Black Panther


King T’Challa surveys the kingdom of Wakanda that the world sees.

(2018) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, David S. Lee, Nayibah Be, Isaach De Bankolé, Connie Chiume, Dorothy Steele, Danny Sapani, Sydelle Noel. Directed by Ryan Coogler

 

It is not accidental that Black Panther was released during Black History Month. It is a movie that has gone on to make history and brought huge crossover appeal to the segment of African-American audiences who aren’t necessarily going out to see superhero movies – although obviously a large chunk of them are. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is Shaft in spandex though – this is a superhero movie that is going to set the bar for superhero films that follow it.

T’Challa (Boseman), King of the African nation of Wakanda, also carries the mantle of the Black Panther, the protector of his country who is mystically endowed with superpowers. He inherits a country that is technologically advanced but has chosen to hide its true nature so that they don’t become targets. Their isolationism is a sticking point with Erik Killmonger (Jordan), nephew of the recently deceased King, who was raised in America after the murder of his father. He sees things from a much more global point of view and thinks Wakanda should be sharing their technology – particularly their weapons – to help oppressed people of color to rise up and throw off the yoke of colonialism.

There’s a lot more to the film than that but this is a short review. Sure, it’s got the eye candy and jaw-dropping action sequences we come to expect in a superhero film – and they are well done here, make no mistake about it – but also, they are not the be-all and end-all of Black Panther. Rather, they are a jumping off point to discuss more weighty matters – racial relations, colonialism, turning a blind eye to suffering, sexism – things not normally a part of the superhero film equation. It should also be mentioned that the Dora Milaje – the King’s army – are all women and  are the most badass fighting force to turn up in a superhero film ever, even more so than the Amazons of Wonder Woman.

It should also be mentioned that this might be the most talented ensemble ever in a superhero film. The crème de la crème of African-American actors do their thing on this film and none of them turn in anything less than their best. Gurira from The Walking Dead brings the badassery of Michonne and bringing onto the big screen and giving it an African twist. Nyong’o plays a spy and the ex of T’Challa and she plays a fine love interest. Whitaker lends gravitas to his role as T’Challa’s mentor. Best of all though is Wright as the king’s kid sister – a scientific genius responsible for many of the gadgets used in the film. She steals nearly every scene she’s in.

All in all, this is a movie that lives up to the hype and re-confirms that the superhero genre is not just for fanboys but for fans of all sorts. Just for the record, Black Panther isn’t a great superhero film because it has an African-American hero – it would be a great superhero film no matter who the lead was. Come to think of it, Black Panther isn’t just a great superhero film – it’s a great film period.

REASONS TO GO: This is a benchmark for all superhero films. Jordan and Boseman are both terrific in their roles. Coogler hits the director’s A list with his big and bold vision.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the CGI doesn’t quite work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence, superhero and otherwise, as well as a rude gesture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jordan has appeared in all three of the feature films directed by Coogler to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Lear
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Workshop

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Beasts of No Nation


Clean up your room!

Clean up your room!

(2015) Drama (Netflix/Bleecker Street) Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Ama Abebrese, Richard Pepple, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, Kurt Egyiawan, Jude Akuwudike, Emmanuel Affadzi, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Fred Nii Amugi, Grace Nortey, Ebenezer Annanfo, Zabon Gibson, Randy Aflakpui, Justice Promise Azduey, Annointed Wesseh, Abdul Mumin Mutawaki. Directed by Cary Fukunaga

The things that are done in war are as brutal and inhuman as our species get. In fact, “inhuman” is a bit of a misnomer; in many ways, war defines our species so the things we do, the brutalities we inflict are very human indeed.

Agu (Attah) is a young boy in a village in an unnamed African country that is being torn by civil war. Utilizing an old TV set with most of its innards torn out, he and his friends use this “imagination TV” to entertain villagers by creating television entertainment. The civil war has been far away from then until word comes that the rebel troops are coming.

Knowing that the fighting will soon come to their village, the women and children are set to be taken to a place of safety. His mother (Abebrese) and his baby brother are allowed to go but the drive of the vehicle refuses to allow Agu aboard. Reluctantly, his mother leaves promising to come back as soon as the fighting is over.

But it is the government troops that come into the village and start slaughtering the males who had stayed behind to fight, including Agu’s father (Amissah-Sam) and brother. Rebels find the traumatized Agu hiding in the hills and he is brought to their Commandant (Elba) to be executed but instead the Commandant keeps Agu on as a child soldier and gives him to the mute Strika (Quaye) to train.

The training is brutal and the fighting worse. These young boys (and girls) are made to do terrible, horrible things, unthinkable things. Agu doesn’t do these things out of rage but out of fear; fear that if he refuses, the Commandant will have him butchered. He lives in a constant certainty that he is going to Hell once he dies for the things he has done – his mother was a fervent Christian. And the more he sees and the more he does, the more certain he is that his soul has been tainted.

This isn’t the first movie to depict the plight of child soldiers but it certainly is one of the most powerful. Much of this is because of Attah, the gifted young actor whose dead-eyed fear-wracked expression is much more powerful than any dialogue could convey. Attah has to be both a normal young African child and a ruthless child warrior and he pulls both off effectively. I honestly don’t know if he has plans to continue his acting career but based on the notices he has gotten for his work here that road is definitely open for him.

English actor Idris Elba has been described as a force of nature and he is the polar opposite here to his performance in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. His Commandant is manipulative, sadistic and simply the essence of evil but the Commandant doesn’t see himself that way; rather the character thinks of himself as a great man, doing whatever it takes to make change in his country – however he doesn’t really do this for love of country so much as love of power and when his political position becomes more and more untenable, the dynamic changes until the fear that he once inspired is gone.

The movie was privately financed by Fukunaga who sold the broadcast rights to Netflix. The streaming giant, looking to release movies on their own both on their service and theatrically, offered to give the movie a theatrical run; the larger theatrical chains said no thanks, despite it’s award winning festival run and Oscar buzz. The precedent, went the thinking, of releasing movies simultaneously on Netflix and in theaters would be an end to their business and they may have a point  The Landmark chain, consisting primarily of art houses, however have opted to present it in their theaters so if your town has a Landmark cinema it is likely to be there.

Fukunaga, whose previous project was the massively acclaimed and overwhelmingly popular HBO miniseries True Detective has been working on this project off and on for seven years. He contracted malaria while filming it in Ghana and put up with budget cuts and major difficulties with African officials and law enforcement. There is a great deal of sensitivity in the region about these wars and how they are depicted; there are some American liberals who say that this film plays to the racist element in our society, which is a load of horseshit.

We can’t ignore crimes against humanity because of the color of the skin of those who commit them. Black lives do matter; that’s why it shouldn’t matter the color of the skin of the people who are destroying them and ending them, whether a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri or a black warlord in Somalia. This is a story that should be told and it is a story that here at least has been told extremely well.

REASONS TO GO: Incendiary performances by Elba and Attah. Realistic and intense.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit during the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence, some of it disturbing – some of it committed by or against children. Some sexuality and rape, and a lot of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fukunaga intended to cast former child soldiers as extras for the movie but a large number of them were arrested in Ivory Coast on suspicions of being mercenaries and so Fukunaga was forced to go with local extras.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timbuktu
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
NEXT: Hot Sugar’s Cold World

Shout Gladi Gladi


Shouting Gladi Gladi.

Shouting Gladi Gladi.

(2015) Documentary (International Film Circuit) Meryl Streep (narrator), Melinda Gates, Ann Gloag, Wole Soyinka, Dr. Jeff Wilkinson, Philippa Richards, Dr. Stephen Kaliti, Hawa Hawatouri, Vanesia Laiti, Juliette Bright, Isatu Kamara, Dr. Tagie Gbawuru-Mansaray, Lucy Mwangi, Omar Scott, Lois Boyle, Florence Banda, Margaret Moyo, Sydneylyn Faniyan, Jude Holden, Mary Yafet. Directed by Adam Friedman and Iain Kennedy

The mortality rate for both infants and mothers giving birth in Africa is staggering. A large part of the reason for that is a lack of adequate medical care, particularly for pregnant women. Here in the West, we are used to women going to obstetricians on a regular basis, being monitored to make sure all is well with the baby and the mom. With any sort of medical facility often requiring a drive of hundreds of miles and without access to transportation to get there, women give birth in unsanitary conditions. Babies often die before they reach the age of five.

A fistula is essentially a tear in the vaginal wall between the bowel or bladder. It causes leakage and incontinence, which leads to the women thus affected to be shunned by family and their village. They are not formed due to disease or genetic defects; they are the results of prolonged labor which here in the West can be avoided by a simple Caesarian section; in the bush, that isn’t an option. They can also be caused by sexual violence; they are not uncommon when children are raped.

They can be repaired surgically but it takes time and patience. Traditionally, women in rural African nations have been reluctant to go to Doctors and there were few facilities that they could go to, even if they wanted to and could afford to. Ann Gloag, a Scottish transportation mogul who began her career as a nurse, saw this issue and knew she needed to do something to stop the carnage. She began the Freedom From Fistula Foundation and helped open clinics and facilities throughout Africa. Two of them, the Aberdeen Women’s Center in Freetown, Sierra Leone and the Fistula Care Center at the Bwaila Maternity Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi are profiled here.

We get to hear from the doctors and nurses who staff these facilities but more importantly, from the women themselves. Sierra Leone, recovering from a devastating civil war, in particular is heartbreaking as we see the rampant poverty of the slums, and hear horror stories of women abducted and used as sexual slaves. Even in Malawi, we hear about women turned out of their homes and essentially left to die before being brought to the Fistula Care Center.

Both facilities have outreach programs, attempting to educate women on pre-natal care as well as arrange for those already afflicted to leave their homes and go to the clinics to be healed. The women are often sent home with a device called a BBoxx, a miniature solar generator which can be used to charge cell phones which in villages with little or no electricity can be a paying job. It also provides electric power for small spaces, allowing women to live with light and comfort.

Streep narrates the film in a compassion-filled voice that reminds us that she is Hollywood royalty, able to convey even the most terrible words with something approaching comfort. Some of it must have been hard for her to say, but she does so without flinching.

The real stars however are the women themselves; wherever they go there is music. They are constantly clapping and singing, and despite being terribly sick they have a spirit that cannot be denied or stopped. You cannot help but admire these women, often outcasts whose husbands have deserted them but remain upbeat. When the women are cured, there is a ceremony slash party called Gladi Gladi which celebrates their return home. It is filled with dancing and music and laughter. They capture a few of them here and the joy is infectious.

The movie’s one flaw is that there are too many stories here. The film works best when they concentrate on a particular subject, such as Vanesia Laiti, the 70 year old woman who has lived with her fistula for 40 years and Mary Yafet, whose pregnancy at too young an age resulted in a fistula. They would have done better to select two or three patients at each clinic and allowed us to follow their progress. There are so many different people portrayed here that it’s hard to really get involved with any of their stories since we’re only hearing snippets. We also hear from philanthropist Melinda Gates whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major supporter of Freedom from Fistula, and Nobel Laureate playwright and activist Wole Soyinka, who lends gravitas.

This is a major problem that has a simple solution. Clinics like these provide them, giving free medical care to women who desperately need them but more than that, give them an opportunity to live productive lives once they are cured. It’s an inspiring documentary that takes a subject that might be painful or uncomfortable for some and turns it into an uplifting celebration of the human spirit.

REASONS TO GO: Important material seldom discussed. The women are amazing. Great music.
REASONS TO STAY: The squeamish may have problems with a couple of scenes. Too many talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some nudity involving nursing and birthing. Adult themes and some horrifying descriptions of rape and torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was commissioned by the Freedom From Fistula Foundation, whose activities are the subject here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Timbuktu
BEYOND THE THEATER: iTunes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Finders Keepers

Blended


These two hate each other so much you know they're going to wind up together.

These two hate each other so much you know they’re going to wind up together.

(2014) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Joel McHale, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Terry Crews, Kevin Nealon, Emma Fuhrmann, Bella Thorne, Braxton Beckham, Alyvla Alyn Lind, Abdoulaye NGom, Kyle Red Silverstein, Zak Henri, Jessica Lowe, Shaquille O’Neal, Dan Patrick, Jackie Sandler, Alexis Arquette, Josette Eales. Directed by Frank Coraci

As a young boy, the maxim “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” was hammered into me by my parents, my teachers and whichever adults happened to be handy. Personally, I wonder if they would have been quite as fervent about it if they had seen this movie.

Despite my upbringing, I am a film critic and sometimes it becomes necessary to discuss a movie that you literally can’t say anything nice about. I had some decent expectations about this movie to begin with – after all, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore have had great chemistry in  the past (particularly in The Wedding Singer) and the director from that film is on board for this one. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, everything. The plot is a mish-mash of unlikely coincidences and rom-com cliches guaranteed to knock your IQ points down a couple after you’ve seen the movie. The jokes take an interminable amount of time to set up and when they arrive, they simply aren’t funny.

The story, briefly put, is this; Jim (Sandler), a widower and Lauren (Barrymore) go out on a blind date and like most blind dates it’s a complete train wreck. They each arrange to get fake emergency phone calls just to get out of the Hooters that they are dining in. Note to single men – never take a first date to Hooters. There won’t be a second.

Anywho, through a convoluted set of circumstances, the two wind up together on an African safari vacation along with her two sons and his three daughters. At first the families fight like cats and dogs (or more to the African theme, like hyenas and jackals). But as they discover that they are all made for each other, the attraction begins to grow and…oh, I just threw up a little in my mouth.

Sandler has been on a cold streak as of late, appearing in several movies that have been absolutely horrible. It’s not because Sandler himself is horrible – given the right script, he can absolutely kill. However, he’s been choosing to go the PG-13 route trying to appeal to a family crowd who appreciate a little bit of an edge. The problem is, in my opinion, that he has mined that territory so thoroughly that everything he does is essentially déjà vu for the audience.

And Barrymore’s personality seems to have been diluted someone by her recent motherhood. She was always so free-spirited and spunky in all of her movies, not just the ones with Sandler, but here there’s a blandness to her that I’ve never seen in one of her performances before. I sincerely hope this is a one-time aberration.

And the kids…Oy, the kids! I have another maxim for you; spending time with your own kids is a joy; spending time with someone else’s is a chore. The kids here are all written one-dimensionally as a cluster of neuroses; one is a hyperactive terror who strikes out every time he comes to bat in Little League. One of the girls talks to her dead mother which isn’t a bad thing, but she insists that Mom be set a place at the table. There’s nothing funny about a kid who is in desperate need of therapy. One of the kids is an oversexed perv who tapes the face of his babysitter to centerfolds and…eww. See what I mean about there isn’t anything funny?

Even the bit with the best potential for actual laughter, a kind of African Greek chorus led by Terry Crews that seem to show up at every crucial moment, gets old quickly and dies a horrible death by over-repetition. I mean, did anybody actually watch this movie before they released it?

That the movie is flopping big time at the box office is somewhat comforting in that audiences are at least recognizing that these are not the type of movies they want to see. Hopefully Sandler will take heed and start doing comedies with a little more intelligence and a little less pandering. He’s too big a talent to waste on crap like this.

REASONS TO GO: Nice African images.

REASONS TO STAY: Not funny. Too many kids, all of them obnoxious. Appeals to nobody.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rude and sexual humor and a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alexis Arquette makes a cameo reprising his role as Georgina from The Wedding Singer which was the first time Sandler and Barrymore teamed up.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grown-Ups 2

FINAL RATING: 3/10

NEXT: To the Wonder

White Material


White Material

Isabelle Huppert realizes she isn’t in Provence anymore.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankole, William Nadylam, Adele Ado, Ali Barkai, Daniel Tchangang, Michel Subor, Jean-Marie Ahanda, Martin Poulibe, Patrice Eya, Serge Mong. Directed by Claire Denis

 

Have you ever been in love with someone that didn’t love you back nearly as much? Maybe even disliked you or hated you? I think we’ve all been in situations like that, but then again what happens when that love is for a place?

Maria Vial (Huppert) runs a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country (although it was filmed in Cameroon). She doesn’t actually own it – her ex-father-in-law Henri (Subor) actually does, but he is infirm and although she is divorced from his son Andre (Lambert), Maria actually runs the place with Henri’s blessing. Maria and Andre are on pretty good terms, although their teenage son Manuel (Duvauchelle) drives them both a little crazy as teenagers will. He seems content to do nothing but sit in his room; Maria wants him to participate more in the running of the plantation while Andre just hopes he find some sort of direction in life.

Their idyllic lifestyle however is coming to an end. The country is being torn apart by civil war and rebels roam the countryside, many of them children, wishing to wipe every vestige of colonialism from their land. Maria’s workers are getting out while the getting is good and they urge her to do the same. So does Andre. So do French soldiers who approach via helicopter to tell her that they can’t protect her if she stays.

Maria, however, isn’t about to leave. She feels the same love for the land as any African, she reasons, and that makes this just as much her land as theirs. Determined to bring in the harvest that will save her struggling plantation, she goes into town to hire new workers, which she is partially successful in doing. However, she can’t help but notice the suspicion with which she is regarded.

Her son, in the meantime, has an experience that changes him forever and not for the better. Maria also discovers the Boxer (de Bankole), the leader of the rebellion, seriously wounded and puts him up on her land in an outbuilding so he can recover. This might end up protecting her – or getting her caught in the crossfire.

Denis has a history living in French Colonial Africa and obviously her experiences have resonated with her. She has a real feeling for the country and its people, but she sees them without rose-colored glasses. Both the colonials and the Africans in most of her films (several of which have to do with colonialism and its effects) are flawed both philosophically and as people, but she clearly has affection for all of them.

I love San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle’s assessment about Huppert – “anyone who has seen Huppert in other films may well expect her to be able to beat down the revolution by glaring at it.” Huppert is one of the most intense actresses living on the planet and manages to channel that intensity without being overt or over-the-top about it, a mistake young actresses often make. She is like a coiled spring who communicates her intensity with a glance, or a gesture.

Here she’s slightly more vulnerable than her screen personal usually is, although that fierceness is still there in her stubborn refusal to acknowledge the growing storm that approaches. However, there are several shots that Denis frames Ms. Huppert in that show her almost as schoolgirl-small, alone in a beautiful but hostile environment. In one scene, she needs to get on a bus but the bus is full. Undeterred, she hangs onto the ladder outside the bus; her muscles ripple with effort as she hangs on, much as she does with her plantation. It’s an extraordinary scene that will remain in your memory.

Lambert, best known for his appearances in the Highlander films (as well as occasional cameos in the TV series), displays some hitherto unsuspected tenderness as Andre. He’s not nearly the primal force that his wife is, but Andre is a good man nevertheless and at last when things hit the fan, he has to do the sensible thing. It’s not the wrenching moment it could have been but then, this isn’t Andre’s story either.

The cinematography here is brilliant. Yves Cape, the cinematographer, knows how to frame a shot properly but this isn’t just rote point the camera and take pretty pictures. Each shot is a story and embellishes the story, often giving hints as to what the story is about such as the shot of Maria hanging on the bus we discussed earlier. There are also a lot of interesting faces in the film. While Cape is good at what he does, one has to give at least partial credit to Denis, who has a very specific vision. The things I’ve just referred to are standard in her films.

The film bounces around in various time frames, from the denouement which is teased in the opening scene and to better times and to the beginning of the troubles and back again. This kind of storytelling requires a lot of discipline to keep from confusing the audience, but it didn’t quite work for me.

I’ll admit that I’m pretty impressed with the movie overall, although I downgraded it several points for the flashbacks/flash forwards. Huppert is one of the most brilliant actresses there is who hasn’t gotten sufficient due here in the States. I don’t think Americans are comfortable with a woman who displays this kind of intensity, if you ask me. White Material may not resonate with Americans quite so much as we don’t wrestle with the same colonial issues that Europeans do, at least not to the same extent (we have our own demons that are often on display in our movies). Still, this is one of those hidden gems that any serious film lover should go out of their way to seek out.

WHY RENT THIS: Huppert gives a riveting performance. Beautiful cinematography. Some very symbolic shots will have you working this one over in your head for weeks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The flashback storytelling method left me cold.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are pretty adult. There is also some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie that Denis filmed in Cameroon, the first being Chocolat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Released on DVD as a Criterion Edition, there is an illustrated booklet, There is also a featurette on Denis’ return to Cameroon at the local film festival to screen the move for locals but also for those who worked on the film, many of whom who had never seen it which proved to be a daunting task as Cameroon has nary a single movie theater.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $304, 020 in the U.S. on an unreported production budget; the movie in all likelihood was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nowhere in Africa

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Prometheus

In a Better World (Haevnen)


In a Better World

Some father and son heart-to-hearts don't quite have the desired effect.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Mikael Persbrandt, Markus Rygaard, William Johnk Juels Nielsen, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Toke Lars Bjarke, Kim Bodnia, Wil Johnson, Elsebeth Streentoft, Camilla Gottleib, Odiege Matthew, Simon Maagaard Holm. Directed by Susanne Bier

All of us have some sort of moral compass that guides them, be it a motivation to do the right thing or one to act only in one’s own self-interest. There are also times in all of our lives when we are required to use that compass in order to make a profound decision, one that may affect not only our own lives but of those around us.

Anton (Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor living in a small town in Denmark. Well, some of the time anyway – he spends a good deal of time working in refugee camps in what appears to be the Sudan (although it’s never specifically spelled out in the film). Much of his time is spent patching up the victims of a particularly sadistic warlord nicknamed The Big Man (Matthew), who likes to bet his functionaries what the sex of an unborn child but being somewhat impatient, prefers to rip the fetus out of the womb rather than wait for it to be born. His moral resolve is tested when the Big Man himself comes into the refugee camp, demanding to be treated for an infected leg.

He is married to Marianne (Dyrholm) but only loosely. A fellow doctor who stays at home with their sons Elias (Rygaard) and Morten (Bjarke), the relationship between the two has come to a breaking point after Anton cheated on Marianne. Edging closer to divorce, Anton’s infrequent visits home are characterized by separate residences and strained silences.

Elias is bullied at school, particularly by Sofus (Holm), a large blonde kid who doesn’t like Swedes to begin with (apparently there is some hostility towards Swedes in Denmark) but doesn’t like Elias in particular, referring to him as “Rat Face” (due to his angular features and braces). Sofus delights in tormenting Elias, flattening his bicycle tires and stealing the valves so that Elias can’t re-inflate them.

This is observed by Christian (Nielsen), a new kid in town whose mother recently lost a long fight with cancer. Christian is angered at his father Claus (Thomsen), who lied to him when promising his mother would get better but worse still – for wanting his mother to die during the late stages of the disease when she was suffering terribly. Christian has developed an intense hatred of bullies and defends Elias, taking on the much bigger Sofus – beating him mercilessly with a bicycle pump, at last threatening the bully with a knife.

This brings the police into the matter, although both boys defend each other and protect each other, knowing that if the knife is found or attributed to Christian it would mean immediate expulsion. Right about then Anton returns home, staying in the family summer house.

When Anton breaks up a fight between Morten and another boy, the boy’s father Lars (Bodnia) warns Anton not to touch his boy and slaps Anton, causing obvious embarrassment mostly because it was witnessed by Christian and Elias, who have become fast friends. Anton, a pacifist, believes that not responding to the provocation was the right thing to do. Christian and Elias are not so sure, believing Anton to be afraid. In order to prove to the boys he isn’t afraid, he takes them to Lars’ auto shop and confronts the adult bully. Lars continues to abuse and slap Anton, but Anton never flinches. Pleased with himself, he is satisfied that he has taught the boys a valuable lesson. Christian, however, has taken a different lesson away and resolves to do something about Lars – something serious that will forever change the course of his life and that of Elias.

This is the most recent recipient of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, winning also the Golden Globe for the same category (a very rare occurrence I can assure you). Director Biers constructs a morality play, setting it in a bucolic Danish town where life would seem idyllic, and in a refugee camp. She wisely plays the moral dilemmas of Anton (in treating the Big Man) and his son (in following Christian down a path of vengeance) side by side in parallel stories, emphasizing how similar the two situations are.

She is helped by having two fine juvenile leads. Both Nielsen and Rygaard are convincing, coming off as real kids without saving the day or acting beyond their years. Like all children, Christian and Elias don’t have sufficiently developed moral compasses at this point in their lives, and make decisions essentially based on incomplete information.

Persbrandt is not a name I was familiar with, but he does a terrific job as Anton, displaying the moral ambiguity of a man who cheated on his wife, yet lectures his sons about morality. Anton’s obvious anguish at having violated his own ethics is clear, as is his devotion to his sons. I understand he is one of the most respected actors in Scandinavia – I can certainly see why.

Dyrholm is also fine as a woman who feels completely lost and doesn’t know how to find her way back, or even if she wants to. Marianne can be shrill and sometimes takes her anger out on her son who blames her for not forgiving his dad. Thomsen, as the grieving father, is similarly solid. His grief renders him nearly inert, unable to take action as his son treads increasingly dangerous waters.

I like the conversation this brings up in terms of the use of violence as a tool of vengeance (in fact, the Danish title for the movie is “The Revenge”). Not that violence doesn’t exist in Denmark – of course it does – but it’s far less prevalent there than here, so the impact of the movie was probably more intense in Denmark than here. The truth is we become desensitized to violence, seeing it as a means of getting even, knowing that it solves nothing. Anton may have been ineffective in conveying his message to Christian and Elias, but it’s a good message nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: A quiet little drama that settles in on violence and vengeance. Juvenile leads do a tremendous job.

REASONS TO STAY: Needed to make its points a little more subtly.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence that’s occasionally shocking (some of it involving pre-teens), there’s some disturbing images and some snippets of foul language and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story Christian reads at his mother’s funeral is “The Nightingale” by Hans Christian Anderson.

HOME OR THEATER: The great African vistas look terrific on the big screen but so too does the bucolic imagery of the small Danish town. In other words, catch it in a theater if you can.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

TOMORROW: Disgrace