Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nog's Capsule Reviews: Hereafter, Conviction, Due Date, and Unstoppable!

My recent multiplex viewing has left me a little uninspired to write about it, but here are a few thoughts on movies that you're not likely to be seeing anyway:

Hereafter: Eastwood delivers an amazing tsunami scene and Matt Damon delivers one of his best performances, but Peter Morgan's screenplay ultimately has very little to say. The film is quiet and contemplative and sporadically engrossing but, on reflection, feels very thin.

Conviction: After a promising beginning that skillfully moves in and out of a variety of different time periods, Conviction becomes a formula crowd-pleaser. But it has a typically strong performance by Sam Rockwell, as well as a scene near the end from Juliette Lewis (who's only in two scenes) that's so memorable it almost alone makes the film worth seeing.

Due Date: There's a masturbating dog in it.

Unstoppable: Maybe I'm a sucker for runaway train films, but I totally dug it. Tony Scott scales back on his hyperactive editing and delivers a crisp, clear action movie that is utterly ludicrous yet completely exciting.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Nog Lets The Right One In (American-Style) / Also: Never Let Me Go

When the inevitable American remake of Let the Right One In was announced, horror fanboys went berserk, understandably assuming it would be gored-up and dumbed-down. But mostly this didn't happen. Matt Reeves Let Me In is, on the whole, as atmospheric and patiently paced as the original, not to mention beautifully acted by its child stars. True: I don't like the super-quick CGI movement of the vampire here (not to mention the preposterous demonic voice we hear once or twice), but at the same time I found the original's sudden transitions from subtlety to gore a little jarring as well. But is there ultimately any reason to see this if you've seen the original, since much of it mirrors the original almost exactly? Probably not, except for maybe true horror fans, who can take consolation in the fact that Reeves seems to be a real filmmaker (something we couldn't quite gather from the herky-jerky Cloverfield). The scene that critics keep singling out (a bizarre POV shot with Richard Jenkins murdering someone in a car going backwards) truly is a memorable piece of horror filmmaking. Now let's hope he applies these skills to something we haven't seen before.


Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go is a serious, restrained science-fiction film based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, but you might not gather this if you're not paying close attention to some of its trailers, which make it look like a period-piece coming-of-age flick (I predict some confused old people will NOT be happy with what they're witnessing). The film's "twist," such as it is, is being given away by most critics, but I won't reveal it here in case Matthew finally decides to go to the movies again. So I'll just say that the film works for me, carefully but never flashily integrating its sci-fi concepts into the love triangle at the center of the film (nicely played by Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightly, and new Spiderman Andrew Garfield). Some critics are faulting the film for not succeeding on an emotional level, and the middle section, especially, could benefit from being more fully fleshed out, but I found the film's final moments to be remarkably powerful, as Carey Mulligan's voice-over takes us from the personal to the universal, implicating us all in the issues at hand. The critical side of me knows it's one of those moments where the narration is telling us things that should be apparent enough at that point without further exegesis, but the rest of me, fully immersed in this film's world, struggled not to shed a tear or two. This will likely make my top ten.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"All Creation Myths Need a Devil" : Nog Sees The Social Network!

As The Social Network begins, The Facebook (as it's originally called) is born out of drunken bitterness as Mark Zuckerberg, reeling from an unexpected break-up, brainstorms an outlet for his frustrations that will allow like-minded Harvard students to rate and keep tabs on their classmates. According to Aaron Sorkin's script, that self-absorption continues, ironically, to drive the business mentality behind a site built around community. The tale itself is a standard one--the young up-and-comer increasingly willing to betray his friends for fame and fortune--but its well told in Fincher's new film, with an efficient structure that bounces (sometimes too quickly, for my taste) between key moments of Facebook's formation and a pending lawsuit involving Zuckerman and his former friend and business partner. Fincher's cast is as sharp as Sorkin's script. Eisenberg is sometimes criticized for playing the same, stammery, neurotic in different films, but here he combines those familiar mannerisms with something more subtle that gets us further into Zuckerberg's ego: notice how he tunes out, almost narcoleptically, when the world isn't centered around his particular vision. Andrew Garfield (soon to be Spiderman) proves he's got star power as Eduardo, Zuckerberg's initially close friend and business partner, the film's most sympathic character. And Justin Timberlake, playing flashy Napster founder Sean Parker, is a scene-stealer. The line in my title is delivered late in the film by a lawyer played by Rashida Jones, who goes on to tell Zuckerberg that's he's not really an asshole, just a guy who works very hard to be thought of that way. But I'm not quite sure that line fits meshes with what the previous two hours have told us. Zuckerberg, as he's presented here, comes off looking pretty bad indeed. Whereas Fincher's last film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, led us further away from the issues of obsession and paranoia that seem to define his earlier films, we're back in familiar Fincher territory here. It's not my favorite film of the year, but I'd bet money on it claiming one of the ten slots on Oscar night.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Nog Visits Affleck's The Town!

I'm not ready to call Ben Affleck a great new American writer/director just yet, but he's certainly made two sharply written, sharply acted, crisply directed Boston crime films. I'd give his first, Gone, Baby, Gone, the edge. It might be more uneven, but it's a little darker, a little more character-driven. The Town seems designed to be a more mainstream crowd-pleaser, but the complexity of its characters is head and shoulders above most multiplex actioners. Affleck's style is never showy. He wisely makes no effort to mimic any of Scorsese's gangster-pic stylistic techniques, though one can't help think of Marty in the way his two films lead us through Boston's mean streets and the wide array of interesting characters who inhabit them. Here we're treated to memorable performances from Affleck himself (confidently taking center stage this time after turning Gone over to his brother), from Jeremy Renner (following up Hurt Lucker with another volatile performance that's arguably a little too similar to the last but still never less than riveting), from Rebecca Hall (after Vicky Christina Barcelona and Please Give, I'll watch her in almost anything), and Pete Postlethwaite (scary as hell as a criminal mastermind running his gang out of a florist shop). Faring not quite as well are Jon Hamm as an FBI agent (Affleck's good guys are a little dull) and Blake Lively as Affleck's ex (her performance exists in the shadow of Amy Ryan's ferocious bad mother from Gone: nothing can compare). Sure, some of the film's heists are fairly routine, but in between you're treated to some well-crafted dialogue in scenes such as a wonderfully tense restaurant encounter between Affleck, Hall, and Renner. Go see it and remind yourself of a time when multiplex films were actually entertaining without making you feel like an idiot.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Nog Joins The Revolution With Machete and Gets Existential with The American!

After a few late-summer films that should have been great fun but didn't fully deliver (The Expendables, Piranha 3D), Machete finally arrives and shows us how it's done (spoiler alert: it's done by ripping out your fucking intestines and using them as a rope to escape from buildings!). Rodriguez's expansion of his awesome "fake trailer" into a full-length exploitation (Mexsploitation!) flick is arguably even more successful than either his or Tarantino's Grindhouse features (Planet Terror and Death Proof, respectively), as it feels less like a gimmick and more like a true 70's exploitation flick, complete with those films' in-your-face social message of challenging "the Man" (in this case, the conservative, anti-immigration Right Wing). One could waste time (and some critics are) by pointing out its obvious Mexican stereotyping, but that too is in keeping with the genre's tendency to embrace stereotypes in the service of empowerment (have you critics never seen a Blaxsploitation picture?). For film geeks, this is pure pleasure as long as you're capable of embracing non-stop bloody mayhem. The cast is obviously having a blast: Jeff Fahey (playing it straight and awesome!); Lohan, transforming from naked druggie to pistol-packin,' ass-kickin' nun; Cheech the priest; "introducing Don Johnson" the vicious Von Jackson; and of course Danny Trejo, who WILL fuck you up, and hopefully return to do so again in Machete Kills!


The American is sort of glacially paced, relying little on dialogue, and if you see it with a full house (which you won't, after this weekend, because word-of-mouth won't be great) you will hear people sigh during the silent stretches and possibly complain when it's over. A man two rows below me: "I slept through most of it and the ending stinks." Let's discount that opinion, however, and offer another. The American is pretty good, but not great. There are better--very similar in plot if very different tone--hitman movies (In Bruges, The Hit, to name two). But this is confident film-making (by Anton Corbijn, who directed the excellent, gorgeous black-and-white Joy Division film Control). It's beautifully shot, and a rare thriller that knows how to create suspense without hyper-edited action sequences. As much as I like Clooney's recent film choices, I remain unconvinced of any particular acting range. A lot of the roles he's played lately (Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, this one) are men whose careers require them to express little in the way of human emotion. He's good at that. You'll totally buy him as a hitman having a bit of an existential crisis. Is the movie a little too proud of its "artsy" pacing? Probably. Some of the slower-than-slow patches are misleading, in that there is more going on that meets the eye at first, but there are patches of the film where I'm pretty sure it's just slow and moody as a sort of rebellion against anti-Hollywood action films. And I'm okay with that. But the guy two rows below me was most definitely not.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Nog Gets Low With Duvall and Murray! / Also: Piranha 3D (Review By Request)

Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) has spent the last forty years living like a hermit and becoming, as a result, a sort of mythic small-town figure. But, as Get Low begins, Felix has begun to suspect that death is approaching, and he needs to make amends, which he organizes in an odd fashion: he'll have a pre-death "funeral party," which he will attend and everyone will be invited so long as they have a story to tell about him (and pretty much everyone in a four-county radius does). This sets us a fascinating premise which seems like it will serve as a means to examine the power of storytelling, of truth and myth. However (and somewhat unfortunately) that film doesn't materialize, though I think it might have been more interesting if it did. Soon enough, we begin to realize that Felix's intentions with the "funeral party" largely concern not anyone else's stories but rather a revelation of his own: the dark secret that sent him into hiding from society forty years ago. The secret itself isn't particularly interesting and one can guess its general outlines long before it's finally revealed (in the lengthy and beautifully acted but somewhat corny monologue near the end). But the reason to see Get Low is not ultimately plot, but character. As (almost) always, Duvall is excellent. In his scenes with Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray (playing the undertaker in charge of the funeral party), Duvall's performance gradually lets us into the kind and humorous man that Felix once was, before forty years of guilt turned him into the local "nutter." And Murray, chalking up another great performance as a "serious" actor, more than holds his own alongside the legendary Duvall. Murray's Frank Quinn, we sense, is also a man in hiding. A former sleazy used-car salesman from Chicago, Frank, unhappily divorced, has settled into a small-town, Depression-era existence where he maintains some of the old persona (he's at first desperate to get his hands on Frank's wadded-up ball of "hermit money") but has, in truth, embraced the small-town values that surround him.


Piranha 3D! What is there to say? You will see a truly wild massacre at a wet T-shirt contest that's about as gory as anything you're going to see in the multiplex (holy shit, that's Eli Roth's head flying across the screen! did I seriously just see that girl get sliced in two by a wire and the top half of her body slowly slide down to her feet? wny has Ving Rhames been reduced to a role where he's only required to shoot piranhas with a shotgun while yelling "Pirahna this, motherfucker!"). You will also see a full-frontal naked female underwater ballet! (nice). Sadly, what you won't see is 3D fully utilized as the gimmick it should be in a film like this. I want to walk out of there feeling like I've had 90 minutes of piranhas flying into my face. But instead, I've only been treated to a piranha belching out Jerry O'Connell's penis. But I guess that's pretty cool too? It probably wouldn't have been a bad idea to include some modicum of wit or irony into the script: the opening scene involving Richard Dreyfuss suggests an insider-film buff tone that never in any way materializes after that. But ultimately, the film delivers what one wants: titties and gore. Recommended (for Matthew).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nog Geeks Out With Scott Pilgrim vs. The World!

Edgar Wright is three for three. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz inhabit their respective genres (the zombie film, the cop film) so fully that they work not only as parody but as genre films on their own. Wright isn't the cinematic craftsman that Tarantino is, but there's something similar in the wild energy of their films, the way you can feel the love for their influences in every shot. Scott Pilgrim is something different, not inhabiting a single genre, but it's no less geeky in its effort to capture the way certain obsessions (comics, video games, rock and roll) merge with our conception of reality. With its comic-book captions and split-screens and grab-bag of other stylistic devices, one would imagine any focus on character would get lost in the shuffle, but Wright and his near-perfect cast somehow feel "real" even if their obsessions have led them, like our hero, Pilgrim, to perceive of life as a video-game where evil villains (in the form of ex-boyfriends) must be defeated in order to win the love of a beautiful princess (in the form of an effortlessly hip chick who changes her hair color every week and a half). Sure, we've seen Michael Cera's sensitive/awkward persona on display many times now, but it's just right for Pilgrim, a 22 year old Canadian in an admittedly bad rock band (Sex Bob-Omb!) who is VERY platonically dating a Japanese school girl named Knives Chau while pining for the lovely and worldy-wise (and American) Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead: you'll fall in love with her too). I smiled (geekily) through the film, even if the elaborate, well-staged battle scenes occupy perhaps a little more screentime than they really deserve. I haven't read the graphic novels, but its easy to see why these characters resonate with their audience, many of whom no doubt spend a lot of time playing video games and jamming in terrible rock bands.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Nog vs. Gleiberman on The Other Guys

I'm surprised how good some of the reviews are for The Other Guys. As a fan of the three previous Will Ferrell/Adam McKay collaborations (Anchorman; Talladega Nights; StepBrothers), I certainly wanted it to be great. But to my mind it's easily the weakest of their films. Some big laughs, yes, but with looong dead stretches.

Maybe I'm missing something? Let's see what Owen Glieberman says in EW's "A-" review:

EW: "The Other Guys is almost a recognizably gritty genre picture, complete with bullet spray, Sidney Lumet gunmetal lighting, and a Wall Street villain (Steve Coogan) who embodies the sins of our time with a relative absence of cheek. All of that grounds the movie and makes it funnier."

Even if I agreed the film works as an effective action film (which I don't), do we want a "recognizably gritty genre picture" from these guys? What I want is their tried and true approach of we'll-try-anything-to-make-you-laugh-and-if-one-joke-doesn't-stick-then-maybe-the-next-one-will. It seems petty to fault Ferrell and McKay for trying something different, but I don't fully buy that they are attempting to stretch that much besides bulking up the action-loving demographic a bit (and I also think that demographic has never heard of Sidney Lumet and therefore isn't "in" on the '70's feel of the film, which isn't particularly funny anyway). Also, not letting the hilarious Steve Coogan be funny does NOT make the movie funnier.

EW: "In The Other Guys, Ferrell cuts down on the stylized hysteria, and he doesn't run around with his belly hanging out. As an actor, he's closer here to Peter Sellers or the early Woody Allen; he does obsessive riffs on being an insanely cautious man in a culture that prizes control."

Let's not go THAT far, Glieberman! Yes, Ferrell and McKay have cleverly altered the usual persona here and there are some very funny bits involving the character's "repressed" personality (my favorite: the college flashbacks where Ferrell is completely blind to the fact that he's inadvertantly become a pimp running a "stable of whores"), but there's still plenty of the "stylized hysteria" that one expects (the bad cop/bad cop sequence, for instance).

Anyway, I stand by the fact that this has little of the repeat-viewing appeal of the previous comedies (B-, tops!). I know that on DVD I'll be skipping through the action scenes for the half-hour or so where the film honestly delivers the kind of comedy that these two can do very well.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nog Re-Views Happiness

The dialogue exchange that most people probably remember from Todd Solondz's Happiness comes near the end (and is prominently featured in the film's trailers). After a laughing fit spurred by one of her sister Joy's recent misfortunes, Lara Flynn Boyle's Helen turns to her sister (played by Jane Adams) and says: "I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing with you," to which Joy replies, "But I'm not laughing." The exchange also gets at the heart of critical responses to Solondz's work as well. Are we laughing at the sad and often terrible people populating these films, or are we meant to connect, to see ourselves reflected in them? The first, and logical response, to some of the characters in Happiness is to recoil. Look at Dylan Baker's psychiatrist/pedophile Bill, who daydreams of mowing down happy park-goers with an assault rifle and jerks off in the car to magazine photos of male teenage pop stars. Then there's Philip Seymour Hoffman's Allen, who works out his lust for neighbor Helen by making obscene phone calls. These are unpleasant people, as are most members of the large cast, but Solondz follows them unflinchingly and, I think, largely unjudgingly. Despite the (obviously ironic) title, these are unhappy people who still desperately want to connect yet seem oblivious to the damage they inflict. Some of the film's nastiest bits play out in a sort of jaunty, almost sitcom-like, style that is disconcerting but effective: the familiar rhythm of such scenes is maintained while replacing sitcom banality with moments of truly shocking behavior.

Unlike a lot of indie filmmakers who settle into more "mainstream" fare with each passing film, Solondz has grown more experimental since Happiness (Palindromes is just all-around odd, let's admit) and his new film, Life During Wartime, is (apparently) a sequel of sorts, with a whole new set of actors playing the same characters from Happiness. And I can't tell you how excited I am to see Paul Reubens playing the ghost of Jon Lovitz's character from the first film! Bring it on. (August 27 at Tivoli).

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Nog and The Kids Are All Right

As an acting showcase for Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right is pretty excellent. Bening's Nic recalls, in some ways, her turn as Caroline Burnham in American Beauty. Both women possess a controlling nature that masks a deep insecurity, in this case Nic's fear of the dissolution of her family unit. Daughter Joni is headed to college. Younger son Lazer is drifting aimlessly. And wife Jules (Julianne Moore) seems restless, a more carefree spirit who's found herself bogged down in a domestic life she may have never exactly envisioned. These women's personalities are firmly established with a few deft strokes early on before Mark Ruffalo's Paul, the ladies' sperm donor, enters the picture due to the kids' sleuthing. Complications, naturally, ensue. Kids is a somewhat busy film, maybe a little too busy for my taste. A generally sharp screenplay insures that the characters feel real, but we don't always get to relax and observe them when they are not in the midst of various histrionics. One exception, however (and the one which is likely to be seen again on Oscar night) is a dinner-table scene near the end of the film which assembles the entire cast and during which Bening's Nic experiences a painful, but silent, revelation, accompanied by a devastating close-up of her face and a few quiet, tense, moments that take us right inside her head. It's a powerful scene, but undercut a little by unsubtle scenes such as Jules' late-film speech about the difficulties of marriage, which is nicely acted (of course it is, it's Julianne Moore!) but seems unecessary, as it doesn't really tell us anything that the film hasn't already illustrated many times. Overall, a strong film and a worthy addition to the list of rare modern films that don't shy away from serious explorations of family. But, to me, it doesn't resonate like, say, American Beauty or The Ice Storm.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Nog and Cyrus and the Duplass Brothers!

The Duplass' brothers have emerged from the "mumblecore" world of their previous films. The Puffy Chair and Baghead, and entered the multiplex with Cyrus, keeping the awkward relationships and off-kilter sensibility of the earlier films pretty much intact. Oddly enough, their foray into the mainstream is actually a darker and edgier film than the early works and, I think, better. It comes off less "look-at-me-I'm quirky" than Puffy Chair and less "look-at-me-I'm-meta" than the super-odd Baghead. John C. Reilly (a Nog On Film favorite!) plays John, seven years divorced and increasingly isolated. He remains unusually close to his about-to-be-remarried ex (Catherine Keener) who coaxes him out to a party where he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei). Molly zeros in on the very qualities that the rest of the party guests find offputting (his neediness, his awkward honesty), and they fall into a quick relationship. Too quick, at least according to Molly's 21 year old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who still lives at home and shares an unusually close and ultra-dependent relationship with his mother (whom he always calls Molly). I've deliberately used "unusually" twice here, as opposed to something like "inappropriate," because the Duplass's seem, on some level, interested in questioning the nature of familial and sexual relationships. What does it mean to be an ex-lover? What does it mean to be a mother and son? Where are the necessary boundaries in these relationships? Midway through, the film briefly threatens to turn into a broader kind of comedy, as John and Cyrus engage in a battle for Molly's affection, but this is no Stepbrothers, and a slapsticky moment at Keener's wedding quickly yields to raw, honest emotions. Near the end of the film, the Duplass's give us a bonding moment between John and Cyrus, allowing the often-creepy Cyrus to soften his edges and let down his guard. "I'm starting to think I'm a fucked-up and dysfunctional person," he tells John. It's a laugh-line for the audience (we're all thinking, "No shit!"), but it's a moment of honest recognition for Cyrus. The films ends more-or-less happily, though certainly not happily-ever-after-ly in the way of a more typical romantic comedy. We sense that both John and Cyrus, previously locked in patterns that don't allow for real emotional growth, are both now ready to move on to new stages of life. And this doesn't feel sappy, but hard-earned. How rare is that? The Duplass brothers supposedly work in a heavily improvisational manner, which is easy to believe. The writing isn't showy, but the characters feel very lived-in. There is solid work from all four main actors here. Yes, even Jonah Hill. Good film.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Nog Is Three Levels Down With Nolan's Inception! (No Major Spoilers, but Still You Should View Before Reading!).

While I fully agree with all the critics who are saying that one probably shouldn't levy a final verdict on Nolan's Inception without a second viewing, that doesn't mean I can't go ahead and write about it prior to seeing it again! First off, it's certainly the most fun I've had at the multiplex this year. If it's not as "perfect" as Toy Story 3 (and it probably isn't), I give it the edge for the complexity (and fun!) of its vision...not to mention, in IMAX, an aural and visual experience so intense as to be nearly overwhelming. My gut reaction is that I'll be more critical of the action-scenes the second time around. While Levitt's zero-gravity hallway fight scene may be an instant classic, some of the gun-battles--fighting a "militarized subconcious," no less!--are likely to grow a little tedious on repeat viewings. Inception is wildly complex in its ideas but (mostly) not off-putting in its execution (though I suspect the repeat business here will come mainly from sci-fi geeks, not from action it too "smart" to be a major blockbuster? discuss!) Nolan attaches the basic format of the heist film (assembling the team, committing the heist) to the film's sci-fi conceits (dream-raiders who steal or implant information, the latter called "inception"), and leads viewers into a remarkably constructed (and outrageously lengthy) final action set piece that occurs on three (really, four?) levels of dreaming. The cast is all-around solid (I'm increasingly liking Leo's performances of late...and JGL's cool quotient is ever-increasing), but my initial thought is that the film could use a more solid emotional core. While it's always involving, it's only sporadically moving, and the already controversial final shot threatens to jettison emotional connection in favor of one final mindfuck which is wonderfully fun to debate but arguably unecessary. Go see it, for goodness' sake!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Nog's Criterion Corner: Mystery Train

Mystery Train is the third Jim Jarmusch film to arrive on Criterion (following Down by Law and Night on Earth), and it's probably my personal favorite of his films. Robby Muller's cinematography is gorgeous and colorful while still conveying the dinginess and loneliness of the not-so-nice parts of a city (Memphis, in this case) late at night. The film gives us three stories happening (more or less) simultaneously, all linked by a gunshot. For me, the first, Far From Yokohama, is the most perfect of the three, and maybe the best distillation of the Jarmusch aesthetic, a sort of deadpan cool masking a deep sense of longing and alienation. Two Japanese teenagers arrive by train in Memphis. Mitsuko, the girl, is excited to see Graceland and all things Elvis. Jun, perhaps to establish himself as a more discerning consumer of American pop-culture, constantly asserts that "Carl Perkins is better." Mitsuko is a wide-eyed bundle of energy; Jun is utterly laconic, insisting upon arrival that the city is not so different from Yokohama. After a visit to Sun Studios, which leaves them baffled by the mile-a-minute speech of their Southern tour guide, they end up at a cheap hotel (the night manager is played by musician Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who gets some of the film's funniest lines). Late at night, Jun stands by the window in their hotel room, looking out at the city and finally seeming to acknowledge the distance he's come from his familiar world. "It's cool," he says, "to be 18 in Memphis." He and Mitsuko make love and afterwards we see hints that their relationship, which has seemed wonderfully tight-knit, may be a bit tenuous after all (and the next story, "A Ghost," quickly transitions into a world of relationships falling apart). Keep this cool stuff coming, Criterion!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Nog Gets a Hug From Lotso Huggin' Bear (Toy Story 3) ; Also: Solitary Man

In recent years, one can count on at least one awesome blockbuster per summer: whatever Pixar releases. There's no denying that Ratatouille, Wall-E, and UP are a grand slam. Toy Story 3 is probably not quite in that rarefied league, but that's primarily just because, as a sequel, it doesn't have the advantage of total originality (it's not bringing us a world and characters we haven't seen before). This doesn't mean it isn't creative and smart (it is), but just that it lacks a little of the joy of discovery one gets from the films listed earlier. While it's a little discouraging to see Pixar turning to sequels--and I'm particularly discouraged by the idea of a Cars sequel, as Cars, to my mind, is the only sub-par Pixar film--the head honchos claim they will ONLY do sequels when they feel like it's truly in service of characters and new stories, never strictly for cash. And so far, with the Toy Story series, I'm willing to believe them. Here we get, as always with Pixar, a film full of wonderfully crisp, clear, exciting action scenes (how often can that be said of live-action action films?) as well as a touching story about the end of childhood (just try not to cry in the film's final ten or so minutes, you heartless monsters!). And the new additions to the voice cast are top-notch: Michael Keaton is very funny as the Ken doll and Ned Beatty makes a great "villain" as Lotso Huggin' Bear (along with the ultra-creepy Big Baby!). If there's anything to complain about here, it's the unecessary 3D. I guess audiences expect 3D right now, but you don't have to give it to them, Pixar! Trust your art without the gimmicks!


Aside from Toy Story 3, the summer blockbusters this season continue to be humdrum (and so far I'm boycotting Knight and Day, based largely on the insipid title! as well as Grown Ups, dubbed by snarky critics as "The Big Chill for morons"). But there's been some strong stuff flying under the radar in the arthouse, such as Solitary Man, featuring an excellent lead performance by Michael Douglas as Ben, a car dealer who, fearing he's on the verge of a heart attack, spends six years recklessly squandering his business and family life while engaging in a series of affairs with younger (much, much younger) women. A quirkier film than this would make Ben a loveable grump, but the generally sharp script here doesn't ask us to like him (indeed, much of his behavior is fairly despicable), but instead to find the humanity beneath the surface. Director/screenwriter Brian Koppelman surrounds Douglas with a fully-realized world of smart women who nonetheless fall victim to Ben's manipulations (we get Jenna Fischer--oh, how attractive I find her!--as his daughter; Mary Louise Parker--ditto!--as his girlfriend; and Imogen Poots--who IS this and when can I see more of her!--as Parker's daughter). And, for good measure, the film offers a couple of sly supporting turns by Douglas' long-time buddy Danny Devito (who gets the film's funniest line as he explains why working in a college diner broke him of his desire for young women) and Jesse Eisenberg. Not a perfect film, and maybe sometimes a little unsure of its tone, but a happy break from the multiplex! Recommended.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Nog Sees Winter's Bone (Minor Spoilers) / Also: The Killer Inside Me!

Winter's Bone is an incredibly detailed depiction of a particular place at a particular time: the southern Missouri Ozarks, right now, where certain small rural communities have been absolutely ravaged by meth. "You got a taste for it yet?" Uncle Teardrop asks our heroine, 17-year old Ree, late in the film. "Not so far," she says. The spare exchange (typical of the film's dialogue) suggests an inevitability, a sort of fatalistic worldview. And why not? Ree's mother has retreated into insanity. Ree is raising her two siblings on her own, structuring every exchange as a teaching moment, as if she knows at any moment something might remove her from the picture. Her meth-dealing father is AWOL. If he doesn't show to his court date next week, the authorities are coming for their house and land. This all sounds awfully melodramatic, but it doesn't play that way. The film quietly follows Ree (Jennifer Lawrence in an impressive performance) as she searches for her father, making her way through various neighbors and family members (indeed, she shares some "blood" with most of those she encounters, which may feel to some like a redneck stereotype but is, in fact, merely another truth in a film that faces such truths head-on and unblinking). The film, directed by Debra Granik, possesses an eerie sense of coiled violence. The characters Ree meets along her journey feel like snakes who might strike at any second, particularly Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes, in an Oscar-worthy supporting role). "I already told you to shut up once with my mouth," Teardrop tells his wife, a line that feels awkwardly written at first until the meaning sinks in a beat later (the next time will be with his fists). Granik, however, often tends to dial back the violence in moments where a lesser film would turn them up, leaving certain confrontations inevitable but unseen. They will occur later in the lives of these characters (but after the movie is over). We are left simply with this line from Ree to her siblings, "I ain't goin' nowhere," which manages to be both hopeful and heartbreaking.


If one has OnDemand and a taste for incredibly nasty film-noir, Michael WinterBottom's contoversial new adapation of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me is no further away than your television set. Others should steer very clear. The film has a fantastic look to it: this is sunlit southern noir, set in a small Texas town where soft-spoken deputy sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) finally gives way to the murderous impulses that have been brewing in him since childhood. The film's tone is odd--deliberately cold and clinical and detached, which I suppose is meant to mirror Ford's mind but allows for none of the emotion and tension one might expect in the noir world of blackmail and love affairs gone terribly awry (Ford's brutalization of the film's female characters, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, accounts for the film's controversy, particularly the beating of Jessica Alba early in the film, which is hard to take by almost anyone's standards of film violence). The typical noir narration IS in place, however, and there's an interesting tension between what Lou thinks and what Lou does (as if, perhaps, he actually believes the lies he tells people). It all boils down to a bizarrely "meta" conclusion that feels out of touch with the rest of the film but perhaps in keeping with Lou's mind (he tells us once that he sees his life as a "picture show."). If there's a reason for the average filmgoer to watch Killer, however, it's Affleck's performance. In this, and in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and in Gone Baby Gone, he is very good. But yet he's playing a variation on a similar sort of character with a charming surface that masks a hidden darkness. Can he play other roles as well?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Nog Says Brief Things About Get Him to the Greek, Splice, and The A-Team!

There's no reason for most people to rush out and see Get Him to the Greek, but when you catch it on late-night cable down the line, you'll laugh. Both Jonah Hill and Russell Brand are pretty abrasive personalities, so putting them front and center just isn't going to work for everyone, but both give pretty solid comic performances here, as does P. Diddy, who exhibits an impressive sense of comic timing (watch for his "mindfuck" monologue). The film is at its best when it's operating in either a wildly absurd mode (drink and drug-induced sprees) or a satirical mode (Brand's "African Child" video is the kind of outrageously pompous thing that any number of self-important bands might engage in during a misguided part of their career). Problematically, however, the film is just as often operating in other, less entertaining, modes (do we really need this much of a sentimental streak to understand that celebrities, deep down, are really quite lonely?).


Splice gets my vote as the most pleasant surprise of the summer so far. The trailer suggests nothing more than a monster-run-amuck-in-a-lab tale. Yet that element, in actuality, occupies only a small portion of screen time early in the film. What we get, instead, is a bizarre "creature-feature" (with better-than-usual CGI effects) about parental bonds, a film that resembles a more explicitly commercial version of the kinds of "body-horror" films that Cronenberg was making early in his career. Sure, the film becomes increasingly ludicrous toward the end, but it does so in ways that break from the "rules" that modern horror audiences expect (the audience I saw it with reacted with uncomfortable laughter and a few expressions of something that may have been moral outrage!). See it soon, because it's a miracle it made it to the multiplex at all.


What one needs to know about The A-Team is this: at one point, the team "flies" a tank which they have parachuted out of a crashing airliner. If that amuses you, you will not completely hate the film. But you will still mostly hate it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Nog Exits Through the Gift Shop (With Banksy!)

The title, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is never used in the film, but it perfectly illustrates what becomes the central concern: the uneasy balance between art as art and art as commerce. Banksy's documentary is an odd film, and a bit hard to describe (though the execution is perfectly fluid and easy to follow). Essentially, it begins as the story of Thierry Guetta, an exuberant, eccentric Frenchman living in Los Angeles obsessed with filming every aspect of his life (Rhys Ifans' narration offers an explanation for his voyeuristic compulsions). Guetta's documentation is aimless until, on a trip to London, he begins filming his cousin "Spaceman," a street graffiti artist, and becomes fascinated with his work, soon managing to insinuate himself into the lives of more prominent figures in the movement (notably Shepherd Fairey, he of the Obama poster) and finally, unlikeliest of all, Banksy, the legendary unknown British graffiti artist and provocateur (who appears in the film only in disguise, hooded and voice obscured). Guetta allows his subjects to believe he's working on a documentary about street art but, in truth, Guetta has zero skills as a filmmaker: he just likes filming things. When finally pressed to produce an edited film on his subject, it's incoherent, just a slapdash collection of quick-cut images. At which point, Banksy himself steps in and assembles Guetta's work into the film we are now viewing (unless you believe the whole thing is some sort of elaborate hoax, as some critics do). Nuttier yet, Guetta then abandons his camera to become a street artist himself (albeit an awfully derivative one), dubbing himself Mr. Brainwash and, with his skills of self-promotion, orchestrating an art show in LA that becomes an "event" and nets him a lot of money. The film ends with Fairey and Banksy and others reflecting on what all this "means." They seem (and I suppose rightfully so) skeptical that Guetta's work exists for the "right" reasons and of the fact that one can simply emerge on the scene as a fully-formed artist. But also, and even more fascinating, Guetta's instant celebrity and financial success seems to force them to question and rethink the value of their own work. The film ends with Banksy saying that he once encouraged everyone to make art but (he adds dryly) he no longer does that. It's a laugh line, but one that resonates beyond its immediate humor, leaving viewers with the question that the LC often poses: Is it art, or isn't it? Excellent film.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Nog On Wall Street

Perhaps Stone's upcoming Wall Street sequel is nothing more than a calculated business effort, cobbled together because the director needs a hit and saw a chance to revive his most famous character, Gordon Gecko. But it seems to me like an interesting opportunity to revive a fascinating film figure during economic circumstances very different than the booming 80's stock market. At any rate, I figured it was a good time to revisit the original, which holds up pretty well 20+ years down the line. Essentially the film is a rags-to-riches tale of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), an enterprising young broker who finds himself taken under the wing of Michael Douglas' seductive and ruthless Gecko and his "Greed is good" worldview. Gecko praises the "illusion" of the market, at one point drawing a parallel to the art world: paintings become defined by what someone says they are worth as much as by their inherent value. And Fox is initially more than happy to let his life be "designed" by Gecko, even quite literally (Fox meets an interior decorator played by Darryl Hannah at a Gecko function, and she tricks out Fox's new penthouse for him). Of course, the film builds to Fox's moral quandary as he finds himself torn between father-figure Gecko's corruption and the old-fashioned business principles of his old man (nicely played by Sheen's real life father Martin). Stone isn't known for subtlety, and this film is obviously a none-too-subtle indictment of 80's corporate greed that holds up as well as it does largely due to the wonderfully entertaining Gecko. Douglas' hypnotic delivery of long speeches truly makes you feel the dangerous lure of power and money, and I'll happily give Stone my ticket price when the new film appears.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"And So the Legend Begins" (very tediously!): Nog and Robin Hood! / Plus, Nog's Classic Corner: Bigger Than Life!

I guess there's no law that says a Robin Hood movie has to be a light-hearted action romp, and Ridley Scott apparently wants his take on the legend to be a historically accurate and very serious war film. But I suspect that's not what audiences want. Russell Crowe seems to have wandered in from Gladiator and the up-close battles feature the same furious, near incomprensible quick cuts that I remember from that film. Distant shots work better. Obviously, Scott remains a sometimes-impressive visual stylist, and the oceanic arrival of the French army in the climactic battle scene has some cool visuals (a striking shot of arrows entering the water, striking bodies beneath the waves, blood rising up). Yet the sequence itself calls to mind the famous opening D-Day invasion of Saving Private Ryan. And the film itself, throughout, never shakes the been there/done that feel of other, better epics (notably Braveheart, or even Gladiator). If you're going to turn in something this familiar anyway, why not just follow the classic Robin Hood model and give audiences a little fun. Instead, we get yet another origin story and perhaps a particularly pointless one since this Robin Hood feels so foreign to our conception of the character. "And So the Legend Begins," the final title card reads, just before an utterly bizarre graphic novel approach to the story rolls during the credits. But surely there's no way this is going to spawn a deadly serious sequel, right?


As Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life begins, James Mason's Ed Avery is sacrificing himself (working a second job that he keeps hidden from his family) to support a suburban lifestyle that he's already beginning to see through. After a dinner party early in the film, he calmly explains to his wife that they and everyone else at the party are dull, none of them capable of saying a witty thing all night. A life-threatening illness soon leads Mason to the (then new) "miracle" drug Cortisone, and his subsequent addiction spirals into a "psychosis" that leaves him railing against every institution we are meant to hold dear (education, the family, religion). For my money, the film is at its best before he reaches sheer bonkers status. It seems, for awhile, that Mason has become a kind of truth-teller, a figure whose "insanity" allows him to say things that otherwise can't be addressed in polite suburban society (very much akin to the neighbor/mental patient John Givings in Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road). Ray cleverly fuses the standard "addiction film" with these moments of penetrating social insight. Sure, the final moments lapse back into the kind of ending likely dictated by the studio system, but that's easy to forgive in a film full of brave moments and a great performance by Mason.

Thanks to Matthew for first passing along a TCM version of this then-hard-to-find gem and thanks to Criterion for now restoring it to its full glory. Please put it in your Netflix queue, posthaste!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Nog and the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo / Plus: Iron Man 2!

The huge success of the series of novels beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a bit bewildering. How did America get hooked on these Swedish thrillers? Based on my reading of the first one over Christmas break, the books (pleasantly) lack the breakneck pacing and thinly drawn characters of John Grisham or Dan Brown's thrillers nor do they contain a single tweenage vampire or boy wizard or any other element one might expect from a runaway bestseller these days. Basically, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a clever variation on what's often called the "locked room" mystery (except this is a "locked island!") with two well-drawn characters at its center. And one of these, the titular "girl," is likely the reason for the series' success. Lisbeth Salander is definitely a fascinating character, a punk tattoed pierced bisexual Swedish computer hacker, and the film could not have worked without finding the perfect Salander. Luckily, they did. For the first few minutes, the woman on screen (Noomi Rapace) didn't quite coincide with the image of Salander I had in mind, but that vanished quickly enough. It's a very strong performance, and Lisbeth remains as interesting on-screen as on the page, a strange mix of fragility and toughness. The film streamlines the over-stuffed novel, jettisoning much of a storyline about financial intrigue in favor of the murder-mystery plot. It's a smart decision, but still a long film, with a few too many last minute revelations (typical of the genre) that try the patience a little. Still, take a look at this beside any "serious" mainstream American thriller (for instance, Gibson's comeback revenge-thriller Edge of Darkness) for a lesson in what's missing from those films: namely, character, atmosphere, suspense, etc). One is left wondering how badly the American remake of Girl will screw things up. But there are rumors that David Fincher is attached. So maybe it won't be as bad as imagined.


Jon Favreau's first Iron Man was a pleasant surprise: a kick-ass superhero film with a light touch and an intriguing, somewhat complex character in Tony Stark (played to the hilt by a wisecracking Robert Downey Jr.). Unlike so many summer blockbusters, it was a film where dialogue and character were not totally secondary to expensive action sequences. Much of this is still true of the sequel, but yet it often feels too much like its sagging under the weight of genre expectations, with bigger battles and characters that mainly exist to set up other films in the ever-expanding cinematic Marvel universe. Even so, there's fun to be had with new characters such as Mickey Rourke's Whiplash (that man loves his bird!), Scarlet Johannsen (can't we please keep her in that skintight suit just a little longer?), Garry Shandlings' sleazy politician (can we please have EVERY Larry Sanders' episode on DVD), and, perhaps especially, Sam Rockwell (watch that funky little James Brown shuffle-dance late in the film when he's taking the microphone). The film seems, for awhile, as if it might push its way beyond its comic book surface into a darker riff on the corrupting power of celebrity (RDJ's Stark, seeing himself as the sole savior of world peace, has let his power go to his head). Those ideas never press very far, naturally enough: after all, this is Favreau, not Christopher Nolan. And, in the matinee screening that I attended, the geeks seem pleased: "Dude, I TOLD you there was going to be something after the credits!" shouted one of them to his friends. But of course all of us geeks knew that already, which is why we had remained seated through these (very long) credits in the first place.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"All right, you cunts," Nog Has Assembled a Few Thoughts on Kick-Ass / Plus, Nog and Greenberg!

No, the title of the post is not just me being more vulgar than usual, but a reference to the already-notorious line by 11-year old Hit Girl in Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass. The film has generated a surprising amount of controversy in its first week of release, from the righteous indignation of Ebert ("morally reprehensible") to the even more righteous indignation of the New Yorker's Anthony Lane ("violence's answer to kiddie porn") to the overheated praise of Time's Richard Corliss, who believes it will redefine the superhero movie ("Smart, important and deadly").

The true verdict, I think, is somewhere in between. Is having an 11-year old girl say "cunt" and dish out ultra-bloody vigilante justice a relatively cheap trick to illicit a visceral shock? Sure. Is it "morally reprehensible?" Not really. The film has points to make beyond its surface shocks and, when the tone of the film truly clicks, it feels honestly subversive in a way that rarely occurs in mainstream, multiplex cinema. There is something about the way the everyday mundane teenage world rubs up against a world of over-the-top comic book violence here that's a little unsettling: the film asks us to revel in its vigilante justice (go ahead, it says, enjoy the expertly staged and wildly graphic bloodshed of Hit Girl et al) while never explicitly condemning these actions. The cast throws themselves into the mayhem full tilt, but what you'll remember is Hit Girl (and maybe Nic Cage, as Big Daddy, encouraging his daughter's every kill while mimicking--presumably?--the strange stilted speech pattern of Adam West's Batman). Recommended? Sure, you might as well have an opinion in the Kick-Ass debates, don't you think?


God bless Noah Baumberg, who keeps giving us quiet, insightful character studies in an era when no one wants them (Greenberg, his newest, managed one week at Olathe's 30 screen multliplex before being replaced with a few screens of the new Jennifer Lopez rom-com).

As good as the film is as a whole, perhaps it will be best remembered for giving us Greta Gerwig, very impressive as the love interest of Ben Stiller's titular Greenberg. The opening scenes follow Gerwig's Florence as she drives through LA, the camera almost uncomfortably close to her face. She isn't doing much, just occasionally brushing the hair out of her face, but there's a vulnerability in her eyes that really gets at what the film is about at its heart. Florence is young, 25 ("I still get carded"), with a tendency to wear her heart on her sleeve. Greenberg is 40, recovering from an undefined "breakdown." He's neurotic and angry and irresponsible, with a tendency to lash out at whoever gets close to him. In the hands of your average shitty Hollywood screenwriter, this would turn into a film about Greenberg "growing up" and learning to let his guard down. And, I suppose, that element exists. But the characters are treated sensitively and the writing is so wonderfully nuanced that there is virtually no resemblance to a traditional romantic comedy. Watch the long mid-film conversation where Greenberg tells Florence about how he and his long-time friend call each other "man" as a way of mocking the way average guys talk and thereby distancing themselves from a world they find distasteful, to which Charlotte tries to respond with a similar story as a way of bonding, only to have Greenberg violently reject the story as incomprensible and use it to further the proof he's seeking that the divide between them can't be bridged. These are real people, with complex emotions and motivations, and Gerwig and Stiller nail them. Baumbach wisely uses certain qualities that define the Stiller "persona" (the neuroses that quickly escalates into manic behavior) but he employ these qualities subtly and, always, in service of character. With films like The Squid and the Whale (which I love) and Margot at the Wedding (which I wanted to love but didn't), Baumbach's critics have accused him of a certain condescending attitude toward his characters, but I think he's transcended that here. He honestly feels for Florence and Greenberg and, chances are, you will too (unless you've wandered into the wrong theater thinking you're about to see a hilarious new Jennifer Lopez flick).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nog Joins The Runaways!

There's a lot to like about The Runaways. The film looks right, as if the director has been poring over rock photography of the era: everything's a little hazy and camera angles are increasingly akimbo late in the film as the band begins to spiral out of control. The performances feels right too: Kristen Stewart is sexy and tough as Joan Jett; Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie nails the "jailbait" appeal of the band's lead singer (watching her makes you a little uncomfortable, as it should); and the always odd and interesting Michael Shannon gets to go suitably over-the-top as Kim Fowley, the canny, loopy producer of The Runaways and many bands of the era. All these things work so well that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with the film. I'll blame the screenplay, which is certainly a bit lacking, rarely as incisive as it should be and occasionally veering into a broad comic tone that's out of place. The writing gives us a real feel for the personas of Joan, Cherie, and Fowley, but they never quite feel like flesh-and-blood human beings somehow (and the rest of the band is largely ignored altogether). Even so, the film has points to make that are worth considering. Although we may often consider the 70's a period of musical integrity, the film shows us that The Runaways were as much a manufactured, mass-marketed media creation as some of the bands we deride today. There's talent there, to be sure, but talent is secondary to Fowley, at least as he's portrayed here. Yet the film's final scenes suggest, optimistically, as Jett emerges as an important artist despite the circumstances, that passion and talent will ultimately win the day.

All this aside, however, it's our friend Beth's blog who provides the most compelling reason to see the film:

"Kristen Stewart jumping around in a t-shirt and black panties, with Joan Jett hair, and an electric guitar, is just movie gold; I don’t care who you are!"

Let's just hope Ms. Stewart's talent keeps emerging (in films like this and Adventurland) even while she's chained to the fucking Twilight series!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Nog Sees Amanda Seyfried Naked (in Atom Egoyan's Chloe)!

Like his Canadian compatriot Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan has often made films about sex that are (deliberately) unsexy, approaching the subject with a clinical detachment (Exotica, for instance, is a very good film, but if you're looking for a sexy film about strip clubs, you've probably got the wrong film). With Chloe, which is easily his highest profile project in terms of acting talent (Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson, Ms. Seyfried), Egoyan seems to be trying to maintain some semblance of a grip on his usual tones and themes while still delivering a (more or less) mainstream product which is, at its core, essentially an erotic thriller about obsession with a plot not-so-different from any dozen other films of that type (and a remake of a French film which I have not seen). Anyway, Egoyan's attempt to fuse his usual "arthouse" sensibilty with the mainstream is not very successful.

The plot in a sentence: Julianne Moore believes her husband (Neeson) has been cheating on her so she hires a lovely young escort/prostitute (Seyfried as the titular Chloe) to pose as a flirt and test his inclinations. The film is at its best in the sections where Seyfried verbally relates (often graphically) her discoveries to Moore. Here we see Egoyan's interests in the manipulation of point-of-view emerging, but unlike his earlier, better films, this time it's mainly used in the service of the film's obligatory thriller "twist," such as it is (you'll see it coming far in advance). By the time Chloe arrives at its laughable final moments, no one is likely to feel much investment in it (the motivations of the characters alternate between unbelievable--Moore--and deliberately inscrutable--Chloe). But let's end by addressing the reason that a few people will be drawn to the theater for this: yes, you see Seyfried naked early and often and complete with a lesbian scene.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Nog Takes a Dip in the Hot Tub Time Machine!

"It turns out we had a lot in common. We both love titties and Motley Crue." If you find lines such as that amusing (guilty!), then you'll get a few laughs out of Hot Tub Time Machine. But the film as a whole doesn't work as well as it could have. I'd have preferred something in the vein of Better off Dead and One Crazy Summer, those John Cusack/Savage Steve Holland 80's flicks that don't shy away from absurd and surreal humor (the more recent Wet Hot American Summer channels that tone pretty well, garnering it a deserved cult following). There's a bit of such humor here, but mainly the film alternates between the ultra-crudity of recent "bromances" and a less abrasive, more nostalgic tone that hearkens back to 80's teen-sex comedies and of course time-travel flicks such as (primarily) Back to the Future. The tones can be jarring, with the latter, gentler tone working much better than the former. But when the film works, it works pretty well. An inspired recurring gag involving a one-armed Crispin Glover (who many viewers of course know primarily as BTTF's father McFly) is nearly worth the price of admission in its own right. It made me laugh every time (until the punch line arrives as an inevitable let-down, since the gag itself involves viewer anticipation).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Nog and The Ghost Writer! / Also: "Chaos Reigns": Nog Sees Von Trier's Antichrist!

The early months of the year are often considered a dead time at the multiplex yet, oddly enough, they've brought us films from two of our master craftsmen: Scorsese and Polanski. While I found Scorsese's Shutter Island (mostly) entertaining, it was too much of a jumble of genres for my taste. Polanski's The Ghost Writer, on the other hand, is a straightforward take on the paranoid thriller that manages to pin you to your seat with none of the usual action movie contrivances (well, I suppose there's one very slow car chase and a single gunshot) and while maintaining a rather light and breezy tone (much of the film is very funny). Sharply written and roundly well-acted by an odd cast (Pierce Brosnan? Kim Cattrall?), this is probably the most fun I've had at the movies this year. Then again, I haven't seen Hot Tub Time Machine (yet).


After making it through Dogville (and Dancer in the Dark, for that matter), I swore I'd had enough of Lars von Trier's shenanigans and pretentiousness. But then along comes Antichrist, a movie in which Willem Dafoe chats with a talking animatronic fox. Of course I had to watch it--and did so on Netflix, where you can stream it right now, if you dare.

The film's already-notorious final bursts of violence are largely matters of public knowledge at this point, but I'll still refrain from spoilers and just think, briefly, about some of the things von Trier seems to be getting at (as far as I understand them, which is not very far). Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (while making love, in black and white and in slow-motion and set to classical music, complete with pornographic penetration likely spliced in from some other source) suffer the loss of their son and retreat to a home in the woods (called Eden, but not quite paradise) where Dafoe believes he can coach Gainsbourg through her grief (the film is organized into chapters: grief, pain, despair, etc). In Eden, Gainsbourg goes increasingly off the rails (she is quite often naked and crying and screaming, which won her an award at Cannes) and retreats into a world influenced by her former academic gender/feminist research ("Gynocide!"), eventually proceeding to hurt Defoe and herself in unspeakable fashion (I had to look away a few times). A late-film revelation concerning the dead son adds a bit of (much-needed) depth to the film, dealing with ideas of unintentional (or unconscious?) "violence" that (may?) resonate with the themes of Gainsbourg's research, and the whole thing ends with a haunting, supernatural final image (and, indeed, much of the film has a wonderfully creepy look and feel that rivals any recent horror film). Also, did I mention that Dafoe chats with a talking fox? I won't say that the film is necessarily worth watching (although it might be, at least for some of you, Matthew!), but something about the intensity and intimate nature of watching via Netflix made me a little more tolerant than I might have been had I traveled to KC and paid ten bucks for this experience on the big-screen.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Nog Hangs Out With The Crazies!

No, this is not a post documenting an evening at Harbour Lights, but rather a quick take on the horror remake of a largely-unknown George Romero horror film which I have not seen since I was young. So I can't compare the two. On its own, however, this is a more effective film that most of the recent remakes/reboots that I have seen, which isn't necessarily saying that much (and, obviously, Matthew's the expert here, not me).

The Crazies establishes a suitably creepy atmosphere as small-town Iowa residents suddenly begin acting...well, crazy! Timothy Olyphant (whose new TV series Justified is supposed to be pure coolness) is fine as the local sheriff (our hero) and Radha Mitchell is...attractive (and mostly wasted in her role as doctor/wife). The film plays, to some extent, like a zombie flick, but these crazies aren't your run-of-the-mill brain-eaters. They just want to kill you, any way they can, and some of these scenes are very effective (though they quickly become monotonous and the film relies overly, as per usual, on fake scares designed to make the target audience jump and squeal and clutch their dates). The real villain of the film, however, is not the "crazies" themselves, but the military, who we soon learn are responsible for the behaviors and their containment. The military storyline could benefit from attaching an individual face to the villainy (I'm guessing the original fleshed out the military storyline?), but the filmmakers here don't want to slow down the action, so the film just rushes along toward an ending that is either (a) admirably bleak or (b) a final "fuck you" to the audience, depending on your particular worldview.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Nog Visits Burton's Wonderland (or is it Underland?)

