Review: “Force Majeure” 2.9.15

Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival as well as receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film at this year’s ceremony. “Force Majeure” was a film I had been highly anticipating as many of the films that have either been nominated or won the former award, which has only been around for 16 years, have churned out some of my favorite foreign films, only second to the world’s most prestigious’ category – the Palm d’Or, which is the Cannes’ equivalent of the Academy’s Best Picture. The Un Certain regard category in which I speak of is almost always reserved for films that the Cannes voting panelists find to be of great significance and importance in relation to the international film community. Some films that have either been nominated and/or won this coveted award are as follows: “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005 winner – Russia), “Tyson” (2008 nominee – America), “Dogtooth” (2009 winner – Greece – still one of my all time favorite foreign films), as well as director Andrey Zvyaginstev’s (“Leviathan”) remarkable “Elena” (a 2011 nominee), and the 1-2-3 punch of 2013’s boastful nominees “Stranger by the Lake” (France), “Omar” (Palestine), and “Fruitvale Station” (United States). As I often times do with seeing a film solely based on the directed of who it is attached to, I also see films (especially foreign) that garner nominations in categories in which I find to have great validity by means of reputation. This film was yet another example of that approach to why I watch certain films. Not knowing or having the faintest idea of what it was about but still trusting my intuition and the word of mouth that comes out of Cannes every year.

The film introduces us to a family taking “holiday” (as most of us know the Europeans call it). They’re what you might consider to be the perfect nuclear family – a seemingly strong-willed father Tomas, his wife Ebba, and young daughter Vera and son Harry. Their holiday at a wealthy ski resort in the French Alps seems like the idyllic family vacation. Which we’re shown through a series of photographs as the start of the story. Ebba is just happy to have Tomas to both herself and their children, as it is inferred that he lives a pretty demanding work life at home. They seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and I couldn’t help but think of an American version of a trip to Disney World, where at the surface level, everything seems to be perfect. That is until one day they experience a catastrophic event, and the residual and lasting effects that it has on the family, particularly of Tomas’ wife Ebba,  while also acting as a sort of “reawakening” for each member to reevaluate both themselves and that of each of the other family members. This is essentially what the movie goes on to explore, without giving away any further plot details.

This wound up being both a beautiful and remarkable film that had my attention from the first frame to its final one. It works on almost all levels – from the story, to the acting, to the amazing cinematography of the French Alps, but even more importantly, how it explored the interpersonal dynamics of a family following a traumatizing event. The undeniably flawless direction by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund is truly a sight to see for any true fan with an eye for film. The film captures this devastating family tragedy amongst the backdrop of the beautiful French Alps. Not only that, but like Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Foxcatcher”) it does so with such a restrained approach using long take techniques to capture a certain sense of stillness to everything. That and like the late great Stanley Kubrick, the director has an uncanny ability of filling up every single frame of the picture without a single inch going to waste. It also incorporates a beautiful classic score which I thought was right up on par with some of the best compositions of Kubrick’s films, which to me seemed so fascinating to the images being shown on-screen as it seemed to fit perfectly even if it comes off as a questionable choice for a movie score on behalf of the viewer at the beginning. The last but most verbose part of the review which I think is unquestionably worth noting in relation to this film is how deeply rooted it was in psychology. Anybody that really enjoys reading between a film’s lines for its underlying subtext should find this to be one of the more denser films they’ve seen. Evoking the works of the German director Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”, “The White Ribbon”, “Amour”) who acted as a reference point for me in its examination of traumatic events that shows how they manifest themselves from an individual standpoint. Looking at themes such as residual and vicarious trauma, self reevaluation, moral dilemmas, as well as the primitive instincts that make us human beings. This was just another example and further proof of a belief I’ve always held, in that foreign or international cinema, is operating at such a higher plane, than many if not all of its American counterparts that try to explore similar themes but that aren’t able to do so with such assuredness and a sense of realism. This wound up being a thoroughly engaging, well acted and shot, and probing psychological film that explores some very deep and heavy themes, that had my brain’s light switch turned on from start to finish. A must see for any fan even remotely interested in foreign or international cinema that challenges the viewer to really think, as opposed to merely sitting back and being entertained.

[B+]

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Review: ‘Rob The Mob’ 9.30.14

 

Every now and then I find myself in the mood for a bit more lighter fare than what I’m normally used to. Since I’m so used to constantly being let down by comedies maybe more than any other genre, I rarely take the leap of faith needed to check one out unless it comes from a recommendation from someone whose opinion I trust. Though with this movie I more or less just came across it. No one told me about it,  I didn’t read anything on it, nor did I see it advertised anywhere. However I did see that it got some fairly decent favorable scores on a couple of movie sites I check out occasionally. So I thought I’d give it a shot. That and I really like Michael Pitt. My first introduction to the talented young actor was in the American version of Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” (2007) where he did an excellent job playing one of two young men who terrorize an upper class family. He’s gone on to do some strong work in both the TV series “Boardwalk Empire” and played a very small bit part; yet a memorable one, in 2012’s “Seven Psychopaths”. I don’t know if it’s the Leonardo DiCaprio quasi look-alikeness that I like about him or if I geniunely think the guy’s got chops (probably the latter). But really any movie that looks remotely interesting where he’s cast as the lead I will likely check out. Which was the case with this one. Plus, I heard it was a “crime comedy”. So I was hoping for something like Jonathan Demme’s “Married To The Mob” (1988). I also happened to notice comparisons to both “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Goodfellas” on the poster. But knowing very well that those quotes are usually written in hyperbole I still figured oh well what the hell I’ll give it a shot. Hopefully it will surprise me.

It’s a simple enough setup. One that’s based on a true story and took place in New York City in the early 1990’s. We’re first introduced to Tommy (Pitt). Tommy is a degenerate small time crook with a crack cocaine problem who is in love with a girl who more or less is his mirror image. He sticks up small businesses who they themselves hardly make any money for a living. We’re not talking about the sharpest tool in the shed here so it’s only inevitable that he’s going to get caught. And does. The film then cuts to 14 years later when Tommy is released from prison to his girlfriend, who is played suprisingly well by an actress who I hadn’t heard of up to this point named Nina Arianda. These two lovers attempt to “go straight” but because of financial reasons are forced to go back to their old ways. He devises a not so smart idea of robbing the Italian Social Clubs in the city, many of whom have Mob affiliations. After a string of hold-ups, Tommy stumbles upon one club whose boss “Big Al” (played by the always serviceable Andy Garcia) finds out and puts a bounty on his head. Though Tommy comes across something the FBI desperately needs. That and the FBI looks at what Tommy’s doing as what they refer to as a kind of “public service”. The FBI’s “hey better him than us” attitude provides for some pretty solid laughs. Almost as if the FBI gives him free reign to do whatever he wants as long as he’s robbing all of the local town crooks. So in doing so, Tommy begins to misgude both the FBI and the Mob, all while he and his girlfriend start to become almost local celebrities, and attract the attention of a reporter (Ray Romano, who like Garcia, is serviceable in the role). Both entities soon start to tighten up. Especially because the FBI is honing in on Garcia’s character who is a well known big time crime boss. One that in his aging years is trying to go straight and any opposing forces to this will be dealt with accordingly. While Tommy appears to be having a nice run, his time also seems to be running out.

This movie functions fairly well as a whole, even if at times it did feel a bit contrived and cliched. But I think that’s slightly to be expected given a movie like this. The script is mildly clever, and the actors (especially Pitt and in a come out of nowhere and very funny Griffen Dunne) all do a pretty good job in their respective roles. There are quite a few laughs, particularly in the scenes involving Pitt sticking up the Mob. Along with an effective ending that felt like something out of a Hollywood fairy tale that ends tragically. All of these things allow me to give it decent marks. Though as the film develops, specifically near the end, it grows increasingly more and more prepostorous. There’s also that flashback thing movies do only in this case some of it is intertwined with real footage. Making the fake and real flashback scenes slightly difficult to discern from each other. Had they of just left that device out entirely I thought it would have been a lot more effective. But, even still, there’s enough to like here that makes it a worthwhile experience. Especially if you like small, indepedent, charming, lite fair comedies. Just don’t expect anything you’re going to want to write home about.

Grade: B-

 

 

Review: ‘Borgman’ 9.12.14

Alex Van Warmerdam’s “Borgman” is an unbelievably unique and undeniable singular vision. One that follows on the heals of films by celebrated international directors like Pascual Laugier’s 2008’s “Martyrs”, Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2009’s exceptional “Dogtooth”, Michael Haneke’s 2009’s “The White Ribbon”, Ben Wheatley’s 2011’s “Kill List”, and Claire Denis’ 2013’s “Bastards”. I bring up these directors and their respective films I chose because all of them in some shape or form, be it in their social allegories (“Dogtooth”, “The White Ribbon, “Martyrs”), or their penchant for the macabre (“Kill List”, “Bastards”), were just a handful of the films that acted as reference points throughout. Especially “Dogtooth”. What interested me so much about this movie first was that I was hearing that it drew comparisons to the aforementioned films. But also that it was the first Dutch movie in 36 years that the panel at Cannes felt like belonged on their small slate of 18 films. I sometimes have to stress to people how unbelievable of a feat it is to get your movie selected and shown at Cannes. You’re talking about thousands of movies that are submitted every year from international film makers from all over the world to the world’s most prestigious film festival. That and only 18 make the cut. So pretty much of a film is selected at Cannes, chances are 9 times out of 10 that I will make a mental note of and see it when it’s released later in the year.

If you showed this movie to a 100 people everybody would give you a different explanation of what it was about. It’s very interpretive and most of the time you’re left wondering “wait a minute what the” or “what did I just see and what did it mean”? The story starts with a priest and 2 hillbilly types, getting ready for some kind of attack. They storm the woods and come across a network of people that live under the ground (yep), who escape their demise, and the leader, Anton, finds himself coming out of the woods and wandering into one of those rich, suburban, upper class communities. He goes door to door asking if he can take a bath or shower (uh-huh) and people are adamant about not letting him into their home, not only because it’s such a strange request, but because he looks like some kind of vagrant pedophile. He finally manages to be let into one woman’s home, because her husband gives him a beating, and she winds up feeling sorry for the guy. Here’s where things start to really get interesting (if they hadn’t been enough already). He infiltrates their home, and his focus seems to be to “move up the chain” and “sit at the big table”. Since his wife is hiding him from her husband this isn’t necessarily realistic. So he winds up camping out in their back shed. Soon after he starts to get comfortable, he begins calling what appears to be a sort of network of people, all who seem to be in it for some greater cause. To me I interpreted this “cause” to be wrecking havoc on the upper class. But that makes it sound too simple. By a series of events, they manage to take over the home, not literally, but in that the main character, Anton, shaves and goes under the guise of a gardener to secure a job and spot within the family’s home. Now him and his cronies, or what could be better referred to as “the network”, can really take over. That’s more or less the setup. Then really strange things start to happen involving hypnotizing the children in the home, killing people and putting their heads down in planting pots filled with concrete and sinking them in the water, serving up some kind of mysterious poisonous liquid to unsuspecting guests, along with tearing up the families entire property with bulldozers for reasons not entirely clear (like I said nothing is spelled out for you in this film). Along with various other antics and shenanigans. This is bizarre, absurdest, and extremely strange stuff indeed.

But within it’s absurdity also lies its brilliance. From the second the beginning credits started to role to the second they rolled up the screen following. I was totally hooked and immersed in the story. The brain light switch went on and didn’t go off for the duration of the entire film. What were these people’s motives? Who were they supposed to represent (they live underground, need to be invited into the homes, etc). The devil’s spawn perhaps? Some kind of group/cult/organization with supernatural tendencies? Clones? What on earth is going on here is what I was constantly asking myself throughout the film. But within that ambiguity of not really knowing what was going on I found myself more and more fascinated by it. It’s nicely shot and has some almost mystical, dreamlike sequences that were pretty effective. It’s also a great social allegory on classicism, racism and discrimination. And how protective people of the upper class really are of their privacy, and how they react once it’s been invaded. This was a very hard movie to review because there really were so many aspects one could refer to when talking about it. Which I thought was its greatest strength; its ability to engage the audience while still remaining faithful to the unbelievably strange and challenging source material. This I would definitely recommend but only to a certain demographic. If you are like me and are a fan of incredibly bizarre, experimental, absurdest, psychological  material. Well then this one might be for you. For everybody else, you might have a difficult and frustrating time of trying to get into such a weird and obtuse film.

Grade: strong B (*but strictly for a very specific type of audience)