Friday, October 24, 2014

Swedish Oscar Bait, 2014: Ruben Östlund's crystalline and unsettling FORCE MAJEURE

One of the most interesting films of this past year and, in its way, one of the most daring explorations of "manhood" and its discontents, FORCE MAJEURE, the new Swedish film from Ruben Östlund (as well as that country's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film), is a brilliantly conceived look at the male imperative as seen from inside and out, subjectively, objectively, and just about every which way.

And yet, blissfully for the inveterate moviegoer, Östlund's film (the moviemaker is shown at right) is never didactic; it shows rather than tells, and neither is it judgmental. It allows us to really watch and consider and be pushed and pulled back and forth as we identify with husband, wife, friends and children, even hotel employees -- as we try to come to terms with what has happened and what this means. Is what happened a "deal-breaker," or is the behavior that follows the event what matters more? Can anything -- after this kind of moment occurs -- count at all?

The central event takes place early on, and if you've seen the not-very-good film by Julia Loktev, The Loneliest Planet, you'll know what that events entails. Loktev's movie failed because of its refusal to explore, not just the event itself, but even simple characterization of those involved in it. Force Majeure explores it all, even as it entertains us spectacularly well by being intelligent, specific, encompassing and even quite a bit of fun.

I'd rather not give away details here; you deserve to discover and ponder them for yourself. Suffice it to say that the film's husband (a sterling job from Johannes Kuhnke, above, left) while on a family vacation at a resort in the French Alps, does something pivotal about which he must come to terms if he is to save his marriage and most probably himself.

How he does this -- with the help (and sometime hindrance) of wife, friends, kids -- is the meat of Force Majeure, and it makes a tasty, nourishing meal. Writer/director Östlund has a way with both words and pictures, keeping us spellbound and off-kilter from his first scene (above) -- in which a photographer at the resort in which the family is staying takes photo after photo of our crew -- to the final moments in which we see characters simply walking. But, oh, what energy is felt here!

The character of the wife slowly comes to the fore as the movie unfurls, and Lisa Loven Kongsli (above, left) does a crack job of deciphering her, while allowing us to gradually understand the woman. Male and female "roles" are explored here about as well as I've seen done in decades of film-going.

Subsidiary roles are performed beautifully, too, especially dad's best friend, played by Kristofer Hivju (above) and his a-bit-too-young girlfriend (Fanni Metelius). In a relatively (considering the events here) easy-going, believable manner, our current and rather long-standing ideas about manhood are held up to view and possibly challenged. But the filmmaker doesn't unduly push us in any direction, which is one of the beauties of this movie.

The conclusion(s) audiences will themselves arrive at may differ, but I doubt there will be be much disagreement regarding the strengths of Force Majeure -- which is one, major, satisfying movie. From Magnolia Pictures and running 118 minutes, it opens today, Friday, October 24, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema. The following Friday, October 31, it hits another dozen cities (in L.A., it plays at several Laemmle theaters), and will continue its nationwide opening in cities across the country in the weeks and months to come. Click here to all currently scheduled playdates.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

With sad,sweet,funny swan song LIFE OF RILEY we wave good-bye to a French new-waver

Watching Alain Resnais' newest -- and final -- film, LIFE OF RILEY can't help but be a sad experience for those of us who loved the guy's work, even if, for me at least, it took some decades to fully appreciate that work. Memory is one of this fabled French filmmaker's major themes, and I don't think that memory -- for young people, anyway -- has quite the major place in one's life that it occupies in later years. Resnais was also an experimental filmmaker right up until the end. Yet his experiments were always coupled to narrative in a way that, with some extra work, of course, one could begin to fathom meaning, while appreciating the style.

The filmmaker, shown at right, died earlier this year, and it is difficult to watch Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter is the original French title) -- based, as several of his films have been, on the the work of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn -- without imagining that Resnais knew quite well during the filming how little time he had left. I suspect his widow, Sabine Azéma, (pictured below, right), who is also one of the stars of the movie, would know for certain. The rest of us will just have to watch and wonder and enjoy. That last action, for Resnais fans, at least, will not be difficult, for he has given the movie a wonderfully "fake" look that combines gorgeous shots of the countryside and expensive estates with very obvious stage sets, and then occasionally places his actors in close-up against hand-drawn backgrounds that bring to mind comic book art.

