Archive for the 'movie reviews' Category

A Whit Stillman Fan is Born

Because of the tyranny of the New York/Los Angeles release, some lucky people will be able to see Whit Stillman’s new film Damsels in Distress this weekend, but I am not one of them. I suppose that I can wait a bit, seeing as I’m only a very recent fan; while some have been patiently waiting for more Whit Stillman since his last film came out in 1998, I only discovered the pleasures of his style this past December, when the MacGuffin crew watched his first film, Metropolitan, for a Christmastime roundtable.

“There’s something a tiny bit arrogant about people going around feeling sorry for other people they consider less fortunate.”

Although from my perspective just about any film that incorporates the ennui of rich white dudes in its themes starts with one strike against it, the undercurrent of gentle irony in Metropolitan saves it from veering into the abyss. The story is of a group of friends home from college for the holidays, dressing up to lounge around each other’s Upper East Side apartments or go to fashionable places in Manhattan for no real purpose other than that’s what people do. They are at the time of their lives when stress about pairing off into couples is only just starting to creep in, but the rules of dating are growing wearisome. They perceive, somewhat accurately, that they’re the last of a certain kind of generation, when debutante balls matter and ingrained social status is everything. They speak a lot about what sorts of changes to society the future might bring.

If all this were played for drama, I’d probably get fed up. But we are in smart comic territory, and the storylines involving who likes whom and who was slighted when and who’s worthy of this or that are all set-ups for continuously flowing, highly amusing dialogue. As a movie fan I fall most squarely into the category of dialogue junkie, and I have no issues with dialogue that isn’t naturalistic. I want it to be clever and profound and funny and distinct, not sound like any random people chatting on the bus. In a Whit Stillman film, I’m awash in everything I want from characters speaking to each other.

“You mean it’s a complete cliché? All women recent college graduates drink vodka tonics, or something like that?”

After deciding to make Stillman one of the directors for my year-long director-of-the-month blog project (he was for March; not shockingly, I’m behind), I rented The Last Days of Disco and Barcelona, his other two films. I watched The Last Days of Disco first, and found it to be completely delightful. Once again, he’s exploring the end of an era through the eyes of a group of young people. Young professionals Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale, in perhaps the first role I’ve ever actively liked her in) are sort-of friends trying to make progress in the publishing world by day, and going disco dancing/guy hunting by night. They frequent a club where lower-level manager Des (Stillman favorite Chris Eigeman, ever the blowhard of the group) constantly gets in trouble for letting friends in for free. We follow the pairings- and breakings up of a loose network of friends and acquaintances surrounding these three, set to a bounty of awesome dance songs of the ’70s.

In Metropolitan, it seemed that all of the characters took themselves and their ideas too seriously. Here, that type of character comes up against another type: Alice doesn’t take herself seriously enough. Her journey toward realizing she really deserves better than the friends and potential lovers she’s got provides a throughline that anchors the film, and elevates it above Metropolitan. While Alice can hold her own in the crossfire of Stillman’s dialogue (that’s her line I’ve quoted above), she often chooses to mostly just listen. Because Chloë Sevigny is a remarkable actress who can convey a lot through just the way her character listens, we never miss how Alice is always key to a scene, even if she’s being quieter than everyone else. She is the character the audience can latch onto. This character arc I really cared about, the consistent intelligent humor, and the sincere appreciation of the disco scene combined to make a film I thought was truly great.

“Oh, shootings, yes. But that doesn’t mean Americans are more violent than other people. We’re just better shots.”

Doubling back, I visited Stillman’s second film, Barcelona. Though set in Spain, it is still about a specific type of American life, as well as the way the outside world sees America—both in general, and at this specific time, as the Cold War is ending. Ted (Taylor Nichols) is a salesman of some sort stationed in Barcelona for his Chicago-based company, and he takes his job and the philosophy of sales quite seriously. His cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), a Navy officer and world-class freeloader, shows up to stay for a while. He’s apparently on assignment scouting out the area for an upcoming shore leave. This may sound like a fairly cushy gig, but Fred is the type who will always manage to get into trouble. Incapable of maintaining a low profile or keeping his mouth shut, he soon has many lefty-types angry at him and has deeply complicated Ted’s already struggling social life. Eigeman is a master at playing this type of sincerely obnoxious character, but it’s Nichols’s earnest and committed Ted that holds the film together.

Barcelona doesn’t work quite as well as Stillman’s Metropolitan or The Last Days of Disco, because as it nears its end it seems to lose the sense of deliberateness that is felt even in the unconventional structure of the other films. The ending feels unearned. Its female characters are also comparatively undeveloped, representing ideas of what Spanish women are like more than fully-formed individuals. Actresses Mira Sorvino and Tushka Bergen do their best, but the point of view of the film is more about what the men think of them than what they want for themselves. Given the dynamic female characters in The Last Days of Disco, that was a disappointment for me. But it makes me all the more eager to see the decidedly female-centric Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s first film in 14 years.

Stillman’s first three films begin with characters surrounded by people they haven’t really chosen for themselves—the friends society and circumstance thrust upon them, or the relatives nature dictated. Through that, some characters will and some won’t succeed in forming more meaningful relationships. I’ll be interested to see if and how this theme comes up in his newest work. Whether or not it ends up falling in line with his earlier films or representing a departure, I’m very glad he finally made another film.


A long time ago, in February, it was Hitchcock month

I really must apologize for bringing up February while we’re now almost mid-way through March (I personally like to forget November through February ever happened as soon as the calendar switches to March 1st.) But I’m just catching up on other things to the point where I can sum up Hitchcock month…so here we go!

1. Films I’d Already Seen:

The 39 Steps
The Lady Vanishes
Foreign Correspondent
Shadow of a Doubt
Strangers on a Train
Dial M for Murder
Rear Window
The Trouble With Harry
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
North by Northwest
The Birds

2. Films I Watched This Month

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) — pretty good

There are certain shots in The Lodger, a serial killer mystery, where one can definitely see Alfred Hitchcock becoming Alfred Hitchcock. He plays with the literal visual perspective of the viewer and of the characters with great skill, taking advantage of every shadow and staircase he can. I was also impressed with one particular special effects shot, where the viewer sees through the ceiling of a room to where the suspicious suspected killer paces the floor in the room above. I love those early trick photography moments, from when directors really were still making it all up. The film comes in the middle of Hitchcock’s streak of British films before his Hollywood career began, many of which were made during the end of the silent era, and the plot and tone don’t reach the level of brilliant suspense his work of later years would. Still, the film is good enough that I’d definitely like to see it again, on a better print (the one I watched was not in good shape).

Frenzy (1972) — also pretty good

I watched Frenzy just a couple of days after watching The Lodger, and a particular thing is clear: 45 years really changes the way someone approaches serial killer material. Frenzy is in some ways very much a Hitchcock movie, with its you’ve-got-the-wrong-man set-up and very suspenseful set pieces. But after watching a silent film where all violence takes place with a scream in the dark followed by a newspaper clipping—hell, even reflecting on Hitchcock moments like the infamous shower scene in Psycho—the in-your-face assault of the rape and murder that take place in Frenzy was startling and disconcerting. I don’t think the new level of what one could get away with on screen in the 1970s meshed well with Hitchcock’s sensibilities.

Still, Frenzy is a fairly enjoyable film, helped along massively by skillful central performances. We know the identity of the real killer early on, and Barry Foster is undeniably creepy in the role. As the man accused—who, while innocent of these offenses, is still a bit of a scoundrel—Jon Finch hits the balance between charming and infuriating. I also adore Anna Massey (who also finds herself embroiled in a serial killer plot in the great Peeping Tom), and she is easily the highlight of this film.

Marnie (1964) — I think I really liked it?

