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.