poster DuneTo many, the new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune will feel like a nice consolation for the fact that cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky never finished his version of Frank Herbert’s esteemed sci-fi epic. It’s a terrific chronicle of the Chilean director’s ambitious planning to prepare a thorough treatment for his first film proposed to major Hollywood studios. But it is also a celebration of unfettered creativity in all its glorious excess.

For Jodorowsky, a film about several worlds fighting for possession of a substance that expands consciousness should be treated literally as a mind-altering experience. When he set out to adapt the beloved book (which he admits he never read) in 1975, he said he wanted to not just make a film but “a prophet.” He wanted to alter viewers’ sense of perception. He says he wanted to create the cinematic sensation of taking LSD.

What resulted was several hard-bound books of spaceship designs, character sketches, costumes and storyboards that detailed his vision … but no film. In this documentary, filmmaker Frank Pavich interviews Jodorowsky who waffles between the bright side of bringing a new vision to Hollywood that predated Star Wars and a suppressed rage at the machine that stifled his vision. 7Pavich also brings to life the images of the book by editing together the story boards and animating some of the many detailed concept designs of the spaceships by rendering them digitally. The camera pans and scales over the static images from the book. There are sound effects and an eerie, Moog-drenched score by Kurt Stenzel that could have been the score to Jodorowky’s Dune. It’s as close to the would-be movie as we get.

But that’s not the point of this documentary.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is really about the vision of the cult director that ultimately expands the consciousness of Hollywood for the daring vision needed to pull off science fiction with respect to considering possibilities that go beyond earthbound thinking. dune.ac-2 aDirectors like George Lucas, Ridley Scott and James Cameron are indeed indebted to Jodorowsky for planting the seed of possibility for latter-day sci-fi work such as their’s.

Jodorowsky gathered a true dream team of collaborators, or, as he calls them, warriors, to make his film. He hired people like H.R. Giger, who would later design the title monster of the Alien movies, to design the world of the evil Harkonnen. The dark prog rock band Magma was to compose all the music associated with it. Meanwhile, Pink Floyd agreed to also provide original music and Chris Foss and Jean “Moebius” Giraud were brought in for design and artwork. Dan O’Bannon who would go on to write the screenplay for Alien was hired as a screenwriter based on what Jodorowsky saw in Dark Star. Clearly inspired about by Kurick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jodorowsky also pursued that film’s Oscar-winning effects man Douglas Trumbull. However, Jodorowsky was turned off by his underwhelming, practical bottom-line attitude. He was no spiritual warrior for Dune.

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The beauty of this documentary comes from its ability to channel Jodorowsky’s lively attitude for art as enlightenment and spiritual home. When he says he does not want to compromise to the studios even if it means the demise of his project, it becomes the right thing. It’s as if Jodorowsky’s Dune fell apart as a martyr so it might inspire films like Star Wars and Alien.

As ever with Jodorowsky, there’s humor in his wisdom. When Star Wars fans bemoaned George Lucas’ revising 6his films with digital effects in the 1990s the mantra became “George Lucas raped my childhood.” Jodorowsky, however, proudly declares, “I raped Frank Herbert,” as he thrusts his hips back and forth holding an imaginary book doggy style in front of him. In that charming Jodorowsky way of his, he is not belittling the source material. Instead, he compares it to the consummation of marriage, taking a virginal bride dressed in white to the bedroom, tearing away her dress and fucking her. “I raped him with love,” he adds.

It doesn’t matter that Jodorowsky never read the book. What matters is that he created his own work, something that has only gained more value over time. The legend grows as with its mystical possibilities, hence the notion that this may indeed be one of the greatest films never made. Director Nicolas Winding Refn appears early in the documentary to boast that he’s the only one who has seen Jodorowsky’s version of Dune because the director himself sat with him and paged through the book and shared his vision. As we can expect with Refn, it’s a rather juvenile and insulting comment to this idea of possibilities of what the essence of this film did for science fiction cinema. It lowers the film to a materialistic level that defies Jodorowsky’s vision, which belongs to the imagination, and that’s why Jodorowsky’s Dune stands as the greatest sci-fi movie never made.

Hans Morgenstern

Jodorowsky’s Dune runs 90 minutes and is rated PG-13 (for fantastical violent and sexual images and drug references). It opens in South Florida on Apr. 25 in Miami Beach at the Regal South Beach and in Boca Raton at Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood. The following week, it opens in Miami at O Cinema Wynwood. It will appear at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on June 7 with other Jodorowsky surprises to be announced. Sony Pictures Classics invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

smilingfaces_smThe other day I reviewed Hide Your Smiling Faces, an incredible indie film that was picked up by Tribeca Film recently (Film Review: ‘Hide Your Smiling Faces’ presents resonant images of darkness and light of life and death). I’m happy to report a more abridged and slightly easier-to-digest version of the review appears in today’s Miami Herald’s Weekend section (read that version here).

Ahead of our discussion at the end of this month with film critic Amy Taubin, I corresponded with the film’s director, Daniel Patrick Carbone. We got to know each other well enough for an interview, which was published in the Miami New Times’ art and culture blog Cultist, earlier this morning. I was struck by how such a loose-feeling film can also tap into such specific, abstract feelings that I take note of in the review. It’s quite a miracle how some smartly directed improvisation and evocative scenes can come across so specifically. That’s why it makes such a great film for the first “Speaking In Cinema” event at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (see more about the event here).

