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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Psycho (Hitchcock)
2. Metalhead (Bragason)
3. The World of Goopi and Bagha (Ranade)
4. Slither (Gunn)
5. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
6. Deep Cover (Duke)
7. Night Moves (Penn)
8. Extasis (Barroso)
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 (Von Trier)
10. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi)

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Now Playing: Nymphomaniac Volumes One and Two

Nymphomaniac: Vol. One and Two
dir: Lars Von Trier, Denmark/Germany, 2013
Rating: 9.0

nymphomaniac

The bottom line: as my man Nick Fraccaro says, it’s “Kill Bill directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.” Whatever impression the sound of such an incongruous mash-up makes on you will probably be a good indicator of how you feel about this batshit-crazy movie.

Now playing at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema in Chicago as exclusive engagements — as well as via video on demand — are both parts of Lars Von Trier’s controversial four-hour epic Nymphomaniac. While the film generated positive critical notices in Von Trier’s native Denmark last year (where both volumes opened on Christmas Day), as well as at the Berlin International Film Festival in February (the site of the official world premiere of the full five-and-a-half-hour version), the response by both American critics and audiences alike has been strangely muted; the trade papers here have even referred to it as a “flop.” (Don’t blame me. I took a large class of college students on two separate field trips to see both parts.) Whether this has anything to do with prudish Americans being uneasy about the marriage of explicit sex and commercial narrative movies, as some commentators have speculated — at least as a theatrical experience; I have a hunch that the VOD returns on this are probably quite robust — the way the film has been curiously ignored in the U.S. is unfortunate: Nymphomaniac is, for my money, Von Trier’s best work since at least Dancer in the Dark in 2000. Among its many virtues, intellectual as well as visceral, Nymphomaniac is frequently hilarious. Well, at least the first volume is.

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The premise: in an unnamed European country (let’s call it International Co-productionland), a middle-aged sad-sack named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) finds a bruised and battered middle-aged woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying unconscious in an alley and brings her to his home to recuperate. After Seligman has provided her with a bed and served her a cup of tea, Joe recounts to him her sad and sordid life story, which Von Trier presents as a series of flashback vignettes revolving around her sex addiction (Volume One is broken into five “chapters” and Volume Two is broken into three). While Joe feels that each of these episodes illustrates that she is a “bad person,” Seligman, a seemingly asexual bibliophile, frequently rejects her claims by using his vast storehouse of knowledge to pose counterarguments. These framing sequences allow Von Trier to, among other things, draw correlations between sex and fly fishing and explore concepts relating to everything from math to botany to the polyphonic music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the delirium tremens experienced by Edgar Allan Poe in his final days. Amusingly, Nymphomaniac is not so much about sex then as it is about finding patterns in the universe, the nature of storytelling, and the need the human mind has to impose order and meaning. Seligman’s disbelief at a coincidence that occurs in Joe’s story towards the end of the first volume is very clever — and self-reflexive — in this respect: she actually asks him if her story would be better or worse without such a narrative contrivance.

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Of course, this being a Lars Von Trier film, the second volume ends up meting out much punishment upon the already long-suffering heroine. (Neither those who claim Von Trier’s obsessive focus on female martyrdom marks him as a misogynist nor those who claim the same quality makes him a feminist are likely to change their mind about what he’s up to here.) But Volume Two also initially feels like an anti-climax (pun intended), largely because the surprising humor of the first part is gone: there is nothing in Volume Two, for instance, to compare with Uma Thurman’s hilariously melodramatic monologue as a housewife dealing with an unfaithful husband. (Was Thurman channeling some leftover/repressed rage from when former husband Ethan Hawke strayed? It’s certainly the best work she’s ever done.) Also, it must be said that it feels as though something in the film dies when the effervescent Stacy Martin, a British actress who plays young Joe in Volume One‘s flashback sequences, abruptly departs near the beginning of Volume Two, only to be replaced by the more dour persona of La Gainsbourg. And yet, in the days following my viewing of Volume Two, my appreciation for the achievement as a whole and its provocations has only increased. Have you ever heard a dirty joke with a very long set-up that leads to a very short, sick punchline? Nymphomaniac is a lot like that — only it gets funnier the more you think about it. The critic Keith Uhlich has rightly compared the denouement to that of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

