House of Gucci

(USA 2021)

A dear friend coined a handy if snotty phrase she employs when she enjoys a film or a play that she doesn’t find particularly cerebral: “It’s not a major work but I liked it.” I’ll borrow her phrase for Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, an engrossing and splashy biopic that doesn’t seem like the nearly three-hour investment it demands.

The story chronicles the rocky relationship of Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), a girl from the wrong side of the tax, so to speak, who marries up; and Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), her catch: that Gucci, the heir to the fashion dynasty. Her ambition pushes her husband and the family business to unexpected heights but destroys everything else in the process. Every. Single. Thing.

Janty Yates’s costumes are every bit as important to the story as Roberto Bentivegna’s script and Scott’s keen direction. She captures the royal air that (perhaps once) was Gucci. Yates deserves an Oscar. Gaga and Driver deliver standout performances that are worth the investment this film demands. Al Pacino and Jared Leto soar in their supporting roles, sometimes upstaging Gaga and Driver. The casting is a wet dream.

House of Gucci did not touch me or move me. I’m no better for seeing it. The characters are irredeemable. Still, it kept my attention and it entertained me. I would see it again. In a heartbeat.

With Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek, Jack Huston, Reeve Carney, Camille Cottin, Vincent Riotta, Alexia Muray, Mia McGovern Zaini, Florence Andrews, Madalina Diana Ghenea, Youssef Kerkour, Mehdi Nebbou, Miloud Mourad Benamara, Antonello Annunziata, Catherine Walker, Martino Palmisano

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Bron Creative, Scott Free Productions

Distribution: United Artists Releasing, Universal Pictures

158 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

Red Rocket

(USA 2021)

Sean Baker has been on a roll with his last few films. He’s heavy, but he wins me over because he makes me love his characters, all of whom are fringe throwaways — illegal migrants, petty thieves, sex workers, transgenders, drug addicts, dirty little kids — getting by in an economically hostile environment. He quietly but powerfully makes his points about benevolence in contemporary America. His films have gotten progressively better, too.

Unlike what I’m used to seeing from Baker and longtime screenwriting partner Chris Bergoch, however, Red Rocket is a bona fide comedy, something that turns out to be a refreshing move. Baker still does what he does, but this time he allows us to laugh — or at least roll our eyes — at his protagonist, hustling washed up porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), who can’t seem to stop himself from making boneheaded decisions.

Out of the blue, Mikey shows up bloody and naked at the home of his estranged wife, ex costar and current meth head Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother (Brenda Deiss) in Texas City, a dinky no-star town lodged somewhere along the Texas Gulf Coast. He moves in. He gets a job selling weed for local matriarch dealer Leondria (Judy Hill). He smokes the weed. He gets involved with a nerdy neighbor (Ethan Darbone) and an underage freckle face donut shop clerk named Strawberry (Suzanna Son).

As usual for a Baker film, the actors are great. Rex is a perfect Mikey. He delivers a kinetic performance, turning up the charm full blast to seize on the weaknesses he senses in those around him to realize his cockamamie ploys. It works out that every woman he tries to exploit ends up using him. The sex scenes are graphic but effective, best illustrating this little twist. In fact, every male character in Red Rocket is manipulated by someone.

Mikey, of course, misses it. He’s scrappy and has some streetsmarts but he’s still not very bright. He’s likable, but only to a point. Contrary to other Baker characters, he isn’t someone you ultimately care about. I didn’t. I suppose this makes sense for a dark comedy, but it’s still a noticeable departure. In a way, it’s also a relief.

Interestingly, you do care about the female characters, and they care about each other. Deiss, who has one film to her credit and apparently is a non-professional Baker is known to employ, particularly stands out. Her Lil is more complicated than her childlike and feeble appearance suggests. Shih-Ching Tsou as donut shop owner Ms. Phan, suspicious of everyone, shines in her few scenes.

As for the ending, well, according to a Deadline interview, Baker himself expects hate mail for it. I found it to be a nice peek into Mikey’s mind, so it’s appropriate even if it’s ambiguous. I take no issue. It’s the perfect money shot for cinematographer Drew Daniels’s dreamy, sunbleached lens.

In terms of narrative, Red Rocket might be a dip down from The Florida Project (https://moviebloke.com/2017/10/03/the-florida-project/) and Tangerine (https://moviebloke.com/2015/07/28/tangerine/). Regardless, I enjoyed it on its own merits. Like Baker’s other films, it left me pondering a lot of things — the story, the characters, what the point of it all is, and most importantly what I think of what he has to say.

Incidentally, Red Rocket has the distinct honor of being the first film I saw in a theater since the coronavirus pandemic blew up in March 2020. Amusingly fitting: I had a pass for the Telluride Film Festival this year but I didn’t go because of the delta variable surge, and Red Rocket opened. I guess I was destined to see this film.

With Marlon Lambert, Brittney Rodriguez, Parker Bigham, Brandy Kirl, Dustin “Hitman” Hart, Sophie

Production: FilmNation Entertainment, Cre Film

Distribution: A24

128 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B+

The Video Diary of Ricardo Lopez

(USA 2000)

I love Björk. Not like this, though.

The Video Diary of Ricardo Lopez is disturbing to say the least. It’s a real-time documentary — I would say self exploitation film — of one twisted super fan’s mental descent while he executes his plot to get even with Björk by mailing a letter bomb to her. Why? Because of who she chose to date.

This is difficult to watch. Culled from found footage, it’s a possibly well-intentioned but lurid exposé that showcases an ugly truth about fame, fandom, and insanity. Lopez clearly had problems. SPOILER ALERT: I’m glad he killed himself before he hurt her.

This is a film you probably don’t need to see, but if you do then once is enough. It broke my heart.

Production: Sami Saif

104 minutes

Not rated
(YouTube) A

Buddies

(USA 1985)

Initially, nothing about Buddies jumps out as remarkable. I never heard of the film, screenwriter/director Arthur J. Bressan Jr., or anyone involved. It feels like it was thrown together and pumped out in a matter of days, like a porn. At best, it’s as if Ed Wood were aiming for Jean-Luc Godard; at worst, early John Waters doing an Afterschool Special.

Technically, it’s messy. The camerawork is choppy, darting crudely from character to character. The script is amateur, preachy, and at times manipulative. Except for a few scenes, the acting is stiff and overdone, like a Fifties B-movie or a soap opera.

All that said, well … I’ll borrow a term from a different and much later movement: it gets better. This film really got to me. For all its low budget shortcomings, Buddies packs an emotional whollop. Truth and heartfelt sincerity shine through, and they go a long way in making the sum here much greater than its parts.

The film follows David Bennett (David Schachter), a Manhattan guppy in what appears to be a happy but bland monogamous relationship, who volunteers to be a “buddy” for another gay man, Robert Willow (Geoff Edholm). Robert is dying in an AIDS ward. As a buddy, David is there to offer a helping hand or an open ear with the hope of ensuring that Robert doesn’t feel forgotten (https://www.villagevoice.com/2018/06/18/buddies-remains-an-urgently-moving-study-of-life-and-death-in-the-aids-era/).

At first, their interactions are awkward and perfunctory, as they would be when trying to connect with a total stranger. The two don’t have all that much in common: David is quiet, cautious, and reserved; Robert is out, spirited, and definitely someone who has been around the block. Tinged with an underlying jealousy and perhaps a scintilla of superiority, David finds Robert to be too much: all his talk about sex and politics (not to mention his rage) turns him off. David isn’t invested in this relationship, forced as it is.

The ice breaks when Robert tells David about the love of his life. Touched and maybe finally able to relate, David opens up and starts listening to what Robert tells him.

I didn’t care for where Bressan ultimately took David. Still, he (Bressan, not David) is an astute observer of human nature. He touches on attitudes that tend to prevail when one person in a relationship is, shall we say, in a better position than the other, and he demonstrates how judgment can rear its ugly head. I like that Robert is unapologetic, which redeems him in the end.

