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Josh Reviews Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was adapted from the play by August Wilson.  Set in 1927, it depicts a very contentious day in the life of African-American blues singer Ma Rainey and her band.  They’re recording Ma Rainey’s music in Chicago for a white record producer, as arranged by her white agent.  As the day winds on, the tensions rise between the members of Ma’s band and also between Ma and the two white men overseeing the session.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is beautiful and heartbreaking.  Director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have done a terrific job adapting August Wilson’s play for this film.  The film retains the feeling of a theatrical experience.  The theatrical rhythm of the dialogue has been thankfully preserved.  And the fact that the film basically takes place in only two rooms belies its theatrical origins.  But this film never felt like a dry, limited adaptation, a pale reflection of what might have been more lively on the stage (the way films adapted from plays can sometimes be).  Mr. Wolfe and his collaborators have beautifully brought this story and these characters to life on the screen in a way that works perfectly as a movie.

Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, and it’s a powerhouse of a performance.  Ms. Davis’ fiery charisma commands the screen with her presence.  At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of Ma.  After just recently watching Mank, at first I wasn’t wild to be watching what seemed to be another story of a misbehaving, over-entitled, selfish “artist”.  But there’s a lot more to this character, and one of the best delights of this film is the way the story very slowly peels back the layers of Ma Rainey until we understand what’s really going on.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is sadly the final performance of the late, great Chadwick Boseman.  And what a performance it is.  Mr. Boseman is absolutely mesmerizing as Levee, the brash young trumpeter in Ma’s band.  Levee is a hot young turk with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, and he seems to have the musical skills to back up his ego.  But there’s anger underneath Levee’s beaming smile, and a hunger for more than he has.  Mr. Boseman gets to deliver two crucial monologues in the film, and they are both showstoppers.  I don’t believe Mr. Boseman was ever better, and that’s saying something.  His work here is a bravura performance that only twists the knife of anguish over this great artist who passed away at far too young an age.

The entire ensemble is terrific.  Glynn Turman (Baltimore mayor Royce on The Wire) is fiercely compelling as Toledo, the soft-spoken piano player who’s the old … [continued]

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I know, intellectually, that Marvel Studios’ incredible streak of great movies is going to end sometime.  It has to.  No win streak can continue indefinitely.  But it didn’t end this past weekend, as Marvel Studios released Black Panther, a fantastic addition to their ever-expanding Cinematic Universe.  Black Panther is, incredibly, the eighteenth film in this interconnected movie universe.  It still boggles my mind that there exists an eighteen-movies-and-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe.  And what’s even more impressive is just how terrific all of these films have been.  There isn’t a true stinker in the bunch.  (The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 are, I think, the two least successful films, and even both of those have a lot to enjoy in them.)  The last several films in particular have been fantastic, and Black Panther continues that streak of excellence.

Picking up after the death of his father King T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther opens with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning home to Wakanda to claim his position as king.  Wakanda is a technological paradise, though they use their technology to hide that fact from the rest of the world.  When the vicious thief and weapons merchant Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who killed the parents of T’Challa’s close friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), resurfaces, T’Challa leads a team consisting of Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the fierce female Wakandan fighting force the Dora Milaje, and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s former flame who believes that Wakanda must engage with the outside world, to capture Klaue.  That mission goes awry when they discover that Klaue is in league with a young man named Eric (Michael B. Jordan), a black-ops soldier who calls himself Killmonger, and who has a secret connection to the Wakandan royal family.  Killmonger challenges T’Challa for the throne of Wakanda, and the once-peaceful nation threatens to split into civil war.

Black Panther is fantastic.  It fits squarely into the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also standing completely on its own and having its own unique style.  The film references Captain America: Civil War, but you absolutely don’t have to have seen that film to enjoy this one.  And while many fans thought that the one not-yet-seen Infinity Stone (which will surely come into play in this summer’s Avengers: Infinity War) would appear in this film, I was happy that didn’t happen.  Black Panther didn’t need that additional baggage — it’s better for this film to be able to tell its own, complete story.  (If that final Infinity Stone is indeed hidden in Wakanda, as many fans guess, I am glad they held that reveal for Infinity War.)

Director Ryan Coogler (Creed) has crafted a magnificent film, … [continued]

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Marvel Triumphs Again with Captain America: Civil War!

