FILM REVIEW: Wiener-Dog

Director Todd Solondz’ latest effort is a curious affair, to say the least. From the man that brought us the darker than dark (yet quite wonderful), Happiness, ‘curious’ was probably always going to be on the cards.

Wiener-Dog tells a series of short tales, all of which are loosely linked together not just by their overriding air of melancholy, uneasiness and pitch-black comedy, but more to the point, by a canine common denominator; one small Dachschund sausage dog (or Wiener-Dog to our American cousins).

Rather than possessing any wayward ‘Littlest Hobo’ genes that might cause our low-slung friend to develop itchy feet, up sticks on a whim, and head for that place that keeps on calling him, Wiener-Dog’s geographic movements and general fate in life is very much determined through desperately poor choices on the part of a collection of rather dysfunctional people, all of whom, with no particular malice intended I’m sure, seem determined to do the wrong thing by him; often placing him in the most awkward of situations and all too frequently, at death’s door.

A previously gravely-sick child is bought the little dog as a feel-good gift by his well-meaning father (Tracy Letts), much to the mother’s chagrin (Julie Delpy). When Wiener-Dog himself gets ill though, and causes ructions in the family unit, as quick as a flash he finds himself on the vet’s table, and only the intervention of the vet’s kindly assistant (Greta Gerwig), saves him from a long old sleep.

Thus begins another chapter in Wiener-Dog’s chequered and very troubled life which will eventually lead his new owner to present him as a gift to a Down’s syndrome couple, who are clearly smitten by the little fella.

Put upon and seriously depressed university lecturer (Danny DeVito), is next in line to take on this high-maintenance hoodoo, but once DeVito’s number is up, it’s a cantankerous old lady’s abode which proves to be Wiener-Dog’s last port of call. A faithful sidekick and companion to share an existence thoroughly bereft of ebullience, with a lady whose joi-de-vivre clearly ‘went west’ many moons ago, seems a somehow fitting way for the hapless hound to see out his remaining days.

Wiener-dog’s passage from owner to owner is at times logically linked, and at other times it’s unclear, and left to the viewer’s imagination. What is clear though is that a trail of unhappiness and misfortune – both for him and his surrogate owners – seems to follow Wiener-Dog around like a bad smell.

From terrible parenting, to ill-advised, selfish and depression-induced decision making on the part of pretty much all involved, Todd Solondz injects his film with chucklesome moments a plenty, often delighting in drawing out the macabre and the deeply inappropriate, whether it be attempting to use Wiener-Dog as an explosive device, or revelling in a seemingly never-ending tracking shot of a trail of doggy diarrhoea, to the haunting strains of Claude Debussy.

For such moments alone, Wiener-Dog does enough to intrigue and compel and makes Solondz’ curious piece well worth a watch. That said, if truth be told, it’s a film that doesn’t necessarily hang together particularly well as a whole, leaving a few too many questions unanswered, and lacking a true coherence of narrative.

For all of its quirkiness and attempts to quietly shock and appall by venturing into the forbidden and by tackling taboos, Wiener-Dog is a fairly patchy affair, but as with any Solondz offering, it’s one that’s worth your time.

 

 

 

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FILM REVIEW: David Brent – Life on the road

It’s been well over ten years now since Ricky Gervais called a halt to his massively successful mockumentary TV series, The Office, with a two-part Christmas special which  brought an emotional end to one of the finest home-grown sitcoms of our time.

Being such a revered slice of British popular culture we have to pose the question: Is it wise to re-visit something that was to all intents and purposes ‘perfect’ as it was. Isn’t it always best to leave well alone?

David Brent: Life on the road (DB:LOTR) follows Slough’s finest once again, over ten years later, in another mockumentary that chronicles an exciting time in David Brent’s life; the re-birth of his band ‘Foregone Conclusion’ – or more accurately ‘Foregone Conclusion, Mark II’ – and what David hopes will be a lucrative (both financially and career-wise), UK tour (of the Berkshire area).

