A Life Less Ordinary – Review

18 Apr

I’ve talked all about Danny Boyle before and how I think he is one of the best directors working in the industry today. He always injects a frenetic style into his movies that moves the plot at a sometimes break neck speed, but also just reminds us that we’re watching a movie. Dealing many times with characters who are troubled and occasionally violent, the thought of Danny Boyle making a romantic comedy sounds intriguing. Teaming up again with writer John Hodge and producer Andrew MacDonald, Boyle and his crew have created a darkly comedic and wonderfully screwball romantic comedy with A Life Less Ordinary.

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Robert Lewis (Ewan McGregor) is a janitor with bigger dreams of writing a best selling “trash novel” that people are going to find in airports and take along for their trip whose life seems to start spiraling when he gets fired by Mr. Naville (Ian Holm). Celine Naville (Cameron Diaz), Naville’s daughter, is a spoiled rich brat who is bored with her posh life. On a more supernatural level, O’Reilley (Holly Hunter) and Jackson (Delroy Lindo) are two angels who specialize in love and is charged with making Robert and Celine fall in love. Things seem to take a turn for the worse when Robert ends up kidnapping Celine, who is actually just as interested in the ransom money and the entire adventure. As Robert and Celine keep on the run, O’Reilley and Jackson are always following close behind, pulling the strings and trying to bring the two closer together and hopefully fall in love.

I can be very hard on romantic comedies because I feel like most of them follow the same cliches and some of them are exactly the same movie with slightly different characters. If I’m going to enjoy a romantic comedy, it has to be different but also have a romance in it that feels real and heart warming. A Life Less Ordinary is very different with its supernatural and criminal elements, but it also has a romance that I buy and enjoy watching. Even though this movie is a step ahead of most romantic comedies that come out, I can’t say that it is the strongest effort by Boyle and his gang of film makers, especially since this was the movie that followed up his masterpiece, Trainspotting.

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Another great thing about this movie that made it different from a lot of romantic comedies is that it was actually funny. I can’t tell you the amount of rom coms I’ve watched and saw the jokes coming a mile away, or just find it all obnoxious as a whole. In A Life Less Ordinary, most of the jokes work because they’re presented unexpectedly in the dialogue or they’re situational in the most absurd of ways. The fact that there are angels in this movie and a heaven that looks like it is a whited out police station is absurd enough. Another really funny part about this movie is that Robert kidnaps Celine, but throughout the entire kidnapping, Celine is obviously in charge. This turn of events that makes Celine have the upper hand gives the movie a lot of opportunities for some ridiculous screwball comedy.

As much as I enjoy this movie, there is something about it that brings it down a few notches. The way the movie is set up makes it feel like a bunch of scenes, which it is but that’s never how a movie should feel. In my review for Chinatown, I say how everything in the story flows so well that I hardly even picked up on the fact that I was already deep into the plot. In A Life Less Ordinary, everything seemed like it was put into blocks. Scenes never really flowed into each other. They simply just changed. One part towards the end especially not only slows the movie down, but feels completely out of place and really pulled me totally out of the movie.

A Life Less Ordinary is not only a rom com done the Danny Boyle way, but also the right way. There’s nothing in this movie that is earth shattering or completely changes the way that I look at film in general. What it did was provide me with some light hearted (and a little dark at times) fun which was a good way to spend the afternoon. This film comes nowhere near to Danny Boyle’s best, but it is a good movie that will have you laughing at the absurdity that it has to offer.

Stoker – Review

15 Apr

I feel confidently in saying that when we were all children, we’ve heard a fairy tale in one shape or form. I’m also pretty confident in saying that we’ve probably heard many. For me, it was strange to learn that the fairy tales that I loved growing up were pretty much watered down versions of the original story. This leads me to my review of Stoker. To me, this film is a fairy tale that isn’t watered down, but presented exactly how it should be. Add in a little bit of flair that would please Alfred Hitchcock and that’s exactly what Stoker turns out to be: a twisted fairy tale of repressed psychological issues and a family that can only be described as deeply disturbed.

