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.