F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 18, 2015)

18 06 2015

If you watched “Les Misérables” and thought, “This was great, but I really wish Jean-Luc Godard directed it,” then I have quite the movie to recommend.  You simply have to watch Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” which he made back in 2000 (before the remarks about sympathizing with Hitler).  This kitchen sink realist drama/musical has to be one of the most heartbreaking, gut-wrenching films I have ever seen.

As you might have pondered reading that last sentence, realist drama and the movie musical are two territories that seldom overlap.  Hard-hitting, issues-based filmmaking concerns itself primarily with getting us to focus on the real, observable world.  Musicals, on the other hand, mostly offer us a pleasant diversion away from thinking about those problems.  von Trier finds the harmony between these two elements and combines them to devastating effect in my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Over the course of “Dancer in the Dark,” Björk’s Czech immigrant Selma Ježková slowly loses her eyesight and thus her ability to provide for her son.  The degenerative disease also takes away her one passionate activity outside of work: acting in community musical theater.  With that gone, she begins playing out musical numbers in her head – which we get to see acted out as vivid productions – to escape the depressing fate before her.

Essentially, Selma’s life recalls Fantine from “Les Misérables,” played out in slow motion and for an entire feature.  So, needless to say, “Dancer in the Dark” is not for those looking for a joyous, uplifting experience.  But those looking for an intellectually stimulating as well as emotionally engaging watch simply must watch this little marvel of a film.  Those who endure will be stunned by how anything can simultaneously be Brechtian and maudlin as well as beautiful and tragic.

REVIEWS: Nymphomaniac, Vols. I and II

8 07 2014


There was understandably a lot of talk surrounding the alleged pornographic content of Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” a two-part, four hour opus on human sexuality.  It got plenty of coverage online – thank you, always horny Internet users who fall for the first click-bait title about sex – and I honestly was never quite sure if the actors were participating in live acts or not.

But I sat through the entire film (albeit in two sittings) and hardly found the explicit content to be the most off-putting thing about it.

In fact, it rather made sense for a movie like this to show sexuality so openly since it is literally about all the complications and eccentricities of the libido.  That doesn’t make it easy to watch, nor does it make portraying sex acts artistic.  It does, however, give them some sense of place (unlike the rather unnecessarily extended scenes in “Blue is the Warmest Color“).

No, what made “Nymphomaniac” tough to watch and downright insufferable at times is Von Trier’s seemingly never-ending supply of pretentious commentary.  He structures the film as a conversation about the travails of sex addict Joe, played with dogged dedication by Charlotte Gainsbourg, with professor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard).  As they walk through her life, each provides intellectual commentary on the very nature of sexuality.

Von Trier clearly has a lot to say, and his appraisals can be quite enlightening.  Yet he writes the film in such a haughty, overblown tone that it can’t help but get quite aggravating at a certain point.  Von Trier supplies endless metaphors and then unpacks them completely rather than letting us explore them.  The experience of “Nymphomaniac” is akin to locking yourself in a room for four hours with Von Trier, who greets you from his ivory tower mentality with the exhortation, “sit down and let me educate you about sex because I know everything about it!”

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REVIEW: Melancholia

13 03 2012

It’s a shame “Melancholia” lasts more than eight minutes.

The movie’s prologue is absolutely stunning.  Writer/director Lars von Trier evokes a strong emotional response with his use of stunning imagery and an evocative score from Tristan und Isolde.  The gorgeous shots, drifting slowly across the screen, are like a walk through an art gallery of film.

But the opening of “Melancholia” is so good that it’s almost too good.  It purveys basically the entirety of the movie, even giving away the movie’s big ending.  So in essence, once you’ve seen the beginning, you’ve seen it all.

So when von Trier starts using words to communicate a message, the movie ceases to be very effective.  The first half’s naturalism just hits flat note after flat note.  The wedding of Kirsten Dunst’s wildly depressed Justine is an utter disaster, and her moodiness is painful to watch.  It’s supposed to be beguiling us into figuring out her every whim, but instead it just makes Justine unsympathetic and a pain to watch.  Excuse me for totally ceasing to care about an hour through the movie.

Then the movie’s second half descends into the bizarre as a planet, Melancholia, begins a collision course into the earth.  While Jack Bauer – I mean, Kiefer Sutherland, and his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) begin to panic, Justine is calm as a cucumber, uniquely suited to face the crisis because of her condition.  “Melancholia” seems to be trying to enact those how would you spend the last hours of your life fantasies, but they are hardly illuminating save for the manic depressants in the crowd.

So perhaps the best way to view “Melancholia” is as a short film.  The movie’s opening is where von Trier’s artistry shines the brightest.  If you want to wait around for another two hours for genital mutilation or a remark sympathizing with Nazis, you will just waste your time.  The movie is not all that far-fetched; add in some robots and the plot would work as a Michael Bay movie.  B-