Thursday, March 26, 2015

Force Majeure - Brace Yourself

Movie: Force Majeure
My Rating: 3 stars

What a nightmare!  This is the kind of movie that makes you never want to get married.  It illustrates the joyless chore that marriage becomes once you’ve had kids, and are no longer trying to be attracted (or attractive) to your spouse.  It’s not a story about getting old.  The movie features plenty of active, foxy cougars and silver foxes who are getting out there and making magic happen.  And, it’s not a story about losing one’s looks.  Both of the main characters are still very Scandinavian and beautiful, despite being established parents.  Even though the plot purports to be about something else, I think the underlying story about letting the passion go.  And, the filmmaker (Ruben Ostlund) captures that soul-killing tension very well.  These characters aren’t men and women any more—they’re “parents.”  But of course, that means that this movie is a real chore to watch.
A photogenic Swedish family is on a ski vacation.  But, you can tell it’s one of those obligation vacations.  It’s a “this is what families are supposed to do, right?” vacation.  No one is quite willing to admit that they aren’t having a good time.  They’re going through the motions, but you can see the cracks starting to form at the edges of the fa├žade.  And of course, those cracks are split wide open once the “incident” happens.  It’s the whole premise of the movie, so I don’t have to be coy about telling you about it.  The family is enjoying one those hearty hot lunches that are great after a morning of skiing, when an avalanche starts barreling down the hill, straight toward them.  Everyone is frightened, and tries to get to safety, but the dad in this family panics, and just takes off without trying to protect his family.  It doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  Everyone was trying to scatter.  But, it was just the excuse this couple needed to start addressing the real issues in their marriage.

So, this is a movie about two people bickering.  They attack each other’s value as members of their gender, as protectors of their family, and as emotional supports.  They argue in their hotel room.  They argue in hushed tones in the hallways.  And worst of all, they argue (at full volume) in front of other couples during meals.  It’s so cringeworthy.  You’ll want to just shrink into your chair and disappear.  It’s really not the kind of thing you’d ever want to watch with someone you’re romantically involved with (or want to be romantically involved with).  And, the movie has a little bit of fun with that idea—having other couples start to question their own relationships after witnessing this meltdown.  You might question whether you really want to see the movie at all.  But, it really is very well done.  The tension is thick as molasses.  And, you can really feel the hatred start to bubble up between these two people.  But, just pick the right occasion (and right viewing partner) if you do decide to go ahead with this one.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Anna Karenina - Fashion and Frivolity

Movie: Anna Karenina
My Rating: 4 stars

I pretty much just watched this movie for the dresses.  I’ve done that a few times before, and have been pleased with the result.  Marie Antoinette comes to mind first.  And, of course that’s the only reason anyone would ever watch 27 Dresses.  But then, this movie ended up being so much more.  We all had to read this novel in high school or college, but it’s such a bleak, long book that I don’t think any of us appreciated it at the time.  What makes these Russian novels so interesting is the atmosphere.  And, I think that film is the ideal medium to capture all the fabrics, jewels, luxury foods, and frivolity of the 19th century Russian aristocracy.
Tom Stoppard really brought an interesting perspective to the telling of this classic tale.  He creates a very interesting, hybrid of realism and theatricality.  Most of the story takes place out in the world.  But, several of the key, turning points in the story are staged as theater plays.  This has the unique effect of drawing our attention to the human emotion being displayed at those junctures, rather than us just getting lost in the scenery.  And, with such a visually stunning movie, that happens very often.  The costumes in this move are out of control.  So much silk and velvet, jewels and feathers!  And the cast is just excellent.  Keira Knightly is pitch-perfect as the emotionally starved, and profoundly insecure Anna.  And Jude Law plays her uptight, joyless husband perfectly.  I don’t think I’ve seen him cast as the unattractive, puritanical killjoy before, but he’s amazing at it.
I think Stoppard really captured what was funny about this story, and that’s that none of the protagonists are at all likable.  Karenin has the right to be miffed that his wife is cheating on him, but he’s so prudish and prim, that we feel like he deserves it.  Anna is just following her heart, but she’s so selfish, and her lover Vronsky is so silly and foppish that we kind of want that relationship to crash and burn, too.  It’s only the supporting characters—like Kitty and Levin—that we are inclined to find at all sympathetic.  Their flaws make them more human, whereas the protagonists’ make them repugnant people.

I’d have to say that I liked this movie.  The cinematography is beautiful (the costumes!).  It’s a classically depressing Russian narrative.  And, the acting is pretty great.  Of course, the movie is extremely long, (natural for the dramatization of a Russian novel).  So, don’t sit down to watch this one if you’re in a hurry, or if you have ants in the pants.  I think I probably made that mistake.  But, I salvaged the effort by being willing to pause the movie at different points so that I could go attend to my business.  So feel free to check this one out if you’re in the mood for some dour, Russian, existential angst.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Afflicted - Terrifying Indie Horror

