Film Review: Licorice Pizza (dir. by Paul T. Anderson)


Age is one of those strange factors when it comes to relationships.

My Dad was 35 when he married my Mom, who was 10 years his junior. Aaron and Sam Taylor-Johnson have a 23 year age difference between each other and they’re doing fine (I hope). Florence Pugh and Zach Braff have a 21 year difference. Anna Nicole Smith was about 27 when she married a near 90 year old J. Howard Marshall. If your mind is totally shutting down on you on the age differences, I’d tell you that maybe Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza may not be for you, but to still give it a chance. The story is so well written that you’ll often forget there any kind of age differences. If that’s not a problem, the movie is more than worth your time.

A Licorice Pizza is another word for a vinyl album. Although I grew up with records (Purple Rain and Jaws were on constant rotation as a kid), I can’t say I’ve ever heard the term before.

Licorice Pizza is a love story at heart, between 15 year old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, an Anderson regular) and 25 year old Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the band Haim) set in the early 1970s. Gary’s young, but is both very curious and confident, actively looking for the next opportunity ahead of him (even if he has to create it). Alana’s successful at what she does, is resourceful in her own right and doesn’t hesitate to call someone out on their crap.

I caught Licorice Pizza on the Friday after Thankgsiving at the Village East by Angelika just below 14th Street in Manhattan. which hosts one of the best 70 MM screens in the borough. This was the same theatre I attended for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in 70MM. The place is absolutely beautiful and reminds me of the old Ziegfeld. Think of 70MM as what IMAX was before IMAX ever existed.

By far, Licorice Pizza‘s greatest strengths are the plot and cast. For Hoffman and Haim, these are their first acting performances, but they flow so well in every scene (with Haim the stronger of the two) that it feels completely natural. Hoffman is energetic and smooth, and I hope to see him do more in the future. Haim is a marvel, and if she doesn’t end up with some kind of award for all this, I’d be very shocked. She dances with all of these actors as if she’s done it for years, and in the rare instance where there’s a hiccup – there’s a moment regarding the character’s age – the recovery’s so quick that you have to wonder if that was scripted or not. It reminds me of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, in that being undercover is basically taking on a persona and throwing yourself fully into it to make it believable. Both leads are the heart of all this.

Jack Holden (Sean Penn) takes Alana Kane (Alana Haim) for a ride in P.T. Anderson’s Licorice Pizza

Of course, it helps to have backup to support the leads. Alana Kane’s family is also Alana Haim’s. Her sisters, Danielle and Este, along with their parents are all on hand here. The film is also peppered with stars like Tom Waits (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Sean Penn playing a variant on Bill Holden(Milk), Christine Ebersole (The Wolf of Wall Street), Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems) and Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids, and she’s Anderson’s wife) that help to round out the weirdness of Los Angeles in the 1970s. Of particular note are both George DiCaprio (Father of Leonardo) as a waterbed salesman, and Bradley Cooper as legendary producer Jon Peters (who was responsible for Batman, A Star is Born and Man of Steel). Of all of the supporting cast, Cooper has by far the most positive and zany appearance, with his version of Peters feeling more like a live action Rocket Raccoon. His character here is almost the opposite of the one he plays in Nightmare Alley. I also loved Benny Safdie’s politician here. Each supporting character has a story of their own that Alana & Gary are pulled into.

And then there’s John Michael Higgins, who plays a restaurant owner who makes fun of his Japanese wife’s ability to speak English. He talks to her in a made up broken version of Japanese, which my audience seemed to be okay with. They laughed, mostly. It’s like the Christmas Story Chinese Food scene, where the family has to listen to a broken version of “Deck the Halls”. Depending on who you are, it may come across as cringeworthy, and is honestly the only thing that stumble steps the movie in any way. Then again, one could argue that it’s just the 70s. Things were different. Anyone recollecting what life was life back then is bound to have a relative or someone just like that.

All that aside, I loved the flow of the movie. Between The Master and Inherent Vice, I half expected Licorice Pizza to take some dark turns. While the movie does get a little strange where the effects of the gas shortage plays in (also one of the best scenes), the film is incredibly lighthearted and fun. Like every romantic comedy, you have all of the great elements. Gary pursues Alana, but her attentions are turned towards another. By the time Alana starts to realize that maybe Gary is good for her, he’s kind of moved on. You may find yourself hoping everything works out – it’s hard not to love these characters. All of this is done with a soundtrack from the era that rivals some of the best offerings from Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. A little Bowie, some Nina Simone, some Paul McCartney and Wings & even Donovan pepper the film. For the score, Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood is back once again as Anderson’s go-to composer.

