C’mon, Mann: The Insider

Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal

“In ‘The Insider,’ I had violence – lethal, life-taking aggression – all happening psychologically, all with people talking to other people.”

– Michael Mann

It’s easy to think of Michael Mann as an action filmmaker. When I hear the director’s name, my mind immediately goes to the all-timer of a street shootout from Heat, with Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer raining hellfire on outmatched police squads. From iconic shots like Kilmer flawlessly reloading his Colt 733 rifle in that film or Tom Cruise quick-drawing on two alleyway thugs with lightning speed in Collateral, Mann has earned a reputation for training his actors to represent tactical precision in their weapons handling. As exciting and visceral as his action movies can be, his most engrossing work for my money is The Insider, a docudrama where no guns are fired or even shown in its 158 minute runtime.

Based on a true story, the film begins with a shroud over the camera and the proverbial wool pulled over our eyes. The face covering belongs to CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who’s being harshly transported to the founder of Hezbollah, Sheikh Fadlallah, in the back of a Middle Eastern van. He hopes to convince the Sheikh to sit down with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) for a 60 Minutes interview that may change the way American minds view the burgeoning Islamist movement. It’s not an easy task but it’s obvious from the outset that Bergman doesn’t mind the challenge of a potential new story, as long as he feels the work is meaningful and can change the world around him.

It’s this tenacity that draws Bergman closer to Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a tobacco executive who staunchly refuses to consult with Bergman on scientific documents from cigarette conglomerate Philip Morris. After pressing Wigand, Bergman discovers that he’s bound by a confidentiality agreement that seems immensely restrictive in its scope and vicious in its potential repercussions. Bergman spends a large portion of the film working through numerous loopholes that allow Wigand to break through the robust non-disclosure and eventually gets him to sit down for the 60 Minutes interview. It’s only after taping it that Bergman learns the higher-ups at CBS plan on airing a highly abridged version of the segment for fear of litigation from Big Tobacco.

Around the halfway mark, The Insider slyly expands from a film about the intense lobbying power of the tobacco industry specifically to a movie about the sweeping influence of media conglomeration on how information is distributed. Adapting from the incendiary Variety Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, Mann and legendary screenwriter Eric Roth poured an incredible amount of detail and journalistic rigor into their Oscar-nominated script. Beyond just being well-researched and steeped in hard-hitting truth, it’s a screenplay packed with loaded dialogue and quotable lines that read well but play even better when coming out of the mouths of high-caliber actors.

Mann’s previous film Heat famously paired De Niro with Pacino as the crime and justice sides of the same coin, so much so that it’s difficult to determine who between the two is the protagonist. The Insider similarly brings Pacino back for a character who certainly isn’t the antagonist but also goes about things very differently from Wigand, the film’s underdog hero. We’re used to seeing Crowe as an imposing figure — he would star in Gladiator 7 months after The Insider‘s release — but before his days of schooling strangers on the value of the courtesy tap, Crowe shined in smoldering roles like this that kept his rage simmering under the surface. At the beginning of a tense meeting, Wigand’s ex-employer faux-dotes on him in front of higher-ups by remarking “it’s spooky how much he can concentrate” and Crowe does an incredible job of capturing Wigand’s fiery intellect.

Conversely, Pacino externalizes all of Crowe’s fear and paranoia by lashing out on executives over pay phones and new-fangled mobile phones but really, is there an actor in the 90s that we collectively trusted to do bigger better than Pacino? Equally at home in an authoritative role is Plummer as revered journalist Mike Wallace, who steals nearly every scene that he’s in with his impossibly smooth confidence. After a confrontational meeting with a member of CBS’ legal team, Wallace reassures Bergman with a quick tap on hand and cooly reminds him, “don’t worry; we call the shots around here.” The presence of character actors from Philip Baker Hall to Stephen Tobolowsky further drives home the notion that indeed, we’re in good hands here.

Watching the movie 20 years after its release, the most “dated” aspect of the film is how much concern is given towards a 60 Minutes report but really, that says more about how poor the state of investigative journalism is now rather than the actual narrative seeming antiquated. It’s a time capsule of a quaint era when journalists worked hard to present matters of public interest in the most objective terms possible and the American people trusted the news to keep them informed. Now, hard-hitting exposes are typically buried under mountains of infotainment (a term this film may have actually coined) and knee-jerk headlines, while the rise of social media has made getting to the truth seemingly impossible at times.

