War for the Planet of the Apes(7/14/2017)

There’s nothing quite as annoying as being out of touch with the popular consensus about a movie, but only by a little.  When you love a movie everyone loves you get to luxuriate in the world’s excitement, when you hate a movie everyone hates you get to join in on the feeding frenzy, when you love a movie everyone hates you get the privilege of being an iconoclast who sees in something what everyone else doesn’t, and even when you hate a movie everyone else loves you at least get to smugly point out that the emperor has no clothes.  However, it’s a lot less fun to be the guy who’s going “hey, you know that movie everyone’s going crazy for? I also like it a lot but think you guys are maybe going overboard, it’s not that good.”  This is a difficult position to be in because it requires you to engage in nuance when the internet masses would rather revel in hyperbole.  It’s also difficult because you find yourself sounding like you dislike the movie more than you actually do because you focus so much on the negatives in order to justify your position that you don’t bother bringing up the positive elements with which you more or less agree with the consensus.  Ever since it debuted in 2011 the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise has kind of been putting me in this annoying little boat, and it’s particularly annoying in their case because my slight disconnect with them is less the result of me seeing gaping holes in them and more just a matter of not being quite as impressed by their achievements as some people are.  This will be put to the test once again by the latest film in the series: War for the Planet of the Apes.

Set months, maybe years after the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this new entry begins with Caesar (Andy Serkis) capturing a handful of human soldiers after a skirmish and opting to free them rather than execute the captives, hoping they’ll send a message that the apes are willing to live peacefully if left alone.  Anyone familiar with this series’ take on human nature will not be surprised to learn that this message fell on deaf ears and they are soon attacked once again, this time by a special forces quad being personally led by the commanding officer of this outfit, a guy named Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), and their raid leaves Caesar’s son and wife dead.  Swearing vengeance Caesar decides to seek out McCullough and kill him and orders the rest of his ape brethren to march away in the opposite direction towards a safe spot that they’ve scouted.  As he heads for McCullough Caesar is joined by other close associates who insist on accompanying him including Maurice (Karin Konoval).  Along the way they encounter a chimp who wasn’t part of their tribe (Steve Zahn) and a little human girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who’s been rendered mute by an evolution of the plague that caused all this trouble in the first place.  These two tag along but it quickly becomes clear that their dealings with McCullough will be more difficult that they initially imagined.

As previously stated, I liked the first two rebooted Apes movies but they never really exuded greatness to me despite having a no shortage of great elements on paper.  I think I more or less feel the same way about this one, and yet I also kind of liked it better than both of its predecessors even though I think it has more glaring flaws than both of them.  I think the main thing that makes it work better for me is that it’s the first of these movies to entirely get rid of human good guys.  Rise and Dawn were both ultimately movies about Caesar and got endless credit for managing to build movies around a non-human character, but let’s not forget that those movies also prominently featured James Franco and Joel Edgerton respectively as humans who would try to form friendships with the apes only to see their work undone by their intolerant human brethren.  There’s almost none of that here.  I suppose Nova it technically a human being who is a “good guy,” but her young age, absence of speech, and lack of apparent loyalty to humanity in many ways makes her an honorary ape more so than a human.  With that exception pretty much the only human character that really has a notable speaking role is the villain played by Woody Harrelson, who chews scenery very effectively as the film’s villain.  To make up for this Caesar has become increasingly verbose to the point where he can pretty much speak clearly and with a full vocabulary and feels more human than ever.

On top of that I feel like the filmmaking on these movies has only gotten better and better.  This third installment is still using the same basic technology that brought the apes to life in the last two movies, and it looked great before make no mistake, but it has only gotten more refined over the years and really looks pretty much seamless at this point.  Beyond that though it seems like director Matt Reeves (who boarded the series with the second installment) has only grown more and more confident behind the camera.  This isn’t exactly the war film that the title would imply insomuch as it doesn’t play out like a military campaign with Braveheart-like battle scenes, but there is an oppressive and martial atmosphere throughout which plays into reeves’ strengths.  So the film is great visually but what about the substance?  Well, the thing about this series is that it talks a good game and generally maintains its dignity (which is no small achievement in this blockbuster atmosphere) but its scripts have never really been as smart as it advertises itself and this is no exception.  The series’ primary question of whether humans and apes can co-exist was more or less answered in the previous movie (the answer was “no”) so now we’re more or less left see how things play out to explain how the apes are going to take over and make the planet theirs.

For the most part things play out in a pretty satisfactory manner although there are some rather strange storytelling decisions towards the end.  I’m thinking in particular of a moment that I probably shouldn’t spoil but let’s just say that there’s an element of chance involved in the ultimate victory of one side over the other and this was so odd that I was really kind of baffled that anyone thought it was a good idea.  That’s not a huge deal though really.  My problems with the movie have less to do with what it is than what it isn’t.  Namely I’ve never really thought these movies were really they biting works of social commentary that they masqueraded as and aside from the not so radical proposition that humanity can be cruel and self destructive I don’t know that they really have all that much to say.  Compare that to the original series from the 60s and 70s, which if anything suffered from having too much to say at times, and these feel a little shallow.  Where those movies prioritized science fiction ideas and political undertones, these movies focus on pure execution and coherent plotting.  And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ll save my praise for the movies that manage to do both.

Wonder Woman(6/3/2017)

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For someone who doesn’t read a whole lot of comic books I know a whole lot about Batman.  I know the origin stories of just about everyone in his rogues gallery, I can name a lot of the most famous storylines from his comic book run, and I know more about his adopted family than anyone should.  I also know a decent number of things about Superman, but after that my knowledge of DC’s roster of superheroes becomes pretty thin.  I can’t tell you much about The Flash other than that he’s fast, or about Aquaman other than that everyone thinks he’s a joke, and I couldn’t tell you much of anything about The Green Lantern aside from what was in that crappy Ryan Reynolds movie.  The character that I feel particularly ill-informed about is Wonder Woman.  Wonder Woman is certainly a very famous creation, but in many ways she seems to be more famous as an iconic symbol than as an actual character.  Most people could identify her on sight but how many of them would know that she’s an Amazon who’s directly related to Zeus and that she’s spent much of her life in an unending fight with Ares?  Probably a lot fewer than the number of people who know that Superman came from Krypton or that Batman’s parents were shot.  Of course part of that information gap is caused by the fact that the character had not been brought to the big screen before now, fortunately that’s being corrected by the new big screen adaptation of the character’s adventures in this year’s Wonder Woman.

The film begins by establishing Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince’s origin story, in which she was raised on Themyscira, an island in the Aegean that’s been hidden from the outside world and seemingly displaced in time through magic.  It’s explained that this island is the domain of the Amazons, a group of female warriors that were created by Zeus to temper the humans or something.  Anyway, Diana (Gal Gadot) is seemingly the only one of these warriors who began as a child and was raised on the island by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and  her aunt General Antiope (Robin Wright).  There are some argument over whether Diane will be trained as a warrior but for the most part it’s an idyllic life, until suddenly bi-plane comes flying past the invisibility barrier of the island revealing that these events are actually occurring circa 1918 and crashes into the water.  This plane is piloted by an American spy working with the SAS named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who is being chased by a fleet of German boats.  After a brief skirmish Trevor tells the island ladies that World War I has been going on around them.  Diana determines that this is the doing of the Amazons’ nemesis Ares and resolves to venture out with Trevor to find and kill Ares, believing that this will end the war and bring peace to Earth.

It’s no secret that Wonder Woman is coming hot off the heels of a number of DC movies that made a lot of money but which were reviled by fans and critics.  Personally I liked some of them better than most.  I liked and continue to like Man of Steel a lot more than most people and I thought Suicide Squad had its moments (Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, however, is every bit as terrible as everyone says), but either way it’s clear that there is a lot of pressure for DC to change direction in a number of ways and to do that they seem to have taken some cues from Marvel in certain places.  The film’s “superhero in World War I” set up is certainly reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger and while in human society Diana has some fish-out-of-water misunderstandings that reminded me a bit of the first Thor movie.  However it would be a mistake to say that the film is completely biting the Marvel style, in fact a lot of the film’s comedy is confined to the second act and much of the rest of the film actually has a lot more in common with the other DC films than critics have suggested.  In fact I think the film has quite a bit in common with Man of Steel in that both movies are about these incredibly strong and in certain ways alien beings trying to come to terms with what their potential place in human society is.  Additionally a lot of the film’s action scenes are definitely pulling from the Zack Snyder playbook with 300 style speed ramping and a grittier aesthetic over all.  In many ways Suicide Squad was probably the bigger departure from the other DC films.

As origin stories go Wonder Woman works out pretty well.  The comic book origin story for Wonder Woman is kind of “out there” and lacks the cleanness of something like “was bitten by a radioactive spider” and the movie does a pretty good job of conveying the whole “Amazons on an island” story without making it seem unnecessarily complicated.  There are of course certain plotholes that this opens up.  I do not for the life of me understand how time works on this island or how they managed to learn all sorts of modern foreign languages while still being so oblivious of modern world that they don’t know the First World War is going on around them.  The cloak of invisibility around the island also doesn’t exactly make sense as the reason they’ve been isolated for so long.  These are of course pretty minor quibbles in the long run.  The movie also does a pretty good job of indulging some of its more comedic elements without feeling like a cavalcade of one-liners and pop culture references or feeling too much like a departure from the feel of the other movies of the “Justice League” continuity and while the actions scenes certainly aren’t “top of the line” they are mostly pretty entertaining.

All told Wonder Woman is a movie that does a pretty good job of living up to the basic expectations of a modern superhero movie and here or there it adds some nice flairs of its own on top of that but it’s hardly a major genre re-invention.  For the most part this is a movie that follows the usual rules of superhero filmmaking pretty closely, and there’s nothing wrong with that exactly, I generally like superhero movies after all.  However, I can’t help but be a little disappointed that the movie plays things as safe as it does.  I generally go to DC’s movies expecting a little more experimentation than this.  We certainly got that with Suicide Squad even if the results were kind of a mess and Man of Steel also sought to show us a different kind of superhero movie from what we usually get.  This movie on the other hand just kind of feels like a safer and more diluted version of what DC has done before and I suspect that a lot of the people who were less open-minded about what they were doing before will find that to be a good thing but I personally found that a little disappointing.

Your Name(4/9/2017)

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I’ve been going to “arthouse” theaters for a little over ten years now and there’s one thing that’s remained a constant about these theaters since the beginning: the audiences at them are very old.  There are some young people who will show up to them occasionally, myself included, but I would bet that the median audience age at some of these theaters is sixty or over.  However, recently I went to one of these theaters to see an anime film called Your Name and was taken aback by what I saw: the crowd that had assembled to see the movie was the youngest set of faces I’d ever seen at that theater.  There were a couple of the “traditional” arthouse audiences members I’d normally expect to see at a place like this peppered in but most of the people there seemed to be college, maybe even high school aged or at least in their twenties.  At the age of 29 I may well have actually been in in the elder third of audience members at that theater for the first time in my life.  It was also a pretty large crowd in general.  These kind of theaters do fill up some times, usually when movies that are getting Oscar buzz make their local debut, but in general I expect Sunday afternoon screenings at these places to be half filled at most but this place was close to sold out.  It was heartening.  Of course a big part of this may be that, outside of its foreignness Your Name is not really an “arthouse film” at all.  In its native Japan it’s actually a huge blockbuster.  It’s made nearly $200 million dollars in that country alone making it the fourth highest grossing movie of all time in that country and it’s also done big business in China and South Korea.  Apparently that buzz reached across the pacific and generated a crowd to see the film now that it’s available in the United States.

Your Name appears to be set in present day Japan and concerns a pair of teenagers named Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who live far away from each other and seemingly have no connections to one another until one day they mysteriously begin to switch bodies ala Freaky Friday.  It’s not terribly clear why this is happening but seems to be connected to a comet that’s visible in the sky while all this is going on.  Mitsuha is a girl living in a remote little town called Itomori while Taki is a guy living in Tokyo so Mitsuha is thrilled to experience all the fun things in Taki’s life while Taki comes to be charmed by Mitsuha’s town and its quaint ways.  The two are not in this state permanently and seem to do these body switches only a couple of times a week and when they return to their own bodies their out of body experiences feel hazy, more like dreams they’ve woken from rather than clearly remembered experiences and the two leave notes for one another and set certain boundaries that the other shouldn’t be crossing.  This goes on for a little while and the film seems like a pretty pleasant little low stakes comedy but there is something else going on here and when it emerges it makes this experience all the more deep for both people involved.

Unlike other famous anime films like Akira or Princess Mononoke this is not a film that “needs” to be animated given its subject matter.  There’s obviously a fantasy element in its concept but it’s set in mundane contemporary locales and doesn’t have any monsters or anything but I also doubt that a live action version of this script would have made one third of a billion dollars.  I think one of the biggest advantages of the animated format here is that it makes the body swap concept a bit more organic than it would in a conventional film.  In live action films like Big and Freaky Friday these high concepts get gimmicky fast and turn into these actors’ showcases and the whole thing becomes about the performers acting strangely and nothing else.  Your Name isn’t devoid of the kind of gags that this scenario would invite but they don’t overpower it and the film does organically “get over” the basic strangeness of the situation and move on past the obvious jokes.  Additionally, the animated format helps to get past a few narrative conceits that are required to get past a few inconsistencies that occur in the second half.  I can’t get into too much more detail on this but there are a couple of aspects to this that would definitely be considered plot holes if you’re not able to accept that the time these two spend in each other’s bodies are experienced almost like dreams and the fact that the film has the extra layer of unreality that animation provides makes this work a little better.

There is a bit more going on here than initially meets the eye and there is a twist in the second half that does raise the stakes to the movie a little and take it in a bit of a different direction than it initially seems and this shift is pretty well handled but I won’t go into any further details.  Overall I did find this to be a fairly charming and entertaining movie, at least when taken in a certain spirit.  The movie is about teenagers, and to a certain extent it’s also made for them and you do need to put yourself into a bit of a “young adult” mentality in order to fully enjoy it.  People should not go into it expecting it to be the next Ghost in the Shell or something, but its relative lightness is also a big part of its appeal.  Anime is generally known to be made for something of a niche audience, but Your Name isn’t.  It’s more accessible to general audiences than the sci-fi/fantasy fare that anime is usually associated with in the west, but at the same time it’s a bigger and more notable film than the more tranquil “Josei” anime that often have trouble finding broader audiences.  That, I think, is a big part of why it’s managed to find such a wide audience.  The other part is that it’s just such a well-made and enjoyable piece of work with a nice blend of comedy and pathos.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

X-Men: Apocalypse(5/30/2016)

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We’ve long worried that there is a superhero bubble that’s about to burse and that audiences are finally going to get sick of seeing movies about costumed crimefighters and it feels like if there’s ever going to be an audience backlash against these movies it’s probably going to be in 2016.  The year isn’t even half over and we’re already at our fourth major superhero release and have two or three more to go (depending on whether you count Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).  Even crazier is that most of the superhero movies this year aren’t just about one superhero; they’re about superhero crossovers and teams.  Superman had to be going up against Batman and Wonder Woman, Captain America had to be in the midst of a star-studded civil war, and later we’ll be watching a group of super villains team up into a suicide squad.  As such it almost seems like one of the worst years for a film from the original cinematic superhero, the X-Men, to come out.  That’s unfortunate because this franchise should have been rushing in on a wave of momentum given that their last film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, was seen as something of a comeback high by a lot of filmgoers and critics.

This installment of the X franchise picks up about ten years after the end of the “past” section of the last movie and depicts the era in which the primary cast of the original X-Men movies are first being recruited into Xavier’s Academy.  Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan) has just been recruited as the film opens and will soon meet a young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner).  This is fortuitous as Xavier and every mutant he’s in contact with will soon be tested by an ancient Egyptian mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) who has recently awoken and begun recruiting disaffected mutants like Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Archangel (Ben Hardy), and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) to be his “horsemen” and eventually he comes across the continually disaffected Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to be his second in command.  Soon this young cadre of mutants as well as some fence sitters like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), side characters like Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and older allies like Beast (Nicholas Hoult) will be forced to rise to the occasion and take down this existential threat to human and mutant alike.

X-Men: Apocalypse is certainly a less ambitious movie than its predecessor in that it lacks X-Men: Days of Future Past’s cool time travel hook.  In many ways its business as usual for the X-Men franchise so your enthusiasm for this movie will probably vary by how much you’ve liked previous installments and how excited you are for more of the same.  This prequel trilogy continues to flesh out how we got to where we started with the series (even if it isn’t doing a terribly convincing job of making the characters age as the story moves through the decades).  The film also does very little to catch newcomers up with what’s been going on so this may not be the best entry point for newcomers to the series.  What the film does do pretty effectively is treat longtime fans of the series to a lot of nods to what they’ve liked in the past and to reward them for having kept up with the franchise for as long as they have.  Did you like the Quicksilver stuff from the last movie?  There’s more of that.  Did you hate X-Men 3?  There’s a thinly veiled dig at that movie.  Do you need more Wolverine in your life?  Well rest assured that Hugh Jackman has a prominent cameo.

If there’s a major flaw to be found here it’s that some of the returning cast feel a bit shoehorned into the film.  For instance, Mystique’s role in the whole series seems to have grown larger than it was ever intended to be, in part because the films feel obligated to give more and more screen time to Jennifer Lawrence (who wasn’t particularly famous yet when she was first cast in the role).  I’m also not sure that Magneto really belongs here either as his character would seem to be more complex than someone who would just team up with a supervillain like Apocalypse who is just evil with a capital “E.”  Speaking of Apocalypse… he’s not great but he was better than I expected.  The character has always been a bit stock going back to his role in the comics.  He’s basically X-Men’s answer to Thanos, who was himself kind of a ripoff of Darkseid, and given that I would be inclined to give the movie credit for doing the best they could to not simply make him a super-generic brooding villain.  I don’t know that this was the best use of Oscar Isaac’s time, but ultimately I do think the movie does more with this kind of villain than some of the Marvel movies like Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy were able to do with similar characters.

As for the new cast… most of them are pretty good but there wasn’t much in the way of a starmaking standout here.  Tye Sheridan is a decent Cyclops, Sophie Turner is a decent Jean Grey, Kodi Smit-McPhee is a decent Nightcrawler, Alexandra Shipp certainly looks like a pretty good Storm but is quickly put into a henchman role that doesn’t give her a lot to do.  None of these performances are bad at all, but this certainly isn’t the embarrassment of young acting riches that X-Men: First Class managed to stumble into.  I do look forward to seeing what all these characters are up to in the 90s, as for the current 80s exploits we’re witnessing here… I mostly enjoyed it.  I seem to be in the minority on this given that the movie is currently sitting at 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I don’t really get why… well, maybe I do.  I don’t think there’s much of anything awful or even bad about the movie but nothing about it really stands out either and I can see why people would maybe want to punish the series for treading water a bit in this installment.  Personally, I think there are much bigger offenses that other movies get passes for.  Also, I can’t help but look at weaker entries in this series and genre like X-Men: The Last Stand and this year’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (a movie whose ineptitude will make a lot of other superhero movies this year look damn good by comparison) and feel that this has a lot more going for it.

The Witch(2/20/2016)

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The 2010s have, on balance, been a rather frustrating decade for horror so far.  2009’s Paranormal Activity did a real number on mainstream horror and have ushered in a truly frustrating era where seemingly every horror flick has been about invisible ghosts banging doors and rattling chains for 90 minutes with maybe an exorcism or something at the end.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t some fun to be had from such movies and that I don’t enjoy the best of them, but they seem particularly cheap and uninspired on balance.  At least during the Saw/Hostel era of hyper-violent “torture porn” you could at least have fun pretending that the movies were allegories for Abu Ghraib or something, but this new crop is pretty much just an exercise in how it’s kind of fun to have things jump out at you sand say “boo!”  In the last two years we were given two movies that rose above the fray and seemed like they were finally signs of change: The Babadook and It Follows.  I liked both of those movies a lot, but I also thought both of them were a little less revolutionary than they seemed.  The Babadook in particular was actually a lot closer to the “people haunted by spectral being that shows up and goes boo” formula that I’d long gotten sick of.  It was really well made and cleverly used psychology rather than religion as the basis of its creepiness.  It Follows, was slightly more original in so much as the ghost behaved differently from usual but it had its own baggage, namely that it’s style aped a little too much from John Carpenter.  It’s a new year now and with it comes the new “next great hope” for the horror genre and one of the most promising yet in the new film The Witch.

The film is set in late 17th Century New England, and focuses on a family of puritans who have been banished from the main puritan city for having unspecified theological differences with the village orthodoxy and have ventured out to start their own farm away from civilization.  The movie picks up a year or so later when this farm has been established but is not exactly prospering.  The patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson), is not a particularly good farmer or hunter and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) has increasingly come to suspect that providence does not look kindly on their endeavors.  Things really start to go awry when their infant child seemingly vanishes into thin air while their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is watching him, leading to grave suspicion that something is amiss either in the woods or in the house.

Obviously the first thing that jumps out to the viewer about The Witch is its unique setting.  There have not been many movies about the puritans outside of a few adaptations of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible and it’s readily apparent that writer/director Robert Eggers has done his research.  The film uses what sounds like period accurate dialogue that gives the film a needed verisimilitude and also makes the film distinctive from other horror movies.  There’s kind of a widespread problem in cinema, and especially in genre cinema, where filmmakers are so obsessed with film that they end up drawing all their inspiration from other movies rather than the wider culture.  There’s certainly a place for that (e.g. Tarantino), there’s really something refreshing about seeing a filmmaker come around who seems like he’s read a lot of books and has a wider base of knowledge to draw from.

To some extent this is still a haunting film of sorts but the feel is so radically different from the Insidiouses, Sinisters, and Conjurings out there that it’s barely noticeable.  For one thing, the movie is largely devoid of “jump scares” and instead uses creepy images and ideas to fuel its thrills.  I’m not going to say that this is the scariest movie one is likely to see and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone as such, but it taps into the roots of the genre and uses interesting imagery and ideas to create unease in his audience but he also taps into some very human psychology to examine the paranoia of the situation.  The film never plays coy about the fact that there is real and literal witchcraft plaguing this family, but it’s never clear to the family what’s plaguing them and they quickly begin to turn on each other in much the way things played out in Salem during the witch trials.  This works in part because the film has done its work to build and develop the four main family members in the film and give each of them a fully fleshed out set of motives and conflicts.

The Witch is the first film from its director and its one hell of a debut at that.  There’s a wonderful maturity to the film and a great uncompromising spirit to it.  It doesn’t feel the need to dumb itself down for a mainstream audience and doesn’t pander to the whims of the hardcore horror audience.  I began this review by pondering if The Witch would be the movie that would finally knock us out of this rut we’re in where every horror movie feels like a variation on Paranormal Activity.  In the short term the answer is probably “no.”  I don’t think this movie is going to be a box office smash and I don’t think studios are going to be rushing out to make clones of this.  However, I do think that this movie is going to make a lot of noise in the greater film world and I do think it will have influence down the line.  At the very least I’m hoping it will influence a few other directors working in the genre space to aim a little higher and give them the courage to aim a little higher and compromise a little less.

4.5

A War(2/28/2016)

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The Academy Awards do a lot of things to the film release schedule, but one of the more useful things it does is bring a handful of foreign films stateside each year because they end up in the Best Foreign Language Film category.  The Academy has a strange and sometimes infuriating process for picking the nominees in that category which involves countries submitting films to be considered by a committee of Academy voters (often elderly ones with time to watch all of them) that often has very different ideas of what belongs among the nominees than the critical community.  I used to hate this, but lately I’ve kind of come to terms with it in that it does occasionally lead to some interesting discoveries that the festival scene didn’t bring attention to and every once in a while a gem slips through (see 2002 winner Nowhere in Africa).  This year two of the five nominees (Hungary’s Son of Saul and Turkey by way of France’s Mustang) were fairly popular with critics and arthouse audiences and I liked both of them a lot, the other three come a bit more from the fringes.  Two of them (Columbia’s Embrace the Serpent and Jordan’s Theeb) have not had a theatrical release in my area yet but one of them did manage to open near me so I thought I’d check it out.

Denmark’s A War is about a platoon of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan and specifically about their commanding officer Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) who is known to go out in the field more than most people of his rank.  The film cuts between his military exploits and those of his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) back in Denmark who is raising his three children.  As the film begins it seems like a fairly straightforward “tour of duty” movie where stress builds and horrors of war and uncovered, but then it takes a turn about halfway through when a mission goes wrong and Pedersen makes a decision under duress that leaves a number of civilians dead.  Pedersen feels fully justified in his action but is soon investigated and charged with a war crime.  He returns to Denmark to face these charges that could end his career and land him in prison.

A War was directed by a guy named Tobias Lindholm, who rose to prominence a couple of years ago with a film called A Hijacking (the guy is clear a fan of indefinite articles).  That movie was often compared with the film Captain Phillips as both films covered a similar situation but Lindholm’s movie took a notably rawer and less “Hollywood” approach about the sometimes banal realities of hostage negotiation.  Given the reputation of that film I was almost expecting A War to be almost a Dogma-95 take on the war film and was actually surprised to find the film’s style to be as palatable as it was.  The film is certainly lower budget than a Hollywood war film, but it doesn’t look like it was shot on a shoestring either and Lindholm isn’t using any sort of minimalist handheld aesthetic and his screenplay isn’t filled with artistic pauses or meta-elements.  In other words, the filmmaking is straightforward and isn’t really in opposition to the usual rules of how to film a drama.

So it would seem that Lindholm is interested in giving the film a simple style so as to get out of the way and let the ideas play out, but those had better be pretty damn interesting ideas and I was actually kind of disappointed at how simple the court case at the center of the film was.  In the moment the decision that Pedersen made seemed pretty simple: terrorists were shooting at his men, he didn’t know exactly where they were, so he calls in an airstrike to clear out everything in the vicinity of the gunfire.  In essence his sin was to value the lives of his men (people who signed up for this dangerous adventure) over the lives of innocent bystanders.  That’s an interesting quagmire.  That is not, however, what is the question at the center of the court trial.  The issue there is quite simple: was there PID (Positive Identification) that the shots were coming from the building he ordered the airstrike on.  If he did have PID on the building and there were still civilians in it that is immaterial, if he didn’t have PID on the building and there weren’t civilians that would still be a breach of protocol (albeit one that likely wouldn’t have gone to trial). So, most of the debates that happen in this courtroom end up being factual rather than moral in nature, which to be fair is probably truer to life, but it still seems like a not overly dramatic case to hang a film on.

So, what we’re left with is a moderately interesting case told in a moderately interesting way and… that just doesn’t seem like enough to really make a movie like this stand out.  It lacks the heightened drama of something like A Few Good Men or the institutional critique of something like Breaker Morant.  The point is, I suppose, to present something a bit more real and down to earth than those movies but if that was the plan I’m not really sure that Lindholm went far enough.  This seems less like some kind of radical work of realism and more like a conventional drama that simply isn’t very dramatic.  It’s certainly not a bad movie mind you, it’s decently well told and does leave you with a few interesting things to think about. The acting is good, there are certainly some well rendered scenes, but it definitely isn’t the best of what world cinema has to offer.  Of course sometimes straightforward movies told in simple ways about seemingly important subject matter is sometimes what the Academy goes for (just look at this year’s best picture winner) but it usually isn’t what makes your movie something people remember after a while.