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Friday 9 December 2016

Nice Fish, Play by Louis Jenkins and Mark Rylance, Harold Pinter Theatre, London 7.5* out of 10

Mark Rylance gives another brilliant performance, this time in a lighter register. Louis Jenkins’ play is a series of vignettes with folksy, homespun philosophy from the frozen lakes of Minnesota.  

Have you ever wondered whether the Minnesota of TV-Series “Fargo” would make an entertaining setting for a film or a play free of violence?  You need wander no further than the Harold Pinter Theatre to find the answer – and it is affirmative.

In “Nice Fish” Ron (Mark Rylance) and Eric (Jim Lichtscheidl), two middle-aged men of hardy Scandinavian stock have put up their tents or huts on the ice of a frozen Minnesota lake waiting for the end of the long winter while enjoying the great outdoors. Ice fishing (whereby a whole is drilled through the thick layer of ice and the angling rod planted above it) seems more of a justification for friends engaging in deep philosophical exchanges disguised as banter and in banter disguised as deep philosophical exchanges. 

Clare van Kampen directs Louis Jenkins’ play which is really a series of vignettes from a holiday-on-ice. Together they provide 90 minutes of amusingly enjoyable comedy drama in an inventive set by Todd Rosenthal performed by a competent cast, led by the brilliant Mark Rylance (recently of Bridge of Spies, Big Friendly Giant and Wolf Hall and sometimes referred to as the greatest stage actor of his generation). 

Like the packed audience, I was in the mood for the melancholic, homespun, folksy wisdom. Those who came to see Mr Rylance in a register a bit lighter than usual will also not have been disappointed. Good, light fun for the thinking person.

Monday 7 November 2016

Travesties, play by Tom Stoppard, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 10* out of 10

Director Patrick Marber and his outstanding ensemble of actors perform Tom Stoppard’s hilariously funny rapid-fire succession of dialogue, movement, choreography and song to perfection.

In which tranquil European city could you have found the co-inventor of a modern art movement, the soon to be leader of superpower and the author of arguably the most influential, best known and most unread novel of 20th century world literature? The metropolis in question is no other than Zurich, the time period 1914 to 1919, not too long before the gnomes had replaced the radical thinkers and intellectuals with strong-rooms full of Krugerrands, Vreneli and all sorts of other valuables. 

In Tom Stoppard's comedy, Tristan Tzara (Freddy Fox), the Romanian-French avant-garde poet, cabaretier and co-founder of the Dadaism absurdist art-movement, James Augusta Joyce (Peter McDonald), the author of Ulysses and Vladimir Ulyanov (Forbes Masson) who would later be better known as Lenin, all possess a membership card to the Zurich municipal Library during and shortly after World War I. So does the lesser known Anthony Carr (Tom Hollander), a young British war veteran, and consular official, who, as the records of the Zurich courts show, will sue Joyce over the latter’s production of Oscar Wilde’s comedy The Importance of Being Earnest in the Kaufleuten Hall in the centre of Zurich, in which Carr was among the cast. 

Tom Stoppard has meticulously researched the facts on which his witty and hilarious play is based. Many years after the events, an aged Anthony Carr reminisces about this vignette in the European history of the 20th century, in which as a member of the British consulate he had a small (or perhaps not so small?) role to play. Ostensibly though it is Lenin, Joyce and Tzara who are the protagonists of the events on stage. Although their female companions and love interests, Cecily Carruthers (Clare Foster) and Gwendolen Carr (Amy Morgan), and Nadya (Sarah Quist) and the indispensable butler Bennett (Tim Wallers) have more than minor roles and energise the story with the prospect of romance and international class struggle. The latter in the elegantly understated and restrained manner that befits the archetypal English butler.

The plot of Travesties mirrors and self-references Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest” and is a firework of witty allusions in English, Russian, Latin and Dada delivered rapidly by an outstanding cast led by Tom Hollander. It is almost impossible to get all the jokes and allusions on seeing Travesties once, as every dialogue is meticulously crafted to deliver in rapid succession gags, jokes and wit including the breaking out in song and dance. Originally written in 1974, Travesties has something of Monty Python about it and must also have inspired creators of such British cult TV series as “Fawlty Towers” and “Blackadder”.

Travesties is such a complex rapid-fire succession of dialogue movement choreography and song, that it is anything but easy to perform it to perfection. But director Patrick Marber has managed to harness his outstanding ensemble of actors do just that. The production design by Tim Hatley matches this high standard. 

