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Inherent Vice

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Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Thomas Pynchon, Paul Thomas Anderson

Run time: 148 minutes

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What, or, just how much is to be said about Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh feature, Inherent Vice? For starters, it’s a cinematic fusion comprised of two mad scientists of their respective art forms–one is Thomas Pynchon, the esoteric 21st century novelist whose work revels in a purposefully cryptic song and dance of linguistic style–the other, one of the finest American filmmaking eccentrics of the aforementioned century. These things are easily stated, and they are obvious, but what does Anderson’s experience mean? Does Inherent Vice carouse under the guise of pretense while wallowing in languidness and stubborn self-indulgence? Is it goofy, ill-conceived aloofness or a layered, self-aware masterstroke that elicits hard-earned hyperbolic labels such as “unlike anything that’s ever been made”?

Staying true to the essence of Pynchon’s 2009 novel, Inherent Vice is, nearly to its detriment, too many things, but, no matter–it is simultaneously aware and vehemently unashamed of that fact. It’s a neo-noir stoner romp that’s deliberately scatter-brained: The film is just as high as its anti-hero, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a P.I. in fictional Gordita Beach, California–a setting that recalls a nostalgic locale from the films of Anderson’s past–most notably the San Fernando Valley of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love. Doc is firmly embedded in the vibrant milieu of the conclusion to 1960’s hippie Utopianism, and his “ex old lady” has just appeared on the doorstep of his beachfront digs.

Shasta Faye Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) is in need of a favor, and what that favor entails becomes the center of Inherent Vice’s intentionally complex, strung-out sense of gravity. Faye’s new boyfriend–land developer Mickey Wolfmann–has found himself on the business end of a strange conspiracy that’s symbolic of something that underpins Inherent Vice’s slapstick facade: And so things begin to transpire, both through the fog of pot smoke and the sun-kissed glow of far-western California, and just as these free spirits begin to yearn for the good ol’ days of carefree spontaneity, so looms the day of an encroaching sociopolitical counterculture–a shift in American ideals embodied by the hopelessly square bully cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).

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Bigfoot and Doc share a strange empathy for one another, and some of Inherent Vice’s funniest sequences come from their time on screen together, and as its labyrinthine plot begins to (sort of) unravel, the focal point remains fixed on these two figures: They carry a symbolic importance that’s unique to both the history of Los Angeles and America altogether–and so the plot swerves, veers and careens around them as it remains nothing more than a vehicle for truly Anderson-esque style. Owen Wilson is the center of a tangential narrative about a rock star double agent. Penny (Reese Witherspoon)–an assistant D.A. girlfriend of Doc–enjoys smoking pot and drifting in and out of his sex life. And there’s something called “The Golden Fang,” a mysterious, seemingly all-encompassing entity that may or may not be the catalyst behind most of Doc’s misfortune, but, nevermind.

Inherent Vice is perpetually in flux: It’s hilarious, sweet, dark and strangely unnerving. It is in every sense a Paul Thomas Anderson film, but it’s unlike anything he’s made. It is, above all, a film of textures; it’s a dreamlike fashioning of a specific state of mind–a crafting of a distinct time and place, and Anderson’s stylistic preferences become the film’s beautifully bewildering lifeblood. Inherent Vice is a wonderfully befuddled yet dazzling anachronism–not since the neo-noir of the 1970’s has the feeling of an era been so richly evoked on film. In fact, the film’s evocation of such a uniquely American epoch transforms Inherent Vice entirely, making it something of an experience rather than a centerpiece for casual observation.

For his seventh and most peculiar picture to date, Anderson’s movie-making sagacity is reserved and unabashedly lackadaisical. It seeps through the film instead of flowing directly from it, and this is precisely how Inherent Vice accrues such a slowly evolving, irrefutably engrossing design. Gone are the days of flashy visual bravura that served as touchstones for the auteur’s early work. Instead, Inherent Vice recalls the visual composition of its equally awe-inspiring predecessor, The Master. Anderson’s frame is tightly focused; he often regards his characters in close-up, and the director’s proclivity for the static shots that permeated the sprawling sequences in There Will Be Blood are never far from arm’s length.

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Many have compared the feel of Inherent Vice to that of the Coen’s cult classic The Big Lebowski, but, unlike that film, Anderson’s is more compassionate and remains imbued with a deeper sense of humility. A labyrinthine slapstick it certainly is, but the once heir apparent to modern American cinema takes time to pay special attention to observing his character’s humanity, however flawed it might be. Inherent Vice dwells on its own particular brand of nostalgia by reflecting on a shift–or, rift–in American ideals, doing so in a way that tugs mysteriously at our heartstrings and unremittingly on our funny bone.

Midway through the film, Inherent Vice’s plot is put on hold–as it so often is–allowing for it to luxuriate in the atmosphere of its suave existence. Anderson’s camera pans frantically to Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) as he spouts, “It’s not groovy to be insane!” Perhaps that’s true, but, there’s no mistaking that Inherent Vice is both groovy and insane. It is–more than any film I can recall–unlike anything I’ve seen.