And those are just the stories we see. What makes The Insider so powerful is that for once, we get to sit in those boardrooms and high-rise offices and hear the conversations that the rich and powerful work hard to withhold. Technology, and big data specifically, has allowed for the news to be curated for individuals more finely than ever but without the right people above the keyboard fighting to publish the unvarnished truth, for-profit reporting will gladly take its place. It’s unlikely that many of us will get in a post-robbery gunfight with the cops or confront a duo of armed bandits but as long as you have a smartphone in your pocket, you’re almost guaranteed to be an unwitting victim of behind-the-scenes corporate control on a daily basis. Perhaps that’s what makes The Insider the most unexpectedly bruising film of Michael Mann’s career.

Nomadland

In her elegiac and emotionally captivating new movie Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao opens with a curious title card about a small city in Nevada named Empire. It’s a remote town so driven by a single industry that when the local sheetrock plant closes down in 2011 after 88 years in business, the entire town was evacuated and the zip code was literally abandoned not long afterwards. Among those displaced by the devastating closure is Fern (Frances McDormand), who doesn’t have much need to stay after the recent passing of her husband. She finds a new partner, of sorts, in a van she dubs Vanguard, which carries the remainder of her belongings that she hasn’t sold off or holed up in a storage unit. With jobs being scarce as a result of The Great Recession, Fern travels from one Southwest city to another, meeting other nomads like herself and adapting to their mutual lifestyle in the process.

What makes Zhao’s film so slyly remarkable is just how lived-in and genuine each aspect of her story feels as it unfolds before us. As in her previous work, the also excellent The Rider, she surrounds the protagonist with real-life figures playing modestly fictionalized versions of themselves. Among the challenges of creating a sprawling picture as this is, I would imagine it’s quite difficult to fill your movie with a bevy of non-actors but Zhao gets bonafide performances out of each and every one of them. Also serving as the film’s editor, Zhao has a brilliant instinct for how to cut conversations together where sentences may overlap but every word still registers and resonates. There’s a pace and rhythm to the dialogue in Nomadland that you just won’t see anywhere else.

Credit for the naturalistic exchanges also extends to McDormand, giving an understated performance that is necessarily more reactive and reflexive but no less compelling as a result. As a bereft wayfarer still acclimating to her changing circumstances, she reveals Fern’s empathetic nature while letting us in on her sadness little bits at a time. It’s a much different role than the one for which she most recently scored a Best Actress Oscar, the incendiary Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which openly wore its anger and bitterness on its sleeve. McDormand suggests Fern could possess similar resentment but sublimates it into savvy survival skills and a sturdy work ethic that allows her to pick up hands-on labor nearly everywhere she goes, even while work is difficult for others to find.

Adapting from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, whose subtitle Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century pitches it as a how-to guide, Zhao doesn’t graft a complex narrative onto Nomadland. A more pedestrian storyteller would have telegraphed a redemption arc or a series of inorganic obstacles for our heroine to overcome but Zhao knows that it’s more than enough for us to simply spend time with these nomads and hear them out. We learn about their way of life, from the Ten Commandments of Stealth Parking to bucket-based tips that I shouldn’t delve into here. While some were driven out of their homes, others choose the mobile lifestyle for their own reasons and just as they don’t judge one another, Zhao asks the same of us in the audience.

As the theatrical experience continues to experience setback after setback, there’s no movie I’ve seen in the last 12 months that made me wish I was watching it in a theater more than this one. While I might typically expect that sentiment to arise from an effects blockbuster rather than a $5 million awards drama, I’ll take the golden hour desert vistas captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards over the fussed-over frames of a spandex superhero showdown any day. Hopefully sometime soon, I would love to see the images of this film illuminate the big screen when it’s safe to go back to our beleaguered multiplexes. A stunning meditation on transience and trauma, Nomadland is a patient and perceptive portrait of people who are rarely, if ever, given the chance to represent themselves in the movies.

Score – 4.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on Netflix is I Care A Lot, a dark comedy starring Rosamund Pike and Peter Dinklage about a woman who makes her living stealing from the elderly by deceiving judges into appointing her as their “legal guardian.”
Swooping in on Disney+ is Flora & Ulysses, a family superhero comedy starring Matilda Lawler and Danny Pudi about the adventures of a young girl and her adopted squirrel who has superpowers.
Available to digitally rent is Silk Road, a based-on-a-true-story thriller starring Jason Clarke and Nick Robinson about the tech mastermind behind Silk Road, a dark web page that sells narcotics, and the DEA agent tasked with taking him down.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Little Fish

Meeting at the intersection of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Contagion, the new sci-fi romance Little Fish is a quietly devastating and exquisitely rendered tale that would have hit hard even if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. However, its story of an out-of-control virus that causes memory loss rather than respiratory infection is even more ominously timely than its creators could have initially intended. Originally slated to debut last April at the cancelled Tribeca Film Festival, the film finally arrives on demand with scenes of masked bystanders and clamoring crowds outside of hospitals that are now all too familiar. What keeps this from being a shoe-in for Feel-Bad Movie of the Year is the playful and tender chemistry between its two compelling leads.

The touching relationship at the story’s center is between spirited vet tech Emma (Olivia Cooke) and reserved photographer Jude (Jack O’Connell). The two meet on a gloomy Seattle beach one day, courtesy of a lost dog who serves as the perfect icebreaker. We then move through time as Emma and Jude go on their first few dates and eventually move into the same apartment, all while the world is slowly changing around them. The new illness Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA) is affecting more people every day, causing memory loss that can be either spontaneous or gradual; Emma confesses she doesn’t know which scenario is worse. Through increasing incidents of forgetfulness, it becomes obvious to Emma that Jude has contracted NIA and the two search frantically to find a cure before it’s too late.

Adapting Aja Gabel’s short story of the same name, writer Mattson Tomlin and director Chad Hartigan weave together hushed voiceover narration, vivid flashbacks and modest moments of intimacy to utterly heartbreaking effect. Though it sometimes piles on the misery a bit more than it needs to and in ways that aren’t terribly organic to the primary story, the film works best when it focuses on the aching associated with watching a loved one fade away and the desperate longing between Emma and Jude as they work to preserve their shared memories. With its doomed love story cast against dire circumstances out of the protagonists’ control, Little Fish often reminded me of another dystopian romantic drama: Mark Romanek’s underrated adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Both Cooke and O’Connell turn in some of the very best work of their careers. Cooke feels more natural here than anywhere else that I’ve seen her previously, sporting her native English accent when most of her other roles have called for the “standard” American dialect. She graces her character with a fragile optimism that is a perfect fit for poignant lines like “I find myself wondering how to build a future if you keep having to rebuild the past.” O’Connell imbues Jude with an earnestness and deference that recalls the work of the late Anton Yelchin, with whom Cooke starred in the 2017 thriller Thoroughbreds. Thanks to O’Connell, Jude’s growing confusion and requisite agitation registers with shattering potency.

In his fourth feature film, Hartigan wisely features composer Keegan DeWitt’s staggering and breathtakingly beautiful music score in the majority of the movie’s scenes, particularly in montages showing the central relationship blossom. During the latter half of his story, he also makes subtle use of unreliable narration, making the audience question if we’re misremembering things or if the NIA-affected characters are. Hartigan occasionally spins his wheels and gets lost in the tragic nature of his film from time to time but his terrific leads see his vision through. Though it arrives at a time when viewers may not necessarily be in the mood to take in its oppressively melancholic story, Little Fish is nevertheless a profound reminder of the powerful bonds we hold with those closest to us.

Score – 3.5/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on HBO Max is Judas and the Black Messiah, a biopic starring Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the member turned FBI informant who betrayed him.
Available to watch on demand is Saint Maud, a psychological horror film starring Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle about a Catholic caretaker who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of her troubled patient.
Also gracing the rental moviescape with its presence is Willy’s Wonderland, an action comedy starring Nicolas Cage and Beth Grant about a janitor squaring off against murderous animatronic mascots who come to life in an abandoned family entertainment center.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Malcolm & Marie

As the coronavirus continues to affect all manners of public and private life, we’re beginning to see its effect on the creative process for artists and thus, its influence on pop culture at large. Last month, HBO put out Locked Down, a romance-heist movie written and shot in secret during the ongoing pandemic. Now Netflix has released Malcolm & Marie, another project conceived as a result of covid-19 restrictions that also revolves around good-looking people arguing with each other inside their lavish residences. Thankfully, the film isn’t nearly as tone-deaf as celebrities recording themselves singing lines of “Imagine” from within their mansions but it’s also a far cry from the escapist entertainment that we could all use right about now.

