Inherent Vice

Posted on January 8, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence
Profanity: Very strong, explicit, and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Extensive substance abuse including drinking, smoking, and drugs, drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 9, 2015
Copyright IAC films 2014
Copyright IAC films 2014

We love mystery stories because they reassure us that questions have answers and justice is possible. But some mystery stories are there to remind us that life is complicated and messy, and sometimes answers are just more questions. This is one of those stories.

Inherent Vice is a novel by the famously private author Thomas Pynchon, whose books are dense, complex, and thus rich fodder for grad students and intelligentsia. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”) is also known for dense, complex stories, and he likes to focus on decay, corruption, and bruised innocence. They are well matched in this weed noir story, sort of Dashiell Hammett crossed with Hunter Thompson.

The original set-up is right out of a classic detective story. A beautiful woman named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) visits her ex-boyfriend, Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), some kind of hippie detective, to ask for his help. The narrator (singer Joanna Newsom), in a hypnotic, vocal fry deadpan, lets us know right away that Doc would be better off telling her to leave. But he cannot say no to Shasta or to a mystery, so he is on the case.

Shasta’s new boyfriend is a wealthy (and married) developer named Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts). Shasta believes that Wolfman’s wife and her boyfriend are trying to have him committed so they can get his money.  As Doc begins to look into this, he encounters many odd characters, most with their own unsolved mysteries, some of which begin to intersect with the Wolfman story or with each other or both.  And it all comes together, or doesn’t, in a haze of, yes, decay, corruption, and bruised innocence that is about the failure of the American Dream or existential chaos or the fragility of our concept of reality, or maybe just that the journey and those who accompany us along the way are more important than the destination.  Also, something about the optimism and passion for changing society of the 60’s giving way to the me-decade and passion for individual self-exploration of the 70’s.

Doc encounters a number of extremely colorful characters as he explores a series of mysteries that appear to be linked, or perhaps all part of one big mystery involving a secret and very powerful malevolent force.  The only one who seems to know what’s going on is the almost-never-seen narrator, and it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to root for the characters or laugh at them.  But as always, Anderson’s impeccable casting and music choices are captivating, and there is an amusing contrast between his attention to every detail of camera placement, editing, production design, and dialog and the convoluted storyline and druggy fog surrounding the characters.  I’m not sure what it was that I watched, but I have to admit I enjoyed watching it.

Parents should know that this film has just about everything we consider “adult content,” including constant very strong, explicit, and crude language, nudity and very explicit sexual references and situations including prostitution and adultery, drinking, drugs of all kinds and drug dealing, and violence including guns.

Family discussion: Why did Doc help Shasta? Why did he help Coy? Why is Doc a detective?

If you like this, try: “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood” by the same director and the book by Thomas Pynchon

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Based on a book Crime Drama Movies Mystery

Veronica Mars

Posted on March 13, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexuality including references, drug content, violence and some strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, references to teen drinking and drug use and drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Murders and attempted murders, guns, car crash, peril and scary surprises
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 14, 2014
Date Released to DVD: May 5, 2014 ASIN: B00HEQOAQ8

NOTE: I can’t pretend any objectivity here — I am a fan of the television series, a Kickstarter supporter of the film, and a friend of one of the producers.  I think I would have been capable of writing a bad review if the film was a disappointment, but thankfully it was even better than I hoped.  With that caveat, on to the review:

“Veronica Mars” manages the near-impossible in exceeding the hopes of three different audiences: passionate fans of the three-year television series about a teen-aged detective who wanted more of the same, passionate fans of the television series who wanted to see what happened when the characters grew up, and the much bigger group — people who had never seen the series and did not even remember that there was one.Veronica_Mars_Film_Poster

Writer/director Rob Thomas created the Veronica Mars television series, starring Kristen Bell (“Frozen”) as a teenager whose father was the sheriff of Neptune, California, until he was pushed out of office by a corrupt alliance between government and the local business.  He became a private investigator, and Veronica began investigating, too, from the murder of her best friend and a school bus crash to hectoring and blackmail via social media.  Like its better-known contemporary “Buffy,” the lead character was a smart, tough, capable teenaged girl coping with the intensity of adolescent traumas externalized as major, life-threatening events, all approached with equal resolve, equanimity, steadfast friends, a love triangle, and quippy dialogue.  And it has a surprisingly sharp and astute portrayal of social and economic divisions.  A large part of the appeal of the series was in watching Bell deliver a continuous stream of mots juste, with a “Gilmore Girls” depth of immersion in pop culture and understated wit.  Fans included Stephen King, who described the series as, “Nancy Drew meets Philip Marlowe, and the result is pure nitro. Why is Veronica Mars so good? It bears little resemblance to life as I know it, but I can’t take my eyes off the damn thing.” A Kickstarter campaign for this film intended to raise $2 million raised $5 million and the results are likely to resonate throughout Hollywood, creating a powerful alternative to the current system for greenlighting film projects.

A two-minute recap brings us up to date.  Veronica now lives in New York, a recent law school graduate, living happily with Piz (Chris Lowell), one of her love interests back on the show, who has moved on from a high school radio job to working at NPR (“This American Life’s” Ira Glass shows up for one of several star cameos).  She is interviewing at prestigious New York law firms and happy to be creating a new life for herself.  And then she is called back to Neptune.  Her other former love interest, Logan (Jason Dohring) is suspected of murdering his girlfriend, their high school classmate, who had become a pop star.  She promises Piz she will just go back long enough to get Logan a lawyer, but keeps extending her stay as she gets caught up, first in finding that “plausible alternative” to present to the jury, and then in finding out who really did it.

