Tag Archives: Viola Davis

‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Review

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, and follows “Mother of the Blues” singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) amid a stressful recording session one summer afternoon in 1927 Chicago. Chadwick Boseman also stars (in his final film appearance), with Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts in supporting roles; George C. Wolfe directs.

When Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer this past August, it came as a shock to many. He had been looking thinner in recent public appearances, but since he was such a larger-than-life character both on- and off-screen, plus we had just watched him in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” in June, no one assumed the worst was coming. Maybe Boseman knew “Black Bottom” would be his final performance, maybe not, but his work has almost a spiritual sense to it, and could see him earn a posthumous Academy Award nomination.

Chadwick Boseman was only really a big player in movies for seven years, when he came onto the scene as Jackie Robinson in “42.” Since then he played several prominent African-American historical figures, as well as the superhero Black Panther in the MCU. Boseman always had a presence about him, and you feel it in “Black Bottom.” Boseman’s Levee, a trumpet player with high ambitions, is wise-cracking and full of swagger (when we first meet him, he is hitting on women and bragging about his new shoes), but underneath the surface there is pain and struggle. Boseman is able to flip the switch so quickly and with such nuance that you almost don’t even notice, and he says as much with his words as he does with his eyes. I still think Anthony Hopkins gave one of the best performances I have ever seen in “The Father” and he deserves the Best Actor awards, but Boseman is sure to earn some over the next five(!) months and I will be over-the-moon happy for him and his family.

The rest of the cast is solid, with Viola Davis obviously being the other big draw here. Playing Ma Rainey, Davis does her own singing in the film and wears a heavy amount of makeup, to the point she is almost unrecognizable. Davis is at the point in her career where it is hard to be surprised by her acting, and I didn’t think she did anything too great here, but she is able to carry the scenes where Boseman is absent.

The production and costume design are both top-notch as well. You get immersed in early-20th century Chicago, from the cars and the skyline, to the loose ties and fedoras. The score is also pretty good, with the low jazz horns and drum beats.

Where the film comes up short is arguably the most important aspect: the script, adapted from August Wilson’s play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Santiago-Hudson has a career in theater, as well as acting in films, but this is his first screenplay. Much like “Fences” and other adaptations, the film definitely feels like a play, with only two main locations (both big square rooms) and some exaggerated Shakespearian dialogue and monologues. My issues aren’t with all that, it is that the narrative seems unsure how to lay all the plot points out. For most of the film the big issue is finally getting Rainey’s song recorded, and the hurdles they face from a stuttering singer to Boseman’s ego. However in the final 15 minutes we get a whole world of new conflicts, and it seemed like there wasn’t enough going on in the first two acts to suddenly way too much in the third.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is an actor’s showcase, including a touching swansong performance from Chadwick Boseman, and has some fantastic below-the-line work as well. I can honestly see a world where this gets nominations in every category except Screenplay, that is how notably weaker it is compared to the top-tier work everywhere else. For sure check this film out when it drops on Netflix, and I will be rooting for it to win many awards all season; I just wish the overall experience as a whole left a greater impression on me.

Critics Rating: 6/10

‘Widows’ Swings for the Fences, Comes up Short

It’s like “Ocean’s 8” just with none of the light-hearted jokes or Rihanna and Awkafina quipping.

“Widows” is based off the 1980s British TV series of the same name, and follows a group of women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo) who must complete a heist to pay back a crime boss after their criminal husbands are all killed in a botched job. Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson also star as Steve McQueen directs.

This film had so much going for it that is almost wasn’t fair. It features an ensemble cast, with half of them sporting the words “Academy Award winner/nominee” in front of their name, and is co-written by  Gillian Flynn, the author of the “Gone Girl” novel and subsequent film. It also is helmed (and co-written) by Steve McQueen, who directed “12 Years a Slave” and won a Best Picture Oscar for producing it. The final product of “Widows” leaves a bit more to be desired, but there is still plenty to enjoy in this indie arthouse disguised as a blockbuster action piece.

I have seen “Gone Girl” a handful of times and with every viewing I fall more in love with Gillian Flynn’s script. Her dialogue is fantastic, probably the second-best next to Aaron Sorkin, and there are parts throughout “Widows” where it is clear the scene was written exclusively by her. Characters have lively interactions and quick retorts, and the film just feels “cool.” Then there are some (I wouldn’t say bland, but) sequences where the dialogue and exchanges feel almost contrived and less organic, and while I wouldn’t put all the blame on McQueen’s half of the pen…I’d just say “Gone Girl” had none of those types of scenes, take that as you will.

The performances across the board from the main cast are all phenomenal, with Michelle Rodriguez turning in a career-best performance, Brian Tyree Henry taking a nice dramatic break from his normal comedy work on Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” and Daniel Kaluuya giving probably the most silently badass performance of 2018. Kaluuya has had quite the past 20 months, being skyrocketed to fame and an Oscar nomination for “Get Out” and then taking part in “Black Panther” this past February. Here he is playing the brother and enforcer of Henry’s mob boss-turned-aspiring politician, and he says more with a silent stare or a hum than he does with his limited words.

No one plays cold and cunning nowadays better than Viola Davis and she is everything you’d expect her to be here, and Liam Neeson has some quietly affecting flashback sequences as her criminal husband.

The film’s problem is that it at times seems unsure what it wants to be, or at least doesn’t come across to the audience the way McQueen intends for it to. He tries to add some fancy camera work and just like “12 Years a Slave” he loves him some lingering shots. I enjoy a long take as much as the next guy but there has to be a reason for it; there is one fantastic sequence here but another (or two) that just comes off a bit show-offy. There is so much planning and running around for the heist that the film does slog and drag a bit, and despite only clocking in at a little over 120 minutes it feels like a longer journey.

I really wanted to like “Widows” more than I did, although I will campaign for Kaluuya and the screenplay to get Oscar nominations come February. The final heist sequence has a couple heart-pounding moments and it gives famed faces like Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson a chance to remind us that they can still hang with the best of them, but the points leading up to the climax are either slow, silly or a mixture of the two. Viola fans or those who wished “Ocean’s 8” had more headshots should be more willing to forgive the flaws, and as far as adult entertainment at the multiplex you can do worse, but given all this had going for it on paper this could have been a homerun.

Critic’s Grade: B-

20th Century Fox