THE INNOCENTS (2022)

May 12, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt wrote the screenplay for last year’s terrific THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, and that’s just one of his collaborations with fellow countryman Joachim Trier. The two seem to enjoy, or at least have a knack, for creating films that take viewers out of their comfort zone. This is Vogt’s second feature as director, and you will likely find yourself questioning your ideals of the complexities of childhood and debating what makes a kid “good” or “bad”.

A family moves to a new apartment so that their eldest daughter Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) can receive the best possible treatment for her non-verbal autism (seemingly trapped inside her own body). Anna’s younger sister Ida (Rakel Leonora Flottum) spends an inordinate amount of time on her own as their mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen is also Rakel’s real life mother; THELMA, 2017) focuses on Anna. Immediately we are struck by how cruel Ida is to Anna, obviously envious of the time her parents devote to the child in need. The film moves meticulously as Ida befriends Ben (Sam Ashraf), a young boy from the same apartment building. Ben has an ability to move things with his mind. His telekinesis is in the early stages, and Ida pushes him to develop his powers. One particularly disturbing sequence involves the two kids and a local cat at the top of the building’s stairwell. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), another young girl from the building starts hanging out with Ida and Ben. This also draws in Anna, as the sweet Aisha has a connection with her and a way of communicating telepathically. It’s at this point where our brains shift into overdrive as we realize there is something supernatural going on.

As Ben’s ability grows, so does his sadistic nature. He reacts (often violently) to situations where he feels disrespected. At the same time, Anna and Aisha grow closer, and Ida and her parents are thrilled with Anna’s improved demeanor. As viewers, we come to realize that director Vogt has made the apartment building a character itself. Is the building behind the special abilities shown by these kids?  Or is it the ominous nearby forest? Why are the powers strongest when the kids are together? For a film that mostly progresses very slowly, there is much for us to take in – although we do wish more time had been spent on the makeup of all four kids. We are only teased with what other kids in the building are experiencing, but the supernatural aura is clearly in play.

None of the four child actors have any previous feature film experience, yet each is superb in their own way. They perfectly capture the curiosity and confusion that goes with childhood, and there is an insightful “kid” moment when Ida shows her one ‘talent’ to Ben. We are left to wonder if the film’s identical title to the 1961 classic is coincidental or purposeful. It’s not a remake, but it works as an homage. The staircase shot is even similar in the two films. Filmmaker Voigt excels at ensuring we believe something evil is just around the corner, yet he never rushes to the next moment. An eerie, ominous atmosphere is perfectly complemented by these four kids. Vogt’s dark film sticks the ending, and stays with us for a while.

Opening May 13, 2022

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THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD (2022)

February 4, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s often fun when an innovative filmmaker turns a stodgy genre upside down and offers us a new take. And who better to flip over the frequently stale mode of romantic-comedies than Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier? Co-written with his frequent collaborator Eskil Vogt, the film could also be described as a dramady or a thirty-ish coming-of-age tale. Regardless of the label, it’s entertaining and thought-provoking, as well as being a bit dark in parts (some of these also being quite funny). This is being called the final film in Trier’s “Oslo Trilogy”, three loosely connected films including REPRISE (2006) and OSLO, AUGUST 31 (2011).

Each of the films represents quite a shift in tone, and this latest revolves around Julie, played exceptionally well by Renate Reinsve. Trier structures the film as 12 chapters plus a prologue and epilogue. The prologue is brilliant and allows us to quickly grasp what we need to know about Julie. She changes her life goals multiple times – from doctor to psychologist to photographer, and later while working in a bookstore, she decides to be a writer. Thankfully we are spared the details in her essay on oral sex in the #MeToo era. Julie is impulsive to a fault. She has confidence but can’t commit to a direction – she’s confident in her uncertainty.

As she approaches 30, Julie is struggling to find her way. She’s not so much lost as struggling to deal with her jumbled thoughts. Can you lose your identity if you haven’t yet formed one? That seems to be the crux of Julie’s inner-struggles, even as she finds a seemingly good fit for a partner. Aksel (a terrific Anders Danielsen Lie) is a successful graphic artist, and he seems to understand Julie. Their relationship builds over time, even as their individual visions and goals diverge. The best life partner still comes with challenges when you still aren’t sure who you are as a person.

Julie feels herself slipping away, and that’s when her impulsive nature reappears. During a special event for Aksel, she walks out and spontaneously crashes a local wedding reception. This leads to a meet cute and flirty time with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). Both he and she are in steady relationships, but only Bill Clinton could determine if the time Julie and Eivind spend together is cheating or not. Ms. Reinsve perfectly captures the spirit of Julie. Although she’s often a bit flustered, when she does smile, she radiates like a young Shelley Fabares.

