‘The Northman’, classy video, yawn

The Northman

What you think of The Northman will depend on whether you’ve heard anything about it before seeing it. Unfortunately, its director, Robert Eggers, and his PR team have done such a sterling job promoting it that the chances of you coming to it fresh are almost negligible. 

You’ll be as well versed as I was in how meticulously researched it all was, and about the many and great pains that they all went to to realise his vision. So you’ll very probably be as baffled and as quietly irritated by it as I was. 

What all that painstaking research was aimed at was, apparently, in giving us a window into what life in 9th and 10th century Viking Europe actually looked and felt like. Doing then for the Viking world what Robert Altman and Jacques Audiard did for the western, with McCabe and Mrs Millar (1971) and The Sisters Brothers (2018). Or what Bergman, Eggers’ favourite film maker did for medieval Europe, with The Virgin Spring (’60) and The Seventh Seal (’57). All of which brilliantly redraw a genre’s borders to reimagine its parameters.

Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Millar

But The Northman doesn’t look or feel anything like a film. It’s plainly part of the music video/advertising/video game landscape. All the physiques are perfectly sculpted, everyone’s hair falls just so, and all that killing and mayhem has that choreographed look and feel that we’ll all so familiar with and comfortable watching. 

We know that none of the figures we’re looking up at are actual, real people. They’re just more of those character avatars. Some of whom get decapitated, others of whom survive. None of which matters, because the stakes are necessarily almost non-existent. And the whole thing has that flattened, monochrome look that you get with video, further dulling any interest you might have had in it. 

Worst of all, you never get to hear, and therefore experience, any of the physical things that they’re supposed to be doing. Like, say, taking a bite out of something, or sitting down exhausted into a chair, or taking off a piece of clothing, because all its sounds are neutered by the constant drone of atmos.

Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.

If you’d heard nothing about it before sitting down to watch The Northman, you’d very probably consider it a perfectly pleasant way to while away a stray couple of hours. No doubt you’d have found all that cod, ye oldie, mittle-European dialogue mildly amusing, rather than risibly pretentious.

And you’d probably conclude that Eggers was the younger brother of Baz Luhrmann, determined to treat the world of comic book heroes and D&D with deadly earnestness. Unlike that older brother of his, ever ready to settle for the cheapest thrill and the easiest laugh.

But you’d never for a second imagine that either were working in anything other than the world of video. And when it comes to video, there’s no two ways about it. Eggers is a class act.

Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers

I love music videos, and video games. Just not at the cinema. As a matter of fact, they’re exactly what I go to the cinema to escape.

You can see the trailer for The Northman below – and, by the way, a 2 minute trailer is exactly how the Northman should be best experienced. Just don’t ruin your memory of it by watching the actual film.

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The Many Saints of Newark, damp squib of the year

The Many Saints of Newark.

Like so many others, David Chase only ever ended up in television because he’d been unable to get any of his feature films off the ground. So after the stratospheric success of The Sopranos, it was inevitable that his next move would be to make a feature. 

Which he duly did, with the blink and you’ll miss it Not Fade Away, from 2012. So for many people, this year’s Sopranos’ prequel feels like his real move from the small to the silver screen.

So it’s ironic, if, again, inevitable, that The Many Saints of Newark should end up being so demonstrably a work of television.

To begin with, it’s not even a David Chase film. He got Alan Taylor to direct it. Which is fine, Taylor’s a talented director, as his genuinely charming feature Palookaville (’95) demonstrates. But why, when you finally get to call the shots, would you let somebody else direct your baby?

Palookaville.

Chase has clearly become so institutionalised after decades in television, that that’s the only way he now knows how to work. So instead of directing it, he’s its showrunner.

And television is what he gives us. It’s basically a slightly bloated, 2 hour, extended pilot episode. And it needs all that time to introduce us to the many characters we’re going to be meeting over the course of what are presumably the next 10 or 11 episodes. 

But it does have what appears to be an all-important spine. The meat of the drama centres around the rivalry between Dickie and Harold, over who gets to rule the turf. Which is further heightened by the fact that the former is white and the latter black, and it all takes place in the midst of the race riots of 1967. 

And, for the first hour or so, that tension threatens to build. But then it stalls. And then it’s left casually hanging. To be resolved come the season finale, in who knows how many future episodes’ time. 

The Sopranos.

The real problem here is that this kind of inconsequential, flabby second hour would never have been allowed sit at one of the story meetings, had this been put forward as an episode during the actual Sopranos

It’s only because it’s so confidently directed and slickly packaged, and because so many of us watched it through pairs of impressively rose-tinted spectacles, that nobody’s plucked up the courage to call the film out on its almost complete lack of actual drama.

Never mind. It looks fabulous. And we’ll always have the television series to fall back on.

You can see the trailer for The Many Saints of Newark here

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Burn! Marlon Brando’s favourite film

Burn!

