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: Another Woman by Woody Allen–claiming a masterpiece

Poster for Woody Allen's 1988 film Another Woman

Poster for Woody Allen’s 1988 film Another Woman

In Woody Allen’s film Stardust Memories, a Martian invader gives Woody Allen’s character, Sandy Bates, the following advice: “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.”  At the time, one didn’t have to talk to aliens  to hear some people saying the same thing about Allen’s movies. They wanted funny, funnier, funniest.  Raised on Take the Money and a Run, Bananas, and Sleeper,  his fans wanted more of the sameantic, bumbling, wise-cracking Woody Allen.

And instead he created some dramatic masterpieces, which will long be remembered after Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.. has faded into irrelevance.

Another Woman appeared in 1988. In the eleven years between Annie Hall (1977) and Another Woman, Allen had written and directed eleven films (and starred in eight of them) Two years earlier in 1986, he had had great success–both critically and with the public–with Hannah and Sisters. 

However, there seemed to be a pattern with the public’s acceptance of these films at the time. Generally, fewer people went to his movies in which he did not act. (They needed their clown.) And the films in which he did not appear were usually his more serious work. Or at least, his “heavier” work. And thus, Another Woman failed to attract the audiences that most of his previous work had been garnering.

All of which is a shame, because Another Woman is a masterpiece.

Gena Rowlands in Another Woman

Gena Rowlands in Another Woman

Geena Rowlands plays Marion, chairman of the philosophy department, successful author, and a woman who believes she is better off not examining her own life and choices. (An odd choice in itself for a philosopher.) She is married to an eminent cardiologist and has a close relationship with his sixteen-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He relationship with her brother, her father, and even with herself is not as close nor honest.

In order to write undisturbed, Marion rents an apartment. (New York cardiologists must do very well because Marion and his apartment is gorgeous, as is her “get-away” apartment where she writes. Apartment prices in NYC must have been quite cheaper in 1988 than they are today!)

The building has a quirk in the ventilation and unless she puts sofa cushions up against the ventilators, she can hear everything in the psychiatrist’s office next door.  Which she soon begins to do purposefully. Removing the cushions, sends Marion down a rabbit-hole, a path which she is not sure she wants to pursue.

She becomes obsessed with one of the psychiatrist’s patients, a frail, pregnant, unhappy woman named Hope (Mia Farrow). From what she says, Hope is certainly unhappy, quite insecure and perhaps, even, suicidal. After a while, Hope’s overheard questioning of the choices she has made in life, leads Marion on a journey of her own self-discovery. And it is revelatory.

That Woody Allen reveres and has been influenced by the great European film-makers, especially of Ingmar Bergman is well known. (Ten years earlier in 1978 Allen made Interiors, a particular homage to the films of Bergman.) Another Woman is again inspired by Bergman, particularly his film Wild Strawberries. There are similarities in plot–the main characters must examine the coldness with which they have lived their lives–and technique–there are similar surreal dream sequences and scenes where the main characters are able to enter the scenes of their childhood.

And yet what makes Another Woman a masterpiece is not the bows to Bergman that Allen deftly offered, but the extraordinary performance he had engendered in Gena Rowlands. In several very long takes, the camera focuses on Rowlands’ face at different times as she listens to the patients next door. There is more emotional revelation in those moments than most actors can depict in an entire movie.

In fact, this quiet intensity seems startling compared to the Oscar-nominated performances she gave for her director husband, John Cassavetes. In films such as A Woman Under the Influence and Gloria, Rowlands exploded her emotions onto the screen. For Woody Allen, there is a intense quietness to her acting, an interiority that she allows us to see. And which draws us in to her pain and her self-examination.

The title Another Woman can be though of as referencing various things: Marion is the “other woman” for whom her husband left his wife; there is “another woman” with whom her husband is now involved; Hope is “another woman” whose analysis seems to be applicable to Marion; she has spurned passion in the past for comfort and security, and now “another woman” is enjoying the spark of that zest for life; and Marion herself is, at the end of the film, “another woman” than what she had earlier believed.

The Martians in Stardust Memories might have wanted funnier jokes, but with Another Woman they couldn’t have wanted a better film.

Movie Review: Jules et Jim by Francois Truffaut

Poster for Jules et Jim

Poster for Jules et Jim

In many Woody Allen films, there is a scene where Allen’s characters enter a New York movie house to see an old film. In Annie Hall, it was Bergman’s Face to Face; in Manhattan Murder Mystery, it was Wilder’s Double Indemnity.

I have always envied that: going to a theater and watching a classic on the big screen. It doesn’t happen much where I am from.

Until recently, that is. One of the city’s major theaters began showing the newly mastered version of Carol Reed’s 1939 thriller The Third Man, and another theater was screening Truffaut’s Jules et Jim.  I saw The Third Man earlier in the summer (which, by the way, is the first film I ever recorded on VHS, a long time ago when the local PBS was airing classic films at midnight.)

This past weekend, I saw Jules et Jim for the first time.

Jeanne Moreau as

Jeanne Moreau as “Catherine” in Jules et Jim

Truffaut’s Jules et Jim is a primer for anyone wanting to understand the French Nouvelle Vague that blossomed in the 50s and 60s. The loose and fluid camera work, the montages, the freeze frames, the newsreels, the voice overs, the simple location sets (allowing for the breezy filming), these are the defining attributes of the New Wave, and they are used masterfully in this 1962 film.

And, as much as technical innovations defined the moment, so did the narratives. The films focused on youth, on iconoclastic characters outside the mainstream, and on ambiguity. One is never sure what to think at the end–and that is intentional.

Jules et Jim is basically the story of a love triangle. The film opens with a frenetic piece showing the carefree life of two friends, the French Jim and the Austrian, Jim. Jules is overly shy. Jim is a comfortable and adept womanizer.

The Love Triangle Jim, Catherine, and Jules (Serre, Moreau, and Werner)

Jim, Catherine, and Jules
(Serre, Moreau, and Werner)

Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) and Jim (Henri Serre) in Jules et Jim

Catherine and Jim
(Jeanne Moreau and Henri Serre)
in Jules et Jim

Their friendship is intense and true.

One day, another friend Albert introduces them to Catherine, a woman with a captivating smile and quirky personality.

When the normally shy Jules sees Catherine, he famously says to his playboy friend “Pas celle-là, Jim” (“Not this one, Jim”), asking that Jim does not use his charm to sweep this one away.

Jules (Oscar Werner) and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) in ,i>Jules et Jim,/i.

Jules and Catherine
(Oscar Werner and Jeanne Moreau)
in Jules et Jim.

For this is the woman for him. And Jim, who is equally as attracted to her, acquiesces. The three have rollicking adventures together in the countryside, around Paris, and at the beach and they thoroughly enjoy each other’s company.

Soon after, Jules and Catherine marry, but then World War I breaks out. Jules and Jim find themselves in opposing armies and pray that they don’t kill each other.

But Truffaut focuses on more personal conflicts than the global cataclysm of World War I. After the war, Catherine is quite unhappy in her marriage and in her motherhood. She has several affairs, one of which is with Albert who originally introduced her to Jules and Jim and who now is recuperating in the village below. (There is a hint that her child is actually his and not Jules’)

When Jim comes to visit them, she seduces him (he is an easy seduction since he too is in love with her) and ultimately they plan to marry and have children. Jules is okay with this–he loves both Jim and Catherine– and the three live together in an odd but comfortable arrangement.

That the arrangement and the plans fail is the descending path of Truffaut’s narrative arc. How they fail–spectacularly–is the thrill of the movie (and which I won’t reveal here.) Nevertheless, I can say that Jeanne Moreau as Catherine is wonderful and is the anchor of the film. Oddly, a young Oscar Werner resembles a young William F. Buckley, though his shyness and awkwardness is painful to watch. And Henri Serre makes a charming partner–both for Jules and for Catherine.

*     *     *     *     *

Francois Truffaut

Francois Truffaut

In the first paragraph of this post, I mentioned Woody Allen’s films, Bergman’s films, Wilder’s films. It is largely because of Truffaut that we identify films in this way. Before he directed films, Truffaut was a writer–and then editor–for the famous Cahiers du cinema (“Notebooks on Cinema”), a seminal journal that helped bring film into the realm of serious study.  In the journal, Truffaut often argued his point that a director is the true author of the film, as much as a Picasso or a Hemingway is the creator of his work.

It is only fitting then that when discussing the classics of twentieth century cinema, the phrase “a Truffaut film” is a necessary component of the conversation.

Movie Review: Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

 

Blue Jasmine Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Blue Jasmine
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

More than a year and a half ago, I first saw the trailer for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. I was excited about it, as I usually am with new Woody Allen films, but now my interest was especially piqued: it was a return to the U.S. for Allen whose recent work had been in London, Rome, Barcelona and Paris.

The director whose greatest actor had always been the city of New York was returning home…although his depictions of the European sites were equally memorable and noteworthy.

The cast was eclectic (as is often the case in Allen’s work), and even before its general release, there was murmuring about Cate Blanchett’s performance. Already, the wags were talking Oscar (and they were right in their early prediction.) The setting was New York–Manhattan and the Hamptons–and San Francisco. And the writing seemed crisp and clever.

But for some reason, I put off seeing it. The times or the opportunities were never right, and I found myself hesitating because of the many people who told me how depressing they had found it. The analogies that I had noticed between it and A Streetcar Named Desire were now being mentioned in every piece I read.

And Streetcar can be rough.

And so now, twenty-two months after it was released, three months after Cate Blanchett won every major award for Best Actress, and several months after it was put on “On-Demand” I saw Blue Jasmine.

Poster for Blue Jasmine

Poster for Blue Jasmine

 

And I loved it.

Cate Blanchett-as “Jasmine,” the pampered rich-girl whose world comes crashing down when her Bernie Madoff like husband (Alec Baldwin) is arrested by the F.B.I. and who loses everything– alternates between haughty insensitivity and splintered lunacy. The moments when she is lost and most fragmented are frighteningly real. The moments when she is full of herself are maddening and distancing.

The film, in many ways, is a portrait of a woman who is shattered. We see her life as it once was–rich, pampered, and idle–and we see her now. Fueled with Xanax and vodka, talking out loud to herself, losing track of the present moment, and trying to manipulate those around her,  she is a wreck of a woman.

And as in Streetcar, Jasmine –the Blanche duBois character–finds romance and possibly love, and as in Streetcar, it is sabotaged. And like Blanche, it is the final straw for Jasmine, and we last see her chattering to herself like a madwoman on a park bench.

Cate Blanchett as "Jasmine"

Cate Blanchett as “Jasmine”

While Blue Jasmine is undoubtedly Cate Blanchett’s film, she is supported by some wonderful actors. Sally Hawkins plays Jasmine’s “sister,” Ginger.; Alec Baldwin, the smarmy husband whose financial fraud and infidelities send Jasmine down the road to mental breakdown; and Andrew Dice Clay and  Bobby Cannavale as Ginger’s ex-husband and her present fiance–an amalgam of Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar.

My original fear that Blue Jasmine was going to be just too depressing was wrong. Instead, I found it fascinating–a fascinating film and a fascinating story, anchored by a truly fascinating and extraordinary performance.

Beware of Maya: Illusion, Cary Grant, Wes Anderson and Owen in Paris

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Towards the end of Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the elderly Moustafa (played by F. Murray Abrahams) says this about his mentor, the concierge M. Gustav H.:

“His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”

And this reminded me of Cary Grant.

I saw three movies this week. And oddly–and not purposefully– they dovetailed into a similar theme.  I was sick as a dog in the beginning of the week and so, lazing around, I  watched two films on television.

The first was To Catch a Thief.  How gloriously campy it now seems.  Cary Grant’s ascots alone are only outdone by the sweet innuendos that he and Grace Kelly ad-libbed with Hitchcock’s permission.

Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief

Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief

It is all pure fantasy. Pure illusion.

One time, when Cary Grant was told by an interviewer that countless men would love to be “like Cary Grant,” he replied that so would he.  For he knew it was all illusion: the sophisticated banter, the artless seductions, the calm equanimity.  It was his job, being Cary Grant.  In the end, Grant ultimately left the movie business when the illusion gave way to reality. His type of character–as unreal as it was–was no longer in fashion in the gritty, realism of modern cinema.

A few days later I watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The entire movie is built on illusion, one that we all suffer from. The plot deals with the idea that we all believe that an earlier time was more exciting, more inspiring, more fulfilling.  The fallacy of the belief is wonderfully depicted, as Owen Wilson’s character–Gil Pender–returns to the 1920s and falls in love with a beautiful woman whose dream is to live in the 1890s. Even in the presence of his literary and artistic idols, Wilson’s character comes to realize that the past is painted with gold dust and that our image of that past is greatly unreal.

penderhemingwaystein

Owen Wilson with Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein.

And in the end, it is all illusion. Many of us believe that another time was better than the one we live in. And some believe that, if only, they had been born at a different time their lives would be so much different–and better. (At this point read, E. A. Robinson’s poem “Miniver Cheevy” which is referenced in the film as well.)

And so, I finally go out and go to the movies and I see Wes Anderson’s The Budapest Grand Hotel.  It is a beautiful movie to look at and the performances of Ralph Fiennes and his young protege, Tony Revolori, are extraordinary.  But it too is all illusion. The world it describes is long gone, if it ever existed at all. And the heroism of the film–if it can be called such–is that Fiennes’ character maintains the illusion that that world still exists, still matters. And we are even more removed from it than he.

And after all that is what movie making is about.  Sixty years ago, Cary Grant left movie making because he believed the magic had left, that hard-nosed grittiness had blown the magic away.

But that is not the case.  Most of the time, we still go to the movies for the magic. Whether it is the unreal pleasures of the moneyed classes in Monte Carlo or the time-tripping adventures of a sincere romantic in Paris, the movies still provide a good dollop of magic. And in The Grand Budapest Hotel all that magic comes full circle. For not only is the set and the landscape and the costumes and the cartoonish villainy not part of our real world, but even the characters themselves are clinging to an illusion, to a world that has longed passed, but which in our “Golden Age” memories is a thing of refinement, class and excitement…more civilized world than the one we know.

