UNDER THE TREE – movie review

UNDER THE TREE
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson
Screenwriter: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, Huldar Breidfjord
Cast: Steinthor Hroar Steininthorsson, Edda Bjorgvindottir, Sigurdur Sigurjonsson, Lara Johanna Jonsdittir, Sigridur Sigurpalsdottir Scheving)
Undir trénu Movie Poster

Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/13/18
Opens: July 6, 2018: Iceland’s Oscar Candidate for 91st Academy Awards!

Second graders in America know something about George Washington designed, obviously, to encourage the little elves always to tell the truth. When the Washington household’s cherry tree was found on the ground, George’s father asked the future president who chopped down the tree. “I cannot tell a lie,” says George, “I chopped it down.” For telling the truth, George Washington was forgiven, and could hold his head morally high when he took the oath of office. A tree is the source of quite a problem in a movie that opened this year from Iceland, specifically a suburb of Reykjavik where the cube houses all look as though they were just built, there is no litter on the ground, a car in the garage, and hey, this is Iceland where everyone is civilized. Not everyone, though, in fact possibly nobody in this taut yet often hilarious dramedy is quite the person you would expect them to be.

Iceland has daylight six months or the year and darkness the remaining months, so you wonder whether the climate can make people edgy, but there are no real excuses for the spats that escalate from a simple request from a gentleman to the older man living on the other side of the fence. Both leave their doors open most of the time, but when the story plays out and their compatriots in Iceland learn from the newscasts what happened, you can expect the locksmith business to start booming.

Inga (Edda Bjorgvindottir) and her husband Baldvin (Sigurdur Sigurjonnson) live next door to Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) and his athletic second wife Eybjorb (Selmer Bjornsdottir). Inga and Baldvin have a son Atli (Steinthor Hroar Steininthorsson), who is married to Agnes (Lara Johanna Jonsdittir) and have a pretty young daughter Asa (Sigridur Sigurpalsdottir Scheving). When Agnes catches her husband Atli watching a porn and quickly discovers the film was actually of her husband and a neighbor, she kicks him out of the house, leading to a second series of conflicts. While Konrad complains to his neighbors Inga and Baldvin that their tree is shading Konrad’s porch, Konrad does nothing. One thing leads to another. Tires are slashed, a cat is missing and suspected of being poisoned, while something unusual happens to a dog. With tension sky high, the stage is set for a Shakespearean climax.

Actors are probably among Iceland’s leading thesps, each contributing mightily to the ratcheting up of tensions, while a Bach requiem sung by the local chorus foreshadows its use. Though the neighborhood could have been anywhere and is not easily identifying as a Reykjavik suburb, the unusual (to us) names cannot be mistaken. (You won’t find anywhere there with a simple, British name like Sam Jones or Bob Wilson.) They are citizens of a small European state comparatively close to us in New York (a five hour flight on Icelandair), sometimes used by tourists on a two-nights’ break before proceeding to the continent.

Iceland’s candidacy for our Oscar race to be announced February 24, 2019 is a strong one but will face serious competition from scores of other foreign language movies, especially from the German entry, “Never Look Away.”

89 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

THE SWAN – movie revei

THE SWAN (Svanurinn)

Synergetic Distribution
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir
Screenplay by: Guðbergur Bergsson, Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir, novel by Guðbergur Bergsson
Cast: Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Thor Kristjansson, Gríma Valsdóttir
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/28/18
Opens: August 10, 2018 in NY August 17, 2018 in LA
Svanurinn (2017)
Kids know more about life than we acknowledge.  Before computers and i-phones they read Dr. Seuss and were looked upon as innocent about real life.  It seems now that adults are more ready to talk to children as though they were adults and not too cautious about what they let the little ones see.  This point is made in Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s freshman full-length feature which stars the adorable Gríma Valsdóttir as a nine-year-old who is bright, curious, and a veritable sponge, picking up new things that she learns every day and trying to parse the emotions on display from a group of farmers in rural Iceland.

As Sól, the child—who was cast in “The Swan” after a far-and-wide search and eventually scouted when the director saw her in a staged version of Pippi Longstocking—is sent by her mother to the child’s great aunt north of the capital.  Though she a first resents the move—her mom was motivated because the girl was caught stealing and the farm was seen as a corrective—she soon adapts to the various folks in the family which boards her.  She becomes particularly close to Jón (Thor Kristjansson), who spends every summer with them doing chores and using his free time to write voluminous notes in a journal. (Somebody in the crew seems to have spent long days and nights copying Icelandic notes longhand, filling several notebooks which are vetted by the young girl.)

These farmers are not the happy workers depicted in kids’ picture-books—the ones that are mistakenly given to urban youngsters who cannot relate to any of the nonsense.  Nobody here resembles “Heidi’s Farm Friends,” “Mrs. Wishy-Washa’s Farm,” “Down by the Farm,” and “Jigaree.”  Collegian daughter Ásta, just back from college in Reykjavik, is morose, as her boyfriend ditched her for another.  She complains to her parents that they are using medieval techniques to milk the cows and will be crushed by the big guys.  For his part Jón, who writes for therapy as he confesses that his life has been a mess, takes advantage of Ásta’s misery with a one-night stand that is witnessed by Sól.  He feels a kinship with the child who he believes could herself become a writer.  Sol helps deliver a calf, shown in full detail by German cinematographer Martin Neumeyer, but even that happy event becomes a source of more misery for Sol when the calf is slaughtered despite being treated as a pet by the child.

The fairy-tale nature of the tale is climaxed when Sól goes to the lake in the mountains where a swan, a monster by myth, is said to lure people to their deaths.  She is determined to face up to the handsome creature, given emotional fortitude by her summer’s life with this melancholy family, which gives her resolve never to depend on people again because they are at least as fragile and vulnerable as she feels.

Sól captures the director’s interest, the girl appearing in most frames with a look of curiosity to the strange people surrounding her, obviously learning more about both physical nature and human nature than she could from a schoolbook.  The actress, whose real age is not revealed by internet sources like the IMDB, has a remarkable debut and can expect other offers to follow.  The film as a whole, which was shown at the Scandinavian Film Festival, is slow moving and mostly evenly pitched.  The relationship of the girl to the summer worker, which appears to be headed into pervert territory as he wraps his arms around her at bedtime, is innocent enough in a picture that is a pleasure to watch, a coming of age story that in fact reveals changes in outlook not only of Sól but of the summer farmhand and the family college girl as well.

Unrated.  91 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+