Inherent Vice

inherent-vice-trailer3

DIR/WRI: Paul Thomas Anderson • PRO: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar • DOP: Robert Elswit • ED: Leslie Jones • MUS: Jonny Greenwood • DES: David Crank • CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin

Pulsing through the pot smoke with cinematic prowess, Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision aligns with the paranoid world of enigmatic literary icon Thomas Pynchon, in an adaptation of Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice. This can only make for cinematic voodoo. This is the kind of thing many a square-eyed Pynchon reader has fantasised about for decades; in earnest. And Vice is a narcotic trip, it lulls and pulls. Sucking the viewer straight down the rabbit hole, through the tunnel of love, and back in time to 1970’s Los Angeles; in what, on the surface, presents itself to be a very Chandleresque detective story, in the vain of The Long Goodbye or The Big Sleep.

So we’re in LA, the free love and peace of the swinging ’60s have waned into the paranoia and hedonism of the 1970s. Doc’s just woke up. Mutton chopped, joint in mouth and carrying himself like a Neil Young wannabe rag doll. Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello is played with gusto by a dirty looking Joaquin Phoenix. (I mean he’s so dirty at one point I’m convinced I can smell his feet.) Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello a stoner, sandal wearing private dick. Think Phillip Marlowe after a bag of ‘panama red’.  Anyway Doc’s ex old lady, Shasta, turns up in the dead of night scared and looking for help. She’s been shacked up with some shady real estate developer who’s embroiled in some diabolical plot. She’s freaked and that isn’t groovy with Doc, so he’s hot on the case. Naturally this kinda set-up lends itself to some serious slapstick and ambiance.

But behind the chaotic slapstick and entertainment, Vice is a socially conscious film, a film with a massive heart that pounds along the heroin trails and through the marijuana haze. This is bold crisp American cinema and Anderson has a very decisive view of America. An America that’s disconnected from itself, that’s wounded and looking for answers in all the wrong places. At the heart of Pynchon’s novel there’s a tremendous sense of melancholy, and a sense of disappointment with the promises of the Hippie movement and free love; which in the end proved as much a pipe dream as ‘democracy’ or the American dream; and just as corruptible. These aspects remain true of Anderson’s movie and it’s clearly a perspective Anderson strongly relates to. The sense of an ideological conflict is evident in the love-hate relationship between Big Foot Bjornson (played by Josh Brolin) and Doc. Big Foot is a hippie-hating LAPD detective with a boxy buzz cut haircut and a questionable penchant for frozen bananas. In a sense, the film is a series of short cameos as the case unfolds, and Doc chases down countless leads, and countless red herrings, and some strange entity called The Golden Fang.

As a major fan of both P.T.A and Pynchon, I have an obligation to say it isn’t perfect, it’s rough around the edges, even for what it’s meant to be, which runs contrary to most of the criticism so far. I think a lot of critics who misjudged Anderson’s previous film The Master (2012) are reluctant to fall into the same trap with Inherent Vice. The Inherent problem with this of course is; it’s a bit like that old Woody Allen joke about him applying what he learned from his mistakes in one marriage, to the next; only to find it didn’t work because it’s a completely different woman. In short Inherent Vice is a completely different woman.

It can’t be denied that Anderson accepted a challenge like no other in grabbing Pynchon’s novel by its metaphorical horns. But too some extent I think Mr. Anderson fell into the trap of being too reverent to the source material. He clearly struggled to pare the book down. This has led to some clichéd representations of characters who lack the sense of dimension they had in Pynchon’s book. Anderson has been quoted as to saying that the plot doesn’t matter, which seems to be over-simplifying things a bit. Plot has a clear function in Pynchon’s writing, it just isn’t always in the foreground of the narrative. What is in the foreground are his characters, who inhabit a world over-saturated with information, a world so chaotic and paranoid it seems impossible for them to function within it.

