Agnelli


The Prince of Italy surveys his kingdom.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Gianni Agnelli, Maria Sole Agnelli, Henry Kissinger, Lee Radziwill, Jackie Rogers, Vendeline von Bredow, Anna Mucci, Nicolo Caracciolo, Cristiana Brandolini,,Gianni Riotta., Valentino, Diane von Furstenberg, Jennifer Clark, Reinaldo Herrera, Isabella Ratazzi, Giorgio Garuzzo, Alain Elkann, Valerio Castronovo, Taki Theodoracopulos, Ginerva Elkann. Directed by Nick Hooker

 

Certain people come along in life who by force of personality become symbols for both good and ill. Our current President, for example, is a symbol of things that depending on your political persuasion may either fill you with hope or with disgust. Malala Yousafzai has become a symbol of extraordinary courage and for women’s rights. Jackie Kennedy, in her day, became a symbol of elegance and grace.

Gianni Agnelli from the late 1950s onward acted as a symbol for the Italian people. Known affectionately by his nickname “L’Avvocato” (the advocate), he was the grandson of the founder of Fiat Motors, which at one time employed 3% of the Italian workforce. He was groomed to become the CEO and helped revitalize postwar Italian industry in a time when Italy was in ruins. He also stood up to Red Brigade terrorists who in the 1970s kidnapped and assassinated the Italian Prime Minister as well as one of his own executives at Fiat.

During the 1950s and 1960s Agnelli was the symbol of Italian sophistication and glamour. It was an era immortalized in films like La Dolce Vita and Agnelli certainly was symbolic of that epoch. He threw fabulous parties, hung out with glamorous people (including Jackie, designers Valentino and Diane von Furstenberg, diplomat Henry Kissinger and actress Anita Ekberg). He liked to drive fast; while he drove a Fiat, it was equipped with a Ferrari engine (Fiat purchased Ferrari in order to keep it out of the hands of an American automaker).

Agnelli was a great believer in the American system as was his grandfather, who took many of the ideas Henry Ford used to make Ford Motors more efficient and used them to modernize his own. Agnelli saw America in it’s splendid postwar prosperity and knew that was the route Italy had to follow. However, the road wasn’t without bumps; his grandfather was forced out of Fiat after being falsely accused of collaborating with the fascists; even though he was exonerated the ordeal essentially killed him. During the 70s, Italy had a strong communist movement going on, spawning the Red Brigade; Agnelli saw this as potentially catastrophic to Italy in the same way fascism had been. He remained a strong proponent for capitalism and democracy during that time, even though it painted quite the target on his own back.

The documentary is a bit on the long side, dividing the life of Gianni Agnelli into five distinct periods. Most of the focus is devoted to the La Dolce Vita years during which time Agnelli was a fashion icon as well as a notorious ladies man (there were rumors he had an affair with Jackie Kennedy between the death of President Kennedy and her marriage to Aristotle Onasis). In many ways that was a fascinating period in his life but in many ways it’s more of a People magazine portion of the film rather than a Wall Street Journal portion which comes later. We get a lot of the glitz and glamour but what we don’t get is a lot of context. He is clearly revered in Italy and particularly in Turin, not only for refusing to lay off workers when his company was hemorrhaging money but also for owning the Juventus soccer club which is only slightly less important a religion in Turin as Roman Catholicism.

There are a lot of interviews with relatives (two sisters, several nieces and nephews), staff (his personal assistant as well as the groundskeeper and chef on his Italian estate) as well as friends both famous and not. While some of the interviews give us insight into the man, a lot of them cover the same ground. The adage “women wanted to be with him, men wanted to be him” is used both directly and indirectly dozens of times during the film. We get it.

I did like the archival footage, some of which are compelling historical documents; that seemed to work better for me than the endless interviews. There is no doubt that Gianni Agnelli led a fascinating life and was an important person in the 20th century particularly in Italy but the filmmakers don’t seem very inclined to get beneath the surface of the man who was clearly intelligent and forceful and get into the things that motivated him to make some of the decisions he made. This is one of those documentaries that could have used a lot less fluff and a lot more meat.

REASONS TO GO: Agnelli was the personification of Italian glamour at the zenith of La Dolce Vita. There are interesting insights to Italy’s postwar political history.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many talking heads. As interesting as it is, the film runs far too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a budget of $210 million U.S. this is the most expensive film ever made in France – to date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No Score Yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Men Who Built America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Murder on the Cape

Rush


Another day at the office.

