Movie Review ~ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Tensions rise when trailblazing blues singer Ma Rainey and her band gather at a recording studio in Chicago in 1927.

Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown

Director: George C. Wolfe

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Since April, Broadway and musical theater fans have been starved for ways to watch live performances and have had to settle for pre-recorded shows from the archives of regional and national theaters or newly produced live streams that don’t always go off without a hitch.  Nothing is going to replace that feeling of actually being in the theater, shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbor, hearing the rustle of the programs, the annoying cellphone noise, and, of course, the badly timed cough which will only be more of an annoyance in the future.

As theaters continue to look for alternative arrangements until the lockdown on Broadway playhouses has ended, Netflix has been bringing a little bit of Broadway to audiences in ways they may not even realize.  First there was the September adaptation of the revival of The Boys in the Band, then the recent movie version of the fun musical The Prom (sadly, not provided to me in time for an official review), and an upcoming taped recording of Diana, the stage musical that was in NY previews when COVID-19 shut down Broadway in April 2020.  Jury is still out on how Diana will fare and The Prom transitioned nicely to the small screen but The Boys in the Band, though entertaining, felt like the stage-bound play it was…and that’s not the only stage-to-screen adaptation premiering on Netflix before the end of 2020.

Looking at the cast for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix is enough to make one want to shell out the price of a premium ticket to see a production of August Wilson’s 1982 play in person on the New York stage.  Oscar-winner Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) is the real-life “Mother of the Blues”, one of the first African-American professional blues singers who recorded her music early on, becoming a pioneer in that field for her race and gender.  In Wilson’s play, a fictionalized recording session for Ma Rainey and her band that quickly goes off the rails, there’s a real fire to the dialogue and it bristles with the sweat and heat of the late 1920s summer day it takes place on.  The scenes between the veteran band members and Levee the cavalier trumpeter crackle and anytime Ma Rainey gets fired up demanding the respect and quality treatment her white agent provides his other clients, the electricity starts to create massive sparks.

The trouble is, this isn’t live on stage or even a performance that was filmed to be broadcast later.  It’s an adaptation using Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay and directed by George C. Wolfe.  That it doesn’t have the same verve and pulsating rhythm Wilson’s work has when seen in the intimacy of the live-theater setting isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors, but it does have to fall on someone, somewhere.  The scenes feel stagey, almost more-so than any stage-to-film movie I’ve seen in recent memory and it becomes so reverential to Wilson’s work that it begins to do damage to the motivation of the piece.  At least Denzel Washignton’s superior adaptation of  Wilson’s Fences in 2016 was able to find ways to open-up the story beyond the backyard setting of Wilson’s original work.  Keeping everyone cooped up is part of what makes the tension boil over during the recording session, true, but there are a number of interludes that could have more movement and Wolfe has directed enough films to know how to keep the camera moving while continuing to establish character.

What the film also has is the responsibility of carrying star Chadwick Boseman’s (Black Panther) final performance in a leading role before tragically passing away earlier in 2020 after a private ongoing battle with cancer.  A genius actor with years ahead of him, I think a number of people want this film and the performance to be at a certain level of greatness as a way to memorialize him and that’s unfair to put all that weight solely onto the actor.  Thankfully, while the film may not live up to the expectations I had going in, Boseman  does and turns in a haunting performance…another in a long line of winning acting choices the young actor had under his belt when he passed away.  You can’t hang the whole movie just on him but he’s definitely due the kudos of his performance being a knockout.

As for Davis, the role tends to overwhelm her just like her outward appearance and prosthetics threaten to overtake her performance at times.  It’s odd; the garish eyes and glittering teeth, body glistening with sweat and ample bosom feel like they are from a different iteration of this character.  Pictures of the real Ma Rainey are shown at the end and none of them have the type of matted, dripping, ghoulish make-up we see her in throughout the film.  I don’t doubt it is historically accurate but I would have loved to see some kind of context for the look so we have a comparison.  Match that with a voice that is supposedly Davis with some “extra help” (that needs to be investigated) and there’s something that just feels like the dial was turned too far with this one…Davis is one of the best actresses working today and if this were onstage I’d probably be insanely crazy for how good she was.  On screen though, it comes off as overkill.

