Inherent Vice (2014)

2015 #113
Paul Thomas Anderson | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Paul Thomas Anderson — the fêted writer-director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master, et al — here turns his hand to adapting reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 opus. It met with notably less success than most of his previous works. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists were one of few organisations to recognise it come awards season, with a gong for “Movie You Wanted to Love, But Just Couldn’t”. Apt.

The story — not that the story is the point, as aficionados of Anderson and/or Pynchon will happily tell you — sees stoner PI Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receive a visit from an ex girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), who’s been having an affair with a real estate developer whose wife now intends to have him committed so she can inherit his estate. It only spirals from there, and I’m not even going to begin to get into all the different directions it shoots off into.

Really, the plot is a deliberate mess — it’s not the point, remember — but even allowing for that, it’s messy. How things are connected to one another is regularly unclear, subplots seem to take over for no apparent reason, and if there was a point to it all, it completely passed me by. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I get the impression it also sailed past those who would claim there was some point, as they scrabble around to justify one. Moments of amusement or filmic craftsmanship do shine out, but only occasionally. Chief among these is Robert Elswit’s cinematography. It’s understatedly wonderful, reminding you how great proper film stock can look, especially in HD. Digital photography has its benefits, but golly there’s something to be said for film.

Anderson chooses to realise the movie mostly in long, unbroken takes, which not only lets the photography shine, but also allows his cast free rein to construct their own performances. I’m not sure how much that pays off, but it’s certainly not a hindrance. Turns from the likes of Josh Brolin and Martin Short border on the memorable, though your mileage will vary on if anyone truly achieves it, with the possible exception of Katherine Waterston, who surely deserves more — and more prominent — roles. Other recognisable faces (Jena Malone, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon) are wasted in one- or two-scene appearances, which I suppose we could kindly call cameos.

For a certain kind of viewer, Inherent Vice will be nirvana. Or possibly for two kinds of viewers. One: stoners, who can identify with the main character, and find the majority of life just as bewildering as this film’s plot. You don’t have to go far on the internet before you find, “dude, it’s a totally great movie to watch stoned, dude”-type comments. Two: some Anderson and Pynchon fans (though by no means all), as well as similar cinéastes, who I’m sure can find something in there because it’s by an acclaimed auteur so it must be worth re-watching multiple times, and if you re-watch anything enough you can find some deeper meaning to it.

I am in neither of those groups, however. The aforementioned fleeting aspects of quality weren’t enough to swing it for me either. Sadly, I’ll be chalking this up alongside Killing Them Softly and Seven Psychopaths as “neo-noirs from previously-excellent directors that seriously disappointed me this year”.

3 out of 5

Frankenweenie (2012)

2014 #91
Tim Burton | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

FrankenweenieInspired by two of Burton’s early-’80s shorts (which are most commonly found on Nightmare Before Christmas DVDs), Frankenweenie takes the black-and-white stop-motion visual style from Vincent and the storyline from the live-action Frankenweenie, and expands them out into a feature-length offering.

The story is as simple as one you’d expect from a short: young Victor Frankenstein’s dog dies; for a school science project, he resurrects him. It works surprisingly well stretched to a feature running time, although it goes a little haywire at the climax (what’s the point of all the monsters, really?)

Even if the narrative is no great shakes, there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way. The dog, Sparky (ho ho), is very well observed; indeed, all of the animation is naturally top-notch. It retains an indefinable but desirable stop-motion-ness, something I felt Burton’s previous animation, Corpse Bride, lacked — it was so smooth that while watching I began to wonder if I’d misremembered and it was actually CGI. Frankenweenie is attractively shot on the whole, with gorgeous lighting and classy black-and-white designs. Although US funded, I believe it was actually created in the UK, so hurrah us.

There’s lots of fun references for classic horror aficionados… though, actually, they’re not that obscure: they’ll fly past inexperienced youngsters, but be identifiable to anyone who has a passing familiarity with Universal’s classic horror output. For the kiddies, there’s some good moral messages tossed in the mix, though the best — a brief subplot lambasting America’s attitude to science — should be heeded by all.

Boy's best friendSome say it doesn’t have enough of an edge. Well, maybe; but I thought it was surprisingly dark in places. Not so considering it’s a Tim Burton film based on resurrecting the dead, but for a Disney-branded animation, yes. Those edgier bits are here and there rather than consistent, but still, I’m not sure what those critics were expecting from a PG-rated Disney animation. I guess there’s an argument that Burton should have pushed it further and aimed for an adult audience, but can you imagine an American studio agreeing to finance an animation primarily targeted at anyone who’s entered their teens? Because I can’t.

Even if you have to make some allowances for the kid-friendly necessity of Disney animation, I think Burton and co have taken an idea which showed little promise to sustain a full-length feature, and produced a film that’s beautifully made and a lot of fun.

4 out of 5