2021 Movie Reviews: Licorice Pizza and West Side Story

A good movie and a great one.

Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza asks the question, what if an uproariously funny comedy with two incredibly flawed and complex central characters was put together with the skill, precision, and artistry of a Paul Thomas Anderson film? The answer is a wholly accessible masterpiece that manages to be a blast while somehow challenging you. Gary Valentine (lovingly rendered by Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s son, Cooper Hoffman) is a 15-year-old whiz kid genius who becomes obsessed with an aimless, 25-year-old coaster, Alana (Alana Haim from Haim). The film spans what has to be two or three years (based on how MUCH shit happens – and cause Alana accidentally says she’s 28 at one point), and is presented as little snapshots of their wildly unhealthy, co-dependent relationship with each other – from film sets to bars, to waterbed start-ups, to video arcade start-ups and even a brief stint in politics. Along the way, we’re treated to this seemingly never-ending conveyer belt of Oscar-worthy 5-10 minute bit parts, all representing through satire, the shittiest and most predatory parts of the film industry (that still very much exist today), as Gary and Alana try to navigate their way through 1973 Los Angeles.

Sean Penn plays an aging, drunk classic Hollywood actor (patterned after Network and Stalag 17‘s William Holden) who wants to cast Alana in his movie, really just to take advantage of her, while Tom Waits plays an even older and drunker classic Hollywood director (patterned after The African Queen helmer John Huston). The two share a scene that’s hilarious because they’re so diluted and propped up they can’t even see how pathetic and childish they are. However, the laughs catch in your throat when you realize how predatorial and influential they are. Harriet Sansom Harris (Bebe from Frasier) has a glorious three-minute cameo as a Hollywood talent agent, while Maya Rudolph has one as a casting agent lying through her teeth about Gary’s abilities. John Michael Higgins, from the Christopher Guest film improv collective, plays a deeply problematic Hibachi restaurant franchise owner, that so cluelessly tries to ingratiate himself into Japanese culture that he speaks horribly accented, broken English to his Japanese wife because he seems to actually believe it’s an effective translation tool. John C. Reilly is in it for merely seconds as the real Herman Munster, but the best of the bunch is Bradley Cooper as the real Jon Peters, a famously awful Hollywood producer/asshole/Barbara Streisand‘s boyfriend/basis of the 1975 movie Shampoo. It might be his best role, and he only has ten or so minutes of screen time.

The best performances of the film belong to both Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, especially Alana Haim, for making us completely invested in what happens to them even as all these amazing set pieces and high profile cameos are exploding all around them like fireworks. Licorice Pizza feels like an inherently more honest, but just as exciting, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. However, while that film almost pined for those days this movie seems to say “thank God those fucking days are over, how did we even survive?!” It’s a wonderful dose of anti-nostalgia to combat all these warmed-over, repackaged, and rehashed reboot/franchise/Ghostbusters shit we’ve been force-fed all year. While those movies deal in simple, two-dimensional protagonists who are easy to like because they’re merely fucking archetypes, this offers us completely three-dimensional protagonists, both harder to love because they remind us of the worst parts of ourselves, and easier to love, because they simply remind us of ourselves, warts and all. Grade: A (In Theaters December 25th)

West Side Story

Full disclosure, I was super into musical theater as a kid. Between the ages of five and twelve, I lived, eat and breathed it. I loved RENT, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, and Sound of Music, but my hands-down favorite was West Side Story. I used to spend hours in my room, blasting the original Broadway cast recording and making up choreography to every song. My favorites were “When You’re a Jet”,America“, and of course, “Officer Krupke”, which I found to be the comedic set piece of the entire musical. So walking into this seemingly unneeded Spielbergian remake I was skeptical as hell, but during those first fifteen minutes or so of gorgeously photographed, immaculately choreographed, and most surprisingly, powerfully acted story, I felt what was maybe God holding my hand. When Riff began “When You’re a Jet” I legitimately started to cry. I couldn’t believe it, sappy ass Spielberg who has been so hit or miss (but mostly miss) over the past 20 years has outdone the Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins 1961 masterpiece.

Yours truly, circa 1996, choreographing bits of West Side Story in my sister’s room.
1996. I’m assuming I’m holding an imaginary switchblade and this is The Rumble.
1996. Heard they were casting for Anita.

Was this going to be the best film of the year? Well, not if Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver, IRL sexual assault) had anything to say about it. From the moment he shows up, you’re snapped out of the spell Spielberg and longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have set and are forced to watch this guy struggle through only the biggest part of the show. As if his acting isn’t stiff enough when he begins singing “Something’s Coming” to Rita Moreno (subbing in for the original’s Doc character) while swinging on a rolling ladder you know you’re in dire straits. Luckily he’s joined by other characters after this, like more Riff, Bernardo, Maria (with whom he shares absolutely no chemistry), and the movie regains much of the goodwill from that fire opening. Then, it totally peaks with “The Rumble”, which is the halfway point of the original musical, but more like the two-thirds point of this adaptation. The movie completely falls apart after this. I wish I could comment on “I Feel Pretty” but this movie is long and they make sodas so big these days, so I had to leave the theater to take a massive piss. The upstairs bathroom was closed so I had to take the elevator downstairs to piss there, it took me a couple of minutes and I completely missed the song. But then the rest of the songs come pouring in and the magic seems to be lost. This isn’t the same film it was before “The Rumble”, it’s melodramatic, pandering, and not properly hitting its dramatic beats. Elgort is sticking out like a sore thumb and they give Rita Moreno all this shit to do that’s not in the musical, without ever really defining her character. It limps to the finish and left a super sour taste in my mouth. How disappointing.

Despite a lacking Anita, “America” is one of the highlights of the film.

So what you’re left with is sort of a mixed bag, that is so on when it’s on, but so off when it’s off. Luckily it’s on far more often than its’ off, but still, it can’t stick the landing which is maybe the most important part. The acting is mostly excellent. We talked about Elgort sucking, but we haven’t talked about how good Rachel Zegler is as Maria, a true find for Spielberg and an improvement over Natalie Wood in the original. David Alvarez is fantastic as Bernardo, about as good as George Chakiris, and the majority of the Sharks and Jets are wonderful. Ariana DeBose is a disappointing Anita though, she’s good but she’s not great and this is the best role of the show. Anita NEEDS to be a fucking powerhouse and DeBose just falls a bit short. It doesn’t help matters that Moreno is on deck, reminding us all how amazing she was in this role, fifty years ago. On the other side of the spectrum, the performance of the film belongs to Mike Faist as Jet leader, Riff. Not only is he the best dancer up there, but he’s also the most natural actor up there, completely blowing Elgort out of every scene they share. Spielberg adds layers of depth and trauma to this character the original never had and Faist communicates a whole lifetime of abuse with a simple glance. Maybe if Faist was cast as Tony, the combination of him and Zegler could put this over the edge into classic territory, but as it stands it’s merely just ‘good’. Grade: B (In Theaters)

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