Movie Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent ViceWatching Inherent Vice, it’s easy to see Paul Thomas Anderson loves his source material, his actors, and 70s-era LA. Anderson’s take on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is an entertaining ride, suffusing melancholic nostalgia with druggy irreverence. But the film is likely to fall just short for fans the novel.

Aside from some changes to the central plot, the movie is like a really stripped-down version of the book. The most prominent and interesting departure Anderson makes is his use of a minor character as the novel’s omniscient narrator. This lets him deliver some of Pynchon’s prose verbatim, a trick he gets away with because, goofily enough, the character is a psychic.

The plot is a bit of a quagmire, introducing a new, memorable character in almost every scene and somehow connecting it all to Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello’s pot-fueled investigation of his ex-old lady’s new lover. The lover, prominent land-developer Mickey Wolfmann, seems to have a finger in every pie; his name comes up in connection with Black Panthers, Neo-Nazis, a consortium of dentists, a heroin cartel, and a New Age spiritual retreat.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a loveable, faithful version of Doc, sporting big Neil Young chops and hair he styles per occasion (whether it’s his “straight banker” wig or his failed attempt at an afro). But within this levity is a weight of sadness, felt from the first scene in which Doc’s ex-lover Shasta surprises him with a visit. That sadness can be ignored for a while (weed helps), but comes tumbling back inevitably as Doc witnesses the utopian 60s crumble around him, and the cold reality of the 70s rears its head.

The face of the new era is Doc’s nemesis, detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, played to the hilt by Josh Brolin. Brolin knocks this role out of the park, with a performance that’s somehow hilarious and frightening in every scene. Phoenix and Brolin are great foils for each other, and the rest of the cast just sizzles. Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Katharine Waterston, Martin Short, Michael Kenneth Williams, Eric Roberts and Maya Rudolph fill out the panorama with fantastic nonsense.

This is the first major adaptation of a Pynchon book. As I see it, the main reason for trepidation in adapting his work (other than potentially pissing off a giant) is that Pynchon’s books are incredibly complex, have so many connections, and have such a distinct feel and atmosphere, that some of his paranoid complexity must get left behind on film.

The biggest disappointment I experienced with Inherent Vice is that Anderson seems to have left much of the book’s atmosphere to the wayside. Pynchon’s novel is rife with beach culture, surf music, urgent, stoned phone calls about late-night television, Manson-trial references, and midnight meals on Gordita Beach. But the movie has ignored most of this flavor to economically handle the sprawling, spider-webbed plot.

And even the plot underwent significant alterations on its way to the screen. Several great characters and significant storylines have been cleanly nixed, though a viewer unfamiliar with the book might not believe it considering the density of what remains.

Anderson’s directorial style is solid throughout, and his actors really sink their teeth in. Long, single-take scenes give the performers room to breath and explore, and Anderson kept me fully engaged even as I puzzled over the screenplay decisions. His soundtrack (opening perfectly with Can’s “Vitamin C”) is great, and conjures the feeling of the era.

I get the feeling that Anderson loves the novel so much he was afraid to make it his own. He goes to great lengths to capture the dialogue, even much of Pynchon’s prose, but I sense he was afraid to change anything too greatly, so his alterations are tentative, like he’s hemming a suit instead of making one from whole cloth.

I can’t help but feel a tinge of dissatisfaction from this adaptation. The movie was enjoyable throughout, but captures the novel in only broad strokes, and I’m not sure it stands as a fully realized separate piece. Run-time constraints trimmed many of the relationships from the book into just a few scenes that fail to capture the weight necessary to pull off their own dramatic purposes. Doc’s connection to undercover sax player Coy Harlingen comes to mind here, but most prominently abridged is Doc’s love/hate relationship with Bigfoot.

One of the most striking omissions from the novel is the glut of surf music that paints the background of Doc’s existence. In the book, he can hardly escape it. But outside of a brief visit to the house of notorious surf band The Boards (with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from The Growlers), surf music is completely ignored. If you ask me, the movie should have been drenched in surf. I’ll take the Can though.

Whether you’re a Pynchon fan or not, Inherent Vice is a really good movie. I’ll watch it again. Someone had to be the first to adapt Pynchon, and I’m glad it was Anderson. He picked the most adaptable of the author’s novels (by a long shot) and gave us something interesting, unique and engaging. It’s funny, well acted, beautifully shot, and there isn’t a movie like it.

Game of Thrones Season 4: Fleeting Departures

Of all the great television series I watch, Game of Thrones is the easiest to look forward to. The sets, costumes, performances, and the scope of the story are like nothing I’ve ever seen on television, and this is to the credit of both George R. R. Martin for writing such and amazing series, and to the producers who execute the show to HBO standards (the highest standards on television).

The first three seasons have basically been jaw-dropping, and 90% of the content has been pulled from the source materials, the first book of which was released in 1996. But as the seasons fly by, the show has been creating more and more material not found in the original novels, presumably in accordance with Martin’s wishes, as he is an executive producer.

Season four, however, seems full of new material. The need for this is obvious; the show is on track to overtake Martin’s novels before A Song of Ice and Fire is finished. Without new material the show would overtake the novels, throwing both into the air. Basically no matter what they do, I’ll continue to watch because Game of Thrones is an event; it’s a world so rich and immersive it’s like a vacation once a week.

But a trend this year has somewhat dulled my anticipation. Some of the new storylines seem hesitant, afraid to commit to any bold new directions that stray from the source material. The audience has already accepted that the show is different from the books, but it seems the producers don’t want to alienate fans of the books by making it too different. The following contains SPOILERS.

Last season the show elaborated the torture of Theon Greyjoy by the bastard Ramsay Snow. This wasn’t in the books explicitly, and it’s only in the fifth novel A Dance With Dragons that we learn what happened to Theon. Since Ramsay is a compelling character and torture is cinematic and edgy, it made sense to continue this story in the show’s third season.

In the most recent episode, Theon’s sister (Yara in the show, Asha in the books) storms Ramsay’s keep with a group of men. But when she meets with Theon, he’s apparently been broken for good. He fights against her, obviously so programmed to fear Ramsay that the thought of leaving is too much.

Somehow, a savage battle inside a small kennel leaves both Yara and Ramsay alive, and Yara flees without Theon. Her real brother is dead, she decides. She had never treated him like a brother before, but decided, maybe for familial honour, to travel dangerous seas to get him back and when she is faced with difficulty, she gives up, returning us safely to the canon of the books (in which no storyline like this takes place). It’s a lot of work on her part to just give up and move on.

The mutineer crows north of the Wall are an ad hoc story creation and their brutal treatment of Craster’s daughters agitated many viewers. Jon decides to take a party to the keep and dispatch with them so Mance Rayder can’t learn the truth about how few crows occupy Castle Black.

This departure from the books was again a welcome storyline, one that could be told to completion without disturbing the events of the books. But when Bran and company are captured by the mutineers, I couldn’t quite get on board. Considering how callously the mutineers treated their former leader and current captives, the fact that they left Bran, Jojen, Meera and Hodor virtually untouched seemed an unlikely allowance to keep the audience from outrage.

Of course nothing will happen to these characters; we know from the novels they get much further north than Craster’s Keep. But because there seemed like a chance that Bran might be reunited with Jon, even for a moment, it was compelling. And once again, at the moment when these two brothers could have met, Bran decides it isn’t worth it; the chance Jon will refuse to let him go north is too much to risk, so Bran leaves to find the three-eyed raven and the mystical tree, bringing us back to the books once more.

Ramsay’s spy Locke was so perfectly cast and well written that I wasn’t sure where his true motivations were. His appearance at Castle Black was noted by Jon, and his fighting skills demonstrated he could be of value on the mutineer mission. And just as we learn something about him (by his attempted kidnapping of Bran), Bran warg-brain’s Hodor into pulling Locke’s head off. Once again, a curious addition to the novels’ storyline is quickly attenuated, bringing us back to safe ground.

I haven’t felt like much of a snob with regards to the liberties the show has taken. In fact, I could do with more. The additional focus on Margaery Tyrell, the change of Robb’s wife, the amplification of homosexual content, and Theon’s torture all felt like interesting cinematic angles to take from the books, and if not warranted, at least not too gratuitous. But this season has taken many strong departures only to collapse them, returning us abruptly back to the books. (That White Walker scene was great though, wasn’t it?)

Game of Thrones might be the first series of it’s kind; I’ve never heard of a television adaptation of a work in progress. It’s interesting to watch it unfold, but part of me wishes that the show was bold enough to truly depart, to be it’s own creation. Martin works on the show and should be able to keep the major points aligned with his vision. But with so many pieces in play, significant changes might be impossible.

The somewhat tepid departures from the books and their quick, convenient resolutions in season four have left me feeling that I’ve been watching a diluted product. And while Game of Thrones remains one of the best shows on television, my anticipation leading up to Sunday nights has recently been lukewarm.

Fortunately, the trial of Tyrion has ignited the fuse on more than one of ASoIaF’s great showdowns, and the final few episodes of the season should prove to be satisfying and adequately gut wrenching. They might not be Red-Wedding-level gut wrenching, but who would want to go through that emotional garburator more than once?

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky's DuneIn 1974, the new guru of psychedelic underground cinema Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to make a sprawling, trippy adaptation of the science fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert. The adaptation was never made, but fortunately for us the new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune gives us the next best thing: an impassioned blow for blow of the creative process by the man himself.

Jodorowsky sells this movie with his magnetic personality, and turns what is essentially a documentary of talking heads and still images into a spiritual quest to transcend the material plane. He explains that he wanted Dune to give audiences an LSD experience without taking any drugs. He wanted this movie to be a prophet, a psychopomp, and a god. He explains it all with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, and he is completely serious.

His mission was to assemble a group of spiritual warriors to make the film, and Jodorowsky brims with enthusiasm as he explains how he assembled his team: writer Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Total Recall, Prometheus); artists Moebeus, Chris Foss and H.R. Giger; Orson Welles; Salvador Dali; Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, and Jodorowsky’s own son Brontis, who underwent two years of extensive spiritual and martial arts training for the role of Paul Atreides.

Bound up in a massive, glossy tome are drawings for every character, costume and set illustrations in detail, the full script, and the entire storyboard sketched by Moebius of over 3000 windows. Very few copies were made of the book, and Michel Seydoux, Dune’s intended producer, sent the coveted items to film studios as a selling tool.

The lore of this film is massive, inspired, star-studded, and ultra-ambitious. For this documentary, essentially a eulogy for a dead project, I couldn’t ask for better subject matter. But anyone familiar with film production knows that the process is a series of compromises, and often where the ambition is largest, the pressures of the industry weigh the most.

Jodorowsky is a visionary, and nobody has ever made anything quite like his movies. Particularly impressive are the mystical spaghetti western El Topo and the psychedelic film par excellence The Holy Mountain. But re-watching these films (as I sometimes do) reveals slight cracks in the technical edifice, imperfections in the execution, minutely skewed camera angles, dated special effects, and some grating sound design. Jodorowsky is a master, but inspiration and vision are his strongest suits. With studio money and input, I question whether the final product would have satisfied his vision.

As it turns out, Hollywood was afraid of Jodorowsky and no studios were willing to furnish the $15M budget. Watching the expressions of the artists interviewed in Jodorowsky’s Dune, I was impressed by the expansive feeling of “what might have been,” a sentiment shared by everyone so greatly it seemed like a bittersweet triumph that Dune became a legend instead of a film (disregarding David Lynch’s version).

As a consolation prize we see the disparate parts of Dune reflected in a myriad of groundbreaking science fiction works like Alien, Blade Runner, and Contact, and in Jodorowsky’s own comic books. The ideas behind Jodorowsky’s adaptation have resonated strongly through the film world for decades until finally, solve et coagula, we have Jodorowsky’s Dune, a fully entertaining documentary about the passions that drive art.

 

Adapting Ender’s Game

Ender's GameEnder’s Game strikes me as a good example of the pros and cons of adapting novels for the screen. In a novel, psychological complexity is on full display and the internal life of the protagonist generally occupies our attention. Movies are visual and aural, so they are more spectacular, but movies can only show us so much psychology. This is why most adaptations miss the mark.

The book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a beautiful, insightful science fiction novel in which a young cadet comes to terms with his destiny as humanity’s savior in a war against a powerful alien race. His training, begun from a very early age, is emotionally ruthless and isolating, and our hero is deprived of an outlet for his gentle nature. Instead, all his hours are occupied by the schemes of Colonel Graff, whose job it is to hone Ender Wiggin into a mercilessness, strategic genius, even as Ender struggles against bullying and the playground politics of his fellow cadets.

The “plot”, the external actions taken, the strange environments, and the other characters are in the novel totally subservient to Ender’s emotional journey. It’s this journey that makes the novel great, and these elements are the most difficult to translate to the screen. For one thing, Ender’s sustaining love for his sister and the fear he has of his brother are almost completely cut from the film simply to accommodate a normal run-time for a blockbuster.

Much of the emotional nuance also has to be cropped from the screenplay for time, so what remains are the larger emotional notes, the most obvious conflicts with the least subtlety. All the minor wins and losses Ender experiences in the novel must be swept under the rug, and only when they’ve cut that content and finished the screenplay do they begin looking for an actor to portray what’s left.

Actors have a tall order when it comes to adapting literature. They bring their own experiences to bear when they read a screenplay, and do what they can to express their roles. But they can’t really compete with our imagination, which in a novel fills the ambiguous details and idealizes characters and action. Asa Butterfield played Ender and did a fine job, though I felt none of the deep empathy that I felt with the character in the novel.

But movies do have their own weaponry that novels cannot touch. Where the movie really delivers is in its special effects. Unlike reading the novel, watching Ender’s Game is a treat because we actually get to see the amazing sets, the charismatic faces of Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, and the slow ballet of a zero gravity practice chamber. We get to experience it empirically. The novel describes these elements very well, but it’s a different experience altogether to engage your eyes and ears, visual and auditory cortices with the crafts of Hollywood.

Unfortunately, what I loved most about the book, what I thought truly made it a great one, didn’t make it into the movie. The novel was fairly inspiring while the movie was merely entertaining. I wasn’t surprised by this, as I can probably count on one hand the number of film adaptations that stand up to their prose counterparts.