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Inherent Vice (2014)
Inherent Vice is a rambling drug-fueled odyssey
'Straightforward' is not a word I will use in this review to describe Paul Thomas Anderson's newest film Inherent Vice. Lying somewhere at the crossroads between a '70s neo-noir film and an absurdist stoner comedy, this neon-tinged detective story is two-and-a-half hours of increasingly absurd psychedelic mayhem. It's dense, confusing, chaotic, and absolutely riveting in its amorphous plotting and paranoid atmosphere.
Musician Joanna Newsom plays Sortilège, the film's narrator and our guide through the hazy story of hippie-turned-private-detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). The story starts off simply enough, with Doc hired by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to locate her missing lover, but it all quickly spirals out of control into nearly a dozen different sub-plots featuring neo-Nazis, real estate, dentistry and everything in between.
As the first filmmaker to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel to the screen, there was a great deal of pressure on Paul Thomas Anderson to successfully translate the source novel's complex prose into a relatively understandable film. Pynchon's work is known for featuring dozens upon dozens of characters involved in a variety of loosely connected plot lines, which makes it nearly impossible to faithfully adapt his novels. Of course, anyone who has seen Anderson's epic ensemble drama Magnolia can confirm that the director is more than capable of seamlessly interweaving countless characters and story lines, and in the case of Inherent Vice Anderson truly does an astounding job of packing so much dense material into a feature-length film. Although the plot is hardly comprehensible upon the first viewing, a second or third viewing reveals that, while intensely complex, the story is entirely coherent thanks to Anderson's clever, brilliantly- crafted script.
That comparison to Magnolia may be misleading, however, as Inherent Vice occupies a unique place in Paul Thomas Anderson's filmography. While Anderson has dabbled in comedy in the past, most notably with his dark rom-com Punch-Drunk Love, his humor has always been a cover for the far more deeply rooted melancholy that permeates all his films. While Inherent Vice's humor does take a backseat to the film's central mystery, it's nonetheless far brasher than that of any other PTA film. Anderson himself compared the film's comic timing to that of '80s screwball comedies Airplane! and The Naked Gun, a comparison that is uncharacteristic of his typical style to say the least. While it's surely more a neo-noir than a comedy, the film has more than enough laugh-out-loud moments to make it PTA's funniest movie to date, as well as a unique next step in his evolution as a director.
While Anderson's script does deserve its fair share of credit for the film's absurd humor, what really makes Inherent Vice so funny is the acting, especially that of Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin. Phoenix's portrayal of our perpetually stoned protagonist Doc is universally spot-on; with a wonderfully out-of-it expression frozen on his face, Doc stumbles through the movie dazed and confused in a marijuana-induced haze. The smallest details, such as Doc aggressively slapping himself in the face mid-conversation to focus, are what make his performance so consistently enjoyable. Brolin, meanwhile, steals the show as hippie-hating cop Christian "Bigfoot" Björnsen, who both antagonizes and collaborates with Doc to unravel the film's tangled web of mysteries. Bigfooot's many idiosyncrasies, including the inadvertently suggestive way he eats frozen bananas and his not-quite-mastery of Japanese, make him by far one of the funniest and most colorful characters of the film, and Josh Brolin plays him with just the right mix of hotheadedness and cluelessness.
Despite Inherent Vice's one-of-a-kind style and atmosphere, it's still ultimately not going to work for a whole lot of people. It's virtually impossible to follow the plot the first time around, and its many subplots and manic storytelling style will surely frustrate and alienate many viewers. For those that can tolerate its eccentricities however, it's a rambling drug-fueled odyssey worth taking and, while it may not be his best work, yet another impressive showcase of Paul Thomas Anderson's incredible talent and versatility as a filmmaker.
Her is Spike Jonze's finest film yet
I've been a fan of Spike Jonze's films since I first saw Being John Malkovich. Although the wonderful script deserves some of the credit for making that film so great, it was immediately clear to me that Spike Jonze was a director with a fresh and imaginative perspective. His next film, the 2002 meta-comedy Adaptation, confirmed this with its dry wit and multilayered narrative. Now, after a slightly less successful (but still enjoyable) adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze has written and directed his most complete and poignant film yet, Her.
The story, taking place in a near future when people spend more time talking to their computers than they do to each other, stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a lonely man whose job is to write heartfelt personal letters for people not willing to do it themselves. Theodore happens to see an ad for a new computer operating system that is programmed with a personality, and decides to give it a shot. His new operating system Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is not only intelligent but also charming and understanding, and she and Theo quickly fall in love.
It's understandable if that premise sounds bizarre on paper, but in execution Her is far more sweet than creepy. The film radiates warmth and intelligence, and there is a fair amount of witty humor to ensure that it never becomes too self-serious. It has an engaging style similar to that of Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation. Like in that film, there's a certain poetic yet whimsical quality to the dialogue in Her and both the main characters are plagued by feelings of loneliness.
Beyond the romance though, Her has a lot to say about modern society's obsession with technology. The people in this futuristic vision of Los Angeles walk around talking to their computers and ignoring each other entirely, not unlike people today staring at their cell phones rather than talking to those around them. Needless to say it's not a wildly original message, but it's communicated in a unique enough way that it works.
