Film Review: The House That Jack Built (dir by Lars von Trier)


(SPOILERS BELOW)

The other night, I watched 2018’s The House That Jack Built on Showtime and I have to say that, sitting here the morning afterwards, I kind of wish that I hadn’t.  It’s a well-made film and there’s a bit more going on underneath the surface that some other reviews might lead you to suspect but, at the same time, it’s also deeply unsettling and, even by the standards of Lars von Trier, disturbing.  It’s not a film to watch right before you go to bed, nor is it a film to watch at the beginning of a long week.  I’m still feeling the after effects of having watched this movie and I imagine I’ll probably be jumpy for the next few days.

The title character, Jack (Matt Dillon), is someone who loves to talk about himself.  He’s an engineer but he wishes he was an architect.  He thinks of himself as being an artist and an intellectual and he has no hesitation about informing you that he’s smarter than just about everyone else on the planet.  He’s annoyed that he’s not better-known.  He feels that his work is underappreciated.

The House that Jack Built runs two and a half hours and, as a result, we spent a lot of time listening to Jack talk.  One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that Jack knows a lot but he understand very little.  He spends a lot of time talking about Glenn Gould, Goethe, and Nazi architecture but his thoughts on them are rather shallow and predictable.  When we see flashbacks to Jack’s youth, we don’t see any signs of the intelligence that he claims to possess as an adult.  Instead, we just see a scowling country boy who used to abuse animals.  Jack may insist on calling himself “Mr. Sophistication” but there’s really nothing sophisticated about him and one gets the feeling that his faux intellectualism is something that he developed to justify the fact that he’s a sociopath and a serial killer.  Jack claims to have murdered at least 60 people and he also says that each murder was a work of art.  If art reflects the time and place in which it was made than how can we condemn Jack for reflecting the soullessness and cruelty of the real world in his own creations?  The answer, of course, is that we can very easily condemn Jack.  Jack uses the state of the world to justify his actions but that doesn’t mean we have to buy what he’s selling.

The House That Jack Built is built around a lengthy conversation between Jack and an enigmatic character named Verge (Bruno Ganz).  Jack shows Verge the “five incidents” that, over the course of 12 years, have defined who Jack is as a person and a serial killer.  The five incidents feature Jack killing everyone from a stranded motorist (Uma Thurman) and a grieving widow (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) to a terrified mother and her two sons.  Jack has a brief and toxic relationship with one of his victims (heart-breakingly played by Riley Keough) and it leads to an act of violence that’s so disturbing that I don’t even want to relive it long enough to write about it.  Throughout it all, Jack tries to justify himself while Verge continually calls him out on his bullshit.  Watching the film, I found myself very thankful for Verge.  The film would have been unbearable if it has just been Jack bragging on himself, unchallenged.  Verge not only calls out Jack but also anyone who would idolize someone like Jack.  At times, the film itself seems to be ridiculing the whole idea of the Hannibal Lecter-style serial killer.  There’s nothing suave or witty about Jack.  He’s just a loser with no soul.

Even though I was watching the R-rated version (as opposed to the unrated director’s cut), the murders were still disturbingly graphic.  But what really made the film unsettling was its peek into Jack’s nihilistic worldview.  As much as he may try to convince you otherwise, it soon becomes clear that there’s nothing going on inside of Jack’s head.  When Jack isn’t suffering from delusions of grandeur, he’s mired in self-pity.  (Listening to Jack, one is reminded of the infamous BTK Killer, who spent hours in court describing his murders without a hit of emotion but who later broke into tears when informed that he would be spending the rest of his life in prison.)  Unlike most movie serial killers, Jack doesn’t have a flamboyant origin story or any sort of trauma-related motive for his crimes.  He kills because he wants to.  Jack is capable of being superficially charming.  As a sociopath, he’s learned how to put people at ease.  But there’s nothing behind that charm.  When he performs some post-mortem surgery to give one of his victims a permanent smile, the results are grotesque because Jack has no idea what a real emotion looks like.  (Jack weakly waves at the body, as if he’s trying to teach himself how to act like a normal person.)

