Licorice Pizza is the kind of film I would love to see come out of Hollywood more frequently. It’s a movie that sets out to be a crowd pleaser, but refuses to pander to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t flood our senses with trashy romantic tropes, nor does it steer clear of comfortable familiarity. It doesn’t set out to do anything new or ground breaking, but it also maintains its own unique identity and voice. This is of course because Licorice Pizza is a film by one of the greatest filmmakers working in the film industry today, and he does not disappoint with this delightful and poignant movie.
Set in the San Fernando Valley, the movie follows the friendship between a confident to a fault fifteen year old boy named Gary Valentine, and the aimless but enchanting twenty five year old woman named Alana Kane. Gary is smitten with the older Alana from the very first time he meets her taking photographs for his high school picture day and, though Alana is hesitant, she humors the kid by taking him out to dinner. What follows is a sweeping odyssey of hilarious business ventures involving water beds, movie auditions, crazed actors on motorcycles, love, jealousy, and a bizarre encounter with eccentric movie producer Jon Peters thrown in for good measure. All of it is accompanied by a killer soundtrack, featuring classic tunes like David Bowie’s Life on Mars, and Paul McCartney's Let Me Roll It.
Paul Thomas Anderson's filmography can be separated into two eras. The first era spans from 1996 to 2002, a period in which he wrote and directed the films Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), and Punch Drunk Love (2002). Not only were these early features produced and released within close proximity of each other, but they all paint a clear image of a director in his developmental stage. It is here where Anderson's style of filmmaking is at its most flashy and attention seeking, with complex long takes, frenetic editing, and scenes of characters having emotional breakdowns, being his most distinct trademarks. Then five years go by, and in 2007 Paul Thomas Anderson puts There Will Be Blood out into the world. This starts the second era of his career. Suddenly the emphasis on style is toned down significantly. The camera moves less, the editing becomes more relaxed, and the story and themes become the focus. It's this era that I feel gave birth to Anderson's greatest cinematic achievements. There Will be Blood is quite possibly the best film of the 21st century, definitely one of the most important, and The Master and Phantom Thread follow closely behind.
With Licorice Pizza, we find the filmmaker at a perfect balancing point between these two eras. The maturity and precision he obtained between Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood still shows clearly, but a hint of his more energetic and free flowing nature as a filmmaker shines through as well. He has returned to a cinema that is less concerned with themes and story, and more concerned with feelings and character relationships; and he returns to this so naturally that it's like he never left.
Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman are true revelations in their respective roles. Both seem incapable of giving off any false emotions. They are completely genuine. They don’t even seem to have any makeup on for the camera. We get to see their faces completely as they are, and both of them shine on screen. The fact that neither of them have ever been in a movie before works greatly to their benefit. Nothing holds us back from falling in love with these two dysfunctional characters they are playing.
The film is a nostalgic treat for anyone who either grew up in the 70s, or is familiar with movies from that period . By pairing 35 mm film with old camera lenses, Anderson and DP Michael Bauman achieve a look that makes you forget there's no one in the back of the theater operating an old-fashioned film projector. If I hadn’t known better I would have believed that I was watching a movie that was made in the 70s and had been digitally remastered for re-release.
There has been a lot of controversy over this movie concerning the age difference between the two characters. It is not unreasonable for this to raise more than a few eyebrows. However, after sitting down and watching the movie, I have come to the conclusion that there really isn’t anything to be upset about. The relationship between Gary and Alana doesn’t grow out of perverted desire, nor does it develop into it. The love they have for each other is something different, something that hasn’t been portrayed on screen before. It’s a love that is based purely on the fact that the two are better together than they are apart, and that's all that matters in the end. It’s a platonic intimacy, and if you’re wondering what that even means, just watch the movie.
If something has Olivia Coleman in it, I'll watch it. It's as simple as that. Whether it’s a movie, a tv show, or a cereal commercial, if it has Olivia Coleman, I am there. After reading that, you’ve probably already reached the conclusion that I was hyped for this film. The trailer for it looked interesting, and the prospect of seeing Jake Gyllenhaal’s sister take on the role of writer and director was pretty intriguing.
The plot is simple. A 48-year-old woman named Leda Caruso vacations in Italy, where an encounter with a young woman and her little girl bring back troubling memories of her early motherhood. That is for all intent and purposes what the film is about, but Maggie Gyllenhaal takes that premise, and with excellent writing and directing, turns it into one of the most compelling and brutally honest psychological dramas I have ever seen.
Psychological drama really is the term of the day when it comes to describing this film. To categorize it as a psychological thriller, which is what the trailer seemed to be attempting, isn’t accurate whatsoever. The film didn’t have me at the edge of my seat but instead had me glued to it. I wasn’t unable to look away, but I had no desire to do so. The people who made this movie didn’t feel the need to inject traditional mystery or suspense into the narrative. They simply allow the movie to just happen, to unfold before us in it’s own way. As a result, nothing that happens feels rushed or artificial, and most importantly, no revelations or payoffs feel unearned. Everything falls into place, and it makes for an incredibly immersive character study.
Before I get into other elements of the film, I can’t help but go back to Olivia Coleman, who is absolutely perfect for her role. It’s as if the woman can’t even blink without giving off some kind of emotion, and she is able to use that quality to portray a person whose uncertainty and anxiousness radiates all around her. Were this role given to a lesser actor, I would not have been nearly as sold on the character as I was. I would have found myself constantly asking, “Why the hell would she do that?” But with Olivia, I never questioned it because she made the character so clear. She doesn’t even know what the hell she’s doing. When she does things that on the surface appear puzzling, it feels like it’s supposed to be exactly that. To summarize, Olivia Coleman is a great actress, because she makes her characters believable. She should honestly just be in more of everything.
Now that I've satisfied the Olivia Coleman fanboy in me, I think it’s time to move on to writing and directing. As you likely know, this movie is the directorial debut of actress Maggie Gyllanhaal, and she also adapted the screenplay from the 2006 novel by pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante. Whenever I watch a movie that I know is a directorial debut, there is one question that echoes through my mind: Does this new director show promise? For me, the answer to that question is only yes if the filmmaker does the following three things: 1) They show a basic understanding of how to make a movie; 2) They use those basic filmmaking principals in a way that is unique to them; 3) And the final product reflects the work of an artist who had a vision, who set out to do something and ultimately succeeded. It’s that last box that many debuts have trouble with. Oftentimes, directorial debuts feel to me like an attempt but not a fully realized piece. That’s not to say that the films are bad; on the contrary, many of them are quite good, but they leave me with a feeling that the filmmaker didn’t always have both hands on the wheel, and, as a result, they ended up going down the wrong road. Luckily for us, Maggie Gyllenhaal cruises along like she’s been in the driver's seat for years. Her use of extreme closeups and claustrophobic cinematography complements the uncomfortable tone of the movie perfectly, and her writing isn’t too shabby either. I particularly enjoyed the way she implemented flashbacks, and how they were set off by specific images like a rotten orange or a little girl playing with her mother on a beach. She truly has proven herself to be a real filmmaker with this film. To quote the woman herself, “I think now that I've made a film I've realized I was always a director.” To that, I couldn’t agree more.
It’s easy to see why The Lost Daughter has caught the attention and acclaim that it has. It isn’t just a movie made by a well-known actress that can be thrown in with forgettable fluff like Brie Larson's The Unicorn Store. It is a fascinating and well-made debut that stays in your mind long after the credits roll. Maggie Gyllenhaal is definitely a cinematic force to be reckoned with.