Another day at the office.

(2013) Biographical Sports Drama (Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jamie de Courcey, Pierfrancesco Favino, Natalie Dormer, David Calder, Alistair Petrie, Colin Stinton, Augusto Dallara, Ilario Calvo, Patrick Baladi, Vincent Riotta, Josephine de la Baume, Brooke Johnston, Hannah Britland. Directed by Ron Howard

Race car drivers are a breed unto themselves. While here in the States our focus tends to be on the NASCAR circuit, the Formula One drivers have the attention of the rest of the planet and for good reason; Formula One cars are, as one character in the film puts it, essentially coffins strapped to bombs. In the era this film took place in, 25 drivers would start out the racing year and two of them would die sometime during the year without fail. Why would anyone sane do something like this?

James Hunt (Hemsworth) is the kind of star that makes the sponsors salivate; handsome, irreverent and talented, he is fearless on the track and will make moves that would give even veteran drivers pause. Niki Lauda (Brühl) on the other hand is an Austrian with cold, technical precision and focus. While Hunt loves the spotlight, Lauda prefers solitude. Whereas Hunt drives for the thrill, Lauda drives for the victories. They are both ultra-competitive and it was inevitable that the two would become rivals.

In 1976, the two were vying for the Formula One championship – Lauda for Ferrari, Hunt for McLaren. They drove the best cars in the world and it seemed that Lauda, the defending champion, had the upper hand but after a horrific accident in Nürburgring for the German Grand Prix, Hunt had the golden opportunity to make up lost ground and pass the hospitalized Lauda, whose lungs were so badly burned after being trapped for nearly two minutes in an 800F inferno that they had to be vacuumed out while he was conscious. Against all odds and against doctor’s advice, Lauda returned to the track two months later to set up a head-to-head battle that would grab the attention of the world and make for a legend that endures today.

Howard is one of the best storytellers in Hollywood today and at his best his movies not only pack an emotional punch but stimulate the intellect by giving us something to think about. Here, Howard uses the rivalry between these two men (who actually respected each other a great deal and were friends after they retired from racing) to try and get at the mindset of men who risk their lives by driving in circles around a track for a trophy and a check.

Hemsworth is sometimes regarded as a handsome muscle boy who is best known for playing Thor  and very likably at that but the kid can act. He gets the look and mannerisms of the infamous bad boy of racing down to a T but also shows some insight into the insecurities that often drove Hunt. When his racing team collapses under a mountain of debt, Hunt turns into a bit of a prick and eventually drives his wife, supermodel Suzy Miller (Wilde) into the arms of actor Richard Burton. Under the wisecracks and the braggadocio there is a ferocious competitor who is out to prove to the world that he will live on his own terms and nobody else’s.

However, I think that the movie might just launch Brühl to the next level of stardom. He is mesmerizing as Lauda, wearing a dental device to simulate the overbite that earned Lauda the nickname “The Rat” among his fellows. Lauda was thoroughly disliked and didn’t care that he was; all he cared about was wringing every ounce of performance out of his machines and at that he was a master. He’s arrogant and charmless – his marriage proposal to Marlene (Lara) is “if I’m going to do this with anyone, it might as well be you.” Makes a girl’s heart beat faster, doesn’t it?

It is his intensity that Brühl captures best however. The nightmarish injuries that Lauda endures, the unimaginable pain of the burns is captured not only by the body language and the screams but in the eyes. Brühl looks like a man suffering the agonies of the damned – none worse than having to sit on the sidelines and watch his insurmountable lead erode race by race. For a competitor like Lauda, there could be no torture more terrible.

Peter Morgan, who wrote the screenplay, did it on his own; no studio commissioned it so the movie was deliberately written with few racing sequences just in case that the film was made on a non-major studio budget. Some lament that this is a racing movie without racing but in true point of fact it is not; this is a movie about people, not cars. Be aware that the movie is loud and intense however – the race scenes that are in the film accurately capture the noise and chaos of an actual race so that you might imagine you can smell the rubber and the asphalt. However, once the cars are moving I have to admit that the sequences aren’t anything to write home about.

