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 MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES (2021, animated)

December 11, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. What would happen if human survival depended on the Griswolds (from the VACATION movies) battling the rogue robots programmed to take over the planet? Filmmakers Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe answer to that scenario is hyper-active, frenetic, overly-busy visual chaos that attempts to blend apocalyptic science fiction, extreme action sequences, and dysfunctional family comedy-drama. It’s a lot to tackle, and for the most part, it works.

Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is preparing to head to film school. Her nature-loving dad, Rick (Danny McBride) is concerned about how he and Katie have drifted apart over the years, and he’s also worried that her educational choice could lead to disappointment. Katie’s mom, Linda (Maya Rudolph) is mostly supportive and upbeat, and yet a bit saddened that the once close father-daughter duo no longer speak the same language. Youngest son Aaron (voiced by co-director Rianda) and family dog Monchi have their moments, and mostly this is a fairly typical dysfunctional family. In fact, dysfunctional family seems to be a misnomer since it describes most families, even the highly organized one that seemingly have their act together … represented here by the Poseys (Chrissy Teigen and John Legend).

Katie’s generation’s adoption and dependency on technology has widened the gap in connection with the previous generation … specifically the bond between father and daughter that was so strong when she was young, and now barely hangs on by thread. Dad is the generation of the supreme screwdriver, while Katie is all about creating memes and videos. He fixes things, while she creates things. Dad decides a family road trip to drop Katie at college is the solution to fixing the frayed relationship. This happens on the same day that mega-Tech guru Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) is introducing his next-gen PAL robot, which is smart technology on steroids. However, it turns out, software has feelings too, and the original PAL (Olivia Colman) seeks revenge for being replaced. An army of robots is sent to capture the entire human race.

A couple of quirky things leave the Mitchell family as our final hope against the robots, and as you might expect, saving the world can lead to reparations in the father-daughter relationship. Dad gains an appreciation for the creative skills of Katie, while she learns of his great personal sacrifice for family. It’s an unusual blend of two distinct stories, but mostly we are left exhausted after a nearly two hour run time. The screen is often cluttered and overloaded with distractions (including old school Furbys with a twist), and although there is a cool throwback look to some of the animation, it’s simply too much of a good thing. Younger kids may be mesmerized by the frantic action, but the story lines are not likely to be followed by most under 10 or so. This one has garnered a great deal of Oscar buzz, which makes sense as adults decide such things.

Streaming on Netflix

WATCH THE TRAILER


CHIPS (2017)

March 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. In a Hollywood self-congratulatory world that considers sequels, reboots and remakes as creative projects; and imitation as the most sincere form of flattery … not to mention the safest hedged bet … it’s not in the least surprising that we now have a film version of “CHiPs”, a lightweight and popular TV show that ran from 1977 through 1983. What should be surprising is that a studio entrusted Dax Shepard with the ultimate slash role of Director/Writer/Producer/Actor for this contemporary version.

Of course, as with film versions of “21 Jump Street” and “Starsky and Hutch”, the target audience isn’t really those who watched the original TV series, but rather the group of big-spending millennials who seem to thrive on raunchy humor, while placing minimal value on a coherent or interesting story. Buddy cop films that blend tense drama, wise-cracking partners and eye-widening action have long been popular, with the jewel of the genre being Lethal Weapon. This latest entry does nothing to threaten the now 30 year reign of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

Dax Shepard stars in his own film as Jon Baker, now reinvented as a former X-games motorcycle champ who is attempting to save his long-fizzled marriage by becoming a cop. The rookie’s partner is undercover FBI Agent Frank “Ponch” Poncherello played by Michael Pena. Each has their own personal issues: Jon is addicted to prescription painkillers, and Ponch struggles to control certain urges … and unfortunately for viewers, the two spend an inordinate amount of time discussing these issues.

