Long Way North (2015)

Long Way North (2015) movie poster

director Rémi Chayé
viewed: 02/18/2017

The style of this French-Danish animated feature reminded me aesthetically of Tomm Moore’s films The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, and it’s not so surprising. First time head director Rémi Chayé assistant directed the 2009 film.

Sasha is the daughter or a Russian aristocrat who leaves everything behind in a quest to find her grandfather or his missing ice-breaking ship, both of whom disappeared as he searched for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole. He’s a sort of Russian version of a Ernest Shackleton but more shaggy and fun.

It’s a nice film, with a strong female hero. It’s light but also mostly serious, with a lot less humor than your average children’s animated fare. Which isn’t really the problem.

The problem is more in the pacing and drama. Some things fly by, others happen suddenly without much impact. The polar bear scene near the end really lacked something. It’s hard to describe exactly what is off here, but both me and my daughter noticed it.

Still, enjoyable, if by no means a classic.

When Animals Dream (2014)

When Animals Dream (2014) movie poster

director Jonas Alexander Arnby
viewed: 01/21/2016

Coming of age per coming of werewolfishness is the gist of this concise (84 minutes) Danish flick.  What it’s got going for it is nice cinematography, the striking and compelling Sonia Suhl in the lead, and its very concision.   Unfortunately, the concision at times also pulls away from the film, with certain scenes going down so rapidly that you don’t always have time to fully absorb everything.

Marie (Suhl) is nearing adulthood and is finding weird things about herself, like patches of hair.  Is she somewhat like her sort of catatonic mother who must be shaved by her father?  Why does the small fishing village tolerate the existence of these potentially dangerous ladies?  Are they the only ones?  Will you get these answers?  Will you ask these questions?

That, and you’ll get a sense of hazing rituals at Danish fish processing plants.

For its strengths and shortcomings, I found the film kind of a wash.

Nymphomaniac (2013)

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (2013) movie posterNymphomaniac Vol. 2 (2013) movie poster

director Lars von Trier
viewed: 08/15/2014

Dude, who knows what goes on in the mind of filmmaker/provocateur, Lars von Trier?  Really.

It might be easier to intuit (or assume) if he was pure filmmaker and not a known provocateur.  But this film, from its title, its subject matter, its emphasis on showing non-simulated sex in its depiction, in some ways feels almost under a certain tinge of Exploitation.

Simply, the film follows an intellectual (Stellan Skarsgård) who stumbles on a beaten woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who he takes to his house to care for.  She tells him her story, that she is a nymphomaniac, and their dialog brings about an episodic re-examination of her life with numerous intellectual asides and contrasts.

Von Trier broke the film into two “Volumes” but on my watching, it feels much more like two parts of a singular whole.  So it’s over 4 hours of material, loaded with perversity, humor, dramas, pain and degradation.

Gainsbourg, between this film and Antichrist (2009), has earned all rights to being von Trier’s ultimate female muse, playing out with vast gravity all kinds of torment, torture, and humiliation that it seems that he can conceive. If von Trier is not a misogynist, he does a good job at inhabiting one, as this film (again paired with Antichrist — maybe an extension of Antichrist), is a film made with misogyny in mind.

At points, the film takes on a more whimsical tone, which reminded me of European sex comedies of the 1970’s or 1980’s, the soft-core tales of sexual misadventure and conquests, meant to play in a tone of titillation and erotica.  As many have noted, Nymphomaniac is anything but erotic.  It’s a tortuous tale, outre and extreme, and epic.

Is he taking the piss?  If he means this as a joke of some sort, he’s all in.

It’s over four hours of deeply considered loathing, sadism, and joyless punishment.  But it’s no hack job.  He gets some amazing performances from some of his cast and the film is not some slapped-together pile of hooey. For as long as the damn thing is, it went by a bit faster than I expected.  Actually, I think if I’d realized the duration that I was getting into I might not have gotten into it at all.

Quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine what he’s got left to shed on his audience.

Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God Forgives (2013) movie poster

director Nicolas Winding Refn
viewed: 02/25/2014

Hey, girl.  This movie is terrible .

Though it comes from the people behind Drive (2011), writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling, it’s a highly stylized crime film, stylized to the nth degree, to the nigh comical degree.  It’s almost parody.  Or so it feels.

Then it is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky.  So then you think, maybe I missed something?  Maybe there is some playfulness in its arch, over-the-top-ness?  And then you realize that you hated El Topo (1970), so maybe trying to find the quality in this strangely awful film is beyond you anyway.

You being me in this case.

Still.

