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.