Rabid (2019)

Posted December 8, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cronenberg, horror, remake, Uncategorized

Rabid-2019-3If you’re going to remake a David Cronenberg film, you’d better not try to ape his ideas, because Cronenberg’s ideas are inextricable from his filmmaking. They are the source of the horror: in much of his work, a disease is a misunderstood monster, just doing what it has to do to survive. Jen and Sylvia Soska, who like Cronenberg are Canadian, have now remade Cronenberg’s 1977 cult favorite Rabid, and they have filled it with their own notions about surgery and transhumanism and fashion. The Soska sisters don’t try to be Cronenberg, but they sure pay tribute to his films throughout their own. Their Rabid, a project that was offered to them and possibly would have been made with or without them, expresses more than anything their deep and abiding love for Cronenberg’s work. As Cronenberg is one of my movie gods, I’m on board with that.

The new Rabid takes off from a premise similar to the original. A woman, Rose (Laura Vandervoort), is badly disfigured in a motorcycle accident. Her case is taken up by a surgeon (Ted Atherton) who applies experimental skin grafts. Rose’s looks are restored; the procedure even smooths out scar tissue from a previous, less extreme accident. But Rose is also left with a craving for blood, and when she feeds off of a victim, that person in turn is infected with the blood delirium. It all boils down to the doctor trying to cheat death (aren’t they always?) by developing this grotesque parasite that perpetuates itself violently. But in the Cronenberg aesthetic, the horror is that this new thing — this new flesh — brought to life is not in itself evil. It just evolves incidentally into a threat to humans. In the Soska playbook, it’s simply one of many things that twist mind and flesh, generally to the detriment of women.

The script, by the Soskas and John Serge, puts Rose to work for a fey, decadent fashion designer. The Soskas seem to liken the fashion world to the moviemaking world: in both, art and transgression are possible — a post-infection Rose produces some tormented gothy dress sketches that her boss flips over — but so are body dysmorphia, drug abuse, and a self-destructive quest for perfection. The Soskas’ interests and emphasis deviate from Cronenberg’s own, but the end result honors his work. There are any number of Easter eggs for Cronenberg fans, such as a wink to the famous “college of cardinals” scene in Dead Ringers, and others I will leave you to discover. Eventually the action leaves the realm of Cronenberg and incorporates elements of, if I’m not mistaken, Re-Animator and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Like many young filmmakers, the Soskas like to pile everything they’ve been obsessing about into the latest film because there’s no guarantee they’ll be granted the keys to another.

Ultimately, Rabid has a warmer center than the original — Cronenberg had to make do with adult-film actress Marilyn Chambers as Rose (he’d wanted Sissy Spacek), and about the most you could say about Chambers was that she was surprisingly competent. Laura Vandervoort brings a lot more vulnerability and pain and spiky anger to Rose, and when the action around Rose gets outlandish, Vandervoort grounds it all in credible female angst. When Rose feeds on a loutish, abusive man, it’s partly you-go-girl revenge, but it’s also pragmatic: a dude this stupid and single-minded makes the perfect prey. Vandervoort doesn’t play it like Zoë Tamerlis in Ms. 45; Rose is driven by her need for blood, and this idiot makes himself known to her.

There was a certain way-before-its-time non-binary/intersex thread in Cronenberg’s Rabid — his Rose was left with what read as male and female sex organs in her armpit (!), with which she fed on blood. We see a bit of that in the new film, but since it deals far more organically with a female point of view, the threat is mainly and viscerally phallic. The Soskas’ 2012 body-horror original American Mary showed they had more on their minds than grrl-power snarls and splatter, and Rabid confirms it. It ends on an image comparable to the bleak nihilism with which Cronenberg sealed his film, only with a distinct nightmarish Gilead tinge to it. As in Alien: Resurrection, perhaps the most Cronenbergian (and most underrated) of the Alien films, a woman isn’t even going to be allowed the peace of death if her existence will benefit men.

