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

Midnight in Paris (2011): Lessons in Nostalgia

midnightin1Midnight in Paris begins with scene after scene of the Parisian landscape. It gives off the feel of a lazy vacation, strolls in the park, sidewalk cafes aplenty, and even romantically rainy afternoons. For those who have never been to Paris, it makes you fall in love with the city in only a matter of minutes. Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is such a person who would easily be content with the Left Banke, Baguettes, and a chance to write his latest novel.  There is an air of wonderment that pervades his very being. He’s often naive and unassuming — hardly someone you would peg for a big Hollywood success story.

He’s about to be hitched to Inez (Rachel McAdams), a young woman who epitomizes the affluent American girl who was used to getting everything she wanted from dear old dad. Now she’s going to marry rich and maintain her lifestyle. Her life is a continual conveyor belt of first world problems. Such as buying a pair of 20,000 euro chairs in an antique shop. Meanwhile, she is easily impressed by puffed up pontification.

When she runs into an old school friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife, all Inez wants to do is listen to him talk. After all, he knows about painting, philosophy, wine, and about anything else a stuffy intellectual should know. To coin a phrase he’s a contemptuous, conceited bag of hot air,  or as the museum guide (Carla Bruni) so aptly puts it, “a pedantic gentleman.”

midnightin4For obvious reasons, Gil cannot stand spending time with his wife’s friends. Instead, those breezy, absent-minded walks down the lanes are more his taste. Inez can’t begin to understand why he does it, but one night he’s in for a big surprise. One minute he’s  out for a stroll and then the clock chimes twelve. All of the sudden something a la Cinderella happens. A coach pulls up, Gil tentatively gets in not knowing what he has just stumbled upon, incognizant of the adventure ahead of him.

What follows are the most whimsically joyous moments of the film. Gil has wandered into 1920s Paris, and it’s beyond his wildest dreams. It’s practically paradise with the music of Cole Porter, dancing, pretty girls, and the biggest names you could ever hope to meet. In fact, you can tell Woody Allen has great pleasure in bringing to life such visionaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Piccaso, Salvidor Dali, Luis Bunuel, and so on.

It’s too much fun to be critical of historical accuracy. After all the Fitzgeralds throw wonderful parties, Hemingway gives Gil romantic advice, and he gets his fledgling novel read by none other than Stein. All the while Gil returns to the present giddy with excitement about what he has experienced, but Inez has none of his appreciation for nostalgia. She’d rather go dancing with Paul because he’s so refined.

midnightin2The linchpin of the whole story is really the ravishing French beauty Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), the muse of Picasso, the desire of Hemingway, and a new-found friend of Gil. He cannot help but be enraptured by her grace and the time they spend together is wonderful, that is until he tells her that he is pledged to be married. Although, it looks like he and Inez will not be together much longer as they continue to drift further and further apart.

It’s in one of his last visits to the past that Gil makes the startling discovering that Midnight Paris hinges on. He realizes Adrianna dreams of the turn of the century as he dreams for the roaring twenties. Toulouse Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas dream about the majesty of the Renaissance. In such a revelation lies a valuable lesson (“I was trying to escape my present the same way you’re trying to escape yours, to a golden age”).

In doing so Gil comes to appreciate his present, because life may be unsatisfying at times, but perhaps maybe that’s the way it should be. Otherwise, we would never know what true joy or excitement or love is. There would be no change, no threshold to truly experience life as it is. Gil can go back to his nostalgia shops and Cole Porter hit parades and that’s alright. But now he’s found a Parisian girl (Lea Seydoux) who shares his affinity for long walks in the rain. This is certainly a fairy tale ending, but then again this whole story is a fantasy. In getting a little bit sentimental Woody Allen really gifted his audience something unmistakably special. Owen Wilson was fantastic as was Marion Cotillard.

4/5 Stars

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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The farthest Eastern boundary of the European continent makes the perfect landscape for a new addition to the quirky Wes Anderson canon. But more on that later. First our story.

It gains inspiration from the writings of forgotten Viennese author of the 30s and 40s Stefan Zweig. In fact, the author’s own plot device is used in this story of friendship, love, and murder. An inquisitive writer (Jude Law) from the 1960s becomes intrigued by the aging proprietor of the Grand Budapest Hotel Zero Moustaffa (F. Murray Abraham).

The rather mysterious figure is glad to tell his story and how he came to acquire the iconic hotel. And that’s where our real story begins, back in 1932, with concierge and small time celebrity M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). He is a dying breed of a man, full of culture, a bit effeminate, and known to wine and dine older patrons. He also has an immense affinity for poetry.

