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Dogville (2003) & Manderlay (2005) – review

17 Oct

I can’t stay away from the works of Lars von Trier, the self-proclaimed “greatest film maker in the world” and the “Mad Genius of Denmark.” I could continue with all of the nicknames this eccentric guy has garnered over the years, but I’d like to instead look at two of his films that are supposed to be the first two in a trilogy. The trilogy is called USA: The Land of Opportunity and the two films are Dogville and Manderlay. Now, I knew nothing about these movies, other than they were made by Trier, but what I got out of them were two piece of experimental film that I haven’t quite seen the likes of before.

First, let’s tackle Dogville.

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Somewhere neatly tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, near an abandoned silver mine, is the small town of Dogville. Tom Edison, Jr. (Paul Bettany) is the moralist and philosopher of the town who does his best to teach the people of Dogville the proper way to live. Late one night, Tom hears gunshots and finds Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious woman who has just so happened to stumble onto the hidden little village. It turns out that Grace is on the run from the mob for some unknown reason, and a logical place for her to hide is this is hidden town. It takes a while for the townspeople to agree to let her stay in Dogville, and the only condition that she can is that she does labor for all of the people living there. This works well for a while, but soon the residents of Dogville begin to take advantage of Grace to the point of abuse. What they don’t realize is the dangerous secret the Grace is holding behind her unassuming demeanor.

Let me set the scene for you. I put in my DVD of Dogville, grabbed some food, and set myself up for what I thought was going to be a pretty run of the mill movie watching experience. Let me just reiterate that I had no idea what this movie was going to be like. When I saw what the movie actually was, I thought that I wasn’t going to make it through the entire three hour run time. Basically, the entire thing takes place on a stage with very little set design or props. It’s as minimalist as you could possibly get. As the film progressed, I realized that this is really the only way to tell this story, since Dogville isn’t about the the town itself, but more so the residents. Because of the minimal set, we can see into their houses for some of the most private moments and really learn what their characters are all about. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is one of the most brilliant films that Lars von Trier has ever made.

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Dogville isn’t just about visual flair, though. There’s also a really tricky story filled with memorable acting to back it up. Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany really steal the show as their characters. Supporting actors like Lauren Bacall, Stellan Skarsgård, and James Caan also do great, and let me just say that John Hurt should narrate everything. Sorry Morgan Freeman. As far as the story goes, it’s subtle and effective. It plays out like an interesting character study of the evils that can broil in small towns like this, and the whole thing kind of plays out like some strange experiment in human psychology and morality.

The only thing I really have to add is that Dogville is a fantastic movie watching experience and may be my favorite of all of Lars von Trier’s works.

The sequel, Manderlay, continues Grace’s story not long after the events of Dogville. Even though it’s made in a similar style, my reactions to the film were far from that of its predecessor.

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Now on the road with her father (Willem DaFoe), Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the rest of the travelers happen upon an Alabama plantation called Manderlay. What shocks Grace is that this plantation is filled with slaves, even though at this point slavery has been abolished for 70 years. As soon as Grace arrives at the plantation, Mam (Lauren Bacall), the head of the plantation dies and Grace, angered by the idea that there are still slaves, writes a new contract for the people there. The white people living on the plantation become responsible for the hard labor, while the black slaves are allowed to live a more free life. Grace begins to see improvement, but there are many secrets of Manderlay that she doesn’t know.

While Dogville was a subtle film with a strange story that somehow made perfect sense, Manderlay practically bashes you over the head with it’s preachy morality tale. Even though the set remains similar to the first film with its minimalist style, that is just about the only similarity. Bryce Dallas Howard is nowhere near as affective as Nicole Kidman, in fact she just comes off as ignorant and annoying for pretty much the whole movie. The most interesting characters are the former slaves of Manderlay, with some of the most important of those characters played by Danny Glover and Isaach de Bankolé, but sadly their talents are underutilized and Howard’s played up too strong.

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To me, it sort of seemed that Trier didn’t care about Manderlay as much as he did Dogville. While some people may find this idea very upsetting, some of the main themes of these movies are very anti-American. That’s fine with me as long as I don’t feel like I’m getting preached to by someone who thinks they are far superior than us commoners. That’s what watching Manderlay felt like. It’s true that it is still a visually beautiful movie, but that’s all I can really say about it.

While Manderlay is a pretty rotten movie in my opinion, Dogville is a genuinely fantastic piece of experimental drama. The style of these movies take a little bit to get used to, but once you do Dogville is definitely worth your time, if not just to experience a different style of film making. Manderlay, however, can be left well enough alone.

