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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Wheel Good People, Part Deux

23 Oct

More wheel good people: Bicyclist help goes on, including an Oct. 24 Halloween party in The Port

By Tom MeekThursday, October 14, 2021

Lonnell Wells in his CambridgeSide mall Bike Give Back space with an organization intern. (Photo: Tom Meek )

A year ago we cast the spotlight on efforts by bicyclists to help those at risk from Covid-19 and to confront racism. Those ills persist, but so does the work by the Bike Delivery Program and the tight-knit team behind the Cambridge Bike Give Back initiative. Each mission has been sustained by the toil and generosity of volunteers, but now could use a lending hand.

The Cambridge Bike Give Back initiative, which takes old and unwanted bikes and retools them for those in need, was launched in August 2020 by Lonnell Wells and friends in reaction to the murder of George Floyd. It gives bicycles to kids who might not otherwise have one to ride with friends, or a person just out of prison needing an inexpensive way to get around in their reentry to society, Wells said. The program now has a storefront in the Cambridgeside mall parking garage. Vice mayor Alanna Mallon and former mayor Anthony Galluccio helped broker the arrangement, Wells said, and his sources for steel steeds has grown too. He’s reached out to municipal and collegiate police forces for unclaimed bikes and forged a partnership with Bikes Not Bombs, the original bike-driven social activist group down in Jamaica Plain. 

The Give Back program has provided more than 350 bikes since its founding last year, Wells said, in addition to hosting community barbecues and sponsoring a Black Lives Matter ride around Cambridge.

The program plans a family-themed Halloween party from 1 to 4 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Greene-Rose Heritage Park in The Port neighborhood. There will be a costume contest, games and candy for kids, free food for all and a raffle; bikes will be given away, and bike tuneups offered. (Organizers are looking for able bike mechanics to help on Sunday. If you have a bike you want to unload, they could use that, too. Email cambridgikegiveback@gmail.com.)

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The French Dispatch

23 Oct

‘The French Dispatch’: Bienvenue to the latest precious pages from the desk of Wes Anderson

By Tom Meek Friday, October 22, 2021

Fans of Wes Anderson, cinema’s official maestro of all things quirky and twee, may be in for a bit of a letdown with this loving smooch to “The New Yorker” and other intellectually curious magazines of the latter half of the 20th century – i.e., “The Paris Review.” Sure, it has a tremendous cast: Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand and Léa Seydoux, as well as new players Timothée Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Elisabeth Moss and Jeffrey Wright are invited to the party. But in the league of “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014) it is not.

True to the object of its affection, “The French Dispatch” has the assemblage of a glossy flip-through, laid out in sections with a different story told by a different writer. Holding it all together is Murray’s George Plimpton-esque publisher Arthur Howitzer Jr. as he talks with various staffers in the book-lined confines of the Dispatch, the European desk of the Liberty, Kansas, Evening Sun located in the fictional French village of Ennui-sur-Blasé (yes, there’s that twee). Of the four chapters, the least interesting is the opener with Wilson as a bike-riding journalist who pretty much gives us a guided tour of of Ennui, which proves to be true to its name – ouioui, yawn. The best segment has Swinton’s art critic presenting a long lecture about a criminally insane prison artist (Del Toro) who becomes a modern abstract expressionist sensation inspired by his guard, lover and model (Seydoux). The two actors have outstanding chemistry. Then there’s the political bit in which McDormand’s on-the-scene reporter jumps into the 1968 French student revolt (de Gaulle be gone) and embeds with (and beds) the movement’s young leader (Chalamet, whom you can also catch on screen in the next theater over in “Dune”). Lastly, we get the food critic (Wright, Billy Dee smooth) on a Dick Cavett-like talk show recalling a massive kidnapping plot (lots of bodies) for which culinary skills prove essential and lethal. 

The snazzy scenes that take place between the segments, either amid the halls of the Dispatch or in Howitzer’s office with most of the ensemble huddled to together, are gift bonbons that cleanse the palate between the plats principaux. Overall, “The French Dispatch” never rises to Anderson’s high bar. It’s a savory, indulgent mess, something of a fallen soufflé. 