Even if you've seen the rest of Resnais' work, you won't have experienced anything quite like this. The story itself is a hoot and a half about death and dying. The title character George Riley has been told by his doctor and friend (Hippolyte Girardot, below, left) that he has little time left to live.

Not only the doctor's wife (Ms Azema) but her best friend (the standout performer, Caroline Sihol, at left, two photos above and just below; with Michel Vuillermoz) are both former flames of Riley and of course are bereft by this news.

As is Riley's most recent love (Sandrine Kiberlain, below, left) who has recently split from George into the arms of a nearby French farmer (André Dussollier, below, right). The women are beside themselves, each desperately needing to see herself as George's one true love, while their men are at sea due to their women's sudden surge of independence and possible infidelity. Oh, and did I mention that some of these characters are simultaneously rehearsing a play which is due to be performed very soon.

Now, this is utter artifice -- on one level as silly as can be -- and I suspect that the original.Ayckbourn play was much funnier that what we see here. Yet out of it, Resnais manages to show up humanity's lack and hypocrisy in a way that is more sad than funny. And the film's final scene, in which we at last see a character other than our ever-present sextet, is most unusual. In it, the daughter of one of the couples, played by Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi, makes an appearance and somehow takes the movie into a deeper, darker contemplation of death's inevitability and finality.

If Life of Riley is nowhere near as interesting or layered a film as Resnai' most recent endeavors, Wild Grass and You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, it is still a film to be seen and savored -- for its performances, style and the fact that, having to work on what seems to have been less and less of a budget, the filmmaker nonetheless found a way to make his film so affordably and stylishly.

M. Resnais' final work -- from Kino Lorber and running 108 minutes -- opens in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema tomorrow, Friday, October 24. Elsewhere? Shocking as this may seem, no Los Angeles showing is yet scheduled. But the film will play at the Cinema St. Louis as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival on November 20 and 22, and then on December 5, it will play at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (unless, of course, Scott Walker wins his race for Governor once again and closes the school down).

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Erik Poppe's 1,000 TIMES GOOD NIGHT tackles art, death, sacrifice, family, career and more....

...and the best thing about this movie is that it does not cheat or trivialize any of the subjects it touches. That the film deals especially with what we might call terrorist bombings (while the bombers themselves would undoubtedly call it freedom fighting) makes 1,000 TIMES GOOD NIGHT an especially fraught experience. When it is good, which is often, it is superb, and even at the times in which the movie lessens, it is never less than worthwhile. It is also one of the most serious and moving films about sacrifice that I have ever seen.

The Norwegian filmmaker, Erik Poppe (shown at right), a few years back gave us the excellent Troubled Water, and his new film is a fine follow-up. It stars the nearly always terrific Juliette Binoche as Rebecca, a famous war photographer and a woman considered among the best in her field who loves and understands her work and what it means and why she does it about as well as she possibly can. That she is married and has two children, whom she sees too seldom, is the point upon which the movie turns. Her husband, played by the hot and talented Danish actor, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (in the second and third photo below, and at bottom, left), has determined, after the shocking event that begins the film, that his wife must finally choose between her family and the ever-possibly-fatal career she pursues.

Mr. Poppe allows us to view Rebecca in the midst of the most dangerous parts of her work, and we see that she does it very well. She does not love it, exactly; rather, she experiences it as a necessity to help this dangerous world in which we live.

We can also understand the feelings of her family members. There are no villains here, not even -- and this is the film's most miraculous effect -- those people with bombs planted on their person, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. (I could have done without the candle-lit balloon lift off, below, but that's a minor quibble.)

In order to bring mom and elder daughter closer together, a trip to Africa (don't worry, they are told: It's a safe location) is planned. The result of this brings the film to its climax and proper close. Nothing goes quite as planned, but neither do things dissolve. Rather, the events that happen seem appropriate and important, and the decisions made are reached via genuinely felt and understood experience.

I think Mr. Poppe is one of our better directors -- interested in what is happening in our world and why, and what is to be done about it. If possible. He gets fine performances from his entire cast (Ms Binoche is, as always, sterling), and best of all, he addresses our world honestly, effectively, and without rancor or any of the feel-good cheating that is the hallmark of so many of our movies.

1,000 Times Good Night -- a Norway/Ireland/Sweden co-production released here by Film Movement -- opens theatrically this Friday, October 24, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal, among other major cities now, and in the weeks to come. You can view the entire list of currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, by clicking here and then scrolling down.

Note: At NYC's Quad Cinema, director Erik Poppe will be present for a Q&A following the 7:30 show on Friday 10/24. In L.A., at the Royal theater, director of photography John Christian Rosenlund will participate in a Q&A at after the 7 PM screening on Friday, October 24, while the film's director/co-screenwriter Eric Poppe will participate in a Q&A after the 7 PM screening on Wednesday, October 29.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD: What's this? That rare, straight film from Gregg Araki...?

OK: Gregg Araki has made some more-or-less straight movies (remember Smiley Face?) prior to his latest work, the jokingly/descriptively titled WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD. But his sensibility has always seemed to me to be both gay and transgressive -- but funny and loony enough to keep most of his movies enjoyable and light, even when their subject was ostensibly dark. Except for Mysterious Skin, perhaps his best, which was strange, dark and haunting. Bird/Blizzard, however, seems at first glance and onwards to be especially concerned with straight family life.

This family, however, turns out to be  -- surprise! -- pretty transgressive in its own odd ways, and Mr. Araki (shown at left), as director and adapter (of the novel by Laura Kasischke), is here once again to capture it all for our delectation. Basically a bizarre coming-of-age tale, in which our heroine, Kat (played by Shailene Woodley, below, right, in her first let's-be-adult-and-get-nude! role, which she handles with the expected aplomb, charm and rather plenteous sex appeal), tells us all about her very strange mother (an even more transgressive Eva Green, three photos below), a beautiful-if-bizarre woman who has recently disappeared.

How and why mom has vanished is left open to all kinds of interpretations, most of which seem to fit, as Kat investigates one possibility after another, with the help (or not) of her boyfriend (that sexy young actor, Shiloh Fernandez, below, right, and bottom, left), her dad (that sexy older actor Christopher Meloni, at right, three photos below); the police detective on the case (uber-sexy Thomas Jane, at left, above) and her school chums (the not particularly sexy but plenty bouncy Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato).

Araki's movie is neither very suspenseful nor exciting, as you might expect a film about a woman's disappearance to be, nor is it exactly believable, in the realistic manner that movies about teenagers are expected to be. And yet it is almost always engaging and interesting, thanks to Araki' ability to keep us off base, while offering up a nice range of bizarre and transgressive behavior from every character on view.

Mr. Jane's detective is particularly off-kilter; Meloni's character -- initially appearing a sweetheart of a dad -- grows darker and odder; the gorgeous Ms Green's mom, a nutcase from first scene, simply continues along that path; while Fernandez, after initially seeming such hot and prime boyfriend material, full of energy, then grows weirder and quieter with each subsequent appearance.

It's up to Ms Woodley, then to hold the film together. Which she does -- whether she's exploring new sexual avenues or having that "white" dream that gives the film its title (below). Bird/Blizzard is both a coming-of-age movie and one in which the lead character discovers that life is actually chock-a-block with unexpected weirdness. Ms Woodley handles the first like the pro she already is, but adds her own oddly distant and somewhat withholding personality for the second -- to excellent effect.

The whole movie eventually begins to seem something of a dream (if not a nightmare), and at the finale -- in which revelations pile up in large number and at quite a speed -- Mr. Araki saves his very best for the last. This is one darkly witty "family" movie indeed.

White Bird in a Blizzard, from Magnolia Pictures and running 91 minutes, opens this Friday, October 24, in seven cities throughout the USA and Canada. In New York City, it plays the Landmark Sunshine, and in L.A. at the Landmark NuArt. The following week, on October 31, it will open in another fifteen cities. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters.

