House of Gucci

If the person who assembled the trailer above, was responsible for editing the movie, this would be a more positive evaluation. The trailer emphasizes the key ideas in the film, but does so more efficiently than the actual film does. So the trailer is more fun to watch and it moves with a sense of purpose, building to a withheld climax. The film, tells the story more completely, but it lingers over material that is not essential to the plot and the dynamics of the characters are a bit inconsistent. Director Ridley Scott seems to be aiming for an epic, when what he has is a melodrama with some goofy and off-putting characters.


The star of the show is Lady Gaga, portraying Patrizia Reggiani, a young woman who meets Maurizio Gucci, heir to a portion of the family business, and subsequently marries and manipulates him to become the head of the company, at the expense of other members of his family. She is not quite Lady Macbeth, but her ambitions are what fuels the narrative in the film, and her abilities to push in the right direction using her romantic relationship with Maurizio are the means by which she accomplishes her goal. Lady Gaga has established some creds as an actress and she acquits herself well in a role that she is properly cast in. She is youthful, sexy in a non conventional way and ambitious as hell, just as the character in the film she plays. Criticism of the accent is beside the point, the film is not looking for authenticity, the verisimilitude is provided by her smirk, eyes, and body. The dialogue occasionally contributes but the Italian Accented English is simply typical of films of this ilk. 


The cast of the film is impressive. Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons have a great scene together and the two aging lions play it more subtly than you might think. Irons is Rodolfo Gucci, father of Maurizio, and brother of Pacino’s Aldo Gucci. Rodolfo Gucci is ill and aging in the film and Irons looks like he is going through the process himself, I hope it is mostly acting and makeup that accounts for his condition in the movie. His best scene is with Jared Leto, who plays his nephew Paolo Gucci. Both father and Uncle have distain for Paolo, for reasons that are comically depicted here. The verbal takedown of Paolo by Rodolfo is the most fun scene in the movie, and oddly it generates some sympathy for the craven Paolo who is the butt end of nearly every comic moment on the film. Leto is flamboyant in the part and unrecognizable in the make up and costuming he has been given. Obviously he has been portrayed this way as a counterpoint to the taciturn Maurizio, who is brought to life by current hot actor of the moment Adam Driver. The son of Aldo Gucci, Driver plays his character almost as somnambulant in the early part of the film, and he only exhibits occasional moments of  personality when he is with Patrizia. The character is a key element in the events that takes place but Driver is so passive in the first two thirds of the movie that when his character eventually tries to switch off his wife, it comes as something of a head turner, how did he become that character all of a sudden?

Similar turns in the characters are found in other places in the script as well. Aldo goes from doting to controlling on Maurizio, Paolo goes from sniveling to conniving to repentant, and not with much explanation. Gaga’s character has the clearest path that explains the turn she makes, although to get there, she has to develop a relationship with a oddball psychic played by Selma Hayek. The climax of the film depends on the third act working, and there were some shortcuts taken that probably needed some explanation. The sudden appearance of a romantic rival, and the absence of any story concerning the developing love affair, makes the transition to the third act very jolting.  This was another opportunity to take the satiric route suggested by the trailer, instead of the epic path the film tries to follow. Scott and writers Becky Johnston, Roberto Bentivegna and book author Sara Gay Forden, insist on playing it straight when a mocking sarcastic tone would have helped make the movie come alive. 


The film looks marvelous with expensive locales and lush furnishings and artwork distributed throughout the interiors. The timeline for the story is suggested by title cards but there seem to be gaps in time that can cause confusion. The soundtrack of contemporary music used to set scenes or make transitions is fitting for the times although not necessary accurate as to when the music was released. That is a minor criticism, but those of us who lived through the era will probably be the only ones who notice it, and no one will or should care. Although based on real people, the film plays like a soap opera but does not quite embrace the high camp that can make a movie like this entertaining. This is the second Best Ridley Scott Movie of the year, but it is the one that is more successful. Sometimes it is the material rather than it’s execution that matters.

The Last Duel

I looked it up to see how it came out, Ridley Scott has directed 26 feature films, including some classics that are award worthy, and some that have been left on the curb to be disposed of. I have seen 18 of those films, so I am pretty familiar with his work, and frankly I am a fan. This movie came up and I had not heard anything about it in the production process. He has a second film that is coming in a couple of weeks that will no doubt get a lot of awards potential due to the cast. “The Last Duel” ought to have the same sort of cache because it’s cast is nothing to sneeze at, but I think because this is a Twentieth Century Films release, which means it was one of a handful of movies the Disney Company acquired when it bought 20th Century Fox, it feels like it is an unwanted child. Little P.R., no Oscar talk and it is disappearing from theaters rapidly (look for it on Disney + any time now. 

As it turns out, this film does not stack up to Scott’s best work, but it is not down at the bottom with “Exodus: Gods and Kings”, or “the Counselor”, neither of which I have bothered with since I never saw a single recommendation for either. “The Last Duel” is a very well made film, it looks great, it contains some great action sequences, and the story is intriguing. The problems with the film have mostly to do with pacing and story structure, which may be partially the fault of two of the films stars since they co-wrote the script. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have collaborated with Nicole Holofcener to bring this story, based on a book which is based on an historical incident, to the screen. Like a medieval “Rashomon”, “the Last Duel” gives us different perspectives on the same event, each one favoring the person at the center of that section. So one of the problems is that we are seeing the events again, already knowing large amounts of information that are not going to change. The smaller changes, in tone and  character  probably needed to be emphasized in shorter segments because the length of each of these chapters is tedious. The film runs two and a half hours and unfortunately, that run time is noticeable. 

Maybe this was an attempt by Affleck and Damon to answer critics who wondered how they could have worked with Harvey Weinstein and not noticed his reprehensible behavior. As a #MeToo story, Jodie Comer plays a woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted,  but in a society that treats marriage as an economic contract and the wife as property, her needs in this situation seem to be the least important. Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon), has plenty of reasons to have animosity toward his former friend and warrior, Jacques Le Gris, played by Adam Driver. While not the most sympathetic of husbands, he engages in a strategy to clear his wife of fabricating the story and also exacting revenge on his opponent. Driver’s character on the other hand is supposedly shown in the most favorable light in his segment of the film, and Le Gris, still comes off as a cad, deserving of the dirtying of his name that he objects to. Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer) is trapped as a pawn for the most part in a misogynistic society that treats women as suspect simply for being women. The questions that get asked in the inquiry are humiliating and the “science” accepted at that time makes the process even worse for her. There is also a clear stigmatization of women as sexual beings, despite their sexuality being critical to the purpose of marriage which was to prove heirs. In a nod to some of the hypocrisy we see in the #MeToo movement of today, women are just as capable as men of bending events to their prejudices. Marguerite cannot even count on her best friend.   

All of the soap opera and segments of battle and political intrigue that took place in the first two hours is largely there to set up the climatic title moment. Scott is in his element here, having made “Gladiator” as well as “Robin Hood” and “Kingdom of Heaven”, he knows his way around brutal one on one combat. Damon and Driver go at each other both mounted and unmounted . There are staves, axes, swords, daggers, gauntlets and assorted blood sweat and tears in the arena. All the while, we are reminded of the stakes because they are sitting right there, waiting to burn under the woman in question if the combat goes the wrong way for her. This actual historical event is the last recorded case of trial by combat to determine who is the just party. Since I did no background research before seeing the film, and I did not know the outcome, that probably added to the impact the combat sequence had on me. 

So I suspect this film will soon be forgotten, but it does have some strong elements to recommend it. Affleck plays a conniving count who uses political power to protect his prized friendships, Damon builds more action hero cred with his battle scenes, Driver gets to be tall, dark, and handsome, but Jodie Comer is the one who emerges with the most credibility after our two and a half hours spent on this arcane event. 

Alien Covenant

There is always hope that a movie you have doubts about will overcome them and manage to please you. No one goes to a film hoping for disappointment, although we often go expecting it.My level of excitement for “Prometheus” five years ago was through the roof. The fact that it let me down has not vanished from my memory. In fact. it is a warning beacon, just like in the original “Alien” and also like in that original story, it was misinterpreted. You would think after all the crap he got for the last film in the franchise, Ridley Scott would stop visiting it or at least have a better vision of what he wants to say. Unfortunately, that is not the case here. “Covenant ” is a let down. It’s not as big a let down as “Prometheus” but that’s because we were alerted.

When the “Halloween” story got franchised,  there was an attempt with one film to try something different. “Season of the Witch” had nothing to do with Michael Meyers, and the objective was to make the franchise more of an anthology concept using the idea of Halloween as the connective tissue. I think that would be a good approach to this film series. The adventures and horror should be concentrated around new ideas and new aliens each time. Than you would not have to keep trying to figure out how all of the stories fit into a time line or make sense in light of the last film. This movie might have been better if it was not trying so hard to be “Prometheus Part 2” without actually saying that.

Here is how someone wiser than I and less blinded by the hope that Scott could get Alien right again put it, according to my daughter, “Alien Covenant”  is  a hybrid of Alien 3, Alien Resurrection sprinkled with Prometheus as a topping.” If that sounds like a tasty concoction to you, by all means indulge. To me it sounds like adding onions to a PB and J made with whole wheat bread and “natural” peanut butter” . That is a lot of ingredients that I don’t care for being combined to make something else I don’t care for. I never go into spoilers in these commentaries because I want you to listen to my opinion about the film, not my reconstruction of it. I do however have to occasionally mention components that are part of the story. To begin with, just assume anyone who’s name you do not have in your head after the first ten minutes is going to die in the story.  Also, assume that the reason they die is that they do something stupid, inappropriate for the moment, or in violation of a protocol. The story telling in this movie is just irritating.

Katherine Waterston does make an effective heroine in the film. I did not recognize her at first but then it dawned on me that she was one of the charming new additions to the world of Harry Potter, having played Tina in “Fantastic Beasts“. There are a couple of dramatic moments, an intense scene or two, and a realistic portrayal of someone forced into making decisions she does not want to. Michael Fassbinder has dual roles in the film, both of them as synthetics and each one with some distinctive personality characteristics. The novelty has worn off a bit and the character David is not much more than an Evil Genius, with no real heart. Walter, the more contemporary [or should it be more futuristic?] synthetic person has very little personality for most of the film. There are two turns with his character that make no sense whatsoever, and they are the things that are supposed to launch the last act of the film. Billy Crudup is the man who reluctantly assumes command after an early catastrophe, and there is supposed to be a backstory that involves his faith and how it may have effected the decisions about command in the first place. That story goes nowhere and he is reduced to making the same kinds of silly choices that every other person in these stories makes. Danny McBride goes by a nickname, wears a cowboy straw hat, and doesn’t get to show any of the obnoxious charm that might be his reason for being in the film in the first place. I was a little surprised by two uncredited performances, both are early in the film, one makes a little sense, the other must be an inside joke because it was completely unneeded.

The movie looks solid, but it lacks the pizazz of  it predecessor,   which was the main redeeming quality of that film. For me, the best part of this film was the use of the original Jerry Goldsmith theme as a motif in the opening credits. So, thirty seconds in, it is mostly downhill. The third act is a logic defying series of events, designed to sucker punch you in much the same way as “Life” attempted earlier this year. That movie pissed me off and this one leaves me with the same irritated feeling.

