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 ~ Phantom Thread


The Facts
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Synopsis: Set in 1950’s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: I have to say, for a few years there I was worried that Paul Thomas Anderson and I were going to have to part ways. The director of the stellar Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood had released the frustrating puzzlement that was The Master and then capped it all off with the dreadfully gauche Inherent Vice. Our relationship was on the rocks, no question. When it was announced that PTA was reuniting again with Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis for an untitled tale set in the world of 1950’s fashion, I gotta say I was pretty intrigued.

Then, the worry set in. Oh no, another too serious contemplation on life that cine-snobs would drool over like the last slice of chocolate cake and the rest of us would scratch our heads at. PTA had taken filmgoers to some great places over his career but I didn’t get much out of the last two rides. Then the stakes were raised even higher when Day-Lewis (Lincoln) indicated Phantom Thread would be his last onscreen performance and he would retire from acting. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a movie. Not only does it have to be a nice bell for Day-Lewis to ring on his way out the door but it has to also hold up to the scrutiny of critics left wanting from PTA’s last efforts.

Almost immediately, my initial fears faded as Phantom Thread unspooled.

The House of Woodcock is a renowned couture house in London’s posh fashion district. With his intricate designs and supernatural attention to detail, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) has created a life and thriving business for himself and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, Maleficent) who runs the business side of things. A ‘confirmed bachelor’, Reynolds is a complicated man that has remained unchallenged for most of his adult life. Occasionally haunted by the ghost of his adored mother (literally and figuratively), he sees lasting female companionship as less important than finding inspiration in the fleeting beauty of the women that enter his place of business.

Still, there are women in his life and as the film opens his latest live-in lover/muse has come to the end of her tenure and is silently dispatched by Cyril while Reynolds enjoys a weekend getaway. It’s in the restaurant of a seaside village that he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a ruddy-faced lass that captivates him the moment she shows up to take his order. Acting on impulse, he invites her to dinner and, eventually, into his life. Alma’s arrival into The House of Woodcock creates a ripple effect that threatens to upset the balance of power between brother and sister as well as artist and muse.

In typical PTA fashion, an unspoken darkness begins to envelop the picture as it goes along and we’re never quite sure where these characters are going to end up. Following Alma as she acclimates to her new role as a kept woman who pushes the boundaries of her power, we’re treated to an inside view of the inner-workings of a high fashion house and their celebrity clientele. Royalty get the red carpet treatment from the House of Woodcock and, in an amusing episode, an aging boozy bride to be (Harriet Sansom Harris) pays a price for her very public drunken misuse of her one of a kind hand-made garment.

There is something so calming about the way PTA and Day-Lewis have constructed this multi-leveled central character. Reynolds is part mystery and part petulant child, always determined to get his way no matter who he has to bulldoze over. That attitude makes most people roll over for his every whim but not Cyril who, in one thrilling scene, takes her brother to task between sips of her morning tea. Day-Lewis and Manville work together like gangbusters, the closeness between siblings and their troubling co-dependency is evident, made even more complicated when other people enter the equation.

Krieps is a real find, going toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis (and, to a lesser extent, Manville) and keeping in step with her famously method screen partner. The final act of Phantom Thread calls on Krieps to scale a seemingly insurmountable mountain of a character flaw but climb it she does. Through audiences may be put off by some of her actions and attitude as she struggles to keep Reynolds close, there’s an oddball charm to her methods.  The dynamic between Alma and Cyril could have been explored just a smidge bit more, if only to have a few more scenes to showcase the terrific talents of Krieps and Manville.

PTA’s script is often terrifically witty when it’s not outright funny. This feels like his most accessible movie in ages and while I wouldn’t call it ‘audience pleasing’ it’s surely not the alienating watch some of his films have been over the last few years. Acting as his own cinematographer, the director captures the vibrancy of the era excellently displayed in Mark Tildesley’s (Trance) production design and Mark Bridges (Silver Linings Playbook) stunning period costumes. Special mention must also be made to Johnny Greenwood’s gorgeous score. Setting the mood of the film just as effectively as the writing and performances, it isn’t getting the attention it deserves considering the contribution it’s making.

Time will tell if Phantom Thread is truly the last time we’ll see Daniel Day-Lewis on the big screen. While I hope he’ll be enticed back if the part and process is right, if this is his swan song, it’s an amazing piece of farewell music to a career with few flaws. With its premium performances, well-constructed screenplay, patient direction, and sublime technical elements, Phantom Thread is one of the finest films of the year.

