Monthly Archives: March 2014

Nymph()maniac — 4/10

NYMPH()MANIAC (2014, Lars von Trier)

And to think, there were actually charges that Steve McQueen wasn’t subtle enough with SHAME. NYMPH()MANIAC makes SHAME look like Rohmer. Content to both flatter and condescend to his audiences equally, Lars von Trier has a ball being as hammeringly obvious and on-the-nose here as possible. We’re used to rancid pretentiousness in films like ANTICHRIST (remember the fox who actually says “Chaos reigns?”), and even in Trier’s best films like DOGVILLE and MELANCHOLIA there’s a strain of didacticism. But now, Trier wants to spend four hours of our time giving us opportunities to pat ourselves on the back (for noticing the reference to the opening of ANTICHRIST) and make sure we get his points (3+5… OH YEAH! Thanks for splattering those numbers on the screen again; I might not have figured it out). At least the nadir of this happens early (“I like fishing and you like fucking, so when you are out searching for guys, it’s kind of like you were fishing; and when you found one, th- CUT TO fisherman reeling in his line!), but it’s still laughable how brazen the contempt is.

Hidden in Trier’s back pocket is a valuable playing card: any time the movie veers into risibility, he can claim intent. “This thing is a black comedy! I mean to make that funny, and I’m answering my critics! So if you’re criticizing it, you’re the joke!” But how can he defend his own failure to address humanity? From BREAKING THE WAVES to DANCER IN THE DARK to DOGVILLE, Trier has been the world’s champion at depicting female suffering, but when the female here is a bogus conceit set up to fit into the mathematical scheme of a contrived story, there is no chance at making that suffering appear plausible, empathetic, or insightful. And as for its “edgy” content, it plays like the dirty old man version of graphic — where sex is a ghastly exercise that never leads to anything good. Unless you think jamming 11 spoons up your vagina is hot.

Sure enough, when the film is funny it’s pretty funny. But when it gets serious, it’s dreadful. Surprisingly, Shia LaBeouf (barely passable British accent aside) turns in a fine performance as young Jerome, and Uma Thurman makes the most of a shakily written scene of histrionics. Charlotte Gainsbourg owns the movie though, and it’s sad to see yet another strong lead performance wasted on a turd of a provocation. She has to take over the Joe reins from Stacy Martin, and both women are good, but the film suffers some continuity in the switch. Even weirder, for his final appearance, Jerome stops being played by LaBeouf and becomes Michael Pas. Any emotional power his brutal conclusion is supposed to have gets dampened by the fact that we’ve never seen this guy before and have to imagine LaBeouf doing it. I don’t know if Trier thinks he’s Bunuel or Bergman, but he can’t pull off the doubling trick with actors. And then there’s Stellan Skarsgard, playing a ludicrous character who gets comeuppance for delivering the worst mansplanation in the history of mansplaining (and a bit of self-flagellation from Trier, I think). I don’t even know what to say about him, but he gets to deliver the film’s most revealing line: “Sometimes the text can be so empty; so unfathomably empty!”

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Bad Words — 4/10

BAD WORDS (2014, Jason Bateman)

Bateman’s eminently forgettable directorial debut suffers more from a lame script than it does from the incompetence of a first-time filmmaker. Behind the camera, Bateman seems to be perfectly solid in terms of pacing and cutting a well-staged series of comic scenes, but when the jokes aren’t there, jokes won’t magically appear. A few funny lines aside, delivered with reliable straight-faced under-acting from a lead known for letting others chew scenery, there isn’t much to laugh at in a predictable story about an asshole who learns to be nice thanks to the friendship of a lovable little kid.

We’ve seen this plot before in BAD SANTA, but the acidic vitriol of Zwigoff’s poisonous Christmas comedy was gloriously over-the-top. Here, there’s nothing much worse than giving an 11-year old a sip of whiskey. Not that this needed audacity to work, but when there aren’t any interesting supporting characters (I can’t believe I’m saying this, but even Kathryn Hahn manages to be ineffective), there needs to be something extra in the central relationship. Maybe Bateman needs to be more selfish as an actor these days — get back to the aggressiveness of his scene-stealing supporting turns in films like STATE OF PLAY and HANCOCK — but whatever it is, this film just passively cruises by and disappears into thin air.

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Jodorowsky’s Dune — 8/10

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (2014, Frank Pavich)

I’ve never seen a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky. I knew of his work from the glowing reviews of EL TOPO and SANTA SANGRE by Roger Ebert, but I’ve never taken the opportunity to watch one. But why let a little something like complete ignorance about an artist stop me from appreciating a documentary like this? Pavich’s crackerjack exploration of the Jewish-Ukrainian filmmaker (born in Chile, living in France) and his failed attempt to mount an epic 2001/STAR WARS-esque adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel tells us everything we need to know about Jodorowsky the director, if not about how his visions translate when fused with the commerce necessary to distribute them.

You can look at this film as a recipe for the ingredients necessary for cinematic art: first, you need unwavering passion. (Jodo’s dedication to and fervent admiration of the Herbert book ignites his quest to make the movie). Second, you need unchecked ambition — let’s assemble the greatest collaboration of artists possible to create this masterpiece: “Get me Jean Moebius Giraud! Get me Douglas Trumbull! Wait, fuck him, he sucks, get me Dan O’Bannon! Get me Salvador Dali! Get me H.R. Giger! Get me Orson Welles!” Hearing Jodo enthusiastically regale Pavich’s camera with stories of how he seduced people like Dali and Welles to work with him is a treat in and of itself, but wondering how their contributions would appear on screen feeds our imaginations forever. Thirdly, and unfortunately most importantly, you need realistic expectations regarding the commercial necessities of the industry — tailor your talents to the needs of the marketplace and allow for concession. Jodo doesn’t grasp this, but the film also asks: should he? Maybe that quality would have helped get DUNE produced, but if it had, would it have been as “awful!” (in the words of Jodo’s gleeful expression of schadenfreude) as Lynch’s disaster? We’ll never know, but Pavich seems to be arguing that perhaps it’s the industry to blame, not Jodo’s failure to play Hollywood’s game. At the very least, Nicolas Winding Refn sure thinks it is.

This is a film not just about the specifics of Jodorowsky’s ambitious but doomed project, but also one about megalomania in general, lifelong refusal to equivocate, and the limits (or lack thereof) of artistic vision. In the stories we hear, the passion inside Jodorowsky is similar to that of his idols like Dali and Welles, which probably helps him cajole them into joining his quest. But if there’s a happy ending here, it’s the bittersweet acknowledgement that even an unrealized dream could have inspired sci-fi cinema of the last 40 years. It’s this coda that didn’t really convince me — I find it hard to believe that without Jodorowsky and Michel Seydoux (granduncle to Léa, FYI), there wouldn’t be Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, or BLADE RUNNER, or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, or THE MATRIX. But it’s nice to think about the possibility that unfulfilled passions could still inspire successful art. And that in turn raises questions about intellectual property, but that’s a subject for another documentary — one I’d love to see Pavich make with the same skill and joy with which he tackled this peculiar wonder.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel — 7/10

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014, Wes Anderson)

I don’t have much to say about this, which is: a) surprising, given how much I like Wes Anderson and how much I loved MOONRISE KINGDOM, his previous film, which was my favorite Wes to date; b) annoying to you guys, since you’re reading this and want something more; and c) a bit indicative of the experience of this movie. I don’t have much to say because I don’t think the film does either. This is as intricately designed, gorgeously shot, and exactingly executed as any film Wes has made — and because we know Wes is intricate, visually gifted, and exacting, we can say that this is, although not the best Wes Anderson film, the most Wes Anderson film. But unfortunately, I can’t find anything here (and I’m writing this 24 hours after seeing it) to unpack.

Yes, it’s about pre-war Europe; it nods to the Nazis, it nods to how violence in society leads to violence among individuals, it nods to the purity of a mentor-protege relationship, and most pointedly it nods to storytelling in general. It’s a film folded back on itself several times over (a girl in present day reads a book written in 1985 by a writer telling of a story he learned in 1968 from a guy who lived the story in 1932) and thus falls in love with storytelling. But what does it have to say specifically about how or why we tell stories? Nothing as far as I could gather. Same thing for violence, war, and friendship. These are just chapter headings on the rooms of a dollhouse — and it sure is a beautiful dollhouse, and I was entertained throughout the film, laughing out loud both at great lines of dialogue and spirited performances (both from the leads, like Fiennes and Revolori, and from the cameos like Murray, Wilson, and Keitel) — but it all felt as superficial, sweet, colorful, and nutrition-less as a box of Mendl’s confections.

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Stranger by the Lake — 7/10

STRANGER BY THE LAKE (2014, Alain Guiraudie)

We’ve seen films about how love can turn into obsession, and how obsession can blind the best of us to the faults of the object. But we haven’t seen too many of them that are quite like this. Guiraudie appears to have made a few features over the last decade but I’d never heard of him before, and he makes his mark pretty distinctly. The boldest decision is to shoot the entire movie in one location — and while that isn’t unique, usually when movies do this it’s the characters stuck there, not the camera. Here, the characters leave every night and come back the next day, but it’s the camera that’s stuck at the lake and just capturing the things that happen there (and in its nearby woods and parking lot) with no access to the home lives of any of these people. (The decision could be driven by budgetary restraints — no need to arrange any other locations — but it also has an interesting thematic appeal; by the same token, every shot is a day exterior requiring what seems like only the sun to light it: even night shots are lit by headlights or the moon, with Guiraudie happy to let anything not illuminated by those sources fall totally dark. If he did pay for a lighting kit and generators, he did a hell of a job making it look natural).*

The film also eschews a score or music of any kind. The last time I went to France, I was struck by how quiet so many places were. You can walk around that country without being assaulted by music everywhere you go — but back in the States, there’s hardly a corner of civilized real estate that isn’t blaring music in some capacity. By extension, French films will often let its scenes breathe without a score, using natural sound and post-production effects (birds, waves, wind) to provide the entirety of the audio track. Again, the lack of music could be driven by budget, but here it also adds to the film’s sense of isolation and anonymity. We don’t learn protagonist Franck’s name until at least halfway through the film (we don’t learn anyone’s name until then, for that matter), and the repeated shots of a red car and an empty towel say everything they need to.

It’s because the film’s spare style works so well to explore its themes of anonymity, loneliness, and repetition that one scene stuck out like a sore thumb — an Inspector late in the movie delivers a monologue to Franck that serves as a lecture, a summary, and a heavy-handed speech to the audience about what Guiraudie has been saying for the last hour and a half. The scene really let me down because I was hoping Guiraudie would have trusted his audience enough to get it on their own — maybe Franck wouldn’t have, and you can defend the scene by saying he needed to hear it, but it rang false to me. I also thought the graphic sex scenes felt so removed from the sparseness of the rest of the movie’s style that they didn’t seem justified by any storytelling motive. In the same way that the scenes in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (to compare this to another recent French film with incredibly explicit sex scenes) felt a bit like a director getting his jollies (though Kechiche was making a movie about one girl’s ravenous passions, so the graphicness there made a lot more sense than here), these sex scenes don’t add much more beyond the curiosity of a director wanting to get away with cum shots.

Those flaws aside, this is a nicely paced, carefully modulated mounting thriller about how the loss of identity, the search for a connection to other people, and the instability of feeling lonely can lead to sad, sadder, and saddest: you’re either stuck in a rut, you’re suicidal, or you’re so attracted to danger that you’d rather obsess over something that could kill you rather than be alone, in the dark, with nothing to love, and nothing to love you.

 

* UPDATE (March 4): I’ve just done some research and read a Film Comment interview with Guiraudie where he does indeed reveal that it was all natural light — nothing added, as I suspected (thanks to the RED Epic, a superlative digital camera).

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