Movie Review: “Inherent Vice”

Starring
Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterson, Owen Wilson, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro
Director
Paul Thomas Anderson

After years of toying with my patience (first with “There Will Be Blood,” and more recently with “The Master,” both of which feature such great acting that it papered over their respective cracks), Paul Thomas Anderson has finally made a movie that’s almost impossible to defend. Fans of the director will make excuses for the film’s myriad problems anyway, but the fact that they find it necessary at all only confirms what a giant mess “Inherent Vice” really is. Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, the so-called inherent vice (or hidden defect) of Anderson’s slacker noir is the narrative itself. It’s as if the film, like many of its characters, is in a constant state of a drug-addled high, unable to remain focused or make sense of anything that’s going on. And while that may be the big joke of “Inherent Vice,” it’s not a very funny one.

Set in the seedy underworld of 1970s Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead private investigator who receives a visit one night from his free-spirited ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson), requesting help with a personal matter. She needs Doc to track down her new boyfriend, hotshot real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), after learning that his duplicitous wife plans to have him committed and steal his fortune, only for Shasta to go missing herself. While investigating the pair’s disappearance, Doc takes on some additional cases – including a presumed-dead musician (Owen Wilson), the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards, and a mysterious Indo-Chinese drug syndicate called the Golden Fang – that are curiously all connected in some way. Doc doesn’t exactly know why or how, but one thing seems certain: he’s not going to get any assistance from hippie-hating LAPD detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), with whom he has a strange love-hate relationship.

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Movie Review: “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb”

Starring
Ben Stiller, Rebel Wilson, Dan Stevens, Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, Ben Kingsley, Steve Coogan, Rami Malek
Director
Shawn Levy

In a move that is both shrewd and a bit cynical, the final installment of the “Night at the Museum” series takes place (mostly) in London. The first two “Museum” films earned $560 million in worldwide box office, so the move makes financial sense as well as creative sense, since it gives the writers a chance to try new things. This turns out to be a smart move on all fronts, as “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” is easily the best of the bunch. The scripts have gotten progressively smarter, and director Shawn Levy executes a couple of stunning visual sequences the likes of which the “Museum” series has never seen.

Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), night guard at the New York Museum of Natural History, is about to pull off a mind-blowing presentation with the help of his magically re-animated friends, but they start to behave erratically and cause a panic. He eventually discovers that the tablet of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) is running out of power, and the only person who knows how to restore its power is his father Merenkahre (Sir Ben Kingsley), of whom there is a figure in the London Museum of Natural History. Larry pulls some strings to get both him and his son Nick (Skyler Gisondo) transferred to London to solve the problem, and they get a bunch of unexpected help along the way. Now they just need to get past every wax figure in the London museum, who have awoken for the first time and have no idea how this whole thing works.

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Movie Review: “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

Starring
Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Ian McKellen, Lee Pace, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom
Director
Peter Jackson

The conclusion to Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy is being marketed as “The Defining Chapter,” so why does it feel like less of a triumphant celebration than a weary sigh? It’s probably because the films as a whole have been such an exhausting experience, largely due to the decision to expand the initial two-part plan into three movies. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it simply wasn’t necessary, and that’s never been more evident than with “The Battle of the Five Armies,” a 144-minute marathon of masturbatory excess in which the titular set piece (one that’s contained within a single chapter in Tolkien’s novel) makes up almost half of its bloated runtime. The fact that “The Battle of the Five Armies” is the shortest of any of Jackson’s Middle-earth films proves the futility of the three-movie model, but that hasn’t stopped him from dragging it out anyway. After all, a two-hour film just wouldn’t feel as epic.

The story picks up right where “The Desolation of Smaug” left off, with the treasure-hoarding dragon flying towards Lake-town to wreak havoc on the city. While the townspeople flee as their homes are burned to the ground, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) manages to slay Smaug by shooting a dwarven-made black arrow into a weak spot in its armored scales. But when Bard and the survivors head to the Lonely Mountain seeking refuge and payment for their services, Thorin (Richard Armitage) – who’s since been consumed by the dragon sickness that plagued his grandfather – refuses to help them, believing that it’s all a ruse to steal his beloved gold. As Thorin and his fellow dwarves prepare for battle against the men of Lake-town and Thranduil’s (Lee Pace) elven army, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) escapes from Dol Guldur just in time to warn them of a much bigger threat: Azog the Defiler is marching upon Erebor with a battalion of orcs to seize the stronghold, and they’ll need to put aside their differences and fight alongside each other in order to stop them.

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Movie Review: “Top Five”

Starring
Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, JB Smoove, Kevin Hart
Director
Chris Rock

“Top Five” has a secret: the movie’s “B” story is about sobriety, and the struggles many entertainers have with capturing the magic that came so easily to them when they were high. You can see why the studio would downplay that in the ads, because there is nothing funny about sobriety. As it turns out, the movie is plenty funny even with the heavier subject matter. It paints with a broad brush, and it’s clear how things are going to end within the first five minutes, but the journey is nonetheless entertaining, and at times wildly funny.

Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is a former standup comic who wants to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. His new film, which covers the Haiti Massacre of 1804 (!), comes out the same weekend that Andre is scheduled to marry his reality TV star fiancée Erica (Gabrielle Union) on live television. Andre does a ton of press to promote the movie (where nearly everyone berates him for not being funny anymore), but while he’s hopping from junket to junket, he has an all-day assignment with New York Times writer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). Andre is suspicious of her because one of Chelsea’s colleagues has made a career out of savaging Andre in the press, but he and Chelsea develop a rapport, and before long, Andre opens up about when he hit rock bottom (there are no words to describe that scene). Now sober for four years, Andre still finds himself tempted, especially when Erica is changing aspects of their wedding, per the network’s instructions, without informing him.

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Movie Review: “Penguins of Madagascar”

Starring
Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, Christopher Knights, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich
Directors
Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith

And so it’s come to this: spinoffs.

To be fair, “Penguins of Madagascar” makes perfect business sense on a number of levels. The penguins have been a TV staple for six years, so giving them a full-length feature has zero risk and a built-in audience. As an added bonus, launching a spinoff buys time for DreamWorks to plan the next “Madagascar” movie (currently scheduled for 2018). The tail is clearly wagging the dog here, for better and for worse. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s a shallow one. It’s also strange to get an origin story, and a hollow one at that, for characters we’ve known for almost 10 years.

The movie begins with Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller) and Rico (Conrad Vernon), as young penguins, daring to go against the conformist penguins and battling leopard seals in order to save a runaway, unhatched penguin egg, which would ultimately be Private (Christopher Knights). From that day forward, the four vowed to go against the grain and live for adventure. One day, they are captured by Dr. Octavius Brine (John Malkovich), who’s actually an octopus in disguise that is fed up with the overall cuteness of penguins, and plans to ruin them for all mankind. Enter the North Wind, a government agency assigned to protect animals in danger. Their leader is a wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose name is classified. Skipper does not like having to answer to Classified, but as penguins begin disappearing around the world, the two must find a way to coexist and catch Brine.

“Penguins of Madagascar” has a fantastic running joke that, frankly, I’m surprised no one has done before. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it is, because spoilers. It’s the best thing about the movie, though, and for that alone, you don’t want this to be spoiled by a film critic.

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