It Comes at Night(6/18/2017)

The main media story surrounding the new movie It Comes At Night has not been related to its themes or technique so much as the divide it’s caused between critics and audiences, who are divided as to its worth. This divide has been quantified in two separate metrics: its 86% score on the review aggregator site RottenTomatoes and the score of “D” that it reportedly got from the audience poll called CinemaScore. For those who don’t know, CenemaScore is a poll conducted by a professional firm which asks audiences at certain demographically selected public screenings during the opening weekend for films in order to report audience reaction back to studios. Now, if you’re a moneyman I can see why such a poll would be useful, but anyone else should take these scores with a strong grain of salt as they by their nature accept the input of the uninformed amateur rather than the input of people with any actual expertise about what they’re talking about. RottenTomatoes has its own problems but it’s certainly a more valuable resource in much the way the opinion of an actual scientist would be more useful in forming climate change policy than the opinion of a Gallup poll of the general public. Another problem with CinemaScore is that it is heavily influenced by audience expectations and tends to especially punish movies that offer audiences movies that are perhaps a bit more challenging and unique than what their advertising initially leads them to expect. Personally, I’ve always been an advocate of seeing movies with as few expectations as possible and with It Comes At Night I lived up to that more than on most movies. I don’t remember ever seeing a trailer for it and outside of hearing some of the “critics vs. audiences” story in the ether didn’t really know much about it at all before giving it a look.

As it turns out, the film is set in some not too distant future after some apocalyptic virus has killed a large portion of the population. At the film’s center is a nuclear family that’s been living in a boarded up and fortified house consisting of a father named Paul (Joel Edgerton), a wife named Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and a son named Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and until recently they’d also been living with Sarah’s father Bud (David Pendleton) but as the film begins he has somehow contracted the virus and is put out of his misery before he can spread the virus and take on whatever awful side effects it brings with it. Throughout its run time the film is always vague about exactly what the nature of the virus is and there’s also some suggestion that there’s some separate element to it, some supernatural force that exists outside of the house which has some relation to the virus that’s never really explained. The main action of the film begins when someone attempts to enter the family’s house one night and is quickly subdued and captured by the family. Upon interrogation its learned that this man is named Will (Christopher Abbott) and that he was only going through the house because he thought it was abandoned and he’s looking for clean water to bring to his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and meant no harm. Paul and Sarah are not sure whether to trust him but they see some opportunity in working with these other people so Paul embarks on a trip to investigate these other people.

It Comes at Night is ostensibly a horror movie and does play with the tropes of that genre at time, but it is perhaps more accurate to view it as a sort of procedural about post-apocalyptic survival. There’s been a lot of pop culture recently about fathers going on road trips with their kids across the American landscape after similar cataclysms, which tends to allow the audience to both experience the drama of a survival scenario and also get a glimpse at what the ravaged landscape looks like with civilization collapsed. It Comes at Night shows a similar scenario except that the parents here have opted for more of a “hunker down” rather than “stay mobile” approach to survival. In those road trip movies the challenges usually come in the form of chance encounters at every given bend, and there’s a little bit of that here, but the bigger threats are more internal and rooted in the family’s own paranoia. In this sense the film is perhaps analogous to another recent indie-horror classic The Witch, which also focused on a family removed from society and seemingly being torn apart by an outside force sowing seeds of suspicion and doubt among everyone involved.

The film was directed by a guy named Trey Edward Shults, a young director who made his feature debut last year with a micro-budget independent film called Krisha about a family reunion that goes very poorly. I wasn’t that movie’s biggest fan but I could see that there was a pretty thoughtful and interesting director behind it and was interested to see what he’d be able to do with a slightly larger budget. With It Comes at Night Shults has realized a lot of that potential. The film does a great job of establishing some of the minutia of what life in this house compound and how the family has managed to make something of a workable life for themselves in all the chaos while also underscoring the dangers their constantly facing. The movie also makes a very good use of mystery and is very wise to never really come out and explain whether there’s an outside force at work here aside from the virus and the human scavengers who may be outside and its refusal to define this force helps to add a lot of tension to the film. As the movie goes on and becomes more and more a film about paranoia and the psychological tension between the characters Shults does a good job of utilizing the layout of this house and makes it feel less and less like a cozy bunker and more like a prison where violence is about to break out.