The Irishman

Posted December 1, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, drama, one of the year's best

irishman Martin Scorsese’s late-period masterpiece The Irishman kicks off on a note as darkly funny and devastating as much of the rest of the movie: a lengthy tracking shot through the halls of a Philadelphia nursing home, stopping on the gray, barely breathing husk of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Forget the famous, triumphant Copacabana tracking shot in Scorsese’s GoodFellas — this is the cold, bleak truth of a cold, bleak life. Frank, a truck driver turned button man for the Philly mob, swam in the same deep waters as crime-family head Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and embattled Teamsters king Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Before he died in 2003, Frank claimed he whacked Hoffa, a confession in much dispute. I don’t care if he really did it. The Irishman is not about the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa’s death; it’s about the mystery of Frank Sheeran’s life, and that of men like him, who gave up the long-term nourishment of family for short-term security.

At a party honoring Frank, there’s a bit where De Niro and Pesci sit and talk while Scorsese’s camera swings over for a glimpse of Pacino chatting with Harvey Keitel (as another big-time mobster). For those of a certain age who grew up watching these four men, this is like fan-service, or Christmas coming a month early. The Irishman often comes off as a farewell-tour concert, though I imagine all of them (except maybe Pesci) want to continue working — just maybe not all together, like this. The point is that the movie isn’t all desolation and loss; it has many pleasures, including watching younger turks like Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, Bobby Cannivale, and Sebastian Maniscalco looking like kids on that same Christmas morning, in a daze of disbelief that they get to play with legends. Then you have the nearly silent Anna Paquin as Peggy, Frank’s daughter, who knows exactly what he is, and has since she was little. Peggy is what you look like when you’ve learned the harder, sharper bits of life long before you should. Paquin’s sorrow and anger haunt the film.

Aside from the much-discussed de-aging computer effects that allow De Niro and others to play men ranging from their twenties to their eighties, Scorsese doesn’t indulge much whiz-bang. His stamp is clear and bold, but shots are held longer than you expect, or old men in huge aviator glasses sit and talk, quietly or not, in hotel rooms. There’s no hint of the Rolling Stones or any other Boomer rock on the soundtrack. If Saving Private Ryan was Steven Spielberg’s salute to the Greatest Generation, The Irishman is Scorsese’s much more ambivalent view of them. The message seems to be, Our fathers may have done what they had to do, but that doesn’t make them heroes.

Or villains, either. Mostly, we see men hobbled by their own shortcomings. Pacino gives us a showboating Hoffa, afflicted with short-guy pugnacity and pride; he plays with Hoffa’s vowels like a cat with string, while De Niro nods and reacts or sometimes stammers. By and large, though, Pacino just simmers and seethes. Over-the-top bravura is left to the young men; the old masters at work here, including Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, seem to disregard anything noisy or inessential and get to the point without fuss. The Irishman is reserved, though not repressed. The old gangster violence pops out now and then, unemphatic and casual. A bullet comes for a man the way a stroke or cancer does. Nothing personal, fella, it is what it is.

Like Frank, Scorsese has all daughters. Is there a Peggy in Scorsese’s life, judging him quietly for being off on the set all the time? Even if there isn’t, Scorsese can imagine Frank’s particular purgatory. The women in these men’s lives have been trained, generationally and socially, to stand by the men and not make problems. It takes a Peggy, a woman of the next generation, to say, Hey, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. The Irishman is more about the conflict between Frank and Peggy, even when she’s nowhere near the screen, than it is about Frank’s tutelage under Bufalino or betrayal of Hoffa. The final shot invites debate and analysis. What does it express — hope, or acceptance of what’s coming? Scorsese was idiotically shamed for not giving Anna Paquin more scenes or dialogue, but she makes her presence felt, woundingly, throughout. She, too, is a master, though at 37 far from old. It’s enough that in that final shot, we know that Frank is waiting for one of two visitors. We know for sure only that one of them did come for him. And that’s that.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Posted November 24, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 3.56.09 PMAbout an hour into the documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project comes the moment we’ve been dreading. Here, though, the moment is presented much differently, due to the movie’s subject. Marion Stokes (1929-2012) was a former librarian whose second husband was wealthy, so she had a lot of time and resources to spend 35 years — 1977 to 2012 — recording every TV news channel 24/7. In this way she filled hundreds and hundreds of videotapes with local (Philadelphia) as well as national news. At 8:49 on the morning of September 11, 2001, Marion’s VCRs were running as usual, and we see a grid of four screens simultaneously showing puff pieces or morning filler. CNN, on the top left, is the first to cover the developing catastrophe, and for a long time the other three screens keep showing their unimportant things. Then ABC breaks into Good Morning America to weigh in. Then CBS. Then, finally, the Fox affiliate.

