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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, or: Blues Christmas

In a move that will likely surprise no one, we managed to out-Christmas ourselves with some features we found less than heartwarming despite our best efforts. Since Christmas is over but we still feel the Blog Collab deserves a gift, this week’s pic is the less seasonally appropriate but no less magical Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Based on the August Wilson play, the film notably depicts Chadwick Boseman in his final role onscreen, surely a gift to us all.

The Film:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

The Premise:

Throughout the course of a day recording an album, tensions surface between blues legend Ma Rainey and the ambitious trumpeter in her band.

The Ramble:

After rising to the legendary status of Mother of the Blues in 1920s Georgia, Ma Rainey commands attention and respect, suffering no fools during the recording of her album in Chicago (for which she rolls in late with her lady lover and nephew). Even so, Ma Rainey is constantly pushing back against her white man manager and producer.

Dressed in a colorful flapper-style costume with shiny accents, a Black woman sings on an improvised stage, a band accompanying her.

Most of the members of Ma Rainey’s band are older gentlemen content to play music together, get the recording done as quickly as possible, and yield to Ma’s demands. Unhappy with this arrangement is young horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman), who dreams of starting out his own band. Levee is a dapper man, opting for stylish clothes and a new pair of bright yellow shoes for the day. Are the expensive new shoes key to the plot? More than you know.

As the band waits for Ma’s arrival, it becomes clear that they each have trauma and differences of opinion beneath their gentle teasing. Winner of most likely to wag a finger at a young Black man with baggy pants or lecture about respectability is Toledo, who frowns with disapproval about young people only interested in having a good time.

A young Black man gestures while speaking to an older man in a dimly lit room.

This doesn’t fly with Levee, who goes so far as to defy God to strike him down. He questions where God could possibly be in the world they live in, especially in light of a horrific trauma that occurred during his childhood. As a result, Levee always keeps a knife on him–another important detail.

Something of a diva, Ma Rainey’s eventual arrival creates more drama when she insists her nephew record the song intro that was Levee’s, and use a different arrangement than expected. A further complication? Ma Rainey’s nephew has a stutter, requiring many takes of his part. Creating a further rift between Ma and Levee is the latter’s interest in Dussie Mae, Ma’s current lover.

In a gold paisley dress, a Black woman in a recording studio sings into a microphone, members of her band playing in the background.

Sensing the end of his role as a member of Ma’s band, Levee confronts recording studio owner Sturdyvant about producing Levee’s record as promised on a prior occasion. However, Sturdyvant is no longer interested, willing only to buy Levee’s songs for $5 each and have another artist do the recording.

With tension at its peak, how will the members of the band respond to the pressure?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

What you will hear relentlessly about this film (if you haven’t already) is that the performances are astonishing–and there’s no doubt about that. Viola Davis is impeccable, though this is very much Chadwick Boseman’s film. While he portrays a character full of disappointment, pain, and rage, all of these emotions simmer underneath the surface with a brilliant subtlety. This yields an ending to the story that feels simultaneously surprising and inevitable.

As for the film’s plot itself, it’s stretched a bit thin. Because this is an adaptation of an August Wilson play, there are a lot of monologues. And you’re either into that or you’re not. Personally, most of these merely served to remind me that we were in many ways watching the recording of a play. There’s quite a lot of talking and not a lot of action; for me, the balance was a bit off.

Additionally, we don’t get as much Ma Rainey as I anticipated. Despite being the titular character of the film, the male characters receive much more of the focus. I won’t complain too much about this, especially since one of these characters is portrayed by Boseman, but I could have happily enjoyed much more of Ma Rainey’s self-assured swagger.

However, the message feels just as relevant today as during the play’s run in the 1980s or even Ma Rainey’s time around 100 years ago. The anger, resignation, and deep sadness our Black characters feel in their everyday lives and within the music industry endures as much as the songs of a blues legend.

Would my blog wife harmonize with this one or break up the band? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Black Nativity, or: Angela Bassett We Have Heard on High

It’s our 2nd Forest Whitaker musical of the month, and I’m not complaining. Once again playing a rather stern figure who may need to rethink his priorities, will this week’s pick recapture the magic of Jingle Jangle? I mean, will anything?

The Film:

Black Nativity

The Premise:

Facing eviction ahead of the holidays, a Baltimore mother sends her son to stay with his grandparents as he unravels family secrets and inevitably learns the true meaning of Christmas.

