Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my absolute favourite directors. He makes films that demand to be seen more than once, films that carry outstanding performances, films that pin you in your seat and leave you astounded. And in this case, films that leave you feeling like you’ve been jiggled round in a tumble drier full of duvets for a couple of hours. When you’re released at the end of the cycle, you’re a bit dazed and woeful that all the lovely chaos has come to an end.
Anderson introduced the screening I was at – the chap next to me was so busy showing off to his date about all the films he’d seen at the PCC that he didn’t realise who it was and talked all the way through. But wow, PTA was there – and it was screened in glorious 35mm. Full geek-out, man.
Pynchon’s novels are not entirely the easiest to follow, even when you can go back and reread the parts where your brain has had a hiccup. And I think Inherent Vice is the first to be turned into a film – so a brave choice for Anderson. But it’s a wholly successful film and one that so perfectly recreates that early 70s LA vibe that you can’t help but let yourself be swept along with it.
My enduring lust for Joaquin Phoenix is enough to overlook the hairy grubbiness of Doc Sportello, the stoner private dick at the centre of the action who has possibly the best mutton chops in movie history. Doc is getting by on half-assed cases that he runs from the local surgery. It’s enough to pay for his dope, so it’s enough. When his ex (Katherine Waterson) appears like a glorious hallucination with a request to track down her missing lover (Eric Roberts), he can’t say no. Nor can he overlook a second case also involving a missing man, this one a hippie saxophone player called Wolfmann (Owen Wilson). The meandering connections between both bring him to the attention of square-headed detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who is pretty much the polar opposite of Doc in every way. The two sidestep around a chaotic universe of mysterious dentists, moth-eaten brothels and nazi bikers, and landscapes filled with people who have long forgotten what they were looking for.
Sometimes not having the faintest idea what’s going on in a film can be a hindrance. Here, it gives you the freedom to just sit back and go on the ride with Doc, letting that fug of weed surround you like a comforter. With a glorious soundtrack, an immaculate cast (Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short and yay, Martin Donovan are all having fun here too – though I’ll never see a PTA movie again and not wonder where Philip Seymour Hoffman might have fitted) and in Phoenix, a lead that you can’t help but like, this is a film that really warms the cockles. Funny, moving and deliriously bonkers, you’ll want to sit through it again immediately. If only to work out what was going on.
God love PTA, he might not make that many films, but the ones he does make are worth ten of most of the yawnsome stuff out there. In Inherent Vice, everyone is having fun, even if they don’t know it. Don’t expect to understand it, do expect to love it.
Joaquin Phoenix really is an amazing actor, he was at his best in The Master, but here in a much less showy performance, he really shines. It’s hard to think of anyone else bringing such careful emotion to a role that could be (and has been) written off as sad male fantasy. But as his face fills the screen for much of the film, it falls to him to take it beyond that – and he does. Theodore Twombly has a funny name and some sex-repelling high-waisted trousers, and he doesn’t show much in the way of an emotional connection with anything, yet Phoenix fills him with a vulnerability and warmth that takes him beyond mere geek.
Theodore is mid-divorce and spending a lot of time alone, preferring the company of his amazing looking video games to actual human contact. His job suits this remoteness perfectly, writing heartfelt letters for people who either don’t have the time, or have forgotten how to. He’s a nice chap, with friends who clearly like him and a boss who thinks he’s great. But the marriage break-up has driven Theodore away from too much socialising and he seems to be settling in for a solitary future. And while outside the world Spike Jonze creates doesn’t seem too different from 2014, a bit sleeker and sunnier maybe, being alone indoors has never been easier. When Theodore installs a new Operating System to his home computer, he is first surprised then intrigued by its intelligence. It’s basically a fruity version of Siri, but called Samantha and breathily voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who not only answers all his questions but asks a few of her own. She’s been programmed almost too well, and starts behaving almost like – well, almost like a human.
