One Night in Miami


Four giants. Four legends.

(2020) Drama (Amazon) Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Derek Roberts, Beau Bridges, Emily Bridges, Amondre D. Jackson, Jerome Wilson, Hunter Burke, Robert Stevens Wayne, Randall Newsome, Matt Fowler, Chris Game, Jeremy Pope. Directed by Regina King

 

On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship of the world against Sonny Liston. Clay, who would later become better known as Muhammad Ali (and who will be identified as such throughout the rest of the review for the sake of clarity), was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest – if not the greatest – heavyweight boxer that ever lived.

In town that night for the fight were three of his friends – Nation of Islam spokesman and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), football legend Jim Brown (Hodge) who was just about to embark on an acting career, and soul legend Sam Cooke (Odom) who was one of the most popular singers in the country. All four were friends and they gathered at the Hampton House hotel to celebrate the triumph of Ali (Goree).

While this actually happened, what transpired that night in the hotel has been the subject of speculation, and playwright Kemp Powers – who recently co-directed Soul – wrote a stage play about it that he has now adapted for the screen, to be the feature directing debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King.

It is also sobering to note that within one year, two of the four men in that room would die violent deaths. Much of the focus is on X and Cooke, who are at loggerheads; the Black Muslim leader – who after some disagreements with Elijah Muhammad (Gilliard) is getting ready to break off and start his own movement – believes that Cooke should be singing about the struggle, protest songs about racial injustice to use his fame to spotlight the cause. Cooke counters that he doesn’t believe that kind of song will sell and that he can do much more as a black businessman than as an angry young black man singing about injustice. That’s the crux of the argument, and both of the participants are passionate about their positions – and to be honest, a bit rigid in their viewpoints.

There is a temptation to make these legendary figures larger than life and in some ways, that’s how they come off, but at the same time, King and Kemp humanize the men, Ali is unsure of the religious conversion, and wonders if he can give up the things that a conversion would demand, like alcohol and pork. Brown suspects that football has taken him about as far as he can go and that his future lies in acting, which at the time was a nearly impossible industry for African-Americans to break into. It was a turning point in all their lives and indeed, in America itself. King captures that moment very effectively.

It helps that she cast the film perfectly and the actors in return gave her uniformly great performances. I was particularly impressed with Hodge, who gives Brown (the sole surviving member of the quartet, by the way) a quiet dignity and gravitas, even as he experiences in a telling preamble to the film the blunt racism of the time as exhibited by a family friend (B. Bridges). Goree also nails the braggadocio of Ali as well as the charisma.

But the marquee performances are sure to be Ben-Adir and Odom. Ben-Adir gives a quiet intensity to Malcolm X that is certainly comparable to the Oxcaar-nominated turn by Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. In some ways I think that he manages to make the icon still relatable although I think that as written the character is made to look more rigid and unbending than perhaps he really was. I can see Malcolm giving Sam Cooke an upbraiding along the lines of what is given in the film, but I think he would have listened to his friend’s side as well – I don’t think that the Malcolm X in the film does that.

Of the two, Odom has a tougher task in many ways; he not only has to capture Cooke’s enormous talent and legendary presence, but also show a practical side – as well as a tragic flaw of being a womanizer. I think it’s very possible Ben-Adir will duplicate Washington’s feat of an Oscar nomination for the role. I think Odom deserves the same honor as well.

King may also add an Oscar nomination as a director in addition to her Oscar win as an actress. Even given a stage play that takes place in a hotel room as a source, she manages to keep it from feeling stage-y, using subtle camera movements and the judicious use of mirrors to give the film a depth of field that is anything but claustrophobic. King is already one of my favorite actresses; she may well turn out to be one of my favorite directors as well. Certainly this is a movie that has to be considered a major contender for this year’s Oscars and in an awards season that will be unusual to say the least, a real stand-out. The movie had a brief Christmas theatrical run and is currently available for viewing on the Amazon Prime service, included without additional charge for subscribers.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the frontrunners for Best Picture. Note-perfect representation of the era. Dialogue worthy of Aaron Sorkin. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Thought it was a leeeeetle harsh on Malcolm X.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson, who play husband and wife Sam and Barbara Cooke, are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Skyfire

Noelle


Passing Santa’s torch isn’t as easy as Tim Allen made it out to be.

