slink: Vilhjálmsdóttir in The Seagulls
of the Red Witch
by Agúst Guomundsson
When the prodigal niece returns from America to her family’s
little fishing village in Iceland, she’s the one bearing goodies
for a celebration. Freyja (Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir) has suitcases
full of glamorous clothes—all the hottest stuff for 1946—which
she shares with her aunts and cousins, a harmonious household
of women from preteen to elderly. (The aged patriarch spends
most of his time at sea, pursuing fish; when home, he sits
in a chair, with his newspapers, pursuing solitude and pondering
socialism.) No one pushes Freyja on her various explanations
of what happened to her American husband, which include, “I
With her American glamour-gal figure and ravishing red tresses,
she’s an instantaneous subject of envy and desire. With the
postwar housing shortage hitting even Iceland, Freyja must
stay with her relatives; this, however, is no impediment to
her pursuit of an interesting life. She flirts with town’s
rich kid, Theódóre (Heino Ferch). She takes a job in a drugstore,
only to sell bootleg alcohol under the counter to the town’s
unholy trio of endearing drunks. In other words, she loves
above her station and is kind to those below her. This never
gets anyone anywhere.
Seagull’s Laughter—this being an Icelandic comedy, the
title is ironic—is sharp, breezy fun. The brooding gloom that,
say, Lars von Trier would have extracted from the locale is
here put in the service of black humor. In place of psychology,
we are given droll social observation.
The only one not taken in by Freyja is Agga (Ugla Egilsdóttir),
her 11-year-old cousin. Egilsdóttir is expert in the ways
of mugging, setting her in the tradition of face-pulling,
scene-stealing movie brats. The difference is, Agga is not
intended to be lovable. Part fascinating young woman, part
maddening brat, Agga loathes her cousin, yet follows her—secretly—everywhere.
As Freyja wanders the jagged landscape late at night, Agga
begins to see her as an almost supernatural being capable
So do we. Freyja is beautiful, dynamic and a little bit scary.
She’s also quite sympathetic: Her emotions and intentions
are direct, and, even if she’s guilty as hell—for, as in every
good black comedy, the blood eventually begins to flow—the
audience is charmed into forgiving her.
The film’s most important character—after Freyja and Agga,
of course—is Iceland. The blue-black sea, gray skies and vast
almost-moonscapes of charred volcanic rock are vivid and mysterious.
(No wonder Agga believes her night-prowling cousin is consorting
with elves.) If the village seems cozy, it’s the coziness
of a couple of birds huddled together in a nook of a rocky
cliff. In a straightforward way, the landscape explains behavior.
People find romance where they may: There’s a visually splendid,
ultraromantic interlude that takes place beneath racks of
drying fish. More importantly, this translates into an uncommonly
pragmatic people—people who can move on from a murder in a
blink of an eye.
by Michael Lembeck
Earnestly carrying on the message she extolled in My Big
Fat Greek Wedding, writer-star Nia Vardalos attempts to
do for gays and straights what, well, Noah did for the animals
before the big flood. Or something like that. Shamelessly
copping ideas from much better movies, Vardalos’ latest flick,
Connie and Carla, follows the antics of two lounge
singers who, after witnessing a gangland murder, hightail
it to West Hollywood, where they become overnight sensations
performing as drag queens in a gay bar populated by muscled
guys who aren’t ashamed to admit to Botoxing, and cross-dressers,
like Peaches (Stephen Spinella), who share the girls’ penchant
for show tunes.
Vardalos is Connie, who passes for the brains of the duo.
Carla (Toni Collette) is the dreamier partner, the one who
pines for the working-class boyfriend she left behind, and
who worries incessantly that Connie’s chutzpah, not to mention
her thing for Peaches’ brother Jeff (David Duchovny), will
mean their necks. While Vardalos and Collette perform well
together—that is, they sing tired songs like “Don’t Cry For
Me Argentina” and “Memory” quite effectively—the script, by
the former, doesn’t show us much of the two as, simply, friends.
