Category Archives: Film

Director Q and A: Roar Uthaug for THE WAVE

In many respects, Norwegian director Roar Uthaug’s film is a Hollywood disaster movie of the first order: You have your embattled protagonist who sees the danger coming long before anyone else does, but has a hard time getting anyone to believe him; his wonderful family and number of other innocent people put in peril by conservative bureaucrats; an epic environmental disaster – a massive, 80 meter, lake-bound tsunami brought about by the instable mountains of Storfjorden, a tourist destination whose main town, Geirenger, is directly in the path of the water’s fury, brought to convincing life via CGI that threatens to destroy everything in its path; and a harrowing climax that finds our protagonist fighting for the lives of his family members under extreme physical duress.

What sets it apart, however, from such big, desultory over-the-top action spectacles such as San Andreas and 2012, are all the ways it subtly subverts the genre: The hero, played by Kristoffer Joner, is anything but a Rock-like action hero, he looks like the sort of chap who brews his own beer and reads books about physics. His wife (Ane Dahl Torp), is the far more practical, capable one, and whose quick-thinking saves herself and her son after they are trapped in the hotel in which she works.

Like Jaws, a film Uthaug cites as a particular influence, the film is very careful about its slow-building tension. Midway through, you begin to fret about the oncoming danger, wondering just how it will first manifest itself, and when it will make its appearance on the deck of the boat, so to speak. Uthaug spoke to us via phone on the topics of the film’s careful execution, the ways he co-opted the genre, and the very real environmental apocalypse it portrays.

You have said that Jaws was a big influence on your film, and I can especially see that in the way it carefully withholds us from seeing the “monster” for so long.
You kind of get to know the family and the characters and you take your time with that and not just rush into it the destruction of man. We also tried to keep the shore and the mountains there in the background to keep them present throughout to kind of build that tension and that ease of not knowing when it’s going to hit.

It got to the point where the camera would linger on certain shots and I would think ‘Okay, we’re going to start seeing some tremors now’ or ‘We’ll see some rocks falling in the background’ and still nothing was happening. I assume that was entirely by design.
That, and also choosing the locations, and of course how we shot and placed some things.

What’s genuinely spooky about the whole premise is, not only is it not farfetched in the least, there is actually little to no chance of this cataclysmic event NOT happening, right? The film’s impending disaster is entirely factual.
Yeah, everything in the movie, in Geiranger, was based on facts and research from over here. I think here in Norway we create a lot of awareness for situations. And hopefully that will lead to more funding of monitoring these places even better.

I assume the locals who live year-round in Geiranger are well informed of this situation?
They are very aware of that but they also actually feel very safe there because of all the information that is being shared by the geologists monitoring it. They trust those guys and the politicians, and feel safe in that environment. I think also the geologists believe that they won’t ever be in that situation because the place will be evacuated weeks before that will happen, but then, again it’s nature and you never know.

Just out of curiosity, is ten minutes from when the actual mountain crumbles to when the tsunami hits the town a realistic timeline?
Yeah, that’s accurate.

Yikes.
We shot the movie in Geiranger, the actual place that will be hit, and the extras running for their lives up the hill, were all local people living in that area. After the shoot, they came up to me and said they had the time of their lives and thanked us for being able to be a part of it, so hopefully we didn’t give them nightmares.

You mentioned that this is a real place. In Jaws, they had to make up “Amity Island” because, understandably, no real location wanted to be associated with wild shark attacks. Was the town at all concerned about what this film might do to their tourist industry?
We have a lot of tourists going there. There are only about 300 people living there [year-round] but there are almost a million tourists going through there each year. When the news first broke that we were making this movie, there were some [negative] reactions from the local community, local politicians, but as soon as we started talking to them, explaining to them our take on this, I think we won them over to our side. They helped us during production. We arranged a screening of the movie before the nationwide premiere, we had a local screening there for the people who lived there and they enjoyed the movie very much.

To make one more comparison to San Andreas, the leading man is Dwayne Johnson, who is built like a gladiator superhero. Your lead, Kristoffer Joner, by contrast, is remarkably human looking. Even the way he labors when he runs, you can kind of feel the effort. That had to have been by design.
We wanted someone that felt like a real human being. I think Kristoffer is just one of the absolute finest actors here in Norway, so I was very happy he wanted to do this. And we had to put him through a boot camp to train him for mountain climbing. He also trained with a free-diving instructor so he could [stay] under water for a long time. I think his record in the end was three minutes holding his breath.

Some of the stunt work must have been grueling.
Yeah, there were times it was ten hours in and under water. That was a rough time for everyone. I think it shows in the movie the intensity of it. So, I’m very happy we put them through it.

I greatly enjoyed the way you made Idun, his wife, played by Ane Dahl Torp, so capable and strong. Is it fair to say this is something of a feminist action movie?
I’ve always been a fan of strong female characters in all my movies. I think it’s something that I gravitate towards.

She’s so strong, I think Hollywood would be afraid she’d end up eclipsing the male hero.
I guess we are more free in our handling of those kinds of things in Europe, in our most recent cinema, than you are over there. [laughs]

DVD Review: My Own Private Idaho: Citerion Blu-ray Edition

Dir. Gus Van Sant
Score: 7.5

As it was the film that truly cemented the late River Phoenix’ sterling legacy as a formidable actor of his generation, it’s understandable that Gus Van Sant’s serio-comic, surrealist story of a pair of homeless cats trying to hardscrabble their way in the world, would be best remembered for his performance, which is startling in its naked immediacy, but there’s a lot more here to treasure than just Phoenix’ considerable talent. Van Sant, who built an oeuvre of curious indie outliers – Drugstore Cowboy gave way to Idaho, which lead to To Die For) before turning towards more mainstream material, had a kind of kitchen-sink approach to his storytelling (hence a propensity for fanciful comic flights here, such as a discussion by the male models as they appear on magazine covers, and a Shakespearean bent to his plot), which, when it worked in harmony with his material, lead to wonderfully droll observations.

As the soulful, doomed Mike, Phoenix is certainly the star of the film, but don’t totally underestimate Keanu Reeves’ Scott, a trust-fund kid who’s enjoying the lowlife a bit before embracing his financially superior destiny. Van Sant, who often worked with homeless youth in his spare time, has a way with the world they inhabit and genuine warmth and sympathy for what they must endure on a day-to-day basis. In this, Phoenix, who fully inhabited the role much as his brother Joaquin has done throughout his career, was the perfect muse with whom Van Sant could focus his considerable creative energies.

 

This beautiful Criterion BD release also includes interviews, a making of doc (from 2005), deleted scenes, and an illustrated conversation between Van Sant and Todd Haynes, among other goodies.

DVD Review: Two Days, One Night: Criterion BD Edition

Dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Score: 9.5

The best film of 2014, and it wasn’t terribly close. It comes from the brilliant Belgian directing team, the Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre & Luc), whose work has long shimmered with plainspoken elemental human truths. This film is a brilliant addition to their oeuvre. It stars the mesmerizing Marion Cotillard as a working-class mother, just returning to work after a bout with depression, only to find her boss has held a vote with her co-workers to keep their bonuses at the expense of her job. She is given one weekend to change their minds or be laid off. Deceptively simple in its execution, but positively stunning in its effect: It’s as honest and insightful about the human condition as Bicycle Thieves, an assertion I by no means make lightly. In the end, it’s an example of one of the rarest and best forms of morality cinema: It makes no demands, and grinds no axes, but makes its powerful statement in absolute service to its characters. A triumph.

This gorgeous Criterion blu-ray edition also features interviews with the Dardenne brothers, as well as Cotillard and co-star Fabrizio Rongione, a tour of the film’s locations, and When Léon M.’s Boot Went Down the Meuse for the First Time, a Dardenne doc from 1979, among other goodies.

DVD Review: Hiroshima Mon Amour: Criterion Blu-ray Edition

Dir. Alain Resnais
Score: 8.5

Famously in my family, my parents went to see this Alain Resnais classic when it first came out in 1959. One of them loved it, one of them hated it, and they debated its merits in the days afterward – and for years after that (when the title ever came up in conversation, my sister and I knew what was coming). Delicately directed by Resnais, working from an intricate screenplay by novelist Margaurite Duras, the film is ostensibly about a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva), in Hiroshima to make a decidedly anti-war film, who has an affair with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada), as they debate their philosophy on war. What it’s really concerning though is what we talk about when we talk about war, an observation on the ways in which we communicate with each other, as humans, combatants, and doomed lovers (a Duras specialty).

Similarly hypnotic and trance inducing as Resnais later masterpiece, Last Year at Marienbad, the film is little more than an extended, slightly existential conversation between two soulful people (perhaps an inspiration to Richard Linklater for his excellent Before series), that is always fascinating and engaging. It might not have the same shock-value it did when it was first released, but it remains every bit as vital. As it happens, I can never seem to remember which of my parents liked it and which one hated it, but, given the film’s circumstances, that feels strangely appropriate.

This handsome Criterion BD release also is laden with extras, including a commentary by film historian Peter Cowie, interviews with Resnais and Riva, and a mini-doc on the film’s arduous restoration.

Film Review: Blackhat

Dir. Michael Mann
Score: 3.5

Trust empty-headed stylist Michael Mann to create a cyber-thriller in which he attempts to dramatize the actual macro insertion of a virus through a mainframe. The camera swoops on the microcircuit boards like Luke’s X-Wing approaching the Death Star, then travels up through flashing impulses, triggering the lite-brite-like wave of virus. It’s the kind of gesture that Mann, who increasingly over the years, has given up his dogged pursuit of auteur status and just embraced his brand of cutting edge, flashy ’80s TV roots, finds himself making these days. If anything, given the ham-handed nature of Morgan Davis Foehl’s blithely idiotic script, he might just have figured he had very little to lose.

Sadly, he was probably right. The international, jet-setting nature of the plot, which sets off with the lone virus causing a near nuclear catastrophe in China, before spinning through Wall Street, Hong Kong, and, ultimately Jakarta, barely holds our attention, as the witless characters — a collection of multi-cultural cyber-sleuths, FBI operatives, a former convict hacker, sprung from the can in order to help catch the culprit, and the U.S. Marshall assigned to follow him — spring from unlikely scenarios in rapid-fire succession in order to make their quarry

The convict, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, with an improbable slicked back quasi-pompadour) happens to be best friends and former MIT roomies with Dawai (Leehom Wang), the Chinese representative on the task force, whose comely sister, Lien (Wei Tang), instantly and regrettably becomes Hathaway’s love interest. Rounding out the somewhat rag-tag crew, Carol (Viola Davis), the FBI agent, who more or less acts as the den mother for the others, and Jessup (Holt McCallany), the taciturn Marshall, whose expression never seems to change through the course of the film.

As they go through their wearying paces, from country to country, eventually lighting upon Kassar (Ritchie Coster), the goateed bag-man for the actual criminal kingpin, and Hathaway and Lien fall ever deeply more in banal love (as neither has a personality to speak of, we can imagine they fall at least partially for each other’s richly swank designer shades), the film sort of lurches along, propelled with ridiculous bits of revelation, all leading up to its thoroughly ludicrous climax, in which one, severely undertrained ex-con singlehandedly takes on a squadron of highly trained mercenaries, armed only with a selection of sharpened hand tools, and a protective vest of books and magazines taped to his impressive midriff (which suggests, if nothing else, Hathaway was at least able to watch “The Wire” while in the joint). Who knew prison-life could properly train you to become a skilled assassin?

To be fair, I’ve never particularly been a Mann devotee, finding the vast majority of his work (with the notable exception of The Informer) an extended exercise of slick stylistics, excusing pretty tepid films, but his previous films at least never seemed quite as empty and craven as this one. He mixes in his usual blend of jumpy, hand-held work, especially during the film’s few hand-to-hand combat scenes, a tired effect that has more than worn out its welcome, and stacks the film with an assortment of striking backdrops (one gets the feeling his location scout does more than half of his work for him), not to mention the good looks of the two leads, who nevertheless shun anything of what you might call chemistry in favor of mewling looks and gentle hand stroking.

Mann never much had the goods to back it up, but his films — by dint of their self-importance and their A-list casts, at least had the sheen of an event. This little thriller, stuck out in the no man’s land of January releases, feels like an afterthought, something between more impressive-seeming projects in development that one imagines aren’t coming down the pipeway any time soon.

Film Review: American Sniper

Dir. Clint Eastwood
Score: 4.9

If you had somehow been tasked with creating an iron-clad, true-blue American war hero, you would likely have conjured up something quite along the lines of Chris Kyle, a Texas-born former rodeo cowboy, who watched 9/11 in horror and enlisted for the Navy SEALS shortly thereafter in order to make a difference and help protect the country he loved. Big and barrel chested, with a loving wife and family at home, Kyle was also almost alarmingly effective as a Sniper, recording an astounding 160 kills during his four tours of duty in Iraq. Such a hero that he was dubbed “the Legend” by his fellow soldiers, and had earned the highest pay-out for his head from Al Qaeda, a twisted kind of homage to his effectiveness.

A man this dedicated to his country — not to mention this bloody effective in neutralizing the enemy, and saving untold lives of the soldiers he was protecting from his perch on the arid rooftops — and seemingly for all the best and most agreeable reasons would not only be the military’s PR department’s wet dream, he would be so bulletproof, even those pesky liberals and gun-control reformers would have to grudgingly acknowledge the heroic nature of the man. To create a film celebrating his military experience, then, it would stand to reason, Clint Eastwood — he of the steely glare, right-wing politics, and storied film-making career — would be the perfect choice to craft a fable that sounded too damn good to be true, even if it were.

Unfortunately, though, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall — working from a memoir by Kyle, Scott McEwen, and James Defelice — have chosen to only tell the part of his story that makes his heroism seem larger than life: He starts out a reckless cowboy, enlists when he feels needed, leads an exemplary military record over the course of four grueling tours of duty, finally comes home and after some rough patches, re-engages into civilian life and works with other damaged soldiers to give them support and care, even as their lives are crumbling around them. What the film curiously chooses to essentially ignore, except for a jarringly quick post-script, is that Kyle was eventually murdered at a shooting range by a particularly deranged former soldier suffering from severe PTSD.

What the film has to offer instead, is a rousing bit of American military agitprop, with a beefed-up Bradley Cooper in the lead role, and Sienna Miller as Taya, his long-suffering but intensely strong wife, celebrating the American spirit of bootstrap politics and a quixotic sense of justice-serving to those “savages” in the Middle East with a face-full of patriotic, expertly fired, lead.

Indeed, one of the film’s central (and completely fictional) antagonists is the Iraqi equivalent of Kyle, a former Olympic Syrian sharp-shooter named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), quick and agile as a jungle cat, who prowls the rooftops and takes out dozens of Americans without leaving a trace. For all we know, he is exactly as revered and elevated as Kyle for his country, but the film takes special care not to give him — or any of the enemy — a moment of sympathetic recognition. And when Kyle finally does take him on directly, leading to perhaps the shot of a lifetime in the sniper business, we are lead to be relieved that this “savage” (as Kyle and his fellow comrades refer) has finally been vanquished.

If there is any irony abounding, it would appear to be lost on the 84-year-old Eastwood, who, one imagines, is quite happy to play this one straight as an Indiana highway. The thing is, as depicted, Kyle is perfectly decent and honorable kind of soldier: He laments that his first confirmed kills involved a woman and a small boy who were attempting to toss a grenade at a group of marines, despite the American lives he knows he saved. He’s hardly a thoughtless, gun-toting good ol’ boy, even though he is highly revered by them. It’s certainly his other qualities that attract Taya when they first meet in a bar, and the hook of the film’s last act, wherein Kyle finally returns from his fourth tour of duty and has clearly come back a (mildly) damaged man, unable to connect with his family, paranoid, and ready to take violent action in a moment’s notice.

Naturally, this too, is something the film chooses not to dwell upon terribly much. He eventually speaks to a therapist, who advises him to go and aid other, far more physically and emotionally stricken veterans and he and his family move back down to Texas, which seems to put him back in the picture of health in virtually no time. The film’s suggestion is that Kyle is not so deeply and badly damaged because of his superior moral fiber — he didn’t just think he was doing the right thing, he felt his correctness burning in the core of his being — and, in keeping with the perfect soldier treatment, even the horrors of PTSD become just one more minor obstacle for his celebration.

This is to take nothing away from the main source of the film’s appeal, which is the generous and unflinching work put in by Cooper, who seems to have breathed the character into his very DNA. Like George Clooney, Cooper has always been able to win over his roles with his natural charm, but here, he puts it in service to a far more impressive portrait. Even if the film, like his fellow soldiers, continually wants to shine the medals of “the Legend” to a gleaming polish, Cooper downplays his character’s ego. He never wants to be above the grunts working the far more dangerous door-to-door missions, which is why he constantly volunteers to work with them, sharing the risk and in the process, offering them some of the best practices gleaned from his superior training as a SEAL.

Cooper has never been better, but one wishes the filmmakers could have ratcheted down the churning apparatus of Kyle’s constant lionization and taken their cues from the apparent humility of the man himself — even if his as-told-to memoir is being strongly questioned in the wake of the film’s release — and been brave enough to show an inkling of the complexity involved in a military-trained, highly decorated professional assassin coming home to lead a normal life, rather than place him on a raging bonfire of martyrdom upon which one imagines he never would have signed off.