Gucci’s House built on weak foundation

The trailer for Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci promised drama and murder. There’s one of the latter, and unfortunately, very little of the former in this complete dud. Strong performances by a fantastic cast (Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino, and Jared Leto) can’t breathe any life into this long (2 1/2 hour+) boring film, which left me checking my watch every 15 minutes after the first hour.

This movie follows son Maurizio Gucci (Driver), starting in the early 70s. He seems to care little for the family business, but his last name catches the attention of Patrizia Reggiani (Gaga) when she meets him at a party. They hit it off immediately, but Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) does not condone the relationship, sensing Patrizia is out for the money. The dad only comes around after the marriage is made and a baby is born, writing Maurizio back into his will, and, when he dies, leaving him half the company to share with his brother (Maurizio’s uncle) Aldo (Pacino) and Aldo’s eccentric son Paolo (Leto).

While Maurizio is not one for confrontations and is more than willing to accept the situation as it is, Patrizia is a shark with blood in the water, and turns the family against each other, wanting to put the entirety of the Gucci business under her husband’s (and her’s) control. Unfortunately the family drama is, while surprising at times, not all that exciting to watch. Her machinations to bring down Aldo and Paolo are shaky at best, and downright implausible at worst. What’s worse is, as the film progresses, plot points are introduced and soon after abandoned, and I couldn’t help but feel that they were just throwing ideas at a wall to see what stuck. I stopped caring about any of the characters long before the credits rolled, and had nothing invested as a viewer to feel one way or another about the outcome. ★

Ghostbusters barely finds a pulse in Afterlife

I’m a child of the 80’s, so of course I was a ginormous Ghostbusters fan. I’ve seen the original film enough times that I can quote the dialogue word for word while watching it, and enjoyed the sequel too. Needless to say, I was super excited for the new reboot/sequel. Unfortunately my expectations were perhaps a bit too high.

Ignoring the female-led Ghostbusters film of 2016, Afterlife is a sequel to the original duo of films. Set in the present day (37 years after the first film), Egon Spengler has been killed by a ghost (the populace thinks it was a standard heart attack), and his estranged daughter has come to his deserted farmhouse as a last resort. Callie is broke with no other options, so she and her kids, Trevor and Phoebe, are at the farm hoping to get their feet under them. Phoebe is the new version of her grandpa Egon: a nerdy girl who loves science. She isn’t at the farm for long before she starts putting together what is going on. And what is going on is scary.

When the Ghostbusters took down Gozer the Destroyer in the first film, that was not the end of the Sumarian god. She’s been planning a return, this time in the small town of Summerville, OK. This is where Egon’s farm is, and where he’s spent the last 30 some-odd years getting ready to stop her. He’s been on his own, the other Ghostbusters long since moved on to other things. Phoebe finds the trail he left, and recruits her brother Trevor and a couple local kids to become the new ‘busters, hoping to stop the end of the world.

The movie features great special effects, but unfortunately that is one of its only saving graces, at least on its own merits. As a piece of nostalgia, there are plenty of easter eggs for longtime fans, but some of these made me groan more than excite. Don’t get me wrong, there are some clever moments, some fun scenes, and the ending is pretty spectacular, but I spent whole sections of the movie bored. Never a good thing. Maybe I was hoping for more, or maybe I’m just not 5 years old anymore. ★★

Quick takes on Jungle Cruise and other films

King Richard is a biographical film about the father of a couple of the most famous women on the planet, Venus and Serena Williams. Their father, Richard (Will Smith), had a plan for them to be tennis masters from the time they were born, and he makes sure everyone knows it. The film follows a four year window or so, mostly focusing on Richard and Venus, as the oldest of the duo. Richard has coached her as far as he can take her, but knows that she needs further instruction to prepare her for championship level tennis, and more importantly, the opportunities that a well-known and well-respected coach can bring her and the family. Being a poor man with a large family from Compton, he is rejected left and right, until he finally barges in on the right person at the right time, who gives the girls a tryout. The coach is blown away by their poise and skill, and agrees to start coaching Venus. The first step on what will be a marvelous career. A lot of the movie deals with Richard’s insistence that the girls take the path that he has laid out for them, making sure that they have their heads on straight so they don’t burn out too quickly, and can handle the pressures he knows they’ll face later in life. I expected Will Smith to be good, and he is, but it is the girls, and particularly Saniyya Sidney as Venus, who really steal the film. Thankfully it doesn’t stick too close to the paint-by-numbers approach that biopics can often suffer, and there’s story to go with the facts (and I have a feeling they play a bit loose with those). ★★★★

Some films want you to think, some films just want to entertain, and some have a message. The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain falls into this last group. Based on the true story of the killing of a 70-year-old man in his apartment in White Plains, NY, in 2011, it stars Frankie Faison as the senior Kenneth. He’s asleep one night when he accidentally triggers his Life Alert pendant, and sleeps through the company’s attempts to contact him. Per company policy, they alert police for a wellness check, and 3 officers show up at Kenneth’s door a little after 5am to see if he is OK. With a history of mental illness and a deep-seated racial distrust of police, the black Kenneth refuses to open the door. He tries to assure them that the call was in error, that he is fine, but their policy is to see him in person to verify he’s alright. A nearly real-time hour goes by as the cops continue to bang on the door, and Kenneth and they yell back and forth. Eventually, the fateful decision is made to bang down the door and invade the apartment, despite Kenneth screaming that their search is unlawful, that they do not have a warrant or probable cause, and that he does not need their services. Outside of Faison, no great acting here, and the story is obviously thin. All of the film takes place in that apartment and just outside it. Even so, I was most definitely moved, to the point of tears when the cops forced their way in and took Kenneth’s life. If a film is made to elicit an emotional response, this one succeeds. ★★★½

