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.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Nog Hangs Out With Young Spock and Old Spock! And Dr. X Proclaims It the Best. Trek. Ever!

So I've complained recently that Hollywood gives us too many "origin" stories and too many "franchise reboots" but then here comes JJ Abrams and his new Star Trek and shows us how to combine them and get both of them right.

Unlike Zack Snyder's take on Watchmen, Abrams' Trek is respectful without being overly reverent. TV spots have proclaimed "This is not your father's Star Trek" (annoying the old-school Trekkies) but it's an accurate assessment: who ever thought we'd hear the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" during a Star Trek chase through Iowa fields? But guess what? You'll dig it! (unless you're a whiny fanboy bent on having a bad time). There's no question this film wants to appeal to a younger audience that is likely not well-versed in Trek mythology (if at all) and the approach makes sense, but Abrams and cast know that you can't fully alienate the hardcore. Therefore, the film's twisty time-travel plotline allows for a crowd-pleasing visit from Nimoy's Spock, makes room for most of the show's famous catchphrases ("Set phasers to stun!" "Live long and prosper."), and even finds time for young Kirk to get romantic with a sexy green-skinned alien (a clever reference to Kirk's reputation for banging his way across the galaxy). The young cast is surprisingly strong and the special effects are top-notch. Go see it, several times, while you wait for Tom Hanks' Angels and Demons to arrive next week and return us to the usual clunky dialogue of the summer season.


But what about two-time viewer Dr. X.

He "proclaims Star Trek very fine indeed. It is EASILY the best Star Trek movie (Yes, nerds, even more than the beloved Kahn-Wrathing)... and as someone profoundly more well-read on theoretical astrophysics than you, Mr. Ebert... Shecky :)... I declare your problems with black holes, time travel, and parallel universes entirely irrelevant: Mrs. S loved it. It is the best. Period."

Trekkies, if you're reading, we'd like to hear your fury with this assessment!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

"I Thought You Were the Moon, and I Was Your Wolverine": Nog Kicks Off Summer Movie Season!

So that "moon" line is my pick for most unintentionally funny moment in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It sounds just clunky and cloying enough to be written by George Lucas in one of his romantic New Star Wars moments ("Kiss me again like that time by that lake in Naboo" is damn near an accurate paraphrase of an Attack of the Clones line). Unfortunately, there's little else in Wolverine that's bad enough to be amusing and even less that's actually worth anyone's time. "Origin" flicks are cool these days, but you need an interesting origin story for it to work! So all you're left with is several shots of Jackman howling at the sky in pure berserker rage and a lot of cool shots of adamantium claws emerging. And, for the ladies, there's a scene of a bare-assed Jackman sprinting across a pastoral landscape. There's no character you can really care about here and even the action scenes (which are why we're forking over cash at the multiplex, after all) are relatively humdrum. It's probably not the worst "big" movie we'll see this summer (Transformers II and Angels and Demons can likely vie for that title) but let's just pretend the summer movie season actually kicks off next week, with Star Trek.