Overall, Licorice Pizza is a surprisingly lighthearted tale from Paul T. Anderson. It never overreaches or spends too much time in any one place, understanding that love is a complex thing. Grounded by two talented newcomers, a plethora of supporting heavies, a wonderful soundtrack and a screenplay that’ll make you smile, Licorice Pizza is an easy recommendation.

The Films of 2020: The Binge (dir by Jeremy Garelick)


America, in the near future.

Due to a rise in crime coupled with an economic collapse, a new moralistic government has taken power.  All drugs and alcohol have been banned …. except for one day of the year.  On that day, anyone who is 18 years old or older will be able to drink, smoke, inject, and snort anything that they want.  This is the annual …. BINGE!

Okay, so does this sound familiar to anyone?

The Binge is a mix of The Purge and Superbad.  Three dorky high school students (played by Skyler Gisondo, Eduardo Franco, and Dexter Darden) want to take part in their first binge but it’s not going to easy, largely because they’re not actually cool enough to have been invited to any of the big Binge parties.  Unless they can find a way to sneak into the legendary Library Party, they’re going to miss out on all the fun and they’re not going to get laid.

Vince Vaughn, meanwhile, plays the high school principal who, at the start of the film, exhorts his students not to binge so hard that they end up getting horribly disfigured or bring any sort of shame on the reputation of their school.  However, when he finds out that his own daughter has snuck out of the house and is taking part in the Binge, he hits the streets and ends up binging himself.

And listen, The Binge gets off to a good start.  It opens with a Morgan Freeman sound alike narrating a short film about how much better life in America is thanks to the Binge.  Yes, it’s totally ripped off from The Purge but let us give the film some credit for at least admitting that it’s not exactly an original idea.  The short film is followed by a scene of Vaughn standing in a shabby high school auditorium, explaining to his students why binging is not a good idea and he goes through all of the classic horror stories that teenagers have been told through the years to keep them from indulging.  Vaughn comes across like some sort of demented gym teacher in this scene and it’s genuinely funny.

Meanwhile, throughout the high school, the students share stories about what they’ve heard life was like before the Binge.  Someone talks about how people used to do keg stands just for someone else to ask, “What’s a keg?”  Another student talks about how her mother claims that there used to be a show called Sex and the City, in which the characters would have sex and drink pink alcohol.

Those early scenes are funny but the rest of the film doesn’t live up to them.  Once the Binge begins, the film becomes just another raunchy high school party film and, to be honest, it’s a bit dull.  It’s also hard not to notice that, for a bunch of people who have apparently never drank or done drugs before, some of the characters handle getting drunk and stoned surprisingly well.  You would also think that, if you could only drink or do drugs one time a year, some people would at least try to be a little bit creative in how they did it.  Instead, it appears that everyone learned how to binge by watching old episodes of Saved By The Bell, California Dreams, and 90210.  With the exception of one drug-induced musical number that occurs about halfway into the film and a pretty amusing contest to see who can snort the most coke while doing the best Pacino imitation, everyone’s just so boring.

This is one of those comedies where people randomly screaming is often used as a substitute for any sort of real wit or clever dialogue.  The main characters are so poorly defined that you really never care whether or not they’re going to get laid, get stoned, go to prom, or get into college.  I appreciated any movie that satirizes prohibition but The Binge, much like the students that Vince Vaughn warned about at the start of the film, fails to live up to its potential.

Film Review: Vacation (dir by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley)


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Oh, what sweet Hell is this?

I have definitely seen worse movies than Vacation but it’s hard to think of one that left me as annoyed.  As I watched this movie, I found myself wondering how anyone could have made as many wrong decisions while directing one comedy.  Then I remembered that this film had two directors and I was left even more annoyed.  Seriously, couldn’t one of these two credited directors look at the footage and say, “Wow, we’re making a really crappy, unfunny, and mean-spirited comedy.  Maybe we should reconsider the tone of some of these scenes.  Maybe we should just abandon this all together…”

This film is a reboot of the old Vacation movies that Chevy Chase used to make in the 80s and 90s.  (Christmas Vacation is the one that everyone loves but there were others as well.)  In the original Vacation movies, Chase played Clark Griswold.  Clark would always try to take his family on the perfect vacation and would slowly lose his mind as his best laid plans always crashed into a wall of chaotic reality.  The original Vacation films were all uneven but likable, largely because Clark seemed to be so sincere in his madness.

