Thursday, December 18, 2014

Movie with Abe: Force Majeure

Force Majeure
Directed by Ruben Östlund
Released October 24, 2014

Vacation is often seen as a place where anything can happen without consequences. The saying “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is the ultimate example of having something not count or not apply when you return to the real world. When the vacation doesn’t end, however, it’s hard to see how things might go back to normal. In “Force Majeure,” Sweden’s submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, one family holiday drags on as the snowy setting of a French Alps resort, threatening to unravel its members with no hope of returning to the time before an irreversible split-second decision has changed everything.

The construction of “Force Majeure” is actually quite simple, as Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) spend their first day of vacation skiing on the blanketed slopes of their peaceful resort with their children Vera and Harry. All is well and quiet until, in the middle of an outdoor lunch, a controlled avalanche suddenly appears to be headed straight for the unsuspecting family and everyone else at the resort. All proves to be well, save for the fact that Ebba immediately shields her children while Tomas grabs his phone and his gloves and bolts. When he returns to the table, nothing can be as it was before, though that’s not something he immediately realizes.

From that point, the film shifts back and forth from being an uncomfortable comedy to a light drama, as Ebba cannot shake the feeling of abandonment that came with Tomas’ instinct to run rather than to stay and protect his family. Tomas refuses to acknowledge what he did, and that just makes things worse. When friends Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanny (Fanni Metelius) are brought into it by Ebba’s inability to let it go, it threatens to unravel their own relationship when they consider what they might each do in the same circumstances. It’s certainly not a pleasant or enviable process.

There are many moments of reflection in “Force Majeure,” as its characters remain silent for a while, skiing, eating, or sitting, and then converse with great intensity before returning to a period of tranquility. In theory, there is subtext to be read in each interval, and the film’s major scenes after its death-defying impetus seem to be most meaningful for what they signify rather than what they actually recount. For couples who find the decay of marital bliss entertaining, this film might prove enjoyable, but while it presents opportunity for introspection and meaning to be drawn out of white landscapes, this film isn’t moving fast to tell a particularly interesting story.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Movie with Abe: Nightcrawler

Directed by Dan Gilroy
Released October 31, 2014

There’s a line between creepy and scary that often defines thrillers. There are no ghosts jumping out of the darkness to make you scream, but there’s definitely something uneasy going on that merits fear of a certain kind. That feeling can be just as effective in dramas, where a protagonist is far from likeable because of his despicable behavior, yet he or she remains a magnetic central figure. That’s exactly the case with “Nightcrawler,” the story of an asocial man who takes an interest in taking video for television news and isn’t prepared to let emotion or humanity get in the way of being tremendously successful.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is first seen cutting away at a fence, clearly somewhere he is not supposed to be. He plays dumb when a security guard arrives, chatting with him in a way that feels all too friendly, and, before long, he gains the upper hand and is seen in the next scene driving away while wearing the guard’s watch. Lou arrives with a car full of stolen goods and makes a sale to a construction site foreman. He then pitches himself as the ideal employee, listing a number of reasons that his qualifications and excitement for the field recommend him. When he is dismissed as a thief, Lou sets his sights on a new profession entirely, and begins learning how to become the best in that field, selling his first footage to a bloodthirsty producer (Rene Russo) and then hiring an assistant (Riz Ahmed) immediately thereafter, applauding himself for his meteoric rise to the top.

There is something off about Lou that Gyllenhaal captures in his performance: a sense of awe and admiration when he sees a catastrophe and his interpretation of that moment into something marketable and claimable as a product. Lou delivers many speeches in which he rattles off supporting arguments that sound inherently logical and well-rehearsed, and he is convinced each time that what he says might as well be law. Those with whom he interacts most – Nina, a producer desperate for gory, eye-catching content to help her keep her job, and Rick, who applied to a position with no job description because he needed the money in order to stay off the streets – are hardly discerning, and therefore Lou’s behavior isn’t flagged by a surrogate stand-in for the audience as not okay.

Gyllenhaal, who delivered another strong and unnerving turn earlier this year in “Enemy,” has deservedly been earning accolades for his performance, making Lou fascinating and seem like he could actually list. The film, on the other hand, is so dark and unoptimistic that it’s difficult to decide whether to take its events at face value, to decide whether or not Lou could manage to go around as he does without any scrutiny, combing the underbelly of Los Angeles for its most horrifying, shocking events. “Nightcrawler” is a perplexing but captivating experience, one worthy of examination but one that cannot be easily catalogued.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Movie with Abe: Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Released December 12, 2014

It’s rare to find a movie so utterly perplexing that it’s impossible to figure out where to start a review. Yet such is the case with “Inherent Vice,” the latest extremely long film from auteur Paul Thomas Anderson which reunites him with the star of his last film, “The Master.” Joaquin Phoenix was a lost soul easily influenced by others in that film, and here he plays someone perpetually under the influence, getting high throughout the entire movie as his private investigator stumbles his way through a convoluted crime story riddled with sex and drugs that, in spite of itself, may just make sense.

Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, whose wild adventure begins when his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up to tempt him with a crazy story, one that involves sex, betrayal, corruption, maybe even murder. This mystery doesn’t play out like a typical one might, since there are considerable obstacles to Doc finding the truth but mainly because it’s hard to know whether what he’s seeing is actually happening because of the intense amount of hallucinogenic material being put into his body. He takes short, humorous notes on the case in his little notebook, the most frequent of which is “paranoia alert.” Characters are dressed in full 70s period garb and there’s a distinct and effective dated feel to the film.

There’s no denying that there’s an interesting if ridiculously irreverent tale to be told here. Anderson, as usual, has assembled a fine cast to portray his many zany characters, taking care to give even the smallest part appropriate consideration. After three features with smaller casts, Anderson has made a film worthy of comparison to “Magnolia” in more ways than one. Phoenix is a great choice for the lead role, having come back from what appeared to be a staged break with sanity to break through with “The Master,” and he has just the right commitment and balance of seriousness and playfulness to play Doc. In the supporting cast, Waterston is a particularly remarkable find as the alluring but absent Shasta, and Josh Brolin is terrific and hilarious as hard-nosed cop Bigfoot Bjornsen. Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph, Hong Chau, Michael Kenneth Williams, Sag Jaeger, Timothy Simons, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, and Reese Witherspoon all contribute to a stacked ensemble whose minimal individual appearances make for a loaded if disjointed whole. It’s anyone’s guess where the film and its overeager plot are headed at any moment, and what clarity might have been achieved in a satisfying finish is avoided entirely. It’s fair to assess this film as bold and creative, but that doesn’t classify it as a resounding success.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Movie with Abe: Citizen Koch

Citizen Koch
Directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin
Released June 6, 2014

It’s always important to pronounce the title of a film to have some clue about its content. I thought for a moment when I heard about this film that I had already seen it, but I was thinking of “Koch,” last year’s documentary about former New York City Mayor Ed Koch (sounds like “kotch”). This film, which is a finalist for the Oscar for Best Documentary this year, refers to the Koch brothers (pronounced “coke”), billionaires who are seen by the filmmakers to have exerted undue monetary and political influence in the campaigns of certain conservative politicians and legislation. It’s a catchy title but it’s not actually the most accurate descriptor.

This is a very good film, and there’s no denying the effectiveness of the title, which juxtaposes the notion of an average American with the recognizable name of brothers who belong distinctly to the “one percent.” But this film isn’t really about them. It begins as an apparent indictment of the Tea Party, demonstrating the way in which the ultra-conservative party rose to power. It shifts midway through to show how campaign contributions have been changed in a problematic and worrisome way so that those with money can give as much as they want without much accountability to advocacy organizations which in turn support those running for office and trying to pass new laws. The film is consistently interesting, to be sure, but its title doesn’t quite capture the themes it addresses.

Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, becomes a central figure in this film and its demonstration both of the influence of the Tea Party and the way in which politicians are backed by those seeking to see their interests fulfilled. Walker ignites fury in his constituents when he changes his views after being elected and seeks to essentially disband unions, and a recall is even initiated. One of the film’s two focuses is highlighted by the interviews with those Republicans who say that they’re voting for the first time – and they can’t believe that they’re voting for a Democrat. Hearing Republicans respond to criticism that they’re voting against Republicans only underlines the fact that there seems to be a crucial difference between the Republican Party and the Tea Party.

This examination of what’s happening in American politics today is laced with reflective humor and a true feeling of inevitability in terms of the changes in the way elections and lawmaking work. Though this film does double duty and doesn’t stick to just one agenda, it’s a worthwhile and extremely educational documentary. It’s sure to become increasingly relevant as Walker is solidified as a strong contender for the next presidential election, and questions of financial backing come up, as do his own political allegiances.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Movie with Abe: Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky’s Dune
Directed by Frank Povich
Released March 21, 2014

On occasion, the making of a film can be as interesting as the film itself, and in some cases, even more so. The story of a film that never got made is a more intriguing matter since there’s inherently some reason that it never came to fruition. One of this year’s top contenders for the Oscar for Best Documentary is “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” the fantastical, mesmerizing account of how eclectic director Alejandro Jodorowsky conceived of an impossibly ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” in the early 1970s. Believing that it wouldn’t ever get made is hardly a stretch, but hearing and seeing Jodorowsky describe his astonishing vision is an extremely entertaining and worthwhile adventure.

Jodorowsky is introduced with a monologue that demonstrates the scope of what he wants to do with his film – to replicate the experience of being on LSD without actually taking the drug. After an early career highlighted by bizarre films embraced by cult audiences featuring him in the lead role, Jodorowsky jumps at the chance to collaborate with famed French producer Michel Seydoux. When asked what project he would like to do, Jodorowsky immediately suggests bringing “Dune” to the big screen because of his themes and everything he has heard about the book, which he hadn’t even read at the time.

With each new detail and addition of talent, Jodorowsky’s “Dune” becomes more outrageous and unlikely. Yet the director has such a commitment to his ideas and to realizing them with spectacular energy that it makes them seem almost possible for a moment. The top visual effects designer, when approached by Jodorowsky, explains his mechanical approach to his craft, and is dismissed by Jodorowsky as not being a spiritual warrior, therefore unfit to collaborate with him. Jodorowsky fires off his ideas – Orson Welles! Salvador Dali! – and expresses his intent to see his vision realized to tremendous and incomparable effect.

After hearing his grand plan and seeing some of the wild storyboards created for the film, it’s obviously a disappointment to come to the conclusion that the director, now 85 years old, never managed to get the film made, though a filmmaker often thought of as just as eccentric and cult-friendly, David Lynch, ultimately did. This film and its unusual sort of exposé may in fact have attracted an auteur, Ari Folman of “Waltz with Bashir” and “The Congress,” with an interest in seeing Jodorowsky’s version made into an animated film. There may not be some social cause highlighted or some wrong righted in this documentary, but experiencing the craziest film never made and possibly inspiring it to be made is definitely worth the price of admission (or home viewing).


Movie with Abe: The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Hundred-Foot Journey
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Released August 8, 2014

Some movies are about epic adventures, and the dramatic lengths to which a person or group must go to overcome a major obstacle. There is a feeling of anticipation that builds as transcending that barrier continues to be a challenge, and at times it seems unclear if the main character or characters will be able to do it. And then there are those times where the journey is far less physical or burdensome, yet its accomplishment still remains an unlikely feat. As its title indicates, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is not a typical film about barriers to success, yet its story arc is inherently familiar and relatively inviting.

Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal) is introduced as an eager young man confident in his culinary abilities, first seen speaking to an immigrations officer and trying to make a case for why he is certain that he can find gainful employment in his new country of residence. He explains that his family moved from India to London, where they literally lived right next to Heathrow Airport to the point that planes would fly to directly overhead, just narrowly missing the top of the house. From there, the family relocated to France, where their food service history permitted them the opportunity to bring a new kind of cuisine for locals, though they had the misfortune of opening up shop across the street from a popular restaurant owned by the determined Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).

What comprises much of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is a war of culture and food between Madame Mallory and Hassan’s father (Om Puri). The two buy out the entire supply of a given food on the other’s menu from the market when they know an esteemed guest is on his way and tattle on each other to the mayor for minor code violations. As those less blinded by their own histories tend to do, Hassan and Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), who works in Madame Mallory’s kitchen, begin a romance but have trouble turning it into something due to their battling institutions.

The kind of conflict that exists in “The Hundred-Foot Journey” doesn’t involve people actually being hurt or any lives being threatened. Instead, it’s a cultural comedy, one that uses a love for food and for creative cooking to fuel its story and the passion of its characters. Mirren, as she often does, is having a blast playing Madame Mallory, making her stuffy and endearing at the same time, and Puri is delightful as well. Dayal and Le Bon make a good couple, but ultimately this enjoyable film is an ensemble treat, one that may not be remembered in a hundred years or even a hundred years but is plenty of fun while it lasts.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Saturday Night Movie Recommendations with Abe

Welcome back to a weekly feature here at Movies With Abe. I'm going to be providing a handy guide to a few choice movies currently playing in theatres as well as several films newly released on DVD. I invite you to add in your thoughts on any films I haven’t seen in the comments below. Understandably, some weeks will have considerably fewer releases to address than others.

Now Playing in Theatres

Nothing to report this week, though I do have an exciting triple-feature planned for tomorrow, starting with new release Inherent Vice and catching up with two other Golden Globe nominees, Nightcrawler and Force Majeure. Reviews coming this week. I'll also have plenty of reviews of movies out on DVD as well as releases for next Friday and beyond.

