The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys spells summer like a curly straw in a cocktail. Scrambling together private-eye tropes with the counterculture is, by now, an old and venerable sport for the brightest minds in the business. I wrote about the subgenre last year, citing the continuity of hipsterism from Chandler to Vietnam. The detectives are only cosmetically different from Humphrey Bogart and other forebears; it’s the world that is perceived to have changed. In the post-’60s ecosystem, the P.I. is the patsy, the Establishment is the perpetrator. Holding the Establishment accountable is like betting against the house. You might win the battle, but the war rages on.

Problem is, we’re coming up short on revelations. P. T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which is this movie’s nearest neighbor, was a postmortem on clichés that are old enough to stink like truths. Groovy trip, but still a trip. It butt up against the Establishment only to reaffirm its unknowability. Shane Black, who directed The Nice Guys, isn’t looking for truths he couldn’t find, concealed as they are behind an Establishment firewall. Hippie grievances, for which there is little evidence that the filmmaker feels much sympathy, are sweetened into an anachronistic whine. (Even though we’re supposed to be in L.A., in 1977, those knucklehead protesters should know that we’ll fix the smog problem eventually.) For Black, the counterculture clichés are alive and wellto the point: they are alive. The movie doesn’t aspire to that level of thought that freezes fusty clichés into knee-jerk despair, so the whole thing melts in one’s mouth like a daiquiri. It’s a slurper.

Part of its sweetness comes from Black throwing another genre into the blender, the buddy movie. (N.B.: He wrote Lethal Weapon.) This probably seems like less of an adjustment than it is; having a partner sucks the bitter venom out of the gumshoe, the ur-loner of American cinema. The partners are Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, divinely paired and raising their own Nancy Drew (Gosling’s 13-year-old daughter, played by Angourie Rice). The plot is hardly worth mentioning—a genre staple, going back to The Big Sleep—though I’ll register my weariness at seeing the porn world thrown in, as it is whenever so much as a leisure suit is in wardrobe.

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The Gum Underneath the Shoe

A little program note about The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, and Inherent Vice, courtesy of Brattle Theatre Film Notes.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, reverse engineering the symbolism in a genre film meant subverting the expectations that decades of studio programming had groomed. It meant unpacking the myths that were sold to the “masses” – who were rather falsely assumed to have swallowed the illusions whole. Audiences may not have believed the myths, but they enjoyed the comfortably structured fantasies and accepted them, and to the counterculture who saw that acceptance culminate in racism and violence, this was a dangerous delusion. Genres were stand-ins for conventionalism, which was itself a stand-in for authority … The remedy, it was believed, was to respond in the same language … But the sad truth of the matter – from a political though not an aesthetic point of view – is that disrupting people’s fantasy lives is not always the same as changing their behavior.

You can read the full piece here.

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master makes you feel the universe expanding around you. It catalyzes in memory; there’s a stillness to the images–an immobility–that lends itself to reflection. It is borne aloft at the tempo of the romantic standards of its period, a slow dance chaperoned, chastely beautiful–the sources of beauty and chastity almost intolerably resolved in the ether of an intangible era: a sad dream one wakes up longing for. This is not so much a film about Scientology as it is about will and power and coping with the lack thereof. It is about belief as a proxy for love; a conflicted Elmer Gantry; and a G.I. who jacks off at a crowded beach. It is a masterpiece.

We meet the G.I., Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), first. World War II has just ended, and he pokes through the blanket of good feeling like a stubborn erection. When he dry humps a buxom sculpture in the sand, his fellow vets laugh at first. But he keeps at it like a dog in heat and the spectators scatter; they’ve already graduated to the Greatest Generation with chins in the air. When Freddie gets a job as a portrait photographer at a department store, he immortalizes their kind in its Sunday Best–but by then he’s as invisible to them as a mirror. He has no place in this newly minted middle class, with its ambiance of prosperity founded on Yankee good trouncing Axis evil. Like the hysterics in A Dangerous Method he’s an alien–but without the benefit of membership to a “fairer” sex. The first person we see who takes a genuine interest in him is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), on whose yacht Freddie, forever on the lam, is a stowaway. (He lost his job by picking a fight, for no explicit reason, with a customer who resembles Hoffman; he was then expelled from a commune for poisoning a tramp–who looked like his father–with a noxious cocktail of the sort that Freddie himself often partakes of.) Dodd, tellingly, is master of a cult, but not of the boat; it belongs to some member of the café society that gives this salon mystic his backing–the same perks that Scientologists currently get from their association with the movie colony. Above deck, he gives away his daughter (Ambyr Childers) at her wedding, schmoozing and oozing with studied gaiety; below, he’s hacking away at Freddie’s defenses, eye contact unwavering, repeating questions that expose such baleful truths as a sexual affair with his aunt. One might say that Phoenix is a Method-glazed ham–and his Bob Dylan bird-flip with Casey Affleck has scored him no affection from me–but I think that to say he’s overacting would be to say that Jack Nicholson overdid it in The Shining. With shadows that turn his nasal cavity into a cave, and that lopsided fighter’s snout on the verge of caving in, he’s like a cobbler in a Caravaggio: some icon of damnation on the tip of the mind’s tongue. As the fella said, it’s a wonderful day for an exorcism.

