REVIEW: “House of Gucci” (2021)

Ridley Scott’s second movie in as many months couldn’t be more different than the one that came before it. “The Last Duel” was a really good medieval period film that unfortunately bombed at the box office. Since then Scott has gone on to blame millennials, cell phones, Facebook, and so on. Without getting caught up in where he’s right and where he’s wrong, I’ll just say it’s a shame the movie didn’t get a bigger audience and you can’t help but theorize about the reasons why.

His follow-up “House of Gucci” could spark some of the same reaction from the 83-year-old filmmaker. Considering the source material, I always expected the film to be a train wreck. But would it be the good kind or the bad kind? The early reactions didn’t clarify much, and since then moviegoers have pretty much remain divided. Well after sitting through Scott’s nearly 160-minute drama/satire, I’m still not sure what kind of train wreck this ‘based on a true story’ yarn is.

Ridley Scott has been hungry to make a movie about the renowned Gucci fashion house since the early 2000s. If you don’t know the wonky history of this Italian family owned empire, I won’t ruin it for you. Suffice it that greed, betrayal, and even murder all have parts to play in their story. Scott’s avenue into the family’s prominence and eventual disintegration is the relationship between Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga).

Image Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

The movie opens in 1978 Milan where Patrizia works in the offices of her father’s smalltime trucking business. Our first glimpse of her shows a woman of ambition who has a taste for attention. Maurizio is the son and lone heir of Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons made up to look like death warmed over). Rodolfo owns 50% of the Gucci brand while the other half is owned by his brother Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino).

Scott, along with screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, begin the story by showing the unashamedly forward Patrizia’s pursuit of the bookishly awkward Maurizio. The ailing Rodolfo doesn’t like the budding romance and warns his gullible heir. But Maurizio rejects his father’s wishes (and his future inheritance) and marries Patrizia.

After showing how they became a couple and giving us a glimpse of their early days together, the movie spends the bulk of its time on how Maurizio and Patrizia made their way back into the Gucci ranks. Patrizia drives the burgeoning power couple to the top by first pushing the generally apathetic Maurizio (he’s studying to be a lawyer) into taking on a bigger role in his family’s company. But later, as her lust of fortune and fame fully reveals itself, Patrizia hatches plans behind her husband’s back to pit Gucci against Gucci. And while the couple eventually rises to the top of the fashion house, once the ever naive Maurizio gets wind of his wife’s manipulation, their marriage starts to crumble, much like Gucci family’s once prominent empire.

All of that makes for some batty yet undeniably compelling drama. Up to that point the story bops along at a steady pace and the inside look at this Italian family and their business is both interesting and comical. Scott spends a lot of time digging into the family dynamic and the shifting power structure. But he also pokes fun at the superficiality of their extravagant lifestyle and status. The cast is certainly in on the gag with Gaga leading the way. Parts of her performance is more caricature by design, plucking inspiration from the tabloids and running with it. But Gaga is so committed to details and in-tune with the material that she uses different scenes to rein in her character, revealing an emotional backbone that makes Patrizia real rather than a cartoon.

Image Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Driver is also very good. He’s like the straight man in an absurdist comedy. Driver portrays Maurizio as stiff and sheepish, brandishing a thick comb-over and even thicker oversized glasses. He hardly ever gets above room temperature, but that’s part of the character’s strength, especially as he subtly transforms before our eyes. Pacino is clearly having a lot of fun, hamming it up in the early scenes while shattered and defeated in the latter. Jared Leto is a little sketchier. He plays Aldo’s buffoon of a son Paolo. On the other hand, you could say Paolo is the only forward-thinking Gucci of the bunch. Leto goes full…something, burying himself under layers of makeup and latex while doing a routine that can be hilarious yet utterly distracting.

