Thursday, November 25, 2021

licorice pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few contemporary filmmakers of my life so far where I can distinctly remember the experience of seeing their movies for the first time in the theater (with the exception of Hard Eight, which I watched on DVD later, and loved). All of his movies have that indelible immersive quality, and one that sometimes causes a jolt to the soul--they have a punchy immediacy, and sometimes take a few days to brew over. His rambling, nostalgic yarn Licorice Pizza, has that intoxicating effect--and most vivid is Alana Haim's extraordinary performance. Besides Lily Tomlin in Nashville, I can't think of another American actor whose fallen face can render so much heartbreak in a scene. Anderson's movie, hits all kinds of moods, and is mostly a joyful spin, full of dark or dusk-lit winding roads of its early 70s San Fernando Valley setting. Often characters are passionately running towards something--many times purely unfulfilling dashes. Sometimes we go to the movies for the pleasurable experience of escaping the unfulfilling dashes of the everyday, otherwise we go to relate to seeing that feeling evoked onscreen (True love seed in the autumn ground / When will it be found? Nina Simone sings on the main titles song "July Tree"--True love deep in the winter white snow / How long will it take to grow?).

Cooper Hoffman (the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of Anderson's muses) as teenaged child actor Gary Valentine looks old for his age--stocky and tall--with disheveled reddish hair, a ruddy, pimply countenance, and ill-fitting clothes (in one humorous scene where Maya Rudolph pops up--one of the movie's many actorly cameos, he auditions for a clothing ad, with much smaller kids). He's also a bit more audacious for kids his age--an unabashed "showman" and entrepreneur at heart. Perhaps knowing his child acting days are numbered, he seeks the next trend to exploit and quickly turn into a business, from waterbeds to pinball machines. His character's drive reminded me of Don Cheadle's lovable Buck in Boogie Nights, who desperately tries to hawk the latest stereo systems (and is also late-to-the party to the clothing "crazes" of the late 70s into the early 80s--knowing, eventually, it will come back). Gary's relationship with Alana (Haim), is as twisty and uphill and downhill as those Valley roads, many in small gestures and moments (awkward phone calls where Anderson elicits the way breathing and talking really sounded through those rotary phones). But Anderson also takes a more broad approach with big set-up scenes, mostly connected with cinema, with craggy, rugged Jack (William) Holden (Sean Penn) and cigar-chompy director Rex Blau (a very good and commanding Tom Waits--reminiscent of Ned Beatty)--an age of spectacle Hollywood withering on its vine; and another compelling odyssey with fiery, eccentric, coked-up producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper)--a man emblematic of a blossoming Hollywood generation. The 1973 oil crisis also plays a pivotal role in the film (David Bowie's grand "Life on Mars?" figuring against a line of those large, looming backed-up 70s vehicles). Like any big event, the consequences can unknowingly creep up on us, becoming entangled in our lives, but also having ramifications that go beyond ourselves and our citizenry. These small moments and sweeping diversions, ultimately prove that Gary and Alana are as mismatched as the title suggests (also a chain of record stores of the period, before Sam Goody bought them out), largely since Alana is over ten years older than him. And yet, there is a gnawing, zig-zagging bond between them.

Haim's performance is certainly the standout in this saga, the emotional through line and anchor. It's both her presence--a very un-movie star look (as Harriet Sansom Harris' agent character willfully scrutinizes)--and her line deliveries and physicality which feel so unfussy and natural. Hoffman is a perfect foil, because he doesn't pop as much onscreen: his character's age, limited view and somewhat emotional flatness--is exactly what he portrays. One of the things that's exciting in the best Paul Thomas Anderson movies, is that there's always really delicious performances across the board, even the tiniest turns (in that respect, immediately April Grace comes to mind, who as a delicately probing interviewer in Magnolia, levels out a very loquacious Tom Cruise; here, John C. Reilly and his unmistakable voice in Fred Gwynne Munsters get-up at a tragic teeny bop expo made an impression, and the audience laugh, in just a few seconds). Anderson tends to fit a lot (too much?) in his movies, and there are some winking moments which feel as if he's laughing to himself (some of the Japanese restaurant moments, despite a dedicated John Michael Higgins). The film is cut by Andy Jurgensen and the editing within scenes is beautifully done. The 70mm presentation of this movie is definitely special and precious (the cinematography is by Anderson and Michael Bauman)--a shot of Alana and Gary on a glowing gray waterbed, makes them look as if they are on the surface of the moon. Both Jurgensen and Bauman have worked departmentally with Anderson before, but these are their first full-length feature credits as editor and cinematographer. Even though we've seen a bevvy of nostalgic trips to the 70s in recent years, Anderson's piece remains distinctive, perhaps because it feels so personal. Earlier this week, I docked House of Gucci's bizarre, anachronistic music cues. Even though the early 70s people in Licorice Pizza couldn't possibly be listening to Chris Norman & scratchy-voiced Suzi Quatro's catchy '78/'79 hit "Stumblin' In" on airplane headphones, the song is almost like a dreamy recollection of a later-in-life Anderson, wistfully looking back at this time period--its lyrics of "stumbling" love perfectly encapsulating the predicament of these searching characters. ***1/2


