What Happens When Big Names with Big Personalities Spend ‘One Night in Miami…’? Let’s Find Out!

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One Night in Miami (CREDIT: Amazon Studios)

Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Joaquina Kolukango, Beau Bridges

Director: Regina King

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: R for Language (There’s a Lot of Dialogue)

Release Date: December 25, 2020 (Theaters)/January 15, 2021 (Amazon Prime Video)

On one particular day in February 1964, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown spent an evening together in Florida and the makers of One Night in Miami… thought we might like to see how that may have played out. First this idea took the form of a 2013 play written by Kemp Powers. Now he’s adapted it into a screenplay, with Regina King making her feature directorial debut. (Spoiler alert: you can tell that it started out as a play.) Are these African-Americans titans of the 20th century just as interesting together as we knew them to be individually? Although of course, the more relevant question is: do the actors playing them do them justice, and can they find the right chemistry for their little powwow? The answer probably won’t blow your mind, though it might satisfy you.

Reporting for duty on this night are Kingsley Ben-Adir as X, Eli Goree as Ali (actually still going by Cassius Clay at the time), Aldis Hodge as Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke. Odom’s casting makes the most sense to me, because he can sang. He can be musical anyway you want him to, so summoning the majestic voice behind “Chain Gang” is no problem for him. Meanwhile, Ben-Adir commands most of the attention, and he’d better, because Malcolm had plenty to cover that he thought was pretty damn urgent, and he wanted everyone to hear him. Goree and Hodge, alas, fade a bit into the background. That might mean that the promise of the premise isn’t fully fulfilled, but the others pick up on the slack as this ultimately becomes the “Malcolm & Sam Show” more than anything else. Everyone, especially Malcolm, picks on Sam for not carrying his weight in the civil rights fight, while Sam fires back that he’s actually figured out part of The Man’s formula for getting a piece of the pie and he’s in fact been sharing it with his associates. In conclusion, they’re all doing their part!

Whenever people with big personalities are having passionate debates about the issues of the day, you can pretty much guarantee that there will be at least something satisfying. But I did find myself wondering throughout much of One Night in Miami… why I wasn’t finding it as dynamic as I thought I would. It probably boils down to the fact that I would rather watch these famous guys do what they’re famous for, rather than watching them talk. To be fair, Malcolm and Muhammad were partly famous for their wordsmanship, but playing to a big crowd and having an intimate conversation are two very different situations. We do get to see some of Muhammad in the ring, but we don’t get to see any of Jim on the football field or roughing up Martians. At least we get a decent amount of Sam onstage. Letting Leslie Odom Jr. loose with the Sam Cooke songbook is hardly a groundbreaking revelation, but it gets the job done enough when we need it to.

One Night in Miami… is Recommended If You Like: Movies That Walk and Talk Like Plays

Grade: 3 out of 5 Close-Cropped Haircuts

 

‘Harriet’ is at Its Best When Emphasizing How Good Harriet Tubman Was at Her Job

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CREDIT: Glen Wilson/Focus Features

Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clarke Peters, Zackary Momoh

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Bevy of Insults and a Few Scenes of Brutal Violence

Release Date: November 1, 2019

As I began to watch Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, the thought “Shouldn’t I be watching this in school?” passed through my mind. That is by no means an insult, but rather, it is an illustration of how my own experience (and the experience of many American schoolchildren) has primed me to feel towards a movie like this one. Tubman is an important figure in American history, so a film about her is a useful tool for history teachers to keep their students’ attention. In that sense, Harriet does not need to be a masterpiece (though bonus points if it is), it just needs to be historically accurate, or at least true to the spirit of its subject. On that count, I recommend Harriet to any teacher whose curriculum covers the era of abolition.

For everyone else who is not watching this movie in a classroom setting, you might still be excited because it has taken more than a hundred years for Tubman’s story to finally get the full-blown feature film treatment (though Ruby Dee and Cicely Tyson played her in earlier TV versions). Although, that excitement might be tempered by the difficulty of having to endure yet another movie viscerally showing the brutal treatment of the enslaved (as well as free black Americans). But I think the best way to appreciate Harriet is as a story of a person who does her job very well, i.e., the sort of character that Tom Hanks often plays. Cynthia Erivo proves that a woman and a person of color is just as capable of this role (not that any proof was necessary, given the historical record).

Tubman escapes to freedom on her own, safely travelling about a hundred miles by foot despite her illiteracy and the relentlessness of her slave master. She then goes on to help secure the freedom of hundreds of more slaves while pretty much matter-of-factly never losing any of her cargo, stunning her fellow conductors on the Underground Railroad with her success rate. But as the steady, burrowingly intense eyes on Erivo’s face tell you, this is just what she does. Slavery had to end at some point, and Harriet Tubman was as up for the job as she needed to be.

Harriet is Recommended If You Like: Glory, Sully, Bridge of Spies

Grade: 3 out of 5 Rescue Missions

This Is a Movie Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Take on ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Has a Killer Instinct But Not a Killer Execution

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CREDIT: Nicola Dove/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Stab Wounds and Attempted Gun Wounds

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Kenneth Branagh’s take on Hercule Poirot, one of the most famous and prolifically portrayed detectives in English literary history, is the sort of man who cannot enjoy his breakfast unless his two eggs are perfectly symmetrically arranged. As he puts, “I can only see the world as it should be.” His skill at identifying culprits so precisely derives from his distaste for his surroundings being askew in any capacity. And when a crime has been committed, things are certainly askew. For a Poirot newbie like myself, this thesis statement is clear and compelling enough. It points to a tradition that has led to a recently predominant style in which brilliant detectives do not fit on a normative intellectual scale.

As for how this version of this most classic of Poirot cases plays out, Branagh is eager to put his many new spins on locked room mystery tropes. But first, certain typical patterns are unavoidable. Each passenger must be introduced with just enough color to make everyone a legitimate suspect, and the camerawork must be painstakingly particular to note every cabin, door, and hidden compartment. But once the setup is through, there is fun to be had (or at least attempted) in mixing up expectations. Oftentimes, characters in these stories try to get away with little lies or hide pieces of their identities that ultimately prove to be quite telling. In this case, the experiment – and alas, mistake – is that everyone gives themselves away with such dishonesty.

A good mystery should be a few steps ahead of most of its viewers. Branagh does indeed pull that off, but he is also a few steps ahead of his own movie, which is not similarly advisable. The result is an end product in which the love for the genre is clear, but the volume at which it is being poked and prodded is too much weight to bear. Most of the performances are overly stiff, stuck in roles within roles in which the unnatural seams start to show. Only Michelle Pfeiffer manages to truly cut loose. Branagh’s formal openness is a good start, but ultimately a star-studded affair like this one requires much more lasting personalities to really hit.

Murder on the Orient Express is Recommended If You Like: Agatha Christie completism, Marvelous mustaches, the Michelle Pfeiffer Renaissance

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Symmetrical Arrangements