Saturday, August 27, 2016

[Review] Wiener-Dog

Todd Solondz's Wiener-Dog is essentially the anti-sentimental pet movie. It's dark, strange, deliberately edgy, and straight-up grotesque at times. But just because it's deeply subversive - doesn't mean it's good filmmaking.

After opening with a view of a cloud that looks like a wiener, the story follows the odd path of a Dachshund aka wiener dog who bounces between eccentric owners, including a dysfunctional family (comprised of Tracy Letts, Julie Delpy, Keaton Nigel Cooke), a concerned veterinarian (Greta Gerwig), a screenwriting professor played by Danny DeVito, and more.

Human misery and the thought of inevitable death looms over every single dreary and deadpan vignette in Wiener-Dog. The pseudo-shock humor isn't just offbeat--it's off-putting and pitch-black, whether we're talking about the elegant tracking shot of a trail of diarrhea, or a scene entailing the absolute worst bedtime story ever told in cinema (which involves a rapist dog and a name-drop list of diseases, and that's only scratching the surface). There's a cold, stilted stink to this film. It's like Napoleon Dynamite if all of the mundane absurdities warped into drastic morbidities.

Even as putrid as this thing is, its perverse style is sadistically entrancing for a while. However, it wears out its can't-look-away welcome after the ironic in-movie intermission, which displays a cartoon montage, a country song ode to the wiener dog, and a cue to to take a trip to the lobby for concessions--as if you'd actually want to eat a hot dog at this point.

( 5/10 )

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Friday, August 26, 2016

[Review] Morris from America

"It's kinda slow... It's got no hook," a teen says to his dad after being introduced to "Come Clean" by Jeru the Damaja. His dad responds "Get out of here with that no hook shit... This is music right here," and then only half-jokingly sends him to his room. The classic generation gap argument about rap music endearingly sets the tone for this coming-of-age dramedy that you have to check out.

Morris (Markees Christmas) is a 13-year-old African-American kid adjusting to his new and confusing life in Heidelberg, Germany after his dad Curtis (Craig Robinson) relocated for work. We follow Morris' growing pains and his first-time "experiments", all while he crushes on a super-blonde German girl named Katrin (Lina Keller), who is a couple school grades ahead of him.

Fittingly, the film boasts a smooth rap soundtrack that practically bumps whenever someone isn't talking, almost creating a headphone Pause & Play effect. There's also a whimsy quality to the aesthetic--filled with whip pans, zoom-ins & zoom-outs, and daydream sequences. During a scene when Morris gets lost in his music at an art museum, the sculptures trippingly nod their heads to the beat.

And while we're mostly used to seeing Craig Robinson in straight-up comedic roles, here he's warm, understated, and even a bit melancholy, as his character reflects on his recently passed-away wife. He's also trying to find a balance between being a cool dad and a disciplinary mentor as Morris gets involved in some rebellious shenanigans. But don't get it twisted, the comedy chops are still present and ready to unleash at any minute, and the funny script makes sure it happens.

Morris from America is a little light on conflict and story, but it's a worthwhile watch. Easy listening. The film serves as an affectionate ode to hip-hop, a sentimental father/son story, and a sweet romp of young love and blending unique perspectives. Oh, and there's plenty of Jay Z references. You gotta have the Jay Z references!

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

[Review] Maggie's Plan

Indie staple Greta Gerwig leads the way in this low-key romantic dramedy with a scholarly twist.

The self-anointed "bridge between art and commerce" Maggie (Gerwig) is anxious to become a mother and has an artificial insemination plan all lined up. Meanwhile, she falls for an anthropology professor named John (Ethan Hawke). 3 years later, Maggie and John are now married, but Maggie regrets it. So, she attempts to get John and his haughty ex-wife (Julianne Moore) back together.

It takes a while to get going, and the initial flash-forward is awkwardly abrupt and disjointed, but eventually the narrative settles (kind of) as Maggie engages in an unconventional and freshly spun matchmaker/love triangle role. The script wields around large words, as if it's browsing through the glossary in a college textbook or scrolling through a list of advanced courses with long-ass titles. It's impressive, but also unnecessarily sesquipedalian(!)--like you've been thrown into a random lecture hall against your will. So it'd be completely understandable if the stuffiness was a turn-off for some.

And even if it's by design, Maggie's Plan still can't help but feel a little too confused about which direction it's going in and what exactly it's attempting to achieve, story-wise. It also lacks the utter charm, humor, and heart of, say--Frances Ha or Mistress AmericaHowever, the early screwball scene of Maggie injecting the sperm and then crab-walking across her apartment to answer the door is hilarious. Greta Gerwig is great as always and a little less loopy than usual, while Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph lend some amusing supporting roles as a bickering couple.

Maggie's Plan isn't going to change lives, but if you're a Greta fan, it's worth enrolling in for 90 minutes.

( 7/10 )

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

[Review] Imperium

With Daniel Radcliffe front and center, the new limited/VOD release Imperium delves into the ugly and despicable subculture of white-supremacists. It manages to be different from American History X and even this year's Green Room, but it isn't nearly as potent as either one.

Inspired by real events, Nate (Radcliffe), an introverted and empathetic FBI agent with little experience out in the field, is recruited to go undercover as an informant in order to infiltrate a neo-Nazi organization and thwart their terroristic plots. It's a premise that actually sounds a lot like the Melissa McCarthy comedy Spy--until the skinhead part. Oh, and it's obviously not a comedy...

The film totes a fairly keen screenplay that mines for teetering conflict and dilemmas in every situation that Nate is involved in: The task of deeply establishing a false identity--even getting permanent ink, while attempting to keep any notion of his real self concealed... Being forced to engage in criminal activities that are obviously against his beliefs on multiple levels... The nerve-racking perils of being one slip-up away from death amongst such a ruthless group of people... At one point, he's interrogated for wearing a pair of Levi's, or as his skinhead boss calls them - "Jew Jeans".

Between playing a farting corpse and now a neo-Nazi, it's safe to say Daniel Radcliffe has chosen a variety of audacious roles lately, and even though his English accent sneaks through a bit here, he still does a swell job--essentially playing two multi-dimensional roles within the same film.

Unfortunately, the film itself is not as gritty or impactful as I'd hoped. It loses some tension toward the end, and it takes a really formulaic way out that we've seen dozens of times in undercover fed movies. Still, watch it for Radcliffe.

( 7/10 )

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

[Review] Hell or High Water

Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and Ben Foster star in this modern western crime drama that sneaks up on you and lights your expectations on fire.

Hell or High Water opens with an exhilarating, rubber-burning sequence that involves a rugged duo of mustached brothers going on a bank-robbing spree in West Texas. Chris Pine plays the in-debt Toby, and Ben Foster is the ex-con Tanner. Meanwhile, an aging Ranger on the verge of retirement (Jeff Bridges) and his partner (Gil Birmingham) are deliberately on their trail.

The midsection sees a lull in the action, but it isn't a bad break. It's more of a calm before the showdown. A waiting game of sorts. We also get to witness some mighty fine acting along the way (and Chris Pine smashing a dude's head into the door of a brand new Mustang). Ben Foster is an absolute goon in this, perfectly playing the scuzzy hothead brother whose life is fueled by trouble. Chris Pine is solid, as his character is a little less rambunctious and more conflicted about the crimes he's committing. At one point, after Tanner causes a scene in a casino, Toby asks "How have you managed to stay out of prison for over a year?" And Tanner responds, "It's been difficult."

It's no surprise that Jeff Bridges is superb here in a notable later-career role that at least deserves to be mentioned alongside Crazy Heart and True Grit. And even though the film carries a fairly serious tone, he's down to shoot some of his scruffy humor into the mix. But on a more somber note, there's a particularly memorable conversation where his weary yet dedicated character ponders when his own time will be up. In a movie with wild chases and ammo exchanges, one of the most striking scenes is a quiet heart-to-heart talk in a motel room. That said, the climax does bring the heat, erupting with a sweaty intensity and a standoff sequence that reminded me of the 1941's Humphrey Bogart vehicle High Sierra, but with a couple of tweaks and Ben Foster shifting into an unhinged gear.

Directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), Hell or High Water isn't a film where all the ends are neatly tied up. And given the bullet-holes-in-the-windshield nature of the story, it's all the better for it.

* 8.5/10 *

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