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
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.
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.
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
Schmaltzking Steven Spielberg is in regular form with Ready Player One, his film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 gamer fantasy novel.
Reality bites in 2045, especially in Columbus, Ohio, where Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives with his aunt (Susan Lynch) and her no good boyfriend (Ralph Ineson) in “the Stacks,” a favela-like slum of discarded mobile homes piled on top of each other. Things have stopped working and people have stopped fixing them, and the world has taken on a dystopian Dickensian hue curiously stuck in the 1980s.
Wade, like everyone, escapes to the OASIS, a virtual reality alternate universe where one can be…well, anything. Wade is Parzival, a sort of Speed Racer adventurer. He’s on a mission to win a contest: find the “Easter Egg” left behind by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the dearly departed creator of the OASIS, and gain total control over it. Parzival just might get by with a little help from his friends — but he’s got to stay a step ahead of one particularly troublesome competitor, corporate bad guy Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to rule the OASIS for all the wrong reasons.
Ready Player One is a typical Steven Spielberg kid’s movie: pop culture, magic, and a total “feel good” ending. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that. It isn’t necessarily better than recent Spielberg films like The Post (https://moviebloke.com/2018/01/26/the-post/) or Bridge of Spies (https://moviebloke.com/2016/02/25/bridge-of-spies/), but Ready Player One is a lot more interesting. Spielberg goes overboard with references to ‘80s films, some of which are his own projects — and I’m told he’s more aggressive than Cline is in the book. Still, the result is a lot of fun, and the details are wicked. A sequence dedicated to The Shining actually made me giddy. Mendelsohn looks so much like the principal from The Breakfast Club (https://moviebloke.com/2016/05/05/the-breakfast-club-2/) that I want to ask him if Barry Manilow knows he raids his wardrobe. Rylance plays Halliday with a strange mix of Christopher Lloyd, Steve Jobs, and, err, Spielberg.
I’m no fan of late period Spielberg, but I didn’t mind this one. Make no mistake, Ready Player One is a big, loud, overdone Hollywood movie, but it’s a decent one. Those who grew up watching Spielberg movies (like I did) no doubt will enjoy it even though they probably don’t need to see it a second time.
With Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen, Clare Higgins, Laurence Spellman, Perdita Weeks, Joel MacCormack, Kit Connor, Leo Heller, Antonio Mattera, Ronke Adekoluejo, William Gross, Sandra Dickinson, Lynne Wilmot, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Gavin Marshall, Jane Leaney, Elliot Barnes-Worrell, Asan N’Jie, Robert Gilbert
Production: Amblin Entertainment, De Line Pictures, Dune Entertainment, Farah Films & Management, Reliance Entertainment, Village Roadshow Pictures, Warner Brothers
Distribution: Warner Brothers, NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), SF Studios (Norway), Tanweer Alliances (Greece), Karo Premiere (Russia), Kinomania (Ukraine), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia)
“Love is like a fart: If you gotta force it, it’s probably shit.”
— One of the cowboys
One of its posters calls Daryl Hannah’s trippy-lite Paradox “a loud poem,” which I reckon is an accurate enough way to look at it. This is not a particularly noisy film, though, so I don’t know that “loud” is the right word. Anyway…
Set sometime in the near future, Paradox is a dystopian post-apocalyptic Western sci-fi musical comedy with a whiff of magic realism. Got that? The story, if you call it one, involves archeologist cowboys, a rock and roller sage known only as The Man in the Black Hat (Neil Young), and a not-so-merry band of feminist environmentalist survivalists.
Young sits in a chair in a field strumming his guitar while a crew consisting of his bandmates digs through dirt and rock looking for relics, mostly electronic devices used for communication — a phone, a fax machine, I may have seen a radio as well. At night, Young plays with his band, Promise of the Real, which includes Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah. There’s this thing they do where they hold onto a rope as they rise into the air.
