Saturday, December 4, 2021

Short Takes: December I - Oscar Hopefuls

Reviews:  King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Belfast

King Richard (c) Warner Bros

Film: King Richard 
In Cinemas and HBO Max 

Will Smith has his best chance to win an Oscar for probably his least complicated role as Richard Williams, the devoted and determined father of Serena and Venus Williams, who taught them tennis as kids in Compton and got them noticed to ultimately becoming two of the best tennis players in the history of the game. The film’s feel-good intentions, with occasional detours into social commentary, are in the genre of recent family-friendly films like “Hidden Figures” and even “Green Book” (thankfully without the white savior). The movie is fine and inspiring but there are really no surprises except an enjoyably goofy performance by Jon Bernthal as coach Rick Macci. The two-and-a-half hour running time is also rather a chore, but I did like that director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin decided to finally give Venus Williams some agency over her own story at the end, admirably. The reason the film is called “King Richard” is because one, Richard is the center of the film and his rule is law, which makes his unpleasantness and self-righteousness a given (well, there would be no movie if he wrong); and two, the rest of his family barely registers, except for the ferocious Aunjanue Ellis as Queen Brandi. Now that’s the story I would have rather followed.

Licorice Pizza (c) United Artists

Film: Licorice Pizza 
In Cinemas 

Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, “Licorice Pizza,” is his “Once Upon a Time in Encino” in the way he evokes the Southern California vibe in the 1970s as Quentin Tarantino did in his last film. The difference is that PT Anderson’s film is driven by a collection of atmospheric moods rather than a plot. How else can you explain how 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) can afford everything he does in the film, even on an actor’s salary? Or Bradley Cooper making a hysterical cameo as hairdresser Jon Peters, is even more outrageous and drugged out than Alfred Molina in “Boogie Nights.” Or two throwaway scenes in which a man married to a Japanese woman speaks to her in an exaggerated accent (the joke is she doesn’t speak English, so isn’t he a dolt?), which is unbelievably offensive, makes no sense logically, yet no one in the film bats an eye. These are only a few of the things viewers will have to accept in order to enjoy the exploits of Gary as he pursues Alana (Alana Haim, of the rock band Haim), the cool girl of his dreams. The pair reminds me of older versions of the two scrappy, devil-may-care kids in “Moonrise Kingdom” if they were to spend their teenage years in Los Angeles. “Licorice Pizza” (named after a local record store that is never seen or even referenced) is a spiritual cousin to Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” which went from outrageous set piece to another, all disguised as a noir mystery. That should be your barometer for how much you’ll enjoy this rambling, stream-of-thought fantasia. 

Belfast (c) Focus Features

Film: Belfast 
In Cinemas

Many people have compared Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” with Alfonso Curon’s “Roma” and there are some similarities. Both are autobiographical, both are shot in black and white and both are named for the place each grew up in that also had a threat of political unrest hovering over them. But while “Roma” focused on the maid in Curon’s household, Branagh’s stand-in, Buddy (a naturalistic and charismatic Jude Hill), is front and center of the action. It is 1969 and Belfast, Ireland, is in the midst of “The Troubles” in which Protestant residents took to intimidation and violence in hopes of ridding their streets of their Catholic neighbors. Through his 10-year-old eyes, Buddy sees the violence and the barricades, but they are only backdrops to his childhood where he has a crush on a schoolmate, a loving relationship with his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaràn Hinds) and overhears the hushed conversations between his parents (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) about possibly leaving Belfast. The acting here is first rate, and the rare use of color is a sly code Branagh incorporates to give us clues to Buddy’s real passion. There’s nothing original in this story but its underlying truth and pain is so universal, you can’t help but be swept up by Branagh’s storytelling. 

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