The mystery is absorbing, but it is the depth of characters and richness of the relationships that makes this movie so effective.  Bell knows this character so well and inhabits her so fully that it lends depth to the bigger mystery — who will Veronica decide to be?  Series co-stars like Enrico Colantoni as Veronica’s father, Tina Majorino  and Francis Capra as old friends, and Ryan Hansen and Ken Marino as old frenemies are stand-outs, there are quick cameos from Bell’s real-life husband Dax Shepard and Justin Long, and James Franco contributes a very funny meta-moment as himself (stay past the credits for more).  But the star here is Thomas, who has a sure hand in blending the drama, mystery, romance, and wit.  Fifteen minutes in, I was a marshmallow.

Parents should know that this film includes brutal murders and attempted murders, guns, drowning, car crashes, some scary surprises and disturbing images, references to teen partying including drugs, sexual references and situation, and some strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Which character changed the most in ten years?  What television series would you like to see brought back via Kickstarter?

If you like this, try: the “Veronica Mars” television series and the classic “Thin Man” movies

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Based on a television show Crime Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Mystery Romance Series/Sequel

Two Film Noir Classics Now Free Streaming

Posted on January 31, 2014 at 11:59 am

“Film Noir” (“black films”) usually refers to the stylized dark crime films of the 1940’s, usually made by German directors who came to the United States to escape the Nazis.  Their cynicism, sense of dread and loss, and themes of betrayal, obsession, and sin gave their stories of crime and mystery an archetypal feeling.  Two of the best can now be seen for free.

A neglected gem from Orson Welles, “The Stranger” is the story of an investigator (Edward G. Robinson) who is tracking down a Nazi war criminal (Welles), now living a quiet life as a professor and married to a woman (Loretta Young) who knows nothing of his past.  The climax in a church belfry tower is brilliantly staged.

Edward G. Robinson also appears in the less characteristic role of a mild-mannered professor who gets caught up in a web of deception and betrayal in “The Woman in the Window.”  The ending is a disappointment, but the direction by Fritz Lang is a masterpiece of noir mood.

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Classic Drama Mystery Thriller


Posted on July 8, 2013 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: NR
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1963
Date Released to DVD: July 8, 2013 ASIN: B00COHGPNS

I’m delighted that one of the all-time great romantic thrillers is being released for the first time on Blu-Ray this week.  Director Stanley Donen out-Hitchcock’s Alfred Hitchcock with this witty, elegant, sophisticated bonbon starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant.  It has a swoony score by Henry Mancini and a nicely twisty plot.  And one of the most delicious last lines in movie history.

Hepburn plays a Parisian woman whose estranged husband is murdered and thrown off a train.  She realizes she knew very little about him.  And she realizes some very bad people knew a lot about him.  When he was in the army, he and some of his friends stole some money.  And then he stole it from them.  They are after the money, and that means they are after her.

I won’t spoil any surprises by saying more.  But I will strongly recommend that after you watch the movie, you watch it again to listen to the commentary from director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone, filled with marvelously entertaining anecdotes about the making of the film.  I love the story about Cary Grant’s haircut.  My favorite part, though, is whenever a close-up of Audrey Hepburn comes on the screen.  They just pause.  And then one of them says, a little breathlessly, “Isn’t she beautiful?”

Yes, she is.


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Classic Crime Date movie DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Mystery Romance

Now You See Me

Posted on May 30, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some action, and sexual content
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Action-style violence, characters in peril, references to sad death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 31, 2013
Date Released to DVD: September 2, 2013 ASIN: B00DWZHTRW

now-you-see-me-castThe most purely entertaining movie of the year so far is “Now You See Me,” and like all great magic tricks, it makes us delighted to be fooled.   We are warned from the very beginning that the closer we look, the less we will see, but even on the alert for the magician’s tools of misdirection and mirrors, it keeps us happily guessing until the very last second.  We might suspect the why, but the who and the how are another story.  One of the magicians tells us that stage magic is deception designed to entertain, delight, and inspire, and that’s just what this movie does.

Four magicians with four very different styles, all very independent, rather arrogant, and very competitive but none at the top of their field are brought together in a most mysterious manner, and the next thing we know, they are headlining in a huge arena sponsored by a multi-millionaire named Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). The master of close-up magic and card tricks is J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg). Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is the specialist at hypnosis (and post-hypnotic suggestion). Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) is an escape artist. And Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is a pickpocket and locksmith. The very fine line between trickery and outright con is crossed now and then as we meet our heroes, or possibly, anti-heroes.

In their big, bravura, very polished show, they announce they are going to rob a bank where someone in the audience has an account. The man they select at random(?) is French. Is that a setback? Au contraire! The next thing we see or think we see is the Frenchman magically transported to Paris, inside the bank’s safe — just as it is about to open for business because Paris is seven hours ahead. And then, the money appears, and the magicians generously distribute it to the audience.

A French agent from Interpol (Mélanie Laurant of “Beginners” as Alma Dray — names are not this movie’s strong point) and a cranky agent from the FBI (is there any other kind?) named Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) team up to investigate.  A professional debunker of magicians (a la The Amazing Randi) played by Morgan Freeman provides some guidance — or is that just more misdirection?

It would be wrong to say any more.  Just go see it to enjoy the tricks and the great performances and directions that are real movie magic.

Parents should know that this movie includes some strong language (a crude insult, f-word), characters in peril, drinking, and sexual references and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: What clues did you miss? Which kind of magic would you like to be able to do?

If you like this, try: “The Illusionist” and “Oceans 11”

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Crime Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Mystery
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