Reviews Roundtables

Film Club: Dolemite is My Name, Marriage Story, Joker, and the Lighthouse were our October Favorites

It’s been a minute since we’ve gathered ’round the SunBreak table. October’s when the film calendar starts to get serious again; so let’s accentuate the positive. What was the best movie you saw last month?

Chris: For me, Parasite was the best thing I saw all month, but I want to hold off because I think we’ll all have more to say on that once everyone’s gotten a chance to see it. 

Josh: I agree with you on Parasite … easily among the best of the year. I saw it at Telluride and have been itching to revisit it now that it’s in wide release. Let’s reconvene later to dig into it? 

Dolemite is My Name (Netflix)

Tony: I haven’t had a chance to see Parasite yet (soon, I promise!), so the best movie I saw in October was undeniably Dolemite is my Name, Craig Brewer’s kinetic, fun, funky, and honestly inspiring film about foul-mouthed standup turned unlikely movie star Rudy Ray “Dolemite” Moore. I’m hoping to eke out a spare breath to expand more on what’s so great about it, and why it hit me on so many levels. But for now, I can say that it captures the run-and-gun exhilaration of a bygone era in indie filmmaking better than any movie I can think of in recent memory. It’s got a smorgasbord of great performances, stem to stern. And it is, in its own potty-mouthed, loose-limbed way, a celebration of black culture and of a black man repurposing slavery-era folklore with a go-for-broke energy that parallels the genesis of hip hop and punk rock. Great, great stuff. 

Marriage Story (Netflix)

Josh: I meant to catch it’s short run at SIFF, but I guess I’ll have to settle for streaming it on Netflix. Consider it added to my queue! This is a bit unfair since it isn’t yet in wide release, but I’ll give my best of the month trophy to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. It floored me when I saw it at Telluride in September and then I made the questionable emotional decision to run myself through the ringer and see it again at the Orcas Island Film Festival. For such downer subject matter — the slow, painful, and probably overdue dissolution of an artist couple’s marriage — it was surprisingly re-watchable.  The performances are uniformly outstanding, nuanced, funny, empathetic, and occasionally heartbreaking. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansen portray the couple as having real affection for each other yet also unleash some blockbuster arguments, and on second viewing, I appreciated even more how the structure of the narrative gradually unspools their (or more, his) foolhardy notion that their conscious uncoupling can be a fully amicable affair. Baumbach had previously explored the personal trauma of divorce (in the Squid and the Whale, still among my favorites), but here, mining the territory of his own painful split from Jennifer Jason Leigh, his take more mature, open hearted, and surprisingly evenhanded. The result is no less devastating, but the shift in perspective leaves a softer, kinder afterglow along with the bittersweet melancholy. It’s getting a limited theatrical release this month; if it doesn’t make it to Seattle theaters, it will be on Netflix in December. 

Chris: I really want to see that, too, Josh, but I think I’ll have to wait for it to come to Netflix in early December, unless I see a theatrical run that I can fit into my schedule. 

Joker (Warner Bros)

Chris: Instead, I’ll first write about a movie I was fond of, though I’m probably in the minority at SunBreak HQ. Tony got the first word on Joker, but I think I enjoyed it a bit more than he did, and certainly found it more nuanced and more left-wing. I thought it had a lot to say about the effects of austerity on the poor and mentally ill, and how they’re discarded by society. Its class politics were righteous, especially when you take into account Thomas Wayne’s mayor campaign and the fate of his employees on the subway with the conditions Arthur and his mother live in. 

For as long as I can remember, at least through the Jack Nicholson era, the Joker’s one-liner origin story was “society made me this way” and in this iteration of the character, I think it’s important to note that. Arthur Fleck is the product of a mother who cruelly abused him and a government that sees the medication he takes to function and the social worker he works with as budget items to zero-out. 

Josh: I, too, saw Joker and contributed to its massive box office success. As much as I like what you’re saying about its politics, I wasn’t frustrated with its execution. Sure, Joaquin puts on quite a show with all of the weight loss, contortions, and creepy laugh, but it felt more interested in desperately call attention to the effort rather than conveying something new about the protagonist’s sad-sack situation.

I appreciate that Todd Phillips wanted to cast this all in a gritty realist mode to ground it as a story of a tortured human who snaps, but for me at least this posed a problem when none of it felt remotely believable. There are parts where narrative cohesion goes out the window in service of unreliable narration to reflect Fleck’s deepening unmedicated mental illness, but by the time the credits rolled I honestly had no idea how much of what was shown on screen was meant to have actually “happened”. Maybe, for me, at least it’s just that the birth of a nihilist psychopath doesn’t hold dramatic stakes? I have grown weary of anti-heroes and exploring why sad people break terribly bad.   

