Cinematic Greats: Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves - poster

Breaking the Waves (1996) is one of the greatest films ever made, and the magnum opus of Lars von Trier.  Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert each hailed it as one of the 10 Best films of its decade, with Ebert writing:

“Breaking the Waves” is emotionally and spiritually challenging, hammering at conventional morality with the belief that God not only sees all, but understands a great deal more than we give Him credit for.

…  Not many movies like this get made, because not many filmmakers are so bold, angry and defiant. Like many truly spiritual films, it will offend the Pharisees. Here we have a story that forces us to take sides, to ask what really is right and wrong in a universe that seems harsh and indifferent. Is religious belief only a consolation for our inescapable destination in the grave? Or can faith give the power to triumph over death and evil? Bess knows.

Breaking the Waves - Index Card

I wrote in 2008:

I’ll leave you for today to just mention one last movie, standing in great contrast to the movies I’ve written about above.  I won’t say too much about it, but that Breaking the Waves (1996, Emily Watson) I saw in the movie theater and became physically drained from the experience.  Not so much an entertainment as an exercise, but like a good work out, this one pays off.  It is for the most part a quite bleak film, with these very colorful mini-intermissions – about six – spread Breaking the Waves - text blockthrough as sort of chapter markers.  The film is a unique vision of the making of a saint, and through the bleakness emerges finally at the end great joy.  It is, as I now think about it, and I’ve thought about it many times – one will never forget this one – an alternate (and I’ll say a very alternate, without elaborating how at this time) telling of the story of Christ.  No more about this now, except perhaps to understand the mood of it a little, the theme music (only in the end credits) is Bach, Siciliano from Sonata for Flute & Harpsichord in E flat major, BWV 1031 – a melancholy rendering of that performance, that is, as compared to a more flamboyant or whimsical version as some I just sampled on iTunes.  [2016 Note: for trumpet and organ, not available on iTunes] If you ever do watch it, to get the full experience try to do it in one sitting with no more than one pause or so, which should be done at a mini-intermission.  As I said, an exercise to watch it, 159 minutes.

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Availability: iTunes rental & purchase

Life Itself – A Perfect 10 on CNN

Life Itself - posterI had thought to promote on this blog CNN’s airing last Sunday night of the year’s 2nd-best film Life Itself, but I assumed it would be riddled with commercials.  I should have checked that, because as far as I can tell they presented it commercial free.  With a running time of 121 min., my only concern is that it was shown uncut within its 2-hour time slot — hopefully nothing more than end credits were shaved off.

CNN will rebroadcast the film this Friday at 6 & 9 PM Pacific Time.  Try to watch or DVR this special movie; view a Times article on CNN’s presentation here.

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Sunday night I wasted a good portion of the evening with the abysmal revamping of Celebrity Apprentice, and missed all but the last minute or two of Life Itself on CNN.  And I was reminded of what a special movie it is.  It’s special because of the extraordinary life of Roger Ebert, and because it does a great job documenting that life.  I think it’s a deeply profound and emotional film, and an important one, and a timeless one.

Life Itself - CNN - text block

Therefore I am upgrading Life Itself to 10/10.  It’s a documentary, but so what.  It’s better than any other film — save one — that was released in 2014.  Or 2013 or 2012, for that matter.  So watching for free courtesy of CNN is a pretty sweet deal.

Venture More Deeply Under the Skin

Under the Skin

I’ve made the point before that I will not award a 10/10 rating to a movie until some time has passed after watching.  A 10 rating indicates not only something truly great, but a timeless film for the ages — a masterpiece.  A classification not to be doled out haphazardly.  Though just three months have passed since watching Under the Skin, its memory continues to pervade my consciousness.  It is a haunting film that has made an indelible mark on the landscape of cinema, and a lasting impression on me.  A film that I’ve not only thought about a great deal, but that has found its way into my dreams.  And the time has come to award it my 10 rating.

For such a short time to have passed, this is a bit of a risk for me.  I would look foolish if a year or two or ten from now I reflected again on Under the Skin and felt it did not warrant a 10 rating.  It is a testament to how strongly I feel about the movie that I’m placing the 10/10 label on it so soon.

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Under the Skin - Come to Me

If you read my original review, understand that my analogy to a cross between Holy Motors and Eraserhead, though still valid, is no longer the way I would couch a discussion of Under the Skin.  That was my best effort at wrapping my head around this extraordinary film, of digesting it immediately upon consumption.  My understanding of the film has deepened since then, and I realize now that it demands to be dealt with strictly on its own.  It is so unique that comparison to other movies is not particularly useful to gain an understanding of it, except as an academic exercise.

But indulge me for a moment while I contradict myself.  In a state that was half waking and half sleeping, another comparison came to me: 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Based on Under the Skin, the filmmaker Jonathan Glazer has been compared by at least one critic to Stanley Kubrick.  There are a couple visuals that bring to mind 2001; I cite examples below.

But beyond the obvious, Under the Skin may be seen as an incredible twist on 2001, and here it is: in 2001, we had the monolith.  But here, the girl is the monolith.  Under the Skin - monolith text block 2Her body — whatever that exactly is, her charming ways, her black pool, her entire alien presence.  The monolith has returned to earth, but it has folded in on itself and become this very human, and simultaneously very alien sexual being.  The blackness, the void — all the abstract and mystical bounds of humanity represented by the monolith of 2001 are now embodied with this young woman.  Instead of the monolith as something seen from afar, and hesitantly approached for a closer glimpse or a touch, it has now become something you enter, something that envelops you.

