Nymphomaniac Vol. II: The Better Half?

Nymphomaniac Vol. II picks up right where Vol. I leaves off, as I had predicted.  So that’s one thing that is a little irritating: 5 months between watching Vol. I and Vol. II.  Now that’s partly my own fault, for letting so much time go by — but it’s also the fault of a highly constrained release.  By the time I saw Vol. I in the theater, Vol. II was ending its run.  The solution to this would be to get back to the idea of an intermission — something that used to be commonplace and indeed heralded for longer films.  Any Lars von Trier film has such a targeted, niche market that the way to do it is show the entire thing at once, put in an intermission, and charge double the admission if necessary.  Because these are in no way two distinct films, but two halves of the same film.  There is no question about this, so release it that way.  I know it’s not up to the distribution company as much as the theaters, but work something out so it’s shown properly.

Now that I have my rant out of the way, the movie:

Nymphomaniac Vol. II - poster

Nymphomaniac — the complete set — gives the viewer a strongly compelling ride-along with the sex addict Joe.  This is Lars von Trier’s most sexually explicit film yet, to the point that some have labeled it porn.  It is not porn; it is an independent film with Hollywood mainstays such as Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Stellan Skarsgård and Willem Dafoe.  And remember that Lars von Trier made the magnificent Breaking the Waves.  There is not so much separation between these two films.

Much of Vol. II, which follows our antagonist Joe as she has aged a bit from Vol. I, is exceptionally engaging.  It is set in a framework of tales recounted by Joe to a stranger she has met (Skarsgård), which often add a little levity and interesting sidelines such as a discussion about clipping nails first from the left or right hand.  But I did have a couple problems.

First of all, at one point early in Vol. II we are told it is now “three years later.”  This is the point of the transition from young Joe to older Joe, and a transition to the actresses who play older and younger Joe.  But younger Joe is played by Stacy Martin, who was a very youthful-looking 21 at the time of filming, and older Joe is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is a full 20 years older and looks it.  Besides the blatant age difference, the two actresses look very little like one another.  There was no reason this transition could not have been handled better.  It is a jarring effect that distracts unnecessarily from the unfolding story.

Now there’s another problem with this older Joe – younger Joe dichotomy, and it’s that not only are there obvious physical differences which tell us these are two different characters, but behavioral ones as well.  Maybe I’m just being an ageist, but younger Joe was more interesting to watch; more unpredictable.  They just seemed like two different people, and it didn’t work.

Nymphomaniac Vol. II - text blockVol. II also had some little story problems that didn’t quite flow, and I very much disliked the cop-out ending.  There were moments in this movie where one felt it reaching for and almost achieving greatness.  A theme that tied both films together was that of finding your “soul tree” — and it was a beautiful thing.  But there are other times — such as the ending — where it almost seems as if von Trier got tired and gave up.

So, though I stated I would not, I am going to pass judgement on each half separately.  Vol. I: 8/10; Vol. II: 5/10.  If I judge them as a complete set, 6/10 — but with all the normal caveats in place.  Either way, make sure this is not your first Lars von Trier film.  Watch Breaking the Waves before you see Antichrist, and Antichrist before you see Nymphomaniac Vol. I.

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Nymphomaniac Progress Report


Nymphomaniac poster - large
It is abundantly clear that Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is the first half of a movie: the final trailer before the film started was for Vol. II, and more clips from Vol. II are embedded within the end credits as a sort of trailer-within-a-film — something I’ve not seen before.  Further, it is obvious from the content of the movie — and all its marketing — that the story is only half done.  I do not like the way it was broken in two as I believe it to be a single film, but I understand from a practical standpoint the objection, and indeed the impossibility, of releasing a 4 hour movie to theaters.  But I think it could have been handled with a little more integrity.

In any case, I will hold off judgment until I’ve seen Vol. II and the story is completed.  But: so far, so good — this is a marvelous film.  I recommend filmgoers to watch it while they can, and before seeing Vol. II.  This movie would also work well for home watching, given a half-decent setup — so if you wait until it’s released for streaming, you won’t miss out too much.  In fact, that way you could watch Vol. II immediately after Vol. I, or say the next evening.  Streaming or Blu-Ray releases may also include the uncut version of Vol. I, which runs about a half-hour longer.

I apologize for my rambling, but to repeat, I recommend Vol. I to any Lars von Trier fans out there.  If you’re not familiar with von Trier, don’t start with this one — start with Breaking the Waves, or, if you can’t get your hands on that, Antichrist.  As promised, there is lots of explicit sexual content — though not more so than last year’s Blue is the Warmest Color.  I’ll post a more cohesive review upon watching Vol. II.

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.

Sci-Fi Do or Die

Wow!  It is mind-boggling how many great films are out there, so many that deserve a mention.  I’ve been wanting to write about science fiction movies for some time.  When I was a child, I would look in the TV Guide and see “Sci-Fi” as the genre type of a movie.  Somehow that didn’t translate to science fiction, but to “extra scary”, like scary in hi-fi or something, scary semper fi.

Splice (2009) is a character development story which uses sci-fi to amplify the development.  A couple of romantically linked genetic scientists, Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley), are performing cutting-edge DNA-splicing research funded by a pharmaceutical company.  They create hybrid animals in the lab for possible medical use.  At one point, they decide to kick it up a notch and mix in human DNA, and the result is astounding.

Splice has one of the best developed plot lines you will ever see — a racecar engine is at work here.  As the creature they have conceived constantly evolves so does the story, in fascinating and frightening ways.  Rather than stick to the standard Hollywood line of mutant-alien on the rampage, the characters here act in real, human (or semi-human) ways.  There is nuance here.

Clive and Elsa name their creation Dren (a deliberately androgynous Delphine Chanéac), and so begins an intimate family story of mother, father and daughter — but with that raciness of Alien just below the surface.    A strong bond is formed among the trio, and that bond carries over to the audience.  You feel connected to all three, and as such the quickly paced developments keep you hanging from start to finish.  At times the family is quite happy, but like keeping a lion for a pet, the wild side of Dren is bound to break free.  8/10.

While on the subject of genetic engineering, I should now recommend the masterpiece Gattaca (1997, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law).  Yes, masterpiece with a rating 10/10.  The story here is set in the “not too-distant future” where how hard you work, how smart you are, or how well you execute your talents doesn’t matter — all that matters is your genetic makeup.  You were either naturally-born or a product of genetic manipulation.  Now the DNA science here is not so otherworldly as that presented in Splice.  Here it is a matter of choosing the single, optimal fertilized egg from mother and father to go on and become your offspring — why leave it up to the chance of nature?

Ethan Hawke and Ernest Borgnine in Gattaca

What is more scary is the Big Brother-inspired world that the ostensibly beneficial science has manifested.  Quick, automated genetic screenings occur frequently — at a work entryplace finger-prick turnstile, with a spot check of urine, or the collection of a small bit of hair or skin that might have been left at one’s desk.  For our hero Vincent (Hawke), if any of these checks show him to be what he really is — naturally-born and thus “in-valid” or “degeenerate”, he will be immediately jettisoned into that other class, subjugated to work as nothing better than a custodian.

But Vincent truly is a hero.  He has the highest aspiration: to be an elite astronaut and fly to the far reaches of space.  He is smart and tenacious, so he enlists the help of a liason to assume the identity of a man with first-class genetic credentials, a former swimming star named Jerome (Law).  But this is no identity theft, rather, a mutually beneficial arrangement.

A sweeping and spirited film, Gattaca centers on the will and determination of Vincent overcoming his handicapped birth.  The absorbing tale is further enhanced by a beautiful, clean, cinematic look, which accentuates the purity of the story.  What else?  Excellent performances by an all-star cast including Gore Vidal, Ernest Borgnine, Alan Arkin and the always charming Tony Shalhoub, and to cap it off a beautiful, haunting, perfectly suited original score.

All of that might not catapult Gattaca to masterpiece level and a 10 rating.  The plus factor here is the elevation of the human spirit at the edge of an important and daunting new frontier.  In capturing our imagination with its universal themes, Gattaca earns my highest recommendation.

* * *

Now onto what I call “pure” science fiction: Moon (2009).  I think of it as pure science fiction I suppose in the sense that it is a more traditional type, not dealing with genetic manipulation at all.  Gattaca has not so much to do with a pure science fiction backdrop as it does with a dedicated individual overcoming the odds against him.  On the other hand,  Moon from the outset puts you right in that sci-fi state of mind.

Moon

The story is that of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a solitary mine worker manning a station on the moon.  His job is to venture out from his base to collect product from large mining vehicles which dig up and convert ore, fairly automatically, then return to base.  At the base he is most occupied not with a lot of particular tasks, as again things seem fairly automated, but with simply making time go by — for which he has invented a number of diversions.  The automation is greatly assisted by GERTY, an artificially intelligent robot extension of the base’s interior voiced with a mild sinister undertone by Kevin Spacey.

There is no evidence of any ill intent that GERTY may have toward Sam; it seems he is there very much to help.  But because GERTY, and the film’s atmosphere both within the base and out on the moon very much evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey (prior post), especially that sense of desolation and loneliness in outer space, we feel as the story progresses that at any moment GERTY will turn on Sam.

But that does not exactly happen, certainly not in the way of 2001Moon‘s similarity with 2001 goes no further than the ambiance it creates.  Moon is it’s own quite brilliant story.  That story is of Sam attempting to get by on his own with no more companionship than GERTY and occasional broken communication with Earth, most notably his wife.  Or is she his wife?  Is he really Sam?  For this little surprising gem takes us down that Film as Soufflé path best represented by Mulholland Dr.  And that’s all I am going to say about the story, for the more you are surprised by this movie, the more will you be delighted.

Again, Moon is its own quite brilliant story.  It’s not David Lynch and it’s not Stanley Kubrick.  It fills a unique niche in the chronology of science fiction film; 9/10 verging on a perfect 10.

* * *

I’ve written more about these three movies than I planned.  My general intent is to merely utter a recommendation, but in so doing I remember more and more how great some of these movies are, and so I carry on a bit longer.  So, it seems I have space for just one more movie.  A part two on Sci-Fi will be forthcoming.

The Box (2009) was another surprisingly great movie.  I know I am using the word ‘surprise’ too much, but so often I go in expecting some small variation of rote pablum that I become overtaken when instead I experience talent and craftsmanship.

The Box is about a married couple and their son, who are beginning to struggle financially.  The husband (James Marsden) works in the space industry, and his wife (Cameron Diaz) is a teacher.  Now a note about her.  Cameron Diaz is probably the best actress of her generation, demonstrated once again by a telling scene early on in the movie: In her classroom, she is challenged by a student to show her feet.  When she does, she reveals webbed toes.  The Box not being Splash, the result is nothing but dead melancholy.  Diaz handles that scene, as with all her work, on the highest order.

The Box

So onto the story!  A mysterious package arrives in the mail, containing a locked wooden box.  Later, an equally mysterious man with a sort of disfigured half-face (a perfectly cast Frank Langella) arrives at the home, to explain that if the button on the box is pushed, two things will happen.  One, they will receive one million dollars.  And two, someone they do not know, somewhere in the world, will die.

Now if that’s not a great premise for a movie I don’t know what is.  I shall not be giving away too much to say that the button is pushed; if not, the movie might well reach a premature conclusion.  The million dollars is delivered right away, but this couple discovers equally quickly that Pandora’s Box has been opened.  Odd things begin to happen, and soon enough the sympathetic couple are on a path to restore normalcy to their lives.

I hate giving away details about movies which so expertly yield a wonderful story, so I will not do so here.  I will say that though the story here is quite immersive, the ultimate explanation of the odd events left me a tad wanting, but that may just be a personal preference issue.  Because of this, I had thought this movie an “8”, but now as I think about it, The Box is such a fresh vision, a great odyssey, and prevails so clearly in my mind, that I render it a 9/10.

Enough for now.  Next post, expect a little comedy to lighten things up.

Pulp Fiction follow-up: Soundtrack

from email 6 March 2008

I was toodling around on iTunes, downloading some Fergie songs, and ran headlong into the Pulp Fiction soundtrack (one of the great things about iTunes is that if you forget how you got somewhere, you can hit “back” just like going back on the internet, and retrace your steps.  In this case, the Black Eyed Peas took the surf classic and opening music to Pulp Fiction, Dick Dale’s “Misirlou”, for their hip hop pop).

I was thinking about it, because I don’t usually think of the music in Pulp Fiction when I am thinking about the movie.  But upon reading what Wikipedia had to say about it, I have now realized how truly ingenious the use of music was in the movie: Continue reading