Tag Archives: Ridley Scott

Cinematic Iceland: A Photo Tour

The country of Iceland has had a relatively prolific and surprisingly rich local film industry over the past couple decades, especially considering its population is currently hovering at an all-time high of barely more than 300,000 people. I recently visited this delightful Scandinavian nation for the occasion of my fifth wedding anniversary and was able to engage in many film-related activities along the way, including visiting the locations of prominent Icelandic movies and having coffee with legendary director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. Below are some photos documenting my journey. Unless otherwise noted they were taken by me or my wife, Jill.

20130806_165430Me and the great Fridrik Thor Fridriksson in a quiet corner of Reykjavik’s fashionable 101 Bar. (Our full interview will be posted on this blog soon.)

Fridrik Thor Fridriksson is almost single-handedly responsible for Iceland’s impressive movie boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. His 1991 feature Children of Nature (Börn náttúrunnar), the only locally made film of that year, was the first Icelandic movie to be nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. He sunk the film’s profits into buying production equipment and established the Icelandic Film Corporation, which produced dozens of distinctive films in the following years. I interviewed Fridriksson over coffee and was able to see a beautiful 35mm print of Children of Nature, which I had only previously seen on VHS tape.

Children of Nature ranks for me alongside of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story as one of the cinema’s most powerful statements about the predicament of the elderly. It tells the story of Thorgeir (Gísli Halldórsson), an old man who is virtually forced by his uncaring family into living in a retirement home. Upon arriving there he meets Stella (Sigríður Hagalín), an old flame, with whom he soon steals a jeep and escapes to rural southern Iceland so that she can see again the land of her childhood. One of the film’s most evocative scenes occurs right before the couple flee Reykjavik for the countryside: Thorgeir strolls alone through Holavallagardur cemetery, a remarkable site that contains many graves dating back to the 19th century. Flowers and trees have been planted directly on top of many of the plots, giving the impression that the location is a garden as much as it is a graveyard. It is unquestionably the most beautiful cemetery I’ve visited and one that makes its stateside counterparts seem sterile and depressing by contrast.

20130807_152002Holavallagardur cemetery

childrenI love this movie so much I paid 1600 krona to see it!

Fridriksson may be best known in the U.S. for Cold Fever (Á köldum klaka), an absurdist comedy/road movie about Hirata (Masatoshi Nagase), a Japanese businessman who travels to Iceland to perform a traditional cleansing ritual at the site where his parents had died years earlier. The film was an international arthouse hit when it was released in 1995/1996 and part of what makes it so charming is the way it uses a fish-out-of-water story to present “typically” quirky Icelandic characters and scenarios to an outsider-protagonist who functions as a surrogate for the viewer. For instance, the first place Hirata visits in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon, an outdoor hot spring that has long been the country’s most popular tourist destination.

coldHirata (Masatoshi Nagase) visits the Blue Lagoon in a still from Cold Fever. The milky blue water and roiling mist contribute to an intoxicating, ethereal atmosphere.

bluelagoonJill and me in the same location 19 years after Fridriksson shot his scene. Please note the above photo was taken at 9:30 pm.

vlcsnap-2013-08-12-16h19m03s109Hirata stays at the upscale Saga Hotel in Reykjavik. In this still from the film he is enjoying a glass of wine in the hotel bar when he’s approached by a punky young woman desperate to sell her car.

100_2444The same location as seen today. It has since been purchased by Radisson and renamed the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel.

Unlike Hirata we didn’t pop into the Saga for a drink. We did however imbibe at many other local bars, including the amazing Big Lebwoski-themed Lebowski Bar.


Of course we ordered White Russians . . .

lebowski2I had the “El Duderino,” which contained tequila and triple sec (appropriate for a drink named after the Dude’s Latinized nickname — or for those “not into the brevity thing”). Jill had the “Tree Hugger,” which was made with soy milk instead of cream!

One of the most popular Icelandic film-exports of the 21st century is Baltasar Kormákur’s offbeat comedy 101 Reykjavik, which details a young man’s affair with his mother’s lesbian lover. One of the movie’s central locations is a trendy bar known as Kaffibarinn. Unfortunately, Kormákur’s subsequent output has become increasingly generic and impersonal (culminating in a recent stint in Hollywood as Mark Wahlberg’s director of choice).

100_2468Kaffibarinn in 2013.

Iceland has become a popular destination for Hollywood productions in recent years (especially sci-fi films in search of exotic exteriors). The opening of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, one of the most beautiful and enigmatic scenes in that abstract and still-underrated movie, was shot at the awesome Gulfoss waterfall.

prometheusGulfoss: the biggest waterfall in Iceland and one of the most impressive natural wonders I’ve ever seen.