A friend of mine likened watching The Master to banging his head against the wall; and so much of the movie is about running in circles–an extension of Dodd’s interrogative technique. The most striking shots, to me, were stationary images of characters gesticulating in place–such as the break-up spat between Dodd and Freddie when they’re both thrown in prison; the former’s arms are crossed wryly while the latter curbstomps the toilet–or of the camera moving to maintain its subjects’ place in the frame, such as a motorcycle zooming through the desert or a figure sprinting to catch a trundling ship or Freddie running back and forth and smashing himself against the walls in Dodd’s baroque form of therapy. Even the dreamy score, by Johnny Greenwood, skates in circles over a pane of Philip Glass. Mihai Malaimare, Jr., the cinematographer, has worked with Francis Ford Coppola and has a Dutch Master sense of light. It’s never too dense, in an opulent way; I got the sense that the performers were swimming in it as naturally as fish through the sea. Since There Will Be Blood, Anderson has been transitioning from ensemble pieces to something like the “great man” genre. (Is it homage or historical coincidence that the L. Ron Hubbard surrogate looks like Charles Foster Kane during his political period?) But even with immobility as his theme–as his visual motif–he leaves no impression of historical fixity or stiffness; there is, instead, a sense of flow–both within the images and from them. And I think the circuit between past and present is even stronger here than it was in There Will Be Blood, one of the few great works of unalloyed leftism of recent years.

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In the Loop

Dressing up the march toward war in the heightened-mundanity style of The Office might seem like a ludicrously insensitive sneak attack, but the makers of In the Loop are savvy wolves in sheep’s clothing. They use faux reality-T.V. looseness as an antidote to high-flown demagoguery, yet they get their complex points across with the clarity of “Yes We Can.”

Not that their vision is so sanguine. The fresh-faced British Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), opines on a talk-radio interview that an impending Middle Eastern war is “unforeseeable.” Of course, higher up within the government, war is quite foreseeable—in fact, it’s being actuated behind layers of sticky red tape—so the Prime Minister’s spin-doctor, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), is assigned to Foster for damage control. Tucker is a Scots sociopath whose trenchant profanity is probably like Karl Rove’s id on rollerblades. He trains the naïve secretary to speak in ambivalent bromides, and against Foster’s better judgment, the secretary uses them at antiwar conferences held by the American Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy, Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy). Foster, along with a document by Clark’s assistant Liza (Anna Chlumsky), are supposed to be Clark’s ace in the hole against the forces of her pro-war opponent, Linton Barwick (David Rasche). But, through swaths of convolutions, obfuscations, and manipulations, the strength of her hand goes up and down like the Scales of Justice turned into a playground seesaw.

The Middle Eastern war isn’t Iraq, though it’s clearly an echo of it. The head honchos on both sides of the Atlantic go unnamed and the references (Lily Allen, I Heart Huckabees, etc.) are clearly anachronistic for a 2002-3 timeframe. But the filmmakers are too clever as satirists to fall into the Iraq trap; In the Loop depicts the horrendous ways in which any modern war can be tricked into erupting. Similarities to Iraq give the writers (Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, Ian Martin, and the director, Armondo Iannucci) moral ground to stand on—not a soapbox to scold from.

The cast, however, is given several opportunities to scold, shout, seethe and weave strands of B.S. with a scatological loom. Within the loop are hacks, stalwarts, armchair ideologues, sadists and suck-ups, and Iannucci gives each type a send-up, but not dismissively. Most of the actors deserve to get props, but Capaldi and James Gandolfini (as a pragmatic American general) are given the funniest and most difficult roles, respectively.

