Movie Review Monday: Wiener-Dog, directed and written by Todd Solenz

Adjusted wiener dog

“Wiener-Dog”  illustration 2016 by jpbohannon                                                                                                                                                       (based on one-line Picasso drawing of his dog LUMP)

I have always had a thing against dachshunds. I believe it stems from cartoon watching when I was a child. Back then, if you were a dachshund in a cartoon, you were typecast: you had to wear a monocle, smoke a cigarette in a long cigarette holder and dress like a Nazi officer. (German Shepherds were often the guard dogs, the grunts, but the dachshunds were ALWAYS the officers.) Anyway, the prejudice stuck, and I am still not fond of dachshunds.

So against my better instincts, I went to see Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog. A quirky series of vignettes, performed by an interesting cast, and tied together by a dachshund who is passed from one owner to the next. And while the dog itself has little to do with the different stories, it is the tie that binds, so to speak.

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Movie poster for Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog

We begin with a young boy (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a cancer survivor, whose father brings the dachshund home to the boy as a companion. The parents are self-absorbed; the boy is understandably interested in death and life and birth; and the mother, played by Julie Delpy, tries to answer his questions honestly. However, she has difficulty with this. (The story she tells to explain why it is important to have the dog spayed is extraordinary in its outlandishness. At one point in the story, the man in front of me moaned at the political incorrectness in her tale.)

The parents cannot handle the dog in their pristine house–who has gotten violently and graphically sick–and quickly take it to the vet to be put down. Here the vet’s assistant (Gretta Gerwig) steals the dog and brings it home. While shopping for dog-food, she meets an old high-school friend (Kieran Culkin) with a heroin problem. He is driving across country to Ohio to inform his brother of their father’s death. For some reason, she decides to accompany him. The dachshund sits on her lap throughout most of the trip and does nothing. Much like Gerwig herself.

Although the wiener-dog is given to Culkin’s brother and his wife in Ohio (Connor Long and Bridget Brown) at the end of Gerwig’s vignette, it next appears in New York City with a film-school instructor, Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito). Schmerz is waiting for his big break; his screenplay has been sitting in offices in Hollywood and it is obvious that the agents are not taking him seriously.

He is also greatly disliked by his students who feel he is a dinosaur and has nothing to offer their uber-hip selves. (One hipster film-student explains just how out of touch Schmerz is by claiming he probably has a box-set of Curb Your Enthusiasm, still watches Seinfeld, and thinks Woody Allen is terrific. Wow!)

And while DeVito’s character puts the dog in an adorable yellow dress and walks her through Manhattan on his way to school, his story is sad and does not end well.

And so somehow the wiener-dog  appears next with a curmudgeonly old woman (Ellen Burstyn). She is bitter about her life and her life choices. After her drug-addled granddaughter visits and asks for a very large check to help finance her artist boyfriend, (which she writes), the old-woman is visited by a series of versions of herself–selves she would have been, if she had been different. (This hearkens back to Danny DeVito story, where the teacher is ridiculed for his screenwriting mantra “what if.”)

This story does not end well either.

Wiener-Dog is beautifully shot, particularly the scenes of the little boy and the dog, of the dog and Ellen Burstyn, and the suburban landscapes that Gerwig and Culkin drive through. Full of light and color, they capture an America that always seems to have something hidden right under the surface. And the performances of Keaton Nigel Cooke, Danny DeVito, and Ellen Burstyn are poignant and memorable.

And there is a jokey Intermission sequence where a large Dachshund walks across the American landscape to a cowboy-type theme song, “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog.” It is fun and silly and for a moment takes our mind off some of the more unsettling ideas that lie beneath the tales that we are seeing.

Wiener-Dog is described as a dark comedy. I am discovering that the more I think about it, the darker it becomes.

 

Movie Review: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, dir.)…verisimilitude in film

“Verisimilitude” is a word I know from movie criticism and from literary criticism. I define it as a strict faithfulness to the truth of reality. And it is a concept that the movie director, Richard Linklater, has striven for in his triology, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. In many ways he has succeeded.

