LOVE, DEATH and LOVE & DEATH: Fading Gigolo, Blue Ruin and Nymphomaniac: Vol. II


fading gigiloFading Gigolo is about a man, Fioravante, who, without intending to in any way, shape or form, falls into being a gigolo (don’t you just hate it when that happens?).
It’s written by, directed by and stars John Turturro. But it probably should be noted that it co-stars Woody Allen. The reason this is significant is that in many ways, Fading Gigolo is a Woody Allen film that isn’t written by, isn’t directed by, and doesn’t star the famed writer/director himself.
It has the wit of a Woody Allen film. It deals with the Woody Allen themes of love and neuroses. It takes place in New York. Woody Allen is in it.
Hamilton Burger, I rest my case.

Fading Gigolo is a sweet and charming film that leaves one with a pleasant glow. The characters are too ingratiating to leave you uncaring. And their problems do have a certain emotional resonance.

But it is also by no means a perfect film and it never quite rises to the occasion no matter how much you so want it to.

Part of this is due to the screenplay. Though it is indeed filled with worthy wit, it also is a bit clunky more often than it should be.

The story starts too late, which means we aren’t given a full context of the characters or their situations (why does Fioravante have so little work; what exactly is his economic situation; why is he single, etc.).

These are issues because the basic idea isn’t really that convincing. If someone wants a gigolo, they’re easy to find and come in models much younger and with better bodies than Fioravante (no offense, Turturro, I mean, you’re actually a rather attractive man, but you’re hardly Channing Tatum now, are you?). But instead of dramatizing the scene that sets everything in action, Turturro sets it off camera and has Murray (Allen’s character) describe it to us, which probably isn’t the strongest choice.

And the central through line, that of the widow of a Hassidic rabbi finding a way out of her grief, feels a bit forced and under dramatized.

Perhaps the most absurd aspect of the story is that Murray and Fioravante’s services grow in leaps and bounds. This is due to Murray’s salesmanship. But he does it by handing out cards and describing the services in extremely vague ways, yet everyone seems to know exactly what he is referring to before he even refers to it.

But this whole bag of preposterousness is so witty and it means so well, and the actors are so committed, they oft times make us forget these various flaws.

And then there’s Mr. Allen, who milks every bon mot and punch line as if he were in a play by Oscar Wilde. This is perhaps one of his best performances, up there with The Front and Deconstructing Harry. He steals every scene he’s in (though this is made a bit easier since Turturro’s character is a bit on the opaque side).

And there’s also a wonderful series of scenes taking place in an Hassidic ‘hood in Brooklyn, dramatized, directed and acted with a devotion to presenting the life as it is, without prejudice or prejudgment. (This section actually feels like something out of The Decameron or a short story by De Maupassant in which a group of Jews become suspicious when a rabbi’s widow suddenly starts smiling again one day after years of frowning.)

The movie also looks great. The outdoor scenes are beautifully shot and everything is lovingly framed (Marco Pontecorvo is the director of cinematography). Turturro also makes some excellent choices when it comes to camera angles (as of now, Turturro is a better director than writer).

With Liev Schreiber as a member of a semi-police neighborhood watch group called the Williamsburg Shomrin (they carry badges and everything) who grows puzzled and then jealous as the widow he loves from afar begins to blossom.

And with Vanessa Paradis in a heartfelt and delicate performance as the widow.

 

BlueRuin-2014-01Blue Ruin, a new, small indie, starts out well as it follows a mysterious homeless man as he collects bottles for money, dumpster dives for food and calls it a night in a car. With a ten year’s growth of a beard even the Duck Dynasty stars wouldn’t be caught dead in and a haunted, almost crazed look in his eyes, one does wonder exactly what his story is.

The man is called Dwight and we soon discover that he’s the way he is because he has never gotten over the slaying of his parents by a ruthless gunman. And when he is informed that said gunman is now out of prison, he cuts his beard, puts on clean clothes, and traps the killer in a dive bar bathroom and viciously slices him up with a knife.

But all that means is that the dead man’s family will now be after Dwight. Even worse, they may go after his sister and her child.

There are some strong and taut moments in this low budget thriller and people have been praising how much Jeremy Saulnier, the writer/director, has achieved on that budget. And they have a point. Saulnier certainly hasn’t embarrassed himself and he does show himself to be an able craftsman.

But I’m afraid Blue Rain never quite worked for me. I’m sorry, but it’s true.

Part of this is due to Macon Blair’s performance as Dwight. Try as hard as he might, he just feels miscast and never seems comfortable in the role. Once the beard comes off, something about the character just stops working.

But I really think that the biggest error is when it turns out that Dwight’s revenge on the murderer of his parents isn’t a righteous kill. At that point, there no longer seems a reason to have an emotional investment in the outcome. Or, to put it in layman’s terms, I just didn’t care. When the big reveal was, well, revealed, it just becomes a story about a bunch of killers killing each other for no reason of any import.

Perhaps Saulnier thought that by employing this twist, he hoped the movie would become a tragedy out of Shakespeare, but for me, not only does it fall short of that lofty ambition, it doesn’t really make it to Jacobean.

There is a twist at the end that is actually pretty neat and if only that had been more of a driving factor to the plot and the characters, the whole thing might have had more resonance.

 

nymphomaniacIn Writer/director Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, or the further adventures of our hapless heroine Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), our sexual addict loses her ability to feel any pleasure, well, down there; starts a relationship and has a child with Jerome (Shia Lebouf), the man who popped her cherry to a Fibonacci sequence; explores the world of bondage and S/M; and ends up becoming a debt collector because her insight into sex helps her have psychological holds over the IOUers.

There’s also a brief episode where she decides to have sex with a black man, which here is milked for comedy.

It’s actually an uncomfortable interlude since the basis of it is that the black man is considered by Joe to be not just another sexual partner, but a fetish. It becomes even more uncomfortable when she calls these objects (and they are just objects to her) of her fetishness “Negroes”. Not only is it unbelievable that someone of her background and generation would actually use such a term, but when she is called on it, she defends her choice of words; but it’s the sort of defense that the more someone makes it, the more racist they seem.

(To paraphrase a recent world leader, if you begin a statement by saying, Let me tell you something about the Negro…, you probably shouldn’t finish the sentence—what is perhaps even more unfortunate is that it’s one of those conversations where it feels as if the character has stopped talking and the writer has taken over).

The movie is more of the same of Vol. I, this time in three parts rather than five to continue that Fibonacci do dah, do dah, leit motif thingy.

Of course, since I found the first volume to be fascinating, more of the same is just fine. And for the most part, this one is as intriguing and mesmerizing as the first.

The ending though is a bit of a letdown, concluding as it does with a whimper rather than a bang, in spite of the fact that it literally ends with a bang. The finale feels more like a finish one has when one really has no idea how to resolve it all. And you have to empathize with von Trier. He’s thrown so much spaghetti against the wall, how does one resolve such a huge and ambitious and all over the place film in a fully satisfactory way?

As a side note, I’m also not convinced it’s to the film’s advantage in replacing LeBeouf with an older actor at the end. It’s disconcerting, distracting and takes one out of the drama (and makes one wonder if there’s one of those back stage stories behind it; if so, I’d love to know it).

This time Gainsbourg, LeBeouf and Stellan Skarsgard (who is back as Joe’s confessor) are joined by Willem Dafoe, who hires Joe to collect debts, and Jamie Bell as a dominator who ties up women and takes riding crops to their bare behinds (and when he’s in a good mood, he does this duck thing with his hand, and I don’t mean plays wall shadows—let your imagination run wild).

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