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!).