A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Sicario” 10.10.15

What can I say about Canadian born director Denis Villeneuve that hasn’t already been said. Anyone like me who has been following the director since his breakout film – 2010’s “Incendies”, which, was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2011 Oscars, knows that he is one of the most interesting movie auteurs currently in the business. Because of the success of that film, like with what happens with many foreign directors, Hollywood came a calling. Now a lot of the time, in fact more often than not, this is usually met with mixed results. Except what was different about Villeneuve is that he debuted his first English language film with 2013’s “Prisoners”. An immensely dark, emotionally powerful, and complex film with an all-star cast that included Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello, and Viola Davis. It was a major success and praised by critics worldwide but was only seen by a certain demographic of American audiences. Mainly the kinds like myself who enjoy films that mostly straddle the line between somewhat commercial but are more indie type fare. Many people I know skipped it over entirely. But it’s the one film that I’ve noticed comes out the most out of any other film I’ve seen in the past 3 years when I talk among people who have seen it. And it’s usually something like “why hasn’t everybody seen that film”? “Prisoners” introduced us to a new kind of filmmaker, one whose vision and style is more akin to David Fincher, but his darker works like “Se7en” (1995) and “Zodiac” (2007). In fact “Prisoners” was deemed “too dark” by a large demographic. But I think this had to do with the fact that it dealt with a very difficult subject for people to swallow – child abduction – which I’ve heard is every parents worst nightmare. But besides its dark subject matter and tone, it was and still is a master class in the art of filmmaking. Then came his second American film, “Enemy”, released in 2014, and also starring Jake Gyllenhaal (for those of you who ever hear me showering Gyllenhaal’s praises it’s because of his work in those two Villeneueve films). “Enemy”, much so even more than “Prisoners” was under seen and overlooked, mostly because of it’s incredibly strange mood and tone. It was Villenueve’s love letter to the great David Lynch, who is admittedly a very acquired taste and it had a very limited run in theatres because so few people saw it. I for one loved it, and like his other 2 aforementioned films prior, all 3 made my best of top 10 list in the respective years in which they were released in.

Villeneuve’s newest film, “Sicario”, is his first film in 2 years and also his first film since “Prisoners” to bode such an impressive cast. I remember hearing about it almost a year ago now when it was in production, and saw that Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin all had signed on to do it. I also learned in reading the production notes and summary that it was about the US/Mexican drug war in Juarez. Which, as a huge admirer of the crime drama and love for the director, I started counting down the days then until its release. And when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival back in May and competed as 1 of 5 films for the Palme d’Or (Cannes’ category for Best Picture), I was beside myself in anticipation for it and marked it as my #1 most anticipated film of the fall way back in May of this year.

“Sicario” (English for “hit man”) opens right off the bat with an incredibly intense and well executed sequence involving Emily Blunt’s character, Kate, a FBI agent and tactics expert who, with the rest of her team, raid and take down a drug cartel outside of Phoenix, Arizona. This is one of many harrowing scenes in the film that shows the urgency and imminent threat of death behind every corner of this particular line of work. Because of her stand out job and reputation as a tactics expert (she’s 5-0 in taking down the drug cartels she is assigned to, she is called on by the CIA, but really an elite confidential special tasks force unit, led by Matt (Josh Brolin – in as fine a form here as I’ve seen him in anything since “No Country For Old Men” (2007) ), a Department of Justice adviser that commissions Kate to take down one of the largest drug cartel/crime syndicates in the city of Juarez, Mexico. Kate reluctantly signs on, and she is partnered up with one of those elusive, quietly restrained, we have no idea what he’s doing here types named Alejandro (played by Benicio del Toro, easily the best part of the film and his finest work since well, ironically enough, 2000’s “Traffic”). We see the film through Kate’s eyes, and she quickly finds out that both the special unit that she works for, as does Del Toro’s character Alejandro, operate under their own set of rules and seem to understand that the drug war in Mexico is like night and day compared to the drug war that Kate is used to in the States, and in a pivotal sequence that I was so flabbergasted by, she learns what she’s in for as they enter Juarez for the first time (all I will say is both this, and the tunnel sequence, were two of the most expertly staged and riveting sequences we’ve since the bank robbery segment going all the way back to “Heat” (1995) ). Where the intensity and anxiety that was induced had me swallowing my tongue in my throat. As Kate and her team, along with the always present Alejandro, go on to take down these so-called cartels, Kate goes through a personal transformation as both her morals and beliefs are tested to the limits and she enters a world that one might call nightmarish.

“Sicario” is a dense, thought provoking, action packed thrill ride, which also winds up being director Villeneuve’s most straight forward and accessible film to date. Which to me was its biggest surprise. It totally defied almost every expectation I had of it. In while it’s congruent and feels very much like a Villenueve film. It also felt like his most restrained. Not so much in terms of its level of violence. It’s incredibly violent, and should be, as its subject matter practically demands for it to be (after all, it’s a film about taking down drug cartels). But in its ability to not alienate the moviegoer as some of his previous films have. And while it was dark and psychological like many of Villeneuve’s prior work. It gets more into the mind of the Kate character, as we literally see everything from her eyes and point of view. Blunt’s performance, much like Jessica Chastain’s in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012 – a film I drew a lot of comparisons to), she is thrown into a world that even despite her vast knowledge of, she really has no idea what she’s in for until she’s thrust straight into the heart of it. I also thought its treatment of the War on Drugs and the politics behind American intelligence in relation to the Mexican cartels themselves was handled rather deftly and two-sided. There wasn’t at any point within the film that I thought I was watching a “pro-American” depiction of the War on Drugs and I thought it showed a very equal representation of both parties involved, from the counter-intelligence officials to the cartel members themselves. Del Toro is outstanding as the quiet vigilante type, who we never quite know and are kept in secret as to why he’s commissioned for the job. Unlike Kate/Blunt’s character who is more of a “by the book” FBI agent who seems to live by a moral code and tries to upkeep everything she’s been trained to operate under, but only inside the States. This dichotomy between Kate/Blunt’s character and Alejandro’s/Del Toro’s characters, being on both sides of the law but operating under very different laws of their own, was handled with the utmost precision and was utterly compelling. The story arch and character development is on par with one of the greatest films I’ve seen out of the genre in as far back as I can remember. The cinematography (by the great Roger Deakins – 11 time Oscar nominee) is astonishing as is the film’s pulsating score, which left me and most of my movie group viewers on the edge of their seats. In closing, I think fans of Villeneuve’s previous work might be left feeling a little underwhelmed, but only because of what they’ve come to expect from the director. The film isn’t quite as dark or psychological as a fan of his might expect it to be (though don’t be fooled – the violence is consistent and packs a wallop). But it’s a rather straight-forward, though smart and intricate, take on the War on Drugs and the moral decisions and complexities all of those involved have to face. This is the finest “Drug War” movie since “Traffic” (2000), and it should easily earn a low spot on my top 10 or high on my Honorable Mentions list at this year’s end. Villeneueve is the newest foreign equivalent to something we have Stateside to the likes of David Fincher. And I personally can’t wait to see any and every film he puts out from this point forward in his career.

[B+]

Sicario – w/Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin

Saturday, Oct 10, 2015, 3:45 PM

Regal Lloyd Center 10 & IMAX
1510 NE Multnomah St Portland, OR

11 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Synopsis: An idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is assigned to work a dangerous stretch of the US-Mexico border by her superior officer (Josh Brolin). She’s exposed to the brutality of the Mexican drug cartel, and becomes partners with a defector from the cartel (Benicio Del Toro) who possesses keen knowledge about the organization. As she gets dee…

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Blue Velvet” (1986) 8.30.15

In continuing my ongoing streak of seeing older films by American directors that I admire. Films from the 3 most important American directors, that, as I’ve said before, have and still continue to have such an impact on me that it’s almost as if I have a relationship with them (and no not just in the movie sense). Even despite my thinking I’m well versed in both American writer/directors and foreign ones equally. There still have never been a set of directors that had more of an influence on me in developing my own personal vocabulary in relation to film as who I consider the “quintessential three”. Those being Stanley Kubrick (okay, he’s from the UK, but I still in some sense consider him, at least in his later period, as an American director because many of his films were made in the English language starring American actors. Then of course there’s Paul Thomas Anderson, who many of you might know just based on the simple fact that I’ve done a complete career retrospective of his films over the course of the summer. And last, but not least, someone who I consider maybe the greatest of them all – David Lynch. Now Lynch might seem like an easy choice for a favorite as anybody who is versed well enough in film can attest to his utterly original, singular voice, whose films have impacted legions of filmmakers that followed to have reworked Lynch’s ideas, themes, and style into works of their own. Which to me has always been the trademark sign of a great filmmaker. I could go on and on and on about my love for David Lynch and how his films have impacted me on such a deep level. But then I’d be writing a totally different piece. Not a movie review.

“Blue Velvet” opens with one of my favorite montages in movie history – set to Bobby Vinton’s rendition of “Blue Velvet”. Lynch immediately brings us into a world of red roses in front of a backdrop of a white picket fence house, a red fire truck with fireman waving at the screen, a set of upper middle class homes with their beautifully manicured lawns. But then the “contrast” begins, and he edits to a man watering his lawn who has a stroke and falls flat on his face. From there the camera zooms in underground, to what we “don’t see” from the surface. An underground severed human ear that’s infested with ants. To me, this opening sequence basically sets the tone for the rest of the film. As it is essentially a series of contrasts. You see Lynch knows it’s a beautiful world on the outside, and one gets the sense that it’s pretty genuine. But what’s so fascinating is his exploration into what lies underneath. The cruelty, sickness, perversion, and horror that lies beneath the surface of nice, clean, Caucasian, American middle class neighborhoods. Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern play the two leads, whose discovery of the severed human year leads them on an investigative journey that involves a nightclub singer, played by Isabella Rossellini, in what must have been one of the most bravest and courageous performances by an actress to date. Rosellini’s character we come to learn is wrapped up in a precarious and dangerous situation by Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper (who by the way demanded the role to Lynch because he said he needed to play the role because he “was Frank Booth”). Hopper, or shall I say Frank, is depicted in the film’s most shocking, disturbing, and violent scenes because well, he’s clearly a sadistic, over-sexualized, misogynistic, and overall dangerous man (maybe the most dangerous villain we’ve seen in film history-?). The investigation of MacLachlan and Dern’s characters follow the trail of breadcrumbs that Lynch expertly sets up for you. And really, what we get here in the subsequent story that follows is an investigation into the darkness and depravity of the underbelly of society. As the investigation runs deeper and deeper until all of those involved immerse themselves into a dark, sinister world that they can’t get out of.

This was and still is a bold, gripping, stylish, and highly controversial film that’s really only for the hardest of film aficionado’s who can appreciate and admire (but certainly not “enjoy”, unless your some kind of sadist) such a singular and unique piece of work. It’s filled with graphic sexual violence, particularly in the scene stealing scenes by Hopper, that combines an air of twisted mystery with an ironic, satirical look into America with a light, sometimes fluffy, stylized tone. Which speaks to this “contrast” between good and evil that I hinted at earlier. It’s repulsively strange (as are many of Lynch’s films) though given his tastes of depicting the avant-garde (or what we know to be avant-grade in cinema), is congruent with almost all of his other work. Particularly in the films that followed like 1988’s “Wild At Heart”, 1990’s TV series “Twin Peaks”, “Lost Highway” (1997), and Inland Empire (2006). Lynch doesn’t seem to care about what the audience thinks but more about his own instruction of them. It’s a masterful exercise in controlling the audience’s attention and planting a seed in their subconscious, which I think is at the heart of most of his work, and certainly in this film. It’s references are endless – to its “film noir” feel, to its Salvador Dali “look”, to the voyeuristic scenes involving both MacLachlan and Rossellini. Which to me anyway, seem like nods to Alfred Hitchcock (especially 1954’s “Rear Window”). It also features some of the most absurdist, iconic scenes ever imagined and put to screen (remember Lynch gets the majority of his ideas for his films from his subconscious and dreams). Dean Stockwell lip-synching to Roy Orbinson’s “In Dreams”, the Hopper/Rossellini rape scene, Rossellini’s rendition of “Blue Velvet” at a local jazz club while Hopper chews on a piece of blue velvet, MacLachlan getting beat to a pulp also set to Orbinson’s “In Dreams” while a prostitute dances atop a car, to Hopper ridiculing MacLachan’s choice in beer – “Fuck Heineken! PABST. BLUE. RIBBON!” (which incited the biggest reaction/laughter/clapping from the Portland crowd). This film is littered with such scenes, but despite these iconic scenes, one never gets the impression that Lynch is somehow trying to please the audience or entertain them, which I think is the strongest component of his films. Lynch’s films seem to want to exist outside of what we consider more accessible cinema and shows us sides of human nature that we pretend we don’t want to know exist, or at least don’t want to believe actually take place in our own neighborhoods that we deliberately tuck ourselves away from in hopes of keeping us safe (classic bourgeois mentality). But in reality, situations like this occur all the time. Even if so many of us have tried to remove ourselves far away from them in our own closeted, middle class lifestyle. Lynch shows here that violence doesn’t discriminate against socioeconomic class, as danger is imminent to us all even if we try to not think about it or turn a blind eye to it when it actually happens (“well, at least it didn’t happen to me”). This is without a doubt Lynch’s masterpiece, and also one of my top 5 to 10 favorite films of all time. Its influence and relevance is just as important today as it was almost 30 years ago. I’ll end with a simple quote from the film that I think sums it up quite nicely – “it’s a strange world, isn’t it?”.

[A+]

David Lynch’s – Blue Velvet

Sunday, Aug 30, 2015, 9:30 PM

Laurelhurst Theater
2735 E Burnside St Portland, OR

4 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Synopsis: Returning home to visit his father who is in intensive care at the hospital, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) stumbles upon a human ear he finds in a field. With police detective Williams and the local police department unable to investigate, Jeffrey and Sandy (Laura Dern), Detective Williams’s daughter decide to do their own investigat…

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A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Birdman’ or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) 11.15.16

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu is perhaps maybe the single most influential filmmaker on my becoming a film student and how I view film. More than any other filmmaker I’ve written about on this blog up to this point. I didn’t really get into looking at film as an art form until I was around 18 years old, in 1999, when I took a film class my senior year in high school that was being offered for the first time. I remember vividly the teacher telling us that first day that we needed to be prepared to “never look at film the same way again”. It was that same year I really starting delving into films by directors who would go on to become some of my favorites – people like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Paul Thomas Anderson. To name just a few. Then, a year after, just when I was really starting to formulate a film vocabulary and started developing a taste in what I liked or didn’t like, a film came out by a young director hailing from Mexico City, Mexico named Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu called “Amores Perros” (2000). It completely took me by storm and seemed to encapsulate everything I loved about the medium that I had learned about up to that point. It had an multi-thread, interwoven script about 3 well developed central characters, all of whom were interconnected as if by a mere act of chance. It brimmed with energy and was explosively violent shot with an assured sense of immediacy at times (just re-watch the opening 10 minutes and prepare to have your jaw gape) while switching gears and becoming incredibly patient at others. But most importantly, and what Innaritu went on to continue to explore in a lot of his work to come following, it focused on people facing life’s ultimate challenges (2003’s “21 Grams” and 2010’s “Biutiful”) from all walks of life all over the world (2006’s “Babel”). And in by watching and re watching those films it’s almost as if I started to develop my own sense of “cultural language” in film. Because Innaritu was and is one of the first international/foreign filmmakers to explore universal themes that affect almost everybody on a global scale. So it didn’t matter if his stories were set in Mexico, the US, Morocco, Japan, or Spain. Each film had an undeniably human element to them which I really connected to and identified with. Though many Innaritu detractors complained about his films being too depressing, too dark, too grim, and feeling all a bit too similar, which I guess I always felt like I could see but personally looked at his films as something deeper and uniquely different from one another. Then enter 2012-2013, and reports started to come in from film circles that Innaritu’s next project was going to be something that fell more into the comedic realm. A total 180 from his trademark stark and bleak dramas. One that would be set in New York City and star Michael Keaton, an actor who I had almost practically forgotten about since his heyday in the 1980’s where he played Batman in the Tim Burton version (1988) and who I couldn’t recall having seen in anything since Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997). Though as was with any Innaritu film the level of excitement and anticipation for his next release was unprecedented.

The film opens to us taking a look at a levitating man (played by Michael Keaton), who seems to be preoccupied in some form of meditation. He sits in front of a mirror in a dressing room and has one of those internal dialogue monologues that give us some back story about who he is. A sort of has been once famous movie actor in a trilogy of films called “Birdman”. Soon after he is interrupted by his lawyer/agent (Zach Galifianakis) that his scene in his writing, directing, and acting in play is about to start, and we’re then introduced to a few of his actors (one of whom is played by Naomi Watts) as well as his freshly out of a stint in rehab daughter played by Emma Stone. An unexpected accident occurs, and with only 3 nights left until opening night of the play, he is forced to find a stand in. Enter Edward Norton’s character, who acts as said stand in, and who Galifianakis’ agent promises will double the size of his audience. Which his fledging play seemingly needs. We also meet his current lover (played by the ravishing Andrea Riseborough) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan). Can this be the comeback play his career so desperately needs? Or has his time come and gone and his resurgence as an actor be a complete and total failure?

“Birdman” winds up being a cinematic and theatre lover’s wet dream (as I so eloquently put it as the house lights in the theater and credits started rolling). It has more energy, more snap, crackle, pop, bang, and more ingenious elements encompassing it cinematically than any other film I’ve seen this year. It’s director Innaritu’s masterpiece and has some of the most confidently assured and inspiring camera work that I’ve seen from any filmmaker in years. The way in which he zooms, zips, and swirls around every corridor and crevice of the theatre in which 95% of the film takes place in, is nothing short of a revolutionary feat. He captures it with the utmost authenticity depicting what the theatre scene is like through filming it with a mightily and very impressively minimal amount of takes and edits which makes the entire film feel like one long tracking shot. Which is a true testament to the art and craft of theatre. As anybody who is versed in the both the theatre and feature film medium knows that the major difference between the two forms understands that in the theatre there is no room for mistakes. Which comes across in the film and gives it a sense of urgency like the theatre which is executed perfectly on screen. Augmented by the dazzling cinematography by Emmanuel Luzbecki, fresh off his Oscar win from last year’s stunning “Gravity”. The whole affair is also brought to life by the incredible jazzy sounding and bopping score by Antonio Sanchez. Never mind the acting and performances, all of which are exemplary, but particularly that of Michael Keaton, which is sure to garner him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and possibly put him in the frontrunner position to win. His borderline real life self-referential bravura performance proves to us all once again that actors don’t ever necessarily lose their gift, they just become older and are replaced by younger talent making it harder and harder to find a great script that suits them. And this character fits Keaton perfectly like a glove. Edward Norton is almost equally as impressive as a narcissistic, vain, and completely full of himself actor, also who’s aging, and who also seems to know underlying that his time is running out. Expect some awards buzz and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here as well as he is nothing short of dynamite. I also have a newfound deep respect and admiration for Emma Stone, perfectly cast here as Keaton’s post-rehab daughter/assistant, who really shines and proves why she’s considered to be such a talented and sought after young actress. Everybody in this rich ensemble piece really seems to bring the razor sharp screenplay by Innaritu and his writing team come to life. I could go on…and on…and on to talk about it’s satirical comment on the nature of celebrity and mental illness, dark comedic undertones, rich underlying symbolism, and ambiguous ending. But I’m afraid this would turn into something that looked more like a thesis than a film review. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu – you have finally made your masterpiece at 51 years old and 14 years into your career. With a film that should garner Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director (Innaritu), Actor (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Norton), Cinematography (Luzbecki), Original Score/Screenplay, and Editing. This is hands down one of if not the best film of 2014. And a landmark achievement for both director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and star Michael Keaton. In a film that’s sure to explode over the next few months and catapult both of their careers into exciting new territory.

[A]

Review: ‘Bastards’ 11.7.14

I deliberately chose to revisit this film for 2 important reasons. One, because it currently holds a spot on my top 10 films of 2014, and two, because I never got around to writing a review for it. Paris born writer/director Claire Denis has just about as diverse of a résumé as almost any other international filmmaker that I can think of. She first caught the eye of the filmmaking landscape with her debut breakthrough film – 1988’s “Chocolat”. She made quite a few films throughout the nineties, all of which admittedly I haven’t seen. But starting with around the turn of the century is about when I caught on and got interested in her work. Her incredibly controversial body-horror picture “Trouble Every Day” (2001) was my real first introduction to her. A film that stands out as one of the pioneering films of the French New Extremity movement. That film resonated with me so much to the point that I still think about it often when talking about my conversations on film. Then
my next taste of Denis was with 2008’s “35 Shots of Rum”. A rich, poignant family drama about a bi-racial daughter and her recently widowed father. Then only to be swept up once again the following year with 2009’s “White Material”. A film about a young woman trying to stay alive in a war-torn post-colonial Africa. One thing that stands out at least to me in relation to Denis’ work is not only her ability to make such a diversity of different films within her body of work, but ones that are always risk taking and seem to challenge her audience. Having really liked the 4 previous films I had seen of hers, mixed in with the fact that it received a Un Certain Regard nomination at last year’s Cannes Film Festival I knew this was one I wasn’t going to miss.

The film starts right off the bat with a suicide. The man’s wife is questioned and believes she knows why her husband went to such lengths. We flash forward a year, and the story introduces us to Marco (the great French actor Vincent Lindon) who moves into the apartment building of his now widowed sister and dead brother-in-law. Marco also takes an interest in one of the other building residents. A rich heiress whose husband was the business partner of his late brother-in-law. A man who Marco feels is responsible for his death and the suffering and financial debt he put his sister in. Though Marco seems to have quite a fascination with the man’s wife, and the two soon develop an affair. Meanwhile his grieving sister’s daughter goes missing and is found brutalized after an accident in the hospital. Marco’s focus then shifts to finding out who could have possibly done such a thing to his niece while still continuing his affair with the man’s wife who he think’s is responsible for his dead brother-in-law. Did her husband really have something to do with it? Why did his niece get into the accident and wind up in the hospital? Are the two interconnected in some way? This is what the film goes on to explore in its second half.

What can I say other than I absolutely loved this movie. And consider it to be Denis’ best film to date. Given that Denis is now in her late sixties and even though probably has a few films left in her, it almost felt like a culmination piece in relation to the rest of her body of work that I’ve seen. It’s a noirish and nightmarish vision that’s shrouded in mystery. Like some of her more controversial pieces (ala “Trouble Every Day”) it’s a grand statement on the dark side of humanity and the depths to which people out there can go. Except it’s not intentionally nihilistic like the films of her other French counterpart Gasper Noe. Denis is much more of a psychological director whose movies contain quite a bit of mystery. It’s reminiscent of films like George C. Scott’s “Hardcore” (1978), David Lynch’s trilogy of films about mistaken identity – “Lost Highway” (1997), 2001’s “Mulholland Drive, and “Inland Empire” (2007), alas mixed in with a taste of Joel Schumacher’s “8MM” (1999). It’s incredibly dark, erotic, and perverse much like those films were. Also, like most of Denis’ work she seems more interested in really challenging the audience to think more than anything. Which who anybody that knows me knows how much I value that aspect in terms of how I view film. Lastly, is the film’s last act which contains some unabashedly truths about the innately evil and unspeakable horrors of the dark side of humanity. Totally taking me by storm and one which had me sitting there not knowing exactly what to do with myself once the credits rolled. This is an unforgettable film, but only for people who like their films to be both dark and challenging. If this sounds like your cup of tea, well, then there’s really not a better foreign film I can recommend to you that I’ve seen all year. This is one that currently stands high on my list of the top 10 films of 2014. One in which I’m pretty confident in saying that I think should hold out and remain there by year’s end.

[A-]

Review: ‘Nymphomaniac Vol.1’ 9.4.14

Those of you that know me well enough know that I have a deep respect and admiration for Lars Von Trier. As someone who considers themselves to be a student of film, there is no other director (except maybe Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch) that has had as much of an influence on my developing taste in film particularly during that of my more formative years. I remember clearly, it being well over a decade now, when I first saw LVT’s “Europa” (1991). The opening tracking shot of a murky train track with a brilliant voice over narration by Max Von Syndow telling the viewer “to sit back, relax, and let the images take over”, which enduced some kind of a trance; was my first introduction to this writer director. Much like David Lynch and Gasper Noe, LVT seems to be much more interested in entering the viewer’s subconsicous from the get go than anything else. What has been the focus of so much controversy over the years is what LVT’s intentions are once he gets in there. As Bjork, the famous Icelandic singer who worked on one his films (2000’s brilliant “Dancer in the Dark”) said – “it’s almost as if there’s this sort of psychological robbery or robbery of the soul that takes place when working on and seeing a LVT film”. In fact, she had such an awful experience working with him that she vowed never to act in any other film again (ironically though, she won the best actress award at Cannes for her spellbinding debut performance). LVT, while maybe difficult to work with, has an uncanny gift for bringing out great performances in actresses. Emily Watson’s performance in 1996’s “Breaking The Waves” and Nicole Kidman’s in 2004’s “Dogville” are two outstanding performances in not only what are 2 of my favorite LTV films, but 2 of my favorite films of all time. I think what Bjork was quoted as saying is indicative of a lot of LVT films. He goes places and shows you things that you have such an immense emotional reaction to, that an exercise in one of his films can be very off putting to some. With that said, I’ve always found his boundary pushing, penchant for the taboo, and challenging material; specifically emotionally, to be his biggest strong points. He is a provocateur who bullies his audience. Again, a criticism that many people have of him that I just don’t happen to share. I want to be shocked, perturbed, angry, and completely emotionally and psychologically devastasted when watching a LVT film. And believe me I’m not a masochist or sadist, nor am I a misogynist (which LVT is often referred to as). I just like films that explore the dark side of the human condition that bring me to places where there’s no pre-established contract set up. Which is why I gravitate to the type of material and stories in which Von Trier often chooses to write about.