The packed house at the Menier Chocolate Factory enjoyed the hilarious treat presented to them and gave it more than one round of fully deserved rapturous applause. Highly recommended, a wonderful treat. 

On the evening we had come from Zurich to see the play I was surprised a casually distinguished older gentleman next to me noisily unwrapping a candy during Act 1. It was none other than the author Tom Stoppard himself, who had come to check out the production of his play. When we told him we had come from Zurich to see it, he said “How ironic!”.

Thursday 6 October 2016

The Arab of the Future (L’Arabe du Futur), Volumes 1 and 2 of a Graphic Memoir by Riad Satouff, 10* out of 10

The Arab of the Future tells of an unusual childhood in the Middle East of the 1980s told in the form of a graphic memoir. Riad Sattouf’s voice is original and unique; deceptively simple, his observations are deep, intelligent, often funny and at times very moving.  I read the first two volumes  in one sitting.

Riad Sattouf grows up in the 1970s and 80s, the son of a Syrian University professor and a French mother. His father has risen from very modest beginnings in a small village near Homs in Syria. He is a pan-Arabist, who fervently believes that Syrians are best, that Arabs on the whole will throw off the shackles of Imperialism and demonstrate their superiority to the West. If they haven’t done so already, it is of course due to a global conspiracy perpetrated by the Jews. Moreover, he is convinced that despite of his humble origins he will one day become respected, successful and very rich and that his son will be the epitome of the new Arab man, the eponymous “Arab of the Future”.

Riad’s mother is Breton, the daughter of French civil servants. She believes in the virtues of French values liberté, egalité, fraternité and laïcité. The last of these being the untranslatable concept of how the French think any civilised state should organise the place of religion in society. Unfortunately they are still struggling to find a single other country that might agree with them. At the grassroots level French values translate into the civil servant's right to job security, retirement around the age of 55 with a good pension, and generally enjoying a good life. All of these are accessible to Riad’s maternal grandmother, but Riad’s mother has none of these in prospect. She is waiting rather patiently for her husband to become as successful and wealthy as he always claims he will soon be. 

Riad born in France with an abundant mane of gorgeous blond hair, enjoys that adults find him cute and irresistible. At a very young age he moves with his family to Libya and then Syria and returns to France occasionally to visit his grandmother on vacation. Very early on his talent for drawing what he sees around him becomes evident. And while to his great chagrin sometime in later life his gorgeous blond hair will turn dark, his great sense of being able to represent in annotated drawings what he sees, feels and hears never leaves him. 

As a result, readers of volume 1 and 2 get a treat of learning about France, Libya and Syria in the early through the eyes of a child that sees what is going on around him and tries to interpret it with the help of his father's and mother's views as they were presented to a child. For instance, from the moment he hears his mother refer to France’s iconic chanson singer George Brassens as “a God, whenever, God is mentioned the grey-haired moustachioed face of Brassens appears in Riad’s imagination.

The first two volumes of Riad Sattouf’s autobiography are deceptively simple in drawings, dialogue and annotation. Riad's curiosity and acute observation get under the reader's shield of preconceptions. He "draws us in", literally,  to hear his story and allows us to take the perspective of a little child as we consider the complicated, confusing and sometimes downright crazy world full of contradictions in which he finds himself. Riad will somehow have to integrate all this into what we now refer to as his identity. Thanks to his talent and sense of observation, and mainly due to his being a small child he does this naturally and playfully. Imperceptibly he makes the reader adopt his perspective, and a highly rewarding experience this is, too. 

Now in his 40s, and acutely feeling the irretrievable loss of cute infantile blondness, Satouff’s graphic autobiography gives the reader a ringside seat to an extra-ordinary multicultural childhood. Perspective, simplicity and humour combine to give us the sounds, sights and feel of the places the young Riad lives at and the institutions he experiences and tries to make sense of. 

The deservedly multi-prize-winning "Arab of the Future" is in fact an “unputdownable” work of child psychology, sociology and human geography rolled into one -  without any jargon and absolutely no boring bits. I cannot wait to see the future volumes of the autobiography by this supremely talented observer of life, man and nature. Highly recommended!

Wednesday 5 October 2016

I Am Not Madame Bovary, Film, China, 2016, Zurich Film Festival, 9* out of 10

Liu Zheniun’s screenplay, adapted from his novel, is a brilliant satire of Chinese State, reminiscent of Kafka’s “The Trial” – but in reverse. Director Feng Xiaogang’s cinematography is inventive, beautiful and brilliant. Fan Bingbing's performance in the leading role is outstanding.

In order to obtain a second apartment Li Xeluian (Fan Bingbing) comes up with a plan to circumvent he Chinese legislation forbidding and begins to implement it with her husband. The plan involves that they will first divorce and then remarry after the second dwelling has been allocated to her. But her husband has other plans: after the divorce he implements the plan with another woman, leaving Li Xeluian with nothing. But the jilted young woman is nothing if not persistent and resourceful. She starts a battle through the Chinese judicial and political institutions to have her sham divorce reversed and she is not ready to give up no matter how long and difficult this is. What happens next is something that is reminiscent of Kafka’s “The Trial” – but in reverse: Li Xeluian is the grain of sand in the Chinese Judicial and administrative system that makes the institutions start to turn in on themselves and on their representatives.

Liu Zheniun’s screenplay, adapted from his novel, is a brilliant satire of Chinese State and political made poignant by his depiction of his characters as very real and feeling human being, whether they are ordinary people or functionaries of the People’s Republic of China who are trying to make its institutions work while protecting their positions. The acting is excellent with an outstanding performance by Fan Bingbing. Director Feng Xiaogang’s cinematography is inventive, beautiful and brilliant. The combination of screenplay, acting and cinematography makes this a highly original and spell binding film. I Am Not Madame Bovary is a pleasure to watch and very accessible to international audiences. Speculating about what is behind the film’s English title is one of the fringe benefits Western audiences are left with after seeing this memorable film. 

I Am Not Madame Bovary richly deserves the many prizes it has received, among them the nomination as Best Film at the prestigious San Sebastian Film Festival.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Café Society, Film 2016 written & directed by Woody Allen, 8* out of 10

Jesse Eisenberg's great performance in the lead role give this solid Woody Allen comedy/drama/romance additional appeal. 

Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) introvert, intelligent and unhappy with working in his hen-pecked father’s (Ben Stott) small business in New York City, arrives in Los Angeles where his mother (Jeannie Berlin) tries to get him a job with her brother the successful, dynamic and ubiquitous Hollywood-agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell). When he finally meets his uncle he proves to be a talented and effective networker whose “deer caught in the headlights look” not only helps him to build up a useful business network but also to woo his uncle’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). 

What follows is romantic, darkish, philosophical comedy as vintage Woody Allen meets shades of The Great Gatsby and Casablanca. On the way, we see the protagonists of the drama, as well as the supporting characters from the Dorfman family, struggle with the day to day practical questions of life (noisy neighbours worsening your migraine) and the more philosophical ones (what about the after-life? They do so in a quintessentially pragmatic secular Jewish manner with the desire to requite true unrequited love between the Jewish New York boy and his Nebraska protestant girl takes the centre-stage of his inner-life.

Café Society is an undeniably Woody Allen comedy/drama with Jazz classics and narration adorning an outstanding 1930s set. The action moves inevitably between Hollywood mansions and New York City views. 

Within a competent ensemble cast, Steve Carell, Kirsten Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg give outstanding performances. The most interestingly written character is the one of the Jewish-neurotic lead played by Eisenberg, who, in contrast to Woody Allen's own "single-layer-cake" performances in this type of role over the past decades, manages to credibly show the development and complexity of a "multi-layer-cake" character.

Café Society is an enjoyable and entertaining film with an undeniable plus provided by Kirsten Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg’s Vonnie and Bobby, the handsome couple with the slow-burning will-they-won’t-they love-affair.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Faith Healer, play by Brian Friel, Donmar Warehouse, London, 10* out of 10

Theatre as one hopes to see it; a masterpiece, worth a trip to London. 

Frank Hardy (Stephen Dillane), the fantastic faith healer – one night only, travels through Wales and Scotland with his show, his girlfriend (or wife?) Grace (Gina McKee) and his Cockney manager Teddy (Ron Cook). As they tell us the story of their lives together in partly conforming, partly colliding accounts a dark and compelling tale emerges.

Irish playwright Brian Friel, who sadly died in October 2015, is one of the greats of English speaking theatre and the Faith Healer is a great piece of writing. The powerful and moving story is developed in four spell-binding monologues of poetic prose, reminiscent at times of Dylan Thomas’ writing.

The production as the Donmar is dramatic theatre at its best as set (Es Devlin), direction (Lindsay Turner), acting performances, content and form of the play (the late Brian Friel) are all at a high level and perfectly matched to each other.

Theatre as one hopes to see it; a masterpiece, worth a trip to London. At the end, stunned silence followed by enthusiastic applause from the theatre filled to the last seat.

Thursday 7 July 2016

Egypt’s Sunken Cities, Special Exhibition, The British Museum, London, 9* out of 10

At the British Museum in London this summer, the under water archeologist Franck Goddio presents stunning, beautifully preserved statues and objects from the last 20 years of his exploration of two Egyptian sunken cities in the Nile delta, Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. An unforgettable museum visit.

In a short and stellar military career, Alexander the Great accepted the religious and cultural practices of the countries he had conquered. Soon after Alexander’s premature death in 323BC, Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian like Alexander and a general, friend and possibly half-brother of Alexander, obtained his wish to be named ruler of Egypt. He established a dynasty that would rule that country into Roman times, ending with the dramatic death of the Cleopatra VII (who in most people's minds will look forever like Elizabeth Taylor dressed in Egyptian costume). 

Ptolemy I Soter and his successors adopted and enhanced the cultural and religious traditions of the land they had come to rule and encouraged the development of strong religious and cultural links between Egyptian, Greek and finally Roman mythology and religion, which was reflected in the practices as well as the works of art of the time.

This summer at the British Museum in London, the spectacular and beautiful exhibition “Egypt’s Sunken Cities”  provides a dramatic illustration of how Egyptian Greek and later Roman Culture interacted during the reign of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Two important cities of the time Thonis-Heraclion, a centre for trade and Canopus, a centre for worship of Egyptian gods, which lay in the Nile delta slowly sank into the muddy waters of the Nile and Mediterranean and had eventually to be abandoned by their inhabitants. There they lay hidden and untouched by grave robbers, until they were first rediscovered by the British in the 1930s. But the retrieval in earnest of most wonderfully preserved artefacts from the watery depths is the work of French under-water-archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team, who have been uncovering the beautiful secrets of these two sites for the last 20 years. 

The spectacular results are marvellously assembled at the British Museum until November 2016; there they are put in context by the museums experts and enriched with filmed under-water sequences of the divers’ work.

It is a wonderfully impressive and evocative exhibition about the interaction of our cultural heritage during a period of great mutual interaction among the cultures and civilisations that formed our age, augmented by the fascinating tale of their discovery and the work of the archaeologists. In the audio-tour the curators and experts of the British Museum and Franck Goddio himself vividly tell us the story of Egypt under the Ptolemaic dynasty and the excitement of finding unique objects of this advanced multicultural urban civilization under water. An unforgettable museum visit.

A statue of the ancient Egyptian queen Arsinoe II 


Wednesday 27 April 2016

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary), Film Japan (2015), directed by Hirozaku Koreeda, 9* out of 10

Hirozaku Koreeda’s Our Little Sister is an uplifting family drama. It is very Japanese, yet deals with universal subjects which resonate with audiences all over the world; a delight.

The three Koda sisters, Sashi 29 (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino 22 (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika 19 (Kaho), share a house in Kamakura, a provincial Japanese town. Sashi is a nurse and has replaced the young women's mother as best a sister can. Sashi is in a relationship with a married man, a doctor at the hospital at which she works. Yoshino works at a bank and has a penchant for going out with the wrong kind of boyfriend. The lively and quirky Chica works in a sport-shop, and has found a similarly quirky soul-mate there. When the three sisters hear that their estranged father, a bon- vivant who was in his third marriage, has suddenly died, they decide that it is their duty to go to his funeral. There they meet their father’s daughter by his second wife, Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose). As far as the three sisters are concerned their half-sister Suzu is the daughter of the home-wrecker. But she is also their little 14-year-old half-sister, who has nobody in the world, now that her beloved father has died. His third wife always disliked Suzu anyway. The three Koda sisters make a decision that will change their and Suzu’s life.

Based on a Manga comic by Akimi Yoshida, writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda has succeeded in making a beautifully observed and photographed film, exploring the concept of family relationships; how they exist, how we can construct, mould and extend them into a circle of friends and our local community. 

The acting performances match the high standard of the screenplay and direction. Striking for a Western audience are the high standards of teenage children’s behaviour at home and at school and Japan’s mono-cultural society, so different to what we are now used to. But feelings of friendship, family problems and family joys resonate all over the world, and so Our Little Sister is an uplifting delight of a film for audiences everywhere.

Monday 25 April 2016

Award-winning Novelist David Grossman in conversation with (in English) Swiss journalist Mikaël Krogerus, 20 April 2016, Kaufleuten Zurich, 9* out of 10

Thanks to his sensitive and creative interviewing style and the eloquent interviewee Swiss journalist and author Mikaël Krogerus got Israeli author David Grossman to share about himself and the manner in which he works. Much wisdom and and true human warmth shone through. The audience in packed Kaufleuten hall in Zurich was delighted. They left thoroughly satisfied and keen to get their hands on the German translation of his new book.

For exclusively English speaking residents or tourists in Zurich availability of high quality events is growing but still somewhat limited. 

One place that they may not easily come to mind, but which has in the last year yielded some memorable and thought-provoking entertainment in the English language is the Kaufleuten complex near Paradeplatz in the heart of Zurich’s shopping and Banking district. Kaufleuten has a literature series where authors are interviewed when the German translations of the latest works are launched. The last year included John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) who launched his auto biography, Karl Ove Knausgaard with his epic biographic novel My Struggle to Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure. All of which turned out to be rather entertaining and highly informative events which were largely held in English (except for the excerpts read by an actor from their books, which were in German).

It was therefore without hesitation that I bought tickets for the launch of David Grossman’s new novel. David Grossman is an internationally known Israeli writer. He writes in Hebrew and for his latest book the German translation precedes the English. Its title is Kommt ein Pferd in eine Bar (A Horse Walks Into a Bar). It tells the story of a stand-up comedy evening in the provincial Israeli coastal town of Netanya that swings from funny-ha-ha via funny-peculiar to tragically dramatic.

The Kaufleuten hall is packed to the last seat. As a Swiss audience can be expected to understand English very well, the interview is in English without translation. 

Mikaël Krogerus gets David Grossman to speak eloquently in English about his novel, about a person he thinks about at the moment (his infant grand-daughter in this case), about his writing process. The characters of his novel come first; their physical characteristics and mannerisms come before their inner life and thoughts reveal themselves to their creator. For Grossman, the happiest moment in the creative process is when he has got his characters ready in his mind but before they have started to act. That is for him the moment of the greatest potential, a moment of great excitement when Grossman does not yet know where the characters will lead him. As soon as they take an action or make a decision, the infinite potential is restricted and the hard work of writing a coherent story begins. Grossman tells his audience that the desk where he writes is close to a long corridor. He needs to physically walk up down that corridor to develop his ideas, they won’t just come to him when he is sitting still.

Grossman, a peace activist lost his son Uri an officer in the Israeli army in the latest with the Lebanese Hezbollah. But while dealing with the pain of losing his beloved son, he has firmly turned his gaze to the outside world, to the present, to the future. He is an acute observer of the individual human being n their natural habitat trying to cope with the other human beings around them. Hell s other people, but no man (or woman) is an island. Grossman is a friendly witness of his characters’ struggles. His observations in his books as well as in his interview are full of wisdom and good will towards his characters full of their quirks and foibles. Nevertheless, his generally kind eye sees people in a down to earth and realistic way. 

From this quite profound and wide-ranging interview there also emerged the picture of a man who loves his country and above all its language, Hebrew, the most important instrument of his art and craft. And so he includes a reading of an excerpt from his new novel in the original Hebrew.

Deservedly and fittingly Grossman remarks that Mikaël Krogerus, his interviewer for the evening, has been outstanding and asked Grossman has not been asked before in interviews.  I have had the pleasure of seeing Krogerus interview other award-winning authors (Karl Ove Knausgaard, Gary Shteyngart) and he does an excellent job in making them feel at ease, but not so much at ease, that they don’t care about their answers. Krogerus strength is that he appears much more interested in what his interviewees will say than in self presentation. The Kaufleuten literature series is lucky to have him. Long lasting warm applause for above all for Grossman but also Krogerus as well as the actor who read the excerpts in German.

Man-Booker-Prize-winning author Yann Martel (the Life of Pi) is next on the Kaufleuten Literature interview list. I look forward to it.

David Grossman

Monday 29 February 2016

Mustang, Film, Turkey (2015), directed by Denis Gemze Ergüven, 8* out of 10

A heartbreaking, yet uplifting tale about the fate of 5 girls being forced to conform to the customs of the Anatolian village life, where girls are being treated as property, being passed on from guardian to husband - and are supposed to comply and enjoy it.  Deservedly made it to the shortlist of the 2015 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. 

At the beginning of the Summer Lale (Günes Sensoy) at 12 years old the youngest of 5 sisters, is sad as she has to say goodbye to her favourite teacher who is moving from the Anatolian village where Lale and her sisters live to Istanbul. The Lale, Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan) and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) are a tightknit bunch full of laughter, fun, joy of life and a little bit of mischief. Orphans, they have had an unusual amount of freedom growing up, as they were brought up by their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas), who has been ambivalent about conforming to the the misogynous, narrow minded morals and customs of country-life in Turkey. But now that most of the girls are in their teens, their severe, abusive uncle is taking greater control of their lives. As their grandmother decides to marry them off, Lale senses that her easy-going childhood in comparative freedom together with her elder sisters is coming to an abrupt end when child’s play with boys at the beach sets tongues wagging in the village. At the end of the summer nothing will be as it was before.

Deservedly awarded the prize for the best debut screenplay at the Berlin Film Festival and nominated for the 2015 Academy Award as Best Foreign Film, Mustang works because it does not preach or overdramatise; on the contrary:  it is told, in a matter of fact at times humorous and understated manner by the gutsy little Lale. She introduces us gently to an everyday reality of Turkish village life before the enormity of what is being done by a patriarchal, virginity-obsessed male-dominated society to young adolescent girls becomes clear.  

Putting five girl/woman protagonists into your first screenplay is daring, but Denis Gemze Ergüven and her more experienced co-author Alice Winocour have pulled it of. Under Ergüven’s direction the 5 girls give a strong ensemble performance. Günes Sensoy as Lale and Nihal G. Koldas as the grandmother stand out.   

I do not know enough about Turkey to judge which aspects of this story can be seen as typical of Anatolian village life or how much this is a one off individual tale.  In any event, Mustang is an entertaining and moving film about the loss of innocence that reminds us about the importance supporting those who highlight and defend children’s and women’s rights so sadly lacking not only in Turkish Anatolia.

Tuesday 9 February 2016

A War (Krigen), Film, Denmark (2015), written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, 9* out of 10

Shot in a factual documentary like manner, A War is compelling viewing from beginning to end and fully deserves its Oscar nomination for “Best Foreign Language Film”.  

Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) is the Commanding Officer of a Danish unit in the Afghan War. After one of his soldiers on patrol is killed by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) he decides to move from command-centre to leading patrols of his units in the field. Meanwhile back in Denmark, waiting for the occasional phone call Pedersen’s wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) is doing her best to manage with her three young children, one of whom finds it particularly difficult to cope with his dad’s absence on dangerous duty. 

When on one of his unit’s patrols, Pedersen administering medical care to the little daughter of a local Afghan farmer, a tragic chain of events is set in motion. It will impact not only the local people, whom the Danish soldiers are trying to protect from the Taliban, but also test spirit and morale of Pedersen and the soldiers under his command to the limit.

Shot in a factual documentary like manner, A War is compelling viewing from beginning to end. The action is shown from the perspective of the soldiers and of the unit commander’s family in Denmark. The miniscule area of Afghanistan that the unit is responsible for and its population are viewed through this lens as potentially and of actually dangerous and hostile, but almost always as strange and threatening. By taking this perspective the viewers feelings towards the local civilians and even children vacillates between suspicion and affection.  

For European audiences it is easier to instinctively sympathise with soldiers from a small European country such as Denmark than with troops larger powerful countries like the US, Britain, France or Germany. Considering the duties and dilemmas of an individual soldier, such a predisposition on the part of a supposedly neutral audience is hardly justified; but it plays an important role in the extent of the emotional rollercoaster ride which this film takes us on.    

Writer and director Tobias Lindholm, who gave us The Hunt ( and The Hijacking, has again done an outstanding job, showing both the interpersonal relations among the soldiers in Afghanistan's theatre of (low intensity) war and the impact that such a posting has on an officer’s family at home. Acting performances are strong, too, with outstanding performances by Pilou Asbæk and Tuva Novotny.  Without being didactic or preachy, the story leaves us with a moral and emotional dilemma which viewers will have to think through and answer for themselves. Krigen fully deserves its Oscar nomination in the category “Best Foreign Language Film”. Highly recommended.

