Brief Thoughts: August Arthouse Roundup 2014

I really enjoy putting my reviews together.  I honestly wish I could delve deeper into certain movies, but alas, I get incredibly busy and can sometimes only deal with movies to a briefer extent than I would prefer.  This is why I write these occasional "Brief Thoughts" posts on movies I have seen, as I want to at least offer some of my own perspective on them.  They may not be as polished, but I can at least get my opinions out there.  This batch of mini reviews contains my thoughts on (in alphabetical order): Calvary, Happy Christmas, Magic in the Moonlight, and What If.

Calvary:  3 1/2 out of 5

Jack Brannan:  Will I cut you a nice side of beef to be taking home with you, Father? Freshly slaughtered.

With In Bruges, The Guard, the Oscar-winning short film Six Shooter and now Calvary, Brendan Gleeson has done a fine job with both Martin and John Michael McDonagh.  I would happy to see them continuing to collaborate as this combination has led to some really terrific performances for all involved.  With that in mind, Calvary is certainly the most somber film yet, between these collaborations.  Gleeson stars as a priest in Ireland who is being threatened with murder and given a week to get his affairs in order.  This threat has been handed out by a man who claims to have been abused by a priest when he was a child, but since that man is dead, Gleeson's Father James character would be bigger news anyway, especially since Father James is considered such an honest and good man.

While a film like The Guard is a very dry comedy, Calvary is most definitely a drama that happens to delve into some lighter moments on the rare occasion.  Regardless of the tone, however, the film is a well-acted character study, featuring a strong cast of characters who have little redeeming qualities about themselves, but still manage to be compelling in their own ways.  Really, the film serves as more of an allegory that is not necessarily religious in nature, but a measured way of looking at life.  There is a bleakness in this film that is thankfully counterbalanced by the moments of levity, but it is a credit to the writing of McDonagh and the cinematography by Larry Smith that allows the film to so effectively play out.

Not a film for everyone, but even for a film that leaves you in darker spirits than you might have been in, when stepping into the theater or sitting down to watch the film, Calvary has plenty to offer in terms of fine performances, carefully constructed visuals, and a deliberate sense of pace and tone that helps to communicate the kind of film that has been made - a very serious pitch black comedy, with the notion of death in its back pocket.  If Gleeson stays on this road, maybe it will be his path to serious awards consideration as well.

Happy Christmas:  3 out of 5

Jeff:  Your Aunt Jenny's in trouble dude.

Mumblecore specialist Joe Swanberg is back with another heavily improvised feature, but while he continues to be open to bigger name stars, his directorial approach is as loose as ever.  Happy Christmas has the slightest of plots, as it features Anna Kendrick as the irresponsible Jenny, who has come to Chicago to live with her older brother Jeff (Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their baby.  There is not much more to it than that, as we basically watch Jenny do silly things that screw up the more peaceful way of life for her more responsible relatives.

Along with Swanberg's previous film Drinking Buddies, the key thing to enjoy in a film like this is the cast.  Creating dialogue on the spot, despite having a set structure, Happy Christmas bounces around ideas, with no real goal in mind, but does have enough charm and winning performances to be worth watching.  As one who really likes this cast, which also includes Mark Webber and Lena Dunham as additional friends, I was happy to enjoy the effort put in to make this film feel like a natural family existing outside the realm of traditional comedy/dramas.  The humor/drama comes from awkward situations and elements that stem from real life, so it makes sense to say that traditional cinematic fiction is not what one should be seeking out in this sort of film.

At a little over 80 minutes, Happy Christmas is a nice diversion that makes us of a low-budget, light concept approach to create a family-themed human comedy.  If you enjoy Swanberg's approach to filmmaking, let alone the minimalist movement that has taken hold in recent years, there is plenty to get out of this film.  For anyone else, only huge fans of these actors will likely find a lot to enjoy here.  That said, maybe it plays better on or around Christmas...

Magic in the Moonlight:  2 out of 5

Stanley:  She wont fool me.

Woody Allen manages to stick to the pattern that emerges every so often for myself and many others.  Following the wonderful Midnight in Paris, he made the less than stellar To Rome with Love.  Now, following the rather fantastic Blue Jasmine, Allen has written and directed Magic in the Moonlight, a fairly unremarkable romantic comedy about a cynical illusionist (Colin Firth) and a supposed clairvoyant (Emma Stone).  Firth's Stanley character is brought into a plan to prove that Stone's Sophie character is in fact a fraud, but ends up falling for her instead.  It is an easy story with no real surprises, especially since the film falls into a pit early on and never really recovers.

While Allen has had plenty of high concept ideas for romance tales before, Magic in the Moonlight simply feels like Allen spinning his wheels, while developing whatever other inspired project he may also be currently working on.  It is not due to a lack of effort from the actors involved, though even Firth seems to be going through the motions, rather than really knocking out his leading man performance.  Similarly, while Stone has a winning attitude in a majority of the roles she has played, both her energy and the vast age discrepancy between herself and possible lover Firth seems like too much of a different direction than what this film could use.  The best work comes from Eileen Atkins as Firth's aunt Vanessa, but it is only a minor bright spot in a film that has nothing all that clever in its story to fuel a feature film.

Fortunately, Woody Allen tends to bounce back all the time, so it is not as if this film has put me on the outs with one of the more prolific filmmakers still working.  Still, despite a solid cast and a wonderful period aesthetic made possible by the crew and captured nicely by cinematographer Darius Khondji, Magic in the Moonlight lacks wonder in whatever setting it may be viewed by audiences in.

What If:  2 1/2 out of 5

Wallace:  Is this always how you make friends?  Like it's a business deal?

What If (formerly known as The F Word) is a pretty straightforward quirky romantic comedy.  You can tell it is a quirky romantic comedy, because the lead characters are named Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (Zoe Kazan).  That is nothing to hold against the film, but what I do hold against it is the last 30 minutes, where the film descends into nothing but cliches that are not handled in any particularly clever sort of way.  The film features Wallace and Chantry as friends that are of the opposite sex, with Chantry's current boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall) acting as the barrier that keeps Wallace from admitting his true feelings.  The two hang out anyway, with the lingering question always in the back of at least one of their minds.

The irritating thing is how I could not have been more right about where the film was going to inevitably go.  It is not as if this is a bad thing, necessarily, but it is all about how it is handled.  Given how winning the chemistry is between Radcliffe and Kazan, let alone the supporting actors that include Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis, there was a chance that the film could have headed in a direction that was similar, but more effective based on different ways to go about its plotting.  Instead, misunderstandings, very silly decisions, and some big speeches make up the reasons that bring characters to their obvious conclusions, which is a shame.  Early on, we do get some very nice scenes with these characters, let alone some avoidance of easy tropes, such as making Ben a complete jerk.  In actuality, Ben's character is a completely nice guy, with a good career and sense of humor, while Wallace gets by on being jobless, but in possession of a quick and dry British wit.  It also helps that Chantry feels like a real person and not the dream girl we often see in these types of romantic comedies.

If anything, getting to see Radcliffe continue to move past Harry Potter is nice, as he is good here, even if it does not feel like much of a challenging role.  All that in mind, What If is likable enough and I can see where the praise elsewhere has come from, just fairly disposable in my eyes overall.  An expectedly nice soundtrack, quirky characters, and some visual filmmaking choices involving a display of the talents of at least one of the leads (Chantry is an animator) are all very present in a film that does not break any molds and feels indebted to better films that have come before it, but still has enjoyable moments.

Aaron is a writer/reviewer for  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS4.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
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