Film: Inherent Vice

When Joaquin Phoenix and Katherine Waterston started mumbling their way through the first scene of Inherent Vice (2014), I had such a hard time hearing them I had to turn on the subtitles. Now that I’ve seen the whole movie that way, I’m not sure I’m any better off than if I’d continued struggling to decipher their dialogue over the drone of our air conditioner. This film, adapted from a novel by Thomas Pynchon, is a quirky, baffling snarl.

Phoenix portrays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead private investigator in 1970 L.A., hired by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Waterston) to save her current lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) from a heartless get-rich quick scheme. Motivated by his unresolved feelings for Shasta, Doc inserts himself into the mystery only to land in a dense quagmire of conflicting players with murky motives. A visit from an ex-con (Michael Kenneth Williams), the disappearance of Wolfmann, and the death of one of Wolfmann’s neo-Nazi bodyguards combine to land Doc in the sights of his police nemesis Lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). And everything is further complicated when Hope Harlingen (Jenna Malone) hires Doc to track down surf-sax player Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), whose clandestine work as a federal informant has him on the run, and seems somehow entwined with all the other shady goings-on. This further fuels Doc’s paranoia-laced, drug-addled scheming and angling across a crooked urban landscape.

This incoherent PI tale lurches through several other plot contortions, but after a while I stopped keeping score and just immersed myself in its weird, glacially paced scene-building and grungy ambience. I’d be hard pressed to say I enjoyed it, but I did find it a peculiar and diverting watch. Paul Thomas Anderson is an indulgent auteur, but his work is nothing if not interesting, and Inherent Vice is surely that – a deeply bizarre mess embellishing its noir detective trappings with countercultural paranoia, conspiracies, period politics, and a mumbling cast of distinctive oddball characters. It feels like Robert Altman adapting Philip K. Dick at his least accessible, and the results, while grimly amusing and visually arresting, are ultimately not all that satisfying.

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Novel: Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Spending the last several years in California has made me acutely aware of the world’s current and forthcoming water woes, a subject Finnish novelist Emmi Itäranta tackles in her assured debut, Memory of Water (2014). It tells the story of Noria Kaitio, the daughter of a teamaster in the Scandinavian Union – a territory, in this future, that has been occupied by the empire of New Qian. In a post-collapse world wracked by drowned coasts, ecological change, and freshwater shortages, Noria and her family maintain a quaint, modest existence performing tea ceremonies in rural Finland. But as martial law expands to control the world’s dwindling resources, Noria’s gentle, simple life is about to undergo desperate challenges.

Memory of Water is a quietly compelling retrofuture with timely subject matter, sympathetic characters, and a confident voice. There’s an accomplished literary sensibility to its simple but effective narrative, and its atmosphere is immersive and elegiac. This isn’t a particularly cheerful tale, but it’s a powerful one, aiming for the kind of heartbreaking punch that Elizabeth Wein delivered in Code Name Verity. Itäranta doesn’t quite reach those heights, but she makes an admirable go of it, sure-handedly rendering Noria’s story as cautionary metaphor for the rest of us. Quite well done.

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Film – Mad Max: Fury Road

MM-Main-PosterHow to articulate my reaction to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)? Well, on the one hand it’s profoundly stupid. On the other hand, it’s stupidly profound. However you slice it this is a singular creation, perhaps disposable, but also oddly essential – a movie of its time.

In a radioactive, post-collapse world a pocket of survivors lives under the vile, ruling hand of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a repressive dictator who controls a rare source of fresh water and subjugates his people with ruthless abandon. The action begins when one of his trusted drivers, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), goes rogue during a convoy run. Driving a massive war rig, Furiosa has smuggled Joe’s enslaved wives out of captivity, determined to deliver them to freedom. Entangled in the ensuing escape is Max (Tom Hardy), a “blood boy” whose destiny crosses paths with the escaping women – and gives him a chance to redeem himself for a murky failure of his past.

