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Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is a fairly derivative take on Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables: in this 2013 film 1940s Los Angeles takes the place of 1920s Chicago, and there are similarities between the two stories, both based on real life events, both involving honest cops tasked with taking down a well-connected and ruthless mobster with the help of a team of spirited misfits. I suppose one can hardly blame the younger, more inexperienced director for sticking rigidly to the same formula successfully employed by de Palma in the 1980s, but sadly, in almost every area in which the two films can be compared, Fleischer’s effort comes off as second best. To begin with, Sean Penn’s one-note crime boss Mickey Cohen is as boring as villains come, and the actor struggles to make anything like the same kind of impact that Robert de Niro delivered with his over-the-top and hugely enjoyable turn as Al Capone, though Cohen does at least exhibit some of Capone’s flair for inventing elaborate or unusual deaths for his underworld enemies. Josh Brolin, meanwhile, is this film’s noble Eliot Ness-alike, John O’Mara; a family man looking to do good, he narrows his eyes and stares off into the middle distance a lot while considering all the moral implications thrown up by his work, which involves disrupting Cohen’s empire by any means necessary. The team of incorruptibles working under O’Mara (played by Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick and Michael Peña) have been given precisely one skill or personality trait each, and they wander round dutifully in the shadow of their leader, each waiting to step out into the limelight for his own brief heroic moment. Gosling’s the only supporting actor who gets an ample amount of screen time, but he’s unwilling to break out of his quiet, cool enigma thing here, and as a result you know as much about his character at the end of the film as you do when he first appears.

Will Beall’s script, meanwhile, is full of clichéd, self-important cop phrases about ‘the honour of men who carry the badge’ and the like, and it contains a dispiriting emphasis on male barking and growling; at one point Brolin sets out the stakes by gruffly telling his men ‘you lose everything and you win the war – you’re a hero. You lose everything and you lose the war – you’re just a fool’ and, rather weirdly, no-one either laughs in his face or calls him a preposterous, overblown c*** afterwards. In fact there is a huge amount of macho, guttural man rumbling in this film. Both Brolin and Penn sound as if they’ve been getting through three packs of Marlboros before their daily morning muesli and yoga sessions, though they are like high-pitched choirboys next to the mighty Nick Nolte, who appears here in a supporting role as a man who has apparently lived a thousand lives with just the one set of vocal chords. Still, despite a lack of originality and all of the assembled masculine posturing Gangster Squad isn’t dreadful, and there’s some impressive noirish production design and costume design to enjoy. Unfortunately there are several dull patches, and Fleischer seemingly can’t break free of them; the action here – which ought to lift the film and make it more entertaining – lacks the flair and imagination that made the set pieces in De Palma’s earlier film so watchable and so enjoyable. Poor old Emma Stone tries to make the best of one of the film’s two token and completely under-written female roles (she’s Cohen’s squeeze, later shacking up with Gosling’s charmer Jerry Wooters), but the director seems to give up on her after a while to concentrate on the throaty man growls. These continue all the way through the film and into its risible epilogue, in which there’s even more self-important talk of honour and cops and cop honour and honourable cops and the honour of cops and how cops are honourable. Meh.

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer.
Written by: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless.
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Mireille Enos, Sullivan Stapleton.
Cinematography: Dion Beebe.
Editing: Alan Baumgarten, James Herbert.
Music:
Steve Jablonsky.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
113 minutes.
Year:
2013.

4 Comments

As widely-reported, Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brothers’ love letter to classic Hollywood and the big studio pictures of the 1950s, and a comic film that you feel they just had to make at some stage. Much of the action takes place in the giant Los Angeles lot of Capitol Pictures, the same fictional studio the Coens created for the purposes of Barton Fink, while the crux of the plot is concerned with little more than a day in the life of Josh Brolin’s fixer and producer Eddie Mannix (a softer version of the real Mannix) as he quashes negative stories about his stars and keeps the cogs of several productions running smoothly. Despite the scope offered by the subject matter the story is actually quite threadbare, largely revolving around the kidnap of George Clooney’s goofy actor Baird Whitlock by a shadowy group of Communist Party-supporting screenwriters, but the charm of Hail, Caesar! lies less in the intricacies of plotting and more in its unabashed celebration of Old Hollywood, and movies as wonder-inspiring products more generally. The standout moments arrive when the Coens and their cast and crew re-stage typical, grand productions of the era, highlighting the inherent pleasures of the shore leave sailor musical, the drawing room drama, the Roman religious epic (hence the title) and more.

