Film reviews: Inherent Vice | Kingsman

Reese Witherspoon as deputy DA Penny Kimball and Joaquin Phoenix as Larry Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice. Picture: Contributed

Reese Witherspoon as deputy DA Penny Kimball and Joaquin Phoenix as Larry Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice. Picture: Contributed

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A FOG of confusion envelopes this poignant adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s shaggy dog story, while Kingsman offers a gleefully violent and playfully subversive spin on a gone-respectable genre

INHERENT VICE (15)

Kingmsan. Picture: Contributed

Kingmsan. Picture: Contributed

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, 
Josh Brolin, Joanna Newsom, Katherine Waterston

Star rating: ****

With his previous film, The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson made a movie that intentionally or not worked as an article of faith. Either you bought into Anderson’s abstract, sometimes startling, but largely impenetrable treatise on a Scientology-esque cult, or you didn’t. It wasn’t a movie that particularly rewarded the brainpower required to make sense of its diffuse story and, as such, any enjoyment had to be derived from a willingness to believe that the director knew what he was doing, even if the results didn’t necessarily bear that out.

On first viewing, his new film appears to have a similar problem. Adapted from the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, Inherent Vice is a 1970s-set stoner detective movie with shaggy-dog-story plotting so convoluted that holding even a fraction of the details in your head feels like an exercise in futility.

The film, like its dope-addled protagonist Doc Sportillo (a barefooted gumshoe with mutton chops, mumbled diction and a penchant for pizza and straw hats, played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix), exists in a fog of confusion. Moreover, it happily envelopes itself in yet more narrative fog courtesy of a story that runs the gamut from marine-based heroin cartels and kidnapped real estate moguls to Nazi bikers, coked-out dentists, celebrity cops and identity-ravaged police informants – all filtered through the blissed-out perspective of a beach babe (played by Joanna Newsom) with LSD-induced psychic abilities.

What differentiates Inherent Vice from The Master’s abstraction-as-a-form-of-distraction technique, though, is that the film’s funny and absurd enough to make its maddeningly veiled musings on the death of the hippy dream engrossing. A large part of this is down to Phoenix, whose protagonist may be a lethargic driving force in the story, but is an undeniably rich creation. In the grand tradition of detective fiction, Doc is a private eye whose outlook on the world has been hardened by heartbreak, but his willingness to self-medicate with weed rather than whisky has made him a mellower cynic – he’s a space cadet with his sandals planted firmly on the ground.

As the film starts, he’s visited by his “ex old-lady” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She wants him to investigate a scheme to defraud her current beau, a wealthy real estate mogul called Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Doc, who is still hooked on Shasta Fay, agrees, but when both she and Wolfmann disappear, his shambling investigation leads him to a ship named the The Golden Fang, which may or may not be tied to a cartel of the same name linked to both the importation of heroin and a tax haven for sexually deviant dentists.

Doc’s never quite sure if he’s suffering from paranoia or hallucinogenic flashbacks, so it’s entirely possible that when everything starts to feel connected – which happens more and more as a parallel investigation into a presumed-dead musician (played by Owen Wilson) intersects with his hunt for Shasta and Wolfmann – it might not be. There are plenty of naysayers to this effect, including his new girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon), his attorney (Benicio Del Toro) and, especially, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (James Brolin), a hippy-hating, civil-rights-violating, flat-top cop who has a kind of love-hate relationship with Doc predicated on some shared, but never specified, professional history. Their dynamic is one of the stranger but more amusing aspects of the film, a clash of cultures and ideologies from which Anderson – seeking to parse Pynchon’s philosophical musings on the seismic and rather tragic loss of freedom in the wake of Nixon’s election to the presidency – gets plenty of satirical, dramatic and thematic mileage.

Both actors look of the moment and in the moment, something enhanced by Anderson’s decision to shoot on vintage film stock, giving this period noir the feel of a faded Polaroid. That’s appropriate since this is ultimately a film about the ease with which something important but intangible – like a hazily defined way of existing in the world – can be lost to the ravages of time; stamped out, as Pynchon would have it, by governments and corporations unwilling to accept that what they perceive as chaos is really just life lived at a different pace and rhythm. Inherent Vice is a poignant testament to that mode of thinking – even if it does take a couple of viewings to appreciate it.

KINGSMAN (15)

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn

Starring: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L Jackson,

Star rating: ****

Much as he did with Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn’s latest adaptation of a Mark Millar comic book series offers a gleefully violent and playfully subversive spin on a gone-respectable genre. In Kingsman: The Secret Service, superheroes have been replaced by super-spies, but this Bond-riffing deconstruction of the espionage thriller is both a wry celebration of its original outlandish appeal and a sly attempt to update that appeal for modern audiences weaned on the more serious side of 007. Exploding lighters, switch-blade-enhanced Oxfords and deadly writing implements are still in vogue with the stiff-upper-lipped operatives of Kingsman – as are bulletproof suits, umbrellas and nifty video-feed-enhanced black-frame eyewear. Indeed, this titular knights-of-the-realm-style agency – which operates out of a secret lair below a London tailors, unencumbered by the bureaucracy of the government-run intelligence services – is an excuse for Vaughn to embrace the entire pantheon of screen spies in order to turn it on its head.

This he does by casting Colin Firth as Harry Hart, a dapper but deadly gentleman spook who recruits a wayward kid from a housing scheme as a potential replacement for a fallen agent. This is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a chav stereotype on the outside whose potential Harry has been keeping an eye on from afar.

Vaughn has plenty of fun with the My-Fair-Lady-meets-Ian-Fleming potential of this student/mentor relationship, but it’s when the larger plot kicks in that Vaughn starts upping the ante, whipping up the action to the same deliriously unhinged pitch as Kick-Ass.

Revolving around a lisping, megalomaniacal tech billionaire (Samuel L Jackson) with a radical plan to save the Earth, the film uses its preposterous plot to wink at the preposterous nature of the genre, but also to turn it into compelling spectacle in an age in which endless city-levelling destruction has robbed action cinema of genuine craziness.

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