Inherent Vice

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As anyone who knows me can attest, I have a constant, raging hard-on for Paul Thomas Anderson and his work, to an extent, I’m afraid, that might make my critique of his newest film, Inherent Vice, rather more subjective than usual. Be that as it may, I really tried to go into the movie (I think I’ve seen it three times now) without too may preconceived notions or expectations—a futile effort, it transpires, as Inherent Vice is a film that defies all expectations before laughing in the face of that expectation and then slamming it’s head in a car door.

Mr. Anderson, Mr. Anderson, why do I love you so? In large part, I think it’s the way he consistently defies any traditionally held perceptions of who and what we think an otherwise archetypical character might be, and eschews any pretense as far as how you think a traditionally noir/romance/comedy/crime drama ought to work. And indeed, the film is all of these and more, somehow miraculously hitting the bulls-eye at every turn. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name and written for the screen by Anderson himself, Inherent Vice incorporates all the trademark humor (visual gags, one-liners, etc.) that we’ve come to expect from this legendary director. I have no reservations about calling the film one of the hands-down funniest of the year, and there’s an underlying element of pseudo-surrealism that flows throughout, which work in tandem to give the audience a kind of contact-high as they spend more and more time in the drug-crazed, neon-saturated underbelly of the fictional Gordita Beach, California.

The films stars Anderson-verse veteran Joaquin Phoenix as the film’s protagonist, drug-addled private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello. Phoenix, playing what is essentially this generation’s version of “The Dude” perfectly pulls off the effortless yet slightly harassed affectation of a hapless hippie suddenly finding himself in a world of incredible violence that he doesn’t fully understand. Josh Brolin also makes an appearance as the raving-mad LAPD officer Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson and, in one of those instances that the audience can tell that the actors are having a really good time onscreen, the casting simply couldn’t be better. There are cameo appearances abound as well, including the always-excellent Benicio del Toro as the reliable yet eccentric Sauncho Smilax, Esq. as well as a memorable a surprising appearance by Martin Short as coked-up Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd.

Inherent Vice is one of those movies that get better with age—and with multiple viewings. To suggest that the film is dense is an understatement, as there are often so many things happening in a single frame that scenes often get disorienting and overwhelming really quickly. In that respect, the jam-packed onscreen atmosphere serves to emphasize the tumultuous, confusing, and chaotic world that these characters are living in, without overburdening the audience with unnecessary expository dialogue. Anderson continues to be one of—if not my favorite—director because he’s a master the old cinematic storytelling essential, “show; don’t tell.” Accordingly, the film is visually stunning, as is to be expected with cinematographer Robert Elswit, having worked on every P.T. Anderson production to date, save Hard Eight.

The earlier comparison to The Big Lebowski was not made idly, either. Like the legendary Coen Brothers production, the plot of Inherent Vice is damn near impossible to follow upon your first viewing; thought like The Big Lebowski, the point of the film is not in the destination, but the journey. While I absolutely understand the frustration that some audience members may experience after having watched the film and feeling almost completely in the dark concerning the mystery the characters were supposed to be uncovering, I highly recommend that those folks go back and see the movie a second time, if the opportunity presents itself. There are so many nuances and details within details that one would have to watch the film a hundred times before worrying about it becoming stale, but the fact is that with every successive viewing, the appreciation for both Pynchon and Anderson’s storytelling chops will grow in equal proportion.

I could write volumes about how Inherent Vice is one of the most unique and engaging and just plain entertaining movies out right now, but, to be frank, this is one experience that you’re just going to have to see for yourself to believe.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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The Interview

Perhaps the most controversial film in recent memory, this year’s annual Seth Rogan flick, The Interview, was finally released in theaters, alongside its day-and-date VOD release. Amid speculation about who is responsible for the initial Sony leak, after viewing the film, it is pretty clear as to why the hackers would find the film objectionable. In addition to an often excessive satirical portrayal of Kim Jong-Un, The Interview seems to emphatically support the idea of a full scale civil uprising to topple the existing regime in North Korea; something that the Sony hackers explicitly stated they are trying to avoid in their demands to the corporation. Though it is impossible to divorce the movie from the media frenzy that overtook it, The Interview is a fine comedy, offering enough laughs to satisfy any fan of the Rogan-Franco bromances of the past.

