Thursday, January 29, 2015

Inherent Vice

INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)

The return of an old girlfriend in 1970 kicks of a complicated mystery for private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in INHERENT VICE. Shasta (Katherine Waterston) is now involved with a wealth real estate developer, but she fears for his well-being and wants Doc to look into matters. While on the case he has run-ins with his nemesis, Los Angeles police detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), begins looking for another missing man somehow tied into this all, and is warned of drug smugglers known as the Golden Fang.

In INHERENT VICE the title is explained as something that can’t be avoided. In this instance it’s the 1960s being colonized by the 1970s. Doc’s world of dopers and revolutionaries is gradually giving way to those learning how to wring economic benefits out of a new generation’s political ideals. Often operating in a pot-fueled haze, he seems firmly committed to remaining among the counterculture, but for all of their integrity, he and his fellow misfits on the shore are fated to be washed away by the incoming tide. They haven’t been wiped out yet, but the songs on the soundtrack, including Sam Cooke’s “(What a) Wonderful World”, Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki”, and The Association’s “Never My Love”, suggest a wistfulness for the present and recent past that will soon be gone.

The comedic bohemian mystery points toward Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE crossed with THE BIG LEBOWSKI. In adapting Thomas Pynchon’s novel writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson creates a sense of confusion from the sheer amount of information to sift through and players to keep straight. The complexity of it all is more of the point than being able to explain everyone’s motivations in the end, although upon closer examination it appears to all add up. The humor and resonant emotional turns experienced in this environment are what’s so pleasurable about INHERENT VICE.

Phoenix is a stitch as a drug-addled PI struggling to stay up to speed with the reams of information thrown his direction. As Bigfoot, Brolin is bluntly funny wielding a cop’s laser intensity and lack of regard for everything Doc stands for. Despite their differences Doc and Bigfoot need each other as mismatched informal partners with their fingers on the pulse of separate universes. They are destined to be at eternal odds, but it’s when they collaborate that the larger scheme can come into clearer focus.

Grade: A

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


BLACKHAT (Michael Mann, 2015)

The idea that the world today is smaller than before and continues to shrink is not exactly new, but BLACKHAT considers the increasing fluidity with which borders can be breached regardless of the surveillance mechanisms in place. Battles can be waged from a distance and possibly without notice until it is too late. Measures intended to enhance security are also vulnerable to being exploited for the gain of those with the expertise and access, whether approved or ill-gotten. Obviously physical warfronts still exist, but the zones capable of causing quick, anonymous, and massive destruction lie in the connections among computers and those who best know how to travel and control the cyber realm.

When a hacker uses a Remote Access Tool to cause a nuclear reactor failure in China and mess with the soy market in the United States, officials in both countries are eager to locate whoever is responsible. That no one claims credit or makes demands is most distressing to both superpowers. Although the Americans are wary about what information they share with the Chinese, they need to combine forces to find their elusive enemy. FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) and Captain Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) from China’s cyber defense division, accompanied by his computer expert sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei), are working together when Dawai observes that the hacker used old code he wrote with his roommate at MIT. He insists that if they are to find their antagonist, they need to have his old friend, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), on their team.

Getting Hathaway onboard is more difficult than clearing a low administrative hurdle, though. He is currently serving fifteen years as a convicted hacker. For his participation Hathaway demands no less than a commutation of his sentence if he succeeds. Failure will find him back in his cell serving the remainder of his time. Hathaway’s exemplary skill set secures his temporary release, although it comes with a monitoring bracelet and FBI watcher. It isn’t long before he susses out some clues about who they seek, but Hathaway and crew always seem to be slightly behind those they are pursuing, even as their search extends to various spots in Asia.

Director Michael Mann depicts modern skylines like circuit boards with jutting buildings as the internal components of a much larger machine we live and work inside. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh lights this world so that surfaces give little weight to BLACKHAT’s digitally captured images. Through the visual design reality itself seems more ephemeral, like a blurry flow of zeroes and ones. Technology has liberated the camera to go virtually anywhere, and CGI animation can render what the lens may not see, as in the early tracking of a virus through linked computers like the combustion process followed inside the engine in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS films. While BLACKHAT is not alarmist about the ease of movement through the electronic landscape, it examines how the lack of the material fosters amorality. The simple press of a button can wreak untold consequences thousands of miles away whereas greater proximity and more direct involvement breed closer scrutiny.

