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Schultz reviews: 'One Night in Miami' and 'Mank'

Schultz reviews: 'One Night in Miami' and 'Mank'

Carl Schultz

 

 

“One Night in Miami”   Distributed by Amazon Studios, 110 Minutes, Rated R, Released December 25, 2020:

An intriguing premise is given a fascinating, challenging, and sometimes even inspiring treatment in “One Night in Miami,” a new motion picture adaptation of playwright Kemp Powers’ 2013 stage play now showing on the Amazon Prime streaming site.  Directed by Regina King, in “One Night in Miami” four towering figures from 20th century American history gather together for an evening to discuss their lives, their ambitions, and their visions and dreams for the future.

On February 25, 1964, 22-year-old Cassius Clay defied expectations and won the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship, defeating 33-year-old odd-on favorite Sonny Liston in a heavily promoted, sold-out seven-round bout in Miami, Florida.  Among the luminaries present in the arena that night were NFL legend Jim Brown, entertainer Sam Cooke, and American Muslim minister and civil rights leader Malcolm X.  

Based on and inspired by the apocryphal interaction between the celebrated men that night, and speculation regarding what might’ve been discussed among them, in “One Night in Miami” Malcolm, Brown, and Cooke, along with the famously outspoken Clay, meet together in the boxer’s Miami motel room after the fight...on the eve of his surprising conversion to the American Muslim faith and adoption of the Islamic name Muhammad Ali.

First performed in 2013 at the Rogue Machine Theater in Los Angeles, Powers’ play won three LA Drama Critics Circle Awards and received nearly universal acclaim not only for its studied and persuasive portrayals of the four American icons depicted in the narrative, but also for rendering them in such intimate, familiar, and realistic detail.  That each of the four remains so firmly fixed in America’s popular lexicon makes their portrayal a daunting task for any actors who attempt the roles.

Adapted for the screen by author Powers himself and directed by the acclaimed and prolific Academy Award-winning actress Regina King in her feature filmmaking debut, “One Night in Miami” remains very much an actor’s vehicle.  The film’s stage origins are plain--as director, King resists the temptation to “open up” Powers’ powerful narrative and exploit the advantages of film.

Rather, King allows her well-chosen cast the flexibility to interpret the personalities of their well-known characters within the boundaries of their legacies.  The actors in “One Night in Miami” are not performing imitations or impressions.  Each of the actors, physically and through the enhancements of makeup, lighting, and costume, resembles the historical figures they’re portraying closely enough to be easily recognized, and employ some of their subject’s signature characteristics.  But it’s the actors themselves who bring the history to vivid life in the picture.

And the approach works well.  The performances in King’s picture are always persuasive, but the characterizations--and the real historical personalities’ natural charisma--never overwhelm the narrative.  That’s important in a drama depicting celebrated persons many audiences may know only from history books or through aging black-and-white newsreel footage.  Historical icons become human beings in “One Night in Miami”--people with faults, shortcomings, egos, dreams, ambitions, and feelings.

Much like the session musicians in the recent film adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the four historical figures arguing the future and advancement of the African-American people of their era in “One Night in Miami” predict the future lies in one word:  Power.  Only their definitions of the word differ:  To Malcolm, power is a spiritual entity, while to Brown it’s empowerment to pursue individual dreams and freedoms, and to Cooke it’s the financial independence to fulfill his artistic ambitions.  “I don’t want a piece of the pie,” Cooke says, “I want the recipe.”

Wavering between the three is the young Cassius Clay.  Intelligent, outspoken, prone to exaggerated public statements that attract publicity but make him appear brash, arrogant, and even clownish, the fighter is still the inexperienced 22-year-old youngster among the other men in the room, overwhelmed by his first taste of global fame and fortune.  Malcolm’s Islamic faith seems attractive to the young Cassius...but the pleasures and excesses extolled by Brown and Cooke also beckon.  “Drink it while you can,” murmurs Brown as he proffers a surreptitious flask of liquor to the young fighter.

There’s no real star either among the four primary characters in “One Night in Miami” or the actors portraying them--each role is as essential to Powers’ narrative as the other three.  As Malcolm X, the British Kingsley Ben-Adir is bookish and solemn behind Malcolm’s signature goatee and glasses; Aldis Hodge (“Hidden Figures,” “The Invisible Man”) instinctively captures Jim Brown’s laconic power, but also projects sensitivity and a streetwise wisdom; Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton”) as Sam Cooke starts slowly but warms to his character as the movie unfolds; and Eli Goree as Cassius Clay is a naive showoff trying to fulfill some great expectations indeed.

Also featuring small roles for Michael Imperioli as trainer Angelo Dundee, Lawrence Gilliard Jr. as cornerman Bundini Brown, Joaquina Kalukango as Malcolm’s worried wife Betty Shabazz, Lance Reddick as Malcolm’s ominous bodyguard, and Beau Bridges in a brief appearance as a cheerfully bigoted Brown family acquaintance, “One Night in Miami” is rated R for adult language throughout.

