Sunday Movie Review: Headhunters

It used to be when I thought of Scandinavia, I thought of crystal-blue fjords, aromatic forests, statuesque blondes, and a palatable wholesomeness.

That’s before Stieg Larson gave us his girl with the dragon tattoo, and Jo Nesbø, his various riffs on Scandinavian violence.  Now when I think of Scandinavian, it seems a place of outrageous torture, imaginative violence, and not a little repressed fascism.

Headhunters (Hodejegerne) is Mortin Tyldum’s adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s slick, stylish novel of a professional headhunter who is also a major art-thief.

Roger Brown (played by Aksel Hennie who has a striking resemblance to a young Christopher Walken) is a very successful headhunter–he brings talent to very powerful and influential corporations.  In interviewing potential clients, he discovers their routine, the artworks they own, and whether they have a dog.  In this way, he is able to case his next heist in the luxury of his offices. Roger tells us that he is only 1.6 meters tall (about 5’3″) and that he has to “compensate.”  He does this by buying his stunningly beautiful wife (Synnøve Macody Lund ) everything he thinks she desires: A house right out of the glossiest of architectural magazines, expensive and rare jewelry, an art gallery to run.  He can afford none of this–which is why he must steal art, and even that income is proving to be too little.

We begin by seeing him steal a lithograph by Munch.  (Is it just me or is Munch the most stolen artist of our time?  I don’t know how many versions of The Scream have been stolen in the past thirty years.)  Anyway, the print that he steals is called “The Broach” but it looked very much like one of Munch’s Madonna paintings.

Munch’s lithograph “Madonna”

But even the Munch is not enough to silence Roger’s creditors, so he has to go after a really big score–a long lost Rubens that is in the apartment of a man who he is recruiting for a major position.  In the interview, we learn that the man, Clas Greve, (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a former mercenary, a world expert at tracking people and deposing of them–aha, the plot is setting itself up. He is also ruthlessly ambitious.  We also soon learn that he is sleeping with Roger’s wife.

I will not spoil how it all plays out except to say that there is an enormous amount of bloodletting and creative violence. We move from Roger’s sleek house to Appalachian-like cabins, where the patina of civilization has been long ripped off.

Headhunters is very taut, fast moving, and exciting.  It works very well as a slick thriller, a clever heist movie, with surprising twists and tense, rapid moments.  It also aspires, it seems, to be a good-old-fashion “slasher movie.”  This is where it fails.  The blood is overdone.

And along with trying to be a heist movie, a thriller, a slasher-movie, it also makes periodic stabs at being comedic.  There are very fat twin cops protecting Roger’s hospital room who bungle everything–although their very large size might be what saves Roger’s life.  There is a nonsensical bit with a Russian prostitute and Roger’s partner in crime (which has to be introduced for a technical reason, but it is mostly nonsensical and more irrelevant than essential.)  Heist, thriller, slasher, comedy–perhaps Tyldum is trying to juggle too many balls at once.

In truth, however, Headhunters is a very good way to spend an hour and forty minutes.  Fast-paced, handsome, and clever, if it does nothing else, it is sure to drive more people to reading Jo Nesbø.  And that’s a good thing.

Check out the trailer below:

Movie Review: The Fairy (Le Fée)

I went to the movies this afternoon.  There is something decadent about going to a 1:00 movie on a Wednesday afternoon.  The sky was blue, the sun was shining, the temperature was perfect.  And I wanted to sit in a dark theater.

There is something even more decadent about being the only person in the theater. It was like a private showing just for me!

Anyway, I went to see the movie The Fairy.  I really hadn’t known anything about it until Monday when I looked it up on-line. The on-line plot summary referenced Tati and Keaton (see yesterday’s post) and it looked solid enough, despite the twee title. Written and directed by the Belgium based trio of Dominique Abel, Fiona Grant, and Bruno Romy, it is very broad in its humor. It is both light and sweet, but it feels very amateurish, which it isn’t.  Abel, Grant and Romy are veteran comics, and are the acclaimed forces behind two other well-received films, Iceberg (2005) and Rumba (2008)

But The Fairy was slight.  The story is thin and much of the physical comedy has been done before.

Very early in the movie, Dom (Dominique Abel), a sad-sack concierge in a hotel in Le Harve is trying to eat a sandwich. He sits, turns on the TV, and goes for his first bite when the front bell rings. He clicks off the television, puts down his sandwich, and takes care of business.  This sequence repeats itself  four more times, with Dom’s frustration rising each time.

The last two interruptions were by Fiona (Fiona Gordon), a disheveled woman who takes a room in the hotel but only after announcing that she is a fairy and that Dom has three wishes.

Later, when Dom finally gets to his sandwich, he swallows the cap to his ketchup–which we knew was in the sandwich and which adds some comic tension to every interruption of Dom’s meal…will  he bite it now or not? It is Fiona who saves him.  She performs an unusual heimlich manuever by sitting him on the front desk and running across the room before head-butting him in the chest. The lid to the ketchup bottle comes flying out.

And the caliber of the physical comedy has been set.

It is as Dom lies recovering on the lobby floor that Fiona once again announces that Dom has three wishes.  He can only think of two: a motor scooter and a life time of free gas for it.

By the next morning, Fiona has delivered both.

Many of the gags have been done before: The valise that is holding a lap dog and which shuttles across the lobby floor…the falling down of several flights of steps…the turning a corner on a scooter and then reappearing with the driver chasing the riderless vehicle…the nearsighted waiter (Bruno Romy) who walks into things and repeatedly misses the table or the glass with his service…bumbling police.  For me, much of it felt old. I had seen much of the same in films from the ’20s and ’30s.

And while Dominique Abel’s mugging and pratfalls are amusing, it is Fiona Grant’s physicality that carries the movie.  She is a lithe as a ballerina (her bare feet seem as disfigured as a dancer’s) and as angular as a young Jerry Lewis (of whom she reminded me.) She runs awkwardly (there are several chase scenes reminiscent of the Keystone Kops) and dances more than oddly.  There is an underwater dance scene (where Dom impregnates her inside a giant clam shell) and a Marx Brothers’ style phone session.  And in it all, she is spectacular.

Perhaps the most amazing stunt is a late kiss. Dom and Fiona are being pulled away by two different groups of police. As they kiss, the police pull each of them away, but their lips remained locked. Finally, they are completely parallel to the ground, their bodies stretching in the air across a sizable space, holding each other up (I can only guess) with the force of their kiss while the police hold them by their lower legs.  If it the scene isn’t computer generated, it is truly a great physical stunt–incredibly strenuous while seeming so casual and perfect.

Throughout the film, Dom and Fiona repeat a conversation:

Fiona: Dom, have you thought of what your third wish will be?
Dom:   No.
Fiona:  Well take your time.”

This snippet occurs three or four times, but at the end, when Dom, Fiona and their baby walk into the sunset (having once more eluded everyone who is chasing them) and Fiona asks her question, we feel that Dom has already received his third wish–his very unusual family.

Overall, it wasn’t a wasted day. But The Fairy wasn’t the movie I was looking for.  Cute, inventive, and smile inducing.   It just seemed very old-hat.

Movie Review: The Footnote: fathers and sons, parents and children

Juliet being bullied by her father

I have always been fascinated by the importance of parent/child relationships in Shakespeare. As school children, one of the first plays we read is Romeo and Juliet and aside from the love story, the second major story is Juliet’s relationship with her parents. The mother is cold and aloof and the father, while seemingly sensible in the beginning, shows himself an insensitive brute. Then there is Hamlet–a psychiatrist’s field-guide to dysfunctional parenting. In the histories, there is Henry IV, parts 1 and 2; the tragedies also give us King Lear–a tragedy of parenting if ever there were one; the romances give us The Tempest with the sorcerer Prospero manipulating his daughter’s–and everyone else’s–life. Throughout the canon, there are lovers blocked by parents, young nobles obeying the edicts of  fathers, and even a childless woman declaring what violence she would wreak on her children if she had them.

Hamlet berating his mother

And then I thought how much all of literature is tied in with this theme. From the earliest fairy-tales like Snow White, Cinderella, and Rumpelstiltskin to the Greek plays–where does one begin with Oedipus?–the dynamic between parent and child is in the foreground. As for the great epics: The Odyssey is really a tale of a son trying to find his father, as is its modern counterpoint, Ulysses,where “fatherless” Stephen is cared for by Bloom who mourns the death of his own infant son; and what is Paradise Lost but a father punishing his errant children?  In Great Expectations Pip is orphaned and raised by a beastly sister and her kind and understanding husband. In Huck Finn, Huck is trying to survive in spite of the obstacles that the disreputable Pap has put in his way. And even a modern potboiler like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is founded on several perverse father/child relationships.

Lisbeth Salander and her father from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

So I thought of all of this as I left the theater Sunday after watching The Footnote. An Israeli film, The Footnote follows a father and son, both Talmudic scholars through their strained relationship. The father’s career–rightly or wrongly–stalled early in its course. The son, on the other hand, is immensely successful. The film opens with an award ceremony where the son is being inducted into the Academy of Sciences. In his thank-you speech, the son focuses on what an inspiration and model his father was, but the father is so filled with envy, anger, and bile that he walks out of the theater.

Son and father from The Footnote

Later, the father receives a telephone call informing him that he has won the prestigious Israeli Prize, an award given by the President of Israel to an important scholar. The call is actually a mistake and was intended for the son who naturally has the same last name.  The son is informed of the mistake and told that he must be the one to tell his father. What ensues is riveting, heartwrenching, and sad.

The soured relationship between the two is echoed with the son’s strained relationship with his own adolescent child. At times, it seems the women are holding things in place, but I am not completely sure. There is a lot of dishonesty, a terrible lack of communication, and an underlying egoism that is poisoning the family dynamic.

The film is very good.  It is one of those films that you talk about long after, and think about much longer than that.

Friday Film Review: Into the West

Old Lady:  “You can’t take that horse onto the lift.”

Little Boy:  “I have to. The stairs would fucking kill him.”

                                                                                Into the West (1992).

The drunken revelers started up last weekend, college kids in goofy hats, increasingly offensive t-shirts, and green New Orleans love beads, lining up at Finnegans Wake on Spring Garden, weaving down Spruce, and jamming any bar that has an apostrophe in its title.  But since tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I add to the festivities by taking a look at a wonderful–and somewhat underrated–Irish film, Into the West.

The film is the story of two boys, their widowed father, and their bleak existence in the tower flats of North Dublin. When the boys’ grandfather (the inimitable and late David Kelly) arrives suddenly with a majestic white horse, the young boys’ lives are transformed.  There are conflicts with the police (hard to hide a horse in your 7th floor flat), with undesirable racing buffs, and with the upper-class “gentry,” as well as a sweet nod to Irish myth and the legend of tir na Nog.

Written by Jim Sheridan (and two others) and starring Gabriel Byrne and Ellen Barkin–who were married to each other at the time–the film traces these two young boys and their dreams of going into the West.  Except for them the West is the American West of cowboys and Indians, of gunslingers and tumbleweeds. It is a far cry from the fields and rocks of Galway and Mayo.  Yet sure enough when the authorities come after them–they retake their horse from a high-stakes horserace–the boys gallop into the West.  It is here that Irish myth comes into play and the ending of the film is certain to raise a lump in your throat at the very least.  Yet, to me, it is wonderful.

I saw Into the West on the last day that it was playing in the theaters in Philly.  I wanted everyone to see it, so when my young daughters begged off because they had too much homework, I famously told them that they “would have homework the rest of their lives, but they would get to go see this only once.”  To this day, I am glad I forced them to go.  And I think they are as well.