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!).