We meet up-and-coming filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) as they return late from the premiere of his soon-to-be lauded independent feature. Malcolm puts on a James Brown record and drunkenly saunters through their opulent Malibu home while his young belle makes him some midnight macaroni and cheese. The mood seems to be celebratory and joyous, until he presses Marie on why she doesn’t seem to share his sense of ebullience. We find out that Malcolm neglected to thank her in the speech that he gave after the movie that evening, even expressing gratitude for the gaffer before her, and discover that there’s much more wrong at the foundations of their caustic relationship with one another.

The film’s dubious tagline implies that the titular couple are “madly in love” but it doesn’t take long into Malcolm & Marie for us to recognize that there is hardly any love here at all. Instead, they seem to vacillate between various degrees of lust and loathing while revealing deeper shades of ugliness about themselves in the process. These are two grotesquely self-involved individuals who would seem to model their lives after the “if you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” mantra. It’s painful watching them try to reconcile their differences on behalf of an obviously doomed and toxic relationship but clearly, writer/director Sam Levinson is intending to convey that agony in as visceral a manner as possible.

The scathing screenplay, which has its leads alternate bruising monologues spit venomously at one another, does have poignant insights about the insecurities of the creative process and the pressures of being a black creative in modern Hollywood. “You’re complaining about reviews that haven’t even been written yet,” Marie scolds Malcolm as he neurotically predicts how critics will receive his latest work while mansplaining the importance of William Wyler to her at the same time. As someone who writes about movies, it was hard for me not to blanch at the extended sequence where Malcolm bitterly breaks through the pay wall of the LA Times’ website to viciously dissect a reviewer’s insipid hot take of his new film line-by-line.

Washington and Zendaya, both of whom serve as co-producers of the film and the latter of whom works with Levinson on his HBO series Euphoria, are undoubtedly convincing at maintaining tension throughout their real time knock-down drag-out fight. The luminous black-and-white cinematography by Marcell Rév captures the two rising stars with an honesty and tactility that perfectly compliments the film’s fervent and urgent nature. So as to not upset Malcolm, I won’t guess which camera or lens Rév used but I can say with confidence that the movie looks much better than Netflix’s recent monochromatic misfire Mank. Handsome but hollow, Malcolm & Marie is an arduous lockdown-era therapy session between two people who shouldn’t be in quarantine with each other in the first place.

Score – 2.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Coming to HBO Max is Earwig and the Witch, the first CGI-animated film from Studio Ghibli starring Shinobu Terajima and Etsushi Toyokawa about an orphan girl who discovers that she’s the daughter of a witch.
Arriving on Amazon Prime is Bliss, a sci-fi romance starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek about a recent divorcee who meets a mysterious woman who tells him they’re living in a computer simulation that he created.
Available to rent digitally is Falling, a family drama starring Viggo Mortensen and Laura Linney about a middle-aged man whose father moves in with him and his husband after showing the first signs of dementia.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Palmer

What does Justin Timberlake want? Not yet 40 years old, the pop icon has sold tens of millions of albums in his solo music career alone, resulting in ten Grammy Awards, and performed at two Super Bowl halftime shows, one of which gave birth to the dreadful phrase “wardrobe malfunction.” Though he’s dabbled in the movie industry throughout the years with films like The Social Network and the Trolls franchise, his latest project Palmer would suggest that he wants to be taken seriously as a dramatic leading man. Since a future Tony Award seems inevitable given his undeniable music talent, it makes sense that he would want to refine his acting chops to secure EGOT status but starring in hoary pablum like this latest offering from Apple TV+ won’t do his career or his Oscar aspirations any favors.

Timberlake stars as Eddie Palmer, a soft-spoken Southern gentleman who’s just been released from prison after a 12-year stint for attempted murder. He returns to the rural Louisiana home of his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb), who takes him in on the condition that he finds a job and joins her for church every Sunday. After finding out just how difficult it is for convicted felons to land even a minimum wage gig, he’s eventually hired as a janitor for the local elementary school, where he meets a charming young teacher named Maggie (Alisha Wainwright). One of her students Sam (Ryder Allen) is also taken in by Vivian after being abandoned by his delinquent mother Shelley (Juno Temple), which causes Palmer and Sam to strike up an unlikely friendship with one another.