Make no mistake, Mad Max: Fury Road is one long car chase. Comprised of lengthy, brutal action sequences, it’s a dystopian travelogue through an interminable futuristic desert, with Furiosa and Max leading a spirited resistance to Immortan Joe’s small army of vicious pursuers. On this level it’s a chaotic mess. The violence is bloody, the pace is relentless, the physics are suspect, and eyeball kicks never cease. And unfortunately character is at a premium. Hardy makes a decent action hero; Theron one-ups him, both in terms of formidability and charisma. But their characters aren’t so much people as they are emblems. I cared about them as a team fighting insurmountable odds, but there’s no depth there.

Which is probably deliberate. Because while it may be one long car chase, it’s also one long metaphor – an untraviolent, hilariously silly, often unsubtle metaphor. Consider this: wealthy old men literally trickle down their riches to the desperate masses. They wield an army of uninformed white (really white) men to perpetuate their rule. They’ll do anything in the name of gas, bullets, or power. And they treat women as property. It is, in other words, our world, painted in crude brushstrokes on the violent canvas of the blockbuster action film – a genre it has undertaken to slyly subvert.

This is a fiercely progressive film wearing the clothes of a reactionary, conservative genre. There’s a peculiar joy in watching it dismantle the tropes of testosterone-fueled cinema. The male heroes here are the ones who finally recognize the vileness of the status quo and decide to stand up to it. Take pasty skinhead warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who crumbles under the toxic masculinity of his culture, only to finally see through it and change his tune. And then there’s Max, the nominal protagonist, but more heroic in the way he supports Furiosa and her mission. The viewer’s heart is ultimately with Furiosa, and her charges, and their efforts to overturn a status quo that has long victimized and diminished them. There’s a level of crafty subtextual discourse to the film that renders its shallow characters, harebrained logistics, and simplistic plot surprisingly triumphant.

Of course, to absorb all that you have to get past the audacious idiocy of its details. I laughed for the wrong reasons as well as the right ones. But even the eyerolls come with a bonus spark of sociopolitical commentary. Or at least, that’s my take: I’m still not certain if I’m giving this one too much credit, or not enough. You know what they say: there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. Mad Max: Fury Road has plenty of both.

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Film: Night Train to Paris

Even though you haven’t seen Night Train to Paris (1964), you pretty much have seen it. This blend of slangy noir and Hitchcockian wrong-man plot is over-familiar even for its time, but it’s a passable, mindless entertainment that flies by at sixty-five minutes.

Alan Holiday (Leslie Nielsen) is a PR man for an airline with old ties to US military intelligence. His New Year’s Eve is interrupted by the arrival on his doorstep of femme fatale Catherine Carrel (Aliza Gur), who enlists him to help her and an old spy colleague make last-minute travel plans to Paris. In the end, though, the actions of a dastardly enemy agent force him to take the trip himself. Posing as a fashion photographer’s assistant, Holiday joins a train full of partying passengers heading from London to Paris; hijinks, treachery, romance and action ensue.

Night Train to Paris doesn’t have an original bone in its body. Its budget is low and its slim script is stretched to its limit. But it’s quick, painless fun, especially for fans of Nielsen’s later brand of deadpan slapstick who might be curious to see him earn his stripes in a jazzy, black-and-white B movie from the mod sixties.

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TV: Bloodline (Season 1)

BloodlinesPosterBigNetflix’s hot streak continues with Bloodline, a masterful slow-boil of a series that blends mystery and family drama in a distinctive Florida Keys setting. The Rayburns are pillars of a bright, sunlit community whose empire is built on a successful resort hotel founded by inscrutable patriarch Robert (Sam Shepard) and his wife Sally (Sissy Spacek). Their children are son John (Kyle Chandler), an upstanding local police detective; Megan (Linda Cardellini), an attorney who helps run the family business; and Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), who owns a boat charter. They’re a family whose reputation precedes them, and they’re about to be honored with a pier dedication, an event that lures the family’s drifting, black sheep son Danny (Ben Mendelsohn) back home after many years away. A trouble-making outcast, Danny immediately sets nervous ripples across the pristine surface of the family’s world…but it turns out the Rayburns aren’t as pure as they appear, and Danny is at the center of their dark past. His return dredges up tragedies and transgressions of family history that ultimately threaten to tear it apart anew.

Bloodline opens quietly and confidently, setting its hooks in with a combination of flashbacks and flashforwards that hint at the Rayburns’ past troubles and intense, forthcoming traumas. Watching it progress is a little like seeing a lit fuse crawl toward the looming shadow of a massive powderkeg: for all the calm surfaces, it’s clear that something horrible and explosive is coming. Structurally it’s exceptionally sure-handed, revealing just enough glimmers of backstory and foreshadowing to keep the viewer guessing about its past and future mysteries; then, gradually, it layers in detail to fill in the picture, clarifying both mysteries. It’s a gutsy strategy, and it pays off in a brilliantly woven finale that ties in all the audio-visual fragments you’re expecting, but in an arrangement that is subtly surprising and ingenius. Meanwhile the acting is exquisite, with all the primary players – especially Mendelsohn and Chandler – delivering Emmy-worthy performances. The handling of these characters is deft, particularly Danny; he’s a reprehensible, menacing presence, but nuanced enough and explored so richly that his viewpoint is almost sympathetic. He is no shallow, standard villain.

The show does have a few drawbacks. It’s not very diverse or progressive, and its tone is relentlessly dark and unforgiving, so I suspect not all viewers will welcome it. Those who do might find its perfectly elegant finale to be marred by an odd coda that open-ends an otherwise complete and satisfying mystery – perhaps to pave the way for a second season. Issues aside, I think it’s an immersive and worthwhile watch for fans of fine acting, intricate mystery, and patient, confident story-telling.

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Novel: The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

The first book in the Alchemy Wars sequence, The Mechanical (2015), should cement Ian Tregillis even further as one of the fantasy genre’s most accomplished new visionaries. It’s an inventive blend of historical intrigue, steampunk worldbuilding, thought-provoking religious themes, and blazing action.

In an alternate, early twentieth century, the Dutch have conquered the world – or most of it – by infusing clockwork automatons called Clakkers with alchemical magics. These machines are compelled to do the bidding of their political masters, who maintain a firm grip on world power by deploying the Clakkers as a vast, fiercely obedient army. The Dutchs’ only competition comes from the struggling holdouts of New France in North America. But a chain of events is about to begin that may alter the balance of power. In the Netherlands, Pastor Visser – part of a network of French spies – compels a servitor mechanical named Jax to deliver an important artifact to the New World, where French spymaster Berenice is struggling for new intelligence to resist Dutch control. These three figures are destined to become crucial figures in a war between the Dutch and the French – and between obedience and free will.

The Mechanical is fiercly inventive fiction that bends magic, history, religious themes, geopolitics, and spycraft into a singular, fascinating concoction. In that sense it more closely resembles Tregillis’ Milkweed books, although there are dollops of metaphysical musing in the vein of Something More Than Night as well. In other words, it’s a one-of-a-kind fantasy novel that falls squarely into the author’s familiar milieu, while also delivering something a little different. I found it a challenging but assured and compelling read, and I’m definitely looking forward to the sequels.

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TV: Sense8 (Season 1)

Sense8It’s hard to imagine anyone being lukewarm about the ambitious, fascinating new Netflix series Sense8. This type of art either repels you, or compels you. I fell squarely into the latter camp: this is sensational television, a moving and intense ride as likeable in its thoughtful conversations as it is in its kinetic, emotionally fraught action sequences. It’s a singular, unforgettable series.

Sense8 tells the story of eight individuals around the world whose lives, though they don’t know it at first, are intrinsically linked. Upstanding cop Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith) struggles to live up to his legendary father, and his own moral code, in the mean streets of Chicago. In Mexico City, telenovela superstar Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) harbors a secret that jeopardizes his career. In India, pharmaceutical scientist Kala (Tina Desai) is about to get married to the man of everyone’s dreams – except hers. German safecracker Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) has issues extricating himself from a criminal family, while kind-hearted Kenyan bus driver Capheus (Aml Ameen) gets sucked into a world of crime he wants nothing to do with. In London, aimless DJ Riley (Tuppence Middleton) hides from her troubled past in Iceland, while elsewhere Sun Bak (Doona Bae) lives in the shadow of her powerful family, not to mention the suffocating patriarchy of South Korea. Finally there’s Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), a transgender blogger in San Francisco whose family still refuses to accept her transition.

They all have their own lives and their own problems, but they’re about to come together, miraculously – for they are “sensates,” unwitting members of a linked cluster of metahumans whose minds connect over vast distances. They can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel each other’s experiences and memories. As the knowledge of their power grows, so does their ability to leverage it. And it’s a good thing, too, because sinister forces are hard at work looking to track down and exploit them.

It’s a sprawling and complex multi-tracked story with an enormous scope, brilliantly realizing a rich premise – think Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human with a 21st century edge to it. There’s layered and complex mystery-building, a diverse and convincing cast of disparate characters, commanding visual artistry, science fictional trappings, thoughtful philosophical musings, open-minded religious undertones, inventive world-building lore, and profoundly relevant sociopolitical themes…all sprayed, in erratic but artful fashion, over a twelve-episode canvas. The Wachowskis’ penchant for flashy pyrotechnics and massive, logistics-defying productions turns out to be a terrific match with the serial story-telling chops and intriguing themes and ideas of J. Michael Straczynski. It is, first and foremost, an impressive viewing experience: loud, eye-widening, busy as hell, but by no means empty, because it’s also got thought-provoking concepts and heart-winning values underpinning it all.

The acting is top notch from all eight members of the sensate cluster, as well as in key supporting roles; I was particularly fond of Freema Agyeman as Nomi’s spirited girlfriend and Eréndira Ibarra as Lito’s spicy co-star Daniela. And while the heroes of the piece, with the exceptions of Nomi and Lito, aren’t all that finely textured, I found myself caring about them all deeply – and caring about them as a unit, which I think is key to the show’s magic. In a world with a terminal shortage of empathy, Sense8 brings us a multiracial, international, super-powered family that symbolically represents empathy. Individually they’re trying to get by in the face of relentless pressure from toxic, external forces: institutions, prejudices, societal norms, family traditions, corruption, capitalism, the patriarchy, you name it. But it’s when they think outside of themselves, and work together despite vast distances and differences, that they come into their own. It’s a message that the world needs to hear, if my progressive, left-leaning sensibility has anything to say about it, and it landed right in my sociopolitical sweet spot.

Sense8 went straight to my heart so effectively that I found it easy to ignore its flaws. There are tonal missteps from time to time; the cultural backdrops of each nation are perhaps a tad cliché; and the blazing pace of its structurally unforgiving narrative loses some momentum in the home stretch. The finale’s attempt to resolve the complicated weave of plots and subplots, while still leaving the door open for further adventures, is messy, perhaps inevitably so. But none of this diminished my love for series, which from the word go felt like mainlining a madly creative fictionalization of the modern zeitgeist. It’s meaningful, immediate, bracing, and intensely entertaining television that casts a powerful spell.

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Spy 100, #2: North By Northwest

When I first watched North By Northwest (1959) nearly thirty years ago, I had no idea the path it would be sending me down. This classic comic thriller from Alfred Hitchcock was my first spy film, and possibly the most influential single film on me as a writer, even convincing me briefly that I wanted to write screenplays. With the possible exceptions of Brazil and The Great Escape, I’ve probably viewed this film more than any other, and this latest rewatch did nothing to change my mind about it: definitely one of the best spy films of all time, and still one of my favorite films ever.

The “wrong man” in this quintessential mistaken identity plot is New York advertising man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a slick, fast-talking bachelor without a care beyond refilling his glass and placating his acerbic mother (Jessie Royce Landis). Thornhill’s day at the office sends him to a business lunch that goes off the rails when chance leads enemy agents to mistake him for a man named George Kaplan. He’s kidnapped and driven at gunpoint to “Townsend” (James Mason), a suave, sinister fellow determined to interrogate the man he’s convinced is Kaplan. Naturally Thornhill is baffled, but his confusion is mistaken for brilliant play-acting, and the heavies attempt to kill him in an arranged “accident” that he barely escapes with his life. When he explains the circumstances of his adventure to the authorities, nobody – not even his mother– believes him. So he inserts himself into the intrigue even further by investigating the mysterious George Kaplan – a decision that backfires when an escalating sequence of events turns him into a fugitive from justice and an amateur spy.

I envy anyone who hasn’t seen North By Northwest, which is easily one of Hitchcock’s greatest entertainments. Oh, elements of its production certainly don’t hold up to modern standards – this time around, I spied a few more seams showing – but it’s important to remember that when it came out, Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were basically writing the book on this kind of blockbuster. It’s a funny, suspenseful American travelogue that carries Grant, and later femme fatale Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), from New York to Chicago to South Dakota, peppered with witty dialogue, unforgettable suspense setpieces, and impeccable visual story-telling along the way. Hitchcock’s filmmaking craft peaked in the fifties and there’s evidence of his mastery in virtually every frame, from the carefully shot and edited chain of events that thrusts Thornhill unwittingly into the enemy’s sights, to the brilliant cropdusting sequence, to the climactic, cliff-hanging finale on Mount Rushmore. Grant is perfect in a complex comedic lead, Saint shines as his love interest, and Mason and Martin Landau provide the requisite slimy villainy. (Really, does anyone play this kind of role better than James Mason?)

I’m certain a modern viewer coming to this film may find fault with its outdated aspects, but for me the viewing experience is ever rooted in my formative interpretation. I love North By Northwest, and the number two slot on this best-of list seems like the perfect spot for it.

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TV: The Game (Season 1)

Well, points for trying, anyway. British Cold War spy series The Game (2015) takes a stab at filling a potentially lucrative niche: an ongoing, episodic TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Indeed, its visual style seems positively lifted from Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation of that venerable le Carré novel; combine the look with impeccable acting, lush period production values, and an engaging plot, and the show almost succeeds at realizing its vision. Almost.

Set in 1971, The Game begins when Russian defector Arkady (Marcel Iunes) clues MI-5 into a dastardly Soviet plot called Operation Glass, which while shrouded in mystery appears to be a major KGB operation against the British. Tasked to investigate Arkady’s material is the Counterintelligence section: Bobby Waterhouse (Paul Ritter), the shifty, angling fop in charge of the section; his shrewd deputy Sarah Montag (Victoria Hamilton); inscrutable, unpredictable field man Joe Lambe (Tom Hughes); Sarah’s shaggy tech genius husband Alan (Jonathan Aris); a crafty inspector on loan from Special Branch, Jim Fenchurch (Shaun Dooley); and Wendy Straw (Chloe Pirrie), a meek, bookish administrator on her first assignment. Overseeing the crew is “Daddy” (Bryan Cox), the old-hand head of the service. Together the team starts peeling away at Arkady’s story, finding a new layer of treachery at every turn.

