Tuesday, December 01, 2020

(More) Netflix Award Contenders: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Mank

I've been joking with friends about how I wouldn't be terribly shocked if Netflix was paying them to open so that they could tell various directors that, yes, your movie did open in the top 20 markets as per your contract. Look, here's a blog from a guy in Boston who saw it and quite liked it!

Surprisingly, there were decent-for-Sunday-in-a-pandemic audiences for both of these, like a half-dozen or so each, with more people in the smaller theater for Ma Rainey, which was kind of neat, as it is the better movie. It's an interesting comparison, though - both are showbiz stories, but Ma Rainey feels vibrant and alive even if it also sometimes seems rough and takes what feels like a couple wrong steps; Mank is sleek and well-produced and not really that interesting. The latter is very much a "he was a jerk who treated people around him poorly but man he could play guitar" sort of movie, while the former doesn't try to sugar-coat its characters' ego and selfishness but makes them interesting regardless.

I hope Ma Rainey gets some traction beyond being Chadwick Boseman's last film, because it kind of feels like it could get buried by the Netflix algorithm while Mank gets pushed hard, although I'd be curious how it works out from people with the service. I also find myself very glad that, though I saw it before both these movies, I will likely not have to see the trailer for The Prom again, because that looks like some ghastly "musical about how people who are into musicals are just the best!" garbage, even if the cast is mostly pretty good.

And, finally, I kind of cannot wait to be able to buy food and drink in a theater again. I walked to the Kendall and was pretty darn thirsty before the first movie, and then stupidly passed a couple of closer places by in order to just grab a soda between movies - which I didn't have time to drink. That can make for a long double feature!

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

So many of Chadwick Boseman's obituaries mentioned his love for and involvement in the theater that it seems fitting and proper that this, rather than something from Marvel, will be his last work - if his time had to be cut this short, at least a lot of people will get to see him performing something that is likely not far removed from August Wilson's play. And while it's not always amazing, it's quite good, and that's fitting too: It highlights that his career and life was cut short, a look at what could have been.

Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) was known as the Mother of the Blues and a big star in Black America during the 1920s, when much of that population was moving north. In 1927, her tour was in Chicago, and her backing band included Levee (Chadwick Boseman), a talented and ambitious trumpet player who wants center stage for himself. Ma's manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and record producer Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) have set aside time to cut an album, and while pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and trombone player and Ma's #2 Cutler (Colman Domingo) arrive on time, both Ma and Levee want to make an entrance, with Ma bringing girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). She wants Sylvester to record the introduction to her famous "Black Bottom" song, rejecting the new, more contemporary arrangement Levee has supplied.

Screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and director George C. Wolfe both have theatrical roots, but the opening is very much an example of what film can do without dialogue, both in how it sets the stage by showing the audience how the great migration from the rural South to the urban North was beginning to transform Black culture, reminding audiences that many of these people still had one foot in the previous status quo, and then laying out the friction between Ma and Levee with some clear storytelling disguised as a performance beat. It still works as a movie after that but you can see its stagebound origins: There's little action but a lot of talking back and forth as we wait for something to happen, with characters telling stories, explaining themselves, and building small things up to something bigger. It's not always quite as effective when the cast isn't in the same room, reacting to the audience, but Wolfe and the other filmmakers do a nice job of defining spaces, following the actors with the camera, and putting the audience in the middle of things rather than having them sitting back.

The patter and showmanship makes its two central performances more fun than they seemingly should be. Both Ma and Levee are towering displays of ego, the sort that performers need to both get onto the stage and build names for themselves, but which start to eat a person from within, and while that can be fascinating, a barrage of it can be a lot. Here, Viola Davis is at times almost grotesque as Ma, aided by gaudy gold teeth and makeup choices that simultaneously emphasize her as gaudy but also worn-down, but it only takes a little bit of talk to see what builds that. Ma has seen great success but whether because of her nature or because of the world she lives in, she seldom seems to actually enjoy it; she's too well aware that if she doesn't keep pushing everyone from the trumpet player to her white manager to anyone else is going to try and get a piece of what she's earned. Even the brief moments where she lets her guard down to talk about musical inspiration with Cutler are pessimistic; Davis makes sure that while the audience may understand, respect, and sympathize with Ma Rainey, she is difficult to like.

Boseman's Levee isn't quite as big a personality as Ma, but that's not for lack of trying on the character's part. He's right on the line of being too big for his britches and what he needs to be, the sort of guy we might be set up to like in another movie but who is just the right bit too much here. Boseman walks a fine line in finding the exact right amount of charisma - Levee has something, but not enough to fool people who know better, a little silly next to the journeyman musicians he spends most of his time with but not so much that one couldn't see him rising higher. Boseman goes back-and-forth with the talented supporting cast while Davis makes damn sure nobody ever steals a scene from Ma, and when the story pulls back some layers on Levee, Boseman digs into what's underneath but holds back the last little bit, as the idea is not to make the world revolve around him.

Wolfe and his team pick the pace up as recording actually starts, and though they've spent a lot of time on how the music business in the 1920s could be especially dirty, there's still a lot of delight in every facet of the music itself that doesn't quite become nostalgia, right down to lovingly examining the actual tools used to record onto vinyl. Branford Marsalis's score blends seamlessly into what appear to at least partially be original Ma Rainey recordings, and the filmmakers do nifty work in making the recording session satisfying even as tension is still mounting.

The film climaxes on a moment that is not quite out of nowhere but close enough that one wonders if the playwright August Wilson and/or screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson were caught flat by how their inspirations didn't fit a single narrative and decided to roll with the chaos. There are worse storytelling sins than that, I guess, and it does let the filmmakers underline one of their main points in its final scenes. In doing so, it almost becomes too much a movie, concerned with what happens rather than hours people tell us about it, which is the essence of theater - and maybe the blues.

Also at EFilmCritic


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run, DCP)

The thing about David Fincher's Mank - or, if not the thing, than a thing - is that it knows full well who the most interesting figure in this tale is, devoting the film's showiest, most theatrical scene to just why William Randolph Hearst was a fascinating character, and the only reason we have this film is that someone did make a movie about him, more or less, and someone later decided that the story behind the story might be worth telling, even if writer Herman "Mank" Mankiewicz is arguably the least interesting figure in the tale despite being the closest to the center of it.

Mank may not be particularly interesting, especially given the admiring presentation he gets in Jack Fincher's screenplay, but he's the sort of character that movie people love on-screen and off. He's always got a quip at the ready, he enjoys his work but he's able to laugh at the phoniness of the industry and scam his way through it. He's not only never in the wrong on the "important" things and everyone laughs and encourages his acting like a jerk, indulging his self-destructive behavior even if it was obviously going to put him in an early grave and makes his being played by someone 20-odd years his senior more believable than usual. I suspect that a great number of people in Hollywood would like to be Herman Mankiewicz, just famous and well-paid enough that they can do what they want without being under a great deal of pressure or subjected to the whims of the public, and Gary Oldman certainly seems to have a grand old time of it, pouring every ounce of charm he's got into the role and getting the chance to do the bit where he silently realizes a moment too late that his devil-may-care attitude has hurt somebody as the camera lingers.

Compare him to Marion Davies, where Amanda Seyfried dives into "dizzy screen blonde is actually smart and empathetic" and steals every scene so thoroughly that it feels completely natural that the most important part of the 1940-set scenes is how Marion will react to her analog in Mank's script (she, of course, says it's not a big deal because how could anyone truly be angry at Mank?), but every scene she's in suggests an interesting contradiction and complexity that just isn't there in the main character. Or look at the resonant material around the race to be California's governor, where the Finchers have their knives out on how the rich convince the poor to vote against their own interests and always have done, giving that material a lot of room to breathe before ultimately reducing its importance to inspiring Mank to write what would become Citizen Kane. That's the movie, not the cheerful alcoholic.

It mostly works despite all of this, because David Fincher is really good at making movies, something you can almost forget because they've become fewer and further between (six years since Gone Girl!). Arguably the only scene that doesn't have great rhythm is the one where Mank drunkenly invades a dinner party and one wants him to flail about until it's uncomfortable for everyone, the theatrical audience envying the partygoers who are visibly bailing (you just don't get that feeling on Netflix with the fast-forward button right there should you need it). It's exquisitely crafted, and both Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt are great at shooting in black-and-white in a way that feels more like how things were shot at the time of the film than using it as a generic signal of the past.

They get a little too cute with that at times, from the opening credits that proudly proclaim that it was shot in High Dynamic Range with retro graphics to fake cigarette burns, not to mention all the cute little winks at non-linear story structure. It's not quite too self-indulgent - there's too much talent here - but it's the sort of thing that calls attention to itself as trying too hard to be clever when the rest of the movie around it isn't quite up to the level where that fits in.

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