Heartstone (2016)

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Directed by Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson
Country: Iceland / Denmark

Heartstone, the directorial debut by the Icelandic Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson, is a coming-of-age drama that leaves an ambivalent impression as the force of the written material opposes to some obstacles regarding pace, duration, and cinematography.

The story is set mostly during summer in a small Icelandic farming village, where the teens Thor (Baldur Einarsson) and Christian (Blaer Hinriksson) are best friends. They support each other when an older red-haired bully messes with them, or when they have a hard time at home, which is a recurrent situation. 
Thor’s father left home and headed south where he now lives with a much younger woman. Attempting to suppress loneliness, Thor’s mother, Hulda (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir) occasionally sleeps with a ‘friend’. However, this behavior doesn’t please her daughter, Rakel (Jónína Pórdís Karlsdóttir), who in a defying hysteria hits her mom with words and fists. Also Christian is far from enjoying happy moments next to his family, living constantly ashamed of his irresponsible, alcoholic father, Sigurdur (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson), who can’t really offer him what a father should offer to a son at such a complicated age.

As they hang out with other friends, their sexuality eagerly awakens, becoming an imminent, inescapable, and sometimes painful aspect to deal with. Thor has a crush on Beth (Diljá Valsdóttir), who reciprocates the feeling. She and her friend Hanna (Katla Njálsdóttir) are the ones coaxing the boys to embrace the wildest adventures. Thor, for instance, reveals an urgency to enter adulthood and gets constrained for still lacking pubic hairs. It’s not rare that his sister finds him jerking off at home while looking at pornographic material, an embarrassment that is quickly overcome by spending time with his friends.

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The solid friendship between Thor and Christian is abruptly put to a test when the latter can’t pretend anymore he’s gay. He naturally makes clear that what he feels for Thor is more than a simple friendship. Guilt and confusion quickly strike them as the story develops with slightly more interesting occurrences being reserved for the final section.

Transpiring some genuine emotions, Heartstone feels somewhat flat in the execution and a bit stuck in its moves. Christian’s character, with all its dilemmas, should be further explored and sometimes the family issues feel like pretexts to make us pity them rather than setting the atmosphere that surrounds them.

Often enveloped by shadows and darkness, the dismal visuals almost provide a proper refuge to the restless characters throughout their journey of self-discovery, which happens in a claustrophobic environment. 

The performances by the debutant boy actors, Einarsson and Hinriksson, were driven with an honest, dramatic strength, leading the film to win the Queer Lion at Venice Film Festival.

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Virgin Mountain (2015)

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Directed by Dagur Kári
Country: Iceland

Characterized by a deadpan humor and a keen dramatic insight, “Virgin Mountain” is an Icelandic romantic comedy whose original title is ‘Fúsi’, the name of its central character. The international title is pretty suggestive, though, because Fúsi is an obese bachelor who, at the age of 43, is still a virgin and lives with his mother.

Masterfully played by Gunnar Jónsson, a well-known comedian in his country, the bashful Fúsi is addicted to padthai, loves to listen to hard rock, works at the airport ground service where he’s often bullied by his co-workers, and has a special interest in World War II themes, inclusively having a miniature model of the Battle of Alamein with which he occasionally plays with his best friend, Mordur (Sigurjón Kjartansson). His behavior swings between a spoiled child, when he plays outdoors with a remote controlled car or at home with a little neighbor girl, and a more mature person, when he smokes a joint with Mordur, describing him the awkward moment when he saw his mother (Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir) being hammered by Rolf (Arnar Jónsson), her boyfriend, on the kitchen table.
Whichever the case, Fúsi always shows a grandiose heart and never refuses to help someone when solicited, not even the ones who ruffle him with stupid pranks at work.

The nagging Rolfe constantly urges him to fight the battles of daily life instead of wasting time with stupid war games. So, he decides to offer him dancing classes. His mother strongly encourages him to go but Fúsi couldn’t even get out of the car. However, he befriends with Sjofn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir), one of the dancers who asks him for a lift since the weather wasn’t so inviting to walk.
After the second dancing class, they have pad Thai together and get to know a little bit more about each other's lives. Fúsi didn’t know he was falling for a highly depressive woman whose life wasn’t as she had described.

Cruel and humane to the same extent, “Virgin Mountain”, was directed by Dagur Kári, whose impressive first work, “Noi the Albino”, I had the opportunity to watch a few years ago.
Despite slightly tremulous in the last act and the sensation that I already had seen some of its scenes, Mr. Kari finds a way to inject fresh details, bestowing the essential offbeat tones to make it interesting. Gunnar Jónsson excels.

Rams (2015)

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Directed by Grímur Hákonarson
Country: Iceland

The piercing Icelandic drama, “Rams”, is a wonderful examination of obsession, bringing us an ironic tale in which two estranged brothers and sheep farmers compete avidly to win the annual competition for best ram that takes place in their tiny mountain village.

