Movie Review ~ One Night in Miami

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The Facts
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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 ~ Oldboy (2013)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Obsessed with vengeance, a man sets out to find out why he was kidnapped and locked into solitary confinement for 20 years without reason.

Stars: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, James Ransone, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I’m always amazed when a director with an impressive list of credits lines up a remake as their next project.  Some directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, remade their OWN films and that practice still happens occasionally today with a foreign director helming an American version of the film they popularized on their home soil.  Then there are the directors that take on Hollywood studio adaptations of foreign products for American audiences.

For me, I get the impression that these US directors choose these foreign films to remake as a way to say “This was good but I can do it better”– though they very rarely can.  If anything, they wind up creating a film that’s just as good but can exist in the same universe as their overseas counterpart as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  That film was a tremendous success in Sweden and had David Fincher as a director when it jumped shores…both films are impressive and I’d watch them back to back if the spirit moved me to do so.

It’s strange, then, that Oldboy even happened at all.  Nearly a decade old when discussions for the remake began, it’s easy I suppose to see why it attracted the attention of Hollywood and director Spike Lee.  The 2003 original, Oldeuboi, had amassed a certain fervent fan base in America thanks to an impressively twisted narrative, strong performances, and skilled direction from Park Chan-wook (Stoker) which bumped it to a level of sophistication that set it apart from its more minor peers.

Lee has been a troublesome director as of late, known more for his ranting outbursts toward fellow filmmakers than he was for making some important films in the early 90’s.  With a flagging career and a penchant for taking forever to finish his work, the revenge thriller Oldboy seemed almost too easily commercial for the director to latch onto.

If Lee had done something, anything, of interest with the material then I could maybe get behind an argument for this remake moving forward.  Though the film does have some classic Lee elements on the technical side, it’s lacking the depth that he’s brought to his earlier efforts like Do the Right Thing and more recent work like documentaries surrounding the Hurricane Katrina disaster.  His work in Oldboy winds up feeling like a director-for-hire and it permeates every level of the film.

It’s a shame, then, that Josh Brolin (Labor Day, Men in Black III) is so good in the leading role of a man without scruples that’s abducted and held in confinement for twenty years by an unseen captor.  It’s within these shoddy walls that he watches a television news report where he finds himself the number one suspect in his wife’s death.  With his young daughter in foster care and his life seemingly over, there’s not much more for him to do but wait to die…until he awakes one day in a field, free.  Or so it seems.

Up until the man is released the film follows the original quite closely.  It’s after Brolin is let loose that the film takes an approach that favors more explanation than necessary and less of the ominous mystery surrounding a menacing caller employed to good effect in the original.  In Brolin’s quest for answers to why he was held, there’s still a plethora of well staged fight sequences with one of the central passages of the original being recreated, Spike Lee-style, with sweeping cranes that allow little to no cuts in action.

The violence is way more visceral in the remake and that’s where Lee lets down the film a bit.  It’s as if Lee needed to justify Brolin’s revenge by allowing him to enact sadistic acts of violence toward anyone/everyone that may have been involved only remotely.  That didn’t work for me…especially when Brolin is cutting sliver sized chunks of flesh from the neck of an Oscar nominated actor in a wacky cameo role.

A Florence Nightgale-like nurse played by a sleepy-looking Elizabeth Olsen (Silent House) is an unlikely ally for Brolin and her involvement with him never makes a whole lot of sense.  He’s bad news and she can tell but either she loves a charity case or chunks of her storyline were excised in order to speed the film along.  (Side note: the 105 minute film was cut down from a reported three hours, perhaps a director’s cut will give the film more shape).  Sharlto Copley’s role is one I can’t go into much detail on but Copley (Elysium, Europa Report) winds up doing a great disservice with a cartoony performance in what could have been a much more engaging role.

Screenwriter Mark Protosevich gets points for largely keeping this remake in alignment with the events of the original film…including its controversial dénouement.  I’d also say that while the ending winds up looking poles apart than its inspiration, what Protosevich lands on could arguably be called the very same ending just under different circumstances.

