The good news is that Andra Day is a surefire star. In her debut performance, the singer makes a bold impression as Billie Holiday, with her raspy voice, sterling stage presence, and powerful singing. Day was nominated for an Academy Award, just as Dianna Ross was for her own film debut, also playing Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. The highlight of this movie is a tight close-up of Day singing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching protest song, written by a Jewish schoolteacher, a song that incensed the U.S. government and essentially began the woe-begotten War on Drugs with a racist task force targeting Holiday as their first victim to make an example of. The moment is filled with rising emotions and barely held restraint and the sheer power of Day’s performance communicates the danger and anger of this politically-charged song that earned such controversy. However, the rest of the movie is a bit of an unholy mess, as director Lee Daniels (Precious) takes his signature campy, over-the-top style and cannot say no to any creative decision in his mind. I don’t know what’s harder to grasp, the clashing tones or timelines, as the movie literally and figuratively jumps all over the place, at one instant having Holiday on top of the world, and another being beaten by a parade of one-dimensional and nearly indistinguishable abusive men, to waltzing through heroin hallucinations, and cuddling close with an FBI informant (Trevante Rhodes) who is definitely a fictional character. Like the recent Judas and the Black Messiah, we divest time from the star to the men who betray her, but none of these louts and schemers are worth that precious time. It becomes an uncomfortable misery montage as we watch Holiday get abused, shoot up, cry, get harassed by the police, and repeat endlessly for 130 minutes. I don’t know if maybe Daniels was trying to make me feel like I was on drugs while watching but the antic, unfocused, and careening narrative and energy levels certainly made me feel dizzy and nauseated. An then there are ridiculous moments where I just wanted to laugh, like the backroom of racist government agents saying lines like, “This jazz music is the devil’s work. That’s why this Holiday woman has to be stopped.” This is based on a chapter of a book about the early War on Drugs, not Holiday’s biography, and it feels very much like her own identity and significance is being strung along just to be a martyr for the evils of government persecution. The movie paints her chiefly as a victim and then seems to glorify in victimizing her, and it all feels so garish and ghoulish and misguided. Billie Holiday deserves an amazing movie but she’ll just have to settle for an amazing performance in an otherwise melodramatic mess of a movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
Beautifully animated with painterly water color visuals, Wolfwalkers is another treat from the acclaimed Irish studio that is single-handedly trying to bring back hand-drawn animation. The visuals are a delight and styled in a flat dimensional space reminiscent of Medieval tapestries (and Wes Anderson movies). The story brings to life 17th century Celtic mythology in a way that is still relevant today and concerns weighty themes about family identity, female independence, religious persecution, prejudice, colonial occupation and exploitation, and environmental conservation. It’s part Miyazaki and Brave and also reverent to its own cultural heritage, and it’s emotionally affecting and engrossing as well as being a treat for the eyes. We watch a young girl befriend a wild “wolfwalker,” a girl who can transform into a wolf when she sleeps. their bond will push each other to fight against forces trying to dominate the forest and morality. The filmmakers have carefully laid out the rules of their story and the implementation of the special powers so that everything happens through gradual circumstances where the plot feels as if it is following an entirely organic path. The voice acting is excellent and heartrending and perfectly paired for the exaggerated, wood-block-styled character designs. It’s a lovely and entertaining supernatural fable with enough thematic relevance, girl power, and visual grace to reaffirm just how magical traditional animation can still be.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Released May 17, 2001:
Director Baz Luhrmann’s last project was the MTV-friendly William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (like someone else has a Romeo and Juliet) which was adored by the under 15 set that now buy N*SYNC merchandise. Luhrmann waited a long time for his follow up with Moulin Rogue, a manic musical that seems like candy for the eyes. It may have been a long time but it was well worth the wait.
The sparkling world of Moulin Rogue is around turn of the century France. Christian (Ewan McGregor), an aspiring writer, has traveled to this place against his father’s wishes. Christian believes in the beauty of love and the pull of the heart. Within minutes of setting foot in France he gets wrapped up into a production by a dwarf (John Leguizamo) and his cadre of assistants. Christian is sent to the most provocative club in town, the Moulin Rogue. Here he attempts to persuade the most famous showgirl Satine (Nicole Kidman) to help push for their musical to get financial backing. Satine inadvertently confuses Christian for the man she is supposed to seduce for a large some of money, the Duke (Richard Roxburgh). And thus the merry band of misfits get their play the backing while Christian blossoms a love for Satine. But their love must remain hidden for the Duke is led to believe that Satine is his and his alone.
Kidman owns this movie, plain and simple. From her first shattering entrance being lowered from the ceiling to the last scene, she is absolutely magnificent. McGregor gives a nice performance as the dough-eyed lover. Jim Broadbent plays the Moulin Rogue’s owner, Zidler with howling delight in all his manic expressions. Even Roxburgh gives an underwritten antagonist the right amount of weasely twitch.
One of the more surprising features is how well the two leads can actually sing. Kidman gives a soft and sexy take on “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and McGregor can belt out a tune with some admirably throaty pipes. As these two veer in and out of songs it’s a pleasure to watch and hear.
Luhrmann has crafted a musical with ADD, but I say this as a compliment. Moulin Rogue‘s pace is fast and pounding. People twirl above the sky, the camera zooms wildly through town streets, and dump trucks worth of confetti fly through the air. Moulin Rouge is exploding with glitz and never lets up. The editing and visual artistry is stirring. By about ten minutes into the proceedings when a green fairy starts singing a seductive version of “The Hills Are Alive” you know you are in for something else. And what a something else the film delivers. There was not a moment I didn’t have a smile glued to my stupid face.
Moulin Rogue could be described as a musical for people who dislike traditional musicals. In traditional musicals people go along stuffy formula, then break out into great choreography song-and-dance. With Lurhmann’s musical is a breakneck of pomp where the characters zip around to exaggerated Hanna-Barbara sound effects and start chiming away with 70s and 80s pop songs that we all know. After the initial shock/humor of hearing characters belt out renditions of “Roxanne” and “Like A Virgin,” a familiarity sets in and it blends in to produce a surprising artistic addition.
The story of the movie is nothing new or extraordinary; it’s well worn territory. But where Moulin Rouge breaks apart and shines are with its style and exposure. The visuals are astoundingly lush and lively, the music is game and pumping, and the movie is just screaming to be seen. This was a true work of love.
The movie is bursting to the seams with life. I loved every single second, every single frame, every single moment of Moulin Rouge. I can’t wait to go see it again.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
This was a movie I was looking forward to revisiting and was partly dreading. With the movies that I loved in my past, there is more at stake revisiting them and finding that some of the luster, some of that original magic that enchanted me twenty years hence might be missing. Nothing is lost by re-learning that something like Freddy Got Fingered is still as awful today as it was in 2001. I had this same nagging concern with several of my favorites of 1999 and 2000, and not all of them held up (these re-reviews cannot help being partly biographical). Moulin Rouge wasn’t even a movie I had much interest in seeing back in 2001. I went at the behest of my friend Kevin Lowe and I remember my expectations being low, or maybe I wasn’t in the greatest mood, but within ten minutes that all changed. Moulin Rouge is a movie I unabashedly loved at 19 years old and watched repeatedly through my early 20s and consider a personal favorite. I was caught up in the razzle, the dazzle (especially the dazzle), but the sumptuous and crazed artistry of it all, where it could simultaneously be nostalgic and modern, irreverent and deeply serious, hopelessly romantic in the squarest of terms while being so quizzically weird. It could have been a spectacular disaster but it ended up being a spectacular spectacular. I’m happy to report that Moulin Rouge retains its charm and soaring passion even twenty toe-tapping years later.
This has and will always be a love-it-or-hate-it film. I don’t think there are many people who can watch this movie and remark, “Eh, it was okay I guess.” The opening act is relentlessly paced, anarchic and antic, bouncing all over the place, exploding with information, humor, colors, and bawdy and bizarre imagery, intending to shake you from your doldrums of what a modern big screen musical experience can entail. Under the mad genius of co-writer/director Baz Luhrmann, the movie is bracingly transporting and takes you for an immediate rush, and just as it slows down, you’re hooked. Or, if you’re in the hate-it camp, you’ve found the movie to be a scattershot, self-indulgent, ADD-addled, exhausting ride you’re eager to depart. An amusement park ride is a fine analogy for Moulin Rouge, a movie reverberating with energy and movement; it really does feel like it can’t possibly stand still. There’s a seductive green fairy line dancing, and a singing moon performing opera, and a narcoleptic Argentinian, and John Leguizamo as a dwarf, and plenty of ribald sexual humor and goofy slapstick comedy. It is, to put it lightly, a lot to handle.
With apologies to modern poets, for most of us, the poetry of our modern culture is the songs that have shaped us and our biographical experiences, the soaring ballads, the friendly singalongs, the bangers to shout at the top of your lungs, the love songs to swoon along to and melt away. Moulin Rouge is a major musical that only has one original song, the modern wedding staple “Come What May,” which was actually written for Luhrmann’s prior movie, 1995’s Romeo and Juliet, and thus declared ineligible for the Academy Award for Original Song (sorry Randy Newman, but your Monster’s Inc. song cannot compete). It is a musical composed of renditions and snippets of hit music, cementing its amalgamation as a pop-culture chimera. In many ways it previews the viral Glee music mashups and remixes, the effortless blending of one song into another, the melodies gliding like dancers and then becoming something excitingly new. It’s a different kind of creativity because it’s one thing just to hit “play” on some Greatest Hits CD and it’s another to make sure the songs track the emotional journeys and perspectives of its primary players. Early on, as Christian (Ewen McGregor) belts tunes from The Sound of Music, captivating his peers with his apparent genius, we immediately understand the instant appeal this man would have, seeming like a musical prophet to those lucky enough to listen in 1899 Paris. It’s a clever shorthand and another reflection that modern music has enough vitality and depth to serve as the romantic poetry of our age. Moulin Rouge also predates the sharp rise in jukebox musicals, using the songs of the past, usually limited to one artist, as part of the infectious fun.
The singing and song renditions are luscious and odd and beautifully re-calibrated. The introduction of Satine (Nicole Kidman) is a bold move, lowered on trapeze, her pale skin practically glowing, as she breathily sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” It’s like the movie perceives Satine as an angel being lowered to the mores of man. A male duet of “Like a Virgin” between club owner Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) and the villainous, twitchy, possessive and foppish Duke (Richard Roxburgh) is hilarious and at points unfathomably creepy. Watching “Roxanne” performed as a sultry tango is so good that you’ll never want to hear it any other way. The singing by the famous stars is remarkably polished and without the advent of Autotune, especially from McGregor who belts his tunes with impressive range. The blending of this sonic soundscape, especially McGregor inter-cutting with that “Roxanne” number, can be overwhelming to fully process, like the movie is trying to reach you on a pure emotional, elemental level where you feel it before you can fully process it intellectually. I think that sums up the movie and its lasting appeal well, because I can logically pick apart certain artistic choices, like the exaggerated cartoon sound effects that could have been pared back, but the movie is a messy, joyously messy, exuberant love letter to big messy emotions and cheesy romanticism even to the point of mockery. This is a big screen musical for our modern age, and it’s meant to tap the right combination of buttons to make you fall in love, and I do every time.
It’s amazing to me how Moulin Rouge feels like a crossroads of the old and new, reaching back to the big movie musicals of old but with the hyper-kinetic style of modern music videos. It’s immediately fresh but also familiar, and that clever construction most notably extends to its very specific use of music. It’s not trying to erase the old school musical but drag it into a new century, drafting off of modern music hits to reach a new audience waiting to feel that same heightened reality that those old musicals might not capture for a younger generation. The movie also begat a resurgence of big screen musicals like 2002’s Chicago, 2004’s Phantom of the Opera, 2005’s Rent and The Producers (also co-starring Kidman), 2006’s Dreamgirls, 2007’s Sweeney Todd and Hairspray, and on and on to recent musicals like 2019’s Rocketman (jukebox musical) and 2020’s The Prom (also co-starring Kidman). Everything Chicago did, I felt like Moulin Rouge did better the year before, and I’m convinced Kidman’s Best Actress Oscar for The Hours was a makeup award for being overlooked for her superior performance in Moulin Rouge a year prior. I don’t know if Kidman was ever better than she was here at this moment in her career, fresh off her divorce from Tom Cruise. I feel strongly that Broadbent should have won his 2001 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this and not Iris. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars and justly won two for Best Art Direction and Costumes, both going to Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin, who would also win two Oscars for her husband’s equally lush and anachronistic 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The electric editing, glittering cinematography, and all the bravura technical elements blend into a rare artistic vision so complete and so extravagantly bold at this budget level.
It should also be noted that Moulin Rouge was adapted into a Broadway stage musical in 2019, updating with more twenty-first century hits like “Crazy in Love” and “Firework” and “Toxic” and “Bad Romance” among others. Its stage run was postponed because of COVID although a national tour is planned for 2022.
From my original review back in 2001, many of my same points still hold up and it was difficult to perfectly capture the spell this movie can have, the same difficulty I’m running into today in 2021 to try and convey its unique hold on me. Regrettably, it’s another review that I felt I needed to take a potshot on “teenyboppers” from my oh so dismissive position as critic. It’s nice when I find myself agreeing with my twenty years younger self. I especially agree with this one summative statement: “There was not a moment I didn’t have a smile glued to my stupid face.” Moulin Rouge is one of my happy movies and twenty years later my stupid face is still smiling.
Re-Review Grade: A
I’m close to finishing the documentary My Octopus Teacher and felt the urge to already begin typing out my thoughts, something I rarely do as I prefer to marinate over movies, let alone waiting for them to conclude. This Oscar-winning documentary wasn’t even part of Netflix’s critics screeners they sent me in the mail to consider for the top documentary prize, which tells me even its home didn’t have the highest of hopes for the true story of one man’s relationship to a mollusk. As it steamrolled through the awards season, my curiosity grew, and I finally took the plunge and watched the movie within hours of it being declared the finest documentary of the year by the Academy. As you can likely guess from the fact that the movie is still ongoing while I write, I may disagree with the Academy’s choice. My Octopus Teacher is a beautiful looking movie with some larger messages about our connections to nature and conservation, but the entire time I kept looking around and thinking, “There has to be more to this, right?” Alas, this is the story about one man and the octopus that won his heart, as told by that man, and that is it.
Craig Foster was a depressed nature photographer who was feeling lost. He would dive into the icy waters off the South African coast to reconnect with his childhood. He discovers a peculiar octopus and follows her movements, studying her for months, and earning the trust of the creature. Craig learns about himself and his view of nature through this fortuitous undersea bond.
This is literally the story about one man explaining, without interruption, his life lessons he has learned through his yearlong relationship with an octopus, and I just couldn’t fully engage with this on an emotional or intellectual level. The underwater photography is stunning and gorgeous to watch, as would many high-gloss nature documentaries covering the same environment. Watching the octopus hunt, hide from predators, camouflage, contort itself, and even seemingly walk on its tentacles is fun to watch, and nature has plenty of weird specimens to discover and analyze. I’m on board with re-examining the depths of our understanding with some of the weirdest creatures doing their thing thanks to millions of years of evolution. However, where the movie left me wanting is that it is, one hundred percent, one guy talking to the camera and explaining his observations about one nifty octopus and what he has learned from these experiences. The scope of the movie is so minor that it feels less a film and more like a filmed nature article, a little colorful expose that your local news might play to close out its programming. I found the movie to be too slight and unvarying in its information and delivery.
Perhaps I’m a curmudgeon at heart but I kept thinking that Craig Foster was projecting a lot of emotions onto this octopus. I believe this creature meant something special to him, and he became familiar enough that the octopus saw him less as a threat and more as a… what? Does this octopus really see this man in a snorkel as a friend or an ally? She reaches out a tentacle to touch the appendage of this underwater man, but what does that mean? Is this signaling a friendship or is it merely signaling an animal taking stock of its surroundings? I don’t know and depending upon your personal relationship with the animal world, you will either accept everything Craig says at face value without skepticism or you will see him as a slightly foolish romantic.
The movie’s gentle and empathetic nature is unbroken, though I’d be lying if I didn’t say I thought about the extremes of where this man/octopus relationship could lead. I wondered if Craig was going to declare that he and this octopus were getting married, he was leaving his wife, and that no one could compare to the touch of her tentacles. I don’t mean to sound cruel or dismissive about this man’s emotional experiences. This shared bond clearly touched this man and allowed him to realign his relationship with nature. He even says he feels like a better man and father thanks to these experiences. I’m happy that Craig found that kind of epiphany and direction in his life, and his story has fun details that made me agree that octopuses can be strangely fascinating creatures. However, that doesn’t mean I needed an 85-minute documentary about the guy more or less debriefing to the camera about his year of journaling. It’s just not that grabbing of a subject to satisfy a feature-length documentary. I don’t feel like I gained anything monumentally more from this movie being 85 minutes than I did if it was 25 minutes.
I may watch My Octopus Teacher again and give it another chance (for those wanting to know, it’s since concluded as I compose this review). It beat out serious competition in a year that had some seriously excellent documentaries (Collective and Dick Johnson is Dead both made my Top Ten of 2020). I’m happy so many people seem to be moved by this man’s personal tale of his magical bond with an eight-armed buddy. I was left mostly indifferent. The photography and plenty of the exclusive video captured is interesting to watch, but there’s little separating My Octopus Teacher from a viral clip you’d see forwarded to you from an animal blog. You can find plenty worse movies out there but I guess what makes this movie so special is just lost on me.
Nate’s Grade: B-
In one of the best lines in The Simpsons‘ history, Homer Simpson makes a summary toast: “To alcohol, the cause of –and solution to—all of life’s problems.” This edict populates the Danish comedy Another Round, written and directed by Dogme 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, Far From the Madding Crowd), who recently earned a surprise Academy Award nomination for Best Director. The movie follows a foursome of middle-aged school teachers trying to reclaim their lost mojo, chief among them Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), a history teacher who feels adrift as a husband, father, and an educator. A friend mentions a theory from an obscure academic that human beings are born with a .05% blood-alcohol deficiency, and to operate at peak performance, a person should regularly imbibe a serving of alcohol to maintain a buzzed feeling. Martin and his three friends agree to live this experiment, sneaking booze onto school premises, and then pushing further, raising the blood-alcohol minimum to see if they can keep up.
In some ways, Another Round feels ready-made for the kind of wacky ensemble comedy territory on the peripheral of drama, something the likes of a new Judd Apatow comedy (Knocked Up), and I wish that this Danish film had followed a more mainstream and crowd-pleasing approach. I know that sounds sacrosanct, the American film critic decrying the foreign film and wanting it to be filled with more dick and fart jokes, but this is because I see the true comedic potential at play, and I know an artist with the sensibilities of an Apatow or even a Greg Mottola (Superbad) could crush this. Labeled as a comedy, Another Round is more “comedy” in broad theory than execution. You would think a group of middle-aged school teachers testing a theory about operating at peak efficiency while being buzzed from booze would lend itself to all kinds of amusing, hilarious exchanges and set pieces where the men cause trouble and get into unexpected shenanigans while trying to keep their secret. The appeal would be watching this group of men cut loose in a way that feels liberating, pushing them outside their comfort zones and discovering something about themselves and their capabilities before, of course, the dark side and going too far, chasing an increasing high. I feel like many readers can picture the Apatow comedy right there. The problem with Another Round is that nothing is ever really funny. There’s the brief occasion of physical slapstick and even briefer encounters of the men behaving goofy, caught up in their feel-good vibes. But mostly the movie is devoid of recognizable comedy, even awkward, cringe-inducing comedy. It feels like the filmmakers said, “Let’s tackle a premise that seems like an Apatow comedy but let’s play it mostly straight and see how it goes.” Well, it went.
As far as a drama, I also found Another Round to be promising but ultimately lacking. We don’t really know the supporting characters before they begin their experiment, particularly what is holding them back or what obstacle they seem to perceive is holding them back. This is a movie about drastic change and how it affects these four men, and yet we barely know where they are starting off to contrast how the experiment affects them, good or bad. The men all seem to have succumbed to a general malaise and the joy of teaching has left them. Once they begin the experiment, they find that joy has emerged and they are more engaged in their classrooms, more adept at connecting with their teen students and keeping their attention, and more likely to make the learning meaningful and impactful as it relates to their dreaded high-pressure finals. Really, it sounds like, on paper, that these men use this opportunity to simply become better teachers because they allow themselves to put more of themselves into their teaching. The men don’t seem beholden to superstition, feeling they need the alcohol to be the most effective teachers, so one would think they could take the experience and learn lessons about how they can reclaim that feeling of purpose, of being an effective educator without the catalyst of alcohol to get them there. Without a more meaningful picture of these characters and their personal ennui, it makes the experiment feel inconsequential, as if it could have been anything else that shook these men from their general malaise. It takes away from the drama of what these men went through and what it might have cost.