The Ramble:

Named for the Harlem Renaissance poet (and playwright who scripted the inspiration for our film), our young hero Langston is experiencing a rather unhappy Christmas season. On the brink of eviction from their Baltimore home, his mother Naima sends Langston to stay with his estranged grandparents in Harlem for the holidays. Promising to join her son soon, it seems impossible that Naima will follow through on this.

Less than stoked to spend time with his grandparents, who share a troubled relationship with their daughter, Langston’s trip goes from bad to worse when he steps off the bus and immediately loses his backpack to a thief. Even more aggravating is his arrest after being accused of stealing a guest’s wallet in a hotel lobby.

A Black grandfather shows a picture to his grandson, a small collection of antiques and photos in the room behind them.

Luckily, Langston’s grandfather, the Reverend Cornell Cobbs, picks him up from jail…though is less than understanding. Langston fails to score points as a grandchild by expressing confusion that the family says grace before eating. Even so, the Rev shows Langston some family heirlooms related to their proud history of involvement in the Civil Rights movement, including a pocket watch that belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.

A Black teenager speaks on the phone with a disappointed look, his grandmother and grandfather looking with concern in the room behind him.

Unfortunately, Langston sees the pocket watch as a way to earn money to pay down the rent his mother owes by selling it at the nearest pawn shop. As luck would have it, the pawn shop owner knows Rev. Cobbs and that he would never voluntarily part with the piece.

Though he strikes out with the watch, Langston encounters a man on the street who can set him up with anything he needs, including a handgun. Langston begins to set the wheels in motion in an extremely misguided attempt to get the money needed to stop the eviction.

As he gets to know his grandparents better, Langston begins to unravel the family’s secrets. While reluctantly attending the Christmas Eve service and hearing the Nativity story at church, Langston offers a place to sit to young expecting couple Maria and Jo Jo. Get it? But do you get it since it’s incredibly subtle?

A young Black man and woman look down at their newborn, who is in an improvised manger with light shining down on him.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Christmas miracle of Naima managing to reunite with her family occurs…but does it mean the truth will surface and the power of forgiveness will smooth over past disagreements?

The Rating:

2.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

To me, there are three stages of watching this film (in no particular order): boredom, annoyance, state of awe of Angela Bassett.

Despite the incredible cast (Angela Bassett! Forest Whitaker! Jennifer Hudson! Mary J. Blige!), this is a surprisingly boring and disjointed film. The main plot line involving the family’s history and Langston’s poor decisions is quite predictable, and our talented cast don’t have nearly enough to do. Add to this the well-known Nativity story that’s not done in a particularly interesting or novel way, songs that are forgettable, and increasingly poor decisions by Langston (who TALKS BACK to Angela Bassett), and there’s not a lot going for it.

We do get strong vocal performances from just about everyone in our film, even if the songs themselves aren’t that interesting. And Angela Bassett in particular does rock the role, especially considering what she’s given to work with. However, there was a major missed opportunity for a Dreamgirls mash-up, especially a scene near the end where a reprise of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” wouldn’t have hurt at all.

All of this being said, I still teared up a little at the extremely predictable end.

Would my blog wife greet this one with open arms or pawn it off as soon as humanly possible? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Holiday Rush, or: (Gum)drop the Bass

You just can’t have a steampunk-inspired Christmas musical every week, can you? But you can have a holiday film about a radio station that at least talks about Christmas music and throws in a festive tune or two! This week’s pick may not enjoy quite the same amount of holiday magic or gorgeously realized fashions, though it does have an impressive number of customized matching footie pajamas.

The Film:

Holiday Rush

The Premise:

After losing their jobs, a radio DJ and his boss attempt to launch a new station, all while teaching spoiled children the true meaning of Christmas as the holidays approach.

The Ramble:

Successful local DJ Rush Williams becomes increasingly confident as his career grows. The part of his life that could most use improvement? His parenting style. More and more inclined to simply throw money at whatever problems arise for his children, Rush has unwittingly created spoiled little brats he can never say no to. This Christmas seems to be no exception as the kids demand outlandish gifts like miniature horses, cars, and designer clothes.

A family with four children ranging from elementary to high school gather around a living room, their father and older aunt observing them.

It’s not a coincidence that Rush feels the need to overcompensate where his kids are concerned. Since the death of his wife, Rush feels pressure to play the role of both parents while keeping his grief to himself. Luckily, Rush’s aunt spends a lot of time taking care of the children, accepting absolutely no nonsense. But is that really enough to replace quality time with their dad?

Perpetually late, Rush has boss and friend Roxy to keep him on track. The two share an ambition: to co-own the radio station where they work. For the time being, this means playing it safe, opting for pre-approved Christmas classics over Rush’s preferred “Christmas in Hollis.” That is, until the station is acquired by a much larger, more cut-throat company, which immediately cancels Rush and Roxy’s show and sends them home with not even a holiday bonus.

A Black man seated in the recording space of a radio station looks unenthusiastic as a Black woman leans over him, smiling and looking up into the distance.

Though he’s worried about the future of his dreams, family man Rush is most concerned about letting down the kids. Not only does Rush’s job loss mean a much more toned down Christmas than in years, past, but it also means the family will have to sell the house and move in with Auntie Jo. Their aunt now lives in the family’s former home, infused with the difficult memories of the children’s mother dying of cancer, and where her absence will feel most keen.

Gathered around a table in a restaurant, a group of four children look skeptically at their father, seated at the head of the table and speaking with intensity.

As chance would have it, selling the house would give Rush some much-needed funds for a promising new investment: the radio station where he and Roxy got their first start is now up for sale, giving the pair a chance to fulfill their dream. But their rival radio station is determined to see them fail, and Rush and Roxy have limited resources. Can the dynamic duo help their new station thrive, prove the naysayers wrong, and pay attention to the mistletoe in the air, all while helping Rush’s children learn the true meaning of Christmas? It’s a tall order…but if you’ve seen even one made-for-TV Christmas movie, you know the answer.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

There’s nothing glaringly wrong here…I just didn’t find this a particularly interesting film. The story lines of Rush and Roxy trying to get their radio station off the ground and that of Rush trying to parent his children feel mostly separate until the end, which makes for a disjointed plot. Because the film has too much going on, neither of these stories, or the characters themselves, feel particularly fleshed out. As a result, a lot of the emotional moments don’t have the impact intended. There’s a rather cringey scene in which Rush talks to the ghost of his wife that failed to tug at my heart strings (and, honestly, verged on making me laugh).

Our leads are watchable (full disclosure: I adore Sonequa Martin-Green), though, and Auntie Jo is a fun addition to the family. However, they don’t get as much screen time as I would have liked, sharing the set with Rush’s four children. They’re honestly not the worst–though they are spoiled, it seems pretty clear that it’s the circumstances that have created bad behavior rather than that they are somehow “bad” kids. Even so, they get a bit more screen time than I would have liked, and very little personality development beyond being walking, talking Christmas wish lists.

However, it does check all of the boxes required of a made-for-TV Christmas film, and you could do worse while wrapping presents, trimming the tree, drinking mulled wine, and any other appropriately festive holiday activities you may choose.

Would my blog wife gift this one a pony for Christmas or leave it only with a lesson about the true meaning of the holidays? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, or: Hark the Herald Androids Sing

It’s December with less than 3 weeks until Christmas, and you can bet we’re keeping things festive on the Blog Collab. Don’t worry–this week’s pick features no fetus angels, alternate timelines, or public outings of multiple LGBTQ folks. However, you’d better be prepared for plenty of song and dance, flying robots, and a colorful steampunk aesthetic this time around.

The Film:

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

The Premise:

Years after betrayal from his apprentice and the tragic death of his wife, a curmudgeonly inventor struggles to connect with his granddaughter as he works on creating a toy that could save his career and family.

The Ramble:

In the present day (which feels close to the early 20th century except steampunk), young siblings have a disagreement about whether the dancing figures that seem to appear in the fireplace are real…or if Christmas magic is well and truly dead. Their knowing grandmother is fully prepared to entertain the children with a special story, The Invention of Jeronicus Jangle. And perhaps the story will contain its own lessons about Christmas magic along the way.

Beside a Christmas tree, an elderly woman sits in an armchair, holding a book. On either side of her sits a child looking on with anticipation.

As the story goes, Jeronicus Jangle (disappointingly, no one in this film was actually christened with the name Jingle Jangle) was a genius inventor who oversaw the most wonderful toy shop around. Along with his wife Joanne and daughter Jessica, Jeronicus created rather steampunk inventions. His latest is a matador-inspired doll that comes to life and happens to be the most stereotypical caricature of a Spaniard…so it’s no surprise that its name is Don Juan Diego. Now a sentient being, Don Juan has an extremely existential crisis when he discovers the toymaker’s plan is to mass-produce millions of his clones. I also have a lot of questions about this, honestly.

