10 Mar 2021

At The Movies for 10 March 2021

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 10 March 2021

Counting down to the big movie awards – the Oscars, the Baftas and the rest – the pressure is on to keep up beforehand. You can’t complain about any flagrant injustices on the night until you’ve seen all the competition, after all.

But this year that’s proved trickier than previously. You can blame the pandemic for closing so many cinemas around the world, forcing the studios to show their product on-line. Mind you, they were starting to do that anyway.

Streaming services were already becoming the outlet of choice, and this year simply sped up the process. Looking down the list of winners at the recent Golden Globes, half of them had only been shown on Netflix, Disney Plus or Amazon Prime.

Rosamund Pike.

Rosamund Pike. Photo: AFP

The winner of the Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical was one of these - Rosamund Pike in a poison pen letter to the American Dream called I Care A Lot, showing on Amazon

It’s Rosamund’s second scarily horrible character in an American movie – she played the equally sociopathic lead in Gone Girl a few years ago.

Maybe the idea is that women will never achieve full equality if they only play Wonder Women.

They have to play evil too, like Marla Grayson, who preys on vulnerable older people, using the law to take over their lives.

I have to say it’s a bit of stretch to call I Care A Lot either a Comedy or a Musical.

Having established how awful Marla is – Rosamund undeniably pulls that off with bells on – there’s a twist when she picks a wrong victim.

Dianne Weist isn’t quite as helpless as she looks, and she has friends in shady places. 

Suddenly Marla finds herself up against the Russian Mafia, led by that least likely of Russian Mafiosi, Peter Dinklage.

By now, I Care A Lot is starting to get messy - not enjoyably, Coen Brothers messy - just all over the place messy. 

In fact, I’m starting to regret taking out a subscription to Amazon Prime to see it. No reflection on Rosamund Pike, who’s never less than committed to anything she’s in. Even this.

In fact, if there was an award for Best Performance in Worst Film, I’d totally support Ros for it.

But my Amazon subscription wasn’t a total waste of money. It allowed me to see something rather better.

One Night In Miami is director Regina King’s acclaimed adaptation of a hit play.  

Meanwhile, at the cinemas, another slice of Black American history – Judas and the Black Messiah – and first, New Zealand film Cousins shows the importance of luck in a production.

The number of things that could have gone wrong in Cousins was daunting. It was based on an acclaimed – and beloved - book by Patricia Grace, and great writing is often the hardest to translate to the screen.

It had tried - and failed - to make it to the big screen for decades, proving too much even for such luminaries as Merata Mita and Gaylene Preston. And it told the story of three women, parted for almost the entire film. 

Leaving aside the cinematic problem of a story about three separated Māori women, the film defied the usual strategy.

Cousins doesn’t have a director. It has two, who picked up the gigs almost accidentally.  Ainsley Gardiner is normally a producer – one of our best, in fact, with Boy, Fantail, The Breaker Upperers, She Shears and others on her stellar CV.

And Briar Grace-Smith is one of our best writers – the secret weapon behind the wonderful Waru, I gather. 

Not only did she accept co-directing duties on Cousins, but when they struggled to find someone to play the pivotal role of Makareta, she put her hand up for that too. 

Now what I’m saying is that every one of these decisions could have gone terribly wrong – goodness knows they have in the past! 

But every decision turned out to be the right one, just as every cast member turned out to be perfect. Cousins proved such a charmed production, it became the best New Zealand film I’ve seen since… I was going to say Whale Rider, but I liked it more than that.

It’s a potentially challenging story for non-Māori audiences. The basic wrong at its heart is laid out without explanation. Young Mata is taken from her Māori mother by her English father, then dumped in an orphanage.

Back then there was a law. There was nothing anyone could do.

But briefly, there is respite. Mata’s maternal grandmother arranges for her to visit the family marae for a short period.

There she meets two cousins – first, Missy, constantly at odds with the family over her many chores, but fearless.

No chores are required of Makareta, the gorgeous Māori Princess, who’s being carefully saved for greater things.

But despite their differences – and Mata’s worrying ignorance of her Māori family or language – the three become close.  Until suddenly the visit ends.

Mata is cruelly reclaimed by her legal guardian, and all connection with her family ends.

Essentially Mata is sold into indentured servitude and spends the rest of the film struggling to find some sort of place in the world.

Meanwhile, her two cousins have their own struggles, even as they search for Mata. Makareta rebels against her family’s expectations and reinvents herself in the city.

And hard-case Missy becomes the guardian of the land, and the heart of the film – Rachel House in another beautiful performance. 

But Cousins boasts an entire cast to treasure, particularly the nine actors who play the three lead characters as children, young adults and older versions. The transitions are almost invisible. And the extraordinary Tanea Heke, especially, as the older Mata will break your heart.

The smartest thing about Cousins is that it’s told from the point of view of Mata. The audience learns as she does.

Cousins takes us on the three women’s extraordinary journeys, until – like all great stories – we find our way home.

Well, this film made it home and co-directors Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith made it look effortless. But as the old country music saying goes “Ain’t it easy when you know how!”

After a century of being mostly overlooked by the Hollywood movie industry, Black filmmakers are making their mark, and making films about Black American history. 

And right now, Black history has meant a very specific moment in time – the late Nineteen Sixties.