Recorder is the story of, as the film admits, a hoarder — a type not unknown on the library beat — who amassed information. Marion Stokes, an African-American woman, had seen a lot in her time. Fired from her library job for associating with communists, she took to local TV to participate in discussions with all sorts of people. She didn’t trust any one news outlet to deliver the truth, so she started tracking them all — which at first, with only three networks, was easy. This media junkie, described by everyone in this film who knew her as brilliant, was saving all of this for posterity. At the end, when the Internet Archive comes to the rescue and takes a truckload of tapes off her son’s hands, we sigh in relief — Marion’s work of 35 years is going to someone who knows what to do with it.

Of course, Marion’s work is useful beyond simply archiving the news. She also captured a great deal of pop culture, if only collaterally through commercials. I know someone, who goes by the handle the Internet Lurker, who has a YouTube channel dedicated to TV ads he has extracted from old videotapes: anytime someone recorded a movie or sports event off of TV but wasn’t motivated to hit “pause” during the commercials, an inadvertent record was made of a time and place. A good deal of knowledge may be gleaned from observing how 7-Up, say, thought it most efficient to get us to buy their soda in 1987. The hairdos and fashion are a side benefit (and, often, a hoot), but the history of advertising in the late 20th century will be written with help from collections like the Internet Lurker’s — or Marion Stokes’.

The movie is far from a hoarder-wonk’s daydream, though. Its main focus, as established by director Matt Wolf, is to paint this one eccentric, often prickly woman as a keeper of the flame of truth. Marion was already in her thirties during the Civil Rights era, and knew firsthand the importance of questioning what the largely white male establishment told you was news, or not news, and how it told you that. (For the second time in a recent documentary about news, Phil Donahue turns up — here, it’s to make the same point about that establishment.) The only way to study bias in reporting, especially since the networks themselves couldn’t be counted on to archive their own daily output, was to document it relentlessly. When cable came in, and Marion found herself tracking C-SPAN and CNN and MSNBC and CNBC, it’s hard to imagine whether she felt overwhelmed or elated by the thrill of the chase.

In the footage we see here, Marion has a streak of stereotype about her — the enormously intelligent but irascible person who isn’t having your nonsense, African-American female division. (See also: Maxine Waters.) She could easily have held her own against William F. Buckley on Crossfire if she hadn’t decided to move from the camera eye to a chair at one of her nine properties. Sitting in front of countless monitors, she in effect became a monitor, as well — a brain taking in data and processing it. But what insight did she gain? Her main concern, we understand, was to save the news from disappearing. But she couldn’t have had time to watch all those tapes herself, not when the next day would bring yet more things to record. The subtle point of the movie is that she squirreled away data she couldn’t possibly have viewed, for the benefit of unseen, unknown others. And this is not an altogether happy portrait: as a reward for all her dedication, in December 2012, Marion Stokes left consciousness while footage from the Sandy Hook massacre unspooled before her, soaking all our TVs in the blood of children. Recorder doesn’t try to flip that into something positive, and I won’t try either.

