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
Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre is a silent film that records the demolition of the Star Theatre at Broadway and 13th in the East Village more than a hundred years ago. F.S. Armitage shot the whole thing from across the street over the course of a month using time-lapse photography. The finished product is sped up in really fast motion. Then it’s put in reverse so that what just happened is taken back.
Hard to believe, but Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre, which is not even two minutes long, was shown commercially in theaters. I can’t imagine anyone being all that interested in it, but mmmkay. To be fair, I suspect the technique was revolutionary for its time. Theaters were given the gimmicky option of setting the order to either Building Up then Demolish, or Demolish then Building Up. So, the words “Demolishing” and “Building Up” in the title can be rearranged and still be accurate.
Obviously, this film offers no narrative other than knocking down a building. One cool thing: all the work is done by hand. Another thing: New York City apparently didn’t give any thought to public safety, as I don’t see any barricades; the sidewalk and street are open to traffic.
For whatever difference it makes, I had no idea Woody Allen had a new movie coming out, like, now. Being a fan, I didn’t hesitate to sign onto a prerelease screening of his latest, Wonder Wheel. Now that I’ve seen it, I must say that I’m not disappointed.
Set in 1950s Coney Island — in case the title didn’t cue you in — Wonder Wheel is a tawdry story of multifaceted infidelity told by lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a hopeful playwright attending school at New York University. An unreliable narrator, he warns us up front that he’s prone to drama. He meets middleaged Ginny (Kate Winslet), a waitress in a clamhouse, on the beach. They commence a summer affair. She takes it for more than it is. Then Mickey meets Ginny’s step-daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who’s hiding from her Mafioso husband. He’s smitten. She’s smitten. Ginny senses it, and she’s thrown into blind jealousy. It doesn’t end well.
Wonder Wheel doesn’t feel like a Woody Allen movie, at least not at first. It’s a bit too cute, too hollow, too stiff, and perhaps surprisingly too nostalgic. The acting is forced and hammy, and the writing is…weird. Hang in there — it gets better, and it becomes clear that everything that appears to be a flaw is actually planned.
About a third of the way through, the characters show their true colors. It’s not pretty, but it all comes together nicely, melding seamlessly into a stage play. Plus, the elements of Allen’s best films — characters who are neurotic narcissists, love (or is it lust?) throwing them off, and the unmistakable reference to Alvy Singer’s boyhood home — become apparent. It’s dark, but it’s engrossing.
Wonder Wheel is Allen’s take 20th Century American playwrights generally, and Eugene O’Neill specifically. The plot involves a fucked up family situation that brings out the worst in everyone involved, except Carolina. Winslet unravels nicely; she’s not as exciting as Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, but she’s really close. Both are strong in their own way.
Jim Belushi evokes John Goodman so much that I wonder if his part was written for Goodman. Curiously, Winslet evokes Susan Sarandon. Ironically, the only good person is the one one who digs her own grave: Carolina. The story is interesting. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, which makes the entire film look like it was shot at sunset, is strikingly gorgeous, tinted in dreamy reds, greens, and blues.
I can’t say Wonder Wheel is even close to Allen’s best films, but I rank it in the upper eschelon of his late period work. It’s not as good as Blue Jasmine, but it’s not far off.
With Max Casella , Jack Gore, David Krumholtz, Robert C. Kirk, Tommy Nohilly, Tony Sirico, Stephen R. Schirripa, John Doumanian, Thomas Guiry, Gregory Dann, Bobby Slayton, Michael Zegarski , Geneva Carr, Ed Jewett, Debi Mazar, Danielle Ferland, Maddie Corman, Jacob Berger, Jenna Stern
“I take what I need and I move on. And if people can’t move with me, well then I’m sorry.”
Wow, I completely forgot about this tawdry exposé made for TV — American TV, which is even worse — chronicling Madonna’s early years in New York City. It aired on Fox in the mid-nineties, and it’s actually amazing only for how awful it is. All the stops are pulled out, and it’s a trainwreck: the overriding theme is that Madonna is an ambitious whore. OK, National Enquirer.
