Dolemite Is My Name and The Two Popes Dazzle at the Toronto Film Festival

It’s getting increasingly tougher to cover a film festival for a theatrical exhibition magazine and not have to deal with the Netflix factor. Last year, Alfonso Cuarón’s masterly Roma from Netflix was one of the hottest tickets at the Toronto International Film Festival (justifiably so), and this year, the Netflix lineup is even stronger. At least Netflix is making a token effort to release some of its more prominent features in cinemas: Theatrical release dates for ten titles were announced on August 27, with an average window of only three weeks before streaming begins on the service.

But for a number of those films, the short-window strategy feels like a lost opportunity; money is surely being left on the table. A major case in point is Dolemite Is My Name,  director Craig Brewer’s comedic biopic about ’70s blaxploitation filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore. Dolemite will someday be part of a triple feature with Ed Wood (from the same writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) and James Franco’s The Disaster Artist—good-natured tributes to earnest but ill-equipped filmmakers who succeeded in spite of their dire limitations in creating works beloved by audiences. Eddie Murphy seems likely to score an Oscar nomination for his dynamic, hilarious performance as Moore, a struggling emcee at a music club who triumphs when he creates a flamboyant new persona, Dolemite, based on the filthy stories and boasts of the neighborhood vagrants. Moore records a series of hit comedy albums—known only to urban African-Americans—then lands on the notion of bringing his cartoonish crusader to the big screen, even if Moore’s pot belly is a seeming obstacle to heroic stardom. He sets up his studio in an abandoned hotel, steals electricity, recruits a local playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) as his co-writer and Black Caesar actor D’Urville Martin (a droll Wesley Snipes) as his director, and persuades a bunch of white UCLA film students to work as his DP and crew for free.

But no distributor will buy the finished film—not even Crown International!—and Moore despairs of it ever seeing the light of day until an Indianapolis DJ (Chris Rock) puts him in touch with a relative who owns a theater and agrees to rent the venue for a midnight show. Thanks to Moore’s fan base, the screening is a sellout, and he’s immediately courted by an outfit called Dimension Pictures. Dolemite—sometimes intentionally funny, often not due to Moore’s insistence that he knows kung fu—becomes one of the year’s most profitable movies.

Netflix opens Dolemite Is My Name in cinemas on October 4, then starts streaming on October 25. But if ever the company had an audience movie, this is it. It’s the kind of film that could have a huge opening and play in theaters for months, with contagious word of mouth. The irony is that it’s about the power of a theatrical audience to create a movie phenomenon: Word of mouth is Moore’s salvation. Along with its outrageous ’70s costumes by Black Panther Oscar winner Ruth Carter (who basked in praise during a Q&A at TIFF’s Sunday afternoon screening), Dolemite Is My Name evokes nostalgia for old-school downtown cinemas and movie experiences. Eddie Murphy’s passion project could have been a similar phenomenon if audiences weren’t already aware it would be streamable in three weeks. Again, money left on the table.

Netflix has an undoubted awards contender in another film screened in Toronto: The Two Popes. This handsome, stylish drama directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) speculates on the private encounters of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the man who would eventually succeed him when Benedict resigned over the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandals, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). The film positions them as bitter antagonists when Benedict, the former John Ratzinger, is first elevated to the papacy in 2005—Ratzinger representing the conservative, doctrinaire wing of the Church adamantly opposed to reforms, Bergoglio the more liberal wing particularly concerned with economic inequality. A large portion of the film takes place during Bergoglio’s visit to the Vatican in 2012 with the intention of securing permission to retire; what Bergoglio doesn’t realize is that Benedict is taking his measure as a possible, dramatically different successor. The duo’s conversations about their opposing views of the Church’s role and responsibilities are always stimulating and often quite witty, and it’s an absolute pleasure to watch wonderful veteran actors Hopkins and Pryce (surprisingly persuasive as an Argentinian) as their characters tear down their personal barriers. And fans of the highly accessible current Pope will be startled to learn about the personal demons that haunt him, traced back to a very dark time in Argentina’s history.

A very relevant trivia note here is that writer Anthony McCarten has penned the screenplays for three films starring recent Best Actor Oscar winners: The Theory of Everything (Eddie Redmayne), Darkest Hour (Gary Oldman), and Bohemian Rhapsody (Rami Malek). Don’t bet against a fourth Oscar victor. Opening in cinemas on November 27, this is another Netflix film that ought to have a word of mouth-generating exclusive run in theaters longer than a mere three weeks.

There’s also a third Netflix awards-season contender that I was not able to fit into my Toronto schedule: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Word out of the Venice and Telluride film festivals was nothing less than ecstatic.

Driver also stars in another much-buzzed-about Toronto film, The Report, from Amazon Studios. Unlike Netflix, Amazon has been respecting the traditional three-month window with its theatrical releases. So it was disconcerting to hear that Amazon Prime will begin streaming The Report a mere two weeks after its theatrical debut on November 15. Scott Z. Burns’ compelling drama is based on Senate staff member Daniel J. Jones’ lengthy investigation of the government’s efforts to cover up the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation (aka torture) program following the 9/11 attacks. Perhaps the reasoning behind the short window is to get the film quicker into the national conversation during a time of equally heinous government abuse, deceit and corruption. Maybe the thinking is that the movie is dialogue-driven and often shot in close-ups and thus won’t lose much on the small screen. Yet this important, intelligent and exceptionally well-acted cautionary tale remains the kind of film that should be seen with an audience, one you can picture congregating in the lobby or the parking lot for some bracing post-movie discussions.

I’m glad I’ve been able to see these streaming-bound films on big Toronto screens, with the picture and sound quality and audience response they deserve. The models may be changing, but the old model is still the best way to encounter great films like Dolemite Is My Name, The Two Popes, and The Report.