Reviews by Ken Burke
I’ve worded the opening title of this post in somewhat-archaic -form to speak to the somewhat-other-worldly-nature (2 that operate in the realm of enhanced or exaggerated story environments; 2 that are so deeply rooted in serious reality as to seem disengaged from the usual entertainment vehicles of our celluloid pastimes) of the films under consideration this time (but, truly, that’s all that links them—except for a few of my random remarks—so I’ve assigned my comments to a series of separate reviews); however, before we get to that, let me say just one last thing about part of my recent travels which have distracted me from getting to movie theaters and writing more up-to-date-evaluations about the experiences therein: I still stand in awe of this sign from Phoenix Municipal Stadium, home of my precious Oakland Athletics baseball team from 1982 to the close of 2014’s round of Cactus League Spring Training—any state, no matter its other failings in terms of racial justice and social progression, that lets you walk off with 40 oz. of beer at one time with no restrictions on how many other “one times” you can return for additional 40 oz. refills (through the end of the 7th inning, though, so they do have some limits), for presumably as long as you can stand still for a few seconds and mutter “more beer,” can’t be all bad (although that embrace doesn’t cover lawmen who profile Hispanics nor assassins who attack Congresswomen [or men]). OK, so now that I’ve proven myself totally inappropriate to comment upon a film taken from religious sources and intended to inspire higher moral actions, let’s begin this round of reviews, following the usual opening boilerplate statements.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys Reviews, which we update with each new posting. But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge. Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage. Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]
Adapted very loosely from the Old Testament (or Torah, if you prefer) story of the Great Flood, this version plays more like a modern disaster movie enhanced with miracles.
As you’ll find in wading through the mud of my comments on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, his approach to the story of God’s purge of his first attempt at life on Earth, I’m neither a Bible (nor Torah, from a Jewish perspective) scholar nor even a religious person any more (although I was once a devout Catholic and have spent a lot of time studying religious traditions, including the great monotheistic ones that have spread from the Middle East throughout the rest of the globe, but the further I got into history, mythology, and anthropology the harder it was to accept anyone's version of theology), so, depending on what beliefs you hold sacred, at least some of what I say may come across as anything from uninformed to outright offensive. If so, I offer my apologies in advance and remind you that I’m trying to focus on this film as a viewing experience rather than a lesson in scriptural revelation (which it’s already been condemned for not being accurate enough—see the 3rd link with the Noah references noted far below), although any concerns anyone has about Noah’s religious failures should be considered against those scriptural sources from the perspective of their own mysteries and inconsistencies as well. But as far as the film goes, I must say that even after I did some post-viewing research (and Bible re-reading) to attempt to clarify some of what confounded me during my screening, which did offer some help in better understanding what the director/co-screenwriter was offering here, I still find this cinematic rendition of what can only be seen as a spiritually-motivated-version of a disaster film (the genre that just won’t die, damn it, but will likely continue to manifest itself well into the future as we keep encountering further climate-change-crises [whatever their cause, although I’m firmly on the side of callous-human-contributions, not mere meteorological cycles of increasing devastation]) to be a well-intentioned morality play that flounders at times by borrowing too heavily from what seems to be Transformers mythology (not helped at all for me by a preview of the latest episode of that franchise just preceding Noah when I saw it) and trying too hard to stay within somewhat-secular-based-understandings of what seems to be the metaphysical (like the explanations of The Force in the Star Wars galaxy’s stories) rather than just bringing God more directly into this film. (As was done with the most-notable of Old Testament-based-movies, the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments [Cecil B. DeMille—oddly enough, a TV staple on ABC just before Easter, even though you’d think that a New Testament-based-movie would be more appropriate to the timing, even with The Ten…’s more direct connections to Passover which, ironically, never seems to be part of the publicity notations connected to the broadcasts—however, I can also see where even respected films about Jesus such as The Greatest Story Ever Told (Jean Negulesco, George Stevens, David Lean; 1965) could generate problems, given the many interpretations of the tenets of Christianity that abound, so maybe ABC just plays it safe with a well-known-Hollywood-star-studded-spectacle that looks like a Baroque painting come to life], where God and Moses have direct conversations, just as Noah does in the original Genesis text—although what is actually “original” is really open to interpretation, given that I’ve found at least 40 versions in English of the ark story in Genesis Chs. 6-9 [occupying a whopping 4 pages, so it’s clear that Aronofsky had to do a lot of extrapolating to get to over 2 hours on screen; but even with those few pages there are lots of repetitions and confusions—if not outright contradictions—such as one verse saying that a male-female pair of each animal that crawls or walks upon the Earth or flies over it will be included on the salvation ship while another verse says that there will be 7 pairs of the “clean” animals and all birds—allowing an explanation, I admit, of how some species continued even though Noah sacrificed a few of their number after the receding of the waters] contained in various editions of the Bible, based on its various translations from Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin [I have no idea if there are such variations of language regarding the original Hebrew Torah as understood and used today; any enlightenment on this from anyone would be appreciated].)
