At Eternity’s Gate

December 17, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend
Directed by: Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”)
Written by: Julian Schnabel (“Before Night Falls”), Jean-Claude Carrière (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) and Louise Kugelberg (debut)

During a scene in the 1975 Academy Award-winning drama “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a doctor at a mental institution tells R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) that after evaluating him for four weeks, he sees no evidence of mental illness. “You know, what do you want me to do?” McMurphy asks before mimicking masturbating, as if to say, “Is this what ‘crazy’ is supposed to look like?”

In “At Eternity’s Gate,” a biopic on Vincent van Gogh, Oscar-nominated director Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) seems to wonder the same thing as Nicholson’s character. Everyone knows van Gogh suffered from some form of psychological disorder, so why play it up like other van Gogh films of the past? Why show him writhing in front of a mirror like a madman in 1956’s “Lust for Life?” Why depict him as some fiendish loon who licks the blood off a knife after he uses it to cut off his ear like in 1990’s “Vincent & Theo?”

While both actors Kirk Douglas and Tim Roth give commendable overall performances as van Gogh in their respected films (Douglas earned an Oscar nomination for his), the idea that mental illness can be defined as one specific thing (or behavior) is an antiquated concept. It’s one of the reasons Schnabel’s film — co-written by him, his girlfriend Louise Kugelberg and French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) — is such an enlightening and unique experience. With “At Eternity’s Gate,” Schnabel, who is a famous painter himself, confronts van Gogh’s mental instability with inventive style and philosophical reflection. In doing so, he has given audiences one of the most creative and visually-striking cinematic compositions about an artist in recent memory.

Although almost 30 years older than van Gogh was at the time of his death, three-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project”) delivers a glorious portrayal as the Dutch post-impressionist painter during the final years of his life — living and painting in Arles in the south of France. During this time, we watch van Gogh connect with nature, exchange ideas with friend and artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and find the beauty in the mundane. Through handheld camerawork, distorted scenes and other stimulating experimental film elements, Schnabel designs “At Eternity’s Gate” as if it were one of van Gogh’s pieces seen through the eyes of a filmmaker like Terrence Malik (“Tree of Life”).

It’s not until the second half of the film when Schnabel really scours inside the mind of van Gogh as his mental illness starts to get the best of him — hallucinations, anxiety, depression and self-mutilation. Even then, however, Schnabel focuses more on the man, his work and his words. In “At Eternity’s Gate,” he allows viewers to see the world from van Gogh’s transcendent perspective.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

March 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody
Directed by: Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”)
Written by: Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”)

If filmmaker Wes Anderson simply isn’t your quirky cup of tea – the handmade look and feel of his sets, the subtle and oftentimes dry humor, the eccentric overall nature of his characters – not much is going to change your mind with his latest opus, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” For fans of his authentic and whimsical work who really don’t understand what everyone else is missing, a trip with Anderson to the fictional Republic of Zubrowka (because in Anderson’s world Hungary would be just too square) is like an inclusive tour of his 10-year-long career. From his 1994 film “Bottle Rocket” to his prior art-house success, 2012’s Oscar-nominated “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson seems to have taken elements from his past work to fashion together another satisfying creation. It doesn’t top some personal favorites (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), but even Anderson’s middle-of-the-road entries should never be described as such.

In “Grand Budapest,” Anderson uses an assortment of flashbacks cutting from the 1980s to the 60s and again to the 30s to tell the story of how Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s aging owner, came to take possession of his fine establishment after working as a lobby boy there decades ago. Under the tutelage of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes in a role unlike anything he’s ever done), a faithful concierge employed during the hotel’s glory days in the 30s, a young Zero (Tony Revolori) gets mixed up in family affair when Madame D (Tilda Swinton), one of the wealthy female hotel guests Gustave takes special care of (wink), dies and bequeaths to him a priceless painting much to the chagrin of her extremely serious family (Adrien Brody plays her irate son). When Gustave is accused of actually murdering Madame D, he and Zero set out on a mission to prove his innocence, which includes evading an evil assassin (Willem Dafoe) and the local police (Edward Norton plays Inspector Henckles). It also features an outrageous jail break that could only be invented in Anderson’s head.

