A queer masterpiece and an all-star dip into blaxploitation history at TIFF day 3

PLUS Roy Andersson’s bizarre oeuvre persists, popes talk shop and a colour-blind approach to David Copperfield.

Dolemite Is My Name

As implausible as it is to imagine that Tommy Wiseau’s oeuvre got its own behind-the-scenes movie last year, it seems even more implausible that improbable blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore gets his now. Maybe it’s that Wiseau is more in the zeitgest, less mired in the outlandish fashion and funky jams of Moore’s ascension from mediocre soul singer to record store manager to underground comedy star. Either way, I’m very glad that Craig Brewer’s boisterous but surface-level Dolemite Is My Name exists.

After decades attempting to become a working entertainer using rapidly dated routines, middle-aged record store manager Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) is inspired by the patter of Skid Row bums to create Dolemite, a comic character who wears colourful pimp outfits and speaks in sing-song street rhymes. Dolemite is an underground hit, but the explicit nature of the material makes it difficult for him to break out, so he decides to make a movie. Employing a high-minded playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) and more or less roping blaxploitation star D’urville Martin (Wesley Snipes, in fine scene-stealing, scenery-chewing form) into co-starring and directing, Moore brings in his friends and acolytes (Craig Robinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Mike Epps, Titus Burgess) and sets about making the film that will take him into the stratosphere.

You could mistake Dolemite Is My Name for a Moore biopic; in the first few minutes, it certainly seems like that, borrowing from the biopic playbook liberally to set up Moore’s transformation into the man whose game is fucking up motherfuckers. Instead, Brewer and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski focus on the let’s-put-on-a-show aspect of his career, from his early party records (which were quite literally recorded during a party at his house) to the ramshackle production of a future blaxploitation classic. Dolemite Is my Name is a riot, filled to the brim with funk and colourful polyester costumes and surprising cameos, but it remains on the surface about its characters and crouches its messages of empowerment and self-reliance in somewhat diffused cheese. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue how fun and infectious it all is. (Alex Rose)

Dolemite Is My Name hits Netflix on Oct. 4.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire 

Céline Sciamma’s new film got rapturous praise when it premiered at Cannes earlier this summer. And rightly so, as it is the best film I, along with many others, have seen at TIFF so far. Set in 18th century Brittany, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is tasked with painting the portrait of Héloise (Adèle Haenel), which is to be an offering to her husband-to-be without her subject realizing it. Marianne is not the first painter who has been commissioned, for Héloise defiantly evaded the last painter’s gaze so as to put off her impending marriage. Marianne, pretending to be her walking companion, carefully observes Heloise while on their windy walks along the coast. She memorizes the details of her face and the position of her hands so as to render them accurately on her canvas. 

This is a film about the pleasure of looking and the precarity of being looked at, but it is a direct reaction against the male gaze and the long tradition of the muse in art history. The more Marianne looks and paints, the more she falls in love with Héloise. And vice versa. Sciamma pays particular attention to the work of painting. Beautiful long shots of Marianne’s paintbrush and squelchy sound of mixing paints on the palette ground the film in a tactile specificity. When Marianne at last reveals the painting to Héloise, she is disappointed, both by the betrayal and the painting’s absence of any character. So, Marianne gets back to work on a clean canvas, this time without having to remember Heloise’s features, for she has agreed to sit for it. Somewhere in the space between their piercing gazes, they fall for one another. Pulsing with erotic energy, Sciamma’s queer masterpiece is a medidation on love, illicit and ablaze. You can feel the final shot subcutaneously, like a raging rush to the head. You won’t be able to look away. (Sarah Foulkes)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens in theatres Dec. 20.

About Endlessness

It seems almost arbitrary that Roy Andersson’s films are even split up into features and given titles. They’re so often constructed along the same lines that they could be presented as an endless supercut or individual, bite-sized tableaus and presumably lose nothing of their power. About Endlessness is no different, with only a trim running time (76 minutes) and minute aesthetic variations (not every tableau here is peopled with Andersson’s usual company of doughy, middle-aged, moonfaced white people — just most of them).

There’s not much point in expounding what happens in About Endlessness — it’s a series of short, one-shot tableaus that are alternately banal, absurd, beautiful and grotesque. They’re rarely connected, though there is a throughline of a massively depressed priest going through an embarrassing public crisis of faith and of another guy obsessed with meeting a man from his past. Andersson’s grey, beige and brown palette remains intact, and the film’s slightly more gentle tone gives it a bizarrely comforting feeling — bizarre considering that this is Andersson’s most hope-filled movie, and he has never struck me as a hopeful filmmaker. (AR)

About Endlessness does not yet have a release date.

The Two Popes

A historical buddy two-hander in the King’s Speech vein, The Two Popes perhaps greatly overestimates how important the papacy is in most people’s lives. Or perhaps that’s simply on me and my reductive views of papal importance since The Two Popes is a fairly dynamic look at a historical event with no precedence in the modern world: the resignation of a pope. When Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) is elected Pope Benedict in 2005, it’s in a relatively close race with Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), a humble Argentinian whose relatively liberal ideas make him a controversial choice. Nevertheless, as Benedict’s reign becomes swamped in controversy, he begins to consider the next step, which involves meeting with Bergolio, having some pizza (!) and seeing if Bergolio really is the man for the job.

The Two Popes is a study in contrasts, with Ratzinger being conservative and humourless and Bergolio generally genial and open-minded. When they first meet in a Vatican bathroom, Bergolio is whistling “Dancing Queen,” which Ratzinger mistakes for a hymn — and about which no clarification is truly useful. The entirety of The Two Popes is thus (appropriately) a two-hander, a kind of ecclesiastical My Dinner With André with more humour than that may suggest. Hopkins and Pryce have an interesting rapport and Meirelles keeps things dynamic (although I’m not certain that scene after scene of two old men chatting requires so many gritty handheld zooms), but the whole thing feels a bit like pope-aganda, and for me, it never quite transcended its subject. (AR)

The Two Popes hits Netflix on Nov. 27.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ mammoth novel is compact, fast-paced and a lot of fun. The film begins with David Copperfield (Dev Patel) centre-stage, recounting his life story to a packed audience. Born to a loving, recently widowed mother, David spends the first few years of his life happy and develops a fancy for words and whimsical expressions his zany family and friends use. But ill fate soon befalls him and he is whisked away to a factory by his demonic new step-father and is forced to work in inhumane conditions. A wild journey awaits him with twists and turns in the plot that, for most of the film, Iannucci skillfully executes without either rushing or dawdling. 

The actors, cast colour-blind, is a who’s who of British talent. Their exalting high energy and impeccable comic timing make the first 90 minutes of the film go by in a flash, despite the dense plot. It’s refreshing to see diversity in a genre that until recently was reserved exclusively for white people. The people of colour in this film are not maids or slaves or historical exceptions. After all, the film doesn’t aspire to realism, so why should the casting? The film deploys many inventive tricks to transition from scene and render David Copperfield’s vivid imagination. As lively as they are, however, they do at times feel like a series of distracting attractions that pull the viewer away from images of suffering and pain that run throughout the novel. 

As excellent writers as Iannucci and his writer partner Simon Blackwell are, they still haven’t quite mastered the searing honesty of showing a person genuinely suffering. You’re always waiting for a joke to come around the corner, and usually there is one. The final act feels too cluttered to go down as smoothly as the first two, but it’s such a change to see Iannucci end on such an optimistic, albeit perhaps delusional, note that it’s more satisfying than frustrating. (SF)

The Personal History of David Copperfield does not yet have a release date.