Sunday, January 18, 2015

Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice pairs the hyper-literate cogitations of Thomas Pynchon with Anderson’s own rhapsodic storytelling. This film is based on Pynchon’s 2009 novel about a 1970 LA stoner/private investigator named Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), who is commissioned by his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) to foil a plot to commit her current lover (Eric Roberts) to a mental institution. Conflicted about her request but rendered cooperative by drugs and hope, Doc investigates and stumbles upon dirty cops (Josh Brolin) missing persons (Owen Wilson), dead informants, Aryan Nation bodyguards, pervy dentists (Martin Short)  and a mysterious shipping enterprise named Golden Fang. All this may or may not be connected to anything of significance — in fact the story itself may be more about the journey than the destination — but it’s a trip watching it and hearing Pynchon’s wonderful prose (or Anderson’s approximation of it). Anderson has not directed nearly as many feature films (7) as I feel he has. I think his impact outweighs his output because his productions are evocative and provocative, colorful and dense. Maybe in some cases too layered, containing one ironic moment or coincidence too many. Inherent Vice, the term refers to the nature of an object that renders it uninsurable, is a fresh cinematic experience that is probably best enjoyed as free jazz — as waves of creative expression. Recommended but contains carpet and drapes nudity, sex talk and endless drug use.


Much of Bennett Miller's unswerving psychodrama Foxcatcher is tough to watch. It's not bloody or violent even though it is set in the world of championship wrestling and has Valley Forge as a backdrop. It is difficult -- but essential -- viewing because it reminds us that once all material desires have been sated the wealthy too often turn to owning and controlling people. Steve Carell stars as John DuPont, a scion of that legendary dynasty, who is an egregiously unaccomplished and unattractive middle-aged man living with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). He fancies himself a molder of men though there is no evidence he's ever done so and he is himself a phantom of contrivances and vanity. DuPont holds target practice on his estate with members of the local constabulary, buys himself a tank and two Olympic gold medalists, the Schultz brothers, first Mark (Channing Tatum) and later older brother David (Mark Ruffalo). The brilliance of this tragic and true  story is in Miller's slow reveal of how those who value little often destroy what they own, even if those possessions are other people. Highly Recommended.

American Sniper

In Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Bradley Cooper plays real Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle, who did four tours of duty in Iraq before leaving military service, physically whole but emotionally ruined. Kyle’s rise to glory as a sniper is of legend; he’s hale and hearty, tall, brave and handsome. He’s a patriot who learned love of country at his daddy’s dinner table and to aim and shoot while hunting deer with his old man in the woods of Texas. He’s the manliest of manly men. When Kyle is stateside with family, however, he is absent, even when present. His fall into despondency is not pathetic; it’s tragic because the reason for his sacrifice, those unseen injuries, and that of his SEAL buddies is unclear, the battle seemingly unwinnable. 
Playing opposite Cooper, who is terrific, is Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife, Taya, a distressed dynamo who watches helplessly while her husband retreats into the hell of PTSD. She fell for a rodeo cowboy, married a fighter, but lost him to a military campaign that Eastwood, who has filmed some of the most compelling war stories in recent memory, has long viewed as senseless. Taya recognizes she has only part of her husband’s heart, the rest belongs to SEAL team but that doesn’t make watching him pack for another tour easy, just inevitable.
In many ways, the themes in American Sniper are familiar. Eastwood’s presentation is as efficient as most of his other films — the narrative is crystal clear, the performances are top drawer, and void of politics, perhaps to make room for the human heart. Highly Recommended but bloody. Not for children.


Ava DuVernay's Selma is stylistically riveting and has a narrative complexity that raises it from "theater of the aggrieved" onto another iridescent plane. Of the three main bio-pics I've seen this season -- the others being The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game -- Selma is the most elegant in dealing with its lead character's flaws. A brief but powerful scene between Martin (a mesmerizing David Oyelowo) and Coretta King (the lovely Carmen Ejogo), on the eve of yet another confrontation between black citizens and Alabama police, has the couple engage the civil rights leader's infidelities without rancor. This is not to say the moment is painless, for Coretta is clearly wounded and Martin, decisive in his dealings with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), is cowed not so much by his wife's injury or disapproval but, it seems, by his own sinfulness. Masterful. Yes, the film is about King's efforts to rally a somnolent nation to force Selma to do the right thing and stop blocking blacks from voting. But, the greater the distance from that event and the heroism reflected in facing down hate, the clearer the picture becomes of the levels of engagement needed to get hundreds of people over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 and on to freedom. Highly recommended.


