Grapeshot Film Review Round-Up: War, Scandinavian Drama, Queer Art & Chris Evans

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They’re here, they’re square-eyed, and they use words like ‘multi-faceted’, ‘self aware’, ‘palpable’ and ‘nuanced’.

Get your weekend view sorted with five new films – including three picks from the Scandinavian Film Festival – reviewed by Macquarie’s most eloquent and dedicated film fanatics!

Mesteren

Words || Georgia Drinan

I don’t know why I love European film so much. Maybe it’s the fact that, unlike the Hollywood feed that we’re accustomed to, there is an emphasis on the genuine rather than the glamorous; actors don’t wear much make up so their micro reactions are visible, and we see the subtlety to their emotion on their faces. Or maybe it’s the fact that they’re okay with showing female nipples and don’t get weird about sex scenes. Maybe it’s the quiet sense of superiority you get while watching something with subtitles. Either way, this Charlotte Sieling’s Mesteren (Marketed in English as The Man) was a delightfully evocative experience.

Mesteren followed the story of Simon Brahe, brought to life with a captivating performance by Søren Malling. Simon is the king of the Danish arts scene – he is revered, with a team of people to help him create, and a carefully cultivated image as an eccentric creative. His estranged son, Casper (Jakob Oftebro) joins him on the scene and reveals that he is the world famous street-artist, ‘The Ghost.’ Their intergenerational conflict becomes the central point of contention throughout the film, but it is more than that; it’s the tension between art for the elite and art that is accessible, and the tension of an emotionally immature man struggling to see past his ego to connect with his son; who may just be the only human being who has a chance of approaching him.

Mesteren gave a fascinating glimpse into the world of fine arts; it was entrancing to see an environment where the arts is revered, particularly when watching this film as a lifelong Sydneysider, where the arts is given a grudging tolerance for a two-week light festival and the idea of arts funding is contemptible. The opening scene gave an intensely personal insight into Simon’s world, a glamorous premiere, with his beautiful wife on one arm and his young mistress catching his eye from the other side of the room. The scene cuts sharply to the art scene that artists like Casper are revered in – we see him painting his art on the side of the building in the dead of night, suspended from the roof, on edge for the arrival of the police. They are worlds apart, not only in terms of their audience, but also their personal relationship to their art. Simon is every inch the artist; everything he does is in relation to his constructed personality as the artist, with the exception of a few poignant moments of clarity. Casper is also world famous, but anonymous; his art takes precedence over himself.

The movie is multi-faceted without being over-crowded. The character of Darling (Ane Dahl Torp), who play’s Simon’s wife and the driving force behind his artistic production, brings a beautiful groundedness to this story of two competing men. Darling is a wonderful representation for the way women are excluded and commodified within elite spheres. She has a tremendous amount of agency within the film, and Ane Dahl Torp brings a palpable emotional realism to everything she does.

In true Charlotte Sieling style, the pacing of this movie is spot-on. Sieling is master of the slow burn; her films focus with characteristic sharpness on people as the interpersonal dynamics come together in their own time, leading you with almost agonising curiosity until the final resolution. Her characters are entrancing, compelling, and incredibly real. The cinematography also deserves something of a special mention. The lighting was stunning and perfectly executed, and the soundtrack was incredibly appropriate.

Mesteren is a masterpiece of a film, delicately wrought and powerfully executed to create a perfect snapshot of human emotion. I would recommend watching it as soon as possible, and cherishing the experience.

Tom of Finland

Words || Cameron Colwell

Tom of Finland starts off messy, frenetically paced, and steeped in a self-seriousness that gets in the way of much understanding of its main character, Touko Laaksonen, also known as iconic gay artist Tom of Finland. That said, once it gets past the near-kaleidoscopic PTSD flashbacks that seem to be a cliche in any movie featuring a soldier as protagonist, it finds its sense of fun, and becomes one of the best films in the ‘queer historical figure biopic’ subgenre, defying its cliches (The tendency to mythologise characters into poster people for a particular political cause, for instance) while embracing some of its better qualities, like the way that it expertly shows how the personal and the political intermingle within its time frame: The evolving realities of being a gay man during the middle of the 20th century are conveyed with a wide emotional atmosphere that strikes the perfect balance between warmly sentimental and historiographical.

