Category Archives: Crime Fiction

Vogue

LFF: Gemini

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Lola Kirke ventures into neo-noir with Gemini, an underpowered and half-baked thriller that leaves you with nothing to do if you’ve already figured out its (signposted) reveals.

She plays personal assistant to Zoë Kravitz’s celebrity, Heather, and their relationship is fleshed out during the first portion of the film. These early segments flirt dangerously with the idea of being about something (God, anything), but its undercooked thematic breadcrumb on celebrity worship is consigned to first draft fodder.

The two spend the night karaoking after Heather shies away from an acting opportunity. It’s pleasant enough but there’s an inescapable feeling that the movie is passing time – crude stabs at humour (Gemini is annoyingly overconfident in how funny it is) and stilted dialogue do nothing to dispel this feeling, hindering the good work made by a stylish opening shot and Gemini’s moody jazz-electro score.

When the plot really finally gets to work – with a murder mystery that Lola Kirke’s character is made the prime suspect of – the editing decides to take a tea break. This is bland filmmaking with blindingly obvious missed opportunities for visual flair, offensive in how unbearably underwhelming, rather than bad, the whole thing is.

If you’ve figured out the twist – stating there is one isn’t exactly a spoiler considering its genre – then Gemini is a laborious watch. Kirke bounces between ill-defined characters and battles through sloppy cop-out plot devices (Example: a hotel key card that’s somehow mistakenly left for her), trying to make up for the mess with an endearingly bumbling performance.

Gemini peters out, unable to elucidate a point or elicit a reaction. If the exasperated closing scene has been lamented as a sour note to end on by other critics, I reckon that it’s just keeping in line with the rest of the film.

-Gus Edgar

Hollywood Reporter

LFF: Beauty and the Dogs

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Beauty and the Dogs plays out like a Tunisian I Daniel Blake that’s overdosed on the long take stunt of Victoria. It’s a well-intended and uneven flare-up of a film, condemning its country’s horrifying political and federal climate as a university student attempts to negotiate a tumultuous night.

This night is segmented into 9 long takes of varying lengths and degrees of outrageous injustice. The method works best at the film’s build – a group of girls, including Mariam (Al Ferjani, who portrays her character with both convincing initial charm and hysterical energy), get ready for a night of partying. Its mundane, but transfixing, the anticipation slowly but surely reaching a crescendo.

That this technique is used throughout, however, does Beauty and the Dogs a disservice. The fluid camera movements do less to contrast Mariam’s panicked state and more to diminish it, creating a tonal rift that prevents the film’s heavy themes of feminist corruption and police brutality from hitting quite as hard as intended.

If empathy goes amiss, however, that’s only for the sake of political rage. This is an angry film that provides Mariam with a series of horrifying hardships, that, if marred slightly by coincidence, stir enough hostility to accompany what Al Ferjani’s scintillating performance deserves.

It is when Mariam partners up with Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli), a man she flirts with at the party, and who attempts to help her survive the night, that Beauty and the Dogs truly impresses, carving out a complex moral niche. Director Kaouther Ben Hania gradually implies that Youssef’s intended help is an unwanted and extreme form of mansplaining, while a third act revelation muddies the water further. It’s a narrative anomaly affixed to an important film that is treated with less delicacy than required – but an important film all the same.

-Gus Edgar

BFI.org.uk

LFF: Sicilian Ghost Story

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Sicilian Ghost Story is a strange take on a real-life mafia kidnapping story involving young lovebirds, weaving the supernatural with a distinct gritty realism that makes you wonder if the supernatural elements are even necessary.

It’s a delicate subject matter, and approaching it with surreal flourishes may lean towards a dangerously blasé slant in the face of child torture. Yet the method’s sparse use manages to carefully sidestep any talk of insensitivity. In doing so, it also sacrifices any room for the film to transcend the stale trappings of its slow-burn narrative.

The film’s initial imagery is bafflingly fixating, promising a much greater film than the one we end up receiving. The camera winds itself around dripping rocks, leaving us to infer the ethereal from the real. Luca Bigazzi, known for his brilliant work with Sorrentino, compliments the film’s overbearing fairy-tale quality with unnatural framing and contemplative long takes, mustering up most of the film’s magic.

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough disparity between the surreal and its harsh truth to produce the catharsis the film so desperately strives for. In blending the two, much of the juxtapositional effectiveness is lost, and its sporadic implementation doesn’t do enough to justify the presence of the supernatural.

Though perhaps Sicilian Ghost Story’s greatest problem lies in the fact that this is a tragic love story between two kids where the lead child actors aren’t actually very good. Much may be down to directors Grassadonia and Piazza, who have seemingly told his young cast to sport plastic smiles whenever in frame. With chemistry this fabricated and unconvincing, it’s difficult to latch onto the difficulties that obstruct their plight thereafter. Sadly, they’re left stranded in a dreamlike film that’s too afraid to commit to its own premise and afraid even further to support its own existence.

-Gus Edgar

LFF: Beast

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Michael Pearce’s Beast, a study-cum-outbreak of paranoia and blame, is in fact a directorial debut. You wouldn’t think it judging by its unwavering confidence in juggling several trickily incongruous tones; it’s a colour palette of genres, at once a romance and a murder mystery, interweaving shades of black comedy and hues of self-serious character study, before presenting in its final moments one blood-red splotch of melodrama.

The film begins with a birthday, introducing us to an array of characters and dictating exactly why they’re unlikeable. In this scene, it is only the birthday girl, Moll (played with mawkishness-turned-sour extravagance by Jessie Buckley), that goes without judgement.

Rightly irritated by her comically suffocating family, she ventures to a bar, parties the night away, and meets a mysterious young man the next day (Johnny Flynn). His good looks and unorthodox charm impresses, and some wonderful chemistry is created out of a threadbare narrative direction. Soon they’re both in love, and, more disconcertingly, in trouble, embroiled in a police case involving the rape and subsequent murder of several teenage girls.

This is a film that confounds expectations, though its original pretence may not have been intentional, and its change in direction may not have been wise. As an examination of blame, background and prejudice, Beast flourishes. It’s when the film turns into a completely different, ahem, beast, in the third act that the good work of its first two starts to diminish.

Of course, it’s tricky ridiculing a narrative simply because it’s not the narrative you would have chosen, but it’s hard to shake off the feeling that there’s huge potential left uncovered. Choosing to neglect building upon Beast’s psychology is brave, but perhaps foolish too. Only a rewatch, with prior knowledge of the events that unfold, can provide much-needed clarity.

-Gus Edgar

Nocturama

Nocturama opens up with a lengthy sequence in which various teens and 20-somethings board trains, walk into buildings and up metro stairs into the daylight of Paris. Visual exchanges are made; worried glances between each person that signify solidarity, if not confidence. But not a single word is spoken. It’s an enthralling opening that rivals There Will Be Blood as an exercise in conveying information with silence. The camera pins to each character, surveilling their every move. The sensation created isn’t so much the silent, urgent stalking of Seconds, but we are able to share the characters’ concerns of being followed. One would be forgiven for thinking that this functions as a homage to the haydays of French silent cinema, if it weren’t for the distinctly modern approach to editing intervals, and Nocturama’s startlingly timely premise.

Following this group of ragtags for the entirety of the film, Nocturama’s first segment focuses on the execution of a plan that reveals itself to us along its runtime, occasionally utilising flashbacks to display both their preparation and their character traits. Though, perhaps intentionally, and certainly appropriately, their traits coalesce until it’s difficult to separate one from another.

The film’s second, longer segment concerns itself with the aftermath of what they set out to accomplish. The characters huddle together in a department store closed for the night, trapped among excess. They are left to roam the store and indulge in the splendour of what it has to offer, unshackled from the unease of the day before. They are no longer the enigmatic figures of Nocturama’s first half – they are themselves again. They race go-karts, snatch wedding rings, and there’s a wonderful and baffling mimed rendition of Shirley Bassey’s My Way. Tellingly, this re-enactment goes on a little too long; our protagonists are surrounded with decadence – a store-sized world of near-limitless opportunities – yet it’s hard to shake off the feeling that they’re simply passing the time. And perhaps it’s just that – boredom – that dictates the narrative of this clique.

