Sean K. Cureton

Archive for September, 2016|Monthly archive page

Wiener-Dog: Picaresque Fable & Dystopian Fantasy

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on September 17, 2016 at 12:21 pm
Wiener-Dog

Amazon Studios/IFC Films

Wiener-Dog (2016)
Directed by Todd Solondz
VOD Rating: Liked It

Standing as the other great independent filmmaker of the 1990s hailing from New Jersey, Todd Solondz is everything that Kevin Smith is not. Trading irreverent populism for biting realism, Solondz’s filmography is markedly dour. Despite attempting to write what he claims are mainstream comedies, Solondz is a filmmaker whose work is unrelentingly bleak. Even when characters like Dawn Wiener – from both his 1995 sophomore effort Welcome to the Dollhouse and its spiritual sequel Wiener-Dog from earlier this summer – seek love in earnest, the trials and tribulations endured in the effort often outweigh the meager rewards. Characters in Solondz’s films are the outcasts and misfits forced to settle for less in a world that appears to have left them behind, or perhaps never really cared about them to begin with. But seeing characters in such dire domestic straits is miraculously inclusive and fantastically achieved, as anyone from the Garden State might relate of a life lived in the shadow of bigger and better things in New York City, be they imagined or not.

Serving as an anthology film, Wiener-Dog finds Solondz at his most concise and optimistic. Following the travels of a singular dachshund as the household pet passes from owner to owner, the film examines several less than fulfilling ways to spend one’s mortal existence. Starting under the care of a highly dysfunctional family that leaves the vulnerable creature under the care of a far too innocent young boy, the dog is quickly whisked away to apparent euthanasia after consuming mass amounts of chocolate and granola. Enter Dawn Wiener of Welcome to the Dollhouse, who quickly saves the poor animal from impending death and nurses it back to health. The titular wiener-dog than eventually gets passed along to several subsequent owners through a marvelously circuitous series of interconnecting stories, characters, and micro-events.

In the same way that Solondz has examined quiet humanity and spiritual desperation in past films like Happiness from 1998 and Storytelling from 2001, Wiener-Dog veers towards nihilism at every twist and turn. Individual protagonists struggle against the constricting forces of a world on the brink of collapse that suffocates anyone who would so much as hope or aspire to anything greater. Set against the dueling landscapes of northern New Jersey and metropolitan New York, Wiener-Dog is part picaresque fable and part dystopian fantasy. In Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn Wiener plays the would-be coming of age protagonist whose inner value is only just beginning to blossom into fruition. In Wiener-Dog, the same fictional heroine has become resigned to playing the part of a walk-on role in the same story.

Yet the film doesn’t feel bleak at all. All of the characters whose lives are interconnected throughout Wiener-Dog work together in a macro sense, even as their independent volition is only relevant in a micro sense. Nobody’s hopes or dreams matter in any real way in Wiener-Dog, yet such a self-defeating prophecy simultaneously serves to uplift the film’s bleakness by casting personal despair within the context of a communal pastime. If everyone else is feeling as downtrodden as Solondz makes them out to be, then there is no real shame in feeling alone, unwanted, and irrelevant. There is a community of despair throughout Solondz’s films that provides for a sense of immediacy and connection between characters and story arcs that seeks to include the viewer in a way that is remarkably honest, forthright, and earnest, even if there are no happy endings.

Wiener-Dog is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is my Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

Don’t Think Twice: Bohemia In Decline

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on September 3, 2016 at 11:21 am
Don't Think Twice

The Film Arcade

Don’t Think Twice
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Serving as the direct follow-up to Sleepwalk With Me from 2012, stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia has taken his seat in the director’s chair once again in the making of Don’t Think Twice. Focusing on a small time improv comedy troupe eking out a meager living in New York City, Birbiglia stars alongside an all-star cast of comic performers, including Gillian Jacobs (Community), Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele), Kate Micucci (Garfunkel and Oats), Chris Gethard (The Chris Gethard Show), and Tami Sagher (Inside Amy Schumer). Everyone in the film has established themselves within the comedy industry in some way, shape, or form over the years, making their assumed roles as struggling stage performers immediately believable and sympathetic. As the small improv troupe begins a series of tense infighting when two members from their fold are offered auditions for a nationally recognized late night sketch comedy show, their dedication to one another as codependent improv performers is quickly fractured. Ostensibly serving to represent just one small facet of a particular sub-culture, Birbiglia miraculously offers a comedy-drama that faithfully depicts real life intimacy, friendship, and jealousy.

It can be a potentially complicated feat to capably represent the life of actual comedy performers on the big screen, though as Birbiglia has proven in the past he’s a pretty good spokesman for his craft. Like Judd Apatow did specifically for stand-up in Funny People from 2009, Don’t Think Twice offers a convenient caricature of improv that is easy to read for the layman and emotionally honest for those well versed in its iconic structure and ethos. Yet Sleepwalk With Me was probably more like Birbiglia’s version of Funny People, making Don’t Think Twice, his first non-autobiographical screenplay, more like his Knocked Up. But where Apatow is far more crude and longwinded in his own articulation of his neuroses and prejudices, Birbiglia offers a streamlined version of a comedy of errors that proves to be in keeping with much of the same thematic intentions. Sleepwalk With Me was a stirring drama that investigated Birbiglia’s personal journey towards professional acuity; Don’t Think Twice is his first full-fledged dramatic interrogation of a fictionalized self, struggling against an assumed ineptness.

Moving quickly through a world of twenty-something ambition towards one of thirty-something stagnation against the backdrop of an ever dwindling idea of metropolitan bohemia, Don’t Think Twice gets at a lot of the self-defeating struggles of deciding to be an artist of any kind. Seemingly doomed to fail, if it weren’t for their blind dedication and desire to succeed, Birbiglia’s cast of improv wannabes are sympathetic and pathetic. It’s hard to imagine a more dire setting then the one viewers find Birbiglia and his troupe in at the beginning of the film, as their long-established theater space has been sold and will soon be unavailable for any future shows. Beyond that, each of the individual characters is independently struggling with their own issues and shortcomings, ranging from the cruel barb of becoming culturally irrelevant, to pining after a project that one lacks the self-confidence to fully invest in, to lacking any kind of direction in the larger world at all. The pain that the characters in Don’t Think Twice go through is intimately told, but Birbiglia carefully holds back from manipulating the viewer’s emotional response outright, lending his film more to the hard earned bite of satire than the cushy convenience of melodrama.

There are other movies like Don’t Think Twice, but not many that are nearly as satisfying. Unlike Judd Apatow’s blockbuster comedy empire, Birbiglia is far more content to dwell on quieter outbursts of interpersonal conflict, allowing his film to ponder over each and every perceived slight without surrendering the integrity of its individual players. The show that looks unavoidably like Saturday Night Live throughout Birbiglia’s film serves as something of a Siren Song for the film’s characters, who each respond to its mellifluous offering of imagined success with respective temerity to its presumed prestige. But, as in real life, such institutes of the entertainment industry are rarely the end all be all of spiritual fulfillment, leading Birbiglia’s characters to seek out their own routes to success in kind. Comedy is an endlessly fascinating genre in film, and Birbiglia is one of the greatest voices currently working through its traditions and interpreting its history.