Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Goofy Melancholy of "Inherent Vice"

Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson has never been a very mainstream filmmaker (not since Magnolia, anyway, and some would argue even that), but his last two films have been very polarizing. The Master was so complex (or disjointed or weird or nonsensical or etc.) that some critics theorized that Anderson himself was the titular "Master" and/or the film was about the acting process (click here for an article that will lead you down the rabbit hole of Master theories and criticism). Not to get too far into it, but that film allowed itself to be viewed in many different ways. I considered it an intentional comedy (the more you look at Anderson's filmography, the more you'll see that all of his films are at least partially comedic) and counted it among my favorite films of the year. Inherent Vice is equally polarizing, but for different reasons. Perhaps it's because it's so polarizing and different that it count it among my favorite films this year.

Inherent Vice, at first glance, looked like a return to Anderson's roots. A huge, talented cast, overt comedy, 1970s setting...could this be his return to the easy-to-watch-but-still-thematically-rich Boogie Nights-style? No, it is not. Not by a long shot. Inherent Vice isn't Anderson's strangest film (The Master holds that distinction), but it is arguably his least accessible (runner-up? The Master). Despite the goofy previews, Vice is a hopelessly dense film that encourages you not to understand it. I'm fine with that, but others will be frustrated. I'm okay with it being dense because this is an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. Pynchon is know for complex stories that don't necessarily make sense...or rather, stories that don't have crystal clear resolutions. Anderson is the perfect candidate to adapt such an author's work because both of them appear to going for the same thing: make something interesting that potentially says a lot about a number of issues without coming out and saying it, and have fun with it.

Anderson stated in Total Film in reference to The Big Sleep, an influence on the film, "I never remember plots in movies. I remember how they make me feel." It is obvious that Anderson feels this way about his own work these days. It's not that there isn't a story in Vice (if anything, there's too much); it's just that Anderson (and Pynchon) is not concerned with making sure you understand everything; they just want you to feel something. I don't take that to mean they want you to care about the characters all that much (though I do really like Vice's Doc Sportello and Bigfoot Bjornsen); I think it applies to the general feeling you get as you watch the film. When it comes to Vice, many of the film's fans will claim the movie made them feel high, and that was the whole point of it. I disagree. This film felt more strangely melancholy to me, a goofy melancholy, if such a feeling exists... I didn't take the confusion and randomness as something meant to make me feel high; I took it as intentional comedy laced with a sad realization that the world has changed. Set in 1970, Inherent Vice is more about the transition from the free-spirited '60s into the paranoid '70s than it is about the actual kidnapping/murder/drug cartel/dentist conglomerate/ex-old lady/stoner plot.

The transition of carefree to conspiracy lends itself to confusion, comedy, and sadness. The plot itself is confusing as Doc (a perfect Joaquin Phoenix) stumbles from one lead to the next adding more questions than answers. It's hard to keep up with, but Doc has a hard time to. Doc isn't only meant to be our conduit; he's also meant to be a representation of the audience we can laugh at. I wasn't trying to figure things out along with Doc, I was laughing at him grow more and more confused. He's also high throughout, so there are a few cheap laughs along those lines, as well. So the feeling is kind of goofy, but the score (by Anderson-regular Jonny Greenwood) reminds us at times that this is actually a pretty depressing end of an era. Certain musical touches reminded me of Apocalypse Now as Willard made his dark journey up the river. Greenwood created an end-of-it-all sound for some scenes that added another layer to the film.

Because of the score, soundtrack, and goofy melancholy of the film, it's tonally all over the place...kind of like the plot. This would certainly be a negative observation for most films, but most films aren't directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Some would argue that Anderson gets a pass from fanboys (like me, and I do not consider "fanboy" to be a negative term) who turn what would traditionally be considered missteps into strokes of genius. I am certainly guilty of this, but I believe that Anderson knows what he is doing. For this film, however, a bit of that is out of his hands. This is his first sincere attempt at an adaptation (There Will Be Blood was only loosely based on an Upton Sinclair book), and he remained quite faithful to Pynchon's material. The messy, convoluted plot is actually evidence that this is a faithful adaptation. If anyone takes issue with that, then the critique should really be that Pynchon books are too dense for film. I'm almost inclined to agree. I read the book twice (once when it first came out and again before watching the film), and I still had a hard time following it. I can't imagine what it's like for someone completely new to the story. But I am one of the people who think the confusion is a good choice. By the end of the film, it was kind of amusing to share the confused looks Doc made with each twist and turn.