Movie Review ~ Inherent Vice

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1970, drug-fueled Los Angeles detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix,Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newson, Maya Rudolph

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 148 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: Looking back at the experience (and what an “experience” it was) of my recent screening of Inherent Vice I’m reminded of that one time I was in an airplane for 10+ hours traveling from Greece to Minnesota.  At certain points of the turbulent flight I thought I wasn’t going to make it and mentally said my good-byes to everyone I loved while a single tear fell down my face.  Then the plane landed, I was able to exit the airliner, and I went about my life.

Inherent Vice isn’t 10 hours long (but it sure feels like it) but unlike my trip to Greece, you won’t leave a showing of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel with a miniature replica of the Acropolis for your troubles.

Pynchon’s loopy novels have long been thought to be unadaptable for cinematic endeavors and Anderson’s screenplay proves why over and over again.  It’s an obtuse, awkward, non-engaging film with so many layers it could be described as an onion dipped in PCP…which doesn’t necessarily signify a bad film, mind you.  No, the worst offense of Inherent Vice is that it’s shockingly, maddeningly boring.

Set in the Manson crazed days of 1970’s Los Angeles, the film follows schlumpy PI ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, HerParenthood) through a case that hits close to home but opens up a Pandora’s Box of trouble.  Asked by former flame Shasta (Robot & Frank’s Katherine Waterston, the victim of a humiliating sex scene late in the proceedings) to take a look into the shady intentions of the wife of her current lover (Eric Roberts, Lovelace), Sportello dives headfirst into a plot involving murder, kidnapping, extortion, drugs, and sex.

Now, sounds like fun, right?  Perhaps…but my friends, it’ all in the execution and though Anderson knows how to produce a film with multiple storylines (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) things are rocky from the get-go.  Though I was initially intrigued by a pre-credit noir-ish sequence that finds Shasta visiting a sleepy Sportello and asking for his help the film lost me before fifteen minutes were up.  Even with the occasional foray into explicit hilarity such as Sportello’s visit to a massage parlor that boasts a menu of services that I can’t reprint here the majority of the film is a rough slough.

Reteaming with The Master star Phoenix, Anderson should have stuck with the original choice for the role….Robert Downey, Jr.  Though Downey was deemed “too old” for the part, Phoenix looks gruesomely ancient thanks to unkempt sideburns, permanently greasy hair, and unshaven scruff.  While Phoenix has a field day with the role, lounging through several drug induced sequences and slurring his words like was the Meryl Streep of lazy r’s, he’s only pleasing himself (and Anderson) as the haphazardly effective private eye.

The film’s labyrinthine plot may be interesting in hindsight but it’s so dense and unconcerned with our interest that I wondered if this shouldn’t have been a home movie for Anderson and Phoenix to watch huddled together with a bowl of popcorn on Oscar night.  Pynchon’s novel is chock full of wacky names and comic turns but onscreen it feels too goofy for its own good.  Josh Brolin (Oldboy), Reese Witherspoon (Mud), Owen Wilson (The Internship), and Benicio Del Toro (Savages) all show up as part of the caper at hand with only Brolin and Witherspoon in on whatever joke Anderson was attempting to convey.  Also of note is Joanna Newsom’s earthy performance as an acquaintance of Sportello, though I started to question if she was a figment of his imagination or not.

Let’s put a pin in showering Anderson with love simply because he started out so strongly.  I feel like it’s almost a sin for a cinephile to deride Anderson’s work but viewing a film like Magnolia side-by-side with Inherent Vice reveals a filmmaker that has given in to self-indulgence and forgotten that films are made for audiences (even discerning ones, though nearly a dozen at my screening didn’t stay for the whole picture).  It doesn’t have to be a simple, easy to digest, pallid work…but it does have to have a pulse.

The Silver Bullet ~ Inherent Vice

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Synopsis: In Los Angeles in 1970, drug-fueled detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.

Release Date:  January 9, 2015

Thoughts: I didn’t like The Master. There, I said it and I’m not sorry I did. I thought it was bloated and too cuckoo for words. Not that it wasn’t a handsomely made film featuring great performances (however un-Oscar nomination worthy a few of them were…) and there’s little doubt that director Paul Thomas Anderson knows exactly what he’s doing behind the camera. Learning a lot from his mentor Robert Altman, Anderson may have his greatest tribute yet to the late master filmmaker with Inherent Vice, a 70s set detective story where Anderson can really go to town with his tripped out inclinations. Reuniting with Joaquin Phoenix (Her), looking to turn in another in a long line of loopy roles, Anderson’s newest project looks fun, fresh, and less meditative (read: snooze inducing) than his last picture.

