A Jazz Age diva and her band spend their afternoon in a sweltering recording studio.
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman
Review by Jon Kissel
The second Denzel Washington-produced adaptation of an August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is narrower in scope and scale that the earlier Fences but no less tragic, on and off-screen. The film features the final performance of Chadwick Boseman, playing a character who, unlike his portrayals of Black Panther or Jackie Robinson, exists solely within the film and therefore belongs solely to him, unless a viewer’s seen Wilson’s play. Boseman’s presence likely brings more eyes to the film than would otherwise be the case, as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is more stagey and less lively than I expected coming in. The actors struggle with a period dialogue that doesn’t make a full transition from the largeness of a stage performance to the intimacy of a movie camera, and the monologues that are expected from a theatrical work seem clumsily dropped in. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey does considerable heavy lifting to rescue a film that spends too much time away from her. Comparing this film, directed by stage veteran George C. Wolfe, to the Washington-directed Fences demonstrates the stark difference between the mediums. Ma Rainey makes Fences look retroactively better.
One of the more noteworthy films of 2020, if only for the various dunks upon it from film Twitter, was Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy, a clear Oscar pitch starring two high-profile actors deglamorizing themselves in service to a rough story of semi-relevance. The reviews kept Hillbilly Elegy off my radar, but I have read the book it’s based on, and I think it’s a perfectly fine memoir that has little to say beyond its personal detail. A film that takes place decades earlier but in the same region of Appalachia is The Devil All the Time, adapted from a collection of short stories by author Donald Ray Pollock, a native of the region who didn’t officially put pen to paper until he was in his 50’s. Pollock’s writings have been adapted for the screen by Antonio Campos, a director of visceral feel-bad movies like Afterschool and Christine and a person well-suited for Pollock’s dark vision of backwoods misery and manipulation. Despite their bona fide roots, neither Campos’ film nor Hillbilly Elegy, if it’s anything like the book that is, provide much of a perceptive window onto the region, and in the case of The Devil All the Time, the miserabilism becomes predictable and meaningless. This pales in comparison to someone like Jeff Nichols, a director who cares about his setting and his characters in a way Campos is unable to here.
Ask me about Hong Kong action movies, and the first thing that comes to mind is John Woo’s doves and Miami Vice jackets, followed by Bruce Lee, followed by an admission that I’m not the right person to ask. I would need to be reminded of Jackie Chan much further down the list. It’s hard to shake the first impression of Chan from his Rush Hour movies, taking a backseat to Chris Tucker’s domineering personality when it’s apparent that Chan is the bigger talent in every respect. Chan’s martial arts films don’t fit in the same category as Woo’s operatic flash or Lee’s ostentatious physicality, but his choreographic mastery and fearlessness puts him alongside the all-timers like George Miller and what Tom Cruise is doing in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Steven Soderbergh’s one-sentence review of Fury Road was that he doesn’t understand how they aren’t still filming it and how dozens of people aren’t dead. The same can be said for Chan’s Police Story, a film that made me pause and rewind it several times, both to see yet another near-death experience from Chan and to calm myself down. The few Chinese-language films of Chan’s that I’d seen so far were fine to pretty good. Police Story is incredible and makes me revere Chan as a god of action filmmaking, though I’m admittedly decades late to the party.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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