Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Written by Taylor Baker

66/100

Black Bottom starts with a magnetic and memorable opening scene. Viola is at once alluring and gravitational. Her character ‘Ma’ or ‘Ma Rainey’ is a powerful role. She lingers with the viewer long after the credits roll. That distinctive face and sooty make up engulf you. Boseman’s ‘Levee’ is deserving of the attention he’s received. For me though he’s a bit too big and the character a bit too sharp on the edges. I was particularly fond of the understated performance of Colman Domingo. Whose become a favorite of mine over these last couple years following his turn in If Beale Street Could Talk.

Though I’m happy to see August Wilson’s Plays are becoming available to the masses, I can’t help but brood on how much more engrossing, and how much more deeply I might be moved had I seen this live rather than at home. A particular pick I have to nit is the obvious and ultimately drab choice to have a door that leads to nowhere play so crucial to the third act. I don’t mind a foreshadow here or Chekhov’s gun there, but my God that was telegraphed a mile away. Despite my hang ups this is still near the top of the heap in the bevy of award season releases we’ve seen recently and one I’d recommend to just about any viewer.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Trailer

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available to stream thru Netflix

The Empty Man

Written by Taylor Baker

82/100

The Empty Man marks the first time since The Invisible Man that I’ve been to a theater this year to see a film that I had low expectations for and came out the other end of the auditorium doors feeling completely different than when I went in. The Empty Man isn’t new IP, nor is it a directorial debut, it isn’t really doing anything remarkably “new”. But there’s something about it, something that simultaneously brings the hope and joy of storytelling through the lens format and plots itself along the methodical dark brooding that the horror genre can touch at its best.

The Empty Man isn’t a great film, I’d likely concede in conversation that depending on your preference for cinema it may not even be good film. However I find myself having loved the experience of watching it. David Prior very visibly had a clear direction he wanted to go with the film. It’s blending the expectations of horror tropes and go to cinematic moves and then twisting them just a bit. This isn’t a director with a story over his head, putting a hat on a hat to try to “get” the audience. This is a storyteller, who has a voice and isn’t making bold choices in how he presents his story but rather smart, simple, and effective ones.

Prior not only directs, but edits his film. A decision that may be wholly responsible for my positive response. There are more than a handful of moments that a transition or editing choice won me over as an audience member. Even in the face of it’s flaws, I’m looking at you CG pan down into the forest from a sub-orbital location. James Badge Dale turns in a sturdy performance. The special effects almost never underwhelm. The use of attention to negative space and sound design were incredibly flattering to the films progression.

I don’t know that I expect David Prior to continue on and grow further as a director. I can say that this work has me willing to offer him another chance. I’ll end on the most positive note I have, in the first third of the film there is a Google Search sequence with some of the most deft work of parsing and shooting search results and Wikipedia results that I’ve ever seen.

The Empty Man is the first true reason to go back to a theater since Tenet.

Recommended.

–Taylor Baker originally posted this review on Letterboxd 10/27/20