First Glance: “House of Gucci”

Ridley Scott is 83-years-old yet he has two major movies coming out and only a month between them. Last week we were treated to a trailer for the first of the two, “The Last Duel”. Last night the trailer dropped for Scott’s second, “House of Gucci”. The film is co-written by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna and features one knock-out all-star cast that includes Adam Driver, Lady Gaga, Al Pacino, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayak, and Jack Huston. Star-studded indeed.

The first trailer gives us a good taste of what this wild and zesty bio-drama is going for. The film is set in 1995 and focuses on the fall of the Gucci fashion house following the highly publicized murder of its leader Maurizio Gucci (played by Driver). In her first major film role since “A Star is Born”, Lady Gaga plays his socialite wife Patrizia Reggiani. The two Oscar nominees get flashy and meaty roles they can really sink their teeth into. And the great names rounding out the ensemble only make this look and sound better. You can see where the movie could fly completely off the rails. But you can also see where this could be a legitimate Oscar season contender.

“House of Gucci” releases in theaters November 24th. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “Jolt” (2021)

You can make a convincing case that Kate Beckinsale is an underrated actress who too often flies under audience’s radars. She also has a remarkable range. One minute she’s starring in a period comedy based on a 1794 Jane Austen novel and the next she’s leading a vampire coven as they shoot through packs of ravenous enemy werewolves. She brings her sharp wit and knack for action to her new film “Jolt”, a kinetic jaunt from Amazon Studios with some clear franchise ambitions.

The film is directed by Tanya Wexler (“Buffaloed”) from a script written by Scott Wascha. Both approach the story from just the right angle and never try to make “Jolt” more than what it’s meant to be – a crazy and at times deliciously over-the-top action flick with attitude and humor to spare. And while this first film doesn’t exactly scream “franchise”, I had a good enough time with “Jolt” that I would happily jump back into this world again.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Beckinsale is in cracking form playing Lindy, a woman with serious anger management issues. A brief narrated prologue gives us a little backstory. From an early age she had a “condition” that would hurl her into a violent uncontrollable rage whenever people do bad things. Over the years it grew harder to control these impulses, and the lack of love at home made her angrier and more volatile. Lindy was eventually diagnosed with Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED). Her teen years were spent as a lab rat until she was old enough for the military, but that too proved to be a disaster. So just when she thought she would end up in a cell for the rest of her life, a harsh but surprisingly successful treatment came her way.

Now an adult, Lindy gets by thanks to Dr. Ivan Munchin (Stanley Tucci), a psychiatrist whose “cutting-edge avant-garde treatment” helps her keep her condition under control (sorta). She wears a vest of sorts that jolts her body with electricity whenever she pushes a button that she keeps in her hand. Whenever she feels that fiery impulse…bzzzz…impulse gone. But as her body grows more tolerant, Dr. Munchin remains nervous about upping the voltage. He’s certain that the only real way to overcome her condition is by mentally facing her demons. And finally engaging in some normal social functions would hurt.

Lindy decides to give social interaction a try by going on a blind date with a genteel accountant named Justin (Jai Courtney). She tries to run away at first but is ultimately taken in by his nerdy charm. He seems like the perfect guy and a chance for Lindy to get a taste of a normal life. But remember, this isn’t a romcom or a Hallmark Channel original. Lindy’s dream of normalcy is shattered when she learns that Justin has been murdered. Understandably fearing the worse, Dr. Munchin tells her to let it go, but she’ll have none of that. So against her doctor’s recommendations, Lindy sets out to find who killed Justin and make them pay. “I hurt people. Might as well put it to good use.”

