DVD Round-Up: 9/23/2014

Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II (9/1/2014)

The audience for highbrow world art cinema would seems to be a pretty adventurous lot, so it’s really saying something that Lars Von Trier has been so consistently able to provoke and scandalize what should be the hardest of crowds to offend.  I personally don’t think it’s productive to solely look at Von Trier’s films as intentional provocations but there’s little doubt that his latest film, Nymphomaniac, was made with (among other things) the full intention of pissing people off.  Perhaps Von Trier was just making up for lost time given that Melancholia wasn’t very offensive at all (even though Von Trier still caused controversy while promoting it) and Von Trier perhaps missed the thrill of using the cinema to anger people.

The film has been said to be the final of a thematic trilogy with Antichrist and Melancholia.  This has been dubbed the “depression” trilogy, but Nymphomaniac has a lot less to do with depression than either of those films and is generally of a more playful nature than either of its predecessors.  It is not a coincidence that those previous films opened with opera pieces while this one opens with a Rammstein song.  The film also mostly lacks the supernatural elements that were at play in those movies and it’s also has a much bigger cast and isn’t largely confined to an isolated place like those movies were.  There are some similarities though, like the cinematography, the presence of Charlotte Gainsbourg, the focus on gender issues, and the use of some disturbing imagery.

The film runs over four hours long between its two volumes (which have been split in a rather arbitrary fashion), but the film actually goes by quite quickly and if not for all the in your face sex it would actually be one of Von Trier’s most accessible and easy to watch films.  It has a really dark but wry sense of humor and an energetic visual style.  The one thing (well, one of the less obvious things) that will probably be alienating about it is that it is not in any way meant to be a realistic depiction of human behavior.  It is framed by a rather unplausible extended conversation between its protagonist and a professorial type played by Stellan Skarsgård and the basic story is filled with behavior that no degree of sex addiction would likely lead to.  While most directors are getting in trouble for making movies about their idealized dreamgirls, Von Trier has spent a great deal of time and resources on an epic document about the woman of his pornographic fantasies.  Those who have spent the last couple decades trying to psycho-analyze this man will find the film invaluable, but there’s also plenty here for anyone who isn’t easily offended and simply wants to see a darkly comic, intellectually stimulating, expertly crafted, and sometimes ridiculous movie about sex, gender politics, and western culture.

***1/2 out of four

Jodorowsky’s Dune (9/12/2014)

I’ve always viewed Alejandro Jodorowsky as something of a footnote in film history; a guy who made two or three noteworthy movies which were each a little too weird to really have a whole lot of influence on the cinema as a whole and who more or less disappeared into obscurity in the decades since.  Honestly, I didn’t even know the guy was still alive.  The new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune posits that things may have tuned out differently if he’d found the funding to make an epic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” that he had planned to make during the early 70s.  The film does a decent job of establishing how this project really could have been something special, mainly by showing just how much of a murder’s row of artists had been assembled during the film’s pre-production.  Among the people he’d been working with were Mœbius, Chris Foss, Dan O’Bannon, and H. R. Giger and he was also apparently planning to get Pink Floyd to make music for the thing.  If nothing else, this most certainly would have been a memorable film if it had somehow gotten made, although as I watched the documentary I also saw quite a few warning signs that the film could have just as easily been really fucked up as well (let’s just say that I wouldn’t have been thrilled to trust this guy with 15 million dollars if I was running a studio in ’75 as well).  I do think the documentary could have done a better job of critically examining some of these warning signs instead of blinding celebrating Jodorowsky’s every idea.   That said I do think this is pretty much the best documentary one could expect out of the subject matter at hand, it doesn’t have a whole lot of visual pinache and I think it might have made more sense as a Blu-Ray extra on Lynch’s Dune or something than as a theatrical doc on its own, but it’s good stuff just the same.

