DOLEMITE IS MY NAME
Even if the movie itself was only half as good as it is, the bio-comedy Dolemite Is My Name would be worth a watch – several watches, actually – just for the pleasure of seeing Eddie Murphy happier on-screen than he's seemed in ages.
Seriously, what was the last Murphy showcase in which its star radiated the kind of kinetic joy he unleashed back in the days of 48 Hrs. and Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop? The Hollywood lampoon Bowfinger, opposite Steve Martin, in 1999? The first (technically second) Nutty Professor in 1996? Barring his voicing of Donkey in the Shreks, it's been a long dry spell, laugh-wise, since Murphy's 20th-Century heyday. But the performer is back with a vengeance in director Craig Brewer's topnotch biography of comedian and 1970s Blaxploitation legend Rudy Ray Moore. And if it seems perverse that, this past Friday, Murphy's finest work in decades received only a limited specialty-house release (as in its current booking at Iowa City's FilmScene) in tandem with its debut on Netflix, there is an upside: After streaming the flick, and at no extra cost, you can instantly stream it all over again – and may very well want to.
It's not hard to glean the reasons for Murphy's evident delight. To begin with, the role of Moore fits him like a leather glove, allowing the star to play a middle-aged comedian, singer, and entrepreneur seeking his big break in Hollywood. (Trade “big break” for “comeback” and Moore may as well be Murphy himself.) Continually dismissed but never completely downtrodden, Moore suffers through the indignities of record-store employment and open-mic hosting before finding inspiration, and a burgeoning fan base, in the tall tales of a neighborhood wino whose signature character – a gaudy pimp named Dolemite – Moore usurps for his act. Moore's speedy success as this rhyming hipster leads to sold-out nightclub engagements, DIY recordings, and bookings on the “Chitlin Circuit” until a screening of the notoriously unfunny Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon comedy The Front Page delivers the man's light-bulb moment: Moore, as Dolemite, oughta be in pictures.
Given that Moore and his collaborators attack his movie debut with energy but almost nothing in the way of a budget or technical know-how, it makes sense that Brewer's Dolemite Is My Name would be written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whose script for 1994's Ed Wood was also about a Hollywood hopeful whose passion outmatched his means. The difference is that Ed Wood, God love him, wasn't even close to talented. Rudy Ray Moore most assuredly was. So instead of laughing at Alexander's and Karaszewski's latest protagonist the way we laughed at Johnny Depp's cross-dressing director 25 years ago, we root for Moore to succeed – for him and his friends to nab their places in film history despite budgetary restraints, studio apathy, and cruel critical notices. (While we rooted for Ed Wood, too, there was a sourness to our encouragement, because what we were rooting for was for him to make the worst movie of all time.) Murphy is electrifyingly funny as Moore, spitting out profane rants with the same killer timing employed for his legendary standup routines Delirious and Raw. Yet thanks in part to Brewer's and the screenwriters' big-heartedness toward his character, the actor is also so casually moving in Dolemite Is My Name that the beautiful expressiveness, and expansiveness, of Murphy's performance only gradually sneaks up on you. In terms of its narrative, the film is a pretty standard (albeit frequently riotous) bio-pic. But it boasts enormous sweetness without ever losing its sting, and the same can be said of Murphy's portrayal. It's never less than clear that he loves Moore, and loves playing Moore, and that love is gloriously infectious.