Before Rajkumar Hirani’s PK, the closest I got to Bollywood was Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Boyle’s superb film, whose honors included Best Picture and Best Director at the 2009 Academy Awards, was a sprawling and engrossing movie about India’s human clutter and the desperation of the exploited children in its teeming slums — and it was musical, brilliantly so.
So is Hirani’s PK, which tells the story of a big-eyed, jug-eared alien astronaut (Aamir Khan) who lands in Rajasthan and is immediately robbed of the jeweled amulet he needs to return home. (E.T. can’t phone home.) Because of his odd behavior, the alien is named “Tipsy” by the constabulary and frequently jailed as he learns how to survive while searching for his purloined property. Eventually, Tipsy finds his way to Mumbai and then to New Delhi, for he has been told that God will return what was stole. He is has in search of the Creator.
This movie is not a pilgrim’s journey, however, but Hirani’s clever exploration of man’s own creation — God, in all of its Indian manifestations. Accompanying Tipsy on this disruptive quest is a beautiful and disillusioned television reporter (Anushka Sharma), whose love life is collateral damage in the war between Hinduism and Islam, India and Pakistan.
Most assuredly, PK is not for all tastes. The merging of music, drama and comedy might be off-putting to some but I found PK a spangling gem of a movie.

The Gambler

Rupert Wyatt’s remake of Karel Reisz’s 1974 film The Gambler is a pendulous story that swings between gangsters and Gurdjieff, that is, between the material and the immaterial. Mark Wahlberg stars as a casino-addicted, possibly suicidal professor of literature, Jim Bennett, who values little — neither money nor status nor affection nor even his own life. His inability to win and walk away has indebted him to ruthless bookies (Michael Kenneth Williams) and gambling den lords (Alvin Ing) — and they want to get paid. Bennett seems incapable of making sound decisions; he bullies his students, and treats his wealthy but weirdly contemptible mother (Jessica Lange) with, well, contempt. Much of this movie feels flighty and random, but Bennett’s conversations about life’s meaning and actualization with an eager young coed who moonlights as a casino waitress (Brie Larson), a conflicted basketball player who wants to quit school (Anthony Kelley) and a doughy but deadly loan shark who seems to want to save Bennett from himself (John Goodman) are actually well-written and insightful. 

The Imitation Game

Danish director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) and screenwriter Graham Moore have set at the center of this remarkable World War II period film several puzzles. One relates to the German’s Enigma device, which every day generated the codes the Nazis used to relay messages and orders to military forces. The British war department had found the code formidable but were determined to give a team of mathematicians and logicians led by the human conundrum Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) a chance to break it. And therein lies the second puzzlement: what could Turing — an inapproachable and mercilessly disapproving cuss — have possibly told Prime Minister Winston Churchill to convince him to hand over more than 100,000 pounds so that Turing could build a decoding machine that no one except Turing was sure would work. The audience is never told directly, although the answer is hinted at during a conversation Turing and the lone woman on his team, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), have with MI6 liaison Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong). For you see, in that world of secrets and subterfuge,Turing, a closeted homosexual during a time when British laws were especially draconian, surely knew how to guard confidences. Moore’s brilliant screenplay is based on Andrew Hodges book and elegantly weaves three stories — the code breaking challenge, another from Turing’s schooldays and the third that recounts his arrest on a morals charge in the early ’50s. Each of these three tales reveals a different aspect of Turing’s genius, his obsession and, ultimately, his unrelenting pain. Highly recommended.

Into the Woods

Rob Marshall’s Chicago won honors from the Oscars and Golden Globes in 2003. It was hailed as having, miraculously, revived the moribund Hollywood musical. To my ears and eyes, Chicago was a surreal. high-wattage spectacle of music and dance that retained much of the original Broadway show’s contagious staginess. Marshall’s film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is not nearly as fresh and electrifying (no pun intended), and for one who holds great affection for the stage version of this cagey show, Marshall’s picture feels enervating and forced. It’s not a bad film, and it has the blessing of both Sondheim and James Lapine who wrote the book for the stage show and the screenplay. It’s just that it seems out of place and out of step on the screen. Probably my bias. Yes, all of the principal players in this fantastic (and insightful) story of quests for wish fulfillment are fine. James Corden and Emily Blunt are particularly good as the childless baker and his wife. Their duet “It Takes Two” is the high point of the movie for me. (The moms in the audience seemed to delight in Chris Pine’s and Billy Magnussen’s dreamy narcissism as miserable princes in the duet “Agony.” Me? No so much.) Still and yet, Meryl Streep seems a lazy choice as the vengeful witch whose charge to the baker and his wife to go “Into the Woods” to lift a curse starts the play’s fateful events. Of course, she hits the notes and her marks but what’s the fun in that? She’s a world-class performer when an unknown would have added spice. See it if you must but rent the DVD of the 1991 stage production with Bernadette Peters as the witch and Joanna Gleason as the baker’s wife, too.

Big Eyes

A sad irony rests at the center of the story of popular painter of saucer-eyed waifs Margaret Keane and her Svengali of a husband Walter: though Margaret (played by Amy Adams) believed the eyes were the “windows of the soul” she managed her career with a frightful lack of self-awareness, naivete and untoward trust in the charming Walter (Christoph Waltz). Set in San Francisco in the late ’50s and ’60s, Tim Burton’s Big Eyes borrows a bit from the Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows) playbook in its color-saturation and celebration (and criticism) of mid-20th century middle America. Margaret meets Walter while drawing $2 portraits at a street fair. She and her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) were on their own after fleeing Margaret’s stifling husband. Walter purports to having studied at Beaux-Arts in Paris and to knowing gallery owners and art patrons. Margaret’s desperation is palpable and soon they’re wed. Walter takes over the promotion of Margaret’s big-eyed paintings and quickly realizes that her work is more evocative (and marketable) than the pedestrian streetscapes he has been hawking. When a sniggling newspaper columnist (Danny Huston) overhears an argument between Walter and a local clubowner (Jon Polito), the painter and the doleful children he claims to have painted become causes celebres. Margaret goes along with the ruse for the sake of peace and profits but soon begins her slow descent into regret and recrimination. This is not particularly edgy material as compared to Burton’s other works but it is a credible and, yes, artful treatment of fraudulence and authenticity. 


Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild is revelatory in ways Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007)  was not, though I think the latter film may be the more popular of the two. Penn’s movie, which starred Emile Hirsch, was the true account of a foolishly adventuresome man who wandered into the Alaskan wilderness with more guts than luck and perished while there.  In Wild, which is based on the memoirist book by Cheryl Strayed, Vallee tells the stark though compelling story of the loves and losses of a young woman from Minnesota (Reese Witherspoon) who confronts self-destruction by hiking the 1,100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail from Mexico to Canada. Heat, hunger and thirst effectively exorcise many of her demons and strip away, at times literally, the calloused layers of her own disaffection and self loathing after a family tragedy. Vallee weaves through flashbacks Strayed’s story of abuse (domestic and drug), her failed marriage and promiscuity and her loving and contentious relationship with her remarkable mother (a stellar Laura Dern). The film’s exteriors are lovely but its interiors are not pretty and our heroine stinks (literally and figuratively) but all of it feels real from start to finish. Witherspoon is intrepid in her depiction of Strayed, who now lives in Portland, and is resolute in this journey to self. I asked my viewing companion if she thought Wild was a women’s picture. In doing so I was wondering if the pain that drove Strayed to tackle those many miles might be unfamiliar to man — much like the pain of childbirth. My friend said she thought the meaning was transcendent. I agree but also think men won’t connect with it as much, perhaps, as women who have known the fears and losses that Strayed shares in her story. Highly Recommended.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings is a long movie that does little. Because this umpteenth retelling of the battle between Pharaoh Ramses II (Joel Edgerton) and his adopted brother Moses (Christian Bale) is such a familiar tale, Scott needed much more than a few new  tricks -- in exposition AND execution -- to make the film worth its nearly 2 and half hours. Although the picture is pretty (how could it not be?) and the recreation of the plagues on Egypt is thrilling, I was frustrated and peeved that the story was so thin, the personal intrigues vaporous and talent wasted unchartable. It's been a while since so many people gave so much for so little. Biblical epics often resort to "proverbial" dialogue -- that rarefied cadence and text in which the characters talk in aphorisms and inscriptions. It was pure camp when DeMille staged it in The Ten Commandments. But not so much here. The script is not so much about art-speak as it is about shadowy nods (Ben Kingsley as Nun), knowing glances (Aaron Paul as Joshua) and fiery interjections (Sigourney Weaver and nearly every other credited actor in the cast). That's the main problem for me, I fear. In this age, big pictures are relying less on denseness of story or richness of character than on an unending parade of cinematic acrobatics and magic -- in this case, repulsive flies and frogs, boils and bugs. And that's a shame. The movies that linger longest with me touch my heart; they don't trigger my gag reflex. I have to hand it to Scott though. It took real stones to cast God's heavenly messenger Malak as a petulant 10-year-old boy. I would say "Good show, Sir Ridley!" but it's not really.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...