Aronofsky has stated that as a Jewish lad he was always fascinated with the story of Noah, which inspired him to push forward on the biggest-budget-Biblical-film (estimated at $125,000,000) since the mid-1960s (Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ has pulled in over $370 million in domestic grosses—25th on the All-Time list—but with a budget of only about $30,000,000; Aronofsky’s epic is going to have to really rise above troubled waters from the Christian nay-sayers to achieve that kind of success ratio, although he’s off to a good start with about $44,000,000 from the opening weekend). He admits that he’s not trying to present a sanctimonious approach to a story of global destruction, that he’s more inspired by the original text than attempting to emulate it, but that hasn’t prevented a lot of rejection from hardcore Christians (I haven’t yet heard about Jews condemning its scriptural inaccuracies; that would be another point I’d benefit from some commentary on if anyone would like to offer it) who complain that he’s taken too many liberties, the most unacceptable one being his characterization of Noah (Russell Crowe) as harsh, unyielding, and homicidal (although only in defense of his family at first, then in accordance with what he understands to be God’s will [not unlike the slightly-later Genesis story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac upon the Creator’s command]), rather than the characterization in the Biblical account where he and his family are found by God to be the only humans on Earth worthy of salvation when the Almighty decides to wash away all of his unworthy creations and start over again (animals, birds, insects, etc. are preserved on Noah’s ark also for the post-flood-re-establishment of life on our planet—I guess we just have to assume that plants can endure almost 2 year’s worth of submersion [40 days and nights of rain, 150 days of ark-floating, 15 months before dry land reappeared by my tally] and still be functional). In this film, by contrast, Noah is a decent man trying desperately to protect his family from the many later offspring of Cain’s issue who are presented as brutal, industrialized, meat-eating thugs ruled over by the fierce Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), a direct descendant of Adam and Eve’s murderous son who slew his brother Abel in revenge for God’s preference of Abel’s offering of fatted sheep over Cain’s farm products, which may explain why Cain’s descendants turned carnivore while the original 3rd son’s (Seth) progeny have paradoxically accepted Cain’s original interests by being vegetarians in Aronofsky’s tale—one of the other aspects of his film’s condemnation from secular as well as religious sources, that he’s presenting the sons of Cain as war-mongering-prototypes of the military-industrial-complex while showing Seth’s line as being environmentalists who are embraced by their Creator even as He turns his divine back on His other, reprobate children (although the arid landscape of this film’s setting makes you wonder where these vegetarians find much of anything to eat).
Admittedly, you won’t find a lot of Aronofsky’s plot in the Bible, nor will you find the names of Noah’s wife or his son Shem’s (Douglas Booth)—respectively called Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and Ila (Emma Watson]) here; but if you’re looking for Biblical accuracy you might want to do more research than I’ve done for this review (although I once read the entire Old and New Testaments just to try to better understand the theology that they supposedly present) to see if you can figure out why Genesis Ch. 4 gives a genealogy from Cain to Lamech, the father of Tubal-Cain, while Genesis Ch. 5 gives a similar “begat” list from Seth to Lamech, the father of Noah—same Lamech, hard to say, although that wouldn’t have worked in the opposing-clan-narrative of Noah, but if you want further optional complications from Genesis Tubal-Cain’s sister is Naamah, very close to the name of Noah’s wife in the film. A further twist is that while Genesis Ch. 6 notes that each of the 10 generations of patriarchs from Adam to Noah produced other sons and daughters besides the ones listed (which implies that at least in the early going they must have mated with each other or their cousins to carry on their bloodlines), Noah, his wife, and their sons Shem, Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) seem to be all that’s left of Seth’s line, unless all of the others (except Methuselah [Anthony Hopkins]—more on him later) have been killed by Cain’s later tribes of wandering marauders, which we see is the case in this film with Lamech (Marton Csokas), presented only as the father of Noah, struck dead early on by Tubal-Cain; thus, we have clear deviations on screen from the original writings but those writings aren’t so consistent nor detailed either, so unless you’re willing to condemn any scriptural adaptation that doesn’t comply with the exact letter of the original revelation/fabrication (you choose, then feel free to condemn the other side, as has been the "noble" human tradition for millennia), I think you’ll just have to suspend your disbelief as much as possible and try to judge Aronofsky’s approach as a fable of his own device, with similar intentions and concepts from the original but with variations that must be examined on their own merits rather than held to strict compliance to the foundational work, just as we should explore Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) for how it handles Rick Deckard, replicants, and an uninviting future environment rather than flatly dismissing it for failing to incorporate the strongly-present aspects of cultish-religions led by suffering Wilber Mercer or bubbly Buster Friendly from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Well, now that I’ve completely eroded my credibility with any of the faithful who are still reading this review rather than going back to the multiplex to see the much-more-Biblically-recognizable Son of God (Christopher Spencer—although it’s not making an impact similar to Noah’s with only about $58 million in domestic grosses after 5 weeks in release), I’ll get back more to how Aronofsky’s work doesn't quite function as well as it might just as a compelling movie with a message rather than as a visualization of someone’s sacred scripture.
Noah operates within the same type of fantastical environment that we’d find in The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings, Green Lantern, or Spider-Man stories, only with magic or pseudo-science explanations for the supernatural being replaced now by the assumption of divine miracles, either generated by God (the sudden migration of the birds, insects, snakes, mammals, etc. to the ark, perfectly paired up from the beginning; the flood itself, with geysers spewing up from the ground while rain poured down for those famous 40 days and nights) or, for some reason, Methuselah (who, in his Yoda-ish manner, gives Noah a seed from Eden that when planted suddenly sprouts rivers with accompanying fields of trees, providing both lumber for the ark and a food supply for Noah’s family; he also gives Ila the gift of fertility by simply touching her which removes the barrenness from her womb, traced back to when she was found by Noah as an injured, orphan child). The other fable-like component of Aronofsky’s narrative is the race of Watchers, gigantic rock-beings who were once angels but are now sentenced to isolation and deformity on Earth because they attempted to help early mankind (apparently our benevolent Creator didn’t like his punishments of Adam and Eve to be softened by any divine helpers); while these creatures may initially seem to be the most preposterous aspect of our film, they do have a foundation in Genesis (see Ch. 6) along with extensive ancient tradition and more modern interpretation (see this site among others you might find) regarding fallen angels, interbreeding of angels and humans, legends of Cain being fathered by Eden’s serpent (usually assumed to be Satan in snake form), legends of Cain’s godless descendants mating with Seth’s righteous ones, etc., although the giants (Nephilim) noted in Genesis are specifically called “the heroes of old, men of renown,” so Aronofsky has swirled a lot of sources together for his rocked-Watchers who not only provide the necessary help to Noah to construct the ark (although it still takes them 10 years as Shem, Ila, and Ham grow to the ages where they can take on more crucial roles in the flood story) but also serve as a defensive force when Tubal-Cain’s hordes attempt to storm the ark; yet, their good deeds allow them to be transported back to Heaven as columns of light (ironically similar to the silly apocalyptic tale from last summer, This is The End [Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, 2013; review in our June 20, 2013 posting]). From there, though, Aronofsky deviates drastically from his source material regarding Noah’s motivations and actions, which will either fascinate you as this tale builds to its structuring of moral challenges or alienate you with its recasting of Noah from how he is described as “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (Genesis Ch. 6). It’s hard to know exactly what the creator of this film really had in mind here, given that he claims he wasn’t trying to be rigorously Biblical with his flood interpretation, yet Aronofsky (an atheist), Crowe (a non-Catholic), and releasing-studio’s (Paramount) Vice-Chairman, Rob Moore (a movie executive, the most heathen of all!), went to Rome seeking a blessing from Pope Francis—which they got generically in a group audience for the pontiff’s Father’s Day sermon but not in the private meeting that they’d requested.