But then we get to the third act which quite literally brings the film down a few pegs. The movie completely loses its footing as it bogs down in scenes dealing with control of shares and majority ownership. Meanwhile Patrizia becomes this impossible to read character. So much so that the the movie doesn’t even seem to know how to portray her. And then there is the woefully undercooked buildup to the big crime. We only get a couple of scenes to show the planning and the crime being carried out. Even less attention is given to the outcome. Just snap your finger and everyone is suddenly in court being sentenced…end movie.

For about two-thirds of “House of Gucci” I was onboard, really enjoying the wackiness of the impervious rich and famous. I was into the film’s central relationship and was getting a kick out of the crazy contrast between both the characters and the performances of Gaga and Driver. But everything comes to a screeching halt in that third act and the movie suffers for it. I watched several people leave the theater during it. I was invested enough to see it through, but I can see why some were ready to check out. “House of Gucci” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Harder They Fall” (2021)

For those wondering (and I doubt many are), this isn’t a remake of Humphrey Bogart’s 1956 boxing drama. Nope, this is a stylish new Western from the folks at Netflix. Directed and co-written by singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel, this star-studded shoot ‘em up immediately grabs your attention for its predominantly black cast. But despite a strong start and the amazing talent on screen, the film sags in the middle before limping across the finish line with its predictable ending and head-scratching sequel setup.

“The Harder They Fall” tells a fictional story but uses real 19th century Old West wranglers, lawmen and outlaws. The story begins with a bang. In the tradition of some of the great spaghetti westerns, the movie opens with a fantastic credits sequence followed by a burst of violence that will define key characters moving forward. In this case a young boy watches his parents gunned down in cold blood. It’s an exceptionally shot scene that echoes the work of the genre’s two greatest Sergio’s – Leone and Corbucci.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Years later, the traumatized boy is now a man going by the name Nat Love (played by an exceptional Jonathan Majors). Marked by a cross carved into his forehead by his parents’ killer, the revenge-fueled Nat gets wind that the man he’s looking to kill, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), was out of prison. Helping him on his quest for vengeance is saloon owner and Nat’s former flame Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), dead-eye sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), a young quick-draw named Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler), and Mary’s loyal saloon hand Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler). Also joining them is seasoned lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) who has a bone to pick with Nat but wants Rufus more.

Meanwhile, in one of the movie’s very best scenes both visually and performance-wise, Rufus Buck faithfuls, the surly “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King), the sly ruthless Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) and a few disposables, bust their leader out of a prison train and then head for the town of Redwood City. Once there they kick out its crooked sheriff, once an old associate of Rufus’ named Wiley Escoe (an excellent Deon Cole), and set up shop. Sadly, it’s here where the movie begins to stall.

For some reason Idris Elba, bursting with charisma and brandishing a quiet menace, up and vanishes for a long stretch of the movie. He essentially stays shut up in Redwood City waiting for the inevitable showdown between gangs. The movie misses his presence. Majors is terrific and carries his gang’s load (he has some especially good scenes opposite of Beetz). But when it comes to Buck’s gang, King and Stanfield (both really good here) do their best but are stuck in one place basically spinning their wheels. It’s a shame, because together with Elba, the three make for a cracking combination. Each give us characters who grab us and leave us wanting more of them.

This is the feature film debut for Jeymes Samuel whose sure-handed direction and blaring style routinely gives us something cool to look at and admire. But not all of his choices work. For example, there are scattered patches of dialogue which sound plucked out of a modern day comedy rather than in the American west. There’s also a few scenes where Samuel’s ambition gets the best of him and he gets a little too carried away.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

A good example is a bank robbery scene in Maysville, a town exclusively populated by wealthy white folks. The entire town is quite literally whitewashed from top to bottom. Every building, every water trough, every hitching post. Even the ground. I won’t spoil any more, but the symbolism is pretty crafty. Unfortunately the execution is so glaringly on the nose and the town so brazenly fake that it yanked me out of the movie.