You can read most of my interview with Carbone by jumping through the Cultist logo below, where he shares tips for those trying to fund a film via Kickstarter and how he felt about having his film picked up by Tribeca:

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We dove more into the film than what is in that article. Here are some of the outtakes, which are no less insightful:

Hans Morgenstern: We find out the names of the brothers at the center of the film far along in the movie. Why?

Daniel Patrick Carbone: This is simply due to the way people speak in real life. A conversation between two people, especially two young people, rarely includes first names. I wanted the kids to speak like real kids. They had a lot of freedom to improvise their lines and the result is a more authentic style of speaking. Since there are so few characters in the film, knowing their names wasn’t something I needed to worry about right at the beginning.

HYSF-Carbone-PhotoHM: Is it fair to call this a movie about death? What is your interest in this theme?

That’s absolutely fair, but I’d also add that it’s a film about nature and brotherhood, and using tragic experiences to learn more about yourself and the world around you. I also think it’s a hopeful film. I think the difficult parts about growing up— those unanswerable questions that haunt us as children— are just as formative as the positive moments. I wanted to explore that moment when we realize we aren’t invincible and our actions have consequences. I have very vivid memories of my first experiences with loss and grief, and I think I am better for having experienced what I did. This film is a distillation all of those emotions, good and bad.

* * *

Of course, much more to come, live and in person with Taubin’s inspired voice in the mix (read what she thought of the film in her Tribeca Film Festival recap for Film Comment).

I’ll leave you with one of the clips we plan to share at our discussion:

Hans Morgenstern

Hide Your Smiling Faces opens today at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The director will present the film on April 26 and 27, at 7 p.m. On Tuesday April 29, at 7 p.m.,he, New York film critic Amy Taubin and Miami-based film critic Hans Morgenstern will share the stage in the first installment of the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film and others.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

 

HYSF-Lake-1920x1080

Most of us are frightened of dying because we don’t know what it means to live. We don’t know how to live, therefore we don’t know how to die. As long as we are frightened of life we shall be frightened of death.  

– J. Krishnamurti, from Freedom from the Known

The entanglement of life and death would be so much easier to understand if life were only ever bliss and death was only tragedy. In Hide Your Smiling Faces, two teenage brothers hint at a semblance of shamelessness in the face of death. They share a giggle behind the backs of their parents who are lamenting the untimely death of a playmate of the younger brother. With this slight moment, director Daniel Patrick Carbone exposes something quite profound about the relationship between life and death. Throughout his debut feature, he uses moments that subvert dialogue and narrative in order to speak to the sublime and varied might of the great inevitable.

It’s not like death is not funny (look at the work of Woody Allen, which respects its power while finding humor in its dread). Why the death of a boy appears funny to these kids, at that moment, is never revealed by this film, nor does it need to be. With his impressive debut feature film, Carbone is able to do something with visuals that only few do with words, such as philosophers Krishnamurti and the more accessible Alan Watts (read more about him in my profile on the band STRFKR). Carbone has been compared to Terrence Malick, but I would add the more minimalist and sometimes humorous film, Le Quattro Volte (read my review).

With a run time of only 80 minutes, Hide Your Smiling Faces is a brief but dazzling little movie full of mystery and atmosphere that subtly seduces the viewer to relate with aimless youth by not dwelling on narrative. It follows the two brothers, Eric (Ryan Jones) and Tommy (Nathan Varnson), whose names you do not learn until much later in the film. Though their ages are never disclosed and neither is shown in school, Tommy could be in middle school and Eric in high school. They often speak in questions. They seem to wile away time outside of their rustic home in the nature of rural New Jersey (we only know the location thanks to the film’s end credits). Technology is hidden from the picture, beyond a portable CD player, which could place these kids in an alternate era, probably the early 1990s. Even their plain clothing and crew cuts set them in a place out of the current era. These are all visual clues to keep the viewer focused on the film’s theme, which is established early on with an extended opening shot of a snake gradually consuming a lifeless salamander between some undulating breaths.

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Death and decay appear over and over in scenes that show the boys vibrantly living it up, but it’s not excess so much as visceral urgency. They break into an abandoned home to punch through decaying walls. The brothers discover a mysterious pile of dead pets in the woods, including dogs and a cat. The threat of violence emerges during play wrestling and when one the youngest boys gets ahold of his father’s gun.

There’s a reckless, immature yet sincere quality to these boys’ relationships. There are no young girls brought into the narrative, but there are still expressions of love and tenderness. In back-to-back scenes, Eric and Tommy have intimate moments with friends. In the first scene, it’s night, and Tristan (Thomas Cruz), the only friend Eric sometimes has alone time with, cryptically confesses to him over the phone, “I just don’t want to be here anymore … no one likes me here.” Eric responds with hesitation: “I do.” It’s only after Tristan coaxes him with some terse questions that Eric somewhat painfully admits, “I like you. You’re my friend.” In the following scene, during the day, Tommy proposes to one of his friends they practice kissing with a piece of transparent acetate between their faces. “So you don’t wonder what it feels like?” Tommy tells his friend, before they do it and laugh it off agreeing, “This is pretty weird.” Throughout the film, Carbone’s script captures the complexity of repressed expression between these young people. He reveals a deep yearning to connect below superficial actions.

