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


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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