I Went to See ‘Encanto,’ and Well, Here’s What Happened

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Encanto (CREDIT:
Walt Disney Animation Studios/Screenshot)

Starring: Stephanie Beatriz, John Leguizamo, María Cecilia Botero, Diane Guerrero, Jessica Darrow, Angie Cepeda, Wilmer Valderrama, Carolina Gaitán

Directors: Jared Bush and Byron Howard

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: PG

Release Date: November 24, 2021

When I went to see Encanto, I was all ready to stay awake and enjoy a movie, but then … I started nodding off. And it kept happening throughout most of the movie! (This is becoming a bit of a pattern for me when it comes to animated Thanksgiving Disney releases.) I thought I would be able to make it all the way through just fine! The showtime wasn’t that late, and it wasn’t a particularly tiring day! But movie theaters just always make me sleepy now that I’m the age that I am. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t fully unconscious for any prolonged stretches, but it still felt like I missed something, although my viewing companion assured me that I got the gist. I wish I had more to say about the actual content, but my drive for shuteye was undeniably the biggest force of this cinematic experience. Oh, well. I hope Stephanie Beatriz shows up in more movies soon enough.

Grade: Tres Maribels out of Cinco Madrigals

‘Licorice Pizza’ Invites Us to Come of Age, P.T. Anderson-Style

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Licorice Pizza (CREDIT: Paul Thomas Anderson/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Michael Higgins, Skyler Gisondo, Este Haim, Danielle Haim, Moti Haim, Donna Haim, Christine Ebersole, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Joseph Cross, Maya Rudolph

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Indelicate Language

Release Date: November 26, 2021 (Theaters)/Expands December 25, 2021

When I hear the title “Licorice Pizza,” it makes me think of that classic Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen song about putting every conceivable topping you can think of on the top of the crust. I can’t help but shout, “Licorice? Put it on the pizza!” But as it turns out, the directorial approach of Paul Thomas Anderson vis-a-vis Licorice Pizza has basically nothing in common with the Olsen twins. That’s okay, though!

Instead, this movie has me feeling like Linda Richman, which is to say, “Licorice Pizza is neither licorice, nor pizza: discuss.” So discuss I will! A couple of kiddos named Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman) cross paths in 1973 in the San Fernando Valley and then strike up a sorta-friendship, maybe-romance, partnership-in-hustling. Gary’s an accomplished child actor, but when he meets up with Alana, they switch their focus to selling waterbeds. They eventually splinter off into their own interests, as they get involved with the likes of politics and pinball legalization, contend with a gas crisis, and meet a bunch of memorable characters along the way. It feels like Anderson wanted to make a movie about some of the touchstone moments of his youth (or toddlerhood – he was born in 1970) and created a couple of central characters who could Forrest Gump their way through it all. Not a bad idea if you have a knack for populating an ensemble cast full of an endless stream of oddballs and eccentrics.

One question I had throughout watching Licorice Pizza was:just how old are Alana and Gary really? She says she’s 25, and he says he’s 15, which sounds perfectly plausible at first. But it’s of course more than a little concerning that a twentysomething would be hanging out so much with a teenager. Although it doesn’t come across as creepy as it could, mostly because Gary feels a lot older than he ostensibly is. I suppose that’s the lot of the child actor, to mature faster than everyone else (in some ways). Furthermore, when you consider all the various business ventures that are launched and folded over the course of the runtime, it feels like multiple years must be passing. So I started to surmise that maybe Gary was a little older by the end of it all anyway. But actually, I’m pretty sure all this action somehow takes place within one year (or less!). Latchkey kids apparently could get away with a lot way back when. Or in Gary’s case, teenage adults could do pretty much whatever they wanted in the 70s. These are the discombobulating thoughts I had while watching this movie!

In conclusion, Licorice Pizza is more or less a series of chuckle-inducing zesty vignettes with a bent-but-bighearted emotional throughline. Worth checking out!

Licorice Pizza is Recommended If You Like: Old sitcom bits and other pop culture ephemera, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Sisters yelling at each other

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Waterbeds

Say Yes to the ‘House of Gucci’

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House of Gucci (CREDIT: Fabio Lovino/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

Starring: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Al Pacino, Salma Hayek, Jeremy Irons, Jack Huston, Reeve Carney, Camille Cottin

Director: Ridley Scott

Running Time: 157 Minutes

Rating: R for Opulent Language and Sexuality, and a Little Bit of Gun Violence

Release Date: November 24, 2021 (Theaters)

How historically accurate is House of Gucci? I’m not sure, and at this moment, I don’t particularly care. The general bullet points at least are correct as far as I can tell: Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) marries her way into the legendary Gucci fashion family. She reveals her true ambitious self by pushing aside her brother-in-law Paolo (Jared Leto) and uncle-in-law Aldo (Al Pacino). But her union with her husband Maurizio (Adam Driver) eventually falls apart, so much so that after their divorce, she teams up with a psychic (Salma Hayek) to hire a hitman to murder Maurizio. The Guccis are clearing themselves right out of Gucci.

It’s a tale that’s as ripe as a tomato for building a legend around. When you’re going the mythmaking route, it helps if the real-life people being portrayed are dead, which is mostly the case here, except for Reggiani. I don’t know if she plans on watching the film, but either way, I hope she can make peace with the fact that her persona is now partly owned by the culture at large.

And what a persona it is! Gaga goes big. Perhaps the Biggest of Her Career. Now, you may be thinking, “That’s saying something, considering what she’s famous for.” But while her landscapes and scaffolding are frequently over-the-top in baroque and rococo fashions, her foundations are usually grounded in more straightforward feeling. But in this case, Patrizia cannot be contained. She’s the kind of person who wonders aloud, “Will I be successful?” And you know what she really means is, “Look out suckers, I’m not going to stop until I do everything I can to be successful.” You get the feeling that Gaga has captured some elemental force, and if she had let it get away, it would be like unleashing Pandora’s box.

The other performance I’m absolutely in love with is Leto’s take on the black sheep of the family. Paolo Gucci and I have similarly left-of-center views on fashion, so I’m already drawn toward him for that reason. Leto plays him as a sort of simpering Italian version of Rodney Dangerfield, with a voice that sounds like a certain video game plumber. Often when it comes to Leto, I’m put off by stories of his onscreen antics, and even beyond that, I’ve never quite connected with any of his performances. However, in this case, he’s making some wild decisions that perfectly embody the House of Gucci milieu. It’s breathtaking.

As for the rest of the cast, Adam Driver and Jeremy Irons (as Maurizio’s stick-up-his-ass dad Rodolfo) are much more subdued than everyone else. Pacino is subdued by his standards (which is to say, he’s in between the Gucci extremes). And we all know that Salma Hayek always brings it, and she brings it as hard here as she always does. In conclusion, I spent most of this review talking about the acting, and that’s because these are performances that are as hearty and life-sustaining as a Mediterranean diet. Dig in!

House of Gucci is Recommended If You Like: I, Tonya, Super Marios Bros., That Olive Garden commercial with the Selena Gomez song

Grade: 4 out of 5 Fabrics

‘Eternals’ Weighs an Eternity

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Eternals (CREDIT: Marvel Entertainment/Screenshot)

Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Bryan Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie

Director: Chloé Zhao

Running Time: 157 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: November 5, 2021 (Theaters)

Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” plays during Eternals‘ end credits, which is pretty cool, as that’s a fun song to rock out or sing along to. But then it cuts off before the guitar solo! And that made me feel pretty cut off. That’s the micro of how I feel about Eternals in the macro. The premise is intriguing, and multiple characters have an engaging hook, but then it just never lets loose. That’s two-and-a-half hours of waiting for something unforgettable. At least this isn’t the same-old, same-old I’ve gotten so used to from the MCU. Alas, a dozen or so central characters that have been around for millennia can be pretty imposing.

Grade: Not Enough Deviant Energy

‘C’Mon C’Mon’ R’view R’view

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C’Mon C’Mon (CREDIT: A24)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffman, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, Jaboukie Young-White

Director: Mike Mills

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Language (But I Say “Come On!” to the MPA! There’s Only One Scene of Really Bad Profanity!)

Release Date: November 19, 2021 (Theaters)

When you go see a movie with a title like “C’Mon C’Mon,” you can’t help but wonder if it’ll have you yourself yelling “C’Mon C’Mon!” back at the screen. Well, at least I can’t help but wonder that. Your mileage may vary. There are various reasons why one might have this reaction: cheering along, frustration, or maybe you just have to go to the bathroom and it’s a mantra to help you hold it in until the credits start rolling. If I counted correctly, there was precisely one time when I in fact yelled that “C’Mon C’Mon.” And it was merely an internal yell. (It would’ve been a little rude to my fellow moviegoers to scream in the middle of the theater, after all.) But that paucity is actually appropriate, because despite the title, this is a movie designed to be nodded along to as it gently washes over you.

Joaquin Phoenix plays radio journalist Johnny, who pops in for a rare visit to his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) and then suddenly finds himself babysitting his energetic nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) while Viv goes off to help Jesse’s father Paul (Scoot McNairy), who’s living with bipolar disorder. Johnny’s currently working on a project in which he and his colleagues are going around to various locales to interview teenagers about what it’s like to be a kid in their home cities in today’s world. That’s not exactly an ideal situation for a nine-year-old to be tagging along, but Johnny’s happy to actually get the opportunity to be an uncle, and he and Jesse develop a quick rapport.

Ultimately, C’Mon C’Mon is a gentle how-to guide about raising a kid. Much of the running time consists of Johnny and Viv texting or chatting on the phone to hash out all the child-rearing stresses that arise on a daily basis. Jesse’s a bit of a handful, though he’s hardly a demon child. The worst things he does are on the level of forgetting to pack his toothbrush or scaring his uncle half to death by wandering off. None of these moments lead to a full-blown emergency; instead, Johnny freaks out and Jesse gets upset, but things settle down soon enough. Then Johnny and Viv discuss the best way to talk to a child after these sorts of things happen. If you’re a new parent, or a new aunt or uncle who’s babysitting for the first time, this is a helpful movie to watch. I’m not quite there yet myself, but I might be relatively soon, so I feel like I must say thank you to everyone involved with making this movie.

C’Mon C’Mon is Recommended If You Like: Mike Mills’ gentle filmography, Texting conversations popping up on screen, Reading parenting blogs and magazines

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Boom Mics

‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ is Very Similar to the First ‘Ghostbusters,’ and I Would Be Very Surprised If Anyone Argued Differently

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Ghostbusters: Afterlife (CREDIT: Screenshot)

Starring: McKenna Grace, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Paul Rudd, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Annie Potts, Bokeem Woodbine

Director: Jason Reitman

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Shooting Lasers at Those Ghosts

Release Date: November 19, 2021 (Theaters)

Ghostbusters: Afterlife plays all the biggest hits of the original Ghostbusters, but in rural Oklahoma instead of Manhattan. A gluttonous spook chomping away, squishy treats running amok, hellbeasts hooking up, “Who you gonna call?” – it’s all right here! It’s like a recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live: perfectly professional, and it probably works best for those who haven’t seen the first edition. As for those who were around for the original, there’s the thrill – or sting – of familiarity. This time around, the main busters are a few precocious kids, as opposed to a crew of childlike adults, so the vibe is at least a little different, although pretty much everyone involved takes great pains to capture that 1984 mojo as best they can.

I frequently wonder why repetition is demonized so much more in cinema than it is in other mediums. Revivals are an essential piece of live theater, musicians are expected to play the same songs over and over at their concerts, superhero comic books thrive on retelling the same stories, etc. But when you trot out a repeat at the movie house, you might draw big crowds, though you likely won’t win much critical praise, at least not as much as you did the first go-round. It probably has something to do with scale and budget. It takes years to assemble sequels and reboots, so there is a lot riding on them to be worth it. Ghostbusters: Afterlife plays it safe, so we’ll probably continue to see proton packs around town for decades to come, but I don’t know if anyone will also start emulating Paul Rudd’s plaid ensembles. (Well, maybe they will, but less because of this movie and more because he’s the Sexiest Man Alive.)

I didn’t want to be preoccupied by all this context while watching Afterlife, but it’s kind of unavoidable when you’re as plugged into culture as much as I am. When I try to think about this movie in and of itself, I can at least say that I appreciate that Carrie Coon and McKenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard were free to do their own thing, more or less. And there is one scene that I must admit is just undeniably satisfying, and that is when a bunch of Stay Puft marshmallows impishly run amok in a brand name department store. It’s cute and chaotic – an eternally winning combination. It’s also curious and a little unpredictable, which are qualities that the rest of the movie could have definitely benefited from.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is Recommended If You Like: SNL recurring sketches, the Minions going shopping in the first Despicable Me, Dead actors resurrected by technology

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Spooks

‘Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn’ is Thoughtful and Playful with Its Explicit Subject Matter

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Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: Katia Pascariu, Claudia Ieremia, Olimpia Malai, Nicodim Ungureanu

Director: Radu Jade

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (But Do Know That It Gets Pretty Explicit)

Release Date: November 19, 2021 (Theaters)

Every once in a while, a movie breaks itself up into chapters via on-screen intertitles, but rarely can I ever discern much of a difference between those chapters, thematic or otherwise. But finally a film has come along with some clear reasons for the delineation. It has emerged out of Romania, and it goes by the name of Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (or Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc, if you prefer its native tongue). It has a fairly familiar premise: schoolteacher Emi (Katia Pascariu) makes a sex tape and then it’s accidentally discovered by the people in her life. But I can guarantee you don’t know what’s coming next. The first section consists of Emi walking around town in the wake of the tape leaking; the middle is a montage of “definitions” of various words and concepts; and then it all wraps up in a heated and often hilarious parent-teacher conference.

It’s immediately clear that Bad Luck Banging is far from the typical American version of this story, in terms of its sexual explicitness and its patience. So much of the cinematography of the first third consists of lingering shots of buildings and streetscapes. In the most literal sense, this portion is just about how Emi gets from point A to point B. And point C. And points D and E and F. I eventually started to wonder if writer-director Radu Jade had been influenced by Birdemic. This section does also serve the purpose of presenting what Romanian society looks like in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which in a word is: RUDE! I sure hope it’s not always like that, as Emi’s day-to-day life is simply exhausting, in a way that has nothing to do with the sex tape.

The middle section is a grab bag of jokes and social commentary, and it’s really exciting to stumble across a movie that sticks some formal experimentation within a more traditional narrative structure. Another reason that it’s so exciting is because I don’t know what is going to pop up on screen on a second-by-second basis. And if I ever watch this movie again, that will still probably be true, because I haven’t remembered every single part of this section. If I had, I would’ve recounted them in detail to you fine readers of this review!

And finally, I guess I better talk about the last section, seeing as I talked about both of the previous sections. It’s only fair. During the parent-teacher conference, Emi is presented as the One Sane Woman amidst a phalanx of prudes, conspiracy theorists, and other nutcases. The crowd is understandably upset about what their kids have been exposed to, but they don’t seem very interested in finding a reasonable solution. Ultimately, this sequence is a Big Fat Plea to allow consenting adults to live their sex lives however they want to. And it’s playful throughout, particularly in a series of alternate endings that let the imagination run wild. Open-mindedness is useful for a number of reasons.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is Recommended If You Like: Jean-Luc Godard, Watching private parts in public, Curb Your Enthusiasm

Grade: 4 out of 5 Sex Tapes

‘Julia’ is on Fire

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Julia (CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics/Screenshot)

Starring: Julia Child and Friends

Directors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: November 12, 2021 (Theaters)

The beginning of the Julia Child documentary Julia features footage of Ms. Child in the kitchen to the tune of Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic hard rock classic “Fire.” Which had me going, “Awww, yeah!” I love that sort of juxtaposition! The rest of the movie is a fairly typical biographical documentary, what with its mix of archival footage and interviews with family, friends, and fans. But that opening has me wondering about other potential mashup ideas: the Barefoot Contessa set to Metallica, perhaps? Emeril Lagasse chopping away while Phish jams on? The Swedish Chef bork bork-ing as Yoko Ono howls with abandon? Chime in if you’ve got any other ideas!

Grade: 3 Chopped Fingers in the Beef Bourguignon

‘Belfast’ Presents a Coming-of-Age Story in a Time of Troubles

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Belfast (CREDIT: Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

Starring: Jude Hill, Catríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Lara McDonnell, Olive Tennant

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Explosive Violence and Some Language

Release Date: November 12, 2021 (Theaters)

If you’re a nine-year-old boy who takes school seriously, can’t you just pine after the classmate you’re sweet on without having to worry about a war raging in your neighborhood? That’s the conundrum in which little Buddy (Jude Hill) finds himself in 1960s Belfast, Northern Ireland in the film named after the city written and directed by Belfast native Kenneth Branagh. He’s at that age when he’s really starting to notice the opposite sex, but you get the sense that he’s also the one of those kids who never thought that girls were icky. His teacher has a system wherein whoever does best on the math tests gets to sit at the front of the room. Buddy’s stuck in the middle when we meet him, while his crush Catherine (Olive Tennant, daughter of David) is firmly ensconced in the #1 position. Will Buddy work his way up to the front? It’s good motivation if you can get it.

We never doubt Buddy’s sweetness, or his studiousness, but we do worry that he might get waylaid by forces beyond his control, considering the time and place he’s living. This was the beginning of “The Troubles,” a decades-long ethnic conflict in the country. As presented in Belfast, it’s primarily a fight against Catholics instigated by Protestants. Buddy’s family are Protestants, but they’re decidedly against participating in the fight in any capacity. My reaction to the presence of The Troubles, both within the movie and in real life, is much the same as that of Buddy’s dad (Jamie Dornan), who basically tells the local ringleader, “Get out of here. We don’t want any part of this.” I really just want to see Buddy’s budding love life and the rest of what he does for fun. Perhaps the context of national strife provides some extra dramatic oomph, but I’m pretty sure I like coming-of-age stories even when they take place in times of peace.

So what else did I like about this movie? Buddy’s relationships with his family members were certainly a treat to peak in on. His mom (Catríona Balfe) steadily holds down the fort, while his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) are founts of wisdom. Also, there’s this really memorable scene at the end when his dad gives him some great advice about tolerance and open-heartedness. The moments when the family watch movies are also quite a bit fun (partly because they provide a bit of color to the otherwise black-and-white presentation). This certainly feels like the most personal directorial effort I’ve ever seen from Branagh. It is semi-autobiographical after all, and you can feel that.

Belfast is Recommended If You Like: British villages, Love fueled by academic success, Guileless discussions about religion

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Maths

‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ is Worth a Watch If You Feel Like Being Silly

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Clifford the Big Red Dog (CREDIT: Paramount Pictures)

Starring: Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall, Izaac Wang, John Cleese, Tony Hale, Sienna Guillory, David Alan Grier, Alex Moffat, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Russell Wong, Paul Rodriguez, Russell Peters, Mia Ronn, Kenan Thompson, Rosie Perez

Director: Walter Becker

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG for The Nuttiness Caused by a Giant Puppy

Release Date: November 10, 2021 (Theaters and Paramount+)

What would YOU do if a 20-foot-plus red-furred dog started running around all over everywhere? I imagine most people would react with a mixture of shock and confusion, but in this particular pup’s cinematic adventure directed by Walt Becker (Wild Hogs, Old Dogs), there’s a wider range of reactions. Clifford is cause not only for sublime awe, but also for worries about being a good caretaker, or the impetus to justify eviction, or for a standard-issue evil mega-corporation to swoop in and claim that they own everything. And of course, he becomes a bit of a local neighborhood hero. People act very wacky in Clifford the Big Red Dog, in ways that are fairly typical of a family flick, but not always in ways that necessarily go hand-in-hand with the presence of a gigantic canine, and I appreciate that.

The plot essentials that you might want to know are that sixth-grader Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) finds herself with an incorrigible dog after an encounter in Central Park with the mysterious and magical Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese) and his animal emporium. Her Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) isn’t so keen on her keeping Clifford, mostly because he wants to prove to his sister, Emily’s mom Maggie (Sienna Guillory), that he can be responsible. Meanwhile, Mr. Packard the super (David Alan Grier) doesn’t like dogs, and Tony Hale swoops in as a plainly devious CEO to capture Clifford and discover the secrets of his genetic code.

Obviously, something as kid-friendly as this movie is going to end with every character (except the most villainous or toady-ish) rallying around to save the day. So the most important question is: just how goofy do things get? And the answer is … pretty dang goofy. For a generally tame PG movie, there were several moments that had me delighting in their brazenness. A choice example happens when a veterinarian played by Kenan Thompson tries to gently inform us that Clifford’s temperature is supposed to be taken in the normal animal-temperature-taking location (“rhymes with nuthole”). And Clifford himself is as expressive as any real dog, so that plays well whenever there needs to be a definitive reaction shot.

So now the final question: do I want a big red dog of my own? My current living situation isn’t exactly the most dog-friendly, but let’s suppose I have a theoretically more welcoming setup. So with that in mind, I’d have to say: while a mutt like Clifford is great in a pinch whenever you need to run across a bridge, this movie isn’t shy about reminding us of the anatomical and practical matters that need can’t be avoided. Believing in magic can only take us so far, but we can always lighten the mood by saying silly things along the way.

Clifford the Big Red Dog is Recommended If You Like: Goofy uncles, Kid-friendly scatological humor, Standard kids movie tropes

Grade: 3 out of 5 Whimpers

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