Buddies is a film that takes on significance once you consider its historical perspective. It was the first American feature film to address the burgeoning AIDS crisis, back when it was called a “gay disease” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_J._Bressan_Jr.). It deals with AIDS head on, and it did so during Reagan’s first term. If it feels slapped together, there’s a reason for that — Bressan, a fairly prominent porn director, was dying when he made it. His sense of urgency is palpable.

This screening, a brand new digital restoration, was the first one we attended at Reeling. It is a fitting choice because Buddies was the same festival’s opener the year it was released (http://reelingfilmfestival.org/2018/films/buddies/).

With Damon Hairston, Joyce Korn, Billy Lux, David Rose, Libby Saines, Susan Schneider, Tracy Vivat

Production: Film and Video Workshop

Distribution: New Line Cinema, Vinegar Syndrome

81 minutes
Not rated

(Landmark Century) B-

Reeling International Film Festival

Eighth Grade

(USA 2018)

“The topic of today’s video is being yourself.”

“Growing up can be a little bit scary and weird.”

— Kayla Day

Eighth grade was the worst year of my life — I hated everything about it: my shitty peers, my changing body, the high school application process. I never looked back once I got out.

It’s probably no big shock then that my favorite movie taking on the horrors and inequities of middle school is Todd Solondz’s darkly hilarious and biting yet somehow sympathetic Welcome to the Dollhouse. Dawn Wiener is a hero of sorts to me (really). With Eighth Grade, writer/director Bo Burnham traverses the same treacherous terrain — he even starts down a similar, cynical path as Solondz. He swiftly takes it somewhere else, though, allowing Eighth Grade to tell its own story.

Young teenager Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), who’s finishing her final week of eighth grade, leads a double life. She posts self-recorded inspirational videos on YouTube, encouraging viewers to do things like be themselves, choose confidence, and put themselves out there to improve their lot in life.

Sadly, she’s nothing like her YouTube persona at school. Kayla is struggling to fit in, discouraged by the classmates she cyberstalks, some of whom she even approaches in person. She has no friends. No one notices her. She wins a “superlative” award — one of those dubious “most whatever” designations voted by peers — for being the quietest girl student. Aiden (Luke Prael), the guy she’s crushing on, wins “best eyes;” her low mumbled “nice job” doesn’t even register when he walks past her desk to collect his prize (although she eventually gets his attention when she lies about having nude pics on her phone and giving good blowjobs, but that’s another point).

Fair or not, Kayla takes out her anxiety and frustration on her hapless single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton). He doesn’t quite know how to deal with her.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

After she manages to recover from an anxiety attack at a disastrous pool party, Kayla is paired with Olivia (Emily Robinson), a big sisterly high school senior, to shadow for a day. They hit it off, which Kayla didn’t see coming — nor did I. Olivia invites Kayla out with her friends. Kayla’s sixth grade self emerges to push her toward a light she suddenly sees at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

There’s a lot to like about Eighth Grade, which easily could’ve been another teen movie — comedy or drama — that dredges up everything awful about being a teenager just for the sake of revisiting how awful it can be. Burnham nails the multiple forms that adolescent cruelty takes, but he doesn’t stop there. Instead, he takes his film to a positive place. His tone is never condescending. He doesn’t make light of Kayla’s dilemmas; clearly, they’re matters of life or death to her. He makes them important to us.

It’s a joy watching Kayla figure out that things really do get better, even in the face of a jarringly confusing incident involving one of Olivia’s friends (Daniel Zolghadri). Fisher is perfect in her role, zits and all. She shines especially with the little details — her expressions, her awkward movements, and all her likes, ums, and you-knows. She recalls Dawn Wiener without all the cartoon flourishes.

It sounds hokey, but you really do want to applaud when Kayla finally gets it, like when she tears into two classmates, mean girls Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and Steph (Nora Mullins), in one totally brilliant scene. Or when she accepts an invitation to hang out with dorky Gabe (Jake Ryan, who amusingly happens to have the same name as Molly Ringwald’s crush in Sixteen Candles) after he strikes up a conversation with her in the pool — and actually follows up with her.

To a degree, Eighth Grade echoes Welcome to the Dollhouse, intentionally or not. One big thing that sets it apart is its rosy ending — it’s hopeful. That’s a very good thing. Gucci!

With Jake Ryan, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Gerald W. Jones, Missy Yager, Shacha Temirov, Greg Crowe, Thomas J O’Reilly, Frank Deal, J. Tucker Smith, Tiffany Grossfeld, David Shih, Trinity Goscinsky-Lynch, Natalie Carter, Kevin R. Free, Deborah Unger, Marguerite Stimpson

Production: A24

Distribution: A24

93 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

http://eighthgrade.movie

Vertigo

(USA 1958)

We’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo before:

https://moviebloke.com/2016/02/19/vertigo/

This time, we saw it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing along live — with Joshua Gersen conducting. In an outdoor pavilion. Even a group of overweight and overbearing suburban middle aged ladies whispering and giggling throughout it didn’t spoil my enjoyment. Vertigo is everything that makes cinema exciting.

Sadly, we didn’t stay all the way through the end. Ravinia is a schlep on a school night, and we had to catch the train back to the city. Oh, Scottie, don’t let me go!

Side note: I didn’t realize Vertigo is based on a 1954 French crime novel, D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud (a.k.a. Thomas Narcejac), writing as Boileau and Narcejac.

Screening preceded by a live discussion with Kim Novak

128 minutes
Rated PG

(Ravinia Festival) A-

URGH! A Music War

(UK 1982)

I really don’t expect Derek Burbidge’s rather pedestrian and no-frills URGH! A Music War to move all that many people — only those who landed somewhere between puberty and college during the early Eighties. This movie, a paean to punk, reggae, and new wave bands, reads like a playlist from the early days of MTV. It’s comprised of nothing but live performances, starting and ending with The Police.

Performances are in the following order:

The Police – “Driven to Tears”
Wall of Voodoo – “Back in Flesh”
Toyah Willcox – “Danced”
John Cooper Clarke – “Health Fanatic”
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – “Enola Gay”
Chelsea – “I’m on Fire”
Oingo Boingo – “Ain’t This the Life”
Echo & the Bunnymen – “The Puppet”
Jools Holland – “Foolish I Know”
XTC – “Respectable Street”
Klaus Nomi – “Total Eclipse”
Athletico Spizz 80 – “Clocks are Big; Machines are Heavy/Where’s Captain Kirk?”
The Go-Go’s – “We Got the Beat”
Dead Kennedys – “Bleed for Me”
Steel Pulse – “Ku Klux Klan”
Gary Numan – “Down in the Park”
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – “Bad Reputation”
Magazine – “Model Worker”
Surf Punks – “My Beach”
The Members – “Offshore Banking Business”
Au Pairs – “Come Again”
The Cramps – “Tear It Up”
Invisible Sex – “Valium”
Pere Ubu – “Birdies”
Devo – “Uncontrollable Urge”
The Alley Cats – “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore”
John Otway – “Cheryl’s Going Home”
Gang of Four – “He’d Send in the Army”
999 – “Homicide”
The Fleshtones – “Shadowline”
X – “Beyond and Back”
Skafish – “Sign of the Cross”
Splodgenessabounds – “Two Little Boys”
UB40 – “Madame Medusa”
The Police – “Roxanne”
The Police – “So Lonely”

Generally speaking, concert films are as good as the band performing — unless you’ve never seen them. URGH! A Music War moved me because I know almost every band here but I had a chance to see only four of them live. I’ll let you figure out which four.

I came a little during The Police, OMD (called simply Orchestral Manoeuvres at this point, something I never knew), Echo, Klaus Nomi (fabulous!), The Go-Go’s, Dead Kennedys, Gary Numan, Joan Jett , Surf Punks (yum!), The Cramps, and yes, Devo. How the fuck did I miss Invisible Sex and Au Pairs all these years?

Bonus: The 35mm print screened was scratchy and scrappy and worked with the 50ish audience. I wish I had my Docs…

With Wall of Voodoo, Stan Ridgway, Marc Moreland, Chas T. Gray, Bruce Moreland, Joe Nanini, Toyah Willcox, Joel Bogen, Pete Bush, Charlie Francis, Steve Bray, John Cooper Clarke, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, OMD, Paul Humphreys, Andy McCluskey, David A. Hughes, Malcolm Holmes, Chelsea, Gene October, Barry Smith, Steve Ace, Mike Howell, Chris Bashford, Oingo Boingo, Danny Elfman, Steve Bartek, Sam Phipps, Dale Turner, Richard Gibbs, Leon Scheorman, Kerry Hatch, David Eagle, Echo & The Bunnymen, Will Sergeant, Ian McCulloch, Les Pattinson, Pete DeFreitas, Jools Holland, XTC, Andy Partridge, Terry Chambers, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, Klaus Nomi, Julie Berger, April Lang, Jon Cobert, Rick Pascual, Daniel Elfassy, Scott Woody, Athletico Spizz 80, Spizz, Jim Solar, C.P. Snare, Mark Coalfield, Dave Scott, The Go-Go’s, Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Margot Olaverra, Gina Schock, Charlotte Caffey, Steel Pulse, David Hinds, Selwyn Brown, Steve Nisbett, Phonso Martin, Basil Gabbidon, Gary Numan, Russell Bell, Paul Gardener, Roger Mason, Ced Sharpley, Chris Rime, Joan Jett, Lee Crystal, Howard Devoto, Magazine, Barry Adamson, John Doyle, Robin Simon, Dave Formula, Surf Punks, Dennis Dragon, Drew Steele, Ray Ban , Mark the Shark, Bill Dale, Andrew Jackson , The Members, Nicky Tesco, Chris Payne, J.C. Mainman, Nigel Bennett, Adrian Lilywhite, Au Pairs, Lesley Woods, Paul Foad, Jane Munro, Pete Hammond, The Cramps, Lux Interior, Nick Knox, Julien Griensnatch, Poison Ivy Rorschach, 999, Dave Allen, Gang of Four, The Alley Cats, Astro, UB40, Jello Biafra, Dead Kennedys, Steve Bodon, John Otway, D.J. Bonebrake, X, Ken Bronowski , Skafish, Jim Brown, Hugo Burnham, Ali Campbell, Robin Campbell, Bob Casale, Devo, Jerry Casale, Nick Cash, Exene Cervenka, Dianne Chai, Stewart Copeland, The Police, Javier Cruz, Guy Days, Devo, John Doe, Earl Falconer, The Fleshtones, Klaus Flouride, Mark Freeman, Andy Gill, Barbie Goodrich, Norman Hassan, Jon King, Scott Krauss, Pere Ubu, Pablo LaBritain, Tony Maimone, John McCarthy, Bill Milhizer, Mark Mothersbaugh, Robert Mothersbaugh, Alan Myers, Larry Mysliewiec, Alan Ofter, John Otway, Jan Marek Pakulski , Allen Ravenstine, East Bay Ray, Jim Skafish, Bruce Slesinger, Sting, Randy Stodola, Keith Streng, Andy Summers, David Thomas, Mayo Thompson, Brian Travers, Michael Virtue, Jon Watson, Peter Zaremba, Billy Zoom

Production: Lorimar Productions

Distribution: Filmways Pictures (USA), Pan-Canadian Film Distributors (Canada), Roadshow Film Distributors (Australia), Adams Filmi (Finland)

105 minutes
Rated PG

(Music Box) B-

Chicago Film Society

 

2001: A Space Odyssey

(USA / UK 1968)

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

— HAL

I caught a 50th anniversary screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve seen it before:

https://moviebloke.com/2016/02/26/2001-a-space-odyssey/

I’m moved no more nor no less. This film speaks for itself, and it says a lot.

