Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Lion in Winter: A Review

 


THE LION IN WINTER

Peter O'Toole once said that he could make a career out of playing Henry II. He had done so already on film in Becket and would in essence pick up where he left off in The Lion in Winter. This tale of the machinations of succession is a towering achievement, with magnificent performances and a gripping if long tale.

Henry II (O'Toole) is still vigorous but knows that he will die. He favors his youngest son John (Nigel Terry) to succeed him, his fatherly love mostly blinding him to John's idiocy and weakness. His oldest living son Richard (Anthony Hopkins) has a champion in his imprisoned mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn), though their relationship is frayed. No one considers the middle son Geoffrey (John Castle), though at their peril due to his plotting mind.

Henry allows Eleanor out of her imprisonment for Christmas court, and all their sons will be in attendance too. A Christmas Court guest is Philip II (Timothy Dalton), the young King of France, whose sister Alais (Jane Merrow) is betrothed to one of Henry's sons to be determined later. She is also Henry's current mistress. On this dark Christmas Eve, the various royals plot and counterplot over the succession. Henry, enraged that he cannot get his way and finding all his sons lacking, decides to dump Eleanor via annulment, disinherit his treacherous sons and marry Alais to father real sons. 

For once though, this scheme is too much for both Eleanor and Alais, and while the succession itself is not settled, the tempestuous Henry and Eleanor manage to hold on to yet another day, delighting in their cold war.

What The Lion in Winter manages is to make words more cutting than swords. Seeing these noble figures tear at each other with sharp remarks and careful plotting makes for almost fiendishly delicious viewing. James Goldman's adaptation of his play gives the actors strong, fierce dialogue with which to wield at each other. Some of the monologues are extraordinary.

Of particular note is when Hepburn declares that war does not come from outside forces such as religion but from within themselves. It gives her a chance for a bravura performance, one where Eleanor is filled with equal parts rage and regret. She loves Henry, perhaps even her own children despite her protests to the contrary. However, she also knows what vipers they are.

Director Anthony Harvey draws excellent performances from the whole cast. Hepburn, the only American in the cast, is fierce as Eleanor, able to show affection and duplicity with equal ease. She tears at Henry for his plots, but you also see the deeply hurt woman when he plans to cast her aside or taunting her with freedom in exchange for her ducal lands. 

Peter O'Toole is more than her equal, his Henry a man filled with rage but a powerful lust for life. He too shows vulnerability when he sees how hated he is by his sons, at point declaring "all my sons are bastards". It is when Eleanor more than suggests that she had been his father Geoffrey's mistress (and she delighted in Geoffrey's body) that we see that this fierce, proud, arrogant man can be reduced to a weak one.

Each of the royal sons is a standout. Anthony Hopkins in an early role makes Richard both a warrior prince and a hurt ex-lover to Philip. Whether Richard is more hurt by his "outing" or Philip insisting their affair was not genuine love we cannot tell. Terry's dimwit John is appropriately pathetic and silly, forever flailing about being king when he appears unable to form a thought. Castle as Geoffrey does not have as showy a role as the others, but in his quiet and still manner he shows the dangers the middle son poses. 

As Alais, Merrow uses subtlety to communicate her delicate position. She loves Henry but detests how she in her own words is the only pawn in this game of kings, queens and knights. She brings a gentleness to Alais but also an awareness that the old monarch does not have. She, like Eleanor, knows that Henry's mad plan to annul his marriage and father sons through Alais will put her and whatever child she has in danger. She knows it is dangerous, and that there is no logic to it all. However, like the pawn that she is, Alais is powerless. Not even her half-brother Philip can help her. 

Dalton uses his youth and soft voice to great effect, making Philip less of a master of plots that Henry is, though as Henry observes, not bad for a beginner. 

The Lion in Winter is enhanced by Douglas Slocombe's cinematography and the art direction, which gives the film an almost "you-are-there" look. The various castle corridors feel lived in, as if it were less film and almost documentary. John Barry creates a masterful score, evoking the medieval era and being appropriately grand and intimate when necessary.

The Lion in Winter is a true game of thrones, showcasing actors at the top of their game and delivering a strong, sharp script. You do not feel the film's length though it is a long film. "What family does not have its ups and downs?", Eleanor observes to herself. In The Lion in Winter, we see that the Plantagenets were a really screwed up family, but it makes for fascinating viewing.

DECISION: A+

Monday, January 17, 2022

The 355: A Review

 

THE 355

Here's the 411 on The 355: it is a sad waste of talent, where we see strong actresses (two Oscar winners and one nominee) slog their way through a jumbled, boring story that one hopes was not the beginnings of a hoped-for franchise.

What seems a routine albeit massive drug deal goes wildly wrong when international cyberterrorist Elijah Clarke (Jason Flemyng) tries to take a device that will not only hack but control any device in the world. Even the highest security level of governments can be taken over by this decryption device. In the chaos of the Columbian anti-drug police raid, however, the device is picked up by Agent Luis Rojas (Edgar Ramirez).

While he does not know what exactly it is, he knows he is in danger. Wanting some profit, he offers it to the CIA, which sends agents and secret lovers Mason "Mace" Brown (Jessica Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan) to Paris to retrieve it. Easier said than done, as Mace and Nick find they are not the only ones aware of the device. The Germans want it too, with renegade German agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger) getting it first.

From there, it becomes a globe-hopping set of action pieces as everyone tries to get the encryption device. Mace, still mourning Nick's death, enlists her friend and retired MI6 agent Khadijah (Lupita Nyng'o) for help. Soon the three have to not just work together but have Columbian psychiatrist Graciela (Penelope Cruz), who is caught up in this when attempting to bring Luis back safely.

As the various women work to retrieve the device, they find unexpected help from the Chinese through their agent, Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan) and an unsurprising adversary. The women face personal losses but also know they must work together to save the world.

The 355 has a good idea behind it, but there is a terrible lethargy running through it all that makes it so routine and dull. We have something there, but I think one of The 355's issues is in how our team is introduced. The various entries of one group member seems almost intrusive on the others. Just as you start focusing on Mace, we then get Marie thrown in. Just as we get Marie's story and involvement rolling in, in pops Graciela, then Khadijah. It gets to the point where we forget the other women are there, and by the time we get to Lin, there isn't much for the audience to care that much about her, let alone them together.

That isn't to say we don't care about them as individuals. However, only Graciela, the only non-agent of the bunch, has anything close to a backstory: a husband and two boys whom she is devoted to. The others are given familial relationships: Diane and a father figure, Khadijah and her boyfriend, but they leave so little impact that when they meet unfair ends, we have little investment in either the characters or the women they love.

The 355 is in many ways rather routine. We get the "twist" that is clearly obvious and a collection of stock characters. What sinks The 355 is that everyone looks rather bored. There is exactly one scene where the females appear to be bonding, but even here there seems to be a hesitancy in their performances. 

The worst is Chastain, who sleepwalks throughout the film. Whether it is attempting to express love or desire for Nick or going after criminals, she has a look of disinterest throughout the film. Not even in the action scenes does Chastain look engaged in the proceedings. As much as Chastain looks bored and disengaged, The 355 has almost everyone acting this way. Out of the female leads, only Kruger appears to show anything close to emotion, particularly when she gets to act in her native German. 

Sebastain Stan looks as if he was genuinely drugged, attempting to arouse himself enough to show the slightest interest in things. Curiously, it is his character's arc that pushes The 355 down. I can believe one obvious twist with him, but not two. The second is simply too laughable to believe.

The action scenes too were infected with a sluggishness that made them almost dull. Worse, director and cowriter Simon Kinberg (writing with Theresa Rebek) indulged in the fast cutting that many action films suffer from, making things sometimes hard to follow. 

The 355 could be forgiven as so much fluff, a mindless action film that showcases women without condescending to either gender. However, it is done in by a routine story, dull action scenes and almost wholly bored actors. The second twist with Nick for me was what pushed it further. The 355, whose name was inspired by a real-life American Revolution female spy, was a wasted opportunity. It would have been better to have made a film about Agent 355 rather than a group of females inspired by her.

DECISION: D+

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Pride & Prejudice (2005): A Review (Review #1570)


PRIDE & PREJUDICE (2005)

Perhaps to my shame, I admit I never finished Pride & Prejudice. From what I did read, however, I was quite impressed with the celebrated Jane Austen novel. While perhaps her most famous/beloved work has been adapted at least twice on film and television, the 2005 adaption remains one of the most popular versions. This version of Pride & Prejudice is a beautiful film, simultaneously contemporary and traditional, that is a delight throughout.

The five Bennet sisters, living in genteel poverty, are happy. Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) wishes nothing but advantageous marriages for her girls, while Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland) would like to keep out of things altogether. Jane Bennet (Rosemund Pike) has caught the eye of Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), the wealthiest man around. Jane's sister Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) is not opposed to marriage but is not looking for it either.

Things take a complication when she strikes a love-hate relationship with the brooding, proud Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfayden), Mr. Bingley's best and wealthier friend. As the proud Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth continue their pas de deux d'amour, their various friends and family intermingle. The small and small-minded distant Bennet cousin Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) pursues Elizabeth, while caddish soldier Wickham (Rupert Friend) manages to lure young Lydia Bennet (Jenna Malone) away. Eventually, true love triumphs for both Jane and Elizabeth, as the futures Mrs. Bingley and Mrs. Darcy rise above pride and prejudice.

From the opening sequence where the camera flows around the rambling, ramshackle yet loving Bennet home to where our lovers are bathed in the sunlight of their love, Pride & Prejudice is a sweeping, beautiful film. Director Joe Wright is very fond of having the camera follow the characters all around, but this works exceptionally well here. We get quick interactions between small groups of characters that give us story details without bogging things down. 

There is spirit of life in Pride & Prejudice as we see the various interactions between characters. Wright, along with screenwriter Deborah Moggach, do allow some moments of magical fantasy to enter the film. As Darcy and Elizabeth dance at the Bingley ball, at one point it appears as if they are the only ones in the ballroom, allowing their sharp comments to disappear as they fight their growing love.

One aspect that stands out in Pride & Prejudice is how contemporary the film feels. There is an almost rapid-fire delivery to the dialogue, not in a screwball comedy way but in a sharp, fast manner that has no sense of stuffiness to it. In short, the world of Pride & Prejudice feels lived, real, alive, as if we were genuine observers in this Regency Romance. I would put it as having the Darcy/Elizabeth romance be made up of respectable flirtation.

Each performance was simply perfect. Knightley comes into her own as Elizabeth, a very modern woman who is sharp, intelligent, not above throwing shade at the arrogance of the wealthy, but also aware of her own mind. She is brilliant when rejecting Collins' proposal, moving when seeing another side to Darcy, and delightful when showing her affection or irritation with her family. 

Macfayden, to my mind, has not been given enough credit for his Darcy. He certainly is an extremely handsome man (I would not blame women if they fainted when he appears through the morning mist, shirt open and coat flowing), but he shows the complexity of Darcy's emotions. Starting out openly haughty, he also shows how Darcy attempts to hide his growing attraction to the mind and body of Elizabeth: a quick glance, a flustered manner. Macfayden is excellent as Mr. Darcy.

Hollander brings humor to the bumbling Collins, Friend a plausible vulnerability to Wickham. Blethyn balances comedy and irritation to Mrs. Bennet, Sutherland showing the outwardly indifferent but genuinely caring Mr. Bennet. Rosemund Pike makes the case that one could have a film centered around Jane Bennet, and Woods like Blethyn balances comedy and romance with his Bingley. We also see early performances from Carey Mulligan as Kitty Bennet, and while Judi Dench has a small role as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, she is equally impactful.

Pride & Prejudice may be a costume picture, but there is no sense that it is theatrical. Instead, it is as quietly fiery as the romance between Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, two individuals who are clearly made for each other. Beautiful, moving, fast-paced and keeping the sense of the time setting while injecting a modern sensibility to things, Pride & Prejudice is an excellent film.   

DECISION: A-

Friday, January 7, 2022

The Blue Angel: A Review

 


THE BLUE ANGEL (DER BLAUE ENGEL)

Author's Note: This review is for the German version.

Decadence was never so decadent as that of Weimar Germany, but with Marlene Dietrich as the seductress, I can see how even the most moral of men could fall. The Blue Angel is a star-making turn for our Teutonic goddess as well as an excellent showcase for the man who would ultimately end up going from star to costar.

Strict, moralistic Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) is appalled that some of his students have been frequenting the seedy Blue Angel Club. The miscreants, however, do not care what he thinks or even for him, giving him the pun name of "Unrath" (or "Garbage"). Determined to catch them at the club, he visits The Blue Angel.

There, he meets the alluring chanteuse Lola-Lola (Dietrich). It isn't long before he too falls under her spell, where a little Falling in Love Again so overpowers him that he gives up his respectable life to marry our siren. However, rather than him bringing her to his world, she takes him into hers. He starts by selling erotic postcards of his wife, then by being a literal clown in the cabaret show. Lola-Lola soon turns her wandering eye to Mazeppa the Strong Man (Hans Albers) as her husband becomes the stooge for Kiepert (Kurt Gerron), the magician and cabaret show impresario.

Things take a horrifying and tragic turn when the troupe returns to the Blue Angel Club. There's a sellout crowd to see the good professor at his lowest point. This ultimate humiliation drives him insane, causing tragedy for himself.

There is no greater fool than a fool in love, and The Blue Angel chronicles this axiom quite well. As much as I have been told this is a commentary on bourgeois hypocrisy, I do not see it that way. Rather, for me The Blue Angel is about a man who is so rigid in his worldview that he cannot sustain it when something that challenges it comes along. 

I found Professor Rath to be stiff but not a monster. Instead, he is a pathetic figure, one who has suppressed his passions for so long beneath the guise of morality and intellect that he soon became lured into Lola-Lola's world. 

Emil Jannings specialized in once-proud men who fall into desolation and disgrace: The Last Command, The Last Laugh, the now-lost film The Way of All Flesh. Jannings' performance can come across as a bit exaggerated as the acting styles shifted from silent to sound, but he also played the part correctly. He starts out stiff and rigid, and his descent into despair comes slowly and sadly. The shock he displays at his ultimate humiliation before his hometown crowd is deeply moving, and you feel great sadness for how he low he has fallen. Rath struck me as more moralistic than prudish, so his fall was not to my mind hypocritical as it was an outlet for his self-imposed repression.

While The Blue Angel was meant as a vehicle for Jannings, it is Dietrich who steals the show as our temptress. The film made Dietrich both a star and icon, the decadent siren of carnal pleasures. It is interesting to see her early on, her voice not yet having that rich, husky manner. Dietrich's Lola-Lola is her own woman, casual with men, one who does not mind playing with them if it amuses her. Whether it is telling one of her school suitors "Cut the English nonsense" when he speaks "I love you" (the little English used in the film) or behaving almost like a respectable hausfrau to her stuffy professor, Dietrich's character is cool to her men.

She sings what would become a signature song, Falling in Love Again, twice in The Blue Angel, but it is to her credit as an actress and von Sternberg's as director that both versions reveal Lola-Lola's character. The first time she is coyly flirtatious veering on amused, the second time there is a sharpness, a bitterness to her declaration that she "never wanted to" fall in love but "I can't help it". It is nice to see Marlene Dietrich before she became "DIETRICH", where she was still raw. You do not like her manner with Rath, yet you do believe that for a brief moment she could love someone like him.

The Blue Angel even has a bit of German expressionism when Rath wanders through the streets. Von Sternberg manages to sneak in little bits of humor in the film, such as when Rath and a student struggle with the English word "the". 

This chronicle of a stiff but not bad man's fall to the demimonde of desire is a well-acted, well-directed film. It is clear why audiences fell for The Blue Angel, and why even after all these years people are still falling in love again with Marlene Dietrich.


DECISION: A-

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

David Copperfield (1935): A Review

 

DAVID COPPERFIELD

It is a credit to the studio system that on occasion, it could create genuine pieces of art that make one interested in reading the source material. David Copperfield is one such film: a sweet, delightful and lavish adaptation that has excellent performances and an exceptional debut.

Young David Copperfield (Freddie Bartholomew) lives a happy life with his mother (Elizabeth Allan) and his nurse Peggoty (Jessie Ralph). That is until the Widow Copperfield marries Edward Murdstone (Basil Rathbone). He is a cold figure, though his sister Jane (Violet Kemble Cooper) is worse. 

After his mother's death, David is sent to work in a wine bottling plant, watched over by the kindly if irresponsible Mr. Micawber (W.C. Fields). David then runs away rather than go back to Murdstone when the Micawber family is forced to relocate due to Mr. Micawber's time in debtors' prison. David finds refuge with his distant Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver) and her cousin Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle). 

As he grows up to become a man (Frank Lawton), he is loved by Agnes Wickfield (Madge Evans) and loves the addled-brained Dora Spenlow (Maureen O'Sullivan). Their marriage is ended by her sudden death, but David discovers his love for Agnes before the villainous Uriah Heep (Roland Young) can take even more advantage of the Wickfield family. With David and Agnes united at last, David Copperfield's life story ends happily.

David Copperfield is an absolute triumph of a film, beautiful and delightful. At the center of its triumph is the collection of performances, with an all-star cast and a star-making turn. David Copperfield marked the American debut of child star Freddie Bartholomew, and I do not think we will ever have as perfect a characterization of Charles Dickens' title character as his.

Bartholomew has an angelic face that goes well with David's wide-eyed innocence. However, he has more than sweetness to offer the audience. Bartholomew's acting is superb. You would be hard-pressed not to be emotionally moved by David's nighttime prayer when he finally arrives at Aunt Betsey's home after an over 70 miles walk. As he wanders off in his prayer, exhausted from his long journey, he apologizes to God. It's a beautiful moment. Bartholomew makes you feel David's horror and pain when Murdstone brutally beats him (or beats him as brutally as the Production Code would allow). His expressive eyes and excellent diction enhance his performance.

Almost everyone in David Copperfield is simply astonishing acting-wise. This is, to my mind, the only W.C. Fields performance where he plays it straight, and his Mr. Micawber is extraordinary from his first scene, when he's walking over rooftops to avoid creditors. Fields shows a softer, kinder side as Micawber, and even gets a chance to work in a little Uriah Heep impersonation that fits into the characterization of a kind yet bumbling man. 

Ralph's loving nurse/maid Peggoty is sweetness itself; Rathbone is at his sneering best as the cruel Murdstone, and Oliver's bossy, pompous, eccentric but ultimately caring Aunt Betsey balances comedy and drama. My only issue is with Roland Young's Uriah Heep, who seemed even for the character too exaggerated as the allegedly humble man. However, given how Heep is meant to be overwhelming in his insincerity, I am cutting a little slack. 

Director George Cukor, who had brilliantly brought Little Women to the screen, does equally well with a British novel as he did with the American literary classic. He directed the actors to their very best, some of them to the best performances of their careers. In other aspects, Cukor did wonders with his directing. The editing of when David is overwhelmed at Murdstone's brutal teaching methods is remarkably tense, the suspense and fear building to an almost unbearable climax. A scene where David's friend Steerforth (Hugh Williams) and the young sailor's niece Emily (Florine McKinney) requires only their eyes to show how she will jilt her old love for a new one.

The only real flaw, if that, is that you do eventually feel the movie's running time, but that is a minor quibble.

David Copperfield is a deeply moving film, anchored by excellent performances all around. Freddie Bartholomew is a revelation as the young David to where you wish the movie did not have to have him grow up. W. C. Fields showed himself a genuine actor versus a persona. David Copperfield is an enchanting film, and to my mind the standard that future adaptions should be measured by. The film shows that when the best people are working in front and behind the camera, backed up by the poshest studio production standards around, even something as "literature" can become not just art but a true thing of beauty.

DECISION: A-  

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Last King of Scotland: A Review


THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND

Can one make a film where the villain is almost sympathetic, while the protagonist is almost monstrous? The Last King of Scotland manages to do exactly that. The film can rightly claim to be Oscar-winning, but I am not convinced people remember it or its subject.

Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) finds the prospect of being partners with his doctor father depressing. Looking for adventure and escape, he settles on Uganda to start his medical career. 

He starts working with Dr. Merrit (Adam Kotz) and his luscious wife Sarah (Gillian Anderson). Nicholas can easily tempt Sarah, but she resists halfheartedly. Uganda is in the throes of a coup d'état, and Nicholas finds the whole prospect exciting. He sees the new President, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) and Nicholas thinks Amin may be a good guy.

That joy grows when he and Amin meet, and he finds that the General loves Scotland and all things Scottish. Now as Amin's personal physician, Nicholas finds himself in a life of luxury, even having an affair with Kay (Kerry Washington), one of Amin's wives. However, the shadowy British diplomat Stone (Simon McBurney) and Amin's former physician Dr. Junju (David Oyelowo) give Nicholas hints that Amin is not a good man.

Nicholas does not take the hint, and he finds himself immersed in Amin's paranoia and terror. He also finds that Kay is not safe now that Nicholas knocked her up. Things culminate when the PLO hijacks an Air France flight that lands at Entebbe. Here, Amin soaks up the limelight while simultaneously torturing Garrigan for his betrayal. Ironically, Garrigan is able to escape Uganda thanks to Amin, whose release of non-Israeli hostages lets Garrigan mingle among the other white people.


The Last King of Scotland won Forest Whitaker a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Amin, the film's sole Academy Award nomination. It is rare when a film wins a major Academy Award when it is the only nomination it has, and Whitaker is exceptional in the role. He switches easily from Amin's joie de vivre to his unhinged fury. Many times, Whitaker can shift from Amin raging about accusations of cannibalism to laughing at the prospect of showing his cleverness to the world.

There are, however, two issues with Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. First, I think Amin is a supporting character, so his winning in Lead versus Supporting strikes me as a bit of category fraud. The bulk of the film, indeed the entire story, does not revolve around Amin but on Garrigan. As such, it seems that McAvoy was the lead, Whitaker the secondary.

Almost everything around The Last King of Scotland revolves around McAvoy's Garrigan to where the title could be more about him than Amin. I grant that McAvoy is an attractive man and gets his obligatory shirtless scene, but even for a film based on a fictional novel there seems something almost comical about how Garrigan is sexual catnip to every woman he meets.

As the film really is around him, I think director Kevin Macdonald wanted the viewer to see the growing horror of Amin's reign of terror through an innocent's eyes. That was difficult enough given that Garrigan was no innocent but almost arrogant in his manner to where when Amin has him hanging on hooks, we root for Garrigan to die. It gets worse when Macdonald is adamant about zooming in and out various shots within the same scene. He also moves the camera all over the place, disorienting the viewer, making things pointlessly artsy and confusing.


Second and perhaps more concerning, The Last King of Scotland seems almost sympathetic to Amin. I was surprised at how Amin was shown not as a tyrant but as almost more eccentric to slightly bonkers than cold and calculating. He was irrational at times such as when he berates Garrigan for not being supportive. "And you call yourself my closest advisor?" he scolds Garrigan, obviously shocked to have this title foisted on him when he never made such a claim.

Almost all of Amin's actions seem more misguided than malevolent. Sometimes they seem rational, a dangerous thing given that Amin was not the cartoonish buffoon the Western press caricatured him as. He could be oddball, but he was also cruel, murderous and tyrannical. His anger at an assassination attempt seems understandable even if The Last King of Scotland meant for Amin's violent retribution to those taken prisoner to be shocking. Even his literal butchering of Kay appears to be more the overreaction to a wife's betrayal than a small taste of Amin's evil.

Curiously, the Entebbe hostage situation seems more a plot device than a real story. I am puzzled as to why, despite the danger the hostages face, Amin seems willing to show them his own brutality so openly. 

The Last King of Scotland might read better as the novel it is. As a film however, it went wrong in its portrayal of Idi Amin apart from Forest Whitaker's performance. I think two films that touch on both Amin himself and the Entebbe raid are better. For the former, there is the documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, and for the latter, the 2018 film 7 Days in Entebbe (also known as Entebbe). Overall, it is not a good sign when your hero comes across as worse than a murderous dictator who destroyed his country.

Circa 1925-2003

 

Monday, January 3, 2022

Licorice Pizza: A Review

 

LICORICE PIZZA

As pineapples on pizza are an acquired taste, I think so will Licorice Pizza be. Some will be put off by the excessive nostalgia for a time not well remembered. Others will find the age gap between the lovers creepy. Still more will, like me, feel Licorice Pizza is more a set of vignettes than a whole film. However, the film has the blessing of one to two good performances that make it acceptable, if a bit scattershot.

Up-and-coming fifteen-year-old actor Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is instantly smitten with school picture assistant Alana (Alana Haim). Alana, jaded even for a twenty-five-year-old, at first rejects Gary's overtures, but slowly she starts spending far too much time with Gary and his friends.

Gary's acting career sputters a bit, and I figure him whacking Lucy Doolittle* (Christine Ebersole) upside the head while on stage does not help his prospects. Gary's not worried though. His mom runs an advertising firm that helps a Japanese restaurant, and Gary for his part starts first a waterbed company and then a pinball arcade over the course of the film. Alana for her part tries out acting, then helping sell waterbeds over the phone and finally volunteering in a mayoral campaign.

For good or not, the waterbed company manages to sell one to famed film producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper). Peters' purchase comes at a fraught time for himself and the country: he angers the kids with his belligerent manner and Gary in particular when flirting with Alana. The nation is also going through the gasoline shortage crisis, dooming Gary's waterbed business. The pinball arcade business comes only thanks to insider knowledge they will be legalized, but Alana finds that her candidate, Joel Wachs (Bennie Safdie) is closeted and trying to have Alana be his beard. Ultimately, Alana and Gary find they are destined for each other.

I think writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson was reliving either his teen fantasies or wonder years in Licorice Pizza, but I wonder why anyone outside his circle would care. The film does not seem to have a real narrative, kind of drifting from one thing to another in a laidback manner. It seems that those involved, many of whom are Anderson's friends and family, found the film a nice excuse to hang out and have a good time.

Alana Haim for example prior to Licorice Pizza had as her biggest claim to fame being part of Haim, a pop group that consists of herself and her sisters. Coincidentally or not, both her sisters/fellow bandmembers Danielle and Este play her sisters, and their parents play their parents. Her lack of acting is also shown via the fact that the actress and character share the same name. It almost suggests Anderson did not think Alana Haim** would be able to respond to any other name. I am old enough to have never heard of Haim, let alone their music, so I am completely unfamiliar with who they are. 

Her performance is good for being a novice, especially when playing against veterans like Cooper and Sean Penn as Jack Holden*. However, I am still unsure whether this is the start of a separate film career for Alana Haim or just a lark.  

This is contrast to Cooper Hoffman, who like Alana Haim is making his film debut in Licorice Pizza. He is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was a frequent Anderson collaborator. Again, how much that played in his casting I have no knowledge of. Unlike Alana Haim, however, he does not seem to be playing a variation of himself. Gary is a full character: in turns happy-go-lucky and maddingly possessive, arrogant but naive. Licorice Pizza is a good debut for Hoffman, though like with Alana Haim I don't know if this is the start of a career or just a one-off to allow Anderson to get family and friends together.

As a side note, given that the character Gary Valentine is based or at least inspired by Gary Goetzman one wonders if Licorice Pizza is more a mix of his and other people's memory and fantasy than anything else.

Licorice Pizza suffers from bathing in perhaps too much nostalgia for an era mostly forgotten. I do not think many people will look back on the Nixon years or the oil embargo as happy times. I also think that the ten-year age gap between Gary and Alana is curiously left unexplored. If the genders were reversed, would a twenty-five-year-old man forming a romantic relationship with a fifteen-year-old girl be equally embraced? Alana to her credit does suggest some disgust at hanging around people ten years her junior but agreeing to date or bearing her breasts to a fifteen-year-old is something I am not sold on.

I looked on Licorice Pizza with some confusion as to what the point of it all was. The film just goes through moments without tying them well together. We go from Gary's acting career to ruining Jon Peters' home to the closeted mayoral candidate. To my mind, the film seemed to meander about, circling various moments with no genuine point.

I can recommend Licorice Pizza only due to the performances of Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, though the latter did not impress me as much as the former. Apart from that though, I was generally unimpressed with the film. To be fair though, I actually like pineapples on my pizza, so there is that.

* The character of Lucy Doolittle is clearly Lucille Ball by another name. The television appearance where Gary hits an unsuspecting Lucy with a pillow on (and enraging her afterwards) was to promote Yours, Mine and Ours, which starred Ball. Jack Holden is meant to be actor William Holden, and while I have no knowledge of how close/far Jack is to Bill, the motorcycle scene seems more like something Steve McQueen would do than William Holden.

** I kept repeating "Alana Haim" versus writing "Haim" to avoid potential confusion if I was referring to the actress or the band. When I used "Alana", I was referring to the character.

DECISION: C+