Category Archives: 2020s

Last Night in Soho (2021)

*. Sometimes you just feel like throwing your hands up.
*. I’ve said before that I think Edgar Wright is an overrated director. Not bad, just overrated. I still think his best movie is Shaun of the Dead. With Last Night in Soho, which he came up with the story for, he is on form. Meaning it’s a great-looking movie, slickly (and expensively) put forward with some astounding technical virtuosity, but without a brain in its head or, for that matter, a whole lot of style.
*. Here’s the plot, which is where I throw my hands up. Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young woman from somewhere in ye olde rural England who goes to London to study fashion design. She is haunted by visions of her dead mother, who apparently had mental health issues. This makes us think Ellie may be schizophrenic, especially when she doesn’t fit in with the fast crowd of mean girls at school and starts having these very real-feeling fantasies where she’s a glamorous girl called Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) clubbing in ’60s Soho. But Sandy is being hunted by a killer, or maybe she is a killer, and the same goes for Ellie. Or maybe she’s just going crazy.
*. There’s no spoiler for saying that Ellie isn’t crazy (though she does imagine things), because the fact that she isn’t crazy just makes the rest of the story even crazier. It literally makes no sense at all so I won’t bother trying to sort it out. But it’s too bad because I had the sense that Wright was going for something with a giallo vibe and the thing about most gialli is that even the most far-fetched of them still have an inherent logic, however twisted. Last Night in Soho doesn’t.

*. The plot also takes a backseat to Wright’s other obsessions. Like the idea of a character whose life has a soundtrack that gradually seems to take over that life. That was Baby Driver, but it’s even more pronounced here. Ellie, like Wright, has a fixation on the 1960s that, like Wright, she picked up from her mom. Wright was born in 1974 so it’s not like he has any other personal connection to the period. But he has a theory that “you’re always obsessed with the decade you just missed.” I wonder if that explains Cruella, a movie that came out the same year, also set in the fashion world of London in the ’60s. Or maybe it’s just coincidence.
*. McKenzie and Taylor-Joy both play well. Matt Smith (a wildly popular actor in the U.K., or so I’m told) plays a sinister weirdo only half as well as Terence Stamp (the “Silver Haired Gentleman), who by this point has the role down pat. Diana Rigg, in her last film appearance, at least goes out on an operatic note.
*. It’s not a movie I enjoyed for a moment, though I was impressed by the care taken to recreate London and all the fancy shots playing with Ellie/Sandie appearing in mirrors. But it’s a failed giallo and a third-rate ghost story, with characters I don’t think are worth sorting out. Are we supposed to see Sandie as a victim of the patriarchy turned angel of vengeance? I would try and draw something out of this if I cared either way, but I don’t.
*. Ellie’s grandmother is a seamstress and she pronounces it seem-stress. I always thought the British said sem-stress, at least in the ’60s. I can remember being corrected for saying seem-stress in Canada in the ’80s.
*. There’s a contradiction I sense between the lurid slasher plot and the lavish production values. A movie this trashy shouldn’t be dressed up for a gala. Apparently Wright was influenced by psycho-art house thrillers like Repulsion and Don’t Look Now, but they were intellectual buffets compared to this confection. Such movies are inaccessible in spirit to filmmakers now, even with a supernatural, schizo time machine and all the money in the world.

Crimes of the Future (2022)

*. Crimes of the Future was David Cronenberg’s first film in 8 years (and first original script in over 20) but wasn’t as much a big change in direction as it was a throwback, as even the title suggests (Crimes of the Future was also the name of one of Cronenberg’s first movies, a lifetime ago in 1970). Put another way, the crimes of the future we see here are really the crimes of the past, or a future that’s grounded in Cronenberg’s vision of the 1990s.
*. Instead of a gleaming city of the future and scientists in lab coats we have some dark and dirty streets that look like Interzone from Naked Lunch (the film was actually shot in Greece) and a hero named Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) who dresses like a homeless ninja. Even the tech is laughably crude. There is a breakfast chair that seems designed to frustrate digestion and a surgery pod that looks like a scaled-up version of the children’s game Operation.
*. Cronenberg’s aim, and theme, remains alienation. Alienation from our own bodies and alienation of the audience. The idea here is that growing designer internal organs has become a form of high art or mass entertainment (nobody is reading books or watching movies in the future), meaning that “surgery is the new sex.” That said, and despite all the potential such an idea has for gross-out body horror, I really didn’t find it repulsive or shocking at all. And I imagine anyone going into it expecting to see a scary or gory movie was likely disappointed, not to mention bored by all the talk.

*. Almost equally alienating are the performances, which are (again, true to form with Cronenberg) almost anti-human. Without subtitles I wouldn’t have had a clue what Kristen Stewart (looking “attractive, in a bureaucratic kind of way”) was saying, as she seems to have turned her preferred form of whispering/muttering her lines into a trademark now. Mortensen, who apparently could barely walk due to a recent injury, sounds like he’s been growing a new organ in his throat as he is barely able to rasp out a few words at a time. Léa Seydoux is suitably foreign even before she gets implants to turn her into one of the freaks.
*. I’m not going to go into the plot, as you’ll have guessed it’s more or less just a clothesline for Cronenberg to hang his usual anxieties on. He’s like a literary scholar doing a deep dive into the text of the body, or a psychoanalyst digging into the subconscious and only to find (no surprise) a brain with “Mother” tattooed on it. Whether all of it really looks forward to a merging of man and machine, as films like Videodrome and eXistenZ did, or back to something more primitive and archetypal I couldn’t say. Meanwhile, the retro pull feels strong here, and we’re very much in a (painfully) analog not digital world.
*. It’s a movie that didn’t do much for me in any respect. Some of the ideas seemed kind of interesting, and thinking about directed evolution as a fetish is a pregnant parable for our time, especially with the fillip about transforming our digestive tracts so that we can consume plastic. But the exposition was mostly dull and off-putting in a deliberate way, and you have the sense of flipping through scraps from the cutting room floor of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, and finding props that don’t quite fit, weird furniture ready to be marked down, and what feel like deleted scenes from other movies thrown in.
*. More than anything, I came away thinking that Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (2020) was in every respect not just a better movie but a better Cronenberg movie, done up very much in the style of his father. There’s nothing wrong with this Crimes of the Future, but there’s nothing new here either, and while it’s weird it doesn’t feel weird enough to make much of an impression.

The Meaning of Hitler (2020)

*. There’s no end to the books about Hitler. Or movies about him. One of the people interviewed in this documentary is the curator of the Berlin Bunker Museum (that would be Hitler’s bunker), and as he puts it: “If you switch on German TV you have a 95% chance to get a Hitler documentary . . . [like] the Ten Things You Didn’t Know about Hitler, and it’s always ten things you already know about Hitler.”
*. Given all of this, and the fact that The Meaning of Hitler is based on a book by Sebastian Haffner (a pseudonym for Raimund Pretzel) published in 1978, you’d think it wouldn’t have much new to say. You might also be wondering why Martin Amis is given so much screen time as one of the talking heads, since I don’t think he knows anything more about Hitler than I do.
*. These are questions that don’t have great answers. There are answers, ways that the directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker try to keep it fresh, but they’re not great.
*. The first answer has to do with a connection made between Hitler and Donald Trump. To my eyes, the resemblances pointed out are superficial and not all that telling. The two have little in common in terms of their personality, psychology, or motivations. Nor is the label of fascism all that useful. Fascism and communism are twentieth-century political phenomena that don’t have much relevance today. There are right-wing, anti-democratic, authoritarian movements, and this movie sounds a warning about them, but they are different beasts than what Europe saw in the 1930s, essentially being anti-liberal, anti-government parties trying to implement single-party rule and oligarchy, which is something different than blood and soil (though they’ll make use of that sort of language).
*. The other way the directors try to make things new is by some meta-style hijinks, like showing what I assume is Epperlein reading Haffner’s book, having lots of clacking slates introducing the different locations, and splashing giant keywords up on the screen. It’s snappy and knowing, but I don’t think it adds anything of substance.
*. Having said all that, I thought this was a decent documentary that made its point in a quick, engaging manner, with some insightful commentary by heavyweights like Saul Friedlander, Richard Evans, and Jan Gross. I also liked the bit from the “microphone guru” who talked about how Hitler was set free by the new technology of the microphone, and another part of the film where the comparison is made between the cult of Hitler and Beatlemania.
*. Finally, it is a warning from history that whatever the name of the leader or party or political movement the same dark forces drive human behaviour today as they did then and nothing about our current world that seems stable and progressive can be taken for granted.

Morbius (2022)

*. Whenever I start to feel like cutting down on the frequency of posts at this site it’s not because I’ve given up on movies totally, but because I feel like I’m running out of new things to say. Here are some things I’ve said before about superhero movies, in relation to Morbius.
*. (1) Origin stories are boring. Nothing new here with the origin of Michael Morbius, a doctor dying of a blood disease that he cures by turning himself into a human-vampire bat hybrid. Which is fine, as origin stories go, but not something you want to spend a lot of time on, especially when the setting is a hospital for sick children.
*. (2) Having a fight at the top of a building is an artificial way of heightening the action. You always have these at the end of a movie.
*. (3) Here’s a quote lifted from my notes on Venom: “Isn’t this the same as a bunch of other Marvel movies where the hero has to fight an evil doppelganger? In Iron Man Tony Stark is supplanted by Obadiah Stane who steals the Iron Monger suit, making him the anti-Iron Man. In Ant-Man, Hank Pym (whose proxy becomes Scott Lang) is supplanted by Darren Cross who becomes Yellowjacket (the anti-Ant-Man). In Black Panther T’Challa is supplanted by Killmonger. In this movie Venom has to take on Riot. Once you know the pattern, you’re just staying to watch them tear up buildings and beat on each other.” So again here, with Michael/Milo being the good vampire/bad vampire, Morbius and anti-Morbius.
*. (4) As we move into a post-superhero era (I hope), are we also transitioning into a post-CGI one? Because is there something CGI can give us that it hasn’t already? As I’ve previously observed, it’s really good with armies (or swarms of anything except insects), giant monsters, and watching cities being destroyed. But we’ve seen all that. And the thing about most CGI today is that we’ve seen it done better. The technology doesn’t seem to be improving. The CGI in Morbius looks bad. I’m sure they were trying for a different look with the way the super-vampires move in a blur, but it’s crap.
*. (5) Every hero is an anti-hero. Director Daniel Espinosa thought Morbius was “just like Venom,” in being a good-bad guy. So much so that at one point Morbius even introduces himself as Venom. Apparently there has been some talk of the two teaming up as they are set in the same (sigh) universe. I can wait.
*. Jared Leto. He seems very intense and committed to his roles, but I’m close to throwing in the towel on him. Though in his defence, it’s just been one terrible role after another I’ve been seeing him in.
*. There’s not much point beating up on a movie like Morbius, as it’s just more of the same and was trashed by critics anyway. I liked the character of Morbius when I was a kid. And going back and re-reading some of the comics recently, both from his early days and in his more modern iterations, I think they stand up. But this movie doesn’t have any creative or original spark to it, no sense of humour, and it feels like they were already thinking not of the sequel but of the reboot before they even finished making it.
*. There are a couple of mid-credit sequences that tease a sequel with Michael Keaton. Again, I can wait. Or wait for the much ballyhooed relaunch of the Blade franchise. Or whatever other sub-Underworld vampire shenanigans Sony/Marvel have in the pipeline. One Morbius movie is enough for me.

The Batman (2022)

*. I think everyone who writes about the comic-book movies of the DC Universe has to mention how long and how dark they are. At least if we’re not talking about Aquaman. And that was mostly underwater.
*. It’s a subject that I addressed the last time I walked down these grimy streets in my notes on Zack Snyder’s Justice League. In The Batman we’re back at it again, as the brain trust behind the DC franchise seem to have figured that the only way to treat their next blockbuster is to make it longer and darker. Especially when we’re talking about new Batman movie, a character who has been on a character arc descending into an ever darker Gotham since his psychedelic Day-Glo debut in 1966.
*. So once more, dear moviegoers, unto (and into) the breach. The Batman is three hours long in its theatrical release version and seems to be set not only entirely at night but in the rain. There’s actually a funny moment when Bruce Wayne has to blink when he sees a bit of sunlight on a cloudy day. I got a smile out of that.
*. In other words, it’s long and dark. And of course it’s morally dark as well, with our good guys being bad guys and vice versa. The chief villain here is The Riddler (Paul Dano), and he’s got a legitimate beef with Gotham and its ruling elite. He was a real orphan, you see, unlike the poor little rich kid Bruce Wayne. As an outsider and a loser he’s also very much in the same mold as Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, and his rebel army at the end is much the same as well, feeling like a convention of QAnon groupies run amok. That Batman should be threatened by this gang of keyboard warriors cosplaying as bad guys is one of the weaker points in the film’s climax.
*. As for Batman, he’s Robert Pattinson this time out, which at least tries to inject a bit of youth into the role. He has hair that hangs down over his eyes and can blend right in when he hits the street dressed in a ball-cap and hoodie. It’s hard to think of previous Bruce Waynes slumming it like this.
*. Unfortunately, when he puts on the suit, which looks like a particularly clunky suit of body armour, it’s the same old dark knight, all breathy voice and portentous dialogue. Here are the final words of wisdom: “Our scars can destroy us, even after the physical wounds have healed. But if we survive them, they can transform us. They can give us the power to endure, and the strength to fight.” Comic books in the 1960s and ’70s were better than this.
*. Still, I thought grunge Batman interesting, and I liked a bit of change. I also enjoyed Zoë Kravitz swiveling her hips in a supernatural way in her catsuit. I wasn’t expecting these two to have such good chemistry but the promotional material was smart to play the two of them up, as they’re the bright spot in all this murky darkness.
*. The villains, alas, are a total bore. The Riddler has no pizzazz or even sense of humour, which was odd. He’s just an accountant who dresses in army surplus gear and stages Jigsaw-killer crime scenes, complete with dull notes that are devoid of wit. Colin Farrell is Oswald Cobblepot, the gangster who is not yet the Penguin and not yet interesting. John Turturro is Carmine Falcone, a generic mafia boss who wears shades even when he’s inside, at night, and it’s already so dark it’s hard to see anything.
*. Actually, all the supporting cast are bores. Andy Serkis is Albert Pennyworth and I couldn’t figure him out at all. Apparently he’s good with riddles though, and is a one-man show not only taking care of Bruce and staffing Wayne Manor but running Wayne Enterprises by himself too. Jeffrey Wright is Commissioner Gordon, and his delivery is nearly as constipated as Batman’s. Somebody needed to tell these guys to lighten up, because the picture needs it.
*. Matt Reeves wanted a more realistic feel to the action and rather surprisingly I think he got it. Batman’s suit seems solid enough to take any kind of abuse, and it does. It’s not quite believable, but almost. You don’t feel like this Batman is capable of the usual superhuman feats of comic-book action. He’s more like a tank.
*. So overall not bad. The back story about Selina Kyle and Falcone is way too long, and pointless in the end anyway. The look is generic and unrelievedly dark. But Pattinson and Kravitz pose well together at the top of tall buildings and I came away thinking that I wouldn’t mind seeing their next chapter, which isn’t a feeling I have very often with superhero movies. Just as long as they keep Barry Keoghan out of it.

Halloween Kills (2021)

*. I’ve said before on at least a couple of occasions that the Halloween movies constitute perhaps the most chaotic (read: incoherent) horror franchise in scary-movie history. Halloween Kills took me a bit further, making me wonder if any franchise has so underwhelmed as the Halloween pictures, of which this would be the 12th . . . and not the last.
*. It’s a franchise without real highlights, aside from John Carpenter’s original. Halloween III: Season of the Witch was an interesting new direction, but one which turned into an immediate dead end. Hallowen H20: Twenty Years Later showed signs of life. Checking out my notes on the 2018 reboot directed by David Gordon Green I seem to have liked it as well, though less than critics and fans did. Still, it had enough going for it to hold out some promise for the next two chapters in Green’s trilogy.
*. Halloween Kills quickly put paid to any such hopes, no matter how low they might have been. I’m honestly a bit impressed at just how lackluster and disappointing it is. I can’t say they weren’t trying, because I think the people involved really believed in the project. A lot of work was put into things like rebuilding the original Michael Myers house and front yard all on a studio set, and recreating his iconic mask down to the last wrinkle. The cast of veterans — and by that I mean Halloween franchise veterans — all seem game. But boy does Green, who also co-wrote the script, let them down.
*. So basically Michael didn’t die in the fiery basement that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) trapped him in at the end of the previous movie. Surprise, surprise. Given that Michael is Laurie’s age it’s also clear that an enlarged prostate isn’t going to slow him down either, at least any more than a hail of bullets has. He is the boogeyman, a supernatural force that feeds on our fear, so there’s no getting rid of him. Even though the angry townsfolk of Haddonfield still make a hash of that here. Again.

*. The idiot plot is alive and well. When hunting Michael down the first thing you have to do is split up so that he can kill everyone separately. “Hey, did you lock the back door?” “Um, I’ll check . . .” How long ago was it that Scream made fun of all this shit? Twenty-five years or more. One of the characters even manages to shoot themself, and another runs out of bullets at the worst possible moment.
*. The thing about the killing this time out is that it’s just dished out in a totally obvious and uncaring way. There’s not even any attempt at suspense as you know exactly how every false alarm and jump scare is going to play out. Nothing surprises, except maybe just how casually all the various characters are dispatched. Every cliché is trotted out. People choosing not to turn the lights on in a house so they can look around with their flashlights instead. Blood dripping from the ceiling. We see a pitchfork leaning up against a wall in one shot and think “oh yeah, someone’s going to be using that.” And sure enough, they do.
*. Since we’re just putting in time here with the middle film of a trilogy Michael only goes around killing people like a guy chopping wood. He stabs them. One of them gets stabbed with a broken fluorescent tube. Another gets stabbed in the eye. That’s it for “good kills,” and I don’t think connoisseurs of this sort of thing will be impressed. Of course, Michael also has to do his signature move of canting his head to one side as he considers his work, but that just feels tired here. As does the iconic score.
*. I guess they were going for something like the gang of kids in It regrouping to take down their childhood demon, but that only feels like more borrowed material and it doesn’t work because at the end of the day every character other than Laurie and her granddaughter are going to end up as more dead teenagers, except that now they’re middle-aged and haven’t learned a thing in the past forty years. Can even movies as dull and uninspired as this kill Michael? Sadly, the answer seems to be that they can’t. The angry villagers (a classic nod that matches nicely with the opening taken from Bride of Frankenstein) can chant all they want about how “Evil dies tonight!” but the only way we’ll finally kill Michael is by ignoring him.

The Northman (2022)

*. I was intrigued going in. I’m not into Vikings at all, but it seemed like a movie made out of the source legend for Hamlet could have been interesting, along the lines of what The 13th Warrior (not at all as bad a movie as its reputation has it) did for Beowulf. Plus, there was an interesting cast, and Robert Eggers was directing. I thought The Witch was pretty good, and while The Lighthouse was overrated by critics there was still something to it.
*. Alas, nothing interesting came of this. The Northman isn’t just a disappointment, it’s a terrible movie, and watching it was like being slapped in the face with a wet fish. In fact, it’s so bad, so laughably bad, I don’t know where to begin. I don’t even know if I want to begin.
*. The cast? Some interesting choices, but Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman don’t look like they belong here. Alexander Skarsgård, meanwhile, is just big. Amleth has obviously completed the 300 training course and has abs like winter-tire treads and his traps rival those of Tom Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Indeed, they seem so overdeveloped they’re pressing his head down into his chest. Did Vikings really look like this? They do now.
*. The scenery? I’m going to repeat myself here but it’s worth trotting out here again because it’s so much in play: “great photography should be about more than making things that are already beautiful look beautiful” (that’s from my notes on The Revenant). A lot of highly praised epic movies do this today, showing characters riding their horses through pristine valleys that look like they’ve been painted by some fantasy artist but are real locations in New Zealand, Iceland, or (mostly here) Ireland. You can go “ooh!” and “ahh!” at the mountains and streams and grandeur of nature, but it’s just a bunch of calendar shots.
*. Or, as I said in my notes on Valhalla Rising (another Viking warrior flick that looked much the same, and that I liked slightly more than this one): “Does it look pretty? Sure. But as I’ve had occasion to remark (many times) before, I’m tired of empty movies with beautiful cinematography. And could anything be emptier than this?”
*. The fantasy landscapes also undercut any notion that this is somehow a “gritty” or “realistic” look at the Middle Ages, words that basically only mean that there are some scenes that feature buckets of blood and muck. Because who cares how bloody or mucky you get if you can relax afterward and enjoy some nookie in a beautiful Icelandic hot tub, au naturel?

*. The script? It was a hoot. I thought the characters were talking in runes half the time, saying things like “Let my words be whetstones to your biting rage . . .” There’s a lot of bilge like that, at least when people aren’t barking or howling like dogs at each other.
*. Nor is the dialogue the worst of it. Amleth’s plan for getting revenge on his uncle means he has to brand himself and be taken as a slave to his estate in Iceland? That’s the best he could come up with? My mouth fell open when I saw what he was up to. Then he seems to just give himself up to get captured so that he can receive the full Mel Gibson treatment in the woodshed before Odin’s magic ravens come to rescue him? I understand that he’s a guy who really believes in his fate, but this is a script?
*. There wasn’t a minute of all this hooey I could take seriously. Not with Amleth blossoming from a skinny teen to a hulk in the ten or fifteen years he’s in exile while his mom doesn’t age a day. Not with Anya Taylor-Joy’s accent. What was that supposed to even sound like? Not with Amleth jumping into the North Atlantic and breaststroking a couple of miles to shore. Bit chilly! And especially not with Amleth fighting his uncle at the top of an exploding Mount Doom at the end. That’s right, the final swordfight takes place on top of (or in) an erupting volcano! They have to jump over the streams of lava flowing underfoot! It’s like Obi-Wan and Anakin at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Now I would have thought fighting in such an environment kind of hard, you know, just for breathing. But it looks great! And there’s no kick-ass he-man dialogue either, but (and I think I’m transcribing this correctly): Arrgggh! Arrggh! Ah-wooooo! Arrggh!
*. The thing is, trash like this is fine as long as you don’t pitch it so high. But with a cast like this, a huge budget, the latest wunderkind director at the helm, and all sorts of high critical praise, you need to do a lot better than this. I mentioned how I thought Valhalla Rising was a better movie, and I thought Valhalla Rising was bad. Which makes this one a real dog. Ah-woooooooo!

Capone (2020)

*. Tom Hardy. As Al Capone, if you will. As an old Al Capone, suffering from syphilis, dementia, and multiple strokes. Sure Capone died at the age of 48, but in the 1940s that was the equivalent of being in your 80s today. He was a wreck.
*. So a young, sturdy British actor playing an old, decrepit Italian-American who he doesn’t resemble in the slightest. That’s bold casting. Admittedly, Hardy had played gangsters before, in Bronson and Legend (where he was both the Kray brothers), but Al Capone was more than a reach.
*. It makes no sense at all. You watch Hardy like you watch Anthony Hopkins playing Richard Nixon or Tobey Maguire playing Bobby Fischer, as though it’s some kind of weird experiment, not because you believe in it. Now sometimes these wild casting decisions do work — Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster is a good example — but most often they’re only weird. Not train wrecks, but weird.

*. Hardy’s Capone is weird. As noted, he’s far gone into dementia, and has trouble verbalizing beyond an odd throaty grunt that may not have any meaning. It’s the kind of performance that begs Hardy to let go, and he does. The script even sends him off like Tony Montana, firing his gold-plated Tommy gun at his Florida mansion (this, I believe, is a dream). But what the point of it all is, is anyone’s guess, since given the nature of the proceedings it can’t function as any kind of biopic.
*. There isn’t even any plot to explain, which is one reason it drags so badly. Honestly, this is one of the dullest gangster movies I have ever seen. Nothing happens. Capone might have a secret son, or he might not. He might have hidden away some $10 million, or he might not. He might even be eaten by alligators at the end. Who knows?
*. As a star vehicle, none of the supporting characters are given any chance to make an impression. Linda Cardellini is Mae, Al’s wife. Kyle MacLachlan is his doctor, who is also working for the Feds. For some reason. It’s not really explained. Matt Dillon is the ghost of Johnny Torrio, whose connection to Capone is never explained. The movie basically consists of Hardy staggering about in his bathrobe, dreaming of events in his past and looking shell-shocked in the present. “Nessun dora” gets played over and over on the radio because it’s the one bit of Italian opera that pretty much everyone knows.

*. I don’t like dumping on a movie like this because I think writer-director Josh Trank (perhaps still reeling from Fantastic Four) really believed in the project, to the point where he even put some of his own money into it. But it’s terrible, without even being fun in a camp sort of way. I kept wanting Hardy to blossom into Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, but how can he given Capone’s ruined physical and mental state? His most expressive moments are unwanted bowel eruptions.
*. If only Trank had allowed the movie to derail completely and let Hardy bellow out “Say hello to my leetle friend!” as he stalks his grounds in a diaper with a carrot in his mouth at the end. Why not go crazy in a crazy way? If you’re going to cast Tom Hardy as Al Capone you might as well swing for the fences and not just hold hands with ghosts on the porch.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

*. Perhaps I’m too hard on the Marvel movies. Or, put another way, perhaps I come to them expecting too much. These are, after all, comic-book movies, so why should they be any more repetitive and formulaic than the source material?
*. Why should they be better? I think I’m justified in having some higher expectations. Because of the immense resources in terms of money and talent lavished on them. Because of the way they bestride the entire entertainment ecosystem like a colossus. Comics are no longer a despised art form. They’ve gone both mainstream and highbrow.
*. So I often go into these movies expecting more. As here. There were reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Sam Raimi was returning to the Marvelverse for his first comic-book effort since Spider-Man 3 in 2007. But then, Raimi hadn’t been directing much of anything in the years since, and his production credits were mixed. Also, Benedict Cumberbatch was back as Doctor Strange, and he’s a great actor who’s well cast in the part. But he’s playing opposite Elizabeth Olsen as the Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, and Olsen isn’t great. Not that her character makes any sense at all in the first place. I mean, she says she’s not a monster, but a mother. Do you get it? Because I didn’t.
*. Then there’s the story. I was looking forward to something a little off the beaten track with doors opening up into a multiverse that would be, well, madness. But instead we only a visit a single alternate universe, Earth-838, and it’s not so weird. The rest of the connecting tissue is just the usual CGI-land. The opening scene has Doctor Strange and a girl we’ll later learn is America Chavez jumping from platform to platform like Mario or Sonic grabbing gold coins in a video game while running from a monster level bad guy. Yes, we’re stuck in a video game again. I could have pulled the DVD right then.

*. Things don’t get any better. Once again the villain, this time the Scarlet Witch, is seeking an immensely powerful artifact (a Necronomicon-like grimoire called the Darkhold) that, if she gets it, will make her ruler of the entire multiverse. Bwahaha! The monks of Kamar-Taj try to stand in her way, with entirely predictable results. Then Doctor Strange hopes to stop the Scarlet Juggernaut by finding the Book of Vishanti, which is like a good version of the Darkhold, but it turns out to be absolutely useless.
*. There are some CGI slugfests and then Wanda figures out she doesn’t really want her rotten kids back anyway — which was the point of all this and I’d advise you not to consider it too deeply. And America Chavez awakens her woman warrior within. And everything’s right again. In a mid-credit sequence Charlize Theron in a truly horrible get-up makes an appearance and something in me died a little. Et tu, Charlize? How much are they paying you?
*. OK, I left some stuff out. But nothing important or even noteworthy. Except for maybe zombie Doctor Strange, who was kind of neat. Xochitl Gomez is good as America Chavez, the diversity hire (Hispanic with two moms, American-flag jacket with a pride pin). Bruce Campbell shows up in a silly cameo. But none of it adds up to anything. It’s not dark or funny, which is a bit surprising given Raimi being at the helm.
*. But was Raimi really in charge? This is an MCU movie more than a Sam Raimi movie, and there are rules. Rules which are, in turn, defined by a look. A look that, turning again, reflects a certain view of reality: a cosmos (or multiverse) that is infinitely plastic and without meaning.
*. The perverse thing about this sort of moviemaking/storytelling is that for all its big-budget flights of fancy there’s something in it that’s antithetical to the imagination. The world of imagination is now seen as something digital, formulaic, expensive, and fake. There’s a nihilism at the core of the MCU that makes it like a snake swallowing its own tail. These movies present us with uplifting (and clichéd) messages about overcoming prejudice and adversity and believing in yourself, while at the same time suggesting that none of this really matters anyway. The MCU does the same thing to morality or humanity as it does to reality: turns it all into a mush of pixels that aren’t meant to have any relation to life as any of us experience or understand it.
*. I genuinely feel sorry for young people who have been raised on this shit. It’s not escapist fantasy so much as it’s driven by the rejection, even hatred of reality, and by that I don’t just mean tossing the laws of physics out the window. But maybe I’m looking too hard into all this.