Pusher (1996)

Pusher (1996) movie poster

director Nicolas Winding Refn
viewed: 07/28/2013

Nicolas Winding Refn was hardly an overnight sensation, though most of America (including myself) only really caught on after his 2011 film Drive made a big splash.  I’d had a few of his films in my Netflix queue forever, but other than Valhalla Rising (2009), even since Drive, I hadn’t gotten around to any of them.  Of course, now his newest film is out, Only God Forgives (2013), and while it’s gotten a healthy mixture of praise and pans, I figured I ought to go back to his other works.

Actually, my summer movie queue was meant to address a number of films that I’ve had for years not gotten around to but should have.  Winding Refn’s debut, Pusher, seemed a good place to start.

But I have to admit, I was surprised to realize that the film was nearly 20 years old.  I really have been slacking on this Dane’s output.

It’s a gritty, visceral thriller set in the thuggish underground of Copenhagen.  What’s kind of interesting is how these guys could easily be transplanted into the thuggish underground of almost any country where white criminals abound.  Change the language, make them English, for instance, you wouldn’t have to change much.

Oh wait, they did that.  They remade the film in England in 2012.  So clearly, I’m not alone in thinking that.

Seen in 2013, this film doesn’t strike me as feeling as original and innovative as it might have in 1996.  I only say that because it’s not unlike a lot of tough guy movies in which the criminals are the antiheroes and also the villains, separated by degrees of cruelty.

It’s a solid film, well-made, using hand-held camera work to give a naturalistic or documentary feel to it.  Again, back in 1996, this was coming to be a thing.  Then it became a thing of overuse, cliche, and abuse.  So, it’s a little harder to see it with fresh eyes still.  It’s certainly not to the film’s detriment.  It’s well-done.  Just not unique or striking or different in big ways from a lot of other things.

Klown (2010)

Klown (2010) movie poster

director Mikkel Nørgaard
viewed: 10/03/2012

The comedy of discomfort and awkwardness, a trail blazed in the last two decades from Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Girls and on and on.  The comedy of crass overstatement, images more shocking than things one would imagine seeing anywhere before the internet…well, you tell me.  There is probably a study of outre crassness.  It’s probably even something that could be graphed.  But you mix those two elements together into a feature film based on a Danish television comedy and you wind up with Klown…or perhaps something like Klown.

Most frequently compared to the American film The Hangover (2009) because that film featured debauchery and a few shocks, Klown has already been optioned for an American remake.  Will they show images of a child’s small penis being held up for comic photography by his caregivers?  What flies in Europe is still different than what flies in the United States.  But some aspects of comedy are certainly transcendent of language and relative differences in culture.

Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen play alternative reality versions of themselves.  Christensen is remorselessly horny and overconfident has booked the two pals on a “tour de pussy”, a canoe trip that includes a stop at a one-night brothel to beat all brothels.  Hvam is more pure schmuck, trying to prove to his girlfriend that he’s got some parenting skills, so he kidnaps a 13 year old goofball and tries to show his stuff.  Crucifying morality, hypocrisy, and decency, Klown puts these guys in increasingly “out there” situations, building inevitably to a point when something has got to give.

Ultimately, there’s a soft, chewy center to the heart of the film.  While Christensen goes on horndogging it and Hvam persists in his naive dopishness, something is learned.  There is the traditional narrative range and culmination, where though not all wrongs are righted, somebody learns something and grows (however microscopically) more adult.

Bottom line: Is it funny?  Yes. And yes to a lesser degree.  It has some moments.  But what is often the case in comedy that “pushes the envelope” and shocks for comic effect, comedy relies quite strongly on shocks and embarrassment, and not enough on just being funny.  And while it’s funny, it’s not hysterically so and I found myself kind of thinking it could have been better.

The Sinful Dwarf (1973)

The Sinful Dwarf (1973) movie poster

director Vidal Raski
viewed:  05/26/2012

Part two of my oddball “dwarf” double feature was the Danish Exploitation film, The Sinful Dwarf (Dværgen), which I read about on the rather amusing film blog Atomic Caravan a couple of months ago.  The Sinful Dwarf, as you might expect, is more pure Exploitation than its double feature partner Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), and you would be right indeed.  In fact, The Sinful Dwarf seems to enjoy a certain level of cachet as the crowned prince of “Dwarfsploitation” films, though how that overlooks The Terror of Tiny Town (1938), you’ve got me.

The Sinful Dwarf in question, Olaf, is played by the rather inimitable Torben Bille, who seems to have perfected his demonic leer for this film.  Olaf lives with his mother in a ramshackle boarding house, in part of which they keep their heroin-addicted white slave prostitutes who they abuse brutally.  When a young, unaware couple of newlyweds takes a room in their place, Olaf peeps on their coital relationship before eventually adding the young lady to their harem.

There is ample sex and nudity and rape.  At one point, Olaf even abuses one of the girls with his walking stick.  Bille pretty much makes the film work with his sleazy schtick, though his mother, an aging former burlesque dancer, offers further levels of perversity and depth of corruption.  It’s a family affair.

