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 ~ The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

1

secret_life_of_walter_mitty_ver8

The Facts:

Synopsis: A day-dreamer escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. When his job along with that of his co-worker are threatened, he takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.

Stars: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson

Director: Ben Stiller

Rated: PG

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

ReviewThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a movie you should see in the theaters on the biggest screen possible.  There…I wanted to get that out of the way first and foremost because I know there are some people that want to know if a movie is something they should make the effort to see in theaters or if it’s one they should wait on until it’s available for home consumption.  And The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is surely one that will be enjoyed in a movie theater where the picture is clear and the sound is booming.

That’s because director Ben Stiller, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (I Don’t Know How She Does It), and composer Theodore Shapiro (Hope Springs) have collaborated well to deliver a movie that looks, sounds, and more importantly FEELS good…and one that some posited would never be made.

Loosely adapted by Steve Conrad from the short story by James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t align much with the 1947 Danny Kaye film of the same name, jettisoning the earlier films central plot and replacing it with Stiller’s nebbish take on Mitty as a Life magazine photo editor journeying all over the world to track down a single frame of film that is to be used on the cover of the last edition of Life magazine.  Adding some wrinkles to this journey is Walter’s tendency to have grand flights of fancy where he says the right thing, wins the girl (Kristen Wiig, Girl Most Likely), and battles back the juvenile antics of his haranguing boss (Adam Scott, Friends with Kids).  These daydream-y moments pepper the first half of the film but gradually begin to be supplanted by Walter’s real life adventures, which far surpass anything he could have imagined – giving the whole film a dream-like element that had me wondering more than once if it was all happening in his mind (I won’t give you an answer to that question…you’ll have to decide for yourself).

The film has been pretty unfairly criticized for looking TOO good, more like a well produced Super Bowl commercial than an actual film and I can’t say I agree with that at all.  Yes, the cinematography is brilliantly uncluttered, deftly showcasing some beautiful foreign vistas in Greenland/Iceland and various mountain ranges but I believe Stiller and Dryburgh made it that way because we’re seeing the film through the eyes of a man who could never have imagined the sights he’s seeing.  Despite some egregious (even for a Hollywood studio standard) product placement, the film is a delight visually.

There’s also some poignant moments in Conrad’s script, whether it be Walter’s interaction with his matter of fact mother (a sweetly salty Shirley MacLaine) and Peter Pan-y sister (Kathryn Hahn, We’re The Millers) or his conversations with a rugged adventure photographer (Sean Penn) that may hold the key to his journey of discovery.  Wiig and Stiller’s romance is ever so slightly treacley (of course she’s a divorced single mom and of course there’s a scene where Stiller thinks she’s getting back together with her husband) but Wiig and Stiller are gifted enough to inject these moments with the right kind of gravitas that supersede any failings the script has to offer.

The movie is also genuinely funny, with Stiller’s interaction with a drunk helicopter pilot (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) being the only moment I laughed until I cried in recent memory.  The PG rated film is absolutely family friendly but I’d encourage parents to not be deceived that very small children will like this as much as, say, a 10 year old would.  This is not a Night at the Museum style of family film…but one that parents can take kids to and have a nice discussion about family and future.

Like The Way Way Back, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a warm empathy emanating from its core that makes it a very worthy choice for the holiday season.  The film stopped and started for years while the right director and star were located and it’s nice to see that Stiller fit the bill for both roles.  There’s a lot of solid work on display here and I found Walter Mitty’s adventures to be right on par and possessing more meaning than anything that Iron Man could muster up.

In Praise of Teasers ~ The Game (1997)

game

I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately. It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

The Game (1997)

This clever teaser for The Game is so respected it even warranted its own special feature on the Criterion BluRay release of the film in 2012.  Rendered by computer animation, it teases a film of manipulation where the main character is no longer in control of pulling the strings of his own life.  Some may find that David Fincher’s 1997 puzzle box of a film loses something on repeated viewings once you know the twist but I find the movie a fascinating watch to see how it all comes together.

Missed my previous teaser reviews? Check out my look at Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge, Total Recall, Halloween II: Season of the Witch, In the Line of Fire

The Silver Bullet ~ The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

the-secret-life-of-walter-mitty-poster

Synopsis: An office worker who lives inside fantasy worlds where he gets to live an adventurous life while romancing his co-worker sets off a global journey to fix things when both of their jobs are threatened

Release Date:  December 25, 2013

Thoughts: An entire movie could be made just about the decades long struggle it has been to get this remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye film off the ground.  In 1994 the film was rumored to star Jim Carrey and over the years names like Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Mike Myers floated by as would-be Walters…not to mention names like Stephen Spielberg (Lincoln), Ron Howard (Splash!), and Gore Verbinski (The Lone Ranger) being singled out as potential directors.  After all was said and done it was just one name that finally took on both acting and directing duties: Ben Stiller.  Now, it’s easy to forget that Stiller started out doing much more darker comedic material than the family fluff he’s been involved with lately and after watching the trailer I’m inclined to think that the wait was worth it.  Stiller could bring just the right amount of balance to this reworked update and here’s hoping he makes good use out of the other actors cast.  A holiday film that hopes to be a hit, I can see this one doing well if everything falls into place like I think it could.