as the nominations go, it's almost redundant to declare there were some snubs and suprises, albeit far fewer than usual. But more than ever, the diversity issue is sure to take center stage, though you could argue it never really went away, with the Academy continuously applying band-aids to the problem for the past few years. So, here we are with the full nominations list, along with my takes below. Let's see how they did.  

-With six films earning six nominations, the field's more open than usual, but I'm still in the minority for thinking they should go back to five Best Picture nominees. It just makes those movies mean more. Every year you just know the films without a director nomination don't stand a chance and end up filling participation trophy slots. So, of course, AMPAS makes the decision to go back up to a mandated ten (!) nominees starting next year. It's easy to understand the desire to draw much needed attention to underseen films by giving them a nod, but they've watered down the category in the process.   

-This year there were 8 Best Picture nominees, which has been about the average lately. The only three omissions that could be considered "snubs" are One Night in Miami, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Da 5 Bloods but Miami's really the only one you could make a strong case for that designation applying in a big way. Bloods chances were always slim and Ma Rainey had much more support for Davis and Boseman's performances than the film itself. 

-The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah and Minari are the category underdogs, but none go as far as to be considered "surprises." Same for Sound of Metal, which was continuously picking up steam. My favorite film of the year, Promising Young Woman, gets in. Despite lacking a director nod for Sorkin, Chicago 7 still strangely feels like it has a chance, if only due to its timeliness. 

-David Fincher's Mank leads the pack with 10 nominations, including Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress and a handful of technical notices. Not bad considering there were worries this wouldn't do as well as expected. I'm glad it did, since it's been somewhat overlooked and underrated after coming out of the gate really strong a few months ago.

-Breathing a sigh of relief that Mank's Amanda Seyfried got in for Supporting Actress, as she recently lost some ground after starting the race a favorite to win. 8-time nominee Glenn Close now has a pair of Razzie and Oscar nods for the same semi-reviled performance in Hillbilly Elegy. Maria Bakalova's momentum continues for Borat while Minari's Yuh-Jung Youn seems like the outlier, as there was some doubt she'd break through. No Jodie Foster for The Mauritanian. Tenet's Elizabeth Debicki deserves to be here.

-Really wanted to see Bo Burnham get a surprise Supporting Actor nod for Promising Young Woman but knew his chances were slim to none. Chadwick Boseman would have joined James Dean in becoming the only other person to receive two posthumous acting nominations, but missed for Da 5 Bloods. Thankfully Paul Raci's in for Sound of Metal after unexpected exclusions at some industry precursors leading into this. 

-Judas and the Black Messiah takes up two supporting slots for Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield (somewhat surprising) as Leslie Odom Jr. enjoys the sole acting nomination for One Night in Miami for his portrayal of Sam Cooke. No one expected Jared Leto to get in for The Little Things and he didn't. That was a Globes thing.     

-I'm as perplexed as you that another Pinocchio film was released over the past year, much less that it was able to earn two nominations.  

-Great to see Christopher Nolan's Tenet in the Sound and Production Design categories.Well-deserved, but you just couldn't be certain given how polarizing it was. If Sound of Metal wasn't recognized for sound that would be concerning. 

-Did anyone expect Ramin Bahrani's script for The White Tiger to be competing for Best Adapted Screenplay?

-Jack Fincher is ironically shut out of a posthumous Original Screenplay nod for Mank, a movie about a screenwriter who wrote the most acclaimed movie of all-time.  

-The two major acting categories went as expected, with Andra Day's Globe win likely cementing her presence, erasing whatever doubt there was she'd make it. Her toughest competition will be Viola Davis and my favorite, Carrie Mulligan, who may not be the frontrunner she was a month ago. Pieces of a Woman's Vanessa Kirby endured starring opposite Shia LeBeouf and that association apparently did little to dimish the merits of her performance in voters' eyes. Of course, two-time winner McDormand was a given for Nomadland, securing her sixth career nod. 