I've seen Her twice now, and the more I think about it the more I feel that Spike Jonze has crafted the best film of 2013. Her is equally heartfelt and heartbreaking, a deeply personal and thoroughly enjoyable futuristic love story.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
The Wolf of Wall Street is among Scorsese's best
The Wolf of Wall Street is a loud, flashy, and unfathomably vulgar movie populated by a wide variety of repulsive and narcissistic characters. In the hands of a lesser director, it could have easily ended up being unpleasant and unwatchable. However, thanks to acclaimed director Martin Scorsese's clever satirical touch and a witty script that surprises at every turn, The Wolf of Wall Street is a wild and uninhibited thrill-ride of a movie that's hard to forget.
The movie tells the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who went from struggling to pay his bills to being one of the most wealthy but immoral and corrupt stockbrokers in the country. As he leads an increasingly reckless and dishonest life, Belfort quickly transforms from a law-abiding citizen to an uncaring white-collar criminal.
Leonardo DiCaprio may have finally found his Oscar-winning role playing Jordan Belfort. Although his character is far too selfish to be likable, DiCaprio's spirited performance makes Jordan endlessly fascinating in his depravity. Jonah Hill gives an equally impressive performance as Donnie, Jordan's best friend and the co-founder of his firm. Hill's loud-mouthed and often inconsiderate behavior as Donnie makes for some of the funniest scenes in the movie.
Although many of the scenes are far from light-hearted, The Wolf of Wall Street is ultimately a comedy. The characters' wildly reckless and irresponsible actions provide most of the humor. One particularly funny and memorable scene involves Jordan trying in vain to reach his car and drive home while under the influence of drugs he had taken. Unable to stand up and walk to the car, Jordan is forced to slide and drag his way across the floor, all the while yelling incoherent slurred sentences.
Running in at 165 minutes, The Wolf of Wall Street is not a short movie by any means. Although it's always enthralling, there are a few scenes that could have easily been cut to shorten the running time. One series of scenes that wasn't necessary involves Jordan Belfort getting into a dispute with a butler over $50,000 in cash that went missing. The scenes are entertaining enough, but they have no relevance to the story as a whole and aren't essential to the movie.
The Wolf of Wall Street is not the sort of movie one would expect a 71 year-old man to direct. Director Martin Scorsese is far from an ordinary 71 year-old man though, and with The Wolf of Wall Street he has crafted his most lively, compelling, and outrageous movie in years.
The Spectacular Now (2013)
The Spectacular Now is a brilliant coming-of-age drama
Coming-of-age stories are often given a bad reputation for being overly nostalgic and predictable, but James Ponsoldt's new drama The Spectacular Now challenges this assumption by being an unsentimental and honest look at first love and growing up. It transcends any and all clichés associated with teen dramas while also packing an emotional punch, and feels incredibly real.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), is a jovial 18 year-old alcoholic who lives for the moment. He's the life of every party, but he's wildly irresponsible and his behavior borders on selfish and narcissistic. After breaking up with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), Sutter gets drunk trying to meet girls at a bar, and is found passed out on a stranger's lawn by Aimee Finnecky (Shailene Woodley) the following morning.
Aimee is everything Sutter is not: sweet, modest, and ambitious. She's beautiful and friendly, but unlike Sutter she's never been in a relationship before. The two become friends, and gradually fall in love with each other, but this doesn't play out like the typical teen drama. The Spectacular Now openly defies formula and predictability, carving out its own little niche in the genre.
The movie is unique to say the least, but more importantly it's intelligent and insightful. It depicts adolescence with both affection and harsh honesty, and doesn't shy away from painful subjects like alcoholism or divorce. In fact, it delves deeply into these issues and explores their effects on each character, especially as Sutter is forced to come to terms with his alcoholic behavior and estranged father.
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley each give near-perfect performances, and their chemistry together is astonishing. Woodley's Aimee is played with such innocence and kindness that it's hard not to fall in love with her character. Woodley previously starred in the ABC Family TV series The Secret Life of the American Teenager as well as the 2011 drama The Descendants, but her role as Aimee is by far her best yet.
Teller is equally fantastic and gives an element of warmth and sympathy to what would have otherwise been a shallow and obnoxious character. He has previously played characters in Project X and 21 and Over, but until now has never been given a role that demonstrates the full extent of his acting abilities. His performance as Sutter Keely proves that he is more than capable of handling challenging parts.
The script, written by the same pair who penned (500) Days of Summer, incorporates humor and heartbreak in equal measure. Based on the critically acclaimed novel of the same name by Tim Tharp, it condenses the events of the book into a 95-minute movie without sacrificing any of its emotion or charm.
The Spectacular Now exceeds expectations and delivers on all fronts, with extraordinary performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, along with a compassionate and truthful script. It's an all too common trend for coming-of-age movies to be melodramatic and formulaic, but The Spectacular Now is the rare movie that captures the ups and downs of adolescence in a refreshingly original way without sugarcoating it.