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Posts Tagged ‘Joaquin Phoenix’

There are a number of ways one could approach the discussion of Todd Phillips’ Joker. One of the best jokes in last year’s Teen Titans Go! To the Movies concerned a succession of spoof Batman spin-offs desperately trying to wring every last drop of commercial potential out of the character’s mythology – a movie about the Batmobile, a movie about Batman’s utility belt, and so on – and from a certain point of view the new movie does look like exactly this sort of thing.

Or, one could suggest that the new film comes from the same place as recent successes like the Deadpool films and Venom: there does seem to be a market for dark, morally ambiguous fantasy films aimed at an older audience, and you don’t get much darker or more morally compromised than the world’s most famous supervillain. (If you wanted to be really nasty you could start comparing it to the 2004 Catwoman film, which it likewise bears a passing resemblance to, but that would surely qualify as unnecessary cruelty.)

Then again, you could also view it as the inevitable next step in the rise of comic book movies to complete world domination: superhero films routinely make billions, and are beginning to acquire a certain sort of respectability – Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture, and it’s a reasonable bet that Avengers: Endgame will be, too – and Joker looks very much like a calculated attempt at a classy, serious film intent on receiving critical acclaim in addition to its almost-inevitable financial success.

Who knows? Maybe it’s all of these things. What we can definitely say is that it is set in a squalid, 1980s version of Gotham City, where we find Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). By day, he is a white-faced, green-wigged clown for hire; by night, an aspiring stand-up comedian (unexpectedly, pretty much the only joke we hear him deliver is a classic Bob Monkhouse line). He is a deeply troubled man twenty-four hours a day, though, living alone with his mother, obsessed with a TV chat show host and comedian (Robert De Niro), taking seven different medications for various psychiatric conditions, and afflicted with a curious nervous complaint causing him to laugh uncontrollably in stressful situations.

But, over the course of one hot summer, with the city wracked by a financial crisis, those stressful situations keep coming, taking their toll on Arthur’s fragile mental state. The tipping point comes when he is attacked on the subway by three entitled, arrogant young employees of the Wayne corporation: in a matter of seconds his assailants are dead and he realises he feels much more cheerful and comfortable with himself. News reports of a killer clown preying on the wealthy are soon spreading, while it is becoming increasingly clear that a nihilistic force of chaos is incubating within Arthur, only waiting for the right moment to manifest itself…

It may be a coincidence, but films featuring the Joker have a tendency to attract controversy more or less in proportion to the acclaim received by the actor in the role: the 1989 Batman featured one of Jack Nicholson’s biggest turns, and was a very rare example of a film which required the BBFC to create a new certification for it (the 12 rating, should you be wondering). Heath Ledger famously won a posthumous Oscar for his performance in The Dark Knight, but the film was again mired in controversy for supposedly glamorising knife violence. It should come as no surprise that Joker is also getting some commentators hot under the collar, the suggestion being that it may inspire copycats to perpetrate the same kind of violence that the Joker indulges in here.

There is certainly a question to be asked about what exactly is going on with a film like this, and it’s the same one many people asked about the last movie to feature the Joker, 2016’s Suicide Squad: why do a movie about the Joker without Batman in it? Isn’t the whole point of the character that he’s an antagonist and a foil to someone else? One of the many smart things about The Dark Knight was its handling of the unhealthily co-dependent relationship between the two of them. All the word on Joker is that this is a standalone film; any appearances of the character in the foreseeable future will feature the Jared Leto version, not Phoenix’s. So what’s the point of an origin film for a someone we’re never going to see again?

Well, the quality of the film is more than high enough to answer most criticisms along these lines: the depiction of a grimy, seething Gotham is as good as any other we’ve seen in the movies, and the film is built around a characteristically intense and committed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. This is quite a long film, with the recognisable Joker persona not appearing until the closing stages of it, and Phoenix takes us through every step of Fleck’s psychological disintegration and transformation. This is the kind of performance that normally gets award nominations when it isn’t in a comic book movie; it will be interesting to see how hard the old prejudices die.

Phoenix works hard to be pitiable and relatively sympathetic early in the film, but by the climax the character has convincingly become a genuinely unsettling and frightening psychopath. The film obviously owes a big debt to The Dark Knight – in both films the Joker chooses to paint his face, rather than having his skin chemically bleached in an accident – but the climax is equally obviously inspired by a sequence from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (probably the single most influential Batman story of all time). It’s Miller’s version of the Joker which Phoenix seems to be channelling.

