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Columnist, The
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by Jay Seaver

"So Much For The Tolerant Left: The Movie"
2 stars

SCREENING AT THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: You can see the strong idea that the rest of "The Columnist" was built around being put front-and-center during a climactic scene toward the end, and that's a thing people make movies like this should try to do. Put a nice cast around it and polish it up fairly nicely, and that should have the movie in good shape. And it is, much of the time, but in the moments when it's not, one gets the impression that the filmmakers haven't completely thought this through, leaving a movie that feels like they haven't thought their good idea through.

The columnist of the title is Femke Boot (Katja Herbers), who is working on her first novel to build off her fame as a regular newspaper columnist, while daughter Anna (Claire Porro) seeks to follow in her footsteps even as she's kicked off the school newspaper for a column the headmaster doesn't like. Like a lot of people, she has trouble dealing with social media, regularly swearing off Twitter and the like for the vitriol with which some respond to her work but logged back in the next morning. She spars on a panel show with horror writer Stephen Dood (Bram van der Kelen) but finds herself connecting when they meet under other circumstances. The tweets that get under her skin more than others come from a neighbor who is extraordinarily nasty online but different in person, to the point where something small can set her off.

It escalates quickly, and between them director Ivo van Aart and writer Daan Windhorst don't necessarily seem to know where to go from there, or necessarily even how to get there. There's not a whole lot of room to examine how online pile-ons can make a person feel unsafe, or even genuinely in danger; on the other side, there's not enough twisted satisfaction in eliminating trolls. There's a bit implied in there about how murder seems to fuel Femke's ability to write her book, but only in a moment or two, and numerous instances that show that Femke is sort of a hypocrite where free speech and civility is concerned depending on whether it's directed at her or coming from her (or her daughter) just kind of sit there, like Windhorst and van Aart are content to have simply raised a point rather than having actually said much about it.

Which would be fine, if it was a better serial killer movie, but there's not a lot to the kills, with only one or two moments when the staging is particularly impressive or the method is creative or ironic. For much of the movie, there's nobody working against Femke (even though she seems like a pretty sloppy killer), and when there is, the idea of it seems to be much more interesting than anything they actually do with it. This whole story is built around a hot-button idea, but only has brief moments when the satire seems sharp or the violence transgressive. It covers enough bases that there's something there, but not in much depth or even with much energy.

And that's a bummer, because most of what one's seeing on screen is done capably. Katja Hebers doesn't have to entirely carry the movie on her back, but she could. She makes Femke funny and easy to watch and always seems to have just the right look on her face when she's effectively acting opposite tweets and message board comments, that strange combination of zoned-out and obsessive that can easily look blank or fake. She's able to switch it up and lay into her victims, or look like she knows this whole thing has gotten away with her. She's got good complements in Bram van der Kelen, whose Steven quickly charms after being introduced as ridiculous, and Claire Porro, who strips a lot of the unconscious weight on Femke's psyche down to make Anna feel like her mother's daughter.

It's nicely mounted, enough so that if someone is just looking for an hour and a half of darkly comic thrills, it will probably more or less work. It's built to invite a little more thought, and doesn't necessarily hold up for that, and the question is whether it exposes itself as fairly hollow while one is watching, on the way out of the theater afterward, or during a revisit.

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originally posted: 08/22/20 01:05:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Ivo van Aart

Written by
  Daan Windhorst

  Katja Herbers
  Genio de Groot
  Rein Hofman
  Bram van der Kelen
  Claire Porro

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