Anderson is one of the few directors out there that I will over-analyze and (possibly) credit too much. (Darren Aronofsky is the other director whose films I find myself automatically liking.) But I believe he has earned it. If a viewer doesn't share this feeling, then they could easily dismiss Inherent Vice as a misstep in Anderson's career. I've looked into these criticisms and from a certain point of view, they are all correct. This film is a mess, it makes no sense, visually it's not on the same obviously impressive level of his other work, etc. From my (fanboy) perspective, all of those "critiques" are intentional and serve the overall purpose of the film.

In my view, the overall purpose of the film was to create the feeling of transition from '60s to the '70s and all of the elements added up to that. It was a messy, confusing time in which people didn't know who could be trusted. The film exudes that feeling. It's about a shift from (slightly) innocent times to dark conspiratorial times. There's a quote at the beginning of the novel and at the end of the film from Paris during the 1968 protest: "Under the paving stones, the beach!" That sums up the theme of both novel and movie; the real world is hidden under progress. Doc is one of those people trying to find the beach, although his search is a bit drug-impaired.

Speaking of Doc, Joaquin Phoenix portrays him in mumbling glory. I didn't feel stoned while watching this, but Phoenix certainly looked it. It's a hilarious and likable performance that I think will only get better with repeated viewings. The film and novel have been compared to The Big Lebowski, and I think the comparison is most apt when looking at Doc and The Dude. Phoenix has mastered the use of facial expressions in this role. It's not that he's good at looking stoned/confused (though he is great at that), it's his reaction to everything. His performance is really more Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson than it is Jeff Bridges as The Dude. It's still very much his own, original performance, however. But there are certainly shades of other famous stoners in there. Phoenix does his best work opposite Josh Brolin as Doc's friend/adversary Bigfoot Bjornsen. Their scenes together are by far the film's most comedic moments. Brolin is being grossly ignored this awards season.

The focus on Doc's expression actually undermines the film's look, though. The majority of the film is shot in close-ups on characters' faces. When seen on the big screen, it's almost strange how close up many of the shots are. This is frustrating because Anderson is so good at composing visuals. There are still moments in this film, but you have to really be looking for them: The Last Supper (Pizza) shot at a house party (which is actually directly taken from the book), the scene at the docks that starts in close up and almost unnoticeably pulls back into a long shot, the scene with Penny on the bench that starts as a long shot and unnoticeably pushes into a close up, and the very effective long take near the end of the film (you'll know what I mean when you see it). Anderson is a master at work, but I prefer his more cinematic moments a la There Will Be Blood. Though I must say, this visual style works for this film.

I could go on, but this is far too wordy a review as it is. There is so much more to discuss, though. I barely mentioned the supporting cast (all of which were great). There are the hallucinations that Doc has leading some to question the majority of the movie. There's the rumored Pynchon cameo that no one will confirm (some think he's the one walking back and forth behind Owen Wilson and Phoenix in the house party scene). I could go on, but I won't. To close, Inherent Vice is not accessible, but if you fully try to access it, it is an immensely rewarding experience. This is not to say that those who dismiss it or dislike it "don't get it" (at this point, that phrase should be banned from film discussion); it just means that some people will see interesting elements where others see faults. It's all about the viewer's perception. It just helps if that view is an Anderson fanboy.

Inherent Vice receives a:
That's Anderson wearing the hood...
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Okay, I need to add more. First off, in defense of being a Paul Thomas Anderson fanboy. The guy doesn't make the same movie twice, I think everyone can agree. I find myself wanting another There Will Be Blood, but I really don't. That would be a waste of Anderson's time. So as long as he keeps doing something new and unique each time, I'm going to keep focusing too deeply on his movies. And I'm also going to like them for their very existence because too few directors are willing to try something new every time out.