But if we’re being fair, I should acknowledge that can’t remember a film from the DC universe that I’ve all the way liked. I’m even a bit chilly on the beloved Nolan Batman trilogy — they’re fine, but have definite problems that get easily papered over with the hype. I had sort-of sworn off DC after failing to succumb to Wonder Woman‘s charms, but Joker won the Golden Lion in Venice and felt too buzzy to ignore. 

While we’re on this topic, I’ll line up as #TeamMarty in his ridiculously overblown questioning of the “cinematic” bona fides of the MCU (now expanded to a feature-length NYT editorial, in particular on the effects of franchise culture on cinematic exhibition). With that said, I am also willing to admit that I very much enjoy a well-executed theme park ride (surely a turn of phrase that’s not accidental given this year’s unprecedented success from a certain studio). On this front, in contrast to the stifling self-seriousness of DC’s dark universe. Marvel’s offerings have always been far more my style: bright colors, light banter, celebration of the power of friendship, and the sense that its heroes are real people who would be good hangs. I agree that there’s often little risk in these, but they are often pleasant ways to spend an afternoon (I, too, cheered when a certain friendly neighborhood Spider-man showed up in Endgame and breathed a sigh of relief when his corporate parents came to a new custody arrangement late last month.)

Chris: Oh absolutely, Josh, and I’m glad you brought up the Marty v. Marvel “discourse” “we” seem to be having right now. I thought this was probably the best DC movie since the Nolan Batmen (save for Wonder Woman, they’ve all been crap in one way or another), so there’s not a lot of disagreement between us. I tend to prefer the Marvel movies to DC’s for most of the same reasons you did, though I’m also firmly Team Marty, and I think a lot of my enjoyment was to see how Scorsese’s influence was shown throughout the movie, not just the obvious parallels to The King of Comedy (down to having Robert DeNiro basically playing the Jerry Lewis role and Joaquin Phoenix playing the DeNiro part), but also I thought Gotham was a pretty good recreation of the seedy New York that Scorsese showed us in Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. 

Or maybe I’m just being reflexively contrarian because of how much bad faith dominated the conversation about this movie, including takes on how people were too morally upstanding to bother with the movie. One person on Media Twitter called it something like Citizen Kane for incels, which is a very different movie from the one I saw! Moreover, I only have room for one great-Joaquin-Phoenix-performance-in-a-movie-I-otherwise-despised, and that’s You Were Never Really Here. 

Tony: Y’all know my take on Joker, so I’ll beg off of that gentle cineaste cage match.

Morgen: Ok, I’m gonna throw myself into this conversation but it’ll be more like a conversation with myself since you two did a great back and forth already on aspects that are deep within the plot structure and I’m gonna just focus on one bit of the movie I found most intriguing. The idea that his mother may or may not have been lying. The idea that Wayne, always portrayed as an innocent victim in iterations of the Batman story, at the very least treated Fleck’s mother like garbage and at worst outright threw her and their son in the gutter, putting effort into keeping them there for the sake of his good name. Perhaps I missed a key line or a small piece of evidence that swayed the argument to one side or the other, but even as the credits rolled, I wasn’t sure whether Wayne had actually tossed his mother aside and doctored those documents or if she truly was off-kilter and abused her son to the point of insanity (well, that last part was true regardless, but I digress). 

Josh: I was of the opinion that she was mentally ill, too. But like I said, the narration was so unreliable, it’s hard to tell!

Morgen: One other fascinating aspect of the story was how easily, how quickly, the public at large took to violence imitating a clearly insane person who shot three sleazy Wall Street-type men. Yes, of course we all fantasize about “bad guys” getting their comeuppance and it’s a common theme in super-hero stories. However, this film was too close to reality to make that… I don’t want to say believable because the climate and unbelievable nature of the world we live in at this moment isn’t far off… but it felt maybe too real? Too painful to believe that each and every one of us are on the brink of turning into brazen murders roaming the streets searching for people we deem to be “bad guys”. That’s one of the main plot points that typically separate the good, innocent folks in these stories from the bad guys. In Joker, all that was blurred, everyone was bad and good, seemed sane and insane, it was unsettling and probably why I won’t be able to watch it again for a very long time, if ever.

Chris: Did anyone get to go to any of the Seances from Guy Maddin at the NW Film Forum? I know Morgen is out of town but maybe Josh or Tony caught one? The art installation runs through this weekend, and it was one of the most unique filmgoing experiences I ever had. I went last Saturday afternoon (in between screenings of Parasite and The Lighthouse) and our group wasn’t more than five or six people. We democratically chose a movie with sex in the title, because we were all a bunch of perverts and watched a weird, short film that included lessons on bathing. I think it was 11 or 12 minutes long, and it won’t be seen again. I thought it was pretty cool. Anyone else have thoughts?