Their heroin connection is a local toy store operator, who smuggles his illegal wares in his seemingly more innocent wares.  Olaf is fond of playing perversely with toys and is played up as a horribly evil man-child.

There is some criticism of the quality of the film, but really, for what it’s worth and what it tries to do, it’s pretty successful.  If those “hot button” descriptions of the story don’t set you off (this is an unapologetic exploitation film, mind you), then maybe you should consider your own threshold for perversity.

My “oddball ‘dwarf’ double feature,” as I’ve called it, really arose from a happenstance of my Netflix film queue, not from any particular obsession of mine.  But it has given me pause to consider “Dwarfsploitation” as it is called, wondering at what other films would fall under this rubric.  Arguably much employment of “little people” in the history of cinema (and all other arts in which they’ve been used), has utilized them in exploitative ways within other contexts.  Even contemporary media continue this trend with few exceptions.  But for something to be, in particular, “Dwarfsploitation” as a specified descriptor, how many films genuinely merit that term?

Melancholia (2011)

Melancholia (2011) movie poster

director Lars von Trier
viewed: 04/09/2012

Lars von Trier’s films aren’t meant to be enjoyed, they’re meant to be endured.  Without a doubt that was true of his last film, Antichrist (2009), a surreal horror show filled with psychic violence and female castration.  Melancholia, on the other hand, is about depression and the end of the world.  At least no one cuts off a clitoris in this one.

The film is parted into two segments, named for the sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Dunst is a bipolar bride in a lavish wedding reception in her honor, facing her nastily negative iconoclast mother (Charlotte Rampling) and her besotted, genial father (John Hurt) and her crassly capitalistic boss (Stellan Skarsgård).  She goes through a series of increasingly odd behaviors in opposition to the festivities, eventually sinking the efforts of the event, sending everyone home miserable and unhappy.

The second part focuses on the coming of a planet that has been hiding “behind the sun,” Melancholia, which scientists and Claire’s billionaire husband (Kiefer Sutherland) think will dodge Earth in a near miss.  Claire, who rationally tried to hold the wedding party together, now starts freaking out about the end of the world and the inevitable death of herself, the world, and her child.  Justine is more nonplussed by the end of the world.

The whole thing takes place on Sutherland’s super fancy estate, which houses an 18-hole golf course of which he is very proud.  Like so much of von Trier’s films, things take place in an isolated setting, in a microcosm rather than in the “real” world.  Unlike his Dogme 95 films, which shunned artifice, von Trier employs visual effects and stages some very painterly sequences of great visual beauty. In this, it resembles Antichrist to a measure.

Supposedly, the film was conceived of as von Trier was going through therapy for a depression that he suffered.  The whole thing, though, seems more metaphorical than literal, though Dunst earned a lot of (pretty well-deserved) kudos for her performance as the woman trying to keep a happy public face as her interior implodes.  I mean, the simple, though perhaps too obvious metaphor of the end of the world, hiding right behind the sun, a planet named for the illness that comes out of hiding and brings people often to their own ends…it’s all right there.

The director also cites German Romanticism as an influence/concept of which the film delves, using Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” as the primary musical motif.  This line of thought is perhaps what led von Trier to make some rather unfortunate statements at Cannes, where the film was debuted last year, seeing in himself something of a Germanic tradition and making a statement about “understanding Hitler”.  What?  Too soon?  Von Trier is a provocateur for certain, probably deals with various mental issues, and is likely one of the more maverick film makers of his generation.   There is always something to be said after watching one of his films.  The provocation is often contemplative.  The thoughts, however, are rarely, “Wow, I can’t wait to see (endure) that again!”

Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Nicolas Winding Refn
viewed: 10/11/2011

After watching Drive (2011) and noting that I’d never seen any other of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s film, a friend recommended Valhalla Rising to me.  I recalled reading about Valhalla Rising when it was released, though I don’t think that I’d seen any trailers for it.  A film about pagan Vikings and Christian Highlanders, bloody battles, and a misguided attempt to join the Crusades, I wasn’t exactly sure what I thought about it from the outside.

What’s it about?  Interestingly the whole story is not so clearly elucidated.  Not much is explained, and as a result there is a lot of figuring out to do, interpreting.   Which I actually have to say I like in a film, though it might frustrate some.

Told in chapters or segments, the film opens with a tribe of highlanders who have a one-eyed man captured and chained, forced to fight brutally to the death against others.  No one speaks for a long time in the film, and though ultimately there is dialogue, the one-eyed man is a mute.  His character is beset by visions of blood and death, dreams, predictions, its not clear.  But he manages to escape and kill the horde that held him.  Except for a blonde, blue-eyed boy who had fed him.

They run into another tribe of men, Christians who are wanting to set out for the Holy Land to fight the good fight against the heathens.  Somehow they convince the man and the boy to join them.  Their ship becomes becalmed in a thick fog for some time and just as they are about to go mutinous and die, they find themselves in fresh water.

