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One thing I love about watching movies is to vicariously experience the culture of faraway lands. An opportunity to see how other people live their lives. The similarities across cultures are sometimes uncanny. I watched an Iranian film a few months ago called The Separation and I swear it was like watching a high quality Hindi melodrama. Of course, as I was watching it, I was making the connection of how Persian culture would have impacted North Indian social culture over so many centuries of intermingling.

Ultimately, no matter how alien a culture is, basic human emotions are all the same. Love and hate, joy and sorrow, anger and fear, all these can be related to, no matter which part of the world it’s from…

So the reason I’m going on this tangent is because I’ve just watched my first Icelandic film, called Hrútar.

I haven’t watched too many films from Scandinavia, by which I mean the broader definition, which in addition to Denmark, Norway and Sweden also includes Finland and Iceland. I’ve watched a few Swedish and Danish films. Four Norwegian films (all from the last 8 years). Three Finnish films (all Aki Kaurismaki). But never one from Iceland. Till now.

Hrútar means ‘sheep’ in Icelandic (the English title of the film is Rams). It is a simple film with the most elementary of plots. There are two brothers. They are both sheep farmers. They live on large plots of grazing land adjacent to each other. They are unmarried and probably in their 60s. But because of an old dispute, they haven’t spoken to each other in decades. Yet, they have to co-exist within a very small and tightly knit sheep farming community. And then a calamity befalls them which threatens their entire way of life. Can they come through without taking each other’s help?

Rams won the Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes 2015; it is an award which recognizes new and distinct voices in cinema. Frankly, the film isn’t as edgy as the typical Un Certain Regard fare. But the international recognition at Cannes and other festivals in 2015 probably helped it win Best Film at the domestic Edda Awards in February this year.

The film is noteworthy I think because this story could’ve taken place in any part of the world. And the acting is so accessible that very quickly, one stops noticing the racial and geographical differences and gets caught up in the lives of the people.

The lead actor who really makes this film work is Sigurður Sigurjónsson, who plays the younger brother Gummi. He is the more reasonable and sensitive of the two, whereas the older brother Kiddi, is prone to arguing, drunkenness and violent behavior.

When Gummi’s sheep are declared infected with scrapie, a disease that affects their nervous system, similar to Mad Cow Disease, the local authorities declare that the entire herd will have to be culled. The scenes before and after the culling (which Gummi decides to do himself, shooting each sheep individually) are truly heartrending. He has names for his sheep and he speaks to them, hugs them and kisses them before doing the horrible, unavoidable deed.

As can be expected, circumstances force Kiddi to work with Gummi even if he still doesn’t like or trust him. This should be the turning point of the story and the setup for the final act, but it happens surprisingly late in the narrative. After that, there isn’t much of a story left. The two brothers go off into the hills in deep winter in their snowmobile to safeguard the last of their flock from being culled by the authorities. Gummi gets lost but Kiddi eventually finds him in the snow. The film ends with Kiddi desperately trying to warm Gummi back to consciousness, holding him in an embrace which appears to be making up for decades of lost time.

I was hoping for a more upbeat and unambiguous ending, but perhaps that would have been out of character with the cold and stark landscape in which the story takes place. Nevertheless, this is an easily watchable movie which gives you a peek into a faraway culture – exotic locales but familiar emotions.



10 Cloverfield Lane: A creepy survival drama from the JJ Abrams factory

In 2008 January, a found footage monster movie called Cloverfield was released following several months of multi-layered viral marketing. The film told the story of a group of friends who find themselves on the run through the streets of New York as it comes under attack from a giant (mostly unseen) creature. The back story built through the online marketing made the movie a geek’s wet dream and it made $170 million at the global box office. That doesn’t put it into blockbuster status, but it surely turned in a nice little profit on a production budget of just $25 million.

The film was produced by J.J. Abrams, who at that time was known as the guy who had produced the hit TV shows Alias and Lost. Eight years later, Mr. Abrams is a global entertainment powerhouse, the man who has restarted both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises and has taken over as producer of the Mission: Impossible films.

Meanwhile, the Cloverfield geek club had been clamoring for a sequel for several years. The Abrams club has been coy about it, indicating they’d love to do it, but only on their own terms and in their own time.

And then in February this year, when we least expected it, came the trailer to a movie called 10 Cloverfield Lane. It came from Abrams’ Bad Robot production house. Surely, this name couldn’t be a coincidence? Was this the much awaited sequel? How come it was produced in secret, completely the opposite of the high profile marketing campaign of the original?

The answer came from Abrams – this movie is not a sequel to Cloverfield. He called it a “spiritual successor” to the earlier film, but not existing in the same universe or timeline. Abrams likened the connection to that of multiple films which are part of an anthology series. The connecting thread is that both movies feature a large scale attack on a populated area and the story is told at the ‘ground level’ of how some ordinary people survive the attack.

There are basically just three characters in the film. A brave and resourceful young woman, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A young man, played by John Gallagher Jr. who is trying to do the right thing in unpredictable circumstances. And a man in his 60’s who may or may not be a delusional maniac, played to perfection by John Goodman. These three characters find themselves confined in a surprisingly cheery and well-equipped underground bunker. One wants to keep them all down there for good. One wants to escape. And one doesn’t know what and who to believe.

Unlike the wild camera movements which are characteristic of found-footage films like Cloverfield, the lighting and camera positioning in this film is very conventional, making it easy to focus on the characters and their surroundings.

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This is a genre film that feels like it’s a blend of genres – locked room mystery, character study, suspense thriller, all rolled into one. Towards the end, it rapidly shifts gear and becomes a conventional scifi film. I was reminded a bit of another multi-genre thriller that deconstructed itself rather cheekily, called The Cabin in the Woods. Coincidentally that film was directed by Drew Goddard, who wrote the screenplay for the first Cloverfield. Connections, connections.

Very interesting musical score by composer Bear McCreary, who used a full 90 piece orchestra, with some very strong cello sections, but most interestingly, layered on the sound of an experimental stringed/ percussion instrument from the 70’s, appropriately called a Blaster Beam (check out this article from Wired).

10 Cloverfield Lane is definitely worth the time, if you’re a fan of suspense thrillers. And I look forward to further entries in the Cloverfield anthology from the bad boys at Bad Robot Productions.