The Commune

Thomas Vinterberg’s broad, histrionic, blackly comedic social satire doesn’t work on any level

The Commune PosterIn what universe does Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Commune” make sense? The thinly drawn characters in this stagey, maudlin, histrionic dreck seem driven by pages that must’ve vanished from the script. They leap from broad character types to wild hippies in no time flat, act completely out of line and ultimately enable the film’s dirtbag protagonist to carry on an affair. Chalk it up to the lifestyles of those crazy Danes, I guess.

A nuclear family of a middle-aged couple, Erik and Anna, and their teenage daughter Freja, inherits a massive home too large for them to live in and maintain on their own, so they invite some old friends as roommates but agree to a communal arrangement. In preliminary interviews they reveal themselves as a square, a drifter, a burnout, a hippie and a strict mother with a dying toddler son, but before long they’re all laughing drunkenly and jumping into the ocean naked. Good times. Continue reading “The Commune”

A War

AWarPoster“A War,” the Danish film nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, is the rare war film to consider a soldier’s practical war as well as a moral one. It’s not just about coping with life after war, but about how a soldier faces hard decisions and consequences upon returning home.

Claus (Pilou Asbæk) is a commanding officer leading patrols of local villages in Afghanistan. A 21-year-old under his command dies from an IED and his platoon begins to question why they’re risking their lives. Claus’s message is a humanitarian one of needing to protect the local communities, and already this war film has a different feel from the flag-waving American actioners.

It’s all slow burn suspense until on one campaign Claus and his squad is pinned down by enemy fire in a chaotic battle in which we never actually see the attackers. Claus orders an air strike and saves the life of one of his men. The heroics are handled modestly, with the wounded warrior via a remote satellite feed communicating his gratitude through an amusing series of paper signs. But awaiting Claus is an accusation that he bombed a region without having visual confirmation of the enemy’s presence, ultimately killing civilians as a result.

The chaos of that scene actually serves a narrative purpose. The back half of “A War” becomes a courtroom drama in which Claus faces charges that all hinge on what exactly happened. Director and screenwriter Tobias Lindholm poses a practical dilemma in which a good man who made a tough decision in the heat of the moment, choosing one life over the lives of innocents, now has to face the consequences at the hand of the country he serves.

Lindholm previously wrote and directed the equally modest drama “A Hijacking”(also starring Asbæk), a film that, like “A War,” concerns a man trapped in a practical dilemma imposed by a broader institution, not just an internal moral conflict. But “A Hijacking” made villains out of the larger institutions and had plenty to say about human nature on a broader scope. “A War” is heavy courtroom drama but doesn’t raise as many questions about the purpose of such a military campaign or the nature of the law. We only fear Claus’ unfortunate fate, in which if he served jail time, he would have to leave his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) and three children.

“A War” also struggles to find its footing and energy until it returns to the home front in its second hour. Part of that hinges on how Lindholm constructs melodrama. Time and again Claus’s moral decisions boil down to the lives of children. One terrorist uses a local boy as a human shield against sniper fire. Another Afghani father pleads with Claus to allow his children to stay protected on the military base. And Maria, who receives surprisingly ample screen time, is on the brink of being overwhelmed with their kids. If Claus gets convicted, the kids are at risk yet again. It’s carefully calculated to make Claus appear to be a good man, but it’s drama centered more around easy plot devices rather than complex character growth.

But American and foreign war films never even begin to tackle the institutional issues Lindholm’s “A War” does even superficially. It’s at war with the idea of what a war film can be.

3 stars

A Hijacking

“A Hijacking” is a scathing indictment of the corporate culture told through a compelling thriller.

A Hijacking

I wrote in my review of “Captain Phillips” that the movie was really about two businessmen, leaders who respected one another and negotiated a deal. “A Hijacking” is a Danish film likewise about a shipping freighter being boarded by Somali pirates, but this film is the one that hits at the reality of how men do business.

It’s a cold-blooded negotiation, one in which the men do not respect each other or play fair. It’s a thriller, but a slow one designed to drag things out mercilessly and endlessly, making “Captain Phillips” look like just a busy weekend. “A Hijacking” works as a complex drama and thriller because it’s an indictment of corporate culture first. Tobias Lindholm’s film lacks a hero or a fulfilling rescue, and it serves as a stark counterpart to Paul Greengrass’s movie.

The captain of the hijacked Rozen isn’t even on the boat. His name is Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), and he’s the CEO of international company that owns the vessel. In an early scene we see Peter about to storm out of a negotiation meeting with Japanese businessmen, successfully knocking down their asking price by a few million dollars in a manner of seconds.

So when he gets wind of his boat being taken capture and held for ransom, he hires a consultant to advise him on the pirates’ intentions and takes a seat at the negotiating chair himself. Motivated partly by ego, partly by compassion and partly by duty, Peter is advised by his consultant that pirates don’t think like regular businessmen. Give them their first asking price and they immediately ask for more. Play the negotiating game and show no emotion that might cause the pull of a trigger. Continue reading “A Hijacking”