The film is not completely without its faults of course. I probably could have done without the games that Shults occasionally plays with the film’s aspect ratio and while I liked the film’s somewhat abrupt ending in principle I can see why some people wouldn’t like it and feel like there could have been ways to punch it up just a little. And that I suppose brings be back to those audience members whose input led the film to receive that “D” CinemaScore. In many ways I feel like that score has less to do with the actual movie and more to do with the audience members’ expectations and how they were set partly by the film’s marketing (which is maybe a little misleading but not egregiously so) but in a bigger way were set by the wider modern horror landscape and their inability to see beyond it. I went into the movie with expectations of my own, which were mostly formed by hearing these stories of a critical/audience divide and was in many ways expecting something even more avant-garde than what I got. The movie is in fact, a fairly straightforward exercise from my perspective and it’s only “weird” or “slow” insomuch as it does not play out exactly like a sequel to The Conjuring or Insidious. I can see why people who went to the movie expecting something that played out like a more formulaic Hollywood film might have been a little surprised by it, but I would argue that this is less the fault of the movie and more the fault of their own closedmindedness and we as a film culture should not allow such narrow definitions of what constitutes a horror movie or any other kind of movie to be the only thing audiences are willing to accept.

I, Daniel Blake(6/11/2017)

If you’re a regular observer of the Cannes Film Festival you’ll usually notice that there are certain pet filmmakers that seem to be able to get their films into the main competition pretty much every time they make one and regardless of whether it’s actually a particularly strong effort on their part.  I’m thinking specifically of filmmakers like Nanni Moretti who Cannes seems to stand by even after they’re relevance has pretty clearly waned.  The king of this phenomenon has of course been none other than Britain’s most revered social realist Ken Loach, who seemed to get into the main competition for every movie he’s made since the turn of the century even when they are quickly dismissed trifles like Looking for Eric and Route Irish.  None of these were necessarily viewed as bad movies, but without the “Ken Loach” name attached to them I doubt that Cannes would have given them the time of day (though admittedly I’m going off of reputation).  There was of course his great 2006 film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which actually did win the Palme d’Or but that movie (a period piece focused on the early days of the IRA) was different from his usual output and felt like a bit of an exception and while that was a deserving film its prize did feel like something of a lifetime achievement.  When his new film I, Daniel Blake showed up in the latest Cannes competition lineup it very much did not look like an exception, it looked like another The Angels Share which would get indifferent notices and come and go, but that didn’t happen.  Instead this new film beat out some stiff competition to win the Palme d’Or in an upset.  Things like that tend to make you sit up and take notice.

The Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) of the title is a carpenter in his late 50s living in contemporary Newcastle who has recently had a heart attack and has been ordered by his doctors not to return to work until he’s had a chance to recover.  Unfortunately when Blake goes to the government office to apply for disability benefits they do not simply accept this doctor recommendation and instead have him take a standardized test with questions like “can you lift your hand above your head” which determines (in the government’s eyes) that he is in fact fit to work.  He’s told he can appeal this decision but that could take a while.  Meanwhile with no ability to work and no disability benefits he’s left to simply apply for unemployment benefits despite no actual intention of accepting a new job if one were offered to him, and even this process is accompanied by its own bureaucratic nightmares.  While waiting in one of many lines he overhears a fellow benefits seeker, a single mother of two named Katie (Hayley Squires), going through a similar hassle and can’t help but speak up on her behalf.  This results in a strange sort of friendship between the two of them as Blake attempts to help Katie and her kids with some of his handyman skills but as his own situation becomes more and more desperate he becomes almost ashamed to let them see his own destitution.

I, Daniel Blake is clearly an indictment on the apparently Kafkaesque bureaucracy that is the process of getting disability benefits in the United Kingdom, and I doubt that this kind of experience is anywhere close to limited to that country.  Shortly after seeing the film I opted to check in with some relatives I know who’ve had experiences trying to work with comparable agencies in the United States and they seemed to suggest that it’s not much different here.  It was suggested that Daniel might have had a slightly easier time here as the local politicians tend to view the disabled as more “worthy” than other people in need of help (his friend Katie, the single mother, would have likely been even worse off here) but he also likely would have had to deal with major medical bills on top of his other problems given our awful healthcare system.  Really though the film is in many ways less concerned with the services that are and aren’t being offered by the government and more concerned with the barriers and the red tape that make it hard for people to get whatever services they actually are entitled to.

At one point a character advances the suggestion that these bits of government inefficiency aren’t an accident but rather an intentional tactic used by the powers that be in order to discourage people from seeking the resources their entitled to, a viewpoint that .  That is perhaps a bit simplistic and conspiratorial, some of these rules actually do have legitimate purposes, but the darker answer is that a lot of them simply exist because the voters demand them.  People harp and harp on the prospect of the “undeserving” getting government benefits and governments respond by building bureaucratic hurdle after bureaucratic hurdle.  It’s easy to complain about “government handouts” when you’re an outside observer, but the second you actually need one they suddenly don’t seem so easy to get.  I feel like Loach would have done well to drive this point home a bit more.  Because the film is so ground level it can be easy to feel like all the problems that Blake runs into are just the result of uncaring cruelty rather than shortsighted public policy.

