A Trip To The Movies – Review: “While We’re Young” 4.11.15

While We're Young Movie Poster

Writer/director Noah Baumbach has been on what many may consider to be on quite a bit of a roll lately, churning out one film after the next in almost Woody Allen fashion. Fans of his can almost look forward to a new Baumbach movie every 1-2 years these days, which is a far cry from the Baumbach of old (this is a guy that took a full ten years off between 1995’s “Kicking and Screaming” and still what I consider to be the best of his films – 2004’s “The Squid and the Whale”. That same year he also co-wrote “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” with fellow industry fan and friend Wes Anderson. Which, I thought with the exception of maybe the Anderson/Owen Wilson penned “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) ) ranks up their with the best of any of Anderson’s scripts. Ironic because “The Squad in the Whale”, as mentioned which was made that same year, felt like the most Anderson influenced film that he’s done (and that’s meant as a compliment) . He then came back just a few years later with “Margot at the Wedding” (2007) which admittedly I didn’t love, but I can’t say I didn’t admire.

Then came what I consider to be the “new” Baumbach crop of films as he entered the start of the new decade with “Greenberg” (2010) and “Frances Ha” (2012). Which, content-wise, one could draw a lot of similarities between the two. They both follow an aging central character (in “Greenberg” a 40-something Stiller and in “Frances Ha” a late twenty-something Greta Gerwig). Though while I personally thought “Frances Ha” was a much better film and Baumbach’s second best film to date. It’s within these two films that he started to explore ideas about aging, our insecurities, our ability (or inability) to fit in with our contemporaries, not feeling as if we’ve lived up to our true potential, and how we measure success relative to those around us. Among many other themes but which, at least to me, seemed to be the major ones. Baumbach appears to have finally found his niche, much like Wes Anderson has, in terms of his films slowly starting to feel similar in content, feel, and tone.

When I first saw the trailer for “While We’re Young” I was excited as it seemed to be an extension of his exploring the similar themes that he did in both “Greenberg” (2010), and “Frances Ha” (2012). With Baumbach returners Ben Stiller (“Greenburg”) and Adam Driver (“Frances Ha”) both playing starring roles, while also welcoming stars Noami Watts and Amanda Seyfried into the mix. It also marks his third original musical score in a row with James Murphy, ex-frontman of the funk/electro outfit LCD Soundsystem. Whose own music and extensive record collector knowledge of music I’ve always thought worked well within the Baumbach framework. My only bit of skepticism going into the film was that, at least by the trailer, Baumbach was working within familiar ground here. That and it looked like his most commercially viable film to date. With A-list starts Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts playing the two lead roles. However though with any Baumbach feature my anticipation of seeing it was rather high, considering myself to be a great admirer of his work.

“While We’re Here” stars Ben Stiller as Josh, a mid forty-something documentary filmmaker working and living out of New York City with his wife, Cornelia (played by Naomi Watts). The two spend most of their time with their seemingly only friends Fletcher (played by Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia). Who, like many of their contemporaries, just had a baby (interesting how in Baumbach’s world, people don’t seem to have children until they’re in their forties). Josh is a continuing education instructor at an unspecified school who teaches some sort of film class to pay the bills while he works on his sophomore documentary, one that’s he’s been filming for almost six years now but just can’t seem to complete. Until one day he finds two new faces sitting in one of his classes played by newleyweds Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) who just so happen to be a fan of his previous documentary that he so desperately for many years has been trying to follow-up on. He instantly forms a bond with the two twenty-something’s who, he and his wife admire for their youth, as do Jamie and Darby admire them for their age and success (if you want to call it that) and Jamie’s dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker himself. The two couples start to spend a considerable amount of time together much to the chagrin of their other best friends Fletcher and Mariana, who think they should be settling down and having a baby. But Jamie and Darby have brought them a new zest to life, a rejuvination, where it feels good to be hanging around young people who seem to be doing fun things all the time and who have openly embraced them as one of their own. This gives them a new-found sense of purpose and meaning to what up until that point seems like a meandering existence.

I walked away from this film feeling both a bit conflicted and indifferent about how I felt about it. In my “Ten Most Anticipated Films of the Winter/Spring Movie Season” section I published awhile back, I wrote that I felt like Baumbach could be delving into familiar territory here after having seen the trailer. And for the most part that’s more or less kind of how I felt about the film. It does live up to its promise and presents us with a story about two forty-somethings who seem to be experiencing somewhat of a mid-life crisis (which in many ways felt like Baumbach’s last film “Frances Ha”) except for in that film he depicted Greta Gerwig as someone going through a “quarter-life” crisis. Baumbach does a great job with the script in hitting all the right notes about what it really feels like to go from late early adulthood to middle-aged adulthood, while desperately trying to hold onto one’s youth. His ability to make his themes seem relatable and universal has always been a strong suit of his and once again mostly works for him here. The central idea of the two couples (Stiller and Watts and Driver and Seyfried) and the juxtapositions of how they live their lives, and the cross-generational appeal is examined as smart, funny, poignant, and cute. But within this examination it doesn’t really offer us any deeper insight into what many of us already feel, like we’re big kids trapped in a little person’s body. Sure there are some genuinely funny moments that produce quite a few laughs and its treatment of its characters is both real, undeniably human, and at times heartfelt and touching. What didn’t work for me which has become apparent in a lot of Wes Anderson’s work as of late, is that Baumbach has seemed to have found a niche, and in a sense it feels like he’s rehashing the same formula that’s worked for him before. I personally feel like it’s important for an artist to step out of their comfort zone and try something new and interesting that they haven’t done before in order to remain fresh. But to me this film just seemed like “another” Noah Baumbach film. With the same sense of what I call “hipsterdom” which I feel like he’s trying almost in a sense to pander towards a specific target audience. Which ultimately I felt like was the film’s greatest weakness in its inability to feel like anything new or original from the writer/director. Let’s hope the second film that his next project promises, “Mistress America”, which opens later this year and reunites him with “Frances Ha” co-star and real life girlfriend and muse Greta Gerwig, finds him exploring something new and not so all too familiar.

[C+]

DVD Review: “Top Five” 3.15.15

I stumbled cross this movie after seeing a trailer way back in December before seeing another film in the theater. I’ve always liked Chris Rock – in not so much looking at his career as an actor, but more as a comic. He was part of some of my favorite years on Saturday Night Live (1990-1993),  and his HBO stand up performances were up there with some of the best from the list of some of the best Black comedians – Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy to name a few. I also thought he was perfectly cast in his role in the documentary “Good Hair” (2009). I’ve always looked at Rock and considered him one of the last few remaining Black comedians that can actually write. And it was interesting that just the other day, I was going back and forth with one of my co-workers, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Black entertainers, particularly those of the mid to late 20th century, who stated that he felt like the death of Black comedy ended with Richard Pryor. Which I think is true to some extent. While I like guys like Dave Chappelle and Rock, the majority of Black entertainers, especially comedians, in our current climate, just aren’t very funny (I’m looking at you Kevin Hart!). However I did bring up to said co-worker that I liked Rock, and considered him to maybe be the last in the short remaining list of Black comedians with real talent whose career has longevity (sorry Chappelle but you came onto the scene much to fast and left much too early). So when I first so the trailer for this film I took note of it when it said “written, directed, and starring Chris Rock” and was almost immediately sold. But what actually sealed the deal for me was that it looked like it was something that was clever, with real creativity, that separated itself from what you might expect of a Chris Rock film (and certainly that of any Tyler Perry movie). Given my being a semi fan of Rock as a writer, I decided to check this one out as soon as it became available on DVD.

Rock plays a fictitious film actor named Andre Allen (the last name being an overt nod to Woody) in an opening scene that involves a long tracking shot of him walking down the streets of New York City with a reporter (played by the always reliable Rosario Dawson). He spouts diatribes about the ever-changing times in America (his stabs at politics and president Obama are hilarious and only something that could come from the mind of Rock). The Dawson character is trying to convince Rock to allow her to do a piece on him for the New York Times, with him not really wanting or willing to commit. You see his career has hit a low point, and he strives to do something more dramatic but he’s been typecast into doing films like the “Hammy” franchise (imagine Smokey the Bear but with an AK-47!). He’s currently promoting his first foray into dramatic acting territory with a serious film called “Uprize” that looks like something Steve McQueen might have made if he set out to make “12 Years A Slave” a comedy. This on top of trying to juggle the press and his flailing career, as well as upcoming marriage to reality TV star (played by Gabrielle Union) and the days leading up to which is all going to air on the Bravo network. An obvious choice for his media hungry wife which he seems to be conflicted about but goes along with it anyway. Andre finally commits to allowing Rosario’s reporter to cover and do the piece, in hopes that maybe she’ll write something that will revitalize his career and give it some rejuvenation. Throughout this process she uncovers many truths about Andre that have yet to be revealed. Many of which involve deeply personal aspects of his life. That’s where the film really starts to build in terms of story, and much of what we learn about Andre’s deeply troubled past is shown in a serious of flashbacks (most of them downright hilarious) as the two of them stroll around the city working the press junket and getting ready for his big wedding.

There was a lot of strong elements encompassed in this film which as I expected, mostly came from within the writing and script departments. Rock gives us his version of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” (1963), Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980), and something that clearly seems influenced by the Richard Linklater “Before” Trilogy. It starts off and mostly stays solid with one joke after another, with many (and I mean many) cameos from just about everyone we’ve seen Rock be involved with in the number of different projects he’s done over the years. Like the films of Woody Allen, there’s a cynical undertone to a lot of the dialogue in the script, but with more satire involved in what it means to be an entertainer in the increasingly demanding film industry. Some of the flashback sequences I spoke of above are simply hilarious, particularly the ones involving Rock with Cedric The Entertainer, Dawson’s journalist revealing her more brazenly honest sex life in some of her past relationships, as well as Andre’s bout with alcoholism. The latter of which takes on a funny but sad tone that comes across as a bit more honest even despite the confounding situations that it got him into. It maintains a serio-comic edge throughout its almost entire duration when even if at times it seems a little overstuffed with ideas. That and about two-thirds of the way through there’s a revelation that came across as being a bit contrived which takes place while another shift in plot is formulating that also seems cliché. Though to Rock’s credit the razor-sharp script and witty dialogue mostly make up for it falling into typical romantic comedy movie tropes. I also thought it handled and straddled the line between serio-romantic comedy and drama rather well. With a script that came across as both original and inventive. For those of you looking for a comedy with a bit more of an edge like one of Rock’s comedic contemporaries, Louis C.K., then this might just be the comedy for you. It’s smart, funny, and refreshing, and even if you don’t necessarily like the film’s feel or tone, I can assure you it will at least be worthwhile for the sheer amount of great cameos in it. Let’s hope that Rock has more tricks like this one up his sleeve.

[B]

DVD Review: “Listen Up Philip” 3.13.15

This particular movie piqued my interest after having seen it wind up on many of last year’s top 10 lists from quite a few film critics. A movie that virtually seemed to fall under the radar by most yet even despite of its positive reviews. These are the exact types of films that I thrive on seeking out. As a lot of the time when I take a chance with something that I know little to next to nothing about, I sometimes come away feeling a great sense of having found that hidden gem that I can then spread the word about to the film aficionado friends that I know. If it winds up being disappointing…well, that’s not what really matters. It’s the hope of seeing something new and exciting that drives me to want to see a film that some may hold in a high regard that goes unseen by most if not all of the American public. Such was the case with this film. It played in a very limited release at one of our more local art house, independent cinemas here in Portland that only showcases the kinds of films that fall into this particularly kind of category. That and I’ve always been quite fond of the film’s lead, Jason Schwartzman, having feeling like I’ve almost seemingly grown up right alongside him when he wowed both audiences and critics a like with his breakthrough debut performance in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” (1998), which was a major movie for me in terms of my starting to develop an appreciation for both the art of film and its language. I also was intrigued by the film’s supporting cast which boasted Elizabeth Moss (who seems to be showing up everywhere lately, most notably in last year’s trippy SciFi romantic comedy/mindfuck – “The One I Love”) whom I also loved in one of the most underrated, overlooked, and unseen made for cable miniseries – Australian filmmaker Jane Campion’s fantastic murder mystery “Top of the Lake” (2013) which gave me a much deeper appreciation for Moss who won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Miniseries for her performance in it. Rounding out the impressive cast was the great Bristish stage and screen actor Jonathan Pryce, who has and will always stick out for me from his lead performance in Terry Gilliam’s undisputed masterpiece “Brazil” (1985). This looked to be one that had the potential to be of great promise, considering the actors involved and the great reviews I had glanced at about it.

