Thursday, November 6, 2014

Listen Up Philip, Force Majeure, Low Down, Nightcrawler, Wild Tales, Before I Go to Sleep

Listen Up Philip
Force Majeure

Low Down

Wild Tales
Before I Go to Sleep

The best week of the year at the movies offers half a dozen recommendations, most of them strong:

With its tortured, self-loathing yet superior protagonist, its voiceover narration (well read by Eric Bogosian) and its truly beautiful soft-jazz score (free for the taking here:, "Listen Up Philip," at its best, puts one in mind of the films of Woody Allen. Jason Schwartzman plays Philip Lewis Friedman, a serious and unfailingly misanthropic writer whose first novel earned him a spot on the New York Review of Books' "35 Under 35." The movie spans a period of several years during which Philip fights, breaks up, makes up, and breaks up again with his photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss); accepts an invitation to write at the country house of his literary idol, the equally misanthropic (but far less self-loathing) Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce); and takes a teaching gig at a local college, a job for which he could not be worse suited temperamentally. 

Director Alex Ross Perry makes the wise and Allen-esque decision to shift focus from Philip to Ashley after about half an hour, allowing Moss, splendid in "The One I Love" earlier this year, to excel in a richer and more demanding part; she seems to have a nose for quality scripts. Perry's written a lot of dialogue for Philip, and I don't begrudge that segment of the audience who will just want away from him, but that’s who Philip has chosen, at great personal expense, to be. His interplay with Ike in particular produces a number of big laughs, and Perry's sharp wit keeps your brain engaged throughout (a book editor sitting down to meet with Philip tells his assistant, "Don't hold my calls"). An unpleasant business call detracted from my enjoyment of the last twenty minutes, but I am basing my star rating on the first hour and change of a smartly turned out film with a delightful opening credit sequence.

Sweden claims pole position in the foreign-language Oscar race with Ruben Östlund's "Force Majeure," a thinking person's entertainment that lends itself to interpretation and charged conversation. Here's one to see with friends and spend dinner discussing. Studly Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli star as Tomas and Ebba, an apparently happily married couple on a ski vacation with their kids Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren, both good) in St. Moritz. While they're having lunch at a rooftop patio restaurant, an avalanche, rapidly gaining size and speed, appears to head straight toward them. Tomas assures the others that it's controlled, but as everyone begins to panic, Tomas runs to safety, leaving Ebba and the kids to fend for themselves. The avalanche does stop just before bearing down on them, and Tomas returns to the table as if nothing's happened, but the recriminations have only begun. 

The event sends Ebba into a tailspin. Not only does she take Tomas’ flight instinct as a rejection of her and the family by which she defines herself, but his subsequent denials that he ran away (“I don’t share that version of events”) infuriate her. In another restaurant, she had struck up a conversation with a woman a bit older than she, happily married but enjoying a sexual affair with a younger man (Brady Corbet of “Simon Killer,” my #7 film last year). Ebba had expressed disapproval of the woman’s open marriage. When they talk again in a bar after the avalanche, Ebba doesn’t know what to think. The spotlight shines on Kongsli during this segment of the movie and she produces a compelling and layered performance.

Meanwhile, Tomas meets up with Mats (Kristofer Hivju), his friend from back home. As the guys lie on chaises longues at poolside, a woman there with a group of girlfriends taps Tomas on the shoulder. “Sorry to disturb you,” she says, “but my friend thinks you’re the most handsome man here.” Tomas thanks her for the compliment. A few minutes later, the woman returns. “So sorry to bother you again. I was wrong. My friend was pointing to someone else.” Hilarious. But it’s just the prelude to the dinner shared by Tomas, Ebba, Mats, and his much-younger new girlfriend, Fanni (Fanni Metelius), at which Ebba airs her grievances and even plays her iPhone video of the avalanche incident. This in turn sets up the post-prandial conversation between Mats and Fanni, which begins as they wait for the elevator to their room and Fanni asks, “I wonder how I would react if you did that to me?” This virtuoso comic sequence continues deep into the night and calls into question a relationship that had been humming merrily along.

Östlund returns his focus to Tomas for the next segment of the movie, and Kuhnke proves worthy of the challenge, conveying Tomas’ shame and insecurity in his masculinity, first pretending to cry and then willing himself to cry, finally using the occasion of his public humiliation to tear down the wall of self-protection and deceit he had spent a lifetime constructing. Östlund shows himself to be a master of observation in scenes as deceptively simple as those of Tomas and Ebba brushing their teeth before a large bathroom mirror. Watch how the choreography of their dance changes. No longer does Ebba use the toilet in front of Tomas, or look directly at him. They have tasted the knowledge of good and evil. On a larger scale, Östlund establishes the resort as a bundle of contradictions: like Vegas, at once family-friendly and adults-only, and set to the thumping pulse of a trance club. The whiteouts of the ski runs themselves wear two faces, of serenity and fearsome impenetrability. 

We feel the latter – in our bones – when the family sets out on one last, highly dangerous, run, and Ebba gets separated from the others. Then, like any good thrill ride operator, Östlund throws us for one final loop as their bus descends the mountain. In a cinema so often content to paint by numbers, “Force Majeure” keeps you awake and alive to its hilarious and nervy surprises and makes you wonder what you and your loved ones would do in its situations. No storyteller can aspire to much more than that.

I fear that Jeff Preiss’ “Low Down,” from Amy Albany’s memoir of growing up with her father, the gifted but heroin-addicted jazz pianist Joe Albany, will get lost in the spate of first-rate fall films. That would be a shame, for here is a dreamy and sad memory quilt of genius, disappointment and abiding love. Preiss sets the film in 1974, a time of national shame, in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, where for Amy, a teenager forced into adulthood too soon, it’s she and Joe against the world. Amy sees only the greatness in her father, looking past, to the extent she can, his failings and demons. Elle Fanning, so good opposite Stephen Dorff in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” (my #3 film of 2010), again shows the remarkable ability to convey with few words all of this young woman’s pain and need and hope. (The roles have much in common.) As Joe Albany, John Hawkes has gone to the trouble of learning to play the piano well, but his performance merits commendation more for its finely calibrated moments of honesty and fast-talking dishonesty than for technical accuracy. Glenn Close, who Sally Kirkland-ed her way to an Oscar nomination for the risible “Albert Nobbs,” actually deserves one here as Joe’s tough but equally forgiving mother. Also good in small parts are Lena Headey as Amy’s alcoholic mother, Caleb Landry Jones as her epileptic first boyfriend, and Peter Dinklage as the neighbor in the storage closet.

I hear New Yorkers talk about “several neighborhoods in one block,” as if that’s a good thing. Or even a thing. Those aren’t neighborhoods, not in any meaningful sense. A neighborhood requires space, just like a city requires space. Manhattan’s a little grid; in L.A., the whole of it might be one neighborhood. No city – certainly no American city – has as many different neighborhoods, as much demographic and geographic diversity, as many different kinds of lives being led as L.A. (Manhattanites, while an eclectic bunch, in a way all live the same kind of existence.)

That makes L.A. a source of endless fascination and discovery. It’s why movies from “Chinatown” to “To Live and Die in L.A.” to “Drive” forge a connection as much to the soul as to the heart or brain. And when the rest of the country consumes its entertainment, it’s not only from L.A. but of it. All those poor saps whose jealousy requires them to proclaim their disdain toward L.A. live, to some extent, in L.A. They’ve all had to osmose more of our people and places than we would ever bother to learn of theirs.

All of which sets up the moment in “Nightcrawler” when Nina Romina (Rene Russo in a career-best performance), the producer of the lowest-rated morning news show in L.A. broadcast TV, screams that if Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) doesn’t sell her the video he’s shot of a gruesome triple murder in Grenada Hills, “I’ll have to lead with a stabbing in fucking Corona!” Gyllenhaal is rightly being discussed as an Oscar contender for his portrayal of Bloom, a being of unknown origin who may as well be a space alien. His eyes are as dark and hollow as a scooped-out pumpernickel bagel, and he talks like someone who learned how people communicate from either the Internet or a $200 seminar at the Century Hilton. 

Writer-director Dan Gilroy is no Robert Bresson. He has scripted situations for Bloom, who channels his entrepreneurship into freelance videography, that are deliberately over-the-top, and dialogue in the form of speeches, because Bloom has no concept of casual or natural human interaction. When over-the-top material is true to the character, it works; and when over-the-top material works, it can create indelible moments. One such sequence involves Nina’s instructions to her anchors, spoken into their earpieces as the video of the triple murder runs, on what to say and how to express it for maximum impact. Another involves a bizarre would-be dinner date Lou arranges with Nina, knowing that the lurid footage he brings her makes her wet. Gilroy begins “Nightcrawler” with an exquisitely mounted assemblage of shots of the city at night, and peppers it with shootouts, conflagrations, and high-speed chases. Buckle up; it’s a bumpy, giddy ride.

I confess a weakness for both the “interlocking vignettes” genre popularized by Robert Altman and its cousin, the straight anthology film. From “Amazon Women on the Moon” to “Nine Lives,” I’m usually able to find something I like. So it is with the Pedro Almodóvar-produced and Argentina-set “Wild Tales,” a set of six cautionary stories of anger and violence that we would do well to remember when faced with the hell of other people. Director Damián Szifron opens on an aircraft, where a music critic chats up the model across the aisle. Their conversation reveals a mutual contact named Gabriel Pasternak, and slowly but surely everyone on the plane confesses to some interaction with Pasternak that left him aggrieved. They realize it is he who has brought them together and is piloting the plane. “Gabriel,” his former therapist screams through the locked cockpit door, “this is all your parents’ fault.” Cut to an older couple sitting on lawn chairs in their backyard; the plane heads straight for them just as the credits start to roll.

The other tales feature a similarly mordant wit and dark comic sensibility: a chef poisons the bourgeois customer who did her waitress wrong; a road rage incident spirals ever more out of control, culminating in one driver’s attaching his car to the other’s and steering it over a bridge (after which we hear only the voice of the GPS: “Recalculating”); a demolitions expert whose car is towed for violating unmarked parking restrictions bombs the impound lot; a moneyed family bribes their groundskeeper to take the rap for a fatal hit-and-run committed by their privileged son; and a wedding reception devolves into a dance with death. “Wild Tales” is a smart and offbeat sleeper, the kind that makes you feel part of a select club lucky enough to have seen it.

Based on a novel by S.J. Watson, Rowan Joffe’s “Before I Go to Sleep” stars Nicole Kidman as Christine Lucas, an amnesiac who awakens each day with no recollection of her former life as a working mother and wife. Colin Firth co-stars as her devoted husband, Ben, who lines the walls of their home with photographs of their happier times together. Mark Strong, who made a big impression in 2008’s “Body of Lies,” is superb as Dr. Nasch, a psychiatrist who phones Christine each morning after Ben leaves for work, reminds her who he is, and asks her to find in a shoebox a camera on which she has recorded a video diary. Dr. Nasch, who takes a personal as well as a professional interest in Christine, insists that she keep their sessions secret from Ben. Strong walks the tightrope without a misstep, never giving away whether he’s a good guy or a baddie.

Kidman, so often aloof and unknowable on film, gives an emotionally connected performance, capturing Christine’s heartbreaking and helpless sense of displacement and inability to trust. Joffe effectively establishes the constrained parameters of her world: her secluded suburban house and clandestine appointments with Dr. Nasch, several of which take place in an underground carpark. He further tightens the screws by sprinkling new information (including a few false leads) like a master chef, at just the right time and in just the right quantity. The first hour-plus of “Before I Go to Sleep” is a taut three-star thriller. Unfortunately, the last 20 minutes are so implausible and so trite as to erase much of Joffe’s accrued goodwill. Still, third acts are hard, and if a suspense thriller with Kidman and Firth sounds appealing to you, this is a good one – though there’s no need to pay first-run movie-house prices.

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