Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Movies opening nearabouts, in one way or another. This week I thought I’d do a grab-bag catch-up.
One Night in Miami
What if a bunch of famous people found themselves in the same place on the same night? That’s right, people are still doing this form of theatrical speculation; this one’s a movie adaptation of a play by Kemp Powers, in which four titans of the African-American world gather in Miami in 1964, just after a title fight by Cassius Clay—the future Muhammad Ali. Clay, played by Eli Goree, is on the verge of joining the Nation of Islam, and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is there to cultivate a prized recruit. The great running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) fill out the quartet.
The movie feels about as credible as most of these kinds of things, which is to say, not very. Conflicts fall along expected lines, and are resolved in like fashion. The actors make it come to life; credit to director Regina King, who does nicely at finessing the fluid shifts from humor to politics to interpersonal animosity. Ben-Adir navigates a tricky series of X-ian moods, which is not easy because he carries some of the script’s least interesting exposition, and Hodge is a standout, allowing Brown to emerge as a fully-rounded character, not least through his physicality. There’s also Lance Reddick, as Malcolm’s supremely sober bodyguard/minder, who seems to be doing his best Hector Elizondo.
They all have to battle the TV-movie squareness of it (if you had to guess this was an Amazon film, it would take you maybe ten seconds) and the occasional sloppy anachronism. The ensemble is sufficiently juiced to make it a worthwhile exercise.
Ikarie XB 1
Directed by Jindrich Polák, 1963. An Iron Curtain sci-fi movie about a space voyage, slow moving in general but with some groovy design and music. There’s a great party scene aboard the ship, a rare example of someone imagining what dance might look like in the future—they almost never get this kind of thing right. The movie is not unlike the Star Trek vibe to come, especially in certain Large Themes that will be important in sci-fi. Apparently it’s at least partly based on a Stanislaw Lem story, and if there’s anything that reminds you of the author of Solaris it’s the melancholy surrounding the way the cosmonauts will return to Earth (after a few years in space) having aged much less than their spouses and children back home. The director is Czech. (Plays through 2/4 via the Grand Illusion Cinema’s virtual portal)
News of the World
Tom Hanks reuniting with Paul Greengrass for a western; the generic expectations seem to have quelled Greengrass’s fondness for the shaky-cam. Instead, we get mostly nondescript vistas, Hanks’s super-professional commitment to non-showiness, and some good western-movie business with terse, exchanged looks. Greengrass does make sure that his political points land, and they are solid without getting in the way of the western journey. If I keep using the word “western” it’s because this is a big part of the appeal here: that the movie is merely a western yarn that modestly does its thing and then, without offering any special surprises, rides off. Hanks is in charge of a girl kidnapped years earlier and about to be returned to what folks call civilization; she is played by Helena Zengel, who is eerie in the role.
Acasa, My Home
You will hear a lot about the Romanian documentary Collectiv in the coming weeks—it just took an award from the National Society of Film Critics, but as Best Foreign Language Film, not Best Documentary. That’s a terrific movie, but here’s hoping the world has room for more than one Romanian documentary at a time. Radu Ciorniciuc’s Acasa, My Home offers a very different kind of movie from Collectiv‘s journalistic drumbeat; here we are embedded—with amazing intimacy—in the marshes on the edge of Bucharest, a nature preserve where a family lives in defiance of local ordinances, without roof or law.
Aside from the striking contrasts in landscape and the compelling real people, the film also has enough recurring motifs and twists of fate for a novel. And indeed it seems to be a nonfiction companion piece to Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, complete with a troubled and stubborn father who simply cannot shape himself to the urban world, or much of anything else. This may be journalism, too, but Ciorniciuc has the eye of a poet, and has fallen for the waterworld just as much as the patriarch has. (Plays through SIFF’s virtual portal)
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.