When I first heard that LVT had announced to Stellan Skarsgard (an often LVT collaborater who appears in the film) that his plan after 2011’s mostly superb, end of the apocalypse art film – “Melancholia”, was to write and direct a 5-hour porno movie. My first reaction was one of intrigue, but my second and most important was, how the heck was he going to pull it off. Then, after being screened throughout the festival circuit last year and garnering mostly positive praise. I once again grew a sense of anticipation and excitment that I often times do with a lot of LVT films. Well, after some procrastination I finally got around to watching Vol.1 last night. In typical LVT fashion it was another addition to his ouevre of ever growing, boundary pushing, esoteric films. A loose synopsis is that it follows the sexual exploits of Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, another LVT frequent collaborater) from the age of 2 through her teenage and young adult years, as she recites them in a series of flashbacks to Skarsgard, who just happens to help her at the start of the film when she is most in need. The film uses this tale of her sexual odyssey to explore underlying themes such as temptation, jealousy, relationship power dynamics, male vs. female ego, control, obsession, and love vs. lust. There is a fair amount of explicit sex yes. But one can probably induce that already by the title of the film. What’s important to point out is there is nothing stimulating about the sex we see on screen at all. LTV uses this concept to explore sex as an addiction, something we use for selfish reasons, or are constant need to be in control, and as an ultimately   unsatisfying way of relieving all of the tension we build up. This is all effective and done well. However, while it was intellectually stimulating, it didn’t really strike a chord for me emotionally or psychologically that some of LVT’s prior work has. It all felt very topical in its examination. It felt like he could have gone further and probed deeper into the material (which I hope is the case with Vol.2). The script also had its flaws, in that I found the constant metaphors (and there were far too many of them) and symbolism to be a bit unecessary and self indulgent. I feel like had LVT made things a bit more subtle and not so obtrusive, I probably would have liked the film quite a bit more. Still, and I’ll refer to Von Trier here as I often refer to the films of Woody Allen. A sub par or mediocre LVT film, as with Allen, is still better than 90% of most other directors better works. Or better yet, certainly more worthwhile than whatever’s showing this week at your local IMAX theater.

Grade: B-

Review: ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ 6.5.14

A fascinating documentary of one of the most important art house auteurs, who in the late sixties and seventies put out a string of films (‘El Topo’ and ‘Holy Mountain’ being his most notable) that changed the film making landscape at the time, and who longed to make Frank Hubert’s Science Fiction classic novel ‘Dune’, into a feature length film. This is a reflection and a look back into what “might have been”. Jodorowsky collected some of the world’s best artists of the time – Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and Orson Welles to star (what?!), H.R. Giger in the art/production design department (who went on craft the Alien for their franchise), to tapping Pink Floyd to do the soundtrack, Dan O’Bannon to write (who also later went on to write the screenplay for ‘Alien’), etc. He basically collected the best of the best of the world’s artists, only to wind up getting caught up in “development hell”, having done everything right that one must go through in pre-production, only to have the studios bail on him for being “too original” and “too innovative”. Then have his dream and passion project stripped away and given to David Lynch to direct, who even Jodorowsky will admit is a genius but made one of the most beloved Science Fiction book-to-screen adaptations into one of the biggest box office bombs of the 80’s. Now at 84, he reflects back on the experience and what that whole process was like for him. A true inspiration to an artist and/or anyone in general, he sums it all up to the fact that at least he “tried” to pursue his life long dream, which is the best thing one can aspire to in this lifetime. An incredibly well constructed documentary, one that moves along at a brisk pace, and moreover, taught me a ton of how the studio system favors studio heads and producers over the actual creators, this is already turning out to be one of the best documentaries I’ve seen so far this year. And, one that hopefully picks up a much deserved Oscar nomination for the Academy in that same category come next year.

Grade: A-/A