David’s Watch Diary: November 2021, Part Two

Thoughts on Belfast, House of Gucci, Get Back, Tick, Tick… Boom!, Encanto, and more.

Belfast

My least favorite thing about Oscar season (which is, to be clear, my favorite season) is how a perfectly fine, even great film can become Enemy of the People if it threatens to collect too many awards in the place of more challenging or sophisticated fare. It already feels like that is the fate of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, a poignant and crowd-pleasing memoir that finds itself currently in the driver’s seat for Best Picture, and therefore an object of scorn for some. For me, however, whether Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog or something else proves to be the more “worthy” candidate next March, my feelings about Belfast are simple: I loved it. I was delighted and moved.

It begins in Summer 1969, at the beginning of The Troubles — the generation-spanning internecine conflict largely between Protestants and Catholics (alternatively, British Loyalists and Irish Nationalists) in Northern Ireland. The knotty, contested details of that era are beyond the scope of Belfast, which instead dramatizes one tumultuous year in the life of nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill, remarkable). He’s too young to grasp why there is suddenly a military checkpoint on his street, or why he is supposed to avoid certain unsavory neighborhood characters, and Branagh — drawing directly from his own childhood — doesn’t choose sides either. Instead, Buddy’s parents (Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe) represent the many thousands who were forced into impossible choices as their world fell in around them, when they would rather simply continue to be good neighbors.

In Pa’s case, he is given an opportunity to relocate the family to England, where he has found steady work as a welder; for Ma and the others, however, this neighborhood is all they’ve ever known. Buddy just wants to go to school (where he is nursing a crush on a girl in his class) and to the movies (where he sees Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, among others, in vibrant color), and spend as much time as possible with his crusty but good-hearted grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench). The cast is uniformly excellent; Hinds and Balfe, especially, are given multiple scenes that will put them on awards shortlists everywhere. Hill is a real find — often cheeky and adorable, but more than holding his own with the grownups when the drama kicks in.

Belfast also draws easy comparisons to Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s deeply personal drama similarly filmed in black and white, but Branagh doesn’t have Cuaron’s dazzling technicality. A better juxtaposition would be Jojo Rabbit (without the confounding Hitler daydreams), in that both depict a traumatic period in history through the eyes of a child — with all of the whimsy and lower stakes that implies. There are a couple places where you can see the seams in the storytelling; the timeline’s a little bit too tidy, and cause & effect too simplistic. Branagh is not known as a screenwriter. But to his credit, Belfast is a deeply felt film, beautifully lensed by Haris Zambarloukos, and a moving tribute to a community torn asunder. The script isn’t poetic because of the way it’s written, but because it feels utterly true to itself.

House of Gucci

Even at 157 minutes, the one thing you can say about House of Gucci is that it’s never not watchable. It’s a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of murder and greed in the world of high fashion, sporting one of the most Going For It™ casts in recent memory. And yet, I came away from the film slightly underwhelmed. After being seemingly designed for maximum meme-ability, my feeling is it that it just isn’t wild enough. You can sense the tension throughout between two different versions of Gucci: The mozzarella-faced camp classic that the ensemble was acting in, and the more traditional prestige drama Ridley Scott was actually making.

There’s also no denying that Lady Gaga, as the dangerously ambitious Patrizia, is a force of nature. We see her evolve over the course of the film from a young striver who works overtime to woo Maurizio, the restless scion of the Gucci empire (Adam Driver), to the embittered estranged empress; though her accent seems at times more Transylvanian than Italian, she holds the audience’s attention in her clenched fist. Patrizia is the fulcrum everyone else is forced to orbit around. That includes Jared Leto as her incompetent brother-in-law, giving the film’s most polarizing performance while pancaked in latex like a live-action Waluigi. Is it good acting? I can’t begin to say. But it is fully committed acting. My favorite moments in the film weren’t tied to dialogue or storytelling, but whenever one of the more veteran actors shares a scene with Leto for the first time; you can freeze-frame the moment where Jeremy Irons’s eyes widen as if to say “Oh, so that’s the kind of film we’re making.”

But it isn’t, not really. Scott is 83 now, and far from slowing down — it’s been only six weeks since the more Oscar-friendly (on paper, anyway) The Last Duel came and went from theaters. My corner of Film Twitter, however, had had its eye on House of Gucci ever since that first production still of a winterized Adam Driver and Lady Gaga came over the transom. Unfortunately, though Becky Johnson & Roberto Bentivegna’s script is chock-full of incident and withering asides, Scott never really leaves any kind of a visual imprint. Cinematographer Darisuz Wolski gives the film the same desaturated “American Express Commercial” look as he did All the Money in the World, and the venerable director shies away from dynamic camerawork or really any style at all. As a consequence, you really start to feel the length once Gaga temporarily drops out of the action. Scott deserves credit for letting his actors go fully uncorked, but I can’t help but wonder what, say, Martin Scorsese could have done with the material.

The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)

Peter Jackson is a man of many obsessions. One is his collection of 70 vintage World War I aircraft, the largest in the world. It was his fascination with that era that led to his 2018 documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, a stunning archive of WWI footage that was painstakingly digitized, colorized, and edited with new audio tracks that showed us the reality of the war with powerful authenticity. The technology Weta Digital developed to resurrect those degraded images was then deployed on a new hoard to rival Smaug’s: the 80 hours of 16mm footage documenting The Beatles in January 1969 — the sessions that would lead to the album Let It Be, their famous rooftop concert, and the band’s ultimate implosion. That’s the legend, anyway. Jackson didn’t know what he’d find, only that it would take years of work to assemble it all.

Once again, Jackson’s doggedness is our gain: at eight hours, Get Back is the closest we’ll ever get to a time machine. It’s an enthralling window into the creative process, featuring a quartet of artists at the height of their collective powers. The original documentarian, Michael Lindsey-Hogg, was limited by the band in what he was allowed to show, leaving the most fascinating scenes — filmed surreptitiously, or as just audio (one fraught sit-down between Paul McCartney and John Lennon was captured by stashing a microphone in a flowerpot) — lost to history. Jackson, however, had carte blanche to show events as they happened, as much as modern technology would allow. The results speak for themselves: despite the at-times jarring editing (by necessity) and the vaguely deep-fakey gloss of the high definition conversion, the docuseries is a treasure trove of revelations, interactions, and simply brilliant music — far too many moments to list here.

But I will say that even from a director known for bloat, I was never bored, no matter how many times I heard them play through “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” or the title track itself, which seems to spring from the ether before our very eyes. At times the musicians’ noodling is purely procrastination, at others — like right after George Harrison nonchalantly (and temporarily) quits the band — a cacophonic release of pent-up frustration. But I was most fascinated to watch them corral the moments of magic when they knew they had it. Keyboardist Billy Preston stops by the studio just to say hello; a few hours later, he’s laying down iconic tracks as an unofficial fifth Beatle, and the fractured lads from Liverpool are feeding off his infectious joy. McCartney, who for a time seems to be the only one who wants to do this project at all, comes back from lunch one afternoon with “Let it Be” seemingly fully-formed. And on and on. The presentation of the iconic concert itself, the documentary’s emotional and musical climax, is fresh and inventive; Jackson split-screens Lindsey-Hogg’s myriad cameras, including live interviews with passersby and a tick-tock of the aggravated London police department.

Despite the occasional barbs, and The End that we know is coming, you also can’t help but feel their mutual respect. (Paul even defends Yoko Ono’s presence, and no one has a single bad word to say about Ringo Starr.) It’s crazy to think that their entire career as a band — with over a dozen albums and incredible songs beyond counting, lasted barely a decade. They burned bright, and quickly. And Peter Jackson has given us, I believe, the defining document of their genius at work. My 10-year-old daughter watched nearly the whole thing with us; at her request, I ended up dumping over a hundred Beatles songs on her iPad. After the first episode she knew them only as “the funny one,” “the one with the beard,” “the drummer,” and “the other one.” By the end, she knew she wanted more.

tick, tick… BOOM! (Netflix)

So why do we keep coming back to that archetype, the Insufferably Driven Creative Genius? Not just, probably, because we find their anxious lives so compelling, but because of our societal misunderstanding of the nature of art: that it must somehow come from great suffering to be truly worthwhile. Jonathan Larson, the composer-lyricst-playwright responsible for that watershed in American Theater, Rent, but who tragically died before the show’s opening night, is a dichotomous character. He was not truly suffering from anything but perhaps an excess of ambition; his parents support him, his friends are loyal to him, he received multiple grants as he toiled away in his Manhattan apartment. Yet, on the eve of his 30th birthday with his first real project (his little-known early musical, Superbia) about to be performed in public for the first time, the “ticking” in his head is louder and louder. He didn’t know that he had undiagnosed Marfan’s syndrome (not AIDS, as a later narrative would suggest) and that six years later, an aortic aneurysm would kill him before he would receive the acclaim he wanted so badly. But like Alexander Hamilton — as written by Lin-Manuel Miranda — he writes like he’s running out of time.

