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    Home / College Guide / January 2022
     Posted on Saturday, January 15 @ 00:00:05 PST
    College

    LICORICE PIZZA (2021) Paul Thomas Anderson’s mash-up of his and his boyhood friend’s recollections of 1970s Southern California, filled with so many appealing moments, fails over and over again to turn those scenes into a coherent, emotionally meaningful movie. Like too many films in the last 20 years, “Licorice Pizza” works as great trailer but disappoints when it spools out over two hours. The movie opens with a cherry bomb going off in the boys’ restroom and a long tracking shot of self-assured child actor Gary Valentine making time with photographer’s assistant Alana Kane as he waits in line to have his yearbook photo taken. Gary, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper, impresses the older girl (played by Alana Haim of the pop trio Haim, who Anderson has directed videos for) enough that she meets him at his regular hangout, the Studio City restaurant Tail o’ the Cock, a popular spot for Hollywood celebrities, and lesser lights, for decades before closing in the 1980s. Not long after, Gary arranges for Alana to be his adult chaperone on a trip to New York to promote a movie he appeared in (Christine Ebersole plays a tough-talking, barely disguised Lucille Ball), but the truth is that his acting career has stalled.

    But this film isn’t interested in what Gary, an actor tossed aside by Hollywood, feels about his fate. Instead, he’s soon opening a waterbed store, a plotline that goes nowhere. Later, Alana volunteers for a candidate running for L.A. mayor and Gary opens a pinball arcade, more episodes that Anderson doesn’t even attempt to connect to the central story of the young couple. The two talked-about sequences that are responsible for the film’s mostly positive reviews center on real-life Hollywood figures, hair dresser turned producer Jon Peters and William Holden (called Jack here), one of the biggest midcentury movie stars. Holden (a spot-on performance by Sean Penn) is introduced when Alana auditions for “Breezy,” (a role played in the real film by Kay Lenz) a 1973 Holden movie. The 57-year-old actor makes a play for Alana and they end up at Tail o’ the Cock (where else?). It’s an amusing episode until Tom Waits shows up, playing a producer friend of Holden, who rants incoherently and then leads the restaurant patrons outside to watch Holden make a motorcycle jump. The episode featuring Peters (an outrageously over-the-top Bradley Cooper)—reportedly approved by the still-living producer—involves the delivery of a waterbed, Peters running out of gas in the midst of rationing and, like Holden, putting the moves on Alana.

    I’m not sure, but maybe the creepy old guys hitting on Alana helps to mitigate the idea that she’s a 25-year-old hanging out with high schoolers. Cooper’s best moment—seen prominently in the trailer—isn’t used (it does show up in the closing credits) and the overly long sequence ends without resolving what happens to Peters. The scenes also include a flamboyant assistant to Peters, whose portrayal is patently offensive. Though he’s not as bad as a restaurant owner, played by John Michael Higgins, who speaks to his Japanese wives in English with a Japanese dialect right out of a World War II movie. Both seem to be used for cheap laughs, not making any social point. In other words: the film is a hodgepodge of events that apparently happened to Anderson’s friend Gary Goetzman (now a producer in partnership with Tom Hanks), held together by the off-and-on relationship between Gary and Alana. It most reminded me of a Roger Corman film from that era, where the only glue to the craziness is the smart-ass high school student. Haim does her best to hold the film together, her screen presence for a newcomer is impressive, but Cooper Hoffman has zero acting skills, creating a huge void throughout the picture.

    To say this is a long way from “Phantom Thread” or “There Will Be Blood,” both starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is an understatement. In some ways, it resembles Anderson failed hippie private eye film “Inherent Vice,” which also kept teasing viewers with amusing scenes. Like Quentin Tarantino with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Anderson’s passion for his nostalgic milieu—the alluring fringe of the movie business—serves as a weak substitute for storytelling. “Licorice Pizza” offers an impeccable recreation of the era but has nothing to say about it. PETER BOGDANOVICH (1939-2022) Few filmmakers have managed, for better or worse, to entangle their personal lives with their profession to such an extent as Peter Bogdanovich, who died this month at the age of 82. Yet no matter how many times scandals or financial problems sent his film career spiraling, he re-emerged for yet another act in his bumpy ride of a life. Though he dropped out of high school, he found work writing about film for various magazines in the early 1960s, leading to the crucial gig of his early life: interviewing legendary filmmakers about their careers for a Museum of Modern Art film retrospective.

    After soaking in the knowledge of the masters—John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and, most importantly, Orson Welles—and then serving a four-year stint in the Roger Corman company (as did Jack Nicholson, Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, among many others), Bogdanovich was primed for success by the end of the 1960s. His official directorial debut was for Corman on “Targets” (1968), an underrated gem about a psycho who goes on a shooting rampage that also features Boris Karloff as an aging movie star. During this period he also had a role in Welles unfinished film “Written on the Wind,” which Bogdanovich helped reconstruct and engineer its released in 2018. Then, at age 32, he directed the film he’ll forever be remembered for, “The Last Picture Show” (1971), based on Larry McMurtry’s novella. The movie earned eight Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director. This heartbreaking black-and-white tone poem about the death of small-town America hasn’t aged a bit and remains among the half-dozen finest Hollywood films made in the past 50 years. A hard act to follow, but Bogdanovich kept the box-office hits coming, with two comedies, “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972) with Barbra Streisand and “Paper Moon” (1973) with Ryan O’Neal and his young daughter Tatum.

    But the magic disappeared when he tried to elevate the career of his girlfriend Cybill Shepherd (he “discovered” her for “Last Picture Show”) with “Daisy Miller” (1974) and a musical “At Long Last Love” (1975), both of which bombed. Over the next 20 years, he directed two good films, “Saint Jack” (1979) starring Ben Gazzara as a Hong Kong hustler and “Texasville” (1990), a sequel to “The Last Picture Show,” with Jeff Bridges returning as Duane in a superb performance. But the key film for Bogdanovich in this period was “They All Laughed,” a 1981 comedy starring the director’s latest love, Playboy model Dorothy Stratten. Before the film was released her jealous husband shot her to death. (Her tragic story was the basis for Bob Fosse’s 1983 film “Star 80.”) When “They All Laughed” did poorly, Bogdanovich bought the film from the studio (an unheard-of move) and tried to release it himself. He later penned a book about Stratten that accused Playboy magazine’s Hugh Hefner as contributing to the woman’s death and then married Stratten’s younger sister. The scandal all but destroyed the director’s career. By the 1990s, he was making TV movies and struggling to stay financially afloat—at one point he was reportedly living in Quentin Tarantino’s guesthouse.

    But he kept remaking himself. In the new century, he took up the mantle of the spokesman for the great directors and films of the 20 th Century (He published a collection of his interviews with those filmmakers in 1997, “Who the Devil Made It.”) His last film of note was “The Cat Meow” (2001), about the suspicious death of silent film producer Thomas Ince while aboard William Randolph Hearst yacht. It was a story right up Bogdanovich’s alley. Always elegantly dressed with his signature kerchief—a New Yorker profiled described him as looking like Thurston Howell III---the filmmaker never lost his smug, sardonic tone and never tired of discussing his friendship with Welles and others. While he wasn’t a great director and often a comical figure, Peter Bogdanovich did make one masterpiece and, just as valuable, remained the living link between modern Hollywood and those 20 th Century giants that the industry was built upon. THE LOST DAUGHTER (2021) Every time I came close to dismissing the film’s main character Leda as a spoiled curmudgeon, actress Olivia Colman (and Jessie Buckley as her younger self) brought out another aspect of this complex, unstable and fascinating woman.

    The actresses dominate this thinly plotted, sketch of a film, the directing debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Sherrybaby,” “Crazy Heart”). We first are introduced to the 48-year-old version of Leda, a college professor, when she arrives at a sea-side cottage in Greece for a summer vacation and soon is forced to share the small beach with a large, boisterous American family. When the young daughter of the family gets lost, Leda’s connection to this rowdy, bickering group grows, but more importantly it brings back her memories of her own struggles as a young mother and her conflicting desires when she was in her 20s. As young Leda’s academic career flourishes, her interest in being a stay-at-home mother and homemaker withers. And almost 30 years later, she is still grappling with the decisions she made. Which may, or may not, explain some of the odd behavior displayed by this seemingly stable teacher. While Colman, who won an Oscar playing an unstable 18 th Century queen in “The Favourite” in 2018, and Buckley, memorable as the unhappy fiancé in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” are the movie’s focus, the supporting cast is just as interesting. The always distinctive Ed Harris plays the caretaker of the rental, Dakota Johnson is the young mother who mirrors Leda’s youth, Paul Mescal plays a college student working at the resort and Peter Sarsgaard portrays a self-assured professor who meets young Leda at a conference.

    Based on a novel by acclaimed Italian writer Elena Ferrante, the film explores motherhood in complexities rarely seen on screen, where mothers are typically saints or sinners, but offers more questions than answers about this conflicted woman. TWENTY PLUS TWO (1961) This low-budget, well-plotted black-and-white crime film starring TV star David Janssen, a picture that was seen by virtually nobody when it was released and has been nearly unseen since, would make my Top 10 if it was a 2021 movie. For Janssen, who had just finished a four-year run as “Richard Diamond, Private Eye” and was two years away from “The Fugitive,” “Twenty Plus Two” was among his first starring film roles. Oddly, he doesn’t play a detective but a specialist who seeks out missing persons who have inherited money. Tom Alder’s interest in a 12-year-old case is revived when the murdered secretary of a movie star’s fan club has a collection of clips about the missing girl. He tracks down the star, Leroy Dane (a miscast Brad Dexter), but also runs into Linda, an old girlfriend (Jeanne Crain) and her friend Nicki (Dina Merrill). Soon Tom is jetting around the country in search of clues and keeps running into Dane, Linda and Nicki.

    Shot like a TV series (with way too many shots of airplanes taking off and landing) and directed with little style by Joseph M. Newman, a longtime second unit director who made dozens of B-movies in the 1950s and ‘60s, the film comes to a head-scratching halt during a dreamy flashback to a Japanese hostess bar when Janssen’s Alder was in the military. It all but undercuts the believability of the story. Yet interesting characters keep showing up to prop up Janssen’s flailing investigation, most prominently William Demarest and Agnes Moorehead, two of Hollywood’s finest supporting players, and Jacques Aubuchon, a low-budget, but entertaining Sidney Greenstreet-type. Demarest plays a down-and-out alcoholic newspaper man who covered the disappearance of the young heiress, while Moorehead plays her mother. Aubuchon mysteriously shows up in the midst of Jansson’s investigation, clearly more involved in the situation than he lets on. “Twenty Plus Two”—the poster tagline was “20 mysterious clues plus 2 beautiful women”—is nothing special; a second-rate programmer no different than dozens of others released that year. But in retrospect, basic filmmaking and solid, professional acting added up to so much more than all the tech advantages that dominate contemporary movies.

    THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (2021) Set mostly in a spare, bleak, sterile rendering of Inverness Castle, Joel Coen’s vision of Shakespeare’s Scottish play of unrestrained ambition that drives the principals to insanity keeps coming back to the faces of the Macbeths. For most of its 105 minutes, the film has the feel of a filmed stage play, unadorned by any attempt to open up the production. The stifling atmosphere as doom closes in on the blood-thirsty couple is palatable, enhanced by the shadows and light of Bruno Delbonnel’s black and white cinematography. The production most closely resembles the Shakespeares of Orson Welles, especially his cobbled together, but brilliant, “Othello.” But central to Coen’s film—a long way from his and his brother’s more commercial movies—is the superb performances of Denzel Washington as Macbeth, the recently named Thane of Cawdor and Frances McDormand as his blood-thirsty wife who sees bigger things for her husband. While both actors are too old for the roles (traditionally, the couple has been played by actors in their 30s) they make you forget that problem with emotional readings of some of the greatest speeches ever written. These performances just add to the legacy of these two great actors.

    Only the two scenes featuring the weird sisters who prophesize Macbeth’s rise to power and ultimate demise (I don’t think there’s a need for a spoiler alert for the almost 400-year-old play—next year is the anniversary) and the killing of Banquo, Macbeth’s close friend who knows too much, offer a break from the barren castle surroundings. The Bard’s Early Modern English (no SparkNotes version here) might be hard to follow for those whose high school curriculum skipped over “Macbeth”; this probably isn’t the best version to be introduced to the play as it focuses so intently on the words. While I enjoyed the new film more than the 2015 version, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, which lacked the verve the play thrives on, that version is probably better suited to general audiences. It’s a deceptively simple tale of a returning warrior who is told by witches that he’ll soon be king, spurring his wife to devise a plan to make it come true. But nothing good comes of it as what follows is all “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The supporting cast doesn’t have much of a chance to distinguish themselves, though Brendan Gleeson’s King Duncan is properly royal, Alex Hassell brings out the cautiously disloyal character of Ross and Corey Hawkins shows the inner fury of Macbeth’s chief rival, Macduff.

    If Coen had thoughts of improving on the Bard’s play, he restrained himself. Even the color-blind casting doesn’t change anything about the play. But I certainly would have applauded some additional scenes with Lady Macbeth, one of the most fascinating characters in English literature, who disappears in the second half of the play. Did the world need another movie version of “Macbeth”? Probably not, but for me, Coen’s film felt like a welcomed visit from an old friend. “Macbeth” remains my favorite Shakespearean play, as vital today as it was five centuries ago. DON’T LOOK UP (2021) Adam McKay’s latest satire uses a fictional catastrophe—a very large comet is headed straight for Earth---to skewer the manner in which every issue, be it climate change or COVID, are turned into a political debate, reducing life and death issues into agenda items. The film, written with knives out by McKay and David Sirota, manages to be both entertaining and depressing as all the so-called responsible parties—the media, the White House and business leaders—treat the apocalyptic event as a way to improve their imagine or make money. Jennifer Lawrence, in one of her best performances and sporting shockingly red hair, plays doctoral student Kate Dibiasky, who first spots the celestial event and reports it to her astronomy professor, Dr.

    Randall Mindy (an inauspicious looking Leonardo DiCaprio). Once they are sure of the trajectory of the comet, they, along with a NASA scientist (Rob Morgan) take their concerns to the White House. There they find a scandal-plagued president (Meryl Streep) and an arrogant chief of staff (Jonah Hill), who all but laugh the scientists out of the Oval Office. (In a bit of offhanded commentary, a Pentagon general makes the three of them pay for what turns out to be free water and chips—not unlike those $500 screwdrivers.) Frustrated and astonished by the lack of concern, Kate and Randall take their story to the press and eventually to a highly rated morning show (hilariously hosted by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry), during which Kate flips out at the dimwitted anchors and becomes the object of ridiculing memes. Even when the president decides to take action, the plan is compromised by the dictates of socially awkward, but beloved tech businessman Peter Isherwell (an unforgettable Mark Rylance) who runs BASH Cellular that bears striking resemblance to Facebook and Apple. Turns out, there are billions to be made from the comet---as long as it doesn’t destroy the planet. For DiCapro, Streep and the rest of the cast, this film is clearly a political statement on the dire state of American resolve, but it never becomes didactic or outrageous; the characters and the reactions are completely believable considering what we’ve gone through in the last six years.

    One of the most important points the film makes is how we’ve come to judge those who offer information by their appearance and manner. We now expect well-spoken, attractive, media savvy spokespeople on our TV screens before we’ll take a message seriously. DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy needs a quick redo before anyone listens to his warnings. British stage actor Rylance, who won an Oscar for his turn as an imprisoned spy in “Bridge of Spies,” gives one of the year’s best performances, simply mesmerizing as the social media guru who bamboozles the president and the executive branch into become sycophants for his ludicrous plans. While “Don’t Look Up” can’t match the inventiveness or overall quality of McKay two previous satires, “The Big Short” (2015), about the housing crash, and Vice” (2018), an offbeat look at Dick Cheney’s manipulative reign as VP, it’s a long way from his early Will Farrell slap-stick comedies. His next film is a look at the Elizabeth Holmes case, starring Lawrence. NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021) This updated, more venal, version of one of the most interesting pictures of the 1940s, features a superb cast and first-rate production design, but time has taken much of the bite out of the amoral sliminess of main character Stan Carlisle.

    The original version, made just a year after William Lindsay Gresham’s novel was published, starred Tyrone Power, 1930s matinee idol trying to change his on-screen image, as a carny who perfects a mind-reading act, becoming a popular nightclub performer with his wife. Bradley Cooper, who seems to star in an Oscar contender every year, portrays Stan, in this version clearly identified as a drifter with a shady past before he joins the carnival. One of the most interesting plot developments of the film is his relationship with Zeena (Toni Collette), a sexy psychic and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), who struggles to contribute to the act. After Pete’s suspicious death due to alcohol poisoning, Stan becomes part of Zeena’s act. But he has eyes on Molly (Rooney Mara), who has her own act as the electricity girl, and soon they leave the carnival to strike out on their own. Director Guillermo del Toro’s version is a great ride when the action centers on the carny, with such characters as Ron Perlman’s blustery strongman, Willem Dafoe’s sleazy owner of the traveling show and Paul Anderson as the chicken-eating geek. But once Stan and Molly move to the big-time and Stan turns into a diva, the film loses its steam.

    The key character of the movie’s second half is psychologist Lilith Ritter (played in 1947 by minor actress Helen Walker), who hooks up with Stan in a scheme to bilk big money from the city’s elite. Cate Blanchett gives a rare bad performance as Lilith, ridiculously slinking around her office like a teen playing dress-up. The over-heated interaction between Lilith and Stan never makes sense, rendering the last act reversal hard to buy. Most of the acting is uniformly fine, with Bradley equaling Power’s characterization of Stan’s roller coast life and Strathairn giving real depth to Pete, the once-skilled conman now reduced to a pitiful figure. Del Toro and his director of photography Dan Laustsen are in their element while capturing the carny atmosphere, but their slick filmmaking can’t overcome the story flaws of the second half. Photos: Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in “Licorice Pizza.” (United Artists) Peter Bogdanovich in 2014. (Associated Press) Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” (A24)

     
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