THE PROM (2020)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The success of his TV series “Glee” and “American Horror Story” has delivered Ryan Murphy the creative freedom to explore other projects. This time out he directs the cinema version of a Tony-nominated musical, and blends star power with newcomers in an extravaganza meant to fill the gap left by the darkened stages of Broadway during the pandemic. Created by Jack Viertel, with a book and screenplay from Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, it’s a story of homophobia and narcissism, and the battle to defeat both.

Meryl Streep stars as Dee Dee Allen, and along with James Corden as Barry Glickman, their opening night exuberance for “Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical” fades quickly when the reviews hit. Licking their wounds at Sardi’s, the two are told by the producer that nobody likes narcissists. Joined by chorus girl Angie Dickinson (played by Nicole Kidman) and Julliard-educated actor/bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), they decide what’s needed to revamp their careers is a ‘cause celebre’. Thanks to Twitter trends, they locate the plight of Emma Nolan (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), whose Indiana High School PTA has just voted to cancel prom rather than allow Emma to bring another girl as a date.

As you would imagine, becoming an activist for the wrong reasons (publicity) can make things messy. These flamboyant city slickers aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by Midwestern folks. Plenty of touching moments occur between Barry and Emma, Barry and Dee Dee, Angie and Emma, Dee Dee and school Principal Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), and mostly, Emma and her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose, who will also star in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of WEST SIDE STORY). PTA leader and leading homophobe Mrs. Greene (a fiery Kerry Washington) does a nice job as a bigot and caring parent.

So while a story exists and messages are conveyed, this is, more than anything, a glitzy musical covered in primary colors as only Ryan Murphy can. Each of our main players gets a featured song, with Ms. Streep’s campy “Not About Me” a highlight, along with Ms. Kidman’s Fosse-esque “Zazz”. Mr. Corden probably gets more than his fair share of screen time, while Ms. Pellman and Ms. DeBose shine brightly in their numbers, and both possess lovely voices. Young Ms. Pellman is especially impressive holding her own on screen with Oscar winners Streep and Kidman.

There likely aren’t many gay teen rom-com musicals set in middle-America, especially ones with a Tina Louise reference, but leave it to Ryan Murphy to make it work. There is some quality humor, though it’s likely the song and dance segments are what will draw the audience. Choreographer Casey Nicholaw takes full advantage of the athletic youngsters and fills the screens with backflips and leaps – complimenting the dance moves of the stars. It’s a shame inclusivity must still be addressed, but at least it can be battled in a fun and colorful way.

Opening in theaters December 4, 2020 and on Netflix December 11, 2020

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):

 


TOY STORY 4 (2019)

June 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Yes, it’s another instant classic from Pixar. No, we shouldn’t be surprised. Their track record is beyond compare. But I can’t help it. How the heck do they do it time after time, movie after movie? We have known (most of) the characters for 25 years now, and this fourth entry seems every bit as fresh and creative as the first one. We like these characters, and it doesn’t matter that they are animated. We laugh and cry and worry about them as if they are our friends.

Tom Hanks returns as our favorite cowboy Woody (yes, he still has a snake in his boot), and Tim Allen is back as Buzz Lightyear (still unable to grasp that he’s not a real space ranger). Also returning is Annie Potts as Bo Peep, now a strong, independent “lost” toy with excellent survival and scavenging skills. Some new toys and voices inject real pizazz to the adventures. Christina Hendricks charms as Gabby Gabby, a doll quite desperate for her own kid; Keanu Reeves shines as Duke Caboom, a showboating motorcycle stunt rider who may not be as daring as his big talk; and Tony Hale turns Forky into a lovable little cockeyed spork-toy. Also bringing fun and a new comedic element are the hilarious team of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key as Bunny and Ducky, respectively.

The opening sequence takes place 9 years ago, and we see how Bo Peep became separated from the others, and how the toys transitioned to Bonnie and how Bonnie transitioned to Kindergarten, and how Forky transitioned from trash to toy. And fear not, the old favorite toys are all here: Wallace Shawn as Rex, Joan Cusack as Jessie (I expected a bigger role for her), Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants, Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger as Hamm, Blake Clark as Slinky Dog, and courtesy of archival recordings, two posthumous appearances by Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, and Bud Luckey as Chuckles the Clown.

With his first feature film as director, Josh Cooley follows up his screenplay for the brilliant INSIDE OUT with a touching and superbly funny film. The screenplay comes from Andrew Stanton (2 time Oscar winner, FINDING NEMO, WALL-E) and Stephany Folsom, while the original story credits are many, including John Lasseter in his last project with Pixar. Even though the film is Rated G, it should be noted that it’s a pretty complex story for youngsters, and the Charlie McCarthy dolls are kind of terrifying – at least to me and Forky. TOY STORY (1995), TOY STORY 2 (1998), TOY STORY 3 (2010) get the send-off they deserve, so “move your plush” and go see it! Randy Newman is back with a new song, as well as the familiar melody and lyrics from his Oscar nominated “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” … a friend indeed.

watch the trailer: