flee (jonas poher rasmussen, 2021)

You can learn a lot about Flee by looking at the three categories for which it has received an Oscar nomination: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature. It is the first movie in Oscar history to get nominated in all three of those categories, and it is clear from those nominations that this is not a straightforward presentation. Animation draws attention to its unreal nature, while documentaries at least pretend to show "real" life. By choosing to animate his film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen is making a statement about the veracity of documentaries.

The film is also complicated by the possible untrustworthy source of its narrative. Flee tells the story of the pseudonymous "Amin", who is a long-time friend of the director, and who is a refugee from Afghanistan. Rasmussen wants to tell Amin's story, wants to give Amin a chance to tell his story, but Amin has good reasons to hide behind anonymity. We don't know exactly what he looks like, since he is animated in a style so close to rotoscoping that we might forget the face is probably not a match for the real person. We learn of his escape from Afghanistan as a child, and to some extent, that explains all of the ways Amin hides the truth. Rasmussen assumes he knows much of the story, but over the course of the film, he learns that Amin has never told people his entire true story. The revelations are new not just to the audience, but also to the director.

Once you realize that Amin will adjust his story to protect himself, you question the validity of what he tells us about his life. The emotional makeup of the character feels very real, and his reasons for protecting himself are obvious. We sympathize with him ... we don't turn against him when we see how his story is sometimes a bit sideways to the facts, just as Rasmussen remains Amin's friend even as he learns that some of what he has known isn't literally true.

It strikes me that my two favorite movies so far from 2021 are documentaries. Summer of Soul remains my top choice, but Flee is in the same league.

another round (thomas vinterberg, 2020)

The only other film from Thomas Vinterberg that I have seen is The Hunt, which also starred Mads Mikkelsen. It was a good movie, in large part because Mikkelsen was so interesting in it. Another Round is more of an ensemble piece than was The Hunt ... Mikkelsen stands out, but he's not the entire focus of the film. The story, of four high-school teachers who come up with the idea of trying to maximize their job performance (and their lives) by getting just drunk enough to bring out their best, is different at least.

I can't speak of the veracity of the image Another Round paints of a place where half the country, including the high-school kids, are drunk. (The Danish title is Druk, which means drinking.) Things get interesting when the teachers first find their abilities enhanced. It feels like Vinterberg wants us to believe the idea that drinking makes us better people. But things get carried away, as you know they must. They base their experiment on a theory that apparently is actually espoused by someone, that people need to raise their blood alcohol level to 0.05 to achieve peak performance. Once the four are successful (at least in their eyes), they wonder why they should stop at 0.05. Wouldn't things improve even more if they got drunker? Which they do.

The blend of comedy and drama isn't always smooth ... perhaps it isn't meant to be. There are plenty of fun (not necessarily funny) moments, and of course, there are moments of great drama, especially around the crumbling marriage of Mikkelsen's Martin and his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie). I was never sure just how tragic this was supposed to be. We never really see Martin and Anika when they are happy, so we don't have much at stake with their relationship. Overall, Another Round is about the four male teachers; it is sneakily a guy movie.

Everything changes in the final scene. Mikkelsen breaks into a drunken but still stylish dance, and for a couple of minutes, I couldn't keep the smile off of my face. For a brief period, I was unconcerned with what Vinterberg was trying to say. It's a lovely moment.

Another Round is nominated for two Oscars, Best International Feature and Best Director, which is unusual. I've seen all five pictures in the directing category, and Vinterberg doesn't stand a chance of winning. I haven't seen the other "international" movies, so I can't hazard a guess about that category.

the square (ruben östlund, 2017)

The only other movie I've seen by Ruben Östlund is Force Majeure, which I liked, although I had no idea there was humor until I read reviews. So it's progress of a sort that I laughed a few times during The Square.

You might call The Square smug ... at the least, it is quite proud of itself. Some of the set pieces (and there are several) seemed to exist solely to have something to show off, and I imagine they'd work out of context ... one notable scene with a monkey man (or whatever he was ... he was played by "animal movement specialist" Terry Notary, recently seen as the title character in Kong: Skull Island) might be interesting if you watched it on YouTube without knowing any context. I loved lead actor Claes Bang, who I had never seen before. He was perfect in the part, and reminded me of many other actors that I liked ... maybe like a Danish Sebastian Koch. And Elisabeth Moss is always surprising, plus she has that ability to look odd and completely beautiful, often at the same time. (That she had a pet chimpanzee was a bit much.)

The Square has a lot to say about the art world, and the people who live in that world, and most of what it says is pretty cutting, if not quite mean enough. None of the characters come off well, although they are pleasant enough on the surface and not exactly evil underneath. It's too long at almost 2 1/2 hours, but you knew I'd say that. I wasn't bored, so it didn't really matter.

And as for Oscars, it's the first Best Foreign Film nominee I've seen, but I much preferred First They Killed My Father, which didn't get nominated.

Here is one of the more talked-about scenes in the movie:

There is also a funny scene featuring a person with Tourette's, and I am crude enough that I am a sucker for Tourette's jokes. Partly because of that scene, I was reminded of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which also relies on cringe humor. So I'll leave you with this, a restaurant opening where the chef has Tourette's:


what i watched last week

I rarely write about a movie directly after having seen it. Seems like it should marinate a bit before I expound. This practice caught up to me this week, as I watched four movies and, so far, only wrote about one (Purple Noon). So now I have to think back on two I watched early in the week, and do a rush job on one I saw this afternoon. Truth is, what I really want to write about is the season finale of Outlander, but that most definitely cannot be a rush job. So ...

Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, 2014). I might have anticipated a disaster movie, since all I knew going in was that there would be an avalanche in the French Alps. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a film that examined expectations around masculinity and family dynamics, something of a chamber piece that was a bit reminiscent of some of the work of Östlund’s countryman Ingmar Bergman. The whiteness of the snow engulfs the screen ... it feels like we are always in a fog. Some have found a bit of humor in the film, but I must have missed it. And some have seen it as exposing the pretenses of the bourgeoisie, but I preferred to think it exposed all of us. The ending ironically brings things full circle. #273 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. Watch it with Scenes from a Marriage.

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952). Takashi Shimura plays a long-time bureaucrat who finds he has cancer and begins to reevaluate his life. Shimura does such a great job of portraying a man beaten down into nothingness that you eventually want to slap him around and tell him to quit being so pathetic. Eventually, he does something with his life, and dies ... at which point there’s still half an hour to go. By the end, even the most hardened viewer (i.e., me) will have felt a case of allergies in the eyes, and it won’t even feel cheap. Not a masterpiece, but very good. Two years later, Shimura starred in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which is certainly a change of pace from what he gives us here. American fans of a certain age will recognize him for some of his later roles in movies like Godzilla, Gigantis: The Fire Monster, Mothra, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, and Frankenstein Conquers the World. #114 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. Go ahead, watch it alongside Mothra.

San Andreas (Brad Peyton, 2015). If The Rock hadn’t been in it, I probably would have skipped it. I’m glad I didn’t. It’s a winner in the Truth in Advertising contest: it promises earthquakes, and it delivers them. There is no use expecting anything more. It hits all the standard moments (scientist trying to warn everyone, hero trying to re-connect with ex-wife who has a lame boyfriend, nubile daughter with potential suitor), which fill the space between disasters. We’re not exactly talking Mad Max: Fury Road here ... I don’t feel the need to see it again any time soon. But it’s never so stupid you want to give up, the cast is appealing (lots of eye candy between The Rock, Carla Gugino, and Alexandra Daddario, all of whom do good work), and the special effects are worth the money. I got some comments about the movie on Facebook. One friend said she was eager to hear what I thought, since she loved earthquake movies. Another friend said the idea of watching San Andreas was disturbing to her ... she spoke of people she knew who were still dealing with the devastation in Nepal, and then recommended a book, “for reality, not Hollywood bullshit”. Your own opinion of the movie probably depends on where you lie between those two responses.

what i watched last week

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013). Not nearly as bad as I’d expected from the trailers. The anachronistic use of hip-hop is used sparingly (and for the most part works), and Luhrmann’s success is best stated in the film by Nick Carraway, who, when asked by Gatsby if his preparations for Daisy are right, replies “I think it’s what you want”. I believe that what we have here is The Great Gatsby that Baz Luhrmann wanted. Perhaps this is indeed an “unfilmable” novel. Luhrmann splashes through the big party scenes as if he was born for such work (which may well be true), and he can say that he’s been “true” to the novel … Fitzgerald did give us parties, after all. But, despite what film adaptations give us, The Great Gatsby isn’t about the parties, and what makes the book timeless is the prose, which is more elegant than the parties it describes. Luhrmann does what he can to foreground the prose, at times putting the actual words on the screen, and concocting a framing device that turns Nick Carraway into F. Scott Fitzgerald in far too literal a sense. Yes, Nick is Fitzgerald’s voice, and he carries the same ambiguous love/hate relationship to the rich that the author brings. But The Great Gatsby is more than an extended therapy session for an alcoholic. The cast is variable. Leonardo DiCaprio is fine … his charisma makes the public Gatsby believable, while he nicely plays the moments of uncertainty confronting Gatsby. Tobey Maguire’s job is impossible; he does what he can. Carey Mulligan is OK, but again, Daisy needs to be more than OK. She is a fantasy, not a real person, and Mulligan is too good at playing the real person to make the fantasy believable. The one actor I think was at a disadvantage compared to the 1974 version was Joel Edgerton as Tom. Bruce Dern nailed that role as if he personally had the right bloodlines. I thought I’d hate this movie, and I was wrong. But it doesn’t come close to the experience of reading the novel. For comparison, you could check out one of the earlier film versions of the book. Mia Farrow in 1974 offers a very different Daisy.

Thunder Road (Arthur Ripley, 1958). Disappointing cult film that has Robert Mitchum going for it, but not much else. The seemingly accurate portrayal of moonshiners in the South gives it some depth, and Mitchum is his usual laconic best. But the film drags, and the acting is something less than wonderful. I was looking forward to Keely Smith in a dramatic role, but unfortunately, she was pretty wooden. The film meant a lot to Mitchum, who provided the story, produced the movie, wrote the two featured songs, and may have even directed parts of it. But it’s better when you are imagining it than when you actually see it. For a follow up, try The Night of the Hunter, also with Mitchum, which made #31 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list.

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012). Vinterberg gives us a blend of Kafka and Hitchcock in this story of a man falsely accused of child abuse. There is no mystery about the abuse … it didn’t happen … but the ways in which the accusations close in on the accused are frightening and quite real. Mads Mikkelsen, known here for his villain in Casino Royale and for playing Hannibal Lecter on TV, has the kind of good looks that are striking because they aren’t perfect. Combined with his villainous roles, this makes his kindergarten teacher rather ominous, but once we see how he is unfairly mistreated, Mikkelsen garners great sympathy from the audience. I don’t know if there is much more to The Hunt than Mikkelsen’s performance and the creepy atmosphere, but that is more than enough. For another Mikkelsen film, Casino Royale will do. I haven’t seen it, but Vinterberg’s The Celebration is highly regarded.

Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013). Tom Hanks does his Oscar thing … for some reason, he wasn’t nominated, perhaps the attempt was too obvious, but he’s fine throughout, and excellent in the final scenes. I’d like to give a special shout out to Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Danielle Albert, who played a doctor in that final scene. She is so good, you want her to be your doctor the next time you end up in the emergency room. Barkhad Abdi deserves his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, playing a Somali pirate. Greengrass gives us an exciting recreation of events, although there are serious questions about how accurate the film is. But the film takes too long to get going, Catherine Keener is wasted (if you’re hoping for some Keener magic, here’s a spoiler: she’s in one scene at the beginning, and it’s not even an interesting scene). Greengrass and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Ray make nods towards sensitivity regarding the pirates, but ultimately, we get 2+ hours of crazy black men and stoic white men, with the enormous might of the U.S. military saving the day. It’s like a well-made Top Gun, and that’s not a compliment. For a better film by Greengrass, try Bloody Sunday.

ordet (carl theodor dreyer, 1955)

I love Carl Dreyer's masterwork The Passion of Joan of Arc, so I was surprised to find that I didn't much care for his later Ordet, which I watched yesterday. It was a dreary affair that hinged on arcane religious differences between people, almost all Christians, who didn't seem all that different to my untrained eye. (At one point, one of the Christians says to a member of a rival sect that those rivals don't know how to enjoy life, which is pot/kettle/black, since the speaker hasn't cracked a smile the entire movie.)

I only mention the movie at all because of one character, a young man who has gone crazy and thinks he's Jesus. He wanders around the house talking verrrrrrry sloooooow, spouting stuff out of the Bible. An explanation is offered for the man's mental problems: his father sent him to a good school, realizing his son was gifted and hoping the learning experience would allow the son to become a religious leader in the community. Instead it drives the son crazy, because ...

He had to read Kierkegaard.

film fatales: italian for beginners (lone scherfig, 2000)

Just to prove I can talk about something besides karma, tonight I watched Italian for Beginners. It's a Dogme film that, miracle of miracles, is a sappy, relatively conventional love story. It's nothing special, but charming enough, and the digital video looks v.nice on teevee, once you get past the part where it looks like, well, like a teevee show. There's no clear reason for this to be a Dogme film ... I suppose you could argue that the Hollywood-ish plot is ironic ... but the movie works because it's NOT ironic, for the most part, so who knows.