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.
Greta Gerwig, queen of indie cinema, has been in a dozen films about tentative young women trying to figure out the next steps of their lives. The best of these, like Frances Ha and 20th Century Women, balance a light tone with serious introspection, while the worst, like Greenberg and Lola Versus, devalue Gerwig’s character as either a prop or a caricature. Having taken part in so many versions of that particular archetype, Gerwig is uniquely suited to turn back the clock to 2003 and make her own film about the kind of person some of her characters might’ve been in their teenage years. By also turning the protagonist into a rough approximation of herself, Gerwig can also construct a deeply specific coming-of-age story with an anti-indie sensibility. For all the focus on the titular Lady Bird in Gerwig’s immaculate directorial debut, she’s only one grounded and affecting character in a film packed with them. No props or caricatures here, just love for everyone that graces the screen and a film that is impossible to not fall for.
Biopics or historical dramas always leave themselves open to some amount of accuracy bashing, whether by what’s left in or what’s kept out. The kilts in Braveheart weren’t commonplace for decades after the events of the film and the Battle of Stirling was fought over a bridge. The protagonist of A Beautiful Mind had a gay lover who doesn’t make it into the movie. The events in The Death of Stalin happened over months, instead of days. The Social Network knows its place within this tradition and chooses not to care. In its heavily fictionalized account of the founding days of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s motivation is distilled into a grasping misogyny due to his inability to get girls to like him, and no mention is made of his actual college girlfriend and eventual wife. Writer Aaron Sorkin takes the bulk of his research from a book which heavily relied on jilted founder Eduardo Saverin, a tax-cheating expatriate who is heavily motivated to see things in the worst light possible. Director David Fincher, exactly the type of controlling filmmaker needed to get Sorkin under control, makes what was likely a bunch of overcaffeinated computer geeks writing code into the end-all Shakespearean origin story, a saga that runs so far away from accuracy that it ultimately gets all the way back around to it. The Zuckerberg of Fincher’s imagination might be nothing like the real one, but he foreshadows the exact kind of type who’ll eventually rule the internet and empower humanity’s worst instincts. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, the truth of The Social Network is what it’s about and not how it’s about it.
Charlie Kaufman seems like exactly the person that streaming services and their no-strings-attached bonanza of cash were made for. If I’m a studio executive and I need movies to gross deep into nine-figure territory, the first things that get cut are idiosyncratic representations of this or that decaying mental state. A more depressed, less funny, less creepy version of Woody Allen, Kaufman’s neuroticism has infected half a dozen movies over a couple decades, most very good to great. The greatest Kaufman films, namely the first three that he only wrote for, are the unquestioned best in comparison to the three that he directed. The latest of these latter three, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is the epitome of a filmmaker left completely to his own creative devices. For most, Kaufman’s new film is going to be an indulgent and impenetrable exercise, but he’s been too good for too long to just dismiss this outright. The equivalent of a difficult crossword puzzle, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is probably worth it for those who really want to do the work and decipher it: I just don’t think I’m in that group.
Into the canon of movies that could only be directed by a black person, we welcome Juice. This film requires a level of lived-in experience, sure, but it also takes such wild and potentially stereotypic swings with its characters, that a white director taking those same swings would generate a lot of controversy. As the directorial debut of Ernest Dickerson, Spike Lee’s former classmate and cinematographer, Juice starts as one movie and becomes something wildly different. Though both halves work independent of each other, the connective thread uniting the two is frayed and weak. Perhaps most notable for serving as the acting debut of Tupac Shakur, Juice contains a lot of promise both in front of and behind the camera, but it needed the most work on the page.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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