Now for the hallucinations. Early in the movie, Doc sees Bigfoot in a commercial, and then Bigfoot directly addresses him. This is the only time it is crystal clear that Doc is hallucinating, but it opens the entire movie to that possibility. I'm always one to argue that the majority of a film is actually happening as we see it, and I am inclined to stick with that position for this film. Others have been theorizing that more outlandish moments, like Bigfoot showing up to eat a whole tray of weed, are hallucinations as well. I can see the argument for this, and it's interesting to watch the film with that possibility in mind, but I like it more believing that most of it is real. Bigfoot showing up to eat a tray of weed is a more powerful scene when it actually happens because it shows that Bigfoot is very troubled, and Doc truly cares about him (he does shed that tear while watching him eat). It's seems less powerful if it turns out Doc is just seeing things or, worse, Bigfoot is a Tyler Durden-type creation of Doc's mind (that theory is out there, check IMDb). 

What I truly love about Anderson's movies are that they do create a feeling. It's hard to define, but as I watched the film, I wasn't sure that I liked it all that much. But as I thought about it, certain elements stuck with me (the music gets me every time). I couldn't explain why I liked or disliked it, but I wanted to see it again for that feeling. Once I watched it again, I did decide that I liked it, but I still can't accurately describe the feeling it give me. I suppose this is why I'm always up for re-watching an Anderson movie. There are entire articles about whether a movie should have to be viewed more than once. I'm not saying anyone has to watch this film more than once. I just think Anderson's movies get better with each viewing. I'm not sure that's something someone can do intentionally, but it's definitely been the case with the majority of his films. Okay, I'm done now. I'm going to go watch The Master on a loop until Inherent Vice comes out on video. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

"American Sniper" Is a Great Movie. Key Word: Movie.

American Sniper
Movies based on true stories are always prominent during awards season, but this year it seems like overload. True stories are great for getting the audience to connect with the material (“This really happened!”), but they are also subject to controversy. The controversy isn’t about accuracy because no sensible person expects a 2+ hour movie to tell an entire life or event; it’s about changing too much (the common complaint about Selma), or it’s about the subject of the film in general (in this case Chris Kyle in American Sniper).

You will find very little controversy within American Sniper. But check the newspaper (the Evansville Courier ran a cartoon last week that essentially compared Chris Kyle to a terrorist), television (Bill Maher took issue with Kyle’s heroic portrayal), or the always happy internet (Google “Chris Kyle” and you’ll find results on the first page that refer to him both as a “hero” and a “monster”), and it is obvious that there is controversy about Kyle. The great thing about American Sniper is that you have to look for the controversy away from the film. It does not force the conversation on you. Some are degrading the film for that very reason, but it’s actually the best part about it. Plus, it is possible to come away from the film with complex thoughts and emotions (my wife and I certainly did); this is not some American brainwashing propaganda film.

American Sniper is based on the book co-written by Kyle about his life, military career, and acclimatization back to regular life. (Full disclosure: I have not read the book yet.) So while many people take issue with America’s involvement in Iraq at all, Kyle presents it as a noble endeavor. Because of that, this film is reminiscent of We Were Soldiers, the Mel Gibson Vietnam film. That film largely ignored the politics of the war and presented a straightforward war film about the soldiers instead of the typical Vietnam film that dealt with the politics and chaos of it all. Most movies about conflicts in the Middle East are almost solely focused on the politics of war as well, and, unsurprisingly, audiences don’t want to see that because the real events are still relevant and fresh in our minds. American Sniper, for better or worse, gives audiences what they want to see: a simplified version of the war starring a hero you can root for. Ask anyone who has seen the film, they will tell you it’s amazing. It seems that the regular audience member wants a movie like this, and I am inclined to agree with the masses on this one.