There are many other possibilities that director Bertrand Bonello suggests as rationality for what the characters accomplish, but he never leads his audience towards a single, definitive direction. Bonello understands the intelligence of his audience, leaving us to infer reason and motivation from the strands he leaves behind.

When the music is not being dubbed, it’s being blasted in full volume across the entirety of the department store. It seems as if all of Paris is able to listen in, not that the characters mind. The choice of music is knowingly provocative: ‘Whip My Hair’ is boomed out as haunting footage of the millennials’ actions during the day are broadcast on the stores’ plasma screens. The characters hardly seem to notice the juxtaposition. Why should they? Most of these characters are proud of their feat – to them, it’s not a horrifying act of pseudo-rebellion, but a glorious stunt that they can bask in to the tunes of Willow Smith.

This doesn’t apply to all of them. A girl named Sabrina voices her guilt. The source of it is obscured – she was observed by a policeman, and may simply feel remorse at potentially being caught. A boy, David, doesn’t fulfill his role in the plan. He is seen leaving the department store for a smoke, wandering the streets of Paris for a while. His actions here almost taunt services to find him. It’s not made clear – nothing is in Nocturama – but it’s as if he wants to be caught.

We learn their names gradually as the first half of the film develops – not that their names truly matter. These characters are templates, faceless beings stripped of identity much like the mannequins that Botello frames them against. They serve as passengers of a non-specified ideology, the film’s politics more concerned with species than race, in spite of its subject matter. As David wanders around Paris, he questions a woman his age about the events of the day. ‘It was bound to happen, right?’ she answers. Nocturama is a perplexing film, but it is also an understanding one – Botello acknowledges the complex mind of youth, and all of its contradictory, unexplainable facets. These minds belong to a world that they seek to destroy. These minds, too, are unfocused, the hypnotic determination of the day giving way to a growing lack of restraint as the night wears on. Mika, they youngest of the group, confesses his love to Sabrina. Much like Cairo Station, this is not the film for that, and Nocturama knows it. This exchange functions as a pointed remark of the characters’ insistence on distracting themselves from the horrors that they have committed, and that wait in store for them. And as the group gradually lose any self-control, the sense of the inescapable kicks in.

While Botello’s use of displaying time – the camera switching between each character in a not-exactly-linear fashion – strips the film of some of its urgency, it does fuel a potent inevitability that rears its ugly head in its final few moments. This is slick film-making, an exercise in control. The characters themselves may not possess much in the latter half of the film, but the camera is patient, waiting until the right moment to converge its repeated timelines, and the right moment to sprawl them out again.

Nocturama offers insight towards its cast of young friends on a mission. The trick is that it does so without the need for exposition or background knowledge. It is a current film with a current concept – the flashbacks it does occasionally refer to aren’t entirely necessary and are often contradictory to the film’s intent, marking the low-point in its narrative. These characters don’t need names or faces or dialogue. They may not even need reason. Nocturama is an angry film, but it condemns the notions of this set of youth without dehumanising them. Their awkward dancing, penchant for pop and teenage squabbles do well to offset the distinct lack of humanity on display in the film’s first half. Any association with mannequins isn’t intended to mechanise them, but to simply reveal that they are not unique or special, and neither is the ideology they share. Nocturama’s protagonists aren’t robots, or revolutionaries – they’re infant radicals.

-Gus Edgar

The Accountant

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Ignore the uninspired title – The Accountant is a film heavy on gun-toting action and comparatively light on office space mundanity. Our number-cracking hero, Christian Wolff, is played with straight-faced indifference by Ben Affleck – he’s a bulky genius of a man, on the spectrum to some degree (though it is never definitively disclosed to what extent), and throughout the film we observe the makings of his confused characterisation via various flashbacks. He was a troubled child, with a stern father that enforced rigorous and vigorous martial arts training on both him and his brother, tidily explaining away Wolff’s effective brawling and focus on fatherhood.

