Nope(7/21/2022)

[Warning: Review Contains Spoilers]

In the days leading up to the release of Nope there was a (possibly staged) kerfuffle on Twitter where a guy named Adam Ellis (@adamtotscomix) posted the Rotten Tomatoes scores for Jordan Peele’s first three films and posed the question “at what point do we declare Jordan Peele the best horror director of all time?” and Peele responded by saying “Sir, please put the phone down I beg you.”  If this moment was dreamt up by publicists it would have been well calculated, it made Peele look nicely modest while calling attention to just how enthusiastic critics have been toward Peele’s work, which is somewhat unprecedented in the horror genre.  Peele brought up John Carpenter as the true master worthy of that title, but if Rotten Tomatoes were around when he was first starting it’s very unlikely he’d have gotten scores anywhere near this high coming out of the gate.  Even as someone who wasn’t as enthusiastic about Get Out as a lot of people I’m about as excited about his work as anyone, especially after Us, which I thought really stood out as an amazing horror film and his best work to date.  I wasn’t sure how excited to be about Nope though as its secretive campaign didn’t give me a great idea where it was going and it’s jokey title seemed like a red flag.  Having actually seen the film now I’m honestly still not quite sure what to make of it.

Nope is set in an area called Agua Dulce, which is in the rural outskirts of Los Angeles County and focuses on a family business called the Haywood Hollywood Horse Ranch.  This ranch specializes in training horses to be used in film production and the Haywoods themselves claim to be descendants of the jockey seen in the Eadweard Muybridge horse galloping Zoopraxiscope, giving the family a stake to having had “skin in the game” since the dawn of the movies.  This ranch has, however, fallen onto hard times.  The family patriarch Otis Haywood Sr (Keith David) has just been killed in a bizarre accident, leaving the ranch to his two adult children: Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr (Daniel Kaluuya), who is more dedicated to the work but is withdrawn and lacking in promotional skills, and the more gregarious but flakier Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer).  OJ has been having to downsize the ranch and has been selling several of his horses to a nearby tourist attraction owned by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) but he sees an opportunity to change the family’s prospects when he starts spotting strange things in the sky above the ranch.

Nope is a tricky movie to review as it’s a movie that has a handful of ideas in it that I think are really good, and yet I’m not really sure they all gel together as well as Peele had hoped.  Take for example a subplot about how, while he was working as a child actor, the Steven Yuen character was witness to an infamous episode in which a chimpanzee working on a sitcom went berserk and started murdering the cast of a family sitcom.  In and of itself this idea is a horrifying vignette idea, but at the end of the day it’s mere backstory for a side character who ultimately doesn’t have a lot of screen time in the movie.  So, is it meant to have some sort of thematic resonance?  I guess it’s ultimately a story about the hubris of controlling animals on set, which kind of ties into the Haywood Ranch’s family business, but the film doesn’t seem like some kind of PETA screed against animal actors and the Haywood’s don’t seem to be depicted as doing anything overly cruel.  Perhaps instead its meant to instead loop into mistakes made when dealing with the flying saucers later on, but that element is always a bit unclear and sort of comes out of nowhere.

The idea of connecting the Haywood Farm to Muybridge’s chronophotography was also a potentially interesting idea but again I’m not sure it goes much of anywhere.  To be frank I’m not sure I really share Peele’s outrage over the real jockey in this photo series having been lost to history.  Perhaps it’s my auteurist bias at play but the fact that the photographer behind this photography experiment was the name that was widely cited seems natural to me.  I am similarly not losing sleep over the fact that we don’t have detailed biographical information about the men exiting from the Lumière factory in Lyon or who engineered the train which arrived at La Ciotat Station.  Still, it’s an interesting thing to bring up, and both photography and the act of documentary filmmaking is certainly something of a running theme in the movie but what message is it ultimately shooting for with all of this?  Perhaps it’s suggesting that animal wranglers in general are an underappreciated aspect of filmmaking in much the way that horse jockey was under-appreciated?  Then is the Gordy disaster intended to represent how much things can go wrong when wranglers don’t do their job?  I guess.  The movie could in some ways seem to be oddly anti-director given how much calamity comes from someone trying to get a shot at magic hour beyond all reason, but again, that seems kind of removed from a lot of the other shenanigans going on here.

