Thursday, December 18, 2014

New movie review: Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice.

Ever wandered through the early morning fog? The dim glow of street lights peaks through the haze but fails to illuminate the shapes whose outlines you recognize but do not recall. The farther you walk, the thicker it gets, and when you reach the end of the road, there is no path to follow but back the way you came. Or, is that gone, too? Maybe you did not wake up, and your 4 a.m. stroll is nothing but a dream. You fell asleep on the couch and imagined a trip you never took. You cannot know for sure.

With Inherent Vice, director Paul Thomas Anderson invites audiences along on his own 4 a.m. stroll, and as could be expected, the experience is decidedly singular. Never one to make the same movie twice, Anderson adapts the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name and puts his own spin on the neo-noir detective story at its core. The results are a stunning and complex mix of radical art house experiment, investigative thriller, and stoner comedy. As I said – singular.

After the classically mounted, even baroque The Master, Anderson has spun around 180 degrees to face the seedy, sunny underbelly of Southern California in 1970. Making the turn with him is The Master star Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Doc Sportello, a private investigator more interested in smoking weed than solving cases – that is, until ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) walks back into his life.

Shasta is dating billionaire real estate mogul Mickey Wolfman. Wolfman’s wife and her lover are plotting to kidnap him and commit him to an insane asylum – or “loony bin” in the parlance of the film. Though their aim is clear, their motive is a little fuzzy, which could stand in as the caveat for most characters’ motives in Inherent Vice. In any event, they want Shasta’s help to carry out the crime, so she enlists Doc to get her out of her predicament and solve the mystery.

All of this is laid out in the film’s first scene, even before the opening credits have played. Despite clocking in at a couple minutes shy of two-and-a-half hours, Inherent Vice moves along with the speed of a bullet. The minute Shasta leaves Doc’s apartment the first time, he is thrown headlong into a complex web of underworld and law enforcement syndicates with complementary and contradictory goals, usually both at once.

To describe the plot further, however, would be a disservice to the film. Inherent Vice is not what happens; it is how it happens. The reveal of a kidnapping conspiracy may be the inciting incident, but the nuts and bolts of the mystery and its ultimate resolution are almost tangential to the heart of Anderson’s film. If you are trying to keep tabs on the plot – which can be done, as the picture is not as labyrinthine as some would have you believe – you are missing the grander experience.

The film plays equally well as absurdly heightened reality or drug-induced hallucination, but its tone never wavers because Anderson understands that dreams have their own internal logic. Anything can come true if you can imagine it, but you cannot see what you cannot believe. As Doc meanders through the marijuana haze of his life, he runs into character after character operating off the same dream logic he does, yet critically, they are consistent always to the people we know them as.

This is not Fellini-esque surrealism. No one breaks into song or dance. There are no talking animals or whimsical spirit guides. While the movie is laugh-out-loud funny at times, we never get the sense this would be a fun or magical world in which to live. This is a world in pain and in recovery at the same time. As the war in Vietnam continues to take its toll on the national morale, the hippie culture that developed around it is burning out faster than their roach clips can handle.

In a cast more sprawling than any in recent memory, we meet druggies, hippies, gangsters, bikers, policemen, Feds, musicians, families, and more. Almost no one is an innocent bystander. Perhaps the biggest joke in the film comes during one of its saddest scenes, when a wife and mother tells Doc about her former heroin addiction. She did not know the drugs could pass through breast milk. She shows Doc a picture of what she did to her baby. Doc’s hysterical reaction is a tremendous laugh for the audience, but the shame she feels and the pain she caused are real. There are no bystanders.

Just because you cannot stay out of the game does not mean you should play it either. Josh Brolin plays Bigfoot Bjornson, a straight-laced homicide detective and wannabe actor who loathes hippies and has a love-hate relationship with Doc. Bigfoot is a man who does not belong to any of the worlds he inhabits. He simply performs the roles assigned to him because what else is he supposed to do? He is not a man out of time. He has no time, and Brolin is excellent at portraying this inner turmoil realized as misplaced outward aggression.

Waterston’s Shasta has the opposite problem. She is fully comfortable in her own skin and fits in anywhere she chooses to go, but she is such a user – in more ways than one – she finds herself with nowhere left to choose, so she returns to Doc. It is a common scenario in film and in life. We destroy our present and cloud the future, so we revert to the past, looking for stability and hoping nothing has changed.

This rarely works because no matter how often we go back, we cannot stay in the past. We move forward and circle back, move forward and circle back, and only the lucky few realize they are caught in a loop. Shasta shows up at Doc’s doorstep over and over. Doc finds a missing girl he has already found. The rich get rich, lose it, and regain it. Respect and love ebb and flow with tide. People come and go and fall and rise. Nothing changes, but nothing remains.