Beyond Timberlake’s apparent desire to win respect within the acting community, it’s difficult to know what drew anyone to make Palmer. Director Fisher Stevens is best known for his work on socially-conscious, nature-based documentaries like the Oscar-winner The Cove and Before the Flood but his narrative instincts on display here are about as pedestrian as it gets. “Ex-con mentors troubled youth” isn’t exactly the most promising starting point but I was hoping that Stevens would be able to add some sort of depth or nuance as the story progressed. Not only does he refuse to have an original take on this tired material, he leans into nearly every cliche that we’ve come to associate with this overwrought brand of melodrama that’s barely above the level of a Hallmark movie.

The script by Cheryl Guerriero is packed with characters so one-dimensional that they more closely resemble a line-up from a geometry textbook rather than an assemblage of people who actually exist in the real world. It evokes a simplistic and stereotypical view of Southern culture that’s so obvious and unsophisticated that it’s borderline insulting. This is one of those movies that seems to have been created by pulling from a hat filled with the most trite scenes imaginable, from a pack of good ol’ boys drunkenly regaling each other with stories from their glory days to a tear-filled custody hearing where the judge demands order from the courtroom. I can’t readily recall a screenplay more complacent and safe than the one that Guerriero offers here.

In the midst of a streaming war that gets more competitive every year, Apple TV+ is still in the relatively early phases of developing their original content. Though they have yet to create a series that makes their service indispensable, they’ve moved the meter a bit with offerings like Servant and Ted Lasso. From the film side of things, their partnership with A24 yielded successes last year like On The Rocks and Boys State and promises more winners in the future. Beyond those, their movies have ranged greatly in terms of quality and style, which makes it difficult to tell what kind of brand they’re trying to establish. Regardless of what the future holds for the emerging streaming service, they’ll need to do better than utterly bland fare like Palmer to command the attention of couchbound audiences.

Score – 1.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Arriving on HBO Max is The Little Things, a crime thriller starring Denzel Washington and Rami Malek about a feud between a deputy and a detective during the investigation of a serial killer in 1980s California.
Debuting on Netflix is The Dig, a period drama starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes about an archeologist who discovers and begins excavating the Sutton Hoo burial site in 1930s England.
Out for digital rental is Supernova, a romantic drama starring Colin Firth and Stanley Stucci about a pair of longtime partners who reunite with friends and family after one of them is diagnosed with early onset dementia.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The White Tiger

Based on the 2008 New York Times bestseller of the same name, The White Tiger tells the spirited story of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a successful young businessman thriving in modern-day Bangalore. Narrating his own tale in voiceover, we flash back to Balram’s early life fighting to survive in an impoverished Indian village after losing his father to tuberculosis. After a fortuitous run-in with a wealthy landlord, the resourceful Balram becomes a full-time driver for the solicitous Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his free-spirited wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). The arrangement seems to be going well, until a night of recklessness forces Balram to reassess his relationship with his rich employers and the unequal society that keeps its most affluent citizens immune from consequences.

The film is written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, who made a splash in critics circles during the mid-2000s with acclaimed independent features like Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. While those two movies just barely broke the 80 minute mark, The White Tiger comes in at a much heftier 125 minute runtime and more often than not, its length can be felt. Though he has an accessible and exciting story in his hands, Bahrani seems slavishly devoted to each of the novel’s plot points and its dense themes involving social classism and globalization. The stylistic touches, like its evocation of the eye-rolling “you’re probably wondering how I got here” trope at the film’s opening, make the theatrics of Danny Boyle’s films seem like the stuff of genius by comparison.

Fortunately, Bahrani is adapting some sturdy material and Aravind Adiga’s novel gives the film plenty of hearty fodder to feed this robust rags-to-riches story. Its title, a reference to a rare and magnificent beast to which Balram is compared at a young age, is just one of the animal-based metaphors that is used to symbolize the perils of a seemingly impenetrable caste system. Balram explains India’s poor class as existing in a “rooster coop”, waiting at the market to get slaughtered one at a time, yearning for freedom while being unable or unwilling to escape from their daunting enclosure. But the tone of Balram’s narration doesn’t resemble that of a maudlin requiem for upward mobility; he often peppers in dark humor and irony to affably recontextualize his struggles and those of his people.

