Tuesday, October 7, 2014

NYFF Press Screenings Week 3: INHERENT VICE and some other movies (I guess) Red Army, Mr. Turner

Pictured in this post is the Walter Reed Theater at Lincoln Center.  This is the room where I have been visiting for the past few weeks watching the selection of Indie films that have been collected for the 52nd New York Film Festival.  So I've been in this very room sitting next to real critics, bloggers who make money, and professional cameramen.  It's been incredible.  These are people who have either worked in the film journalism industry for years, or newcomers like myself.  It really is overwhelming at times.  I'm the guy who reviewed "Legends of Oz" mostly for perverse irony.  And now I get to see some of the biggest and best movies of the year in the same room as great critics.  I sat behind John Waters during "Maps to the Stars".  That's an honor.

At this point it has been three straight weeks of traveling to Manhattan to view movies, so I have forgotten what my normal life was like before all of this.  At some point (next week actually) I will have to stop doing this, the Critics Academy will end, and life will go back to normal.  That will be a depressing moment indeed.   Jesus, I'm going to have to look for a job... again.  [Insert extremely sarcastic expression of joy here.]  But before that misery, let me talk about the three movies I saw last week at the Festival:

First off is a sports documentary, "Red Army", directed by Gabe Polsky.  This is an account of the Red Army Hockey Team, a Soviet institution in the last few decades of the Evil Empire, which dominated the ice throughout the 80s.  The main figure in the documentary is Viacheslav Fetisov, or "Slava", the captain of the Red Army team.  Polsky differentiates his movie from being a simple ESPN sports feature by including Slava in a very unscripted light.  You get the usual interview stuff, but then the fourth wall will be broken with Slava answering his phone or having some banter with Gabe, who is always referred to as "a good boy".

"Red Army" is fairly well-made, it tells a universal story of sports and glory, while making its subject sympathetic.  However, it does not do much to illuminate late-Soviet culture in Russia.  It plays up the "Communist-chic" too much for laughs, having a hammer and sickle dance over lyrics while the hockey players sing a patriotic song.  Unfortunately the movie could not break away from a Western bias.  "Oh look at those kookie Commies!  Their economic system is a dead end of stagnation and misery.  Hilarious!"  To many Americans the Red Army Team was nothing more than Ivan Dragos on Ice.  They were the bad guys in a single match from the Lake Placid Olympics who the great democratic Team USA defeated.  "Red Army" does a great deal to break that illusion, but it never gets far enough.

However, "Red Army" was mostly a fun movie which definitely educated me a great deal about a subject I knew nothing about.  Speaking of educational history movies, we have "Mr. Turner", a biopic of English  Romantic artist William Turner.  I am going to give this film, directed by Mike Leigh, a Compliment Sandwich in order to lessen the blow I will give it.  This was a very anticipated film at the Festival and it is going to get good buzz, but I will have to go against the crowd here.  Maybe if I'm really polite about how much this movie did not work, the other critics in the Walter Reed theater will not lynch me.

Praise:  It is a very pretty movie thanks to Dick Pope's cinematography.  You really get the sense of time and place, thanks to borrowing Turner's color schemes as inspiration.  One particular shot of a ship being tugged up the Thames at sunset was probably the most beautiful single frame of film in all of 2014.

Criticism:  It is two and a half hours old and incredibly slow.  Leigh falls right into the easy pitfall of a biopic by giving a huge account of the major events in William Turner's life, but never manages to find a theme or a meaning behind any of it.  "Mr. Turner" is miserable and stuffy.  I hate stuffy.

Praise:  Timothy Spall gives a great performance as Mr. Turner.  He is bloated, rat-faced, and grunts most of his dialog, which is exactly the script needed.  You find yourself utterly repulsed by this character.  Great acting, maybe even Oscar-worthy.

There.  Now I hope that nobody reads this and decides that I should be kicked out of the Critic's Academy.

Hippie Wolverine vs. the Square
Now for the centerpiece of this post, and indeed, the Centerpiece of the NYFF.  Now I get to talk a movie that really excites me, "Inherent Vice", the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson.  When a movie gets made by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film world shivers with anticipation.  The Walter Reed theater was packed to the rafters full of critics ready to be dazzled.  (Meanwhile, when a new movie gets made by Paul W. S. Anderson, a construction worker sees it after work to kill time.  He later tells his wife at dinner that it was "okay".)

"Inherent Vice" is a movie I am not qualified to review.  I do not think anybody is qualified to do this movie justice.  At least nobody who saw the movie sober.  It is based upon a 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel, which should be your first clue that we are in for some hard core insanity.  Pynchon is the kind of writer who will stuff any one of his paragraphs with so many levels, metaphor, and metaphysics that you could write a 10,000 word essay on any one of them.  And even after spending six months on this grand thesis, you really will not have understood a word of what Pynchon has written.  To adapt that into a movie is an incredible challenge, perhaps even impossible.  What Anderson came up with is a movie obviously comparable to a 90s Coen Bros film, yet entirely unlike anything I have ever seen.

Essentially "Inherent Vice" is a Stoner Noir movie, immediately making everybody think of "The Big Lebowski".  Like that film, it is a detective story starring a bumbling hippie drug addict trapped in a massively complex mystery far beyond his marijuana-soaked head.  Throw in a LA location and a mystical Narrator who interacts with the lead, along with buckets of comedy, and the comparison is almost exact.  The lead is Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) a greasy dirty veteran of the Counter Culture.  He is a private detective with connections all over the city, both with his fellow Flower Children and with the Squares.  An ex-girlfriend visits with a rumor that a local businessman will be kidnapped, leading Doc to investigate a swirling hurricane of rumor, conspiracy, and double-crosses.  The government is involved, the Skinheads are involved, lesbian prostitutes are involved, and a cocaine-addicted Martin Short is involved.

Stoner Noir to the power of infinity.
However, the question slowly dawns on you while the "Inherent Vice" pulls on.  Exactly what is the crime here?   Everybody Doc meets certainly acts like there is something hideous going on in 1970 Los Angeles, but the actual villainy never crystallizes into a coherent foe.  The cast is an army of character actors, and every one gives a reason to suspect the other.  Doc wanders around, meeting one character after another, each one adding another dimension to the amorphous mass that is "the case".  I did not understand a lick of what happened by the end of the screening, and I'm sure if I watch "Inherent Vice" a thousand more times, I will not get any closer to the truth.  Assuming there is one.  As the movie continues you end up with so many elements and weird scenes that your mind breaks down, unable to even begin to keep track of what has happened.  The confusion is so deep that by the two hour mark, you might feel stoned yourself.  Then it all ends, leaving nothing behind but a vague haze of bong smoke and a sour smell of patchouli oil.

"Inherent Vice" borrows the tropes of old noir films and 70s antihero grit to create an over-the-top intense comedy.  When Doc is not toking up he's enjoying any one of the lovely cornucopia of narcotics that flooded the Vietnam era.  Joaquin Phoenix either walks around a doped-up straight man, so high as to become eternally numb to the world, or with big wide-eyes when he slowly recognizes the chaos that has seeped in every corner of his world.  He changes his haircuts over and over, yet never breaks the look of a filthy dope fiend.  Then Doc saunters around into dens of vipers, be it biker gangsters or the fascist LAPD, pushed around like a little balloon around a storm of wackiness, then picks himself up for the next misadventure.  Josh Brolin's character, a hulking cop by the name of Bigfood, is as inscrutable as it comes.  He will occasionally beat Doc up like a good representative of the Establishment, then fellate a chocolate-covered banana or bark Japanese commands for more pancakes.  In a world where nothing makes sense, where nobody exactly fits right, what choice did Anderson have but to make a comedy?

"Inherent Vice" is a movie thick with its own hazy vision of end of 1960s.  It sits right at the end of an era.  The Summer of Love has ended and failed.  America chose Richard Nixon and authority over the wild free possibilities of the Counterculture.  America's youthful high is dying down, and now a long bitter hangover that was the 70s will take its place.  Doc's space in the universe is being slowly clogged out by the militant response of the Squares, using feared names like "Manson" and "cult" to kick down the remaining Longhairs.  Soon enough will come the War on Drugs, the AIDs crisis, the triumph of consumption and capitalism that was the 1980s, which will all wash away the hippies forever.  But for now Doc is here, and his world is here, infinitely confusing to everybody, especially to those within it.

Last year "The Wolf of Wall Street" came along and brought a huge wrecking ball of vice and lunacy right into the hearts of cinephiles worldwide.  "Inherent Vice" is probably going to have the same effect, beloved by those who worship movies, but destined to get nowhere in the Oscars Race.  It is far too weird, its ending is too lacking in closure, and it is too long to appeal to everybody.  But if you want a hilarious musing on a freaky-deaky hippie-dippy world, as mindbending as a bad trip you will want to see "Inherent Vice".

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