Based on Christopher Andersen’s 1991 biography — totally unauthorized, I add — Michael J. Murray’s script is just plain sad. Some of it is remarkably accurate, but some of it…not so much. I recognize every single interview where he culled material to tell the Material Girl’s story — in Time, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Interview, and a few other magazines. He doesn’t just lift background, he lifts dialogue. Verbatim. That opening monologue is straight from a letter to Stephen Jon Lewicki in which she begs to appear in his softcore film A Certain Sacrifice. The characters are all real people even if their names are changed: her donut shop manager (Kenner Ames), Dan Gilroy (Jeff Yagher), Camille Barbone (Wendie Malick), Mark Kamins (Mitch Roth), Seymour Stein (Don Francks), frequent collaborator Steve Bray (Ephraim Hylton), and last but not least her father, Silvio Ciccone (Dean Stockwell).
I’m mildly impressed that her mother (Jenny Parsons), shown entirely in black and white flashbacks, even comes up. And the many guys she slept with, some of them with a purpose. And that gumcracking? Brilliant!
Terumi Matthews plays a young Madonna, and I’ll give her this: she nails the megastar’s ideosynchrocies perfectly! However, the vignettes and Catholic imagery stolen straight from the video for “Oh Father” are so lame that I feel like I should say a rosary after seeing this. So should you. Don’t even get me started on where this story starts — the first MTV Video Music Awards? Really? She was already on her second album by then.
In any event, Madonna: Innocence Lost is not flattering, but it’s still a hoot. It plays on Madonna’s bad side, like “Blond Ambition” is a bad thing. The problem is, this approach fails when you’re dealing with someone who used that very name for one of her biggest tours. Shocking? Fuck no.
With Diana Leblanc, Nigel Bennett, Dominique Briand, Tom Melissis , Christian Vidosa, Dino Bellisario, Kelly Fiddick, Gil Filar, Maia Filar, Diego Fuentes, Matthew Godfrey, Evon Murphy, Stephane Scalia, Chandra West
Production: Fox Television Studios, Jaffe/Braunstein Films
Distribution: Fox Network, RTL Entertainment (Netherlands), True Entertainment (UK)
Guy Ritchie’s remake of Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away, a film that looks like it would be Blue Lagoon but is far from it, was universally panned when it came out. I never saw it, and probably never would have bothered but for my recent discovery of Wertmüller’s work. A two-hour flight from Chicago to New York City and back seemed like the perfect time to get both of them out of the way.
I planned to watch Wertmüller’s original first because…well, that makes sense. Unfortunately, I didn’t start it early enough — the original is 25 minutes longer, and by the time I pulled out my iPad I didn’t have enough time for it. So, I had to settle for backward and watch Ritchie’s version first.
He sticks pretty close to the storyline of the original. Initially, I found Swept Away kind of boring but not offensively awful. Only after seeing Wertmüller’s version did it become painfully clear how lame this remake is; it’s utterly impotent by comparison.
Ritchie retains the critical plot elements of class tension and anticapitalist sentiment that color much of Wertmüller’s work, but here they don’t read the same way; they’re off. Trite, even. Ritchie injects dribs and drabs of his loutish brand of humor into his version, and I found that to be a plus. However, he turns Swept Away into a flaccid, neutered romantic dramedy that the original is not. His version is kinder, gentler, and softer. It has no edge to it whatsoever, which is unusual for him. Yawn.
Stiff and hollow, Madonna’s acting is par for the course. Her character, Amber, is suited to her image. She could’ve had fun with the role. Too bad she seriously overdoes the rich bitch bit and comes off as nasty, hateful, and angry. Not fun. Adriano Giannini, the son of Giancarlo Giannini who played the same role in the original, is nice to look at. That’s it, though; his character, Giuseppe, or as Amber calls him “Pee Pee,” is a turnoff — what a wimp!
The most interesting thing about Swept Away is that David Thornton, Cyndi Lauper’s husband, has a fairly substantial part. I wonder if that was awkward?
With Bruce Greenwood, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Beattie, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Yorgo Voyagis, Ricardo Perna, George Yiasoumi, Beatrice Luzzi, Lorenzo Ciompi, Patrizio Rispo, Francis Pardeilhan, Rosa Pianeta, Andrea Ragatzu
Production: CODI SpA, Ska Films
Distribution: Screen Gems (USA), Columbia TriStar Films (UK), Medusa Distribuzione (Italy)
Marsha, Marsha, MARSHA! I’ll say this: David France’s new documentary has a lot going on in it. The center of the film, obviously, is legendary Greenwich Village “street queen” Marsha P. Johnson, a trans LGBT activist who hit the streets and stood at the front line when the fight was just about the “gay rights” movement. In the ’60s. Marsha, a figure at the Stonewall riots, founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, or S.T.A.R., with Sylvia Rivera in the early ’70s — 1970 to be exact. Her fight continued onto AIDS and transgender issues. She clearly was ahead of her time.
Sadly, Marsha ended up in the Hudson River in 1992, an apparent murder victim. It was almost 25 years to the date that I saw this film. The New York City Police Department called it a “suicide” — then called it a day. It remains an unsolved case.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson wants to honor Marsha, and it kind of does. At the very least, it sings her praises and puts her in a positive light. Ultimately, though, it fails. Told through the eyes of friend and surrogate Victoria Cruz, it unfortunately lets other things — mainly other people’s egos — get in the way. Part history and part true crime, Marsha’s story is watered down because French crams in more than what’s necessary to tell it, and he loses her in the process.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson succeeds in showing Marsha’s determination and influence. Perhaps unintentionally, it also shows a wonderfully colorful version of New York City in its cultural — or countercultural — prime, a place that simply doesn’t exist anymore. The hardest part of watching this film, though, is the attitude against trans people — even from gay men. It’s something you might not expect, but there it is.
From a historical or social standpoint, this is a winner. As far as Marsha is concerned, it could have been better. Still, it’s worth the time it takes to see it.
With Michael Baden, Frances Baugh, Pat Bumgardner, Jimmy Camicia, Eddie DeGrand, Matt Foreman, Jacques Garon, Chelsea Goodwin, Xena Grandichelli, Jennifer Louise Lopez, Agosto Machado, Marcus Maier, Ted Mcguire, Jean Michaels, Robert Michaels, Rusty Mae Moore, Candida Scott Piel, Coco Rodriguez, Kitty Rotolo, Vito Russo, Mark Segal, Beverly Tillery, Randy Wicker, Brian R. Wills, Sue Yacka
Production: Public Square Films, Faliro House Productions, Ninety Thousand Words, Race Point Films, Terasem Media & Films
Distribution: The Film Collaborative, Netflix
Screening introduced by David France and followed by a live Q and A with France, Mark Blane, and someone whose name I didn’t catch moderated by Alonso Duralde
“He was way ahead of his time. Just the way we do now with selfies and Snapchat and Facebook — he would have put the little Instagram kids to shame!”
— Amber Valletta
“Kevyn’s biggest motivation to succeed was his abandonment issues. He had this thought that, if I work with you and you become my friend, and I make you pretty, then you won’t abandon me. I absolutely think he was looking for a mother figure in the people that he worked with.”
— Eric Sakas
Superstar makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin lived an enviable life. He was successful doing what he loved — his work was on runways, in music videos, on award shows, and on magazine covers, at one point nine consecutive issues of Vogue. He wrote books and started a line of cosmetics.
On top of that, he hung out with models, legends, and his own idols: Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Paulina Porizkova, Susan Sarandon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Winona Ryder, Liza Minnelli, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Cher, and Jennifer Lopez to name a few. Some of them were actual friends (I can only imagine Liza leaving voicemail for me).
Judging from the fact that they all let Aucoin record him with them backstage — on videotape, and not always made up — they must have felt something for him. An affinity? Safety? A debt? Whatever it was, it endeared him. Even in his home videos, he made them look good.
So it’s odd and downright tragic that someone who brought so much beauty to the world, never felt beautiful himself. Perhaps it had to do with his birth mother, Nelda Mae Williams, giving him up for adoption, or all the bullying he got as a teenager. He didn’t like his physical features, which were exaggerated by a condition that went undiagnosed for most of his life: acromegaly, a tumour on the pituitary gland that keeps the brain secreting growth hormones. It’s a painful condition that causes headaches and joint pain, and it got Aucoin addicted to prescription drugs.
A trove of home videos found after his death in 2002 forms the basis for Lori Kaye’s documentary, Kevyn Aucoin Beauty & the Beast in Me. He recorded everything — the aforementioned videos with celebrities, with family members and boyfriends, and even when he was alone. Kaye interviews different people from Aucoin’s life to tell his story, and the interviews range from funny (Andie MacDowell) to sad (ex boyfriend Eric Sakas discusses Aucoin’s downward spiral) to eyeroll-inducing (Williams claims Aucoin would not have been gay had she raised him).
His adoptive parents, Isidore and Thelma Aucoin, accepted him and even dropped out of their church because of its stance on homosexuality. He moved to New York City, and the rest is history.
The celebrity interviews are fun, and some are gushy. Some of the interviewees even cry. They all provide insight into the kind of guy Aucoin was. What Kaye has that makes her documentary special, though, is Aucoin’s tapes, and she incorporates footage from them into the project in a way that lets him tell his own story. It’s an often amusing one with a sad undertone. It also serves, as Cindy Crawford points out, as a time capsule — a really good one. I confess, a few scenes gave me chills.
With Andie MacDowell, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Paulina Porizkova, Gwyneth Paltrow, Amber Valletta, Isidore Aucoin, Nelda Mae Williams, Jed Root, Eric Sakas, Tina Turner, Cher, Liza Minnelli, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson
Production: Putti Media
Distribution: Logo Documentary Films (USA), Dogwoof (International)
Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, now streaming on Netflix, is a lot of things; dull is not one of them. A slick, fast-paced, mesmerizing mix of fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, action, satire, and social consciousness, this film has a lot going on—and a lot going for it. I was lucky to see it on the big screen before its official release, and that’s how I recommend seeing it if you can. Sorry, Netflix, Okja is simply too good for TV.
The story begins ten years ago in 2007: in a desperate but brilliant attempt to rebrand a disreputable family business—to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so to speak—Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announces her master plan to breed an all-natural “superpig” that leaves a minimal footprint, feeds the world, and tastes great (https://superpigproject.com). Her company, Mirando Corporation, devises a competition, sending twenty-some piglets to real farmers across the globe to raise them; the company will monitor each pig over the next ten years and declare a “winner” based on the results. Mirando hires animal television show host Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a zoologist whose star is fading, to lend credibility to the project as well as to generate public interest in it.
Fast forward to 2017: Mirando’s plan is coming to fruition without any hiccups, which makes her happier than a pig in…well, you know. Unfortunately for Mirando, a young South Korean girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), whose grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) signed onto the project, threatens to derail the entire mission. Mija, you see, essentially raised her grandfather’s pig, Okja. They’ve become dependent on each other. He never explained to her what the deal really is—that Mirando’s silk purse is nothing more than lipstick on a pig.
Dr. Johnny and his television crew show up at their home in the mountains and marvel over Okja, now a magnificently enormous hippopotamus-like creature. He presents her grandfather with an award and takes Okja to Manhattan—actually, New Jersey—for a pig roast sponsored by the Mirando Corporation.
To put it lightly, Mija’s not having it—she takes off after Okja on a chaotic chase through Seoul, where she encounters the Animal Liberation Front, a group of inept animal rights activists led by idealistic but ineffective Jay (Paul Dano). They make a pact, but unfortunately she doesn’t speak English. Mija ends up at the world headquarters of Mirando Corporation in New York City, completely unaware of the cards she holds.
I went into Okja blind—the only thing I knew about it was that its central character is a big pig. I left more than satisfied: the cast is stellar, the effects are flawless, and the script is smart and strong despite its flaws. If that don’t beat a pig a-pecking, I don’t know what does.
Appropriately, the acting is hammy; I love that Swinton plays twins again. She looks like a deranged Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Gyllenhaal teeters on insufferable with his wimpy sniveling, but to his credit he manages to keep it in check. I’m usually unimpressed with computer animation, but here it’s amazingly well done; Okja looks as real as the humans. I think the trick is her eyes. Even with its Hollywood ending, Okja is definitely one of this year’s more interesting movies.
With Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo-shik, Giancarlo Esposito
Production: Kate Street Picture Company, Lewis Pictures, Plan B Entertainment
In his cool noir mystery Two Men in Manhattan [Deux hommes dans Manhattan], director Jean-Pierre Melville in his only starring role is Moreau, a cheerless and jaded reporter with Agence France-Presse. As he’s leaving work one night, his boss (Jean Lara) asks him to investigate the whereabouts of one Mssr. Fèvre-Berthier, the French United Nations delegate, who curiously has gone M.I.A.
Moreau heads straight to the flat of a frequent collaborator, hardened alcoholic photographer Pierre Delmas (Pierre Grasset), and yanks him out of bed—never mind the girl there with him. Delmas is the archetype paparazzo: cold-blooded and motivated by money. He knows his way around Manhattan.
The two men trail Fèvre-Berthier through a number of female associates: his secretary (Colette Fleury), a two-bit actress (Ginger Hall), a jazz singer (Glenda Leigh), a burlesque stripper (Michèle Bailly), and a high dollar whore in a high class brothel (Monique Hennessy). They find out what happened to him, but the story is scandalous.
Moreau doesn’t want to print it, but Delmas insists otherwise. A strange car following them around may persuade them to do the right thing—whatever that is.
With enough trench coats and fedora hats to clothe a newsroom, Two Men in Manhattan reflects Melville’s characteristic minimalist neo gangster movie style. The personal ethics here are all grey, which fits nicely with the night scenes, especially the exteriors shot on Times Square by cinematographer Nicolas Hayer. Aside from the exteriors, Manhattan never looked more fabulously fake: most of the interiors—the subway, a bar, a club, a theater, a hospital, a diner—were shot in a studio.
Part detective flick and part morality play, the tone shifts quite a bit between drama and waggishness, leading me to conclude that Melville didn’t take Two Men in Manhattan very seriously. It’s a minor work that comes off tongue in cheek, which makes it fun to watch—it compensates for Melville’s rather thin script. Plus, the whole thing sure is pretty.
With Christiane Eudes, Paula Dehelly, Nancy Delorme, Carole Sands, Gloria Kayser, Barbara Hall, Monica Ford, Billy Beck, Deya Kent, Carl Studer, Billy Kearns , Hyman Yanovitz, Ro. Tetelman, Art Simmons, Jerry Mengo
Production: Belfort Films, Alter Films
Distribution: Columbia Films (France), Mercurfin Italiana (Italy), Cable Hogue Co. (Japan), Cohen Media Group (USA)
“I don’t think you’re very amusing, Lieutenant…Whatever-Your-Problem-Is.”
Who Killed Teddy Bear is so far one of the more interesting films I’ve seen this year, which is odd because it’s more than 50 years old. A surprisingly good story and movie, everything about it shines despite its bleak subject matter and an obviously low budget.
The film opens with a little girl who seems to be getting away from something unsettling she just observed. She falls down a set of stairs in the dark. It’s a curious opening, but she ties into the story later.
Cut to mid-sixties Manhattan: Norah Dain (Juliet Prowse) is an aspiring actress who works as a “disc jockey” at a nightclub. She lives alone in a cute three flat. It’s bad enough that she’s getting obscene phone calls from an unknown weirdo, but what’s worse is that he implies he’s watching her.
Enter detective Lt. Dave Madden (Jan Murray) to investigate Norah’s case. His wife was raped and murdered on the streets of New York City. He comes off as part father and part priest, and he takes a special interest in Norah that verges on disturbing. Indeed, he drops in all the time, he secretly records their conversations, and he keeps telling her that he could be the caller. At home, he’s obsessed with “studying” pornography and perverts, which has a distorting effect on his 10-year-old daughter (Diane Moore).
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
We soon learn that Lt. Madden actually isn’t the caller; Lawrence Sherman (Sal Mineo), who works as a busboy with Norah, is. Lawrence has a lot of issues. Awkward and aloof, he lives in a sad, dank apartment with his younger sister, Edie (Margot Bennett). Edie has brain damage and hasn’t developed beyond a child. Their parents died, leaving Lawrence to take care of her. And he does, but he harbors resentment.
On top of all this, Lawrence is incapable of a normal romantic relationship because of his guilt over his sister. He deals with his sexual frustration at adult bookstores and movie theaters in Times Square, and it apparently works until Norah comes along. His obsession with her takes him down a road of murder and ruin.
Directed by Joseph Cates, Who Killed Teddy Bear has a high creepy-icky factor, and it’s absolutely wonderful. Mineo is brooding and sexy, and Lawrence is compelling in the same fucked up way as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Norah and Lawrence don’t have all that many scenes together, but she’s nice to him when they do. This makes their scenes percolate with tension, particularly one at a pool in a gym. We know the whole thing is not going to end well, and Cates slowly but steadily gets us to a nasty climax. To add to the perversion, screenwriters Arnold Drake and Leon Tokatyan drop in little bombshells like incest and lesbian passes. Joseph Brun’s camerawork is lovely, especially in the night scenes; shooting on location in New York City, he cloaks the actors in shadows and neon light in a way that nicely underscores their solitude.
Interesting trivia: a young Dan Travanty, who plays a small part as a nightclub employee, went on to star in Hill Street Blues.
This film has been cut and recut many times over the years, at least once for British television. I’m pretty sure the screening I attended was the original uncut version.
With Elaine Stritch, Tom Aldredge, Frank Campanella, Rex Everhart, Bruce Glover, Casey Townsend
Production: Phillips Productions
Distribution: Magna Corporation, BijouFlix Releasing
(The Auditorium at Northeastern Illinois University) A