So what is the actual UFO supposed to represent?  Well, I’m not sure it’s meant to represent any one single thing necessarily.  Viewing the film as a comment on man’s attempt to control nature one could view it as something of a large scale equivalent of Gordy the chimp in that he’s sort of goaded into violence, but the movie is very unclear about exactly what the nature of that provocation is and this is generally one of the sloppiest elements of the film.  If you view the film as being more about the modern culture of surveillance and online documentation then I guess it’s a stand-in for the ultimate privacy advocate that is ultimately powerless in trying to avoid surveillance and lashing out.  If you view the film as being more about Hollywood filmmaking then maybe it’s more of a stand-in for studio heads chasing bigger and bigger spectacles even if this involves overworking people and making it harder to really achieve artistically.  Here’s a wild take: maybe the movie is an elaborate metaphor for police violence, the way it tends to affect specific geographic areas, and how you need photographic evidence before anyone believes it even exists?

That theory is probably a stretch and a half, but that’s kind of part in parcel with how all over the place this movie is.  Peele’s last movie Us arguably also had a strange plot that required you to do a lot of the work putting things together but at least with that movie the central theme of class warfare was loud and clear at least in the broad strokes.  On the other hand, maybe that’s a good thing, or at least a refreshing thing.  We’re currently in the middle of a particularly braindead summer movie season where jingoistic silliness like Top Gun: Maverick has somehow landed as the critical favorite, so maybe there’s something to be said for something like this which really challenges its audience to parse its themes and come up with unique interpretations.  On the other other hand, even if you set aside all matters of interpretation I think this movie as some basic storytelling flaws.  Plot points are introduced kind of haphazardly and by the end I still don’t know that I was quite as aware of the “rules” for engaging with this UFO as I was supposed to be, which made it a bit hard to follow the film’s climactic sequence.  I also don’t think that Daniel Kaluuya’s character is very engaging protagonist and his inarticulate habit made his motivations hard to tap into.  I would also say that this only barely qualifies as a horror movie; purely as a thriller it’s nowhere near as effective as Us or even Get Out and while there clearly are ideas below its surface its sense of satire is not as cutting as either of those films.  So, I have reservations about this but I certainly wasn’t bored with it and it clearly generated a lot of food for thought so I’d definitely recommend the film.
*** out of Five

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Top Gun: Maverick(5/29/2022)

The idea of a sequel to Top Gun getting made in 2022 is in many ways something that should evoke laughter.  It’s a cheesy relic of the 80s, one that seemingly clashes with ever modern sensibility on the book no less, being dug up and brushed off in order to satiate a Hollywood that’s intent on leaving no franchise unexploited and no vein of nostalgia untapped.  And yet, the whole film world including several relatively highbrow film critics instead seemed really excited for the film and ready to embrace it whole heartedly.  Why was that?  It certainly wasn’t because of its director Joseph Kosinski, a filmmaker who also arguably bungled one “lega-sequel” with his debut film Tron: Legacy, who would have had a hard time filling the shoes of the late Tony Scott in the minds of many even if he didn’t have such a shaky track-record.  Instead this optimism mostly had to do with the film’s star and producer Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, who in the eyes of many critics is having something of a renaissance as of late, and he hasn’t done it through taking on more challenging roles or expanding his range the way other “sanced” actors like Matthew McConaughey or Michael Keaton have.  Instead he seems to have doubled and tripled down on making action movies in which he plays characters that are variations on his usual star persona, but through some combination of getting publicity for doing his own stunts and making blockbusters that are targeted at slightly older audiences he really seems to have people eating it up.  And that goodwill has of course hit something of a peak with the belated 2022 release of his sequel 35 years in the making: Top Gun: Maverick.

As Top Gun: Maverick opens with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) still a captain in the Navy (no clue how he got around the military’s Up or Out system) and acting as a test pilot for some sort of futuristic stealth fighter.  Long story short he ends up ejecting from and blowing that prototype plane up while doing something dangerous and disobedient and as is typical of this franchise is rewarded for this insubordination with a new posting by having him return to the SFTI program at Naval Air Station Miramar, AKA “Top Gun.”  This time though it’s not just about routine training: he’s there to train a squadron to go on a real life borderline suicide mission in an unnamed rogue state (that’s probably Iran) involving a high speed flight through a canyon before dropping a guided bomb on a small target (yes, this is suspiciously similar to the trench run at the end of Star Wars).  Among the pilots in the running to go on this mission is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former co-pilot “Goose,” who died in the previous film.  Rooster resents Maverick for a variety of reasons but Maverick does think Rooster has potential as a pilot, as do the rest of the candidates, but the demands of this mission are extreme and it remains to be seen if it’s even possible.  Also Maverick starts a tangential romance with a bar owner named Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly).

