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Smukke mennesker (2010)
Sex, lies and therapy
"Smukke mennesker" is being cited as the box office bomb of the year in Danish cinemas, but I was captivated by it. Its multiple story lines of connected characters and its somewhat bleak and depraved point of view have critics throwing up comparisons to this and that source of inspiration, but I found the characters and the themes of sexual identity engaging on their own.
I was particularly impressed by Sebastian Jessen in arguably the leading role as the attractive, even beautiful young man who seems to decide to spend his youth on his own, away from parents or obligations, selling sexual favours with little discrimination, but not without empathy. Mille Hoffmeyer Lehfeldt is equally daring as a school teacher who chases some kind of physical fulfillment after losing a breast to cancer surgery. Bodil Jørgensen ('Idioterne') comically retires from the company where the young boss doesn't know anything about her, then loses her husband on the same day and has absolutely nothing to do. Henrik Prip, who I have never before considered an interesting actor, makes his woman-abusing, self-hating, therapist-seeking character seem almost likable. The supporting cast make excellent contributions.
There are numerous surprising or poignant or plain funny moments, some of them cringeworthy like the meeting of the young man with the old widow - on her couch. The characters, flawed as they are, made me care. I could have done without the chapter headings, which gave the proceedings a pompous edge and seemed to slow down an otherwise well-edited film. The ending presents an absurdly coincidental chance meeting, but I was happy to see the story go there.
Bits and pieces from the history of gay cinema
This film takes a look at gay cinema as it has developed over the last decades. It is not thorough or precise enough to be a true historical treatment of the subject, but rather lets its interviewees make their points without much opposition. Someone is allowed to say that he thinks the first "gay" movie was made in 1985, but we don't hear his reasons for the assertion. The upside is that there are some good interview bits in here, notably with John Waters, Tilda Swinton and Gus Van Sant.
There is no narrator or presenter, everything is interviews and film clips. The chosen film clips are sometimes linked neatly to fitting words by the interviewees, but overall the film feels slower than it needs to be. I saw this on Danish television; it looked to have been produced to be multilingual needing only subtitles to adapt from territory to territory.
Political and personal
I saw this film in its English-language version on Swedish television. It follows a gay couple who decide to film a documentary about the fight for a law to allow civil unions for gay couples in Italy. It seems like something of a vanity project with its focus on the couple's own emotional journey, but it also offers a look into the Italian political process and into the homophobia and religious sentiment that stand in the way of gay rights in Italy and elsewhere. The result is worthwhile for followers of the issue, though not essential viewing.
The English version that I saw contained narration which referred to the two protagonists in the third person, and which was carried out in a somewhat naive tone. I thought this was annoying and diluted the role of the gay couple as authors of the film.
Lille soldat (2008)
Under the surface
This is a very fine film, more serious than most Danish films, less somber than one might have feared. The story of prostitution among trafficked women is heart-wrenching at times, but is helped along by entertaining scenes and an excellent score. Well-established dramatic actress Trine Dyrholm gives a strong and controlled performance as a soldier recently back from war stumbling through her days as she is drawn into an unseen underworld that's right under her nose, and ours. The screenplay lets her scarring experiences in war bubble under the surface, and the character becomes the more interesting for it. Finn Nielsen has a rare, but excellent big role as the father, who is in turn comical and brutal, and British actress Lorna Brown is good as the Nigerian woman who is thankful for any client who will pay.
The film is critical of the forces that drive prostitution and trafficking and exposes the hypocrisy of the father, who claims to be helping the women he is selling, but it doesn't spell out its message, and its message is not easy to spell out. It is a captivating piece of fiction and deserves more than the lacklustre audience reception it has so far received in Denmark.
Himlens hjärta (2008)
Elegant and engaging
Danish director has directed a marriage drama cast with four excellent Swedish actors. From beginning to end it is beautifully filmed, strongly acted and well written. The story involves two middle-aged married couples who live in lush houses, have good jobs and are set in their ways, perhaps too much so for some or all of them. The dinner conversation when the two couples spend an evening together is the elegant starter of the infidelity drama that follows. This is tough and sometimes excruciating drama, though it does have pieces of playful dialogue throughout; there is also a dose of sweetener added at the end, but interpret it as you wish.
The settings are restricted to a few rooms of their two houses and go along with a style of photography and direction that insists on intimacy and requires precision on the part of the performers. The chamber drama style has been compared to certain moments of Bergman's career, usually favourably. There are also some surprising moments where the director draws attention to himself, for instance by allowing the actors to look straight into the camera; I think this helps keep the film engaging for the interested viewer.
A sidenote on the film title. It's possible that this double-metaphor romantic cliché is meant as some sort of irony on the part of the director, but it refers to nothing in the movie and almost kept me from wanting to see the it. It's already hard enough for films like these to survive in theatres without sticking nonsense titles on them.
Caught in the Act (1993)
Bad movie, but with saving graces
Someone must have had a fun time thinking up the plot of this little flick. That someone may have felt that since there was no other good reason to make this film, he might as well set the story in Hollywood and have the characters be an unemployed actor and a lonely agent with nothing better to do than fall in love with her clients. I wonder if the filmmakers were possibly unemployed themselves at the time, which would be an enjoyable twist. In any case, had they had anything better to do, I doubt they would have made this movie.
A man with bills to pay discovers thousands, then millions of dollars mistakenly deposited into his bank account. He decides to tell his bank. The film could have ended here, but the line is too long at the bank, so naturally he ends up spending the money instead. What follows is a thoroughly inexplicable chain of events with a plot twist of the sort that you really shouldn't think about too much. In the film's most clever development, the concept of acting takes center stage in the plot's resolution; all comes down to who can pull off the best performance.
Along with decent acting, especially by Leslie Hope as the attractive, but cold lover and Patricia Clarkson as the shy, but warm friend, these meta elements are saving graces of an otherwise lukewarm and unattractive production.
Taggart: Angel Eyes (1996)
This story from the Taggart series, usually shown in three installments, is among the best of the period after Taggart's death when Mike Jardine is chief inspector. Set against the backdrop of a growing gay scene in Glasgow, the plot has Jardine and his team investigating a series of grueling murders of gay men sought out in the local clubs and bars. The images of the dead bodies, stripped down and washed before being abandoned, are haunting and stuck with me from the first time I saw the story years ago until I was able to catch it again in the past few days.
The plot is carried out in persuasive manner, with enough characters to let us doubt the identity of the murderer, and enough false clues for us to feel convinced of the wrong conclusions. Most of all, though, it was the engaging character drama of the story that impressed me. Mike Jardine has obvious problems accepting homosexuality and jeopardizes the investigation because of it. Young cop Stuart Fraser is gay, but hides it at work, indicating the prejudice still existing in certain strata of society. Detective Jackie Reed becomes a highlight of the story as she navigates the local gay community while negotiating the tempers of her male co-workers. Particularly poignant is the family drama of the first murdered man, who leaves behind his lover of 40 years and an angry daughter, who does not accept her father's life choices.
At the end, the plot goes perhaps a little too sensational for my liking, but I must admit it is quite effective. Despite the drama, the story does not omit the sense of humour which is a popular part of the British crime fiction. Like the series in general, these episodes have good acting performances, with special mention to Blythe Duff and to the young woman who played the dead man's daughter, whose name I can't find.
"Barcelona", director Whit Stillman's second of three similarly themed feature films, gets a middle-of-the-heap grade from me for being an interesting and surprising idea not entirely well carried out.
Landing somewhere between drama and comedy, "Barcelona" is about two American cousins in Barcelona, Spain. Ted is an apparently successful and very keen salesman with an American corporation. Fred, although he is a navy officer, also refers to himself as white-collar; he is something of an office soldier. They both tender relationships with Spanish women, Ted on a short-lived theory of staying clear of beautiful women in favour of plain ones; he goes so far as to tell one of them so.
The film is packed with dialogue and, apart from the various situations meant to spark additional chatter, offers only little action-driven plot. Even a dramatic shooting late in the film seems mostly to act as the driving force of dialogue, and of the monologue of the narrator, Ted. Through the dialogue a number of interesting themes are touched upon. Relationships, beauty, sexual revolutions. Politics, prejudice, being an American in a world which is larger than just America. White-collar corporate life, complete with handbooks in economic thinking and salesmanship.
The trouble is, these issues are only touched upon and not explored to a degree that seems satisfactory. Too much of the talk, perhaps in an ambition for the film to be funnier than it really is, turns out strange and pointless. Worse, the acting is flawed. Both leads seem strangely uncharismatic to me, unable to make the dialogue come alive at key points, unable to make the attempts at comedy work more than at a few places.
The setting of Barcelona helped convince me to watch the film, but while it does have nice pictures here and there, it does not deliver a convincing ambiance of the city or its people. The score is noticeable in the film, but because it is reminiscent of well-known classical works it comes just short of the originality that might have made it great.
Dark and dramatic
Thomas Bjerregaard Nielsen's film school graduation film is a dark piece about a twenty-something man who returns home to his father's country house for an annual hunting party. The young man has quit his job as a military officer, but is scared to tell his father. His dilemma and his feelings in general towards his father and what he stands for are shown through effective scenes, one where he changes into officer's clothes in the woods before he dares approach the house, another where his father interrupts him with common pleasantries each time he tries to speak his mind.
The film employs a technique where the narrative erratically jumps from one situation to a later one without notice, which is interesting but not necessarily elegant. With this as an instrument we proceed to see not only verbal encounters between characters, but also our protagonist walking in on his father and sister sharing a bed, and a dramatic situation to end the film.
There are strong similarities in plot to another work by a Danish film school graduate, Thomas Vinterberg's feature "Festen". The themes of youthful struggle, incest and patriarchy are thus not exactly original, albeit carried out in a slightly different, and simpler, plot. "Festen" was also a remarkably better work of art with for instance a stronger sense of environment, higher technical merit and better acting. While Flemming Enevold spins a strong character as the father, the younger actors Jan Meyer and Stine Fischer Christensen are not so charismatic in the parts of his adult children, and I don't feel like we get to see the motives or feelings behind their actions.
John og Mia (2002)
"John og Mia" is a 25-minute short from Danish director Christian Dyekjær. It is based on the good idea of a middle-aged man discovering his own daughter as the star of one of the adult movies he rents at the local gas station to comfort him in his not too stimulating life as a widowed truck driver.
The idea is good because it is surprising and because it begs action of the man and confrontation not only with his daughter, but with the detachment they have suffered. Without saying too much, the ending seems to say that estrangement within family can only ever be shallow - father and daughter share more than puts them apart.
Style is something different entirely. With its video pictures and dark lighting in anonymous settings this film offers a mood and a pace of its own, but fails to tell the story with anything except the most necessary ability. There are a few unnecessary scenes, and the entertainment level is not high. Dick Kaysø plays the father and more or less blends in with the interiors while Mira Wanting is the daughter who does well in those scenes that underline her sensibility as a woman and a daughter, especially the final scene. Actor and singer Niels Skousen is seen in a small role.