Dolemite Is My Name


Four of the last ten Best Picture Oscar winners have been about artists, performers or Hollywood in some shape or form. Artists love to bask in their own glow, so to speak, and if there’s an opportunity to make a movie about the making of a great film or tell the life story of a performer, they will take it. In fact, Hollywood doesn’t even care if the subject is good or not. Two years ago, James Franco made a movie about the worst film of all time and even THAT got nominated for an Oscar.

The only thing Hollywood loves more than movies about itself? Comebacks. Which is why Dolemite Is My Name (in theatres 10/4, on Netflix 10/25) just might be the early Oscar frontrunner, even in September.

Eddie Murphy is in his third career. From 1980 to 1994, he was the world’s biggest star, conquering movies, TV and stand-up comedy specials long before Netflix was even a thing. Then, in 1996, he put the filthy mouth and adult action movies behind him and embarked on a new career as voiceover and PG-13 goofy comedy star, starring in three franchises, Shrek, Nutty Professor and Dr. Doolittle. Then, in 2006, he changed it up again by taking a small supporting role in the musical drama Dreamgirls, a dramatic role that earned him universal kudos for the one thing we hadn’t seen from him yet: serious acting.

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Roadside Attractions

The main narrative about the new film Judy (opening 9/27) will inevitably be about its star, Renée Zellweger, and how the film marks a career comeback for the Oscar winner, who seemingly fell off the face of the earth a few years ago. What really happened is she just took a 6-year hiatus from making movies from 2010-2016, which, in Hollywood, is tantamount to career suicide, especially when you’re a woman at the peak of your career (i.e. that small window women have for playing lead roles). Never mind that she’d been working non-stop since 1992, starred in a Best Picture winner (Chicago), won an Oscar herself (for Cold Mountain) and was one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood—all anyone wanted to know was where she was, what she’d been doing and would she ever be able to come back? In all honesty, it was going to take a lot to get Zellweger back to where she was, especially at 50, in a business that ages people faster than professional football. But she has found a way. She’s back with a vengeance, starring in a new Netflix series, What/If, and, most important, getting all of Hollywood buzzing with her extraordinary performance as Judy Garland in Judy, a role seemingly gift-wrapped just for her and for this moment.

It’s almost too good to be true, Zellweger, emerging from career isolation, playing Garland, the faded superstar who made one last grab for glory (and money) in her last days. While this is far from being Zellweger’s final role (we hope), her performance in Judy is most certainly her best professional achievement yet, a grand statement and impressive feat.

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STX Films

Let’s get this out of the way right at the top: yes, Hustlers is a high-profile movie about women, made by women and starring women. From a business standpoint, although it’s not a big studio movie, that’s still a great

(Not counting all the fur)
thing. It also could be considered an empowering movie, because it’s about women taking control of their own destinies—and succeeding— in a profession that has long been controlled by men. Again, that is a good thing. There are no major male characters and the stars of the movie are two women of color, one of them who’s actually FIFTY. So, yes, Hustlers is, on paper, a great step forward and deserves to be lauded for all of those things.

Which makes it so ultimately frustrating that the movie is so bad.

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Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

CNN Films

It feels like it doesn’t take much anymore to become famous. Andy Warhol would have either been intrigued or horrified by YouTube if he were alive today. Being famous for who you are and not what you do seems to be the American way in the 21st century so far.

Which is why it’s so refreshing to be reminded of what a true artist looks like, someone with a real talent, who honed a career not out of how many likes she got, but for how many records she sold and how many her music affected.

Even though there have been many singers through the years who have been popular and successful, it just feels like Linda Ronstadt has always been different. It’s simple enough to say that, but when you look at her life and her career in its entirety, as is presented in the new documentary, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, you realize the breadth and scope of her talent and depth of her desire to stay true to her art and to who she is. And it’s a heartbreaking sadness, what she’s going through now, as Parkinson’s has robbed her of the one thing that she always believed defined her: her voice. But, as we learn in this documentary from directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, we see that she’s so much more than that. Besides all the awards and gold records, she played a vital role in the music industry in the 70s and early 80s in so many ways that a mere 95-minute documentary can’t even begin to cover what a legendary influence and talent Linda Ronstadt is.

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The Sound of Silence

IFC Films

Last year I reviewed a movie called Sorry to Bother You, which was the directorial debut of rapper/music producer Boots Riley. I found that movie to be bloated but ambitious, and even though I pretty much hated the movie, I was impressed with Riley’s obvious talents and look forward to what he will do in the future. He took a kernel of a great idea and exploited it beyond all tolerable experience, but the artistic essence was impressive and it gave me great hope.

My feelings about another movie by a director making his feature debut are similar, but in a different way. The Sound of Silence, opening today, is the feature film debut of director Michael Tyburski. It stars Peter Sarsgaard as Peter Lucian, a “house tuner” in New York City—someone who you pay to come to your home and analyze its aural properties and to offer suggestions to calibrate the sounds in your home in order to make your life happier. Sort of a Marie Kondo for your ears. Ellen Chasen, played by Rashida Jones, is having trouble sleeping, so a friend recommends she hire Peter to come to her apartment to see if there is some sort of noise/sound/tonal issue that is causing her insomnia. That’s about it for plot. But that’s ok, because the movie isn’t about a story, it’s about a concept. Just like Sorry to Bother You was all about a concept, but the difference with The Sound of Silence is that the movie starts with the concept and just stays there. It doesn’t get bloated or ambitious, in fact, it does the opposite. You keep waiting for something to happen and then the movie ends. It’s a weird little movie, but I still found something pensive and peaceful about it.

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The Peanut Butter Falcon

Roadside Attractions

I have so many feelings about The Peanut Butter Falcon. After initially resisting it, I was finally bribed into going by a friend who champions this movie so much that he was willing to send me the cost of my ticket. And now that I’ve seen it, it’s time for me to offer my professional critical opinion.

But it’s not quite as easy as that.

If I were to critique this movie in a vacuum, as if it were a film school assignment where I were to judge it solely on its technique, acting, production values and screenplay, The Peanut Butter Falcon would receive a middling shrug of a write-up, as my reaction to this movie, strictly from a craft standpoint, would be average at best. But I don’t live in a vacuum and even though we may watch movies in a darkened room, we don’t exist in one and movies, like everything else, have to find their place in this world. Movies are reflections of their times, no matter how escapist they may try to be, and it’s nearly impossible to take in a movie without judging it against its time and place where it finds its audience.

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The 10 Movies I’m Looking Forward To The Most This Fall

1. Joker (10/4)
Director: Todd Phillips
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Marc Maron

This is one of the best trailers I’ve ever seen, which really helps raise my excitement level, but it’s so much more than that. Joaquin Phoenix might finally win his Oscar as the titular character in this origin story of the famous Batman villain. It looks like Phoenix is carrying over all the tragic/psychotic feels that Heath Ledger brought to the role so brilliantly and to Oscar-winning acclaim in The Dark Knight. If this performance comes anywhere close to Ledger’s in its weirdness and hypnotic mayhem, it will be the one to beat. While I’m a little nervous about Todd Phillips (of The Hangover trilogy) having the chops for something this meaty, it’s still at the top of my list of must-sees.

2. Knives Out (11/27)
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, LaKeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer

This movie looks totally bonkers and I CAN’T WAIT. A drawing room murder mystery with this killer cast (hee hee) and Rian Johnson at the reins? YES, PLEASE!

3. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12/20)
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleason, Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar Isaac, Mark Hamill

Well, duh.

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I’m not a filmmaker, but I would imagine that every director’s ultimate aspiration is to make a movie that is everything a movie can be. But is that even possible? Is it possible for any single movie to be all things at once: socially conscious, morally perplexing, layered, inventive, complicated, universal, accessible, funny, serious, scary, dramatic, weird, heartbreaking, tense, thrilling, violent, sweet, fast-paced, beautiful, well-acted, well-written and entertaining? Can you even think of a movie that covers all of that? The closest and most recent one that I can think of is Get Out, Jordan Peele’s masterpiece from 2017. Well, I’m not calling Parasite this year’s Get Out, but it’s not the worst comparison. Let me put it this way: I thought it would be a long time until I saw a movie that was as many things as Get Out was and achieved it in as such a perfect way, but here I am, just two years later and another perfect movie has arrived. And we totally should have seen it coming.

Writer/director Joon Ho Bong has been building up to this. His slate of films has slowly increased in critical attention, from Memories of Murder in 2003 to The Host in 2006 to Mother in 2009 to Snowpiercer in 2013 to Okja in 2017, Bong has been building a catalog of films that keeps getting stronger and while each film shone a brighter spotlight on the genius of Bong by cinephiles and critics, he still was far from being a household name. His latest film, Parasite, just might change all that. If there is any justice in the world at all, Parasite will finally be the film that recognizes Bong as the master filmmaker he is and officially serve notice to Mexico that Korea just may be taking over as the new home of master film auteurs.

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This Is Not Berlin

Samuel Goldwyn Films

I’m starting to feel about coming-of-age movies the same way I feel about superhero movies: at this point, it’s got to be really special for me to care anymore. That’s not to say that This Is Not Berlin (Esto no es Berlín), a new film from Mexican filmmaker Hari Sama, isn’t stunningly shot and captures its time and place with a fierce beauty, but, in the end, there just isn’t enough there there. I really wanted it to break my heart open, but it just left me wistful for what could have been.

There is no better time for Mexican cinema to break out. Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant) have dominated prestige Hollywood in the last few years, and Cuarón’s last film, Roma, came this close to winning Best Picture last year, despite being in Spanish, black-and-white, and having no stars. It’s a double-edged sword for Sama, though. On the one hand, there is no better time to be a Mexican filmmaker, but, on the other, if you make a film that can be too easily compared to one by the Three Amigos (not my nickname), you risk being labeled a clone. Which is why watching This Is Not Berlin is so difficult. While Sama clearly has an inventive voice, this movie allows itself way too many comparisons with Roma, reducing it to just another coming-of-age movie with a great soundtrack.

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Vita & Virginia

IFC Films

Writers love to write about writers. It certainly helps that there has been no shortage of tragic literary figures in the annals of history to inspire the creative imagination. From Shakespeare to Hemingway to Wilde to Capote, dramatizing the dramaturgs has been a fascination of Hollywood. And now there is the latest one to consider, a new film from Chanya Button that focuses on the life of acclaimed 20th century novelist Virginia Woolf.

Except there’s a twist. Vita & Virginia is not just about Virginia Woolf as a writer, it’s about Virginia Woolf as a woman, lover, and object of a seduction. But, despite the alluring premise, screenwriters Button and Eileen Atkins still find a way to make the movie about writing. After all, it is based on the letters Woolf and fellow acclaimed writer Vita Sackville-West sent to each other during the period of time when they had a famous romantic affair. And therein lies the inherent problem with Vita & Virginia. A movie based on letters demands an interpretation that translates to the screen, which is difficult enough, because letters, much like writing in general, is a very internal exercise, not something that readily translates to action. So, with a shortage of action, Vita & Virginia is a movie more about the two main characters than it is the relationship between them, which makes it a halfway interesting movie.

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