Here’s part two of my mini reviews for movies released on streaming services this past December, featuring “A California Christmas, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Sylvie’s Love,” and the final three films in Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology.
“A CALIFORNIA CHRISTMAS” (Netflix)
Maybe I’d feel a little bit warmer toward this film if it hadn’t misled me by putting “Christmas” in the title. Because outside of a countdown throughout the movie informing us how many days away from Christmas we are, and a couple of Christmas trees present in the final shot of the film, “A California Christmas” has nothing to do with the holiday. Instead, it’s a rather standard romance about a wealthy jerk (Joseph, played by Josh Swickard) who is sent to California wine country to close a deal to buy a ranch for his family’s firm. When Callie (Lauren Swickard), the young woman who lives on the ranch and largely runs it by herself, mistakes Joseph for the new ranch hand, he plays along, hoping that he can get closer to her and make it easier to seal the deal. But Joseph and Callie soon develop feelings for each other that compromises Joseph’s position with his family. “A California Christmas,” which is directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino and written by Lauren Swickard, does at least boast higher production values and better performances than the typical TV movie. The Swickard’s are husband and wife in real life, and their chemistry comes through here. It’s equal parts comedy and drama, with a lot of humor to be found in the ritzy Joseph trying to do rough work around the farm, while his driver Leo (Ali Afshar) hides out with Manny (David Del Rio), the ranch hand Joseph is impersonating. But there are a lot of heavy moments that accompany Callie’s story. She is behind on bills and struggling to keep the ranch, her mom has cancer, and she’s still reeling from the loss of her father and fiancée in a car accident. The film doesn’t do a great job balancing these two very different tones, and what starts out as a fairly light comedy ends up getting pretty heavy. And it’s so predictable, with little else to offer to entertain the audience, that after the first hour watching it starts to feel like a chore. Too bad there weren’t more flashy Christmas lights to keep me distracted. Runtime: 106 minutes. Rated PG-13.
“MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM” (Netflix)
Like many stage to screen adaptations, it’s obvious throughout “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” that it originated as a play. This film version of the August Wilson play is directed by George C. Wolfe and set on one afternoon in 1927 Chicago. Blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band gather to record some of her songs, and tensions flare between Ma and her white managers, who want her to perform her music a certain way, and trumpet player Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman), who wants to start his own band and play his own music. Ma Rainey was a real person, known as the “Mother of the Blues” and one of the first Black women to ever record her music. Davis brings her big, brassy personality to life in every scene she’s in, but the film doesn’t provide a lot of depth to her beyond that. We learn little about her career, her life, or her relationships, particularly with her younger girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), an interesting angle that the story glosses over. The film also brings up the issue of white managers exerting control over Black artists’ music, but again, doesn’t delve into this beyond a surface level. Much of the focus is directed instead to Levee. In his final film performance, Boseman is arresting every time he appears, and every time he erupts into a passionate speech. If anything, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” makes you keenly aware of just how much talent he possessed, and how much more he could have done. Many of the shots could have been staged differently to make the film feel more cinematic, but the racial tensions exhibited in Wilson’s original 1982 play are still as alive as ever. Glynn Turman and Colman Domingo are magnificent in supporting roles as Toledo, a pianist, and Cutler, a guitar and trombone player. Runtime: 94 minutes. Rated R.
“SYLVIE’S LOVE” (Amazon Prime Video)
“Sylvie’s Love” is the kind of movie that isn’t made anymore, from its production (it was filmed on 16 mm film, lending scenes an old and crackly quality while emphasizing its dreamy sets and costumes) to the old-fashioned warmth of the love story at its center. The film, written and directed by Eugene Ashe, begins in 1957 New York and follows Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) and Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) over a number of years. They first meet in Sylvie’s father’s record store, and its love at first sight for the pair. But Sylvie is engaged to a man serving in Korea, and Robert is a saxophonist on the verge of his big break. “Sylvie’s Love” may serve its audience a very familiar story, but by placing Black characters at the center of it—and not making racial prejudice the focus of the film—Ashe creates the sort of movie we could have seen in the 1960s had Hollywood been more inclusive. That’s not to mention the fact that “Sylvie’s Love” is also an empowering story for women. Sylvie dreams of becoming a television producer at a time when most working women were single, and Black women especially couldn’t see themselves in a role like that. But she is successful, and the story allows her to pursue her dreams while maintaining her home life, as opposed to forcing her to choose. Thompson and Asomugha are both charming and have wonderful chemistry together. Aja Naomi King is also a funny and warm presence as Sylvie’s cousin Mona, and the film spends a good deal of time portraying their close sisterly bond. Music is a thread that binds the characters together while also illustrating the passage of time, and the jazz/rock/soul/Motown soundtrack to “Sylvie’s Love” is impeccable. Hair and wardrobe are also perfectly used to again show the changing times, but also life and career changes for the characters. “Sylvie’s Love” may not be groundbreaking in terms of story, and it goes on for a little too long, but it does put a fresh spin on something familiar that fans of 1950s and 60s Hollywood will especially be drawn to. Eva Longoria, Alano Miller, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Lance Reddick, Tone Bell, and Regé-Jean Page. Runtime: 114 minutes. Rated PG-13.
“RED, WHITE AND BLUE” (Amazon Prime Video)
John Boyega, known to most as Finn in the most recent “Star Wars” trilogy, made headlines around the world in 2020 for passionately speaking out at Black Lives Matter protests, and for openly discussing the racism he and other Black actors have experienced in the entertainment industry. It feels like a lot of that rage is bubbly just under the surface of his performance in “Red, White, and Blue,” the third film in director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology. The film tells the true story of Leroy Logan (Boyega), a forensic scientist who, after his father (Steve Toussaint) is assaulted by police officers, decides to pursue his longtime ambition of becoming a policeman with the hope of reforming the racist attitudes in the institution from within. “Red, White, and Blue” effectively portrays how difficult it is to change ingrained prejudice, as Leroy—who enters the police force rather naively believing he will be able to make a difference—eventually realizes that his presence is not enough. Boyega’s performance (the best in his career to date), helps show this as well, as over the course of the film, his stoicism breaks down and is replaced by anger. But “Red, White, and Blue” is as much a father and son story as it is about racism in the Metropolitan Police. Leroy’s decision to change careers incenses his father, who despises the police, and we see his dad struggle to balance his disappointment with his love for his son. McQueen beautifully shows this relationship in the most powerful shot of the film: dropping his son off for his first day of training, the camera remains in the car looking out the window as the pair get out, and ultimately hug each other before they part. As with the previous two films in this series, McQueen successfully explores the struggles of London’s West Indian community, while also getting at the heart of the people who make up that community. Runtime: 80 minutes. Rated TV-MA.
“ALEX WHEATLE” (Amazon Prime Video)
If Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology has any flaws, it’s that some of its subjects merit a more thorough investigation than the under 70 minute runtime of their films allows. Such is the case with “Alex Wheatle,” which is the weakest installment in the series, but only because it skims the surface of Wheatle’s life without giving the full picture of all he has accomplished. But it is worth mentioning that in only 66 minutes, McQueen manages to portray a solid picture of Wheatle’s early life, and gets at the heart of his influences and what made him into who he is today. Sheyi Cole stars as Alex Wheatle, a man born in London to Jamaican parents but who grew up in a care home. It wasn’t until he got older and was sent to live in a hostel in Brixton that he discovered a community he felt like he belonged to, developing a particular love for music. After his participation in the 1981 Brixton Uprising lands him in jail, Alex is encouraged by his cell mate, a Rastafarian named Simeon (Robbie Gee) to educate himself by turning to reading and writing. The film is structured so that we first meet Alex as he is entering prison, with flashbacks filling in the rest of his life up to then, the film ending as his imprisonment does. While what we know of his extensive career afterwards is only seen in the postscript—Alex has channeled his experiences into the numerous novels he’s written for children and young adults, and was awarded an MBE for services to literature in 2008—the film is more a portrait of a man discovering himself and his heritage. There are some particularly joyous moments that show how music can transport you and help foster a sense of community (not unlike what we saw in “Lovers Rock”) and the shots that linger inside the tiny record store Alex frequents made me want to teleport from my couch to inside my TV screen. Cole effectively embodies Alex, naturally portraying his transition from someone unsure of who he is or where he came from to a man who is confident in his work and his beliefs. “Alex Wheatle” may lack the punch of the other “Small Axe” films, but it’s still a great entry in a fantastic series. Runtime: 66 minutes. Rated TV-MA.
“EDUCATION” (Amazon Prime Video)
Director Steve McQueen concludes his “Small Axe” anthology with “Education,” an exploration of the racism present in London’s school system in the 1970s. The story is told through Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), a 12-year-old Black student who is sent to a school for special needs after being repeatedly chastised by his teachers for being disruptive in class. But Kingsley doesn’t get the help he needs at this school; in fact, the students are often left to their own devices, and when a teacher is present, they don’t actually teach the kids anything. It’s actually a way for predominantly white schools to prevent Black students from getting a good education, something that Kinsley’s parents (Sharlene Whyte and Daniel Francis-Swaby), who are too busy with their jobs to pay attention to, are unaware of, until a group of activists enlists their help to fight the system. Like the other “Small Axe” films, “Education” is set in the past but addresses issues that are still relevant today. It’s frustrating and upsetting to watch Kingsley, who we are introduced to at the start of the film as a young boy fascinated by space who wants to become an astronaut, be denied the education he deserves, but the progress made by the end of the film does leave us with some hope. Sandy is a wonderful discovery who makes Kingsley immediately endearing. Whyte is also phenomenal as his mother Agnes. McQueen is careful to show that her belated discovery of what is going on at Kingsley’s new school is not due to lack of caring about her son’s education, but rather an underestimation of how the system is made to work against them. When Lydia (Josette Simon) and Hazel (Naomi Ackie), women working to expose the education system for setting West Indian students up for failure, first try to explain this to Agnes, her response is that Kingsley just isn’t working hard enough; it isn’t until she begins hearing stories from other parents whose children have had similar experiences to Kingsley’s that she realizes that hard work doesn’t matter when the institution is rigged to prevent your success. “Education” is the most standard entry in the “Small Axe” series, with McQueen relying on plain good storytelling to get his point across. It’s a fitting end to this eye-opening, exceptionally crafted series of films that further cements McQueen as one of the most talented filmmakers working today. Runtime: 63 minutes. Rated TV-MA.