Stars: Benicio Del Toro, Eric Roberts, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Martin Short, Michael Kenneth Williams, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Sasha Pieterse
Released: 30th January 2015 (UK)
They say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you agree with that line of thinking than you will likely be disappointed in the latest from director Paul Thomas Anderson. At nearly two and a half hours, it is a mess of a masterpiece that begs for you to dissect every scene and every line of dialogue as well as how the actor speaking a said line conveys the meaning of their dialogue. Do we place this kind of importance on the film because it does indeed come from a filmmaker with the unique status of Anderson? If it came from a lesser known director would the awaiting audience be as accepting? It’s hard to say and it hardly matters because no one else would ever make films like the ones Anderson crafts. Like his other six features,Inherent Vice is wholly a concoction of the directors singular voice and style. From Boogie Nights to There Will Be Blood and Magnoliato The Master Anderson has demonstrated an eclectic range that gives each new film a dynamic all its own. It has always been clear his sentiment is slightly off-kilter, but he has never made anything as loopy or goofy as what we have here and somehow it seems as if this is the truest representation of the person Anderson actually is. As much as Inherent Vice fits perfectly into Anderson’s diverse filmography it is the way he has approached the project that stands out more than anything, maybe even more than the finished product itself. Set in Gordita Beach, California in the summer of 1970 as Vietnam rages on and the sixties come to a screeching halt the director infuses his film with this aesthetic by consistently relying on the style of limited camera movement and the framing of shots to capture specific angles that immediately conjure up references to films of the time period in which his film is set. From the attention to detail to the technicolor texture of the images and more forward to the seemingly blind, but no doubt highly calculated preciseness of not seeming to give two shits Anderson delivers a film that, on the surface, seems to make little sense at all. And yet, as one begins to dig deeper and break down the whole of the film into single scenes, individual moments and certain pieces of dialogue it somehow makes more sense even if that bigger picture is all but lost. While Inherent Vice isn’t and won’t be hailed as Anderson’s greatest work, it is easy to see it becoming the one his loyal fans end up returning to most often.
Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon Inherent Vice tells the story, mainly, of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix); a private investigator whose ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), comes to him in the beginning with the story of how major real-estate mogul and current beau Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is the subject of a scam. Mickey’s wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and her own lover on the side want to have Mickey admitted to a mental health institution and Shasta is hoping Doc will help her spoil this plot. At around the same time Doc comes in contact with Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams) who asks him to find out the whereabouts of Glen Charlock, who also happens to be one of Mickey’s bodyguards. In his pursuit and after a series of unfortunate events Doc ends up being questioned by local LAPD hard ass and arch-nemesis Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). Bigfoot informs Doc that Charlock has been shot and killed while both Wolfmann and Shasta have disappeared. From here on out we follow Doc on what becomes a series of disparate seeming events that are able to somehow still enhance the world in which this takes place while involving us in Doc’s thought process even if we don’t really understand much of what’s going on. Doc takes on another case involving Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) as she hopes to find her believed to be dead husband, Coy (Owen Wilson), still alive. Doc has a few drinks with his lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro) in order to find out more about the “Golden Fang”, an old sailing ship suspected of bringing mysterious goods into port, and upon which Mickey and Shasta are rumored to have departed. He is reunited with Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse), a runaway Doc returned to her parents on a previous occasion who is currently having an inappropriate relationship with her doctor (Martin Short). He stays informed on the city’s current status of his cases by sleeping with district attorney Penny (Reese Witherspoon) while all being sporadically narrated by Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) who I’m still not sure how she ties into everything else.
There is a small moment in Inherent Vice where one character looks up to another after they’ve been rambling on about who knows what and asks, “So, you’re here about?” which is only met with the response of, “good question.” It is a sentiment that is wondered again by the viewer countless times throughout as the the massive ensemble cast gives way to scene after scene where we have little idea as to how or if this certain event ties into the bigger picture. While I haven’t read the source material and am not familiar with the writing style of Pynchon, the fact he’s only given Anderson the rights to adapt what is considered the most commercial of his works tells me much of the structure and isolated tendencies of the plot. While Anderson has always had the need to pull his features slightly to the left in terms of inherent oddities he is only drowning in his own desires with Pynchon providing the template. Just as much, if not more than the immersive aesthetic and vibrant stylings of the director though are the performances of this large cast that compel us to stick with the infrequent narrative. As Doc, Phoenix turns a complete one-eighty from his previous lead in an Anderson film and gives us a dope smoking, sometimes inept investigator who is somehow able to still elicit a sense of empathy from the audience due in part to his consistent streak of bad luck. In essentially every frame of the film, Phoenix anchors the tone by being completely present in the moment. It would be easy to see Phoenix come at the character with little regard for who Doc is given he is on something of a high one hundred percent of the time, but it takes a fair amount of skill to give an impassioned performance that is meant to feel careless. Phoenix has always had this aura around him as if he disregards anyone and everything, unable to take a thought seriously unless he himself has it and while that makes seeing his more emotionally involving work all the more revealing this facade only builds with his portrayal of Doc that is amped to the max by the lunacy he exudes under many a circumstances. Other standouts include Brolin and Wilson as they are solid performers who add to the ongoing story while many of the others contribute little more than cameo appearances, with Short’s being especially entertaining.
I admire the hell out of anything Paul Thomas Anderson decides to put his mark on and here his boldness to not adhere to any given structure or formula, but rather to simply do as he sees fit making even a story as broad as this one all his own is instantly appealing. Inherent Vice is a movie I enjoy the more I think about it after the fact. I loved being a part of the world and interacting with the characters even if I still have no idea what I really thought about the film itself at the time I was experiencing those things. So, how does one even come to a final verdict? It is hard to say and ultimately so subjective in terms of this type of art that it truly doesn’t matter. The film is gorgeously realized and beautifully photographed in a sense that the hugely complimentary score feels more coherent than the story being told. My immediate reaction was one of wondering whether or not Anderson had tried too hard to put his own spin on a rather straightforward tale. With many of his other films, when I’ve finished watching them (especially for the first time) I’ve felt a moving, insightful experience come out of it and while I initially thought of Inherent Vice as an adventure I didn’t know if it felt as wholly engrossing in the way Anderson’s films typically leave me. Allowing a little bit of time to pass though, one can’t help but to continue thinking about the film and the choices made in creating it. One begins to realize the details of the plot are of little importance and that the real emphasis here is placed on the people and this semi-paradise where everyone is just trying to make it work yet nothing and no one seems able to work together. This is not strictly the story of a hippie P.I. at the dawn of the seventies, but more a portrait of a specific moment in certain peoples lives with nothing necessarily profound to say about the state of existence or what these characters are finding significance in. They are only looking for a path. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how I feel about the film as it is certainly one I’d love to watch again and again; one where I may not ever know what exactly is going on, but where I will always be excited to see what comes next.
God’s Own Country (DVD/Blu-Ray Review)
Released: 29th January 2018
Directed By: Francis Lee
Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu
Reviewed By: Barry Levitt
Last year may have been unbearable in many facets, but for queer cinema, 2017 was a landmark year. Starting the year with Moonlight winning Best Picture, a number of LGBT films were released around the world including the critically acclaimed Call Me By Your Name, A Fantastic Woman and Princess Cyd. But perhaps the finest of them all was Francis Lee’s debut feature God’s Own Country, a story of a young farmer in Yorkshire whose way of living is permanently altered when a Romanian worker comes to work at the farm for lambing season. The film is out via Picturehouse Entertainment on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on the 29th January.
Johnny (Josh O’Connor) spends his evenings drinking and searching for casual sex with other men in an effort to escape his own mundane existence. He lives and works with his father and grandmother on a quiet Yorkshire farm, though due to his father’s ailing health, Johnny is forced to take care of the day to day operations. As lambing season approaches, the farm is in need of extra help as Johnny’s drinking has prevented him from doing the work necessary to keep the farm afloat. Johnny’s father Martin (Ian Hart) hires a Romanian worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) during the busy lambing season to help keep the farm going.
God’s Own Country has been often described as a British Brokeback Mountain, and while the film’s similarities are worth noting, they are remarkably different in approach. The main romance in question in Francis Lee’s film is warmly embraced. The sex scenes in particular are dealt with beautifully: free of mystery and shame, the scenes are explicit without being pornographic, and bursting with passion. Sure, the resistance is there – Johnny is deeply frustrated sexually, and his sexuality is kept secret from almost everyone, and he does not exactly instantly warm to Gheorghe’s presence. The film’s power comes from Lee’s excellent script and calm, patient direction. As a viewer, Johnny’s loneliness is almost palpable, making his motivations clear and as a result it is easy to empathise with him.
Lee also does a tremendous job bringing the Yorkshire farmlands to life. His camera evokes an almost tactile response, and it is as if you could feel the grass and the mud; this film is simply full of raw and unflinching moments. There is a particularly touching sequence which Gheorghe tends to a newborn lamb that wonderfully evokes everything that God’s Own Country represents, things that seem broken can be reborn and renewed with tender love and care.
The film’s beauty also comes down to tremendous performances from the principal cast. O’Connor and Secareanu bring a wonderful vulnerability that is vital to the film’s beating heart. Ian Hart and Gemma Jones, who plays Johnny’s grandmother, are both utterly exceptional. God’s Own Country is a tender, quiet and moving meditation on love and loneliness, and wouldn’t be half as powerful without these great performances.
The home entertainment release of God’s Own Country comes with a series of deleted and extended scenes. Though it is easy to see why they were cut down or removed entirely, there is some interesting stuff here that fleshes out some of their characters. The film looks and sounds great, but it is a shame that such an excellent film wasn’t given more bonus material. Still, for fans of the film and for those who have yet to see it, one of the best films of 2017 absolutely deserves a home in your collection.
The Small World Of Sammy Lee – DVD Review
Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Ken Hughes
Stars: Anthony Newley, Julia Foster, Robert Stephens, Wilfrid Brambell, Warren Mitchell, Roy Kinnear
Released 14th November 2016
In 1958, Ken Hughes’ half hour play, ‘Sammy’ appeared on British television. It attracted huge acclaim and turned its solidary actor, Anthony Newley, into a star. Several years later, he returned to the same part, this time in the much-expanded ‘The Small World Of Sammy Lee’, written and directed by Hughes and released in cinemas in 1963. The response wasn’t so warm.
Now described by some as a lost gem of British cinema, it returned to the big screen in a newly restored version at the London Film Festival and is released on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. Time for a re-assessment.
The Sammy Lee of the title (Newley) is the compere at a Soho strip joint and a fast talking chancer. He’s also up to his neck in debt with the local bookie and has just five hours to raise the cash that will prevent paying up in a more painful way. It’s a race against the clock for him to find the money, through all manner of dodgy deals. At the same time, he has to cope with a major complication in his life, the young Patsy (Julia Foster) who fell for his showy offer of a job and has left home to pursue him.
Right from the opening shot, this is a period piece and a large chunk of nostalgia for anybody familiar with the London of the 60s, Soho especially. The early moments show streets that are empty, except for the bin men collecting the remains of the night before. Them aside, there’s hardly anybody around, but all that changes as the day progresses. You find yourself picking out street names and locations – Berwick Street market for one – while the black and white photography introduces the inherent seediness of the area, such as the strip club interior both back stage and front of house, the snooker halls, the pokey bed-sits. It extends to the characters as well, from Sammy with his stock of hackneyed, vaguely smutty gags straight out of the Archie Rice joke book to the pathetic Harry (Wilfrid Brambell) who runs his errands and, inevitably, falls down on the job.
All of which makes the more law-abiding characters stand out. There’s a one-scene portrait of Sammy’s family, his hard working brother Lou (Warren Mitchell) who runs a Whitechapel delicatessen and wife Milly (Miriam Karlin), dripping in costume jewellery and lacking any sympathy for Sammy when he arrives on the scrounge. So much so, that you suspect there may have been something between the two before she settled for his brother. And there’s the naïve Patsy who sees him for what he is but still adores him and finds promotion from waitress to “dancer” in the club upsetting and humiliating.
The scenes in the club give away the film’s 30 minute original, there’s one too many scene of Sammy running through the Soho streets and the Patsy love interest feels like padding, but why should a film with so much in the way of character and location fall so flat when it was released? One reason could be timing. It didn’t fit with the move towards “kitchen sink dramas” – it came out in the same year as ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ and ‘This Sporting Life’, while ‘A Kind Of Loving’ had been released in 1962. Sammy’s story isn’t a thriller either and doesn’t make the most of the dramatic potential of his limited time for raising that money. Nor is it a comment on society.
But, despite its shortcomings, there is much to enjoy, particularly among the performances. Newley is suitably nervy to the point of hyper as Sammy, while the oil positively drips off Robert Stephens’ club owner. And it’s littered with cameos from other familiar faces, like Derek Nimmo, Roy Kinnear and even Linda Baron (Nurse Gladys Emmanuel from ‘Open All Hours’). The street scenes in Soho are so evocative you can almost smell the garbage and the club interior is always viewed through a fug of cigarette smoke.
It adds up to a film rich in curiosity value for today’s audience, something of a love letter to the Soho of the 60s, but one that misses the dramatic target by a whisker. Second time round, it seems destined to appeal to a limited audience all over again, one that treasures older, unsung British films.
One Million Years BC – DVD Review
Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Don Chaffey
Stars: Raquel Welch, John Richardson, Martine Beswick
Released: 24th October 2016
Cinema history may be littered with bikini moments, but only a few have achieved true iconic status. Ursula Andress in ‘Dr No’ (1962) for one, followed by numerous other Bond girls who tried to re-create the moment, most notably Halle Berry in ‘Die Another Day’ (2002). And there was Bo Derek in ‘10’ (1979). But only one actress had the dubious honour of sporting a fur bikini. She was the almost-unknown Raquel Welch in ‘One Million Years BC’ (1966) and the garment, with its remarkable adhesive properties, made her an international star.
The film makes its return in a newly restored version on DVD to mark its 50th anniversary. And, while Welch in her bikini is easily its best known image, it also overshadows the film’s other achievement. Not only was it the most successful film ever to come out of Hammer Studios, it was also the big screen’s most famous dinosaur epic until the arrival of ‘Jurassic Park’ some 26 years later. And much of that was down to the creations of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. While some of them aren’t up to his usual standard – little more than enlarged versions of a lizard and a turtle – there’s a great dinosaur battle which shows the maestro at his best.
The audiences queuing to see the film in ’66 certainly didn’t go along for the plot. It’s pretty basic stuff, all about two tribes. The Stone People are a vicious lot, living in the mountains and regularly knocking seven bells out of each other. They kick out Tumak (John Richardson), one of their leader’s sons, and he finds his way to the coast where he discovers the Shell People, who show him a different, more peaceful way of life. It’s not long before the two tribes come into conflict, but then they eventually have to come together in a battle for survival.
Unsurprisingly, the dialogue isn’t up to much – the occasional word and a few grunts – so the demands on the cast are more physical than anything. And, once director Don Chaffey has exhausted the appeal of Harryhausen’s dinosaurs, he throws the kitchen sink at the film in the shape of the final sequence, a volcanic eruption and earthquake, all of which is pretty spectacular for its day.
The restoration has certainly sharpened up the look of the film and the DVD comes complete with a variety of extras, including interviews with Welch and her co-star, Martine Beswick. But comparisons with today’s special effects are inevitable and, while Harryhausen’s monsters are seriously impressive for their day, both they and the film are more of a period piece, laden with nostalgia for fans of the 60s.
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