A few things I'm watching and listening to

Here are a few quick hits on things I've been enjoying lately.

This film is the directorial debut (for features) of Regina King, an actress who makes everything she's in better by a factor of ten. She's been in everything from Jerry McGuire to the recent Watchmen on HBO, and won an Oscar for the 2019 movie If Beale Street Could Talk. I love to watch her on screen - she is uniquely magnetic, equally adept at comedy and drama. For her first film behind the camera, One Night in Miami seems like another great success, which hopefully means she'll get a lot of opportunities to do more. As you might have guessed from the title, most of the action takes place over the course of one night in 1964, after Cassius Clay (soon to rename himself Muhammad Ali) beat Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. Clay meets up with Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and football player Jim Brown to celebrate. This movie imagines what happened between these four friends as the evening progresses.

The film is based on a play, and you can definitely feel the theatrical roots, especially once the action is moved to Malcolm X's hotel suite. The staging and the dialogue is more theater than cinema, which I think sometimes is just better served with a live audience. The actors do a great job of portraying the ebb and flow of tension between this group of friends, but I imagine it could have been electrifying in person. The four men enjoyed each others' company, and that's clear from their camaraderie. But that doesn't mean they were without disagreement. The central conflict takes various shapes during the evening, but boils down to the question of how they, as famous Black men with variable degrees of personal power, could best serve the interests of all Black people during an era where the civil rights movement was still fraught and dispiritingly slow in progress. The argument of what to do is particularly acute between Malcolm X (played by Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Sam Cooke (played by Leslie Odom Jr). Clay and Brown (Eli Goree and Aldis Hodge) are sometimes observers, sometimes peacemakers, sometimes agitators in the conversations. Many scenes take place with all four men, but the deck is shuffled often enough to keep things interesting, splitting two or three of them off at a time to show how the dynamic changes. I think that all the actors deliver compelling performances, and I was especially impressed by Ben-Adir, whose working I will definitely be seeking out (ed note - Mom, he once guested on Midsomer Murders!) His Malcolm X has a lot of complex emotions to portray, and what comes through most poignantly is his growing dread that he is being followed and potentially targeted. He tries to share these concerns with his friends, but mostly Ben-Adir shows his anxiety in small moments and things unsaid. And though Ben-Adir was the standout for me, the whole group is charismatic and believable as men feeling the pressure of doing something meaningful with their success and notoriety, while also wanting to enjoy it at least a little for themselves. Sometimes the film is more interesting than it is entertaining, but I found it absolutely worth watching and I'm excited to see what Ms. King does next with her directorial career.

One Night in Miami is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Rated R - Sexual content, drug use, violence, foul language.

I'm a few episodes in to this podcast series, written and hosted by actor/comedian Connor Ratliff. The premise of the podcast, he explains, is that in 2000 he was thrilled to be cast for a small role in Band of Brothers, an HBO limited series about World War II, executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. He was basically on his way to start filming, when he gets the call that he has to come in for another audition. Why, you ask? Since he already had the part? Apparently Hanks saw Ratliff's tape and wasn't sure he was right for the part. Beyond that, at some point in the discussion Hanks said the problem was that Ratliff had "dead eyes". Ratliff did, indeed, end up getting fired from that role. But it turns out that almost 20 years later he could turn this episode of his life into an examination not just of that particular incident (what does it even mean to have dead eyes? what does it mean when the universally most beloved actor of this era says you have them?) but also the life of actors and the often mercurial whims that determine whether or not they work.

I've listened to the first four episodes of Dead Eyes, and there's no doubt Ratliff has an irresistible hook. He's also secured some really interesting guests to discuss both the precipitating "incident" but also show business writ large. I really enjoyed episode two with Jon Hamm. The two of them were once in a stage production of Ordinary People where Ratliff played the Timothy Hutton role and Hamm was the therapist (Judd Hirsch's role in the film), and it's just fun to hear them talk about it. In episode three, Ratliff talks to the actor who replaced him in Band of Brothers. The series so far is an interesting combination of show business expose, personal demon exorcising, and light grudge holding (although Ratliff insists he's over this and not mad at Beloved Actor Tom Hanks, most of his guests gently suggest he probably wouldn't be talking about it almost two decades later if he wasn't still upset about it). I'll definitely be listening through to the end of the story, if only to hear if he gets Tom Hanks to show up and share his side of the story! You can listen to each episode here or via Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

I'll start here by saying two things: One, if you haven't at least watched all the Avengers movies (plus Captain America: Civil War), I'm not sure there will be much in this series for you. Two, I'm not actually sure what the series even is yet, so I'll share my early impressions (which are positive!) and leave it to you to decide if you're curious enough to check it out.

WandaVision is the first tv series developed for Disney+ by Marvel Studios. That's a lot of qualifiers, I know, but there were previously several Marvel original series that ran on Netflix (including Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and The Punisher) that were ostensibly connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There was also Agents of SHIELD, on ABC and I know I few more I can't remember right now. But this is the first time the studio that made the (wildly successful and hugely profitable) movies are expanding the Universe more directly to the small screen. It is a big deal with big money and big expectations.

Disney+ released the first two episodes last week, and the remaining seven episodes will be released every Friday through March 5th. In what we've seen so far, Wanda and Vision (who we first meet in Avengers: Age of Ultron) are "enhanced" beings trying to blend in to the 50s and 60s black and white sitcoms they've moved into. They're a loving married couple, who can also fly and do other superhero type stuff. They try to act "normal" with neighbors, co-workers and bosses, to varying degrees of success. As someone who has seen every single movie in the MCU, my first question, of course is WHAT are Wanda and Vision doing in these situations?  And since the show doesn't explain that AT ALL I couldn't spoil it for you even if I wanted to. What I can tell you is that they've done a very creditable job of recreating the feel of network comedies of yore, whether it's a Donna Reed type show in E1 or a Bewitched style story in E2. If you've ever watched reruns you'll recognize what they're doing here, and they're doing it really well. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are also great in their roles as hapless suburban superheroes. They get to show a lot more range than was asked of them in the movies, and easily hold down lead performances here. What's teased at a little bit in E1 and a little more in E2 is that there is something strange and sinister under the surface, and I'm definitely looking forward to figuring out what that is.

Finally, if you didn't get to see Amanda Gorman perform her poem The Hill We Climb at the inauguration yesterday, you should check it out. It is a stunning artistic achievement in every way and will stay with me for the rest of my life.