House of Gucci (2021)

*. There’s a longstanding debate when making movies in English with a cast that’s supposed to be speaking in a foreign language. Not whether they should speak in the appropriate language and be given subtitles, that’s a preliminary decision, but whether, if they’re speaking English, it should be regular, “proper” English or English spoken in a thick (and usually laughably fake) accent of whatever language the characters are presumed to be speaking.
*. This can often be seen in World War 2 movies. Do the German officers speak in a posh British accent, or do they say things like “Ve haff vays of making you talk!” Do Russian and Japanese soldiers sound like they’re struggling to get English word order right? That sort of thing.
*. I couldn’t help but think of all this while listening to the cast of House of Gucci. Obviously, they’re Italian, and mostly speaking Italian to each other. But as an English-language production they have to be speaking English. Speaking English in an Italian accent is meant to indicate with a nod and a wink that this is-a what’s-a going on.

*. Performing in such a way can’t be easy. I imagine it as acting with a handicap. Jeremy Irons is an old man now, and to be honest I felt like about halfway through this film he was sort of giving up on the pretense of the Italian accent and just falling back into his regular voice. Meaning that as Maurizio Gucci gets older and sicker he starts to sound more British. Which felt odd.
*. It’s also hard not to let such voices slip into parody. Which actually works for characters like Aldo (Al Pacino) and especially Paolo (Jared Leto) who are more caricatures anyway. I read the book by Sara Gay Forden that the movie was based on and was struck by how Paolo is really set up here as a total idiot as well as an only son, and he wasn’t either. He had no head for business, but then neither did Maurizio (played by Adam Driver).
*. In any event, this movie is a star vehicle for Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani anyway, and Gaga (born Stefani Germanotta) is at least of Italian descent (though her accent was criticized as sounding Russian by a dialect coach who actually worked on the film). I think she’s very good here at expressing a sort of wide-eyed earnestness ripening into something feral, and she makes the movie what it is. It’s not an easy part, having to allow for us to question just how much Patrizia was always a woman on the make and how much she really was in love with Maurizio.
*. On the other hand, I’m still not convinced Adam Driver is much of an actor, but he does bear a resemblance to Maurizio Gucci, who seems to have been a shadow of Patrizia in real life anyway.

*. Aside from just watching Gaga do her a-star-undone thing, I didn’t think there was much to see here. The Gucci family are an Italian snake pit in a tradition that runs from the Borgias to the Sopranos. That’s entertaining enough, but after a while I thought it all started to seem a bit like a fashion show. Director Ridley Scott can really do this kind of thing (production design, art direction) well, but the story probably would have worked better in the long format of a cable series as the business ins-and-outs have to be compressed to the point here where they’re more a distraction than high-stakes drama. And do I think the InvestCorp brain trust would be having meetings in team sweats? No.
*. Speaking of wardrobe, I’m sure they did a terrific job, but Lady Gaga’s lingerie did strike me as being anachronistic. At least I’m pretty sure thongs like that weren’t worn in the 1970s. They look very 2020.
*. In brief, I would have enjoyed it more if they’d played it up as full camp, which is obviously the tug that’s being felt throughout. Unfortunately, the talent involved meant they had to try for something more, and to be sure the camp road might well have ended in disaster. So in the end what they got is a muddle: a slickly produced but empty picture that’s part romance, part biopic, part crime picture, part business story, part music video. Some of it is trashy fun, but I’m hard pressed to think of what the point was.