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In spite of all of Nymphomaniac’s excesses, and its deliberately sprawling and messy nature (Von Trier here is going Tolstoy-wide instead of his usual Dostoevsky-deep), neither volume ever feels overly long. This is perhaps because the film’s form, not just its nonlinear structure but its cornucopia of different visual styles, seems to take its cues from the unbridled and overindulgent personality of its protagonist. But what finally makes Nymphomaniac feel substantial, and not just an empty provocation like, say, Manderlay, is its obviously highly personal nature. While watching Volume One, I felt as if Von Trier had split his personality between Seligman and Joe and was having a long and brutally honest dialogue with himself about his sometimes-dubious status as Europe’s reigning provocateur-auteur. After watching Volume Two, however, I revised this opinion: the most fruitful way to approach Nymphomaniac, I think, is to view Joe as the stand-in for Von Trier and Seligman as a stand-in for Von Trier’s critics. (The tip-off, for me, came in the dialogue exchange about Joe’s use of the word “negro,” which Seligman cautions her is “politically incorrect.”) When viewed in this light, Volume Two‘s inevitably “shocking” conclusion resonates as more than a cynical twist: Seligman reveals himself to be a faux-intellectual wolf-in-sheep’s clothing — like the critic who feigns an air of fairness and objectivity but only to better position himself to fuck you in the end. I’m still chuckling just thinking about it.

You can check out the red-band trailer for Nymphomaniac via YouTube below. But first, just because I think it’s hilarious, I invite you to admire this awesome poster of Udo Kier’s “O face”:

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. In the Time of the Butterflies (Barroso)
2. Afternoon (Schanelec)
3. Mr. Arkadin (Welles)
4. Renaldo and Clara (Dylan)
5. Blade Runner (2007 Final Cut) (Scott)
6. North By Northwest (Hitchcock)
7. Blade Runner (1992 Director’s Cut) (Scott)
8. David Holzman’s Diary (McBride)
9. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks)
10. All the Women (Barroso)


Odds and Ends: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA/Germany, 2014) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 8.4

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In my positive review of Moonrise Kingdom from two years ago, I lamented that something in me always “resisted” the films of Wes Anderson — even while acknowledging that I also liked most of them. I’m therefore happy to report that not only is The Grand Budapest Hotel my favorite Anderson movie to date, it’s also one that sweeps aside all of the prior reservations that I had about his work. While the director’s signature precocious “touches” are all over this (a confectioner’s approach to set and costume design, quick 90-degree pans from one perfectly symmetrical, planimetric composition to another, montage scenes accompanied by faux-Baroque music cues, etc.), The Grand Budapest Hotel devises an ingenious narrative structure that for once completely justifies even the most fanciful aspects of Anderson’s mise-en-scene: the film begins in the present where a little girl is reading a novel that was written in the 1980s by an author who based his fiction on an ostensibly true story he was told in the 1960s by someone who knew firsthand the story’s hero whose real-life exploits took place in the early 1930s. Got that? The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story inside of a story inside of a story inside of a story — with the different “periods” represented being cleverly shot in different aspect ratios that correspond to how we think of movies from those respective eras (i.e., the square Academy ratio for the 1930s, widescreen CinemaScope for the 1960s, and “1.85:1″ for the 1980s and the present).

The true subject of The Grand Budapest Hotel then is storytelling itself, as it also is in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (another recent film that employs an elaborate framing device that calls into question the reliability of the narrator). The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s chief narrative — a shaggy-dog story about a hotel concierge, one Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), and his trusty “lobby boy,” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), solving a murder against the backdrop of a fictional, war-torn European country — resonates through the decades like an absurd cinematic version of the “Chinese whispers” game. The other thing here that feels gratifyingly new is Anderson’s tone of moral seriousness: for all of the ridiculous humor on display (and Fiennes proves himself to be a surprisingly deft physical and verbal comedian), this tall tale grows not only unexpectedly dark but, as fascism ominously encroaches upon the characters, increasingly death-haunted as well. The protagonist of The Grand Budapest Hotel may be a rapscallion with an eye for wealthy older dames (by which I mean octogenarians) but he’s also a fellow of great integrity who understands what things in life are worth sacrificing oneself for. This moral-clarity-in-the-midst-of-screwball-chaos is finally what makes The Grand Budapest Hotel a worthy heir to the films of the great Ernst Lubitsch, its most important cinematic precedents. I can’t wait to see what Anderson does next.

