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T2 Trainspotting

March 24, 2017
T2 Trainspotting

“Choose Life”, the ironic sneer of a slogan blared from the poster on the wall of every other guy’s room when I entered college in the fall of 1997. A defiant rebel yell from a generation too young to even realize what it was rejecting. It’s natural enough, I suppose; kids don’t know enough to know they don’t know anything yet. But, twenty years later, we have to wonder whether Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Franco know anything more now than they did then. And, if not, can we offer them the same sympathy as we did for a bunch of dumb junkie kids.

And so we have T2 Trainspotting, and no, the peculiar format of the title is never quite explained. But it’s the least of the stylistic flourishes with which Danny Boyle embellishes this sequel. The gang are all back — the ones who survived the first movie, anyway — but it’s hard to see whether they ever really moved on.

Franco (Robert Carlyle) was literally in prison until he arranges his escape when denied parole. Spud (Ewen Bremner) may as well have been, never quite getting free of heroin despite his best efforts. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) has moved on to cocaine, supporting himself with blackmail schemes — abetted by his Bulgarian prostitute girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) — and the husk of his aunt’s pub, a boat as yet unlifted by Leith’s rising tide of gentrification. Renton (Ewan McGregor) was the closest to getting out, but after his wife leaves him and he collapses on an oh-so-symbolic treadmill he returns to Edinburgh to take stock of what has become of his life.

On a run up Arthur’s Seat, Renton tells Spud that he’s an addict; they both are. The reason Spud failed is that he tried to replace addiction with non-addiction, which Renton says is futile. The only real answer, in his mind, is to choose what you’re addicted to, and running is a more sustainable choice than heroin. In its way, the sentiment echoes the oft-quote line of Wallace’s (David Foster, not William) that everybody worships something.

But what Renton misses is that it’s not just about finding an addiction that doesn’t cost so much, and doesn’t put you on the wrong side of the law, and doesn’t have you rubbing elbows with people who’d as much spit on as look at you, and all the other downsides of drug addiction. Running is better than heroin for plenty of reasons, and might even play a valuable role in someone’s recovery, but it’s not a magic bullet. What’s missing is the really important factor: meaning.

And when he updates the “Choose Life” rant to explain it to Veronika, it’s clear that running isn’t the only disappointment in Renton’s life. From social media to MRAs to the hollowed-out middle-class labor market, he describes a landscape of frustration that rings familiar from any number of high-minded journalists’ pleas to sympathize with the poor, forgotten residents of what we’re now calling “Trump Country”. His sneer of post-teenage self-unaware self-destruction in the ’90s has become a snarl of Tyler Durden-esque rage at being denied the outcome he believed was rightfully his.

Twenty years on we can look back and laugh at the naïveté of refusing career, family, and a starter home with fixed-interest mortgage payments. Game shows are no less mental junk food than reality TV, but there’s nothing truly wrong with either one in moderation. The bill of goods we’ve all been sold is all empty calories, devoid of the meaning that truly sustains life. But Renton, like the voters we’re asked to sympathize with, sees no recourse but regression into old bad habits, leading to a truly epidemic wave of opioid addiction.

And if T2 Trainspotting actually engaged with this hard truth, it might be a truly great movie. But it doesn’t. Renton’s quest is no search for meaning, but another old jape with his old friends. More antics with Sick Boy; more antagonism with Franco; more car-dodging chases that call back to the scenes we remember from before, running over the same old ground.

All the reveries tying back to childhood memories and all the metafictional winks can’t actually offer meaning to an audience that doesn’t know where to fill in their own gaps already. There’s nothing here but a black-humored lark, the same as the last time around, but with even less substance to it this time around. And it’s fine to enjoy it for that; it’s flashy and cool and has a great soundtrack and a pattern of highs and lows cooked up in some lab to maximize audience engagement.

