HOUSE OF GUCCI**** Worth all the Money

RIDLEY SCOTT IS, like Spielberg, a master storyteller. Every scene, every frame, is meticulously crafted to build our understanding of character, motive and theme.

The movie begins with a fast, sporty car swinging into a parking lot. From it emerges Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). Nobody rocks a skin-tight skirt like her. And boy, does she know it. She saunters past a gaggle of wolf-whistling truckers. Their teases, their male gazes energize her. She enters a small office, that of her father, the owner of this construction company. She’s the financial admin there, admonishing her father’s spendthrift ways.

This is a woman confident in her sexiness, in her appeal to men and self-assured in how to capitalize on this appeal. She also knows her way around the world of money. Her first interaction is with her father.

This is a movie about family, seduction, class and money

It’s all there prologued in the first five minutes of the movie.

And so it continues. We meet Patrizia’s soon to be ‘victim’, Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver). The camera pans away from what is clearly an absurdly expensive watch to that of a fashionably, expensively dressed, if gauche young man. Unlike Patricia’s bossy relationship with her pere, Maurizio is very much under the control of his stern, domineering father, Rudolfo (Jeremy Irons), the half owner of the House of Gucci. At ease in this world of money, he’s uninterested in entering the family business. He wants to be a lawyer.

But family is all (as we’re repeatedly told). And the business is everything. So after the already ailing Rudolfo and Gucci co-owner, Aldo (Al Pacino) pass, who’s going to run the show? Aldo’s only son, Paolo (an unrecognizable Jared Leto) is the idiot child. The older brothers loyally love each other, as family mores demand. But there’s a tension in their visions for the company.

And we’re just ten minutes into the movie.

So it’s no shocker when gold-digging, lower middle class Patrizia bumps into a naïve, upper class Maurizio and the cat is released among the pigeons. She’s the fresh air of liberation to an up-tight, tradition-conscious family. Sorta. But there’s nothing quite like ambition, greed, lust and a smattering of tax fraud to dissolve those vaunted family bonds and reveal the true fissures beneath the fashion.
All that’s needed is a con-artist fortune teller (Salma Hayek), a Sicilian hit-man and murder to top it all off.

It’s all deliciously here in this rip-roaring, fabulously told tale of the fall of the House of Gucci-owned Gucci (The company rose again under actual, proper management).

The two loving, and then warring protagonists, Adam Driver and Lady Gaga are superb. Driver delivers a quiet, nuanced performance. His evolution from the youth, enjoying the new-found freedoms of wild, responsibility-free sex to the strategizing, deceiving power-player is all in his face. It changes from boyish openness to the groomed, handsome face of money.

And Lady Gaga is clearly no one-show act. This follow up to her brilliance in A Star is Born consolidates her rise to major actor status. She too morphs, from that of picture-perfect sex kitten to a pudgy over be-jeweled harridan.

Scott orchestrates Maurizio’s quiet cool against Patrizia’s hot blooded noisiness like a master conductor.
Her fall from grace is underlined by the arrival of her antithesis, Paola. Maurizio’s new-found flame, an old friend, is someone from his class and ‘breeding’. Paola (Camille Cottin from Call My Agent) is everything Patricia isn’t: blonde, skinny, aristocratic. Cottin oozes seductive elegance; the cool goddess to Patrizia’s fiery jezebel.

Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Sicario, News of the World) lights the whole sordid story with the glossy clarity of a Hello magazine centerfold.

This is comfort food that worth getting tucked in to. Hang the calorie counting. House of Gucci is a feast of a movie

THE HOUSE OF GUCCI Dir: Ridley Scott. Screenplay: Becky Johnson (also story by her) and  Robert0 Bentivegna.  With: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jeremy Lions, Jared Leto, Al Pacino, Salma Hayek, jack Huston Camille Cottin. Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski. Costume Designer: Janty Yates (The Last Duel)

KING RICHARD*** Not Quite Centre Court

THIS IS A fascinating and engaging story about the single-mindedness and drive that catalysed the talents of the Williams sisters. The focus is on Richard, the loving, controlling, self-centered, self-aggrandizing, complex and determined parent of the storied tennis champions.

Richard’s obnoxious character is made bearable (to viewers) by the effervescent charm of his daughters (i.e Venus and Serena, the famous two of his five, superbly acted by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton and) and the star wattage of Will Smith. Smith (excellent) manages to channel his natural ebullient charm into a study of rude, take no prisoners self-confidence.

This is Richard’s defence shield against the multiple barriers he, as determined protective father, must overcome…for family and self. And the barriers are formidable: the wrong colour for this all white sport, the wrong class and the wrong neighbourhood.

His unbowed relentlessness (which includes being beaten up on multiple occasions by the local thugs, not to mentioned being condescendingly patronized by the tennis thugs) is all in service to his grand plan and the formidable cudgel, the secret weapon he wields: the transcendent natural talents of Venus and Serena. As he consistently, presciently, boasts to anyone who’d listen, “Venus will soon be the world’s number one; and Serena will be seen as the greatest of all time”

The story follows the journey up to Venus’ first major, heart-stopping assault on the white world of tennis.

The movie (produced by Smith and the Williams sisters) is no gushing hagiography. The “king” in the title is clearly ironic. It’s the sisters who are the angels in this heaven. The story that’s told is of Smith’s nervousness while he waited on the sisters to view the movie and like it. Did he have any doubts?

But, perhaps because it’s a Smith/Williams combo, it’s a highly commercial product. It’s competently directed (by Reinaldo Marcus Green) who squeezes every ounce of drama out of the tennis matches. And it’s written (by Zach Baylin) in a sort of paint by numbers, often corny way.

Entertaining it certainly is. But there’s nothing edgy here. What is a highly idiosyncratic story has been flattened out to slot into the typical American David defeats Goliath trope. You’ve seen it all before I’m sure…that swell of music and lump in the throat catharsis of victory despite the odds, is a well-worn movie path.

Whether it’s a path to profits remains to be seen.

KING RICHARD: Dir: Reinaldo Marcus Green. Writer: Zach Baylin. With Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Aunjaune Ellis (If Beale Street Could Talk). Cinematographer: Robert Elswit (Gold)

Petit Maman**** Small Show; Big Heart

THIS IS A short (it’s only 70 minutes), charming, tender gem of a movie by Céline Sciamma, the director of the incredible Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It tells the story of Nellie (Joséphine Sanz) a very mature eight year old – seen entirely from her perspective – as she copes with the death of her grandmother and the sadness that engulfs Marion her mother (Nina Meurisse) as a result. This may make it seem like a dour, depressing movie. It isn’t. This little girl (all little girls?), assuming the role almost as mother to her despairing mother (hence the title) finds ways of caring and coping without the paralysis of adult despair.
(This subtle exchange of roles is heralded from the get-go, when, as Marion drives along the highway, Nellie feeds her snacks, like a mother bird to her chicks)
The action is set in the deceased grandmother’s home with its wild wooded grounds. Nelly’s parents have come here to clean out the place, remove its ageing furnishings and, to her mother’s distress, unearth the mementos of the past. Nelly’s interest lies outside: in that lovely countryside, the place of her mother’s childhood frolics and a place of exploration and adventure.
And a place where she meets…Marion, her mother as an eight-year old. The child and the young mother (played by Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s twin sister) become fast friends, gambolling in the woods and play- acting as parents.
The surreal conceit is executed without a trace of the bizarre or the mysterious. Director Sciamma dials down any potential for histrionics or drama. Cinematographer Claire Mathon lights the story with an unfussy, natural lighting as if to emphasise the ordinariness of the extraordinary. To Nelly, this is a totally real world, one where she can bond with her mother, and display more easily the love, tenderness and emotional empathy that the constraints of the real world and age differences inhibit.
Petit Maman is an authentic, empathetic evocation of the – magical?- knit that exists between mothers and daughters (the presence of Nelly’s father is there but under-stated); and the idea that age and the obvious distinction between the fact that one is a mother and the other a daughter, is, at heart, meaningless. Just as her mother, Marion, cared for her ailing mother, so too will she, Nellie, when the time comes, care for Marion. So it goes. So it has always gone.
The easy relationship between Nellie and the eight year old Marion is, no doubt, an idyll, an archetype of the female care-giver.
But it is an idyll that’s the stuff of poetry. And Petit Maman is its cinematic poem.

Petit Maman. Dir/Writer: Céline Sciamma. With… Joséphine Sanz. Gabrielle Sanz. Nina Meurisse. Cinematographer: Claire Mathon (Spencer). Composer: Jean-Baptiste de Laurier (Portrait if the Lady on Fire)

SPENCER **** Princess of Pain

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in, “Spencer.”

LET’S START WITH a few words of warning:
If you regard the Royal Family as quasi divine, with a flawed, but priceless Princess Diana as our secular patron saint of goodness, this movie’s not for you. There are multiple handy hagiographies which may suit your temperament better
If you love The Crown (I certainly do) and see it as dramatized history, this version of Diana may well raise alarm bells about its liberties about Diana’s mental state.

This is a Diana (Kristen Stewart) nearing the end of her emotional tether (AKA, having a mental breakdown) during the three days of Royal family Christmas fun in Sandringham. She’s not so much a real person as an embodiment of an idea.

It’s a movie set entirely in Diana’s head. The luminaries of the Royal family are there only as (malevolent?) silent bit players. There are very few speaking parts: her sons, a few staffers and a glowering equerry (Timothy Spall at his sneering, patronizing best)

It’s also the Theatre of the Absurd. This is director Pablo Larrain’s point of view on an institution, so entangled by nonsensical traditions (where the present only exists with reference to the past) that it is, at its heart, fundamentally absurd. And its absurdity, like the pearls given Diana by Charles (the same ones he gave Camilla, it is claimed), are nooses choking both Diana and the entire institution.

The movie begins with the dual images of a -temporarily freed- Diana, motoring toward Sandringham in an open-top car. She is lost…geographically, and soon, emotionally. She finds her bearings in front of a scarecrow, wearing her grandfather’s coat. The scarecrow guards her boarded up family home. This is all that’s left of the Spencer lineage (It’s no coincidence that the movie’s name is Spencer with whom she identifies, not Diana, that trinket of the Windsor’s that she’s become).

At the same time, there’s an army squadron en route to the same destination. Its camouflage trucks rumble over a dead pheasant. Their mission: to deliver literally truckloads of supplies: crates and crates of vegetables, lobsters and the like. With equally military precision a squadron of chefs arrive to unload and prepare the grub.

Military precision matters: the family meet on time at the same time every day to follow a course of formal pre-set events and rituals. Diana’s clothes have been chosen for her (by her dresser), one for every occasion. Absence or lateness is not an option. What fun!

The fun actually begins at the traditional weighing in. The members of the party are required to have their weights noted by some besuited flunky. At the end of the three days, they’ll be weighed again (to measure how much fun they’ve had)

The palace (more Shining than Sandringham) is shiveringly cold. Diana’s two boys are frozen. But the idea of actually turning up the heating (This is one of Britains’ richest families) is an absurd thought. It’s just not done.

For recreation, they take tea on their estate while more flunkies beat about the bushes so that their masters (their betters?) can kill those birds bred to be killed (Perhaps just as Diana has been bred to be Royally sired)

Lest she is seen by the paparazzi (and we know where that got her) her curtains are sewn together. There is a repeated image of Diana cutting… cutting through said sewn curtains, through barbed wire, fencing out her own past, her home and eventually cutting into her flesh. These cuts morph into a recurring illusion of the deeper cuts suffered by Anne Boleyn)

And as for love and tenderness and the joys of family togetherness. There’s Diana with her boys, and an unexpected declaration of love from her dresser (an empathetic Sally Hawkins). Beyond that, such displays of emotions are outside of tradition.

Absurdity upon absurdity. What sane person, not born into such absurdities wouldn’t go mad. Indeed, her ‘madness’ is the only sane response to this absurd institution.

Kristin Stewart glows. With her breathless, rushed and impeccably upper-class English locution she’s a perfect Diana…a perfect embodiment of the human, failing to live up to the archetype. Composer Jonny Greenwood’s score: part controlled piano solo, part free form Jazz dials up the mood of fracture and collapse that pervades the movie.

So, if the caveats I’ve outlined above don’t inhibit you…it’ll be absurd to miss this movie.

SPENCER Dir: Pablo Larraín (Jackie). Writer: Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Burnt). With: Kristen Stewart. Timothy Spall. Sally Hawkins. Cinematographer: Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire). Composer: Jonny Greenwood (The Handmaid’s Tale).  Production Design: Guy Dyas (Gemini Man)

THE FRENCH DISPATCH*** Send it to someone else

THE FRENCH DESPATCH received a nine minute standing applause at the end of the recent Cannes Film Festival. It is the recipient of multiple five star reviews; Wes Anderson, its intelligent, stylish director has clearly replaced the disgraced Woody Allen as the go-to director of intellectual comedy that is a “must have’ in any actor’s CV.

And so this one is a who’s who of acting talent (see the list below)

The story is a re-imagining of the famous editor Harold Ross (now in the guise of Bill Murray playing Bill Murray as the dead-pan, dispeptic editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr.) who founded the New York Times. Imagine , goes the conceit, if he’d done this in Paris with the same starry array of journalistic talent…a Parisienne news sheet that brings fabulous cultured stories to, well, uncultured Kansas. (Except here, Paris is cleverly called Ennui-sur-Blasé)

The movie offers us a smattering of these stories, all told in Anderson’s signature serio-comic, cartoon-ish style: audiobook meets 2D storybook illustration set in a dolls house world of shifting walls. The production design is brilliant. The acting is varied, but his cast are enthusiastic and earnest. The stories illustrate insightful observations.