Howard will no doubt be in the Oscar conversation again this year for the first time in five years, and I don’t have a problem with that. This is intense entertainment sure but more it is an examination of what makes people like Hunt and Lauda tick, and with performances at the level that Hemsworth and Brühl deliver, they are the first salvo in the 2014 Oscar race. Gentlemen, start your engines.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth and Brühl are impressive. Focuses on the differences that made them rivals.

REASONS TO STAY: More of a character study; the racing sequences are few and unimpressive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of cussing, some pretty disturbing images of the aftermath of a fiery crash, sexuality and nudity and brief drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second collaboration between Howard and writer Peter Morgan; the first was the Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grand Prix

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: In a World…

Barry Munday


Barry Munday

Is the football game on yet?

(2010) Comedy (Magnolia) Patrick Wilson, Judy Greer, Chloe Sevigny, Jean Smart, Cybill Shepherd, Missi Pyle, Shea Whigham, Malcolm McDowell, Billy Dee Williams, Barret Swatek, Christopher McDonald, Colin Hanks, Kyle Gass, Mae Whitman. Directed by Chris D’Arienzo

 

There is no shortage of guys out there who live for the conquest. You’ll find them in bars and clubs, trolling for potential one night stands, out to sleep with as many women as they possibly can with varying degrees of success. It’s how they define themselves. What happens when you are suddenly faced with having to redefine yourself?

Barry Mundy (Wilson) is one of those minor league Don Juans who seem to have that magic touch when it comes to scoring with the ladies. He has had plenty of sex without any consequence; but one of the girls he seduces comes complete with an angry father who administers the beating of a lifetime to Barry in a movie theater. When the smoke clears, Barry is missing some good buddies – his testicles.

Bitter, angry and feeling betrayed, he holes up at home, only to discover that he is being served with a paternity suit. The woman who is suing him, Ginger Farley (Greer) is a bitter, snarky woman who is about as unpleasant as a porcupine enema. For his part, Barry doesn’t remember sleeping with her. At first he wants to fight the suit but when he thinks about it he realizes this might well be the very last chance for him to leave anything genetic behind him, so he throws himself enthusiastically into the idea of being a dad.

The trouble is, Ginger isn’t so sure she wants Barry around and she makes it completely unpleasant for him to be around. She reluctantly introduces him to her family – her parents (McDowell, Shepherd) and her slutty stripper sister Jennifer (Sevigny) who takes an unhealthy interest in Barry. Still, Ginger is warming to Barry and he to her. Can they change enough to be good together and more importantly, good parents?

This is one of those indie movies which is going to seem very familiar to you if you’ve seen any indie movies in your time. Many of the characters have that familiar quirkiness to them that makes them endearing – the first twenty times around. By this point endearing indie quirkiness is annoying for the main part.

Patrick Wilson often plays the romantic rival and a lot of the characters he plays are real shmendricks. Here he plays a part we really haven’t seen him tackle much and he carries it off nicely. I haven’t seen many other parts of this sort come his way since; I hope some casting directors see this and consider him for more of these sorts of roles.

Judy Greer has also made a career for the most part out of the driver’s seat, often playing the wacky best friend. She is thoroughly unlikable through much of the movie which is risky; it’s hard to root for someone so bitchy but Greer pulls it off for the most part. She is definitely a fine comic actress but I suspect she’d do real well in the dramatic field as well.

While this is based on a novel, I couldn’t help but feel that the writers were occasionally unsure how to proceed. The movie flounders awkwardly in places although I can easily accept that life is all about floundering awkwardly. Still, when the movie seems to lose its focus it’s hard for the audience to maintain theirs. It’s a cardinal filmmaking sin. Fortunately the performances are such that the audience focuses on that rather than the story.

This is one of those movies that is elevated by the stars. Greer and Wilson aren’t known for carrying movies but they show they are well able to do it. I would really love to see the public discover them both in that sense. This movie isn’t necessarily the vehicle to get them there – it’s very flawed but it isn’t without merit despite the clichés  – but it’s certainly worth a look.

WHY RENT THIS: Wilson is surprisingly deft in a romantic comic lead. Greer boldly makes her character wholly unlikable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many indie clichés. Seems to be rudderless at times.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might imagine from the subject matter, there’s a good deal of sexual content and dialogue. The language is a bit foul in places.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had its premiere at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and a faux PSA about the horrors of genital detachment.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Percy

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Matrix Reloaded

Bringing Out the Dead


Bringing Out the Dead

Nicolas Cage performs triage on his career.

