Friday, December 4, 2020

Boseman lives in 'Ma Rainey'; Plaza fuels 'Bear'; everyone loves 'Santa'

Amidst all the horrors of 2020, the late-August death of 43-year-old Chadwick Boseman might be the saddest of them all. Now his final great performance, which starts streaming Dec. 18 on Netflix in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” can be viewed until then at four northeast Ohio theaters.

Boseman portrays Levee, the talented and tortured trumpet player always trying to upstage the fabled titular "Ma," a blues singer of much renown. Ironically, Boseman turns the same trick opposite Viola Davis, whose own huge turn literally stops the music whenever she enters a room. Most of the time it means a dingy little session dump in Chicago, where Ma's manager sets up the popular recordings that have made her a star, though not a very happy one, since the rip-roarin' '20s signaled the start of  unscrupulous white producers ripping off black talent.

Her sassy, seductive songs had been big hits with Southern backwoods audiences for a while before then -- as witnessed in an effective opening scene. Then, the equally meaningful words of esteemed playwright August Wilson (as adapted here by actor-turned screenwriter Ruben Santiago Hudson) begin their own hard work to cross the line from stage to film.

Certainly they succeed more often than the direction of George T. Wolfe, whose sparse sets and minimal visuals never make us forget that this was an original Broadway production (debuting in 1984). It's one that needs a genuine jolting image or two for a more powerful translation to the big screen.  Of course, Wolfe's version takes what it can from an over-the-top Davis and an especially forceful Boseman, an artist who never lets us move our eyes off of him during dialogue that had to be so incredibly difficult to deliver while knowing the circumstances of his own mortality. It's often stuff to both behold and mourn.

Rated "R" by MPAA: language, some sexual content and brief violence: 1:34; $ $ $ out of $5

"Black Bear" offers some similarly dark and troubled conversations, only these with more of a mixed-up marital flair. Listening in to the tough divorce-worthy words exchanged by a couple of guest-house hosts (the formidable Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon) is a visiting film director (smart and terrific Aubrey Plaza), whose presence certainly does nothing to calm things down.

Plaza's deadpan character (what else?) allegedly is there to rest up for a career rejuvenation, but maybe she's looking for story ideas by simply sitting on a pier and staring at a small, calm body of water in the Adirondacks.

Plaza sizes it all up.

Still, the tension inside the large lakehouse remains overflowing until the titled creature truly gets in the way, and then, suddenly, the same main trio of players is appearing in different roles on a movie set in many of the same places. 

The film being made within the film offers head-gamesmanship at its finest, not to mention a crew of mostly horny and incompetent fools attempting to put together a small indie feature. 

The less-convoluted-than-it-sounds drama comes from potent writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine, who obviously should not be included in the latter group.

Rated "R" by MPAA: language, sexual content, drug use and some nudity; 1:45; $ $ $ $ out of $5

We end this week's trio of reviews with a much-needed "Dear Santa," the uplifting documentary that tells us everything we'd ever want to know -- and then some -- about the U.S. Postal Service's annual challenge to answer letters to the North Pole, featuring kind-hearted contributions and responses from quality people everywhere. 

That means a lot of touching moments while watching the fulfillment of requests such as a cute Christmas puppy here, a furry bunny there and even a limo ride to Manhattan for a happy family from the Bronx. 

Music, too, abounds from every post office and just about everyone, including Johnny Mathis, "Hippopatamus" gal Gayla Peevey, cowboy Gene Autry, and even the "Charlie Brown"-famous Vince Guaraldi Trio. Merry Christmas definitely comes easy and early in all the right places here.

The "Santa" doc is playing now exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights, as is "Black Bear." 

Rated "G" by MPAA: Nothing to offend unless you're allergic to water in your eyes; 1:24; $ $ $ $ out of $5

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