Morgan Davis Foehl’s screenplay doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand through this global thriller, and the leanly edited film makes every shot purposeful. In that way it is akin to reading lines of code to comprehend how everything connects. Mann shows himself not to be a chilly technician, though, but a craftsman attuned to spotting the sensual within a data overload. When Hathaway is on the tarmac after his prison release, the space stretching around him appears limitless and overwhelming, yet it’s a light touch on the arm that helps him reorient to his surroundings. Ultimately it’s that desire to find one’s grounding amid the noise that BLACKHAT has most in mind.

Grade: B

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


MORTDECAI (David Koepp, 2015)

MORTDECAI features a type of comedy that has fallen out of fashion in mainstream American cinema. Although this farce doesn’t lack broad humor and innuendo, it prizes light silliness and suggestion over blunt vulgarity. Recurring jokes rely on the protagonist’s unusual and unreciprocated fondness for his curly facial hair than scatology. In fact, this is the mildest R-rated comedy to hit theaters in who knows how long, and it probably contains less objectionable content than many PG-13 films. Screenwriter Eric Aronson, adapting a Kyril Bonfiglioli comedic novel, seeks laughs through wordplay and the gentrified class’s out of touch behavior. Director David Koepp dresses the film in a Continental style and attitude, linking it more with 1960s comedies than contemporary lowbrow entertainment. While MORTDECAI’s mystery-solving husband and wife don’t work together much on screen, Koepp may also be trying to draw a line from THE THIN MAN films of the 1930s and ‘40s to the loving couple in his movie. If only MORTDECAI were funnier.

Mustachioed, gap-toothed Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) owes £8 million in back taxes and is on the verge of insolvency when a last ditch opportunity to make an enormous sum of money without selling any possessions presents itself. A restorer in Oxford has been murdered, and the Goya painting she was working on has been stolen. Mortdecai’s connections to the seedier side of the art collecting world means that old school chum and MI5 inspector Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor) must turn to him for assistance in locating the painting. If successful, Mortdecai stands to make a substantial amount for his efforts.

The task comes with its share of danger, as terrorist Emil Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky) is suspected of murder by crossbow and art thievery. While Mortdecai and his manservant Jock (Paul Bettany) bumble their way into trouble and upon various clues, his wife Joanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) conducts her own investigation by exploiting Martland’s lengthy infatuation with her to learn key information. All parties know the missing Goya is valuable, but they come to learn that it could be a long-lost masterpiece also rumored to have a code to Hermann Göring’s Swiss bank account scrawled on the back. If this is indeed the case, it is worth an unimagined fortune.

The preponderance of mustache-related humor represents a severe miscalculation by the filmmakers. Depp looks suitably ridiculous with what rests above his upper lip, but MORTDECAI goes all-in on with numerous jokes about this characteristic as if the defining hairy growth is so inherently hilarious that it merits quips at its expense with clockwork regularity. Mortdecai encountering Los Angeles hipsters with ornate facial hair marks one of the rare occasions when a follicular jab hits an easy target, but it hardly compensates for all the other failed attempts.

Depp, seemingly in Peter Sellers mode, can be amusing playing clueless privilege, as when he mistakes a hotel key card for a credit card, although too often he counts on the mustache to generate comedic delight. He’s more successful revealing the character as an overgrown child, such as the time when he touches a cactus’s spine and exclaims in pain, as if there could be any other outcome. MORTDECAI also needs more sly, witty exchanges like the one in which Joanna asks Martland if he thinks she could keep a secret about having an affair and then dismisses it as pointless when he suggests she could get away with it. MORTDECAI perks up in those moments when given over to its fizzy nature, but returning to those mustache jokes and getting bogged down in plot in the third act flattens what mild charm bubbles to the surface.