For those who don’t know, in 1995, Linklater cast his stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in the first movie, Before Sunrise, as young twenty-somethings who meet on a train from Budapest to Vienna, who spend a day and night together and go their separate ways. (That the day is June 16th, the day that James Joyce met his life partner Nora Barnacle and the day that his novel Ulysses takes place is one of the many Joycean allusions in the triology.)

Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Before Sunrise

Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke)
in Before Sunrise (1995)

To be truthful to his quest for truthfulness, Linklater nine years later, cast the same two actors to play the same characters who happen to meet again nine years later. This time Hawke’s Jesse is on a book tour in Paris when Delpy’s Celine meets him. His book–which fictionalizes the day they had spent together a decade ago–is a success. They spend this second time together walking through Paris before he must fly back to America. (Because the film takes place in mid-afternoon, Linklater only shot at that time to get the light exactly right. This is verisimilitide. )

Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) in  Before Sunset2004

Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) in
Before Sunset 2004

Now in the summer of 2013, we catch up once more with Jesse and Celine. As it is with the actors, it is with the characters–nine more years have passed for both. Now, in Before Midnight, Celine and Jesse have been together for nearly a decade. They have twin girls, and Jesse’s son with his ex-wife, now a young boy going into high-school, has spent the summer with his father and his new family in Greece.

In fact, as the film begins, Jesse is dropping his son off at the airport for the return flight home. Jesse is now a very successful novelist, having written two critically and commercially acclaimed novels (both based on the events that we saw in the previous two movies.) However, he is unhappy about his distance from his son and is toying with the idea of moving his European family to Chicago to be closer to the boy.

The film is divided into three basic scenes: the trip to the airport, a dinner at the villa they are sharing, and a night at hotel together without their daughters (a gift from their friends at the villa.) In the first scene, we see Jesse struggling with saying farewell to his son, Celine announcing that she has the opportunity to change jobs, and the two bantering amicably in the car, both daughters asleep in the back seat. However, Celine does not like the idea of a move to America or the prospect of refusing the career opportunity that has just now cropped up.

Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) in Before Midnight (2013)

Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke)
in Before Midnight (2013)

The second scene is at their villa where the males sit outside discussing literature while Celine and the women prepare the dinner. It is light, gregarious, and beautiful–but you feel the emotion lying low within Celine. The dinner itself is wonderful. At turns, amusing, intelligent, and poignant, the conversation is witty and enjoyable. There is a tad of acid in some of Celine’s comments, but for the most part, it is a dinner which I very much would have liked to have joined.

As a gift, their friends have bought them a child-free night in a hotel in the local town. After dinner, the two walk into town, talk, reminisce, and plan for the future. In the lobby, Jesse is recognized and asked to sign a book. Celine is also asked, as the reader assumes (correctly) that she is the woman whom Jesse writes about. She reluctantly agrees.

The night however does not go exactly the way they had planned.

Like its predecessors, Before Midnight is wonderful because it seems real. (There’s that “verisimiltude” again.) People talk, plan, argue, hurt, and enjoy. There are no cataclysmic disasters pushing them into conflict, no terrorists to fight, no snarky humor to overcome. It is simply two people at a patch in their relationship that is proving a little rough. In their forties now (both the actors and the characters), they are looking at life differently and with more cognizance of its quick passing. If I have problem, it is that Celine’s outburst–while we anticipate its coming–still seems to come out of nowhere. But it is wonderfully honest and wonderfully real.

But, maybe that’s the truth of life–and the truth of relationships–we know little of the turmoil going on in a partner’s soul. Maybe that’s the truth of the movie.

And while Hawke and Delpy have comfortably grown into their parts for the past two decades and while the small supporting cast is more than excellent (Walter Lassally as the aging writer with whom they are staying, Xenia Kalogeropoulou as his widowed friend, and Yiannis Papadopoulos and Athina Rachel Tsangari as the couple who present them with the child-free night), it is the setting that struck me most. Filmed on the southern Peloponnesian coast, it is filled with gorgeous coastline, quaint villages, memorable sunsets, and illuminating sunlight. When I got home from the film, I spent the next two days searching real-estate in the area.

I spent two weeks there once. I wouldn’t mind spending more.

Here’s the trailer, if you want: