Category Archives: Film Reviews

Coming of Age in 1973 Los Angeles: Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza”

Licorice Pizza (2021) – Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

By Remy A. Renault

     In Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest effort, Licorice Pizza, a struggling teenage actor named Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) becomes enamored with a woman a decade his senior upon glimpsing her at school on photo day. In a beautifully shot opening sequence, we’re introduced to Alana Kane (Alana Haim), the woman in question, from behind as she proceeds down an exterior corridor at Gary’s high school. Having glimpsed her a minute earlier, Gary is the only one to respond as she irritably offers a comb and a mirror to students waiting in line to have their picture taken. Her grouchiness quickly dissipates, however, as she becomes bemused by his uncharacteristically precocious behavior. The sequence itself almost feels musical in its briskness. It is so subtly edited and fluid in its camera movements that from the moment we see Alana walking down the corridor to the time their banter ends with Gary sitting down to have his photo taken in the school gymnasium, one feels they’ve just witnessed a single take. The viewer is rapidly propelled into the film’s timeline without any exposition. The only exposition of which Anderson is arguably guilty is an overreliance on vintage pop songs to signature various developments and mood shifts in his largely period-set narratives. 

     The pair ultimately agree to meet that evening at Tail o’ the Cock, a famous Hollywood hangout where Gary is a regular, and despite Alana’s initial apprehension, a friendship quickly blossoms as they engage in various adolescent escapades ranging from small business ventures to awkward acting auditions. A mutual attraction then slowly brews, even if their relationship remains platonic. Both characters even have trysts of their own throughout the film, but platonic or not, the chemistry between Hoffman and Haim was such that their age gap never crossed my mind while viewing the film. Alana’s driftlessness even serves to complement Gary’s precocity, which is why she doesn’t appear out of place among him and his friends while nonetheless alluding to her advanced age. She lives with her parents as a 25-year-old and insists to Gary during their first dinner together that she’ll still be taking school photos of kids when she’s thirty and that he will have forgotten her the next year. The progression of the film, however, suggests that won’t be the case. On a side note, some viewers were phased by Anderson’s cavalier depiction of racism in a few of the film’s scenes. One scene depicts racism towards Asians and another antisemitism. However, the film didn’t seem to be condoning the sentiments expressed on screen. The scenes simply appeared to be satirical depictions of the regressive mores that characterize much of American society even to this day. 

     With Pizza, Anderson seems to be taking himself less seriously than he has in the past, which isn’t to say his ambition has never lived up to its promise. It often has, but none of his previous films has routinely been described as either delightful or whimsy. His somber masterpiece The Master (2012) is anything but whimsy in its depiction of mid-century American psychosis, and the underrated Inherent Vice (2014), for all its playfulness, is too opaque to have adjectives implying enjoyability breezily applied to it. Pizza is much fluffier by comparison and is essentially a hangout movie, but it also bears many of the hallmarks of the coming-of-age genre. Youth is depicted as a series of trials and tribulations with a young man’s first love paramount among them. Unlike Anderson’s coming-of-age-themed Boogie Nights (1997), however, it contains little in the way of either the triumphant or the downright tragic, even if both films function as love letters to the San Fernando Valley of his childhood. The title ‘Licorice Pizza’ was even inspired by the name of a chain of vinyl record stores that existed in southern California in the seventies.  

     Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim are admittedly impressive in their debut performances. Interestingly, they both acted the entire film without makeup.[1] Ever since The Master, Anderson has attempted to give his films a more tactile quality, which would be compromised by certain cosmetic adornments, such as the beautification of a lead actress, robbing her of a more natural appearance. The increasing emphasis on his actors has also reached a point where their presence is privileged above all else in the frame. In his earlier more ensemble-oriented films, the actors can almost come across as marionette-like whereas in his more recent efforts the material tends to primarily serve the star performers. Anderson still shoots on 35mm film, which enhances the tactile quality that would likely be lost if he switched to digital photography. Anderson does echo the movie brats in his almost naïve attachment to the movies as an innocent pastime, and his earlier works tend to ape various seventies figures, such as Altman and Kubrick, but the lush and flamboyant camera movements of his newer films superficially recall those of Max Ophüls. They also display an economy and precision in their craftsmanship that resembles that of a classical Hollywood filmmaker like John Ford. There’s never a wasted frame in his films, and the flamboyance is rarely mere window dressing but succeeds in heightening the camera’s relationship with the actors and the events depicted on screen. 

Pizza – Dir: P.T. Anderson

     The seeming tactility continues with Pizza, and the 70mm blow-up print is a feast for the eyes. One standout scene takes place at the Hollywood Palladium during a Teenage Fair where Gary goes to promote his new waterbed business. What’s distinctive about this sequence is the single take which begins with Gary and his friends removing his supplies from the car. The camera then enters the building to give us a brief tour of the event itself where we even see John C. Reilly in a memorable cameo. The use of atonal music by jazz artist Chico Hamilton enhances the scene’s sense of confusion and foreboding, as Gary agitatedly runs back and forth giving orders to his friends while preparing his presentation. Despite being set in a large convention center, the scene has a sense of claustrophobia, created by the fearful tracking shots, which, through their tentativeness, suggest danger lurking in the margins. Gary’s uncharacteristic anxiety is temporarily diffused, however, when he crosses paths with Alana who provides some reassurance, but this joyful interlude is then cut short by a disturbing and unexpected encounter that reestablishes the unsettling tone from the previous moment. 

     Nonetheless, the film isn’t without its shortcomings. Some of these drawbacks lie precisely in Gary’s precocity, which isn’t always credible. He rarely displays social anxiety and carries himself with an assurance that would be unexpected of a fifteen-year-old, especially one who doesn’t come from a privileged background. It also sometimes feels as though the two leads were written in the service of Anderson’s desired narrative ends with Gary’s sassiness the convenient complement (or foil) to Alana’s more sardonic demeanor. Make no mistake. It’s a good film, but the technical prowess attached to what is essentially a smoothly flowing hangout movie renders Licorice Pizza less satisfying than The Masterwhere the aesthetic choices reflect the psychological turmoil of Joaquin Phoenix’s shellshocked Freddie Quell as he navigates the psychosis of a spiritually sterile postwar America exemplified by cult leader and snake oil salesman Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). 

     Another predictable point of comparison for Anderson’s film is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019). Both films are set in Los Angeles in different but adjacent years: Tarantino’s in 1969 and Anderson’s in 1973. However, Tarantino’s transparent nostalgia contrasts with Anderson’s more morally ambiguous take on the era of his childhood, as it’s tempered with reminders of less savory aspects of the time period. These include references to pervasive casual racism, as well as the OPEC-led oil embargo that impacts Gary’s ability to continue with his waterbed venture. Technical flourishes, such as Anderson’s handling of the sequence at the Hollywood Palladium are largely absent from Tarantino’s more unapologetically populist romp. Hollywood’s exuberance and the way it shamelessly relishes the most elemental joys of moviemaking can be intoxicating, however, even if Tarantino is rarely under the illusion his films should be taken seriously or as anything more than well-crafted pastiches of earlier populist styles of filmmaking, such as Westerns and 1970s martial arts films. As enjoyable as the film is, the depiction of A-list stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as struggling performers teetering on the fringes of showbusiness doesn’t always feel credible, but even the idea of them as victims of shifting tides and attitudes in the movie industry is ultimately played for laughs. Despite its flaws and in contradiction to the California Dream in which Tarantino revels, Pizza is still sensitive to the daily struggles accompanying an American middle-class existence, and this makes it a worthy watch. 

[1] Jérôme Momcilovic, « Jeunesses Américaines: Licorice Pizza de Paul Thomas Anderson: Des Joues Pâles Et Rosissantes », Cahiers Du Cinema, Janvier 2022, 17. 

At the Crossroads of Revolution and Reconciliation: A Close Look at Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s masterpiece “Memories of Underdevelopment”

Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) – Director: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea

By Remy A. Renault

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s masterpiece Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) is as much a historical document as it is a film. Set in that precarious window of time between the Bay of Pigs invasion and the point at which the Cuban Missile Crisis reached its climax, the film seemingly registered a history that was still in progress at the time of its making. The confusion plaguing the early years of post-revolutionary Cuba is experienced through the eyes of Sergio, an idler approaching middle-age whose dashed dreams of becoming a writer have been replaced by days spent leering at woman on the streets of Havana. His voiceovers in which he incessantly laments the “underdevelopment” of Cuba suggest aspirations towards a European sense of “cultivation”. These leanings of his, however, as well as his apparent ambivalence towards the revolutionary fervor surrounding him, seem to contradict his expressed disdain for the crass materialism of his wife and parents, who he relievedly sees off at the start of the film when they flee to Miami to escape the ongoing geopolitical turmoil. On the one hand, Sergio’s displacement from his historical moment is amplified by juxtaposing briskly edited archival footage with the languorousness with which the film follows Sergio’s own escapades. Nonetheless, he’s made a conscious choice not to follow in the footsteps of his family and his friend Pablo but rather to reconcile himself to a history he’s still struggling to comprehend. His sympathies with the plight of the developing world in the face of colonialism and the rapacious capitalism of First World powers are even made clear during one archival interlude in which he observes the death toll from malnutrition exceeds that of World War II. 

     Played with a “permanent sneer” by Sergio Corrieri, one may be tempted to initially dismiss Sergio as a mere reactionary and a chauvinist brute.[1] He is both those things in certain measure. However, his sense of inertia is still suggestive of a conflicted soul who can neither embrace nor disavow the ideals of his “underdeveloped” environment as he staunchly rejects the materialism that lies to the north. This sense of limbo serves to highlight the contradictions that still lingered in Cuban society itself, including its hierarchies both social and sexual that inevitably contradicted the ideals of the revolution. Alea was keenly aware of these conundrums, despite his status as a committed revolutionary. He made Memories at a time at which the Revolution was just starting to come of age, the initial euphoria being replaced by more probing questions over how to remake society. Despite a brief sequence in which Sergio’s apartment appears to be getting seized by the government, the impunity with which he is still able to enjoy his bourgeois lifestyle is indicative of the inconsistencies that persisted in the early years of post-revolutionary Cuba. 

     Sergio lives off a sizable rental income, which allows him to lounge around his spacious penthouse apartment where he peruses art books and cranks out single sentences on a typewriter, such as, “All those who loved me and kept bothering me right up to the last minute have left now”, which is, incidentally, the first line of Edmundo Desnoes’ novel Inconsolable Memories on which the film is based.[2] He also fantasizes about his maid, Noemi, who he even likens to Botticelli’s Venus. His relations with Noemi never move beyond distanced admiration, or do they? Of the many women who catch his attention on the streets of Havana, however, one will prove to be the source of future legal trouble for him, and that’s Elena. The sequence in which Elena and Sergio first cross paths on Calle 23 in Havana’s affluent Vedado district puts Alea’s gifts as a filmmaker on full display. His use of silence to build tension is especially impressive. The predatory male gaze of Sergio is constantly juxtaposed with that of Elena as she intermittently peers back towards her predator. The dialog is scant with only their footsteps and ambient street sounds audible. He eventually asks her out only to be quickly rebuffed. Slowly disarming her with his humor, however, even if her armor of coyness never fully dissipates, a brief courtship commences. Elena is an aspiring actress, and Sergio at one point accompanies her to the Cuban film ministry where she auditions for a director friend of his played by Alea himself. Their eventual relationship never develops beyond a dynamic of objectification on his part and mocking resistance on hers, however. Before eventually growing bored of her, Sergio haplessly attempts to civilize and cultivate her by bringing her to art museums and, in one memorable sequence, Ernest Hemingway’s home near Havana where he abandons her on the labyrinthine property only to incur her wrath, as well as that of her family’s. Legal complications then ensue. 

Memories – Dir: Alea

     Gutierrez Alea was a committed revolutionary and a cofounder of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC), the Cuban film institute founded as a branch of the Ministry of Culture in the wake of Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. At around the time of the ICAIC’s creation, Havana had more movie theaters than either Paris or New York, but Cuba did not have a substantial film industry of its own, and Alea was instrumental in laying the groundwork for its subsequent development. Castro was quite cognizant of the potency moving images could have in furthering the revolution’s cause. Che Guevara even commissioned a few documentaries to capture the communists’ land reform efforts, one of which was made by Gutierrez Alea himself, but make no mistake. Despite his political leanings, Gutierrez Alea’s filmmaking efforts amounted to substantially more than mere agitprop. He may have expressed sympathy for film’s potential to advance revolutionary ideas and was less outwardly concerned with European notions of “auteurism”, but Memories suggests otherwise. The film is prototypical of the subjective realism often associated with European auteurs, given how heavily it’s driven by Sergio’s voiceover narration. The camera elegiacally dwells on everything in his path with occasional snippets of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing in the background. It’s closing sequence even bears a resemblance to that of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962) in both theme and execution. Both films close on a note of indeterminacy regarding the future of nuclear proliferation, and just as Antonioni’s emotionally adrift pair of lovers, played by Alain Delon and Monica Vitti, are swallowed up by a relentlessly encroaching modernity, the “underdeveloped” and defenseless island of Cuba itself is presented as the victim of said modernity by the end of Memories. Sergio, despite his numerous qualms about his home country, has chosen to stay with the ship. For him, First World decadence is not the solution. As the film ends, ominous music, as in L’Eclisse’s ending, accompanies the sight of armored trucks accumulating along the Malecon, another of Havana’s main avenues, suggesting conflict with an unknown outcome is on the horizon. 

L’Eclisse (1962) – Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

     In another of the film’s memorable sequences, we see Sergio standing on his terrace studying the cityscape of Havana before him through a telescope. While doing this, he voices his thoughts on the city as it stands between two pivotal phases in its history. As an example, he observes the now removed imperial eagle in downtown Havana has yet to be replaced by Picasso’s dove and then retorts it’s easy to be a millionaire communist in Paris. A sense of tranquility reigns over the scene itself despite his indirect commentary on the political tumult of the period. We hear the tropical breeze accompanied by the chirping of one of his pet birds. He then discovers another of the birds has died and nonchalantly drops it from his balcony as if the act has little consequence to him personally just like the revolution itself. This coupling of a documentary-like immediacy with which Alea registers the tenor of Cuban society and a more leisurely aesthetic to reflect the detached psyche of Sergio is the film’s primary strength. Nonetheless, the existence of parallel but separate realities appears to be rupturing by the film’s end as a cloud of geopolitical uncertainty begins to hover over Cuba with Sergio no longer immune to its maelstrom. 

Memories – Dir: Alea

     I would just like to end this by saying it’s hard for me to disassociate Memories from Humberto Solás’ Lucia (1968), which was released the same year. On the surface the two films don’t appear to have much in common, aside from being among the most noteworthy works of post-revolutionary Cuban cinema, as well as my introduction to such. They also both feature the actress Eslinda Núñez. Lucia is a series of three vignettes, each set at a crucial moment in Cuba’s history and each about the travails of a woman named Lucia. In each of the three shorts encompassing the film, the woman named Lucia experiences grief at the hands of her loved one. In the first section, set at the time of Cuba’s war of independence from Spain, Lucia is an upper-class woman who’s romantically misled by a suave Spaniard. The second section, which is set in the 1930’s, is focused on a middle-class woman’s struggles against the dictator Machado, and the third section, set just after the revolution, is about an illiterate working-class woman trapped in an abusive marriage. Each section is filmed in a different style to replicate the state of mind of its protagonist. Like MemoriesLucia also engages in a seamless marriage of documentary-like immediacy and a more elegant subjective realism. One could almost say the documentary aesthetic was itself a form of subjective realism, as films like Lucia recruited “documentary techniques to reduce the space between “the cinema” and the lived experiences of its Cuban audiences.”[3] The point was to insist on the “physical truthfulness” of “class struggle”.[4] Memories may not have dealt with class struggle in as direct a manner as the third section of Lucia did, but it was still emblematic of the works of “Third Cinema”, which sought to give a voice to the struggles of the developing world in the post-colonial era, whether that entailed soul searching or more concrete class struggle. 

Lucia (1968) – Director: Humberto Solás


Desnoes, Edmundo. Inconsolable Memories. Translated by the Author. New York: The New American Library, 1967. 

Downing, John D.H. “Four Films of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea” in Film & Politics in The Third World, edited by John D.H. Downing, 279-301. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1987. 

Hagopian, Kevin. “Lucia.” New York State Writers Institute: State University of New York, Accessed February 28, 2022.

Jelly-Schapiro, Joshua. “Memories of Underdevelopment: Imaging History.” Current, August 26, 2018. Criterion Collection. 

MacBean, James Roy and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. “A Dialogue with Tomás Gutiérrez Alea on the Dialectics of the Spectator in “Hasta Cierto Punto”.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3. (Spring, 1985) : 22-29. 

Observations on Film Art. “Politics and Subjectivity: Memories of Underdevelopment on the Criterion Channel.”. May 19, 2019.

[1] Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, ‘Memories of Underdevelopment: Imaging History’, Current, Criterion Collection, August 26, 2018,

[2] Edmundo Desnoes, Inconsolable Memories, trans. the Author (New York: The New American Library, 1967), 13.

[3] Kevin Hagopian, Lucia, New York State Writers Institute: State University of New York,

[4] Ibid

Estrangement and Intimacy in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers”

Parallel Mothers (2021) – Director: Pedro Almodóvar

By Remy A. Renault

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest effort Parallel Mothers (Madres Paralelas) may not be his most memorable work, and I admit to preferring both his more absurdist and tragic films to those that tend toward melodrama, Mothers clearly falling into that last category, but the material would not demand it to be anything else. The one tragic event within the film’s timeline mainly serves as a catalyst for a deepening emotional bond between the titular parallel mothers. The director’s attempt to take his familiar themes of regret and desire and concretely historicize them within the context of Spain’s still unhealed political wounds, or more precisely its historical amnesia, may feel didactic and even maudlin at times, but then a general turn in his last few films from a gentle insanity, which I believe reached its apex for him with the admittedly less-celebrated The Skin I Live In (2011), to a general sense of wistfulness is possibly indicative of the shifting concerns of a filmmaker beset by regrets and what-ifs of his own as he reaches the twilight of his career.[1] With that in mind, it’s possible what I initially perceive as maudlin may just be illustrative of the more stately qualities one encounters in a late-career work.

     As always in his films, demons, both personal and historic, are excavated against the backdrop of flamboyantly decorated interiors, bursting with Pop Art-redolent primary colors, and even as he’s been forced to switch from celluloid to digital photography these last few years, due to a dearth of developing labs in his native Spain, Almodóvar hasn’t shown any signs of modifying his visual palette, which has remained more or less consistent over the years, regardless of the genre in which he’s operating. One could almost accuse his recent features of being derivative of earlier efforts, or of at least toning down the pathos while recycling his more cosmetic attributes. Almodóvar is a filmmaker vulnerable to being accused of style over substance, and that may be due to his extravagant set designs and employment of color having no other conceivable purpose than to beautify his films. However, such aesthetic choices may also merely serve to reflect the romantic yearnings of the Mediterranean soul, nebulous as a term like ‘soul’ is. His recent short film The Human Voice (2020), starring Tilda Swinton, is even set on a sound stage made to resemble the pristinely decorated Pop Art-influenced interiors we’ve come to associate with his films and in which no middle-class Spaniard could ever conceivably afford to reside. This then may be a confession on his part that the environments inhabited by his characters were never intended to be an accurate reflection of Spanish life, a film like Live Flesh (1997) which confronts working class destitution head-on notwithstanding. A film’s décor can just as readily reflect the anxieties, fantasies, and general state of mind of its characters as it can their actual material circumstances. It can also reflect the obsessions and fetishes of its maker. Almodóvar, incidentally, lives in a spacious apartment in central Madrid decorated in a manner not unlike that of his film sets. The apartment in which Antonio Banderas’s character in Pain and Glory (2019) lives is even designed to resemble the director’s own dwelling.[2]

     All of his films deal in some fashion with the specter of Francoism haunting contemporary Spanish society, whether that manifests itself as an overall sense of melancholy, the source of which can’t quite be articulated, or in a more direct manner by making historical scars a central plot point, which is the case with Mothers. Janis Martinez, a middle-aged but still sexually magnetic woman portrayed by Penelope Cruz, is a professional photographer who is hired at the start of the film to photograph a prominent archaeologist, named Arturo, with whom she quickly develops a sexual relationship. Arturo is affiliated with the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, a real organization in Spain that oversees exhumation and gathers information about those who went missing during Franco’s regime.[3] In the early stages of their courtship she requests their assistance with the excavation of the remains of her great grand-father and nine other anti-Francoists who were buried in a pit outside her childhood village during the Spanish Civil War. Arturo agrees to help despite a lack of subsidies from the Spanish government, but the archaeological project is seemingly put in jeopardy when an unexpected pregnancy complicates their personal relationship. 

     Parallel to the plot concerning the archaeological dig and its romantic entanglements is the story of the titular parallel mothers, Janis and the teenage Ana Manso Ferreras (Milena Smit), who meet while sharing a room in a maternity ward where they give birth on the same day. When their newborns are then both placed under observation, an intimate bond quickly develops with Ana increasingly pushed into the arms of Janis by her estrangement from her emotionally unavailable parents. Ana’s mother, a friendly-on-the-surface but ultimately self-absorbed stage actress, abandons her daughter in favor of her career commitments just when she needs her most, upon giving birth to a child. In the wake of both personal tragedy and emotional turmoil Ana leaves home and ends up working at a café in the vicinity of Janis’ apartment, which leads to their reunion. Ana then moves in with Janis, the latter offering her to be a live-in maid. This sets the scene for a clash of generations as well as a traumatizing revelation that will permanently rupture their eventual sexual intimacy. 

     Every substantial relationship in the film seems to follow a pattern of intimacy followed by estrangement, followed again by potential intimacy. This perhaps reflects the dual yearnings of Spanish society to both right the wrongs of its politically troublesome past and simply leave them in the past in the name of national unity, the latter impulse even reflected in its controversial 1977 Amnesty Law, which is still in effect. In one scene, the two mothers separated by a kitchen island have an exchange regarding the archaeological dig during which Ana complains Janis is “obsessed with that grave”. Janis counters by saying “no one in your family has told you the truth about this country”. Despite the parallels of their maternal experiences, this serves to highlight their incongruences just as Spain displays incongruent attitudes regarding its past.[4]

     Douglas Sirk is the most commonly cited antecedent whenever cinematic melodrama is discussed, although the influence of Hitchcock may be more immediately apparent in Almodóvar’s work from the almost geometric precision of his mise-en-scène with nothing appearing in the frame by accident to his preoccupation with intrigue and mystery. The echoes of Sirk, however, I think still reveal themselves in his tendency to veer towards emotional catharsis, and Penelope Cruz sparkles as her Janis reaches an emotional release of her own, palpably expressed through facial and bodily expressions rather than words as her dilemmas reach a satisfying if permanently scarring denouement. 

[1]Manu Yáñez Murillo, ‘Secrets and Lies’, Film Comment, October 18, 2021,

[2] Rachel Wallace, ‘Pedro Almodóvar Basically Re-created His Own Home for Pain and Glory’, Architectural Digest, October 3, 2019,

[3] Anthony Lane, ‘Cradles and Graves in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers”’, The New Yorker, January 3 & 10, 2022 Issue,

[4] Anthony Hawley, ‘Alchemical Melodrama : Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers”’, Notebook, Mubi, January 17, 2022,