Of Bike Lanes and Politics

4 Oct

With the installation of protected bike lanes comes a fast-moving issue for council race

By Tom Meek Friday, October 1, 2021

A bicyclist travels in a quick-build protected bike lane in Central Square. (Photo: MassAve4 Impacts Analysis)

A springtime study about bike lanes replacing on-street parking continues to send out shock waves, and is now playing a role in November’s elections.

Citizens groups have been formed, petitions are circulating and candidates are getting endorsements around the MassAve4 Impact Analysis report and other issues relating to the city’s Cycling Safety Ordinance. Passed by the City Council in 2019 and updated in October 2020, it calls for around 25 miles of protected bike lanes to be installed throughout Cambridge within five to seven years.

When released in April, the MassAve4 report triggered panic among business owners and residents who feared that nearly all on-street parking spaces would be removed in favor of quick-build protected bike lanes along Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard Square to Dudley Street, including Porter Square. The city quickly assured that it was only studying the effects of achieving the ordinance’s goals with quick-build options such as flex posts, signs and road markings rather than curb cuts, sidewalk and road surface alterations that would demand more planning, cost and resources and be less likely to meet the law’s timeline.

The city has not released a plan, but by May the city manager expects to identify where quick-build bike lanes will work and get City Council approval for a timeline on installing other kinds of bike infrastructure, according to the MassAve4 project page. Outreach and community engagement will be part of the process. If the city fails to have a plan approved in 2023, quick-build lanes along the corridor will be mandated by the ordinance.

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No Time to Die

1 Oct

‘No Time to Die’: Daniel Craig’s final film as Bond is big but not great, mopey but not meaningful

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 30, 2021

There’s so much you want to love in “No Time to Die,” the fifth and final Bond for Daniel Craig, but at 2 hours, 43 minutes, it’s a slog. Scenes go on too long, and the Craig films have over time gotten more and more into the melodrama of being Bond and his emotional attachments and far-reaching backstories. It’s counterintuitive to the Bonds that defined the franchise (see Connery and Moore) through caricatured male machismo and kitschy, cruel tropes – square-jawed derring-do, lethal techie gadgets hidden in a shoe and a litany of cheesy one-liners that sound brilliant when served up as straight as a martini garnish.

In the latest and 25th Bond, that’s all long gone. Everything is about an agent’s inner turmoil, with some deft action sequences stirred in. Craig, who’s physicality helped define the Bond of the 21st century, also notched an emotional awareness that has largely been absent since the one-and-done George Lazenby’s 00 took up the mantle of monogamy and got hitched in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969). Here Bond is retired and living off the grid on a West Indian island until the arrival of old CIA pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and a yuppie attache (Billy Magnussen), who’s got a bit of a Jared Kushner thing going on. Leiter wants James to help locate a package in Cuba kidnapped by Spectre with the intent of mass producing nanobot assassins – basically a DNA-targeted virus that gets passed from person to person until it finds its mark. The bigger fear is that someone could leverage the technology to wipe out whole ethnicities or geographic areas.

Yes, as with any Bond, the world hangs in the balance. Some of the installments are joys, some are wobbly curios or campy time capsules and others are just misfires, but it’s really about the world-hopping journey and execution of spectacle. “No Time to Die” is a humorless Bond in which the past gurgles up continually. In the opener, Bond is about to go off-grid with “Spectre” (2015) love interest Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), but that’s all changed in an intercept by a piranha pool of baddies while on a holiday – and quest to exorcise some of those past ghosts – in the high mountains of Italy. The sequence of turns makes Bond question his trust in Swann. Trust becomes something of a theme that runs throughout the film; later Bond finds out that the newish M (Ralph Fiennes) may be in on the nanobot mess too. Old friend Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) pushes his way into the party as well, seeming more like Hannibal Lecter than Donald Pleasance (the most memorable of all Blofelds, the arch villain who’s made an appearance in a total of nine Bond films) in his restraints. But the madman du jour is a gent with the devilish name of Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) and a disfigured face. It seems these days the only way to cast a viable Bond villain is to gun for an Academy Award-winner (Malek and Waltz have won, and Javier Bardem from “Skyfall”) and shoehorn them into an effete persona with a twisted soul. The best Craig baddie to date came in the form of a man’s man, a guy who did his dirty work with his own two hands. That film was not only the best Craig entry but one of the best Bonds ever. The 00 chapter I speak so highly of, “Casino Royale” (2006) was also Craig’s first, and the demented demon of demise behind the maniacal doings was played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, a capable performer who has even played Hannibal Lecter (TV’s “Hannibal”) with enough nuance and panache to earn Anthony Hopkins’ thumbs-up.

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The Many Saints of Newark

30 Sep

‘The Many Saints of Newark’: ‘Sopranos’ prequel pulls off a killer job, a setup you’ll love falling into

By Tom Meek Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Tony Soprano may or may not have been offed in the last episode of the storied mob series “The Sopranos,” but actor James Gandolfini has, sadly, left us. As the crime boss he is and was the show; it would be hard, if not impossible, to have a sequel or a revival without him. With that in mind, what series creator and writer David Chase and director Alan Taylor have done here is craft a prequel with Gandolfini’s son, Michael, in the role of the young Tony Soprano.

If “The Many Saints of Newark” were a Marvel Universe chapter, it would be tagged as an origin story. Thankfully that’s not the case, and Chase’s deep sense of place and roots and attention to historical detail, as well as a battery of brilliant performances, make “Saints” a winning flashback. We begin in the 1960s in the Italian North Ward of Newark, where racial tensions with the neighboring Black working class of the Central Ward are at an all-time high. The big boss of the moment is a colorful yet fading caricature by the name of “Hollywood” Dick Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), just back from the old country with a beautiful young bride (Michela De Rossi, casting shades of Penelope Cruz). As with the HBO show, small happenings have wide and traumatic repercussions. Dick’s take-charge son, Dickie (a dangerously charismatic Alessandro Nivola), covets his old man’s wife, who becomes his mistress and the spur of many bloody actions – she’s Helen of Newark.

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Cry Macho

18 Sep

Cry Macho’: Eastwood goes across the border with a mission suited for his vigorous 91 years

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 16, 2021

For a concept that’s taken almost 50 years to land on the big screen after a swirl of iterations with big names including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pierce Brosnan attached, “Cry Macho” is likely to register as a disappointment for most. The key to the depth of that letdown is the degree of anticipation you arrive with: This is a Clint Eastwood film, and while the actor has wowed from behind the lens (“Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Invictus,” to name a few) some of his more recent efforts such as “Jersey Boys” (2014) and “The 15:17 to Paris” (2018) have been weak-kneed by compare.

The film, a neo-western by definition (think “Hell or High Water” or “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”) has a washed-up rodeo star (Eastwood) employed under duress by a Texas ranch owner (Dwight Yoakam) to retrieve his 13-year-old son (Eduardo Minett) from his allegedly abusive, freewheeling mother (Fernanda Urrejola) across the border in Mexico City. It’s a curious setup as Eastwood, now a grandfatherly 91 and a long way from his “Dirty Harry” salad days, is not really the type one might enlist for a mission in which muscle and sinew might be required. But Clint’s Mike Milo is indebted to Yoakam’s rancher for carrying him financially since he broke his back riding a bronc back in the day. Once across the border it’s easy enough to locate mom and the son, Rafa, who dabbles in cockfighting and skirting the law. He also bears troubling welts on his back.

The “Macho” of the title is in fact Rafa’s prize rooster, which may get more screen time than any of his human counterparts – and yes, Clint does make a joke about a man calling his cock “Macho.” The script is littered with several such amiable groaners. Much of the character motivation early on feels disjointed, if not arbitrary, despite being penned by Nick Schenk from the 1975 N. Richard Nash novel), who’s notched solid collaborations with Eastwood in the past (“Gran Torino” and “The Mule”). The film gets about halfway in before Mike and Rafa, holed up in a dusty Mexican village, start to bond in a genuine sense. Mike can’t speak a lick of Spanish, and the police and mom’s goons are searching for the pair. During the lay low, Mike becomes something of the village’s Dr. Dolittle: People bring their ailing pets to him, and he and Rafa make a few pesos breaking wild horses. There’s also a spark of romance with the compassionate cantina owner (Natalia Traven, delivering the best performance in the film) giving them aid and cover. The warring by Rafa’s parents over property and power – a thinly drawn catalyst – just distracts. The ending doesn’t wrap it all up to any satisfactory degree, but there remains those affecting human moments in that remote, dusty Eden.