In this version of the flood legend (of which there are many worldwide), Noah never speaks directly with God (you wouldn’t know that he’s supposed to be 500 years old either because none of those Biblical genealogies are detailed) but instead has visions of the upcoming disaster and his assigned task to provide shelter for the animal pairs so that they can repopulate Earth after the deluge; further, he determines that even he and his family (again, with modifications from the original where all of his sons had wives, not just Shem) are tainted with sin and must, therefore, perish with the rest of humanity after the waters have lowered so that the animals can reclaim the planet without our interference. From this perspective he finds it appropriate that Ila is barren and that there will be no mates for Ham and Japheth (although Ham finds a girl about his age in the outcasts gathered near the ark but Noah refuses to rescue her when the rains begin so that she won’t provide any offspring); accordingly, Noah’s horrified to learn that Ila is pregnant, declaring that if she has a daughter he’ll have to kill the child in order to insure that God’s plan is carried out, with no humans left after old age has taken its toll on Noah’s brood. To ramp up the tension further, angry Ham helps Tubal-Cain hide out on the ark so that he can carry out his plan to kill Noah and the other 2 sons, take the 2 women for himself, and lord it over his version of Earth 2.0 (he’s presented as a consistently bad dude, but his determination that men should have dominion over our planet, which may sound harsh coming from him, is essentially the arrangement God gives to Noah and his sons in Genesis Ch. 9); however, when push comes to shove (literally) Ham kills his short-term mentor in order to save his father’s life, just as Noah relents on the sacrifice he’s about to make of Ila’s twin girls after their birth (implying that in a few years they’ll be the wives of Ham and Japheth), allowing Naameh’s call for love and mercy to be the choice that God is allowing these remaining humans to make rather than the final eradication that Noah so strongly felt was to be their assigned fate. After the waters subside to allow dry land to appear again, we do get the Biblical aftermath of a naked, drunken Noah being found by Ham but covered (with eyes averted) by Shem and Japheth, leading to Ham hiking off alone apparently to an isolated life and death (in Genesis Noah curses him and his descendants in Canaan for not having respected his father’s situation more appropriately, which shows me that even the Biblical Noah has some of that fierce, judgmental personality so well manifested by Crowe in this film—characteristic of how I understand the Hebrew God of the Old Testament who was quite willing to visit plagues and all manner of harm to anyone who offended him or even to those such as Job who didn’t but needed to have their faith tough-love-tested to be sure it was sincere enough, the personification of an Almighty that grew increasingly uninteresting to me), followed by end shots of various animals with their newborn, Noah’s family (minus Ham) in reconciliation (with Noah’s reclaimed-but-damn-strange-birthright-talisman, seemingly the snake’s shed-skin left after that long-ago-encounter with Eve in the Garden of Eden), and a swirling pan into the sky to reveal the God-promised-rainbow as the covenant with mankind to never destroy us with floods again (although some would say that we’re helping out with “the fire next time” [as noted in the New Testament, Second Epistle of Peter, Ch. 3] by our current contributions to climate change/global warming, but that’s another criticism of this film by some, that it’s a biased-propaganda-piece for environmental-alarmists, imposing a specific sociopolitical theme upon the intentions of the story).
Despite the wrath that Aronofsky has generated from various religious and secular opponents of his vision (although others of Christian faith, including Justin Chang, Chief Film Critic of Variety, are supportive), I commend him for his courage in reconstructing a hallowed tale to show that blind faith—especially one possibly based on a misinterpretation of (sadly silent) divine will—can often lead to disastrous results, especially when compassion is replaced by mere passion, as in this case where Noah assumes that he was chosen for this annihilation task not because he’s pure enough to be spared but because he’s stern enough to carry it out for the sake of the animals but not the forsaken humans. I still think that the execution veers too far into standard disaster-movie-territory (with touches of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [Peter Jackson, 2003] when the army of Tubal-Cain descends upon the ark, being repelled by giant-rock-creatures) rather than being more directly engaged with the Judeo-Christian sources for the pre-extrapolated events (although Tubal-Cain’s complaint that the creations haven’t heard directly from the Creator since He put the mark on Cain—often forgotten is that it was a warning to others not to kill him rather than a brand of disgrace hundreds of years earlier [Genesis Ch. 4]—also rings true to contemporary audiences who keep wondering why all that overtly miraculous stuff from thousands of years ago has been reduced in our day to divine images on tortillas, so maybe that was part of Aronofsky’s marketing plan as well), but the flood effects are well-crafted, this version of Noah certainly resonates with Aronofsky’s previously-effective-yet-disturbing-work (Pi , a masterful debut that harks effectively back to original German Expressionism; Black Swan , which still for me is the Best Picture of that year, with no disrespect intended for The King’s Speech [Tom Hooper]), and the message of mercy over obligation is a needed one for our time, so I’m sticking with my initial impression this time even though I’ve found more to respect rather than dismiss as ridiculous after doing more background research but I still feel that the average seen-it-and-that’s-all-of-my-time-that-I’m-investing-moviegoer will be put off by various aspects of this film, just based on what’s up there on the screen, as I was at first so 3½ stars it is, despite that putting me slightly behind the overall critical curve (although if I hadn’t had second thoughts after I first saw the film I’d have said 3 stars, being even further back from my compatriots, but—unlike for most other critics—that’s the advantage for me of not having to knock these reviews out within a few hours after I’ve seen the films). As for a musical metaphor to wrap this up, I suppose I could offer Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” (from the 1970 Cosmo’s Factory album, a tune which you can access if you like at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekw13v8Et7U, performed not by Creedence but a version with “credence” nonetheless by John Fogerty, backed by Bruce Springsteen and The Band’s Robbie Robertson at the 1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony which included Creedence in the inductees), but I prefer the even more apocalyptic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (from the 1963 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ex-m-eEKsg, a live version from 1963 with no accompanying video, but there are more recent performances available such as this oddly-interesting-symphonic-one at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCGoOPM2 _x0 (maybe the most appropriate version in tandem with Aronofsky’s odd take on the Noah story) if you want to see Bob delivering the lyrics, which do lose some context when backed by violins.
Noah and company may have floated to safety eons ago, but I think we may be headed more in the direction of Dylan’s flood today unless we find some of that mercy that Aronofsky’s advocating. One last relevant thought on this film comes from a man who briefly talked to my wife, Nina, and I as we were leaving the theater; while we all agreed that Noah has flaws, he noted, from his Christian perspective, that “It’s as imperfect as we are,” which seems to me to be a fine way to sum up my experience of this film: a flawed but still worthy concept.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Totally-fictional Eastern European 1930s history is put into comic context as a self-assured concierge and his eager helper go through a crazy series of silly adventures.
We’re soon scheduled to head briefly to Romania for the review that follows this one, but for now we’ll travel northwesterly from Noah’s supposed landing place on Mount Ararat in Turkey to the fictitious Eastern European country of the Republic of Zubrowka, which isn’t exactly intended to be Hungary (or any other specific place) but it does offer the once-grand-now-declining Grand Budapest Hotel, which serves as the title of Wes Anderson’s latest comic success, with the strongest critical consensus of any of the 4 films that I’m reviewing this week (91% at Rotten Tomatoes, 87% at Metacritic; details in the suggested links far below), although the box-office-tally after a couple of weeks in release of about $24 million domestically isn’t exactly proving a great correlation between such raving-evaluative-opinions and the masses rushing to the theaters, despite a consistently funny, nonsensical scenario presented by a huge collection of well-known, well-loved stars—not just Ralph Fiennes in the lead role of Monsieur Gustave H. (effectively channeling his rarely-seen-comic-chops, especially with his constant use of well-enunciated-vulgarities), concierge of the titular hotel but also, in various supporting roles, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe (you’ll find him as well in Nymphomaniac: Volume II below if you care to enter into such sordid territory), Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, and Léa Seydoux (of Blue Is the Warmest Color fame [Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013; she’s the one with the blue hair, with the film reviewed in our November 21, 2013 posting), so even if you’ve never seen a Wes Anderson film before you can get a good taste here of what they’re like because so many of his previous stars are back for a reunion in this effectively-silly-look at a man obsessed with his career who defies all manner of political and personal unrest on behalf of his beloved hotel and his equally-impeccable-self-image. I’ll be somewhat brief in my comments here because there’s enough space already devoted in this posting to the more substantial first and last films under consideration, plus this type of quirky comedy has likely already drawn you in if you’re a fan or is probably too bizarre for your taste if you’re not, so I doubt I’ll make much impact on future weeks’ income (as if that ever happened anyway) no matter what I say; the basic structure is a brief opening scene in 1985 (returned to quickly at the end) as a teenage girl visits a cemetery in Zubrowka where there’s a monument to a writer called “The Author”; as she reads about his trip to the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 we flash back to that time where the establishment is in disrepair but the owner, Zero Moustafa (Abraham), has dinner with The Author (Law), telling him how he came to be in charge with another flashback to 1932 where M. Gustave is in command, Moustafa (played as a young man by Tony Revolori) is a Lobby Boy in training. Most of the rest of the movie takes place in this pre-WW II time where changes are afoot in Zubrowka along with M. Gustave’s life, due to circumstances beyond his control in both cases.
I won’t go into extensive details on what happens and why because it’s all of the nature of farce anyway, with the screen ratio reduced to the 1.33:1 boxy shape of cinema images from that long-ago time, compositions generally in a carefully-calculated symmetrical manner to look pleasingly odd, and many scenes shot in a color palette that could raise your blood-sugar-level just by looking at them. When one of Gustave’s regular lovers, 84-year-old Madame D. (a truly unrecognizable Swinton) dies, she leaves him a valuable painting which her son, Dmitri (Brody), insists must stay in the family so Gustave stashes it in a hotel safe, after taking on Zero as his confidant and heir. From there it’s just one absurd situation after another, involving unjust imprisonment, tunneling to escape, a ski chase down a mountainside worthy of a James Bond movie, the rise of the military in Zubrowka (with implications of a Nazi-ish regime, but with sympathetic Edward Norton in charge so as to not make them too imposing, at least some of the time), a crazy gun battle in the hotel, Madame D.’s second will which leaves not only the painting but the hotel and a large share of her fortune to Gustave, followed by his execution when he challenges the military once too often so that it all ends up with Zero (a zero-sum-game, so to speak), although the country, like the hotel, later suffers deterioration under Communist control. After hearing this tale, The Author departs for South America, leaving us unclear on whatever happened to Zero or the hotel as we rejoin our opening scene for credits closure. In print this may sound incomprehensible—if not just downright crazy—which it can easily be much of the time (I’m still not sure who killed Madame D., although I love her family name: Desgoffe und Taxis), but on-screen it’s a constant flow of laughs at the intense stupidity of it all if nothing else, never pausing long enough for careful contemplation nor giving you any reason to probe beneath the flashy, fast-moving surface. Like a mirage that quickly evaporates when you’re no longer enticed by its momentary glimmering attractions, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, for me at least, too clever not to appreciate while in its presence yet too insubstantial to remember much about once you’ve checked out (in other words, you can appreciate its frantic-pacing-construction and exquisitely-art-directed-images, but, unlike my signoff note from the Hotel California at the very end of this posting, you can leave the Grand Budapest any time you like without ever needing to look back). The Grand Budapest Hotel may be the slimmest vehicle to which I’ve yet to award 4 stars; however, while you’re there it’s hard to not be taken away into its reverie. Any sort of musical metaphor is currently eluding me, though, so if you need tunes to complete your visit I guess you’ll just have to drop down below for the darker, eternal-getaway-location crafted by The Eagles—but you’d better bring your own wine in case they’re still out of your preferred vintage.
From Romania, an intimate, serious story of a strong—some might say dominating—woman who attempts to help her son deal with the death he’s caused of a child.
I just want to make a quick mention of this marvelous foreign-language-film by Romania’s Calin Peter Netzer, Child’s Pose (winner of the Golden Bear top prize at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, then submitted by its home country for Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film category—although not nominated for the final 5) because it’s already been out for 6 weeks and may be fast disappearing from the screen (although it got little distribution in the first place, now down to just 4 theaters with a measly $72,000 domestic gross so video or download is your mostly likely option anyway). This is a direct, human-interest story with no embellishment and little mystery; it’s all about how flawed human beings (no, Noah’s progeny didn’t end up improving anything after all) react to an unintended tragic situation, where the quality of acting must carry the film, a challenge easily met by the main characters—even though they face the additional difficulty of keeping audience interest in several very long scenes of dialogue which some might say better belong on a live stage but are professionally, effectively conveyed here—Cornelia Keneres (Luminita Gheorghiu), a wealthy woman with solid sociopolitical connections, and her 30-something-son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), with the plot simply being that when driving home one night Barbu was passing another car, then suddenly was confronted with teenagers illegally crossing the highway so as he swerved to avoid a couple of them he hit and killed another. I’ll admit that I know little about Romanian films, with the only 2 besides this one that I can call to mind being The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Pulu, 2005) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007), both of which also featured Gheorghiu (but that doesn’t make me an expert on her either); however, if there are more of this quality then I need to set my catch-up-video-sights on Romania because there seems to be some significant cinema going on there. Cornelia’s self-appointed tasks here are to push the police for information on a timetable convenient for her even if not for them, convince the only witness to the accident that neither he nor her son were driving as fast as the witness initially reported (he’s no paragon of virtue either, asking Claudia for 80,000 Euros to change his testimony), while also convincing the boy’s grieving family that it was all just an unavoidable accident in hopes that the court will go easy on her son. She also has to get past her distain for her son’s mate, Carmen (Ilinca Gola), a woman that Claudia feels drags Barbu into unnecessary expenses and obligations (although unbeknownst to him she’s about to leave anyway); none of her work is helped, though, by Barbu who refuses to meet with the dead boy’s family, partly in response to his ongoing resentment of his mother’s intrusions into his life. Given that you’ll likely have to find this one on your own when its short U.S. first-run-shelf-life has expired, I’ll refrain for once from detailing what sense of closure is to be found in all of these emotional-headlocks, but I will commend Gheorghiu for a marvelous command of the screen and everyone involved for keeping this story in a proper mode of low-key-but-critical-tension, using the sort of unobtrusive production methods that Lars von Trier would appreciate from his Dogme 95 days (see just the very last paragraph far below to learn a bit more about this if you wish to avoid the "meat" of Nymphomaniac) to keep the viewer enthralled even though little is kept from us in terms of where the plot’s evolution will finally arrive. For a musical metaphor to wrap up Child’s Pose I’ll optimistically suggest “Mother and Child Reunion” (from the 1972 Paul Simon album) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0BUsDf0dxY (there were some live performance options but of very poor audio quality), even though I can’t say at all what sort of reunion to expect for Cornelia and Barbu, if any at all, but hope springs eternal. I also can’t really say exactly what the title of this film is supposed to mean regarding anybody's "pose," but along with the requests for comments I made regarding Noah I’ll be glad to hear some thoughts on this one also.
Nymphomaniac: Volume II
Lars von Trier finishes off his tale of a woman’s lurid sex life with even darker themes than those in Vol. I; powerful filmmaking but not for the easily-offended viewer.
It may be debatable that I’ve saved the best for last in this posting, but I did decide to put this review of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume II at the end in that the very idea of it may be disgusting enough for some readers that I wanted to be sure that the other films got their proper attention before anyone clicks off because of this one. However, if it’s not already playing in your area by Friday, April 4, 2014 it will probably open on that date so please decide for yourself whether you want to read my spoiler-filed-comments or not before you see this amazing (or grotesque, depending on your taste) experience for yourself. Of course, if this blatantly-sexual film isn’t (or likely won’t be) playing in your area (Vol. I is only in 38 theaters so far with a gross of under $400,000; Vol. II likely won’t open much wider) you might want to dive in (so to speak), possibly with a warm-up (so to … I know, I should refrain from these puns, but with content such as this at times it’s difficult [note that I didn’t say “hard,” so I am trying … a little]) from my review of Volume I in our March 20, 2014 posting—where I gave another 4-star rating, putting me at drastic odds with other reviewers that I generally respect (although the overall critical consensus isn’t that bad, with 70% from Rotten Tomatoes, 70% from Metacritic [but from just 16 Meta-reviews so you might want to check back with them later] at my post time). So, if you’re still with me then we’ll pick up where we left off with injured, self-proclaimed nympho, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), telling her stories of depravation to intrigued rescuer, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). When the complete, longer version (with even more graphic sex) becomes available Joe’s life chapters will have a continuity building from lustful prowlings to much more serious aspects of her life-long-addiction, but for now with Vol. I we had an abrupt-but-still-emotionally-functional-ending of “Chapter 5: The Little Organ School,” where she reconnected with her (played in these earlier chapters and continued in the flashback here by the marvelous Stacy Martin) first (and, at the time, not satisfactory) partner, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), finally allowing herself to accept love only to shocked when her clit (her word; who am I to censor a film character, especially one this eloquent) shuts down on her so that no sex of any sort brings her any satisfaction (although before we get to her frustrating situation we’re treated to a time when she was 12 [played by Morgan Hartley], out in the countryside laying in a field when she had a spontaneous orgasm accompanied by visions of 2 women that Seligman identifies as The Great Whore of Babylon [Janine Romanowski] and Valeria Messalina [Tabea Tarbiat], wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius and supposedly the biggest nymphomaniac of all time). Seligman tells her that if he were religious he’d see this as a blasphemous version of Christ’s Transfiguration, an episode where he revealed Himself in all of his divine glory to a few of his apostles, but in addition to being unconnected to Christianity he’s also unconnected to the realities of sex, being a virgin—possibly asexual—even into his later middle-age-years, so he looks upon sex and faith as concepts, not actual involvements.
From this start we shift to the longest chapter, 6, of Vol. II, “The Eastern and Western Church (The Silent Duck),” possibly the most disturbing of the entire Nymphomaniac collection of Joe’s stories and the one that might best justify her assertions to Seligman that she’s a depraved sinner, even though she has no connections to religion either. We begin with Joe and Jerôme still enjoying a close friendship in their relationship (no sexual pleasure but lots of shared fun, such as when she slips 5 spoons into her vagina at a restaurant so that she’ll create a commotion when she stands up to leave), although copulation carelessness leads to pregnancy, a situation that doesn’t bode well for Joe as she finds little sense of connection with baby Marcel (played later at age 3 by Jacob Levin-Christensen)—even to the point of him coming to birth laughing which she felt was a mockery of her, although Seligman notes that legend has it that Noah’s son Ham also laughed at birth (but as we’ve seen in Noah that doesn’t necessarily lead to a happy life for Ham, nor will it for Marcel). Despite Jerôme’s declaration of ongoing love for Joe he feels increasingly distant from her as well, not to mention furiously frustrated. In a sense, these last episodes of the early life of Joe and Jerôme are a metaphor for the explanation that Seligman gave Joe at the end of the previous chapter about the differences between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, with the former focused on happiness, the latter on suffering; in a way, Joe is making a spiraling journey from East to West (and, for awhile, back again) throughout Nymphomaniac, as shown by the contrast of the silly spoon prank vs. the deterioration of the relationship with the only man she’s ever tried to love. The East-based-happiness-aspect of this chapter then is given a more absurd context when Joe skips ahead 3 years to tell of a time (a sub-chapter facetiously called “The Dangerous Men”) when she recruited a neighbor who spoke the necessary language to ask an African man (N [Kookie Ryan]—Joe makes it a habit of referring to many of the people she’s encountered by letter rather than name) she saw hanging around her neighborhood to have sex with her; he agrees to meet her at a cheap motel but brings his brother (played by Papou) along, with an argument soon developing between the men (as their notable erections wave around on screen; it’s unclear whether they needed any of that body-double-computer-merging-imagery noted from my previous review or not) as to which of Joe’s orifices each one prefers for the sex-sandwich they anticipated. Maybe you had to be there to appreciate the humor of these 3 nubile people standing there with the men jousting verbally while their penises stand erect (if you have any complaints about my photo cutting them off at the waist, blame Nymphomaniac’s publicists), but Joe (now played by Gainsbourg) is finally confused enough by the whole incident that she just leaves while the men continue to jaw with each other, oblivious to her departure.
From there, things turn very dark indeed, following Joe’s statement to Seligman that “human qualities equal hypocrisy,” essentially reminding him of her own low sense of self-worth but noting that nothing else she’s found in her experiences gives her any sense of delight or wonder either (except the gratification of her own orgasms, a pleasure denied her for many years which she asks Seligman to compare to his precious extensive knowledge suddenly deprived of the many books he’s consumed over his chaste life). With Jerôme traveling a lot for his job, Joe takes the opportunity to give herself over fully to the suffering aspect of her situation, paralleling her description of the violent nature of the Western Church (with its images of the Crucifixion and traditions of self-inflicted-punishment), looking for a new strategy for gratification at the hands of a sadist who calls her Fido then binds her to a couch so that he can brutally whip her exposed butt with a riding crop, all of which Seligman continues to dismiss as evidence of her depravity noting that she’s simply retained the polymorphous aspects of early childhood where pleasure comes in many varieties to the full range of the body. However, Joe’s need to make herself available to K’s (Jamie Bell) assaults begins to endanger her own child who is often left alone during Mama’s ass-tenderizing sessions because Joe can’t get a baby sitter to be on duty but also can’t resist her painful pleasure while incapacitated (but no sex from K; he’s interested only in her bloody, bruised rear flanks, not what lies beneath [while Gainsbourg has noted that the masochism scenes weren’t that much fun it’s not clear whether we’re into the realm of body doubles or buttocks-prosthesis here, but if any of what we see is actual human flesh it’s a very disturbing sight so please keep that in mind if you ever decide to explore Nymphomaniac]). This finally puts her marriage in crisis when Jerôme returns home one night to find Marcel out on the balcony of their high-rise-apartment while Joe is bound somewhere across town. While we curiously get no scenes of what happens when Joe finally returns home that night, we are quickly at Christmas time where Jerôme gives Joe the edict that if she leaves again for her other pleasures then she won’t have him or the child to return to. While it pains her emotionally to make either choice (she still professes her love for Jerôme), her addiction simply won’t allow her to give up K, who gives her a present when she arrives at his “office” of a knotted-rope whip to ring in the holidays, followed by the old Roman standard of 40 lashes (although the real present is that her orgiastic ability is reawakened during the punishment). To make matters worse for her self-deprecation, she finds out that Jerôme couldn’t handle being a single parent so he put Marcel into a foster home; in an odd coda to all of this misery, though, we find out at the end of this chapter that “The Silent Duck” in its title refers to a more “gentle” butt-attack where K inserts 3 fingers into Joe’s anus, which she smiles about at the time and in the recollection of it. As evidenced by all of this, I doubt that anyone’s ever accused von Trier of sentimentality, which Joe rejects as well even in the telling of the loss of her child to Seligman.
With her clitoral liberation intact, Joe returns to masturbation with such intensity that her tiny sex organ bleeds; she’s also back to essentially-random-sex on a nightly basis, but her verbal descriptions are accompanied by despondent-looking images of a woman increasingly alienated from any glimmer of a satisfying life. Further, while it’s been a long time in this elongated film since we’ve had much understanding of how Joe supports herself, as we enter Chapter 7, “The Mirror,” we find that her present employer insists that she go through some form of sex-alleviation-therapy because her available-for-any-man-in-her-vicinity-attitude is actually scaring away her male co-workers, so she begrudgingly attends sex-addict-group-sessions, run by a therapist (Kate Ashfield). Although Joe initially is defiant, continuing to call herself a nymphomaniac, she attempts to follow the advice of a psychologist (Caroline Goodall) to remove anything from her life that tweaks her sexual desires. This soon results in a sterile, almost empty apartment where she even covers over her mirror so she won’t look at herself (for some strange reason, though, at the group sessions she’s shown seating in the circle looking into a full-length mirror but this may just be a visual metaphor for how she's so constantly aware of herself). Even in her isolation chamber, though, she finally starts sucking her own fingers, but after 3 weeks of abstinence she’s had enough, reclaims her nymphomaniac self-description, offers insults to the other group members, and concludes with a declaration of love for “her cunt and her filthy, dirty life” (so we’re never fully clear in her conversations with Seligman how much she truly feels the self-loathing she often expresses and how much of that is just acknowledging how she’s characterized by a society she has no respect for nor interest in). At this point, as she’s looking for something else in Seligman’s sparsely-decorated-bedroom to inspire her toward a final story that will bring us full circle to her initial appearance beaten up in an alley back at the beginning of Volume I (she reveals that she’s previously chosen the recounted episodes based on objects in the room, in a manner that reminded me of Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze’s improvised flashback narratives inspired by the objects on his police interrogator’s bulletin board in The Usual Suspects [Brian Singer, 1995]) she settles upon a tea stain on the wall that reminds her of a pistol which gets us into Ch. 8, “The Gun.”
In a search for an occupation that will allow her to more actively use what has emerged across the span of her life as a hatred of men (possibly as a substitute for self-hatred, possibly as a response to a repressive patriarchal society as explained later to her by Seligman—which, as we’ve seen far above in these reviews, can be traced all the way back to Adam), Joe hooks up with L (Willem Dafoe), who runs a brutal collection agency whose clients are comfortable with an “any means necessary” approach to getting their outstanding repayments. Joe puts her amoral anger to good use, leading a group of accomplices who help her break down the debtors’ reluctance through whippings, electroshocks, etc. (Remember, this is how we first met lovable boxer Rocky Balboa [Sylvester Stallone], as a loan-shark-enforcer in Rocky [John G. Avildsen, 1976], but compared to Joe he was a real pussycat, using only his ham-hock-fists to get results). Joe’s even an effective emotional detective as she encounters one victim who seems unshakable until she starts describing how he’d lust after a young boy in a playground (despite him never previously acknowledging pedophilia) which breaks his resolve even as it gives him an erection which Joe resolves with a blow job in sympathy for his soon-to-be-realized-social-ostracization, akin to her own. Despite her success at this business over several years, though, Joe is beginning to age so L decides she needs an apprentice, then finds one for her in P (Mia Goth), a lonely teenager with a deformed right ear who not only takes to Joe’s criminal lifestyle but to Joe herself, reawaking physical passions in the older woman whose damaged nether-regions had long stopped providing pleasure for her. Ironically, though, just as P is itching to take command of one of the “convincing” sessions, Joe finds that the next victim is none other than Jerôme (now played in older fashion by Michaël Pas), so Joe sends P in along with the thugs because she just can’t bring herself to see him again. His repayments, however, are to be spread over 6 visits from P, which results in her returning home consistently later until the last one where Joe goes to peek through the windows, finding them enthralled with each other, with P never to return to Joe, the ultimate insult that the only ones in her life that she’d shown love for (except in a platonic way with her father) had now both rejected her for each other. Joe had previously taken an automatic pistol from P, telling her sternly that in L’s procedures they don’t use that form of intimidation, but now she loads up with the intention of riding herself of this new lover pair. Tragically for Joe, though, when she confronts them in the now-familiar-alley the gun fails to fire, leaving her vulnerable to a savage beating from Jerôme, followed by his spontaneous sex with P (the same missionary-position 3 vaginal thrusts followed by a doggie-style-5 to the anus that took Joe’s virginity decades ago), culminating in the revolting, dismissive urination by P on Joe as she lies beaten on the ground, to be found later by Seligman at the start of this full circle. Seligman explains how she hadn’t properly released the pistol for firing, then gives her a long monologue about how he admires her for fighting social conventions for her deviation whereas the same acts by a man would have been largely ignored. She responds with her decision to rid herself of her sexuality, encouraged by the acceptance she’s found from Seligman’s friendship. Horribly, though, as she tries to sleep he comes back into the room, attempting to rape her. Nymphomaniac then ends as it began, in unexpected darkness, with the proper racking of the pistol (never taken away from Joe by Jerôme), the frantic question of “Why me? You’ve had sex with 1,000 men!,” a gunshot, and the sounds of feet leaving the scene, finally followed by the end credits with “Hey Joe” on the soundtrack.
|Self-Censored von Trier|
In order to appreciate either volume of Nymphomaniac (or the entire thing, which would likely be even more impactful seen in a 4-or-5-hour marathon—although if you had to sit straight through your butt might start to resemble Joe’s after a session with K) you need to see past the graphic sexual depictions to the searingly-emotional-undercurrent of what Seligman was philosophizing about at what turns out to be the end of his journey: the harrowing life of a woman in a contemporary technological society where her body has needs (even if they are obsessive) that she’s supposed to repress because they violate the patriarchal order (substitute mercy over deterministic judgment for sex under the command of a woman rather than a man and you’ve got a similar message in Noah), the hypocrisy of that society in glorifying material success and violence in both its traditions and its media products yet providing little alternative outlets for those encouraged into such greed and/or aggression in their own lives (Joe expresses satisfaction to Seligman that she didn’t kill Jerôme after all, even though her former lover’s response [along with P] was to brutalize her for past sins [some basis for vengeance comes with Jerôme’s history with Joe but there’s just nothing to rationalize P’s atrocious act, except to show how easily a person can shift their allegiance when there’s nothing substantial motivating it]), and the difficult-to-appreciate-but-ultimately-admirable-complex of factors that have propelled Joe as far as she’s gone, leaving her with a determination to no longer be abused nor bring abuse onto herself, even as she adds another major source of sin and (possible) regret at having allowed her frustrations with her life to that point to suddenly focus themselves into a violent act against suddenly-hypocritical Seligman. There’s nothing easy going on in Nymphomaniac, for the protagonist or the audience, nor can we expect von Trier to say anything publically about it given his self-imposed-silence on his work after he was hammered by the press at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for crudely attempting to make a joke about being a Nazi. What you wish to make of his challenging current work—made all the more immediate and intimate by the constant use of a hand-held camera and seeming natural lighting that hark back to the strict, non-flamboyant cinematic approach espoused by von Trier and other filmmakers in their Dogme (Danish for “dogma”) 95 Collective—I’ll just have to leave to you, but, as for me, Nymphomaniac continues the mesmerizing power that von Trier seems singularly able to bring to screen in such masterpieces as Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), and Melancholia (2011, subject of the first-ever Two Guys in the Dark review, posted Dec. 12, 2011). I can understand how the content and graphic depictions in Nymphomaniac might seem as mere pandering to those who embrace a “filthy, dirty life,” but if you probe beneath the surface here (without the prophylactic of predetermined evaluations protecting your mind from the more substantive issues to be explored) I think you’ll find something truly worthwhile—including the Best Actress-quality-performances of both Gainsbourg and Martin, along with an Oscar-caliber-supporting-turn by Uma Thurman in Volume I. If not, at least you might enjoy revisiting that final song, “Hey Joe,” but while von Trier preferred to use a more contemporary singer I’ll offer the Jimi Hendrix version—which he played as the last performance at the original 1969 Woodstock Festival—(the song was seemingly written by obscure California folk singer Billy Roberts, recorded by many, including Hendrix on his 1967 Are You Experienced album) in a live version—but not the one from Woodstock—at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieVzyyw0Tio.
There’s a lot out there at the cinema to explore now that we’re past the post-Oscar-doldrums, so I encourage you to see what you wish of the choices I’ve noted here or any others, then let all of us know what you think about these current achievements on screen.
There’s a lot out there at the cinema to explore now that we’re past the post-Oscar-doldrums, so I encourage you to see what you wish of the choices I’ve noted here or any others, then let all of us know what you think about these current achievements on screen.
If you’d like to know more about Noah here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-36Cs-B5iG4 (for the benefit of those who have little faith in Noah here's “The Noah Movie Deception,” a 16:29 Christian-based attack on the content and intentions of this film using Biblical “evidence” to support its position as delivered by a breathless narrator astounded by its “evil” content, calling instead on the audience to turn to Jesus for salvation; produced by Good Fight Ministries, but please don't think that I support their position here, I just wanted to offer it as a counter-opinion to mine)
If you’d like to know more about The Grand Budapest Hotel here are some suggested links:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmLEsdDnyLg (4:35 featurette on the concept of the film)
If you’d like to know more about Child’s Pose here are some suggested links:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4P876D2otKY (short interview—3:28—with writer-director Calin Peter Netzer)
If you’d like to know more about Nymphomaniac: Volume II here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLHmlk0pqV4 (4:20 interview with actors Stellan Skarsgård and Charlotte Gainsbourg)
As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.