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

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE POWER OF THE DOG (2021)

December 4, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t mess with the smart ones, as brains often outlast brawn. I’m conflicted on how best to describe this film. Perhaps … It’s nuanced storytelling at its finest. Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for THE PIANO (1993), while also becoming only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. This is her 8th feature film to direct, and the first since the underrated BRIGHT STAR (2009). Ms. Campion is such a smooth filmmaker, and her latest is so expertly crafted and so beautifully filmed, that some may find themselves not recognizing the underlying tension between characters. I urge you to remain diligent and take note of the subtle gestures and facial expressions, as the emotions run deep.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank. He runs a successful cattle ranch with his brother George, played by Jesse Plemons. Though they sleep in the same room and have been driving cattle together for 25 years, the brothers couldn’t be less alike. George is a soft-spoken man with few needs or aspirations other than wishing to not grow old alone. He lives in the shadow of his formidable brother, an educated man with a domineering personality. Phil is constantly proving how tough and macho he is by bullying others, even calling his more sensitive brother “Fatso”. That thundering you hear is Phil purposefully slamming his heels into the wood floors so that his spurs never stop jangling.

Phil is playing a game that only he knows the rules to. George bows his head in shame as he hears Phil belittle the frail and effeminate teenage Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is waiting on their table at the Red Mill. Peter’s widowed mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) owns the place, and after George provides some comfort to her, George and Rose secretly marry. Viewing this as a personal affront, Phil is merciless in his cruelty towards Rose and Peter. It turns out that Phil is masquerading as one thing in order to hide another truth. An intriguing sequence (that is so well acted I could watch it 10 times) leads to a warming of the relationship between Phil and Peter. The two bond over horseback riding, rope-braiding, and stories of Phil’s now-deceased ‘mentor’, Bronco Henry.

This setting is 1925 Montana, though it’s filmed in New Zealand. The majestic mountain range constantly looms on the horizon. Yet despite the beauty, it’s a tough life made tougher by Phil’s menacing behavior – psychological torturing of Rose that leads her to the bottle – something that clearly holds unfavorable memories. The four leads are truly outstanding, and supporting work is provided by Thomasin McKenzie as the young housekeeper, and Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Allison Bruce, and Peter Carroll as uncomfortable guests at a dinner party.

Jonny Greenwood provides the music. It’s not so much a score as it is mood-enhancing messaging through guitars, violins, and pianos – each piece delivering just the right note. Cinematographer Ari Wegner (THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG, 2019) works seamlessly with director Campion to capture the shifts in tone and the minutiae of the performances. An early shot through the kitchen windows captures Phil strutting through the ranch. The shot is repeated later with a contrasting look. The film is based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, and it includes some of his personal experiences. Nothing haunts us more than the lingering effect of words Peter provides as narration near the film’s opening, when he informs us that a real man must save his mother. Oh yes, this is nuanced storytelling at its finest. By the way, you know how to whistle, don’t you?

Streaming on Netflix

WATCH THE TRAILER


YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2018)

April 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Scottish director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t shy away from tough material. In fact, she seems to thrive on it. Following the emotional turmoil of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) she delivers her latest, which can best be described as brutal. The brutality here is not the on screen violence – we get mostly the aftermath or only see the ‘edges’ of terrible deeds. No, the brutality here is in a world that needs a man like Joe.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a former military man who lives with his mother. Joe has a particular set of skills that fit into the narrow career niche of rescuing kidnapped girls and ridding society of their captors. Rather than a hired gun, Joe is a hired hammer … ball-peen hammer being his sentimental and strategic weapon of choice. Joe is also a bit mentally unstable, likely suicidal, and haunted by inner demons. Yet he is also patient and kind with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts).

Joe’s most recent job is to find and rescue a State Senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from an underground sex ring run by some powerful political types. The job is a success right up until it isn’t. It’s at this point when Joe finds a reason to live … vengeance. It’s also when Mr. Phoenix becomes a legitimate contender for an Oscar nomination. He’s a hulk of a man with a lumbering gait experiences and dozens of body scars. He has these flashbacks which are so short spurts, at times they feel like mere teases. Soon enough we assemble the pieces to know the baggage from a traumatic childhood event, and the front lines of a horrific war, have created this shell of a man with his own set of principles.

John Doman and Alessandro Nivola have minor supporting roles, but this one rides on the battered and no longer symmetrical shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix, and the creative stylings of filmmaker Lynne Ramsay. It is imagery combined with performance and the result is spellbinding. If you can handle it, the film provides a cinematic journey to depths not typically reached.

Best not to fill in many of the film’s specifics, but the comparisons to TAXI DRIVER are apropos. I found myself wondering if Paul Schrader was consulted in the adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ source material book. The city streets and dank hotel rooms scream gritty 1970’s thriller, and the recurring shots of plastic bags over the head emphasize the claustrophobia Joe experiences. This is doubtless meant to be commentary on politicians and the corrupt power they wield, but it works less as that and more as a glimpse at one man’s darkness. Add to that the pulsating score from Jonny Greenwood, and the creepy use of “My Angel Baby” by Rosie and Originals, and only one word can describe Ms. Ramsay’s film … brutal.

watch the trailer:


PHANTOM THREAD (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is a certain feeling that envelops me while experiencing exquisite filmmaking. It’s a singular blend of peacefulness and excitement as an anticipation of greatness builds in those early scenes. That feeling has rarely swept over me as quickly as the opening moments of this new film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, a six-time Oscar nominee.

We need only watch Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) go through his morning ritual to understand that he is a fastidious individual to the point that could easily be described as obsessive-compulsive. It’s 1955 London, and this is the House of Woodcock. He lives and works in a home that serves as the canvas for his art, as well as a place to lay his head for sleep. His art is dressmaking. It’s also his obsession and purpose for living. This is the story of a man with transformative talent, who, despite his stated lack of need for those outside his solitary realm, is dragged into the humanity of love and caring.

This is an odd film about odd people. It’s about a dressmaker and it features people making beautiful clothes … yet it’s not a fashion movie. No, this is the study of a genius man and his muse – who is also his lover – and their unconventional saga of love. It’s also a consistently funny movie (and surprisingly so). Evidence that that 3 will always be a crowd, Woodcock’s devoted sister and buttoned-up business partner Cyril (a terrific Leslie Manville) runs a tight ship, while simultaneously using her near preternatural ability to read his moods and idiosyncrasies and respond accordingly. He refers to her as “my old so-and-so” in a way that reflects a lifelong bond unlikely to be broken.

The woman who prevents this from simply being a story of a reclusive genius is the aforementioned muse Alma (played by the effervescent Vicky Krieps). Is she his muse, a model, or his lover? Well, yes to all. And yet those labels fall short in describing the subtleties and nuances of their relationship. When does she play which role in order to maintain the balance so key to his work? Alma is often confused about the best approach in any moment, but she reaches him as none before. When she tells Woodcock that a certain client “doesn’t deserve your dress”, it strikes a chord with him that no one else has ever understood. It’s as close to ‘getting him’ as one can attain.

Ms. Krieps goes toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in their scenes. He is simply the greatest living actor, and maybe the best ever at his profession. Her blushy cheeks and determined eye of observation bely an inner strength that isn’t necessarily obvious at first glance. The twist in this “romance” is unlike any other love story from the big screen. While he is haunted by the memories of a cherished mother, Alma presents a more immediate force of reckoning. Is she his tender savior or a menace of danger? It’s fascinating to watch this unfold.

Most know by now that Daniel Day-Lewis has announced this will be his final acting role. We can only compare this to the retirements of Sandy Koufax or Jim Brown. We feel cheated by the void of greatness left by their departures, and if this is truly his final role, the DDL legacy is supremely secure. His meticulous performance shines not only through the quirky OCD moments, but even moreso in the seemingly spontaneous moments of bickering and annoyance … moments that come across ad-libbed instead of scripted – these sound (and feel) like real life arguments!

Supposedly, filmmaker Anderson based the character on Spanish-Basque designer Cristobal Balenciaga, and Day-Lewis research added other elements of authenticity. It’s their first movie together since the fantastic THERE WILL BE BLOOD ten years ago, and theirs seems to be a synchronicity that few actors and directors ever share. Mr. Anderson shot the movie himself, and his use of close-ups – faces, fingers, sewing needles – capture the delicacies as well as the power. The final piece of this glorious puzzle is the orchestral score provided by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. It’s both prominent and intricate, with stunning piano work that stands on its own. This is a movie about greatness by those who are also great.

watch the trailer:


INHERENT VICE (2014)

January 12, 2015

inherent vice Greetings again from the darkness. What is an absolutely critical element to a good whodunit? The answer is “it”. By definition there must be an “it” that someone has performed or carried out.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel kicks off with a terrific scene that appears to set the stage for a big mystery that must be solved. But don’t fall for it … it’s really a parody of film noir that depicts the end of the care-free hippie era in southern California. Or maybe it’s the beginning of the paranoid era in southern California. Or maybe it’s something else all together. Whatever it’s meant to be, it is certainly a wild ride with a never-ending stream of colorful characters in strange situations.

Many of us consider Paul Thomas Anderson to be one of the true creative geniuses of the film world. His 2007 There Will Be Blood was a towering achievement and complements his other films such as The Master, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, and the underrated Hard Eight. His latest veers into new territory and features one of his more outlandish characters in “Doc” (Joaquin Phoenix), a mutton-chopped hippie Private Investigator who never misses a chance to indulge in his marijuana habit. Welcome to 1970 SoCal.

It seems new characters and scenarios are being thrown at us in every scene, as Doc readily accepts new cases and new leads … only there really is no case, even though he spends most of the movie looking into things. His efforts find him crossing paths with his ex-girlfriend, the wife of a missing real estate tycoon, the Aryian brotherhood, a sax player who is either a Federal informant or a student dissident, a coke-fueled dentist, an Asian massage parlor, the FBI, a maritime lawyer, his pizza-delivering sometimes girlfriend who is also a District Attorney, a mysteriously named entity Golden Fang, and the tightest-wound/probably corrupt/ TV-acting police detective named Bigfoot.

Should you require additional weirdness, check out how many character names come right out of cartoons (Doc, Mickey, Bambi to name a few). Need more?  How about a soundtrack that features Neil Young, Sam Cooke, Can’s “Vitamin C”, and a score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood? Or film stock that has the look of 70’s vintage … shot beautifully by Oscar winning DP Robert Elswit. There is just no describing the shenanigan’s other than to say the characters, situations and dialogue are alternatingly confounding and humorous. Our movie-watching brains are trained to follow a plot, but Anderson and Pynchon seem to be laughing in the face of this tradition as we try to assemble the nominally related puzzle pieces.

The cast is varied and fun. Katherine Waterston (Sam’s daughter) plays Doc’s ex who kicks off that first scene, Eric Roberts is the kinda missing rich guy, Michael Kenneth Williams delivers a clue, Benecio Del Toro is the maritime lawyer, Owen Wilson is the sax player, Jena Malone is his clean and sober wife, Reese Witherspoon plays the DA, Martin Short is the horny dentist, Martin Donovan is another creepy rich guy, Joanna Newsome is the narrator and periodic assistant to Doc, Serena Scott Thomas (sister of Kristin Scott Thomas) plays the wife of the missing rich guy, and Maya Rudolph (the director’s real life partner) is Doc’s receptionist … and Maya’s late mother Minnie Ripperton sings “Les Fleurs” on the soundtrack. But it’s Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin who really take this thing to the edge. It’s clear both are having fun, which is the best you can hope for while watching this one.

watch the trailer:

 

 


WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011)

March 4, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Brady Bunch, this isn’t. It’s also not the place to look for helpful parenting tips. In fact, the story revolves around Eva, a woman (Tilda Swinton) who apparently didn’t want to have a child … at least not at this time, and certainly not THIS child. If you have seen The Omen, you probably gave thanks that you didn’t have a child like Damien. At least we knew Damien was the spawn of Satan. Eva’s son Kevin, is instead a good old fashioned psychopath. One who has an inherent need to cause pain and misery for his mother.

What a pair Eva and Kevin make. From day one, Kevin seems to sense his mother’s lack of joy in parenthood. And he seems to have a genetic disposition of making her pay. As with many psychopaths, his above average intelligence makes him all the more dangerous. He is tricky enough to keep his dad (John C Riley) clueless as to his nature, while causing much doubt in the dad’s mind as to the stability of his wife.

 My favorite part is actually how director Lynne Ramsay structured the storytelling. It goes beyond non-linear and actually bounces throughout three key periods: Kevin as a baby/toddler, Kevin as a 6-8 year old (Jason Newell), and Kevin as a teenager (Ezra Miller). Each age is progressively more frightening and disenchanting … and all of the “Kevin” actors glare with the same lifeless eyes. The film begins with what is an undetermined catastrophe. This event is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, though we witness events leading up to it, as well as the resulting fallout.

 There are recurring scenes where Eva is scrubbing the exterior of her house in an attempt to remove the red paint that was purposefully splattered. As a viewer, we understand that she has blood on her hands and she seems resigned to the fact that she is now a social outcast, even a pariah. We spend much of the movie in Eva’s jumbled thoughts as she tries to piece together what has happened and why. Of course, there is no simple answer. The title explains what was missing all along. There was no communication and no willingness to confront the problem … a psychopathic son born to a disenchanted woman who refuses to get past her lost dreams. To say they all paid the price is an understatement.

This film has a very limited audience, though my claim is that Ms. Swinton was quite deserving of an Oscar nomination. She wears defeat like a mask and lives in isolation better than most could. Even the music is offbeat and unusual in its use … thanks to Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. As filmmaking, this is high art. As storytelling, it’s a bit muddled and quite a downer.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to feel better about the kids you are raising

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for helpful parenting tips

watch the trailer: