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Indie Focus: A dazzling ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies. Because of the holiday, this edition comes a bit early — but next week, we’ll be back on Friday as usual.

Undoubtedly one of the storytelling achievements of the year is Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology “Small Axe.” What critics groups, top-10 list makers and awards-giving bodies decide to do with the series — honor it as a whole or as individual films, or even qualify it at all — remains to be seen.

The first film, “Mangrove,” is already available on Amazon Prime Video, and the second, “Lovers Rock,” will be available Friday. The other three will roll out over the next few weeks.

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Set from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s among London’s West Indian community, the project is deeply personal to the filmmaker, as he told Jen Yamato.

“When you’re looking around and you’re not seeing stories of yourselves, or stories in the narrative of the U.K. which haven’t been given a platform, you start to think of yourself as not a part of the narrative. But I knew I was real, and I knew I existed. And I wanted to make that very clear,” McQueen said. “These stories are the stories of the United Kingdom, of Britain. This is very important that I say this: These stories are British stories.”

Film at Lincoln Center, in partnership with Janus Films, will be presenting the virtual series “World of Wong Kar Wai,” a retrospective of arguably contemporary cinema’s foremost conveyor of romantic yearning. Along with 4K restorations of acclaimed works such as “In the Mood for Love” and “Chungking Express,” the series features rarities such as the extended cut of “The Hand” and the Hong Kong version of “The Grandmaster.” These are films to live in, to luxuriate in their style and emotions.

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‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Directed by George C. Wolfe and adapted from the play by August Wilson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” arrives with its expectations heightened by its being the final screen role for Chadwick Boseman, who died earlier this year. In the story of a troubled afternoon recording session in Chicago in the 1920s, Viola Davis plays blues singer Ma Rainey, while Boseman plays her ambitious trumpet player Levee. Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Glynn Turman and Taylour Paige are also in the cast. The movie is now streaming on Netflix.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Davis is little short of stunning in the kind of brassy, feather-waving, no-prisoners-taking diva showcase she’s rarely attempted. (It’s a decidedly far cry from her Oscar-winning turn in the last major Wilson adaptation, ‘Fences.’) Resplendent in bold, spangly gowns and sheathed in form-padding rubber, her Ma Rainey is both a stellar performer and a mesmerizing object of contemplation. (Apart from one song, Davis’ smoky vocals were supplied by the singer Maxayn Lewis.) But ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ doesn’t linger on this potent spectacle. It’s much more fascinated by who Ma is — and also who her accompanists are — behind the scenes, and beyond the glare of the spotlight.”

For rogerebert.com, Odie Henderson wrote about one of Boseman’s showstopping speeches. “It’s in this moment that the distance between actor, viewer and role fractures: Boseman knew he was dying when he performed this monologue, and some of the things he’s saying as Levee sound like questions one would ask oneself if facing one’s own mortality. Suddenly, the emotions become too real. Boseman practically levitates with hurt and rage, committing to the moment with a ferocity that’s as brilliant as it is painfully unwatchable. I know it’s just acting, but for me, reality intervened in that moment and I saw something transcendent.”

For Slate, Karen Han wrote, “The reason to see the film is the pair of performances at its heart. Though the trappings around them may falter from time to time, Davis and Boseman are at the top of their game throughout. And it’s a fitting, heartbreaking swan song for Boseman, who, with Levee, makes his most notable break from the icons he’d played before, demonstrating that he was capable of even more than we knew — that he was just getting started.”

For The Playlist, Valerie Complex noted that the film “is bleak, as are many of August Wilson’s stories. But, being Black in America is a serious, and often, unforgiving business. Constantly navigating through a system that hates you weighs heavy on the spirit and this psychic toll is what ‘Ma Rainey’ channels best, throughout the movie, and throughout the soulful, pained performances. ‘Ma Rainey’ uses blues music as a means of expression because she knows that it’s not just about music, but it’s a survival tool — a means to tolerate daily life under white oppression. ‘Ma Rainey’ is dynamic, vibrant, and extravagant, and will hopefully not only revive interest in Wilson’s work, but remind people ‘Fences’ is not the only firecrackers that exist in his insightful arsenal.”

Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts and Colman Domingo portray blues musicians in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
Chadwick Boseman, front, with Glynn Turman, left, Michael Potts and Colman Domingo as blues musicians in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
(David Lee / Netflix)

‘Happiest Season’

Directed by Clea DuVall, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mary Holland, “Happiest Season” is a queer holiday rom-com in which Harper (Mackenzie Davis) invites her live-in girlfriend, Abby (Kristen Stewart), to her family’s house for Christmas. Except Harper hasn’t yet told her family she is gay. Many complications ensue. The movie’s outstanding cast includes Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Alison Brie, Mary Holland, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen. The movie is now streaming on Hulu.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “That a mainstream movie centered on an LGBT couple still counts as something relatively novel in 2020 is, of course, more than a little dispiriting. Two years ago, ‘Love, Simon’ billed itself as the first gay teen romantic comedy released by a major movie studio; ‘Happiest Season’ is being sold as the first studio-produced, LGBT-centric holiday romantic comedy. (Originally set to be released in theaters, it’s bypassing them due to the pandemic and streaming on Hulu.) It’s thus the latest movie to put a familiar question to the viewer: Do you applaud it for breaking new ground, for revivifying an old formula with underrepresented characters? Or do you reject it for not going nearly far enough, for succumbing to the comforts of formula in the first place? ... The answer, I think, lies somewhere in the middle. The conventionality of ‘Happiest Season’ might be the most radical thing about it.”

