Tag: Joaquin Phoenix

Review: Inherent Vice (2014)

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You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up onto the freeway again.

If you need a clue that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, is a film noir, look no further than Johnny Greenwood’s wonderful score. Where his earlier collaboration with the director on There Will Be Blood was all strings and tension, this score is more laid back, low key, mournful, and full of horns. The soundtrack, on the other hand, often points in the other direction. When the movie wants to be upbeat and exciting as it sometimes does, Anderson will use a previously written pop song like Can’s “Vitamin C” to give the movie that edge. It’s no secret by now that Anderson is a master, one of the best directors working and probably of all time, and his ability to pick songs and collaborators which fit so perfectly with what he wants to do is just one more example of his brilliance. That being said, Inherent Vice is not your typical Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

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Many of Anderson’s previous films have been focused on a monomaniacal character whose fanatical pursuit of some cause or idea, whether it be riches via oil or fame via porn, leads to a terrible end for said character. No such thing happens here, though Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc sure does pursue his missing ex-girlfriend and her missing current boyfriend. If that sentence confuses you, prepare to be mired in a plot that aims to be confounding rather than clear. I followed it for a good while until one new name too many dropped in my lap and I just threw my hands up and went for the ride. I’m sure the plot is comprehensible if you see it an additional time or two, but with so many side characters who show up for a scene to impart some piece of information about another side character and then do some drugs, I don’t think it really matters too much. I think the convoluted plot is just another joke. With each new encounter the absurdity builds. This is a very funny movie. I’m not sure you could go through and pick out lines that were funny out of context, but within the world of the film the increasingly farcical situations really worked for me.

That isn’t to say, though, that this film is a comedy. It is sad as often as it is hilarious. The thesis, if you can call it that, is that Doc is a relic of the past. His hippie nature is already outdated as the sixties turn into the seventies. The forces of evil aren’t just The Man anymore, and free love means getting pulled over by a cop because there are more than three people in the car with hair past their ears. Even Doc can’t hold on to his outsider status as much as he would like to. There is a contrast there between him and his frennemy, an LAPD detective named Bigfoot, played wonderfully by Josh Brolin. Bigfoot used to be a hippie but sometime before the film starts he got a hair cut and learned of the power that comes from civil rights violations. In some ways he is a character to be pitied, especially in his final scene, and his inability to cope with becoming The Man and getting mixed up in drug trafficking from the other side of the law is in stark relief to Doc’s ability to go with the flow. In fact, this is the most I’ve liked Joaquin Phoenix in about a decade for exactly that reason. Under Anderson’s direction he abandons all sense of self-seriousness in favor of a cool detachment that really works for the character and for him. He’s delightful when interacting with prostitutes, musicians, FBI agents, real estate magnate’s wives and girlfriends, and hopped up dentists alike. Doc’s existence is not an enviable one, though I very much enjoyed my time visiting it.

Inherent Vice

I think the most remarkable element of the movie is, if I may steal some of its vernacular, the vibe Anderson creates in part through long tracking shots of a very different variety from those that made him famous in the late nineties as a technically exciting filmmaker. The movie is propulsive in a slow, mellow way that never feels the pressure to conform to typical scene constructions or even typical story progression. So those shots which start wide on Doc and the other minor character he’s sharing the scene with and move ever so slowly closer and closer until they end as a close up of the two are basically the movie in miniature. What starts as an expansive tale of corruption and misdeeds ends in loneliness and uncertainty of a very personal nature. There is much in the world that Doc can’t control and although he has been willing to let that ride, it does make for a harshed buzz.

The Immigrant (2014)

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Call it counterprogramming to the influx of big explosion-y movies filling the multiplexes in the summertime. Call it beautiful, painterly, radiant, dingy, gloomy and gloam-y. Call it a melodrama. Call it moving and patient. It will answer to all of these names. But is it any good? Yes and no.

The dichotomy there is embodied in the film by way of the two leads. One, Marion Cotillard, is extraordinary. She’s reminiscent of Frank Borzage’s heroines, both full of life and almost constantly oppressed by outside forces. She’s a truly wonderful character, a woman who, along with her sister, comes to America in 1921 and is immediately snatched up by a less-than-reputable man who seems to have a history of doing this kind of thing. He recruits her as a seamstress for his burlesque shows but she is soon thrust on stage and that’s not the first indignity she must suffer, nor will it be the last. The key to the film, though, is that she never feels pitiable because she doesn’t need the audience’s pity. She can fend for herself and she can stand up to the men who want to control her.

Immigrant

The problem, then, is the other lead. Joaquin Phoenix is one of those actors that just doesn’t often click for me. I think I get really turned off by people who don’t seem to have a sense of humor, who don’t seem to get the cosmic joke of existence. Until very recently, Edward Norton felt like one of those guys, but his roles in Wes Anderson movies (Moonrise Kingdom in particular) showed that he gets it, he can take things less seriously sometimes. I don’t think Phoenix has that. The last thing that even hinted in that direction was Signs, but everything else he’s done in the past decade has been so darn serious. So when he’s doing practically the same thing here as he did in The Master, the same intensity and single-minded pursuit of physical pleasure to the detriment of interpersonal relationships it feels like he didn’t learn the lesson of that film. This is all an oversimplification, of course, but there’s something to it, I think, and it really holds back what might have been an all-time great film.

Because the rest of the movie, including a nice but ultimately forgettable performance from Jeremy Renner and some spectacular direction by James Gray really does work. It feels like one of those old 30’s melodramas and a modern film at the same time. There are numerous shots which show a level of craftsmanship that has few equals in today’s landscape. And that last shot is a doozy and a half. The mood, the atmosphere, the recreation of early 20’s New York City, they’re all really grand and work towards making the story of Cotillard’s Ewa feel real (emotionally, at least). If only it weren’t let down by a clunky and unconvincing Joaquin Phoenix.

Movie Review: The Master

I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.

The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film. If you look at my recent top 100 films list you’ll find he has 3 movies on it, two of which are in the top 5. I’m a fan. He makes films about people and the strange situations they get themselves into. The Master takes a turn away from the heavily plotted films he started with into a miasma of control and impulse. It is a foreboding, swampy film with very little plot outside getting two intense men together and playing them off each other. There is no mystery to be solved nor destination to be reached. It is an experiment. Can the cult leader turn a man of impulse into a man of pure intellect? Well, it’s hard to say, which is what’s so intriguing about it.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie, a man who served his time in the pacific theater during WWII and comes back to find there isn’t a place for him. He’s drifting from place to place, job to job, woman to woman. His only companion is his ability to turn all sorts of chemicals into a powerful elixir that may cause death alongside its intoxication. After fleeing one job he finds a boat hosting a party. He stows away and finds that the boat is a kind of retreat for a group of people that follow The Cause, an idea created by Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s Lancaster Dodd and, possibly, Amy Adams‘ Peggy Dodd, his wife. It’s a kind of pseudo-religion that believes in a soul which carries on throughout the ages and galaxy. Reincarnation, basically, and there’s a lot of therapy that tries to get to the past lives people might have lived. The central idea is to deny any emotional or impulsive feelings in favor of a truly intellectual pursuit. This is, of course, a ridiculous idea and the Dodds’ attempts to indoctrinate Freddie are variously unsuccessful, despite Freddie’s best efforts. It’s not long until Freddie’s impulses begin to take over again and he lashes out violently and sexually. Then more things happen and there is, like in all other buddy films, a time of separation. It seems like Lancaster and Freddie will never reconcile. Will they, won’t they? 

If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.

There are various ways of interpreting the film, an ambiguity which seems to have turned off a good portion of the audience. It allows for many interpretations, or no interpretations at all. It is a perfectly fine movie if you just see what happens as what happens, like I described above. There are, however, some interesting conversations to be had about what each of these characters could be representations or embodiments of. There’s a popular theory going around that ascribes the properties of the id, ego, and superego upon Freddie, Peggy, and Lancaster respectively. It works, I think, with Freddie being all feeling and no foresight and Lancaster being all thought and no feeling and Peggy going between them and bringing them together (or pushing them apart). Another theory a friend of mine told me was that The Cause is right and that Freddie is the first man, Adam. The first scene shows him miming sex with a sand recreation of a woman, and a later scene shows him reconsidering her and remaking her after his destructive acts tear her apart. It would make sense that the first man would be all impulse and feeling, and if The Cause is right, that would carry on throughout all of his incarnations. Of course, this would also prove the other part of The Cause, the elimination of emotions, absurd, but I think Anderson’s sense of humor would fit that nicely. The film itself draws attention to another, more obvious interpretation. Freddie is no more than a dog, he lives in the moment and has very little in terms of memory or planning for the future. Lancaster, then, would be the literal master, trying to heel and control Freddie by training the feral-ness out of him. Freddie’s rages are not unlike a rabid dog lashing out at anything and everything it sees, and the best Lancaster can do is direct those rages towards things that might want to hurt The Cause. It’s self preservation by way of human conditioning. And there’s the constant references to being adrift. Anderson returns to a shot of the wake of a boat over and over again, any time the characters move around, compelled by outside forces or themselves to change their location or their ideas about themselves. It’s, in this case, a film about what it means to be a human and how we must define ourselves or be lost to the countless elements that would bend us to their wills.

But all of these theories are kind of nebulous. They float above and under and within the film, which is a solid and technically astounding work of art. Much as been made of the film being mostly shot on 65mm film, and even the digital projection I saw (though I’m hoping my local 70mm capable theater will get a print at some point!) is a beautiful thing to behold. Anderson is the best director we have working today, and his rigid formalism of recent years echoes Stanley Kubrick’s masterful control of his frame, each shot is set up meticulously and marvelously. Gone are the long tracking shots of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, swooping around corners and pulling in tight on the huge casts of those films. Now there are three main characters, and their long shots aren’t so kinetic. One, maybe the best shot of the year, is a long take of Freddie answering questions. The camera doesn’t move, doesn’t push into his face or pull out or swivel to see Lancaster’s interviewing. It sits and watches. This, of course, is motivated by the character, who has been implored to answer as many questions as he can without blinking. If he can’t blink, then Anderson won’t cut away. It creates a marvelous tension and Phoenix’s performance is more than enough to match. He contorts his body throughout the film, and is nearly unrecognizable as a man uncomfortable in his body and the world at large. Hoffman, too, gives an amazing performance, though his isn’t as transformative as Phoenix’s. Adams does well with the little she has to do. It’s a key role in the film that skirts around the edges of the central relationship, pushing and pulling and manipulating them to serve her own interests. The script is, as always, amazing, full of great dialogue and superb scenes. I said above that the film is mostly plotless, which shouldn’t be and isn’t a criticism. It’s just different, and it suits the film just fine.

If we meet again, in the next life, you will be my sworn enemy and I will show you no mercy.

The Master is a difficult film, but a rewarding one if you have the patience and a willingness to go along with what you’re given. It’s beautiful and should not be missed on the big screen.