Another grab-bag of films gets the treatment in this Intermission episode – what will we make of Dolemite Is My Name, By the Grace of God, Midsommar, Diego Maradona, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and Joker? Why not listen in and find out?
Dolemite Is My Name
Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore in this biopic of the comedian, starting from his days as a struggling MC and record shop worker whose career takes off once he inhabits the character of Dolemite, a obscene rhyme spewing, no-guff-taking pimp based on stories the local homeless folks told to amuse each other.
Betting on himself when no-one else is going to, he puts out an x-rated album of his own material, selling it from the back of his car, making enough of a success for a record company to put it out more widely, and repeating that success with subsequent albums.
However, that’s not enough for Moore to be content with, sensing a huge untapped market for comedy films aimed at African Americans and again bets everything he has, and more, on producing a Dolemite film, despite having no experience of film production, or contacts in the industry, apart from a chance meeting with Wesley Snipes’ D’Urville Martin, already a regular in the Blaxploitation scene who directs.
Again, there’s no takers amongst the studio execs, meaning he’s forced to put this out cinema by cinema, touring the cities with it, until it garners enough success for the studio system to reconsider the mathematics of the situation. Dolemite would, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, made $12 million from its $100K budget, and largely ensure Moore could continue doing what he loves, for the people who loved it.
Blaxploitation in general is a subject on our to-do list, but because we have not so far done it, I’ve only a passing familiarity with the likes of Shaft, and by this point I’ve probably seen more parodies or homages of Blaxploitation films than actual Blaxploitation films. Which is to say I knew little to nothing of Moore’s career or act, but having watched Dolemite Is My Name, I’ve very much inspired to.
Murphy is excellent, giving the sort of performance you’d expect from the Murphy of thirty years ago, as opposed to his more, let’s politely say patchy recent output. An absolutely captivating turn, and if Moore is half as magnetic, good time are ahead.
He’s backed up by a great supporting cast of Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess and of course Snipes, and has produced a very funny film that shows a highly entertaining underdog story. It’s not going to redefine movie making or anything, but it’s a really fun film and very easy to recommend.
By the Grace of God
It would be quite reasonable to consider François Ozon’s Grâce à Dieu (By the Grace of God) a companion piece to 2015’s Spotlight, both timely and contemporary true stories of investigations into the historical actions of child-abusing clergy and, most importantly, the lack of action and accountability of the Catholic Church. Unlike Spotlight, though, By the Grace of God focuses on one priest in particular, and rather than from the point of view of journalists it is the tale of a group of victims who came together to form a support and action group, La Parole libérée (The Liberated Word).
Thanks to their efforts a criminal case was presented against the priest involved, and the Cardinal who, at least by his inaction, protected him and left children in danger. The case is still ongoing so Ozon has changed the names of… Oh no. No he didn’t. Only the names of the victims were changed. Brave, and something that landed him in hot water, but two French court rulings have gone in his favour thus far and the film was released in France despite the attempts by the priest to block it. It also won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, something that surely discomfited the Church even more. Good.
The film was shot secretly, with a fake title (in France Grâce à Dieu would immediately be connected with the case) and with interiors filmed in Paris, with only the exteriors shot in Lyon, to minimise the chance of interference by the Church, and the public, in a very Catholic country.
The film is set in Lyon, France’s second city, and is told principally through three characters, all of whom were abused by Father Bernard Preyat (Bernard Verley) while members of a scout troupe in the 1980s and 1990s. First is Melvil Poupaud’s Alexandre, a father of five who in middle age wants to address his unresolved trauma and seeks acknowledgement of the crime and a commitment by the church that the priest will no longer be allowed to work with children. Unlike the other two principals Alexandre is still a devout Catholic, and his faith and trust in the church can be seen as something else stolen from him.
Alexandre’s decision to press charges sets the ball rolling and causes more people to tell their story, amongst whom is our second principal character. François, played by Denis Ménochet, is a much fierier character who organises the group and who, frustrated with the slow criminal investigation and the Church’s omerta, brings the case out into the open by going to the press. And finally there is Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), who seems to have been more damaged, both emotionally and, potentially, physically by Father Preynat’s “ministrations”. All three want justice, but above all they want the church to acknowledge the abuse, notably Preynat’s superior, the Archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (played by François Marthouret).
