FORCE MAJEURE: some things you just can’t get past

FORCE MAJEURE

FORCE MAJEURE

In the droll Swedish dramedy Force Majeure, a smugly affluent family of four vacations at an upscale ski resort in the French Alps. The wife explains to a friend that they take the vacation because otherwise the husband never sees the family. But, while the wife is blissed out,  the kids fidget and complain, and the hubby sneaks peeks at his phone.

Then there’s a sudden moment of apparent life-and-death peril; the husband has a chance to protect the wife and kids, but instead – after first securing his iPhone – runs for his life. How do they all go on from that revealing moment? The extent that one incident can bring relationships into focus is the core of Force Majeure.

Clearly, the family has a serious issue to resolve, but there’s plenty of dry humor. In the most cringe worthy moments, the wife tries to contain her disgust, but can’t keep it bottled up when she’s in the most social situations.  The couple repeatedly huddle outside their room in their underwear to talk things out, only to find themselves observed by the same impassive French hotel worker. The most tense moments are interrupted by an insistent cell phone vibration, another guest’s birthday party and a child’s remotely out-of-control flying toy.

Force Majeure is exceptionally well-written by writer-director Ruben Ostland. It’s just his fourth feature and the first widely seen outside Scandinavia. He transitions between scenes by showing the machinery of the ski resort accompanied by
Baroque organ music – a singular and very effective directorial choice.

Force Majeure is Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. I think it deserves an Oscar nomination, although I can’t see it beating out Two Days, One Night, Ida or Leviafan.

[I've included the trailer as always, but I recommend that you see the movie WITHOUT watching this trailer - mild spoilers]

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coming up on TV: Steven Spielberg’s brilliant debut in DUEL

Dennis Weaver in Stephen Spielberg's DUEL

Dennis Weaver in Stephen Spielberg’s DUEL

Set your DVRs for Turner Classic Movies’ November 21 airing of Duel.  In 1971, some Universal exec hired 25-year-old Steven Spielberg to make some TV movies, the first of which was Duel.  This low budget suspense thriller foreshadowed Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the rest of Spielberg’s masterworks.

In the pre-cell phone era, Dennis Weaver plays a traveling salesman driving through an isolated desert mountain road when he becomes embroiled in road rage to the extreme – the driver of a tanker truck starts relentlessly hunting him down. This imposing 1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker truck becomes every bit the scary monster as the Great White Shark in Jaws.

At the time, Dennis Weaver was one of America’s most familiar faces from his oft comic supporting role in TV’s iconic Gunsmoke, and he had just become a star in his own right with McCloud.  He is perfect here as an Everyman – right down to his Plymouth Valiant.

I don’t know whether TCM is airing the original 74-minute (TV) or the 90-minute (theatrical) cut, but both are just about perfect. When I saw this on TV in 1971, I wasn’t thinking about who the director was, I was just riveted to the story, terrified that Dennis Weaver wasn’t going to escape his fiendish nemesis.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: A MOST WANTED MAN – a last look at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brilliance

Willem Dafoe and Philip Seymour Hoffman in A MOST WANTED MAN

Willem Dafoe and Philip Seymour Hoffman in A MOST WANTED MAN

Espionage thrillers adapted from John le Carré novels, like A Most Wanted Man, are so good because le Carré, himself a former British intelligence operative, understand that intelligence services, riddled with bureaucratic jealousies and careerist rivalries, are not monoliths. His very human spies spend as much energy fighting each other as they do fighting the enemy. As a result, le Carré’s stories are more complex and character-driven than a standard “good-guys-hunt-down-a-terrorist” thriller plot.

That’s also the case with A Most Wanted Man, with which le Carré moves from the Cold War to the War of Terror. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Günther, the leader of a German anti-terrorism unit in Hamburg. He must track down a possible Chechen terrorist while parrying off other German security forces, the CIA (Robin Wright), a shady banker (Willem Dafoe) and a do-gooder human rights attorney (Rachel McAdams). It’s the classic le Carré three-dimensional-chess-against-the-clock, and it works as an engrossing thriller.