Up to Speed — Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2012) – Streaming

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If, like me, you’re waiting with breathless anticipation for the forthcoming release of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which recently wowed critics and audiences alike at the Sundance, Berlin and South By Southwest film festivals, here’s another recent Linklater project you may not be aware of to tide you over: Up to Speed is a quirky travel show consisting of six half-hour episodes created by Texas’s favorite filmmaking son exclusively for the Hulu website in 2012. The premise of the show is that unconventional historian and motormouthed raconteur Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch (still perhaps best known as the subject of the cult 1998 documentary The Cruise) serves as a tour guide of the “monumentally ignored monuments” of America’s greatest cities. I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t direct my readers specifically to the second episode in the series, entitled Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood. This episode, which marks the first time Linklater has ever set down a tripod in my fair city, focuses almost exclusively on the history of Chicago’s considerable role as a leader in the national labor movement. Levitch, who dubs himself a “blue-collar historian,” recounts how Chicago, beginning in the late 19th century, had arguably the most organized labor force in the world and was instrumental in establishing such basic workers’ rights as the eight-hour work day. From there, Levitch — aided by a fair number of amusing “talking” buildings and props (not to mention snazzy animated graphics) — visits such important local landmarks and monuments as: the Haymarket statue, the Balbo monument, the former home of the Dill Pickle Club, and “Hobohemia” (home of both Bughouse Square and the infamous “Hobo College”). To watch Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood is to learn some fascinating, lesser-known trivia about the Windy City’s radical past, as well as, I hope, to be inspired to fight the powers that be (as Chuck D would say) in the here and now.

The full Up to Speed episode of Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood can be viewed online for free via Hulu below:


My Short Films at “Creating Justice”

My two most recent short films, At Last, Okemah! (2009) and The Catastrophe (2011), will be screening at Oakton Community College’s annual “Creating Justice” symposium on Saturday, April 12th in Des Plaines, Illinois. The symposium explores the unique possibilities for social transformation and creativity offered by the arts. Each film will be preceded by brief remarks by me and will be followed by a question-and-answer session. There will be many other artists at the event including Nicolas Lampert, author of A People’s Art History of the United States, who will deliver the keynote address. The event runs from 1:00 to 8:00 and admission is free. My portion, which will be held in Room 1625, begins at 4:30 and ends at 6:00. Any of my students who attend “Creating Justice” and write a brief report about the experience will receive 20 points extra credit towards their final grade. See your course website for details.

For more information about “Creating Justice,” including a full list of presentations, panelists and speakers, and directions to the venue, visit:

http://www.oakton.edu/newsevents/events/creating_justice.php

You can check out the trailers for my short films via YouTube below:


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Amazing Catfish (Sainte-Luce)
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson)
3. Citizen Kane (Welles)
4. Chinatown (Polanski)
5. Under the Skin (Glazer)
6. Amer (Cattet/Forzani)
7. Melancholia (Von Trier)
8. The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor)
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (Von Trier)
10. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)


2014 Chicago Latino Film Festival Preview

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The Chicago Latino Film Festival reaches an impressive milestone this year by turning 30-years-old. Founder Pepe Vargas and co. are celebrating in style, screening 92 features and 39 shorts from around the world. In addition to showcasing new work by established auteurs and exciting younger filmmakers, the fest will also be offering a sidebar devoted to Spanish-language Oscar nominees from the 1960s through the present; and the great Chilean actress Paulina Garcia, star of Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria, will also be on hand to receive a lifetime achievement award and be feted with a mini-retrospective of her work. Below are previews of some of the most noteworthy films playing the festival. The full lineup can be found on the CLFF website here:

http://chicagolatinofilmfestival.org/

Macario (Gavaldon, Mexico, 1960)
Rating: 9.5

macario

If you only see one movie in CLFF’s Latino Oscar sidebar, please make it Roberto Gavaldon’s 1960 masterpiece, the first Mexican movie to ever receive a Best Foreign Film nomination. An adaptation of a story by German author B. Traven (who also wrote the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), this dark fairy tale centers on the title character, a peasant whose wife presents him with the gift of a stolen turkey on the Day of the Dead. While eating the meal alone in a forest, Macario is visited by three spirits (representing Satan, God and Death, respectively), each of whom asks for a share of the food. Macario turns down the first two visitors but strikes a bargain with the third in exchange for a jug of water that seems to have miraculous healing properties. But this gift turns into a curse when Macario’s newfound skills as a healer transform his previously humble nature into one of greediness instead. Unlike the other Oscar-nominated Spanish-language films at CLFF (all of which are readily available on home video), the amazingly photographed Macario is unavailable on DVD, rarely revived and should look gorgeous projected in 35mm. Especially memorable is a dreamy climax taking place in the caves of Cacahuamilpa, a location lit only by thousands of candles and a triumph of atmosphere from Mexico’s greatest cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa (who also shot films for Luis Bunuel, Emilio Fernandez and John Ford). Macario screens on Monday, April 7.

