Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nog Sees Sir Ben Kingsley in Elegy! (a film in which Sir Ben does NOT make out with an Olsen twin)

"When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life." --David Kapesh (Ben Kingsley)

You don't hear too much praise of Sir Ben Kingsley these days, perhaps because he stars in too many movies or perhaps because he starred in a movie in which he makes out with an Olsen twin (The Wackness...not exactly the title you'd expect from a Ben Kingsley film). But he's very good in Elegy, an adaptation of a Philip Roth novella called The Dying Animal, which I haven't read, although my understanding is that, like most of Roth, it's energetic and outrageously vulgar. Elegy has a more sedate tone, befitting its new title, and a female director, perhaps itself a bit unusual for a Roth adaptation (like Updike, Roth is not exactly known for his sensitive views of women). Kingsley plays David Kapesh, an aging professor whose new book praises unchecked sexuality in opposition to societal "rules": his marriage has failed long ago and the implication is that he's banged his way through a lot of ex-students and finally drifted into an affair with a businesswoman (Patricia Clarkson), one which they like to believe is based strictly on sex. But the film is about him unexpectedly falling in love again, with a grad student named Consuela (Penelope Cruz, her second excellent performance of 2008 which no one saw, despite the Oscar for the other one). Kapesh finds himself falling prey to the entanglements he seeks to avoid, becoming very jealous, very childlike in his affection. The film seems to suggest there's a strong infantilizing tendency in a certain kind of male affection (note the scene where Kapesh, heartbroken, is tended to by his colleague, a poet played by Dennis Hopper). The film is strongly acted, worth a look, but it doesn't exactly succeed as either a love story or as one of the recent spate of "reawakening of a stodgy old professor" stories. It's better than Knowing. But not as funny.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Things Nog Knows About "Knowing, With Special Guest Commentary from Nog's Partner-in-Film, Dr. X (AKA Joe!).

"Knowing is among the best science-fiction films I've seen -- frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome." --Roger Ebert.

Knowing is not among the best science-fiction films I've seen. Knowing is about the "whisper people," who give small black stones to children and force them to do complicated math problems involving latitude, longitude, and various disasters. Knowing is a better Cage film than Wicker Man, but not better than the two-minute Youtube cut of Wicker Man ("The bees! Are in! My eyes!). Neither is it better than Cage's Vampire's Kiss (he eats a live cockroach in that one). Knowing is directed by Alex Proyas, who gave us a near-masterpiece with Dark City, earning him the everlasting love of Roger Ebert. But then he gave us I, Robot. And then he gave us this. At one point a fiery moose runs directly at the camera and I thought to myself, Man, I wish Knowing were in 3-D...and that I were very drunk! At one point Cage asks a man on fire to wait and answer some questions. Knowing is sort of like Left Behind, but with Cage as Kirk Cameron. But it's not exactly about the rapture. Or is it? Was the woman behind me crying because she wanted to be raptured, or because she was very moved by the sight of young children ascending to spaceman-heaven holding large bunnies, or because she wanted the movie to be over? At one point Cage fights a tree with a baseball bat. Knowing is not quite as funny as another recent "horror" film about math, The Number 23, in which Jim Carrey spends most of the film furrowing his brow and shouting out various number combinations that equal 23. Knowing is not the best movie about numbers. The best movie about numbers is, I don't know, Pi, maybe?

And here's Dr. X with an analysis of why the film is tops at the box-office (easily besting a quality bromance and a Julia Roberts star-vehicle in its opening weekend):

"This is it in a nutshell: Take two parts numerology mumbo jumbo and pass it off as Sci-Fi, then take one part knavish apocalyptic bullshit (so you turn yer spacemen into angels) -- and that brings in your 40+ "The whole world is gonna end" crowd... sprinkle in the freaks that thought Ghost Rider kicked ass... and you have about 25 million in sales!

--I don't even know why Proyas directed this. I suspect it was because it involved men in dark coats (as every Proyas movie MUST has strange men in dark coats!)

...the reason why the thing was a great idea [was] to scare an audience into thinking it was having fun... but the minute you begin to think about the fact that "Why in hell, would the whisper people give the girl in the fifties the code when she A couldn't do anything about B wasn't gonna do anything about it C couldn't save her daughter... etc and Why does Nic Cage even matter in the movie as A he can't do shit about the numbers B Can't stop his son from leaving C The Whisper people are gonna take him and the girl anyway!?"

--Essentially the movie broils down to: "Shit that will scare grandma and a plot that needed contrivances or the movie would ended in five minutes. Also: SHIT. WILL. BURN!"

Monday, March 23, 2009

Nog Gets "Bromantic" With I Love You, Man!

So I’ll admit I’m a sucker for this new genre of raunchy “bromantic comedies.” It will fizzle out soon, likely, but at the moment even the lesser ones are far more entertaining than most other comedies you’ll find at the multiplex right now (sappy chick flicks; the endless strain of Disaster Movie/Date Movie/Epic Movie drivel; and Tyler Perry movies!).

I Love You, Man is the logical, inevitable culmination of the recent “bromances”: this time the central relationship between the two “dudes” plays out exactly like the stereotypical boy/girl romantic comedies (they meet cute, they “fall” for each other, they “break up,” they reunite). It’s moderately clever and generally very well-performed. Paul Rudd has become the go-to guy for the endearingly goofy but square role (he’s essentially the same dude here and in Knocked Up and in Role Models, but it still works…what straight guy wouldn’t want to party with him at a Rush concert, very heterosexually). Jason Segel steps comfortably into the crude slacker role (often filled by Seth Rogen in these films). And the supporting cast is sharp, keeping things afloat even when the film overplays its running jokes.

But why are these movies so popular right now? Part of it is simple enough, I think: the combination of raunch and sweetness is capable of drawing in both a male and female audience. But I also think these films get at certain “realities” (about relationships, gender expectations, etc) that don’t really get explored in what has become the pure fantasy-land of chick-centered romantic comedies. I’m not sure where the genre is headed, but maybe it’s got a little life left in it yet, and apparently it’s starting to trickle out of the mainstream and into the indie-world, where it will get a little “edgier”: one of the Sundance hits this year is called Humpday and concerns two straight male friends who decide to make an “art project” in which they sleep with each other. I think it’s safe to say Humpday will not appeal to the fratty audience currently cracking up at I Love You, Man.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Nog Watches the Watchmen!

So the big mistake I made with Watchmen was reading the graphic-novel just prior to seeing the film. But I felt a sense of geek-necessity here, that I should at least be reasonably familiar with what many consider the single greatest graphic-novel ever. It was my first experience with the art form, and I dug it, and I felt like I “got” it, mostly, although not as much as I might have twenty years ago if I’d known what the hell a graphic novel was at that time. But being so familiar with the work going in, the visual experience wasn’t as impressive as it should have been. Despite a few big changes that have left many of the fanboys in an uproar (“Where’s my squid?”), Zack Snyder is really almost shockingly faithful to the text, so much so that there was no real element of surprise or discovery here for me. As many critics have argued, perhaps the most original and impressive sequence occurs during the credits, an (alternate) history lesson set to Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. Here Snyder takes some liberties, and completely succeeds. But at the same time the otherwise loyal adherence to the text is understandable and probably necessary: you’ve got to please the fanboys these days, first and foremost, or they might destroy your film with their on-line snarkiness before the thing ever hits theaters. Snyder’s film looks amazing, but it doesn’t work on the “human” level that Dark Knight does (or even Iron Man), not that it’s necessarily trying to. With a movie like this, the performances don’t get mentioned much, although they probably should, since the movie has a lot of characters! Jackie Earle Haley kicks ass as Rorschach (and his mask is super-cool!). Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian also makes an impression in his short screen-time. The critics have had fun trashing Malin Ackerman, but I didn’t mind her acting that much and I’d totally bang her on an airship while listening to Leonard Cohen. And Billy Crudup, well, what can one say: he walks around with a blue penis and the audience giggled a bit. In fact, the sold-out first-day IMAX crowd seemed largely puzzled as they left, and the film is fading quickly at the box-office. Will its reputation grow over the years, once Snyder gives the true fans their DVD “director’s cut” restoring a few things that pissed off the faithful? Maybe. I’d be willing to take another look on DVD (although I personally think that splicing in a great deal of animated footage will further alienate the ‘mainstream’…but I suppose they’re not the ones buying the DVD anyway). In the meantime, the “visionary” Snyder’s film (as the studio insisted on referring to him in their ads) has, on the whole, not been hailed as particularly "visionary" by most critics. I respect it without actually enjoying it very much. For all the fanboy complaints that the theatrical-cut is a “compromised” vision of studio-enforced cuts, it doesn’t feel that way to me. It still feels pretty complex and non-commercial for a big studio action picture, which is nice, because this summer’s action crowd will have to settle for…Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Nog and Wendy and Lucy

So Kelly Reichardt has now made two very good, very quiet, very seemingly simple films. Old Joy, the first, is about two old friends who reconnect over a weekend in the woods. Wendy and Lucy is about a down-on-her-luck woman (Michelle Williams) headed for Alaska who stops somewhere in Oregon and loses her dog. Both deal with the kinds of working-class people (and somewhere far below that, in the new film’s case) that you don’t see very often on-screen. A. O. Scott wants to read Wendy and Lucy in light of the current economic crisis, and maybe it is a good film for its time: “underneath this plain narrative surface — or rather, resting on it the way a smooth stone rests in your palm — is a lucid and melancholy inquiry into the current state of American society… “Wendy and Lucy” find[s], in one woman’s partly self-created hard luck, an intimation of more widespread hard times ahead.” But the film doesn’t come across as ‘political’ in any way, and it’s certainly the better for it.

Reichardt doesn’t tell us anything about Wendy’s past. All we know is that she has a car (which dies on her as the film begins) and a dog, Lucy (which disappears when she’s busted for shoplifting). These troubles pose a significant threat to her carefully budgeted attempt to get to Alaska, a place she seems to have settled on because there are purportedly jobs there that will accept the kind of person who doesn’t have a permanent address or a current phone number. Williams is impressive here, carrying long stretches of the film on her own. She’s a wide-eyed drifter who seems very attuned to her surroundings but also forever wary of the dangers of the road and, as the film progresses, consistently worn down by her rapidly failing plans. As viewers, we quite naturally sympathize with Wendy, but Reichardt keeps it unclear whether society has failed her or whether she’s simply given up and dropped out (has she left a family somewhere? we see a baby picture in her wallet at one point). A holier-than-thou shop employee tells Wendy early in the film that “a person who can’t afford dog food shouldn’t own a dog,” a position that she dismisses at the time but one that she seems to interrogate as the film progresses, with an ending that some viewers will see as practical and others an act of willful self-delusion.