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 Manson 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

Pleasantville (1998)

pleasantville 1This was not the film I expected from the outset, and oftentimes that’s a far more gratifying experience. Nostalgia was expected and this film certainly has it,  even to the point of casting the legendary funny man and cultural icon Don Knotts in the integral role as the television repairman.

However, with this there was a degree of apprehension, because while paying homage to the past, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Andy Griffith and so on, there seemed to be a certain amount of denigrating of such classics– a tongue and cheek way of approaching the quaint television past of the 1950s. There was little reverence for these admittedly quaint but still respected programs.

My fears were seemingly confirmed minutes later with black and white imagery being equated to repression as the beautiful colors of the town became unfurled with greater enlightenment and personal expression. But that’s not quite right. The story goes both ways. And to understand that we have to take a closer look at our two diverging main characters.

When Garry Ross’s film begins in the present day, David (Tobey Maguire) leads the life of a bookish TV nerd, watching old reruns and cataloging trivial factoids in the cavernous crevices of his mind. At this point he’s relationally stagnant and based on this social life, he looks to be going nowhere fast. His sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) is on the complete opposite spectrum, infatuated with boys, imbued with sexual freedom, and dare we say a tad superficial.

But to make a long story short, these two siblings get thrown into the life and times of David’s favorite TV show Pleasantville, complete with black and white cinematography and vintage ’50s lifestyles. The interesting part is watching them learn how to find another part of themselves contrary to what they initially found their identity in. It means freedom of not only body but mind too and that extends to all the other people who they influence.

In a pinch, it also makes for a handy allegory on race, with literal color being of such a high concern among the paranoid townsfolk. Because as more people become “colored” it creates a degree of unrest in the community. They hold to the belief that “different” is not good — to be “other” is to be frowned upon. It’s Jennifer first and then David who begin to change the status quo, including their mother (Joan Allen), the local diner owner (Jeff Daniels) and many of the other teenagers.

So on second glance, Pleasantville is a film that says television reruns and nostalgia are quite alright, but then again, there’s so much to be lived and experienced in the present moment too. There will be bad just as there was bad before and there will be good things that will manifest themselves still more abundantly like previous generations. Those are the universal rhythms of life, and they should free us up to live with supreme confidence in who we are, breaking out of the tedium that is our comfort zone. And that’s a lesson that not only revels in the glories of previous generations but still gives us hope for the future millennium, now well underway over 15 years after Pleasantville was originally released.

It’s not a story without flaws, but it’s the fact that it has flaws that actually make it worth watching. We need a little bit of rain in our lives — the inconsistencies and the idiosyncrasies to add greater depth, not only to our character but in turn to our relationships. It then becomes absolutely necessary to come up with a clear definition of pleasant or even to concede that not everything can or should be pleasant. Because you need the darkness to bring out the full spectrum of colors — all those colors commonly referred to as human emotions.

4/5 Stars

Man in the Moon (1991)

maninthe1Robert Mulligan is an unassuming film director. Man in the Moon would be his last film in a career that was not so much illustrious as it was respectable. In truth, I’ve only had the pleasure of seeing one of his other films — his crowning achievement To Kill a Mockingbird.

There are in fact some similar threads running through these two films, starting with the Deep South nostalgia and close analysis of adolescence. Both these films take the point of view of a young girl. Their narratives hope to shed at least a little bit of light on that intricate stage of life. This time a 14-year-old Reese Witherspoon is our lead, playing the Elvis-loving, gum-chewing, spunky dynamo named Dani. She and Scout share a lot in common because as young people there’s an inherent tendency to mope, question, and disregard. They have not quite grabbed a hold of the mature world of their parents. After all, they still have a great deal to experience. That’s what makes these film arcs necessary.

Man in the Moon starts with Dani, but there’s a whole family unit around her. A father (Sam Waterson) who is a decent, down-to-earth-man, and he would rather commune with nature in his fishing boat than go to typical church. A mother (Tess Harper) who loves her husband and daughters dearly, knowing when to trade tough love for hugs. Maureen (Emily Warfield) is Dani’s oldest sister and her idol, along with the object of every local boy’s desire. She’s beautiful and yet what’s more extraordinary is her good nature. She doesn’t deserve the creepy father and son duo eyeing her in the local town.

maninthe2Arguably, the next most important character in Dani’s story is Court (Jason London). They have your typical terse meet-cute that signifies only one thing. They must fall in love. It turns out he’s the eldest son of an old friend of Mrs. Trant. Soon things change for young Dani because she’s never known someone like Court, much less liked a boy.

Their relationship is one of those complicated entanglements. He’s a few years older and is the man of the house. He has to grow up quickly and views Dani as a child. But their friendship blossoms with frolicking afternoon swims. Dani is ready for something more. She thinks she’s in love. Now if Court was one of the other boys, he could easily take advantage of the situation — this fawning girl who is madly in love with him. But he’s not like that. Dani can’t quite get that through her head. It just doesn’t make sense. They enter friend territory and Dani’s heart is still aflutter, but she’s happy again.

maninthe3The second half of the film enters melodramatic territory that first hits the Trant’s with familial turmoil, and then Court. Dani for the first time in her life is faced with the full brunt of tribulation. What makes matter worse is her feelings are all mixed up. She loves her sister. She hates her sister. She cannot bear to see Court. She cannot bear the suffering. It’s in these moments that uncomfortable feeling well up in the pit of your stomach.

Man in the Moon like many of the great coming-of-age movies is really about adolescents coming out of their innocence and being inundated with the often frightening realities of life. It reminds even the youngest of us that more often than not life is unmerciful. It’s how we pick ourselves up out of that fatality that matters. It’s hard but that pain is often how we grow and mature — learning how to cope with the way things are. That’s what makes the people around us so integral to existence. They can be our lifeline that keeps us afloat. Thus, Dani’s friendship with Court matters so much. That’s why Dani’s relationship with Marie matters too.

Perhaps the drama is laid on rather thick, but nevertheless, it’s difficult not to get behind this film. Reese Witherspoon’s perkiness is wonderfully disarming, and Jason London plays a decent young man. These are characters I want to watch and emulate. Not quite Scout and Atticus, but they are still definitely worth the time.

4/5 Stars

You’ve got a right to grieve, Dani. You got a right to be hurt. But if you get so wrapped up in your own pain that you can’t see anyone else’s, then you might just as well dig yourself a hole and pull the dirt in on top of you, because you’re never going to be much use to yourself or anyone else. ~ Mr. Trant 

Note: This review previously said Marie (Gail Strickland) instead of Maureen (Emily Warfield)

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