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.
Wild (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Dallas Buyer’s Club) and adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir by novelist Nick Hornby (who also scripted An Education), is more than a vehicle for its star / producer Reese Witherspoon. It’s an odyssey on a human scale: a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1700 mile journey undertaken without any preparation or training. For Sheryl, pulling herself out of depression and a self-destructive detour into drugs, it’s an American walkabout cleansing by way of a dare, though the only person she has to prove anything to is herself.
Vallée favors the texture of her experience over her story and DP Yves Bélanger keep us rooted in the beauty and the isolation of the landscape. Hornby’s adaptation is remarkably empathetic to her ordeal, moreso on the trail than in the flashbacks of her spiral into self-destruction (where Laura Dern gives a sublime performance as her mother), and it keeps her voice front and center. And while there is a conventional backbone to the story, it keeps us rooted in the experience of a single woman taking on a challenge that some veteran hikers fail to complete, never forgetting the vulnerability of doing it alone. When a couple of teenage boys rib her about the “princess” treatment she gets from a park ranger (who clearly just wants to get into her tent), she doesn’t school them or remind the audience of some of the more threatening moments she’s endured. She just gets back on the trail and focuses on what matters: moving on.
On Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director Jean-Marc Vallée with producers Bruna Papandrea and David Greenbaum, seven promotional featurettes, and a message from author Cheryl Strayed. The Blu-ray also includes three additional featurettes, an interactive map of the Pacific Crest Trail, and deleted scenes with optional director commentary, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.
Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), a wicked satire of power and social politics, is the confident second feature from the director and his screenwriting partner, Jim Taylor. Coming off of the critical success of Citizen Ruth (1996), a savage and darkly satirical take on the politics surrounding the abortion debate, Payne found the story for his next film in the novel by Tom Perrotta; it satirized the election process through the overheated incubator of a high school campaign for student body president, where favoritism, manipulation and apathy trump democracy at every turn.
For the role of the passionately dedicated and somewhat patronizing civics teacher Jim McAllister, Payne cast Matthew Broderick. It was Broderick’s earnestness and his straight-arrow quality that Payne found perfect for the part. While he had not actually seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) before making the film, Payne was well aware that his casting would reverberate off that beloved character, especially when it came to McAllister’s idealism overcome by his frustrations and shortcomings.
For Tracy Flick, the high school overachiever who sees winning as merely an act of will, he chose rising young actress Reese Witherspoon, who had shown great range and ambition in such films as The Man in the Moon (1991), Freeway (1996) and Pleasantville (1998). Though over twenty at the time, she is completely convincing as both a chirpy, eager-to-please high school senior and as a fearsome, at times emotionally volcanic competitor. Her mix of innocence and drive makes the sexual component of the story (dialed back from the novel, according to Payne, but still a significant element of the plot) all the more startling.
As action movie thrillers seem to get more complicated and convoluted with international conspiracies and technological concepts, writer/producer/Euro-action movie entrepreneur Luc Besson’s Transporter franchise is refreshingly simple: a guy is hired to drive a package from one place to another. No names, no explanations, no questions asked. Jason Statham, a former competition diver turned action star, plays driver Frank Martin with his increasingly effective mix of tough guy integrity and emotional unflappability. Statham isn’t much for actorly nuance and it works for the no-nonsense practicality of Frank, a man who takes great pride in his skills and his freedom to apply them as he sees fit.
After the terrific original film, set on the South coast of France, the filmmakers took it on the road to Florida (a big mistake) and filled it with more CGI effects than rubber on the road and metal-on-metal stunts. It’s back in Europe for the third installment (roaming all over the EU) and back on the road with flamboyant stunt driving and copious collisions between Frank and various gangs of thugs that he takes out single-handedly (which is not to take anything away from his pile-driver legs, the defining tools of this competition diver turned action star). Oh yes, there’s one more twist. Okay, really a gimmick, but it’s a fun one: Frank is shackled with a blinking bracelet bomb that beeps if he goes more the 25 feet from the car and will blow him up (along with a good chunk of real estate) if he roams much farther. “Don’t leave the car!” sounds a bit like “Don’t get out of the boat” from Apocalypse Now, but it’s the kind of complication that defines this genre and creates all sorts of complications with colorful solutions and opportunities for absurd stunts. How do you battle a bad guy on a train if you can’t leave the car? It’s just a matter of flying jump and a little creative parking.
That’s essentially what Transporter 3 is all about. The basic plot, which has something to do with the kidnapping of a Ukrainian party girl (Natalya Rudakova) and a cargo ship loaded with toxic waste (so volatile that it’s still bubbling in the barrels), makes no sense at all. An American mercenary (Robert Knepper of the TV series Prison Break) demands the best driver around to deliver his package, but where? And why? The bad guys have agents seemingly five minutes away from any location, so why outsource the driving to a proven wild card? For all the talk of “the plan,” it just seems like a lot of random instructions that don’t add up to anything other than keeping the girl in motion. And what’s the rush? Frank takes so many detours and stop-offs that you have to wonder whether there was any schedule to begin with. Continue reading “New reviews: ‘Transporter 3’ and ‘Four Christmases’”