As Lindy sets out on her quest for revenge she crosses paths with a number of baddies and one particularly powerful businessman/crime boss played by a surly David Bradley. She also has the police hot on her trail led by a sympathetic and slightly smitten Detective Vicars (Bobby Cannavale) and his cranky yet dogged partner Detective Nevin (Laverne Cox). Through it all Wexler shows off her eye for action, letting loose with several high-energy fight scenes and one especially cool car chase. And while the movie gets a little action-heavy in the second half, it never loses its self-awareness and sharp sense of humor.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

There are so many ways that “Jolt” could have flown off the rails, but Wexler’s smart and confident direction keeps it on track. It turns out to be a delightfully weird and consistently entertaining romp. That’s not to say there aren’t a few hiccups. While Bradley has the cold smugness of a good villain, his character doesn’t have much depth. I never had a good grasp of who he was or the outfit he ran. And there are parts of the story just don’t click. Take when Lindy enters a police department full of detectives, hidden only by a pair of sunglasses, and marches right into the evidence room without an ounce of resistance. And there’s a final act twist that leads to a fun moment yet isn’t the least bit plausible.

But you can’t really get caught up in plausibility with a movie about a woman running around in an electrified vest shocking herself to keep her anger in check. You just go with it and have a good time. There’s just so much here to like starting with Beckinsale’s magnetic presence. Full of attitude, snark, and a snappy comedic timing, the 47-year-old actress gives the movie a charge and carries it through. I’m not sure where the series goes from here, but I’m certainly onboard for another ride. “Jolt” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

First Glance: “Lamb”

First NEON gave us “Pig”, now A24 is giving us “Lamb”. But don’t think the two films from two of the premier independent film distributors have much in common. The new trailer for “Lamb” has an entirely different story to tell – a weird, twisted and slightly disturbing tale by the looks of it. It marks the directorial debut for Valdimar Jóhannsson who also co-wrote the script alongside Icelandic poet Sjón. The film had its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival to mostly positive reviews.

The story revolves around a grieving couple (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) living on an rural Icelandic farm. They find a semblance of “happiness” in the form of a baby sheep that (brace yourself) they take in as their own child. But mother nature doesn’t approve leading to a dark and eerie reckoning. The bonkers central hook is what first grabs you, but the trailer shows us that there is far more meaning under the surface. And Jóhannsson creates a creepy atmosphere that gives the trailer a sinister edge.

“Lamb” is still listed as “Coming Soon”. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “Annette” (2021)

The eccentric and experimental style of Leos Carax was an interesting choice to open this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But it also made sense. His out-of-competition film “Annette” had already screened for some critics which generated a healthy amount of buzz. In addition to a small but vocal following, the movie also brought two with it big international stars, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Toss in the film’s uniquely offbeat European flavor and Cannes suddenly sounds like the perfect place to open.

Carax’s last film was the audacious but maddening “Holy Motors”, a movie that still defies definition (though many have tried and made compelling cases for it). “Annette” is somewhat similar. You could call it a dark avant-garde musical fantasy. You could also call it a 140-minute study of self-loathing and self-destruction. You might even be able to stretch it into a searing deconstruction of celebrity relationships. Whatever you want to call it, Carax teams with the equally unconventional Sparks brothers to create something as polarizing as it is creative; something equally enchanting and perplexing.

Co-written by Carax and the Sparks siblings (aka Russell and Ron Mael), “Annette” has a strange Hollywood allure while still very much feeling like an art house oddity. This interesting but not always co-equal synergy is encapsulated best in the movie’s opening – a catchy musical number featuring Carax, the Maels and the film’s cast. The song “So May We Start?” begins in a recording studio before spilling out into the LA night. Through one long continuous take, the group saunters along for a couple of city blocks, singing the bars with a casual and carefree spirit. That’s about as playful and lighthearted as “Annette” gets.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

From there the movie slides into the peculiar rhythms of its narrative. This strangely structured collage of sequences and lyrics tells the story (with varying degrees of success) of Henry and Ann. Played with an elegant touch by Cotillard, Ann is an opera singer with a beautiful soprano voice that fills seats and captivates audiences. While Carax’s representation of opera isn’t the most flattering, he portrays Ann as genuinely talented; a rising star who is beloved by the public and the obsessed press.

Contrast that with Driver’s miserable and insecure Henry. He’s a comedian (although not a very good one) with his own stage show that taps him as “The Ape of God”. His act sees him moping around in a green bath robe and house slippers engaging the audience with his nihilistic musings and gloomy self-analysis. When we first meet Henry his show is a moderate success. But while Ann’s career is blooming, his is slowly withering. Her shows are steadily selling out while his are being cancelled.

Ann and Henry’s relationship exists from the outset and we’re given practically nothing about what brought the two together. In Henry’s routine bouts with self-doubt, he’s constantly asking himself (in song) “what does she see in me?” It’s a good question, not because there is something glaringly undesirable about Henry. But because we know little to nothing about their history together. Even more, we never really get to hear or feel much from Ann’s perspective. One of the biggest frustrations with the film is that Ann is often a blank slate. We know she loves Henry but we don’t know why. We know something drew her to him but we don’t know what. In many ways she just exists as a piece of Henry’s story. Cotillard is terrific, but her character begs for more depth.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The two eventually marry and have a daughter, a creepy wooden marionette they name Annette. But as Henry’s career crumbles, he finds himself succumbing to jealousy, arrogance and self-pity. Soon the character is careening down some dark and unpredictable paths which Carax emphasizes both narratively and visually. And it all unfolds through a little speech but mostly singing. Not through what you would consider full songs (with a few exceptions). More so lines of dialogue sung instead of spoken. And too often the tunes are nothing more that one line repeated over and over again. I mean you can only hear “We love each other so much” so much.

Where Cotillard’s approach is delicate and graceful, Driver fearlessly attacks the material, swallowing up every scene with his physicality and intensity. His lone struggle is his singing. It only took one scene in “Marriage Story” to show the world he could sing. But here he struggles at times to get in tune with the Mael brothers’ weird musical arrangements which leads to moments that distract more than they immerse. But those aren’t Driver’s fault and as a whole his performance is astounding. The always welcomed Simon Helberg pops up playing a self-deprecating accompanist, but it’s deep into the movie before he’s given anything to do.

The last act of the film vacillates between something magical and utter absurdity as Annette’s role broadens. It does end with a powerful final exchange that I won’t dare spoil, but that ends things on a strong foot. It’s the kind of finish the movie desperately needed and a kind of scene the movie could use more of. As it stands “Annette” is a mixed bag with too much artistry to dismiss and too many flaws to overlook. Adam Driver is a force and while it’s hard to say he “saves” the movie, he certainly keeps it afloat. The film’s musical component is far less impressive. Other than the opening ditty you’ll be hard-pressed to find another song that will stick with you, much less one you’ll want to listen to over and over again. Perhaps the filmmakers aren’t interested in selling soundtracks, but when the music is so central to the film’s language, you tend to expect something a little more memorable. “Annette” opens in select theaters August 6th before streaming on Amazon Prime August 20th.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

First Glance: “The Card Counter”

Focus Features has finally given us our first look at Paul Schrader’s follow-up to his brilliant “First Reformed”. Once again sporting a tortured male as his central character, Schrader’s “The Card Counter” sees Oscar Isaac in the meaty lead role. He’s joined by an intriguing supporting cast that includes Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, and Willem Dafoe.

Isaac plays a former soldier turned gambler haunted by ghosts from his past. He becomes a mentor of sorts to a revenge-hungry young man (Sheridan) looking to pay back a certain Colonel (Dafoe) with links to both of their pasts. Tiffany Haddish also has prominent presence in the trailer although her character is surrounded by mystery. I love the cast with Haddish being the one exception. Can she tone down her loud high-energy routine for a role like this? I’m anxious to see.