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India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a teenage girl who was born with senses that are far beyond normal and a personality that leaves her distanced from everyone else except her father. When her father dies on her 18th birthday, India’s mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is left alone and is completely unstable. Her loneliness is soon appeased with the arrival of India’s mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who has apparently been travelling around Europe and most of the world since India was born. As Evelyn becomes more and more infatuated with Charlie, India begins to look at him with an increasing amount of disdain and suspicion, especially when people around the house and neighborhood begin to go missing. As the mystery thickens, even India, herself, can not help but become increasingly drawn to Charlie which may lead to India releasing what’s been bottling up inside her for eighteen years.

The collaboration that made Stoker possible is as strange as the plot is. The screenplay was written by Wentworth Miller, who was made famous by being the lead role in the television show Prison Break. In the director’s chair is the Korean film maker Park Chan-wook, known for directing films like Oldboy and Thirst. Composing the music is one of my favorite film composers Clint Mansell, known for his exceptional score to Requiem for a Dream. Finally, producing this film is Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, which is the last movie he ever produced before his death. When I was watching the credits for this film, I really couldn’t believe how strange of a combination this all was, but it was an excellent combination nonetheless.

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While everyone involved makes Stoker what it is, there’s no denying that some of the people involved had more to do with how good the movie turned out than others did. What I’m trying to say is that although Miller’s screenplay is essential to the film, it’s really Park Chan-wook’s impressive visuals that make the film more than an ode to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. What is visually present is, at times, more interesting than the story itself. Park has created a modern day Victorian/Gothic style that is really interesting and works with Miller’s screenplay. As cool and disturbing as the story is, Miller’s dialogue just isn’t very good which means that the times where there were no dialogue had to be extra intriguing, and they were.

Along with Park Chan-wook, major credit is given to the cast for portraying their characters in the eeriest of ways. Mia Wasikowska is quiet and broods throughout the entire movie which really gives us a hint of what she’s really capable of. Nicole Kidman shows us an unbalanced widow in a not very obvious way which makes her character interesting. My personal favorite is Matthew Goode who keeps that shit eating grin on his face the entire movie and makes the audience really love just how smug and secretive he really is. Another star of Stoker is actually someone related to the post-production phase. This person is Nicolas De Troth, the editor of the movie. The editing is so precise and seems so meticulous that it really makes this film one of a kind when it comes to the post-production. The sound design is also spectacular, really keeping with the idea that India’s senses are heightened. Even the smallest sound is heard perfectly, which made me feel like I could really hear what she was hearing. From the sound to the visual cues and cuts, Stoker was just a marvel to watch even though the Academy would go nowhere near something as disturbing as this movie is.

Stoker is definitely one of the best movies to come out in 2013, and it’s really a shame that it wasn’t recognized at all by the Academy. But, we all know that the Academy Awards are all very P.C. and Stoker is pretty much the opposite of P.C. That’s what I love it though. That and just how well made it is. I had no doubt in my mind that it was going to be a darkly beautiful film, but actually seeing it made me realize just how much detail was put into constructing this modern day Hitchcockian fairy tale. That description should be enough to make anyone curious enough to check this movie out.

Kalifornia – Review

11 Apr

There are times when I’m browsing the bargain bins that are filled with a mountain of some of the most random, and often obscure movies that I could possibly find and I get surprised. One of these surprises was when I found a film from 1993 that I’ve never heard of called Kalifornia. The packaging seemed interesting and it starred David Duchovney before he became known for his role in The X-Files and a young Brad Pitt before his career even took off. I really know nothing about this movie so getting it was a complete gamble, but sometimes it’s possible to find a small gem in a container filled with trash.

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Brian Kessler (David Duchovney) and Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes) are an artistic yuppie couple with dreams of moving to California, where they feel all of the jobs and inspiration will be, especially since Brian can’t get his new book on serial killers started. Unfortunately for the two artists, they don’t have the money to get to California, which makes Brian think he can find someone else trying to get to California to come with them and help them pay, while stopping at famous murder sites to get pictures and information for his book. Enter the lower class hillbilly couple Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) and his childish girlfriend Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis), who also have dreams of moving to California. While the relationship between the two couples is strained at best, but what Brian and Carrie don’t know can hurt them. A subject for Brian’s book may be closer than he thinks with Early being an ex-con who’s breaking parole, but who is also wanted for murdering multiple people.