Carbone seems more interested in presenting these profound moments of imperfect human connections as vignettes rather than deeply explored storylines. They therefore take on an impressionistic air that many in the audience might relate with. He leaves it up to the audience to fill in the gaps with feeling and thought. trailer-hide-your-smiling-faces-16648That’s not to say the film is not expressive and warm. Carbone has more experience in his filmography as a cinematographer than directing (he directed one short in 2008, besides this film, according to his IMDB page, but has six cinematography credits), and it shows in the best way. From one scene to another he presents arresting, intimate images through the lensing of Nick Bentgen. They position the camera at the younger boys’ eye level, so you are there, on the floor in the bedroom with them, light shining into the room from a window above.

Despite the rather extended opening sequence, the film never feels as though it drags. Bentgen’s camera finds plenty of dynamic images to appreciate. Sometimes they are distant and obscure, rich with wonder. There are no pans or zooms, only an opening to a lush landscape that hints at layers of imagery and sometimes mystery. He does not shoot dreamily like Malick’s current cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. He shoots more intimately, drawing you in close to the characters without indulgent close-ups. If there is a dreamlike quality to the film, it comes out in the editing, which is more associative than straight up narrative. Like the directing and the script, Carbone is also the sole editor of this film, which shows how much control he had over the final product.

There’s hardly ever any music to take away from the film’s naturalistic sensibility. Something that sounds like death metal rumbles out of a pair of headsets Tommy borrows from Eric. HYSFBeyond that muffled diegetic din, the only time Carbone consciously uses extradiegetic music comes when the brothers ride a bicycle they share. The score is a spare atmospheric, droning soundscape by Robert Donne, who is probably best known as a founding member of Labradford, a post-rock/drone-rock band from Virginia that emerged in the early ‘90s. The melodic hum ebbs and flows, as the boys cover a seemingly expansive landscape both full of lush forests and also— one never is allowed to forgets— the threat of death.

Carbone has chosen to work with rather inexperienced actors. It keeps the interaction between the boys genuine and casual. It harnesses that special power within boyhood that still seethes with potential and a desire for expression in an unencumbered manner. HYSF-Rain-Tongue-1920x1080That said, the movie has three or four instances where the acting becomes visible due to a sense of self-consciousness by these actors. But then the camera offers another impressive, quiet visual moment that cancels out this glance behind the curtain, as when the deceased boy and Tommy share a disconnected moment in time with the carapace of the same dead bug. Both have turns delicately holding the translucent exoskeleton of the beetle against the light. Through association they are connected as death is infused with light. It’s a beautiful moment layered with the complexity of life and death.

Light and darkness is a huge part of this film. Carbone proves a daring young voice in the independent cinema world who understands how to allow visuals to not only tell the tale but express something beyond language. A film like this is far beyond notions of coming-of-age, as it ends with these kids having a lot left to learn. It’s refreshing to experience a movie that can settle into expression of the feeling of growing up while offering the taste of potential, instead of some neat, distancing complete package. Hide Your Smiling Faces is one of those thrilling moments in cinema that confirms pictures can indeed be bigger than words.

Hans Morgenstern

Note: I will host the director and legendary film critic Amy Taubin (Film Comment, Village Voice, Sight and Sound) in a discussion of this film and other cinematic releases of the year in the first installment of the Knight Foundation-sponsored series, Speaking In Cinema on Tuesday, April 29, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For information and tickets visit here (that’s a hotlink).

Hide Your Smiling Faces begins this Friday, April 18, exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, in South Florida. It runs 80 minutes and is unrated (there’s cussing and vivid scenes of rigor mortis). Tribeca Film provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s website.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

tall_joe_mooreI met the Dead Milkmen 21 years ago. They were the first band with MTV cred and international recognition I had the chance to interview. It was a job that came to me when a promo/advance cassette of their 1993 album Not Richard But Dick arrived to the offices of The Beacon, the student newspaper of Florida International University. It was an intimidating gig for a green music writer such as I, who mostly wrote CD reviews up until this opportunity. The Milkmen were a weirdo punk rock band with a sarcastic and sometimes cruel sense of humor made famous with songs like the “art fag” song “You’ll Dance To Anything” and the sinister “Let’s Get the Baby High.” To top it off, they hid behind fake names.

But what has really shown through over the band’s legacy years is the profound talent they harbor as musicians. Their sound cannot be pigeonholed as mere punk rock. They have an inventive songcraft that includes both catchy songs and a deconstructive knowledge of genre. Still, a wry, critical and sometimes subversive sense of humor shines through their lyrics. Pre-dating the guys behind “South Park,” the Milkmen’s lyrics spare no one, from conspiracy theorists (“Stuart”) to the devout (“I Dream of Jesus”) to hipsters (“You’ll Dance To Anything”).