Relatively plotless, Paradox features some beautifully cool crooning around a campfire and a cameo by Willie Nelson, who robs a seed bank with Young. If the whole thing sounds silly, it is. It’s hard to tell what Hannah is getting at here, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the redemptive power of music. To be fair, she admittedly didn’t plan this as a feature film for wide release (http://www.indiewire.com/2018/03/daryl-hannah-interview-netflix-paradox-sxsw-2018-1201939587/).
I didn’t mind Paradox, but it’s not the kind of thing that begs for a mainstream audience. I can see a lot of people bored with it — or worse, hating it.
With Corey McCormick, Anthony LoGerfo, Tato Melgar, Elliot Roberts, Dave Snowbear Toms, Charris Ford, Robert Schmoo Schmid, Tim Gooch Lougee, Dulcie Clarkson Ford, Alexandra, Dascala, Hillary Cooper, Jess Rice, Sue Mazzoni, Dana Fineman, Hilary Shepard, Page Adler, Alyssa Miller, Hayley DuMond, Barbara Adler, Jessica James, Maia Coe, Haskins Khalil, Light Kentucky, River Ben Ford, Wes James, Ava James, Ace Adler, Phoenix Fuller, Thelonius True Heart, Skookum River, Blythe Ford, Dave Doubek, Doug Alee
Production: Shakey Pictures
Distribution: Abramorama, Netflix
Screening followed by a live Q and A with Daryl Hannah, Neil Young, Elliot Rabinowitz, and two other men (one may have been Corey McCormick but I’m not sure)
Newcomer Cory Finley’s nihilistic dark comedy Thoroughbreds tells the story, as one of its promotional posters puts it, of good breeding gone bad. Two suburban Connecticut high school girls, misfit Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and go getter Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), reconnect under the guise of tutoring. They were friends in grade school until Lily’s father died; now Amanda’s mother (Kaili Vernoff) is paying Lily to hang out with her daughter, who has a mystery mental disorder that renders her incapable of feeling emotion.
Amanda meets Lily’s stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), a rich, domineering, and caustic control freak. Lily hates him but gets upset at Amanda’s suggestion that maybe he should die. She has a change of heart when Mark convinces Lily’s mother (Francie Swift) to send her away to a boarding school for “problem” girls. The two teens devise a plan to kill him. Enter slacker drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin) to execute the plan.
Thoroughbreds has all the elements of a winner. Finley’s script tells a good, dark story. Cooke channels Cristina Ricci, playing Amanda with all the macabre emptiness of Wednesday Addams. Ultimately, though, this is no Heathers. I found Thoroughbreds a bit rambling. It’s an okay film, but just okay — it’s probably not something I’m going to view again. Aaron enjoyed it more than I did.
With Svetlana Orlova, Alyssa Fishenden, Jackson Damon, James Haddad, Nolan Ball, Celeste Oliva
Production: June Pictures, B Story, Big Indie Pictures
Distribution: Focus Features (USA), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (international)
“Each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve done.”
“[Esquire] is a title of dignity. Slightly above gentleman, below knight.”
— Roman J. Israel
I didn’t love Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (https://moviebloke.com/2015/04/04/nightcrawler/), but I like his style — it’s a noirish kind of ’70s grit. He uses the same thing to greater effect in Roman J. Israel, Esq., which is a noticeable improvement. Unfortunately, it’s still just an okay movie.
Another drama set in Los Angeles, Denzel Washington is the titular character, an idealistic old school Luddite attorney who focuses on criminal procedure and civil rights. He’s forced to give up his dingy bankrupt two-man practice when his law partner falls unconscious. He takes a position working for slick George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of his partner. George, who runs a swanky firm big enough to have departments and refers to his clients’ “team,” is all about the billing.
Roman, who prides himself on zealously representing his clients, runs into an ethical dilemma when he’s assigned a criminal matter — and he makes it worse.
I appreciate what Gilroy is getting at here; I understand it firsthand. Personal convictions all too often clash with professional obligations. It’s tough not to lose sight of your beliefs in the face of deadlines, billable hours, and client service. Whatever point he’s making, though, is muddled in an aimless plot that lacks intensity and runs out steam early on. The ending is hard to follow; I had to rewind a couple times to see the caption on the brief to catch what happens. Big deal.