-Jeffery Berg

Monday, November 22, 2021

house of gucci

Bless Ridley Scott for trying to keep the glossy Hollywood adult drama alive. His recent The Last Duel, a triple mirror of character perspectives, was surprisingly gripping, with a guttural, fog-drenched finale of action-packed tension. House of Gucci is far less sharp, more meandering and messy, but still, it’s a big movie that’s hard to ignore, with Lady Gaga’s brassy movie star performance as centerpiece (anecdotally, I feel like she's the main reason why people care about seeing this to begin with). The new MGM logo (seen first in No Time to Die) graces the screen before this movie, and there's something about it--that nostalgic roar--as a reminder of studio pictures that appealed to wide audiences of yesteryear; but also representative of the constant shifts, deaths and rebirths of corporations--this new CGI lion, emblematic of the ticky-tacky era of blockbusters we've been immersed in the past fifteen-odd years.

The first half of House of Gucci is an Italian-set 1970s meet-cute romance between Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and Patrizia (Lady Gaga), from their vastly different worlds. Scott, not known for subtlety, fires up the film with obvious foreshadowing--the Gucci empire, partly in the hands of Maurizio's  dour, terribly chilly father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), and it should be noted that he has a cough (an omen in any old-fashioned movie--and one awaits his demise for the plot to move forward). Obviously, he's not going to be approving of a daughter of a middling truck company business or a woman who doesn't know the difference between his Klimt and a Picasso. Soon we meet the more gregarious Aldo (Al Pacino), Rodolfo's brother, who seems more accepting of Patrizi, but no less as scheming to strengthen the Gucci family. Aldo's son, Paolo (Jared Leto), is the hopeless black sheep of this clan, with dreams of becoming a designer himself. After marrying Maurizio (Scott pairs their wedding goofily to George Michael's "Faith," of all musical choices--I braced myself as I heard that familiar organ's opening strains as Patrizia walked down the aisle), Patrizia, is now entangled in the Gucci web. As the saga evolves, including Patrizia's journey into a state of deep-freeze (it's perfect that one of her more indelible looks is sipping an espresso in a fur hat and a sleek crimson-pink ski suit in Switzerland) as she falls prey to her materialistic desires, with a fierce loyalty to and protection of this brand. One should be prepared for oodles of melodramatic utterances of the word GUCCI in all varying forms of movie accents. 

Fittingly, during my screening, someone was wearing a heavy perfume that permeated the theater. House of Gucci is definitely heavy perfume, it ladles on broad strokes and broad performances. No one expects Pacino to hold back. Leto's Paolo sure is a sight to behold--I never felt as if I was watching a human being--but someone speaking rivers of dialogue with a dramatic accent through latex that seemed on the precipice of collapse. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the movie doesn't seem to be gunning for being delicate. In times where acting in dramas is very understated, I found myself enjoying the mess (and Leto's character is despairingly messy to match) unravel before my eyes. Gaga, however, finds that sweet spot between understated realism and the hyperbolic, reminiscent of Sharon Stone's flashy turn in Casino. It's a star power moment, extraordinarily watchable, with slivers of wry humor and even glimmers of pathos when she turns villainous. She pairs well with Driver, whose character is the quietest of the family members, therefore gives the more quiet performance. The dissonance between them as characters and performers is magnetic to behold. For such a meticulous craftsman, Scott's direction is wildly uneven--the film disjointedly moves from romance into stodgy corporate drama into true crime thriller and one can feel its epic runtime. The pop music cues are unfortunate and unimaginative--usually out of sync from the time-stamped years the film announces, from mismatched Donna Summer eras to the aforementioned George Michael track. The classical music choices are somewhat Olive Garden-y, if plucked from a "World's Greatest Classical Music" CD. Despite some of its pedestrian notes, House of Gucci, is no less fun to watch, thanks mostly to Lady Gaga's layered turn (when she's off-screen, you want her back!); and once the film treads in a more melancholic space in the finale, there's a sad wistfulness to it that sneaks up on you unexpectedly, making the whole jumble feel emotionally worthwhile. *** 


