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african-american directors series/geezer cinema/film fatales #106: one night in miami (regina king, 2020)

Many times I have said that while one great performance in a movie shows how good an actor is, when the entire cast comes through, it says something good about the director. All four of the key actors in One Night in Miami are excellent: Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Eli Goree (Cassius Clay), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke). Credit to all, but also tip your cap to director Regina King, who elicits those performances in one of her earliest works as a director. (It seems like many want to call this her debut as a director, but she has done a lot of TV, including a couple of features ... One Night in Miami is her first feature to play in theaters, or it would be if movies were in theaters right now.) The point is, King is no amateur, but ultimately it's beside the point: the film has great performances across the board and she directed it.

The setup, with a screenplay by Kemp Powers from his own stage play, is perfect. Four important American black men meet in a hotel room. The event took place in real life, but no one knows what happened in that room. So Powers can pretty much do whatever he wants. If he strayed too far from what we know of the four men, he would be called on that, but as long as he is honest in his portraits of the four, we are willing to be taken for a ride. Indeed, all four resemble what we imagine the real people were like, and the play is believable on that level. There are things missing ... we get no hint of Brown's problems with domestic violence, for instance ... and the timeline sometimes moves a bit away from what/how things really happened. But Powers gets to make his points about what it meant to be an African-American male in the early-60s without going too far afield.

Besides working with the actors, King has to deal with the staginess of the material, and she does a decent job, moving conversations out of the hotel room on occasion without being obvious about it. You never lose sight of the stage origins, but she avoids the problems that sometimes accompany stage-to-movie productions.

It can't be overemphasized how terrific the main performances are. I'm hard pressed to single out one over the others ... I'm hard pressed to figure out which characters are major and which are minor (I'd say they are all major), and it will be interesting come awards time which of the four end up in the running for Best Actor awards and which will be presented as Best Supporting Actor. But Malcolm X is probably the most interesting of the characters ... he's the one whose interactions with the other three are key to what we learn about all of the men. So it's possible that Kingsley Ben-Adir will contest the Best Actor awards, while the others, especially Leslie Odom Jr., will turn up in Supporting Actor lists. All of the actors have to deal with the fact that at least some of the audience remembers the actual people, so Odon Jr., for instance, isn't just playing a part in a movie, he's competing with our image of Sam Cooke. This is always the case with biopics and their ilk, of course. Ben-Adir and Goree have a double conundrum, because they are not only dealing with the images of Malcolm and Clay, but also of the indelible performances of Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's Malcolm X and Will Smith as the title character in Ali. Both actors are good enough so that, if we don't exactly forget about Washington and Smith, we accept these new and different interpretations of the characters.

The pacing is a bit uneven, with some scenes going on a bit too long (the "dispute" between Malcolm and Cooke being the most noteworthy example), but every scene matters, and even though in the end One Night in Miami boils down to four men talking to each other for a couple of hours, King keeps us from noticing the talkiness, varying the focus on the characters so nothing feels static. It's a fine job, one that makes you hunger for more films directed by King.

I can't resist one last note that is irrelevant, but I can't help myself. None of the four stars are unknowns, but Eli Goree is the closest to a new-to-us performer. Yet at our house, he is known for his work on The 100, and it was a delight to see him in a major role in a major motion picture. Here's a short scene of him in The 100:

music friday

Some question marks here ...

First, according to my "records", I once saw a band called SST. I don't remember them, and I can't find any evidence that I ever actually saw them. So there's no SST today.

B.B. King, Bloomington Indiana, 1971. Another question mark. For almost 50 years, I've told everyone that I saw Ike and Tina Turner open for B.B. King. But in writing this blog post, I found that I probably saw them in the same venue, but a month apart. I now think that B.B. had James Taylor's brother opening that night. Anyway, B.B. was in his mid-40s then, and had released a live album, Live in Cook County Jail, in January of that year ... it was on the Billboard charts for most of 1971, and was the only album of his career to hit #1 on the R&B charts. At my concert, his backup band, led by his longtime drummer Sonny Freeman, opened with a few songs, and then BB hit the stage. Here he is in France in 1971:

The Flamin' Groovies, Henry J Kaiser, Oakland, 1979. They opened for Patti Smith. They began in San Francisco in the mid-60s, but didn't rise above cult status until they signed with Sire Records in the mid-70s. Pretty much the only thing I remember of their performance was when one of the band made a joke comparing his guitar to a woman ... it didn't go over well. It was at Sire that they recorded their most timeless song, "Shake Some Action":

The Pretenders, Shoreline Amphitheater, 1995. This was one of the Bridge School Benefit concerts, and The Pretenders were the highlight of the show (not easy when one of the acts was Bruce Springsteen, but it was perhaps the only time I ever saw Bruce put on a subpar show). The Bridge School shows were mostly acoustic, which worked well for The Pretenders, who a few days later released their acoustic live album, The Isle of View. It's not a great album, but I loved seeing them nonetheless ... I always loved Chrissie Hynde, and this was the only time I saw her. It's funny ... we've come full circle, for Chrissie was in her mid-40s when this show took place.

This is from the concert that ended up as The Isle of View. It's one of my favorite xmas songs:

the spy in black (michael powell, 1939)

This is the nineteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 19 is called "Powell & Pressburger Week".

Our theme of the week is a dive into the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. These two have created some of the most seminal works from the 1940s and 50s, and their legacy is still felt today.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Powell & Pressburger film.

Powell and Pressburger had a long and fruitful partnership, creating some of the key films in British cinema (A Matter of Life and DeathBlack NarcissusThe Red Shoes). The Spy in Black was their first collaboration, and it's an interesting enough film, although I don't know that anyone would have predicted at the time that their careers would mesh so well. It involves German U-boats in World War I, and was released just weeks before England went to war with Germany again in WWII. I can only guess at the impact the story would have had on English audiences so close to the outbreak of the second war. Conrad Veidt plays a U-boat commander who goes undercover to set up a big mission against the British fleet. Valerie Hobson co-stars as a double agent who helps foil Veidt's plans. It's an efficient movie (82 minutes with no flab), and a confident one. That said, I'm not sure it was particularly special, although it was well-received critically.

2020 movies, a chat

Recently I had the pleasure of spending a couple of nights on Zoom chat with Scott Woods and Phil Dellio, talking about 2020 movies. Master Editor Scott broke it all down into 8 episodes. Here is the first one, where we talk about What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael and Mank:

Here are links to the other 7 episodes:

Part 2: The Social Dilemma:

Part 3: Recorder: the Marion Stokes Project and Never Rarely Sometimes Always:

Part 4: White Riot and The Assistant:

Part 5: I'm Thinking of Ending Things:

Part 6: Small Axe:

Part 7: The Nest:

Part 8: Da 5 Bloods and Portrait of a Lady on Fire:

film fatales #105: the invisible frame (cynthia beatt, 2009)

This is the eighteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 18 is called "Contemporary Performers: Tilda Swinton Week".

Some actors are true chameleons, absorbing themselves into whichever role is thrown their way with a very high success rate. And I think its safe to say that one of the best modern examples of this talent is Tilda Swinton. She truly is a pleasure to see very time she shows up on screen, and fits pretty much any mold gracefully. Plus, she's involved in a healthy mix of mainstream pictures and smaller titles, so plenty of options to see her work.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Tilda Swinton.

In 1988, Cynthia Beatt directed a semi-documentary short, Cycling the Frame, that featured Tilda Swinton riding a bicycle around the Berlin Wall. A year later, the Wall came down. Twenty years after that, Beatt and Swinton returned to Berlin and took a similar bike ride, albeit this time traveling on both sides of what used to be the Wall.

Tilda Swinton has such a unique presence that you could imagine watching her in anything, good or bad, and finding it intriguing. But does that extend to a movie that consists of 60 minutes of Tilda riding a bike? Well, it's only 60 minutes. It's unusual, and not clearly a documentary ... Swinton speaks in voice over, but it appears she's reading from a script. I haven't seen Cycling the Frame, and nothing in The Invisible Frame made me want to check out the earlier work. It might have been more interesting if I had a sense for where Swinton was at various times. As it is, I never knew which side of the "Wall" she was at from one scene to the next. So I'm left with an hour of Tilda Swinton riding a bike.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales]

revisiting the constant gardener

When John le Carré died last month at the age of 89, I thought to read one of his novels. I remembered seeing the film of The Constant Gardener many years ago, and decided that would be a good choice to read. Thus, when I say I am "revisiting" The Constant Gardener, I'm referring to the movie, not to the book, which I read for the first time.

A couple of things stand out in my writing about the movie the first time through.

Robin likes to tease me because I always lose track of the plot in spy thriller type movies. She, of course, prefers the complicated plots, the more the merrier far as she is concerned (and she reads a lot of books in the genre as well). So there's always a point in the middle of one of these movies where I put it on pause and ask her "do you understand what the hell is going on?" and she looks at me like I'm a moron and says "duh." She didn't watch The Constant Gardener with me, though, so when I got to the part where I finally had to admit to myself that I didn't know what was going on, I had no one to talk about it with.

