Nuthin’ But a G Thang

House of Gucci

by George Wolf

Just four years ago, director Ridley Scott deconstructed the Getty family’s wealth of dysfunction in the masterful All the Money in the World. House of Gucci shows he’s still got money on his mind, and his mind on the rot that can take root in such mind-altering luxury.

Based on the true events detailed in Sara Gay Forden’s bestseller, the film dissects the complete unraveling of the Gucci family dynasty, a fuse seemingly lit by the unlikely relationship between Muarizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and commoner Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga).

Though the Gucci name gets Patrizia’s attention at their first introduction, Muarizio didn’t seen to have much interest in the empire shared equally by his father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) and uncle Aldo (Al Pacino). But once he puts a ring on it, the mix of Patrizia’s ambition and Aldo’s invitations finally bring Maurizio into the family business.

Aldo’s own son Paulo (Jared Leto in some nifty makeup) is the Fredo in this clan, and it isn’t long before Paulo is trying to form his own back door alliance with Rodolfo, and Patrizia is Lady Macbeth-ing it everywhere from Italy to New York (complete with bewitching help from Salma Hayek as psychic Pina Auriemma).

You may have noticed that this is a pretty impressive cast. True, and even with their wheel-of-accents there’s little doubt that watching them all try to out-Italian each other in this trashy mash of The Godfather, I, Tonya, Shakespeare and The Real Housewives of Milan is the film’s biggest pleasure. But Scott and screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna can never establish a consistently compelling tone (overly random soundtrack choices don’t help, either), and the two and a half hour run time takes on curious contrasts. Even as the overall narrative has moments that drag, Maurizio’s transformation to the dark side still feels too rushed and convenient.

But Gaga proves worthy of another Oscar nom, and though the film never reaches the level of crackling relevance Scott mined in his look at the Gettys, she proves a fascinating window for the legendary director’s latest foray into an iconic family’s arc of greed, suspicion, betrayal and worse.

And if your Thanksgiving ends up going completely off the rails, House of Gucci is a star-powered and entertaining way to feel a whole lot better about your own family.

Leader of the Pack

The Power of the Dog

by George Wolf

Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.

Psalm 22:20 pleads for protection from pack animals that attack the vulnerable. And in the first film in 12 years from writer/director Jane Campion, the leader of the pack is Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Phil and his brother George (Jesse Plemons) are wealthy ranchers in 1925 Montana. George is soft spoken, well-dressed, polite and empathetic. Phil is none of those things.

So Phil is nothing but resentful when their family dynamic is upended by George bringing home Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and introducing her as his new wife. Though Phil doesn’t hide his suspicions of the new Mrs. Burbank, it is Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), that becomes his new favorite target.

Peter is quiet, gentle, and artsy, the perfect foil for Phil to belittle in front of his ranch hands. A master at exposing vulnerabilities, Phil doesn’t hesitate to loudly question Peter’s masculinity and his worth at the ranch – if not in the world.

So it surprises everyone – most notably the resilient, cautious Rose – when Phil seems to reverse course and take the young man under his wing. Peter needs new skills to be accepted into the ranch life, and Phil begins taking extra time to personally mentor him, passing on lessons that Phil himself learned at the feet of local legend Bronco Honey.

Even if you haven’t read the celebrated source novel by Thomas Savage, Campion’s adaptation unfolds with enough subtle poetry to convince you that it must be a wonderful read. Onscreen, the Oscar-winning Campion (The Piano) contrasts the vast majesty of the American West (kudos to cinematographer Ari Wegner) with delicate details that shift the nature of love, trust and strength within a family.

Campion gives Plemons, Dunst and Smit-McPhee the room to craft indelible characters, and they each respond with tenderly restrained excellence. But Cumberbatch is also the leader of this pack, delivering a magnificent, completely immersive performance sure to get awards season attention. Phil is unclean, both physically and spiritually, and Cumberbatch makes him a darkly compelling character, a feeling that directly feeds the unease that comes when Phil reasses his relationship with Peter.

What made Phil such an unforgiving brute? Are his new intentions truly kind, or is Peter in danger? And maybe Peter is seeing Phil more clearly than we realize.

The Power of the Dog finds its own power in what it shows but never truly tells. It’s a film that is hauntingly lyrical and masterfully assembled, with a beauty that lingers like an echo in the Montana wilderness.

Remember 1984? Be a Lot Zuuler If You Did

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

by George Wolf

Have you tried to branch out, only to end up with a revolt on your hands? Perhaps fan service is right for you! In other words, if 2016’s Ghostbusters was The Last Jedi, Afterlife is The Rise of Skywalker. With a side of Goonies.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a fun trip down memory lane.

Director/co-writer Jason Reitman picks up the 1984 baton from dad Ivan, crafting a new adventure that casually ignores the 1989 sequel.

Egon Spengler’s long-estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) is being evicted from her Chicago apartment, so she takes daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace – just terrific in a completely heroic arc) and son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) to the only thing Dad left her when he died: a dilapidated farmhouse in small-town Oklahoma.

Ah, but this farm holds secrets, and it isn’t long before science whiz Phoebe is getting familiar with proton packs and Trevor is checking to see if the ECTO-1’s engine might actually turn over.

Good timing, too, because Phoebe’s teacher Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd) has been noticing some serious seismic activity in town that he cannot explain. Turns out the Sexiest Teacher Alive is also a big fan of the original Ghostbusters, and he clues in Phoebe and her conspiracy-happy friend “Podcast” (a charming Logan Kim) about Grandpa’s heroics back in the day.

Once Trevor’s crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor from Freaky) makes it a quartet, it’s up to the kids to figure out the real reason Egon abandoned the GB’s all those years ago, what’s brewing under the farmhouse, and just how to wrangle a stage 5 apparition.

This is a film so steeped in the nostalgia for its source material that you cannot imagine it existing on its own. Is that a direct result of the savagery that greeted the female (and for what it’s worth, underrated) reboot or a natural reaction by a son following in his father’s footsteps?

Either way, the benchmark callbacks come early and often, with Reitman frequently holding the shot an extra beat just to make sure you pick up what he left for you. And while the Bill Murray zany-ness is replaced by Paul Rudd sarcasm and wisecracking from a cast of wonderful young actors, there is humor here, enough to justify the “comedy” label (which honestly, the original trailer had me questioning).

But is it fun? Oh yeah, with some slick CGI and high points that are zuuler than the other side of the pillow.

You’ll want to stay through the credits for two extra scenes, but there’s a good chance you’ll still be thinking about all that Reitman has in store during that finale. It’s plenty – maybe even enough for your eyes to stay as pufty as a certain marshmallow man.

Louder Than Words

tick, tick…BOOM!

by George Wolf

What’s an aspiring writer to do when his first major work is bypassed for the eager anticipation about what he’ll do next?

He takes his agent’s advice to “move on to the next one. And write what you know.”

Broadway trailblazer Jonathan Larson – Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and composer of Rent – agonized for 8 years over Superbia, a futuristic musical that never earned a full production. When Larson did move on to the next one, it became tick, tick…BOOM!, his autobiographical story of a composer named Jon whose final days as a twentysomething bring feelings of rejection and inadequacy.

ttBOOM! made it to off-Broadway in 1990, with revivals beginning in 2001,15 years after both the phenomenal success of Rent and Larson’s tragic death from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35.

Now, director Lin-Manuel Miranda brings Larson’s story of struggling artistry to the screen with an infectious exuberance and undying respect for those committed to the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.

Andrew Garfield stars as Jon, who waits tables in a New York diner, works on his musical and worries about how much other people have accomplished before turning 30 (“Sondheim wrote West Side Story at 27!”)

While Jon struggles to find enough money to keep the lights on, his longtime girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) mulls a tempting job offer in the Berkshires, and his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) decides it’s finally time to give up the Broadway dream and get a real 9 to 5 gig.

While everyone – including Sondheim himself! (a terrific Bradley Whitford) – tells him Superbia needs one more big song in the second act, Jon rebuffs any need for a life “backup plan,” even as his tenuous relationship status and a co-worker’s HIV diagnosis remind him of each precious tick of the clock.

Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hanson, Fosse/Verdon) effectively layer the musical segments with real-life inspirations and one-man show beginnings that build to workshop performances and Broadway fantasies. From the birthday defiance of “30/90” to the pleading interplay between Garfield, Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens (as Susan’s stage persona) on “Come to Your Senses,” Miranda’s staging is lively and stylish, peppered by plenty of Easter eggs and cameos saluting years of musical greats (including Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Bebe Neuwirth and two of Hamiton‘s Schuyler sisters in the show-stopping “Sunday” alone).