But the A Most Wanted Man’s biggest asset is a searing performance by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Günther is a canny and determined guy who needs to outsmart everyone else and manipulate forces beyond his control – and Hoffman nails it. His final scene is a spectacular explosion of emotion. (So soon after Hoffman’s death, it’s impossible to watch him here, with a huge belly and with his character chain-smoking and swilling whiskey, and not think of his final relapse into his ultimately fatal addiction; for this reason, A Most Wanted Man may be even more effective after a few years have passed.)

That being said, Robin Wright’s role as a duplicitous, shark-like CIA officer is under-written and doesn’t let her show her acting chops like House of Cards. Dafoe and McAdams are good in their roles. I was distracted by Grigoriy Dobrygin’s performance as the Chechen, which looked like bad Jeremy Davies without the twitches. The fine German actress Nina Hoss (Barbara) plays Hoffman’s assistant, and I hope we start to see her in more English language roles.

But the bottom line is that A Most Wanted Man is, overall, a satisfying thriller, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is reason enough to watch it. (BTW le Carré’s screen masterpiece is the 1979 series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is available on DVD from Netflix.)  A Most Wanted Man is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in BIRDMAN

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in BIRDMAN

There’s an outstanding movie that’s right for everyone this weekend:

  • The brilliant comedy about personal identity, Dear White People.
  • The cinematically important and very funny Birdman; and
  • The best Hollywood movie of 2014, the thriller Gone Girl, with a career-topping performance by Rosamund Pike.
  • J.K. Simmons is brilliant in the intense indie drama Whiplash, a study of motivation and abuse, ambition and obsession.
  • Bill Murray’s funny and not too sentimental St. Vincent.
  • I liked the meditatively paced nature documentary Pelican Dreams.
  • If you’re in the mood for a brutal, brutal World War II tank movie, there’s Fury.

I’m a fan of writer-director Greg Araki and actress Shailene Woodley, but I didn’t find enough in White Bird in a Blizzard to recommend it.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the delightfully rowdy geezer road trip comedy Land Ho!. It’s available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Tonight, Turner Classic Movies will show the 1970s Jack Nicholson drama Five Easy Pieces, which is on my list of Best Movies of All Time AND Wild Strawberries (scroll down) – if you’re going to watch one Ingmar Bergman movie, pick this one.

FIVE EASY PIECES

FIVE EASY PIECES

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DVD/Stream of the Week: LAND HO! – rowdy geezer roadtrip to Iceland

Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson in LAND HO!

Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson in LAND HO!

Here’s a really fun movie. Land Ho! features a vibrant and irascible geezer who conscripts an old friend into a rowdy road trip to – of all random places – Iceland. It’s a showcase for Earl Lynn Nelson, who essentially plays himself in the movie. Nelson is a 72-year-old Kentucky doctor who is a force of nature and has possibly an even dirtier mind than The Movie Gourmet’s. He is a friend of the 29-year-old writer director Martha Stephens who was INSPIRED to see the possibilities in sending him off on an adventure and filming the results. His friend (and ex-brother-in-law) is played by an actor, Paul Eenhoorn.

It all works. Nelson – an unapologetic hedonist – is funnier than hell, and Eenhorn stays right with him as the more reserved and sometimes aggrieved buddy. Land Ho! is a string of LOL moments, whether Nelson is providing politically incorrect fashion advice to young women or unsolicited marital advice to a honeymooning couple or pulling out a joint and proclaiming “It’s time for some doobiefication”.

This is a geezer comedy that doesn’t make the geezers cute. Nelson may be a piece of work, but there’s nothing in Land Ho! that isn’t genuine.

I just have two knocks on the movie. It’s only 95 minutes long, but it would be crisper at about 87. And, as The Wife pointed out, there’s really no need for the huge jarring subtitles to let us know precisely where these guys are in Iceland.

Nevertheless, it’s worth a watch. The audience at Sundance loved this movie, and I think Land Ho! is a hoot-and-a-half. Land Ho! is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

There are some EXCELLENT movies out now, but DO NOT MISS the brilliant comedy about personal identity, Dear White People.

Other great movie choices include:

  • The cinematically important and very funny Birdman; and
  • The best Hollywood movie of 2014, the thriller Gone Girl, with a career-topping performance by Rosamund Pike.
  • J.K. Simmons is brilliant in the intense indie drama Whiplash, a study of motivation and abuse, ambition and obsession.
  • Bill Murray’s funny and not too sentimental St. Vincent.
  • The dark little French psychological drama The Blue Room packs a cleverly constructed story in its brisk 75 minutes.
  • I liked the meditatively paced nature documentary Pelican Dreams.
  • If you’re in the mood for a brutal, brutal World War II tank movie, there’s Fury.