Who You Think I Am is a French film starring Juliette Binoche, but despite her considerable acting chops, she can’t save this dud, in a very familiar story that has been told before, and done better. Claire is a middle-aged woman with a young boyfriend, Ludo. She wants more from their relationship than he does; he just wants easy weekend hookups. When she gets clingy, he stops returning her calls. To try to stay close to him, Claire sets up a fake Facebook page under than name Clara, and sends out a multitude of friend requests, including Ludo’s friend Alex. Online, “Clara” and Alex strike up a conversation, which leads to a serious online relationship. Using pictures stolen from the web, Claire deceives Alex into thinking she’s a 20-something, and even when their relationship progresses to phone calls, he doesn’t suspect anything. That is, until he becomes insistent that they meet. Told in flashbacks as Claire relates her story to a therapist, we learn how deep she was willing to take her deception. Very average movie, and some weird twists in the end just seemed too “gotcha” for me. ★★½

Hope is a lovely Norwegian film about a woman and her family without any. Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) has been suffering from headaches, nausea, and vision problems for a little while and new eyeglasses didn’t help. She is told to get an MRI to rule out problems in her head, and this leads to the devastating news that she does have a brain tumor. It being a few days before Christmas, there’s very little immediate help, other than to take some meds to reduce fluid buildup, and try to get to January when they can do surgery. Initial news is not good though: her form of cancer appears to be incurable, and is most likely a metastatic tumor from lung cancer she had just beat a year ago. One doctor tells her that a handful of patients have recovered (so there is always some hope), one tells her to get the surgery and pray for the best, and a third tells her that she’s going to die anyway, so go on a vacation and enjoy what time she has left. Meanwhile, her older life partner Tomas (the always-recognizable Stellan Skarsgård) has to be a better partner than he has been in years. Always absent (they almost split before her cancer diagnosis a year ago), he needs to be the strong one for a change, even as they struggle to tell their large family about the news, and prepare their kids for what is coming. The film flirts with over-sentimentality, but stays grounded and real-feeling. Unfortunately sometimes it takes the worst moments in life for a family to come together, but they do come together. A very tender, and surprisingly funny at times, film. ★★★½

Jungle Cruise is the latest Disney adventure romp, starring Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson in the leads, opposed by Jesse Plemons as the bad guy. In typical Disney tradition, the beginning of the film gives us the setup: in the 16th century, conquistadors exploring the Amazon jungle are looking for a special tree which is said to cure any illness. One man goes so far as to destroy an entire village when they refuse to disclose the tree’s location. With his dying breath, the tribal chief curses the conquistador, forever keeping him close the Amazon River, with the jungle coming alive to prevent him from escaping. Fast forward to 1916 in London, and Lily (Blunt) wants to find that tree, in hopes that its petals can be used in the war effort against Germany. Unfortunately for her, Germany has its eyes on the legend as well, and Prince Joachim (Plemons) is also after it. Lily and her brother head to the Amazon, where they book passage on a beat up old ship captained by Frank (Johnson). Frank is rough around the edges but he claims to know the river better than anyone, and for the right price, he’ll take them to where their goal is supposed to be. Along the way, they have to fight the undying cursed conquistador and his men, the German Joachim, and Frank’s bad dad jokes (which I have to admit, I laughed very hard at. Guess I’m getting old). This film got average reviews, but I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Vibrantly colorful and bright, lots of laughs and harrowing adventure too? Count me in! It’s really good all-family fun. ★★★★

  • TV series currently watching: Foundation (season 1)
  • Book currently reading: Hades by Mark Danielewski

Quick takes on Caché and other Haneke films

I’ve never seen a single film by celebrated and decorated Austrian director Michael Haneke, so it’s time to fix that, starting with maybe his most controversial and the one that put him on the map, 1997’s Funny Games. This is a disturbing film to watch, about a family of three terrorized over the course of an evening by a pair of emotionless young men, who make a game of their brutality. When Georg, Anna, and their son Georgie arrive to their lake house, they are expecting a couple weeks of relaxation, but Peter and Paul disrupt those plans in a terrifying way. When the pair show up at the door, at first they seem innocent enough, if a bit awkward, but things turn ugly quick when Georg slaps Paul for being disrespectful, and Paul retaliates with a golf club to Georg’s knee. The family now know something is very wrong with their visitors, but they have no idea how bad it will get. As the evening progresses, they are degraded and made to play games in order to survive. There’s a truly frightening scene where Georgie is able to escape, only to be hunted down by Paul. What sets this film apart from others like it is Haneke’s decision to not show most of the violence on screen. We hear them attack Georg off camera while we only see Anna’s face and reaction, and the same goes for each of their acts. As a viewer, of course I felt like I was missing something, and I’m sure that was Haneke’s intent: what does it say about us as a people when we want to see the violence? It made me feel dirty, that’s for sure. There’s also a lot of breaking of the fourth wall, as Paul turns to the camera and lets us know that he is aware we are watching him and Peter inflict pain, and another scene near the end showing this is a work of fiction, but all that felt a bit gimmicky to me. A very hard film to watch, but no doubt there is talent in this filmmaker. As an aside. Haneke remade this film 10 years later, in English with a new cast, and from what I hear, it is nearly a shot-for-shot remake, same dialogue and all. ★★★

