Review: ‘Lamb’ (2021), starring Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson

October 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Noomi Rapace in “Lamb” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Lamb” (2021) 

Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson

Icelandic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Iceland, the horror movie “Lamb” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: A farmer wife and her husband, who live in a remote area, have a life-changing experience when an unusual lamb is born on their farm.

Culture Audience: “Lamb” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a “slow burn,” artistically made film that has subtle commentary about the consequences of trying to mess with Mother Nature.

Noomi Rapace in “Lamb” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Lamb” is being marketed as a horror movie, but during the first two-thirds of the story, viewers might be wondering what’s so terrifying about this film. It isn’t until the last third of the movie that the horror elements kick into high gear and culminate in a memorable and impactful ending. Until then, “Lamb” is a very slow-paced film that can fool viewers into thinking that all they’re going to see is a movie about farmer couple taking care of a very unusual lamb.

“Lamb” is an impressive feature-film directorial debut from Valdimar Jóhannsson, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Sjón. The movie does a lot with very little. Not only is the landscape sparse where this movie takes place (on a sheep farm in rural Iceland), but “Lamb” also has a very small number of cast members. Only three actors in the movie have speaking roles. And there isn’t a lot of talking in this film.

Because the entire story revolves around this unusual lamb, it would be giving away too much spoiler information to say why this lamb is so unique. However, the movie trailer for “Lamb” does show glimpses that reveal why this is no ordinary lamb. It’s best to avoid watching the “Lamb” trailer before seeing the movie if you want to be completely surprised.

For people who don’t wany any hints whatsoever, it’s enough to say this: When married farmer couple Maria (played by Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (played by Hilmir Snær Guðnason) help the lamb’s mother give birth in the sheep barn, and they see this lamb’s unusual characteristics, instead of being horrified or confused, Maria and Ingvar are happy. Ingvar and Maria also exchange glances after seeing this newborn lamb, as if they were expecting this newborn to look this way.

Maria and Ingvar begin taking care of the female lamb as if it’s a human child, including having the lamb sleep underneath blankets in a portable tub that’s a makeshift crib. Eventually, the lamb gets its own real baby crib. Maria carries the lamb around as if it’s a human baby and uses a milk bottle to feed it. They name the lamb Ada and talk to the lamb as if the lamb is their own child.

Maria is very maternal and protective of this lamb, to the point where she becomes annoyed when she sees that the lamb’s mother has figured out that the lamb is living in the house. The lamb’s mother constantly makes noises as if she’s distressed that her child has been taken away from her. There are moments in the movie where viewers can tell that there are visual effects that give certain animals human-like expressions on their faces. It’s the first indication of the supernatural elements in the story.

Maria and Ingvar are happily married but they have a very isolated existence. They live far away from other people and don’t communicate with any other people besides each other. A lot of the movie’s screen time is showing Maria and Ingvar doing mundane tasks around the farm. They have a dog and a cat to keep them company, but their lives revolve around Ada.

It’s later revealed in the story why Maria and Ingvar have become so attached to this lamb and why they have named the lamb Ada. It’s the most obvious reason you can imagine. What isn’t obvious is how and why this lamb is so unusual. That reason becomes clearer as time goes on and viewers see that there are others who know about this lamb’s existence.

There’s a subplot in the movie where Maria and Ingvar’s isolation is interrupted when Ingvar’s older brother Pétur (played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) unexpectedly comes to visit. Pétur used to be in a semi-famous rock/pop band. But lately, he just seems to be a ne’er-do-well drifter who’s trying to avoid debt collectors.

Viewers first see Pétur when a car drives up on a road near Maria and Ingvar’s farm and two women and a man shove Pétur out of the car. It’s a scene that implies that Pétur has had some dealings that have gone wrong with some other shady people. And now, they’ve dumped Pétur in this isolated area.

Maria and Ingvar welcome Pétur into their home. He doesn’t tell them about the problems in his personal life, but they can sense that he’s temporarily homeless. Pétur’s first reaction to Ada is repulsion, but he eventually gets used to Ada’s uniqueness and grows fond of her.

