Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nog Sees Up in the Air

If we are to believe most critics, Up in the Air is like some long-lost Billy Wilder classic, an old-fashioned star vehicle (Clooney!) that perfectly combines seemingly light comic banter and romance with real substance. Well, it isn't that good (you can't put it right beside The Apartment on your DVD shelves and consider them interchangeable), does succeed in many ways. The premise is interesting: Ryan Bingham spends his life largely "up in the air", (the title!!), flying around and firing people for large corporations, and he's come to prefer the limbo-like world of airports and hotel rooms to a world that requires real human connection. The scenes of various people speaking to the camera about losing their jobs work very well, fluidly moving through various tones. This being a Hollywood film, however, the narrative must largely concern Bingham's realization that he truly desires a world with more stability (meaning he must realize that what he really wants is to settle down with Vera Farmiga, who is very good in this role). Bingham's change is probably a bit abrupt, but the film does reveal that the one-to-one connection of firing someone face to face is essential to him (he finds video firing intolerable), so presumably his essential loneliness is meant to be a part of his character from the beginning. Yet the Bingham we see in the film's first half seems to be having a hell of a lot of fun flying around and casually banging Farmiga and eating big meals on the company dime, which seems to weaken the emotional impact of the film's final scenes a bit. Still, the film does a nice job of reminding us that romantic comedies don't neccesarily have to be completely empty-headed. It will be nominated for Best Picture (likely winning) and, in a weak year, I won't quibble with the choice.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Nog Sees Avatar!

Well, the first question one must answer about Avatar is this: Did it fuck your eyeballs? (as the fanboys have been saying for about a year regarding its visual majesty). Well, yes, it's amazing to look at. There's a lot of detail in every frame, from the spacecraft interiors to the landscapes of Pandora to the many creatures, and the 3D-depth enhances these aspects without calling undue attention to itself (rarely does shit fly out of the screen at you). Still, amazing as it all looks, visual majesty alone only takes you so far, and you're ultimately left with a none-too-subtle tale of American imperialism with a none-too-subtle environmental message. The film's primary visual and philosophical cues seem to come from Native-American culture (you can't watch the Na'Vis on their horse-creatures with their bow and arrows and not think of Native-Americans), and Cameron combines this with contemporary military lingo from the "war on terror" (shock and awe, pre-emptive strikes), which I guess is meant to suggest a sort of cyclical view of history with the oppressors constantly seeking to displace/eliminate other cultures to get what they desire (in this case, something called "unobtanium," which sounds ridiculous as all hell but is apparently an actual scientific term). Silly as it sounds, this could work, maybe, if one truly cares about the characters, feels the love story, gets caught up in the action scenes. But I was only sporadically involved, enjoying the look of the film but caring very little about what was actually going on and looking forward to Piranha 3D, whose pre-Avatar trailer promises good old-fashioned sex-and-gore 3D exploitation in which a school of piranhas will fly directly into your face!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nog Sees Precious!

The old white folks in the matinee screening I attended of Precious booed and hissed at Mo'Nique, playing Precious's mother Mary, as if she were an old-fashioned mustache-twirling villain. And she is certainly a terrifying, even despicable person who physically abuses her pregnant (by the husband/father, for the second time), overweight, illiterate, 16 year old daughter Precious. But I suspect a different kind of (less white) audience would understand that Mary, as much as Precious, is also a victim in the sense that she's absorbed the dominant society's messages for so long that she's practically become the thing she's always been told she was: basically a savage who thinks of nothing but the basic pleasures of food and sex (and television). Precious too has absorbed these messages, but she deals with them differently: basically by retreating into her mind and escaping the worst of her abuses through a fantasy world in which she takes center stage (literally). This is a world that her environment and the media has never revealed to her (watch for the scene where she watches an old film on television: though she's able to superimpose her and her mother's faces on the white actors, what she sees is simply a more civilized version of the same cycle of abuse she's locked into).

Yet the film, bleak as it, is ultimately about Precious's attempts to escape her circumstances, through the help of a few good teachers and counselors. We see, in several scenes early on, that she's always had a spark of defiance. In one of these moments (which has sparked some controversy) Precious orders and steals and eats an entire bucket of chicken. Now director Lee Daniels certainly knows he's treading on thin ice here with the old "black folks eating chicken" stereotype, but the point seems to be that Precious, even in her despair, is already finding ways to empower herself by, in a sense, both consciously playing--and even enjoying--the role she's expected to play. I suppose the film follows a somewhat traditional, learning-equals-power, formula as it progresses, but it rarely feels overly manipulative and never sugar-coated (the confrontations between Precious and Mary are intense and brutal). In a strangely meta moment late in the film, we see one of Precious's fellow students trying to interpret what it means when a protagonist's environment in a novel is described as "unrelenting." The student, not at all sure and not offering the expected answer, says something along the lines of this meaning that the protagonist keeps on moving along and moving along. We're not sure where Precious is headed, exactly, in the final moments of the film, but she is in motion, and we're meant to see that as both hope and progress.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Nog Watches Eastwood's Invictus! (That Sounds Weird)

Reliable as Santa Claus, Eastwood these days can be counted on to pop up around Oscar-time with a new film (or sometimes two, as in the case of last year's The Changeling/Gran Torino combo or a few years back with Flags of Our Fathers/Letters From Iwo Jima). It's comfort food for grown-ups who have no interest in sexy teenage monsters or Jim Cameron's tall blue 3-D aliens.

I can see how some will immediately reject Invictus's seeming embrace of every sports and racial-harmony cliche (I rolled my eyes a few times), but there's still intelligence at work in Eastwood's study of forgiveness (a new topic for him, as the NY-Times points out, after a career focused almost entirely on the notion of revenge). The first half of the film, dealing primarily with the recently freed and newly elected Mandela (Morgan Freeman, who else?) is particularly interesting. We watch the man's machinations as he figures out how to use South Africa's run to World Cup rugby victory as a shrewd attempt to heal the country's still-festering racial divide. Was this run to glory really as important to the country as the film posits? I don't know. I doubt it. But it works cinematically as an interesting focal point, although the film's last half, a more traditional underdog-sports film, is less interesting. Matt Damon's captain of the rugby team is not a particularly compelling fellow as a character, and I'm not sure Eastwood has any particular facility for shooting rugby matches or even a full understanding of the sport (I know I still don't know what the fuck was going on on the field!). But of course the point is ultimately not what's going on on the field but rather the effect it has on the country. Mandela explains early on that he doesn't see his maneuverings as "political" calculations but rather as "human" ones, and we're left with an appreciation of a leader who always truly has the best interests of his country at heart.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nog Watches "Three of the Greatest Actors of Our Generation" in Brothers!

I found Brothers compelling and intense while I was watching, but it didn't really resonate for me afterwards. However, as an old-fashioned acting showcase (starring, according to one of its trailers, "three of the greatest actors of our generation"), it's mostly enjoyable. Tobey Maguire pretty successfully transcends his geeky, Peter Parker/Spiderman image as Sam, a damaged, unstable veteran of Afghanistan, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman share some nice, natural moments together as Sam's brother and wife, who bond while Sam is believed dead at war. I think the film wants to say something very complex about identity (and perhaps the original Dutch film did? yes, this is a remake), but the ideas don't feel completely coherent. We certainly see a reversal of identity between the two brothers, as the "nice" brother Sam is forced to become cruel at war while the "bad" brother, Tommy, assumes the unfamiliar role of stand-in father and husband. But there's a more interesting idea at work regarding Sam that never fully gets off the ground: it seems that war not only changes him, but literally remakes him (his family simply does not know him upon his return). Ultimately, there's nothing here in terms of substance we haven't seen done better in films like Coming Home or even the more recently (unfairly neglected) In the Valley of Elah, but I'd say the actors make it worth a look (and director Jim Sheridan coaxes incredible performances out of Sam's two young daughters: perhaps they'll go on to become the "greatest actors" of their generation!).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Nog Walks The Road!

Reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a visceral experience: you can taste the sweetness of what might well be the last Coke in America and smell the flesh of a baby being roasted on a spit by roving cannibal hordes (when I taught the book a few years ago many of the students said it made them cry and gave them nightmares). John Hillcoat's long-delayed film version is appropriately bleak--the cinematography believably conveys the look of a grey, ash-covered, burnt-up American landscape--but without McCarthy's remarkable prose, things can get a bit repetitive. After all, the only plot is this: man and boy (nameless) head south toward the coast after some unspecified disaster that destroys the land and kills most everyone. Hillcoat (possibly at the behest of studio dictatorship?) attempts to balance out the narrative by fleshing out the backstory of the man's wife (the novel offers only a few paragraphs), a decision that's probably meant to make things (slightly) more audience-friendly but ultimately adds very little. Also questionable is the voice-over (perhaps also an attempt to break up the potentially monotonous plot): at times the narration maintains McCarthy's archaic, biblical intonations ("The child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God then God never spoke"), but at other times feel smoothed-out and unecessary. Viggo Mortensen offers strong work as the man and Kodi Smit-Mcphee is mostly good as the boy (he looks remarkably like Charlize Theron, as the wife/mother). Most viewers will feel that the despairing experience of the film isn't worth it (art should make us feel good, damn it!), but the film is worth seeing and, despite whatever concessions may have been made to help it find an audience, still feels pretty uncompromising.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Nog Dons His Bandit Hat and Rides With Mr. Fox!

I thoroughly enjoyed Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which doesn't feel like a director trying his hand at animation but rather like a Wes Anderson film that just happens to feature a bunch of stop-motion creatures (many voiced by Anderson's usual repertory company--Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray--joined by a hilarious George Clooney as Mr. Fox). Anderson's flicks are too arch, too "hip" for some tastes. All quirk and no emotion is often the standard criticism, which, as a fan, I've never thought was exactly accurate. However you term it, though, the sensibility works well here, and Anderson's habit of filling every inch of the frame with incredible detail provides a beautiful stop-motion world. It's all probably too slow and talky for the young crowd, but Anderson proved in Life Aquatic that he can stage a fine action set-piece too, and those scenes are great fun as the dashing Fox and pals attempt to outwit the wicked farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.

Watch especially for Willem Dafoe as Rat! (along with Antichrist, this is Defoe's second film this year to feature talking foxes: perhaps he's decided to ONLY make films about talking foxes?).