Grade: C

Friday, January 16, 2015

Into the Woods

INTO THE WOODS (Rob Marshall, 2014)

Familiar Brothers Grimm characters inhabit a village at the edge of the woods, but rather than proceeding to their usual happily ever afters in the musical INTO THE WOODS, they find their lives disrupted when they get what they want. The Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) set things in motion for a different outcome when they collect four items requested by their neighbor, the Witch (Meryl Streep), in exchange for lifting a curse on their house that has kept them childless.

Meanwhile Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) gets her wish granted to go to the three-night festival, where she catches the eye of the Prince (Chris Pine) while fleeing from him at the end of each evening. The young lad Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) reluctantly sells his beloved white cow for five magic beans. He climbs the massive beanstalk that grows from them and plunder the giants’ land atop it to provide for himself and his impoverished mother (Tracey Ullman). Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and her Granny (Annette Crosbie) get saved from the Wolf (Johnny Depp) because the Baker needs her cape to give to the Witch. Rapunzel (Makenzie Mauzy), who has been hidden in a tower by the Witch, finds the love of her own Prince (Billy Magnussen) that frees her from isolation.

Everyone seems poised for better lives when the Baker and the Baker’s Wife deliver the items to the Witch. She regains her youth and beauty. The Baker’s Wife becomes pregnant. Cinderella and Rapunzel marry their princes. Jack and his mother are wealthy. Little Red Riding Hood and her Granny are safe and sound. There’s a great disturbance in the land, however, when a second beanstalk grows from the sixth magic bean, which Cinderella dropped when the Baker’s Wife tried to give it to her in exchange for her golden slipper. With its arrival the paths in the woods become mixed up and the characters’ storylines get confused. The giant’s wife also demands Jack for the lad having slain her husband.

INTO THE WOODS pushes back against Disneyfied fairy tales, urging caution with the stories and messages therein passed along to children, so there’s some irony in Walt Disney Studios distributing the film. Director Rob Marshall and screenwriter James Lapine, adapting his own book, eventually land on the thematic point regarding what we tell to comfort ourselves, but the matter goes relatively unexamined. Instead the main challenge to to the faith placed in optimistic narratives is served up at the end with a tidy What It All Means explanation that feels disjointed from the action.

INTO THE WOODS is drenched in a hazy blue-gray to signify that fantasy land is never really all sunshine and rainbows, but the ugly visual aesthetic fails to differentiate between its dingy but comparatively brighter first half and the even murkier looking second half. In having the two halves essentially appear the same, it works against the thematic drive. Marshall’s inability to handle the tone also hampers how these literary archetypes are being played with. Amid all the gloom the humor mostly misses the mark. When it does emerge, as in the princes’ duet “Agony”, it seems at odds with the somber spirit that characterizes Marshall’s INTO THE WOODS.

Although INTO THE WOODS scatters its focus, a worthy cast and Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics do a lot to keep the film afloat. Blunt provides a realistic sense of emotional turbulence in a storybook universe. Streep plays the Witch as both villain and victim, one whose lack of niceness does not mean she isn’t justified in her actions in some regards. Pine impresses as someone used to being every young woman’s dream, which also makes it easy for him to be a cad. While the actors are up to the task, Marshall’s staging of INTO THE WOODS tends to be uninspired.

Grade: C+

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Imitation Game

THE IMITATION GAME (Morten Tyldum, 2014)

When 27-year-old mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) interviews with a British military commander in 1939 for a top secret program in THE IMITATION GAME, he is anything but humble about being the man for the job. Alan has figured out that they’re trying to crack the Germans’ code machine, known as Enigma. The challenge is steep. They have an Enigma that Polish intelligence smuggled out of Berlin, but it’s determined that 159 million million million possibilities exist for the settings. Alan and his team have eighteen hours each day to break the code before it changes. More time to decipher Enigma’s messages means more lives that are lost.

Alan’s social deficiencies threaten to have him lose his team and his position at Bletchley Park, but he gradually learns how to work with the others and gain their respect. Help comes in part from Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a valued member of the decryption team who has needed to be savvy about getting along with others in a male-dominated world. Alan devises to build a machine that will break every message every day instantly. As smart as he and his fellow codebreakers are, they face numerous setbacks, not to mention pressure from higher-ups because of the investment in their work that has yet to yield anything productive.