Since my dander is up about the film, let me add my two cents about the experience and presentation. We chose a theater based on when the film was playing, and it was not one of our typical haunts. In fact, we ended up paying a little extra to see the film in a “Dine-In” experience. I have always had my reservations about the concept, but since we had driven out of our way and already paid a premium, we went with the flow and ordered concessions off the menu and had a “usher/waiter” take care of us. Other than popcorn and soda, we splurged on nachos, but not the kind that come in a box with melted cheese in a plastic container. These were restaurant style with guacamole and other toppings. They cam twenty minutes after the popcorn. The traditional movie fare arrived before the film started, the nachos did not. The soda we ordered came not in a large cup like the overpriced style at the concession stand, but in a medium sized plastic cup designed to look like a glass coke glass.  The size of the serving, which I was sharing with my wife was diminutive compared to a regular theater, and insured that we would need a re-fill to go with the spicy nachos during the movie. So we got a second visit from the “usher/waiter” while the film was running. He returned a third time with a check in a folder, much like a restaurant, that I would need to sign before we left. A fourth visit was made to try to collect the glasses and silverware that we were not yet finished with. Also, the button for calling for service is over my right shoulder, and it is surrounded by embedded lighting that identifies the theater chain. So the whole time I am watching the film, I have four interruptions and a light in the corner of my eye. Fortunately, the black cloth napkin I was provided, draped nicely over the service button and removed that distraction. Now, if only everything we ordered could arrive before the movie began, we would have half as much to object to. Frankly, eating hot food off a plate, set on an attached tray, in the dark is a pain in the butt as well.

So, I can now say I have tried it, and it is officially more cumbersome than eating KFC in the car while at a drive in. Maybe if I had ordered the hard liquor from the bar, I would not have minded so much, but since I don’t drink, and I have a low tolerance for people who can’t hold their liquor well,  this was never going to be a solution for me. If that is how you roll, more power to you, but in the future, I’d rather stand in line at a concession stand, juggle my purchases in my arms walking back into the theater, and be left the hell alone while I am watching a movie. I’ve now had the “dine-in experience”, and I’m not sure if it was more irritating than the movie, but I do know I won’t be doing either one of them again.

Thelma and Louise 25th Anniversary Screening

At some point before this movie opened, I saw a trailer and both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were in a convertible with guns in their hands. At that point, without knowing anything further, I was in. The movie turned out to be a landmark Ridley Scott film that created a media sensation that kept people talking most of the summer. It was nominated for six Academy Awards (though not Best Picture) including nods for the two stars and the director. The end of the film was iconic and much parodied and it still packs a punch today. Although it is a road picture, it also subverts a lot of the traditions of such film stories.

I understand how it is seen as a feminist picture. The subject of how men relate to women in contrast to the way women relate to each other is explored in several interesting ways. Thelma’s husband Darreyl, played by an excellent Christopher McDonald, is a possessive  but disengaged spouse. He sees only what his wife can do for him or how she effects the way he will be seen. Harlan and J.D. are both exploiters of women. One might be less violent and more polite than the other, but his perception of them is the same, they are target rich environments. Jimmy, a breakout role for Michael Madsen, and Detective Slocum, the surprisingly sympathetic Harvey Keitel , both want to help the women in their crisis but have difficulty understanding why they are being shut out in very different ways. [The next year they would be antagonists Mr. White and Mr. Blonde].

Sarandon is the older more mature of the two friends, and she is the one who is most wounded at the start but we never see it. Louise is a walking functioning example of PTSD. As we get hints about events in her past, her motivations and perceptions become more understandable to us. Legal or not, her actions that start the two off as fugitives would be applauded by most in the audience. Thelma is a tougher specimen to examine. She is all contradictions. She starts off timid, then becomes liberated, and then near catatonic. She says it best towards the end of the movie:

Thelma: “But, umm, I don’t know, you know, something’s, like, crossed over in me and I can’t go back, I mean I just couldn’t live.”

