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Icelandic slink: Vilhjálmsdóttir in The Seagull’s Laughter.

Wake of the Red Witch
By Shawn Stone

The Seagull’s Laughter
Directed 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 killed him.”

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.

The 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 of anything.

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.

Falsies

Connie and Carla
Directed 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 “Victor.”

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.

—Laura Leon

Banality of Evil

Elephant
Directed 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 true filmmaking.

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 effect.

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.

—Ralph Hamman


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