Judging from the film's weak box-office take, audiences are waiting for family fare that's a little less...cerebral. Sadly, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel will probably outgross this by a long shot. But this is the one that will be remembered in the future and perhaps find its deserved audience.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nog Sees An Education!

On Oscar night, Meryl Streep is almost certainly going to take home another statue for her performance as Julia Child, but it's easy to imagine her singling out Carey Mulligan for some kind words during her acceptance speech. Mulligan is likely to be nominated for An Education, and she should be. There's no major histrionics in her performance, just a wonderfully wise-beyond-her-years sensibility and a graceful, radiant presence (critics keep referencing Audrey Hepburn). Mulligan's Jenny is 16, living a dull suburban life in 1961 London, interested in a life of "culture" but with no real access to it. Her father (Alfred Molina, pitch-perfect) sees to it that everything she does is perfectly structured with an eye toward advancement, which means heading off to Oxford. "We don't believe in concerts," she tells David (Peter Saarsgard), a dapper thirty-something fellow with a mysterious career who gives her a ride one rainy day and offers to take her to hear some classical music. They begin a relationship that seems only tangentially about sex, at least at first (she's waiting till she's seventeen, thank you very much, and he seems as turned on by introducing her to great art and music as he is by seducing her), and the film's light tone smooths over the inherent edginess of the subject matter (plus, it seems quite clear that these schoolgirl/older man relationships were not at all uncommon in the era). It's fairly clear to most everyone but Jenny that the relationship is ultimately doomed, but what she gets out of it (her "education") is worth the heartbreak. Paula Vogel describes her play How I Learned to Drive (which I'm currently teaching), as ultimately dealing with "the gifts we receive from those who hurt us," which holds true for this film as well.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nog Sees Shit Blow Up REAL Nice in 2012! / Also: Humpday!

So there's no question that Emmerich's newest disaster film is a huge waste of money, talent, and time (158 minutes worth), but once you get past all it possible to have fun watching 2012?

Sort of. Yes, the impressive action scenes get repetitive pretty quickly, but they are least impressively staged (except for a few shots where things are shaking and the whole thing looks a little like a Cecil B. Demille picture where big columns are about to collapse). I'll personally take this film over most of the summer's action flicks such as Wolverine, GI Joe, and (especially) Transformers II, which I think was described best by a critic who likened it to watching a kid playing with toys and making explosion noises. Emmerich, at least, follows two pretty standard formulas, and there's some pleasure in that if you're a fan of the formulas. The first, of course, is the disaster picture (a large cast of famous faces runs around yelling "Holy shit" and either dying or narrowly escaping from ridiculously improbable situations) and the other is the apocalypse picture (who deserves to be saved and where/how can the world start over?). Aside from Woody Harrelson (who seems to be having a great time as a grizzled mountain man DJ who drinks PBR and knows the truth about all government conspiracies) the cast is pretty much standard cardboard caricatures, which doesn't matter much if you're content with seeing California topple into the ocean and a tidal wave sweep over the Himalayas and a cruise ship rise up and slam into the White House. And most audiences are obviously plenty content, judging from the box-office numbers.


And here's one for Matthew and Beth (pretty much the only readers, anyway!):

Lynn Shelton's Humpday is a clever indie-world response to the "bromance" genre. While Apatow and company's mainstream comedies aren't free to do much with whatever homosexual subtext they may possess for fear of alienating their often-fratty audiences, Shelton's festival-favorite can dig a little deeper. We see in the opening scene that Ben (Mark Duplass, of the Duplass Brothers, favorites of the "mumblecore" genre of films) is growing a little weary of married life: he and his wife consider having sex and then decide they're completely uninterested. When Ben's old friend Andrew, a wandering free-spirit artist, arrives in the middle of the night after a long absence, the old friends reconnect, and Shelton is interested in the sort of easy physical camaraderie (wrestling and hugs) that bond them together. Andrew invites Ben to a party full of artists (most of them bisexual) who mention an annual "art" contest sponsored by a local underground magazine that invites contestants to send in amateur pornographic videos of themselves. Drunk and stoned, Ben and Andrew decide that the idea of two straight guys boning would be amazing art. Once sober, they are leery but still determined to go through with it, and the film is probably at its best in this middle section where we begin to understand the characters, who have a surprising amount of depth. It's actually Andrew, the free spirit, who is the most uncomfortable with the idea. He's always wished he was "more gay," he explains. Ben sets out to convince his wife of the project's worth, and there's a sharply written scene between them where he accuses her of stifling "other aspects of his personality," assuming that she herself lacks similar desires for freedom, at which point she surprises him with her own complexity. Ben later confesses to Andrew a moment of homosexual longing in his youth (a very funny monologue involving a video clerk and a ten-part series on Frank Lloyd Wright). Many will argue that the film loses its nerve in the final third--once the art project is set to commence--and that the ending is a cop-out, but I'm not sure that's the case. It's pretty true to what we've learned about the characters by that point, which is quite a lot. Unlike the mainstream bromances, Shelton isn't going for easy punch lines. Though the film is often very funny, the humor grows out of the characters more than the situations, and the film is ultimately less interested in the project itself than in the reasoning behind it. Final verdict: Humpday is at least a dozen times better than Zach and Miri Make a Porno.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Nog Sees A Very Good Film (Ballast) And Gets His 3-D on With Christmas Carol

Sometimes I still watch real films, though I rarely write about them. Here's one: Ballast. This festival favorite, just now on DVD, is set in the Mississippi Delta and explores the ways that broken African-American families interact in tiny towns where they must all continue to move within the same radius. Lawrence's brother, who lived with him, has killed himself and he's retreated into his own mind, barely speaking. He begins to emerge only when his brother's estranged son begins coming around after the funeral, ostensibly to steal money from Lawrence but seemingly more intrigued by the idea of Lawrence as a potential new father figure. A bond begins to form between Lawrence, the son, and his mother, but soon we see that that this new family unit will likely disintegrate in the same fashion as the older one, and the film ends with mother and son drifting away again. Ballast is beautifully shot, much of it with hand-held, using natural light and sound. It never telegraphs how we should feel about these characters nor over-explains their motivations. It's completely real in the best possible ways. And most people will hate it.


I was surprised how much I enjoyed Zemeckis' take on The Christmas Carol. What could have easily turned into a pure, dumbed-disaster full of Carrey's Scrooge making funny faces and fart jokes is actually pretty faithful and affecting. Which is not to say that there isn't an overload of special effects (including one completely unecessary chase scene, as a terrified Scrooge runs from the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come). Also: if filmmakers want to prove to us that 3-D is no longer just a gimmick, they're going to have to deliver me one film that doesn't rely on a few extraneous bits of random shit popping out of the screen. But when the technology is used simply to add depth, it certainly works well: the vision of snow-covered London looks pretty fantastic. Zemeckis' performance-capture technology has also been significantly improved since The Polar Express days. Though the actors themselves are still nearly unrecognizable at times, they no longer have the weird "dead eye" quality everyone remarked on with that earlier picture. All in all, probably a better film for families to see during the holidays than this year's baffling Thanksgiving releases of Ninja Assassin ("Come on, grandma, let's go see these kick-ass ninjas!") or The Road (a little bit of apocalypse for dessert, perhaps?).

Monday, November 9, 2009

Nog Stares at Goats With George Clooney / Also: The Box! (Is It Full of Shit?)

The major narrative of The Men Who Stare At Goats never develops any momentum whatsoever. It's uninteresting and primarily serves as a framework to introduce a number of flashbacks involving various secret military experiments, many of which are very funny in their absurdity (I love Stephen Root's pre-credits monologue in which he explains he's been using his powers of psychic projection to keep tabs on the Loch Ness Monster, which is actually "the ghost of a dinosaur"). Clooney is strong in his role: he's good at playing characters who are absolutely assured that their preposterous convictions are 100% correct. The rest of the cast is hit-and-miss: Jeff Bridges is basically playing "The Dude" again, in this case a man who attempts to establish a "New Earth Army" influenced by 60's peace-and-love, and Kevin Spacey is his usual smarmy self as a man who wants to corrupt those ideas into something dangerous. Ewan McGregor, as our narrator, is dull. As virtually every critic has already noted, the film has little sense of whether it wants to be a slapstick comedy or a serious satire and spends its time vacillating between the two, awkwardly. Probably, in order for the film to successfully say something, it would have to take some clear position on our current wars, but audiences have proved time and again that they don't want that. So instead we just get Clooney horsing around. It's relatively entertaining, I suppose.


It's fun to imagine Richard Kelly negotiating about his new film, The Box. I like to think that he agreed to do a studio film with a real star (Cameron Diaz) in exchange for promises that he could still: (a) introduce some weird plot element involving strange liquid tubes that allow time-travel, (b) give another job to the dude who played Donnie Darko's dad, (c) basically just reproduce several shots from Donnie Darko at the end of this film, and (d) set it all for no particular reason in 1976, perhaps as some reflection of that decade's paranoid-conspiracy thrillers or perhaps just to show a lot of old TV clips of What's Happening and Alice.

It all results in a creepy little tale of ethical dilemmas (based on a Richard Matheson story) that's been tricked out into an unecessarily complicated story involving alien societies and severed toes.

Recommended as an exercise in goofiness (but not nearly as much fun as Shymalan's completely insane Lady in the Water!).

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Nog Gets Serious With the Coens! (Read After Viewing; Burn After Reading).