Where more attention should really be paid is the three supporting actors making up the rest of the band.  Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and especially Glynn Turman are dynamite as old friends who have seen it all as members of Ma Rainey’s bad.  They have the war stories to tell of their touring days with her and the injuries to back them up.  There’s also pain bubbling below the surface and it takes a wild card like Levee to raise the heat while they wait for Ma Rainey to get ready to sing.  Each get a nice moment in the spotlight with Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) emerging as the mediator between the band and Ma Rainey and Turman (Bumblebee) hilarious at one point but ultimately heartbreaking in the film’s final moments.

Even at a short 94 minutes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels longer than it should.  It’s one of those watches that you wind up feeling like you should be getting more out of for your own sake more than the sake of the movie and that’s when you need to let go and admit a movie just isn’t working for you.  Boseman’s final leading performance is a memorable turn and he’s surrounded by top-tier talent in supporting roles, but everyone is working with material that is unavoidably stage bound and immovable.  Watch the movie now but seek out a live performance of it when things get back to some sense of normalcy in 2021 (hopefully!).

Movie Review ~ Hunter Hunter

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A family living in the remote wilderness believe they are being hunted by the return of a rogue wolf. Determined to catch the predator in the act, the father leaves his family behind to track the wolf. When a severely injured stranger shows up and the longer the father is away, the more the idea of a mysterious predator in the woods slowly becomes a threat much closer to home.

Stars: Camille Sullivan, Devon Sawa, Nick Stahl, Summer H. Howell, Gabriel Daniels, Lauren Cochrane, Blake Taylor, Karl Thordarson, Erik Athavale, Jade Michael

Director: Shawn Linden

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There I was, just minding my own business, enjoying Hunter Hunter and thinking what a great year IFC Midnight has had in the realm of selecting superior horror/thrillers to release under their banner and that’s when it happened.  The ending.  The jaw-dropping, you can’t believe it, did that happen, yes it did, I am now an old man, I need a cookie, wow wow wowza of a finale.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself so let’s put on the brakes on circle back to the beginning.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live “off the grid” without the modern comforts I’ve grown so accustomed to…and then I watch movies like Hunter Hunter and realize I’m totally fine where I am and how that life is not for me.  No judgement on those that do and more mighty power to them, I just know that I’d be an insufferable person to live with in that situation, mostly just from lack of knowledge of the outside world.  That sense of being cut-off is the first thing that sets a mood in writer/director Shawn Linden’s horror mystery that is shrouded in shadow and is best to know as little as possible about before diving headfirst into.  Have no worries, I won’t spoil any more of it than what you’d already know had you read a synopsis and what I’ve already said about the ending isn’t a tip off either, any review you read is going to allude to what Linden has in store for viewers at the end of this entertaining trip into a dark wilderness.

A family of three reside in a remote cabin and make their living through the hunting and trapping of animals, selling their fur and using the rest for sustenance.  It’s a life that Joseph (Devon Sawa, Disturbing the Peace) and Anne (Camille Sullivan) have chosen for themselves but not one their daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) had any kind of say in.  Though Renee has taken to the routine of their lives and enjoys learning the work from her father, Anne knows the world that is out there and wonders if she is keeping her home-schooled daughter away from a better opportunity than she can offer.  As another tough winter begins to draw near, she readies a plan to propose to Joseph that they consider buying a real home in town…but everything comes to a standstill when the presence of a returning rogue wolf puts the family on high alert.