In the first story for instance, a laconic, heavily bearded (Ai-Wei-Wei imitating) incarcerated murderer, Moses (Benecio del Toro), has become the celebrated darling of the art set for his occasional paintings. When we meet him, he’s painting his muse, lover and jailer, Simone (Lea Sedoux). She’s his jailer when she’s clothed. We meet her naked. His portrait is an abstract rendering of something; certainly not the naked Simone. Is this art using its favourite term (“muse”) a la Picasso, for what may be not much more than a Weinstein-eque exploitation of a vulnerable girl…an intellectual excuse for shagging? Or is she using his fame for her own ends? Or is the exploitation really in the profit seeking art market represented by a sneering art dealer, Julian (Adrien Brody)? And is the fact that his hands are tied when he’s behind bars a symbol of the state’s muzzling of art? The art (an immovable fresco a la Bansky) itself is genuinely art and the artist’s intention is free from profiteering. And is that enough? Does the end justify the means?

Questions, questions; all stylishly, slyly posed.

My problem is, that though I found the movie intellectually engaging, I found it boring as hell. This kind of self-referential, arch, insider comedy I appreciate can be a real delight to many, especially those jaded by the kind of mawkish mindless rubbish such as Melissa McCarthy’s last laugh-free-fest, Superintelligence. For me, the movie’s end couldn’t come soon enough.

And so I end with a cliche: To each her own.

THE FRENCH DESPATCH: Dir/Writer: Wes Anderson. With: Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Sidoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Matthieu Amalric, Steve Park, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Henry Winkler, Christopher Waltz. Production Design: Adam Stockhausen (Bridge of Spies). Cinematographer: Robert Yeoman (Mama Mia, Here We Go Again)

GET UP, STAND UP Musical *** Jammin

GET UP STAND Up is the story of Bob Marley’s life, from the moment he’s abandoned by his mother to his death at 36. It charts his re-invention of reggae (along with his two friends, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), his rise to fame (and notoriety, having been condemned by the CIA), his complicated love life and, more than anything, his glorious music. He’s probably the most loved musician ever, everywhere.

This isn’t to play to tell us why, even as it reintroduces us to his music in a way that’s often fresh and inventive.
It’s a generously entertaining, but muddily written play. Fortunately, the stomping, full throated singing and booming wall shaking sounds drown out the “muddy” side of things

First the good news: great music, fabulously performed. The production very cleverly knits the music to the moments (as expected), but also recasts the songs in surprising ways: Rita Marley (his patient and long-suffering wife) is the one who sings “No Woman No Cry”. Gabrielle Brooks, who plays Rita is certainly the play’s big-ticket voice; she brings a degree of emotional power to her numbers, which amplifies even more their meaning and gravitas. As Marley, Arinzé Kene is a commanding presence as a performer. He’s profoundly hampered by…

The bad news. Marley’s life is so full of incident that the attempt to tie together the music, the politics, the womanizing, the fame, the racial consciousness, Marley’ surprising erudition and knowledge of black writers, even as it strives to offer up some sort of emotional arc, all in two hours, is a bridge too far for the writer, Lee Hall. Even with its imaginative staging, using multiple video images and news reel projections, if you weren’t aware of the details of Marley’s life, I suspect you’d leave the theatre none the wiser (And indeed, the really profound roles of people like producer Chris Blackwell are trivialized).

Director Clint Dyer and Hall’s mission and the play’s overriding theme, to “get up, stand up, stand up for your rights” is certainly hammered home. But as a rounded character, the play’s Marley remains a one-note cypher…merely a means to a thematic end. Too many of this incident-rich life feel slotted in, ticked off in a hurry to move on to the next big ‘life event’.

So, should you get up, stand up and come down to the show? Here in London where one in fifty are infected and nobody is masked, theatre attendance is a game of Russian roulette. And many in the audience clearly misunderstood that they were coming to the theatre…thought they were at a reggae concert where perhaps the usual rules of cell phone decorum and chatter did not apply.

So is coming along worth your efforts? As Dirty Harry said, “Hey, punk, are you feeling lucky?”

GET UP, STAND UP. Dir: Clint Dyer. Book: Lee Hall. With: Arinzé Kene, Gabrielle Brooks