For the New York Times, Teo Bugbee wrote, “For fans of seasonal festivity, the lesbian romantic comedy ‘Happiest Season’ is a three-for-one bargain. It’s set during Christmas, it’ll release over Thanksgiving, and in keeping with Halloween, it’s a monster movie about the horrors that can arise when socializing with straight people. … This is a story about the self-annihilation queer people face when they mold themselves to straight expectations, told by a lesbian filmmaker working in maybe the most stereotypically heterosexual genre — the Christmas romantic comedy. The movie practically vibrates with its own meta tension.”

For Rolling Stone, K. Austin Collins wrote of DuVall and Holland’s script, “What they get right is a canny way of taking the familiar straight rituals of holiday homecoming and adding the hilarity of gay anxiety. There is, yes, a joke about ‘the closet’ set in a literal closet. … It’s a Christmas movie, so none of us needs to pretend [anything] approaching a sour ending is in store. Things work out as they will, and they do so just differently enough from the straighter movies of the genre for this movie to be notable. It’s not a knockout, but the actors frequently are. The rest is an exercise in not overdoing it. It’s here, it’s queer, it’s not much else — and that’s OK.”

For The Wrap, Alonso Duralde wrote, “‘Happiest Season’ isn’t the kind of ‘inclusive’ movie where someone went through a heterosexual script with the find-replace function and changed the gender of one of the leads; this is a film in which identity, family, and the closet represents a major through-line. That it does so in the trappings of a Christmas farce may take some viewers aback, but director Clea Duvall (who co-wrote with Mary Holland) takes the serious parts seriously, but not so much that the magic of the holidays can’t make everything right. … While some viewers may find the use of the closet and societal homophobia too heavy for this breezy story, there’s a case to be made that including specifically queer concerns into the language of romantic comedy is another step toward genuine inclusiveness. ‘Happiest Season’ takes a risky step in that direction, but the lingering aftertaste is sweet, not bitter.”

The cast of "Happiest Season."
Burl Moseley, left, Asiyih N’Dobe, Anis N’Dobe, Alison Brie, Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Mary Holland, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen in the movie “Happiest Season.”
(Sony Pictures)

‘Superintelligence’

Directed by Ben Falcone from a script by Steve Mallory, “Superintelligence” is the story of a newly sentient artificial intelligence that gives the perfectly average Carol Peters (Melissa McCarthy) three days to convince him not to destroy humanity. In helping Carol reconnect with an old flame, George (Bobby Cannavale), the AI learns what people have to offer the world. Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart and James Corden also are part of the cast. The movie starts streaming on HBO Max on Thursday.

In my review for The Times, I wrote, “The highlight of the movie by far is just the relaxed, easy chemistry between McCarthy and Cannavale. The two of them go out for an agreed-upon nondate “business casual” evening that quickly becomes most definitely a date, and it is the stuff of rom-com delight. … It’s easy to wish that the movie had simply been about the two of them, setting aside the high-concept gimmick of an artificial intelligence making pronouncements about modern life. Perhaps inadvertently proving the point of the story, sometimes just the regular human stuff can be enough.”

For IndieWire, David Ehrlich wrote, “Everyone’s gotta make a living, and so far as this critic is concerned McCarthy gets a lifetime pass for the years of service she put in to ‘Gilmore Girls,’ alone. But there’s something a bit noxious about she and Falcone using the content-indifferent streaming pipeline to fob off a comedy about the dark side of digital convenience and the distancing effect of the screens that have come between us. ’Superintelligence’ doesn’t satirize the problem, ‘Superintelligence’ is the problem. The only way to outsmart the system is to watch something else instead.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Caryn James wrote, “It’s a fine idea to applaud ordinary people, but a film about the most average person on Earth shouldn’t be completely ordinary itself. McCarthy can make Carol likable and relatable but even someone as talented as she is can’t make this earnest do-gooder interesting. … ’Superintelligence’ is a mashup of common screen elements: a romance, a best friend, a tinge of sci-fi, sentimentality and a ticking clock on lethal danger for the hero. All those elements are handled with a sense of just walking through the paces.”

Bobby Cannavale and Melissa McCarthy in "Superintelligence."
(Hopper Stone / HBO Max)


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