Movie reviews: 'One Night in Miami' is a fascinating what-if scenario
Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Aldis Hodge are seen in 'One Night in Miami.' (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI: 4 STARS
We'll never know exactly what was said between Cassius Clay, Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke, and football superstar Jim Brown behind closed doors in a Miami hotel room on February 25, 1964, but a new film by Oscar winner Regina King in her directorial debut offers up a fascinating what-if scenario.
Going into the boxing ring on that night against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay (Halifax-born Eli Goree), who had not yet officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali, was a 7-to-1 underdog. When the fight was over, Clay was the youngest boxer to ever grab a title from a reigning heavyweight champion.
Helping him celebrate the landmark win are his three closest friends, mentor Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), hit maker Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and athlete Brown (Aldis Hodge). Convened at their Miami hotel on the warm February night, the foursome -- all at turning points in their lives -- share their thoughts, get heated, and debate about how to end segregation, all with an eye towards the future.
The fact that two of them would be murdered within the next year adds poignancy to an already charged conversation.
Cooke and Brown mull over career choices. A discussion of Cooke's slick, but conventional pop songs led to the writing and recording of "A Change Is Gonna Come," one of the greatest anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. Brown, already a superstar on the football field, comes under fire for appearing in a Western movie called "Rio Conchos" as a minor character, killed off early in the action.
Clay is celebratory, but plotting his next moves, both professionally and personally, as he decides when to announce his conversion to Islam and his name change to Muhammad Ali.
The fire starter is X, the public figure under surveillance by the FBI who encourages his friends to take a more militant stand; to use their celebrity and standing in a more meaningful way. He is the discontent, an activist who predicts hard times ahead.
"One Night in Miami" began its life as a stage play by "Star Trek: Discovery" staff writer Kemp Powers, who also penned the movie's script. As such, there is a theatrical feel to King's staging of the scenes, most of which take place in the hotel room. She has opened up the play, adding new locations and a series of vignettes at the beginning of the film, but this isn't about action, it's about the verbal fireworks of Powers' script and the authoritative performances.
It's a snapshot of the cultural importance of this quartet; a history lesson made even more potent in the era of Black Lives Matter. "Power," Clay says, "is a world where it's safe to be ourselves."
WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS: 3 ½ STARS
Based on Julia Walton's 2017 young adult novel of the same name, "Words on Bathroom Walls," now on EST, VOD, DVD and Blu-ray, follows a teenager, diagnosed with schizophrenia, navigating mental illness and life in a new school. "How hard could it be to hide my burgeoning insanity from the unforgiving ecosystem that is high school?" Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer) says in the film's opening moments.
Adam is a foodie with dreams of being a chef, but when he accidentally injures a classmate during a psychotic break in lab class his future is jeopardized. A diagnosis of treatment-resistant schizophrenia leaves him ostracized from his former friends. They taunt him in the halls -- "Where's the straightjacket?" and call him "freak" as he confronts the voices in his head, the new-agey Rebecca (Anna Sophia Robb), the Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian) and troublemaker Joaquin (Devon Bostick), a varied group he calls "my inescapable roommates."
A new drug trial offers hope, as does a switch to a new Catholic school. For the first time in ages, he feels like he has autonomy over his life. "I woke up to complete silence. No whispers. No banter. No visions. Just pure, unfiltered, beautiful quiet." His friendship with valedictorian Maya (Taylor Russell) blossoms, but as the medication slowly affects his ability to cook he struggles to hide the side effects from his mother (Molly Parker) and step dad (Walton Goggins).
"Words on Bathroom Walls" is a coming-of-age story with a difference. Adam's journey with schizophrenia is sensitively handled, with director Thor Freudenthal finding inventive ways to place the viewer into the main character's shoes. The voices and hallucinations are brought to life without sensationalism or exploitation. Instead, they show us what is happening in Adam's mind as he navigates the minefield of high school and a first love. Far from demonizing his disease, as has been the case in other, less humane cinematic depictions of schizophrenia, the hallucinations add dimension to the story.
Plummer hands in a break out performance as Adam. He's an awkward teen, a dutiful son who learns how to cook to comfort his mother, and a teen struggling with an illness. His subtle performance goes a long way to create a character in three-dimensions who is both strong and vulnerable. He shares good chemistry with Russell who brings depth to an underwritten Maya.
"Words on Bathroom Walls" hits hard before settling into more familiar, optimistic territory, but the respectful tone established early on makes up for the sappiness that bogs down the film's final moments.
OUTSIDE THE WIRE: 2 ½ STARS
"Outside the Wire," a new futuristic Netflix movie starring Anthony Mackie, is a run-of-the-mill action flick with more bullets than ideas.
Set in 2036, as "Outside the Wire" begins there is a violent civil war in Eastern Europe. The U.S. is there as peacekeepers, using robotic soldiers called Gumps to battle a ruthless warlord called Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbaek), the Terror of the Balkans, who may possess a doomsday device. In the midst of this conflict is Lieutenant Thomas Harp (Damson Idris), a U.S.-based drone pilot who makes the difficult, long-distance decision to sacrifice two Marine lives to save thirty-eight others. Instead of being commended for saving lives, an ethics committee sends him to a demilitarized zone in Eastern Europe to experience real combat up-close-and-personal.
He's assigned to work with Captain Leo (Mackie), a hardnosed veteran who will show him the ropes. "War is ugly," Leo says. "Sometimes you gotta get dirty to see any real change." The twist is that Leo is only five years old. And no, before you ask, this isn't a militaristic riff on "The Boss Baby." Leo is a biotech android, a one-man militia, designed to be smarter, faster and more efficient than everyone else. "My existence is classified," he tells Harp as they head off on a mission to deliver a vaccine to a cholera break twenty clicks outside the wire. The operation is partly humanitarian, and partly to act as a cover to meet an informant with intel on Koval's whereabouts.
"Outside the Wire" is a slick mish-mash of "iRobot," "Chappie" by way of "The Terminator," and modern war movies like "The Kingdom." The derivative story is a delivery system for a series of clichés, large-scale battle scenes and nifty special effects.
The social commentary on the ethics of using drones during wartime and what constitutes acceptable collateral damage feels blunted by the movie's propensity to blow away soldiers and civilians alike with what must be the highest body count in a movie so far this year. It's an important and ongoing discussion in the real world, but don't look for answers here; just giant fireballs and the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic weapons.
When the bodies aren't dropping, the clichés are. It's as if Leo's speech functions were programmed by a bot who had watched a 1,000 hours of 1940s war movies. He does, however, occasionally deliver a fun line. "I'm not an idiot," the "Falcon and the Winter Soldier" star says. "That would make me human."
"Outside the Wire" is a noisy time-waster that could have used some outside the box thinking to make its shop-worn story more effective.