(1999) Drama (Paramount) Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Marc Anthony, Mary Beth Hurt, Cliff Curtis, Nestor Serrano, Aida Turturro, Sonja Sohn, Cynthia Roman, Afemo Omilami. Directed by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite directors. OK, that’s true for a lot of people – Scorsese is quite frankly one of the most accomplished directors ever. He knows the streets of New York City like nobody else. Whereas Woody Allen is uptown Manhattan, Scorsese is the lower Bronx. He can take murderers and junkies and make them compelling.

Bringing Out the Dead is about a burned-out New York EMS technician named Frank (Cage), who during the course of a hot, humid weekend, hopes to save a life and somehow find redemption from the ghosts that haunt him, particularly one named Rose, a street urchin who died while under his care.

During the first night, he and his larger-than-life partner (Goodman) haul in a coronary patient barely clinging to life. Frank finds himself drawn to the estranged daughter (Arquette) of the dying man, an oddly vulnerable woman with many complex layers. As the weekend progresses, Frank encounters junkies, drunks, gang bangers, victims, drug dealers, predators and criminals of all sorts.

Frank longs to be put out of his misery and tries his very best to get fired, turning to alcohol as the only way to ease his pain. Over the course of the weekend, he rides with a variety of partners, including the Bible-thumping lady-killer Marcus (Rhames) and on the final night, his psychotic ex-partner (Sizemore). He drifts through the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, struggling to avoid drowning himself.

Scorsese’s visual style carries the movie, using light and shadow to delineate Frank’s fall from grace and his attempt to rise above. Nobody uses motion and color like Scorsese, and he uses it well here.

Unfortunately, Paul Schrader’s script (Schrader and Scorsese previously collaborated on Taxi Driver) is scattershot, ill-plotted and occasionally pointless. I suppose the story is meant to reflect the pointlessness of life in the underbelly of a city where death and despair are constant companions. However, exorcising our demons is not just a matter of forgiveness; it requires faith and good timing too. When Frank encounters Rose for the last time, I found myself screaming at the screen “I get it, I get it already!!!!!!”

Cage was at a point in his career when he made this where he was still respected as an actor although he seems to be the butt of many late night talk show host jokes these days. His eyes here are sad, world-weary and expressive; it wasn’t his best performance ever but it might well make his all-time top ten. He gets to work off of a variety of foils for whom Sizemore and Goodman seem to be the most memorable. Arquette is luminous as Cage’s love interest.

Frank looks at the world through desperate eyes, seeking some kind of miracle in the muck. That he finds saintliness amid the squalor is a testament to his faith. That I watched the movie to its conclusion is a testament of my faith in Scorsese. Sadly, my faith was unrewarded, and I have to tell you that if you need a fix of Scorsese, go rent Casino, Goodfellas or The Departed instead.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s Martin Scorsese – that should be enough. One of Cage’s best all-time performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unsatisfying and often meandering plot line serves to emphasize the story’s points a little too much.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, enough bad language to make anybody blush and a goodly amout of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There are two dispatchers heard in the movie, one male and one female. The male dispatcher’s voice is Scorsese; the female’s is rapper Queen Latifah, who would later go on to fame as an actress in her own right. This is also the last movie to be released on laserdisc.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.8M on a $55M production budget; the movie was a commercial flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Creature

Crazy, Stupid, Love


Crazy, Stupid, Love

Steve Carell and Julianne Moore are schooled.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Warner Brothers) Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon, John Carroll Lynch, Jonah Bobo, Analeigh Tipton, Josh Groban, Joey King, Liza Lapira, Beth Littleford. Directed by Glen Ficarra and John Requa

Love has a way of pulling a fast one on us. We go along thinking things are fine and suddenly BLAMO they’re not. At other times we are looking for anything other than love and suddenly we discover that it has moved in for a long stay.

Cal Weaver (Carell) is a middle aged man enjoying the fruits of his life. He has children who love him, a steady job that pays the bills and a wife who adores him. Okay, two out of three.

One night at dinner, his wife Emily (Moore) blurts out that she wants a divorce. Not only that, but she’s been sleeping with David Lindhagen (Bacon), a nebbish accountant who works with Emily. Cal is stunned into silence, an awkward vacuum that is filled with even more awkward conversation by Emily until Cal is so unnerved he throws himself out of a moving car.

Somewhat passively, Cal moves out into a bare, sparsely furnished apartment. He takes to hanging out at a local bar where he notices Jacob (Gosling), a handsome younger man who seems to have uncanny success with women in the bar. Jacob in turn notices the sad sack Cal who doesn’t mind acting the pathetic loser, telling all and sundry that he’s been cuckolded by his wife and her lover. Jacob decides to take pity on Cal and help get him back in touch with his manhood.

This of course requires a complete wardrobe change and new haircut, as well as lessons watching Jacob pick up women with lines I could never have pulled off with a straight face in a singles bar, although to be fair if I looked like Ryan Gosling I could spout off excerpts of “Pilgrim’s Progress” and still get lucky.

After some false starts, Cal begins to get successful at picking up women, using a certain amount of honesty on schoolteacher Kate (Tomei) to get her in his clutches.

In the meantime, Cal’s son Robbie (Bobo) has developed quite the crush on his babysitter Jessica (Tipton) who in turn has developed a very unhealthy fixation on Cal, who is close friends with her dad (Lynch) who has spinelessly sided with his bitchy wife (Littleford) in giving Cal the cold shoulder and supporting Emily, who needs it of course after having thrown her husband out because she cheated on him. What an animal he is!

Anyway Jacob finds himself falling for Hannah (Stone) who has just passed the bar, and I don’t mean the one Jacob hangs out in because she walked right into it and…well, if you like comedy in which everybody misinterprets what everyone else says at every possible turn, you don’t need any more cajoling from me.

The co-directors co-wrote the cult classic Bad Santa and this movie has a few of the subversive elements from that film. Unfortunately, those elements don’t really suit this film or this cast. Carell is best when cast as an everyman sort who has a bit of a heart of gold and means well but, well, things happen to him. While he made his bones in “The Office” as the clueless manager, he got some critical flack for this character not being more like Michael Scott which I find incomprehensible. That character would have been patently wrong for this role; part of what the movie is about is taking a mild-mannered, happily married man and attempt to turn him into something he isn’t.

Moore, one of the most respected actresses going today, gets to play a rather unsympathetic role and manages to make her sympathetic. She rises to the occasion and resists the temptation to make Emily bitchy so much as she is confused and desperate. She hooks up with David not so much out of lust or spite but because the safe harbor of her marriage has faded into the mists and she doesn’t know which way to turn to find that security.

Gosling doesn’t do a lot of comedies and this isn’t quite what we’ve come to expect from him at all – for one thing, he seems more comfortable in indie dramas than in big studio rom-coms but he seems to be all right with this one. It isn’t up to his usual standards but the performance is solid enough and if his comic timing isn’t up to the level of Carell’s, perhaps with some practice he’s a good enough actor to pull off comedy as well.

The thing that makes this movie seem a little bit on the unrealistic side is that there is almost no fighting, and no screaming whatsoever between Emily and Cal. This is the most civilized, low-key divorce EVER. Also the singles bar, which is apparently a local lounge is full of more gorgeous women than any other singles bar I’ve ever seen.

There is also a heck of a lot of raunchiness for a movie in which young teens and kids play such a pivotal role. Robbie is caught masturbating in the opening moments of the movie and Jessica takes some provocative picture for the man of her dreams. While there isn’t anything in here that would get the cops called, those who have zero tolerance for anything having to do with statutory rape might want to give this a wide berth.

Love never acts the way you want it to or even the way you predict it will. It’s never easy, never smooth and rarely responds the same way twice, even in the same relationship. There is some sweetness and charm here with an equally large dose of uncomfortable silences. It’s a solid enough comedy that is better than a lot of romantic comedies these days but even so it’s merely good, not great.

REASONS TO GO: Nice ensemble and Carell continues to impress as a leading man. Sweet nature

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be raunchy or family-oriented.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the jokes are a little bit crude, there’s some sexuality and more than it’s fair share of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is singer Josh Groban’s film debut.

HOME OR THEATER: It makes a nice alternative if the big movies are crowded, but also it will work fine at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Solitary Man