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You can watch CJ’s video review of Land of Mine on his web show Watch This here: 

http://www.skipi.tv/landofmine/

**** (out of five)

My fingernails were being bitten down to the quick, by my teeth, because the young German soldier’s fingers were jittering. I was watching the Danish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, Land Of Mine, and it was a white-knuckle ride.

Here’s the context for the story: at the end of World War 2, about two million land mines littered the Danish coast. The Germans, occupants of that small nation for nearly the entire war, figured the allies would storm the beaches, try and take it back. That didn’t happen. When the war ended, as part of the reparations treaty, Germany had to supply soldiers to Denmark to find, diffuse and dispose of all those land mines buried in the sand. They sent, effectively, 2,000 boys – the youngest possible soldiers, sixteen year olds with wispy whiskers and baby faces. The land mines, of course, were live and lethal. Boys blew up.

In terms of tension and suspense, who could possibly imagine a better set-up? Writer / director Martin Zandvliet, however, gives us much more than a bloody horrorshow. By focusing on the growing relationship between Danish Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) and his squad of 14 young Germans tasked with clearing one particular beach over three months, Zandvliet forensically examines issues of vengeance, forgiveness, compassion and humanity – specifically, how different we really are, and how different we are willing to believe we are. Pretty relevant stuff for 2017, no?

We first see Rasmussen beating a German soldier as he walks out of Denmark with his colleagues. The German was trying to leave with a Danish flag, and the burley, very manly Rasmussen is livid. “This is my country!” he screams as he rains down blows. “Not yours! You are not welcome here!” And, despite his brutality, who can blame him? These were his oppressors, his home-invaders, the savage barbarian destroyers of his entire world – and everything was unequivocally their fault. Why shouldn’t they take a beating?

But should they get blown up on the beach? Well, why not? They bloody well put the bombs there in the first place, didn’t they? These are the moral, ethical and deeply humanistic value questions at play. Rasmussen – assumedly single and childless, living on a beachside farm with his dog – is a tough nut, but these are boys under his charge, and they’re getting their arms blown off. Is compassion inevitable, or are the wounds of the world’s worst crime impossible to bandage?

Møller is spectacular in the role of Rasmussen. His physique, his thin moustache, the way he wears his khaki uniform and his prominent insignias, the way he tends to the fist he injured beating the German at the film’s beginning, all point to a career soldier who still mostly has his shit together even as the world has gone insane – mostly. His character arc across the film is beautifully structured and he modulates it precisely and unsentimentally (as you imagine Rasmussen himself would). Møller got out of prison in 2002 after spending four and a half years inside for ten assault convictions; until now, he has almost exclusively played hard-core criminals, as he himself was. He justly won Denmark’s highest acting honour last year for his portrayal of Rasmussen.

The filmmakers shot at some of the actual beaches involved, and, during production, found a real mine. How perfect, and perfectly sad.

thumb_5722_film_poster_big**** (out of five)

Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi just won the Foreign Language Feature Film Oscar for The Salesman, another of his particular brand of contemporary social thrillers – a term of my own devising for his specific style. His best film, A Separation, won the same award five years ago. Together with The Past (2013) and About Elly (2009), the four films constitute a staggeringly exciting recent body of work. He is unquestionably one of the finest, most dynamic, most urgent auteurs working in modern cinema.

All four of these films take place immediately. Things are happening, now, with no time to lose, and the stakes are high. Often told over two or three days, with a smallish cast (he has an ensemble of actors who re-appear throughout the quartet), the films are contemporary dramas but with the effect of thrillers: they are all highly suspenseful, tense and grippingly immersive. There is always mystery and misdirection; there are plentiful secrets and lies. And there are the cultural, political and religious constraints of contemporary Iran, pressing down on these characters and, for those of us non-Iranians, providing another layer of relative ambiguous tension.

The characters themselves share, across the four films, specific qualities: they are urbane (from Tehran overwhelmingly), educated, smart, young (I would suggest most are around 30, as an aggregate) and for the most part very attractive. This is perhaps the one level of artificiality in his films, but then, it occurred to me – perhaps in Iran, to be an actor one must be attractive? It certainly helps in countries with far bigger film industries.

