Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Short Take: "The Wave" (2016)

As the world becomes more globalized, so does cinema. Big-budget blockbuster films, once seemingly the sole provence of Hollywood, are now regularly produced in China and India, and other film industries around the world are starting to create their own blockbusters. European films are no longer necessarily the personal auteurist projects that Americans associate with Godard, Bergman, and Fellini; those films are now joined by bigger films meant to please crowds more than provoke intense introspection.

Norwegian filmmaker Roar Uthaug's The Wave is billed as "Norway's first disaster movie," and it was a huge hit in its native country, finishing at the top of the 2015 box office (by ticket sales, one in every six Norwegians saw the film in theatres). Based on a true scenario, the film follows geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) on the day is family is due to move away from Geiranger, a coastal tourist town in Geirangerfjord. Seismic activity along one of the mountain, however, triggers a landslide that results in an 80-foot wave thundering toward the town, with only ten minutes to evacuate everyone. Kristian must race against time to save his family before the wave destroys the town.

Uthaug obviously studied the art of the disaster film: his film follows all of the standard beats (occasionally to a fault), including a lengthy prelude establishing Kristian's family life and marking which characters are clearly doomed once the wave comes pummeling through the fjord. Yet the film is more than a boilerplate blockbuster, as the main characters are complex and achieve meaningful development over the course of the film, in addition to Uthaug's canny eye for stunning images. Of course, the film hardly had the budget for Hollywood-caliber effects, but Uthaug and director of photography John Christian Rosenlund create breathtaking images of disaster without the need to digitize everything. Most imporantly, Joner's performance anchors the film, imbuing his hero character with genuine awe at his tragic situation and concern for his family. It's more than just a great genre performance, it's a great performance, period. The same can be said of the film. B+

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Short Take: "45 Years" (2015)

Does a memory ever truly leave us, even after years of dormancy? How do you navigate the influence of the past on a loved one, particularly a past that you were not a part of? Does remembering the past alter the present?

These are questions raised by Andrew Haigh's magnificent, long-awaited second feature, 45 Years. This quiet drama is about a couple, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling), approaching their 45th wedding anniversary when Geoff learns that the body of his missing former flame, Katya, has been discovered frozen in the mountains. The revelation brings back a flood of memories about Geoff, and Kate discovers more about the man she married and his life before her.

The above plot description is intentionally sparse, because the film itself does not sensationalize this premise (other films surely would play up the soapy development that sets the plot in motion). Instead, Haigh focuses his film on the relationship between Geoff and Kate and how this discovery impacts them separately and together. Courtenay and Rampling each give phenomenal, understated performances that highlight their characters' interior lives and their inability to gain access to the other's. Together, they present a marriage that feels lived-in, complete with a sense of history between them.

More than anything, this is a film about memory. The spectre of Katya hangs over the entire film: though she is never seen, her presence is felt in every scene. Haigh doesn't spell this out or underline anything, however. He trusts his actors and himself to convey the intimate, achingly human truths of the film. Like his previous masterpiece, Weekend (2011), 45 Years is heartbreaking and engaging, a truly human document. A+

Short Takes: Catching Up on the 2015 Foreign Language Film Oscar Nominees

The 88th Academy Awards were handed out over half a year ago, but there's no reason we can't keep talking about them! I recently completed viewing the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, so below you'll find capsule reviews of all five films along with how I would have ranked them if I had a ballot. I'll post ballots for the eight major categories (Picture, Director, Acting, and Writing) at a later date.

Son of Saul (dir. Laśzló Nemes, Hungary)

It's no surprise that this harrowing Holocaust feature won the Oscar. The film is the story of a Hungarian prisoner (Géza Röhrig) assigned to the Sonderkommando (charged with burning bodies) at Auschwitz who believes one of the bodies may belong to his son. Nemes films Saul's efforts to provide a proper Jewish burial in tight close-ups, with the camera rarely leaving its position just over Saul's shoulder. It's a terrific directorial trick: by keeping the literal focus on Saul, the film avoids the easy exploitation of the horrors of the concentration camps that so many other Holocaust films traffic in. Instead, Saul's dangerous plight and his emotional journey is the heart of the film, and it's no less distressing. Though Saul remains something of a cypher throughout, the film itself stands as a powerful and unique entry into the Holocaust film canon. A

The other four nominees after the jump.