Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Rupert Wyatt and written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an origin story of how a scientist took care of an ape named Caesar and was then forced to be taken by cruel caretakers leading to a revolt with help from other apes. Based on the original Planet of the Apes novel by Pierre Boulle, the film explores Caesar’s development from a normal ape into a leader. Starring James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, and Andy Serkis as Caesar. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an exciting and thrilling film from Rupert Wyatt.

In hopes to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, scientist Will Rodham (James Franco) believes that he’s made a breakthrough from an ape he had been experimenting on. After telling his boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) about his breakthrough, Will presents it to a board which becomes a disaster after the ape he experimented has broke out of her cell due to a misunderstanding. With Jacobs deciding to have the apes killed, Will learns through fellow scientist Franklin (Tyler Labine) about a baby ape that Will’s ape was trying to protect. Will takes the baby home where they would live with Will’s father Charles (John Lithgow) who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Amazed by the ape’s growing intelligence, Will calls the ape Caesar as he believes that Caesar is the key to the cure he’s searching for to help his father. After meeting primatologist Caroline (Freida Pinto) to help treat an injury for Caesar, she becomes part of the family where Charles’ condition seems to improve for a few years. Yet, Caesar starts to feel like he’s treated like a pet as Will reveals the truth about his background and why he took him in. When Charles starts to fall ill due to dementia, an incident involving Charles and a neighbor (David Hewlett) has Caesar fighting the neighbor to protect Charles. Due to the incident, authorities force Will and Caroline to put Caesar to an animal shelter that is run by the cruel John Landon (Brian Cox) and his vicious son Dodge (Tom Felton).

While Will reluctantly returns to work to find a cure only to feel compromised by Jacobs over the testing of apes. Back at the shelter, Caesar is befriended by fellow apes including a circus orangutan named Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and a big gorilla named Buck (Richard Ridings) as they organize a revolt. When Will learns that Jacobs’ new version of the drug is flawed and fatal to humans, he quits as he tries to get Caesar back. Instead, Caesar chooses to stay as he briefly leaves the shelter to help find ways to make his fellow apes smarter as they lead an attack on the Landons and those that oppose them to Will’s horror.

The film is an origin story with a lot of references to the 1968 film which included the famous line “Get your hands off me you damn dirty ape”. Yet, it does create a lot of ideas of how the Earth was taken over by the apes as well as more ideas over what happened to the humans. Still, it’s a film about a man’s relationship with this little chimpanzee he would call Caesar and how he would shape this chimpanzee’s outlook on life and later play part in his revolt against humanity. Though the Will Rodham character is a flawed man that just wants to save his father’s life, he does care for Caesar and treats him more than just an animal. The script that Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver works in creating that relationship arc and basing the ideas for what would come in the stories that are previously told though there are flaws in the script. The Caroline character is sort of a one-dimensional figure who just plays the girlfriend while antagonists like the Landons don’t have much to do other than be mean to Caesar.

Rupert Wyatt’s direction is quite extraordinary with its presentation as he does more than just make a typical summer blockbuster action film that is loaded with CGI-effects. Since the apes are performed by actors in motion-capture visual effects, it adds a certain realness to the way the apes are presented not just physically but emotionally. Notably in their interactions to humans and some of the big action sequences in its third act. Wyatt does create some amazing tracking shots for some of the cage hallways in the shelter along with wonderful steadicam camera shots for some of Caesar’s movements around Will’s home. Overall, Wyatt creates a truly exhilarating and fun action film with a bit of drama and lots of energy.

Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie does an excellent job with the film‘s stylish cinematography from the naturalistic, lush look of the redwood forest scenes at Muir Woods National Monument along with darker lighting schemes for some of the nighttime interiors at the shelter. Editors Conrad Buff IV and Mark Goldblatt is pretty good for the fast-paced rhythm of the action scenes while utilizing montages for some of Caesar‘s growing development and slower cuts for the dramatic moments. Production designer Claude Pare, with set decorator Elizabeth Wilcox and supervising art director Helen Jarvis, does incredible work with the set pieces from Caesar’s room in Will’s home along with the building Will works at and the play room at the shelter where Caesar leads his revolt.

Costume designer Renee April does nice work in the costumes as the close are mostly casual including a red shirt worn by Caesar. Visual effects supervisors Dan Lemmon and Erik Winquist do a spectacular job with the visual effects for the way the apes look along with some of the action sequences that happen as it is truly the film‘s highlight in terms of its technical field. Sound designer Chuck Michael and sound editor John A. Larsen do some fantastic work in the sound work from the stark yet hollow world of the shelter to the more raucous bombast of the action scenes that occur in the film. The film’s score by Patrick Doyle is superb for playing up to the bombast with loud percussions and soaring string arrangements while going for a more low-key approach in the dramatic portions of the film.

The casting by Debra Zane is remarkable for the ensemble that is created as it features notable small roles from Tyler Labine as Will’s lab friend Franklin, Jamie Harris as a shelter caretaker, and David Hewlett as Will’s hot-headed neighbor Hunsiker. Brian Cox is very good as the slimy animal shelter head John Landon while Tom Felton is also good, despite being one-dimensional, as the crueler Dodge Landon. David Oyelowo is stellar as Will’s boss Jacobs who becomes consumed with greed as he uses Will for his own financial gain. Freida Pinto is decent as the very caring Caroline although she doesn’t get much to do than just be the supportive girlfriend. John Lithgow is excellent as Will’s ailing father Charles who becomes fond of Caesar while dealing with his own disease.

James Franco gives a terrific performance as Will Rodham by displaying a man that just wants to help his father while forming his own bond with Caesar as he tries to help the chimpanzee in his ordeal. The performances by Karin Konoval, Richard Ridings, Christopher Gordon, and Terry Notary as the apes Caesar befriend are superb for the physicality and emotional expressions they give to those apes making them more than just CGI-creations. Yet, the best work in that field as well as the best performance in the film is Andy Serkis as Caesar. In the way he expresses the varied emotions as well as Caesar’s physicality, Serkis does something that goes beyond the parameters of what a motion-capture performance can do. Notably as Serkis gets Caesar to speak a few words in the film’s climatic revolt to exemplify Caesar’s growth in intelligence as it’s definitely a performance like no other.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a marvelous and entertaining action-blockbuster film from Rupert Wyatt that features an outstanding performance from Andy Serkis. This is a film that gives the Planet of the Apes franchise a much-needed boost after being away from theaters for so long as well as very misguided remake back in 2001. For fans of action-blockbusters, this film is among one of the best that offers more than just entertainment. In the end, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an engaging yet pleasurable film from Rupert Wyatt.

Related: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - War for the Planet of the Apes

© thevoid99 2012

Monday, January 30, 2012

La Dolce Vita

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 9/22/04 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Directed by Federico Fellini and written with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Brunello Rondi, La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) is the story of an Italian reporter whose life of decadence leads to tragic consequences and realization after encounters with an actress, a socialite, a religious commune, and his suicidal girlfriend. While the film conveys realism, Fellini also brings mayhem to the screen where there are moments that questions morality, sexuality, socialism, and humanity itself. Shot in black-and-white with cinematographer Otello Martelli, the movie plays like a circus with surreal images that seem to bend the world of reality and fantasy. Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Yvonne Furneaux, Anouk Aimee, Anita Ekberg, and Alain Cuny. La Dolce Vita is a brilliant, sensational masterpiece from one of the greatest filmmakers ever put in the face of the earth.

Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is a reporter riding on a helicopter that is carrying the statue of Jesus Christ above Rome as he later joins his photographer friend Paparazzo (Walter Santesso) at a nightclub. After meeting with a bored socialite in Maddalena (Anouk Aimee), Marcello takes for a ride and sleeps with her only to return home to deal with his self-destructive love Emma (Yvonne Furneaux). To report on the arrival of an American actress named Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), Marcello attends a press interview with the charming but not-so-bright actress who brought her boyfriend Robert (Lex Barker). Marcello takes Sylvia on a tour of Rome where they later go to a party with her friend Frankie Stout (Alan Dijon) and the alcoholic Robert. Leaving the party with Marcello, Sylvia frolics onto the Trevi Fountain as Marcello is in awe of her.

Despite having a life with all of its glamor, Marcello seeks to become a serious writer as he seeks the advice of his friend Steiner (Alain Cuny) who invites him to a party. Taking Paparazzo and Emma on an assignment on a sighting of the Virgin Mary claimed by two children. The event becomes an emotional turning point for both Marcello and Emma as they later attend Steiner's party as they meet his wife (Renee Longanni) and various friends. Envious of the life that Steiner has, he takes a job offer from Steiner only to realize that not everything is as it seems. In his attempt to write a novel and be away from Rome, Marcello meets a young waitress named Paola (Valeria Ciangotti) who gives him an idea of a life outside of the world he's lived in.

Reluctantly returning to Rome, Marcello takes his father (Annibale Ninchi) for a night on the town where they meet another of Marcello's friend in Fanny (Magili Noel). The night seems to be fun until his father had a brief heart attack prompting Marcello to question his own lifestyle. Attending another party with Maddalena and some friends to a strange party at a ruined home, Marcello starts to deal with his own faults as his relationship with Emma crumble. After another party and some tragic news, Marcello begins to question about the world he's lived in.

What makes La Dolce Vita such a rapturous film is Fellini's whimsical approach into taking a man's simple odyssey of life through a world of decadence. The film both plays itself to the point where things are way off and doesn't seem right yet at the same time, its lavish tone makes the film seem to make everything go crazy where it almost falls apart, but in a grand, Fellini way. The film truly belongs to Fellini since he's a man who likes everything to be a spectacle with the opening scene and all the cabaret things going in the night club to the decadence of the parties, including the final one where Marcello forces a woman named Nadia (Nadia Gray) to strip down. Every image, every frame, every thing that goes on in that movie clicks where it might seem too much for a three-hour movie but there was never a dull moment going on.

Fellini, the director, is a man who seems to love an image. With cinematographer Otello Martelli, the film has this evocative, wondrous black-and-white look where everything is huge, especially if you're watching it in the theater. Martelli brings a lush, romantic look to the film, notably the Anita Ekberg scene at the Trevi Fountain with Marcello. Still, the film is Fellini where he seems to fall in love with every image and there's always a great shot in that film where everything is going on. The film's screenplay doesn't lose itself to its excess since it plays to a simple story but is expanded by its excess. The film also has many questionable themes with characters of homosexuality and heterosexuality and also questions of spirituality, morals, and humanity itself.

Really, it's a story of a man trying to find answers to move forward and seeking love while wondering if he can move away from his playboy lifestyle. It's also an existential film of sorts while this man commits sins around him as he is helpless in his own faults as a man. The film is also a satire-of-sorts that would later foreshadow the world of fame with paparazzi and celebrities so this movie is isn't just a satire but it's also a romantic, comedic, dramatic film that really has no defining genre.

With Martelli bringing in a masterful photography to the film, credit also goes to the film's crew like production designer and costume designer Piero Gheradi for bringing in a detailed perspective of upper class Italian family homes. Even with its costumes ranging from the rich, lavish clothing of the socialites to the artier clothing that the character Nicollna (Nico) wears. With the a nice, stylized editing from Leo Cattozzo that helps brings the film a nice rhythm while playing true to its story. The film's music is also diverse ranging from rock n' roll, pop, and classical musical along with a comical and romantic film score from composer Nino Rota.

Then you have the film's huge cast of actors with small and memorable performances from Nadia Grey, Lex Barker, Alain Dijon, and Polidor as the clown in the nightclub scenes. Even future Velvet Underground vocalist Nico makes a memorable appearance as a model along with Ida Galli as the American debutante in the ghost search scene. Valeria Ciangottini brings a small, charming performance as Paola in her brief moment in the film while Renee Longanni and Magali Noel brought wonderful performances in their respective supporting roles. Annibale Ninchi is a standout as Marcello's father who seems to be the kind of man who is loved despite the fact that he wasn't around for Marcello very much. Walter Santesso is memorable as Paparazzo as a man who is just seeking for the right photographs while he has to forget the morality of his job since his job is to simply, take the pictures and don't ask questions.

Alain Cury gives a haunting performance as Steiner as a man who has everything but doesn't seem to have enough as he brings darkness to Marcello's mind. Anouk Aimee is lovely as the bored socialite Maddalena with her sexiness and manipulation, notably the ghost party scene where she asks for Marcello to marry her in a strange scene where's in one room and she's in another. Anita Ekberg is probably the most memorable performance of the entire group of actresses since she frolics around in the Trevi fountain as this actress who isn't very bright. While it's not a really a great character, Ekberg gives a defining performance that would be the inspiration for starlets consumed by their fame and wonderfulness. The film's best female performance is Yvonne Furneaux as the suicidal Emma who is a woman often neglected while believing she can save Marcello from his droll lifestyle. Furneaux brings a desperation to her performance as she seeks spiritual guidance while in the film's final act, she confronts Marcello as we also get the feeling that she may not save him because she barely save herself. It's a performance that doesn't get a lot of credit in the film.

The film's greatest and most iconic performance clearly goes to the late Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello Rubini. Mastroianni delivers a performance full of charisma and cool with his big-shade sunglasses and cocky swagger. Even after this movie, Mastroianni hasn't aged even when you see him in later fares. Mastroianni also brings emotional depth to a character that may look superficial but in his search for fulfillment, we see how much Marcello struggles. It's a performance that is defiant and by the end of the film, you love him and hate him at the same time as he accepts his own destiny where at the end, you wonder what will really happen to him. It's truly one of the greatest performances in cinema.

***Updated DVD Tidbits for 9/21/06***

Ever since the 1960 release of Federico Fellini's classic film La Dolce Vita, the film for the past 35-years has been a staple on not just an essential list of great films but also one of the greatest international films of all-time. In 2004, to coincide with a DVD release from Koch Lorber, the film was re-released for a brief period of time in the theaters as the 2-disc DVD presented the film in a new, digital remastered and restored edition for a new audience. A year later, Koch Lorber released a new box set of La Dolce Vita taking everything from the 2-disc set and added a lot more for this 3-disc Deluxe Collector's Edition which includes several collectible materials and new material of special features that runs at more than two-and-a-half hours.

The first disc of DVD includes a five-minute introduction from Sideways director Alexander Payne. Payne discusses on the film's influence and how he saw the film in the early 80s when he was just a film student in Spain. Notably talking about the influence of Fellini and how it would inspire him as a screenwriter and director where the film would show its influence for his 2004 classic film Sideways, notably the protagonist of Miles portrayed by Paul Giamatti. The film is shown in its 16x9 widescreen format along with original mono and 5.1 Stereo Surround Sound. Featuring English and Spanish subtitles in yellow and white letters, the film is presented both in English and Italian.

The feature-length audio commentary by noted film critic Richard Schickel reveals on the film's themes as Schickel gives his own interpretation on scenes, characters and such. Schickel takes break at times to watch a scene while giving his interpretation of the scene while giving insight into Fellini's background and the uproar he caused upon its release. Schickel's expertise in films really is educational on how he talks about the way Fellini shoots to the relationships Marcello has with all of the major characters. It's overall some of the best commentary of the film.

The second disc is filled with an hour's worth of material that starts off with a 35-minute collection of shorts and vingettes known as Fellini TV. Anyone aware of Fellini's work will get the idea. Everything from a puppet playing Dante selling watches, women in decadent, medieval clothing selling shoes, facial aerobics, a rock band going nuts, a singer executed, an Islamic heading mixed in with a debate on feminism to a funeral where it's a wine commercial. All of these little shorts and mock-commercials that are produced by the legendary Alberto Grimaldi are sometimes enjoyable and sometimes, purely self-indulgent. Still, they're very fun to watch right to the end about a joke involving a cow taking a dump. The four-minute Cinecetta-The House of Fellini is a musical montage that takes a tour of the offices and possessions of Fellini that reveals everything from statues, drawings, photographs, and chairs that is like a museum of sorts but shows his contribution to the famed studio.

The 12-minute Remembering the Sweet Life-Interviews with Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg includes a 1987 interview with Ekberg, a 1990 interview with Mastroianni at the 1990 Venice Film Festival, and an old footage of the two actors watching La Dolce Vita in the film Intervista. Ekberg recalls Fellini's sweetness along with the making of the film which she enjoyed. She admits that it didn't help her career since she got badly typecasted though she still enjoys being around Fellini and Mastroianni who at the time of making the film spoke little English and she spoke little Italian by then. Mastrioianni recalls how he worked with Fellini in the film and where originally, he wanted Paul Newman for the role but couldn't get him. The interview also showed a rare clip at the Venice Film Festival where Mastroianni is awarded a lifetime achievement Golden Lion presented by Fellini himself.

The six-and-a-half minute Fellini, Roma, and Cinecetta is a rare TV interview with Fellini in the 1980s as he discusses his love for Rome and his contributions to Cinecetta where he shot all of his films there. He recalls that Cinecetta is a part of Rome while shots of the city itself including the famed Trevi Fountain are shown as it reveals Fellini's love for Rome and his roots where his mother's family lived there for several generations.

The 8-minute Restoration Demo shows three important scenes on the film its old, 1960 film to its restored, remastered form. The first scene is the famous helicopter scene with the statue carrying where the original footage is light in black-and-white but with some spots on the film while on the other side of the same footage shows the restored version. The restored version is clearer yet a bit darker in its grey to show how the film looks now where it looks even better. Two other sequences for the second party scene with Anita Ekberg and the famed Trevi Fountain sequence reveals the difference in audio. The original footage shows the audio in full splendor where its loud yet some of the dubbing is off-track. In the restored version, the audio is fuller yet is aware of everything else that goes on while the dubbing is more on track while the force of the fountain in the Trevi Fountain scene is felt more.

The last major feature of the second disc is a large photo gallery feature that features stills from the film and the making of the film to present the richness and joy into the making of this masterpiece. The biographies section features the bios of Fellini along with composer Nino Rota and actors Mastroianni, Ekberg, and Anouk Aimee. The filmography section reveals the extensive work of Fellini, Mastroianni, Ekberg, Aimee, and Yvonne Ferneaux. The second disc also includes a link to the Koch Lorber label along with several trailers of films from the company including Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Five Obstructions from Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth.

The third disc begins with one-hour documentary on film composer Nino Rota. Entitled A Musical Friend-The Maestro Nino Rota, the documentary explores his background as a child prodigy who made orchestras and operas by age 11 while considered to be one of the most gifted composers of his young age. Born in 1911, Rota came into films by the late 30s at a time when Italy was under the rule of Fascism and was only doing it to keep working. After World War II, Rota took his time away from his operas, film scores, and orchestral pieces to be a teacher at a conservatory where two of his pupils are interviewed about his work method and how he can create melodies through a theme he often uses. Directors Lina Wertmuller and Franco Zeferelli discuss his collaboration with directors, notably Fellini, Luchino Visconti, and Zeferelli himself who is aware that when he was making Romeo & Juliet, Rota took his time into making a score that was in tune with the time of the story. Wertmuller talks about his collaboration with Fellini where despite their different approach to creativity, it was magical as the two loved each other's company as Rota worked on nearly every film of Fellini since 1952 when they first met. The doc also discusses briefly on his work in other films including his most famous work for The Godfather movies.

Another interview with Anita Ekberg arrives in a new 2004 interview. The 19-minute interview reveals Ekberg talking about her film career and how she became an actress working in a production company for John Wayne. She also talked about her role in La Dolce Vita where she admits, wasn't much of a stretch as she played a bit of herself and other movie stars at the time. She also talked about how she often liked to go barefoot where she cut her foot on the night they were going to prepare the famous Trevi Fountain scene. When they went to prepare that scene before production in the winter, it was very cold and she felt very sorry for Marcello Mastroianni who was scared to go into the water and actually fell into the fountain flat on his face. She nearly got sick in that fountain while was more worried for Mastroianni. She also discussed her friendship with Fellini where his wife had suspected that they had an affair which she claims was untrue that she and Fellini were great friends. She also talked about the film's release where it nearly got banned by the Vatican in its release and for 20 years in Spain, the film was banned.

The next interview is an old 1960, four-and-a-half minute interview with Fellini about the film's controversy where he talked about an irate couple who tried to kill each other after watching the movie. He also talked about why his film shouldn't be taken seriously since it's a work of fiction while responding to the criticism he's received including from directors like Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. The 1960 Cannes Film Festival interview with Marcello Mastroianni is a two-and-a-half minute spot where Mastroianni tries to talk about the film's reaction at the Cannes Film Festival. Mastroianni is aware that the film has divided audiences while he does his best to respond to what people think and stuff.

Two more interviews arrive from colleagues of Fellini. First is an 8-minute discussion with one of Fellini's close friends in Rinaldo Gelend. Gelend discusses the themes of the film while doing a lot of the casting and talking about Fellini's own relationship with his often absent father. Geland also had claims that Fellini did have an affair with Ekberg along with other actresses because he loved women too much. The second interview is rare footage from Tullio Pinelli, one of the last surviving screenwriters behind the film. The six-minute interview revealed how Pinelli met Fellini and their collaboration on a script that eventually became La Dolce Vita. Pinelli discusses themes, notably about two characters he created, the girl Paola and the character of Steiner. A bonus interview comes from a recent documentary about Fellini from actor Donald Sutherland where he briefly talks about Fellini and La Dolce Vita and how Mastroianni almost didn't do the film. Sutherland also talked about when he was making Casanova, Fellini received a telegram from Universal who were honored to work with him and wanted to please him where Fellini gave a response.

Added to the box set which is presented in a large, leather-like packaging with a gold drawing of Anita Ekberg walking around are two different essays on the film. The first is a 40-page collector's booklet featuring an essay from Peter Bondanella, an expert in the works of Fellini. Bondanella discusses Fellini's career and the uproar of La Dolce Vita when it was released since it challenged a lot of moral behaviors and images that angered the Catholic church. The essay talked about the filming details which began in March of 1959 and finished shooting in August of that year before its official release in Italy on February 1960. Bondanella discusses the themes and character development that is in the film and its importance to cinema.

The second essay from Dennis Bartok discusses the film's impact on culture and media along with its success in giving Fellini international prestige. Though much shorter than Bondanella's essay, Bartok does revel in its impact along with its testament that when Marcello Mastroianni died in 1996, the famed Trevi Fountain was shut down and draped in black to mourn the famed superstar. Bartok also briefly discusses on the film's impact on fashion where the film has reveled in its decadence and such. Finally, there's two collectibles that fans of the film would enjoy. First is a large, 11"x17" poster of the film itself. The second collectible are five 5"x7" photographs in black-and-white that reveals the iconic images of the film. In the end, this 3-disc Deluxe Collector's Edition is a must-have for anyone who is a big fan of the film.

***End of DVD Tidbits***

La Dolce Vita is an extraordinary yet exciting film from Federico Fellini featuring an outstanding performance by Marcello Mastroianni. With dazzling yet surreal images, Nino Rota's sumptuous score, and an amazing ensemble cast. It's a film that remains very lively and hypnotic more than 50 years since its release. For anyone wanting to figure out who Fellini is, this is the best place to start. In the end, La Dolce Vita is a timeless yet magnificent film from Federico Fellini.

Federico Fellini Films: (Variety Lights) - The White Sheik - I, Vitelloni - (L'amore in Citta-unagenzia matrimoniale) - La Strada - Il bidone - Nights of Cabiria - (Boccaccio '70-Le tentazoni del Dottor Antonio) - 8 1/2 - Juliet of the Spirits - Histoires extraordinaire-Toby Dammit - (Fellini: A Director's Notebook) - Fellini Satyricon - (I Clowns) - Roma - Amarcord - Casanova - Orchestra Rehearsal - City of Women - And the Ship Sails On - Ginger and Fred - (Intervista) - (The Voice of the Moon)

© thevoid99 2012

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is the third part of a trilogy of films relating the 1993 child murders at Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis Arkansas where three teenagers were accused of the crime. Starting with its first documentary in 1996 and its follow-up in 2000, the third film follow Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. as they each serve prison sentences for the crime. When their defense team and support group uncover more proof of their innocence, it leads to secrets of incompetence relating to the case as well as a new suspect. The result is a more thrilling yet evocative film from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

In the first two films about the murders that happened back in 1993, a lot of fingers were pointed at Damien Echols as being the supposed ringleader of the murders as part of a Satanic cult ritual. Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. all have maintained their innocence as the most of the film’s first half is a look back at the previous films with new comments from lawyers and various people from the previous films. Particularly as Echols’ attorney talks about the evidence that was overlooked leading to the 2007 press conference that revealed new evidence that proved that the three men are innocent. What is more shocking is the new suspect that is presented in the form of Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murder victims in Stevie Branch.

While Hobbs maintains his innocence while going into a defamation suit against Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines over comments she supposedly made. There is some evidence about the fact that he is a suspect which is presented by John Mark Byers, the stepfather of victim Christopher Byers, with facts about Hobbs’ whereabouts on that day. The Byers character, who had been a prominent figure in the previous films, is shown in a more restrained light as he has dealt with loss as well as being a suspect. Since he didn’t kill the children, he revealed his own faults of accusing the three men who had been suspected. Through the new evidence revealed, he becomes a supporter while receiving an apology letter from Echols who had suspected him years ago.

The film also picks up where the second documentary left off as Echols was facing a death sentence as he, Baldwin, and Misskelley kept fighting through appeals with help from the West Memphis 3 support group and their attorneys. Misskelley reveals more about what happened on the day he made his false confession which showed more injustice from the police department. A former secretary for a lawyer revealed that jury tampering had happened because someone wanted to be a foreman for the jury in the Echols-Baldwin case back in 1994.

The structure of the film is much tighter than its predecessors due to the fact that the film is presented in chapters. The first one is a prologue about everything told in the previous films and the second and third chapters are about the new evidence and suspicions towards Terry Hobbs. Then comes this epilogue at the time the film was in post-production where it revealed something that could’ve prevented a trial and more appeals to happen in the coming years. What Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are given is in the form of a compromise which would end the film. Yet, it’s an unsatisfying one considering the legal circumstances that is presented. Not surprisingly, there is a sense that justice was not served and the fact that the real killer is still loose somewhere. The accused aren’t satisfied nor are their families and the families of the victims. It’s a very mixed reaction considering what the three men had to do to be freed.