Much has been made of Ms. Reinsve’s performance and she certainly deserves the accolades. However, we shouldn’t overlook the outstanding work of Anders Danielsen Lie in a difficult role. Filmmaker Joachim Trier’s previous work also includes THELMA (2017) and LOUDER THAN BOMBS (2015), and his creativity is most welcome. Two sequences stand out in his latest. In one, the world shifts into ‘freeze frame’ mode as Julie runs through the streets of Oslo to find her new love, and in the second, we follow her in the midst of a drug hallucination after experimenting with mushrooms. In the story, Trier focuses on the dynamics between partners and how the stages of life can complicate things. It’s charming and funny, but also quite serious, as he certainly doesn’t buy into the ideal that movies must have happy endings. In regard to the title, rather than describe Julie, it’s more likely meant to explain how many people think of themselves as they make decisions and mistakes – it’s really a show of humanity. And quite a good one.

Opening in limited theaters on February 4, 2022

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THELMA (2017)

November 24, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joachim Trier continues to deliver projects with his frequent writing partner and collaborator Eskil Vogt that cause us to take note of their intriguing and always (so far) interesting filmmaking. They may not be the fastest workers – OSLO, AUGUST 31 came out in 2011 and it has been over two years since LOUDER THAN BOMBS – but we can’t help but appreciate their original stories and unique vision.

A chilling opening of a father/young daughter hunting trip sets an uneasy tone for the rest of the film. We then flash forward to that young girl heading off to college. Eili Harboe is excellent as Thelma, a quiet young woman leaving home and her protective parents for the first time. Thelma has had a restrictive Christian upbringing and she’s now a withdrawn, socially inept college student, simultaneously anxious to explore her new freedom and guilt-ridden with every new experience.

The school library is the setting for the first chance encounter between Thelma and Anja (Kaya Wilkins). We witness Thelma’s blushing and uneasiness, and soon birds are crashing into the windows as Thelma writhes on the floor in full seizure. The girls cross paths again and the flirtations are followed by a heavy dose of Thelma prayers. This independence and sexual attractions leads Thelma down the ever-progressive road of dancing, booze, drugs (sort of), and sex – the only thing missing is rock ‘n roll. An awkward dinner with her parents (Ellen Dorrit Peterson and Henrik Rafelsen) leads to more guilt and more seizures, as the two appear connected.

Director Trier’s film is not easily categorized. It’s part drama, thriller, romance, supernatural horror, and religious commentary. There are some supernatural similarities to two films from the 1970’s – CARRIE and THE FURY, and the abundance of religious imagery leans heavily towards the former.

Some unusual camera angles and shots add visual interest to what for much of its runtime is an amorous courtship between the two leads. There is an always present cloak of uncertainty courtesy of the extreme helicopter parents and Thelma’s unpreparedness in dealing with adult feelings. We instinctively realize there’s more going on than the parents let on, but these are essentially quiet people who hold much inside. That theme carries over to the movie as a whole, which is a quiet, but sneaky film on the power of thought … both positive and negative.

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LOUDER THAN BOMBS (2016)

April 29, 2016

louder than bombs Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just can’t “get over it”. Three years after a war photographer dies in a suspicious car accident, her husband and two sons find themselves in various states of emotional distress. Everyone deals with guilt in their own way, but these three seem to be doing anything and everything to avoid actually dealing with the emotional fallout.

Writer/director Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31) delivers his first English-speaking film with an assist from co-writer Eskil Vogt and a terrific cast. As we would expect from Mr. Trier, it’s a visually stylish film with some stunning images … and the timeline is anything but simple as we bounce from past to present, and from the perspective of different characters (sometimes with the same scene).

The creativity involved with the story telling and technical aspects have no impact whatsoever on the pacing. To say that the film is meticulously paced would be a kind way of saying many viewers may actually get restless/bored with how slowly things move at times. Trier uses this pacing to help us experience some of the frustration and discomfort that each of the characters feel.

Isabelle Huppert plays the mother/wife in some wonderful flashback and dream-like sequences, while Gabriel Byrne plays her surviving husband. Jesse Eisenberg as Jonah, and Devin Druid as Conrad are the sons, and as brothers they struggle to connect with each other … just as the father struggles to connect with each of them. In fact, it’s a film filled with characters who lie to each other, lie to themselves, and lie to others. It’s no mystery why they are each miserable in their own way. The suppressed emotions are at times overwhelming, and it’s especially difficult to see the youngest son struggle with social aspects of high school … it’s a spellbinding performance from Devin Druid (“Olive Kitteridge”).

Jesse Eisenberg manages to tone down his usual hyper-obnoxious mannerisms, yet still create the most unlikable character in the film … and that’s saying a lot. Mr. Byrne delivers a solid performance as the Dad who is quite flawed, and other supporting work is provided by David Strathairn and Amy Ryan. The shadow cast by this woman is enormous and deep … and for nearly two hours we watch the family she left behind come to grips with her death and each other. It’s a film done well, but only you can decide if it sounds like a good way to spend two hours.

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