Josh: I’m sorry to say that I missed them all. Sounds pretty neat and a low-commitment interlude between two pretty intense movies. 

Jojo Rabbit (Photo, Kimberley French via Twentieth Century Fox)

Josh: It’s probably also a bit premature, but I’m looking forward to seeing how Jojo Rabbit and The Lighthouse are received as they hit more theaters. Jojo fell disappointingly flat for me — maybe it will always be “too soon” for me and Twee Nazis. I’m still puzzling over the delirium of my reactions to what Robert Eggers did with Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe on that claustrophobic storm-battered rock. In particular, whether RPatz’s shifting accents were part of the plot and whether I need to subject myself to it again to understand what it all meant. 

Morgen: Josh I’m so incredibly excited about Jojo. Annoyingly I have been seeing commercial after commercial about it when I want to go in fresh-faced and wide-eyed, but I’ve been able to hold off finding out too terribly much about the plot so far. I really wanted to read the book it’s based on first, Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, but I’ve been waiting for two weeks for one to be available either in Seattle or in Louisville, KY where I’m currently spending some time. I’ll still read it but I’m too anxious to watch the film to put it off any longer. There’s a great theater nearby and I have a sneaky suspicion I’m going to try to fit it into my tight schedule this week. 

The Lighthouse (A24)

Chris: Josh, I was hoping you’d bring up The Lighthouse because I wanted to talk about it too. I left the theater thinking “It takes a unique type of weirdo to love this movie, and I am very much that weirdo.” I mean, I have absolutely no idea how I can sell people on a black and white movie shot with only two actors playing characters who pass the time by fighting, hallucinating, and farting.

Tony: I’m with you on The Lighthouse, Chris. It’s strange AF, willfully obtuse, ridiculously (intentionally) funny in places, and incalculably creepy.

Chris: I liked the tension between Dafoe and RPatz, and thought it was exceptionally well-acted. Compare Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse to his performance in a more enjoyable, plot-driven (but not better) movie with Motherless Brooklyn, and you can see how intense he can be as an actor when the part requires it. It’s not by any means an easy or fun film, but I was definitely entertained, but I could understand those who weren’t. 

Tony:  I can also readily understand why The Lighthouse has alienated a lot of filmgoers. But from the opening frame, I was all in. I think both actors are pretty indelible. Tho’ I wonder where the Hell Pattinson’s accent is coming from, he’s committed and intense, and looks like he stepped out of a late-19th century photo. Dafoe should narrate a whole audiobook of pirate ghost stories, IMO. 

Josh: TBH, I’m surprised that the marketing geniuses at A24 haven’t already released a creepy tales from the sea as performed by pirate-voiced Defoe on vinyl in time for the holidays. 

Tony: The closing shot of The Lighthouse is as bleak and bone-chilling as anything I’ve seen in a movie theater all year.  I suppose that the most obvious explanation for the entire movie is encapsulated in that closing shot. It’s the closest thing to a spoiler you can really give about the movie (if you could ascribe something as convergent as a plot to this deliberately paced fever dream of a movie), to name-drop the literary reference that popped up in my mind after seeing it. So I won’t.

Josh: I didn’t not like it, for sure. Maybe the dreaded expectations game had its way with me — I have a lot of affection for the VVitch, which came out of nowhere (as far as I was concerned). Certain shots from that still linger and I suspect the same will be true for the Lighthouse whether I want them to or not!

Morgen: I know so little about The Lighthouse, but after checking out a few things here and there now I’m itching to find out what all the fuss is about. I’ll admit fully that about 90% of the time I have a hard time taking Robert Pattinson seriously. He’s had his moments of solid acting and then some seriously bad moments that I can’t even watch so… maybe Defoe will pull something out of him unexpected and truly weird? I’m so in the mood for weird right now.

Tony: Morgen, it’s worth seeing, and I’m curious how it’ll hit you. Don’t read anything else about it and go in cold as possible.

Josh: Between the Lighthouse and Claire Denis’s supremely strange High Life, it’s been a huge year for Robert Pattinson, his fluids, and losing his mind in isolated doomed circumstances. I think I slightly prefer Patz in spacesuits to wickie-wear, but I don’t begrudge anyone who fell under either’s spell. I still haven’t gotten around to firing him up Netflix (or trekking out to The Crest) to see him sparring with Timothee Chalamet in The King, but I’ve heard that his accent work is really something in that one, too. In any case, he’s spent his post-Twilight years racking up some serious artistic credibility; so of course the time is ripe for him to dive back into the vault of franchise gold as the latest iteration of the Batman. Will we see him sparring with Joaquin’s Joker? I have no idea — but that would really bring this whole conversation full-circle and might even pique my curiosity enough to go back (again) on my self-advised DC ban.