Labor vs. Capital: “Two Days, One Night” in “A Most Violent Year” on the “Black Sea”

It’s always been tough being a worker in a capitalist system, and raising oneself up out of the state of non-unionized virtual peonage is especially hard: in such situations, one is at the mercy of the employer. The great global financial crisis of 2008 turned many laborers into ever more desperate souls, willing to work under any condition, but the battle between the forces of capital and labor have raged since long before Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital. Three new films take a look at this perpetual conflict – two from the point of view of the laborer and the other from the point of view of the rising capitalist (and former laborer) – in unique and mostly entertaining and intelligent ways. In particular, they analyze how the act of working, itself, can be what lends meaning to our lives: our sense of self-worth is intimately linked to the work we do or the job we hold, or simply the fact that we have a job.

Two Days One Night

Two Days, One Night (“Deux jours, une nuit”) (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)

From the great fraternal Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (L’enfant) – perpetually interested, it seems, in high-stakes stories about working-class and underclass characters in crisis – comes a new film that is one of the best treatments of the challenges faced by modern-day worker bees that I have seen. Starring Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), nominated – for this film – for a 2015 Best Actress Oscar, the film is a brilliant portrait of a woman, Sandra, at the end of her rope, thanks to a cruel decision taken by her boss vis-à-vis her employment status. Through her struggle to retain her job – and her dignity as a human being – she discovers previously unknown reserves of strength within herself that compensate – up to a point – for her lost job.

As the film begins, Sandra is about to return to work at Solwal, a Solar Panel company from which she has been away – on medical leave – for four months. She has just recovered from a bout of severe clinical depression, but is now healthy (enough). So when she gets a phone call on a Friday from a co-worker, Juliette, informing her that her boss just offered the other Solwal employees a choice between receiving their end-of-term bonuses or keeping her, Sandra, on the payroll, and that the vote (not surprisingly) did not go in her favor, she is (understandably) devastated. As we learn, she and her husband (and two kids) have only recently moved out of social-welfare housing, and the loss of Sandra’s salary will throw them back into their old situation. But Juliette is a woman on a mission, and drags Sandra to meet the boss, convincing him to allow another vote on Monday. This one will be done via secret ballot, and without the foreman present. Sandra therefore has the weekend – the “two days, one night” of the title – to wage a door-to-door campaign to woo her co-workers to vote in her favor. It’s a nasty deal – she is asking people in no better financial situations than her to give up money they feel they’ve earned – and would be hard enough for someone in great mental health. For Sandra, it threatens to undo her recovery.

Fortunately, she has an extremely supportive husband, Manu – played wonderfully by Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione (Rosetta) – who understands that the only possible way Sandra will become whole again is by fighting for her job (and dignity). Sure, they need her salary, but he, himself, needs her once more present as both mother and wife. Not only are both Cotillard (who spends much of the movie hunched over and physically weighed down by her burdensome task) and Rongione individually spectacular, but they are marvelous together, and completely believable as a long-term couple. It’s them against the system, and though the system may not care, we do. To see at all costs.

Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, 2014)

The new film from J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost) is set in New York City in 1981, a time when the Big Apple was rife with crime and decay, and centers on a former truck driver, Abel – played with heart and grit by Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) – who now owns the heating-oil company for which he once worked and has plans to expand his business. Unfortunately, he also has a host of competitors, some of them with mob connections, and an ambitious D.A. – played by David Oyelowo (Selma) – threatening to prosecute him for financial improprieties. Things could either go really well for Abel or really badly. Right at the start, they take the latter course.

This is a movie that closely analyzes the politics and opportunities (or lack thereof) for social mobility in late-stage capitalism. As in Chandor’s first film, Margin Call, the director is fascinated by the nitty-gritty details of how institutions operate (in a way, All Is Lost was similar, too, if one substitutes “institution” for “survival”). We spend a lot of time watching Jessica Chastain (Interstellar), as Abel’s Lady Macbeth-like (and mob-connected, herself) wife poring through files (when she’s not taunting Abel on how a real man would respond to threats), looking through accounting errors. Crime may be rampant in the big city, but success in business depends as much on will power as in understanding paperwork.

