Living for Cinema

Art reflects life at this year's St. Louis International Film Festival

Last year, at the very last minute, a stunning Scottish film festival favorite tore into my studio-saturated best-of-year list and launched itself to the top. It was called Morvern Callar, and it's available now on video. It's worth mentioning because at this year's St. Louis International Film Festival, there's a wonderful new indie from Scotland that plays like a less-artsy, more humane and subtly wry treatise on the same subject: the subject being suicide and its aftermath.

Come again? Suicide? Wonderful? Well, actually, yes. Rather than being typically dismissive of mortality, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himselfdives right into the funk of the flippantly despondent Wilbur (Jamie Sives), his more responsible older brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins) and the hapless young mother (Shirley Henderson, a.k.a. Grooviest Actress on the Planet) who sends both their lives spiraling into unexpected trajectories. It's sweet, sad, funny, sexy and, above all, smart. Director Lone Scherfig has topped her art-house hit Italian for Beginners with this Danish-British-Swedish-French co-production, wherein supporting player Julia Davis evinces outstanding passions for ear-licking and thoughtful regulation of buttock-girth, while the plot twists leave you reappraising -- and actually appreciating -- life. A subtle gem.

Being already in the general region of the North Sea, you may also take an interest in a short hop across the North Atlantic to Iceland. Heck, you've probably been saying to yourself lately, "What I'm hankering for is a Baltasar Kormákur double bill." You're in luck! You can check out ol' Balty twice this year in St. Louis, starring in Angels of the Universe (Englar alheimsins) from director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (Falcons) and as screenwriter, director and one of the stars of 101 Reykjavik.

Brood here often? Jamie Sives (left) and Shirley Henderson in the smart, charming Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
Brood here often? Jamie Sives (left) and Shirley Henderson in the smart, charming Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself

The latter is a strange delight, based on the novel by Hallgrimur Helgason, sort of an Icelandic Trainspotting or Slacker with a bit more charm. The ennui's still there, the sad abandon, the ever-so-chic modern detachment -- but there's also a heck of a lot of heart. Hilmir Snaer Gudnason stars as Hlynur, pushing 30, still crashing with Mom and despairing for an alky Dad, and absolutely lacking in the clues department. Sex, drugs and rock & roll have made their tawdry way to his literal and metaphorical island, leaving him -- sensing repeat theme here -- suicidal. However, he pretty much sucks at offing himself, and when both he and his mother fall for a saucy flamenco instructor (Victoria Abril of Pedro Almodóvar fame), things heat up on the icy isle. Hipsters of both the '60s and the '90s, take note: The project includes music by Blur's Damon Albarn and has an obsession with the Kinks' "Lola," which you may find difficult to get out of your head, for better or worse.

Angels, on the other hand, an Icelandic-Norwegian-German-Swedish-Danish co-production, turns more toward bitter than sweet, but in an equally impressive manner. Just don't expect to emerge feeling flush with joy -- rather than the spry Kinks, this movie finds a pop-song soulmate in the Animals' "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," which, of course, is exactly how the main character Páll (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) feels throughout. Sensitive, affectionate, creative and shat-upon, Páll (in the subtitles: Paul) gets no traction out of looking almost exactly like young Sting, and when his love life, family life and future as an artist/musician all fail him, he pops in and out of a mental institution.

In truth, Fridriksson's movie is not "enjoyable" in any conventional sense, but it's definitely intriguing and cathartic. Based on the novel by Einar Gudmundsson, it has been likened to Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, yet while it bears some surface similarities, its style is its own. There is some noteworthy amusement and pseudo-philosophy when Páll falls in with the semi-loony li (that crafty Kormákur), who believes he's sending hits to the Beatles via telepathy, plus crazy Viktor (Björn Jörundur Fridbjörnsson), who thinks he's Hitler and really knows how to blitzkrieg a posh restaurant, but don't attend for yuks. (Things get surprisingly moving when a random passerby declares to Páll, "You haven't looked after your angels.") The project wears its spiritually heavy heart on its sleeve right through Páll asking flatly, "Do you suppose Jesus was mentally ill?"

And hey, speaking of Christ, if you zoom back down to Ireland for Marion Comer's Boxed, you'll get to watch terrorists and priests discussing Him over murder victims. Wait -- despite being yet another tale of self-sacrifice, it's much better than it sounds. The project, "inspired by written accounts of actual events," presents a very tender dilemma: What if a dedicated young priest (Tom Murphy) is hijacked by terrorists (Joe Gallagher, Catherine Cusack, Darragh Kelly, etc.) to hear a final confession, then refuses to let the terrorists kill their informant? This Irish stew quickly thickens, especially since we're observing a relative anomaly for motion pictures: a Catholic hero. Comer's script is a tad verbose, but her direction is tight and the intense, claustrophobic setting well sustains the tension.

Speaking of all things holy -- not -- you can also cruise a bit south and check out the latest from Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia (or Álex of the Church). The wild man behind the cult hit Dance With the Devil (Perdita Durango) returns with the anything-but-moralistic 800 Bullets (800 Balas). This outrageously cheeky movie features young Luis Castro as a Spanish lad on the lam to find his haggard grandfather (Sancho Gracia), a stuntman from the glory days of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood who now scrapes by as a sort of theme-park goof. The result is as sprawling as Boxed is tight; perhaps an ideal double-feature.

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