-Both Mank's Gary Oldman and Sound of Metal's Riz Ahmed made it in for Best Actor, as did Anthony Hopkins for The Father (which did better than expected overall). Minari's Steven Yeun is the wildcard, displacing Da 5 Bloods' Delroy Lindo, whose chances dissipated when that movie fizzled out. Category confusion over Miami's Kingley Ben-Adir's placement probably cost him in both lead and supporting. They should have strongly pushed him in the latter. This is Boseman's to lose, and he won't.  

-Aaron Sorkin and Regina King failing to earn Best Director nods is the story of the day, but no one thinks the former's skills as a director surpass that of his writing for Chicago 7 so King's omission is the full-blown snub. Shocking development that Another Round's Thomas Vinterburg was included ahead of her. Very few could have seen that coming. Also no Spike Lee, but many thought he would get shut out. David Fincher thankfully gets in for Mank, making it a career third for him.

-Recognition for Promising Young Woman's Emerald Fennell and Nomadland's Chloe Zhao mark the first time two women are competing in the Best Director category. But more intriguingly, both films collected all the important "check mark" nods for acting, editing, writing and directing that have historically signaled a Best Picture win.

 

                         

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Little Things

Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales
Running Time: 128 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

For much of its running length, John Lee Hancock's crime thriller The Little Things seems as if it isn't going anywhere, before excitingly arriving at a last act that pretty much confirms it went nowhere. Set in the early '90's, it attempts to channel the spirit and aesthetic of period-specific thrillers like Se7en or Copycat, but eventually settles on what resembles a poor man's Zodiac. With a basic plot best described as "textbook movie murder" it lacks the hook of those two former efforts and while a gripping opening attempts to invoke that latter masterpiece, it rarely delivers on its early promise Moody, atmospheric, and anchored by three performances in search of better material, the film technically has a lot going for it, which only enhances the disappointment as the narrative plainly plays out. 

Before revealing itself as a dark, somewhat messy character study about a pair of mismatched detectives, the case(s) that monopolize the majority of the picture couldn't be any less involving. While it's possible we've just been so burned out by the proliferation of streaming true crime documentaries that any fictionalized account would fall short, this seems especially problematic by any standard. It's almost as if Hancock cherry picked the least intriguing elements of every murder that's occurred in the Los Angeles area during the 80's and 90's and  recycled it on screen. The Night Stalker is explicitly mentioned and will inevitably be the case to which this fictional one is compared, but the gruesome crime scenes here are a Cliffs Notes version of that, without any meaningful context or insight into the psychology behind it.

It's 1990 and Kern County deputy sheriff Joe "Deke" Deacon (Denzel Washington) is called into the L.A. Sheriff's Department to collect evidence when he encounters lead detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who's spearheading an investigation into a string of new murders resembling the serial killings an obsessed Deacon couldn't solve when he held that position. After a rocky introduction, Jim asks Deacon to stick around and lend his expertise, initially unaware of the tumultuous circumstances that led to his departure from the department five years prior. 

When more victims are found and a female jogger is reported missing, a series of clues lead Deacon to creepy, eccentric repair store employee Albert Sparma (Jared Leto). As the similarties between his unsolved killings and this case pile up, so again do Deacon's obsessions and mental fragility, with the two detectives certain they've found their guy. Crime officionado Sparma knows it, tangling both in his twisted web and taunting them to make a move in hopes it will lead to their self-destruction. And given their obsession with exposing him, he just may end up being right.  

If detectives with wildly differing personalities teamed to investigate murders is a painfully familiar trope, it's still one that can be very effective when properly executed. If nothing else, the script goes all out with Washington's Deacon having been transferred, demoted, divorced, already suffered a major health crisis, and experiencing traumatic flashbacks due to a mystery event that's eventually revealed.  Just about the only thing he isn't is an alcoholic a day away from retirement, though we can't be completely sure. All of it seems carefully piled on to make him seem more interesting and sympathetic than he actually is, when it's essentially just another take on the many law enforcement roles Washington's played over the past decade plus. Take your pick. 

Washington's character may brings little new to the table, but at least Malek's initially presents itself as something different. His Jim Baxter comes across as the type of "emotional vampire" Bret Easton Ellis could have written about in 1990, giving off vibes vibes of a sociopathic predator rather than a detective. Our suspicion this has more to do with Malek's performance than the writing is confirmed when that's abandoned and he settles into a much more recognizable cop role when Deacon starts riding with him. Aside from some early tension, there's not a lot of push-pull in this relationship, as they rarely challenge each other in philosophies, morality or criminology in any way as they search for clues to nail this guy. 