The 10 Best Films of 2014

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1. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Does Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice carouse under the guise of pretense while wallowing in languidness and stubborn self-indulgence? Is it goofy, ill-conceived aloofness or a layered, self-aware masterstroke that elicits hard-earned hyperbolic labels such as “unlike anything that’s ever been made”? Staying true to the essence of Pynchon’s 2009 novel, Inherent Vice is, nearly to its detriment, too many things, but, no matter–it is simultaneously aware and vehemently unashamed of that fact. It’s a neo-noir stoner romp that’s deliberately scatter-brained: The film is just as high as its anti-hero, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a P.I. in fictional Gordita Beach, California–a setting that recalls a nostalgic locale from the films of Anderson’s past–most notably the San Fernando Valley of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.

Inherent Vice is perpetually in flux: It’s hilarious, sweet, dark and strangely unnerving. It is in every sense a Paul Thomas Anderson film, top to bottom, end over end and his seventh feature is, above all, a film of textures; it’s a dreamlike fashioning of a specific state of mind–a crafting of a distinct time and place, and Anderson’s stylistic preferences become the film’s beautifully bewildering lifeblood. Inherent Vice is a wonderfully befuddled yet dazzling anachronism–not since the neo-noir of the 1970’s has the feeling of an era been so richly evoked on film. In fact, the film’s evocation of such a uniquely American epoch transforms Inherent Vice entirely, making it something of an experience rather than a centerpiece for casual observation.

uts2. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

2014’s best (and most challenging) film is Jonathan Glazer’s minimalist sci-fi masterpiece Under the Skin. Steeped in the distinct visual language of Stanley Kubrick’s formidable years, Glazer’s film draws from the look and feel of the great master’s work, but this adaptation of the novel by the same name possesses its own firebrand sense of uniqueness. Under the Skin’s power is derived from an intentional, overly ambiguous narrative composition–it harbors a stealthy, calculated detachment that revels in the oddities of mystery, guaranteed to infuriate some, sure to astound others. The experience of Under the Skin is akin to that of a perpetual pendulum swing of interpretation: It’s a series of sensations and moments–some literal, others metaphorical–that culminate in a hypnotizing rendering of the desolate side of what it means to be, or not be, human.

Johansson’s work in Under the Skin is the best of her career. Here, she is stripped down, working seamlessly within the complex subtleties of physical nuance. For Glazer, the comparisons to Kubrick are easy to make and remain wholeheartedly warranted: Under the Skin is a chilling, hauntingly beautiful mood piece–a masterpiece of modern cinema.

ida3. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, an exquisitely photographed call-back to the early career of Ingmar Bergman, is a slowly unravelling, tactfully fashioned film centered around the inner turmoil of a young nun and her worldly, cynical aunt. Anna or, Ida–as she later comes to be known–is asked to step away before receiving her vows and, as she does so, unknowingly delves into a complicated, unfamiliar secular reality. Midway through the film’s opening stages, we begin to sense that something revelatory is afoot, and so it is; Ida and Wanda’s journey unearths a rigamarole of very human experiences for both characters: some unpleasant, others that take root and give way to personal, even spiritual growth.

Ida shares a striking similarity with another great film from 2014, Under the Skin: Like Scarlett Johansson’s alien being, Agata Trzebuchowska’s performance garners its reserved dynamics from an unsuspecting place–that of expertly controlled subtlety. Films like Ida rarely–if ever–find themselves in the commercial marketplace, which is both a curse and a blessing. The former because exposure to hidden gems remains limited to wider audiences, the latter because when you stumble upon them, it almost feels like a revelation.

boyhood4. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

When a new Richard Linklater film is in the works, movie enthusiasts sit up and take notice. When a cinephile from Texas catches wind of such a thing, a calendar goes up, the countdown begins, each days’ box engraved with an agonizingly etched ‘X.’ If you’re not sure what Boyhood is, you probably live under a rock. Or you don’t talk to anyone, much less engage in the time-sucking ‘frivolity’ of the internet. The Houston, Texas filmmaker’s seventeenth and most daring picture proved to be a risk that paid huge dividends in a multitude of ways. Staging an artful dramatic rendering of a boy, year to year, as he ages into young adulthood, would sound like an insurmountable task to almost any qualified filmmaker, but, Linklater took the risk, and, because he did, we’re all a little better off.

The enormity of the undertaking is undeniably impressive, but, what makes Boyhood extraordinary is its director’s mindful touches–especially as they relate to what it means to be both young and male: For me, watching the film is comparable to being a passive observer in the unfolding of my past, and for that, Boyhood is a rare, exceptional piece of nostalgic cinema–one unlike anything ever made.

gonegirl25. Gone Girl (David Fincher)

Unlike most movie enthusiasts, the films of David Fincher haven’t much intrigued me. Perhaps that’s because they’ve always been on the business end of the much maligned ‘hype machine.’ In late 2010, I walked out of The Social Network, but that was less Fincher’s fault than it was Aaron Sorkin’s–Fincher’s direction, in fact, was borderline seamless, often deliberately cool. Sorkin’s unnatural, hyper-chatty screenplay rubbed me in all the wrong ways, but, with time, I was able to look the other way. Fincher’s latest turned my expectations on their respective heads–I avoided The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in fear of further disappointment, but, Gone Girl has proved to be some of his best work.

Undoubtedly cynical, dark, and–to a degree–painstakingly satirical, Fincher weaves a delicate balance with Gone Girl, a film that builds meticulously on itself, end over end, sequence after sequence. It’s a homage to the femme fatale filmmaking of Brian De Palma, and how invigorating the whole affair becomes. Affleck is on point, but Rosemund Pike is the true revelation.

theimmigrant6. The Immigrant (James Gray)

At first glance, James Gray’s The Immigrant assumes the role of 2014’s emblematic period piece and, to a certain extent, it succeeds in being just that. But, what separates The Immigrant from others like it is its refreshing proclivity for peering beyond elaborate set pieces to permeate the cumbersome set of circumstances that consume its two leads: One, a Polish immigrant striving for a new beginning, the second, a broken, burdened man who’s striving–albeit unknowingly–to do good. Throughout the film, Gray encapsulates his characters in an amber glaze–a stylistic choice that seems to underpin Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Bruno’s (Joaquin Phoenix) peculiar pair of plights with a fleeting sense of optimism.

In Gray’s latest film, Cotillard is at her best since her brilliant, emotionally revealing performance in Jacques Audiard’s great Rust and Bone. As for Phoenix’s performances, they–at least as of late–seem to come complete with pre-packaged accolades of every kind, and rightfully so.

blueruin7. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)

In what is perhaps the most understated film of the year, Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is the epitome of quintessential arthouse grit. It is a restless film rife with beguiling anxiety–it’s full of dread so palpable that the film’s duration prompts a lengthy bout of elevated blood pressure, and the fact that Saulnier does so much with so little in order to create such an impressionable effect is a testament to his skill. Blue Ruin harbors a bewildering quality that never relinquishes its grasp, and this is precisely its overwhelming strength. The film’s suspense remains tightly, expertly wound–it’s looming intensity creates a domino effect that permeates the entirety of the film as well as the savage fate that awaits each of its characters.

Blue Ruin’s 90 minute run time is punctuated by a willingness to throw us headfirst into a rare brand of suspenseful chaos, and it succeeds tenfold. Anchoring the proceedings is a chilling, minimalist performance from Macon Blair.

interstellarjc8. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)

In Interstellar–as he did in his previous effort, Inception–director Christopher Nolan piggybacks on the idea of toying with space, and, more specifically, time in an attempt to portray profound emotional resonance within a story that, when placed through the lens of meticulously calibrated narrative details, transforms itself into a grandiose science fiction fantasy of crippling unevenness, awe-inspiring ambition and fascinating technical achievement. All of its intricate scientific techno-babble aside, Nolan’s space-time spectacle is an impassioned love letter to film written in resplendent, unmistakably ardent prose.

Interstellar is an ode to the power of cinema’s capabilities, but its ability to transport us mentally and move us emotionally is the film’s most impressive achievement. Interstellar is a confounding exercise for many reasons; in its attempt to maintain ‘palatability,’ Nolan’s screenplay can’t resist the urge to tie a proverbial, painfully hokey bow around its context clues, which may be its only fatal (and glaringly obvious) flaw. Interstellar, in defiance of its tendencies to drift into an overly-mawkish state, is a powerful, exceptional piece of cinema in its purest and most enthralling form.

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary9. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)

Like other films included in this list, Calvary is a work that plucks its subtle, gradually engrossing mood from a central performance worthy of similar adjectives. In fact, Brendan Gleeson’s performance as Father James–a humble priest in the midst of a crisis of faith–anchors John Michael McDonagh’s latest film: He is compassionate and unceasingly bemused, but an emerging sense loss of looms over him throughout the film’s duration.

As Calvary unfolds, the parallels between Christ’s peregrination to the cross and Father James’ impending fate become prognosticative, but its head never wanders into the clouds: Calvary’s most intriguing thematic aspect is revealed through the manner in which it draws a different kind of parallel entirely–Calvary is an urgent film about the societal disconnect between spirituality and 21st century secularism. At a glance, the divide between lack of belief and those who maintain their ‘faith’ seems to be widening, and McDonagh’s film expertly crafts this sentiment with razor sharp intrigue.

thelegomovie10. The Lego Movie (Chris Miller, Phil Lord)

The Lego Movie is, without a doubt, the funniest, wittiest and one of the most well made films of 2014. Aside from its showboating of both true imagination and technical shrewdness (which is both warranted and welcomed), this mishmash of comedic voice-acting talent, superb writing and seamless editing under the umbrella of the Lego universe is one of the most enjoyable two hours of cinematic fun any viewer could ask for. The film is concerned with nothing more than having an outright blast in flashy, refined, and confident style. From the beginning, The Lego Movie is aware–minute after minute–of how good of a cinematic amalgamation it will become. Supposedly, The Lego Movie 2 is slated for a 2016 release. I can’t wait.

Wild

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Woefully tethered, yet resilient in the inherently hard earned realm of perseverance, Reese Witherspoon’s embodiment of Cheryl Strayed–the real life extension of the actress’ persona in the film–becomes the centerpiece for director Jean-Marc Vallee’s latest film Wild, a rewarding, engrossing but intermittently incongruous third commercial effort from the director of last year’s Oscar sensation, Dallas Buyers Club. Following the formula of its easily recognizable, equally distinguishable predecessors Into the Wild and Tracks, Wild chronicles both the psychological and physical nature of its central character’s redemption-to-be–an arc that lies all too readily in the expanse of narrative familiarity that is, throughout its unfolding, saved by both its lead actress’ undeniable presence and a director’s irrefutable savvy in the sphere of technically hypnotic filmmaking.

We first see Cheryl (Witherspoon) befuddled, hapless and at wit’s end, in an opening sequence that not only encapsulates her seemingly insurmountable undertaking–an 1,100 mile trek along the Pacific Crest trail–but a muddled past littered with problematic happenstance. At first glance, Wild is a paint-by-numbers story of personal atonement: troubled, plagued by baggage and burdened by personal demons, Cheryl takes it upon herself to, for lack of a better term, ‘hike it off.’ Based on the 2012 memoir of the same name, Witherspoon’s portrayal of the author attempts to forget and obtain a rarefied, personal form of penance.

Unprepared and eager for escape, she sets out, unaware of what awaits her on the other side of the proverbial pond, but, within minutes of the film, Wild’s lingering sense of intrigue shifts into focus via its two most unmistakable strengths; both technical proficiency and acting prowess from one of American cinema’s forgotten talents shape the foundation of Strayed’s real life story, and so we go.

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Vallee’s film says nothing new or glaringly insightful about the nature of redemption, but what saves Wild from a purely saccharine state is its convincing ability–minute after minute–to prove just how good of an astute technical structure its able to maintain. Here, Witherspoon is at her best since her impressively diligent, effervescent portrayal of June Carter 2005’s Walk The Line. Her performance draws its power not from bursts of intensity or explosiveness (although there are some), but channeled, carefully calibrated, evenly parcelled despondency.

Witherpoon’s masterstroke, however, is in maintaining an underlying sense of optimistic charm that underpins her ordeal–the kind that made her instantly unforgettable in films like Sweet Home Alabama and Walk The Line. Not to be overlooked is Vellee’s helming of the effort: In flashback sequences, his editing is sublime, often seamless. His cinematography is uniformly gripping–his pace fervently preoccupying. Witherspoon is often regarded from a distance among the spellbinding locations that loom over her exhausting endeavor as she carries on, enclosed in a seemingly unending vastness.

After winning the Best Actress Oscar for Walk The Line, Witherspoon’s career fell into a noticeable state of limbo. Since then, she’s started her own production company, Pacific Standard, from the ground up, managing to snag the rights to one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films, Gone Girl (not to mention attracting the likes of one of the most gifted directors on the market, David Fincher, to direct the film). Witherspoon has also had peripheral roles in strong films like Jeff Nichols’ Mud and, more recently, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, but, with Wild, Vellee has created the perfect vehicle for Witherspoon’s own form of career resurrecting redemption, and she soars.

Wild is the kind of film that plucks its power from what movies of its kind do best: It sets out to, if nothing else, evoke our empathy for challenges unfamiliar to our own. It asks more questions than it’s able to answer, yet, then again, such is the perpetually elusive nature of attempting to find oneself. If there are any complaints to be had about Wild, it is its tendency–just like the temptations of its central character–to wander, but, then again, it’s a film built on this very premise, so perhaps it’s appropriate. After all, to obtain redemption is to take the journey–to place one foot after the other, however long it takes.

 

 

Interstellar

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Since his first commercially successful film, 2000’s “Memento,” Christopher Nolan has–whether purposely or inadvertently–found himself attempting to bridge the gap between the human element and the uncontrollable forces that consume those who find themselves at the forefront of his characteristically “trippy” narrative architecture. The Batman saga, once Nolan decided to proceed with his own rendering of the story, was turned upside down then placed within the light of something unmistakably human; the Dark Knight trilogy of the mid-2000’s offered a superhero burdened by the inescapable permanence of distinctly human impulses–an aspect that made the films refreshingly rational–and, to a point, more relatable than the outlandishness that permeated previous renderings of such a popular slice of cinematic pop culture.

In 2010’s “Inception,” Nolan again conjured ‘big ideas’ (by way of a near psychotic trajectory in narrative arc) under the umbrella of intangible forces exerting themselves on his central characters. Loss, or, the remembrance of such a thing, drove its main character to execute the ultimate subconscious ‘reverse heist’ in the most dangerous of  time-hopping dreamscapes. Similar to “Inception,”  “Interstellar,” at its core, concerns itself with a different kind of loss–one of possibility rather than the reality of a painful memory.

For “Interstellar,” Nolan piggybacks on the idea of toying with space, and–more specifically–time in an attempt to portray profound emotional resonance within a story that, when placed through the lens of meticulously calibrated narrative details, transforms itself into a grandiose cinematic fantasy of crippling unevenness, awe-inspiring ambition and fascinating technical achievement. A frame of sprawling cornfields opens the films’ proceedings, seemingly endless and lush, all of which seem to be more Spielbergian than something of Nolan’s own derivation. True, the crop is lush, but it won’t be for long. An undisclosed famine has struck Earth, and many, if not all of its inhabitants have turned to farming. The clock, in essence, has been set back to a forgotten time–a forgotten way of life.

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Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper harbors the astuteness of a renaissance man. He’s the caretaker for a close knit family of four: his headstrong, fearless daughter, Murph, his son, Tom and his father, Donald. Beset by destructive dust storms, unlivable conditions and a potent sense of apathy held by those around them, Cooper and (and Murph) remain unable to resign themselves to the plight of impending calamity. In search of a worldwide cure-all, Cooper finds himself at the head of a NASA mission (now a secretive underground entity) to find hospitable life among the vastness of deep space. Teamed with Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and two of the most unorthodox robots ever put on screen, the six of them set off in search of an unexplored anomaly.

Any further detailing of the plot of “Interstellar” would be doing an extreme, if not unforgivable disservice to the reader. After all, Nolan–always ever-so emphatically–treats the unfolding of his plot with all the decadent twists and turns that a rare, hyper-intelligent storyteller can provide.

To understand thoroughly where Nolan is going with all of this, his character’s dialogue should be treated as anything but half-muttered minutiae. Each piece of the enigmatic puzzle is parceled out in short blasts of convoluted technical speak, and key elements of the story depend on how well-versed you are in the science of black holes, event horizons and, oh, you know, that theory of relativity thing. Much like “Inception,” the filmmaker’s key device, again, is time, and, the hinge by which “Interstellar’s” door swings is how said time and gravity interact with the basic certainties human beings remain bound by. These futuristic explorers are slaves to an ever-changing clock, both literally and biologically. Only so much time can pass before those on Earth begin to lose hope in the mission to saved a seemingly doomed humanity. Who will they lose to such a baffling undertaking? Who will be left when they return?

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All of its intricate scientific psychobabble aside, Nolan’s space-time spectacle is an impassioned love letter to film written in resplendent, unmistakably ardent prose. “Interstellar” is an ode to the power of cinema’s capabilities, but–more specifically–its ability to transport us mentally and move us emotionally. It’s a confounding exercise for many reasons; in its attempt to maintain palatability, Nolan’s screenplay can’t resist the urge to tie a proverbial, painfully hokey bow around the its context clues, which may be its only fatal (and glaringly obvious) flaw.

For many critics, the films of Christopher Nolan unceasingly commit the ultimate sin of cinematic insanity. Time after time, rather than committing to one way or the other, the English filmmaker is persistent in his attempts to pull off the decisive amalgamation of art and action. “Interstellar” continues in this same vein, and the fact that anyone would think otherwise is to perceive the polarizing director’s filmography myopically. To successfully bridge the gap between art house and the mainstream audience, en masse, Nolan must find his key ingredient, and, what that ingredient is, I do not know. “Interstellar” has made huge strides in achieving that goal, but the mixture is still tilting off-kilter.

“Interstellar” is a relentless attempt to blend density and convention, and, like the Endurance on its return trip through Gargantua’s event horizon, exhausts all of its resources in the process. At times, it succeeds enormously and profoundly. At others, it is anticlimactic and palpably hackneyed, but, sometimes its not about the destination, but the journey one takes to get there. “Interstellar,” in defiance of its tendencies to drift into the overly-mawkish, is a powerful, exceptional piece of cinema in its purest and most enthralling form.

In movies, there are instances when–as a letter of the law–scope and ambition supercede weakness. This is one of those times.

May 20th, 2013

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“We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”  –Joseph Campbell

I assume that the morning of May 20th, 2013 for the citizens of Moore, Oklahoma began just as it did for me. For the sake of argument, I’m going to say that it did. Of course it did. Most of us start our mornings similarly. Six hours later, as heaps of semester-concluding work piled on the far corner of my desk, my gaze remained curiously fixed on Facebook. Daredevil storm chaser Reed Timmer was keeping his followers–already exceedingly aloft in anticipation–nervously biting what was left of our fingernails. For spring storm enthusiasts such as myself, his website, TVNweather.com, is the hottest ticket in town. It’s a hodgepodge of severe weather chasers intent on live streaming the action they encounter first hand. I found Reed’s stream as quickly as I could, minutes after he’d made a Facebook status update detailing the detection of a giant wedge tornado headed straight for Oklahoma City’s southernmost suburb.

Quickly, almost  urgently, this became less about witnessing the thrills and chills of mother nature’s fury firsthand, and more about something inexplicable and impervious to rationalization. This was different. My stomach turned over. Something felt peculiarly, distressfully amiss. I frantically searched for local coverage in my browser and, once I did, anchored smack dab in the middle of Oklahoma City’s News9.com’s live stream was the most widely-recognized emblem for nature’s hellacious furor: a pulsating tornado almost as wide as it was tall. It churned like a whirlpool of billowing smoke, sometimes stagnant, always mind-boggling, remorseless in bulldozing everything within its unpredictable path.

Bulldozing. Dismantling. Obliterating. Every action done, all of them irreversible. It could have been you. Or me. Perhaps both of us. People died.

Children died.

Walking my dog past the middle school football game at the stadium a quarter mile from my home yesterday evening, the passing faces of buoyant exuberance left me with the feeling of intoxicating nostalgia. Here are 6th, 7th and 8th graders blind to the abstruseness of an unpredictable and sometimes unforgiving world. I remember being that age. On Saturday mornings, my dad would get me out of bed before the weekly house cleaning. He’d lean four vinyl records against the right floor speaker. Easeful yellow sunbeams slanted through the living room windows, illuminating the dust scattering frantically off of the oak armoire.

Sliding the first record out of the sleeve, he would would toss it onto the player. First, the popping and scratching, then the opening chords of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” It was a problemless paradise safe from the hidden dangers of the world. I was encased in the safety of that Joshua St. house. The lush Saint Augustine grass in the backyard always felt softest in the shade, especially in the summer. I remember eating crisp Granny Smith apples smothered in peanut butter. They were a delicacy to me then, just as they are today. When I think of these moments, it warms me. They were moments–passing in time–as all moments do.

The children that passed away Monday in Moore experienced these moments, too. Maybe their father, too played their favorite classic rock albums for them the last Saturday before they were taken. Maybe their moms, too fed them peanut butter apples. Perhaps it was the last thing they ever tasted. For these children they were moments passing in time, too. Little did they know that they would be their last. It’s a shame that, unlike me, they won’t be able to think back on the moments that made them feel warmest. To call this “tragic” is a vast and unworthy understatement. Any attempts at rationalization are futile. Only one truism remains: it just doesn’t fit sensibly inside our thoughts.
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Two days ago, a picture surfaced of a man holding, of all things, a DVD of the movie “Twister” that he’d found buried beneath the rubble of his once standing home. This mustered one of the few smiles I’ve had since Monday afternoon. It’s simultaneously uplifting and telling for two reasons: here is a man–one day removed from the unexpected destruction of his home–able to find humorous irony in his temporary lot. I hope that, when thinking back on what happened in this place ten years from now, this picture will stand as a testament to the human spirit. Unexpected disasters are forces of boundless sorrow. The unfortunate fact of the matter is, not everyone will have their chance to remember peanut butter smothered apples, or the pop and crackle of a vinyl record as the needle moves between songs.

Somehow we, time and time again–after 9/11, Katrina, Boston, May 20th and all other unpredictable tragedies–with our subconscious forklift, have continued to stow away our affecting experiences in places hidden from the most accessible recesses of our memory in an inflexible attempt to move forward. We have to. It is, for better or for worse, the only way. It’s the only way that we, as a collective, coexistent people, know how.

Godspeed, Moore.

Veteran storm chasers Heidi Farrar and Dave Demko documented the unreal:

To The Wonder (2012)

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★★★1/2

What a peculiar film Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder is. Here is a film–much like its far-reaching predecessor, The Tree of Life–that lies completely, holistically in the spiritual. I don’t mean the kind of “spirituality” we subconsciously attribute to Sunday school or hours spent in stuffy, un-air conditioned churches. What I mean, rather, is the type of spirituality achieved by pondering our place within the mystery–the act of attributing, through rumination, our life to the larger forces that may or may not be at work. I know. I can hear you now. The words “here we go again” have just left your lips, under your breath, followed by the to-be-expected (but understood) follow-up act: an emphatic eye roll of relative disdain. Fine. I don’t blame you. Perhaps you’re not like me, then. You’re probably not adrift with us few–ever-so enthusiastically–on Malick’s rarefied wavelength.

It’s a place in the cinematic space-time continuum chocked full of ever-gliding steadicams, sublime imagery, music sent from the heavens, and an artistic outlook so ambitious and deeply contemplative that, at times, it makes Kubrick’s existential pondering in 2001: A Space Odyssey look relatively pedestrian. With To The Wonder, all of these things are again on parade for the docile poet of the cinema. It’s everything we’ve come to expect from Malick: the quiet voice-over narration, contemplative composition, astral visual ramblings. This time, much like in The Tree of Life, he’s catering to no one’s sensibilities but his own, and there’s not a damned thing wrong with it. In fact, I welcomed it–even in all of its glorious imperfection. It’s a proverbial breath of fresh air before the four month stint of things no moviegoer ever saw coming: one tedious, brainless summer action rehash after another (not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with that).