I met the quartet of vocalist/keyboarist Rodney Linderman (fake name then Arr. Trad.), guitarist/vocalist Joe Genaro (a.k.a. Butterfly Fairweather), bassist Dave Schulthise (then 11070) and drummer Dean Sabatino (Dean Clean) during a break from sound check at the now long-gone Button South nightclub in Fort Lauderdale. They were as stand-offish as an alternative rock MTV band in the slacker years of the 1990s could be, but they were still funny and sociable. I warmed up to them quickly, and I had them all sign the back of my personal CD copy of Not Richard, But Dick. They left some interesting messages, too:

Dead Milkmen autographs. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

The resulting “Beacon” article was re-printed in 1994 by the Chicago ‘zine “Pure.” You can read the admittedly cheesy and amateurish article here: Vodka Keeps the Dead Milkmen SingingThe one Milkman I best got along with was Genaro, despite his creepy message that accompanied his autograph. After our chat, later that evening, he and I sat on some stools behind the pit to watch Possum Dixon* open the show. Genero and I spoke about a mutual appreciation for Stereolab and other then current up-and-coming artists.

Sometime last month, when the recent opportunity for a follow-up interview arose, Genero was the guy I felt most at ease doing a follow-up interview with, so I reached out to him when I heard he and his old mates were making a rare appearance in Miami at Grand Central on April 11. We ended up chatting over the phone for nearly an hour. He now admits to liking Radiohead, but not many truly current, contemporary alternative rock artists. He also graciously accepted my notion that the Milkmen’s sound is rooted in both The Velvet Underground and The Ramones. He also said that though The Dead Milkmen have often been considered a comedy band, it’s just how their music came out. They’ve never consciously been a comedy act.

Watch Genero front the band’s famed MTV hit “Punk Rock Girl:”

We eased into that serious talk about music, though. Our chat began silly enough with me asking the same stupid questions I first asked the band in 1993. It started the conversation with more than a few laughs. However, the interview turned really serious later. He explained the decision to break-up in 1994, the band’s relationship with the major label Hollywood Records, and most profoundly, the effect Schulthise’s suicide had on him and the band. You can read most of our Q&A in the music blog for The Miami New Times, Crossfade, by jumping through the blog’s logo below:

crossfade

A much shorter print piece ran in The Miami New Times yesterday. You can pick it up free at news stands for the next week, throughout Miami-Dade County. It can also be read here.

Most of the material resulting from this interview appears in that Crossfade link. However, as you might expect, there was still a lot left over. So here, at Indie Ethos, you can read about their post-reunion life with some stellar new material they have self-released that includes an album from 2011 (The King In Yellow) and several great 7-inches (see them here— one is already sold out). The new music reveals that the Dead Milkmen have remained incredibly true to its sound and humor, though they now have Dan Stevens on bass. Finally, they are nearly done with a new album. Here’s the end of our conversation:

Hans Morgenstern: So tell me about the new material.

Joe Genaro: We were just in the studio last weekend, and we’ll be in the studio this weekend to add to that, so we’re fleshing out… We started out recording a series of 7-inches, and I think the original idea is that we were gonna release everything on the 7-inches and then compile it on the album, but we changed our plans and decided, OK, we’re not going to release all of the songs on the 7-inches. We did four of them, good enough, and we recorded six more songs, and together, that will create an album, what we consider the next album, the 10th studio album.

Do you have a title for it?

No. We have lots of ideas for titles but no title. The working title that Rodney came up with was Servant Girl Annihilator.

Hmm. Interesting.

(Laughs). If that becomes the actual title, we shall see. There’s other titles we’ve been floating around, so who knows. It’s usually, oddly, the last thing that we do— is finalize the title and the artwork and such.

So how many songs is it gonna have?

17 or 18.

And you return to the studio for final mixes or what?

To do final mixes. I think recording is finished. We might polish some things. Sometimes when we’re mixing a song, oh, we can’t live with this little thing. We wished we had played this on a different thing, but otherwise I think we’re done.

What’s different about recording an album now as opposed to the early years of recording for you?

What’s a little bit different now is you take bits that you recorded in one measure and move them easily to another. Like, if you wanted an ending to all line up in the end you can shift. Before, in the tape days, you’d have to figure out how we’re all gonna have to see each other if we’re gonna have an ending where we all end at once. Now you can record it and have the engineer move it where it should be.

And you can sound like expert musicians.

Exactly (laughs), which we’re not.

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The years have passed since I seriously sat down and listened to your music, but I can’t say you’ve changed so much. What keeps your sound so fixed?

I think it’s three of us, our style, for one thing. No one plays guitar quite like me. They probably don’t want to. Dean is very unique in his approach, very good drummer, and obviously Rodney has a unique sound and has a voice that no one has matched ever. The danger is that we have a different bass player now, but Dan learned to play bass by listening to Dave. He’s a young’un. He came to our attention through being a fan of the Dead Milkmen back in the ’90s. Just after we’d broken up, he befriended me and Dean at the time. I recorded his first band. They’re still actually together. He had a band with two cousins called Farquar Muckenfuss, kind of like a surfy-punk instrumental band. And when my friend Chris [Seegal] put the band The Low Budgets together he also knew Dan. In fact, he and I met Dan together for the first time, in person, at a show. So the band The Low Budgets was the first that I created with Dan in. It just seemed natural that he sort of acquired a similar style to Dave, by learning to play bass like Dave. He has his own style, of course, but he was very good at mimicking. But now he’s becoming more comfortable with the new stuff and no longer trying to play like Dave would have played it.

How do you balance a set list with the new material and the songs people want to hear?

Good question. It’s a tough thing to do. Rodney is our set list master. We all have somewhat of a say. We all have rights to refusal. We don’t try to put too many new songs in. We learned from other people’s experiences that that can be the death of the energy of the show. People come to a show of a band like us expecting certain songs, and we want to make them happy. From personal experience, we’re happy when the crowd’s happy. So we hit the songs that we think people want to hear, and we sprinkle in the songs that we want to play, and things that they wouldn’t mind hearing, knowing that they probably never heard them before.

*  *  *

Hans Morgenstern

The Dead Milkmen play Miami with Sandratz and Humbert, Friday, April 11, at Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets cost $18 via ticketfly.com. Call 305-377-2277, or visit grandcentralmiami.com. The group continues to Tampa after that, but that show is sold out. Then, they fly back home to Philadelphia, so it’s a mere two-day tour.

Notes:

*I was impressed by Possum Dixon, a band from California that Genaro remembered as fun to party with after the shows this opening act. They then had yet to reach underground college rock fame on the MTV late-night video show “120 Minutes.” Genaro suggested I write about them, too. I would eventually give their self-titled debut a glowing review in The Beacon, comparing them to Wall of Voodoo. Possum Dixon’s vocalist Robert Zabrecky would later send me a postcard saying “We love Wall of Voodoo!”

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

LeWeekEnd-posterThe depiction of love in movies often feels unfulfilling to the older movie-goer or anyone, for that matter, with true experiences in long-term relationships. Hollywood has a knack for making weddings part of the climax in films about relationships. Anyone who has had a wedding knows they are but a momentary blip in life. The real tricky part is capturing a semblance of the ever-complicating life shared between those who have been married.

Le Week-End director Roger Michell (the man behind both Notting Hill and The Mother) has many years exploring love in the movies. Armed with a screenplay by novelist Hanif Kureishi, he probably has not handled the subject more delicately or subtly until now. British couple Meg (Lindsay Duncan) and Nick (Jim Broadbent) are looking to rekindle romance in Paris by returning for a weekend to stay at the hotel where they first spent their honeymoon, 30 years ago. She bounces between raging frustration with him and flighty spontaneity. He can hardly keep up and has his own quiet, sheepish frustration that he tends to keep bottled up. In one meek attempt to seduce her, Nick reaches out and she flinches. “Why won’t you ever let me touch you?” he says.

She responds, “It’s not love. It’s like being arrested.”

They fight and argue a lot from one scene to another. During many transitional edits, the film and, by association, the couple seem to reboot. Romantic jazz music, featuring stride piano and plucky acoustic guitar accompanies the fade-in to these new scenes. The two distinct instruments call and respond. It almost mirrors the to and fro of the couple’s often opposing perspectives. It’s not discordant, however. There’s harmony but also conflict with in these distinct characters (I’m referring to both the instruments and the couple). It’s a witty musical representation of the couple. It’s hard to note this jazzy score by Jeremy Sams and not allude to a comparison to Woody Allen’s work as a director, who also has long presented a fine-tuned concern of romantic relationships on the rocks.

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Another, more grim comparison could be to Before Midnight (Film review: ‘Before Midnight’ offers original glimpse of love evolved). With its extended scenes of sometimes passive-aggressive tension between its characters (when anger and resentments are not directly being flung at the other), Before Midnight can feel difficult to endure, as conversations spiral into full-blown operatic emotional battles. Le Week-End, on the other hand, knows how to keep the conflict in check with tidy scenes that build toward the fateful appearance of a third wheel played by an exuberant Jeff Goldblum. His character brings some refreshing perspective for not only Meg and Nick but also the viewer.

It could have been tiresome to just follow this antagonistic husband and wife for the entire film. Thankfully, Morgan appears to not only infuse some life into the film but also a deeper tragedy. Goldblum brings vibrant energy to Morgan, a former student of Nick’s who has had more success with his writing than his teacher. ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????He also happens to live in Paris with a younger, pregnant wife. Though he seems to be doing well, he credits the dreary, serious Nick as an inspiration. “Over the years that I’ve sat at desks like this,” he says after inviting Nick into his fancy study overlooking the Eiffel Tower, “and in the times when I’ve tried to convince myself that I’ve had some kind of brain or just a little bit of rigor or integrity … I would think what would Nick Burroughs do now?” This weighs heavy on Nick, who happens to be a philosophy professor, not just as a compliment but a terrible burden of possibility.

Morgan has invited the couple to his spacious apartment for a dinner party with artists, writers, scholars— a veritable cornucopia of intelligentsia. But just when you think the director has inserted Morgan as some mirror character of possibilities, the film gifts us a confessional moment by Morgan to Nick. He says of his young wife, “She can’t see through me yet. I mean, she will,” Morgan says as he nervously chomps on an hors d’oeuvre, his eyes flitting about in a perfect Goldblumism.

Meanwhile, a younger Frenchman chats up Meg. With little to gain from this flirt, she quickly reveals her morose character, talking about her “fury, dissatisfaction and the clock ticking by.” But, oh, these French people. He’s still taken by her. “What a great thing,” he tells her with a pensive smile, “to be so attuned to your unhappiness.”

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Still, thirty years of marriage matters for something, and the film, for all its bitterness and conflict, also subtly reveals slight but precious moments shared by Meg and Nick. Though they never seem to notice it themselves, the partners reveal similar habits, like when they wipe their eyeglasses at the same time at the table with their dinner napkins. Thankfully, the director does not try to highlight these moments heavy-handedly.

Underneath the explosive bitterness, the big value of the smaller things shines through and ultimately bonds Meg and Nick, and it makes the film a much nicer pill to swallow than most such movies. For all its seeming indulgence in the misery of this couple, Le Week-End turns out to be a delightful film. Communication opens up, and as much as this couple pushes so hard to move forward during a time when they should be just settling in, it is indulging in a bit of nostalgia that always seems the best cure for them. That the film ends with an even grander and more resonant reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part than the delightful, though comparatively naïve Frances Ha, gives the film’s finale an extra punch. Fine, it’s work to make a long-lasting marriage work, but a bit of honesty to oneself and some confidence can go a long way to submit to the humbling power of a bond for a life shared together.

Hans Morgenstern

Le Week-End runs 93 minutes and is Rated R (mature language and sexual problems). Music Box Films provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It opens in South Florida on April 4, in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area at the Regal South Beach 18, AMC Sunset Place and The Classic Gateway Theatre. On April 18 it expands northward to West Palm Beach, at the Regal Shadowood, Living Room Theaters, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth and Downtown Gardens/West Palm Beach. It already began playing in other parts of the U.S. and has more dates scheduled through May; visit the film’s official webpage and click on “theaters” for more screening dates.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

fly_poster_UK_WebIt was Carl Jung who theorized all genders have an opposite within. Men have a female side and women have a male side. He said part of what drives the unconscious mind was the anima and animus. If ever there was a male director who desperately wanted to bring life to his anima, it may be Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. And if there was ever proof at how futile his efforts are in tapping into the female side of his unconscious it lies there in his filmography. But dammit if he does not strive for it with a brutal honesty.

Though many have written him off as a misogynist, von Trier clearly has sympathy for women. Breaking the Waves (1996), still (maybe sentimentally for this writer) his strongest film, made a star of Emily Watson. She played a virginal bride whose husband (Stellan Skarsgård) grows distant. She turns to whoring and then implicitly rises to the status of saint. In Dancer In the Dark (2000), our heroine (Björk) escapes into musical sequences to come to terms with an unavailable father to her son as she gradually goes blind and meets the cruelest sort of end one could imagine. Most recently, Kirsten Dunst became his anima surrogate in the over-indulgent Melancholia (‘Melancholia’ offers intimate, if flawed, look at the end of the world), which explored the depths of a depressed woman (Dunst) but short-changed her grounded sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a giant planet grew ever closer to earth to swallow it whole.

In even more sexually explicit films, there is Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and Antichrist (2009). Either victimized or self-destructive, women are quite doomed in von Trier’s universe, burdened by their anatomy instead of empowered by it. But he’s far from finished exploring female sexuality. It’s fitting that his most primal and focused of his women-centric movies is the epic-length, four-and-a-half-hour long Nymph()maniac (parentheses for extra evocative effect).

Nymphomaniac 16 photo by Christian Geisnaes

As one can expect from title and that () in place of the o, von Trier’s unapologetic heavy hand is once again all over this film, which, in the U.S. has been divided into two films: Nymph()maniac Volume I and Nymph()maniac Volume II. It has also been more than cut in half for stateside consumption, it has also been shortened by a half-hour. One might assume it is a move by von Trier to protect the more puritanical American audience from explicit sex overload because there is a lot of it in this movie. To his detriment, he is a condescending director, who would consider such a notion, as  his coerciveness once again mutes the impact of his theme. However, the film does have its strengths, albeit within a mixed bag of genuine effort.

The film is not rated, as it would have never earned anything less than an NC-17 rating. Sexuality is ever-present in the film. Even the U.S. version has a few scenes of penetration (body doubles were reportedly used). No anecdote is absent of sex or the implication of it (even references to fly fishing). This uncompromising effort by von Trier is by design. He does not only stay true to the title but creates an implicit effect that will indeed place the audience in the title character’s body. Before the end of the film, the viewer will become numb to the sex on-screen. This is actually one of the film’s strengths, as it draws the audience into the titular protagonist’s world.

Gainsbourg, in her third major role in a row for von Trier plays Joe. After a slithering camera silently turns a few brick walls and gutters dripping melting snow, we find her bruised and unconscious in an alleyway. We are then sonically assaulted with the film’s black metal theme song (there’s that heavy hand). Nymphomaniac 14 photo by Christian GeisnaesAn older man (Skarsgård) helps her up and insists he call an ambulance. She threatens to run away if he calls any authority, so he offers her tea at his place. He then tucks her in his bed where she proceeds to tell him a bedtime story all about her self-described nymphomania (a long out-dated psychological disorder on par with hysteria) and what “a bad human being” she has been.