The film's title, as the characters take great pains in repeatedly telling us, refers to the little details detectives have to look for that lead them to the perpetrator. You know, like where their car was serviced or what kind of sandwiched they had for lunch. Well, no kidding. Watching this, you can't help but be reminded of Netflix's great, now cancelled series, Mindhunter, which provided the deepest of dives into the minds of serial killers through the men who were investigating them. That and the aforementioned Night Stalker case both featured dueling partners, and while's there's a deliberate, occasionally successful attempt at capturing the mood of both, the screenplay just never gets there, instead coming closer to James Patterson's latest Alex Cross installment. 

From his introductory interrogation scene on, Jared Leto leaves a sinister imprint as the suspected killer, infusing the proceeedings with a dose of much needed intrigue and psychology, as the detectives not only attempt to prove he's behind this, but what exactly makes him tick. It's probably the closest the this gets to becoming what it strives for, but even as delightfully skeevy and off-kilter as Leto's performance is (complete with greasy hair and a middle-age paunch), I couldn't help but wish it existed in a film with better ideas of what to do with it. 

The finale heads in a truly exhilarating, even unexpected direction until you realize that it hinges on a major character letting his guard down in a way that stretches believability based upon what we know about him. It also doesn't really amount to all that much, aside from drawing unfavorable comparisons to the infinitely superior Se7en. Despite that, you can still appreciate the intention of presenting a kind of contagious obsession between homocide cops and their cases. The extent to which any of it clicks can be attributed to Washington and Malek's performances, as it's hard not to be impressed by these two top talents bouncing off each another, regardless of what they have to work with. Even more noteworthy is composer Thomas Newman's elgiac score, which is pretty much head and shoulders above any other aspect of the film and arguably nomination-worthy under better circumstances.

Having written one of my all-time favorites in Clint Eastwood's A Perfect World and recently directed the underrated The Founder, Hancock is one of the more reliable mainstream filmmakers around, but this isn't a genre he's ever dipped into. So while it at least gives me some joy to report this is about as well directed as can be from a lacking script, he also wrote it, which makes the results a bit tougher to stomach. The Little Things is almost shockingly derivative of so many other works of crime fiction that you almost expect to see a head in a box before the closing credits arrive. Even its ending, arguably the film's strongest stretch, is undone in hindsight by the fact that it makes the whole enterprise feel like a waste of time, sending us right back to where we started, waiting for something more important to reveal itself.   

Monday, March 8, 2021

One Night in Miami

Director: Regina King
Starring: Kingley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr, Beau Bridges, Jeremy Pope, Christopher Gorham
Running Time: 114 min.
Rating: R 

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

When an actor commits to playing any well known cultural figure you have to think they're wondering what they've gotten themselves into. There has to be a great deal of nervous excitment that accompanies doing a real person justice while still managing not to engage in mimicry, making them at least somewhat a creation of your own. But if there's one thing we absolutely know for sure it's that no matter how well this is done, it will never make everyone happy. Now imagine four such performances within a single film, all intersecting with each other in a fictionalized scenario you could easily believe took place.

With One Night in Miami, actress and first-time feature director Regina King is not only tasked with overcoming all these challenges in bringing Kemp Powers' stage play of the same name to the screen, but also injecting an exciting cinematic flavor into a plot that revolves around four men talking and arguing in a hotel room. And while that might be the laziest, most superficially inaccurate description of what actually occurs, King will still have to answer to skeptics who feel she's merely transposing a wordy stage play, regardless of the few techniques available to open things up and break free from those constraints. 

There are limitations to be sure, but most of those are invisible since we're just too involved in these characters and what they distinctively stand for to care. The ground it covers feels and is important, with the four exceptional performances carrying it likely to offset any allegations that the material feels too "stagey." Each bring something completely different to the table in what ends up being the most facinating of speculative excercises, with Powers' script capturing how such a historic encounter could have possibly unfolded given what's publicly and privately known about the famous personalities involved. But more importantly, it gives us what sometimes even the best biopics don't by going beyond a character study to give us a snapshot in time.