The Game is a classy, very well produced serial, and it’s got most of the tools to be a satisfying spy puzzler. With its “Circusesque” cast of characters, seventies intrigue ambience, and copious plot reversals, it has all the surface characteristics to succeed. But it’s missing one very key ingredient – originality. All of its moves – from its story elements to its audio-visual style – come right out of the spy fiction handbook, and it doesn’t have the fresh thematic depth or contemporary relevance to put a new spin on things. Betrayal, institutional rot, the spy’s dilemmas of identity…it plays in the right sandbox, but doesn’t build significantly on the legacy of the shows that precede it: the Karla trilogy, The Sandbaggers, MI-5, even The Hour, to a degree, have done it before and better.

The acting is superb from everyone involved, fortunately. Hughes is perhaps too young-looking for the jaded attitude the script requires of him, and his role is something of a hole in the middle. The rest of the characters, meanwhile, are pressed from an over-familiar mold, but a few of them – Ritter’s complicated Bobby Waterhouse, Dooley’s likeable Jim Fenchurch, a spirited Rachael Stirling in a supporting role – won me over. Even so, the dialogue does dump a few too many genre cliches into their mouths.

None of this is to say it isn’t worth watching, and indeed viewers not as steeped in the genre may find it a perfectly enjoyable mystery. I would watch a second season in a heartbeat, despite my reservations. But when a series wears its influences on its sleeve this boldly, it better hope it’s got the moxy to pull it off. The Game makes a very respectable effort at it, but falls just short.

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Film: Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

I’d like to think that if I had seen Birdman (2014) before Oscar season, I would have recognized it as the obvious Oscar-bait it is. This is a movie by Hollywood, for Hollywood, from its show-within-a-show depiction of actors under pressure behind the scenes, to its impressive (if calculated) one-take cinematography, to its scenery-chewing dramatics, to its simultaneous critique and celebration of artistic excess. I might have been annoyed by this if it hadn’t been so compellingly executed, for this is an exceptional production with a strong, intriguing narrative, superb acting, and interesting commentary about the weird chaos of modern life. I watched it fully immersed and in the moment, only growing disappointed when it continued two endings beyond all the goodwill it had generated.

Michael Keaton stars as fading movie star Riggan Thomson, who has channeled a desperate comeback attempt into a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” This is a man with baggage: a recovering drug addict for a daughter (Emma Stone), unresolved feelings for an ex-wife (Amy Ryan), an ongoing relationship with a co-star (Andrea Riseborough), and, most of all, an unyielding desire to recapture the stardom he achieved decades earlier in a superhero franchise called Birdman. As the production moves into preview week, the arrival of difficult new co-star Michael Shiner (Edward Norton) puts his complicated life under even more stress – and leaves him questioning his every life choice, not to mention his own sanity.

First of all, Birdman is riveting stuff, a runaway train of escalating dramatics that shows off its talented cast – all of the above, plus Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and others – to terrific effect. It blends madness-of-the-arts themes with fantastical elements, interesting thoughts on celebrity and social media, and ambiguous realities. I found it all highly entertaining and thought-provoking, and wasn’t at all distracted by its unique cinematic style: the film splices together a series of extended takes into one long, sinuous narrative that ricochets through viewpoints without cuts, a flashier, more ambitious experiment in the mode of Hitchcock’s Rope. It’s seamlessly done, even when copious special effects come into play.

It’s all great stuff, by and large – especially the acting, for which the cast (especially Keaton) are rightly lauded. But it fails, tragically, to nail its ending…which, for me anyway, unraveled much of my appreciation of the experience. About twenty minutes before the film ends, it sticks one landing –  a false ending, basically – then continues on to a second, less-good ending, and then arrives at its actual ending, which is worse than either of the previous ones. It’s  as if the filmmakers were so absorbed in the magic of their creation – perhaps rightfully so – that they didn’t quite know when to quit. As the movie winds down, then, the spell wore off for me; I had time to consider its techniques and identify its Hollywoodisms, coming away with more negatives than I may have actually experienced. I still think it’s very much worth watching for fans of fine acting and ambitious filmmaking, but it’s a shame the destination doesn’t live up to the journey.

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