Just like last January, I find myself having watched a bunch of movies from the previous 12 months that I found intriguing but didn’t have a chance to write about in these pages. Since I didn’t get a chance to review any of the movies that are opening wide in theaters this week, I figured I could at least give you some ideas about what to see on disc or on demand.
If you’re a fan of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood or the Before movies, Chinese Puzzle isn’t as good, but this third entry in a European trilogy provides a useful comparison to Linklater’s works. French filmmaker Cédric Klapisch started this story in his 2003 comedy L’Auberge Espagnole and continued it with his 2006 sequel, Russian Dolls. Puzzle picks up the main characters as they start to hit middle age, with French author Xavier (Romain Duris) following his British ex-wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) to New York to be near their kids. Regrettably, Klapisch isn’t as focused as Linklater, getting lost in too many tangents and fantasy sequences, as when Xavier, feeling insecure about his English in conversation, imagines himself as a 16th-century Frenchman speaking outdated French. The saga is starting to play like male fantasy, too, with Wendy just one of three women orbiting around Xavier, the others being his college ex (Audrey Tautou) and his lesbian BFF (Cécile de France). Still, these actors seem to appreciate reconnecting with the characters they first played before most of them were famous.
Have you been asking yourself why you didn’t hear more about a movie that had both Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham? I have. The prolific Joe Swanberg made Drinking Buddies last year with Kendrick, and this time he puts her in a starring role. Fans of TV’s Girls will note that it’s Kendrick playing an entitled, irresponsible slacker here instead of Dunham. The slacker here would be Jenny, who moves in with her brother (played by Swanberg himself) after a bad breakup and winds up counseling his wife (Melanie Lynskey, using her own New Zealand accent for once) on getting over her writer’s block by starting work on a trashy Fifty Shades of Grey-like erotic novel. Kendrick looks even more comfortable in this improvisatory environment than she does in mainstream stuff like Pitch Perfect or Into the Woods, and she bounces off Lynskey, Dunham, and Mark Webber (as the family’s babysitter and pot dealer) perfectly. I’m still waiting for Swanberg to make his one truly great comedy, but he’s getting closer.
Even if you weren’t spending time thinking about Kendrick and Dunham, surely you wonder what happened to Stephen Chow. No? Well, after the box-office success of his 2005 martial-arts comedy Kung Fu Hustle, he fell off the radar. Now he’s back in form, bringing his anarchic sense of humor to this adaptation of an ancient Chinese novel. As usual with Chow, there’s some serious martial arts skill and inventive choreography (by Ku Hin Chiu), this time in the heroes’ fight against the computer-generated Pig Demon. However, there’s also wacky humor everywhere — in the attempts to catapult a Water Demon onto shore, the musical number that the feckless hero (Wen Zhang) sings to it, and the ridiculous would-be heroes who try to kill the evil Monkey King (Huang Bo). One hero calls himself Prince Important (Luo Show), is carried around on a litter by ugly middle-aged women strewing flower petals in his path, and says things like, “It is a great burden to be as handsome as I am.” How I missed the craziness of the guy behind Shaolin Soccer.
This is one of those movies where the less you know about it, the better. I’ll tell you this much: The movie starts out like an ordinary domestic drama, with Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as a married couple whose psychotherapist (Ted Danson) sends them to spend a week alone at a mansion-like resort to repair their marriage. But then they start seeing signs that somebody else is living on the grounds, and things take a turn for the seriously weird. Charlie McDowell turns this into the most innovative romantic comedy I saw last year, injecting science-fiction devices and existential questions into the mix as he asks what makes this couple happy. The first-time filmmaker is a Hollywood kid, and his efforts landed him a spot on my “best debuts” list.
CBS Films botched the theatrical release of this crowd-pleaser and seemingly botched the DVD cover art as well. The latter is OK, though, because it draws attention to this British movie that’s better than The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything. It tells the true story of a group of London gays and lesbians who supported a town of Welsh coal miners during the 1984 strikes, when Margaret Thatcher cynically broke the mining unions’ political power. Yes, there’s a good deal of formula at work depicting the culture clash between the stolid, religious miners and the flamboyant homosexuals, but it all goes down easy with terrific performances by veterans Paddy Considine, Bill Nighy, and Imelda Staunton and newcomers Jessica Gunning and Ben Schnetzer (the latter an American with a flawless Northern Ireland accent). Amid the hijinks is a plea for minority interest groups to work together to achieve what they want. In its own way, this is as inspiring as Selma.
This Canadian slasher musical is one of those frustrating movies where you can imagine a better version of the same film in your head as it plays out. Allie MacDonald (lovely voice but pitchy) plays an orphaned girl who works with her brother at a summer musical theater camp. When she decides to go out for the camp’s big production — of the same show that her mother starred in on Broadway before she was murdered backstage — it triggers a string of killings at the camp. I admire the commitment of writer-director-composer Jerome Sable to scattering musical numbers and theatrical in-jokes throughout. Still, the songs don’t work either as parody or on their own terms. I hope someone adapts this to the stage, supplements the songs here with some better numbers, and casts better performers. The result might just be worth the price of the ticket.
Some people are upset over Force Majeure not being nominated for an Oscar, but it wasn’t even the best Swedish movie in 2014. That would be this delightful piece about three preteen girls (Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, and Liv LeMoyne) in Stockholm in the 1980s who decide to form a punk rock band even though the cool kids have pronounced punk dead and think that girls shouldn’t be on stage. Writer-director Lukas Moodysson has always been best when making movies about adolescent girls, possessed as he is with an uncanny understanding of how they develop crushes, make friends, make enemies, and try to relate to the world around them. (He can’t take all the credit here, though, as he adapted this from a graphic novel written by his wife.) The movie’s filled with little moments that sing, but it would be worth seeing just for the climax, when the girls play their first show to an abusive, heckling crowd and respond by doing the most awesome, most punk-rock thing imaginable. Oh, to be 14 and in a band that kicks ass!
If you ever wanted to see a guy dressed as SpongeBob Squarepants getting riddled with bullets by cops, this Spanish film is for you. It starts off like a heist movie, with criminals disguised as the costumed mascots in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor robbing a cash-for-gold shop at gunpoint. Then, as the thieves, with one hostage, make for the French border, a coven of witches in the Pyrenees captures them for human sacrifice. This is the latest from the twisted mind of Álex de la Iglesia, and it balances comedy and horror pretty well, with two repressed gay cops confessing their love for each other as they’re about to be burned alive and the robbers seeing the witches eat the hostage alive and deciding that they’re OK with what’s happening. Bonus points for using Mikel Laboa’s nonsense song “Baga Biga Higa” as the witches’ chant.
In Israel, military service is compulsory for all adults. This terribly funny comedy takes advantage of that. It’s set on a combat base in the middle of the desert, where there’s not enough work to go around for the women serving as the base’s clerical staff, which is why two workers spend all their time sitting at their desks and singing pop songs loudly in harmony while everybody else in their small office tries not to be annoyed. The movie is made up of vignettes held together by the dissatisfied Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and virginal Zohar (Dana Ivgy), whose friendship is forged over epic tournaments of Minesweeper. There are big laughs here when Zohar gets back at a superior officer who wants her to shred documents and when a Russian soldier (Tamara Klingon) sleeps in a bunk belonging to a colleague who killed herself. This is the brainchild of 35-year-old debut filmmaker Talya Lavie, and her work feels like the stories that the celebrated Israeli author Etgar Keret would write if he were a woman. If she turned this into a TV show, I would watch.