It’s still the case that the film-makers have made up a new genesis for the Joker from scratch (the Joker’s creators felt that giving him a history would humanise the character too much, something Christopher Nolan later agreed with) and so the decision to make the film about mental illness is a deliberate choice on their part. Again, one wonders whether this is a slightly portentous comic book movie which has adopted some very mature subject matter in order acquire some spurious gravitas, or if it’s a seriously-intentioned drama about the corrosive effects of urban alienation and isolation that’s roped in some of the Batman characters to make itself more commercial. I’m really not sure; the answer may actually lie in the film’s various homages to films made around the time it is set – most obviously King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, of course, but there are also surely references to Network and The French Connection.

All the call-backs are respectful and clearly sincere, but they seem to be the main reason why the film is set decades in the past. This is another decision which does have awkward consequences, especially when you consider that Joker seems to want to comment on various current social issues – for instance, the Joker finds himself adopted as the figurehead for an Occupy-style anti-capitalist movement (in line with this, the film features an atypically unsympathetic take on Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen)). None of this feels especially thought-through, though, and the film doesn’t feel like it’s presenting a cohesive thesis. Heath Ledger’s enigmatic Joker was an agent of chaos and madness, demanding the other characters in the film re-assess their attitudes and moral choices; Phoenix’s more accessible Joker is just a symbol of chaos and madness, the film too introspective for him to be anything more.

Then again, in the absence of Batman, he doesn’t really need to be. I suspect that this is a film which is liable to be over-praised for the way it brings a grim, gritty, psychologically naturalistic approach to its comic book source material (ironically, the writers of comic books figured out that going dark and mature was essentially a blind alley over two decades ago). The film is impressively made and Phoenix, as noted, gives a brilliant performance, but it offers little in the way of genuine insight and it runs the genuine risk of taking itself too seriously. Without Batman or an equivalent figure to engage with, the Joker isn’t an especially interesting or significant character. Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix are to be commended for making a film which to some extent manages to avoid confronting this problem, but this doesn’t mean they’ve solved it. Joker is very impressive on its own terms, it’s just that those terms are undeniably odd.

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From a British perspective you can’t fault John C Reilly’s approach to the year so far: having befouled cinemas with Holmes and Watson right at the beginning of January, he has apparently been doing his very best to make amends, giving an excellent performance in the very good Stan & Ollie, and now doing much the same in The Sisters Brothers, which he also produced. On the other hand, this is sort of a trick of the light, given that The Sisters Brothers was actually released in the States well over six months ago and is only now reaching screens in the UK (and not many of them at that).

In our world of day and date releasing, with films usually coming out more or less simultaneously across the anglophone world, what can we infer from this delay? Well, it’s usually a sign that a studio doesn’t have much faith in a movie and isn’t in a hurry to capitalise on the buzz it has generated, often because there isn’t any. Certainly The Sisters Brothers has been released into the world at a fairly quiet time (at least, as quiet as it gets with everyone gearing up for the first really big releases of the year in only a few weeks), without much in the way of publicity, and much of that rather odd (we shall return to this). How come? Well, here we come to the nub of the issue. Money has nothing to do with artistic achievement – well, less than you might think – but in a spirit of full disclosure I feel obliged to mention that The Sisters Brothers was a bomb on its American release, making back only about a quarter of its budget.

The film is the work of the acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard, who won the top prize at Cannes with Dheepan in 2015 and before that made the very impressive Rust and Bone. The Sisters Brothers finds him working in that most American of genres and idioms, the western, with Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix playing the title characters, who are a pair of ne’er-do-wells – basically hired killers – in the service of a wealthy but unprincipled man known as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, in what proves to be a startling instance of stunt casting). Reilly plays Eli, the elder and more thoughtful of the pair, who is beginning to have reservations about their lifestyle; Phoenix plays Charlie, who is more of a loose cannon and thinks everything is fine just as it is.