The crime wave they are attempting to bust involves a corrupt cop. Seeing that Vincent D’Onofrio is in the cast immediately takes away any mystery about the bad guy’s identity, but were there any doubt, the film exposes him in the first action sequence. After that comes the onslaught of verbal sparring, explosions, gunplay and one especially gory moment.

With Dax Shepard at the helm, we understand going in that the raunchy humor faucet will be fully open. Topics covered in one-liners, gags and recurring themes include: homophobia, sexting, masturbating, bowel movements, marriage therapy, d**k jokes, prescription drugs, paparazzi, and yoga pants. But seriously, how many “eating a**” jokes does one movie need? It’s a topic that goes from uncomfortable to unnecessary pretty quickly.

Cars and bikes are vital here, though it seems that the motorcycle stunts could have been jazzed up a bit, and we certainly expected more cameos than the mandatory one near the end. The original series thrived on being ‘tongue in cheek’, and Mr. Shepard’s version brings new meaning to the phrase. The opening credits state “The California Highway Patrol does not endorse this film. At all.” It’s an understandable stance.

watch the trailer:

 


MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016)

June 2, 2016

maggies plan Greetings again from the darkness. A significant portion of Woody Allen’s film career has been projects that seem designed to appeal to (sometimes only) the New York intellectual sub-culture. You know the type … those who thrive on talking (incessantly) about all the things they know, often without really accomplishing anything themselves. They are the kind of people we usually laugh at, rather than with. Filmmaker Rebecca Miller appears ready to accept the passing of the Woody Allen baton, and at a minimum, her latest is heavily influenced by his comedic-brain food.

Ms. Miller casts perfectly for her first film in six plus years (The Secret Life of Pippa Lee, 2009). Greta Gerwig plays Maggie, whose ever-evolving “plan” is both the title and focus of the film. Ethan Hawke plays John, the middle-aged crisis guy who wants desperately to be showered with attention. Julianne Moore plays Georgette, John’s slightly odd and brilliant wife, and mother to their two kids. Other key players include Travis Fimmel as Guy, a pickle entrepreneur and the center piece to Maggie’s master plan; Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as friends and confidants of Maggie; and Wallace Shawn, always a treat on screen.

The story starts out pretty simple, and then gets complicated, and then kind of loses focus before ending just right. Perpetually whining Maggie has admittedly given up on ever finding the kind of true love that results in a happy family. Because of this, she has recruited former schoolmate and math whiz and pickle dude Guy to supply the missing link for her artificial insemination. This leads to one of film’s rare cheap laughs and one that not even the quirky Gerwig can pull off. A payroll mishap brings Maggie and aspiring novelist John (a ‘ficto-critical anthropologist’ by trade) together, and her willingness to read his writing and offer some support, is all it takes to finish off John’s slowly disintegrating marriage to Georgette (Ms. Moore dusting off the Euro accent she used in The Big Lebowski).

Writer/director Miller is the daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote Death of a Salesman and was once married to Marilyn Monroe (after Joe DiMaggio). She also directed The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which starred her husband, Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Much of her latest film feels contrived and over-written … as if every scene carries the burden of generating a laugh out loud moment. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the ultra talented Julianne Moore creates the most interesting character, though unfortunately, she has the least amount of screen time among the three leads. It’s good for a few laughs, as well as some cringing … and an ending that actually works.

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:

 

 


THE WAY WAY BACK (2013)

July 13, 2013

way way1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those indies that has all the pieces in place to be not just a terrific “little” movie, but also a surprise box office hit.  It played well at festivals, critics love it, it has a very talented cast, it mixes humor with human emotion, and the co-directors and co-writers won an Oscar (with Alexander Payne) for writing the script to The Descendants.  It even offers the often effective coming-of-age story line in regards to Duncan (played by Liam James) as a miserable 14 year old stuck at a beach house with him mom, her obnoxious boyfriend and his snobby daughter.

The movie has a touch of “The Wonder Years” (without the narrator), but it’s a bit more caustic thanks to Steve Carell, who plays Trent, the condescending and bullying boyfriend who has no redeeming qualities that we can see (other than an inherited beach house and a nice tan).  It’s very unusual to see Carell in the “bad guy” role, but once you accept it, his lines and way way3lies cut through each scene.  Duncan’s mom is played by Toni Collette, and her character Pam is a divorced, insecure single mom trying to balance her own happiness with that of her teen-angst-filled son. Pam and Duncan are the outsiders in this beach community as we quickly learn when next door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) barges across property lines (and personal space) with drink in hand and gossip flying.

Feeling further humiliated by his encounters with Betty’s cute daughter, Duncan finally gains a ray of hope thanks to Owen, the man-child manager of the Water Wizz park.  Sam Rockwell plays Owen, and quickly becomes a mentor to him by offering him a job and what I call … Water Wizzdom.  Of course, Duncan keeps the job a secret from the others in his life, and since they are mostly oblivious to his long absences, it proves again how self-centered the adults are in this little would-be family.

way way2 The well worn movie signs are all here … we recognize the characters and their struggles, in fact, we all know someone like each of the people that co-writers and co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash present to us. We understand quickly that this is yet another coming-of-age tale with mostly clueless adults, and kids trying to cope on their own. Despite that, this one still mostly works. The writing and acting are such high quality that even though we are living in movie cliché-land, we still find ourselves caring about Duncan and Pam, laughing at Owen, and tossing tomatoes at Trent (Carell).

Special recognition to Sam Rockwell. Even though Duncan is the key character, it’s Rockwell’s Owen who recognizes that a little faith and encouragement goes a long way. Behind the facade of rapid-fire banter and laugh-inducing one-liners, Owen is coming to grips with a life of reality and shattered dreams. While never stooping to the typical Hollywood “win one for the Gipper” speech, Owen manages to instill a bit of confidence in Duncan … to the point where he refuses to let his mother pretend everything is OK with Trent.

way way4 AnnaSophia Robb plays the cute girl-next-door who recognizes potential in Duncan, but the filmmakers never allow this to turn into some ridiculous fairy tale. Instead we get characters who are each flawed, but real and recognizable. While all the typical pieces are present, there is enough crackle to the dialogue and quality acting to help this one rise above the usual muck. It’s a nice “little” alternative to the giant summer blockbusters. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have shown again that they have a gift for dialogue and now a talent for guiding actors.  In this, their directorial debut, they prove that they also have skills as filmmakers. We should expect the next one to be even better!

**NOTE: you may think this looks like another Little Miss Sunshine, but it really flips the percentages in comedy vs drama

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: quirkiness and caustic dialogue mixed with some humorous and familiar coming-of-age moments are what you are looking for this summer movie season OR you want to see Steve Carell play something other than a nice guy

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: if you are seeking light-hearted summer fluff … this one is filled with uncomfortable family drama

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qoaVUdbWMs


FRIENDS WITH KIDS (2012)

March 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Evidently this is a movie for thirty-somethings who need more ammunition to defend their decisions to avoid marriage and parenthood. At least that’s the best case I can come up with … otherwise it’s just a bitter, caustic view of those two topics. It’s pretty obvious from the opening scene where the relationship story is headed, but it’s not an easy road for us viewers.

This movie belongs to Jennifer Westfeldt. She wrote the script, directed the movie and stars as the woman who decides to have a baby with her platonic friend (Adam Scott). These two are part of a group of six close knit friends in Manhattan who start out doing everything together and telling each other everything. One of the couples (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) announce “We’re pregnant” and promptly move to Brooklyn. The other married couple (Jon Hamm, Krisen Wiig) start out by attempting to break all Guiness records for sex, and end up evolving into something a bit less exciting.

