Movie Review ~ One Night in Miami


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the aftermath of Cassius Clay’s defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964, the boxer meets with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown to change the course of history in the segregated South.

Stars: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Michael Imperioli, Beau Bridges, Hunter Burke, Nicolette Robinson

Director: Regina King

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: It’s seems strange to say it, but movies like One Night in Miami make me miss live theater.  There are so many moments within this impressive feature film directorial debut of Oscar winning actress Regina King when I wished I was in the same room with the actors playing the roles of key figures in the history of Black America. The way they embodied these men with such alacrity seemed to give off a kind of electricity that I’m positive would have set off a charge strong enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  In the room where a play is performed, you take notice of these types of performers and what they are giving out to you and, in turn, you give back to them as audience members.  Without that opportunity to express that though, when it just halts at the barrier of the screen, something feels unfulfilled.

I suppose that’s why I’ve struggled with my thoughts on One Night in Miami these past weeks since seeing it and wondering why it hasn’t moved me in the way that I’ve heard it has for other people.  Not that I have to fall in step with the throngs because I’ve certainly defended my share of movies to those that didn’t respond like I did…but there’s something about this particular project that’s made me a little out of sorts.  The performances in the movie are stunning and just as awards worthy as you’ve heard (but maybe not in my mind the exact people being mentioned…more on that later) and the imagined dialogue that happens within the framework of the real-life set-up has a crackle to it.  However, there’s one element missing that there is no working around that keeps the movie from ever taking a sky’s the limit flight…and it’s that old electricity I mentioned before.

Adapting his 2013 play, screenwriter Kemp Powers (already having a jolly good year as co-director and screenwriter of Pixar’s Soul) opens the film with introductions to the four men that will feature in the night’s festivities.  Civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, The Commuter) struggles with maintaining his path forward in the face of threats of violence, a visit with a family friend of NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man) in Georgia starts sweet but ends with a sour reminder of the time and place, boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, Godzilla) is established as the king of the ring and a true showman, and singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express) makes a dreary first impression at the famed Copacabana nightclub where his crooner numbers sink like a stone to the all-white audience.  These scenes have all been added to the film and are several examples of ways that Powers and King have wisely expanded the world of the one-act, 90-minute play…and not just for an excuse to pad the run time of the feature.

It’s when we get to the bones of Kemp’s play, when the men gather at a motel room after Clay’s victory and discuss his intended conversion to Islam under the tutelage of Malcom X, that the film starts to back itself into a corner.  Gone are the easy ways to keep the action moving and here to stay are speeches crafted as monologues and dialogue that sounds more like back and forth talking points to cross off on a checklist.  It’s unavoidable, I suppose, that a play about a gathering of men in a motel room would turn into a movie that feels like a play.  Only in the moments when the men excuse themselves and King follows them out of the room or travels back in time do we find ourselves slipping back into the magic and mood that are attempting to be evoked.  Every time we got back into that room, I felt like it was a return to actors running their lines again, stymied by four walls that were holding them back…much in the same way their characters were lamenting the way they were being held back from doing greater things.

The good news is that the performances are so superlative that they mostly overcome this stage-y feeling that infiltrates these scenes.  All are dealt nearly impossible tasks of recreating personalities that are instantly recognizable, but King has cast her film impeccably from top to bottom.  By far the star of the film is Ben-Adir, unforgettable as Malcom X…which is saying a lot because the doomed civil rights leader has already been played brilliantly before onscreen by an Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s 1992 film.  Making the role his own, Ben-Adir channels Malcolm X from some otherworldly place, and it’s not a larger-than-life performance either.  Along with Hodge’s Brown, it’s likely the quietest one in the film but instead of just blending into the scenery, that solemn silence speaks volumes as he clashes with Sam Cooke over the popular singer’s refusal to be a more visible part of the movement.

I can understand why Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke is getting the advance notices for the film and an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Category wouldn’t be out of the question, but it would be folly not to speak of Ben-Adir in those same lines.  If anything, Cooke is pushed into more of a leading character with Odom Jr. performing several songs, including a thunderous take on ‘A Change is Gonna Come’.  Strangely, as over-the-top as Clay/Muhammad Ali was, Goree is the least memorable out of the four and it’s possibly because he’s the one that isn’t given as much to do when it comes to serious-minded debate compared to actors like Ben-Adir and Odom Jr.  Even Hodge gets to take a walk outside of the motel and have his opportunity in the spotlight, plus his early scene in Georgia with Beau Bridges leaves a lingering impression, a sting that is felt for the remainder of the film.

A long-time veteran of the business that has won a truckload of awards through the years, after taking home an Oscar two years ago for If Beale Street Could Talk it’s clear that King is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the director category in years to come.  Based on One Night in Miami, there is a lot to be excited about for King’s future as well as its cast of emerging stars.  I wish Powers had been able to solve the issues that plague every play that transfers from the stage to the screen, but the additional material that’s been added at the beginning, end, and interspersed within show that there was an awareness that movement was needed in order to give the film life.  Recommended on the strength of the performances because they definitely help when the film finds itself on shaky stage bound legs.

Movie Review ~ Soul

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.

Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Richard Ayoade, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, Alice Braga, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, June Squibb

Director: Pete Docter

Co-Director: Kemp Powers

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I recently was watching some programming on Disney’s streaming service Disney+ and it included clips from 1995’s Toy Story, Pixar’s first full length feature film.  It was a landmark in the movie business, the first entirely computer-animated feature and it opened so many doors for artists and creative energy to flow over the next twenty-five years.  It’s strange to look back at that revelatory movie (that still holds up well today, I might add) and see how far the medium has grown.  Now the animation borders on prehistoric in terms of composition and the ability to capture life-life expression and scenery.  It’s easier than ever to lose yourself in a Pixar film, which is a huge help with stories that are aiming for emotional connections like Onward from earlier in 2020.  (Doesn’t it feel like that movie came out two years ago after all we’ve been through?)

