LICORICE PIZZA (2021)

December 23, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The only honest way for me to begin is to simply admit that I adore this movie. In fact, I may love it as much as writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson loved making it. The setting is 1970’s San Fernando Valley, the area where the director was raised, and it’s such a caring tribute and sweet story (while also being exciting and nostalgic) that’s it’s tempting to stop writing and just encourage everyone to watch it. My only regret is that for those who weren’t around during this time period, some of the attention to detail and meticulous filmmaking won’t strike the same chord as it will for the rest of us.

Gary Valentine is played by first time actor Cooper Hoffman, who also happens to be the son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman (Oscar winner, CAPOTE). The elder Hoffman gave some of his best performances in PT Anderson movies, so it’s only fitting that the son explodes onto the scene under his tutelage. The character is loosely based on Gary Goetzman, who was a teenage waterbed entrepreneur, musician, and actor, and who is now a successful film and TV producer. In this story, Gary is a 15 year old actor and hustler – the kind of hustler always looking for the next big thing, whether it be the waterbed craze, or the opening of a pinball parlor. Young Hoffman plays him with an advanced confidence and ever-ready smile that puts people at ease.

On school picture day, Gary strikes up a conversation with photographer assistant Alana Kane (another first time actor, Alana Haim). She’s 10 years older than Gary, but is smitten by his confidence and conversation skills. You may find it weird that the two become friends. That’s OK, because even Alana thinks it’s weird. In fact, they spend most of the movie acting like they aren’t attracted to each other. Now you may find the situation off-putting, but I assure you it’s handled with grace and care. They make a dynamic duo, with Gary being advanced for his age, while Alana is a bit stunted – or at least, grasping to find herself.

The Gary and Alana story is the heart of the film, yet Anderson injects so many vignettes or additional pieces that there is no time to chill or even think about what we are watching. The brilliance is in the small touches … but also the outrageous moments, of which none are better than Bradley Cooper’s hyped up role as hairdresser-turned-Producer Jon Peters. His couple of scenes with Gary and Alana are some of the funniest I’ve seen all year. And if that’s not enough, we watch in awe as two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn charms Alana as actor Jack Holden (clearly a poke at Oscar winner William Holden) at the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant. These scenes are crafted as observations on the 70’s, but also clever comedy.

Anderson has packed his cast with recognizable talent. Tom Waits and Christine Ebersole are particularly effective in short scenes, she as real life agent Lucy Doolittle. Actor-director Benny Safdie shows up as local politician Joel Wachs, and Joseph Cross as his “friend”. John Michael Higgins has a cringe-inducing and politically incorrect role as the owner of an Asian restaurant, and the number of Hollywood bloodlines represented here is too great to count: Sasha and Destry Allen Spielberg, Tim Conway Jr, George DiCaprio (Leo’s dad), and Ray Nicholson (Jack’s boy). Maya Rudolph has a scene, Mary Elizabeth Ellis plays Gary’s mother, and John C Reilly briefly appears as Herman Munster. On top of all that, Alana Haim’s real life sisters and parents play her family. If you aren’t familiar, the three Haim sisters make up the well-known band HAIM, and have had videos directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has become Anderson’s go-to composer, and his work here dazzles as it maintains the balance between drama and comedy. Beyond Greenwood’s score is the complementary soundtrack featuring the perfect selection of period tunes. Of course, given the time period, we get references of Richard Nixon, DEEP THROAT, and gas lines due to gas shortages, but Anderson never lets the down time overtake the fun. Director Anderson has 8 Oscar nominations, but no wins despite such extraordinary work as PHANTOM THREAD (2017), THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), MAGNOLIA (1999), and others. It’s a shame this masterpiece has been released in the same year as THE POWER OF THE DOG, which will likely keep Anderson out of the winner’s circle yet again. Should you doubt the high level of this film, you’ll likely find yourself thinking this is Gary’s story while you are watching; however, once you have time to absorb what you’ve seen, you’ll realize this is Alana’s coming-of-age story. This is truly remarkable filmmaking and extraordinary film debuts from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim.