It’s not hard to see why the prolific, endlessly energetic Miranda was drawn to Larson; more interesting is his choice to make tick, tick… BOOM, which Larson initially performed in the early 90s as a one-man “rock monologue” before it was reconstituted and expanded after his death, Miranda’s choice for his debut feature film. I’ve been annoyed by the Discourse™ around the multiple Tony-winner since Hamilton reached peak saturation; an entire cottage industry has formed around mocking Miranda and his work at every opportunity. Yet this summer’s In the Heights was a good film, and BOOM is even better, and it’s because Miranda is so good at translating his own passions to the stage and screen. Here, he’s found the perfect vessel in Andrew Garfield, who I legit did not know could sing — let alone really sing in the way he does here. The opening number “30/90” is a tornado of energy; Alice Brook’s camera spins around the stage while Myron Kerstein & Andrew Weisblum maintain the tempo with their cutting, but it all comes down to Garfield’s fit-to-burst performance (very possibly the best of his career), and Miranda’s clear-eyed direction.

Yet this isn’t quite TTB, but a new reimagining of it that doubles as a biopic. Garfield is aided by excellent performances from Robin de Jesus, Alexandra Shipp, and Vanessa Hudgens, who similarly aren’t playing TTB characters, but real people. The structure, as scripted by Steven Levenson, generally works well — but I’m curious to know whether the film can find an audience outside of Broadway devotees, because it’s esoteric to a fault. Not just in obvious ways, like having a bearded Bradley Whitford playfully grimace through an appearance as the late theater titan himself, Stephen Sondheim, but in the constant name-dropping and in-jokes; this climaxes in the “Sunday” number, which packs in such a cartoonish number of cameos (Joel Grey! Andre de Shields! Bebe Neuwirth!) that it’s basically Ready Player One for the New York theater scene. Yet I was delighted the whole way through; the songs — with a few exceptions, like the heartrending “Why” — may not be as sophisticated as Larson’s later work (and some would argue that Rent was not especially sophisticated), but you feel the burning passion of everyone involved, and therefore feel Larson’s as well.

Encanto

Look, it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda again, this time providing the songs for Disney’s 60th(!) animated feature. Encanto is a charmer, bursting with color and heart. Jared Bush and Byron Howard, in their first project since Zootopia, are an odd pair to take on a uniquely Columbian tale with any kind of cultural specificity, but from the embroidery, to the arepas, to the architecture, to the tributes to the magical realism of Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, their work speaks for itself. (Encanto is also co-written/directed by playwright Charise Castro Smith, the first Latina to earn a director credit on a Disney animated film.)

Our heroine is Mirabel (a winning Stephanie Beatriz), a third-generation Madrigal — a family blessed with a magical, helpful “casita,” and individual powers for each member of the family. Each one, of course, except Mirabel herself. Her sisters are supernaturally strong and graceful, her mother can heal through her cooking, her aunt can control the weather, and so on, but for reasons unknown, Mirabel was never granted a gift, making her feel marginalized in her own home. Worse, as the story begins, the Magic itself seems to be dying — and Mirabel is fated to be at the center of things, somehow.

Encanto‘s story may not be the most logically consistent or airtight, but its ambiguity is at least partially by design. I will say that unlike recent Disney offerings Frozen 2 or Raya and the Last Dragon, I actually found myself quite invested in what would happen next. The songs are lively, the characters are appealing (in this house we love and support Bruno), and the animation is state-of-the-art, but the film also subverts the Disney formula in a few key ways. It’s not a “journey of discovery”, because it basically all takes place inside the Madrigal home. There are no goofy animal sidekicks; in fact, Mirabel herself plays the comic relief opposite her comparatively uptight family. And though it is an inherently fantastical tale, it’s rooted in the realities of Columbian life, particularly the forced migration of people fleeing violence in their local villages. The concept of the Madrigals’ Encanto — a truly safe and protected place — will resonate deeply.

Quick Hits:

  • I didn’t get to finish Cowboy Bebop (Netflix) as of this writing, so my full thoughts on that will come next month. Here’s a hint, though: Hmmm.
  • I’ll say that Edgar Wright’s energetic, quite long rockumentary The Sparks Brothers didn’t quite make me a fan of Sparks’ music, but it definitely made me a fan of the Maels as dudes. My kind of weirdos.
  • My wife will soon have read all fourteen books in The Wheel of Time series. I wasn’t hooked enough to continue after the first one. Both of us came to Amazon’s series curious; four episodes in, we’re also both frustrated. Rosamund Pike aside, it’s all… just… so… bland.
  • Hawkeye (Disney+) doesn’t aspire to formal daring (WandaVision), social commentary (F&WS), or ably laying the groundwork for the MCU’s next decade (Loki); it seems to just want to be a lightweight holiday treat. Will that make it more, or less, memorable? Unclear.

Looking ahead to… Oscar heavyweight The Power of the Dog comes to Netflix (12/2)… David Fincher produces Voir, a series of visual essays celebrating cinema (Netflix, 12/6)… We’ll finally know if Spielberg’s long-delayed West Side Story is good (12/10)… The Expanse returns for its explosive final(?) season (Amazon, 12/10)… plus The Matrix, Spider-Man, The Witcher, and much much more that I’ll get to in the back half of December.

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