It’s never a good sign when I’m paying more attention to the locations than the plot. Washington does a fine job — his performance is stronger than the material he has to work with. Farrell does as good a job, especially with even less to work with. I’m curious to see what Gilroy does next, but I hope it’s punchier and less clouded than Roman J. Israel, Esq.
With Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravátt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheatom, Vince Cefalu, Tarina Pouncy, Nazneen Contractor, Niles Fitch, Jocelyn Ayanna, Eli Bildner, Robert Prescott, Elisa Perry, Shelley Hennig, Annie Sertich, Ajgie Kirkland, Franco Vega, Lauren Ellen Thompson, Anthony Traina, King Orba, Danny Barnes, Joseph David-Jones, Andrew T. Lee
Production: Bron Studios, Cross Creek Pictures, Culture China / Image Nation Abu Dhabi Fund, Escape Artists, Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ, LStar Capital, MACRO, Topic Studios, Creative Wealth Media Finance
Distribution: Columbia Pictures (USA), Cinépolis Distribución (Mexico), Sony Pictures Releasing (Argentina), United International Pictures (UIP) (International)
A Southern Gothic soap opera with a bit of social commentary, Mudbound is an interesting story. Written by Reese and Virgil Williams, the screenplay, told in flashback, follows two families, the white McAllans and the black Jacksons, from the Depression until just after World War II.
Fate and circumstance bring them together on a farm in the Mississippi Delta. The McAllans have the upper hand — they own the land — but they rely on the Jacksons, who work as sharecroppers, for more than farming. Mother Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige) bears the brunt of it through sickness, injury, death, and disrespect.
The plot elements are familiar — poverty, church, white only areas, the KKK — but the whole thing is fresh. Maybe its Reese’s objective approach. Her pace is deliberate and slow; frankly, it almost lost me. I’m glad I stuck it out, though, because the momentum picks up after one boy from each family — Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) — goes off to war. A romance that develops between Ronsel and a German woman enlightens him; it serves as a marked contrast to life at home.
Jamie and Ronsel both face challenges assimilating back into Southern civilian life when they return. They become friends, much to the dismay of Pap McAllan (Jonathan Banks) and, like, the whole town. When Jamie refuses to stop associating with Ronsel, things get brutal. While not on the epic scale of something like Roots, Mudbound got to me nonetheless.
With Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, Jason Clarke, Kerry Cahill, Dylan Arnold, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucy Faust, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Samantha Hoefer, Henry Frost, Kennedy Derosin, Frankie Smith, Jason Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Windley, Piper Blair, Joshua J. Williams, Claudio Laniado, Charley Vance
Production: Armory Films, ArtImage Entertainment, Black Bear Pictures, Elevated Films, MACRO, MMC Joule Films, Zeal Media
Distribution: Netflix (USA), Diamond Films (Mexico / Argentina), TOBIS Film (Germany), Feelgood Entertainment (Greece)
“We live in the Middle East. The word ‘offense’ was born here.”
— Wajdi Wehbe
The plot of The Insult [L’insulte] [قضيةرقم٢٣] recalls the old saying, “a stitch in time saves nine.” Perhaps someone should have told Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a hothead Beirut mechanic in his forties (born about three weeks after me), and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the sixtyish foreman of a construction crew.
While tending to plants on his balcony one afternoon, Tony accidentally spills water on the guys in the crew working below him on the street. Yasser spots the problem: a sawed-off pipe is coming out of the balcony. He offers to fix it, but Tony declines. Rudely. Yasser directs the guys to fix it anyway. Just as they finish, Tony sees the new pipe — and he busts it up into pieces. Watching it happen, Yasser calls Tony a “fucking prick.”
This is where it all starts to snowball. Tony is a Lebanese Christian, a devotee of Bachir Gemayel. Yasser is a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. Tony demands an apology. Yasser refuses. His boss (Talal El Jurdi), overwrought by the combustibility of the situation, persuades him to do so after he learns what happened.
