Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name (B+) is a joyous examination of creating unconventional film art and in the vulgar verses and syncopation of its titular rhyming cinematic pimp may just showcase the origins of rap music too. Eddie Murphy as standup comedian turned Blaxploitation movie icon Rudy Ray Moore and Wesley Snipes as D’Urville Martin, an obscure and flamboyant actor tapped to direct the film-within-the-film, both turn in marvelous comeback performances. The film falls in the let’s-make-a-terrible-movie sub-genre already populated by The Disaster Artist and Ed Wood, but it’s also notable for plumbing an era in history of significant underrepresentation of African-Americans in film. The movie is gorgeously art directed and very funny. It’s a hoot to see an ensemble, including Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Chris Rock and Titus Burgess, having this much fun while showcasing history in the making.
It’s one more bravura trip to the underworld for Martin Scorsese’s requiem repertory of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel plus first-time collaborator Al Pacino. The Irishman, a.k.a. I Heard You Paint Houses (B+) chronicles nearly six decades in the life of De Niro’s stoic WWII veteran character, an Emerald Isle descendent who speaks Italian, a truck driver lulled into a regimented mobster and bodyguard life, buoyed by two notable bosses: Pesci as a low-key early enabler and Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa himself. The whirling dervish of a director, concerned with Big Themes surrounding the milieu he’s mastered, adds to his usual fetishized gangster tropes a profound sense of melancholy about the toll 60 years of postwar American violence takes on its inhabitants. If GoodFellas felt like a party and Casino the hangover, this is the bleachy clean-up. The structure is episodic and criss-crosses through flashbacks and flash-forwards via a marginally successful de-aging effect of its principals. There are times the CGI/makeup mixology generates an acceptable fuzzy fountain of youth mask, but sometimes the enterprise feels like the live-action geriatric stepchild of a Polar Express train conductor given hard-scrabble birth in the Dick Tracy villain lair. The near three and a half hour extravaganza may actually benefit from an episodic binge on Netflix. If this overlong opus were viewed in three acts, you’d notice that classic blood packets get ample use in the nostalgic first hour (“Now that’s what I call the Mafia” greatest hits), the middle section is more slow-burn sag than grandpa at the health club and the final hour brilliantly crystallizes themes about the consequences of following a lifelong criminal code of conduct. The problematic hole in the center of the film is its impenetrable leading man, largely a distant protagonist relegated to reacting to much more interesting characters. Meanwhile, an understated Pesci shines in a supporting role, stripped of his usual comedic schtick and imbued with icy menace, and Pacino’s Hoffa is a veritable kaleidoscope of kitsch and vinegar. Pacino plays this man of profound contradictions with Grand Guignol relish, at one point berating an associate mercilessly for being late for a meeting and later fondly indulging in an ice cream sundae. De Niro comes into his own in a critical dramatic phone call sequence late in the story. Women get short shrift in the saga, however, especially Anna Paquin as the protagonist’s daughter who basically plays his guilty conscience. Marty stuffs a lot into his gangland dish including on-screen historical text markers, reflective narrations featuring axioms of the crime life and a few funny conversations including Jesse Plemons and a protracted discussion of a rogue fish. Despite the running time being a bit of a slog, Scorsese proves the ultimate wise guy with this elegiac epic. It’s a worthy entry into this prickly and particular director’s own universe of marvel.
If writer/director Rian Johnson prepared your holiday turkey, it would be overstuffed, but the cinematic chef gleefully loads up his wily whodunit Knives Out (B) with impeccable ingredients: a cavalcade of sassy stars, a labyrinthine manor, cunning clues, red herrings, mousetraps and sinewy twists. A spry Daniel Craig (with a vexing Foghorn Leghorn accent) and relatable Cuban actress Ana de Armas are the closest things to protagonists in the sprawling ensemble as detective and central caretaker, respectively. This duo provides sympathetic touchstones in a universe of rather despicable suspects. Everyone in the story has a connection to a mystery novelist patriarch played by Christopher Plummer, and they all display sharp edges in oddball humor and acerbic dialogue. Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Chris Evans and Michael Shannon are among the prominent players. Although it would have been charitable to accomplish the story with fewer partisan jabs, less projectile vomiting and more character interactions, it is efficient in its intent and durable for its duration. It’s a rare entry into a fun genre by a filmmaker who may have met his match.