It was under his leadership that the young, stoic bellboy Zero got his start. What an exciting beginning it was.  One of Gustave’s most faithful patrons, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), dies suddenly and he is bequeathed the priceless painting Boy with Apple.

The family of the deceased is in an uproar led by belligerent son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Soon Gustave has become the strangest of fugitives as he is wanted for the murder of the old lady.

During that time, young love springs up and Zero meets the love of his life Agatha (Saoirse Roman), a spunky baker who returns his affection.

Now the imprisoned Gustave takes part in an escape attempt a la Le Trou except this rendition is successful to a degree. Faithful Zero meets up with his mentor, and Gustave turns to the only ones he can. The concierges from all the surrounding area. They oblige, getting the two fugitives away, but soon Dmitri’s cold-blooded assassin Jopling (Willem Dafoe) is on their tails at a local monastery.

War is imminent and back at the Grand Budapest things do not look promising.  The ever fearless Agatha agrees to go fetch Boy with Apple, but she is soon spotted and pursued by the ever brutish Dmitri who tries to use his gun. That’s not a smart thing when all the rooms are full of quartered soldiers and a chaotic gunfight ensues.

In the aftermath, a second will is uncovered that makes M. Gustave the sole owner of the Grand Budapest and many other possessions that Madame D owned. In a Deja Vu moment, Gustave and Zero ride the train once again before getting boarded and questioned. Always the gentlemen, Gustave defends Zero who is targeted for his immigration status. It was in that way the story ends and returns to the young author and elderly Zero Moustaffa.

He never could bear to give up the Grand Budapest despite the toll of Communism. It’s not because of Gustave, but his dear Agatha who died only two years after. It’s his only link to the happiest times of his life.

What The Grand Budapest Hotel ends up being is an odd mix of black comedy and romantic sentiment all wrapped up in an Anderson world.

His shots are often framed symmetrically and muted pastels abound as well as scaled miniatures, creating his always distinctive mise-en-scene. He is also a fan of a smooth moving camera often involving zooms.

Anderson is obviously a student of cinema and his film at times are reminiscent to 30s fair such as Grand Hotel and The Rules of the Game. He also channels another famed Viennese Ernst Lubitsch who was a master of highbrow romantic comedies.

Hotel also boast a superb cast comprising most of Anderson’s stock company. If there’s anyone who has been in more than one of his movies, they are probably in this one, even for just an instant.

So given the normal Wes Anderson flair or eccentricities, this film is visually pleasing and quite entertaining. It is a worthy follow up to Moonrise Kingdom, darling.

4/5 stars

Midnight in Paris (2011)

8d293-midnight_in_paris_posterDirected and written by Woody Allen and starring Owen Wilson, this film is a nostalgic piece of romantic fantasy. 

Gil is a successful screenwriter, who is attempting to finish his first novel, and he is in Paris with his wife (Rachel McAdams). She dismisses his work on a nostalgia shop because she feels it is not as worthwhile as his screenwriting career. Gil is infatuated with everything about Paris, while his wife is content with fine dining and shopping with her parents and wine tasting with stuffy friends. 

Then one evening Gil wanders the streets of Paris, and at Midnight a 1920s style car pulls up and he is invited in. Over the course of the evening, he meets the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, and even Ernest Hemingway, who agrees to read his manuscript. The following night he brings his wife but she leaves and he is picked up once again at midnight. This time he talks with Hemingway, meets Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and the beautiful Adriana (Mario Cotillard). Gil continues to return at night much to his wife’s annoyance and his father-in-law’s disapproval. He meets legendary surrealists such as Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and Luis Bunuel, who he inspires with his conversation. 

He finds Adriana’s diary in the present and meets a fellow aficionado (Lea Seydoux) of the olden days. Gil returns to the 1920s and Adriana convinces him to go back to the 1890s where they meet Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas. This is where Adriana is happy and despite their love, Gil realizes that even though nostalgia is good it is best to live in the present. Gil gets some final feedback on his manuscript and then breaks up with Inez, realizing it was not meant to be. However, Gil finally does find someone who shares his love of Paris in the rain. 

Allen made this film really enjoyable for me because he brought to life many people such as Hemingway, Dali, Bunuel, and others. This type of history fascinates me much like Gil, and it was fun to see these figures represented in the flesh by the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Kathy Bates, and Adrien Brody. That being said, this film carries a good lesson about living your life in the present. I would have initially said that Owen Wilson seemed wrong for this film, but I think he did a wonderful portraying Gil as a man mesmerized by the golden days of Paris.

4/5 Stars