When the two men approach Tony at his garage, he makes a vicious ethnic remark to Yasser, who punches him in the gut and cracks two ribs. Tony sues Yasser — involving the police in a small criminal investigation doesn’t quench his thirst for “justice,” which to Tony is more about putting Yasser in his place. Initially, both men represent themselves before a lower court. The judge (Carlos Chahine) dismisses the case in a huff, annoyed that neither man can articulate his position.
Infamous attorney Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), who fancies himself a defender of the Christian perspective, takes a political interest in Tony’s case. He convinces Tony to appeal the dismissal. Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), an attorney from legal aid, offers to represent Yasser for her own political reasons.
Soon, the media gets wind of the case. Before the watchful eyes of reporters, the two attorneys, who have a relationship, drag personal and political wounds into the light of the courtroom. The trial ignites tensions and threatens to spark national unrest. Even the President is concerned.
The Insult is not perfect — I could’ve done with less time in the courtroom and none of Éric Neveux’s flimsy techno soundtrack. Still, director Ziad Doueiri, who wrote the screenplay with Joelle Touma, hits the right notes here, diving right into the religious-cultural-political differences that do more than divide — they affront. The conflict is specific to Lebanon, but the outrage — consuming and exhausting everyone it its path — is the same that you see all over today, from Europe to South America to the United States.
With Rita Hayek, Christine Choueiri, Julia Kassar, Rifaat Torbey, Georges Daoud, Christina Farah, Elie Njeim
Production: Ezekiel Films, Tessalit Productions, Rouge International, Scope Pictures, Douri Films, Cohen Media Group, Canal+, Ciné+, L’Aide aux Cinémas du Monde, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Développement International
Distribution: Cinéart (Netherlands), Diaphana Films (France), Cohen Media Group (USA), Distribution Company (Argentina), Filmarti (Turkey)
I’m coming clean on a few things. First, I had little to no interest in Darkest Hour; had it not been nominated for Best Picture, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Second, Dunkirk (https://moviebloke.com/2017/07/20/dunkirk/) already satisfied the WWII epic category earlier this year. Third, if I hear one more accolade for Gary Oldman transforming himself for this role, I’m going to pull out five or six DVDs of his earlier films and literally throw them at the person who says that. Like Meryl Streep, he’s made a career out of transforming himself. It’s what he does.
Okay, that’s off my chest.
Darkest Hour is a textbook historical war drama, this one about Winston Churchill (Oldman) and the obstacles he encountered early in his term as Prime Minister. His biggest though certainly not his only problem was mounting pressure from Conservatives and Parliament to negotiate a peace deal with Adolph Hitler as Europe fell to the Nazis in 1940. Churchill flatly refused because he didn’t trust Hitler. The predicament of British soldiers trapped at Dunkirk and Calais didn’t help his cause, at least not in the eyes of his peers.
Joe Wright’s directing and Anthony McCarten’s screenplay are both highly competent, buoyed nicely by Bruno Delbonnel’s luscious cinematography. I like that no bones are made about Franklin Roosevelt’s (David Strathairn) initial refusal to get involved. A later scene on the London Underground is amusing. The acting is exactly what you’d expect in a big budget historical drama like Darkest Hour, right down to the rousing eleventh hour do-or-die speech. Oldman is great, but frankly I’ve seen him do better, or at least more interesting roles.
I don’t mean to rip into this film. The finished product is fine for what it is. Darkest Hour just didn’t wow me. It’s conventional and predictable, working from the same template as other films of its ilk. The subject is overdone. I counted at least three recent movies made about events referenced here — the aforementioned Dunkirk, The King’s Speech, and W.E. Enough said. Speaking of Dunkirk, it moved me more than this did.
With Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlins, David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Eric MacLennan, Philip Martin Brown, Demetri Goritsas, Jordan Waller, Alex Clatworthy, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir, Anna Burnett, Jeremy Child, Hannah Steele, Nia Gwynne, Ade Haastrup, James Eeles, Flora Nicholson, Imogen King
Production: Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films