American Sniper, while too simplified (more on that later) at times, is an excellent character study anchored by a great, almost unrecognizable Bradley Cooper and tense, well-done action sequences. Cooper is the true standout of the film. It’s not my favorite performance of the year (mainly because I take issue with performances that are essentially impressions of well-documented famous people), but it is one of the most impressive transformations this year. (By the way, “year” still applies to 2014 since this came out in limited release in December.) Cooper disappears in this role mainly by bulking up, but it’s his voice work and mannerisms that impressed me the most. He’s been nominated for an Oscar three straight years now, but this is the first time he’s truly deserved it.  

Cooper’s performance alone could carry the film, but thankfully director Clint Eastwood handles all of the war action quite well, showing everything in a very straightforward manner. The action scenes don’t attempt to place you in the war zone with a shaky camera and chaos. Instead, they are very traditional sequences, which is refreshing in this age of ultra-realism in movies. Eastwood also did a great job of portraying the paranoia Kyle felt back in America. Scenes that would seem very plain under other circumstances, like a child’s birthday party, felt as if they were taken from a tense spy thriller. In fact, the scenes portraying Kyle’s PTSD were more effective than the action, which is a testament to Eastwood’s ability as a director.

As for the simplified treatment of the war, American Sniper presents Chris Kyle as a man who wants to join the military for purely noble reasons: to protect America. There’s no question about whether it’s right or wrong for America to be there. It’s not as if Kyle is the one who declared war anyway; he’s a soldier, so he goes. After that, the film is about him wanting to stay in Iraq to protect his fellow soldiers. This motivation was heroic enough, but they took it one step further and created a rival sniper known as Mustafa. (Slight SPOILERS until the end of this paragraph) This inclusion provided the war segment with a beginning and an end which takes away from the more interesting conflict in the film: what happens when the war ends? In the film, it makes it appear that Kyle has accomplished everything he needed to do, but that is too simple. It would have been more powerful for him to come home with things left unfinished in Iraq. The way it is in the film makes it seem like, “Mission accomplished, let’s go home.” I’m all for keeping this film simple and pro-soldier, but it’s hard to ignore that things did not end up all that accomplished in Iraq. Historical accuracy aside, it would be a much more powerful decision if Kyle returns home and has to make peace with the fact that things aren’t complete over there. This might seem like nitpicking, but it keeps the film from being as complex and interesting as it could be. This simplicity lessened the film for me. If it was more complex, it may have ended up being my favorite film of the year instead of just making my top ten (by the way, my top ten will be out in the next couple of weeks).

One last thing about the simplification issue others have with the film. A lot of people, like Michael Moore, take issue with how the soldiers in the film refer to Iraqis as “savages” throughout the film. This issue would make sense if it was done through narration or someone that is not involved in the war. Look at any number of documentaries from the Iraq war; the soldiers involved, whether they thought they should be there or not, do not go around referring to combatants as humans. Soldiers have to do the most inhumane thing you can do: they have to kill. It wouldn’t do well for the psychology of a soldier to stop him/her and say, “Let’s cool it with the ‘savage’ talk. That’s someone’s son trying to kill you.” Even if we should not be there, we cannot expect our soldiers to worry about being politically correct. To be clear, that doesn’t mean any wartime atrocities are justified. But it does mean that a soldier in a film calling a potential enemy combatant a “savage” isn’t all that upsetting or surprising. It’s necessary. Now, if I, a common civilian, refer to a group of people I have no personal knowledge of as “savages,” feel free to call me out for it. You’ll be right to do so. But soldiers have the right to refer to their enemies however they see fit to get them through a situation the rest of us are not involved in.

Despite some relatively minor issues, American Sniper stands out as one of the year’s best. People getting worked up either for or against the film need to take a step back from it and realize it’s not trying to rewrite history or anything. It is first and foremost a film. American Sniper is engaging, entertaining, tense, incredibly acted, and emotional. Perhaps it simplifies things a bit too much here and there, but that’s what movies are for sometimes, to take the complex real world and give us a story to connect to for a little while before we have to acknowledge reality again. And for those who take issue with that, the film could not ignore the unexpected, non-movie end to Kyle’s life. In fact, that final dose of reality is just the jolt the film, and the viewers, need after it’s all said and done. It left my theater in complete and utter silence, which it should be after dealing with a film about war and its effect on people. 

 American Sniper receives a:

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Fellowship of the Two Prequel Trilogies

At this point, you've most likely made up your mind concerning Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy. A review of The Battle of the Five Armies isn't going to sway you one way or the other (which is why I have taken my sweet time writing it). Instead, this review will focus more on comparing this less beloved prequel trilogy with the less beloved prequel trilogy of Star Wars. To be clear, this is not some fanboy Wars versus Rings comparison a la Clerks II. This is more about how strange it was for me to experience (somewhat) what older fans must have felt when they first saw the Star Wars prequels. But first, some thoughts on The Battle of the Five Armies.

The title says it all for this one. There is indeed a very large battle, but it somehow lacks the impact of the big showdown at the end of The Return of the King. For whatever reason, even with nearly a decade's worth of technological progress, the battle in the film looks and feels more like a cartoon. There are still some awesome moments (a quintuple [or more] decapitation featuring Thranduil and his elk comes to mind), but none of it felt as momentous or real as before. It's all entertaining enough, though it completely confirms that this trilogy should have been at most two films. The battle feels so extended that it seems forgotten at certain points. That never happened with a battle scene from the original trilogy. All complaints about the magnitude and whatnot for this film are unfair, though, since this is a lengthy adaptation of a children's book. The problem is that Jackson and the rest of the filmmakers wanted to somehow marry a kids' film with the darker tone of The Lord of the Rings. So you get annoyingly goofy comic relief in the form of Grima Wormtongue ripoff Alfrid (the unkillable coward shows up every other scene it seems) followed by multiple decapitations. It all cancels out to make a mediocre experience. The kids' movie issue is where the comparison to Star Wars starts.

"Am I funny yet? Do I need to put on a dress and ridiculously overstay my welcome?"

Full disclosure: I like the Star Wars prequels. They started coming out when I was fifteen, so maybe I was on a cusp that allowed me to love them while forgiving them for their more childish elements (like Jar Jar Binks, the Alfrid of the Star Wars prequels). The more likely reason I like the prequels is that I am a bigger fan of Star Wars than Rings. Regardless, both sets of prequels received criticism for being overly childish and CG-heavy.

Both series suffer from the same problem in that everyone already knows how great the story gets later on. Reverse story-telling is inherently flawed when the original films are so beloved. How could Episode I - III or The Hobbit compare to Episode IV - VI and The Lord of the Rings? Those movies were good enough to create empires unto themselves. For example, try to find a product that you can't get a Star Wars version of (while you're doing that I'll go make some toast with my Darth Vader toaster), and look at New Zealand, which will now be a tourist attraction forever thanks to Rings. When films are capable of that, you know there are going to be some grumblings when the filmmakers return to the well. I point this out because other prequels, such as the recent Apes and X-Men films, work because the series suffered some weak entries and lost their holy status.

That is a problem in itself. As dorks, perhaps it's time for us to listen to what people have been saying for so long: it's just a movie. Maybe we shouldn't treat these films as sacred documents. Who am I kidding? That's not going to happen. We're dealing with people who claim that George Lucas ruined their childhood by altering the original trilogy and making a the prequel trilogy. "Ruined" it! Anyone who seriously makes such a claim is not going to listen to reason, so let's try to understand why the prequels are hated by some.

"Meesa called Jar Jar Binks. Meesa here to provide comic relief and ruin yousa childhoods."