The Coens' new film, A Serious Man, opens with this admonition from the Talmudic scholar Rashi: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." The film that follows seems to explore the possibility of this as something that is simultaneously essential and impossible. Larry Gopnick is a Jewish physics professor (somewhere in the midwest, late 1960's) whose life is falling apart through no fault of his own ("I didn't do anything" becomes a mantra used in numerous ways throughout the film by various characters: the Coens' still love their repetition). Larry's wife is ready to leave him, his tenure approval seems tenuous, and he may well have a serious health problem. As his son prepares himself for his bar mitzvah (the event toward which the narrative proceeds), Larry too finds himself in need of spiritual guidance, turning to a succession of rabbis who offer him (in the film's best scenes) advice that is more bewildering than useful. One rabbi tells him the tale of "the goy's teeth," the story of a Jewish dentist who discovers the phrase "help me, save me" embedded in the teeth of a patient and becomes, for awhile, obsessed with the message...until suddenly he isn't, at which point life proceeds as usual. Another rabbi suggests the hidden beauty that lies behind life's banal surface ("Look at the parking lot," he tells Larry, as if it might contain some answer if one could only see properly). In a scene that reinforces this idea, Larry climbs to his roof to adjust the television antenna and listens to a succession of broadcast signals that briefly become clear before fading out again, then happens to spot across the top of a fence a naked woman sunbathing. But, for Larry, these are rare instances of a glimpse beyond the mundane in an otherwise ceaselessly frustrating life that usually seems at the whims of a creator who'd rather make him squirm, and the Coens' leave us with a wildly ambiguous ending that will infuriate many. As I exited the Glenwood, much of the audience seemed to be staring at the screen with arms crossed, as if they'd been swindled, and I heard the word "awful" from at least one of them. But I think they're wrong, as are the critics who constantly accuse the Coens of having nothing but contempt for their characters (a position the directors do nothing to publicly dispel, given the fact that they keep talking about how much fun they had dreaming up ways to punish Larry). True, the film is pitch-dark in its humor, bitter, sometimes cruel, but it feels to me like a real effort to think about the idea of faith. It's (deliberately) arguable what Larry learns here, but I think it's something along these lines: one has no choice but to live on a constant precipice that's as likely to bring some new unknown terror as it is enlightenment, or to withdraw completely, as does the film's mysterious third rabbi, who refuses to answer the questions of anyone once they've reached manhood. The film's abrupt ending is frustating, yes, but also frightening and appropriate. See it twice at least!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nog Whips It With Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis (Sounds Sexy!) And Finds Himself...Mildly Unsettled by Paranormal Activity

In need of some harmless fluff to entertain the parents on a recent visit, I finally caught up with Whip It, which you two faithful readers have reviewed on your respective blogs long ago. And I can generally agree with your assessments: it's completely formulaic but generally fun and fast-paced and well-acted (and well-directed, by Drew Barrymore). I think my same criticism of Taking Woodstock may hold up here too: would the film have actually been more interesting if it had been primarily about one of its supporting characters? (say Kristen Wiig as the single-mother derby girl or Juliette Lewis as the not-quite-so-cruel-as-she-pretends-to-be aging derby legend Iron Maven?). Sure, Ellen Page is cute and all, but we've seen the novice-rising-to-the-top formula a few too many times. But who am I to complain about sexy chicks smashing each other up on ice? (and I don't believe either of you pointed out the homage to Paul Newman's Slap Shot: that film's Hansen brothers have morphed here into the Manson sisters! Funny shit!).


Oh, I was prepared to be scared silly by Paranormal Activity, the gimmick now playing at a theater near you (because America "demanded" it!). And I suppose it does get a fair amount of mileage out of its "found footage" premise (let's set up a camera near the bed and catch some invisible demon mischief!). At the very least, the film understands something that most horror films seem to have long ago forgotten, which is that waiting to be scared is often far more frightening than the scares themselves. In your average slasher remake, we may not know when the scares will come, but we know what they'll involve (a killer will jump out...or sometimes a cat! oh, the fake scare is always popular). But Paranormal Activity benefits from the fact that we never know what kind of scare is coming (doors closing, knocking on walls, TV's turning of and off). And the slow burn of much of the film does build up to, for my money, two major scares at the end. But when it's over, boy, is it over. There's nothing there to think about at all and no lesson to be learned except that, if you are dating a girl who's perpetually haunted by demons, drop that bitch before it's too late!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Nog Joins the Wild Rumpus!

You can tell that Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are is a labor of love, a bid to make a lasting work of art that reflects the childhood mind. And it may completely work for some. For me, only some of it works. I love the opening sequences (even with their kinetic hand-held camerawork, which can sometimes grow quickly annoying): they seem to perfectly capture the ever-shifting moods of childhood, how one can go from pure elation to inconsolable sadness in a split second. Young Max Records is excellent as Max: you can feel real loneliness and anger there. However, when the film shifts to the island of the wild things, I found myself only sporadically engaged. The soundtrack by Karen O (and the Kids!) works very well for scenes of Max and his new giant muppet friends rumpusing about the land, but I'm less sure about Eggers' screenplay, which threatens to push a little hard at some points in showing us how the various problems of this world parallel those of Max's "real" life. And the muppets...I suppose they look pretty fantastic and probably adhere fairly closely to Sendak's original drawings (Dr. X would know, if he'd read!), but I'm not entirely convinced these are the kinds of fuzzy creatures a boy like this particular Max would conjure up (given his propensity for tall tales involving vampires who lose their teeth). But when one's attention starts to flag, Jonze delivers us back into Max's life at home with a lovely wordless coda where his mother (Catherine Keener) greets him by pushing back the head of his wolf suit, suggesting (I guess?) a new (more human?) connection between the two of them that is both touching and sad, since it also suggests that the world of imagination will probably soon dwindle as Max must begin to take on a more adult worldview. Very much worth seeing, sure, but I wish I had left more convinced that I'd seen a new classic.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nog Takes on Capitalism: A Love Story

Michael Moore's new film begins with surveillance footage of various robberies which serve as a metaphor for his view of capitalism: it has swindled many Americans quite literally out of their money and also tricked us into believing that capitalism is compatible with democracy (and with Christianity, as we see in a section where numerous Catholic officials are quite willing to term it "evil"). The film is broad in scope, taking us through the collapse of industry and labor unions during the Reagan era but zeroing in, quite naturally, on the recent collapse of the banking industry and the government bailout. Viewers know what to expect from a Moore film, and it's all firmly in place here. The incorporation of corny stock film footage to parallel recent events still works pretty well, as do the touching human stories that emerge of people crushed by the system. Moore's various pranks, however, feel increasingly strained. Like Sascha Baron Cohen, he suffers from the problem that his best targets all know to avoid him. In fact, the jokes now depend on the fact that he will predictably be barred entrance from the CEO's he wants to tangle with. Luckily, he seems to increasingly devote less time to these stunts in recent films, keeping much of the focus deadly serious. As with much of Moore's work, we circle back to the problem that corporate influence leads the government to abandon the best inteests of the people, keeping a small few very wealthy and the rest at the mercy of the system (in perhaps the most sickening examples, we see corporations using something they term "dead peasant" insurance policies to profit off the untimely deaths of their workers). Moore posits an alternative to capitalism, as he must, in the form of employee-owned businesses with equal shares that do not center around capitalism's "profit motive," but the film itself admits that even many of the people who have been hopelessly fucked by the system still cling to the notion that one day they'll eventually move up (which requires keeping capitalism firmly in place). In the film's final half hour, Moore finds the film's true heroes in the recent group of Chicago workers who commandeered their factory after being let go, determined to hold out until they received what was owed them. They succeeded, and Moore's film, perhaps more optimistic than much of his other work, ends with the call for what is essentially a "worker's revolt." But I'm not entirely convinced that he believes this can really happen. And what kind of movies would he make if it did?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Nog Visits Zombieland and Has Some Praise for Gervais!

Zombieland is thoroughly enjoyable. If I had to quibble, I suppose Jesse Eisenberg's voice-over is occasionally too quirky for its own good (along with the pop-up messages on-screen reminding us of his various "rules" for surviving in the new world of "zombieland."). And young Abigail Breslin (it's Little Miss Sunshine her own self!) isn't given much to do (though she looks to be having a great time in the midst of the gleeful violence and vulgarity). But why quibble at all with something this fun. Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson have a nice camaraderie together and the "secret" 10-minute appearance by a famous star is absolutely inspired and wonderfully morbid. It will need a place on your shelf right alongside Shaun of the Dead. Watch it often.


The Invention of Lying proves, moreso than Ghost Town, that the edgy comedy of Ricky Gervais can exist (more or less) comfortably within the confines of what is essentially a romantic comedy. In this tale of an alternate world whose citizens haven't yet developed the capacity for manufacturing fiction (until Gervais's Mark comes along), Gervais manages, throughout a lengthy middle section of the film, to tread into some surprisingly risky religious commentary (suggesting, like the famous routines of George Carlin, that the 'man in the sky' is a pretty remarkable "whopper" that people are willing to accept). In the film's funniest scene (which reaches a near Python-esque level of absurdity), Gervais, with a set of pizza box "tablets," hands down a new set of truths to a populace who has just discovered this "man in the sky" and demands answers, which of course only bewilder them further ("Did He save me from the crash?" "Yes." "Did He cause me to crash?" "Yes."). As some critics have pointed out, there's an impressive subversiveness in asking your audience to play along with a belief that runs counter to what most audience members would profess. And although the film eventually becomes more interested in its central romance than in its big ideas, which is disappointing, there's still more than enough to make this worthwhile, from the incessant barrage of cruel jokes Gervais seems to delight in leveling against himself and his persona to some wonderful sight gags regarding such ideas as how advertising functions in a world that can only tell the truth: "Pepsi: When There's No Coke." Recommended!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Nog Revisits The Bad Lieutenant!

So, due to the pure lunacy of the trailer I've watched a half dozen times or so, I'm very excited about Herzog and Cage's "re-imagining" of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. To borrow a word from Ain't It Cool News, it better be "batshit" crazy.

But can it really top the original? I mean, let's think about this. Within the first half hour of that film we've seen Harvey Keitel (a) snort cocaine in his kids' school's parking lot, (b) do some sort of drugged-out full-frontal naked penguin walk, (c) shoot his car radio because of the baseball score, and (d) sexually harass two underage girls at a traffic stop by making one show him her ass while the other pantomimes a blowjob. Top that, Herzog and Cage, I dare you!

Checking out Ferrara's film again after a long, long while, I was pleased to feel that it remains a real film, not just a collection of provocations, with a masterful performance by Keitel. In fact, what happens in the film is far more interesting than my memory of the film. While I was thinking that the film played out as more of a revenge picture (depraved cop finds salvation in avenging the murder of a raped nun), it's actually a more complex inquiry into faith, the story of a man who is forced to recognize some divine order more powerful than his human need for revenge.

Herzog, of course, is a serious filmmaker, so it will be interesting to see what in hell he's up to with this new re-imagining which, at the very least, should provide Cage a more suitable vehicle for his gonzo acting. But somehow I don't feel it's going to have the power of Ferrara's flick.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Nog Gazes Upon Jennifer's Body!

Diablo Cody's screenplay elevates Jennifer's Body above your run-of-the-mill multiplex horror flick, but not by as much as it should. For every witty line there are two others that fall flat (and her satire of indie-bands is weaker than my hipster satire, and I improvise mine on the spot!). Megan Fox proves herself capable of doing more than just getting her leg humped by tiny Transformer robots: she can deliver a fast-paced Cody-zinger well enough and in fact deals with the lines better than Amanda Seyfried, who is no doubt a better actress but gets stuck with a grating voice-over.

The film isn't scary and doesn't try very hard to be, nor does it dig very far beneath the surface to find anything particularly new or interesting to say about teenage female sexuality ("Hell is a teenage girl"--the tagline reads, which is about as deep as it gets, though one can't help but imagine the kind of body-horror film someone like Cronenberg could dig out of the material). So we're left with a few witty lines and Megan Fox making out with Amanda Seyfried, but there are far worse ways to spend an afternoon than that.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Nog Informs You About the Informant! (whose exclamation point is part of its title)

One would imagine that a corporate whistle-blower film starring Matt Damon marks a complete return to the mainstream for Soderbergh after his four-hour Che (which I didn't see) and his escort-service film The Girlfriend Experience (which I did). But it's a surprisingly odd little picture that I expect will alienate half the audience who show up expecting a more conventional thriller.

Soderbergh seems less concerned with making the standard corporate intrigue picture than he is interested in the inner-workings of the mind of a man (Damon) who realizes that his penchant for lying is perfectly suited within the corruption of his company and has himself a ball manipulating his fellow workers and a group of FBI agents while lining his own pockets. Damon is very good here, bulking up and talking fast after his largely silent presence in the Bourne flicks (the interior monologues are very amusing...he seems to imagine himself as a character in a Grisham-y/Crichton-y kind of novel, and Marvin Hamlisch's silly, spritely score is a perfect complement to his mindset while still seemingly oddly unsuited to the actual movie that we are witnessing).

The film itself ultimately seems slight to me, not compelling or tense enough to work as a corporate thriller, not funny enough to play as farce, not deep enough for any kind of powerful condemnation of big business. But Damon is reason enough for a look and kudos to him and Soderbergh for continuing to pick interesting projects.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Nog Sees 9 and Finds Himself Bored / Nog Gets Edgy with Mr. Goldthwait

Shane Acker's 9 looks great, but once you've got a feel for it's post-apocalyptic landscape, it doesn't have much else to offer you besides a bombardment of action sequences the likes of which wouldn't feel out of place in your more run-of-the-mill summer fare. Tim Burton is listed as an exec-producer here, but there's none of the sense of play one finds in Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride (plus, the CGI is far less amusing than the stop-motion animation of those films). I suppose too much lightness would be out of place here, and there's something sort of admirable about its bleakness, its studious avoidance of whimsy, but there's ultimately nothing to connect to and the film finally dissolves into a strange and overly optimistic ending despite itself. I found the experience mononotous after twenty minutes and spent the time looking forward to the long-delayed The Road next month, providing us all a dose of pure despair that will at least likely be far more compelling to watch.


Following up his alcoholic clown film and his film about the woman who gave a dog a blowjob, Bobcat Goldthwait delivers a film called World's Greatest Dad starring Robin Williams. And if that title and star conjures a vision of some unwatchable treacly mess of a family-film, you can take comfort in the fact that it's, in actuality, about a failed poet who exploits his son's accidental death by auto-erotic asphyxiation to further his own career.

Williams' son is a despicable person, a perverted bully hated by everyone (and at least strongly disliked, if not hated, by his own father). So when he turns up dead, Williams' disguises it as a standard suicide, fakes some deep and introspective diary entries, and ends up turning his son into a misunderstood hero among the school. On the heels of Michael Jackson's death, the film plays as an interesting take on the culture's need to mythologize the dead, smoothing over unpleasant and obvious truths and allowing us to feel better about ourselves in the process. Edgy stuff, but its shifting tones and too-nice ending keep it from being as strong as it could have been. Plus, we all know that Heathers is (and is likely to remain) the gold-standard of teenage suicide films (can anything top that film's deathbed prayers for each character: "Why'd you havta kill such hot snatch?" "I loved my dead gay son."--now that's dark humor at its finest, friends!).

Monday, September 7, 2009

Nog Extracts a Few Laughs From Mike Judge's New Flick

Mike Judge's films seem destined to fail at the box-office and develop loyal followings later on. There's Office Space, of course, but also Idiocracy, which barely got released in theaters but whose reputation is already seeming to grow (less deservedly, but the names of its reality-shows are hysterical: Ow, My Balls!). And now there's Extract, which tanked badly on this holiday weekend (there were three people when I saw it, including me), but should make for some very entertaining DVD viewing later on.

Certainly it's not a great film, and there's no particular reason for most people to see it in the theater, but the fact that people are opting for a unanimously reviled Sandra Bullock comedy over this is sad (if not surprising, I guess). Extract has a strange rhythm and some nice character work. The problem, as with Office Space, is that there's also a cluttered, not-at-all compelling plot that gets in the way of these characters. Still, there's plenty to enjoy among the actors. Jason Bateman (in a likeable Michael Bluth from Arrested Development-mode) is good as a man who seems to have scored a good job and a nice house in the suburbs only to find that the job is unfulfilling, the wife no longer wants to sleep with him, and the neighbor wants to have interminable driveway conversations. So he takes to hanging out with his old friend and bartender (a very funny, bearded Ben Affleck) who wants to shake him out of his doldrums. Mix in the ever-reliable JK Simmons as a plant supervisor who can't remember anyone's name and David Koechner,especially, as the obnoxious neighbor, and you've got yourself a few laughs on a dull afternoon.

Also, Mila Kunis is just outrageously hot.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Nog Goes To Woodstock! (read after viewing)

Most of the criticisms you've heard of Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock are pretty apt. Yes, it feels very slight. Yes, the main character is less interesting than most of the supporting characters. Yes, it's just a little odd to make a film about Woodstock without a single shot of the performers on stage. Even so, I'd give it a marginal recommendation. It's ultimately so generally sweet and likeable that it's hard to hold much of a grudge against its many failings.

Lee is interested in the organization of the festival, the story of Elliot (Demetri Martin), a young Jewish man helping his parents run a fast-fading New York "resort," who takes advantage of a neighboring town's intitial cancellation of the festival and joins forces with local farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy, unusually subdued) to unexpectedly bring 500,000 hippies out for three days of peace, love, and music. Elliot is a more-or-less closeted homosexual, and Lee wants to find in his coming-out story a parallel with the sexual liberation of the era (what's happening on stage is far less important, the film suggests, than what is happening in the audience, although of course the music does play a big role in the era's liberation, which doesn't get adequately addressed here). Elliot's story never feels particularly alive to me, and the film works best in funny and touching individual scenes. I particularly like the recurring bits with the Earthlight Players, a theatrical troupe Elliot houses in his barn, and a scene near the end where Emile Hirsch, as a mentally-addled Vietnam vet, experiences a remarkable moment of clarity at the festival, getting back in touch with the childhood that the war took away from him (somewhere Beth is saying: "But does he get naked?").

Woodstock plays less subtly than other collaborations between Lee and his constant screenwriter James Schamus, such as The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain. Perhaps that's appropriate to an era known for its politics and protests, but various speeches seem to oversell the idea that Woodstock was American culture's last gasp of innocence. Still, there are moments that play a bit more subtly in hinting at darker things to come. In a bit that plays almost as a winking aside to its contemporary viewing audience, Yasgur remarks on how the festival is becoming commodified even as it happens (locals are trying to sell bottled water for a dollar, he remarks, incredulous). And the film's final moment is nice too, with festival promoter Michael Lang vowing to do a "totally free" Stones concert in California. Here, Lee and Schamus trust their audience to understand the Altamount reference, and the final image leaves us with an ominous feeling as the camera lingers on the wreckage left in Yasgur's field after the crowds depart.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Nog Joins Forces With QT's "Basterds!"

Tarantino's long-awaited war flick may not much resemble the movie a lot of fans wanted (it's certainly not the rip-roaring Great Escape-style picture QT often seemed to imply it would be). Instead, it's an outrageous, typically QT-stylized, wildly talky, revenge picture that boils down to two Jewish plots to wipe out the upper-tier of the Nazi party (including Hitler himself). Those who like to take Tarantino to task usually cite such faults as: (1) all style, no substance; (2) doesn't really care about his characters; (3) overly self-indulgent. They won't have trouble making any of those cases here, but why bother? QT does what QT does, and many of us can still dig it. Even if the film is less perfect than much of the rest of the QT canon (and I'm not quite willing to rank it yet, myself), there's still a crazy amount to enjoy here, such as:

--Brad Pitt chewing the scenery as the "Apache" Aldo Raine, the "di-rect descendant of mountain man Jim Bridger," a Tennessee moonshiner with an unexplained scar on his neck that seems to be from a hangman's noose

--Eli Roth, as the "Bear Jew," taking batting practice on a Nazi soldier's head

--everything Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa says (especially the long opening conversation). Surely this will get an Oscar nod?

--the Revenge of the Giant Face!

--Samuel Jackson's voiceover explaining the extreme combustiblity of film stock

--the wildly corny? pretentious? final line by Pitt

See it at once!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Nog's Lazy Capsule Reviews of District 9, Julie and Julia, and GI Joe!

I wanted to love District 9 as much as the raving fanboys over at AICN but, as a whole, it didn't fully thrill me somehow. I like most of the faux-documentary stuff early on, which sets up a lot of ideas that resonate on a lot of different levels, but once the second half turns into a more straightforward action picture those ideas dissolve a little and what matters more is exploding heads and ass-kicking "prawn" creatures which, admittedly, look amazing for a mere $30 million bucks (I'll take the look of this film any day over Transformers 2 or Terminator 4 or GI Joe). And there's definitely some strong, disturbing political commentary here early on that separates D-9 from the summer's other boneheaded action pictures and makes it well worth a look. I particularly like the scene where our hero, exploited by the "establishment," must slaughter an innocent "prawn." Let's hope Blomkamp keeps his budgets small and doesn't end up helming a future mindless summer franchise based on toys. But that's probably too much to hope for.