Developing a consciousness means Samantha also develops feelings, and it’s not long before the jaunty chit chat between man and machine becomes something a bit more and before you know it, Theodore is in love. And why not? She proves to be the ideal companion: one who is always there when you call, laughs at your jokes and makes a few of their own – who knows everything about you, but doesn’t judge. And who looks just like you imagine them to look. I mean, isn’t that what everyone wants? And isn’t that what we’ve all started to look for in some way online – you’re never alone when you’ve got 1000 followers laughing at your jokes on Twitter and someone has just liked your cat video on YouTube.
Her is set far enough into the future for Theodore’s relationship not to seem entirely bonkers to his friends, and Jonze shows us just enough of the tenderness between him and Samantha to make their attachment believable. But he also shows us that there’s something more here, a man desperate for some human affection but not quite ready to reach for it. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is a by-the-book love story – with all its ecstasies and pitfalls – it’s a relationship we’re all familiar with. And in Theodore’s failed marriage, bad dates and longstanding best-friendship (with Amy Adams, never anything less than perfect) it’s easy to understand how he sees opting out of the real thing as such an attractive option.
So don’t write Her off as a man’s wank fantasy, that’s just lazy. take a deeper look at what Jonze is saying here about all of us – open your heart to Theodore Twombly and feel a little afraid of our future.
Easily my most anticipated film of the year, The Master does not disappoint. Paul Thomas Anderson has created another masterpiece, incredibly beautiful to look at and with performances from his two leads that should be hard to beat come awards time (though the subject matter might well work against them).
Joaquin Phoenix, thankfully back from his bonkers years, is astounding here as Freddie Quell, an ex-US navy sailor damaged by war and by the hooch he brews up from paint thinner. We first meet him on a beach at the end of WWII, drunk and showing off to his fellow sailors, his scrawny frame twisted, his eyes full of loss. As we watch him curl up alone, arms around the anatomically correct sand sculpture of a woman he was dry humping for laughs a few moments ago, it’s clear there is much vulnerability underneath the bravado. He’s a little boy lost, damaged by the things he’s seen, driven over the edge by drink and a fear that he’s lost everything that meant something to him. It’s a heartbreaking scene and one of the few times you feel some sympathy for this broken, unlikable man.
Back in the US, and unable to hold down a job, Freddie takes a drunken stroll on the docks one night that leads him into the company of a charismatic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd – Philip Seymour Hoffman, as powerful and magnetic in this role as I’ve seen him for a long time. The two strike up what seems at first an unlikely friendship. Their relationship is central to the film, Dodd needs an acolyte and finds someone he can control in Quell, a man with the same craving to be needed and who is more than willing to submit to Dodd’s ‘processing’. Quell at last has the stability he needs and the father figure he’s never had. Crucially both men share a furious rage hidden not far under the surface – Phoenix gives Freddie startling physical characteristics to imply this, and the rage when it comes, is fierce and violent. Seymour Hoffman keeps Dodd’s rage hidden under a cloak of geniality – we only see the fury bubble up once or twice, but when we do it’s all the more startling. Their strange bromance is at the heart of the film, which follows Dodd’s championing of The Cause, his idealistic plan to solve all the world’s problems by regressing everyone into past lives. Yes, it does sound familiar.
You’ll need to let yourself wallow in The Master, it’s fair to say the storyline is meandering and it certainly won’t please everyone (Scientologists, for example, might not entirely take it to their hearts). It’s slow, and the ending rather oblique – there are scenes that don’t seem to add much, and the plot is almost non-existent. In other hands this wouldn’t work, but Anderson (potentially one of the greatest directors working today) creates a driving momentum between Quell and Dodd that fuels the film. Both lead performances are incredible (with another impressive turn from Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife – the real master?), and visually it’s utterly beautiful – wow, if you can see it in 70mm I would urge you to, the colours have a depth you will never get on digital film, the blue of the sea and the sparkling emerald of Phoenix’s eyes could not be more arresting. The colours, the soundtrack, the depth of emotions on display – it’s all quite hypnotic.
Anderson is one of the few directors working in mainstream Hollywood who has the balls to make the films he wants to make, and thank god he does. This is one I intend to see again – and one I think needs a second viewing to get the most out of it. Superb.