Abel is a wonderful metaphor for what can happen to a person when they pull themselves up by their bootstraps, only to come face to face with the boot makers. He’s good at what he does, but will that be good enough? In sharp contrast to Abel’s mover and shaker is a fellow immigrant (Abel is originally from South America), Julian – touchingly played by Elyes Gabel (Rakharo on “Game of Thrones“) – who doesn’t have the same drive (and wife) as Abel, and so is ripe to be used and discarded when his usefulness has expired (shades of Two Days, One Night). Indeed, if the film is, indeed, an exploration of what it takes to succeed in (American capitalist) business, then it’s the interactions between these two men that the story is told.

The movie does have its action scenes (yes, violence comes into play), and also a lot of other, fun performances that add a rich texture to the seedy vibe. Albert Brooks is especially fine as Abel’s lawyer/consigliere, and Alessandro Nivola brings charm and chill to his role as a Mafioso rival to Abel. It is a powerful film about the temptations of corruption, how to avoid them, and the price we pay when we give into them. 

Black Sea

Black Sea (Kevin Macdonald, 2014)

In spite of some reviews labeling Jude Law as “somewhat miscast” – a statement with which I totally disagree – Jude Law is, in fact, one of the best things about this movie, and he is very, very good. All sinew and tough muscle, hair shorn to stubble, Scottish accent bursting from between clenched teeth, Law is the epitome of the angry blue-collar guy who gets the shaft from white-collar guys who care only about their bottom line. The film opens – after an unnecessary, though visually arresting, title sequence filled with archival footage of subs, Nazis and Stalin – on Law, as Robinson, a submarine captain who works (or soon, worked) for Agora, an international marine-wreck salvage company, receiving his pink slip from a mealy-mouthed (younger, English) executive. He is no longer needed (for reasons never specified) – even though he’s given 11 years of his life to Agora – and an £8,000 check is supposed to make it all OK. I don’t think so.

Soon, Law finds out that there’s a sunken Nazi sub at the bottom of the Black Sea, filled with Nazi gold, and before long he assembles an Anglo/American-Russian crew to track it down. This is the best part of the film, as we see the barely contained simmering resentment of all of these men, regardless of provenance, against the superiors who have left them without gainful employment. Plus, director Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) has populated his movie with excellent characters\ actors, Russian and non-Russian, alike: Konstantin Khabenskiy (Night Watch), Grigoriy Dobrygin (How I Ended This Summer), Michael Smiley (Svengali) and David Threlfall (“Shameless“) among them. Unfortunately, he also miscasts Ben Mendelsohn (The Place Beyond the Pines) and Scoot McNairy (Monsters), two usually fine actors who here do shoddy work in underwritten parts. While the former are part of what works so well in the movie – the wariness and solidarity amongst the downtrodden foot soldiers of the world – the latter are part of what doesn’t work so well in the movie – the submarine heist gone wrong.

Is that a plot spoiler? Well, then you just haven’t seen the trailer yet. But don’t get me wrong: I love a good submarine film (Das Boot, anyone?). And some of the scenes of underwater claustrophobia and tension work wonderfully. It’s that when things starts to wrong for the men, they also go wrong with the script. The set-up is fine; the development and resolution are contrived. But as a treatment of the struggle of labor vs. capital, the film works beautifully … until it doesn’t. So enjoy it while you can, and then be glad that it’s less than two hours long.

“Mr. Turner” Offers Beautiful Compositions in a Formless Landscape

Mr Turner

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014)

I wish that I could agree with the overwhelming majority of film critics who adored the new film from director Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy), entitled Mr. Turner (which is, appropriately enough, about the great 19th-century English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner), but while I loved the cinematography from longtime Leigh collaborator Dick Pope (also Topsy-Turvy) – Oscar-nominated (his second time) for this film – I found the movie, itself, a somewhat long and dreary affair. I have seen enough of Leigh’s films to believe completely in the sincerity and intentionality of his efforts, so I have no doubt that everything on the screen is meant to be there. I also admire his attempt to make a film that, as it progresses, devolves into the same formlessness as its subject’s later paintings. And yet in spite of my own great efforts to give a damn, I simply began, as time wore on (and on) to lose interest in all but the gorgeously composed images. Some works of arts are labors of love; this felt, quite simply, like labor, alone.

Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew/Wormtail in the Harry Potter films) certainly gives it his all, grunting and snorting (and spitting) his way through what can certainly be called a performance (of sorts), and which, given what we know about the historical Turner, seems designed to remind us, time and again, of the great artist’s working-class roots (that and his Cockney accent), yet what we come away with is merely a sense of the effort it took to sustain that role for the length of the production. I like the idea that beautiful things can come from unrefined people (and why not?), but apart from this (hardly new) presentation of the dichotomy of the vessel and its precious cargo (Amadeus, anyone?), but apart from this unoriginal observation about the physical awkwardness of the man, what does the film tell us about art, its creation, or even just this one particular artist?

Well, we learn this: Turner was a bastard. He loved his father, but mistreated most of the women in his life (for no discernible reason, according to Leigh). He was inarticulate, and not very sociable. He was successful enough to live well, but then, as his paintings grew more abstract and he fell out of favor, he became disdainful of selling out, and turned into even more of a recluse. He was original and ahead of his time. At the end, he found a good woman who took care of him, treated her reasonably well (better than her forebears), and then died. Events happened, maybe in that order, and some impressive art was left for us to admire in the centuries to follow. Does that seem a bit ajumble? Welcome to Mr. Turner!

One other note, which relates to a general criticism I have of Mike Leigh’s work – hit or miss, for me, though when he hits, he approaches genius – is Leigh’s tendency to write one-dimensional caricatures of characters who are either social climbers, of the upper classes, or just filled with pretension (to his mind). He does this in Life Is Sweet and Naked, among other films, and now Mr. Turner, where his John Ruskin – an incredibly important 19th-century art critic – is portrayed as a foppish wannabe. Why does he insist on doing this? I am glad that his focus is so squarely on the working class – someone’s has to be – but no one, not even a villain, is without layers and depths. He should take a lesson from Mohamedou Ould Slahi, recent author of the first ever memoir penned from within the prison at Guantánamo Bay, who writes of everyone – even his captors – as if they are fully human. Which, like all of us, they are. Leigh’s films would be of consistently greater interest if he understood his own weakness to demonize those whom he despises.

Dick Pope deserves all of the kudos he’s getting, however, and if he wins an Oscar, then it his work, alone, that will bring people back to this movie in years to come (even without an Oscar, you should watch the film – even if you get bored – just to see what he’s done). Shooting digitally, he paints with light, much as Turner did. To enter into Pope’s vision is to understand what cinema can do when the right tools are in the hands of the right people. It’s just too bad that the larger vessel that holds Pope’s cargo is full of holes. If you want to see better films made by Leigh and Pope, check out the following: Secrets and LiesVera Drake, and the aforementioned Topsy-Turvy.

Come See Oscar-Nominated Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night” at Cinema Sundays on 1/25/15!

Two Days One Night_Large

This Sunday, January 25, at 10:30am, I will present Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une unit) the new film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (1999 Cannes Palme d’Or-winner Rosetta, 2005 Cannes Palme d’Or-winner L’enfant), at Cinema Sundays at the Charles, Baltimore’s premier movie-preview series. Starring Marion Cotillard, who was just nominated for a 2015 Best Actress Oscar for this role, the film is a brilliant portrait of a woman at the end of her rope, who discovers heretofore unknown strength within herself at a moment of supreme crisis. Here is the one-line synopsis from the official press kit: “Sandra has only one weekend to visit her colleagues and – with the help of her husband – convince them to sacrifice their bonuses so she can keep her job.”

This is the first time the Dardennes have worked with an international movie star of Cotillard’s status, yet the film remains firmly within their minimalist aesthetic, and Cotillard brings all of her considerable talent to bear, without overshadowing any of the other performers. The movie has, so far, received extremely favorable reviews, so come and see, for yourself, what all of the fuss is about. See you Sunday!

Third Episode of “Reel Talk” Now Available

From L to R: Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, with Max Weiss, his third guest.

From L to R: Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, with Max Weiss, his third guest.

The third episode of Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reedon HCC-TV, is now available. My third guest was Max Weiss, Managing Editor of Baltimore Magazine and movie critic for WBAL-TV in Baltimore. We started off the show with reviews of Selma and Unbroken, before then moving on to our favorite films of 2014 (you can see my own “best of” list here, and Max’s here). In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. Enjoy!

The amazing HCC-TV team did a wonderful job, as always, putting this together. The next episode (#4) will air at the start of March. If you want to watch the second episode, click here, and if you want to watch the first episode, click here.

Duplicity at the Multiplex: “The Wedding Ringer,” “Paddington,” “American Sniper,” and “Blackhat”

Four films open in Baltimore today that each, in its own way and to varying degrees, deals with themes of duplicity. In order of descending preference, here they are.

Wedding Ringer

The Wedding Ringer (Jeremy Garelick, 2015)

This is not a good film, by any objective standards. It is crass, offensive, derivative (starting with its title), scripted with only a bare minimum of coherence (if even that), and written to celebrate the worst of male behavior. However, it is also ridiculously fun, and despite my good intentions, I found myself swept up in the comedy. I had a terrific time, as did the preview audience with whom I saw it. Most of the reason for the movie’s success lies with funny man Kevin Hart (Think Like a Man Too) and his perfect chemistry with co-star Josh Gad (Jobs), as well as with the awesomely quirky supporting cast, which includes Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting (Penny on “The Big Bang Theory“), Olivia Thirby (Dredd), Jorge Garcia (Hurley on “Lost“) and especially such mostly previously unknown-to-me (and maybe to you, as well) actors such as Affion Crockett (Baggage Claim), Dan Gill (“Bad Sports“), Aaron Takahashi (Awesome Asian Bad Guys) and Alan Ritchson (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Not to be outdone in weirdness, Cloris Leachman (yes, that Cloris Leachman) is around to be set on fire. What more could you ask for?

The plot, such as it is, revolves around successful lawyer (whom we never see work) Doug (Gad) who, a week before his wedding to out-of-his-league Penny (Cuoco-Sweeting), still has neither best man nor groomsmen. You see, he has no friends. None. Fortunately, there’s Jimmy Callahan (Hart), who makes a living offering his services as a best-man-for-hire. Doug poses a special challenge, since he requires a “golden tuxedo” (Jimmy’s business term for a full suite of fake friends), but since Doug’s willing to pay the big bucks, Jimmy signs on. And so the fun begins, as Jimmy (redubbed “Bic Mitchum,” the name Doug had provided to his fiancée in a moment of panic), along with the friends and actors he hires to impersonate groomsmen, sets out to create a lifetime of memories before the big day.

It’s a crazy premise, which steals liberally from movies like The Hangover and every recent bromance, and it never makes any sense. How could Doug have the money for this folly – earned, presumably, because he is good at what he does – yet not have the social skills to have made even one friend in his life? How has Jimmy never been discovered as a fraud in all his years in business? These are legitimate questions, yet somehow they stopped bothering me as I gave myself over to the joie de vivre of the movie. Hopefully you will, too.


Paddington (Paul King, 2014)

In so many ways, this is actually a much better film than The Wedding Ringer, and yet, in spite of enjoying myself thoroughly during the screening, I cannot quite sign on to as throaty an endorsement as I gave to the previous movie. My reservations are quite specific, and may not bother other people (though I wish they would). Namely, I find it inexcusable, in 2015, even if adapting a book written in 1958, when cultural attitudes were different, that one should continually – especially if one belongs to a former colonial power like Great Britain – use the phrase “darkest Peru” over and over again, without irony, to describe the country of origin of the titular main character. And secondly – and again in 2015 – to make a movie set in London an extremely ethnically diverse city, where the only people who are not white and English are the members of a calypso band that appears occasionally as both soundtrack and Greek chorus is, to my mind, worse than inexcusable. But hey, other than that, the movie is charming.

It’s also, however, a bit derivative, as it opens with a cute historical scratched-print black & white documentary movie of the exploits of the (white, British) explorer who first discovers the intelligent bears of “darkest Peru,” recalling the equally charming opener of Pixar’s 2009 Up. Once that intro established, we find ourselves in the jungle, years later and now in color, where those same bears – a childless male and female, who live with a young nephew – have learned to speak English (and enjoy marmalade) thanks to books and other items left behind by the aforementioned explorer. They live an idyllic (and beautifully designed) existence in a lovely tree house where they can make marmalade to their heart’s content, and where their nephew (soon to be renamed Paddington) runs free and joyful. Soon, however, disaster strikes, the idyll is shattered, and the young nephew takes off for England, where, the explorer had told his aunt and uncle, the bears would always be welcome.

And so our hero (voiced with perfect diction and oodles of charisma by Ben Whishaw – Q in Skyfall) finds himself adrift in London, but not for long. A returning family of vacationers – with the wonderful Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, on “Downton Abbey“) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) its patriarch and matriarch – finds the bear in Paddington Station, give him his new name, and take him home (ostensibly temporarily). Soon, thanks to the nefarious machinations (hence the “duplicity” that lets me include the film in this, granted, loosely themed grouping) of a mysterious villain played with great relish by a remarkably game Nicole Kidman (Stoker), both family and bear find themselves embroiled in a dangerous adventure. Will they survive? Well, it’s a kids’ movie. What do you expect?

Well choreographed and with remarkable CGI effects for the bears (Paddington’s fur, in particular, continued to amaze me, especially as it moved in the wind), the movie should be fun and exciting for most audiences. And if you don’t mind the (probably unconscious, but no less palatable) colonial attitudes of the filmmakers, then you’ll have an even better time than I did. Be sure to bring some marmalade for the little ones.

American Sniper

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014)

There’s nothing wrong with this movie that a better script wouldn’t solve. Written by Jason Hall (Paranoia), and based on the 2012 autobiographical book of the same title by Chris Kyle (with help from Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), American Sniper tells the story of the man dubbed “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history,” and is given especial poignancy by the fact that Kyle was killed by a fellow veteran in 2013. It’s a frequently gripping story that takes us into the trauma of war – and the addiction to killing – only to avoid dealing with the hard questions of how to recover from such trauma/addiction. Like lesser films about other kinds of addiction, which revel in the drinking and drugging, rather than the recovery – the over-hyped 2009 Crazy Heart comes to mind – American Sniper spends the bulk of its over two-hour length focused on the war, then covers Kyle’s return to humanity in a dissolve. I’ve always loved the 1983 movie Tender Mercies, which gets its drinking out of the way in the first ten minutes and then spends the rest of its 90 minutes on the difficult process of not drinking. That’s much more interesting then what we get here. The best recent war film that showed, with far greater moral complexity, what our soldiers have to deal with in Iraq, was The Hurt Locker. Though mostly well directed by veteran helmer Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby), and with a very strong central performance from Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), this film all too often feels like Team America: World Police without the irony.

That’s not to say that the film fails on all counts. The action scenes are pretty spectacular – including a final battle in a dust storm – and Kyle’s transformation from gung-ho American patriot to troubled killer is powerfully realized by Cooper. To his wife – a mostly wasted Sienna Miller (The Girl) – Kyle is increasingly duplicitous, but mostly because he does not have the verbal tools to deal with his feelings. Instead, he signs up for tour of duty after tour of duty, returning to Iraq again and again to, in his eyes, save as many Americans as he can. The why of that relentless and unchallenged belief in the supremacy of American lives over Iraqi lives is never addressed, which is a shame, as it would have been a better movie had we understood what drives Kyle to kill. Then again, at the screening I attended, the audience applauded when Kyle killed an Arab sniper, so maybe certain segments of our population don’t want their belief in their own righteousness questioned, either. Eastwood made a far better film, in 1992 – the revisionist, Oscar-winning Western Unforgiven – which managed to have its exploitative audience-friendly violence and yet also explore the costs of such violence with great sensitivity and intelligence. American Sniper is not that film. It was just – somehow – nominated for a 2015 Best Picture Oscar, however, so perhaps it will seem as good as that previous work to some. I beg to differ.


Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)

Blackhat is such a ridiculous, unbelievable, chaotic mess, filled with the kinds of extreme close-ups that director Michael Mann (The Insider) has used to better (and far less confusing) effect in other films, that I cannot recommend it to anyone other than Chris Hemsworth (Rush) fans (and even then . . .). Hemsworth plays Nicholas Hathaway, a brilliant (and very hunky) hacker who is sprung from prison by the Department of Justice at the request of his former MIT roommate – now a rising star in China’s security apparatus – to help solve a mysterious spate of dangerous computer breaches at nuclear power plants and stock exchanges in Asia. If you can buy Hemsworth as a hacker – or buy the fact that a computer specialist would somehow have become a weapons and hand-to-hand combat specialist after a few years in jail – then you might enjoy the film. I could not. Filled with jittery cheap-looking video footage, the movie doesn’t even have the usual lush feel of some of Mann’s best work. Where’s the duplicity? In fooling us into thinking it might be good, trading on Mann’s reputation. Don’t be fooled. Stay away.

Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best Technical and Artistic Film Work of 2014

Today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its 2015 Oscar nominations. Some time before the official February 22 live broadcast of the awards ceremony, I hope to post my thoughts on the films (and actors and other artists and technicians) that made it into the final group of nominees. Before then, however, I would like I finish up my “best of 2014” summary with my list of favorites from the technical and artistic side of things (what is often called “below-the-line” work). If interested, you can check out my “best film list” and “best acting list” first. Again, the title’s hyperlink will take you to my review. I also hyperlink (mostly to IMDb) the artists, themselves, so you can see what other work they have produced over their careers. In the case of best score, I also link to the movie’s soundtrack on iTunes.

For each category, I stick to 5 candidates, in alphabetical order. These are the films where I thought that the work in that particular area truly enhanced the quality of the movie. I do not list my best screenplay favorites, since you can assume that any film that was in my list of overall favorites for the year would also be among the ones for which I loved the writing, as well. Enjoy, and feel free to leave comments after you look it over!

Best Cinematography:

Best Editing:

Best Original Score:

Best Production Design:

Best Visual Effects:

1/16/15: Midday on “Hollywood and the End of the Cold War”

[NOTE: If you missed the live show, you can still listen to its podcast.]

2015-01-16_Rodricks Collage

On Friday, January 16, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and I, Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – will appear on Midday with Dan Rodricks, on WYPR 88.1FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm, to discuss Hollywood and the End of the Cold War, a new book by Dr. Bryn Upton of McDaniel College, with the author. Here is a partial description of the text from the publisher: “In Hollywood and the End of the Cold War: Signs of Cinematic Change, Bryn Upton compares films from the late Cold War era with movies of similar themes from the post–Cold War era. In this volume, Upton pays particular attention to shifts in narrative that reflect changes in American culture, attitudes, and ideas. In exploring how the absence of the Cold War has changed the way we understand and interpret film, this volume seeks to answer several key questions such as: Has the end of the Cold War altered how we tell our stories? Has it changed how we perceive ourselves? In what ways has our popular culture been affected by the absence of this once dominant presence?”

It should be an interesting and far-ranging show! Perhaps you have your own favorites among Cold War-themed films that you would like to contribute to the conversation. If so, please join us by listening live on the radio and emailing comments at, or calling in at 410-662-8780 (locally), or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309. If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast. If all else, fails, you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!


The Wicked Virtues of “Inherent Vice” Almost Conquer the Sins of the Script

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)

I recently read Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice. Here is my review, from the book aggregator site Goodreads: “This was my first Pynchon novel, and I suspect that had I wanted to really get a sense of the writer I should have tackled Gravity’s Rainbow first. Or not. A detective thriller with a stoned P.I. (private investigator) as its protagonist was not at all what I expected from a man I associated (through hearsay) with dense and complex narratives. But then I started reading, and this multi-layered text, rich in historic detail (the setting is early 1970s Los Angeles just after the Sharon Tate murders, where hippies and straights collide), began rather quickly to draw me in by the way its author so cleverly inserted deep societal insights into an ostensibly popular fiction genre. The book is a marvel in its skilled marriage of commerce and art. I loved it, and I can’t wait for the movie to come out in a few weeks.”

Given that reaction to the book, perhaps my hopes for the movie adaptation, by American auteur director Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), were too high (the marvelous trailer helped raise those expectations, as well). To say that I was disappointed would be inaccurate, since I enjoyed much of the film. It’s just that where Pynchon manages to have his hash brownie and eat it, too, beautifully wrapping up the loose narrative by the end, Anderson seems to have no interest in tying up his own loose ends. If, however, you are a fan of the director’s more recent work, and liked The Master and There Will Be Blood, then you may not have the same issues that I have with Anderson’s new movie. I like my chaos contained, at least at some point; Anderson, as he has gotten older, prefers his mayhem unfettered, eschewing the discipline of his earlier (to me, far more masterful) works like Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Still, I admire the risks he takes, as well as the way he works with actors, all of whom are in fine form here. For quite a while, the virtues outweigh the vices, and watching the manic energy on display is a treat, indeed.

A magnificent Joaquin Phoenix (Her) plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a hippie sleuth-for-hire in Los Angeles whose ex-girlfriend Shasta – played by Katherine Waterston (Glass Chin), daughter of Sam, with a disturbing mix of childlike vulnerability and sexuality – shows up one day, out of the blue, asking for his help to thwart the planned kidnapping of her new lover, a sleazy real-estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann. Whatever else Doc may be – stoner, hippie, etc. – he takes his job seriously, and stills cares for Shasta, so he is soon sniffing around the less savory (rich and poor) parts of town, looking for clues. It takes him a while to truly get in the game, though – maybe it’s all the pot he constantly smokes – and before he knows what’s happening he’s being jerked around and set up by various parties, including local hotshot cop, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played by a Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) in exceedingly top form. Indeed, it is the interactions between Doc and Bigfoot – the hippy and the straight – that give the movie much of its energy and purpose. Representing different sides of the then-culture wars, as well as different sides of the investigative professions, they face off in altercations alternately hostile and quasi-affectionate: they’re frenemies. And in both the book and the movie, they allow author and filmmaker to explore the opposing worldviews of that specific era.

But outside of that central relationship, the film lacks the narrative drive of the novel. I kept wondering, as I watched, whether or not the film would make sense to anyone who hadn’t read Pynchon’s book. Maybe it doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. Rich in lush visual detail, Inherent Vice features additional strong performances (sometimes almost cameos) from a cast that includes Owen Wilson (The Internship), Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Benicio Del Toro (Savages), Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from “The Wire“), Jena Malone (Into the Wild) and Martin Short (remember him? lately he’s been doing a lot of voice work for animated projects like “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!“). And while the film meanders from crazy set piece to crazy set piece without much of a coherent connective tissue, as if the director and all involved were, themselves, toking it up throughout production, each of those set pieces is (usually) a lot of fun to watch. Perhaps we are not meant to worry about causality – even though coincidences abound – and should just enjoy the very real pleasures that lie within each scene. Perhaps . . . and yet … I wanted just a little bit more, as I have in other recent Anderson films.

One of the oddest choices in this adaptation is the invention of a narrator. Anderson takes a minor character in the book – a fortune-teller named Sortilège (played in the film by musician Joanna Newsom) – and hands her much of Pynchon’s prose to read as voiceover. On the one hand, it’s possible he realized that his movie needed more structure, and so added these bits of exposition to help explain the fractured narrative. On the other hand, Los Angeles has a long history as the frequent locale of 20th-century hard-boiled fiction, rendered in such classic Hollywood films noir like Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity – which helped launch the world-weary and doomed male narrator we now associate with the genre – that it’s also possible that Anderson is indirectly referencing this past, and flipping it on its head. Whatever his intentions, while there is a definite atmospheric upside to Newsom’s dreamy drawl (which works so beautifully in the aforementioned trailer), much of what she speaks just feels like muddled explanatory text, and only contributes to the overall confusion.

Despite my ambivalence about the movie, however, I found much to like in its strangeness. It is sui generis, that’s for sure, which is certainly a valid reason to recommend it, however qualified that recommendation may be. It’s a mess, but a beautiful one.

Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best Film Acting of 2014

Here is my best attempt at selecting the most noteworthy film performances – or my “above-the-line” awards – for 2014. Two days ago, I published my list of best (and worst) films of the year, and you can assume that all actors in all of those films are ones whose work I admire. The same goes with directors. I see no need to publish a separate “best directors” list, since if the film is good, then I credit the director. I have never understood when films are nominated without their directors, or vice versa.

The actors and actresses listed, below – each with a clip of their performance (when available, and if none is available – or if the available clip is not very good – then I include the movie’s trailer, instead) – are the 5 per category (I am forcing myself to stick with just 5, which is very hard) whose work most stands out (for me) within the context of the film they’re in; those performances which most contribute to raising the quality of the movie. Some of my nominees are in movies that I did not include among my best of the year; I nevertheless find their performances extraordinary. All movie titles are hyperlinked to my review, and if you follow that link, you can learn more about the movie, itself, and my thoughts on what makes that actor’s performance so special in that movie.

It’s so difficult to choose, but here goes (in alphabetical order by last name within each category):

Best Actress:

Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night (“Deux jours, une nuit“)

Scarlett Johansson – Under the Skin

Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything – very difficult to pick Ms. Jones and not Eddie Redmayne for Best Actor, but her less showy performance is the heart of the movie.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw – Belle

Agata Trzebuchowska – Ida – Trzebuchowska plays Ida, the young nun.


Best Actor:

Chris Evans – Captain America: The Winter Soldier & Snowpiercer


Micheal Keaton – Birdman

David Oyelowo – Selma

Channing Tatum – Foxcatcher – so hard to choose between Ruffalo and Tatum, but I’m going with Tatum. Carell is terrible.

