Being Peter Bogdanovich

22 Jan

A life in film, worthy of being a film

Last week with the passing of Peter Bogdanovich the movie world lost a filmmaker whose streak of instant classics in the 1970s rivaled that of fellow New Hollywood deities Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin. The lesser known Bogdanovich who claimed to have been obsessed with film from the day he was born would enjoy a meteoritical early career helming three back-to-back critical and commercial hits; “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Paper Moon,” in his early thirties, but despite those cinematic successes, Bogdanovich’s personal life was peppered with tragedy, financial and career implosions, tabloid fodder romances and worse—his life, or parts of it, were not only like a movie, they were in movies.

The son of immigrants, Bogdanovich grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where his father Borislav, a painter, often took him to the matinee where he became intoxicated by Golden Age classics directed by Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles. In his early twenties he penned detailed monographs of his cinematic idols for the Museum of Modern Art where he also programmed and wrote pieces on film for “Esquire” and “The Saturday Evening Post.” After directing an off-Broadway revival of Clifford Odets’s drama “The Big Knife” at the age 20 (starring a young Carroll O’Connor) he drifted west with his wife Polly Platt to work for the upstart Roger Corman as a second unit director and writer. In 1968 Corman would produce Bogdanovich’s first feature “Targets,” a loose depiction of mass murderer Charles Whitman infamously known as the “Austin Tower Sniper” for killing nine people during a 90 minute shooting spree in 1966. The film, a piquant blend of character profile and Bogdanovich’s love of cinema and screen legends (the final scene takes place at a drive in and features Boris Karloff as an aging horror film actor) was a low budget curio that scored critical acclaim but didn’t garner much attention at the box office. That same year, under the moniker of Derek Thomas, Bogdanovich also made “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women” for Corman, a B-level quickie about scantily clad women in outer space–if that sounds like a vampy spoof on “Barbarella,” know that the Jane Fonda sci-fi, sex-kitten fantasy was made in ’68 as well.

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Licorice Pizsa

26 Dec

‘Licorice Pizza’: Head over heels for Alana Haim in the shaggiest of ’70s Southern California tales

By Tom Meek Thursday, December 23, 2021

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in ‘Licorice Pizza’.

Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson’s early, quirky works – “Boogie Nights” (1997) and “Magnolia” (1999) – will delight in his latest. That’s not to say that “There Will Be Blood” (2007), “Phantom Thread” (2017) and “Inherent Vice” (2014) are not insignificant films, because they are; it’s just there’s a dark, cheeky breeziness to those earlier efforts and a style and a tone that propels “Licorice Pizza” from the first frame. The opening scene homes in on 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of frequent Anderson collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman’) loquaciously prattling away to a young woman named Alana (Alana Haim), who’s clearly older (in her 20s). It’s a long, well-choreographed tracking shot that takes us from the long paths of a verdant courtyard to the innards of a school’s gym, where Gary is to get his high school photo. Gary, we learn, is a child actor of some notoriety but on the cusp of aging out, an epiphany that doesn’t put a damper on so much as free up an abundance of other ambitious ideas, including dating Alana. “I met the girl I’m going to marry one day,” he tells a friend. Alana, surprisingly, agrees to a date at a local steakhouse (the infamous Tail o’ the Cock) and later chaperones Gary to a hit TV show reunion in New York City, where one of Gary’s fellow child stars swoops in on her.

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The Matrix Resurrections

23 Dec

This sequel levels up with a mix of nostalgia and action worth the ride

By Tom Meek Wednesday, December 22, 2021

In “The Matrix Resurrections” we catch up with Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) toiling as a head game designer being dogged to make a fourth release to his “Matrix” video game series. The series is wildly popular but Thomas, plagued by neuroses, seeing a shrink and said to have suicidal tendencies, is clearly a bit of an anxiety milkshake. It’s a pretty meta opener, as series creator Lana Wachowski had been peppered over the years by Warner Bros. to make a new “Matrix” installment. (The company Thomas works for, Deus Machina, is owned by Warner Bros. in the film – how’s that for tres meta?) She ultimately agreed, though sister and series co-creator Lilly Wachowski opted out due to stress from coming out, gender reassignment and the death of their parents.