Tim Burton's surreal sensibility certainly seems perfectly suited to an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, but his film is only sporadically effective (at best). Maybe we can blame Disney (did they keep some of Burton's darker whims at bay?), or maybe the screenplay, which mostly abandons the wordplay of the books in favor of a streamlined, action formula in which Alice must prepare to battle the Jabberwock. So we're left with a mixed-bag of things that work pretty well (Bonham-Carter is amusing as the Red Queen, Crispin Glover is suitably bonkers--and creepy--as the Knave of Hearts, and that floating Cheshire Cat would probably freak you the fuck out if you were on 'shrooms) and things that don't work very well at all (Depp's Mad Hatter, whose "dance" at the end of the film stops the movie dead in its tracks, with even the actors looking vaguely embarrassed). The 3D, too, is hit-and-miss, occasionally adding depth to Burton's always interesting (if now overly familiar) production design but more often feeling like old-school 3D gimmickry (as opposed to the glorious new Age of Avatar!). For a Burton fan such as myself, it's watchable but disappointing. I'd rank it a notch above Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and waaaay below Sweeney Todd in terms of recent Burton, whose next project really needs to be something original (if not a Scissorhands, perhaps at least a...Big Fish!).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nog Visits Shutter Island

I suppose if you've given the world Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, you've pretty much earned the right to do whatever you want, even if that means making a so-so psychological thriller with an obnoxious twist ending. Scorsese, of course, is an absolute scholar of just about every film genre, and here he seems to be drawing especially on Hitchcockian paranoia and suspense in terms of atmosphere, as well as a long line of other conspiracy/mindfuck flicks (many of them better than this). For awhile it's great fun, and the dream sequences with Michelle Williams, especially, have a memorable, vivid look and feel to them, but the film ultimately doesn't feel as carefully crafted as we expect from even lesser Scorsese, particularly in the protracted exposition that follows the big reveal near the end. Will the film hold up to repeat viewings, revealing early details that enrich the pay-off? (in the way that, say, The Sixth Sense does). Somehow I don't think so. But of course I'll eventually watch it again. It is a Scorsese film, after all!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nog vs. Bronson!

Nicholas Winding Refn's Bronson, an odd, fascinating biopic of "Charley Bronson," begins with the title character (who adopts the moniker of the famous film vigilante) addressing an invisible audience in an empty auditorium. "I always wanted to be famous," he says, and in his mind, he certainly is (the empty auditorium suggests otherwise). Bronson (played by Tom Hardy, who offers a fearless, award-worthy performance) gained his notoriety, such as it is, by becoming known as "Britain's most violent prisoner," prone to stripping naked, painting himself with something like war-paint, and beating the ever-loving hell out of anyone that comes near him. The film is not interested in psychological motivation and in fact suggests that a fondness for violence is simply in his nature (along with a destiny of jail: watch for the nice, darkly funny shot of baby Bronson clutching the bars of his crib). He finally lands in jail at nineteen, almost intentionally, it seems, sensing that 1970's Britain has nothing to offer him but a stifling domestic existence that won't tolerate his true nature, and his life from then on out is a succession of prisons and mental institutions (an interesting sequence raises the Clockwork Orange-ish question of the cruelty of "curing" someone like Charley). Refn's film mostly bounces smoothly back and forth between Bronson's stage monologues and brutal prison fight sequences set to classical and techno music before leaving us with an absolutely haunting final shot of Bronson that almost demands sympathy for him. A very good film for those that can handle the brutality.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Nog Sees The Wolfman!

Benicio del Toro, always brooding and hirsute, seems like he might transform into a wolfman in any of his movies, so he's well-cast in Joe Johnston's The Wolfman, a production that's apparently been delayed and reconfigured so often it's hard to say who's responsible for what. But what's finally been delivered is a pretty unwieldy mix of gothic drama (the production design is generally effective in conveying the eerie moors and insane asylums of Victorian England) and over-the-top CGI-gore (heads and severed limbs are flying, presumably in an attempt to please the teenage boy crowd, who will almost certainly still be bored for most of the film). While the CGI effects of the Wolfman's killing sprees may be run-of-the-mill and ill-suited to the tone of the rest of the film, the transformations (surely the mark of a great werewolf film) are at least reasonably successfully staged, though nothing to make you forget, say, An American Werewolf in London. By the end of the film, all attempts at moderately believable drama have been tossed aside, and we're treated to a werewolf-vs-werewolf battle that's unintentionally comic, proving once again that intelligent big-budget multiplex horror is pretty much a genre of the past.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Nog and Crazy Heart

Bad Blake is this year's Randy the Ram. Like Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler, Jeff Bridges' turn in Crazy Heart is a perfect mix of character and actor that never feels less than fully authentic. Blake is an aging country star who quit writing new material long ago. He's been eclipsed by a younger generation who are all surface flash (one of them, Tommy Sweet, learned everything he knows from Blake himself). But Blake has lived the life he sings, full of failed relationships and hard drinking, and by the time we meet him, rolling up in his old pick-up to a shitty gig in a bowling alley, it's taken his toll on him. Sure, he'll sing you the song you want to hear, but he might have to step outside and throw up midway through it (watch for the little smile he flashes when he returns to the stage). Crazy Heart's material is familiar--it's essentially a story of love and possible redemption (in the form of a lovely single mother and small-town music reporter played by Maggie Gyllenhaal)--but the film feels very honest with its characters and is full of subtle, knowing glimpses into the unglamourous side of the music industry. It may not be the best film ever made about a broken-down old country singer (surely that's Tender Mercies, right?), but its an awfully good one (and as if to confirm this, Mercies' Robert Duvall his own self shows up in the last half hour to take Blake fishing!). I look forward to Bridges' Oscar speech.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nog and The Messenger

Oren Moverman's The Messenger is riveting stuff, at least for the majority of its running time, with strong performances and a sharp screenplay. For most of the film we simply observe Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) and new recruit Will (Ben Foster) on their duties to notify the NOK (next of kin) within 24 hours after a loved one has been killed in combat. Harrelson's performance is very impressive here: Tony is skilled in the job, able to shut down emotionally in the situations, but Harrelson's face nonetheless registers the pain that goes along with this work. And the film is unsparing in these notification scenes, forcing us to watch as people register the shock of losing their husbands and sons, sobbing, collapsing, sometimes even turning violent. Tension builds between Tony and Will due to the newcomer's tendency toward empathy: Will even strikes up a complex relationship of sorts with a grieving widow. A road trip segment near the end threatens the film's otherwise tight focus, but it fully recovers with a lengthy, powerful scene in which Will relates his own wartime experiences to a mostly silent Harrelson, who somehow manages to steal the scene just by listening intently.

Once again, we have a strong war film that audiences are steadfastly avoiding, but hopefully Harrelson will get a supporting actor nod and bring the film a little of the attention it deserves.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Nog Reviews A Single Man!

In our first glimpse of George, he's underwater. It's a dream, but an adequate representation of his current existence, submerged in grief after the death of his companion Jim. In Tom Ford's debut film, A Single Man, we float along with George over what may well be the last few days of his life (he's decided to kill himself). The film, as I suppose one might expect from a famous fashion designer, looks amazing, full of unusual close-ups and beautiful slow-motion imagery. As a gay man in 1962, George may be an "invisible minority," a term he uses in his English class, but he seems to see his world in hyper-real detail (whether or not it sees him). Some critics have argued that the film's raw emotions get lost in its stylistic flourishes, but (with a few exceptions) I don't think that's necessarily the case. The film, as much as anything else, is a reflection on the nature of time--the desire to hasten one's own march toward death; the difficulty of taking pleasure in one's immediate surroundings--and as such justifies much of its visual and storytelling extravagance. And then there's Colin Firth as George. I'm sure I've written him off many times as simply someone for young women to swoon over in Jane Austen adaptations and forgettable romantic comedies, but it turns out he's the real deal. Sorry, Firth! And Julianne Moore, as his boozy, long-time, long-suffering friend Charley, is equally powerful.

Verdict: visually striking and incredible performances (and you'll only find one of those qualities in Avatar!).

Monday, January 18, 2010

Nog Sees Herzog and Cage's Bad Lieutenant and His Soul is STILL Breakdancing!

If we're to believe the well-known lunatic Werner Herzog, he's never actually seen Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. Supposedly (I guess?) he just liked the premise (and title?) and decided to make his own film about a corrupt, depraved, drugged-up cop and place Nic Cage in the Keitel role and shift it from New York to New Orleans and give it the odd title of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Ferrara has said that Herzog can burn in hell.

It's certainly hard to pinpoint many parallels between individual scenes, though at least one is pretty close: Keitel's legendarily perverse exploitation of an underage girl at a traffic stop becomes Cage having his way with a young woman during a traffic stop (while making her boyfriend watch and asking her bizarre questions about whether her parents used to enjoy seeing her in school plays!). If Herzog hasn't seen the original, he's no doubt heard about its major scenes.

Origin stories aside, though, I suppose the film ultimately has to exist on its terms. So, does it work? Well, mostly as a curiousity, I think. While the story itself follows a pretty familiar police-procedural path, the reason we're watching is to see Nic Cage come unhinged! Oh, and he does! The problem with the performance, though, is that audiences have become so accustomed to seeing Cage act bonkers in (generally pretty bad) mainstream films, that it's damn near impossible to figure out if he's giving a real, go-for-broke performance or just indulging in a collection of mannerisms he's cultivated throughout his career (can the answer be: both?).