Code Unknown is one of those films which, I’m sure is great, but it’s either too smart for me, or just not my jam. The set up is thus: a teenager has run away from home and has come to the city to maybe live with his older brother and his girlfriend. The brother isn’t home, but the girlfriend tells the teen that she can get him something to eat, but that he can’t stay in the tiny apartment, as there just isn’t room. She heads off to work, and the teen, having finished his on-the-go breakfast, throws his trash in the lap of a homeless woman begging on the corner. A black man witnessed it, and confronts the teen to apologize, but the teen refuses. The altercation gets physical, and bystanders and cops get involved, as does the returning brother’s girlfriend. Most take the side of the white teenager, not knowing the whole story. At this point, I’m thinking, “Great setup for a film on race!” And I guess it is still that, but the movie takes a winding, sometimes bewildering path that, while easy enough to follow, doesn’t seem to build a complete picture. After the opening, each successive scene cuts back and forth among all those involved in the beginning, as we see where life takes them. I didn’t pick up on any overarching themes, and there wasn’t even a good denouement to go out with a bang to match the excitement of the start of the film. Again, I think this one’s just too intellectual for my measly brain. ★½

The Piano Teacher is one of those films which is a fantastic movie, but due to my own personal moral code, really turned me off. The great Isabelle Huppert plays an outwardly staid and uptight professor at a music school. Erika is strict and demanding with her students, to the point of abuse (anyone who has seriously studied a musical instrument know’s what I’m talking about; we’ve all had one of those instructors). She lives with her aging mother in a tiny apartment, and five minutes with her mom tells us where Erika gets that demeanor, as her mother is as mean as they come. What Erika is hiding though is her escapades. She visits voyeur rooms in sex shops to watch graphic porn, and practices sexual mutilation on herself for release, none of which she seems to enjoy, but that and her control over her students is the only relief she gets in her life. Enter into this picture Walter Klemmer, a very talented young man who sets his eyes on Erika. He’s a gifted pianist but doesn’t seem to have the drive for greatness that Erika insists upon her students. Walter is immediately infatuated with Erika, but she doesn’t even know how to reciprocate love or affection; she only knows the domineering masochistic sex she’s seen in porn. A typical film by any other director would have Erika learn how to love and enjoy her relationship with Walter, but Haneke is obviously not your typical director. This is a startling and oftentimes hard to watch movie. A marvelously well done picture, but not one I could stomach a second time. ★★★½

2005’s Caché is the first of Haneke’s films that I really enjoyed start to finish. The movie gets you into the action right away: Anne and Georges are an upper-middle class couple watching a video tape someone left on their doorstep, a tape showing the front of their own house as the couple comes and goes. Creepy, but otherwise harmless. However, the tapes keep coming, and become more sinister, as they are accompanied with drawings of faces or objects covered in red crayon, and of course the couple thinks of blood. The drawings even get sent to their son Pierrot’s school. The police are unhelpful. Georges begins to suspect a person from his past, a boy named Majid who lived with him and his parents at their sprawling estate when Georges was growing up. Georges begins having nightmares about Majid covered in blood, and when a new tape arrives showing a tiny apartment, Georges goes there and is unsurprised to find it is Majid’s home. Majid denies any knowledge of the tapes, but the plot thickens as new tapes continue to come forward. Over the course of the film, we learn exactly who Majid is and his ties to Georges. The movie is a fantastic psychological thriller/drama. It doesn’t give all the answers (it doesn’t give many answers!), but it is gripping from start to finish and is a great view into human’s ability to lie to ourselves for self preservation. Also wonderfully shot: even the look and lighting of the film often has a home video-like quality to it, making the viewer feel like any moment we are watching could be taped to shown to the couple. ★★★★½

The White Ribbon hit it out of the park for me too (after an uneven start, for my tastes, Haneke is rocking now!). This movie is told as a story by an elderly man, unnamed, about a year he spent as a schoolteacher in a little town in Germany in the early 20th century. The movie is about many things, but one of my takeaways was the feelings of animosity between the haves and the have-nots. The haves in this town are wealthy and socially powerful men, namely, the pastor, the doctor, and the baron, whose household and lands employ half the town. In the beginning of the film, the doctor has an accident while returning home. Someone strung a thin, heavy wire between two trees, and the doctor’s horse ran right into it, spilling him and breaking his arm and collarbone in the process. The town goes into an uproar over who would do such a thing. Shortly after, a wife in a poor family dies by falling through a rotting wooden floor in the sawmill. Her widowed husband urges calm, but their son is convinced it was retaliation against the poor by the wealthy (the baron of course owns the sawmill). The son goes out and destroys the baron’s cabbage field. The baron’s son is also kidnapped and beaten, before returning home. Other events continue, pitting the people against each other. Throughout the course of the film, we also see how the pastor isn’t nearly as holy as he claims, severely abusing his kids in the name of righteousness, and the doctor isn’t the upstanding man people believe him to be either. But who is causing all the mischief in town, and is it simply pranks in poor taste, or something more sinister? Shot in stark black and white and told as a slowly developing tale, this is a movie to bring your patience for, but it is undeniably memorable. It paints a picture of a little slice of the world just before the first world war, where sins are committed out in the open and, more often, behind closed doors. ★★★★

Amour is a much quieter film. The film’s subjects are Anne and her husband Georges, an elderly couple living in a posh Paris apartment. Georges can be a bit cranky at times, but after a life together, Anne knows his bark is worse than his bite. One morning, Georges is at the sink, talking to Anne as she sits at the table, when she stops responding. He walks over and notices that Anne is just staring off into space, and doesn’t react to Georges’ words or actions. A trip to the hospital confirms Anne has suffered from a stroke, and while surgery removes the blockage, Anne is left paralyzed on her right side and forced to a wheelchair. At home, she makes Georges promise that he’ll never leave her in a hospital again, and he intends to keep his word. Over the ensuing weeks and months, Anne’s condition worsens. Georges hires temporary nurses to help care for her, but despite his daughter’s pleas, he refuses to consider putting his wife in a home. Eventually Anne has another stroke, removing her speech and much of her coherency, making Georges job that much tougher. A movie about the lasting legacy of love and a bleak idea of what awaits some of us at the end of life, it’s an at-times powerful film, though it did start to wear on me. Much as Anne’s condition started to wear on Georges, which I’m sure was the director’s desire. ★★★