I suppose if the comedy was going to be muted, I was expecting Another Round to be more dramatic. Martin is our main character and his rocky relationship with his wife serves as the heart of the drama; he wants to reconcile after being too removed. We root for him but we’re not really invested. The bigger drama isn’t even involving Martin. One of the guys in the group becomes a cautionary tale of descent, not seeing a reason to stop drinking, and his downturn is played with such nihilistic certainty for tragedy that it seems strange how nobody intervenes. It would play more emotionally if this character was better developed. The other characters are missing clear arcs and more interesting and relatable character moments. I can envision the kinds of supporting characters under this scenario that populate the Apatow version of this premise, each a reflection of a different kind of malaise, each a different personality, and each finding room to progress on an arc where they learn lessons both good and bad but come out wiser. The start is right there, but without making the most of the shared time, it feels like we’re hanging out at a party with people we barely know and overhearing an anecdote we’re missing vital info from.
Mikkelsen is best known stateside for his intense villainous roles (Hannibal, Doctor Strange) and as the occasional flinty badass (Polar, Arctic), so there is a degree of appeal to watching him play a normal school teacher. Mikkelsen is solid throughout and really shines when the character’s inner life returns, thanks to alcohol and then, later, his own sense of self-worth. It’s sturdy but unremarkable acting, notable for its normalcy and the edges of humor we don;t usually see from the actor. Much is built upon Martin’s past jazz ballet class and this is the closest thing the movie has to a comedic payoff, finally gifting the audience with the sight of a joyful, fluid Mikkelsen prancing across the screen at the very end (the actor actually has legit ballet training). It’s a fun sight but, as the film’s biggest comic payoff, it’s not exactly one that could sustain your built-up imagination.
Another Round is a fine movie about friendship and recovering one’s lost sense of self, but as a comedy it’s not very funny, and as a drama it’s not very dramatic, and so it feels stilted, stuck between both realms and just kind of bouncing around a miscalculated middle-path. You won’t be angry by what you’re watching from Vinterberg and the actors but you might not be hooked. Given its surprise Best Director Oscar nomination, over the likes of Aaron Sorkin, Regina King, Spike Lee, Florian Zeller, and Darius Marder, I think I was expecting something more bracing, something more intellectually engaging, and something where the vision was so perfectly predicated by the precise tone of its nominated director. I’m sorry to say, dear reader, but I just don’t see it. I cannot see what on screen lead to Vinterberg’s unexpected nomination over a crowded field. I cannot see what on screen convinced people Mikkelsen was a Best Actor contender. I cannot see what on screen makes Another Round the odds-on favorite for Best International Film, especially in a category where Romania’s Collective is also competing. Maybe I’m just not the right audience for this movie. Maybe I was expecting too much. Maybe I’m just being unfair. It’s possible, or it’s also possible that this heralded foreign film has a muted identity crisis that saps away its comic and dramatic potential and my potential entertainment.
Nate’s Grade: C+
A film is taking the nation by storm and it isn’t anything from a big studio. In fact it’s the first release of a new indie production house called New Market, and these people have lassoed a real winner. Memento is a murder mystery bubbling with perfect elements of noir, suspense, and trickery. Memento is the tale of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) who is searching desperately for John G., the culprit he believes that raped and murdered his wife. Along the way Leonard gets assistance from his friend Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie Anne-Moss), a down on her luck bartender.
Except Leonard has a peculiar problem plaguing his one-man investigation for justice. After the attack on his wife the assailant knocked him out, and Leonard was left with no short-term memory whatsoever. Leonard cannot develop new memories. So if something happens to him, he is liable to immediately forget it within five minutes. To aid himself he write on small post-its telling him which car is his, what hotel he’s at, etc. all over his body are tattoos of clues he has amassed. He takes Polaroids of people and writes their names on them to remind him of the faces he sees that he won’t remember. Leonard’s investigation is about what his notes tell him. He doesn’t know whom he can trust and whom he cannot.
If this wasn’t enough to make Memento interesting the entire tale is told out of sequence and run from end to beginning. The entire film is told backwards. This action robs the audience of the same information that escapes Leonard. We too know neither who to trust. The effect could fall into gimmick territory but makes the movie fresh and adds for some great comic situations as well, like when Leonard awakens with a bottle of champagne in his hand and tells himself he doesn’t feel drunk.
Pearce is gripping as the emotionally shattered and fractured Leonard. He is a man that can trust nothing and must live from repetition but is intent on bringing his wife’s killer to bloody justice. Pantoliano and Moss provide good support as the weary characters that weave into Leonard’s plight. The acting it excellent all around. They leave us guessing and reassembling our perceptions as more of the puzzle unravels.
Memento is top-notch film noir. It’s a breathless thriller of a first rate caliber. The direction given by Christopher Nolan from his screenplay is tight and highly effective. The character of Leonard is fleshed out in all his paranoia, pain, and frustration. Nolan has delivered a gift to movie audiences always hungry for fresh material. One has to see the film a second time just to see how well the segments play together.
Memento is the coolest movie around. Rush out and see it, then see it again, and then again. It’s the best movie of 2001 by far as of now and has the Best Original Screenplay Oscar locked [Editor’s note: it lost to Gosford Park of all things.] It’s destined to be a cinematic classic people will talk about for years.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Without a doubt, there has been no filmmaker that has had the meteoric rise over the last twenty years than Christopher Nolan. The man has entered that rare, hallowed upper echelon of the Steven Spielbergs and Quentin Tarantinos where his name alone is the selling point. You go to see a Nolan movie because you know it will be an experience that no other filmmaker can quite deliver, and from 2005’s Batman Begins onward, he’s been given immense studio resources and unchecked creative control to make his big dreams come true on the biggest stage. It’s thus very fun to go back to the little 2001 indie movie where it all started for the future box-office titan. It has many of the hallmarks that have followed the director’s ascendant career, like dead wives as back-story, cool emotions, an unreliable protagonist, and especially its crackerjack, air-tight narrative. Memento already had a dynamite premise, an amateur investigator seeking justice who couldn’t hold new memories because of a mental condition. It was based on an unpublished short story by his brother Jonathan (future frequent collaborator and creator of HBO’s Westworld), which is why it qualified as an original screenplay at the Oscars, to which it would eventually lose out to Gosford Park (go figure). Nolan deliberately made the story even harder to follow in a gambit that would come to define his screenwriting experimentation. He told the entire movie backwards, so that the story began at its ending and finished at its beginning. Every few minutes, we, like our memory-challenged lead Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), are left to ask, “How did we get here?” It puts you in the stark position of the lead’s perplexed and scrambling sensibility. It’s a raised bet of a storytelling check, one that Nolan delivers with incredible panache, but twenty years later, is Memento more than a brilliantly executed magic trick?