The film's trailer has developed an immediate cult following, so it's easy to imagine a great deal of the audience (I'm guilty) awaiting the scenes we've been hearing about, such as the imaginary iguana staring contest (set to funky music!) and the breakdancing soul. But don't worry, because there's plenty of other weird shit to enjoy (I swear there seems to be a car-wreck scene shot from the point-of-view of an alligator).

Aside from the general nuttiness factor and Cage's wild performance, the film's other biggest advantage is its setting. Herzog's post-Katrina New Orleans is a place where corruption seems to seep right out of the landscape and into the body (the film recalls the great Chinatown a bit in the way it creates a world that is simply ripe for depravity and exploitation). The film's one potential (arguable) moment of epiphany seem to arise when Cage realizes that sometimes the world can function without such corruption. But that quickly gives way to an ambiguous ending that hinges on whether fish can dream or not.

Recommended (obviously!).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nog and Big Fan

Robert Siegel's directorial debut (he recently wrote The Wrestler) is very dark, very funny, and maybe most of all, very sad. Patton Oswalt, the super-sharp stand-up comedian, plays Paul, a tollbooth operator who spends his days at work composing and practicing praises to the New York Giants which he later reads on a late-night sports-talk radio program (calling from his bedroom in a house he shares with his mother). During those few minutes on the show, Paul is well-known and well-liked: he becomes "Paul from Staten Island," a devoted, unfailingly optimistic Giants fan. During the rest of his life, he's just a lonely single guy whose life revolves around studying the team and their games, which he and his friend Sal watch on a small television outside the stadium (presumably they cannot afford tickets, yet find the proximity of the team and stadium essential: it's their version of a religious pilgrimage to the temple). The film's plot is set in motion when Paul and Sal happen to spot the Giants' quarterback in their neighborhood and creepily tail him to a strip club, where their starstruck effort to meet him turns into a scuffle that ends up having a huge bearing on the Giants' season and turns "Paul from Staten Island" into persona non grata among the Giants' faithful after his role in the scuffle is exposed on-air by "Philadelphia Phil," a similarly obsessive Eagles fan. The last act involves a real-life meeting at a bar between an increasingly-desperate Paul and his now arch-rival, Phil: it's a wonderfully played scene where the film could spin in any number of different directions but then chooses one you may not expect but yet, the more I reflect, is perfectly true to its characters. Siegel, in a Q & A DVD commentary, says his film was largely inspired by great "New York films" such as Saturday Night Fever and The Pope of Greenwich Village, and there's certainly a bit of Scorsese's Taxi Driver and King of Comedy as well, albeit with none of the visual flair. Oswalt, in the same Q & A, speaks of drawing on his real-life obsessions with comics to channel Paul's obsessive love of the Giants, but he isn't just playing a version of himself here: it's a real performance. This isn't a masterpiece, by any means, but these two men have combined to produce a small dark gem, and one of the most unusual "sports" films you'll see.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Nog Visits Gilliam's Imaginarium (and is Glad to Escape!).

I think of Terry Gilliam as a lunatic who breaks out of his lunatic-cage every few years and somehow manages to make a film despite continual and outrageous setbacks (ranging from the studio butchering of Brazil to, in this case, the death of Heath Ledger). Sometimes these films are very good (I like Brazil, of course, and 12 Monkeys, and am also pretty fond of The Fisher King), and sometimes they are pretty bad (The Brothers Grimm and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, whose unwieldy title alone pretty much tells you that the average moviegoer is not going to buy a ticket for it). There was always a sort of ramshackle element to Gilliam's fantasies (I haven't seen Time Bandits and Baron Munchausen in years but I recall both of them being awfully unwieldy yet somehow salvaged by their impressive visuals and the wild imagination of Gilliam. But Imaginarium never feels quite imaginative enough somehow. For every magic-mirror fantasy sequence that works (I kind of like the imagery of Depp floating around in a world of high-heeled shoes: yes, this really happens) another falls flat (a group of singing cops feels like a cut-rate version of Python's Lumberjack sketch). The reason a few people will seek this out, of course, is for the final performance of Ledger, but it's hard to imagine his fans will be satisfied with this (incomplete) performance as their final glimpse of a good actor. And while it was certainly nice of Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to step in after Ledger's passing to play the magic-mirror versions of his character and help Gilliam finish the film, their performances are so limited that only Farrell (yes, Farrell) makes any kind of impression. Tom Waits, however, playing the Devil, seems to be having an absolute blast, making us wish that the rest of the movie had even half that sense of fun. A disappointment and yet...I'll certainly be in line the next time Gilliam breaks free and makes another film.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Me and Orson Welles (and Nog)

Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles traces the few days leading up to the Mercury Theater's 1937 opening of Julius Caesar, under the direction/dictatorship of the young Orson Welles. Christian McKay's take on Welles is wonderful fun to watch, fully deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nod. McKay's Welles, despite his egocentricity, is also capable of being a great leader, somewhat akin to a military commander. In fact, he seems to see theater as a battle, where the audiences are "sons of bitches" (a favorite term of his) who must be made to pay attention and where the productions must be "lean and mean," shorn of all unecessary extravagance (he brags of his radio production of Hamlet, in which he cut the "To be or not to be" soliloquy because it didn't tell audiences anything they didn't already know). McKay is such a commanding presence here that the rest of this (arguably somewhat slight) film tends to evaporate around him. Essentially its the well-worn underdog formula, similar to a sports film only here it's a scrappy theater group overcoming the odds to achieve a wildly succesful opening night. One can easily enough imagine a mainstream audience being quite entertained by the film without any real knowledge of Welles whatsoever. And a few younger viewers had indeed wandered down to the arthouse to check it out, no doubt lured by the presence of "tween-dream" Zac Efron who is, in fact, the film's lead. He neither ruins nor enhances things much, but he does come off as a bit dull, though almost anyone would, I suppose, when crossing paths with Welles.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Nog Revisits Spike Lee's 25th Hour!

After spotting it on several "Best of the Decade" lists and at the urging of friends and former students, I decided to take another look at Spike Lee's 25th Hour, which I had not seen since its release early in 2002 and remembered very little. I liked it more this time.

Set in New York, just after 9/11, we watch the last day and night of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton, great performance) before he's sentenced to prison for drug dealing. Perhaps meant to parallel (somewhat) the city after the tragedy of 9/11 as it faces an unknown future, Monty's toughness slips a bit as he prepares to enter the new world of prison. In the film's most discussed scene, early on, we watch Monty deliver a furious monologue into a mirror, telling virtually every racial and ethnic group in the city to fuck themselves before turning his hatred inward, saving the worst for himself ("Fuck you, Montgomery Brogan. You had it all, and you threw it away, you dumb fuck!). But as the film ends, Lee shows us a panorama of the city's various types slipping by as Monty's father drives him to prison, and Monty's anger has dissolved by this point, along with his lengthy protracted fantasy of escaping his fate by starting a new life out West and reinventing himself in the classic American fashion. Instead, he'll go to prison in the city, and hope that it's still there when he gets out.

Lee isn't working from his own screenplay here (it's written by David Benioff), but 25th Hour feels like a Lee film, perhaps most especially in Monty's monologue, which recalls a similar sequence in Lee's masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, where various characters vent their racial frustrations to the camera. Like that film, 25th Hour is also, in some ways, a slice-of-life picture that speculates on the future of the city. In Do the Right Thing, the destruction comes from within (the racial unrest between the various groups living in close quarters), but in 25th Hour it has come from without, in the unexpected form of 9/11, leaving everyone, if not united, at least perhaps moving toward some temporary hopefulness or, failing that, at least choosing to believe in one, as we see in the following bitterly funny exchange. Looking down on Ground Zero from a high-rise penthouse, Monty's friends discuss the air quality in the city:

"Yeah, The New York Times says the air's bad down here."

"Oh, yeah? Well, fuck The Times.I read the Post."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Nog Deduces the Major Problems of Sherlock Holmes!

I'm not a fan of Guy Ritchie. I found things to like in both Lock, Stock and Snatch (Pitt's hilariously accented performance), but fail to understand the people who watch and rewatch them. The style is too hyperactive for me. I'll take Tarantino any day, who allows his characters room to breathe (and talk and talk and talk) even beneath his grab-bag of stylistic devices. So I was immediately leery of Ritchie as the choice to turn Sherlock Holmes into a very ass-kicking/James Bond-y kind of sleuth, and the film is about what I expected: hyperkinetic action sequences and mildly diverting banter between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law). The two good actors do work well together (the film seems to be striving to evoke some sort of 80's action-buddy comedy nostalgia), and, in Ritchie's defense, he does occasionally employ his barrage of quick cuts and slo-mo to purposes that actually suit the characters (for instance, we often see Downey's Holmes mentally walk himself through the steps of a fight before we see the actual fight itself,: it's interesting the first two or three times). As mainstream entertainment, one could certainly do worse, but I won't be first in line for the inevitable sequel that the film spends the last five minutes setting up (unless, of course, they hire a new director and get somebody really fucking cool to play Moriarty!).