Tag Archives: film review

Wiener Dog by Todd Solondz

In late spring/early summer, I saw the preview for Wiener Dog and wanted to see it. (The trailer’s great.) I didn’t imagine I would be anywhere near an independent theater during the release date, but as luck would have it, I did happen to be at the right place at the right time and got to see the film last weekend.

image from ca.picclick.com

An woman, possibly a volunteer, taking movie tickets warned us that it was a weird movie, not for everyone, she didn’t really like it, and on and on. She also started explaining the plot—but nothing that wasn’t already implied in the movie trailer.

Then, before the movie began, I watched as she deterred several other movie-goers from seeing the film. In doing so, she also explained the plot of the film and this time she definitely gave away major spoilers! Fortunately, since plot doesn’t usually engage me all that much, spoilers don’t necessarily ruin a film for me.

Shock over a theater working handing out spoilers aside, the film was actually pretty great. My favorite scenes were with Greta Gerwig and Ellen Burstyn (not shown together), but the other sections are worth keeping as well. The film follows the wiener dog’s impact on various lives as it gets adopted, handed off, and so forth. Each section offers some unique, horrifying, and beautiful glimpse at human nature—not an easy task, but achieved here.

In terms of depth and complexity, the movie delivers. However, I did have some trouble with continuity. I don’t think I give away too much when I say that the movie starts off showing how the dog is transferred from one scenario to the next, but mid-way, that transfer is no longer documented. By the end, the viewer can’t tell if it’s supposed to be the same wiener dog. And I think it matters because my interpretation of some of the meaning in the film would have been altered by knowing if it was supposed to be the same dog throughout.

Next, one could argue that the final scenario moves outside of realism. Since the film seems solidly based in realism up to that point, the shift seemed more distracting and accidental, like the film was breaking its own rules. Sure, the filmmaker broke the rule for a purpose, which was effective, but I think the film would have been more consistent throughout if it could have found a way to make the same points without delving outside of the rules of our realm.

So yeah, it’s a good movie. Normally, I would probably call this dog a dachshund, but the movie will have you saying (and singing) “wiener dog.” Wiener dog.

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The Revenant by Alejandro González Iñárritu

I got to see The Revenant, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, over the weekend because Leonardo DiCaprio and Iñárritu. I started seeing previews for it last fall and knew immediately that I wanted to see it…because Leonardo DiCaprio and Iñárritu. I’ll watch DiCaprio do anything. He gets a hard time from my male peers because the women in their lives made them watch Titanic (which is a great film, by the way), and they targeted their anger at DiCaprio. He became their nemesis, and they’ve overlooked all his work since then. However, while DiCaprio is beautiful, his work as an actor absolutely stands the test of time.

The Revenant (2015) Poster

image from imdb.com

DiCaprio does depth in The Revenant, but the role doesn’t particularly call for range or complexity. He might finally get the Oscar for this one, but it will be one of those that *are on behalf of his entire body of work* because he’s done plenty of roles that were absolutely Oscar-worthy. (From DiCaprio, you can always expect a shriek (his are singularly evocative), and they don’t make you wait for it in this film.)

The Revenant is beautiful. It’s shot only with natural light. The landscapes are breathtaking. Iñárritu frequently includes long clips of running water, scan birds flying through the sky, or unset through the black silouette of a forest–the kind of stuff I would Instagram. In that way, he has a tendency toward over romanticization and daydream and, in this case, it didn’t always fit the grittiness and realness of the film.

I thought Iñárritu’s Birdman was really interesting in that it broke convention, but still felt like an Aronofky film to me. Similarly, The Revenant does not break convention. If you know and love great mountain man films, like Jeremiah Johnson, you’ll notice pretty typical “mountain man tropes” from start to end. The film follows a pretty typical “mountain man movie” trope.

Here’s somewhat of a

***spoiler alert***

In the film, you get a stoic man, completely competent in hunting, fire building, and surviving for months on end in high mountain blizzards. His only drive is to avenge the death of his Indian wife and children–all senselessly murdered in cold blood, of course. He eats buffalo. He contents with wolves and a grizzly. He navigates seemlessly between the friendly and the hostile Natives. He speaks several Native languages. He survives a blizzard inside the carcass of a large dead animal. He stumbles through cold mountain streams. Audiences can’t believe he’s still alive. Audiences marvel at how quickly they themselves would be dead in similar circumstances. In the beginning, the man is stripped bare, by the end it goes unimaginably further. In the end we are all wondering, what now? What was it all for?

The Revenant is relentless. Some of it’s most difficult scenes are seem to never end. Despite it’s length, the film held my attention. I wasn’t dying for it to end. I was engaged throughout. This one’s worth seeing in the theater if just for the magnificent and enormous shots of landscape.

August: Osage County by John Wells

Let me start by quoting Cam from Modern Family, who astutely observed the following: “Excuse me, Meryl Streep could play Batman and be the right choice.” And I agree.

I watched this during a movie night with my mom. She was working on her art, and I was knitting, and we made the mistake of watching it after Terms of Endearment, which is perfection and nothing else can be said about it.

image from amazon.com

Netflix then suggested we watch August: Osage County directed by John Wells. This film has good acting all over the place. Each member of the stunning ensemble cast absolutely shines–as you would expect. Except there are so many other problems with the film that I started to marvel that the actors could pull off these impossible scenes.

So, first: melodrama. This film is melodrama. Midway through the film, Meryl Streep is running wildly through a hay field, chased by her reticent daughter (Julia Roberts), and the audience is just sort of embarrassed, and tired, and no longer buying in (even though we wanted to! even though we love Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts!). The scene where they’re running through the field and the very long, après funeral dinner scene are so over the top that there’s no recovering. The melodrama might go over better on stage.

That said, the film does deal with compelling emotional content and succeeds at pairing emotional content to characters, but struggles with putting those emotions to plot and story. The film deals with powerful stuff: struggles with addiction, unhealthy boundaries, and loving and withholding. With more subtlety, this film could have been spectacular.

 

Trumbo by Jay Roach

At this point I’ll watch Bryan Cranston do anything, which is why I went when I had a chance to see him in Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach. Diane Lane is always exquisite, and Louis CK’s in it too!

image from imdb.com

This film felt long. It’s about two hours and fifteen minutes. It took me awhile to warm up to the characters. I’m a big Louis CK fan, but it took me awhile to buy him in a dramatic role. (He gets there, don’t worry.) Though the whole film felt somewhat rigid at first, it does warm up and pick up so that it is not dragging at the end. While I left the film feeling satisfied, I still think it could’ve been edited more aggressively.

Politically, the “red scare,” and McCarthyism is a fascinating and disturbing (and ongoing?) part of US history. It doesn’t take much to engage me on the topic. Yet, I had a hard time getting into this film. That said, it is worth watching. Because it picks up. Because it’s beautiful. Because it rises to something interesting and important.

Now, let me break it down. First, the smoke. These people are smoking constantly, and the cinematographer is having some fun with it. There are these glorious shots of white smoke swirly slowly and intricately around people’s faces. There’s a smoke shot toward the end that is absolutely over the top. Thick white smoke swirls through each grain of thick, gray mustache hair, and it’s both repulsive and lovely and artful.

And on that note, I’ll also talk about Bryan Cranston’s physicality—something I think he’s understood for his entire acting career. (I first noticed it in his Malcolm in the Middle days). He, more than anyone, knows the power of an ordinary middle-aged man wearing tighty whiteys, and he’s not afraid to use it.

Finally, the design. This was L.A. in the 1940s and 1950s. Every couch, every glass of water, and every earring is on point. I was busy watching the design elements while I waited for characters to develop and the plot to pick up, and that was more than enough to keep me satisfied.

