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In a Better World Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack Review

In a Better World (Hævnen) movie poster In a Better World (Hævnen)

Denmark Theatrical Release: August 26, 2010 / US Theatrical Release: April 1, 2011 / Running Time: 118 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Susanne Bier / Writers: Anders Thomas Jensen (story & screenplay), Susanne Bier (story)

Cast: Mikael Persbrandt (Ander), Trine Dyrholm (Marianne), Ulrich Thomsen (Claus), William Jøhnk Juel Nielsen (Christian), Markus Rygaard (Elias), Simon Maagaard Holm (Sofus), Kim Bodnia (Lars), Odiege Matthew (Big Man), Lars Bom (Investigator), Wil Johnson (Najeeb), Toke Lars Bjarke (Morten), Bodil Jørgensen (Teacher), Martin Buch (Niels), Anette Støvelbæk (Hanne), Camilla Gottlieb (Eva), Elsebeth Steentoft (Signe), Birthe Neumann (Marianne's Colleague)

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The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has an interesting view of world cinema. Every year, American and British films dominate the Oscars, claiming nearly every nomination in every category. The one exception is Best Foreign Language Film, the bone the Academy throws the rest of the world. I guess it's understood that the awards are U.S.-based and concern themselves chiefly with movies released in American theaters.
But there is something pretentious about limiting the vast majority of cinema to a single category and then limiting each foreign country to a single submission.

Still, this is one instance where you can't fault the Academy for being out of touch with the American public. Most moviegoers don't care to see anything in a foreign language, especially something they'd have to seek out in independent and art theaters. For proof of how narrow most of our cinematic scope is, take a look at Wikipedia's list of Best Foreign Language Film nominees and winners. How many of these have you even heard of, let alone seen? I've been devoting my life to film and out of these nearly 300 contenders, I can claim to having seen a mere ten, most of them landmarks that many have seen. While I'm not proud of that statistic, I'm not too ashamed. It's as narrow to exalt all foreign films above domestic ones as it is to dismiss films you have to read, especially when you're likely only being exposed to the cream of the crop, a small fraction of a nation's annual output.

My ignorance towards foreign cinema is incidental. Reviewing films as I do takes a lot of time and that time is best spent writing about movies people are going to care about. Hopefully, you consider In a Better World such a thing. This Danish film (locally titled Hævnen, which means "The Revenge") won this year's Foreign Language Oscar, becoming Denmark's first victor since Babette's Feast and Pelle the Conqueror won back to back in the late 1980s. The film is directed by Susanne Bier, who returns home after making the 2007 American drama Things We Lost in the Fire with Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro. Bier's Danish credits include 2007 Foreign Language nominee Efter brylluppet (After the Wedding) and Brødre, which was remade in the U.S. as 2009's Brothers.

Swedish doctor Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) sees poverty and hardship in his work at a Sudanese refugee camp. Quick to become best friends, Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Jøhnk Juel Nielsen) look out over their town from a high rooftop.

In a Better World opens in an African refugee camp, where Swedish man Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) serves as a doctor. The images of poverty and horror (one area man reportedly has a thing for cutting the bellies of pregnant women) may lead you to expect a cause movie set in war-torn Third World, but this is not that movie. Instead, the focus is placed on two families in Denmark. Anton is going through a painful separation from Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), who still shows up at the airport to pick him up from his exhausting stints in Sudan. Their son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is taunted at school and nicknamed "Rat Face" for wearing braces.

Elias gets a new classmate in Christian (William Jøhnk Juel Nielsen), who shares his birthday. Christian recently lost his mother to cancer, for which he seems to blame his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen). They have just moved to Denmark from London, adding outsider status to grief. On his first day of school, solemn Christian stands up for Elias and gets his nose bloodied for it. The friendship takes a sharp turn in a different direction the next day, when Christian attacks Elias' primary bully (Simon Maagaard Holm) with a bicycle tire pump and threatens him with a knife. It's reminiscent of the scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie takes out his pent-up aggression on the yellow-eyed Scut Farkus. Whereas there it is an amusing anecdote from a simpler time, Christian's actions here are potentially criminal and require police interrogation.

Before our eyes, Christian turns into a real menace and his negative influence on the impressionable Elias is clear. One day, Anton has a run-in with another child's aggressive father and is slapped in front of the boys. Anton tries to use the episode as a learning experience for the boys, who are upset enough by it to track down the aggressor's auto shop workplace. Instead of gaining appreciation for the power of pacifism, Christian decides to seek retribution from the confrontational mechanic, plotting revenge with the gunpowder of found old fireworks.

Hoping to demonstrate to his sons and their friend how to stand up for one's self peacefully, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is met with more aggression from hostile mechanic Lars (Kim Bodnia).

You anticipate that this will not end well for the young friends and indeed it does not. Their soon to be toppled comfortable life of computers and cell phones is contrasted with the distant, minimalist site of Anton's work, where that alleged monster shows up with guns, muscle, and a severely infected leg, demanding to be treated and therefore putting Anton in an awkward place.

There is a lot of opportunity for In a Better World to be heavy-handed, to paint its characters in broad strokes, and to get preachy about privilege, poverty, or parenting. It doesn't do any of that, instead allowing an intimate story play out in a natural, believable, gripping, and terrifying fashion.
The films of Susanne Bier on DVD and Blu-ray:
The movie conjures an air of danger, letting you guess just how badly things will go wrong. And yet, when all is said and done, it leaves you feeling good without being overly guilty of manipulation or calculation. This is a poignant portrait of modern family life, one you'll need to be short on emotion not to be moved by.

The packaging for In a Better World rightly boasts its Oscar win and that should amplify interest in it, although the timing could have been better. Sony Pictures Classics' limited US theatrical run in April only recently crossed the $1 million mark and Oscar talk has already shifted from this year's ceremony to next, as the real contenders near release. Nonetheless, this is the last 2011 Oscar winner shut-ins and rural residents can cross off their checklist, as Sony issues it today as a pricey two-disc Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack in the vein of other recent Sony Pictures Classics titles with modest retail potential.

Watch the US theatrical trailer for In a Better World

In a Better World Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.35:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (Danish), 2.0 DTS-HD MA (French)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (Danish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (French)
Subtitles: English, French; BD-only: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Most Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: August 30, 2011
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $45.99
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Also available on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

In a Better World looks extraordinary in the Blu-ray's 2.35:1 transfer. The sharp, pristine element finds colors practically popping off the screen. The picturesque visuals run a gamut from the bright blues and tans of Africa to Denmark's cooler palette, delighting in both settings. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack also serves the film well, most noticeably in its presentation of the fitting score. A good amount of the dialogue is in English; the rest, predominantly Danish with some Swedish, gets translated by clean player-generated subtitles.

From the sampling I did, the anamorphic transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of the standard DVD are no less than terrific in their own right. The subtitles are obviously bulkier and, as always, there is less detail and more compression. Still, if there had been a format choice, I would guess that many customers would have went with DVD and been perfectly satisfied with it.

Director Susanne Bier discusses "Hævnen" ("In a Better World"), a film on which she shares story credit, in the audio commentary and this 16-minute interview. One of the more memorable deleted scenes brings together Christian's father (Ulrich Thomsen) and Elias' mother (Trine Dyrholm) at their sons' school function.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Sony treats the film to a fairly standard collection of bonus features on Blu-ray. First up is an audio commentary by director Susanne Bier and editor Pernille Bech Christensen. They speak in English and require no subtitles (which is good, since none transcribe it here).
The frequent collaborators shed light on their many decisions, from opening in Africa to having Markus Rygaard keep his braces. It's full of information, light on lulls, and probably worth a listen for anyone who really liked the movie.

Next, we get an on-camera interview of Susanne Bier (15:53, SD) by an unidentified journalist. The director's remarks on the film's conception, design, intentions, characters, creative process, and titles are complemented by clips. It's an adequate substitute for a more traditional making-of featurette.

Seven deleted scenes (13:38) are offered in blurry standard definition. Most of these are interesting self-contained bits, including a couple lending some credence to Christian's suspicions of his dad and Elias' mom getting friendly with one another.

The extras conclude with In a Better World's theatrical trailer (2:02) in HD. I'm of the persuasion that trailers should always accompany the films they promote. Fortunately, Sony Pictures Classics shares my view.

Though the menu promises you can "Get More on BD-Live", that presently was not the case for me.

The Oscar win is the first and most important claim of the film's American theatrical trailer, the only bonus feature included on both Blu-ray and DVD. Instead of reusing the Blu-ray's montage, the DVD main menu offers this static look at the friends and two parents.

With the exception of the trailer, all of these bonus features are exclusive to the Blu-ray. Sony must want people to associate Blu-ray with added value, but such a design overlooks the fact that the part of the population that's still fine with DVD is now being asked to pay $10-$15 over a typical DVD
to own a Sony Pictures Classics film, a cost that includes a format they choose not to buy into and with a mere trailer in the way of bonus features (despite the packaging's impressive list). I suspect, with some sales ranks at even the tech-savvy Amazon to support me, that small independent films do most of their business on DVD. Unless everyone who cares at all about bonus features has gone Blu, I would guess that both customer satisfaction and sales take a hit on these types of combo packs which bafflingly withhold the extras from the DVD.

Both discs open with a Sony Blu-ray promo, followed by trailers for Incendies, Midnight in Paris, Take Shelter, and POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. In that mix, the Blu-ray includes a trailer for Life, Above All, while the DVD advertises Gus Van Sant's Restless. The discs repeat their same 6-item reels from their menus' "Previews" listing.

The Blu-ray's menu offers a scored, serene montage, in stark contrast to the BD-Live menu laid over it, which theoretically will soon allow you to sample bonus features from the likes of Jumping the Broom and Priest but at this time did not. Though similarly scored, the DVD's static headshots menu looks like something out of a no-name studio from 2000.

The side-snapped Blu-ray case adheres to Sony standards, with the silver DVD and full-color Blu-ray claiming opposite sides, the former covered by an insert promoting 3D and Sony's make.believe mantra. The cover art's reverse side displays through the case.

It's always the quiet ones... Christian (William Jøhnk Juel Nielsen) plans to take violent action against a school bully. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) lends an ear to his elder son Elias (Markus Rygaard).

CLOSING THOUGHTS

In a Better World will not join the ranks of Life is Beautiful and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, acclaimed foreign films that took the world by storm. In fact, this may be one of the more obscure winners of the Foreign Language Film Oscar. Still, it has secured a place in cinema history books and deservingly so. Susanne Bier's sweet and moving drama is a fine way to spend two hours.

Those who aren't big on renting and those certain this is one to own may be put off by the high price of Sony's combo pack, the Blu-ray part of which will satisfy while the lightweight DVD frustrates. That makes this set a little hard to recommend, but the movie is too good to miss out on over bonus features.

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Reviewed August 30, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2010-11 Sony Pictures Classics, Zentropa Entertainments16, and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
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