As the film opens, the brothers are dispatched in support of a private detective, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is also working for the Commodore. Morris is on the trail of mild-mannered chemist Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has developed a new process vastly facilitating the acquisition of gold – as this is 1851, with the California gold rush still a going concern, there is potentially very big money to be made here. Morris is to find Warm and restrain him, at which point the brothers will forcibly extract the secret of the process from him and then dispose of his remains. It’s very simple, if not exactly virtuous – but then Morris finds himself warming to Warm and his idealistic notions as to what to spend the gold on, and the two men strike up a tentative partnership of their own. Meanwhile, the pursuing Sisters have issues of their own, with Eli increasingly coming to the conclusion that this is not how he wants to spend the rest of his days…

I was fairly indifferent about the prospect of seeing The Sisters Brothers when it first started popping up in the ‘coming soon’ sections of my preferred media outlets – I’ve nothing against a good western, but this is a genre which feels like it’s been on life-support for decades. Whenever they do make a western now, it’s usually an opportunity for an art-house director to do something radical and revisionist to it, or it’s a clumsy attempt by a big studio to revive the genre which normally ends up bland and annoying. This is certainly from the former camp, and my tolerance for this sort of thing really depends on exactly what the director’s take on the form is: extra grit, misery and gore is neither inspired not particularly impressive. The trailer that eventually turned up for The Sisters Brothers promised something rather different: it was fast, funny, and was soundtracked by (I am assuming) Gloria Jones singing ‘Tainted Love’, which is not the kind of tune you would associate with the American west. The idea of a western with a northern soul soundtrack struck me as an interesting and witty one, and did the job of making me interested in seeing the film.

Well, I have to report that this is practically a case of false advertising, for while this film’s soundtrack is certainly quirky, it is almost wholly orchestral. Should I feel cheated? Well, maybe: but the rest of the film is certainly interesting and generally speaking a worthwhile watch. To begin with it looks very much like a classic western tale, dealing with issues of morality and self-realisation on the open range, but kept lively and very watchable by great performances from the four leads – but especially Reilly, who brings real depth and warmth to someone who could easily have had neither. Audiard isn’t one of those people who tries to ‘fix’ the western by turning it into something else – there is all the magnificent scenery one could hope for (I should point out that this film was made in the land of the Spaghetti western, i.e. Spain), and frequent shoot-outs along the way – for all of their tendency to bicker with each other, the Sisters brothers are alarmingly proficient killers. The story builds up to the encounter between the brothers and Warm and Morris very satisfyingly.

And then something very odd happens, which may be at the root of the troubles that The Sisters Brothers has had at the box office. The film takes an odd turn, with what feels undeniably like a allegory about greed and its effects on the environment briefly appearing, and then… Well, we’re into the final act of the film by this point, so I can’t really go into detail, but the film-makers essentially rip up the rule-book as to how a story should develop and do something radically different instead. It’s the kind of thing that could happen in real life, but never happens in movies, the sort of plot twist that film critics tend to love (85% on a well-known solanaceous review aggregation website) but general audiences respond very poorly to (only $3.1 million at the US box office). I can kind of admire Audiard’s audacity in playing with expectations and dispensing with traditional ideas of closure, but I have to say that something with a bit more rootin’ tootin’ would have felt more emotionally satisfying.

Still, one gets a definite sense that Audiard has made exactly the film he wanted to make, and it is still a pretty good one: the setting is well realised, the performances strong, and there are moments both amusing and emotional in the course of the film. But at the same time I can see exactly why it has struggled commercially: the strange shifts in tone and the lack of a conventional ending feel like an attempt to deliberately wrong-foot audiences, and this happens to late to really win them back again before the film is over. It’s hard to criticise the film for this, but I think this is certainly the source of its problems. Worth seeing, but I couldn’t give this an unqualified recommendation.

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Heaven knows there are enough reasons to be alarmed by the state of the modern world, but this can manifest in some unexpected ways. ‘This is the death of cinema! We’re talking about a major director, here! Black Panther showing on three screens, and Peter Rabbit! It’s just commercial slop everywhere! Stock, Aitken and Waterman! I don’t believe it!’ cried a friend of mine, the cause of this outrage being the news that Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here was only showing at four Odeons nationwide and that we would have to go slightly further afield to see it than usual. (I hesitate to share more details of his Howard Beale-esque outburst, partly because I am not unsympathetic to the general gist of it, but mainly because he sits next to me at work and is wont to complain if he feels he’s been misrepresented on the blog.)

I have to say that for a film which at least one major cinema chain seems reluctant to touch, You Were Never Really Here attracted a decent crowd to the late-on-a-Friday-afternoon showing that we eventually strolled up to. I must admit to being slightly curious as to whether people had been drawn in because of the ostensible thriller trappings of the film, or Ramsay’s own reputation. She is not, one has to say, the most prolific of film-makers, this being only her fourth full-length movie in nearly twenty years, but she regularly gets acclaimed as one of the best film-makers working in the world today: I had almost forgotten that I saw her second film, Morvern Callar, fifteen years ago, and was rather impressed by it.

