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Dolemite is My Name (2019)

I’m a sucker for behind-the-scenes movies on scrappy genre indies, following a band of creatives come together, build camaraderie, and serve as the underdogs we root for as they put on their fun show, so Dolemite is My Name is right up my alley. It’s a biopic on Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), who by the 1970s rebranded himself in his 40s when he began performing as an outrageous, rhyming pimp character named Dolemite. He recorded crude comedy albums, sold them out of the back of his trunk, and reached a new level of fame, but he sought a blaxploitation movie to get him to even further heights. This movie is akin to The Disaster Artist where we watch a lot of artists pull off a bad movie with little money, as well as 2004’s Baadasssss!, where Mario Van Peebles recreated the making of his father’s 1971 blaxploitation hit, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Chances are, if you enjoyed either of those two movies, or the hilarious blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite, you will be smiling aplenty with this new Netflix movie (given a short theatrical run and soon to be widely available via streaming). The movie belongs to Murphy, who hasn’t had a part in three years, and he comes roaring to life as Moore, a man who won’t let anything stand in the way of his dreams. Murphy is fully captivating in every scene as he turns the Dolemite persona on and off, sharing moments of personal insight and fear, like when he’s nervous over his physique with an upcoming sex scene for his movie. He’s a determined hustler and it’s hard not to fall for his grinning charm. The Dolemite movie has a special appeal because it was intended as a comedy, so the shoestring, scrappy nature of it works nicely with the good intentions of simply making a big, silly, kung-fu-filled action comedy with what audiences want. I’ll confess I never found any of Moore’s standup to be funny as the audiences at the time. However, the filmmakers have already answered this, as Moore and pals go see The Front Page, a movie dubbed by critics as a laugh-out-loud comedy, and the men sit stone-faced and confused throughout the pithy, erudite comedy that seems to be amusing the largely white, WASP-y crowd. Humor is subjective, but not only that it’s the kind of entertainment with the shortest shelf life. It’s naturally going to expire quickly. Comedy routines we found hilarious decades ago might not still be funny today, and that’s okay. Dolemite came out at the right time and influenced other artists and filmmakers. A behind-the-scenes film is destined to be a movie with a definite ceiling. Moore is an interesting success story but there’s only so much to be gleaned from this underdog tale. Thanks to writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (Ed Wood, The People vs. O.J. Simpson) and the energy of Murphy, Dolemite is My Name is a fun two hours with a bunch of cut-ups.

Nate’s Grade: B

Shrek the Fourth (2010)

By taking a page, or even the entire script from It’s a Wonderful Life, Shrek tackles a mid-life crises and wonders how life would be if he had never saved his lovely wife Fiona from her tower (hint: it sucks). He wants his life back and makes a deal with the devious Rumplestiltskin. Except Shrek wakes up in a world where he was never born. While generally better than the third feature, this is still a noticeable step below the first two Shrek features. The tiresome plot device feels more like material for a lazy direct-to-video sequel rather than the (supposed) final chapter to the series. The film wants to be reflective and tap into our inventory of attachment to these characters, but time and again the movie doesn’t go far beyond the “don’t know what you got until it’s gone” cliché. Gags still feel too safe, the energy feels too loose, and the overall feel of Shrek 4 is casual. The novelty is gone. This is a rather middling trip to that big happily ever after. The story, with its reflexive moralizing, just makes the whole film feel slight; Rumplestiltskin is a villain of wasted potential, the characters feel poorly incorporated, and the general time-travel concept implies that the filmmakers have run out of stories to tell. As expected, Shrek 4 looks great, but that’s the only thing great about this once vaulted fractured fairy tale franchise. If this is the final chapter, then let it go with some fading sense of dignity.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Norbit (2007)

It’s terrible, yes, and a grotesque cartoon that milks one joke (the fat shrew is fat!), but it’s not as terrible as I expected and that in and of itself must be something of a small victory. The candy-coated direction and ghastly realistic makeup effects elevate the wretched material, and I’m ashamed to admit that I did indeed laugh a few times, albeit only a few. Rick Baker’s makeup will likely win yet another Oscar, which means we will be stuck with the tragic sentence “Academy Award-winning Norbit” for the rest of our lives. The fabulous makeup can bring these wretched characters to vivid life, including an odd racist depiction of Murphy as an old Asian man, but what’s the point of expert mimicry if it can be recreated on a physical level? Murphy’s comedic gifts seem like they will be replaced by technology instead of complimenting what he has to offer. Then again, there’s no technology that can make Norbit funnier. I hope you’re happy with the money you have reaped from this mean-spirited, unfunny crass comedy, because the advertising for this almost certainly cost you, Eddie Murphy, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Dreamgirls. Then again, that movie wasn’t too great either.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Dreamgirls (2006)