 

At some point the empowerment of the two women overwhelms their sense of proportion. The patterns that preceded their adventures become paths they can’t avoid. Louise is blinded by her past and Thelma is resentful of it. When people complain about the end of the film, they need to keep that in mind.  Thelma starts her rebellion and freedom from Darryl by simply not asking his permission. Like a teenager, she overdose the vices, drinking to excess, smoking, unencumbered sex and finally robbery. She is acting out against the father figures she sees in her life, especially the unpleasant spouse she has been trapped with. Louise runs because she has been conditioned to do so. She runs from the man who loves her, from the sympathetic police officer that wants to keep her from being killed and mostly she runs from her own past.

There is a star making turn by Brad Pitt in the film. If ever there was an example of lightning striking a career, this is it. He is all charm and hot looks and that is what blinds Thelma to his faults. Louise was suspicious from the beginning but she is that way with nearly everyone. Both women share the lead in making decisions at different points in the film. It’s not important which one made which bad choice, what is important is that they are not going to let any man choose for them. That is the subversive message of the film. I am probably blinded by not being a woman, so some of their choices seem plain stupid to me, but that did not mean I was not entertained or fascinated by these women. Twenty-five years ago, I said to my wife when the film was over, “That was a hell of a movie”. It’s still true.

The Martian

Ridley Scott is one of the most ambitious film makers of our time, he is closing in on eighty years old, but like Clint Eastwood, he continues to prove that he still has it. This is a smart, big screen entertainment with a good mix of drama and humor and a well realized visual environment in which to play. As a consequence, this film should be a smash, coming as it does at the end of a long stretch of mediocrity in the cinema year.

A combination of “Cast Away”, “Apollo Thirteen” and “Macgyver”, “the Martian” tells the story of an astronaut abandoned accidentally on the surface of Mars, and the effort that he and others make to try to bring him home. It is heroic in the sense that an individual facing incredible odds, continues to strive to live, but it is equally heroic to think of the sacrifices and efforts made by a litany of others who would bend heaven and Earth to help him. The complexities of a journey to Mars are outlined in the continuing series of crises that Matt Damon’s character has to face. Basic survival requires ingenuity that would challenge the wisest of us, but driven by  hope and an indefatigable will to live, a smart guy manages to find ways. From a storytelling perspective it works really well. As a slice of imagined reality, it squeezes by on some convenient fictionalized story points. If “Gravity” got criticized for playing fast and loose with some aspects of physics, then this movie should end up in a jailcell right next door. The truth is that story is more important than physics when it comes to cinema, and the theme of hope trumps all.

Most of the plot that takes place on Earth and on Mars, feels real. There are political considerations and bureaucratic power issues at home that spice up the dilemma on Mars.  A solid cast of actors makes the NASA organization recognizable to anyone who has worked in a large environment. Government regulations on transparency complicate the problem solving on Earth, but allow a decision to exclude the crew of the expedition vessel from some of the early events in the film. Fortunately, Matt Damon, looking like Leo in the upcoming film “The Revenant” manages to inject enough humor and personality into the story to keep us interested. The talking and planning and arguing that takes place at home plays second fiddle to the adventure on the red planet. I will say however, that it was an amusing touch to have “The Lord of the Rings” referenced while “Boromir” was sitting right at the table.

The one place where the movie does not quite fill it’s potential is in the main ship and crew that left their colleague behind. They are cut out of the story for a big chunk of time and then when they are brought back into it, the answers to problems that were at least a struggle for Damon’s character, get resolved a little too quickly with some of the same scientific hocus pocus that would fix a problem in “Star Trek”.  By the end of the film, we can live with that as well because the movie really is a little long. The visuals on the ship are fun to look at but never seem as real at those on the surface of the planet. The jokes about the music selection available suggests that in the future, we have less technology available for an app than an ipod from 204 had. These are minor quibbles but the film is strong enough to overcome some of that.

A whole planet comes together in a way that we would hope it would with a situation like this. International cooperation might be expected but this might be a fantasy as well. If it is too fantastic to believe, it’s still inspiring to fantasize about. Duct tape and the human heart can overcome almost any obstacle, and that feels true, even when the science says it is not.