I’ve been running a bit behind with these lately (January is a weird month), but here’s the first installment of my mini reviews for movies released on streaming services in January. This is an exciting time of year with awards contenders being released and nomination announcements. Read on for short reviews of “Pieces of a Woman,” “One Night in Miami,” “Locked Down,” and “The White Tiger.”
“PIECES OF A WOMAN” (Netflix)
The most impressive part of director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber’s film “Pieces of a Woman”—an adaptation of the pair’s 2018 play based on their own experiences with an unsuccessful pregnancy—is its opening. “Pieces of a Woman” begins with a 30 minute long cold open featuring a 24 minute long continuous take of a woman going into labor and giving birth to her child. That woman is Martha (Vanessa Kirby) who, with her boyfriend Sean (Shia LaBeouf), opted for a home birth. The troubles only begin when Martha’s mid-wife can’t make it on time due to delivering another baby, so a substitute who the couple doesn’t know shows up. The camera follows Martha as she is moved from the living room floor to the bath to the bed, Kirby’s masterful performance alone driving the tension through the roof. Ultimately, the baby does not survive, and Martha spends the rest of the film trying to put her life back together after such a devastating loss. But the rest of the film never reaches the emotional heights of its first half hour. There are some unnerving scenes with her opposite Sean made more uncomfortable by the fact that LaBeouf himself has been accused of abuse. Martha also struggles to reconcile with her overbearing mother (played by Ellen Burstyn), who wants different things for Martha that she does. Kirby is powerful throughout, more than proving her strength in a leading role, but after a while it feels like the film gets away from her. There’s a lack of truly introspective character moments that makes a lot of the movie feel cold, and the case against the mid-wife Eva (Molly Parker) turns the film into a courtroom drama that concludes rather hollowly. “Pieces of a Woman” has its moments, ones that are really hard to watch and that convey the grief of losing a child and the struggle to confront society in the aftermath, but overall it feels more like an actors’ showcase than a well-crafted film. Runtime: 126 minutes. Rated R.
“ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI” (Amazon Prime Video)
“One Night in Miami” is another actors’ showcase, but this one is a really solid film that is also the directorial debut of Regina King. Based on a play by Kemp Powers (who adapted it for the screen), “One Night in Miami” is a fictional account of a real encounter between four Black icons: boxer Cassius Clay (not yet known as Muhammed Ali, played by Eli Goree), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), football player-turned-actor Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). The action is set over the course of one night, following Clay’s boxing win that makes him the world heavyweight champion. Malcolm invites Clay, along with Brown and Cooke, to his motel room to discuss their various accomplishments, but the conversation quickly turns heated as Malcolm and Cooke clash over their different ideas of success for a Black man. Ben-Adir and Odom Jr. both deliver staggering, pitch-perfect performances. It would have been easy to let Odom Jr.’s beautiful singing voice overshadow his performance, but that is used sparingly here, with the exception of an absolutely fantastic montage that closes out the film and reflects on the path each man has taken. While the film concentrates a bit more on Cooke and Malcom, Hodge and Goree also get ample screen time and deliver great performances as well. Clay in particular has an interesting relationship with Malcolm, as he is considering a conversion to Islam and their religious beliefs come to a head. King is clearly in full command of her craft as a director here; as an actor herself, it seems like she knows just how to helm this film that is primarily driven by its four lead actors. Despite being based on a play, and having long scenes of the characters talking at each other, “One Night in Miami” never feels stagey. In fact, King succeeds at making it feel cinematic through a variety of artfully staged shots and different settings. “One Night in Miami” is a fascinating portrait of four men who face similar struggles due to the color of their skin, but who have different ideas of what to do about it. It’s one of the best films of the year, and thanks to the richness of the dialogue and the performances, it’s one I’ll be revisiting again. Runtime: 114 minutes. Rated R.
