One of the more effective comic throughlines of Louis C.K.’s first movie since the studio-sabotaged blaxploitation satire/homage Pootie Tang involves Mother, May I?, a thinly veiled excuse for teen sexual experimentation disguised as a “game.” I Love You, Daddy – right down to its provocation of a title – works in a similar fashion, in that its threadbare plot is really just a delivery device for C.K.’s pet concerns about fatherhood, fame, notoriety, privilege, and sexual power dynamics.
Where last year’s direct-to-web series Horace and Pete saw C.K. leave his usual wheelhouse of obviously-autobiographical figures in order to ask bigger questions about the American family, Daddy retreats to a much more familiar space. C.K. stars as Glen Topher, a very successful and prolific TV writer widely respected by the industry and generally seen as a genius (sound familiar?). His work has brought him fame and fortune, but no personal stability. His ex-wife (Helen Hunt) hates his guts, his manager (Edie Falco) is in a permanent state of rage and disbelief at his shoddy and unprofessional work habits, and, most frustratingly of all for Glen, his 17-year-old daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz) threatens to become completely aimless thanks to her life of immense wealth and privilege. Not helping matters is the fact that his latest project, a TV series about nurses, is threatening to go completely off the rails due to his lack of a personal stake in the material.
There’s already enough there to power a few episodes of Louie, but Daddy’s core concerns actually become clear when Glen and China meet Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), a 68-year-old writer-director Glen idolizes and whose work has served as an inspiration for his own. Glen is perfectly happy to leave the rumor that Goodwin has repeatedly seduced underage girls uninterrogated – until, that is, Goodwin strikes up a suspiciously close acquaintance with China. (C.K. hasn’t been coy about the fact that Goodwin, for all intents and purposes, is Woody Allen.)
Shot on black-and-white 35mm film stock and accompanied by a throwback orchestral score (as well as vintage credits and title cards), Daddy’s most demonstrative aesthetic choices nod to both classic Hollywood as well as, most obviously, Allen’s Manhattan, though CK’s usual editing rhythms (a mix of arrhythmic jump cuts and very leisurely long takes) reign supreme. The mix of old and new is not the primary source of tension here, though. Viewers who have any familiarity with C.K. are likely to be aware of the fact that he has his own set of rumors dogging him. C.K. has rightly developed a reputation as one of the more forward-thinking creatives in comedy, particularly on matters of sex and gender, which has made this development particularly troubling.
So, how can Daddy successfully interrogate Hollywood’s propensity for creating a “safe space” for male sexual misconduct when its creator has potential skeletons in his closet he flatly refuses to discuss? (It is worth noting that one of the primary sources of these rumors has recanted, though it’s tough to square said recanting with the actual substance of her original remarks.) In truth, it can’t; part of what makes Daddy such a strange and bemusing viewing experience is that it becomes clear fairly quickly that a) C.K. is very much aware that most audience members will be familiar with the rumors and b) he intends to exploit our discomfort about that for as much of the 135-minute runtime as he can get away with, inasmuch as it can help to support the movie’s themes about the ultimate unknowability of the private lives of strangers.
The simple existence of these extratextual factors might be enough to nauseate some viewers, even moreso in the various scenes involving Glen discussing age-of-consent laws, male privilege, and the line between public and private behavior with the various women in his life. As on Louie, C.K. is inordinately fond of writing scenes in which he/his onscreen avatar is “the asshole” of a given situation. Scenes like this make up the bulk of Daddy – Glen is patronizing, Glen makes a pass at the wrong person, Glen mortifies his daughter, Glen mansplains (though he’s cognizant enough to at least know the term), Glen tanks a project due to lack of focus, Glen embarrasses himself in front of his mentor. Glen is so permanently clueless and wrong in any given situation, in fact, that it starts to feel like both a crutch and a shield. By representing himself (in barely-fictional form) as consistently incorrect or on the wrong side of a given issue, he’s in effect absolving the real C.K. through a kind of self-immolation: if he can so convincingly sketch out the arguments and place himself on the “incorrect” position for comic effect, he must agree with the “correct” positions. Nevertheless, there is a very real sense that C.K. clearly, ultimately sides with Glen and other characters in Daddy who insist that “everyone’s a pervert,” even if only the truly privileged can walk around with the cachet to get away with it. (Speaking of having the cachet to get away with things: Daddy marks the first time in recent memory I can recall seeing a white character not “coded” as racist dropping an n-bomb.)
If one doesn’t pay heed to rumors or is at least willing to set them aside for a little over two hours, Daddy is far from worthless as an entertainment. Malkovich is a wonder as Goodwin, a walking PUA-manual creep with an almost-perfect awareness of the powers his fame and reputation have over whoever he’s talking to; the late-film confrontation between Malkovich and Moretz is one of the best scenes CK has ever directed. As one would expect, the movie is funny; occasionally very funny, such as when Glen’s friend (Charlie Day) asks Goodwin point-blank on their first meeting if the allegations against him are true. And while the choice of black-and-white 35mm film stock might seem like a gimmick, there’s a peculiar thrill in seeing very familiar actors’ faces show up onscreen in subtly different form. (Day, in particular, appears very distinct from his usual self in this format.) Also, while CK uses old stock, there’s no Vaseline on the lens; if anything, the age discrepancy between Glen’s exes and his current squeeze (Rose Byrne) is reinforced through frank lighting and makeup choices – one of the subtler examples of the movie’s attention to askew gender and power dynamics.
For its ambitious thematic sweep and stellar cast, Daddy still feels like a step back from Horace and Pete, which took more inspiration from the likes of Chayefsky than Allen, and seemed to indicate that CK was looking to broaden his toolkit and themes. Daddy is ultimately just a big(ger)-budget expansion of his previous work, albeit now armed with an additional, uncomfortable payload. The most unfortunate side effect of the circumstances surrounding the movie’s release is that as long as CK insists his own behavior is the one subject he’ll never broach directly, he’ll likely end up alienating the same would-be viewers whose assumptions he questions – or even resents.
‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood
A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.
Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.
When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.
Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.
Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.
Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.
‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Is a Twisting Homage to Classic Detective Films
Edward Norton writes, directs, and stars in this meditative and absorbing adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s neo-noir novel.
In 1999, Jonathan Lethem published his fifth novel, Motherless Brooklyn, and went from being an under-read but respected postmodernist with a science-fiction bent to a writer with a growing mainstream audience. The book was an odd choice to suddenly get people’s attention — a tribute to the classic detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but featuring a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, and taking place in the 1990s. But Lethem’s flair for language, along with the novel’s equal portions of humor and sincere longing, made it a striking success. Back in the early 2000s, Edward Norton began developing the film, shortly after making his directorial debut. It took almost 19 years, but miraculously, Norton has made a version of Motherless Brooklyn that’s fun, engaging, and a tribute to classic detective films of the past.
Norton takes the lead as Lionel Essrog, a member of a shady detective agency that mainly takes on cases for organized crime rather than regular citizens. He has worked there for years after being rescued from a brutal Catholic school for orphans by Frank Minna (an asleep-at-the-wheel Bruce Willis), the head of the detective agency and a major contact to underworld figures. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s, as well as a smidgen of obsessive-compulsive disorder. His speech is interrupted at varying times with shards of curse words, nonsense phrases, and plays on words (he says the condition is like having “glass in my brain”). The Maryland-raised Norton isn’t an obvious choice for someone who grew up in the outer boroughs, but he brings dueling amounts of chagrin and decency. These qualities are necessary following his ticks and outbursts, which would seem obnoxious from nearly anyone else.
Motherless Brooklyn opens on Lionel surveilling his own boss. Frank is meeting with an unnamed group of men, and he’s having Lionel keep tabs on the meeting so that he can burst in should anything go wrong. Of course, something does go wrong, and Frank is left with a bullet in his belly and no answers to give. In the wake of the shooting, Lionel makes it his personal quest to find out who shot his boss. The twisting plot, which grows exponentially more labyrinthine over time, pulls the burgeoning detective into a tangled web involving New York City’s development. Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a power-hungry figure modeled after Robert Moses, seems to have some connection to Frank, as does Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young assistant to a Jane Jacobs-like figure who opposes everything Randolph stands for.
