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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.

Midnight Express – Review

20 Jan

One thing that I can add to the list of things that I never hope I have to deal with is spending hard time in a Turkish prison. That just looks like the opposite of a good time. It looks like a terrible time. Midnight Express is a movie that when it was first released in 1978 caused a big stir both in America and in Turkey, it being based off of a true story about a young man who was made an example of but eventually escaped the Turkish prison system. This is obviously a movie that loves to show off (also being Oliver Stone’s first screen writing credit), but even though it’s a braggart and unfair in some ways, it still entertained me fully for the entire time it was on, and has stuck with me since.

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In 1970, Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) and his girlfriend are about to get on a flight back to America from Istanbul, but Billy has a secret. He is hiding about 2 kilos of hashish under his shirt. Unfortunately for Hayes, he gets caught and sentenced to spend four years in a Turkish prison. There he is beaten and tortured by sadistic prison guards, but also finds friendship in fellow prisoners like the irrational Jimmy (Randy Quaid) and the doped up Englishman, Max (John Hurt). After his original four year sentence gets extended to thirty years to make an example out of him, Billy and his friends decide it’s time to catch the Midnight Express out there, which means finding an escape route and taking it.

First, let’s talk about some awkward things in the movie. Midnight Express got a lot of backlash from Turkish viewers for how they were portrayed in the movie. It even got banned in Turkey up until just recently. I heard about all that before seeing the movie, and I have to say they have a point. The guards and a certain character named Rifki are almost cartoon villains in the way they treat other people. Save for maybe a few, all of the Turks in this movie are hammed up. Stone has later apologized for their portrayal. Also, this movie isn’t very accurate in its depictions. The story of Hayes is actually a lot longer, but due to budget and time it couldn’t be fully explored. That’s excusable in this case though, since the movie actually flows very well.

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Prison movies can sort of wear thin on me after a while. It’s even difficult for me to watch a classic like The Shawshank Redemption is just one sitting, but I had no problem getting through Midnight Express. The characters and the mood and the entire predicament of the movie was really interesting and fun for me to see it play out. The suspense in this movie was very suspenseful and the feeling of dread permeated the screen and found its way into my living room. It being a true story and all, the film had even more of an effect. Even though it’s pretty inaccurate, the core story is true and that alone was enough to push the movie forward. I will say it got a little weird towards the end, and it all comes to a conclusion rather abruptly which felt weird since the slow and steady pace was working really well for it.

You can really tell that Oliver Stone wrote this movie, even though it was so early on his career. It has those show stopping scenes that really grab your attention with their outlandishness, but in some ways it works with the foreign and scary feeling of the entire movie. With a script written by Stone, the actors certainly have their hands full. Brad Davis, who’s kind of a tragedy himself, handles the role very well and is easy to believe that he’s just a young man in a prison. I still feel like the real stars of the movie are Randy Quaid and John Hurt, who give two of the best supporting performances I’ve seen in a while. I really got to love those characters, and seeing them all in their situation had a powerful effect.

I went into Midnight Express expecting to enjoy it for a while and then feel overwhelmingly bored, but that never happened. I was actually gripped for the entire two hours that it was onscreen. The real story of Billy Hayes is a terrifying trip through hell on earth, and it’s shown well here in this film, even if it isn’t exactly what happened. There are some weird scenes that feel out of place at the end and the treatment of the Turks in this movie would never fly today, but all in all there are a good deal of films that owe a lot to Midnight Express and the film as a whole is well executed and memorable. Check it out.

Some Thoughts on “The Day of the Doctor.”

25 Nov

Spanning 50 years and becoming popular worldwide is not something every television show can say they have achieved. Doctor Who has sparked such an incredible fan base over the years that it may be impossible to fins someone who has seen the show and respond negatively. Starting with William Hartnell all the way to Matt Smith, and soon to be Peter Capaldi, the character of the Doctor has become something of a television icon despite the many different faces he has gone through. Stephen Moffat has honored all 50 years of Doctor Who in The Day of the Doctor, an anniversary special that is one for the history books.

This talk will also be full of spoilers. So if you haven’t seen this yet, close out of this and get a move on!

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In this “episode” the past is explored and the future is ultimately changed. Probably the most insane thing that happens here is that the Doctor(s) stop Gallifrey from being destroyed. This is certainly an interesting way to  take the series and it opens up an enormous amount of material to work with. By the end of the episode, the Doctor said it is now his main mission to find where Gallifrey has been frozen in time. This also makes me wonder if this will change the Doctor’s personality in any way, especially with this new Doctor coming in the next series.