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Jurassic World – Review

16 Jun

Since 1993, the Jurassic Park franchise has taken audiences into a world where dinosaurs once again rule parts of the earth, making us humans feel remarkably small. The first entry is obviously the strongest and arguably one of the most important blockbusters of all time, ushering the future of computer generated effects. The two sequels both held their own, in my opinion, to the original and created a very solid trilogy of movies. Now we have the fourth entry, Jurassic World, boasting a name that promises everything to be bigger and better. Well, almost at least. Sort of?

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Being the ultimate proof that people will just never learn, the company InGen has finally opened the first ever dinosaur themed park, featuring rides, exhibits, and shows. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park’s operations manager, practically works around the clock making sure everything runs without fail, even if it means putting off spending time with her nephews that have come to visit and see the park with her. Today is a special day for her, however, with the newest project being officially given the green light for park use, a genetically modified dinosaur named Indominus rex. What no one realized it that this dinosaur is not only highly intelligent, but hell bent on killing, and after it escapes, Claire looks to the Velociraptor trainer, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to devise a plan to stop it or even kill it.

What can I say about this movie? I guess first off I can say that, overall, it was pretty good. It may be a fault of my own in thinking that when I’m watching a movie in the Jurassic Park series, I don’t expect it to just be “pretty good.” This movie has broken multiple international records, beating both The Avengers and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 2 for box office sales. It’s easy to see why. It’s Jurassic World and we haven’t seen another movie in this groundbreaking series for 14 years. Unfortunately, the actual movie, other than the excitement to see it and the nostalgia factor, doesn’t really deserve to be breaking any records.

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I want to talk about the positives to this movie first, because there certainly are some to be had. First of all, the whole plot involving Christ Pratt’s character training raptors is a really cool idea and is actually believable. There’s also really tense and exciting scenes with the Indominus rex breaking out and hunting other dinosaurs or people trying to stop it. Seeing its giant head peek out of the camouflage before attacking its victims is classic for this film series. Pretty much all of the scenes involving dinosaurs are great, and the huge dinosaur throw down as the climax is like the ultimate payoff to a movie like this. Surprisingly, there were also some really great uses of practical effects for closeups, and the CGI worked to tell the story, instead of the CGI being the story.

Where this movie fails, and fails hard, is the writing. It’s painful to hear some of the lines spoken in this movie, and I sort of feel bad for the actors who really had to try their best to make them work. Sometimes really cheesy dialogue is written into a movie as a self aware sort of joke, but I believe that everything that was said in Jurassic World that falls into that category was meant to be taken seriously. Not only was the dialogue poorly written, but so were most of the characters. Bryce Dallas Howard isn’t fleshed out enough and Vincent D’Onofrio’s character is just…weird. Finally, Owen Grady doesn’t really get all that important until about 50 minutes into the movie, and he’s the most interesting character. For a while we’re left with two dimensional characters and two kids who are anything but interesting.

Jurassic World is a movie that could definitely have been better, and I don’t claim to be any sort of expert but it’s pretty glaring how some of the flaws are, mainly in the writing. There’s a lot of action and plenty of memorable scenes with all of the dinosaurs, but there’s a period of about 30 minutes where I just didn’t care about what was going on because the characters were so bland. I’m not saying that this is a bad movie, but I’m not saying it’s a great movie. For what it is, this is a pretty good movie with some great scenes, but don’t expect it to meet you expectations at all.

Lady in the Water – Review

5 Dec

I’m one of those people who defends M. Night Shyamalan, and abstains from mocking him and laughing at his movies. Everything from The Sixth Sense to The Village gets a thumbs up from me. The Happening had potential, but unfortunately flopped, and I chose to stay away from The Last Airbender. What about that little movie that never seems to get brought up, Lady in the Water? Well it’s certainly not perfect or, even great, but watch it with an open mind and try to look beneath the surface and you very well may like the depth that this movie goes and the allegories that it presents.

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Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is a nervous handyman at an apartment complex which houses a fair share of strange, yet interesting people. One night, Cleveland finds a mysterious woman named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) swimming in the apartment’s pool. He learns that she is actually a water nymph called a “narf” from the Blue World with a mission to inspire a writer living in the complex (Shyamalan, himself). This may sound easy, but there is a dangerous wolf-like creature, a “scrunt” lurking in the grass around the pool waiting for an opportunity to lash out at the nymph and prevent her from completing her mission. Cleveland rounds up the tenants of the building to battle the scrunt and help Story get home safe.

Anyone whose really analyzed a Shyamalan movie knows that he is avery religious person. Hell, you don’t even have to try very hard to get the message. Lady in the Water was more of a challenge to find the religious allegories and symbols, and I’m not going to spoil what they are, but this is a fun movie to study more than watch. To anyone who just wants to kill a few hours with this movie may be a little disappointed. Looking at it like a puzzle is more fun.