While the film sometimes feels a bit too polished, its characters are full of grit. The violence is probably best described as Tarantino-light. It can be brutal and rather gruesome and other times it’s almost cartoonish. But more importantly, it works well within Samuel’s world. And while the story can be pretty grim, there’s enough witty rapport to keep things from becoming too dry and dour. Yet with all of that, the style-over-substance story can’t keep its momentum. And rather than building up to a big finish, we’re left with an overly long middle that drains too much energy and leaves you wondering “Where’s Idris?” “The Harder They Fall is now showing in select theaters and premieres on Netflix November 3rd.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Halloween Kills” (2021)

When director David Gordon Green and his co-writing compadre Danny McBride jumped into the “Halloween” franchise it already had a messy and hard to follow timeline. Their 2018 film simply titled “Halloween” made it even messier much to the chagrin of many franchise faithfuls. Basically, the creative duo would be disregarding every movie that came after the original 1978 classic. They retconned its ending and made their film a sequel to the very first film. So if you have a scorecard, “Halloween” was the sequel to “Halloween”.

I poke fun at it because I’m hardly a “Halloween” diehard. That being said, I do have a soft spot for Michael Myers and his mythology which made Green and McBride’s neutering of the timeline seem like an odd choice. But to their credit the pair had a vision that both told a new(ish) story while staying true to the spirit of the franchise. “Halloween” turned out to be a big hit, grossing over $255 million against a modest $15 million budget. With numbers like that you know Blumhouse Productions would be quick to green-light a follow-up.

That follow-up comes in the form of the “Halloween Kills”. Hokey title aside, this direct sequel was set up for success. It’s predecessor left the storyline in a place ready-made for more Michael Myers mayhem. And Blum’s modestly budgeted blueprint helps to ensure these horror ventures can make money. And with Green still at the helm to keep his vision intact, franchise fans and genre enthusiasts in general had plenty to look forward to.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

As it turns a out, “Halloween Kills” is both a fairly entertaining middle installment that packs a lot of what fans will want and a weirdly ineffective mess with some neat ideas that end up being fumbled terribly. While it just barely nudges its story forward, it does fill in some gaps that better connects Green’s films with the original John Carpenter classic. And for those in it to see Michael Myers do his thing, he gives you plenty of well shot carnage to relish.

But other than plugging some holes, Green doesn’t do much to progress his story. Instead he takes a couple of detours that look important at first but kinda fizzle out. Also, Green doesn’t make the best use of three of his biggest strengths – the Strode women: Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), and her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). All three return for the sequel, but rather than making them the centerpiece of the movie (as they were in the 2018 film), Green leaves Laurie stuck in a hospital for the entire movie, Karen bounces around from place to place with no real purpose, and Allyson takes off with a carload of uninteresting side characters (more on them in a second).

“Halloween Kills” opens with a terrific flashback to Haddonfield on that infamous Halloween night in 1978. Green and McBride show us what happened after Dr. Loomis emptied his revolver into Michael sending the killer falling over a balcony only to rise and vanish into the night. It’s a clever setup with a few surprises packed in that fans should enjoy. These are easily the film’s best moments.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

From there it’s back to Halloween night, 2018. The previous film ended with Michael being left to burn alive in Laurie Strode’s booby trapped farmhouse. But apparently that message didn’t get to the incredibly prompt first responders who end up letting the care-free killer loose. Meanwhile at a local bar, we’re introduced to a handful of Michael Myers survivors from the 1978 killing spree. Among them is Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) and Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards reprising the role the played in Carpenter’s original). They’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of Michael’s capture when they get wind that he is once again terrorizing Haddonfield.

Bringing back Tommy and Lindsey has a nice nostalgic ring to it. Unfortunately none of the new characters get any of the attention they need to be the slightest bit interesting. Tommy is especially bland and poorly written. While the police search for Michael, he organizes a posse of fed up townsfolk to hunt down Michael and kill him once and for all. But in his zeal he incites a full-blown riot. The idea is good – the notion of decent citizens turning into the monsters. But Green’s handling of it is simply too hard to believe. Tommy turns a crowd of people into a bloodthirsty mob with only a couple of sentences and a corny mantra “Evil Dies Tonight”. Of course, it doesn’t end well.