In case it wasn’t obvious that Pétur has a sleazy side, he tries to make moves on Maria when they’re alone together. She rebuffs Pétur’s advances and makes it clear that she’s not sexually interested in him and that she won’t cheat on Ingvar. Pétur won’t take no for an answer though, so he continues with his sexual harassment of Maria. How she ultimately handles this problem is one of the few amusing moments in the movie.

Rapace gives an effective performance that is both endearing and chilling as an extremely devoted “mother” to Ada. “Lamb” is a movie that might be too creepy and slow-paced for some viewers, who might be expecting more action throughout most of the film. However, it’s worth it to keep watching, because the last 20 minutes pack a wallop. The movie’s ending is unsettling and bizarre, but it actually answers a lot of questions while leaving other questions deliberately unanswered.

A24 released “Lamb” in select U.S. cinemas on October 8, 2021.

Review: ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,’ starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

Culture Representation: Taking place in Iceland and Scotland, the musical comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has a predominantly white cast (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An Icelandic male/female pop-music duo called Fire Saga aspire to on the annual Eurovision Song Contest, but they come up against naysayers in their home country as well as competitors from other countries.

Culture Audience: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, as well as to people who like good-natured satires of fame seekers and hokey TV talent contests.

Dan Stevens in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is an entertaining parody of the famous annual Eurovision Song Contest that feels retro and contemporary at the same time. The contest, which began in 1956 and is televised in numerous countries, has singers (usually performing pop music) competing from different countries around the world, as a sort of an Olympics for aspiring music stars. Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams portray the earnest but naïve Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, a musical duo from Iceland who perform under the stage name Fire Saga. Ferrell, who co-wrote the original screenplay with Andrew Steele, is one of the producers of this comedy. And it’s one of Ferrell’s best movies in years.

Although “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (directed by David Dobkin) takes place in the present day, a lot of the musical sensibilities and costumes seem to be stuck in a previous decade, especially the 1980s or 1990s. The movie’s running joke, although not explicitly stated, is that certain parts of Europe are “behind the times” in pop music, because these countries rarely produce groundbreaking pop superstars on a worldwide level. Therefore, the performers who represent these countries at Eurovision are often ridiculed by Eurovision haters for looking and sounding outdated.

The trailer for “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” already shows that Fire Saga made it to the contest. Therefore, the first third of this 123-minute movie has no suspense, since it’s all about the obstacles that Fire Saga encounters in the quest to make it to Eurovision. Iceland has never had a Eurovision winner, so that immediately makes Fire Saga the ultimate underdog act.

The movie begins in Húsavík, Iceland, on April 6, 1974, when a pre-teen Lars (played by Alfie Melia), his stern widower father Erick (played by Pierce Brosnan) and other members of the family are watching Eurovision in the living room. The Swedish pop group ABBA is performing “Waterloo,” and Lars is transfixed. (ABBA won Eurovision that year and has remained Eurovision’s most famous winning act.)

As Lars dances along to ABBA performing on TV, he announces to his family that someday, he’s going to be a contestant on Eurovision. Several people scoff at the idea, including Erick, who says he’d rather be dead than to have his son sing and dance on Eurovision. Well, you know what that means.

About 45 years later, Lars is still living with his father, who makes a living as a fisherman, while Lars has a job giving parking tickets. Lars and his musical partner Sigrit (who is a music teacher) are longtime friends. They are singers and multi-instrumentalists, but they’ve been floundering in the dead-end local music scene. Fire Saga’s music “career” consists of rehearsing in the basement of Erick’s house and performing at a small local bar.

A running joke in the movie is that the patrons of this bar don’t want to hear any Fire Saga original songs (such as the trash-tastic “Volcano Man”) and would rather hear Fire Saga perform a very childish, nonsensical tune called “Jaja Ding Dong.” The audience is so fanatical about “Jaja Ding Dong” that they will often demand that Fire Saga perform it more than once in a single set. Is it any wonder that Lars and Sigrit think Eurovision will be their ticket out of this backwards town?

Erick isn’t the only one who thinks Lars is a loser and that it’s a delusional lost cause for Fire Saga to be on Eurovision. Sigrit’s single mother Helka (played by Elin Petersdottir) vehemently disapproves of Sigrit chasing this dream and tells Sigrit that she’s wasting her time with Lars. Although it’s not shown in the movie, it’s mentioned that Sigrit used to be mute as a child, until she met Lars and he helped her find her voice through music. And Lars and Sigrit have been friends ever since.

But now that they’re adults, Sigrit wants to be more than friends with Lars, because she’s secretly in love with him. Lars has the maturity level of a teenager (like most characters Farrell tends to play), so Lars is completely oblivious to Sigrit’s true feelings for him. As if to make the point that Lars and Sigrit don’t exude sexual chemistry with each other, throughout the movie, people who meet Lars and Sigrit for the first time mistakenly assume that Lars and Sigrit are brother and sister. Later in the story, when Sigrit and Lars almost kiss romantically, he stops it from happening because he says they can’t ruin their work relationship with a romance, and they have to stay focused on winning Eurovision.

But getting to Eurovision won’t be so easy. First, Fire Saga has to win the Icelandic Song Contest. Neils Brongus (played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), the president of Icelandic Public Television, leads a committee in charge of deciding who will be contestants in the Icelandic Song Contest. And he already has a favorite to win: Katiana Lindsdottir (played by Demi Lovato), from Kefalvik, a ready-made pop star with a powerful singing voice.

Neils tells his assembled team after watching Katiana’s audition video: “Without being dramatic, I think it might be the best audition tape we ever had in the history of the Icelandic Song Contest.”  (In the movie, Lovato sings the original song “In the Mirror.”) Compared to Katiana, Fire Saga looks like a bad joke.

Meanwhile, Victor Karlsson (played by Mikael Persbrandt), governor of Central Bank of Iceland, is worried about a contestant from Iceland winning Eurovision, which has a tradition of the winning contestant’s country hosting the contest in the following year. Victor fears that Iceland doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who would come to Iceland for Eurovision. And  he thinks that all those visitors during a short period of time could bankrupt Iceland.

Therefore, Victor is not enthusiastic about Katiana or anyone from Iceland winning Eurovision. When Victor expresses his concerns to Neils and the team at Icelandic Public Television, the rest of the group immediately shoots down Victor’s pessimistic prediction, because they think Eurovision coming to Iceland would be great for the Icelandic economy.

Lars’ dream of wining Eurovision becomes even more desperate when he finds himself homeless. His father Erick is having serious financial problems and has a choice to sell his house or sell his boat. Since Erick needs his boat for his fisherman income, he decides to sell the house.

Meanwhile, Sigrit has a quirk that Lars finds a little irritating: She believes in elves and thinks that elves can grant wishes. A recurring joke in the movie is that she visits a group of tiny houses built for elves and offers food and other gifts to the unseen creatures, as a way to entice them to grant her wishes. Two of her biggest wishes are to win Eurovision and to get together with Lars and start a family with him.

Through a series of unpredictable events, Fire Saga ends up representing Iceland at Eurovision, which is being held in Edinburgh, Scotland. How the usually hapless Fire Saga got to Eurovision wasn’t necessarily because Fire Saga was voted the best act, so Iceland’s support is lukewarm at best. Still, Iceland has given Fire Saga enough support that the country has hired a creative team to help Fire Saga win with Fire Saga’s chosen song “Double Trouble.”

The artistic director of this creative team is the very fussy and flamboyant Kevin Swain (played by Jamie Demetriou, in a scene-stealing performance), who sometimes clashes with the creative vision that Lars and Sigrit have for Fire Saga. During Eurovision rehearsals, Lars and Sirgit also meet another flamboyant character: Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov (played by Dan Stevens), a singer who flaunts his wealth and gives the impression that he will sleep with anyone to get them to do what he wants. Alexander’s Eurovision song is called “Lion of Love,” and his bombastic performance of the song includes a homoerotic choreography with male backup dancers wearing skintight gold lamé pants.

Alexander (whose frosted 1980s hairdo is reminiscent of George Michael in his Wham! days) immediately sets his sights on Sigrit to target as a sexual conquest. Meanwhile, Lars attracts the amorous attention of Greek contestant Mita Xenakis (played by Melissanthi Mahut), a singer who’s like a cross between Ariana Grande and Cher. Not surprisingly, some jealousy situations ensue.

In between all of the backstage drama and hilariously tacky performances, the movie has a standout musical ensemble number that takes place at a contestant party thrown by Alexander. In this scene, numerous contestants (including Lars, Sigrit, Alexander and Mita) do an extravagant medley of Cher’s “Believe,” Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” ABBA’s “Waterloo” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

Savan Kotecha, the musical director for this movie, assembled the team that wrote the film’s original songs that were deliberately kitschy. His background in writing and producing hits for real-life pop stars serves this movie very well. Among the hits that Kotecha co-written and co-produced include The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Grande’s “God Is a Woman,” One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and Lovato’s “Confident.” The musical score by Atli Örvarsson complements the pop tunes without being overbearing.

The movie’s Eurovision performance scenes, which includes footage from real Eurovision arena shows, are among the comedic highlights of the film. Just when you think an act couldn’t get campier or more pompous, another one comes along to surpass it. Graham Norton (portraying himself) adds an element of satirical realism with his cameo as the sardonic TV commentator for Eurovision.

For “Eurovision Song Contest,” McAdams and Ferrell have reunited with their “Wedding Crashers” director Dobkin, whose previous experience as a music-video director is an asset for this musical movie. As for the singing in the movie, Lovato and Mahut are professional singers in real life, so they did their own vocals. Adams’ vocals were either her own or a combination of McAdams and those of Swedish singer Molly Sandé. Alexander’s operatic singing vocals were provided by Erik Mjönes.

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has plenty of lowbrow jokes that are actually laugh-out-loud funny. For example, there are several penis jokes and jokes about naked men in the movie. The jokes are crude but not offensive. In one scene, Lars comments: “I think of my penis like a Volvo—solid, sturdy, dependable, but not going to turn any heads.” Comedy is all about delivery, and Ferrell delivers the line in such a good natured, self-deprecating way, that it will make people laugh.

The movie doesn’t just poke fun at tacky aspiring pop stars from Europe. Americans are also the butt of many jokes in the film. During the course of the movie, Lars and Sigrit keep encountering the same group of college-age American tourists. Lars makes it known that he dislikes Americans, by taunting the tourists with the worst “ugly American” stereotypes. His insults aren’t too far off from how many non-Americans perceive Americans.

Make no mistake: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is by no means an Oscar-worthy movie. (Ferrell has never starred in that type of movie anyway.) But it is a cut above some of the stinkers that Ferrell has been headlining in recent years. At its heart, “Eurovision Song Contest” has a sentimentality to it that just might win people over in the way that Fire Saga earnestly tries to charm audiences—not by being the most talented but by being their unapologetically corny selves.

Netflix premiered “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” on June 26, 2020.

Review: ‘A White, White Day,’ starring Ingvar Sigurðsson and Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir

April 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir and Ingvar Sigurðsson in “A White, White Day” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

“A White, White Day” 

Directed by Hlynur Pálmason

Icelandic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Iceland, the dramatic film “A White, White Day” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widowed off-duty police officer becomes increasingly obsessed with the suspicion that his late wife was having an affair.

Culture Audience: “A White, White Day” will appeal mostly to people who like arthouse films that are a slow burn to a riveting climax.

Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir and Ingvar Sigurðsson in “A White, White Day” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

On the surface, an Icelandic off-duty police officer named Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurðsson) seems to be a contented grandfather. He spends a lot of time doting on his spunky pre-teen granddaughter Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir), and he’s also busy building a house on the rural property that he owns with his brother. But looks can be deceiving. Ingimundur, who has been widowed for two years, is slowly unraveling. “A White, White Day” gradually builds up to the day when Ingimundur can no longer pretend to be “normal.”

“A White, White Day” (written and directed Hlynur Pálmason) moves at much of the same glacial pace that life does in the rural part of Iceland where Ingimundur lives. The film is more concerned with being a character study than it is being a movie where something dramatic or compelling has to happen in every scene. In fact, most of the first six minutes of the film consists of different exterior shots of the remote farm house where Ingimundur lives and the changing seasons.

There are many “slice of life” moments in the film, such as the playful banter that Ingimundur and Salka have with each other, the peer-group soccer games in which he participate in his spare time, and the often-dull work that he has at police headquarters, since the crime rate in the area is very low. His two main co-workers at the police station are relatively laid-back Bjössi (played by Sigurður Sigurjónsson), who is close to Ingimundur’s age, and ambitious hothead Hrafn (played by Arnmundur Ernst Björnsson), who’s young enough to be Ingimundur’s son.

But there are signs that Ingimundur is troubled. In a meeting with his psychiatrist Georg (played by Þór Tulinius), Ingimundur says that he’s stopped having nightmares and he isn’t as lonely when his granddaughter Salka comes over to visit. Ingimundur often babysits Salka when her parents—Ingimundur’s daughter Elín (played by Elma Stefania Agustsdottir) and her husband Stefán (played by Haraldur Stefansson)—have to be at work. Georg tries to get Ingimundur to open up more about his feelings, but Ingimundur insists that he’s just fine.

The very beginning of the film shows a car skidding off of a cliffside highway during a rainy and foggy day. Viewers find out later that the car’s driver was Ingimundur’s wife. Her tragic, accidental death is still haunting the family two years later. Elín has been drinking heavily, and Ingimundur asks Stefán to take care of her. At a family gathering, Ingimundur’s other daughter Ingibjörg (played by Laufey Elíasdóttir) tells Ingimundur that she’s finally gathered her late mother’s belongings and they’re ready for him to pick up.

When Ingimundur is alone and going through the boxes of his late wife’s possessions, he finds some things that trigger the suspicion that she was cheating on him with another man named Olgeir Karl Olafsson (played by Hilmir Snær Guðnason). He finds out Olgeir’s address and phone number by looking him up in a phone book. He calls Olgeir, but hangs up every time that he answers. Ingimundur also goes over to Olgeir’s house, just to watch what’s going on.

The movie will keep viewers guessing on what is going to happen next. It’s enough to say that a “White, White Day” takes its time to dig into Ingimundur’s psyche and expose his true state of mind. The last 30 minutes of the film are a series of events that result from Ingimundur’s obsession with finding out the truth about the nature of his wife’s relationship with the man whom he’s been stalking.

Viewers get a major hint that “A White White Day” isn’t going to be a warm and fuzzy movie when this quote is shown on screen in the prologue: “On such days when everything is white, and there is no longer any difference between the earth and the sky, then the dead talk to us who are still living.” However, the movie isn’t entirely bleak, since the loving relationship that Ingimundur and Salka have with each other is a bright spot in his life.

Sigurðsson does a haunting performance of a man who’s trying to hold his life together, even though he feels deep down like his life is falling apart. As for Hlynsdóttir, who makes her feature-film debut in “A White, White Day,” she is particularly good in her authentic portrayal of Salka.

The deliberate pacing of “A White, White Day” won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but writer/director Hlynur Pálmason clearly used this method to show how someone’s mental instability can easily be hidden among the everyday and mundane activities of life. The movie is a meditation on the toxic effects of grief, as well as a cautionary tale showing that sometimes people are their own worst enemies instead of the adversaries they think they hate.

Film Movement released “A White, White Day” through Film Movement’s Virtual Cinema with participating U.S. theaters on April 17, 2020. The movie was already released in Iceland in 2019.