With so many famous faces in the cast and a relatively-short running time, Hail, Caesar! employs many of its characters sparingly, with only Mannix, Whitlock, Alden Ehrenreich’s Gene Autry / Roy Rogers-style cowboy actor Hobie Doyle and Heather Goldenhersh’s secretary Natalie getting more than a few minutes of screen time. Several famous faces are primarily used as links to the different types of productions taking place on the lot, so Scarlett Johansson’s sassy actress DeeAnna Moran is associated with an Esther Williams-style musical swimming movie (as well as presenting Mannix with another problem to fix), Channing Tatum’s tap dancer Burt Gurney is the star of an On The Town-style song and dance extravaganza, and so on. Normally I’m a little skeptical when this many well-known actors appear for brief cameos, even allowing for the obvious draw of having a Coens film on the CV, but I think it enables the directors to quickly skip from one minor character to another, which dictates the zippy pace as well as being an effective way of showing just how busy Mannix’s days are. Inevitably there are some you want to see more of: Frances McDormand lights up the screen as an editor, for example, but appears for a minute at most.

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Scarlett Johansson and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!

As Coen comedies go, Hail, Caesar! is about par for the course: it falls short of the mark set by The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona but it’s certainly superior to the likes of Burn After Reading or the largely pointless remake of The Ladykillers. I can’t deny that I prefer their darker dramas, on the whole, but the jokes here work while the film’s playing, even if I can only recall a few three days later, as I write this review. I loved the idea of a cabal of blacklisted screenwriters rendezvousing with a Soviet submarine near their Malibu hideout, which effortlessly sends up the McCarthyist paranoia of the era, while Mannix’s discussion with four religious leaders about depictions of God and Christ in the film-within-a-film is gold. The song-and-dance numbers ought to put a smile on the most miserable of faces, too, particularly Tatum’s big moment, an homage to Gene Kelly.

Yet there’s more to Hail, Caesar! than warm-hearted nostalgia: there are as many broad swipes at religion and capitalism as there are jokey barbs at the expense of the movie business and its practices, and the character of Mannix is more than a mere go-between, exerting a little menace here and there to stop the wheels from falling off; his more dubious qualities have even alerted the defence contractor Lockheed Martin, who attempt to woo him away from Capitol. However the truth is your enjoyment will likely derive more from the charming way in which the Coens celebrate the business of show, even though they also draw back the curtain on studio productions and reveal a range of problems occurring across the lot. The way they highlight the farcical nature of the business is amusing, but any doubts you may have as to how the Coens feel about Hollywood are quashed by the glimpses of one film – the Hobie Doyle-starring Lazy Ol’ Moon – premiering to a rapturous response. For me that turned out to be one of the film’s most bittersweet scenes: on screen there was a sea of laughing audience members as Doyle sang and a stooge jumped in a watery trough, but I was sat in a crowd of about fifteen people, with spare seats all around. It was a Friday night, and Hail, Caesar! had only been on general release for a week, while I could count the number of people who laughed on one hand. What a shame.

Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Frances McDormand, Heather Goldenhersh.
Cinematography: Roger Deakins.
Editing: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
Music:
Carter Burwell.
Certificate:
PG.
Running Time:
106 minutes.
Year:
2016.

22 Comments

This tightly-wound and tense film from Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy) examines the Mexico-US drug trade while hopping back and forth across the border, and is perhaps one of the more muscular suspense thrillers made in recent years, at times bringing to mind through its set pieces Kathryn Bigelow’s taut Iraq-set drama The Hurt Locker. There’s little of the symbolism and all-out weirdness of Villeneuve’s previous film, in which Jake Gyllenhaal played a man whose life is sent into a tailspin when he discovers he has a doppelgänger, but it’s replaced here by a certain grittiness that the director hasn’t managed to achieve before, even in his earlier film about child abduction. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay helps Villeneuve considerably in this regard, and although he doesn’t rely too much on the flamboyant (and excellent) cinematography of the great Roger Deakins to add to the hard-boiled tone, his leading actors hit the right notes in a fine ensemble performance.

Most prominent is Emily Blunt’s FBI agent Kate Macer, first seen in the midst of a white-knuckle raid on an Arizona household linked to a Mexican drug cartel. She is the only woman with a substantial role in the film and her presence in what is essentially a world of very big, very dangerous men ensures that she stands out, particularly as the story progresses. Blunt’s character earns a promotion (of sorts), hooking up with Josh Brolin’s CIA agent and Benecio del Toro’s shadowy former attorney, and looks slight when standing next to or near the various hulking ex-special forces mercenaries who accompany the trio on their missions: the first is a nail-biting extraction of a prisoner across the border (during which Deakins delivers some memorable overhead shots of a snaking column of sicario-josh-brolin-600x410vehicles marauding through the traffic), while equally tense is a late night strike on a hidden tunnel being used by the cartels to transport drugs. The screenplay does not reduce Macer to a gibbering wreck at any stage, but it’s noticable that her initial strength diminishes as the film progresses and she is never comfortable with the demands and surprises of the job (somewhat understandably); Kate is repeatedly shocked at the actions of both parties to this war. Her relatively low status as a pawn in a particularly gruesome game of chess is continually linked to that of a courrupt Mexican policeman (Maximiliano Hernández), who moonlights as a drugs mule, and there’s a sense throughout that she is being used. There is a warning from del Toro’s Alejandro near the end of the film that the area she is working in is ‘a land of wolves now’, and rather than merely implying that she doesn’t fit in he tells her directly to go and find a small town somewhere where the law still exists. This is a nasty warning message that has probably originated from Brolin’s cocky agent Garver, coming as it does just minutes after he clashes with Kate over the legality of an operation, but Alejandro’s point is arguably proven shortly after he leaves.

Blunt’s character represents the audience’s way in to this world, and we generally see events from her point of view, sharing her disbelief at the grim sights of modern Juarez and identifying with her fear when violence suddenly erupts; by contrast all but one of the men around her are old hands, and nothing seems to surprise them. We can also sympathise with Kate’s frustration at not knowing what she is getting into and we can also understand her curiosity: Garver drip feeds some information but witholds a lot more, while she is drawn to the mysterious Alejandro, and unsuccessfully directs many of her questions to this man of few words; when her expected first mission turns into something else entirely she attempts to find out what’s going on and he enigmatically responds ‘You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time’.

Regarding the rest of the cast, this is arguably one of del Toro’s best performances, and probably the best work he has delivered since Steven Soderbergh’s epic two-parter Che. The equally-charismatic Brolin delivers a solid turn and is joined in this regard by Daniel Kaluuya, who UK viewers may remember as Parking Patewayo in Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s sketch show Harry And Paul; Sicario is his big Hollywood break and he manages to grab the opportunity well. It’s a surprise when the film all but leaves Blunt’s character during the final act and turns at a key moment to one of these male actors, turning them briefly into a kind of surrogate protagonist, but I enjoyed this unexpected direction even though it’s the film’s sole action sequence that you’d expect to see in any old genre piece. During this brutal sequence a smidgen of credence is given to the claim made by cartel boss Alarcon (Julio Cedillo) that both sides in this war as as bad as each other, but it’s a strange move at such a crucial point, even if it serves to explain the title’s reference to a ‘hitman’.

Sicario is smartly edited by Joe Walker, who ensures that the punchier moments really do punch, while minimalist electronica artist Jóhann Jóhannsson delivers a suitably moody, atmospheric soundtrack (following up his Oscar-nominated work on The Theory Of Everything). Deakins deserves and gets another mention in this review for returning to locations similar to or the same as the ones previously shot for No Country For Old Men and delivering something entirely different, yet no less deserving of praise. There’s so much visually to admire here: silhouetted soldiers entering a tunnel as the sun sets, aeroplane shadows rolling over the barren landscape, creative use of car window frames and mirrors, transitional shots of dust particles in the light and much, much more; it’s a film that will please the aesthetes no end. I’m not convinced that Sicario tells those of us observing from afar anything new about the conflict or its associated problems cartels are ruthless, those at the bottom of the food chain on either side suffer and the American government forces pay scant regard to the laws that supposedly bind them seem to be the main and obvious messages but purely in terms of thrilling action and suspense it’s well worth seeing and the performances and cinematography are highlights.

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve.
Written by: Taylor Sheridan.
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benecio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal, Maximiliano Hernández.
Cinematography: Roger Deakins.
Editing: Joe Walker.
Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 121 minutes.
Year: 2014.

21 Comments

Everest-2015-Stills-Wallpapers-Jason-ClarkeThe disaster movie will never go out of fashion because cinema audiences will always be drawn to tales of human peril, whether they’re concerned with sinking boats, burning skyscrapers, impending meteor strikes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or mountaineering accidents, such as Baltasar Kormákur’s impressive, tense blockbuster Everest. This survival story is based on real life events from the mid-1990s, when two commercial expedition groups led parties to the summit of the world’s highest peak before bad weather set in; it is partly based on climber Beck Weathers’ book Left For Dead, though the screenplay also incorporates dialogue from audio recordings made on the day of the ascent, and not  according to the director, anyway  Jon Kraukauer’s book Into Thin Air. Today, of course, commercial climbing on Everest is more popular than ever before; if you have $65,000 and time to spare you too can attempt to reach the peak. Approximately 4,000 people have successfully done so, though hundreds have died attempting to join them, while it’s estimated that there were 1,000 people at Everest Base Camp this year (the growing popularity of the climb was highlighted by the number of mountaineers that had to be rescued when the Nepalese earthquake struck earlier this year).

There’s little new or even surprising with regard to the way this film plays out: we spend the first hour getting to know the various characters as they travel to Nepal, meet each other and then ascend to the Everest Base Camp, where cheery bonhomie and group drinking sessions mask the underlying individual determination and competitiveness. The core cast is quite large and Kormákur attempts to spend plenty of time with as many characters as possible, but the focus repeatedly returns to brash Texan Weathers (played by Josh Brolin) and New Zealand mountaineer and guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke). everest-15Theirs are the only families we get to see (Robin Wright and Keira Knightley play their respective wives, both hanging nervously on the end of a phone for news), while the rest of the characters are not affored such time-consuming luxuries; it would have been nice if the screenplay acknowledged that the Japanese or Nepalese mountaineers that feature also have loved ones, but I guess there’s not as much money to be made in either country as there is in the US or Australia. Fleshing out the cast are a number of actors who manage to make the most of their supporting roles, including Jake Gyllenhaal as Scott Fischer (another seasoned climber and expedition leader), Emily Watson as Helen Wilton (co-organiser of the expedition), Michael Kelly as journalist Kraukauer and Sam Worthington, John Hawkes, Thomas Wright and Naoko Mori among those playing professional and amateur mountaineers.

Even if you hadn’t seen a trailer or a review, and even if you were unaware of the true story behind the film, it won’t come as a surprise when the climb begins that the tension increases. As the expository early dialogue reveals, the climbers will be operating at the same height as a cruising 747 jet when they near the summit, in the so called ‘dead zone’, and some will not be able to make it to the very top due to oxygen shortage, frostbite or a number of other potential physical problems. eve1And these problems duly appear along the way, combining with the extreme conditions, some questionable decision-making by some of the mountaineers and guides and a lack of secure ropes at the climb’s most precipitous point. It makes for a truly edge-of-your-seat cinematic experience, with the tricky shoot taking place on the mountain itself as well as in Pinewood Studios (though this soundstage footage blends in comfortably, as does the older 1996 IMAX documentary footage of the mountain that is used, which was actually shot while the real life Hall, Fischer et al were climbing; in fact the IMAX documentary crew assisted survivors at the time). It is quite a feat to have made this film, especially given the relatively short period of shooting in the Himalayas.

The brief, nausea-inducing looks toward the foot of the mountain will make the blood rush to your head, while Salvatore Totino’s cinematography will leave you drooling in awe at the majesty of the peaks and surrounding landscape. Thankfully the writing and the acting are of a higher standard than you would usually expect of a disaster movie, too, and thus the characters’ actions ring true while the dialogue, understandably given the use of actual recordings, sounds suitably authentic to my ears; the sense of realism in an otherwise extraordinary setting is accentuated by the deaths of some of the characters, which are moving but without ceremony and certainly not milked for dramatic possibilities. All told this is a fine spectacle movie, a gripping cinematic experience and one of the rare films that is well worth watching on the big screen in 3D, if you have the chance to do so. Despite the immense technical achievements of the crew it must be said that it’s a film that has obviously been designed for Big Audiences, and though it explores the bonds that are formed between people under such extreme circumstances to a reasonably sufficient extent it lacks the insight of, say, Kevin MacDonald’s documentary Touching The Void, which covers similar ground. One other criticism is the fact that there’s an uncomfortable lack of focus on the Nepalese characters, who we rarely see struggling up and down the mountain ahead of the climbing parties; when the storm hits and the (generally, but not exclusively, white, male and western) main characters are fighting for survival there’s no sense that the sherpas are also in danger, though obviously they were in real life; I must have missed any mention of their safe return, if it is actually included in Everest‘s final cut, and audiences will have to wait for Jennifer Peedom’s forthcoming documentary Sherpa for a proper appreciation of their culture and work. Overall, though, this is a satisfying addition to the growing list of big budget disaster movies in a year that has been decidedly short on blockbusters of quality.

Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur.
Written by: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy.
Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Naoko Mori, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly, Thomas Wright.
Cinematography: Salvatore Totino.
Editing: Mick Audsley.
Music: Dario Marianelli.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 121 minutes.
Year: 2015.

11 Comments

Sin-City-A-Dame-To-Kill-for-WallpaperThe warning signs were evident way before Sin City: A Dame To Kill For collected a haul of bad reviews in 2014 while plopping into the lives of the general public. A long period of gestation followed in the wake of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s original 2005 hit Sin City, which was based on Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, and a worrying amount of writing and re-writing (including some at the behest of executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein) took place between 2006 and 2011. Then, upon completion, Miramax put the scheduled release date back from 2013 to 2014 (supposedly to avoid clashes with Rodriguez’s Machete Kills). Eventually A Dame To Kill For found its way into the multiplexes, but one wonders whether enthusiasm for the project had gradually waned over the years, especially given the fact the Weinsteins seemed keener to discuss the development of a TV spin-off than the film itself.

Some actors – Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Powers Boothe, Jaime King – return for this second outing but others – Clive Owen, Devon Aoki, Michael Madsen, Michael Clarke Duncan – are not present for a number of reasons (Duncan, for example, passed away shortly before filming started). Added to the cast, however, are several medium-sized names: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green and Dennis Haysbert have the prominent roles, while there are a number of blink-and-you’ll-miss-em cameos for Christopher Lloyd, Ray Liotta, Lady Gaga, Stacy Keach, Jeremy Piven and many more. Inevitably some work better than others.

While criticism of the film primarily seemed to identify the screenplay as the main problem, with disgruntled reviewers claiming to be bored, Rodriguez and Miller were always on a hiding to nothing. For one thing they had the element of surprise on their side a decade ago, and the impact that their hyper-stylized, monochromatic and ultraviolent world had on viewers could not be relied upon again; though still essentially one big red light district with token docklands and out-of-town mansions up in the hills, this city now seems a touch duller due to familiarity with the milieu. Ah, the lot of the sequel, eh?

The exploitation of women continues unchecked, and sadly only Eva Green’s repeatedly-naked femme fatale stands out, with the rest little more than a cavalcade of interchangeable strippers and badass prostitute-assassins. Meanwhile the men are, once again, a bunch of tough-talking noir exaggerations who bed the vamps and smash one another through numerous panes of glass (seriously, if you want to make it in Sin City, become a glazier). Some characters, such as Rourke’s brutish slugger Marv, have also lost some of the mystique that helped to make Sin City so enjoyable, although giving Boothe’s vicious and smug Senator Roark a more prominent role this time was a good move.

The new movie shares its predecessor’s episodic structure, with the Gordon-Levitt-starring The Long Bad Night split into two distinct (and distinctly underwhelming parts). That’s a story Miller penned for this film, and sadly it fails to capture the imagination in the same way That Yellow Bastard, The Big Fat Kill or The Hard Goodbye did ten years ago. Slightly better is A Dame To Kill For, a straightforward tale of double-crossing and revenge featuring Brolin’s Dwight McCarthy and Green’s calculating Ava Lord. It ends up in a pointless, violent war, with an army of disposable henchmen losing their heads, but I was entertained. Marv and Alba’s Nancy feature in another short, but this largely re-treads old ground without offering anything fresh.

Given that the style and the subject matter is largely the same as the first film, I suspect that fans will find sitting through Sin City: A Dame To Kill For less of a chore than the majority of reviews in 2014 suggested it would be. While it’s clearly not as good as Sin City, there is some fun to be had from seeing this pulpy, comic style once again, and to revisit this stripped back, contrast-heavy variation on New York City. I still like the flashes of colour that appear (red blood occasionally spatters across the screen, Eva Green’s eyes are green, etc) and the fact there’s no advertising anywhere (bottles of alcohol are simply labelled ‘Booze’), while there are several creatively-staged ‘end-of-panel’ moments. So even with the underlying sensation of déjà vu it’s not all bad; in fact if you compare it to Miller’s utterly dismal 2008 film The Spirit it feels like you’re watching a triumphant masterpiece.

Directed by: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller.
Written by: Frank Miller. Based on Sin City by Frank Miller.
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jessica Alba, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Josh Brolin, Dennis Haysbert, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Chung, Bruce Willis, Christopher Lloyd, Jeremy Piven, Juno Temple, Ray Liotta.
Cinematography: Robert Rodriguez.
Editing: Robert Rodriguez.
Music: Robert Rodriguez, Carl Thiel.
Certificate: 18.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Year: 2014.

19 Comments

The complicated, labyrinthine plot of Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh feature film, coupled with the muffled delivery of some of its actors, is proving a little too much for some cinemagoers: newspapers in the UK, at least, have reported that audience members are ducking out before the end of the movie and it’s certainly not difficult to understand why some people – perhaps frustrated at being made to feel obtuse by the story – are doing so. This adaptation, like Thomas Pynchon’s original novel, is wilfully difficult – though not impossible – to follow: set in LA at the turn of the 1970s, there’s a wealth of information to take in (characters both seen and unseen, threads, places, anecdotes, crossed lines, coincidences, life, death, jellyfish croquettes) and much of it is casually picked up, dropped and subsequently forgotten about; only at the end is it really possible to take stock and figure out what has, and what hasn’t, been particularly relevant in this shaggiest of shaggy dog stories. Plenty of people dislike being left behind by fast-moving or barely-understandable plots and their criticisms are entirely valid, despite the sneering ‘oh-you-just-don’t-get-it’ tone of several prominent media voices; while it seems that you need to be able to sit back, relax and go with the film to enjoy it, not everyone finds that easy to do in practice, and it’s a shame that Anderson’s latest is prompting strong enough feelings in some to cause walkouts after paying for a seat.

Those able to accept Inherent Vice for what it is – a deliberately convoluted and confusing semi-comic neo-noir filtered through a fuzzy, druggy haze – will likely have a good time. Anderson has made a visually-arresting film that fuses elements of The Big SleepThe Big LebowskiThe Maltese FalconKiss Kiss Bang BangThe Long GoodbyeNight Moves (the 1975 film) and Chinatown, among others, though whether it’s actually the equal of any of those titles is a moot point. It is, however, better than Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, from which Joaquin Phoenix cribs a number of Johnny Depp’s spaced-out Thompsonisms for his portrayal of private eye Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello.

The Long Goodbye, in which Robert Altman took an early 1950s Chandler / Marlowe story and set it twenty years later, is probably the nearest comparable film; Altman has long been Anderson’s most obvious influence, and the younger director even acted as a standby for the veteran before he passed away, during the filming of A Prairie Home Companion. You could say that Inherent Vice is Anderson’s most overtly Altman-esque film since Magnolia, and it represents a return to the earlier LA-based, ensemble-featuring work of his career; in fact it’s a surprise that a hysterical Luis Guzmán is absent from the cast.

Joaquin Phoenix is firmly on the way to becoming an Anderson regular himself, and he’s enjoyable to watch as the dope-smoking hippy PI, a resident of the fictional suburb of Gordita Beach. Sportello is visited by ex-girlfriend (or ‘ex-old’ in the parlance of the times) Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who asks her former beau to investigate an imminent kidnapping plot involving her current lover, real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts); Wolfmann and Hepworth both subsequently disappear. Two other people – Michael K. Williams’ Black Guerrilla Family member Tariq Khalil and Jena Malone’s ex-junkie Hope Harlingen – independently come to Doc at the same time asking for help with, as it transpires, their own coincidentally-related cases. This sets the wheels of the often baffling plot in motion, embracing such creations along the way as Josh Brolin’s hippy-hating detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, Owen Wilson’s musician-turned-stool pigeon Coy Harlingen, Reese Witherspoon’s Deputy DA (and Doc’s ‘new-old’) Penny Kimball, Hong Chau’s helpful prostitute Jade and many, many more. Following their often-cryptic guidance, Doc ambles into an expanding world of cults, bikers, shadowy crime syndicates and dentists, completely lost in his own story, wandering from one scenario and person to the next without much of a clue as to what is happening.

Like Pynchon’s book, Anderson’s film successfully mines the confusing nature of the plot, and the bafflement of the stoned protagonist, for laughs. The likeable Doc’s tendency to make vague notes during his investigations becomes a running joke, for example, with hastily-scribbled entries like ‘Not hallucinating!’ and ‘something Spanish’ offering little in the way of illumination for detective or audience. He regularly appears wandering about in dense fog or sitting in / under a cloud of smoke, and his lack of familiarity with certain surroundings often leaves him sporting an amusingly-perplexed look, desperate for a point of reference. Sportello’s confusion is roughly equal to our own, although tragically for Doc he can’t walk out of the story or out of the cinema in frustration, and those of us in the audience must face the usual frustrations found when looking to stoners for coherence.

In the film the ideas of sudden displacement, or of being lost, are enhanced by the changing landscape of LA, with the appearance of new property developments further messing with Doc’s drug-addled mind. In one sequence Anderson shows a flashback of Doc and Shasta as they attempt to score some weed before Doc, back in the present, visits the same site while following a clue. He finds a new, turd-shaped development where previously there was nothing and examines it as if he has just spotted a silver unicorn in an Adidas tracksuit settling down with a hookah. The physical make-up of Doc’s town is altering, and it’s seemingly hard for him to handle, but that’s not the only change taking place in the City of Angels: the prevalence of the hippie lifestyle he clings to is slowly being replaced by a new wave of self-interest and commercial focus as the Nixon era begins in earnest. Coke is taking over from weed and acid as the drug-du-jour, and the Hell’s Angels and the Manson Family have become the dominant cultural references, in stark contrast to the positivity associated with the Summer of Love and Woodstock. There’s even a brief tableau vivant in which Wilson (front and centre in the Jesus position) and various cult-y musicians and hangers-on align at a table for what appears to be their own Last Supper, which is fun but ultimately an example of PTA ramming the point home with unnecessary force. Doc’s people are still visible, still existing, but they’re losing the short battle with conservative, capitalist America and its authoritative powers, a motif typified by the detective’s recurring and often painful run-ins with straight-laced cops like Bjornsen and FBI agents Borderline (Timothy Simons) and Flatweed (Sam Jaeger).

Still, all the best PIs operate with the police at arm’s length, and for all his fall-guy fuzziness Pynchon’s creation is no dipshit; he may be shambling but he regularly gets the better of those who underestimate him, including the authorities, though Anderson smartly leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether it’s primarily due to luck or intelligence. Like his equally-stoned anti-hero counterpart in The Big Lebowski, things just seem to work out for Doc eventually, but one of the delights of watching the film comes from seeing  the brief ‘eureka!’ moments in which Phoenix’s character suddenly pieces together a small part of the impossible jigsaw, even though the actual puzzle seems to get bigger and bigger as the story progresses. Also, like The Dude, he’s a well-intentioned, relatively peaceful guy who would probably rather be at home smoking a joint than negotiating his way through a world populated by psychopaths; it’s impossible not to root for Doc given this underdog scenario, but Phoenix’s charm makes doubly sure that the audience is on the main character’s side.

As per Pynchon’s novel it’s a shame that several of the superbly-monikered friends and foes Doc knows or meets along the way are sidelined so quickly. Williams, Witherspoon and Malone do not receive much screen time after their initial introductions, while Benecio del Toro (playing lawyer Sauncho Smilax, Esq, another riff on Fear And Loathing) and Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s partner, playing Doc’s receptionist Petunia) suffer a similar fate, even though the sacrifice of characters and the introduction of more faces is somewhat necessary to ensure the complicated nature of the plot. I do wonder whether it would have been better to use a few unknown or less-familiar actors in some of these smaller roles; none of the big names mentioned above actually enhance the picture in any meaningful way, as only Brolin, Phoenix and Waterston are around long enough to show off their chops. Two of the more interesting comic performances – Martin Short’s drugged-up dentist Rudy Blatnoyd and Martin Donovan’s shady businessman Crocker Fenway – leave lasting impressions despite their brevity, but that’s due to some extreme scenery-chewing. At least the revolving door approach allows for a large number of lowlifes, crazies, tycoons and femme fatales to pass through Doc’s world, something of a prerequisite for any work that aims to echo the fast-paced investigations of Spade and Marlowe.