Ozon is, perhaps, a somewhat unusual choice of director for this work, and the style is quite unlike his previous works. In many ways it’s quite documentarian (indeed he originally envisioned it as a documentary, but, while the victims spoke to him in the process of making the film, he didn’t want to put them on screen, and Ozon also makes the not unreasonable assertion that such a story can have more impact as a fiction). He sets aside his usual flair and stylings for something potentially dry but actually very compelling, with a script based on actual testimonies and documents from the case which carry a real ring of truth.
Much of the story and the facts of the abuses are told in a very direct manner, largely unvarnished by emotion or sentiment by the director or his actors. Instead the words are allowed to speak for themselves (echoing, it would seem, the name of the victims’ organisation, The Liberated Word), and words are important, perhaps most crucially, tellingly and, for the victims, insultingly, those of Cardinal Barbarin, who gave the film its title, his Freudian slip in a press conference revealing how he felt: “La majorité des faits, grâce à Dieu, sont prescrits.” (“The majority of cases, by the grace of God, are unprosecutable.”)
The indignation those words must surely have caused is evident in the film’s tone, as well a quiet sense of rage, something that By the Grace of God shares with Spotlight. Spotlight is a more energetic film, and its characters’ fury more obvious and therefore, perhaps, more compelling, but what’s in Ozon’s film undeniably carries more weight, coming from the victims themselves rather than (legitimately, of course) scandalised reporters.
By the Grace of God is tough on those whose attitude is “don’t rock the boat” or “let bygones be bygones” (as it should be), but non-judgemental about the many legitimate reasons for victims to come forward and testify, or not, without being, for want of a better word here, preachy. There is also commendable restraint from the actors, when, given the subject, it would be very easy, and not necessarily inappropriate, to really go hard into emotion. The three principal players are all compelling, with Poupaud’s stoicism balanced with Ménochet’s energy and motivation, both complemented by what is probably the stand-out performance by Swann Arlaud as the least-fortunate and most damaged of the three.
A man’s film by necessity as this abusive priest targeted boys, there are still a number of strong supporting performances by the likes of Hélène Vincent, Aurélia Petit and Josiane Balasko as the wives or mothers of the victims.
It’s an important film, too, and the stir it created can only be a good thing and help stop the Church from once again sweeping this sort of thing under the carpet.
This podcast is apparently hosted by the only people in the world who thought that Hereditary was a steaming dungheap of a film, so quite why we are subjecting ourselves to Ari Aster’s follow up feature, Midsommar is a question that would perhaps only reveal the levels of self-loathing we have, rather than any optimism that this would be any less steaming dungheap-like, so let’s not go there.
Let’s go, instead, to Florence Pugh’s Dani Ardor, a PhD student in a strained relationship with Jack Reynor’s Christian Hughes, who tells his friends that he’s looking for an escape strategy. However, tragedy gets in first, with Dani’s sister committing suicide and taking her parents with her.
Still reeling from this, she nonetheless accepts an invitation to accompany Christian and his friends on a trip to Sweden, those friends being William Jackson Harper’s Josh, Will Poulter’s Mark, and finally Vilhelm Blomgren’s Pelle, the Swede whose village we will be visiting. A village that immediately looks like a creepy murder cult, and, well, is a murder cult, just one infused with Nordic folklore, rather than whatever was going on in Hereditary. Witchcraft? I forget, and don’t care enough to look it up.
Look, I’m not going to talk all that much more about this, because, well, I suspected this wasn’t anything I’d like going into it, and I’d had enough of a flavour of it from these two guys to confirm that it wasn’t anything I’d like, so it was no surprise when this became something I didn’t like in short enough order.
I rather wish this was a drama, rather than a horror, because I like a lot of Aster’s visuals and pacing, and there’s some solid character work and I like the actors playing them. However they are put in such a stupid situation that there’s no point caring about them. Why on Earth would I spend even of a fraction of a second trying to get involved in a conflict between Christian and Josh’s ownership of subject matter for a thesis, when we’ve already seen someone’s head being graphically staved in with a mallet and are simply waiting for equivalent atrocities to be perpetrated on our protagonists? Am I supposed to read something deeper into the state of Christian and Dani’s relationship or relationships in general, in the final reels, when both are mashed off their tits on psilocybins? Why on earth would I do that?
