Wiener-Dog (2016)

Written and directed by: Todd Solondz

Wiener-Dog_film_poster                If you’re curious, go on Youtube and look up a trailer for Todd Solondz’s Wiener Dog. You’ll notice a lot of angry commenters lambasting it for being a terrible movie. I’m not sure whether to be frustrated or amused by such comments. Much like those who ensured Darren Aronofsky’s mother! got a series of Razzie nominations, it seems like a lot of youtube commenters don’t know how to distinguish their not enjoying a style of filmmaking from a film actually being bad.

Now don’t get me wrong. I won’t turn on Wiener-Dog and fondly rewatch it when I’m in need of cheering up, but that’s the point of Solondz’s cinema. He explores the uglier sides of human existence by having his characters speak and sometimes act in appalling ways. This dynamic is perhaps best expressed in the film’s first story (the film has four parts each of which cover the relationship between different people and a dachshund). This vignette centres around Remi, a 7-year old cancer survivor, who’s given a pet dachshund, which he plainly names “Wiener-Dog.” This name shows a great deal of love: he doesn’t need to give her a special name for her to matter to him: she’s the only wiener-dog in the world as far as he’s concerned. Unfortunately for Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke ) , his mother Dina (Julie Delpy, in a role loosely connected to a few of her lines in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy) is not a fan of his having a dog, and his father (Tracy Letts ) is fickle on the matter as well. It seems every conversation Remi and his mother have is a serious one, and at times she can be quite blunt. In some conversations she comes across horribly. In others, she comes across as more normal, yet nonetheless her contrast with Remi allows his “naïve” higher sense of moral urgency to shine through.

Wiener-Dog charms through its use of different aesthetics (the intermission is no doubt one of the film’s highlights) and personas. Greta Gerwig plays a classic indie protagonist (Dawn Wiener of Solondz’s Take Me to the Doll House), Danny Devito plays a curmudgeony film school professor, Zosia Mamet plays a Girls-like (though not necessarily her Girls character) figure, and Ellen Burstyn plays a misanthropic grandmother. Therefore, even while Wiener Dog peaks early, its continued innovations make it a solid film from start to finish.

While I bemoan those who lack the nuance to understand Solondz’ shock based approach, I can’t help but have questions myself about exactly how it should have been applied. In one of her conversations with Remi, Dina makes an implicitly racist remark about a dog named Mohamed, and because this interaction is with her 7-year old son there’s no one present to call out this dog-whistle remark. Given the film’s overall presentation one can only assume that Solondz trusts his audience to be critical of the character’s comment. Nonetheless, the scene does raise some moral questions of what directors need to do to distance themselves from the views of their charters (I’m not saying I have the answer).

Similarly, there’s another scene in which Dawn and her travel companion Brandon (Kieran Culkin) make comments implying Brandon’s brother Tommy (Connor Long) and his wife April (Bridget Brown) shouldn’t have kids because they have down syndrome. While the very fact that Solondz included three-dimensional portrayals of people with down syndrome in his screenplay is a good sign that he does not share in his characters bigoted views, he does nothing in the script to particularly challenge them. This is perhaps more problematic than the “Mohamed scene” since this form of ableism is not an every-day cable issue, and as such may not seem as shocking to viewers (it doesn’t help that Dawn is a more likeable character than Dina).

For all its strengths and potential weaknesses, Wiener-Dog is a film that should be watched with careful inquisitiveness. Perhaps, as the Youtube comments suggest, the way it’s made already filters out many of those who aren’t prepared to watch it as such. In all, Wiener-Dog is one of the most intriguing films I’ve seen in a while. You just have to accept that it’s the kind of thing that will impress you and make you uncomfortable in equal proportions.

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Before Midnight (2013)

Directed by: Richard Linklater Written by: Linklater, Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy

Before_Midnight_posterThis review of an “older movie” is of the third part of a trilogy. This is a trilogy, in which the three instalments are intentionally filmed many years apart, should really be appreciated as a whole, and as such readers not familiar with the first two films should not continue for the sake of avoiding a key spoiler.

 One of the first films I saw in my transition to identifying as a “film person” was Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the story of a young, not-quite-couple exploring Europe and developing a deep sense of connection in a single night together. Thematically, the film could be said to be about the idea of finding “true love.” The “right person” can come at the wrong time, forcing lovers to live in the moment and not worry that their future may not be as perfect as the present.

If one thinks of the trilogy thematically, Before Midnight is its logical conclusion. The first film tells the story of a love that can only last for a moment, while this third film reintroduces the lovers as a married couple of several years. If, however, one thinks of the previous Before films not in terms of their themes, but in terms of their character, the premise of Before Midnight is a bit more surprising. What captured my imagination about Before Sunrise was that it was a largely action-less and even plot-less film. It simply featured two characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (July Delpy) having a very long conversation. The conversation was varied and animated, and I left the film with a new understanding of what I could find entertaining. Two years later I saw Before Sunset a film, that aside from being set 9 years later, changes little from Before Sunrise formula. Upon seeing that film I thought “wow, Linklater did it again.”

Who knows if Linklater could have done it yet again? The fact is, when it came to Before Midnight he opted not to. While the film’s middle certainly resembles its prequels, its beginning and end are uniquely focused. Jesse has married Céline despite the fact that they live on different continents, and Jesse was already married with a son. Again, thematically, this was the logical place for this third Before movie to go (perhaps, some might argue, it was the logical place for the second movie to go). The first film is about a neither-mature-nor-immature young couple who know that they can’t be together. The third film re-introduces them in their forties, when they are supposed to be, and largely are, mature, but are caught up in the fallout of one of their rare (arguably) immature decisions.

If cinema is an escape from reality, the first two Before movies were an escape from reality and cinema. It wasn’t like other movies: it could be smart without having to have some sort of important theme. Before Sunrise, for better or for worse robs viewers of that quality. The magically written conversation, of the first film, we’re told, is not some magical quality that Hawke and Delpy’s characters possess, it is a product of their love, a love that becomes very hard to sustain when they actually act on it.

Before Midnight is not without it’s Before moments, be they Delpy’s impression of a “bimbo” or her painful kitten story. The film also ends on a Before-like note, with the protagonist connecting through an acted-romantic interaction. This last scene, however, lacks the vivacity of the playful moments in the earlier films, because of how tied up it is in the movie’s unifying theme. Perhaps this review has come across as negative, but I don’t think it has to be read that way. All I’m saying is that despite sharing qualities of its predecessors Before Midnight is a substantially less magical film. And since it is a story of lovers struggling with the loss of new love’s spark, I suppose that it achieved what it set out to.