Movie Review ~ House of Gucci

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Patrizia Reggiani, an outsider from humble beginnings, marries into the Gucci family, her unbridled ambition begins to unravel their legacy and triggers a reckless spiral of betrayal, decadence, revenge, and ultimately…murder.

Stars: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, Salma Hayek, Camille Cottin, Jack Huston, Reeve Carney

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 158 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If you had asked me (or many Hollywood odds-makers) a few months ago about Ridley Scott’s chances in 2021 for finally snagging that elusive Best Director Oscar he’s been chasing for years, I would have likely told you that with two high profile films releasing within the last quarter of the year he was sure to get in for at least one.  Well, despite October’s The Last Duel being quite impressive and receiving fairly good reviews from critics, the studio made a critical blunder by opening it the same weekend the repulsive Halloween Kills came out and it tanked…big time.  Now Scott is back with House of Gucci, his second time at bat this year and it’s an even bigger project (the Knights of the Middle Ages never stood a chance against Scheming Italian Fashion Designers) so the stakes are higher. 

What we have here is a limited series for TV/streaming that happens to be a nearly three-hour movie.  So, somewhere along the line a serious error was made and the script by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna based off of the book by Sara Gay Forden was sent to MGM’s film division instead of its television extension.  That’s the only reason I can think of for why Scott’s film has such a sprawling enormity that it eventually creates a black hole where the final act should be.  I have nothing against a movie with a butt numbing running time and have been known to turn up my nose at those who want every movie to be 90 minutes.  The thing is this, some movies have to carry a longer running length for a variety of reasons.  What they also need to have is, well, an ending and that’s what House of Gucci sorely lacks.  An ending.

Let’s back up almost three hours to the beginning of the film, when the future looked a little brighter for Scott and company.  Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver, Annette) is out for his morning routine when he encounters a man that will change the destiny of his family and the Gucci clothing line forever.  We’ll have to wait decades (in movie time) to find out precisely what that is because we flashback to an earlier period when Maurizio wasn’t involved with his family business but instead preferred to go through life without having his legacy define him.  The moniker definitely was attractive to Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga, A Star is Born), a 22-year-old who met him at a party and cleverly positioned herself in his life so in the end he couldn’t say no to a relationship, and eventual marriage, to her.  Despite the protestations of his father (Jeremy Irons, Assassin’s Creed) who believed his son’s fiancé to be a gold-digger, Maurizio was so taken with the woman that he willingly gave up his father’s favor for her.

It was years later, and on Patrizia’s behest, that Maurizio’s uncle Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino, The Irishman) convinced his nephew to come back into the fold and take his rightful place in the line of Gucci royalty.  Once Maurizio was in, so was Patrizia…and that’s when the couple began cleaning house.  Targeting relatives they had once used as pawns, like black sheep Paolo (Jared Leto, The Little Things), Patrizia and Maurizio began to recreate Gucci as the luxury brand it would eventually become…but not under their regime.  Overzealous with their power and spending, the couple would go through rocky times, eventually leading Patrizia down a deadly path. 

The question most will be interested in will be how Lady Gaga’s sophomore effort in a feature film fares compared to her Oscar-nominated turn in A Star is Born.  There was a stretch of time where many thought the singer would win the award for her truly star-making performance but it’s this follow-up which is the real test.  The result? A solid B.  She attacks the role full on and you can tell she takes her job seriously, but the intensity of the acting is all over the map from scene to scene.  Part of the blame could fall on Scott for not reeling her in a bit more and helping her understand emotional arc, but by the end she’s almost deliriously wild-eyed to the point of hilarity.  It doesn’t help the scene in question (it’s with Salma Hayek where both are trying to be incognito) is laughably bad in general but her acting here only makes it stand out that much more.

Others in the cast sort of exist in her wake, with only Leto and Pacino surfacing occasionally to tell us they are also in the movie.  For as much churn as Leto seems to stir up any time he’s in a movie, he’s an immersive actor like few are.  Unrecognizable in heavy prosthetics and a fat suit, he doesn’t let the make-up do the acting for him…this is all Leto and it’s without question the best thing in the movie.  Pacino exists in an area between Leto and Gaga, sometimes he’s on the money, other times he’s overblown.  Either version of him worked for me.  Driver is surprisingly beige in the role, failing to bring much life to the part.  Maybe he was just adrift in the sea of Gaga and didn’t have much of a life raft?  Bless her heart but Hayek (Eternals) is playing such a terrible role, terribly written and terribly filmed, and the actress does her best to make something of it.  Alas, blood from a stone.  Blood from a stone.

Scott’s film painstakingly recreates the period in which all of these infamous events take place, down to the décor and couture that were de rigueur.  The fierce attention to detail is a dream to watch and from a production standpoint House of Gucci is a huge success on a scale of moviemaking with a capital “M”.  You would expect nothing less of Scott who is a master at this type of product.  Unfortunately, all the intricate features in the world can’t save some silly side characters and acting that grows increasingly campier (including the accents) as the film progresses.  Then there’s the jittery ending which barely exists, made more disappointing because it’s handled so poorly, and you have a movie that begins by making quite the impression but leaves a bad taste in your mouth by the end. 