Iceland’s exteriors have also proven to be an attractive option to filmmakers from other European countries. Aleksandr Sokurov’s ambitious Russian/German co-production of Faust (2011), for instance, memorably set its final scene in Geysir (pronounced gay-ZEER), the site of one of only two of the world’s continually spouting geysers. No one in Sokurov’s film, however, looks as remotely happy as my wife and I do here:


This post would not be complete without mention of my visit to Iceland’s Phallological Museum, which contains penis samples of over 280(!) different mammals. The museum’s quest to find a human donor was the subject of the hilarious — and surprisingly sweet — 2012 documentary The Final Member, which I reviewed when it played the Chicago International Film Festival last year. Below is my photograph of the museum’s sole human sample, finally acquired in 2011. It belonged to 95-year-old former explorer Pall Arason.

finalmemberPlease forgive me for posting this.

Now Playing: Prometheus

dir. Ridley Scott, 2012, USA

Rating: 8.2

Now playing at theaters everywhere is Prometheus, a much-hyped, surprisingly excellent Alien prequel that offers intelligent, meticulously crafted, beautifully designed riffs on familiar genre elements. 75-year old veteran director Ridley Scott has not made a science fiction film since Blade Runner way back in 1982 and Prometheus at its best is so staggeringly good that it makes you wonder why. Scott has always been a masterful visual stylist and an obsessively detailed director along the lines of a Stanley Kubrick or a David Fincher. Unfortunately, for most of the past 30 years his talents have been squandered on projects that were not worthy of his time or attention. (Gladiator is one of my personal nominees for the worst Best Picture Oscar winner ever and I would rather eat my own brain than have to sit through Hannibal again.) But sci-fi and Scott go together like bacon and eggs as evidenced by Alien and Blade Runner, both of which are now firmly established as classics of the genre, and Prometheus manages to rekindle memories of the best aspects of those movies while also having a few new tricks up its sleeve; Prometheus follows the same basic template of the original Alien (which, unique for its time, was essentially a slasher film that just so happened to utilize sci-fi iconography) while simultaneously asking the big philosophical questions of Blade Runner: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What does it mean to be human?

The plot of Prometheus involves an expedition by a team of scientists to a distant planet, the purpose of which is to investigate the origins of human life on Earth. “Prometheus” is also the name of the ship that takes these characters on the trillion dollar mission, which is being funded by an elderly tycoon named Weyland (Guy Pearce under a ton of latex), who hopes that the answers they find will enable him to live forever. Among the diverse crew members are Janek (Idris Elba), a pragmatic pilot, Drs. Shaw and Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), a couple of humanistic “true believers,” Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the heartless corporate-type who is in charge and, most memorably of all, David (Michael Fassbender), a genius android who comes across like a live action version of 2001‘s Hal 9000. This is a remarkably strong cast (with the unfortunate exception of Marshall-Green, whose presence supplies a slice of hipster cheesecake in lieu of a performance). Fassbender, in particular, shines; he is spectacularly eerie and yet also strangely sympathetic as a non-human who always speaks in even, perfectly measured tones and whose laugh always sounds just a little too forced. The brilliant parallel that Scott draws between the Aryan features and chilly demeanors of David and Vickers is apparent long before Janek jokingly asks Vickers if she is a robot. Her response provides one of the movie’s few lighthearted moments.

Sparks begin to fly as the scientists, many of whom are at cross-purposes with one another, discover an alien tomb and begin arguing over if and how the mission should continue. There are plenty of surprises from this point forward, none of which I will give away. Let me just say that Prometheus is an unmitigated visual triumph that consistently offers one jaw-dropping shot after another and needs to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated. Scott, working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Arthur Max, seamlessly blends location footage from Iceland with brilliantly designed sets (the alien tomb’s dank, cavernous, honeycomb quality put me in the mind of Fritz Lang’s Indian tomb) as well as computer generated effects. This is not, I hasten to add, the flat, thinly textured, animated-looking CGI that Takashi Miike likes to slather over his films because he finds it funny but that the average Hollywood comic book movie wants you to accept at face value. These are dense, thickly textured digital images with impressive depth and a green-blue-black color scheme that makes them resemble lush, monochromatic oil paintings. The 3-D effects are also intelligently and judiciously applied; as some commenters have noted, Prometheus is in many ways a movie about movies, a quality that is perhaps most apparent in the way that the film’s most ostentatious stereoscopic effects also appear as stereoscopic effects to the characters (e.g., video images appear before them as three-dimensional holograms).

But Scott’s technical mastery would be nothing if Prometheus did not also hold viewers in thrall for every one of its 123 minutes. There are a number of magnificent, white-knuckle suspense set-pieces that rival anything that has come out of Hollywood in recent years (including a scene where two geologists confront a snake-like reptilian creature in the womb-like tomb and a truly horrifying body-horror sequence involving self-inflicted, robot-assisted surgery). Scott refreshingly plays these genre elements straight and true, which gives the film a winning balance of humility and grandeur. As a result, the more cosmic moments effortlessly conjure up a sense of wonder that something like the arty, overly-pious Tree of Life could never match. (Prometheus also proves that contemporary genre movies can be self-reflexive without being fashionably cynical a la The Cabin in the Woods.) Having said that, Prometheus is not perfect. In addition to the miscasting of Marshall-Green, the screenplay (by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) is perhaps overly stuffed with more characters and subplots than is strictly necessary, and the orchestral score also underlines the awe-inspiring moments a bit too emphatically for my taste. But these are minor quibbles considering the film provides so many images and ideas that do genuinely inspire awe in the tradition of the best science fiction movies – not only Alien and Blade Runner but Metropolis, The Thing From Another World, La Jetee, Alphaville, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris as well. Even if Prometheus were only half as good as it is, however, I would still urge everyone I know to see it in the theater. It is, after all, a big-budget “tentpole” movie that is rated R and aimed at adults and God knows those are rapidly becoming an endangered species.

Top 25 Films of the 1980s

25. The Cyclist (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1987)

Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s incredible film centers on Nasim, an Afghan immigrant living in Tehran who is virtually forced to perform a circus sideshow-like endurance test in order to pay for his wife’s medical bills: he agrees to the scheme of a shady promoter to attempt to ride a bicycle continuously for a week. As Nasim rides in circles in the same town square night and day, a crowd of spectators mounts (including politicians, gamblers and the media), all of whom attempt to manipulate the poor man’s plight for their own benefit. This powerful allegory is not unlike Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar in that a holy fool character serves as a blank slate upon which the sins of mankind are imprinted.

24. The Shining (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1980)

23. Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East? (Bae, S. Korea, 1989)

22. The Asthenic Syndrome (Muratova, Russia, 1989)


21. The Green Ray (Rohmer, France, 1986)

20. Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica, Yugoslavia, 1988)

19. Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, UK, 1988)

18. Sans Soleil (Marker, France, 1983)

17. The Road Warrior (Miller, Austraila, 1981)

George Miller’s 1981 action-movie masterpiece is the best and most influential of the post-apocalyptic Eighties trend. Even more impressive is the fact that he did it all on a relatively meager budget of $2,000,000 — with old-fashioned (i.e., “real”) stunts and exceedingly clever production design in which an assortment of 20th century detritus is reconfigured in surprising ways (e.g., punk rock fashions and S&M gear happily co-exist with pieces of athletic uniforms). The film is set in the future, when gasoline is an even more precious resource than it is today, and concerns a former cop (Mel Gibson, reprising his role from the non-post-apocalyptic Mad Max) helping a gasoline-rich colony fend off attacks by a gang of marauding bandits. The climactic action set-piece, a long chase involving many different types of vehicles barreling through the barren Australian outback, takes up most of the second-half and ranks as one of the most exhilarating such scenes ever captured on celluloid.

16. Blue Velvet (Lynch, USA, 1986)

15. Once Upon a Time in America (Leone, USA, 1984)

14. Blade Runner (Scott, USA, 1982)

13. Hail Mary (Godard, France, 1985)


12. A Nos Amours (Pialat, France, 1983)

11. Mon Oncle d’Amerique (Resnais, France, 1980)

10. A City of Sadness (Hou, Taiwan, 1989)

9. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984)

8. Vagabond (Varda, France, 1985)

7. Brightness (Cisse, Mali, 1987)

Perhaps my favorite African movie ever is Yeelen, a hypnotic, deliberately paced art film that has all of the deceptive simplicity, power and beauty of a primeval myth. Niankoro is a boy living in rural West Africa who must undergo various rites of passage in order to become a man, which culminates in challenging his evil sorcerer father in a duel to the death. Western critics are fond of invoking Oedipus Rex when reviewing writer/director Souleymane Cissé’s masterpiece but all of this film’s potent and elaborate symbolism is apparently based on local folklore and not influenced by outside sources.

6. Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA, 1980)

5. Come and See (Klimov, Russia, 1985)

4. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, Germany, 1980)

3. The Ballad of Narayama (Imamura, Japan, 1983)

2. The Decalogue (Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)

My opinion of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental achievement — 10 one-hour movies that correspond to the 10 commandments, originally broadcast on Polish television — is inextricably bound to the circumstances under which I first saw it. I watched all 10 hours projected in 35mm, exhibited in two-hour installments a piece, while standing in the back of a movie theater that had sold out all of its screenings. As Stanley Kubrick noted, what may be most impressive about The Decalogue is the way Kieslowski and his collaborators were able to successfully dramatize ideas. It’s fun to think about how the individual episodes relate to the commandments: the first episode is a literal adaptation (a man puts his faith in the “false God” of technology — with tragic results) while others are more oblique (the “thou shall not commit adultery” episode is a tale of romantic obsession and voyeurism in which none of the characters are married). Kieslowski went on to even greater fame by subsequently making arthouse blockbusters in France (The Double Life of Veronique, the “Three Colors” trilogy) but The Decalogue easily remains my favorite of his movies.

1. L’argent (Bresson, France, 1983)

Robert Bresson’s swan song, as tight and compressed as a Ramones song, is a masterful update of Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Note. Bresson’s ingenious narrative follows a counterfeit bill, initially passed off in a shop as a schoolboy prank, which sets off a chain of events (an “avalanche of evil” in the director’s own indelible words) that ends with a young man murdering an entire family with an axe. This vital, rigorous movie, made when the director was 82 but seeming like the work of a much younger man, is the ultimate artistic statement about the destructive power of money.

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