James Mangold’s ‘60s-set Ford v Ferrari (A) is a triumph, precision tuned with grit and grace and a combination of spectacular acting and “how did they do that?” practical action effects. Matt Damon and Christian Bale punch up everything fueling their winning screen personalities as the real-life racing team tilting at windmills to help America’s iconic automaker gain a shot at victory against Italian racers in the rigorous 24 hours of the Petit Le Mans. Mangold accomplishes a magnificent feat for historical drama by finding surprises around every turn. The film features an excellent ensemble, a cracking screenplay and stunning art direction and should please those who and aren’t typically enamored by car chase sequences. Damon’s character’s genuine swagger and boldness against the odds and Bale’s imaginative ingenuity plus a tender subplot with his family balance the film and anchor its action. Some of the best moments evoke the sheer wonder of boys and their toys as the central duo wrestles – sometimes literally – with the Herculean task they’re undertaking. It’s a tribute to friendship and teamwork and breaking out of conventions. The film is high-concept when it needs to be but possesses enough nuance to temper its ambitions. It’s a sterling entry into the American cinematic canon and deserves to be feted as year-end accolades are awarded.
Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s Frozen 2 (C-) features lovely animation of an autumnal enchanted forest, but the most prominent lingering act of nature from the film is that of treading water. Unlike the first film’s brisk telling of a fairy tale anchored by sisterly love and icy ditties, the sequel meanders into a hodgepodge of splintered themes and subplots which fail to coalesce into anything revelatory or majestic. Mediocre songs, average new characters, recycled sight gags and over-reliance on flashbacks and folklore from the first film make this excursion feel more like a cash grab than a logical extension of the story. None of the voice actors gets much of a chance to shine, and the directors’ experimentation with a number of formats for songs and detours on the plot path doesn’t do the follow-up any favors. Luckily for parents who couldn’t get the earworm “Let It Go” out of their head, there’s not much of a tune or tale to remember this time around.
Not since Dr. Lecter coerced Clarice Starling to confront her deep rooted fears has a movie character so successfully invaded the human psyche. Come hell or high puppet, this engrossing supporting character is going to get in your head. A tale of a life transformed by iconic child advocate Fred Rogers, Marielle Heller’s sentimental, sensational and occasionally subversive A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (B+) is a relatively conventional drama played magically in a lower key than expected. Matthew Rhys should get more credit than he will for his excellent portrayal of a cynical investigative journalist tasked with interviewing a veritable patron saint of optimism. Tom Hanks is a marvel as Mr. Rogers, channeling the gentle giant with peculiar perception. Heller frames the film with delightful miniatures from the iconic television show and chronicles an effective domestic drama with strong performances from Chris Cooper and Susan Kalechi Watson as the reporter’s estranged father and bright wife. There’s one moment of potent uplift that will have each viewer using imagination to inventory emotions with stunning clarity. It’s an ideal Thanksgiving release with a message to embrace one’s singular station and particular burdens and help build community one person at a time.
All talk and little action makes Danny Torrance a dull boy in an altogether unnecessary sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. Mike Flanagan’s unsatisfactory take on the novelist’s Doctor Sleep (D) catches up with that terrorized tricycle “red-rum” humming kid who has grown up into a Ewan McGregor whose American accent is the most interesting part of his perfunctory performance. The film focuses disproportionately on a cult of soul sucking ghostly immortals who feed on psychic kids, headed by one who looks like the oldest Backstreet Boy and another who appears to be trying out for a part in Bob Fosse’s chorus. The latter, called “Rose the Hat” and played by Rebecca Ferguson, is one of the least menacing screen villains in some time. She mainly looks like she’s gonna swipe your yoga mat or smize at you for ordering an off-brand tofu. Child actor Kyliegh Curran barely registers either in another underwritten part as Torrence’s spectral pen pal. Aside from matching autumnal orange color palettes and settings from the original film and attempting several hypnotic images, this startlingly uneventful follow-up fails to establish its own aesthetic or purpose. Even its visit back to the iconic horror hotel overlooks some great chances to up the ante of suspense. Maddeningly, several flashback sequences into the first film’s characters are recreated with new cast members and underscore the movie’s pale comparison status. The overall effect is one of somnolence, competently made but lacking in thrills or imagination.
Months after Jordan Peele’s Us explored the haves and have nots duking it out in a surreal version of contemporary American society, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (A-) elevates class warfare to a whole new milieu via a dark comedic story of the extraordinary denizens of a blissed-out South Korea metropolis. The visionary director introduces viewers to a lower-class family of four rising to roles in a posh home tutoring, cooking for and driving the domicile’s privileged occupants. Is this jaw-dropping story a searing supernatural thriller or a ghost tale, dramatic chess game or upstairs/downstairs allegory? With shifting mixed-genre shenanigans, it’s all these and more. The film is fierce, frisky and funny as it makes salient points about the underbelly of society with inhabitants clawing for a way out of the funk of a bunker mentality. Favorite characters in this twisty treat are the resourceful sister played by Cho Yeo-jeong and the prideful and practical father portrayed by Song Kang-ho. The mansion at the center of the narrative is a fantastical fixture almost as labyrinthine as the pulpy plot points. Aside from some silly pratfalls and a lugubrious epilogue, expect consistent shock and awe from this inventive cinematic import.