Movie Review ~ The Last Duel

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1386, Marguerite de Carrouges claims to have been raped by her husband’s best friend and squire Jacques Le Gris. Her husband, knight Jean de Carrouges, challenges him to trial by combat, the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history.

Stars: Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck, Marton Csokas, Harriet Walter, Clare Dunne, Zeljko Ivanek, Nathaniel Parker, Michael McElhatton, Alex Lawther

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 152 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  With the big summer effects bonanzas being on hold for an entire year and the prestigious costume dramas pushed out for better positioning at award chances to later in 2021 or even 2022, audiences have been lacking in the area of the grand epic for going on two years.  Sure, we’ve had the occasional Marvel film here and there to satiate some sense of wonder but I’m talking about those films that make you feel like you’re back in Hollywood’s heyday when everything was made on a studio lot and extras numbered in the thousands.  As recently as a decade ago we were still getting these movies, but they’ve taken a backseat to films that are easier to produce with limited involvement from humans that are added in post-production.  The sets aren’t real, and the overall ambiance feels phony…making the stakes not feel quite as high for historical epics involving swords, sandals, arrows, chainmail, etc.

One director out there hasn’t shied away from continuing on the legacy of the epic and that’s Ridley Scott, a filmmaker often taken a bit for granted in the business for his tendency to lean into fare of the sheer entertainment variety.  Though primarily an action director, he was also behind Thelma & Louise, Matchstick Men, and A Good Year so he is known to stretch when the mood suits him.  That lighter touch helps a bit in Scott’s newest film, The Last Duel, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 non-fiction novel “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat” which details the final legally recognized duel that was fought in France.  One man is accused by another of the most heinous act of violation against his wife, a charge that leads them to the highest court in the country where they leave it in God’s hands to decide who is telling the truth.  If the defendant dies during the duel, it will prove the woman was telling the truth.  If the accused comes out of the duel alive and kills his accuser, well then, he is telling the truth and the man’s wife will be burned alive for her lie.  Not the soundest execution of justice and back in 2019 when the film was first announced, not the most promising of a plot description for a town just settling into the first wave of post #MeToo productions.

Adapted by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (yes, they did win an Oscar for Good Will Hunting), the two were wise to ask Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to join them in their journey in bringing Jager’s novel to the screen.  This not only brought some needed balance to the screenplay and gave a stronger voice overall to the script but allowed for the central female character to not be written from just one point of view.  The result is a surprisingly swift feature broken into three chapters that tell the same story, just from the perspectives of different characters.  Employing a Rashomon-style technique in storytelling isn’t anything revelatory but in the hands of pros like Scott and his cast, the small similarities and even smaller subtle differences unique to each version of events keeps this one in a gripping space where the edge of your seat moments extend far beyond what happens during the titular duel.

Audiences are wise to buckle up and pay attention for the first thirty minutes which sets the stage for the friendship and eventual rivalry between knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon, The Martian) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Annette).  Though Carrouges has the more noble name and throws himself into harm’s way for the honor of his king, he’s unliked by most that know and fight alongside him because of his selfishness and constant need for recognition.  That’s the opposite of Le Gris who, at least at first, is content to just be welcomed in by people in a higher status and be a trusted confidant.  Over time, this skill with ingratiating himself to nobility pushes Le Gris ahead of Carrouges, a sleight that causes a rift in the friendship that cannot be mended.

While the men are sorting out their business, widower Carrouges meets and marries his second wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) and moves her in with his cruel mother (wickedly nasty Harriet Walter, Herself) who picks away at her while he is away in battle.  Unable to conceive a child during their years together, the two are at odds when he takes a trip to the city the same day his mother decides to leave Marguerite alone for the day.  Of course this is the same day Le Gris, who has been obsessed with Marguerite ever since meeting her when Carrouges decided to bury the hatchet, pays a visit. 

Some version of these events plays out three times until this point and it mostly is the same story with tiny tweaks to attitudes depending on who is telling the tale.  In Carrouges version, Marguerite is much more docile, to hear Le Gris tell it, Marguerite was flirting with him and encouraged his visit, but in Marguerite’s retelling, or ‘The Truth’ as the words linger longer on the screen insinuate, neither man read the signs correctly. Watching different iterations also means audiences have to witness a brutal rape twice so here’s your warning this unpleasant encounter is on display and though absent of nudity or gore, is more gruesome than anything that plays out later in the vicious battle royale between Carrouges and Le Gris.  Can a scene like this be shot with any kind of sensitivity?  I doubt it, but Comer bravely gives it her all and Scott allows her room to breathe.

Speaking of Comer, with the amount of male energy flying around and the dueling taking up such a major piece of the action, it’s saying something the actress is far and away the winner of the evening when the credits roll.  Making a splash on television even before her award-winning run in the acclaimed spy series Killing Eve, Comer graduates to the A-list with a star making (and surely Oscar nominated) turn as a woman unwilling to back down or be intimidated from anyone or anything, even a horrific threat of death.  Already victimized once, she refuses to go through it again via her husband or even the highest court in the land…and believe me, the court sure tries. 

Backing Comer up in the acting department are Damon and Driver who dial back their oft-tendency to grandstand with Driver in particular making a strong case for himself as capable of even more than his most loyal fans have thought.  True, he’s playing a pretty despicable guy but for a while he’s almost endearing and definitely more tolerable than Damon’s character.  I mean, the hair alone on Carrouges is enough to drive you crazy.  In past films, Damon tends to gnaw at the scenery when he gets worked up but anytime Affleck (Live by Night) is onscreen in The Last Duel there’s nothing left to consume because he’s swallowed up the entire caravan of costumes by Janty Yates (Prometheus) and the sumptuous set decorations courtesy of Judy Farr (Rocketman).  Of all the people that were bound to overact, I wasn’t expecting it to be Affleck but with his blond hair and a blond goatee that looks like a tennis ball was just cut in half and stuck on his pointy chin, it’s a performance that treks into high camp.  And he doesn’t even go all the way with it.  There are several scenes where his lothario character is meant to be scampering around chasing after women and they’re all naked and he’s fully clothed – we all know this character would be naked as a jaybird without a care in the world.  It’s a small detail but became a major one in my mind considering what the movie puts the Comer character through.

I initially thought I’d find long jags of the film slow but with Scott at the helm it moves like a locomotive, peppered here and there with his trademark flair for a well-staged battle scene.  With the R-rating firmly in place he’s able to make these incredibly violent and in your face, leading up to and including the final duel between the two men.  It all makes for an experience that has a solid impact with parallels to victim-blaming that resonate even today.  The Last Duel might be about the final official battle over honor in France, but it leaves audiences with the recognition that the war was just beginning.

Movie Review ~ Annette

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Henry, a stand-up comedian with a fierce sense of humor and Ann, a singer of international renown. In the spotlight, they are the perfect couple, healthy, happy, and glamourous. The birth of their first child, Annette, a mysterious girl with an exceptional destiny, will change their lives.

Stars: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Rila Fukushima, Devyn McDowell, Angèle, Rebecca Dyson-Smith, Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Natalie Mendoza

Director: Leos Carax

Rated: R

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Well now here’s a film for all of you out there that have been wondering where all the art-house oddities went over the past year.  I’m as big a fan as the rest of you indie darlings of the avant-garde go-for-broke attitudes of daring directors and usually am up for the challenge of an askew film that tests narrative boundaries so there’s very little reason why a movie like Annette wouldn’t have been appealing to me.  To top it all off, it’s a musical for heaven’s sake. And not the kind of musical you think of when you hear ‘musical’ but more of a modern take on a rock opera that’s clearly been well conceived and is undeniably executed to the max and then some.

So why the low score for Annette, the English language debut of notoriously wild and crazy French director Leos Carax, a filmmaker that I have heard so much about but had managed to never encounter until now?  Why the overall thumbs down to the movie with a score by Sparks (the cult band comprised of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who also wrote the script and are fresh off of a Edgar Wright-directed documentary of their own) who contribute a dizzying array of eclectic tones and tunes for over 90% of the nearly two and a half hour run time?  Well, sometimes you just have to know when to say when with a concept/idea and Annette never knows when to stop, nor does it seem to understand its created a central character so remote they almost manage to escape from the film entirely by the end.

Bad boy comedian Henry (Adam Driver, Marriage Story) and rising star opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard, Assassin’s Creed) are the fresh-faced power couple that sell magazines and net viewers when featured on television gossip shows but at the start of the film the din of the outside world barely makes a rumble in their hemisphere of passion.  Her serenity calms his darker nature while he stokes her romantic desire, making her a better performer.  As her star rises, his eventually declines but not before Ann gives birth to their daughter, Annette.  Born, as we’ll come to learn, with a special gift that manifests itself later in her life, the child will be their greatest success as a couple as well as their ultimate downfall.

There is of course more to the plot…but not much and I’m only leaving out pieces that will spoil the events occurring in the second half (second act?) of the mostly sung through film.  A point of clarity, when I say sung-through I mean that the actors and background players use music to enhance their dialogue.  So, it’s not all songs, per se, but that talk-sing with music underneath that gives the movie a definite gas pedal it can lean on or ease off at will.  This has the effect of some rather chilling moments that Sparks creates with their music and which Carax uses to sometimes thrilling effect when it seemingly jumps in out of nowhere.  From the very beginning of the movie which has the actors as themselves gathering together before going their separate ways, apparently to “start” the music from Sparks sets the mood and it’s the strongest element to be found within Annette.

Yet the music alone can’t save a tired retread of a plot concerning the ego-maniacal male overshadowed (through no fault of her own) by a woman that winds up paying for this perceived sleight against his pride.  Casting Driver in this part (and Driver taking it) seems like too easy of a slam-dunk and the film suffers from Driver’s heavyweight approach to an already lumbering character.  It’s no secret that I struggle with seeing the overarching appeal of Driver but even I can see a fine actor from ten paces and Driver has what it takes to create interesting characters – but not this time. The character has so many coarse turns that he’s a hot potato you can’t get anywhere near, nor by the end do you want to. Cotillard fares slightly better, only in a role that isn’t as challenging and frustratingly simplistic in its creation by the writers.  The only other actor to play a major role is Simon Helberg (Florence Foster Jenkins) as Ann’s accompanist and former lover and Helberg at least feels like he understood the assignment. 

Then we get to Annette herself.  There’s no easy way to say this and it’s not that huge of a spoiler so we’ll just get it out there.  Carax has cast Annette as…a doll.  A red-haired doll that looks like a felt marionette with the strings digitally removed.  I’m not saying Annette looks like Chucky from the Child’s Play movies but…she definitely looks like a distant relative.  The doll is just flat out creepy and it’s not something you can easily get over and look past, especially when Driver and Cotillard are cooing over it as if it were the real thing.  The idea of the doll begins to make sense the more the film plays and especially as it reaches its ending scene which is actually, finally, incredibly satisfying. The struggle to get there…it’s rough.

This is one of those films that the studio will want to get people into theaters to see because there you’ve made the effort to get out of your home, paid money for a ticket, likely gotten some concessions, and have made a commitment to seeing the endeavor through.  Basically, you’re less likely to give up on it once Annette starts to feed on its weird fruits of the forest.  Once this becomes available on Amazon Prime near the end of August, though, I’d love to see how long viewers watch the film before changing the channel because the impulse will definitely be there.  I can’t outright recommend this one, despite some rather lovely visuals and that occasional trill up the spine when a song hits just right.  Like Driver and Cotillard who often sing slightly off-key (Cotillard’s opera solos were dubbed, though), the film never stays on the right note for too long.

Movie Review ~ Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more as Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron’s journey continues. With the power and knowledge of generations behind them, the final battle commences

Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Billy Dee Williams, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Keri Russell, Billie Lourd, Naomi Ackie, Richard E. Grant, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Carrie Fisher, Dominic Monaghan, Greg Grunberg

Director: J.J. Abrams

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Here’s the thing.  I grew up with the Star Wars movies in my orbit but they were never exactly part of my universe.  Does that make sense?  Every time I went over to visit my cousins I vividly remember the posters of the movies on their wall and playing with their Millennium Falcon…or, rather, playing around the famed ship because I wasn’t quite cool enough to actually hold the majestic piece of plastic in my hand yet.  I was relegated to a storm trooper whenever we were reenacting scenes and I was too young to have seen any of the original trilogy in their first release.  I was probably twelve or thirteen years old before I ever saw the movies and even then I didn’t quite get the appeal.

Now, all these years later I was preparing to see the final (for now) installment of the current Star Wars saga and went back and watched all of the films in chronological order.  That meant starting with the much-reviled prequels, which haven’t aged well, followed by the recently released Solo and Rogue One which already feel even more extraneous than on their first watch.  If anything, getting through those five films makes arriving at the three landmark entries that started it all that much sweeter because you appreciate the level of storytelling and creative filmmaking that was used.  These were crafted when people were pushing limits higher, not just seeing how crazy the limits could be.

In 2015 when director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek Into Darkness) brought viewers back to a galaxy far, far away with The Force Awakens, he tapped into what made those earlier blockbusters so lasting – a sense of discovery blended with heart and humor.  Introducing new characters that interacted with fan favorites, it may have felt slightly like a redo of A New Hope but ultimately it acquitted itself nicely for even the harshest of naysayers.  The same can’t be said for 2017’s The Last Jedi which, though popular with critics (and this one right here) was somehow, bafflingly so, seen as a horror show for longtime fans.  Raging against new writer/director Rian Johnson (Knives Out) and going above and beyond in some nasty spikes toward cast members, the fandom showed its ugly side for a movie that didn’t deserve the vitriol.

Back to bring this new trilogy to a close (replacing Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow who was let go before filming began), Abrams evidently was tasked with addressing some of the chief fan complaints from The Last Jedi while still steering important events toward their conclusion.  Watching the movie you get the feeling Abrams wasn’t entirely happy with the path Johnson had taken and was painted into a corner trying to undo a knot that was tightly bound.  Some of the ideas Johnson hinted at had to be considered or simply thrown out.  In doing so, there is sometimes an overcorrection, resulting in a bit of an unwieldy but ultimately supremely satisfying final chapter in what is surely seen as the event picture of 2020…sorry Avengers: Endgame.

We’re going to keep this thing spoiler-free as much as possible – but I know fans consider even the slightest detail a spoiler so it’s up to you if you want to continue on.  Know that I’m keeping your best movie-going experience at the forefront of my review!

The familiar opening text crawl has never quite caught my attention as much as it has in The Rise of Skywalker.  The very first line after the title sent a little shiver up my spine and set the tone for the opening sequence following Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Marriage Story) traveling to a planet spoken of as a legend to find an old foe.  The isolated location is a fairly scary opening, testing the limits for young children right out of the gate, but it was great fun for the big kid in me that enjoyed a little bit of the old monster movie feel to the set-up.  Hoping to join forces with the driven but haunted son of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, This is My Life) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford, Blade Runner 2049) this powerful enemy proves to be a worthy villain for this last movie – even if their somewhat miraculous return after quite a long time isn’t ever fully explained.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) has been completing her training under Leia’s watchful eye but is distracted by her continued psychic bond with Kylo.  Taunting her by dangling the truth about her lineage just out of her reach, Kylo now seeks her out, having learned a new truth about her from his dangerous ally…a truth that, once learned, will change the direction of the First Order and the Resistance forever.  Traveling with Finn (John Boyega, Detroit), Poe (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year), and Chewbacca to a distant planet in hopes of finding a rare artifact, Rey embarks on a galaxy spanning adventure that will lead her to confront her past and embrace her future.

There’s a little bit of the video game leveling up aura to The Rise of Skywalker, with our characters coming head to head with various bad guys, curious creatures, and strange new worlds all in the hunt for pieces to an overall puzzle.  I didn’t mind this episodic feel and found the two and a half hours to fly by at near light speed.  A great deal of attention has been paid to fans wanting one last look at favorite characters or desiring to see a storyline tied off with a nice bow.  True, it may be too tidy for some but at least there is some finality in place by the time the credits roll.  I’m not one to delve deep into the psyche of a character and decry actions as “not something their character would do” or anything like that, though it’s evident Abrams and gatekeeper producer Kathleen Kennedy wanted to be clear about particular story arcs and less ambiguous on others.

Receiving top billing, Carrie Fisher may be the first person to get that honor without being alive when the movie started filming.  Fisher’s performance was reportedly put together from unused footage from The Force Awakens and it’s blended seamlessly in; there’s no creepy faces put on other actors or janky editing going on.  With limited footage, Leia is a bit more on the reserved side and has less to say…but Abrams doesn’t wallow in sentimentality, just as Fisher wouldn’t have wanted him to.  There are plenty of other surprises for fans both hardcore and casual along the way, just keep your eyes (and ears) open because you never know what might pop up.

The performances in this entry might be the strongest so far, with Ridley nailing Rey’s increasing resolve to always face her fears head on.  What started as a nice discovery of a new talent back in 2015 has evolved into a respected performer that rises above the material and brings a different gravitas to her scenes.  She matches well with Driver’s brooding would-be leader who can’t forget Rey even though he knows she stands in his way of running the show.  I’d like to know how much of the scenes where Kylo is in his revised helmet is actually Driver, just like I want to know if Keri Russell (Austenland) was in fact on set as a former flame of Poe dressed in a galactically skintight suit and aerodynamic helmet.

There’s going to be many opinions about the 9th episode of Star Wars and my advice is to go in and see for yourself.  Just because I liked it doesn’t mean you will and even if you read a terrible review that shouldn’t automatically sway you to see Jumanji: The Next Level instead (seriously, don’t).  We so rarely get true event movies like this and around the holidays when you can go with family and friends makes it that much more special.  Celebrate the season, catch a movie, and make it The Rise of Skywalker.

Movie Review ~ Marriage Story

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A stage director and his actor wife struggle through a grueling, coast-to-coast divorce that pushes them to their personal and creative extremes.

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Merritt Wever, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Martha Kelly

Director: Noah Baumbach

Rated: R

Running Length: 136 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Relationships are hard.  We all know this because we’ve all been in one and understand the complexities that go into forming a bond with someone and the work necessary in keeping those home fires burning.  Even if you love the person deeply, there are times when you need to remember the reason why you got together in the first place.  These are internal feelings hard to express not just to an outside observer but to yourself.  Now add in a shared career, living space, and the livelihood of another human being and you have a little more of an idea how much a marriage ups those stakes.

Marriage Story isn’t the first movie to explore the crumbling of a union, nor will it be the last but it’s the first one I can remember that seems to have found a way to believably get inside the hearts, minds, and psyche of two people that have decided to call it quits.  The reasons aren’t cut and dry, they haven’t been given Hollywood-ized rationales for parting ways but instead are balancing carefully weighed and emotionally resonant choices that, for at least one of them, have been agonized over.  There’s no early dramatic spike where one announces to the other “I want a divorce”, when the movie opens we’re already in that space and that’s how writer/director Noah Baumbach invites us into the private lives of a family navigating an unknown space.

Successful New York theater director Charlie (Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die) and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) have enjoyed building up their small theater company over the past decade.  She’s a former Hollywood actress that left the glitz for something more challenging and gritty, finding that in Charlie’s creative work environment.  They have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and a seemingly pleasant life suggested by opening voice-overs by the two in which they extol what they like most about the other.  Turns out this is all an exercise used in mediation to facilitate an easy separation.  Charlie has hurt Nicole and she’s asked for a divorce.  She’s accepted an offer to film a pilot in L.A. and will be taking Henry with her while she films the show, Charlie will stay behind to bring their latest production to Broadway.

As the movie unfolds and a planned amicable separation turns ugly, the husband and wife become unlikely adversaries.  As parents, they become spiteful and their collaborative friendship sours.  Charlie leaned on Nicole more than he knew and when she withdraws that support he understands, slowly and too late, all that she sacrificed.  When Nicole hires a cutthroat lawyer (Laura Dern, The Fault in Our Stars), the gloves come off; small incidents become fodder for character assassinations and negotiations on living arrangements bring out the worst in everyone.  Charlie enlists the assistance of two lawyers, one (Alan Alda, The Longest Ride) is more pragmatic of the situation and the other (Ray Liotta, The Iceman) isn’t afraid to get down in the mud with Nicole’s attorney.  One guess who he winds up paying a hefty retainer to.

Many have compared the film (in small theatrical release now and streaming on Netflix) to 1979’s divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer and they aren’t so off the mark.  That film is decidedly more focused on the man’s point of view and Marriage Story has a more even keel, never quite taking the side of either party but leaning every so slightly into the Nicole camp for the majority of the 136 minute running length.  Charlie is going to frustrate a lot of people (disagreeing, my partner and I had a long discussion about him after) because many of the problems with the marriage seem to stem from his lack of self-awareness regarding putting his own needs above others.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that call out, but there’s a difference between being knowingly self-centered and simply lacking the skills to separate what is important now from what is important in the long run.  Charlie falls into that latter category.

It’s not a huge secret Baumbauch (Mistress America) drew inspiration from his own shaky divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh when composing this film.  I’m not sure how much she’d appreciate this movie or how much of Nicole is drawn with her in mind but Nicole is often shown as quietly harboring resentment that she later wields at her ex-husband in sometimes cruel ways.  True, it could be a justified way of exerting some power for the first time when she felt powerless for so long, but it doesn’t always make her look like the better party.  It helps innumerably that Johansson gives Nicole layers upon layers of nuance, peeling back each cover for us and showing a refreshed person underneath.  The wife in a divorce is often relegated to a cliche but Baumbach works with Johansson to make this wife more than just a woman breaking free from a joyless union or nobly taking back her hard-won freedom, this is a woman simply saying she wants a different life and having the confidence and courage to make it happen.

Speaking of Johansson, in the same year she was so great in Jojo Rabbit, this is arguably the best work she’s ever done and it’s a performance that doesn’t peak early.  Though a lengthy speech to Dern may feel like her big moment she has more surprising scenes throughout and it’s a wonder to watch her work.  She has believable chemistry with Driver and I bought the two had formed a family with Robertson and felt that twinge of guilt she experienced when she was breaking up that unit.  I struggle with the popularity of Driver, failing to truly understand why he’s as universally acclaimed as he is and for much of the movie I just wasn’t getting the sewn up Best Actor buzz that followed him with this movie.  The final thirty minutes, however, had some pretty powerful scenes for Driver to play and he works them, especially an emotionally on-the-nose Sondheim song, like a master.  I’m not sure it’s an Oscar slam-dunk as others do, but it’s certainly worthy of recognition.  What I am scratching my head on is the fiery buzz around Dern’s divorce attorney.  Now, you won’t find a bigger Dern supporter than myself and while I found her to be a strong supporting player along with Alda, Liotta, Julie Hagerty (as Nicole’s mom), Merritt Weaver (Welcome to Marwen, as Nicole’s sister), and Martha Kelly (Spider-Man: Homecoming, as a hilariously deadpan social worker), is this an Oscar-winning role? No way.  Dern can do this kind of role in her sleep and I found it sadly lacking in the kind of levels that I normally would look to an Oscar-winning performance to showcase.

Written and directed by a man that went through a difficult divorce, Marriage Story could easily have been a way to exorcise some frustrations of that experience but instead Baumbach has brought forth a sensitive and at times understated exploration of separation.  Not just the legal pieces or the physical distance between the families but the emotional aspects of what happens when people are removed from the lives of others.  They say divorce is like a death and it’s the most telling in two moments from the movie.  One scene a character looks on a wall and sees family pictures in which they are well represented, later on after all is said and done they visit the same wall and they have completely disappeared, like they never existed at all.  It’s one of the saddest moments Baumbach captures.