Now mind you, I don’t believe Glazer or the novelist Michel Faber had 2001 in mind at all when composing Under the Skin.  But you can tell that this movie has fired up a lot of synapses in my brain.  Know too that the whole idea of an interpretation of Under the Skin as a greatly distorted retelling of 2001 is but one point of discussion, not a way to contain, define or delineate it in any way.

Continued analysis, discussion and debate are often the fruits of a masterwork.

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This is one of those rare moments when a movie can just knock you over the head and flatten you.  Under the Skin operates on different levels: as a mystery, as a tale of survival, and as an exploration of sexuality and humanity.  Its profound depth is reinforced by its haunting, aptly-science fiction score and a darkened Scottish setting.  Just phenomenal.

With a movie this great, it doesn’t matter much to me what other critics are saying, but the high praise it has received is, I admit, reassuring.  Check out the official site and its culling of criticism — what might be hyperbole for a lesser film is anything but for this one.

But there were some negative reactions, among both professional critics and amateurs.  On Amazon, it only has a 2 1/2 out of 5 star rating.  A typical review:

A very beautifully photographed, but very odd film. Director was clearly a fan of Kubrick. Long, slow scenes with not much going on. Not appropriate for younger viewers and people that enjoy a faster pace.

Now I normally am not interested in citing dissent, but I have a point to make.  People who did not like this movie all have one thing in common: they just didn’t get it.  It went way over their head.  And I get that.  That’s the first level I mentioned: a mystery.  A mystery for the viewer to figure out.  Only then do the other two levels reveal themselves — that of  the survival adventure of the “lioness on the prowl”, as Scarlett Johansson put it, and then that of an exploration into human sexuality.

Under the Skin - depth text blockSo my point here is the fact that so many people did not like it does not indicate weakness or a lack of quality, but exactly the opposite.  A lot of people will be out of their depth with Under the Skin, and will not be able to get anything out of it.  As I said, I get that.  I had my hands full trying to comprehend this movie as I sat through it.  But if you can grasp it at all, it will stay with you.  You’ll be able to attain your own ways of understanding it.  And like any truly great art, its greatness will only expand from there.

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iTunes extras graphicLest I forget to mention, there are now iTunes Extras available when you purchase the movie from Apple — this, and the upgrade to a 10 rating, constituted my original impetus for this post before I decided I had a helluva lot more to say.

The Extras are only available with the purchase (not rental) of the movie in HD ($15), and include 10 featurettes.  My inclination is that if I’m going to buy this movie, I’d rather have the Blu-Ray disc.  Now a check on Amazon does not mention the Extras, but I found a review of the Blu-Ray that confirms the featurettes are included.  So if I decide to purchase the movie, I’ll get it on Blu-Ray, and perhaps return it if the featurettes are not there.  I don’t recommend anyone purchase the movie unless they’ve already seen it.

Personally, this movie is still so vividly held in my memory that I don’t feel a need to purchase it — yet.  But those featurettes I am curious about, so I will probably buy it sooner than later.

Cinematic Greats: Fargo

Roger Ebert:

Films like “Fargo” are why I love the movies.

You betcha!  Me too.  Fargo is a masterpiece of the highest order.  I was thinking about Pulp Fiction and Fargo, and connected it to an idea that I’ve had for a long time: there is no single greatest film of all time.  2001 is not a greater film than A Clockwork Orange, or Pulp Fiction, or Fargo.  These films have an equality of greatness which promises a viewing experience beyond that of lesser cinema.

Fargo still - Buscemi - largeFargo is the reason movies exist.  I saw a blog post a ways back about the top 10 Coen brothers’ films, which went out of its way to diss Fargo as overrated and not worthy of the Coen ‘top 10’ list.  Sometimes I don’t know what people are thinking.  It is easily the best Coen brothers film (though I have not seen them all), readily surpassing the great No Country for Old Men, as well as almost every other picture ever made.

I unfortunately skipped Fargo during its theatrical release because the ‘homespun’ poster turned me off.  If you haven’t yet, see this one as soon as possible, uncut and in HD — it’s a perfect winter’s tale.  I’d like to include a trailer or clip, but could not find one that does it justice.

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Pulp Fiction Added to National Film Registry

Pulp Fiction - Poster large

Pulp Fiction is one of the greatest pictures of all time, a masterpiece, and on a personal note there is no other film that I treasure more dearly.  It has been added to the National Film Registry for 2013.  I thought at first that this is maybe 10 years late, but I reckon more time allows one to realize it was not just a flash in the pan or a trendy choice.  Pulp Fiction is a classic which will endure for all time.

Also among those added: the essential documentary Roger & Me, the delightful Mary Poppins, The Magnificent Seven, and one of my favorite films from high school days, The Right Stuff.

Cinematic Greats: Back to the Future

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THERE WAS A TIME not that long ago when great, original films on a grand scale came out at regular intervals.  Steven Spielberg had a lot to do with it.  Nowadays a great and original movie is more likely to be a small indie.  Thank goodness for Quentin Tarantino — and a select few others — who can still make movies that are big both in budget and in concept.

Everyone should be familiar with the Spielberg-produced megapop masterpiece Back to the Future (1985), directed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis.  But a central aim of my blog is to identify and give due adulation to all the movies I’ve seen in my life which deserve such recognition.  And who knows, maybe there’s someone out there who hasn’t seen some of the most famous blockbusters.  Back to the Future embodies perfection of the sci-fi pop genre.  Considering recent big flops [prior post], it might be a good idea for studios to reexamine classic successes like this one, and perhaps find a little inspiration.  10/10

Back to the Future - still