Now that the Oscars have come and gone, entertainment awards hysteria is on hold until the Emmys in early fall. That generally means more adult fare at the cinema until the movie industry delivers the requisite summer blockbusters and would-be crowd-pleasers. Consequently, three very different but engaging feature films are taking aim at grown-up audiences this month: A Norwegian export about an ecological cataclysm; a military-oriented global espionage thriller; and a high-profile experimental offering from a masterful director whose work has elicited wide reaction. You won’t find a superhero, mutant, vampire, star-crossed lover, or oversexed teenage prankster among them.
The disaster movie is such a Hollywood staple that it’s strange to see one pop up from another country — let alone one that’s so much better than the usual fare produced by heavy-handed American filmmakers. In a Scandinavian surprise, Norway has given us The Wave — a smart, lean nail-biter about a geologist who predicts that an unstable formation at the top of a fjord will lead to an avalanche resulting in a violent tsunami. Said tsunami would do what some comparable catastrophes have done in Norway’s historical past: destroy villages and kill people. So the fictional goings-on in The Wave have factual and scientific basis in reality.
Our hero Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) is retiring from his job at a warning center that monitors the area. Before he and his family head off into the sunset, he notices a discrepancy in the readings from cliffs overlooking the picturesque town where his wife happens to be wrapping up her job at a resort hotel. Kristian’s colleagues scoff at the notion of imminent danger, so he takes matters into his own hands to save his loved ones as well as the legions of unsuspecting locals and tourists in possible peril.
Roar Uthaug’s direction is sure-handed and keeps things lively and nerve-wracking throughout; his cast is effective in just skirting the character clichés of this genre; the scenic beauty of the setting at risk is postcard-perfect and lovingly shot by the camera team; and the special effects are generally strong. Although it may not be the sort of movie countries generally submit for the foreign-film Oscar, it was Norway’s official entry to the 2015 Academy Awards. Even if the ending is a little too … Hollywood, The Wave could definitely show the big-budget hacks how to make a more plausible and satisfying movie of this ilk that isn’t such a creative disaster.
The Wave: opens March 4 at the Landmark Theaters Opera Plaza Cinema (601 Van Ness Ave.), 415-771-0183, landmarktheaters.com
‘KNIGHT OF CUPS’
Starting with Badlands in 1973, Terrence Malick has written and directed some of the most esteemed motion pictures of the past five decades — Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life. He took a 20-year break between 1978’s Days of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line, but lost none of his depth, creativity, and passion for filmmaking in his time away. In truth, he has become much more prolific since his return to the big screen. If his 2012 release To the Wonder was less than satisfying, his latest finds him back in top form.
Malick’s Knight of Cups is another in a recent spate of movies that are of, about, or set in the Hollywood milieu. (The title refers to a specific tarot card depicting an idealistic, romantic seeker, and most segments in the movie are named after other cards in the tarot deck.) Unlike the modern film-noir grind of Mojave or the jubilant period comedy of Hail, Caesar!, Knight of Cups is a sometimes brooding, sometimes kinetic, visually breathtaking, resolutely avant-garde take on the personal journey of a screenwriter (Christian Bale) trying to find love and meaning amid the sybaritic pleasures of Los Angeles — with a side trip to Las Vegas. He struggles with the uneasy relationships in his life, interacting with his troubled brother (Wes Bentley), his aged father (Brian Dennehy), his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), a hedonistic associate (Antonio Banderas), and various lovers, past, present, and possibly future (Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer, and Isabel Lucas).
The spectacular cinematography adds to the ethereal, dreamlike nature of the writer’s quest as he drifts from downtown Los Angeles penthouse party to studio lot to stark desert landscape. Any philosophical questions posed by Knight of Cups defy easy answers, but the pursuit of them, as mapped out by Malick and embodied by lead actor Bale and company, is mesmerizingly beautiful.
Knight of Cups: opens March 11 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema (1 Embarcadero Center), 415-352-0835, landmarktheaters.com.
‘EYE IN THE SKY’
With a topical bent, Eye in the Sky addresses our current era of international terrorism, drone warfare, and invasive high-tech surveillance. The film delves into the unexpected consequences of fighting a ruthless and elusive enemy with what can be imprecise technology, especially in the hands of human beings. More specifically, it shows what can happen when innocents are thrust into the middle of this conflict, forcing soldiers and agents to reconcile their individual and sometimes conflicting values for what is perceived as the greater good.
British Army Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) uses an American drone to finally find a longtime nemesis — a U.K. citizen who has joined a terrorist organization in Kenya — and discovers that her target is overseeing the launch of multiple suicide bombings. A missile strike is ordered on the bombers’ hideout, and a drone pilot (Aaron Paul) at a base in Las Vegas is about to pull the trigger when a little girl is spotted in the kill zone.
Back in London, the colonel and a fellow military officer (the late Alan Rickman) join an international governmental debate about the action as an antiterror operative (Barkhad Abdi) in Kenya secretly tries to save the girl, and the clock (and timers) tick. The roster of extremely capable actors, including Jeremy Northam and Iain Glen, bring gravitas commensurate to the stakes at hand: Is one child’s life worth the likelihood of so many other deaths?
Director Gavin Hood — who helmed the Oscar-winning South African film Tsotsi as well as the less-laudable Ender’s Game and X-Men Origins: Wolverine — handles the moral and ethical dilemmas with sensitivity and the action sequence with verve. Eye in the Sky is most assuredly something to see.
Eye in the Sky: opens March 18 at San Francisco theaters.