No sooner than I had published last week's whinging lament that certain exciting new releases (Promising Young Woman and News of the World) were only to be seen theatrically, both became available streaming, albeit as Premium Video On-Demand (PVOD) selections — hubris, though mild. Why the studios chose to attempt a box office cash grab before acknowledging the shifting latitudes of a civilization gripped by literal and figurative plagues, we may never know. One can hazard a guess, though, it might have something to do with greed and atavism — more deeply metastasized hubris.
Anyway, News and Promising were sent out to try for the brass ring of Christmas Day theater-goers, to whatever mixed result, and now can be watched from the relative comfort and safety of home for the — nominal? usurious? — price of $20. The future is nigh.
NEWS OF THE WORLD. Neither Paul Greengrass nor Tom Hanks have essayed a Western before. Somewhat surprising in the case of Hanks but Greengrass' bruising, documentary-style depictions of spy-craft (several Bourne movies) and ripped-from-the-headlines horror (United 93, Captain Phillips, 22 July) do not, at a glance, necessarily suggest the wide-open spaces and particular xenophobia of the expanding, post-war American West. But both director and star are of a generation raised on the genre, both in movies and television, and seem to share a fascination with myth-making, historiography and the intersection thereof. They are interpreters of the making of the world as they know and inhabit it, so it only makes sense they would feel compelled to explore, at least once, that most sacrosanct and mythological of American/European genres. Particularly when presented with the opportunity to do so within the framework of a story (adapted from the novel by Paulette Jiles) that, while familiar in a number of its tropes, subtly recasts some of the assumed norms of the Western and carefully imagines the relationships, conflicts and perspectives of people riven by war and at the mercy of an unforgiving landscape.
Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), formerly of the Texas infantry, makes what some might call a living traveling from settlement to settlement, reading the news aloud. The year is 1870 and, having surrendered five years before, Texas has become an embattled occupied territory. Proud Texans bristle at the presence of Union authorities, all the while snatching up as much land as they can, coming into frequent, bloody conflict with the Indigenous peoples from whom they have stolen it. Kidd, a capable if troubled survivor, circumnavigates as much of the trouble as he can, seeking solitude and some respite from killing, meanwhile attempting to sow hope and relief with stories from far-flung corners. In his travels, he comes across an overturned wagon, a lynched Black man and a seemingly feral little blond girl. Kidd is able to determine that she, Johanna (Helena Zengel), was taken by the Kiowa people some five years before, after the rest of her family were killed in a raid. Having been found (or taken again), presumably by the man killed by an unseen mob, she was being transported to her only remaining family, Germans scratching out a living hundreds of miles away. At first unsure of how to proceed, Kidd eventually decides to deliver the girl himself, stopping to read the news and bankroll the expedition along the way. The two come to form a bond, forged in both affection and combat, together weathering challenges presented both by bloodthirsty humans and a landscape that does them no favors.
News of the World does not pulse with the same intensity of some of Greengrass' trademark work but it is a testament to his craftsmanship that the movie remains compelling and distinctive in its departure from his usual style. As in Captain Phillips, Hanks does some of the best work of his recent career with Greengrass and Zengel is a pure revelation, comporting herself with a self-awareness almost unimaginable for an actor of her age. PG13. 118M. AMAZON, ON DEMAND.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI ... It is something of a truism that stage-to-screen adaptations, while often canonical, are perhaps even more frequently unsuccessful, adhering too closely to the strictures of playwriting, not allowing themselves the freedom provided by the camera and the edit. I will not enumerate successes and failures here, beyond saying that One Night in Miami ... transcends its origins as few adaptations have. Directed by Regina King, with a screenplay by Kemp Powers (adapted from his play), the movie defies its own limitations — a sort of Socratic four-hander, set primarily in one room, imagining a conversation among legends of the 20th century. One would think the thing could not help but feel stagey or melodramatic; it does not.
On the night of his first championship win, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) gathers his friends Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) in an admittedly un-glamorous hotel room to celebrate. Jim wants to get laid, Sam wants to drink and play some songs. Malcolm has bigger, more troubling thoughts on his mind. Cassius, the 22-year-old innocent, is the inquisitive, malleable mind caught in the crossfire of an interrogation of the appropriate place for him and for each of his friends in the Civil Rights movement.
Powers' vivid dialogue, King's remarkable confidence behind the camera and four swaggering, vulnerable, deeply sympathetic performances combine to imbue One Night in Miami ... with a sense of the monumental, the tragic, the timeless and the hopeful. R. 114M. AMAZON.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.