Tag Archives: stellan skarsgard

Breaking the Waves – Review

19 May

Every time I watch a movie by Lars von Trier, I begin to hope that maybe it will help me understand him more. Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that no one ever truly will. Enough about that, however. Today I’m going to be looking at a very important movie in von Trier’s career, his 1996 film Breaking the Waves. If it wasn’t for this movie, Lars von Trier would not be the internationally acclaimed film maker that he is today and it also allowed him to explore with techniques that he never worked with before. All that aside, while Dogville is my favorite of his movie, Breaking the Waves might be his masterpiece.

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In a small town in rural Scotland, Bess McNeil (Emily Watson), a mentally ill woman dedicated to her strict church, meets and falls in love with Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), an oilman who works on a rig off the coast. The two quickly get married and spend their first days together in a state of marital bliss. Eventually, Jan has to go back to the oil rig which leaves Bess devastated. She prays that God will send Jan back to her, and her prayers seem to be answered with the news that he’s coming home. What Bess didn’t know was the accident Jan was in the middle of the left him paralyzed from the neck down. Bess feels an overwhelming amount of guilt for this, thinking this is God’s way of punishing her, and will do anything to help Jan feel better. When Jan makes the request that she go out and find a man to sleep with so he can feel that connection again, Bess takes the request to the extreme which has extreme consequences with the people of the village.

It’s interesting to note that a year before this movie was made, Lars von Trier and fellow director Thomas Vinterberg created the “Dogme 95 Manifesto.” What this was was a set of rules created by von Trier and Vinterberg that they believed would create the purest and most authentic film possible. There are strange rules like the film has to be in color, shot on a hand held camera, and the banning of using any type of filters. In my opinion, it’s all a bit much. Breaking the Waves can’t technically be called a Dogme 95 film because it does break rules about sound and the director being credited, but the movie is shot on a hand held camera with what seems to be mostly natural lighting. This was a huge stylistic change for von Trier, especially since his earlier movies like Element of Crime and Europa are so heavily stylized. This is more really the only way a story like Breaking the Waves can be told, so it was a bold shift in style that should be respected.

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When it comes to love stories in film, it’s very easy to mess it up. If you look at most romantic comedies, there’s really nothing to the love that you see in the movies. It’s the most superficial type of romance you can see. What I love about film makers like Lars von Trier, Woody Allen, and the Coen Brothers is that they all seem very confused by love while also still being a part of it. That is what keeps the love story in Breaking the Waves feel so authentic and ultimately tragic. This film is absolutely devastating, but the relationship between Bess and Jan is very powerful and beautiful in a weird kind of way. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is a very unique movie with characters and situations and relationships that feel very fresh and real, sometimes disturbingly so.

It’s impossible to talk about this movie without dedicating a chunk of this review to Emily Watson. Lars von Trier’s movies aren’t known for their stellar performances, sometimes due to his awkward writing, but Emily Watson kills it in this movie. Bess is probably the most fully realized of all his characters and Watson taps into something deep here. I haven’t really seen Emily Watson in too much stuff so I never really had an opinion on her. After seeing her in Breaking the Waves, however, I now see just how powerful an actor she really is. Bess is a wonderful character and Watson plays her absolutely perfect.

Breaking the Waves is a truly magnificent movie that is both hard to watch and impossible to look away from. Lars von Trier has become one of my favorite film makers for a reason, and the reason is that he isn’t afraid to tackle new or taboo subjects using a variety of techniques. This is one of his more down to earth movies, but it still has that other worldly von Trierian quality that we’ve all come to expect with his movies. Simply put, Breaking the Waves is his masterpiece.

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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.

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.

Melancholia – Review

19 Jul

Lars von Trier is no stranger to shocking and appalling audiences. It seems he relishes in the idea of giving the willies to unsuspecting audiences. Mind you, he isn’t some sort of horror film maker who fills his films with monsters and murder. His films give a more spiritual upheaval or a large dosage of mental anguish. Melancholia hits where it hurts, and leaves you feeling hopeless and completely insignificant. Sounds like a bummer, right? Well this bummer of a film is also completely mind blowing and will leave you in a state of thought for days to come.

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The film is broken up into two parts. Part 1 is titled Justine. It is the night of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael’s (Alexander Skarsgård) wedding. Arriving two hours late to their own reception at Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) mansion, tensions are already running high. Throughout the night, Justine becomes more and more distant from everyone, leaving the party to sit by herself many times. Soon the entire party comes crashing down on everyone’s heads. Part 2 is titled Claire. In this part, we follow Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) as they allow Justine, who is depressed to the point where she can’t even take a bath, to stay with them. During their stay, a planet called Melancholia, is either going to pass closely to the Earth and allow a spectacular display or will crash into Earth, ending all life as we know it.

