A personal diary keeping people abreast of what I am working on writing-wise.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


For the second year in a row, I was lucky enough to see some of the movies from the Portland International Film Festival in advance of the starting date this coming Friday. Take some time to visit the PIFF website and look at all the movies they have to offer. Amongst the films I did not get to see, there are pictures by Alain Resnais, Peter Greenaway, Chen Kaige, Michael Winterbottom, Peter Chan Ho-Sun, and I am sure many fine artists who will be the top directors of years to come. There is even a Moomin movie!

As with last year's round of reviews, I am going to post my write-ups a couple of days before each film's initial screening to give you enough time to plan to go. PIFF begins this Friday, and the two films below are both part of the opening night.

(By the way, last year's reviews can be found tagged with "Portland International Film Festival," or here.)

Police, Adjective (Romania; dir. Corneliu Porumboiu)

A lot of people are going to call Police, Adjective boring, and I am not going to pretend I won't be one of them. That said, I may be alone in declaring it boring and saying I liked it anyway. Is that possible?

Dragos Bucur stars in Police, Adjective as Cristi, a drug-enforcement officer who is on a case following high school students around, wondering where they buy their hash. He wants to see the chain through and arrest people who really deserve to go to jail; his bosses want him to pick up the pace and arrest the kids for using. Apparently, in Romania, smoking a joint on the street can get you up to eight years in jail. Cristi doesn't want to destroy a kid's life for something acceptable everywhere else in Europe, his superiors bust his balls, and he's forced to make a decision.

Pretty straightforward stuff, but director Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest) takes a lot of time hanging around the subject and wondering what it's all about. Long stretches of the film are devoted to Cristi silently tailing his subjects, and equally long chunks of time are given over to mundane tasks. Cristi eating dinner, waiting for a meeting, literally doing nothing. There is one scene where his wife plays a schmaltzy song three times in a row. One more, and I was going to get up and look for the pause button.

These things are dull, even if I can't say I was entirely bored. The real quandary is why they are even there. Isn't there more to this story than the cop's sullen routine? Porumboiu is apparently saying no, there isn't, and using these mundane scenes as an illustration of Cristi's predicament. There is nothing else, so why the fuss? Many will ask the same of this movie. Police, Adjective's saving grace in these sequences is its gritty realism and voyeuristic framing. Apparently, there is still something inherently intriguing about spying on other people's lives.

Cristi is kind of an interesting character, even if his actions aren't all that interesting. He is wrestling with an abstract concept, one his boss boils down to settling on the correct meaning of the words "law," "moral," and "conscience," and reconciling those definitions with the duties of the police. The closest Police, Adjective comes to a climax is a long semantic argument. It mirrors an earlier drunken debate between Cristi and his wife over that song, in which the officer is seemingly incapable of grasping the concept of poetic metaphor. Why can't things just be what they are, why must they be something else? It's the same schism he feels in his brain. Thus, is there any real question what he will do when faced with the same query? If you are police, be police.

Then again, isn't that "police" as noun?

Police, Adjective plays on 2/12

Terribly Happy (France; dir. Henrik Ruben Genz)

One part Western, one part David Lynch, two parts noir pastiche, Terribly Happy is the Danish equivalent of Hot Fuzz. A dialed-back black comedy about a police officer whose bad mistakes have gotten him exiled to a small backwater town where he must learn to deal with small backwater ways.

Robert (Jakob Cedergren) has had some issues with his family and with his mental health, but he's back on the mend and if he serves his time in a remote Southern village, he can return to the police force in Copenhagen in no time. His new constituents aren't all that accommodating, however, they are quick to tell him that they only want his help on their terms. The self-described local quack (Lars Brygmann) is the only one to really establish himself as Robert's ally, and one half of the town's trouble couple, a woman named Ingelise (Lene Maria Christensen), latches onto the marshal. Her stories of being battered by her husband, the area's mean drunk (Kim Bodnia), are kind of believable, but she never seems to tell them without hitting on Robert at the same time. She also fills his head with horror movie tales of the mysterious Bog on the outskirts of the village that we know from the giggly opening voiceover is prone to sucking things into its depths.

Terribly Happy is a pretty entertaining movie, even if director Henrik Ruben Genz and co-writer Dunja Gry Jensen aren't always capable of making its disparate elements work. Based on a novel by Erling Jepsen, it's best when it's being a crime thriller. The bendy love-triangle narrative has positive echoes of the early films of John Dahl, the gleefully twisted Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. Robert is the dumb semi-hero, repeatedly stepping into the wrong thing--quite literally, as it turns out, from the number of soaked socks drying on his clothesline. Jakob Cedergen plays the cop with a straight-faced confusion, approaching each new development with the same blank, dunderheaded calm. Kim Bodnia is also great as the bad husband, giving chewy line readings from under his cowboy hat, coming off a little like a Danish Kevin Pollack.

It's the more wonky bits that never quite gel in Terribly Happy. The odd quirkiness of the rural folk and the scary movie tropes seem forced, as if the filmmakers are catering to our foreign perceptions of what dry Scandinavian humor must be like. They didn't need to go so far with it, the drab and desolate look of the town is enough to give us a sense of Robert's isolation from the modern world. This is a frontier outpost, a cowboy town that makes its own laws. 'nuff said.

Terribly Happy's plot isn't terribly original, but the movie has enough charm to keep you guessing until the very end. At a taught 95 minutes, it moves fast enough that you don't really get time to linger on its familiarity anyway. It also has some pretty great music. Definitely worth a look.

Terribly Happy plays on 2/12 and 2/14.

Current Soundtrack: Massive Attack, Heligoland expanded edition remixes

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All text (c) 2010 Jamie S. Rich

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