It's February 25, 1964 when boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), NFL player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and human rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) are  in Miami celebrating what ends up being Clay's upset title win over Sonny Liston. Each of them are at a crossroads, with newly crowned heavyweight champion Clay in the process of converting to Islam, unaware friend and spiritual mentor Malcolm is on the cusp of leaving the Nation of Islam after falling out with leader Elijah Muhammad. Cooke's starting to quietly question his choices on the heels of a disastrous performance in front of an all-white audience at New York's Copacabana, while Brown may be leaving football to pursue an acting career after wrapping a major movie production.  

Thinking that Malcolm gathered them all for a fun night of drinking and debauchery to celebrate Clay's win, the guys are disappointed to discover there's not a woman in sight and it'll be just the three of them. But what initially starts as some joshing and self-congratulatory back-slapping amongst friends turns uglier when Malcolm accuses Cooke of selling out by pandering to white audiences. Soon, a full-on debate breaks out, the fallout of which will leave a lasting impact on all four men when they go back into a world they're still not accepted in, regardless of their succcesses. And now, they're wondering whether they can ever agree what to do about it, or whether they even need to be on the exact same page to help initiate the sweeping societal change they're seeking. 

One of the most chilling scenes occurs early when Jim Brown visits a family friend (played by Beau Bridges) back home in Georgia in what initially appears to be a positive encounter, with this man showering the football star with praise. That is until Brown's harshly reminded that nothing is what it seems and however highly white people may think of what he accomplishes on the field, he'll still always be viewed as less than. It's a particularly stinging moment, earning all its intended shocks from the fact that it shouldn't be all that surprising given what we know. And yet the tossed aside nonchalance of this man's racial slur is a far more damaging blow than any landed in the Clay vs. Liston match. It's also impossible to forget when considering Brown's viewpoints and demeanor during the hotel room conversations to come.

With Hodge proving to be a subtly commanding presence as Brown, it's just as surreal seeing Hamilton's Leslie Odom Jr. capture Sam Cooke's trademark mannerisms and smooth disposition, even in that startling early moment when he's bombing on stage. Ali, of course is the most predictable of the four, if not the most entertaining, with Eli Goree enthusiastically conveying his bombastic, larger than life, catchphrase-spewing personality. But he adds an intriguing extra layer, as the boxer's uncontrollable ego masks genuine apprehension, if not fear, at his possible decision to convert and fully put his trust in Malcolm.

British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir's take on the civil rights leader fully distinguishes itself as seemingly having nothing in common with any that came before, including Denzel Washington's nominated turn in 1992's Malcolm X. If Ben-Adir at first glance appears almost low-key for the role, that might be the point, breaking free from the "angry" stigma that's always followed Malcolm in most other media interpretations. Of course, this isn't to say he isn't mad, but it's still kind of surprising to see just how quiet and contemplative King has Ben-Adir play it, spending much of the picture paralyzed by the thought that the clock's ticking on his life. Unfortunately, he's correct, but it's compelling to see that version of him, constantly looking over his shoulder, realizing the need to insure a future he won't live to see. You can sense it in every scene and his blow-up with Cooke seems as motivated by that as anything else. It's here where he brings the fury, forced to let it all out on his friend, someone whom he genuinly respects, despite their differences in approach.

Cooke and Malcolm's verbal battle leads to two of the more transformative moments, one involving the latter using Bob Dylan to somewhat cruelly, if truthfully, make the boldest of points, and a flashback that shows the breadth of Cooke's gifts as a performer and improvisational abilities. Given his greatest success resulted from a protest song, we're led to believe Malcolm's intentions were sound, pulling something out of the singer that may not have otherwise surfaced. Cooke used monetary success as a measuring stick for equality, but it wasn't until he turned his attention to a cause that the pieces fell into place for him. But by then, it was already too late. 

All of this is because of a hotel meeting you'd be forgiven for forgetting never happened. That it feels like it did is exactly why the film works, bringing authenticity to an event that, despite its intimate scale, feels much bigger, further underlining the tumultuous decade during which it took place. In many ways it's the ideal rebuttal to the many criticized Oscar-nominated films of years past that faced backlash for its whitewashing of history. One Night in Miami represents the complete inverse, using a fictionalized account to tell a truthful story about four men whose success should seem like a complete anomaly given the roadblocks put in their way.   