I should probably say up front that I’m not a fan of the original Top Gun, a position I did not think was controversial among film critics until the hype for this movie seemed to retcon it in their eyes.  Until now that movie (which holds a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes) seemed to mostly be remembered as a jingoistic advertisement for the military that doubled as a hyper masculine power trip soaked in unintentional homoeroticism.  I re-watched the movie a little while ago and my opinion of it wasn’t really changed.  To give credit where its due, Tony Scott’s visual style was innovative in its way but to my eyes this influence was not a positive one and the act of making Hollywood films look like feature length Gillette commercials is not something to be celebrated.  As a story though I think it’s a dumb celebration of the stupidest kinds of bravado and that its protagonist is an absolute dick who is largely unredeemed of his worst instincts by the film’s end.  To be blunt “more of the same” is not what I would have wanted out of a sequel.

Is “more of the same” what I got out of Top Gun: Maverick?  Well, yes and no.  The movie that this most reminds me of in both good and bad ways is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, another “legacyquel” to a franchise that’s been dormant.  Like that movie this is pretty in touch with what series fans are looking for and is generally an audience pleasing ride but it’s also a shallow nostalgic pander-fest that practically serves as a plot point by plot point remake of the film it’s supposed to be a follow-up to.  Like the original it starts with Maverick doing something reckless which leads him to Miramar, where he conducts some training exercises while pursuing a plot-tangential romance with a local, feuds with a fellow pilot he distrusts, plays some beach sports, matures slightly after someone dies making things more real, before covering himself in glory in a real world dogfight where he and the pilot he’s feuding with come to respect each other.  Now to be fair, unlike The Force Awakens, there haven’t already been five sequels and various spinoffs of Top Gun, so this reheat does feel a tad more fresh than J.J. Abrams’ slightly less long awaited sequel does.  But on the other hand, the original Star Wars is a movie that’s really good and is ripe for further sequelization by its nature whereas Top Gun maybe isn’t.

This is not to say that there aren’t some legitimate improvements to be found in this sequel, which for the record I do consider an improvement over the first film.  Maverick is still sort of an insubordinate jackass here but he has mellowed and become more palatable with age.  The film has also of course benefited from improvements to technology and filming techniques which greatly expands on what they’re able to do with the aerial stunts and dogfight sequences.  But perhaps most importantly the fact that the film is structured around preparing for a mission does a lot for it and makes the film’s action finale feel more like something the film has been building towards rather than the random non-sequitur we got at the end of the first film.  That said, as impressive as the film’s final sequence is on some technical levels, it’s also completely ridiculous.  Even if you can set aside the fact that it’s depicting an open act of war against this unnamed country that’s probably Iran that would almost certainly spark a larger military conflict and that it’s just an entirely contrived situation that seems to have been reverse engineered in order to give these pilots a very specific set of challenges, the whole scene ends up having a second half that just dives head first into silliness in a way I find borderline indefensible.

Now, I’ve focused a lot on the negative here even though this is a movie I do basically consider to be fun watch that I essentially enjoyed, which is partly because I feel some obligation to push back on the outsized positivity that surrounds this fundamentally stupid movie.  If there is a message to be gained from the movie it’s by looking at it as a sort of allegory for Tom Cruise and his Hollywood career being as it’s about a guy who is supposed to have aged out of the position he’s in despite clearly still having the necessary skills to do his work effectively.  That’s certainly a little smarter than the first movie’s message, which basically amounted to “Tom Cruise looks cool and the military is a playground for him and his bros to play with expensive toys.”  But much as the movie is fundamentally uninterested in whether Maverick’s clear skills are being put towards a conflict that’s worth fighting I think Cruise and his fans should maybe focus a bit more on getting Cruise to put his own skills towards movies that are interesting beyond his own daredevil antics and by and large I don’t think Top Gun: Maverick is.

*** out of Five

Belle(1/13/2022)

In 2020, about five months into pandemic induced lockdown I decided to do a little crash course in the works of one of the most important filmmakers in anime, Mamoru Hosoda.  There wasn’t any particularly topic reason to look at Hosoda’s movies in August of 2020 and I actually don’t remember why I decided to look at those movies in particular but it was a good choice because Hosoda’s work proved to be rewarding.  If you set aside Hayao Miyazaki (who’s always going into and coming out of retirement) and the title of most important voice in cinematic anime is probably a contest between Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai, who both emerged in the 2000s as makers of sentimental feature films with supernatural elements aimed towards vaguely teenage audiences.  Shinkai’s movies, like Your Name and Weathering With You have reached greater heights at the box office but Hosoda and his animators at Studio Chizu have had more of a consistent track record and even scored an Academy Award nomination for their last film Mirai.  Hosoda’s latest film, Belle, also seems to have an outside shot at scoring a place in the Best Animated Feature category in that annual slot where Gkids distributed foreign films tend to compete, though this one may be a slightly tougher sell with Academy voters than it will be with young otaku.