-Jeffery Berg

Friday, November 19, 2021

king richard


The traditional biopic has become a stale genre--especially with the sophistication and ubiquity of documentaries--so filmmakers and screenwriters seem to be finding new angles to tell stories of real people. In King Richard, we watch the rise of Venus and Serena Williams as young women through the lens of their father (Will Smith). Richard Williams is a character: Louisiana-bred with an eccentric personality. He's tough, and a disciplinarian entrenched in molding his two daughters (Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney, both excellent despite the slim material to work with) into professional tennis players. His wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) works a a nurse, and is usually exasperated with Richard, throwing her hands up in the air, but also loving, and when she feels she needs to speak her mind to him, she does (as in a strong scene where he drops off their young daughters at a mini mart to teach them a lesson about humility and drives off, much to Brandy's dismay). Those little moments between the family like when Richard makes them watch Cinderella, quizzing them on what they have learned, are the funnier and poignant parts of the movie, and Smith shines in his low-key performance (much more low-key and natural, in a good way, than I expected given the physical transformation and styling, the emotionally-manipulative editing of the movie's trailer and the heated hype surrounding his Oscar prospects). The supporting cast does nice work too--Ellis never feels like she's giving a performance, she is just so naturally present. And Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal (who gave a completely different turn in this year's The Many Saints of Newark) are both effective as Williams' influential coaches. Set in early 90s Compton, the film has the feel of the times in costumes and vibe--the CNN broadcast of Rodney King's beating on the TV set ("at least they got them on tape this time," Brandy remarks) juxtaposed with a scene of Nancy Reagan promoting her "Just Say No" campaign. The film is shot by Robert Elswit, and it has his signature polished look (the greenery and those neon tennis balls really pop). 

The only problem is that the movie, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, is unfortunately, fairly dull and somewhat inert, with few moments of dramatic conflict, or much driving urgency. It does nail its ending though, with an effectively-wrought final match and a rousing Beyoncé track (Couldn't wipe this black off if I tried, she sings fervently, That's why I lift my head with pride) over the credits with the obligatory real-people-footage. For those who want a story that focuses more on the lives and emotions of the young Williams sisters, you probably won't get much here, as this is more Richard's story, but this film is ultimately a quaint family picture of unwavering, dogged perseverance. **1/2 


-Jeffery Berg

Sunday, November 14, 2021

a hero


Asghar Farhadi continues his streak of affecting, labyrinthine moral tales in contemporary Iran in his new film A Hero. On a few days leave from jail, Rahim (Amir Jadidi), along with a companion, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), who he has been seeing in secret, hatch a plan to help pay off his debts. A purse of gold and an unexpected elevation to "heroic," local celebrity status for doing a "good deed," further complicates Rahim's situation. 

Farhadi's films tend to be fascinating journeys--a glimpse of ordinary predicaments in Iran that few see on film around the world. Like his other works, A Hero, is plainly presented as domestic drama: there is little flair about the camerawork, nor much of a musical score. We see drab, non-fussed-over interiors and landscapes. Its elaborateness and tensions lie within the twisting storyline, like a revolving vortex gathering force in the middle of the picture. 

There are many multi-dimensional aspects to Farhadi's characters that add to the movie's authenticity and wavering sympathies. A character who may present themselves one way [such as a child obnoxiously playing video games (Saleh Karimai, who as Rahim's son, is excellent)], suddenly figures in a new light, a new perspective. Jadidi in particular is subtle and effective, with an adroit ability to switch facial expressions to the emotional tenor of his scenes. When he becomes angry, it's palpable: his once placid disposition suddenly turned, in conjunction with the wheels of the script, to create stirring conflict. The desperation of his life hums on, his fear of returning to jail, his inability to pay off an exorbitant debt, even as the ordinary, mundane lives of his friends and family persist.