If you’ve never seen the original film Oldboy is based on, I’d guess you’d find yourself mostly engaged in this revenge crime drama which, faults aside, is quite well made and executed.  Fans of the original also shouldn’t be concerned that their precious film has been tarnished nor should they riot at some of the changes employed here.  Still…it’s a remake that didn’t need to happen.

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Movie Review ~ The Call

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When 911 operator Jordan Turner receives a call from a girl who has just been abducted, she soon realizes that she must confront a killer from her past in order to save the girl’s life.

Stars: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund, Michael Imperioli

Director: Brad Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s so aggravating to find yourself in the theater watching a B-movie that thinks it’s playing in the big leagues, so there’s something to be said about a movie that knows its place.  Though it’s a B-movie through and through, The Call manages to rise above its direct-to-video set-up and break on through to the other side of schlock entertainment.

I’d seen the trailer for The Call more than a few times and with each viewing I was less and less interested in it because I felt the preview gave away too much of the movie…a feeling I still stand by after seeing the final product.  However, even a giveaway trailer couldn’t quite put a damper on the fact that the film is more enjoyable than it has any real right to be.

Originally titled The Hive, referring to the 911 control center where much of the film takes place, The Call starts out strong as we find 911 operator Jordan (Berry, Cloud Atlas) using her expertise to help a young girl escape an intruder.  Trouble is, Berry is too on the ball and she inadvertently plays a part in the girl’s demise at the hands of a killer.  Six months pass and Berry is unable to bring herself to take more calls, deciding instead to teach incoming operators…until a girl (Breslin) calls from the trunk of a car after being abducted from a mall parking lot.

The Operator and The Abducted work together as they battle near escapes, broken cell signals, and one very loony tunes psycho across the highways and byways of Los Angeles.  Under Anderson’s (The Machinist, Next Stop Wonderland, the underrated Session 9) slick direction, the film chugs along without ever letting the audience get too far ahead.  Though Richard D’Ovidio’s lean script is filled with your stock close calls and convenient happenstances, it somehow works in a throwback sort of way.

Oscar winner Berry has had a rough go with movie choices for most of her career – for every good movie she’s done there are three or four others that she (and we) would like to forget.  I had my reservations going in and although she lays the emotional anxiety on thick, she acquits herself nicely by making her character a believable fighter and do-righter.  Breslin is another actress that can’t quite find her footing as she mozies through some teenage awkwardness…but the film allows her some opportunity to break out of the Little Miss Sunshine mode.

Most interesting in the cast is Eklund as our resident kidnapper (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler).  Eklund’s role is a tricky one – in these types of films the killer is usually either a pervert or nutcase and Eklund opts to mash those two together and produces a slow burn of creepiness.  When the film trips near the end and rips off a classic Oscar winning horror film it’s Eklund that brings it back to reality.

It’s not a perfect film by any means.  The secondary characters exist only to get Berry, Breslin, and Eklund where the script dictates they need to be and the ending may be something the audience wants but it’s not what the movie deserves.  Fortunately, for the previous 90 minutes The Call has brought you along on a breezy thrill ride that serves its purpose and delivers the goods.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Call

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Synopsis: In order to save a young girl’s life, an emergency operator must confront a killer from her past.

Release Date:  March 15, 2013

Thoughts: Originally titled The Hive, the trailer for the blandly retitled The Call represents everything I really dislike about previews.  It’s too long, too detailed, and doesn’t leave you wondering about what kind of movie you’re going to see.  Like the trailers from the past (I’m talking up through the mid 80’s) this preview gives away everything but the closing credits…so what’s left to entice viewers to see the film?  Oscar winner (!) Halle Berry continues her downward descent in film with another quick buck half-effort.  I think she’s better than this but still seems intent on following up every interesting film she does (Cloud Atlas) with a hokey piece of direct to video garbage.  Admittedly, I have a soft spot for these schlocky films…but only when they’re viewed cheap on streaming video or a $1 rental from Redbox.  Perhaps there is a twist the film has left hidden, though I’m not too confident that there’s more to uncover when a preview is this revealing.