Not every film has to be for me. That’s fine. I have no clue who this film would actually be for, but the box office indicates that it’s a lot of you. Shine on, you crazy diamonds, but you are mysteries to me. Vive la différence.
Senna and Amy director Asif Kapadia’s latest film begins, unexpectedly, with a car chase, flying through the streets of a city (we’ll later come to learn that it’s Naples) in pursuit of a hatchback. It’s unassuming transport for its occupant: the then world’s most-expensive footballer and one of, and by many considered the most gifted exponent of his sport ever to grace the pitch: Diego Armando Maradona.
The stylings of the film’s title, with “Diego” and “Maradona” separated typographically and in colour, is no accident and is beyond simply a reference to the colours of the flag of the subject’s country. This is a tale of two people, the shy but enormously gifted Diego from humble beginnings in the slums of Villa Fiorito outside of Buenos Aires, and Maradona, the womanising, cocaine-addicted, mafia-associating global superstar.
Constructed in a manner very similar to his earlier sporting documentary, Senna, with audio from contemporary interviews played over archive footage, Kapadia’s Maradona documentary addresses the dichotomy of these two personas and, focusing on the period roughly from his transfer to FC Barcelona to the fallout from his “betrayal” of Napoli for daring to beat Italy while playing for his country in the 1990 World Cup (many sports fans being a very particular type of stupid), tries to explain the rise of Maradona and the diminishing of Diego.
In terms of general tone and structure, Diego Maradona is not particularly distinct from many sporting documentaries, and there would probably be enough of interest in there to satisfy an interest in the player. What does set it apart, though, is in being uncommonly perspicacious about its subject, being very effective in getting to the heart of, clichéd a term as it may be, this flawed genius. A hagiography this is most certainly not (and too many sporting documentaries are precisely that), but for all the warts shown there is often a counterpoint that shows why Maradona made, or perhaps was forced to make, the choices he did.
Kapadia doesn’t offer expiation to this footballing god (and in certain locales he is just that), but while he undoubtedly hurt people more often it was himself that he hurt, and the film doesn’t set out to excoriate him but only to try to explain him. One moment in particular sticks out to me, as a clearly terrified Maradona is mobbed on his arrival at a Buenos Aires airport on his return from having won the World Cup in Mexico, a moment that illustrates that his experiences truly weren’t like those of most other people.
How this plays for non-football fans I cannot guess, and, while I would have preferred more demonstration of his skill on the pitch, I found this an engaging and interesting insight into one of the greatest practitioners of the beautiful game.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
There’s a history to this film. A long one. So much so that if we delve into it we’ll be here all day, and we’ve covered a lot of that previously when talking about Lost in La Mancha back in our Films on Films episode. So let’s just say it’s storied, and full of disappointment for Terry Gilliam. It’s a pleasure then, that it’s finally finished, and yet somehow unsurprising that legal wrangling entirely ruined its release.
The full story is much more complex, but so is the plot summary, so I’ll crack on with that. Hollywood’s favourite entirely computer generated character, Adam Driver, here plays Toby Grisoni, an obnoxious commercial director struggling to shoot an ad featuring Don Quixote and Sancho Panza out in the Spanish sticks. He’s lorded over by the Boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and lusted after by the Boss’s wife, Olga Kurylenko’s Jacqui.
Chancing upon an exceedingly rare copy of a student film he shot in a small village in the area some ten years ago called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Toby is inspired to head over and see what’s happened there since. It is not altogether positive on a number of levels, or any level, really, but chiefly the concern here is about noted non-Spaniard Jonathan Pryce’s shoemaker Javier, who now fully believes himself to be the Don Quixote that Toby cast him as all those years ago.
Through some hijinks that would, I feel, be a little too convoluted to explain, Toby finds himself a suspect in a police investigation into a fire he and Javier unwittingly cause and winds up on the run with Javier, who believes Toby to be his squire Sancho Panzer. In a combination of flashbacks, real time and fever dreams, we will tease out more of the characters and events of all involved, particularly Toby’s involvement with Joana Ribeiro’s Angelica, a village young girl at the time of the previous film that’s had a troubled life since, now finding herself in an abusive relationship with the very same Russian magnate that Toby’s boss is trying to ingratiate himself with.