Belle is set in a not too distant future that’s basically just like today except there’s a new version of the internet called “U” which is like a virtual reality program where people move around as anonymous avatars… so, kind of like the “metaverse.”  The “U” is abuzz over a new user named Bell, a beautiful singer with a piercing voice who draws hundreds of thousands of followers pretty much from the day she shows up.  What these people don’t know is that “Bell” is actually Suzu Naito (Kaho Nakamura), an anonymous teenager living in rural Japan who otherwise suffers from normal awkward teenager problems.  Suzu is especially awkward because she had a difficult childhood after her mother passed away trying to save a drowning girl leaving Suzu with her distant father.  Suzu isn’t quite sure what to make of her anonymous fame but things get a lot weirder when her onscreen avatar crosses paths with a much less beloved avatar named Dragon (Takeru Satoh), who everyone is angry at because he fights dirty in combat programs and then disrupts one of Belle’s concerts, drawing the ire of an online vigilante group led by someone named Justin (Toshiyuki Morikawa).  Soon Suzu/Belle becomes interested in this rather beastly individual and wonders if maybe he’s just misunderstood and starts a search to see who he really is.

This is not the first time that Mamoru Hosoda has envisioned a virtual reality version of the internet, a nearly identical device was at the center of his very well liked 2009 film Summer Wars though the concept here is a bit more expansive and trippy.  Like, the Belle avatar frequently performs by standing on top of a whale that’s floating around in cyberspace and everyone else in the movie has a weird abstract avatar form as well.  A lot of this does resonate as an elaborate metaphor for existing online behavior: Belle is basically someone who “goes viral” and doesn’t know what to do with her newfound fame, Justin is someone who uses some veneer of justice to engage in cyber bullying and doxing, and later we look at a scenario where the internet can be used to reach out to someone in need of support.  However, the internet parallels can at times be muddled as well.  For instance it’s rather unclear what exactly this beast character did to get people mad and what its real internet equivalent is. Is he a troll?  A video game cheat? Someone cringe?  It feels a bit vague.  I would also add that this theme of internet anonymity feels a touch dated.  There was a time when most online participants might have been a bit more mysterious but today most “influencers” are at least nominally using their real names and faces even if the personality they present is constructed.

The “Beauty and the Beast” metaphor here is also pretty muddled.  The movie certainly isn’t subtle about this fairy tale illusion what with Belle’s name and the fact that she finds the beast in a mysterious castle and needs to defend him against a Gaston figure.  The movie even goes so far as to directly allude to the Disney version of this tale with a scene where Belle dances with the beast in a big animated ballroom.  But there are some pretty stark differences as well, namely that *spoilers* beauty and beast in this one do not end up as lovers and the beast isn’t any kind of prince either.  Instead the film leads up to a rather strange ending involving a rescue that doesn’t make a lot of sense outside of symbolism of intention.  The whole movie operates on a very heightened and kind of teenager logic of big emotions, it does occasionally sort of call this tendency out a little but it ultimately does go for that big Makoto Shinkai style catharsis at the end.  Honestly I think Shinkai is better at that sort of thing and Hosoda already did the whole VR internet thing better with Summer Wars, so this is definitely a flawed work from him that gets lost in the multiple simultaneous metaphors.  However, I do worry that I’ve kind of buried the lead a bit here which is that the film does sport some pretty top rate widescreen anime visuals which go a pretty long way toward smoothing over some of the film’s narrative shortcomings and the film’s characters are pretty fun and likable well so it’s hard to be too angry at the movie.

