Saturday 21 February 2015

Review: Inherent Vice

Year: 2014 (U.K Release 2015)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, and Martin Short.

Synopsis is here:

I don’t know where to start or what to say. Inherent Vice; Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh feature film, is scuzzy, meandering and near meaningless. It’s a shaggy dog story, which is even less accessible than Anderson’s previous film; The Master (2012), which had many screaming in maddening frustration. I say this as if I had an issue with the film. I write those words as if I had hated my time I spent with Doc Sportello and the gang of misfits we’re introduced to.

I didn’t hate Inherent Vice. If anything I may have already found my first favourite film of the year. By the time Vice had its final credit run up the screen. I had myself having to convince myself that I didn’t have the time to watch the film again. I went to the nearest retail store and brought the soundtrack instead, to tide me over until I have the space in my schedule to for some more cinema time, or even worse, wait until the Blu-ray. I just wanted to spend more time in this world, with these characters immediately. I loved the film that much.

If anyone was going to create a rambling, blissed filled homage to the noirs of old, it had to be Anderson. Inherent Vice maybe an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s equally as wandering novel, but it’s also another chance for Anderson to let his shoulders droop, reference his favourite influences and get a little loose after two of his most austere features to date.

It may be a cop out to say this, but Inherent Vice is a film about mood and character rather than story. It's a film dictated by its time and location as opposed to anything else. A world of mumble mouthed hippies, jive talkers and dopers, whose time is spent stumbling around looking for what they've lost. Plot flitters into view and yet remains out of reach. Red herrings swerve manically into view, taking time to roll up some grass and talk about nothing. This is a vacuum left by the death of the swinging sixties. The revolution lost by the dreamers and won by the squares. It’s a tad silly to try and pinpoint the logic of these people and the shaggy dog tangents they cook up. Spend enough time with these guys and you release: “What makes sense to these guys?”

“We blew it” was the hotly contested line of 1969’s Easy Rider. Often considered as a remark that hints at the end of the counterculture lifestyle enjoyed by Billy and Wyatt. Vice often feels like we’re watching the walking dead of that culture, looking to soak up any remnants that may exist. Doc (yet another superlative Joaquin Phoenix performance) appears to be taking case after case to fuel his drug habit more than anything else. Yet the real drive of the story is the disappearance of his girlfriend Stasta, who originally sets him on his merry way of missing real estate developer, shady crime syndicates and new age cultism. Each “case” shows at least one aspect of how the hippie culture slowly began to eat itself. As does the recurring talk of Charles Mansion, whose crimes linger in the air like a sour stench. Once Stasta disappears, we nearly only ever see her again in hazy flashback and drifting transitions, almost as if she was a dream and that as an actual entirety, never really existed.

Younger, alleged film writers like myself can only really dream of this era, but the way Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit capture the sun kissed beaches, creepy upscale asylums and run down brothels is so remarkably textured and authentic that it makes a strong impression. Yet despite its lazy, slightly woozy surroundings, a strong element of farce and slapstick often pervades and punctuates scenes. Much Like Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Doc is a private eye whose street smarts give him high cultural currency, yet his cluelessness about just how the strings of his cases are being pulled, allowing a large amount of comedy at his expense. For a film which is often at times highly melancholic, in a genre that was always considered to be grim, it’s refreshing to see just how often Anderson (a big SNL fan) goes for hard laughs.  Gleefully aiming at the sheer preposterous of it all.

Despite the talk of the film’s murky and multiple plot lines, I found the main intentions of the film to be abundantly clear (in my eyes). Of course, while the actual message of the film lie within the eye of the beholder, I feel it’s safe to say Inherent Vice is a wistful film about loss. Every character is found wanting and chasing for something that either no longer open to them or disappearing in front of their eyes. Like all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest period of films, Inherent Vice has its director peering into both the deaths and beginnings of eras and revolutions and observing the fallout through their failed relationships. Vice is not only is the most nostalgic of Anderson’s recent endeavours, amusingly harking back to the heady days of Boogie Nights (1997). Looking at Vice with all its exasperated plot strands, paranoid theories and generally warming glances back at nostalgia, manages to help establish Anderson as one of the most entertaining chroniclers of modern American history currently working.

Review: A Most Violent Year

Year: 2014 (U.K Release 2015)
Director: J. C. Chandor
Screenplay: J. C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks
Synopsis is here:

It is extraordinarily cliché to say, yet you suddenly realise that while watching A Most Violent Year, the implications behind the words are what give the film its power, rather than the words themselves. It’s a film that has garnered a muted response, despite solid word of mouth.  A part of me feels that A Most Violent Year’s more restrained approach may be the reason. In spite of the film’s sharp and pointed moments of violence, it’s a film that hints at a world that has already suffered bloodshed. The film has no need to be overtly explicit because we feel it’s already been down that road. The disorder is being normalised.

The film, like Oscar Issac’s immigrant businessman; Abel, is on a constant simmer. We wait impatiently to see Abel be pushed into the murky depths of corrupted competitors, bias D.A’s (A solid David Oyelowo) and secretive wives, but we should know that he’s already keeping his head above water. Issac looks like he’s channeling Godfather era Pacino, but this man is struggling much harder to push back from darker forces that wish to consume him. Set against the bankrupt, crime ridden era of the early 1980’s which New York City was at one of its lowest ebbs, Issac plays a man who throttles his frustrations so they only ever so slightly peak over the surface. His drivers are scared, he implores them to be strong. His wife (a steely, Lady Macbeth-like Jessica Chastain) suggests fighting the violence in the city with a force of their own, and he tries hard to refrain.  J.C Chandor taut screenplay and direction paints Abel as a delicate blend of honesty and anti-villain. A clean looking screw, being wound tighter by tighter by the grimy tools around him. Yet Isaac’s poker faced portrayal veils Abel with an added layer of complexity.  We’re never sure if he’s been swayed or remaining strong.

As opposed to the romanticised view of gangster dealings in line with the likes of Coppola and co, this film shares a brittle tone with films like A History of Violence (2005) and We Own the Night (2007). Chandor’s film envelops each scene with a similar suffocating sense of foreboding. With A Most Violent Year however, the film often feels chillier. The warm, golden colour tones are not only juxtaposed with the soft white snow (a fortunate accident during production), but cinematographer Darius Khondji’s use of negative space. Characters often find themselves isolated within the frame, only smothered by the crooked environment.

This is why I loved A Most Violent Year. The film never builds to a typical, clichéd crescendo. There’s no orgy of violence despite the film’s title. Each scene burrows under the skin and festers in a way that’s hard to wipe off. Its climax is unsettling in its subtlety while the outcome chills the nerves with its tiny reminder of how far the films particular type of corruption reaches and who exactly gets hurt. That’s the thing about the film. It’s difficult, it’s adult and holds more shades of grey than Christian.