“Mank”   Distributed by Netflix, 131 Minutes, Rated R, Released November 13, 2020:

Most movie buffs, especially the connoisseurs of classic film comedy, will likely already be familiar with the name and career of Herman J. Mankiewicz.  

A onetime newspaperman, the Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and drama critic for both The New York Times and The New Yorker, Mankiewicz was lured to Hollywood during the 1920s with the promise of easy money as a writer of scenarios for silent pictures.  During the early days of the talking picture era, Mankiewicz was responsible for some of the sharpest and most sidesplitting comedies ever made...and in 1940 was the co-writer, with Orson Welles, of “Citizen Kane,” usually referred to by critics as the greatest film of all time.

Called “the funniest man in New York” by writer and critic Alexander Woollcott and noted for his irreverent attitudes toward life in general and the motion picture business in particular, Mankiewicz was also plagued with alcoholism, and enduring rehabilitation during the production of “Citizen Kane.”  One biographer observed that Mankiewicz’ behavior “made him seem erratic even by the standards of Hollywood drunks.”  

With a roster of friends and collaborators which included George S. Kaufman, Orson Welles, W.C. Fields, William Randolph Hearst, Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht, and the Marx Brothers, Mankiewicz’s life had it all--sidesplitting comedy, compelling human drama, and heartbreaking tragedy.  Any film student or historian who’s ever read a biography of Mankiewicz or an account of his astonishing career has likely wished for a movie biography of the man and his times, and mused about which actor might play the role.  

Well, wonder no more--written by journalist Jack Fincher, directed by his son David Fincher (“Seven,” “Gone Girl”) and starring Academy Award-winning actor Gary Oldman as Mankiewicz, the new movie “Mank” is now streaming on Netflix.  And the good news is that the movie gets most of the facts right and is as challenging and rich in anecdotal material as movie historians might’ve hoped.  

The bad news is that “Mank” might not be a picture anyone but a film school professor will enjoy, or want to see again.  Like “Citizen Kane,” Fincher’s film biography of Herman Mankiewicz will dazzle viewers with its unique filming style, crisp black-and-white cinematography, and assault-on-the-senses editing.  There’s much to admire in “Mank,” but precious little to like, or be entertained by--the movie’s as dry and informative as a documentary or an entry in an encyclopedia...and about as lively.

Framed by scenes depicting a washed-up, bedridden, and dissipated Mankiewicz simultaneously recovering from injuries sustained in an automobile crash and attempting to dry himself out while dictating to a secretary the script which will eventually become “Citizen Kane,” the film depicts in flashbacks Mankewicz’ colorful movie career...especially his relationship with the married newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies, which will eventually inform much of the controversy surrounding filmmaker Orson Welles’ historic picture.

With its evocative photography, lighting, and editing and a narrative which essentially begins at the end and then works backward in time to explain how the central character arrived there, “Mank” is clearly tailored to emulate “Citizen Kane” in style.  But in its content and tone, Fincher’s picture resembles “Ed Wood,” Tim Burton’s 1994 film biography of the notorious 1950s auteur of terrible movies such as “Bride of the Monster” and “Jail Bait.”

And that’s both fortunate and unfortunate.  Director Tim Burton found in the life of Ed Wood a moving, affectionate, brutally funny, and ultimately joyous celebration of the art of filmmaking.  “Mank” infuses its narrative with facts and information but little spirit, and no joy.  It’s as if filmmaker Fincher and screenwriter Fincher want to impress us with all their research and knowledge of their subject.  And when every single line of dialogue in a picture is either an exposition or a wisecrack, the audience grows awfully weary….especially after 131 minutes.

As Mankiewicz, actor Gary Oldman contributes another vivid characterization to a list of movie roles which includes Beethoven, Jacob Marley, Dracula, Lee Oswald, and Winston Churchill.  Stout and tallowy, scattered, wily, with irreverent sensibilities which border on morbid, Oldman’s portrayal breathes doomed life into the man who became a living dichotomy, a legend among writers yet damned by his own choices, and by all appearances laughing all the way to his own grave.  In playing Mankiewicz, Oldman seems to be the only one having fun with the picture.

A who’s who of character actors appear with varying degrees of effectiveness as some of the luminaries in Mank’s orbit.  Charles Dance is probably the most successful in his role as a hulking and cadaverous William Randolph Hearst, while MGM despot Louis B. Mayer looks a lot like actor Arliss Howard in owlish horn-rimmed glasses and an ill-fitting suit.  Amanda Seyfried is pixieish and the pixelated Marion Davies...who Fincher’s script suggests might’ve been Mankiewicz’ great unrequited love.

“Mank” was a labor of love for director David Fincher, an homage to his late father.  The screenplay was a longtime hobby of Jack Fincher, a former magazine writer and San Francisco Bureau Chief for Life Magazine.  The younger Fincher originally intended to produce his father’s screenplay in 1997 with actor Kevin Spacey as Mankiewicz and Jodie Foster as Marion Davies, as a followup to his picture “The Game.”  But Fincher encountered difficulty in securing the necessary financing, partly due to his insistence on filming the picture in black and white...and partly due to the failure of “The Game” at the box office.

“Mank” is rated R for language concerns and adult themes.

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