The Silver Bullet ~ Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

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Synopsis: Ricky Jay is a world-renowned magician, author, historian and actor (often a mischievous presence in the films of David Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson) — and a performer who regularly provokes astonishment from even the most jaded audiences. Deceptive Practice traces Jay’s achievements and influences, from his apprenticeship at age 4 with his grandfather, to such now-forgotten legends as Al Flosso, Slydini, Cardini and his primary mentors, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller.

Release Date:  Out now

Thoughts: If you’ve seen a film by David Mamet (House of Games) or Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) at some point chances are you’ve seen Ricky Jay pop up in a peripheral role that sometimes capitalizes on the magician’s true talent as a sleight of hand master.  Though he cuts an imposing figure without his pack of cards and anything up his sleeve, few people know the true artistry that he’s mastered after years of study.  This documentary aims to offer a chance to shed some light on who he is and what influenced his impressive career…looking forward to this one.

Movie Review ~ The Master

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.

Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rami Malek, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, David Warshofsky

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 144 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Writer-director Anderson has given cinema several very fine films over the course of his career.  Wild and epic, all of his films have a lot of high-level ideas and concepts to them which can make them fun discussion movies when the lights come up.  A case could be made that most of these films involve some sort of fatherly figure and the relationship they have with someone they see as their child. In his little seen and underrated Hard Eight, Philip Baker Hall played a wise figure that takes nobody John C. Reilly under his wing and provides tutelage in the world of gambling.  Boogie Nights finds the porn producer inhabited by Burt Reynolds guiding protégé Mark Walhberg to becoming a star.  Magnolia, There Must Be Blood, and even the dreadful Punch-Drunk Love all find similar situations.

It’s more of the same with Anderson’s newest work, The Master, as it documents the bond formed by a loner veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) brought into the fold of The Cause by its founder  Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).  As Quell gets in deeper with Dodd and his family (including Adams as his wife), he’s tested greatly physically and mentally until like all Anderson films something inevitably has to give.

There’s some mighty fine acting happening in The Master and it is clear why Hoffman has been nominated for an Oscar for his work.  The troubling thing for me is that he’s nominated as a Supporting Actor when he really is a co-lead with the also-nominated Phoenix.  (The same thing happened with lead actor Christoph Waltz snagging a Supporting Actor nomination for Django Unchained).  Sure, Phoenix is the character the film revolves around but Hoffman has just as much responsibility in the grand scheme of things.

Hoffman can sometimes make me weary as the characters he takes are quite passive but in The Master he delivers a career high performance with a conviction and underlying deceit.  He elevates nearly every scene he’s in and does it with an assured ease.  It’s clear that Hoffman and Anderson worked in tandem to create this character and it’s a fine example of the symbiosis between an actor’s craft and the written word.

As the troubled Quell, Phoenix is back on the screen after a hiatus from acting that saw the actor go through a truly weird metamorphosis.  Phoenix still maintains his unfortunate trait of mumbling through his dialogue and even if it is a character choice that works better with this character than others, it does create an invisible barrier between his performance and the others onscreen. 

Anderson’s last film was working with the infamously committed Daniel Day-Lewis and Phoenix is much the same type of method actor.  What sets the two actors apart is that Phoenix’s commitment seems unplanned rather than spontaneous and before you say what’s the difference – there is one.  Day-Lewis may make his choices in the moment and feed off of others but you know that he’s so invested in the character that even the most unexpected moments come from an understanding of the work itself. On the other hand, Phoenix has more than a few scenes in the movie that feel as if they are in service to him rather than the movie. Still, Phoenix and Hoffman have two dynamite scenes that are so good they dwarf everything and everyone else in the film.

I feel like I’ve seen Adams doing this kind of work for a while now.  It’s clear that Adams is an actress with ingenuity and strength but I’m not seeing what the big is with her performance here.  For my money it’s not a memorable enough performance to warrant the Supporting Actress nomination she received.  I kept waiting for that one scene that would truly blow me away – even if a few moments started up that mountain the peak was never reached in a satisfying way. 

Much has been made about the film being a thinly veiled insight into the rise in popularity of Scientology and it’s easy to draw comparisons between the movement started by L. Ron Hubbard and The Master’s movement, The Cause.  Not being overly familiar with Scientology I have to say that even if that’s what The Cause is getting at it’s not the central focus of the film.  The people at the heart of the matter are what the movie is focused on.

As is the case of all Anderson’s films, this one overstays its welcome.  I thought the film was winding up with a nice coda, only to witness an extra 10 minutes that did nothing to make the film better than where it could have stopped.  It’s strange that some directors don’t know when to close up shop and go home and Anderson’s The Master (along with Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained) winds up being that friend at the party you were happy to see arrive but now just wish would go home so you can sleep.