Friday, February 28, 2014

Monkey at the movies

So we hear that PT Anderson is making Inherent Vice and of course I'm excited about that. Pynchon has never been filmed and if anyone is going to do it, Anderson's the man.

Of course Pynchon reads like he's unfilmable and you can imagine outcomes that will be close to unviewable. Anderson verges on close to unviewable at the best of times -- it's part of what makes him a great director. Isn't that an odd thing to say? No, because what I'm saying is he's uncomfortable, not that he tips over into unwatchable often.

I watched The Master again the other night and that has to be counted as Anderson's big failure. Truth to be told, this time I lasted I don't know, two hours?, before my attention drifted to other things. It's not a very compelling film. Anderson eschews narrative and instead lays out a luscious, directionless mess of a film.

Phoenix is brilliant, of course. He is the kind of actor that I watch films purely to see him, because he's simply wonderful in practically anything he's in. He's compelling and fascinating as Freddie Quell but he's left with so little to do because the character goes nowhere. You know him in the first five minutes and he doesn't change at all.

But the failure of the film is Philip Seymour Hoffman. I know, blah blah, he was brilliant, blah blah, but he's not brilliant in the The Master (or much else, if truth be told). The problem is he's supposed to be charismatic, but there's a reason he rarely starred in films but was a character actor. Whereas Phoenix compels you to watch him, inhabits a character and makes him real, PSH is actorly and unconvincing. I had to keep reminding myself he was supposed to be charismatic because he cannot, and did not, portray it. I'm not suggesting the role needed a huge side of ham like Day Lewis, but it needed someone who was a credible conman. PSH excelled at nuance in small, relatively flat characters. Ask him to become large, and he fell flat. Compare him with Bale in American Hustle. Bale is charisma on a stick, even though he is an ugly and laughable man. You see why people want to be conned by him.

Is he miscast or is the role badly written? I think you can argue either way. Certainly there are films where PSH just turns up for the paycheque (Moneyball, which he hung around like a bad smell, springs to mind, and there are plenty of other bit parts he should just have turned down), but others where he does good material credit (Capote foremost in my opinion). I think the whole film was ill conceived. The problem reviewers had was that it looked great and mostly was great in so many respects, but Anderson just didn't have a story to place the characters in.

Inherent Vice is a bit thin on plot if we're honest. I mean, Pynchon's never really about the plot. He's about the ideas. So it could be shit on a plate. I don't think Phoenix will let us down as Sportello and the rest of the cast does look very juicy, but I can't help but be scared that they will be stuck with a concept and script that don't match the premise.


Actors can surprise you though. Matthew McConaughey, for years a slightly dull if attractive presence in mostly entertaining but substanceless films, a poor man's Ryan Gosling if such a thing is possible, suddenly showed an ability he has rarely been called on to exhibit in True Detective. If you haven't been watching it, you need to start. It's as good as any television series; I personally rank it as highly as The Wire and Breaking Bad. It has flaws -- as any work of art in film or television is almost bound to have -- but what lifts it above them is the seamless collaboration of deep and compelling atmosphere, wonderful writing and exemplary acting. Woody Harrelson is characteristically excellent as Marty and the supporting cast able and beautifully directed, but McConaughey is something else. He inhabits Rust Cohle, creating in him a truly great character. He seems incapable of hitting a false note and is unremittingly credible. Seriously, if TV shows could win Oscars, he would be a shoo-in for best actor, he's that good.

It cannot just be that he finally has a role that fits the talent he's mostly been hiding. The talent must be real. I hope he is now given the opportunity to show it again in films that make the most of it. He may never find the perfect fit he has in Rust again, but even if he doesn't, he has created one of the great performances in TV. I'm going to say even better than Cranston in Breaking Bad or Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire. Yes, that good.


Talking of surprises, I was sceptical of Django Unchained before I watched it, because truly Tarantino is even more overrated than Hoffman. Tarantino writes some mean dialogue and has framed it in pieces that have been entertaining if not entirely convincing, but he's also made some dogs. Inglorious Basterds was bad and Kill Bill was silly. We all know that even if we pretend they were masterpieces. Jackie Brown was dull and even Jackson hamming it up for all he was worth didn't change that.

But Django is a hugely fun romp. As spaghetti western homage, it captured the sly humour of a Leone (without wasting too much time on trying to emulate Leone's visual style) and Foxx and Waltz wink and shimmy through material that lets them have a lot of fun, which I for one was willing to indulge in. Di Caprio was a bit meh in a role that didn't suit him and Kerry Washington conveyed nothing more than astonishment that anyone would cast her in a big-budget film given that she doesn't seem to have any acting chops at all, but neither detracted too much from a gleeful couple of hours.

It reminded me a lot of the kind of smirking bullshit that I enjoyed as a kid. The Three Musketeers or even The Man Who Would Be King come to mind. Biggish films that don't pretend to be anything but fun for everyone involved, in which the actors are almost asiding to us, "No, really..."

Cinema that doesn't take itself seriously can be really good. I don't mean cynical trash like Gladiator (or practically anything Ridley Scott makes -- I mean, when the French land in Robin Hood from medieval landing craft, you realise that the joke's very much on you); I mean lighthearted stuff that aims to entertain without insulting you. I thought Django was a lovely tilt at being that kind of film.


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