Copenhagen – Mark Raso (2014)


Characters don’t have to be sympathetic for art to be good. They don’t even have to be likable. History is littered with the despicable and despised. To empathize with a character is far more important. But in Mark Raso’s Copenhagen there is nothing empathetic, sympathetic or likable about William, a 28-year-old American backpacking in Denmark after the death of his father.

William is played by Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones’ Renly Baratheon). In Copenhagen he explores the same bottomless pit of contemptibility as Joffrey Baratheon as he searches Copenhagen for his grandfather to deliver an angry letter that his father wrote him but never mailed. While searching, he runs into Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen), a beautiful young girl who helps him navigate the Danish geography and language barrier.

As the two search, they fall for each other. Deep. There is just one small catch. She’s younger. Much younger. Like, 14 (about to turn 15!). You’ll remember above, where I said William was 28, though he doesn’t.

It’s nearly impossible to buy Hansen as a 14-year-old though. She is 19 and looks it. It doesn’t make William any less terrible, but the film is about him growing up and coming to terms with the fact that having a terrible family doesn’t mean you have to be terrible too. Raso gets stuck in indie trope hell though, and can’t find his way out. Hansen is the film’s only redeemable quality; it’s a shame that she is wasted on this pointless search.

The Hunt – Thomas Vinterberg (2013)


When we’re kids, we’re lucky if we have people in our lives who encourage and support our imaginations. They play games with us and share stories, and along the way we learn these skills from them. But the power of what a fully developed imagination can be, and what it can do, comes later.

Sometimes too late.

In The Hunt, a small town in Denmark is torn asunder by the imagination of a little girl, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), who hasn’t learned the weight of her words yet.

Klara’s imagination is fostered by a small cluster of teachers, like the handsome Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), who work at the small nursery school she attends. Lucas is a family friend sympathetic to the dreamy problems she faces, like not being able to step over lines (think of the children’s game “hot lava”:

Don’t step on the lava!) and constantly losing her way home. He often goes out of his way to help her find her way back or walk her to school. Eventually, Klara develops a crush on him.

That crush goes too far, though, when she gives Lucas an innocent kiss on the lips during playtime and he reprimands her for it. It’s a gentle reprimand, but she is hurt and upset over the incident. Guided by an overprotective administrator, Klara eventually accuses Lucas of showing her his privates. The incident unleashes a maelstrom of outrage and panic in the town.

As the harsh Danish winter sets in around Lucas, so do the harsh realities of the accusation made against him. People turn from him and try to harm him; his ex-wife tries to stop him from seeing their son; stores refuse to serve him; and other children, coached with details from parents eager to see Lucas punished, begin to accuse him too.

At the beginning of the movie, it’s hard to imagine such a young guy as a nursery school teacher, but Lucas’ ease and natural ability to level with the children without infantilizing them makes it feel less odd. He’s good with kids, maybe better than anyone else at the school, but there is a slight nag that it’s a narrative setup the whole time. It’s the one flaw in an otherwise strong, if a little familiar, story.

The film would be nothing without its actors, though. There is not a single poor performance to be found, from Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen (who plays Klara’s father) all the way down to the day players – like the bulky Oyvind Hagen-Traberg, who plays a butcher who goes to brutish lengths to refuse Lucas’ business. But it’s the young, quixotic Wedderkopp who leaves everyone in her shadow. When the film is with her, it makes the viewer feel like a fly on the wall of her playroom – as if she conjured the set walls, characters and film edits straight from her imagination and asked everyone to play along.

A Hijacking – Tobias Lindholm (2013)


When a Danish cargo ship is taken for ransom off of the coast of Somalia, the shipping company’s president, Peter (Søren Malling), begins a long, drawn out negotiation with the hijackers who are unimpressed when he lowballs their demands on the advice of a kidnapping expert. The film succeeds as an intense talking thriller, but it focuses on the negotiations and miscommunication so heavily that the larger stories of the sailors (spearheaded by Pilou Asbaek) and the kidnappers are never dipped into with any satisfaction. The high tension is enough to make the film worth your time, but there is little there to make you care about either the hostages or the hijackers, who we actually learn startlingly little about.

