Rubberband… love? Licorice Pizza (2021)

Acolytes of PTA beware: there be spoilers.

There is a barely hidden secret at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, and it’s just behind the fig-leaf of that tender coming-of-age love story, as whacky as it may be, that we are supposed to take as the main story. It’s that both Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffmann) know pretty well what they want to do with their lives. That might come to us as a surprise, and to them as well, and their next few months are not without pitfalls and mayor changes, but for all their uncertainty, they have their plans and ideas. And if that includes their gravitating towards each other, then yay, all the better.

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Based on a true trailer

Since we’ll be leaving the United States in just over 32 hours, we thought we’d check out another movie, if only for the experience of sitting in a movie theatre armed with a double espresso shot caramel macchiato and an apple fritter. I’ll never eat in this town again.

The film itself, Burn After Reading, was decidedly so-so. I think my main problem with several of the Coen Bros. comedies is that the characters are painfully flat and, as a result, I simply don’t care much. (The Big Lebowski gets around this by making its characters quite endearing and strangely poignant, which should be an impossibility with such a far out, potheaded plot.) Same here: apart from very few moments, all of the protagonists remain cartoons – added to which there simply isn’t much of a plot to hold everything together. While the individual situations are comical, there’s a “ooookay… what should happen next? dunno…” quality to this film.

So, since a lot has already been written about the film, let me talk about more interesting things: the trailers. Four of ’em, and all of them intriguing.

I’m not a big Meryll Streep fan, although I acknowledge that she’s a good actress. Much of the time she seems too much like “Meryll Streep acting her little cotton socks off”, just like Robert de Niro, even at his best, tends to make the strain of acting very visible. It works in some films, but I prefer acting that almost vanishes – or otherwise make it very overt acting that doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it’s an act. Having said all of that, this trailer made me look up. Added to which it’s got Philip Seymour Hoffman. Colour me intrigued.

Trailer no. 2. Okay… on the surface, this looks like it’s trying way too hard to win Oscars. Disability. Troubled musician. Based on a true story. Directed by the guy who brought you these middlebrow tearjerkers. And yet, and yet. Robert Downey Jr. can make most middling films interesting and Jamie Foxx definitely knows how to act. Also, based on the trailer the film looks beautifully shot, without going for the glossy, strings-swelling-triumphantly, one-step-away-from-Hallmark visual style.

I’ve only seen one film by Gus Van Sant: Finding Forrester. Yes, I like Anna Paquin, but that didn’t make it a very good film (although it was one of the weirdest, coolest, loveliest evenings and nights in my life that followed that film). Okay, I’ve also seen the vignette he directed in Paris Je T’Aime. I have no idea whether I like him as a director or not. Mostly I’ve read reviews of his films and thought, “Um… right.” (I am uncannily interested in Gerry, mind you.) Then there’s Sean Penn who, for me, is very hit-and-miss. When he’s good he’s very, very good; when he’s on a mission, he’s annoying as hell. But, I must admit, this trailer looks fascinating.

Finally, Frost/Nixon. So far I wasn’t interested at all. And if I’d remembered the director, my disinterest would have doubled, nay, trippled. Is there a more competently nothingy director than Ron Howard? But this may be just the right film for a bland director who nevertheless knows how to get good performances out of his actors. Added to which: Matthew Macfadyen. Yep – it’s Tom Quinn. It’s Henry IV. It’s one-eyed guy with bigass scar. (That last one was Enigma, in case you just went, “Huh?”) And the trailer doesn’t look like “Talky sort-of-historical film based on a play, with actors who wish they hadn’t played in those vampire movies” – it looks like a proper film.

So: main feature – meh. Trailers? Gimme more of that!

Where the wild things are

Sean Penn is clearly a very talented artist. He’s also annoying and self-righteous as hell, at least sometimes (and I’m saying this as someone who basically agrees with many of his opinions). So what happens if someone annoying and self-righteous makes a film about someone annoying and self-righteous?

In the case of In the Wild, what happens is that you get a beautiful, moving, disturbing and infuriating film.

The film clearly has admiration for the uncompromising cut Chris McCandless makes with his family and his past, and for the way McCandless – calling himself Alexander Supertramp (he doesn’t seem to be ironic about this) – goes out into the American wilderness to become himself. Penn’s movie, especially in its images, shares his protagonist’s awe at the beauty of the country and of nature, and so do we to some extent. Part of me definitely thought, “Yeah, man, I’ll get rid of all my belongings, get some survival gear and live like Grizzly Adams! Right on!” And I didn’t even need to be smoking pot to think it.

At the same time, McCandless (as portrayed in the film) can’t be described as anything else than a self-righteous, selfish adolescent. Clearly many of the societal conventions he abandons are also selfish in nature – do parents have any claim to their children’s lives? does a sister have a claim to her brother? But Chris makes people care about him and then he’s off. Being human, the film implies amidst the awe, also involves human contact, human responsibilities… and responsibilities seem to scare McCandless. It’s either that, or he’s cheerfully callous about waltzing into people’s lives and then waltzing out the moment they feel for him.

It is this ambivalence about the central character that makes Into the Wild more than just a beautiful film. Some critics have been rather negative about this: why feel awe for such a selfish jerk? Didn’t McCandless simply got what he deserved? Yes, he (the movie character – I don’t want to judge the real person on the basis of a movie) is selfish, and yes, he is a jerk. Yes, he’s a coward who doesn’t have the courage to forgive. Yes, he’s also an idealist and a dreamer, and his cowardice is also his courage. Strip the film of this central ambivalence, and you turn the movie into a simplistic cautionary tale: Don’t abandon your family and your cosy capitalist surroundings to go into the wild, because you’ll die of starvation in an old bus, only to be found by moose hunters two weeks later.

Personally, I prefer to feel both awed and infuriated. I prefer to be given enough space to make up my own mind. And space is something Penn’s film has in spades.

Into the Wild