The new film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a private security operative – basically, a mercenary – with a somewhat chequered past. After concluding his current mission, Joe heads home, where he keeps an extremely low profile as he cares for his elderly mother. Soon enough, however, a new assignment comes his way: a senator’s teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) has fallen into the hands of the darkest elements of the underworld, and he is commissioned to retrieve her, ideally with the maximum incidental brutality (Joe is happy to oblige with this).

Initially Joe’s planning and preparation pay off, but very soon the job goes bad on him, and he finds that not only he but those around him are in deadly peril. And beyond even this, he may now be the only one with a chance of saving the girl.

Everyone’s obvious touchstone when it comes to comparing You Were Never Really Here with other things is Taxi Driver, and you can certainly understand why – this is a dark, brutal film, driven along by an exemplary central performance. However, as you may perhaps have been able to tell from the synopsis, there’s also a sense in which – on paper at least – the actual plot of the movie sounds like the stuff of a much more routine thriller – you can imagine Luc Besson doing almost exactly the same story, probably starring Liam Neeson. For all that this is essentially an art-house movie – that’s the kind of release it seems to have received, anyway – the structure of the story is also very conventional; you can imagine all the various screenwriting gurus and writers of craft books like How to Plot Your Movie watching it and nodding approvingly, for only in its closing stages does it really depart from narrative orthodoxy.

However, if we should take only one thing away from You Were Never Really Here, it is that it’s not just about the ingredients, but the delivery – fond as I am of a good solid no-frills thriller, no-one would ever mistake Ramsay’s film for one of those. A few years ago I read a piece discussing the whole subgenre of vigilante movies, suggesting that they basically come in two flavours: one where the use of violence fixes the world, and one where the use of violence is just representative of how irretrievably broken the world is. This is only marginally a vigilante movie, but as such it definitely falls into the latter category – there is nothing thrilling or cathartic about the film’s occasional eruptions of grisly mayhem, and Ramsay does not present them in a remotely glamorous way. As Joe lumbers into action, gripping his weapon of choice (the domestic hammer, usually applied to the skull of anyone who gets in his way), your first instinct is simply to shrink down in your seat and cover your eyes, because you know that the film is not going to shy away from the awful consequences of violence. When Joe is forced to fight for his life against a gunman sent to kill him, around the midpoint of the film, this is not some set-piece demonstration of martial arts, but a blurred and confusing chaos.

It may be off-putting to some, but the film is all obviously the work of the same clear vision – aside from a couple of scenes early on, there is very little in the way of genuine exposition, just a succession of signs and implications as to what is actually happening, and what it all means. This is especially true when it comes to Joe’s own past. The film’s Wikipedia page informs the reader very breezily of who he is and where he comes from (it also fills in a few plot details which are less than clear on-screen) – it may be that the novella by Jonathan Ames, on which the film is based, is more on-the-nose about these things – but in the actual movie, this is all presented as a series of disjointed, almost nightmarish flashbacks, some of them almost subliminal.

Despite all this, you are never really in doubt about what is happening, partly due to Ramsay’s skill, but also thanks to an intensely powerful performance from Joaquin Phoenix as a man who is, not to put too fine a point on it, deeply messed up. Joe is more-or-less sympathetic for much of the movie, but no-one in their right mind would want to be him – and this is made clear by Phoenix’s dead-eyed stare, his aura of defeat, his almost total withdrawal from the normal world of human interaction. Phoenix’s main co-star in this movie is, in an odd way, the actual soundtrack of the film (a brilliant contribution by Jonny Greenwood), and it’s almost as if we are hearing the contents of his head – driving, percussive rock when he is going into action, a more discordant, atonal soundscape when he is at the mercy of his demons.

This is not an easy film to watch, coming from a very dark place and concluding on, at best, a finely-judged moment of ambiguity. I would honestly struggle to call it entertainment, but it is at the very least a superbly crafted piece of art, that has something to say which it communicates with tremendous skill.

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Connoisseurs of digital projection technology not being what it cracked up to be would have enjoyed some marvellous scenes at the Phoenix in Jericho, the other day, when a system crash resulted in a large number of screenings having to be switched between the planned theatres at short notice. Now, as you might expect, moving from the small screen-with-the-slightly-inadequate-rake to the nice big screen was not a problem, but switching the other way was. Large crowds of tense filmgoers built up, all intent on bagging the prime seats in rows A, E, and F. It was of course nice to see such commitment to filmgoing, especially from an audience which was, not to put too fine a point on it, knocking on a bit.

What was the occasion for such a keen and sizable turnout? Well, believe it or not, it was a preview showing of Irrational Man, this year’s Woody Allen movie. I had no idea he still had such a dedicated following (and I’m saying that as someone who’s only missed one of his films in the last five years or so – inevitably it turned out to be the really acclaimed and successful one).

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I don’t know, the fashionable thing is to say that Woody Allen has long since been off the boil, but was he ever really that consistent? Even some of the Early, Funny films are not honestly that funny. I was writing about his work ethic recently and it really seems to me that his reputation does rest in part on the fact that he simply never stops working – if one film is bad (as they not infrequently are), well, never mind, he’s already in the middle of making the next one, with a further project at the scripting stage. His movies are cheap enough to make, attract big enough stars, and he has a big enough cult following to keep going no matter what. On the other hand, this way of working basically means he has to make a film every year, regardless of whether or not he has had a decent idea or if the script is as polished as it needs to be.

Which brings us to Irrational Man, another one of Allen’s forays into morality-based comedy-drama. It opens with a voice-over where Joaquin Phoenix muses about Kant while his character cruises along in his car drinking whiskey, so you know this is going to be a film with aspirations to profundity right from the word go. Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a maverick philosophy professor (yup, another film about a maverick philosophy professor) who is starting a new job, but has basically lost his mojo. Needless to say, however, his intensity and erudition make him irresistible to many of the women on the college campus (fellow academic Parker Posey and student Emma Stone amongst them). I know, I know – an older, intellectually-inclined man has effortless romantic success with extremely attractive young women? In a Woody Allen movie? What are the chances?!?

Bafflingly, this still doesn’t cheer Abe up, and he resorts to doing odd things like playing Russian roulette at parties to give his life some fleeting excitement. All this changes when he overhears a woman complaining about the misery her life has become as the result of the actions of a corrupt public official. He resolves to put his radical ethical theories into action by – you guessed it – planning and committing the murder of the man in question, believing it to be morally justifiable, and – perhaps more importantly – completely untraceable to him. The notion perks him up considerably, and soon he finds he is enjoying life much more…

Going to a Woody Allen movie is itself not entirely unlike playing Russian roulette – not that there’s a strong chance of you getting shot in the head (not at the kind of cinemas I generally frequent, anyway), but you really have no way of knowing whether the hammer’s going to descend on something really quite distinguished and notable, or just another so-so rehash of Allen’s usual themes, or – heaven forfend – one of those absolute stinkers the director still produces on a dismayingly regular basis. Unfortunately, while Irrational Man is not quite as bad as the worst of Allen’s recent output, it’s still not the kind of movie you’d dream of showing someone to demonstrate just why Woody Allen is a film-maker worthy of their attention.

As I say, I think the self-imposed rigours of Allen’s schedule may be partly to blame, because Irrational Man has the definite feel of being two or three drafts away from an actual, polished script. It often feels more like the work of someone applying to film-school than the work of a veteran artist making his 45th movie – theme, plot, and characters are all there, but in the most crude and obvious form, and perhaps the most startling thing about it is that it doesn’t really contain a single memorable or quotable line of dialogue. Instead, it relies heavily on voice-over from a number of characters to communicate plot and feeling (this itself is arguably a cheat, as not everyone providing a voice-over survives to the end of the story, so one has to wonder what point in time they’re narrating from). Much of the narration itself is clunky: ‘more devastating revelations were to come,’ Stone’s character informs us at one point, deadpan, while ‘finally my job running an elevator as a young man was going to pay off!’, Phoenix narrates gleefully, improbable as it might sound.

I mean, it’s never actually painful to watch, as such, and the cinematography and soundtrack are both very nice (I got a bit sick of ‘I’m In with the In-Crowd’ being endlessly recycled, though). There appear to be a couple of subtle raids on Hitchcock going on, as well, and there’s a kind of fun to be had in spotting these. It’s just that the contrived and laborious script (we’re shown that Lucas is a man in crisis by the way he constantly drinks whiskey from a hip flask – and we’re shown it in practically every single scene, to the extent that it becomes ridiculous) and the melodramatic plotting get very tiresome very quickly.

It’s also a bit unclear whether this is intended to be a straight drama (in which case it’s ridiculous), or a playful black comedy (in which case it’s just not funny enough). At one point there’s a murderous struggle between two major characters resulting in a death, and the audience I was with seemed distinctly unsure as to whether they were supposed to be laughing or not.