Gummi and Kiddi, magnificently played by Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson, respectively, have their houses placed at a very short distance. On the idyllic green fields that surround them, they breed the most robust sheep in Iceland, a tradition they took from their ancestors. 
Due to unclear reasons, the unmarried brothers don’t speak to each other for 40 years, time when their parents decided to put the farm in the name of Gummi, a pacific, if sly, farmer who gets along with everyone in town. Kiddi is exactly the opposite, being anti-social, often rude, and constantly drowned in alcohol. Lately, he gets so drunk that his brother, who fears him, has to save him from dying frozen in the ditch. Kiddi has never thanked him and pays him back with a few more threats and harsh words.

Even before the disappointing second position in the competition, Gummi, finds that his brother’s sheep are being fatally struck by a disease, which later on is confirmed as scrapie. Gummi promptly warns the authorities, which decide to exterminate all the animals after spotting two other sheep farms affected with the contagious disease. This drastic measure is necessary and irreversible, even taking into account that it’s also a huge financial setback and a trauma for the farmers who’ll have to destroy the tools they had been using, burn all the hay stored in their barns, and wait two long years in order to buy new sheep.
Apparently, all farmers acquiesce with the order, understanding the risks of a widespread contamination, except the crabby Kiddi, who refuses to cooperate in the cleaning.

Gummi decides not to wait for the authorities, and against the regulations, takes action by shooting 147 sheep with a pistol. After the painful practice and pretending to be emotionally ruined, he fools the sanitary inspectors, hiding his best ram and seven sheep in the cellar where he attempts reproduction. 
Meanwhile, he manages to clean Kiddi’s barn after taking him to the hospital with another booze crisis.
After being discharged from the hospital, Kiddi discovers Gummi’s secret, and the story makes a complete U-turn. The brothers, in their uncontrolled obsession, decide to work together for the first time in order to save their prestigious animals.

Written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson, who’s also a skilled documentarian, the detailed and well-photographed “Rams” feels authentic and tragic.
Built with the proper tension and purpose, this moving drama may be seen as a lesson for life where the bad and the good intertwine. The unexpected ending, suggesting further thought, shows that sometimes the understanding and tolerance among people come too late and not always for the best reasons.

Z for Zachariah (2015)

Z for Zachariah (2015) - Movie Review
Directed by: Craig Zobel
Country: Iceland / New Zealand / others

Movie Review: The post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, “Z for Zachariah”, by Robert C. O'Brien, was the source material for the fourth feature-length from director Craig Zobel who gained some notoriety with his previous film “Compliance”. If Mr. Zobel was far from impressing me with the latter, he doesn’t do much better in this one. Instead of the teenage protagonist of the book, Zobel and his screenwriter, Nissar Modi, opt for an adult version of the character, played by the unrecognizable Margot Robbie, who has generated some buzz with her small but memorable part in “The Wolf of Wall Street”. In this brittle thriller, she’s Ann, the hypothetically unique survivor of a radioactive catastrophe that contaminated the Earth and destroyed the rest of the human race. Devoted to God, she’s immensely thankful for the ‘untouched’ piece of land (fertile soil and a pond with fish) that allows her to live healthily, and shows to be a tireless hard worker who accepts the fate of having to live alone with her dog for the rest of her days. A certain day, however, she bumps into a skittish man, John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who rushes into contaminated waters. She gently takes care of him when he falls sick, praying fervently to God to save him. At a first glance, John seemed a tricky guy, acting suspiciously, sometimes bossy, and even aggressive when he gets drunk. Ann, in need of physical contact and considering the repopulation of the Earth, urges him into sex, but he disappoints her in that particular aspect. Ultimately, he falls in love with her, but what could have been a relaxing life in duo, is turned upside down when another stranger, Caleb (Chris Pine), arrives to compete for the last existing woman, bringing tiny portions of tension into their little paradise. Thrills are scarce, and every attempt to make them work out falls into dullness and conventional. This is aggravated by the fact that the film, beyond predictable, lingers on lukewarm situations for an eternity, where we never feel real empathy for the characters or perceive any sustainable passion sprouting from the love triangle. “Z for Zachariah” was more like “Z for Zzzz” to me. It’s another deceitful low-budget machination that leaves us lethargically dormant.