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The main detraction of this movie is the convulsion of the plot combined with some poor pacing. First off, narf and scrunt are pretty laughable titles, but that’s nit picking. Clocking in at an hour and fifty minutes, I could easily scrub twenty off. Scenes go on for too long or don’t even need to exist. It felt like some scenes would have been better off as a deleted scene on the special features menu. The plot is also a little hard to believe. The people in this complex are more than ready to risk their lives for a supposed water nymph from another world. It would have been more interesting to see Giamatti’s character try to really convince the tenants what was going on. Also, anyone used to cool Shyamalan scares and love his plot twists may be a little disappointed as this movie is lacking both. There’s definitely an air of horror, but not much pay off.

Paul Giamatti is excellent and you can tell that he’s really trying to sell his lines, which is pretty successful most of the time. Bryce Dallas Howard also does a fine job, even though its a pretty one note performance. That stays within the realm of her character, so this isn’t a detraction. The other people in the apartments are less than spectacular, save for a surprising little performance by Jared Harris. He is great but doesn’t really have much to do, which is really disappointing.

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Again, watch this movie with an open mind and really think. Finding all the clues, meanings, and worldly critiques are more interesting than the actual story. I can’t say I totally agree with Shyamalan’s philosophies, but they are intelligent and respectable in their own right and he does a great job at hiding them within the screenplay. Not everything is as obvious as it seems, which is a challenge that the characters in the film even have to overcome.

While Lady in the Water may not be a great movie, I’d still put it in the “good” category. It’s certainly not a bad movie at all, and I feel a lot of the hate towards this movie stem from the bandwagon of mockery that M. Night Shyamalan has to put up with. He’s not a bad film maker, in fact, he’s a very intelligent one and it shows in this film. I recommend it for the intellectual stimulation that is offered and Giamatti’s performance, but not so much for the story and the supporting cast.

Hereafter – Review

7 Aug

Death is not an easy topic to understand or explore since people have so many interpretations of what it is exactly and what happens after we take the ultimate power nap. Some see it as a biological shut down in which nothing happens except total darkness. Others see it as a new beginning and an awakening to another, better life. Hereafter examines both of these possibilities flawlessly without getting religious or preachy.

 

Marie LeLay (Cecile de France) is a French journalist who experiences a death while in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami. She sees images that can not be forgotten and feels driven to report on what she saw, even though it seems like no one really wants to hear about it.  George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a psychic who is doing his best to avoid using his powers because he does not want his life to focus on death. This becomes difficult after a woman, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), begs him to do a reading in which he uncovers secrets that should not be revealed. Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) are two young English boys dealing with their drug addict mother. When one of the boys is struck by a car and killed, the other goes on a crusade in order to contact him. These paths converge at a critical point, and all the views and beliefs concerning death intersect.

First off, I just want to point out that I love films like this, where there are different story lines that meet at a certain point. The writer is pretty much writing three different movies and then has to connect them in some believable way. The connection in Hereafter is a little weak and delayed compared to most films in this style, but it was still believable if only a little unfulfilling.

 

This movie struck me as dynamically intense, if I may describe it as such. The opening scene with the Thai tsunami was frightening in that it actually happened and many people died in real life. Seeing it so vividly portrayed onscreen gives the viewer a whole new look of it through dramatic presentation. Then the movie gets intense in a much quieter way, with the different characters dealing with a tornado of questions and feelings surrounding loss of a loved one, a ruined history, or a troubled future. These quiet moments are interrupted with spurts of disaster that shows a much darker and violent side to life and death.

The acting in this movie is stunning all around. Damon knocks it out of the park with his performance, making him one of the most relatable characters ever seen on the big screen, despite his supernatural power. Cecile de France matches Damon’s intensity and the McLaren brothers surprise me with their acting chops. In a much more supporting role, Bryce Dallas Howard steals every scene she is in with her lovable personality and her jaw dropping looks. Seriously though, Bryce Dallas Howard…quite the looker.

 

As I said before, Clint Eastwood and writer Peter Morgan deal with death in a spiritual way, but they never get religious or preachy. We hear “Christ” once in the movie while death is being discussed, but it is immediately dismissed. While the idea of God and Jesus is blown over, it doesn’t mean that the movie or its makers don’t have respect for religion. The choice to not use it as a tool or reference point is smart so that many different people, atheists or otherwise, may enjoy this film for its open mindedness and interesting characters.

Eastwood delivers once again with Hereafter, a dynamic, thought provoking, and mature drama that can either make you depressed or hopeful. This isn’t a movie that will go by without discussion or possibly even some inner conflict for the viewer. Hereafter is a film that I would call “required viewing.” Don’t miss this one.