But, looking back, I think I did understand what was going on ... I just kept expecting some cheesy Hollywood crap and when it didn't come, I was confused. All of the characters are shaded in gray ... some are closer to "good" than others, but their motivations and actions are not always obvious the way they would be in a crappier movie. Same thing with the plot ... while much of the mystery, such as it is, is easy to understand and pretty clear from the beginning (at least the international intrigue parts), I kept waiting for silly plot twists, even when they never came.

What I'm trying to say is that The Constant Gardener is a very good movie that works in subtle ways, that I think I picked up on those subtleties, but I lack confidence in my ability to "read" thrillers so I convinced myself I wasn't getting it when I was.

This time around, my wife did watch with me, so I could have asked her what was going on. But I had just read the book, so I didn't need her help. In other words, one of the things that stood out the most for me in my earlier viewing (what's going on) was irrelevant in this revisit.

It took a while for the primary character to become clear in the book ... le Carré switches points of view, and it is only gradually that we realize Justin is the one. In the movie, you know right away, because Justin is played by Ralph Fiennes, who is the star of the cast. The film was just as impressive the second time around. Rachel Weisz won a Supporting Actress Oscar, beating out Amy Adams (Junebug), Catherine Keener (Capote), Frances McDormand (North Country), and Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain). She is indeed wonderful, but I'd note that Ralph Fiennes is also excellent (Philip Seymour Hoffman won Best Actor that year for Capote). I first watched The Constant Gardener about a year before I saw City of God for the first time. The latter movie was also directed by Fernando Meirelles (along with Kátia Lund) ... a friend had bugged me for years about how great it was, and when I finally got around to it, my friend was right ... I ended up putting it at #20 on that 50 Fave Films list I made ten years ago. The Constant Gardener was the first movie Meirelles directed after City of God.

[Letterboxd list of the top movies of 2005]

music friday

Santana, Oakland Coliseum, 1977. Third-billed for a Day on the Green headlined by Peter Frampton, with The Outlaws playing before Santana and Lynyrd Skynyrd playing after them. Santana had moved beyond their initial popularity; although they still had an audience in the mid-70s, their comeback didn't arrive until Supernatural in 1999. They were good at this show, although I confess it was Lynyrd Skynyrd that I really wanted to see, and they delivered. Here is part of that show ... look for a young Sheila E. (The drummer is Graham Lear ... rumor is Carlos chose him because he looked like Woodstock star Michael Shrieve.)

Graham Parker and the Rumour, Old Waldorf, 1979; Warfield, 1982. We saw them twice, once in a small club, once in a mid-sized hall (I think he'd broken up with The Rumour by then). The 1979 show came on the heels of Squeezing Out Sparks, and it was terrific ... Parker was a dynamic performer, especially up close. It was later released as the album Live in San Francisco 1979. Here is the show as it was recorded off the radio:

The Time, Civic Auditorium, 1982; Oakland Coliseum Arena, 1983. Both shows were as opening act for Prince. Holy moly, they were a great band, easily one of the handful of best "opening" bands I ever saw. The 1982 show was bittersweet for me ... I'd seen Prince the year before and found the crowd to be as diverse and wonderful as any I'd ever experienced, but in '82, I had my pocket picked. (Greil Marcus was at the first Prince show, and described the crowd as "the most excited and diverse crowd (black and white, punk and funk, straight and gay, young and old, rich and poor) I’ve been part of in a long time".) Here is The Time from late 1982:

Beck, Shoreline Amphitheater, 1995. The Bridge School Benefit was an annual charity concert put on by Neil Young and his then-wife Pegi. They ran from 1986 through 2016. The shows were mostly acoustic. Although the shows featured top acts, and although the venue was only about 45 miles from our house, we only attended two of them (not surprisingly, the ones Bruce Springsteen played). In 1995, besides Young and Springsteen, the roster included Beck, Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois, The Pretenders, and Hootie and the Blowfish. Beck was between albums in 1995. Here is his closing number from that night:

geezer cinema: synchronic (aaron moorhead & justin benson, 2019)

A film I'd never heard of, from film makers I didn't know, which means Synchronic was a good Geezer Cinema choice, since one of the best things about that project is I get to see movies I might otherwise have missed. It was written by Benson, with cinematography by Moorhead, and both worked on the editing while directing. The two have done several films together, and have a bit of a following.

On Twitter, Moorhead described the film as "our weird movie about paramedics & designer rugs & the nature of time & dogs & New Orleans & death & cavemen & pirates & how the past sucked & friendship & burnt bodies & sad handshakes". That's actually a very good description, because one, it's accurate, and two, it tells you nothing about the movie. And since Synchronic benefits from spoiler-avoidance, I'm stealing Moorhead's tweet here. It's an atmospheric film, which lends itself to the mysterious unfolding of the plot. And I'm going to say something about that plot in a second here, so spoiler alert and all that.

It co-stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. I've found Mackie to be reliable ... at least, I usually like the films that he is in (The Hurt Locker, Detroit, Half Nelson). He gives Synchronic some life to go with the atmosphere.

Here's where the spoilers come. Synchronic deals with time travel, and it appears that Moorhead and Benson wanted to address the problem of race in America. Mackie (Steve) and Dornan (Dennis) are paramedics, and there are a couple of references to the way Steve is treated as opposed to Dennis that offer a bit of insight. But when Steve starts time traveling, Moorhead and Benson seem a bit too proud of the fact that they are showing how tricky it would be for an African-American to go back in time, considering how Blacks have been mistreated throughout our history. It's not a particularly unique take ... the television series Agents of SHIELD and Timeless both addressed the topic, and were at least as interesting and pointed as is Synchronic.

Synchronic takes place in New Orleans, and it feels real ... it was shot there, and Mackie was born there. It is far from a failure. But it's slow-moving, and not to its advantage. A decent movie, not a great one.

see ya later, alligator

I am not a fan of the Democratic Party, although I am inspired by some Democrats (like our Representative, Barbara Lee). I've said for some time now that I can't wait to complain about Joe Biden and the Democrats. But that can wait.

My first vote in a presidential election came in 1972, when I voted for George McGovern. These were formative years for me, and so I thought, with some reason, that Richard Nixon was the worst president in my lifetime. Later, friends who came of age a bit later than me tried to convince me that Ronald Reagan was, if not the worst, then at least the one who created the most damage. George W. Bush was hopeless. But I still held out for the nefarious Tricky Dick.

And then came Donald Trump. Four years later, it's no contest. That man was not just the worst president in my lifetime ... he is the worst president of all time.

And so, on this day when Joe Biden will become President of the United States, I am happy. It won't last long ... the further we get from the Trump Era, the more distant his perfidies become, the more I'll find myself frustrated with the Biden administration. But hey, give the man his honeymoon. We all need to take the time to breathe a sigh of relief.

i'm thinking of ending things (charlie kaufman, 2020)

There's no use hiding the facts: I'm Thinking of Ending Things is maddeningly obscure, and yet if you are in the right mood (as many critics were), you may find you love the movie. I'm here to confess that I did not love it.

Charlie Kaufman has made a career out of hard-to-categorize writing that challenges audiences while always suggesting big themes underneath the odd surfaces. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Early on, he worked on TV series like the bizarre Get a Life and the controversial Dana Carvey Show. When I try to get a handle on Kaufman, I find it useful to think of those series, which were off the wall at times in sneaky ways. I've liked some of the movies based on his screenplays, especially Adaptation. But in 2008, he started directing his work, with Synecdoche, New York, which I most definitely did not like. I wrote, "There are films that reward multiple viewings; I’ve watched a lot of them. But there is a difference between something that gets better every time you see it, and something that is incomprehensible on first viewing." I'm Thinking of Ending Things is the latter.

I know there is an audience for this, that many people like the puzzles a movie like this offers, that the uncertainties of the narrative might reflect the uncertainties of the characters, or even of life itself. But I prefer to have something to latch on to. I don't need my hand held, and I often enjoy flights of fantasy that take off from seemingly mundane beginnings. And I'm Thinking of Ending Things does strike one as mundane at first glance. But when I don't like this kind of movie, it's usually because I think the film maker is purposely obscure, that they are uninterested in anyone else understanding what they are doing. I can't say Kaufman is the only person who understands I'm Thinking of Ending Things ... for one thing, it's based on a novel, and I assume the author also "gets it". But I get the feeling Kaufman is happy to have each person in the audience come up with a different "meaning" for his film, and part of me thinks that's an excuse for not being clear enough in the first place. So while you might find pleasure in a movie where it's not clear if some or all of the characters are real, where it's not clear if the entire movie is or is not a fantasy, where it's not clear what's going on from one shot to the next ... well, I didn't get that pleasure from I'm Thinking of Ending Things.

Stars Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley are excellent. Co-stars Toni Collette and David Thewlis are less so, although I think their (over)acting is what Kaufman wanted. The cinematography from Lukasz Zal (Ida) is appropriately gorgeous and spooky as needed. Even someone like me, who was ultimately disappointed, found things to like. The one thing that should have appealed to me (Buckley's character offers a take on A Woman Under the Influence that is taken verbatim from Pauline Kael's review) just felt like a stunt. And I want my stunts to offer more fun than I got out of watching this film.