Joanne Sellar

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Inherent Vice Review


OK

Like the Thomas Pynchon novel it's based on, this film remains infuriatingly evasive as its central mystery deepens. Also like Pynchon, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is more interested in characters than plot, expertly orchestrating a lively cast in a series of raucous scenes. That these moments never quite add up to a coherent bigger story may feel unsatisfying, but the groovy 1970s vibe is infectious, and there's a lot of fun to be had in watching these actors play around with the rambling dialogue and nutty interaction.

It's set in 1970 Los Angeles, where private investigator Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is a stoner who'd rather not work at all. Then he agrees to help his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) find her missing property developer boyfriend Mickey (Eric Roberts). But this immediately puts him on a collision course with his long-time nemesis, Detective Bjornsen (James Brolin), a frozen-banana loving tough-guy cop known as Bigfoot. And the deeper Doc gets into the case, the more confusing it gets. Not only is the presumed-dead Coy (Owen Wilson) very much alive, but it's unclear whether a key clue about Golden Fang refers to a boat or a secret dental society. And suspiciously, Doc's DA friend Penny (Reese Witherspoon) always seems to be one step ahead of him on the case.

Anderson opens the film with a blinding flood of information and then simply never allows us to catch up, so like Doc we can't quite get a grip on what's actually going on. This effectively makes us feel as stoned as he is, bewildered by the way even the simplest revelations seem to contradict each other. But even as everything gets increasingly confusing, Anderson writes and directs scenes with a vivid intensity that's both hilariously entertaining and darkly involving. Each sequence carries a powerful punch, giving the superb cast plenty of quirky details to work with.

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The Master Review


Excellent

This jagged, meandering exploration of a Scientology-style movement is hauntingly mesmerising and packed with meaty performances. As he did in There Will Be Blood, writer-director Anderson is exploring how people control and influence each other, this time focussing on a twisted mentor-protege relationship that's strikingly well-played by Hoffman and Phoenix. 

The story takes place just after the war, as seaman Freddie Quells (Phoenix) struggles to overcome his physical and psychological injuries and fit back into society. After drifting across America, he stows away on a boat captained by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), who is known as the Master to followers of the Cause. He takes Freddie under his wing and coaches him to tap into his eternal soul by exploring who he was in past lives. So Freddie becomes part of the family with Dodd's strong-willed wife (Adams), doubtful son (Plemons) and more gung-ho daughter and son-in-law (Childers and Malek). And Freddie's stubbornness both annoys and challenges Dodd.

It's fascinating to watch these two men develop a tight connection while quietly jostling for power. The cycles of interaction make the film lurch in fits and starts as Freddie tries to elevate himself using Dodd's process, but continually finds another way all his own. In other words, both men are using each other to work out their own inner turmoil. While Hoffman gives a layered performance that bristles with quiet shadows and superficial bravado, Phoenix contorts his body and face into a man who has literally been crumpled up by his past. Meanwhile, the darkly intense Adams sneaks up and steals every scene she's in.

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There Will Be Blood Review


Weak
Ambitious as hell but irreparably flawed, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood enthralls for half its run but balances precariously atop an epilogue that can't sustain the picture's dramatic weight. Picture a circus elephant perched on a beach ball at the center of the big top. Teeter, teeter, topple.

Opening with its protagonist buried deep in a hole from which he never really emerges, Blood tracks the turn-of-the-century dealings of miner Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, magnetic) who transitions from silver to oil when he taps vast, black resources beneath California's undeveloped frontier. A decade after stumbling across their first reserve, Daniel and his adoptive son, H.W. Plainview (saucer-eyed Dillon Freasier), are snapping up as much land as possible to increase the family's corporate empire.

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Dust Devil Review


Good
When Richard Stanley appeared in 1990 with his first film, the cyberpunk splatter flick Hardware, the buzz was hot. While Hardware was surprisingly successful, it wasn't a great film. But it did have a unique style and color that suggested Stanley was only to move onto bigger and better projects. The fall was almost guaranteed.

What happened to Stanley's career (and in particular the sorry fate of his existential sophomore effort, Dust Devil) is a story of almost diabolical circumstance and cold corporate brutality. For a filmmaker like Stanley, starting his career with a genre picture was a fatal misstep but one that couldn't be avoided. Hardware set him up. When U.S. distributors Miramax saw that Stanley had delivered a follow up that was an art film more akin to the work of Alain Resnais than Tobe Hooper, they flipped. Cut from 120 minutes to a trifling 86 minutes, Dust Devil was butchered into incoherence. The British company funding the film went bust and everything went to hell. The cut version (or versions) of Dust Devil were dumped unceremoniously onto a paltry number of screens and quickly relegated to the video graveyard. Richard Stanley limped on, buoyed by a cult fan base, only to see his dream project descend into the creative nightmare that was 1996's The Island of Doctor Moreau.

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The Wicker Man (2006) Review


Grim
The new version of The Wicker Man is a surprisingly tony addition to the new class of horror remakes, adapted and directed not by a disgraced former action director or a newbie music-video director but arthouse mainstay Neil LaBute; starring not a WB star paying his or her dues, but Nicolas Cage.

I haven't seen the original Wicker Man (or read the novel on which it was based), but apparently the major change to the story - about a cop visiting a remote island commune to investigate the disappearance of a young girl - is, appropriate to LaBute's resume (In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things), a gender switch. Whereas the original island was overseen by Christopher Lee, this one has Ellen Burstyn as Sister Summersisle, who oversees a flock of women conducting themselves with creepy calm. Men are present, in tiny clusters, but seem resigned mainly to lifting things in silence.

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Punch-Drunk Love Review


Weak
Most wouldn't put Paul Thomas Anderson and the genre of romantic comedy in the same room and expect them to work together well. The director of Magnolia and Boogie Nights tends to shy from the formulaic filmmaking inherent in warming the hearts of couples, and that's certainly not the purpose of Punch-Drunk Love. The problem is defining just exactly what that purpose is to begin with.

The estimable Emily Watson plays Lena Leonard, Barry Egan's (Adam Sandler) ultimate dream woman. In fact, she's everyone's vision of virtue in her ability to ignore or simply not care about whatever foolish stunt Barry pulls. Perhaps, as the heavy-laid music at one point suggests, the very attraction is that she is so normal while he is such a buffoon. Once you get over the idea that love at first sight with two eclectic characters would be cute, something has to provoke you to root for the cause, and whatever that could have been never happens.

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Boogie Nights Review


Extraordinary
Now this is some production. I'm lucky enough to live in one of the "selected cities" for Boogie Nights's limited opening (it goes wide on Oct. 31), and in all my years as a moviegoer, I think this is the first time I've seen a mirrorball in the theater put to use during a film. Outside of that, Boogie Nights may have generated the most enthusiastic audience response I've heard in ages.

The premise is simple and well-known. Young "Dirk Diggler" ("Marky" Mark Wahlberg) is a busboy discovered in a Receda nightclub by a big-time porn flick producer (Burt Reynolds, in perhaps his best role ever). Mingling with the likes of Amber Waves (Julianne Moore, my fave actress), the innocent Rollergirl (Heather Graham, who doesn't have nearly enough screen time), and other bigshots of the biz, Diggler rises (so to speak) and falls as the porn industry ruptures during the dawn of the 1980s.

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Magnolia Review


Extraordinary
Sooner or later, every director makes his Short Cuts.

Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights) only waited until his third film to make his, an over-three-hour epic with at least 10 major characters in almost as many separate story lines. And thanks to those characters, every one a rich mystery burning with secrets, Magnolia is a smashing success.

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