The original “Matrix” (1999) broke ground in action filmmaking and intrigued with its plays on Eastern philosophies (though more simply we’re talking a war between humans and machines à la “The Terminator”). For fans who were only semi-warmed by “Reloaded” and let down by “Revolutions” in 2003, “Resurrections” may be just the remedy. It’s nostalgic – almost to the point of being schmaltzy in its overuse of clips from previous chapters – and has a heightened sense of romance with a few kick-ass action sequences well enough meted out to avoid overload. And yeah, there’s a shitload of philosophizing about red-pill-blue-pill and choice versus complacency, which to me has always tasted like a yada-yada MacGuffin for the highbrow lot.

The Thomas Anderson of “Resurrections” is an indentured servant just like the rest of humanity, “taking the blue pill” and relegated to a false contentment when they are really sleeping energy cells in a pod farm to power machines. But the great conceit in this rekindled Matrix future-verse is not so much the hero as a corporate wonk, but the affinity and thin tendrils of romance between Thomas and Tiffany/Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss, rocking the role again). When Thomas the coder meets Tiffany in a coffee shop in the bowels of his corporate office tower, she’s a soccer mom with kids and a straight-out-of L.L. Bean hubby with a type AA personality. There’s a flickering recognition on both sides, but none of that gets rekindled until Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a punked-out rebel hacker inspired by Anderson’s Matrix persona as Neo and “The One,” gets him to Morpheus. There he’s awoken with the infamous red pill (cue up Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” and what’s that tattooed on Bugs’ arm?) to learn he’s just another cog in the machine, and that things are a little more complicated these days, as machines are now warring among themselves. Rebel leader Morpheus is now played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II from the “Watchman” series. The digitized retooling of the Laurence Fishburne character works out seamlessly.

In construct, “Resurrections” is more a reawakening than reboot that will likely (or so must be Warner’s hope) guide a new generation back to a sweeping franchise that’s been dormant almost 20 years. The real sell here is the chemistry between Reeves and Moss, who had romantic spark and sexual tension in past chapters – both looking fashionable and sleek in long, black dusters – but here, with a touch of weariness and eyes edged with crows’ feet, there’s something much more deep and attainably genuine; they’re soulmates, always meant to be but unable to connect. The longing and closeness of realization is an intoxicating elixir. Those hoping for “bullet time,” as Anderson’s boss calls it when talking about what should go in the latest Deus Machina release, might be disappointed. There’s not a lot of signature slo-mo bullet dodging. Also missing is the relentless malevolence of Hugo Weaving, who’s not back stalking Neo as Agent Smith. What we do get is one protracted and thrilling chase sequence through a gantlet of city blocks as Neo and Trinity ride again on a Ducati. (Did I mention Moss’ Tiffany persona has a motorcycle shop?) The Matrix’s response? Use sleeping humans in the chambers above as zombie-style missiles, crashing through windows and plummeting at dodging pair. The eye-popping result eerily evokes “World War Z” (2013) and, even more disturbingly, 9/11.

Like the entries before, “Resurrections” isn’t so much about where you land – though there is a revelation that many likely had a bead on 18 years ago – but the journey. One great benefit is the potpourri of personalities that provide bumpers for Neo to carom off of in his quest for truth, namely Neil Patrick Harris as his analyst; Priyanka Chopra Jonas as the oracle Sati; and most humorously, Andrew Caldwell as Thomas’ boss at Deus Machina.

Keke Hamsho and the Falconers: Chapter 1

21 Dec

Keke Hamsho and the Falconers is a serial about Keke Hamsho, an eighth grader at Rindge Avenue Upper School. Keke is also homeless.


Keke Hamsho was late for school because the tent had collapsed for the third time that night and they had to help their aunt and Ahmed put it back up. The winds from storm that had soaked the area kept knocking it down and the earth of the Alewife Reservation remained too wet and soft to secure the tent’s stakes. This time Ahmed used the odd ends of twine to tie the tent off to neighboring pines. As soon as it was up, Keke tore off down the bike path, through the Alewife T station, dashed between the bumper to bumper traffic on Fresh Pond Parkway and then sprinted down Rindge Ave, mud clinging to their purple Keds and bell bottom pants. After checking in at the front office they decided to duck into the accessibility bathroom to clean up before slipping in to Mr. Taulson’s history class. Just as Keke was about to push open the door, the hulking form of Jabari Harris popped out. Keke jumped back.

“Trying to get a peek, perv?” Jabari just stood there blocking Keke’s path. Everyone at Rindge Avenue Upper School knew Jabari Harris, the all everything to be, youth league football standout, basketball star and said to be a near lock to start at wideout on the high school team next year. He was also allegedly a rare eighth grade member of the Falcon Posse, the secret high school club that everyone wanted to be part of and fearful to be the target of. It was practically mandatory to follow them on TikTok and Instagram. A Falcon Posse post mentioning you either earned you friendly back pats in the hall or a week of cold shoulders.

“Sorry, in a rush,” Keke stammered.

“What are you anyway?” the larger student growled in his deep, other side of puberty, baritone.

“A human, same as you,” Keke said as they slipped pass and bolted the door. Quickly they wiped the mud from the sparkly Keds and pick fluffed their hair so that the purple and azure highlights of the blond crop shown with an aura-like effect.

At lunch Keke sat with Hazel and Cal, COVID masks under their chins pulling on their ears as they ate.

“Trade you a half PB and bacon for half your dog,” Hazel said to Keke, knowing how much her friend enjoyed the crunchy lunch treat her mom made.

“You don’t have to,” Keke said.

“C’mon, school dogs are the best, hit me up with that ketchup pack too.”

“Did you hear,” Cal asked, “someone stole Jenny’s favorite squishmallow from her backpack.”

“Jack Skellington?” Hazel asked.

“Yup.”

“That sucks, I wonder who the loser is who did it.”

“Hector,” Cal said, “said that Antoine told him he saw the new girl snooping through the bags after coming back from a bathroom break.”

“You know,” Hazel said, “two days ago, my Pockys were missing from my lunch bag, I thought I had just forgot to pack ‘em, but now…”

“And I had several bracelets I was working on,” Keke said, “go missing last week. I thought they fell out of my backpack when I was running to school.”

“Nadja, Nadia? The girl from Tanzania, right?” Hazel asked.

“Nyla and she’s from Ethiopia,” Keke corrected.

“Someone should tell Ms. Franklin,” Hazel said, “I’m going to buy Jenny a new Jack Skellington squishmallow for Christmas and send it to her on the down low, Secret Santa style.”

“At the front office this morning,” Keke said, “Vice Principal Santos was talking to a cop about someone taking the menorah from the ‘Multicultural Holiday Celebration’ exhibit and defiling it with swastikas in the teachers’ parking lot.”

“Haters be hating,” Hazel said.

“Asses be holing,” Cal laughed.“Prolly some bullshit Falconer Posse initiation ritual.”

“Bet it’s you’re boy Jabari,” Hazel said.

“That guy’s just the worst. A bully with a capital B.”

“He kinda hassled me this morning when I was trying to go to the bathroom.”

“When I see him I just walk the other way.”

“That was a mean shiner he gave you on Halloween. Hey Kek,” Hazel said, “have you heard the latest drop from Black Pink?”

“I wish, I dropped my iPod in a puddle during the last rain. I’m still trying to dry it out in a bag of rice, but I think it’s dead for good.” “Here, have a listen,” Hazel said putting earbuds into Keke’s ears and loading up the latest K-Pop hit on her iPhone.

Later that day after leaving their math session with Ms. Phillips, the learning specialist who helped them stay caught up with the class, Keke saw Nyla coming out of the accessibility bathroom and wondered what they were doing roaming the halls during a class period. The girl locked eyes with Keke but didn’t say anything until after she passed by. “Hey,” she called out.

Keke turned. “Hey yourself. Aren’t you going the wrong way? Don’t we have English?”

“I got pulled out to see Ms. Santos.”

“What for?” Keke asked.

“I don’t know,” Nyla said digging around in her pink, fake leather backpack. She produced three beaded bracelets, the same three beaded bracelets that Keke had lost, except now each one had a little rubber troll charm attached to it. “Want to buy one? Five dollars each.”

Keke was shocked. “I don’t have any money,” they stammered and then demanded, “Where did you get those?”

“I made ‘em.”

“You made them?”

“Yup.”

“That’s funny because those look just like the bracelets I make.”

“It’s just beads, anyone can make. If you don’t want one then I’ve got to go.”

