Licorice Pizza (Quick Take)

Licorice Pizza is a “what I did on my summer vacation” chronology of Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana (Alana Haim), two young people who are clearly meant for each other, with only their pride and vanity getting in the way.  Set in San Fernando Valley, California in the early Seventies, the movie features a production design with an attention to period detail unseen since…2019’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood.  That’s right, if you still have an appetite for ugly fashions and interiors featuring shades of brown and orange, here you go.  The movie does feature an impressive collection of deep tracks that will make anyone who grew up on album-oriented rock nod approvingly.

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Antlers

Antlers is a micro-budget horror movie that aspires to be much more meaningful than it is.  In a perpetually rainy town in Oregon, a young boy named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is trying to keep his family together while his meth-cooking father is in the throes of something that is turning him into an animal.  Lucas’s teacher Julia (Keri Russell) believes that Lucas’ disheveled state and withdrawn behavior are tell-tale signs child abuse, because she was abused as a child.  Her monosyllabic brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the town sheriff, warns her not to intervene, but you know how this will turn out.  Graham Greene cameos as former Sheriff Warren who reveals that Lucas’s father was bitten by a Wendigo, a creature based in Native American legend.  From here on out, danger signs go unheeded, people get eaten and the movie’s big confrontation wraps up surprisingly quickly.

Russell and Plemons have been in much better movies than this, so their participation is curious.  Director Scott Cooper has made better films than this one, and hopefully this movie is just a bump in the road for him.  The movie’s reliance on the themes of child abuse and drug addition are just window dressing, a transparent way to garner sympathy for paper-thin characters.  Even more bothersome is how the movie uses a Native American legend as the basis for a cheap, CGI monster.  While the movie does establishes a depressing, gloomy atmosphere and generates a few modest scares, it ultimately is not worth the trouble.  Not Recommended.

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Lamb

Lamb is a horror/fantasy/drama.  The story concerns Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), two Icelandic farmers.  They lost a child years ago, and their lives are now filled with the routine tasks of tending to their field and their flock of sheep.  One day, an ewe gives birth to a lamb that is not a lamb.  It’s part lamb, part human.  Seeing the lamb a second chance at motherhood, Maria takes it from the barn and cares for it as if it were her own baby.  The trio become a family, but the unexpected return of Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) threatens their happiness.  Before long, Maria is forced to confront the tension between her and Pétur, as well as the ramifications of taking the lamb from its birth mother.

First-time director Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb is undeniably strange and weird. The story he tells is meditative and pensive, however, one that explores complex themes within a haunting, other-worldly landscape. Through Maria and Ingvar, Jóhannsson forces us to consider two seemingly disparate topics: humanity’s place in the natural world and the lingering effect of tragedy on motherhood. Rapace gives one of her best performances, one that utilizes her unique acting talents to their fullest. If you’re open to unique movie going experiences, Lamb is richly rewarding in unexpected ways.  Highly recommended.

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CODA (2021)

Ruby (Emilia Jones), a high school girl in Gloucester, Massachusetts, gets up every morning before dawn to help her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) with the daily catch.  She loves to sing and does so very well, but she also happens to be the sole member of her family who can hear, a Child of Deaf Parents (or CODA).  A spur-of-the-moment decision to join the school choir helps her realize her true potential, and the help of her teacher Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez) could land her a college scholarship to study music.  

However, if Ruby’s dreams come true, that would mean leaving her family without a translator for the hearing world.  Will Ruby abandon her dreams of going to college to stay home and continue to help the family business?  Or will her family let her go and find a different way to earn a living?  CODA certainly follows the tried-and-true formula used by many coming-of-age movies that have preceded it.  The difference being that the moving, realistic performances more than make up for the lack of originality of the story.  CODA will definitely tug at your heart strings, but it does so honestly, without relying on melodrama or sentimentality.  The movie is a big win for inclusive storytelling on several fronts.  First, Ruby’s family is portrayed by actors who are deaf in real life.  Second, its honest depiction of Ruby’s family members shows how, contrary to cinematic cliches, they act just like normal people.  (They enjoy drinking beer, smoking and having sex.)   Finally, and most importantly, CODA serves as a prime example of how, with a modicum of effort, people with disabilities or impairments can participate in society just like everybody else.  Highly Recommended.

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Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar

Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar is one of the strangest comedies I’ve seen.  Written by Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo, the movie feels like two SNL skits mashed together and then filled out with a lot of comedic bits that range from quirky to inspired to hallucinogenic.  I’m really curious as to what drug(s) Wiig and Mumolo were on while writing the script, because I find it difficult to believe they wrote it stone sober.

The titular characters are a couple of middle-aged single ladies from Nebraska, portrayed respectively by Mumolo and Wiig.  With their Fargo-esque accents, drab outfits and helmet hair, I’d be hard pressed to categorize their characterizations of typical Midwestern women as affectionate.  Personality-wise, they’re a couple of dim bulb oddballs with a penchant for talking, and talking, and talking some more about ridiculously trite subjects (people in the 1800s stunk!).

When their dream jobs at the local Jennifer furniture store come to an abrupt end, they take a vacation at Vista Del Mar to add some spark to their lives.  After arriving, they hook up with the hunky Edgar (Jamie Dornan), the henchman of the evil Sharon Fisherman (Wiig, in a dual role).  Fisherman, a villain who owes much to Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers movies, has sent Edgar to Vista Del Mar to help carry out her plot of revenge against the city that wronged her as a child.

Barb & Star is chockablock with gags (sight, visual and physical), and most of them land.  The movie has a busy feel to it, a result of trying to do too much.  As is typical for screwball comedies, the art is in separating the wheat from the chaff.  The script would have resulted in a shorter but much better movie.  For example, the entire Fisherman subplot never takes flight and should have been cut out entirely.  Additionally, Barb and Star should have been given some differentiating characteristics (think Lloyd and Harry in Dumb and Dumber).  As it stands, they are so similar as to be interchangeable, and their shtick becomes annoying at times.  Still, Barb & Star has enough inspired comedy (and weirdness) for me to recommend it.  You may suffer from mild brain damage from the experience, however.  Mildly recommended.

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Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley is director Guillermo del Toro’s follow-up to his Academy Award winning film The Shape of Water.  That movie, a love letter to the monster movies of the fifties (particularly 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon) was infused with modern themes of inclusion and acceptance, took home the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director.  Del Toro’s latest is a remake of the 1947 film directed by Edmung Goulding and starring Tyrone Power.  If you’re seen it before, this version will feel very familiar.  (If you haven’t, I recommend watching it either before or after you see the current version as a fun film study exercise. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did!)

The movie is a mildly entertaining diversion, made with the care, craftsmanship and weird sensibility typical of del Toro’s films (Hellraiser, Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos).  Unlike his best work, the movie curiously fails to engage either the heart or the imagination.  Some of the blame can be leveled at Cooper’s lead performance as Stan, a drifter who latches onto a carnival and becomes a mentalist.  Fortunately, the movie has style to spare and several of the supporting performances (Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn) are very good.  Ultimately, Nightmare Alley is still little more than an eye-catching curiosity of minor consequence.  But nobody does eye-catching curiosities like del Toro.  Mildly recommended.

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