Monday, March 1, 2021

Locked Down

Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Stephen Merchant, Mindy Kaling, Lucy Boynton, Dulé Hill, Jazmyn Simon, Ben Stiller, Ben Kingsley, Mark Gatiss, Claes Bang, Sam Spruell
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Advertised as one of the first official pandemic movies, both shot during and incorporating COVID-19 into its plotline, HBO Max's appropriately titled romantic caper, Locked Down, wouldn't appear by defiinition to provide a happy escape from reality given its topic. But you'd be forgiven for not knowing it actually isn't the first to tackle this topic, as the critically reviled Songbird attempted a similar feat some months ago with a sci-fi bent, resulting in a creative disaster that offended nearly everyone who saw it, and even some who didn't. Whether there's such a thing as "too soon" before subjecting viewers to this dramatization, the better question might be whether the pandemic's incorporation into a cinematic plotline has anything constructive to say about either the event or our reaction to it. 

Locked Down does pass that relevancy test, even if it's best described as a light relationship drama, serving to confirm much of what we already knew rather than offering up any revelatory insights. One of those is that quarantine can be more of a stressor for some than others, bringing to the surface a myriad of issues not being directly addressed prior to this catastrophe. For its two main characters, this means endlessly getting on each other's last nerves and wallowing in their failures, both as a couple and individually, until a major opportunity comes along to shake them up. Most of it's handled well, even if you can argue its most exciting section is given the least amount of time and attention. Luckily, the protagonists seem real enough, played by two actors who together and separately are dynamic enough to overcome those faults.

Delivery truck driver Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and fashion company CEO Linda (Anne Hathaway) are a couple whose relationship collapsed prior to them being locked down in their U.K. home during the pandemic. Forced to continue sharing space together, a depressed and irritable Paxton gets a call from his eccentric boss, Malcolm (Ben Kingsley), asking him to step in and make some high-value deliveries under a false identity due to a shortage of drivers. Sensing the chance to finally move up the ranks and put his life back on track after an assault arrest 10 years earlier derailed him, he reluctantly takes the assignment. 

Embroiled in a work crisis of her own, Linda is tasked by her oblivious superior, Solomon (Ben Stiller) to clear out inventory at a nearby Harrod's department store where she used to work. But upon realizing her schedule intersects with Malcolm's delivery, she knows he won't be able to get past the security checkpoint she set up there. Agreeing to help him get through, they contemplate a plan to steal a £3 million diamond from the Harrod's vault, replacing it with the replica. But before attempting to gain access, they'll need to summon the courage to actually go through with this operation, and somehow manage make a safe exit without getting caught, or strangling each other first. 

After this and outings like 2015's The Intern, it's clear Anne Hathaway always impresses when playing CEO's and other similar Type A corporate personalities. It's an oddly specific skillset, but even trapped within the confines of a single location and planted in front of a screen for virtual meetings for much of the film's running time, it still shines through, with her baring the comedic load of these Zoom-centered scenes. Linda's an excecutive not completely comfortable in her own job or skin, which becomes apparent very early on when given the most unenvious of tasks, made that much more awful by the impersonal technological means by which she has to do it. A nervous wreck before, this meeting takes her over-the-top, drinking and smoking non-stop in hopes she can erase the person staring back at her in the mirror, a self-proclaimed sell-out she no longer recognizes. 

Paxton is wound just as tightly, taking to the street to recite poetry aloud to his locked down neighbors and procuring drugs from his backyard garden. And both he and Linda seem more than happy to virtually share their relationship failures with best friends David (Dulé Hill) and Maria (Jazmyn Simon), who look on in awe at this implosion in the making. Ejiofor, usually known for essaying cool, calm, and in control characters plays Paxton as an unfocused dissheveled mess, but in many ways similar enough to Linda that it's inevitable they'd be on the outs before quarantine even started. And now they're stuck with each other for what could be an indefinite amount of time, having long lost touch with the people they were upon first meeting.  

We know where this is going, as Paxton and Linda will attempt to pull off this heist together because, why not? It's by far the best, if not entirely most logical part of the film, assuming viewers aren't already burnt out by their lengthy monologues, virtual meetings and quarantine bickering by then. Still, it's hard not to be intrigued by the process behind their plan and wish there was even more of the actual heist than we get since Hathaway and Ejiofor are so good in those scenes with their back-and-forth, whether their characters are feuding, or on exactly the same page in working toward a shared goal in the film's last act. 

A filmmaker synonomous with efficiently delivered mainstream action entries like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Edge of Tomorrow and American Made, this marks somewhat of a departure for director Doug Liman in being smaller-scaled and more character driven than usual. A lot of that feels like a necessity, while also giving off the impression we would have gotten something similar anyway, regardless of the circumstances. It's also not the heist caper it was touted as, which is either a positive or negative depending upon your mindset going in. But with him being so skilled at depicting this admittedly smaller slice of the story, you wonder why he just didn't go ahead and make that movie instead. 

Steven Knight's script seems intent on examining the effects of the pandemic through this couple, the worldwide health crisis providing less of a mere backdrop than the axis around which its entire story revolves. If a really well-off couple breaking the law to get even richer may not seem like the most socially resonant premise on paper, Locked Down is still fine for what it is, elevated greatly by its performances to end up a solid effort, if not necessarily the one we thought we'd get. That may not be an enthusiastic rave, but it succeeds in agreeably passing time that's been in longer supply than unusual. Consider it a measuring stick for forthcoming attempts at addressing the event, many of which will undoubtedly fare both far better and worse than this. 

Monday, February 22, 2021

Your Honor

Creator: Peter Moffat
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Hunter Doohan, Hope Davis, Sofia Black-D'Elia, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Michael Stuhlbarg, Carmen Ejogo, Lilli Kay, Amy Landecker, Tony Curran, Lamar Johnson, Benjamin Flores Jr., Jimi Stanton, Chet Hanks, Andrene Ward-Hammond, David Maldonado, Melanie Nicholls-King, Lorraine Toussaint, Margo Martindale, Maura Tierney
Original Airdate: 2020

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

When Breaking Bad ended its run in 2013, all this speculation followed as to what Bryan Cranston would do next. Or, in other words, how do you top THAT? Of course, the answer is that you can't, nor is it necessary to. The freedom and clout to do whatever he wanted led him to dabble in a little bit of everything, resulting in a successful case study in how to build off an enormous once-in-a-lifetime  career juggernaut. A character actor long before that series came along, he'd pick up where he left off, albeit with much better projects and collaborators from which to choose. Having done some TV, feature films and Broadway, even winning a Tony for playing LBJ in All the Way (a role he'd reprise in the HBO adaptation), he definitely hasn't been hurting for quality work, enjoying the benefits of  effortlessly slipping in and out of supporting and lead roles without viewers thinking twice, even now. 

While Cranston would probably be the first to say there are far worse things than forever being linked to one of the greatest roles ever written for an actor, his inspired, ecelectic choices since have strayed pretty far from it. Until Now. Showtime's limited series Your Honor (loosely adapted from the Israeli series, Kvodo) not only marks Cranston's return to long-form episodic TV drama, but the first part since his seminal series wrapped that screams, "WALTER WHITE." If the similarities between the chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin and this put-upon judicial protagonist are undeniable, Cranston (also sharing executive producing credits and directing the finale) and showrunner Peter Moffat wisely don't avoid them, ironically helping to cement the character and series as uniquely its own despite a "parent covers kid's crime" plot that's kind of become a television trope of late.

Though Cranston's big screen work as a desserting husband in 2017's unfairly overlooked Wakefield still ranks way up there, this is arguably his strongest post-Breaking Bad project and performance, returning him to the kind of desperate, flailing do-gooder he's a master at playing. Like his most famous role, the character begins with noble intentions and as an upstanding citizen attempting to do the right thing. Then something happens and a single lie turns into a bigger one, and into an even bigger one still, and before long, he's breaking the very law he took an oath to uphold. You could actually argue he's relatively well-intentioned until about half-way through these ten episodes, when the lies start becoming more elaborate and immoral, affecting lives far beyond those directly involved. 

Even with all its dizzying twists and turns, this remains Cranston's show and we get the feeling his character's actions could easily enter Walt territory if the series continued past its limited number of episodes. By the end, he's almost already there, stuck squarely in the middle of a dangerous cat-and-mouse game where his survival depends on staying multiple steps ahead as the walls close in. And that alone should make many Breaking Bad fans feel right at home.     

On the one year anniversary of his wife's murder, respected New Orleans judge Michael Desiato (Cranston) is placed in an impossible situation when his 17 year-old college-bound son Adam (Hunter Doohan) accidentally runs down and kills another teen in a hit-and-run. Panicked and in the throes of a full-blown asthma attack, he initially tries to resucitate him, attempting to call to 911 before fleeing the scene in shock and fear. After confessing to his father, Michael's plans to have Adam turn himself in are derailed when it becomes apparent the victim is Rocco Baxter (Benjamin Wadsworth), son of organized crime kingpin, Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his cutthroat wife Gina (Hope Davis). 

Fearing certain retaliation if Adam's crime is exposed, Michael's priorities shift to covering up his son's actions by calling in some favors and covering their tracks. He starts with best friend and politician Charlie (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), whose crime connections could help make the vehicle disappear.  He'll also have to control and manipulate the involvement of suspicious detective Nancy Costello (Amy Landecker) and former protégé and lawyer, Lee Delamere (Carmen Ejogo), both of whom Michael called immediately following the accident, much to his regret. 

With Michael's cover-up triggering consequences devastating enough to escalate an already raging gang war within the city, the Baxters reign over the corrupt NOPD with every resource at their disposal, ensuring it isn't long before they find out what really happened to Rocco. Further fueling their vengeance is that their eldest son, Carlo (Jimi Stanton) is incarcerated while spunky teen daughter Fia (Lilli Kay) is rebelling against her Catholic upbringing in the wake of their brother's tragic death. 

The biggest hole in Michael's convoluted plans just might be the moroseful, introspective Adam, who hasn't yet recovered from his mother's death long enough to truly process what he's done. While an ongoing illicit affair with his photography teacher, Frannie (Sofia Black-D'Elia) only compounds this anxiety, it's the overwhelming guilt surrounding the accident that's breaking him, and may unintentionally unravel his dad's schemes to prevent Jimmy Baxter from uncovering the truth, and killing them both. 

Everything keeps coming back to the car, as Michael either directly or indirectly involves nearly half of New Orleans' population in his plans to dispose of the vehicle, only to have it come right back and bite him at the worst possible moments. But what's so impressive about Cranston's performance is that we believe this is a man who overthinks every detail to the point that he's almost outthinking himself in a frantic bid to make sure every base is covered. As a result, he gets sloppy, overcovering his tracks to the point of micromanagement, too often drawing unecessary attention in all the wrong ways. 

Michael's decision to go through all these channels to have the car "taken care of" temporarily gets Adam off the hook, but causes a chain reaction that essentially destroys the lives of Kofi Jones (Lamar Johnson) and his little brother Eugene Jones (Benjamin Flores Jr.), two young black kids running in the wrong circles. In a series full of senseless tragedies, what ends up happening with them is easily the most senseless and undeserved. And unfortunately for Adam, he'll never truly be off the hook.

What Michael has most in common with Walter White is his inventive responses to each new impossible obstacle put in his way, in turn opening the floodgates for another calamity that's usually twice as damaging. In some ways it's the toughest kind of episodic storytelling to write because there has to be an escalating tension based off events and actions that require a certain degree of sloppiness to get the story where it needs to go. Creative risks often accompany the manufacturing of these messy scenarios, and as far as over-the-top legal thrillers go, this does snuggly fit within that wheelhouse. 

The amount of sympathy and understanding we have for the Desiatos start at a high point, gradually descending the further their big lie extends, even while acknowledging few would have the courage to do what's most obviously the right thing from the start and confess. But is it? Michael's clearly correct in assessing the ruthless Jimmy Baxter wouldn't hesitate to off Adam if he ever found out he killed his son, however accidental it was. As viewers, we're instinctively protective of a kid who made a snap bad judgment in a scary scenario while having an asthma attack. So even while conceding that both his immediate and long-term actions afterward are wrong, the criminal threat of the victim's family muddies already murky ethical waters. 