New to DVD

Calvary (recommended): Director John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up to “The Guard” is a very different film, one less laced with humor, but still features Brendan Gleeson in a strong and memorable role as a priest threatened by an unknown parishioner in small Irish town.

Frank (recommended) :This truly bizarre film features a rock star who wears a giant fake head all the time and the people who follow him without question and with amazement. Great performances from Michael Fassbender, Domnhall Gleeson, Scoot McNairy, and Maggie Gyllenhaal in this peculiar but very worthwhile movie.

Now on Netflix Instant Streaming

The Wolf of Wall Street (mixed bag): This widely talked-about Oscar-nominated film is an undeniably entertaining if enormously excessive portrait of one man’s obsession with money. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill are good, but this isn’t the masterpiece that many say it is, nor is it DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese’s best collaboration.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Movie with Abe: Still Alice

Still Alice
Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Released December 7, 2014

Mental deterioration as a result of aging is a frequent subject in film, and almost always a heartbreaking one. Those who undertake the role of a person suffering from the gradually worsening effects of Alzheimer’s disease usually do so with a great seriousness and are often rewarded with accolades for their efforts. It’s no surprise that Julianne Moore is a frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Dr. Alice Howland, a woman diagnosed with the disease whose situation is made exponentially more tragic by its early manifestation at the relatively young age of fifty.

“Still Alice” begins by introducing its protagonist as an intellectual linguistics professor, one who uses words ending in “J” while playing Words with Friends and talks circles around most of the people in her life. In nearly every conversation or solitary moment, however, there is something off, a forgotten word or loss of focus that clues Alice into the fact that all is not right. Facing the problem head on, Alice goes to see a neurologist and undertakes every effort possible to keep her memory sharp. This is not a glossy or glorified portrayal of Alzheimer’s, and therefore Alice cannot hope to fight the progression of her disease.

What makes this story extraordinary is Alice herself. She learns from her doctor that, despite all that she has been doing to maintain her memory, someone as intelligent as her is more susceptible to worsening conditions because she has built ways to prolong its effects into her natural routine. The film’s most powerful and unforgettable scene finds Alice delivering a speech at an Alzheimer’s Association event, describing her best efforts to hold onto who she is and to her memories while being all too keenly aware of what is happening to her faculties. Alice’s condition is a brutal reminder that knowing what you’re facing isn’t a foolproof defense.

Moore is a strong choice to play Alice, capable of communicating great emotions with minute facial expressions and adept at showing Alice’s gradual transformation from a fully functional intellectual to someone unable to recognize her surroundings. It’s a deeply involved and affecting performance, and few will argue that she isn’t deserving of the recognition she is sure to earn. Kristen Stewart, Hunter Parrish, and Kate Bosworth portray her three children, each representative of a different way of dealing with seeing a parent in this situation, and Alec Baldwin is her loyal husband whose actions don’t always feel entirely supportive. Stewart demonstrates growth and range in her performance, but aside from that, this is purely Moore’ show, as she anchors this devastating and affecting film about holding on to something that’s slipping away.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical

My predictions: 4/5, missing “St. Vincent” Who’s missing? Inherent Vice, Big Eyes

I mentioned already in the supporting actress category that it’s somewhat illogical but historically unsurprising that St. Vincent makes the cut here with actor Bill Murray nominated, but SAG nominee Naomi Watts isn’t recognized. Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel are the films to beat, while Into the Woods didn’t have as big a showing as I expected, with just two acting bids to go along with this mention. And then there’s Pride, which missed out on a SAG bid yesterday but made it in here as this year’s most endearing nominee. I have seen all but “Into the Woods” at this point.

Who will win? Give it to Birdman.

Golden Globe Nominees: Best Motion Picture – Drama

My predictions: 2/5, picking only “Boyhood” and “The Imitation Game”
Who’s missing? Gone Girl, Interstellar, Rosewater, American Sniper

I’m not sure what I was thinking here, betting against The Theory of Everything and Selma. Foxcatcher getting in over “Gone Girl” is a mild surprise, but I didn’t love either film, so it doesn’t particularly excite me. The Imitation Game and Boyhood are the films to beat, but, interestingly this year, only two of these films – “Boyhood” and “Selma” – are nominated for Best Director. Usually there’s a higher correlation. I’m still missing too many movies to determine if these five are really the best of the year, but I’d be sure to include “Interstellar” and “A Most Violent Year” on my list already, two films that earned just one bid apiece today.

Who will win? Probably Boyhood.