When the smoke cleared after the 2006 Academy Award nominations, there were some media members in disbelief. How could Dreamgirls, an expensive, glitzy musical that many perceived as the front-runner for Best Picture, fail to even get nominated in the Best Picture category? Theories abounded; the mostly white Academy couldn’t acknowledge a movie steeped in black culture, the film fell prey to backlash against a momentous hype machine that rubbed people the wrong way, or even that it was unfairly judged against recent musicals, like 2002’s Best Picture winner Chicago, instead of being judged on its own merits. After having now seen the film, I have an altogether simple explanation: the Academy thought there were better movies and I couldn’t agree more. Here are five reasons why Dreamgirls just didn’t cut it.

1) The film just falls apart after the halfway mark. The focus is on the rise of the all girl group the Dreamettes in the 1960s Detroit music scene. Effie (Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson) is the strong-willed lead singer with big curves and a big voice. She’s pushed out of the way by her band mates so pretty face Deena (Beyonce Knowles) can front and sell records. Effie is our star and she doesn’t take the news well, and explodes in an emotional fury that results in the film’s true showstopper song, “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going.” Trouble is, there’s still an hour of movie left. The second hour of Dreamgirls feels like a plot layover, as our characters don’t do much more than stuff their hands in their pockets and grumble. It’s astonishing how deflating the second hour to this movie is, and the film cannot sustain a viable interest or energy, leaving the audience to tap their toes to songs that already ended an hour prior. It’s a troubling sign when a film peaks at the halfway point and seems to only stall and sputter after.

2) The songs are not that special. Dreamgirls would have been far more entertaining if what we got was some honest, soulful, groove-inducing Motown music. Instead, what we get is the same pop filler that the characters bemoan what commercialism has transformed their music into. None of these ditzy ditties are very memorable and many of them start to just blend together, thanks in part to montage-obsessed editing. The other focus of Dreamgirls is on the rise of Motown, how a very Berry Gordy-like figure, played by Jamie Foxx, patterned black music and made it hit for white listeners. I think this was the most depressing part of the film for me, the fact that I could have done without the music in a musical.

3) The tone lacks clarity and can be grating. For about 80% of the movie when the characters sing it’s on stage as performance. Then two characters sing their displeasure with each other and the audience is like, “What the hell?” I accept the laws that govern musicals, and people spontaneously bursting into song and choreographed hoofing does not bother me, but whatever the choice it needs to be consistent. When the audience is used to seeing the singing contained to the stage, it becomes jarring when it transpires in reality. Director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) cleverly worked around this problem in his screenplay for Chicago by placing all the song-and-dance moments as glimpses into one woman?s musical-obsessed psyche. It seems so careless and easily remedied, so what were they thinking?

4) Dreamgirls is desperate for Oscar attention. At the end of the movie, after an awfully messy run to the finish line, come the end credits, however they aren’t so much as end credits as they are “for your consideration” ads. When the director of photography credit appears you see a man in a camera crane. When the costume designer is credited we see her sketches and the real outfits side-by-side. Some of it is silly, like when the casting director is listed and we see, no kidding, a checkerboard of faces, like the movie is saying, “This is what a casting director does, look.” The sequence is moderately annoying and a little patronizing, but it is a splendid example of the filmmaking ethos. It feels like the over zealous studios thought that by throwing together a bunch of musical staples and covering it with fancy decoration that they could fool audiences into thinking they saw a full-blooded story.

5) You fail to feel for any of the characters. In the rush of production numbers and period detail, the characters all suffer horrendously. The Dreamettes are obviously a take on the Supremes, and Deena is obviously supposed to be Diana Ross; they even recreate iconic Diana Ross pictures with her. By this token, it seems like the filmmakers felt they could slack off on characterization and just banish their actors to the ghettos of genre archetypes. I didn’t feel for anyone, even Effie once she got her walking papers for being essentially fussy, overweight, and sticking with her integrity. She tries to pick up the pieces of her life but even she seems disinterested once the stage lights no longer shine upon her. The characters have about a dewdrop of depth to them and can be summarized each by one sentence. Shallow characters and a less-than-compelling second half doom the movie.

There are enjoyable aspects to Dreamgirls, notably the performances from the supporting players. Eddie Murphy experiences nothing short of a career resurgence playing Jimmy Earl Haley, a groundbreaking soul singer with a fiery stage presence. Murphy puts his all into the performance and is such a live wire that Dreamgirls seems downright downtrodden without him. Former American Idol contestant Hudson has been collecting accolades for her diva-like performance, and while her singing is full of bluster and verve, I cannot say the same for her acting. She gives a solid overall performance but doesn’t try hard to hide her inexperience with acting. I wouldn’t have given Hudson an Oscar, but then I wouldn’t have given Oscars to a lot of the eventual winners (Julia Roberts, your hardware rightly belongs to Ellen Burstyn).

Film critic David Poland was nearly beside himself with Dreamgirls‘ omission from the Best Picture contenders. He argued that had it been nominated it would have won (I’m not sure how that logic works, but I do have a bridge I’d like to sell Poland). Dreamgirls is not bereft of technical charms and entertainment, but to posit this as anything above a mediocre musical is just plain madness. The characters barely leave an impact, the music is the same pop pap it laments, and the movie just simply peaks too soon. There’s nothing daring or innovative with this song and dance revue, and for long periods it feels like a pandering exercise in dress-up and nostalgia. I suppose in the end the Academy just thought there were five better movies than Dreamgirls, and, for once, I agree with them.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Haunted Mansion (2003)

The best way to describe Disney’’s third movie based on a theme park ride is this: it’s exactly like the ride. Which means it’’s nice to look at but little else is there. Eddie Murphy, in his soul-selling kid friendly phase of his career, is a real estate salesman who can’t pass up the prospect of a mansion. Never mind it’’s haunted. He brings the family along, which includes a drop-dead beautiful wife, Sara (Marsha Thomason), and two annoying kids. There’’s some storyline about Sara being the one to break the curse of the mansion, something about love never dying and a mystic key which leads to a mystic chest … I know, I’’m bored already too. Despite being a mere 98 minutes ‘The Haunted Mansion’ has sluggish pacing and some cheesy special effects. This is the kind of movie someone has a fear only because they need a moment to overcome that fear to save others. Murphy mugs for the camera and occasionally it’s funny, but he has the expression that even he doesn’’t believe he’s funny. Never good for an actor. Terrence Stamp is amusing as the butler. Jennifer Tilly is a highlight at the floating gypsy head in the crystal ball. The direction by Rob Minkoff (Stewart Little 2) is solid, and his opening sequence of the film’’s back-story being played across the credits is the highlight. But what does it say when the highlight of the film is the opening titles? I don’t know who this film is for. It’s a bit too scary for young kids. Tweens won’t want to see a “Disney scary movie” and would rather see some of the PG-13 scares, like The Ring. It certainly isn’t for adults. Who is this movie for Disney? And I may be the only one, especially after recent events in the news, but when all the skeletons came out of their crypts … I thought Michael Jackson was going to come out and they’d all dance.

Nate’’s Grade: C

Shrek (2001)

Shrek is Dreamworks’ kick in the pants to fairy tales and some of the staple creations of the Mouse house. There’s nothing a bug eating green ogre named Shrek likes more than his peaceful privacy. But this is brought to an immediate halt when all sorts of fairy tale creatures invade his swampy domain. To regain his privacy Shrek takes it up with Lord Farquad (say the name fast) who agrees to relocate the fairy tale creatures he outlawed to Shrek’s swamp in the first place if he travels to a castle and rescue a princess. Shrek agrees and along the way gets a buddy for the trip with a talking donkey, named appropriately enough, Donkey.

Shrek is amazing world of computer artistry. The characters move so life like and the detail is so magnified that it is a living and breathing world all its own. Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy are the comic duo of Shrek and Donkey and provide a good portion of laughs on their journey. With Mulan and now Shrek, Murphy seems like a natural when it comes to animation voicing. He gives it his all. Cameron Diaz is also a nice contributor as the voice of Princess Fiona, which kinda’ looks like her too creepily enough. Rounding out the cast is the always over-the-top John Lithgow as the stilted Farquad.

The humor of Shrek is enough to please kids with the fart and burp jokes, but lends its aim for more adult humor as well. There are a few jabs at the Disney Empire that are more than hilarious and the story keeps them coming. Shrek turns out to be a delightful tale of an ogre who’s a green softy at heart.

Nate’s Grade: A

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