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Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film is an arch critique of the fashion industry – a target that you might well describe as low-hanging fruit – as well as being a brooding post-modern fairy tale that eventually descends into bad-trip-blood-curdling horror. It’s also a significant improvement on the messy pomposity of his previous film Only God Forgives, a work that looked great but struggled with its own sense of self-importance for an hour before eventually disappearing up its own backside. By contrast The Neon Demon is even more stylish, and it also has an even, consistently-unsettling tone, which to my mind is preferable to throwing together sporadic moments of extreme violence and hoping for the best (though as you’d probably expect from Refn there are some of those here too). Just as pleasingly it contains a number of fairly interesting characters, such as Elle Fanning’s naive young model Jesse, newly-arrived in Los Angeles a month after turning sixteen and seemingly destined to be corrupted by the fashion industry, if she can negotiate a few weeks in a seedy, barely-secure motel first. She is our heroine, and she even has a knight in shining armour willing to do her bidding, though this isn’t exactly the kind of world or the kind of film in which such people turn up in the nick of time to save the day. Then there’s Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist who beautifies both live models and dead bodies in her two jobs, and whose magnanimous friendship with the newcomer never once seems genuine. And also Ruby’s two model friends Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee respectively), a pair of otherworldly superbitches who have no interest in hiding their jealousy and contempt for the younger, naturally-prettier Jesse, before later descending into all kinds of terrible, eye-popping behaviour.

The screenplay by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham unsympathetically (and somewhat predictably) portrays the fashion industry as being chock full of rude, self-serving, vapid arseholes, and Jesse comes across quite a few of them. Not just the female models – who are the easiest and most common targets for such attacks – but also a male designer and an uber-serious and in-demand male photographer, whose inflated opinion of his own artistry – coupled with a pair of wandering hands – marks him out as being among the more detestable characters here. That said there’s little distinction in this story between the seediness and unpleasantness of the fashion industry and LA more generally, in the sense that there are non-fashion industry characters who pose just as much of a threat to Jesse. Special mention here must go to Keanu Reeves, who is pretty good in a supporting role as a sleazy motel manager; this slimeball could just as easily be a character from Refn’s earlier film Drive.

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Jena Malone in The Neon Demon.

As I said above it’s very stylish. Per Winding Refn’s other recent movies there’s a glossy, slick, ultrabright look to The Neon Demon, and it’s wholly in keeping with the high fashion milieu, while also simultaneously allowing the director to pay homage to the lurid Italian giallo he dearly loves. This film is filled with striking, minimal images, most of which tend to isolate the main character. Sometimes these belong to psychedelic dream sequences, such as a bizarre pitch-black catwalk scene in which a throbbing, glowing symbol serves as the demonic presence of the title; under its glow Jesse is transformed from innocent ingenue to corrupted soul, and several shots here reminded me of Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England and Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, two similarly post-modern horror films. Elsewhere there are larger-than-average sets that depict huge, swanky nightclubs, airy model agency offices, grand Hollywood mansions and expansive, minimally-decorated audition rooms and photography studios. It’s all very ‘wow’, with neon strip lighting, strobe effects and mirrors in abundance, but there’s definitely an emptiness and lack of character or warmth to most of these spaces, perhaps best shown up by the long shots occasionally employed by Director of Photography Natasha Braier; Jesse constantly looks lost and out of place amid her surroundings, even after she gets a foothold in the industry and her self-confidence grows. And yes: gradually, what with this being a Nicolas Winding Refn film and all, these pristine sets become stained with blood, first through minor cuts, then through grisly acts of violence, and finally through an exagerrated scene of menstruation. Blood seeps through this movie as a trickle and then a flood.

I have to admit I wasn’t actually expecting to like The Neon Demon, despite all the positive reviews I’ve seen and heard, but I did and I’ve been thinking about it on and off for a week or so now, especially with regard to some of the more striking images. Fanning offers further confirmation that she’s a developing talent worth watching; she was also pretty good in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, and proves adept at acting with her mouth here: just watch how many times she allows a little curl of the lip or the slight hint of a self-satisfied smile to foreshadow her character’s later transformation/corruption. Malone, meanwhile, is a menacing presence: her threatening nature seems to be exaggerated as her motives are partly hidden from the audience; Reeves’s motel manager, by contrast, is scary but he is at least completely transparent.