At the beginning of the 1960s Marlon Brando’s life and career took a turn. As Karina Longworth documents on her meticulously researched and compelling compulsive Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This, here, Brando was a unique phenomenon.

On the one hand, he was the first ever Hollywood, and therefore global, celebrity. There had been Hollywood stars before, but their creation had always been the result of a carefully calibrated plan concocted by the studios in cahoots with the press. Brando’s fame was of a different sort and at another level entirely. He generated an air of hysteria and of frenzied mania that was shockingly new.

And on the other, and even more remarkably, indeed uniquely, his fame was the result of his talent. Before he became the global celebrity of the 1950s, Brando had taken the craft and art of acting to pieces and re-constructed it as if from scratch.

A Streetcar Named Desire

His performance, on stage in 1947, and then on screen in 1951, in Tennessee WilliamsA Streetcar Named Desire floored everyone who witnessed it. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael was famously embarrassed, having witnessed what she took to be an actual break down. Only later realising that he’d been behaving like that deliberately.

He got his first Oscar nomination in 1951, for Streetcar, a second in ’52, for Viva Zapata!, a third in ’53, for Mark Antony in Julia Cesar, and a fourth, which he finally won with, for On the Waterfront, in ’54. That’s a working-class thug, a Mexican revolutionary, a Shakespearean hero and a wannabe boxer from the Bronx, each of whom he seems to effortlessly inhabit and actually become.

But after his directorial debut, One-Eyed Jacks, was unfairly overlooked in ’61, and, even more crucially, after then being blamed, again unfairly, for what was seen as the fiasco of Mutiny on the Bounty a year later, Brando became thoroughly disillusioned with the whole business of movies and of acting. And what followed, between ‘62-‘72, were what he later came to call my ‘fuck you years’. 

He now started to devote more and more of his time to the social cause closest to his heart and the issue Hollywood seemed most determined to ignore; racism. He marched with Martin Luther King and attended vigils and protests with native Americans at Wounded Knee. While the films he chose to appear in seemed to have been selected with the express purpose of wilfully derailing his career. 

Last Tango in Paris

But amongst the succession of impressively awful films he made during these years, he quietly snuck in a couple of gems. He starred alongside Elizabeth Tailor as a gay army officer in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, in 1967. And two years later he made Burn!, Gillo Pontecorvo’s follow up to his seminal The Battle of Algiers, from ’66.

Like that earlier film, Burn! is viscerally anti-imperialist. But where the Battle of Algiers had been neo-realist in style, with non-professional actors in what at times could be mistaken for a documentary, Burn! is in glorious technicolour, and has an epic sweep that’s framed by an Ennio Morricone score. And it stars Marlon Brando.

Significantly, it’s Brando’s favourite film of his and one that, shock horror, he seems to have been actually proud of. And this despite the massive falling out that he and the director had during its making. 

Brando had stormed off in protest at the treatment of the Columbian natives who had been playing the extras. And when the film bombed subsequently at the box office, its producer, Alberto Grimaldi, took Brando to court. 

A year later, the producer’s cousin, one Bernardo Bertolucci, suggested a solution. Why don’t they offer to drop the case if Brando would agree to star in Bertolucci’s next film for the bargain basement fee of $250,000? They’d even throw in ten percentage points of the gross, to sweeten the deal? After all, 10% of nothing won’t cost them anything, and in those days foreign language films were completely irrelevant, box office wise. 

Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Last Tango in Paris went on to become the 7th highest grossing film in north America in 1973 and Brando became so wealthy, he was able to sink into what was effectively early retirement in the 1980s. 

In Burn!, Brando plays an unscrupulous imperial adventurer, who arrives on a Caribbean island with a plot to oust the Portuguese and replace them with the British crown. So he manipulates one of the natives to lead a rebellion, only to betray him to the all-powerful sugar beet company which controls the region’s economy. 

Just as he would in the Godfather and Last Tango subsequently, Brando delivers a gloriously ambiguous performance. He’s so casually calculated and his nefariousness is cloaked so charmingly that it’s very hard to know whether to cheer for him or for his Marxist adversary, who we are clearly supposed to be rooting for. 

Like the Battle of Algiers before it, Burn! is mercilessly anti-imperialist and unashamedly champions the black cause and the native culture that will soon be justly liberated. Thrillingly, it’s one of the most openly anti-white and pro-black films you’re ever likely to see.

And it’s a measure of Brando’s intellectual rigour that it is his performance as so repellent a character, albeit a complex one, that remained the performance he was most proud of. And, of course, of his gargantuan self-esteem issues. 

You can see the trailer to Burn! here

And the trailer to the Battle of Algiers here.

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2 new films, from Denmark and Harlem, and a short from Belfast

Movie poster for Another Round.
Another Round.

Another Round is the latest film from Danish film maker Thomas Vinterberg. Vinterberg was, together with the more combustible Lars von Trier, one of the co-founders of the Dogma 95 collective, a ‘movement’ that managed to be at once fecund and puerile in equal measure. His 1998 film, Festen was by far and away its most successful production.

Another Round is a relatively high concept film and challenges you, knowingly, with what seems to be a perfectly reasonable, indeed a logical idea. Four male, provincial teachers facing up to their fast-approaching mid-life crises decide to conduct an experiment. They’ll spend every day moderately inebriated to see what effect it has on them. 

After all, drinking is only bad for you in excess. And everyone knows how much more confident, loquacious and amusing we all become after those first few swift ones. All one need do, surely, is drink forever in careful moderation.

The film engages winningly for the first hour or so, not least because of Mads Mikkelsen’s powerful central performance. But inevitably, the film runs out of steam in its final third when Vittenberg opts for both a moral and an anti-moral ending, that is to say an ending that is both Hollywood and anti-Hollywood. Which, necessarily, ends up being neither.

It’s a film you’ll not be sorry to have taken the time to watch. But neither is it one you’re likely to sit down and view again in, say, 5 or 10 year’s time.

Summer of Soul

Summer of Soul, on the other hand, is a film you’ll joyfully revisit every single time you’re offered the opportunity. Over the course of half a dozen weekends in the summer of 1969 a park in Harlem hosted what amounted to a black Woodstock. 

30-40,000 almost exclusively black New Yorkers were treated to a dizzying spectacle of outlandish sartorial exuberance and effortless musical sophistication by the likes of a teenage Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and the personification of peerless cool, Sly with his Family Stone.

It would have been nice to have been surprised to learn that this footage had lain around ignored for the last 50 years. But that of course is very much part of the story that the film tells. Now re-discovered thanks to the diligence of The Roots’ Questlove, he and his editing team have produced what is quite simply one of the great music docs. Never have two hours flown by so quickly nor quite so pleasurably. 

Nina and Sly in Harlem.

Short films are so reliably disappointing that I only very reluctantly sat down to watch Rough because of the word of mouth that preceded it. How refreshing occasionally to be proven wrong. 

Immaculately scripted, impeccably performed, it’s everything that a short should be, and delivers an ending that is both deft and quietly moving. Written and directed by Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn you can (for the moment at least) see it on the RTE Player.

You can see the trailer for Summer of Soul here:

And the trailer for Another Round here:

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A new film from M Night Shyamalan, the horror, the horror

Old, 2021.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the cinema, Be afraid, be very afraid… Are these the 7 most terrifying words in modern cinema; a new film from M Night Shyamalan?

Shyamalan burst on to the scene with his third feature, The Sixth Sense, which he wrote and directed in 1999 at the tender age of 29. I remember watching that film and thinking, what on earth is all the fuss about? But then it delivers its ending, and I thought, in fairness, that was genuinely surprising.

The Sixth Sense, 1999.

So I sat down to watch his next film, Unbreakable, from 2000, in a mood of quiet excitement. And, like the previous film, it ambles along in a perfectly inoffensive manner for four fifths of its duration, before delivering what was similarly intended to be a killer blow. But blow alas is the appropriate term. Instead of explain all that had gone on before, all the ending did was to undermine and cheapen it.

Next up was Signs, a sub-Spielbergian tale of awe and wonder which was so conventional, conservative, ham-fisted and ill-conceived it was hard to know what to think. Worse, that cute cameo he’s always rewarded himself with was here allowed to morph into a fully-fledged speaking part. And not a small one at that. What on earth were we to make of him? 

The Village, 2004.

But that was swiftly cleared up by the two films that came next. The Village, from 2004, is not so much an homage to The Crucible as it is a violent assault on it. On to its basic backdrop Shyamalan inserts a series of pedestrian twists that are as drearily predictable as they are improbable. And for the first time, we get a clear picture as to quite how poor a screenwriter he is. 

But it’s with his next film, Lady in the Water, from 2006, that any ambiguity as to the man’s gifts was cleared up once and for all. This was so badly written that it went on an almost unique journey from mesmerically bad, to so-bad-it’s-good, and on beyond to so irredeemably bad that it became literally unwatchable. 

I lasted for the first 25 minutes or so, until it was revealed that the person who was, wait for it, going to save humanity, was in fact…  a writer! And that that writer was played by none other than… Our very own writer director himself. Once I’d recovered from a protracted fit of giggling, I’m afraid I got up and left. 

Lady in the Water, 2006.

But there is one invaluable service that that film serves. For any writer out there convinced that what they’re working on is beneath worthless, all they need do is watch Lady in the Water, and they’ll immediately feel better about themselves. It’s the perfect tonic.

So I’ve not seen his latest magnum opus, Old. But I can’t wait. By all accounts, it’s another gem from the pen of every writer’s very best friend. I’m saving it up for a special occasion. 

In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Old.

And here’s the trailer for Lady in the Water.

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