In A Better World (Hævnen)

Despite the dearth of worthwhile movies at the beginning of the year, the local theaters weren’t using the space to let in the foreign films, and it had been a while since anything non-English had come through until the year’s Oscar winner showed up in the form of the Danish flick In A Better World (Hævnen).

Of course, in recent years a lot of foreign films have followed the Hollywood potboiler format (and quite successfully) but In A Better World is Scandinavian to the core. Well, neo-Scandinavian—it’s hard to imagine the Vikings of yore signing on to this sort of thing.

The story is about two pre-pubescent boys, Christian and Elias, their fathers and, well, conflict resolution. Elias is a nerdy little kid who gets bullied in school until Christian comes along. Elias’ father is a doctor who splits his time between an African refugee camp and his quaint little Danish town, and also has apparently at some point split his attention between his wife and another woman, such that his wife has separated from him.

Christian’s mother has just died, and his father has relocated him from London to wherever the hell they are in Denmark, either because his grandmother is around or perhaps because he has a lover there (Christian accuses him of moving for the latter reason).

Christian sees Elias being bullied and he doesn’t like it. We learn right away that he has a strong sense of justice. We then quickly learn he has an even stronger sense of revenge and a lot of pent up rage. Elias finds himself navigating a tricky friendship that tests his own sense of right and wrong. This is the movie’s strength.

The boys’ struggle is thrown into contrast by Anton’s (Elias’ dad) African adventures. Anton is struggling to teach the boys that violence is not the answer, but life isn’t making this lesson easy to transmit. Home in Denmark, he faces a bully of his own, and demonstrates tremendous courage in front of the boys facing him down. Meanwhile, in Africa, he’s constantly patching up victims of a warlord whose betting on the sex of unborn children, and then splitting their mothers open in order to resolve the bet.

The movie feels a little unfocused when it spends time on Anton and Claus (Christian’s dad) without the boys; it’s a little like the message was more important than the story.

That said, the message is not a simple one. We see violence as cathartic, helpful, pointless, savage, chaotic—but the director and writer don’t take the easy way out. Ultimately, it’s this nuance that makes the whole thing work.

Solid performances from all the actors, whose names you do not know. Good writing, direction, cinematography. All around solid production, and done on the cheap (by American standards) which is a good reminder that you can actually make a good movie without a lot of CGI.

I also learned from this movie that Danes hate Swedes, which is just adorable.

The Boy approved highly.

Everything Must Go

A lot of Will Ferrell’s recent political stuff has pissed me of, I confess, and I wasn’t expecting fireworks out of Everything Must Go, his latest movie which is about a man who comes home from work after being fired only to find all his stuff out on his lawn.

I figured this would be a semi-serious screwed-up-guy-gets-a-chance-to-redeem-himself movie, but about five minutes in we discover that Ferrell’s drinking binge is what cost him his job and his wife, which puts this squarely into the “alcoholic” genre.

Now, alcoholic movies can really only go one of two ways. The guy either reforms or he drinks himself to death, and nobody makes a comedy out of a guy drinking himself to death (which isn’t to say some people don’t laugh uproariously all the way through Leaving Las Vegas). You also know that the 2nd act climax has gotta be a drinking binge or something really close to that.

So, right away, you know the shape of the movie.

Which, of course, isn’t the point at all.

Do you like Will Ferrell, is the question? This is an hour-and-a-half of Will Ferrell. Not Anchorman Will Ferrell, though, more like Stranger Than Fiction Will Ferrell. He’s funny, but not in a way that undermines the drama. He’s likable but he has an arrogant streak. It’s a tough balance, but he pulls it off.

Ferrell’s main companion during his journey is a chubby black boy whose mother (we never see) is a hospice care worker that leaves him to ride his bike around the neighborhood while she works. The actor (Christopher Jordan Wallace) does a good job here, playing off Ferrell without being cloying or sassy, and generally avoiding the worst of the clichés.

Rebecca Hall plays the pregnant across-the-street neighbor who watches Ferrell’s meltdown, and Michael Pena is his sponsor/police detective friend who buys him a few more days on the lawn while his uptight neighbors (including character great Stephen Root) want to roust him.

Ultimately this worked for me because I like Will Ferrell (dammit!). He manages to be likable even when he’s being a jerk, and he always looks like he regrets it. It’s hard not to root for the guy, which is critical for this kind of movie.

That said, I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. Ferrell’s constantly got a beer in his hand, which hangs a constant heaviness over the proceedings, such that the funny parts can never get too funny. (By contrast, see Blake Edwards’ Skin Deep, where John Ritter does pratfalls and penis jokes. Blake Edwards was the master of tackling difficult subjects with slapstick without cheapening the subjects. And also, as with S.O.B., of injecting dark humor suddenly into a light subject.)

Another element is that the premise of the movie itself—that Ferrell must shed himself of worldly goods to achieve enlightenment—is not really substantiated. You could argue that Ferrell was using his possessions to not not confront his alcoholism, but it’s not a position the movie makes very well. You could say they were representative, say of his emotional baggage, but that’s sort of heavy-handed (all the more because the movie makes the connection at times).

But it does manage to be serious without being depressing and completely without humor.

The Boy approved, though he also thought it would be a little less serious.

Thor? Why, I’m Furiouth!

OK, now that I’ve seen the movie, my kids can breathe a sigh of relief because I’ll stop doing that dumb joke. (Probably.)

Thor is the latest in the Marvel-Takes-Over-The-Movies rampage that started in earnest with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and has led down such inglorious blind alleys as Daredevil and Hellcow. (OK, they haven’t done Hellcow…yet.)

I was always a DC guy, I think I’ve mentioned, and Thor was one of the reasons why. As a big fan of Greek and Norse mythology, the idea of a Thor superhero struck me as stupid. Whereas, I dunno, Metamorpho seemed perfectly non-stupid? (I find the whole Marvel/DC dichotomy interesting, because obviously both companies made good and bad comic books, and certainly I didn’t have any peer pressure, yet I never liked Spider-Man, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, etc.)

Anyway, here we have the tale of the Norse god as a sort of sci-fi/superhero mash-up. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) lives in Asgard with his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), mother Frigga (Renee Russo) and his possibly evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) where they hold off the definitely evil Frost Giants with their United Colors of Benneton Super Best Friends.

Through a variety of wacky adventures (or an evil plot, mayhap?) Thor ends up powerless, hammerless and banished to earth, where he falls into the lap of plucky cosmologist Jane (Natalie Portman). Thor’s got to get back to Asgard to save everybody from all the badness. But of course, there’s some ass that needs kickin’ down on earth, too.

Kenneth Branagh directs and does a fine job with some occasionally thin material. It’s done in sincerity and without the wink-and-a-nod of a critic’s darling but also without taking itself too seriously. (My favorite Branagh-directed movie would be another one of his less artsy films, the thriller Dead Again.)

The movie takes place at both ends in the Flash Gordon-esque world of Asgard, and in the middle on Earth in New Mexico. The Asgard stuff is—well, I liked it? But it’s not exactly Lord of the Rings. And while I’m not a fan of the trilogy, it looked epic, whereas Asgard sometimes came off as cheesy.

The movie really picks up when it comes to earth. Chris Hemsworth does an oustanding job, even though it may seem like not a difficult task. You know, “Stand there. Look gorgeous. Take off your shirt. Smile.” But I think we’ve all seen it done badly, and there is some subtlety here.

We have to like him, for example. But we also have to see that he’s a bit too cocksure—arrogant, even. Too self-involved and not overly concerned about what happens to others. Imperious. And he has to do all that without us disliking him and while being a complete White Knight, a la Superman.

It doesn’t hurt that he looks the part. Am I right, ladies? He towers over Portman, and most of the cast, which reminds me a little of my experience at The Graves premiere. That is, he looks huge, but he’s also about the same height as The Boy, who is only slightly taller than I. Heh.

Point is, he looks and acts the part. Reminded me (favorably) of the young Chris Reeves.

Tim Hiddleston is the other really strong part of this.  Ace of Spades has a mega-review up here where he talks about many of the same things I do, only in much greater detail. (He praises it, only faulting it for not trying to be a great movie.) Ace doesn’t seem to be impressed by the comparisons of Loki to Shakespeare’s finest villain, Iago, but I have to admit, it occurred to me, too.

There’s a lot of complexity and subtlety in that character, and Hiddleston did a fine job with it.

I’m not (ever) as impressed with Portman as everyone else seems to be. She’s fine here. Her whole job is to fall pretty much instantly in love with Thor, and she does a serviceable job. Her role is—I’m not sure, exactly whether she’s a cosmologist or an astrophysicist, but she provides the bridge between the science-fiction and fantasy elements of the story in some of the finest comic book logic since Doc Ock started his fusion experiment by making autonomously intelligent tentacles for his back in Spiderman 2.

I love that sort of thing.

But Portman comes off fine, though Kat Dennings (40 Year Old Virgin) steals scenes from under her and comes off sexier—and I’m not really a fan of Dennings looks, either. OK, if you twist my arm, I’d have to say Jaimie Alexander as Sif comes off the hottest. Ass-kicking Viking women! And 5’9" she can tower over the tiny Portman and Dennings, so it looks a little more plausible than it—well, then it normally does when actresses go around kicking ass in action films.

What else? Music: Good. Setting? Nice: New Mexico makes a nice change from the big city shenanigans. It felt more intimate. Climactic Plot Point: I liked it, but a lot of people have said there wasn’t enough on the line. I felt it fit in perfectly with a white knight story. Tie-ins with other Marvel Properties? Meh. I have a bad feeling about all that.

Overall, I’d recommend it if you can hang with the comic book thang. The Boy and The Flower both liked strongly, but were not terribly enthused. No requests for “Thor” underwear have been made, e.g.

Atlas Giggled

So we went to see this film Atlas Shrugged, Part 1. You may have heard of it. It’s based on a book or something.

Can you tell this is going to be impossible for me to write without snark?

Let me get this out of the way: The Boy liked this movie. He said, “At first it was too much qq and not enough pew-pew,” which I gather means something like “it started slowly, evoking concern in the viewer that it would never get off the ground, but when it finally got moving, it was interesting.”

I always like to get The Boy’s opinion first so mine doesn’t influence him. In this case, I really had to bite my tongue. I’ve heard a lot about the book, and of course, you can’t ever believe what you hear, because this movie has a MESSAGE, and it’s a message book-reviewing commies have never liked. So they trash the book. And the movie could expect (and received) similar treatment.

Still, two words: Hot mess.

Wait, one word: Rifftrax.

Or two words: Cinematic Titanic.

Or a portmanteau: Fanfic.

I had this feeling when I was watching this movie that I was reading fan fiction. I realize it’s an original story but the protagonist, Dagny Taggert, comes off as a Mary Sue. Seriously, you know who’s good and who’s bad based on how they feel about Dagny. And her dialog is stilted, to say the least, especially in the opening scenes.

It actually gets worse when Henry Rearden shows up, with his super-steel that’s poised to save Dagny’s railroad. This culminates in the most awkward sex scene since Watchmen.

I’m not inclined to blame the actors here. The dialog is awful. I mean, let’s say I was trying to make a point about hating coffee, and wrote a dialogue where character A says “Yeah, it all went to hell when people started liking coffee!” and character B responds with “Why are people so crazy about coffee these days?” (Don’t hurt me, Darcysport! It’s just an example! Coffee is wonderful!)

Point is, Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler (Taggert and Rearden respectively) aren’t looking good here. Some of the supporting actors do okay, I think largely because they have fewer actual words to speak. Patrick Fischler as Taggert’s assistant does well, and the great Michael Lerner manages to power through as the villainous Wesley Mouch, while Armin Shimerman is compelling as the weaselly state scientist.

The frustrating thing is, there is a good story here and there are so many echoes with modern life. Basically, Dagny is trying to save her family railroad from the mismanagement of her brother, while Taggert has invented a new steel that can quadruple the load capacity for high speed transport. Dagny and Henry are constantly being flanked by their competitors who prefer to go to the government rather than compete fairly.

And all the while good, competent men are vanishing, leaving behind only the mysterious phrase “Who is John Galt?”

And the movie does get better when the train stuff starts. So, what holds this movie back?

  • Dialog, as noted.
  • Characterization. Dagny and Henry are off-putting. I assume this is according to the tenets of Objectivism. They not only are against altruism, they seem to have no comprehension of it. Besides ringing false, the two of them come off as almost Asperger’s. 
  • Worldview. There seems to be the view not just that the big players are titans, but also that everyone else utterly depends on them. I don’t doubt there are titans in the world, but if the last 15 years have shown us anything, it’s that the economy is powered best by lots and lots of little players. Which brings us to…
  • Archaicness. Railroads? Steel? Really? Good lord, the government’s machinations are so unConstitutional that—well, they look a lot like a health care mandate, only not quite as bad as that—and yet the whole focus on rails and steel and ore comes off as a little silly. 
  • Music. I’m not sure I blame the composer, but the music actually competes with the dialog for clunkiness, the way it’s used to create emotion that really doesn’t seem to be there. (Fun fact: Composer Elia Cmiral scored After Dark Horror Fest flicks Tooth and Nail and The Deaths of Ian Stone.)
Elia Cmiral also scored Battlefield Earth, which this movie reminds me of. It, too, was made over the course of many years, and it, too, was a hot mess worthy of Rifftrax. 
Ace of Spades was planning to do a review of this film, and chided his readers for not seeing it when it first came out, arguing that if conservatives want conservative movies, they need to support conservative movies.
This isn’t a conservative movie, though. It’s a movie about the perils of unlimited government and populism which, while I can get behind that and push with both hands, actually undermines its own case by making its leads be amoral.
I mean, I can’t swear Dagny’s had an abortion, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
It seems to me that the stronger argument for limited government is that people do the right thing when left alone by the government, not people are as shallow as you think but that’s no excuse for limiting freedom. I agree with the latter point, but it makes a crappy movie.
That said, the left-wing attacks on it that take it on from a philosophical POV have been largely absurd. The enemy in this film is the collusion of government with business. In no way are businesses in general the good guys here, just a few good guys fighting the world. 
I’ll go see part 2 if they make it, but I can’t really recommend it, except as a curiosity. It was really hard for me to sit through, actually, and I laughed out loud inappropriately at several points.
But I’m used to being the only guy laughing and, as I said, the Boy liked it.

UPDATE: Ace of Spades’ review here.

The Conspirator

I had to explain to The Boy who Robert Redford was (he’s seen The Castle), that he was a director of some merit, and also that he was pretty far left wing, just to prepare him to see The Conspirator, Redford’s movie about the trial of Anna Surratt, who was accused of conspiring to kill President Lincoln.

So what we have is a pretty good movie that is (I understand) fairly reasonable in its historical accuracy, but which also brings the Big Clown Hammer down on the audience about the naughtiness of trying American citizens in military court. (And I must confess, I don’t think we’re actually doing that.)

The good parts are James McAvoy’s portrayal of Union war hero Frederick Aiken, Robin Wright and Evan Rachel Wood as women caught up in public sentiment after being on the losing side of a war (and being Catholic), Kevin Kline as Dick Cheney Secretary of War, Andrew Stanton, and a bunch of always welcome character actors, like Stephen Root and Colm Meaney.

McAvoy’s character development as the lawyer who learns to have a kind of sympathy for a client he does not sympathize with is good. The military tribunal is a kangaroo court, and we’re invited to share in the outrage that the system is being perverted for political ends, which is easy to do. The social toll it takes on him to vigorously defend his client (as he must!) is interesting, if not well followed through on.

It’s also good that the message is a truly liberal one, not a modern “progressive” one. That is, the message of the movie is that the power of the state should not be used unjustly against an individual, and we should all be able to get behind that. (But see the spoilers below for why this movie doesn’t work at that level.)

Less good is Stanton’s almost uncompromising evil. Redford specifically allows him some chances to defend himself so that Redford himself can defend himself from charges that he’s got a one-sided view of things. But it’s weak tea. Maybe it’s not historically accurate, but Stanton had to have some reason for thinking it be necessary to hang the (possible) traitors—and whatever the reason is, it goes a lot further than just Stanton.

A better movie would have given us some reason (beyond the character’s words) to believe there was some merit to their concerns.

I’ve never been a huge Robin Wright, either looks or acting—nothing against either, she just never really made an impression on me—but here the former Princess Buttercup looks harsh, hard and ragged. This was deliberate, of course, but: Mixed feelings!

The Boy and I did like it.

But to tell you the bad parts, I have to spoil the movie, so if you don’t want the movie spoiled (and you don’t know the history, in which case, the movie is already spoiled), then don’t read on.


The movie is about a kangaroo court. This removes a whole lot of possibilities for tension. The Secretary of War wants Surratt dead; you can be pretty sure she’s going to die.

The biggest problem (for me, anyway) comes at the end of the first act, when Surratt confesses to a skeptical Aiken that she didn’t know about the conspiracy to kill Lincoln—only about the conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln, which was an entirely different conspiracy altogether.

In other words, she was guilty.

Yes, it was a kangaroo court, and kangaroo courts are bad. Yes, witnesses gave false testimony against her. No, they didn’t have enough evidence to convict her.

But she was guilty! We’re splitting hairs. How would a plot to kidnap the President actually be better? Is that really an ameliorating factor? “Yes, your honor, I knew there was a plot to kidnap the scumsucking tyrant who killed all our young men, but we wouldn’t dare have harmed him!”

Even worse? She was really just sort of hanging around the conspirators, and covering for her son who doesn’t show up in time to save her from her fate—but when the son shows up after the Supreme Court demands that civilians be given civilian trials, he gets off!

And he was REALLY guilty! He’s out there on the road waiting to intercept Lincoln’s carriage but Lincoln ends up changing his plans and accidentally thwarting the scheme.

So you have to really be into the process to have this movie resonate with you, I think. It seems to me that the question is far messier than the movie would like to be, to the movie’s detriment.

But, hey, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

The Lincoln Lawyer

I didn’t really have any plans to see The Lincoln Lawyer. A Matthew McConaughey where he doesn’t take off his shirt? What’s the point? But the Old Man wanted to see it, and I was eager to get him to the movies whenever he was up to it. Every time I asked, though, he was too tired.

Then he died.

That night, I drove his convertible with The Boy riding shotgun and The Flower in the back to see it in his honor. Although I had cultivated my love of movies independently, over the years the Old Man and I had seen a movie a week (or more). Literally, hundreds of films together—much of it during the ‘80s, when it was a challenge to see a movie a week, even in Los Angeles. Everything from schlocky crap like The Forbidden World and high budget actioners like The Road Warrior, to foreign films like The Tin Drum and classics—we saw The General together at a revival theater.

He would’ve been pleased by The Lincoln Lawyer, I think. This is (fittingly enough) a very ’70s-style mystery/action thriller with McConaughey as a mercenary lawyer who nevertheless has a pretty strong ethical code.

The plot revolves around Haller (McConaughey) taking on a case where a very rich client (Ryan Philippe) is accused of raping a hooker. When his mother (Frances Fisher) accedes to all of Haller’s financial demands, Haller takes the case.

From here, the plot hits a couple of really common tropes (like—and I hope this doesn’t ruin the movie for anyone—everyone’s lying) but it hits them fast, and then sort of inverts, changing the focus of the movie. It does this kind of zigzag several times, keeping the straightforward premise from getting stale. Make no mistake, though: this movie covers a lot of familiar territory.

It’s kind of like the titular Lincoln. Very ’70s feeling in a lot of ways, but classic.

Also ’70s-feeling was the subplot with Marisa Tomei as Haller’s divorced wife, who snarls at Haller when they’re not having sex, or he’s not being the World’s Best Dad, and William H. Macy as the private dick who uncovers a shocking clue!

No car chases, though. The Old Man would’ve wanted some chase scenes.

The Boy liked it, and all he knows about McConaughey is the shirt thing.

The Flower thought it was funny—I think she had a hard time following the plot—but not as funny as Gran Torino (which she regards as one of the funniest movies ever).

I liked it, too. But I missed talking with him about it afterward.