Inherent Vice (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), Paul Thomas Anderson’s loopy take on Thomas Pynchon’s dope-infused private eye novel, earned Anderson an Oscar nomination for his ingenious screenplay adaptation and critical raves for the rich pageant of eccentrics and oddballs bouncing through 1970 Los Angeles with a post-sixties hangover. I never read Pynchon’s novel so I’ll take the word of those who insist that Anderson is faithful to the story and the spirit of the original even as he condenses and combines characters and scenes. I can say that I was drawn into this crazy world completely by Anderson and his merry pranksters, a shaggy dog mystery with a stoner Philip Marlowe applying of free-association investigative technique to various cases he’s juggling, all of which eventually tangle together in some form or another in the great tradition of the PI drama. Though “drama” is not the word I’d use for this. Absurdist flashback possibly, with socio-political commentary woven through the long, strange trip.
Joaquin Phoenix is the actor you go to for a deep plunge into character transformation. His Larry “Doc” Sportello, a joint-smoking private eye in mutton chops and beachwear, isn’t the tragic, tormented figure of The Master or the mercenary pimp with the glimmer of a soul in The Immigrant but he is equally unique, a man in his own universe that happens to cross paths with ours. Working through perpetual high, the aging beach bum of a detective is talked into tracking down a notorious developer by his old girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), whose return may just be the wishful thinking of his imagination, and he trips into a couple additional cases doing his rounds: finding a missing saxophone player turned federal informant (Owen Wilson) for a forlorn wife (Jena Malone) and a white supremacist thug for an old friend, and untangling a drug cartel called the Golden fang. Not necessarily in that order. Or in any order. Meanwhile he keeps tangling with frenemy Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), an uptight, hippie-hating cop with a sideline as a bit player on TV, and dropping in on assistant D.A. and occasional bedfellow Penny (Reese Witherspoon). Don’t try to keep the players straight. The connections are as twisty as the through line and the narration by a part-time psychic named Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) is more beat poetry than exposition.
Anderson shot on 35mm—as much a tribute to the era it celebrates as a stand against the complete capitulation to digital production—and recreates the era without lots of digital trickery. It’s all about the atmosphere, the hazy sunlight in the city, the ramshackle beach community in the final days before developers stepped in. Audiences were confused by the tangled plot but the rambling, weirdly funny picture is the kind of crackpot odyssey I love.
Blu-ray and DVD with an excellent transfer (preserving the 35mm textures and colors) and minimal supplements: three trailers and a six-minute deleted/alternate sequence.
It’s also available to watch VOD on iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other services.
Boogie Nights / Magnolia (New Line) – The two films that put Paul Thomas Anderson on the map arrive on Blu-ray this week. His sophomore feature Boogie Nights (1997), about the adult film industry in the late 1970s (partially inspired by the life of porno star John Holmes) is a surprisingly vibrant, funny, and at times quite warm story of a dysfunctional filmmaking family, with Burt Reynolds as a quiet but firm director Dad and Julianne Moore as the porn star surrogate mother to the company’s teen stars Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), the “natural” from the suburbs who is quickly recruited. Anderson’s flamboyant camerawork creates a heady atmosphere of excitement and energy that comes crashing down in the third act when the porno industry changes almost overnight and Diggler’s ego (fed by an out-of-control drug habit and delusions of talent) sends him out of his family’s bosom and into the cold, cruel world. And yet he still manages to pull out a happy ending (of sorts) against all odds. Magnolia (1999), Anderson’s third film, is a sprawling ensemble epic of lonely lives and damaged souls whose paths cross (however tangentially) over the course of two days in Los Angeles. The stories of over a dozen characters are held together by a web of coincidence (one of the film’s more abstract themes), Aimee Mann’s tough but tender songs, and Anderson’s energy and bravura direction, culminating in an astounding half hour crescendo that inexorably builds to a second act anti-climax, as sad and frustrated a moment as the cinema has seen. The final hour is dedicated to recovery, release and rebirth.
They make a beautiful matched pair of compassionate, impassioned and creative portraits of American souls in distress from an ambitious young filmmaker who throws himself headlong into his movies. By the time of There Will Be Blood, Anderson had honed his talents and his vision, creating images that look hewn out of the rock of his landscapes and stripped of all but the elemental essence of his film. These are different, the ambitious explorations of a young artist excited to explore the possibilities of the tools at his disposal, and for all the self-indulgence and unrealized ambition of the films, they are exciting and enthralling works carried along by his delight in filmmaking itself as much as by the stories. Magnolia especially is a kind of cinematic opera where each performance offers its own aria.
Between Christmas 2007 and Oscar night 2008, the entire critical discussion seemed centered on arguing out which side you stood on: No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood. Which was the most authentic, the most provocative, the most profound, the most elemental, and which was the best American film of the year. It was almost like you had to denigrate one to support the other. Now that the debate has calmed, I think we can let these two distinct portraits of the hard, unforgiving American frontier co-exist as different perspectives from the same wellspring.
Loosely adapted from Sinclair Lewis’ novel “Oil!,” it reworks the American entrepreneurial success story as an elemental frontier myth, roughly hewn out of the landscape that is remade in its wake. The magnificent opening pits lone prospector Daniel Plainview against the very earth itself, wordlessly digging his way to the American dream until his mine strikes a gusher. When he finally speaks some 15 minutes into the film, he has reinvented himself as a self-made oil man, and he finds his nemesis in a self-aggrandizing young preacher (Paul Dano) who set out to humble Plainview as he builds his church on Plainview’s money.
Not quite as ambitious or serious is Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the latest from the Judd Apatow comedy factory, and it’s being released in both the original theatrical version and an extended cut the filmmakers call Walk Hard – American Cox: The Unbearable Long, Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut, which I have to admit makes me smile.
John C. Reilly plays Cox with wide-eyed harmlessness from age 14 (towering over his high-school bandmates) to somewhere around 70. In between he gets hooked on every substance known to show-biz, drops acid with The Beatles (played by Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman), turns into Brian Wilson for an endless summer, abandons a few dozen children, and meets his soulmate in country-twanged singer Darlene (Jenna Fischer in June Carter mode). Directed by Jake Kasdan (who co-wrote the script with producer Apatow), it’s more silly than clever, quoting “Ray” and “Walk the Line” (among other biopics) as Dewey morphs through country, R&B, rock, folk and other musical genres