Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

This adaptation of August Wilson’s play is takes place almost entirely in a Chicago recording studio on a steamy hot summer day in the 1920s.  Ma Rainey, a historical person, was a successful blues singer, although her audience was primarily black.  The (fictional) white music producers are seeking a “crossover” hit that will appeal to white people as well.

Viola Davis does a magnificent job as Ma Rainey, conveying the force of her personality and her music despite the grotesque  (and totally unnecessary) makeup designed to make her look like the historical woman, complete with bad teeth.

The real standout is Chadwick Boseman as Levee, a trumpet player in Ma’s backup band who, depending on who you talk to, is either a brilliant young musician or a poseur who plays too many notes.  Levee, whose force of nature personality is almost equal to Ma’s, is a lot more optimistic and hopeful than any black boy brought up in early 20th C Alabama has a right to be.  Boseman is spectacular in this role – anytime he is in the frame, even if he’s only in the corner, you can’t take your eyes off him.   He has the ability to project his whole soul through his face.  Boseman died of cancer shortly after he completed work on this film – a real loss.

Highly recommended.  On Netflix.

The Midnight Sky

A grizzled old scientist, already dying of cancer, declines to take the last flight out of an Arctic research station, which is being evacuated due to an unspecified planetary disaster.  His one remaining task – to contact a manned space ship, returning from a 2 year mission, to let them know what is going on.  Then a little girl shows up, who has apparently missed the last flight too.

This is not really a science fiction movie.  We never find out what the nature of the planetary disaster is, and some of the events that occur on the space ship couldn’t withstand much scientific scrutiny.  What it presents, instead, is a poetic meditation on making decisions in an unfathomable situation.  

There are strong performances here by Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler and George Clooney, who also directed.  The film is perhaps a shade too long at just over 2 hours, but it held my interest.  And I don’t even like poetry.

Recommended, but not for all tastes.  On Netflix.

Soul

Another wonderful movie from Pixar, which seems to have figured out how to tackle some unusual subjects in a way that’s both throughtful and entertaining.

Joe, a middle school music teacher, is about to get his big break with a gig at a music club, when he unexpectedly finds himself on the stairway to heaven.  Desperate to get back to earth, he finds himself in a life coaching seminar for new souls (the “Herebefore”?)  A plot is hatched.

This somewhat sketchy plot is held together by some fine voice performances, headlined by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey.  The scenic design is also awesome, encompassing a fluorescent pink pirate ship, Bob Dylan, angels by Picasso, an obese cat, and Pizza Rat.

Whatever those guys are smoking, I want some of it.

Highly recommended.  On Disney Plus.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

This adaptation of August Wilson’s play is takes place almost entirely in a Chicago recording studio on a steamy hot summer day in the 1920s.  Ma Rainey, a historical person, was a successful blues singer, although her audience was primarily black.  The (fictional) white music producers are seeking a “crossover” hit that will appeal to white people as well.

Viola Davis does a magnificent job as Ma Rainey, conveying the force of her personality and her music despite the grotesque  (and totally unnecessary) makeup designed to make her look like the historical woman, complete with bad teeth.

The real standout is Chadwick Boseman as Levee, a trumpet player in Ma’s backup band who, depending on who you talk to, is either a brilliant young musician or a poseur who plays too many notes.  Levee, whose force of nature personality is almost equal to Ma’s, is a lot more optimistic and hopeful than any black boy brought up in early 20th C Alabama has a right to be.  Boseman is spectacular in this role – anytime he is in the frame, even if he’s only in the corner, you can’t take your eyes off him.   He has the ability to project his whole soul through his face.  Boseman died of cancer shortly he completed work on this film – a real loss.
Highly recommended. 

On Netflix.

Mank

I really wanted to like this movie.  It’s got a great premise (the troubled creation of the movie Citizen Kane), a great cast, great writing. And it certainly looks good.  But it didn’t work for me.

Herman Mankiewicz was a reporter who went to Hollywood and found success as a screenwriter for MGM studios around 1930.  Early in his career, he attracted the favorable attention of William Randolph Hearst, and he became friends both with Hearst and his long time mistress Marion Davies.  Barely 10 years later, Mank was writing a movie script expose of Hearst, which particularly trashed the reputation of Marion Davies.  How did that come to be? 

David Fincher finds an answer, of sorts, in the 1934 gubernatorial campaign of the novelist Upton Sinclair.  Sinclair  played in a wonderful cameo by Bill Nye the Science Guy) ran on an economic platform to the left of FDR and, not surprisingly, lost.  Hollywood executives were Republicans at that time (Louis B. Mayer was the Chairman of the California Republican Party) and movie moguls contributed heavily to the Republican candidate.  Not willing to leave anything to chance, MGM sponsored a series of fake news radio spots and newsreels, in which dirty hoboes and people with dusky skin tones expressed support for Sinclair, while nice white people expressed their fears of “socialism.” The fake news spots were bankrolled by Hearst and produced by Irving Thalberg, the studio wunderkind best known today as the name on a Hollywood award for philanthropy.  So much is true.

