I love it when a film raises the stakes. Done with wit, it can drag you back in to a film you might have been drifting away from. Done with smarts, like Susanne Bier’s Danish drama In a Better World, it can drag you to the edge of your seat.
About two-thirds in to the film there’s an event that forces a central character to confront his own principles – values he has been carefully (and selflessly) teaching his kids – and he has to question whether those principles are really doing him any good in a world that refuses to honour them in return.
The character is Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor working in a sub-Saharan refugee camp where – in addition to the usual litany of drought-related problems – he’s patching up pregnant women brutalised by the local warlord. He’s troubled by the circumstances but smug about his role in the aid process. Perhaps he should be paying more attention to back home though, as his oldest son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is being bullied at school and taken under the wing of cold-eyed psychopath Christian (brilliant William Jøhnk Nielsen), grieving the cancer death of his mother and taking his quiet rage out on the world.
Violence, revenge, how we defend and protect ourselves – Bier’s film cleverly sets up and then undermines all the arguments for and against, leaving us to draw the only conclusion left: the world is difficult and complicated and all our attempts to live well within it are likely to be undone by something out of our control.
The stakes are also raised throughout the new Liam Neeson big budget B‑movie Unknown (or Unknowen as it’s pronounced here). Neeson plays a mild-mannered biologist in Berlin for a conference with his wife (January Jones from “Mad Men”). One lost briefcase, one taxi crash off a bridge and one bang on the head later and he’s been replaced at his wife’s side by Aidan Quinn who is now the distinguished American biologist and Neeson is – who the Hell knows who Neeson is.
With the help of beautiful Bosnian refugee (Diane Kruger) and a ageing former Stasi spook (played with his usual twinkly brilliance by Bruno Ganz) Neeson tries to unravel a plot that involves a threatened Saudi prince and a new strain of everything-resistant corn that might feed the world. Entertaining and, according to one who knows, set in a recognisable Berlin.
The stakes are pretty high for the cavers trapped in the world’s deepest underwater cave in Sanctum 3D. Unfortunately for them, and for us, filmmakers Alister Grierson and James Cameron have considerably overestimated how much an audience will care about these pompous blow-arses and their territorial pissing contests. It’s a not-quite-truism that a film needs a sympathetic central character but there’s no one in Sanctum to root for.
Finally, my first exposure to the franchise known as Big Momma’s House. I announced my presence at the cinema via Twitter on Thursday and got a helpful pre-review review from @GrumpyYetAmusin: “@danslevin I could write the review for you from here – “this film is formulaic, inane, condescending and not amusing”. Okay?” Nail. On. Head.
Sadly for me I had to watch all 107 minutes of Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son in order to confirm Mr Amusin’s conclusion. 22 years ago , star and executive producer Martin Lawrence appeared in Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing and he has just about exhausted the many brownie points that earned him.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 23 February, 2011.