Having given up on visiting movie theaters any time in the near future, we’ve been catching up on Oscar Best Picture nominees in the past couple weeks via Amazon Prime, at $19.99 a movie. Weekend before last, Belfast; yesterday, Licorice Pizza.
Belfast is a very fine film, despite some early reviews that almost dismissed it as being too self-consciously “Oscar bait.” That is, designed to appeal to Oscar voters, not so much through the actors as through the technical craftsmanship (such as the artsy black & white surrounded by bookends of color) and the automatic nostalgic appeal of a story based on the childhood of producer/writer Kenneth Branagh.
It’s about the “difficulties” between the Catholics and the Protestants in 1969, and the POV character is the boy Branagh would have been, as he struggles to understand what the sudden conflicts, which have split his neighbors against one another, are actually about. There are some striking scenes (to me) near the beginning in which the boy frankly wonders what the difference is between the Catholics and the Protestants, and why he should believe in one and not the other. Later scenes show how the boy unwittingly gets involved in street gangs, and how he is at the center of his family’s debate about whether to stay in Belfast, or whether the father should take a job opportunity in London. The child actor, Jude Hill, is very good, as is his mother, played by Caitríona Balfe (whose last name is pronounced in one syllable, as heard on the SAG Award show), familiar to us for some years now through her lead role in the TV show “Outlander.” Her role is at least as big as any other in the film, but her SAG nomination was for “supporting” actress… and she didn’t make the cut for the Oscar at all.
Licorice Pizza is about what I expected in broad strokes, if not in detail. It’s set in the early 1970s, in the San Fernando Valley, where other Paul Thomas Anderson films (Boogie Nights; Magnolia) have been filmed and set, and seeing it recalled my own history of growing up there. The SFV is a proper valley, enclosed by hills on almost all sides, roughly 15 by 10 miles, and filled with an endless grid east-west/north-south major and minor streets, lined by subdivisions of modest homes built in the 1950s and ’60s, intersections with gas stations, and major streets with storefronts, and edged by hills, especially along the south, of wealthier homes in the hills looking out over the valley.
I recognized only one location in particular, the small French restaurant called Rive Gauche, entered off a courtyard along the south side of Ventura in Encino, which we visited a few times in the 200s, but which apparently later moved to Sherman Oaks and closed in 2018. I do remember the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant in Encino, long ago torn down and recreated for the film.
The film is about an on/off romance between a 15-year-old high school student and budding actor Gary Valentine, played by Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Alana Kane, a 10-year-older photographer’s assistant played by Alana Haim. The film is quirky; the story takes unexpected turns, and indulges in elaborate set pieces. Among its themes: contemporary fads like waterbeds [[ my parents had a waterbed, about this time ]] and pinball machines (the Hoffman character, his high school and film careers apparently abandoned, tries creating businesses to take advantage of their popularity); and politics of the time, what with Nixon and the oil crises, and with the campaign of city councilman Joel Wachs, whom Alana character idealistically supports. That subplot ends in a big reveal — Wachs was gay and hid it [until 1999] and as Alana realizes this, it spoils her support. Other subplots and set pieces: an installation of a water bed at the home of Jon Peters (played by Bradley Cooper), who stresses that he’s dating Barbra Streisand, and with an escape that involves backing a big panel truck backwards down the streets of those Encino hills; and a stunt at the golf course next to Trader Vic’s in which a film star (played by Sean Penn) tries to recreate a big scene from one of his movies.
It’s a creative and inventive film, though I had the sense that any number of *other* issues and subplots and set pieces could have been substituted along the way, to create obstacles for the unlikely couple, until their inevitable reconciliation. But if the film is (merely) a recreation of the issues in the 1970s that the director remembers, or was influenced by, I’ve fine with that.
I had thought that the title “Licorice Pizza” was a characterization of the two disparate main characters, whom you think could never get along (just as you’d never order a pizza with licorice on it), until a Wikipedia link indicated the film was named after the Licorice Pizza record store chain. That makes sense too.