In a Better World
In a better world, In a Better World would not have to win the foreign film Oscar (which it did, for 2010) to get serious American attention. This is the kind of humane, teaching, slightly preaching movie that tends to take that prize. It is also better than those adjectives.
The evident subject of this Danish film is bullying. After viewing, you can have a PC talk about bullying. Or you can linger in the more-complicated emotions stirred by good acting and direction, here dealing with the mystery of human violence as an engine of ego and anguish. Another theme is how children not only suffer for the sins (faults, if you prefer) of the adults, they generate their own agenda of pain and payback.
The movie’s obvious but not plaster hero is Anton, a Swedish doctor for the very poor at an African refugee camp, acted by Mikael Persbrandt as a brave but fallible idealist. His estranged wife lives in Denmark with their son Elias. Sometimes Anton flies back, exhausted from healing people who live in dust-blown tents and are terrorized by a grotesque gangster. He is needled with guilt by his resentful wife. But Africa has toughened him, and he gives a lesson in nonviolence to Elias, a gentle kid who is being tormented by a school bully.
Another boy, Christian, comes to Elias’s defense. The spine of the story is the bond of the teens, one a born leader despite his small stature, the other an awed but uneasy disciple. True to youth, the kids live in their own world, surrounded by adult dramas they barely understand. Markus Rygaard portrays Elias as vulnerable but not a wimp. William J. Nielsen as Christian, who blames his father for his mother’s death by cancer, is amazingly good without a lot of dialogue. He achieves what may be the most sullen, miserable rage packed into a young face since Donald Thompson, the orphan in the widely forgotten 1948 classic The Quiet One.
Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, Things We Lost in the Fire) directed Ander Thomas Jensen’s script with tact and assurance. For my taste, the story is too tightly laced as binary lessons: Africa/Denmark, adults/kids, gun bullies/fist bullies, male physical violence/female emotional violence. The title is a soft sell to American audiences; in Danish it is Hævnen (Avenger). Yet the story is strong, scene by scene, and its moments of painful validity go beyond the horrors in Africa.
There are no dull scenes. Beautifully photographed without promenading pictorial values, In a Better World is mainly about how life is not about quick, simple lessons. To call it a tract about bullying is like calling the Book of Job a checklist of complaints.
Less than two months after Liam Neeson emerged from a coma to run around Berlin in the frantic Unknown, Saoirse Ronan comes out of a coma-like, rural life to run around Berlin in the frantic and rather hallucinatory Hanna. When Hanna’s father Erik (Eric Bana) joins in, it’s as if they are in a relay race to catch up with Berlin’s inexhaustible Franka Potente in Run Lola Run. Even if you share the rush, you probably won’t feel the grip of a viable story.
Directing well below his storytelling level of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, Joe Wright must have also kept the writers on a fast track, panting to find something beyond the plot’s adrenalized action. The result is like merging Funeral in Berlin and Alice in Wonderland, with added grist from superhero yarns. Erik is a rogue CIA agent who left the grid of deadly intrigue (one victim: his wife) to raise Hanna near the Arctic Circle in Finland. With stern discipline, he stuffs her pretty head with facts, languages, and the skills of martial arts and primeval hunting — the movie’s first and worst emotional wallop is the prolonged dying of a beautiful reindeer.
At 16, Hanna heads for civilization. Let the games begin! For some vague reason, she must signal her emergence to her father’s nemesis, the frigidly brutal agent Marissa. As if fulfilling a childhood dream to become a Bond villain, Cate Blanchett turns Marissa into a mask of insane fanaticism, while speaking in the syrupy drawl of a Tallulah Bankhead impersonator (Tallulah lives on YouTube). Marissa’s inner wound is never having been a mother, but that doesn’t curtail her determination to kill Hanna.
Marissa is the Wicked Witch and Hanna is Dorothy, or Alice, or maybe Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds on a wild high. She speeds through her cracked, mirror-glass world of street musicians, thugs, camels, junkies, and Gypsies performing flamenco. After a reference to creepy medical experiments, Berlin seems haunted by old Nazi vibes. Through it all, Ronan remains about as dazed as her tragic teen in The Lovely Bones, her pale, angelic, barely expressive face reflecting this Mad Hatter world spun from depleted, generic ideas.
The film is fancy, stylized pulp for viewers with a limited sense of what has been done before. And for girls who will identify with Hanna’s post-pubertal adventures, her kick-ass bravura, her radiantly unsullied purity. Hanna often feels like a twisted sister of the Kubrick/Spielberg fantasy A.I. Artificial Intelligence, with comparable reliance on surreal surprises and zapping visuals. Also, a similar smugness about inviting us to be privileged voyeurs, insiders of The Vision. The death of the noble stag is haunting, but the rest is only celluloid in motion, running in circles of cliché.
Bill Cunningham New York
Of the many stories in the Naked City, Bill Cunningham’s is not naked. No, his story is about clothes and his constant hope to “see something marvelous, exotic — a bird of paradise.” At 82, Bill is quite a rare bird himself, with New York’s best raptor gaze apart from Pale Male, the famous Central Park hawk. For decades, he has camera-clicked people whose bold and beautiful attire catches his attention.
The best shots appear in his On the Street column in the Times, and he has also done a social column that goes beyond name-dropping. Bill was a cheek-pecking chum of the late Brooke Astor, and he knows all the trendsetters, models, and dandies such as Tom Wolfe and Patrick McDonald. Those men, along with Vogue-queen Anna Wintour and many other fans of Bill, are interviewed in Richard Press’s documentary. Cunningham claims no special interest in celebrities.