I think, though, there's another reason Murphy appears so fabulously happy in Brewer's movie, because for the first time maybe ever, it looks like the star is truly relishing being part of a large comic ensemble as opposed to being the main – the only – event. Considering this lineup of talent, who wouldn't be happy? I'll join the man's chorus of admirers in agreeing that the film is hands-down stolen by Wesley Snipes as D'Urville Martin, the fey, disapproving Dolemite director who can't believe his minor big-studio success (“I worked with Po-lan-ski!”) has led to this. Snipes' elongated cadences and bitterly disgruntled readings are things of comedic genius, and you can sense Murphy relax further whenever his astoundingly inventive co-star is on-screen. Yet Murphy frequently backs off and lets others bring the funny here: Tituss Burgess, Mike Epps, and Craig Robinson as Moore's diner companions and eventual collaborators; Ron Cephas Jones as the usurped wino; Keegan-Michael Key as a principled social-justice warrior who makes a hard left with his guns-and-kung-fu script; Kodi Smit-McPhee as a novice D.P.; Snoop Dogg and Chris Rock as combative DJs; Bob Odenkirk as the lone studio executive willing to give Moore a chance (after, that is, seeing how much the man's feature debut grossed in its one-theater booking). And Murphy is perhaps never better than in scenes opposite the wondrous Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Moore's protégé Lady Reed, with the obvious tenderness in their repartee and shared smiles and mutual trust suggesting that raunchy wisecracks may actually have the power to cleanse. In Dolemite Is My Name, they absolutely do.
THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR'S CUT
If you visit the Web sites for our area's cineplexes and see the listings for The Current War: Director's Cut, you'd be right in wondering why we were getting a director's cut for a movie that was never released as a regular cut. Regarding the choice of the colon-ed title – the only way the film is listed on the Internet Movie Database – I'm sure there's an explanation involving all manner of contractual clauses, but I have no earthly idea what it would be. Regarding the story behind the title, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's historical drama The Current War was originally scheduled as a Miramax release in 2017 (and was screened in a fall film festival or two), but was shelved and sold after the studio's head honcho and #MeToo poster boy Harvey Weinstein found himself persona non grata in Hollywood. And regarding the movie itself, in which warring inventors Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) fight for control of the electrification of America in the 1890s, two years may be a long wait to see it, but the wait was kind of worth it.
As a bio-pic, it's a little formulaic and exposition-heavy, and the admirably swift pacing is sometimes so brisk that we miss out on a lot of dramatic import. (We barely have time to revel in one of Edison's thunderous accomplishments before being swept off to see what Westinghouse and his eventual collaborator Nikola Tesla, played by Nicholas Hoult, are up to.) But while I don't know what the first iteration of The Current War looked like, Gomez-Rejon proves himself deserving of a director's cut. His compositions and camera angles are refreshingly off-kilter, suggesting a world that's about to go topsy-turvy, and he comes through with some devastating emotionalism in ways you don't expect – through the Morse code practiced by Edison's young son, for instance, or the barely hidden pain in the eyes of Westinghouse's wife. And the performances are first-rate. Even if Cumberbatch overdoes that flat, affectless American timbre so common to British thespians, he and Shannon are a match in genius-fueled forcefulness, and fine work is also contributed by Hoult, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton, an amusingly red-nosed Matthew Macfadyen, and a mutton-chopped Tom Holland. (I'm guessing we can thank Spider-Man's web shooters for keeping those faux sideburns from sliding off Holland's face.) The Current War: Director's Cut may not be quite as illuminating as you'd like, but for a work that seemed all but wholly abandoned, it burns unexpectedly brightly.
At one point in the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the characters played by Jason Segel and Russell Brand take a moment to poke fun at Kristen Bell's title figure for starring in a terrible horror movie about an unlikely villain. “Why would a mobile phone kill anyone?” asks Brand. “It doesn't make sense. How can a mobile phone have an agenda and kill people?!” Even though we laughed at the bit, I think we all knew that eventually someone would take that stupid concept and make an actual movie out of it. And so now we have writer/director Justin Dec's Countdown, which is indeed about a murderous iPhone with an agenda – or rather, an app that tells you precisely when you're going to die, and turns out to be right no matter what course-corrections you attempt. Segel's and Brand's characters would likely have roared at this thing, too, considering the unmitigated dumbness of the conceit, the staleness of the expository dialogue, the awkward sentiment involving two estranged sisters, and the lame attempts at genre-crossing comedy by a priest (P.J. Byrne) who's a little too invested in the supernatural silliness. As cheesy PG-13 thrillers go, however, Countdown at least zips through its 90 minutes passably enough, and lead Elizabeth Lail – startlingly reminiscent of Jessica Rothe in the Happy Death Day franchise – carries the film with confidence. The movie isn't particularly frightening or funny, but at least the talkative batch of teens in the back row at my screening seemed to have a ball. And while his entire sexual-harassment subplot could have been excised with no noticeable loss, I did get some mild amusement out of again seeing Peter Facinelli, a formerly omnipresent young actor who, in the late-'90s and early-'00s, used to be a dead ringer for Tom Cruise and now looks like latter-day Ray Liotta. Now that's scary.
BLACK & BLUE
A sturdy, serious-minded cop thriller with juicy B-movie swagger, director Deon Taylor's Black & Blue stands as one of the more surprising movies of the fall, largely because it's not at all terrible. (The same certainly couldn't be said for Taylor's Meet the Blacks, Traffik, and this past spring's The Intruder, the latter of which was at least semi-enjoyably awful.) Naomie Harris, in a wounded, complex performance, plays rookie New Orleans cop Alicia West, a woman shunned by her fellow African Americans for joining the force, and by most of her fellow officers for thinking she can actually make a difference in her angry, impoverished community. Over the course of 24 hours, after her body camera catches a trio of dirty “blues” gunning down three unarmed black men, Alicia basically finds everyone eager to end her life, and Taylor's and screenwriter Peter A. Dowling's movie could easily have been just another cheap, violent cat-and-mouse full of obligatory chase sequences, shootouts, and an extended finale involving a Monologuing Killer. All of those clichés do make their ways here, with the reliably seedy Frank Grillo cast as the token murderer who won't shut the hell up. Yet there's legitimate tension in Dowling's racially charged scenario, and Taylor, for once, doesn't over-direct; he seems to take his cue from the hushed intensity of Harris, and consequently crafts subtle, edgy verbal and physical encounters that feel deserving of her ravaged dignity. Black & Blue is by no means a major work and the end product isn't quite worthy of its themes. Yet there are strong portrayals by the likes of Mike Colter, Reid Scott, Nafessa Williams, James Moses Black, and a never-better Tyrese Gibson, and with the camera only rarely off its star, Moonlight Oscar nominee Harris finally gets to dig into the sort of meaty lead she hasn't really been given since Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later back in 2002. Whether she was better off facing the zombie apocalypse or the all-too-real horrors of 2019 is open to debate.
I'm on record as naming last year's A Star Is Born my favorite movie of 2018. But if I were to name my favorite entertainment that didn't screen in theaters, it would, without question, be the Netflix special Springsteen on Broadway, a two-and-a-half-hour filmed production of Bruce's long-running New York engagement, and a musical performance (with accompanying storytelling) more mesmerizing, heartfelt, humane, and off-the-charts sublime than anything else I saw all year. Consequently, I'm the ideal audience for the new concert documentary Western Stars, in which Springsteen, accompanied by wife Patti Scialfa and 30 additional musicians, plays the entirety of his 19th studio album live, for a handful of friends, from a refurbished barn on his New Jersey property. What can I say? For fellow Springsteen fans, the movie is unmissable, even if you prefer the content from other recordings to the wistful, melancholy, character-driven tunes of Western Stars. At 70, Bruce is as arresting a presence as ever, and he and co-director Thom Zimmy – who won an Emmy for Springsteen on Broadway – make almost all the right choices in terms of camera positioning and shot length, allowing personality to shine through even in the expressions of the backup musicians. (My favorite was the violinist who shot us a quick grin implying, “Can you believe how lucky I am?!”) The narrated vignettes that separate the numbers, with a reflective Springsteen often shown driving or merely staring off into the distance, are lovely; the numbers themselves – particularly the title track, “The Wayfarer,” and the soaring “There Goes My Miracle” – are rich and tuneful and poignant. Yet for all of my gushing about the Western Stars experience, I will admit that the song-soliloquy-repeat format is perhaps hypnotic in too literal a way, as about an hour into this cozy and meditative film, I briefly conked out and wound up missing about 10 minutes of movie. No matter. Falling asleep and waking up to crooning of this caliber? Totally Boss.