One Night in Miami… (2020)

It turns out I quite like a stagy talky film (like Fences), but that’s probably just because it’s good when a film project starts from having a good script with words that have already been proven. The fact that this one still feels like a play is almost beside the point, because this is an imaginative act of putting four iconic Black figures from the 1960s together in a room and having them riff off one another. The film opens with a bit of contextualisation for their respective situations in early 1964, and then spins its drama off from that. There’s a lot of fluid and carefully thought-out use of the camera in the largely confined space of the small motel room in Miami, but the bulk of the film rests on the shoulders of the actors, and they all deliver with conviction to the point I can’t really single out any one of the ensemble cast, but each of these characters gets their own fully realised arc and is never reduced to a mouthpiece for the familiar cliché about each.

One Night in Miami... film posterCREDITS
Director Regina King; Writer Kemp Powers (based on his play); Cinematographer Tami Reiker; Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Lance Reddick; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.

Sylvie’s Love (2020)

This didn’t make my favourites list last year, but it was recently released on Amazon Prime streaming, and it’s a gorgeously-mounted period piece about Black people in New York, which makes a change from the usual 1950s NYC milieu.

There’s a lot I really like about this romance film, most of which boils down to the sumptuous setting. It’s late-1950s to early-1960s New York City, and Tessa Thompson is our lead actor, as she falls for the rather earnest (and a little bit wooden) saxophone player Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha). It’s not ironic or winking at us in any way, nor is it a romcom. I don’t know why I associate this genre primarily with African-American themes, but maybe it’s because some of the greatest recent examples of romance films have been from filmmakers like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball is practically a template) or have been films like Love Jones. This is hardly as well-written or developed as either of those classics, but is played entirely straight, a period drama that doesn’t pivot around virulent violent racism, but instead is a story about two people in a place learning to navigate their feelings for one another. It’s very sweet, and entirely lovely.

Sylvie's Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eugene Ashe; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Lance Reddick; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Monday 28 December 2020.

The Guest (2014)

No one, I suppose, is going to claim this film as a masterpiece, but it has a certain panache in the way it brings to life the moribund genre traits of a lapsed style of filmmaking that seemed to go the way of VHS back in the 1980s. Of course, as seems to have happened with every era, there’s been a retro revival of sorts, and in its style and leading man it’s not a million miles from the neon-soaked Ryan Gosling-fixated fantasias of Only God Forgives director Nicolas Winding Refn. Leading man here, Dan Stevens (who I’m informed has been in Downton Abbey), has just the right kind of bland attractiveness to conjure Gosling to mind (or maybe Chris Evans would be equally accurate), while the filmmaking has almost a purity to it. This is evident from the film’s very start, the size and font of the title card surely curated from some lost VHS tape. Faces are framed in close-up, and performances have that edge of hamminess — from the darting nervous eyes of its put-upon teenage son (Brendan Meyer, a terrific performance), to the determinedly fixed sociopathic stare off-screen that Stevens’s face assumes when no one’s watching. Yet the whole enterprise is just so resolutely unironic, from its perilously synth-heavy goth soundtrack to the Hallowe’en horror maze denouement in a hall of mirrors, that were it not for the occasional familiar face (like Lance Reddick’s shadowy governmental operative), you might easily assume this was in fact some undiscovered video nasty from 1986. It all reaches a crescendo of gore and bloody murder that concludes with an final fright so laughably predictable that I was prompted to reassess the entire film as perhaps having been a massive in-joke after all. Still, it does what it sets out to do, certainly.

The Guest film posterCREDITS
Director Adam Wingard; Writer Simon Barrett; Cinematographer Robby Baumgartner; Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Lance Reddick; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Vue Ocean Terminal, Leith, Saturday 20 September 2014.