The man, who later reveals his name as Seligman, for the most part seems rather unstartled by accounts of her sexuality, which begins with her first memory, when, as a 2-year-old, “I first discovered my cunt.” He can’t help but divert her narrative to his experiences as a fly fisherman and goes on about the “nymph” fly. She pauses silently, as if to say, “I don’t know what to say to that” and carries on with her story. This disconnect between the characters could be relevant or not. Maybe von Trier is subverting his own ham-fistedness, as Joe’s pregnant pauses easily invite laughter from the audience.

She later shares an anecdote where she took a challenge from a friend to try and have with sex with as many men as possible during one train ride. The film flashes back to a teenage Joe (Stacy Martin) and her childhood friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) as they plot and seduce for a prize bag of “chocolate sweeties.” Sex does not make the reward but candy. It’s significant to the gradual desensitization of intercourse for Joe. The two childhood friends soon form a club where the pair and other school girls chant “mea maxima vulva” while masturbating in a group. They swear to have sex with many different partners and never fall in love with them. It’s an act of rebellion against what they consider the oppressive notion of love.

Nymphomaniac 17 photo by Christian Geisnaes

There’s meaning in everything in von Trier’s world. Forgiving the teenage notion of “mea maxima vulva,” the idea that Seligman must connect her stories to fly fishing and his obsession with Fibonacci numbers are a bit harder to forgive. But, we can hope it’s by design. Joe hardly entertains his theories (and maybe von Trier would probably not forgive my anima allusions). She just carries on with her stories, each one divided by title cards, including “The Compleat Angler” and “Delirium.”

The transference between Joe and Seligman becomes quite apparent. Von Trier, as ever, gives us scenes that are choppily cut and highlight silences between characters more than dialogue. The internal world is always more interesting to von Trier, and this is his way to emphasize reflection and thought. This is a contemplative film. It mirrors what may be happening between screen and viewer. It’s as amazingly candid as some might think it lurid.

One of the easier chapters to swallow is simply titled “Mrs. H” also features some rather cruel humor. A rampaging wife (Uma Thurman in spectacular high gear) enters Joe’s apartment right after her cheating husband (Hugo Speer) has appeared with his suitcases, ready to move in with Joe. Nymphomaniac 06 photo by ZentropaThe missus has brought their three young sons to introduce them to the woman who has destroyed their family and takes them on a tour of Joe’s apartment, all the way to “Daddy’s whoring bed.” Joe just stands there, silent and unapologetic. It’s one of the film’s more honestly hilarious moments because it’s like one of those revenge letters by a woman scorned, which often go viral on the Internet.

But it’s a rather cheap joke that more importantly culminates in the usual coldness from Joe, who once seems to care less about emotional involvement over the physical act of sex. Men are replaceable to Joe. Well… except for one. Shia LaBeouf plays Jerôme, the man who once happened to take her virginity in three thrusts (plus five more in the behind, spelled out in numbers that are burned on the image, hence the  Fibonacci number). He comes to matter to her because she denies him sex for much of their second life together, when he rather surreptitiously reappears in her life as her boss.

The most sincerely accomplished and, finally insightful, of the chapters must be “The Little Organ School,” which comes toward the end of Volume I. Once again, Seligman illuminates Joe’s account with a theoretical notion, this time the musical one of polyphony. And again, Joe turns the story back to herself, noting three particularly distinct love affairs during a time at the height of her sexual escapades, where she was bedding an average of 10 men a day. Our director, in turn, works in montages within a triple split-screen, featuring Jerôme at the center. It’s another rather overt move by von Trier, but it also reveals a complexity in this woman’s sexuality rarely represented so vividly and powerfully in the film. It also allows for a rare moment of emotional illumination of this woman, who may indeed have a human, beating heart and a desire to be understood.

Nymphomaniac 08 photo by Zentropa

Returning to the notion of anima and animus, it’s not incidental that Joe has a name more often associated with men. It hints at one of the more interesting premises in the film that offers up many ideas surrounding sex to varying effect. There’s one rather witty scene where Joe flawlessly parallel parks for a frazzled Jerôme who insists the gap between two cars is too small for his vehicle. So much for this idea, Germany.

Yet, as this film is but a “Volume I,” it feels incomplete when we get a sort of cliffhanger of an ending that would have actually worked quite ingeniously as a finale to the film had it been a movie focused on Joe’s trouble with feelings and sex. Still lingering of course is the mystery that put Joe in the street, not to mention what role Seligman has to play beyond fun house mirror to her tales of perverse sexual behavior.

It becomes difficult to make up one’s mind about this film without the completed vision. Maybe it will let down because, so far— barring some hopeful moments toward the end— it mostly feels like the usual forceful von Trier. Joe still has to finish that long story she began, so we can find out the why and the what in “Volume II.” Also, could von Trier be pandering to U.S. audiences too much? Has he compromised not only by dropping almost a half-hour of (what some reports have said) of more sexual images and some extended dialogue? Has he also gone too far in following the annoying trend of several recent Hollywood movies of allowing his film to be chopped in half for easier consumption at the cost of complete story flow? Beneath these kinks and complaints, is a rather intelligent and bold concept few filmmakers dare to unabashedly explore: a rather taboo subject, not just for mainstream cinema, but a male director: a woman and the power of her sex. Nymph()maniac Volume I stands as an interesting though mostly imperfect film that teases there may be some hope for the follow up, out next month.

Hans Morgenstern

Nymphomaniac Volume I runs 118 minutes and is not rated (it would have been an easy NC-17 had it been presented to the MPAA for a rating). It opened this past weekend in South Florida in Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema, O Cinema and the Tower Theater. It is also available on demand, but it’s a beautiful big screen film. Note: Nymph()maniac Volume II will see release in April. Here’s that trailer, which bodes some hope for the questions brought up by this review:

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

GRAND-BUDAPEST-HOTEL-POSTER-570Featuring an undercurrent of death, the looming menace of fascism and wrapped in a century’s worth of nostalgia, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel stands as yet another brilliant masterstroke of colorful cinema hiding a profound affection for humanity by the American director. Despite what you might think, Anderson has not forgotten his sense of humor. Although, at some points in the film, you may feel confused about whether to laugh or cringe at the events that befall these poor characters at a break-neck, deadpan pace.

The key to the film lies in memory. It plays a central role in how the action unfolds. The Grand Budapest Hotel opens in the modern world with a young, “edgy” girl paying tribute to a monument devoted to an unnamed “author.” Then the film travels to the memory of that author alive in 1985 and his reflecting on his younger years in 1968 and a story he was once told about a 1933-era concierge. Anderson wryly uses various aspect ratios to denote the different times, or better put: layers of memory. The music of Alexandre Desplat has an appropriately ghostly quality throughout the film. On many occasions bells and chimes echo, drums hiss with brushes and vibrant zithers tremolo. And, no, there are no catchy ’60s Brit-pop songs thrown into the mix. Once again, Anderson has created a different kind of film, albeit one from his very particular world (See also: ‘Moonrise Kingdom’: a different kind of Wes Anderson film).

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Then, of course, there is the mise-en-scène‎ and colors, a sort of hyper-reality featuring pinks, purples and reds. The titular hotel, situated in the made-up country of Zubrowka, during the key era of the 4:3 aspect ratio (the 1930s), gleams with opulence. Anderson’s restlessly panning camera lens has never felt more alive than in this beautifully designed environment that looks like a life-size doll house, and Robert D. Yeoman’s cinematography slurps it all to luscious effect.

Finally, the characters:  Our hero, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes acting as if he were a born Anderson player), displays an amazing, if sometimes questionable, work ethic at the distinguished hotel. Though war is looming, his main concern is to serve— and service— the many elderly women who seem to vacation at the hotel. Fiennes’ dry delivery of Anderson’s quippy dialogue both reflects Gustave’s incredible seriousness while concealing a singular sort of solitude. His gregariousness directed toward older women and his passion for his job is complimented with an effeteness that is never wholly confirmed, left unfulfilled. It highlights his lonely existence. On his own, he practically lives and sleeps in nothing but a broom closet.

Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF File

All around Gustave is a rich cast of characters who never take away too much presence from this wonderfully rich yet solitary character. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe play sinister fellows dressed in black. Meanwhile, Saoirse Ronan and Tony Revolori play young innocents in puppy love. In between all manner of people appear and sometimes die off, Jeff Goldblum’s attorney Kovacs is met one particularly gruesome end, preceded by a minor bit of dismemberment dealt by the often sneering and silent Jopling (Dafoe).

The film’s plot is loose but has a caper-like quality involving an inheritance, a priceless painting and murder. There are jail breaks and chases. Anderson’s new-found affection for action sequences played out by animation and puppets fits the times where much of the action unfolds. The archaic special effects, just like the square aspect ratio, speak to the era. That these thrilling sequences still feel compelling, though almost laughably phony, proves the realism of digital effects overrated. The Grand Budapest Hotel is so richly staged and its characters feel so compelling, you will become rapt in the suspense regardless, just as you would watching a classic film from that time.

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Ultimately, though, it’s the character of Gustave who embodies the hotel in its heyday and seems to resonate with a vividness that gives the film an immutable luster. He holds the movie together in all its topsy-turvy madness to ultimately celebrate true, honest, steadfast character. Because he stands as a man alone, he builds respectful relationships and allegiances. It’s a romantic notion to think anyone, though, goes off into the sunset with anybody else, but there’s always the heart and memory. Like all good things, we know the Grand Budapest will fall into languor once his presence disappears, but those stories will forever live on and matter to these characters in this oddly sincere world where malice can never have the last say.

*  *  *

Note: I interviewed actor Ralph Fiennes ahead of the film’s release. You can read my full interview with him on the art and culture blog “Cultist” from the “Miami New Times.” Jump through the image below:

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Hans Morgenstern

The Grand Budapest hotel runs 100 minutes and is rated R (there are a few shocks in sex and violence and some intense language). Fox Searchlight Pictures invited me to a preview screening last month for the purpose of the interview and this review. The film opens in wide release today.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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