Friday, May 27, 2011

The Hangover Part II: A case of the staggers

The Hangover Part II (2011) • View trailer for The Hangover Part II
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use, sexual content, graphic nudity and flashes of violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.27.11

While The Hangover Part II probably will satisfy most of the folks who turned its 2009 predecessor into such a surprise hit, even avid fans will have to admit that the bloom has worn off the rose.
Stu (Ed Helms, left) gets ready to snatch a capuchin monkey — which
unknowingly carries an important document within its little vest — while Mr.
Chow (Ken Jeong, center) distracts the little beast, and Phil (Bradley Cooper)
keeps a wary eye on the Russian gangsters across the street.

The original's core premise relied on surprise: the means by which three badly hung-over guys determined just how wretchedly they had behaved the previous evening. That gimmick really only works once; this time out, no matter how much returning director Todd Phillips tries to freshen the salad, the result can't shake a been there/done that familiarity that breeds, if not contempt, then certainly ennui.

We know what's coming this time. We may not know the humiliating details — and Phillips delivers at least one grand sequence of ghastly embarrassment — but the key character riffs are easily anticipated.

When our three protagonists here repeatedly exclaim, "I can't believe this is happening again," they do so in an effort to acknowledge the obvious, while tying this film to their previous escapades. Unfortunately, we're occasionally inclined to agree with them: We can't believe it either.

Eager as I always am to credit — or blame — the scripters for a film's success or failure, I couldn't help noting the absence of the first outing's writing team of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. They'd been quietly building a respectable résumé of romantic comedies, including Four Christmases and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past — neither of them classics, to be sure, but nonetheless showing promise and (here's the key) some character depth — and The Hangover was their breakout hit.

Rather than continue with a winning team, though, Phillips turned instead to writers Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong, both known for lowest-common-denominator moron comedies such as Superhero Movie, Road Trip, Scary Movie 4 and the wretched big-screen remake of Starsky and Hutch. Not an ounce of character development between them. Oh, and Phillips snatched a writing credit himself this time, no doubt because he collaborated with Armstrong on several of the above-mentioned misfires.

The difference is obvious. Lucas and Moore write funny movies for adults. Mazin, Armstrong and Phillips write tasteless movies for the sort of arrested adolescents lampooned so well by Zach Galifianakis in this very film. Draw your own conclusions.

While the results, in Hangover II, aren't as relentlessly vulgar as an average Farrelly brothers outing — no explosions of excrement, I'm happy to report — there's no doubt Phillips & Co. sacrifice basic plot logic on the altar of ongoing torment for these three schlubs. They also cross the sympathy line once, and quite badly. Despite the first film's antics, nobody was permanently affected; even Stu (Ed Helms) pops up with a full set of teeth, as this story kicks off.

This time, however, a major character gets maimed for life ... and, sorry guys, but that ain't funny. The mere fact that it happens is bad enough; the added fact that nobody seems to care makes it even worse. It's damn near impossible to sympathize with the three misfit members of this "wolf pack" if they're gonna be that callous.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides -- Back to basics

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.20.11

Johnny Depp hasn't lost his mincing swagger, and that's great news for fans of this loopy series.

Depp's impeccably timed comic performance remains the best part of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. To watch him is to laugh helplessly: the hilariously trashy pirate's garb; the bemused double-takes; the gently slurred speech and overly precise movements of somebody who drained one too many tankards of rum; the marvelous little bits of physical business, as when he constantly brushes away imaginary lint (as if he could tell, with such filthy apparel?).
Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) manages an impressive escape from the
clutches of King George and his Royal Guards, by leaping from one moving
carriage to another, as scores of men pursue. Unfortunately, he's merely
running from the frying pan and directly into the fire: a reunion with an even
more dangerous figure from his past.

Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow — along with all the other characters in these films — may have forever corrupted my vision of a classic pirate. Not even this film's hissably malevolent villain — Ian McShane's Blackbeard — is a figure of genuine dread; he's too idiosyncratically amusing.

But if Depp's constancy is a blessing, the change-up behind the camera is a welcome relief. Director Gore Verbinski has departed for different shores, and I couldn't be happier; his three earlier films in this series suffered from unnecessary bloat. At just shy of three hours, the previous installment (At World's End) was ludicrously self-indulgent, thanks also to a scattershot script that made no sense whatsoever.