In the movie, Mank is all-in for Sinclair.  He contributes to the campaign, betting money he doesn’t have, and openly refuses Mayer’s request that all of his writers “voluntarily” contribute to the Republican campaign.  The guy who directs the fake news spots was a friend of Mank’s and goes into a tailspin.  Mank is angry when he finds out that Hearst bankrolled the spots and is out for revenge.  This part of the story appears to be little more than Fincher’s invention.  We have no idea what his politics were, although he did (as shown in the movie) act as a paid sponsor for German Jewish refugees.  He did not refuse Mayer’s strongly worded suggestion that his employees contribute to the Republican gubernatorial campaign, although others did.  And there is no evidence the guy who created the fake news spots ever felt any remorse about it – he certainly didn’t end up the way the guy in the movie did.  

The story of a young man with a lot of potential who destroys himself with alcoholism and an uncontrolled gambling habit, is the stuff of tragedy.  Barely 10 years in 1940, his career was on the skids.  So when Welles came calling and asked him to dish the dirt on Hearst, he readily agreed – he needed the money.  If he was trying to revive his career, it failed.  He shared the screenwriting Oscar with Welles, but the two never worked together again.  Barely 10 years later, Mank was dead, his health irretrievably ruined by alcoholism.  But obviously that wasn’t the movie that David Fincher wanted to write.

The movie does have its enjoyable parts.  The photography is great, the writing is snappy, and it’s fun to spot the famous names in the writers’ room.. Amanda Seyfried finds exactly the right line in her portrayal of Marion Davies – a woman who knows how the world works and exactly what trade offs she is making, but who hasn’t forgotten the difference between right and wrong.

See it if you want.  But it’s a work of fiction. On Amazon Prime.

Fun Fact (from the movie):  One of the guys working with Welles at this time was John Houseman, familiar to younger audiences as the crusty old professor in The Paper Chase.

Funnier Fact (not from the movie):  Sinclair’s campaign slogan was EPIC (End Poverty in California). Although he lost, there were some EPIC candidates down ballot who won, and the guy who won the 1938 gubernatorial election was a Democrat with a similar platform.  There was even a publication called the EPIC weekly.  One associate editor of the weekly, who lost his campaign for the state legislature, decided to quit politics and write science fiction to retire his campaign debt.  His name was Robert Heinlein.
Once upon a time, Hollywood was fascist and Robert Heinlein was a socialist.  The auras of the two institutions must have crossed as they were making their separate journeys across the political universe.  How did we avoid the Cosmic Karma Explosion?  

https://slate.com/culture/2020/11/mank-movie-accuracy-david-fincher-upton-sinclair-netflix.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/End_Poverty_in_California_movement

Mangrove (part 1 of Small Axe)

Last night, we watched Mangrove, the first of a series of small films about the Afro Caribbean experience in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. The films are directed and co-written by Oscar winning director Steve McQueen, and listed as a group under the name Small Axe.

The Mangrove was a restaurant / social club opened in London by a black Trinidadian in the late 1960s. It was designed a place where Caribbean immigrants could gather and eat the food of their home countries, but it quickly became a place for political gatherings, including members of the British Black Panthers (I didn’t even know they were a thing). The place was regularly raided by racist British police.

Eventually activists organized a protest demonstration, in August 1970, which was intended to be peaceful but soon devolved into scuffles between demonstrators and police. The police arrested a bunch of demonstrators, and the trial of the Mangrove 9, as they became known, led to the first official recognition that there might be widespread racism in the British police force.

In a welcome surprise, the movie tells the story straight, without “dramatizations” to make the characters more or less sympathetic. The character of Officer Pulley, the instigator of the racially motivated raids, comes off as a bit of a caricature, but the others involved are shown in all their complexity. Apparently McQueen’s father was a friend of one of the defendants so he wanted to get it right.

Two of the defendants (including one woman) acted as their own attorneys and delivered some pretty powerful speeches.

The movie, at a little over two hours, is deliberately paced, but not slow. The director lingers over a few scenes longer than we’re used to, in these days of Hollywood quick cuts. But that’s all to the good – with a bit of extra time, the importance of those scenes sinks in.

Well worth your time.

On Amazon Prime. It may be listed under the name Small Axe, which is the name of the entire group of films.

One Child Nation

This documentary about the one child policy enforced by the Chinese government for several decades tells an important story, although one that’s often difficult to watch.  The policy involved not only a massive propaganda effort to get people to have only one child, but also the active murder, either by late term abortions or actual exposure, of unwanted second children.  The orphanages set up by the Chinese government to arrange for the foreign adoption of some of these babies came about relatively late in the game.

