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.

Cinema Killed the Video Star

Assassin’s Creed

by Hope Madden

What does it take to make a worthwhile movie based on a video game? Because it isn’t just talent – Assassin’s Creed proves that.

Like Warcraft, Creed pits a genuinely gifted director against all that terrible cinematic history – from 1992’s Super Mario Brothers through the Resident Evil series to this year’s Angry Birds Movie – and comes up lacking.

Australian director Justin Kurzel quietly proved his mettle with an astonishing true crime horror film in 2011 called Snowtown. Last year, he teamed up with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard – authentic talents if ever there were – for an imaginative and bloody take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

And now the three re-team, along with time-tested craftsmen Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson and Charlotte Rampling, to adapt the popular time traveling video game.

Fassbender is Cal, a death row convict secretly saved by the Abstergo science lab. There, Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Cotillard) will use him to channel his ancestor Aguilar (also Fassbender) – member of a shadowy team battling the Knights Templar for the freedom of humanity.

So, we bounce back and forth in time between a modern day SciFi story and a dusty Inquisition-era adventure. Cal struggles against his newfound captivity and the after-effects of the experiments; Aguilar parkours his way through ancient Spain, trying to keep the Templar from the apple that started all our troubles back in Eden.

If the problem here is not talent, what, then?

As usual, it begins with the writing. Kurzel works with his Macbeth collaborator Michael Lesslie, as well as ne’er do wells Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (Allegiant, Exodus: Gods and Kings). They put together a story that’s as convoluted and bloated as it is superficial.

The cast gets little opportunity to do anything other than deliver dour lines with stone faces, each one developing less of a sense of character than what you would have actually found in the video game itself.

Kurzel’s no help, his mirthless presentation undermining thrills at every turn. When he isn’t bombarding the action with murky visual effects, he’s pulling the audience from the midst of a climactic battle and back into the lab to watch Cotillar and/or Irons look on with clinical interest.

Yawn.

Maybe it’s impossible to capture the visceral thrill of gaming within the comparatively passive experience of cinema. Maybe the rich backstories of modern video games are only rich if you’re used to video game narratives. Hopefully the movies will get it right at some point, or at least they’ll stop wasting such incredible talent on such forgettable nonsense.

Verdict-2-0-Stars





To Infinity, Not Beyond

The Man Who Knew Infinity

by Hope Madden

If you think a movie about math can’t be thrilling, well, The Man Who Knew Infinity won’t prove you wrong.

Writer/director Matt Brown’s painfully earnest biopic of Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) seeks to tackle divine inspiration, institutional racism, culture clash, colonialism, and mathematical proof against the backdrop of WWI Britain. Unfortunately, the film feels far more hemmed in by cinematic tradition than inspired by historical events.

Brown’s approach is certainly by-the-numbers, and a stifling respect for the subject hamstrings the effort. Ramanujan is never more than an utterly wholesome, godlike presence. A lead turn by Patel does nothing to burst through the clichés. As has been the case in each of his films, Patel’s performance is broadly drawn and lacking depth.

He isn’t given much to work with, truth be told. Brown’s screenplay offers little more than saintly suffering. Look how nobly he endures taunts, cultural misunderstandings, loneliness, illness!

The scenes at home in India are even more appallingly respectful, everything quaintly simple and yet admirable. It’s as if Brown distrusts the audience with any complexity or information on Ramanujan they might deem offensive. (Like, for instance, that his wife was a 10-year-old when they married.)

As Ramanujan’s Cambridge mentor G.H. Hardy, Jeremy Irons, of course, shines. A veteran of the melancholy Englishman role, Irons inhabits this academic with emotional rigor mortis, occasionally lapsing into the most charming flashes of vulnerability and ardor. The subtlety and sly tenderness of his performance suggests a longing that nearly revives the film from its terminal anemia.

A handful of supporting turns – Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam – almost add layers, but Brown’s screenplay relies so heavily on the rote of Traditional British Cinema that the film never gets the chance to breathe.

I’m willing to bet that Srinivasa Ramanujan was a flawed and fascinating person – geniuses so often are. Too bad Brown is content to see him as a romantic mystery.

Verdict-2-0-Stars





Courage at a Crossroads

Race

by George Wolf

Make way for the cliche train, here comes another sports biopic….well, not so fast. Race manages to break convention in subtle but important ways, bringing a graceful spotlight to the heroic story of Jesse Owens, perhaps the greatest track and field athlete in history.

Stephan Janes (John Lewis in Selma) delivers a breakout lead performance as Owens, who won four gold medals for the United States at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Transcending the games, Owens personified the folly of Nazi delusion as the Fuhrer himself looked on. This convergence of sport and history makes Owens’s story fertile ground for hyperbolic melodrama, but Race works best when it presses least.

Director Stephan Hopkins (Predator 2, The Reaping) seems properly motivated by the inevitable comparisons to similar biopics, specifically 42. He effectively differentiates Race at critical junctures, none better than the moment Owens’s track coach at Ohio State University, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), is lecturing him on the need to ignore the hateful racial catcalls.

Rather than the manufactured wisdom of another locker room sermon barked from teacher to pupil, Hopkins frames the scene as an active choice by Owens himself, and the result is all the more human and satisfying. Though not every exchange works quite as well, screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse keep the “white savior” leanings from overtaking Snyder’s character, and a fine dramatic debut from Sudeikis doesn’t hurt.

Hopkins delivers athletic sequences that are often thrilling (the wonderfully panoramic set piece when Owens enters Berlin stadium may elicit goosebumps), but Race doesn’t shrink from the responsibilities implicit in its title.

The pressure Owens felt to boycott the games, and the racism impervious to gold medals both reach you without undue manipulation. Even more impressive is the nuance the film brings to the cozy relationship between nationalism, hypocrisy and oppression.

Though historians may quibble with the details, an engaging support narrative emerges as Olympic Committee advisor Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurant) and German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) dance around contrasting personal agendas. All three actors are stellar, fleshing out another reminder of the watershed nature of the period.

The life of Jesse Owens was marked by courage and achievement at a crossroads of world history. Weaving those elements together in an effective dramatic context is a tricky endeavor, but one that Race gets mostly right.

Verdict-3-5-Stars