Like a man trapped in a hurricane who keeps running toward the eye rather than away from the storm, Doc is trapped by circumstance and self. He twists and turns, bends and breaks, swirls and whirls in every direction but forward. Phoenix is made for this role. Despite a career spent playing introverts who pass the time by chasing temptation and dodging consequence (Walk the Line, Gladiator, I’m Still Here, We Own the Night, and I could go on), Phoenix feels uniquely suited for the part of a crusader who puts himself in harm’s way in an effort to do what is right.

With a shaggy head of hair and the constant glaze of marijuana in his eyes, Phoenix’s Doc exudes self-confidence even as he is often baffled by the events unfolding around him. He does not think twice about carrying only his bravado into the den of a hired killer who keeps the company of neo-Nazis. He ambles comfortably around places he does not belong, communes with hippies and commandos alike with equal ease, and faces down guns like he was born in front of a firing squad.

Yet, as so many of his cinematic predecessors, what he cannot control is his love of the one who got away: Shasta. The film’s best scene is the second time she shows up at his home. Anderson specializes in scenes of two people confronting the truth about each other and their shared past in which one person talks and the other just listens as the pain builds.

Here, Shasta does the talking as she bares herself flesh and soul to him. She is equal parts vulnerable and cunning, like a wounded cat that will strike if you attempt to help it. Waterston is playing notes all over the scale in this scene, and she hits every one of them with precision and the kind of tonal depth that comes from the confluence of great writing, great acting, and great directing.

Phoenix listens as well as anyone in the game, and though we see only the shadows of his face, the anger and love he feels are palpable. For everything she has done to him and what she is trying to do to him now, he should hate her, but “should” does not really play a part in the maelstrom of emotion. A scene that lasts only a few minutes communicates a lifetime worth of sentiment. It all ends with Doc exploding in a fit of violent passion, and why wouldn’t it? This is his dream.

See it? Yes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The vermin won: The short life and excruciating death of The Interview

Seth Rogen and James Franco star in The Interview.

The vermin won. There is not much more to say than that. If you have followed entertainment news or just the news really over the last few weeks, you are probably aware of the Sony hacking scandal: thousands of emails leaked, private documents compromised, and privacy lost. Two things happened tonight. Bowing to pressure from the organization behind the hack, Sony Pictures pulled the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview from release. The U.S. government declared North Korea the perpetrator of the attacks.

More than pressure, though, the group behind this threatened to blow up theaters that showed the film. While the U.S. said there was no credibility to the threats – and the Feds would know – theater chains decided to error on the side of caution, which in this case, happens to be the side of cowardice. Here is Sony’s statement in full (via

“In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.

“Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

A lot to digest here. First and foremost, though, let’s look at the ending: “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression …”

Allow me to congratulate Sony on being able to heap that much bull shit into half a sentence. Standing by their filmmakers and their right to free expression is actually the one thing Sony has failed to do in this case. It would be more accurate to say the company stepped aside as the steamroller of cyber-terrorism and threatened domestic terrorism ran right over filmmakers and free expression.

I am not na├»ve. People’s lives are more important than one film, but the idea here is dangerous. In theory, this group of hackers now controls Hollywood. That is hyperbole, but it is also simple extrapolation. They did not like what this movie had to say. They killed it – or perhaps, we should say fear and ignorance killed The Interview. What about the next movie they do not like? What about the next movie any powerful group does not like? Precedent means something here.

In 1988, Universal Pictures released Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. It was called blasphemous. It was picketed. A theater was blown up, but the film continued to screen. It is a masterpiece. It is probably unfair to compare a Scorsese picture with a buddy comedy from co-directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg. As cinema, the two are unlikely to compare, but we all have the right to see them and judge for ourselves.

Last Cinema Standing was founded on the idea that movie-going is as much a right as a ritual. Films shine on the big screen, and the cinema is where the art of movies lives. When something attacks that – in this case the hackers and Sony are nearly equally culpable – the culture at large is being attacked. It is hard to say where we should go from here. What is likely to happen is all of this will die down, and in a couple of months, we will get our DVDs of the film if we so choose, and all will be mostly forgotten. But, where we should go is another matter. All that is known right now is: We are lost.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Adjust your radars: 5 actresses who deserve Oscar's attention

Charlotte Gainsbourg gives one of the performances of the year in Nymphomaniac.

In case you missed it, the Screen Actors Guild and Hollywood Foreign Press Association released their respective nominations lists mid-week last week. Two categories stood out as being identical: best supporting actor and best actress. Aside from the baffling continued inclusion of Robert Duvall for his performance in The Judge, the supporting actor race is a tight and impressive group of the year’s clear best. The same cannot necessarily be said of the best actress nominees.

Here is what the list looks like as of now:

Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Jennifer Aniston, Cake

Throw in critical favorite Marion Cotillard for her work in Two Days, One Night (as well as The Immigrant), and you likely are looking at your six contenders for the Best Actress Oscar. The Broadcast Film Critics Association, which announced its nominees yesterday, has a field of six nominees, comprised of all of the above.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with this group. Though the quality of the cited films varies wildly, it would be hard to argue too hard against nominations for any of these women – two past winners, three would-be first-time nominees, and a multiple nominee whom some might consider due for a win. An easy argument to make is that the list is just not all that inspired. To be sure, it is a handsome list but not one that arouses excitement or convinces anyone of a desire to look outside the box.