*** out of Five

Spider-Man: No Way Home(12/27/2021)

I’ve had my ups and my downs with the Marvel Cinematic Universe but without exception I’ve seen every one of their movies in the theaters and while I haven’t seen all of them opening night I almost always went to see them within the first couple of days of release.  There have been a couple of exceptions, but generally speaking I’m pretty stoked to see them, especially in the last couple of years.  That has been somewhat tested this year, though not really by my choosing.  It took me six days of waiting in order to see Shang-Chi and Eternals, which probably doesn’t seem very long to normal people but for someone trying to remain in “the discourse” that’s quite the pain.  And the reason for these delays is, of course, COVID.  With the virus floating around it just seemed irresponsible to go to these movies while the crowds are too big to maintain reasonable social distancing.  Fortunately the crowds for those movies did thin out enough to slip into weekday afternoon screenings shortly after release and not have to deal with crowds that were too out of control.  That was not the case with Spider-Man: No Way Home.  The movie released right at the onset of the Omicron Varient, when you’d think people were at their most afraid to go to the movies than ever, but instead the audiences who shunned cinema-going all year suddenly decided that this was the time to absolutely pack in the theaters and every damn screening of the thing was basically sold out for the better part of ten days.  I finally got into a screening that was only about half full after its second weekend, which still doesn’t seem like the most responsible thing I’ve ever done, but it did allow me to finally stop running in fear from spoilers on the internet so I guess that’s a relief.

The film picks up right where Spider-Man: Far From Home left off: with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) having his identity as Spider-Man revealed to the world by J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons).  Parker is able to dodge legal liability from the deceased Mysterio’s attempts to frame him but public opinion is divided about him and this scrutiny extends to his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon).  When this notoriety affects all three of their ability to get into MIT as they had planned Parker decides to take something of a desperate action.  He visits Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks if there is some sort of sorcery that can be used to somehow solve his problem and Strange agrees but in the process of casting the spell something goes wrong and Strange needs to contain it rather than let it go through and asks Parker to leave.  On his way out he gets a hot tip that an MIT representative is on the highway heading to the airport and he swings out to the highway overpass in order to try to convince her to let MJ and Ned in but then something bizarre happens: the highway is attacked by Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina)… the one we all saw in the 2004 film Spider-Man 2.  Soon it becomes apparent that Dr. Strange’s spell did have some odd side effects because it soon becomes apparent that the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and other villains from alternate Spider-Man universes have shown up in this continuity and Spider-Man will need to hustle to stop them all and send them back where they belong.

So, obviously the big novelty of this movie is that it’s using the concept of the “multi-verse” to make this a crossover with Sony’s pre-MCU Spider-Man movies, thus officially making them canon in a way.  As pure fan service that’s really cool but there are some downsides.  First and foremost three of the five movies they’re drawing characters from kind of suck.  Spider-Man 3 was plainly kind of a disaster and I didn’t like either of Andrew Gafield’s Spider-Man movies even a little.  Jamie Foxx’s Electro is a bad character, I barely even remembered what The Lizard’s deal was, and while The Sandman looked cool he does not have an arc I’m remotely attached to.  Truth be told I was never much of a fan of the Willem Dafoe Green Goblin either; I dug his performance but I always thought his costume kind of sucked, so really Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus is the only villain here that I’m unreservedly happy to have back.  The film does try to undo some of the mistakes of the past in realizing some of these characters (like getting rid of Electro’s stupid blue makeup) there’s only so much they can really do to try to make some of these characters work and that’s a problem and the way the film almost seems to pause for applause whenever some of these characters show up is kind of cringe.

I would also note that I find the magical conceits used to make these crossovers happen did not make a ton of sense to me.  Dr. Strange generally behaves in what strikes me as a fairly out of character way to be trying to do this memory erasure spell in the first place and the fact that the spell goes awry through a sort of silly comedy is a bit weak to rest a film on.  I also found Strange’s rather vague description that the spell is, and I paraphrase, “drawing people who know Peter Parker is Spider-Man into this universe” seems a bit odd given that this phenomenon is pretty selective about who it draws in: where is the Kirsten Dunst Mary Jane or the Emma Stone Gwen Stacy or the James Franco Harry Osborne or any number of other non-super villains who know Spider-Man’s identity?  There are various financial (or in the case of Franco moral) reasons these actors aren’t here and there likely wouldn’t have been a place in the movie for them anyway, but a clearer explanation for who is crossing into the universe and why would have been appreciated (and don’t get me started on how little sense the post-credits cameo makes).  Without getting too deep into spoilers I also don’t really get how the ultimate resolution to this predicament works either and how it doesn’t undo most of what Spider-Man was trying to accomplish through much of the rest of the movie.

Having said that, the Tom Holland Spider-Man universe has a pretty strong foundation to work from and it remains a pretty strong here.  The supporting cast we’ve come to enjoy (Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, etc.) has not really missed a beat and Jon Watts continues to impress behind the camera.  I have no idea if this guy can direct outside the MCU, and frankly I have a hunch that like the Russo Brothers his skills may well not translate to anything grittier, but he plainly understands the right tone for Spider-Man and knows his audience.  After a year of kind of weak MCU movies I think this did come closer to recapturing that magic audiences have come to expect from these movies and I appreciate that too, but after watching it I did feel I was a touch unsatisfied.  The film’s status as the movie that’s “saving theaters” by becoming a record-setting hit may have imbued it with an Avengers like air of importance for this franchise that it was maybe never meant to have and an event status it can’t quite live up to.  Slight resentment that I needed to compromise my health to see the damn thing may also have biased me against it just a bit.  That said I don’t think this is all a matter of context there are script issues that left me unsure about this thing and the fan service nature of its most prominent elements is ultimately kind of hollow.  I fear I’ve been more negative about this movie than I intended to be, though I also fear I’m giving it a bit of a pass on certain things out of fanboyism, it’s kind of a movie that feels a bit mood dependent in how much you’re inclined to forgive it for holes and circumstance did not have me in the most forgiving mood when I watched it.

*** out of Five

House of Gucci(12/1/2021)

You watch enough movies and you start to learn about certain topics that you otherwise would not be terribly interested in.  For instance I, a man whose wardrobe almost entirely consists of overshirts bought at JC Penny and copywrite defying pop culture T-shirts bought on the internet, and come to know way more about “haute couture” and the industry that produces it than I ever wanted to know because the world keeps making movies about fashion.  For example, by keeping up with the latest documentaries I found myself watching things like Valentino: The Last Emperor and the Alexander McQueen documentary McQueen; not things I would normally seek out, but people were talking about those movies so I gave them a watch.  I also know way more about Gianni Versace because his assassination was the subject of the second season of American Crime Story and learned the name “Halston” because Ewan McGregor starred in a Netflix mini-series about that apparently famous designer.  More in the abstract I know more than I wanted to know about the London fasion world of the 50s because Paul Thomas Anderson thought to set his 2017 film Phantom Thread in that milieu and I learned that Paris had a “fashion week” because Robert Altman decided to make Prêt-à-Porter.  I also likely never would have heard the name “Tom Ford” had he not adopted filmmaking as a side project and made the films A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals recently… or at least I wouldn’t have heard of him until very recently as he becomes a small character late in the most recent fashion related film I found myself seeing: Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci.

House of Gucci begins in the 1970s with the titular “house” having been formed fifty years earlier and already existing as an empire, albeit perhaps an empire in decline.  The company’s founder died in the 1950s and it is now run by his two sons: Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino) and Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons).  But our focus is on the emerging third generations of Gucci’s and particularly on Rodolfo’s only son Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver).  Maurizio seems like a typically aimless “rich kid” at the start but his life starts to come more into focus when he meets Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), whose family runs a successful but ultimately blue collar trucking company.  Rodolfo does not approve of the pairing and disowns Maurizio when he refuses to leave her.  This leads him to his uncle Aldo, who wants to keep Maurizio in the family and views him as being more competent than his own son, the rather foolish Paolo Gucci (Jared Leto), much to Paolo’s annoyance.  Eventually Maurizio finds himself firmly an heir-apparent to the family business but his wife views his work as far from done.  She sees Aldo running the business into the ground by diluting the brand’s mystique and together they come up with a scheme to take the reins from him, but it won’t be pretty and if you know anything about Maurizio’s fate you know that all of this leads to some dark ends.

House of Gucci is in many ways kind of a movie at war with itself, by which I mean that a lot of the people involved with it seem to have been going for different things.   Let’s start with what the film’s screenwriters, Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, seemed to be doing.  These two seem to take the movie very seriously and viewed it as something along the lines of The Social Network: a movie about ambition and betrayal within the cutthroat world behind the scenes of an iconic brand.  On top of that the screenplay has kind of a Lady MacBeth dynamic going on between Maurizio and Patrizia as she prods him towards the head of the “house” and there’s also something of a true crime story in the middle of it all.  Meanwhile, I think what attracted Ridley Scott to the project as an opportunity to look at the lives of extreme wealth and act as something of a companion piece to his film All the Money in the World.  Scott (net worth: $400 million) increasingly seems to be interested in what money does to people and their families and I think he would have been interested in how this basically depicts a family losing an empire through affluenzic dysfunction.  Both of these visions are more or less compatible with each other and notably involve a pretty serious look at this story and a focus on the House of Gucci as more or less interchangeable with any other high end business whose status as a fashion house is basically incidental.

