Wiener-Dog (2016) – Film Review

A comedy-drama anthology that is far more drama than black comedy. 2016’s Wiener-Dog, written and directed by Todd Solondz (Welcome to the DollhouseHappinessLifetime During War), centres on a series of short, personal stories, all connected by the titular sausage-resembling canine. And while Wiener-Dog certainly has its moments as a mordantly witty tour of the human condition, seen from the low-slung position of an ordinary dachshund, Wiener-Dog‘s distinct combination of bleak storytelling and deadpan humour can make for a very inconsistent viewing experience, especially if you aren’t sure what to expect going in.

Plot Summary: An endearing dachshund, nicknamed, Wiener-Dog, finds itself shuffled from one oddball owner to the next, with each owner’s radically dysfunctional life being, in some way, impacted by the small canine…

Winning the Best Film Award at the 2017 Milan LongTake Interactive Film Festival, a festival where the films in competition are selected from titles yet unreleased in Italian cinemas, with the winner being chosen by the number of people attending each screening. Wiener-Dog is certainly not a film for everyone as the stories within are actually much dreary in tone than many would expect given the title and/or poster. Moreover, for those going in expecting four straight-forward, humourous narratives, Wiener-Dog frequently takes an unusual approach with its stories, with much of the writing being awkward and clunky and each story largely differing in terms of structure. And even though I adore the idea of using a dog as a framing device for an anthology, Wiener-Dog rarely makes use of its central dachshund, nor do any of the stories fully delve into the emotional arcs of their characters even when some of their self-examining journeys are particularly interesting.

Throughout all of the stories, one element that never fails to impress, however, is the cast. From a struggling family to a despondent screenwriter-turned-film school lecturer, every member of the cast brings their all in Wiener-Dog. And although many of the characters don’t receive as much development as they probably should, they do all feel very distinct from one another. For example, in the first story, Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts portray Danny and Dina, an uptight, miserable couple whose young son, Remi, is recovering from cancer. Danny and Dina soon decide to get their son a dog in an attempt to cheer him up, though, this only ends up causing the family more problems. In the next story, Dawn, a veterinarian’s assistant, hopes the dachshund will help her melt the heart of Brandon, whom she knew in school as a notorious bully. The third story introduces us to Dave Schmerz, portrayed by Danny DeVito, a has-been screenwriter now teaching at a film school where the students despise him. The fourth and final story concentrates on a character only ever referred to as Nana, portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, a blind, embittered woman suffering from cancer, who is being visited by her granddaughter, Zoe, and her outrageous abstract artist boyfriend, Fantasy.

For the majority of the runtime, the cinematography by Edward Lachman stands as a model of subtle and elegant compositional skill strained by what are fairly uninteresting locations. And whilst the first two stories have a written transition between them, the latter two stories do not, and instead, we just cut to the dachshund being in a new home, with a new owner, with no explanation given, which is rather jarring. That being said, Wiener-Dog does feature an intermission of sorts halfway through, which becomes a short story in itself; a montage of the dachshund walking through a number of colourful locations brought to life via some less-than-stellar green screen. This amusing sequence somewhat feels inspired by Let’s All Go to the Lobby, officially known as Technicolor Refreshment Trailer No. 1, a 1957 animated musical advertisement that played in American cinemas during intermissions. In which, animated characters that resemble various food items urge the audience to purchase snacks.

The original score by Nathan Larson and James Lavino is serviceable during the few scenes when it’s actually used. As for most of the film, Wiener-Dog chooses to employ excerpts from the classic orchestral piece, Clair de Lune, L. 32, which consistently seems out of place. The previously mentioned intermission is also set to an original tune titled: The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog, which is admittedly quite imaginative despite, once again, seeming misplaced.

With an anthology, some segments are always going to be superior to others. In Wiener-Dog‘s case, it’s the third story that is the best of the bunch, mainly because of DeVito’s terrific world-beaten performance. With that said, the third story does have a shortcoming that plagues many of the segments, that being its ending, which feels rushed and premature. The ending of the final story is also likely to leave many audience members with a bitter taste in their mouths as the ending is unnecessarily mean-spirited, concluding the anthology on a dour note.

In summary, similar to the rest of Todd Solondz’s filmography, Wiener-Dog is a black comedy with much of the comedy removed, leaving just black; a dense residue of callousness as the film rarely dwells on its light-hearted gags or charming moments. Nevertheless, Wiener-Dog is enjoyable in parts, and it’s evident that Solondz had a specific vision for the project when crafting it. Perhaps the film is just a little too bleak for its own good. Rating: 4/10.

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V/H/S (2012) – Film Review

Combining six found-footage horror stories from upcoming filmmakers of the time, 2012’s ‘V/H/S’ was a pretty ambitious indie horror upon its initial release. As while the film didn’t exactly reinvent the found-footage subgenre or avoid the usual problem anthologies tend to run into with its segments greatly ranging in quality, ‘V/H/S’ does manage to overcome some of its flaws through its eldritch stories and unique 1990s aesthetic, yet the film still pales in comparison to classic horror anthologies like ‘Creepshow’ and ‘Body Bags,’ or its much improved sequel: ‘V/H/S/2.’

Plot Summary: When a group of misfits are hired by an unknown party to break into a desolate house and acquire a rare VHS tape, they are surprised to come across the owner’s decomposing body sat in front of a wall of video monitors and an endless supply of VHS tapes, each containing a piece of footage more disturbing than the last…

Although nowadays found-footage horror feels mostly played-out and even quite creatively limiting, ‘V/H/S’ does attempt to utilise its concept in the best way possible. Having its wraparound story titled: ‘Tape 56’ explain the other five, as every VHS tape a member of the group watches are the same stories we as the audience are seeing, it’s just a shame that this central narrative goes pretty much nowhere, only seeming to exist for the sake of the film’s anthology structure rather than to provide the film with a terrifying and memorable climax. But it does help that this segment takes place in the same house as the ‘Marble Hornets’ web series, also known as the YouTube series that popularised the internet icon: ‘Slender Man.’

Due to the film featuring multiple stories, the huge cast of: ‘V/H/S’ ranges about as much as the segments themselves, as whilst no performance throughout the film is particularly bad, no performance is truly excellent either with the exception of Hannah Fierman as ‘Lily,’ who gives a very animalistic and continuously unnerving performance in the film’s first segment: ‘Amateur Night.’ Yet I don’t think this is entirely down to the cast, as ‘V/H/S’ does suffer from an overall lack of characterisation, which while hard to avoid in an anthology film where each story is given a limited timeframe, ‘V/H/S’ simply chooses to fit all of its characters into a certain stereotype and not development them at all beyond that.

The cinematography during every segment of: ‘V/H/S’ remains fairly consistent despite being handled by an array of cinematographers, and while the camerawork is very familiar for a grungy found-footage flick, the film’s assortment of glitch and static effects, grainy overlays, footage corruptions and occasionally chaotic editing all help to ground many of the segment’s supernatural elements in an almost documentary-like realism. And in spite of: ‘V/H/S’s lower-budget, all the film’s directors including Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid alongside Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Chad Villella under the title of: ‘Radio Silence,’ each try their hardest to distinguish their segment from the others.

Being a found-footage film, ‘V/H/S’ doesn’t have an original score, but with the film’s visuals leaning heavily into glitch and static effects, the sound design backs-up these effects with a distorted soundscape, adding tension to a number of scenes. And even though the film only features one licensed song, that being: ‘They Come to Get Us,’ it does fit well over the film’s end credits.

But ‘V/H/S’ doesn’t escape the most common issue of anthologies, as there is certainly a noticeable shift in quality between its segments. As while I thoroughly enjoy the previously mentioned: ‘Amateur Night,’ the second and third stories titled: ‘Second Honeymoon’ and ‘Tuesday the 17th,’ respectively, are a drastic downgrade, with the first being an incredibly dull slow-burn thriller, and the second being nothing but a cringey retelling of a ‘Friday the 13th’ film as the title implies, neither of which are very memorable or creative, and feel like a chore to get through. However, these lacklustre segments are redeemed by the last two stories, as both ‘The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger’ and ’10/31/98′ do implement some more inventive ideas even if they aren’t totally flawless in execution.

Altogether, ‘V/H/S’ has its strengths but also a great deal of weaknesses, having many of its spectacular moments of horror spoilt by weak writing or the restrictions of its anthology structure, making for an occasionally enjoyable but very inconsistent experience. So, while I personally think ‘V/H/S’ is worth at least one viewing for fans of horror anthologies, just bear in mind that the film never quite reaches the same heights as some others including its own sequel. And despite the third entry in the series: ‘V/H/S: Viral’ being an enormous disappointment for me, I’d still love to see the low-budget franchise continue. But with a prequel titled: ‘V/H/S/94’ being brought to the table by young filmmakers in 2019, only to then never be mentioned again, it seems the future of this series is (at least for now) unforeseeable, even if the first two films are sure-fire candidates for obtaining a cult status. Final Rating: low 6/10.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) – Film Review

The western genre used to be extremely popular back in the golden age of Hollywood, but in recent years the western genre has mostly died off, as aside from a few honourable mentions such as: ‘True Grit,’ ‘The Sisters Brothers,’ and ‘Django Unchained.’ The western genre as a whole has run mostly dry, until now that is. As iconic directors Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men) return to the silver screen for this brilliant western anthology.

Plot Summary: Consisting of six different stories of life and violence in the old west, including the tales of a singing gunslinger, a bank robber, a travelling impresario, an elderly prospector, a wagon train and a perverse pair of bounty hunters…

This diverse set of stories and characters really keep the film engaging from start-to-finish, as the film constantly jumps between characters and locations all whilst ensuring that it keeps its decent pacing and usual Coen brother’s dark sense of humour intact. Resulting in the film feeling extremely refreshing, as superhero blockbusters and jump-scare filled horrors have really taken over the film industry in recent years. So, revisiting an old yet classic genre (especially with this modern spin and the Coen brother’s brilliant direction) is truly a breath of fresh air.

The performances by every member of the enormous cast are pretty excellent all around. As Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Thomas Waits, Zoe Kazan, Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson (just to name a few) are all brilliant when portraying their varied and interesting characters, with Tim Blake Nelson definitely being the clear stand-out for me with his extremely funny and charming portrayal of the title character: ‘Buster Scruggs.’

Throughout the runtime, the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is almost flawless, as the film utilises a variety of beautiful shots which perfectly capture the visual appeal of classic westerns. The original score by Carter Burwell is also great, as the soundtrack uses slow guitar stings and an enormous list of classic country songs to build-up atmosphere, with the best of these definitely being: ‘When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings.’

One aspect of the film I absolutely adore is the Coen’s usual style of writing, as every character throughout the film is given plenty of comedic moments and memorable lines, which really helped make many of the characters with slightly-less development more likeable. Another element that also really drew my attention during my first viewing was the incredible sets and costumes the film had on full-display, as considering the locations/costumes are some of the main factors of engaging the audience into the story and it’s time-period. It was clear they were pulling-out all the stops. As every location always felt very real and lived in, with the character’s clothes being no different.

My personal favourite narrative of the six would most likely be the opening story, sharing the same name as the title of the film: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.’ This opening was just such as joy to watch, balancing dark humour with a classic western set-up brilliantly, in addition to the fantastic performance from Tim Blake Nelson as already mentioned. However, this is also where my biggest criticism of the film comes in, as although they definitely aren’t awful, the last two stories are easily the weakest of the film. As although we do get some great character moments and fun scenes within these stories, I couldn’t help but feel they simply weren’t as memorable or as charming as the others leading-up to them. Perhaps if these two stories we’re placed earlier in the film it wouldn’t be such an issue, but it simply leaves the viewer with a bad taste in their mouth afterwards.

In conclusion, ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ proves once again that westerns are far from gone when it comes to film, as the Coen brothers once again take the audience for a trip into the wild west with complete success. As this anthology is just as hilarious as it is visually-impressive and well-acted, regardless of whether or not the stories are quite on the same level. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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