REVIEW: Wiener-Dog

24 06 2016

Wiener-DogSundance Film Festival

The dachshund seems to reside among the most loved dog brands these days, no doubt due in part to how social media-friendly these pint-sized canines are. I’ve fielded a number of inquiries from friends in the past few months about the film “Wiener-Dog,” which proudly touts its four-legged star. And to each of them, I have issued a profound warning to stay away.

Writer/director Todd Solondz plays on those shared cultural feelings of fondness for wiener-dogs, and the marketing/advertising echoes such associations. But Amazon Studios and IFC just want to harness these to sell you tickets or get you to rent the movie. Solondz wields this power with a much more perverse intent. He wants to sell you a nihilistic vision of a cruel world with no sympathy or concern for even a cute dog. The wiener-dog is the vessel for drawing in the unsuspecting, the naive and the hopeful.

Most of this does not become apparent until the last of the film’s four parts (no spoilers, but stay away if animal cruelty bothers you.) Prior, “Wiener-Dog” finds some fun in its blunt, cynical assessment of life. Each section of the film, connected only by the presence of traveling dachshund Doodie, serves as a commentary on a different season of life: youth, adulthood, middle-age and, ultimately, senility. The first half, featuring lovably quirky turns from actors like Greta Gerwig and Julie Delpy, expresses Solondz’s worldview without resorting to outlandish measures.

But once the film passes its musical-filled intermission, which feels gratuitous for a 90 minute movie, things take a turn for the worse. Danny DeVito’s section about a film professor who all but gives up on life gets unbearably mopey. And when Ellen Burstyn’s Nana arrives on screen, practically in the grave, Solondz veers into a turn that feels downright mean to the audience since it is so unearned

I have my views on big existential dilemmas, and so does Todd Solondz. We can agree to disagree, as I frequently do with filmmakers, and still enjoy the work in question. I find it very hard to table my differences, however, when it comes to “Wiener-Dog.” Solondz so clearly illuminates his thoughts on the absurdity of being when he executes a shockingly beautiful pan over a heap of diarrhea or crafts a droll, deadpan line. His parting gestures abandon the nuance of his artistry in favor of shocks and screams, collapsing the film under the weight of its own pessimism. C / 2stars

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Classics Corner: “The Exorcist”

31 10 2010

I know that the technical cutoff for classic movies is 1968, but I’m making an exception for 1973’s “The Exorcist” seeing as it’s Halloween and I’m still trying to atone for missing this column back in August.  I know I said that I never wanted to see this movie, but given the season, I was a little curious.  And as a movie buff, how could I not see a movie that was for a time the highest-grossing film ever?

I’m not a fan of horror, particularly the Satanic sub-genre.  I have just begun slowly introducing myself to these movies, largely because I feared them so much even into my teenage years.  At first, I discovered I wasn’t really that scared at all.  I thought it was a fluke, so I watched a few more.  Turns out, I’m really not that affected by horror unless something jumps out of nowhere and the volume shoots up.

“The Exorcist” is really no different.  It’s eerie and creepy, particularly Regan’s transformation from a sweet, innocent child to the Devil incarnate, complete with a tattered face and green vomit.  But on a scare level, it really isn’t very frightening.  The movie doesn’t give any indication that anyone we know could become the Devil at a moment’s notice, so what reason do I have to fear?

Perhaps I speak as the product of a dulled, jaded generation.  In my lifetime, horror has two camps: ultra-sadistic blood and guts to the point of excess, or subtle haunting.  There really is no middle ground, yet that is exactly where William Friedkin’s Oscar-nominated horror tale seems to fall.  The demonic child scenes are about as close to horror porn as I imagine the 1970s could produce, and everything else (including the exorcism) seems to be the movie’s subtler side.

I think my biggest issue with the movie was the enormous amount of exposition provided.  We get the characters set up and learn their situations for about an hour.  Usually the tacit contract between filmmakers and moviegoers states that if you give a lot of exposition, the movie needs to vamp up to a climax that much more.  “The Exorcist” doesn’t really build much, and for all we sit back and wait for the action to come, the payoff isn’t all that satisfying.

The movie all leads up to, you guessed it, the exorcism of the demonic child.  The word gets tossed around so much nowadays, and the ritual has certainly lost some of its mystical power with each haphazard exorcism movie thrown into production.  Regan’s exorcism, however, lasts for a disturbingly and unsettlingly long amount of time.  If it doesn’t affect you at first, it will after the ten millionth time the two priests shout out “the power of Christ compels you!”

As a a sort of origin for a lot of horror movies that have frightened audiences for the last 30 years, “The Exorcist” proves to be an interesting watch.  An Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, though, seems a little bit much.  This is a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but just because a horror movie has a plot, good performances, and a few chills doesn’t mean it deserves a shot at Hollywood’s highest honor.  Maybe it’s all the crummy rip-offs that the movie inspired that make feel so nonplussed by the movie, but according to Tim Dirks, “its tale of the devil came at a difficult and disordered time when the world had just experienced the end of the Vietnam War … and at the time of the coverup of the Watergate office break-in.”  Times have changed, and it could be a good sign that I can’t match the devil to any current events.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 11, 2010)

11 06 2010

They don’t make movies this powerful and impacting very often.  That’s why “Requiem for a Dream,” an stylistic masterpiece by Darren Aronofsky, is the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  I thought I couldn’t be scared by movies after having made it through several horror movies barely flinching.  Yet along came “Requiem for a Dream,” and unexpectedly, I was screaming, shouting, and cowering in fear.

The movie follows four people over nine months as drug abuse affects their lives in profound ways.  It’s a somewhat typical addiction story for Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) and Tyrone Love (Marlon Wayans) who are trying to earn enough money dealing drugs to open up a fashion shop for Harry’s girlfriend, Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly).  But due to various unfortunate incidents, they end up having to go deeper into the drug trade to dig themselves out of a hole.  Meanwhile, Marion has also fallen into a state of desperation to keep up their lifestyle of recreational drug use.

But easily the most powerful and heartbreaking storyline of “Requiem for a Dream” is that of Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), Harry’s mother.  A New Jersey widow who has confined herself to her tiny apartment, Sara becomes convinced that she has been selected to appear on her favorite infomercial after a fake phone call.  Trying to make herself look attractive for a television audience, she visits an underground doctor to obtain pills that will help her take off some weight quickly.  She gets what she wants out of the pills but winds up addicted.  It’s tragic to watch the doctor turn a blind eye to her issues when she comes in, clearly unable to address her own problems.  Because she didn’t intend for this to happen, it’s her unconventional addiction story that really captures our sympathy.  We leave all four of them in a state of misery that no human being should ever have to endure.  It is chillingly devastating to watch their lives spiral out of control, and even more so once we reach the unsparing conclusion.

There’s no way to talk about the movie without talking about the incredible acting, particularly Ellen Burstyn.  A role like Sara is risky for someone of her age and stature, and she went all-in.  The result is one of the most powerful performances of the decade, one that should have won her an Oscar.  Jared Leto is scary good as her son, Jennifer Connelly takes her character to the edge just one year removed from winning her own Oscar, and Marlon Wayans isn’t bad!

The tension in the movie is amplified by Clint Mansell’s absolutely terrifying score.  Usually, a film’s score is gravy in a best-case scenario or a distraction in a worst-case scenario.  But “Requiem for a Dream” incorporates Mansell’s music into the very fabric of the movie, making it that much more effective.  The main theme from the movie has become a cult hit, but it’s “Meltdown,” the song that plays during the climactic moments of the movie, that deserves to be worshipped.

But “Requiem for a Dream” really works because of the incredible vision Darren Aronofsky has for it.  He makes addiction real for us and gets us into the minds of the addicts themselves.  It’s the split-screen, the close-ups, and the time lapse sequences.  It’s the quick cuts, the repetitive sequences when drugs are used, and the increased speed whenever the addiction accelerates.  Most of all, though, it’s his willingness to give us the truth about addiction and his unflinching drive to take us where few movies can.  The whole movie exudes his confidence in his vision, and his style leads us exactly where he wants to take us.

Really, if you ever want to scare someone out of doing drugs, you should show them this movie.  There’s no one on this planet who could watch this movie and then want to go do hard drugs.  Heck, it could scare the average person out of taking a pill.  So by all means, if you think you can handle it, I strongly recommend “Requiem for a Dream.”