I honestly do like Woody Allen and will generally cut him some slack (I’m still watching his films after sitting through Whatever Works, after all), but Irrational Man is substandard fare. Not for the first time, you can make out that Allen has a sour and cynical message to deliver about morality and human nature, but he fumbles the delivery of it to the extent that you’re not entirely sure what it is, despite the best efforts of a talented cast. Better luck next year.

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Have you ever had that experience when someone or something gives you such a moment of concentrated rapture that it puts you in their power forever after? It doesn’t matter how frustratingly non-rapturous subsequent encounters with said subject is, you are always inclined to cut them some slack simply because, well, you can’t escape that one moment when everything was utterly, obliteratingly perfect.

I’m really starting to feel that way about Paul Thomas Anderson. My big shiny moment with this guy came fifteen years ago, with the release of the extraordinary Magnolia, a film which instantly rocketed onto my list of all-time favourites. (Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve watched it in over a decade: perhaps I’ve just been afraid to discover time has not been kind to it.) That film was enough to make me turn up to practically every Anderson movie since – Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, I’ve been there for all of them, and found myself having to contend with my own bemusement: for all of these films are clearly the work of a master, but a master who seems to be deliberately underperforming.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep coming as long as he keeps filming, because none of these films have actually been anything less than striking and memorable. So it was that I turned up to his latest offering, Inherent Vice, an adaptation of a novel by reclusive American novelist Thomas Pynchon.

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Set in Los Angeles in 1970, the story is that of hippy private detective Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (nicknamed thus presumably because he meets clients in the back of a doctor’s surgery), who is played by Joaquin Phoenix. The film opens with him taking on a number of apparently disparate cases: his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) believes her new beau may be in danger of kidnap by his own wife and her lover, a Black Panther hires him to track down a Nazi skinhead who owes him money, and a young widow (Jena Malone) wants him to help confirm her belief that her husband (Owen Wilson) may not be as dead as has been widely advertised. Despite being medicated to the point of semi-consciousness much of the time, Doc sets to work, and discovers strange connections between all three enquiries: namely, a secretive organisation known as the Golden Fang. Between the perils of the cases and the hostility of the local detective (Josh Brolin), will Doc be able to uncover the truth?

Well, normally spoilers would dictate me giving away the ending, but in this case I’m not entirely sure what the ending is. You know how most people don’t remember anything about their lives prior to the age of four or five? I’ve always thought this is because when you’re really young, you’re not aware of what anything around you actually means, so you can’t store it in your memory – in the same way it’s much easier to remember a sentence in English than one in a language which is completely alien to you. Well, in the same way, sort of, my memory of much of the latter stages of Inherent Vice is deeply confuzzled, because past a certain point I had absolutely no clue what was going on. The basic connections of the plot just weren’t there, and I was left with a sequence of scenes in which various characters appeared and had conversations which I almost understood, but which had only tenuous links with the scenes preceding and following them.

A wise friend observed to me that this narrative incoherence is all part of Anderson’s intention for the film, which is to recreate the experience of being deeply stoned without the actual need for pharmaceutical ingestion. I’m not so sure, but it is true that Inherent Vice remains a crazy, distinctive trip. Anderson has assembled his usual excellent cast, including people like Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, and (cameoing) an on-form Eric Roberts, and it’s never actually boring to watch. Phoenix gives another charismatic, hugely likeable performance as Doc, and it’s just a shame that the actual narrative doesn’t live up to those of some other films in the LA private detective genre.

I’m thinking of things like Chinatown and even The Rockford Files (which features an equally amiable anti-hero), but the stoner-on-a-mission plot most recalls The Big Lebowski. This type of story has a noble history, going all the way back to Raymond Chandler, of using the detective genre to say things about the nature of wider society. Much of Inherent Vice is so bizarre and disjointed that it’s hard to tell if it’s attempting to make such a comment: but I suspect the title may be significant. It refers to the extent to which many things are fragile and perishable by their very nature: nearly everything turns to rubbish in the end. It’s a downbeat message for a film which is about characters who mainly seem to be trying to live in the moment. I suppose a further theme is that Doc and his stoner friends, who are despised by ‘respectable’ society, actually have more decency and integrity than the police, businessmen, dentists, and so on. But I am hesitant to claim too many insights, for obvious reasons.

It’s never actually dull to watch, and Anderson displays his usual technical mastery: here he shows a great fondness for the occasional very long take, usually in a two-handed scene. The film is full of wit and incident, and in its early stages is frequently very funny, though it darkens considerably as it goes on, and the ending, to the extent that I understood it at all, seemed rather ambiguous.

