Sunday, November 29, 2015

New(ish) Releases: Inherent Vice (2014); What We Do in the Shadows (2015); Get Hard (2015)

Inherent Vice (2014)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

The Big Lebowski meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As you may imagine, this works brilliantly at times but is a hazy mess at others.

Inherent Vice bears many hallmarks of the noir film genre: A male detective protagonist. A (quasi) femme fatale. An array of strange and suspicious characters. A nefarious plot which grows complex enough to baffle nearly any viewer. The story was clearly taking from the pages of the earliest noir novelists like Chandler and Hammett, as well as the classic noir film directors such as Raoul Walsh and Billy Wilder.

Where Inherent Vice would seemingly take a different slant on the noir genre is how it makes the private investigator protagonist a semi-burned out stoner, Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). That is, it would be a different slant if the Coen brothers hadn't already done it nearly 20 years ago in The Big Lebowski. Granted, there is far less comedy and far more grasping for some sort of vague profundity in Inherent Vice. Still, it is impossible to watch the parade of comically bizarre and eminently "Los Angeles" characters and not think of the dozens of oddballs whom The Dude encounters while trying to track down Bunny Lebowski. The Dude had Walter, Jackie Treehorn, Maude Lebowski, the German nihilists, and plenty of others. Doc has Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts, in a solid performance), Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, the same), Jade the hooker, Dr. Blatnoyd, D.D.S., the Nazi skinhead bikers, and plenty of others. Vice is clearly the spiritual successor of The Big Lebowski's tale of "a strange dude among far stranger and scarier people." It does make for a rather fun, trippy, 20th century American odyssey.

I have not read Thomas Pynchon's source novel, though I must assume that it provides the film adaptation's inconsistent, incoherent voice-over narration. Amidst what is sometimes very straightforward slapstick or gumshoe storytelling, the thoughts and observations of the nebulous character Sortilege often seem out of place and pretentious, if not downright ridiculous. The main characters also suffer from this same strange inability to completely flesh themselves out, whether through their actions or dialogue. It is simply quite difficult to get any firm grasp on who or what each person is supposed to be. When you mix in the sometimes-frantic tone, which I associate with Terry Gilliam's wildly uneven adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then there tends to be just a little too much emulation of earlier iconic pieces of work. Honestly, Inherent Vice even has Benicio del Toro in a cameo playing a fast-talking, unhinged lawyer, just like in Fear and Loathing.

All of this said, I will likely watch this movie again in the future, probably after reading Pynchon's novel. The performances are certainly commendable, even hypnotic at times. The movie seems strongest when at its most comical, even if this is also when it wanders too deeply into the territory of being a Lebowski clone. The story also includes enough of the noir hallmark twists and turns to provide amusing mental exercise in simply keeping up with everything. Some of the work pays off, while some left me wondering at the exact purposes of certain parts of the film.

Inherent Vice is another film in the Paul Thomas Anderson catalogue which shows the director's eye for visuals and dedication to crafting something engaging. This recent effort, though, is arguably his least accessible film to date. Those who like a clear, straightforward narrative and tone will probably find this 140-plus minute movie frustrating. Even those who appreciate elements of the film will likely find their patience tried more than a few times.

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

Directors: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

Maybe not quite an instant classic in the Spinal Tap class, but this is a great mockumentary.

Mimicking the tone of "days in the lives of" documentaries, What We Do in the Shadows follows four flatmates in New Zealand who happen to be vampires, ranging in age from around 150 to over 8,000 years old. Though having all of the powers glamorized through popular fiction, the four undead roomies are not immune to many nuisances similar to those experienced by the living, though their problems have very peculiar twists. They bicker about who has to clean the dishes, but they do it while floating in the air and hissing at each other. They try to keep the carpets clean, but mostly from their accidentally hitting a victim's artery and spraying blood all over the apartment. Since they can't cast a reflection in a mirror, they have to draw rough sketches of each other in order to know what they look like. And on it goes.

The movie is hilarious in a variety of ways. Some of the gags and lines are immediately and gut-bustingly funny. Others are far more wry, but they are likely to stay with you and grow funnier the more you think about them. One example is how the vampires, in their attempts to go clubbing, are constantly frustrated by the fact that they must, in keeping with well-known vampire lore, be invited inside. Watching the main trio of powerful creatures get turned away from club after club grew funnier the more I replayed it in my mind. This was just one of dozens of similar gags.

The cast is all but perfect. True to the humor seen in director/star Jemaine Clement's HBO series The Flight of the Conchords, everything is done in complete deadpan. The actors were, to a person, spot on in their absurd matter-of-fact approach to being vampires, meeting vampires, or even being eaten by vampires. A particular standout is co-director Taika Waititi, who plays Viago, the single most amusing and memorable character in the film. Viago was born in 18th century Austria, and is a hilariously chipper "dandy," as his roommate and fellow vampire Vladimir calls him. Waititi plays this undead creature of the night with such hilarious cheerfulness that his performance alone is worth your time.

I have a feeling that this movie will only grow funnier upon repeat viewings, as do the very best mockumentaries.

Get Hard (2015)

Director: Etan Cohen

Enjoying this movie requires two simple things: Be a fan of either Will Ferrell or Kevin Hart, and check your brain in before you watch it. I am, and I did, and I had just enough fun to justify spending 100 minutes with this comedy.

The  movie has problems, to be sure. The script and tone smack of disorganization and overreliance on improv by the highly energetic co-stars. The attempts to use race and racial stereo-typing as sources of humor sometimes fall flat at best, and horribly offensive at worst. Many of the scenarios are far too ridiculous to hold up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny. All the same, it provided just enough of the stupid humor that I was looking for that night.

My main concern going in was that I would find the hyper-active Kevin Hart extremely annoying. Blessedly, he's the far straighter character, resulting in his toning down his energy level enough to remain funny without getting too clownish. Ferrell is the far more ridiculous character here, which has always been his comfort zone. Between his occasionally manic outbursts and deadpan absurdity, he can carry many would-be dud scenes. Granted, there are several scenes so ill-conceived that neither Ferrell nor Hart could breath humor into them.  All the same, I got a good solid laugh every 5 or 10 minutes, which is all I really look for in a movie that clocks a 29% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The most frustrating thing about movies like Get Hard is that they have far more potential. In the opening scenes, it seems as if we are in for a well-done satire on wealth, privilege, and racial stereotyping. Around 15 minutes in, though, the satire fades and an oddly serious tone takes over. The remaining hour or so continue to zig-zag between complete zaniness and half-baked or misguided attempts at social commentary. If the movie had had a clearer vision of itself and more imagination and courage with the script, it could have been far better. As it was, it ends up in the same barrel as Talladega Nights - an intermittently funny flick that I'll never watch again.