I’m a fan of writer-director Greg Araki and actress Shailene Woodley, but I didn’t find enough in White Bird in a Blizzard to recommend it.

Turner Classic Movies is bringing us two very funny movies this week:

  • tonight’s unintentionally funny Hot Rods to Hell (1967), a bad exploitation movie that works as a guilty pleasure.
  • the intentionally funny Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), that paragon of madcap comedies; Cary Grant leads a cast that is perfect, right down to Jack Carson as Officer O’Hara, the new cop on the beat.
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BIRDMAN: nothing like you’ve seen before

Michael Keaton in BIRDMAN

Michael Keaton in BIRDMAN

Startlingly original, Birdman,  is NOTHING like you’ve seen before – in a good way.  It’s the latest from filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) and his biggest departure from the conventions of cinema.

The story is essentially a show biz satire centered on a Broadway staggering toward opening night.  The show is a literary four-hander, adapted by, produced by and starring an actor (Michael Keaton) who made it big in a superhero movie franchise; he has bet his nest egg on this show, which he figures to relaunch his career as a serious actor.  As one would expect, we have four colorfully neurotic actors and an anxious manager in a very stressful situation and stuff goes comically wrong.

Iñárritu reveals his story by having the camera follow the characters up, down and around the theater’s backstage, its dressing rooms, the stage itself, the roof and even outside on Times Square.  Indeed, Iñárritu and Lubezki make New York’s theater district another character in the movie.  This is NOT obnoxious Shaky Cam – just very immediate and urgent camera work that enhances the story.

The effect of all this is to create the illusion that the movie was shot in one long, intricately choreographed shot.  Which it wasn’t – but we’re too engaged in the story to look for the cuts.

It’s the most brilliant exercise in cinema since Gravity – the film directed by Iñárritu’s pal Alfonso Cuarón and shot by the same cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki.  Besides the visually stunning Gravity, Lubezki photographed the astonishing four-minute-plus “car attack” tracking shot in Children of Men AND the last three Terence Malick films, so maybe it’s time that we start looking out for the next Lubezki film.

All of the very best movie comedies are character driven, and Birdman‘s are well-written and uniformly superbly acted.  I’m sure that Keaton will grab an Oscar nomination for his actor/producer, a guy who is barely clinging on to his present and future by his fingernails.  Edward Norton is brilliant as an actor of spectacular talent, selfishness and unreliability.   Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough (so compelling in last year’s underrated thriller Shadow Dancer) are excellent as especially needy actresses.  But I found Emma Stone’s performance as Keaton’s sulking daughter to be extraordinary; her character has an angry outburst that is jaw dropping.

One more thing -  there are episodes of magical realism throughout Birdman; (it opens with Keaton’s actor levitating in his dressing room).   That did NOT work for me.  I get that Iñárritu is making a point about Keaton’s actor losing control and trying to regain control, etc., but the characters, the acting, the camera work and the comic situations were enough for me, and I found his violating the laws of physics to be distracting.

Still, Birdman is a Must See for anyone looking for an IMPORTANT movie and for anyone looking for a FUNNY one.

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ST VINCENT: authentic, funny and not too sentimental

Bill Murray in ST VINCENT

Bill Murray in ST VINCENT

In the appealing comedy St. Vincent, Bill Murray plays the LAST guy – a hard-drinking, reckless gambling, whoring grump – that you’d ever leave your nine-year-old son with.  Of course, circumstances force a desperate single mom (Melissa McCarthy) to do just that.

There’s plenty of comic potential in Murray’s talent and that set-up, but St. Vincent rises above the average comedy.  The key is that – just like real life – these characters are complicated.  Murray’s character isn’t just a hedonistic boor, McCarthy’s isn’t a saintly victim and her ex isn’t just a cartoonish meanie.  Take all that authenticity, and toss in Chris O’Dowd as a priest with 21st Century irony and Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian stripper, and the result is delightful.  And the kid actor, Jaeden Lieberher, is very, very good.

Hey, St. Vincent is what it is – a sentimental but not too sentimental audience-pleaser, pure and simple.

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French Cinema Now: an early look at two Big Movies

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA

One of the absolute gems in the Bay Area’s cinema scene is the San Francisco Film Society’s French Cinema Now series.  Every year at French Cinema Now, SFFS presents the best and most interesting movies contemporary French movies.

This year’s offerings include earl;y looks at two Big Movies – as in potential Oscar bait or, at least, art house hits.

  • Two Days, One Night: The latest urgent drama from the Dardennes brothers (The Kid with a Bike, The Son). Their movies always make my annual top ten list – and this one features Marion Cotillard.
  • Clouds of Sils Maria: Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in an All About Eve-type rivalry, directed by Olivier Assayas (Carlos).  Stewart has gotten great reviews.

Other tempting treats include:

  • Paris Follies: the always compelling actors Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Pierre Darroussin as old marrieds.
  • Love Is the Perfect Crime: a great cast (Mathieu Amalric, Karen Viard, Maïwenn, Sara Forestier) in a sly story of crime and sex.

French Cinema Now is coming up this weekend on November 6-9 at San Francisco’s Vogue Theater:     French Cinema Now tickets and schedule.

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Movies to See Right Now

Rosamund Pike in GONE GIRL

Rosamund Pike in GONE GIRL

My top two recommendations for this weekend are:

  • The brilliant indie comedy about personal identity, Dear White People; and
  • The best Hollywood movie of 2014, the thriller Gone Girl, with a career-topping performance by Rosamund Pike.

I saw Dear White People at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and have been telling folks about it for months – it’s on my list of Best Movies of 2014 – So Far.  I’m gonna add Gone Girl to the list as well.

I haven’t seen it, but the universally praised Birdman, with Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, opens more widely today.

Other recommendations:

  • J.K. Simmons is brilliant in the intense indie drama Whiplash, a study of motivation and abuse, ambition and obsession.
  • The dark little French psychological drama The Blue Room packs a cleverly constructed story in its brisk 75 minutes.
  • The successful period thriller The Two Faces of January sets a dark-hearted and shadowy story in sunny Greece. The Two Faces of January is in theaters and is also available streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.
  • The exceptionally well-acted dramedy The Skeleton Twins contains several inspired moments.
  • I liked the meditatively paced nature documentary Pelican Dreams.
  • If you’re in the mood for a brutal, brutal World War II tank movie, there’s Fury.

I’m a fan of writer-director Greg Araki and actress Shailene Woodley, but I didn’t find enough in White Bird in a Blizzard to recommend it.

My DVD/Stream of the week is ONCE AGAIN the exquisite Polish drama Ida – the best foreign film of 2014. Ida is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Don’t miss the campy Vincent Price horror classic The Tingler; it’s on Turner Classic Movies tonight, and it’s perfect for Halloween.

Next week, TCM is bringing us some of my faves:

    • Brute Force (1947): This Jules Dassin noir is by far the best of the Hollywood prison dramas of the 30s and 40s. A convict (Burt Lancaster) is taunted by a sadistic guard (Hume Cronyn) and plans an escape. It’s a pretty violent film for the 1940s, and was inspired by the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz in which three cons and two guards were killed. Charles Bickford, Whit Bissell and Sam Levene are excellent as fellow cons. On my list of Best Prison Movies.
    • The Third Man (1949): Shot amid the ruins of post-war Vienna, this film noir classic sets an American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) to find out what happened to his pre-ward buddy, who turns out to have become a notorious black marketeer (Orson Welles) with a set of associates each shadier than the last. This has it all, a fated relationship with a European beauty (Alida Valli), stunningly effective black-and-white photography, an enchanting musical theme and one of cinema’s most sharply surprising reveals of a new character. There are two unforgettable set pieces – a nervous interview in a Ferris Wheel and a climactic chase through the sewers.
    • Bullitt (1968) features Steve McQueen and one of cinema’s most iconic and influential chase scenes. McQueen’s 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback and the bad guy’s 1968 Dodge Charger careen through San Francisco, taking almost 11 minutes to race from Fisherman’s Wharf to Brisbane. Classic.
    • Hot Rods to Hell (1967): Not a good movie, but amusing as an unintentionally funny guilty pleasure.
Orson Welles in THE THIRD MAN - the most iconic smirk in cinema

Orson Welles in THE THIRD MAN – the most iconic smirk in cinema

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