So choose T2 Trainspotting, and be sure to tag it with the marketing accounts the studio has set up on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, hoping that someone cares. Choose watching the story repeat itself. Choose to smother your workaday cares for two hours with a charming bit of escapist fantasy. Just make sure it’s not all you choose.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Raw

March 24, 2017
Raw

It feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve had a horror film as brutal, as unflinching, and, well, as raw as Raw. The feature debut of Fémis grad Julia Ducournau shows a confident, capable hand as the director guides us down her lead’s path into madness. But while it’s a must-see for fans of cinematic gore, there’s frustratingly little to be learned from the journey, once the obvious metaphor is out of the way.

Justine (Garance Marillier) arrives at her veterinary college as a lifelong vegetarian, obediently following her mother’s wishes. Her parents are alumni of the same school, even meeting in their first year as students. And her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is also a student, despite her brash, independent streak.

At first, veterinary medicine seems a natural fit for an animal-loving vegetarian like Justine, but it gets complicated from there. As with med students, vets in training must inure themselves to the messy realities of their job. And at this school, isolated in the middle of the countryside, that starts with a week of hazing. This covers the usual ritual humiliations — deference to “elders”, enforced costumes, heavy drinking — but also includes stunts like a class photo taken after drenching the new students in blood.

Justine has always been the star pupil. An introverted and nerdy teacher’s pet, she has little enough patience for these ordeals, but she particularly objects to eating a raw rabbit kidney. Alexia demands that she eat it anyway, dietary restrictions be damned, and all but mashes Justine’s jaws up and down by hand. Justine’s misgivings seem to be validated when she breaks out in a terrible rash, but that’s only the beginning.

She begins to feel a hunger, and a desire for meat. First it’s a beef patty she tries sneaking out of the cafeteria. Then her gay suitemate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), helps her get a shawarma from a truck stop down the highway from the school. Then it’s an early-morning raid of their refrigerator, which finds her on her knees, rapturously devouring a raw chicken breast. Soon enough she finds what it is she truly craves: human flesh.

It’s no coincidence that Justine also arrives at school a virgin. A common justification for policing young women’s sexuality is that otherwise their lust will become an uncontrollable force. Women who enjoyed sex were, and still colloquially are, stigmatized as “nymphomaniacs” whose desire constitutes mental illness. In Justine, Ducournau shows this old male fear of the powerful, uncontrolled female libido.

But she’s not only out of male control, but out of her own control as well. This isn’t Jennifer’s Body or Teeth, where the avatar of female lust serves as a vessel of righteous, if maybe excessive, vengeance. In highlighting the fear of feminine appetite, Raw seems to justify that same fear.

To some extent, this is the result of another choice on Ducournau’s part. Like any power, Justine’s bloodlust needs to be controlled and used responsibly. And as it becomes clear that Alexia knows more about what Justine is experiencing than she lets on, it becomes just as clear that she abdicates her duty to act as her sister’s mentor. And so the film comments on how women are complicit in women’s strife, valuing the security of their place in the patriarchy — the upperclass hazing leaders are almost universally men — above solidarity with each other.

But to do this it has to abandon all but the most superficial communication between the two young women. In general, Marillier and Rumpf give an excellent picture of the often fraught relationship between two sisters, especially one where the mother seems to have a clear favorite. And yet, even during their moments of detente, Justine never asks about the subject which has come to dominate her life, and about which Alexia clearly has some insight.

That omission carries over into other conveniences in the plot, like the quasi-adversarial relationship between Alexia and Adrien, or Adrien’s sudden willingness to help meet Justine’s sexual needs. As the taboo between the sisters advances a desired theme, each for these developments is necessary to get the plot to end up where Ducournau wants it, but they feel haphazardly motivated on their own terms.

Still, despite the undercooked allegory, Raw offers plenty of visceral thrills for genre fans. From the get-go, a veterinary school is a creepy setting, and even the normal students have sense of humor that would land somewhere between dark and depraved among the rest of society. And seeing animals — alive and dead — in this context can be deeply unsettling. Ducournau uses this to great effect in ratcheting up the near-hallucinatory dysphoria over the course of the film, and her use of gore effects is fantastic for this early in her career.