Friday 22 January 2016

The Big Short, Film (2015), directed by Adam MacKay starring Christian Bale, Steve Farrell, 9* out of 10

Don’t be put off by the title or the apparent technicality of its subject matter; thanks to great acting performances by Christian Bale and Steve Carell, The Big Short is above all an emotional roller-coaster ride with great insight about human nature and a wicked sense humour. It gets my vote for Hollywood Film of 2015.

The Big Short is a fictionalised account following five people who foresaw the great crash of 2007 long before it happened and acted on this insight. Among them is Michael Burry (Christian Bale) a medical doctor turned fund manager with an autistic streak.  Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling) is a swaggering bond-salesman from Deutsche Bank New York. And then there is Mark Baum (Steve Carrel) head of a hedge-fund connected to Morgan Bank who thinks he loves his job, but has become resentful of everyone and everything else in his life except his loyal, loving wife. And finally, there are Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Whitrock), two young investors from California, who started with ten-thousand Dollars of their savings and turned that initial pot into thirty million.

Except for Jared Vennett, who is outwardly as cool and superior as any of your average cocaine-consuming, Lamborghini-driving Wall Street trader, all of the characters are in some way “misfits” who are mentally or physically disconnected from Wall Street and its culture of greed. Far from being triumphant about seeing something the Wall Street “greats” did not, they end-up if not broken, so at least severely shaken and stirred by the emotional roller-coaster ride that The Big Short takes them (and us) on. On the way we get great insights about human nature and a healthful dose of a wicked sense of humour.

Turning a factual book, even one written by a talented bestseller trader turned journalist like Michael Lewis, into a riveting piece of “faction” with funny and moving moments is no mean feat. But the talented screenwriters (Charles Randolph, Adam McKay and Michael Lewis himself) and an excellent director (co-screenwriter Adam McKay) have managed very well; but what makes a very good film outstanding are the unforgettable performances by Christian Bale and Steve Carrell.

So even for those who do not understand the valiant and entertaining attempts to explain to the audience the causes of the 2007 financial crisis, the human interest and the fast-paced humour make this an entertaining, watchable and thought provoking film.

In a year where Hollywood has mainly lived off the enjoyable continuation of antediluvian franchises, The Big Short stands out as afresh high quality film that makes you think about the price you pay when you decide to swim against a very powerful stream – even when you are ultimately proved right on the substance of your argument. High quality, witty and entertaining this film should be required watching and discussion for any graduate class on business ethics. The Big Short gets my vote for Hollywood film of 2015.


Friday 1 January 2016

An, (Japan 2015), Film written and directed by Naomi Kawase, 7.5* out of 10

A moving tale of three outsiders, revealing a Japanese culinary speciality and an unknown chapter of a history of social exclusion. Actress Kirin Kiki shines in the main role. 

Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) is the grumpy manager of a small business specializing in red bean-paste cookies, called dorayakis.  Sentaro’s dorayakis are edible but not particularly tasty. His customers are mainly teenage-girls from the neighbourhood school. One of them is the solitary Wakana (Kyana Uchida) who finds Sentaro’s cookie restaurant a safe place to spend her afternoons. One day Tokue (Kirin Kiki), an elderly lady, appears and humbly yet persistently asks the reluctant Sentaro for a job. When she brings a sample of her home-made red-bean-paste the life of the three outsiders will become connected and impacted in unexpected ways.

The strength of Naomi Kawase’s film (adapted from a novel by Durian Sukegawa) lies in the substance of the story it tells, as it reveals an –at least in the West unknown aspect of Japan’s culinary offering and more importantly of its social history that still appears to impact people today. The slow pace in which she tells the story and reveals aspects of the character of the protagonists is another strength of this film. There area some flaws in the technique of the story telling particularly when there is an over-reliance on letters revealed in long voice over sequences. But the beauty of the photography, the sensitive performances by all the actors, with an outstanding one by Kirin Kiki, who in real life is Kyana Uchida’s (Wakana) grandmother, outweigh those weaknesses.

While other critics have been harsh with Kawase’s film, I believe that its inclusion in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival’s “Un Certain Regard”-section was justified. 

"An" is an unforgettable moving story told with delicacy and humour. It very much merits a visit to the cinema.