This ‘high-functioning’ accountant in question is tasked with investigating a company’s mis-managing of money, by the company itself.. uncovering their dodgy dealing…before it’s erased by the company…wait what? And J.K. Simmons gets involved as Ray King, a financial crimes director, I think, that attempts to track Wolff down…or does he? Then Anna Kendrick also appears as the company’s in-house accountant, and faux-love interest..or does she even have a particular point to the story? It’s all rather difficult to follow, or doesn’t make any sense, or both. Subplots seem shoehorned in and without purpose, buzzwords are thrown around in confusion, and the story never stops to explain anything that’s going on. The film’s jargon isn’t nearly as complex as in films such as this year’s The Big Short, but it’s also not as deftly handled either, and so manages to be a tediously baffling mixture of financing that’s too difficult to understand or too difficult to care about understanding, and unrealistic action set-pieces that are somehow just as dull.

The narrative is barmy on so many levels, buckling under the weight of its own ridiculousness. Wolff is a superhero of sorts, his form of autism fetishised rather than fleshed out – he’s super-intelligent, barely takes a punch in fights, and his shooting is pin-point accurate to a fault. His is a character that director Gavin O’Connor fails to root in reality, his attributes tritely displayed, window-writing and all. There’s barely any substance applied to Wolff’s autism, and so the best Affleck can do is stare vacantly and act expressionless – luckily that’s something he’s very good at. Thankfully, this film acknowledges its own slightness, and so doesn’t stray too far into overwrought sentimentality, instead opting for silly action sequences and a nonsensical narrative.

In some ways, there’s almost a delight to be had revelling in the stupidity of it all. There’s no denying its enjoyability, though most of it stems from laughing at the film rather than with it, and there’s a certain charm to the way Wolff’s character is performed by Affleck. Sadly, this doesn’t salvage The Accountant, a film too troubled with irrational decision making and irrelevant plotlines.

Crucially, and perhaps most damning of all, it’s a predictable fare, bereft of any of the thrills or shocks we would expect from its increasingly-Bourne-like premise. The Accountant is brash and clumsy – extending to its inability to hide a blatant Chekhov’s Gun, with just enough humour, at its own expense, to support a plot in desperate need of a reworking.

-Gus Edgar

Nocturnal Animals

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Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) thoughts towards Nocturnal Animals hits it right on the nose: “It’s violent and it’s sad”. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ in this context is a typescript of Morrow’s ex-husband’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) first effort at a novel, and bears more than a few similarities to the way in which the couple broke up to be merely coincidental…

Morrow herself is an art gallery owner, specialising in an oddball raunch that dominates the screen during the film’s opening credits. She’s stranded in a loveless marriage to a hunky husband (Armie Hammer) who’s more occupied with work (and other women) than anything regarding his wife. Cue the ex-husband’s typescript, sent to Morrow at a time when she’s in desperate want of connection. A way to contact her ex again – just what she needs, right? Not quite.

The novel within a film plunges headfirst into a highway scene with a ferocious intensity that rivals Sicario’s border crossing scene last year. It’s a jagged, welcome tonal shift, tinged with uncertainty over what’s going to happen. In fact, the whole narrative of Nocturnal Animals – both the film itself and its titular typescript – is unpredictable, and we can’t help but sympathise with the main character’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) hapless plight in this thrilling revenge story.

Back in the real world – shot with fusty gusto – Morrow is mulling over the story and recollecting haunted memories of her prior life with her ex-husband. There’s a sense of disconnect, of lack of relevance, but suddenly parallels between their romance and the typescript’s narrative become apparent, building to a devastating final scene that’s as electrifying as it is inevitable. The film is endlessly evolving, bludgeoning past brutal plot points and descending into irresistible, dirty delirium, heightened by Abel Korzeniowski’s sublimely tempestuous score. Yet director Tom Ford and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey give control to the chaos, with an assuredness applied to the kinetic camerawork, the brooding pans of musty citylife and desolate deserts. The danger and immorality on display really is tangible.

One source of danger comes in the form of Aaron Taylor Johnson’s terrifying and unhinged Ray Marcus, who torments Gyllenhaal and his fictional family. This is Johnson’ best performance of his career, committing to his character’s sleaziness and repugnancy, and preventing Ray from becoming caricaturish. Another brilliantly absurd character is the cop looking for him, played by Michael Shannon with straight-faced hilarity. He’s a character inflicted with lung cancer, who continues to smoke (“Well, yep, that’s how it works”), and nearly steals the show with his deadpan delivery and questionable morals. Other recognisable, or renowned actors, are relegated to the sidelines, however: Michael Sheen and Jena Malone each feature in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos, but at least their fleeting moments are highlights.

I’ve seen this film twice now, which I suppose is testament to how the film grips – and then sinks its claws into you. It’s menacing, and bold, and each scene is displayed with enough unwavering confidence and dedication by Ford (save for one Gyllenhaal outburst) that it all holds together. That this is only his sophomoric effort, after his acclaimed ‘A Single Man’, is truly astonishing. He may not just be a fashion designer, but he uses his considerable expertise in that field to capture beautiful imagery and symbolic costume design, and boy, it works.

Ford has birthed a film that’s dripping with grime but presented with gloss, creating an almost ugly beauty that’s visually fascinating. It’s a savage study of an intricate relationship, furnished with the bravado of a director that knows how to handle a script that’s jet-black in both themes and humour, and bolstered by a blistering score and vivid camerawork.

Sicario

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Director Denis Villenueve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have received monumental critical success for 2013’s realistically nightmarish Prisoners and 2014’s menacingly impenetrable Enemy, and the team are beckoned back once more for Sicario, one of Villenueve’s more accessible films, but no less intense. The film kicks off straight at the deep end, and barely even surfaces as the end credits roll. It’s that kind of film – consistently gripping, politically weighty, tension wonderfully palpable.

With the haunting thrums of Johann Johannsson’s masterful score, Sicario lurches into life; Kate Macer an FBI agent played with scintillating vulnerability by Emily Blunt, leads a SWAT mission to infiltrate a house along the USA-Mexico border with links to a drug cartel. Not everything goes to plan, and the horrifying sight of a mass of rotting bodies is uncovered, provided as the lingering image that launches Sicario’s mature, if well-worn plot. Macer is recruited into a combative border control task force, supposedly attempting to diminish a drug cartel behind the film’s shocking opener. From there, she meets the charismatic, sandal-wearing operation leader Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his shady, threatening partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). The operatives  immediately encounter danger during an astonishing bridge crossing sequence, the brimming intensity producing one of the best scenes of the year.

If the film had kept up this ferocious potency, we’d be looking at a 5-star film. Unfortunately, Taylor Sheridan’s script suffers from a dramatic lull in its second act – the film picks up again during a night-time mineshaft raid, but by then, the damage is done, the tension hasn’t been maintained. A part of the problem is that the script’s subject matter is inherently tired, and so Sheridan’s attempt to deviate and provide a fresh take on the matter has sacrificed Sicario’s clearly confused focus point. The third-act switch from Blunt’s Kate Macer to Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick is brave but jarring; instead of a smooth transition, we are thrusted into his life with little prior development of his character, and so as an audience we aren’t invested in his travails, despite his actions being crucial to the plot’s overarching themes. There is also a noticeable emphasis placed on a Mexican police officer named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) and his family, which serves as a well-intended microcosm for Mexico as a whole that’s lost in the story’s main narrative. It deserves it’s place in the film, but is integrated in a way that gives it the impression of seeming irrelevant.

Denis Villenueve’s direction competently masks Sicario’s wayward plot, however. His visual chemistry and nous for generating mood is made clear in his partnership with Roger Deakins, who brings the film’s central themes and tones to life: a haunting aerial shot of Mexico that establishes the residences’ terrifying beauty, a mesmerising sunset long-take that portrays the operatives as literally disappearing into the ground, and a powerful wide shot of a family at their kitchen table all help to muster up Sicario’s terrific energy and strikingly dark attitude.

Yet the film would still fall apart without its three central performances – Emily Blunt’s aforementioned vulnerability is nuanced and displays a sense of hopelessness that is omnipresent throughout the film’s running time. Josh Brolin is physically imposing and uses charismatic quirkiness to juxtapose his fraudulent motivations, and Benicio del Toro is satisfyingly cold and calculated, his strive for revenge a far cry from his sleepy, charming introduction.