The Kitchen

Posted November 17, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comic-book, thriller

kitchen Based glancingly on a mediocre comic book, The Kitchen is the middle panel in an accidental sisters-are-doin’-crime-for-themselves trilogy, bracketed by two better-received films — Steve McQueen’s Widows, from last year, and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, from this past September. Nobody, I think, will advance the argument that The Kitchen is the neglected masterpiece of the trio, but I would like to recommend it anyway; its pleasures are piecemeal, having more to do with acting firepower than with the unconvincing quilt of clichés that calls itself a story. The narrative glides by, and writer/director Andrea Berloff doesn’t seem very concerned with the moral import and emotional costs of it all, but the cast is.

The lowlife Hell’s Kitchen Irish mobster husbands of our heroines — Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss — are sent away in 1978 for armed robbery, leaving the women to fend for themselves. The head of the local mob, a glowering creep, refuses to allot the wives enough money to live on — protection money isn’t coming in. So the women take over collection, positioning themselves as reasonable and less toxically masculine alternatives. But as one of the goons eventually tells one of the women, “You’re worse than we ever were.”

Which is debatable, and a movie in which the women gain power because they’re outwardly nicer and retain power because they’re not actually all that nice inside would be interesting, but The Kitchen isn’t really that movie. All the routine rise-of-the-criminal scenes are there, the fanning out of dollar bills, the respect paid, the pivot towards legit community service, the casual and empowering finality of the bullet. But when it comes time to slog through the crime-does-not-pay sermon, the movie lacks conviction. It’s difficult to prompt the audience to root for the violent awakening and self-realization of an abused woman and then turn around and condemn that process.

The women are murkily written; only the acting brings some cold clarity. Melissa McCarthy’s Kathy protects her kids, Tiffany Haddish’s Ruby has been made ruthless by her hard life and abusive upbringing, and Elisabeth Moss’ Claire is a battered wife turned assassin. Kathy’s relative compassion comes from her relatively stable life; her jailbird hubby is no prize but not as bad as the others, and even her loving Irish dad is still around. There’s an idea here — take enough anchors of humanity away from a woman and you have yourself a very fearsome adversary — but it just sinks into the pudding along with anything else potentially interesting here. The Kitchen is a moderately competent crime flick and that’s all it is. Given the cast — and not just pained McCarthy, disdainful Haddish and born-again corpse-carving werewolf Moss — it could’ve been much sharper.

Yet a film fan shouldn’t go through life without seeing what the actors — also including Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Camp, and Margo Martindale in a ‘70s hairdo she clearly got from my grandmother — do with some of the whiskered situations. Bill Camp, for instance, gives us an Italian mobster so confident in his power he can afford to be pretty mild-mannered. Martindale functions as the sort of ogre the heroines are in danger of becoming, but she’s terrific at it, snapping out insults like firecrackers. There really isn’t a bummer in the cast, though I think Ruby calls for a brand of coldness that Haddish can’t persuasively convey — good news for her conscience (she may be too good-hearted to play anything different believably), bad news for Ruby, who too often reads as emotionally null. A character is taken out with an impersonal abruptness that sort of works as comeuppance but comes across as a betrayal of the character’s portrayer. We’ve followed the person through blood and triumph, and past a certain point the movie seems to lose interest in the person morally, and some other characters, too — they’re just damned to hell, I guess. But up until that point, there’s some painfully fine stuff.

Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer

Posted November 11, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

Apr 05, 1978 - Boca Raton, Florida, U.S. - National Enquirer Publisher Generoso Pope oand copy of the photo of Elvis Presley. Pope died at 61, GENEROSO P. POPE JR., the millionaire owner and publisher of The National Enquirer, suffered a heart attack yesterday at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., and was pronounced dead on arrival at the J.F.K. Medical Center in Atlantis, Fla. He was 61 years old. Mr. Pope, whose father founded Il Progresso, the New York City Italian-language newspaper, bought a weekly newspaper, The New York Enquirer, in 1952 for $75,000. It had a circulation of 17,000 copie A gore-soaked tabloid, whose publisher had mob connections, was ultimately involved in helping install the President of the United States. This story, worthy of James Ellroy, is at the heart of the documentary Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer. Aesthetically, the movie is both cold and cheesy, a weird combo platter. Various interviewees (Carl Bernstein is probably the film’s biggest “get”) sit in lonely, swanky rooms or in dimly lit bars, and the interviews are broken up by vintage news footage — grainy film stock, bleary video. It’s ugly, but then so is the subject; director Mark Landsman means to show that the tabloid that’s been an unavoidable patch of the American cultural wallpaper for much of our lives has left a mostly corrosive footprint wherever it has stepped.