Keke couldn’t wait to tell Cal and Hazel about the encounter, but before the last bell she got asked to stay after by Ms. Franklin. “Tomorrow before early release, go down and see Ms. Santos,” Ms. Franklin told Keke. “Also thank you for the lovely bracelet. Here’s a little something for you too,” Ms Franklin said and handed Keke an envelope. “We’re not supposed to do this, so let’s just keep it just between you and me, okay? And have a really happy holiday break.”

The next day at school Keke was still brimming to tell Cal and Hazel about the Nyla incident, but Nyla was sitting too close by and then Mr. Taulson came in. Later, in Ms. Franklin’s class both Nyla and Antoine were pulled out about half way through. As they packed up their belongings and exited, Keke and Cal and Hazel flashed each other wide eyed glances.

At class break Keke was finally able to share the story of the hallway encounter with Nyla.

“She’s so getting busted right now,” Cal said.

“I can’t believe she did that, that’s worse than lying to your face,” Hazel said.

“It was lying to her face,” Cal retorted.

“Their face,” Hazel corrected.

“Right, sorry.”

“No worries mate,” Keke said with a strained Australian accent as they gave Cal a friendly punch in the arm.

“Oh, before we take off,” Hazel said grabbing the hands of each of her friends, “I want you guys to come over for movie night during break. I’m thinking Home Alone 2 or Bad Santa if my mom will let us.”

“Only if your mom makes her awesome seven layer dip.”

“We’ll see. Kek, how can I get in touch with you? Do you guys have a cellphone?”

“No, not really. You can email me on my class PC, but we don’t have internet. I can sometimes get on the wifi from the cafe in the office park across the swamp.”

“Don’t worry, my friend,” Hazel said. “Problems have solutions and no one knows how to kick problem ass better than me.”

“That’s because you got a big one,” Cal chuckled.

“Dude, you just see Kardashian everywhere. You need a new hobby. Seriously.”

When Keke arrived at the principal’s office, the police officer they saw the day before was in with Principal Caldwell and Jabari Harris. Antoine and Nyla were sitting in chairs just outside the door awaiting their turn. Keke was about to check in with the receptionist when Vice Principal Santos beckoned from her office, “Keke, come on in.” As Keke took up the chair on the opposite side desk, Ms. Santos rolled her chair in tight and slid a small manila envelope over to Keke. “That’s a bus and subway pass for you, so wherever you are, and whatever the weather is, you can always get to us. There’s no charge, it’s part of a program the MBTA runs with public schools.”

“Thank you,” Keke said.

“How are things going otherwise?”

“Good.”

“I’m glad to hear that. No one’s bothering you or anything like that?”

“No.”

“That’s good. I want you to know you can always talk to us. People here care.”

“I know and thank you.”

“Well, have a wonderful break and I’ll see you back here next year,” the vice principal said with a wry smile.

“Thank you, you too Ms. Santos.”

That evening as Keke and their aunt ate cold soup and waited for Ahmed to come home, Keke opened their backpack to retrieve the envelope Ms. Franklin had given them. Inside there was also a small package, one that Keke had not seen before. It was plump and padded and overly sealed with tape. On the front in blue magic marker it said “For Keke” and nothing else. Keke opened the envelope from Ms. Franklin first.

Inside was a folded piece of paper and a gift card to Whole Foods. The computer printed text on the paper said, “Use this to get yourself a cherry pie for Christmas Day. I realize you probably don’t celebrate Christmas, however the sentiment remains. There should be enough for a turkey or a quiche to serve as an appetizer before you gorge on that cherry pie.”

Keke looked over at their aunt and smiled warmly.

To open the other package Keke needed Ahmed’s rusted jackknife to cut through the gobs of tape. Tucked inside a fold of bubble wrap was an iPhone and a pair of ear buds. Keke knew right away it was Hazel’s phone by the glitter covered pink case and purple PopSocket grip on it. On the face of the phone was a Post-it note with the number “7070″ on it. Keke tuned on the phone and punched in the code to unlock it. The phone said it had one new message from “Mom.” Out of curiosity Keke opened it, but all it said was “Call me.” Apprehensively Keke put in the earbuds and called.

“You got it!” her friend exclaimed.

“Yeah, but why?”

“Well now I can tell you when to come over and besides, my mom has three phones, plus you can now listen to K-Pop over the break.”

“Weird, but thank you I guess. Why did you not just give it to me at school?”

“You know me, weirdo to the max. Plus would you have taken it?”

“Good point.”

“So did you hear? It was Antoine who was stealing the shit…”

“Language!” Keke could hear a woman’s voice shout in the background.

“…and selling it to other kids. He probably sold your bracelets to Nyla who had no clue she was selling you, your stuff back to you.”

“She could have told me when I called her on it.”

“Who knows, she’s a quirky quacky duck.”

“I dunno, I kinda get where she’s coming from some. Her parents might not speak English and probably have a hard time finding work.”

“Don’t go all Debbie Downer on me. The day after Christmas, mark it down, save it, oh and can you do a sleep over? I’m now thinking Avatar or a Harry Potter movie fest, but…” Hazel now whispers, “…if we can close the door to the den, maybe we can put on Squid Game, cuz I know you love all things Korean.”Hazel giggled. “Because my mom knows we’re both into K-Pop she’s talking about making something called mandu soup.”

“It’s dumpling soup. I’ve never had it.”

“Me either.”

After Keke hung up they gave their aunt a big hug before crawling into their sleeping bag to listen to K-Pop. They knew in the morning they’d have to go to the hipster cafe in the industrial park to charge up the phone. It was a pretty good day and hopefully there would be more like it.

…to be continued

The Lost Daughter

18 Dec

‘The Lost Daughter’: One gets away at a getaway in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s powerful directorial debut

Maggie Gyllenhaal, the actress best known for her turns in “Secretary” (2002) and “Adaptation,” (2002) gets behind the camera for her directorial debut with “The Lost Daughter,” an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel about a woman struggling with loss and trying to find solace in the present. It’s a tight, intimate portrait of a person trying to move on who gets caught up in the dramas of others. Gyllenhaal gathers a fantastic cast and educes some award-worthy performances. Her lead could not be any better: Olivia Coleman, so good in “The Father” (2020) and an Oscar winner for her royal turn in “The Favourite” (2018), plays Leda Caruso, a comparative literary professor from Cambridge, Mass. (it’s not explicit but we can assume Harvard) on vacation at a Greek resort. Ensconced in a book, a quiet day of beach reading is interrupted by a raucous crowd of partiers from Queens. She won’t cede her spot on the beach to the group, which has choice Jersey Shore reaction to her stiff-upper-lip rigidity. Then the young child of one of the festive lot (Dakota Johnson, “Fifty Shades of Grey”) goes missing. There’s mass panic along the beach, which Leda – experiencing some anxiety – has left. Natch, she finds the young girl in the woods on the way to her cabana and returns her to her mother, Nina (Johnson). The group from Queens rethinks their opinion of their obstinate beach neighbor, and an uneasy bond between the women takes root. Nina looks to Leda for maternal advice, while the writer in Leda probes into Nina, her familial and romantic relationships, as well as her furtive ditherings. Leda has her own dubious doings, absconding with the child’s favorite doll and reacting with zero affect when the child breaks down crying for their security blanket.

“The Lost Daughter” is less about that present story between Nina and Leda than about Leda’s internal emotional journey. In flashbacks we see the young Leda (played by Jessie Buckley, so good in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”) living an ideal life with a husband and two daughters, but is drawn by the allure of power and intellectual commonality by an established literary professor (Peter Sarsgaard, Gyllenhaal’s husband). The performances by Coleman and Buckley (who won the Boston Society of Film Critics for best supporting actress last week) are sublime and deeply felt. What’s more is that the transition between the two feels genuine and universal. The rest of the ensemble includes Ed Harris as a caretaker trying to break Leda’s icy facade, Paul Mescal as a resort attendant and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as one of the boisterous crew from Queens. It’s also one hell of a debut by Gyllenhaal, who’s going to have the cinema world hanging on her next directorial project. 

Nightmare Alley

18 Dec

‘Nightmare Alley’: Escaping from the carnival into noir with a savage Cooper and Blanchett

By Tom Meek Thursday, December 16, 2021

Guillermo del Toro dusts off Edmund Goulding’s 1947 B-tier noir starring Tyrone Power and gives it a lush polish with rich reds and a house-of-horrors ambiance. There’s a sense of wonderment in there too, but that’s mostly reined in by the constraints of the noir form and the seediness of carny life. Set in the mid-1930s, “Nightmare Alley” is a scrumptious, set piece-driven experience to drink in, which should be no surprise given de Toro’s penchant for opulent dial backs such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) or “The Shape of Water” (2017). The film’s blessed with one heck of a cast to boot. The twisted yarn, based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, focuses on Stan (Bradley Cooper), a mysterious drifter who becomes a carnival hand with a traveling operation. After capturing the show’s escaped geek – a wild man whom we do get to witness biting the heads off chickens – Stan gets an elevation of sorts from the show’s owner (Willem Dafoe) and cozies up to Zeena (Toni Collette), a clairvoyant, and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), bedding the former and lifting the tricks of the trade from the latter before endearing himself to the show’s demure ingenue, Molly (Rooney Mara).

It turns out Stan’s not quite that quiet, earnest guy we first meet, but a man hot with ambition and devilish drive to get what he wants. It also turns out that “Nightmare Alley” is something of a double-shift narrative. The first half is something of a Horatio Alger story fused with Tod Browning’s creepy 1932 tale, “Freaks.” (Here, along with a geek roaming the tents and cages there’s a pickled baby and cyclops boy, and Ron Perlman as the strong man). After Stan takes leave of the carnival and becomes a mentalist performing in swank nightclubs, the film moves into full-on noir mode when he meets his match in the femme fatale form of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a socialite and psychiatrist. She’s onto him, and he’s intoxicated by her social stature and overpowering sense of confidence. There’s an air of feral sexuality whenever the two jockey for an edge. Soon the target becomes Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a wealthy power broker in Ritter’s sphere, and “Nightmare Alley” turns into a succession of confidence games with a few dark and deadly secrets tumbling out along the way. As good as Blanchett and Bradley are and are together (Flick alert: Cooper is a raucous treat as Jon Peters in the upcoming “Licorice Pizza,” and Blanchett gives another great micro turn in the end-of-the-world satire, “Don’t Look Up” streaming as of Dec. 24 on Netflix), their chemistry gets diluted by plot machinations and the restrictions of the genre. There’s just not enough emotionally at stake; it’s great pomp, sans the punch. It still works, mind you, but as a viewer you sail through the film enamored with the filmmaking and performances without being pulled in by flaws, desires and dreams.

House of Gucci

27 Nov

‘House of Gucci’: The styles clash in family drama

By Tom Meek Friday, November 26, 202

Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” unfurls like an epic crime saga – think “The Godfather” (1972) by way of the hit streaming series “Succession.” It’s got devious parlor games, backroom corporate jockeying, bloody agendas and plenty of unintentional camp, which is both good and bad. 

We’re talking the Italian fashion industry in the 1970s, when old-school Gucci lions Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) and Aldo (Pacino) prided themselves on the lineage of special cows used to make super soft, artisanal loafers and handbags that cost most people’s annual salary. Aldo wants to kick the business into the more modern world with innovations such as malls in Japan; Rodolfo resists. But the real focus of “Gucci” is the fatal relationship between Lady Gaga’s uncompromising Patrizia and Rodolfo’s bookish son, Maurizio (Adam Driver). By now, you’ve probably read about the steamy sex scene between Gaga and Driver, and while it is steamy, it’s more a physical, crash-bang-boom event than an erotic interlude, befitting Patrizia’s driven woman: She works in her family’s trucking business until she’s successfully stalking Maurizio in a bookstore and getting that big ring, then pushing Maurizio into the family business with a pinch of Lady Macbeth mania.

The narrative of “Gucci” may be driven by the above- and below-board dealings of the fashion empire, but what Scott’s assembled here is a potpourri of characters that pop off the screen with a capital P. As Aldo, Pacino serves up a Thanksgiving ham with a big, viscous side of pineapple sauce, somewhere between his over-the-top take on Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” (2019) and his “Hoo-ah!” hokum in “Scent of a Woman’’ (1992). Besides Gaga – more on that in a bit – the real scene-stealer is Jared Leto, unrecognizable under bad hair, potbelly and a prosthetic nose like Tom Cruise in “Tropic Thunder” as Aldo’s attention-seeking son Paolo, the Guccis’ own Fredo Corleone sad sack, full of ambition and always biting his tail. Iron’s ailing Rodolfo is gaunt and wan in the extreme, looking like the undernourished version of Gary Oldman’s Count Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 spin on Bram Stoker’s novel. (Irons is one of the only actors in the impressive ensemble who doesn’t attempt an Italian accent, which is both disconcerting and a blessing.) Driver’s his fine, likable self as Maurizio in a film in which not many of the characters are.

The film clearly belongs to Gaga, giving a big, bold performance that proves what we knew when she was Oscar-nominated in 2018 for her pop-star-in-the-making turn in “A Star is Born”: The woman can act and is a force onscreen. She carries the film through silly and serious, and even though it’s a big performance, it never spins into spectacle like some of her castmates’ do.

Scott, who recently lambasted superhero films, has had a long line of critical success – I’ll cite “Alien” (1979), “Blade Runner” (1982) and “Black Hawk Down” (2000) among the many– but takes a bit of a stumble here. It’s a whirlwind of concepts, stylization, allegories and an incredible cast all getting their big solos (did I mention that Salma Hayek plays Patrizia’s brassy tarot card reader?) without gelling at the core. At more than two and a half hours, “House of Gucci” is highly entertaining and the use of pop tunes from Donna Summer, Blondie and George Michael, to name a few, anchors the era with perfect aural nostalgia. But for all its build, bluster and pomp, in the end “Gucci” gets sewn up and sold like a cheap knockoff pump in the secondary market.

Belfast

13 Nov

‘Belfast’: In Ireland for the violence of the 1960s with time for schoolboy crushes and matinees

By Tom Meek Thursday, November 11, 2021

Kenneth Branagh’s nostalgic, semi-autobiographical twist on growing up during the Protestant-Catholic conflict of the late ’60s and ’70s – yes, one of England’s best living actors is Irish – is an arty yet intimate affair that gets lost some in the wistfulness of youth and bigger thematic constructs that never fully come together. Shot primarily in black and white by Haris Zambarloukos (“Thor,” “Locke”), “Belfast’ is a gorgeous film to drink in, no question. We begin with a color travelogue of Belfast today, then cut to 1969 in black and white as 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), coming home from school, rounds a corner and ends up in the path of an anti-nationalist Protestant mob looking to torch the homes of Catholics who want to cut ties with England.

It’s a bold opener, with the threat of sudden violence smoldering in the corner of every frame, be it the increased presence of barbed-wire barriers lining the streets or a local ruffian who viciously cold-cocks a fellow Protestant for refusing to fall in with his thuggish operations. That said, “Belfast” is more about bridging divides than holding the line, and how a family holds itself together under such outside duress. Told through Buddy’s eyes, “Belfast” is a coming-of-age tale that leverages the lens of innocence much the same way – but not as effectively – as John Boorman’s heartfelt 1987 classic “Hope and Glory” (1987) chronicled a British lad growing up in World War II England. Many of the setups in “Belfast” ride the edge of the conflict, such as the shy, demurring Buddy, whose family is Protestant, getting a crush on Catherine, a pretty Catholic classmate (Olive Tennant), or the local organizer instigating those incursive acts of terror (Colin Morgan) putting pressure on Pa (Jamie Dornan) to sign up or else. It doesn’t help that Pa works in England and is hardly around, and when he is, Morgan’s brute is always lurking nearby. Not all is bleak and despair; some of the more touching moments come as Buddy seeks advice from his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds, “Munich”), who lives under the same cramped row-house roof and is forever applying saddle soap to equestrian gear he never puts to use. (Granny is played by Dame Judy Dench.)

Pa works in England and is hardly around; when he is, there’s a local organizer instigating those incursive acts of terror (Colin Morgan) who puts pressure on Pa (Jamie Dornan) to sign up or else. Given the chaos in the street and Pa’s work constraints, much of the pressure, domestic and otherwise, falls on Ma (Caitríona Balfe) who, like Pa, holds onto her morals and ethics regardless of what comes; in the wake of one riot,  a store gets looted and Buddy, encouraged by other kids, takes a few bars of candy – which has Ma dragging him through the throng and back to the store to return what he did not pay for.

If you’re wondering where Branagh’s passion for film originated, there are several scenes with the family at the local theater taking in such era classics as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “One Million Years B.C.” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “High Noon.” That Gary Cooper classic foreshadows the mounting tensions between Pa and Morgan’s stalker, which culminate in a “Noon”-like showdown in the street. Dornan’s portrait of square-jawed resolve, however charismatic and admirable, becomes too much of a cape of righteousness without nuance or flaw. Similarly, Balfe casts a winning screen presence but her Ma feels too put-together and fashionable for the rough-and-tumble streets. Hill, who bears a heavy yoke for such a young thespian, is the film’s discovery. It’s amazing just how much vulnerability, confusion and desire Hill conveys in his saucer eyes and furrowed brow. I bet too Branagh’s a big Van Morrison fan; no fewer than seven of the Irish rocker’s ballads get cued up over the course of the film. “Belfast” is an adoring love letter that churns chaotic brutality into a fairytale. 

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Eternals

5 Nov

Marvel squeezes into a mythology suit

By Tom Meek Wednesday, November 3, 2021

And so the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands in a way it hasn’t since 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” when joyous, self-deprecating humor propelled a merry band of misfits across the stars on their mission to save a star system. That goal has been a thing in any MCU chapter. It’s how it gets dressed up that’s key to the film’s success. In “Eternals,” directed by recent Academy Award-winner Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) we get a whole new slate of superheroes, notably diverse (it’s a multiracial lot, with one gay hero, one who is deaf and another battling metal illness) but suited up in unis that have to be some of the most generic, least-inspired Lycra designs in decades. The depth of character too is slight, and the CGI effects don’t really break any ground – and occasionally look “Sharknado” cheesy.

The Eternals of the title are a race of immortal superhumans created eons ago by the Celestials to protect planets such as Earth against ravenous entities known as Deviants. What the what? Yeah, there’s a lot in those big bland tags, barely a notch above Decepticons and Autobots, but Celestials are universe-forming gargantuans akin to the Titans in Greek mythology (Thanos and Ego from earlier MCU chapters are similar in powers and scope), while Deviants are hellish beasties that look a lot like the Taotie from the 2016 Zhang Yimou miscue “The Great Wall,” a hybrid of wolf and dinosaur stripped down to sinew and bone and equipped with flowing tentacles that allow them to sap the energy of their target. Eternals wiped out all the Deviants in the early days of civilization and now hang among us, awaiting their next call to duty. 

Keeping with that lazy borrowing of classic mythos, we catch up with the Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan) posing as a London museum curator and involved with a mortal named Dane (Kit Harington). She used to be married to Eternal alpha stud Ikaris (Richard Madden), but they drifted apart and haven’t seen each other in centuries – until one day, or one date night with Dane, a deviant crawls out of the Thames and Ikaris drops in out of the blue to help Sersi thwart the malevolent with his laser-beam eyes and square-jawed bravado. One might imagine there’d be some kind of intimate pause here, a “Dane, meet my ex” and perhaps some edgy love triangle dynamics (“Is he super good in bed too?”), but no, bigger MCU matters abound: Why are these things back, and what is Sersi to do? 

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Dune

23 Oct

Do Villeneuve and Chalamet finally get it right?

The hotly anticipated second cinematic take on Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic rolls into theaters this week. Billed as an adaptation and “not a remake” of the now infamous 1984 misfire by David Lynch, the new “Dune” arrives in two, two-hour plus chapters. “Part I” is a marked upgrade from that butchered Lynch release (he lost creative control and the film was edited down to just over two hours). It’s sharper, more conformable in its saga duds, and as you can imagine, the use of modern computer effects go a long way to offset those cheesy sets and clunky models.

Set some 8,000 years in the future in a galaxy far, far away, “Dune” much like “Star Wars” (or is it “Star Wars,” much like “Dune”?) is driven by lore, the assent of a man-boy to the mantle of hero and some nasty interstellar parlor games. We hone in on House Atreides, a noble lot tasked by the intergalactic emperor to housesit a barren desert planet called Arrakis. The why is maguffin of sorts, the planet’s main resource is its spice-melange, a radiant cinnamon-like powder that makes spaceships travel at warp speed and also gives those that can consume it and not die, super human awareness. Arrakis also has monstrous sand worms who like to munch on mining equipment and hovercraft for fun and then there’s the indigenous Fremen, who live in caves below the Saharan seas of sand and have a long his history of oppression by foreigners, most notably the violent regime of the Harkonnens, the previous imperial group to occupy the planet.

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