Inherent Vice has had some glowing reviews from respectable critics, which means one of three things: a) the press pack contains a detailed synopsis allowing them to follow the plot while watching the film, b) their refined sensibilities allow them to enjoy the cinematography, direction, and so on, without having to worry too much about the story making sense, or c) proper critics are just really, really clever. My money’s on b), to be honest. In any case, I’m reluctant to dismiss this movie out of hand: it has that aura of class about it, for all that the actual narrative is maddeningly obscure, to the point of virtually seeming incoherent. But then again, I’m inherently biased where Paul Thomas Anderson is concerned.

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When I was a callow university student, many years ago now, I ended up taking as my dissertation topic the subject of the philosophical underpinnings of Artificial Intelligence. Highblown as this may sound, what it really boiled down to was my discussing endless repeats of Knight Rider with my supervising tutor over lavish quantities of coffee and doughnuts. Nevertheless, the dissertation itself turned out to be reasonably successful and I have taken a certain smug satisfaction from the way in which developments in the field have turned out to be broadly in line with my own poorly-articulated musings.

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I have retained an interest in the subject, too, and so I was always likely to go and see Spike Jonze’s Her, which – promisingly – looked like a non-action Hollywood SF movie, with the nature of AI as one of its central themes. However, I was somewhat rattled to find the film focussing on a fairly nondescript man heading into early middle age (he is played by Joaquin Phoenix) – he is socially reticent, has a failed marriage behind him, occasionally twiddles on the ukulele, and struggles to find the time to properly pursue his twin interests in peculiar computer games and internet pornography.

To be honest, friends, I was frankly wondering if I had grounds to sue the makers of Her for unauthorised use of my life story, but then the film launches off into rather less alarming territory. The man, Theodore, purchases a new OS (this is how the film labels an AI), which turns out to be voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The OS christens itself – or should that be herself? – Samantha, and she quickly makes herself an essential part of Theodore’s life. The relationship – or should that be quasi-relationship? Part of the cleverness of the film is how utterly nonjudgemental it is about this – between Theodore and Samantha quickly deepens, to their mutual satisfaction, and when Theodore’s continuing lack of romantic success leads him to the brink of despair, the possibility of an even deeper and more intimate connection occurs to them both. But is this particular state of harmony between man and machine even possible?

It is, of course, rather gratifying that what’s indisputably a serious science fiction film in the most rigorous sense of the term has made it onto the Oscar best film sort-of-short list. It hasn’t got a chance in hell of actually winning, of course, largely because I don’t see the Academy being quite prepared to take to its bosom a film with quite so much graphically articulated and somewhat kinky sexual content in it. I don’t generally have a problem with this sort of thing, but my general feeling is that the only thing worse than watching other people at it is listening to them talk about it, and there is a degree of the latter in Her, some of it quite bizarre.

Nevertheless, it is all perfectly consistent with the world of the film, which is a low-key, urban, somewhat hipsterish utopia (if that’s not an oxymoron). It is a world in which human interaction has become mediated by technology to a much greater degree – this is established from the very start, when we learn Theodore’s job is to write other people’s personal letters for them. It is a parody and exaggeration of our own, but not an absurd one, and it’s this which gives the film a certain relevance (well, maybe not if you live outside the First World, but since when are Hollywood movies ever made for that audience?).

And yet, as mentioned before, this is not a polemic, reactionary, or overtly traditionalist movie, bewailing the collapse of human-to-human contact in modern urban society. It pointedly does not present the relationship between Theodore and Samantha as something deviant or unhealthy. It is remarkably even-handed and actually rather sly in the way it plays with the audience’s expectations: I was expecting the story to ultimately find Theodore forced to choose between his empty and pointless liaison with Samantha and a decent, genuine relationship with a real person (perhaps Amy Adams’ equally lonely neighbour), perhaps with the time-honoured kicker of the AI turning into a vengeful simulant of Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction. This does not happen; the film pulls off the neat trick of remaining thoughtful, sensible, and yet unpredictable to the end.

Jonze’s script is thoroughly admirable, but its realisation is equally impressive – I’m not at all surprised that Joaquin Phoenix has been nominated for a raft of acting awards, rather that he hasn’t actually won more of them. He is in practically every scene of the film and manages to make a potentially inaccessible character very human and sympathetic. Johanssen is also good – but then Jonze has attracted an excellent cast, including Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt and others (Kristen Wiig and Brian Cox are amongst those making voice cameos).

This isn’t a flashily conventional movie, but rather a disconcerting and perhaps somewhat disturbing one. I can imagine some audiences being ultimately repelled by the fact it is about the fundamental nature of humanity and our shifting relationship with technology, than an orthodox romance – I liked it very much for exactly the same reasons, which may say more about me than the movie. History will prove the extent to which Her is either an oblique commentary on modern society, or a prophecy about the rise of post-human culture, but, for me, at this moment in time it is an impressively thoughtful and very accomplished one. It won’t win the Best Picture Oscar, and perhaps it doesn’t even deserve to. But for such an unusual film to end up on the shortlist should speak to its very high quality.

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Honestly, what kind of a proper bio-pic do you call this? Not a single goatee beard to be seen, no-one gets the matter of their tissues compressed to the point of death, and there’s no mention of Axos or the Sea Devils, let alone the Toclafane and the Untempered Schism. I ask you, whatever is the world coming to?

Oh, hang on: word in from the legal department is that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is – and I think emphasis is required here just to cover ourselves – not supposed to be the life story of anyone, living, dead, or regenerated. Glad we got that sorted out. It is, of course, a high-octane personal drama very much in a similar style to There Will Be Blood.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, who at the start of the film is serving in the US navy towards the end of the Second World War. With customary deftness and economy, Anderson establishes that Freddie is a deeply troubled soul – whether due to his experiences in the service or not is not explored – with a number of serious issues. He drinks, he is socially awkward, and he has a fixation with sex. He is also prone to outbursts of violence. All of this ultimately results in him becoming a homeless drifter.

However, at this point he falls into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-styled writer, explorer, physicist and theoretical philosopher. Dodd is the leader of a movement known as the Cause, offering a programme to help people deal with the traumas inherited from former lives (there’s a bit of reincarnation involved, apparently) – which is nevertheless, according to Dodd, rigorously rational. In fact it’s so scientific, it’s like science with an extra -ology! [Cut that out – much too risky – Legal Department]

Dodd takes a shine to Freddie (partly due to to Freddie’s special recipe for cocktails, which includes paint thinner) and Freddie joins the Cause, initially as an enthusiastic follower. But it soon becomes apparent that the relationship between the two men is one of unhealthy co-dependence, and hardly guaranteed to help either of them cope with life’s travails…

Well, there has been some talk that Lancaster Dodd is based on L Ron Hubbard, the sometime SF writer who founded the Church of Scientology, which may explain why Tom Cruise and John Travolta, amongst others, are conspicuously absent from the cast list here. (There have been claims that Hubbard told his peers in the SF community that writing was a mug’s game and the quickest way to get rich quick was to invent your own religion, but this sounds like a shocking calumny to me and I would never believe a word of it [Nice try, let’s see if it works – L.D.]) The film does a cheeky sort of dance on this topic, and Anderson has gone so far to say that Hubbard inspired Dodd, but the film is actually about drifters and seekers in the aftermath of a war, with the cult angle being entirely incidental. Is Dodd (and therefore, really, Hubbard) presented as a charlatan? The film comes very close in a few places, I have to say.

People occasionally suggest to me I should become the leader of my own cult – quite why I’m not really sure, and I’m equally uncertain I  want to know – but having seen The Master I don’t think I have the stamina for it anyway. Possibly I am being over-influenced by Hoffman’s portrayal of the Master, which is the latest in a long line of monumental performances he has delivered in films for Anderson and others. He is quite simply magnetic, and eerily plausible on every level. But he is very nearly matched by Phoenix, who is also utterly convincing as Freddie, albeit in a slightly different way: Hoffman’s turn is one of great subtlety and precision, while Phoenix has a much showier and more physical role. Watching the two of them together in this film, as they frequently are, is spellbinding stuff, although I think – when and if the Oscars are handed out – Hoffman comes out slightly ahead on points.

This is that kind of awards-conscious movie: classy, challenging, and thoughtful. It’s certainly not the sort of film you go to see just to relax and have a nice time – the film is fairly unflinching in some respects. In many ways it reminded me of Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, another burningly intelligent and brilliantly made film built around a great central performance – but one which, for me, struggled in terms of its actual narrative.

It’s the same here, really, particularly the ending – it seems intentionally oblique. Once again, the impression is one of the actors being encouraged to do their thing, with Anderson recording their work with his usual skill – but no real sense of an actual story in mind. Possibly I am wrong and just too dim. And, to be sure, the performances, direction, and photography make this film extremely compelling and satisfying for much of its length. It’s just that, once again, Paul Anderson doesn’t quite deliver the complete package.

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