  • TV series currently watching: Foundation (season 1)
  • Book currently reading: Hades by Mark Danielewski

Quick takes on Nine Days and other films

Inspired by the events of the Amanda Knox arrest, Stillwater is about a single dad, Bill Baker, who is trying to prove his daughter’s innocence after she’s been jailed for murder in France. Allison has already be in jail for 5 years and still have 4 more to go, found guilty for killing her girlfriend Lina. One day in jail, she hears a fellow inmate talking about a man who admitted to the murder for which Allison has been incarcerated. Her father Bill, a working class man from Stillwater OK, who’s been visiting his daughter regularly since her time in jail, makes the permanent move to France to help dig up evidence in the case, hoping to find enough to make an appeal worthwhile. Matt Damon as Bill is OK, Abigail Breslin as Allison is very good, and the story is alright, but it all doesn’t come together great. It tries hard to push the needle but I never felt all that invested in the characters, and in the end, it comes off as a fairly average crime mystery. ★★½

Nicolas Cage is good for churning out 4-6 movies a year, most of questionable, or downright bad, quality. But even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in awhile, and sometimes Cage lands a good role where he can showcase his considerable acting chops. This is one of those rare gems. In Pig, Cage plays Rob, a loner with a pet pig who forages for truffles, selling them to a local young entrepreneur, Amir, who in turn flips them to high-end restaurants in nearby Portland. Rob’s pig, his only companion in this world, is stolen from him one night, and Rob calls on Amir’s help to try to track down the thieves. Asking around lands them with some junkies, who were paid to nab the pig, but from there the trail leads into the city. While they are hunting the true culprits, Amir learns more about the mysterious Rob, who seems to be very well known in Portland every where they go. A movie about loss and heart, and living the life you want, the path you choose, this is a subtle and nuanced film which will move you, if you have the patience to let it breathe. ★★★★

I’ve been burned by Rotten Tomatoes enough times that you’d think I’d learn my lesson. Coming Home in the Dark is the latest dud that website made me try. It’s about a family of three who goes out to do so fishing out in the boons, only to be attacked by a duo of sadistic young men. They brutally kill the boy, and then gather the husband and wife into the car for a little drive. Only over the next couple hours do their motives become clear, and we see that it was no coincidence that brought them together. 92% of so-called critics have given this movie a fresh rating on the aforementioned website, but I just don’t see how. It’s a dumb B movie traipsed to seem like it has some deeper thought-provoking core at its middle, but it’s just wall dressing. Not even scary enough to be called a thriller. ★

Thankfully my day turned around with Nine Days, which is just the sort of gem that keeps me watching small budget indie films. It’s a fantasy drama about a man, Will, who spends his days watching a wall of TV’s in his living room and taking notes. Shown on the various screens are the viewpoints of the people Will has selected to live a life on Earth. Will is an interviewer of souls, and it is his decision which souls get to be born and live. Will is most proud of Amanda, a musical prodigy on violin with a bright future ahead of her, but she dies in a sudden car wreck, which appears to possibly be a suicide. Will is shaken, but it is now his task to fill that blank screen on his wall with a new soul, so the nine day interview process begins. He begins interviewing a half dozen new souls, each with an individual personality, to see who will get his approval to be born. While he is weeding out the one who he thinks is worthy, Will continues to re-watch Amanda’s life tapes, trying to find the one thing he missed that drove her to her end. He is accompanied by his boss, Kyo, who is there to oversee and make sure Will is making the right choice, but ultimately, it is Will’s decision, as he once lived a life on Earth, and Kyo never did. With all this responsibility, Will takes a very emotionless attitude, and wants to pick the one soul that will live by the rules and have a good life. His normally easy interview process is thrown into disarray by Emma, a soul who doesn’t play by the rules and is very much a free spirit. Nine Days is just a beautiful film, about letting go of pain and remembering to enjoy the moments you have. Despite its setting, this is not a religious film though. No explanation is given about where the souls come from or where the dead go, or how Will got this job or who is pulling all the strings. Will is not perfect, in fact, he has a lot of flaws that are exposed by Emma, but that makes the movie that much more “human.” ★★★★★

Swan Song is another good one too. This one stars the legendary Udo Kier as Pat, an old stylist relegated to a nursing home. Once the hairdresser to all of the wealthy and socialites in town, his flamboyant dress and attitude earned him the nickname “the Liberace of Sandusky.” Those days are long gone, as he dresses in sweats and seems to have been forgotten. That changes when Rita Parker Sloan dies, and in her will, asks for Pat to style her up one last time for her funeral. But first, Pat has to sneak out of the nursing home and make it across town, with just a couple bucks to his name. On his mostly walking tour, Pat visits the grave of his longtime partner David, the site of his former business, and runs into old friends and enemies alike, including his former protege who opened her own place and put him out of business. Along the way, Pat picks up a hat here, some gaudy jewelry there, and regains his attitude, so by the end, he has transformed himself back into the proud gay man he once was. There’s a lot to unpack here, and I don’t want to give any of it away, because taking the journey with Pat is what makes this movie so great. Here’s a man who’s held grudges all of his life, and has carried hurt buried deep down, but needs to let it all go if he’s going to find solace. Tremendous acting by Kier, and such a heart-wrenching film. ★★★★½

  • TV series currently watching: Titans (season 3)
  • Book currently reading: The Wishsong of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Marvel’s Eternals weaves a (long) fun story

My wife and I went out and saw the latest Marvel’s blockbuster tonight. Eternals is not receiving the rave reviews that this series normally nets, so I had a bit of trepidation going in (I’m a big Marvel fan). While the movie is not perfect by any stretch, I still really enjoyed it.