Garfield delivers an electric, committed performance, singing well and absolutely selling the manic, no-sleep-til-curtain-time tunnel vision that Larson clings to instead of admitting that there might be any other way to live.

And as a tribute to this life, the creative process and one man who personified both, tick, tick…BOOM! is a runaway hit. But in the process, it forgoes a sense of intimacy that might have brought us closer to Larson himself. That’s a trade-off the film ultimately seems comfortable with. Miranda, Garfield and company are going big here, and end up reaching the balcony with crowd-pleasing panache.

A Pair of Aces

King Richard

by George Wolf

You know how many parents are convinced their kid is destined for athletic greatness? Quite a few, and that’s just in your neighborhood.

So how – and why – did Richard Williams’s predictions for daughters Venus and Serena come so incredulously true?

That’s a compelling story, one that King Richard tells with enough restraint and humanity to sidestep most sports movie cliches and find layers of true inspiration.

The Williams family – Richard (Will Smith), wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), Venus (Saniyya Sidney), Serena (Demi Singleton), and three additional daughters from Brandi’s previous relationship – weren’t exactly welcomed into the L.A. tennis community when Richard put his master plan in motion.

Tennis was a sport for the rich and the pale. They were a Black family from Compton, often dodging gang activity for a chance to practice on run down community courts. Richard was dogged in his search for a coach, first landing Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) before Venus earned the entire family an invite to Rick Macci’s (Jon Bernthal, playing delightfully against type) exclusive training center in Florida.

In his debut screenplay, writer Zach Baylin follows a fairly standard biopic formula, but manages to weave in necessary layers of nuance. While we see that the doubt Richard encounters about his daughters’ future greatness is understandable, the added barrier of racism is understood without an overplaying the hand. In fact, Baylin’s script (or the editing bay) occasionally downplays obstacles that the Williams’s surely encountered all too often, seemingly mindful of the film’s 138 minute running time.

But director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) has a good feel for pacing, with well-placed bits of tension, humor and impressively-staged tennis sequences that never let the film feel sluggish.

And while you can hardly be blamed for detecting the whiff of “Will Smith Oscar bait” in the air, don’t be surprised if he lands his third nomination. The film is an inspirational crowd pleaser that steers refreshingly clear of pandering, and Smith responds with a performance that leans into the colorful personality of Richard Williams while checking his penchant for heavy-handed mugging.

It helps that Smith is constantly elevated by Sidney and Singleton, the two wonderful young actresses playing Venus and Serena, and the always amazing Ellis (Lovecraft Country, Ray, The Help). Though Brandi’s character is often strong and silent, there are fine moments that prove just how vital she is to the Williams plan. And by the time Brandi is dressing down Richard as just another man that won’t admit he’s scared, it’s clear how vital Ellis is to the film’s resonance.

Though Venus and Serena get Executive Producer credits, the film doesn’t ignore some problematic areas in Richard’s personality, and Smith makes the mix of crazy-like-a-fox determination, gentle humor and hidden scars one that -like Smith himself – is hard to dislike.

As the older sister and the first to find success on the tour, it is Venus that gets much of the film’s focus. But Richard’s prediction for Serena (“the best ever”) serves as a natural pivot to send us home with a reminder about how lucky we’ve been to witness their greatness.

And as the best sports movies always do, King Richard scores often enough to land its message past the fault lines. The Williams plan may have been heavy on tennis, but it’s anchored by life lessons that not only benefitted all of Richard and Brandi’s children, but would undoubtedly be an asset in any arena.

So what made Richard’s vision so much clearer than every other parent in the stands?

Just some unending determination and confident stubbornness. Plus two daughters with once-in-a-generation gifts, the passionate drive to excel, and the desire to make the road a little smoother for the next young phenom that isn’t white or wealthy. That helps, too.

Nun But the Faithful

Agnes

by George Wolf

After Agnes, some disgruntled horror fans may end up checking the credits for the stamp of A24. Don’t get me wrong, I consistently love A24’s brand of spooky, but I can’t deny that some of their trailers write a visceral check that the films themselves don’t always cash.

So don’t come to Agnes for some standard demonic possession fare, cause it ain’t here. But what director/co-writer Mickey Reece has in store ends up being bold and weird, funny and captivating, and in the end, even sweetly hopeful.

Opening with a convent birthday gathering that gets out of hand fast, Reece then introduces us to Father Frank Donaghue (Ben Hall), whose knowledge of the rite of exorcism earns him a meeting with the Bishop. Back at Santa Teresa, young sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) seems to have the Devil in her. Church elders want Father Frank and his neophyte Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) to cast it out.

Things don’t go well, leading Father Frank to call in reinforcement from the renegade Father Black (Chris Browning), a cocky, chain-smoking padre who puts Agnes through a hilarious bit of exorcising straight out of Airplane!

If you saw Reece’s Climate of the Hunter, you won’t be surprised by the layer of dark humor running through his latest. But what might surprise you is realizing that what happens to Agnes isn’t really the point here. The point is what happens to Mary (Molly C. Quinn).

Sister Mary committed to the convent after a tragic loss in her life but abandons the order following those clumsy attempts at driving the devil from her friend. From there, Reece also leaves the convent behind to focus on Mary’s attempts at re-adjusting to “normal” life.

The film’s tone takes a major shift, establishing a clear contrast between nunnery silliness and real-world struggles that reinforces an early observation made by Father Frank.

Belief in evil is on the rise, so where is the increased belief in Godly things?

Quinn (Mrs. Grady in Doctor Sleep) invites both curiosity and sympathy as Mary wanders wide-eyed and often expressionless, looking for a reason to believe. She proves a wonderful vessel for both Mary’s crisis of faith and Reece’s unconventional methods for raising worthwhile questions.

Follow its admittedly jarring path and Agnes just might make you find comfort in your next ham sandwich.

I’m So Eggcited

Red Notice

by George Wolf

Heist Movie? Gal Gadot? I’m in.

Plus Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds.

I said I’m in! Sounds like a bunch of fun.

But somehow, it’s just not.

Johnson is FBI agent John Hartley, and he’s on the trail of Nolan Booth (Reynolds), the 2nd most wanted art thief in the world.

Who’s number 1? That would be The Bishop (Gadot), a mysterious criminal who always seems one step ahead of Booth in the quest to reunite three priceless jeweled eggs that Marc Antony once gave to Cleopatra. Yes, Cleopatra.

After a snappy, parkour-heavy chase to open the film, Hartley offers Booth the chance to move up to the top spot on Interpol’s Red Notice (highest level arrest warrant) list. All he has to do is help Hartley and the Feds nab The Bishop.

And the game is on!

Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence, Skyscraper) has assembled three charismatic A-listers for a globe-trotting adventure with glamourous locales, double crosses and a script full of quippy banter. And it takes barely thirty minutes to begin wondering how it all went wrong.

You would think that watching Gadot, Reynolds and Johnson do anything together would be at least a marginal hoot, but nobody seems comfortable. What chemistry there is feels forced, at best, and none of the three stars bring much beyond the personas they’ve earned in better films. Reynolds carries most of the comedic weight, but with schtick that’s nearly interchangeable from his two Hitman’s Bodyguard films, a stale odor appears early and often.

There are a few LOL moments, most notably Hartley and Booth arguing about Jurassic Park and the real Ed Sheeran showing up to fight some federal agents. But with direct references that include Indiana Jones and Vin Diesel, plus multiple outlandish wardrobe changes (Johnson can’t exactly buy off the rack, so who had the tailor made safari outfit?), Thurber ends up navigating an awkward space that teeters on spoof.

Is Red Notice really trying to launch a new action/comedy franchise? Or is it just riffing on the genre? Either way, it ends up on the naughty list. Even those two Hitmans Bodyguard films embrace their own ridiculousness to deliver some dumb, forgettable fun. Red Notice manages two out of those three, and that ain’t good.

State of Shark

Great White

by George Wolf

Wait, no new scientific term mixing sharks and weather? No genetically modified sharks? Unearthed prehistoric giants? Sharks with lasers on their heads?

Geesh, do these guys even know how to Sharkmovie?

Don’t get me wrong, Shudder’s Great White gives you plenty of opportunity to suspend disbelief, but it’s built on a premise that now seems almost quaint.

People in the water. Sharks in the water. Big sharks.

Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies….

Actually these are Australian waters, with Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) and Kaz (Katrina Bowden) running the Pearl Air charter service, where they debate getting married and fire up the seaplane to take tourists on excursions to Hell’s Reef.

The business needs some renewed cash flow, so Charlie is only too happy to book a last minute trip for superdouche investment analyst Joji (Tiim Kano) and his wife Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi), who wants to scatter her Grandfather’s ashes in the sea.