While A Hero is intricately designed, it's somewhat shapeless as a movie. I had wished it had been trimmed down from its two-hour running time for a greater feeling of potency. Occasionally it gets a bit mired, muddled and repetitive; perhaps that feeling of spinning in place is part of its point, mirroring Rahim's predicament, though Farhadi's masterpiece A Separation somehow seemed to be able to do similar heavy lifting while also urgently pressing forward. In fact, while none of Farhadi's subsequent work so far has matched the tautness and suspense of A Separation, each new film has been an important and eye-opening experience. ***

-Jeffery Berg


Friday, November 12, 2021

belfast

Perhaps it's reductive to say because Kenneth Branagh has had such a rich career on stage, particularly with Shakespearean acting, that it makes sense he is prone to the theatrical as a director. This was particularly apparent in his recent filmmaking effort, Murder on the Orient Express: a fun, pithy Agatha Christie yarn that felt particularly hammered out and battered to bits in his adaptation. Whether or not the spectator cares and whatever his material may be, Branagh, as performer and director, is always here to put on a show with bits of winking humor. His latest Belfast, is a semi-autobiographical slice-of-life set in 1969 at the onset of the Troubles crisis, with the family of young Buddy (Jude Hill) at the center. 

In midst of swirling violence, sweaty pontifications from the church altar, scrimping and saving to pay bills, taxes and rent, the point-of-view of the film is that of Buddy's and his more wholesome concerns--including obsessing over marrying one of his classmates one day, and feeling guilty over stealing chocolate from a neighborhood candy store. Buddy's father (Jamie Dornan) is a somewhat ambiguous figure, away often, trying to make money while his mother (Caitriona Balfe) is left alone to raise Buddy and his brother. His grandmother (Judi Dench, who quietly becomes the cast standout) and ailing grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) live with him as well--poking fun, and dropping words of wit and wisdom along the way.

Kenneth Branagh seems haunted by this period in his life, and it comes across in the film's black & white photography by Haris Zambarloukos, the genteel nature of the movie and its loving treatment of its familial characters. The use songs by Van Morrison have a bright sentimental feel, and are occasionally, intrusively brassy. But Branagh's film works best when weaving in other elements of art and pop, which are presented, and stand out in color: perhaps since they are the more vivid aspects--the burning influences within Branagh's memories [Star Trek and westerns on TV (High Noon figures in a strong way), a joyous screening of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, an indelible staged viewing of A Christmas Carol (the light and colors reflected in his grandmother's glasses)]. I didn't feel the urgency of the use of  black & white photography as I did in Rebecca Hall's Passing; it's more ornamental here. Sometimes the camerawork is a bit overwrought--as it was in Murder on the Orient Express--swinging about with distracting, meaningless playing of angles.

The acting ensemble does nice work with a script (also by Branagh) that lacks depth. In one scene Hill has a meltdown--as a child of this age would-- and it cuts the cutesy nature of Buddy and his "good kid" persona to something more primal. I saw that Balfe was giving a good, sympathetic, oft-teary-eyed performance, but the film was giving her little to appear connected to--a hollowness; the handsome Dornan acts beside her, listening well, but not giving us much of a character of any distinction. Hinds is winningly charming with his salty sagacity. And Dench has always been able to do so much with a few words and expressions. My favorite scene  of the movie is fairly simple, and one that shows Branagh's strength as a student of theater--a charming moment of Hinds talking to Buddy in a cramped courtyard with Dench at the window, listening, bemused. 

There's something very vacant about Belfast. Most of the time, it just sits there on-screen without much emotional connection, and one too many predictable set-ups. Yet overall, Belfast is so innocuous and personal, it's a difficult film to knock, even if Branagh's broad strokes and big swings don't always land. ***


-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

passing

Rebecca Hall has been giving us many nuanced, varied portrayals throughout her career. She has been on Broadway in the spectral staging of the 1920 play Machinal and most notably, with numerous screen turns in Please Give, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Christine (a devastating performance and my personal Best Actress winner that year), and this year's uneven but intriguing horror film The Night House. For an actress that seems so thoughtful, so committed to her craft, and one who has shared her artistic obsessions and influences in interviews, it's exciting to see her debut as a director of a film as sublime as her adaptation of Nella Larsen's slim, but powerful, 1929 novel Passing. 