While the direction of Berlinger and Sinofsky is still the same in their approach to open the film with aerial shots of West Memphis. Yet, there is a more sense of control to that presentation as it isn’t as overt while they get to be on camera in a few instances as they talk to Echols in an interview and deal with the aftermath of the case. With camera work from Robert Richman and wonderful editing by Alyse Ardell Spiegal to gather all of the old footage to create new ones. The technical work is still stellar as the music features a haunting ambient score by Wendy Blackstone as well as songs from Metallica.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is a superb film from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about the West Memphis 3 and the murders they were accused of. For those who hadn’t seen the previous films, it does give viewers a chance to see what was shown in those films without really needing to see them. For those that had seen the previous films, it would give them a chance to piece out everything else that had seen to figure out what was missed. In the end, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is an excellent and provocative documentary from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky Films: (Brother’s Keeper) - Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills - (Where It’s At: The Rolling Stone State of the Union) - Paradise Lost 2: Revelations - Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

© thevoid99 2012

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Paradise Lost 2: Revelations

Paradise Lost 2: Revelations is a sequel to the 1996 documentary about the murders that occurred at Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas. Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the film explores the aftermath of the trial that accused Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. of killing three eight-year old boys back in 1993. Notably as Echols faces a death sentence as a support group and lawyers try to help their case out where they uncover new evidence and a possible suspect. The result is a more intriguing yet brooding documentary from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

In the second part of the Paradise Lost trilogy, a support group of the West Memphis 3 try to keep the case open for the public as its alleged ringleader Damien Echols faces a death sentence in 2000. While Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin are currently serving different sentences, both maintain their innocence as Misskelley reveals that his confession was false due to the threats and badgering he received from the police. Misskelley’s attorney from the first case chooses to stay on as he also helps out Echols and Baldwin with help from a defense expert and the support group where they would uncover a piece of evidence overlooked from the previous case.

With the mothers of Echols and Baldwin talking to the filmmakers as well as Misskelley’s father, the one person that is up and front about the case is John Mark Byers. The father of one of the victims in Christopher Byers, Byers is definitely the scene-stealer of the film as he becomes confrontational towards the support group as he becomes a suspect. Particularly as his wife Melissa had died mysteriously in 1996 as her cause of death remained inconclusive. Yet, Byers is also known for various incidents relating to theft and assault while there is a very crazy scene where he returns to the crime scene to make a gravesite for the accused in a very strange ritual with fire.

While Byers is among one of the most interesting people in the film, it is still about the case as a more subdued Damien Echols reflects on the first film and everything else that has happened. Notably as Echols fights for his appeal after he felt the lawyers in the first film didn’t do an adequate job in defending him once the support team, Misskelley’s attorney, and others find evidence that could prove their innocence. What is revealed proved that there wasn’t just a sense of incompetence by the defense attorneys and those who are supposed to look into the autopsy. It also proves that there could be a cover-up.

The direction of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky does repeat some of the same visual traits such as the aerial shots of West Memphis and moving the camera around the actual crime scene. The approach is more different as it utilizes more news footage and material from the previous film to reveal what happened then as the people who were previously interviewed reflecting on the past. There’s scenes where Berlinger and Sinofsky get a chance for Echols to speak via speakerphone for an online chat he has where he briefly gets to talk to his mother. With the help of cinematographer Robert Richman and editor M. Watanabe Milmore, the film’s look and editing approach to the film is still the same but there’s also a much tighter feel to the pacing that keeps it from lagging. The film’s music is once again supplied by Metallica which adds to the film’s haunting quality as Baldwin’s mother finds herself relating to the song Nothing Else Matters which is played a few times in the film.

Paradise Lost 2: Revelations is a mesmerizing yet suspenseful documentary from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The film is a brilliant yet superior follow-up to its predecessor as it unveils more clues and secrets about the possible innocence of the West Memphis 3. It also creates a very interesting character in Mark Byers as a man trying to deal with loss as well as maintaining his belief that the three men did kill those kids. It’s also a film that allows someone to go back and watch the first film and see what got overlooked and figure out that there could be more that is missing. In the end, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations is a remarkable yet powerful film from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky Films: (Brother’s Keeper) - Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills - (Where It’s At: The Rolling Stone State of the Union) - Metallica: Some Kind of Monster - Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

© thevoid99 2012

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is the story of the murder of three eight-year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas as three young teenagers are accused of murder. The documentary explores a small town being torn apart by these gruesome murders which leads to a trial as these three teenagers try to maintain their innocence. The result is a very harrowing yet evocative documentary from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Paradise Lost is a harrowing yet chilling documentary about the West Memphis 3 and the murders that happened.

The documentary tells the story of an entire year from the day of May 3, 1993 when the bodies of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Stevie Branch were found at a ditch in the woods of West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teenagers named Jessie Misskelley Jr., Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin were accused of the murders as its first hour focuses on the murder and Misskelley’s confession that led to the arrest of Echols and Baldwin. Notably as some believe that Misskelley’s confession was false and forced upon a kid who was scared. The film’s following hour-and-a-half focuses on the Echols/Baldwin trial as they are accused of Satanic rituals which they deny while Christopher Byers’ stepfather Mark is alleged to be a suspect because of a knife he had.

Throughout the story, the parents of the victims and the accused are interview as they each share their own feelings about what happened. The victims parents including Mark Byers each express their own hatred for the accused as Byers hopes that the day they die, he spits in their graves for what they did. There’s a scene of Byers and Michael Moore’s father having a shooting practice at a pumpkin which express the hatred these two fathers have for these teenagers.

Though directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky don’t try to portray any of the people interviewed as caricatures but as real people dealing with grief and in the situations they’re in. Particularly the accused as they’re often seen as being different because they wear black, have interest in the occult, and listen to heavy metal music. The most interesting person of the accused is Damien Echols who truly understands what is going on as he and Baldwin try to maintain their innocence. Even their family backs them up while there’s a scene where the girlfriend of Misskelley’s father tries to tell him to cut him off.

In the presentation of the film, Berlinger and Sinofsky create a documentary that is set in this small Arkansas town with aerial shots of the town as well as wandering, hand-held camera work on the actual location where the bodies are found told in the span of nearly a year. The duo choose to create a film where they observe everything that is happening as they let everyone from the families, the accused, attorneys, and various other locals get a chance to say something where they’re revealed to be just human beings that have something articulate to say. They’re not these poor, rural people from the South but real people who are affected by these murders.

Through the camera work of Robert Richman and the editing provided by Berlinger and Sinofsky, the film explores a lot of what happens through news footage of the trial and various news reports. While the film is quite long for its 150-minute running time where the pacing does lag a bit in some of the interviews and conversations between lawyers. It does reveal what goes on and what the defense team tries to do while there’s also some people who try to help the families deal with the media over the case. The film’s soundtrack is largely dominated by the music of Metallica that plays to the dark mood of the case as it’s the music that Echols and Baldwin are fond of.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is a very gripping yet unsettling documentary from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. While it’s not an easy film to watch as it features some very graphic and gruesome images of death. It is still an intriguing one that uncovers the West Memphis 3 case and how it would progress in its following films. In the end, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is a haunting film from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky Films: (Brother’s Keeper) - (Where It’s At: The Rolling Stone State of the Union) - Paradise Lost 2: Revelations - Metallica: Some Kind of Monster - Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

© thevoid99 2012

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Auteurs #7: Lars von Trier

Controversial, provocative, genius, misogynist, greatest filmmaker in the world, the most hated filmmaker in the world, prankster, and enfant terrible. These are the many things said about Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier whose career has been defined by stirring things up and always provoking ideals in what audience expects. He’s has gained both followers and detractors for all of the films he’s made in his career yet he has never been predictable nor compromising with the film’s he’s made for nearly 30 years into his career. Having just released Melancholia in 2011 with a few other projects in the works, von Trier has proven himself to be one of cinema great filmmakers.

Born Lars Trier on April 30, 1956 in Kongens Lyngby, Denmark, the bad-boy filmmaker grew up in a very eccentric family that had him appear in small Danish TV as a child actor while receiving his first Super 8 camera at age 11. In 1977, von Trier would make his first short film entitled The Orchid Gardener which got him enrolled into the National Film School of Denmark two years later. It was during this time he added “von” into his name as he would make four more shorts from 1979 to 1982 that chronicled his unique yet strange style of filmmaking. After graduating from film school, von Trier would finally start his career into feature films.