We reach a point where the mildly justifiable becomes indefensible, most especially as it relates to Michael. Adam, on the other hand, seems to be behaving in such a way that he wants to get caught. Either that, or the writing has holes big enough to drive a truck through. There's just no other way to explain him returning to the scene of the crime, hanging around courts and prisons, blabbing to people in such a way that implicates himself, attending a public memorial for his victim, and in the grandaddy of them all, getting involved with Fia Baxter, a move that subsequently raises the stakes and tension. If the deck isn't already stacked enough against Adam, his affair with Frannie (which doesn't seem to come exclusively from a place of lust, ranking as almost tame compared to other illegalities on the show) could make the teacher more vulnerable than she even knows. The same could be said for his grandmother, and Michael's mother-in-law, Elizabeth (the great Margo Martindale), whose political position as a senator is yet another hurdle Michael must clear.

Jimmy Baxter hardly needs an excuse to commit heinous crimes, but now with something resembling an actual excuse to, and the means, the threat he poses is frighteningly real. Frequently unrecognizable from role to role, Michael Stuhlbarg is able to go incognito again with this subtly powerful performance, made all the more impactful that it's opposite Cranston. 

Just seeing these two acting titans go face-to-face is really what we're really here for and it doesn't disappoint, with Stuhlbarg playing the grieving Jimmy with a quiet sensitivity that's interspersed with sporadically violent fits of rage. It's inevitable he'll find out what Michael's up to as we wait for the other shoe to drop, but how that happens, and the adjustments he must make, is where all the surprises are found. 

The wildcard is Carlo, the eldest Baxter son who's doing time, but still a massive amount of damage from within his prison cell. Michael and Adam's very survival could depend on whether his dad can wield his judicial influence to help the thuggish, drug-dealing, murdering brute, and in the process potentially betraying everything and everyone he holds dear. This is where Cranston's performance kicks into the highest gear possible as Michael frantically scrambles to come up with solutions that could spare him and his son's life, if only even for just another day.

With a trial as its closing arc, this series disproves the theory that all legal thrillers need to be spend an inordinate amount of time in the courtroom bogged down by procedure and expository dialogue. Presiding over a case that has to go a certain way, Michael's in a position where he can't so obviously tip the scales as to draw attention to his own impropriety. Playing in a chess game rather than overseeing a trial, every single move counts and even the slightest ruling the wrong way could be catastrophic. He can control a lot, but not everything, and it becomes torturous fun watching all the curve balls thrown his way and how Cranston conveys Michael's flummoxed reactions. 

Fitting into a far larger discussion in how popular entertainment is choosing or not choosing to incorporate the pandemic into storylines, the assumption that these events were taking place prior to that are shattered when masks start showing up in the last quarter of the series. Well, kind of. There doesn't seem to be much consistency in their depiction, but give the writers credit for ingenuity and comic relief as Michael actually uses "social distancing" as an excuse to pull off one of his manipulative tactics during the trial.

Much like HBO's Treme, this dives far into the atmosphere of New Orleans, framing the city as important a character as the rogues gallery of corrupt law enforcement, nefarious politicians, lawmakers, family and gang members that put our protagonist in the worst of company. And there's still yet another side that exposes a sense of bustling community in the streets and an underlying and overriding sense of loyalty amongst its people to protect their own, making the betrayals that occur especially heartbreaking. 

The broken system Michael attempts to navigate proves impenetrable, even for someone with his standing. Its ending has been accurately compared to a Shakespearian tragedy, concluding on a note depressing enough to make Better Call Saul feel like a trip to Disney World. There's a mad dash to wrap it all up with many dangling threads, but it's an appropriately straightforward closer considering what got us there. It's easy to believe this was only intended as a limited series with no plans to go further. But if we've learned anything, it's always possible to continue, no matter how creatively inadvisable that may seem. The bigger question is why you'd bother when within its ten episodes Your Honor manages to jam more in than most series have in their entire extended runs.