I usually wince at “pure” evil characters in “serious” movies, but Capaldi makes a robotic weasel like Tucker seem plausible; only once did I think he had his own opinion on something and wasn’t just brokering power for its own sake or for the sake of his ego. To paraphrase from The Lion in Winter, his human parts are missing; but it’s not within this movie’s docudrama purview to examine how that lack affects him internally. Gandolfini, on the other hand, has a role that seems alien to antiwar farce: the tough, sympathetic, mostly respectable Army careerist. His general has Tony Soprano’s physical menace, but that same imposing physique is only one tool that Gandolfini uses to give Lt. General Miller his gravitas. Miller is Soprano with brains as well as guts—pun intended, of course. One of the best—and tensest—scenes in the film pits these two characters against one another in a strength-of-will battle that rivals the Daniel Day-Lewis/Paul Dano confrontations in There Will Be Blood. Here, “good” has such supple reserves of violent strength that you almost fear for “evil.” It almost gives a glint of humanity to “evil.”

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The Critic’s Criticism of His Critics

Of late, I’ve had the pleasure of reading some very negative comments made about my reviews. Because blogs are a newfangled, “democratic” medium, I respect my reader’s right to express him or herself that way, but I also reserve my right to respond—as lengthily (or douche-ily) as I please…


Comment 1:
Because God forbid we enjoy a ‘pop-corn’ movie without the need to call it ‘dumb.’

I doubt He’d forbid such a thing. In fact, I myself did not call the movie in question (Star Trek) dumb, as the commenter implies. I do, however, stand by my insistence that it is mindless trash entertainment—which I mean only half-pejoratively. There have been a few “popcorn movies” that have not been mindless—Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, for example, or I Am Legend, or, more recently, Up—but, generally speaking, such movies are designed to be mindless. Movies like Transformers typically don’t interest me because they are made for a mass audience that supposedly prefers movies that treat them like vegetables. Frequently, I, too, enjoy slipping into a coma. On this principle, I enjoyed Star Trek (as I say unequivocally in my review), and I also enjoyed The Hangover. I didn’t feel much need to write about The Hangover, though. I allowed the multiplex to extract its usual pound of flesh from me, but I got exactly what I paid for: enough shards of hilarity to make up for the film’s dumb ethnic stereotypes, clichéd characters, contrived ending, and compulsively current soundtrack of pop songs that one can only enjoy when krunked at a house-party. I welcomed the mindlessness, but that doesn’t mean I should flatter myself by saying that I liked The Hangover because it was anything much more than mindless. In keeping with an age-old tradition that our profit-oriented film industry maintains, popcorn movies are not the most daring or ambitious projects, the kind I usually find to be more worth my while. These rarer movies are not always superior—in fact, some (such as Observe and Report or The Dark Knight) are too stuffy and pretentious or have other failings that bring them below the level of an unpretentiously commercial studio turd like The Hangover—but films such as There Will be Blood or The Wrestler or Synecdoche, New York or Tarsem’s short-lived The Fall were much more interesting than The Hangover, and thus, to me, much more entertaining.

I am conscious, however, that there are those out there who don’t agree with my taste; not only am I comfortable being in a minority, but I accept that movies don’t mean the same thing to everybody, and I’m A-okay with those who subject themselves to Michael Bay movies and honestly enjoy them for what they are. I wouldn’t assume that those people would be compelled to write (or even read) film criticism, as I am. It might well be some form of masochism for a person of those tastes to read my blog; but, as their tortures are self-inflicted, I can’t see how they could possibly dredge up the nerve to howl about their wounds publicly, as if I’d forced them to swallow my opinions and vomit them into the mouths of their young. When next I review a popcorn movie that’s not mindless—maybe around 2019 or so—I’ll make sure to keep this commenter in mind.

Comment 2:
can’t spell pretentious without ‘u’ in it. do you even like movies?

I’m actually rather proud of this one. If by “pretentious” you mean “have standards,” then yes, I proclaim to the world, proudly and wholeheartedly, that I am indeed pretentious! Hallelujah! If I wasn’t pretentious as such, it’d be akin to me wanting to hook up with every biped I came across, and I’m not quite that naughty a boy. Though my eloquence (and temper) sometimes fails me, I strive to be fair when defending my sensibility rather than a snob, scold or boor. I simply see no point in praising a film that’s achieved its aspirations if those are very low; you wouldn’t praise a couch potato who insists on using the remote control. After all, I am open-minded enough to like movies—that “popular” medium, that bastard son of “fine” art. A few decades ago, certain very pretentious people claimed to hate all Hollywood movies solely on the virtue that they were dumb enough for those proletarian schmucks to enjoy. So, really, I’m just as much a vulgarian-schmuck as I am pretentious douchebag.

A little sidebar for the commenter: You may not be able to spell pretentious without a “u” in it, but you can’t spell it without an “I,” either.

Comment 3:
Another one brainwashed by a text-book and French New Wave.

Which textbook? Advanced Trigonometry? No, probably some “pretentious” tome about how filmmakers could have political viewpoints, or some such nonsense. Ugh! As if the commercial entertainment that seeps into the minds of millions could be worth thinking about! Not thinking about it is tantamount to having your brain washed and rinsed repeatedly. I think I’ve pretty much answered this one already, but will add that I’d lump most of the French New Wave films I’ve seen into that slim, dream-come-true category of movies that are daring and ambitious, intelligently substantial, and—this is the kicker—fun to watch.

Comment 4:
[Re: Star Trek]
In saying that the writers’ use of time travel is a cheat, I think you’re being overly harsh. Would you rather they just blatantly ignore EVERYTHING and start COMPLETELY anew like Batman Begins? While that worked for Batman, it would’ve been a million times more insulting to the Star Trek universe. I found their method of “starting over” was incredibly clever and was a way to both pave the way for having new adventures without worrying about keeping canon, but also a way of preserving all the old stories so you don’t have to go “well that’s not how this happens and that doesn’t make sense” when viewing the new film in context with the others.

Also, I was wondering if you ever had any joy in your life at all.

Regarding the first paragraph, the commenter has a point, and I agree with it to some degree. In fact, I have all along, which is why I wrote in my Star Trek piece that “I understand the need for this rupture, but find the methodology crass.” Therefore, the commenter is not really arguing against my point, so much as he or she is arguing beside it.

As for his or her second point—if you want to call it that—I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced joy in my life, though I might be mistaking that sensation for indigestion. (I’ll take some Tums and get back to you on that.) I’ve recorded several instances of joy I’ve had at the movies even in reviews that were mostly negative. For that reason, and others, it is a very strange thing for the commenter to wonder about, and it’s not really much of an insult, to boot. If the commenter is concerned, maybe he or she could get me a prescription for Prozac, or hook me up with some ecstasy. The commenter couldn’t possibly be suggesting that I could ever be so joyful in life as to anonymously post unreasoned ad-hominem attacks on complete strangers simply over a difference of opinion. I don’t know if I’ll ever be that happy.

Synecdoche, New York

Watching Synecdoche, New York is like catching up with an old friend whose company you enjoy, but who, slowly but surely, starts to monopolize your time. You know that his blathering is a tic he can’t control, so you don’t want to push him away; alas, you feel compelled to check your watch and marvel, “My! Look at the time!”

One could have hardly expected a linear narrative in the directorial début of Charlie Kaufman, the man who penned Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Synecdoche begins in the real world of stage director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose production of Death of a Salesman is premiered to great acclaim. For once, the artist-hero’s professional life is spotlessly meteoric; it’s everything else in his life that sucks. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) confesses to having joyful fantasies of Cotard’s death while they’re in couples’ therapy with their self-promoting bimbo of a therapist (Hope Davis). Adele jets to Germany, and takes their beloved daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), with her. And Cotard has other problems. His health is an H.M.O.’s nightmare: He becomes a baton passed between dispassionate doctors. And, though his artistic stature affords him plenty of opportunities for romantic liaisons, Cotard can never quite consummate his flings—including the one that we in the audience are most primed to want him to have: an affair with the quirky ticket-window lady, Hazel (Samantha Morton). Here’s a man who gets a MacArthur grant—a free-pass to complete his magnum opus—and yet he’s a perennial downer. He’s the Charles Foster Kane of artists.

Cotard wants to use the grant to produce something honest, so he decides to make a play about his life, and procures what appears to be an abandoned warehouse for his theater. Well, it’s really not a theater, for it houses no audience—only an ever-growing scale reproduction of Cotard’s native Schenectady. His play really is his life. Hazel, now his assistant, watches as their doubles meander about and eventually require doubles of their own. And so on, and so on. Cotard does not let his art imitate his life, he uses his art to duplicate his life, and that which is his “real” life becomes a jumbled mash-up of frayed plot threads and motifs. Kaufman deliberately skewers the timeline, and blurs the line between reality and fiction, but Kaufman lacks the patience and lucidity of David Lynch at his best—think Mulholland Drive compared to Inland Empire. Yes, I get that disorientation is his point, and no, it’s not “over my head.” One reviewer called the writer-director a “master of mindfuckery.” That’s rather inaccurate—and if it wasn’t, I might’ve dropped a variant of that ol’ grin-inducer, too. Kaufman isn’t fucking with anybody’s mind; he’s lost in his own.

A “synecdoche” (for those of you not up on your obscure literary terminology or words that rhyme with cities in Upstate New York) is a part of something representing its whole. Kaufman, like Cotard, sees himself as an isolated part of an intangible whole, one voice in a sea of billions. But what occurs in Synecdoche is something of an irony: His voice overpowers our individual responses. The structure may be baroque, but the dialogue and ideas become so externalized that our minds have no room to play; we’re muddled by too great a volume of information presented to us, not by too many layers. That is what distinguishes this cerebral thunderstorm from, say, There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson gives us a gift box and lets us shake it; Kaufman, in Synecdoche, tears off the wrapping paper before we get a chance to guess at the box’s contents.

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There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is the kind of film that hovers over you like a cloud; it has the immensity of an epic, the density of a biblical exegesis and the mood of a surreal horror picture. Its two and a half hours go by smoothly and yet the movie has something of an irregular heartbeat; it might be called a high-strung impressionist’s dream of American Gothic.

The thirty-year saga begins in 1898, at which time Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an amateur oilman operating a small derrick in a forbidding Southwestern desert, although, from the look of it, the scene may as well have been placed among the Iraqi ruins where Father Merrin unleashed the demon in The Exorcist. When, after much toil and the loss of at least one life, black gold finally manifests itself in the manmade well, it’s as though it’s coming to life—it sputters and seethes as if in a witch’s cauldron—and a grandiose climax on the soundtrack registers its birth as an evil portent. (The music here echoes that which played when Jack Torrance entered the haunted hotel bar in The Shining.)

Within a few years, Plainview becomes a shrewdly professional oil prospector. He moves into communities and, flashing his leathery smile, boasting of his “frank” manner and status as an old-fashioned family man (he has adopted a dead miner’s son, though claims that the boy, H.W., is his), swindles the townsfolk out of their land.

After receiving a tip from Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), he slithers his way into Little Boston, California, and sets up a rig there. Even when the derrick goes ablaze—with an explosion that costs H.W. (Dillon Freasier) his hearing—Plainview is perfectly, maniacally happy; the earth is pregnant with a seemingly unlimited supply of oil, the lifeblood of the burgeoning American economy, as well as Plainview’s planned isolation from the rest of the human race. Put as simply as possible, the plot of There Will Be Blood is a stringing together of the oilman’s exploits at toppling everyone and everything around him in order to divorce himself from mankind.

Plainview has just what his name implies—a “competition” in him and a simple distaste for people—but the way the camera lingers on him suggests a deeper, stickier quality to his personality. I’m still trying to determine how much I like Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance; he has the uncanny ability to contort his jaw and control every furrow in his brow. It’s wildly theatrical and magnetic—as in Gangs of New York, where he came off as rather silly—and once again he’s topped it off with an absurd accent, something like a Tammany Hall caricature mixed with Sean Connery. Anderson doesn’t quite get it, either, but he loves to let Day-Lewis’ facial fluctuations fill the frame. Maybe it works because it’s such a grandiose, classical performance (mustachioed, he looks like a silent movie villain or Timothy Dalton from Hot Fuzz) and yet he touches on something behind the misanthropy and greed—as Plainview’s interspersed malice and tenderness in raising H.W. suggests. Because it’s so blatant, it’s a discomforting performance—it has the effect of when a friend says something offensive and you think initially that it’s a joke, but come to realize that he really means it. His wittiness and scariness are eerily inseparable.

Dano’s performance and role are equally oblique. His plaintive face looks even more like clay here than in Little Miss Sunshine and this nebulousness is both his menace and vulnerability. In Sunshine, Dano’s role as a psilosopher amounted to little more than stylized teen angst. When, here, as an evangelical preacher, he casts out a demon from a parishioner, Dano builds up a fury that’s eerily adolescent but nonetheless hypnotic to watch, reminiscent of both Gene Wilder and the somnambulist in Dr. Caligari. The character is either a phony or has the wrath of God on his side, and that spooks—more than spooks, infuriates—smug, satanic Plainview. Dano and Day-Lewis are most enjoyable together—their smarminess, deviousness and sheer energy complement one another (we are tickled by our inability to determine which character poses a greater threat to the other)—and when their dialogue overlaps, as it does in one scene, one can see Anderson tipping his hat to the late Robert Altman, to whom this film was dedicated.

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