*MOVIE RECAP: DOLEMITE

This is one of those movies that always seem to end up getting buried in algorithm purgatory. If you missed it when it was initially released, you have to search for it on Netflix’s endless catalog of original content. If it were a non-streaming release, it would probably be in constant rotation on cable TV.

Dolemite was a character created by standup performer Rudy Ray Moore back in the mid-70s. He performed as this Dolemite character during his standup routines, becoming a popular underground comedy act, and he eventually made comedy records as this character. All of those Dolemite LPs became bestselling comedy albums, reaching the bestselling charts.

Dolemite has been cited as a source of influence for many hip-hop artists that came out of the 80’s and 90s rap scene (Snoop Dog has credited Dolemite as his most significant influence).

During the blaxploitation era, Rudy Ray Moore made and acted in a bunch of blaxploitation films. However, his Dolemite character became his most iconic role.

Eddie Murphy is superb here playing Moore. He brilliantly captures the essence of this middle-aged performer who is still figuring things out as an artist and will not stop chasing his dream of being a star at this late stage of his life.

Wesley Snipes is excellent playing D’urville Smith, the director of the first Dolemite movie, who was never really sold on the concept of Dolemite but seized the opportunity of directing this movie as a springboard into other jobs. D’urville Smith was an actor best known for playing Diego, the elevator man on Rosemary’s Baby — I’m glad to see Wesley Snipes back on top form here.

Dolemite was Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), who also directed Murphy and Snipes in the sequel to Coming to America. Seasoned screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski wrote this movie; They are a screenwriting team that has made a name for themselves, writing biopics like Ed Wood, Man on the Moon, and The People vs. Larry Flint.

Dolemite is My Name is a very inspiring movie; Rudy Ray Moore teaches us that it is never too late to pursue your dreams. You get the sense watching this film that everybody involved in the making of this movie treated this story with much respect, appreciation, and reverence. It should be on everyone’s watchlist.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

DOLEMITE (2019). Streaming on Netflix

*MOVIE RECAP: THE LAUNDROMAT

I was excited as hell when I heard the news of a Steven Soderbergh movie for Netflix about the Panama Papers. All told, I’m a big fan of Soderbergh, the filmmaker, not the cultural appropriator Steven Soderberg, owner and marketing face of a Bolivian national spirit brand (Singani 63), but more on this unrelated topic some other time. 

I still think that Soderbergh’s 2008 two-part movie CHE is a masterpiece and, to me, one of the most influential films ever.

The Laundromat sheds light on some of the legal manipulations of the financial system by the super-rich. It has a similar vibe to the 2015 film, The Big Short, but not quite as compelling. 

We have Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), the two real-life men directly involved in the Panama Papers leak. These two dudes own a law firm based out of Panama specializing in creating shell companies for wealthy people who want to protect their money from being taxed. They set up these corporations so the actual people behind the money can easily bypass tax regulations. And within said corporations, they can create shell companies; A company owns a company that owns another company, and so on and on—effectively shielding the initial corporation from anyone finding out who is truly behind ownership. These shell corporations are usually set up in foreign countries like the Cayman Islands, Panama, or the British Virgin Islands, for example.

There was some controversy surrounding The Laundromat due to the lawsuits by Mossack and Fonseca when they unsuccessfully tried to stop the movie from being released. Oldman and Banderas serve as the narrators for most of the movie, continually breaking the fourth wall and explaining how to avoid taxes, hiding money, and how creating shell companies for the super-wealthy works.

Meryl Streep is always excellent, and she is excellent here as well. She plays Ellen Martin, the victim of one of these shell companies. After her husband’s tragic death, she tries to file a claim with her husband’s insurance company and discovers that the insurance company has been sold to another company. Stringing her along and blocking her insurance claim. Therefore, she begins to investigate and discovers a world of shady practices.

Streep’s character was very compelling, and I felt like the movie needed to spend more time with her and her journey.

There are other characters and cameos by well-known actors like Sharon Stone and David Schwimmer. However, their storylines never really get any traction or enough screen time to develop their stories accordingly….. or for us to even care enough for them.

If this movie’s purpose was to illuminate, shed some light, inform and educate about the world of shell companies, then this movie fails to achieve any of that straightforwardly. I felt that it needed to deliver a more meaningful social message. The characters literally look at you while breaking the fourth wall and tell the audience in a sermon-like approach to what exactly needs to be done to fix this legal but broken, immoral, and nefarious financial system. Nevertheless, I did enjoy and recommend this movie. My main issue is that I felt like it needed to be more creative and practical when conveying its urgent message of reforming our financial laws.

In any case, The Laundromat is full of many exciting layers, segments, and sub-plots. It attempts, in the end, to connect all those things with the central plot of this movie. It is definitely worth a watch, but the Big Short somewhat spoiled me when it comes to this type of film.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿 🍿

THE LAUNDROMAT (2019). Streaming on Netflix.

*MOVIE RECAP: MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM

Every year, without exception, I look forward to Awards season — it is a special time for movie nerds like me. It is a solid, two-month stretch of movie watching and catching up with some of the best films of the year. But also, it is a time when I have the chance to watch some of the most incredible movie performances of the year.

2020 was unique from previous years in terms of movie releases and Award contenders — the global pandemic forced all Oscar hopefuls to be released simultaneously on both movie theaters and streaming services. I love this format, and frankly, I feel that this streaming option should become the norm from now on.

HBO, Netflix, Prime, and Hulu had some of the most compelling movies of 2020 in their streaming catalogs. But Netflix, I think, had the upper hand; The Trial of the Chicago 7MankDa 5 Bloods, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom were some of the most interesting and well-made movies of 2020. 

On top of all that, Chadwick Boseman’s final on-screen performances on Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom were nothing short of astounding; (both movies were Netflix productions). 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based on the 1982 play of the same name by August Wilson and beautifully directed by George C. Wolfe. Most of the movie takes place over a day — during a recording session in 1920s Chicago and all of the issues and conflicts that come to the surface throughout the recording session. 

Ma Rainey was known as the Mother of the Blues, and Viola Davis (Ma Rainey) delivers an incredible performance, capturing the essence and physicality of this real-life character. There are only a handful of photographs of Ma Rainey in existence; I think there is only a total of 7 pictures, from what I read somewhere. Viola Davis is simply brilliant here — her physical demeanor is central to the story. There is a specific kind of power in the way she walks and stands. She knows her worth and demands to be treated with respect while standing her ground no matter what.

Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) is a trumpet player and the youngest member of Ma’s band. The conflict and the power struggles between Levee and Ma build up as the story moves along. Levee is looking to make his way in the world, but he refuses to play by the established rules. Boseman gives an exceptional final movie performance.

Top-notch performances by the rest of the cast. Most notably by the other three members of Ma’s band. Toledo (Glyn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) all shared unique life experiences, and their personal stories brought a particular sensibility to their characters.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a movie that feels like a stage play with lots of moving parts. Excellent performances all around, where race, social status, and music take center stage.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020). Streaming on Netflix.

*MOVIE RECAP: THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

The timing and arrival of this movie at the tail end of 2020 was perfect. Written and Directed by master screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is one of the most politically relevant movies I’ve seen all year.

It was initially supposed to be released in theaters, but because of the global pandemic, Paramount sold it to Netflix for both direct streaming and theatrical release.

The movie starts with actual news footage from the late ‘60s, including a Walter Cronkite clip at the beginning of the film, similar to how Spike Lee did it in Blackkklansman and Da 5 Bloods. The movie doesn’t waste any time and gets right into the meat of the story right away.

1968 was one of the worst political years in the history of the United States. Both MLK and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in the same year. The draft and the unpopular Vietnam war were still going on—and 8 prominent leaders of progressive movements were brought to trial. They were accused of conspiracy to cross state lines to commit violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — where violent clashes did indeed broke out between protesters and police.

Under President Lyndon Johnson, the justice department investigated these clashes. It concluded that the Chicago Police department was as much to blame for the violence as the protesters and declined to seek any legal prosecution. Then, Richard Nixon comes into office and decides to send a message to all young idealistic protesters by putting all these prominent progressive leaders in a criminal trial, which was evidently, pure political theater with potentially dire consequences for the accused.

Riveting performances from the entire cast. Sacha Baron Cohen (Abbie Hoffman) is excellent in a captivating performance. Eddie Redmayne (Tom Hayden) adds a unique and believable sensibility to this role. The conflict between Abbie and Tom — and all of their philosophical differences regarding how to move their progressive causes forward is a crucial component of this movie. There is also great chemistry between Jeremy Strong (Jerry Rubin) and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman. John Carrol Lynch (David Dellinger) gives a solid performance as the anti-war pacifist leader. Alice kremelberg (Bernardine Dohrn) shows up as a younger version of the future and infamous leader of the Weather Underground organization.

Frank Langella (Julius Hoffman) should have been nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor with this performance of the disgustingly corrupt Judge Hoffman, who turns this trial into the most unfair shit-show of a trial that I have ever seen in a movie. We get to see how the defendants and their lawyers feel powerless against his tyrannical behavior. Langella’s portrayal wasn’t exaggerated; Judge Hoffman actually behaved in that exact manner during the trial. The mixture of dialogue straight out of court transcripts and Sorkin’s dramatization work beautifully.

Mark Rylance (William Kunstler) is outstanding as the famous ACLU lawyer. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Bobby Seale), the renowned leader of The Black Panther Party, has a handful of scenes but completely takes over the screen in every single scene that he is in. He was actually bound and gagged for days during the trial — insane to realize that this actually did happen in a courtroom of the United States of America. My only issue with this part of the movie is that it doesn’t clarify how long Seale was bound and gagged. I feel like the movie had plenty of opportunities to amplify this fact but ended up minimizing it a bit by not focusing on how long he was restrained.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Richard Schultz) is convincing as a conservative federal prosecutor who takes on the case but disagrees with his own Attorney General John N. Mitchell (John Doman) on the merits of the criminal charges against the Chicago 7. Although surrounded by extreme right-wing types in the Nixon administration, Schultz manages to show empathy, integrity, and support for the defendants’ rights to protest.

It is fascinating to view the events of the trial of the Chicago 7 through the lens of our current times and to see the parallels between today and 1968. it is hard to believe that this trial actually did happen in the not so distant past. The cultural and generational divide is comparable to our current timeline. Today’s relevant issues are expressed brilliantly in this movie, like the power and right to protest—liberalism vs. extreme right-wing ideologies.

The villainization of the Black Panther Party and the Black Lives Matter movement is similar in the way media outlets attempted to negatively portray BLM protests all over the world this past summer (2020). The need for police reform is also pointed out. This film explores government and media power themes and how they can be used and abused to silence voices of progress.

The ending felt a bit abrupt, mostly because I wanted to watch a bit more and see the defendant’s eventual vindication instead of reading about it at the end. Nevertheless, the Trial of the Chicago 7 is an important movie to watch and should already be a strong candidate to win a bunch of awards in the upcoming Awards season. I was moved and inspired by this movie.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). Streaming on Netflix.

*MOVIE RECAP: HILLBILLY ELEGY

I noticed that most people dismissed this movie even before it was released. Most of the negativity surrounding Hillbilly Elegy was due to the political influence of the source material, which was cited as a sort of benchmark in understanding how Trump won the “white working class” vote in 2016.

Based on the controversial bestselling memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance — and adapted for film by Vanessa Taylor, best known for writing Hope Springs and co-writing The Shape of Water with Guillermo Del Toro. The Screenplay manages to remove many layers from the source material memoir to avoid any right-wing propaganda.

The movie is told through J.D. Vance’s eyes, using flashbacks, jumping forward and backward in time. J.D. is from central Ohio but considers himself to be from the Hill Country of Jackson, Kentucky (his family roots are from the Appalachian region). It is important to note that a significant number of people within the Appalachian community did not embrace J.D.’s memoir. Still, many people outside of this community were fascinated by it, primarily by coastal liberal elite types.

Nevertheless, without any of the book’s political stuff, the movie leans heavily on family melodrama. J.D. (Gabriel Basso) is a law student at Yale; he is attempting to navigate through college life away from his middle American upbringing. While at the same time hiding his family background from his college girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto). Through flashbacks, we get to see young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) and his early family life. His mother, Bev (Amy Adams), is a single mom who works as a nurse but seems to be a chronic drug addict, mentally unbalanced, and violent. Bev’s eventual heroin overdose throws adult J.D.’s plans into disarray.

J.D.’s grandma, “mamaw” Vance (Glenn Close), is the rock of the family and teaches J.D. valuable life lessons. She teaches J.D. responsibility. She provides him with the structure needed for success.

The movie’s main plot point is about J.D. driving back home to Ohio to deal with his Mother’s relapse situation. J.D. has to figure out a place for his Mother to do rehab and then drive overnight to make a 10 am interview for a highly sought-after internship. The scenes between J.D. and his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennet) are very emotional.

There was a good story to be told here, but it wasn’t J.D. Vance’s story; it was his Mother’s and Mamaw’s story. Those two intertwined stories were the two most compelling aspects of this entire movie.

The performances are solid, considering there are many limitations to the development of each character. The actors do very well with what they are given within the script. Gabriel Basso portrays J.D. as awkward, whiny, and at times unlikable. Similar to how the real-life J.D. Vance comes across; He constantly whines about something on social media. Essentially, he is just another right-wing talking head nut job.

I get the sense that J.D. has contempt for his humble background, like he is almost looking down at it. We never get a clear understanding of the real reason why J.D.’s family fell so hard, it feels like that is how things are supposed to be no matter what, and J.D. has to find his way out of that environment at all costs.

Glenn Close ended up getting an Academy Award nomination for her performance here. Some of the best moments of the movie come from this character. Mamaw Vance is this chain-smoking, tough love granny, and Glenn Close is fantastic here. She is the mirror image of the real-life Mamaw Vance.

Amy Adams needed more screen time. I felt like we needed more time to explore her backstory on a deeper level. There was apparent emotional damage done to Bev during her upbringing. The reason for all the fights, the screaming matches, the overdoses, and the constant need to self-sabotage herself was an area that needed to be analyzed further.

My favorite thing from this movie was the cinematography by Maryse Alberti. Phenomenal stuff, as usual from her.

Hillbilly Elegy is a drama that attempts to touch on several themes like never forgetting your roots and where you come from. The inherent nature of poverty, the difficulty of escaping from it, and the importance of your ancestry. However, the story doesn’t really go anywhere within the context of the drama, and it feels rushed and condensed. It simplifies and minimizes essential aspects of the family’s troubled history. This whole story would have been better served as a limited series instead of a movie.

Director Ron Howard’s filmography is full of excellent films, some of which are American cinematic classics. And although this movie may not be one of his best works, it still manages to provide us with plenty of debate. This is precisely what films, or any form of art for that matter, are supposed to stimulate and encourage.

Two out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿

Hillbilly Elegy, (2020). Streaming on Netflix.

*MOVIE RECAP: MANK

There is no measurable way to describe how much impact and influence the 1941 film Citizen Kane had on an entire generation of filmmakers; It continues to be one of the most celebrated films of all time. The myth of Orson Welles and the making of Citizen Kane endures to this day.

MANK is about screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his intense development of Citizen Kane. The authorship of Citizen Kane has been widely disputed — It has been the subject of documentaries and many articles throughout the years.

MANK depicts Herman Mankiewicz as the sole writer of Kane and not Orson Welles. Mank initially agreed not to be credited for writing Citizen Kane. But eventually, he changed his mind and received a writing credit and shared an Academy Award with Welles for Best Original Screenplay.

This movie is structured similarly to Citizen Kane, told in a non-linear manner, mostly through flashbacks, and shot in Black and White, resembling many of Kane’s artistic styles.

We see Mank bedridden, recovering from a car accident while writing and dictating the story that will become the basis for Citizen Kane. We see Orson Welles (Tom Burke) visiting Mank at the hospital and recruiting him for his upcoming project with RKO pictures. Tom Burke is dead-on in his portrayal of a young Orson Welles.

The story flips back and forth in time, with most of the flashbacks set to the backdrop of the great depression, between 1933-1940. We get to see Mank’s political leanings and all the personal and professional struggles Mank experienced during that particular decade. At one point, we see how Mank socialized and mingled with elite Hollywood circles and how those same Hollywood elites turned away from him.

The casting is remarkable. Charles Dance (William Randolph Hearst) commands the screen on every scene. Amanda Seyfried (Marion Davies) captured the essence of a 1930s Hollywood starlet brilliantly. Arliss Howard (Louis B. Mayer) was fantastic; Howard steals every scene he is in. There is a noteworthy hallway sequence where Mayer explains his rules of Hollywood to Mankiewicz….. outstanding scene.

Even Bill Nye, the Science Guy, makes a cool cameo as the author and political activist Upton Sinclair.

Gary Oldman is superb as usual; He is very convincing, pulling off all the drunk scenes. Mank, the real-life person, was also a gambler and an alcoholic, and Oldman embodied this character’s complexities exceptionally.

The relationship between William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, and Herman Mankiewicz is crucial to understanding how Mank ended up framing Citizen Kane’s story. Hearst was one of the most powerful and influential characters during the first half of the 20th century, comparable to someone like a Rupert Murdoch of our time. You get the sense that writing Citizen Kane was a big Fuck You to Hearst.

It seems like this was a passion project for director David Fincher. On a technical level, this movie is excellent. It takes great skills and ingenuity to make a film like this. The glamour and corruption of the golden era of Hollywood are depicted beautifully. The cigarette burns between reels, the muffled dialogue, the sound, and the vintage vibes make for a stylish-looking film. Interestingly enough, Mank was written by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, over 30 years ago, and I read that David Fincher had been trying to get this movie made since at least 1997.

There are direct parallels between the events of this movie and our current political climate. In the 1930s, Upton Sinclair was running for Governor of California. He was calling for social reforms, and some of the wealthiest California capitalists joined up and mounted a propaganda campaign to discredit Sinclair. William Randolph Hearst, Louis B. Mayer, and other elite members of their inner circle used Hollywood’s power to paint Sinclair as a radical socialist who was going to destroy California. They used movie theaters and the radio as a medium to spread disinformation and propaganda. Similar to how social media is used today to seed mistrust and division.

The real-life Herman Mankiewicz was a highly regarded writer. In fact, he was the first theatre critic for the New Yorker and member of the Algonquin Round Table. His contributions to cinema were significant. However, today his name is not well known outside of film buffs and movie historians. Hopefully, this movie will generate new interest in his work.

Mank is a movie for legit Cinephiles and anyone who enjoys the golden-era of Hollywood. It is the portrait of a complicated artist clashing with the establishment. But above all, Citizen Kane’s profound influence on generations of filmmakers is precisely what makes this movie so compelling. You may need to watch it a few times to grasp the whole thing fully.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

MANK (2020). Streaming on Netflix.

*MOVIE RECAP: DA 5 BLOODS

Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee’s most impressive film since the highly acclaimed BlacKkKlansman (2018), and probably his most ambitious film in terms of content. The story follows 5 Black American Vietnam war vets who return to present-day Vietnam for the first time since the war. The ensemble cast is solid — Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Paul (Delroy Lindo).

Delroy Lindo’s character is at the center of the story. He is the most unlikeable character here — he is a MAGA hat-wearing — Trump supporter who stands against everything progressive social causes stand for today. My impression is that Paul’s character is, in a way, a direct critique of Black Americans and minorities who support or have supported Trump.

Here we have a character who lived through the civil rights movement and now, as an older person, has turned his back on the movement’s ideals. It seems that a combination of PTSD, personal tragedy, and a poor mental state have contributed to Paul’s cognitive decline. Delroy Lindo’s performance is outstanding, an early favorite for award season.

Da 5 Bloods are returning to Vietnam for the first time since the war. They are on a quest to find and recover the remains of their squad leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Bossman), who was killed during combat, and the surviving Bloods plan to bring him back home. Stormin’ Norman was not only their squad leader but also their spiritual leader, and in a sense, he commanded a father figure type of influence on the Bloods. They even refer to him as “our Malcolm and our Martin.”

They are also attempting to retrieve Gold bars buried somewhere in the jungle. The gold bars belonged to the US government but were lost in the jungle after the cargo plane carrying them went down. Da 5 Bloods buried the gold intending to return at a later time and retrieve it.

There is this reparations aspect to Stormin’ Normans’ plans with what to do with the gold. He wanted to give all the gold to the Black people of the United States. The people who had been historically mistreated and forced to send young Black men to fight this unjust and unpopular war for the United States.

While in the middle of the Vietnamese Jungle-warzone, we observed Da 5 Bloods reaction to the MLK assassination news —That was an important scene that added more context to the characters.

There are layers and layers of messages sprinkled throughout this film…. like the French characters representing, in a way, the dark history of France in Vietnam and how the French had fought and lost a war there before the American war. The French character Hedy (Melanie Thierry) came from an affluential French family who made a fortune building landmines in Vietnam, directly benefiting from the Vietnamese people’s suffering.

There are landmines still scattered throughout the jungle — Hedy now runs an NGO whose mission is to locate and get rid of all the landmines left all over Vietnam — in a way, it feels like she is attempting to undo her family’s past and the sins of her country.

The Vietnamese characters are portrayed respectfully, and their views of the American war are expressed in a more direct and personal manner, not often seen in Hollywood productions.

There are excellent technical aspects that I found impressive, like the decision to have the main characters, who are actually older men in their 60s, play younger versions of themselves in flashbacks without de-aging them or CGI; it was a courageous and remarkable decision. The action sequences and the war shots were all well-executed—there are hints of Apocalypse Now in some key scenes.

This film provides a unique view of the African American experience during the Vietnam war within the context of the civil rights era; A period in history that remains very much relevant today. Da 5 Bloods is, without a doubt, an essential film to watch.

Four out of Five Popcorn bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

DA 5 BLOODS (2020). Streaming on Netflix