A mean wearing goggles in a gadget-filled workshop unveils his latest toy invention as a woman and girl look on excitedly.

Quite cunningly, Don Juan catches onto the resentment of apprentice Gustafson and uses the situation to his advantage, manipulating the young man to take off with all of Jangle’s plans that really should have been copyrighted by now. Shortly after the betrayal, Jangle falls into despair when his wife dies. Stalled as an inventor and neglectful as a father, Jangle ends up all alone and with no inspiration for new ideas. He vows to never create another invention again.

A man dressed elegantly looks angrily at a toy, a figure dressed in a blue matador costume that is moving on its own.

Decades later, Gustafson has set up an even more successful shop, getting away with his theft for…reasons. Though Don Juan is the toy, it becomes pretty obvious he’s the one pulling the strings in this operation. However, the team has now gone through every blueprint in Jangle’s massive book of plans, and they struggle to come up with original ideas that will work.

Meanwhile, Jangle operates a pawnbroker’s shop with the help of his chipper young assistant Edison. Postal worker Ms. Johnston seems to be one of the few folks around who actually likes Jangle, encouraging him to smile (and pay her some attention). But Jangle is focused completely on inventing, as he’s been given a deadline by the bank to come up with a product or face massive debt. Why is money suddenly a sufficient incentive for Jangle to dig out the inventor’s toolkit? Again…reasons.

Around this time, Jangle’s granddaughter Journey decides it’s past time that she met her legendary grandfather. Still embittered after his experience with Gustafson, Jangle requires Journey to sign a legally binding agreement before she can even stay with him.

A man walks along a 19th century street in winter, reading a book. A girl walks next to him.

It’s not long before Journey meets Edison, and the two uncover a long-forgotten invention of Jangle’s, an ominous-sounding robot named the Buddy 3000. The two children managed to bring the robot (which can fly!) to life because they believe in it enough. A cynic might roll their eyes just a little bit here.

Unsurprisingly, Jangle is a bit more reluctant to believe in Christmas magic. He’s rather more annoyed that Journey and Edison have disrupted his workspace, and he doesn’t believe for a second that the robot is actually working as intended.

It’s not long before Gustafson discovers the nature of Jangle’s latest creation and steals it for himself. After Journey and Edison learn of the theft, they are determined to reclaim Buddy and save the future of Jangle’s shop. But can they succeed in their quest without shenanigans? Probably not.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Look, I enjoyed this for around 90 minutes, but our film clocks in at nearly 2 hours (excluding the delightfully animated end credits, which add at least 10 minutes to the film’s runtime). There are repeated moments towards the film’s conclusion when I expected the credits to roll…only to realize we STILL had anywhere from 30 to 15 minutes remaining. I question how readily a young child would sit down for 2 HOURS and follow the somewhat convoluted plot.

I will grant that the film has a lot going for it, and is the most enjoyable recent Christmas film I can think of (I also liked last year’s animated film Klaus a lot). The cast is incredible, from Forest Whitaker to Anika Noni Rose, Keegan-Michael Key, Ricky Martin, Phylicia Rashad, and newcomer Madalen Mills.

The film also looks great–the costumes are wonderfully colorful, and the sets and elaborate choreography reflect the sort of Dickens steampunk on Broadway aesthetic you start to expect after only a few minutes of viewing. Forest Whitaker as Jangle in particular has the coziest looking coat/robe that I would buy immediately should the Jingle Jangle fashion line take off. The songs aren’t super memorable, but the scenes make them come alive in a way that’s absorbing enough so that you may only occasionally think about the number of feats that would be next to impossible in the world of mid-pandemic film production.

I will say that there’s too much going on for the story to really feel like a progression, which disappoints me a bit. There’s not necessarily a feeling that Jangle grows as a person; he’s just suddenly no longer a jerk.

And I got needlessly distracted (as I do) by (1) Don Juan Diego’s portrayal as a complete stereotype and (2) the ethical implications of not only cloning a sentient being, but more or less murdering it. Overthinking this? Most likely. However, I think the arc of Don Juan Diego is increasingly dark and Frankenstein-ian the more you think about it. You’re heading into thoroughly gray area when creating lifeforms and then expecting them to do your bidding.

That being said, I did overall find this film sweet, charming, and full of Christmas cheer.

Would my festive blog wife bring this film to life with her belief or scrap the blueprints before it could be built? Read her review to find out!