Series screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are back, but this film's new sheriff — replacement director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) — obviously brought some much-needed discipline to the process. The story is tighter, the ancillary characters are better defined, and the pacing and editing (David Brenner, Michael Kahn and Wyatt Smith) are vastly superior.

Mind you, we still never completely abandon the cheeky fact that this entire series is based on a Disneyland theme ride, and those who've ridden the boats past the Blue Bayou diners will recognize one more tableau lifted from that attraction's soggy depths. Which is as it should be.

Marshall's approach also is a bit different. He front-loads the film's two best action sequences into the first act, one of which — a swordfight between Jack and an as-yet-unidentified adversary, in the bowels of a tavern's storage room— is a real corker. The superbly staged skirmish reminded me of the two Richard Lester Three Musketeers movies, back in the 1970s: the same inventive choreography, the same hell-for-leather passion by the combatants.

Unfortunately, we don't get anything to equal these sequences, in acts two and three; that's somewhat disappointing.

As the story begins, Capt. Jack's fortunes have dwindled again; he lacks funds, a crew and a ship, his beloved Black Pearl having suffered an unknown fate. It's all he can do to prevent his loyal comrade, Gibbs (Kevin McNally), from getting his neck stretched ... and that rescue concludes with a fresh set of problems. A chance encounter with the woman Jack once loved and cheerfully corrupted — Penélope Cruz's Angelica — results in his being shanghaied onto a scary ship commandeered by no less than Blackbeard himself: not a man to be trifled with.

Angelica is First Mate on this vessel. And she also happens to be Blackbeard's daughter. Which Jack didn't know, back in the day.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

From the archives: May 2008

Being reminded of one's hopes and predictions, years after the fact, can prove amusing or enlightening.

Even embarrassing.

My biggest claim to fame in this area, back in June of 1995, was insisting that Mel Gibson's ambitious, opulent Braveheart deserved to be that year's Academy Award-winning Best Picture ... and, lo and behold, it came to pass. (I wisely decided to quit while I was ahead; although I've made occasional predictions since, they've never involved possible Best Pictures.) It was a bold statement, that early in the year, particularly when the high-prestige Oscar-bait generally doesn't arrive until December. But I was convinced, and unexpectedly prescient; the proof can be verified in my original review ... which, if time and the Fates permit, eventually will be added to this blog. Until then, my triumph remains buried in microfilm archives accessible only to the extremely dedicated.

And that's the way it used to be, in an era when film commentary was limited to newspaper and magazine publication. Bold and often rash predictions were easy to make — and some critics made them constantly — because eyebrow-raising errors would be long forgotten and lost to public view a year later. Not so any more; in this Internet age, it's child's play to resurrect such statements.

While prepping this month's reviews for revival here, I noticed that two concluded with such observations. Having thoroughly enjoyed Robert Downey Jr.'s starring performance in Iron Man, I expressed a strong wish for him to reprise the role, should a sequel be forthcoming. It was, and he did. And if Iron Man 2 wasn't quite up to the quality of its predecessor, that wasn't Downey's fault; he did his best despite occasional sequences of "sophomore bloat."

On the other hand, I also insisted that Young @ Heart deserved to be the year's Oscar-winning Best Documentary ... and here I flopped miserably. Stephen Walker's charming film wasn't even nominated. Now, I can quite persuasively argue that this had less to do with my taste, and more to do with the Academy Documentary Branch's frankly weird nomination rules, but the fact remains: My eager insistence on Oscar gold, read three years later, seems quaintly naive. Ah, well. You still should watch the film.

As for the others that month, I'm delighted that so many viewers and critics were similarly impressed with The Visitor, a quiet little indie drama that brought star Richard Jenkins a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Such films often get lost, particularly during the bombastic summer season; The Visitor went the distance.

Son of Rambow, another indie charmer, did not. Seek it out; you'll be delighted.

On the third hand, I was a lone voice when it came to praising Harrison Ford's fourth Indiana Jones installment; everybody else — critic and civilian alike — took great delight in hurling often nasty barbs at this quite entertaining adventure. Sure, Ford was a bit long in the tooth, but the canny script took full advantage of that fact. And I remain mystified by all the people who complained about the "improper sci-fi elements" that surfaced in the final act ... as if this plot revelation were any more outrageous than, say, finding and opening the Ark of the Covenant, or confronting a voodoo priest who could rip a man's heart from his chest? Puh-leaze ... let's have some perspective here!

As usual, the early summer season also had its share of high-profile bombs, none worse than the limp, utterly soulless big-screen handling of the cartoon series Speed Racer. Looking back, I should have given it one star. The highly anticipated big-screen adaptation of Sex and the City also disappointed, because it trashed the well-developed conclusion to which the TV series had built, a few years earlier. (As it turned out, though, this first Sex and the City movie was a masterpiece, compared to the second one that followed, a few years later.)

And while I doubt that jazz/folk chanteuse Norah Jones has her heart set on acting as a second career, she did a respectable job with her debut in My Blueberry Nights. It's an odd little film, but appealing in its own way: by no means perfect, but worth one's time.

Step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Iron Man

Made of Honor

My Blueberry Nights

Sex and the City

Son of Rambow

Speed Racer

The Visitor

Young @ Heart

Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: Slick pitch

The Greatest Movie Ever sold (2011) • View trailer for The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Noam Chomsky describes it best, during a short interview within this documentary: We approach the inevitability of testing the water by tentatively sticking in a toe ... then, before we realize what has happened, we’re suddenly swimming.
Morgan Spurlock and his young son have fun concocting their own commercial
for JetBlue, a whimsical endorsement that's far more creative and entertaining
than most of the ads that clutter an average hour of television. Clearly, Spurlock
could have a second career, should he so choose...

Chomsky is discussing whether filmmaker Morgan Spurlock will be able to retain his artistic integrity while explaining the pernicious onslaught of branding, advertising and product placement in a movie financed solely by branding, advertising and product placement ... but the observation holds equally true in all sorts of other contexts.

Looking back on the 1950s and ’60s, the presence of the advertising industry seems laughably quaint ... and wholly manageable, from the standpoint of a citizen on the sidelines. Advertisers spread their messages through newspaper and magazine display ads, roadside billboards, radio spots and television commercials and sponsorships. Characters in movies and TV shows never consumed products that we’d recognize; the labels on cans, bottles and boxes were always vague, indistinct and nonspecific.

How times have changed.

Watching television in this ad-laden 21st century has become an exercise in frustration, with station logos, informational crawls and pop-up announcements obscuring so much of the screen image that it becomes difficult to follow the plot ... not that this matters much, since precious little story can be told in the roughly 40 minutes that aren’t commercials in an average prime-time hour. Quite a few cable and satellite channels are nothing but commercials, and radio stations that play more than one song between eardrum-shattering ad spots are becoming an endangered species.

But that’s just the obvious stuff. Spurlock, in his engaging new film, is much more concerned with the advertising industry’s subtler behavior: product placement, whether blatant or clandestine. The days of “Brand X” fuzziness are long gone; now on-screen characters drink Cokes and chow down on Subway sandwiches. They proudly wear name-brand clothes, check the time on name-brand watches, and drive name-brand vehicles.

As Spurlock demonstrates, in a few eyebrow-raising clips, sometimes a show’s very dialogue will be crafted to include brand-name product placement.

The assault has become ubiquitous and omnipresent; there’s literally no getting away from it. Public schools across the entire country sold their souls years ago for “free” technology: TV screens in every classroom ... in exchange for children obediently remaining in their seats each morning, during the product-laden “infotainment” daily show on Channel One. That’s our kids, being indoctrinated by the advertising industry, in the very place — the halls of learning — that should be free of such malicious interference.

How many restaurants can you cite, even here in Davis, that don't have TV screens? A local pizza joint recently went from one to four. Gas stations blare ads while we fill up. Entire buildings have become display ads, much as Ridley Scott envisioned them years ago, in Blade Runner.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Bridesmaids: Gals behaving badly

Bridesmaids (2011) • View trailer for Bridesmaids
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexuality and relentless vulgarity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.13.11

If Bridesmaids is intended to demonstrate that gal-pal comedies can be just as disgusting, loathsome and bereft of morals as their male counterparts, I’m afraid it fails.

