Tag Archives: B+

THE LIGHTHOUSE

In terms of narrative clarity, Robert Eggers’ second feature might not shed even as much light as his rather enigmatic debut “The Witch” did, but it shares with its predecessor an uncanny ability to create a sense of wonder—sometimes pleasurable but more often eerie, and sometimes truly frightening. On the most basic level “The Lighthouse” dramatizes the psychological effect of isolation, but it does so with a raft of symbols and weird details that constantly keeps one off balance. It might baffle you, but its visceral impact is undeniable.

On the surface the plot is extraordinarily simple. On the coast of Maine in the late nineteenth century, two men arrive to take over a lighthouse for a month. The older, experienced man is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), a fellow as craggy as the rock on which the structure is set, with a habit of speaking histrionically in quasi-Biblical cadences redolent of a Melville character. Young Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), by contrast, is a newcomer to the trade, a reticent fellow with a recessive air that suggests a difficult past and emotional trauma.

Wake is an imperious boss, making it abundantly clear that the upper level of the place, where the enormous, circling light is housed, reached by a winding iron staircase topped by a grill he invariably locks after climbing it, is entirely his domain, closed off to Ephraim. The younger man, meanwhile, is assigned all the grunt tasks—trundling wheelbarrows of coal up the slick stones to feed the furnace, cleaning out the filthy cisterns, tossing the refuse into the waves. It’s backbreaking work, and Winslow’s only respite comes in pleasuring himself, using a small figurine he finds in a mattress for inspiration, although he is visited by occasional visions of a seductive mermaid signaling to him from the waters.

The first half of the film consists of Wake basically taunting Winslow, prodding him to share a toast at the meals they share and open up about his past, which Ephraim clearly doesn’t want to talk about, and Winslow seething at being shut off from the light, which seems to endow the grizzled old coot with some mysterious power (at one point a tableau shows him as a Poseidon figure, towering over mere humans like a sea-god) while not knowing what Wake is writing about him in the logbook he keeps under lock and key.

Ephraim must also deal with other irritations—notably the aggression of one of the gulls that circle the place, a nasty creature that must not, Wake tells him, be harmed, since the sea birds are repositories of the souls of dead mariners, and must be treated with respect. That’s easy for Thomas to say, given that he seems never to venture out into the wind and blinding rain, but Ephraim must put up with the bird’s increasingly threatening attacks.

There’s a strong suggestion of the supernatural in all this, of course, and as the film progresses the hint becomes more and more insistent even as human factors dominate. The men’s relationship changes: as they share more and more of the alcohol Wake loves, Winslow loosens up—though his doing so releases impulses he’s been struggling to keep in check. Things erode as the month-long term continues and he cannot keep from dealing with the gull in the film’s most disturbing sequence.

That’s only a matter of degree, however, because as the men’s forced solitude is extended by a bad storm and they resort to kerosene cocktails, things fall apart completely. They might dance together drunkenly, but madness is immediately beneath the surface, and violence eventually erupts. What a rescue crew might find upon their arrival isn’t revealed, but it certainly won’t be pretty.

Eggers, working from a script concocted by him and his brother Max, has had cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shoot the film in stark black-and-white, conjuring up images reminiscent of lustrous period photographs. But he also uses the old boxy aspect ratio that gives them the shape of a near-square, creating a constricting, claustrophobic feel but also focusing the viewer’s undivided attention on the battle of wills occurring on screen. The production design by Craig Lathrop and costumes by Linda Muir are integral to the effect, as also is the careful sound design by Damian Volpe, with the mournful warnings of the foghorn constantly interacting with the natural ambient sounds and Mark Korven’s imaginative score. Though editor Louise Ford extends the film to nearly two hours, the result is hallucinatory rather than dull.

Of course as a basically two-person piece, much of the fascination of “The Lighthouse” depends on the performances, Dafoe starts at high pitch and only increases the volume, but Pattinson begins in his usual calmer mode, gradually becoming as ferocious as his co-star. It’s an acting duel in which both men prove at the top of their game.

“The Lighthouse” is a brooding exercise in semi-Gothic gloom that threatens to slip into unintentional absurdity but never quite does. It’s a mesmerizing film that’s also pleasurably mystifying.