For his feature-film debut, von Trier decided to create a film that was part of a trilogy of films revolving around the decay of European society as he starts it off with Forbrydelsens element (The Element of Crime). Written with cinematographer Tom Elling and editor Tom Gislason that was based on a story by von Trier’s friend Niels Vorsel, the film is a noir-style detective story about an English detective who recalls his last case under hypnosis while living in exile in Cairo. There, he talks about a gruesome series of murders on young girls selling lottery tickets in a decayed, water-laden world of Europe.

The film was shot entirely in a sepia-tone look filled with lots of yellow-lights and in a monochrome style to maintain a look that von Trier wanted for this futuristic yet decadent idea of Europe. Helping von Trier with the look of the film was his regular cinematographer at the time in Tom Elling where they used some blue for lighting schemes while it’s still driven by the yellowish look of the film. The film also had a grand yet technical style to it in one memorable scene where a man jumps off a construction tower with his legs dangling like a rope as if he was doing an early version of bungee jumping.

Still, von Trier was able to focus himself on the story as he followed this troubled detective named Fisher (Michael Elphick) to solve a mystery as he uses a controversial method to delve into the mind of the killer. Throughout the entirety of the film, there is a dark, dream-like quality to it in the way von Trier follows Fisher and a prostitute named Kim (Me Me Lai) trek through the watery world as they deal with a police chief and all sorts of strange people. The film also plays with the film noir genre as von Trier puts a bit of strong sexual content such as a scene where Kim is performing oral sex on Fisher though nothing explicit is really shown. It was an indication that this new emerging filmmaker will do anything to provoke with the ideas he brings and how far he will go.

The film premiered in 1984 in its native Denmark while being released at the Cannes Film Festival that same year where von Trier would be a regular fixture of the festival for nearly twenty-five years. The film would win von Trier a technical prize while gaining lots of acclaim through European film festivals as well as gaining numerous awards in Denmark. While the film would ultimately be released in the U.S. three years later through a very limited release. It did mark the arrival of a new bad boy in the world of cinema.

The second part of von Trier’s Europa trilogy was much looser film he co-wrote with Niels Vorsel as the two starred in a film about a screenwriter and director trying to make a film about an epidemic where reality and fiction would eventually collide. While the film is one of von Trier’s more abstract films that often leans towards the world of pretentiousness. It’s also an indication of how ambitious von Trier can be as well as be someone who can create a film that is stripped-down and to the point.

The film marks as a turning point in von Trier’s career for the way he can construct two different narratives that would eventually collide. While the main narrative is about von Trier and Vorsel both trying to come up with an idea for a film about an epidemic plague that treks around Europe as it’s shot in a grainy 16mm film. The other section which is the actual film itself where von Trier plays a doctor trying to save the world from this epidemic that has this rich yet broad look as it’s shot in a gorgeous 35mm film print.

Starring in the film aside from von Trier and Vorsel is German actor Udo Kier as a friend of theirs they meet during the road trip the two have. Kier would be among one of von Trier’s regular actors as he would appear in a lot of the projects had made. Epidemic would be a turning point for von Trier in his approach to tell the story of Europe’s decline but he does it in the most unexpected way. While the film had this back and forth narrative where the reality portion of it isn’t as exciting as its fantasy section. The way it collides towards the end show the prankster in von Trier that would often bring notoriety to his work and public persona.

The film premiered at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival at its Un Certain Regarde section where it received excellent notices though many would often cite this film as one of von Trier’s weakest films. The film’s U.S. release took a lot longer until it got a DVD release in 2004. Though it wasn’t a big commercial success due to its limited release, it did help raise von Trier’s reputation as a young director on the rise.

Due to the poor commercial reception for Epidemic, von Trier was hired to direct Medea for Danish television. The script was written by one of von Trier’s key influences in legendary Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer which gave reason for von Trier to do the project. Shot in a monochrome style with visual tricks and compositions inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky, the TV film would be a turning point for von Trier in what he would do as a filmmaker.

With a cast that included regular Udo Kier along with future regulars like Henning Jensen, Solbjorg Hojfeldt, and Baard Owe. Playing the titular character was Danish actress Kirsten Olesen who had appeared in a short film for von Trier back in 1982 during his film school years. Shot in a low budget on location in Denmark, von Trier aimed to create a TV-film that contained Dreyer’s theatrical style with the visual look of Tarkovsky. Aiming for a more stylistic approach to the Euripides story, von Trier would create ideas that he would use in the projects to follow.

Among them are superimposed backgrounds that gave the TV film a very surreal look for the scenes involving Medea and Udo Kier’s Jason character as they discuss Jason’s plans for the future that won’t involve Medea who seeks revenge for his betrayal. The TV film would also explore a theme von Trier would later explore in another trilogy that would follow in the late 1990s which involved women and their idea of sacrifice. In that theme, Medea would do something extremely drastic to make her ex-husband suffer as much as she had when she was betrayed.

The TV film was released in 1988 as it won the Jean d’Arcy prize in France while being a hit in small European festival. Though von Trier wasn’t fond of the project as he admitted he tried his hardest to mess it up in post-production. The film would give von Trier something to do as well as ideas into some of the projects he would do in the years to come. Yet, it is among one of von Trier’s earlier triumphs showcasing what kind of range he has as a filmmaker.

The third and final part of von Trier’s Europa trilogy entitled Europa would show von Trier taking his visual tricks to new heights. Written with Niels Vorsel, the film is about an idealistic American who travels to post-war Germany in 1945 to help his uncle run a railroad car as he unknowingly becomes part of a plot to help Nazi-sympathizers while falling for a woman whose family runs the train company he works for. The story itself proves to be a very ambitious project for von Trier as he continues his exploration into Europe’s sense of decline by traveling back to a crucial period in time.

The film had a huge ensemble cast that included Eddie Constantine, Erik Mork, Barbara Sukowa, Jorgen Reenberg, Henning Jensen, and Max von Sydow as the film’s narrator. The cast also included Udo Kier as well as a couple of future von Trier regulars in Swedish cult actor Ernst-Hugo Jaregard and French-American actor Jean-Marc Barr as the lead role of Leopold Kessler. With von Trier also making an appearance as a Jewish man who is supposed to implicate Jorgen Reenberg’s Max Hartmann character. The film was the first collaboration von Trier would have with producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen in which the two would form a production company called Zentropa after the film’s train company as the film would be given that name for its U.S. release to avoid confusion with Agnieska Holland’s 1990 film Europa Europa.

With exteriors shot in Poland and many of the films interiors shot in a studio in Denmark, von Trier aimed for a much more ambitious idea of presenting the film with lots of super-imposed shots set while mixing black-and-white film with color for emotional scenes in the film. In this approach, von Trier creates a film that is essentially a mix of fantasy with a period film where everything doesn’t seem real but is set at a very crucial time in history. Playing to the theme of the trilogy, it is a film about the decline of European decadence as it is set in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat and the fallout of those involved with the Nazi organization as some of the characters would fall hard while there are those who are trying to hold on the last grasp of Nazi power.

Since the film is the most stylized film von Trier has made, it is also a film that indicates how far he will go in creating a film that is very ambitious in terms of set pieces and trying to bring something new. With the help of Henning Bendtsen, who was one of three cinematographers that was famous for his work with Carl Theodor Dreyer, on the black-and-white photography of the film with then brother-in-law Joachim Holbek providing the film’s suspenseful score. With a lot of scenes filled with huge dramatic cuts plus lots of moving crane shots where it includes a scene of a camera leaving a house on the roof and suddenly be inside a train car. It’s an indication of how far von Trier went from The Element of Crime into something like this.

The film premiered at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival to lots of acclaim over the film’s visual style as it would win three awards for Best Artistic Contribution, the Technical Jury Prize, and the film’s third place Jury Prize that was shared with Marnoun Bagdadi’s film Hors la vie (Out of Life). At the festival’s closing ceremony where von Trier was to accept his awards, the director gave the festival’s jury and its president in filmmaker Roman Polanski the finger while storming out upon learning he wasn’t going to win the Palme D’or (which went to the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink). The disappointment over not winning the Palme D’or only added to some of von Trier’s personal issues as he learned about his biological father two years earlier on his mother’s deathbed.

Riget I & II

Forming Zentropa Entertainment in 1992 with producer Peter Albaek Jensen, von Trier decided to make some changes to his filmmaking style in the wake of his own family turmoil. In hopes to help raise money for Zentropa, von Trier decided to do a TV project with friend Morten Arnfred and collaborators Niels Vorsel and Tomas Gislason about a haunted Danish hospital where strange events occur. Entitled Riget (The Kingdom), von Trier decided to create a TV-based hospital drama and infuse with horror and dark comedy.

