#275: Flickering Lights (2001)

Flickering Lights (eller Blinkende Lygter, på dansk) is an action-comedy about four small-time Copenhagen gangsters who give up on petty crime and jet off on a conquest to sunny Barcelona. Unfortunately for them, their car breaks down and they are forced into a depricit old farm house in the Danish woodlands. Plastering up the damaged walls, fixing the doors and throwing away their guns, the crew try to forget their incriminating past-lives and open up a family restaurant.

Although it didn’t receive much international acclaim, Flickering Lights was made to be seen by mainstream audiences (the Danish Broadcasting Corporation helped finance production). The fish-out-of-water premise is appealing, but the mixture of broad slapstick and dark, broody Scandinavian humour fails to get into stride. It’s also a completely predictable chain of events. Not because the story is derivative, worse than that, the movie starts with an infuriatingly comprehensive flash-forward into the future, where any potential unexpected thrills are abolished.

If you know anything about semi-mainstream Danish movies, you’ll be aware of the name Anders Thomas Jensen. A prolific screenwriter (for works such as the Dogme 95’s Mifune and the Kiera Knightley-starring period drama The Duchess), Flickering Lights marked his venture from pen to camera. It’s an ambitious directing debut, but it’s left in the shadows of another Danish gangster comedy from the previous called In China They Eat DogsUnsurprisingly, Jensen is credited as writer there too.

With four acting heavyweights from across Danish television & film, the performances and character dynamics are where Flickering Lights excels. Nightwatch‘s Ulrich Thomsen is the hilariously boisterous Peter who, after being shot in the stomach in the first ten minutes of the movie, spends days locked away in the farmhouse’s pantry, trying to go cold turkey from his coke addiction. Nikolaj Lie Kaas is the young dreamer Stefan who is distraught after abandoning his Copenhagen-based girlfriend. Best of the bunch, Mads Mikkelsen pops up as the tempestuous Arne, a brawler with a penchant for firearms. Lastly, there’s Søren Pilmark as the measured and paternally instinctive crew leader Torkild who tries to keep them all from boiling point. The four have a great chemistry together; an effervescent masculinity which makes Flickering Lights a just-about bearable bromance movie.

With a scattered shower of laughs and some decent characterisation, Flickering Lights is saved from being a total corn-fest. Just like the dishes the four gansters-cum-restauranters end up serving, the film isn’t as sweet and delicious as it’s ingredients would imply.

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#250: Brotherhood (Broderskab) (2009)

How do you find sympathy for two neo-nazis struggling with their conflicting homosexual desires? It’s a paradox that Copenhagen based filmmaker Nicolo Donato wrestles with in his feature length debut Brotherhood (Broderskab, in Danish). A troubling film which mixes melodrama and soft-core porn to confuse audiences’ perceptions on these polemical characters.

After being thrown out of the army following an accusation that he was caught flirting with fellow officers, Lars (Thure Lindhardt) is left without identity or purpose in life. Initially hesitant, he is recruited into the Danish nationalist group by the the rotund, persuasive board leader Michael, aka Fatty (Nicolas Bro).

Welcomed into the fold, Lars becomes a roommate to one of the core members, Jimmy (David Dencik). Living in decrepit beach shack owned by the fraternity boss, the pair eventually fall in love. A secret they struggle to keep behind closed doors as they join their group on nighttime attacks on gays and refugees.

Inspired by a documentary about a fetishistic German neo-nazi culture, Donato and co-writer Rasmus Birch’s Brotherhood hinges on the exploits of love in a social war-zone. It’s a theme that has been tackled many times before, none more-so similar than Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Like Gyllenhaal and Ledger, central performers Lindhardt and Dencik’s portrayal of raw sexual urges and desire is magnificent. However, unlike that superior film, Donato picks such an atrocious context to hang this tender, venturing to irksome love story, that it’s extremely difficult to have any compassion for the soul-mates’ plight. A riff on Romeo and Juliet‘s misunderstood love, Brotherhood‘s closing moments are expectedly tragic and overblown.

Narrative problems aside, Brotherhood is a technical delight. Laust Trier-Mørk’s handheld cinematography has that claustrophobic throwback quality akin to Denmark’s Dogme 95 movement; filming the night of passion scenes objectively, but never cheapening or exploiting the marvellously bold performers. Jesper Mechlenburg’s muzak soundtrack is equally omnipresent, without ever being so overtly emotive as the treacly story line.

Embracing the same brazen attitude that many Danish artists have brimming from their fingertips, Donato’s hands-on approach to direction and difficult subject matters shows a great deal of promise. But Brotherhood relies too heavily on audiences to be emotionally engaged with unlikeable characters, an issue that, at its best, can only make for an impassive viewing experience.

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#202: Terribly Happy (2007)

Cheer up, chumps

A big city  marshal arrives in a desolate country village. Meanwhile, the locals gather at the saloon, terrified by the town bully, who struts around adorning a cowboy hat, a bolo tie and a mean moustache. It soon becomes clear that the marshal and the bully are headed for a showdown. The makings of a spaghetti Western, Henrik Ruben Genz takes the conventions of the well-worn genre and creates a stylish noir, relying heavily on its offbeat, dour atmosphere for cheap thrills.

For a start, that marshal is no pious hero. Robert Hanson (Jakob Cedergren) is a Copenhagen police offer who, after suffering a nervous breakdown on the beat, is transferred to the tiny hamlet in Southern Jutland to lay low and cool off. Unfortunately for him, Robert has been transferred to one seriously weird town. Filled with people scuttling around in fear, suspicious of their fellow inhabitants roaming the deserted streets, it’s clear right from the off – except for our naive marshall, of course – that this town isn’t short of skeletons in the closet, or in ‘the bog’ lying on the outskirts.

Ruling above it all, there’s Jorgen (Denmark’s go-to menace to society Kim Bodnia), the pest who beats his wife Ingerlise (Lena Maria Christensen) and children in full view of the rest of the town, confident that nobody will stop him. Hanson, seemingly as the only voice of reason, tries to get in the way of the couple’s sticky relationship, which will only lead to more village tension, anxiety and bloodshed.

Directed and co-written by Henrik Ruben Genz, Terribly Happy tries terribly hard to squeeze a comic thriller out of his dinky little setup. The characters are intentionally stupid, but the writing isn’t necessarily smarter. The main problem of illogicality is our main man himself. Cedergren doesn’t have the figurative balls to own the screen as a bad-ass cop, not to mention his every move defying common sense, especially after we discover the cause of his breakdown. There are few signs of a broken psyche and hints of hokey existentialism, but you can stumble into the narrative potholes a mile-off.

If the film achieves anything successfully, it’s in recalling the far superior Coen brothers’ debut Blood Simple. Using a concoction of jokes and horror in a film noir vein, the movies share a dimwitted, horny lawman, a wandering wife, and a vile husband, partial to wearing cowboy hats.  Blood Simple. had visual personality and a devoted atmosphere of dirt and suspense, Terribly Happy is nothing more than a cheap imitation. A torturous watch, mercilessly eating away at it’s excessive running time and the audiences’ patience. Terrible it is. Happy it ain’t.

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#191: Mifune (1999)


Mifune is the third instalment to Dogme’95, a rigid film movement set up by a Danish frat-pack who had filmmakers sign a “vow of chastity” prohibiting them from using bourgeoise luxuries and “directorial touches” like props, nondiegetic sound/effects and genre pieces. Following on from Thomas Vinterberg’s quintessentially dark Danish drama Festen and enfant terrible Lars von Trier’s gratuitous The Idiots, stripped of a directing credit, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune is a lighter, considerably commercial film in the Dogme universe. An unadorned, kooky take on the classic Hollywood rom-com adage.

After consummating the vows on the night of his wedding, lustful Copenhagen yuppie Kresten (Anders Bertholesen) gets an unexpected wakeup call with news that his estranged father has died. Previously claiming he had no family, Kresten is forced by his father’s untimely death to abandon his bride Claire and return to the dilapidated farm of his youth and his hermitic, severely autistic brother Rud (Jesper Asholt).

With the first third playing out like a more bittersweet Danish equivalent to Barry Levinson’s Rain Man, Mifune goes all a bit Pretty Woman when Kresten, unbeknownst to him, hires former prostitute Liva (Iben Hjejle) as the live-in housekeeper and nanny for UFO-obsessed Rud. With these three characters all living under the same rotting roof, it doesn’t take long for unrequited romance to blossom and friction to rise to the surface.

Filmed over a brief ten days, it’s remarkable how Kragh-Jacobsen has been able to produce some fantastic performances in Mifune. Asholt embodies the fragile character Rud with delicate perspicacity, whilst Hjejle enchants as the rational and moralistic ex-hooker.

Most impressive of all is that, even when bound to the written code of conduct, this third Dogme film is that it doesn’t feel dogmatic at all. Kragh-Jacobsen’s enforced minimal style feels intrinsic to the thematically austere story. The result is an impressive example of thrifty, barebones storytelling, but one that is ultimately forgettable as soon as the makeshift credits swipe across the screen.

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