First, the source material. The Hobbit truly should be viewed as a separate trilogy rather than the prequel to Rings. It was not created with the intent to give backstory to the events of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien published the book in 1937, 17 years before Rings would be published. The Hobbit was meant to be a children's story, and it truly is. To be fair, Tolkien did go back and make edits to The Hobbit as he wrote Rings (reminds me of another creator who went back to alter the early material...), but he wrote the stories mostly in chronological order. Lucas, however, did the opposite, waiting almost as long between works (there are 16 years between Jedi and Phantom Menace). It's strange, though. Tolkien as a younger man wrote a children't story and followed that up as an older man with a more serious tale. Lucas as a younger man wrote a relatively serious story and followed it up with more kid-friendly trilogy as an older man. Perhaps this is all perspective. Maybe some view all of it as equally childish. I would argue that both sets of prequels are much more childish than the originals, however. It's just that it makes more sense for The Hobbit to be that way. When you think about it, though, it makes sense that The Phantom Menace was childish because it's about a kid. That trilogy matures with its protagonist/future antagonist. The (possible) problem with both is that the filmmakers wanted it both ways.

I've already stated my disdain for Peter Jackson's attempt to make a kids' movie that also features the graphic violence of the first trilogy. It was so tonally uneven that it became distracting. And the quality of the battle scenes suffered because they were given a less realistic look so as not to scar the children. Lucas gets crap for this, too. A lot of complaints about the prequels are aimed at the plot about trading blockades and bureaucracy. You have a farting camel creature in one scene followed by congressional hearing. The kiddie humor does annoy me a bit (though it is in keeping with the original trilogy, to a degree), but the government stuff was fine with me, especially since it was a kids' movie. Let these kids know from an early age that committees and negotiations are largely worthless compared to the Force. That's a good lesson in my book. Lucas gets bonus points for his violence, however. Jackson turned some of the battle moments in a cartoon, but Lucas shows a father figure impaled with a lightsaber and shows the villain sliced in half.

The problem that truly plagued both series is time. Star Wars waited too long. The hardcore fans weren't looking for a kids' movie because they weren't kids anymore. The Hobbit came out too late as well. It was never meant to be a prequel. There aren't enough unanswered questions from Rings that need answered in The Hobbit. Star Wars has the origin of Darth Vader, the fall of the Republic, etc. Sure, some people hated Lucas's answers for that, but at least there were questions in the first place. Did anyone go into The Hobbit not already knowing how Bilbo came across the ring? Or that Sauron was a bad guy on the rise? All of this was handled in the mini-prequel that serves as the intro to the first Rings movie. The Hobbit would have been better off it had been released when The Lord of the Rings came out. Then there could be the natural progression from kids' movie to awesome trilogy that everyone can enjoy. Instead, Jackson felt obligated to mimic his first trilogy.

That's the true difference here. Lucas wanted, and did, create a very different trilogy to varying degrees of success. Jackson wanted to create a very similar trilogy when he should have embraced how different it could have been. I think it would have been better if Guillermo del Toro had been able to direct it. Not because he's better than Jackson, but because he is different. This way of thinking is working out for Star Wars at the moment. Take Lucas out of the equation and now all the people with "ruined" childhoods are starting to get optimistic again. Here's hoping that the next trip to Middle Earth (I'm sure there will be one) doesn't include Peter Jackson. We're all thankful for what you've given us, but now let someone else take a crack at it.

Finally, I want to make it clear that I liked The Hobbit. But I loved The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit finally allowed me to have that experience that the prequel haters had with Star Wars. Although I'm not about to claim these three movies "ruined" anything for me, I understand the feeling of disappointment now. It just didn't measure up to what I was used to. As for Star Wars, I won't apologize for loving the prequels. I hear all the complaints about Hayden Christensen and Jar Jar Binks and the CG and I get it, but none of that stuff bothered me enough to hate these films. Perhaps I'm just too much of a Star Wars fanboy. As for Rings, I'm not as forgiving. I never wanted to be that bitter fan who only holds the original trilogy in high regard. I like The Hobbit prequels, and I plan on buying the extended edition set when it's released (I sincerely want to know what was considered extraneous in this bloated trilogy). But I'm positive that when I want to return to Middle Earth, I'll almost always go with Rings. Because of The Hobbit, I now know what all those bitter Star Wars fans feel like, and I don't like it.