(2019) Holiday Comedy (Disney PlusAnna Kendrick, Bill Hader, Shirley MacLaine, Julie Hagerty, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Billy Eichner, Maceo Smedley, Diana Maria Riva, Anthony Konechny, Michael Gross, Billy Griffith, Aliza Vellani, Amital Marmorstein, Ron Funches, Gary Sekhon, Edwin Perez, Anna van Hooft, Sean Amsing, Steven Rudy, Jagen Johnson, Alvina August. Directed by Marc Lawrence

 

Whether you call him Santa Claus or Father Christmas, we have always had an idea of who and what St. Nicholas is. Jolly, red outfit, sleigh, mittens, a sack full of presents, generally a fun guy to be around.

In this new Christmas wannabe classic, the office of Santa has been handed down from father to son in the Kringle family for generations. Sadly, the old Santa has died, leaving his son Nick (Hader) as heir apparent. The problem is that Nick is much more suited to be a yoga instructor than Santa. He’s terrified of reindeer, claustrophobic in tight places (like chimneys) and can’t steer the sleigh to save his life. His sister Noelle (Kendrick) is much more adept at all these things; she also instantly understands every form of communication from American sign language to French. She also can tell by looking at any kid if they’ve been naughty or nice, and knows instinctively what present they want – in a bit of a running joke it’s usually an iPad.

With Christmas approaching, the pressure is on Nick to get his act together. When Noelle suggests he take a weekend trip to “somewhere sunny and warm,” he takes her up on it – only to decide he’s going to stay there and never return to the North Pole. Christmas is in serious jeopardy and everyone blames poor Noelle, going so far as to take away her Kringle family discount at the local hot chocolate bar and souvenir stores.

Stung, she heads to Phoenix where she thinks her brother might be, accompanied by an adorable CGI baby reindeer named Snowcone and a less adorable elf named Polly (MacLaine, who seems helplessly typecast in grouchy roles these days). Aided by a handsome private detective (Ben-Adir) who is spending his first Christmas as a single dad who is understandably not looking forward a Christmas separate from his son (Smedley) who is spending the holiday with his mom who has since remarried. Meanwhile, back at the North Pole, a tech-oriented Kringle cousin (Eichner) is proposing changes that might just ruin Christmas forever if Noelle doesn’t find Nick and persuade him to put on the red coat and make his Christmas Eve run.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this. Most of the ideas it has have been horked from other films that are way better than this one (Da Queen characterized this as “a not funny Elf) like Arthur Christmas, f’rinstance. There is enough product placement in the movie to make an old capitalist’s heart warm and toasty, which might rub progressive sorts the wrong way but then again, when you think about it, Disney is essentially a massive product placement for itself.

That said, the movie isn’t without its high points. Kendrick is an engaging performer and nobody does adorable quite as well as she does except for maybe Amy Adams in her prime. On a personal note, I’m always up to see MacLaine in anything, even if I’d love to see her do something in which she doesn’t play a curmudgeon which seems to be all she’s cast as these days. Hader hits all the right comedy notes in his performance and the movie really hums along during his training sequence – had the movie continued more along those lines, this might have become the Christmas classic it so desperately wants to be.

The big problem here is that this feels very much like a Disney Channel film in all the most negative aspects of their programming. Insipid pop soundtrack, really groan-inducing Christmas-themed jokes (“Oh, my garland!”) and a plot that seems to be dumbed down so that even ten-year-olds are rolling their eyes. Of course, Noelle should be the replacement Santa; nobody who isn’t brain dead can figure that out.

The subplot of rethinking gender roles is probably not going to play well with the Fox News crowd (some of whom are already trolling reviews elsewhere) but it at least gives some food for thought in a meal otherwise full of empty calories.

REASONS TO SEE: Interesting subtext on gender roles.
REASONS TO AVOID: All the negatives of Disney Channel fare.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally intended for theatrical release, but Disney decided to put it on their brand-new streaming platform to give it additional value.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney+
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fred Claus
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
A New Christmas