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Indie Focus: A historic meet-up ‘One Night in Miami’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

In quarantine times, many people have been seeking comfort and uplift from their cultural content. But rather than find solace in lighter fare, Times theater critic Charles McNulty has dug deep into rich, complicated works like “Crime and Punishment” and the “Godfather” films. As he writes in his essay, “The world just seemed too bollixed up for superficial entertainment. I craved darker illumination. With the news spiraling out of control, I was tired of pretending that everything was ‘unprecedented,’ that the malignant behavior of politicians was ‘not who we are’ and that the happy ending of justice was just a matter of time. I wanted the truth, even if it left me feeling unconsoled and morally bereft.”

The movie “Promising Young Woman” came to VOD this week, finally becoming available to its widest possible audience nearly a year after its premiere at Sundance last year. For a story that will be publishing soon, I spoke with writer-director Emerald Fennell and stars Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham specifically about the film’s startling ending. ”It was the only ending for me,” Fennell said. “I mean, I don’t want to put people off, I didn’t do it as a kind of shocking thing. It just felt like it was the only possible resolution for me.” Read the piece after you have watched the movie.

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This week on “The Envelope” podcast, my colleague Yvonne Villarreal spoke to Hugh Grant about his dark role on the limited TV series “The Undoing.” As Grant said, “It was an amazing offer, on paper. I knew I was going to do it, but I like to make a big fuss first. And in a way, it was legitimate because they only had one script. And I needed to know how it ended. In particular, I needed to know, ‘Am I guilty or not?’”

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‘One Night in Miami’

The feature directing debut for actress Regina King from a screenplay by Kemp Powers adapting his own play, “One Night in Miami imagines what might have happened on the night that Cassius Clay — before he became Muhammad Ali — spent with Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke in a Miami motel room celebrating Clay’s 1964 title win over Sonny Liston. The standout cast includes Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Clay, Aldis Hodge as Brown and Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke. The movie is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

Goree spoke with Robert Abele for The Times about how he and King had discussed his role. “The main thing we talked about was her wanting me to make sure I captured that he’s young. He’s 22 years old. But knowing that he was wise beyond his years, it became a real tightrope. Literally, scene by scene, moment by moment, I’d go, ‘OK, here he’s just a kid having fun with his friends. But in this moment, he’s a man who understands the world more intricately and more deeply than probably most people ever will.’ That’s why people loved him so much. He could walk two sides of the street at the same time. There’s a quote of him saying white people are devils, and white people loved him.”

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In a review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “These opening scenes, introducing the characters in sweeping succession, serve as a prelude to the main action and offer some visual variety before the enforced claustrophobia that is about to follow. … But these scenes also deftly establish the movie’s thematic preoccupations and its symphonic structure: Here are four famous Black men whose period of ascendancy has coincided with that of the civil rights era, and whose experiences, however distinct, will throw each other into sharp, clarifying relief.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott declared the film “one of the most exciting movies I’ve seen in quite some time.” Among its pleasures, he wrote, “is how it allows us to imagine we’re glimpsing the private selves of highly public figures, exploring aspects of their personalities that their familiar personas were partly constructed to obscure. … This is also, I think, an important argument of Powers’s script: History isn’t made by icons, but by human beings. Fame, which provides each of them with opportunities and temptations, comes with a cost. The fine print of racism is always part of the contract. What Cooke, Brown and Clay share is a desire for freedom — a determination to find independence from the businesses and institutions that seek to control them and profit from their talents.”

For Rolling Stone, K. Austin Collins wrote, “The movie wields these facts as forays into a fictionalized account of what happened behind the doors of that hotel room. Writer Kemp Powers, adapting his own 2013 play of the same name, takes what we know about these men — their political attitudes (and, importantly, differences), their camaraderie, their shared sense of responsibility for being prominent black voices in a violent and shifting era — and goes out of his way to both imagine and detail all the conflicts that might naturally have arisen from these pressures. … It is, for a movie adapted from a one-room play, an admirably dynamic and talkative rendition of a pure, contingent ideological battle.”

Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree and Leslie Odom Jr. in a scene from "One Night in Miami"
From left, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree and Leslie Odom Jr. in a scene from “One Night in Miami.”
(Patti Perret / Amazon Prime Video)
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‘Locked Down’

Directed by Doug Liman from a script by Steven Knight, “Locked Down” was filmed only in September, created during the pandemic as a document of life under lockdown. Set in London, the story is about a couple (Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor) who have split up but must still live in the same house together. Circumstances arise where together they can pull off a jewel heist from Harrods department store. The film is streaming now on HBO Max.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “For all their screwball speechifying, the actors are in decent form here; their characters get on each other’s nerves and ours too, which under the circumstances is only fitting. And their task — to hold our attention for the better part of two hours in a confined location — is trickier than it appears. … Can a movie about the everyday realities of our crushing new normal also be a breezy piece of Hollywood escapism? At its infrequent best, ‘Locked Down’ suggests that it can. Or rather, that someday it might.”

For Slate, Dana Stevens wrote, “After the psychological acuity of its first, character-focused half, the crime-plot part of ‘Locked Down’ feels strangely underwritten, almost as if the film had been rushed out before it was done … [Liman] clearly has it in him to direct both romance and action, but in ‘Locked Down’ he appears more invested in the former than the latter, and never quite swings the shift in between. This structural imbalance is offset by the charisma of both lead performances: Hathaway and Ejiofor seem excited to play edgier, less nice people than they often get the chance to, and the early scenes of them locking horns in their claustrophobic (if posh) flat generate enough energy to carry the movie almost all the way over the finish line.”

For Rolling Stone, David Fear wrote, “Decades from now, historians may look to this make-a-film-during-a-global-catastrophe-challenge project and study it for markers regarding 2020’s spring of our discontent. That may be ‘Locked Down‘s’ real lasting value — it works far better as a partial document of life under lockdown than as a genre mash-up … ‘Locked Down’ is, at its essence, an attempt to refashion limitations into creative inspirations — a stab at making pulpy, spiked lemonade out of society-crippling pandemic lemons. It’s a lark at the mercy of its own novelty factor, and one that, every so often, makes a case for its existence. And like the London cross streets that open the film, it’s something almost comfortingly familiar until you can’t help but notice how weirdly empty it is.”

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Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway in "Locked Down."
(Susan Allnutt / Warner Bros.)

‘MLK/FBI’

Directed by Sam Pollard, “MLK/FBI” is a documentary examination of the relentless surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. by the FBI under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover. Working from recently declassified materials, the film provides insights into both men and their ongoing legacies. Playing at the Arena Cinelounge Drive-in in Hollywood, the movie is also available on VOD.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote that the film is “both a moving tribute to King’s legacy and a stealth commentary on the challenges that face his descendants in human rights activism. The brilliance of ‘MLK/FBI’ lies in how effortlessly conversant it manages to be with the injustices of the present, without ever deviating from the injustices of the past.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott called the movie “fair to all parties without being neutral or timid. In that regard, it’s an exemplary historical documentary — unafraid of moral judgment but also attentive to the fine grain of ambiguity that clings to the facts. It doesn’t force the preoccupations of the present onto the past, but rather invites you to think about how what happened then might help explain where we are now. The story took place a long time ago, but it isn’t finished.”

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For the Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh wrote, “What’s even more astonishing about ‘MLK/FBI’ is the continued relevance of King’s words and sentiments, as he speaks to the intersection of race and class, the importance of nonviolence in revolutionary work and the undue oppression of centuries of enslavement Black folks in America faced. As he describes the futility of instructing a ‘bootless man’ to ‘pull himself up by his bootstraps,’ it’s a sentiment that rings true, even today. The argument for understanding and accepting King’s complicated, perhaps problematic personal life, is that this hero was human too, and that the world is changed, little by little, by the people who dare to dream for more.”

For NPR, Aisha Harris wrote, “Such an engagement with one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century has been long overdue. A common schtick among those decrying Black Lives Matter ‘rioters’ is to compare the activists and their supporters unfavorably to King and the civil rights movement. The modern-day tactics for protest and activism – say, taking a knee or calling for the removal of Confederate monuments — are the ‘wrong way’ and are only sowing further division, they suggest, while King knew how to demonstrate ‘right’. … King’s legacy is complicated, but certainly not undone, by ‘MLK/FBI.’ That’s a good thing; the more we see him as an extraordinary but flawed human being, the easier it is to envision a path forward.”

Martin Luther King Jr. in Sam Pollard's "MLK/FBI."
(IFC Films)


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