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To Life

By Laura Leon

After the Wedding

Directed by Susanne Bier

Years ago, Mystery Science Theater 3000 spoofed Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Obviously, not a difficult target. But the single most memorable moment from that particular episode was when the MST3K people, eyeing a scene featuring two morose-looking blonde children, intone something like “We’re not sad, Santa. We’re Norwegian.”

This bit of foolery played into a stereotype that I probably share with others: that Nordic Europeans, with their high suicide and alcoholism rates, tend to be melancholy beings. This impression initially took hold when my sister forced me to watch Ingmar Bergman movies like Cries and Whispers. And so I wasn’t terribly surprised when, watching the Danish Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Picture, After the Wedding, I was presented with a lot of crying and stoicism and, well, melodrama.

Children born out of wedlock and raised by surrogate fathers. Unsuspecting paterfamilias. Troubled youth. Alcoholism and encroaching illness. A tinge of adultery, a hint of despair . . . all of these figure prominently in After the Wedding, which was directed by Susanne Bier. Luckily, Bier is a woman who knows intuitively how to play such broad emotions in such a way as to convey deeper insights into the frailties of the human family. The movie begins not in Copenhagen but in Mumbai, a place awhirl with heat, dust and ragged humanity. Social worker Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) has been summoned back to his native Denmark in order to secure desperately needed funding to continue the orphanage he’s presided over for nearly 20 years. The potential benefactor, Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard) is a self-made man, a master of industry who, we learn in quick-cut scenes, is equally at east in the comfort of his palatial country estate, reading to his twin blonde sons, comforting his aging mother, or sneaking in a bit of romance with his loving wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Our first instinct might be to recoil with Jacob at the notion of being summarily ordered to a face-to-face, on the basis of sealing the deal, but as we consider Jorgen, we realize that there’s much more to this capitalist than Jacob’s blatant class-hatred would have us believe.

Within a few short scenes, Jacob is coerced into attending the lavish wedding of Jorgen’s and Helene’s daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), and it is here, as the title suggests, that things begin to move forward. Secrets are spilled, news is learned, and all bets are off, as Jacob realizes that there is much more to Jorgen’s generosity than previously met the eye. That said, and without divulging crucial plot details, this is not a movie whose purpose is to wax poetic about social injustice. It takes some time before the viewer, perhaps lulled into a certain mentality by too many films which purport to be about the evils of wealth and the virtues of poverty (before rewarding the poor hero with millions), to forget to look for Jorgen’s “secret evil” plan. Bier is far more interested in the interactions between family and friends—in particular the choices we make which result in cohesion and unity or independence. Interestingly, we view the character of Jorgen almost entirely, in the beginning, as a father, son or husband, and it is through the familial prism that we cannot help but see him as something far more than the sum of his bank account. On the other hand, for all of Jacob’s obvious selflessness with respect to the Mumbai orphans, examples abound of his overriding and historic selfishness—indeed, from the start, he whines about having to return to Denmark even though it is the only means by which he can secure the future of the orphanage.

After the Wedding teems with moments of drama, and at times it almost seems over the top. The headstrong Anna, whose husband seems more enamored of her powerful father than of his new bride, comes home from a party to find said mate getting carnal on the couch with another woman. She and Helene argue over past untruths and hints of an overriding desire for control, and then they are tearfully clinging to each other as best friends. Jorgen breaks down to Jacob, who recoils from such raw emotion. Jorgen and Helene argue and make up. It’s only as the movie rambles toward its mostly satisfying, if pat, conclusion that one realizes that such entanglements, rapprochements, détentes and, yes, coincidences, are the stuff of everyday life—even if you are Norwegian. Bier celebrates life and living, and as corny as that sounds, it’s a testament to the choices we make and the dilemmas we share.

Deadly Fun

28 Weeks Later

Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

It’s been almost four years since Danny Boyle’s lean, mean and absolutely terrifying 28 Days Later reanimated the zombie genre with its flesh-eating, fast-motion Londoners infected with a bioengineered “rage virus.” Juan Carlos Fresnadillo takes over the director’s chair from now-executive producer Boyle, and the sequel 28 Weeks Later, which picks up with an attempted repopulation of England, is almost as strong as the original.

Unlike the traditional George A. Romero-style zombies, these “zombies” aren’t the undead—they’re diseased humans who will die if unable to feast on human flesh. So, 28 weeks after the initial infection, all of those initially infected are dead, and a U.S.-led NATO force has set up a “green zone” in central London for the uninfected survivors and English refugees who were out of the country at the time of the crisis.

Yes, it’s called the Green Zone. Taking a tip from Romero, the filmmakers eschew, mostly, the Lord of the Flies drama and psychological approach of 28 Days Later, in favor of pointed social commentary. And no, the occupation of infected England doesn’t go any better that that of sectarian-group-divided Iraq.

The main characters are a man (Robert Carlyle) and his wife (Catherine McCormack), who were trapped in England during the outbreak, and their two kids, Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) and Tammy (Imogen Poots), who were in Spain.

Things do not go well for them either.

Without fail—and unlike in 28 Days Later—every choice the characters make is wrong. That includes the choices of an army doctor (Rose Byrne) and her fellow soldiers. The action is fast, the tension is brutal and the payoff is a real kick in the gut.

In other words, it’s terrific. I can’t wait for the final film in this proposed trilogy.

—Shawn Stone

Absence of Taste

Black Book

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Few European directors have “gone Hollywood” to the degree that Paul Verhoeven has. After leaving his native Netherlands, where he was respected for his edge, he made such enjoyably commercial hits as RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct, and then steadily degenerated to junk like Showgirls, Starship Troopers, and Hollow Man. For Verhoeven to retreat to Holland and reconnect with his earlier career was a smart move; for him to make a lavish epic about the Dutch resistance was a brilliant one. And at times, Black Book, the labyrinthian tale of a Jewish femme fatale who is recruited as a spy during World War II, shows flashes of talent and a sure hand for large-scale storytelling. But it seems that the director’s lurid streak and lack of narrative integrity (he co-wrote the script) follow him wherever he films—overall, Black Book offends more than it informs.

The femme fatale is Rachel (Carice Van Houten) a beautiful singer who is experienced in getting her way with men even before the Germans invade Holland. Black Book opens with Rachel teaching school in Palestine and then flashes back to the turmoil that brought her to a kibbutz. The framing device is clumsy and undercuts the suspense, since we know from the get-go that Rachel survives the occupation. Her effect on men is the story’s main thrust, and for long stretches, it seems that an escalating series of backstabs and betrayals is simply an excuse to showcase Van Houten’s sex appeal (perhaps not coincidentally, she resembles a young Sharon Stone).

During an escape attempt, Rachel’s wealthy family is gunned down by Nazis. She miraculously survives and is recruited into the Resistance. The circumstances of her family’s execution are eventually revealed by the convoluted plot, which snakes through an impressive amount of the subterfuge and profiteering that plagued the Resistance. Rachel’s assignment is to seduce and spy on the German head of police security (Sebastian Koch), who she met on a train while switching suitcases to protect a contact from the Gestapo. Verhoeven apparently didn’t have the patience to work out the details of an ambitious espionage tale so he takes narrative shortcuts on a par with the lesser James Bond films. And he doesn’t miss a single opportunity for sordid scenarios, lingering on sex and degradation at the expense of character, motivation, and background. This results in a few howlers, and to unintentionally cause the audience to guffaw during a movie that relates to the Holocaust is an appallingly different thing than producing sniggers during Starship Troopers.

Not even the beguiling and authentic production (notably Anne Dudley’s score and Yan Tax’s costume design) can disguise the director’s lowbrow sensibility. As Rachel falls in love with her Nazi sympathizer, the script has a chance to go somewhere daring, but instead, it follows formula, violently piling up suspects and corpses (and giving Cadbury the most egregious product placement in movie history). The real shame is that some of the dilemmas that arise in-between breast shots and red herrings deserved better treatment, such as the resistance leader’s conflicted agenda between liberating Holland and placating the Germans to save Jewish lives. Black Book—the title object is an account ledger—negates its own internal logic with its framed ending, a cheaply symbolic wrap-up with about as much substance as a candy-bar wrapper.

—Ann Morrow

Silence? Not So Golden

Into Great Silence

Directed by Philip Groning

According to an onscreen note at the end of his documentary, German director Philip Groning had to wait 16 years for permission to film within the Grand Chartreuse monastery in France. At the time of his first request, the Carthusian order—by reputation one of the most unchangingly ascetic in the world—believed it was “too early” for such a presence in their most important cloister. It’s amusing to wonder what happened in the 1990s that motivated the Carthusians—founded in 1084, their motto is Stat crux dum volvitur orbis (The cross is steady while the world is turning)—to relent. Amusing, if entirely rhetorical; for Into Great Silence provides little information that would suggest an answer, to that or other questions.

Over six months, Groning filmed alone, observing the monks in their daily rituals of prayer, study, song and labor. Note: “observed,” rather than interacted. Though the Carthusians do not swear a vow of silence, per se, they do avoid unnecessary conversation and spend most of their days alone in modest cells. They leave their rooms for three daily, communal prayers, a shared weekly meal, an occasional walk through the surrounding (and absolutely spectacular) landscape—and for very little else.

Groning convincingly reproduces the repetitiveness of the monks’ lives, revisiting shots and recycling onscreen biblical text. It’s an interesting and understandable tactic to mimic the outer form of the brothers’ experience. However, it’s also a risky one. Groning captures the narrowness, the invariability, of the Carthusian monastic life but he misses its— presumed—depth.

Perhaps cautious of taxing his viewers—and at 162 minutes, Into Great Stillness is potentially quite taxing—Groning avoids overly long shots. He intersperses takes of the monks in their practice with shots of empty sky, swirling clouds, time-lapse starscapes, pools of water rippled by rain, and so on. He further varies the texture of the movie by switching between hyper-clear imagery with rich, almost saturated color and grainy, diffuse footage. Any 10-minute excerpt of this movie contains beautiful and thought-provoking film. Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to much.

What Groning cannot do—what perhaps no filmmaker could do—is capture the inner result of this repetitive discipline. His slideshow approach adds significant visual interest, and it is by no means certain that a two-and-a-half-hour film of another person’s uninterrupted meditation would have fostered a greater contemplativeness in the viewer. But, this film, while interesting and ambitious, would be more accurately labeled Atop Great Silence. It’s pretty, but not penetrating.

—John Rodat

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