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Nymphomaniac: Volume 2 (2014)

Nymphomaniac: Volume 2

★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Lars Von Trier

Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe

Stellan Skarsgård as Seligman

Shia LaBoeuf as Jerôme

Imdb Link 

Joe continues to recount her stories of her life, how her aging hurt her sex life, and how she ended up in the alleyway, beaten.

After really enjoying Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 despite a few little flaws, my expectations went through the roof for Volume 2, which might be why I think the film series went from “excellent” to a “ah, I guess that was OK.” The second half of the series takes a much darker turn, and shows the downfall of Joe, how her addiction pulled her life apart, and how it ultimately took her to very dark places. This film goes through Joe’s aging, the birth of her child, the loss of her husband and child, her turn to S&M to try and get her to enjoy sex once more, and eventually her new, crazy job. What really makes the film disappointing is the sudden loss of energy that it has. It seems like while Volume 1 is fast paced, and keeps you on your toes, Volume 2 suddenly feels devoid of all the life and energy the first had. I understand it’s trying to be more depressing, but that doesn’t mean it has to lose the atmosphere that the first had. Also, they definitely could have done the transition from Young Joe into middle aged Joe a lot better, because it felt like all of a sudden Joe aged 20 years although everyone around her stayed the same age. Then of course the ending just made me say “What the fuck.” It came out of nowhere and didn’t really suit the tone of the ending. Really, just all together, this movie was very underwhelming compared to the first. I still think it was decent, but an enormous step down from Volume 1.

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Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 (2014)

Nymphomaniac: Volume 1

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Lars Von Trier

Starring Stacy Martin as Young Joe

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe

Stellan Skarsgård as Seligman

Imdb Link

Seligman discovers Joe, beaten bloody and lying in an alley, and takes her home to care for her, where she recounts the tale of how she got there.

I’ve been waiting for the right day to marathon Nymphomaniac for a while, and I finally found the day, what I can say now is that Volume 1 surpassed every expectation I had, and Volume 2 disappointed the hell out of me, but I’ll talk about that later. To focus on Nymphomaniac: Volume 1, this is a film that in no way belongs in a series of films called the “depression trilogy”. The first part of Nymphomaniac is a lot of fun, it’s a lighthearted, good humored look at the life of a sex addict, and doesn’t really look at any of the consequences to Joe’s actions just yet. It really works as a tragic hero’s rise, before her ultimate downfall, and it becomes so much fun because of that. It would be like if Martin Scorsese split The Wolf of Wall Street in half, so we only see Jordan Belfort’s rise to the top of the stock market, and his debauchery, and we have to wait for the sequel to see all the trouble he gets into. You might lose some of the themes and messages in the process, but it would still be a very fun film where we don’t really get to see the consequences. Yet despite it being a very fun look at an incredibly active sex life, Nymphomaniac never feels in any way like pornography, it’s never provocative, it’s just fun. There were some moments that I really hated in the film, like pretty much anything involving Seligman, the character who rescues Joe from the alley, who was so annoying and whose sole purpose was to explain every single metaphor throughout the film. We’d get through a chapter and all of a sudden he would say “wow, like fly fishing?” even though Lars Von Trier’s cuts between the sequence and footage of fly fishing should have been sufficient to get the metaphor across. I love Lars Von Trier’s style in this film, the superimposed footage, the titles on top of the screen, the way he edits. It’s a lot of fun to watch. Even though you can tell Von Trier has a very cynical world view, that doesn’t stop Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 from being a very entertaining picture. I would love to see a version of the film that cuts Seligman’s terrible digressions out though.

Ida (2014)

Ida

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Starring Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna

Agata Kulesza as Wanda

Imdb Link

Anna is a nun in 1960s Poland who is about to take her vows when she is given a chance to meet her one living family member, her aunt Wanda, who can tell her the dark secrets that lay behind her family history.

Ida is a haunting film with an incredible story, full of some really interesting themes that kept me thinking for days afterwards. I think what really got me thinking the most in Ida though was not the story or the themes, but the cinematography. Filmed in black and white with the aspect ratio of an old photograph, and mostly using the bottom part of the frame also to resemble an old photograph. The cinematography looks stunning by itself, despite the fact that I didn’t like the look of the lower frame stuff at first, but I got used to it. However, the cinematography is even more stunning when you think about what the directorial choices are trying to say. The way that it’s shot resembles Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, using a lot of whites and grays. Then of course there’s a ton of significance to making it look like an old polaroid picture, that shows we’re watching events unfold in the past, we’re not watching it unfold in the present, we’re watching past events as though we’re looking through old family photographs. For that, I think the cinematography is gorgeous, and the direction is done quite well. The one thing I have to say to take away from the film is that even though it was thought provoking and by all accounts an incredibly done film, I can’t say I enjoyed watching it. I would not want to watch it again, even though I think it’s a great film, I can’t say I really “liked” it. Ida is probably objectively one of the best films of the year, full of amazing thematic content, some incredibly smart directorial choices, and a good story, yet subjectively, I have a hard time liking it as much as it deserves to be liked.

Field of Dreams (1989)

Field of Dreams

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Phil Alden Robinson

Starring Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella

Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe

Imdb Link

A corn farmer, Ray Kinsella, starts hearing strange voices while he’s out in the corn, telling him to build a baseball field.

While I was watching this I kept thinking, “this is overly sentimental, cheesy, ridiculous to the point that it’s hard to suspend disbelief sometimes, and pretty much nonsensical, so why am I enjoying it so much?” And the answer is because Field of Dreams is one of those films that feels like those that they don’t make anymore. This is basically It’s a Wonderful Life with baseball, it’s the type of movie that Jimmy Stewart could have starred in. Even though it does seem overly sentimental, and a lot of the plot points make no sense even in a fantasy movie, it’s just so enjoyable, which can help you look past those flaws. I didn’t have to believe everything that I was seeing, it’s more about the themes than the plot. The themes are really what holds the film together. Without such nice messages about family, about chasing your dreams, and about life after death, the film can make you think. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film or one of my favorites, Field of Dreams is just pleasant, it has lots of flaws that keep me from loving it, some of which I’ve already mentioned, the plot doesn’t keep me from liking it, but it does keep me from really loving it, then of course there’s Kevin Costner, who I can’t stand as an actor, and he made some scenes hard to watch. Also, I don’t think it’s really an incredibly well crafted film. The direction is fine, nothing outstanding, the editing works well, the camera work is nothing special. It’s all just very passable, nothing spectacular. Field of Dreams is like chicken soup for the soul, it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy and nice, it’s not the best kind of soup, it’s not really the classiest or most lavish soup, but it’s a soup that everyone can at least enjoy.

The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of Everything

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by James Marsh

Starring Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking

Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking

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Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane’s struggles through Stephen’s diagnosis with ALS, and the love that kept the two of them strong.

The Theory of Everything is kind of exactly what I expected it to be going in, a very average film with above average performances. This is one of those films that takes no risks, which is its ultimate downfall, it is conventional in nearly every sense of the word. James Marsh took the life of Stephen Hawking and made a completely passable biopic, but that’s really the problem, watching The Theory of Everything is like watching a screenwriter transfer this man’s life into a Save the Cat beat sheet, it is formulaic, it feels like we’re watching a movie, and not actually watching someone’s life on screen. It’s designed to please a crowd, to hit all the right emotional notes, to make us smile, to make us possibly even tear up a little, and it succeeds at doing all of this. But it feels so damn uninspired while doing it. Yes, it works, and yes I would say I enjoyed it, but even though I didn’t know the story, it felt like I had seen everything before. With that said, there are two things that make me glad that I went and spent $12 on a ticket, and those two things are Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. These two actors did everything the filmmaking could not do in making me believe. I nearly forgot that these were actors at points, Redmayne and Jones had me immersed, they had me believing. Eddie Redmayne gives a nearly perfect performance as Stephen Hawking, portraying every bit of emotion, every bit of struggle perfectly. I would compare him to Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, although I might actually say that Redmayne is even better here. Felicity Jones also does a spectacular job, although she has a less flashy role, she does marvels with it. As a movie, The Theory of Everything is nothing special, but it would be a shame to miss out on these performances.

Fair Game (2010)

Fair Game

★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Doug Liman

Starring Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame

Sean Penn as Joe Wilson

Imdb Link

Valerie Plame is a CIA operative whose husband writes an article in the New York Times, criticizing the Bush administration, and the war in Iraq.

Fair Game is one of the most dull spy movies I have ever seen. I understand that real life spy work is not like a James Bond film at all times, and this is based on a true story, but that doesn’t mean that it can be excused for being so uninteresting. It’s an interesting story that’s suited for a magazine article, “my fight with the Bush administration” or something like that, but as a feature length film, it does not work. Fair Game tells the story of Valerie Plame, a covert operative in the CIA who sent her husband to check out some alleged uranium mines in Niger, and returned to say that nothing is there, only to have the government put out a report that Niger had sold uranium from these fields to Saddam Hussein. So he writes a controversial article in the New York Times, which leads the government to reveal his wife’s identity, and leads to Sean Penn giving a bunch of political speeches about how much the Bush administration sucks. This movie is not a thriller, this is not a spy movie, this is not a military intelligence thriller about how wrong we were in going into Iraq. This is a movie that is just one huge political message of “fuck George Bush.” I agree with the political messages, and I think George Bush sucks, but seriously, I’m not watching your film so that you can tell me exactly how much George Bush sucks. I want a story, compelling characters, interesting filmmaking techniques. I want to watch Sean Penn perform, not yell about his actual real life political views. I have no problem if a film has political messages, that’s completely fine by me, but I definitely do not like when the only thing a film has to say are political slander, and the film only exists as a piece of hate mail to someone. Aside from that, Fair Game does nothing interesting in its filmmaking, it plays it very safe, the camera angles are very ordinary, the lighting is a typical “we’ll make this look dark so that it looks gritty,” type thing, the editing is passable and nothing more. I will say however, that Naomi Watts does quite a great job in this film. I was impressed with her performance, however, it wasn’t portrayed as a lead role, even though this is a biopic about Valerie Plame, she seemed to be the supporting character to Sean Penn’s politics.

Salt (2010)

Salt

★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Starring Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt

Imdb Link

Evelyn Salt is a CIA agent who is accused of being a Russian spy, sent to assassinate the Russian president while he visits a funeral.

Well, with this and The A-Team, I got two action movie failures in one day. Both for incredibly different reasons. Salt is one of the most convoluted films I have ever seen, with more plot twists in its 90-minute runtime than in M. Night Shyamalan’s entire career. This is the story of a CIA agent, who is accused of being a spy for the KGB, and instead of defending herself from the accusation, she runs away, and kills a bunch of CIA agents, just because, then it turns out she actually is a part of the KGB, but maybe she doesn’t want to be? And which side is she on? And why does everything have to be so confusing in this movie, it’s like they couldn’t do anything the straight forward way, like it would actually happen in real life. No person would ever act like anyone in this film, even spies have logic, no scratch that, spies should have more logic than anyone else, yet it seemed like no one did a single rational thing in the entire runtime of the film. The characters were incredibly poorly written, and we never learn anything about any of them other than “I’m a spy.” The tagline for the movie has had me curious since its release in 2010, “Who is Salt?” it asks, and after watching the movie, I ask the same question. Seriously what was going on in that character’s brain, is she secretly working for North Korea and fucking over both Russia and America? Who is she really? I had no clue by the end of the film. Another thing that’s bothering me about the film is the fact that it lacks any heart or fun that ridiculous action movies need. In movies where people are defying nearly every law of physics with stunts, you need to keep that in perspective and have a sense of humor. A sense of humor can show it isn’t meant to be realistic, and so it becomes acceptable. Salt has no sense of humor, so it’s just a very dark and serious movie where the universe seems to not obey physics. I will admit that I laughed a good deal at Salt’s husband’s ridiculous accent and his speeches about spiders, though I don’t think that was meant to be funny, they couldn’t have chosen a worse actor or job for Angelina Jolie’s love interest. Salt was an incredibly convoluted movie that seemed to be so interested in surprising the audience that it forgot to have a coherent plot and what makes my favorite action films my favorites, a sense of fun.

Certified Copy (2011)

Certified Copy

★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Starring Juliette Binoche as Elle

William Shimell as James Miller

Imdb Link

A French antique store owner, Elle, who lives in Tuscany, invites an author to spend a day with her.

I don’t get confused by films often, I can usually grasp what’s going on pretty easily, but after watching Certified Copy, I can truly say that I have no clue what the hell just happened. This is a film that I would liken to a plain little box with a lock on it, and a missing key. This is definitely not a good thing. Because a box is never exciting, it’s what is inside that counts, and we never get to figure out what is in there. The story of Certified Copy revolves around two characters, a man and a woman who have never met before going to a remote Italian town together, when all of a sudden a waitress mistakes the two of them as a married couple, and then I guess all of a sudden they’re actually married and haven’t seen each other in forever, or something, or maybe they aren’t and nothing makes sense. There is no way to understand exactly what the connection between the characters is unless you want to make theories about Elle using the author as a “copy” of her actual husband and taking her anger out on him. I’m not a fan of having to come up with farfetched theories to explain the events of a film, especially when the events just felt so uninteresting in the first place. I really enjoyed Abbas Kiarostami’s 2013 film Like Someone in Love, I thought it was a beautiful, slow moving journey through an escort’s daily life, and mentorship. However, his style is definitely… not suitable for every film. He really likes silence, and I’ve heard it said that he hates getting emotional reactions to his films, and cuts scenes that get laughter or any response in early screenings. So in a film that is 95% talking, that is very hard to pull off. It ends up being a lot of uninteresting dialogue that loops over the same themes in order to hit a point in instead of ever treading over any area that will get a reaction from the audience. So no comic relief, no real tension, nothing that makes us truly connect with the characters. Instead, we seem to hear “is a copy ever truly as great as the original” a billion times. Juliette Binoche does a good job, but it’s hard to be really spectacular with the material at hand. There was also some very interesting cinematography, for example, one shot in which we watch a conversation in a car driving through a village, and on one plane we can see the conversation, on another we can see the reflection of the deep blue sky and the buildings on either side of the car, and then finally we can see the people of the village moving around outside the car. The composition of shots like these were simply magnificent. Still, in the end Certified Copy is way too much work with no reward.

The American (2010)

The American

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Anton Corbijn

Starring George Clooney as Jack

Imdb Link

An assassin, whose name may or may not be Jack, is sent to a remote Italian village to lay low from enemies and await further instructions.

The American would be what it would look like if you gave a director like Michael Haneke the Bond franchise with George Clooney in the lead. This is a pretty typical spy thriller script that has a director who took it in a completely different direction. The American is a very slow moving movie, but it doesn’t have a slow moving plot, it’s the style of the filmmaking, the way that every shot takes its time, the actors don’t rush through their movements. This is a spy movie filmed in the style of a European art house piece, which makes it unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I’m not typically an enormous fan of European art-house (I find that like every genre, there’s a lot of great stuff, but then you get the films that miss the point and try and copy the style ending up feeling empty and incredibly pretentious), but I love how it was thrown in as a twist to the spy genre, and it fit the story and location of the film like a glove. So I do really enjoy the film, but as with any film, there are flaws, in this case, the flaws can really weigh it down at moments. The script is where it seems the majority of my problems with the film come from. The plot becomes very stretched out at times, and there isn’t enough conflict throughout the entire film. The fact that an entire section is devoted to Clooney trying to assemble a homemade gun shows that maybe they didn’t have enough story to work with. Furthermore, I think that having a main character who has pretty much zero personality traits other than “mysterious” makes them hard to relate with. Other than that, the director, Anton Corbijn proves with The American that he can take a mediocre script and turn it into something pretty interesting and different. The American is no James Bond movie, it isn’t packed with action or intrigue, but it does have a lot of beautiful shots of the Italian countryside, and a very unique look at an overdone genre.

Tracks (2014)

Tracks

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by John Curran

Starring Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson

Imdb Link

Robyn Davidson is a young Australian woman who decides to leave everything behind and go on a walk across Australia.

Tracks is the perfect example of an absolutely average film. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, it was just about as plain and average as it gets. As I said earlier this week in my review for Peter Weir’s The Way Back, I typically love films about long voyages, a genre that Tracks falls into. However, it didn’t seem like there was enough of what makes me typically love those types of films here. Some things that make me typically love those grand voyage films are the cinematography which can really focus on the beauty of the world, and the peaceful nature of these films. Tracks really didn’t have any of the things that typically makes me love these films. The cinematography was perfectly average, it did not focus as much on nature as it should have, and instead is mainly just boring angles on Robyn and her camels. There were some incredibly beautiful shots, but they were too few with too much boring looking stuff in between them. I think that the one thing about Tracks that stood out was Mia Wasikowska’s performance. I’m not usually a big fan of hers, but she did a very good job here. Her performance as Robyn Davidson is understated, while also very powerful. She has some incredible moments. I don’t think she’ll end up being a player in the Best Actress race, but for now, she’s in my top five of the year. She really does standout as the best part of the film. Also, I know this is a true story, but damn does the thought of going on a solo voyage across Australia, and camping unprotected outside bother the hell out of me. Isn’t there, you know, lots and lots of animals that can kill you in Australia? Taking a voyage like this on isn’t very inspirational, it’s just kind of stupid. Anyways, Tracks covers 2000 miles in its protagonist’s walk, half of the 4000 miles in The Way Back, which is fitting, because Tracks is half the film that The Way Back is.