The Longest Distance (Pinto, Venezuela, 2013)
Rating: 8.0

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An ambitious and assured debut feature from writer/director Claudia Pinto, The Longest Distance tracks the criss-crossing lives of a diverse group of characters in contemporary Venezuela. The film begins in urban Caracas, where a bourgeois woman dies as the result of a senseless and violent crime. Following her funeral, her young son runs away from home to meet his Spanish grandmother (Carme Elias) in the mountainous region of La Gran Sabana where, unbeknownst to him, she has chosen to end her life. Among the other important characters are the boy’s father and a twenty-something hooligan trying to turn his life around whom the boy befriends on his journey. While descriptions of the plot may sound schematic, the end result is anything but: Pinto’s ability to render characters of different ages and socio-economic backgrounds as flesh-and-blood human beings is impressive in the extreme. So is her fluid camerawork and expert cross-cutting, the latter of which lends the film a powerful novelistic density. At only 36-years-old, Claudia Pinto is clearly a director to watch. The Longest Distance screens Friday, April 4 and Saturday, April 5.

Elena (Costa, Brazil/USA, 2013)
Rating: 7.3

Elena

Director Petra Costa’s remarkable autobiographical/confessional documentary (the second such film to play Chicago in as many months following What Now? Remind Me at the European Union Film Festival) tackles the subject of the 1990 suicide of her older sister Elena. An aspiring actress from Brazil, Elena Costa ended her life in New York City at the age of 20-years-old and Petra, 13 years her junior, has been attempting to make sense of the event ever since. The film mixes excerpts from old home movies with new footage of Petra and her mother returning to their former New York apartment and the hospital where Elena was pronounced dead. The personal nature of the project eventually gives way to full-blown catharsis as Petra includes increasingly poetic images (e.g., shots of unidentified women floating in water) and voice-over narration that explores the notion that Petra feels she and her sister are in some ways the same person. This is an emotionally tough, occasionally harrowing, and very well-made non-fiction feature. Elena screens on Friday, April 11 and Sunday, April 13.

Anina (Soderguit, Uruguay, 2013)
Rating: 7.9

anina

Anina Yatay Salas, the protagonist of this delightful animated film, is a 10-year-old girl who is frequently made fun of by her classmates at school due to her triple palindromic name. After getting into a playground fight with Yisel, a much larger nemesis whom Anina refers to as an “elephant,” both girls are given an unusual punishment by the school’s principal: they receive sealed black envelopes that they are instructed not to open nor tell anyone about for a week. While the contents of the dreaded envelope haunts her nightmares, Anina embarks on an odyssey in which she learns a great deal about herself and the importance of developing empathy for others. What really makes this worth seeking out, however, is the beautiful hand-drawn animation, which perfectly compliments the smart story and is charming precisely because of its “flaws.” Anina also proves that, in the age of Pixar wizardry, just because animation is simple doesn’t mean it can’t also be detailed: the characters here all have giant heads, round black eyes, tiny noses and mouths, and spindly limbs, but the subtle variations in their appearances are incredibly clever and fascinating to behold. Anina screens on Monday, April 14 and Wednesday, April 16.

Gloria (Lelio, Chile, 2013)
Rating: 8.5

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Although Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria received a very quiet commercial release in Chicago earlier in the year, I urge anyone who missed this winning comedy/drama to make it a point of catching it on the big screen at CLFF — especially since the film’s radiant star, Paulina Garcia, will be on hand to collect a lifetime achievement award. Garcia carries the movie by appearing, as the resilient title character, in literally every scene. Even more impressive is how Gloria, a 50-something divorcee, is not a stereotypical neurotic single woman desperate for midlife romance (though she does briefly find that) but rather an ordinary, smart, sexy, well-adjusted woman who is content to live alone, loves her grown children, works at what looks like a mundane office job, listens to pop music, and spends her free time dancing at the local discotheque. The film’s central conflict eventually emerges from Gloria’s relationship with Rodolpho (Sergio Hernández), an older man with commitment issues. But this is, thankfully, also a movie that is in no real hurry to do anything: it does not put its characters through the paces of a formulaic plot, nor does it seem eager to give viewers a familiar set of emotional experiences. Lelio’s camera merely observes Gloria and if audiences have fallen in love with her, that’s likely because Lelio has not insisted that we have to. I found this emotionally affecting and highly original character study to be, well, glorious. Gloria screens on Thursday, April 17th.


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