Only a competent rather than excelling script hinders Sicario’s potency. It’s shot wonderfully, acted effectively and is directed in a way that portrays its mature themes without detracting from their sociopolitical heft. Villenueve has followed up his recent success with another scorcher of a film.

-Gus Edgar

Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Director Matthew Vaughn has a very accomplished track record; Kick-Ass is a breath of fresh air amid the abundance of Marvel superhero flicks, X-Men: First Class is a hugely entertaining romp that serves as the franchise’s finest, and Stardust, despite being rarely mentioned, is a competent and non-formulaic addition to the fantasy genre. You can imagine my disappointment, then, at Kingsman: The Secret Service, a spy caper devoid of any heart or wit that we have come to expect of the director.

The flick follows ‘Eggsy’ (Taron Egerton), a low-life, criminal that is taken in by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), to attempt to gain a place in the ranks of the titular Kingsmen, via a series of testing, if superfluous trials. From there, it’s a bonkers (and for me, too ridiculous to stomach) third-act to defeat the menacing Valentine, a character annoyingly played with a lisp and without charm by Samuel L Jackson. Incorporated into its convoluted plot, we have a mad, violent killing spree in a church, a mission to shoot a missile-launcher at a satellite after being sent into the Earth’s atmosphere via pressurised balloons, and a unique fireworks display that involves mass genocide – including President Obama, himself. Sounds farcical and preposterous, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.

Sadly, Kingsman: The Secret Service is an amalgamation of contradictions. Its a spoof on the recent gritty Bond capers, but begs to be taken seriously. Amid its story overstuffed with chaos are scenes that should carry weight, or shock, or any emotion whatsoever. All the emotional heft is lost due to the frantic fiasco occurring on screen. Yes, the film is violent and destructive, but despite its plot that threatens to congest, it’s an empty film, where character development – or even the care to structure characters realistically in any way – are sacrificed for full-on mayhem. Its third act amps up the inane tenfold, resulting in an unbalanced mess.

Where the violence worked for Vaughn’s previous effort, Kick-Ass, it falters and stumbles magnificently here; there is always a looming sense of seriousness and tension involved with Kick-Ass, where scenes carry an overbearing sense of danger. In Kingsman, it’s incredibly difficult to be invested in the plight of the characters when henchmen often less than a foot away cannot aim at the protagonist. The mindless violence is shocking and chaotic for the sake of being shocking and chaotic – any depth that the film has is replaced with unrelenting tedium. Amid this influx of violence are actual, genuine, plot points, but the script seems to have decided that incoherent coincidences should decide which way the plot turns; the decision proving beneficial to the protagonist and antagonist in equal measures, but at the expense of fluidity.

And while the film has been critically commended for originality, it is unable to escape condescending stereotypes of the lower-class. It seems as if Matthew Vaughn took all the different exaggerated tropes of a lower-class Brit family and concocted them into a thinly-scripted and one-dimensional set of characters. Nor can the film come up with decent character motivation for its antagonist, settling for an incentive that can only be described as cliche.

In terms of acting, it’s a mixed bag. Aside from a horribly miscast Mark Strong that looks thoroughly hapless throughout the flick, and Samuel L Jackson’s confusing attempt to convey a mixture of Blofield and Rain Man, the cast is largely competent. Taron Egerton is charming and assured, Colin Firth is refreshingly energetic as Hart, and both Sofia Boutella and Sophie Cookson play their strong female characters (which is always a welcome sight) with aplomb.

Yes, Kingsman is undeniably entertaining in short bursts – a skydive without a parachute and the now-infamous church scene set to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’ is a joyous, if unfulfilling romp. Sadly, its entertainment value cannot make up for a strained plot, wooden characters, and a frustrating script. And to top it all off, Kingsman is not nearly as funny as it thinks it is; most of its jokes fall flat – a huge surprise when looking at the director’s credentials. Unfortunately, Kingsman: The Secret Service, much like its final pre-credits scene, is ugly, hugely disappointing, and lacking in any subtlety.

– Gus Edgar

Inherent Vice

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Incoherent Vice would be a much more suitable title.

Incohesive, long, and dialogue-heavy, Inherent Vice has all the potential to flounder. Yet under the steady (or rather, wild) hands of director Paul Thomas Anderson, the film becomes a psychedelic, incredibly enjoyable ride brimming with wit and melancholy. The film follows Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (played in routinely magnificent fashion by the now ever-reliable Joaquin Phoenix), and his exploits to help his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fey (Katherine Waterston, also exquisite) investigate a kidnapping of notorious real-estate billionaire Mickey Wolfmann. From there, the plot descends (or ascends, depending on your perspective of the film) into sumptuous lunacy; a mystery involving the coveted and secretive ‘Golden Fang’, a fascinating encounter with a figure named Adrian Prussia, and a charming, nostalgic tale involving a Ouija board all intertwined into the flick’s increasingly crazed plot.

It’s a stoner noir that gives the audience the impression of being stoned themselves – a startling achievement by both P.A Anderson and Thomas Pynchon, the writer of the book that this flick is adapted from. It’s not about the end result, but about the journey; plot threads aimlessly disappear and reappear, often left unresolved amid the concoction of brewing story lines; told from the perspective of Doc’s weed-frazzled mind. Yet despite the apparent attempt to confuse and toy with the audience, the flick is never not-fascinating. As the opening credits appear, you’ll find a big grin spreading across your face – barely disappearing during Inherent Vice’s 148-minute run time.

Part of this is due to the film’s soundtrack – just like its plot, it’s a daring and muddled mix in equal measures, an amalgamation of Jonny Greenwood’s terrifically periodic score, and the various offerings of artists, each with a booming, bombastic track to deftly support what’s on screen; Vitamin C, Here Come the Ho-Dads, Simba, and Les Fleur all stand-out as proudly and brilliantly as Doc’s sideburns. They also help contribute to Inherent Vice’s wonderful, tonal atmosphere – the turn of the 1970’s portrayed on screen with expert precision.

The atmosphere created is also helped enormously by the director’s use of large format film, fabricating a musty, saturated quality that wouldn’t be possible to produce otherwise. Inherent Vice also features the best cinematography of any film released in 2014 – which is saying a lot when considering Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel were both released last year. Each shot is filmed with typical P.A Anderson-ian perfection, outmuscling his previous effort, The Master, for beauty alone.

And all this praise without truly referring to the acting – yes, the acting is something special too. Joaquin Phoenix brings his deranged, frustratedly lackadaisical persona to the forefront, and it works wonders. Doc is equal measures of composure and insanity, a brewing mix of hippie goodness that is juxtaposed expertly by the straight-faced ‘Bigfoot’ (Josh Brolin), a hippie-hatin’ detective that surprisingly features as the figure that prises the most laughs from the audience. Less surprisingly, he’s portrayed excellently by Brolin, shrouding himself in a subtly affectionate sentimentality; his character depth, where sexuality and sentiments towards Doc remain ambiguous throughout, elevates the film to a whole other stratosphere. He’s a character with a comical facade and an aura of sadness.

Katherine Waterston, who plays the main female lead as Doc’s ex-girlfriend, must be mentioned too. A relatively unknown face, she brings fragility and vulnerability to the storyline, where her chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix forms much of the crux of the film. She stands out expertly in one particular scene – a sensual, sorrowful discussion with Doc that culminates in silently affectionate sex; leaving the audience in a similarly hushed state. The scene is a showcase of Waterston’s acting range and capabilities, and she handles the challenging task with aplomb.

The same can be said for all of Inherent Vice’s bloated jumble of characters, each adroitly played; Martin Short helming a terrific cameo, and only Owen Wilson debatedly miscast. Their encounters with Doc contribute as the overall chassis of the plot, and if you can withstand the initial tedium, it plays out beautifully. Inherent Vice works on so many levels; an accurate portrayal of life in 1970, an intriguing mystery and crime drama, a fantastic character-study, and a poignant tale of love and paranoia. Inherent Vice may not be for everyone, but if it works, it works wonders – a gem of a film with a myriad of vibrant characters and a plot as smart as it is unhinged.

– Gus Edgar