This is clearly a director who knows exactly how and when to shock and provoke her audience, and horror aficionados should absolutely check this one out. I have no doubt that she will hone her writing to provide more incisive commentary in her future efforts; even if Raw bites off more than she can chew, Julia Ducournau is one to watch.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Personal Shopper

March 17, 2017
Personal Shopper

Olivier Assayas seems to have found his latest muse in Kristen Stewart. After directing her to a César for Best Supporting Actress in Clouds of Sils Maria — the first for an American actress — he has cast her as the lead in his next film, the contemplatively arty ghost story, Personal Shopper.

Stewart again plays a personal assistant, this time a shopper for the glamorous and almost entirely absent Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Maureen is the one who schleps all over Paris, and even takes jaunts to London, picking out designer clothes and accessories from dresses to jewelry to handbags. In many cases, her employer will just wear the item once at some public event before returning it to the boutique. Or she’ll decide not to return it after all, leaving Maureen on the hook to deal with the fallout. And though Maureen has the keys to come and go from Kyra’s flat, and takes care of any number of other personal errands like updating her laptop’s operating system, she is expressly forbidden from trying on any of Kyra’s clothes herself.

Maureen is also dealing with the recent death of her twin brother, Lewis, who succumbed to a certain malformation of the heart that she shares. Lewis was an artist who considered himself a medium. Maureen has felt something, but isn’t as sure that it’s supernatural. But they made promises that if either one of them died, they’d try to send a message back to the other.

So Lewis’ girlfriend, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), lets Maureen spend a few nights in their emptied old house before the new owners move in. And she does experience something strange, but what is it? Things only get creepier when she starts receiving texts from an unknown number, sent by someone who seems to know where she is and what she’s doing.

As in Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas takes a slow, elliptical pace in Personal Shopper, calmly observing the surface while letting us fill in Maureen’s inner turmoil. She wrestles with some big questions of personal identity and interpersonal relations. As a twin, she is a sort of copy of someone else. As a personal shopper, she acts on behalf of someone else. She has no strong relationships; she worries her heart doesn’t work right. She is, in a way, herself a ghost, floating immaterially through someone else’s life. And her confusion leaves her vulnerable.

It’s certainly not the kind of movie that will appeal to all tastes, but it plays on Stewarts strengths as a naturalistic actor who can communicate her inward mental states to an audience as few others can. While never quite scary in a traditional horror or thriller sense, it does leave a chill that lingers well after its gone.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

The Sense of an Ending

March 17, 2017
The Sense of an Ending

There’s something that sounds familiar about The Sense of an Ending. The score was composed by Max Richter, whose “On the Nature of Daylight” has become the wistful leitmotif for early 21st century movies that Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was for the late 20th century. It’s practically the main theme of HBO’s The Leftovers, and more recently it bookended last year’s Arrival.

Arrival was based on a short story by acclaimed science fiction author Ted Chiang. By a marvelous coincidence, another of his stories — “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” — offers a far more nuanced and thoughtful exploration of the central point of Julian Barnes’ novel than we see in Nick Payne and Ritesh Batra’s adaptation.

That point being that our lives are often less true than we suppose, and consist in large part of fictions that we make up to explain our feelings, rather than facts that justify them. Our self-image is composed less of the actions we take than of the stories we tell, not to crib too much from Sarah Polley, and those stories are often self-serving.

That’s certainly the case for Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), a divorcé who can’t quite understand why exactly his ex-wife (Harriet Walter) left him, or why his daughter (Michelle Dockery) is surprised he’d fill in as her Lamaze partner when her mother is injured and can’t make it. He just putters around his home and his camera shop, with barely enough interest to greet the mail carrier delivering his parcels or the curious browsers who might be converted into sales with a little effort.

Until, that is, he feels he is owed something. He receives a letter from a woman he once knew, evidently as part of her will. She refers to “the enclosed”, with nothing else in the envelope. Her executor states that it was meant to be the diary of an old schoolmate of his, but her daughter, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), has refused to turn it over. This puts him in dogged pursuit of what he demands is rightfully his, even if he had never thought about it until this moment. And while he chases her down, he reminisces to his ex, whether she’s interested or not.

The flashbacks feature a young Tony (Billy Howle) meeting his high-school chum — and, evidently, diarist — Adrian (Joe Alwyn), and Veronica (Freya Mavor), his first serious girlfriend. We see Tony meeting Veronica’s mother, Sarah (Emily Mortimer), but just how his girlfriend’s mother got hold of his other friend’s diary remains maddeningly vague for the longest time.

Of course, this is only really a mystery to us, and to Tony’s ex-wife to the extent she functions as an audience surrogate. Tony knows full well how Adrian’s diary got to Sarah; he just won’t tell us because as long as he keeps stringing his audience along with his story, he has a cheap sense of power over them. It’s the mystery box all over again, repackaged for the senior crowd. But, as cheap a hook as it is, I must admit that it’s the reason this movie works at all. Without the frustration of wanting to know what happened, I’d have been completely bored.

Broadbent puts in a fine performance, though possibly coming off a bit too sympathetic. Rampling is strong, what little we see of her, and similar can be said of the rest of the cast. This is decidedly Broadbent’s film, as much as the poster crowds his face out, Tony crowds everyone else out of his own story until he can’t help but acknowledge his shortcomings. And while there’s some satisfaction in seeing a self-important old guy get put in his place, there’s little more to it than that.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Beauty and the Beast

March 17, 2017
Beauty and the Beast

When Disney did their live-action version of Cinderella, I was disappointed that they didn’t do anything nearly so interesting with the story as they had with Maleficent. But in remaking their animated adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, they’ve barely even done anything new. With rare exceptions, this feels like a shot-for-shot live-action remake of the animated original, and I can’t see a single thing to recommend this version over that one.

I won’t bother with a recap; the general story is familiar enough, and most of the time it sticks to Linda Woolverton’s script from the animated version. In fact, it’s hard to believe that the movie has somehow grown from the original’s sleek 84 minute runtime to a bloated 129. Where did this extra half a movie come from? There are a handful of new scenes and songs, but much of it seems to come from overstuffing the existing sequences. Is that really enough to justify full writer credits for both Perks of Being a Wallflower‘s Stephen Chbosky and The Huntsman: Winter’s War‘s Evan Spiliotopoulos?

What do the new scenes add to the movie? Mostly, a little more on the back-story of the Beast (Dan Stevens), and Belle’s father (Kevin Kline), and even a bit more of Gaston (Luke Evans). Nothing, really, about Belle herself (Emma Watson), who remains as much of a non-character in her own story as ever, only there to justify the Beast’s redemption. Filling in more details about the men around her only heightens the fact that she’s so thinly drawn.

But with Disney throwing so much money into this thing, you’d at least hope it would look nice. Unfortunately, most of it is washed-out and dingy enough that it could fit in with Zack Snyder’s DC comics movies. I know that director Bill Condon chose to go this way to reflect the cursed world, and so he can lighten things in the few happier moments like the ballroom scene and the finale, but it means that the rest of the time we’re struggling to see through a muddy, underlit haze.

And this only gets worse when you add 3D into the mix. Not only does it further darken the image, it adds even more visual confusion. Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler — Peter Berg’s go-to guy for Patriots Day, Lone Survivor, and Battleship — routinely makes the classic mistake of mixing focus cues and stereography cues to indicate depth, leaving the eye confused and disoriented, especially when the camera moves faster than the post-production stereography can keep up with. The result is an even more jumbled mess; if it must be seen, see it in 2D.

To be fair, the animated version also pulled the same trick of using a darker color palette to make the brighter scenes pop out more. But the animators have much more flexibility to make the images comprehensible, especially when it comes to the staff-turned-housewares. The more “realistic” version of the Lumière (Ewan McGregor), for instance, has a face so tiny I couldn’t even pick it out for half the movie. The feather-duster maid Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) at least is carved into the shape of a dove, but if it’s animated to speak in any real way I couldn’t tell. Mrs. Potts and Chip (Emma Thompson and Nathan Mack) are almost cheating in having their faces painted directly on the porcelain, while Mme. de Garderobe and Cadenza (Audra McDonald and Stanley Tucci) are nearly incomprehensible to the extend they’re meant to be anthropomorphized furniture. Which leaves Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) the clock as the only one of these characters with an easily recognizable face, and even that can be a struggle. It would have been simpler and cheaper to just move the objects around by wires a la Bedknobs and Broomsticks and not bother animating them at all, for all the effect that actually makes it to the screen.

But wait: it may look terrible, but it also doesn’t sound great. None of the singing is flat-out bad, at least, but the sound mix when more than one person sings at a time — let alone the whole chorus — is nearly as muddy as the image. McDonald may be the standout talent, but her operatic soprano is jarring next to the straight-up Broadway style of the rest of Alan Menken’s score. McGregor is adequate, but sadly he’s no Jerry Orbach, and his attempt at a French accent is faintly ridiculous. The real let-down is Thompson, who can sing and can do a fair cockney — though it seems an odd choice for Mrs. Potts — but can’t really make both at once sound very good. And since she’s the one delivering the central “Beauty and the Beast” song, the ballroom scene loses the warm, smooth, mellifluous grandeur that Angela Lansbury gave it.

On the brighter side, Josh Gad is practically born to play Gaston’s sidekick, LeFou, and to play up the gay vibe that has always been recognized as part of the character. And Stevens delivers a soaring solo in the new song “Evermore”, which is the producers’ clear hope for a Best Original Song nomination.

Despite a few bright points, overall this is a mess. It was probably too much to hope that they’d try to address the whole toxic “if I love him enough he’ll stop getting angry and let me out of the house” angle, but they’ve done absolutely nothing new or interesting with the story at all. Smugly satisfied that they got it perfect the first time, Disney would rather set $160 million on fire as an sacrificial offering to their previous efforts.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: close, but barely passes.

Kong: Skull Island

March 10, 2017
Kong: Skull Island

With the DC comics analogue of the Marvel Cinematic Universe turning out one steaming pile after another, Warner Brothers has been turning to another interconnected movie series to pick up the slack: giant monsters. And so we get Kong: Skull Island as the second entry, following in the oversized footprints of 2014’s Godzilla, with a generous dose of Apocalypse Now in the mix.

Like Godzilla, this film turns an indie director loose on a moody script — Max Borenstein returns as scribe, this time accompanied by Dan Gilroy and Derek Connolly — although in fairness Gareth Edwards’ Monsters was a little more on-point for a giant nuclear dinosaur than Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings of Summer is for a giant ape. Both movies are infused with a bleak melancholic dread, which flirts with but avoids the worst excesses of the Dark-‘n’-Gritty aesthetic that drags the DC Extended Universe down into self-parody.

Kong does learn one lesson from the criticisms leveled at Godzilla: it doesn’t hide the leading monster. In a big change-up from the classic King Kong storyline, there’s not a long ominous build-up. We get a glimpse of Kong right out of the gate in a prologue flash, and he’s right back in action as soon as our explorers hit Skull Island.

Oh yes, the explorers. The all-but-nameless human characters here are almost an afterthought: the necessary connective tissue to get us involved with Kong and, eventually in some future installment, Kong involved with Godzilla. The same Monarch organization from the previous movie (here represented by Bill Randa, played by John Goodman, and his assistants, played by Corey Hawkins and Jing Tian) is piggybacking on a mission by the newly-formed Landsat (John Ortiz, Marc Evan Jackson, and a host of blue-shirted red-shirts) to investigate the newly-discovered island that was, until the advent of satellite imagery, hidden from the world by a permanent storm system. That last point, for what it’s worth, is a detail cribbed from the 1976 version of King Kong. They enlist a British ranger guide, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and a pacifist photojournalist, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), as well as military support from a helicopter squadron whose leader, Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), is eager for one last mission as they pull out of Vietnam.

I haven’t even named all of the recognizable cast, not to mention those who mostly exist to die on the island, so it’s clear that nobody is really getting a deep character study. They’re sketched out in broad strokes, with little more detail than “capable-but-jaded”, “awestruck by the wonderful world”, “man on a mission”, or “young and scared”, which sums up most of the soldiers other than Shea Whigham’s “infantry philosopher”. But was Carl Denham’s obsession with capturing Kong really any more thoroughly characterized Colonel Packard’s with killing him? This is a story that, at its best, has all the subtlety of a building-sized gorilla.

In fact, this version of the story deserves at least some praise for having the courage to excise some of the more regressive elements of the story. Mason may have no real story-level role to play here besides “the blonde”, but for once she’s not explicitly brought along as aspiring starlet eye-candy. Similarly, the Iwi natives are exoticized, but they’re not nearly the racist caricature that was a product of the 1933 film’s times and which remained out of some misguided sense of homage in both the 1976 and 2005 versions. Indeed, the comic relief falls on Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a long-lost World War II soldier who has found a sort of home among them for the last thirty years.

On the other hand, the movie also abandons some of the greater iconic resonance of Kong as a symbol of a certain terrible grandeur of untouched nature, which human society can only seem to interact with by hunting, enslaving, and killing it. In its place, we get the groundwork of the “MonsterVerse” and its recasting of Kong, Godzilla, and the rest of these creatures as neo-Lovecraftian Old Gods who are the true rulers of the Earth despite their long slumber, and to whom we are at best meddlesome pests. Kong has his true enemy in the Skull Crawlers — Marlow’s term — which Monarch would classify as another kind of MUTO like those Godzilla fought.

Which ties back into the other resonances with Apocalypse Now and its own source, Heart of Darkness, to which the names Conrad and Marlow both not-so-subtly allude. The central dynamic is inverted, with Marlow well-established in the local environment and Colonel Packard the newcomer. And while Packard’s bloodlust mirrors Kurtz’ cynically open embrace of the brutality underlying the superficial gentility of Western imperialism, we see it here as a cause of rather than a response to violence in the native environment.

Conrad and Coppola exposed the inherent violence of an imperialist foreign policy, but Vogt-Roberts suggests that the hubris of imperialism itself creates its own enemies, and subsequently its need for violence. Long before Westerners show up, Kong is involved in his own conflicts that have nothing to do with them, and he only becomes an enemy because they make him one. It’s a neat germ of an idea, though it gets swallowed up in the rest of the movie before it can really develop.

Because, as with Godzilla, this movie is ultimately about the monster fights. And they are spectacularly brutal. The cinematic and literary allusions are all well and good, but they seem to come from a different movie from the bone-crunching crashes that follow Kong swatting helicopters out of the sky like so many bugs. The ideas crop up here and there, only to be crushed underfoot as Kong wrestles everything from a calamari lunch to a hell-mawed lizard beast from the caverns beneath Skull Island.

These fights are really what most audiences are here for anyway, and does this movie ever deliver on its promises. If you go looking for giant ape-on-everything destruction, you’ll get more than your share. And maybe you’ll pick up an idea or a theme along the way, but it’s not strictly necessary.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Under Sandet

March 3, 2017
Under Sandet

Even more so than most Oscar contenders, nominees for Best Foreign Language Film tend to be harrowing dramas highlighting issues, usually to the progressive end of the political spectrum. But the best ones manage to add a sense of nuance or complication to the material. It’s easy to hate the perpetrators of the Holocaust, but last year’s Son of Saul confronted us with a man at once victim and assistant.

And so it is with this year’s Danish entry, Martin Zandvliet’s Under Sandet — “Under the Sand”, but subtitled in English as the darkly-punny Land of Mine. The young protagonists we are drawn to identify with are put in grave danger and horribly mistreated. They, like all people, deserve compassion. But they are Nazis, whatever else they are, and they’re cleaning up a Nazi mess.

Land mines are indeed a horrific danger outside of war, with minefields remaining active decades after the conflict ceases, often in areas that might otherwise invite residential use. Denmark itself only cleared the last of its mined beaches in 2012; they’d been considered to have an acceptably low risk of detonation, but not the zero-risk called for in 1997’s Ottawa Treaty. But Denmark didn’t make this mess. Back in World War II, occupying Nazi forces were convinced that any Allied invasion would come from England to the west Danish coast, and they sowed the beaches with literally millions of mines to inflict early casualties on invading forces.

After the war, the occupying British forces handed more than two thousand German prisoners of war over to the Danish authorities to use in the mine-clearing effort, in a clear violation of the Geneva Convention’s stipulation that work assignments for POWs be safe. Not that anyone was really paying much attention to this in the wake of the discoveries at German concentration camps. Zandvliet turns up the pathos by putting a dozen teenagers under the command of Danish Sgt. Rasmussen (Roland Møller). And indeed, by the end of the war Germany was conscripting battalions of the Hitler Youth into actual military service in a desperate attempt to fill out its ranks. Many of the soldiers captured on V-E Day were little more than children.

And yet, they were still Nazis. The most sympathetic fair-haired boy among them, Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), could be mistaken for Dylann Roof in a light fog rolling in off the North Sea. Helmut (Joel Basman), with his initially-defiant pride, embraces his identity as a soldier more readily, but they all fall somewhere on a spectrum, and all need some amount of re-education. Zandvleit puts heavier emphasis on their youth than on their history, which is probably necessary to get most audiences to sympathize with them, but it does leave it to us to remember that as scared and intimidated they may have been, “just following orders” doesn’t excuse participation in what Nazi Germany carried out during the war, and we don’t know exactly what these particular soldiers did or didn’t do before their capture, or what they would have done if left to their own devices.

Still, it’s true that captured enemy combatants should not be given unsafe assignments, but who else but German soldiers should clean up the mess that German soldiers made? Should the Danish people, with the yoke of occupation finally lifted, crawl through the sand twelve abreast, cautiously probing ahead with an iron bar? Should they dig out and defuse each mine they come to, hoping that their neighbors each have steady hands as they dig and defuse their own mines? Sure, the individual soldiers who buried the mines in the first place are probably long dead, and there aren’t nearly enough in the chain of command who ordered their placement to do the job. But someone has to do it and it certainly seems closer to justice for the German army to assume that risk as penance.

Zandvleit’s script again falls a little short in leaving us to ponder this question, and even to remember that it’s a question to be pondered. There’s a vigorous debate to be had after the credits roll, but it’s almost entirely absent from the film itself.

Instead, it focuses on the harrowing experience of the prisoners themselves. Underfed, underslept, and hated by everyone around them — especially their commander-slash-guard — it seems a matter of time until something terrible happens, again and again. Right from the beginning, as they get trained in their task, the tension underlies even the calmest moments. You know someone is going to screw up in the practice runs, and you even think you know when it’s going to come, but just when you think your suspicious were wrong, they turns out horribly right. Zandvliet sets the expectation early: you can never, ever breathe a sigh of relief.

Some of the events are telegraphed. The prisoners are housed in a barn near the beach, and the young war widow (Laura Bro) who now owns the farm has a little daughter (Zoe Zandvliet). The sergeant has a dog, Otto (Suri). Both of them, you can be certain, will be put into danger at some point, but you will never know exactly when it’s coming. Two of the Germans are twins Ernst and Werner Lessner (Emil and Oskar Belton), so you know one of them will be injured and the other will be horrified at the loss. Again, you know it’s coming, but you can never tell when.

In its way, that’s the real horror of a minefield in the first place. You have no idea where or when the blast will come, but it’s just when you let your guard down that you accidentally trigger it. Like a trauma victim never knowing what the next trigger will be, mines force you to a constant state of high alert, and burn you out even if they never go off. At least, for us watching the movie, the credits will eventually roll.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.