Licorice Pizza

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman

Paul Thomas Anderson’s quest to make the perfect 1970s movie continues with Licorice Pizza, a living, breathing simulacrum of the sort of film that stalked the landscape before George Lucas came along with changed/ruined (according to taste) everything with Star Wars.

Ironically, another Lucas film, American Graffiti, might have served as a moodboard for his attempt to outdo 2014’s Inherent Vice – itself an attempt to outdo 1999’s Magnolia – along with Robert Altman’s rambling, discursive Nashville, though the storyline deep down is actually A Star Is Born – guy on the way down meets gal on the way up – with a scrappy side order of What’s Up, Doc.

The guy is Gary, a 15-year-old teenage TV star and, in his own estimation of himself, god’s gift to everything. Licorice Pizza opens with him hitting on Alana, a woman 10 years older than him. By the time it’s ended poor Gary, still hopeful that the treat-em-mean Alana will finally yield, has dropped several rungs in social status while Alana’s star is on the up.

This is Cooper Hoffman’s movie debut and though he’s the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, he’s aiming for another namesake, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate era, in his performance as the over-reaching, under-performing young man who’s probably going to succeed in life by dint of simply trying harder than anyone else. He’s entirely convincing. The smart, funny and self-possessed Alana is played by Alana Haim. This is also her first time in front of a camera, if we discount all the music videos (many of them directed by Anderson) she’s made with her sisters and fellow Haim bandmates.

Bradley Cooper, Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in a car
Bradley Cooper in a short but dazzling cameo



It is all a bit of a cosy family affair – Anderson has known Cooper Hoffman all his life, since he was best buds with Cooper’s father, and Alana’s mother was Anderson’s art teacher at school. She plays Alana’s screen mother. Alana’s father plays her screen dad. Her sisters play her sisters.

It all helps oil the machine as Anderson spins his cast into a freewheeling 360 about the decade not so much as it was – non-white faces are rare in Licorice Pizza – but as it was mediated through the movies. It’s a meta-movie, in other words, though the soundtrack (Doors, Nina Simone, Todd Rundgren) keeps it grounded as does its particular interest in water beds – one of Gary’s various stabs at entrepreneurial activity after he loses his gig on the TV show.

Some nods to the moment seem to have infuriated the Twittersphere – some bizarre racism directed at the Japanese, a casual pat on a female behind – or the bit of it that can’t distinguish a commentary on something for the thing itself.

Either way, as the sassy and smart Alana and the slightly hapless Gary duck and dive from selling waterbeds – is anything more 1970s? – to campaigning for an up-and-coming politician, Anderson sings a song of regret for what has been lost in the intervening decades – community spirit, a belief in the transformative power of democratic politics and the depth model of culture (see Star Wars).

Two firecracker cameos really hit home. Sean Penn turns up as a jackass movie star recreating one of his screen stunts for an adoring crowd. He’s John the Baptist to Bradley Cooper’s Jesus. Cooper plays Jon Peters, the libidinous hairdresser (he was the model for the Warren Beatty character in Shampoo) who became a movie producer specialising in precisely the sort of film that Licorice Pizza isn’t. Each represent the pupating “sovereign individual” of the 21st century in different ways. George DiCaprio (Leo’s dad) also blurs on and off, as the wild man of the water bed, an amusing cameo that is all too brief.

It’s an unashamedly golden-age, rose-tinted nostalgia-fest and, of course, it’s all shot on proper old-fashioned, warm-hued celluloid, the way real movies were (and on old lenses for extra 1970s texture). The licorice pizza of the title, is a reference to the vinyl LP, cultural currency for the boomers, talisman of authenticity for the hipsters. If you’re in neither camp you might not like the film very much.


Licorice Pizza – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2022









Flag Day

Jennifer and John

Parenting tips with Sean Penn? Flag Day continues the actor/director’s interest in movies circling around the idea of family. In 2001’s The Pledge, childless, edge-of-retirement cop Jack Nicholson sought redemption by bringing in a child murderer, out of a personal sense of duty to the parents. In 2007’s Into the Wild, graduating student Emile Hirsch rejected the fast track to the top enabled by his wealthy parents and headed into the wilderness to… also seek redemption.

Even if you didn’t like them, both were full of interesting moments and performances. More tightly focused than either of those on the actual parent/child bond, Flag Day tracks the on/off, up/down journey down the decades of charming bullshitter John Vogel (Sean Penn) and his daughter Jennifer (Dylan Penn, daughter of Sean and Robin Wright). It’s her story more than his, though this feckless, self-deluding wastrel of a dad does also have an arc – from two-bit loser to jailbird to wanted fugitive. But we see his story through hers – the insecure kid who loves her unreliable dad but goes to live instead with her alcoholic mother (Katheryn Winnick), grows up to become a goth, before having another crack at living with dad, until that also goes wrong and Jennifer eventually realises she has to forge her own path.

She’s a real person, Jennifer Vogel, who did indeed live this life, wised up, got educated, became a journalist and went on to write the book of the film, Flim-Flam Man: A True Family History. It’s been adapted by Jez Butterworth and his brother John-Henry, and the parallels with Jez’s play Jerusalem – charismatic waster, neglected child – are there, as is the powerful sketch of the time and place where the events play out.

Mother Patty and Jennifer
Mother Patty with Jennifer



In Butterworth’s case that was backwoods England; in Penn’s it’s two-bit America, a place of just about getting by, a state of being etched across Sean Penn’s lined, strained face as John cranks himself into action for the latest get-rich-quick ploy that will demonstrate, to an entirely indifferent world, just how John is better than the rest of them. Jennifer just wishes he’d get a job.

Sean Penn is very good as the live-for-the-minute, crackerjack dad and Dylan Penn avoids trying to match him with Method style angst, a decision that’s not just wise in terms of family dynamics but works on the screen. Nice also to see Hopper Jack Penn, brother of Dylan, as her screen brother. He’s the spit of his dad, especially once the facial hair arrives. Penn: the Next Generation.

It’s potentially incendiary material, hand-wringy at the very least, the raw material of a misery memoir. But director Penn approaches it all from an unusual angle – this is as wistful, poetic and intimate a portrait of a life skidding along half-derailed as you’re likely to see. Penn and DP Danny Moder keep the cameras up close, right in the faces of the actors. The soundtrack is drenched in Americana – Bob Seger, Crystal Gale and America, and there are new songs by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Glen Hansard, a clutch by Cat Power. All are tender and sad songs of loss and potential unrealised. This is a film where music really sets the tone.

It is a Paradise (Childhood) Lost story, and the further back into the past the story reaches – Jennifer is a 1970s kid – the more it is bathed in a golden glow, light flaring in the lens as if a particularly upbeat Coke commercial were about to get underway.

It’s a case of two familiar genres for the price of one. There’s no shortage of “how I became a writer” movies, nor “my shitty childhood/my crazy dad” ones but Flag Day comes at the story of Jennifer Vogel in a surprising, and surprisingly effective, way, wringing the changes on what might have been generic by playing up the love and playing down the bad stuff. High drama on the downlow.





Flag Day – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2022









This Must Be the Place

Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

24 August

 

The Mainz pogrom, 1349

In the 14th century, the bubonic plague – aka the Black Death – killed between 30 and 60 per cent of Europe’s population (20-30 million people) in the course of about six years. It arrived from Asia in 1346 and ran rampant. No one knew what the cause of it was, but one of the theories was that it was God’s way of showing his displeasure with humanity, either for waging war constantly (the 100 Years War was ten years in), failing to drive the Muslim out of the Holy Land, or, casting about for any handy excuse, for allowing the Jews to live unassimilated in Christian lands. This last was seized upon in Mainz, home of Europe’s largest Jewish community, in 1349, when the Jews were attacked by an angry mob. The Jews fought back, killing maybe 200 of their attackers, but they were eventually overwhelmed and 6,000 of them were burnt at the stake. The plague continued.

 

 

 

This Must Be the Place (201, dir: Paolo Sorrentino)

Italian maestro Paolo Sorrentino’s English language debut was seen as something of a disappointment when it debuted in 2011. This must partly be because it seems to be offering one sort of film and instead delivers another.
The film it seems to be offering can be summed up in the many shots of its star, Sean Penn, in goth wig and smeared make-up, like Robert Smith of the Cure after a few weeks on a Hollywood paleo diet. A film that’s going to poke maudlin fun at pop culture. And for a while it does. We meet Cheyenne, the exiled pop star Penn plays, in his Ireland residence, being waited on by a comely assistant. It’s Eve Hewson, the daughter of U2’s Bono, which only reinforces the notion that pop culture is what this film is all about. Cheyenne drifts about, not doing particularly much, offering make-up advice unasked to a gaggle of women in a lift (always put some powder on before applying lippie, he counsels), behaving exactly as you’d expect a rich, indulged but essentially harmless man to behave who’s come to the end of his career without quite realising it – “Why is Lady Gaga?” he asks in exasperation at one humorous point, perhaps sensing that for him it really is all over.
Cheyenne’s character established, Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello then throw this least likely contender for Charles Bronson’s T shirt off on a Death Wish revenge jaunt, after Cheyenne’s father dies in New York and the withdrawn muso realises that the man who destroyed him in Auschwitz is still alive and kicking. The film suddenly changes direction, transforming into a picaresque road movie in which Cheyenne meets one oddball after another, though he himself remains the still centre in a performance that’s a sustained bravura one note fugue. Is Sorrentino overtly referencing David Byrne’s True Stories – a picaresque journey in oddball sauce? Probably, and here’s Byrne playing himself in one of the first encounters that Cheyenne has as he makes his way across the US in hangdog pursuit of what must be the last missing Nazi, surely.
You might have expected Sorrentino to become less arthouse for his English language debut but instead he’s gone the other way, telling his story through the rhythms of his editing and his colour palette even more than he had in his previous film Il Divo, his spectacular biopic about Italian political eminence Giulio Andreotti. His camera here is spectacular too, so elegantly gliding that it actually distracts attention from the story, which is sliding from the superficial to the profound as Cheyenne makes his steady way towards his quarry, one weird meeting at a time. Will he find this old Auschwitz guard? If so, what will a meek retired goth do with him? What sort of revenge is it appropriate to exact? Is revenge even the right way to go? Sorrentino keeps all the options in play to the last moment, his final shot of Cheyenne doing rubber-burning 360 degree donuts in his station wagon a grand, operatic finish to a film that started out more like a hooky pop song.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Sean Penn’s performance
  • The cast includes Harry Dean Stanton and Frances McDormand
  • Luca Bigazzi’s remarkable cinematography
  • Because Sorrentino is one of the greatest directors alive

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

This Must Be the Place – Watch it now at Amazon