“Halloween Kills” is a hard movie to categorize. In one sense it offers plenty of splatter thrills that fans of this horror sub-genre pay their money for. It also makes an attempt at explaining Michael’s twisted motive (although I still don’t fully understand it). And this isn’t meant to be a fully packaged story. It’s a bridge to the third installment due out next October. But that doesn’t make the movie’s shortcomings any easier to look past. There simply isn’t enough story progression and too much time is wasted on shallow, meaningless side characters. Here’s hoping “Halloween Ends” puts the Strodes back in the spotlight and gives us a fitting finish to make it all worthwhile. “Halloween Kills” is now showing in theaters and streaming on Peacock.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Holler” (2021)

Nicole Riegel makes her eye-opening directorial debut with “Holler”, a richly textured movie with a deep personal connection with its creator. Riegel grew up in the American Rust Belt and shot “Holler” in her hometown of Jackson, Ohio. While the town and the characters in the movie are fictional, they’re very much inspired by Riegel’s own lived experience growing up in Jackson. And the lead character (wonderfully played by Jessica Barden) is a reflection of Riegel’s youth where as a young woman she worked hard to break a cycle and make it out of the crumbling town she came from.

But everything came full-circle when she returned to Jackson, this time as a young woman who had made it; as a filmmaker with both the opportunity and the perspective to tell an authentic and thoughtful story about growing up in a struggling Southern Ohio community. It’s something movies have often touched on but rarely with the lived-in point-of-view that we get from Riegel. Her touch can be felt throughout the film and while not perfect, the truth she conveys on screen makes for some riveting viewing.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Riegel opens her film with a quick introduction to the story’s central character Ruth Avery (Barden), a smart and resourceful high-school senior. It doesn’t take long to recognize how the deck seems stacked against her, and in many ways she seems resigned to her fate. There’s no sign of a father and her mother Rhonda (Pamela Adlon) is in the county jail for refusing to go to rehab. Ruth lives with her well-meaning older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) who does his best to provide for his sister but can’t afford to keep the water turned on and is constantly dodging foreclosure notices from the bank.

Riegel wrote the screenplay (which is based on her own short film) and she makes the brother/sister dynamic a key part of her story. Blaze wants his sister to have a better life and to go to college, something none of their family has ever done. Ruth has a strong loyalty to her brother and the idea of leaving him behind on his own is out of the question. This conflict, while centered around the sibling’s love for each other, stretches through the entire film and intensifies as their circumstances worsen.

The supporting characters are just as important and play a pivotal role in filling out the story and the town. Tops on the list is Austin Amelio as Hark, a local junkyard owner who hires a desperate Blaze and Ruth to collect scrap metal that he then sells on the side. Hark is an intriguing presence – a product of the town who always has a sly way of rationalizing what he does whether it’s legal or not. Yet it feels like there is so much of his story that’s left out making him a hard character to figure out. Becky Ann Baker adds a welcomed warmth to every scene she’s in playing Linda, a close friend of Ruth’s family. She too is a character we’re left wanting to know more about.

But it all mostly comes back to Barden who’s actually 28-years-old yet is utterly convincing as a high-schooler. She gives us glimpses of Ruth’s youthful spirit – a young girl full of potential, bouncing around in her red knit toboggan and full of curiosity. Yet we mostly see is a girl mature beyond her years, forced by her circumstances to grow up early and reflecting the hardships that have been a part in her life since she was a child. It’s a remarkable performance and Riegel is smart to lean into her talented star.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

DP Justin Lane shoots a lot of scenes in somber blue tones emphasizing the misery and the despair. At this point it’s a technique that has been done so much you almost expect it. Lane’s camera really shines in the more intimate and personal moments where the characters are the focus. He also does a great job capturing the town and grounding us in the setting which is such a vital component to the story. But the visuals stumble a bit in what you may call ‘action scenes’. Mostly shot at night, these few scenes can be dark and murky to the point of being indecipherable. It’s more frustrating than problematic.

“Holler” ends up being one of those rare movies that doesn’t just talk about small town life. Instead it offers a clear-eyed undiluted vision of living under the poverty line. It’s gritty, authentic, and without a ounce of pretense. And not only is it an impressive feature film debut for Nicole Riegel, it also highlights Jessica Barden whose thoughtful and layered performance drives much of the movie. Both are immensely talented women and you can’t help but be anxious for what each will do next. “Holler” hits theaters June 11th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Here Today” (2021)

When it comes to entertainment careers few have had one better and more diverse than Billy Crystal. He’s found success at nearly every stop whether on Broadway or in Hollywood. He’s done television, movies, stand-up comedy, voice acting, he’s won six Emmys, he’s won a Tony award, and he’s hosted the Academy Awards a whopping nine times. Now he steps back behind the camera for the first time in twenty years with the new film “Here Today”.

The 73-year-old Crystal directs, co-writes, co-produces and stars in this well-intended yet strangely uneven dramedy. He plays Charlie Burnz, an aging comedy writer on the backend of a successful career. Now he writes skits for a New York-based sketch comedy show called “This Just In”. The success of Charlie’s career has come with a personal price, namely his relationship with his architect son (Penn Badgley) and his far more bitter daughter Francine (Laura Benanti). So when not at work he spends most of his time alone in his Brooklyn apartment, still mourning the loss of his wife who has been dead for years and holding on tightly to a crushing secret – he has early-stage dementia.

Image Courtesy of Stage 6 Films

Through a goofy circumstance too inconsequential to get into here (but that allegedly really happened to co-writer Alan Zweibel), Charlie meets a brash street singer named Emma played by Tiffany Haddish. Going in, the very idea of Billy Crystal teaming up with Tiffany Haddish seemed almost like a gimmick – his quick and grounded wit; her loud and abrasive schtick. Their characters end up forming an unconventional friendship which is the closest we get to a main storyline. The problem is their hard-to-read relationship is never as convincing as it needs to be, and the clashing comic styles of the two stars doesn’t help. At times it’s as if they are working in two different movies.

It’s almost like the filmmakers see the conflict, so they work hard to temper Haddish’s bravado especially in the second half. There are moments when it works, when she puts aside the blaring comic aggression and shows genuine acting chops. But far too often it’s nonsense like busting out singing Janice Joplin at a Bat Mitzvah, rambling about her sexual prowess, or ungainly physical gags such as falling over a row of garbage cans. And while the movie intends something inspiring and thoughtful, you can’t miss the clang of ‘the uncouth and uncultured black woman meets the stuffy upper-class white guy’ running joke. It doesn’t land particularly well.

Image Courtesy of Stage 6 Films

Yet despite all of that, there are chunks of “Here Today” that work in large part because of Crystal. He serves up plenty of reminders that not only does he have an effortlessly good comic delivery, but he’s also a solid dramatic actor. It’s seen best in some of the MANY side stories. I particularly liked the scenes with Charlie at work, tossing out ideas in the writer’s room, mentoring a young scribe, ranting about an actor’s inflection. And while the dementia angle is a bit messy, there are a couple of moments of real humanity and pathos.

But when you toss so many things out there (aging, dementia, grief, a wacky friendship, a fractured family, life as a comedy writer, etc.) and try to build a story out of it, you have to bring the pieces together at some point. What we end up with is a well-meaning yet mushy and squeaky-clean ending that I really, really wanted to feel. Instead what I felt most was the movie yanking hard enough on my heartstrings to make them snap. I was left thinking that maybe “Here Today” would have played better as a collage of one man’s life. In some ways that’s exactly what it is. If only it didn’t try to be that plus a whole lot more. “Here Today” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Hope” (2021)

HOPEposter

There is no shortage of movies that deal with the sensitive subject of illness. It’s delicate ground to cover and an emotional minefield for filmmakers willing to navigate such heavy material with earnestness. Yet you can never judge these types of movies by one over-arching standard. That’s because there are deeply human and often intensely personal stories of all kinds related to sickness. That’s why when done well these movies can have a powerful and visceral impact on an audience. And when done poorly, words like ‘exploitative’ and ‘manipulative’ often come up.