 The two platonic friends decide to “beat the system” by sharing parenting responsibilities while pursuing separate dating lives until they find “the right person”. Westfeldt has a Lisa Kudrow quality about her that doesn’t play well with me. She was the star and writer of Kissing Jessica Stein, and has been in a relationship with Jon Hamm since 1998.  Here she comes across as insecure and awkward, and not nearly as smart as she would like to believe. Adam Scott (brilliant on “Parks and Recreation“) is quite the ladies man and also views himself as smarter than the masses. Westfeldt finds a “perfect” guy in Edward Burns, and Scott finds happiness with Megan Fox. Of course, you still know where all of this is headed.

 What struck me throughout the film was how every scene and every character was just a bit off. Nothing really worked. Jon Hamm has one really nice scene where he is intoxicated and really stirs the pot at a group dinner. Kristen Wiig has very few lines and spends the movie sulking. Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd have a couple of decent scenes, but mostly the film has little insight to offer and no characters with whom you would like to connect. 

*note: Some critics think more highly of this movie than I, and have even compared it to Woody Allen‘s best work.  As always, the opinions expressed above are my own, and your actual mileage may vary.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to watch a group of friends who don’t get along so well OR you seek further justification for you decision to avoid marriage and/or parenthood

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have already discovered that, contrary to the movie’s poster tag, that maturity dissolves the need to pick two from: Love, Happiness, Kids

Watch the trailer:


BRIDESMAIDS

May 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Kristen Wiig is everywhere these days! If you don’t know the name, you certainly know her face. She is credited with 26 projects since 2009 – and that doesn’t even count her weekly work on Saturday Night Live. She is the new Tina Faye … even though the “old” Tina Faye is still going very strong.

While I have little doubt that the success of The Hangover was a driving force behind the green lighting of this film, Ms. Wiig’s writing and acting talent elevate this mixture of chick-flick and comedy into one of the finest female film comedies in quite awhile. That’s probably not strong enough praise since the category is a bit sparse, but as a guy who gets really tired of the formulaic chick-flick rom-coms and sappy dramas, I found the film to be quite refreshing and entertaining.

 Sure, there are many similarities between this and The Hangover, but the difference is that the key element of female friendship is never far away from the often raunchy comedy we are witnessing. Women so value their BFF’s and Ms. Wiig and her writing partner Annie Mumolo (seen as a nervous plane passenger) never lose sight of this.

Also key to any group of female activity is the competitive nature and envious mutterings. They try so hard to appear happy for their friends, when often they are blinded by the current funk in which they find their own life. And look out when a beautiful, rich “new” friend enters the picture. The real fireworks begin … even in the battle for the last word on the mic at the engagement party! I am not going to give away any of the punchlines or set-ups, but I will highlight the cast. Maya Rudolph is Lillian, the bride to be and lifelong friend of Annie (Wiig); Ellie Kemper (The Office) is Becca, the goody-two shoes newlywed; Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911) is Rita, the bitter, frustrated long-time mother and wife looking for inspiration; Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly, Gilmore Girls) is Megan, the slapstick, gross-out comedy relief; Rose Byrne is Helen, the aforementioned seemingly perfect “new” friend; Chris O’Dowd (Blind Swordsman in Dinner for Schmucks) is Officer Rhodes, the nice guy who has a crush on Annie; Jon Hamm (Mad Men) as Annie’s Porsche driving bootie call; and Jill Clayburgh (her final film role) as Annie’s mom.

The film is produced by comedy expert Judd Apatow and directed by Paul Feig.  Mr. Feig was the creator of “Freaks and Geeks” and has been involved in most of the best TV comedies over the past 7 or 8 years.  Oddly enough, he also wrote and directed one of my favorite lost gems from 2003 called I Am David.  It’s a drama, not a comedy, but I recommend it.

Here is hoping Ms. Wiig continues to push the boundaries of creative comedy for women. I for one look forward to seeing women on screen as more than just love interests and femme fatales.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are starved for a real comedy with real women characters (written by women) OR you always wondered what a female Zach Galifianakis would look like

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hated The Hangover OR you prefer your chick flicks to be melodramatic and sappy, rather than raunchy and real