Monday, October 20, 2014

See Edward Snowden blow that whistle in Laura Poitras' odd and alarming doc, CITIZENFOUR

A documentary that pretty much tells itself -- with some questions, of course, about what was chosen for inclusion and what was not -- CITIZENFOUR shows and tells the tale of how and why whistle-blower Edward Snowden first approached journalist/filmmaker Laura Poitras (shown below) and journalist Glen Greenwald in order to go public concerning the illegal surveillance being carried out on the American populace (and elsewhere throughout the world) by the NSA in collusion with our government.

However you define Mr. Snowden on the chart/scale from terrorist to crimi-nal to whistle-blower to hero, the movie should be of great interest simply in allowing you to see and hear him in action and repose. Well, as much repose as someone in his singular state at this time could manage. (We do see him groom-ing himself and trying to get a certain hair style down pat. Ah, vanity! On the other hand, he's human, so why the hell not?)

Poitras has inter-cut various interviews and archival footage having to do with the way we are governed now -- spied upon illegally, as our President assures us that nothing of the sort is taking place. (Just as George W. Bush was an in-office liar, so now is Barack Obama.) This information sets the scene, against which we can place what has happened because of Snowden's actions into some kind of perspective.

When he tells us and Poitras (and Greenwald, with whom he is shown, above) what he is doing and why, and especially how he feels it needs to be handled so that his actions can be perceived less in any personal way that would turn the spotlight on him rather than where it needs to be -- on what the NSA is doing illegally -- I find the young man, as I think you will, too, to be believable and not a little heroic. He also explains why he does not himself feel able to determine which of the information he is sending is actually a matter of National Security, and so must leave that to journalists who are more informed on this subject.

Along with visuals of some of the written communications between our protagonists (the above is one of the less interesting of these), we hear from other whistle-blowers like William Binney, who was an NSA employee, and watch, too, as another liar, Keith Alexander, purgers himself in his testimony. It is against all this that Mr. Snowden's revelations take on their impact. And when toward the end of this engaging and alarming documentary, Jacob Appelbaum explains to us that our current concerns over privacy are really just an extension of the liberty and freedom we have been seeking since, well, the American Revolution, the movie should ring a very loud alarm bell.

Too often asleep at the wheel of our own presumed liberty, we need to be roused into some kind of action -- which is what these whistle-blowers keep trying to do. Eventually, our own government, if its swing to the moneyed and powerful continues, will become the facility that enslaves us completely. Meanwhile we can thank Snowden and his ilk for having the courage to do their part, and journalists and filmmakers like Greenwald and Poitras for bringing the work of these whistle-blowers to our attention.

One final jolt is provided by Greenwald, who lets us know that he has a new whistle-blower waiting in the wings. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, Citizenfour (from Radius/TWC and running 114 minutes), which doubles as the name of the film and the moniker taken by Snowden, begins its theatrical run this Friday, October 24, in New York City at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Elsewhere? No doubt. And eventually onto DVD and digital. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

DVDebut looks at gays in Poland: Tomasz Woszczynski's FLOATING SKYSCRAPERS

The last time we visited gay Poland -- Małgośka Szumowska's In the Name Of -- we were struck by how backward seemed this country in terms of public acceptance of everything from homosexuals to Jews. Another Polish movie from the same year (2013) drives home this point once again, in even fiercer terms. FLOATING SKYSCRAPERS, written and directed by Tomasz Woszczynski, initially seems more like the recent German film about the lawful but societally-frowned-upon love that grows between two young policemen, Free Fall. It is soon apparent, however, that Floating Skyscrapers is less grounded in strong story, physical and emotional detail and characterization than was its German counterpart.

This lack does not destroy the movie, but with a 99-minute running time, it leaves at least some of us in the audience expecting and wishing for more. The filmmaker, whom I believe is pictured at left, offers up some nice visual compositions, as well as some good-looking guys and probably about as hot an example of man-on-man sex as Poland will allows these days. But, as usual, the sense of overall society and its mores seems at least a decade or two behind the times, when compared with western Europe or parts of the USA.