But really, how cool was it seeing Matt Smith, David Tennant, and newcomer John Hurt all together as the Doctor. Seeing how their personalities are all very similar, but clash in small ways makes all of their versions of the Doctor seem very unique and very much the same. Just seeing David Tennant in this role again was great, and he seemed to be really excited to be there. But, Tennant isn’t the only past Doctor to be present! Technically we see all the Doctors, which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen ever, but we even got to see Tom Baker return. The other Doctors are all archive footage, but Tom Baker was actually back! Good stuff right there.

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Before watching this, I was worried that it wasn’t exactly going to live up to my expectations. I was concerned that all the hype and excitement would be for nothing. Luckily, everything I could possibly ask for was in this episode. Three Doctors, Billie Piper, Daleks, Gallifrey, and some excellent twists that change the entire series in drastic but interesting ways. The story really takes a huge step forward with The Day of the Doctor.

There’s a few people I know that haven’t seen any Doctor Who yet. This episode just reminded me that they have to get a move on and be a part of this truly remarkable show. 50 years of the Doctor and he is still going strong. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

The Elephant Man – Review

12 Nov

Joseph “John” Merrick is a man that throughout the years has become a very interesting individual. This isn’t due to any achievement or talent that he had, but because of the rare and extremely curious disease that ailed him, now known as neurofibromatosis. In 1980, the year of this film’s release, David Lynch only had Eraserhead in terms of feature films, but the uncredited producer Mel Brooks was so impressed with this film that he hired Lynch to act as director of the story of Merrick’s later life in The Elephant Man.

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Doctor Fredrick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) is a surgeon in London who comes across an interesting specimen at a traveling freak show one night. This specimen is John Merrick (John Hurt), a man whose extreme deformities make the general public reel in horror at just the sight of him. Treves takes Merrick to the London Hospital to be studied, but soon gets him permanent residence and care. Over the time spent together, the two men become very close friends and Merrick’s reputation as a tragic human being is made known after he befriends famous stage actress Mage Kendal (Anne Bancroft). While everything seems to be going better for Merrick with the help of many kind and caring people, hateful and greedy men from his past and present still use him for fear and money, making Merrick’s ailment all the more difficult.

The Elephant Man is a hard movie to summarize because it isn’t really a plot based movie, but more of a character study and a look at how society should see people who are different. Casting David Lynch was a very interesting choice given his absurd and surreal filmography. This is a much more straightforward film than his others, but there are still glimpses of his trademark style from nightmare sequences to the heavily industrialized area with beautiful shots of smoke blowing out of chimneys and grimy machinery being operated, all embellished an excellent industrial sound design.

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Now, there are a few movies whose sole reason for existence is to test the limits of my tear ducts. Crying isn’t the most enjoyable past time, but sometimes when I’m watching a movie (or the last episode of the John Adams miniseries!!) I just can’t really help myself. The Elephant Man is a very difficult movie to watch in this respect. Seeing Merrick dealing with his disease is hard enough, but seeing his very human reactions to people gawking, screaming, and making fun of him is even worse.

So no, this is not an uplifting movie at all, but this isn’t really a film to watch if you’re looking for a good feeling to be had. This is something to watch to learn about a man’s life, how to treat other human beings regardless of their individual circumstances, and to admire the cinematography by Freddie Francis, who went on to work with Lynch in Dune and later on with Scorsese in his remake of Cape Fear. The point is that you really need to know what you’re getting into with The Elephant Man.

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David Lynch may forever be known as one of the strangest and most surreal film makers of the modern era, with films like Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive to stand as testament. He did something beautifully different with The Elephant Man. He created a very human drama an very unusual and interesting man to come out of the Victorian era. It’s beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and succeeds in telling this man’s story, despite some historical inaccuracies. It’s one of those movies that are just plain perfect.

The Good Shepherd – Review

13 Dec

There’s been a lot of movies about the CIA and spies, but I don’t think I’ve ever watched one quite like The Good Shepherd. It’s more than just a cloak and dagger spy film. It’s also a story about relationships that should not exist, paranoia, and missed opportunities. It’s also almost three hours long. To some, this length will be a positive, to others it will be a major hindrance.

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In the early days of the CIA, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) devotes his life to the agency and constantly surrounds himself with a collage of friends and enemies. The twist is that he doesn’t know who are his friends and who are his enemies. While he covertly fights for America, his home life becomes a nuisance, constantly interfering with his work. With the Bay of Pigs Invasion proving to be a failure, Wilson begins to question his position in life and whether or not he chose the right path.