149 minutes
Rated G

(Music Box) A

Man of Aran

(UK 1934)

It’s not very often that I’m torn on a film, but Robert J. Flaherty’s pseudo documentary Man of Aran is one that I am. First the good news: from a technical standpoint, this is a visually captivating film. Crammed with impossibly rich and downright dangerous shots of the treacherous North Atlantic, the blacks are as dark as squid ink, the whites are as shimmeringly luminous as Tijuana silver, and the greys are a stunningly natural and lovely compromise between the two. These shades of grey are what impressed me most about this film. You’d be hard pressed to find a better fit for a nitrate print.

Now for the bad news: for all its visual allure, Man of Aran is boring. It unflinchingly shows what it takes to survive on a barren rock in the middle of the ocean, but it fails to explain why anyone would choose to do it. I was ready to leave after half an hour of watching waves crash on the rocks and men who look the Edge attack a shark. Yawn! I would have liked this better if Sinead O’Connor’s “Jackie” were part of the soundtrack, maybe. Maybe not.

With Colman ‘Tiger’ King, Maggie Dirrane, Michael Dirrane, Pat Mullin, Patch ‘Red Beard’ Ruadh, Patcheen Faherty, Tommy O’Rourke, ‘Big Patcheen’ Conneely of the West, Stephen Dirrane, Pat McDonough

Production: Gainsborough Pictures

Distribution: Gaumont British Distributors (UK), Gaumont British Picture Corporation of America (USA), Éditions Montparnasse (France)

76 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) A+ (visuals) / F (everything else) / C (average)

Nitrate Picture Show

Vesyole Rebyata [Moscow Laughs] [Jolly Fellows]

(Soviet Union / Russia 1935)

It might seem strange to see a 1930s Soviet slapstick big band musical ostensibly made just for fun, but that’s what Grigoriy Aleksandrov’s Vesyole Rebyata [Весёлые ребята] [Moscow Laughs] [Jolly Fellows] is. Frankly, it is strange, or at least not anything I expected.

A sort of Depression Era communist Three’s Company, the humor here is crude: sex, mistaken identity, and class are the backbone of this comedy about a bizarre love triangle between a shepherd (Leonid Utyosov), a privileged diplomat’s daughter (Mariya Strelkova), and her housemaid (Lyubov Orlova).

Moscow Laughs is silly as hell, and it works on a certain level, to a certain point. The whole story — Lena (Strelkova), an opportunistic wannabe singer, woos Kostya (Utyosov), a shepherd whom she thinks is a famous Italian jazz conductor when she meets him on a beach — is funny at first. She invites him to her fancy hotel for dinner, calling him “maestro” and flattering him every way she can. Of course, he’s smitten.

Kostya shows up in a borrowed suit. Lena’s servant, Anyuta (Orlova), recognizes him because she’s admired him from afar for awhile — and she knows he’s not bourgeois. Kostya makes the boneheaded error of playing his pan pipe when asked to perform — the same pipe he plays to corral the animals under his charge. Hearing him play, the animals — pigs, sheep, goats, and cows — bust out of their kolkhoz and crash the party, literally. Hilarity ensues.

Unfortunately, Moscow Laughs loses steam once the setup is complete. The story rambles on through a few more episodes separated by cute animated shorts of the moon dancing and some time. Things get wacky. A bit too wacky for my taste.

Technically, Moscow Laughs reads as a transitional work; Aleksandrov clearly executes big ideas but maybe seems to operate from a mindset geared toward silent film. Stalin approved this film, and I can see why: the screenplay, written by Aleksandrov with Nikolay Erdman and Vladimir Mass, criticizes class and capitalism. The hammer and sickle prominently displayed above the stage removes any doubt that this is propaganda — it’s just social and not overtly political. It’s also very cheerful.

With Elena Tyapkina, Fyodor Kurikhin, Arnold, Robert Erdman, Marya Ivanovna, Emmanuil Geller

Production: Grading Dimension Pictures, Moskinokombinat

Distribution: Eduard Weil & Company (Austria), Amkino Corporation (USA), Facets Multimedia Distribution, Grading Dimension Pictures (International)

90 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) C+

Nitrate Picture Show