Dolemite Is My Name
Los Angeles in the 1970’s: Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) works in a record store, struggling to turn his night-time stand-up comedy routines into tangible success. After an encounter with a homeless man and his strange rhyming rants, Moore is inspired to invent the character of “Dolemite”, a foul-mouthed blaxploitation icon, and he and his creation soon take off on a journey across multiple media.
It has been a while, a very long while, since I saw Eddie Murphy in anything that I could say that I had enjoyed. Dreamgirls is a full thirteen years ago, and his filmography between now and then is a cavalcade of terrible comedy, animated cash-ins and terrible attempts at dramatic legitimisation. So I was delighted to discover Dolemite Is My Name, despite the dangers of it being a car-crash standing ovation biopic dumped on Netflix, is easily Murphy’s best film in well over a decade, presumably aided by the streamer’s hands off approach when it comes to creative control, the more than helping hands of director Craig Brewer and the recent Black Panther-inspired rush of films designed for African-Americans.
I think what it comes down to is simply that Murphy, long established as a master of vulgar comedy, really cares about the material. It’s obvious that he has a great deal of reverence for Rudy Ray Moore, a man popularly considered one of the godfathers of African-American comedy, blaxploitation and the rap genre of music. His brand of comedy is the sort of thing Murphy used to excel in, and now he has a tremendous chance to fall back into that line. Murphy’s Moore goes through the standard beats of a rag to riches story, but it is in the finer details of Dolemite Is My Name that the film really sparks to life.
It works as a character study of Moore, an insecure dreamer (in one telling scene he rants at a picture of his father, a “fucking farmer”) who accidentally stumbles into a character ripe to entrance the African-American zeitgeist in the 1970’s, with Murphy playing him as bold, brash and just about impossible to resist; it works as a showcase for a veritable queue of fantastic African-American talents, most notably Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key and Wesley Snipes (remember him?); it works as as an ode to the joys of making movies, with the film’s best segment being its recreation of the production of 1975’s Dolemite, a slapstick artistic process that produced a cult favourite; and it works as a comedy in itself, with Murphy having the time of his life playing this foul mouthed, pimp cane brandishing outrage, who seems to be equal parts fantastical and the kind of person that Moore himself really wants to be. Ultimately, the film posits that as low-brow and dismissable as Dolemite is, he was an inspiration and a joy to a huge amount of people, who saw in him, much like some modeler audiences may see in Black Panther, their image reflected back at them on the big screen.
Of course, there are elements of Dolemite Is My Name that I am not really in a position to appreciate, give that I am an Irish white male a million metaphorical miles removed from the sort of background that Moore had, or the sort of audience that he aimed to engage with (the film itself notes this, as Moore criticises the Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon’s The Front Page as having “no titties, no funny and no kung-fu”). But I still found Dolemite Is My Name to be something that I could connect to, a film with heart, humour and characters that I could get behind. As a glimpse into the oft-ridiculous world of blaxploitation and how it was made, it a real treat, and it is truly wonderful to see Murphy actually making good once again. I don’t know how many more of these that he has left in him, but here’s hoping that Dolemite Is My Name is the beginning of a trend. Recommended.
Let It Snow
In the small town of Laurel, Illinois, various people and couples are drawn to a party at a diner: aspiring medical student Julia (Isabela Merced) and stranded pop star Stuart (Shameik Moore); Tobin (Mitchell Hope) and his best friend/crush ‘the Duke’ (Kiernan Shipka); diner waitress Dorrie (Liv Hewson) and recent hook-up Kerry (Anna Akana); and paranoid Addie (Odeya Rush), trying to find out if her boyfriend is cheating on her.
Adapted from a compilation novel from Maureen Johnson, John Green and Lauren Myracle, Let It Snow is Netflix’s first shot in a veritable invasion of Yuletide-themed films slated for release between now and the 25th of December, that will run the gauntlet between mumblecore fare like this, animation (see below) and stuff that can be best described as Hallmark card adaptations. This at least has source material from a variety of well-respected authors – chief among them Green of course, whose every written word appears to be either adapted or in pre-production nowadays – and that’s needed, because it can be a bit hard to keep your attention on Let It Snow, a film that really feels like it needed to be episodic (rather like the recent Hulu adaptation of Green’s Looking For Alaska).
Any of the central four plots – and there are a few more minor ones I could throw in, but who has the time for Jacob Batalon’s throwaway role – could be an episode of a mini-series, which may have allowed for them to be fleshed out a bit more. As they are, they are a mostly superficial experience, stories that are overly-sentimental and not really engaging. The linking device of Joan Cusack being a tinfoil-hat wearing crazy person seems an odd choice in retrospect, a framing that wasn’t really required, and seems real forced in the “make every character a little bit kooky” kind of way.
Looking at the stories in turn, and you’ll find a consistent heart-warming nature, but little else besides. Julia and Stuart are both insecure and limited in their own ways, but through their chance encounter discover that they can be more than their stresses and negativity; Tobin needs to get over his own faults and tendency towards jealously so he can finally tell the girl he is so obviously mooning over that he loves her; Dorrie and Kerry need to come to terms with their respectively varied attitudes towards their own sexuality; and Addie needs, to risk a patronising term, to learn how to chill out a little bit.
Let It Snow manages to avoid 90 minutes of whinging teenagers through some good script-work – Tobin and the Duke’s story especially is full of some decent humour involving stolen beer and slow-speed car chases – but can’t really get beyond the sense that we are watching little more than a feature-length episode of a low-stakes soap opera. There’s too many characters and sub-plots to cover, so the film feels endlessly mobile, never willing to let the audience settle on one relationship foible or emotional trauma for too long.
Director Luke Snellin, mostly known for British TV, manages some competent cinematography and visual story-telling, in a film that loves blanketing the viewers vision in the titular white stuff, but also features some well-designed interiors, most notably the increasingly packed out diner that every character ends up spending some portion of the story in. Let It Snow can only really be considered passable, an inoffensive Christmas treat that goes down easy and leaves little in the way of an impression. Partly recommended.
Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), the shiftless heir to a postage service empire, is given an ultimatum by his father: to travel to the Arctic Circle town of Smeerensburg and post 6’000 letters within a year, or be disowned. Finding the rundown town riven by family feuds, Jesper despairs, until a chance encounter with an old toy-maker named Klaus (J.K. Simmons) gives him the idea of inventing a magical figure who gifts toys to children.
Klaus has been a longtime in the making, the brainchild of animator Sergio Pablos, also directing, who set out to design a film that was inspired by the traditional animation styles that used to be dominant, but have since been dropped in favour of computer-based imagery (Pablos, creator of the Despicable Me franchise, has feet in both camps). Klaus has been shopped around for a while now, and finally saw the light of day thanks to Netflix. The effort from Pablos and Netflix is well worth it: Klaus is a fun, and visually pleasing, yuletide delight.
The plot is essentially an effort to come up with an origin story for good old Saint Nick, and nary a crucifix to be found. The journey to get there is certainly unique: Klaus begins with a slapstick Wes Anderson-esque sequence in what I can only describe as a post office factory, before hapless Jesper is exiled to the delightfully named Smeerensburg (loosely based on a real Svalbardian port village), a place of misery in look and inhabitants, more A Nightmare Before Christmas than anything else. To go from this to a more recognisable Christmas tale is quite the feat, but Klaus pulls it off, giving some time for every part of the Santa Claus legend, right down to the naughty list, to be brought to life.
More than that, the film demonstrates an understanding of character that too many animated films don’t care to bother with much anymore. Jesper, ably voiced by Schwartzman) starts as a worthless rich-boy weighed down by expectation (certainly a bit of Kuzco in there), Klaus, equally ably voiced by Simmons, is an embittered loner weighed down by memories (certainly a bit of Carl Frederickson in there) and in the relationship between the two we get to see real growth and change, as Jesper rises to meet his hidden potential and Klaus comes to realise that there is more to life than quiet grief. It is nice to see a film that serves as an ode to the Christmas spirit of giving being a pathway to personal fulfillment and the creation of happiness.
