Thursday, May 24, 2012

In a Better World

Winner of this year's Golden Globes and the Oscars, the Danish film In a Better World, or Revenge in its native language, helmed by director Susanne Bier shows the powerful stuff that drama is made of, in crafting an engaging, sensitive and even dangerous tale that revolves around two families across two continents that deals with what I would deem as our threshold, tolerance and approach to the notion of being bullied and having the tables turned, to varying consequences.
There's Clause (Ulrich Thomsen) and his son Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) who just moved from London to a small Danish town, where the son blames the father for giving up the good fight against his mom's fight against cancer, and so forges an extremely testy relationship between the two since one fails to forgive the other, and the other trying too hard to seek it. In school, Christian meets Elias (Markus Rygaard), a boy constantly bullied by the older boys just because, whose doctor parents Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) and Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) are estranged because of the suggestion of the former's infidelity, and are on the brink of a divorce. The other major subplot and spatial treatment deals with Anton's time in an African village tending to the poor and the sick, which you'd know from volunteer groups out there who have doctors in their fold performing similar pro-bono services in under dangerous natural and man made circumstances.
As mentioned, the film focuses on something that rears its ugly head from time to time, with bullying happening not only within a school sandbox, but out there in society as well. And the ways we stand up to bullying got captured quite clearly here, as demonstrated by the different characters and their attitudes in handling such situations. For instance, Christian adopts the devil may care approach, for the young lad that he is, preferring to meet fire with fire, and dish out even worst than he received. Constantly scowling, William Nielsen does a good job portraying this angry boy whose daring gets more elaborate culminating in a tense moment which came quite expected in a way though saved by strong performances all round.
While his partner in crime and fellow peer Elias finds himself caught up in a dilemma and tussle whether to rat on his friend who had actually helped to keep the bullies at bay, perhaps it is how Ander Thomas Jensen's story that links Elias' father into the thick of things that made it richly layered. For all his compassion in helping to heal the poor in Africa, Anton follows a vastly different policy in the face of adversity. Perhaps you can point it to the Hippocratic Oath that all doctors have to adhere to, given his moral battle with his conscience when his skills are sought out by a vicious local warlord much to the worries and disbelief of the local population who has a growing respect for the good work performed for the community.
Anton is a fascinating character created, and Mikael Persbrandt shows his charisma in chewing up the scenes each time he appears, from the opening frame to the last. In a foreign land he's almost worshipped as a hero, but back home he's ridiculed and even abused by a stranger with whom he had no fight against, and his non-confrontational nature may seem unreal even, preferring never to stoop as low as his abuser, and hopefully imparting the correct values to his children. But as we see from the wrap up of the African subplot, Anton can in fact turn the tables if he chooses to, and I suppose it's really to pick one's fight, for those that truly matter (maybe even for the greater good, with intent a little bit suspect) rather than one for personal pride.
Director Susanne Bier (After The Wedding) just knows how to pace and package scenes that make you think, yet offering a lot of heart that they don't seem too overly engineered or manipulative. Through the tales of the different character arcs we see how true the avenues are in our very human response to those that give us flak for nothing or when we deem a certain injustice committed unto ourselves or others, either we talk our way out, fight back, or walk away with heads held high, the latter which is probably one of the hardest thing to do given bruised egos. It's also not too surprising that the perpetrators of this emotional downward spiral seem not to come from the women in the story like Anton's wife Marianne, who was almost like a flower vase if not for two superb scenes in the final act that lifted her role into one of necessity in contrast to how disappointed yet angry a mother can be, that Christian will never feel because of his own mother's absence.
A compelling dramatic piece with excellent characters and relationships, brought vividly to life by the cast of youth holding their own against the veterans, that makes this a must watch, and one of the best films of the year.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Head On (Gegen die Wand), winner of the top prize "Golden Bear" at the 2004 Berlin Festival, is occasionally interrupted by a panoramic shot of a singer performing in front of a small Turkish orchestra on the banks of the Bosphorus across from Istanbul. It's a simple, at first incomprehensible, little device that provides punctuation and clarity amid the chaos and melodrama that otherwise dominate this story of a Turkish man in his forties and a twenty-year-old Turkish woman who meet in a psychiatric facility in Germany when both have attempted suicide -- he by crashing his car into a wall ("head on"), she by slitting her wrists. Cahit Tomruk (the sublimely attitudinizing Birol Ünel) is a purposeless rock 'n' roll loving boozer with a dead-end job collecting bottles at a club, and Sibel Güner (the wiry, intense Sibel Kikulli) is a young woman with conservative Turkish parents who wants to escape family pressures.
Both are total drama queens and both are German-born Turks. Cahit is more assimilated; his Turkish isn't even good. Sibel figures if he'll agree to marry her that'll get her away from her family. This is the irony of their situation: she must capitulate to the conventions of their culture in order to gain some freedom from it, and he must capitulate to society in order to get some sense of purpose. So they do get married -- he somehow passes muster with the stuffy family, baulking all the way -- and they eventually even fall in love. Her joie de vivre is exactly what he needs, and she's essentially just as wild in her way as he is in his -- but his nihilism and violence continue unabated and so does her promiscuity, and his brutal attack on one of her one night stands leads to jail and scandal, which in turn forces her to go to Istanbul. While he's incarcerated she writes him sustaining letters from Turkey -- their relationship, like the staid orchestra on the Bosphorus, is a stable element amid the surrounding chaos -- and after jail he goes to Turkey to find her.
To say this turbulent, brightly colored, lurid story is a "realistic picture of Turks in Germany" would be a total distortion of the truth. But somehow the situation of Cahit and Sibel reflects the unstable moods this half assimilated, half alien population experiences, and however melodramatic and unresolved the saga is, the two main characters are very well realized. The actors are strong, especially Birol Ünel, whose charismatic brooding and ravaged good looks make him irresistibly watchable. Both feel real to us -- he sardonic and gloomy, she dangerously spirited and full of life-- despite her dramatic suicide attempts, of which there's more than one. The story, as much as the images through which it's told, is both dark and vibrant.
We need the Brechtian, Greek-chorus device of those orchestral interludes on the Bosphorus, though: without an occasional break the drama and darkness would be too much. We also need to go with the flow of this movie, and not expect it to be more polished or more organized, or even better looking, than it is. It looks unlike most films we're seeing now, but that doesn't mean the cinematographer hasn't done the best possible job. What it has is life, tumultuous with incident, strong personalities, and a milieu we've not seen before. There's also a loud, authentic-feeling rock-pop soundtrack and a cunning contrast between Cahit's punk-rock sensibility and Sibel's love of good grooming and dance. Arguably the movie is too long, but that length gives it the feel of a saga, which it must have, because that's what it is, the confused, tawdry epic of a generation. Like all first films by a whole subculture, it has a lot to talk about. When Sibel and Cahit discover they still love each other, after everything, it's the Turkish Germans discovering that they have self-worth. The last scenes are open-ended: this generation's future is anybody's guess.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Descendants

Alexander Payne has written and directed films (Sideways, About Schmidt) about men at unique crossroads in life and coming to grim, sobering realizations that cause a reevaluation of the past and an uncertain future. In The Descendents, he focuses on a man's family dealing with grief and the hidden truths that threaten to tear it apart. George Clooney is outstanding as a naïve husband and father who must confront life after a terrible series of events.
A water skiing accident in Hawaii has left a woman in a coma and her husband/lawyer, Matt (George Clooney), grief stricken and stunned by the news that she was having an affair with another man. It seems that everyone knew about the affair but Matt who was too busy with his work to even notice, and he must come to terms with it and rebuild his family. Matt's daughters are a troubled ten year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and his older teen, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who has a spacy boyfriend, Sid. As the family realizes that their mom may never recover, they must make some major decisions, and Matt must find the truth even if it means confronting the man who stole her heart. Meanwhile, Matt, as the primary trustee for the extended family, has an impending major land sale he must decide upon that could be a financial windfall for his relatives. Determined to meet his wife's lover, Matt does some detective work and, with some help from his daughters, finally arranges to meet the object of his obsession which causes him to reassess his own life and his relationship with his daughters.
This is Clooney's film all the way, and he gives a thoroughly convincing portrait of a man betrayed and oblivious to his wife and his family. He is not the handsome, dashing Clooney of Oceans 11 or Ides of March but rather an unglamorous fellow who is vulnerable. The pain and realization he emotes is heartfelt. Woodley lends excellent support as the knowing daughter who helps her father's quest.
Through much of the story you wonder if Matt will exact some kind of revenge on the creep or do something impulsive. That bit of tension only adds to an engaging plot. In the end, Matt does the right things and brings closure for his family. The final shot is great as Matt tries to become a dad again to his girls. A major subplot involving the land deal gets even more complicated as surprising information is revealed when Matt investigates his wife's lover. There are occasional moments of hilarity as when Matt is at the end of his rope and resorts to asking Sid for advice. It is a riot of a moment.
There are good details which add to our understanding of Matt's family including his cranky father-in-law (Robert Forster) and a mother-in-law who has Alzheimer's disease. What is special about a film like this is that each major character evolves through events and changed to a degree by the end (including spacy Sid). That marks good character development. These are not cardboard caricature but fully etched individuals with weaknesses like anyone, and our initial impressions about each are dispelled by film's end.
The Hawaiian scenery is gorgeous but never used as a travelogue. It merely sets the scene as did the wineries in Sideways and in some ways, the tropical paradise serves as counterpoint to the despair and angst that Matt must endure.
You could imagine a Broadway version of this story since it relies more on characters and situation. The film makes you care for and sustain interest in the main characters (brought to life by a strong cast) and what happens to them. In the end, there is sadness and regret but also hope, the kind of hope that strengthens and bonds a family.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Jar City

It's grim up North, in Baltasar Kormákur's dour, brooding and atmospheric Icelandic murder mystery. His Iceland is not the modish, forward-thinking home of free central heating, indie music and the Northern Lights (which is partly showcased in his 2000 101 Reykjavik). Instead the country emerges as a hardy, inward-looking and secretive society torn between old and new values, whose inhabitants' unsightly secrets can be unmasked through their distinctive genetic heritage, stored in a (real-life) database, holding the whole population's medical records.
Adapting Arnaldur Indridason's successful crime novel, Kormákur is visibly fascinated by this database, for it offers his characters a veritable cornucopia of clues, moral dilemmas and devastating truths. It allows the dyspeptic Inspector Erlendur to unearth 30-year old crimes after the seemingly everyday killing of elderly ne'er-do-well Holberg, and prompts Orn, a young father agonised over the inherited brain condition that is killing his daughter, to a series of terrible deeds. And it's this skilled exploitation of the explosive possibilities of the Icelandic high-tech hall of secrets, alongside a sly, rather mordant assertion that historical isolation has bred an Icelandic national taste for taciturn stoicism (and sheep's head as fast-food) that makes one forgiving of Jar City's narrative shortcomings.
Anyone familiar with the classier end of British or US TV police procedurals can see the intertwining of Orn and Holdberg's stories coming a country mile away. With its melancholy tone, foot-slogging police work and misanthropic hero ("Another typical Icelandic murder - shitty and pointless"), Jar City is a cinematic Inspector Norse, right down to its insistent, well-trodden themes of how the past infects the present through genetic and emotional inheritances. Nonetheless Kormákur's decision to concentrate on the police grunt work (Erlendur's team toil through a search for rape perpetrators from 30 years ago, for example) gives the movie a homely, trudging tone which sets it usefully apart from slicker Hollywood fare. It also melds neatly with the film's insistent bird's-eye views of the odd, anti-beauty of the Icelandic landscape, a rocky, geyser-pocked wasteland lashed by rain and snow. In fact, the film's downright disinterest in conventional aesthetics, as the crumpled, beardy Erlendur and his distinctly plain sidekicks wend their way through ugly post-war buildings, dilapidated interiors and Reykjavik's grey, weather-blasted suburbs, complements the unlovely, exhumed truths of Orn and Erlendur's searches most effectively. The filmisn't always deft (there's a sudden, disconcerting eruption of flashback in the last act to synch the two story strands) but it's never less than thoughtful.
As is the snuffling, beady-eyed performance of Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson, whose dogged, cynical detective drags the story on like a husky. His Erlunder mixes tenacity with flashes of tenderness that lend that common trope of crime thrillers - the policeman's ambivalent relationship with his own wayward child - with a pleasingly gruff poignancy. Carrying his drug-addled, pregnant daughter away from a junkie squat as impassively as if she were a truant toddler, he provides a moment more eloquent about the parent-child link, than anything that the Icelandic Genetic Research database could reveal.


 A contrived plot and larger than life characters threatens to turn Song Hae-sung's gritty Failan into a Korean version of Love Story but the film is redeemed by its sincerity, the gorgeous cinematography of Kim Yeong Cheol, and towering performances by Choi Min-sik, the abducted businessman in Oldboy, and angelic-looking Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung. Adapted from a novel by Jiro Asada, Failan (Cheung) is a young Chinese immigrant who, after losing both of her parents, comes to Korea only to discover that her one remaining relative has emigrated to Canada. She ends up at an employment agency seeking work but is told that she cannot remain in Korea with just a travel visa. The film then shifts to Inchon where Kang-jae (Choi), a low-level and thoroughly unlikable gangster, has just been released from prison for selling pornographic video tapes to minors.
Pushed around by his boss Yong-sik ((Son Beyond-ho) and disrespected by fellow gang members, Kang-jae's life is a mess reflected in his slovenly attire and in the unkempt room he shares with fellow porn dealer Kyung-su (Kong Hyeong-jin). He is tough as nails on the outside but when an old lady gets the better of him in a confrontation over protection money, a softer interior is revealed. He dreams of buying a fishing boat and returning to his hometown but does not have the means to do this. When his boss murders a rival gang member, however, he offers Kang-jae the chance to get the fishing boat by taking the rap for him and going to jail for ten years. Not having much to lose, he reluctantly agrees but his life takes a sudden turn when he hears some sad news.
The film then moves back to one year ago. In order to remain in Korea, Failan agrees to a paper marriage to Kang-jae who jumps at the chance to make some extra money, even though the two have never met. She is sent to work as a prostitute but is rejected when she begins to cough up blood, an issue that comes up later in the film. Finding herself working as a laundress for an older lady in a lovely rural setting close to the sea, all she has is a picture of her husband smiling but buys two toothbrushes in the hope that he will come to visit her. Appreciative of just being able to stay in the country, she writes to Kang-jae telling him how kind he is and how much she loves him.
We learn that Failan had come to Inchon but only was able to catch a glimpse of her husband in his video shop moments before he was arrested. As Kang-jae reads Failan's letters, a shift takes place in how he begins to see himself. Discovering the fact that someone loves him and believes in his kindness, his identification with the young girl and her struggle is the catalyst for him to rethink his life and discover almost a nobility of character in the process. Choi Min-sik is one of the world's most talented actors and, in Failan, he fully captures the character of the repulsive gangster who begins to discover his humanity and sensitivity. The ending is both sad and hauntingly beautiful as we dream about all the "what-ifs".


This is a modern day version of Shakespeare's play that retains the classical language of the original production. The play is based on the life of the Roman General Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, the legend of whom is still contested by some historians. Shakespeare wrote the play in the early 1600s but here it has been appropriated to the modern combat zone of Rome. Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) leads a group of fellow soldiers on a strike mission, taking down their adversaries of the state. Yet in a standoff he fails to defeat his main enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Returning from combat and Coriolanus is praised as a hero. Yet he upsets the public when they believe that he is mocking them and is sent into exile, away from his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and his son.
I appreciated this modern version of Coriolanus, directed by its star Ralph Fiennes, more as a concept or theory of appropriation than as a pure cinematic experience. This film asks us about timelessness and authorship but not in ways that it would ever intend. Choosing to set the film in modern times but keeping the Early Modern English dialogue is problematic. Preserving the colourful language means that the film is true to the play and its timeless themes but also potentially distancing for modern audiences too. There are some wonderful lines here like: "There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger." Yet if you are unfamiliar with this style of dialogue it will challenge how much you can invest in the story and characters. In being familiar with some Shakespearean plot devices, narratives and characters I was able to access the film but only in a broad overview of the narrative when there are probably much more subtle dimension to the side characters that one could miss. At least anyone familiar with 'King Lear' (1603) though will recognise elements like the exile of a leader, the failure to listen to the public because of one's hubris and the tragic ending. By remaining so faithful to the play Fiennes the director, not the actor, fails to transcend the story towards the cinematic medium. There's an early battle scene that is excitingly staged, without restoring too thickly to blood. It looks like it could be any modern combat zone and realises the timelessness of the play to current issues of dictatorships, which is one of the reasons Fiennes was interested in the piece. Interestingly, the play was banned in Germany following the Second World War, because it was linked too closely with fascism.
Yet despite its universal themes there are still moments that don't bode well to the modern period because of the emphasis on retaining the theatrical design. After the opening battle, the knife fight between the two soldiers as everyone stands around watching seems particularly unlikely. Similarly, as much as I'd like to see some people from TV banished, a call to exile from an audience watching Coriolanus in an interview doesn't fit either or at least seems too compressed. What remains are some incredibly long stretches of dialogue, which are testing, no matter how much conviction is provided by the cast. When Fiennes resorts to more cinematic techniques, like tight close up shots of the faces of the actors, including an outstanding Redgrave, he reveals and amplifies the anger in these character and we feel the impact of the story. It is far more engaging than just having the actors surrounded by clusters of bodies, like in a play. Disappointingly, the supporting cast doesn't match the leads because the likes of Jessica Chastain are underused and don't have enough to do. But if another version of King Lear were made, she would be a perfect Cordelia because her face is an emotive one of great innocence. Although you can appreciate the timelessness of the original plays themes and its overall essence here, I think those who are particularly familiar with the source material and general Shakespearean tropes will draw the most from the film's narrative and the performances.