Archive for the ‘Vikings’ Category

Originally published elsewhere.

 

The other day, I found a stack of my old artwork from my high school years. I didn’t remember myself as being the little metalhead that the evidence suggests that I was, but the proof is in the paper. Rock on, little fella! What metalheads and teenaged cartoonists and the producers of Outlander all have in common is a love of monsters and irrationally pretty girls and violence without consequence and bygone eras where hairy armored badasses swung swords at each other.
 
Outlander is a movie I would have loved in high school. Hell, given a $50 million budget, Outlander is a movie I might have MADE in high school.
 
Outlander stars Jim Caviezel (otherwise known as “The Christ”, not to be confused withThe Jesus”) as a space traveler whose ship crash-lands on Earth during the time of the Vikings. His character’s name is Kainan. Kainan’s people are involved in a species war with a breed of aliens known as the Moorwen. One of those aliens is somehow on board Kainan’s ship, and when they arrive in Viking times the alien goes on a murderous rampage. Kainan has to team up with a more primitive society in order to destroy the monster.
 
The movie has, at best, a teenager’s grasp of history – again, this is exactly what my friends and I would have come up with after scanning a few pages of the Viking chapter of our European history textbook. All of the supporting characters are named accordingly (Rothgar, Freya, Wulfric, Gunnar, etc.) and there’s even a character named Boromir, which indicates that someone’s been reading Lord Of The Rings when they were supposed to be catching up on their Norsemen. Also, considering that this is supposed to be Norway, there sure are a lot of different accents on hand – the movietakes pains to explain how Kainan comes to speak the same language as the Vikings, and British accents are par for the course, but no one bothers to explain what the hell the Scottish guy is doing there.
 
The supporting cast features the usual casting archetypes, such as the respected thespian slumming (John Hurt as an aging king), the ingénue who’d clearly rather be doing other movies (Sophia Myles as Princess Leia – I mean, Freya), and a convention favorite doing the rounds (Ron Perlman – you know, that huge low-voiced growly dude who looks like Will Ferrell, if Will Ferrell was a badass.) Both of those guys are good as usual, and Caviezel is good casting too. Sure, I like The Christ. Who doesn’t? The Christ is kind of a badass.
 
While this genre mash-up is one of the most derivative movies I’ve ever seen (the plot is the pitch: Vikings vs. aliens!), at least it makes sure to steal from the best. In the first ten minutes alone, I counted four separate, um, homages to Predator, but since Predator is one of my top ten movies of all time, I can hardly complain. Outlander does manage to have a couple neat ideas and doesn’t always go exactly where you expect it will, although mostly it does.
 
Probably the thing I liked best about the movie was the alien. Once you finally see it up close, it’s a good design, with a couple interesting concepts about it. For someone like me, that’s enough to recommend it. I was entertained, take that as you will. It’s not crap. I’ve certainly seen much worse movies become much more popular. Anybody who likes Viking movies and/or alien movies knows exactly what to do with this thing.
 
Also, not to introduce a big idea at the end of thearticle, but upon reflection, I’m starting to wonder what the casting of the lead character is supposed to mean. Jim Caviezel, best known for starring in The Passion Of The Christ, plays a character who arrives from the heavens to bring light and civilization unto a besieged, skeptical world that needs him. 
 
Is the whole movie supposed to be some kind of allegory for the spread of Christianity?
 
 
 
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In the beginning there was only man and nature. Men came bearing crosses and drove the heathen to the fringes of the earth.

Okay, I have to admit, you got my attention.

Those words are the opening of Valhalla Rising, the title card which pretty directly explains what you’re about to watch.  The movie, orchestrated by Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of Bronson and Drive, is about as direct, sparse, and skeletal a plot as a movie could possibly get away with.  It’s a movie made almost entirely of mood, sporadically punctuated by violence.  It’s like walking through a cool fog and occasionally stubbing your toe on a rock.  It’s a new genre: Viking psychedelia.  It’s also kind of wonderful to watch.

Set in the year 1000 A.D., Valhalla Rising follows a nameless, unknowable drifter known as One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen, best recognized by American audiences as the blood-crying villain from Casino Royale) as he is liberated from a captivity where he was kept as a medieval pit-fighter, and drafted into a much nobler war, less sarcastically known as the Crusades.  He’s called One Eye because he only has one working eye, also because he never speaks and therefore doesn’t mention whether or not he actually has a name.  This dude makes the Man With No Name sound like an Eddie Murphy character.

The fact that the movie’s main character doesn’t speak makes Valhalla Rising practically a silent film, which is totally refreshing in our modern age where everyone seems to be talking, texting, or typing always.  It’s almost entirely sound, picture, and music, a real sensory experience.  The cinematography, by Morten Søborg is crisp and absorbing; the editing, by Refn’s frequent collaborator Mat Newman, is lucid and impeccable; the music by Peter Kyed and Peter Peter (really) is the best kind of shoegaze noise-rock, creating an audio bed of unsettling yet hypnotic atmosphere.

When I mentioned it briefly on my top-twenty list of last year, I described Valhalla Rising as what would happen if Terrence Malick, instead of John McTiernan, made that viking action-movie The Thirteenth Warrior.  Refn seems to be far less disturbed by violence than Malick is — I would guess that Refn is more interested in violence as an end result, as a visceral release of accumulated cinematic tension, whereas Malick usually incorporates violence into his films for more psychological reasons.  But like Malick’s work, Valhalla Rising is lyrical, painterly, even experimental.  Any of Refn’s widescreen compositions in this film would be just as compelling out of context, hanging on a wall for instance.  The visual component is so strong that the story is comparatively threadbare.

In fact, the story is so simple that it is split into six chapter headings, which appear throughout the course of the movie like wooden blocks directing water flow:

Part 1/ Wrath.

Part 2/ Silent Warrior.

Part 3/ Men Of God.

Part 4/ The Holy Land.

Part 5/ Hell.

Part 6/ The Sacrifice.

Sounds just a little like the New Testament, doesn’t it?  Probably not unintentional.  Valhalla Rising could be seen as a couple different kinds of allegory, a couple different kinds of philosphical argument, but they’re pretty clear if you watch the movie and it’d be better for me not to explicate them.  Let’s just say that I’ve read the Bible, and this has better music.  The real reason I hesitate from nailing down the “message” of the movie is that explaining it would take away from its best quality, which is its dreamlike nature.  Like Malick, the broad, dreamy pace and picture of Refn’s movie (aided by some astounding locations, costumes, and production design) somehow makes it weirdly convincing as a period piece.  While those elements set the period, the performances and the droning electronic score are anachronistically contemporary, though even those streaks of modernity help make the period setting more tangible, paradoxically.  Valhalla Rising feels real at times, which is a big reason why it’s so hypnotic.

Really, this is a movie intended for late-night viewing, specifically under intoxicated circumstances (I’m pretty sure Refn has even said as much), but it’s not like you need to be under the influence to find this movie intoxicating.  Valhalla Rising is ominous and serious of purpose yet not pretentious or overly profound; it’s brief and slight of story, yet indelible.  It marks Refn as one of the more compelling stylists working in movies today, and makes the prospect of his next few movies a most exciting one, without a doubt.

Suggested reading:

My 20 Favorite Movies of 2010.

Badlands.

Days Of Heaven.

Thor.

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Hey, what did the beat-up boxer say when his trainer asked him how he was feeling?

THOR!

Le Thor.

Le Thor.

So Thor‘s out on DVD and Blu-Ray today.  My review was pretty funny, if I do say so myself.  And I do. “So myself.”  Anyway.  Thor.  Let’s go back there together, shall we?’

______________________________________________________________________________

Here’s what I liked about Thor:

  

They had to change up Thor’s costume.  They couldn’t have gone with the winged helmet and the yellow hooker boots.  But that giant robot thing?  That’s the Destroyer.  And if you look at the above pictures, you’ll see that it looks a whole lot like the way Jack Kirby first drew it, almost fifty years ago.  That’s pretty cool.  The reason that most of us who grew up on superhero comics love them so much has almost everything to do with the drawings of Jack Kirby, the guy who created the looks of most of the most famous superhero comic characters.  Kirby’s drawings STILL leap off the page.  They have a sense of weight and a kineticism, a strange energy, that remains just as effective today.

And somebody at Marvel (and Paramount) had the good sense to not mess with Kirby’s vision too much.  How cool is it that, nearly fifty years later, we’re seeing a Jack Kirby character on the big screen, looking much the way that Kirby first designed it?  I’ll answer that.  It’s extremely cool.

To me, it’s so extremely weird that a major summer movie was made from one of the most esoteric of 1960s Marvel Comics that I can’t help but embrace it.  Thor was always one of my least favorite Marvel characters, but in my opinion this is as good a Thor movie as we could reasonably expect.

Here’s the Thor story really quick:

The world of Thor supposes that the characters of Norse mythology exist in our dimension as super-powered extraterrestrial beings.  Thor, the arrogant god of thunder, grows up alongside his half-brother Loki, the god of mischief, under their father, the all-powerful Odin.  Thor’s impetuousness sees him exiled by Odin, powerless, to Earth, where he has to prove his worthiness before he can lift his mighty hammer and wield the power of Thor.

Basically, that’s all here.  Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, and what I like about the character here is that Thor starts out as a total dick.  I like when he yells at an army of approaching Frost Giants (as much a Robert E. Howard notion as an ancient Norse one), I like when he does the whirling-hammer trick that you see on that Kirby cover up above, and I like that he gets Tasered by a flighty college student when he’s stuck powerless on Earth.  Hemsworth is good, even if he’s  hardly the most interesting character in the movie.

More interesting is Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who gets several more notes to play as a character who starts out as a friend to Thor and becomes his main antagonist – although the way it plays out, there are some real and almost understandable reasons why.

I also liked Anthony Hopkins as Odin, maybe because in his early scenes he looks like Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn.

At this point it’s a pretty generic idea to cast Hopkins in this kind of a role, but again the weirdness of the setting makes it more interesting than it could have been.  I like the scene where he goes into a strange hibernation that all the characters call “the Odinsleep.”  I’d love to start referring to my own need for napping as “the Jonnysleep.”

I liked Thor’s buddies, Lady Sif and the Warriors Three.  I liked Sif (Jaimie Alexander) because she’s pretty, I liked Fandral (Josh Dallas) because it was fun trying to figure out whether or not he was played by Matthew Modine, and I liked Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) because I honestly couldn’t tell that he was Ray Stevenson until his second or third scene.  And yes, I liked the big cameo, as a Marvel Comics zombie in recovery.  It was a blatant plug for the upcoming Avengers movie, but it almost makes sense.

I also liked Natalie Portman in this movie, and I really liked Stellan Skarsgard, as her very skeptical coworker who eventually becomes a believer.  It’s nice to have solid supporting players who can help a skeptical audience member like me start to take more seriously a truly ridiculous premise.

And Idris Elba, forever The Wire’s Stringer Bell, grounds some of the most ridiculous moments of all, as the guardian over the bridge between Earth and the world of the gods.  My man literally stands in front of a rainbow bridge (sounds like something Prince would sing about), in a helmet that’s taller than I am, and somehow manages to remain a convincing badass.  Let us remember him at years’ end for Great Achievements In Badassness.

RAINBOW BRIDGE

Is this a great movie?  No.  No, it is not.  For one thing, it has more distracting product placement than just about any movie in recent memory.  (I understand that this movie was a tough sell and they needed all the ad revenue they could get, but still:  I got contact-high brain-freeze from all the 7-11 logos on hand.)  More damningly, Kenneth Branagh’s direction inexplicably has more Dutch angles than any movie ever should.  Thor has more Dutch angles than Citizen Kane, though, to be fair, less than Battlefield Earth.  Why so many Dutch angles?  Was it some misunderstanding, considering all the Norse references at hand?  It’s really distracting, and pretty corny.  And the same issues that plagued Iron Man 2, where Marvel Studios is working too hard to shoehorn subplots for the upcoming Avengers movie into all of its movies, are present here, though not quite as distractingly as in Iron Man 2.

Overall, I enjoyed Thor, and way more than I ever thought I would.  As is very clear by now, I grew up as a big fan of Marvel Comics.  I don’t remotely have the same passion nowadays, but I can still enjoy a decent comic-book flick when they come around.  Thor to me is like when I was living in my most voracious comic-book reading phase –  it’s not a character I care much about, and it isn’t the best comic story ever told, but it’s a solid enough detour from my regular reading habits.  I may rather be reading about Spider-Man and Batman, but since I’ve already read their best stories over and over, this is an okay change of pace.

Seriously guys, follow me on Twitter already. This all happens there too.

Me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

Here’s what I liked about Thor:

  

They had to change up Thor’s costume.  They couldn’t have gone with the winged helmet and the yellow hooker boots.  But that giant robot thing?  That’s the Destroyer.  And if you look at the above pictures, you’ll see that it looks a whole lot like the way Jack Kirby first drew it, almost fifty years ago.  That’s pretty cool.  The reason that most of us who grew up on superhero comics love them so much has almost everything to do with the drawings of Jack Kirby, the guy who created the looks of most of the most famous superhero comic characters.  Kirby’s drawings STILL leap off the page.  They have a sense of weight and a kineticism, a strange energy, that remains just as effective today.

And somebody at Marvel (and Paramount) had the good sense to not mess with Kirby’s vision too much.  How cool is it that, nearly fifty years later, we’re seeing a Jack Kirby character on the big screen, looking much the way that Kirby first designed it?  I’ll answer that.  It’s extremely cool.

To me, it’s so extremely weird that a major summer movie was made from one of the most esoteric of 1960s Marvel Comics that I can’t help but embrace it.  Thor was always one of my least favorite Marvel characters, but in my opinion this is as good a Thor movie as we could reasonably expect.

Here’s the Thor story really quick:  The world of Thor supposes that the characters of Norse mythology exist in our dimension as super-powered extraterrestrial beings.  Thor, the arrogant god of thunder, grows up alongside his half-brother Loki, the god of mischief, under their father, the all-powerful Odin.  Thor’s impetuousness sees him exiled by Odin, powerless, to Earth, where he has to prove his worthiness before he can lift his mighty hammer and wield the power of Thor.

Basically, that’s all here.  Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, and what I like about the character here is that Thor starts out as a total dick.  I like when he yells at an army of approaching Frost Giants (as much a Robert E. Howard notion as an ancient Norse one), I like when he does the whirling-hammer trick that you see on that Kirby cover up above, and I like that he gets Tasered by a flighty college student when he’s stuck powerless on Earth.  Hemsworth is good, even if he’s  hardly the most interesting character in the movie.

 

More interesting is Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who gets several more notes to play as a character who starts out as a friend to Thor and becomes his main antagonist – although the way it plays out, there are some real and almost understandable reasons why.

 

I also liked Anthony Hopkins as Odin, maybe because in his early scenes he looks like Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn.  At this point it’s a pretty generic idea to cast Hopkins in this kind of a role, but again the weirdness of the setting makes it more interesting than it could have been.  I like the scene where he goes into a strange hibernation that all the characters call “the Odinsleep.”  I’d love to start referring to my own need for napping as “the Jonnysleep.”

   

I liked Thor’s buddies, Lady Sif and the Warriors Three.  I liked Sif (Jaimie Alexander) because she’s pretty, I liked Fandral (Josh Dallas) because it was fun trying to figure out whether or not he was played by Matthew Modine, and I liked Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) because I honestly couldn’t tell that he was Ray Stevenson until his second or third scene.  And yes, I liked the big cameo, as a Marvel Comics zombie in recovery.  It was a blatant plug for the upcoming Avengers movie, but it almost makes sense.  I also liked Natalie Portman in this movie, and I really liked Stellan Skarsgard, as her very skeptical coworker who eventually becomes a believer.  It’s nice to have solid supporting players who can help a skeptical audience member like me start to take more seriously a truly ridiculous premise.  And Idris Elba, forever The Wire’s Stringer Bell, grounds some of the most ridiculous moments of all, as the guardian over the bridge between Earth and the world of the gods.  My man literally stands in front of a rainbow bridge (sounds like something Prince would sing about), in a helmet that’s taller than I am, and somehow manages to remain a convincing badass.  Let us remember him at years’ end for Great Achievements In Badassness.

Is this a great movie?  No.  No, it is not.  For one thing, it has more distracting product placement than just about any movie in recent memory.  (I understand that this movie was a tough sell and they needed all the ad revenue they could get, but still:  I got contact-high brain-freeze from all the 7-11 logos on hand.)  More damningly, Kenneth Branagh’s direction inexplicably has more Dutch angles than any movie ever should.  Thor has more Dutch angles than Citizen Kane, though, to be fair, less than Battlefield Earth.  Why so many Dutch angles?  Was it some misunderstanding, considering all the Norse references at hand?  It’s really distracting, and pretty corny.  And the same issues that plagued Iron Man 2, where Marvel Studios is working too hard to shoehorn subplots for the upcoming Avengers movie into all of its movies, are present here, though not quite as distractingly as in Iron Man 2.

Overall, I enjoyed Thor, and way more than I ever thought I would.  As is very clear by now, I grew up as a big fan of Marvel Comics.  I don’t remotely have the same passion nowadays, but I can still enjoy a decent comic-book flick when they come around.  Thor to me is like when I was living in my most voracious comic-book reading phase —  it’s not a character I care much about, and it isn’t the best comic story ever told, but it’s a solid enough detour from my regular reading habits.  I may rather be reading about Spider-Man and Batman, but since I’ve already read their best stories over and over, this is an okay change of pace.

http://twitter.com/jonnyabomb