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Cinequest 2004:
Finding Movie Valhalla

The San Jose International Film Festival has been going strong for a week, now, and I've got just one thing to say:


Laugh all you want, but these people are invading, I tells ya'!

The sheer volume of Norwegian films showing at Cinequest is pretty staggering. Sure, you'll see some Spanish sex farces, dreamy Japanese slice-of-life pics, dark German creepers, and relevatory Middle Eastern dramas; all the standards of the film festival circuit are well represented-


Nine films from the northlands stormed into the unseasonably sunny festival this year, meeting with little resistance from the local peasantry. Viking conquest aside, though, the simple reason for this turn of events: they're just that good. What the hell is going on up there for them to produce such a cornucopia (woohoo! Ten points!) of pop culture films with real feeling? Have they been thawing differently? Are the reindeer on strike? Have Americans stopped mocking the lands of ludfisk long enough for them to finally reveal themselves to us as cinematic masters? Do I need to come up with more ethnic slurs? The answer… is "yes."

Naturally, the festival opened with the Norwegians' flagship film United, thought by some in attendance to be the best Cinequest opener in years. All I can say is damn their Nordic blue eyes for not forcing repeat screenings on us. What kind of slacker conquest is this?

However, I wasn't too lazy - er, poorly conquered to see Buddy, which has quickly taken the lead as the audience favorite of the festival. I could give you a summary of the film, but it'd most likely sound like a Friends synopsis or something. A great critic once said the merit of a film lay not in the "what" but the "how," and that's just what makes Buddy such an enjoyable film. Is it formulaic? Sure. Does the boy get the girl? Yup. Aren't we blown away by the avant garde stylings of the absurdist narrative? Man, this film's as avant garde as Sesame Street. No, really. Think about that for a second…

In Buddy, it's the way they weave the narrative and allow the scenes to progress. This is just what the American mainstream needs a good shot of: that honest feeling that a film built upon endless coincidence isn't contrived in the least. The humor is so warm and well crafted, the characters so easily understood, the plot so natural and unforced. Hey, it may not be Citizen Kane, but I doubt you'll find a better date film. Well, outside of Oslo, at least.

Another surprise was Play, a film that embraced a format all filmmakers should dread, if not openly despise: the "sit-down" drama; a formula used in such snore-worthy classics as The Big Chill. I must confess, this one almost had me convinced the new Norse conquest was more a police action than a full-scale war.

My gripes? The unforgiving digital format did nothing for the visuals; the inconsistent attempts to spice things up with crane and dolly shots amidst the nigh-endless handheld cinematography, the tired device of someone bringing a video camera on a trip (when, in fact, very few shots in the film come from said camera). The film seemed to be dying fast.

But then they hit the moment of crisis… and, with a sit-down drama, as long as the director can keep you there up to the crisis, he's done his job. From then on, it's up to the actors, and, I must confess, these were some talented people (all graduates from the National Drama School in Oslo, according to the press release). Again, like in the other Norwegian films, they were able to naturalize what we always make ridiculous melodrama in the American cinema, not an easy task when the movie aspires to be little more than fodder for the actors to graze on. Damn fine grazing, though.

Thankfully, those plucky little Vikings followed up with Jonny Vang, which returns us to the style of pop comedy that won over audiences in United and Buddy. The romance takes a backseat to the tragicomedy of Jonny's life, but I want you to consider something; in Hollywood, this film would've been called Joe Dirt, had the soul sucked out of it, and gone straight to video like all the other There's Something About Mary ripoffs they crap out. In the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow, they make Jonny a truly loveable loser with real concerns who actually suffers the consequences of having his car wrecked, finding out he fathered an illegitimate child, and losing the family farm. In your average Ben Stiller movie, that's just a convenient excuse to get a fat man to take his shirt off.

However, I must temper my praise a bit; the film is guilty of padding the first half with a couple of "dancing in front of the camera scenes." Not the greatest sin in the history of movie making, but similar scenes (such as the classic Risky Business underwear scene) worked better by not repeating throughout the film and never breaking the fourth wall. Sure, the actor really can dance and has undeniable star quality, but I'd rather see the plot get moving than watch him freestyle romp for a couple minutes.

Well, it looks like I've just about run out of ethnic slurs and Viking references (not that I really had many to begin with… I'll work on that), so I'll close with some final thoughts on Norway: Comic fans, hot chicks, good films, fjords- what's not to like? Well, aside from that whole arctic climate thing… but I hear they're working on that, too. So give Norway a chance... or they'll crush you, see you driven before them, and hear the lamentation of your women.

Jason Schachat

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