Lita On Film

Posts Tagged ‘Sundance’

Happy, Happy – P-town 2011

In Film Reviews on June 20, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky’s feature debut, “Happy, Happy” (originally titled “Insanely Happy,” though there may be something lost in translation) is the story of a housewife who tries to remain happy even though her family seems to be coming apart.  Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) is concerned because her husband (Joachim Rafaelsen) doesn’t seem to love her anymore, her son (Oskar Hernaes Brandso) is constantly irritated with her, and the bleak snowy landscape is starting to swallow her and her IKEA-perfect house whole.

Perhaps just to get more social interaction, Kaja and her husband decide to rent out a second house right next to their own; the new tenants are city people, a high-powered lawyer (Maibritt Saerens), her husband (Henrik Rafaelsen), and their adopted African son (Ram Shihab Ebedy).  Soon Kaja and the man next door begin an affair; before the film ends we learn that the lawyer had previously cheated on her husband, and that Kaja’s husband might be in the closet.  The two boys also begin playing a disturbing game in which Kaja’s son pretends to be a slave driver, tying up the tenants’ son (who doesn’t speak) and saying he owns him.


It’s certainly a cliché to describe all films made somewhere near the Arctic circle as Bergmanesque, but “Happy Happy” actually is.  There is a gentleness to the proceedings that would never be present in the more judgmental world of American cinema.  Even the slave-game is clearly presented as Kaja’s son’s reaction to his parents’ troubled marriage, not some twisted fantasy he dreamed up on his own.  After plenty of rolling around in their neighbors’ beds, everybody returns to their own household and pretty much, we’re left to assume, live happily ever after.

Though “Happy Happy” was solid overall (it won the narrative World Cinema Jury Award at Sundance this year), its tone was frequently uneven.  It’s always a challenge to meld comedy and drama without everything disintegrating, and when you add this much sexual tension to a comedic storyline, it makes it even harder.  It’s still definitely worth seeing, though, as the Hollywood Reporter pointed out during Sundance, given the slavery storyline, it may not get theatrical distribution in the US.  Here’s hoping it at least makes it to the art house circuit.



In Film Reviews on May 29, 2011 at 7:49 pm


What hasn’t been done?  We have films and tv shows galore about vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, and all other manner of shape-shifting beasts.  Anything missing?  What about TROLLS?!

Done.  Norwegian festival favorite “Trollhunter,” which enjoyed good reception at both Sundance and Tribeca this year, is—I can safely say—the definitive creature feature about trolls.  And to the delight of monster fans everywhere, I can also happily report it’s actually a darn good film.

Director Andre Ovredal’s second feature follows a group of college students who set out to find a legendary, mysterious bear hunter and figure out what he’s up to.  When they catch up with the archetypal mountain man (a perfectly cast Otto Jespersen), they discover he’s not after bears at all; he’s a government employee in the super-secret Troll Security Service whose job is to keep tabs on, and sometimes kill, gigantic trolls.

Cue the special effects, which are perfectly serviceable even though they occasionally border on the cartoonish (for example, the first troll we see has three heads, which is a little hard to take).  But as the film progresses, things get more intriguing and scary; we learn there are several different types of trolls, some more violent than others, and that the Norwegian government is involved in a decades-old cover up of the troll population.

Conspiracy theory plus giant beasts equals pretty good fun in my book.  This film is fast, action-packed, and totally enjoyable to watch.  Its relatively shallow characters don’t prevent it at all from being totally absorbing—in fact, there’s a cut-to-the-chase feeling especially in the beginning that really pulls you in.  No time is wasted in establishing who everyone is—the premise is set up, and then it’s off into the dark, windy Norwegian woods.

If “Trollhunter” has a weakness, it’s that its premise relies on the passé schtick of being found footage, shot by the college students before they vanish after a final, epic troll confrontation.  But even this acquiescence to convention isn’t enough to suppress the film’s essential merriment—after all, they’ve got freaking trolls to deal with.  How awesome is that?


“Trollhunter” opens in the US on June 10, 2011

Winter’s Bone (2010)

In Film Reviews on July 9, 2010 at 6:20 pm

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Winter’s Bone is a story of poverty, desperation, and the scrappy resourcefulness of women.  The film follows 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) in her quest to save her family from homelessness.  She cares for her near-catatonic mother and two younger siblings alone, in a shabby house in rural Missouri, until the Law comes calling.  She is informed that her missing father, Jessup, has put up the family property as collateral on a bail bond.  If he doesn’t show up to court, the family will be turned out into the snow.

What follows is a story as simple and taut as an old-school Western.  Ree sets out to track down her father, but every step along the way turns into a do-or-die endeavor: just getting her hands on a vehicle and keeping her siblings fed is an enormous feat.  Her every interaction with other characters—even those trying to help her—crackles with tension.  Even extended family members turn on her without warning.  Knowing she can’t trust anyone, Ree has learned to rely only on herself, and so we are treated to long sequences of her walking endlessly through the gray Mid-western woodlands, skinny and alone.  There isn’t a lot of talking in Winter’s Bone, but the film is shot through with a deep, poignant resentment of authority and the status quo.  At one point, Ree admonishes her hungry siblings to “never ask for what ought to be offered.”

Lawrence carries off such lines, which could turn to cheese in the wrong hands, with an earnest passion.  What makes her a fully realized character rather than a spectacle or a stereotype is the fact that director Debra Granik allows the audience time to breathe, to soak in Ree’s reality and to contemplate her depressing surroundings.  We aren’t shown her pathetic house in voyeuristic flashes; there are no sappy montages of her worn-out furniture and clothes.  Instead, we are at her elbow as she cooks for her family, and next to her on a barn floor after she’s been beaten up.  Granik, like Ree, keeps things moving and stays focused on the task at hand.  The result is beautifully balanced, that rare film that’s both contemplative and thrilling.

Perhaps the most obvious progenitor of Winter’s Bone is Frozen River (2008), another excellent film that also received accolades at Sundance and the like.  As with Bone, River follows a female protagonist (Oscar nominee Melissa Leo) and boasts a female writer/director (Courtney Hunt).  It is a film of similar minimalism—and similar quality.  What elevates Winter’s Bone and Frozen River from the realms of so-called “poverty porn” is both films’ insistence on simply telling the women’s stories, neither sensationalizing nor apologizing for their subject matter, even though the characters’ poverty is sometimes shocking.  Hopefully, this new aesthetic of raw reality and female resilience is the tip of the proverbial iceberg; one Winter’s Bone is worth more than a thousand Twilights.