Even after watching Memento likely half a dozen times in my life, this is still one very confusing movie to follow. There are two current storylines that crisscross and eventually overlap, like tributaries reconnecting to a source. The black-and-white segments of Leonard narrating his rules, tattoos of key clues, practices, and investigative successes as he narrows his search for the mysterious “John G.,” the man he claims assaulted him and his wife, are filmed more objectively, playing out in linear fashion, given to rampant exposition to better orient the audience to the tricks of the movie. The color segments are the main action, watching Leonard go from murdering a confidant to then explaining how we got here, roping in scummy drug dealers, violent men, sad-eyed barmaids, and people looking to take advantage of Leonard and his unique disability (the motel owner rents him multiple rooms). These sequences are played in the backwards trajectory that drives the movie, so every pit stop essentially resets the movie as we know it. It’s an amazing device because it makes every scene its own little movie with its own little payoff, with a dopamine reward for seeing how the opening of the last image came to be. Some of these are played for laughs but many are extremely well thought out to keep an audience guessing. Leonard opens a closet to find a beaten and gagged man who swears it was Leonard who did this to him. Leonard begins in mid-chase, seeing a man running parallel to him. “Oh, I must be chasing this guy,” he comments in voice over, until seeing the man’s gun in hand and his advance. “No, he’s chasing me,” he corrects, and runs in the other direction. Then there’s the question of who Leonard can trust, and your assessment of the supporting characters in his orbit will shift. You’ll feel bamboozled just like Leonard, that is, if he could remember. The backwards-narrative allows Nolan to make his revenge thriller so much more mysterious and audacious and playful, and the director takes full advantage of the possibility. It’s a rare screenplay of near genius quality.
On a later DVD release, there was a hidden special feature that could be unlocked that would play the movie in chronological order, and I feel like this would be like watching a magic performance with X-ray vision. It would completely take away the appeal. While I think the level of details and continuity and thematic connections would be even more apparent with more traditional, linear plotting, it would seriously negate much of the fun and potential of the movie. That’s not to say that Memento is only effective because of its narrative shuffling. It’s still a lean thriller with a brimming confidence that can give you an artistic contact high. The character of Leonard Shelby is a fascinating and tragic figure worth exploration, which the movie allows for deeper discussion off-board. However, when you’re witnessing a thoroughly thought-out magic trick that is performed at such a heightened degree of excellence, why blow it up with asking for convention?
It’s also fun to revisit the 2001 movie and see many of Nolan’s staples of creative collaborators. There’s his brother, who he’s co-wrote a very successful Batman trilogy with, along with Doddy Dorn as the editor (Insomnia), David Julyan (The Prestige, Insomnia) as the composer, and especially Wally Phister as the cinematographer who helmed every Nolan movie from 2001 to 2012, winning an Oscar for 2010’s Inception.
I’ll preface these next two paragraphs with a spoiler warning, which I acknowledge is perhaps overdoing it for a movie that’s been available for twenty years, but I’m going to discuss the ending (beginning) of Memento and its implications, so if you’d prefer to be surprised and are one of the people on the planet who hasn’t seen this movie, or been spoiled, then go watch it and then come back to this review. The through line of Memento is Leonard’s murder of “John G,” a.k.a. Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a supposed ally that may work in law enforcement. The movie becomes a question over whether Teddy was guilty or whether Leonard was manipulated from beyond, and this proves to be the case, though the culprit is rather unexpected. It’s not Natalie (Carrie Anne-Moss) seeking vengeance for her dead drug-dealing boyfriend, though she plays her part, but the real manipulator is none other than Leonard himself. Teddy has set up a fall guy for Leonard to take out to get his long-sought vengeance, and maybe he can remember to be satisfied, but as Teddy recounts, it always fades. They’re always back repeating their old loops. Given the circumstances, Teddy sets up his pal to take out local lowlifes and figures why not profit from the experience (his warnings to ditch the drug dealer’s car go unheeded by Leonard, who instead chooses to drive it around town and even wear the clothes of his victim, a nice visual cue that leads to the big sucker punch reveal Nolan has coiled).
Teddy’s real offense, however, is telling Leonard a truth he does not want to accept. The back-story that has driven him is deemed fictional, conflated with an ongoing anecdotal analogy about Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a memory-impaired man whose wife tests him that results in her overdose on insulin. Leonard’s wife survived the assault. It was she who overdosed on insulin to test her husband’s condition. This truth runs counter to everything Leonard has defined himself by and he rejects it, and through that hostile rejection, he sets Teddy up for a cruel fate. He ensures Teddy will be hunted down as the next “John G.” suspect, and thus Leonard actively chooses to live the fiction than deal with truth. In 2021, especially after four years of a pungent presidency that shamelessly warped reality to whatever was deemed preferable, and with millions of gullible Americans still falling for the fantasy, the story of a man choosing the comforts of self-delusion over uncomfortable accountability is striking for its topicality. It’s about the lies we tell one another. Leonard says he deals with facts because memory can be fickle, it’s unreliable, and then the script proves this to be exactly the case, having hidden the answer right in front of your face. I love that the implications can be deliberated even twenty years later and the question of whether Leonard is a secret villain. He believes he’s doing righteous work, but he also proves he can never be satisfied and will very likely continue to hurt others to sustain his preferred reality. Because of the narrative trickery, or limitations of building from a foundation, it’s hard to say that Leonard is a deep character rather than a blunt force instrument. It’s in the revelation and lingering implications where the depth of Leonard Shelby emerges, and I think it’s a depth that often gets overlooked by those trying to keep up with the admittedly confusing storyline.
Revisiting Memento, there’s a definite nostalgia quality, watching two stars from The Matrix and the young upstart from L.A. Confidential bouncing around a Polaroid-snapping L.A. noir mystery from the man who would come to redefine blockbuster cinema. It’s not an understatement to say Nolan is in a class of his own, and his critical and commercial success seems to have convinced him that every movie needs his narrative sleight-of-hand. Some of those films didn’t really benefit from the extra complications. I thought the three timelines compressed on top of one another in 2017’s Dunkirk was entirely unnecessary and distracting. It got even worse in 2020’s deliberately palindromic Tenet, which was a puzzle box from Nolan I felt no desire to solve. Nolan has told movies with just about every construction of linear and non-linear plotting imaginable, and it’s hard not to feel like he’s struggling to find some new fix to hold his interest. Maybe the appeal of the Nolan signature magic trick is wearing off for me; I’ve been relatively disappointed with every Nolan movie since 2012’s Dark Knight Rises, which gets a bad rap for not being the zeitgeist-tapping flick that was The Dark Knight. Maybe he’s getting bored. It certainly felt like Tenet was more an intellectual exercise than an accessible entertainment for the masses. It would explain his experiments with indecipherable sound design. You don’t go to a Nolan movie to turn your brain off. There is an explicit demand that you will need to pay close attention. It just feels like the later films haven’t quite been worthy of the extra efforts.
Back in 2001, I recall being blown away by the narrative trickery of Memento. It was my top movie of that year, tying with Moulin Rouge! before I decided my heart was more aligned with Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy extravaganza (I’m looking forward to revisiting this one in two months). I didn’t have much in the way of critical analysis in 2001 beyond my exaltation of its greatness, declaring it a new classic that people would talk about for years. That’s partially true, but mainly because of the huge career that Nolan has undertaken since. My original review was also certain it would win that Best Original Screenplay Oscar and, honestly, this one still befuddles me (Gosford Park?). Twenty years later, Memento is still a daring and confusing movie, one that rewards close reading and invites deliberation and deconstruction. It’s a top-grade magic trick from an excellent illusionist and sometimes even that is enough. While I would argue it is more than its famous gimmick, it’s still enough to warrant two viewings for everyone’s lifetime.
Re-Review Grade: A
The Father is the kind of movie I’ve been clamoring for years from Hollywood, an Alzheimer’s empathy experiment using the rigors of a visual medium to place a viewer inside the mind of someone haunted by this debilitating mental illness. Film is inherently an immersive experience with a defined point of view, and I always thought it could be helpful in illuminating what it would be like to lose a sense of time, memory, and place as memories blend together and fragment. The Father is based on a play by director Florian Zeller. It’s a deeply empathetic and heartbreaking experience that works as a puzzle to decode but also as a character piece on the end of one ordinary man’s life.
Not much is known about Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) before his gradual mental decline. He had an apartment he lived in for thirty years, there’s definitely hints that a younger daughter had an accident and is no longer alive, and he listens to opera quite frequently. I think there’s a benefit to the audience knowing so little of Anthony before his illness; we do not know what variation of this man is the honest, lucid version from before. We’re only getting impressions and glimmers and some of them are non-linear, where we’ll get the context of a scene after the start of a scene, so it challenges a viewer to be constantly trying to contextualize what we’re seeing with what we know, and it’s an ongoing puzzle to determine a slippery orientation. It makes for an engaging and constantly changing environment and one tailored to engrossing empathy.
It sounds like the movie might be an overwhelming downer, and most assuredly it will leave an emotional devastation, but it’s also a very fascinating experience. From the beginning, you’re dropped into a scenario that announces to you not to fully trust your eyes and ears. You’re trying to assess character relationships. Who is this woman? Is she Anthony’s adult daughter Anne (Olivia Colman)? Is she a figment of his imagination? Is she the possibly dead daughter? Sometimes characters will be referred to by the same name but be played by different actors, and you must question which version was real, or whether either of them was? Is he projecting his dead daughter onto the face of another woman? Is he projecting an antagonistic man (Mark Gattis) onto the face of a former son-in-law (Rufus Sewell)? Which home is he in at this time? There is much to unpack here and I’m positive that additional viewings would unveil even more clues hiding in plain sight. I’m certain that the paintings on walls in backgrounds are regularly changing with the timeline, and this small detail of set design is never even emphasized. It’s just one aspect of the presentation that has been thoughtfully developed to support its artistic vision.
As one would expect from the premise and its beginnings as a play, this is an actor’s showcase. Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers one of the best performances of his storied career. We’re so used to seeing Hopkins play men in control, dominating others. I even just re-watched him killing people in the shadows from 2001’s Hannibal sequel. This is the most vulnerable the actor has ever been on screen, and I’ll freely admit that by the end tears were streaming down my face as Anthony has descended into a childish state of need. Hopkins goes through a gamut of emotions and shifts rapidly. In one moment, he can be gregarious and charming, another cold and paranoid, cruel and cutting, but often he’s confused and afraid. He’s trying to maintain his dignity throughout. By being our focal point, we feel the same feelings that this elderly man is experiencing in this moment out of time. Colman (The Favourite) is also terrific as Anthony’s put-upon daughter trying her best but reaching her limits. The accumulation of this man’s experiences, and the weight of the burden on his family, is a devastating conclusion that reminds you what millions of families are going through every day.
The trappings of plays adapted to film is the struggle to make them feel bigger than potent conversations happening in confined spaces. Zeller’s debut as a director does a fine job of using the techniques of filmmaking to his advantage. With editing and camera placement, he can better orient or disorient an audience, and the impact of character changes has more intensity with our proximity to the actors themselves. The attention toward the visual parallels like hallway shots and people being confined to shadows present an extra layer of symbolism to be decoded. Zeller has clearly thought out how to transcend the stage and to use the immersion of film and freedom of being non-linear with editing to shape the presentation and make it even more effective.
I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, and that is that Alzheimer’s terrifies me. We’re all the accumulation of our memories and experiences, and to think those could be stripped away, muddled and tainted, and change your conception of self, well that is absolutely haunting. It’s the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night, and while my maternal grandfather went through a spell of dementia before passing away at 92 years old, fortunately this illness does not run in my family. I have friends that are dealing with it currently with grandparents and it’s like approaching death before the actual death, watching that version of the person you love shrink to the point where they have been replaced by a stranger, all the while you are helpless to thwart this process. For those people, The Father will hit close to home and might even be too much to handle. It’s such an open-hearted and empathetic portrayal that puts you in the position of having to live with the ravages of Alzheimer’s. It’s so frustrating and confounding and sad, and yet film can open us all to the experiences of others like few other mediums, and The Father might be the closest any of us ever get to understanding what this terrible illness is like for those caught in its snare. It’s a fantastic movie with fantastic performances but even more than that it’s a wonderful experiment in empathy and understanding.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Dick Johnson is Dead is a documentary but it’s a hard movie to describe because, at its core, it’s the use of art to memorialize a man, to process grief on personal terms, and as a love letter from a daughter to a father. Kirsten Johnston (Cameraperson) records her life caring for her ailing 85-year-old father. Dick is a former therapist, a widower, and starting to go through the early stages of Alzheimer’s and coming to terms with his new limitations. Kirsten is a camera operator who has worked on documentaries for over thirty years, so she turns the lens on her father and the two of them enact a series of wacky fake deaths, starring Dick himself (until the stuntmen take over), as father and daughter work to make a movie celebrating life while they still can together.
First things first, Dick Johnson is just the sweetest man. Spending time with him is a treat and watching him smile with like his whole face just made me feel happy. I enjoyed learning just what a good person he was and what he’s meant to his friends, family, and colleagues, but he’s just so pleasant and nice and compassionate that you feel the love his daughter intends you to understand. That’s the overwhelming feeling from this quirky documentary. Dick has such love for his daughter and is willing to humor her silly morbid scenarios confronting his death. Kirsten has loved this man for so long and already lost one parent to Alzheimer’s and now must go through it again. She’s using the medium she feels most capable and comfortable with, photography and moviemaking, to celebrate her father and his unheralded life of being a good man coming to an end. My heart ached for him when he breaks into tears articulating what relinquishing his ability to drive means for him and his sense of independence, looking ahead. Kirsten highlights some of the more unusual details about her father for this movie-within-a-movie, creating sequences that shed light on his faith as a Seventh Day Adventist and his insecurity over how his feet appear. It’s insightful aspects that better round out this man, like his ability to start conversations with strangers, or his knack of being able to fall asleep anywhere as long as he can prop his feet up. For Kirsten, recording these moments while her father is still lucid is a matter of documenting him while he can still recognize himself. She laments the minuscule amount of footage she has of her mother before her death. She doesn’t want to make the same mistake with her father, so why not also make him a movie star if she can? Watching Dick Johnson is Dead is to feel overcome with her adoration for this remarkably ordinary and good man.