(Spoilers.) I think I will have to watch Marnie again and write something proper about it. What a complex film. Tippi Hedren masterfully plays the damaged and complicated title character, with fascinating layers beneath a defensive, smooth surface that takes a serious trauma to rock. The perpetrator of that trauma is a man who seems to actually love her, but only in a dominating and almost obsessive way, which demonstrates that he is just as unhealthy as she is. Sean Connery’s control in that role makes him both magnetic and repulsive, and the film does not shy away from examining how repugnant it is that his character actually rapes the woman he seems to love, when she cannot be open to him because of her past trauma. I was engrossed by this film—brutal in its storytelling, beautiful in its construction—and I am still contemplating its themes and messages, without having reached a final conclusion in that regard.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) — again…pretty good

Though this earlier version moves at a faster clip than the occasionally-slow remake Hitchcock did with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day 22 years later, and it’s very fun to watch Peter Lorre in full gangster mode, I do prefer the later version. It does a much better job of character development, which means the audience is more invested in the trauma of these parents whose child has been kidnapped after they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and learned the wrong bit of information. This film is definitely worth watching—both because of its significance as the film Hitchcock chose to remake, and because of the performances—but no scenes from it stuck with me the way the “Que Sera, Sera” scene does in the later version.

Rope (1948, re-watch) — good, but still not as good as I wish it was

The main reason I like Rope is because of my love for the actor John Dall, whom I became enamored of the first time I saw the faaaaantastic B-noir Gun Crazy. He’s a slight bit cheesy here as the ringleader of a plot to murder a classmate just for the hell of it—just to prove they can get away with it—but the man’s acting career was far too sparse, and I’ll take him where I can get him. I also obviously love Jimmy Stewart, but he’s miscast here as the eccentric, philosophical professor whose theories the murderers take a bit too literally. Still, I can be a sucker for a confining gimmick, and the whole “only ten shots in the whole film” thing here definitely gets me. If it had been on a more elaborate set (in many ways, Rope might as well still be the stage play it’s based on), it really would have gotten me, and I’d probably be praising the film much more.

The Lady Vanishes (1938, re-watch) — ummm…

I told a couple of people I would give The Lady Vanishes another chance, because I hadn’t liked it much the first time around. I rented the brand new Criterion Blu-ray release. I was truly prepared to concede that I just hadn’t quite gotten it the first time around. Unfortunately, I still didn’t get it on the second time around. Why is this film such a revered classic? Its lead actors are reasonably charming, but the plot is ridiculously slow. Never has a final shootout been so lacking in urgency. And wasn’t anyone else just kind of pissed at the old lady for putting these people in so much danger without any explanation? Oh, well; I guess this one is just not for me. Some of the shots on the train are wonderful, though.

Dial M for Murder (1954, re-watch) — very good

I would really like to see this film in 3-D. I said I could be a sucker for a gimmick, and one of the things I like about Hitchcock is how he did try out gimmicks, within his life as a “serious filmmaker.” Imagine how much grief he might have gotten if the internet had been a thing in his day! Oh, the ridiculing tweets! But I adore the way quality storytelling and visual art and sheer fun experimentation can come together in the right kind of film, and this is an example of a success in that regard. Throw in some double-crossing and some Grace Kelly, and I am definitely a happy camper.

To Catch a Thief (1955) — great

Grace Kelly again. She charms me, she really does. But as much as I cherish Cary Grant—I shall never say a bad word about him—the age gap between the romantic leads here is a bit distracting from an otherwise very enjoyable romp in luxurious, mad-cap fun. (Maybe it’s also to do with how startling it always is to see just how very tan Cary Grant was, when he’s in a color film?) I do sometimes wish that in the 1950s and ’60s, Hitchcock had been able to find reliable leading men he liked who were a bit younger, to go with the new blondes he always managed to find. That aside, this is just a fun film. Jewel thieving and French speaking and rooftop scampering and costume wearing and fast car driving…it has all of that loveliness, plus Grace Kelly’s gowns. Come on. Delightful.

3. Films Still to Watch

There remain quite a few of Hitchcock’s silent films I haven’t seen, plus some from his strongest years that I wanted to make time for, but didn’t get to—Jamaica Inn (I love the book) and Lifeboat, especially. For the sake of being able to accurately compare the different eras of his career, I also still plan to watch Topaz and Family Plot as soon as I can get to them. The man made a lot of movies.

