What to watch: Legends, boats, & tigers
Hey there! I just had a baby so the Pop Culture Brain newsletter is currently on parental leave. I’ll be back soon with regular news, trailers, and recommendation emails — but for now please enjoy highlights from the what to watch segment!
One Night in Miami — One Night in Miami seems risky on paper. It imagines the night Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown came together to celebrate Clay becoming the champ and discuss their roles in the civil rights movement. It puts the big conversations in the biggest mouths. So many things could have gone wrong in its transfer from idea to stage to screen. The performances could have been too impression-y, the writing could have been overwrought, the directing could have been staid. And yet all of the talents involved: writer Kemp Powers, director Regina King, stars Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, and Leslie Odom Jr. pull it off spectacularly. I’ve been saying this phrase a lot recently, but add this to list of well-timed movies. I want to give a special shoutout to Leslie Odom Jr., who steals the film as Sam Cooke, with his mid-picture monologue (the one about song ownership and pie, you’ll know it when you see it) and his two musical numbers late in the runtime.
Let Them All Talk — Let me talk about Let Them All Talk for a second. Meryl Streep leads Steven Soderbergh’s quiet but poignant HBO Max dramedy about aging, success, and friendship, with excellent support from Lucas Hedges, Candice Bergen, and Dianne Wiest. But how it was made is where things get really interesting. Soderbergh has abandoned big moviemaking in recent years, opting for guerrilla production and shoestring shoots. (He shot High Flying Bird on an iPhone 8 for example.) For Let Them All Talk, Soderbergh and a small crew made the entire movie on an actual two-week voyage aboard the Queen Mary 2 — and most of the dialogue was improvised. The barebones cast and crew basically lived the movie: when Meryl Streep’s character is eating breakfast in the movie, that’s Meryl Streep really eating breakfast in her stateroom. The result is a breezy verisimilitude that constantly left me wondering ‘How did they even make this movie!? They’re just like on this ship, doing the thing!’ It doesn’t have flashy CGI or high concepts, just impressive on-location, lived-in moviemaking — and the ending is GREAT.
The White Tiger — Put Parasite and Slumdog Millionaire in a blender, add a sprinkle of Scarface, and you start to get at the vibe of The White Tiger, Ramin Bahrani’s new movie now on Netflix.I only bring up these films to give you a sense of its tone, because even to make these comparisons is to reduce this captivating and unforgiving satire of class struggle to something less unique. The movie breaks through its fourth wall to mock Slumdog Millionaire, in fact. While this brutal tale about social strata takes place in India, where class divisions are stark, it is 100% pitched at western audiences and leans into its self awareness to confront the viewer with their own culpability in inequality. The White Tiger’s metaphors are not subtle, but that’s just a part of its bravado. The other part is its subversion of Hollywood tropes and morality, that is both unsettling and darkly resonant. If Slumdog Millionaire was the glamorized, Obama-era western view of class comeuppance in India, The White Tiger is the gritty, post-Trump, post-2020 version. The wool has been pulled off a lot of eyes. Turns out, it came from a lamb eaten by a white tiger.