Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Empire Records (1995)

Director: Allan Moyle Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 1h 30m
Studio: New Regency (Warner Bros.) Screenwriter: Carol Heikkinen
Cast: Liv Tyler, Ethan Embry, Robin Turner, Johnny Whitworth, Rory Cochrane, Debi Mazer, Renée Zellweger, Coyote Shivers, Maxwell Caulfield

Adolescence is messy and confusing; adulthood doesn’t improve this, and Empire Records zeros in on this truth, though audaciously. 

Films set in ’a day in the life’ can be challenging to embody multiple points about movies that make them watchable. Character development is such an area. Several characters staff the store at Empire Records, but there isn’t just one main focus. This film is centered around the plot, with the characters woven in, telling the story (as they should be) even if none of them is deep or developed. There’s just this right mix, blending, to make it all right. 

Rory Cochrane in ‘Empire Records’ by New Regency via IMDb.com

Joe (Lapaglia) is the manager of Empire Records, who is beloved by his (clearly longstanding) employees. Lucas (Cochrane) learns that the owner, Mitchell, wants to sell the store to a big box chain music outlet. Doing so insults independent stores and expression and would see them all fired. So, he takes all the money from that day’s sales and heads off to Atlantic City instead of the bank. That doesn’t go to plan and helps fuel the main drive of the story. To top off learning he’s been robbed (the next day), Joe must contend with the has-been 80s pop star, Rex Manning (Caulfield), being in his store signing autographs. The filmmakers seemed to go for a mashup of David Hasslehoff and Fabio, wearing tight ass pants and a puffy pirate shirt. 

Forget the reality that the store is constantly full of people, and a large chunk of the film centers around most of the staff in the back or elsewhere. Those extras are off-screen; think of them as paused for these moments. In these moments, we see slices of each employee as people and friends. Professionally who wouldn’t want all their workers to jive well together? Who wouldn’t want to go to a job they enjoyed without worrying about co-worker goobers? I think it’s a great accomplishment writing-wise and shown cinematically because they are all very different people. But that’s what you should strive for in a business like a record store, a great blend of people who are going to know a bit about every music type so they can best interact with the customers. However, there are few interactions with the customers in this store. There’s still time to catch shoplifters, which is one of the funnier sequences in the movie. 

Maxwell Caulfield & Brendan Sexton III in New Rengecy’s ‘Empire Records’ via Slashfilms.com

The cast is full of many actors who were early into their careers and went on to do more significant and more notable parts. Liv Tyler for Armageddon and Lord of the Ring trilogy. Ethan Embry for Can’t Hardly Wait, Sweet Home Alabama, Once Upon a Time. Robin Tunny in The Craft and The MentalistEmpire Records is a fun story that needs to be enjoyed for the feel-good comedy of becoming an adult in the mid-90s. It’s not campy or cheesy and has a well-blended soundtrack that merges perfectly with the pace and tone of the overall film. Was it a box office flop? Hell yes! 

Empire Records is a film that knows what it is. It was never difficult to sell or market to the public, yet the studio utterly failed with the trailer for this film. They over-explained, gave away too many details, and left nothing to the imagination. If they had given this movie a proper trailer, more people would have gone to see it. Empire Records is on the list of films that bombed at the box office but rose to cult classic status, deservedly. 

Johnny Whitworth, Renée Zellweger, & Liv Tyler in New Regency’s ‘Empire Records’ via Ranker.com

If watching comedic movies without thinking about them seriously is your idea of a good time, Empire Records is a hidden nugget worth a place on your watchlist. Watch the trailer at your own risk. I dislike it so much that I opted not to include it in this post, but nothing I said was a spoiler, as it was in the trailer. Cheers!

-A Pen Lady

Film Critic, Movie Blog, Movie Reviews

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Directed by: George C. Wolfe Runtime: 1hr 34 min    Rated: R    Studio: Netflix

Screenwriter: Ruben Santiago-Hudson    Based on: August Wilson’s play

Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts 

The play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson transitions to film through screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and stage director/playwright George C. Wolfe. 

While the music, locations, and clothes of the late 1920s transition well to screen, and why wouldn’t it, the plot to record a record in a sweltering recording studio one afternoon does not. It’s a pretext; this film is all about the characters. Every movie needs characters, true and well-developed ones, to engage a viewer’s interest. This project as a film fails at that miserably. 

Ma Rainey was a real-life woman that August Wilson based a 1982 play on. Ma became known as the “mother of blues” for her contributions and shaping of blues music during the early 1900s. Her sound and notable stage performance style made her the first known blues artist. For a woman during that time and a black woman, that was an accomplishment. Especially when the world had more issues with both those labels. She made a name for herself, a brand, and had a following. How this film presents her, however, is unflattering. 

Netflix Official Trailer for ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

It’s fair to wonder if this movie’s choice of focus, a day-in-the-life-of take on Ma Rainey, is an accurate representation of her character or just a bad day. I think this woman deserves a film that can flesh her out better and give a more rounded take on her life and music. A movie should not have the audience asking themselves if it’s accurate; it should show it.

The failure to show it is because Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson stick to August Wilson’s uses of speeches too heavily. They forego the needed camera movements with the acting to show, not tell what’s going on. Choosing close-up shots and framing the actors standing around or sitting like they are on stage waste a cinematographers’ talent. This is supposed to be a movie, not a play. The entire film is a slow drag (no pun intended) that makes the runtime feel twice as long as it actually is. It’s based on a play and feels like one. 

At the recording studio, all the audience is subjected to is heavy exposition. Talking. Lots, and lots, of speaking. The band members stand around, trash-talking, occasionally playing music, swapping stories, and being verbally abusive with nothing else to move the story along. It leaves the impression that Ma Rainey isn’t the mother of anything. Historically that’s not true, but this project doesn’t do much for the real-life person who earned that title. 

Ma Rainey’s band, in Netflix’s ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’

Viola Davis is an incredible actress with great depth and range. Still, the depiction of Ma Rainey makes me cringe as Ma comes off so unlikeable. Maybe she was in real life. I am left with the impression that Ma is always a bitch and learn little of consequence about her. Ma’s demeanor is understandable towards white people. Mainly because it’s useful to keep control and stay successful in a white, male-run world. Yet, she’s just as mean and snobby to the black people around her. 

Chadwick Boseman was undoubtedly a talented actor as well. His character, Levee, grates at Ma’s nerve. Levee is young, ambitious, and loves music like Ma and dreams of having his own band, so he doesn’t have to play the same old music anymore. He’s arrogant and misogynistic. Ma and Levee are so similar it’s obvious why they don’t get along, and it makes me wonder how he ever ended up in her band in the first place.

Wilson’s use of monologuing is where the viewer gets any relevant information about the characters. While there is a lot of information and perspective to be gained from these moments about Levee, Ma, and the rest of the band, it’s not enough. 

I enjoy a good play, and perhaps I would have gotten more out of this material if I had seen it as such. You can’t lose what you don’t have, and this film didn’t have cinematic structure story-telling. The interactions of the characters’ speeches alone are not enough; it makes the movie boring and does nothing for music or the blues in a memorable way. 

Viola Davis is Ma Rainey in Netflix’s ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Circling back to Levee’s character…as a devil’s advocate. Chadwick Boseman has been given so much praise for this role. He took on this project knowing he had cancer and didn’t tell anyone. Boseman certainly wasn’t the first actor/actress to work on a project with cancer or during treatments. So I’m conflicted as to if he has gotten this praise because it was a great job or because he died and his peers all loved him. That sounds terrible, I know. If an actor is saying lines that run parallel to their actual life, in an emotional state. Is it really acting, or is it life imitating art? If he hadn’t died, would the same praise be there? 

This film touches on important topics, like cultural appropriation, intellectual property rights and theft, sexuality, and multi-layered race issues. These could have been shown on film rather than talked about. It would have enabled the story with much need pacing.

Still, the trailer for this film was the best thing about it. It implied more about blues or music than is actually experienced. Due to its lack of effective adaptation to film, I would not recommend this for your watch list. 

—a pen lady