As for my March assignment…I’m so busy that I’m going to have to cheat this month (already!) and pick a director who is less prolific. In fact, he’s basically the opposite of prolific. With his new film Damsels in Distress coming out next month, I want to fill in the gaps for my knowledge of Whit Stillman. I’ve only seen his first film, Metropolitan, but not Barcelona or The Last Days of Disco. Hopefully I can handle two extra films on my viewing load before the month is out! Oy.

January was David Cronenberg month (kind of)

As 2012 was beginning, I thought it would be fun to set a bit of a year-long mini project for myself as a movie viewer. I didn’t blog about my intentions, though, because I tend to have a lot of ideas for fun things that then never happen. But since I semi-succeeded in part one of this project, here’s the rundown. Every month this year, I’ll pick one director and make it the goal to watch the major films in their filmography that I haven’t gotten to yet. Filling in every gap for certain prolific directors will be tough, but one film a week at least should be doable to add to my usual viewing load. We’ll see!

Here’s how it went in January, for my first pick of David Cronenberg:

1. Films I’d Already Seen

Scanners (1981) — obviously great
The Fly (1986) — incredible, duh
Crash (1996) — interesting; probably never need to see again, but glad I did
A History of Violence (2005) — quite good, especially the acting
Eastern Promises (2007) — 80% awesome, 20% annoying

2. Films I Watched This Month

A Dangerous Method (2011) — horrible

What is with this film? Its screenplay is an absolute mess, with no reason whatsoever for moving from one scene to another. Keira Knightley, who I generally like, is totally miscast as the psychologically damaged patient of Carl Jung, turning in a trainwreck of a performance as she jerks and stutters and fake-Russian-accents all over the place. It’s actually kind of difficult to watch, and I only partially blame her; Cronenberg is the one who thought this was working, after all. Michael Fassbender as Jung, meanwhile, has nothing to work with where Knightley has too much. The screenplay does nothing to help us understand his motivations at any time—except, I guess, that dudes like sex with pretty ladies. Enlightening! And when he and Viggo Mortensen (as Freud) are on screen together discussing their ideas, it’s boring as hell. Even Viggo doesn’t look like he wants to be there. How can you put the two of them together and make it BORING? How is that even possible under the rules of physics? Ugh, this film.

Videodrome (1983) — great

I’m not always a big James Woods fan, but he’s perfect for Max Renn, the sleazy center of Videodrome. A peddler of cable schlock and gore looking for the next big thing, his quest leads him down a bit of a rabbit hole as he encounters the makers of violent videos embedded with a signal that just may cause the viewer to start hallucinating. Things get crazy, and neither Max nor the viewer really knows where reality ends and visions begin. I am down with some well done surrealism and the sorts of gooey, writhing special effects on display on this film, and I am very down with Deborah Harry as an actress—she’s rather hypnotic here as Max’s sadomasochistic love interest. If you’re okay with not always knowing exactly what’s going on, this is a very engaging film.

eXistenZ (1999) — very stupid

Though it explores many of the same themes as Videodrome—technology blurring the lines of reality and fantasy; whether a simulated experience is as good as a real one—eXistenZ has none of the guts, and pretty much no point by the time we get to the end of it. Jennifer Jason Leigh is wooden and weird as Allegra Geller, the best game designer in the world. These are futuristic virtual reality games, where organic systems plug directly into the spinal cord and the game feels like a real world to the player. Some convoluted nonsense leads, of course, to a scenario where she and gaming-virgin Jude Law have to go through a mission inside the game in order to escape the bad guys. Or something. And wouldn’t you know it, soon they don’t know if they’re inside the game or out of it! Even though she designed the damn thing, she is totally clueless! And then there’s a twist at the end. Can you guess what it is? Basically, you should never watch this movie, which I really should’ve known from the capitalization of the title.

Naked Lunch (1991)

Okay, I didn’t watch this whole thing. I watched half of it and then turned it off because I was incredibly bored. Then I was going to finish it the next day, but it had disappeared from Netflix streaming, and I considered that a sign that the universe absolved me of the responsibility. Sorry, Naked Lunch/William S. Burroughs-lovers. I don’t like the Beats!

3. Films I Still Have Not Seen

Stereo (1969)
Crimes of the Future (1970)
Shivers (1975)
Rabid (1977)
Fast Company (1979)
The Brood* (1979)
The Dead Zone (1983)
Dead Ringers* (1988)
M. Butterfly (1993)
Spider (2002)

*ones I most want to get to in the future

So, even after a month of effort, I’m still less than halfway through Cronenberg’s history as a feature director. Oh well. Soldiering on!

I am declaring February Alfred Hitchcock month. Though I’m very familiar with his greatest hits, I have been meaning to dig into a box set I bought of his early British films, and there are a couple of his late films I’ve never seen (Marnie, especially, I don’t know how I haven’t seen). I also want to check out the new Blu-rays of Notorious and Rebecca, and re-visit The Lady Vanishes. I really didn’t like that film the first time around, but multiple people have said I should give it another chance, so I will. Hitchcock! Full steam ahead!

Will these demons EVER stay buried??

I am not in the business of trying to hide my love for weirdo 70s and 80s Italian horror films, but I can’t say it’s something I get around to writing about much. But lo! The Final Girl film club (which I love and haven’t participated in nearly enough) this month speaks to said love, by focusing on The Church, a splendidly wack-a-doo creation from the minds of writer/director Michele Soavi and co-writer Dario Argento. This is one of those films where I feel like I sort of have no business liking it as much as I do, which is bizarrely one of my favorite ways to feel about a film.

We spend much of the action in quite an elaborate cathedral, which has purposefully (though inconveniently for its current users) been built on the mass grave of a 12th century village that may or may not have been full of demon worshipers. (Whether they were actually in league with the demons before the slaughter, or just caught up with them later when there was nothing else to do in the afterlife and the “good guys” [creepy priest-types ordering around knights wearing bucket helmets] had committed mass-murder, I’m not sure.)

If you’ve ever thought to yourself “but what happens to a head AFTER it’s been severed in a massacre?” this movie is here to tell you. They are not messing around in the opening massacre scene. Nor, once we cut to the present-day cathedral, are any of those characters messing around: the floppy-haired librarian and the sexy fresco-restorer know each other for I think around 12 hours before they are both in bed together and going around deciphering old parchments that SHOULD OBVIOUSLY BE LEFT ALONE. Librarian goes from zero to pulling-his-own-heart-out-of-his-chest-crazy pretty quickly after that, and soon all pagany hell is breaking loose in the church. The demons/ghosts sit tight until the perfect time to strike, which is when the church is full of:

–a bunch of models and photographers shooting wedding gowns
–a class full of 12-year-olds on a field trip
–a dysfunctional, verbally abusive, motorcycle-riding young couple
–a dysfunctional, verbally abusive senior citizen couple
–a variety of creepy priests, and one nice one (who gets dissed by the other priests for not speaking Latin, Mean Girls-style)
–probably some other freaks I am forgetting

The demon onslaught leads to an absolute symphony of is-this-real-or-am-I-hallucinating madness for the characters, and a little bit for the viewers as well. What has been a fairly straightforward narrative all of a sudden goes Full Crazytown. But it is awesome.

This movie is full of entertainingly manic camerawork, acting that hits the absolute sweet spot between good and cheesy, great music (Goblin at work again), and amazing images—my favorites being the moldering arms shooting out of a limp burlap bag to strangle he who dares look inside with his floppy hair, and a model whose elaborate dress gets caught in the closing cathedral doors, trapping her against them. I dig the combination 80s + gothic aesthetic.

This movie is streaming on Netflix and you should totally watch it! If you like this sort of thing. Which you should.

It is just as I feared.

I avoided watching (500) Days of Summer for this long because everyone seems to love it, and I had a suspicion that I would hate it. I didn’t want to hate it; I quite like Zooey Deschanel and absolutely adore Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But sadly, I was right. Some might blame it on my personal curmudgeon status, but there are actually many romancey movies that I do like. Just not this one. So, here I present: Top Ten Reasons Why I Hated (500) Days of Summer.

1. The opening description of Summer, beginning with: “Since the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, she’d only loved two things. The first was her long dark hair; the second was how easily she could cut it off, and feel nothing.” HUH? How does that make sense? If you love something, getting rid of it would make you feel SOMETHING. This is not deep and clever. It’s dumb and contradictory. From here on out, I cringed every time the (very unnecessary) narration kicked in.

2. Liking a certain band (The Smiths, in this case) is presented as such a rare trait that it alone could make a man fall in love with a woman. FYI, I know plenty of women who like The Smiths. Along with waaaay more obscure bands than that.

3. Presence of a precocious little sister, wise beyond her years. No one ever needs to be wise beyond their years in film ever again.*

4. Two traits + a desire = personality. Tom: likes music, likes architecture, wants Summer. Summer: dresses cutesy old fashioned, is vaguely witty, wants to remain independent. We can do better than this, screenwriters of the world. (The supporting characters do not even get this much.)

5. But wait, this is a fascinating interaction! He is the ‘girl’ and she is the ‘guy’ in this relationship! Whoa! Crazy!

6. Excessive and not nearly clever enough fantasy musical/movie-referencing sequences. I’ve seen better spontaneous group dance numbers in soda commercials. And The Seventh Seal, for chrissakes? We were done spoofing that with Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

7. Really though, he is in love with her just because she LIKES SOME STUFF? (And is pretty. Okay. She’s very pretty.)

8. The ending. Immediately after all that protestation, she meets the man she’s meant to be with and is happy forever after.

9. The rest of the ending. Immediately after all that pain, he meets the girl he is supposed to be with and is happy forever after.

9.5. Honestly, COME ON on numbers 8 & 9. If you make a movie where the whole intent is for the couple to not get together in the end, but then they are both just magically happy with other people, what is the effing point? If the film truly examined the process of getting over someone and moving on, I could get behind that. But what we get is one schmaltzy conversation that ends with Tom declaring that he truly hopes Summer is happy with her new man. Uh, no you don’t, Tom. Not that easily. Bloody hell.

10. Last, but not least, use of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends,” which was retired from any further acceptable pop culture use after closing the episode of The Wonder Years where Paul has his bar mitzvah.

This movie has an 8.0 on IMDb. I do not understand.** If you would like to watch a “quirky” love story, please just watch Amelie again. If you would like to watch a good movie where the couple doesn’t get together in the end, believe it or not, those are out there too. You can ask me for a recommendation…with a spoiler caveat, of course.

*One exception in the television world for Manny on Modern Family.

**It should be said, there is one slight redeeming quality of this film: JGL’s wardrobe. Yes.

Great Films By Women – The Kids Are All Right

A version of this post originally appeared on as a review of the film during its theatrical run.

My appreciation for The Kids Are All Right (2010) only increases the more I consider it. I didn’t even realize how highly I thought of the film until I found myself responding to criticisms of it with intense defensiveness. An indie family comedy that relies on relationships and characters rather than quirk to charm its audience, it’s a piece of very strong writing that is skillfully brought to life by a number of talented people, both behind and in front of the camera.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a long-time committed couple. They are raising two children, each biologically attached to one parent and also to the same sperm donor. Daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is about to leave for college, and son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is several years younger. The film looks in at this picture of a long marriage—with kids as well-adjusted as anyone can reasonably hope for, and adults trying to figure out what the next half of their lives will look like—as it reaches one of those inevitable rocky patches.

The circumstances of this particular rocky patch happen to be a bit theatrical. In a move that would veer us into very different territory in the hands of lesser actors or someone less subtle than director Lisa Cholodenko (who co-wrote the script with Stuart Blumberg), the kids decide to seek out and meet their sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo)—without telling their moms. From here, the characters act in ways that are true to the small world that’s been set up. We’re treated to a series of awkward events that are situational comedy in the most genuine sense.

As the various members of the family bond with Paul in their own, vastly disparate ways, they of course use this new catalyst to examine their relationships with each other. Poor choices are made, allegiances are formed and broken, issues bubble to the surface, as issues will. Some of the plot turns are predictable, but this is mostly because these characters are people like so many people we have known, and like ourselves. Luckily, the writing is skillful in a way I hope I can emulate myself: scenes simply end before getting to the cliché part, and let the audience members’ own experiences and common sense fill in the blanks.

Besides the enviable script, the deft direction must also be noted. One could take this script, tweak a scene here and there, hire different actors, and tell the same story either entirely as a melodrama or as a slapstick comedy. Either choice could potentially result in a successful film. What we get here, though, is something where we get to feel genuinely for the characters in a way that doesn’t work with a more extreme tone. They exude toward each other the same feeling we all do for so many of our loved ones: “I love you, but you’re annoying as hell sometimes.” I believe too many movies and television shows leave us wondering why their inhabitants would ever actively choose to spend time with each other. This is never a problem here; despite their problems, we just get it.

It must be said that it is still significant to see a fairly mainstream film showcase a gay couple without ‘making a big deal of it.’ That is certainly nice to watch. It is also significant to see a film that is at its core a comedy feature three great, nuanced roles for females. With Oscar odds-making season coming up, Moore and Bening are deservedly showing up on a number of shortlists. I also hope to see recognition for the screenplay, at least.

The Kids Are All Right will be released on DVD on November 16. Add it to that Netflix queue now!

Great Films by Women – After the Wedding

How to describe the experience of watching Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding without risking taking something away from a future viewer? I can give you the briefest of set-ups. I can assure you that it’s not so much that there’s a huge twist I can’t give away, as there are so many smaller turns that it’s just better you not know. You, the viewer, should be in the position of our main character, Jacob, who has no idea what’s in store for him on a business trip he doesn’t particularly want to take.

Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) is from Denmark, but has been living in Bombay for many years. Currently, he helps run an orphanage that desperately needs funding. A possible financial backer in Copenhagen insists that Jacob travel there to meet him in person before finalizing any agreements. Jacob at first absolutely refuses. Clearly, he and Copenhagen are not on great terms. But, he has no choice. He promises a young, distraught boy called Pramod (Neeral Mulchandani) that he will be back in eight days to attend the boy’s birthday. He heads to Denmark, solemnly.

On a grand estate, we meet Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård), the extremely successful businessman who beckons Jacob back to Denmark. Jørgen reads a bedtime story to his young twin sons. He flirts with his beautiful wife, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen). They discuss the impending wedding of their daughter, Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen). All seems happy and bright. But, when Jørgen meets with Jacob, his behavior is odd. He won’t state for sure that he intends to donate the money. He insists that he needs the weekend to think it over, that they can speak on Monday. And in the meantime, Jacob should attend Anna’s wedding.

Here’s where I’ll stop describing the plot. As I’m sure you can tell from the title of the film, something very significant happens at the wedding. As the film progresses, revelations about each of our central characters set up explorations of several meaningful themes: how people compartmentalize and lock away parts of their lives in order to cope with the day-to-day; how impressions of others based on their visible circumstances are often useless; that one’s reaction to a responsibility they haven’t asked for may say the ultimate about that person. All of this in a drama that goes from harsh to tender, gentle to explosive in the way that life does when something happens that can either pull people together, or push them apart.

Director Susanne Bier, working from a screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen that is from her original story, crafted something vivid and profound in this film. In the hands of someone less deft, this could be a soap opera plot. But Bier allows so much of the story to play out in expressions on her actors’ faces, and cuts away from so much while allowing us to extrapolate what was said from the aftermath, that the film always stops short of theatrics. Her handheld camerawork and frequent extreme close-ups push the intimacy to intense levels, always emphasizing that the most significant part of any development is the way people react, and the way they treat each other.

And oh, the acting. This is one of those films where you will wonder where these actors have been all your life. You will want to queue up every film that Rolf Lassgård or Sidse Babett Knudsen has ever appeared in. You will want Stine Fischer Christensen, who deservedly won Best Supporting Actress at the Bodil Awards (the major Danish film awards) to stand alongside the darlings of young Hollywood whenever a high profile role comes along. You will see how much more Mads Mikkelsen is than just a fun villain in Casino Royale.

I really must insist that you watch After the Wedding if you haven’t already. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of 2006 at the Academy Awards, and frankly it is better than any of the five films nominated for Best Picture that year. It is currently streaming on Netflix.

Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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