The holiday season is under way! After last year truncated COVID calendar, it’s been a joy to see several award hopefuls and cheerful Christmas titles debut for the season. For this mini new release breakdown, I take a closer look at House of Gucci, King Richard, and 8-Bit Christmas. Let’s get rolling!
House of Gucci
Synopsis: When Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), an outsider from humble beginnings, marries Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), her unbridled ambition begins to unravel the family legacy and triggers a reckless spiral of betrayal, decadence, revenge — and ultimately murder.
Sinking into a dysfunctional family dynamic akin to Shakespear, acclaimed director Ridley Scott finally brings House of Gucci to the screen (he was attached to direct in 2006 with Leonardo DiCaprio and Angelina Jolie originally starring). The material offers a delicious page-turner that’s too hard to pass up, but Scott’s wishy-washy execution creates more of a modest mixed bag than the next award’s staple.
To little surprise, Gucci’s eclectic all-star cast steals the show. Spotting vivacious energy and a killer accent, Lady Gaga sinks her teeth into Patrizia’s sinister persona. It’s the type of high-energy performance that could steer off rails in lesser hands, yet Gaga conveys the deeply-seated insecurity and lust for grandeur buried underneath the bravado. Adam Driver’s suave delivery personifies Maurizio’s journey from a mild-mannered student to a cutthroat business leader, while Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons unsurprisingly deliver veteran poise in droves. Heck, even Jared Leto’s unhinged vigor feels like a fitting choice to display Paolo’s unending search for acceptance.
While I prefer this Ridley Scott film to his previous effort this year, the acclaimed director struggles to command the material. After the first hour glides with exuberant energy, Scott’s film oddly comes to a melodramatic halt. The director’s straightforward visual presentation and lack of substantive imprint eventually create an uneven experience. Screenwriters Roberto Bentivegna and Becky Johnston don’t help the unevenness – with an overload of needless historical backstory and biopic contrivances taking much of the air out of the story’s raw emotionality.
It’s a close call, but I still would recommend House of Gucci for its compellingly inconsistent take on a fascinating true story.
House of Gucci is now playing in theaters.
Synopsis: Armed with a clear vision and a brazen, 78-page plan, Richard Williams (Will Smith) is determined to write his two daughters, Venus and Serena, into history. Training on tennis courts in Compton, Calif., Richard shapes the girls’ unyielding commitment and keen intuition as they grow into superstar athletes.
Marked as an early Oscar favorite, King Richard combines two familiar staples – the biopic and feel-good sports movies – into one crowdpleasing package. Unlike some esteemed dramas that strain themselves for pathos, director Reinaldo Marcus Green conjures a winning blend of warmth and meaningful complexities.
While Will Smith remains the casts’ major spotlight, the ensemble effort deserves equal praise. After two remarkable performances on the small screen (Lovecraft Country and When They See Us), Aunjanue Ellis is a true breakout as Oracene. The actress conveys the conflicting support and frustration she shares for Richard with raw naturalism, never striking a false note in her delivery. Young stars Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton excel at conveying the Williams’ sisters demanding journey to greatness – while Jon Bernthal brightens the screen with a balance of comedic charm and dramatic heft.
Of course, Smith is also terrific in the titular role. The A-lister seamlessly disappears into the character’s stubborn yet well-intended persona, employing vulnerable emotionality under the character’s countless grand statements. King Richard operates at its best when magnifying the Williams family’s journey for success. Along with tireless sacrifices on the tennis court, Richard and company also fight for authorship as dozens of outside parties try to define their legacy. Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin astutely convey the sociopolitical undertones while still scoring several poignant moments from the film’s inspirational sports movie mold.
Is King Richard the most complex version of this story? Perhaps not (the Williams family oversaw the production, which leads to a bit too much straightforwardness at times). That said, King Richard is about as good as it gets for sports crowdpleasers. I’ll be rooting for Will and company to get some much-deserved recognition come award time.
King Richard is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.
Synopsis: In 1980s Chicago, a ten-year-old sets out on a quest to get the Christmas gift of his generation – the latest and greatest video game system, the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Basking in the nostalgic joys of a simpler time, 8-Bit Christmas models itself as a modern-day iteration of A Christmas Story. Writer Kevin Jakubowski utilizes the familiar narrative playbook with some success – particularly in his warm-hearted third act reversal of Christmas’ commercialized image. The cast also imbues good-natured charms into their roles, with Steve Zahn, Neil Patrick Harris, and newcomer Winslow Fegley mining yuletide cheer from their archetypal roles.
While mildly pleasant, 8-Bit Christmas struggles to subvert its by-the-numbers foundation. Jakubowski’s earnest dedication to his beloved source material becomes a hindrance as the screenplay weaves through played-out contrivances. I admire sincere nostalgic homages, and A Christmas Story is worthy of some playful modernization. However, Jakubowski and by-the-books studio director Michael Dowse settle rather than elevating their worthwhile aspirations.
8-Bit Christmas delivers enough earnest energy to please diehard Christmas movie fans. For everyone else, the film doesn’t incorporate enough distinctive elements to elevate this feature past its like-minded peers.
8-Bit Christmas is now available on HBO Max.
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