Or stomped. By 1997, the Enquirer’s reputation as a ghost haunting the closets of celebrities was so entrenched that the paper went through a period of disfavor following the death of Princess Diana. The paparazzi who chased Diana to her death were not working for the Enquirer, but the association was made anyway — the paper was a synecdoche for all other intrusive tabloids. (For what it’s worth, the paper’s then-editor Steve Koz made a performative violin solo of refusing photos of the wreckage and called on other tabloids to do likewise.) Before then, the Enquirer had actually been gaining a rep as an unexpected source of hard-nosed journalism during the O.J. trial. But the sacrifice of Diana at the altar of enquiring minds that wanted to know seemed to shame, for a while, the supermarket gobblers of tabloid burgers.

What Scandalous makes clear is that the paper, for decades, reported all the news that was printed to fit — it was custom-made to slake the public thirst for lightweight squalor. The Enquirer’s original goodfella-in-chief, Generoso Pope Jr., gradually shifted the rag’s angle from sub-Weegee shock-horror to “Why Jackie/Liz/Oprah is as miserable as you are, Jane Q. Public.” That formula held for a long time, until, in those more innocent times when such a thing could still happen, Gary Hart was captured on film with Donna Rice on his lap and his political career was generally acknowledged to be toilet-bound. The Enquirer’s vampire fangs had drawn a new kind of blood, and it liked the taste. Bill Clinton found himself similarly drained. But all along, in Scandalous, we also hear about stories Jane never saw — contemptible behavior by Bob Hope, Cosby, etc. We’re told that the Enquirer kept mum about certain stars in exchange for access. That will take on grim relevance later, when what Ronan Farrow has recently exposed as the “catch and kill” mechanism (he’s in the film briefly) was employed to keep Donald Trump’s mushroom out of the pages of America’s favorite tabloid. Hillary stared zombie-eyed and pallid from many an Enquirer cover, contrasted with the insensate orange vigor of the MAGA who would be king. The paper that had followed America’s lead was now leading America.

That was under the jurisdiction of Trump pally David Pecker, who has since sold the Enquirer, after the paper’s attempted sliming of Trump foe Jeff Bezos backslimed. Today the paper sits in its usual point-of-purchase slot, itself zombie-eyed, a mewling wisp of its former robust ghoulishness. It continues to harass celebrities and the Royal Family just like the good old bad days of 1985, but having ended and expedited presidential dreams, where else can it go? It seems a spent force. And yet the hunger for the Enquirer’s stock in trade remains, only it’s filled elsewhere. For what is Fox News if not tabloid journalism at its slickest and most dangerous, speaking to an audience of the fearful and incurious? The network’s serpent-in-chief, Rupert Murdoch, of course slithered from the brackish waters of British supermarket rags. As James Ellroy knew, America is a tabloid country, and so Scandalous is not just a movie about that thing Grandma reads at the hairdresser’s. At its “best” and worst the paper is a souvenir from our national shadowland; we want to think we’re better than the Enquirer but we kind of know we deserve each other.

