Tag: uma thurman

The House That Jack Built

The House That Jack Built (2018)
★ / ★★★★

At one point the viewer is forced to wonder the point of what Lars von Trier is trying to make because his psychological horror film goes off on numerous tangents—at times at the cost of the story’s momentum—that the work comes across lacking in focus and discipline. On the surface, it is about an engineer with an obsessive-compulsive disorder who just so happens to be a serial killer. Deeper, I guess, is a rumination surrounding a subject who is born evil but his actions are human and therefore flawed. And these imperfections are peppered with darkly comic moments—occasionally during the murders themselves. It is a movie for me, but I found only minimal enjoyment, entertainment, or value out of it.

One positive quality is the solid performances. Matt Dillon is front and center as the titular character who considers himself to be so smart and polished that later on Jack gives himself the serial killer name “Mr. Sophistication.” However, throughout the five incidents he recalls, which spans over twelve years, he may consider his victims as dumb and stupid—many of them caucasian women—but his actions reveal, too, that he himself is not as intelligent as he believes he is. Throughout the years, there is growth in the character’s level of violence and elaborate killing sprees, but he tends to make similar mistakes, particularly in the risk-taking of possibly getting caught. Dillon plays Jack with charm and sense of humor; the camera loves his face but there is not a second in which we doubt that the subject is pure evil.

Two actors match Dillon’s energetic performance: Uma Thurman as a woman who asks Jack’s help when her vehicle broke down and Riley Keough as Jack’s girlfriend with whom he confesses that he is in fact Mr. Sophistication. She does not believe him and laughs. Two different performances: the former acting as though she is in a satire (the character keeps going on about serial killers) and the latter in an independent drama (she mumbles a lot and lets her eyes do most of the talking)—both approaches work because it shows that Jack can be adaptable as a hunter. It is necessary that we observe him interact with a spectrum of personalities so that we believe that he can actually entrap and eventually murder 60 people in a span of twelve years.

Nearly everything else about the picture is less compelling. Particularly boring are the side conversations between Jack and Verge (yes, the iconic Roman poet—played by Bruno Ganz) as they make a literal descent to Hell. Their exchanges are neither interesting nor possessing a high enough energy to mask their words’ emptiness. I felt no connection between the actors as well as their characters. Worse, their dialogue reveals nothing new about the subject and so the whole charade feels like fluff, padding—problematic because the work is nearly two and a half hours. The film tests the patience.

There are times when the violence is meant to be satirical, particularly the third incident in which Jack decides to “play” with children by shooting them down like animals. Murdering children for fun (one of them ends up being “preserved” in a cold room) is as dark as it gets, but it does not work here because the screenplay has not yet provided enough details about the central character so that we 1) have an appreciation of Jack’s actions which may hint at his own childhood and 2) are able to chuckle at the ridiculousness of it all. Context matters and with von Trier, when not at his full power, he tends to go for shock value over providing deeper or insightful content—as is the case here.

Down a Dark Hall

Down a Dark Hall (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Rodrigo Cortés’ “Down a Dark Hall,” based on the novel by Lois Duncan, is stranded between looking like a dark fantasy with a story that of a supernatural horror, creating a strange but only superficially interesting hybrid, an experiment gone wrong, probably never to be replicated again. On this basis, perhaps it is worth seeing, but those who yearn substance in storytelling, not simply a handful of unusual choices that work only occasionally, are certain to be disappointed in this mildly entertaining offering.

The story unfolds in a massive and isolated boarding school led by the mysterious Madame Duret (Uma Thurman, chewing scenery with a thick European accent). She has personally chosen Kit (AnnaSophia Robb) and four other girls (Isabelle Fuhrman, Victoria Moroles, Taylor Russell, Rosie Day) with a penchant for getting into serious trouble, from behavioral problems to downright criminal acts like arson, to attend the institution and be trained to reroute their paths toward a more fruitful future. It has been said those who have attended the school have gone on to lead financially successful lives. Or so it seems. It is apparent that the authorities in the establishment have ulterior motives; the poorly lit hallways, bizarre whispers, and ghostly beings appearing in the corner of one’s room being surefire signs that something is terribly wrong.

While the picture offers curious techniques—like placing the camera from the perspective of a group of apparitions as they watch the girls perform late-night perusals of old files—choices like these fail to elevate a deadly dull, clichéd dialogue. Although Robb is expressive and certainly capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions, words that come out of her mouth are not convincing. No, the performer is not at fault. Imagine anybody else in her place and realize that the problem persists. The weakness is the script itself—the words are forced, robotic, like a lousy first draft rather than a polished product. Its lack of an ear for dialogue drags down the material considerably because exchanges between characters matter in this story. Without them, it is merely a parade of creepy occurrences done better in other films.

Furthermore, we are asked to care about the troubled girls and yet not one of them is developed. Some of them are not even given more than ten lines. Even the protagonist at times is reduced to having nightmares or experiencing hallucinations in order to simplify her state of mind. The others, on the other hand, are shown merely as tools, seemingly possessed by overwhelming inspiration to create mere days after their arrival. Each person excels in a subject—such as art, mathematics, literature—but we rarely see them interact with one another in meaningful ways. What makes one girl connect with literature more than music, for example? Also, by failing to detail at least some aspects of their lives—like what they had done specifically to deserve being sent to Blackwood Boarding School or what they miss back home—when a few of them face gruesome deaths eventually, we feel close to nothing. It feels like a waste of space having them on screen.

Its special and visual effects are hit-or-miss. When they are subtle, like a figure disappearing suddenly at a hint of a candlelight, the images are most effective. It feels like the girls are truly trapped in a haunted school, no help for miles away. But when the effects are ostentatious—like a cloud of black birds smashing through windows or fire engulfing curtains and marble walls alike—it all looks so fake, so unconvincing that I caught myself wishing that the movie were over just so I would stop feeling embarrassed for it.

The Life Before Her Eyes

The Life Before Her Eyes (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

Nearing the end of their high school career, best friends Maureen (Eva Amurri) and Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) go inside the girls’ restroom to freshen up and talk about how excited they are for the future. Their conversation is interrupted when they hear students screaming in the hallway. At first, Diana is convinced it is only a prank—just another senior having too much fun. But then they start to hear gunshots. Diana, horrified, claims to know the identity of the shooter. She says Michael (John Magaro) spoke about his plan to kill everybody, but she chose not to report his threat because she was not convinced that he would go actually go through with it.

“The Life Before Her Eyes” surprises slowly then suddenly. The screenplay by Emil Stern stirs the pot, adds, and mixes the right dramatic ingredients to create a tragic story about trauma and how the past manages to cling onto the present and future like stepping on gum. But that is not all that is happening. Underneath is a story about a life in a standstill. Propelling us into Diana’s future, we watch adult Diana (Uma Thurman) struggle through an extremely difficult week: the anniversary of the shooting in Hillview High School.

The camaraderie between Diana and Maureen feels, looks, and sounds credible. There is a complexity to their relationship and it is established through a symbiosis. Even though Diana is the rebellious teen and Maureen is more conservative, they bond not only due to the fact that both of them come from the poorer side of town but also because they balance each other’s wavelengths. Wood and Amurri are so natural around one another, I often felt as though I was watching two real friends just hanging out.

Thurman, on the other hand, is not as believable playing a mother. Although the point is that her character’s trauma has hardened her over time, sometimes I felt she comes off too hard. When the actor gives someone a sharp look, it communicates mean instead of tough. There is a great disparity between Thurman and Wood’s performances—too great that it feels like they are two completely different characters. Perhaps another performer who can pull off tough—but not mean—might have enhanced the flow especially since the picture jumps back and forward in time.

Another possible enhancement is to have introduced the so-called surprise early on. The film is based on a novel by Laura Kasischke so eliminating it completely would have compromised the work. However, by having it revealed much early on, it would have had a more defined structure: a drama with a certain point of view. It probably would have felt less gimmicky.

Despite its miscalculations, I enjoyed “The Life Before Her Eyes,” directed by Vadim Perelman, because of the girls’ friendship and it looks great. The twenty-year (or so) difference between the two stories are subtle and so the material allows us to focus on the characters rather than a time period’s eccentricities.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. II

Nymphomaniac: Vol. II (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Vol. II” is a superior second half because it strips away symbolic—some might say pretentious—talk that range from fly fishing to the Fibonacci sequence. It feels like a slightly more ordinary drama on a technical level but it is ultimately the correct approach because it gives the picture a chance to narrow its attention on the deeply damaged self-described nymphomaniac.

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) notices that although she has told plenty of details about her highly erotic sexual encounters with other men—most of them complete strangers—Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) is not at all aroused by any of it. When confronted by the fact, he tells her that this is exactly why he is the perfect person to listen to her stories. Unlike many, he is able to provide her an objective opinion of what she has and is going through. Seemingly satisfied with his answer, she proceeds to recall a time in her life in which she has completely lost all sexual sensation.

The portion of the film that grabbed me most is the subchapter called “Dangerous Men.” It is injected with a sharp but very uncomfortable sense of humor as well as a slight mix of horror. I say “horror” because I was afraid for the lead character’s safety. At one point I wondered what else Joe is willing to give when, really, she has nothing else to offer.

Since her husband cannot keep up with her sexual needs, they make an arrangement that will essentially free her to have sex with other men. Her choice is a black man wearing a green jacket who does not speak a word of English. In the motel room, two men enter the door: the man she had her eyes on and his brother-in-law. She is surprised by this because she had arranged to meet only with one. Still, she welcomes the opportunity.

It is a very funny sequence because the way it unfolds is far from anything many of us might come to expect. The writer-director uses humor in a subversive way: by taking the subject’s addiction to sex as a template and applying a droplet of comedy on the surface, we are given a chance to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and at ourselves.

There is a level of irony to it. Through a solemn narration, we learn that Joe is expecting a sexy and steamy encounter since the language barrier will force them to focus on their bodies and to determine what they need from one another telepathically. Instead, it almost turns into some sort of farce. Body parts flopping about—utilizing quick close-ups of sexual organs from time to time—made me snicker and then laugh uncontrollably. The scene has a two-fold function: to take us out of the situation by creating a lightness and to leave us off-balanced for what is about to come.

It has been a while since I have encountered a character that shook me to the very core. K (Jamie Bell, absolutely brilliant here—my level of admiration to his performances matches that of Uma Thurman’s in “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I”) is one that I will remember for a long time. We learn close to nothing about him but the things he ends up doing with Joe made me watch some of the images through my fingers.

I don’t consider myself to be a prude, but the erotic practice of dominance and submission has never appealed to me. (Perhaps never will.) So to watch someone being whipped—causing welts, bruises, and wounds—and being smacked across the face—the writer-director ensures that we see it all unfold front and center… with the accompanying sounds—made me feel very uneasy. Still, I was unable to look away.

“Nymphomaniac: Vol. II,” like BDSM, is not for everyone. It is challenging, weird, sad, and at times confusing with what it really wants to say or be. But for me, just about everything about it works because even though the range of topics it wishes to tackle is not pretty, it encourages us to understand—maybe even empathize—with the lead character. When one considers to look at the big picture, Joe is an outcast. The outcast in us should be able to relate to her on some level.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

After picking up groceries from a nearby store, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) comes across a woman, bruised and bloody from what appears to be a beating, whose body is sprawled across a cobblestone path. He attempts to wake her and although she is conscious, he tells her that he will call an ambulance. The woman insists he does not. Seligman remains concerned so he takes her to his home so she can recuperate.

The woman tells the man that her name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). When asked about her life, she casually begins to talk about the moment in time when she, as a little girl, discovered the pleasure that lies between her legs.

Written and directed by Lars von Trier, “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” has a strange calm about it despite having a protagonist with an unquenchable need for sex right at the center. Movies with a lesser vision and control tend to cheapen the subject but this picture commands a high level of elegance and grace. Because the approach is serious, we are piqued by the woman—her history, the way she thinks, and the manner in which she perceives herself—rather than judging and dismissing her right away.

A series of scenes like two teenage girls (Stacy Martin, who plays the younger Joe, and Sophie Kennedy Clark) having a contest on who can have sex with more men while aboard a train is handled with maturity, a pinch of humor, and sadness. We observe a pattern: Joe’s hesitance to flirt with complete strangers, Joe’s competitive nature taking over, the sexual act, and then Joe’s feelings of shame and empowerment. The girls regather. The pattern continues until they meet a man in first class who is on his way to see his wife.

Many of the situations, in my opinion, are not meant to be titillating. After all, though the majority of the picture consists of recollections, it always goes back to the older Joe who seems very unhappy, almost angry at herself for giving away too much of what she ought to have valued more. There are even a few lines which suggest that she thinks she is a bad person. But, I must admit, several times I was excited by the young Joe, wonderfully played by Martin with utmost solemnity and natural beauty, enjoying a man—sometimes a total of seven or eight men in one night—being inside her. However, I am not suggesting that the film is any way pornographic.

Yes, we see male and female genitals both in flaccid and erect states but there is a dignified story behind these images. To tackle the subject of nymphomania without showing the tools for sex or certain erogenous zones would have taken away an air of reality on some level. Not once do we feel that the writer-director is taking advantage of his actors. On the contrary, they are pushed to deliver good performances. For instance, I have never considered Shia LaBeouf, who plays one of Joe’s lovers, of really having a chance of becoming a “serious” performer. To my surprise, I enjoyed his interpretation of the character even though I was not completely convinced by his accent. To me, the magic is always in the eyes and LaBeouf has got it down.

“Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” would not nearly have been so electric if Uma Thurman’s one scene had been excluded. She plays a scorned woman who learns that her husband is moving in with another younger belle. Her strategy: to follow her spouse to the whore’s abode—with her three young sons. The direction commands a masterclass confidence because the scene is allowed to escalate in tone and build emotional momentum to the point where it is very uncomfortable—reflected by the increasingly manic movement of the camera as well as characters who do not quite know how to respond to the livid wife.

Batman & Robin

Batman & Robin (1997)
★ / ★★★★

Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman), a horticulturalist stationed in South America whose project involved cross-breeding animal and plants, caught Dr. Woodrue (John Glover) creating a super soldier named Bane (Jeep Swenson) for bidding. When she expressed her disapproval of her colleague’s indiscretions, Dr. Woodrue tried to kill her by pushing her into a batch of chemicals. This altered Dr. Isley’s DNA and gave her, now Poison Ivy, the ability to manipulate plants. Pairing up with Bane, the duo headed to Gotham City to demand answers from Bruce Wayne (George Clooney) for cutting funds out of their project. Written by Akiva Goldsman and directed by Joel Schumacher, “Batman & Robin” suffocated from too many plots which was unfortunate because there was a hint of good material lost in a jungle of bad. The strand which involved the decline of Alfred Pennyworth’s (Michael Gough) health was interesting because prior to this point, he had nothing much to do except being a butler to Bruce and offering a wise commentary when Bruce struggled for answers in terms of the dichotomy between his personal and professional life. Even though Alfred was only the help of the Wayne manor, it was tough to see him looking frail and lackadaisical because he was our protagonist’s only father figure. Unfortunately, the film put more weight in having fun in the form racing motorbikes which was aimed to symbolize teenage rebellion, Poison Ivy winking at the camera and mentioning how her action figures always came with Bane, and Bruce appearing in social functions with a woman (Elle Macpherson) we knew absolutely nothing about but marriage was apparently on the horizon. This confusing, cheesy pot of doldrum was heated to a boil so slowly and so painfully, it threatened the integrity of the project and the franchise. Furthermore, while I believed Clooney as Bruce the multibillionaire with that winning smile, I had an incredibly difficult time believing him as Batman. The ultimate challenge that Clooney had to face did not occur during the action scenes when he had to throw a punch and utter laughably trite lines of dialogue. It was in the silent moments when Clooney, dressed as Batman, stood next to Robin (Chris O’Donnell). I knew there was a big problem when I found that my eyes gravitated toward O’Donnell more often even if he wasn’t saying anything. Unlike Clooney, O’Donnell was a good choice to play Robin because he could just scoff and I knew exactly what his character was thinking. This error in casting proved very distracting. Notice that Clooney continued to sport a little smile when discussing Alfred’s affliction. That smile made me very angry because it communicated apathy. The scene should have had an air of seriousness because, after all, Alfred raised Bruce like a son. I wondered if the director even reshot the scene. From the looks of it, more attention was put into the special and visual effects of the chases and explosions which were, admittedly, admirable for their colors and detail. Meanwhile, Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), eventually teaming up with Poison Ivy and Bane, was reduced to delivering puns, referring to himself as a “villain” and Batman and Robin as “heroes.” Well-established antagonists with real goals don’t consider themselves as villains; they don’t feel guilt toward what they do because they believe what they’re doing is right. Knowing a bit about the deeper and touching details of why Mr. Freeze turned to a life of crime, which involved his wife in cryogenic sleep, it made me angry that the picture mostly portrayed him as a cold-blooded automaton. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if, despite his intimidating appearance, he was actually portrayed as having a heart, someone who didn’t enjoy hurting people, but he felt he needed to in order to get one step closer in saving his love? The action sequences in “Batman & Robin,” one occurred in the Gotham City Museum of Modern Art looking like an ice rink on acid, were quite a sight at times but it had no heart. It wasn’t cool to give the audience such a cold shoulder.


Ceremony (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Sam (Michael Angarano) was a twenty-three-year-old children’s book writer who decided to drag Marshall (Reece Thompson), his best friend, to the seaside so that they could spend some time together since they hadn’t seen each other in about a year. But Sam had ulterior motives: the real reason why he dragged Marshall along was to sneak into Zoe’s (Uma Thurman) wedding, his pen pal, and confess his love for her. When Sam met the husband-to-be, Whit (Lee Pace), a conceited documentary filmmaker, Whit invited Sam and his friend to stay and celebrate over the weekend. I appreciated “Ceremony,” written and directed by Max Winkler, for trying to be different but I’m afraid it was just unfunny and dull. Most of the characters were unlikable, which was fine, but they had to be interesting if we were asked to invest our precious time to dig beyond the surface. I didn’t understand why Sam and Marshall were friends. Sam was controlling, cruel, and acted like he was better than his friend just because he was published. Marshall was weak, unnecessarily fixated on the fact that he was pistol-whipped months prior, and so quirky that it was distracting. Perhaps the only time I thought they were remotely interesting and amusing was when they acknowledged the growing homoeroticism between them. But my main problem was I found no reason for the story to be told. The plot element that drove the story forward was Sam’s infatuation with an older woman. If Zoe had taken Sam aside and seriously talked to him about overstepping his boundaries, the picture would have been over at its thirty-minute mark. Eventually, we reached the key conversation but the scenes prior felt contrived. Sam and Marshall’s attempt to hook up with random women at the party was cliché and, in my opinion, the approach was disrespectful and mean-spirited. They thought that it would be easy to lure an older woman to bed because older women are desperate for attention especially from younger men. I’m sure the mindset is not at all atypical especially with words like “MILF” being tossed around with utter disregard in our culture, but it could have been more sensitive. Just because Sam and Marshall looked young, they didn’t have to behave like they had low IQs. Sometimes a bit of insight could go a long way. There was one scene I thought was honest. That is, when Zoe finally told Sam the reason why Whit invited the author and his friend to stay. It was the kind of honesty that was difficult to swallow but at the same time it was exactly what Sam needed so that, potentially, he would realize that unreciprocated love wasn’t the end of the world. “Ceremony” brashly tackled big emotions but the small details involving human behavior to make drama work were absent. With slight alterations in the screenplay, it would have worked as a comedy of manners.