“LOCKED DOWN” (HBO Max)
If you’re looking for escapist entertainment to enjoy while we’re still deep in the throes of a deadly pandemic, maybe don’t look here. “Locked Down” is a relationship drama slash comedy slash heist film that was filmed in fall of 2020 and set during the early stages of lockdown in London during the COVID-19 pandemic but already feels dated. Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor played Linda and Paxton, a couple who were on the verge of splitting but ended up having to quarantine together when the lockdown took effect. Linda is the CEO of a fashion company, while Paxton is furloughed from his job as a delivery driver, the only sort of work he’s been able to get as a result of a prior arrest. The first half of the film largely sees the pair hashing out their differences. Paxton is angry at the curves life has thrown at him and resents Linda, while Linda, despite it being clear that her job has given her and Paxton an affluent lifestyle, hates her current career path. Steven Knight’s script grants the pair a series of length monologues that often don’t even contain dialogue that it feels like real people would say, while the bulk of Hathaway and Ejiofor’s acting feels like they are doing the most, but not necessarily the best. The second half of the film is where the heist comes in, as Paxton is tasked with a below-board pickup and delivery job by his boss (played by a delightfully eccentric Ben Kingsley, the true highlight of the movie), and later realizes that Linda is in charge of clearing out the inventory he is dealing with. That inventory is a lot of valuable jewelry currently on display in Harrod’s department store. Doug Liman’s direction lends some tension to these scenes, but it isn’t enough to make this film any more than a curiosity. It’s hard to get on board with Linda and Paxton, whose primary predicament is being trapped inside with each other, when so many people are truly suffering with illness and unemployment, and when watching it from an American point of view, we’ve been dealing with an insane dictator of a president and calls for racial justice. In light of all those things, “Locked Down” is a quaint throwback to the very start of the pandemic, when we were all baking bread and banging on pots and pans and when most civilians weren’t even wearing masks yet. Some people talk about how cringey it is to watch movies now and see the characters gathering without wearing masks, but it’s legitimately startling to see it in this film, when the pandemic is the main topic of discussion. Maybe a few years from now when we are past all of this “Locked Down” will be interesting to look back on, but it’s not the kind of entertainment we need to see right now. Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated R.
“THE WHITE TIGER” (Netflix)
Based on the novel by Arvind Ardiga, director Ramin Bahrani’s “The White Tiger” is an engrossing exploration of India’s caste system told through the eyes of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav). As a child, Balram shows a great deal of aptitude for learning—he is told that he is the sort of person who only comes along once in a generation, a “white tiger.” He’s offered a scholarship to study in Delhi, but his grandmother puts him to work after his father gets in debt to their village’s landlord, and he has to drop out of school. As an adult, he sees an opportunity to raise his station a bit by becoming a chauffeur for the landlord’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who has recently returned to India with his American-raised wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). Balram earns the respect of the family and places himself higher in the hierarchy of servants through blackmail and deceit, but he is still a servant, and is treated as such, until a turn of events presents a new way for him to realize his ambitions. The film opens with future Balram recounting his upbringing and these events that led him to where he ends up in an email to politician Wen Jiabao, where he compares India’s servant class to chickens in a coop. Along with a knowing reference later on to the film “Slumdog Millionaire”—in which numerous things that happened to the protagonist throughout his life of poverty are the key to him winning a fortune—“The White Tiger” immediately positions its thesis statement as that India’s lower class are perpetually trapped in a state of poverty and servitude. It’s fascinating to watch these hierarchies play out throughout the film: hierarchies not only between the rich and the poor, but between different levels of rich and different levels of poor. Outright disrespect to Balram is shown by older members of the family like Ashok’s father, known as The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar), while Ashok and Pinky, who have lived in America, are slightly more uncomfortable with the idea of having servants, but still talk down to them, and still take advantage of them. And Balram takes it to stay in their good graces. The supporting cast is solid, but newcomer Gourav really steals the show with his complex portrayal of Balram. He often appears wide-eyed, innocent, and eager to please, but can switch that off in an instant as those cunning instincts and intelligence that named him the white tiger as a child come into play. Balram is unpredictable, and that makes the film exciting, although the buildup to the film’s finale is so extensive that the payoff feels rushed and unsatisfying. Still, “The White Tiger” is a thrilling ride that offers a lot of insight into a class system that continues to dominate India today. Runtime: 125 minutes. Rated R.