The performances, however, are, by and large, impeccable. Martin Short is stellar as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, a sex-crazed dentist wearing an ultraviolet suit who has cocaine nostrils flared wider than bell bottoms. Katherine Waterson’s portrayal of Shasta Fey Hepworth has a mysterious allure and deftness that’s nothing short of nerve-tingling and electric. Right off the bat she’s earned serious brownie points and established herself as a major leading actress.

Anderson took a serious risk in making a picture that, when you break it down, is principally dialogue driven. I appreciate what he was trying to achieve but I’m not entirely sure it worked. One of Anderson’s greatest assets as a filmmaker is his tremendous sense of mobility and his ability to tailor movement in relation to narrative. There’s a very static quality to the staging in Vice, which makes the imagery less emotionally arresting. We’re left with Pynchon’s words, which is exactly the point. In Andersons own words the film is about ‘Pynchon’.

Johnny Greenwood, of Radiohead fame, has partnered with Anderson again. The score isn’t as prominent a feature of this film as his work in There Will Be Blood or The Master. But elements of those works shine through for sure, with a bit of a more seventies’ish use of synthesizers and guitars. Think Bernard Hermann crossed with Steve Reich and you’re on the right track. David Crank’s production design is off the hook in its accuracy. You can practically smell the 1970s from the image. And it’s pungent. Which is no mean feat since I wasn’t even alive then. The cinematography is grainy, fuzzy and beautiful, courtesy of Anderson’s long-time partner in crime, Robert Elswit.

At its core there’s an unhinged authenticity to Inherent Vice, vividly captivating a specific moment in time. Overall though, flaws aside, this is a grade A pedigree pot movie filled with some golden moments of true comic genius. This is the marriage of two of the most astonishing American talents. Pynchon, without argument being a colossus of post WWII American fiction, and Anderson, the once upon a time wunderkind whose blossomed into a virtuoso, who’ll stare down the barrel of a lens fearlessly, knee deep in the trenches, sleeves rolled up, armed to the teeth fighting the good fight; a real good boy. Keep it up Anderson you talented f*cker, keep rocking and rolling.

Michael Lee

16 (See IFCO for details)
148 minutes
Inherent Vice
is released 29th January 2015

Inherent Vice – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Her

her-joaquin-phoenix-3

 

DIR/WRI: Spike Jonze  PRO: Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay   DOP: Hoyte Van Hoytema ED: Jeff Buchanan, Eric Zumbrunnen   MUS: Owen Pallett   DES: K.K. Barrett   CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara

Theodore (Phoenix) decides to alleviate the perpetual loneliness he’s felt since his wife (Mara) left him by purchasing one of the new-fangled, fully sentient operating systems that exist in The Future. Each operating system is personalised to your needs so Theodore’s manifests as Samantha (Johansson); a funny, brash but sensitive female companion who quickly becomes a valuable presence in his life. As their relationship develops, Theodore begins to question the boundaries of just what we currently understand a relationship to be. Meanwhile Samantha begins to evolve too and what looks like a very typically-structured love-story about relationships morphs into a quirky drama about life, love and the existential quandaries of creating a constantly evolving, sentient artificial intelligence that has to deal with the tangled mess of human emotion that comes with love.

Her is a fascinating film to experience, partially for the contrast it constantly confronts you with. On the one hand it is a very conventionally told love story but the actual characters involved in the story are what make it stand out. You’ll constantly catch yourself having to be reminded that you’re just watching Joaquin Phoenix talking to a disembodied voice, so convincing is the situation the film presents. The key to that success is two-fold. Firstly, the word-building is seamless. This is unquestionably one of the most eerily believable depictions of the near-future we’ve seen in recent years. There are no flying cars, just neater smartphones with more impressive screens and the ubiquitous presence of a Bluetooth-style headset.

The film also trusts its audience in terms of how this world is presented. It never patronises the viewer with some bland audience-surrogate character that has to have everything explained to them. Rather the film simply presents its world as is and trusts you’ll pick it up as you go. It helps that the dialogue and writing in general are very natural; it never feels exposition-y. There’s also far more humour than you might expect, this is a genuinely laugh-out-loud funny film. Be it the film’s surprisingly well observed commentary on videogames, the humour that innately arises from the nature of the leads’ relationship or just good old fashioned, well-timed swearing; Her never takes itself too seriously which helps add weight to the more grounded and sombre moments.

As important as the world-building is, Jonze’s direction is the real triumph. The poster for this film is far more indicative of the viewing experience than you might think. It’s a simple close-up of Phoenix’s face and that is in essence most of the film. A lesser director might have featured some kind of animated woman or hologram (or a blinking red light if they were feeling particularly ‘clever’) to visualise Samantha but Jonze just elects not to ‘show’ her. Since a shot-reverse-shot is out of the question, the camera simply stays on Phoenix’s face throughout the couple’s conversations and it works far better than it should. You may feel by the end of the film that you’ve seen Joaquin Phoenix’s face from every possible angle but it really is to Jonze’s credit that he can shoot that in such a way that it’s constantly interesting to watch. It’s also a fiendishly clever work-around to compensate for the inability to show Samantha’s reactions. An actor of Phoenix’s talent and ability to disappear into a role is an ideal choice to carry an entire film such as this with his face alone.

It’s quite difficult to find much wrong with Her. To an extent the story loses momentum toward the conclusion and slightly contrives an endpoint to Samantha’s arc in a manner that feels like it was done out of a sense of requirement to the genre more than anything else. Throughout even this portion of the film though, the dynamic between the leads remains engaging and Phoenix gets to show off even further. Similarly the various facets of this vision of the future continue to be interesting to see and learn more about.

In any other year (read: any year where 12 Years a Slave wasn’t a contender), this would be a worthy film to win ‘Best Picture’ and it’s a film that definitely embraces the true spirit of sci-fi. It never comments on the society it’s created, it merely details and explores it and lets the audience come to its own conclusions. The world is believable, the characters are well-rounded and the performances (especially Phoenix and Adams) are effortless and compelling to watch. Her is much more than a simple love story yet it’s also, at its core, a thorough exploration of a relationship that just happens to be a little unconventional.

Whether your interest is comedy, drama or sci-fi, this film caters impressively well to all. Besides, Arcade Fire provides most of the music, what more could you want in a film?


Richard Drumm

15A (See IFCO for details)
125  mins

Her is released on 14th February 2014

Her – Official Website

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Cinema Review: The Master

 DIR/WRI: Paul Thomas Anderson • PRO: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi • DOP: Mihai Malaimare Jr. • ED: Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty • DES: David Crank, Jack Fisk • CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

In many ways The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s biggest film yet. It may not have the vast landscapes of There Will Be Blood, or a fraction of the characters of Magnolia, but it is shot in many more assorted locations and its themes about faith and belonging are as enormous as any in his previous films. Despite this, however, the previous film of Anderson’s that The Master most brings to mind is Punch-Drunk Love, his small, quirky 2002 romantic-comedy-drama.

The connection is due solely to the two films’ lead characters; both frustrated outcasts with fractured ties to their families, prone to violent rages and uncontrollable crying fits (which they both deny). But unlike Punch-Drunk Love’s Barry Egan, there is little solace or redemption for The Master’s Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). His attempts to calm his anger and find himself lead him down a very strange rabbit hole.

Discharged from the US Navy following World War II, Freddie flits restlessly from job to job, seeking women to satiate his sex addiction and gulping his own brand of moonshine to appease his alcoholism. Lost in a new America, he stumbles onto the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an enigmatic, suspiciously over-qualified writer with an original take on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Freddie soon finds himself sailing to New York with Dodd’s family and cadre of followers, and is rapidly indoctrinated to Dodd’s teachings, called ‘The Cause’.

In little time we can be certain that The Cause is nothing more than a cult built up around Dodd’s increasingly bizarre creations – claims of past lives, a trillion-year-old universe and the threat of a sinister ‘invader force’ from beyond. But Freddie, disillusioned and uneducated, does not see it as such, or chooses not to, or chooses to overlook it; so eager is he to find somewhere to belong. But as The Cause grows in strength and numbers, how poor a fit Freddie is for The Cause, and The Cause is for him, becomes ever-more apparent.

Clearly taking its start-off point from Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, The Master has no interest in attacking that religion, and is far more concerned with the personalities behind it; of those who build it, those who are seduced by it and those who cannot be. As much as Freddie thinks he needs The Cause, Dodd needs him. He needs him to prove he can brainwash anyone to his beliefs, but he also needs him because at a base level Freddie cannot be won over. As the success of The Cause skyrockets, Dodd’s Frankenstein’s monster spirals out of control, and Freddie remains his only anchor to humanity, and his only potential escape. It is Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who sees this element to Freddie, and keen for there to be no limit to her husband’s greatness, observes Freddie and Dodd’s relationship suspiciously.

As Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix gives the strongest performance of his career to date. Hunched in posture and speaking always out of just one side of his mouth, he effortlessly portrays Freddie as the damaged goods he is. His shell-shock, disillusionment, and regret all combine to form this bubbling kettle of frustration that Phoenix holds together throughout the film. He shows Freddie as a man incapable of believing the things he is told, but like a good solider willing to fight to the death to defend those same (dis)beliefs. The film’s two most intense sequences both detail Freddie’s indoctrination to The Cause, first as a mere member and later as an acolyte. In the first instance, Dodd breaks him down psychologically by asking him personal questions in quick succession, with the only rules being Freddie may not stop to think or blink. If he blinks, they start over. Shot in a series of unflinching close-ups of the two men, the scene is exhausting and difficult to watch, but brilliantly defines their relationship. For the next tier of his indoctrination, Freddie is forced to walk back and forth endlessly across a room, describing his sensations at each end. Part of a seemingly unending montage, Phoenix brilliantly captures Freddie’s escalating frustration at not being able to achieve or feel what is needed. Unable to look away, we can understand what he is feeling.

Hoffman plays off Phoenix beautifully, as his mentor and father-figure. Channelling Orson Welles’ greatest monsters, Hoffman makes Dodd larger than life in public while showing his all-too-human doubts in private. Dodd could be the love-child of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday from There Will Be Blood, fusing those characters’ ruthlessness, devotion and passion for corrupting others. But behind every great man there is a meek but terrifying woman, and Amy Adams steals much of the film as Mrs. Dodd. Her natural shyness and sweetness come across as wholly menacing here, and there are few moments when it is not clear how much power she is actually wielding.

Anderson’s script and direction rarely falter, and he manages to keep the drama building and the audience’s attention throughout the film’s 140-minute runtime. Somewhat disappointingly, The Master is not as breathtakingly pretty a film as one might expect, especially in the wake of There Will Be Blood. Robbed of his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson has here teamed up with Romanian D.P. Mihai Malaimare Jr. The photography is crisp and the camera is wielded finely throughout, but there are none of the visual flourishes of the Anderson/Elswit union. With the exception of one beautiful, oft-repeated shot off the back of a boat, representing Freddie’s constant drifting from life and responsibility, The Master never overwhelms with its imagery. This of course lets the characters be the real focus, but fans may find themselves less than pleased with this film’s look.

Johnny Greenwood’s assorted score is similarly incohesive, with each piece of music sounding like it comes from a different soundtrack. This has a brilliantly disjoining effect, and allows for a great variety of instruments to come to the fore: frazzled strings, pulsating bass, the joyous tinkling of a piano.

The Master is an easy film to admire, but a difficult one to love. The portraits painted of Feddie and Dodd are hugely impressive, but it is a struggle to find anything in either character to relate to. Still, full of sharp dialogue and energetic scenes, and with three astounding central performances, it is not an easy one to forget. It is one viewers will find themselves wanting to revisit, whether they even liked the film or not. Like The Cause itself, The Master is a strange seducer.

David Neary

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)

143 mins

The Master  is released on 16th November 2012

The Master  – Official Website

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ1O1vb9AUU

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