Opens in theaters on December 24, 2021

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PIECES OF A WOMAN (2020)

December 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It happens sometimes, but rarely. A single sequence in a film is so profound or unusual or artistic or affecting, that it alone makes the film worth watching. Such is the case with the labor-birth-midwife scene in this film from real life partners, Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo and writer Kata Weber. Much of it is an extended single continuous shot, and it occurs within the first half hour.

The only set up we get is that the husband, Sean (Shia LaBeouf) is on the construction crew building a new bridge, and that his wife Martha (Vanessa Kirby) is extremely pregnant on her final day of work before maternity leave. A strained relationship with Martha’s mother is evident as she buys the couple a minivan. At home, the couple seems excited about the upcoming arrival of their first baby. When her water breaks, they are initially upset that their midwife can’t make it for a home delivery, but soon enough, Eva (Molly Parker), shows up as a replacement and takes charge. The remarkable sequence is filmed in tight shots that add to the tension and come across as ultra-realistic as Ms. Kirby’s strenuous performance.

The rest of the film follows the differing ways the couple, especially Martha, deals with the crushing emotional pain and unfathomable grief that comes with losing a child. It’s the kind of tragedy that can tear apart a relationship and change, if not destroy, a person. Martha becomes isolated as she tries to make sense of something where logic doesn’t apply. Sean is unable to connect with her, but falls into her mother’s camp of seeking to avenge the pain. Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn plays Martha’s domineering mother, and she is determined to make the midwife pay through jail time.

The rest of the film can’t match that birth sequence for tension, but the cast is superb in capturing the various faces of grief. Ms. Kirby is a revelation and she immerses herself in the role – something frequent movie watchers will immediately recognize. Whether she’s huffing with labor pains, sniffing apples in a grocery store, or floating through days and nights in a state of numbness, we feel every bit of what she’s processing. LaBeouf handles the initial pain very well, but he’s let down by the script through the balance of the story. Ms. Burstyn and Ms. Kirby each get another chance to shine as they face off at a family dinner in Act 3. Supporting work comes from Benny Safdie (actor-director known for co-directing offbeat films with his brother Josh), Iliza Schlesinger as Martha’s sister, and Sarah Snook as the prosecuting attorney (and family member).

Scandal surrounds the project, not because of anything that happened during production, but instead due to the accusations Shia LaBeouf is facing from a former girlfriend. Separating the accusations from the performance is a choice each viewer will have to make on their own, and it can be noted that he, while a significant player in the story, is not the main focus. Chapter headings by month are used to assist us with knowing how much time has passed, and the under-construction bridge from the first scene acts as a metaphor in the film’s final scene as the new reality is faced. Despite being a tough watch at times, and having a first act that sets an unsustainable bar, there is a lot to admire about the film. Martin Scorsese is listed as an Executive Producer and 3-time Oscar winner Howard Shore delivers a nice score. Living with loss is never easy, and at times seems impossible.

In theaters December 30, 2020 and on Netflix January 7, 2021

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UNCUT GEMS (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s debatable whether this movie should be labeled an indie crime thriller or a ‘Scared Straight’ session for gambling addicts. Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie are filmmaking brothers who seem to specialize in adding a frenetic pace to the lives of characters who consistently make bad decisions. Their excellent 2017 film GOOD TIME (starring Robert Pattinson) set the tone for their latest, featuring an Adam Sandler performance unlike anything we’ve previously seen from him.

After a brief prologue at an Ethiopian mine, we are dropped right into Howard’s world. Well, more specifically, we find ourselves on the camera end of Howard Ratner’s colonoscopy, while also seeing the vibrant glow of the rare opal extracted from that opening mine. Remarkably, the colonoscopy may be Howard’s (and our) most relaxing moment of the movie. The character of Howard is based on a guy the Safdie brothers’ dad worked for in the Diamond District when they were growing up. He’s played here by Mr. Sandler, who delivers a performance so memorable that we now can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

Here is what we learn about Howard: he’s arrogant and foolish and energetic and hopeful. He lives life on the edge … or perhaps he’s already tipped. He’s a Jewish jeweler based in inner-city Manhattan, and as the film begins, he owes a lot of money to someone who has hired goons to collect. Howard has an irascible wife Dinah (Idina Menzel, Elsa’s voice in FROZEN) who is fed up with his antics … one of which is his employee/mistress Julia (newcomer Julia Fox). Howard has an insatiable gambling addiction and he’s always on the brink of a life-changing big score or a colossal failure that could cost him everything. He’s a hustler who has to move faster each day to prevent the collapse of his house of cards: sports bets, pawns, loans, lies, and empty promises.

So if you think you now have a feel for this, I can assure you that you are mistaken. The frenetic pace is relentless to watch. We kind of like Howard, but yet, we want nothing to do with him. His latest scheme involves the expectation that the rare opal will solve his many financial woes. In the meantime, his business associate Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) brings him a high profile client … NBA player Kevin Garnett. The film looks and feels like a gritty 1970’s flick, but it’s based during the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and Garnett plays himself (and quite well). Garnett borrows the opal for good luck and that’s when all ‘heck’ breaks loose. Also in play here is Howard’s rotten brother-in-law (Eric Begosian), to whom he also owes money. Adding even more NYC flavor are Judd Hirsch, John Amos, and sports radio host Mike Francesca, as Howard’s bookie.

Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) provides an electronic score that helps ensure we are never comfortable watching what is unfolding, and cinematographer Darius Khondji (EVITA) keeps his camera in constant motion – just like the characters. Production Designer Sam Lisenco creates Howard’s world through the jewelry shop, the house, the apartment, and especially that back office. Set Decorator Kendall Anderson wins a place in my heart for the Pete Maravich poster.

The Safdie brothers co-wrote the script with their editor Ronald Bronstein (who also worked on GOOD TIME), and afterwards you’ll find yourself going back through all the poor choices made by most every character. The brilliantly sustained level of uneasiness includes a segment featuring The Weeknd, and one revolving around a school play for Howard’s daughter. The Safdie style is present throughout, and most conversations are loud and heated and threatening. If you are the type that needs at least one likable character, or a serene environment, or respectful adult conversation, you are out of luck here. Howard is an exhausting character in an exhausting story within an exhausting movie … just as it was intended.

watch the RED BAND trailer (PROFANITY WARNING):

 

 


GOOD TIME (2017)

August 24, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Drifters and later George Benson sang “the neon lights are bright on Broadway”. Well, we aren’t on Broadway, and though they aren’t bright, the neon lights are ever present and crucial to the tone of the latest from brothers and co-directors Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.

Robert Pattinson stars as Constantine “Connie” Nikas, and turns in a performance unlike anything we have previously seen from him. Connie is protective of his brother Nick (played by director Benny Safdie), and he’s also a grungy unhinged bank robber. He doesn’t look like a man with a plan, but fortunately, Connie is a smooth talker who thinks ‘quick on his feet’. We say fortunately, because he is barraged with an endless stream of danger, catastrophes and near traumatic events as the story progresses.

A botched bank robbery separates the brothers and sends Nick to jail and Connie on the lam. Co-writers Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie seemingly take immense pleasure in launching Connie off-the-rails has he desperately attempts to avoid capture while simultaneously figuring out how to spring brother Nick. With a frenetic pace that escalates Griffin Dunne’s misery in AFTER HOURS, Connie’s escapades have him crossing paths with his girlfriend played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (wish she had more screen time), a psychiatrist played by Peter Verby, a new anxious-to-help acquaintance in Taliah Webster, an accidental partner-in-crime played by Buddy Duress, an amusement park security guard played by Barkhad Abdi (“Look at me!”), and a brutish thug played by hip-hop artist Necro.

The pounding, pulsating techno/synth music perfectly complements the unusual tone (almost noirish, and bordering on comedic), feverish pace, and fascinating visuals throughout this hyper-kinetic frenzied trip. Some viewers will be turned off quickly, and those that stick with it will be rewarded with an entertaining crime thriller featuring Pattinson’s best performance to date.

watch the trailer: