Movie Review ~ Licorice Pizza

The Facts:  

Synopsis: The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973. 

Stars: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Skyler Gisondo, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Michael Higgins, Christine Ebersole, Harriet Sansom Harris, Ryan Heffington, Nate Mann, Joseph Cross, Danielle Haim, Este Haim, Moti Haim, Donna Haim 

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 133 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review:  Some filmmakers get to a point in their careers where they can evoke a particular response in their devotees just by performing the most mundane of movie marketing tasks.  Take Paul Thomas Anderson (or PTA, if you will, and you must if you are in the PTA fandom universe) and the release of his newest film, Licorice Pizza. The director debuted the simple poster for his coming-of-age story set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973 and according to the internet activity you’d have thought it was an undiscovered Rembrandt being displayed for the first time.  Following up with a trailer edited in typical PTA style to give you a taste of the movie without much of the flavor and the eyes of #FilmTwitter collectively rolled back in their head, unable to sustain the force of such wonder.

Then there was me, over in my corner, wondering what the fuss was about.  Sure, I’ve had my rocky relationship with PTA over the years and often felt like he’d wandered away from the fray more than he partied down with the crowd, but that’s just my particular preference.  I get that PTA’s signature auteur-ism is what the film cognoscenti take pride in dissecting with loud voices in small crowds or displaying on their homemade media shelves filled with every one of his movies, and while my IKEA shelf certainly contains the PTA old school essentials like Boogie Night and Magnolia, you won’t find later efforts like The Master and certainly not Inherent Vice.  He won me back with the elegant Phantom Thread, tearing at the seams of a spikey relationship (while somewhat examining his own marriage to Maya Rudolph in the process), but each new movie feels like starting over again with him.  So the poster and the trailer and the crazed early buzz were taken in with several pinches of Kosher salt.

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, I finally had my bite of Licorice Pizza and found it, unsurprisingly, meaty. There were some slices of PTA’s episodic yet extremely loosey goosey structured film that I favored more than others and absolutely understand the hype for its star Alana Haim, but at the same time it’s a film that drifts when it should be forging ahead and drags when it could use a significant boost of energy.  Fueled by a blazing soundtrack and a colorful cast of supporting characters that help balance out Haim’s less successful co-star, PTA’s film is his most easily accessible and commercially minded film to date and that’s going to attract a number of new viewers to get on his bandwagon.

Inspired by the stories PTA heard from child actor turned producer Gary Goetzman as well as his own observances, Licorice Pizza opens with Alana Kane (Haim) first meeting Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) as he waits in line to have his high school photo taken.  Charming the bored young woman nine years his senior with his quick wit and stories of his time as a child actor, by the time Gary says “cheese” he’s made a bold pitch to get her to meet him for dinner.  Intrigued by the teen, she goes, and the two form a quick bond based on his not-so-secret pining and her pretending not to recognize just how much he’s fallen for her. 

This isn’t your typical romantic pairing, however.  Gary and Alana wind up being more than potential love interests after they go into business selling the latest hot craze in CA at the time: waterbeds. With Gary’s days as a child actor fading and Alana’s career as a would-be ingenue starlet ending before they even began (a lengthy interlude with Sean Penn as Jack Holden should have been excised completely, it’s the weakest part of the film), they recruit their equally young friends to be employees in their enterprise, a get-rich-quick scheme that pays off…for a time.  They even manage to snag a celebrity client and Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Jon Peters, the infamous Hollywood hairdresser who became an enfant terrible film producer and boyfriend to Barbra Streisand, is where the best material in Licorice Pizza begins to take form.

It helps if you know about Peters, his attitude and style, his penchant for violent outbursts and pompous actions of egotistical preening.  Cooper (Nightmare Alley) nails the man in an eerie way and I don’t doubt the real deal was just as terrifying to come face to face with as he is shown here, though it winds up coming across with a comic effect more than anything.  This entire sequence where Alana, Gary, and a few of their cohorts make a delivery to the home Peters shared with Streisand in the Hollywood hills featuring a series of mishaps is what the movie is leading to and then never manages to live up to later on.  If only the rest of the film were this funny and smartly constructed.

It can’t be stressed enough how correct all the advance word about Alana Haim was.  The more you hear about a performance the less it seems like it could actually be as good as they say but Haim is a terrifically engaging, unique, talent that brings something interesting to the role.  Perhaps not an A+ right out of the gate but skirting pretty close and consistently the one person in the film that gets most of her laugh lines right.  It likely helps that her actual family plays her two sisters (the trio form the Grammy-nominated band bearing their surname) and parents as well.  If only Hoffman was as strong as Alana…or shows the same kind of raw honesty his father, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, did.  I didn’t buy him in this role and while Gary and Alana are supposed to feel mismatched, the actors shouldn’t and it’s largely due to Hoffman that they do.

Aside from Bradley Cooper’s good turn and Penn’s (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) removable one, Harriet Sansom Harris (Memento) gets a killer scene as Gary’s edgy agent that pulls no punches and hasn’t yet been cited by the PC Police.   The PC Police would definitely be knocking on the door of John Michael Higgins (Pitch Perfect 3), as a restaurant owner with a revolving door of Asian wives who has a rather horrendous way of talking to them. Though his storyline was a bit extraneous and fit into that episodic feel, Benny Safdie (Pieces of a Woman) does good work as a politician Alana gravitates toward.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Christine Ebersole (The Wolf of Wall Street) as a Lucille Ball-ish star that Gary has to make appearances with and Skyler Gisondo (Vacation) as a rival for Alana’s attention.

Controversy swirled very briefly around Licorice Pizza because of the age discrepancy between Alana and Gary but y’know what, I’m not even going to go there.  Plenty of films have had the situation flip and no one mentions it.  Besides, PTA handles the nuances of their relationship so kindly on both sides of the coin that whatever the outcome of their time together, both will be in each other lives for longer than we’ll ever be.  Never striving for meaning that is too deep or analytical was a refreshing respite in PTA’s examination of emotions and he’ll likely bounce back with something totally different.  For now, we should enjoy our meal that’s been put in front of us.  It may be extra long, er, large but it’s filling.

Movie Review ~ House of Gucci

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Patrizia Reggiani, an outsider from humble beginnings, marries into the Gucci family, her unbridled ambition begins to unravel their legacy and triggers a reckless spiral of betrayal, decadence, revenge, and ultimately…murder.

Stars: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, Salma Hayek, Camille Cottin, Jack Huston, Reeve Carney

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 158 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If you had asked me (or many Hollywood odds-makers) a few months ago about Ridley Scott’s chances in 2021 for finally snagging that elusive Best Director Oscar he’s been chasing for years, I would have likely told you that with two high profile films releasing within the last quarter of the year he was sure to get in for at least one.  Well, despite October’s The Last Duel being quite impressive and receiving fairly good reviews from critics, the studio made a critical blunder by opening it the same weekend the repulsive Halloween Kills came out and it tanked…big time.  Now Scott is back with House of Gucci, his second time at bat this year and it’s an even bigger project (the Knights of the Middle Ages never stood a chance against Scheming Italian Fashion Designers) so the stakes are higher. 

What we have here is a limited series for TV/streaming that happens to be a nearly three-hour movie.  So, somewhere along the line a serious error was made and the script by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna based off of the book by Sara Gay Forden was sent to MGM’s film division instead of its television extension.  That’s the only reason I can think of for why Scott’s film has such a sprawling enormity that it eventually creates a black hole where the final act should be.  I have nothing against a movie with a butt numbing running time and have been known to turn up my nose at those who want every movie to be 90 minutes.  The thing is this, some movies have to carry a longer running length for a variety of reasons.  What they also need to have is, well, an ending and that’s what House of Gucci sorely lacks.  An ending.

Let’s back up almost three hours to the beginning of the film, when the future looked a little brighter for Scott and company.  Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver, Annette) is out for his morning routine when he encounters a man that will change the destiny of his family and the Gucci clothing line forever.  We’ll have to wait decades (in movie time) to find out precisely what that is because we flashback to an earlier period when Maurizio wasn’t involved with his family business but instead preferred to go through life without having his legacy define him.  The moniker definitely was attractive to Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga, A Star is Born), a 22-year-old who met him at a party and cleverly positioned herself in his life so in the end he couldn’t say no to a relationship, and eventual marriage, to her.  Despite the protestations of his father (Jeremy Irons, Assassin’s Creed) who believed his son’s fiancé to be a gold-digger, Maurizio was so taken with the woman that he willingly gave up his father’s favor for her.

It was years later, and on Patrizia’s behest, that Maurizio’s uncle Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino, The Irishman) convinced his nephew to come back into the fold and take his rightful place in the line of Gucci royalty.  Once Maurizio was in, so was Patrizia…and that’s when the couple began cleaning house.  Targeting relatives they had once used as pawns, like black sheep Paolo (Jared Leto, The Little Things), Patrizia and Maurizio began to recreate Gucci as the luxury brand it would eventually become…but not under their regime.  Overzealous with their power and spending, the couple would go through rocky times, eventually leading Patrizia down a deadly path. 

The question most will be interested in will be how Lady Gaga’s sophomore effort in a feature film fares compared to her Oscar-nominated turn in A Star is Born.  There was a stretch of time where many thought the singer would win the award for her truly star-making performance but it’s this follow-up which is the real test.  The result? A solid B.  She attacks the role full on and you can tell she takes her job seriously, but the intensity of the acting is all over the map from scene to scene.  Part of the blame could fall on Scott for not reeling her in a bit more and helping her understand emotional arc, but by the end she’s almost deliriously wild-eyed to the point of hilarity.  It doesn’t help the scene in question (it’s with Salma Hayek where both are trying to be incognito) is laughably bad in general but her acting here only makes it stand out that much more.

Others in the cast sort of exist in her wake, with only Leto and Pacino surfacing occasionally to tell us they are also in the movie.  For as much churn as Leto seems to stir up any time he’s in a movie, he’s an immersive actor like few are.  Unrecognizable in heavy prosthetics and a fat suit, he doesn’t let the make-up do the acting for him…this is all Leto and it’s without question the best thing in the movie.  Pacino exists in an area between Leto and Gaga, sometimes he’s on the money, other times he’s overblown.  Either version of him worked for me.  Driver is surprisingly beige in the role, failing to bring much life to the part.  Maybe he was just adrift in the sea of Gaga and didn’t have much of a life raft?  Bless her heart but Hayek (Eternals) is playing such a terrible role, terribly written and terribly filmed, and the actress does her best to make something of it.  Alas, blood from a stone.  Blood from a stone.

Scott’s film painstakingly recreates the period in which all of these infamous events take place, down to the décor and couture that were de rigueur.  The fierce attention to detail is a dream to watch and from a production standpoint House of Gucci is a huge success on a scale of moviemaking with a capital “M”.  You would expect nothing less of Scott who is a master at this type of product.  Unfortunately, all the intricate features in the world can’t save some silly side characters and acting that grows increasingly campier (including the accents) as the film progresses.  Then there’s the jittery ending which barely exists, made more disappointing because it’s handled so poorly, and you have a movie that begins by making quite the impression but leaves a bad taste in your mouth by the end. 

Movie Review ~ Candyman (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: For as long as the residents can remember, the housing projects of Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighborhood were terrorized by the word-of-mouth ghost story about a supernatural killer known as Candyman, easily summoned by those daring to repeat his name five times into a mirror. A decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, a visual artist’s chance encounter with a Cabrini Green old-timer exposes him to the tragically horrific nature of the true story behind the Candyman, unleashing a terrifyingly viral wave of violence that puts him on a collision course with his destiny

Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Tony Todd, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Vanessa Williams, Rebecca Spence, Kyle Kaminsky, Christiana Clark

Director: Nia DaCosta

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Even as the Delta Variant rages through the U.S. and hints of another shutdown begin to loom large, films that were delayed from a year ago are sliding into theaters and making their rescheduled dates and for that I’m grateful.  Of all the movies that were bumped around the calendar due to the original pandemic lockdown in 2020, I was most disappointed that producer Jordan Peele’s ‘spiritual sequel’ to 1992’s Candyman was affected because as a huge fan of the original I was looking forward to what Peele and director Nia DaCosta could do with this property.  More than that, I was intrigued to see what it was going to be in the first place.  We knew it wasn’t a remake, but was it a direct sequel, a stand-alone film, a re-imagining of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” that inspired the first movie?  We had to wait a whole year to find out but Peele (Us) and DaCosta kept us engaged along the way with creative trailers and morsels of hints that showed more of the movie yet still didn’t reveal all of their cards.

As it turns out, this is one of those films that was well worth the wait.  A rare delight that pays service to fans of the original while addressing a new generation of devotees that have come onboard over the years (and maybe during this last year alone), DaCosta’s Candyman picks at the fabric lining the jewel box the 1991 movie was placed in and uses it to craft a horrific new garment all its own.  There’s a distinct voice present throughout that isn’t just Peele’s with its direct or indirect societal symbolism but a generational one that lives, works, fears, and loves in the environment DaCosta and her crew probe to terrific results.  That it manages to cover a lot of ground in such a short time frame without ever feeling rushed is a testament to efficiency on all levels.

The original Cabrini Green towers have long since been torn down but their dark history remains nightmare material only spoken about in hushed whispers or, better yet, not at all.  Now, new housing has been built on the same site and after a brief prologue set in the late ‘70s we meet two new tenants of the gentrified Cabrini.  Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq) and her artist boyfriend Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Aquaman) are settling into their new digs when Brianna’s brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, The Kid Who Would Be King) tells them the story of Helen Lyle, a grad student that went crazy after visiting Cabrini looking for an urban legend known as Candyman.  With a hook for a hand, the killer was said to haunt the projects and called Cabrini his home, but Helen took the investigation too far, becoming obsessed with her own research, killing numerous people, and abducting a small child that almost died at her hands before she was finally burnt alive.  Scary stuff that Brianna doesn’t want to know about. (But viewers of the original know the story isn’t quite accurate…)

Once stunted artistically, the terrifying tale inspires Anthony in surprising ways.  Researching Candyman by visiting the old part of the neighborhood and meeting a long-time resident (Colman Domingo, Without Remorse), he comes away with a new zeal for expression, just in time for an art show at the gallery Brianna works at.  The piece he creates is a mirror and he provides instructions on how to ‘call forth’ the Candyman by saying his name five times to your reflection.  One unfortunate soul does it, then another, and before you know it, bloody death is everyone around Anthony…but is he to blame for all the carnage or is he simply fulfilling a destiny that started long ago and was never truly finished?  Perhaps a visit to his mother Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) will explain it all…

Originally written as a short story set in London’s tenement neighborhoods, the director of the 1992 film wisely moved the action to Chicago’s projects and it gave the film some credibility as a statement on how communities create their own legends.  Sometimes it is to protect themselves from the evil that lurks within but often it can be to keep the more wicked outsiders from entering.  Peele, DaCosta, and co-screenwriter Win Rosenfeld latch onto that notion and run with it, exploring how the tale of Candyman has evolved overtime and why it’s possible that a society might need a Candyman just as much as he needs them to believe in him.  It’s surprisingly not as tangled or heady as it could have been and the script isn’t interested in making more out of it than that. 

I also appreciated that while this new Candyman is brutal in its violence, much of it is restrained and either shown at a distance or just offscreen.  After the last year, many of us have seen death firsthand and so anything we see portrayed on film could never been as disgusting or horrific as what we’ve witnessed real people, not actors, doing to each other.  When it’s appropriate, DaCosta lets the audience have it but there’s ample build up to get to those moments of bloodshed.  Accompanied by stellar production design from Cara Brower (Our Friend), unique cinematography by John Guleserian (Love, Simon), and a nerve-jangling score courtesy of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, all of the elements are there to keep you on the edge of your seat, breathless, waiting for the next shock to arrive.

There was a time when remakes of these old titles felt like betrayals of trust but when they’re handled with such intelligence and care like Candyman has been, I find that I can relax a little bit when the next one is announced and hope that future filmmakers learn a thing or two from it.  This is how you take a fan-favorite property and do something of your own with it, while at the same time allowing that previous film to live on (and thrive) because your film is equally as terrifying and well-crafted.  Sweets to the sweet is a famous bit of graffiti seen on the walls of Cabrini Green in the original film and that goes double for DaCosta and her crew.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Addams Family (2019)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Members of the mysterious and spooky Addams family are readily preparing for a visit from their even creepier relatives. But trouble soon arises when a shady TV personality realizes that the Addams’ eerie hilltop mansion is standing in the way of her dream to sell all the houses in the neighborhood.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, Elise Fisher

Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan

Rated: PG

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  I have to admit when it was announced an animated reboot of The Addams Family was on its way to theaters…it happened.  It was a long time coming and always inevitable…but it happened.  I turned into one of those people that suddenly became overly protective of what had come before, treating it as some precious commodity that was untouchable.  How could they think of making another movie without the likes of Angelica Huston, Christina Ricci, or the late Raul Julia?  And animated?  True, the two live-action films were cartoon-y in their own way and The Addams Family had already been seen on the small screen as colorful cells on Saturday mornings for young audiences but I just didn’t want this particular property messed with.  Plus, this world that was created by cartoonist Charles Addams in 1938 was so smartly macabre I wanted it kept the way it was and left uncorrupted.

After what seems like a long path to movie theaters, The Addams Family has arrived with excellent timing as a Halloween outing option, though I was dismayed to see numerous parents ushering their young tykes into Joker playing next door instead.  It’s a mixed bag of a movie with some good elements in the form of spirited vocal performances and a droll script with a good message of acceptance that has a few genuine laugh out loud lines.  On the other hand, the animation is particularly ugly and off-putting, which in some cases may have been the point but largely was just bad design.

Part origin story (which I quite liked), we see how The Addams Family made their way to live in an abandoned asylum on the top of a hill in New Jersey.  Gomez (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year, an excellent successor to Raul Julia) and Morticia (Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde, curiously less successful) have raised their children Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz, Greta), and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard, The Goldfinch) in relative isolation, keeping them away from the rest of the world that was so cruel to them when they were young.  The family is preparing for a gathering of the entire Addams clan for Pugsley’s mazurka, a sword-dance his father has been trying to teach him that is of little interest to the mischievous imp.  Preferring to play with bombs instead of blades, father and son can’t quite connect on this important upcoming event.  At the same time, when a bubbly big-haired TV makeover host (Allison Janney, I, Tonya) comes knocking hoping to re-do the gloomy Addams manse to fit in with the entire town of Assimilation she has just made-over, Wednesday becomes more curious with life outside their small lot and asks Morticia to go school and not be “home caged” anymore, a request that causes the blood to drain into Morticia’s face, one of several funny visual gags.

The bulk of the film is taken up by these two competing storylines revolving around the children, with equal time given to both.  When the family begins to arrive and Pugsley gets put in the spotlight, it gives the animators room to create more peculiar Addams relations that would likely have pleased their original creator.  Though he seemed popular with the crowd when I saw the film, I could have done with far less of Uncle Fester…but maybe it was just the way Nick Kroll (Vacation) has voiced him like he has a numb tongue that started to grate on me after a while.  I got a kick out of Bette Midler (Hocus Pocus) as Grandma and you can judge for yourself if Snoop Dogg (Pitch Perfect 2) earns his credit for voicing Cousin Itt.  There’s plenty of visual flair to these larger animated scenes, aided a bit by the 3D upgrade I sprung for which added some extra depth to the expansive Addams mansion.

I just couldn’t quite get over how grotesque most of the animation so often looked.  Apart from The Addams Family who have their own ghoulish glow about them, the rest of the townspeople are all spindly legged monstrosities that are really off-putting.  Perhaps that’s what the team was going for, to show some parallels between the family and the townspeople that judge them but…I just don’t quite buy that easy out.  There’s just too many hastily rendered faces with eyes that are so close together you can count them as one and mouths that look like stop signs.  Speaking of disturbing, there’s far too many moments where sharp objects (arrows, swords) either enter the mouth, the head, or the back…it’s nearly all with Uncle Fester so it’s a gag but it was over-the-top for my taste.

In all honesty, I should have been able to let go a little more from the outset because so much time had passed between the last live-action film released theatrically (Addams Family Values in 1993) and this new one from directors Conrad Vernon (Kung Fun Panda 2) and Greg Tiernan (Sausage Party).  An entirely different generation has emerged and deserved being introduced to their own version of The Addams Family like I was back in 1991 when the first movie came out.  It inspired me to look back at the original television series and the original Charles Addams cartoons and might do the same for some kids today as well.  I’m glad this option is available in theaters now to encourage a family night out at the movies, parents can take their kids to this one without much concern.