Key to the film’s success is Pekka Strang’s performance of the titular character. Inhibited by trauma, hungry for intimacy, and constantly searching for inspiration for the homoerotic art that makes him famous, Touko is a quiet introvert, both deeply embedded in the underground queer culture, and outside of it, looking for the next man who he’ll turn into a drawing. Other figures are unfortunately more thinly portrayed: When the AIDS crisis hits, there’s only a moderate amount of grief for those who fall victim, because the script doesn’t allow for much exploration of the characters Tom meets in his travels. While police violence and incarceration of queers are both prominent themes, it disappointedly sidesteps the thorny questions of why it is Tom of Finland loved to draw police and other anti-queer elements in an erotic manner. Still, this is a memorable and important film, and one that should be remembered.

The King’s Choice

Words || Andre Brimo

It is rare to see a war movie with as much self-awareness, sensitivity, and complexity as The King’s Choice. Thoughtfully and earnestly directed by Erik Poppe, it tells the story of three pivotal days in Norway’s history during the Second World War, in which the Government and Monarchy respond to the German invasion. What follows is not only a faithful, if streamlined, retelling of these events, but a tapestry of humanity where every character is depicted as a complex, vulnerable human being trying their best under the weight of history and brutality.

This is sold by the blaring, mechanistic horns and terse piano of Johan Söderqvist’s soundtrack. Editor Einar Egeland excels at creating tension and momentum in individual scenes, and giving the calmer moments room to breathe, but falters when it comes to the broader arc of the film, making the second act feel like a collection of vignettes. Despite that pitfall, the film shines technically, with simple, smart cinematography, naturalistic colouring, seamless effects and meticulous costume work. Authenticity is present in every detail of production, with many scenes being shot in the real palace itself.

Most authentic of all are the skilful, nuanced performances. Karl Markovics shows us Curt Bräuer as not just a Nazi diplomat, but a man burdened by an almost impossible task and his own conflicting ideals. His wife Anneliese (Katharina Schüttler) delivers harsh clarity with both words and silence, subordinate but never powerless. Jesper Christensen deftly communicates every facet of the tested King with warmth, paternalism, vulnerability and quiet dignity. His softness does not hide or undermine his unshakeable resolve, but instead throws it into sharp relief. His son Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) is a passionate, rash foil to his careful father, with whom he nonetheless shares moral strength. Like the King, this movie is fully aware of the risks and complexities of the position it takes, but takes it anyway: although resistance may invite harm and loss, to submit to tyranny is to lose everything we wish to defend from it.

First Girl I Loved

Words || Cameron Colwell

There’s this particular difficulty that comes when you’re queer and you’re writing or writing about queer stuff. It’s like you can feel the weight of having to adding to a tradition from very little while also dealing with exploring the heaviness that often comes up from growing up queer. There’s also the weight of expectation: the lack of consensus on what a ‘queer film’ should be or even if it’s a coherent category means everyone has different expectations in the way that, for instance, people who go out of their way to see every major superhero films don’t. There’s also, also, the practical realities which make getting queer fiction into accessible spaces a challenge: Producers often won’t put money into anything queer because they’re about what’s seen as a societal niche based on the weird self-fulfilling prophecy cishets won’t watch stuff about queers, mainstream cinemas often don’t have the confidence to show small-budget indie movies, and when they do show, criticism never fully knows how to strike the balance between focusing purely on the queer stuff and using unfortunate platitudes like ‘just so happens to be gay.’

First Girl I Loved is aware of these issues, and grapples them clumsily to start with by leaning on the varying shades of irony and then pivots into forced sincerity generally found in teen films of the late days of last decade and the start of this one: A touch of Juno, a sprinkling of Easy A. To begin with, the film seems flatly conventional: Nerdy, uncertain Anne (Dylan Gelula) has a crush on the buoyant softball star of the school, Sasha, (Brianna Hildebrand) and clashes with her longtime best friend Cliff. (Mateo Arias) The only things that don’t seem typical are Sasha’s gender and the clunky fast-paced style of direction. However, this settles into a woozy, hyper-lit dreamlike feel that positions the audience firmly in the hypersensitive heat of adolescent melodrama, the characters start feeling more alive. The romantic intimacy between Anne and Sasha and the risk that’s always crackling between them feels far more intense than most romance films, and their interactions finally seem to become organic.  Cliff, an unexpectantly layered character, shifts from the archetype of unlucky childhood friend into a putrid mess of masculinity, too-late regret, and entitlement for a betrayal the audience discovers partway throughout the film.

It’s authentic, because we’re never free from the grip of the enlarged emotions of high school drama in the ninety-minute blur First Girl I Loved is. It’s a great representation of the fear and thrills of early queer love, also touching on issues of consent, internalised homophobia, and self-realisation with a nuance and compassion rarely seen in teen films. By the end of it, I was feeling scorched, and very tempted to watch it again right away.

Gifted

Words || Alexander Basto

Frank Adler (Chris Evans), a former college professor turned boat mechanic, lives in a sleepy Florida town with his niece 7-year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace). Mary is an intellectually gifted child prodigy in mathematics; the kind of genius that only appears once in a generation. Frank and Mary’s quiet life is upended when Frank’s estranged mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) learns of Mary’s mathematical prowess and arrives to take her away so that she can fulfil her potential of becoming one of the smartest people on the planet.

Mary becomes the centre of a custody battle between her uncle and grandmother. But more than that, Mary’s extraordinary and unusual predicament begs the question: can a child like Mary experience a normal childhood and become the next Einstein? Or do you have to sacrifice one to get the other?

Chris Evans plays the role of Frank; the semi-reluctant, good-hearted guardian of a little girl who was put into his care through unfortunate circumstances. Evans plays his part with conviction and sufficient emotional depth, even if at times he borders on overly brooding. It’s great to see him in a role that isn’t Captain America because he clearly has the ability to act in these more dramatic roles.

But the real star of the movie is the Mckenna Grace as Mary; the gap-toothed, wide-eyed and ridiculously cute girl genius. It was important that Mary didn’t feel fake or scripted and Grace makes you believe that Mary really is the Einstein of her generation or that she could very well solve one of the six Millennium Problems.

At only 11 years old, Mckenna Grace’s performance reminded me very much of other talented child actresses from a decade ago – Abigail Breslin and Dakota Fanning. She is the heart and soul of Gifted. She may be small in stature, but her bubbling personality seeps through the entire film every time she’s on screen. You can’t help but adore her and want the best for Mary.

The chemistry that Grace shares with Evans is by far and away the strongest element of the movie. Frank talks to Mary like an adult and Mary matches him. The dialogue back and forth between these two is what I really fell in love with. At its best, Gifted focuses on character interaction. They could just be having a conversation about sand pipers, or God, or the meaning of ad nauseum and I would be totally engaged.

The film gets bogged down by the mandatory predictable legal battle that we’ve all seen before and suffers when it chooses to move away from Frank and Mary. Also, you should expect the typical heart tugging, tear-inducing moments that is synonymous with this type of movie. Yeah, it’s a little melodramatic towards the end, but only a little.

I feel that a movie such as Gifted has become more of a rarity nowadays. It’s not an Oscar-worthy film, nor is it trying to be, but it’s not a summer blockbuster franchise movie either. Gifted is just a movie that that knows exactly what it is – a heartfelt, sometimes melodramatic, family drama. It’s a breath of fresh air and a film that I found to be surprisingly enjoyable.