They believe that they’ve found the Holy Land but it’s clearly not the Middle East they’ve landed upon.  It’s green and lush, and they discover aboriginal above-ground graves that speak of the unknown holy rites of other cultures.  Eventually, they come into contact with these aboriginal peoples, often by being skewered by their arrows.

A mixture of religious zealot-ism, primitive visions of death, and fierce brutality rule their lives and instincts.  The boy seems to be able to read the mute one-eyed man’s mind.  And they believe that their new Holy Land is really Hell.

Despite some potential of magical realism, there is a definite adherence to a vision of natural realism.  The men of this time would be like this, brutal, pious, primitive in their understandings, superstitious and thus embedded in, for us, a surreal reality.  It’s not unlike Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) in a sense.

I also wondered about the intent of the story.  With chapter titles like “Wrath”, “Men of God”, “Hell”, and “Sacrifice”, trying to suss out the intended meaning of the film isn’t entirely easy.  At one point, the potentially pagan or non-Christian “One-Eye” almost seems a Christ figure of sorts.  A brutal killing-machine of a Christ figure, but he comes to lead without speaking a word.  The more even tempered of the warriors comes to realize that he might be their only hope of survival.

But the film also focuses on the hypocrisy of the brute devout.  There is a spiritualism in essence here, one perhaps pan-pagan?  Pre-Christian?  But in a violent, cruel world, wherein brutality is necessary for survival.

I shan’t sit pondering the meaning here forever.  It’s an interesting film.  Not typical, not rote, not entirely straight-forward.

Dogville

Dogville (2003) movie poster

(2003) director Lars von Trier
viewed: 05/04/11

Though it’s not a was never a theatrical play, Lars von Trier’s Dogtville was shot on a minimalist set that has more the feel of a stage than of a “place”.   The set of Dogville, the entire setting of the entire film, is a flat space, with most of the buildings merely represented by drawn lines and names on the ground.  An initial overhead shot shows the entire layout.  Some buildings have a wall or two and some rooms have pieces of furniture.

The film is also segmented into chapters, which have title cards and descriptions.  And there is a narrative voice-over, by John Hurt, telling the tale of the town, its people, and the woman (Nicole Kidman) who shows up in town seeking asylum from criminal pursuers.  The whole thing foregrounds the artifice of the production, which is no doubt a part of the intent.  But the story that is told, while dark and cynical, is relatively straight-forward.  Actually, I think that if the film had been shot in a more normal format, a period film with actors in period clothes and in a real location, it might have carried a fairly traditional tone.

But this is Lars von Trier, who is anything but conventional.  The film was the first in a planned series of three (2005’s Manderlay was part two, also shot in with the same technique), but the third film has not yet been made, if it ever will.  The series was called “USA – Land of Opportunities”, and knowing von Trier’s jaded perspective on the USA, there is doubtlessly a critique not just of the human psyche, but particular to that of the American psyche.

Kidman’s character is taken in by the town, posed as a test of morality and goodness in the town.  They know that she is wanted by gangsters and that they could cash in by turning her in.  Her moral test is to prove her worth, though she’s never worked a day in her life, offering assistance to the reluctant townspeople.  The test of the morals of the townspeople is that in accepting her in, they wind up abusing her, eventually using her for sex and chaining her to a bed.  The town fails their moral test, and they pay for it in blood.

The cast is quite stellar, including Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Chloë Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgård, Patricia Clarkson, Paul Bettany, and Ben Gazzara to name a few.   And the film is quite good.  As I noted before, if it had been shot with this cast in a more traditional setting, it would probably have had more commercial appeal.  It got solid reviews, and a friend of mine recommended strongly.

The anti-American aspect comes in most pointedly at the end, when David Bowie’s “Young Americans” blasts from the soundtrack, accompanied by a series of black-and-while images of poverty in America.  This sudden juxtaposition of images of reality, played against a yearning song about Americans is jarring.  What exactly does von Trier mean by this?  His story, which has a figurative nature, played out in a highly artificial landscape, seems cohesive at least in its idea, but then these images of poverty which are drawn from reality, it’s a very clear juncture, but at what end?

I mean, I get it, that there is and has long been great poverty in the United States despite having so much wealth in the country as a whole.  I get it that in this story about the crass immorality of this small town of pretended niceness and “aw gosh” charms is critical.  But anyways, the two things didn’t match up for me.  And having not seen Manderlay, or the unfinished final film, I’d just be guessing anyways.

It’s an interesting film, Dogville, among Quentin Tarantino’s top 20 films of the past 20 years.  But it wasn’t a “wow” for me.  For my money, Antichrist (2009), while quite coarse and trying, was a more successful Lars von Trier than Dogville, but who knows?