Review- In a Better World

Markus Rygaard and William Jøhnk Nielsen in In A Better World (Sony Pictures Classics)

In a Better World is a Danish film which won Best Foreign Language Film at the most recent Academy Awards and that is a moniker which can carry a stigma for many. The two that come foremost to mind are that either it’s an inaccessible by the masses art film or that it’s essentially an American film transplanted and taking place overseas. None of these notions apply to this film at all.

However, this film did vaguely bring to mind the Best Picture winner The King’s Speech in as much as its accessibility and relatability are part of its appeal. However, there is still an artistry and at times poetry in the way the simple subject of this film is handled that makes it excel just beyond being something passable and there’s still that European sensibility to it that’s just a little more deft even when handling things in a very straightforward manner.

This film is really telling two stories most of the time: it tells of Elias’s struggle to deal with bullying (which is quite relevant to the current climate) and his father Anton’s struggle as a doctor working in Africa who has to treat a malicious man who has sent many women to his hospital tent clinging to life and the locals beg him not to. These narratives only truly intersect once, otherwise the film shifts, as Anton does, from location to location.

The third factor, one who starts on his own but becomes involved in Elias’s story and dominates that, is Christian. After the initial images of Africa grace the screen, Christian is heard reciting a poem in English (this is one of the longest L-Cuts I’ve ever seen). As the film frequently does it conveys information visually showing us he is at his mother’s funeral. Following her death he moves from London back to Denmark and meets Elias. He has a very different, more confrontational way of dealing with bullies and sticks up for Elias who gets picked on about his teeth and anything else they can think of. Eventually Christian’s way of seeing the world catches on with Elias and his father Anton struggles to show both of them otherwise.

This is the kind of narrative that could get quite preachy and pedantic but it doesn’t do so. It does take the opportunity and has the narrative to serve as a teachable moment but the characters never talk at us but to each other and each of them throughout prove themselves to be far too imperfect to be self-righteous. In the past employing children in meaty dramatic roles had been the sole purview of the foreign film, specifically those from Europe, while there are are now more opportunities here there’s still something a bit more genuine in the portrayal of the positive and negative aspects of youths overseas.

With the themes and plots that this film has it makes doubly sure to make all of its characters engaging, interesting and human and yet also makes most of them likable as well. In doing so these simple struggles which balloon to massive issues with each decision carry more and more weight due to the investment we’ve made in each of them and their well-being. While dealing in the philosophical it still has that emotional pull we need.

This identification made all the more easy by the cast which is nothing short of superb. The kids, of course, deserve first mention. Between the two of them they shoulder a lot of the burden of bringing this tale to life and each one of them has their own journey, and aside from one hiccup which I’ll attribute to willful misdirection, they make nary a misstep. What that misstep is doesn’t bear mentioning beyond the above. The bottom line is both Markus Rygaard as Elias and William Jøhnk Nielsen as Christian are fabulous in it and I was not surprised to learn that the latter was nominated as Best Actor in Denmark’s national film award (Zulu) and may factor greatly in mine (BAMs).

Furthermore, you have supporting them the very talented actors who play Elias’ parents: Mikael Persbrandt, whose own moral dilemma occupies much of our time and he shows the great range to be both tremendously sensitive and caring and extremely enraged and Trine Dyrholm whose despair drives this movie into your core and makes you feel it if you haven’t already.

The only thing I thought was consistently off was one theme from the score, which played quite frequently and seemed the most discordant of all the pieces. This is a shame because many sections were quite effective but are rendered less memorable by the repetition of the most unpleasant section.

In a Better World is certainly the kind of film which could improve with a second viewing and was most definitely worth not only of its awards but of your viewership.

9/10

The Gray Area Reviews

Every year there is invariably going to be a gray area with regards to films. What I mean by that is due to the tyranny of release dates (meaning Oscar-nominated or contending films being released towards the end of the year) there will be some that slip into the following year.

Some of these films will fall into the gray area meaning they were out in say 2010, I had adequate opportunity to see them but passed for whatever reason. Some I was ignorant about their release so they retain their eligibility for the following year.

This year has an additional shade of gray, if you will, and that comes form the fact that I was transitioning from one site to another and busy archiving rather than writing new content. Some films failed to get timely reviews due to that fact, however, they still deserve them and that’s what this article hopes to do: bridge that gap.

So without further ado: The Gray Area reviews.

Rare Exports

Rar Exports (Oscilloscope Films)

There isn’t much in the way of originality coming out of American horror films these days. If you want something different you’re better off going international specifically to Europe. Rare Exports is a Finnish film that tackles the Santa Claus in horror subgenre with style, humor and intelligence much in the way the Norwiegian film Dead Snow took on the Nazi zombie subgenre.

There is a good bit of folklore re-interpreted and made to be a modern horror tale with a few intentional chuckles along the way. There is some good make-up work and some really good performances out of the cast both young and old.

The only thing that holds this film back is after a while it stops progressing its narrative and danger quotient and just sort of stagnates. It never becomes uninteresting and has a nice button at the end it just slips in the latter part of the second act into the third.

It is, however, a brisk and fun watch that you should look for on video when it comes out.

6/10

True Grit

True Grit (2010, Paramount)

This film falls into the Gray Area because I only managed to see it in January though I had chances to in December. For the record, I would not retroactively include this film in my Top 15 of 2010, however, that is one of the few things I can really fault it for. The film works and it works well I could just never get as involved with it as it wanted me to be.

The other thing that is a little bothersome is that in a rather realistic and well-spoken film you get an ending that smacks of a Hollywood cliché. The annoyance of false climax aside it’s two perils combined in one to add a little more running time and a quasi-tragic button to the whole affair.

Regardless of that the film is beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins and is played very convincingly by its cast particularly Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. It’s a plot that’s simple enough but also intriguing enough that it naturally becomes a character study without ever being tiresome.

8/10

The King’s Speech

Colin Firth in The King's Speech (The Weinstein Company)

I have been reading some people either complain or just state how The King’s Speech is both rather bulletproof but also not mind-blowing. To re-iterate the above review if I had to go back would I slide this film in my Top 15, probably not, do I get the bulletproof comments? Yes.

There is even less to nitpick this film about, if you want to use that term than there is for True Grit. The only thing that slightly holds it back in my book is the intangible visceral reaction that I just didn’t quite get out of this film as opposed to others.

It’s not a daringly original film in terms of concept or structure it’s just very well executed, acted, edited and shot. It’s the kind of Best Picture contender that while I may not have nominated I can really get behind because it is the best film that the lowest common denominator can get behind. Seriously, who can hate this film?

Before you answer consider the fact that I may need to ask you what your problem is. This is a really easy film to get into whether it blows you away or not and is a really likable kind of story. It’s a “feel good” movie without all that “feel good” movie cheese in the mix.

9/10

The Rite

Anthony Hopkins in The Rite (Warner Bros.)

The Rite is a rather surprising entry in the possession/exorcism subgenre of horror. There’s not a lot of new ground to tread so far as this kind of tale is concerned, however, the one thing this film, does right off the bat is acknowledge the existence of the subgenre with a reflexive joke about The Exorcist.

This film, of course, is a little like that one: there’s an old priest and young priest, there is the subject of doubt and it is in turn more about the exorcist than the exorcised, as a matter of fact, the exorcised are typically rather glossed over. However, what this film does do is deal with the mundane aspects of exorcism, it deals with many possessions and brings it down to earth a little from where its been.

The examples it uses as proof are simple and well-thought out. There are very good flashbacks in this film that allow more doubt to be created about where the tale is going then you’d ever expect.

Then there’s Anthony Hopkins. Just the fact that I am mentioning his name this late is an indication that this is a quality film worth seeing. Without saying too much there are shades of Hannibal Lecter in his performance which are great. The acting overall in fact really props this film up. It is definitely worth viewing.

8/10

The Green Hornet

Seth Rogen and Jay Chou in The Green Hornet (Columbia Pictures)

I truly shudder to think at what this movie would’ve been like had it not been for the creativity and flair that Michel Gondry brings to it. Yes, there is plenty of competition between action and comedy elements of the tale and both serve the film and story well but there’s also a lot of both and the film gets a little long in the tooth. As an origin story it’s not the most gripping based on how its handled not just based on the empirical facts of the character such that the flair and verve that Gondry brings is desperately needed.

The name Seth Rogen in the same sentence as the word superhero still does seem a little funny to say, however, it does kind of work for this character because it’s not a case of his being superhuman and his sidekick, well-played by Jay Chou does contribute quite a bit to the equation.

6/10