Movie Review: Frances Ha (dir. by Noah Baumbach) —-running in place and getting nowhere

Frances running through the streets of Brooklyn

Frances running through the streets of Brooklyn

Frances runs a lot during the course of Frances Ha.  She leaves a restaurant and runs to the ATM, she runs to work, she runs to her parents in Sacramento, she runs back to New York, she runs to Paris, she runs from New York, she runs back to her old college, and she returns again to New York.  And until the end, she doesn’t get anywhere. She’s just running in place. She is hapless and feckless and lonely and dangerously stuck in the past.  And she is endearingly quirky.

Frances is played by Greta Gerwig who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach. (There is a follow-up collaboration already in post-production, tentatively titled Untitled Public School Project). She–like countless others–have come to New York, because it’s the world’s biggest stage and she is a dancer. However, we are to infer, not a very good one.

So we follow her trajectory as she breaks up with her boyfriend, as her roommate leaves to move in with her mate, as she “crashes” in various friends’ apartments, and as she is “fired” from her job.  What is a poor girl to do?  Certainly, she makes some bad decisions–an impulsive trip to Paris on her credit card and a friendship shattering tantrum at a restaurant–but ultimately we know she is decent and hard-working, and we hope that things will pan out for her.

I had seen the trailer for Frances Ha a few months back, but hadn’t put it on my “must see” list. Then I saw an article in one of the free newspapers that ran with this headline:

“Woody Allen Call Your Lawyers…Someone has Stolen your Style.”

Greta Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha

So of course that sent me to the theaters.  (I didn’t even read the article, just the headline.) The “stolen style” is the cinematography. It is filmed in black-and-white, and there are scenes that very much have a “Woody Allen” feel: New York street scenes, a shot going down into the subway, a scene around a table in an up-scale apartment, a family Christmas dinner.  These all very much LOOK like a Woody Allen film.

However, the similarity stops with the dialog.  What, I assume, is meant to be witty and quirky and insightful is not.  It simply does not come off.

Instead, we follow Frances (and her friend Sophie, played by Mickie Sumner) as she stumbles forward, sometimes awkwardly and sometimes ineptly.  And we want to root for her except that we often lose interest in her.  No doubt that her travails are all true to life, but more often than not it is simply that–true to life.  And life is often not all that interesting to watch.

I realize that Gerwig and Baumbach both have solid credentials in films about life’s wry moments. Baumbach has successfully co-written with Wes Anderson and has written and directed such films as Margot and the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale; while Gerwig has been working–non-stop it seems–with directors as varied as Daryl Wein and, yes, Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), while increasingly taking part in the screenwriting, as well.  But Frances Ha left me wanting something more.

I want to like Gerwig and Baumbach’s work. I want to very much. I am excited about what they are trying. But so far, I am lukewarm with the results. I feel as if I know what they are trying to say, to do, but it is not coming across.

I feel as if they are running in place.

Mother’s advice: “if you have nothing nice to say…”

motherson

I went to the movies on Monday afternoon to see a film that I had been wanting to see for the past month or so. But I left the theater greatly disappointed. And as I walked up 3rd street, I thought to myself, I am not even going to write about this one.

And I think I am right.

I am not a critic–of film, books or music–I simply enjoy these things. And I enjoy writing about them and sharing my enthusiasms about them. But, I don’t feel comfortable bad-mouthing the ones I don’t like. On Wednesday I posted a piece about a book I didn’t like and I feel more than a little discomforted about it.

In this vast “blogosphere” where everyone so easily can send out his or her opinions, I want to rein myself in. Of course, BAD ART exists–there are books that are dreadful, movies that are deadening, music that irks me, but they will find their own levels of acceptance, they will find their own audiences (or not) without my weighing in.

And besides, I don’t have the time to waste on negativity.

After all, all creativity is risk…risk of missing the mark, of being misunderstood, of being ripped apart. But one has to put it out there and let it find its own life. (As Woody Allen says, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”)

coffeeshopSo, I’m sitting in a shop having a coffee after the movie and am asked what I thought. “I didn’t like it,” I say, and I give my reasons, listen to counter-positions, discuss the pluses and minuses. This is good, this is what Art should engender–conversation, dialogue, thought, and, yes, even judgment.

But is there really a need for me to blast it on the internet? I’m not so sure, but I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong; I will point out inconsistencies in the things that I like, choices and perspectives I disagree with, differences and surprises that throw me, things I see as flaws or would have wished the artist had done differently.

But with things that I don’t like…?  Well, as my mother would say, “if I have NOTHING nice to say, I’m not going to say it.”