Force Majeure

There is a lot of buzz around Force Majeure, a Swedish relationship drama. They LOVED it at Cannes, it is Sweden’s Oscar entry, and the Foreign Press has just nominated it as best foreign language film. But the question to me is, does it appeal more to European audiences than Americans? I liked it and I think it is a well-done film with a compelling question at its center, but best film?

Wild (and Tracks)

I wasn’t particularly wild about Wild. And I didn’t read the best-selling book, so I can’t really compare the two. But friends tell me the book is much stronger in terms of developing the peripheral characters who crossed the path of the real-life Cheryl Strayed. Reese Witherspoon portrays Strayed, a hiking novice who decides that a solo, thousand-mile trek across the Pacific Crest Trail could make her a better person. She’s been dealing with a lot – the dissolution of her marriage (to a good guy) after years of reckless, destructive behavior, and the death of her mother (played in flashbacks by a superb Laura Dern). It’s an ambitious and cathartic adventure that I can admire in theory, but certainly don’t envy or care to emulate. So more power to her! And to her ginormous backpack and bloodied toenails!

Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights is somewhat reminiscent of the classic Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner romantic drama The Bodyguard. It doesn’t reach the same heights in terms of story and tension (and Houston high notes), but it still makes for a solid chick flick, largely due to the performances of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker and Minnie Driver. Cool soundtrack too.

Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People

As a photography major in college, I studied all the “famous” photographers and their “important” images. But what we did not see were photographers of color and their important images. Did they not exist or were they just not in the canon? The eye-opening documentary Through a Lens Darkly tackles that question and looks at the rich and largely ignored history of black photographers in America. It also takes on the notion of identity that we draw from photos and the distortions that African-Americans have had to endure since the beginning of photo-technology. The film is based on the book “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present,” by Deborah Willis, which must be the most exhaustive study of black photographers, images of African-Americans, and the use of photographs as propaganda in both positive and negative ways as a vehicle for social change. Fortunately director Thomas Allen Harris doesn’t go too far into the academic arguments. He smartly begins from a personal viewpoint, using the photographic traditions of his own family as a jumping off point.

Citizenfour

In January of 2013, filmmaker Laura Poitras began receiving emails from a mysterious person who only identified himself as “citizenfour” and who had information about US government surveillance on a scale unheard of in history. A few months later, after a number of encrypted email exchanges, Poitras headed to Hong Kong along with journalist Glenn Greenwald to meet the sender. The rest is history. Waiting for them in a hotel room was Edward Snowden who would hand them evidence of massive citizen surveillance and data mining by the NSA and other government agencies, and would expose our global cyber-spy program. Once it was made public by Greenwald in a series of articles published in The Guardian, it created an international storm of controversy. Was Snowden a whistleblower or a traitor?

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything is an unusual love story. It is adapted from the autobiography of Jane Wilde, physicist Stephen Hawking’s first wife, who met him while he was working on his thesis about time at Cambridge in the early 60s. Despite finding that he had a motor neuron disease (ALS, as in the ice bucket challenge) that the doctors predicted would kill him within two years (it didn’t,) the two married, had several children, and attempted to lead a “normal life,” that is if one of the most brilliant people on earth who cannot speak or move without aid can be said to ever have a normal life. The film covers about 15 years time as he becomes world renowned and as their marriage disintegrates. No doubt Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables) will be getting some Oscar love for his physical transformation into the wheelchair bound Hawking. It is a great performance in a good film.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Hollywood can be so cruel. Splitting the third and final book of The Hunger Games trilogy into two movies feels so… unnecessary. Lucrative, in a “hey, Harry Potter and Twilight got away with it” kind of way. But still, totally unnecessary. Thus Mockingjay – Part 1 is a good movie that could have been great. It’s a means to an end – and that means fans of the franchise will (and should) see it despite my frustrations with a narrative cut short. Then – come next year – we will all surely see it again, as part of a movie marathon, when Mockingjay – Part 2 bows in theaters. Just in time for Thanksgiving 2015! May the odds of remembering what happened in the books – and the first three movies – be ever in our favor.

Mockingjay – Part 1 finds our reluctant heroine Katniss Everdeen (still played brilliantly by Jennifer Lawrence) waking up in the rebel safe haven of District 13 after having put a fork (okay, an arrow) into the craziness that was the Hunger Games – where kid ‘tributes’ from the districts of Panem had been forced to fight to the death as part of some annual penance devised by the autocratic Capitol. Why? It’s complicated. If you really care to know, read the books. See the movies.

Rosewater

Jon Stewart’s crossover from host of a hit satirical news show to feature film writer/director was slightly surprising on the face of it. But once you get into Rosewater, you see why this true story was so personal to him. In 2009, Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones, donning a silly undercover spy persona, conducted a mock interview in Tehran with Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari for a segment about the country’s elections, which Iranian-born Bahari had returned home to cover. A short time later that interview was actually used against him when he was arrested and charged with spying for the CIA. “Why this man claim to be a spy if he is not a spy?” his interrogator asks in the film. “Why would a spy have a television show?” Bahari answers incredulously. And this was the rabbit hole he fell down — an absurdist nightmare with no room for reality or truth.

Dumb and Dumber To

Dumb and Dumber To is truly stupid. If you have a problem with that, don’t go! However, if you’re a fan of the original Dumb and Dumber – and haven’t matured all that much since 1994 – then go, and embrace the stupidity. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels reprise their roles as blissfully dimwitted pals, Lloyd and Harry. They haven’t changed much in 20 years. No ‘character growth’ here. And that’s just the way they like it.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman has no competition, because there is nothing remotely like it out there. It is a semi-fantasy, dark comedy with an amazing cast and a highly imaginative script. Michael Keaton has never been better, and in this role he shows off a kind of raw emotive talent that I would not have guessed he possessed. Playing Riggan, a former mega-star who was known for his role as the immensely popular superhero Birdman a couple of decades back, he has come down to earth and is trying to make a name for himself again, only this time with a Broadway play that he wrote, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He is directing it and starring in it as well. And he may just be losing his mind.