Each month, the Indie Prof reviews a current film in the theater and a second film that is available at Redbox or VOD. This month, however, the second review is of a TV series available on VOD. Follow “Indie Prof” on Facebook for updates about film events and more reviews.
A War (2015)
I have written about Danish writer/director Tobias Lindholm before—A Hijacking (2012), also, writer of The Hunt (2013), and his latest, and perhaps best film follows on the promise of those first two films with wonderful results. The crux of Lindholm’s cinema is an understated realism that is short on melodrama and long on empathy, and A War exemplifies both of these qualities. It is nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, and deservedly so.
The story centers on Danish solider Claus Pederson, whom we meet in the middle of a maelstrom in Afghanistan. This is a combat film as it opens, but one that takes unexpected turns as he eventually ends up back in Denmark where he is put on trial for his actions in combat. The choices he makes are not easy, and he understands the consequences of his actions. That we get to see the story of his wife and children at home only adds to the complicated characterizations in complicated situations. It is brilliantly handled, expertly directed, and wonderfully executed on all levels.
The film could have easily devolved into a heart-wrenching portrayal of an honorable man, but it doesn’t take the easy way out. Instead, we get in-depth studies of people put in very difficult circumstances. The story itself is helped along by the sparkling cinematography and the crisp editing that has come to be a hallmark of the Danish Cinema. Recent films from other Danish directors such as Susanne Bier host the same sensibilities.
The acting is particularly good—Pilou Asæk is strong and stoic as Pederson, and Tuva Novotny is extraordinary as his wife, Maria. There are no heroes in this film and it seems as though the only choices any of these characters have are bad choices, yet the nuanced performances of these wonderful actors draw us close to them. These are characters we want to live with and breathe with while they are onscreen. Overall, it is an expert film from what looks to be one of the best filmmakers of a generation.
Opened Feb. 26 at the Mayan Theater. You will like this film if you enjoyed A Hijacking, The Hunt, and/or In a Better World.
Top of the Lake (Netflix)
Quick: what is your favorite film? And who is the director? Easy answer, right? Now: what is your favorite TV show? And the director? Not so easy now, is it? As critics point out, film has always been a director’s medium while TV was a writer’s medium. But with the advent of long-form TV shows on cable and the new original series from video on demand (VOD) networks, that is changing. Film directors are making their way to the smaller screen to stretch their legs for a year or more with what turns out to be, essentially, a very long film.
One such show is Top of the Lake, a 2013 Sundance drama that ran for one season and was directed by New Zealander Jane Campion (The Piano). This is an odd one. The story centers around a 12-year-old girl who is found to be pregnant in the opening episode. After a detective questions the young girl, she disappears. What ensues is a procedural drama of a very unusual nature. There are no too-pretty detectives snapping one-liners and rushing toward the inevitable confession before the show turns into a pumpkin at the top of the hour. In fact, the story seems to be secondary to the scenery, mood, and performances of the oddball characters that inhabit the world of rural New Zealand. It is beautiful, quirky, unpredictable, and interesting.
Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) plays the detective who becomes enmeshed in the case; she is visiting her mother while on leave from her job in Sydney and is asked to help. Moss is more than solid as the tough detective fighting an old boys’ network in the local police force. Peter Mullan is downright stellar as the town’s alpha male and bad guy Matt, and Holly Hunter is both intense and hilarious as a bizarre self-help guru to a group of middle-aged woman who have set up camp in the local hamlet of Paradise.
The show is worth watching for its superb cinematography, excellent performances, and underlying themes of violence against women that has pervaded much of Campion’s work. It might not be everyone’s taste as it can be unpredictable, shocking, and even cruel. But it pays off.
You will like this if you enjoyed The Killing, Jessica Jones, and/or Daredevil. Available on Netflix.
Vincent Piturro, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Cinema Studies at MSU Denver.