"Liminal space" can be an overused phrase in conversations about art, but Passing evokes exactly that in both its subject matter and form. The film opens in a muddled state: instinct sounds (trains, clacking shoes on pavement and voices--trailed off conversations)--with a blurry, white-gray screen. Two white women discuss getting a doll for their niece and joke about a "pickaninny" one. After dropping it to the floor, Irene (Tessa Thompson), dressed in silky white with white heels, a braided metallic necklace, the brim of her hat pulled down to shield her dark eyes, hands it to them. "What a nice lady," one of them says. This introduction of Irene is ghostly; a woman, who is visibly in stifling discomfort, not only in the summer heat, but as a black woman, in a white part of New York City. Finding refuge in a cool hotel green room, she checks her face, dabs powder to her cheek. 

And then, in one of the most evocative film introductions of a character I can think of in recent memory, Irene sees Clare (Ruth Negga) at a table across from her--a frozen gaze. Clare is passing as a white woman, married to a white man, John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgård), visiting from Chicago with plans to move to the city. Soon, through the subtle passages of time that the film invokes, Clare sends a letter to Irene ("Reenie"), and ultimately the two meet again, this time at Irene's home in Harlem where she lives comfortably, married to a doctor, Brian Redfield (André Holland) with their two sons. Irene is protective of her sons, wanting to shield them from talk of sex, and more gravely, from the violence enacted against black men across the country--the stories seeping through the newspapers Brian reads aloud. 

Irene is rightly afraid of the world outside of Harlem. Hall and cinematographer Eduard Grau paints Irene's home as warm--darkly lit with soft lamplight--and beautifully and thoughtfully decorated. As an interesting layer, Irene also has a black maid, Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins)--"Everyone needs help," Irene says to Clare, "it's normal." There is a simmer of tension between her and Zulena--an unarticulated difference. Also lit similarly are the party scenes--a joyful aspect of the Harlem Renaissance that draws whites as well, such as a famed novelist (Bill Camp). Clare behaves as if she wants to drink all of this up, live this life she's not  living or has been living. "It's my dream to come back," she tells Irene. And soon Clare seems to be getting closer and closer to Brian as well. There is even a glimmer of sexual attraction between herself and Irene. The existence and also the marriage that Irene has so painstakingly woven is shaken. Of course the actors, and Hall, present all of this in the most subtle fashion--attuned to the interiority, the richness and opaqueness of Larsen's book. 

A bold and delicate story still ninety-two years later, Hall's film is a moves through seasons without calling to much attention to itself in its transitions. This slippage of time is exquisitely wound and akin to modernist literature of Larsen's era, yet may alienate some viewers. The editing by Sabine Hoffman evokes the wavering rhythms of this tale, the "liminal spaces" of this movie as craft. 

There is almost too much to praise about Thompson and Negga here. I was surprised by Thompson in particular. I view her as a very strong contemporary actress, but her transition to such a styled and contained period piece is pulsating. It's such a vivid turn, and I felt almost every beat of her journey throughout the picture. For Negga, nothing quite kicks as much as the shocks of her opening scenes, but she ultimately gives an affecting, searing portrayal. 

Devonté Hynes (of Blood Orange), who composed a particularly good film score for Gia Coppola's Palo Alto, creates an ethereal pastiche of jazz and a gossamer piano riff. The balances between quiet, conversation, and Hynes' score is part of Passing's effective sonic landscape.

Given the symbolic nature of the story, I don't see how it could have been adapted and filmed in anything but black and white. Eduard Grau's photography is outstanding. While each shot is artfully presented, the camerawork never feels overly calculated--just natural to the feel of the movie. Grau's work also adds to visual pleasures on repeat viewings. Like the collaborations of Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist, in Passing, there are stirring symmetries, attention to details--glass, mirrors. Echoing and contrasting the gauzy opening shot of a hot summer day, the film closes with a stunning snow-blanketed screen, slowly losing its sharpness until the film cuts to black. ***1/2


-Jeffery Berg


Tuesday, November 9, 2021

retro movie love podcast: sept + oct films of '91


I joined Meep's (Michael Ferrari's) podcast, Retro Movie Love, again to talk about 1991 films! We are now on September and October movies. It's crazy that we are already almost done with the year. It's been fun to revisit and see many gems from '91!