Monday, February 02, 2015

It's not groovy to be insane.

I'm not sure exactly where to begin with Inherent Vice - I've seen it twice now, and I haven't completely wrapped my head around it, but I know it's a movie I'll be returning to for the rest of my life. It's not a problem of not understanding the plot, as the mystery at the center of Inherent Vice, while deliberately convoluted and elusive, isn't nearly as impenetrable as many of the reviews have made it out to be. It's that, beyond all of the missing real estate tycoons, Nazi bikers, Mansonoid conspiracies and coked-up dentists, at the heart of the movie is a pervasive undercurrent of melancholy that ties together its parade of sight gags and stoner humor and familiar faces popping up for brief, weird vignettes. It's a feeling captured perfectly by the song that plays over the end credits (and if you consider an end credits soundtrack cue a spoiler, consider yourself warned). I think I've listened to Chuck Jackson's version of "Any Day Now" every day since seeing the film - I was startled to hear it as the movie cut to black, but it's as perfect a coda for Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's book as it is unexpected.

"Then my wild beautiful bird
You will have flown
Any day now
Love will let me down
'Cause you won't be around"

The song serves as a requiem both for a lost love and for a brief, perfect moment that, as the movie begins, is already almost over, with the idealism of peace and love giving way to the inexorable march of time and "the ancient forces of greed and fear," as they're called by the movie's narrator, the possibly etheral, probably immortal flower child Sortilege (Joanna Newsom). Those forces are represented by the Golden Fang, the mysterious crime ring with a seemingly limitless reach that, as the movie begins, has apparently kidnapped real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). The movie opens with muttonchopped private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) being paid an unexpected visit from his ex-old lady and Mickey's current lover, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katharine Waterston), who asks Doc for help. Watching the movie a second time, this entire scene took on a different meaning - it's clear that Doc, who is rendered defenseless by Shasta's "heavy combination of face ingredients," is being played, and throughout the movie, our well-meaning but hapless hero will be repeatedly manipulated into being in the right place at the wrong time, particularly by the ex and current old ladies in his life.

As the plot quickly expands and it becomes clear that the missing Mr. Wolfmann is only a fraction of a far greater conspiracy that encompasses heroin smuggling, a syndicate of dentists and a saxophone played turned government informant (Owen Wilson), Anderson - adapting Pynchon's novel mostly faithfully - is clearly having fun overloading us with information. One of the movie's many hilarious throwaway gags is Doc's diagram of the story's many players; our hero is as lost as we are. Some of the movie's fans have insisted that the plot doesn't matter, but it's not that, exactly - it's that, when by the time we meet the guy (or one of the guys) pulling the strings, it feels beside the point. The two obvious cinematic reference points for Inherent Vice are The Big Lebowski and Robert Altman's hazy, meandering film of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, and those are both unavoidably a part of the movie's DNA. But I also found myself thinking about Chinatown, another Los Angeles mystery where the specifics of the central shadowy plot are less important than our hero's realization of everything that he'll never know or be able to change. In Chinatown, this realization transfoms the noir into a horror story; here, it's met with a dopey shrug that betrays more than a hint of sadness, mixed with the hope that, if our hero or any of us can save one little kid from the little kid blues, maybe all isn't lost.

If Inherent Vice is lamenting the end of an era, it works as well as it does because it never underlines this point. The loss of an idealized memory of a perfect moment that maybe never existed is crystallized in the scenes between Doc and Shasta, seen in flashback in a perfect moment, scored to Neil Young's "Journey Through the Past." I can't help feeling like I'm wasting a lot of words when film critic Miriam Bale has already written the perfect one-sentence review of the movie on Twitter, observing that "Sometimes I think Inherent Vice is only for those who have exes that seem like certain Neil Young albums." Contrast that with a scene late in the film where Shasta uses her sexuality to manipulate Doc; Waterston is remarkably fearless in the scene, which is - sexy isn't the right word, but it's made doubly disturbing because it's not entirely unarousing for any male audience members of the audience who'd like to think of themselves as better than that. The scene casts a dark shadow over the rest of the movie, a lingering reminder that, whatever our attempts at living the hippie lifestyle then or now, our own animal attraction to power and control - whether we'd prefer to be on the giving or receiving end - thwarts us as much as the Golden Fang ever could.