The titular character, Philip (played by Schwartzman), is a New York City writer who at first seems so obsessed with himself, so self-absorbed, that he comes across as highly unlikable (think Jeff Daniels’ in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) ). He’s a bigot, arrogant, pretentious, and narcissistic. One of those better than everyone young writer types who on the heels of having only published one novel to date but who got critical acclaim for, thinks he’s gods gift to just about everybody he meets. But what’s different from his character than say the Jeff Daniels comparison, is that he’s well aware of all of these things, and we as the viewer are informed of this, throughout most of the film actually, in a brilliant voice over narration by none other than the Eric Bogosian (in what I found to be some of the better use of voiceover since Alec Baldwin’s work on another Schwartzman film – Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) ). It seems like every relationship, from Philip’s ex to his now current girlfriend (Moss) is doomed for failure. As he is not willing to recognize anybody’s else’s accomplishments rather than that of his own. Which makes him a likely candidate for most difficult person to be in a relationship with. He does however find solace in another writer Ike (played by the excellent Pryce), an aging writer who has seen his day, and who like Philip, is so selfish that he willfully seems to push away just about every person in his life. The two are almost mirror images of one another. And when Ike invites Philip to his summer home in upstate New York to escape the ever-growing and anxiety ridden demands of the big city life, Philip jumps at the opportunity to stay with his mentor, as he attempts to get his second novel published.

The film winds up being a mostly enjoyable dramedy, with elements of both dark humor and serious drama as the screenplay really attempts to give us, the viewer, full access into the world of Philip and the two different sides in which he projects – his overly confident, cocky exterior as well as the self loathing and deprecation that’s going on in the interior. Schwartzman handles the role rather deftly, and proves to his once again why he has the residual staying power that he’s had as an actor, despite having a number of notable films under his belt and still being as young as he is. The script and story itself reminded me of something out of the Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, and Wes Anderson cannon. In that there’s a sad, underlying tone with moments of great comedy on display. Juggling several genre elements all jumbled up into one rather remarkably. Which is a testament to its writer director, Alex Ross Perry, who has a couple of features under his belt but this seeming like essentially his debut film, which is mightily impressive given that he is barely 30 years old. The script is razor-sharp, smart, witty, and darkly funny. And came across as being more deeply rooted in reality than a lot of the other increasing number of films that I’ve seen from this genre as of late. While we look at Philip’s character with disdain, there’s also a human element that resides within him that comes across as universal, authentic, and real. This wound up being a mostly rewarding experience, even if it did wind up feeling slightly familiar at times to films like the ones of early Woody Allen. Recommended for those interested in the independent, romantic dramedy genre looking for something new and fresh and for fans of Schwartzman. As this one should have raised a few more eyebrows than it did, and at least to me, seems like it should have gotten quite a bit more attention than it ultimately wound up getting.

[B]

Review: ‘Obvious Child’ 10.11.14

It’s interesting that I should come off a new Woody Allen film with this one up next in the cannon. The reason why I say this is because Allen is considered the first writer/director in American cinema who really started writing strong female characters in film with Diane Keaton acting as his muse. Which is one of the many things I admire about him. If you think about the entertainment industry its always been a predominately male driven one. If you want proof of this look no further than even to this day where there are just a handful of well known women directors. That and when most people talk about or list off who their favorite “actor” is (yes people women are considered actors too) they usually list off a group of men. That’s why I always become interested when I see a movie come along that boasts a mostly female cast (1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” being one of the all time greats). Or in the case of this film, focuses primarily on the trials and tribulations of one woman. Being in that I am a member of the opposite sex, I find it’s important to seek out films that identify with the experience of being a woman. So often in film women are put on screen only to be objectified (see Megan Fox) and reduced to mere eye candy. Which I think is really rather unfortunate. When I first heard about this film, like with most films, it was by seeing a trailer for it before another. I didn’t really recognize anyone in it other than Gaby Hoffman, who I had recently seen and absolutely loved in last year’s “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus”. That and it looked like it had the potential to be really funny. What sealed the deal for me was the fact that it not only looked like a lighthearted comedy, but one with true spirit; and most importantly, one that focused on a strong central female character. Having not gotten the chance to see it in theaters I put a high priority on seeing it as soon as it came out on DVD.

The film first introduces us to Donna (played by Jenny Slate), a young woman in her late twenties who moonlights as a comic in Brooklyn while she works at her day job at a local bookstore. After a performance one night she is approached by her boyfriend who explains that he’s been cheating on her which completely overwhelms and devastates her. To top if off the following morning at her day job her boss tells her that he’s closing shop. So in a span of 24 hours she gets dumped and her only steady source of income is gone. Donna seeks solace in her best friend (played by Hoffman), her supportive and understanding father, as well as her not so supportive, higher standard, but equally as loving mother. She appears to be going through some mid quarter life crisis and falls into self deprecation. Then on one drunken and off performance night out she meets Max, a guy who while although isn’t really her type, conveniently shows up at a time when she’s most vulnerable. She winds up going home with him (in a dance party sequence that’s pure gold) and has a one night stand, which at that point the central plot of the story begins as she becomes faced with one of life’s most difficult decisions.

This is a wonderful film that I had really good time with. It left me feeling similarly to how I felt after 2012’s brilliant film by Noah Baumbach – “Frances Ha” which also focused on another strong female central character played by the superb Greta Gerwig. Like Gerwig, Jenny Slate is mesmerizing in her role here, and also like Gerwig in that film, plays the character with an authenticity that really comes through in her performance. I also thought it was raw, heartfelt, and tenderly funny, without feeling melodramatic or too full of sentiment. Donna is equally as funny in both her on and off stage personas. The conversations she has with her friends and family as well as her audience produces some genuine laughs about her ruminations on life. Also, the relationship that unfolds with the unassuming Max feels real in a way that is often times hard to capture in similar type relationships I’ve seen depicted in other movies of its kind. There’s also a great bit part featuring David Cross which I was surprised by but I thought fit perfectly in the context of the film. My only couple of minor criticisms is that there’s a coincidence that turns up involving Max that to me seemed a bit far fetched. Very similar to how I felt about the coincidence involving both Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in last year’s “Enough Said”. Also, I felt like the story could have been expanded on a little, which felt a bit short and breezy as it zipped by at a brisk 80 minutes. But despite those two pretty minor critiques, this is a film bursting with energy and real true human feeling and emotion. That and as mentioned above, and what I think deserves to be noted twice, it features a bravura performance by the little known Slate who I can potentially see gaining some awards attention at the year’s end by some of the smaller indie-friendly critic’s circles. This is a smart, honest, feel good film which is one of the best of its kind that I’ve seen all year. I’ve already added it on my list of Honorable Mentions that should survive and wind up on my end of the year list. Do yourself a favor and seek this one out. I can assure you that it won’t disappoint.

Grade: B+

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ 10.10.14

Anyone that knows the film lover side of me knows how much I absolutely adore Woody Allen. My first introduction to him was in a film class in my late teens when one of my teachers showed the class “Annie Hall” (1977). A film that struck such a chord with me and left such a mark that even 15 years later I still consider it to be one of my 5 favorite films of all time. In the several years following I’ve immersed myself in almost every Allen film. At one point a couple of years back, if my mind serves me correctly, I think I remember counting that I had seen 37 of his 44 films. His films have become something much deeper than just movies. In fact, they’ve gotten me through some really difficult times in my life. I almost use them as a therapeutic tool. They’re my version of what I consider to be “feel good movies”. Even though underlying them there’s a sense of cynicism and sadness about his views on life. In my eyes, I look at life very much through what I now consider to be almost an “Allen-like lens”. Given the fact that at this point I feel like I practically know the guy being well aware and knowing that I only know him as a writer, actor, director, comedian, and musician. The best thing for me is that I know each and every single year I will be given a new Woody Allen film. His creative output is only matched by the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, who used to release a film a year. And, who non coincidentally, also happens to the director who Allen cites as his biggest influence. Now I can’t really say I had the highest hopes going into his new film, as the trailer just screamed out “minor Allen”. But being in that he’s one of my top fave favorite film makers, I just knew that I had to see it.

The film starts off in Berlin circa 1928 where we first meet a seemingly famous magician named Stanley (played by the great British actor Colin Firth). Our initial impression of him is that he’s quite full of himself. He’s pompous, self absorbed, and a total narcissist. A longtime friend and admirer of his work employs him to travel to the southern coast of France to expose a clairvoyant named Sophie (played magnificently here by Emma Stone, in what might be her finest work to date), who specializes in being able to raise the dead through the ritual of seances. Since he himself is considered to be one of the finest magicians of his time, his employer hopes that he can debunk her and show that’s she’s really just a fake. Stanley arrives to France under the guise of a businessman, but after some time of him and Sophie getting to know one another, she recognizes who he really is and through intuition correctly guesses what his motivations are. But it also seems as if she is smitten by him and doesn’t really seem to care or not that he’s there to expose her. That, and he is fascinated by her too. So while they both know that he’s there for reasons to ruin her they grow a deep affinity and admiration for each other and one another’s work. As their relationship grows so do their affection for one another, but because of their age difference (Stanley’s much older) and the fact that both of them are already in committed relationships, it doesn’t seem like this is a possibility. Except by maybe an act of fate. At the core it may sound like a simple love story but in typical Allen fashion, there winds up being much more involved than what meets the eye.

This wound up being an enjoyable film that I had a fair amount of fun with. Even if it does fall into the more “lighter fare” category. But it is “late Woody Allen”. Who in much of his recent efforts, with the exception maybe last year’s splendid “Blue Jasmine”, more or less reflects the tone of a lot of his latest work. Emma Watson is enigmatic here and a true delight to watch. Colin Firth also seems fitting for the role, and while although I wouldn’t put it up there with his best work (see 2009’s “A Single Man”), he certainly does a decent enough job where I thought he was a good casting choice. The two lead actors obviously seem to have a lot of fun with another one of Allen’s consistently good scripts and provide some great on screen chemistry. Also, as is with a lot of Allen’s more recent work, which acts as an almost travelogue since he films all over the world, he shoots the coast of southern France beautifully with some absolutely gorgeous and stunning photography. The music is also a highlight, as is with most of Allen’s films, he has a great ear for old school big band jazz sounds of the early 1920’s and thirties. My only criticism of the film is that it almost felt a bit “too” light. Like it was trying to pander a bit to the audiences heartstrings. Which is not something I’m used to with Allen. If anything I’ve often felt like his work is the exact opposite in that it tries not to even remotely pander to what he thinks the audience might like. It’s also cute and charming but not very funny. Which I was fine with as I don’t think its intention really was to be funny. At least not laugh out loud funny. However, I look at both of these things as minor critiques and that for the most part, I was able to overlook because of the other elements that I liked. This is slightly above average “late Woody Allen” and is more aligned with his post-aught films like “Match Point” (2005) or “Midnight in Paris” (2011) than it is with his stronger films like “Vicky Christina Barcelona” (2008) and “Blue Jasmine” (2013). It’s a film that even an Allen admirer such as myself can certainly recommend to others who are just looking for an enjoyable evening out with a delightful and charming film which even despite it’s more lighter leanings, succeeds on a lot of levels.

Grade: B

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: ‘The Double’ 8.31.14

If Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ is the best movie about middle aged adults falling in love, and Richard Linklater’s “Before Trilogy” is the best set of films about twenty/thirtysomething’s falling in love, then Richard Ayoade’s 2010 remarkable debut – ‘Submarine’ (which made my top 10 films of that year) has got to be the best film about teenagers falling in love. I remember being so moved by ‘Submarine’, so touched, both in its humanity and the way in which its characters were treated. I remember thinking “who is this Ayoade guy”? But at the time I didn’t really care. What I did know is that I just lay witness to one of the most refreshing young talents who made one of the strongest debuts in as far back as I can remember.

So it was only fitting that I would be heavily anticipating Ayoade’s sophomore effort. Especially because from the little bit I read I heard it was more or less an extension of his singular style, his ability to create something new and inventive, while also not conforming to any of Hollywood’s typical movie tropes. All things that were apparent if you saw ‘Submarine’ (and if you haven’t I would highly encourage you to do so). This, co-written and directed by Ayoade, with Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother also getting a co-writing credit), and based loosely on a novel penned by the famous 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Plus starring both Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska (is there anything this talented young actress isn’t in?). I thought this had the pedigree to be a great film. And for the most part it is. Set in the future, or a setting that gives no indication of space or time, and the story taking place below ground (at least it appeared to me to), following the central character, Eisenberg, who plays his usual awkward, unconfident, nervous self, but which in this case winds up suiting the material well. Who witnesses an attempted suicide while spying on his love interest through a telescope (a nod to Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’), here played by Wasikowska, only to show up the next day to work and there’s a carbon copy of himself, a doppelganger, and that’s where things really start to get interesting. Throughout, I couldn’t stop thinking of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece – ‘Brazil’, as this film felt a lot like it in both feel and tone. It’s peculiar, quirky, and very bizarre. It presents the viewer with a lot of questions – are the 2 Eisenberg’s switching identities? Obsessions? Are they both the same person just different versions of one another? This is a film, much like ‘Enemy’, that will have you asking yourself a lot of similar questions throughout. It’s a completely original, highly unique, and singular work. And proves once again that Ayoade is one of the more fresh, talented, and original voices on the filmmaking scene today. This is one that will most likely wind up on my list of Honorable Mentions (#’s 10-20) by year’s end.

Grade: strong B