In the opening minutes of the film, we see Neil (Ben Affleck), in France, falling deeply in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), and, as they do so, the peculiar mold of the film begins to take shape. As it opens, we see the two of them flirtatiously engaged on a passenger train. Malick sets the stage here by doing what made many sequences in The Tree of Life so impactful and unique: he  films them through the filter of a minds’ eye, creating the look, feel and experience of memories conjured. For the remaining 110 minutes of the film (Malick’s shortest in his four decade long career), we see Neil, Marina, her daughter Tatiana, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) and Jane (Rachel McAdams) as moments in time–their actions dictated by reflection–just as one would see them in the furthest recesses of their memory.

After falling in love in Paris, Marina decides to move to Oklahoma with Neil. As we move from breathtaking shots of Mont St. Michel to the rolling prairies outside of suburban Oklahoma, the two are shown laughing, caressing one another, dancing, arguing, forgetting. Eventually, Marina grows dissatisfied with Niel’s progressing emotional distance. Distraught, she returns to France. Once she’s gone, Neil revisits a former romance between himself and Jane, but the flames are quickly fanned after she learns that his motives are strictly lustful in nature. Marina returns after a severe bout of loneliness, only to find that the late night streets of Paris are just as cold and lifeless as the empty cookie cutter homes of suburban Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Father Quintana is struggling with his vocation. He–like Marina and Niel–is finding that his love for the church is slowly abandoning him. He attempts to remedy this vacancy by tending to others in need, but, unshakeable skepticism seems to override his ventures.
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So, why does a film with so little going on have so much hubbub surrounding it? As is normal with Malick, it all means, well, many things. Some of them are easily discernible, but some are not. One thing’s for certain, though: what is meant to be taken from this film is not its specific occurrences, and, if you approach it with the mindset that actors are haphazardly wandering into an inflated nature documentary from time to time, you’ll be maddeningly disappointed (and probably a little bit pissed off). A film becomes what you bring to it, and, as is the understood norm with most of Malick’s work, this time you’ll need to bring more than your fair share.

Love permeates these people’s lives, but indefinable and unexplainable forces seem to control its whys, hows and what fors. Their love is perpetually challenged by actions each of them remain blind to. What these forces/actions are, Malick does not know, and neither do we. Why do Neil’s emotions abandon him during his love affair with Marina? Why does he lust after and use Jane? Why does Father Quintana find his lifelong love for the church being challenged in ways he never thought possible? And what of those Quintana attempts to aid? Has love not nourished the poor, permeated the criminals, and flooded the psychologically unstable? What a mysterious and impartial entity nature is.

The Tree of Life is a film that affected me in ways that I still find difficult to articulate. It’s beautiful, mesmerizing, and transcendent. Since that film, Malick’s work has become increasingly spiritual and introspective. To The Wonder follows in the same vein, but, all of its ambition aside, the outcome feels less substantial and, at times, moderately desultory. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, though, because it certainly is not. However, I suppose that once you make a film as unequivocally aspiring as The Tree of Life, a second, less dense effort will seem automatically “dissatisfying.” The bar, in all its elusive glory, has been set high.

Perhaps the growing rumination in Malick’s work is tangential to his transition to old age. Is it not true that the closer one gets to death, the more one begins to look inward? Malick has been making films since the early 1970’s. The overlying theme tying together every film he has made since his debut feature, Badlands (1973), is how the “insignificance” of man pales in comparison to the unpredictable power of nature. Perhaps, with all of his films (including this one), he’s attempting to make sense of  the mystical, mysterious cathedral of life as he knows it, and, perhaps… no, not perhaps… surely his cinematic ambitions and achievements will be discovered, rediscovered and marveled over for years to come.

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Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon: Roger Ebert’s Great Movie Review

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by Roger Ebert

September 9, 2009

Stanley Kubrick‘s “Barry Lyndon,” received indifferently in 1975, has grown in stature in the years since and is now widely regarded as one of the master’s best. It is certainly in every frame a Kubrick film: technically awesome, emotionally distant, remorseless in its doubt of human goodness. Based on a novel published in 1844, it takes a form common in the 19th century novel, following the life of the hero from birth to death. The novel by Thackeray, called the first novel without a hero, observes a man without morals, character or judgment, unrepentant, unredeemed. Born in Ireland in modest circumstances, he rises through two armies and the British aristocracy with cold calculation.

“Barry Lyndon” is aggressive in its cool detachment. It defies us to care, it asks us to remain only observers of its stately elegance. Many of its developments take place off-screen, the narrator informing us what’s about to happen, and we learn long before the film ends that its hero is doomed. This news doesn’t much depress us, because Kubrick has directed Ryan O’Neal in the title role as if he were a still life. It’s difficult to imagine such tumultuous events whirling around such a passive character. He loses a fortune, a wife or a leg with as little emotion as he might in losing a dog. Only the death of his son devastates him and that perhaps because he sees himself in the boy.

The casting choice of O’Neal is bold. Not a particularly charismatic actor, he is ideal for the role. Consider Albert Finney in “Tom Jones,” for example, bursting with vitality. Finney could not possibly have played Lyndon. O’Neal easily seems self-pitying, narcissistic, on the verge of tears. As one terrible event after another occurs to him, he projects an eerie calm. Nor do his triumphs — in gambling, con games, a fortunate marriage and even acquiring a title — seem to bring him much joy. He is a man to whom things happen.

The other characters seem cast primarily for their faces and their presence, certainly not for their personalities. Look at the curling sneer of the lips of Leonard Rossiter, as Captain Quin, who ends Barry’s youthful affair with a cousin by an advantageous offer of marriage. Study the face of Marisa Berenson, as Lady Lyndon. Is there any passion in her marriage? She loves their son as Barry does, but that seems to be their only feeling in common. When the time comes for her to sign an annuity check for the man who nearly destroyed her family, her pen pauses momentarily, then smoothly advances.

The film has the arrogance of genius. Never mind its budget or the perfectionism in its 300-day shooting schedule. How many directors would have had Kubrick’s confidence in taking this ultimately inconsequential story of a man’s rise and fall, and realizing it in a style that dictates our attitude toward it? We don’t simply see Kubrick’s movie, we see it in the frame of mind he insists on — unless we’re so closed to the notion of directorial styles that the whole thing just seems like a beautiful extravagance (which it is). There is no other way to see Barry than the way Kubrick sees him.

 Kubrick’s work has a sense of detachment and bloodlessness. The most “human” character in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) is the computer, and “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) is disturbing specifically in its objectivity about violence. The title of “Clockwork,” from Anthony Burgess’ novel, illustrates Kubrick’s attitude to his material. He likes to take organic subjects and disassemble them as if they were mechanical. It’s not just that he wants to know what makes us tick; he wants to demonstrate that we do all tick. After “Spartacus” (1960), he never again created a major character driven by idealism or emotion.

The events in “Barry Lyndon” could furnish a swashbuckling romance. He falls into a foolish adolescent love, has to leave his home suddenly after a duel, enlists almost accidentally in the British army, fights in Europe, deserts from not one but two armies, falls in with unscrupulous companions, marries a woman of wealth and beauty, and then destroys himself because he lacks the character to survive.

But Kubrick examines Barry’s life with microscopic clarity. He has the confidence of the great 19th century novelists, authors who stood above their material and accepted without question their right to manipulate and interpret it with omniscience. Kubrick has appropriated Thackeray’s attitude — or Trollope’s or George Eliot’s. There isn’t Dickens’ humor or relish of human character. Barry Lyndon, falling in and out of love and success, may see no pattern in his own affairs, but the artist sees one for him, one of consistent selfish opportunism.

Perhaps Kubrick’s buried theme in “Barry Lyndon” is even similar to his outlook in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Both films are about organisms striving to endure and prevail — and never mind the reason. The earlier film was about the human race itself; this one is about a depraved minor example of it. Barry journeys without plan, sees what he desires, tries to acquire it and perhaps succeeds because he plays roles so well without being remotely dedicated to them. He looks the part of a lover, a soldier, a husband. But there is no there there.There’s a sense in both this film and “2001” that a superior force hovers above these struggles and controls them. In “2001,” it was a never-clarified form of higher intelligence. In “Barry Lyndon,” it’s Kubrick himself, standing aloof from the action by two distancing devices: the narrator (Michael Hordern), who deliberately destroys suspense and tension by informing us of all key developments in advance, and the photography, which is a succession of meticulously, almost coldly, composed set images. It’s notable that three of the film’s four Oscars were awarded for cinematography (John Alcott), art direction (Ken Adam) and costumes (Ulla-Britt Soderlund and Milena Canonero). The many landscapes are often filmed in long shots; the fields, hills and clouds could be from a landscape by Gainsborough. The interior compositions could be by Joshua Reynolds.

This must be one of the most beautiful films ever made, and yet the beauty isn’t in the service of emotion. Against magnificent settings, the characters play at intrigues and scandals. They cheat at cards and marriage, they fight ridiculous duels. This is a film with a backdrop of the Seven Years’ War that engulfed Europe, and it hardly seems to think the war worth noticing, except as a series of challenges posed for Barry Lyndon. By placing such small characters on such a big stage, by forcing our detachment from them, Kubrick supplies a philosophical position just as clearly as if he’d put speeches in his characters’ mouths.The images proceed in elegant stages through the events, often accompanied by the inexorable funereal progression of Handel’s “Sarabande.” For such an eventful life, there is no attempt to speed the events along. Kubrick told the critic Michel Ciment he used the narrator because the novel had too much incident even for a three-hour film, but there isn’t the slightest sense he’s condensing.Some people find “Barry Lyndon” a fascinating, if cold, exercise in masterful filmmaking; others find it a terrific bore. I have little sympathy for the second opinion; how can anyone be bored by such an audacious film? “Barry Lyndon” isn’t a great entertainment in the usual way, but it’s a great example of directorial vision: Kubrick saying he’s going to make this material function as an illustration of the way he sees the world.