Inherent Vice (2014)

Inherent_Vice_film_posterIt’s not something you think about often but stoners and film noir fit together fairly well. Why more people haven’t capitalized on this niche is rather surprising. Think about it for a moment. film noir in the classic sense is known for its private eyes, femme fatales, chiaroscuro cinematography, and perhaps most importantly a jaded worldview straight out of Ecclesiastes.

Some of the greats are also notorious for utterly baffling plots that come to no clear conclusion. Still, rather than chocking it up to faulty storytelling, these unfathomable aspects only lead to a greater ambiguity. Thus, you can imagine what occurs when our point of reference is on something. You take something that is already indecipherable and make it absolutely impossible to discern reality because there’s no sense of knowing what is actually real even before funneling down to specific plot points. Inherent Vice is precisely that film, a neo-noir bathed in rays and full of dopers.

Paul Thomas Anderson makes this affectionate and supposedly quite faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel connect most obviously through voice over. It captures a certain rhetoric — the poetic lyricism that manages to anchor the plot in some bewitching way — while also providing a great deal of latitude in storytelling which the narrative gladly capitalizes on.

This private investigator, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix),  is a benevolent stoner. His girl Shasta flutters back into his life and like they always do she comes as the bearer of bad news — a flower child in trouble with a lead for him to follow before she disappears into the night. Being a private eye he follows up the loose threads but he’s not necessarily a good private eye or a generally judicious one and that doesn’t bode well.

It’s pointless to try and tie everything together. In fact, this is as good a time as any to disclose that Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, and Owen Wilson all show up but it’s almost possible to forget about them.

Doc investigates some vague leads about one real estate owner Mickey Wolfmann who has disappeared, gets word of a mysterious syndicate called the Golden Fang while searching after a member of a cult, and subsequently gets hired to find a missing husband. His worst enemy and greatest ally simultaneously is Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). All the cases get resolved without the least bit of satisfying closure.

Still, the incomprehensible plot highlighted by absurdities is almost something that needs to be expected from a film such as this built out of the tradition of The Big Sleep (1946), The Long Goodbye (1974), and even Harper (1966). It’s another knowing riff off of the private eye pictures of old.

The bottom line being that precise malaise. It’s easy to lose it amid the stoned out status quo, characters medicating themselves on smokes and drugs and drink. They seem happy enough. At the very least they’re not torn apart by anything. And yet the very fact that Doc in particular witnesses so much — unveils so many things — and remains despondent is indicative of the whole story.

It’s an understated chill comedy that is meant to mesh rather ironically with the film noir world and like Altman’s film before it, there’s this lovely incongruity that works so well. All highlighted by the very fact that we fail to truly discover what is fact and what is fiction.

Everything is taken in stride rather nonchalantly by Doc who ambles along with his various leads in the relaxed manner that will remain his calling card. His attempts at scribbling down notes only result in random word clusters. But, and I hesitate to say this because it might give the wrong impression, in some sense, it does feel like we’ve seen this humor before in Airplane! (1980) and The Naked Gun (1987).

We like Doc. If he wasn’t high all the time, he’d probably be a pretty nice, cognizant, charming fellow but his response to all that is around him is rather pathetic and pathetic in the way of a dog with his tail between his legs. Flailing to the will of corrupt cops or allowing the vices of others to rule the day. But then again, what is he supposed to do in this world? The everyday villains are too many, the mountain to overcome is too high, and so he slowly sinks back into his fog. It’s a nicer, more comforting place to be than the world at large.

Cross that with Neil Young’s ambient jams in “Journey through the Past” and “Harvest” or the laid-back radio plays of 93 KHJ including The Cascades, The Association, Sam Cooke, and Kyu Sakamoto and it goes down pleasantly. As do the agreeable touchstones of Adam-12 and “Three Hour Tours” on primetime television.

It provides the film with a bit of the nostalgic haze that still manages scintillating vibes of sunny Southern California. But no one need remind any of these characters that this is the same beach paradise that saw the egregious murders committed by the Mansion family, the shooting of Bobby Kennedy, the Watts Riots, and so on and so forth.