The terrific “Hope” dodges those pitfalls thanks to the clear-eyed sincerity of writer-director Maria Sødahl. She pours herself into the movie, pulling from her own cancer scare to convey the gamut of emotions that surround such a life-changing diagnosis. At the same time it’s a deeply affecting relationship drama anchored by two unforgettable performances. “Hope” premiered at Toronto in 2019 and was Norway’s official selection for this year’s Academy Awards. Now it’s finally getting its official US release courtesy of Brooklyn-based KimStim Films and it’s easy to see why it has garnered so much praise.

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Image Courtesy of KimStim

When talking about “Hope” you have to begin with the emotionally rich and complex performances from Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård. They play partners Anja and Tomas, two stage producers who have been together for years yet have steadily grown apart. They have a nice spacious flat in Oslo where they live with their three children and three other children from Tomas’ previous marriage. Anja and Tomas never married, always finding some reason, either personal or professional, to put it off. These days they maintain their relationship out of a sense of routine, both withdrawn into their own disconnected worlds.

On the day before Christmas Eve Anja goes to see her doctor to get something for her dizzying headaches. Her concerned physician immediately calls for an MRI which reveals a malignant brain tumor believed to be linked to her lung cancer from exactly one year earlier. It’s obviously devastating news and there’s no proper handbook on how to handle it. Sødahl understands this and she gives both Anja and Tomas space to deal with the news in their own ways without ever making judgements. This is where Hovig and Skarsgård really shine.

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Image Courtesy of KimStim

As the story plays out through the Christmas and New Years holiday, the couple attempt to come to grips with her diagnosis while wrestling with the ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ of telling their family. “I don’t want my kids to hate the holidays,” Anja laments. At the same time, her condition forces the partners to come together in a way they haven’t been in years. At first it’s out of necessity, “I can’t do it on my own,” she explains. But later, as Anja and Tomas reckon with their relationship, waves of raw and repressed emotions come to the surface. Long buried anger, frustration, perhaps even love are unearthed as the two struggle to find themselves amid Anja’s life-threatening condition. And with her time remaining suddenly in question, they’re finally willing to open up and be candid with each other.

Hovig’s performance is something to behold – a rich and textured portrayal that equally captures her character’s strength and fragility. With a striking authenticity Hovig sells every facet of Anja’s physical, mental, and emotional struggle. And she’s just as powerful in her quieter and more intimate moments. Meanwhile the seasoned Skarsgård can speak volumes without saying a word. His sad, heavily burdened eyes show a man crushed by his wife’s diagnosis and silently processing it to the best of his ability. Other times he seems lost, unsure of what to do or say. So he listens, knowing Anja needs that outlet to release her emotions and unpack her frustrations.

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Image Courtesy of KimStim

As the story pushes forward the reason for the movie’s title comes into focus. As Anja suffers through headaches, nausea, mood swings, and anxiety; as she suppresses and endures all of that pain just to give her family a “normal” Christmas; as she listens to conflicting suggestions from medical specialists; she’s left with the aching question – is there any hope? Is having hope in her situation rooted in reality or is it simply a coping mechanism? It’s a weighty question that Sødahl handles delicately but sincerely. And she can do so because she’s been in Anja’s shoes.

Yet the question of hope isn’t reserved just for Anja’s cancer, but also her relationship with Tomas. Is there hope for two people full of regret, who wasted years of their lives disconnected from each other and burrowing into their work, to rediscover the love that brought them together in the first place? Sødahl, Hovig, and Skarsgård explore this question with a real-life sensibility – no frills, no gloss, no melodrama, just truth. And because of that unclouded honesty and deep human expression, this becomes so much more than just another movie about cancer. “Hope” is set for a limited theater release April 16th.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars