Monthly Archives: January 2013

Heart and Eye of Darkness: Valhalla Rising review

Amidst evocative backdrops, oppressive gray skies, and centered around a violent, silent protagonist with one eye and a penchant for violence, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Valhalla Rising” burns itself into the viewer, even if it doesn’t make the best use of its sparse runtime.
Mads Mikkelson plays One-Eye, the medieval-era slave who fights, and always wins, for his Viking masters. One-Eye is a brutal fighter, routinely dispatching his opponents quickly but viscously. Refn displays a knack for action scenes here. With a steady camera, he shows the skill in One-Eye’s fighting style, thankfully neglecting shaky cam. And Mikkelson’s quiet, brooding performance imbues One-Eye with a menace believable enough that he seems like a man who could go off at any time.
After he kills his masters and absconds with a young boy at his side, he meets a group of Christian warriors who take him in to fight the holy fight in Jerusalem. But things don’t go according to plan as they take a Joseph-Conrad style trip. Yes, if there was one film to compare this to, it would be Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” As the characters travel into unknown territory, it becomes clear that their physical journey is as dangerous and unnerving as their spiritual journey.

Typical for Refn, this film is visually stunning. Dreary hillsides draped in gray, overcast clouds are intercut with dreamlike sequences. Refn’s deftly uses color, mostly blues and reds, to convey information to the audience. The ambient music coupled with Refn’s surreal visuals also help to convey the characters’ descent into insanity as well as make the audience feel a little crazy.

Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, the film doesn’t feel like it makes the best use of its time. While Refn effectively, and sometimes hauntingly, lingers on characters and scenes for dramatic purposes, he sometimes lingers too long. Many scenes go on long after the audience gets the point of the scene or action, while others are a bit confusing. As for plot, there really isn’t much, and to describe the events of the film in detail would be spoiling. Suffice it to say, the themes of religion, superstition, heroism, and insanity are interesting enough that the film’s lack of brevity are worth sitting through.

“Valhalla Rising” isn’t perfect, but it is interesting and thought-provoking. To simply sit through it passively without contemplating what each surreal dreamscape or act of violence really means would be doing yourself a disservice, since that is how you will get the most enjoyment out of this film.

The (Wo)man comes around: Zero Dark Thirty Review

              

 

  Tense, slow-burning military drama seems to be the calling for Oscar-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, as she has followed up “The Hurt Locker” with another bristling, intense drama.

                “Zero Dark Thirty” is, famously called, “The bin-Laden assassination movie.” But that understates the film. Written by Mark Boal, the writer of “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty” encompasses 10 years of an obsessive manhunt, spearheaded by Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. Maya is the tenacious, obsessive main character of the film, as her efforts, struggles and intelligence lead to the film’s climax where, SPOILER, soldiers raid Osama’s compound. Onscreen, Chastain becomes Maya. When she talks, the audience listens because she always has something worthwhile to say and is such a compelling character. When Chastain wasn’t on screen, I kept wishing for the movie to get back to her.

                But no matter who is onscreen, this film never loses its focus, and whether it’s Chastain or Mark Strong (as one of Maya’s superiors) or anybody else talking, the film’s singular focus remains clear: the mystery. Bigelow and Boal never lose track of the plot. Everything is in service to it, and as such, not all characters are completely fleshed out, but those are minor players all part of a bigger picture that remains the filmmakers’ real focus, with Maya acting as a reflection of that focus.

                This is a different film for Bigelow, just like “The Hurt Locker “ was; there are no big action set-pieces or car chases and the explosions aren’t there to be awesome, but to be horrific.  However, when the film reaches its final set-piece, the raid on bin Laden’s compound, the Kathryn Bigelow who made “The Hurt Locker” shows up, displaying her knack for manufacturing tension through understated filmmaking techniques, instead of over the top set pieces. The scene switches between regular camera views and night vision, giving the audience a view from the soldier’s perspectives. Here, we see their surgical precision in their door breaches and executions. Another fine onscreen representation of Bigelow’s work behind the camera.

                The first act is difficult to watch because of the explicit and prolonged torture scenes. These have drawn controversy and I can see why. Some people think that this film vindicates the use of torture because the film shows the testimony of these prisoners helping the CIA nab bin Laden. Except it doesn’t. The first prisoner tortured doesn’t give them useful information at all. Some do. If the film says anything about torture, it’s simply that “sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.” But I don’t believe that. Bigelow and Boal avoided political grandstanding with “The Hurt Locker” and they do it here, too. No character gets up on a soapbox to represent the filmmaker’s beliefs. This is simply a mystery film. Grandstanding would betray the filmmakers’ intentions: to focus in on the main plot like a satellite.