Every year, this year included, pundits and critics wring their hands over the lack of strong or interesting female leads in film. Then, their awards predictions and citations reflect this perceived lack of choice and opportunity. This line of thinking trickles all the way to the Academy Awards, and really, it is kind of a bummer. The lack of strong female roles in Hollywood films is both well documented and worth addressing, but before we yell too loudly into the echo chamber, perhaps we should consider a few of the less heralded performances that deserve recognition.

With that in mind, Last Cinema Standing presents an alphabetical list of the best female performances of 2014 that will not get anywhere near the Dolby Theatre on Oscar night.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac

First alphabetically and first in my heart, Charlotte Gainsbourg gives one of the best performances of the year – male or female – in Lars Von Trier’s devastating opus. As a sex addict recounting the downward spiral of her life, Gainsbourg shines through the despairing muck this film wallows in to deliver a performance of heart, vulnerability, and bravery.

This is the actress’ third collaboration with the prickly Danish director after 2009’s Antichrist and 2011’s Melancholia. Though incontrovertibly brilliant in each of those, her performance in Nymphomaniac may be the crowning achievement in Von Trier’s spiritually related Trilogy of Despair. However, do not hold your breath waiting for the Academy to recognize an actress’ work in one of the director’s films.

Only Emily Watson has able to crack the nominations list for 1996’s Breaking the Waves, despite career-topping work from Nicole Kidman in Dogville (2003), Bryce Dallas Howard in Manderlay (2005), Bjork in Dancer in the Dark (2000), and Kirsten Dunst for the aforementioned Melancholia. This will not be the year Gainsbourg breaks that streak, but in a perfect world, there would be no streak to break.

Lisa Loven Kongsli in Force Majeure

Force Majeure is the story of a marriage that begins to unravel due to the actions of the husband, but the emotional arc of the story belongs to the wife. Lisa Loven Kongsli has done only a handful of films, and I have seen none but this, but based on her performance here, I hope to see a lot more of her work in the future.

She is a lightning rod of anger, resentment, hurt, guilt, and shame who cannot help but draw others into her headspace. For a film with several unabashedly over-the-top sequences, Kongsli is always firmly in control of her character and her performance. As her marriage descends into pettiness and self-deceit, Kongsli ensures she is grounded in an emotional reality true to her journey in contrast to the film’s more impressionistic tendencies.

Elisabeth Moss in The One I Love

Little seen in theaters (it is on Netflix Instantwatch now, and I highly recommend it), Charlie McDowell’s first feature explores the ways people want what they want, even if they cannot bring themselves to say so. Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass are a husband and wife who go on a weekend retreat to fix their marriage. I will spoil none of what follows, but suffice it to say, some strange stuff goes on.

Moss, whom many of you will recognize as the star of Mad Men, has a tall task assigned to her in this film: stay true to the heart of the character while portraying all sides and all facets of her being. How does she see herself? How does she think her husband sees her? How does he actually see her? These questions are all answered by the nuances and subtleties of Moss’ shifting persona. Though she essentially plays only one woman, Moss must portray all sides of that woman as distinct while keeping the central character intact. She succeeds brilliantly.

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

A charmingly quirky performance in a charmingly quirky film, Jenny Slate plays a comedienne who gets unexpected news and handles it the best way she knows how. Without revealing the particulars, the plot is remarkably straightforward and carries a simple premise through to its logical conclusions. However, Slate’s portrayal is anything but simple.

Adulthood sneaks up on most of us, and for a comic who specializes in jokes about sex and bodily functions, it may not be all that welcome of an arrival. Slate is perfect as a woman confronted with growing up at a time in her life when it is neither convenient nor all that necessary. This is not a Judd Apatow-style Peter Pan narrative. This is about how average people deal with average problems when they are not ready for them. The circumstances may be ordinary, but Slate is extraordinary.

Mia Wasikowska in Tracks

I wrote about Mia Wasikowska’s performance in my glowing review of the film (which you can read here), so I will not spend too much time on this. Similar to Reese Witherspoon’s character in Wild, we are presented with a woman who chooses to put herself through immense physical turmoil in search of some greater truth – or perhaps, just because it was what needed to be done.

What still impresses about Wasikowska is how much of the film she carries on her own. We get very little backstory, which is a plus because it means we get no trite, pop psychology explanations for her decisions. Wasikowska’s portrayal is of a smart, brave woman who knows what she needs to do for herself and no one else. Her story is inspiring because she is not trying to inspire. She is trying to discover, and it is our good fortune that she invites us to discover with her.

None of these actresses’ names will be called out on Oscar nominations morning, Jan. 15, but each would be deserving. At the very least, these films are worth a watch because they are reminders of how many great actresses are doing phenomenal work in movies that so often fly below the radar. More than that, they are a call to action: We need to readjust our radars.