The people who did not get the memo about all this are the actors, who clearly think they were cast in a Ryan Murphy show about outlandish tabloid figures.  As you can tell from the summery this is a cast made up of American and British actors all playing various Italians and rather than take the “just use you normal accent” approach Ridley Scott favored in The Last Duel the film is largely in accented English that ranges from “nice try” to the downright ridiculous.  Adam Driver is probably the one who’s trying to give the most “normal” performance here though I’m not sure his accent is any more consistent or accurate than the others.  Al Pacino is a little closer to his normal shouty screen persona than some of the people here and is mostly notable in his willingness to seem like a somewhat grotesque old man in the movie.  Lady Gaga is probably the one who’s going over the top in a good way one that’s almost necessary given that Patrizia Reggiani seems to be a pretty legitimately nutty person.  Then there’s Jared Leto who is nearly unrecognizable under pounds of makeup which make him look like a sort of Mafioso Ron Jeremy and talks in an accent that makes him sound like a long lost Mario brother.  He’s… doing a lot.

I have my doubts that Ridley Scott, a no nonsense filmmaker whose five years older than Joe Biden, was intentionally trying to turn the film into a piece of camp but, he was the one directing all these crazy performances and he can’t have been completely oblivious to what these people were doing.  I guess on some level that’s because he knows that audiences aren’t going to be interested in the same thing from this story as he does so he let things get a little crazy along the way.  But you know what?  I think the movie still works.  At a certain point Stockholm syndrome takes over and you just get used to the crazy accents and they stop bothering you, then you just let yourself get caught up in this wacky true crime story about outlandish people stabbing each other in the back.  The seemingly contradictory tones of the various parties involved seem to kind of balance each other out into a certain alchemical equilibrium and Ridley Scott proves to just be talented enough to hold everything together.  Make no mistake this movie is still kind of a mess with a host of melodramatic bits that are probably regrettable but I’ll be damned if I didn’t come away from it having had a pretty good time.

*** out of Five

Belfast(10/30/2021)

I must say, if you had asked me fifteen years ago what direction the career of Kenneth Branagh would be going in during the 2010s I don’t think I could have given you a very accurate prediction.  One could say that he fits the mold of the “actor turned director” but he didn’t really become any kind of household name until he started directing projects and casting himself.  For much of his early career he was primarily known as “the Shakespeare guy” for his various adaptation of The Bard’s plays, particularly his Henry V and Hamlet, but that’s never really been the full extent of his work.  He directed several original screenplays early in his career and even when he was at the height of his Shakespeare phase he was also adapting other literary works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  He hasn’t actually made a direct Shakespeare adaptation since 2006’s As You Like It but his directorial career has nonetheless continued to be defined by adaptations like his version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or his dip into Disney remakes with 2015’s Cinderella.  Those were both highly commercial films actually and this guy, who you would think would have nothing but trouble in this era of franchise filmmaking, has been very willing to “play the game” and has kind of inexplicably thrived in the 2010s.  This probably isn’t too shocking in retrospect as he has in his own way always been working with “IP” and despite being associated with highbrow source material Branagh has always been a populist at heart with a focus on outreach to the masses.  This instinct really went into overdrive when he made the early MCU film Thor and it hasn’t always been the most dignified route to take as he’s attached himself to some rather regrettable projects like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Artemis Fowl but when it comes to simply getting work he’s bigger now than he’s ever been and his most recent project, Belfast has quite a bit of Oscar buzz.

This is actually the first film in over 25 years to not be an adaptation of any kind of IP and appears to actually be a recounting of his own childhood growing up in the titular city of Belfast in the middle of “The Troubles.”  Branagh’s surrogate is a nine year old kid named Buddy (Jude Hill) who lives in a Protestant family on a street that a number of Catholics live, making it a bit of a hotbed for sectarian violence.  Buddy’s role in all of this is set up from the beginning when we get a shot (one that’s suspiciously similar to a scene in City of God) in which he finds himself caught standing between dueling gangs on Catholics and Protestants about to go at each other: the innocent caught between.  His father (Jamie Dornan) does not really take either side in this conflict and just wants the violence over.  He’s also very much in debt and can’t find work because of all the violence so he frequently travels to England to find employment.  Soon he begins suggesting to his wife (Caitríona Balfe) that the family move there or even to Australia or Canada in order to escape the madness but she loves her city and doesn’t want to separate her children from their grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds), but with the conflict growing ever closer and with the finances getting tighter and tighter they may soon have no choice.