Selma 1965 and Martin Luther King. The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Bobby Seale.  Da 5 Bloods in Vietnam.  BlacKkklansman. And now the birth of the Black Panthers and their charismatic leader Fred Hampton.

The story of Judas and the Black Messiah seems the most melodramatic of all of them, except it turns out to be mostly true.  

Committed Marxist Hampton was one of the leaders of the Black Panthers movement. And the racist FBI chief J Edgar Hoover was convinced they were a lethal threat to the United States.

So, the FBI did what they usually did with criminal organisations - put an informer in.  And don’t be too fussy where you find them.  

One of the potential undercover agents was a car thief and con-man called Bill O’Neill.

O’Neill is played by LaKeith Stanfield who’s one hit movie away from stardom, after some great performances in Get Out, Sorry To Bother You and Knives Out.

Sorry, this isn’t that movie. While in many ways Judas and the Black Messiah is about Stanfield’s character, all the attention is going to English actor Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton.

Fred is young, angry and a brilliant speaker. Rhetoric is his thing – not so much a Black Messiah as a Black Winston Churchill.

In 1968, the injustices facing Black America can’t be ignored, and the worst place north of the Bible Belt is Chicago, Illinois.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 pointed out how temporarily tough it could be for middle-class white men, protesting against an unpopular war. 

Now imagine what it’s like for a permanent under-class, at war with a corrupt police force, working for a corrupt government.

The first thing O’Neill finds out when he joins the Illinois Black Panthers is that these guys are hardly what he’s been sold.

Far from bomb-throwing anarchists, Hampton and the Panthers seem to spend a lot of time feeding the hungry and looking after children.

Well, of course they do, scoff O’Neill’s handlers. That’s how they win people over. 

The FBI is more worried when Hampton’s Black Panthers start to reach out to the other gangs in Chicago - the Puerto Ricans and the poor white groups.

O’Neill finds himself in a precarious position, between two parties.  There are the angry white cops, fed on the politics of Hoover and President Nixon. 

And there’s the angry black community, rallying behind Fred Hampton – who the FBI are turning into that very Black Messiah they were scared of.

O’Neill’s handler is the ambiguous figure of Roy Mitchell, played by Jesse Plemons. Is he ruthlessly manipulating his informer, or is he in fact O’Neill’s only friend?   

It’s a one-sided contest, and there are no prizes for guessing how badly the forces of so-called law and order behave before the inevitable end.

Daniel Kaluuya won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, though I’m not sure who he was supporting. He pretty much pushes everyone else off the screen. 

Judas and the Black Messiah tells an unfamiliar story very well. It ends badly, but what were you expecting? It ended badly for the original Messiah and Judas, you may remember.

If you’re telling a real-life story of what happened, a film’s as good a way to do it as any.  But if you want to know what the people involved were like, then often a play’s the thing. 

In the case of the play that forms the basis of the film One Night in Miami, it’s the work of American playwright Kemp Powers, who imagined a get-together of four of the most famous Americans in 1964.

Writer Kemp Powers has already made a name for himself this year.  He co-wrote the brilliant Pixar animated film Soul. But he wrote One Night in Miami nearly ten years ago and based it on a real-life incident. 

On February the 25th 1964, the night that boxer Cassius Clay – soon to be Mohammed Ali - beat Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world, he got together at a hotel with his three best friends.

Cassius Clay and singer Sam Cooke were already world-famous celebrities, while footballer Jim Brown was then the most successful athlete in America.  

Muslim preacher Malcolm X was just making his name as a fiery civil rights leader.

Those were the basic facts behind One Night in Miami.  But writer Kemp Powers then goes on to allow his four characters to discuss life, the universe and everything – in particular, the obligations of successful Black stars in still mostly segregated America.

Sam Cooke was probably the most financially successful of the four. He’s had a string of major crossover hits, many of which he’s written himself.  

But despite his stardom, he’s still at the mercy of racial politics when it comes to where he can perform, and what sort of material he can sing.

Jim Brown seemingly has it easier. There is, after all, nothing complicated about being a football hero. If you’re a winner everyone loves you.  

But just because they want your autograph doesn’t mean they’ll let you into their homes. No wonder he leapt at the opportunity to go to Hollywood to make westerns.

Cassius Clay is the joker of the pack, who revels in winding up his audience. His catch-phrase was “I am the greatest” even before he actually became the greatest! 

But he’s also determined to use his fame for something, and that night he’s about to make an important decision.

Clay’s mentor is Malcolm X, whose serious demeanour and apparently violent rhetoric makes him a scary figure to white America. The FBI are constantly on his tail.

But the Malcolm X on display in One Night in Miami is rather different - a man with a family and a vision for their future.

One Night in Miami looks like the sort of thing Tom Stoppard might have put together – a collection of fascinating celebrities in a “what if?” scenario. 

But its real-life origins and the crucial moment in Black American history where it’s set, lifts it above the gimmicky.

The film earned actor turned director Regina King a nomination at the Golden Globes, as well as a place at the Venice Film Festival.

And the moment where Leslie Odom Junior as Sam Cooke sings “A change is gonna come” is worth the price of admission on its own.

Some people may dismiss One Night in Miami – which is only viewable on Amazon Prime, I’m afraid – as “a filmed play”.  But when the play is as strong as this, and the filming as good – both sensitive and punchy – then that argument is knocked out in the first round. 

The heartbreaking part was what was to happen after 1965. But that’s another story for another film.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to At The Movies

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)