DOLEMITE IS MY NAME

Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander are the writing team responsible for “Ed Wood,” easily the best fact-based fantasy about a maladroit filmmaker ever made. Now they’ve turned their attention to another less-than-masterful figure from the cinematic past. “Dolemite Is My Name” might not be the equal of Tim Burton’s 1994 classic, but as directed with verve by Craig Brewer, it’s tremendous fun.

It’s also a rip-roaring return to form by Eddie Murphy, who plays Rudy Ray Moore, a would-be standup comic eking out a living at a Los Angeles record store, where his DJ buddy (Snoop Dog) refuses to play the records he made years before while futilely attempting a singing career. He also acts as an MC at the local club where his pal Ben (Craig Robinson) fronts a band.

Rudy’s luck changes when he hears a homeless man (Ron Cephas Jones) spinning yarns about a slick hustler called Dolemite and gets the idea of using the stories to fashion a stage character for himself. It becomes a hit with the club crowd, which leads him to make a party record modeled on those of Redd Foxx. When no established company will touch it, he and his buddies—Ben and Jimmy (Mike Epps)—sell it out of their car trunks. Word of its popularity makes way to the record labels, and soon he has a contract for the LP; a slew of sequels follow.

Rudy’s Dolemite character is also a big success on the black club circuit, and on one leg of a tour he encounters Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whom he encourages to go onstage too—with surprising success.

One night Rudy and his buddies go out to a movie—Billy Wilder’s 1974 remake of “The Front Page”—and he finds it dismally unfunny. He decides to make a picture for his audience—a blaxploitation flick in the mold of “Shaft” but starring himself as Dolemite. He uses the profits from his records—and a loan from his record company—to finance it.

What follows is a version of the “let’s put on a show” formula. Rudy convinces a socially-conscious playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) to write a script; converts a dilapidated skid row hotel into a combination of soundstage, office space and place to sleep; hires a bunch of white film students captained by a geeky DP (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as a crew; and persuades D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), an actor who’s had bit parts in movies like “Rosemary’s Baby,” to play the part of the villain by letting him direct as well.

The shoot itself is presented as a series of riffs in which Martin winces as Rudy clumsily attempts his character’s kung-fu moves, car chases and romantic scenes, and despite occasional stumbles the picture gets finished. Since Rudy can’t find a distributor, however, he’s back at square one until a radio host (Chris Rock) in Indianapolis suggests that he premiere the flick at a theatre run by his cousin (Barry Shabaka Henley). Rudy uses his last dollar to rent the place for a midnight screening that with savvy promotion turns into a sell-out, the first in a series of “four-wall” showings that leads to a distribution deal with the seventies exploitation-movie specialists at Dimension Pictures. Huge profits, and a sequel, follow.

Like “Ed Wood,” this is an affectionate celebration of a guy with far more enthusiasm than talent (the real “Dolemite” flicks may not be quite as bad as “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” but even seventies audiences laughed as much at them as with them). Still, you to root for his success against all the odds because he and his friends are portrayed as such an agreeably eager lot, having a great time even as they fear it won’t last. Like “Wood,” it ends with a premiere that has everyone reveling in success and celebrity that’s a lovably goofy apotheosis of the American dream

Under Brewer’s direction, the cast seem to be having an equally great time as the people they’re playing. Murphy anchors everything with a razzle-dazzle turn that, despite recent evidence, proves that he hasn’t lost his touch: he might not look much like the real Rudy, but he captures the man’s spirit. Yet he’s generous with his co-stars, permitting Snipes, for instance, who’s also been suffering some career setbacks, to steal several scenes as the preening, classier-than-thou Martin. The technical credits are fine down the line, with a special nod to production designer Clay Griffith and costumer Ruth E, Carter for providing a colorful wallow in ostentatious period detail, cinematographer Eric Steelberg for the crisply colorful images, and editor Billy Fox for keeping the rhythm sprightly.

“Dolemite” is another Karaszewski-Alexander paean to the sheer joy of filmmaking, even when it’s not necessarily attached to ability—though Moore, unlike Wood, laughed all the way to the bank.