Anderson’s greatest success – given that any praise for the characters and dialogue should really be directed towards Pynchon – is in overseeing the film’s visual style. Inherent Vice is beautiful to look at, with lush, rich colours enhanced by the meticulous work of the lighting crew and captured thanks to Anderson’s choice of shots and the technical prowess of his regular DoP Robert Elswit. The denim blues are deep, the greens and reds vibrant, while the sunny yellows are evocative of a carefree Laurel Canyon where singer-songwriters could be found on every street corner and residents floated on down to Sunset Boulevard. The movie was shot on 35mm film, further recalling the ‘feel’ of the period, and Anderson’s commitment to the medium in the face of the digital takeover is commendable given the results he has achieved. Inherent Vice even received its UK premiere at London’s Prince Charles Cinema, a gem of a venue that remains dedicated to showing 35mm prints, and one normally playing second fiddle to the domineering big chain neighbours of Leicester Square.

Though I prefer most of Anderson’s previous work, including his last two films, it’s something of a relief that the director has served up some lighter fayre after the double whammy of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Inherent Vice feels more in step with his earlier LA-based movies, but those hints in the Anderson-cut trailer that suggested a re-tooling of the first half of Boogie Nights or even the Coen’s Lebowski are wide of the mark. The film is dialogue-heavy, the scenes are generally long, the tone is different to anything he has done before and you’ll probably smirk more than laugh.

Anderson’s still more interested in making films that concentrate on men, first and foremost, and although this is an adaptation of an existing novel it’s a shame to see the female characters (and therefore female actors) generally get short shrift yet again. After writing interesting parts for Amy Adams and Emily Watson in recent years it’s disappointing that this story represents a step back in the wrong direction with its one-dimensional nympho maid and sex-mad, skimpy-clad receptionists. The preference for women prancing around wearing cut-offs, hot pants, bikinis or underwear is arguably more understandable – given the setting – than in many other exploitative films, but there’s certainly a predictable, predominant ‘Hollywood starlet’ look here, and I long for a duck walk or a pot belly or a lazy eye or even a fleeting glimpse of the kind of people who actually populate a large portion of this world. Michelle Sinclair, better known as the pornstar Belladonna, pops up in one scene, and her character’s sum total contribution is to announce that she likes having threesomes before disappearing forever. (PTA’s obsession with the porn industry, widely attributed to be a by-product of his upbringing in the Valley, continues unabated; not that I think pornstars are lepers who shouldn’t be let anywhere near ‘serious’ movie sets, or anything, it’s just…did you really need to cast a pornstar in that role?) I guess the fact that Jena Malone’s character has false teeth represents something of a triumph for all aspiring actresses that don’t fit into some kind of Hollywood casting agent’s narrow field. Don’t despair sisters! Keep the dream alive! There’s the eternal hope of a tiny, tiny part in a future Paul Thomas Anderson movie! As long as your legs are good enough, of course.

Just as troubling is the treatment of Shasta, the most prominent female character, who is even ‘punished’ by Doc with sex (although in defence of Pynchon and Anderson it is something that she instigates and wants). She’s introduced in a meekly deferential way when she re-visits her old male lover in order to ask for help, and her key scene, walking with Doc along the beach, sees her equating herself with damaged goods from a cargo ship; she is apparently the ‘inherent vice’ of the title, a walking symbol of the deterioration that the story is concerned with. Even the most likeable male character here can’t be bothered to disagree with her or attempt to raise her self-esteem.

I find Pynchon’s work a bit of a struggle to get through, which no-one ever admits, but ultimately it’s worth the effort. The same applies to Anderson’s latest: I enjoy his films a lot, and I enjoyed this one a lot, but a certain amount of steely resilience is required and I imagine a native American ear for the speedy dialogue and internationally-obscure cultural references would probably help, too; either that or you need to match Doc joint-for-joint. So: those who like their plots and their actors crystal clear are obviously best advised to give it a miss, but if you’re still up for it you’ll find a flawed-but-entertainingly absurd piece that slots nicely into the director’s career and looks fantastic. It’s kinda fun to be all-at-sea with Doc and Inherent Vice is a trip; ultimately how can you resist a film with character names like ‘Japonica Fenway’, ‘Buddy Tubeside’, ‘Riggs Warbling’ and ‘Puck Beaverton’?

The Basics:
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Thomas Pynchon
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benecio Del Toro, Hong Chau, Joanna Newsom, Jena Malone
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 148 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.2

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