As silly as Anderson’s past films are, “Grand Budapest,” with its crime-caper narrative, feels even more madcap than, say, a group of stop-motion mammals digging underground escape tunnels in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The “Keystone Cops”- atmosphere, however, isn’t a bad thing to see in an Anderson film. If anything, it keeps the story moving swiftly and on edge. So, along with the pastel-colored designs, the dollhouse appearance, and detailed imagery, Anderson packs his film with kooky chases and vaudevillian-esque comedy.

Finding some of his vision from the work of German American director Ernst Lubitsch, Anderson can take the most random film references and styles and build on them to mold his own cinematic flair. It might feel typical to those who can’t differentiate between Anderson’s more entertaining albeit mature storytelling, but there are plenty of new nuances in “Grand Budapest” that continue to elevate his filmmaking charm and spark more artistic inspiration.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” screened as a part of SXSW 2014.

For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.

Out of the Furnace

December 6, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck
Directed by: Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”)
Written by: Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) and Brad Ingelsby (“The Dynamiter”)

For a film that boasts a principal cast of five previous Oscar nominees, as well as a recently lauded writer/director, “Out of the Furnace” struggles to put the pieces together and proves that, as cliché as it sounds, the whole really isn’t always greater than the sum of its parts.

“Out of the Furnace” focuses on two brothers living out in the economically-suffering U.S. Rust Belt. Russell (Christian Bale) is a hard-working steel mill worker who is focused on his relationship and taking care of his family. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is a soldier who has spent time in Iraq and finds himself in a massive gambling debt. As Rodney looks to settle his debt through underground bare-knuckle fighting, he mysteriously disappears. With little help from the police, Russell sets out to take matters into his own hands.

The big draw of “Out of the Furnace” is its previously mentioned impressive cast of Bale and Affleck as well as Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker. As the main focus of the film, the best of the cast is Bale. His performance is strong, most notably in his scenes with Affleck as well as a couple of scenes with actress Zoe Saldana who plays his girlfriend. While Harrelson’s performance in itself is quite good, his villainous character is written somewhat hokey and over the top.

Since the narrative jumps around so frequently, many of the other cast members don’t really get a chance to shine in their roles. In fact, the lack of a narrative focus is one of the reasons that “Out of the Furnace” fails from a storytelling perspective. Not only is the plot wafer thin, but there are parallel narratives and thematic elements that don’t seem to ever sync up or fully connect. There are also plot points that happen throughout the film that seem important, but prove to be relatively and frustratingly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

Most of the first half of “Out of the Furnace” is spent waiting for the film to get going, which never truly happens. The film often feels stuck and by the end, incomplete. There are a few things to like: the cinematography is well done and there are a few scenes from world-class actors that are worth a watch. But as a complete work, “Out of the Furnace” lacks the finesse and construction of a well put together film.

Willem Dafoe – Fireflies in the Garden

October 15, 2011 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the family drama “Fireflies in the Garden,” two-time Academy Award-nominated actor Willem Dafoe (Platoon) plays Charles Taylor, a stern father who has raised his son Michael on fear and discipline. Now a grown man, Michael (Ryan Reynolds) must reexamine his childhood and the pain he went through at the hands of his father when tragedy strikes the family.

During an interview with me, Dafoe, 56, talked about the importance of living through a character to keep the personality genuine and about his own relationship with his father.

Talk about your character Charles Taylor and what drew you to the role. You usually don’t gravitate towards family dramas.

That’s true, and I think that’s probably the answer right there. I like to mix it up and sometimes I elect to find a different way of working and telling different kinds of stories. I think it’s important to renew yourself by switching your circumstance. This represented that to me. It was also a good opportunity to tell a story that is sort of not in fashion now. There is something about it that is not very topical. It’s kind of classical. It’s not particularly cool – cool as in hip.

How you were able to confront the darker aspects of your character? Where do you think Charles’ anger really stems from?

Oh, I think fear; fear and pressure are not uncommon things in our society and culture to identify with. He’s a guy that’s struggling. He’s very ambitious and finds his identity in position. Out of love, he wants that same thing for his son. He reaches and approaches and disciplines him in a kind of painfully violent way.

What do you hope a film like this, if anything, exposes about the father/son relationship? It’s a theme that has been visited before in a number of films. Is there something specific in Charles and Michael’s relationship you really hope comes out?

That’s a hard thing because I usually trust my instincts. I think different people are going to see different things in the story. Clearly, it’s an abusive relationship and it is born out of fear. I don’t know what to say because I don’t want to lead people in their interpretation. One thing that is worth mentioning in the story is we see these seeds of a certain kind of behavior planted and then we see them flower. We see certain guilt and certain regret. Those things are addressed. I think at the end, there is a hopeful feeling they are going to be able to forgive each other and have a new understanding.

You’ve played some seething characters in the past like your character in this film. Is it easy to leave your work on the set, or do you have to sort of live with that character until filming wraps?

Oh, you live with it a little bit. I used to think that only the camera activated the character, but as I get older I feel like it’s strange the characters do stay with you a little bit longer. The truth is, when you’re performing, you’re willing yourself to take on someone else’s circumstance. Unless you’re willing to maintain that when you walk away from the set, it doesn’t stay because the characters are really revealed through the story and applying yourself to those actions. What stays are certain actions. Like, if you’re shooting for 12 hours and you’re shooting a very difficult scene, one part of you wants to escape and find refuge. But the truth is, if you’re working 12-hour days and going to bed, the workday starts to really infect your thinking. If it’s an intense shoot and a condensed shoot and you don’t have a lot downtime, it can have quite an affect and can take on a life of its own.

You come from a rather large family. Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with your father and what kind of man he was as you grew up?

It was very good. He’s still around. He’s 94 years old, God bless him. There were some similarities [between my father and Charles] in the respect that he came from a generation that was very driven. Everything was based on achieving and producing and accumulating respect and wealth and comfort. It was a generational thing; people that had lived through the Great Depression I suppose. And I think in an interest to protect their own children and prepare them for life, they were very difficult and tough on them sometimes. That didn’t happen with my father so much. I was at the end of a long family of eight kids, so I think the first children got a very stern father. By the time they got down to me, he was kind of mellowed by life and seeing what happens when you treat kids sternly. By the time he got down to me he was sweet as pie. There’s a perfect example of a guy that learned that tough love wasn’t always the best way.

This December will mark the 25th Anniversary of “Platoon.” Looking back on your career now and the amazing things you have accomplished, what does a film like that mean to you as an actor?

It was a very important film for me. I loved shooting it. We were very lucky that it found critical and popular support. It’s a film that I was really happy to be a part of. It was a very special film. It was a personal film. It was a film that really affected people deeply.


February 5, 2010 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe
Directed by: Michael Spierig (“Undead”) and Peter Spierig (“Undead”)
Written by: Michael Spierig (“Undead”) and Peter Spierig (“Undead”)

It’s nice to see vampires back on the big screen that don’t talk about their feelings and sparkle like Edward Cullen and all his “Twilight” pals. But even on the opposite end of the blood-sucking spectrum, “Daybreakers” isn’t what fans of the genre should consider pushing vampirism narrative into new territory (here vamps harvest humans for blood, which is running out in their vampire-run world). The problems is, filmmaking brothers Michael and Peter Spierig aren’t really sure whether or not they wanted to make a really grotesque horror movie or an action film with comedic riffs. The mix seems unbalanced and trite. There is one scene where a hungry vampire-type creature breaks into a kitchen for a late-night fleshy snack, which is fairly frightening. Other than that there is not much entertainment value “Daybreakers” can offer aside from the gallons of blood it splatters in 98 minutes of straight-to-DVD-quality type writing.


December 23, 2009 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg
Directed by: Lars Von Trier (“Dogville”)
Written by: Lars Von Trier (“Dancer in the Dark”)

Between the immaculate photography and unsettling performances by Williem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, controversial filmmaker Lars Von Trier is a shocking tale of emotional-numbing agony. In “Antichrist,” Dafoe and Gainsbourg play a married couple (only known as He and She in the credits) who immerse themselves into the wilderness after their baby dies tragically. In the forest, which they call Eden, the couple must come to terms with their loss as Gainsbourg’s character slowly falls into madness (her parallels between sex and violence are jolting). While the visuals are vivid and beautiful (and at times sick and shocking), Von Trier delivers what could be best described as a curiosity piece. He’s definitely a filmmaker with a unique view, but one that has missed the mark here when looking for a way to combine his aesthetic with his sensationalism.