There isn’t even much in the way of scenes showing us how
Connie might use Carla, or anybody else for that matter, as
a means to an end—think of how much fodder was created, for
both Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, by Tony Curtis’ manipulative
bass player in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot.
Throughout the movie, Connie and Carla interrupt this or that
moment to preach the gospel of loving oneself, regardless
of thigh size. The drags in the audience love it, and obviously,
the average women in the audience are supposed to gobble it
up, too. While the sentiment might be right, the delivery
is downright ghastly; Lifetime movies of the week have a subtle
touch in comparison. Duchovny is wooden, which is probably
just as well since his role is paper thin, and neither Vardalos
nor director Michael Lembeck seem to have the, er, balls to
play with our notions of sexuality and the rules of attraction
when pairing Connie with the unsuspecting Jeff. Again, one
can’t help but compare this movie to something like Victor/Victoria—a
comparison that might seem unfair, but is actually suitable
given Vardalos’ wholehearted appropriation of such movies.
Blake Edwards found a goldmine of humor, but also something
much more complex, in manly James Garner’s growing thing for
By most standards, Connie and Carla seems hopelessly
out of sync with the times, and what most audiences have come
to accept. That said, however, it shamelessly mines the same
stereotypes and sight gags that have been causing so many
bad sitcoms to chug along all these years. For somebody supposedly
wedded to the ideas of inclusion and open-mindedness, it seems
surprising that Vardalos clings to the lowest common denominator
in penning this, her second movie.
by Gus Van Sant
Equal parts confounding and appalling is the praise given
Gus Van Sant by critics who should know better and those,
like Elvis Mitchell of The NewYork Times, who don’t
know anything. Elephant represents Van Sant at his
nadir, a point I assumed he had reached with his ill- conceived
and inept remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. As was that
travesty, the current white elephant is more a stunt than
Employing a Steadicam, Van Sant tracks students as they move
over the grounds and through the halls of a high school in
an affluent community. It is a seemingly ordinary day, except
that we obviously know that it isn’t—a cheap ploy that carries
little impact. Banalities abound but do not resound as we
are introduced to the young nonentities whose lives will intersect
with two male students who will, in the film’s final minutes,
open fire with automatic weapons on classmates and faculty.
Periodically, students’ names are superimposed on the bottom
of the screen to no major effect other than make us wonder
if they will be significant players marked for death, heroics
or survival. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, as the nonactors
possess little to no screen presence and are not given the
chance to develop anything resembling a characterization.
Although the avoidance of “acting” is intentional, the pseudodocumentary
approach is obscene when set in relief against real documentary
footage of such events as the Columbine shootings. Far from
being an artistic reponse to that massacre, Elephant
rankly capitalizes on it.
Besides endlessly boring tracking shots of inconsequentialities,
Van Sant deploys lengthy shots of characters walking from
the foreground into the distant background. If the characters
had any backgrounds of even passing interest, this might work
as a dramatic irony, but drama and irony are words absent
from the director’s cinematic vocabulary.
After nearly 70 minutes of lethargy, any violence would seem
to carry some shock value. Here, gunshots merely serve to
rouse one from the stupefying effects of what must be the
longest and most useless exposition put on film. The victims
are rendered as uncompelling as the murder fodder in the worst
installment of the Friday the 13th series. Indeed,
Elephant could have been told in 10 minutes, but there
would be no feature-film money in that.
Fools criticized Michael Moore for making a profit from human
misery in films like Roger and Me and Bowling for
Columbine. Van Sant is the true profiteer, though, and
here he rides on the notoriety of a calamity just as he rode
on the fame of the Hitchcock classic. Next time, perhaps Van
Sant should do a shot-for-shot remake of one of Costa-Gavras’
classics, like Z or State of Siege, so that
he can learn how to use documentary technique to dramatic
Some will doubtless admire Elephant for its objectivity
and refusal to provide easy explanations to a complex event
like Columbine. The problem is that Van Sant doesn’t even
raise an interesting question.