But even before cook Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka) can whip them up a delicious lunch on the island, a ridiculous accident puts everyone in a life raft trying to evade some large, hungry predators that supposedly injured some bathers.

Yes, that’s another Jaws reference, which seems appropriate as director Martin Wilson doesn’t shy away from them either, even including a pretty shameless re-working of one of Spielberg’s classic scenes. But Wilson does craft one major jump scare of his own, and adds frequent shots framed right on the waterline to consistently simmer the tension through simultaneous looks at the castaways and what they fear.

Bowden and Jakubenko mine Michael Boughen’s script for enough authenticity to seem like real people who care for each other. Kano and Tsukakoshi aren’t as lucky, with the Joji character painted as such an over the top asshole that it’s clear he’ll be an entree, the only question is how bloody satisfying it will be to watch.

These man-eaters never do get lasers, but there’s still some pretty outlandish shark wrangling before the shoreline comes into view. So while Great White gets some props for not drowning in silliness from the start, that may have been the only way to make it memorable.

Who Are You, Again?

Yourself and Yours

by Hope Madden

It’s taken four years, but Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours is finally screening internationally. The delightfully confusing love story uses inebriation and one well-placed mannequin to illustrate the giddy, identity-demolishing euphoria of love.

Young-soo (Kim Ju-hyuk) decides to believe his friends when they tell him his girlfriend Minjung (Lee Yoo-Young) goes out drinking—and who knows what else?—with other men.

But does she? I mean, it sure looks like she does, but maybe it isn’t her? Or maybe it is her, but there’s some kind of explanation, like mental illness? Or maybe it doesn’t matter, because the filmmaker is less interested in who is (or isn’t) doing what to whom than he is in how others react.

The film is a charming change of pace in at least a dozen ways. Its intentional ambiguity works in its favor because it keeps you from falling into the frustrating trap of seeing Yourself and Yours in the same terms as some kind of American doppelganger erotic thriller noir, which is certainly what the same story could have become.

Instead, the film delivers an entirely off-kilter sensation (as, some would say, does love). Lee’s enigmatic performance is captivating—at times tender, defensive and silly but always engaging. It’s hard to imagine the film working with anyone else in this role because, thanks to her unshowy but convincing portrayal, you are never absolutely certain what the hell is going on.

Supporting performances couldn’t be richer, whether the flatly disgusted female friend, the “sorry I started this whole thing” buddy, the nonchalant bartender or Minjung’s (or is it?) other smitten beaus. With limited screen time and limitless commitment to the concept, the ensemble adds to the confusion and the joy to be found throughout the film.

It may be Kim’s turn and the transformation of his character that elevate Yourself and Yours above quirky love story to truly solid, insightful art. His performance is quite beautiful, as is the film.

As, some would say, is love.

Saturday Screamer: The Mist

The Mist (2007)

Frank Darabont really loves him some Stephen King, having adapted and directed the writer’s work almost exclusively for the duration of his career. While The Shawshank Redemption may be Darabont’s most fondly remembered effort, The Mist, an under-appreciated creature feature, is our vote for his best.

David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son head to town for some groceries. Meanwhile, a tear in the space/time continuum (who’s to blame?!) opens a doorway to alien monsters. So Drayton, his boy, and a dozen or so other shoppers all find themselves trapped inside this glass-fronted store just waiting for rescue or death.

Marcia Gay Harden is characteristically brilliant. As the religious zealot who turns survival inside the store into something less likely than survival out with the monsters, she brings a little George Romero to this Stephen King.

In a Romero film, no matter how great the threat from the supernatural, the real monsters tend to be the rest of the humans. King does not generally go there, but he does so with The Mist and it’s what makes this one of his most effective films.

While Harden excels in a way that eclipses all other performances, the whole cast offers surprisingly restrained and emotional turns – Toby Jones is especially effective.

The FX look good, too, and let’s be honest, a full-on monster movie with weak FX is the lamest. The way Darabont frames the giants, in particular, gives the film a throw-back quality to the old matinee creature features. But he never gives into cheekiness or camp. The Mist is a genuinely scary film – best seen in the black and white version if you can find it.

Regardless, it’s the provocative ending that guarantees this one will sear itself into your memory. Though this is likely what kept The Mist from gaining an audience in theaters, it is a brilliant and utterly devastating scene that elevates the film from great creature feature to great film.