Herein find a passel of viewing options for the homebound film buff, or as we call them these days, film buffs.
“One Night in Miami”
Okay, so Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and Jim Brown walk into a Miami hotel room in 1964. It’s no joke. On the February night when Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world, these four Black icons really did gather at a small motel in Miami. What they talked about, no one knows for sure. But it could hardly have been much more fascinating than the fictionalized version of their conversations depicted in Regina King’s film, based on a stage play by Kemp Powers.
Powers’ screenplay mostly succeeds in its effort to depict each of these out-sized personalities as both a sociopolitical emblem and a fully realized individual. Clay (Eli Goree) is all swagger until he’s not—a mere kid, muscle-bound and velvet-tongued but also intelligent and righteous to the core. He’s meeting this night with Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) to discuss his pending announcement that he’s joining the Nation of Islam, which Malcolm hopes will improve his own standing in his ongoing power struggle against the Nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad.
While Ali’s athletic star is on a meteoric rise, Brown (Aldis Hodge), after several record-breaking years as an NFL running back, is preparing to step back from sports, tired of punishing his body for the entertainment and enrichment of white fans and owners. Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), perhaps surprisingly from today’s vantage point, was probably the most famous of the four, his golden voice and nonconfrontational style having propelled him to the upper reaches of pop music stardom.
What is the proper role of a successful Black man in a racist society? That’s the core question debated in “One Night in Miami,” and, of course, there are no easy answers. The starkest contrast, and thus the most heated conversation, in the film is between Malcolm X and Cooke. The former wants Cooke to speak out more forcefully (or, really, at all) against injustice, while the latter credibly argues that by owning his own record label and supporting other Black artists, he ultimately does more good than Malcolm’s divisive rhetoric. These are arguments that still resonate today, but the movie tries its best to rein in its didactic instincts.
The cast impresses, especially considering the fact that three of its members are relative unknowns playing quintessentially recognizable real-world figures. Odom, in his first substantial big-screen role since playing Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” is perfectly cast as Cooke and actually pulls off doing his own singing. King, making her movie directing debut, effectively opens up the one-room play and keeps things visually interesting. All in all, this is the sort of project that could have gone very wrong, but by staying its course and treating its famous characters with empathy, works quite well. (Amazon Prime)
“Always Shine”: This 2016 arthouse thriller is more than worth a look, combining feminist bona fides with two gripping lead performances and some well-earned tension. Two friends, both actresses, head off for a weekend at an isolated house in Big Sur. One, Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald), is a demure “wilting flower” who’s had increasing success in a series of cheesy, nudity-requiring Hollywood horror flicks; the other, Anna (Mackenzie Davis), is a brash, intense striver who finds herself struggling to land roles even in low-budget art films. Professional and personal jealousies and resentments fester between the two, until—well, that would be telling. Director Sophia Takal, who starred in one of the worst films this critic has ever reviewed, went on to subvert genre tropes in her 2019 remake of the Canadian horror film “Black Christmas.” (Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime, and more)
“Ham on Rye”: Imagine “American Graffiti” as made by Todd Solondz (“Happiness,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse”), maybe with a dash of “Repo Man” tossed in. That’s one way, at least, to describe this oddly unaffecting, awkward coming-of-age(ish) tale. In a nameless, bland, American town, a group of teens slowly make their way one evening to a local delicatessen, where some sort of selection ritual transpires. Then, there’s a bright flash of light, and they disperse. One girl has left early, and she spends the rest of the time trying to re-establish contact with her peers. Tyler Taormina’s first feature shows promise in its willingness to play with the conventions of a shopworn genre, but hopefully his ideas will be more fully formed next time out. (MUBI, available to rent from Amazon)
Spotlight on Physical Media
- “Minding the Gap”: This Oscar-nominated documentary flew under my radar, despite the fact that it was made in Rockford, Illinois, about 20 miles from where I grew up. It’s a stunningly intimate portrait of three friends, one of whom shot this footage over a period of several years. What began as an effort to chronicle the group’s skateboard tricks and antics morphed into a probing examination of their struggles on the cusp of adulthood and the childhood traumas that haunt them. Highly recommended (and not just by me—it was on Barack Obama’s best-of-year list!), it’s available to stream on Hulu, but the new Criterion Collection edition features a pair of commentary tracks from the filmmaker and subjects, as well as follow-up interviews with other participants.
- “Martin Eden”: One of the most critically acclaimed films of 2020 comes to DVD and Blu-ray. The film’s already available to stream, but, in addition to superior video quality, the Blu-ray includes a commentary by a film scholar, an interview with the film’s director, and a Q&A with the director and star. For fans of “Eden,” a true paradise (sorry).
- “Satantango”: Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr’s magnum opus was this seven-hour, black-and-white movie chronicling life in a perpetually muddy village through a succession of masterful long shots. It’s basically the pinnacle of the “art film” and an essential experience for anyone who wants to be considered a cinephile. Fully restored and available on Blu-ray in the U.S. for the first time.
- “Minute Bodies”: Reminiscent of the way Criterion’s release of the films of Jean Painleve a few years back made old science movies cool, this hypnotic experience pairs the groundbreaking, early 20th-century microphotography of F. Percy Smith with an ambient score from the British band Tindersticks, whose lead singer Stuart A Staples conceived of the project. It’s even cooler than it sounds.
- “Ingagi”: I’m firmly in the camp that says old, offensive art should remain available, given proper context, rather than permanently shelved (a la “Song of the South”). So I think it’s a good thing that this piece of shockingly racist exploitation from 1930 has been restored and released on Blu-Ray. Before “King Kong” embodied a similar dynamic in a (slightly) more moderated manner, this faux documentary explores the wilds of Africa and purports to come across a jungle tribe that sacrifices its women to gorillas. You can just imagine. There are two audio commentary tracks to put this monstrosity in perspective.
- The Hollywood Theatre has announced the next installment in the syllabus of its online “Movie Madness University”: On February, 11, erstwhile Portlander Matt McCormick will lead a lecture and discussion about Errol Morris’ seminal, Oscar-winning documentary “The Thin Blue Line.” More info available here.
- Just as this column was being finished, the Northwest Film Center announced its plans for the 2021 Portland International Film Festival. The festival will run from March 5th through 14th, and will be composed of virtual screenings, drive-in screenings at Zidell Yards, and other special events, including the second annual Cinema Unbound Awards, whose winners will be announced February 7th. Check back here next week for a more detailed preview.