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!