Netflix Pick: Force Majeure

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Force Majeure is slow, uneventful, and thoroughly entertaining. Ruben Ostlund’s arthouse black comedy is a disaster movie in which the disaster never actually materializes, leaving its characters to deal with a much bigger emotional catastrophe, to both dramatic and humorous results. It’s pretty rare to find great foreign films on Netflix, so if you’re looking to expand your cinematic palette a bit, this one’s a great place to start.

Smug Alpine vacationers Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two young children are the image of upper-class familial perfection at a pristine, sterile, and expensive hotel. They ski together, brush their teeth together, and sleep together in one bed wearing matching long underwear, in an image that could be mistaken for an L.L. Bean advertisement. Their bliss is abruptly interrupted by a near-miss with a controlled avalanche that sends Tomas sprinting for cover, leaving his wife and screaming kids to fend for themselves. The avalanche doesn’t hit, but Tomas’s blatant cowardice throws the family into an existential crisis.

Tomas coolly plays off his gaffe as an involuntary survival reflex, but Ebba and the kids know better. The kids ice out their parents, while Ebba questions the very foundation of her marriage. A conversation with casual polyamorist Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg) has her arguing fiercely for the value of monogamy and the traditional nuclear family, but she’s trying to convince herself more than she’s trying to convince her new friend. If it can fall apart so easily, is a family even worth having? Charlotte’s arrangement has none of the values of exclusivity, commitment, and longevity that are important to Ebba and Tomas, but she’s the happiest person at the hotel. If her relationship situation changes, fine. Her identity isn’t wrapped up in who she spends her life with.

While Ebba desperately tries to rationalize her life choices, Tomas spirals under the realization that he’s not the protective, heroic man that he’s supposed to be. Unable to face up to what happened, he copes by lying to himself, his wife, and anyone else who will listen. Although his initial action was reprehensible, his ultimate betrayal of his family lies in his inability to be honest with them in the wake of the crisis.

On top of the emotionally heavy subject matter, Ostlund’s directorial style would seem to demand a lot from the audience’s attention span. The cinematography is composed primarily of static shots, many of which last several minutes without a cut. Slow pacing and lack of conventional narrative cues also present a challenge to the viewer. But Ostlund’s clever and skillful use of “artsy” stylistic elements contribute to both comedy and suspense, making Force Majeure grippingly entertaining even at two hours running time.

In the funniest scene, we get nothing but an endless wide shot of Tomas and buddy Mats (Kristofer Hivju) lounging outside at the ski lodge, beers in hand. They are interrupted by some young ladies, only one of which we see, who build up and then promptly demolish the men’s egos. It’s a joke we’ve all seen play out before, but Ostlund’s direction makes it fresh. A typical director would likely include a number of cuts in this type of scene, but the voyeuristic nature of the static camera makes the moment feel realistic and spontaneous.

Ostlund’s deliberate style is also used to great dramatic effect. Long periods of inactivity build suspense to the point where we’re certain something is about to happen, even though the plot gives us no indication as to what that might be. Far being boring, the tension kept me glued to the screen.

Force Majeure has been on Netflix for quite a while, so I’d give it a try before it gets booted, even if you’re not typically inclined to arthouse fare. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Netflix Pick: Dope

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In this (maybe) ongoing feature I’ll talk about a movie that’s currently on Netflix streaming.

At various times in my movie-loving life (read: my life), I have had what I will refer to as a Default Movie. A Default Movie is one that I enjoy so much that I will watch it by default when there’s nothing else new or particularly interesting to watch (hence the name). When I was a kid, my brother and I watched The Lord of the Rings on a near weekly basis for what seemed like several years. In college, I used to carry around my DVD copy of American Graffiti in my backpack so that I could watch it whenever I wanted. Now the optical drive has disappeared from my MacBook, and Netflix has become my primary movie-watching medium. It’s how The Aviator and the The Big Lebowski entered my life, both of which became my Default Movie for the span of about three months apiece.

In the spring of this year, right around the time I should have been studying for my graduate school finals, I discovered director Rick Famuyiwa’s hip-hop infused high school comedy Dope and watched it three times in the span of a week. New Default Movie. Since then, I’ve had a little time to think about why the film stuck with me the way it did.

Dope opens with a definition of the titular word on a black background: it can mean a drug, a stupid person, or a slang term for excellent. All three definitions are explored in the film that follows.

The story centers on Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a young geek who lives in The Bottoms, a gang-ridden neighborhood of Inglewood, with his buddies Diggy (Kiersey Clemons)  and Jib (Tony Revolori). The trio enjoy “white shit”, such as Skateboards, Donald Glover, and Applying To College. Being a geek in The Bottoms isn’t easy: Jib suggests that someone should make “an app like Waze to avoid all these hood traps” as they try to navigate home without a run-in with the local chapter of the Bloods, who routinely try to confiscate their sneakers and bicycles.

The kids get roped into attending a drug dealer’s birthday party, where a mix-up during a police raid leaves Malcolm saddled with a huge amount of illegal drugs the day before his interview for Harvard. It’s a modern re-working of Risky Business, except this time the kid actually deserves to go to the Ivy League school.

Dope is the funniest movie I’ve seen all year. The three leads have comedic chops in spades, and the cast of bad guys and weirdos they encounter are just as hilarious. A standout scene occurs when the kids encounter Jaleel (Quincy Brown), a wannabe gangster who lives in upscale Ladera Heights. He’s so obsessed with his imagined status as a Blood that he replaces the letter C with the letter B when he speaks to show his disdain for the Crips, in a case of what Jib labels “criplexia”. It’s ridiculous, but also speaks to the complicated politics of gang-adjacent communities. Jaleel lives comfortably away from the dangers of the gangs, yet still feels a need to maintain an identity that ties him to them.

This struggle between the desire to escape Inglewood and the desire to gain some status within it permeates Dope. Kids like Malcolm are stuck in the middle, wanting a better life but hampered by the reality that gaining one will be seen by many as a betrayal of their roots. This concept runs deep in hip-hop music, but before seeing Dope, I didn’t really understand it.

Bonus Spotify pick: Dope’s soundtrack is of course loaded with awesome 90’s hip hop (you can skip the cringey pop-punk songs that Pharrell wrote).

Get Excited About Jeff Nichols

I saw the sci-fi mystery Midnight Special on a whim one Friday night, drawn in by an understated advertising campaign that didn’t give much indication as to the film’s plot. In a cinematic world dominated by sequels and adaptations, it’s rare to go the theater without knowing fairly well what you’re getting into, and even rarer to see an original sci-fi film by a rising young director with an indie bent. I came out of the theater wanting more, and eagerly burned through two more of his films. What I found is a filmmaker with a new, unique voice, making original, thoughtful films.

I saw Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special out of sequence, but I’ll talk about them here in chronological order.

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Thoughts on Take Shelter

Take Shelter is actually Nichols’ sophomore effort, following up his 2007 debut, Shotgun Stories.  Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a blue-collar Ohio man haunted by otherworldly dreams of an impending disaster. Convinced that his family is in real danger, he sets to building a tornado shelter in his back yard, which alarms his wife (Jessica Chastain).

The feeling that something very bad is about to happen is inescapable at the moment. In Take Shelter, Nichols’ uncanny storm feels like a stand-in for every brewing apocalyptic nightmare plastered across our social media feeds and cable news. This disaster itself and its consequences are of secondary importance within the story: the focus instead zeroes in on the relationship between Curtis and his wife, and its ability to survive an outside threat that may or may not be real. These two people have to get on the same page, or they’ll lose each other.

It’s difficult to imagine this film working as well with any actor other than Michael Shannon in the lead role. He is able to evoke dread without ever actually freaking out as his character goes about his life under a looming terror. It’s no wonder he became Nichols’ go-to leading man.

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Thoughts on Mud

Mud is a tense and evocative take on the coming-of-age genre, set in Nichols’ native Arkansas. The Mark Twain-tinged story centers on 14-year-old river dweller Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who happen upon a lovelorn drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) during an excursion to find a boat in a tree on an island and end up involving themselves in their new friend’s mission to find his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). Meanwhile, Ellis’ home life begins to unravel as he watches the erosion of his parents’ marriage.

Mud takes a different look at romantic relationships: their beginnings, their ends, and the lengths that we will go to preserve them, even when we shouldn’t. Ellis, desperate for an example of real love, latches onto Mud’s relationship as a prototype when his parents’ fails. He tries to replicate that love himself, and ultimately finds that it isn’t the ideal that he had hoped for.

A striking aspect of Mud is its sense of place and time. Nichols obviously knows the area intimately and captures it in its beautiful, mundane glory. It’s recognizably the South, but is devoid of the stereotypes that often plague Hollywood depictions. All of the lead players are natives of Southern states, lending a dose of authenticity to the performances and dialog. In front this rich backdrop is the most resonant depiction of American boyhood that I can recall since Stand By Me. As in that film, young men are faced with a situation that pushes them over the edge into the adult world, with all the emotional upheaval that goes with such a transition.

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Thoughts on Midnight Special

If Nichols dipped his toes into the sci-fi genre with Take Shelter, he takes the plunge with Midnight Special. Tapping into a budget twice the size of his first three films combined, he’s got a much bigger sandbox in which to play with the genre. Nichols wisely eschews CGI-laden spectacle in favor of solid storytelling and suspense, resulting in one of the most entertaining and genuinely spooky films of the year thus far.

We drop into the story as Roy (Michael Shannon) smuggles his young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) away from a cult-like religious group’s rural compound, accompanied by off-duty state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton). From there, details about who Alton is and the purpose of the mission come out in small doses, keeping the tension relentlessly high as both the religious group and the federal government pursue the boy.

The directorial approach is unapologetically Spielbergian, combining economical pacing with arresting, otherworldly imagery and more than a handful of lens flares. Nichols is able to capture some of the awe and magic of the eighties sci-fi classics without falling into the territory of homage, employing more restraint than JJ Abrams did in his unabashed throwback Super 8 (2011). Midnight Special’s aesthetic serves its story, not the other way around.

Beneath the sci-fi conceit, Midnight Special is a story about the lengths to which parents will go for their children, especially in the face of outside judgement and opposition. Shannon’s performance crucially captures the stress and joy of parenthood, while young actor Jaeden Lieberher gives Alton enough realism to make the father-son dynamic work.

Throughout Nichols’ films, we see different versions of human relationships that are struggling to survive. Nichols plays with genre and visuals in interesting ways, but only to the extent that they support the human-centered stories. It’s an extremely encouraging pattern to observe in an up-and-coming director’s work.

Quick Takes: Finding Dory, X-Men: Apocalypse

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Finding Dory

There’s a moment in Finding Nemo when Dory explains her short-term memory loss: “I forget things almost instantly. It runs in my family. Well, at least I think it does. Hmm. Where are they?” A long pause follows, allowing us to wonder.

If a sequel had to happen, this was the right story to tell. Through Dory, Stanton and co. are able to touch on what it means to live with a disability, and what it’s like to care for someone who struggles with one. The effort is noble and the results are entertaining, but the story itself isn’t as perfect as its predecessor.

Somewhat strangely, we come back to our characters very shortly after the events of  Finding Nemo. Nemo isn’t any bigger and still goes to school with Mr. Ray, and Dory forgets that the sea anemone will sting her every few seconds. Following a blow to the head, Dory’s origin story unfolds through flashbacks as she remembers bits and pieces of her childhood, including her parents’ anxious efforts to guide her through life with a memory disorder. These scenes are gut-wrenching: despite their best efforts, we know they’re going to lose her. The more Dory remembers, the more she realizes how much of herself she’s lost.

While the emotional moments work, the story lacks the scale and sweeping arc that made the original so memorable. Finding Nemo was at its core a road movie — it spanned a great distance both spatially and narratively as Dory and Marlin traversed the ocean to rescue Nemo. Perhaps in an effort to avoid repeating the formula of the original, Dory truncates the travel and spends most of its time around one place. Unfortunately, this often makes the film feel like it’s spinning its wheels. I found myself wanting to get back out into the unknown depths.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

Following up an impressive outing in the 70’s with Days of Future Past,  Apocalypse is the latest installment of Fox’s hit-or-miss X-men series, set a decade later. The verdict: it’s a miss, but it’s a fun miss.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the re-appearance of ancient über-mutant Apocalypse. The good guys have to stop him. That’s about it.

Oscar Issac is completely wasted in the title role: he’s goofy, oddly unthreatening for being the most powerful mutant ever, and the victim of a really bad makeup job. It’s bad, but also a little hilarious. Other new additions to the cast are more welcome. Tye Sheridan does a respectable job emoting as Cyclops, a guy who wears sunglasses one hundred percent of the time. I enjoyed Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, but that may just be because I like her so much on Game of Thrones. 

The real reason to go to this movie is Evan Peters’ Quicksilver. His rescue sequence is pure 80’s soundtracked joy, despite some questionable visual effects work that make it look like he’s saving cardboard cutouts as opposed to real human beings. That’s only one example of the VFX problems that riddle the film, which is baffling because Days of Future Past had no such issues.

Apocalypse’s shortcomings don’t ruin the experience — they’re endearing and funny. The campy nonsense and laughable effects are actually a nice tonal break from the airtight, relentlessly well-produced Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sometimes you just want to turn your brain off.

You Need To Watch Bob’s Burgers: 6 Episodes for the Uninitiated

For the discerning T.V. fan, “animated sitcom” isn’t necessarily a phrase that inspires confidence. The Simpsons is stale at twenty-six seasons, and not everyone delights in the gross-out sensibilities of Family Guy or the controversy-a-week approach of South Park. Given the rest of the roster, one might be tempted to lump Fox’s Bob’s Burgers in with its peers.

Don’t make that mistake. Bob’s Burgers isn’t just an excellent animated sitcom, it’s become one of the best shows on television, combining zany, anarchic humor with sweet family dynamics and inventive storytelling. While family shows tend to lean heavily on stereotypes, there isn’t a generic character in the bunch. Deadpan father Bob Belcher (H. John Benjamin) and his relentlessly enthusiastic wife Linda (John Roberts) run their family’s burger restaurant, a welcome change from the unspecific white-collar gigs occupied by most animated patriarchs. Rounding out the family are conscientious and very pubescent middle-schooler Tina (Dan Mintz), oblivious eleven-year-old Gene (Eugene Mirman), and precocious, snarky nine-year-old Louise (Kristen Schaal).

The show’s greatest strength is its willingness to take storytelling risks. There is no typical episode of Bob’s Burgers; each week brings unexpected situations that bring out new facets of the characters’ personalities. Many episodes experiment with different genres, often in the form of homage. Beneath the innovation, though, Bob’s Burgers maintains a solid emotional core: it’s about a family that loves and supports each other.

Bob’s Burgers had a rocky start before it hit its stride, so Episode 1 might not be the best point of entry. Instead, here’s six episodes that show off what makes the show so special.

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1. Speakeasy Rider: Season 5, Episode 9

Speakeasy Rider is one of the best examples of the show’s effectiveness in playing with genre, this time the racing movie. Tina, Gene and Louise are determined to beat Bryce, a fast-talking go-kart racer with a habit of throwing raisins at his adversaries. The kids convince their motorcycle gang friends (that’s a whole other episode) to help them trick out an old bumper car, and the classic underdog-versus-reigning champ saga ensures, eventually testing Tina and Louise’s loyalty for each other. The genre references are well-observed and funny, complete with training montage and some killer smack talk from Tina: “Way ahead of you. Literally”.

 

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2. Topsy: Season 3, Episode 16

Topsy is centered entirely on a piece of historical esoterica, with hilarious and actually educational results. Habitual slacker Louise is at a loss her when her new science teacher forces her to complete a science fair project about Thomas Edison. A tip from a neurotic librarian leads her to the true story of Topsy, an elephant electrocuted to death by Edison in an attempt to demonstrate the supposed danger of Nicola Tesla’s alternating current. In representative Louise fashion, she takes things to the extreme to antagonize her teacher, enlisting musically-inclined Gene to help put on a full-blown Topsy musical starring Tina as the ill-fated elephant.

 

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3. O.T. The Outside Toilet: Season 3, Episode 15

O.T. The Outside Toilet shows just how insane of a premise Bob’s Burgers can pull off. In a left-field reworking of Spielberg’s E.T., Gene befriends a high-tech, talking toilet that he finds outside in the middle of the woods. You’d think this would lead to an avalanche of scatological humor, but it doesn’t. Gene overcomes his usual bumbling ineptitude to help his new friend, showing us the compassionate and loyal dimensions of the character’s personality. Eighties cinema fans will smile at the Spielbergian easter eggs, but the episode works with or without the context.