Taking a hit can sustain for a momentary high. Embracing your girl in the pouring rain can remain a fond memory. Music can float through your brain lazily. Television makes a nice diversion. The pursuit of money and power can drive a life for a while. But surely life is more than all of these — the things we use to mask the hurt and the pain we are subjected to as human beings — the numerous distractions in this “postmodern” world of ours. Surely there’s gotta be more…

4/5 Stars

Her (2013)

e69ce-her2013posterHer is a film that examines hyper-technological culture through a lens that has been around for centuries: romance.  In a not so distant future Los Angeles, Theodore Twombly is a craftsman of greeting cards. The only difference is he dictates personal messages, which are then transcribed by computers to be given to loved ones. He himself is going through a rough patch in life after a breakup with his wife and it has left him taciturn and distant.
Then one day he purchases the new OS or Operating System. Samantha, as she is called, is a very high level of artificial intelligence (Siri on steroids), who is able to openly communicate, do tasks, and even show emotion to some extent. Even though she does not actually have a tangible body (unless you count Theodore’s phone), he still finds a way to become enchanted by her. Not only can she check his emails, but Samantha also has access to vast amounts of data that allow her to evolve with Theodore, and she soon becomes his closest confidant and companion. Her desire to constantly discover the world invigorates Theodore, who is constantly used to the same technological, yet monotonous existence. Ironically, he develops his deepest relationship with Samantha, because she reflects how lonely technology has made him. 
Real human interaction seems foreign and awkward, whether it is with his estranged wife, work friends, or a blind date. For that matter sexual relations have also been perverted and, in a sense, trivialized by technology. Theodore’s complicated relationship with Samantha brings these and many other realities to light. 
Samantha can never truly be Reality. She can never have physical contact. This causes Theodore to put greater focus on the other aspects about her. Yes, she is not a normal human, but her knowledge on everything and her curiosity opens up numerous beautiful avenues for them to explore together. It could be love letters, the music she is composing, or even the sensation of ambling down a street. 
Ultimately, there is a downside to technology because despite being in an advanced future it cannot fully emulate the human experience and as Theodore painfully discovers there are terrible complications in relation to Samantha. 
This can be a difficult film, a strange film, and at times even a crass film, but for the most part Spike Jonze gives us a very thought-provoking piece that is pertinent to this social media and technologically saturated culture that is also our everyday reality. The world shown to us is washed out in its pastel shades, and yet it does not seem too far removed from us. 
It certainly brings up some interesting dilemmas about Her, whoever she may be. How do you reconcile technology whether computers, phones, video games, etc. with the human interactions that still make up (or should make up) most of our existence? For Theodore, Samantha leaves him with wonderment for life and an inquisitiveness which allows him to unplug a little and truly live in the present. 
Joaquin Phoenix gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, but everyone really wants to see, or rather, hear Scarlett Johansson as Samantha. Others who take on smaller but crucial roles are Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, and Olivia Wilde. Her is invariably melancholic but undoubtedly powerful stuff all the same.
 
4.5/5 Stars

Walk the Line (2005)

Walk_the_lineStarring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, this biopic opens with Johnny Cash recalling his past as he gets ready to perform at Folsom prison. JR is the son of an abusive share cropper and his brother Jack dies when he is just a boy. He goes off to Korea and comes back with a few songs under his belt. Cash marries his girlfriend and they move to Memphis where Cash tries to get work. On a whim he tries to form a gospel band to audition at Sun Records. Initially it goes poorly until Cash begins to Sing Folsom Prison Blues. Soon Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two are signed and touring with many different artists. There Cash meets the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and of course June Carter. Cash begins to fall for the recently divorced Carter but she rejects his initial advances leading Cash to go to drinking and drugs. They part ways but then later on they begin to tour again. His music is a success but his relationship with June causes his marriage to go down the tubes. He continues to takes more pills. This is the low point in his career but June gives him a second chance. They perform together at Folsom in 1968 and then after one rejection of marriage, June finally accepts while they are performing a duet. The two of them continue to perform and raise a family together. Phoenix was commendable as Cash and Witherspoon’s vivacious performance gave life to this film. One things is for sure, johnny Cash had a hard life that was full of mistakes. That’s what made his music so good. It was often personal and most importantly human. Because humans make mistakes. Thank you Man in Black for giving us what you did. 4/5 Stars

Gladiator (2000)

9db87-gladiator_ver1Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, and Connie Nielsen, with director Ridley Scott, this film is set during the waning days of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelias. General Maximus is a great and loyal warrior who the old man wants as his successor. However, his jealous son will not have it, killing his father and then ordering the execution of Maximus. He escapes but is mad a slave and then a gladiator. Through this he gains the respect of the masses and is able to defy Commodus. Over time, Maximus is part of a plot to remove Commodus. Once again the enraged emperor wishes to quash the legend of Maximus forever. He does not win in the end and Maximus has aided Rome. This action-epic had a lot of exciting scenes and a good hero. The score was good too but sometimes it seems as if the cinematography could have been better. This film is reminiscent of the classic epic Spartacus and it was a pretty good in it’s own right.

4/5 Stars