Movie Review ~ The Dead Don’t Die

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane, Danny Glover, RZA, Austin Butler, Rosie Perez, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It isn’t often a movie about a zombie apocalypse gets a premiere at the fancy Cannes Film Festival but if you are director Jim Jarmusch you’ve earned a certain amount of street cred.  The famously indie auteur has been operating since 1980 and has delivered numerous cult faves, many of them originally received as complicated misfires.  Given it’s subject matter, starry cast, and B-movie aura, I’d imagine The Dead Don’t Die will join those cult classic ranks but you won’t find me lining up to see a midnight screening of this one anytime soon.  I had trouble enough staying awake during a daytime viewing.

Look, I’m about zombie-d out by this point and I don’t care who knows it.  I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I avoid all of the straight-to-streaming zombie flicks, I’ve long since sold-off any zombie video games I owned, and I keep my distance from television shows with a zombie premise.  I just think we’re moving on to different things by this point and the whole metaphor linking zombies to mass consumerism is entirely passé.  All I need to do is watch George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead and my craving for brainy material is satiated. (Heck, even Warm Bodies, the zombified Romeo & Juliet will do just fine if you don’t like the hard horror stuff.)  It’s so strange to me that Jarmusch, who has been on a critical uptick the past few years starting with the fascinating vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013, would find himself wanting to draw inspiration from this well.

Not much happens in the sleepy town of Centerville, OH.  As the film opens, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, Aloha) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, Midnight Special) are traveling out to find Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, The Old Man & the Gun), thinking that he stole a chicken from Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, Hotel Transylvania 2).  That’s the extent of the excitement going on until the Earth starts to experience a strange phenomenon caused by polar fracking and a shifting on its axis.  It’s this event that causes the town to lose almost all connection with the outside world and for the bodies in the cemetery to start inexplicably rising from their graves and feasting on the unsuspecting townspeople.

The next several days are captured in small vignettes of varying degrees of success from the large ensemble Jarmusch has assembled.  What Jarmusch does exceedingly well is attract top talent to his film and this is another example of an over-abundance of familiar faces popping up when you least expect it.  In addition to our two lead cops, there’s Chloë Sevigny (The Snowman) as another weary officer not used to so much action in town, Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) and Danny Glover (Monster Trucks) playing store owners who barricade themselves inside a hardware shop to fend off the walking dead, and Rosie Perez (Won’t Back Down) playing an informative newscaster named, wait for it, Posie Suraez.  Though many of the cast have worked with Jarmusch before, the only one that really feels like they know what movie they are in is Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as the town’s new mortician who takes a methodical slice and dice approach in handling the undead.  Some cast members come off as lackadaisical in their approach, which is very Jarmusch in style, but Swinton knows how to pitch that aloofness into something that makes you curious to know more.

Though it gives way to full blown horror in its final stretch, much of the film is paced and pitched at a low boil. There’s so much effort put into the set-up and an absurd amount of characters repeating back the same information on what’s going on to newcomers. Always one to look a little askew at midwestern America, it’s no surprise Jarmusch has cast the townspeople as a bunch of oddballs who get even stranger when death comes knockin’. For pure comedic effect, Jarmusch’s zombies rise up not just with a craving for human flesh but harboring the same obsessions they had when they were alive.  One zombie cries out for chardonnay, another asks Siri a question and these moments of levity are fun at first but begin to become as repetitive as some of the dialogue.  In a bit of supposed extra fun, Jarmusch has Driver and Murray break the fourth wall several times, often commenting as themselves…which might be interesting if they didn’t come off as just riffing off each other between takes.  I’m all for going meta if you can see it through but this continually fell flat.

What was so great about Jarmusch’s take on vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive is that he found an interesting angle into the story which allowed him to craft memorable characters within that framework. In The Dead Don’t Die, there’s no real easy way into a genre that’s been explored to the fullest if you don’t have anything new to add to the conversation.  Even when the tone switches to all-out horror there’s little tension created, and the production isn’t helped by hokey special effects and make-up meant to be impressive that’s hard to see in the dark.  What’s left is a pack of good actors stumbling around for 105 minutes with little to show for their effort.  The film may boast the “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled” but it just doesn’t come together in the end.

Movie Review ~ BlacKkKlansman


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer from Colorado, successfully managed to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan and became the head of the local chapter.

Stars: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Robert John Burke, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ashlie Atkinson

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though he’s often scored high marks with critics, it’s been a long time since director Spike Lee (Chi-Raq) had an outright commercial hit and with the release of BlacKkKlansman Lee finally seemed to be in position to have a movie that would cross that line.  Though the box office for the movie didn’t catch on like it very well should have, BlacKkKlansman still represents Lee’s most commercial work in years and is entertaining as all get out.

The story behind BlacKkKlansman is almost too bizarre to be true.  In Colorado in the early ‘70s, black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) goes undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan with the assistance of his Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, Midnight Special).  Through a unique and increasingly dangerous set-up, Stallworth communicates with the local KKK leaders on the phone while Zimmerman poses as Stallworth whenever they need to meet in person.  Stallworth even befriends David Duke (Topher Grace, American Ultra) the Grand Wizard of the KKK and the two engage in lengthy phone conversations before ever meeting face to face.