Because in all the respects that matter, this film is superior to crude, bottom-of-the-barrel efforts such as the recent Hall Pass and most of what comes from the Farrelly brothers or Judd Apatow’s repertory company.
The atmosphere is fun, and the food is delicious ... but this convivial meal is
about to have dire consequences, much to the mortification of Annie (Kristen
Wiig, right), who once again will lose face in front of best friend Lillian (Maya
Rudolph, center) and new nemesis Helen (Rose Byrne).

Which is ironic, since Apatow co-produced Bridesmaids, as well.

Although occasionally clumsy and somewhat randomly directed, Bridesmaids nonetheless delivers something that the guys-behaving-badly sub-genre always overlooks: emotional depth. The women here aren’t merely one-liner delivery systems, debasing themselves at every turn and occasionally dropping skirt to defecate in public (although we get pretty close); they have reasonably credible relationships with each other, and — here’s the key — they evolve, during the course of the script written by Annie Mumolo and star Kristen Wiig.

The very core of the humor is entirely different. We laugh here because we do come to care about these women; the comic set-pieces derive from the character dynamics, rather than a ham-handed writer and/or director’s decision to be as vulgar as possible ... for no discernable reason.

Which is not to say that Bridesmaids never strays from its generally superior path. Apatow’s gross-’em-out touch can be felt at times, most notoriously during the aftermath of an ill-advised meal at a dive café, when everybody winds up with a case of food poisoning, and a desperately explosive need to, ah, relieve themselves from every available orifice.

Even here, though, director Paul Feig ultimately strikes a blow for restraint. While vile fluids flow freely from three characters, as they battle for the single commode in a public restroom, consider the different approach taken by Maya Rudolph’s Lillian, as she panics, heads outside and starts to cross the street, scrambling to reach ... well, it doesn’t really matter. Feig holds the camera as Lillian realizes she’s not going to make it, Rudolph’s face contorted in ghastly resignation, as she surrenders to the moment... the details of which are left to our imagination.

That’s much, much funnier that the excrement-laden free-for-all back in the bathroom.

A modern filmmaker’s ability to wallow in gratuitous filth doesn’t automatically require one to yield to such impulses. Whether in horror films or vulgar comedies, I’ve long argued that less is more ... although I cheerfully acknowledge that not everybody agrees.

But enough from the soapbox.

Annie (Wiig), her life in a mess, has a mixed reaction when BFF Lillian announces her engagement. Although delighted, Annie’s also worried that their own relationship will, of necessity, change ... and probably not for the better.

Lillian naturally asks Annie to be the maid of honor, but the latter’s efforts in that role are constantly undercut by Helen (Rose Byrne, a sly schemer), one of the other bridesmaids. Helen, a constant over-achiever, is determined to be the center of attention at all times ... while demonstrating that she is Lillian’s best friend. Poor Annie, insecure to begin with, finds herself playing catch-up at every turn.

Everything Must Go: Intriguing, but flawed

Everything Must Go (2010) • View trailer for Everything Must Go
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, and quite stupidly, for occasional profanity and mild sexual content
By Derrick Bang

One must be wary of screen comics who decide they need to be Meaningful.

The results can be grim.
When Nick (Will Ferrell, left) decides to make a food and beer run, he enlists
the curious Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) to watch all his possessions.
Kenny agrees, mostly because the fascinated teen wants to be on hand, to
witness whatever is going to happen next to this obviously daft adult.

Actually, the results are usually insufferably maudlin. Robin Williams went through a string of increasingly saintly roles — Jack, Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, What Dreams May Come — while seeking an alternative to his wild ’n’ crazy persona. He finally achieved the desired voice by concentrating on offbeat or unsettling characters (Insomnia, One Hour Photo) and was rewarded with an Academy Award for his genuinely warm supporting turn in Good Will Hunting.

Jim Carrey hasn’t been that lucky. He just about destroyed his career with the overly sentimental The Majestic, and more recent efforts such as The Number 23 haven’t helped matters. Quite wisely, he seems to have retreated to what he does best, with Yes Man and this summer’s upcoming Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

Adam Sandler took an intriguing detour with Punch Drunk Love, and he also delivered credible performances in Reign Over Me and the under-appreciated Spanglish; unfortunately, nobody cared enough to purchase tickets. More recently, his efforts to tug heartstrings in the gawdawful Funny People were a complete bust.

The common theme: They all try too hard. Rather than transition gently from slapstick to, say, light romantic comedy, these guys race all the way to pathos, as if determined to demonstrate an acting range they clearly don’t possess. To repeat one of Clint Eastwood’s catch-phrases from back in the day, A man’s got to know his limitations.

All of which brings us to Will Ferrell.

I was genuinely impressed with his work in Stranger than Fiction, perhaps because he had the good sense to take a supporting role in that quirky fantasy. It wasn’t really a “Will Ferrell movie,” and he didn’t try to turn it into one; his well-modulated performance therefore suggested a genuine capacity for playing outside his usual range.

Alas, with Everything Must Go, Ferrell has made the same mistake as his comedy brethren, and leaped into a pool of treacle. Thus, in this new film, his Nick is an alcoholic who, having gone off the wagon, torpedoes his high-profile corporate career and — on the same day he loses his job — returns home to discover that his wife has dumped all his possessions onto their front lawn, and locked him out of the house.

And disappeared.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

From the archives: June 2008

A short month, thanks to a badly needed vacation ... and hey, film critics need to re-charge their batteries, just like anybody else. Besides, being gone during these two crucial weeks in June 2008 allowed me to skip the dubious pleasures of Mike Myers' The Love Guru. (Thank God for small favors!)

As for what I did see and discuss, at length, it was a month of extremes. Pixar demonstrated the ability to work sneaky political content into its crowd-pleasing blend of engaging characters and absorbing storylines; WALL-E is nothing short of a masterpiece, and the animation studio's best effort to date. (That statement is certain to prompt debate, with the equally excellent likes of Up, The Incredibles and Ratatouille demanding similar attention. But that's a discussion I always enjoy.)

Adam Sandler's early summer effort, on the other hand, was a jaw-dropping mess: a lazy, sloppy, so-called "comedy" that appeared to have been thrown together solely to cheat the ticket-buying public out of its hard-earned cash. With swill like this, Sandler — capable of so much better — deserves the contempt also frequently bestowed upon Eddie Murphy; both have a habit of abusing their fans' trust.

Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman demonstrated the importance of well-cast voice talent in the delightful Kung Fu Panda, while Russian director Timur Bekmambetov proved himself just as incapable of making a coherent fantasy thriller in English, as in his native language. The man has style to burn, but it's inevitably in service of slapdash narratives that sacrifice logic for blind momentum.

Just in passing — to share the journalistic process — yes, of course I saw more than four films during this month, even with the fortnight off. But newspaper space constraints limited my ability to publish full-length reviews; I had to be content, in numerous other cases, with abbreviated capsule commentaries that aren't worth reproducing here. Rest assured, though: I paid attention to everything else, as well.

Well. Most everything else, except for The Love Guru.

Step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:

Kung Fu Panda



You Don't Mess with the Zohan

Friday, May 6, 2011

Thor: Smashing good time

Thor (2011) • View trailer for Thor
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and rather harshly, for brief profanity and fantasy violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.11

The clear skies and warmer weather notwithstanding, the summer movie season has arrived with a clap of thunder.

Courtesy of Marvel Comics' favorite Norse god.
Although banished to Earth and stripped of his powers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
has been confident that all will be well, if he can just find and reclaim Mjolnir,
his mighty hammer. Sadly, redemption won't be nearly that simple.

Although never granted the mainstream name-recognition enjoyed by the likes of Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, Thor always has been one of the comic book industry's most intriguing superheroes, particularly when his exploits are chronicled by writers who play on the whimsically awkward juxtaposition of Norse mythology and workaday American existence. J. Michael Straczynski is just such a writer, having recently delivered an engaging run on Thor's comic book exploits; Straczynski shares story credit on this film with Mark Protosevich, and the quality shows. (Three other individuals are credited for the script, which no doubt was fine-tuned — by committee — to maximize its crowd-pleasing potential.)

But the true hero of the hour is director Kenneth Branagh: a great choice to bring this Norse legend's Shakespearean-style gravitas to the big screen. Florid dialogue that plays comfortably on the printed page doesn't always translate well in cinematic terms; few actors can wrap their lips around the stilted thees and thous, not to mention the sing-song cadence that often stands in for the "high speech" of such characters. Branagh well understands how to make Shakespeare enticing for the masses, having done so with marvelous — and sometimes delightfully mischievous — big-screen adaptations of everything from Henry V and Hamlet to Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It.

But Branagh is equally comfortable with more modern myths, as evidenced by his intriguing 1994 handling of Frankenstein. All of which demonstrates that Thor is right in Branagh's comfort zone, and he delivers a well-paced adventure that allows ample character development in between the necessary smashing and thrashing.

And let's face it: merely getting his stars to wear Alexandra Byrne's opulent costumes, without looking like total fools, is a major accomplishment by itself.

I do question the decision to open this film with a flash-forward prologue, though, as if all concerned felt it necessary to first introduce this saga's Earth-bound (read: ordinary) human characters before transitioning to the other-worldly realms of Asgard and Jotunheim. That doesn't suggest much faith in the average viewer, which seems rather insulting; after all, nobody had trouble with the lengthy planet Krypton prologue that kicked off 1978's Superman.

Thus, we briefly meet research scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and their feisty young intern, Darcy (Kat Dennings), as they chase down a weird celestial phenomenon late one evening ... which climaxes when their SUV plows into a figure who appears out of nowhere, as if deposited by the weird weather spike (which he was). Fade to black and re-wind the clock.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

In a Better World: Exploring our breaking points

In a Better World (2010) • View trailer for In a Better World
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence and disturbing content involving children
By Derrick Bang

Living a life of serene tolerance — resisting imprudent flashes of temper, turning the other cheek in the face of provocation — is an honorable goal.
The oft-bullied Elias (Markus Rygaard, left) makes no effort to conceal his
delight over the protective camaraderie shown by his new friend, Christian
(William Johnk Nielsen). But the quieter Christian's still waters run very deep,
and over dangerous shoals; before long, Elias will be tempted to stray from the
path of virtue, while struggling to decide just how far he should go, in an
effort to keep this new friendship.

Sadly, good intentions often evaporate under unexpected circumstances. We all have flash points: sometimes blatantly obvious, sometimes deeply buried. When push comes to shove, a lifetime of resolution may yield to vengeful fury: an act which, once done, cannot be undone.

All that remains then is regret: the realization that years of “good” behavior have been buried beneath a brief moment of “bad” behavior.

Act in haste, as the saying goes. Repent in leisure. Usually forever.

Director Susanne Bier’s In a Better World, which just took a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, explores the nature of violence, vengeance and repression. Anders Thomas Jensen’s script follows a small cluster of characters, each with different temperaments and strategies for coping with life. Some are victims; others are oppressors. At least one tries, in the face of soul-deadening circumstances, to remain neutral.

On a much quieter level, Bier’s film can be seen as a Danish response to Canadian director David Cronenberg’s disturbing 2005 thriller, A History of Violence. Both films focus on men who attempt to lead peaceful, dignified lives; both protagonists, ultimately, aren’t allowed to do so. Circumstances intrude. Life intrudes.

It’s one of the age-old arguments between pacifists and aggressors: Armchair idealism is well and good, the latter will argue, but what will you do when dumped into a foxhole? Wait to be killed?

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) leads a split life. We meet him toiling as a humanitarian medic in a refugee camp, buried within an unnamed and quite dangerous African country, via a Doctors Without Borders program. When on leave, he returns home to an idyllic town in Denmark.

Alas, his personal life isn’t nearly as tranquil; being at home means being reminded of the fractured relationship with his wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm). They’ve separated; divorce seems imminent. The fault is Anton’s; he had an affair, for which Marianne cannot forgive him. He’s genuinely regretful — and there’s no question; he truly is — but she can’t move on.

Unfortunately, Anton isn’t around enough to perceive the greater problem looming in his family. His elder son, 10-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard), is being bullied at school: quite badly, in fact. Two factors make the boy a constant target, one physical, one cultural. The poor kid has lamentable teeth, leading to the cruel nickname of “Ratface.” Worse still, though, Elias and his family are Swedish.