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.

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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.