The child at the center of Belfast is named “Buddy” instead of “Kenny” but outside of that Branagh has done pretty much nothing to hide the fact that this movie is extremely autobiographical.  The basic facts of Buddy’s life conform exactly to Branagh’s own circumstances in 1969 and the film does add some key scenes to establish Buddy’s burgeoning interest in film and the theater, but beyond that the film isn’t really about him, he’s more of a point of view character looking at his family and his surroundings from a certain perspective of innocence.  This sort of “child’s eye view” of conflict is a fairly common trick used by filmmakers a lot in everything from Hope and Glory to Au Revoir Les Enfants and can at times be used to very good effect like in Grave of the Fireflies but all too often it kind of seems like an excuse to kind of ignore adult complexities about a given situation or period of history in favor of a sort of easy coming of age narrative through hard times and I would say that Belfast more often than not falls into that second category.

To put it frankly, I don’t think Buddy or by extension young Branagh had a terribly nuanced or complex understanding of the conflict he was in and that does not make him a terribly useful narrator of this story.  On some level this is the point, to show how child resilience can normalize highly abnormal surroundings and continue to be a kid even when Molotov Cocktails are being thrown around them but in many ways this observation strikes me as being rather banal at this point.  It certainly doesn’t help that Branagh paints this whole picture with a heavy sheen of nostalgia and gives the film a heavy focus on the importance of family and community bonding in the face of adversity and looks at his own family with some extremely rose colored glasses.  Aside from some financial problems and associated stresses neither of his parents are shown to really be flawed in the slightest and every member of his family, to a person, does not express any sort of sympathy for either side of “The Troubles” and shows nothing but disgust for the whole conflict in general.  It is entirely possible that the Branagh family really was this sterling paragon of tolerance and understanding, but I would argue that this makes them not terribly representative of the citizens of Belfast in this era or human nature in general and it might have been more interesting if Branagh had ventured a bit further outside his own experience and looked at people with a little more of a nuanced view of the situation.

This isn’t to say there isn’t plenty to like about Belfast because there certainly is.  The film was shot in a nice crisp black and white, which was probably a good move.  There are brief sections in color, namely some clips from the technicolor films that Buddy attends as well as some bookending footage of the modern city of Belfast which frankly appear to have been added on the behest of the North Irish tourism industry.  The film also sports some pretty solid performances from the whole cast.  The main kid Jude Hill is pretty good for what the film needs from him and isn’t too annoying despite the film basically making him a paragon of innocence. Jamie Dornan is also pretty good as the father and Caitríona Balfe probably gives the film’s rangiest most “Oscar clip” laden performance, but in a good way.  I was also surprised to see Judi Dench here as the family’s grandmother, she feels different here than in other movies and works pretty well.  The film’s handful of scenes of violence are mostly well staged, though there is a sort of standoff towards the end that rang pretty false to me.  Branagh also chose to give the film a period soundtrack consisting mostly of the early music of Van Morrison, a choice that is perhaps a bit queezy given that singer’s recent foray into COVID conspiracy theories, but I’ve always liked the guy’s music and he is kind of a natural choice to be soundtracking a coming of age movie about North Ireland given both the wistfulness of his songs and the fact that he was one of the few superstars of the era from there.  Also kudos for having the self-restraint not to use “Brown Eyed Girl.”

To clarify where I’m coming from, Belfast was the winner of the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is an award that tends to align with a certain kind of uplifting middlebrow prestige.  With only one exception every movie to have won the award since 2008 has been some kind of Oscar contender and previous winners include the likes of Jojo Rabbit, Green Book, and The King’s Speech… better movies than those win sometimes but in general they tend to be the kind of movies that your mother will love but “film twitter” generally won’t.  I bring this up to say that movies that win these awards often come with some pretty big expectations and the question about them very quickly stops being “is the movie good at all” and instead becomes “does this movie deserve to be among the year’s best,” which can be a little unfair but, heavy lies the crown and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to begin looking at movies like this in terms of legacy given that they are plainly seeking awards attention.  Belfast is in my mind better than all three of the movies I listed above but I’d also say it fits pretty well in that group more generally.   Make no mistake I get why the movie has appeal and would impress a festival audience, it’s the kind of thing you can take the family to over Thanksgiving weekend and get more culture out of than whatever the latest Illumination movie is and it will be a very easy movie to recommend to casual movie goers.  But personally, a “nicecore” movie about a pleasant family whose only failing is loving each other and their city too much is not what I’m looking for out of movies about sectarian violence or out of prestige cinema.

*** out of Five