Miles Teller – Whiplash


Best Supporting Actress:

Scarlett Johansson – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Agata Kulesza – Ida – Kulesza plays Ida’s hard-bitten aunt

Evangeline Lilly – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – there was no good clip available from this particular film, so I chose one from the second Hobbit movie.

Elena Lyadova – Leviathan (“Leviafan“)

Naomi Watts – Birdman & St. Vincent



Best Supporting Actor:

Michael Fassbender – Frank

Kristofer Hivju – Force Majeure (“Turist“)

Edward Norton – Birdman

Randall Park – The Interview

J.K. Simmons – Whiplash


March to See “Selma” Now: 50 Years After Events It Portrays, Film Is Especially Relevant Today


Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)

In 1965, a year after the passage by the U.S. Congress of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race – the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., led a march from Selma, Alabama, to the state’s capital of Montgomery to protest widespread restrictions on access to voting for African-Americans in the South. The President at the time, Lyndon Baines Johnson, while a champion of civil rights for African-Americans, wished, after 1964, to turn his attention to the “war on poverty” (a not unworthy goal, for sure). King, however, believed that civil rights without voting rights was an empty triumph, and so continued to push his agenda to allow African-Americans the same access to the polls as had whites, organizing a demonstration in Alabama, a state – led at the time by the virulently racist George Wallace – particularly infamous for its refusal to allow blacks to vote.

Though King and his colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) always engaged in non-violent practices in their protests, they were met, initially, by violent reprisals from the police, led by Sheriff Jim Clark. Soon, however, thanks to negative media coverage of those reprisals, as well as federal intervention, the marchers were allowed to proceed to Montgomery, where they arrived, 54 miles and 5 days later, on March 25. Once there, King gave a rousing speech, optimistically stating that it would not be long before blacks would enjoy the same voting rights as white, and in August 6 of that year, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which effectively removed many of the restrictions on voting that had long been applied in the South to prevent blacks from voting.

This is the story told in the powerful, necessary and extremely entertaining new film by Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere), and never has it been a more vital time to tell that story. Less than two years ago, the United States Supreme Court gutted the very legislation that King, his SCLC colleagues, the many protesters, as well as Johnson, worked so hard to pass into law, and since 2010, 22 states have passed new voter restriction laws (all in the name of junk-science fears about voter fraud). It is time to take stock, America, and decide, once more, what kind of country we wish to be. Let Selma, anchored by a brilliant performance from British actor David Oyelowo (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), be your guide. Ignore the criticism that some have leveled about its portrayal of Johnson (about as valid as those fears about voter fraud) – who is no villain in the movie, just a man with different priorities than King – and make the film a must-see for you, your family and friends in the new year. And then do everything in your power to make sure we don’t continue, in 2015, rolling back the clock to 1964.

Beyond the important civil-rights lesson, Selma is a wonderful ensemble portrait of how politics works, much as was Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film about the 1864 passage of the 13th amendment. Yes, King is at the center of the story, but he is hardly alone. The other members of the SCLC, as well as young students in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and protesters both black and white, are essential actors in the drama, and DuVernay does not ignore them. Indeed, they are portrayed by such fine actors as Wendell Pierce (Bunk on “The Wire“), Oprah Winfrey (also one of the movie’s producers, along with Brad Pitt), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), Carmen Ejogo (The Purge: Anarchy), and many others. Tom Wilkinson (Belle) – always good – as Johnson brings out our 36th President’s humanity without ignoring his well-documented racism (which makes his role as civil-rights hero even more remarkable), and Tim Roth (“Lie to Me“) seems to have a lot of fun as the smirking George Wallace (the movie needs at least one villain to hate).

But in spite of the impressive cast, this really is Oyelowo’s movie. His King is a man possessed of many gifts – intelligence, political acumen, charisma, eloquence – who is nevertheless plagued by the same demons that plague all humans. He is not a saint, and not perfect. He is a human man. The movie opens with a charming scene between King and his wife, Coretta (Ejogo), just before King is to receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, and the casual and sweet flirtation they share tells us right away that this is a movie about people, not icons. Which is why it is a great film. Originally scheduled to open in Baltimore on January 9, Selma‘s release was moved up to January 1. See it today.