Movies this time of year tend to evoke cold temperatures and snow-covered landscapes, but few will cause such thought-provoking chills as writer-director Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure. Now playing in select cities, it is Sweden’s entry in this year’s Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film and it has already won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
Force Majeure’s premise is deceptively simple: a family on holiday confronted with an unexpected situation that throws off its seemingly secure balance. Tomas (an effectively confident-turned-troubled Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) have taken their two school-age children to a picturesque resort in the French Alps. While at breakfast one day, an allegedly planned avalanche threatens to grow out of control and engulf them along with other tourists. Ebba maternally grabs and covers her two children in an effort to protect them. Tomas doesn’t even witness this, since he unthinkingly abandons his family and runs to safety ahead of them.
Subjected to accusatory looks and the silent treatment from Ebba and the kids in the aftermath of the incident, the initially ignorant Tomas begins to spiral into embarrassment, guilt and self-pity. These feelings are heightened as Ebba openly shares their story with fellow guests, which leads at least one other reflective couple to discuss how they would react if they found themselves in a similar life-threatening situation. By film’s end, family dynamics and Tomas himself change in unpredictable ways.
Ostlund drew from accounts of how men have typically preserved themselves over women and children in real-life disasters, apparently throwing the old “women and children first” standard out the window, while writing his screenplay. The resulting film is a sharp, honest critique of what constitutes “manhood” and reveals how fragile a concept it can be. With its spectacular, CG-enhanced alpine setting as the icing on the cake, Force Majeure offers an engrossing (if occasionally slow-moving) treatise.
The mighty Hercules of Greek mythology would never be considered cowardly, although last summer’s latest big-budget take on the legend makes him more emotionally vulnerable than he has traditionally been presented. It is newly available on home videofrom Paramount. While the epic looks great on hi-def Blu-ray, it remains pretty routine from a storytelling angle.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, even more bulging and glistening than usual, stars as Hercules and holds his own among a largely British cast of veteran actors that includes John Hurt, Joseph Fiennes, Rufus Sewell and, best of all, Ian McShane. While there are some women in the film, this is a disproportionately and disappointingly masculine affair… even if most of the men are wearing skirts. A lawyer could put Hercules on display as the latest evidence of director Brett Ratner’s conflicted, occasionally homophobic approach to gay moviegoers.
While it garnered positive reviews from many critics, I found this Hercules to be as loud, unoriginal and ham-fistedly directed as most wannabe blockbusters. Fans of Johnson and McShane, which I am, will at least enjoy their presence.
Pelican Dreams, the latest avian expose by Judy Irving (The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill), opens this Friday in Los Angeles and New York. It is also a contender for a slot among this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature. Irving and her cameras get up close and personal with a variety of brown (saltwater) and white (freshwater) pelicans living along the western coast of the US. They capture genuinely fascinating aspects of the birds’ lives including their mating rituals, first flights and diving practice. The film also covers its subject’s impressive comeback from DDT contamination in the late 1960’s while revealing newer threats to pelicans’ survival like global warming, oil spills and becoming tangled in excessive amounts of fishing tackle (be warned: some of this footage is upsetting for bird/animal lovers).
Although informative and well-intentioned, Pelican Dreams is a bit dull whenever the focus moves off the birds. This isn’t helped by Irving’s flat narration. The doc’s nice cinematography of pelicans in flight may be best appreciated with the sound turned off.
Force Majeure: B+
Pelican Dreams: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.