It took me little while to warm to this film. If I’m honest, after the first half hour, 45 minutes or so, I was rather fearing the worst, but in what appears to be the inverse of most critical opinion, the longer and more outlandish it got, the more invested I was in it, and while it’s not the masterpiece the gestation period would perhaps demand it be, it’s nonetheless a very solidly enjoyable film.
Price and Driver are excellent, as are all of the supporting cast, and as you’d perhaps expect from Gilliam, his imagination conjures up some exceptional imagery. I do feel a little cheated about not having had a chance to see this in a cinema – I think more so than any number of blockbusters, this would have benefited from a grander canvas than my telly can provide, given how the epic sweeps of the story and landscape are combined.
I shan’t witter on too much, other than to say by the end my doubts were vanquished and I was quite touched by the ending. Certainly one of the most distinctive films I’ve seen this year and a must-see for anyone interested in Gilliam’s body of work. Of course, it would have been, regardless of quality, but I’m pleased to report that it’s a pleasure and not a chore.
Glorification of violence! It’ll spark an incel terrorist uprising! Won’t somebody think of the children! Blame Canada! The breathless hyperbole and moral panic of the usual oxygen thieves and shit-stirrers, the vast majority of whom haven’t, of course, seen Todd Phillips’ Joker, a film that is more like Occupy Wall Street with Dick and Jane, with a large side-order of criticism of inadequate mental health services.
Director Phillips, working from a script penned by himself and 8 Mile and The Fighter scribe Scott Silver, is probably not the obvious choice for this origin tale of Batman’s nemesis, having made his name with The Hangover trilogy and the Ben Stiller-starring Starsky & Hutch, but it’s also not your obvious comic book film. So much so, in fact, that its links to the world of Batman are fairly tenuous, and the fact that it’s set in Gotham City at all is largely incidental to the events and characters.
Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a clown. This, naturally, is a problem as far as relatability goes as clowns are endlessly crap and their talent has no beginning. However, since he’s not much good at clowning anyway, he’ll get a pass for now. Arthur is a sad case, suffering from various mental health problems, including an unfortunate condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at things not in the least amusing. He also harbours ambitions of being a stand-up comic, but lacks certain crucial skills, like knowing when to laugh or how jokes work.
He is beaten up by the world (more than once literally so) and a failing social system, and mocked by those he looks up to. A series of events in this relentlessly awful world, including a run-in with one Thomas Wayne, begin to chip away at Fleck’s fragile personality, until he snaps and gets all stabby and shooty and whatnot, finally becoming The Joker.
On leaving the cinema after seeing Joker I heard someone say to his friend “he’s good but he’s no Heath Ledger”, and that’s true, but not for the reason I think that guy meant. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent, and he may in fact be better than Heath Ledger, but the roles are so different there’s simply no valid point of comparison. Ledger’s Joker, as well as being better written and more interesting, was in a very different, and much better, film. Joker isn’t bad by any means, but it suffers from vague plotting and world-building, and a lot of ideas inadequately fleshed-out or joined up, but Phoenix elevates the material he has to work with and makes the film considerably better than it otherwise would be. He is excellent, and it takes a great performance to make sympathetic a character who is both a murderer and a clown.
It took a while for me to get into Joker. Not that it’s bad, as I said, but the first half of the film in particular is a bit loose and incoherent. There’s an anti-1 % riot that comes out of pretty much nowhere with an inciting incident that, even had it been in an atmosphere that had been established as highly charged, is not really a believable spark, and commentary on social services and mental health that is far from fully-formed. The final act, though, is another matter entirely, and it has an energy that at least fools you into thinking that the previous two acts were building to this.
Comparisons to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are not only apt but clearly intended, attested to by the presence of Robert De Niro as Arthur’s Jerry Langford-esque idol, Murray Franklin, and the film’s late 70s/early 80s setting, though sadly it’s not of that quality.
Comic book origin stories are beyond passé, and then to make an origin story in 2019 for a character who is most interesting when those origins are entirely mysterious and unknown (witness Heath Ledger’s Joker) is bold at best, and possibly foolish. Yet I really enjoyed Joker, and if we’re to have more comic book films (which we are, obviously) then I welcome more like this: thoughtful, restrained (by comparison, at least) and character-focused. This is how you do dark, Mr. Snyder, not just making everyone scowl and de-saturating everything. And not one cent spent on moustache removal!
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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