I want to get the bad out of the way, because this movie really did have a positive effect on me. First of all, Duchovney’s performance is rather flat, and I feel like part of that is because the character is pretty flat. His voice over is pretty bad as well, but that’s mostly due to his monotone voice which works well for Fox Mulder on The X-Files, but not so much for his character here. Another problem I had here is that the writing is pretty baffling at points, which means that things happen and I really have a hard time buying some of the things that happened in this movie.  Along with this is that there is really a lot of material to work with in terms of suspense and conflict, but it isn’t really used to its full potential.

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While Duchovney’s performance and some of the writing may be questionable, these things don’t ruin the movie at all. In fact, I thought this movie was surprisingly entertaining. I like looking at this movie like a road trip film with a sadistic twist. Looking at it only as a horror/thriller may the wrong way to go. Being a road move/horror film is a cool and interesting combination. Another surprising thing was the questions and points that the movie brought up, topics that I wasn’t expecting to be explored. One is the difference of two cultures, one being the yuppie/art culture and the other being the lower class/hillbilly culture. Both of the couples are hammed up and portrayed as stereotypes, but it works well for the sake of a plot device and a possible discussion point. More interesting to me are the brief moments of dialogue and questions on the psychology of serial killers, and if they should be locked up or killed, or if they should be put in a mental institution and treated. Kalifornia doesn’t answer these questions, but allows the viewer to have their own opinions on the topic.

There’s nothing entirely special about the directing by Dominic Sena, who started with music videos (and that occasionally shows), but there are a few moments that were pretty cool. What makes this movie seeing more than anything else are the performance by Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis. Pitt seems really deep in his role, and there’s a story where he chipped his tooth opening up a beer while in character and decided to keep the tooth chipped because it worked well for his character. He does seem a bit over the top at times, but he keeps that level throughout the entire movie and I believe that he became Early Grayce. As great as Pitt is, the real scene stealer is Juliette Lewis. While I have always considered her a good actor, her performance in Kalifornia can easily be called great. Her character is played to perfection and is the deepest and most tragic aspect of the entire movie. She is fantastic and plays childish innocence very well, and her and Pitt’s chemistry are note perfect.

Kalifornia was a great find and having spent five whole dollars on it, I definitely feel like I got more than I payed for. This movie is by no means a classic, nor is it going to be remembered and talked about for the years to come. However, as far movies go, this is a really fun movie that is actually a lot better than I thought it was going to be. The whole idea is great, but unfortunately can’t achieve that greatness because the elements aren’t used to their full potential. If anything, you should see this movie for Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis alone, but as a whole I can still recommend this movie. It isn’t anything special, but it works just fine.

 

Chinatown – Review

7 Apr

Throughout the 1930s and the 1940s, film noir was a major genre/style in Hollywood. It was so influential that even after the height of its time, there were still film makers who were eager to implement its style and themes into their own films. Probably the most iconic neo-noir film to ever be made is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, released in 1974. With hard lighting, a twist on the femme fatale, and an anti-hero that would stand the tests of time, Chinatown wasn’t just an experiment to see if the genre could hold up thirty years after its peak, but it was also a brilliant film that is remembered today as a classic.

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J.J. Gittes (Jack Nocholson) is a private investigator hired to figure out if Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) is cheating on his wife. After the news story and Gittes’ photographs end up on the front page of the newspaper, he sets out to uncover why this has garnered such media attention, but soon learns that Hollis has been found dead in a reservoir, presumably having drowned. The real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) soon approaches Gittes with the intent to press charges after the story leaked into the newspaper, but soon decides to help him with his own personal investigation into the death of Hollis Mulwray. What Gittes uncovers, however, could never have been expected with a web of deceit and corruption that has links to L.A’s water supply, familial abuse, and thousands of acres of land that are worth millions.