Movie: Afflicted
My Rating: 4 stars

I’ve been watching a lot of really exciting indie films lately.  And, this is the latest in the batch.  Best of all, it’s another indie horror, and another vampire film too!  Although, this one is about new vampires rather than alternate realities like in Coherence.  And, it's certainly not a comedy, like What We Do in the Shadows.  But, the filmmakers, Derek Lee and Clif Prowse, actually manage to pull it off very impressively.  Sometimes, independent films can look pretty “homemade.”  But, these guys have really created a pretty slick feeling horror film. (Or, as polished as a found-footage film can feel).
I really liked the premise of this movie as well.  The story is framed by a couple of guys who are documenting their around-the-world vacation to share with their friends and family back home.  (It’s important to come up with a good excuse for why cameras would be rolling in the found-footage genre).  But, things take a nasty turn when Derek starts to get violently ill while the friends are in Italy.  And, he’s only getting worse.  That’s already a nightmare—being stranded in a foreign country, and possibly needing urgent medical attention.
But, it’s even worse than that, because the two men have a sneaking suspicion that Derek is slowly turning into a vampire.  You can’t go to a hospital with that complaint!  No one would believe you for one.  But then, what if you’re right?  The government would never let you go.  Or, they’d kill you.  The issues these characters are struggling with feel like very real considerations, given the supernatural theme.  I also really liked how these filmmakers capture their characters’ uncertainty.  They have no idea what’s happening to Derek, and they’re putting together the puzzle pieces at the same pace as the audience.  There’s no exposition, no real narration, and the movie relies on the viewers to catch all the clues.  There’s also a fair amount of dark humor to be found, even though this film is billing itself as straight horror.  I always like that.

I was very impressed by this film.  And, even with as much information about the story as I’ve already given you, I promise there are still surprises.  But mostly, I think you’ll be blown away by how much these guys were able to accomplish on such a small budget.  So, I recommend this movie to you guys wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Calvary - An Irish Movie for St. Patrick's Day

Movie: Calvary
My Rating: 4 stars

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I decided to select an Irish movie to talk about.  But, unlike our celebration of the holiday here in the States, this movie isn’t about raucous, bloated, American, problem-drinkers.  No, it’s about emotionally-unstable, Irish, problem drinkers.  It’s really quite depressing.  But, this is a very good movie, if a bit grisly and bleak.  The story is thrilling and tense, and full of genuine human emotion.
Brendan Gleeson is a good priest—a rare gem.  He truly cares about his congregation, and is trying to help them with all their individual problems.  And, unlike some of the other priest in this story, he isn’t a hypocrite.  And, the movie opens with a strange man visiting him in his confession box, and threatening to kill him precisely because of his goodness.  The unseen man says he will give Gleeson one week to wrap up his affairs, but after that, he’s coming for him.  The mystery man reveals that he has been profoundly harmed by priests and the church, but that killing a bad man wouldn’t get the kind of attention he’s trying to bring to the issue.  No one looks twice when a person kills his abuser.  But, they will be very shocked when an innocent is gunned down.
This movie follows Gleeson through this final week as he makes his way through his small town.   He wants to make sure his flock is attended to and self-reliant, just in case this man really intends to do what he’s threatened.  And, he wants to have made his peace with any family or friends he’s neglected.  As he does this, we get to meet each of the different townsfolk, one by one, and learn of their individual pains and emotional damage.  Of course, this leads to us trying to guess which one of them is damaged enough to want to threaten a good man.  But, this isn’t a light whodunit.  The premise and execution don’t feel gimmicky or on-the-nose at all.  The writing is very thoughtful, and the acting is terrific.  (And naturally, the movie is packed with tons of your favorite Irish actors—Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Orla O’Rourke, Dylan Moran).

I do recommend this movie.  It’s a slow burn thriller, and it’s very good.  (It’s what I wanted The Guard to be).  But, be advised that it does touch on some very dark subject matter.  This stuff will hurt your heart.  And, while there are very few instances of violence, the scenes that made it in are very graphic.  But, do see the film if you think you can handle it.  You’ll find yourself thinking about it for a long time afterward.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

What We Do in the Shadows - Hilarious Vampire Comedy

Movie: What We Do in the Shadows
My Rating: 5 stars

This is a delightfully funny movie.  But then again, I already have a weakness for these guys—Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (and a little bit of Rhys Darby).   I find them so charming and funny.  So, I’m pretty much willing to watch anything they do—even if it’s just them messing around.  And, that’s essentially what they’re doing in this movie.  This is a mockumentary following around a group of vampires in their everyday life in this modern world.  They give us tours of their house, have typical roommate squabbles, show us their favorite outfits—all while looking back expectantly at the cameraman for approval.  It’s great.  I especially like Waititi’s little grin at the camera when he’s showing us something he thinks we should be impressed by.  They capture the style of the low-budget, absurd documentary very accurately.

There’s already plenty of ironic humor to be found in this kind of mundane documentary.  The subjects are usually so clueless, and they never quite understand why they’re so fascinating.  (“Maybe this director really likes porcelain, clown figurines, and since I’m Iowa’s biggest collector of them…it’s only natural that he’d contact me”).  But, of course this movie provides even more laughs because these vampires are really ancient guys.  They’re completely baffled by modern technology, and they still retain some of the old-fashioned ideas (and clothing) from the eras in which they were originally turned into vampires.  We have these mythical ideas that vampires must be very dangerous and sophisticated.  But, what if they’re just as stupid and blundering as regular people?  I mean, they all started off as human.  Why couldn’t a dullard have been turned?  And this “coven” is remarkably dim.  They’re so adorable.


I loved the movie, and I think you might too.  But then, maybe this is just my love for these actors spilling over.  I already really like Waititi and Clement’s brand of comedy, and I understand that there are plenty of people who just don’t.  It’s pretty subtle and absurd.  I guess a good litmus test would be whether you liked Eagle vs. Shark or not.  But, I think it’d be fun if you could support this film while it’s still in theaters.  These guys were promoting the film themselves, so they actually had a Kickstarter to raise enough funds to bring it to the US.  So, help make it a success.  I really want to encourage these guys to make more funny movies like this.