Daniel Blake himself is played by a guy named Dave Johns who isn’t a complete non-actor as he apparently has a background in stand-up comedy, but he’s never been in a feature length film before and has that raw non-professional edge that Loach often looks for while still having the charisma to anchor a movie like this.  Blake is depicted as a stubborn and occasionally prickly guy but one who is ultimately big hearted and kind.  He also seems to get along well with all sorts of common people whether they’re down on their luck single mothers or his black neighbors who are running a hustle involving imported sneakers.  In some ways I found Loach’s decision to make Blake into such a likable protagonist to be somewhat simplistic as one of the great tensions in the world today is that these white working-class figures are all too often intolerant trump voters and immigrant bashing brexiters of the kind people just don’t care too much to help.  I certainly understand the impulse to make Blake a paragon of the proletariat in order to build empathy but I feel like a more challenging film could have been made by trying to build empathy for someone who was a bit more flawed.

When Ken Loach made the film Jimmy’s Hall in 2015 a lot of people interpreted it as a swan song from the octogenarian filmmaker and as an attempt to go out on a slightly more upbeat note after having made so many movies about people who were rather miserable.  Rumors of his retirement proved to be unfounded though and he’s followed that movie with another film that could be a worthy final movie and one that is perhaps a bit more in keeping with the tone and style that Loach built his career on.  The basic filmmaking style here is serviceable and Loach is not necessarily presenting the kind of bold vision that one would usually associate with a Palm d’Or winner, but its look at society and at the life of its protagonist does prove to be affecting and will definitely leave you with some food for thought.

4

Jackie(12/23/2016)

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A lot of the people who lived through the 60s are almost unanimous in their belief that the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was one of the most important days of their lifetimes… why?  It’s certainly a human tragedy but people die every day and often in much larger numbers.  Was it a matter of all the great things Kennedy promised being compromised by his death?  Maybe, but Lyndon Johnson didn’t really do too bad a job of carrying on Kennedy’s legacy on civil rights, cold warfare, and putting men on the moon and the argument that Kennedy wouldn’t have gotten us mired in Vietnam is… debatable.  From a sheer policy perspective the murder of his brother may well have been the more impactful turning point.  No, the legacy of that assassination and its impact on a generation is a lot more complicated and deeply psychological in nature and had a lot to do with just how good Kennedy made people feel both as a leader and as a person.  It wasn’t so much that he had policies that were universally loved (quite the opposite, there were definitely people who hated him) but something about him just made people feel good about their country and about the times they lived in.  He felt like someone who just did things right, he was young, handsome, had proven to be courageous during the war, and perhaps most notably he had a seemingly perfect family… and the fact that all of this may have been a bit of a charade is almost incidental.  It’s an interesting little web of national iconography to untangle and the new film Jackie, while essentially a “biopic” is really all about getting to the bottom of where the truth lies in all of this.

The film begins about a week after the assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) invites famed journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) to allow him an exclusive (and heavily edited and micromanaged) interview for Life Magazine, the interview that would famously cement the “Camelot” interpretation of the Kennedy years.  This interview acts as a framing story for the rest of the movie, which recreates some of her most famous moments like the making of the 1962 “Tour of the Whitehouse” special but mainly focuses on the days immediately after the assassination where she needs to both grieve her husband’s death and reckon with the meaning of it all while also planning the extravagant state funeral and occasionally clashing with titans like Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), and Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant).  These events do not get played strictly in chronological order and there’s even a sort of framing story within a framing story as we frequently cut to a discussion she has with a priest (John Hurt).

Jackie was directed by a guy named Pablo Larraín who is probably best known for his 2013 film No, which looked at a similarly impactful if much more upbeat turning point in the history of his native Chile.  That film employed an interesting technique where it seamlessly integrated a lot of archival footage into his scripted film and he’s clearly interested in the way that images can implant themselves into a national consciousness.  He does something similar with this new film by using famous Kennedy era footage ranging from the “Tour of the Whitehouse” special to the Zapruder Film.  It’s a little different from No, which was actually shot in its entirety on camera equipment that resembled the video quality of 80s news broadcasts so that this all blended together while the majority of Jackie was shot on Super-16 and clearly differs from the archival footage and the scenes shot to resemble said archival footage.  The goal seems to be to take these images that are burned into the public consciousness and give them context, to show the human side of the iconography.

I hesitate to even spend too much time talking about Natalie Portman’s performance in the movie as I do fear that this one element has come to dominate discussions of the film to the detriment of everything else, but it is indeed stunning.  On the shallow basis of imitation she does indeed manage to capture the looks and voice of Mrs. Kennedy but what’s even more impressive are the many aspects of the character she needs to convey.  During the shooting of the “Tour of the Whitehouse” sections we see her as she was as a first lady, which is to say someone who was playing up her shallower traits and putting on the persona of the perfect housewife.  During the reenactments of her tumultuous post-assassination period we see her in the depths of grief and managing to conjure a dutiful dignity as she fights to make sure she’s heard over the powerful voices of people like Robert Kennedy.  During the conversation with Father McSorley we see her at her most candid and most introspective; leaving little doubt that there’s more to her than the “socialite” she was seen to be by the public.  Finally, during the interview framing story we see her at her sharpest and most canny even if that isn’t always entirely apparent to the interviewer.

That interview section is, in fact, the most important part of the film even if it wouldn’t seem to be initially because it’s where the film’s central themes of legacy and myth-making comes most to the forefront.   The man interviewing Jackie is a seasoned journalist who was in China reporting on the fall of Chiang Kai-shek, and yet Jackie is still able to get him to write a story that he would later call “misreading of history” through sheer force of personality.  The movie certainly has no illusions about the fact that the Kennedys were less perfect than they appeared and Jackie goes into that during her conversation with the priest, but the movie also doesn’t entirely dismiss the Camelot version of those years as a cynical lie either.  John F. Kennedy might not have been a perfect husband but it’s clear that he did mean a lot to Jackie and she did quite genuinely believe him to be a great man even if that greatness didn’t necessarily manifest itself in exactly the way that the American people thought it did.  In other words Jackie would admit that the American Camelot was indeed a myth when looked at as the kind of literal truth that a journalist like Theodore Harold White would ordinarily demand (the “truth of accountants” as Werner Herzog would put it), but that in a more poetic way there was a truth to it both in her own heart and in the hearts of the American people and when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.  The fact that she was using a literal legend in her analogy would seem to betray that it was this kind of truth she was shooting for.

Simply as a movie Jackie may have a bit of a hard time finding its audience.  It’s not the simple nostalgic biopic that a lot of people are going to walk in expecting, which may be off-putting to people looking for something a little warmer and less challenging.  At the same time its technique may prove to not be quite as openly iconoclastic and novel as the kind of fare critics really yearn to champion and that could leave it as something of a Jan Brady this awards season but that is perhaps a mistake because it is in fact a very smart and in its own sneaky way very relevant film.  I mentioned earlier that I used to find it a little odd that a whole generation were so invested in Kennedy and considered his death such a major event.  The key phrase there is “used to.”  In 2008 our generation got its own Camelot in the form of Barak Obama, a president who like Kennedy might not go down in history as having an ideal resume of accomplishments but who makes up for it by simply being the kind of leader we want as a people.  While he was in office it was easy to think “everything’s going to be alright” and while everything he stood for didn’t end in bloody tragedy, the fact that he’s being replaced by a crass vulgarian who revels in uncertainty is a similar shock and a trauma that may well stick with my generation for decades to come.  That Trump was able to do this by creating a series of counter-factual “truths” is of course a bitter irony and one that gives me pause when I think about praising the myth-making presented in Jackie.  There is, however, a difference between spinning a story that makes people feel good about their country and themselves and spinning lies that divide people and exploit toxic fears.  If anything the next four years are likely to make us mourn all the more for “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.”

4.5

It Follows(3/28/2015)

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I’m not exactly sure when it happened exactly but the walls between the world of horror cinema and the world of more respectable indie fare seems to have largely collapsed at some point.  Well, maybe the walls were pretty porous to begin with.  Given the general disrespectability of the genre combined with low costs involved in their production horror films have long been made independently, but they rarely feel like quote unquote “indies,” because they’re “low” populist productions that so often catch on with the “wrong kind” of filmgoers.  However, in the last few years we’ve seen a sudden surge in filmmakers who seem just as willing to make splatterfests as they are to make dramas about the relationship travails of ill-spoken twentysomethings.  It’s a trend that’s been so prevalent that it’s even earned a nickname: “mumblegore.”  The latest (and perhaps most successful) example of this crossover is It Follows, which was directed by a guy named David Robert Mitchell, whose last film was a dreamy meditation on youth called The Myth of the American Sleepover.