As the savvy protagonist, Adarsh Gourav lends a stirring mixture of down-and-out pathos and cheeky resilience to his compelling lead performance. Rajkummar Rao is equally winsome in his portrayal of a well-to-do tech mogul who takes Balram under his wing and gets closer to him than even he suspects. In a role that could have been one-dimensional and cloying, Priyanka Chopra conveys layers of conflict for a young woman torn between her roots in the United States and her charmed life in India. Each of the main three actors have an easy chemistry with one another, gratifying in times when affinity brings them together and heartbreaking in the moments when discord draws them apart.

With its story of a desperate driver looking to get in with a rich family, The White Tiger bears thematic resemblance with last year’s outstanding Best Picture winner Parasite but it lacks that film’s propulsive sense of narrative urgency. Since Bahrani gives us glimpses of both the film’s climax and ending within the first 10 minutes, there isn’t very much suspense built into how things play out. Even though this is more of a coming-of-age drama than a tongue-in-cheek thriller like Parasite, stakes still matter and I would have preferred to have been kept in suspense rather than waiting for the inevitable denouement. Netflix recently announced they’ll be releasing at least one new movie every week in 2021 and if The White Tiger is any indication, they’d do well to focus on quality over quantity.

Score – 3/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Available to rent digitally is No Man’s Land, a modern Western starring Frank Grillo and Andie MacDowell about a young man who flees to Mexico after accidentally killing an immigrant along the Mexico-Texas border.
Also available to rent digitally is Our Friend, a dramedy starring Jason Segel and Casey Affleck about a couple who finds unexpected support from their best friend after they receive life-changing news.
Debuting on Hulu is In & Of Itself, a filmed version of illusionist Derek DelGaudio’s Off-Broadway one-man stage show which explores themes of identity and illusion.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

One Night In Miami

Based on the smash stage play by Kemp Powers, the enthralling new biopic One Night in Miami depicts a fictionalized meeting between four burgeoning icons in the mid-1960s. We meet the first of the four, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), in the ring during the opening scene as he whales on a fellow boxer in Wembley Stadium. This victory leads to a title match in Miami against then-champion Sonny Liston, where Ali shocked the world by becoming the youngest fighter at the time to win the heavyweight belt. To celebrate his win, Ali invites his friends Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) over to his hotel room to share drinks and reflect on their past successes along with their future challenges.

One Night in Miami is the directorial debut by Regina King, the Academy Award-winning actress who most recently headed up the acclaimed HBO series Watchmen. Behind the camera, King establishes herself as a true actor’s director, bringing out the very best in each of the four talented performers despite the majority of the film’s “action” taking place within the confines of a single room. Films based around plays, like the fellow Oscar contender Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, typically face issues translating the limited settings of their source material to the screen but King proves that you don’t need to punch up the material to make it compelling. The way that she vividly catalogs the convictions and concerns between these four dominant male personalities is especially impressive for a first-time effort.

Adapting his play, screenwriter Kemp Powers (who also co-wrote Pixar’s Soul) considers the positions of each of the four legends at this point in history and how a hypothetical conversation between them might go. Their dialogue is vibrant and revealing, finding the quartet playfully ribbing at each other one moment and more sternly questioning one another the next. There are many topics covered during their all-night hangout but many of the exchanges center around each of the famous figures’ responsibility towards their race during the Civil Rights Movement. As to be expected, Malcolm X is the most confrontational towards each of his cohorts, pressing them explicitly on what they are doing in their respective crafts of music and sports to further progress for African-Americans.

With limited settings and dialogue as the primary driving force, the performances are critical for the film to operate and each of the actors brings something special to bring out the most in their real-life icons. Ben-Adir brings both the righteous anger and thoughtful introspection that we tend to associate with Malcolm X but also adds a dimension of childlike exuberance when he brings out his camera to capture the moment. Goree lends tremendous physicality and the obscene confidence that define Ali’s persona but he peels back the layers to reveal a young man who isn’t as sure-footed as he seems. Hodge is portraying who is arguably the least well-known of the four characters but feels right at home with an easy charisma and warmth.

Best of all is Odom Jr., who broke out when Hamilton hit Disney+ last summer and follows through with a deeply soulful and moving performance. As Cooke, he comes across as an easy target for Malcolm X’s repudiation but turns the tables in rope-a-dope fashion on the activist, whose life was cut short a year after the events of the film. We know that Odom Jr. is a talented singer but the way that he conjures the legendary singer’s tender timbre is magical, particularly in the film’s concluding moments. One Night in Miami is a stylish rumination on race and responsibility through the eyes of four larger-than-life figures whose human qualities are brilliantly presented.

