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Schultz reviews: 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' and 'Wonder Woman 1984'

Schultz reviews: 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' and 'Wonder Woman 1984'

Carl Schultz

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”   Distributed by Netflix, Rated R, 94 Minutes, Released November 25, 2020:

The trouble with the word “allegory” is that when it’s used in a movie review--or, worse, in a film’s advertising--the term scares away half the audience.  A lot of people seem to think “allegory” is a synonym for “boring,” or that a movie described with the word is more appropriate to a dry and dusty college lecture hall than as something with any viable entertainment value.  And nine out of ten times, maybe they’re right.

That’s certainly not true of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a new version of August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning 1982 drama of the same name now streaming on Netflix.  In fact, the movie is almost the exact opposite of boring, and despite the R rating is probably more appropriate to a matinee at your local neighborhood Bijou than to a college classroom.  The difference is in...well, practically everything about the movie.

In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”--the title refers to precisely what you think it does, or rather a Bessie Smith-like jazz song with blue overtones about a part of the title character’s anatomy--the jazz musicians who accompany Ma Rainey in performance argue among themselves about a number of subjects during a rehearsal prior to their recording of an album.  And when the despotic and overpowering Ma Rainey herself arrives in the studio for the recording session, she argues with the musicians, the producer, and virtually anybody else who gets in her way.

If that sounds boring, it isn’t.  The stuff the musicians argue about--everything from music arrangements to religion to racial relations to Ma Rainey herself--is fascinating and still timely, and they argue about the subjects in fascinating and entertaining ways.  Already rich in characterization during the first part of the movie, at the point when Ma Rainey herself arrives in the studio for the recording session, mostly during the second half of the picture, the characterizations, personality, and magnetism nearly blow the ceiling off the studio.

The discussions among the seasoned musicians in Ma Rainey’s band during the rehearsal session which opens the film have a recurring theme--the quality of life for the African-American musician in 1927 America, when the movie takes place.  And the ingredient the musicians seem to believe is missing--power, legitimacy, influence, strength, impact, juice--is precisely the same one Ma Rainey possesses in enormous quantities, but employs badly.  Whatever Ma Rainey wants, Ma Rainey gets...by whatever means necessary, but usually through plain, undiluted intimidation.

Part of the impact of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” can be attributed to Mark Ricker’s vivid and colorful production design.  From the opening scenes forward, the nearly flawless set direction by Karen O’Hara and Diana Stoughton not only persuades the viewer he’s in Chicago in the Year of Our Lord 1927, it also makes the viewer almost nostalgic for that time, in the same way 1973’s “The Sting” did.  The persuasive costume design by Ann Roth adds to the movie’s verisimilitude.

The other reason is that the actors in the movie climb inside playwright Wilson’s characters and disappear so completely that the viewer can’t even see the zippers in the back.  If it weren’t for the presence of a familiar face of two, you’d almost be persuaded you’re looking at the real thing, a documentary or docudrama about an actual historical event.  At any point in the drama the audience nearly expects to see Cab Calloway arrive on the scene, or a young Louis Armstrong.

In his final film role, Boseman contributes a characterization as vivid and magnetic as the actor himself.  Eager to make his mark on not only the session but also the direction of music itself, Boseman’s charismatic young Levee is unrestrained in his enthusiasm.  And as the reasons for Levee’s ambition become apparent during a heartbreaking three-minute monologue, we realize his ingratiating demeanor camouflages a simmering rage.  Levee is ironically among Boseman’s most energetic performances--if the actor was aware during production that he had only weeks to live, this is his greatest acting, ever.  There seems to have been no limit to this young man’s talent.

If Boseman’s performance is virtuoso, Viola Davis as Ma Rainey is nothing short of as astonishing.  Fortified by padding disguised by her costuming, the actress seems to have been swallowed whole by the corpulent Rainey herself.  Davis’ Ma Rainey enters a room arrogance first and follows with attitude--sweating, crude, at times grotesque, exuding leering, decadent sexuality, Ma Rainey struts and preens, sneers and snarls, carries herself like a man and sits like a fighter in a boxing ring, head forward with elbows resting on straddled knees.  Viewers unaware that Davis is among the cast members might be stunned later.

Adapted from August Wilson’s play by actor/playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Roy Montgomery on TV’s “Castle”) and directed my multiple Tony Award-winning playwright and director George C. Wolfe (“Angels in America,” “Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk”), “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was originally planned for a production on HBO but moved eventually to Netflix.  Filmed in Pittsburgh during the summer of 2019, the picture completed filming on August 16, 2019, just twelve days before actor Boseman’s death.  Denzel Washington is among the film’s producers.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is rated R for language, brief violence, and some sexual content.