“The Card Counter” premieres at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and opens wide September 10th. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” (2021)

2019‘s “Escape Room” was a movie built on a catchy premise but that eventually ran out of gas and ended with one of the most absurd and hard-to-swallow cliffhangers I’ve seen. But with a $9 million budget next to a $156 million box office take, it’s safe to say that green-lighting a sequel was a pretty easy call for Sony Pictures. This time around the budget gets bumped up to $15 million which the movie could reasonably make back during its opening week. Then again, once people get wind of how bad of a follow-up this is, all bets are off.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” was one of the many movies delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It finally comes out at a near perfect time; after anticipated blockbusters like “A Quiet Place Part II”, “Fast & Furious 9”, and “Black Widow” have eased many anxious moviegoers back into theaters. Obviously the “Escape Room” movies don’t have the pull of those big-budget franchise films, but you still expect decent numbers. But then I saw the movie.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Its laughably bad title aside, “Tournament of Champions” didn’t set especially high expectations. The trailers advertised more of the same which would probably be enough to entice fans of the first movie. But where the 2019 film at least kept your interest most of the way, it’s sequel had me restless by the 15-minute mark and ready to check out at 30. That’s because this thing is inferior to the first film in every way imaginable which is stunning considering it didn’t have a particularly high bar to reach.

Something you’ll quickly notice is the shockingly shallow story that pretends to be interested in the cliffhanger ending of its predecessor but then completely tosses it aside within the first few minutes. We get a brief reintroduction to Zoe (played by the super soft-spoken Taylor Russell) who’s in therapy following the events of the first movie and is still determined to take down Minos, the shadowy corporation revealed to be behind the escape rooms. In case you need a refresher, Minos creates these elaborate (and potentially lethal) puzzle rooms and fills them with unsuspecting victims all for the viewing pleasure of their high-paying clients.

Considering that was the big reveal from the 2019 flick, you would expect the sequel to pick up that plot line and expand on it. Instead the filmmakers are content with just rehashing the previous film’s blueprint – toss people into a new escape room, watch them frantically try to solve a puzzle that opens the exit, someone probably dies, then it’s off to the next room, rinse-and-repeat. That’s this movie in its entirety. Zoe and her manic tag-along friend and fellow survivor Ben (Logan Miller) drive from Chicago to Manhattan to gather proof of Minos’ existence. But within minutes they find themselves lured back into the game, this time with new and far more deadly puzzles.

There are a few new characters who join Zoe and Ben, all previous escape room survivors. There’s a travel blogger, an alcoholic priest, a meathead, and a woman who can’t feel physical pain. Don’t worry about their names because they’re only characters in the literal sense. Nothing about any of them is remotely interesting. There’s no charisma, no discernible personalities, no depth. They just panic, scream at each other, and somehow still manage to solve these convoluted puzzles just in the nick of time. Sure some will die, but their deaths have no impact whatsoever. In fact, some are so freaking annoying I found myself rooting for their demise (sorry Ben).

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

One of the only genuine surprises with “Tournament of Champions” is that it actually has four screenwriting credits. That’s pretty amazing considering how little there is in terms of story. Even worse, it doesn’t move anything forward. No big revelations, not even new information worth noting. Just more escape rooms, this time with FAR less compelling players. Sure, the rooms are bigger and more intricate and the production design is pretty impressive. We get an electrified subway car, an Art Deco bank with a deadly laser grid, a miniature beach, etc. But with more complex rooms comes more complex solutions and the amount of conveniences and wild pin-point guesswork used to solve them is unintentionally hilarious (my favorite may be when one character enters a new room for the first time and states “There’s a refrigerator. I bet it’s our exit.”).

If you’re okay with watching a bland group of strangers run around and solve puzzles with some dying in various unimaginative ways, then “Tournament of Champions” may have enough to keep your attention. If you’re looking for a good story, compelling characters, or any reason to care, then you’re probably not going to find it here. Not even a ludicrous plot twist (if that’s what you want to call it) can add a charge to the mostly lifeless story. And that gets back to the biggest frustration. These movies have hinted at a deeper conspiracy and a potentially broader threat. That could be interesting. But at some point you have to start answering the many questions you raise. Then again, another $150 million at the box office could easily prove otherwise. “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS