(On TV, June 2017) I’m not always a good audience for romantic historical dramas, so when I say that my patience was tested by Far From the Madding Crowd, you can take it as you will. Getting down in the muck of a Victorian-England farm, this is an adaptation from an 1874 novel and it often feels like it in-between the intense melodrama, unglamorous content (i.e.; Juno Temple looking this close to death in every scene), mud, focus on farm life and merciless fate of some characters. It can be a slog, especially at the glacial pace events unfold thanks to director Thomas Vinterberg. But while I’m not enthusiastic about the results, at least the film can boast of a few assets. Carey Mulligan, never my favourite actress, holds her own here as a headstrong farm owner, while Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen act as foils at their ends of the romantic trapezoid. The cinematography is fine (albeit held back by an intention to keep the setting as realistic as possible) and the film does unspool better as background noise rather than something worth holding undivided interest. In a field dominated by Jane Austen adaptations, however, Far From the Madding Crowd feels a bit dull in comparison. But then again I’m not the target audience for such films.
(On DVD, September 2016) I’m really not a fan of Dogme 95 (to which Festen loudly claim fealty): I think that movies should be manufactured as deliberately as possible, heighten reality and leave realism far behind. (Also: “Genre movies are not acceptable.”? Go get lost.) I’m no fan of family dramas, I only reluctantly like some of writer/director Thomas Vinterberg’s other movies (I can rant against It’s All About Love, but I can also rant in favour of Jagten) and the home-movie aesthetics usually drives me nuts. So I was primed to dislike Festen a lot. While I’m not quite ready to proclaim that I liked it, I think that by the end of the punishing two-hour bout, I had achieved a grudging respect for the film and the way it shows a horrifying revelation at what is supposed to be a celebratory family banquet. Family feuds are set up and detonated, yet the tone isn’t quite as dark as you’d expect. Still, Festen does feel like a lot of work to get to its best features: its insistence on realism actually puts up a supplemental layer to untangle before getting to the heart of the matter. I’d frankly rather have a conventional film dealing with the same issues, as traditional moviemaking does actually spend a lot of energy focusing on the core of its argument. But, hey, it’s something different and more than two decades later, we’ve seen the limits of what Dogme 95 could achieve. Festen works because it’s better than its straightjacket, not because of it.
(On Cable TV, March 2015) Most films are maddening because they fail, but The Hunt is infuriating on purpose. It tells, in painful details, what happens in a small Danish community when a kind and quiet man is falsely accused of exposing himself to a child. The ostracism and violence that follows feels all-too-real, as is the protagonist’s decent in a kind of madness when everyone leagues against him. Mads Mikkelsen is splendid in the lead role, his good social standing being destroyed scene after scene as other decide to make an example out of him. For the viewer, there’s real frustration in seeing a small childish fib become bigger, emboldened by adults rushing to judgement. Under director Thomas Vinterberg’s clinical, down-to-Earth direction, the film is designed to make viewers grit their teeth and sigh helplessly at the screen. As a result, no one should be surprised to find that the film gets great reviews… but that few people would be willing to see it a second time.
(On-demand, September 2012) When writers with no understanding or affection for science-fiction turn to the genre, the result is often a mixture of pretentious philosophy, incoherent fantasy and plot-free structure labeled SF in the misguided conviction that you can use the genre label to say anything without scrutiny. So it is that in It’s All About Love’s near-future, we get a blend of human cloning, people dropping dead in public places, Uganda experiencing country-wide weightlessness, all water periodically transforming into ice. These elements make no sense in a literal fashion, but trying to figure out the metaphorical link in-between those events and the on-screen adventures of a divorcing couple soon turns to indifference. Who really cares when the film fails to achieve any kind of narrative momentum? Deadened by terrible dialogue, dark cinematography, arthritic camera moves and major actors who seem stuck in roles they didn’t want, It’s All About Love mystifies more than it enlightens. Joaquin Phoenix mangles an Italian accent while Claire Danes looks bored and Sean Penn seems to have shot all of his plane-bound scenes in half a day. Mark Strong makes an impression in an early minor role, but the doubt remains: how did all those actors end up in this inert and ponderous film? It’s All About Love keeps going long after it should have concluded, and writer/director Thomas Vinterberg doesn’t seem interested in making any part of his film accessible to the audience. With this results (and that’s not even going into the now-legendary tales of the hostile reception the film got at Sundance in 2003), little wonder that It’s All About Love sank without a trace and can now be seen only by sheer happenstance. Some movies are best forgotten.