The most disturbing parts of the documentary are the interviews with the people who participated in the program – the midwives who killed babies, the relatives who brought babies to street markets knowing that they would die,  the market vendors who watched them die.  Some have come to terms with their past – one midwife now spends her life trying to save high risk babies.  But far too many still justify their actions as totally necessary to save China from overpopulation.  Whether that’s their real belief or a colossal self deception to save their sanity is hard to say.

On Amazon Prime

The Life Ahead

A young Senegalese orphan who has fallen through the cracks of the Italian social safety net winds up in the home of an elderly woman, a retired prostitute who has over the past few decades taken in many such forgotten children.  She’s not much of a traditional mother – her house is a mess, and not much cooking is going on. But she knows the difference between right and wrong (as opposed to legal or illegal) and tries to impart that to her charges.

The old lady is played by Sophia Loren, a lifelong sex symbol who in this movie has the courage to appear as the age she actually is (86) – it probably helped that the director, Eduardo Ponti, is her son.  Ponti also gets an honest performance from the little boy playing the orphan.

The movie doesn’t gloss over the gritty realities of life on the margins in a poor southern Italian city.  But it manages to be life affirming nevertheless.

On Netflix.

David Copperfield

What a delightful movie this was!

The book famously begins with David’s eyewitness account of his own birth.  Director Armando Iannucci leans right in to this slightly skewed perspective, and the first-person viewpoint of the whole movie remains a little off balance.  We see the ugliness of Victorian London – the child labor, the debtors’ prisons, the Gothic horror of the bottling factory.  But everything is viewed through the relentless optimism of young David, who sees the world as it is but still learns to make his way in it.

Dev Patel is quite wonderful as the kid born to unlucky circumstances who nevertheless carves out a place for himself in a class stratified world.  I think he’s played this role before.

The cast giving life to Dickens’ supporting characters is remarkable – some with names Americans might recognize (Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw) and others drawn from England’s deep bench of theatrical actors.  I particularly liked Hugh Laurie as the kite-flying Mr. Dick (Mr. Kite?) – who knew he had such good comic timing? The director has an eye for the comic absurdities of the characters, but they are also recognizable as human beings.  

The multiracial cast has been controversial with Dickens purists, but I rather liked it.  As with modern Shakespeare productions, it had the effect of decoupling the story from its setting.  As a result, it’s less of a Victorian period piece and more the story of a young man figuring out who he is and what he’s good at that just happens to be set in Victorian London.  It’s more of a contemporary story, which is, after all, how Dickens’ original readers would have viewed it.

The film is having a small theatrical release now for some reason, but hopefully will be available soon on DVD or streaming platforms. Highly recommended.  

The Trial of the Chicago 7

I was a bit worried about this movie when I first heard about it, since both Aaron Sorkin (who wrote and directed) and lead actor Sacha Baron Cohen can sometimes be over the top. 

I needn’t have worried.  Sorkin for the most part stays close to the record, letting this history speak for itself.  The mishandling of the trial by Judge Hoffman is amply documented, right down to his pique about sharing a last name with one of the defendants.  His bias in favor of the government was so blatant that it formed the basis for a successful appeal.  Judge Hoffman’s treatment of Bobby Seale, the lone black defendant, was particularly appalling, and yet, not all that surprising.  Abbie Hoffman’s stunts during the trial, both inside and outside the courtroom, are also amply documented, although the Yiddish epithets he threw at the judge were, sadly, not in the movie.

One of the movie’s few false notes comes near the end, when Sorkin has one of the defendants deliver a stirring tribute to the fallen in Vietnam.  This never happened – an attempt was made during the trial to deliver such a statement, but the judge didn’t allow it. 

The defendants were actually permitted to make statements after sentencing, and several of the defendants made moving pleas for racial justice.  It’s not so well remembered now, but by the late 1960s the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement were coalescing.  It was lost on nobody that the war was disproportionately being fought by non-elites, of whatever color.  The back-to-back assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy stalled that effort – we will never know what the partnership of those two men would have accomplished.  I wish Sorkin had left that in. 

Sacha Baron Cohen does a fantastic job as Abbie Hoffman, capturing his essence if not his accent.  The outstanding supporting cast, which includes many (Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella) who are leading men in their own right, operate as the kind of ensemble you sometimes see in a high quality theatrical production, but rarely in a Hollywood film.

There’s an imaginary scene towards the end in which Eddie Redmayne, playing Tom Hayden, lectures Abbie Hoffman about his tactics, favoring working within the system to Hoffman’s publicity stunts.  This scene sounds more like Sorkin than Hayden, who wasn’t quite the choir boy he is portrayed here. According to Hayden/Sorkin, Hoffman’s tactics would discredit the left for a generation.

I think Sorkin is wrong here.  Hoffman was a publicity hound and loved his stunts. But he was not a fraud.  He truly believed that publicity stunts were the best way t force people to pay attention to things that they were determined to ignore.  I think history has shown that Hoffman got the better of that argument.  As Hoffman himself said, shortly before he died by his own hand in 1989, “We were young.  We were reckless.   But we were right.”