The film centers around the charismatic but dimwitted Dave Skylark (James Franco), the host of a TMZ style celebrity interview show, and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogan). In order to help Aaron reach his aspirations of being taken seriously as a journalist, Skylark agrees to interview the leader of North Korea, coincidentally a fan of his show. Things become complicated for the pair when they are approached by the CIA to turn their visit to North Korea into an operation to assassinate Kim Jong-Un (Randell Park).  The film plays out in a familiar manner for those familiar with other Rogan/Goldberg collaborations, full of sight gags, crude jokes, and ridiculous situations for the protagonists to navigate. And for the most part, the formula works. The clever jokes outweigh the bad ones, and bits between characters usually ended in laughter from the audience. Unfortunately, the only aspect of the film that doesn’t play well are the actual interactions with Kim Jong-Un, who is too unbelievable, even for the ridiculous world of the film. The numerous scenes portraying the North Korean leader seem more likely to produce groans than laughs, as most of the jokes fall flat between the two excessive personalities of Kim and Skylark. That being said, the abundance of humor in the rest of the film is enough, in my mind, to redeem the few blatantly unfunny moments in the movie.

Surprisingly, the film actually offers more than just cheap laughs and controversy for the viewers. Unlike many blockbuster comedies, The Interview is set apart by truly impressive cinematography throughout. In addition to the host of effective and well constructed sight gags, the film has some really striking shots of what is meant to be North Korea, and comes together as a very aesthetically pleasing product.

Even after all the hype and controversy, The Interview remains a solid and thoroughly enjoyable comedy. While not a standout by any means, if you’re looking for a low-brow, big-laugh film to watch over the Christmas holiday, The Interview is worth your time.

3.5 out of 5

Big Hero 6

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It seems like you can’t walk ten feet these days without being mauled by various superhero paraphernalia, whether it be ads for new marvel movies, action figures, or Happy Meal toys. Naturally, since Disney won’t be satisfied unless they have all the money instead of just most of the money, they’ve decided to dig deep into the Marvel back-log and have pulled out the obscure Big Hero 6, on which today’s film is exceedingly loosely based.

The film comes to us from the superstar tag-team duo consisting of Chris Williams and Don Hall. Williams, also from the 2008 animated extravaganza Bolt, and Hall, also from absolutely nothing, collaborate on this big-budget production, ostensibly a stand-alone universe not convergent with that of the larger Marvel canon. As is the case with mush of Disney’s more recent productions, the visual flash and sparkle was superficially impressive, yet utterly failed to distract me from the tissue-thin plot, two-dimensional characterization, and dialogue that sounded as though it was written by a ten-year-old.

Big Hero 6 features a mostly ensemble cast, including the vocal talents of Ryan Potter as protagonist Hiro Hamada and Scot Adsit as his robotic medical caretaker Baymax. The cheesy-sounding dialogue might be exacerbated, especially in the case of Hiro’s friends, who constitute the other four members of the titular superhero group Big Hero 6, because their every line of dialogue comes across as so obnoxiously enthusiastic, regardless of the situation or the context in which it’s said. There’s very little wit and they way in which the characters play off one another seems very canned and forced at times, not helped at all by the fact that the supporting cast only seems to have one or two archetypical character traits each: i.e. ‘the black guy,’ ‘the slacker,’ ‘the tough-girl,’ etc.

According to Wikipedia, Disney pumped a ton of cash into some state-of-the-art graphical rendering hardware in order to produce the film; while the visuals are undeniably stunning, considerably less attention has been afforded to the story, and the film suffers for it. By far, the most engaging parts of the movie are the interactions between Hiro and Baymax, and while those parts are admittedly filled with a lot of heart, that’s really all the actual substance that plot has on offer. It’s almost as though someone came to the frantic realization that the title of the movie ends in a six and not a two, and basically went “Oh, shit. We’re going to have to cram another four characters in here somewhere!”