Of course, the reason to see Julie and Julia is Streep's performance as Julia Child, and that's plenty reason enough. For me, there was a point about a half hour in when I ceased marvelling at her amazing impersonation and just accepted her fully as Child. Go ahead and hand her the Oscar. Too bad the rest of the movie, involving a contemporary Amy Adams as a new blogger cooking her way through Julia's famous cookbook, is far less compelling (and, from what I've read, Epron-ized into a more palatable romantic-comedy framework than the book it's based on). I suppose the two stories are cleverly integrated, to some extent, but the parallels between the two women don't resonate much. Perhaps a better dual storyline would have been one where we watch one of the "servantless housewives" of the 60's and 70's that Child was writing for finding herself "liberated" by the cookbook. Or, better yet, just a film that followed Child's full career, not just the period up to her first publication. But that would have been too "traditional" for today's Hollywood.


GI Joe has one great chase through the streets of Paris that culminates in the Eiffel Tower getting eaten up by nano-somethings. You've seen it already in clips. Knowing to skip this shit is half the battle. But I always lose.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Nog Falls In Love With Zooey (And Likes Her Film Reasonably Well)

There's a moment relatively early in 500 Days of Summer where Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom Hanson, beginning a relationship with Zooey Deschanael's Summer Finn, rhapsodizes over various things he loves about her (her crooked smile, her knobby knees, how she always makes him think of the same dumb song). There's a moment later on, post break-up, where we hear this same monologue again, only this time as a venomous rant about all the things he hates about her. It's a sharp moment which gets at what the film is about: the way memory shapes and alters "reality." The film, as one can probably tell from the trailers, is a break-up story told out of chronological order, which allows the viewer to reconstruct the relationship and its fallout along with Tom. Although the film has an odd, often annoying, omniscient narration which pops up at times, the point-of-view is certainly Tom's. As some critics have said, this is essentially a romance for sensitive indie-guys, with Zooey perfectly cast, since the real Zooey, perhaps largely due to her recent musical stint as the "She" to M. Ward's "Him," has sort of become the indie "It" girl of the moment. Summer remains, appropriately, somewhat cryptic, with the film suggesting that perhaps much of her allure is due as much to what Tom projects onto her as much as any qualities she inherently possesses. As the narrator tells us, Tom's romantic sensibility has been forever shaped due to his "complete misreading" of The Graduate's final images: he projects forward to a happy ending, ignoring the bewilderment on the faces of Benjamin and Elaine as that film closes. And on some level his involvement with Summer serves to harden him, since she seeks to deny any notions of "true love" and "destiny." Yet it's Tom's romantic sensibility that finally gets the upper-hand here, leaving us with a magical meeting that's completely corny but totally appropriate.

The movie is enjoyable but certainly flawed, often too cute, and the supporting cast doesn't work very well. But Levitt, I think, is the real deal. Watch him in The Lookout, Brick, Mysterious Skin, and his powerful turn as Cobra Commander in GI Joe and judge for yourself. Okay, that last one's a joke. But the kid's a serious actor. And Zooey...Zooey is very adorable. Now I'm going to play my She and Him record.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Nog Defends Funny People Against the Apatow-Haters!

You'll notice that the trailers for Funny People have been careful to remind you that this is the "third film from Judd Apatow," which is meant to make you realize that he is actually solely responsible for only two very funny, very consistent comedies (40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) and can't necessarily be blamed for all the other products he's lent his name and a few jokes to, leading many people to rebel against him and his repertory company (understandable, I guess, although I insist that most of the inferior Apatow-brand is still better than the average studio comedy). Apatow is a sharp writer, and I'm certain he could crank out a few more Virgins with relative ease, but his third film is a bid for something more, a transition work to show that he can write a well-observed character piece that trades in real emotion and never turns to elaborate set pieces for a laugh (no chest waxing scenes or graphic births). For the fans, he proved that from the start (Freaks and Geeks, folks!), but for his first big-screen "dramedy" the (often too apparent) influence seems to be the James L. Brooks of Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News. This film isn't in that league, but a surprising amount of it works.

The first image of the film is of a young Sandler making prank phone calls, and the footage is reportedly actual video shot by a young Apatow when the two roomed together in their early years (the autobiographical element of the film is interesting, with Sandler playing a very Sandler-esque character which seems to also be a version of young Apatow...not to mention the--usual--casting of Apatow's own wife and children and, this time, parents!). We then cut to the present, with Sandler playing George Simmons, a former stand-up comic who has squandered his talent in brainless mainstream comedies that consist mostly of making funny voices (such as Re-Do, where Sandler's adult face appears on the body of a baby). After receiving a seeming death sentence of leukemia, Simmons returns to his stand-up roots which results in a bizarre routine of self-loathing and audience baiting and leads him to hire an up-and-coming comic, Ira (Seth Rogen) as a new jokewriter and personal assistant. Ira sees Simmons as a useful leg-up in the business. In fact, everyone in the film is using each other (the most traditional Apatowian moments occur in the banter between Ira and his fellow comics and roommates, played by Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman, the latter especially funny as the new star of an absolutely insipid sitcom called "Yo, Teach" who is prone to stealing girls from his friends by giving them ten days to seal the deal: "Don't back me into a corner and make me fuck my way out.").

As the trailers reveal, the film is less about Simmons' battle with leukemia and more about the idea of what one does when granted a new lease on life. That sounds sappy (and Apatow in interviews unhelpfully describes the film as one about "second chances"), but the film is actually up to something darker. The rejuvenated Sandler seeks a reconcilation with his ex-wife but soon reverts to being the same old dick he was before. The film goes pretty badly astray in this long section near the end, including a "chase the girl to the airport" scene which I think is meant to cleverly tweak that stale convention but plays more like a concession to the mainstream). But the final implications and scenes recover to say something interesting about Simmons and comedy in general. Putting aside his usual selfishness, if only for a moment, Simmons reaches out to help improve Ira's comedy, telling him that his work can only succeed if it's a reflection of his real self and not just what he thinks the audience wants to hear, something that Simmons (and perhaps Sandler himself for most of his career?) has never managed to achieve. Apatow is striving to achieve it himself here. His "third film" is not his "best," but it's probably the most honest.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nog and The Hurt Locker (Minor Spoilers)

I saw Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker with a nearly full house and I'm not sure anybody left their seat for it's slightly-over two hour runtime. This is a tense and immersive experience on the big-screen, the story of a three-man bomb squad in Baghdad led by Will James, a charismatic "wild man" who never seems to fail but whose reckless tactics seem to logically pose a threat to the lives of his crew (who, at one point, seem to seriously consider "accidentally" blowing James up to save their own skins). I've been a fan of Bigelow since her great vampire flick Near Dark, and she continues to reveal a mastery of action scenes that virtually every Hollywood director could learn a lot from (if they weren't too interested in hyperactive editing and explosions existing simply for the sake of seeing shit blow up). Unlike the numerous other recent Iraq films (which audiences have avoided in droves), Locker doesn't possess an obviously left-leaning political sensibility. As an opening quote reveals, Bigelow is interested in the kind of personality, like that of its central figure, which finds war an addiction. As we learn in an unexpected stateside coda near the end, war doesn't necessarily leave everyone emotionally shattered. It just leaves some people hungry for more. Watch especially for the long, wordless shot in a supermarket cereal aisle, which tells you something that a lesser film would tell you with five minutes of didactic dialogue. If the Academy doesn't find a place for this in their newly-expanded 10 Best Picture slots, there's practically no point in having the ceremony.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Nog and the Half-Blood Prince!

I really don't have anything insightful to say about Potter, but that won't stop me from talking about it!

I read the first book, liked it well enough, didn't read anymore. But, as a movie buff, I see all the films. They strike me as fine, if sort of workmanlike, excepting Cuaron's third one, which, as every critic likes to point out, quite obviously benefits from having someone behind the camera to bring something truly "magical" to the imagery. The others are almost interchangeable to me (if you showed me the second one and the fourth one, let's say, I might not be able to tell the difference except that the kids look older!).

Still, as a whole, the series is much better than it could have been. Even if the films were awful, they'd still make a fair amount of money. But they're not at all awful and, in fact, reveal a fair amount The casting of the three child leads, of course, was a huge gamble, and they've all settled into their characters quite comfortably by this point. It's easy enough to think of them as their characters, as opposed to actors, a problem which I'm sure will plague them forever (did people go see Equus on Broadway to revisit a great play or did they go to see Harry Potter get nekkid?). And the new film strikes me as consistently better than the last couple, perhaps because things are getting inevitably darker. More is at stake (and Dumbledore is dead!). Is this The Empire Strikes Back of the series? At any rate, Half-Blood Prince is a pretty enjoyable summer blockbuster, and we haven't had too many of them this year.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Nog and Woody and Larry David (with spoilers)

The combination of Woody Allen and Larry David seems inspired, at first glance, the legendary "neurotic urban Jew" handing over the reins to perhaps the current master of that domain, Mr. David. But the result, Whatever Works, is middling at best. Apparently it's a project that Woody wrote long ago, for Zero Mostel, and rejiggered recently for David (plugging in an Obama reference and some gay marriage gags). And it definitely feels like a throwback, which I suppose is not a major problem if it's funny, if it recalls the inspired silliness of the older, "funnier" Allen films. But it rarely inspires more than a few laughs (occasionally, David does absolutely nail one of Allen's patented one-liners).

David plays Boris, a more misanthropic version of the usual Allen character, a former near-Nobel Prize winner in physics who now bides his time hanging out with the local cranks and railing about how he's the only intelligent person in a random universe full of "inchworms" (his term for anyone less intelligent than himself, which is pretty much everyone, he believes). As near as I can tell, from what I know of Allen, Boris pretty much embodies the Woodman's own personal philosophy (everything is ultimately meaningless, so you might as well do "whatever works"). The film (largely sweet beneath Boris' angry exterior) charts his unexpected love with a very young Southern runaway (Evan Rachel Wood, good as always), whose optimistic worldview impacts his (and vice versa). Unlike an average romantic comedy, the unlikely couple does not, however, prove right for each other, although everyone does end up preposterously happy in other equally implausible scenarios (to enforce the view of "randomness" over "destiny"). The goofy happy ending is fine in itself, consistent with its philosophical underpinning, but pairing Boris up with a nice woman at the end still feels a little wrong, since Boris is most happy alone, shaking his fist at everyone and everything. But perhaps we're supposed to project ahead, to the moment when Boris will no doubt do what he's done with his previous relationships: throw himself out the nearest window in an effort to escape the world that infuriates him so much.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nog On Moon!

Duncan Jones' Moon has received a fair amount of praise as a (rare) serious science-fiction film, and I went in hoping for a visually stunning mindfuck (given the fact that all reviews reference 2001 and the thing is directed, after all, by David Bowie's son!). And it's a pretty good film, all things considered, with a nice look for its low-budget, a creepy and claustrophobic vibe, and a strong performance(s) by the almost always interesting Sam Rockwell. But it proved to be a little plot-heavy for my taste, struggling to explain away its weirdness instead of just relaxing and reveling in it.

With its eerie computer voice (the soothing sounds of Mr. Kevin Spacey), I suppose 2001 is the obvious touchstone for Moon ("Open the pod bay door, HAL!"). And there's a little Blade Runner and Solaris tossed in for good measure (although I have to admit not having seen the Tarkoskvy original, only Soderbergh's remake). Moon never feels totally original in the way that it should, but at the same time it accomplishes certain things very well, primarily in capturing a really stifling and spooky combination of the loneliness and timelessness of space, which would almost certainly unravel many of us, much less a sole guy on a three year contract in a lunar mining outpost.

Worth a look!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Nog and Bruno (Read After Viewing)

My favorite moment in Bruno is probably a conversation our Austrian hero has with a preacher who wants to help convert him from gay to straight. The preacher, in attempting to explain the joys of women, ends up rambling on for a long while about his own distaste with virtually everything associated with women. It's one of the film's few subtle moments, but a fine example of what Sascha Baron Cohen's satire, at its best, accomplishes in getting people to unwittingly reveal the truths they normally choose to hide or avoid. But Bruno, on the whole, doesn't traffic in subtlety, nor do we want him to to. Cohen's new film is maybe a little more scattershot than Borat. Not everything works, and the line between "real" and "staged" seems increasingly blurred in a way that casts doubt on some of the film's more "shocking" moments. And while some of the major set pieces are howlingly outrageous (a swinger's party, a redneck camping trip, an Arkansas "cage match"), others seem to require an awful lot of set-up for very little pay-off (basic training, an interview with a supposed terrorist). Cohen seems to have two overall goals with the picture. The first, as everyone can tell from the trailer, is simply to expose what he (no doubt rightly) perceives as the consistent, underlying homophobia of America. Some of this works pretty well, as in Bruno's baiting of former Presidential candidate Ron Paul, which leads to Paul repeatedly calling him a "queer." But other scenes, while funnier, rely on the baiting of easy targets (is anyone really surprised that the redneck camping buddies are outraged when he shows up naked at their tent?). The second goal, a satire of celebrity culture, is also only partly successful. One problem, of course, is that most major celebrities know Bruno...and know to avoid him! So he's left to expose something that reality television teaches us on a daily basis: that people will do anything to get famous (although I do love the scene where a group of mothers willingly agree to let their babies be dressed as Nazis and hung on crucifixes...but is it "real?").

At any rate, the verdict is: you'll laugh!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Nog Takes on Public Enemies!

Sure, it's a little disappointing that Michal Mann's spin on the Dillinger story didn't produce an instant gangster classic, but if you can get beyond the fact that this isn't a Godfather (or a Goodfellas, or a Miller's Crossing, or even a Heat), there's plenty to enjoy here.

Mann, apparently, has decided to shoot only in digital these days, which I find somewhat annoying but does produce a distinctive look (a sort of hyper-real clarity to long shots and nighttime shots, combined with up-close kinetic camera movements in the action scenes, most of which are pretty fluid and easy to follow, unlike the incomprehensible editing of something like Transformers II). Probably Mann thinks it gives the film an amazing docu-drama feel, and sometimes it does. At other times, things just look...sort of weird.

Many critics are faulting the fact that we're kept at an emotional distance from the characters, and this is true, though almost certainly intentional. Mann isn't interested in Dillinger's back story and neither is his Dillinger (generally well-played by's nice to see him in something besides a shitty Pirates film for a change). In a speech that sort of oddly resembles Kevin Costner's famous manifesto in Bull Durham, Dillinger dismisses his past ("My daddy beat me because he didn't know how to raise me better") and insists he lives completely in the moment ("I like baseball, movies, whiskey, fast cars, and you"). [yeah, these are paraphrased...I'm lazy and have no readers].

But despite the emotional disconnect, there are interesting ideas here. As the plural title suggests, Mann is interested not just in Dillinger, but in the way that the era's law enforcement system was transforming into something just as corrupt as the criminals they are chasing (Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover is underused but highly entertaining). And Mann and Depp's take on Dillinger finds a little substance under the surface flash: he's a man fascinated by his own ability to hide in plain sight, to live a criminal life in the public eye. Yet Mann never offers much insight into what the public thinks of Dillinger (perhaps wanting to avoid the sort of Bonnie and Clyde-ish emphasis on the folk-hero aspect of the era's bank robbers).

A mixed-bag, no doubt, but obviously deserving a look from any serious filmgoer.

Now, bring on Bruno!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Nog Sees Away We Go!

After the domestic warfare of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, I suppose it's kind of nice to see Mendes make a film about a healthy, loving couple (although I'm not sure this is exactly what I want or expect from Mendes). Burt and Verona, played by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, are smart, socially aware, in love, on the verge of having a baby, and suddenly wondering if they're irresponsible "fuck-ups" (as they put it, in a memorable conversation). Having nothing in particular to tie them down (she's an artist, he sells insurance over the phone, forcing him to be fake in a way that she finds infuriating), they embark on a road trip to visit various friends and family members and figure out the best place to settle and raise a family. Like all road movies, Away We Go is episodic, but each of the couple's stops is interesting and all the supporting characters are memorable and well-acted (if deliberately over-the-top). Some critics feel the film is too condescending toward the various "types" encountered along the way, who seem to represent varying attitudes toward raising children (such as the uninentionally smothering earth mother played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and the outrageously neglectful and likely alcoholic Allison Janney). And I suppose it is, although I don't see that as a problem (obviously, we're meant to champion the reasoned approach taken by Burt and Verona, who seem like they'll make excellent parents). The film is written by the authors Dave Eggers and his wife Vendela Vida, and some will find it equal parts smug and sentimental, but it's generally sharp and often very funny. Mendes is working in a new style here that lacks the meticulous composition of everything else he's done. It's suited to the material , and he still finds room for a striking visual here and there, although personally I miss the Mendes of Beauty and Revolutionary Road. But the central performances are the most impressive thing here. Krasinski and Rudolph are TV veterans, but they don't feel (as I feared) like they've been plucked out of some sitcom world and set loose on the big-screen (as so often happens). Although Krasinski, especially, is playing the same kind of ultra-likable guy as his Office character, Burt feels very real. I know guys like this. And Rudolph is even better. I'm not a particular fan of her SNL work but this is a real performance with a couple of powerful speeches, nicely delivered, near the end. And if I had not been seated in a "Fork and Screen" near a man more interested in discussing the price of his quesadillas with the waiter, I might have been quite moved by them!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nog Sees Bay's Giant Fighting (Racist?) Robots!

A sloppy and incoherent film deserves a similar response. For our reader(s), we present a transcript of myself and Dr.X discussing the film on Facebook, followed by three quotes from other critics! Enjoy!

Dr. X sez:

Critics be damned! T:ROTF ain't bad. It's not HAMLET, but it is by no means an abomination. Bay might learn how to use music a bit better, but, it's good dumb fun. I WILL see it again.

Nog at 3:27pm June 24

You're a glutton for punishment, brother. I'll stick with the critics and call it incoherent and offensive (the amount of cash behind it, moreso than the racism). But I'm certainly glad I viewed it once just to marvel that it exists.

Dr. X at 4:49pm June 24
Dude, the visuals on that thing were sick! Admittedly, not I understand what that Green Day comment was all about, but, really, who cares about any of that. I could have slept through the human parts (and hopefully they will excise them in #3!).

Also, I think it probably works better in Non-IMAX -- the size/ aspect ratio is part of what, I think, makes everyone have trouble discerning robot from robot. I know, from where I was sitting, the thing was beautiful!

And, honestly, besides the fact that they had kenny doing the voices -- were the dumbass Twins any more or less racist than things we see in all mediums? I'd go with shoddy caricatures and/ or Jar-Jaring... but, not racist. Stupid, almost racist, but not racist.

Plotwise, well, Ehren wrote it terribly and got top line on it, but it actually followed the cartoon/ comic perfectly. It was like any and every episode! So, to even a person who has seen one episode -- it makes sense. And, really, who else is seeing this?

Dr. X at 4:52pm June 24

But, yeah -- I mean, honestly -- is it a GOOD movie... in the sense of being critical about a filmic narrative and all apparatuses involved? Not so much. If this were vegas -- I'd give it a push. If this were At the Movies, the side hand.

But, is this a summer event flick that pushed jingoistic notions of AMERICA to the level of ridiculousness that only comes with the words "A MIchael Bay Film" at the front? Oh yah, man! And I loves it! And I would have him cut all that jingoistic military love -- but it's how he gets all his access.

--Even Bay's gotta pay the bills!

Nog at 5:11pm June 24

Yeah, I ended up seeing it local, non-IMAX, and much of it looks good, I'll give it that (although personally I felt some moments even within the big battles looked shoddy...I saw some ruins topple that looked like a shot out of Cecil be Demille!). And I still can't tell what's happening when the transformations occur or the robots clash!

I suspect there are a fair amount of people like me who enjoy a summer spectacle but don't know a damn thing about Transformers and wouldn't mind a marginally coherent story to go along with their shenanigans (although some parts I admittedly zoned out on...I don't even know how the parents suddenly arrived in the middle of the final battle!). At the same time, I do enjoy Turturro shouting about how no one will destroy the sun on his watch!

And I think a valid argument of racism could be made. But I prefer to slam it for other reasons!

Dr. X at 5:38pm June 24

I can see in the outward visualizing of the twins elements where people could say: Damn, that's almost minstrelsy -- but I offer this counter-argument: Bay did it with Jazz in the first movie, he did it with the Twins here... and, how is it any different than what Spike Lee does? Or Eddie Murphy with the PJs? Or The Boondocks? Or Dave Chappelle?

Answer -- he's white and they're black. And therein lies the double standard. The ownership BS doesn't hold for me. I mean -- if people wanna hate on the Twins (which is perfectly valid), they could hate them because they're stupid, obnoxious, don't actually DO anything... and essentially Jar Jar up the joint. Hell, Lucas didn't even take this much smack for Jar Jar!

And why does no one care that the THREE women-bots got less screen time than the dude from the office!? How does 'women-bots' even work?... Read More

Oh, and the parents got kidnapped in France when Soundwave found them by cell!

Dr. X at 5:39pm June 24

I did not much follow that entire sequence of event, myself -- except to say that Bay still thinks that the French equal: snails, mimes, and words no one can pronounce.

--Somehow, I think Peter Sellers got it a bit better. (But Peter Cullen somehow brings sincerity to this whole mess through his voice acting!)

Nog at 5:45pm June 24

And why is Rainn Wilson in the film at all?!

But Spike and Chappelle and Boondocks work with negative stereotypes for a purpose! (while Eddie's fat black lady movies and Tyler Perry's stuff do veer into mistrelsy, I'd say). Surely Bay realizes (and doesn't care?) that most audiences are going to associate those robots with many of the most offensive African-American stereotypes? (not to mention a few China jokes, Jew jokes, Hispanic jokes...I just can't ascertain if it's pure racism, insensitivity, anger toward critics, etc). But it sure is fun to bitch about! (also, what a brilliant moment where we see a poster of Bad Boys II on the wall!).

Nog at 5:50pm June 24

Also, was it just me, or did everyone seem to read most of their lines extra fast, especially the unecessary roommate character (perhaps because Bay wanted to get back to the shootouts!).

Dr. X at 5:50pm June 24


Methinks you've drunk some of that St. Anna Kool-Ade *laughs*. And the PJ's were one ofthe worst ideas ever conceived (and I still watch that crap every Friday and Saturday night!). I'm trying to remember the comic that protested because someone wanted to put him in a dress saying it was the last bastion of acceptable race-baiting.

Bay is not a thinker. He is barely cognizant of any higher functions. ... Read More

Bay is a boom boom man -- he brings the things that go EXPLODEY! And here's the thing about Bay and his non-PC ways... he realizes that 95% percent of people watching this thing (you know, the ones not on the net) don't give a @#!+ or are sick of PC... so, he went as non PC as one could get! And, admittedly, were the twins any worse than what we see on BET? Or from 1991 - now in rap videos? Or on Cribs?

I'm just not convinced he's doing anything worse than anyone else who exploits bling culture!

--See, look at the intellectual debate T2 has spurred!

Dr. X at 5:54pm June 24

I think they actually probably read their lines as well as they could be read, but, between the 'scoring' (and I use that word liberally when all you do is play the same Linkin Park bit and Green Day's "21 Guns" over and over and OVER again) and the actual quality of the dialogue... they probably did as well as they could.

I mean -- if I am going to bemoan something: why is Megan Fox even present? He only quasi-exploited her (by Bay standards) in her opening scene. She brings nothing to the story and couldn't act her way out of her...white jeans? Do people still wear white jeans?

I get that she's candy... but, she wasn't even used properly as bling bling eye candy... she was just kinda there... 'Acting.' It made no sense. ... Read More

--At least make her dance or something if they're gonna exploit her!

Nog at 6:31pm June 24

Yeah, you're probably right about the PC thing (although it's more scary and amusing to think that Bay's a dangerous racist who's tricked Hollywood into giving him a huge mouthpiece for his ignorance).

If you take out Foxy, you'd lose a few audience members (namely, me).

And here are other three other thoughts from the critics:

Peter Travers: "I know there are still 17 months to go, but I'm thinking Transformers 2 has a shot at the title Worst Movie of the Decade."

Roger Ebert: "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine."

And my personal favorite is Quint from AICN: "...each one [action scene] felt like the choreography was based on a 10 year old holding up two Transformer toys and mashing them together over and over while making crash sounds with his mouth."

Monday, June 22, 2009

Nog Sees Year One and Declares It The Summer's Worst Comedy!

As unfunny as much of it is, I can't work up a lot of hatred toward Year One. It's just a tone-deaf ramshackle comedy in which Ramis and his writers seem to have followed this maxim: when in doubt over whether to go for a marginally incisive religious joke or to go for another dick, fart, or shit joke, always go for the latter. There's minor enjoyment in Michael Cera's performance as the world's most sensitive caveman (yes, he's a "gatherer"), but most of the laughs come more from his line delivery than anything particularly funny in the dialogue. David Cross as Cain gets a few laughs too, but it's a shame to take a comedian known for his absolutely corrosive religious commentary and put him in this toothless flick, which seems to have no particular interest in religious satire. Hank Azaria's brief appearance as Abraham provides a minor highlight with a running joke about his enthusiasm for circumcision ("It's a nice sleek look. I think it will really catch on."). Wait for late-night cable on this one, and watch it get trampled by Michael Bay's 43 fighting robots on Wednesday in a film which I predict will be much easier to hate.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Nog Takes The Taking of Pelham 123 to Task for Numerous Things

The original (1974) Taking of Pelham 123, with the great Walter Matthau and the badass Robert Shaw, is a crackerjack thriller (which seems to have inspired Reservoir Dogs' use of Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, etc). The Tony Scott remake, despite a few good qualities, is ultimately a cookie-cutter Hollywood product. The basic premise (hostages taken, one to be executed each minute if money is not delivered in one hour) is inherently suspenseful, but Scott does his damndest to ruin it with every unecessary trick in the book (let me obnoxiously freeze-frame the action every once in awhile during important scenes! let me spin my camera around in 360-degree angles while people are talking in case the audience is too dumb to follow the conversation!). Denzel Washington is very good, as usual, as a troubled subway controller (a "maestro," his coworkers call him) who's been demoted to a temporary desk-job and finds himself suddenly enmeshed in the complicated hostage situation, led by John Travolta (miscast and mostly given lines like "I'll fuck you in your fucking greaseball ass" this really the same Brian Helgeland who wrote L.A. Confidential?). When Scott relaxes and lets the tension build naturally, through the negotiations, the movie works well enough (to give the screenplay some credit, the film has been somewhat cleverly updated in light of post-9/11 New York and even, to some extent, the financial crisis). But the ultimate failure (the final underestimation of the audience) tranforms Denzel, in the last half hour, into a totally unbelieveable action hero that's no way in line with what we've been told about his character. The original film ends with a wonderfully subtle joke in which the villain accidentally gives his identity away; Scott's version ends with a chase and a shootout. I half expected some fighting robots to emerge near the end.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Nog Visits The Land of the Lost!

About an hour into Land of the Lost, Will Ferrell and Danny McBride have a somewhat lengthy argument about whether one Sleestack creature will "tap the ass" of another. It was at this point that a mother in the audience uttered a loud, indignant sigh and ushered her three children out of the theater.

Oddly enough, I'm almost on her side here. Oh, don't get me wrong, I personally laughed at that joke and most of the other raunchy material here. But the average mother looking for a silly dinosaur movie to entertain the kiddies on a summer afternoon probably doesn't expect it (I wouldn't want to explain to a six-year old what "tapping that ass" meant). So I guess what I'm getting at is that the film might have found an audience had it veered to one extreme or the other. A raunchy R-rated take on the material which played up the "druggie" element already inherent in the campy old Kroft projects might have attracted a nice little cult following. A family-friendly (Elf-like) take on the material might have pleased the moms and the kiddies. But instead, the film, with its PG-13, tries to have it both ways, no doubt because it's the PG-13's that normally rake in the big bucks. And the result of this won't please very many (and perhaps people sense it, as it's a major box-office failure). While the raunchy R-rated Hangover and the kid-friendly UP are filling the multiplexes, Ferrell and McBride are discussing ass-tapping in empty auditoriums.

I'm ready for the return of Kenny Powers. Come on, McBride!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Nog Experiences the Hangover!

The Hangover is a bit overrated, probably because everyone was needing a laugh after several weeks of action flicks and the film, in its defense, provides quite a lot of them. Whereas the Apatow bromances seek a modicum of three-dimensionality in their characters (and I suspect Apatow will push this character development much further in Funny People, probably resulting in lesser box-office), Todd Phillips' comedies--Road Trip, Old School, and now The Hangover--want nothing but to make you laugh. And there's nothing wrong with that. IF you are laughing. Consistently. And I was only laughing part of the time (although if I'd seen it with a full house and after a few beers, I'm sure I'd have laughed harder). The reason to see the flick is Zach Galafianakis, who has a medium-sized cult following through the Comedians of Comedy tour and more recent associations with Will Ferrell. It's an absolute breakout role, perfectly performed (Ebert compares it to seeing Belushi on the loose in Animal House and knowing you're seeing a star in the making...we'll see if it pans out). But without him, you wouldn't be left with much. Ed Helms gets some funny lines but it's a one-joke role (a pussywhipped doctor who becomes a foul-mouthed party animal as soon as he breaks free for a weekend). And Bradley Cooper, I guess, is on hand to be the handsome one. For me, he's largely a non-presence. Still, I'll give it a "summertime recommendation" on the grounds that it WILL make you laugh (although not as much as the trailer for Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Nog Meets the Brothers Bloom

I suppose Rian Johnson's first film, Brick, is better than his new one. There he takes a conceit that should be very silly (let's do a high-school flick using hard-boiled film noir dialogue) and makes it (mostly) work, capturing the sense of loneliness and desperation associated with noir.

For his follow-up, The Brothers Bloom, he's turned to another genre, the con artist/caper, flick. Bloom is altogether more light-hearted than Brick, although there's a serious undercurrent here too, with Adrien Brody turning in an affecting performance as Bloom, a man who feels his life has been entirely "written" by his older brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), the mastermind of the elaborate cons which usually center around Bloom. The film is about the brothers' attempt at conning an eccentric heiress ("I collect hobbies") out of her fortune, an attempt made difficult by Bloom's habit of falling in love with his con-ees (it's Rachel Weisz: who can blame him?). The film has been criticized a bit for feeling too much like a Wes Anderson flick, and it definitely has that jaunty but melancholy tone to it (the first half hour or so, especially, whizzes by, with the frames crammed full of intricate detail and occasional jokes sort of quietly playing out in the background). Like most films about cons, it culminates in a series of things-are-not-what-they-seem revelations which are never quite interesting enough to make this a con-artist classic like The Sting or Mamet's House of Games. But the four central performances are strong (Rinko Kikuchi plays Ruffalo's second-in-command, Bang Bang, almost entirely without dialogue, just an inventive series of hand and eye gestures...very funny).

This makes three worthy theatrical ventures in a row. The Hangover might make four. But Ferrell's Land of the Lost will almost surely be a large piece of dinosaur shit.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Nog Goes UP With Pixar and Down to Hell With Sam Raimi!

Finally, summer brings up a couple of movies which remember that summer movies should be fun and inventive. T4 and Angels and Demons felt like everyone was just going through the motions, but UP and Drag Me To Hell feel like the filmmakers and casts are having as much fun as the audience.

I'm not quite as willing as Dr. X to proclaim UP an instant classic. Wasn't Wall-E, which works quite well as a reasonably sophisticated sci-fi film, more groundbreaking? But this doesn't mean UP is not one of the best movies you'll see this year. For me, this hearkens back to more old-fashioned family adventure fare. Going in, I didn't know too much beyond the basic facts (an old man with a flying house and an uninvited kid on board). Therefore, much of the film was a consistent surprise. Ed Asner's Carl Frederickson deserves to become a famous character, but I was less pleased by his child companion Russell (who's pretty much your standard annoying kid). The film's bid-for-greatness is the already-much-discussed sequence near the beginning which takes us, in the span of about five minutes and with no dialogue, from Carl's wedding to his wife's death. Now that's pure visual storytelling, kids! Watch and learn.

Raimi's return to horror with Drag Me To Hell seems designed as a treat for his old-school 80's fans (look at that Universal logo!) and a much-needed reminder that horror films don't have to suck (which some of us had forgotten given the recent wave of torture-porn, Americanized remakes of J-Horror, and endless franchise "reboots" of films that weren't very good to begin with). Yeah, yeah, it's PG-13, but it's the...gooiest and most disgusting PG-13 you've seen, full of the kind of purely-bonkers moments the Evil Dead (II and III) fans want to see. Does it rely a little too much on cheap scares and loud noises? Yep. But just try not to grin like a chimp while watching Raimi gleefully dismantle audience expectations (be warned, animal lovers!) and deliver us with an abrupt ending that leaves the multiplex-trained horror boneheads whining on their way out the door--even though it's the only possible ending that's not a complete cheat. Don't fuck with a lamia!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Nog Tries the Girlfriend Experience

"Chelsea is played by Sasha Grey. She is 21. Since 2006, according to IMDb, she's made 161 porn films...I haven't seen any of them, but now I would like to see one, watching very carefully, to see if she suggests more than one level." --Roger Ebert

It's funny to think of Ebert tracking down a little Sasha porn after watching Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience. I hope he enjoys it! Unlike Roger, I may have (accidentally, of course!) seen a few clips of her prior work on-line. I'm not sure about "more than one level," but she has a certain look (jet black hair, pale skin, detached but not completely disinterested) that serves Soderbergh well. I wonder: did he wade through a lot of porn to find his muse or was it just her reputation? There's a pretty fascinating recent Rolling Stone profile of Grey in which she discusses her complete un-victimization; enjoyment of the work--she has real orgasms!; and her interest in existential philosophy (yes, really).

In the film Grey plays a (presumably) high-priced escort named Chelsea whose clients are largely involved in the financial market. The setting is during the recent presidential election, just before the economy completely went down the shitter. The idea seems to be that human connection, for these men, is just another aspect of business: Chelsea provides, for a night, the illusion of connection ("the girlfriend experience"). She tries to keep a distance from that line of thought in her own life, with a personal trainer boyfriend and a penchant for astrology that, perhaps, allows her to see the idea of love as something beyond human control and manipulation). Soderbergh shoots most of the film in long-shots and skips the sex altogether (it's all about alienation, see!), but it's a debatable strategy. Surely the sex is an important part of "the girlfriend experience," and when Chelsea brags about her prowess, late in the film, there's no real impact to the line (from what we've been allowed to witness, she seems pretty dull). The film works best during her conversations with a sex-blog journalist during which she narrates her various encounters, always discussing her clothes first, what they had for dinner, then the sex, all in a monotone. If she ever had any real affection for her line of work, it seems to have vanished, and the final shot is nicely done, revealing the one-way nature of the escort/client relationship where she may provide a necessary emotional outlet for the man while getting nothing in return. But ultimately there's not much here that Soderbergh didn't do better in his first film, sex, lies, and videotape (remember Spader beating off to videos of women talking about sex, unable to connect to the same women when they are right in front of him?). Still, I sort of like these quickly-shot Soderbergh projects that he enjoys doing while he fills time between...whatever nuttiness he's working on next (a 3-D Cleopatra musical?...why not!...surely it will be more exciting than that four hour Che Guevara film!).

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Nog and T4 and McG! / Plus, Nog and Me and You and Everyone We Know

I'd like to punch McG in the nose just for having a silly name. Even if McG made a masterpiece (and I think it's safe to say that he won't), I'm not sure anyone could take it seriously, just because of that name (same for you, Tarsem!).

But T-4 is not quite as bad as critics would have you believe. True, it doesn't "feel" like a Terminator movie, but I'm okay with that. We've seen that before. We know that Terminator thing already. And I'll grant McG this: I think he has a clear idea of what he wants to do with the franchise...which is apparently transform it into a grim and joyless war film. And some of it works. I like the bleached-out apocalyptic look of the post-Judgement Day future, full of Skynet machines run amuck. It makes sense to me to take this aspect of the Terminator mythology and build a film around it, abandoning the expected conceit of "going back in time to kill John Connor." Problem is, the film's not very engaging beyond its setup. Christian Bale, obviously a good actor, is not a good John Connor. Who'd want to follow this grumpy fucker into battle? And Sam Worthington (who will join former Terminator mastermind Jim Cameron in Avatar to apparently...reinvent cinema altogether, if you believe the fanboys) is not charismatic enough to turn Marcus Wright into the kind of new iconic figure the film needs. Still, McG can stage a clear action scene: unlike most action films these days, I could--mostly--follow what was happening in the massive robot battles, something that certainly can't be said for the first Transformers. Plus, we get some bad-ass Stan Winston robots.


Me and You and Everyone We Know is sort of a smaller-scale Magnolia or Shortcuts (although not in the same league as those films). When I saw it in theaters, it struck me as occasionally cloying, overly whimsical in the way that too many small indie films are these days. But watching it again on DVD, I found myself pretty caught up in it. Like those aforementioned films, it explores the connections (and missed connections) between a group of seemingly disparate characters. Here's an example: Miranda July (the writer and director, who still annoys me) plays an artist who attempts to pass along a tape of her work to a gallery owner, who blows her off and insists that the tape must be mailed. Later in the film, we see the gallery owner with the tape on in the background, still being ignored until it comes to an end and July herself appears, speaking directly to the gallery owner and saying "I'm sure you'll never make it to the end of this tape and never see this etc etc." The gallery owner is suddenly mesmerized, personally connected through the seeming disconnectedness of technology. And technology plays a role as well in the film's most-often discussed storyline, which involves a very young boy who inadvertantly becomes part of a cybersex conversation. Naturally, he has no idea about sex, writing things like "I want to poop back and forth with you, using the same poop," which has the unexpected effect of turning the woman on. They later agree to meet, and their encounter on a park bench (a young boy and a thirty-ish year old woman) is very funny and very sad at the same time. July lets it play out wordlessly (and then partially ruins it with a shitty indie song in the background). But the film has enough moments such as this (I still love the mysterious opening where a man sets his own hand on fire to impress his children), that it's more than worth a look.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Nog and the Illuminati! (Angels and Demons) / Plus, Nog Sees a Real Film!

So far the summer has given us one worthy blockbuster (Star Trek) sandwiched in between two disappointingly mediocre ones (Wolverine and Angels and Demons). The critical consensus on Howard and Hank's second trip to da Vinci country is that it's a more streamlined action-focused picture, but its 138 minutes still find plenty of room for chuckle-inducing exposition ("a bunch of hooey," Hanks has called it) regarding everything from Illuminati theories to "God particles." And for such an old-fashioned potboiler of a premise (Vatican City will explode at midnight!), the film never builds up a lot of sustained suspense. Still, if you just want to see Ewan McGregor as a potential future Pope parachuting in like he's Obi Wan Kenobi (again) to save the day, you might be sporadically entertained. But avoid seeing it at Southwind 12. The fucking roof leaks. And if you're looking for less self-important but similar "hooey," Cage's National Treasure flicks are far more entertaining. I'll take Cage's puzzlemaster over Hanks' "symboligist" anyday. Or, better yet, team them up for a future "crossover" summer blockbuster!


"Wherever you live, when this film opens, it will be the best film in town." --Roger Ebert on Goodbye, Solo

Goodbye, Solo's premise sounds, at first glance, as contrived as Angels and Demons. An aging man offers to pay a cabdriver a thousand bucks to pick him up in one week for a one-way fare and deposit him two hours away, on top of a mountain, presumably so he can kill himself. But the film settles into a fascinating character study that largely avoids the kinds of sentiment you'd expect, and its vision of Winston-Salem, North Carolina (not so often seen on-screen) possesses a real sense of place, similar in some ways to how Jim Jarmusch's early films (Down by Law; Mystery Train) inhabited their respective cities of New Orleans and Memphis. Solo, the cabbie, is from Senegal, and he seems an eternal optimist despite the fact that his marriage is rocky and his job has seemingly become less than satisfactory. When William (played by Red West, a character actor and former Elvis bodyguard in real life!) makes Solo the strange offer, Solo soon becomes determined to prevent it, to convince William that life is worth living. He arranges to become William's sole driver for the week as he sells his place, closes out his accounts, and moves into a hotel. The film drops hints (and eventually answers a few questions) about how William's past led him to his current crisis but, as the title suggests, the film is really Solo's story and I assure you, my three or four possible readers, you'll care more about their eventual trip to the mountaintop than you will about whether or not Hanks saves the Vatican!

The film is directed by Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani, his third film following Man Push Cart and Chop Shop (I've only seen the former thus far). Ebert calls him "the great new American director." Too early to say? I suspect so. But there's no question I'll watch closely for his next film.