In addition to the films reviewed below, two others are in theaters now: Nicolas Cage is acting up a storm in Joe, and Kristen Wiig is doing a different sort of acting in Hateship Loveship. I saw and wrote about both films last year in Toronto and again recently, hoping my feelings about them would change. Sadly, they haven’t.
Oculus, directed by Mike Flanagan
I saw this Saturday night at a mostly full screening in suburban Wilmington, Delaware, seated behind two teenage girls who talked the entire film. Their honest confusion overrode the temptation to shush them. They weren’t just talking to each other. They were talking each other through this movie. After 30 minutes, I realized I was listening to them in case I’d missed something, like why the instant Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is released from a mental hospital for shooting his father (Rory Cochrane), his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), wants immediately to exonerate him by making him relive the traumas he’d been trying to forget for some kind of video project. And if the siblings are convinced their father’s deadly mirror was the root of all past evil, why don’t the filmmakers manage to do anything frightening with it? And was there no way to make the leaps between now and a decade ago coherent at all?
As far as competence goes, Oculus doesn’t have so little as to be accidentally entertaining or enough to come close to working. There’s charm in the lack of obvious effects: It’s a lot of not-very-good actors standing around talking and staring into a mirror that might go for $100 on Antiques Roadshow. But the ending is a cruel joke that’s harder on the audience than it is on the victim. A couple of people hissed. At some point, one of the girls sympathized that the filmmakers didn’t have enough money to spend, but you can also imagine more money producing a somehow worse movie. Besides: Good storytelling is free.
Hank and Asha, directed by James E. Duff
Indian student Asha (Mahira Kakkar) is studying filmmaking in the Czech Republic and sees a movie Hank (Andrew Pastides) — a white New Yorker — made. She sends him videos telling him how enchanting she found it. She wants to know what he’s working on now. He responds with handsome-looking videos in which he goes on about himself. (He’s a production assistant on a reality show.) And back and forth the videos go. She rides a swing and hops around a park and walks around her apartment. He sends her a drinking-and-eating montage. It goes like this for about 71 minutes.
The conceit is old-fashioned: hey, people falling in love long-distance! But the modern renovation (Duff wrote the movie with Julia Morrison) confers a mild obnoxiousness. Liking these two isn’t absolutely required, but you have to at least find Asha’s tagging a wall and Hank’s doing a Bollywood Risky Business dance cute. It’s not not cute. They’re both poised — so’s the camera framing; it’s usually perfect — but all that poise starts to make you crazy. Could she possibly have sent that one video without embracing that pillow or taking a sip from a mug? Could he not be in bed with that guitar? Is the strumming coffeehouse soundtrack necessary? Yes. How else would we know to say, “Awww”?
Cuban Fury, directed by James Griffiths
The joke in this office comedy is that it’s funny to watch tubby Nick Frost enter a salsa contest and dance-fight the tall, thickly built comedian Chris O’Dowd in a parking lot. It’s not a bad gimmick, but the movie turns tediously sentimental fast. It’s set at a London industrial machinery company that’s just hired an American executive (Rashida Jones) whom Frost’s engineer, Bruce, and Dowd’s adman find themselves fighting over. Bruce discovers she’s taking salsa classes and decides to shed some childhood dance trauma and get back in shape. You know where this is headed, and not because I’ve pretty much told you.
Ian McShane, Olivia Colman, and Kayvan Novak have some good stuff to do as, respectively, Bruce’s dance guru, his saucy sister, and a mincing, culturally confused classmate. Frost gets to spend the movie struggling with his appeal. He’s best known for being Simon Pegg’s sidekick. But he’s got his own star quality. Until the dance-fight, this movie more or less treats him as though he’s Ernest Borgnine in Marty. If you don’t believe Jones finds him attractive, it’s not that he isn’t (he is!) — it’s that the movie never lets them establish a comedic rapport. It’s another movie in which all the physical chemistry exists among the men and the woman is here to maintain an illusion of sexual clarity. How long can this continue to be the case for Jones? When, at last, will the fury be hers?
Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by Jim Jarmusch
It seems apt that Jim Jarmusch has gotten around to vampires. He has the public persona of the undead. For his 11th feature, America’s most self-consciously rock-and-roll director channels that persona into a famous bloodsucker musician (Tom Hiddleston) wallowing in the Detroit of right now with his wife (Tilda Swinton). They’re named Adam and Eve, and they’re jaded to the max, so much so that he’s turned suicidal. In a sense, the movie is above reproach. Jarmusch has loaded it with the kind of satirical and historical amusement that anticipates almost any eye-rolling you’re tempted to do. And still … there went my eyes. The movie is steeped in a world-weariness that flatters a certain kind of know-it-all. Swinton and Hiddleston, looking like twins, take disaffection to the moon. Not since Weekend at Bernie’s have two actors done more to promote the cause of corpses.
The idea of a Jarmusch vampire movie feels like a joke he’s only halfway in on. He’s arguing that the world has changed, and cool is no longer what it used to be. That lament goes beyond nostalgia into a kind of aged bitterness. He’s 61 now, and the search in this movie is for a return to elusive creative innocence, for cultural truth. But his wryness is tired. It has nowhere new to go. He’s making a reclamation argument in a movie genre beloved of girls who have no idea who Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is. By the time Adam and Eve are forced to resume human bloodsucking in Tangier, the movie’s become a macabre culture romance. They discover a wellspring of artistic and sexual authenticity that Adam, at least, can’t find back in the States. Needless to say, they bare their fangs and take a bite. Jarmusch is no longer doing satire at that point. He’s inadvertently veered into an altogether different kind of vampirism.
Nymphomaniac, directed by Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier announced he was doing this movie during his notorious 2011 Melancholia press conference. He said he wanted to make porno, and the journalists in the press room laughed, not because a Lars von Trier porno is inherently funny (frankly, at the time, it seemed overdue), but because he was so flippant in his explanation. He claimed Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg had egged him on: “I said, ‘But then let’s make a lot of talking in between. There should be a lot of dialogue.’ And they said, ‘We don’t give a shit about dialogue. We just want to have a lot of very, very unpleasant sex.’ And that’s what I’m working on. And it’s going to be about three or four hours long.”
Nymphomaniac splits the difference — it runs more than four hours, has been chopped into two parts, and features a lot of unpleasant sex and a lot of talking. Essentially, it’s a case study, with Gainsbourg as a woman named Joe, who’s found by a lonely bookworm (Stellan Skarsgård) badly beaten in an alleyway. He takes her home, cleans her up, and initiates an earnest conversation about the history of her sexuality that begins in girlhood and ends in that alley. She unpacks her erotic baggage, and he interjects with explanatory anecdotes and incredulous rebuttals. His knowledge is arbitrarily vast: psychology, religion, knots.
This is an absurd enterprise, but you get used to the absurdity (digressions, obvious music cues, endless explanatory academia, bits of willful racism, the fact that after the halfway point of Vol. II a door opens and it’s Willem Dafoe). Shia LaBeouf shows up, occasionally wearing nothing more than an erection, Stacy Martin (the model who plays a young Joe), and an English accent. There are parts of Udo Kier, Jamie Bell, Christian Slater, and movingly unhinged Uma Thurman. Nymphomaniac is convincing as a work of philosophical seriousness.
It gets to you. Von Trier and Gainsbourg are committed to this project, and by the time it’s over, they’ve created a bizarre empathy for Joe and by extension female movie sexuality. It goes handsomely with Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, which is also currently playing. Von Trier began his career with an uncertainty about women. He made sensationalist melodramas that entailed a lot of unexamined suffering. But his last two films — Antichrist and Melancholia, both with the peerless, fearless Gainsbourg — constitute a staggering change in artistic and personal priorities. He isn’t exploring or exploiting feminists. He’s become one.