Kind of Blue December 30, 2020
New movies from Steven Soderbergh, Thomas Vinterberg, and George C. Wolfe
ast August, director Steven Soderbergh and a star-studded band of actors
hopped aboard the Queen Mary 2 Ocean Liner and made a movie. Production
lasted about two weeks (with a tiny portion of filming done in New York City). All there was to guide Soderbergh and his ensemble was an outline penned by short story writer Deborah Eisenberg. They knew ahead of time that Meryl Streep would be playing a critically acclaimed author working on her next book on this luxe ship. Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest would be her guests (friends of the character’s whom she hasn’t seen for the last 30 years), and co-stars Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan would portray her devoted nephew-slash-assistant and her stressed-out agent who has snuck aboard to spy on her, respectively. Soderbergh opted for the barest amount of equipment; Wiest has said the only formal technology lugged around was the
sound equipment, with the camera often scooted around on a borrowed wheelchair. Soderbergh, always searching for a new way to innovate (his last few movies, including 2018’s Unsane and 2019’s High Flying Bird, were shot on iPhones), recently on The Big Picture podcast likened the making of the movie to a dare. Was it possible to shoot a film within the time frame of a cruise’s passage from point A to point B?
I heard all this and feared for the worst. Novel as it sounded, and as much as I would like to see the behind-the-scenes footage of this unusual adventure with this particular group of people, was the finished product going to have the look and feel of a self-gratifying exercise — fun only to those who experienced the controlled chaos firsthand? To help drill in the idea that this movie was made “for fun,” almost, Streep has loved pointing out in interviews that the film’s budget was about 25 cents. I’d love to find out how large the gap between hyperbole and reality really is.
Luckily, the result, Let Them All Talk, released on HBO Max earlier this month, is an enjoyable hangout-style movie with a rewarding emotional payoff. And it’s not as frivolous as it seems at first: it reveals itself as an economical, canny look at how a serious writer’s dedication to their craft can affect their closest relationships. I liked spending time with these characters (the movie pinballs between different subsets of the ensemble for most of its length, recalling the structure of genre archetypes like 1932’s Grand Hotel). The performances and dialogue don’t have the central nervous energy one might expect from a speedy production supported mostly by ostensible improvisation. In contrast to its high-seas setting, Let Them All Talk stands on sturdy ground.
Streep is wonderfully tart in the movie. There’s a particularly telling moment where she dresses down another writer on the boat who, unlike the more painstaking her, is known for churning out dime-a-dozen whodunits. When he says it usually takes him between three and four months to get a book done, Streep deadpans, “that’s longer than I thought!” Hedges and Chan are touching as personally adrift people who, for a brief moment, find a bond. Wiest, in a sort of maternal mode, is typically warm, although her character is the least defined of her ensemble-mates.
As Streep’s down-on-her-luck frenemy, who is convinced that the latter character’s magnum opus is based on her constantly-plunging-downward life, Bergen runs away with the movie. The actors uniformly lend their characters an unanticipated amount of depth; when the movie wraps up, one can envision how their lives might continue unfolding once they’ve eased back into their everyday routines. But Bergen especially gets right her character’s desperation and depression (she’s currently single and working a minimum-wage job at a lingerie store). The film’s best scene comes near its end, when she confronts her friend looking in equal parts for an apology and, audaciously, a financial opportunity. What makes Let Them All Talk stick with you comes to the fore a scene or so later — and it’s a plot twist that kills on sight a good portion of the film’s fundamental breeziness. I’m not sure the movie will be looked at down the line as much more than one of Soderbergh’s more inspired experiments. But it’s nevertheless admirable how much is made with so little. Like the seabound vacation its ensemble luxuriates in, we’re glad to have gone on this journey.
Viola Davis in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
ne doesn’t often hear — well, ever hear — of people becoming alcoholics on purpose. But that’s just what the four friends at the center of Thomas Vinterberg’s new movie, Another Round, do. At the
beginning of the film, this middle-aged quartet is out at dinner, celebrating the 40th birthday of the baby of the group, Nikolaj (Magnus Millang). Their de-facto leader, Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), sits through most of it sullen. He
looks like a blobfish just after it’s been squished while everyone else merrily catches up. (It throws us off to see this — Mikkelsen’s face is so spectacularly angled, made up of so many jagged edges, that he has frequently in his career been cast as creepily placid villains.)
Eventually, Martin kills the mood. He starts to cry. He admits to his friends that he feels like a shadow of his former self — someone who has gotten more boring with age. Martin has been feeling this way for a while now, to the point that his “normal” is this sub-version of himself. This isn’t helped by his turning-downward marriage, or that professionally he’s never felt more unconfident. (He and his three pals teach at the same school; at the start of Another Round, Martin is pulled aside by a group of students and parents who announce a worry that upcoming exams are going to be a wash because of his lackluster teaching.)
Martin’s friends all immediately vindicate his feelings, and do a pretty good job of pulling him out of his sadness for the night. But his state is one they’re familiar with, and his openness turns the volume up on their long-tampered-down frustrations. Nikolaj, newly preoccupied with everyone’s middle-aged listlessness, thinks of something that could maybe fix things — an experiment he heard about a while back. (When you hear what he has to say, you think you might prefer it if he proposed something a little more woo-woo — something out of a long-lost new-age self-help book would have been comparatively nice.)
Years ago, psychiatrist Finn Skårderud published a controversial theory. He argued that everyone is born with a natural blood-alcohol deficit, and that if one drinks periodically throughout the day to keep the amount steady at 0.050 percent, it could actually make one sharper. The men hear this and are struck by how appealing it sounds. Why not see if this is true? They don’t think about the riskiness of participating in such a test, or what might happen if their employers, families, catch on. Without pause, the four dive into their dipsomaniacal experiment eagerly. Nikolaj keeps track of his findings in an online diary. Initially, the collective highs seem to prove Skårderud’s point. Martin, for instance, starts teaching with more enthusiasm and success than he has ever before; his wife and kids suddenly seem like they enjoy being around him. But inevitably, the effects of alcohol dependency, no matter how notionally controlled, are ripe for giving way for hazardous lows.
Another Round is supposed to be something of an ensemble movie, but Mikkelsen’s performance has such an evocative anguish to it that I couldn’t bring myself to care about his friends quite as much. He had a funny effect on me as I watched the movie — I got choked up whenever the character did. (When he shares what’s bothering him at that early dinner scene, his eyes struggling to keep the tears sucked up, I was startled by how much it affected me — Mikkelsen’s hurt is so palpable that you almost don’t have to hear what’s bothering him to feel with him.) His co-stars in the movie are effective in their roles but aren’t doing anything you haven’t already seen in a sad-sack drama about midlife crises — a subgenre that, while able to find new emotional contours, has become increasingly less interesting the more it’s reintroduced on screen. The movie goes mostly every place you think it will; you’ve never that surprised, and it’s hard to get very emotionally enmeshed when there’s an inevitability underneath the action, even if the premise itself is relatively original.
But Mikkelsen makes his character’s decidedly ordinary midlife unhappiness have a cinematic freshness. When you’re watching him, you feel like you haven’t seen this many-times-told story before. He’s the reason to watch the film; one almost wishes the movie were just about him. Mikkelsen’s the kind of oft-undervalued performer who can make a well-made but inexorable-feeling movie like Another Round stay with you because his work is so vivid. The end of the movie is bracingly grounded — it’s surface-level happy, but you’re equal parts prepared for that happiness to stick around or immediately fall apart. Mikkelsen plays it with such lopsided, singular exuberance that I don’t think I’d still be thinking about it if he weren’t at the center of it.
a Rainey’s Black Bottom, released on Netflix a couple of weeks ago, is an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name. It’s a well-acted drama, but its forceful emotional ebbs and
flows are sometimes muted by the stageboundness of George C. Wolfe’s direction. It hits our eyes the way a play would — rife with awkward medium shots and bristling with set and costume design more tipped toward hyperbole than realism (the movie is set in 1927). When you’ve adapted a play for a screen the thought, I don’t think, should be that it’s like watching a filmed play; we should think about how the material feels refreshed by this different medium, not that this medium is doing over what was seen on the stage. Wolfe doesn’t seem very interested in giving this material any new dimension.
Dull look aside, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an involving movie, and there’s enough emotional and psychological dimension built in anyway. The film is a fictional account of the day the eponymous blues singer (Viola Davis) recorded the title track. You can feel the way the heat swelters in this tiny building on this hot summer day. The movie swings between the behind-the-scenes discord between the members of Rainey’s backing band and Rainey’s frustrations in the recording room. The band subplot isn’t quite as compelling, if only because Davis’ performance as the pioneering singer is so big and visually memorable — accented by smeary kohled eyes, snake-like eyebrows, and a gleaming set of gold teeth. We miss the actress’ animatedness when she isn’t in the room. (Though the late Chadwick Boseman is terrific as Rainey’s stifled-feeling trumpeter Levee; whereas some of the movie’s actors can’t shed off the feeling that their characters’ neuroses have been prescribed to them, Boseman makes Levee’s exasperation, and its escalation, feel organic and aching. He and Davis are surefire Oscar contenders — these are thrillingly showy performances.)
The dialogue is almost rhythmic — rarely do characters wallow in silence — but its fast, almost musical quality isn’t stylish for stylishness’ sake. It gives more momentum to Wilson’s savvy critique of how Black art is consumed by a white-dominant culture, and how the racial mores of the 1920s could infiltrate the recording process as seen in the movie. (Everyone behind the booth is white; so is Rainey's manager.) Underneath the drama is the inexorability of Rainey’s output being co-opted, milked for everything it's worth, and then essentially overtaken by white musicians. When Rainey exhibits what some might refer to as “diva” behavior — like when she tells her manager that she isn’t going to perform until she’s had a cold bottle of Coke — it’s really more just a Black woman asserting what she needs, knowing her worth as a popular singer, when white powers that be try to push her into a state of submissiveness, like a toy with an on-off switch.
The film’s discomfiting coda sees an unnamed white male singer, with none of Rainey’s spark, belting out one of her tunes. We needn’t see a title card to know he will very likely see more money than Rainey did off this song, and that it will be his version of it that will get more mainstream airplay. When it debuted four decades ago, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a pivotal work, of many, to discerningly evince and grapple with the white exploitation of Black art. (The play itself was part of a 10-part anthology of works written by Wilson to dramatize various Black lives across the 20th century.) The movie adaptation might not give the play much new life, but Wilson’s work still sings, and these actors confidently carry its melody.
Let Them All Talk: B+
Another Round: B+
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: B