The movie also serves as a strange way to take control over something inevitable yet unknowable. Dick Johnson is going to die, as we all will, but he will very likely die before his physical body expires. His mind will deteriorate, and he’ll stop being Dick Johnson. I wondered early why the movie kept resorting to slapstick with the many possible deaths of Dick onscreen. It’s more than a bit morbid for a daughter to direct her own father dying again and again in a variety of wild and bloody and violent accidents. I can understand many viewers being put off by this, worrying that Dick is being exploited, and at least finding it all to be in bad taste. I tried to assess why this element was so essential to the production. I suppose it functions as a gimmick that can help it get more attention and a larger audience considering the film lacks a hard-charging topic, unique insider access, or a headline-grabbing name or artistic approach. However, as I continued with the movie, I concluded that Kirsten Johnson is inflicting all manner of over-the-top goofy deaths and violent mayhem upon her beloved father as a means of processing her looming grief. She’s trying to reclaim a sense of control and offering that same ownership to her father. They aren’t running from his death but are embracing it, laughing at it, and doing it their way. The documentary is an artifact of love and a filmmaker using art to comprehend her grief.
The Seventh Day Adventist adherence presents an interesting dynamic to explore when discussing a spiritual afterlife. This smaller Christian denomination believes that the worthy will return to heaven but only after Jesus returns to Earth to kick-start the whole Armageddon deal. Until that fateful day, the dead will lay in their graves and wait for however long it takes. I had never heard about this before. Many religions are about delayed gratification, the reward coming upon the conclusion of Earthly existence, and these people believe the wait extends even beyond death. A lifetime and then some of waiting would shape very patient people like Dick. The great fear of an Adventist, we’re told, is to be one of the ones left behind, and it’s easy to see the parallels with losing one’s sense of identity through the creeping fog of Alzheimer’s. Apparently, strict Adventists also don’t approve of dancing. In a fantasy sequence engineered by Kirsten, Dick gets to dance in heaven with his wife again and knowing all these details gives the moment, which can be immediately silly on a surface-level, its own sense of poignancy and reverence.
The only thing that holds the movie back is that late into its 90 minutes I feel like it gets too manipulative and meta for its own good. There’s an emotional climax and then the movie reveals some key details that can make you feel a little bamboozled. It’s not enough to sacrifice all the emotional investment and artistic gains that came before but it’s just a few steps too far. Don’t get me wrong, I’m genuinely happy with the overall ending, but I didn’t care for being jerked around.
Dick Johnson is Dead is a peculiar, funny, heartwarming, and experimental documentary. It reminded me in some ways of 2012’s The Act of Killing where filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer finds old men who participated in Indonesian genocide in the 1960s to re-enact their crimes but playing their victims and through the surreal prism of a film production. Except this movie is far more personal and far more affirming; it’s very much a love letter to a wonderful man. You feel the intimacy of this family relationship and I felt privileged just to be let in and share these moments, the ordinary ones, the reflective ones, the emotional ones, the silly ones. This is an affecting documentary using its very form and function to use art to make sense of pain. It’s currently available on Netflix streaming and I would highly encourage you to relax, kick your feet up like Dick, and watch one of the best and strangest movies of 2020.
Nate’s Grade: A-
I don’t think I’ve better empathized with hearing loss and deafness than with Sound of Metal, a moving and observant drama about a heavy metal drummer quickly losing his sense of hearing. Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler) plays Ruben, a former junkie who is four years sober and worried about losing his girlfriend/band mate (Olivia Cooke) with his recent diagnosis. He’s attending a treatment center meant to cater to a deaf community and transition others into this community. Ruben is defiant, depressed, angry, all the stages you can imagine with grief. The movie is at its best during its quiet and contemplative moments where we empathize with the terror and alienation of Ruben. When he first joins the center, we don’t get subtitles for the many signed conversations between members. It’s only after Ruben learns ASL, integrates into the community, and opens himself up to the program that we too get to be knowledgeable. The sound design is exceptionally utilized to illustrate Ruben’s changing perspective, and some later choices with it might make you long for the peacefulness of silence. The movie is exquisitely thoughtful and considerate while maintaining a subtle, character-driven approach that keeps things from wallowing in self-pity. For many of the deaf, hearing loss isn’t seen as a disability but a community with its own culture and quality of life. It’s understandable that Ruben is focused on loss but the movie doesn’t dwell in loss, more so transformation and acceptance. Ahmed is fabulous in the lead role which requires him to rely primarily upon non-verbal expression for extended periods. His eyes are his best vessel for communicating Ruben’s emotional state, and Ahmed is sensational. Paul Raci is also great as the leader of the treatment center and the responsibility and generosity he feels to those in his care. Sound of Metal is an immersive, sensitive, authentic and poignant drama with an Oscar-caliber lead performance and a depth of compassion for the many people of the deaf community.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Two new movies are poised for major awards consideration, both based on plays by black authors, and both providing insights into the injustices and experiences of different black Americans from the past. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix streaming and One Night in Miami will soon be available through Amazon Prime in January, and both movies are observant, reflective, unsparing, hard-hitting, and provide some of the best acting you’ll see in movies this year.
In 1930s Chicago, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is assembling a team of musicians to record her latest blues single “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Cutler (Colman Domingo) will play trombone, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) will play the bass, old man Toledo (Glynn Turman) will play piano, and Levee (Chadwick Boseman) will play the trumpet. Levee has big ideas about what he can offer, and the rest of the band is happy to simply play their parts. Ma Rainey has her own demands for the record, some of which run counter to Levee and her own manager, and the many personalities will come into direct conflict on one very hot summer day.
The big reason to see Ma Rainey, beyond the fact that it’s an amazing adaption of a great August Wilson play, is because it’s the final film performance from the late Chadwick Boseman. The world was stunned when the Black Panther actor suddenly died in August in the prime of his career. He had been hiding a years-long battle with colon cancer that only made his work ethic more astonishing. This man knew his life could very likely be cut short, but he wanted to make a difference by using his celebrity status to portray a gallery of historical heroes like Thurgood Marshall and James Brown. Of course, it also raises the question why waste your valuable time on something as mediocre as 21 Bridges. Regardless, with this new knowledge, it’s impossible not to find extra layers of meaning with Boseman’s final remarkable performance. Immediately you notice how thin he is, lanky, and now we know why. The character feels like someone just stringing along on the faintest of threads, a hope for a better tomorrow, and Boseman’s gaunt physical form reinforces that desperate impression. There’s also a moving moment where Levee is monologuing about his disdain for God’s lack of intervention in his life, during his mother’s assault by a team of white men, during the entire experience of every African American. It’s hard not to read the actor’s own personal struggle into this confrontational moment, lashing out at the unfairness of a life denied too early, and it just makes a tragic figure even more wearingly tragic. The final image is so summative of Levee’s tragedy and the music industry profiting off the entrenched exploitation of black musicians, that it feels so dispiriting even without further explanation.
The entire time I was relishing Boseman’s performance like one final meal, and the man makes a feast of it. Another critic compared Boseman’s performance to an athlete “leaving it all on the field,” and I couldn’t agree more. The man gives you everything he has. It’s not a subdued and subtle performance, though Wilson’s plays don’t tend to settle for subdued characters speaking with pronounced subtlety (see: Fences). The playwright’s gift is for crafting big characters with big personalities and big problems, and that’s the way we like it. Levee is a character with more than chip on his shoulder, he has the whole block. He’s bursting with nervous energy, masked as excitement, and eager to finally hit those last few hurdles and get the fame he feels is destined. The other members of the accompaniment are older, settled in their ways and comfortably pessimistic about The Way the World Works. They know the deck is stacked against them and they have accepted this injustice (“Be happy with what you can get,” they argue). Levee is still fighting, still hoping he can break through on the merits of his talents and perseverance, and we can all suspect the hard reality that will come crashing down later. Boseman is captivating from start to finish. It’s his greatest performance of his all-too short career and one I fully expect to sweep come the delayed awards season. It’s the best male acting I’ve seen for all of 2020. As I kept watching, a sadness washed over me, much like watching Heath Ledger during the end of 2008’s The Dark Knight, a melancholy realization that this is it, it’s almost over, and this is all we’ll ever get from an actor who was just beginning to make substantial waves and leave their mark on the industry.
While Boseman’s lead is the biggest draw, Ma Rainey has plenty other aspects deserving of praise. Every character gets time to be fleshed out into feeling like real, complicated people with complicated pasts worth illuminating. Most of the play’s characters are black musicians during a very racist period in American history (you could readily argue that this description applies to all periods). They know they’re being exploited, and they know that these smiling white men with money are only being polite as long as they have something to offer that these men want. Even Ma is aware of her leverage. She’s a successful singer who sells plenty of records, but fame can be fleeting, and her records aren’t selling like they used to, and she knows time is short. She’ll be cast off and replaced by another singer/performer who doesn’t have the wherewithal to push back. Davis (Widows) is a force in this movie, flinty and proud and no-nonsense. She’s great even if she has less screen time than any of the male musicians. It feels like more could be had from exploring her character, her passions, her lesbianism, her sense of self, but Davis still makes quite a presence.
The injustice of the circumstances of the musicians are emblematic of the black experience with America a hundred years hence. Levee has a monologue about his father having to sell his own land to his wife’s attackers. Cutler has a monologue about a preacher who got off on the wrong train stop in Florida and was harassed and threatened by an unruly crowd, his vestments serving him no mercy from a racist mob. Wilson’s wonderful words are brought to sterling life from these seasoned performers and their digressions and reflections better paint a thematic mosaic of shared communal pain. The way the movie holds your attention even when Boseman isn’t on screen is a testament to how engaging and well-realized Wilson’s characters can be no matter how small.
With One Night in Miami, based upon the play by Kemp Powers (co-director of Soul), we follow big names of sports and politics that improbably convened together one night in 1964. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has just become heavyweight champion of boxing and is poised to announce his conversion to Islam under the tutelage of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) has crossed over into movies and is starting to think about life after football. Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is riding high off his recording fame but wondering how much more of himself and his artistic voice he should insert. Over the course of this long night, the four men will converse, bond, butt heads, and make changes with their responsibilities.
The movie, adapted by Kemp as well, establishes each participant before bringing them together for that fateful night (inspired by true events, meaning it’s entirely fictionalized). This first act does a fine job of establishing each character but especially a point of insecurity for them that we’ll watch later become raw and, hopefully, reconciled or re-examined. Jim Brown worries that no matter his level of success, he’ll never be legitimate to a section of America. He’s looking at movies as his inroad but even someone of his fame is still the black character killed first. Cassius Clay is hesitant about making his announcement to Mohammad Ali and Islam, second-guessing the commitment he’s signing up for. Sam Cooke is known for his fluffy pop songs and feels like a sellout, needing the credibility of making music that matters. Malcolm X is preparing to break away from the Nation of Islam after his distaste for the hypocrisy of its leadership. He’s positioning Cassius Clay’s announcement as his big pivot point to make a name for his own break-off movement and hopeful that the media attention will translate into new converts.
The combustibility of this night makes for plenty of compelling drama. Malcolm X is an instigator with the others, spurring them to use their privileged platforms to enact change that can be useful for the Civil Rights movement. He squares his attention on Sam, calling him out for being a tool of white moneymen and even plays him Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and asks why this white man is writing more politically active music than Cooke. The singer pushes back, saying he allowed the Rolling Stones to sample his song because it brings more money into his pocket and his songwriters that he can use to profit black businesses. He proclaims he recognizes the system and is playing it to his advantage. They have very different perspectives that clash, making fine drama that spills over. It’s a purity versus pragmatism argument, one that Cooke raises to flout the indulgences he sees in the leadership of the Nation of Islam, a fact we know Malcolm X is aware of and also cannot stomach. It’s also a version of Malcolm X that is more vulnerable than we’re accustomed to seeing. We’re used the strident, righteous Malcolm X, and here he’s much more indecisive and struggling with making some big personal decisions. Leaving his religious organization is verboten, and he’s looking to reform what he views as sinful failings from his peers, and much rests on the publicity of Clay coming forward. This puts Clay in a tough position especially as he feels uncertain about this commitment. The continual push and pull of these four men lead to several interesting discussions, many that become heated, that allow each to open up as a real and complex person, not just a picture in a textbook.
The ensemble is overall quite solid, though the two biggest performers are the ones at the widest ideological divide. Odom Jr. (Hamilton) brings a distinct charisma and has a silky singing voice you wish you got to hear more often, but he’s also hiding a clear disdain. Whether it’s pride or whether it’s shame, it’s there, and Odom harnesses it to make his character feel like a cat ready to strike, wound up from being dismissed by too many others. Ben-Adir (The OA) nails the intonations of Malcolm X but also adds extra layers of doubt and awkwardness. He tries to parry concerns from the other guys that a “party” in this one motel room will be lame by promoting the power of ice cream (only flavor available: vanilla). This is a humbled and scared Malcolm X, one on the precipice of potentially losing his movement and standing to his ethics, and some may argue his ego. Ben-Adir is soulful and presents a fully formed performance more than lazy imitation (he also played President Obama in the recent Comey Rule miniseries for Showtime).
The biggest question with play adaptations is the challenge of making them feel bigger and more cinematic than contained conversations. Nobody wants to feel trapped in a broom closet. First time film director Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) gets the most from her performers and handling of the subject matter, though the various rooms inside and outside the Miami motel provide little in the way of variance. The men go to the roof to watch the fireworks. A couple leave to go get some liquor. The focus is on the men, so the background of the setting isn’t a huge deal to the entertainment. King’s direction is more felt in the performances, as most actors-turned-directors tend to be, and with that she’s aces. With Ma Rainey, director George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) does an excellent job of opening the spaces visually but also making the spaces reflective of mood. The ashy rundown basement where the band practices, the sweat-glistening off the performers with the hot, daub lighting, the peeling paint and broken doors leading to symbolic dead-ends. Wolfe has a stronger command of visuals, not just making his pictures pretty, but also making his play-turned-film feel less confined by its original stage bound limitations.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami are both deserving of your attention. I found Ma Rainey to be the more engaging movie with the higher artistic peaks, anchored by an amazing and career-defining performance from Chadwick Boseman. One Night in Miami is consistently probing and generous and thoughtful and superbly acted as well. Both movies are great tools for empathy and interesting to take together considering they churn with experiences of black characters fighting for equality from a broken system several decades apart. There have been gains made from the time period of Ma Rainey but Malcolm X’s complaints are extremely valid, and many resonate today in the face of systematic racism and police brutality. Watch both movies when available and welcome more black-penned plays making the big screen leap.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A-
One Night in Miami: B+