He’s assembled a decent band of session musicians, and together with a reluctant ‘acquaintance’, and an overpaid sound engineer, Brent hopes that collectively they can produce some magic and launch themselves (but launch David Brent, more specifically), into the big time.

Yes, Brent is clearly still a man of considerable delusions, and the allure of the Rock ‘n’ Roll dream still burns brightly in the ageing sales rep’s eyes, and more importantly, heart.

DB:LOTR is particularly notable for a couple of things:

Those ‘fortunate’ enough to be thrown together with Brent – be it his office colleagues at Lavichem where he is now a sales rep of feminine hygiene products and the like, or his on-tour band and crew – all seem to fit strangely familiar roles within Brent’s life and adopt similar attitudes towards him, much in the same way that we remember the original cast members of The Office adopting, back in the day.

Whilst this perhaps smacks a little bit of Gervais playing it safe with the formula here, we also have to remind ourselves that unless Brent has undergone some massive personality change over the interim years, he will almost certainly still be largely the same socially inadequate fool that he ever was, and in turn will still gravitate towards similar surrounds and find himself embroiled in similar scrapes and predicaments. This in turn will almost inevitably draw the same largely exasperated reactions and looks of disbelief from all and sundry.

Secondly, and perhaps more tellingly: Brent is no longer the boss. He’s just one of the rep’s at Lavichem, and considering the disdain with which he is treated on tour, even though he’s paying the wages and fronting his own band, neither does he appear to wear the trousers in his very own Rock ‘n’ Roll daydream.

Consequently, the vitriol and at times pretty hateful bile that is spewed in his direction by both colleagues and acquaintances alike – the kind of thing that once upon a time would have been noticeably toned down due to Brent’s elevated management status – is now harsh, spiteful and at times very personal. In fact, there were times during DB:LOTR when what would have previously been just toe-curling, squirm-inducing moments of comedy, were suddenly not so funny anymore, and rather painful to watch. Brent is seemingly now perceived not so much as ‘a bit of a harmless dick,’ but an altogether more poisonous presence to most of those with whom he interacts. David Brent is now a man well and truly forced out of life’s social circle, encouraged to make himself scarce, and very much alone in his own personal Siberia.

Perhaps it’s the passing of time and I’ve just gone soft in my old age, but, as much of a plonker as Brent undoubtedly is meant to be, there were moments in DB:LOTR that were actually rather upsetting and interestingly, such moments, rather than casting Brent in a bad light, were far more indicative of the thoughtlessness and negativity of others; traits that people so often exhibit in the face of a challenging personality or a difficult set of circumstances.

Unable to show even a little patience or compassion and understanding – Brent’s entourage are all far too self-absorbed within their own selfish ambitions and needs to consider the impact of their thoughtlessness upon others.

Of course, bearing in mind Brent’s own, at times self-absorbed ‘whacky funster’ of a personality, I am fully aware of the irony of this comment.

But let’s face it, I’m probably reading far too much into it all!

Whatever Gervais’ intentions with DB:LOTR were, it’s clear that the increasingly sentimental angle to his work – think Derek in particular, a sitcom that frequently swung between the down-right hilarious and the almost unbearably mawkish – is an area that he continues to believe in and pursue, and in all honesty, it’s probably this aspect that will most likely give DB:LOTR greater longevity than if it had been purely a vehicle for a sequence of madcap Gervais gags and one-liners.

Of course, the vast majority of people haven’t gone to DB:LOTR for psychological insights though, and the pertinent question remains: Does it make us laugh?

Thankfully, the answer is: by and large…yes.

DB:LOTR is in fact packed full of both nuanced and balls out slapstick comedy. Some of it is howlingly funny – Brent’s band unknowingly headlining a student ‘Shite Night’ at a local university, a particular highlight  – and some of the humour can be seen coming from a mile off – Brent’s botched attempts to become a little cooler by having a tattoo done. Nevertheless, DB:LOTR is certainly sufficiently funny throughout to appeal to most, even if it can all be a little predictable at times.