*** out of Four

Joe (9/20/2014)

David Gordon Green was welcomed back with outstretched arms last year when he made the film Prince Avalanche, which was his first serious independent film after a long stretch of making populist comedies of varying quality. I was glad to see him do something new as well, but I didn’t really like the movie that much. I don’t love his latest film, Joe, either but it’s a definite step in the right direction and an improvement over Prince Avalanche in my opinion. Like Prince Avalanche this film focuses on a crew of outdoor workers in the rural South, this time a crew of people tasked with killing trees that are to be replaced with more valuable pine trees. The focus is on the odd surrogate parent relationship between this group’s foreman (played by Nicholas Cage) and a fifteen year old drifter with an alcoholic father (played by Tye Sheridan). The movie fits well into a string of movies like Winter’s Bone and Mud which tell fairly simple stories that are meant to be elevated by a rather anthropological fascination with their weird back-woods settings. Indeed, this movie seems to be set in an entirely foreign culture filled with violence and lawlessness, and that can be kind of interesting. Nicholas Cage also gives one of his best performances in years here also, however, I still kind of got the nagging feeling that I’d seen this story before and I’m also beginning to feel like I’ve been seeing more than enough of these movies about the South ever since Louisiana started adopting favorable tax credits.

*** out of Four

Finding Vivian Maier (9/20/2014)

Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about a woman named Vivian Maier worked as a nanny but in her free time took a great number of high quality photographs that were found after her death by a young man named John Maloof who proceeded to show them in galleries and became something of an evangelist for her work. The film is primarily about the hunt to discover who this eccentric amateur photographer was and why she never made her photographs available during her lifetime. I don’t want to describe the film too much further; this isn’t a movie with some wild twist or anything but there is meant to be some mystery involved. This documentary tells a fairly interesting story about a subject that I was largely unaware of and it does it in a pretty clear and straightforward way. If it has a glaring problem it’s that John Maloof co-directs the film and is maybe not the most impartial person to be telling this story. At times I do suspect that he’s giving the story a self-serving spin and the film may have benefited from being made by a third party. Other than that the film does seems a little stretched at times. When viewing docs like this one of the questions I usually ask myself is “would a 60 minutes segment have sufficed to tell this story” and in the case of this film the answer was “maybe.”

*** out of Four

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (9/23/2014)

The flaws in the original The Amazing Spider-Man film were pretty glaring: its first half was a complete re-hash of a movie that wasn’t really all that old and its second half was dominated by a very lame CGI villain. Beyond that though, it just felt like a very lame and half-assed reboot that was made more out of a desire to keep the rights to the character in the hands of Sony than to actually make something that was memorable. Having no faith in the franchise I decided to skip seeing the sequel in the theaters, and as a result I managed to have pretty much the whole thing spoiled for me by the time I finally got around to seeing it on blu-ray, and that may have affected my viewing but with or without that circumstance I still think it’s pretty obvious that this movie is lame as hell.

Peter Parker is once again played by Andrew Garfield, who give the character an on-again and off-again New York accent and also makes for a singularly unconvincing teenager given that he’s 31 goddamned years old. This film pretty much gives up any semblance of the character being a nerd or outsider. In fact this is a movie that desperately wants to be hip with the cool kids which means giving Garfield and Dane DeHaan ridiculous millennial haircuts and making some very questionable soundtrack decisions (Phillip Phillips? WTF?). None of the film’s three villains are compelling. Jamie Foxx is miscast as a nerdy scientist and wasted as a blue monster, DeHaan just looks ridiculous as a Green Goblin who shows up at the last minute, and Paul Giamatti’s Rhino is also a big waste of time. I would say that the film is the victim of a severely misguided attempt at making a Marvel Studios style shared universe (an endeavor doomed to failure by the fact that they only have the rights to one superhero), but really the franchise’s bigger problem is that it has no idea what it really wants to be.

Peter’s endless jokiness seems to have been added less because it made sense with the rest of the film and more because they desperately needed to do something that differentiate their character from Sam Raimi’s and it more often than not makes Spider-Man look like a lunatic for horsing around when there are people in danger. Also, while it’s admirable that the writers wanted to make Gwen Stacy an active participant rather than a damsel in distress, the ways they find to do it often make very little sense. What’s more, the actions scenes are average at best and rarely do anything with Spider-Man’s powers we haven’t seen elsewhere. Ultimately it’s a film that doesn’t have it in itself to be either a Marvel-esque romp or a DC-esque rumination on power and consequence and it also doesn’t forge a new and interesting identity for itself. The film, like its predecessor is a work of corporate groupthink put on screen, it’s the kind of movie that makes me wonder it I’ve been too hard on the Marvel Studios output this whole time.

** out of Four 

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