Score – 4/5

Also new to stream this weekend:
Making a last-minute debut on HBO Max is Locked Down, a pandemic-set heist film starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor about a quarreling couple of diamond thieves who put aside their differences to pull off a lucrative new job.
Debuting on Netflix is Outside the Wire, a sci-fi action movie starring Anthony Mackie and Damson Idris about a drone pilot who is sent into a deadly militarized zone and must work with an android officer to locate a doomsday device.
Available to rent on demand is MLK/FBI, a documentary that explores the investigation and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. by The Federal Bureau of Investigation through newly declassified documents.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

My Top 10 Films of 2020

Well, we made it. Every single columnist summing up the past 12 months will note just how challenging it was for us collectively and individually but I still feel the need to acknowledge and echo the sentiment. Even though theaters were closed, the movies were still open for business and thankfully, there was no shortage of superb entertainment to consume at home. I watched just over 170 films that were released in 2020; here are my 10 favorites:

  1. Boys State (streaming exclusively on Apple TV+)
    Released in the middle of the most contentious election year in modern American history, this entrancing and supremely entertaining political documentary examines how we got here and embraces how we move forward together. No matter which side of the aisle you find yourself on, this look at Texas teens creating their own government from scratch will fascinate and surprise at every turn.
  2. Minari (coming to theaters February 12th)
    After releasing the magnificent The Farewell last year, A24 follows up with another thoughtful and tender portrait of the Asian-American experience. Featuring a jaw-droppingly gorgeous musical score from Emile Mosseri, this autobiographical story from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung recounts his family’s search for the American Dream in 1980s Arkansas. The entire cast is terrific but Steven Yeun’s performance as the idealist father should garner Best Actor support.
  3. American Utopia (streaming exclusively on HBO Max)
    Spike Lee released 2 great films in 2020 and while his Da 5 Bloods is likely to scoop up more awards, his filmed version of David Byrne’s Broadway concert is a joyous experience and proper companion to 1984’s Stop Making Sense. From both creative and technical perspectives, it’s an unbridled triumph of conviction, imagination and world-class wireless audio performance. The rousing rendition of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” is a clear highlight.
  4. Nomadland (streaming on Hulu and coming to theaters February 19th)
    The recent winner of Best Film by Indiana Film Journalists Association –with many more awards likely to follow– Chloé Zhao’s meditation on transience and trauma is captivating in every sense of the word. Frances McDormand is expectedly outstanding as a wayfarer looking to find herself amongst America’s heartland. I hope to see this in a theater when it’s safe again, mostly to fully take in the breathtaking, golden hour vistas by cinematographer Joshua James Richards once more.
  5. Sound of Metal (streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime)
    This debut by director Darius Marder about a heavy metal drummer battling permanent hearing loss starts off rough around the edges but transitions into something more sensitive and soulful than what it appears to be at first. Riz Ahmed turns in his best work yet as the hearing-impaired protagonist and the sound design flawlessly immerses us into the changing inner world of the main character.
  6. Small Axe: Lovers Rock (streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime)
    Amid the towering achievement that is Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s 5-film anthology series, his depiction of two lovers who meet at a West London reggae house party is a high point. The partygoers spontaneously belting out Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” in unison is cinema’s defining music moment in 2020, a year that took away our ability to sing joyously and off-key with other people in public spaces.
  7. The Nest (available to rent digitally)
    Writer/director Sean Durkin emerges from a 9-year hiatus and delivers another excellent slow-burn of a not-quite horror movie. His agonizing depiction of an affluent family on the verge of financial tumult is dreadfully transfixing and brilliantly rendered. Carrie Coon and Jude Law both do career-best work as the feuding husband and wife dancing dangerously around a divorce.
  8. Palm Springs (streaming exclusively on Hulu)
    In a year where the concept of time became fuzzy and days blurred together, this hilarious Groundhog Day variant benefited from the unexpectedly apt context of world events. Andy Siara’s remarkably clever script and Max Barbakow’s assured first-time direction are in perfect harmony with one another. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti sport world-class chemistry and J. K. Simmons is a hoot in his supporting role.
  9. The Assistant (streaming on Hulu and available to rent digitally)
    It’s not exactly an easy watch but Kitty Green’s day-in-the-life tale of a young assistant at a film production company where dark secrets lurk is chillingly compelling and exceedingly well-observed. Ozark‘s Julia Garner is a revelation as the morally conflicted young professional at the story’s center. Aside from the scene that gives Never Rarely Sometimes Always its title, Garner’s visit to the HR director’s office may be 2020’s best stretch of film.
  10. Soul (streaming exclusively on Disney+)
    Pixar delivers yet another life-affirming masterpiece about the passions that drive us and the preciousness of every moment of life that lies before us. Director Pete Docter and the entire crew behind him craft an existential fantasy that bursts at the seams with beauty and humor. The heartfelt jazz compositions by Jon Batiste and heady musical score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor compliment each other exquisitely.

Reprinted (with a couple list variations due to current film availability) by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #52 – Soul

I’m joined for the first time by my parents Julie and Keith Leuthold as we break down Soul, the latest animated marvel from Pixar that’s currently streaming on Disney+. Then we go over some belated holiday streaming options, including The Christmas Chronicles 1 and 2 (both available on Netflix) and The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show (streaming on Amazon Prime). I also make a pitch for The Flight Attendant, the comedy-drama thriller series whose entire first season is up on HBO Max. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Wonder Woman 1984

Following this month’s bombshell news that Warner Bros will be simultaneously releasing their 2021 slate of films in theaters and on their affiliated streaming service HBO Max, film journalists repeated the ominous query that’s been on their lips all year: are movie theaters doomed? The question coincides with the studio’s decision to test the waters on Christmas Day with Wonder Woman 1984, a follow-up to their 2017 mega-hit which would have netted them hundreds of millions in worldwide box office revenue had 2020 gone differently. Watching the would-be blockbuster on the same screen that I’ve been binging awards contenders for the past few weeks was a strange one, one that had me pining for the theatrical experience more than any film I’ve seen this year, if more for the context rather than the actual content.

Taking place decades after our initial adventure with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (a still-excellent Gal Gadot), we follow her as she mixes among the shoulder-padded masses of mid-1980s Washington DC while posing as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute. After befriending the bookish Barbara (Kristen Wiig, working from a familiar schtick) at work, the two come across an antique whose Latin inscription leads them to refer to it as a Dreamstone. Its presence draws the intense interest of fledgling businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, beautifully contrasting his composed work in The Mandalorian) as he pursues the era’s consumerist American Dream and wreaks havoc in the process.

After opening with a continuity-breaking flashback that exists solely to remind us we’re watching an expensive action movie, Wonder Woman 1984 continues with a Sam Raimi-aping montage in which our Friendly Neighborhood superheroine secretly saves beleaguered bystanders. It’s a sequence that sets a starkly different tone from its predecessor, a World War I-set origin story whose defining and still goosebump-inducing setpiece showcases the titular hero ascending out of the trenches and striding confidently through No Man’s Land. That its follow-up invokes The Greatest American Hero more than the Great War is a deliberate choice from returning director Patty Jenkins but not one that feels thematically consistent with the character set up by her previous film.

2017’s Wonder Woman hinges on a good-vs.-evil narrative that’s trite but palatable, whereas it doesn’t take much time for WW84‘s plotline to get more convoluted and knotty than a tangled-up Lasso of Truth. Without getting into too many plot details that may constitute spoilers, it’s enough to say that “wish fulfillment” is a story element that gets increasingly difficult to parse through when applied on a grander scale. Put frankly, the script, co-written by Jenkins along with Geoff Johns and David Callaham, is a mess of contradictory character motivations and muddled mythology peppered with lip-service 1980s references that don’t add up to much. I admittedly fell for a couple scenes that highlight developments of Wonder Woman’s powers, which recall the joy of discovery harkening back to Donner’s Superman films but feel lost among the crowded narrative.

This movie is yet another perfect example of DC’s Extended Universe being at odds against itself. The first five installments, which Zach Synder had a hand in one way or another, were often self-serious affairs that largely failed in their attempt to contrast the effortless effervescence of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Since 2018’s Aquaman, Warner Bros has tried to turn the tide and course-correct with more comedy-centric efforts like Shazam! and Birds of Prey but even those two films differ greatly when it comes to demographic and thematic goals. Now we have a Wonder Woman movie that bears little resemblance to its predecessor, which could work within a standalone franchise but does little in service of the larger superhero Universe. Wonder Woman 1984 is another mixed bag from a cinematic comic book collection that’s still in the midst of an identity crisis seven years in.

Score – 2.5/5

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

My thoughts on the movies