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Thursday, January 27, 2022

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Holidays screwball and sinister with 'Licorice Pizza'...

Screen Grabs: Holidays screwball and sinister with ‘Licorice Pizza’ and ‘Macbeth’

By the pricking of our thumbs, Paul Thomas Anderson and Denzel Washington come for Christmas.

There has never been a commercially successful film version of Macbeth, which even as a stage play is such a magnet for bad-juju superstition that some theater professionals still refuse to say its name out loud. Perhaps because screen adaptations have been made for the sake of Art rather than Moolah, several have incongruously been released around Christmastime—a decision one can alternately chalk up to the wisdom of “Proximity to awards ceremonies” or “Who gives a f***, we’re losing our shirts on this anyway.”

That was the case with Roman Polanski’s blood-soaked version exactly 50 years ago, the middling Michael Fassbender-Marion Cotillard vehicle in 2015, and now Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, which will rain 11th-century death and destruction upon US movie houses as of Jesus’ very birthday. (It begins streaming via AppleTV+ on Jan. 14.) This also happens to be the exact same day that star Denzel Washington releases his latest directorial exercise A Journal for Jordan, which is a little bizarre, though I suspect that so far rather poorly reviewed based-on-a-true-story inspirational drama will appeal to an entirely different audience.

Macbeth is also ostensibly based on fact, but the real guy of that name would no doubt protest—Shakespeare’s lurid hit piece apparently bears rather slim resemblance to the actual historical record. Coen’s film itself (his first not co-directed or written with brother Ethan) bears most striking resemblance among antecedents to Orson Welles’ 1948 rendition, which was similarly shot in Academy-ratio B&W on starkly minimalist studio-soundstage sets. The two are alike not just in style, but in being exercises in style—arguably more compelling as such than as a blood-and-thunder drama of palpable horror and grief.

Nonetheless, this is a good Macbeth, expressionist rather than explicit, fairly traditional in its interpretation apart from a curious emphasis on usually-minor figure the Thane of Ross (Alex Hassell) as a thread connecting all the battling and betraying sides here. You know the story, or oughtta: Gloried in battle once more, the titular Scottish lord is vulnerable to the cryptic predictions of three witchy “weird sisters” (here played mostly as a shape-shifting single entity by Kathryn Hunter) that he will rise to the throne of King. This goes to his head, even more that of Lady M. (Frances McDormand), such that they practice deceit and murder to make that future come true—even if it means killing the actual King (Brendan Gleeson). Of course, every great climb portends a fall, and cruel justice is ultimately doled out in return for Macbeth’s own heedless cruelties.

Washington is an actor of well-established power who excites great expectations in approaching a “classical” role like this. Perhaps chafing against them, he at first seems too casual, almost indifferent in his characterization despite the violent high stakes of Macbeth’s world and deeds. But this turns out to be tactical, reserving the sound and fury for later on, when the suspicion that it might all go wrong turns to dreadful certainty. McDormand, easily commanding an ambitious spousal authority, is in strong form throughout. Though both actors are on the old end of the scale for their roles, they take care to invest this marital bond with a degree of ongoing physical passion. As for the colorblind casting, that barely even registes in this willfully artificial setting, whose geometric architectural, costume, and lighting abstractions are vaguely “medieval” without being hogtied to any specific period or locale.

Shot by Bruno Delbonnel (of Amelie, Tim Burton, other Coen films, etc.), it’s an always striking-looking film, even if its exquisitely mannered presentation partially drains the beating heart out of the Bard’s shortest, most lethal play. (Apart from perhaps Titus Andronicus, but you could say that work’s grand guignol nature renders it less tragic than grotesque.) Macbeth is a play aghast at the evil men do. In that regard, the most successful film to date may well remain Polanski’s, which parlayed all his post-Manson PTSD into a vividly brutal, if less star-driven, indictment of audience pleasure in violence. By contrast, Joel Coen’s incarnation is a trim, fine screen reading wrapped in just enough distancing High Kultur to let you off the hook: It will hardly disturb anyone enough to spoil their holidays.

Still, it’s not a feel-good movie, which is exactly what Licorice Pizza aims to be—something semi-startling for a Paul Thomas Anderson joint, though a good time could certainly be had (by some at least) at Boogie NightsInherent Vice, or Punch-Drunk Love. Still, he has a reputation as Serious/Sometimes Impenetrable Artiste, and this latest is affecting many like champagne after Prohibition, a giddy pleasure. It is definitely larkier in tone than any prior enterprise of his, a comedy aping the loose-limbed idiosyncrasies of movies like American Graffiti or Shampoo from the Me Decade era it’s set in. Some viewers and critics’ groups have already named it their favorite film of 2021. I flat-out love a few of PTA’s prior features—and get no joy from admitting this one did nada for me.

Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour H.) is Gary, a motormouthed 15-year-old who first meets 25-year-old Alana (Alana Haim, of the sibling band Haim) when he’s on line for school photos in the 1973 San Fernando Valley, and she’s assisting the photographer. It’s love at first sight for him; it’s the beginning of an epic eye-roll for her, though she can’t help but be intrigued by this little hustler’s shameless bravado. He’s a child actor aging out of the profession (though he still goes to auditions), willing to try anything else that might work, or offer work—it seems a given that he is his fatherless family’s primary breadwinner. The ostensible adult of their pair, Alana has no better ideas for her own future, so she usually goes along with his latest schemes, which eventually encompass selling waterbeds and running a pinball arcade.

The film’s episodic progress also includes a sojourn to NYC, where Gary is part of a cast reunion for a family movie starring a cranky old-school diva (Christine Ebersole as a thinly disguised Lucille Ball). Later, Alana is briefly swept into the drunken whirl of a veteran movie star (Sean Penn as a figure based on William Holden), then volunteers for a rising politician’s (Benny Safdie) campaign a la Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver.

Climactically, both tangle with a demented rageaholic hairdresser-turned-producer who’s Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend, played by Bradley Cooper. This character is called Jon Peters, and arguably the most interesting thing about Licorice Pizza is how on Earth it got the legal-liability chutzpah to use the name of the real Jon Peters, a former producer-hairdresser-Streisand ex about whom many very colorful stories have been told for decades. His fictionalized equivalent’s episode here may pale beside some true-life ones, but nonetheless Cooper’s few scenes are the most vivid. Through it all weaves the not-quite-love-story of Gary and Alana, rabbit forever pursuing carrot, the weirdness of his juvenile status hardly noted. Well, this is LA in the 1970s: As friends who were teens there tell me, things were pretty different then.

Few things would have delighted me more than being delighted by Licorice Pizza. Indeed, that was the expectation, no matter that I did not love or even much like PTA’s last, The Phantom Thread. But that was a contrived sojourn into foreign territory (the 1950s London couture fashion elite), whereas this promised a return to the general milieu of Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice, albeit in a less jaded, Dazed & Confused-type youth nostalgia mode. What could there possibly be not to like?

Yet immediately I had no idea why we were stuck following these particular characters, played by these particular actors, let alone care whether they “ended up together”—they seem like inexplicably promoted background players, uncharismatic and a little annoying. The very arbitrary narrative began to make a little more sense only afterward, with the discovery that the whole thing is actually based on the recollections of a real former child actor (Gary Goetzman) who is Anderson’s friend, and who lived something very similar to a lot of the incidents here.

But Pizza doesn’t play like anything biographical; its tenor is that of a kind of screwball comedy set in and about Hollywood, albeit one that stubbornly refuses to lift off. Despite the fun period trappings and energetic (if also sometimes irksomely stereotype-embracing) performances, its two and a quarter hours felt like the wrong kind of “endless summer” to me.

Perhaps another viewing—someday—will magically unlock the charm others have already found here. It’s possible: No director since Kubrick has consistently made films so divisively singular, or so likely to be experienced very differently on different occasions. For now, all I can say is: I don’t geddit.

The Tragedy of Macbeth and Licorice Pizza both open in U.S. theaters on Sat/25.

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