It Follows is about a college aged girl named Jay Height (Maika Monroe) who has been seeing a guy named Hugh (Jake Weary) who has been acting a little strange.  After Jay and Hugh consummate their relationship in the backseat of a car one night Hugh suddenly attacks her with chloroform brings her to a secluded spot and ties her to a chair.  He explains that he isn’t doing this to hurt her and that she would be released soon but that he needs to warn her that he’s just passed a curse on to her.  This curse passes from person to person through sexual intercourse and that the only way to rid herself of the curse is to pass it on to someone else.  Until she does this she will be stalked by a slow moving ghostly figure that could look like any number of people to her but who will not be seen by anyone else and will kill her if it ever catches up to her (at which point the curse would fall back onto Hugh).  He then drives her away, leaves her at her doorstep and promptly disappears without a trace.  Jay is skeptical about the story he told her of course, but as you can probably guess this supernatural stalker does eventually show up and begin to make her life a living hell.

Trying to find underlying social messages both intentional and unintentional is certainly something of a pastime among horror fans, and one doesn’t really need to dig too deep into It Follows in order to find some themes to chew on.  It is certainly no coincidence that this curse is passed through sex rather than, say, a haunted VHS tape.  It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to view this as an allegory for a sexually transmitted disease but given that one is allowed to fuck this curse into somebody and then leave them with the consequences would actually point more towards an allegory for an unwanted pregnancy.  Of course it could be that the allegory is actually for both STDs and pregnancies at the same time while also more broadly representing the full spectrum of physical and emotional baggage that people push onto their sexual partners during casual hookups.  Beyond that there is sort of a moral quandary at the film’s center as Jay is forced to decide whether or not she wants to escape her problem by transmitting the curse into someone else, which would be a somewhat coldblooded act, especially given that it isn’t exactly a guarantee.

Of course the other great pastime of horror fans is to hold an incredible reverence for the genre’s past and to expect new entrants in it to show their horror fan credentials.  This movie certainly shows its admiration for past horror film, more specifically it displays a deep indebtedness to the films of John Carpenter.  The film’s widescreen shots to teenagers running scared through suburban streets are highly reminiscent of Halloween and the film also has a very Carpenter-esque ambiguous ending.  The biggest Carpenter nod though is almost certainly Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland’s synth score which has all the distinctive stings you would expect from a John Carpenter score.  Vreeland’s ability to mimic Captenter’s style is admirable but his score is laid on a bit thick at times.  It works well during the suspense scenes but it can be a little distracting during the quieter moments so overall the score is a bit of a double edged sword.  The movie is also set in a strange sort of temporally ambiguous world.  One character has a cellphone/tablet thing, but the characters all seem to have CRT televisions and old cars and most of the time the film could easily be mistaken for an 80s period piece.

To David Robert Mitchell’s credit, this movie isn’t purely a Carpenter derivative.  I haven’t seen Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover but between the trailers and the reviews I do have a pretty good idea of what its general tone was like and I do recognize it in this to some extent.  The movie has a number of quiet spells that you wouldn’t expect from a studio horror movie and a certain melancholy over the characters’ lives.  His interest in the lives of young people and their awkward friendships does appear to be genuine and he doesn’t fill his movie with airheads who exist to be killed off.  This indie movie tone pervades the film, but the visual style does pick up when it counts and the movie is able to pull some really accomplished shots out of its back pocket at certain key moments.

It Follows exists in a horror cinema environment that has been in something of a rut for the last five years or so.  It seems like every horror movie since the decline of torture porn and the release of Paranormal Activity has been a slow burn haunting movie where ghosts stalk people and jump out and say “boo!”  Boiled down to its base horror elements the same could more or less be said about It Follows.  Like last year’s The Babadook this isn’t so much a revolutionary game changer as it is an interesting twist on a current trend.  Its stylistic flourishes and its moderately interesting subtext do elevate it above its competition and definitely make it a must see for horror aficionados, but it still wasn’t that that bold new step for the genre that I was hoping for.

***1/2 out of Four

Inherent Vice(1/9/2015)

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There’s a movie called The Big Sleep which was made in 1946 by Howard Hawks that is considered one of the cornerstones of film noir.  It’s got some iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, some really snappy pulp dialogue, and atmosphere to die for.  Also, the mystery at its center makes very little sense.  It’s so convoluted that there are stories of the screenwriters sending telegrams to Raymond Chandler (who wrote the novel upon which the film was based) looking for clarification only to be told that Chandler himself didn’t really have a grasp on his own story either.  Some thirty years later, Robert Altman decided to adapt another of Raymond Chandler novel featuring the same Phillip Marlow character into a film called The Long Goodbye.  That film featured another story of Marlow in the middle of a complex crime scheme, but this time the setting is the 1970s and there’s a whole new tone to the whole thing.  Fifteen years later the Coen Brothers get it in their heads to make a Raymond Chandler style mystery of their own, but instead of putting a hardboiled private investigator at the center of their convoluted kidnapping plot they put a stoned slacker called The Dude into the middle of it all and watch him stumble through the whole affair.  That movie was of course The Big Lebowski and it’s become something of a cult favorite in the ensuing years.

It’s been over fifteen years since that film and it would seem that the acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has taken up this tradition rather than adapt another Raymond Chandler novel he’s instead decided to tackle a novel written by Thomas Pynchon, a writer who is if anything even more infamous for writing dense and complex literature that’s hard to get a handle on.  Like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the film is set in Los Angeles in the early 70s.  Out protagonist is “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who is not unlike Phillip Marlow in his role as a licensed Private Investigator with clear street smarts but also not unlike The Dude in that he’s a habitually stoned counter-culture figure who sort of stumbles through a complex case largely because of ulterior motives.  He’s brought into the film’s central case by his “ex- old lady” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him about a real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann  (Eric Roberts) whose wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) seems to be trying to commit to an insane asylum.  Sportello agrees to look into this as a favor and soon finds himself in the middle of a case in which he’ll have to deal with crooks, neo-nazis, cultists, a crime syndicate called the Gold Fang, and a square police detective named Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who wants nothing more than to teach this hippie Private Eye a lesson.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s last two films, There Will Be Blood and The Master, both felt like giant statement films.  They certainly weren’t humorless films but they were clearly being made by someone who wasn’t messing around anymore and wanted to make major works that would draw people’s attention.  Inherent Vice does share certain stylistic similarities to those two films but its subject matter is lighter in a number of ways.  “Doc” Sportello is not a complicated enigma of a character the way that a Daniel Plainview, Freddie Quell, and Lancaster Dodd were.  You more or less get what he’s about pretty quickly and the movie is more about watching him react to the crazy situation that he finds himself in the midst of.  That crazy situation certainly has elements of danger to it, but you’re never really too worried about Sportello.  You get the impression that this is an unusually crazy and personal case for him in a number of ways, but you also get the impression that he’s seen some craziness like this before and that he’ll probably see craziness like this again and that he sort of thrives on chaos to some extent.  In many ways the film is structured like a comedy but I wouldn’t necessarily call it “laugh out loud funny” even though there are a number of very witty moments and a generally comic aura to a number of the character interactions.

I’ve said that this movie is a bit convoluted, but that is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration.  The movie has a lot of small characters to keep track of and the conspiracy that Sportello is investigating seems ludicrously complicated.  I do think I was more or less able to keep track of it but I’m not sure I was actually supposed to.  I think Anderson’s intention was to make a movie that audiences would sort of give up trying to follow and just sort of cruise along with its druggy vibe.  Taken at face value I don’t think this story really does amount to much.  It’s a fairly episodic film when all is said and done and the movie never really sells the audience on the stakes involved in the case or does much of anything else to really make you care what the outcome is.  I also wouldn’t say that the movie’s style is really special enough to carry the film all on its own.  Anderson clearly knows how to make a film and he also does a pretty good job of adjusting his usual M.O. to fit this particular story, but he’s not doing anything overly wild with the camera here and in some ways he’s just letting things play out normally.  I also can’t say that this works purely as a piece of entertainment either.  The movie is certainly well paced, has some funny moments, and is most definitely not boring, but I can’t say it was a hilarious roller-coaster ride either.

I guess the film’s overall worthiness ultimately comes down to whether or not there’s something going on beneath the surface of this story, and that is not entirely clear to me at this time.  The film is set in 1970 for a reason and seems to be very concerned with the culture war that’s going on during that period.  Sportello and his police detective rival are clearly supposed to act as representatives of the counter-culture and the establishment and their various interactions are perhaps meant to act as a sort of metaphor for the wider conflicts that were coursing through the United States at the time.  That’s interesting, but I can’t say that I was really able to pick up on exactly what the film was trying to communicate about this culture war and this only really takes up a certain percentage of the screen time.  The film also seems to be largely centered around Sportello’s relationship with Shasta Fay Hepworth.  The film starts and ends on this relationship and Hepworth seems to be in the middle of both a key twist and also has a lot to do with why the film is called “Inherent Vice.”  And yet, Hepworth is missing for much of the film and I can’t say that I really got to know the character all that well in the limited screen time she has.  That title (which refers to a point of insurance law that is said to apply to Hepworth at one point) does seem to be a key clue, but I still don’t really see what the film is trying to say with this relationship either.

I’m trying so hard to analyze this because I have trouble believing that Paul Thomas Anderson and Thomas Pynchon would have created something like this if there wasn’t some point to it all.  If anyone has earned a benefit of a doubt it’s probably Anderson, but there are limits to how much credit I’m going to just give the guy on blind faith and on this viewing I’m not seeing any kind of masterpiece in Inherent Vice.  That said, there is a lot about the film that makes it worth watching.  There are a lot of fun performances in it from people like Josh Brolin, Martin Short, and newcomer Hong Chau which are definitely enjoyable and Anderson’s control of tone and the wit of the screenplay does make it pretty compulsively watchable.  One could say that this alone should be hailed as a sort of triumph, nut that brings be back to where I started this review: to The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and The Big Lebowski.  If those three films didn’t already exist I feel like I would have been more impressed with Inherent Vice, but with them in existence it kind of feels a bit redundant to me.  I do have something of a nagging feeling that I’m missing something here and I’m definitely going to be giving it another chance at some point, but for the moment I can really only give it a rather modest level of praise.

*** out of Four

The Theory of Everything(11/7/2014)/The Imitation Game(12/28/2014)

12-28-2014Theory-Imitation

I’m usually not a big fan of labeling prestige movies you don’t like as “Oscar bait” but every once in a while a film is guilty as charged.  It used to be that the movies which were obvious Oscar bait were the big expensive epics like Out of Africa or The English Patient but it’s been a really long time since a particularly large budget movie has actually won Best Picture, so the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have readjusted their targets.  Today the movies that have the best Oscar chances are the ones that are small enough to be considered underdogs, but still large enough to be recognizably a studio film.  These movies are supposed to be dramas, preferably ones based on true stories, which have very simple messages and are told in very traditional and mainstream ways that are in no ways “arty” even if they initially open up in so-called “arthouses.”  Bonus points if they’re British, double points if they have simplistic messages to deliver about some social issue or other, and triple bonus points if they’re set during World War II.  In general, movies for old people who don’t want unchallenging entertainment but also don’t necessarily want to go to the effects spectacles that Hollywood generally sells to the masses.  There’s usually only one movie each year that hits all these points but this year we got two of them, each one more desperate in their “Oscar bait” qualities than the last: the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything and the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game.  In fact these movies are so uncannily complimentary that I thought I’d do something a little different with them and review both at the same time.

So, obviously these are both biopics of famous British scientists afflicted with debilitating problems.  In the case of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) that problem is of course the ALS which left him all but paralyzed and forced to speak by typing into a voice synthesis and in the case of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) that was (in the movie at least) an almost autistic level of social awkwardness and the fact that he was a homosexual in a less than tolerant era.  The Theory of Everything is largely about Hawkings’s marriage to his college girlfriend Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones) while The Imitation Game focuses in on Turing’s attempts to crack the German Enigma code and his relationship with a smart code breaker named Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightly), who is herself something of a fish out of water as a woman working in a man’s field.

Both of these films come from filmmakers who are relative newcomers.  The Theory of Everything was directed by James Marsh, a filmmaker who’s made three fictional features which received minimal exposure and a pair of very popular though slightly over-rated documentaries called Man on Wire and Project NimThe Imitation Game was directed by a Norwegian filmmaker named Morten Tyldum, who’s most famous for making a genre film called Headhunters, a film I never got around to watching and which seems to have very little in common with his latest film.  Neither film does anything overly special with their visuals exactly.  The Imitation Game is basically just trying to imitate the visual stylings of The King’s Speech minus the off-center camera angles (AKA, the only interesting thing about that movie’s visual style).  The Theory of Everything isn’t exactly trying to do anything too different, but you could tell that Marsh has something of a visual eye for filmmaking.  He picks interesting angles here and there and he also knows how not to play into certain obvious script beats as heavily.  Another advantage for Team Hawkings is that it generally has a more memorable original score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, which generally trumps Alexandre Desplat’s (another King’s Speech alum) often intrusive score for The Imitation Game.

The advantage on the side of Team Turing is that it’s generally a more focused movie with more of a clear central conflict to work through.  Where The Theory of Everything is basically just a chronological run-through of the highlights and lowlights of Hawkings’ life and marriage, The Imitation Game very specifically focuses on Turing’s work on the Enigma code and his race to help end the war with a couple of flashbacks and flash-forwards to help flesh out his life story.  Also, given the hardships that Turing went through later in his life the film isn’t really able to entirely rest on a “triumph of the human spirit over adversity” story, but it sure as hell tries.  The message of the film is that sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine, I know this because characters in the film actually say that sentence out loud not once, not twice, but three freakin’ times just to make this corny  sentiment absolutely condescendingly clear to everyone in the audience.  When the film finally brings up the downer ending of Turings life it almost feels like a coda to the film’s true climax.

Questionable as all that is, it’s still feels gritty and tough when compared to the aggressive pleasantness that defines The Theory of Everything.  I guess it would be wrong to say that the life of someone with a debilitating illness like Stephen Hawkings is without struggle, but the film sure makes it seem that way.  We do certainly see the struggles with Hawkins’ health problems but his interactions with other people seem almost idyllic.  He’s got a doting wife with seemingly saint-like patience, friends and colleagues who are completely understanding of his problems and willing to accommodate them, and a career that is marked by almost nothing but success the whole way through.  Even when Hawkings’ marriage finally dissolves late in the film it is perhaps the single most amicable breakup scene in film history.  His wife doesn’t even show the slightest bit of resentment when she is more or less dumped after having shown Job-like patience up to this point.  Also, the movie’s final moment in which Hawkings puts forward his children as his greatest accomplishment rings completely hollow given the film’s complete lack of interest in said children up to this point.

Getting back to these movie’s status as Oscar bait, let’s talk about the two actors who are clearly vying for awards in the two movies.  Eddie Redmayne, who is probably best known as the twerp who shows up in the second half of Les Miserable, is not a very well-known actor but he does a pretty admirable job of potraying a young Stephen Hawking.  This is a pretty damn baity role that allows Redmayne to go all “My Left Foot” all over the screen.  In fact the role may end up being a little too baity for Oscar voters. This could almost be the physical disability version “going full retard” as Robert Downy Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder might have put it.  Benedict Cumberbatch is certainly a much more famous actor and while I’ve liked a lot of his work I can’t say I fully understand why the internet seems to be so singularly obsessed with him.  This Turing role is not too far removed from what we’ve seen him do before, after all his signature role of Sherlock Holmes is similarly eccentric and anti-social.  Harvey Weinstein seemed to know this, because the movie actually makes this character more eccentric than the real Alan Turing apparently was.  In the film Turing is not merely eccentric but more than likely on the Asperger’s spectrum, which was not true of the real Turing and the film also exaggerates the degree to which the chemical castration he received late in life physically manifested itself.

Those are not the only liberties that The Imitation Game took with the life of the real Alan Turing, in fact my cursory research seems to suggest that the movie uses “creative license” with something of a reckless abandon.  Turing’s actual computer was not named after his deceased childhood friend, his relationship with his real commanding officer and colleagues was significantly less adversarial, the Keira Knightly character has generally been expanded and emphasized more than is probably proportional, a scene in which the cryptographers are forced to decide whether or not to warn a ship of an impending Nazi attack is entirely invented, and Turing’s interactions with an MI6 agent towards the end were also invented for the film.  I don’t expect movies like this to be entirely factual and am well aware of the fact that liberties like this do sometimes need to be taken, but I don’t think any of these changes were for the better.  They almost all feel false on the screen and generally come off as hokey when they happen.  Even if they had all been true I would have suggested that some of them should have been changed to make the film seem less clichéd, but they are as phony as they initially seemed, and this is particularly jarring given that Turing’s story actually was interesting enough on its face and shouldn’t have needed these fabrications in order to work.

This is not to say that I think The Theory of Everything is an entirely factual endeavor itself, but when I watched it I didn’t feel an overwhelming phoniness to it.  In fact I almost feel like it could have used a little manufactured drama here and there in order to give it a little more conflict.  What’s more, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m giving The Theory of Everything a pass in general.  It is in no way a noteworthy film, it shouldn’t be in the awards season conversation in general (outside of maybe the Best Actor category), and I don’t recommend it.  That said, I went into that movie with pretty low expectations and it did manage to rise slightly (and I do mean slightly) above them and in general I think its only real crime is being kind of dull.  The Imitation Game on the other hand is a movie that I thought was kind of lame as I walked out of the theater and have come to be sort of infuriated by it the more I read about its historical distortions.  What’s sad is that it’s probably going to get a lot of support from people who will say that it’s an “important” story.  That’s true, the Turing story is important, but that doesn’t mean that this is a good movie.

The Theory of Everything: **1/2 out of Four

The Imitation Game: ** out of Four