Denzel Washington and Viola Davis last teamed up in 2016 for Fences, the film adaptation of the August Wilson play. Washington, who directed, produced and starred, was nominated as producer and actor, and Davis won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Now, four years later, the two pair up again to bring another Wilson adaptation to the screen, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This time, Washington is only producing, but Davis is aiming for her second Oscar, this time for lead, as her performance as legendary Blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey has her in the Best Actress conversation, for good reason.
Directed by legendary stage director George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an incendiary glimpse into the lives of a group of black musicians during a recording session in Chicago in 1927. Ma Rainey is the biggest name in Blues and her management is determined to get her songs recorded onto vinyl, so her agent, played by Jeremy Shamos, is tasked with corralling the headstrong and stubborn Rainey and convincing her to lay down some tracks on this steamy Chicago day. But Rainey, who claimed she created the term “the Blues,” knows that once her music is recorded, it will lose its vitality, and she will lose all her power. Thus begins a long day of cajoling, resisting, delaying and begging, as the power struggle between Ma and her (white) management becomes as heated as the mid-summer Chicago sun.
Revenge movies have traditionally been the domain of fantasy, of an acting out a deeper, imagined strength through excessive violence. Quentin Tarantino movies like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds have made violent revenge a cottage industry, righting wrongs in the most outlandish and unrealistic of ways. In writer/director Emerald Fennell’s stunning debut film, Promising Young Woman, however, revenge is positioned more as a moral imperative than a bloody catharsis, and it is in this approach that this film achieves its greatest effect.
Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a former medical student who has never gotten over the trauma of her best friend’s brutal rape while they were in college. When nothing happened to the attackers because the college covered it up to protect the men involved, Cassie set about to exact her own form of justice by laying traps for men in bars, posing as intoxicated, daring those with evil intentions to take advantage, prompting panic and anger when she drops the charade and challenges their motives. It’s a dangerous game, but we soon understand that Cassie has long ago given herself over to her impulses, perhaps to her own detriment.
It’s hard to believe that in Tom Hanks’s illustrious 40-year career, he has never done a Western—until now. It’s not surprising, though, that it was director Paul Greengrass who was the one to convince America’s Dad to climb onto a horse and handle a six-shooter in the new movie News of the World, adapted by Greengrass and Luke Davies from the novel by Paulette Jiles.
In this new movie, coming out on Christmas Day, Hanks plays post-Civil War captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd who makes a measly living traveling from town to town in the rapidly expanding Western territories, reading news to the locals. When he comes across an orphan girl who had been kidnapped by an Indian tribe as an infant, he feels a responsibility to deliver her to the only family she has left, despite the inherent dangers of the journey.
A cross between Dances with Wolves and The Mandalorian, News of the World is a surprisingly action-packed yet deeply personal movie that lands squarely in Hanks’ wheelhouse. Reuniting with Greengrass, who previously directed him in Captain Phillips, Hanks does what he does best, giving the audience a grounded emotional center around which all matter of hell can swirl. And Greengrass does what he does best, crafting a frills-free action movie that is taut and well-paced. I have to say, seeing Tom Hanks in a shoot-out gave me much more joy than it probably should have.
Election years always inspire artistic expression, notably in movies. This year, an election year unlike any other, we’ve already seen several documentaries and narrative films like The Trial of the Chicago 7 that have a political bent. One more film that is coming out after the election but still has extreme resonance in 2020 is One Night in Miami, the directorial debut by Oscar-winning actress Regina King.
One Night in Miami tells of an imagined gathering of four of the most significant icons of twentieth-century black culture, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. Set in Miami on the night of February 25, 1964, the film features political activist Malcolm X, football star Jim Brown, singer Sam Cooke and boxer Cassius Clay as friends who get together to celebrate Clay’s monumental victory earlier in the evening. While the gathering is fictional, the date is not, as it is the actual date when a young Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to capture the heavyweight boxing championship. Clay, who would soon rename himself Muhammad Ali when he famously converts to Islam, is mentored by Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, who, on this night, is in Miami to provide Clay spiritual guidance and support on his big night. Malcolm and Cassius are joined by Brown and Cooke, and the four embark on an evening of revelry, celebration, reflection and conflict as the events of the evening and the state of the world influence their individual paths and their mutual interests.