Pixar levels up, amazingly, once more with their latest release and it shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point when I tell you that Soul finds a way into your heart in the most unique ways.  Bumped from its June theatrical release to a hoped-for November bow in theaters before Disney threw in the towel and decided to put their efforts behind a holiday release on Disney+, Soul is wisely debuting Christmas Day when families can gather in harmony for a moving viewing experience.  Though it deals with topics that are deeper and often less tangible than other Pixar productions and parents should get ready to unpack the movie with their younger children after (or during), Soul finds Pixar pushing the boundaries of storytelling to a far more inquisitive and almost metaphysical plane.

Continuing their trend of tweaking their studio logo to fit the film it precedes, Disney allows Soul to re-orchestrate their opening fanfare, helping to set the tone as we meet middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, Just Mercy) hoping to inspire his inner-city students in the short amount of time he has them each day.  A jazz musician at his core ever since his late father taught him to love the style when he was the same age as his students, he picks up the occasional side gigs but never achieved the level of his success that matched his talent.  When he’s offered a full-time teaching job that would provide stability, not to mention would also please his firm but caring mother (Phylicia Rashad, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey), a self-made woman that owns her own tailoring shop), Joe struggles with choosing some permanence in his life over the possibility that something may happen down the road.

Then, a call from a former student (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove) offers a chance to fill in for the quartet that plays with jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett, Black Panther) and it could be the opportunity that changes everything.  A head held high and open manhole cover with a perilous drop ends that dream, though, and Joe’s soul is taken from his body and set on a course to the Great Beyond.  Now in the form of an aqua colored sprite that has Joe’s identifiable hat and glasses, Joe escapes from his final journey and winds up in the Great Before as an unlikely mentor to a soul yet to be born.  Helping this soul (Tina Fey, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) find their purpose by examining his own lived life becomes Joe’s ticket back to Earth and a reunion with his body.

Sounds like the full movie, right?  Ah…but this is from those ever-imaginative minds at Pixar and the outline above only covers the first 1/3 of Soul.  Oscar-winning writer/director Pete Docter (Inside Out) and his co-director Kemp Powers make Joe’s journey to the Great Before and his time there one of interesting discovery where origins of personality are found and motivations for a full life are started.  It’s a fascinating conversation for the movie to have with its audience and one that I’m sure will stay on your mind after; fantasy though this may be there’s some truth to thinking about what moves us and keeps us on track.  I didn’t even mention a hippie-dippie tie-dyed pirate character (Graham Norton) that’s very much alive on Earth but found his way into the Great Before by going into what we call “The Zone” or a chubby feline that plays an important role in the latter half of the movie.

It’s when the movie advances past Joe and his mentee getting to know one another in the Great Before that Soul earns its stripes for ingenuity and starts to close its grasp around your tear ducts, readying to squeeze.  It always amazes me the level of detail the writers and designers at Pixar can drill down to in each sequence.  There are comedic bits included here that would take forever to work out in live-action and even then may not come out correctly.  Yet they’re razor sharp here without a second of extra space for a laugh to go on for too long or too short.  Further, the action is complicated but easy to follow even with all the bells and whistles they’ve put on it.  That’s excellent filmmaking no matter what the medium it’s being made in.  It’s amplified by the score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (Waves) which gives the film an ample pulse and runs in a nice parallel to the jazz compositions provided by Jon Batiste, the bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Then there’s the way Docter, Powers, and the crew can make a simple moment, a small line, or a brief glance have huge emotional weight when you least expect it.  The realism of the animation at times helps this immeasurably.  There were honestly moments when I forgot it was animated, like Joe on a park bench watching the twirling seeds of maple trees fall or walking into a neighborhood barber shop.  You feel like you have to blink several times to adjust your eyes back to the animation.  There are several emotional high points within but the most effective one is instrument and dialogue free, and I won’t spoil where it is, but when you start to feel your eyes heat up, your cheeks flush, and the goosebumps ripple…you’ll know you’ve arrived.  As the first African American co-director in Pixar’s history (who will also be well-represented in end-of-the-year awards with One Night in Miami for Amazon), Powers brings some much-needed balanced narrative to the traditionally more vanilla Pixar brand of moviemaking.  Coupled with Docter’s trademark brand of tapping into what is going to pluck your increasingly fragile heartstrings and you have an inspired collaboration.

If you think about it, it’s kind of a miracle that a film about a jazz-musician’s soul figuring out their true spark of purpose set to a largely high-top horn heavy jazz score would be a tough sell but Soul emerges of one of Pixar’s mighty best, standing among an already impressive roster of top titles.  The voice cast is stellar (Foxx is the least Jamie Foxx he’s ever been and that’s a great thing) and it’s filled with jokes simple enough for small(er) children to laugh at and a number of quite hysterical one-liners (and appearances) involving historical philosophers and do-gooders that adults will get a belly laugh or four out of.  Despite the warning that parents might have to be prepared for some questions about death and what happens after we die, not to mention the film toying with the sticky-subject of the ability to come back after you die, for everyone else this is exactly the way you want your Pixar films to be: creative, moving, magical, funny, and thoughtful.  One of the very best of the year.