At the same time, Stallworth becomes involved with the president of the Colorado black student union (Laura Harrier, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and their relationship becomes entwined with the dealings not only with his undercover investigation with the KKK but within his own police force.  When Duke sets up a trip to Colorado to personally initiate Stallworth as a member of the KKK, Stallworth and Zimmerman’s investigation intensifies as suspicions within the hate group start to mount.

Lee’s cast crackles with energy and keeps the movie moving through a slightly slow first twenty minutes.  It takes that long to establish some characters and get Stallworth moving from new recruit to establishing himself as an undercover officer heading up his own investigation.  Once he makes that first phone call to the KKK and sets into motion the sting operation, the film moves like a locomotive toward its conclusion that propels us from a flawed past to a complicated present and uncertain future.

Movie Review ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Benicio Del Toro, Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran

Director: Rian Johnson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 152 minutes

First Trailer Review: Here
Second Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If there’s one feeling that governed 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it was nostalgia. Fans had toiled through the dark despair of the Star Wars prequels and were holding out hope that director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) would bring them salvation in the continuing story of the sci-fi fantasy epic. So when The Force Awakens opened and was actually good, if not wholly great, most audiences that received the film well left the theater floating on a cosmic wave of good feelings of the old school charm that kept the original trilogy preserved so well over the years.

I count myself as one of those fans and gobbled up the film hook, line, and sinker. However, in hindsight it’s best to admit in the spirit of friendship that I fully recognize The Force Awakens was largely a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope. Sure, it wasn’t a paint-by-numbers carbon copy but the familiar themes of the original didn’t go unnoticed. I wasn’t as big a fan of 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as many were, that film didn’t have anywhere to go so it remained flatter than a pancake to this viewer. Now, with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi the producers and filmmakers would really be put to the test. Would they continue to pull from the past to create something to please the fans, or would they dare to try something different?

Well, The Last Jedi is a little bit like walking forward while cinematically rubbernecking to spot where you were coming from. It’s immensely entertaining when it wants to be (which is most of the time) and a little lackluster in laying the groundwork for future installments and whenever it gets too cerebral. Writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) ably picks up the reins from his predecessor and does more than just keep his seat warm before Abrams returns for Episode 9. There’s a forward thrust but it does take time to reach warp speed.

It’s always a special thrill to hear John Williams score announce the start of the film and a bit of excitement reading the opening crawl. The first fifteen minutes are classic Star Wars, with a group of rebel fighters including Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) protecting their cavalcade and fearless leader (the late, great, Carrie Fisher, This is My Life) from an attack waged by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, Goodbye Christopher Robin). It’s here were a strange comedic chord is first heard, one that made me wonder if Johnson had decided to inject his film with more Spaceballs (Mel Brooks’ brilliant send up of the Star Wars films) than was appropriate.

We last saw young orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) traveling with Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Kingsman: The Secret Service) who was in a self-imposed exile. While Poe and Leia continue to evade the monstrous Hux, Rey tries to sway Luke to return and help the resistance defeat The First Order and their leader, General Snoke (a CGI creation that looks better here than in The Force Awakens, once-again voiced by Andy Serkis, Breathe). There’s also the matter of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Frances Ha), Leia and Han Solo’s son who turned to the Dark Side and is still smarting from the butt-whooping he received from Rey and Finn (John Boyega) at the end of the previous film. He’s out for revenge…but does he have more secrets up his well-armored sleeve that will change the course of The First Order and the resistance?

Juggling several storylines at once, Johnson keeps the 2.5 hour film moving a good clip. A race against the clock rescue mission involving Finn and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran, an excellent addition to this male-heavy world) manages to remain engaging even when it’s broken up and interspersed with the goings-on of other characters. The movie has a few endings but manages to justify them with ease.

Aside from Benicio Del Toro (Inherent Vice) as a code-breaking thief and Laura Dern (Jurassic Park) showing up with purple hair as Leia’s second in command, it’s largely the same old gang we first sparked to in previous installments. While certain players take more of a backseat in glorified cameos (12 Years as Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o is a mere hologram here), Johnson has introduced a few memorable creatures like the cute Porg’s, Crystal Foxes, and Luke’s island-dwelling servants that one critic hilariously dubbed “the fish nuns”. They’re not going to replace Chewie or R2D2 in your heart but they do rally a convincing bid for you to make some room.

The second movie in a planned trilogy can often feel a bit flimsy as a bridge between the first and final chapters but The Last Jedi avoids those pitfalls. Depending on your knowledge of the Star Wars universe, it could easily stand on its own. It makes you look forward to the next installment rather than feel desperate for answers that you might not get by the time the credits roll. The effects are top notch, the score from Williams sounds as glorious as ever, and try not to get a little choked up every time Fisher’s on screen.

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Trailer #2)

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Thoughts:

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Thoughts: Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, OMG, Amazing, Laura Dern, December Get Here Soon!, Why are you still reading my thoughts…watch the first teaser trailer now!