The TV project starred Ernst-Hugo Jaregard whom von Trier worked with on Europa as he was cast as a Swedish doctor whom is disliked by his peers as he often screams “Danish scum” towards the end of each episode. With regular Udo Kier making a cameo for the first part of the series, the cast is filled with a cast of Danes and Scandinavian actors including a couple of Down-syndrome actors to play dishwashers who comments on the situations that goes in the hospital.

The first series released in 1994 featured multiple narratives about a young neurosurgeon who runs a black market operation while an elderly patient is a spiritualist who asks her orderly son to find a ghost. Meanwhile, a professor decides to input a cancerous liver tumor into his body while a young student has nightmares as he tries to win over a sleeping lab doctor. A whole lot of chaos ensues as a hospital chief tries to win over the health minister with a positive attitude message for the hospital. All of this is commented by two dishwashers who would also reveal what might be coming as von Trier presented the TV mini-series in a sepia-like grainy hand-held cinematography in 16mm film that marked a major change from the more technical-driven work of his previous films.

The success of the 1994 mini-series led to a sequel three years later that has Udo Kier playing a bigger part as he was last scene coming out of a woman’s fetus in the end of the first series. Riget II upped the ante in terms of its humor and more dark themes that would involve the occult. With a looser style in its presentation and storytelling, von Trier and Arnfred went for odd styles of framing as well as utilizing night-vision film stock to play up an evil presence that occurs in the second series.

Since von Trier and Niels Vorsel aimed to mess around with the script structure of its predecessor for Riget II. They went for something where things don’t exactly pick up where it is left off as the mini-series had a more disjointed feel in terms of scene transitions and what happens in these multiple-narratives. Notably as Jaregard would scream his famous last lines but this time towards a toilet for the second part. With more crazy events that includes suspenseful ambulance races, Satanic rituals, a nosy medical director, and all sorts of surprises. Riget II became the great follow-up to its predecessor as audiences watched with great anticipation for its 1997 release.

After its release, von Trier was already planning for its third series due to its suspenseful cliffhanger at the end of the second series. Unfortunately, Ernst-Hugo Jaregard’s death in 1998 as well as the subsequent deaths of Kirsten Rolffes as Mrs. Drusse and Morten Rotne Leffers as the male Down syndrome dishwasher complicated things. Along with funding issues, von Trier was forced to shelve the third series. While a remake of the series was made by Stephen King called Kingdom Hospital in 2004 that only lasted a season. There were rumors that von Trier sent the script of the third series to the shows producers though it remains unclear that if von Trier’s script were used. Still, the Riget mini-series expanded von Trier’s range as a storyteller leaving way for what was to come in the late 1990s.

Following the personal turmoil over his mother’s death, the discovery of his biological father, and his conversion to Catholicism. Lars von Trier would change gears for a new trilogy that explored women and the sacrifices they make. On March 22, 1995, von Trier attended at ceremony to celebrate the first century of cinema as well as discussing its future. There, von Trier made the announcement of the Dogme 95 movement that he co-founded with Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg as a reaction towards the state of big-budgeted commercial cinema.

The movement entailed certain rules of a Dogme 95 in which all cameras had to be shot on available light and had to be in hand-held cameras. All sound and music had to be presented on location and not re-created. Film has to be shot in color with no use of filters or optical work. No genre films or sets to be built as the film has to be shot in present location. Props had to be found at that location. The film had to be formatted at the Academy 35mm aspect ratio of 1:33:1 theatrical ratio and the director must not be credited. These guidelines would be of use for what von Trier would do with his new film entitled Breaking the Waves.

Written with Peter Asmussen, the film told the story of a young Scottish woman who falls for a Norwegian oil rigger as their brief wedded bliss is shattered when he is paralyzed by an accident. Guilty for being the cause of the accident after praying to God for him to return, the woman would embark on a journey to find a way to make her husband better by having sex with other men under his instructions. Eventually, it leads to problems as she gets in trouble with the religious leaders of her hometown where she would make the ultimate sacrifice to save her husband’s life.

The film marked a turning point in von Trier’s career as he strayed away from the more technical-driven work of his earlier films for the looseness he had in some of the hand-held work he did in The Kingdom. With the help of renowned Dutch cinematographer Robby Muller, von Trier went for a look that was grainy, monochrome look that looked like a home movie. At the same time, von Trier went for unconventional editing styles with the help of editor Anders Refn. Since the film was set in the 1970s and was at the time, the longest film von Trier had made at 158-minutes. He had chapters break that is filled with music of the early 70s with animated paintings that was created by Pers Kirkesby to give the film a storybook feel.

With a cast that included von Trier regulars Udo Kier and Jean-Marc Barr, added to that group of regular actors was Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard while British actors such as Adrian Rawlins, Sandra Voe, and Katrin Cartlidge were also cast in the film. Yet, it’s biggest discovery is an unknown in British theater actress Emily Watson in the lead role of Bess who got the part after actresses like Helena Bonham Carter, Melanie Griffith, and Barbara Sukowa turned down the part. While the part of Bess has Watson had her go nude, do things that women felt were degrading and add to the question about whether von Trier was a misogynist. It was however a part that was considered very daring for someone who had never been in a film.

The film premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival where it won von Trier the festival’s second place Grand Jury prize as well as slew of accolades in Europe and the U.S. Notably an Oscar nomination for Best Actress while the film gave von Trier some of his best reviews at that point in his career. For many, the film is often considered the best film of his career as well as the film that truly put him among one of the world’s best filmmakers.

The second part of von Trier’s Golden Hearts trilogy that was preceded by Breaking the Waves would have him go full-on into the Dogme 95 movement he co-founded. In 1997, Thomas Vinterberg released the first Dogme film Festen (The Celebration) at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim. For von Trier, that film’s acclaim meant he had to really do something different as he decided to tell the story of a group of anti-bourgeois people rebelling by acting out in public as a women named Karen watches in awe and joins the group.

The film is an exploration into a lonely woman’s observation into this group of people who do all sorts of crazy things as if they’re mentally-retarded. Throughout the entirety of the film, cars are crashed, erratic behavior is rampant in public places, chaos ensues in forms of juvenile destruction, and it all culminates with a full-on orgy. It’s all part of a world von Trier wants to create although it’s told by a set of rules that he made for the Dogme 95 movement.

Without taking credit as the director, von Trier was able to get credit for writing as well as being the film’s cinematographer and camera operator and shoot it in an early version of digital photography. While von Trier did confess to breaching some rules set by the Dogme 95 movement, he was able to get the film passed as a Dogme 95 film by co-founder Thomas Vinterberg and others who had to check if he broke any further rules.

Of the films von Trier has made, this one is truly the most chaotic film he’s made in terms of its looseness as well as just letting things go all out. It’s a film where von Trier decided to use whatever he was able to use and see what he can come out with. Yet, it seems that whatever limits him can get him to find a way to be more provocative and more out there. Since the film is also part of the Golden Hearts trilogy where Bodil Jorgensen’s Karen is playing the observer and eventually plays part into the game of acting out very late in the film. What would she would eventually sacrifice is her sanity yet it is revealed into why she takes part in something as crazy with the people she’s doing it with.

The film premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival to a very divided reaction where its press screening gained notoriety due to British film critic Mark Kermode’s reaction as he tried to shout “It is shit” in French where he was thrown out of the screening. The film’s controversy was due to the sexually-explicit content presented in the film during the gang-bang/orgy scene where actual penetration occurred during the scene. While von Trier was able to censor some of the penetrative action, the film only brought notoriety to the filmmaker as he garnered a few festival and European-based award prizes. Yet, the biggest prize he got was the fact that he was willing to provoke an audience to act insane which furthered his status as the ultimate provocateur.

The third and final part of von Trier’s Golden Hearts trilogy would have the director delve into unlikely places by having the film be a musical set in a country von Trier has never visited before in the U.S. While the project was to be shot in Sweden due to von Trier’s phobia of flying, he was able to create a film where America was part of a fantasy world that he created. Notably as the film is about a Czech-born immigrant who is trying to save money for her son’s surgery to save his eyesight as she is trying to hide her blindness from the people that knew her. With hopes to do a stage performance of The Sound of Music, she dreams of being in a fantasy world while dealing with the grim realities around her as she eventually is tried for murder which leads to her making a big sacrifice for her son.

Playing the lead role of Selma is Icelandic singer Bjork as she would also contribute music for the film with collaborators Sjon and Mark Bell along with von Trier helping to write lyrics for the original songs in the film. Also cast in the film aside were legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, David Morse, Cara Seymour, Siobhan Fallon-Hogan, Zeljko Ivanek, and Joel Grey along with appearances from von Trier regulars Jean-Marc Barr, Stellan Skarsgard, Jens Albinus, and Udo Kier.

With Robby Muller returning as cinematography to help with the film’s digital-video look that is enhanced for the musical scenes. The production for the film was quite tense due to creative tension between von Trier and Bjork as the latter found the experience to be emotionally draining. For the musical scenes, von Trier and Muller had a 100 digital cameras shoot scenes to capture different angles of the musical performances presented in the film. Notably the courtroom scene that featured Joel Grey in the role of a famed Czech actor Selma claimed was her father.

While the film emphasized the same hand-held camera tactics von Trier employed in his previous films, it also indicated more of what von Trier can do as a filmmaker. While many thought the idea of him helming a musical seems far off, the film is another indication of how wide von Trier’s range as a filmmaker is. Even with the limits he had set himself on in order to maintain something that was experimental but also enjoyable.

The film premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival to a divided reaction from critics and audiences. Yet, it would win two big awards at the festival where Bjork won the Best Actress prize while von Trier finally won the coveted Palme D’or. Receiving numerous accolades including best film from the European film awards, it also received an Oscar nomination for the song I’ve Seen It All that von Trier co-wrote with Bjork and Sjon. While he was unable to attend the Oscars, Bjork made a notorious appearance wearing a swan dress to the ceremony and performing a shortened version of the song in that same dress.

After a break between projects where von Trier took on various projects including the TV project D-Dag with his fellow Danish Dogme 95 filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring that featured Stellan Skarsgard and Skarsgard’s son Alexander. Lars von Trier decided to tackle a new trilogy that was to be more experimental than his previous work in reaction to the American critics who felt he shouldn’t have made Dancer in the Dark due to his lack of knowledge of American culture. America would become the basis for his next trilogy entitled USA-Land of Opportunities which explored the journey of a woman named Grace in different parts of the country during the early part of the 20th Century. In its first part entitled Dogville, Grace tries to escape a mob trying to find her by hiding in a small town where she is given refuge by doing small labor.

The film featured a huge ensemble cast that included many of von Trier’s regulars like Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr, Siobhan Fallon-Hogan, and Zeljko Ivanek. Others includes Paul Bettany, James Caan, Philip Baker Hall, Jeremy Davies, Chloe Sevigny, Lauren Bacall, Harriet Andersson, Ben Gazzara, and Patricia Clarkson in the role of Vera as she took over for the ailing Katrin Cartlidge who died in the fall of 2002 as von Trier dedicated the film to her. For the lead role of Grace, Nicole Kidman was cast in the part while British actor John Hurt did the narration provided in the film.

Shot in a soundstage in Trollhattan, Sweden where minimal sets were built while chalk outlines were made on the floor. The film was a mixture of theatrical acting in the style of Bertolt Brecht and von Trier’s love of experimental film as he shot it in a digital hand-held style. Helping von Trier with his vision is British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle whom von Trier was a fan of. The two devised different camera techniques for the film while doing scenes where the actors are still acting off camera to maintain the theatricality of the film.

Since the film is about America, von Trier wanted to explore the world of American idealism as the character of Grace does numerous labor work to hide from the mob who are after her. During her stay in Dogville, things escalate where she is forced to deal with the locals who become more abusive to her as she becomes alienated and provoked. This would lead to an in which the character of Tom tries to help her only to realize that he is no better than the other locals. It would led to a horrifying conclusion when the mob arrives to retrieve Grace where she is revealed to be the daughter of its mob boss. Yet, von Trier would choose to end the film (along with the ending for Manderlay) with disturbing images of America in ruins for its closing credits scene as it’s accompanied by David Bowie’s Young Americans.

The film premiered at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival to a large degree of anticipation as many wondered what von Trier was to do next. The result divided critics over its presentation and commentary on American idealism. Notably with American critics who felt that von Trier was anti-American in what he was saying. Still, the film managed to cause the kind of provocation von Trier had always wanted in his career although plans for its follow-up was in trouble when Nicole Kidman decided not to do it due to scheduling conflicts.

During his break in 2001 and 2002, von Trier collaborated with one of his favorite filmmakers in Jorgen Leth whose 1967 short The Perfect Human is considered one of the great short films ever made. Being a fan of that short, von Trier ask Leth to re-create the short different times but with a set of rules that would become the basis for their collaboration entitled The Five Obstructions. With von Trier being the obstructor and Leth being the man forced to do the rules on what von Trier wanted. It would be considered to be one of the most interesting documentaries made.

Shooting the short four different times in four different locations, Leth was given a set of guidelines that would have him do his short in different ideas and such. If he passes, von Trier would have to find a way to make things harder. If Leth failed, von Trier would give him the option to create something entirely new or do it all over again. Rules such as shooting the film in 12 frames per second, having it set in an awful location but not reveal it, and making it into a cartoon gave Leth lots of difficulty. For its fifth and final short, von Trier directs the short but it is credited to Leth who has to narrate von Trier’s words from his own perspective.

The documentary premiered at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival to great acclaim as it was released in theaters a year later. The film garnered much needed acclaim von Trier needed following the mixed reaction to Dogville. While the film proved to be another hallmark in von Trier’s career, many wondered if von Trier will do something like this again. Notably in 2010 when rumors emerged about possible collaboration with Martin Scorsese in which von Trier will command Scorsese to remake a scene from Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver.

The second part of von Trier’s USA-Land of Opportunities trilogy has the director explore the world of slavery and the imposing of American idealism into a foreign country. Largely in response to the war in Iraq that the U.S. was involved in as he made it as the basis for Manderlay. In this second part, Grace is accompanied by the mob and her father to the American South where they discover a town called Manderlay where slavery is still happening in the 1930s.

Wanting to take the same visual style and staging approach to Dogville to new heights, von Trier also decided to make some changes in the casting as both Nicole Kidman and James Caan were unable to replay their parts due to scheduling conflicts. While Jeremy Davies, Chloe Sevigny, and Lauren Bacall along with von Trier regulars Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr, and Zeljko Ivanek returned for the sequel in different characters along with John Hurt as its narrator. Added to the cast were Danny Glover and Ivorian actor Isaach de Bankole along with Willem Dafoe taking over the role of Grace’s father for James Caan. For the role of Grace, newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard got the part as she was coming off a high-profiled performance for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.

The film’s production was troubled during an incident which involved an old donkey being slaughtered for the production which led to the departure of John C. Reilly who was later replaced by Zeljko Ivanek. Though the scene never made it to the final cut, it only played part of von Trier’s role as a provocateur as he aimed to create a film that would explore the fallacy of American idealism into another world. In Manderlay, Grace takes over a plantation of the same name hoping to improve things and make slaves aware of the freedom out there only to have her ideas crumble through tragedy, bad weather, and mismanagement.

Throughout the film, von Trier wanted to see how far Grace is willing to go to improve things for this plantation as her father warns her about bringing her ideals into a place like Manderlay. Throughout the film, Grace is seen being triumphant and face tribulations while trying to understand a mysterious book about slaves and such that was called Mam’s Law. By the end of the film as Grace is forced to accept defeat, the big shock comes in the form of who wrote the book which is revealed to be Danny Glover’s Wilhem character. What Wilhem reveals would lead to an unfortunate truth about the state of America after the Civil War where slaves faced an uncertain future. For Grace, she becomes frustrated at the outcome and is suddenly lost somewhere in America

The film premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival to mixed reviews from audiences and critics while it’s theatrical release worldwide didn’t fare well at all. The lukewarm commercial response to the film as well as its critical reaction suddenly found von Trier facing failure in his career. The timing of its release at Cannes couldn’t have come out at a very bad time for the Danish film industry as major releases from some of its filmmakers like Lone Scherfig, Bille August, and Thomas Vinterberg all flopped in the box office.

Months later after Cannes, von Trier released a film that he wrote called Dear Wendy about a group of kids in a small America town brandishing guns that was directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Dear Wendy was a major critical and commercial flop as plans for the third film in the USA-Land of Opportunities trilogy that was to entitled Wasington was suddenly shelved due to financial issues.

Following the disappointing reaction to Manderlay and his plans for Wasington being shelved, von Trier decided to take a break from his ambitious projects to work on something much smaller in the form of a comedy. Entitled Direktoren for det hele (The Boss of It All), von Trier decided to explore the world of workplace comedies with his own Danish sensibilities. The film is about a IT company owner who hires an actor to pretend to play boss while he is trying to find someone who will buy his company.

The film starred von Trier regular Jens Albinus as the actor Kristoffer while the mostly Danish cast included Iben Hjejle of the 2000 Stephen Frears film High Fidelity along with appearances from von Trier regulars Anders Hove and Jean-Marc Barr. The film would also play to von Trier’s admiration for experimentation as he uses the Automavision software in which he has a computer to help von Trier choose a shot scene while making camera movements. This experimentation with the computer would play a bigger part to the material von Trier would create in the years to come.

While the film is said to be a Danish comedy, it has a sense of humor that most people outside of Denmark won’t seem to get as it revolves around an actor pretending to be a boss as he deals with all sorts of people. Throughout the film, the fourth wall is broken as von Trier often narrates situations in the film while trying to tell the audience that he is making a comedy. While the film is one of von Trier’s least-regarded works due to its pacing and unconventional approach. It is still a very quintessential von Trier film for the fact that he’s playing prankster while taking the risk to experiment with new technology to tell a story.

The film was released in the fall of 2006 in many film festivals where it received some very good notices from critics despite a low-key release. While the film served as a break from von Trier’s often provocative approach to filmmaking, it only got a very limited release in the U.S. in 2007. Yet, it did attract the attention of Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz who plans to create a remake of his own with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer serving as producers as it’s rumored for a 2014 release. Still, the film gave von Trier the chance to keep himself busy as he went into a very low profile writing the film De unge ar: Erik Nietzsche sagaen del 1 (The Early Years: Erik Nietzsche Pt. 1) for Jacob Thuesen based on von Trier’s early life as a film student in the National Film School of Denmark.

During his sabbatical from the film scene following the release of Direktoren for det hele where he contributed the short Occupations for the 2007 anthology film Chacun son Cinema. Lars von Trier went into a period of deep depression that kept him from working as he tried to create a new project as his plans for Wasington was officially shelved. Inspired by the films of Andrei Tarkovsky from a visual standpoint as well as the experimentation he took with the computer on Direktoren for det hele. The new project von Trier would make would be part of a new trilogy that was directly inspired by his own fascination with depression.

Entitled Antichrist, the first part of von Trier’s trilogy explored the death of a child as a couple tries to cope with loss in the middle of a woods where the man tries to deal with his wife’s grief as he is also a psychiatrist. During their stay at a cabin in the woods, the man discovers his wife’s thesis about witchcraft and gynocide as well as startling revelations about his own child. This would lead to the arrival of three animals waiting for someone to die in the midst of chaos between husband and wife.

With Willem Dafoe playing the man in the film, the casting for the role of the woman was tough as French actress Eva Green was in talks of doing the film only to be stopped by her agents. Another French actress got the part in Charlotte Gainsbourg as she would play the grieving mother who falls into a manic behavior driven by grief and madness. The film would mark a very stylistic turning point for von Trier as he reached back towards the controlled technical camera work of his earlier films infused with the more looser, hand-held style that he had done in the late 1990s.

With Anthony Dod Mantle returning as cinematographer, he and von Trier shot a lot of the film’s forest scenes in Germany as they aimed for a look that is similar to the films of Tarkovsky. Particularly 1975’s The Mirror for its visual look as von Trier also wanted to recreate the raindrops that was often a trademark of Tarkovsky. For the research on gynocide, von Trier received help from researcher Heidi Laura on uncovering the history of witchcraft as she helped von Trier and producer Meta Louise Foldager create a text that Gainsbourg’s character would create.

The film also featured sexually explicit material for the film’s beautiful yet slow-motion black-and-white sequence as von Trier hired porn actors to perform anal sex parts of the film. It was accompanied by the music of Georg Friedrich Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga that was performed by local classical group as it appeared for the film’s opening and closing credits sequence. The film also had von Trier use visual effects as it’s most notorious moment when Dafoe’s character encounters a fox that says “Chaos reigns”.

The film made its premiere at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival to a widely divisive array of reactions. Some loved and some hated it as the press conference for the film was just as wild where a journalist asked von Trier why did he make the film. At the conference, von Trier proclaimed himself to be the best filmmaker in the world. The film won Charlotte Gainsbourg the Best Actress prize while the film managed to divide many as it eventually became one of the most talked about films of the year. For von Trier, after a period of lackluster features and a bout with depression. Antichrist confirmed that not only is he back but returns as a far more dangerous filmmaker.

The second part of von Trier’s Depression Trilogy has the director taking on a genre in the form of sci-fi. Yet, the only sci-fi thing about the film is an opening sequence in which a large planet is about to collide with Earth. Melancholia is about two sisters’ differing reactions to this planet called Melancholia that is about to collide. One is a young bride who has just gotten married as she suddenly falls into deep depression while the other is a more rational woman who tries to help her sister while becoming anxious over the arrival of this strange planet.

While the film had the same stylistic visual ideas of Antichrist, von Trier decided to go for a much broader approach to the film’s script as well as exploring the world of depression. With a cast that featured von Trier regulars like Stellan Skarsgard and Udo Kier along with Charlotte Gainsbourg in the role of the older sister Claire. The film also included Jesper Christensen, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Charlottte Rampling, Alexander Skarsgard, and Kirsten Dunst in the role of Justine. The cast helped von Trier explore the anxieties and effects of depression as well as figuring out how people would react to the idea of a planet set to collide with Earth.

One of the film’s big surprises is the way the film begins where it’s clear that von Trier is starting to experiment more with story structure. The film opens with this grand visual-effects sequence filled with lots of slow-motion camera work as a planet is set to collide with Earth and essentially kill everything in its path. Then it shifts into the wedding sequence where its first half focuses on Justine celebrating her wedding and then fall into a state of depression as Claire’s husband is in awe over this planet that is being shown in the sky. The film’s second half is focused on Justine’s older sister Claire as she tries to take care of Justine and deal with the arrival of this planet.

Throughout the film, von Trier explores the different reaction of these two sisters as the planet Melancholia is set to collide where Claire feels scared for herself and her son. Justine in her depressed state believes that there is nothing that can be done as Claire should just accept what is to happen. Justine’s reaction to what is happening adds a realness to the way depression is portrayed as both von Trier and Kirsten Dunst have been open about their own experiences with depression. Scenes such as Claire trying to get Justine to eat her favorite dinner and Justine breaking down claiming the food tastes like ashes is among one of many ideas that von Trier wanted to show about the world of depression. What makes the film much more surprising than anything von Trier has done is how accessible it is. Not just as a dramatic feature but also a sci-fi film that has a premise that audiences can be intrigued by.

The film made its premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where controversy occurred once again as von Trier jokingly stated that he is a Nazi at the press conference for the film. The comment by von Trier made things very uncomfortable with the festival’s organizer as they’ve banned von Trier from appearing at the festival. Despite the controversy, the film was a hit at Cannes where Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress prize while the film would win numerous accolades including three European Film Awards including one for Best Film. In the U.S., the film was a surprise art-house hit where it won two awards from National Society of Film Critics for best film and best actress for Dunst.

Additional Projects

Throughout von Trier’s career in the world of films, he has made several short films along with various TV and experimental projects based in Denmark. From 1977 to 1982, von Trier has made five short films during his days as a film student as many of them aren’t available to the public. One of them that can be seen on YouTube is a short called Nocturne which von Trier admitted in interviews that it was inspired by the works of his Andrei Tarkovsky as it’s about a woman who lives alone at home as she struggles to get out of her house as she suffers from light blindness. It is truly a mesmerizing yet haunting short that definitely shows a lot of shots inspired by Tarkovsky.

Another short von Trier made in 2007 was a segment for the anthology film Chacun son Cinema entitled Occupations. It is a very humorous short in which von Trier is watching his own film Manderlay where it reveals what not to do if one was to pester Lars von Trier inside a movie theater. It is among one of von Trier’s funniest short that mixes his idea of provocation and dark humor.

Throughout von Trier’s career, the director has been involved with various projects including directing an experimental TV talk show for Danish TV called Teacher’s Room while teaming up with fellow Danish filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring for a project called D-Dag about a bank robbery that occurs during New Year’s Eve that starred many Scandinavian actors including von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgard and his son Alexander.

Another project von Trier wanted to do that was experimental but was abandoned in the late 1990s called Dimension. A project that was to span for more than 30 years as von Trier was to shoot three minutes of footage for every year to see what he can come up with in the end. Unfortunately, von Trier lost interest in the project until he finally released it in 2010 as a short film as the clip below that features Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, and Eddie Constantine is the only clip available on Youtube.

Aside from TV, shorts, and various experimental projects, von Trier has also delved into the world of music videos. The one most noted video is for Laid Back’s Bakerman video. The video is essentially one of the most striking clips ever created in which the Danish post-punk band plays their instruments while skydiving. It is one of the craziest ideas for a music video but somehow, von Trier was able to make it work.

With an upcoming project called Nymphomaniac that would star Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard about a woman’s sexual awakening coming for 2013 to complete the Depression trilogy along with a possible sequel to The Five Obstructions with Martin Scorsese. Lars von Trier has already cultivated an extraordinary yet controversial career as a filmmaker with the films he‘s made. Whether one loves him or hates him, it can’t be denied that he is among one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. Particularly as he is someone that is willing to go into the next step to see how far he can push someone’s buttons over what can be done in film. That is why Lars von Trier is among the best filmmakers ever in the history of cinema.

© thevoid99 2012