Monday, April 28, 2014

Young & Beautiful (***)

Jeune & jolie
Written and Directed by Francois Ozon


It must be embarrassing for Lars von Trier to watch Young & Beautiful and realize that French filmmaker Francois Ozon accomplished everything that he wished to accomplish in his opus Nymphomaniac in nearly a quarter of the time. I must admit that I'm terribly ignorant of Ozon's filmography, and while I've always been interested in watching 8 Women and Swimming Pool, I just have never gotten around to it. I know there has been a common theme of female sexuality in a lot of his films, and Young & Beautiful is another narrative in that tradition. So perhaps I don't enter this film with the same baggage as I did with the von Trier film, since von Trier's often brilliant but occasionally smarmy act of running actresses through the physically emotional ringer felt tired in his two-part, pornographic film. Young & Beautiful isn't anywhere near as graphic - there isn't even a single erection! - and Ozon doesn't force his young actress, Marine Vacth, to encounter the darker psychological aspects of her carnal actions. No, instead Ozon allows the sex to go forward without judgment. It is a truly sexy film about illicit sex that is both revealing and without exploitation.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Locke (***)

Written and Directed by Steven Knight


At its basest form, Locke is a gimmick film. Whether it's fair to do so or not, it's easy to imagine the responsible filmmaker creating the basic conceit (for this film: one character driving in a car for the entire ninety minutes of the movie) and then working backwards. The film is by Steven Knight, a man who has written several very good screenplays that went on to become very good movies (Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises being the most heralded examples). Locke is only the second film that he's directed (the first being the Jason Statham-led Redemption which impressed little, then came and went rather quietly), but the narrative oddity of the script gives it a sort of unique quality - as if Knight may have been keeping this one stowed away for himself. Films of this limited a dramatic arena are always impressive, the difficulty of pulling off such a feet is apparent on the screen. We're watching an actor (in this case, Tom Hardy) boil an entire performance into one sequence, which gives the audience a feeling of purity. It's the reason we're always impressed by this kind of acting and filmmaking: the margin of error is terribly present to anyone who happens to be awake.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Joe (**)

Directed by David Gordon Green


Nicolas Cage is a fascinating Hollywood persona. He has serious acting chops, but they're so often misplaced in performances and films that can't handle him. He's not like other movie stars, who can just turn down the level of performance depending on the material. Brad Pitt will drop into Mr. and Mrs. Smith and sleepwalk through a role that's essentially guaranteed money; Nic Cage stars in Con Air and you get moments like this. Every role presents a great opportunity for him to flex his muscles, to show off to the world, TO ACT!! There was a period in the last decade where it seemed liked he was making a giant fool of himself. There are entire spaces of the internet dedicated to how ridiculous he is in The Wicker Man, Next and both of the Ghost Rider movies. People forgot that he was once even considered a talented performer. Surely, if all you knew of Nic Cage was from those films you could have never anticipated anything like what he gives in Joe - a strong performance that plays upon the loose cannon aspect of his acting style. You could imagine Nic Cage escaping the world to kill trees in the rural American South. It's the kind of performance that should restore your faith.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Word About Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" and the Nature of Episodic Cinema

Lars von Trier is a provocateur in the best sense of the word, because he is a real artist. Despite the nihilism of his overall persona and the persona of his films, the messages that lie dormant underneath are usually rather well-meaning even if they are wrapped in a tight, bleak shroud. His latest film was talked about for years before it even came out. Nymphomaniac started getting publicity when it cast professional self-promoter Shia LeBouf in one of the lead roles. The young actor bragged about how the sex in the movie would be real and un-simulated. The whole situation put people in such a tizzy that people forgot that this is something that von Trier has done before with 1998's The Idiots and that his own film company, Zentropa, was the world's first mainstream film company to produce actual pornography. von Trier's ideas about what is pornographic is incredibly different from most people's, especially in America. So, while many may see Nymphomaniac as von Trier taking a step further into the status Premier Controversial Filmmaker, I personally think he blew his wad in 2009 with Antichrist which was filled with so many hard-to-watch elements that I couldn't bear to even finish it (I have since learned of the graphic moments in the end and let's just say that I still feel very comfortable with my decision, and to this day still haven't seen the full film).

The two-part Nymphomaniac teased with an objectively great trailer and delivered a film that definitely has more close-ups of genitals then any other mainstream film that I've ever seen. If we're going for sure quantity of graphic images, von Trier hits them all as if he's playing a turbo round of pinball. Altogether, the whole story ends up coming close to four hours. After going through Emily Watson, Bjork, Nicole Kidman and Bryce Dallas Howard, von Trier has finally found an actress who will take his abuse and then come back and ask for seconds. Nymphomaniac is the third film that Charlotte Gainsbourg has made with the director, after Antichrist and 2011's Melancholia. von Trier is infamous for putting his actresses through the ringer, pressing them through emotional intimacies in a way that many psychologists would probably call unhealthy. This is the ultimate dichotomy of the Danish filmmaker: almost no one creates as many good roles for women as consistently as he does, and yet seldom does a filmmaker make actresses commit to such physically demanding and emotionally painful set pieces. Nymphomaniac seems like the epitome of that, and yet it's probably the male nudity that's more plentiful. Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin, who plays the younger version of Gainsbourg's character, have a plentiful share of the sexual burden, but a large portion of this film is a parade of faceless, erect penises.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Under The Skin (****)

Directed by Jonathan Glazer


English filmmaker Jonathan Glazer made his name as a director of music videos and commercials. His videos for Jamiroquai ('Virtual Insanity') and Radiohead ('Karma Police'), amongst others, displayed a man who had a virtuosic ability to both limit his dramatic arenas while stretching those limits and exploring just what is possible within a self-imposed bubble. He's only made three feature films in fourteen years, his first one being a half-cooked English crime film, Sexy Beast, which owed most of its charm to an insanely vain performance from Ben Kingsley. In 2004, he made Birth which seemed like a truer display of his visual style. Birth is aggressive in its formalism and contains one of the greatest performances of Nicole Kidman's career. That film was about a young boy convinced that he is the reincarnated soul of Nicole Kidman's dead husband, but Glazer paid very little attention to the paranormal aspects and focused mostly on the reaction of a mourning widow. His latest film, Under The Skin, is a science fiction story about a visiting alien, but it doesn't spend much time detailing the specific aspects of the species, instead showcasing the procedural elements of this unknown creature.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Enemy (***)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve


Last year's Prisoners proved that director Denis Villeneuve wanted to be included in the club of contemporary filmmakers trying to become this generation's Hitchcock. David Fincher, generally considered the best, most formalistically proficient director of Hollywood suspense thrillers leads a group that also includes Chris Nolan and Darren Aronofsky. These filmmakers have found a way to use noir techniques that translate into the ironic morality that is sought out by the movie audiences of today. But their films are also made with the utmost seriousness. Villeneuve is a Quebecian diector who seems controlled by these same technical and thematic motifs. Prisoners seemed a bit pulled in different directions; that film was grasping for the chilliness of Zodiac (made by Fincher) but one half of the film's story - one that included a deliberate, overacting Hugh Jackman - forces the movie into the melodrama of Mystic River. The more interesting half, to me, dealt with Jake Gyllenhaal, and Prisoners gave the young actor a role meatier than one he'd had in a while. His latest film, Enemy, also stars Gyllenhaal in another good role. His co-star this time around? Another Jake Gyllenhaal.