The Eternals are a group of 10 super beings sent to our planet in 5000 BC, to kill monsters known as deviants. Immortal, they’ve lived among us humans all these centuries, not meddling in our affairs, as their purpose was just to stop those deviants whenever they popped up. The group supposedly killed the last of the deviants in the 1500s, but for some reason, they were not called up by their supreme leader Arishem, a god-like being known as a Celestial. Instead, they were left on Earth, and each went their own way to live over the next 500 years until present day.

Now in the present, the deviants have shown back up, and seem to be exhibiting powers they never have before. To make matters worse, a worldwide earthquake struck the planet, and the Eternals think the two are connected. They begin to seek each other out again, despite some having lost touch for decades or centuries, and try to heal broken relationships to stop a big bad catastrophe from wrecking the planet.

No two ways to say it, this is a long movie. It clocks in at 2 hours 37 minutes, and after about 90 minutes, I was starting to feel it. The Eternals have never been mentioned in a Marvel film before, and they have a ton of backstory to be told to the viewer just to set up where they all sit. And there’s 10 of them! Imagine watching the Avengers without having seen the previous Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, etc… All those movies provided some foundation so you know what is going on and how each character will react to situations. Eternals has to build from the ground up, and with so much exposition to tell, the movie definitely feels clunky at times. But by the end, they do a good job of telling an engaging, entertaining story, and if (when?) there’s a sequel, the base will have been laid, and they can get right to the meat of a new tale. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for these films. ★★★★

Quick takes on Ran and other Kurosawa films

Been a year since I last watched some Kurosawa films, so today I’m digging more through his filmography. In a twist of fate, I’m starting with a different version of a film I just recently saw. Akira Kurosawa’s version of The Lower Depths is a much darker tale than Renoir’s. Jean Gabin’s Pépel is replaced with Toshiro Mifune’s Sutekichi. His relationship with the landlord’s wife (Osugi) and later, her sister (Okayo), is similar, but there are harsher realisms for the likable thief this time around. The film also seems to be more closely aligned with the original play, as most of it takes place on a single set, and the characters never stray far from it. Sutekichi never goes to a Baron’s house, and this version of the Baron, an ex-samurai who claims to once come from a powerful house, is already living in the ramshackle building with the others from the beginning. Kurosawa’s Depths also spends a lot more time with all the others in the house, sometimes for comedic relief, but also to really hammer down the dire situation of all those living there. There is a real sense that these people are barely squeaking by at the bottom rung of society, and they have no hope of escaping. About half way through this film, a sick wife dies in their communal room, and you get the sense that if the movie continued, the others would follow her, one by one. ★★★½

Dodes’ka-den continues looking at people at the fringes of society, this time the communal residents of a shantytown, assembled literally around and among a trash dump. There’s a big cast of characters here, some for comedy, some for tragedy, but all sharing the same background. The title comes from a young man of mental deficiencies, who, every day, gets in his pretend trolly and “drives” it around the haphazard town, ignoring the cruel taunts of children and waving to the kind and knowing inhabitants; the whole time, he’s muttering “dodes’ka-den,” in mimicking the sounds of a beat-up old bus. Other residents include a young boy who goes out begging for food at the local eateries and bars, so as to provide food for himself and his daydreaming father; a pair of wives whose husbands drink together (and who end up swapping wives one night, much to the delight of the gossiping ladies at the water well); an old man who willingly gives money to a thief, rather than see his tools stolen; and others. It’s a hard life for the inhabitants, and they often don’t make it any easier on themselves. There’s a lot of ugly, but that makes the beautiful moments that much more so. There isn’t really an overarching plot here. It just plays out as a glimpse at a few days in the life of people struggling to get by with the hands they’ve been dealt. ★★★

The director returned to war epic genre in 1980’s Kagemusha, which literally means “shadow warrior,” but it is a term for a political decoy. The decoy in question is a thief, brought in because he resembles identically the current lord, Shingen. Shingen’s brother and confidant, Nobukado, found the thief and saw his use as a double for Shingen, and scooped him up (the thief’s name is never given). Not long after, Shingen is gravely wounded by a sniper during a battle, and it is time for the former thief to earn his keep. The kingdom is currently in a sticky situation, with skirmishes on all sides, and Shingen’s son Katsuyori bristling that his father passed him over as future ruler, choosing his son (Shingen’s grandson) as his heir instead. Trying to keep the status quo for a bit longer, Nobukado installs the kagemusha as a fake Shingen; only the generals and the former lord’s closest guards know of the secret. But the new Shingen quickly realizes that danger doesn’t exist only on the battlefield, as political dangers await at ever corner. And rumors of Shingen’s death have circulated among the nation’s enemies, so they send spies trying to determine if Shingen is real and alive, or in fact a double. This is a great 3 hour long epic, with wonderful battle scenes, plenty of drama at court, and apprehension throughout. It’s a slow moving film, but with Kurosawa using the pace to build tension, I never grew bored, or even felt the length of the movie draining on me. ★★★★

For a director with so many accolades, it is hard to peg his “best film,” but 1985’s Ran is certainly in the discussion. Supposedly based on Shakespeare’s King Lear (which I ashamedly have never seen nor read, so I can’t comment), it follows the Ichimonji family, and chronicles its downfall from a powerful ruling warlord to the family’s complete destruction in a short period of time. Hidetora has ruled the surrounding lands for decades, having brutally conquered the local lords in battle many years before. Now he is an old man, and ready to “retire.” He has 3 sons, all aged close to each other, but as with tradition, he names the eldest, Taro, as his successor. For the middle and youngest sons, Jiro and Saburo, Hidetora bequeathes the second and third castles and their lands, but neither is too happy with the situation. Jiro eyes the whole of the kingdom, and Saburo, the only wise one of the three, anticipates the weakening of the family, as he sees his brothers jockeying for power. Saburo arguing with his father’s decision results in getting himself banished, and he is joined by Hidetora’s longtime friend and advisor when he too questions his master’s choice. That is just the start of the splintering of the family. When Hidetora returns to the first castle, with Taro now in control, he finds himself powerless, and he doesn’t like it one bit. He fights with Taro and leaves in a huff, riding with his retinue to the second castle. There, he finds a cold shoulder from Jiro as well, who doesn’t want to see his own power limited either. Hidetora ends up a wanderer, and though his loyal followers stay with him, they all begin starving, even as Hidetora sinks into madness. Meanwhile, skirmishes between the brothers turn to all-out war. A fantastically epic tale, beautifully filmed in vibrant colors and with a subtle soundtrack that belies the violent battles on screen. I have rated so many of Kurosawa’s films in the 4+ range, I’m like a broken record here. ★★★★★

Five years after Ran and at 80 years old, Kurosawa followed up with a much “quieter” film, Dreams. Supposedly based on some of his own dreams over the years, this isn’t a narrative film per se, but is made up of 8 short vignettes, unrelated to each other. In each, the lead is supposedly Kurosawa himself at different points in his life. There’s a boy who witnesses a marriage between foxes in the woods, and later sees dead peach trees become spirits, who perform a dance for him. As a young man, he leads an expedition up a snowy mountain, only to nearly freeze to death. In another, he is haunted by soldiers killed under his command during a war, and in another, visits Van Gogh, while traversing trough his paintings in a colorful landscape. The latter dreams deal with death and the destruction of the world, as an older lead character sees nuclear reactors blow up and kill everyone around, or demons play along a mountainside. The film is inarguably beautiful, with rich colors that pop on screen, but it’s not my cup of tea. The dreams are either too obtuse or too blunt; Kurosawa is either trying to get you reach into deeper meaning or hitting you over the head with his views, with little ground in between. This director is often known for the action in his films (though Ikiru is my personal favorite), so I appreciate the different approach, but this one’s just not for me. ★½

  • TV series currently watching: Star Wars The Clone Wars (season 7)
  • Book currently reading: The Wishsong of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Quick takes on Finch and other films

No Man of God is based on the final years of serial killer Ted Bundy, and the interviews he gave to FBI agent Bill Hagmaier while on death row. At the start of the film, Bundy has already been in jail for quite some time, and he’s refused to cooperate with authorities to name his other victims, of whom the cops suspect but need Bundy’s help to sew it up. The authorities just want to help the victim’s families find closure, but Ted hates federal agents. Hagmaier wants to get help for those families too, but more than anything, he wants to get inside Ted’s head. Hagmaier is looking to see what makes a serial killer tick, to help in profiling future murderers. As the film progresses, over the course of a couple years, Hagmaier is able to gain Bundy’s trust, mostly by being honest and not trying to trick him into lapses, which helps those families, as well as Hagmaier’s overall goal. Elijah Wood and particularly Luke Kirby are very good as Hagmaier and Bundy, but while the movie is billed as a crime mystery film, it ends up being light on the mystery, and even fairly light on the crime. It certainly sets up as Bundy being the focus, but the truly sensational parts of his killing spree are barely touched on, and the movie becomes more about Hagmaier’s goals. Despite the strong acting, the ending comes off as a letdown. ★★½

Old is the latest film from M Night Shyamalan, whose last film Glass was poorly received (though I enjoyed it). This film received mixed reviews, but like a lot of Shyamalan films, it has a great premise. While on vacation at a resort, two separate families are taken to a private beach by the hotel’s taxi. The beach is gorgeous and secluded, surrounded by cliffs. Seems like paradise, but they aren’t there long before they find a dead body. While accusations and fear are spreading around, the adults notice that their children are suddenly appearing much older than when they arrived. Soon everyone is rapidly aging, at the rate of a year every 30 minutes or so. When anyone tries to leave through the cliffs, the person develops a massive headache and blacks out, only to find themself back on the beach again. Crashing waves prevent swimming around to the next cove. As the children become teenagers and then young adults, and their parents become elderly, answers as to what they can do to escape continue to elude them. What should be great suspense (and there is some) is hampered by truly awful dialogue, and misguided attempts to force a series of dread for the viewer. Shyamalan has always had a problem with writing dialogue that feels natural, and this one is even worse than his norm. Good idea, but the movie just doesn’t deliver on the goods. ★★

I recently watched a film featuring Anna Magnani and was reminded how great she is, so I looked up the one film where she won a Best Actress Oscar. The Rose Tattoo was originally written as a play by Tennessee Williams and he had Magnani in mind for the lead, but in 1951, she felt her English wasn’t good enough. She kept practicing, and by the time the film version was made in 1955, she was ready to go. She plays Serafina Della Rose, an Italian immigrant with a philandering husband, but she is unaware of his pursuits. After he dies one night, killed trying to evade police while smuggling goods in his truck (again showing he is no saint), Serafina still honors his memory and raises their daughter on her own, stressing an abstinent upbringing. A couple years later, daughter Rosa is getting ready to graduate high school and is falling in love with an American sailor, which sends her mom Serafina into a tizzy. At the same time, Serafina begins to have feelings for a widowed truck driver, a hard working man also from Sicily, but who’s a bit of a dunce (she laughingly calls him a clown to his face). To this point, Serafina has refused to besmirch the memory of her dead husband, but will she keep to that virtue after she finally learns of his womanizing? The plot of the movie is only so-so, but Magnani makes the film. Her highs and lows are felt by the viewer, and she does an amazing job of pulling us in to her predicaments. ★★★

Werewolves Within is a comedy horror film, and reminds me a bit of Shaun of the Dead, in more ways than one. Finn Wheeler is a newly appointed forest ranger to the tiny town of Beaverfield, and no sooner does he arrive on the eve of a winter storm, that things start going strange. That is, stranger than what is expected in the town, where each of the quirky citizens is odder than the next. The only one that seems normal is the mail carrier, Cecily, with whom Finn immediately hits it off. The two become spectators to the antics of the others, but Finn is in for more than he signed up for: first an eccentric woman’s dog is killed, and then Finn finds the body of a missing man under the porch of the lodge. The dead man looks to have been mauled by a dog, and a strange visitor to town is convinced there is a werewolf at play. When the town’s generators are sabotaged, by an assailant leaving large claw marks, the citizens huddle together at the lodge and let their fears play out against each other. I wouldn’t call it an extremely funny film, but it is quirky enough to elicit plenty of chuckles, and while not scary, there’s enough spooky moments to keep you engaged. All in all, a better-than-average example of the genre. ★★★

Finch shows again that if you put Tom Hanks in front of a camera, like Cast Away 20 years ago, he can carry a picture all by himself. Instead of an island, this time he is a survivor of a solar flare which has stripped the earth of much of its ozone. Daytime temps can reach 150+ degrees, and the UV radiation burns skin in seconds. Finch Weinberg, a robotics engineer, survived the initial calamity because he was working in an underground facility the day it happened, and has lived there for the ensuing 15+ years. His only companions are a dog (named simply “Dog”) and a robotic pet who travels with him to the surface to scavenge for food and supplies. However, over the years and because of his surface travels, Finch has developed cancer, and he knows his time is growing short. When he’s gone, no one will be around to take care of Dog (who has stayed healthy, never having been to the surface), so Finch has created a new human-like robot to care for the pet after he is gone. Unfortunately their training is cut short when severe storms head their way, storms made worse without the ozone, and which will blanket the city for 40 days. Finch knows their dwindling supplies won’t last that long, so he, his two robots, and Dog head out in an RV for the west coast, traversing sun-baked lands where nothing lives except the dangerous other scavengers who come out at night. There’s some very funny moments as Finch tries to teach his new robot how to care for Dog and how to be safe in the completely unsafe world, and the visuals of a destroyed world are devastatingly beautiful, but Hanks’ performance is the true saving grace. Ultimately I don’t think the movie is very memorable, and doesn’t set itself apart from other films of this genre, but worthy of a watch for its star, who hasn’t lost a step. ★★★

  • TV series currently watching: DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (season 6)
  • Book currently reading: The Wishsong of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Quick takes on The Golden Coach and other Renoir films

I can’t believe it has been over 2 years since I last sat down to watch some of the great French director Jean Renoir’s films. Well past due for more, I’d say! Starting today with 1935’s Toni, a lesser known film of his using non-professional actors. Unfortunately it tells. The eponymous Toni is an Italian immigrant working as a laborer in southern France. He starts with a relationship with his boarding lady, Marie, mostly to get a place to stay, but as time goes on, it is clear he isn’t interested for the long term. He has his eye on Josefa, a Spanish immigrant, but she gets involved with another man, leaving Toni to settle for Marie. A couple years down the line, things haven’t changed, but Josefa is ready to leave her abusive husband, and Toni sees his chance. Unfortunately the story is altogether forgettable, and some of the actors are downright bad, like Josefa’s husband, who can’t seem to stop grinning in every scene he’s in, whether he’s being cruel or loving. I’ll give Renoir a pass on this one. ★½

The Lower Depths followed a year later, and is based on a Russian play. Thankfully we bring out the stars this time, led by French superstar Jean Gabin as Pépel. Pépel is a thief living in a flophouse. He’s been shagging the boarding house owner’s (Kostylev) wife Vassilissa, but admits later that his heart isn’t in it anymore. Pépel makes a true friend in an odd way: while robbing the local Baron one night, he is discovered, and Pépel and the Baron hit it off. The Baron invites Pépel to take what he wants, as he is heavily in debt and his creditors will be by in the morning to take all his belongings anyway. Now penniless, the Baron ends up living at Kostylev’s building too, and he and Pépel continue their friendship. As the story plays along, Pépel grows feelings for Vassilissa’s younger sister Natasha, but she doesn’t want to be with a thief. Pépel laments to the Baron that he is only a thief because his father was one, and it is all he has ever known. As he tries to prove himself to Natasha, Pépel must break the mold or risk dying in jail as his dad did. A much better film than Toni, with a fantastic turn from Gabin. Lots of humor too, supplied mostly by the various characters living in the flophouse with Pépel. ★★½

Jumping ahead to 1951 and Renoir’s film The River, which was shot in India and had that country’s soon-to-be-celebrated director Satyajit Ray assisting in finding filming locations (his breakout Pather Panchali was still 4 years away). Based on a novel, the movie follows a British family living near the Ganges River in India, and is narrated by the eldest daughter, teenager Harriet. Harriet begins the film by introducing her family and friends, throwing names at the viewer in a whirlwind, and I’m glad I didn’t have to remember them all! The important ones are Valerie, Harriet’s friend, and Captain John, the neighbor’s cousin who is visiting from America. Harriet is immediately infatuated with John (to be honest, she doesn’t have many other options), but so is every other girl in the area. Valerie has been Harriet’s childhood friend, but being a year or two older, she already has the body of a woman, and competes for John’s attention, as does John’s benefactor’s daughter, Melanie, a young woman of mixed heritage, from her English father and Indian mother. All of the drama takes place along the Ganges, where everyone from the lowliest peasant to the richest landowner does business, and on which they rely for their livelihood. It’s a very good drama, and like most Indian films I’ve seen from this era, shot in beautiful technicolor that pops on screen. I’m really liking Renoir’s style of humor too. ★★★

The Golden Coach came the next year, and brings to the screen the great Anna Magnani (of Rome Open City and Mamma Roma fame; I still need to see her Oscar winning performance in The Rose Tattoo). Shot in Italy, it is an English language film about a traveling troupe of actors who’ve been commissioned to come to Peru for entertainment. They arrive to see much lesser accommodations than what they were used to in Europe, but try to make the best of the situation. On the same ship that brought them was also transported a golden coach, which the local Viceroy originally purchased to give to his mistress, but has decided instead to use public funds to pay for it so it can be paraded in front of the locals. To throw a further wrench in the Viceroy’s grand scheme, he falls in love with Camilia (Magnani), one of the actors. Camilia has also caught the eye of a local celebrity, Ramon the bull fighter, and she already has a boyfriend among their travelers. Between the Viceroy’s love triangle and Camilia’s love quadrangle, there are plenty of laughs to be had. Though the film petered out just a bit by the end, I still really enjoyed the fun along the way. Great cast up and down. ★★★½

French Cancan is a fictionalized telling of the opening of the famous French cabaret Moulin Rouge. Jean Gabin plays Henri Danglard (a fictional version of Charles Zidler), a night club owner who sees his small club struggling, despite good talent, which includes his mistress Lola, a belly dancer. One evening, Henri and Lola go to a dance hall where the working class kick back at night, and Henri is immediately intrigued by a young woman named Nini. She loves to dance, and particularly likes the old fashioned cancan style. Pursing an idea, Henri secures financial backers to renovate the old dance hall and turn it into the Moulin Rouge, a new venue where average people can feel like nobles, drinking champagne and watching premier entertainment. Henri hires a dance instructor to teach Nini and other dancers a new style of the cancan that will bring in the people. While he tries to get the new club open, he faces jealousies between Nini and Lola, as well as each of their lovers/significant others having their own jealousies over Henri. Sound intriguing? Unfortunately it’s not. For a quasi-musical about a famous (or infamous?) institution, the movie is quite dull. I couldn’t get too excited about any of the characters, and the film feels too much like a standard 1950s American drama. Maybe Renoir had had a bit too much Hollywood influence by this point in his career, as I felt much the same about the next film… ★

Elena and Her Men carries that same kind of feel and texture (overly-played Hollywood romantic comedy), but at least it is a lot funnier. The eponymous Elena is portrayed by the great Ingrid Bergman. She’s a Polish noble with a good family but no money, living in France in the late 19th century. Elena has a way of turning every man’s head, and has no shortage of suitors. Knowing her family’s situation, she promises to marry an affluent businessman, but immediately regrets her decision. During a parade to celebrate Bastille Day, she meets a Count, and is swept off her feet. The Count is a longtime friend to General Rollan, a war hero who is being pushed by advisors to take over the unpopular government. Rollan too is smitten by Elena, and seems to always have good luck in life, both professional and personal, when she gives him her favor. Now with three men clambering after her, Elena has her hands full. As does everyone else in this cast, which is full of cuckolded lovers and unrequited love. I can’t say I ever laughed too hard, but I chuckled and grinned a lot, and Bergman is charming as always. ★★½

  • TV series currently watching: Star Trek Lower Decks (season 2)
  • Book currently reading: The Wishsong of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Villeneuve delivers an inspiring experience in Dune

Was so, so excited to finally watch Dune. I’m not a longtime fan, just recently getting into them. I read the first book in February of this year, and subsequently read the first 2 sequels and watched the 1984 movie. Have really liked it all so far, and with all the hype surrounding this release, I was pumped. It did not disappoint.

The movie does not follow the book perfectly (there’s too much material to do so), but it is fairly faithful. It begins with introducing the Atreides family, paying particular attention to main character Paul. The Atreides family has ruled the oceanic planet of Caladan for generations, but have new marching orders from the Emperor to oversee the desert planet of Arrakis. Nearly uninhabitable, except for the local “freeman” population who somehow have adapted to eke out an existence, no rational person would want to live there. However, Arrakis is the only source of “spice,” a sand-like mineral which makes interplanetary space travel possible. This means whoever runs the planet will be extremely wealthy. The Harkonnens did so for a long time, but the Emperor has, for an unknown reason, decided to replace them with the Atreides.

Enter into this politically unstable environment Paul and his mother Jessica. Brought up by the almost mystical Bene Gesserit women, Jessica has certain powers of deduction and can use “the voice,” an ability to give unable-to-resist commands to those that hear it. Against the Bene Gesserit law, Jessica has taught these skills to Paul, making him a candidate to fulfill prophecies handed down for hundreds of years about a young man who will lead all peoples with otherworldly powers.

Once on Arrakis, Paul, who has been having prescient dreams for some time about the desert planet, starts to see things that he had previously envisioned. Hardly have they settled in though before the family and their army is attacked, by the Harkonnens, who aren’t ready to release their control over the spice trade. In the ensuing battle, can Paul escape to see if he can become the leader that is foretold?

This movie is truly a sight to see. Huge in scope with ginormous vistas, massive armies, and the unfathomable expanse of space, the movie dwarfs the viewer in its reach. The soundtrack, by the great Hans Zimmer, builds continuously throughout, giving you plenty of heart-pounding moments. And the direction from Denis Villeneuve, who’s handled other large sci-fi projects like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, is spot on. If I have one quibble, it is that the movie, as large as it is, doesn’t give quite enough attention to its individual characters. I know the ins and outs of these people from reading the book, but newcomers may feel they lack personality, and you don’t really get to know them as well as you maybe should, perhaps leading to a lack of caring when some die or others struggle. There’s so much story to tell though, that I don’t know where they could spare time to do so, short of stretching its 2 1/2 hour runtime into a 3 1/2 hour butt-numbing run. It’s a minor spat, and for Dune fans like myself, it won’t bother you as much. I await with bated breath for the sequel. ★★★★½