Refn benefits once again from an imaginative, stirring electro score by Cliff Ramirez, and the sound design and editing is excellent throughout. At times it’s pulpy, at times it’s camp, at times it’s exploitative, at times Refn’s will to shock the audience and break taboos just seems faintly ludicrous, and it constantly lures you into assuming there’s a lot of style and very little substance, but in actual fact The Neon Demon has been put together with considerable skill, and to my surprise it’s one of the more enjoyable and memorable films that I’ve seen recently. I’ll catch it again, for sure.

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham.
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Karl Glusman, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks.
Cinematography: Natasha Braier.
Editing: Matthew Newman.
Music:
Cliff Martinez.
Certificate:
18.
Running Time:
117 minutes.
Year:
2016.

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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

Though there have been some dips in his career, Shane Black has a stronger claim than most to the title of Master of the Hollywood Buddy Comedy, with a number of his wisecrack-heavy screenplays giving birth to some memorable double acts who just manage to remain on the right side of the law: Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Downey, Jr and Val Kilmer, to name but a few. His latest crime drama – irreverent, often funny, set in late 1970’s Los Angeles and based on a screenplay originally written 15 years ago – features Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as a duo tasked with locating a missing woman who has entered the porn industry in order to subversively spread a message about corruption and air pollution (as you do). Initially Black pits Gosling’s down-on-his-luck, booze-addled, inept and widowed PI Holland March and Crowe’s enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy against one another, and there are quite a few laughs raised as the two characters are established, partly thanks to their violent and mistrustful interactions with one another. March is a morally-bankrupt investigator who has no problem taking payments off old ladies he cannot possibly help, and he’s an irresponsible father, too, which means that his young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) has to step up and act like an adult to keep the household running. Healy, meanwhile, has even fewer scruples, given that he accepts payments to beat up strangers, and although the moral issues concerned do appear to be eating away at the character Black employs fairly transparent plot devices to get the audience on-side (look, everyone, rough justice dished out to a potential paedophile! Hooray!).

As with Black’s hugely entertaining debut as a director, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the fun largely comes from seeing the two characters interact with one another and the various residents of LA their investigation leads them to, ranging from kids on the street to hardened criminals to those attending Boogie Nights-style adult film industry-sponsored parties (several actresses are required to go topless; the film is written, directed and produced by nine men). Like Black’s earlier film there are nods to LA’s long history as a setting for noir, neo-noir and crime thrillers more generally: here we have another pair of soft-boiled/hard-boiled mismatched PIs attempting to get their heads around a complex, sprawling case while being sidetracked by various temptations, and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen that play out. Just last year Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice did the same, using LA’s fog as a symbol for its protagonist’s confusion, as opposed to smog, and I suppose there are some similarities between Joaquin Phoenix’s stoned Doc Sportello and Gosling’s drunk March. I suppose you could make a case that Black’s films do pay heed to writers like Cain, Chandler, Pynchon and Leonard as much as they obviously reference filmmakers as diverse as P.T. Anderson, Roman Polanski and Robert Altman, but he’s barely interested in the nuts and bolts of detective work or the way that crime in LA operates, and clearly too reliant on the dynamics of investigating duos, and the way in which these oddball pairings can be mined for comedy.

Of the two stars Gosling gets the greater share of the comic moments, largely because of his character’s utter incompetence, although while Crowe’s role is ostensibly as a hard/straight man the Australian actor regularly amuses too. So, in summary: you’ve seen this film before – and possibly many times over – albeit under different guises and with slightly tweaked scenarios and characters; there are no marks for originality, although Black’s screenplay is one of the more witty, knowing ones, at least. Watching another crime story develop in which a young, wise-beyond-their-years child ends up having a strong influence over events may cause your eyes to roll, too, as it did mine, and it’s obvious that Holly is only there to deflect away accusations of sexism and misogyny. However, that all said, Black’s writing is generally sharp and for the most part The Nice Guys is entertaining Saturday night fayre. It doesn’t really matter that the plot rambles along, incorporating corruption within the Justice Department and the motor industry as well as the porn and air pollution material; really it’s all just background nonsense to enable Gosling and Crowe to do and say funny things. Which they manage, repeatedly.

Directed by: Shane Black.
Written by: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Kim Basinger, Beau Knapp, Murielle Telio, Keith David.
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot.
Editing: Joel Negron.
Music: David Buclkey, John Ottman, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 116 minutes.
Year: 2016.

8 Comments

This tale about a wannabe DJ living in Los Angeles is a Zac Efron vehicle, and as you’d expect it’s a film that tries to capitalise on the doe-eyed-former-Disney-kid good looks of its star, though putting my snobbery aside for a minute I guess there’s nothing really wrong with that. His character’s nascent career is variously helped along and hindered by three thinly-drawn bros and a famous and successful DJ mentor, played by Wes Bentley, before problems begin to stack up and he gets involved with a girl he shouldn’t get involved with and life lessons must be learned and hey, he’s a good guy so let’s hope it all works out for him and blah blah fuckity blah. It’s a hyperactive, busy film that eventually forgoes all of its early, quirky touches (unimaginatively-rotoscoped drug sequences, on-screen captions, etc) for straightforward, clichéd plotting and the neat tying up of various loose ends, hitting all the usual notes of the man-rises-and-stutters-and-rises-again movie along the way. Throughout there’s a backdrop of depressingly glitzy, soulless nightclubs and pool parties, all of which are populated by (supposedly) perfect-looking extras who were presumably bussed over en masse from the Entourage movie. (Really, is LA even remotely like this? It looks awful.) The scenes that feature many of these actors dancing sum up the falseness of We Are Your Friends, which exhibits little genuine feeling for electronic music itself, or the passion of those who create it, listen to it or dance to it in real life. In fact the screenplay ends up making the tired old argument – long perpetuated by Luddite rock fans – that sounds coming from a machine are somehow inauthentic and a poor substitute for music that’s played on Proper Instruments, to which I thumb my nose and say ‘meh’ through a cheap vocoder. (Throughout all of the scenes in which Efron’s character makes music he looks like someone who absolutely hates everything about it, too, although having heard some of it during the film I can’t really say I blame him.) The entirely predictable ending is one low point, while another is the film’s 99 Homes-style foreclosures subplot, which features a truly dismal turn by Jon Bernthal as a baseball bat-wielding salesman. This film’s a turd, I’m sorry to report, although plenty of effort has gone into polishing it.

Directed by: Max Joseph.
Written by: Max Joseph, Meaghan Oppenheimer.
Starring: Zac Efron, Emily Ratajkowski, Wes Bentley, Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Shaffer, Jonny Weston, Jon Bernthal.
Cinematography: Brett Pawlak.
Editing: Terel Gibson, David Dilberto.
Music: Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 94 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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An opening montage in this cult, late-1980s sci-fi reveals that 300,000 alien slave workers have made Earth their home after crashlanding on the planet three years earlier, and that attempts have been made to assimilate these humanoids into Los Angeles society, though this hasn’t been easy – as the title pun suggests – and the ‘newcomers’ still tend to stand out; they’re the ones with the weird skull markings who are getting drunk on sour milk. Unfortunately the aliens are not yet fully trusted by their human Angeleno counterparts, who derogatorily refer to them as ‘slags’, while the race’s superior strength and cognitive ability has caused further rifts as employers opt for cheap and hard-working alien labour over lazy, problematic humans. All of which serves as the backdrop for a mildly-entertaining mix of sci-fi and buddy cop movie, with James Caan as the grizzled detective investigating the death of his partner, who is killed by an alien gunman as he investigates a robbery. Naturally his superiors think the best course of action following this stressful event is to pair Caan’s rule-breaking plainclothes officer with a by-the-book newly-promoted alien detective named Sam Francisco (the aliens have been given silly names, which becomes a half-decent running joke), and it falls upon the two of them to solve a related murder and take down the drug baron connecting both cases. And so we have two more mismatched cinematic cop partners: human/alien, rule-breaker/rule-follower, etc.

A transparent allegory for immigration and racism in the US it may be, but there’s plenty of fun to be had from immersing oneself in Alien Nation‘s world, which is at times so silly it even includes an evil humanoid henchman who goes by the name of ‘Rudyard Kipling’. The screenplay doesn’t delve too deeply into the whys and wherefores, and that left enough mileage in the premise for a spin-off TV series and a bunch of TV movies, though I presume none of these quite hit the just-about-mediocre heights of this original. In terms of the cast, it’s amusing watching a clearly-unfit Caan gamely trying his best during all the scenes of running, shooting and fighting, while Mandy Patinkin adds some light comic touches as the alien detective who gradually wins his partner’s trust. Terence Stamp is flat-out awful as a by-the-numbers villain, but his performance simply adds to the overall fun; he was clearly ordering extra ham on his sandwiches during production. So, not to be taken too seriously, by any means, but it is a shame that the film doesn’t measure up to the likes of 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon and it’s disappointing that the screenplay doesn’t follow up on the interesting questions it asks during the first act. Incredibly it was given an 18 certificate on release, which might suggest a tougher, grittier film than is actually the case, while as with most second-rate sci-fi of the era you wonder what Paul Verhoeven might have done with the project.

Directed by: Graham Baker.
Written by: Rockne S. O’Bannon.
Starring: James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, Terence Stamp.
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg.
Editing: Kent Beyda.
Music:
Curt Sobel.
Certificate:
18.
Running Time:
91 minutes.
Year:
1988.

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[Note: Given that it’s over 40 years old, and well-known, I’m including plot spoilers in this post, so please take this note as fair warning.]

‘Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown’ is the famous line that gave a name to Robert Towne’s original screenplay, and thus to Roman Polanski’s neo-noir. It’s the last line of dialogue in the film, uttered by an employee of private investigator J.J. ‘Jake’ Gittes (Jack Nicholson, rarely better), after the pair have witnessed the horrific (and tragic) death of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), a key figure in an expanding investigation by Gittes, as well as the woman he has fallen in love with. During the film it transpires that Gittes was involved in an earlier case in which a woman was murdered in Chinatown, which lends significance both to the phrase and the setting for Evelyn’s death. The line has been interpreted in a number of ways over the years, and it’s most commonly seen as encouragement to Gittes, a suggestion that he couldn’t have influenced the outcome for the better and should simply try to move on as soon as possible, like he did last time. Yet it’s also advice suggesting the PI should walk away from the case at this point for another reason: his investigation has led him to come up against people with so much money and power that they are, eseentially, untouchable; he is out of his depth, in territory he will not be able to negotiate safely.

Of course the film itself is barely concerned with the geography of Chinatown, or Los Angeles’ Chinese population, and the area simply represents a perennial state of confusion and uncertainty. According to a Hungarian-born vice cop Towne knew, police officers found that the solving of criminal cases in the district was problematic because of the various dialects and the behaviour of different gangs, as well as widespread corruption. (Chinese people are also used as a recurring motif to suggest that Gittes has never recovered from the earlier, unseen deathwitness his telling of a bawdy, racist joke, for example, unknowingly delivered while Evelyn is standing behind him.) Though set in the late-1930s, Towne’s award-winning screenplay – often confusing, with a number of twists – was inspired by the California Water Wars of the early 20th Century, during which water rights were hotly disputed and claims were made by farmers of Owens Valley that they had been swindled out of their land, through which the Owens River was eventually diverted toward the city. Large parts of the film are therefore set outside of the city, at reservoirs, dry riverbeds, coastal spots and the valleys to the north. (Though water flows suddenly and powerfully in Chinatown, I struggle to think of any film set in a densely-populated area that’s as arid as this one.) The action also moves between mansions, country clubs and retirement homes, all of which are on the outskirts of LA; Gittes only returns to a couple of key locations, but corruption and confusion seems to permeate every single one.

Chinatown starts with a simple request from a woman posing as Evelyn (played by Diane Ladd), who asks Gittes to tail her husband Hollis (Darrell Zwerling), who she believes is cheating with another woman. This kind of thing, we learn, is Gittes’ bread and butter, but it quickly evolves into a problematic mix of double-crossing, murder, corruption, sabotage, extortion, fraud and historic sexual abuse. We stay with the main character – Nicholson is in every single scene of the movie, and each location seems to add more complication to the case that Gittes is investigating – and only see things from his perspective; so, when he is knocked unconscious by a group of farmers who believe he is on their land to sabotage their water supply, the screen fades to black before fading back in when our hero regains consciousness. The point is you’re supposed to share in the main character’s confusion: the true extent of the crimes in this film is never made clear, and is still expanding at the end, when Gittes is told to let it go. In that sense Chinatown takes its cue from the novels of Dalshiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, whose main characters are routinely fed details by their creators as they stumble their way through their own thickening plots. Just about every male neo-noir protagonist in cinema must seemingly work through the same fog: see The Long Goodbye, Blade Runner, L.A. Confidential, Inherent Vice, Brick and many more. (The original screenplay of Chinatown actually included a narration by Gittes, but it was cut by Polanski, who knew that the audience would identify more with the character if they shared his confusion.)

Polanski and producer Robert Evans had worked together before, on 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, but their relationship was put to the test during the making of Chinatown. Evans was (legitimately) worried that Towne’s screenplay would be too complicated for mainstream cinema audiences to follow, and that it offered too downbeat a message, but Polanski – who found out about the script through Towne’s friend Nicholson – loved it, and was persuaded to return to the USA following his convalescence in Europe; it would be the director’s first Hollywood film after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child. Evans was also instrumental in persuading Polanski to return, correctly surmising that the filmmaker would present a cold, cynical take on Los Angeles. And he did: here it’s a city in which (unseen) decisions by those who wield power spell the end for innocent people, and there’s no hope for the good guy. Our hero here repeatedly makes mistakes, but he’s not the only one; several characters – the vaguely noble ones, such as Mr Mulwray, Ida Sessions and Evelyn herself – make poor decisions that eventually cost them their lives. But if the overall mood and message of the film were problematic that was nothing compared to the clash between the producer and the director over the ending: Evans wanted an upbeat final scene in which the antagonist Noah Cross (John Huston) died and Evelyn survived, but Polanski fought him, and insisted Cross should get away with his actions and Evelyn should die, to the point that the relationship between Evans and Polanski soured. The director wrote the ending as seen days before it was shot.

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Roman Polanski in Chinatown

You could argue that Towne’s screenplay – the crowning achievement of a writing career that also included The Last Detail, Being There, Shampoo and uncredited work on The Godfather – is the highlight of this film. It may be best known for the ‘Forget it, Jake…’ line but there are plenty more just as good tucked away within the script: Chinatown is packed with insults, asides, sarcastic comments, threats and more; the movie sings and sneers. Given such wonderful dialogue to work with it’s hardly a surprise that the performances by the leads are of a high standard: Nicholson’s trademark rebellious snark and charm is a perfect fit for Gittes, while Dunaway was pretty much faultless for a decade, and here she’s right in the middle of the magnificent run of work that can be traced from Bonnie And Clyde in 1967 to Network in 1976; she completely convinces as one of the few truly ‘noble’ characters in the film, and the tragic payoff at the end works perfectly as a result. The supporting cast is just as good: John Hillerman – who appeared in many of the great American New Wave films but will always be remembered for his role as Higgins in Magnum, PI – is very good as the smarmy careerist engineer within LA’s corrupt water department, while Polanski delivered a memorable turn of his own as the diminutive hood who cuts Gittes’ nose with a knife. There are other factors worth mentioning: John A. Alonzo’s impressively-framed photography gives the film its beige and gold colour palette, supposedly the result of placing Chinese tracing paper over the lens when Polanski asked him to avoid the ‘Hollywood’ look, and he also chose to alternate between shooting the actors close-up with a wide-angle lens and using a 40mm for the rest of the scenes, ensuring a pleasing mix of intimacy and distance. The period production design is also impressive, though hardly a stretch for a Hollywood film of the era: one wonders how many lock-ups full of swish costumes and decorations from the 1930s and 1940s are owned by the studios. And it’s obligatory to mention Jerry Goldsmith’s jazzy, downbeat score, famously recorded in under 10 days after Evans dispensed with Phillip Lambro’s effort at the last minute.

Considering the late changes to the film, as well as the clashes between the director and the producer (or indeed the fact that the director re-wrote and cut large amounts of what is routinely described as one of the best screenplays ever committed to page), it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise if Chinatown had ended up as a bit of a mess. But no: this is one of those rare films where so many contribute work of real worth, and it all fits together successfully; much as I’m wary of the bye that’s often given to sacred cows, it would be difficult to argue that this film didn’t deserve its ‘classic’ status. Its success initially came from viewings outside of the US – Evans later suggested that it bombed in America cinemas – but today it is rightly held up as one of the great crime mysteries, and Nicholson’s acting is up there with the very best of that decade. Its a cynical, negative work, but its ties to historical fact are strong enough to warrant its central, downbeat message about widespread corruption, as well as its complete lack of faith in authority.

Directed by: Roman Polanski.
Written by: Robert Towne.
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd, Roy Jenson, Roman Polanski.
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo.
Editing: Sam O’Steen.
Music:
Jerry Goldsmith.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
130 minutes.
Year:
1974.

 

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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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