The Skeleton Twins by Craig Johnson

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are amazing in this film. They have a ton of chemistry and that probably goes back to their days together at Saturday Night Live. If you’re me, and you’re a fan of SNL, and you’re a fan of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, you’ll love watching these two together on screen. Comedy actors can really excel at drama, and you see that in The Skeleton Twins.

image from wikipedia.org

image from wikipedia.org

Before I saw the film, I was told by a trusted person that it was “good, but dark.” And, that’s true. My mind goes in a million directions when someone says “dark,” and it really wasn’t so dark as all that, but it is a heavy film. It’s about twins who are desperately struggling in their lives. They are estranged, but the reasons are unclear throughout most of the film. Toward the end, catalyst for their decade-long estrangement slowly unfolds.

The acting is great. The characters are unique and real. (Luke Wilson is really good in this too!) The plot, writing, and direction are all unique and nuanced and good. However (HOWEVER!), I don’t think the film addresses a universal truth, and that’s something I think good film should do. I left the film thinking, “Yeah, it’d be nice to have a twin that is tuned in to me in my times of suffering, a twin who holds the key to cheering me up when I am down, but I don’t have a twin, and most of us don’t have a twin.” Life is long and hard—we see that in the film. Unlike the Wiig and Hader’s struggling characters, the rest of us have to schlog through this life alone. Maybe if we’re lucky we have some parents, a sibling or two, a few close friends. But very few of us have a twin.

Somehow this film reminded me of Broken Flowers—also critically acclaimed and good in so many ways (and Jarmusch!)—but lacking, in my view, of a universal truth or experience. The films look very closely a unusual circumstances. Now, this isn’t to write the film(s) off entirely. For some people, this story (and fabulous acting) is enough. I’m finding, though, that I want my films to get at something more universal—something that is moving me and something I know is moving my fellow audience members as well.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a very Sundance-y Sundance movie, but it’s good! Sundance loves some great films, and this is one of them. First, this is indeed a movie about a dying girl. Because the title is so straightforward, I somehow thought it wouldn’t be so dark, but it was.

image from imdb.com

image from imdb.com

I also rewatched Mad Max: Fury Road this week (stay with me, it’s relevant!) and have continued to find meaning in the war boys’ concept of a “witness”—this idea of being witnessed in our acts of bravery, our acts of love, our acts of dying—all of it. It’s meaningful to me because I’ve always been so independent and only in the last few years have begun to understand the value of an invested witness.

I mention it because an important aspect of M&E&DG is that a very young man is witness to a dying girl. It’s something they stumble into, they resist, but, of course, it becomes meaningful in ways they couldn’t’ve anticipated or even previously comprehended. That kind of character growth and insight was lovely to watch, but it was also sophisticated enough that I think most audience members come away with deeper insights about what it means to connect more to “their people,” moving beyond assumptions and into really knowing another person.

One of the best moments in the film is when the cool history professor talks about how he lost his father at a young age. He said that even after his father’s death, he’s continues to learn about him. His father’s life continues to reveal itself. It started when his dad’s friends started sharing stories after his death. It continues all the time, in unimaginable ways, even decades later. I think the point here is that learning about our dead loved ones is part of what it means to be alive and self-aware.

As for me, I continue to learn about my own grandmothers. Both my great grandmother and her daughter (my mom’s mom) were a huge part of my early childhood. My great grandma even lived with us sometimes during the winter. She just stayed. She was Swedish. She was very quiet, and she loved me.  My grandma and great grandma died within two years of each other. They were a big part of my childhood, and then, in a relatively short period of time, they were both gone.

For awhile, it was sad, but okay, and this is the natural cycle of life. And then, I got really curious about them and asked my mom and aunties lots of questions about who my grandmothers were. I began to piece together my memories with their stories.  Over time, I can see how much the course of my life has been shaped by their influence. Decades later, I’ll remember idioms and wisdom about how to grow a garden, how to love one man. They suffered and loved for decades, and don’t we all? I am a witness to it all. There is meaning where meaninglessness wants to creep in. It reminds me that I am part of something bigger, family, culture, blood, brains. They are with me in memory and in my story, and that’s what I took away from M&E&DG.