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

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster.jpgEntering into the latest Avengers blockbuster I felt like I was missing something thanks to a cold open that places us in an unfamiliar environment. That’s a feeling that has come upon me on multiple occasions previously.

Not only because as a mild enthusiast I’ve missed a stray entry here and there but I also easily forget interconnected events and after a certain point, why bother? We have come to accept that there will always be another Marvel movie.

Yes, this is the culmination of 10 years that began inauspiciously with Iron Man in 2008 only to balloon into a skyrocketing phenomenon that will not disappear any time in the near future. Superheroes like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and so many others have reemerged as integral parts of the public consciousness. And many fans have been waiting with baited breath for this day and they will wait again and again for future movies like it. That’s an established fact. Regardless, they can breathe a sigh of relief and thoroughly enjoy themselves with this realization of all their dreams up on the big screen. It will hardly disappoint.

To describe the plot of Infinity War is almost arbitrary as SPOILERS in this day and age are guarded against like the plague but here is a nibble anyway. Thanos (Josh Brolin), a being who has long been alluded to, is finally on the scene. The opening sequence is a microcosm of what he hopes to do on a cosmic scale, leveling half of the remnant left over from Asgard.

As a supervillain, he has a vision for the world that’s not too unbelievable. He seems to have been acquainted with Thomas Malthus’ work (even unwittingly so) while holding a contorted view of what empathy is. What others term mass genocide he deems an indiscriminate mission of mercy — killing half the universe’s population will mean resources are more widely available for everyone else left alive. He proves to be one of the most interesting characters within the narrative for the very fact that we have barely met him before.

Infinity Stones also become of utmost importance again as Thanos must add them to his collection so he can rise to the stature of a demigod and dictate the outcome of all life with the snap of his finger. That’s some kind of power! The stones themselves are exquisitely color coordinated. One is safeguarded by Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumbertach), another is implanted in Vision (Paul Bettany) and fiercely protected by his girlfriend the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Soul Gem brings Thanos back in contact with his two stepdaughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) with grave consequences.

Everyone else who makes an appearance (and at times a lightning-quick cameo) relies on a viewer’s running tabulation of everything up until this point in the MCU. And though you’ll probably enjoy seeing these characters that you have some familiarity with — and you even laugh throughout — there is a sense that they are only vague contours. There are too many of them for the resonance to run deep and personal. It really only works if audiences have bought into the machine and already have some background with these heroes in place. The scarier thought is if viewers do not. Infinity War would be void of any meaning. All flashes of imagery, destruction, and hyper-frenetic editing. Any other actual amount of personality would be absent.

Some people live and others die but to confess that I didn’t much care that any of these characters perished is one of the most unfortunate realities of the movie. It’s not that I know they are coming back necessarily or anything of the sort. I admit to being fickle. I can’t remember why I should care about these characters. Because for some so much time has passed since I had any connection with them. To watch them become collateral damage has little resonance with me. I’m numb to it.

I won’t make allusion to archetypal literature like Hamlet or film references like Star Wars or Harry Potter because in some ways that would denigrate that material. Am I being a bit harsh? Perhaps I am. In fact, it was Hary Potter and The Deathly Hallows (2010) that we have to thank for this current reality followed close behind by The Hunger Games and The Hobbit. Stories like these coincidentally begun the practice now popular in the industry.

It was no longer about simply having sequels but milking a movie for all it was worth — breaking them up into pieces — making films that were meant to be a part of a greater whole.  It’s not a film so much as a commodity. Differing from the earlier examples like The Godfather movies or even The original Star Wars trilogy — those were pictures that very much could stand on their own merit. Not that they were not enriched and more fully realized with their later installments but we could consider them alone.

Infinity War comes out of this philosophy where a film was never meant to be taken by itself. Everyone knows it. The producers, the directors, the actors, and the audience.  By now as a collective assemblage of viewers, it seems like we’ve been cowed into submission.

I for one watched the movie and never quite relished it — there was nothing all that new or novel — and yet I was never bored per se. However, even my newest favorite superhero Black Panther felt like he was now fit into the Marvel mold. Nothing surprised. Nothing ignited a deep-seated exhilaration inside me. A Stan Lee cameo comes and goes.

Though the picture does promise action and verbal sparring which it delivers handily. In fact, if you consider the screenplay by writing duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they do an admirable job with both the monumental juggling act and crosscutting of multiple storylines. The same can be said for the other dynamic duo directing, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo who must perform the same type of orchestration that would have buried a single director in his grave.

Still, there is an uncanny feeling that the picture is made up of two kinds of scenes. You have action sequences packaged nicely with all the trimmings and CGI to your heart’s content. Then you have in contrast many stagnant sequences with all these big names standing around in a single location talking it out usually over some point of conflict, sprinkled with a few jokes or exposition that feels all too familiar. The well-timed comic relief disguises how run-of-the-mill everything is.

That’s what’s Marvel has in many ways perfected. In that regard, there’s nothing lacking and if that’s what you signed on for now 10 years ago (without even realizing it) it takes little hesitation to say that you will be satiated at least until the next Marel movie and the next installment of Infinity War in a year’s time.

However, I couldn’t help but leave the experience feeling slightly lackluster about the affair. Because in many ways Infinity War is the culmination of a generation of films and really the emblem of where Hollywood continues to head. Sure, we have yet to get the second half of our story but if this is any indication of what we have to look forward to in the future, it does look like a fairly blasé fate at that. Though the jokes and the pyrotechnics are present in full force, there is little magic — that certain amount of intangibility that lifts entertainment above the mediocre and allows it to capture our imaginations. My only question is — as someone unread in Marvel comic literature — what could the Deux ex Machina possibly be?

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

No Country for Old Men (2007)

fa50f-no_country_for_old_men_posterStarring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin, with the Coen Brothers directing, the film opens with a voice-over as a sheriff reminisces about an unrepentant killer he put away.  The year is 1980 in Texas and we watch as a ruthless killer (Bardem) is arrested and then breaks free. At the same time a hunter (Brolin) happens upon a bloody scene that has to do with a cache of drugs. After he searches around Llewlyn finds $2 million and tires to get away with it. All too soon he is being tracked by the psychopathic killer to various hotels. They have one bloody confrontation and after fleeing once more into Mexico, Llewelyn decides to drop the money off with his wife. However, pretty soon he is dead and the sheriff must find this killer who is on the loose. The hit man is not quite done and finishes off some business before getting into a car accident that forces him to flee. The film ends as the now retired sheriff talks with his wife, leaving the film’s ending open. This film is very violent and Bardem’s character is so noticeable because he has absolutely no humanity in him. In these bleak events there is not much hope, so if you want a fluffy film you will not find it here.

4.5/5 Stars