Even during the combat sequences (of which there are surprisingly few, given the whole “superhero” thing) the supporting cast hardly seem like they’re even given anything interesting to do, calling into question the necessity it all. It’s pretty clear that Disney is going to try to make an ongoing franchise out of Big Hero 6, so maybe we’ll get more development from the characters as the series continues; honestly, I’m kind of excited to see more, as the visual design and diegetic world-building are all top-notch and really visually compelling.

At the end of the day, Disney gets a new line of toys to sell and Marvel gets to buy another yacht, but for all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Big Hero 6, it’s a barebones action-comedy with a flimsy plot, buoyed by some pretty excellent visual design and a fun and interesting dynamic between the central characters.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Tusk

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At a conceptual level, Tusk sounds like it might fit snugly into the expansive subgenre of schlocky horror flicks that occasionally hit it big and garner a dedicated cult following, not unlike the relatively recent Sharknado, or the now infamous Troll 2. In practice, however, director Kevin Smith’s vision doesn’t quite make the memetic leap that might have otherwise catapulted it to “ironic pop-icon” status.

Smith, continuing to ride off the success his ultra low-budget comedy Clerks (1994), originally came up with the concept for Tusk during an episode of his personal podcast, and thought it might be a fun idea to see if he could stretch that spore of an idea into a feature length film. Also responsible for the writing and editing of the film, Tusk is nothing if not an auteur production. It’s strange, but under normal circumstances I might applaud auteurism like this, as it tends to ensure creativity and a rejection of the generic, committee-designed sludge that we see a lot of nowadays. In the case of Tusk though, I find my mind making unconscious connections to George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels, which, as we well know, is never a good situation to be in. As was the case with Lucas, it’s sometimes dangerous when individuals with such a massive degree of creative control are never told “no.”

The film stars Jake Long essentially playing himself, which I suppose he’s pretty good at, and Michael Parks, who’s been around for a good long while now, but whom most might recall from mainly cameo roles in assorted Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Kevin Smith movies. As in Smith’s 2011 pseudo-thriller Red State, Parks, for what it’s worth, really does know how to invoke his creepy, deranged side when he needs to. Tusk also features a cameo appearance by Johnny Depp, hamming it up as usual, as the eccentric, off-kilter ex cop Guy Lapointe; and yeah, it’s kind of an act that we’ve seen from Depp before, but that’s what he does now, I guess, and in retrospect I don’t know what I was thinking going into it and expecting anything else.

The fundamental problem with Tusk is that it’s trying desperately hard to be in on the joke; that is, the longer we spend in the the film’s universe, the more things begin to feel unreal and preposterous, but in a calculate, deliberate way. It’s almost as if the film is elbow-nudging the viewer every few minutes going “ha ha, oh man, isn’t this quirky? Aren’t you having fun?” If you refer back to those comparisons I drew earlier, you’ll notice that those films play their concept demonstrably straight and with a brazen lack of ironic eye rolling.

Tusk markets itself as a horror-comedy, but in a more practical sense, all notions of horror are kicked in the head by the end of the first act. Instead, the film focuses on the exploits of the protagonist’s two friends as they try to track him down after he seemingly disappears around Manitoba, Canada. Ostensibly, the film tries to establish some kind of race-against-time scenario, but upon finally tracking down their friend, there’s absolutely nothing for them to do when they get there, thus demolishing any sense of agency that the film had established.

Realistically, the rough horror framework of Tusk is just an excuse for Smith to hang the trappings of his trademark referential humor, which might have been a bit funny if Family Guy or any of its derivatives had never existed. That being said, I’m inclined to be a little generous to Tusk because of its admittedly original concept which continued to kick around in my mind after i left the theater, as opposed to being immediately forgotten. It’s not much of a tag line, but I can decidedly say this much: Tusk—It’s better than Atlas Shrugged!

Rating: 3 out of 5

22 Jump Street

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A lot of people were surprised back in 2012 when Phil Lord and Christopher Miller decided to bring the goofy premise of the 1987 television series 21 Jump Street to the big screen. Somehow, the duo managed to make the relatively obscure series a household name, due in large part to the hitherto unknown and charming chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. A clever script and some fairly consistent humor buoyed the film’s popularity and set the stage for this year’s sequel that absolutely no one was asking for. Nevertheless, 22 Jump Street, thankfully seems to have more ambition than simply riding along on the success of the original.

Fresh from the Earth-shaking and unprecedented success of The Lego Movie, directing team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller take on this project with admirable enthusiasm, really endeavoring to make a sequel that deserves to exist alongside its predecessor. Tatum and Hill, of course, return as officers Jenko and Schmidt, giving the film its vitality. I know this is a bit of a bold claim, but after giving it some thought I’m just not sure that the Jump Street franchise could really work with anyone else. The way in which Tatum and Hill play off one another is utterly unique, and, try as I might, I just can’t come up with another action/comedy duo why might be able to bring something comparable to the table.

The main boast that 22 Jump Street has over other similar comedy sequels is its self-awareness. “Meta” really is the name of the game, with the running gag being the the “department” spending twice as much money on the investigation and expecting to get twice the results. Indeed, in a cameo appearance by Nick Offerman, Deputy Chief Hardy orders Jenko and Schmidt “just do exactly what you did last time. Everyone’s happy.”

While the self-awareness thing is refreshing up to a point, it’s easy to overdo it to the point where it starts to become eye-rollingly obnoxious. 22 Jump Street starts to straddle that line after a while, but, as i mentioned earlier, the fun and excitement of watching Tatum and Hill play off one another mostly works to keep things interesting. All things considered, the film isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is, and the fourth-wall-breaking antics of the two leads are really the only things that elevate the film above your average, cash-in, committee-designed sequel. That’s not to say that it isn’t a funny a movie, or even a good comedy, because it is; but the fact of the matter is that while it certainly doesn’t stoop to the level of being written-off as a blatantly unnecessary sequel, it just isn’t as fun or creative as 21 Jump Street.

If you choose to catch a showing of 22 Jump Street, your degree of enjoyment will likely depend on your tolerance for the goofy yet heartwarming mishaps of Hollywood’s favorite man-children. At the end of the day, I’d say it’s probably worth the price of admission and it’s hands-down one of the best comedies to be released this year.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The World’s End Review

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The World’s End, the final installment in the wildly popular Three Flavors Trilogy also known as The Cornetto Trilogy also known as the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy, has been a long time in the making. Succeeding Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), The World’s End marks the completion of Edgar Wright’s triptych. Happily, Wright, along with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, know precisely how to deliver consistently funny and hugely entertaining films and I’m pleased to say that this final entry is my personal favorite of the series.

Directed, as always, by Edgar Wright and written by both Wright and Pegg, The World’s End begins as a reluctantly undertaken pub crawl through the protagonists’ hometown, and ends as a kooky sci-fi adventure that I certainly would’t have seen coming if it hadn’t been given away in the damn trailer. Nevertheless, the writing provides us with  some of the most clever and wittiest dialogue that we’ve seen in a long time, and, quite surprisingly in fact, The World’s End incorporates some well shot, well choreographed action sequences that add a really interesting kind of flow and tempo to the numerous brawls that actually make up a large percentage of the film’s runtime.

Starring Pegg, Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Paddy Considine, the film is a tag team of outstanding British talent that American audiences sometimes miss out on. Needless to say, Wright does a wonderful job of crafting interesting and funny characters and acting is spot-on all around. Notable, perhaps, is the fact that Pegg undergoes a bit of a transformation here compared to his go-to, everyman character that he’s played in the previous two Cornetto films. Pegg portrays Gary King, an alcoholic adolescent stuck in a middle aged man’s body attempting to tenaciously re-capture the faded splendor of his high school days. Not only does Pegg absolutely own the role from start to finish, but he also manages to take the character to a really dark and even moving place without sacrificing the fun, lighthearted tone.

The only real issue that I have with the film is that the ending gets a bit ludicrous, and even that’s not doing it justice. Granted, it wasn’t as jarringly nonsensical as the non sequitur that was This is the End’s finale, but it seems the consequences of the story’s resolution are a vast departure from the happy-go-lucky tone of the rest of the movie.

Chances are that you already know if you’re going to like The World’s End before you see it, as it’s one of those movies that does what it says on the box, so to speak, and does it very well. Apart from being an interesting if lighthearted commentary on the increasing “starbuckization” of British suburban life, the film is hands-down one of the funniest and most creative properties to be released in recent memory.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

Kick-Ass 2 Review

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Kick-Ass 2 has been a long time coming, with the original, directed by Matthew Vaughn, having been released in 2010. Suffice it to say, Kick-Ass 2 has some mighty big shoes to fill given the massive popularity of its predecessor. After a change in directors, it remains unclear whether the the film will be able to make that singular brand of hyper-violent lightning strike twice.

Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, also responsible for the rather lackluster films Cry_Wolf and Never Back Down, Kick-Ass 2 is loosely based on the second entry in the comic series of the same name. Kick-Ass 2 is in a difficult position from the outset because it must necessarily be compared to the original Kick-Ass, which is, by all accounts, a far superior film. After the credits began to roll, my first impression was that Wadlow had watched Kick-Ass and thought it was pretty neat, but didn’t really grasp core aspects that made it a great movie. More on that in a bit though.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Mortez reprise their roles from the first film as David Lizewski and Mindy Macready, respectively. Likewise, Christopher Mintz-Plasse undergoes a bit of a transformation as he takes on the role of newly christened antagonist, ‘The Motherfucker,’ and Jim Carrey joins the fray in a cameo appearance as Colonel Stars and Stripes. Like most movies this summer, I have a bigger problem with the quality of the writing than I do with the acting. That being said, Johnson and Mortez both do what they can with the material they’re given, but the real standout, strangely, was not Carrey but Plasse. Plasse’s unassuming, nerdy presence contrasts hilariously with his over the top super villain outfit and his bombastic monologues constitute some of the film’s more memorable moments. The most jarring difference from the original, as you may have guessed, is the absence of Nicholas Cage as Big Daddy. Cage’s performance in Kick-Ass added so much heart and charisma to that film, not to mention that he seemed to perfectly embody the psychotic kind of person who would dare to be a real life superhero.

As I mentioned before, Kick-Ass 2 shuns its roots in favor of a much more generic and ultimately weaker experience. It almost seems as though Wadlow said “Hey, people liked the violence and action of the original, so why don’t we just do more of it?” In reality, there was an underlying element of irony and subversion to the original that essentially deconstructed a lot of the standard superhero tropes that have been done to death over the years. Kick-Ass 2, on the other hand, kind of takes for granted that real-life superheroes, in the context of the Kick-Ass universe, have kind of been established as “a thing” at this point, and instead focused on telling a rather uninteresting story.

Apart from being WAY too long, there were several plot points that seemed blatantly unnecessary. For instance, about 25 or 30 minutes of the movie were taken up by an almost Mean Girls-esque sub-plot involving Hit Girl navigating the complex social strata of her high school. There scenes were so jarringly out of place when compared to the tone of the rest of the film that I couldn’t help but groan as the movie dragged on and on. Now, I realize that the intention was to portray Hit Girl as maladjusted and socially inept as a result of her childhood being spent fighting crime, but the simple fact of the matter is that I couldn’t bring myself to care when the film goes through the trouble of first characterizing her as an unstoppable badass, then switching directions and putting her in trivial and unnecessary situations for the majority of the film.

It pains me to say that Kick-Ass 2 is kind of a wash because I, along with many others, was a big fan of the original. Nevertheless, there’s just not a lot to recommend about this strange, ultra-violent piece of cinema, mainly due to a bland, predictable story and a heavy reliance on violence in place of any remnant of clever subversiveness. To quote Big Daddy from 2010, “Kick-Ass? More like Ass..Kick. Huehuehue.”

Rating: 2 out of 5