It's scenes like this that set Doc Sportello apart from Jeff Lebowski, as much as both are the men for their times and places. Whereas the Dude is a truly Zen creation pulled into a situation beyond his control, there's a constant tension in Doc best illustrated by his favorite gesture, a peace sign followed by a middle finger. At one point, Doc casually jots down the phrase "Paranoia alert" in his notepad, and Phoenix's performance is a masterpiece of muttered asides and little gestures, facial expressions and whimpers that suggest he's always just barely keeping a full-blown panic attack at bay. He's matched by Josh Brolin as Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, a Jungian shadow of sorts for Doc - Brolin uses his rugged screen presence to great effect, suggesting a wounded and strangely empathetic soul underneath the macho bluster, and Bigfoot and Doc's complicated relationship culminates in a scene that had me in hysterics both times I've seen the movie. The rest of the star-studded cast is terrific - I particularly enjoyed Martin Short, who does the most hilarious bump in film history; Michelle Sinclair (nee Belladonna), whose scene ends in a neat reversal of the same moment in the book; and Reese Witherspoon as Penny, an assistant D.A. and Doc's sometime lady. Penny's an upstanding citizen who sneaks away to Doc's shack at the fictional Gordita Beach for occasional deviance, and frankly, her simultanous giving Doc a hard time while clearly being totally into this weed-addled mess of anxiety and frayed synapses reminded me of me and my old lady. Perhaps it's not a great sign of how I'm doing if I'm relating to Doc Sportello, even if Sortilege assures him he's doing good*; on the other hand, out of recent releases, better that I see myself in Doc than in Birdman or Listen Up Philip or, especially, those knuckleheads in Whiplash.

But I digress. The real star here is Paul Thomas Anderson, and while he's content to translate much of Pynchon's book faithfully to the screen, it's still unmistakably his movie. Anderson has made enough movies now to chart an evolution from the look-at-me wunderkind who filled Boogie Nights and Magnolia with jaw-dropping tracking shots and bold gestures like, say, frogs falling from the sky. As a teen, my reaction to these moments was "Oh my God, this guy is fucking awesome and I want to be him when I grow up." Now I'm older than Anderson was when he made those movies, and I can also see how desparate he was for validation, which actually only makes me love them (and him) more. If There Will Be Blood and The Master signaled that he was becoming a more "mature" filmmaker, then Inherent Vice is both a logical next step and a surprising left turn for the director. Anderson has cited the Zucker brothers as an influence, and during the second viewing I caught enough ingenious peripheral sight gags (How did I miss the machine gun-toting Jesuses the first time?) that I'm eager to discover more. At the same time, the few elaborate tracking shots or other big stylistic flourishes are very brief and precisely chosen - for the most part, Anderson favors letting scenes unfold in long master shots, and any camera movements are very carefully motivated, including some beautiful handheld camerawork (just when I thought I was sick to death of handheld).

Probably the most impressive thing about Anderson's work here is his confidence in the material - this was never going to be a major crowd-pleaser, but it's obviously work of a guy who is content to follow the stories that interest him. It's a movie for anyone tuned into its own peculiar wavelength, the straight world be damned. While it would have been nice if, somehow, the movie became a hit, it really never stood a chance, and that's okay. I drove an hour to see Inherent Vice the first time, to a college town I'd never been to; on the way home, driving through the beautiful northern reaches of my state, the movie still buzzing around in my head, I felt alive in a way no new movie had made me feel in quite a while. It feels inevitable that Inherent Vice is on its way to becoming a cult classic - not on the order of The Big Lebowski, perhaps, as it doesn't lend itself as easily to costume contests and bowling tournaments, but I look forward to the movie gradually finding its audience. In the meantime, I'm as content to love it for my own reasons as Anderson clearly was in making it for his.

*Sidenote: I wasn't familiar with Joanna Newsom before the movie, but now, I'd gladly listen to her narrate anything. She could turn an industrial training video into a lullaby.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Top 10: 2014

Earlier today, I wrote a paragraph on each of the movies in my top ten, along with a 600-word introduction. I was struggling with the tone, and I realized it's because, in the past year, real life has changed the way I watch movies. My moviegoing habits haven't changed, but since my dad's death last spring, I find myself valuing movies for different reasons. But honestly, it read like it should be titled "Top 10 Sad Things That Happened To Me This Year." I just deleted it all, and it feels liberating. However, I did enjoy putting together a playlist of songs from the movies listed below, and, if you have the time, I think it actually serves as a pretty good mixtape for 2014. Happy new year, everyone.

My top ten:

1. Under the Skin
2. Inherent Vice 
3. The Babadook
4. Selma
5. Only Lovers Left Alive 
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
7. Blue Ruin
8. Boyhood 
9. Love is Strange 
10. Birdman

The rest of my Muriels ballot:

Best Lead Performance, Male

1. Michael Keaton, Birdman
2. David Oyelowo, Selma
3. Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice
4. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
5. Macon Blair, Blue Ruin

Best Lead Performance, Female

1. Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
2. Essie Davis, The Babadook
3. Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant
4. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
5. Jenny Slate, Obvious Child

Best Supporting Performance, Male

1. Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
2. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
3. Patrick D'Assumçao, Stranger by the Lake
4. Tyler Perry, Gone Girl
5. Jonathan Pryce, Listen Up Philip

Best Supporting Performance, Female

1. Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer
2. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
3. Carrie Coon, Gone Girl
4. Emma Stone, Birdman
5. Emily Blunt, Into the Woods

Best Direction

1. Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin
2. Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice
3. Jennifer Kent, The Babadook
4. Ava DuVernay, Selma
5. Jim Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Screenplay

1. Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice
3. Jennifer Kent, The Babadook
4. Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, Love is Strange
5. Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

Best Cinematography

1. Robert Elswit, Inherent Vice
2. Dick Pope, Mr. Turner
3. Darius Khondji, The Immigrant
4. Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman
5. Bradford Young, Selma

Best Editing 

1. Sandra Adair, Boyhood
2. Kirk Baxter, Gone Girl
3. Barney Pilling, The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. Leslie Jones, Inherent Vice
5. Simon Njoo, The Babadook

Best Music

1. Mica Levi, Under the Skin
2. Antonio Sanchez, Birdman
3. Hans Zimmer, Interstellar
4. Jonny Greenwood, Inherent Vice
5. Josef van Wissem, Carter Logan, Jim Jarmusch and Shane Stoneback, Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Documentary 

1. Life Itself
2. The Last of the Unjust
3. Citizenfour

Best Cinematic Moment 

1. “Trapped By a Thing Called Love,” Only Lovers Left Alive
2. Flying, Birdman
3. “Journey Through the Past,” Inherent Vice
4. Opening sequence, Under the Skin
5. Final shot, The Immigrant
6. Godzilla’s first appearance, Godzilla
7. School car, Snowpiercer
8. “I feel everything,” Lucy
9. Creation story, Noah
10. “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” Guardians of the Galaxy

Best Cinematic Breakthrough 

1. Jennifer Kent, The Babadook
2. Ava DuVernay, Selma
3. Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin
4. Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
5. Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child

Best Body of Work 

1. Scarlett Johansson
2. Tilda Swinton
3. Joaquin Phoenix
4. Emily Blunt
5. Jake Gyllenhaal

Best Ensemble Performance 

1. Selma
2. Inherent Vice
3. Love is Strange
4. Birdman
5. We Are the Best!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Top 10: 2004

1. Kill Bill vol. 2 (Tarantino)
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry)
3. Sideways (Payne)
4. Birth (Glazer)
5. Spider-Man 2 (Raimi)
6. Shaun of the Dead (Wright)
7. Before Sunset (Linklater)
8. The Incredibles (Bird)
9. The Aviator (Scorsese)
10. Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Top 10: 1994

1. Ed Wood (Burton)
2. Heavenly Creatures (Jackson)
3. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino)
4. Chungking Express (Wong)
5. Hoop Dreams (James)
6. Red (Kieslowski)
7. Natural Born Killers (Stone)
8. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Rudolph)
9. Little Women (Armstrong)
10. The Hudsucker Proxy (Coen)

Friday, January 09, 2015

Top 10: 1984

1. Once Upon a Time in America (Leone)
2. Amadeus (Forman)
3. The Terminator (Cameron)
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven)
5. This is Spinal Tap (Reiner)
6. Paris, Texas (Wenders)
7. Gremlins (Dante)
8. Ghostbusters (Reitman)
9. Stop Making Sense (Demme)
10. Repo Man (Cox)

Friday, January 02, 2015

Top 10: 1974

1. The Conversation (Coppola)
2. Chinatown (Polanski)
3. The Godfather Part II (Coppola)
4. Phantom of the Paradise (De Palma)
5. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper)
6. A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes)
7. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette)
8. Young Frankenstein (Brooks)
9. Arabian Nights (Pasolini)
10. Black Christmas (Clark)

Friday, October 31, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 30 - Braindead (aka Dead Alive)

#1 - 21 Votes

The surprise (to me, anyway) victory of Braindead - re-titled Dead Alive in North America - in this poll must be at least partly attributable to the enduring popularity of zombies. The walking dead were in a bit of a lull during the decade - other than the screenplay for the Night of the Living Dead remake, George A. Romero took a break from zombies, and besides Cemetery Man, the list of other notable zombie movies is pretty short (only Return of the Living Dead 3 and the comedy My Boyfriend's Back come to mind). When Braindead was released in the U.S. in 1993, trends in horror movies were making a distinct turn away from the fantastic in favor of serial killers and sci-fi horror, which helped the film stand out in a crowded genre. And director Peter Jackson's take on the undead is nothing if not fantastic; in a little over an hour and a half, Jackson manages to put his rapidly rotting supporting cast through just about every puerile, gory gag one could think of, and even manages to invent a few new ones. Even if you're not a fan of constant, stomach-turning violence, you can't help admiring his showmanship.

