Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Stellan Skarsgård shines, scowling, in the Moland/Aakeson SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN

What a presence, choose from any movie in which he deigns to appear, has Stellan Skarsgård! This unusual actor -- he of the firmly under-stated performance and increasingly jowly visage (on poster, right, and in several shots below) -- has, to my knowledge, never given a bad performance, even in crappy movies like Angels and Demons or silly ones like Mamma Mia! (that explanation point is the film's). The fellow turns 60 this year and has 109 roles to his credit, but I doubt that he has ever been better than he is in A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN, the new Norwegian film cogently directed by Hans Petter Moland (shown below) and written -- very well indeed --
by Kim Fupz Aakeson.

By any standard, this is a good movie, but Skarsgård gooses it to near-greatness. You can't -- you don't want to -- take your eyes off him. For every moment he's onscreen (which is most of the movie), each tiny expression and bit of feeling he unearths is so right and meaningful that you would be marveling, were his work not so un-showy. As the movie proceeds, you realize he's good; after the fact, upon some reflection, you know he's great.

A Somewhat Gentle Man is what you might call a deadpan gangster comedy, and you'd be right -- except Skarsgård is so quietly alive that he lifts the film out of that overused, deadpan genre. In it, he plays Ulrik, a guy who, in the first scene, is being released from prison by a surprisingly kindly guard who clearly cares about Ulrik and wishes him well.

Back in the "free world," our hero almost immediately confronts the film's best running joke -- from which Moland and Aakeson get maximum mileage. The smoking ban has clearly come into effect since Ulrik went to prison, and his quest for somewhere, anywhere, to have a cigarette proves a consistent, under-the-radar delight.

Information/exposition -- involving family, employment and exactly why our guy went to prison in the first place -- is doled out in small, smart, realistic doses. By the time we know the whole story, so firmly are we in the hands, heart and soul of Ulrik that we'll follow him anywhere.

Anywhere includes a sparkling-clean diner attended by his ex-wife (two photos above); shabby accommodations provided by his gangster boss -- of which the boss' very imposing sister (above) is now Ulrik's landlady (their sex scene is one for the books); a job at the car repair shop that comes complete with sad and sexy office worker (trailing a nasty, brutish husband) and a boss who spurts out philosophy in great indigestible chunks; a high-rise weapons dealer and his "little person" assistant (below); even a moment spent in a baby-supply store that should leave you grinning.

If the film's climax seems a tad too easily achieved, everything else about this movie works beautifully. Especially Skarsgård. Supporting performances are fine, too -- from the gangster boss played by Bjørn Floberg (above, right, whose sense of entitlement makes your typical American haute-bourgeoisie seem a piker by comparison) to Jorunn Kjellsby, who, as the landlady, balances buried pain and sadness with some terrific, over-the-top humor.

A Somewhat Gentle Man, from Strand Releasing, opens Friday, January 14 in New York City at the IFC Center. Further playdates, through March and as of now, include:
1/28 - Nuart Theatre - Los Angeles, CA
2/4 - Ritz at the Bourse - Philadelphia, PA
2/17 - Wadsworth Atheneum Museum - Hartford, CT
2/25 - Kendall Square - Cambridge, MA
3/4 - E Street Cinema 8 - Washington, DC
3/4 - Lagoon Cinema - Minneapolis, MN
3/18 - Varsity Theater - St. Louis, MO
3/25 - Chez Artiste - Denver, CO
3/25 - Ken Cinema - San Diego, CA

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