 

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4. Ambergris: Season 4, Episode 18

Another odd yet effective experiment of an episode, Ambergris opens with the Belcher kids’ discovery of a funky-smelling object on the beach that happens to be worth several thousands of dollars; the catch is that it’s illegal to sell. Louise’s criminal instincts kick in, and she butts heads with a scrupulous Tina over whether or not to cash in the ambergris on the back market (meanwhile Gene just wants to put the thing in his mouth). The pure absurdity of the situation combined with the kids’ personalities bouncing off of each other make for one of the funniest episodes in the series, made even funnier by a welcome guest voiceover role from Bill Hader as an inept dealer of illegal goods.

 

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5. The Runway Club: Season 5, Episode 16

Bob’s Burgers has a deep bench: minor players like the Belcher kids’ schoolmates are all fully-realized individuals with as many specific quirks as the main characters. Genre mashup The Runway Club is a great showcase these characters, including Tina’s lisping crush Jimmy Pesto Jr. (also voiced by H. John Benjamin), his loudmouth buddy Zeke (Bobby Tisdale), and mean girl Tammy (Jenny Slate). A when a fight lands all of the kids in detention, school counselor Mr. Frond (David Herman) decides that the best form of rehabilitation is a forced fashion design competition, shifting the homage subject from John Hughes to Project Runway.

 

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6. Hawk and Chick: Season 5, Episode 21

Hawk And Chick is one of many episodes that dial in on a relationship within the Belcher family, in this case Bob and Louise. The pair bond over their shared love for a series of movies about a father-daughter samurai team, Hawk and Chick. When Hawk himself comes to town looking for his now-estranged daughter, Bob and Louise decide to put on a Hawk and Chick film festival to bring their heroes back together. In the process, they end up confronting their own fears about the future of their relationship. Unlike every other animated sitcom, Bob’s Burgers doesn’t feel the need to maintain a cynical edge: it allows its characters to show genuine affection for each other, as real families do.

Quick Takes: The Jungle Book, Captain America: Civil War

Thoughts on The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book is the latest giant-budget effort from a Disney machine hell-bent on remaking its entire back catalog of animated movies in live action. No one asked for this movie, but darned if it isn’t great. Director Jon Favreau resists the obvious pitfall of attempting translate an essentially whimsical story into reality by making it dark and gritty  (read: somber and boring). The animals and environments look photo-real, but the world remains pure fantasy. The scenery and compositions are otherworldly in their beauty, nothing about the premise is over-explained, and no apologies are made for the animals breaking into song. Although it’s a reverent homage to the Disney classic, it also forges its own path: don’t expect a beat-by-beat reproduction of the original’s plot.

Celebrity voices are recognizable but not stunt casting by any means: Bill Murray makes sense as Baloo (I’d have gone with Jeff Bridges), and Christopher Walken is kind of a genius choice for King Louie.

The Jungle Book was shot entirely (not almost entirely) on blue-screen sets in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, with everything other than Mowgli and a few small sets and props created in CG.  Fxguide.com has excellent coverage of the production, especially of the lighting strategy. FX supervisor Rob Legato explains that the approach was based on “our collective memories of what a movie looks like, which is photographed, as opposed to perfected”.

If Favreau’s Jungle Book was too much fun for you, never fear — Andy Serkis is working on a version for Warner Brothers that he promises will be “darker”.


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Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War..L to R: Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)..Photo Credit: Film Frame..© Marvel 2016

Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

After a string of outings dealing with intergalactic concerns, Captain America: Civil War brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe squarely back down to earth, finally addressing the problems inherent in superpowered justice. Our heroes clash over philosophical differences, and the film doesn’t cop out of the interpersonal conflict by giving the opposing sides a clear bad guy to unite against.

Cap gets the title, but Civil War is an Avengers movie, minus Thor and the Hulk. Taking these two out of the mix was a smart move — the absence of a literal god and a giant green man help to ground and streamline the proceedings. We have more than adequate replacements in the form of a charismatic and mysterious Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and what’s probably the best on-screen depiction of Spider-Man to date, played by an actual teenager (Tom Holland).

Although not as narratively tight as either Winter Soldier or the first Avengers installment, Civil War comfortably surpasses Age of Ultron and serves as an effective set-up to Marvel’s Phase 3. Alas, now we must begin the arduous year-long wait until Spider-Man: Homecoming hits theaters. Yes, Spidey was that good.