It’s very easy to watch Chinatown and picture it as a black and white noir film from the 1940s, but the fact remains that it is from 1974 and there are elements from it that would never fly 30 years earlier from when it was made. Much like how Sam Peckinpah’s film The Wild Bunch could be considered an anti-Western, Chinatown could be considered an anti-noir. That’s not just because there are things in the story that never would have been allowed with the code that was established in the early days of Hollywood, but also because there are certain plot points that would have been very unconventional for the times to the point that audiences would have been quite disturbed. Instead of calling it an “anti-noir” it would be more appropriate to call it a “revisionist noir.” Revisionist movies were actually very popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s because the film makers took genre conventions, flipped them upside down, and made their own films that would redefine Hollywood in the years to come.

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It may seem pretty obvious to say that the performances in this movie are all fantastic. Looking at the credits of talent that are in this film, it should really go without saying with Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. Even though the acting is all top notch, Chinatown is really a victory for the screenwriter, Robert Towne. It’s not everyday that I watch a movie and just get completely blown away by how masterful the screenplay is written. Throughout the entire run time of this movie, I was being twisted, turned, dragged, and mislead with Gittes always one step ahead of me. Even when the plot was starting to thicken, it felt like a seamless transition and I never felt like I was being jolted out of place.

After saying how excellent the screenplay is, I still need to touch on Roman Polanski’s expert direction. Recently I’ve reviewed Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, but Chinatown really takes it to a whole other level. One thing that really stuck out to me was the use of long takes while shots of dialogue were being filmed. Instead of cutting up a scene, Polanski would let the camera run, catching the actors in these long bits of dialogue that really got to show just how good they really were. Meanwhile, cinematographer John A. Alonzo, who went on to be the cinematographer on Scarface, made sure that the lighting was exactly right and hearken back to the golden age of cinema where detectives were the only thing keeping big cities safe from sadistic murderers.

Chinatown is one of those movies straight out of film history that will exceed your expectations. It’s easy to call a movie a classic, but it’s not quite as simple to explain why it is a classic. This film is a classic because it takes from the old and makes it feel completely new, while exploring themes of big business and corruption that were way ahead of its time. Add in some excellent performances, direction, and writing and you got yourself a movie that will never be forgotten. If you haven’t gotten the chance to see Chinatown, make sure you see it, maybe even more than once.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Review

7 Apr

Captain America has been my favorite Avenger since, well, ever. His portrayal has been spot on in Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, but I never really felt that they were using Cap in the ways that they could have been using him. The action scenes in The First Avenger felt chopped up and he didn’t have a whole lot to do in The Avengers, but that is no longer the case with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This takes the universe that these Marvel movies have created and shakes it up in a way that hasn’t been seen yet, and makes me wonder what’s going to happen next for these heroes. It also happens to be my favorite stand alone Marvel movie yet.

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Now living in modern times, Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is having a hard time adjusting to the culture, but may be having a harder time dealing with the ideologies and working of S.H.I.E.L.D. After a mission concerning hostages, Rogers begins to get suspicious of both Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Matters are made worse when a mysterious and deadly attack is made on S.H.E.I.L.D by the mysterious Winter Soldier, who is only the start of a much bigger plan concerning the collapse of the entire organization. Captain America, along with Black Widow and his newfound friend Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), begins to fight their own war in Washington D.C, but their actions and the actions of their enemies may just destroy everything that they have been working for.

Out of every outing that a single Marvel hero has had, this is definitely the best one with the original Iron Man following close behind. This was everything that a Captain America movie should be and it was great to finally get to see him really kick ass. Words can’t describe how satisfying the noise is when he whacks or throws his shield at someone. Not only did the Captain have more to do, but so did Black Widow and Nick Fury. The addition of Falcon was also great, providing some awesome aerial action scenes. This was almost like a mini Avengers movie, and it definitely had the scale of one with things falling out of the sky, car chases throughout Washington, and reveals that will shake the core of the Marvel universe.

