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?


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


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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