I’m Gonna Show You the Best in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Packing a multitude of history, culture, stories and trauma into a single “day in the life” of a legendary blues entertainer is just one of the brilliant tricks Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom pulls off.

Director George C. Wolfe is most famous for his theater work, and the film is an adaptation of August Wilson’s amazing play. Not a single shot or moment is wasted in the film’s 94-minute runtime. Wolfe brilliantly uses classical cinematic language to transmit backstory and history in a matter of seconds. Witness the opening scene of two black people running through a swampy woodland, representing the multitudes who escaped the bondage of slavery only to live in constant fear and more oppression, and ultimately entering a giant tent where Ma Rainey is bringing down the house. Later in the film there’s a definitive shot from underneath a Chicago train rattling by that transitions seamlessly into Ma Rainey and her band nailing the recording of the titular song. Here we see people in constant movement, migration, darting from danger, surviving, finding a voice…an escape. But the blues was more a reflection of life than an escape, and it’s in those claustrophobic theatrical moments when the band banters in the dingy basement rehearsal room about their lives, their traumas, and their place in this messed up world where Wilson’s voice sings the loudest and clearest. It is there where the tensions rise leading to a shattering denouement, and a chilling closing scene of pain white-washed, talent stolen.

Of course, all of this is a stage for the exorcism of performances. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey is earth-shatteringly good, with the actress showing us again (like she did in Fences) how comfortable she is digging so deep down and spookily into not only Wilson’s words, but also the spirits of generations of traumatized but boldly resilient black women. She’s matched, and some might say even overshadowed, in a way, by the late great Chadwick Boseman as the showy, troubled trumpeter Levee Green. Davis makes you feel every word Ma Rainey speaks or sings, but Boseman’s portrayal of Levee’s family tragedies nearly brought me to tears.

All the key players have their moments to shine: Davis kills it when her Ma Rainey explains why she puts such demands on her white manager. Glynn Turman breaks your heart when his Toledo waxes poetically about how the United States is a stew, and black people need to realize they are just the leftovers before they can do a damn thing about anything. And then the coup de grace is Boseman, calling upon another man’s god to actually do something for once, channeling some of the deepest hurt and personal pain I’ve ever seen painted on the screen. One can’t help but wonder, knowing now how terminally ill he was when he filmed this, if he wasn’t asking god “Why?” himself. Interplaying with them all is the seemingly stalwart, but desperately passionate when he’s triggered, Cutler played expertly by Coleman Domingo.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is as advertised. Merging music, stage, and screen to teach us about history and pain in a reflection from the past onto our own deeply troubled times, it’s the very best film as an artistic medium has to offer. It’s timeless. Timely. Essential.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

Widows: What Went Wrong

Steve McQueen’s Widows opens with the tense inter-cutting sequences of a heist gone horribly wrong and shows us in a few propulsive minutes how four women became the widows of the film’s title. It’s a cracker jack set-up to what promises to be an emotionally explosive thriller…but what follows is two hours of slow-burn that goes nowhere thanks to an undercooked screenplay and woefully underdeveloped characters. While McQueen shows us in brilliant brevity how these women became widows, Gillian Flynn’s screenplay gives us no insight into how they became wives of criminals or why their husbands were criminals in the first place. And when the women bond together for a heist, there’s nothing in them (except for Viola Davis’ natural fierceness that comes more from her as a performer than anything evident in Flynn’s limp writing), we have no emotional investment in the outcome or belief that they can pull it off.

Widows is one of those crime thrillers full of endless, clichéd scenes designed to show us how a character is one of three things: tough as hell, corrupt as hell, or trapped in hell. McQueen does his best to eek something out of the story with crisp, perfectly framed shots of environs and exquisite camerawork. Chicago, in a grim visual poetry, arises from the ashes of this junk heap of a story as the best written character. One scene where a corrupt politician (Colin Farrell) is being chauffeured from the bad side of a neighborhood to the posh side in just a few blocks is a minor masterpiece of sociopolitical commentary on gentrification and wealth inequality. Sadly, nothing else in the film elaborates on this in any insightful way. Continue reading

The Mystery of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

All the lonely people...

All the lonely people…

Ned Benson’s somber relationship drama, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, is not a mystery despite the title, though it’s plenty puzzling.  The version reviewed here, Them, is an edited combination of what was originally two separate films, Him and Her.  It flips back and forth between our two players Conor (James McAvoy, donning an unconvincing American accent) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain, all pale grief and feigned smiles) as their marriage disintegrates, but it never plays its gimmick out with the obvious one scene played twice from different points of view gag.  That may have actually made the film a bit more interesting, though it would’ve also added to the film’s already burdensome two-hour-plus runtime.

After surviving a leap from a bridge, Eleanor moves back in with her parents (William Hurt as the stereotypical soft-spoken bearded professor and Isabelle Huppert as a drunk French former violinist) and single-mom sister (a likable Jess Weixler, who it would’ve been nice to learn more about), while taking a class on the theory of identity taught by a bitter but wise woman (Viola Davis).  Meanwhile, Conor is moping around his failing restaurant, lashing out at customers and his best friend/chef (Bill Hader) and moves back in with his recently thrice divorced and overly philosophical father (Ciaran Hinds, always good).  Slowly but surely we find out the real reason behind the break-up and their decent into the spiral of grief (hint: it’s not just about losing each other), and it is indeed tragic and hangs a pall over the whole family, not just our protagonists.

The film is filled with talking it out and philosophical ponderings espoused by really good performers.  In lesser acting hands, the film would’ve been an outright mess.  The characters speak dialogue sincerely as if read from discarded Felicity-era WB melodramas and self-help books.

Continue reading

Bad Movie Marathon

Twas the stars and my Netflix queue aligned this weekend as the Hurri-Rain-Pocalypse pimp-slapped the East Coast (thanks El Nino!) and delivered to my mailbox were no less than three monumentally bad movies to pass the time as flood waters receded.  One of these films was so awful, it reached that rarified pantheon where film buffs bestow upon special movies the title of “So Bad it’s Good.”  In fact, I dare say, it might be the perfect “Bad Movie” and one that had me entertained and laughing for its entire 2 hour 38 minute run time.  Good Citizens of Filmlandia …I give you…Roland Emmerich’s DUN-DUN-DUH 2012!

"Umm...kids...I don't think we're going to make it to the Gap's End of the World Super Sales Spectacular this weekend."

2012:  Every German director has their fetish.  Continue reading