Inherent Vice

 

Inherent Vice is an enjoyable mess from director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson. The plot is secondary to the film’s characters and the amusing things they do and say.

It’s 1970. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a longhaired pot-smoking hippie L.A. private detective who gets a surprise visit from old girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Her newest flame, it turns out, is a married guy whose wife and the wife’s boyfriend are trying to get him out of the picture to get his money. Shasta wants Doc to find out what’s up.

The missing boyfriend is sleazy real estate developer Michael Wolfman (Eric Roberts) whose latest project is a subdivision ridiculously located next to L.A.’s concrete irrigation canal. When Doc goes to check it out, he finds a massage parlor where the menu of services is clearly posted on the wall.

The story brings in many players including LAPD Lieutenant Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (James Brolin) who has some hilarious moments onscreen. His enjoyment of chocolate covered bananas provides some of Inherent Vice’s humor.

Also in the cast is Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, a dentist who is handling money for other dentists in a company called the Golden Fang. Benecio Del Toro appears as Doc’s attorney. Reese Witherspoon plays an assistant D.A. who is another of Doc’s gal pals. Owen Wilson is Coy Harlingen, a musician with shady connections. Maya Rudolph has a role as a receptionist with the colorful name Petunia Leeway.

The narrative goes in many directions and brings in even more characters than those I’ve mentioned. My son described Inherent Vice as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for stoners. That sounds about right.

Inherent Vice, despite its too many plot elements has a charm not unlike that of The Big Lebowski. While it’s doubtful that IV might attain similar cult status, it provides a fun take on a time and a place. If Anderson is willing to share his characters and setting with a developer, I’d love to see an Inherent Vice TV series. Either in the more permissive setting of cable or the more restrictive arena of over-the-air TV, it just might work.

 

 

Her

How many movies have given us artificial intelligence entities (computers, robots, machines) taking on human characteristics, including emotions? Way too many to mention.

Such a fantasy may have been fueled in the past couple of decades by voices that give GPS directions, function as Apple’s Siri and check us out at the grocer’s. (I prefer checking out in Spanish because el hombre sounds friendlier than the woman who guides us in English.)

In Her, filmmaker Spike Jonze, most famous for 1999’s Being John Malkovich, takes the fantasy even further. Set in the near future, hopeless romantic Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who is never seen in the movie). “You seem like a person but you’re just a voice in a computer,” he says.

Phoenix shows his acting range by following up his powerfully crazed performance in The Master by playing this nerdy writer of love letters. That’s his job: low-tech work in a high-tech world—he writes letters for people who have outsourced this personal task. (By the way, the URL of his fictional company, beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, appears to be non-functional in our real world if you want to claim it.)

Theodore is heartbroken when he meets (or installs) Samantha because he is in the midst of a divorce from childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). He has a platonic female friend Amy (Amy Adams, looking pale, wearing minimal makeup) with whom he shares some of his woes.

His relationship with Samantha goes through many of the stages and episodes that real life relationships have: sharing of personal details, sex (virtual), the honeymoon period, trips to the beach, double dates, jealousy and disappointment.

Because several scenes in the film consist of conversations between Theodore and Samantha, the film is often visually tedious. On the other hand, the vision of Los Angeles created by Jonze is amazing to see: clean and modern with shiny high rise buildings and a dazzling public rail system that takes Theodore everywhere, even to the beach. (Some exterior scenes were shot in Shanghai.) Also, for some reason, the film’s costume designer has put all the men in pants with no belts.

Her is not for everyone. Its weirdness, coupled with its slow pace, may turn some moviegoers off. But adventurous movie lovers should give it a shot. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is worth seeing and Scarlet Johansson’s is worth hearing. You might like the cool soundtrack by Arcade Fire.

Her is clever and creative and will receive more nominations and awards. It is certainly not your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy/drama.

The Master

Joaquin Phoenix steps up as a strong contender for a Best Actor nomination with his portrayal of a damaged man with anger issues and sexual obsessions in “The Master.”

This is not a movie for everyone. Although it is being booked in multiplexes, as well as art houses, “The Master” will challenge many and leave others unsatisfied. Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson, whose last film was “There Will Be Blood,” has assembled a film that is, above all, compelling. It’s one that has already generated much discussion with more to come.

“The Master” is more about its characters than its plot. The film is a series of episodes, some of which move slowly. In these episodes, we see how the film’s characters respond to the things life throws their way.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the title role. His character, Lancaster Dodd, is patterned after L. Ron Hubbard, the founder and leader of Scientology. Dodd, like many others in the movie, takes an immediate liking to Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell.

Quell falls under Dodd’s spell and embraces The Cause, Dodd’s quasi-religious movement. Dodd is similar to numerous charismatic leaders we’ve encountered in history, some of whom can be seen on your TV every week. Dodd is, however, a generally likable guy, even though he serves up mumbo jumbo about “past lives.”

Quell becomes a member of Dodd’s entourage and Dodd begins to “work” with Freddie. Is it therapy or is Quell a guinea pig for Dodd’s techniques?

Eventually, Quell breaks away but in the end returns to Dodd, who is then in England. Dodd’s reaction to seeing Freddie again brings up questions about the true nature of their relationship.

Among the supporting cast is Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife Peggy. She wields her power from the sideline. She supports Dodd in his quest to grow support for The Cause but makes sure he has her input.

One more thing: most of the movie is set in the year 1950 and the clothes are terrific.

Should you see “The Master?” Yes, if only to witness Joaquin Phoenix’s mighty acting skill. Even if you don’t like “The Master” as a movie, this performance will astound you.