The usual nasty crowd want none of it of course – Joan Cusack, again, and Will Sasso play the respective heads of the main feuding households, who have long since forgotten what they are actually feuding about (despite the museum dedicated to the feud) -b ut it is fair to say that such a conflict is mostly window dressing to what is primarily a story about Jesper and Klaus setting out to change the world for the better.
And the film looks genuinely amazing. More than half the reason Pablos stuck with this project was his apparent desire to show what 2D animation still had to offer: Klaus employs modern techniques in volumetric lighting to make many of its scenes pop, and the backgrounds and characters have obviously been created, and-drawn the old-fashioned way, with real care. The desolate surrounds of Smeerensburg, the warm, lived-in nature of Klaus’ workshop, the emphasis on the Sami people and culture, or the transferred classroom of Rashida Jones’ schoolteacher character (the locals won’t let their kids go to school, so it’s a veritable marine abattoir instead) are all fantastic set-pieces, worthy of acclaim.
This is a really strong effort, and the world of animation could do with taking notice. It could easily have been a half-baked endevour, but it was clearly made with love. It’s refreshingly endearing, and earns what could be otherwise considered a soppy ending. I’m not sure how much of an audience Klaus is likely to find, but viewers looking for some heartwarming, yet thought provoking, Christmas films, would do better in my eyes to consider Klaus over the more shallow Let It Snow or however many new adaptations of A Christmas Carol that are lined up. Highly recommended.
In a not-too-distant future afflicted by an endless drought, drifter Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) suffers from seizures that cause supernatural earthquakes. Pursued by shadowy agents that consider her dangerous, Ruth returns to her childhood home where her similarly endowed mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) try and help her to control her powers.
This was a real throwaway watch for me, something I put on while I was doing some work, intended to be little more than background noise. But then the work that I had been planning on doing got abandoned, because the background noise had taken my full attention. Fast Color isn’t a perfect film by any stretch, but it is undeniably captivating, a twist on the superhero formula that is well-worth considering.
The minimalist approach – there are only five cast members of note, and the majority of the film takes place in one rundown farmhouse – serves Fast Color well. Free from the usual super-powered distractions, we are at liberty instead to focus on character, and Fast Color has plenty to showcase there. Ruth, a traumatised individual with murderous powers she can’t control, is on a quest for rehabilitation and redemption, attempting to find it with the representation of her flawed past in mother Bo, and in the potential of her future in Lila. Mbatha-Raw gives a powerful and assured performance as a burned out vagrant, who imbues every scene with a very palpable tiredness and frustration with the world that she has been handed; Toussaint is comparatively under-stated, but still very effective as a matriarch bowled over by the weariness of responsibility, but maintaining an impressive positivity.
Fast Color, despite its limited running time, is a slow burner. There are no traditional super-powered hi-jinks to see here, and the central part of the narrative, wherein a duplicitous scientist (Christopher Denham – not great) tries to track down Ruth, while the local sheriff (David Strathairn, along for the ride) also investigates, fades away for much of the second act. This leaves Ruth alone with her mother and daughter, trying to figure out how she can get a handle on her destructive nature, and this section is undoubtedly Fast Color’s best: it’s finale is probably the worst, when director Julia Hart is forced to actually come up with a satisfying conclusion, and only partly hits the mark, delving a bit too much into abstract notions.
Aside from the minority nature of the cast – which allows for a brief, but surprisingly poignant, commentary on inter-racial relationships at one point – Fast Color has a big focus on women through the prism of superpowers. This genre is chock full of burly men (and on rare occasions, burly women) beating people up and knocking buildings over; rare is the resort to ideas like creativity and the bringing of life. Fast Color lands on those themes squarely, presenting their three gifted women as the carriers of almost divine powers, powers that can be used for more than just personal redemption. The women of Fast Color are tough, hardened and yet still willing to let the light in: while the finale has a degree of scmalsh to it, it can’t be denied that the ultimate resolution ties in effectively to the idea of women as life givers. This is unlikely to make a big impression on the landscape, but is deserving of much praise all the same. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix and Codeblack Films).