From Iceland — Movie Madness

Movie Madness

Movie Madness

Published September 22, 2006

Having been pleasantly surprised by the quality of movies in last year’s IIFF with gems such as The March of the Penguins, Crónicas, Hip Hop Hora and the brave Searching for Angela Shelton, I counted the days until IIFF 2006 was launched. Judging by the movies I’ve seen so far, this year’s festival doesn’t match the one of 2005 when it comes to the quality of films. Moreover, I’d like to use this opportunity to point out to festival organisers that the Q&A sessions with the directors and actors are a dimension of IIFF that are desperately missed by yours truly and other movie nerds.
I kicked off my IIFF 2006 by attending the gala premiere of Beowulf and Grendel. I’m not sure what the most painful moment of the evening was. It was definitely awkward when producer Friðrik Þór Friðriksson welcomed lead actor Gerard Butler to the stage by asking the crowd to applaud ‘Gary’ Butler (Mr. Butler is known to be called Gerry by those who know him, but Gary is a new one). Things grew even more uncomfortable when Mr. Butler mentioned how bad the weather had been during the filming what seemed like a dozen times during his speech, leaving the impression that he was somehow apologising for the final result. Last but not least, some scenes in the movie made me squirm with discomfort due to their lack of quality. The cinematography is static and often out of focus, the script is fragmented and doesn’t do justice to the original story, the editing is stale, the music is predictable and the acting is often substandard throughout the movie. It is depressing to see one of the finest actors in Iceland, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, play Grendel the troll with little more to the role than simply grunting primitively and banging himself on the chest caveman-style. Stellan Skarsgård does well in the role of King Hrothgar, but doesn’t manage to save this ship from sinking.
The movie often strays from historical correctness, mostly with the frequent use of the words “f*cking” and “beer,” words that were probably not used in 500 AD. Worse, the movie strayed from logic by trying to pass off Iceland’s mountainous landscape as Denmark, a country known for being incredibly flat (its highest mountain stands at 173 metres). What struck me as particularly annoying is that Beowulf himself speaks English with a Scottish accent, queen Wealtheow has a distinct British accent, Selma the witch has an authentic Canadian accent and the rest of the Vikings speak with a thick Icelandic accent, although American and Irish accents are also heard. Had they only included an Australian actor, the title could’ve been changed to A Global Viking Fest (which might have come in handy with regards to funding, distribution and ticket sales). It’s easy to be wise in hindsight.
The movie A Cock and Bull Story is a brilliant take on the 17th-century British novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Widely considered unfilmable, the book’s main character is only born at the very end while the narrator constantly distracts himself from the story and trails off into different subjects. A Cock and Bull Story trails off from the storyline and forgets to tell the story of Tristram Shandy, which is somehow fitting. Half an hour into the movie about the life of the 17th-century British aristocrat, somebody shouts “CUT” and suddenly a camera crew is seen holding filming equipment and tired runners fetch coffees for the stars. From then on, it’s a movie about Steve Coogan in the role of Steve Coogan (the actor who played Mr. Shandy for the first half hour of the film), and his colleagues on the set, such as Rob Brydon in the role of Rob Brydon, who does delightful comedy at his own expense. The “new” plot revolves around on-set romances, tabloid gossip, the size of Steve Coogan’s shoe heel, rivalry between actors, the lack of funding for the movie and the miraculous recruitment of Hollywood actress Gillian Anderson. The only downside to A Cock and Bull Story is its hectic style of editing, which sometimes felt almost MTVish in its rapid flashes. Otherwise, director Michael Winterbottom succeeds in making a movie about the making of a movie based on a book about the writing of a book. If that makes any sense.
The Libertine starts with a monologue delivered by the movie’s protagonist, the Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp), in which he talks about what a dislikeable person he is, and how he “puts it around”, referring to his promiscuous sexual behaviour. I instantly thought I had walked into yet another movie about a cynical, stiff-lipped, British aristocrat, immersing himself in booze and sex, eventually dying of a nasty STD contracted from a hooker somewhere. To my disappointment, I was right. The movie’s main attraction is the collaboration between two amazing actors, John Malkovich and Johnny Depp. Malkovich rested comfortably in his role as the king of England, delivering a solid yet unsurprising performance. Johnny Depp showed a new side to his acting abilities and painted a vivid portrait of the dislikeable yet fascinating Rochester. Although I wasn’t taken by this film, it’ll remain memorable for displaying the most disgusting STD ever seen on the big screen. Close-ups and all.
Unusual as it is, two Icelandic films premiered a week apart this month, namely the massive Beowulf and Grendel, marketed as “the most expensive movie in the history of Iceland”, followed by Börn, a low-budget indie film (the crew jokingly refers to it as “the cheapest movie in the history of Iceland”). Having spoken to insiders on both projects, I found out that Börn cost approximately 100 times less than Beowulf. It’s ironic considering that Börn is approximately 100 times better as a film. As director Ragnar Bragason pointed out in his speech, they didn’t have a penny to their name on the first day of shooting. The journey the Vesturport theatre company undertook to make this film happen is quite a feat, a Cinderella story really. In spite of scarce resources, Börn is becoming one of the most widely distributed Icelandic films ever. It’s the first Icelandic movie I’ve seen that deals with the hopelessness of the underprivileged (also known as “it sucks a** to be lower class”) a subject perfected by director Mike Leigh who has captured the bleak existence of lower-class Brits in movies such as All or Nothing and Naked. Here, the focus is on Reykjavík’s underprivileged, such as a single mother of four, a thug, an invalid and a depressed 12 year old. The dialogue in the film isn’t scripted but mainly improvised, which often gives it a relaxed and natural feel. However, in the more dramatic scenes, the dialogue becomes repetitious for the same reason. The movie’s title, which means “children” in Icelandic, refers to the relationship between parents and children, a theme Vesturport and Mr. Bragason have been contemplating for years now. In fact, when the shooting process began, it became apparent that there was far more material at hand than would ever fit into a single movie. As a result, it was divided into two parts, the latter one aptly called Foreldrar (which means “parents”) opening in late October 2006. Having been moved by the stripped back, harsh, isolated reality in Börn, I’m looking forward to seeing its parents.

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