Catching Up – 2014 Is Almost Over Edition Vol. 2

Force Majeure

Ruben Ostland’s Force Majeure is, in a way, the movie people are talking about when they discuss Gone Girl. Swathes of people have called the David Fincher adaptation of that best-selling novel a movie you don’t want to see with your significant other. This always struck me as odd, since it was so clearly an over-the-top melodrama; a great one, but one nonetheless. It isn’t really a picture that asks tough questions that dig into the heart of a relationship. For that, we have Force Majeure.

The movie is a truly terrific Swedish film about one family’s vacation to the French Alps. The snow is fluffy, the wife and husband are smiling and the kids aren’t getting into trouble. Quite simply, the trip is a blissful experience for all. It is then that the plot intercedes. One day while having a meal at a mountainside restaurant, the snow comes tumbling down. The patriarch of the family Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is sure it’s just a planned avalanche and that it won’t hurt them. In the end he’s right, but not without a minute or two where it seems the whole family is about to be swallowed up by mother nature. In this moment, when all seems lost, Tomas flees, leaving his two kids and wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) behind to deal with the chaos.

Ostland’s movie astutely addresses this situation head-on, delving into modern perceptions of masculinity, fatherhood and a great deal more. There is a crack in Tomas and Ebba’s marriage, one that snakes its way into the veins of the pair’s conversations, beginning as a slight aside with strangers to hostile blow-ups. Seeing the verbal jabs each makes is a delight.

Did I mention it’s sort of a comedy? Ostland’s writing and direction is definitely serious. It isn’t humorless though; wringing guttural laughs from the uncomfortable places he takes Tomas, Ebba and those that revolve their domestic gravitation. Kuhnke and Kongsli give the kind of performances that would garners awards talk if it wasn’t for the fact that, you know, they occasionally speak in another language. In a year proving to be littered with great movies, Force Majeure is proving to be one of its best.

Life After Beth

Jeff Baena, one of the key voices of the cult-favorite David O. Russell film I Heart Huckabees, made his feature debut as a director with Life After Beth. It’s the latest in the rom-zom-com genre. Unlike, say, Warm Bodies, where the undead slowly become more human, Life After Beth focuses on the troubles of loving someone who longs for smashing and brain consumption.

The film is worth seeing, even if there is a consistency issue in the joke quality. Baena’s feature is at its best when the story is at its strangest. Watching the sweet-natured Zach (Dane Dehaan) try and keep Beth (a perfect Aubrey Plaza) from freaking out via the strangely soothing tones of Kenny G is a hoot. The same goes for the absurd strength Beth develops that leads to some twisted comic scenarios. Additionally, John C Reilly is engaging as Beth’s dad, a man who does everything he can to trick his daughter into thinking nothing has changed at all.

Even at 89 minutes though, Life After Beth is long, a strong short-film premise stretched to the point where one loses interest. With a tighter screenplay that featured less of the hit-and-miss jokes this could have been alleviated. Still, it’s a nice first effort and shows that Baena has loony writing chops beyond Huckabees.

Wish I Was Here

The world has decided it hates Zach Braff. Perhaps it isn’t everyone in the universe, but it’s the part of the universe that writes or talks about films on the internet. This isn’t just bloggers or critics who feel embarrassed about loving Garden State so much back in 2004, though they shouldn’t feel too bad. It’s more of a gradual hate that festered when Braff failed to follow-up his debut film in a timely manner, instead starring in a lot of lackluster movies, an endless sitcom and a cry – fair or not – for money to help him make his new feature. With all of that aside, I stepped into With I Was Here with no clue on its plot or quality.

The movie stars Braff as a struggling actor, father of two moppets, husband of Kate Hudson, brother to Josh Gad and son of Mandy Patinkin. While things aren’t great for Braff’s character, they are consistent. Life takes the turn it always does when his father gets extremely sick, forcing Braff to take a fresh look at his role as a member of a family.

The movie is earnest, cloying, sporadically amusing and more often than not a Sundance melange. Wish I Was Here never quite gets a solid footing because its characters are more archetypes than actual humans. Hudson is the loving, slightly overwhelmed wife. The daughter is a collection of tics; mildly rebellious, if in a distinctly religious manner. That kid who was terrible in Looper makes the faces he makes. Josh Gad does Josh Gad things (howling and being sexist). Only Braff’s character has any dimension and unfortunately the actor in him lets the director in him down. He plays every scene as if he just sucked on a lemon and is doing that “I’m so fucking numb” speech from Garden State again.

In the end it feels like a frozen-food, Safeway brand version of a Cameron Crowe movie. Sure, it isn’t all bad and there’s enough chemicals in it to be a palatable meal. Consuming it is only being down out of necessity though.

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