‘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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Parasite; mmnah

Parasite.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Parasite, the seventh film from South Korean film maker Bong Joon-ho. And, had it arrived under the radar, as it were, much as his fourth film, Mother, did in 2009, then very probably it could have been forgiven its many glaring inconsistencies.

Sure, it’s about half an hour too long. And, like Mother (not to be confused with Darren Aronofsky’s execrable Mother!, with an exclamation mark, reviewed by me earlier here), it can’t make up its mind whether it’s a dark comedy, a creepy thriller, or a social satire – cant it be all three, you ask? On which, more anon.

Depardieu in Les Valseuses.

And sure, it’s the sort of film that Bertrand Blier was making eons ago, but with much more verve and brio. Films like Les Valseuses (limply translated as Going Places) from 1974, Buffet froid from ’79 and Tenue de soirée from ’86. All of which starred Gérard Depardieu in all his pomp, and which all displayed, not to put too fine a point on it, considerably more balls.

But it didn’t. Parasite arrived garlanded, anointed and verily festooned, blazing a trail of un-checked praise.

That it should have won the Academy award for Best Film is very much par for the course. It’s exactly the sort of skin deep, un-demanding social satire that the Academy likes to pat itself on the back for applauding. What’s much more surprising is that they should have given the nod to the genuinely edgy Moonlight (reviewed by me here) three years previously.

Tim Robbins in The Player.

But it’s baffling that the grown ups at Cannes should have been equally wowed, albeit in a particularly weak year. Mind you, they gave the Palme d’Or to The Square in 2017, which was similarly unfocused.

So, what’s wrong with being a dark comedy, a creepy thriller, and a social satire? Well, nothing. It can be done, as with Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (’82), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (‘90) and Twin Peaks (’92- present) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (‘73) and The Player (‘92). All of which of course were completely overlooked by the Academy. 

You just need to answer the three fundamental questions that all stories must answer; whose story is it? What do they want? And what’s stopping them?

The Long Goodbye,

So whose story is being told in Parasite? To begin with, it’s the son’s. Then, 20 minutes in, it switches to his sister. Then his father. Then it’s a mix of all four, their mother now joining them. Before finally reverting to the son once more. This does not produce a whimsical mixing of genres and a delightful flitting hither and thither. It’s all just a bit of a mess.

If we don’t know whose story it is, we can’t know what they want, and what therefore is stopping them from getting it. So we’ve nobody to root for, and there’s no way for us to get emotionally engaged, so there’s nothing at stake. This is not some optional extra. It’s the very foundation upon which all stories are built.

Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks.

Not that any of this should really have come as a surprise. After all, before making Mother, Boon hooked up with Michel Gondry and Leos Carax, two of the most inconsequential and insubstantial film makers to have ever come out of France, to make Tokyo! (08) together.

Let’s hope nobody introduces poor Boon to Terrence Malick and the aforementioned Aronofsky, America’s answer to messers Gondry and Carax. Perish the thought.

You can see the trailer for Parasite here.

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5 Best Films about Hollywood.

2800338627_c5df023aac5. A Star Is Born

The 1954 version, obviously. Directed by George Cukor, scripted by Dorothy Parker and starring Judy Garland as the innocent ingénue discovered by Hollywood heart-throb James Mason. Her “Born In A Trunk” medley makes this a genuine Hollywood classic.

And make sure it’s the restored 176 minute version from 1983. They stitched it together by inserting publicity stills in place of some of the lost footage. But it all works surprisingly well, and looks at times like a carefully planned art-house film.

 

4. The Player

Supposedly an indictment of Hollywood, Robert Altman’s clever thriller is in fact a closet celebration of the system it slyly pretends to satirize. The sub plot centres around a horribly believable caricature of a European writer, whose sincerity is flagged by his refusal to allow his opus to be sullied by anything as vulgar as stars.

But he quickly sees the light. And his movie ends as Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts enjoy a gloriously clichéd, Hollywood kiss.

The film’s amorality and triumphant cynicism are punctuated by the pitch perfect cameos from everyone who was anyone at the time it was made, in 1992.

 

wallpaper043. Mulholland Dr.

As David Thomson pointed out in his perceptive review, the “Dr” of the title stands a much for Dreams as it does for Drive, where the film is set in the Hollywood hills.

A director, an actress and a starlet move from dream to nightmare and back again in a series overlapping and interweaving scenarios. The idea of Hollywood being presided over by an actual cowboy is all too appealing, but only David Lynch would have imagined him taking his responsibilities completely seriously.

 

Visually arresting and hauntingly evocative, it is, given its troubled history (it was originally begun as a TV series) a surprisingly engaging film, that delivers an unexpected emotional punch.

 

2. Sunset Boulevard

William Holden is the embittered writer, Gloria Swanson the faded goddess from a bygone age, and Eric Von Stroheim (who directed the majestic Greed in 1924) her butler in Billy Wilder’s razor-sharp satire of the industry they were all working in.

It’s hard to know what’s more contemptuous; Wilder’s casting of Swanson and Stroheim as painful parodies of their former selves, or the latter’s agreement to both act in the film.

 

rg363b1. The Bad And The Beautiful

An actress (Lana Turner if you don’t mind), a writer and a director are forever embittered after an archetypally ambitious Hollywood producer launches their respective careers as only he could; as a means of furthering his own.

Played with irresistible charm by Kirk Douglas, his Jonathon Shields projects the perfect mix of magnetism and ruthlessness. And of the many, many details that the film gets absolutely spot on, my favourite is the coat of arms he insists on hanging portentously on the gates to his mansion.

They read: non sans droit. “Not without right”. Which was the motto originally penned by one William Shakespeare on his coat of arms.

That this is never referred to in its dialogue is a testament to the film’s infectiously confident swagger. And director Vincente Minnelli somehow strikes the perfect balance between sophisticated cynicism and exuberant, heady melodrama.

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