Throughout the entirety of The Good Shepherd, the viewer sits through all sorts of historical events. There’s the Blitz of World War II and growing conflict with Russia, all the way up to the Bay of Pigs. Needless to say, a lot happens. In a way, this could make the plot unbelievably confusing, as is the case with a lot of films like this. What makes the story easy to get a grasp on is the fact that all of the espionage isn’t really the focal point of the story. Sure, it’s an important part but what is the crucial plot point is the stability of the characters. This could be through relationship, physical, or mental.

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There are so many great performers giving excellent performances. Matt Damon is the star of the show, and makes it really easy for the viewer to both dislike but also sympathize with his character. Angelina Jolie gives a strong performance, and speaking of strong performances, John Turturro gives an outstanding performance even though he doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time. Other stars include Alec Baldwin, John Hurt, Robert De Niro (who also directs), and Billy Crudup. The aforementioned actors have the least amount of screen time, although they make the most of the their roles.

Now, as I said before, this is a very long movie clocking in at two hours and forty five minutes. Personally, I love long movies because I feel like it’s a grand story with a lot to say. That being said, this definitely could have been trimmed down, at least a little bit. Or, even better, it could have made a great miniseries. That’s really what this movie felt like: and HBO miniseries. There’s so much that happens throughout the years of this movie that go by so quickly because of time. It also has moments where the plot slows down and it gets really boring, which just reaffirms the fact that The Good Shepherd would have been a better miniseries.

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I’d like to briefly touch on how amazing the movie looks. The costumes and the sets all look fantastic and very believable. Selling a movie like this would be very difficult unless everything is spot on. Styles and technology changes, and we all get to see that happen as the movie progresses. It’s very interesting and done very well.

I read a review that said said something along the lines of: “It is easier to respect that like The Good Shepherd.” I can see how some critics and viewers could see that, and I couldn’t really argue with that. My opinion is that this is one of the best spy films I have ever seen. It’s not particularly violent and there isn’t too much suspense, but I will say that it is very real, and that’s why I liked it so much. Sure, it can be dry and it is very long, but it’s expertly crafted and surprisingly easy to follow. If you have a free afternoon, you may want to check out The Good Shepherd.

The Proposition – Review

22 Aug

Normally when I think of westerns, I think of the old west towns of America where cowboys and Indians are forever locked in a feud over land and food. Not once have I seen a western film take place in the outback of Australia, where British settlers are at war with Aboriginals. The Proposition offers a brutal glimpse of early life on the outback which can be compared to the lawless American wilderness.

 

Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey Burns (Richard Wilson) have had a good run as outlaws until one day the law catches up to them. Now in custody, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) offers Charlie a proposition: either he finds and kills his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), who is considered a monster, or Mikey will hang until dead on Christmas day. While Charlie is hunting for his maniacal older brother, Captain Stanley faces the growing challenge of protecting his wife, Martha (Emily Watson) from the violence that he faces everyday.

First of all, this was the best looking western I have ever seen. While Dead Man looks beautiful with its black and white scheme, The Proposition has breathtaking scenes of the outback at sunset, featuring stunning silhouette shots and a sky that ranges from orange to a purple tint. It is absolutely stunning. On the flip side, the morning scenes are barren and filled with flies, which almost become a character themselves. It’s a perfect combination of beauty and disgust.

 

Other than how beautiful this movie looks, the relentless brutality is jarring, but never excessive or overbearing. There are scenes of incredible violence that is going to stay with the viewer long after it is over. I mean it when I say that this isn’t a movie for the feint of heart or the weak of stomach.

The real scene stealer is the soundtrack. Singer/songwriter and author of this fine movie, Nick Cave, did the music along with Warren Ellis. What they created is a haunting and almost spiritual score that accentuates the horror of the lawless outback and the challenge of survival. The movie starts with a beautiful song sung by a little girl with actual images of death and destruction from the time period. From there, the music gets darker and sadder along with the story.

 

Finally, the screenplay itself. While it is full of hate and anger, there are moments where all violence and death are forgotten with quiet moments between brothers or husband and wife. These moments are perfect capos to the intensity. With strange editing techniques, the viewer can be sent from a scene of violence to silence in a jarring millisecond. This is storytelling at its best.

If you haven’t already guessed, I loved The Proposition. The brutality, the silence, and the way beauty and ugly became one. This is a western that packs a strong punch to the jugular that will likely bruise and swell with appreciation. This isn’t just a great western, it just might be my favorite western.