Throughout the film, we get a lot of stock footage.  (It’s justified by the fact that Jack is talking about art and history, two subjects about which he only has a surface knowledge.)  Interestingly enough, we also get several clips that were lifted from Von Trier’s previous films.  At one point, Jack passes a cabin that some viewers will recognize from Antichrist.  While Jack tries to dispose of a body, David Bowie’s Fame plays on the soundtrack and it’s hard not to be reminded of how Bowie’s Young Americans played over the closing credits of both Dogville and Manderlay.  We’re left to wonder if Jack is meant to be, in some way, a stand-in for Von Trier.  Much like Jack, Von Trier is often accused of using his own artistic pretensions to justify a nihilistic and misogynistic worldview.  It’s easy to imagine Verge as a stand-in for some of Von Trier’s fiercest critics.  What then are we to make of the fact that the film also portrays Verge as being correct and Jack as being (literally) bound for Hell?  Is Von Trier telling us that, as much as some people may dislike him and his work, at least he’s not a serial killer like Jack?  Is Von Trier attacking himself?  Or is Von Trier perhaps satirizing his own controversial persona?  Perhaps all three are correct.

By the film’s end, Jack is in Hell.  Interestingly enough, the portal to Hell is found in a house that’s made up of the bodies of Jack’s many victims.  Verge — short for Virgil, of course — gives him a tour.  When Jack sees a broken bridge, Virgil informs him that it once led to Heaven but it can’t be crossed now.  However, Jack is convinced that he can climb over a cliff and make his way to Heaven.  Virgil assures Jack that many have tried but none have succeeded.  Jack, of course, tries and, needless to say, he doesn’t make it.  In the end, redemption is impossible and yet you wonder how, in a world with Heaven and, one assumes, God, Jack even came to exist in the first place.  If Jack had channeled his sociopathic nature into something more productive than murder, would he have been allowed into Heaven?

As I said, it’s a well-made film but it’s also deeply unsettling.  I’m probably going to be jumping at my own shadow for at least a week or two.  At the very least, I’m not answering the door for anyone….

 

4 Shots From 4 Robby Müller Films: Paris, Texas, Dead Man, Breaking The Waves, 24 Hour Party People


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

RIP, the great cinematography Robby Müller .

4 Shots From 4 Robby Müller Films

Paris, Texas (1984, dir by Wim Wenders)

Dead Man (1995, dir by Jim Jarmusch)

Breaking the Waves (1996, dir by Lars Von Trier)

24 Hour Party People (2002, dir by Michael Winterbottom)

Scene That I Love: The End of the World from Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia


Over the past few years, there’s been many movies about the end of the world.

A lot of them have been pretty bad.  I never did find the high heel that I threw at the screen while watching Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World.

And some of them have been pretty good.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and its sequels come to mind.

And then there’s Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.  Von Trier is always going to be controversial filmmaker but no one has ever matched his brilliance when it came to capturing the end of existence.  In Melancholia, a depressed woman (played in a revelatory performance by Kristen Dunst) finds unexpected strength in the end of the world.  As can be seen in the scene below, it’s a beautifully sad film, one that ends on a note of triumphant apocalypse:

4 Shots From 4 Films: A Trip To The Moon, Moon, Apollo 18, Melancholia


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Happy End of the World Day!

(In certain cultures….)

4 Shots From 4 Films

A Trip to the Moon (1902, dir by Georges Melies)

Moon (2009, directed by Duncan Jones)

Apollo 18 (2011, dir by Gonzalo López-Gallego)

Melancholia (2011, dir by Lars Von Trier)

Never Nominated: 16 Directors Who Have Never Received An Oscar Nomination


It’s a sad fact of life that not everyone who deserves an Oscar gets one.  For instance, Alfred Hitchcock received five nominations for best director but never won once.

That said, at least Hitchcock was nominated!  Some of our greatest directors have never even been nominated!  This list below is hardly exclusive but still, these 16 directors have somehow never been nominated.  Ten of them could still be nominated in the future.  Sadly, for six, the opportunity has forever passed.

  1. Dario Argento

Sadly, Dario Argento will probably never be nominated for best director.  None of his films — even the early, acclaimed work — were typical Oscar films.  But, consider this: Argento is one of the most influential directors of all time.  Regardless of what might be said about some of Argento’s more recent films, his earlier films are classics of their genre.  Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, Tenebrae — his work on any of these films would have been worthy of a nomination.

2. Andrea Arnold

This British director is responsible for two of the best films of the past ten years — Fish Tank and American Honey.  She deserved a nomination for both of them (and a win for American Honey).  Hopefully, she will be recognized in the future.

