Frygtelig lykkelig (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Robert (Jakob Cedergren) is a cop based off Copenhagen but he is temporarily assigned to a small Danish town because of something he had done while in the city. Dr. Zerleng (Lars Brygmann) makes him feel welcome but the other residents look at him with suspicion. There is talk around town that Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen) is constantly beaten by her husband (Kim Bodnia). When Robert hears about it, he feels, as a professional and moral obligation, that he must look into the rumor and, if necessary, set it right.
Based on the screenplay by Henrik Ruben Genz and Dunja Gry Jensen, “Frygtelig lykkelig,” also known as “Terribly Happy,” is like watching a transparent container in which red Kool-Aid is added with water, without mixing, and the color of blood gradually takes over. It moves at a deliberate slow pace but almost each scene is an additional clue to what is really going on in the town. But is this mystery worth solving or is everyone better off leaving it alone?
On the outskirts of town, there is a bog where secrets are literally hidden especially during rainy days when the ground is readily absorbent: out of sight, out of mind. There is a story–supposedly true–of a cow, after being buried in the mud for six months but later rescued, that gave birth to a two-headed calf, one cow, the other human. It is said to have brought bad luck to the community. It had to be killed to alleviate the curse. Ever since this curious phenomenon, the small town had become afraid of things foreign.
Robert is a representation of the two-headed calf. The scenes shot outdoors are perfectly gloomy as if the sky is ready to cry from the injustices committed by the residents in the hamlet. For instance, everybody knows that every time Dorthe (Mathilde Maack), Ingerlise’s daughter, takes her cart and walks in the streets, her mother is being beaten by her father until she is blue, bloody, and numb. Instead of interceding, the townsfolk continue to gulp down beers and play cards. But the out-of-towner proves to have a soft spot for Ingerlise and Dorthe. He has a wife and daughter in Copenhagen, but neither returns his calls. Perhaps it has something to do with his reassignment.
As the film goes on, we wonder if Robert is not to be fully trusted. Someone peeks into his records and discovers that he has spent some time being institutionalized. But for what? During a lonely night, when Robert thinks he heard his cat say, “Mujn,” a local greeting, he is convinced he needs pills from the doctor.
Based on a novel by Erling Jepsen, “Terribly Happy,” directed by Henrik Ruben Genz, is similar to the Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple.” and “Fargo” in terms of chilling thrills being coupled with gallows humor. Furthermore, the material is playful and willing to force us to look at things differently, that maybe we should be as suspicious as the local residents toward the cop.
Is Robert’s mind exaggerating the happenings around town or is everyone truly hiding something? It is an effective mystery-thriller because the answer is almost both yet it is able to go beyond our own questions and suspicions.
Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
In “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) was rushed to the hospital because she’d been beaten to a pulp and was shot multiple times. Her allies, including “Millennium” journalists Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and Erika Berger (Lena Endre), attempted to do everything in their power to protect Lisbeth from men who wanted to kill her in cold blood with impunity. The men didn’t want Lisbeth to be given the chance to go to trial (from claims that she tried to murder her father), earn her freedom, and expose their dark underground activities. A key addition was Annika Giannini (Annika Hallin), Blomkvist’s sister and Lisbeth’s pregnant lawyer, who reminded me of Frances McDormand’s plucky character in the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” because she was brave, intelligent, and resourceful. The first forty-minutes was unimpressive and summoned the weakest points in “The Girl Who Played With Fire.” While it was refreshing to see Lisbeth being more vulnerable as she attempted to be more pleasant with her doctor (Aksel Morisse) who seemed like he was romantically interested her, the tone felt flat and almost painfully ordinary. However, the film finally started to gather momentum when our protagonist left the hospital and been transferred to jail a few days before the much anticipated trial. Watching the last hour made me feel like I was watching a poker game where everyone was all in. Since the mysterious organization had failed to kill Lisbeth multiple times, it appeared as though anything could happen. Reputations, careers, and lives were on the line. While Lisbeth’s side did have their aces, since I wasn’t familiar with Stieg Larsson’s novels, I was curious with how the aces were going to be played. There was also a lot of tension in the “Millennium” headquarters. Erika had been getting e-mails that threatened her life as well as her staff’s. She felt she had a responsibility of stopping the next publication of the magazine because its contents were directly related to Lisbeth’s case and the men about to be exposed. But Mikael insisted that they published because Lisbeth was very important to him. He believed that the publication was key to his friend’s freedom. In a way, he was torn between two women he loved, but he loved them in different ways. It was fascinating to observe his decisions because he wasn’t always fully convinced that he was doing the right thing. Another strand in the story was Lisbeth’s half-brother (Micke Spreitz), physically incapable of feeling pain, wanting to kill her. The final confrontation between siblings in the end was highly suspenseful which reached the level of intensity that “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” seemed to effortlessly possess. Director Daniel Alfredson’s “Luftslottet som sprängdes” ended on a high note. The “Millenium” trilogy had moments where it stumbled from the bumps on the road. But when it did get something right, it was outstanding.
Big Lebowski, The (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
I usually don’t like screwball comedies because the characters are stupid without any sort of redeeming qualities, the jokes are rude and sometimes mean-spirited, the story has no idea where to go, and I quickly get bored watching them because they fail to get me to think. Strangely enough, I enjoyed “The Big Lebowski,” written and directed by the Coen brothers, because of such qualities except for the fact that it is far from mean-spirited. Jeff Bridges stars as The Dude, whose real name was Jeffrey Lebowski, a guy who was mistaken by two miscreants as the millionaire Lebowski. Since the two didn’t get what they wanted from The Dude, one of them decided to pee on his carpet. What started off as a story about a slacker who wanted compensation for his carpet ended up being about a lot of things: a kidnapped woman (Tara Reid), an artist who had intentions of her own (Julianne Moore), nihilists who craved money, and the dynamics among bowling buddies (Steve Buscemi and John Goodman). All of such disparate elements came to together in a way that didn’t necessarily make sense–in fact, sometimes I had no idea what was going on–but it was very funny because each character was driven by well-defined motivations (no matter how strange they might have been). I did not expect this kind of movie from the Coen brothers because I’m more familiar with their thrillers (“No Country for Old Men,” “Blood Simple”) and dark comedies (“Intolerable Cruelty,” “Fargo”), but after watching the film I was glad that I got a taste of their lighter side. The only real complaint I had with this picture was it had no reason to run for almost two hours long. Somewhere after the half-way point, I began to wonder when it was going to be over because at that point it still did not try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The characters were still too busy running around like children and it made me restless. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, I still enjoyed watching this movie because of the characters’ funny fixations and interesting mistaken identities. And considering I detest stoner comedies, I think it’s a solid accomplishment.
Simple Plan, A (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first scene of this film involving a fox and a chicken coop serves as a template for what’s to come. I noticed right away that there are a handful animals that can be found in some scenes, but it’s only until half-way through when I realized their significance. Since this was based on a novel by Scott B. Smith, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the animals and their nature serve as a foreshadowing for the characters’ choices. What I love about this film is its ability to constantly ask the audiences how they feel about a situation after the characters face seemingly insurmountable challenges of lies and deceit. Just when I thought I figured out a group of characters twenty minutes into the picture, twists start piling up and my assumptions couldn’t have been any more wrong. Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thorton, and Brent Briscoe are very convincing as the three men who lead simple lives who happen to find over four million dollars in a plane crash. Thornton and Briscoe wanted to keep the money, but Paxton didn’t. However, despite his intelligence, harmless facade and ability to think his way out of sticky situations, it is arguable that he is the most immoral of them all. His wife, played by Bridget Fonda, isn’t any better because she sees the money as an escape–a way for her family to have better lives–and she is intent on following that path. This film is grim, tense and is able to offer a mirror on how the dark side of humanity can poison even the best of us. It’s also about decisions; how sometimes you only get one chance so you better think things through before jumping to a conclusion. Most of all, it’s about happiness. Sometimes, we forget that we’re happy as is when we’re faced with a chance to become more than we currently are. Having it all is a gamble so are you willing to risk everything to attain more? The moral implications of this film are challenging and insightful; it reminded me of a darker, more serious version of “Fargo.” I was also reminded of a quote uttered by Frances McDormand in the end of that film: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”
Burn After Reading (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
There’s something profound in this picture but Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed the film, failed to eliminate the distracting elements that dragged this movie down. What I love about “Burn After Reading” is its clear thesis: characters mistaking other characters’ identities and intentions, resulting in one big mess on top of another. It’s really too bad because this film is full of talented actors: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt and J.K. Simmons. McDormand really steps up to the plate whenever she’s asked to play an extremely quirky character. The last time I’ve seen her this good was in “Fargo.” Another stand-out is Pitt, as McDormand’s co-worker and partner in crime. Both of them gave this film a much-needed life and humor. I wanted to see more of them as the movie progressed but we get scene after scene of Clooney messing around Swinton–physically and psychologically. To be honest, it made me look back on “Michael Clayton,” when the two of them are at their prime. In this movie, they are pretty one-dimensional; when the occupation of one of them was revealed near the end, it felt all too forced, as if the Coen brothers were trying to milk the irony. Malkovich is another character that could’ve been explored more (I love his random over-the-top outbursts) but he’s only portrayed as an angry guy who was fired from his job and lost everything. I love dark comedies because there’s a certain smugness to them that other people won’t understand no matter how many times they see the film, but this one felt way too into itself. But, really, in the overall scope of things, this isn’t necessarily a bad follow-up of “No Country for Old Men.” The style is there; it’s just that it could’ve been edgier and more involving.