The convoluted plot will surely turn off some viewers, as did the more gonzo plot of last year’s Under the Silver Lake, but it’s a key component of all noir-inflected mysteries. The core books in the genre were written around WWII through the Cold War, and they illustrated a world gone mad — where the protagonist could never trust the word of another, and there was always more crucial information being hidden than he could ever real. The sense of disorientation that accompanies prime noir novels and films is a feature, not a bug.
Norton loses some of the wonderful strangeness of the novels ‘90s settings by setting it in the ‘50s, but it fits the story well, and some of the New York development details make more sense in mid-century. There are perhaps some tangents that could have been pruned involving various jazz clubs, and Bruce Willis’ phoned-in turn as Lionel’s mentor is an utter shame, robbing the film of some much-needed emotional moments, but Norton’s own performance makes up for many of the shortcomings, and he strikes up a charming rapport with Raw. Motherless Brooklyn can’t come close to topping its source material, but it’s still a lively mystery that might make you wish they still made this kind of detective story.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 11 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
‘Dolemite Is My Name’ Is a Return to Form for Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy is back and in fine form as the creator of a hit Blaxploitation film, though the film doesn’t always live up to his talents.
It’s hard to remember the last time that Eddie Murphy was good in a movie, so it’s with great pleasure that I can report that he’s back and actually trying in Dolemite Is My Name, a new film for Netflix about the creator of the wildly successful blaxploitation hit, Dolemite (1975). It’s a fairly conventional piece of work, and much of the humor surrounding Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite act doesn’t hold up any more, but there are still enough laughs and palpable passion from Murphy to make it a worthy story.
It’s the early 1970s when we first see Moore trying to pressure a DJ (Snoop Dogg) into playing some singles. Moore thinks of himself as a renaissance man — someone who has worked every facet of the entertainment industry — and wants to do it all, like his idol, Sammy Davis Jr. But his music dreams never went anywhere, and the closest he ever came to success was working in a record store. At nights, he gets five minutes of stand-up time before introducing acts at a local club, though he often stretches his time limit.
After a run-in with a homeless man who tells braggadocious stories about the hardest man he ever met (the improbably named Dolemite), Moore adopts the same rhyming style and crafts a stand-up act in which he puffs himself up and trash talks others mercilessly, all while dressed like a dandy pimp. The character is an instant success at the club, and soon Moore is taking his new act on the Chitlin Circuit, where he’s joined by Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a singer with her own stage persona.
Raunchy comedy records that reach the Billboard 25 follow, though Moore is interested in something even bigger: the movies. He hires playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), who is interested in respectability and social issues, and has him write the story for a blaxploitation crime film starring his Dolemite character. Along the way, Moore enlists actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes, having a lot of fun) as the film’s director and villain, while assembling a crew mostly made up of his friends — talented people who know nothing about making a movie.
Dolemite isn’t as well-known now as some of its more famous Blaxploitation peers, but the film was a major success among black audiences, who came out to see it in droves in major cities. Though Murphy is often in comedic mode throughout, the awe Moore displays from people finally wanting to see something he has made is touching. Murphy also gives a performance that manages to channel Moore’s speech patterns as Dolemite, without ever slipping into parody.
Meanwhile, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski excel at dramatizing the uncertainties and inevitable failures that come with the ultra–low–budget film production, but they’re oddly incurious when it comes to Moore’s personal life. We never understand where his desire to be a jack of all trades comes from, and his responses to a life full of failures are only briefly covered. The two excelled at writing complicated real-life characters in earlier successes like Ed Wood (1994), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), and Man on the Moon (1999), yet they don’t give Moore the same in-depth treatment. The director, Hustle & Flow’s Craig Brewer, doesn’t help matters either. He can’t make the visuals and period details of those earlier bio films, and never really displays any directorial flair, while some of the supporting performances are perfunctory at best.
But it’s Eddie Murphy that people will want to see, and he’s at least in fine form. Perhaps this film, as well as his upcoming Coming 2 America (also directed by Brewer), will help to usher in a new era of Eddie Murphy movies that aren’t terrible. One can hope.
This article was originally published on September 13, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
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