Paradise Hills

Posted November 3, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult, horror, science fiction, thriller

paradisehillsEvery shot of Paradise Hills is otherworldly in its beauty. I’m not sure how it “reads” as a narrative, but as a visual work of art, a tone poem, and a riff on some familiar but evergreen themes it makes one stand and applaud. The 29-year-old director, Alice Waddington, hails from Spain and first made her mark with the eleven-minute short film Disco Inferno in 2016. The short is worth the 99-cent rental on Amazon; its story is a little baffling — it has to do with a “minion of hell,” dressed like a masked and sinuous spy out of Georges Franju’s Judex, trying to rescue an ingenue destined for demonic soul enslavement, or something — but it plays like a surreal silent film (except when it doesn’t), and it’s good preparation for the elliptical, allusive sights and sounds of Paradise Hills.

We wake up along with the confused Uma (Emma Roberts) in a remote island stronghold, a cross between a palace and a well-appointed girls’ prison. Young women, it seems, are sent here to be trained out of their troublesome quirks and habits. The society that produces these women — including Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), sent to become more skinny, and Yu (Awkwafina), sent to become less Awkwafina — is some sort of post-war Hunger Games dystopia/utopia, depending on whether you’re an Upper or a Lower (as in class). Uma wants out of the island paradise; she has a like-minded friend in pop star Amarna (Eiza González), who’s here apparently because she started making personal music frowned on by those in charge. Standing in her and everyone’s way is the Duchess (Milla Jovovich), whose habit of snipping thorns off rose stems is a bit too tidy a metaphor for her supervision of the girls’ re-education.

But honestly the plot (by Waddington and Sofía Cuenca, worked into a script by Nacho Villalongo and Brian DeLeeuw) is entirely irrelevant to the pleasures here. Paradise Hills is about creamy pink interiors and sun-dappled exteriors, all cloaking something immeasurably darker and uglier. It’s about the masochistic female fantasy of being persecuted for being oneself and shipped off to a strange place with other women, who together will rise as a sharp-toothed sisterhood against the oppressors. (There’s some of that, but not too much; as it is, the movie is never less exciting than when it tries to gin up excitement via chases, sneaking around, etc.) It’s also about loving ancient gothy films so much it hurts. It’s every much as gleaming an act of cinema worship as Anna Biller’s odious The Love Witch, except that Waddington actually finds things to say about the things whose surfaces she and cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui photograph so indelibly. I can see Paradise Hills becoming a cult favorite among a certain type of dramatic teen — its sensibility is authentically female in every frame, asserting the power of its girls and women from the start, and denying that the structure of the patriarchy (and the women complicit in it, like the Duchess) has anything to offer them but chains. The movie doesn’t hate men, but it sure doesn’t have a lot of love for them either.

To which I say, good. A movie whose identification is completely with women and their experiences is particularly welcome now, not to politicize overly what should be a timeless empowerment fable and a grab bag of brightly-hued confections. The performances, I have to say, lean towards the artificial — common among directors with strongly visual instincts — save for Awkwafina, who is always radiantly, daffily herself, even in a more solemn context like this. But there’s literally always something great to look at; Waddington seems to have walked on set for each shot, tweaked the colors and decor 75%, and then called action. Most people will see Paradise Hills at home or even on their phone, not on the big shiny screen its visuals demand, and that’s a pity.

But the eye and the sensibility on view in Waddington’s work (I hope Disco Inferno comes as an extra on the eventual Paradise Hills Blu-ray) are not to be discounted. The movie is a glimmering calling card showing deep-dish promise; whoever scouted the amazing locations deserves a case of beer, and overall this is the most pictorially arresting sci-fi debut feature since Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. As for the animating story, I acknowledge that I’m not its ideal audience, though even some women, like Vulture’s Alison Willmore, have pooh-poohed it — “a dystopian princess fantasy,” she called it, with perhaps some unconscious racism under its hood. (Why isn’t Awkwafina the lead in this?) I am probably more forgiving and sentimental about the movie’s narrative and complaints than that. It works as a lavishly crafted daydream shading into nightmare. It started to lose me around the climax, but when it had me, it had me.