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The action in The Winter Soldier is really turned up from the first Captain America movie. I understand that the first one was an origin story and it was important to explain how Steve Rogers became Captain America, but like I said before, he’s my favorite Avenger and I’ve been really waiting to see just what he can do. I was disappointed at first with this movie because the first action sequence used that god awful shaky action cam. I didn’t want to stop watching but it was making me sick to my stomach, and I was worried that that was how the rest of the action sequences were going to be filmed. Luckily, I didn’t have a problem with any of the other ones. This movie is full of awesome action with some of the best special effects in a superhero movie that I’ve seen yet. At a point the action almost becomes non-stop, and I absolutely loved it.

This is really a movie that needs to be made at this point in time. The whole time, I felt like the story could be almost like a 1970s spy film, because of the themes of the government watching your every move. That being said, we are back in a time where that is a cause for concern, and I loved how this movie touched on that. There are times where Cap is saying that it isn’t freedom if we have a government looming over us and threatening us with violence as a way to keep the peace. We haven’t really moved forward in that department when it comes to freedom, and this was an interesting way to go about exploring that idea, through a superhero movie.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier not only shows how a Captain America movie should be made, but how an action packed Hollywood blockbuster should be made. There’s plenty of witty banter, action set pieces, and things blowing up but that doesn’t compromise the intelligence of the movie. That’s one of the best thing about these Marvel films: they’re never stupid. This is an excellent edition to the growing list of films in this superhero universe, and it made me even more excited for The Avenger: Age of Ultron.

The Jacket – Review

4 Apr

There are times when I put on a movie that I know nothing about, and I end up being blown away and wonder to myself why I haven’t watched or known about these movie before. Then there are times where I put on a movie of which I have no knowledge of and wonder why I even bothered watching it in the first place. I can’t say I really shouldn’t have bothered watching The Jacket, but I can’t say that it meets these two feelings halfway. This a movie that thinks it’s smarter than it actually is, but actually leans to the side of generic ludicrous.

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After receiving a head wound in the Gulf War, Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) returns to America with severe amnesia. As luck would have it, Jack is inadvertently involved in the murder of a police officer and is sentenced to a mental institution after he can’t remember what happened or the level of his involvement. While at the institute, Jack becomes part of a sadistic psychological treatment created by Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson). The treatment has Jack getting put in a straightjacket, strapped to a table, injected with experimental drugs, and being locked in a morgue locker. While inside, he begins hallucinating and even travels 15 years into the future where he meets Jackie (Keira Knightley), who he met when she was young. During his trips through time, Jack learns that he will die in 4 days, which leads Jack and Jackie investigating the hospital and the legality of the treatment.

If you take a look at the poster that I put up here you’ll see that one of the taglines is “If you liked Vanilla Sky, Donnie Darko, and 12 Monkeys than you’ll love this film.” OK, lets think about this. I’ve never seen Vanilla Sky, but if you want to compare it to the two other films mentioned, you’ll see some major differences. Donnie Darko and 12 Monkeys are both really intelligent, mind bending science fiction films that really demand the viewer to watch them at least twice. The Jacket really thinks it’s smart, but it turns out to be really convoluted and more so just rehashes the style and certain ideas that were already used in these movies That’s what’s really unfortunate. There is so much room to play around with the plot of this movie, but it turns out to be completely misused.

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This film is the perfect example of a movie that fails almost solely because of the writing. Massy Tadjedin wrote a screenplay that is full of ideas that almost seem to be thrown away for drama that I really don’t care about because I don’t buy how the relationships of the characters form. At the risk of revealing a spoiler, for some reason that is completely beyond me, a romantic relationship forms literally out of nowhere between Jack and Jackie. This is one of my biggest pet peeves in movies. If there doesn’t need to be romance in a movie, don’t put romance in the movie! The relationship between Kristofferson and Jennifer Jason Leigh or Adrian Brody and Daniel Craig are much more interesting, but are practically thrown away.

I can’t fault the direction of John Maybury, any of the acting, nor the cinematography of Peter Deming. All of these people were on point with their jobs. The seedy, dirty look of the mental institution is awesome and Maybury gets good performances out of all of his actors, especially Brody, Leigh, and Craig. But let’s go back to the story. Because there isn’t enough focus on the mystery of the time traveling and treatment, nor the aftermath for Dr. Becker, I really can’t connect to the story. I just really can’t deal with the screenplay that Tadjedin has written. It’s really sloppy and I can’t believe George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh put their name on this as producers.

The Jacket is so disappointing because almost everything was in place for this to be a cool psychological science fiction thriller movie. Unfortunately, the screenplay is just so convoluted and often times generic that it all just turned into a bore. There was no attention payed to mystery or to leaving real hard questions for the viewers to answer. All we have is a weak ending that seems like it really wants to spark some debate. Ultimately, the ending and the entire movie is a lot less intelligent and original than it thinks it is.

Nymphomaniac – Review

3 Apr

There are times where I’m writing these reviews where I think to myself, “I could just leave this whole page blank and people would get what I’m trying to say.” This is one of those times. Lars von Trier has done it again with a 4 hour dive into the mind of a sex addict in Nymphomaniac. When both volumes were finally over and the credits started to role, I began questioning what it all really meant, and I’m still not sure. All I can say is that if you are used to von Trier’s work, then you might know what you’re in for, but you still may be a little bit surprised. Now that I’ve got my confusion out of the way, let’s get into why I actually really, really liked this movie.

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In a snowy alley, a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) is walking home from the grocery store where he finds an unconscious woman laying in the middle of the alley. He takes the woman home where she introduces herself as Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and admits the reason that Seligman found her like that is because of her troubled life dealing with nymphomania. She then goes on to tell the story of her life from when she was a young girl learning about trees with her father (Christian Slater), to her first real relationship as a young woman (Stacy Martin) with a man named Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), and all they way through her adult life up until this point. While hearing about how her addiction has torn her life to pieces, Seligman compares her story to everything from fly fishing to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Nymphomaniac is the third part of Lars von Trier’s Depression Trilogy which also included the films Antichrist and Melancholia. Now, to anyone who has seen these other two films, it’s obvious that this is only a thematic trilogy, but you can see how the director has made allusions to the other films which was very interesting and acted as almost demented Easter eggs. What sets this film apart from the other ones in the trilogy is that von Trier is working on getting so many ideas and themes across that it is almost difficult to catch them all and link them together. With Antichrist and Melancholia, there were more than one ridiculously cynical theme, but I was able to catch all of them and link them together. It’s almost like von Trier is trying to upload all of his thoughts and arguments he’s ever had and turn them into one big movie. I don’t know if that makes this thematically messy or just really heavy.

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I can see how a lot of people would get upset with this movie. It is one of the most unapologetic films I have ever seen in terms of its graphic sexuality and violence. While the violence doesn’t happen too often, it is very disturbing when it does. Even though the film is graphic, it never oversteps its boundaries, which surprised me. After seeing Antichrist, I was concerned that von Trier was just going to use this movie to completely outdo all oft he terrible scenes that made me cringe and cover my eyes. This isn’t true. Nymphomaniac goes about everything in a down to earth way, even though it sometimes depicts the corners of the earth that we don’t necessarily want to look at.

I read somewhere, and because I don’t keep logs of everything I completely forget where it was, that Gainsbourg was asked if she is more comfortable with Lars von Trier after working with him on the two other movies in the trilogy and she said she absolutely wasn’t. That’s hard to believe considering everything she has done for this man’s films. She gives an excellent and understated performance, even amongst all of the psychological insanity going on around her. The way von Trier expresses this insanity is through the clever use of cuts, music, and sound design. It’s still Gainsbourg’s performance that leads us through this twisted tale of addiction, and it really wouldn’t have been the same movie if she wasn’t cast.

Nymphomaniac is one of the most bold films I have ever seen, and for that I have to give Lars von Trier a lot of credit. This is also beautifully shot and acted, with some of the coldest and almost obsessive compulsive dialogue I’ve ever heard. The only thing that really got to me was von Trier’s misplaced themes and an ending that may be one of the worst in film history. If you’re introducing someone to Lars von Trier, don’t start with this one. Start with one of his earlier works like Europa or his more recent Melancholia. This film is difficult to watch, while at the same time being beautiful and disturbing. It’s a strange trip that is only for the people that believe they can be comfortable with what they are going to see.

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