Land Ho! (2014)

Land Ho! (2014) - Movie Review
Directed by: Aaron Katz / Martha Stephens
Country: Iceland / USA

Movie Review: Adventurous American-Icelandic comedy, “Land Ho!”, focuses on two ex-brothers-in-law who go off on a trip to Iceland to enjoy life and celebrate their friendship. In their 60’s, Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) prove to be in good shape for their age, trying to add some youth to their solitary lives. Mitch is a divorced doctor who likes to party, talk with strangers, lose himself in the middle of the mountains and smoke joints. In turn, Colin, a former French horn player, is more attentive, relaxed and a good listener, having become the perfect friend for Mitch who sometimes needs someone to ease his solitary moments. During the leisure vacations, the pair will welcome Mitch’s cousin and her friend, two young university students, and meet fortuitously with other strangers, always evincing a special charisma and humor. Besides Reykjavik, visits to the Golden Circle and Landmannalaugar became part of the funny itinerary where the visual aspect is enhanced by the beautiful landscapes and peaceful Nordic waves. The fluid conversation and casual style adopted is closer to Martha Stephens’ last work, “Pilgrim Song”, than Aaron Katz’s mystery thriller, “Cold Weather”. The film often feels like a derivation of Winterbottom’s “The Trip” with special encounters. Its main problems are the use and abuse of ‘feel-good moments’ and an intermittent discernment in the narrative. The good part is that “Land Ho!” was never judgmental or preachy in any occasion, existing to show that everyone should enjoy life freely, in the company of their loved ones, no matter at what age.

Metalhead (2013)

Metalhead (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Ragnar Bragason
Country: Iceland

Movie Review: “Metalhead” is an angry drama set in a small country village in Iceland, and focused on Hera, a 12 year-old girl who becomes traumatized after witnessing the death of her brother in an accident with a tractor. She becomes wayward, alienated, and lacking self-esteem, seeming lost in improper behaviors. Without getting any help from their untalkative parents who also have a few problems to solve, Hera refuges herself in a passion inherited from her brother: the heavy-metal music. The problem will follow her for the rest of her teenage years, but an unlikely hope comes from the new priest of the village, also an enthusiast of the dark and thick sounds of heavy metal. Despite the hopeful finale, “Metalhead” is low-spirited and not always well coordinated in the sequences of scenes presented to us. I felt the film needed to lose some more time in certain details, maturing them to better compose the outcomes. There are certain moments where the filmmaker Ragnar Bragason, whose career is connected with the world of TV series, couldn’t avoid some instability and even phoniness, especially when tried to introduce some humor and religious connotations. As the film moves forward the characters become uninteresting and the dramatic contour ends up increasingly disappointing. Its backs and forths are many times inconsistent and often fluctuated, in a way that the film works more as a noisy show off than anything else. Exasperating in its final part and ordinary in its whole, “Metalhead” never convinced as an insightful or profound psychological portrait of a lost, angered, and yet talented soul.

Of Horses and Men (2013)

Of Horses and Men (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Benedikt Erlingsson
Country: Iceland

Movie Review: “Of Horses and Men” is a pretty damn amazing comedy-drama written and directed by Icelandic newcomer, Benedikt Erlingsson, who counted with the experienced filmmaker Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (“Childrem of Nature”, “Mamma Gogo”) as producer, as well as Bergstein Bjorgulfsson (“Jar City”, “The Deep”) as cinematographer.  Short in duration (only 81 min.) but sufficiently intense in what intends to depict, the film is a collection of little stories (segments), confronting life and death in the most diverse ways, and putting face to face the animal and human natures, all with a bittersweet feel that grabs us since the very beginning. Occasionally, its well-observed images can be very painful to watch, however we always have the beauty of the Icelandic landscapes to calm us down afterwards. Each segment starts with a big close-up of a horse’s eye in which its owner is reflected in it. A lot of memorable scenes still persist in my head long after watching the movie. Among them, a stallion mounting a mare with its master on its back, a drunken man riding his horse into the freezing sea to buy vodka from a Russian boat, or a man sacrificing a horse to survive the bitter cold of the night. Exquisite and strange, the powerful “Of Horses and Men” is a feast not only for the eyes but also for the soul, according to the substance and spirit of its wonderful little tales. The throbbing folk soundtrack reinforces Erlingsson as the maestro of a well-orchestrated arthouse film.

The Deep (2012)

The Deep (2012)
Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur
Country: Iceland

Review: “The Deep” is a docudrama by filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur, who has been a solid contributor to Icelandic cinema with works such as “101 Reykjavyk” and “Jar City”, even if intercalated with some less successful films. Based on true events, the story follows a fisherman named Gulli, who swam during six hours in the North Atlantic Ocean at a temperature of 5ºC, to reach the coast of the largest Westmann Island, after the fishing boat he was working in, has sunk. This miraculous occurrence transformed Gulli in an object of many scientific studies and experiences, without any logical conclusion. The story was presented without sensationalism, a fact that, together with its powerful images and strong psychological factor, provided good cinematic moments without ever losing direction or falling in doubtful strategies. Invigorating sensations aroused when Gulli went to visit the family of his dead shipmate, doing what he had promised when isolated in the sea with the seagulls as only company. Real images of steersman Gulli (his true name is Guðlaugur Friðþórsson) from almost 30 years ago, being interviewed from his hospital bed, appears in the end. He became a sort of national hero and an enigma, as well as an inspiration for “The Deep”, a heartfelt film, which title certainly was inspired not only in the ocean’s immensity but also in what he felt during and after the tragedy.

Either Way (2011)

Either Way (2011)
Directed by: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson
Country: Iceland

Review: “Either Way” is an affable Icelandic comedy, written and directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, a cineaste to keep an eye on, considering the talent evinced here. This funny story about two men friendship was subjected to an American remake with the name of “Prince Avalanche”, which will be officially released on the date of August 9th, this time adapted and directed by David Gordon Green (“George Washington”, “Snow Angels”). Finnbogi and Alfred know each other for some time and are working together during the summer in a remote place on Iceland, where they were assigned to paint lines and put wooden stakes along the deserted road. The two friends will help each other, especially in regard to relationships with women. When both of them come to a point where they don’t know what to do with life, their age gaps will be useful, having distinct ways of looking into the problems. The actors were totally convincing in their performances, in a generous, pleasant, and valuable film, where the humor is subtle yet efficient, while the soundtrack was well diversified and well employed according to the moments depicted. Alternating between peaceful silences and forced noises, with bucolic landscapes in background to compose the delicate cinematography, “Either Way” won my appreciation for all its simplicity.

Volcano (2011)

Volcano (2011)
Directed by: Rúnar Rúnarsson
Country: Iceland / Denmark

Review: “Volcano” portrays the story of Hannes, who has the soul of a fisherman but worked in a school for 37 years as a janitor. Since the day of his retirement, he experienced anxiety crisis and becomes depressive from then on. Everything seems to get old around him; even his boat won’t float anymore. Being strict by nature, he is nothing more than a sour man at the eyes of their children. His life will turn completely upside down when his wife suffers a stroke and becomes bedridden. The plot is not totally new, especially when Hannes slowly tries to reconnect with his family in times of sorrow. This fact is aggravated with the too much obvious similarities with Michael Hanekes’s “Amour”, which conveys a greater emotional depth on the matter. Nevertheless, in its slow pace, “Volcano” has its moments and is worth watching. The fact is: not having seen “Amour” might increase your chances of being surprised.

Stormland (2011)

Stormland (2011)
Directed by: Marteinn Thorsson
Country: Iceland

Review: “Stormland”, adapted from a novel by Hallgrímur Helgason, opens with a hostage crisis scene, which is suddenly discontinued to step into the kidnapper’s past. Bodvar is a teacher, a writer, a poet and a blogger. Clearly a misfit, nothing seems to go right in his life. Disillusioned with the world, he finds solace in writing for his own blog entitled "Stormland", where he discharges his anger against consumerism, bankers’ power and rotten societies. A slight but incisive humor combines with the soreness of Bodvar’s fate, whereas love, seen as last hope, will be the culmination of his alienation. Darri Ólafsson’s performance was prominent, playing a well-intentioned man that suddenly breaks down when facing simultaneous problems. Then, we realize why Nietzsche’s quote “The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly”, became so meaningful to him.

Black's Game (2012)

Black's Game (2012)
Director: Óskar Thór Axelsson
Country: Iceland

Review: Oskar Thor Axelsson's debut film had Nicolas Winding Refn as executive producer, taking us to the Icelandic underworld of drugs trafficking and crime. So, it is not surprising if we note some resemblances with Refn’s movies about the underworld, such as “Pusher” or “Bronson”. “Black’s Game” shows the dark path taken by Stebbi, after bump into a childhood friend outside the jail. By joining a dangerous gang, Stebbi will experience things that he would never have imagined. All the cast did a great job, playing properly the dark and evil characters, but this was obfuscated with scenes of drug abuse and orgies that almost looked like one of those despicable low-grade movies. All got worse with a couple of superfluous scenes aiming to impose tension, as well as an hasty ending, which deserved a better conclusion. An hectic film, needing fresh ideas.

Mamma Gógó (2010)

Realizado por: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson
País: Islândia

Um realizador de cinema à procura de sucesso, recusa-se a enveredar pelo estilo comercial de hollywood e luta desesperadamente contra as dívidas contraídas devido à fraca adesão ao seu filme por parte do público islandês. Ao mesmo tempo, recebe mais uma notícia desagradável: foi diagnosticada a doença de Alzheimer à sua mãe, a qual vive sozinha. Um filme sério e realista, mas suavizado por boas doses de humor e contando com uma notável interpretação da actriz Kreistbjorg Kjeld no papel de Gógó, que lhe valeu o prémio islandês para actriz do ano.