Dolemite Is My Name

Posted October 27, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, comedy

dolemite_screenshot Eddie Murphy has been in movies for thirty-seven years, but Dolemite Is My Name is the first time he has played a real-life person — Rudy Ray Moore, the self-described “ghetto expressionist” who rose up by making records and then movies that turned the African-American urban experience into ribald slapstick. Moore was already 48 years old when his first movie, Dolemite, was released in 1975; it helped expand his cult, which has survived his death, in 2008, at age 81. Dolemite Is My Name celebrates Moore as a hustler and an anti-mainstream creative; it fits right in with the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s previous films (Ed Wood, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Big Eyes).

Murphy brings not only his still razor-sharp comedic instincts but a certain gravitas, a whiff of defeat, to his performance. The stakes seem higher, the obstacles to success taller, than in those other weird-show-biz biopics. Moore is a black man pushing fifty; in the words of Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, “If you were gonna make it, you woulda made it before now.” Murphy plays Moore as if hearing those words on repeat in his head. There’s desperation under his confidence, and a hot drive to surpass his abusive, belittling father. Perhaps Murphy, 58, needed some years under his belt, some failures and humbling, before he could play Moore with truth and honor. (The character of Dolemite is a different story; Reggie Hammond, Axel Foley, and many other Murphy heroes were essentially slimmer, sleeker Dolemites.)

Directed by Craig Brewer (who’s also helming Murphy’s Coming to America sequel), Dolemite Is My Name settles, in its second half, into a tongue-in-cheek, half-irreverent making-of-Dolemite comedy. It doesn’t make the mistake of holding up Dolemite as any kind of art. Watch the 1975 film again and you’ll see it transcends its amateurishness with its eagerness to please — packing its 90 minutes with sex and violence, it comes close to being a “good parts only” guilty pleasure. Yet it also stops dead so that Dolemite can unspool one of his rhyming stories, the progenitors of hip-hop, for an audience of appreciative street dudes (and later in his nightclub). The sense we get from the new biopic is that Dolemite may not be everyone’s idea of art, but it is pure expression. Moore took inspiration from the signifying of winos and junkies, put his own spin on it, and delivered it to those who laughed at its familiarity and those just discovering it. It is, in its way, art.

The biopic stays bright and colorful despite its structure of ups and downs — Moore and his crew work hard, sweat, and improvise to get that damn film in the can. Murphy is surrounded by ringers like Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and especially Wesley Snipes, as Dolemite’s director and onscreen villain D’Urville Martin, pretty much the only participant with any Hollywood experience. Snipes is to this movie what Burt Reynolds was to Boogie Nights; he brings all his film roles and all our knowledge of his offscreen foibles to his portrait of a jaded Tinseltown satellite (dining out on having played an elevator operator in Rosemary’s Baby) who offers hope to a despairing Moore at one point. Watching Snipes up there with Murphy carries levels of associations and memories, mostly warm. At this point, both men, once kings, seem to have passed through ego into human-scaled consciousness, and therefore become kings anew.

As in Ed Wood, the hero here gathers a group of misfits around him to achieve the common goal of a Z-budget flick. Moore works with blacks, whites, gays, Jews, and of course women to realize his dream — the movie is good-hearted, though it sort of underplays Dolemite’s casual misogyny (at one point in the 1975 film Dolemite deals his lover a couple quick slaps in her face before resuming coitus). You could watch Dolemite Is My Name and miss that Dolemite is a pimp; the women in Dolemite are there to act as Dolemite’s kung-fu enforcers, but they’re also there to show their merchandise. Once again, an Alexander/Karaszewski script softens some of the reality (don’t think too hard about how D’Urville Martin is played as somewhat gay and the never-married Moore, about whom rumors have flown in recent years, isn’t¹). But generally this is a convivial and compassionate tribute to creation by any means necessary.

¹On the other hand, much is made of Moore’s being nervous about shooting one of Dolemite‘s sex scenes until Da’Vine Joy Randolph as his confidante Lady Reed suggests that the scene could be played for laughs. We never see Moore with any girlfriends, either.