THE GUILTY (2021)

September 30, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s start with this disclosure: the original Danish film from Gustav Moller was one of my top 5 favorite films of 2018. Even then, I fully expected an Americanized version to happen at some point. The surprise is having director Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY, 2001) handle the remake. He’s known more for bombast and action, than the nuanced suspense delivered by the original. To offset this, Mr. Fuqua wisely chose the dependable Jake Gyllenhaal as his lead, and the talented Nic Pizzolatto (creator and lead writer of HBO’s “True Detective”) to adapt the screenplay.

Gyllenhaal never cheats the audience, and he dives into the role with his typical full force commitment. Except for a few blurry visuals of cars on the highway and the dramatic opening shots of the raging California fires, Gyllenhaal’s Joe Baylor is on screen for the entire run. He’s a detective on desk duty at the 911 call center pending his court case on charges that only become clear towards the end. Joe is also separated from his wife and daughter; a crucial element in how his shift plays out in front of us.

As we listen in on his first few calls, it becomes obvious how Joe’s time on the streets have fine-tuned his quick-to-judge persona. He’s not shy about telling callers their own choices are responsible for their current predicament. Just as he’s about to dismiss his latest caller Emily, his instincts kick in, and he discerns that she’s been abducted by her husband in a white van, and fears for her safety. This initial call between Joe and Emily is a work of art, and kicks off the nearly unbearable tension for the rest of the movie and Joe’s shift.

Fuqua and Pizzolatto infuse commentary unique to modern day America. The fires are always in the background impacting emergency resources, as well as the air being breathed. Police collusion and abuse of power are also an underlying aspect of what unfolds in front of us. Yet somehow, the film (perhaps accidentally) speaks to the immense pressure faced by law enforcement and how instincts and quick judgments are crucial to assistance and survival. Joe bounces from calm demeanor to explosive overreaction in the blink of an eye – or the beep of an incoming call. We witness how preconceived notions can lead one astray, even if they’ve worked in the past.

In addition to Gyllenhaal’s commendable performance, the film includes terrific voice work (via phone) from such actors as Riley Keough (as Emily), Peter Sarsgaard, Ethan Hawke, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Christiana Montoya, and Paul Dano. Adrian Martinez and Christina Vidal appear alongside Gyllenhaal in the call center, although the single setting contributes to this being mostly a one-man show.

We understand that Joe Baylor is seeking personal redemption in his all-out pursuit to save Emily, and one line in the film speaks directly to this: “Broken people save broken people.” If you haven’t seen the original, you are likely to get caught up in the tension, and ask yourself many of the same questions Joe is asking himself at the end. Gyllenhaal previously teamed with director Fuqua in SOUTHPAW (2015), but this crime thriller is something different for both. If you are up to the challenge, watch this version and the original, so that you can compare the contrasting approaches.

Streaming on Netflix beginning October 1, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (2019)

October 7, 2019

North Texas Film Festival 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The old flea market adage is “one person’s trash is another’s treasure”, and the same can be said for comedy. What you find obtuse and humorless may be the funniest thing your neighbor has ever seen or heard. No scientist can explain this phenomenon, and it’s never been better exemplified than with a scene in director Craig Brewer’s (BLACK SNAKE MOAN, HUSTLE & FLOW) latest film. Rudy Ray Moore and his group of friends are in a theatre watching Billy Wilder’s comedy THE FRONT PAGE (1974), starring Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon. The befuddled looks on the faces of Moore and his cohorts can’t mask their confusion over the raucous laughter in the theatre and what they are viewing on screen. It’s a turning point for Rudy Ray Moore and his next career step.

Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore, and though it’s not necessary, having some knowledge of the career of the real Mr. Moore will likely enhance your viewing experience during this exceedingly entertaining, and sometimes riotous biopic. Ruby Ray Moore was a hustler who dreamed of making it big in show business – first as a singer, then as a stand-up comedian, and finally as movie star. His ambition and dreams kept him going, even after others wrote him off. We first meet Rudy as an assistant manager at Dolphin’s of Hollywood record store. He’s trying to smooth-talk the store DJ (Snoop Dogg) into playing Rudy’s R&B records … one of which is “The Ring-A-Ling-Dong” song. The DJ tells him the time for that music has passed, but the next light bulb soon goes off Rudy. A local panhandler (a terrific Ron Cephus Jones cameo) regales those in the store with tall tales from the ‘hood. Rudy decides to fine-tune those tales and turn it into a comedy act.

Add some clothes and attitude and that’s how Dolemite was born … Rudy Ray Moore’s onstage alter ego – part pimp, part rapping philosopher. His memorable catchphrase is repeated a few times throughout the film, and I’ll do my best to present a PG version: “Dolemite is my name, and ‘effing’ up mother-‘effers’ is my game.” Yep, now you have a better feel for Rudy and Dolemite. However, co-writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewsi (also co-writers on Tim Burton’s ED WOOD, 1994), and especially Eddie Murphy, dig much deeper and provide a look at the man, his friends, and his career pursuits.

It’s pretty interesting to see a guy, without much going for him, figure out a strategy that ends up working. Part of his wisdom was in ‘knowing his audience’. His own preferences, and those of his friends, played right into what went on stage, on vinyl, and on screen. When a producer tells him his act will only be funny to the 5 blocks in Rudy’s neighborhood, Rudy brilliantly responds, “Yeah, but every city in America has these same 5 blocks.” It’s that kind of instinct, along with his generosity, and understanding his own shortcomings, that allowed him to reach a level of success. The scene where he cuts a deal with uppity actor D’Urville Martin (a superbly funny Wesley Snipes) portrays Rudy’s keen sense of persuasion … he played to the ego.

Eddie Murphy reminds us of his immense comedic talents and how he became such a mega-superstar in the first place. Here, he’s not really impersonating or mimicking Moore, but rather capturing his spirit and paying tribute to a man he so clearly respects. The supporting cast is also outstanding. In addition to Mr. Snipes, who we wish had more scenes with Mr. Murphy, Craig Robinson is hilarious as singer Ben Taylor, Keegan-Michael Key is socially-conscious playwright Jerry Jones, Titus Burgess is wide-eyed co-worker Theodore Toney, Mike Epps plays Moore’s pal Jimmy Lynch, and Kodi Smit-McPhee (THE ROAD) plays the student-DP. In addition, we get a couple of other cameos from Chris Rock as DJ Daddy Fatts, and Bob Odenkirk plays a film distributor with dollar signs in his eyes. Deserving of special mention is Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“On Becoming a God in Central Florida”) as Lady Reed, Rudy’s muse and discovery. She is funny and ferocious in this role that should lead to much more work.

The film is produced by Netflix and it screened at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival. The music (Scott Bomar) and especially the costume design (Ruth Carter) are top notch, and contribute to the story and film. Rudy Ray Moore became a Blaxploitation icon at a time when the comedy of Richard Pryor, Red Foxx, and Moms Mabley were popular – so hopefully that gives you some indication of the type of humor the film delivers. Raunchy humor with Kung-Fu action and plenty of skin – that’s the formula for the three Dolemite movies, as well as Moore’s comedy albums (and their covers). This was a time when dropping Fred Williamson’s name garnered instant respect. Some may compare this to James Franco’s THE DISASTER ARTIST, but instead I recall Mario van Peebles’ BAADASSSS!, a tribute to his filmmaking father Melvin. Hopefully your sense of humor will allow you to find the many laughs in this one, because Dolemite is dynamite … and that’ a WRAP!

watch the trailer (LANGUAGE WARNING):