September 8, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Dolemite Is My Name,” “My Zoe” & “Briarpatch”


DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (Netflix – October 4 in theatres/October 25 streaming): Putting aside his strong dramatic turn in Dreamgirls, it’s been an incredible 20 years, dating back to 1999’s Bowfinger, since Eddie Murphy’s work inspired the kind of joy that typified the first two decades of his career, joy that’s been diminished with each of his pallid paycheck roles since.  Dolemite Is My Name has been a dream project of Murphy’s for almost that long, and it happily brings back his enthusiasm for performing and his irresistible star quality.  Dolemite was written by the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote 1994’s Ed Wood, and it’s very much a companion piece to that true story.  Like Wood, Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy) was a maker of movies far outside the Hollywood norm, and also outside traditional notions of filmmaking skill.  Moore failed at singing and stand-up comedy until he latched onto the urban legend character Dolemite, whom he turned into a vehicle for pimp-ish insult arias (performed to rhythmic music, they’re seen now as an ancestor of rap).  Performing as Dolemite, Moore became a sensation, and he decided to bring the character to the big screen.  Also like Ed Wood, Moore worked mostly with his friends and on a shoestring, with the exception of the professional actor D’Urville Martin (hilariously played by Wesley Snipes), who came onto the project with the promise that he could direct.  The big difference between Moore and Wood was that the Dolemite movies were objectively hits, beloved first by African-American audiences, and later by white devotees of their VHS craziness, including Alexander, Karaszewski and director Craig Brewer.  Brewer, who made a splash with Hustle and Flow but has recently been house director on Empire, returns to the big screen with a vengeance, enjoying the flamboyant visuals of Moore’s outfits (re-imagined by costume designer Ruth E. Wilson) and the decrepit hotel Moore turned into a soundstage, but mostly standing back and letting his cast go.  Murphy’s comic timing is as unerring as ever, and he brings a desperate determination to Moore that’s new for him.  The marvelous ensemble, along with Snipes, includes Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Kodi Smit-McPhee (as the closest the production had to a “professional”), and the marvelous Da’Vine Joy Randolph, as the woman Moore turned into his stand-up partner and eventually his movie’s leading lady.  The script doesn’t go particularly deep–there’s little here about Rudy Ray Moore’s personal life–but it’s a romp and a half.

MY ZOE (no US distributor):  Julie Delpy’s strange tale has to be carefully described, lest spoilers ruin its audacity.  It begins as a story of bitter divorce, as Isabelle (Delpy) and James (Richard Armitage) fight over the details of their shared custody of 7-year old Zoe (Sophia Ally), using their child as the battleground for their mutual grudges.  Then something terrible happens, and My Zoe isn’t the kind of story where people are ennobled by tragedy–if anything, exhaustion and worry make Isabelle and James even worse to one another.  But all of that only covers the first hour.  After that, Delpy takes the narrative on a left turn that changes its very genre; suffice it to say that the script is careful to establish Isabelle’s credentials as a scientist early on, and that Daniel Bruhl and Gemma Arterton enter as important characters.  The opening hour of My Zoe is wrenching and unpleasant to watch, yet it has a scorching willingness to depict its characters at their worst that makes it magnetic.  It’s certainly a big step from Delpy’s previous mostly-dramedy films as a writer/director (she’s probably best known as an actress for her roles in Richard Linklater’s Before arthouse franchise).  The final section, while well enough told for what it is, feels sketchier and unconvincingly plotted, although Delpy tries to root it in emotional reality.  My Zoe is an interesting try, but not quite a success.

BRIARPATCH (USA Network – premiere date TBD):  Toronto is one of the film festivals that has tentatively embraced content created for television with a small group of premieres  One of this year’s crop is Briarpatch, the first show created by former TV critic (and still-current podcast host) Andy Greenwald, under the aegis of non-writing Executive Producer Sam Esmail.  The first two episodes were screened, and they suggest a relatively conventional murder mystery stretching for oddness.  Freely adapted from a novel by Ross Thomas, Greenwald’s version centers on Allegra Dill (Rosario Dawson), a DC Senate committee investigator who comes home to Texas and is quickly embroiled in trying to solve the murder of her sister.  There are suspicious cops (one played by the estimable Kim Dickens) and even more suspicious politicians, and a hot-wire old flame (Jay R. Ferguson) who’s now an arms dealer, and secrets about Allegra’s sister that have to be probed.  But mixed into all this are scrupulously weird details like escaped zoo animals roaming the streets and ominous close-ups of a discarded room service steak that no one picks up, steadily infested by insects.  We get it:  Greenwald has seen Twin Peaks.  But imposing David Lynchiana on a straightforward mystery feels so far like an affectation.  On the plus side, Dawson is first-rate in the lead, Ferguson is a hoot, and some of the character bits, like the Senatorial aide who’s a bit of a gourmand, work nicely.  When Briarpatch finally airs, we’ll see if its twin styles find a balance that works.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."