At first Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing puts this real life person on the verge of appearing as a buttoned-up Sheldon Cooper from THE BIG BANG THEORY. He’s the incredible genius with little comprehension of or need for social niceties. Thankfully his initial ignorance and arrogance is dialed back as the character acclimates to the high stakes matter at hand. Think more of the actor’s version of Sherlock Holmes than a sitcom brainiac. Cumberbatch does well at seeming like someone often lost in his head. Although he approaches interactions like equations to be solved, he shows how he makes the strategy work for him in most instances.

THE IMITATION GAME is most poignant regarding the importance of keeping secrets, although it’s not so much in relation to Turing’s homosexuality, which was considered criminal in his lifetime. Once he and his team cracked Enigma’s code, decision makers had to be selective about how they used it so that the Germans wouldn’t know the Allies had access to the messages being sent. That withholding meant deaths, although doing so was in service of preventing a greater number of them.

With its important subject, handsome MASTERPIECE THEATRE-like production design, and British accents, THE IMITATION GAME resembles an awards-collecting machine, which isn’t to dismiss it. THE IMITATION GAME is an entertaining piece of fictionalized history that crackles with the excitement of watching intelligent people and a primitive device achieve something considered impossible. Director Morten Tyldum smoothly guides developments along, although some war montages and end title cards assume the audience’s historical knowledge is so low that it feels a little condescending. The film can be so insistent to trumpet its own import and prestige that it has to underline some things too much. Nevertheless, THE IMITATION GAME provides an involving look at the greatness human minds in cooperation can achieve.

Grade: B


WILD (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)

In WILD Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) sets out to walk the Pacific Crest Trail as a means of self-renewal after hitting bottom in her personal life. Consumed by her immense grief for the death of her 45-year-old mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), Cheryl turned to casual sex with strangers and heroin use, which destroyed her seven-year marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski). The thousand-mile solo hike from the Mexican to Canadian border is what she feels she must do to regain control of her life.

Upon her divorce Cheryl assumed the new last name Strayed as though taking on a scarlet letter to announce her waywardness to the world. Her self-punishing streak is also evident as she embarks on her journey in search of inner peace and redemption. She carries an enormous, heavy pack others dub The Monster because of its impractical weight and size. It’s as though her emotional baggage is manifested in the supplies she struggles to tote along. Having brought the wrong fuel for her stove and ill-fitting boots, Cheryl is not fully prepared for the trek. Those who’ve trained and planned extensively about how to complete the trail discover themselves pushed to their limits, and here’s Cheryl making it harder than it needs to be.

Cheryl’s great feat in WILD then turns out to be accepting her history as what has made her who she is now and forgiving herself for the mistakes that have brought her to this personal crossroads. Witherspoon plays Cheryl so that she is exposed but never pitiable. With much of the character’s struggle taking place internally while alone, Witherspoon often doesn’ t have other actors or dialogue to assist with conveying how Cheryl is processing her experiences. While flashbacks clarify what has brought her to these points, WILD relies on Witherspoon to create the character through showing how she’s thinking and reacting. Whether a prospective student body president in ELECTION or an underestimated aspiring lawyer in LEGALLY BLONDE, Witherspoon has excelled at playing strivers. As Cheryl she couples that quality with self-questioning to pursue the answers she requires.

WILD is felt most immediately when it captures the vigilance necessary for a woman traveling by herself. As with the wild animals she encounters, Cheryl must step cautiously around men she comes upon. Some are potential threats while others aren’t, but the need to have her antennas attuned to the situations and her surroundings never dissipates. Her cautiousness in the wilderness and civilization highlight the additional risk and courage involved with her quest.

Rather than revealing Cheryl’s troubled past from the outset, director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby use flashbacks to dole out pieces of Cheryl’s backstory as she makes her way north. Sometimes it interrupts the sense of solitude important to the trip, but the technique succeeds in allowing us to discover the character as she assesses her life.

Grade: B-