Art is so often a tug of war between the accidental and the predetermined. And so often – hurrah for happenstance – the first is victorious. Self-importance and self-consciousness can pass into dust. The most beautiful, touching things can frequently be the least “worked”: a passing phrase in music, a painter’s unthought brushstroke ...
In a Better World, from Danish director Susanne Bier, won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It wears the Academy-approved virtues. It is the neatly structured, “sensitive” tale of two families whose teenage sons are joined in a battle against school bullying. While gauche Elias (Markus Rygaard) shrinks from retaliation, his bolder friend Christian (William Johnk Juels Nielsen) – a name surely picked to make us interrogate “turning the other cheek” virtues – plans and executes reprisal. The action-versus-inaction theme radiates to the parents. Elias’s father is a doctor who practises good works and preaches non-violence in an African refugee camp. In Denmark, Elias’s divorce-seeking mother rages at the school’s failures of intervention. Christian’s bereaved father is hated by his son for his passive acquiescence (as the boy sees it) in his mother’s slow death from cancer.
Thematic ducks in a row: start potshotting. Bier peers into the crosshairs of her regular screenwriter’s vision – Anders Thomas Jensen (Open Hearts, Brothers) – and directs the actors with her Dogme-schooled zeal for truth and a kind of power-naturalism. There are confrontations with blind or cruel authority and paradigmatic shows of passive resistance. (Anton’s father, on a furlough home, lets a local thug hit him over and over in front of the two boys). The boys look on, suffer, learn, grow ...
If none of this touches us quite as it should, why is that? Perhaps because the script is a scheme for moral debate and resolution, not without subtlety but nor without platitude. At the close, i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed and every honest-souled misadventurer is saved from moral self-immolation. So – complementary question – why does the film touch us when it does? Because Bier, when she allows herself, loves the peripheral as much as the portentous. She understands that an image can tell more than words, more than even 1,000.
There are achingly strange, beautiful twilight landscapes: a lone grown-up brooding in a Danish meadow adorned with mysterious scrolls of mist, another caught in quiet profiled torment against an African sunset. (Bier saturates the colours, bravely and expressively, in both continents). There is an uncanny menace in several scenes featuring the boys atop a grain silo: the vertigo scary beyond comfort or comprehension. And we cannot forget the pugnacious, enigmatic magnetism of the boy playing Christian, who never quite drops his guard or opens the closed fist of his mystery – is this gauche acting or inspired reserve? – even when the truths start to clatter forth and the hearts to bleed cathartically in the final reel.
To travel from the sublime to the ridiculous is, for a film critic, the work of a moment. He need only commute between Soho preview theatres on an August afternoon. Spy Kids – All the Time in the World is in four dimensions – the extra one being smell – and I hated the lot. Film-maker Robert Rodriguez has mined this mother lode too long. Even enhanced by 3D specs and a serial-scented scratch-and-sniff card (from which my olfactory powers extracted only a repeated odour of musty peach), the plot is a poor, poor thing. Two kids stepmothered by a comely super-spy (Jessica Alba) scamper around fantasy gauntlets of danger – climactically the scything cog wheels of a giant clock – as if mapping out the inevitable tie-in computer game. Ricky Gervais woofs lame jokes as the voice of a robotic dog.
Cowboys and Aliens is worse. There is no greater emptiness than the one dwelling at the heart of surfeit. The density of inanity at the conceptual core of this crass sci-fi western starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford pushes outwards, inflating fatuous substance and propelling bric-a-brac in all directions. Item: lousy genre jokes. Item: silly space monsters. Item: puerile dialogue. Item: endless rear-view shots of Craig’s thinly clad derrière to thrill menopausal matrons. The film is too worthless and witless to think about, let alone to write about, so just take my word. Wait for the DVD, then send it to your worst enemies.
So to Britain and its adjacent islands.
The Bible says it best in the 2011 Revised Version. “Lay not up for yourselves expectations of the police and their powers, where sloth and lust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal ...” I won’t enter the debate about whether cops stood by while a nation, the UK, was ransacked last week. I will enter the fray regarding The Guard. In John Michael McDonagh’s comedy thriller a new species of police officer – preposterous, contentious, challenging – is brought to light in small-town Ireland. We must ask of Brendan Gleeson’s Sergeant Gerry Boyle: “Is he bad news or good news?”
He drinks, swears, overeats and hires hookers. But he also solves crimes. This character is robustly played by an actor I seldom warm to: there is something smug and roguish-by-rote about the usual Gleeson performance. Yet who else could play this protagonist?
The bad news is the knackered buddy-movie plot in which he is trapped. Ireland meets America – and white meets black – as Boyle and Don Cheadle’s FBI agent team up to investigate a murder-intensive international drug racket, which has its own spin on naff culture clash in the cockney/Irish teaming of Mark Strong (mockney muscle) and Liam Cunningham (Celtic cerebellum). Long before the film’s end, bromance and bang-bang have replaced what briefly glimmered as a beguiling variant on cop characterisation.
What is the difference between sociopaths and psychopaths? Answer: there are no differences between them; they get along fine. Popular cinema has never cared for hairline distinctions. Just as Hollywood knows only three composite foreign accents for its villains (European, Oriental, British), in Japan a nutty killer is a nutty killer. So the bottle-blond teenager in Violence must surely have done the crime, because in Japanese films dyed hair is an incriminating trope. Either that or the boy we don’t suspect did it, simply because we don’t suspect him: the Agatha Christie gambit gone east. Lee Sang-il’s film lasts 140 minutes and after 100 we all want to go home. By then we have pretty much solved the case (rape and strangling on a country road). For passing, insubstantial distraction we have enjoyed the Nipponese NF Simpsonish dialogue (Grandma: “I’ve just started deveining the shrimp”). And we sat up sharply once, to applaud the conceptual wit of a literal “fish-eye” shot, in which one scene transitions to another through the pearly pupil of something silvery-wet on a slab.