In Vacation, Ed Helms plays Clark’s son, Rusty Griswold.  Rusty is all grown up and living in the suburbs.  He has a job as a pilot for a cheap airline.  He’s married to Debbie (Christina Applegate), who was known as Debbie Do Anything in college.  He has two sons and they’re both annoying.  James (Skyler Gisondo) is overly sensitive and plays guitar.  Kevin (Steele Stebbins) is a psychopath who is constantly bullying his older brother and dropping F-bombs every chance he gets.  (A little kid saying “Fuck,” is only funny the first few times you hear it.  After the 20th time, it just gets boring.)  James sings self-pitying songs.  Kevin continually tries to murder his brother by putting a plastic bag over his head.

Rusty wants to take his family to Walley World, the same destination that Clark wanted to visit in the original Vacation.  This involves driving across the country in an Albanian car that’s always on the verge of exploding.  Along the way, they stop off at various locations and have adventures.

And not all of the adventures are bad.  Occasionally, the film is saved by a funny cameo.  Charlie Day shows up as a suicidal river guide and he’s genuinely funny.  You find yourself wishing that he had a bigger role.  And then there’s a scene where Rusty and Debbie attempt to have sex at the Four Corners and are caught by cops from four different states, all of whom promptly start to argue about who has jurisdiction.

But those scenes are the exception.  For the most part, Vacation is just a parade of uninspired scatological humor and missed opportunities.  When Rusty and the family drop in on his sister Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her well-endowed husband, Stone (Chris Hemsworth), Rusty spends a lot of time talking about how Audrey and Stone are politically conservative.  Once they arrive at Audrey’s home, we are shown a picture of Stone hanging out with Charlton Heston but, otherwise, Stone and Rusty’s political differences are never mentioned again.  And don’t get me wrong — I wasn’t particularly looking forward to having to sit through a political argument between Ed Helms and Chris Hemsworth.  But still, why set up a joke if you’re too lazy to include the punch line?

Of course, the main problem is that you just don’t care about these Griswolds.  As characters, they’re all pretty unlikable and therefore, you really don’t care if their vacation is a success or not.  Poor Christina Applegate!  After holding her own against Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner in both Anchorman films, she’s given nothing to do here, beyond being the punchline in a few misogynistic jokes about being wild before marrying Rusty.

As weak as all the characters are, Rusty is the main problem.  He can’t handle the fact that his wife has had more sexual partners than he has.  He can’t discipline his youngest demon child.  He has absolutely no good advice to give to his oldest son.  When Rusty drags them across the country to Walley World, it’s not because he wants them to have a good vacation but because he wants to recreate a memory from his childhood.  If Chevy Chase’s Clark was always unhinged but sincere, Rusty Griswold is just an asshole and it’s impossible to care about him.  It doesn’t help that Ed Helms, as talented as he may be, has a neediness to him that can be amazingly off-putting whenever he’s cast in a lead role.  He always seems to be trying way too hard to convince the audience to love him.

Incidentally, Rusty and the family do make time to visit Grandpa Clark.  Chevy Chase looks even worse than he did on Community and it’s all pretty boring.

My advice would be to take a vacation from seeing Vacation.

Vacation Shows That Chris Hemsworth Is Quite Mighty (Red Band)


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Any kid growing up during the 1980’s remembers having seen the original Chevy Chase comedy classic National Lampoon’s Vacation. While subsequent sequels weren’t as memorable as the first film it didn’t diminish just how fun that original one was.

It’s been many, many years since the last Vacation film but now it looks like we have a new one set to release this year. Chevy Chase returns, though it would seem it might be more of a cameo. This latest film in the series looks to focus on Clark Griswold’s oldest son, Rusty, who now yearns to relive the happiest time of his life as a child: the road trip to Wally World,

The trailer looks to up return the raunch in the series with some help from Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. From looking at the trailer’s payoff it looks like Hemsworth is quite mighty indeed.

Vacation is set to release this July, 31, 2015.