It’s hard to say where we go from here now with the whole David Brent concept. Perhaps surprisingly, I’d say there is still a little more mileage to be had out of Gervais’ favourite, deeply-flawed anti-hero, be that on the big screen or perhaps better still, back on the altogether more forgiving comedy medium of television. Either way, I certainly hope so.

Ultimately, DB:LOTR delivers. It offers few surprises,but in many ways, that doesn’t really matter.

It’s a film that follows a well-trodden path to bring us a touching story of misguided dreams and ambitions, but rather surprisingly it’s probably not the laughs that make it, but instead it’s Gervais’ penchant for over-sentimentality  – the sort of thing we’d probably be quick to decry when churned forth from the Hollywood machine.

 

 

FILM REVIEW: The Shallows

There’s only one thing worse than a rubbish shark-based thriller – and that’s a rubbish shark-based thriller that initially hints at having a little bit of promise.

The Shallows, regrettably, is one such film.

Nancy (Blake Lively), has dropped out from her medical studies and is taking a vacation in Mexico in order to try to come to terms with the death of her mother. She’s on a very personal mission to find her mother’s favourite ‘secret’ beach; a remote cove tucked away from civilisation in which the pair of them had shared some wonderful memories in the past.

A keen surfer, she plans to ride the impressive waves that crash onto this beautiful beach.

Unfortunately for her, she’s managed to coincide her watery frolics with the sinister intentions of a great white shark, hell-bent on guarding its feeding grounds, having recently killed a large whale whose huge carcass is now wedged within the rocks and coral of ‘the shallows’.

It’s fair to say, this probably isn’t going to be a good day for Nancy, and it certainly isn’t going to end well – a little like this film.

Granted, there’s not too much here to hang an entire feature film upon. The promise of thrills and spills in the shallow waters of the ocean combined with a rather bolted-on back-story of family bonds, love and respect, are meagre ingredients with which to whip up anything original or of note.

In fairness though to Blake Lively, she makes a fairly decent fist of what she’s given here as she walks and talks us through the bleedin’ obvious by way of a sort of lightly-pained monologue, punctuated on increasingly frequent occasion by grisly moments of misfortune and gore.

It’s all very slick. Too slick in fact.

Smart phone screens flash up on screen unnecessarily, relaying text conversations. Nancy’s divers watch display flashes up too, counting down the minutes until the small rocky oasis that she’s found herself marooned upon, will become submerged beneath the water, leaving her effectively as shark bait.

This should at least make for slightly tense proceedings, if not riveting viewing.

It doesn’t.

A more sympathetic director would have perhaps provided a permanent clock display on screen throughout the film’s duration, providing a countdown until the end credits.

The Shallows is a film in which absolutely nothing is left to the imagination. Everything is played out like a sort of shark movie-making guide for beginners, step by painful step, but with no mischievous sense of irony. Everything ties up neatly according to a set of circumstances and parameters that are absolutely shoved into our collective face, one by one, throughout the film’s eighty-four or so minutes.

If all of the above was the sum total of the film’s crimes against cinema, you could write the whole thing off as a reasonably harmless, yet hugely forgettable use of your time, and not think twice about it. But having hinted from the off that it might – just might – have the potential to be a cult B movie of note, it’s the at first gradual, and eventually rapid degeneration of this film into pure, mindless Hollywood guff that is so achingly disappointing.

And the less said about the film’s pitiful conclusion, the better.

For some reason it all brought to mind a Laurel & Hardy skit in which the hapless pair’s best bungling efforts ended – as they always do – with everything falling down (literally) on top of Olly, but in a painfully drawn out, staggered sequence of carnage, each tumble and fall worse than the previous one, culminating in Hardy, sat on his arse in a pile of dust, rubble and debris; and as he takes one final, unimpressed look at the camera, another brick falls on his head, and then another, and then a long pause, another resigned look at the camera, and then another brick, right on the head – complete with comedy sound effects.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse…

‘Shallows’ by name, shallow by nature.

Painful.

Avoid.