THE SAINT BERNARD SYNDICATE – movie review

THE SAINT BERNARD SYNDICATE
Uncork’d Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by Harvey Karten
Director: Mads Brügger
Screenwriter: Lærke Sanderhoff
Cast: Frederik Cilius Jørgensen, Rasmus Bruun, Odessa, Flemming Sørensen, Vibeke Manniche, Mohamed Ali Osman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/18/19
Opens: February 1, 2019

The Saint Bernard Syndicate Movie

You’ve probably heard of American business tycoons who have gone to China to take advantage of cheaper labor but who have returned to the U.S. frustrated by the different cultural aspects of Chinese business as well as the difficulty of managing an operation from thousands of miles away. Mads Brügger, in directing “The Saint Bernard Syndicate,” knows what cultural dissonance is all about. This time he focuses on the difficulties of negotiating with people from a foreign culture. This is his first fiction film, having previous contributed documentaries “The Ambassador, wherein he goes to uncover the blood diamond trade in Africa, and served as co-writer of “The Great European Cigarette Mystery,” dealing with a European politician involved in being in the pocket of the tobacco companies.

With “The Saint Bernard Syndicate,” he serves up his celluloid with a lighter touch, though the absurdist comedy at times comes across as zany to the point of embarrassment. As with his tobacco doc, he takes pot shots at business again, but this time zeroes in on a couple of dorks who consider themselves entrepreneurs and who seem destined to suffer the fate of many another enterprising person with no aptitude for business despite a plan that looks like a slam dunk.

Brügger chose his actors well. As Frederik (Frederik Cilius Jørgensen and Rasmus (Rasmus Bruun) are known in their native Denmark for comedy, they are ideal in situations that apparently call for some major improvisation. At the same time he takes his chances with some Chinese subjects who are non-professional actor. “The Saint Bernard Syndicate” is unlike any American sitcom as it’s not the kind of story that requires an audience laugh every twenty seconds. It embraces a serious overlay in that Rasmus has just been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, so with imminent paralysis and death looming, he figures, what the hell, might as well go with his chum Frederick despite having been bulled by him in an elite private school.

This is the kind of story that may make you think more than once about investing with start-up companies involving foreign countries. As written by Lærke Sanderhoff, the two go to Chongqing, a major business center in China and so polluted you’d not expect many tourists to visit. They set up embarrassing interviews for a staff of bilingual secretaries. After failing with an expensive party complete with confetti, bands and dancers, they manage to bait a wealthy investor, not realizing that he is a scammer with possible ties to organized crime. He is the only Chinese investor that allegedly believes that the rich countrymen will buy Saint Bernard dogs to add to their prestige, and therefore is willing to risk a large sum to set up a center that will breed the dogs, allow buyers to buy food from that center, and go with the veterinary care that it would provide.

Odessa the dog improvises as the big, lovable St. Bernard, while Rasmus Bruun was named best actor at the recent Tribeca Film Festival. Now and then Frederik Cilius Jørgensen playing CEO of the Saint Bernard Syndicate insists on pulling rank on his buddy, but both are klutzes—something like Danish Laurels and Hardys. Since every dog has its day, we are pulling for the two businessmen because deep down many of us realize that whatever talent we have, it’s not for business. “The Saint Bernard Syndicate” is a Monty-Pythonesque tale of missed connections, as embarrassing as it’s funny, and with a serious streak involving the horror of taking a final, big chance when your weeks are numbered.

In Danish, Mandarin and English with English subtitles.

100 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

THE GUILTY – movie review

THE GUILTY (Den skyldige)

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Gustav Möller
Screenwriter:  Gustav Möller, Emil Nygaard Albertsen
Cast:  Jakob Cedergren, Jessica Dinnage, Johan Olsen, Omar Shargaw
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/9/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
Jakob Cedergren in Den skyldige (2018)
What’s your worst computer repair nightmare?  If you’re anything like me, you need your computer.  You can’t live without it whether for work or for keeping up with your friends.  When it breaks down, you probably could not survive without a service agreement, but then, when you call for action, you’re on hold for 20 minutes, you then get a responder who gets your name and other details, you’re switched to the techie, and you wonder why the Dell or HP or Lenovo did not hire someone from Nebraska who speaks English like you and who can therefore get with the program quickly. And then, to boot, you’re disconnected.  This is the dilemma facing Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren).  It’s not that this police officer in Denmark needs a techie.  In fact things are even more hairy.  He is a desk cop assigned to emergency help, a demotion because he is himself on trial for overstepping police boundaries.  He is on the phone almost all the time, just like you with your computer repair person.  He brings his demons to the phone calls and this time in an effort to redeem himself after what he did, he oversteps boundaries once again.  Now, however, he is doing the right thing and might even get enough of a commendation to receive a mere slap on the wrist for his other alleged crime.

“The Guilty” is Denmark’s candidate for the Oscar for films opening in 2018, an unusual choice since the story is a one-man show with others thrown in, either the guy’s partners in the police precinct or voices on the phone.  In a story that obeys the three classical unities—time, space, plot all within 24 hours—Asger is so wrapped up in the panic of one caller that he voluntarily stays overtime to make sure the case is resolved.  After laughing off a caller who complains that a woman had mugged him of his cash and credit cards, Asger realizes that the fellow is in a red light district, clearly shown on the computer that the police use for immediate tracking.  He also finds little use to continue talking to someone who fell off his bike, scrapes his knee, and asks for an ambulance.  Then, everything happens.

Asger speaks with a tearful, frightened woman, Iben (Jessica Dinnage) who claims to have been kidnapped by her ex.  He is connected with the alleged kidnapper Michael (Johan Olsen), with a girl aged 6 years 9 months, Mathilde (Katinka Evers-Jahnsen) and others.  He tries to piece together the elements, horrified to find out that a baby has been killed, cut open by Michael before the kidnapping.  You may wonder why Michael would allow Iben to keep her cell phone while she is in the trunk of the kidnapper’s car, but all will become clear by the conclusion.

This is a nail-biter, unusual in that all the action takes place inside a police station with the principal character in every frame—not almost every frame, but every one, his emotions carefully filmed by Jasper Spanning under Gustav Möller’s direction, who shares the writing honors with Emil Nygaard Albertsen.  Möller, who previously contributed TV episodes to another police drama “Follow the Money” a.k.a. “Bedrag,” this time hopes that for his freshman full-length entry he can get a movie audience that does not require their thrillers to involve visceral action but rather for people who can appreciate good writing and authentic acting.  “The Guilty” could easily fit into the format of a one-man theatrical show or even a radio drama such as the kind that riveted the generation of the 1940s such as “The Shadow,” “The FBI in Peace and War,” and “The Green Hornet.”

87 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B-
Overall – B

BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS – movie review

BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS

A24 & Directv
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Per Fly
Screenwriter:  Per Fly, Daniel Pyne
Cast:  Theo James, Ben Kingsley, Jacqueline Bisset, Belçim Bilgin, Rossif Sutherland, Rachel Wilson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/14/18
Opens: April 27, 2018

In 1958 Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, was forced to resign.  He accepted a vicuña coat and an oriental rug from a textile manufacturer doing business with the federal government.  In 1923 President Warren Harding’s secretary of the interior Bernard Fall leased oil petroleum reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to a private company without competitive bidding.  He received a bribe in return and was went to prison.  These are two of the major examples of thievery in government that high school students had at one time been expected to know.

As America got bigger and voters got more deplorable, incidents like these skyrocketed, as anyone except high school students, who do not follow the news, are aware.  Even the U.N. is involved, in one particular case feeding off the billions in money that the Security Council granted to the so-called Oil-for-Food program in Iraq after the defeat of Saddam’s forces in Kuwait.

Danish director Per Fly’s film is a compromise between a search for real truths about the U.N. program and his need to make a thriller out of the scandal, as a documentary without the chills might be too turgid for any but a wonkish audience.  It does pay to know something of the program because the film is not entirely clear about how it worked.

Oil-for-Food began in 1996 to allow Iraq to sell enough oil to pay for food for its population, now suffering because of sanctions imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf War.   At least 65% of the money did indeed go to the hungry, but that 35% balance can hardly be ascribed to administrative fees.  Saddam himself profited, pocketing $1.7 billion through kickbacks and inflated invoices, and another $10.9 billion through illegal oil smuggling.  Half of the participating companies gave away kickbacks in return for lucrative contracts.

The film, though fictionalized, serves the cause of emotional truths, centering on a 24-year-old, Michael Sullivan (Theo James).  His father was a diplomat, which led him to seek a career in the foreign service.  Michael tells Pasha (Ben Kingsley), who interviewed him for the job of his assistant, that he wants to help people.  He did help people, but he also helped himself, by giving a false report to the U.N. Security Council, acknowledging that the program was working well, and winning a new grant for 180 days.  This the kind of ambiguity that Per Fly seeks: most of the principals are not good guys or bad guys.  They’re like many of us: they have a good side and a bad side.  Even Pasha, aware of the corruption and an agent for implementing it, tells Michael “…never to lie.  But to choose our facts…with the utmost care.”  He also rationalizes to Michael: “What you call corruption is the growing pains of a new democracy.”

Pasha, who is ethnically a Cypriot, is fond of saying “Fack!” whenever things get hot.  And Christine Du Pre (Jacqueline Bisset), an officer of the program who comes to no good end, seems the only one around who is totally incensed by the corruption.  At the same time regional politics makes its mark as Nashim (Belçim Bilgin), who survived Saddam’s deadly campaigned against the Kurds of Northern Iraq (whose movement for independence and a Kurdistan which would include her people from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria), becomes romantically involved with Michael. Some director and co-writer Per Fly sees the need for one sex scene, however unlikely or unnecessary.

Easily the most important relationship, one that plays up the ambiguity that makes “Backstabbing for Beginners” come across as authentic, is between Michael and Pasha, neither being entirely evil or in any way saintly.  This is a quality work that digs into the emotional truths of a U.N. program, one that could stand in for many such regimens, pointing out that when almost everybody is digging into the corrupt trough, there’s nobody left to blow the whistle—not that any such angelic folks would be able to survive to die in bed.

The Danish name of the mostly English-language film is “Dobbeltspil” which means “Double Game.”  The Middle East scenes were shot in Jordan and Morocco.

Rated R.  108 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

THE COMMUNE – movie review

THE COMMUNE (Kollektivet)

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B+
Director:  Thomas Vinterberg
Written by: Thomas Vinterberg, Tobias Lindholm
Cast: Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen, Julie Agnete Vang, Fares Fares
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 5/2/17
Opens: May 19, 2017
click for larger (if applicable)
You don’t have to look around much to notice that human beings are social animals.  Take for example the groups of young people who have friends about their own age.  On Sundays, they play touch football in the park or watch the game on TV.  The question: why do people like these, especially the youthful and flexible, not want to live together communally?  You’ll note that in almost every type of friendship, the groups go to their separate homes living perhaps with a nuclear family under separate roofs from all others.  There must be a reason that people who like each other still choose to separate at the end of the day, and the reason is that, social though we may be, we don’t like the idea of living with groups of ten, twenty, fifty people.  In the Western world in particular, communes are about as successful as experiments in Communism have been.  Generally they break up when members are tired of large group living or when violent disagreements break out over leader of supposedly equals.

The commune movement had its big chance in America and in other parts of the West during the late sixties, early seventies “hippie” revolution, a movement spurred on by the Vietnam War with the attendant breakdown of traditional authority.  Co-writer-director Thomas Vinterberg puts his two kroner into a look at the sorts of communal experiences going on in his native Denmark with 1975 used as the touchstone year.  Vinterberg, whose most celebrated film “The Celebration” deals with the near anarchy that befalls a large party given on a man’s sixtieth birthday, will lead an audience for “The Commune” to expect light and airy comedy deteriorating into chaos and disillusion.  The moviegoer will be right on target.

“The Commune” is a devastating look at the breakdown of solidarity among a motley group of probably left-leaning Danes who were either bored of living with just their partners and children, listening to the same jokes and stories over and over, eager to relieve the psychological pressure they feel in a claustrophobic environment.  The motivation to do something to restore excitement in their lives is fine.  It’s just that Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm ultimately believe that traditional marriage and conventional living arrangements are full of dilemmas but are still the best way we know to survive and prosper.

“The Commune,” “Kollektivet” in the original Danish (there are English subtitles) focuses principally on Erik (Ulrich Thomsen), who has inherited a huge house from his father and is told it can be sold for a million dollars (and that’s in 1975).  His wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm) convinces him to leave the house in the family but to fill it up with others, charging them rent, an understandable suggestion considering that others in the West are experimenting with group living. Erik, who teaches architecture in a university while Anna delivers the news on TV is seduced on campus from the stunning 24-year-old Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), who looks so much like Anna that we can assume Erik is seeing a version of his wife at the time they met.  Perhaps trying to be as hip as the other communitarians who may not look unfavorably on sharing of women, she not only consents to continue living with Erik but accepts Emma with a smile into the commune.

Anyone who believes that Anna is honest with her emotions is either naïve or hopelessly utopian, as the unusual living arrangements are set to destroy the commune.  All appears to be seen from the point of view of Erik and Anna’s 14-year-old daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen), who spends some of the story smiling but most of it dejected.  A six-year-old child of two of the communitarians introduces himself by telling everyone that he has a heart condition and will live only until the age of nine, which appears to serve metaphorically for the demise of the commune.

“The Commune” is filmed on location in Hellerup and Sjælland in Denmark, an effective antidote to viewing societies through rose-colored glasses.

Unrated.  111 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics OnliComments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?