Visually, this is an incredible movie to look at. Lars von Trier has a way of making his movies look like moving paintings, rather than moving pictures. Every shot is so deliberate, even with the handheld style that he uses to give a more intimate look into the private lives of these people. What is really very impressive is the CGI visuals of the planets. In a breath taking opening sequence, we see planetary events from a remarkable view. While I know that it is all just special effects, it felt majestic.

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To many, Melancholia will be a prime example of a boring movie. The whole film takes place primarily on the grounds of John and Claire’s mansion. By the third act, the excitement and suspense really pick up, but for a bulk of the movie, not too much really goes on. There are some familial betrayals and arguments, but it’s very much just a family drama and character driven story. That being said, until the science fiction element of the story really kicks in, the plot moves fairly slowly. This is hardly a problem thanks to the excellent performances by the cast, with a special recognition going to Charlotte Gainsbourg for really conveying the emotional intensity of the story and characters beyond the screen. Kirsten Dunst also has a challenging role, and does a fine job at getting the physical and mental troubles of constant dread across.

A word of caution. If you’re in a great mood before watching Melancholia, be prepared for that happiness to be shattered. If you’re a generally sad or depressed person, than maybe this movie wouldn’t be the best thing to watch on one of your gloomy afternoons. By the end, you feel absolutely helpless and alone in the universe. All of the controllable and fixable problems that the characters have on earth mean nothing when an oversized planet is careening towards them. You are forced to put yourself in their situation, because you, no matter who you are, would be affected by this interstellar disaster.

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What Lars von Trier has done with Melancholia is blend beauty and tragedy, love and hopelessness together to create something that, to me, has surpassed what movies are really supposed to achieve. The reaction that I had to this movie is deep and personal because it deals with my own mortality. This movie isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t really traditional entertainment, but it has a way of sticking with you and affecting you. I implore whoever reads this to give Melancholia a chance for the visuals, the acting, and the internal turmoil that it is sure to cause.

Good Will Hunting – Review

10 Jan

To me, Good Will Hunting is an example of an almost perfect movie. Almost every aspect of this piece of work fits wonderfully into place to create a moving, personal, yet funny coming of age story. The cast is excellent and the dialogue is superbly written. There are a few plot devices that keep it from reaching new filmic heights, and that’s very unfortunate concerning the rest of the movie.

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Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a janitor at MIT who is housing a very special talent that is discovered by Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård). Will is proficient in all kinds of math and has a vast amount of knowledge on history, literature, and art. Pretty much the whole intellectual package. The problem with Will is that he lacks the motivation to use it, a problem that seems to be deeper than Will originally thought. Lambeau recruits help in the form of  Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), his old college room mate who has had problems getting ahead himself. Together, the two men will dig deeper into Will’s subconscious, guarded better than Helm’s Deep, to find out what is really holding him back.

Saying this movie has a definite point A to point B plot wouldn’t be giving the film any justice. Damon and Ben Affleck have crafted an excellent screenplay that isn’t only about Will’s hidden potential. It’s about Will and everyone else that is affected by Will’s ability. This mainly is a coming of age story, but it’s also a story of how one person can have such an affect on someone’s life, even if they aren’t in it for very long. It’s an age old story that is perfected by Damon, Affleck, and director Gus van Sant.

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When I say that this is an age old story, I really mean that it fits a very specific formula. Right when the movie started, I pretty much knew exactly what was going to happen. I could call how and when the low points were going to happen, and when the solutions to these problems came along, I was not surprised. I’m not trying to say that all movies should be shocking or bring something new to the table, but I think following a dramatic formula to a T should be avoided.

I will say that Good Will Hunting takes this formula and through its exceptional performances and writing makes it something special. This movie set a new standard for how these kinds of movies should be made. What makes a film like Mallrats so special? It’s pretty conventional when it comes to its plot, but its characters and dialogue are what makes the movie great. Good Will Hunting does the same thing. Matt Damon and Robin Williams’ chemistry are excellent and you can forget you’re watching two actors playing a part. Stellan Skarsgård and Minnie Driver also give excellent performances. Casey Affleck may have a small part, but definitely outshines his brother, Ben.

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Good Will Hunting may not be perfect, but it certainly is better than the average drama. The characters and their chemistry burn greatly and their dialogue is whip smart. Thankfully, the movie never gets overdramatic, and there is always some comedy to give us a breath of fresh air after an intense scene. This has become a modern day classic since it was released in 1997, and it has aged very well. If, by some chance, you haven’t seen this movie, definitely give it a watch. It’s inspiring on many different levels.