Realizing the only way to catch the large animal is to track it on its own territory, Joseph sets off with no plans to return until he has cleared the forest of this particular danger once and for all.  Soon after he leaves, an injured man (Nick Stahl) appears seeking shelter and first aid, both of which Anne is able to offer him.  By opening her small home to this man and without Joseph around, it’s up to Anne to determine if the biggest trouble is coming from the woods nearby or is sleeping in the bedroom next to her.  There’s more that’s been revealed in the movie before this that I’ve deliberately left out (and thankfully, so have the trailers), all adding to an escalating game of cat and mouse that becomes more unpredictable the longer it plays out.  Surprises are in store for the viewer and the characters, all making for an edge-of-your-seat watch.

Linden has crafted a fine film with interesting characters and a unique setting that allows a believable sense of isolation without outside electronic interference.  He introduces images or sequences that may not make sense at first but wind-up fitting together in a puzzle that you eventually see was being put together from the get-go as part of a larger game and it’s all nicely filmed by Greg Nicod’s chilly cinematography.  Performances rank high as well, with former teen heartthrobs Sawa and Stahl roughing it up (Stahl in particular looks like he’s lived a life over the past decade) in roles well-suited for them.  Howell plays the naivete of her character with a sweet curiosity rather than coming off simple, no one in the movie ever is sketched as being “backwoods” in the least.  I also liked Lauren Cochrane and Gabriel Daniels as a set of rangers that enter the orbit of the cabin and the surrounding forest in surprising ways.

The VIP of Hunter Hunter is most surely Sullivan in a towering performance as a wife and mother pushed to a breaking point, first as a potential target of a vicious animal and then holding down the fort while her husband is away with a strange, injured man in her home.  Sullivan has an even keel to her acting and it works wonders for keeping the viewer engaged and going along for the ride with her, even when she’s not on screen.  She’s also a part of that aforementioned ending that is bound to leave you mouth agape with the audacity of the filmmakers in “going there”.  Again, it’s not a spoiler because I was told the same thing before I saw the movie and, even knowing it was coming, I still wasn’t prepared.  Bravo and kudos to Linden for pulling off what he envisioned and to Sullivan for going along with what must have sounded nuts on paper.

The bloody cherry on top of IFC Midnight’s absolutely stellar year of film, Hunter Hunter joins the ranks of The Wretched, Relic, Sputnik, Centigrade, Rent-A-Pal, & Kindred as some of the best offerings in the horror/thriller genre in 2020.  This is a studio that knows its audience and knows its brand and in a year where so many things were off the mark or in a strange new place of adjustment, IFC Midnight very much found smooth sailing in scary waters.

Movie Review ~ Greenland

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The Facts
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Synopsis: John Garrity, his estranged wife and their young son embark on a perilous journey to find sanctuary as a planet-killing comet hurtles toward Earth.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Floyd, Scott Glenn, David Denman, Hope Davis

Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I feel like I should give a disclaimer at the top of this review for the new end of the world disaster film Greenland which is being released onto streaming platforms after its summer 2020 release was delayed.  Though it had already arrived in theaters over in Europe back in July, it’s just now entering the U.S. atmosphere for all of us to see.  My disclaimer is that though I’m going to be dissecting some finer points of Greenland along the way and they are going to come off as maybe a tad harsh, I am definitely landing squarely on the side of recommending this film on the quality of the filmmaking and its overall effectiveness as a motion picture.  Whatever you may think of the characters within or the timing of its release, the movie has an almost tangible presence while you’re watching it that makes for an unsettling viewing experience.

Director Ric Roman Waugh reteams with his Angel Has Fallen star Gerard Butler in hopes of reigniting that same good chemistry and recapturing the rich details of their unexpectedly excellent third sequel to London Has Fallen and Olympus Has Fallen.  The film starts rather innocuously with spare titles and news of a recently discovered interstellar comet, named Clarke, that is making headlines but isn’t cause for much concern.  Butler is an Atlanta-based structural engineer estranged from his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin, Deadpool) but returning to help patch things up and host a party for his son (Roger Dale Floyd, Doctor Sleep) to watch the comet enter Earth’s orbit along with friends from their upper class neighborhood.

The fun stops quickly when John receives a message from the Office of Homeland Security notifying him that he, along with his family, have been selected for evacuation to a secret bunker and that they need to make their way to a designated location for transport immediately.  The comet’s trajectory has changed course and small fragments have begun to vaporize cities across the country and the world, with a massive sized chunk due to touch down in mere days, killing 75% of the population.  Leaving their dazed neighbors behind, the Garrity family heads for the transport base but getting to safety amidst the rising panic of a country not used to being denied access to anything proves to be a journey as perilous as the danger plummeting toward them from the sky.

Perhaps it’s just that as we’re reaching the end of 2020 I’ve had my fill of the selfishness I’ve seen overflowing in American cities, but there’s something about the actions of the central characters in Greenland that started to really annoy me early on.  Numerous times during the film John and Allison have a direct impact on preventing thousands of people making their way to safety (i.e. surviving) because of something stupid they’ve thrown a fit about being able to do (get on a plane, get off a plane, etc).  There’s even a scene where John says that if he can’t get on a plane, no one will be able to take off.  Is that really how we want our heroes in movies to act?  It’s likely something that every action hero or heroine has done in similar films throughout movie history but for some reason I couldn’t get over it while the film was rolling, and that frustration sat over me like a dark cloud straight through to the end of the movie.  Constant elbowing to the front of lines, moving from the back of crowds to the front touting their importance above the person next to them, numerous demands of attention needing to be paid right then and there while millions of lives hang in the balance echoes a lot of the kind of behavior we’re seeing today.  Then again, it could be one other thing.

Maybe…well.  How do I say it?  Maybe it’s also because there’s so much whiteness in the film as well.  There, I’ve said it.  That’s what’s really bothering me.  On more than one occasion, one of the Garrity family is directly helped by a minority character who either winds up sacrificing their life for a Garrity to survive or becomes collateral damage because of the actions caused by something a Garrity did or didn’t do.  It almost becomes a farce after a while because each person they meet you are almost counting down the minutes until they’re either dispatched or disappear without so much as a goodbye wave.  Complaining to a black female military official that she and her son aren’t able to board a plane to safety for those selected to go to the survival bunker, the official (Merrin Dungey, who faced another comet in 1998’s Deep Impact) tells Allison that her family wasn’t even allowed to go to the bunker and Allison takes it in for a moment, shrugs it off, and then asks for help finding her husband so they can get on the plane together.  It’s a constant feeling of “me first above all else” that starts to grate on you.

So, it almost feels wrong to whip my head around and tell you that Greenland is still quite an entertaining film…but it is.  Yes, it has some serious issues in the moral character department (strangely and in a scary way, it’s not as far-fetched as it may sound) but it finds a way to by-pass those problematic stumbling blocks with grounding the actors and situations with as much realism as possible.  Other disaster films are all about the massive visual effects and destruction scenes and while those are present here, Waugh is more adept at creating dread than causing mayhem.  The movie is infinitely more effective when it is leaving us to think about our current situation and what we’d do if faced with days left with nowhere to run.  It is frightening, I admit.

Arguably an experience that would be more impressive on the big screen, watching Greenland at home isn’t a total loss because at least when the tension gets too high you can (as I did) jump up and pace at your leisure without worrying about bothering your neighbors.  Fans of Butler will be pleased with his continued run of middle-aged do-gooders trying to do-good (even if John Garrity is, as mentioned already, kind of a Karen) and Baccarin is a fine match for him in the action scenes as well as the dramatic ones that make up the front end of the movie.  Watch with confidence of a film that delivers on its promise of entertainment value for the full two hours but do take note of what I’m talking about and see if you know what I mean about the whole “me first” attitude…

Movie Review ~ Beasts Clawing at Straws

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A Louis Vuitton bag stuffed full of cash sends a group of hard-luck lowlifes on a desperate chase for fortune. Fish-mongering gangsters, a greasy cop, an “innocent” gym cleaner, a scheming prostitute, her wife beater of a husband, her ruthless boss and her clueless boyfriend all violently plot to get their hands on the elusive bag.

Stars: Jeon Do-yeon, Jung Woo-sung, Bae Sung-woo , Yun Yuh-jung, Jung Man-sik, Jin Gyeong, Shin Hyun-been, Kim Jun-han, Jung Ga-ram, Park Ji-hwan, Heo Dong-won, Bae Jin-woong, Jang Eui-don

Director: Kim Yong-hoon

Rated: NR

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Right after Quentin Tarantino truly put down stakes with the mighty players of Hollywood with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, critics discovered a new way to describe movies that had a violent streak along with ice cold blood running through their veins: Tarantnio-esque.  These films were gritty in the sense that they had a rusty sheen to them, making even the most uglied up movie star still look magazine cover ready.  Between witty banter and twisty plots with quadruple crosses and time hopping storylines, the movies were too cool for school and aimed to match Tarantino’s ear for dialogue, taste in music, and encyclopedic knowledge of film to help make numerous small references throughout.  The trouble was Tarantino was such a singular talent that it was next to impossible to make it look as effortless as he did so any attempt to do so wound up looking like the close by no cigar try it was.

With the success of 2019 Best Picture winner Parasite from Oscar-winning director Bong Joon Ho, I’m already seeing a similar trend emerge from that film’s popularity.  Press ads for the South Korean crime thriller Beasts Clawing at Straws compare this new film to last year’s runaway awards hit as well as making passing mention to it resembling something the director of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might have made had it been produced in the U.S.  The good news is that for once the quotes aren’t totally off the mark, if even they are slightly more effusive for the overall entertainment value of the picture in general.  While there are certain delights to be had in this wicked little tale, a sameness sets in that starts to dampen the early spark set off by director Yong-hoon Kim, who adapted the film from a novel by Keisuke Sone.

It’s a simple story, a tale as old as time almost.  A bag of money has parted ways with its owner through a series of unfortunate events and a number of people are now after it, all thinking they have a rightful claim to the contents.  The movie clocks how the bag came to be in a locker at a shoddy bathhouse and where it goes after a cash-strapped late-night janitor finds it and takes it home when he is fired by his sniveling boss.  Finding out who originally had the money, how they lost it, if they are they ones currently trying to get it back, and who ends up with it becomes a head-spinner of a mystery that isn’t always telegraphed ten minutes in advance but still carries with it some familiarity of other films with this similar robbery storyline.  Divided into chapters via title cards making use of an image that is yet another piece of the riddle we’re being told in fragments, keep your eyes on the money not just while it’s in the bag but where it originates as that is key to unraveling the solution later on.

Chock full of characters and a swerving plot that waits for no viewer, Beasts Clawing at Straws demands more than your usual amount of attention and that begins to get exhausting after an hour or so.  It would help if there were a few standouts in the cast, but everyone is playing into their stock characters so much that it’s hard to derive much nuance from them, let alone ask them to provide it from Kim’s script.  As in most cases, it’s the villains that linger the longest in memory so Jeon Do-yeon’s glam madame lady crime boss has the most fun devouring the scenery and we are more the better it.  The air of the film palpably changes when she arrives and coincidentally that’s when the most trouble begins for a number of the players we’ve already met…plus the most bloodletting.  Here again is another case where you wish she was given more than a passing brush stroke of a character trait, the film simply doesn’t have the time or space to allow much of that in the story it needs to tell.

I have the sneaking suspicion this is one property some American studio will buy and remake in English and in the right hands it could emerge as a tighter, trickier film with a few more surprises in store for the viewer.  There are plenty of juicy roles that Hollywood actors would love to snag, like the femme fatale criminal that causes so much trouble and a freaky henchman that likes to eat raw fish guts in between dispatching his victims.  Rehashing some stale double crosses, Beasts Clawing at Straws knows how to stage a good-looking backstabbing (the film is beautifully made and edited) but it lacks a stronger air of unpredictability and memorable performances.  The one standout can’t carry the whole film on her shoulders and the other beasts needed more bite to match her performance.