3. Tim Burton

I’m not the world’s biggest Tim Burton fan but he has a fan base that will follow him almost anywhere.  It seems like every year, we hear that Burton has finally made the film that will win him some Oscar recognition.  Remember Big Eyes?  As I said, I’m not a huge Burton fan but, if I was to nominate him, it would probably be for his work on Sweeney Todd.

4. John Carpenter

Carpenter deserved all sorts of nominations for his work in the 70s and the 80s.  Being the rebel that he is, Carpenter will probably never get the Oscar recognition that he deserves.  (He did win an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short.)

5. David Cronenberg

It’s hard to believe that this Canadian director has never been nominated.  While it’s obvious that the Academy would never recognize Cronenberg’s earlier work (even if he did deserve some recognition for that exploding head in Scanners), it still seems like he’s destined to be nominated eventually.

6. Terry Gilliam

Much like Tim Burton, Gilliam sadly seems to be destined to be one of those directors who will have to be content with a devoted fan base.  Sadly, as of late, Gilliam’s become better known for the film projects that were canceled than the ones that were actually produced.  I would have nominated him for Brazil.

7. Werner Herzog

How has Werner Herzog gone his entire career without receiving at least one nomination for Best Director!?  I would nominate him for the chance to hear the acceptance speech alone.

8. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan is another director who I’m shocked to realize has never been nominated.  He certainly deserved a nomination for Inception.  Maybe, just maybe, he’ll finally get some recognition for Dunkirk.

9. Lars Von Trier

With his controversial aesthetic and his talent for offending the masses, Lars Von Trier will never be nominated, no matter how much he might deserve it.

10. Joe Wright

Personally, I think that Joe Wright is responsible for two of the best films of the past ten years, Hanna and Anna Karenina.  Unfortunately, both were left out of their respective best picture races.  Even when Atonement was nominated for best picture, Wright did not receive a corresponding nomination.  Fortunately, with Darkest Hour, Wright will have another chance this year.

Best Director Joe Wright

And here are six directors who are no longer with us.  Sadly, these six will never have a chance to receive their first Oscar nomination:

  1. Mario Bava

Much like Dario Argento, there was never really any chance that the Academy would actually honor Mario Bava.  That’s a shame because Bava truly was one of the greatest directors of all time.  Check out Black Sabbath and Shock for proof.

2. Stanley Donen

It’s hard to believe that Donen wasn’t even nominated for Singin’ In The Rain.

3. John Frankenheimer 

It’s also hard to believe that Frankenheimer never received a nomination.  While he directed his share of bad films, he also directed Seven Days in May, The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, and Ronin.

4. John Hughes

Not even for The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off!  Hughes may have been snubbed by the Academy but his films practically invented an entire genre.

5. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

This directing team was a major influence on Martin Scorsese.  Black Narcissus remains one of the most visually stunning films of all time.  The Red Shoes was nominated for best picture but Powell/Pressburger were snubbed.

6. Nicholas Ray

Everyone knows that Ray directed Rebel Without a Cause.  Personally, I think his work on Bigger than Life was even more worthy of a nomination.

Film Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II (2013, dir. Lars Von Trier)


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I’ll try and keep this short, unlike the movie, which if you watch the director’s cut as I did, comes out to about five and a half hours. Once you’ve sat through something like Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), which comes out to a little over twelve hours, this isn’t much. Also, despite what I’m going to say about it, it’s problems don’t come from it’s length. A lot of movies damage themselves by going past two hours, but not this one. The length really wasn’t an issue for me.

I’m also not going to pick out all the little stupid things like you see me do with Hallmark movies. Yes, Stellan Skarsgard says the Christian church split up in 1054 into Roman Catholic and Orthodox, but it actually fractured a long time before that break. Or the onscreen text, which you would expect in a Godard film. Especially when Skarsgard brings up Fibonacci numbers. That probably only ticked me off because I went through about nine years of college level computer science and really don’t want to hear about Fibonacci numbers ever again. Also, there’s a scene where she makes one attempt to have sex with black guys. It kind of reminded me of that “documentary” from the early 1970’s called Black Love. It’s there to mention that men are homophobic, but she is implicitly homophobic since sex with a woman is never brought up in this sex addict film. Von Trier also whips out the Two Kinds Of People In The World cliche, but it only makes sense if everyone is right handed. Well, let’s talk about the movie.

First, if you’re a fan of Lars Von Trier, then it’s a no brainer. This movie is for you. Don’t hesitate to watch it. If you are like me and love Breaking The Waves (1996), then this has similar material, but it’s not even remotely as moving. If you were offended by Dogville (2003) like I was, then don’t worry, this isn’t offensive stuff. It’s just boring.

The movie is about a girl named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who recounts her life as a self proclaimed nymphomaniac to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgad). The movie cuts back and forth between the actual story and then Seligman’s thoughts on it. Kind of like sitting in on a therapy session if it were being conducted by college students in a debate class. And that’s where this film’s biggest issue is for me. A lot of the analysis feels pedestrian or the kind of thing you would expect in a college paper written by a student who hopes the teacher will be impressed. And at times its almost like argument for arguments sake. Like when you’re in a class and a topic is tossed out for discussion. The topic may actually be rather simple, but people keep trying to throw things in to pad out the conversation to fill the class time. A lot of the dialogue feels like that sort of thing.

The story begins when she is a little girl and takes us up to the events that led Seligman to find her in the alley outside of his place at the beginning of the film. Her father is played by Christian Slater who I think does a good job. His British accent may be a problem for you, but it wasn’t for me. Neither was it a problem for me with Shia LaBeouf’s character who is a male presence in Joe’s life pretty much throughout the film. The accent was a problem for me with Uma Thurman’s character though.

There’s a point where Joe just starts referring to the men in her life by letters. She casually tosses them around. During one of these scenes, Uma Thurman shows up as the wife of one of the guys who’s there with Joe along with their kids in tow. The scene is supposed to start a little funny, then get really uncomfortable as it keeps going. Like when Thurman asks if she can show her kids the “whoring bed”. The problem for me was the accent. If they had just let her speak normally, then it would have worked, but it was a voice that at this point in her career is obviously not her’s and I can’t suspend disbelief. So the scene was just hilarious to me. Especially when she actually screams. That made me think of Julianne Moore in Map To The Stars (2014), which also had me laughing.

This film has been dismissed as porn or on the flip side, played up for showing so much. People especially like to mention that the sex is unsimulated. Well, it really doesn’t count in my book if that isn’t Shia LeBeouf’s penis, which it isn’t. They use CGI to graft porn actors genitalia onto some of the actors. So it’s not anything to brag about. Is it porn? Far from it. Anybody who tells you that has no idea what they are talking about. It probably comes closest to an exploitation movie at best in that department.

I said I wouldn’t pick out little flaws, but there’s a big one I have with the title and her consistently referring to herself as either a nymphomaniac or being addicted to sex. She’s not really addicted to sex. She’s addicted to sex like someone who only smokes Marlboro is addicted to cigarettes, but won’t smoke any other brand. She’s like that. She’ll take penetration by a penis, give a blow job, and poorly dabbles in S&M. That’s really it. She’s rather discriminating about what she’ll do. Another analogy is like when someone says they’re a cinephile, but that means to them that they love watching highly acclaimed foreign films. An addiction to something broad like movies or sex means you’re indiscriminate. However, I get why Von Trier sticks with the term nymphomaniac because the movie does have a reason to make sure the apparent love of sex and guilt about it is explicitly associated with a female character. The ending depends on it.

The only thing that was kind of noteworthy to me was how the way the movie is shot changes in the final part of the film. It’s divided into chapters and in the last one Von Trier either shot it to get film grain and over exposed lights or did it in post processing. I think it was probably a reference to a movement in film he was involved in back in the 1990’s called Dogme 95. You can watch something like Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998) and it will look similar.

Honestly, it’s not a bad movie, but it’s really for people who like Von Trier stuff. If you like his stuff, see it. If you don’t, definitely skip it. If you’re totally new, then don’t start here. Begin with Breaking The Waves and Europa (1991) before wading into films like The Idiots (1998), Dancer In The Dark (2000), Dogville, and beyond.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Cold Heaven, Europa, Naked Lunch, Until The End of the World


4 Shots From 4 Films

 Cold Heaven (1991, directed by Nicolas Roeg)

Cold Heaven (1991, directed by Nicolas Roeg)

Europa (1991, directed by Lars Von Trier, released as Zentropa in North America)

Europa (1991, directed by Lars Von Trier, released as Zentropa in North America)

Naked Lunch (1991, directed by David Cronenberg)

Naked Lunch (1991, directed by David Cronenberg)

Until the End of the World (1991, directed by Wim Wenders)

Until the End of the World (1991, directed by Wim Wenders)