The subject of being an actor in Tehran is directly addressed in The Salesman, which stars Shahab Hosseini (A Separation and About Elly) and Taraneh Alidoosti (Elly in About Elly) as Emad and Rana Etesami, who are playing Willy and Linda Loman in what appears to be a professionally-mounted production of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman in Tehran. At the start of the film, while they’re in the final week or so of rehearsals, their apartment building suffers a semi-collapse, and they are forced to move, quickly and without the luxury of time to look around, into the first apartment they can grab, which happens to have a sordid history. That history cuts into their lives in a particular way, and, once it does, the film’s “thriller” aspects kick up a gear, and, as always with films by Farhadi, choices of monumental emotional and moral substance need to be made.

The stunningly handsome Hosseini (he reminds me of Colin Farrell, but better looking) won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes for his work here and he deserved it mightily, even if his volatile black hair is a little too awesome during the film’s gripping, real-time third act. Alidoosti, who necessarily held her cards as close as one can to one’s chest in About Elly, gets to be far freer with her emotions here, even if her character Rana can only let them out when she’s on stage as Linda Loman. The Death Of A Salesman scenes are like lightening in a bottle, and there is no doubt that the Etesamis are meant to be read as fantastic stage actors. This is less of an ensemble than Farhadi’s other Big Three, but the work of all the supporting cast is excellent. Farhadi demands realism and his actors inevitably deliver; there’s nary a false note in any of the performances in any of his films, even from the children, who feature less here than in the previous work.

Despite some story elements that push it even further than A Separation and The Past into the thriller realm, The Salesman is more contemplative and in many ways smaller, more contained. It’s probably most evocative of About Elly, even though it’s obviously a more mature work about more mature people with, well, more mature baggage. Of his four films, I rank it number three, but it still towers above eighty-eight percent of the films that reach our silver screens. Don’t miss it, and if you haven’t seen his other films, correct that error now.

LINCOLN **** (out of five)

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Make no mistake, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, centered with another uncanny performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, is an excellent movie, and it grows in stature the more you think about it, partly because the subject matter is just so monumentally important. Focusing on an extremely tight frame of about four months, this is no biopic, but rather the telling of Abraham Lincoln’s fierce resolve to amend the United States Constitution to abolish slavery and declare equality of the races in the eyes of the law.

1352486185-lincolnEssentially, this the story of the passage of a piece of legislation in the House of Representatives, and if that doesn’t sound too thrilling, don’t worry, it is. Even watching the vote itself is suspenseful and very moving. Unfortunately, there is an inherent dramatic flaw, necessitated by history and the structure of the US political system: the President doesn’t actually sit in the House of Representatives, and all the best scenes in the film take place there, so our lead character is out of the main action.

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863Still, Day-Lewis gets to spin a lot of gentle anecdotes with great meaning, and has a few scenes where his passionate abhorrence of slavery get to see him riled up. This Lincoln exudes unbelievable intelligence and goodness; essentially without a flaw, it’s a strange role, and in lesser hands he may have been the cipher at the heart of the film that bore his name. Not in the hands of the Tall Irishman, however, who’s certain to add another Oscar to his shelf, not least because he’s playing someone just so darn perfect.

A second narrative thread looks at Lincoln’s family life; I didn’t need those scenes, and Sally Field, as Mrs. Lincoln, was a distraction: I never see a character when she’s onscreen, only Ms. Field, but that could be my own peccadillo. The usually solid Joseph Gordon-Levitt struggles with a whiny role as Lincoln’s oldest son, and a young cherubic chappy named Gulliver McGrath, as the youngest, has no business sharing the screen with The World’s Greatest Actor. He’s surprisingly bad – for Spielberg has shown in the past a huge talent for picking natural child performers; McGrath is about as natural as slavery.

lincoln-_h_2012An extraordinary supporting cast makes full meal of a panoply of Republicans and Democrats, led by Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook and David Constabile, and including a nefarious triumvirate of political murky dealers played by an excellent James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and and John Hawkes. Jared Harris turns up as Ulysses S. Grant, Jackie Earle Haley brings his weaselly vibe to Alexander Stephens, and on and on it goes, famous faces as famous players.

A perfect educational tool for the decades to come, Lincoln is also surprisingly urgent, and an excellent metaphor for the current state of the US Presidency: if you’re wondering why it’s taking Mr. Obama a little longer than you’d hoped for him to make good on some of his 2008 Campaign promises, just look at the intense difficulties of getting stuff done in Washington, as represented by this sombre, powerful film, one of Spielberg’s most restrained, and best.