“Wonder Woman 1984”   Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 151 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released December 25, 2020:

Some spirited performances, eye-popping stuntwork, and excellent production values are among the major strengths of “Wonder Woman 1984,” the new follow-up to the DC Comics-inspired 2017 blockbuster hit movie “Wonder Woman.”  Set in 1918 during the first World War, the original “Wonder Woman” placed the venerable comic book heroine created in 1941 into the context of a new age female superhero and role model for young women in the 2020s.  As Kurt Vonnegut might’ve written, “Listen:  Diana Prince has come unstuck in time.”

In “Wonder Woman 1984,” it’s now...well, 1984.  Wonder Woman--or rather Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s secret civilian alter ego, the same role Clark Kent fills for Superman--is now a senior anthropologist at Washington DC’s Smithsonian Institution specializing in ancient Mediterranian cultures--a convenient occupation if ever there was one since Wonder Woman hails from Themyscira, an all-female Mediterranean civilization which looks as if it’s been magically teleported from ancient times.

Hero(ine)-worshiped by mousy and insecure new co-worker Barbara Ann Minerva, Diana is off foiling evildoers when back at the Smithsonian the anthropology department is asked by the FBI to research and identify a recovered collection of stolen artifacts and antiquities, including a rare gem called a Dreamstone.  A Dreamstone is something like one of the six powerful Infinity Stones that caused all the trouble in the last two Marvel Comics-based “Avengers” movies (cross-breeding is the name of the game in comic book culture).

Eventually we learn that the Dreamstone possesses the power to grant the fondest wishes of anyone who touches it.  Unwittingly, Diana wishes for Steve Trevor, her killed-in-action World War I-hero lover from the first movie, to return to her...and magically the late Steve’s soul, spirit, and personality inhabit the body of a current Washington resident who miraculously also looks exactly like him.  Meanwhile, mousy Barbara Ann Minerva wishes to become beautiful, strong, and powerful like her role model Wonder Woman...er, Diana Prince.

But it seems that wishes come with a high price indeed:  In exchange for the cosmic juju to recall Steve, Diana must sacrifice her superpowers, much like Clark Kent did in “Superman II” in order to marry Lois Lane.  And that’s especially bad news because Maxwell Lord, a megalomaniacal businessman with more than a passing resemblance to a certain orange-haired reality TV star turned US president, simultaneously persuades the formerly-mousy Barbara Ann to give him the Dreamstone, and uses it to become an enormously powerful world figure.  Maybe you can guess what happens.

Directed by Patty Jenkins, the returning filmmaker behind the original 2017 movie, from a screenplay she wrote in collaboration with former DC Comic book writer Geoff Johns and “The Expendables'' and “Zombieland: Double Tap” screenwriter David Callahan, “Wonder Woman 1984” turns out to be a fairly diverting piece of epic escapist entertainment.  With brisk direction and a handful of spectacular individual set pieces, the picture overcomes a meandering script, some so-so special optical effects, and near-lethal overlength to do what the best comic books to--get our minds off other things. 

The statuesque but wooden Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince and the earnest and sincere Chris Pine as the reincarnated Steve Trevor continue their photogenic rapport from the first picture, and have fun with the conceit of switching their fish-out-of-water roles for the second picture (in “Wonder Woman,” Steve needed to acclimate Diana to the 20th century, while in the new picture Diana needs to introduce Steve to the 21st).  Although the movie seems to be set in 1984 only as an excuse to mock the ostentatious and often-obnoxious fashions, the scenes between Gadot and Pine are a delight.

The real surprise of “Wonder Woman 1984” is Kristen Wiig.  Usually seen in comedic roles in broad and contrived farces like 2011’s “Bridesmaids” and the 2016 “Ghostbusters” reboot, Wiig as Barbara Ann Minerva not only gets to exercise her physical comedy muscles during the early scenes, but also display her acting chops as she transitions into a second characterization as a more assertive woman of the 80s, and then into a computer optics-enhanced incarnation as the supervillian Cheetah.  Especially during the middle incarnation, Wiig surprisingly also gives Gadot a run for her money in the supermodel good looks department.

Originally set for wide theatrical release, with certain sequences filmed specifically to highlight the sheer spectacle on the oversized high definition IMAX and XD movie screens, “Wonder Woman 1984” was scheduled for release over a year ago, on December 13, 2019.  But after a number of Covid-19 pandemic-related release cancellations, distributor Warner Bros. Pictures announced their controversial decision to release their current crop of movies in both theatrical and online streaming venues simultaneously.

Distributed on Christmas Day to 2150 theaters still open across the United States and Canada and the HBO Max online streaming service, it’s estimated that “Wonder Woman 1984” will require some $500 million in box office receipts in order to recoup its reported $200 million production costs.  For that reason, industry analysts project that the picture will almost certainly eventually lose money for Warner Bros. Pictures.

Also featuring performances by Pedro Pascal as Maxwell Lord, Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen from the first picture during flashback sequences as the folks back home in Themyscira, and Lilly Aspell as the young Diana, “Wonder Woman 1984” is rated PG-13 for sequences of comic book action and violence.

 

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