With a Hitler youth and his imaginary friend Adolph as central protagonists, it’s stunning that Taika Waititi’s WWII-set black comedy Jojo Rabbit (B-) gets its satiric tone right even some of the time. Blending what could only be described as a Wes Anderson aesthetic with a coming of age story (oh, that was already done in Moonrise Kingdom?), Waititi writes, directs and even plays a sassy version of the make-believe Nazi mastermind with acerbic aplomb. While marquee stars Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson lend deft performances, it’s really the kids on center stage: the staunch ten-year-old German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who finds his mother (Johansson) is harboring a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in her attic during the waning weeks of the war. A grab bag of gags and droll set-ups give way to somewhat unearned sentiment. By far, McKenzie is the VIP here as the teen who’s largely the only grown-up in the room. Waititi disarms viewers with his unusual point of view and waltzes just a bit toward schmaltz. Still, it’s daring, occasionally funny and sometimes insightful. I expected more hop and less garden variety, more revisionism and less requiem. This will likely be the only movie remotely like this getting a rather wide release.
This hypnotic, hallucinatory horror-type tall tale is a keeper for sure! Director Robert Eggers casts an absolutely enchanting and unsettling spell in the gothic black and white square aspect ratio wonder The Lighthouse (A-). Set on a mysterious New England island in the 1890s, a career-redefining Robert Pattinson joins a startlingly gifted Willem Dafoe in a cunning and claustrophobic battle for supremacy. These dynamic co-leads are on high alert in the acting department, with some King Lear-level soliloquies and super-trippy visuals. Each of the two “wicks” harbors secrets, and it’s a game of oneupmanship to see who will rule the rock. It’s not always clear where this narrative will take you, but the film pulses with the verve and variety of a pulpy novel. And oh, that gorgeous camera work! Like There Will Be Blood, this is a film sure to shake and spark discussion.
This is the ultimate story of “the other.” Todd Phillips’s Joker (A-) flips the script in what is ostensibly an original origin story about one of Batman’s most notorious villains. Masterfully played by Joaquin Phoenix, the titular antihero fashions a fascinating and occasionally heartbreaking portrait of a desperate and marginalized loner. The bleak period atmosphere of a dystopian 1981 in Gotham City (essentially a struggling New York) evokes the crime, corruption, gang and peep show filled mean streets of vintage Scorsese, but the real action is interior as Phoenix’s sad clown and wannabe stand-up comic falls deeper into delusion and paranoia. The film’s graphic and nihilistic spirit will be tough for some audiences, but it’s an indelible and engrossing experience built on a complex character. Frances Conroy is effective as his ghastly mother, and Robert DeNiro is smartly cast as a late night talk show king of comedy who mocks the lead character via the airwaves. Zazie Beetz is a warm presence as a kindly neighbor and object of either affection or obsession. The swoop of stardust music with sweet tunes such as “Smile” and “That’s Life!” are juxtaposed against a loony, lost landscape. Phoenix gives a signature performance, high praise after the powerful legacy of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s takes on the character before him. He’s got the ticks of A Clockwork Orange and the tolls of Taxi Driver mixed with his own blend of American Psycho. He’s also got some of the creepiest dance moves since Buffalo Bill put the motion in the basket. This is gripping, immediate and eminently watchable material, with descents and detours into madness beyond expectations.
There’s no place like home on a stage as a fantasy respite from a troubled life. Rupert Goold’s Judy (B) is the anticipated biopic with Renée Zellweger playing actress/ songstress Judy Garland in the fading fog of a salvage effort for money and maternal rights while in residency at a London concert hall. The story is slight, and the supporting characters make very little impression, but “Judy via Z” is a brass band of a performance. Ms. Zellweger finds the soaring voice (literally) and stirring humanity in a tragic real-life legend gone too soon. Through the haze of booze and pills, under puckered makeup and vice-grip hair and in poignant backlot flashbacks of being a controlled child performer in the Hollywood Studio System, there’s a stunning character portrait here. Goold conjures warm nostalgia amidst the melancholy and even captures some witty moments of acerbic humor. The music numbers don’t quite achieve the pulse of the moments in the margins, but you won’t want to miss a trip over the bittersweet rainbow with this talented woman of incomparable smarts, heart and courage.