Saturday, February 12, 2011

Nog Sees Dogtooth and Life During Wartime

I was terribly excited about the Greek film Dogtooth (directed by Giorgos Lanthimos and nominated for a Best Foreign Film award this year) from the moment I saw its utterly bonkers trailer (sidebar). The film itself has a much different feel (darker by far), and I found much of it honestly unsettling, more so than the more blatant shock tactics of other recent provocations by von Trier (Antichrist) and Noe (admittedly, I gave up on Enter the Void pretty early out of sheer out local scenester @BARRR for an analysis from someone who surived all three hours of that thing).

Dogtooth has been described by some critics as allegorical, and it has that feel on some level, but I'd defy anyone to draw up a clear formula as to what exactly it's saying. The story itself concerns a family whose parents have raised their children in isolation, creating a distorted reality full of (seemingly) arbitrary and often nonsensical rules--only the car can travel outside the gates until you've grown and lost your "dogtooth" (or something like that); the most dangerous animal is the cat; etc. In this world, the children are taught alternate meanings of words, which sometimes seems an attempt to shield them from sex and violence (we witness instances where "pussy" and "zombie" are given other meanings), but other times seems to have no discernible logic. The children, on the verge of adulthood and lacking other outlets, turn to incest. The father, losing control of their structured existence, turns to violence. And all of this plays out in a strangely formal, meticulously composed style and a mostly deadpan, absurdist fashion that dares you to laugh it off. Definitely recommended for the brave.


Whereas Dogtooth has real bite (get it? get it?), Todd Solondz's newest, Life During Wartime, often falls flat when it's meant to shock. Continuing the "experimentation" of his recent films such as Storytelling and Palindromes, Wartime is a sort-of sequel to his most well-known film, Happiness, featuring the same characters a number of years later yet played by an entirely new set of actors. I suppose it's possible for an audience member to completely understand the plot of the film without any knowledge of Happiness, but Wartime mainly exists to riff on the relationships of the earlier film, with a particular focus on the idea of "forgiveness," a word used so often in the film that it nearly demands a drinking game when viewing. There's certainly amusement to be had (the unforgettable opening dinner conversation of Happiness literally "haunts" much of this film: the ghost of Jon Lovitz's character, now played by Paul Reubens, continues to relive those moments), but Happiness's faux-sitcom tone is largely replaced here by melancholy, with Solondz seeming to posit the idea that, while forgiveness may be possible, we're ultimately doomed to wreck the present by imposing the past on it (in the film's most affecting storyline, the younger son of Happiness's pedophile father accidentally destroys an opportunity for he and his mother to start anew).

While the film's title suggests that Solondz has more global issues in mind for this film, the opposite proves true: the characters want to feel connected to the larger world, but they realize that the only (however unlikely) possibility of "happiness" (get it? get it?) lies much closer to home. The film's final line (quoted by many critics, so I'll do it too) is extremely moving: "I don't care about freedom and democracy. I just want my father." But the film itself doesn't linger as it should.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nog's Capsule Reviews: Hereafter, Conviction, Due Date, and Unstoppable!

My recent multiplex viewing has left me a little uninspired to write about it, but here are a few thoughts on movies that you're not likely to be seeing anyway:

Hereafter: Eastwood delivers an amazing tsunami scene and Matt Damon delivers one of his best performances, but Peter Morgan's screenplay ultimately has very little to say. The film is quiet and contemplative and sporadically engrossing but, on reflection, feels very thin.

Conviction: After a promising beginning that skillfully moves in and out of a variety of different time periods, Conviction becomes a formula crowd-pleaser. But it has a typically strong performance by Sam Rockwell, as well as a scene near the end from Juliette Lewis (who's only in two scenes) that's so memorable it almost alone makes the film worth seeing.

Due Date: There's a masturbating dog in it.

Unstoppable: Maybe I'm a sucker for runaway train films, but I totally dug it. Tony Scott scales back on his hyperactive editing and delivers a crisp, clear action movie that is utterly ludicrous yet completely exciting.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Nog Lets The Right One In (American-Style) / Also: Never Let Me Go

When the inevitable American remake of Let the Right One In was announced, horror fanboys went berserk, understandably assuming it would be gored-up and dumbed-down. But mostly this didn't happen. Matt Reeves Let Me In is, on the whole, as atmospheric and patiently paced as the original, not to mention beautifully acted by its child stars. True: I don't like the super-quick CGI movement of the vampire here (not to mention the preposterous demonic voice we hear once or twice), but at the same time I found the original's sudden transitions from subtlety to gore a little jarring as well. But is there ultimately any reason to see this if you've seen the original, since much of it mirrors the original almost exactly? Probably not, except for maybe true horror fans, who can take consolation in the fact that Reeves seems to be a real filmmaker (something we couldn't quite gather from the herky-jerky Cloverfield). The scene that critics keep singling out (a bizarre POV shot with Richard Jenkins murdering someone in a car going backwards) truly is a memorable piece of horror filmmaking. Now let's hope he applies these skills to something we haven't seen before.


Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go is a serious, restrained science-fiction film based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, but you might not gather this if you're not paying close attention to some of its trailers, which make it look like a period-piece coming-of-age flick (I predict some confused old people will NOT be happy with what they're witnessing). The film's "twist," such as it is, is being given away by most critics, but I won't reveal it here in case Matthew finally decides to go to the movies again. So I'll just say that the film works for me, carefully but never flashily integrating its sci-fi concepts into the love triangle at the center of the film (nicely played by Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightly, and new Spiderman Andrew Garfield). Some critics are faulting the film for not succeeding on an emotional level, and the middle section, especially, could benefit from being more fully fleshed out, but I found the film's final moments to be remarkably powerful, as Carey Mulligan's voice-over takes us from the personal to the universal, implicating us all in the issues at hand. The critical side of me knows it's one of those moments where the narration is telling us things that should be apparent enough at that point without further exegesis, but the rest of me, fully immersed in this film's world, struggled not to shed a tear or two. This will likely make my top ten.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"All Creation Myths Need a Devil" : Nog Sees The Social Network!

As The Social Network begins, The Facebook (as it's originally called) is born out of drunken bitterness as Mark Zuckerberg, reeling from an unexpected break-up, brainstorms an outlet for his frustrations that will allow like-minded Harvard students to rate and keep tabs on their classmates. According to Aaron Sorkin's script, that self-absorption continues, ironically, to drive the business mentality behind a site built around community. The tale itself is a standard one--the young up-and-comer increasingly willing to betray his friends for fame and fortune--but its well told in Fincher's new film, with an efficient structure that bounces (sometimes too quickly, for my taste) between key moments of Facebook's formation and a pending lawsuit involving Zuckerman and his former friend and business partner. Fincher's cast is as sharp as Sorkin's script. Eisenberg is sometimes criticized for playing the same, stammery, neurotic in different films, but here he combines those familiar mannerisms with something more subtle that gets us further into Zuckerberg's ego: notice how he tunes out, almost narcoleptically, when the world isn't centered around his particular vision. Andrew Garfield (soon to be Spiderman) proves he's got star power as Eduardo, Zuckerberg's initially close friend and business partner, the film's most sympathic character. And Justin Timberlake, playing flashy Napster founder Sean Parker, is a scene-stealer. The line in my title is delivered late in the film by a lawyer played by Rashida Jones, who goes on to tell Zuckerberg that's he's not really an asshole, just a guy who works very hard to be thought of that way. But I'm not quite sure that line fits meshes with what the previous two hours have told us. Zuckerberg, as he's presented here, comes off looking pretty bad indeed. Whereas Fincher's last film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, led us further away from the issues of obsession and paranoia that seem to define his earlier films, we're back in familiar Fincher territory here. It's not my favorite film of the year, but I'd bet money on it claiming one of the ten slots on Oscar night.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Nog Visits Affleck's The Town!

I'm not ready to call Ben Affleck a great new American writer/director just yet, but he's certainly made two sharply written, sharply acted, crisply directed Boston crime films. I'd give his first, Gone, Baby, Gone, the edge. It might be more uneven, but it's a little darker, a little more character-driven. The Town seems designed to be a more mainstream crowd-pleaser, but the complexity of its characters is head and shoulders above most multiplex actioners. Affleck's style is never showy. He wisely makes no effort to mimic any of Scorsese's gangster-pic stylistic techniques, though one can't help think of Marty in the way his two films lead us through Boston's mean streets and the wide array of interesting characters who inhabit them. Here we're treated to memorable performances from Affleck himself (confidently taking center stage this time after turning Gone over to his brother), from Jeremy Renner (following up Hurt Lucker with another volatile performance that's arguably a little too similar to the last but still never less than riveting), from Rebecca Hall (after Vicky Christina Barcelona and Please Give, I'll watch her in almost anything), and Pete Postlethwaite (scary as hell as a criminal mastermind running his gang out of a florist shop). Faring not quite as well are Jon Hamm as an FBI agent (Affleck's good guys are a little dull) and Blake Lively as Affleck's ex (her performance exists in the shadow of Amy Ryan's ferocious bad mother from Gone: nothing can compare). Sure, some of the film's heists are fairly routine, but in between you're treated to some well-crafted dialogue in scenes such as a wonderfully tense restaurant encounter between Affleck, Hall, and Renner. Go see it and remind yourself of a time when multiplex films were actually entertaining without making you feel like an idiot.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Nog Joins The Revolution With Machete and Gets Existential with The American!

After a few late-summer films that should have been great fun but didn't fully deliver (The Expendables, Piranha 3D), Machete finally arrives and shows us how it's done (spoiler alert: it's done by ripping out your fucking intestines and using them as a rope to escape from buildings!). Rodriguez's expansion of his awesome "fake trailer" into a full-length exploitation (Mexsploitation!) flick is arguably even more successful than either his or Tarantino's Grindhouse features (Planet Terror and Death Proof, respectively), as it feels less like a gimmick and more like a true 70's exploitation flick, complete with those films' in-your-face social message of challenging "the Man" (in this case, the conservative, anti-immigration Right Wing). One could waste time (and some critics are) by pointing out its obvious Mexican stereotyping, but that too is in keeping with the genre's tendency to embrace stereotypes in the service of empowerment (have you critics never seen a Blaxsploitation picture?). For film geeks, this is pure pleasure as long as you're capable of embracing non-stop bloody mayhem. The cast is obviously having a blast: Jeff Fahey (playing it straight and awesome!); Lohan, transforming from naked druggie to pistol-packin,' ass-kickin' nun; Cheech the priest; "introducing Don Johnson" the vicious Von Jackson; and of course Danny Trejo, who WILL fuck you up, and hopefully return to do so again in Machete Kills!


The American is sort of glacially paced, relying little on dialogue, and if you see it with a full house (which you won't, after this weekend, because word-of-mouth won't be great) you will hear people sigh during the silent stretches and possibly complain when it's over. A man two rows below me: "I slept through most of it and the ending stinks." Let's discount that opinion, however, and offer another. The American is pretty good, but not great. There are better--very similar in plot if very different tone--hitman movies (In Bruges, The Hit, to name two). But this is confident film-making (by Anton Corbijn, who directed the excellent, gorgeous black-and-white Joy Division film Control). It's beautifully shot, and a rare thriller that knows how to create suspense without hyper-edited action sequences. As much as I like Clooney's recent film choices, I remain unconvinced of any particular acting range. A lot of the roles he's played lately (Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, this one) are men whose careers require them to express little in the way of human emotion. He's good at that. You'll totally buy him as a hitman having a bit of an existential crisis. Is the movie a little too proud of its "artsy" pacing? Probably. Some of the slower-than-slow patches are misleading, in that there is more going on that meets the eye at first, but there are patches of the film where I'm pretty sure it's just slow and moody as a sort of rebellion against anti-Hollywood action films. And I'm okay with that. But the guy two rows below me was most definitely not.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Nog Gets Low With Duvall and Murray! / Also: Piranha 3D (Review By Request)

Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) has spent the last forty years living like a hermit and becoming, as a result, a sort of mythic small-town figure. But, as Get Low begins, Felix has begun to suspect that death is approaching, and he needs to make amends, which he organizes in an odd fashion: he'll have a pre-death "funeral party," which he will attend and everyone will be invited so long as they have a story to tell about him (and pretty much everyone in a four-county radius does). This sets us a fascinating premise which seems like it will serve as a means to examine the power of storytelling, of truth and myth. However (and somewhat unfortunately) that film doesn't materialize, though I think it might have been more interesting if it did. Soon enough, we begin to realize that Felix's intentions with the "funeral party" largely concern not anyone else's stories but rather a revelation of his own: the dark secret that sent him into hiding from society forty years ago. The secret itself isn't particularly interesting and one can guess its general outlines long before it's finally revealed (in the lengthy and beautifully acted but somewhat corny monologue near the end). But the reason to see Get Low is not ultimately plot, but character. As (almost) always, Duvall is excellent. In his scenes with Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray (playing the undertaker in charge of the funeral party), Duvall's performance gradually lets us into the kind and humorous man that Felix once was, before forty years of guilt turned him into the local "nutter." And Murray, chalking up another great performance as a "serious" actor, more than holds his own alongside the legendary Duvall. Murray's Frank Quinn, we sense, is also a man in hiding. A former sleazy used-car salesman from Chicago, Frank, unhappily divorced, has settled into a small-town, Depression-era existence where he maintains some of the old persona (he's at first desperate to get his hands on Frank's wadded-up ball of "hermit money") but has, in truth, embraced the small-town values that surround him.


Piranha 3D! What is there to say? You will see a truly wild massacre at a wet T-shirt contest that's about as gory as anything you're going to see in the multiplex (holy shit, that's Eli Roth's head flying across the screen! did I seriously just see that girl get sliced in two by a wire and the top half of her body slowly slide down to her feet? wny has Ving Rhames been reduced to a role where he's only required to shoot piranhas with a shotgun while yelling "Pirahna this, motherfucker!"). You will also see a full-frontal naked female underwater ballet! (nice). Sadly, what you won't see is 3D fully utilized as the gimmick it should be in a film like this. I want to walk out of there feeling like I've had 90 minutes of piranhas flying into my face. But instead, I've only been treated to a piranha belching out Jerry O'Connell's penis. But I guess that's pretty cool too? It probably wouldn't have been a bad idea to include some modicum of wit or irony into the script: the opening scene involving Richard Dreyfuss suggests an insider-film buff tone that never in any way materializes after that. But ultimately, the film delivers what one wants: titties and gore. Recommended (for Matthew).