The story? This has to do with a very good swimmer, Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk, above), currently being groomed as a champion, and his foray into same-sex wonder. He is not, the movie makes clear from pretty early on, a novice in this endeavor. As shown in the scene on the poster at top, he is easily commandeered from the showers into the men's room of the gym, by a fellow athlete who invites him into a stall and services the willing Kuba with a quick blow job. The recipient does not, however -- and he makes this very clear -- like to kiss or fondle.

Not until he meets Michal, at least. This brunette pretty boy, played by Bartosz Gelner (above, left), is as drawn to Kuba as Kuba is to him, though it seems to take an eternity for something physical/sexual to occur. Various women hang around these guys. Kuba, who lives with his complaining mother (whom he is shown bathing, below), also has a long-time girlfriend, while our first view of Michal positions him with a female companion, as well. But it's really the male-to-male attraction that counts.

As shown here, Polish life in all its forms -- family, sports, friendship, even love -- seems dreary, circumspect and hugely limiting. Not much is desired because so little is available. Our two protagonists, in fact, have literally nowhere to go to give vent to their physical needs, as both live with family and can't afford their own apartment. Glumness abounds.

Still, despite the societal stigma and probably because of the lack of privacy, their first major sexual encounter takes place in a public parking garage. What follows this is downbeat, nasty and depressing, though probably not, unfortunately, unrealistic.

The film's odd name comes from a conversation between Michal and his father, as the son recalls a strange and allusive childhood memory. It's poetic but rather pointless to the overall movie -- except its ability to provide a strange title.

While I clearly was not crazy for this film, it has stuck with me -- mostly as a warning about its home country, as well as an appreciation of the beauty of face and figure that resides there. Floating Skyscrapers -- initially from Canteen Outlaws but now available by TLA Releasing, can be viewed either via sale or streaming rental.   

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Generic done surprisingly well: Diane Kurys' FOR A WOMAN spans WWII to the 1980s

As beautiful, specific and gloriously acted as is FOR A WOMAN -- Diane Kurys' latest love story told from a woman's perspective but which does not slight the male characters in any way (Kurys has always done this sort of thing quite well) -- there is, it must be said, something a bit generic about it all. Perhaps because, by now, TrustMovies has seen these French family sagas encompassing World War II and the Holocaust (Claude Miller's A Secret is one of the best) so many times that their plots, including their odd diversions, seem somewhat second-hand. Yet even second-hand stuff, when done well enough, can make for an almost completely engrossing film. And that is exactly the case with this mysterious little charmer.

As writer and director, Kurys (shown at right) continues to grow; For a Woman proves one of her best. In the relatively dense plotting, the smart pacing, and the superb performan-ces, you couldn't ask for much more. The story told is of two sisters, now middle-aged adults, discov-ering information and relationships their parents had decades earlier during World War II. So, yes, there is a kind of mystery afoot, though about what and why we're not sure until nearly the finale.

The movie is also a love story about how love can abide and remain important even years after the events that first set it off, when at least one of the principals involved has long gone. It's primarily a tale of a man (Benoit Magimel), his wife (Mélanie Thierry, above, right), and his younger brother (Nicolas Duvauchelle, above, left) and what the war/Holocaust has made of them.

All three performers are excellent, with Magimel (above) -- lately one of France's most impressive and versatile young actors now growing into a very interesting middle age -- giving the best performance in the least likable role. He is superb, and all the more moving because his role encompasses such a difficult character.

In some plumb supporting roles are Clothilde Hesme (below, left, with Thierry), Clément Sibony (above, center) and Denis Podalydès, along with Sylvie Testud and Julie Ferrier as the adult children of Magimel and Thierry who do the sleuthing. If the photo above looks like a typically happy family scene, the irony here will be much appreciated once you've watched the movie.

After a very limited theatrical release, For a Woman -- from Film Movement and running 110 minutes -- hits DVD this coming Tuesday, October 21. And if history be any guide, you can expect it to appear on Netflix streaming very soon after.