This past weekend, I attended the first North Texas Film Festival in Plano, Texas, and got to check out some of the fall’s most anticipated releases, including Marriage Story, Dolemite is My Name, and The Two Popes.
Marriage Story comes from writer/director Noah Baumbach, who has a history of directing clever, touching films about family dysfunction, including Frances Ha, Mistress America, While We’re Young, and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). His latest has similar themes, as it follows a couple’s divorce and custody hearings, but this one is less quirky and ironic; Marriage Story is almost uncomfortably accurate in its depiction of how two people who seemed so right for each other could end up growing apart.
Adam Driver stars as Charlie, a New York theater director whose made a living running his own theater company, with Scarlett Johansson as his wife Nicole, an L.A. born actress who gave up her film career to star in Charlie’s plays. The genius of Marriage Story is that we don’t end up hating either party, and it’s not as if either of them is abusive, malicious, or greedy beyond what is rational; Charlie seems content with the status quo, and Nicole wants a radical change that involves the couple moving from New York to L.A. At some point a compromise will have to be made, and the film’s tension rests on where exactly that will be.
The seeds of discontent between the two are evident from the beginning, but Baumbach never loses the fact that their divorce isn’t about hatred. They share the same goal of raising their child in the best possible environment, and the cultural differences between New York and L.A. speak to the different environments they feel that a child would fit best in. Even after a nasty court hearing, Charlie and Nicole still have to coordinate their child’s playdates and Halloween parties; regardless of their feelings about one another, they will always be collaborators.
Marriage Story isn’t arguing that they’re meant for each other, but it does shine a light on how difficult and illogical a court proceeding can be; as lawyers and legal procedures are involved, these two are forced to be ugly with one another and use ruthless methods of outdoing one another. This is demonstrated perfectly when Charlie and Nicole hire individual lawyers, played by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, each of whom exemplify their worst traits.
As far as performances go, this is the best that Driver and Johnasson have ever been. The biggest hurdle the script and actors have to handle is implying a history that we never see; the film stars when their marriage is already far gone, but we have to understand that there was a time in which this match was ideal. Driver and Johansson feel so natural as parents, and are able to reference in jokes and history that make their relationship feel so fleshed out. The scenes of screaming and crying are fairly sparse, but given the gravity of the situation they never are anything less than 100% vulnerable.
Marriage Story isn’t always an easy film to watch; each scene is played out to a point that becomes almost uncomfortably unflinching, but it’s also not a complete misery. Lots of people get divorced, and Marriage Story shows one where the outcome is tragic because we genuinely care for everyone involved. It’s hard to make that compromise, and the film’s strength lies in finding something that has the potential to work, but will always remain broken. Grade: A+
I also caught the new biographical film Dolemite Is My Name, in which Eddie Murphy plays legendary comedian and film star Rudy Ray Moore. I’ll admit that going in my knowledge of Rudy Ray Moore’s films was limited, but Eddie Murphy has always been in my eyes one of the greatest comedic actors of all-time. Looking back at his early work, such as Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, Coming to America, and 48 Hrs, it’s incredible how easily he was able to slip into new characters and create entire worlds with his humor.
I’m happy to say that this is the best performance that Murphy has given in years; the film follows Moore through his early days as a record shop employee who decides to share his crazy collection of stories through a comedy routine in which he takes on a new persona: Dolemite. The film follows the rise of Dolemite, as the comedy records grow into a phenomenon that inspires Moore to take Dolemite to the big screen.
Dolemite Is My Name is written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriting duo that also penned Ed Wood, and here they have found another character that is charming in his mix of earnestness and ridiculousness. Unlike Ed Wood, Moore never comes off as a fool; he’s an incredibly resourceful guy with a great amount of empathy for those that aided him in his journey, and the bond that he forms with his audience is genuinely touching. Yes, there are elements of the films Moore made that are silly and incompetent, but they’re also the product of brave, independent filmmaking by a collection of people with varying skillsets- the result is a crazy combination of genres and artists that makes for a really unique series of films.
What Murphy does so well is sell us on the idea that Moore is someone who could find the best in people, including himself; his perception of himself as a self made man also extends to seeing everyone around him as a potential partner in need of a boost. Moore’s challenge in the film is always those that don’t believe in him, but he’s never a product of selfishness. Murphy is able to tap into the generosity of the role, but he’s also able to light up the screen with his unmatched ability to do a bit; between the running gag of Rudy’s obsession with karate to his quirky relationship with his aunt, Murphy lights up the screen with personality.
The best part of the film is undoubtedly the filming of the first Dolemite film, which exemplifies all the best elements of the story; we get flashy costumes, great physical comedy, and hilarious side roles from a great cast, with a particularly humorous performance by Wesley Snipes as D’Urville Martin, who’s seen as a somewhat professional who quickly grows sick of Moore’s “let’s figure this out as we go” schtick. The earlier scenes that chronicle Moore’s rise to prominence in stand up are interesting, but they definitely feel as if they’re leading to something that will end up being more rewarding.
Dolemite Is My Name is the type of biopic I enjoy because it’s unabashedly celebratory; from Ruth Carter’s excellent costume work to the terrific score by Scott Bomar (which incorporates tracks from the original Dolemite films), the film always feels like an accurate representation of its era, and it’s easy to see why Rudy Ray Moore had such an influence and meant so much to so many people. In a somewhat meta way, it’s also a commentary on the return of Eddie Murphy; here we have one of the greatest comedic forces of nature on the planet allowed to be completely himself. Grade: B+
The final film I saw was Fernando Meirelles’s historical drama The Two Popes, which follows the succession of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his eventual replacement that led to the appointment of Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). I definitely wasn’t expecting a film about the papacy to have this much ABBA music, nor was I expecting the film to be as funny, touching, and thought provoking as it was.
The film is mostly centered around conversations between Benedict and Francis, starting with their brief initial meeting during Benedict’s election following the death of Pope John Paul II, and following their relationship throughout Benedict’s term. At the beginning we see the differences between the two; Francis’s ideology is radically different and above all other things he doesn’t seek the papacy for himself, in fact he initially journeys to Rome to ask Benedict to approve his retirement.
For the most part, this is a film about a series of conversations between the two, and while there’s news footage and the ever brief flashback to back up the film’s assertions, we mostly hear about the nature of faith that affects 1.2 billion people from the words of these two men. What’s clear is that there’s a difference in the direction that they intend to take; Francis isn’t just dedicated to helping the disenfranchised of the world out of moral duty, but because he’s lived among them, and has seen the impact firsthand.
Pryce and Hopkins are just on another level here; both need to be both completely committed to duty, and Pryce’s depiction of Francis as a portrait of humility has to come with great wit and intelligence, and Hopkins has to match him line for line with a deep sense of knowledge. Neither can come off as a fool and neither can make their intentions entirely clear, especially as Benedict becomes increasingly aware that a change in leadership could result in Francis’s ascension. The bonding that we see between the two doesn’t see either caving to each other, but trying to understand one another more as individuals, and not just pillars of ideology.
This is also just an incredibly witty, insightful film- of course we are familiar with these two Popes from a public persona, but there’s a lot more to their lives than that, and seeing the ways in which these monumental figures live their lives outside of duty is fascinating. How are you supposed to lead the faith of 1.2 billion people when you have a favorite soccer team? What does the Pope watch on TV? What type of food does a Pope eat, and does he still pray if he’s ordering take out pizza? The film isn’t posing these questions as obvious setups for jokes, but rather trying to grasp the humanity behind these important figures, and it never comes off as anything less than completely authentic.
It’s also a rather quick paced film, and although an extended flashback into Francis’s life occasionally slows it down, it offers so much development to his worldview that it still feels relevant. The Two Popes never forgets the gravity of the situation, but it also uses the real events to mold a completely winning buddy movie for the ages. Grade: A