Klown – Mikkel Norgaard (2012)

Disgusting. Wretched. Loathsome. Scandalous. Depraved. Nearly criminal. Yes, this film, based on a Danish sit-com of the same name, is most certainly all of those things.

But it’s also one other thing: hilarious.

The film concerns the emotional growth of misfit manchild Frank (Frank Hvam) during the most important week of his life.

On the eve of an epic canoeing trip with his friend Casper (Casper Christensen) — who has covertly dubbed it the Tour de P (I’ll let you guess what the nefarious “P” stands for) — Frank is confronted with two harsh realities: his longtime girlfriend, Mia (Mia Lyhne), is pregnant for one, and this is the week they are supposed to watch her nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen), while her sister is on her honeymoon.

Mia is unconvinced that Frank will be a responsible father, especially when their house is robbed and Frank leaves Bo behind while he escapes danger, so Frank does what any normal, healthy adult male does in these situations: he kidnaps Bo, taking him on the canoeing trip in an effort to show him a great time and prove that he is father material.

Have you figured out what the “P” stands for yet?

If there is a wrong move to make in this film, Frank and Casper end up finding it. The results are zany and disturbing, but in the way that an American film maker probably couldn’t get away with: much of the film centers around teasing Bo about his small willie, Casper’s sexual preoccupation with high schoolers on a field trip, and Frank’s half-hearted attempts at — well, why spoil the comedy? That’s the film’s draw.

After that, the film is hardly innovative. It could be handily described as “Two and a Half Men with a set of balls and a sense of humor” (zing). But it doesn’t need to be either. Somewhat oddly, the film has a lot of heart to it. Frank is well meaning, after all, even during the most awful and misguided things he does. His quest is to be a good dad, even if Casper’s quest is to get laid in as many hedonistic ways possible. Contrasted to Casper, Frank is awkward and tentative, and extremely odd. He’s a failure through and through, but in Frank Hvam he becomes a lovable loser, perhaps precisely because everything backfires so badly on him. He is almost the Danish Charlie Brown, if Linus had a messy sex addiction and Rerun was dragged along for the ride.

It’s not going to be everyone’s kind of film though, which is possibly the most important thing to know about it (which is why I’m burying it here at the bottom where no one will read it). It’s crassness is supreme, and often uncomfortable for the squeamish (or the self-righteous, who will say, “you can’t show that on screen!”). If society has indeed gone to hell in a handcart, this is the handcart, and it’s paddling straight down the river Acheron, laugh after devious laugh.

Melancholia – Lars Von Trier (2011)

As published at 629 words:

The original, unedited draft at 1,243 words:
Von Trier’s Melancholia is new and the same, but brilliant either way
By: Rob Boylan
Stars: 5

T. S. Eliot wrote that the world ends not with a bang but a whimper. In Melancholia, Danish director Lars Von Trier’s latest ode to the triumph of the human spirit, it ends with both. In it, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are sisters facing the end of the world, as an onrushing rogue planet threatens to pass through Earth’s orbit and the Earth itself.

Dunst, in a breakthrough performance, plays the pretty younger sister, Justine, a newlywed with a building tide of emotional problems threatening to capsize her life, and, in the immediate, her wedding reception. She’s been like this before, but is warned “not tonight”, and throughout the reception people try to buy her off, buy her happiness: her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), gives her an apple orchard where she can go sit to feel happy when she is sad; her brother in law, John (Keifer Sutherland), with the stupidly lavish party that would cost a normal person an arm and a leg (something that he constantly reminds us of). John goes so far to ask her for a deal: he will consider it money well spent if she agrees to be happy. Happiness doesn’t work like that, though. When an attempt is made to buy happiness and it fails, it makes the sadness grow even deeper and distort itself. In Melancholia this sadness happens to manifest itself in the specter of a planet on a collision course with the Earth. It seems to be no coincidence in timing that the planet Melancholia blots out Antares on this night, and surges towards the Earth, growing bigger as Justine falls deeper into her widening depression.

In the second half of the film, the focus turns to Claire (Gainsbourg), the sensible older sister who tries to keep all of their lives together. She is fighting a losing battle. Eventually, even Claire has a moment of weakness when she tries and fails to buy Justine’s happiness with a sentimental favorite dinner, meatloaf, which only makes Justine cry when it tastes like ash.

If you could say that the first half is about Justine’s building dam of depression, you would have to say that the second half is about Claire coming undone by fear. By now, Melancholia is just days away Earth, and even though John insists it will miss, Claire has fallen victim to the doomsayers. It’s just as vicious an uncontrolled spiral as Justine’s depression, though it’s based in a logical reasoning, not a chemical one. To quickly break the difference down, you could say that fear is something that is easily manipulated, while depression is a reinforced brick wall. The logic of seeing a planet come so close to Earth that it steals part of our atmosphere and makes it snow during the summer can naturally cause one to become very illogical.

Melancholia is both a touchdown on new ground and a revisit to old familiar ground for Von Trier. He has never done anything quite so beautiful and visionary, which is something he had doubts about along the way, but some of the more down to earth elements are familiar from his past. Breaking the Waves, too, begins at the wedding of an unstable girl and follows her through her emotional descent. Bess (Emily Watson), a member of an ascetic protestant church in the Scottish highlands, manifests her problems with attachments: to Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), her new husband, to Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), he sister in law, but most especially to God, who she talks to and gets damning replies from. This God is in her head, speaks through her mouth, but to her is as real as the air she breathes.

But where Justine is on her own, circling the drain in her own head, Bess is egged on in her downward spiral by Jan and by her own immense guilt. There is no hint in Melancholia that Justine has ever felt any kind of guilt. She is not crazy or delusional, she’s systemically imbalanced. Still, she says she knows things about life, things she shouldn’t know. Trivial things, like the answer to the bean count contest at her wedding, but also that life on Earth is all there is in the universe, and it won’t be missed. Life, she knows, is evil, and deserving of its fate. Does she know, or is she just insisting? Dunst brilliantly straddles the edge of crazy and childlike in this scene to the point where it’s difficult to get a read of her character. Her demeanor is calm to the point of unnerving, but when she is challenged by Claire over what she knows, she recedes into the guise of a hurt two year old whose mommy won’t believe her wild story. Claire is right to not believe her story, if only for her own sanity, so she doesn’t go to pieces in front of her child.

It’s actually been gnawing at me that the prologue — which features key scenes from the film in a 10 minutes slow motion ballet set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde — is not really a prologue, but a representation of an idea coming into an increasingly despairing Justine’s head. I don’t mean that to sound as simple as a The Cabinet of Caligari, and it’s not a mindfuck movie, but there is a fair case to be made for it. Depression ultimately leads to self-absorption, self-loathing and the loathing of all those around you. Destroying the planet is as natural a thought as any in that state. Justine seems to allude to it most clearly when she says, somewhat matter-of-factly, that “this has nothing to do with the village” as Claire, in her most illogical moment, tries to flee to the nearby village, to run away from Melancholia as it is about to strike.

Claire cannot make out of the family’s grounds, just like her character seemed to be stuck in the idyllic Edenin Antichrist. Being stuck in time and space is fairly common to Von Trier films, in fact. In Europa, Kessler (Jean Marc Barr), cannot escape the odd post-war Germany that he finds himself in. In Dogville, Grace (Nicole Kidman), manages to briefly escape, only to be raped and promptly brought back to the town she is a captive of. Even in Breaking the Waves, Bess is rooted so deeply to her town that, despite excommunicated by her church, she can’t manage get very far away either.

In contrast to Antichrist or Europa, though, the power that controls the world of Melancholia seems to always belong to Justine. She seems to be willing all of this to happen, even though she does seem afraid of it at points too. As the film opens, she literally wields the power, spraying stray electricity from her fingers as the world collapses around her, like the God of her dollhouse world. If a planetary collision doesn’t concern the nearby village, just who does it concern anyway?

The bottom line is that Melancholia isn’t a one and done film. It’s a film that can easily be dismissed on face value, waived off with the intellectually lazy “first world problems” wand, but actually contains complex, rich core deep down. It’s an overwhelming film as a first viewing, though, and Von Trier doesn’t make anything about it easy. Nor should he.