REVIEW: “Out of Death” (2021)

It’s funny, we talk a lot about Nicolas Cage and the sheer volume of mostly straight-to-video movies he puts out. In fact, you could say Cage has earned a certain reputation for it. You may not realize it, but Bruce Willis isn’t far behind him. Here in the twilight of his movie career, the 66-year-old Willis has found a home popping out VOD action thrillers by the gross. He’s set to appear in SIX movies in 2021 alone. He already has four set for next year with several others in post-production.

His latest, the oddly titled “Out of Death”, fits the model of many of these Willis movies – meager budget, middling-to-bad material, and a quick paycheck for a couple days work. But the ever-likable Willis still brings a good presence to the screen and the sentimental side of me still enjoys seeing him, even when he’s sleepwalking through a role like he is in “Out of Death”. From his very first scene Willis looks tired and detached, a clear sign for how audiences can expect to feel.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The film begins with Shannon (Jaime King) arriving in the mountains to spread the ashes of her recently deceased father. While hiking to her dad’s favorite spot she inadvertently walks up on a drug transaction between an astonishingly dumb dope dealer named Jimmy (Oliver Trevena) and a crooked sheriff’s deputy named Billie (Lala Kent). The swap quickly sours ending with Billie gunning down Jimmy as he’s running away. Shannon witnesses it all and even takes a few shots with her camera before being noticed.

Shannon takes off running while the potty-mouthed Billie radios her equally corrupt boss, Sheriff Hank Rivers (Michael Sirow). In addition to running cocaine through the area, Rivers is also running for mayor of some town we never see. The last thing he needs is to get his hands dirty so close to election day. So he sends his chain-smoking older brother Tommy (Tyler Jon Olson) to help Billie clean up the mess.

Elsewhere in the woods, Jack Harris (Willis), a retired cop from Philly, just lost his wife of 32 years to cancer. He’s come to the mountains to stay a week at his niece’s lake house hoping that some quiet time alone will help him cope with his loss. While out for a stroll he stumbles upon a captured Shannon as she’s about to be executed by Billie and Tommy. Thankfully for our protagonists the two deputies are utterly incompetent leading to Jack rescuing Shannon and kicking off a slow and mostly uneventful game of cat-and-mouse.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

First time director Mike Burns works from a script from first time screenwriter Bill Lawrence and both give an admirable effort. But the movie has too much working against it from the start. The budget constraints are pretty obvious although the movie works around it the best it can. Far more noticeable is the acting which, outside of King, is pretty bad. Even the usually reliable Willis struggles. Some of its due to the script which is plagued by some dopey dialogue that the performances can’t overcome. The story also puts its characters in some ludicrous positions and no level of acting talent can make these scenes anything but laughable.

Burns tries to add a few flourishes to his movie such as breaking the story up into chapters for no real reason whatsoever. And there’s a weird ‘25 minutes earlier’ clip near the end that is completely unnecessary. But those are small issues next to the film’s bigger problems. “Out of Death” is ultimately held down by its story that fizzles out before the halfway mark and several bland to bad performances that are too distracting to get past. And it doesn’t help that the film’s marquee name seems totally uninterested. Kinda like us for most of the 93-minute runtime. “Out of Death” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Old” (2021)

When it comes to an M. Night Shyamalan movie, half of the fun is watching the public reaction from the time it’s announced to the movie’s release. Few filmmakers spark a more vocal and opinionated reaction than Shyamalan. Those who love him stand by him through thick and thin. Those who don’t have a compulsion to share their disdain anytime his name is mentioned. It didn’t take long for those impulses to kick back in following the announcement of his new film “Old”.

That’s not to say Shyamalan hasn’t earned some of the scrutiny. He had a pretty lengthy run of disappointments from 2004 through 2013 that included stinkers like “The Lady in the Water”, “The Last Airbender”, and “After Earth”. It ended up souring a segment of his fanbase and many have clung to their animus despite his (mostly) return to form with movies like “The Visit” and “Split”.

While “Old” isn’t likely to be heralded as one of Shyamalan’s best, it’s a far cry from being among his worst. Like many of his films, it’s built around a cool idea and Shyamalan gets all of the mileage out of it he can. His story is inspired by the Swiss graphic novel “Sandcastle” which was given to him as a Father’s Day gift from his daughters. His three-act adaptation features many of his familiar trademarks including his knack for developing a steady sense of dread and (of course) the inevitable ‘big twist’. One noteworthy difference here is the non-stop intensity which is both a strength and a weakness. There were moments when I wanted the movie slow down so I and the characters could to catch our breath. On the other hand, that same relentless tension is what kept me glued to the screen.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The movie opens with a vacationing family of four arriving at a luxurious tropical island resort. Husband Guy (Gael García Bernal) and his noticeably pre-occupied wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps) chose the place for their last family vacation before sharing some pretty upsetting news with their children, six-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton). As the family debates how they should spend their first full day, the resort manager tells them about a beautiful and quiet private beach on the other side of the island. He even arranges to have a driver (Shyamalan in his signature cameo) take them there and pick them up later.

Guy, Prisca, Maddox, and Trent arrive at the off-the-beaten-path beach along with a few others from the resort. They include a stressed-out doctor (Rufus Sewell), his narcissistic wife (Abbey Lee), his elderly mother (Kathleen Chalfant), and his young daughter (Kyle Bailey). There’s also a friendly but antsy middle-aged couple (Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird). And lastly there’s a rapper with a persistent nosebleed (Aaron Pierre) who goes by the hilariously bad stage name of Mid-Sized Sedan. They all settle in on this gorgeous stretch of beach that’s surrounded by crashing turquoise waves on one side and tall rocky cliffs on the other. What could possibly go wrong?

In case you forgot, this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie so A LOT can go wrong and it does. Within minutes of their arrival on the beach Shyamalan is already tightening the screws and rolling out his hellish nightmare. It turns out that time is out of whack on the beach. Years go by in a flash and suddenly everyone is aging at a terrifying pace. And of course there’s no cell phone service and anyone who tries to leave the beach finds themselves knocked out cold. To say any more would be a disservice because the best part of a movie like this is unwrapping the mystery and watching how things play out. In that sense Shyamalan hits his target. “Old” will keep you guessing, searching for clues, and trying to figure out how all the pieces fit.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Shyamalan also does a good job of getting the most out of his remote setting. He takes a postcard quality paradise and out of it creates a near suffocating sensation of being trapped. He also uses his camera to play around with our perception of time and space. Along with his DP Mike Gioulakis, Shyamalan leans into a number of meticulously planned visual flourishes including eerie tracking shots, slightly tilted angles, and some off-kilter compositions. Some grab more attention than they need to, but most help nail down the feeling of unease the filmmaker is going for.

“Old” packs an impressive cast and the performances are (mostly) good enough to do the job. Both Bernal and Krieps come out a little stiff but loosen up over time. The bigger problem is the even stiffer dialogue which no amount of talent onscreen can fully cover up. It goes hand-in-hand with Shyamalan’s tendency to have his characters spell out more than they show. And as for character-building, the script lacks a certain intimacy meaning we never really get to know any of the people we meet. They still earn our empathy, but we never get to see below their surfaces.

The movie is helped immensely once the young children are suddenly teens. Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff and Eliza Scanlan instantly strengthen the cast and bring a certain frantic energy that helps drive the story towards its anticipated twist. It leads to a satisfying finish that won’t leave your jaw on the floor, but fits very nicely with the buildup. Will it all be enough to satisfy the naysayers? I doubt it, so expect some jubilant takedowns drenched in hyperbole to start popping up on your Twitter feed. But while this modestly budgeted thriller is hampered by its flaws. it’s ultimately able to overcome them. “Old” sees Shyamalan once again blending the supernatural with the real world to make something that’s uniquely his own. Not everyone will be onboard, but I was. “Old” opens in theaters tomorrow (July 23rd).

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

Review: “Oxygen” (2021)

“Oxygen” is the next film from French director Alexandre Aja. You may remember his last movie “Crawl”, a surprisingly entertaining thriller about a father and daughter trapped inside their flooded home with killer alligators during a Category 5 hurricane. I admit on paper it sounded ridiculous, but it actually showed Aja to be a crafty filmmaker capable of capturing harrowing tight-quartered action and creating authentic edge-of-your-seat tension. I went into “Crawl” snickering and left smiling and genuinely impressed.

His follow-up “Oxygen” is a much different movie, one that will inevitably draw comparisons to the Ryan Reynolds claustrophobic thriller “Buried”. But the films have little in common other than their tightly confined settings. This one stars French actress Mélanie Laurent who I’ve enjoyed watching since her powerful breakthrough role in 2006’s “Don’t Worry, I’m Fine”. Here she’s tasked with carrying practically the entire onscreen workload, a daunting assignment but one that Laurent proves to be up for.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Talking about “Oxygen” is tricky and saying too much would spoil what turns out to be an engrossing experience. As with most movies, the less you know the better but it’s especially true here. What I can safely say is that the movie opens with a woman waking up to find herself bound inside of a sealed cryogenics pod. Terrified and disoriented, she frantically tries to get her bearings within the dimly lit unit, the haunting sounds from her heart- rate monitor beeping in the background. Within the first few minutes Aja has his audience firmly planted in his suffocating setting. He then methodically begins unpacking the mystery.

Not only is the woman bound, but she’s connected to all types of medical gadgetry. But worse of all, she has memory of who she is or how she ended up in the chamber. After freeing her hands she’s able to power up the chamber which suddenly lights up with displays. She’s also introduced to the pod’s AI named MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), short for Medical Interface Liaison Operator. MILO informs her that he’s there to answer “all of her medical needs” but with a few caveats of course. He also shares something you never want to hear, “System failure. Oxygen level: 35%“. This sets up one of the key tensions of the film as the woman must piece back her memory if she’s to have any chance of getting out before the oxygen runs out.

“Oxygen” hinges on three absolutely essential components: a captivating lead, camerawork that’s able to keep things visually interesting, and a script that keeps audiences invested without ever collapsing into tedium. Screenwriter Christie LeBlanc ensures tedium isn’t an issue by mixing race-against-the-clock tension with a smart multi-layered mystery. It results in a propulsive story that was constantly surprising me, both with its unexpected twists and the creative ways LeBlanc keeps the plot moving it forward.

And Laurent is certainly a captivating lead. This isn’t an easy role for anyone to take on, but she comes at it with a fierce sense of commitment. Her ability to sell every second of her character’s terror, stress, and frustration is not only impressive but crucial to the story. It’s not hyperbole to call this a must-see performance; one brimming with anxiety and raw emotion that also ably captures the protagonist’s resilience and resourcefulness.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Meanwhile Aja and his DP Maxime Alexandre certainly do their part as well, enhancing the movie with a countless number of shrewdly calculated visual touches. With crafty camera angles and fluid movements, they make the most of their single location setting, using every inch of the pod’s ‘slightly larger than a casket’ interior to great effect. The few breaks we get from the cramped chamber mostly come through brief memory flashes – a swing in a backyard, a white lab rat, a hospital emergency room. As you would expect, these well-shot and well-utilized snippets slowly unveil pieces of the story, but they’re also welcomed chances for the audience to come out for air.

Fans of sci-fi thrillers are in for a real treat with “Oxygen”. Not only is it a great entry into Netflix’s portfolio, but its an audacious and absorbing slice of genre entertainment. Alexandre Aja pulls inspiration from several places and weaves it together with his own style to make something unexpectedly unique. Aja also knows he has an actress he can rely on and a script that sucks in the audience and ultimately pays off their investment. “Oxygen” premieres May 12th on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

 

REVIEW: “Our Friend” (2021)

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In May of 2015 journalist Matthew Teague wrote an essay for Esquire magazine titled “The Friend: Love is Not a Big Enough Word“. This deeply personal piece told of his late wife Nicole who had died from ovarian cancer eight months earlier. She was only 34-years-old. It told of the dignity and courage she showed through two years of suffering. It spoke of the physical, emotional, and psychological burden on both of them and their two daughters. The award-winning essay also spoke of Dane, a dear family friend who left his life behind and for fourteen months cared for the Teague family and stood by them through it all.

The new film “Our Friend” attempts to tell this heartbreaking yet inspiring true story while avoiding the overused devices and platitudes that too often accompany movies about terminal illness. These kinds of films are already tricky since they come with their own baked-in set of challenges. But then you toss in the aforementioned ‘deeply personal’ element attached to real-life stories like this. It adds a certain pressure to be honest and faithful (to a degree) while keeping your film from become some mushy Hollywood weepie.

“Our Friend” manages these challenges surprisingly well and gives us a character-rich drama with moments of levity that (thankfully) keeps it from becoming a humorless death march. At the same time it takes a sober and sincere approach that focuses more on the emotional toil than the physical. You won’t find the wrenching details from Matthew Teague’s essay about how the cancer ravaged Nicole’s body. Mercifully we aren’t forced to see the half-digested food oozing from the wounds on her abdomen or the stomach acids that would burn through adhesives and eat away at her flesh. But what you will find is a movie saturated in authentic emotion; one that takes an earnest and clear-eyed look at cancer but doesn’t allow the disease to outshine the characters.

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Image Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

The film is helmed by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, perhaps best known for her 2013 documentary “Blackfish”, and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby who also penned last year’s terrific Ben Affleck vehicle “The Way Back”. “Our Friend” premiered at the 2019 Toronto Independent Film Festival and now finally getting its full release by Gravitas Ventures and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

Cowperthwaite opens with one of the film’s most gripping scenes – a prologue where Matthew and Nicole Teague sit in their bedroom preparing to deliver some bad news to their two daughters. The camera rests on Matt (Casey Affleck), his terminally ill wife Nicole (Dakota Johnson) barely out of the frame to our right. As he prepares what to say he rules out certain phrases that might mislead or offer false hope. He breaks down, quickly composes himself, and then walks out to get their daughters. The camera moves to Nicole, sitting in bed and putting on her best face for her girls. It’s an elegantly shot and quietly devastating introduction.

From there the story bounces back-and-forth across the timeline, covering fifteen years of life before and after Nicole’s diagnosis. The fractured storytelling isn’t as seamless as it could be, sometimes shuttling you from one moment in time to another with a jolt. Yet it’s tone is managed remarkably well and the time jumps keep the story from drowning in morbidity, ensuring that this trio of friends are defined by more than a disease.

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Image Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Jason Segel is the piece that sets the movie apart – the titular friend in the film’s title (or is he). Segel brings slices of that ‘lovable loser’ charm he’s known for, but his character Dane is more than an outlet for humor and buoyancy. He’s surprisingly layered; compassionate beyond comprehension yet aimless and full of self-doubt. Before Nicole’s diagnosis we see him stuck in the perpetual ‘nice guy’ trap. You know, the guy most people like but who always loses out on the girl. After the diagnosis he goes to stay with and help Matt and Nicole in Alabama, leaving behind a girlfriend in New Orleans who’s crazy about him. For him it’s as much running from commitment and searching for self-fulfillment as it is helping friends in need.

The three central performances are terrific with Affleck, Johnson, and Segel showing off a strong organic chemistry. All three are able to flesh out their characters through material that allows them to be more than just victims. Affleck is strikingly subdued playing a man repressing his pain for the sake of his family. Johnson gives a penetrating performance full of life but also vulnerability and pathos. And Segel brings a good balance to the witty, ever-faithful Dane – a character slyly burying his own problems but always by Matt and Nicole’s side even as other friends begin distancing themselves one-by-one.

Aside for some wobbly structuring and a few weird song choices, “Our Friend” is a moving and distinctly human study of love, friendship, commitment, and of what it takes to come out on the other side of such a life-shattering trauma. It’s an effective tearjerker that slightly diverts from Matthew Teague’s crushing essay by delving more into the characters. It still shows the ravaging effects of the disease, but not in the Michael Haneke “Amour” sense. Instead it has a broader aim and features three sublime performances that breathe life, empathy, and inspiration into this true-life story of love and friendship. “Our Friend” opens January 22nd in theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Outside the Wire” (2021)

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In the year 2036 a vague but bloody civil war breaks out in Eastern Europe. In its wake a ruthless warlord named Viktor Koval rises to power. As the shadowy Koval expands his grip on the region, the Pentagon pushes back by deploying the US Army along with robotic soldiers called Gumps. Their objective is to serve as peacekeepers, but in a territory full of militia, terrorists, and a healthy Russian military presence, peacekeeping is easier said than done.

And that’s the setup for Netflix’s new futuristic shoot-em-up “Outside the Wire”. The film comes from the studio that made other recent action flicks for the streaming giant, the surprisingly good “Extraction” and the not-so-good “The Old Guard”. Directed by Swedish filmmaker Mikael Håfström, this action and sci-fi mashup lands somewhere in between those two aforementioned films. It has plenty of intense action that is built around an interesting though familiar premise. But it’s surprisingly cold and passionless which is odd considering one of its central themes is finding empathy and compassion even on the battlefield.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

The film opens on a fierce freeway firefight between US forces and Koval insurgents. Meanwhile at an Air Force Base all the way back in Nevada, a drone operator named Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) munches on gummy bears while coldly observing the combat from above. As the fighting intensifies Lieutenant Harp makes a gut decision, defying direct orders which results in the death of two Marines. His actions put him before an ethics committee where he avoids a court-martial but is demoted to active field duty. The feeling is that he would “exercise greater caution” and view people as more than “collateral damage” if he had a first-hand understanding of combat.

Harp is sent to a military base in the Ukraine and assigned to Captain Leo, a steely hard-nosed soldier who works on his own. “He’s not like us,” warns Michael Kelly’s Colonel Eckhart. Boy he ain’t kidding. Turns out Leo is a state-of-the-art tough-as-nails android. He’s played by Marvel Universe alum Anthony Mackie who has the charisma and pop of a legit action leading man. He takes the rookie ‘outside the wire’ which is an ominous reference to the “lawless frontier” outside of US military control. There they encounter resistance fighters, Koval’s forces, nuclear codes to a doomsday device, and some really sinister intentions.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

“Outside the Wire” has some interesting things to say about war, occupying forces, world policing, and the innocent civilians who inevitably get caught in between. But this is ultimately an action flick and there is action aplenty. Much of it works well especially the fight scenes where Mackie gets to show off his grit and athleticism. Then you get the shoot-outs which aren’t as consistently impressive. The smaller scale gunfights tend to be tense and thrilling; the bigger ones not as much. One particular scene outside of a bank encapsulates this. It looks great and has all the moving parts (good guys, bad guys, robots, and hostages that need saving). But it ends up feeling pretty generic. Something’s missing in these bigger battles and I can’t quite put my finger on it.

“Outside the Wire” still delivers enough fun entertainment and it has some interesting story ideas even if it doesn’t see all of them through. We get several eye-catching locations and there is some cool and clever imagination behind the high-tech warfare. If that’s all you’re looking for then Netflix has you covered. And while it might not be a top-rung action flick, I do like seeing Anthony Mackie getting top billing – something I think we’ll be seeing more of in the coming years. “Outside the Wire” premieres January 15th on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “One Night in Miami…” (2020)

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Regina King makes an astonishing directorial debut with “One Night in Miami…”, a fictionalized story inspired by true events and featuring four cultural legends of the African-American community: Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. The film imagines what might have happened during their real-life meeting on the night of February 25, 1964, when the four luminaries gathered together at the Hampton House, a motel in Miami’s Brownsville neighborhood.

Kemp Powers pens the captivating screenplay which is based on his own 2013 stage play of the same name. King approaches this tricky material with the confidence and keen senses of a seasoned director, keeping her focus on the film’s talented ensemble and pulling the very best out of them. At the same time King infuses this dialogue-heavy chamber piece with a cinematic feel, something that isn’t always easy for movies based on stage plays. Look no further than another 2020 film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, a good movie but one where I was often aware of its heavy stage roots. King doesn’t fully evade that, but she makes several small yet effective choices that ensures “One Night in Miami…” feels very much like a movie.

The film begins with a somewhat mechanical opening – four vignettes that introduces the principle characters and gives a glimpse of their struggles in the heart of the Civil Rights era. Then everything moves towards Miami Beach in 1964. Cassius Clay (played by Eli Goree), a 7-1 underdog, beats Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship with his friends, activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), in attendance. Afterwards the four retreat to the Hamilton House motel to celebrate the big win. It’s an amazing scenario, one that actually happened, although the exact details of the evening stayed with the four men.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

So it goes without saying King and Powers aren’t attempting to recreate that special night with pinpoint accuracy. Instead they examine where each man was at that particular point in their real lives and then pull from their unique experiences and circumstances to create a series of conversations and interactions that may not be historically precise yet are exactly the kinds of rich and textured exchanges you would envision. Just how well this approach works is one of the film’s most satisfying elements.

Each character is at a defining crossroad in their life. Cassius is the new champ but secretly has converted to Islam under the mentoring of Malcolm and is on his way to becoming Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile Malcolm’s evolving beliefs find him at odds with the Nation of Islam’s more militant leadership. Sam’s music career is thriving but he finds himself caught between making music with a strong appeal to broader audiences (which means more money) or using his voice to speak to the travails of his community. Jim has learned that fame on the football field doesn’t equal color-blind acceptance. And now he’s considering making movies, another industry with its own track record of inequality and exploitation.

Their night starts with bursts of fun, good-natured jousting especially between Sam, Jim, and Cassius who had a much “livelier” party in mind. But Malcolm has planned a night of reflection, dialogue, and vanilla ice cream. Over the course of the night the playful buddy banter gives way to philosophical discussions, clashing worldviews, and meaty debates on activism and civil rights. King keeps easing the temperature up, steadily working towards an impassioned crescendo where biting exchanges fueled by deep personal hurt takes center stage. It’s through their fascinating interplay that we learn who these men really are, and we get to quietly observe it all like flies on the wall.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Wisely, neither King or Powers set out to deify their characters. Their interests are in the men underneath the celebrity. So we not only see their big personalities but also their blemishes and internal conflicts. The four actors portraying them couldn’t be better and each bring fresh dimensions to their iconic characters. Ben-Adir makes for a mesmerizing Malcolm X, revealing a complex man burdened by belief but well aware of the heat that’s coming his way. It’s a tricky role that tackles Malcolm’s self-righteousness but also his clear-eyed conviction. Ben-Adir nails it.

Leslie Odom Jr. of “Hamilton” fame gets another chance to showcase his singing chops. He also deftly brings out the layers in Cooke whose smooth, confident exterior conceals a whirlwind of contradiction inside. Odom Jr. has some powerful moments. Playing Jim Brown, Aldis Hodge is easily the most subdued of the four but his presence is always felt and he speaks volumes through subtle gestures and cutting expressions. And when he does speak Hodge brings a quiet intensity that you can’t turn away from. Eli Goree is the most playful as Cassius Clay, but he tempers his performance and keeps it from becoming a caricature. And he too brings an emotional weight to his character when the story calls for it.

Regina King got her feet wet directing television shows over the last several years. “One Night in Miami…” sees her enter the feature film space as a force. We already know she’s an eminently talented actress with an Oscar to prove it. But it’s always exciting to see a first-time director deliver on this level. And it’s just as exciting to watch a well-cast ensemble work with such charisma and verve to bring a pretty remarkable story to life. It takes the movie a few minutes to get going, but once it hits its sweet-spot it makes for some pretty riveting viewing. “One Night in Miami…” is out now in a limited theatrical release and will release on Prime Video on January 15th, 2021.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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