Marvel Studios is on a winning streak the likes of which I am hard-pressed to recall (the last decade of Pixar movies is the only thing I can think of that comes close) and Captain America: Civil War is even better than I had dared hope, an extraordinarily HUGE movie with astounding action and powerful emotional beats that pay off story-lines that have been building through the twelve (count ’em, TWELVE) previous Marvel Studios movies ever since 2008’s Iron Man started this whole crazy adventure.  I am a huge fan of the under-appreciated Avengers: Age of Ultron (click here for my review), but a strong case can be made that Civil War is what The Avengers 2 should gave been, a film that embraces the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, putting the characters through a wrenching emotional trial and eventually shattering the team that had come together in 2012’s The Avengers.

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Following the events of Age of Ultron, Cap has been training and leading a team of Avengers consisting of himself, the Falcon, the Black Widow, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision.  As Captain America: Civil War opens, we find that Avengers team hot on the trail of Crossbones (the mangled ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow from Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  As the try to stop Crossbones from obtaining a deadly biological weapon, a fight breaks out in the crowded streets of Nigeria.  Though the Avengers successfully stop Crossbones and his mercenaries, a tragic accident leaves a dozen civilians dead.  This proves to be the last straw for a world that has suffered from a series of increasingly-escalating super-hero/super-villain battles (as seen in the previous twelve Marvel movies).  Over a hundred nations band together to create the Sokovia Accords (named after the nation destroyed by Ultron in the climactic fight of Age of Ultron), declaring that the Avengers will no longer be an autonomous entity but now one governed by a UN-appointed supervising panel.  Tony Stark, desperate to find some way to prevent future civilian deaths and ensure that the Avengers remain a force for good across the world, supports the accords.  Captain America, worried that the international politics at play might prevent him and other super-heroes from acting whenever they feel it is necessary in order to save lives, opposes them.  This philosophical debate becomes more urgent when Cap’s former partner and best friend Bucky Barnes, now the brainwashed hit-man code-named the Winter Soldier (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) resurfaces and is apparently responsible for the murder of hundreds at the signing of the Sokovia Accords.  Tony begs Cap to let the world’s governments handle the subsequent manhunt but Cap refuses to … [continued]

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Catching Up On 2013: Josh Reviews 42

As has become my habit in recent years, during the final few weeks of December and the first few weeks of January, before writing my Best of the Year lists, I try to catch up on as many of the films I wanted to see during the year but for whatever reason missed.  I’ll be posting my reviews of these films in a series of “Catching Up On 2013” posts, and of course I hope you enjoyed my Best Movies of 2013 list!

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to ever play baseball in the Major Leagues.  (42 was, of course, the number that Jackie Robinson wore on his uniform.)  The film focuses on two seasons: 1947, Mr. Robinson’s first season playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the previous year, 1946, in which Mr. Robinson played for the Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals.

The film centers on Robinson’s struggle to overcome staggering racism from his teammates, other baseball players, many fans, and others.  It also focuses on the relationship and eventual friendship that formed between Robinson and the Dodgers’ gruff owner Branch Rickie, the man who chose to bring Jackie to the big leagues.

That relationship was my favorite aspect of the film, mostly because of a fantastic performance by Harrison Ford.  (And when was the last time I got excited about a Harrison Ford performance???  OK, just last week I wrote that I really loved Mr. Ford’s cameo in Anchorman 2, but that hardly counts.  I have argued before on this site that you need to go back twenty years, to 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, to find a really great Harrison Ford performance, and I stand by that.)  But somehow, Mr. Ford came alive in this role, really biting into the character of this curmudgeon with a heart of gold. It’s nice to see Harrison Ford, at 71 years of age, actually playing a character who is meant to come across as old.  Under a lot of makeup and with the crotchety voice that Mr. Ford puts on, Branch Rickie comes close to being a caricature, but the performance stays on the right side of that line and becomes, instead, a really fun character.

Chadwick Boseman does a fine job in the lead role of Jackie Robinson.  This is a very heroic depiction of Jackie, a and the film doesn’t really show us any flaws that the real Mr. Robinson might have had.  That limits, somewhat, the material that Mr. Boseman has to play, but nevertheless I thought he turned in a very strong performance that on the one hand lived up to this … [continued]