As Stephen King put it in his book Danse Macabre, Jackson goes directly for the gross-out here. His first two features, the practically homemade Bad Taste and the slightly more polished Meet the Feebles, were gleefully tasteless, with content as crude as his filmmaking often was. Braindead was a big step forward for the filmmaker - the direction and performances are more assured from the start, and his screenplay (co-written with his partner Fran Walsh and Stephen Sinclair) is impressively nuanced, which isn't something one can always say about a movie where a lady's ear lands in a bowl of custard. When nebbishy mama's boy Lionel's (Timothy Balme) mum Vera (Elizabeth Moody) is infected by the bite of a Sumatran rat monkey, he continues caring for her after she's taken to eating dogs and tearing peoples' heads off, which threatens to put a stop to his budding romance with shop girl Paquita (Diana Peñalver). It's a story that would work as a romantic comedy with an Oedipal conflict even before you add in the dog eating and decapitations.

It's a big step forward, too, in terms of the effects Jackson, who cooked the makeup appliances for Bad Taste in his parents' oven, was able to work with a team of makeup artists, including Bob McCarron, who'd worked on The Road Warrior and Razorback. The effects are the star here, as Jackson and his team let their imaginations run wild; Braindead's zombies' individual parts keep on ticking even after they've been removed from the rest of the body, which allows for flying limbs, bisected heads with eyes that continue to see, and a large intestine that becomes a sort of character of its own towards the end. The showstopper is the climactic scene where Lionel mows down dozens of zombies with his lawnmower; the scene used 300 gallons of fake blood, and the movie in general reportedly used more fake blood than any other, though I'm not sure if there's any way to be sure (does every horror movie crew keep a count?). The movie would be unwatchable if it weren't for the peculiarly cheerful, cartoonish approach Jackson takes - the gore here isn't too far, in spirit, from my six-year-old's bloody drawings of zombies and monsters biting off peoples' heads, and the movie's grisly sight gags and physical comedy owe as much to Chuck Jones as they do to Sam Raimi. Braindead's best and funniest scene, Lionel's trip to the park with a zombie baby, wouldn't seem out of place in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and I love that the scene was thought up on the fly when Jackson and his crew wrapped early and had an extra day left in the shooting schedule.

Of course, the scene where a priest discovers zombies outside his church and reveals himself to be a kung fu master is another favorite, and for good reason - we're given no advance context for the priest's martial arts abilities, which only makes it funnier, and the line "I kick ass for the Lord" is just perfect. But the scene also points towards the influence Braindead, like the Evil Dead movies, had on lesser imitators. We've been inundated in recent years with countless low-rent zombie movies - Zombie Strippers, Ninjas vs. Zombies, Zombeavers - where the filmmakers combined blood and guts with some sort of obvious juxtaposition between zombies and strippers, ninjas, beavers or whatever they thought of after fifteen seconds of effort. There are enough of these movies that, presumably, stoners browsing Netflix are enough to keep them in the black. Shaun of the Dead was one of the few movies to take the right lesson from Braindead, creating a grounded story with relatable characters, then seeing how introducing zombies into the movie shakes up the relationships and personal conflicts the movie has already established. While there have been plenty of solid horror movies in recent years, the glut of half-assed horror-comedies makes one wish that Jackson - who followed up Braindead with the drama Heavenly Creatures, still his best movie, starting him on the path towards Oscars and billion-dollar grosses - might be inclined to make a movie that nods to his roots, as Sam Raimi did with Drag Me to Hell, now that he's finally done with Middle Earth (one can hope). Either way, Dead Alive is as fun as it was two decades ago, and the perfect way to end the '90s Horror Poll - thanks again to everyone who submitted a list, and especially to my contributors, Alex Jackson and Christopher Fujino. Happy Halloween!

U.S. Release Date: February 12, 1993 (Also released that day: Groundhog Day, Untamed Heart, The Temp, Love Field, Strictly Ballroom)

What critics said at the time:

"Because all of this looks blatantly unreal, and because the timing of the shock effects is so haphazard, 'Dead Alive' isn't especially scary or repulsive. Nor is it very funny. Long before it's over, the half-hour-plus bloodbath that is the climax of the film has become an interminable bore." - Stephen Holden, New York Times

"Jackson, obviously aware of the cliché-ridden dangers of 'horror comedies,' chucks convention and good taste out the window and goes for the gusto (or is that 'gutso'?) with uncanny results. The film moves from gag to gore to gag again like a rocket from the crypt and never lets up - just when you think you've seen the worst, Jackson tops himself and there you are squirming in your seat again (and loving every minute of it). Sick. Perverse. Brilliant." - Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle