Saturday, March 22, 2014

THE MORALISM OF LARS VON TRIER

About once every decade or so, a major filmmaker attempts to make a film whose subject is wholly sex. Bernardo Bertolucci did it in 1973 with LAST TANGO IN PARIS. Stanley Kubrick gave us EYES WIDE SHUT in 1999. And now, Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier has created a two-part movie entitled NYMPHOMANIAC. (The first part hits movie theaters yesterday, a day after the second installment arrived on VOD. The first installment has been on VOD since March 7.)
Charlotte Gainsbourg in NYMPHOMANIAC.
It’s a daunting task to attempt something profound about a subject as personal and intimate as sex, but Von Trier has managed to make a serious movie about it. Yes, it’s outrageous at times as he unflinchingly shows the facets of its varied practices. More often than not however, the film is an incredibly thoughtful and spiritual one. And there’s nothing wrong with Von Trier’s predilection for provocation. But once again, just as so many times before with this artist, certain folks in the media are in an uproar. Surprise, surprise.

Richard Brody of The New Yorker goes on and on about Von Trier’s excesses (http://nyr.kr/1dyAmXD). He seems put off by the fact that Joe, the female protagonist (played by the veteran Von Trier player Charlotte Gainsbourg as a woman and newcomer Stacy Martin as a girl), seems so joyless in her exploration of sex. But that is precisely the point of Von Trier’s film. This story is about a woman for whom sex has become a passionless proposition. She’s become immune to its pleasures after so many partners and deviations that she no longer feels anything.

The provocative posters for the movies.
Throughout, Von Trier argues for sexuality that has a deeper intimacy than mere penetration of the body. He’s arguing for a connection that inhabits the heart, mind and soul. Still, some critics can only see the excesses of the visuals – namely the body parts Van Trier shows unflinchingly, as well as the scenes showing BDSM practices. To me, such critics simply cannot see the forest for the trees here. (You can argue there’s a pun in there somewhere if you want to.)

Regarding Joe’s venture into sadist sexual activity, it is indeed difficult to watch. Seeing anyone’s backside ripped by a lash, whether its Patsy’s in 12 YEARS A SLAVE, or Joe’s here in NYMPHOMANIAC, is trying. Still, that doesn’t make Von Trier a misogynist for dwelling on it or in asking us to ‘feel the pain’ along with her. Nor does it make him a pervert or a freak as too many are suggesting (http://bit.ly/1gRiRGz). He may be a provocateur in his way, but the true daring of Von Trier’s work is in the attempt to seriously examine a person’s sexuality. And he succeeds at that here, across the span of the 4 plus hours of his two movies. Von Trier is willing to show the good, the bad and the ugly, without pulling his punches, or dare I say, whips.

Director and writer Lars Von Trier.
Von Trier is clearly interested in subjects that most people are uncomfortable with, and good for him and us. We need more movies that truly challenge us. And despite his pushing the visual limits of cinema, what he’s really pushing here is the idea that sex needs more connection beyond physical arousal and stimulation to be truly exceptional. By the end of the movie, Joe realizes that the most truly intimate and satisfactory moments in her life haven’t been in all the lust and risk, but rather in the intimacy experienced in telling her tale to the kindly gentlemen (Stellan Skarsgard) who’s taken her in. It’s honest conversation, not coitus, which has brought her the truest sense of wholeness. By describing her sex life to him, and speaking candidly about her experiences when probed by his curiosity, the morose Joe realizes that her vast resume of pleasures of the flesh has left her void of true intimacy. So despite all the claims otherwise, Von Trier’s true agenda here is moralistic.

I’d also suggest that his cautions about the vagaries of bad sex, and the limits of such intimate falsehoods, extend far beyond our sex lives. These days we’re all trying to connect and yet we’re doing so in ways that reek of illusion. We have thousands of friends on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn; we text hundreds of messages a day to our family and friends; we post everything we see and do on Instagram, Redditt and Pinterest; and we live and work in a global community where we’re as close as the next Skype call to anyone anywhere. And yet how truly connected are we? Is it better to have a thousand friends on Facebook or a handful of friends you really share your lives and likes with? And do so, in person? That answer is obvious, yet elusive.
Stacy Martin makes an auspicious film debut as the young Joe in NYMPHOMANIAC.
But the blogosphere and much of the media would rather bellyache about seeing Gainsbourg’s pubic hair or Shia LeBeouf in the buff. It’s like the collective freakout that so many pundits and talk shows had this week upon learning that a Duke University student was moonlighting as a porn star to put herself through college. Online smut is as commonplace as those omnipresent University of Phoenix ads that pop up everywhere, so nobody should be outraged that an 18-year-old girl has gone into the industry to make a quick buck. It’s not the safest form of show biz, nor is it great for furthering a reputation, but it’s not that outlandish in this day and age by any stretch.

But that didn’t stop Piers Morgan on his CNN show or Sherri Shepherd on THE VIEW from totally condescending to her like she was a Manson girl. It didn’t prevent TV’s Doctor Drew Pinsky on HLN from telling Belle Knox (that’s her porn alias) that if he were her father he’d take a cyanide tablet. Luckily, the 18-year-old acted more mature in her defense of her choices than the celebrated psychiatrist did in his dismissal of her. If she’s so awful, why was she even on the program, Dr. Drew? And isn’t he calling the kettle black after the non-stop diet of lurid that his show fed us during the salacious Jodi Arias trial last winter?
Belle Knox on PIERS MORGAN LIVE.
There may be more to the story of Belle Knox than what she is willing to admit. And the world of pornography is strewn with awful stories of those who thought they were in control of things when they weren’t. But the media reaction was far more egregious than her actions. Especially when stories about Putin and missing airlines are ten times more disturbing and worthy of coverage as news.

So, why is there such over-the-top outrage for movies like NYMPHOMANIAC and Belle Knox? Is it because in both the film’s story and the Duke tale, the protagonist is a woman? Perhaps a woman taking responsibility for her sexuality and pushing it to extremes is just too much for some to take. Particularly men. And is it possible that those same men are severely discombobulated when a woman acts with bravado too similar to that which we so often applaud in men? A man who sleeps around is called a playboy. A woman who does so is deemed a slut or whore. That is the true outrage.

If you pay heed to all those yelling foul about Von Trier’s movie, you’ll miss a smart, daring film by one of the world’s top filmmakers. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see anything by Lars Von Trier than another mediocre rom-com or horror show or robot adventure. The scariest thing about those types of movies is that their kinds of mediocrity are churned out with such utter frequency these days. The scariest thing about NYMPHOMANIAC is that it asks us to show up for an adult-themed film and pay attention to an artist's words and pictures. At the end of the day, you’ll have to decide which trip to the theater gets your blood pumping.

Monday, March 17, 2014

ON ST. PATRICK'S DAY, HERE'S TO THE 10 LUCKIEST IN HOLLYWOOD

‘Tis St. Patrick’s Day today, so here’s to the wearing of the green, hoisting a pint, and celebrating those luckiest folk this day in Hollywood. The following ten should thank St. Christopher, the patron saint of luck, for the good fortune he has bestowed upon them:


 DREAMWORKS
Your animated film MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN takes in 21.4 million in its second week? No dog that movie, despite its canine lead. Bravo! You have a new film franchise.


MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
You’ve got an Oscar and will assuredly get an Emmy for your incredible turn in HBO’s series TRUE DETECTIVE. And you’re lucky you don’t have to compete against the final season of BREAKING BAD, as your show will be listed in the limited series categories. (Not that you couldn’t beat Bryan Cranston if you were in competition with him in the drama series category, but your victory is now a virtual lock.)


LOS ANGELES AND NEW YORK
You get every movie the first weekend it opens. No other city gets that preferential treatment. The ‘flyover states’ often have to wait a week or two for new releases because Hollywood studios apparently still believe that anything not on the two coasts is just rube central.


JARED LETO
He’s got an Oscar, a renewed film career, and is rumored to be dating Lupita Nyong’o. Some guys have all the luck…


JEN SELTER’S GLUTEUS MAXIMUS
The fitness instructor’s highly aerobicized butt is an Instagram sensation with almost 3 million followers and is starring in a two-page spread in this month’s Vanity Fair. Can a TV series be far…behind?


zach galifianakis
Many in the media and in the GOP are losing their collective sh*t that the President hawked his Affordable Care Act enrollment on your cable access talk show parody BETWEEN TWO FERNS. But nobody doubts whether it’s funny as hell or whether it has been incredibly effective. (The healthcare.gov site saw a 40% increase over the weekend!) 


THE VERONICA MARS MOVIE
The Kickstarter-backed movie made 2 million this weekend, and managed to squeeze into the top 10 at the box office weekend. And it did that despite the fact that Flixster had a number of download problems that prevented some paying customers from seeing it. Good thing the positive reviews and reception offset the mechanical botch. It’s proof that there’s real affection for Kristen Bell’s amateur sleuth from the cult TV show. And it highlights the fact that even though streaming is the future, right now, there are still a lot of bugs in the system.


BATES MOTEL
Speaking of TV, the A & E cable series based upon the Hitchcock classic PSYCHO, is doing exceedingly well in its ratings. So much so that it shamed the new Chloe Sevigny series THOSE WHO KILL which unfortunately dropped almost half its lead-in audience from Norman Bates. That didn’t bode well for the freshman series and the new show was pulled after just two episodes. The Bates Motel, on the other hand, is no fluke and continues to prove it's going to be open for some time to come.


ELLEN DEGENERES
Your show is a huge hit, you got huge ratings hosting the Oscars, and everyone adores you. And you’re still ordering pizza? Caviar and champagne all around, no?

THE PRODUCERS OF 12 YEARS A SLAVE

You made a smart and provocative movie that not only won the Oscar for Best Picture, but achieved Hollywood’s highest honor with some votes from Academy members who didn’t even bother watching your film (http://bit.ly/1gyUCga). In space no one can hear you scream, eh GRAVITY fans?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

THE HORRORS OF THE JOB ON ‘TRUE DETECTIVE’

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in HBO's drama series TRUE DETECTIVE.
The conclusion of the first season of HBO’s crime drama TRUE DETECTIVE ends tonight and no matter how it wraps up, it will go down in history as one of the most provocative first seasons ever done for television. On the surface, this series appears to be a police procedural about two Louisiana detectives trying to solve a series of ritual crimes. What it really is about is the complex ideas of good and evil. And how the lives of the two cops have been ruined by their work. (http://imdb.to/1h2DT2z).

TRUE DETECTIVE knows that it’s one heck of an ugly world out there and that knowledge informs every tense scene; every gloomy, overcast shot; every dread-inducing moment. No wonder Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) is so pessimistic about trying to do right in a world that’s become a horror show. He knew it going into the job. It took longer for the simple-minded Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) to figure it out. But it sullied him fully too.

McConaughey and Harrelson playing the younger versions of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart.

Not for nothing is the nihilistic cop named Cohle and the one driven by his machismo passions named Hart. These two may ultimately arrest the killer tonight, but they’ve already lost their life to him. Their attempts to solve the mystery have wrecked them. They have abandoned duty, their morals, friendship and rational thought to try and reach closure with the case, but it's an endless cycle of violence and insanity they're dealing with. And they've paid a heavy price chasing after it. 

They have a shot at redemption in the last episode, and it looks like they may very well finally solve the crime. As with any crime story, there are many theories about who exactly the “Yellow King” is, the big baddie of the piece, and some of the better thoughts are dominating the discourse about the show (http://thebea.st/1lJV2nv). We’ll see if any of them hold muster tonight but the crucial part of the show will be in determining what it does to the two men.

Mads Mikkelsen as the title character in NBC's crime series HANNIBAL.
TRUE DETECTIVE has always been more Cormac McCarthy than Agatha Christie. It’s really all about true character, not true detective work. The case turned the once crisp and eager Cohle into a dead-eyed, alcoholic wastrel who aged 20 years in a decade. Hart thought he had it together but lost control to his rage, drinking and infidelity. They drove his family away and caused him to quite the force too. The fact that these two may even have a glimmer of hope for something better in the show’s finale seems almost out of character for one of the bleakest shows ever on television.

And yet, despite all the darkness, the show was a massive hit, averaging in the neighborhood
of 11 million viewers each of its first seven episodes. Why so? Quite prophetically, the show
is in tune with our times. Cohle’s and Hart’s jobs destroyed them, just as most Americans
believe their careers are ruining their lives too. A full 70% admit to hating their jobs (http://bit.ly/1ioCvwB). No wonder depression is at an all-time high in the nation. This show
gets that. 

Jon Hamm as Don Draper on AMC'S drama series MAD MEN.
The movie world, on the other hand, seems bent on going in the exact opposite direction.
It seems like another super hero movie is opening every other week, and if it’s not some
Marvel reboot, it is Liam Neeson kicking international ass once again. Movies have a
much shorter time to tell a story but it’s interesting how movies seem obsessive about
filling their narratives with good guys and bad guys rendered in broad, black and white
strokes where TV is exploring all the shades of gray. Even the Academy Awards obsessed
over heroes in their telecast last weekend and it seemed like a theme from the 80’s.

Across the channels, television is putting damaged and dangerous people whose jobs are killing them at the center of their shows. HANNIBAL, MAD MEN, SCANDAL, THE GOOD WFE, the recently departed BREAKING BAD, and even Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS are pushing things as dramatically far from the rules of upbeat, escapist fare as possible. All these shows showcase antiheroes like Cohle, Hart and their problematic jobs:

Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston in AMC's BREAKING BAD.
On NBC’s HANNIBAL, FBI agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) can blame his job for landing him in jail (http://exm.nr/1eCVLD9). He profiles serial killers so well that he couldn’t shake them from his own psyche, and it rendered him too blind to see that his friend and colleague Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) was a murderer who set him up for the crimes he committed.

Over on AMC’s MAD MEN, we have Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the antihero in the gray flannel suit. For sevens seasons now, he has used his high-powered ad executive job to deceive, cheat or bully anyone in his way. And he never seems to enjoy being a creative director either as he’s become a problem drinker and womanizer looking for happiness in all the wrong places. 

Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) on ABC's SCANDAL and Alicia Florrick (Juliana Margulies) on CBS's THE GOOD WIFE have learned to fight political fire with fire in their high-powered careers, even if it’s utterly unethical and sometimes quite illegal. At least they're not as horrible as Francis Underwood on Netflix's HOUSE OF CARDS. Ol' Frank (Kevin Spacey) has even murdered to keep his DC power. And his careerist wife Claire (Robin Wright) has done so many awful things to advance her hubby’s career it would make Lady Macbeth blush.

And who can forget that on the finale of BREAKING BAD, Meth kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was killed because of his dangerous job? Of course he worshiped it more than anything else in his life and left this world cradling his one true love – the pot where he cooked his superior blue product.

Like TRUE DETECTIVE, all these shows have struck a real chord with an audience looking for someone that understands their pain. These shows ask many of the same ethical questions our disparaged and underpaid work force asks itself daily, just like Rust Cohle pondered in episode three. He said, “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of sh*t. And I'd like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What's that say about your reality?”

The reality is we’re probably all justifying a lot to keep it together in this world, including our jobs. It’s a truth 70% of Americans understand all too well. And it sure does make for some riveting and therapeutic television.

Monday, March 3, 2014

WHY CAN'T THE OSCAR SHOW BE BETTER?

If you’re a movie fan, there’s no bigger night than the Oscars. And if you’re really into the Oscars, then you probably can’t help but be disappointed when the show doesn’t live up to your expectations. Perhaps they don’t call your favorites. Maybe you think the production numbers stall the show. Heck, you might not be able to get over some of the tacky dresses. The Oscars loom ginormous in our minds but seldom live up to such heights in the reality of execution.


For me, I’m been incredibly disappointed in the show these last few years. The experiments of Franco & Hathaway, and the sophomoric Seth Macfarlane singing about boobies were astonishingly awful shows. Granted, this year’s show wasn’t close to being the train wrecks that those two shows were. This year’s host Ellen Degeneres is always likable and amusing. So why didn’t she put on a better show? The Oscars should be more than just her daytime talk show writ large. But it didn’t feel much different from that.

I am continually irked at how average the Oscar show is, considering that it’s Hollywood’s biggest night of the year. And after a decade of diminished returns, a movie fan has to wonder if we’ll ever see a show as entertaining and sharp as the glory days of Billy Crystal two decades ago. Think I’m complaining too harshly or I’m expecting too much? Consider these egregious parts of this year’s broadcast:

Why was the mumbling, monosyllabic, dazed & doddering Harrison Ford chosen to explain the mouthful of plots to three of this year’s Best Picture nominees?


Was John Travolta’s mangling of Idina Menzel’s name due to his utter buffoonery or did he not bother to show up for rehearsals?

Why play the theme music from THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, with the lyrics “If it takes forever I will wait for you”, when elder statesman Sidney Poitier struggled to walk onstage with Angela Jolie? (And why the random music for him when Ford got the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK theme music? Inconsistent. And stupid.)

How can Degeneres, of all people, make a transgender joke at the expense of Liza Minnelli? And did Ellen’s daytime show prevent her from preparing any decent material that didn’t seem like bad riffing after her short monologue?

What was the point of the time-wasting salute to THE WIZARD OF OZ when it was not a particular anniversary of any sort for it in 2014, and why was Pink chosen to sing the titular “Over the Rainbow” from it?

Are C-listers like Jessica Biel the best 'gets' the producers can muster?

Why did the ‘hero’ clip packages rarely ever show women characters, or any movie made before 1990 for that matter?

Why was Henry Cavill shown as Superman in four clips for the last hero clip package when Christopher Reeve still remains most people’s idea of the definitive Superman?


Why were so many stars left off of the “In Memoriam” section once again?  This year’s oversights included actors Jonathan Winters (pictured above from IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD), Harry Morgan, Dennis Farina, Corey Monteith, Michael Gough, Jeff Conaway, Russell Johnson, Marcia Wallace, and James Avery; Oscar-winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka; directors Raoul Ruiz and Theo Angelopoulos; producers Tom Clancy, Gary David Goldberg and the Oscar-winning Martin Richards; and Sarah Jones, the crew member killed on set just two weeks ago whose death has been the talk of the town the entire time.

And why did Bette Midler get three solo minutes to sing her hoary chestnut “Wind Beneath My Wings” after that incomplete memorial segment?

Look, you may think that passing around Pharrell’s trademark hat amongst the A-listers to collect funds to pay for Ellen’s pizzas is the kind of sophisticated material worthy of a show that reaches a worldwide audience, but I do not. I expect a monologue as sharp as those that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have given the last two years at the Golden Globes. I expect dance numbers to equal the brilliance of Jimmy Fallon’s “Born to Run” number that opened the Emmy’s four years ago. And I expect a host to be as engaged and anxious to give it his or her all as Neil Patrick Harris does during every Tony outing he’s hosted.

The fact is this: the Oscars are the biggest awards show ever, and it's been continually trounced in class and entertainment value by the Tony's, the Emmy's and even the no-budget Golden Globes in the last decade. That's ridiculous when you consider that the Academy has over six months of preparations for their show with millions of dollars at their beck and call. And yet, their best effort is to trot out someone like a puffy, discombobulated and groggy-voiced Kim Novak. Is that anyone's idea of top drawer entertainment or immediacy in 2014? 


Of course, this year’s show benefited substantially from something it couldn't prepare for, but was eminently fortunate to have, and that were some stunningly good speeches. All four acting winners - Jared Leto, Lupita Nyong’o, Cate Blanchett and Matthew McConaughey -  gave utterly stirring "thank you's". They all had enough sense to prepare cogent and heartfelt remarks. If only the rest of the show was half as good or enthralling as those acceptance speeches turned out to be.

Will the Academy change? Well, the ratings were terrific last night so there's probably precious little incentive for the producers to change their mismanaging ways. Still, they need to. The show is so-so when it should be so great. They need to get only A-list stars, rehearse them, stop the barrage of 'the history of film' clip packages, come up with truly clever material and compelling production numbers, and convince us that Hollywood knows how to put on an important show such as this with the best and brightest the industry has to offer. 

Oh, by the way, if I really wanted to kvetch, I could go on and on about an Academy that gives 7 Oscars to GRAVITY, the largest sweep in years, but fails to give it the final accolade of Best Picture. Nothing against 12 YEARS A SLAVE, a fine film, but if the shoe was on the other foot, don’t you think there’d be acrimony? Indeed, Hollywood may have finally reckoned with America’s horrendous history of slavery, but the voters still seem incapable of wholly embracing the new world of digital technology and its effect, as in films like Alfonso Cuaron's masterpiece. 


But hey Academy, let’s start by putting on a better awards show, shall we?