Great Films You Need To See – Valhalla Rising (2009)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout September with the theme of ‘the great outdoors’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case the Nicolas Winding Refn’s Vikings and violence drama Valhalla Rising.

If “art is an act of violence” as the uncompromising Nicolas Winding Refn has attested, then his vicious Viking abstraction Valhalla Rising must surely belong in the Louvre.

Valhalla Rising - powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of Nicolas Winding Refn's ouevre so far

Valhalla Rising – powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of Nicolas Winding Refn’s oeuvre so far

Cut to the bone in terms of narrative and dialogue, the only thing more harsh than the inevitability of (often brutal) death in Refn’s powerful and primeval journey into apocalyptic dread is the bleakly beautiful Scottish landscapes in which the film was shot.

Coming off the back of Bronson (2008), Refn’s penchant for anti-heroes takes us back to 1000AD and Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye, a mute Norse savage who wreaks a terrible vengeance against his captors and, following his escape, agrees to accompany a group of Viking Christians in search of the Holy Land.

One-Eye’s only companion is a young boy (Maarten Stevenson), who believes the silent warrior has been delivered to this godforsaken place from hell. The group’s devout leader (Ewan Stewart) is confident that, by accompanying them on their quest across the ocean, One-Eye can be cleansed of his sins. The land they finally arrive at, however, is far from holy and no amount of faith can prepare them for the dawning realisation that they are trapped in purgatory.

You don't want to get on the wrong side of One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) in Valhalla Rising

You don’t want to get on the wrong side of One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) in Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising feels like a curious mash-up of the nihilism of Bergman and the bloodthirstiness of Mel Gibson, while its stark reminder of man’s hubristic folly in trying to conquer nature is Aguirre, The Wrath Of God-level Werner Herzog.

The film’s hellish, pared-back arthouse aesthetic is certainly not to everyone’s taste and might in part explain its disastrous box office returns, but such is the power of Mikkelsen’s towering central performance and Morten Søborg’s arresting cinematography that Valhalla Rising avoids becoming the cinematic equivalent of a coffee table book.

The Christian Vikings make set out their stall in Valhalla Rising

The Christian Vikings make set out their stall in Valhalla Rising

The insanity that grips the Crusaders is most effectively portrayed during the film’s central chapter (it is split into six parts with self-explanatory titles such as “silent warrior” and “hell”), in which their voyage across the ocean is met with disaster when a thick fog shrouds both the boat and their collective reasoning.

A crucifix is erected upon finally arriving at this new land, but it offers no safety from the arrows that are regularly loosed at them from the forest by unknown assailants, while the dearth of animals or fruit also eats into their dwindling faith.

The drugs don't work in Valhalla Rising

The drugs don’t work in Valhalla Rising

Their growing despair is allowed to manifest when they drink a psychotropic brew and their base instincts are unleashed in a scene that has the look and feel of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor video and could well have served as an influence on Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England (2013).

Mikkelsen is often filmed side on in extreme close-up, his immovable features set against the equally implacable landscape. Scotland has arguably never looked more alien or more beautiful and its unforgiving nature cruelly exposes the human weaknesses of the Christians, particularly the leader who is seemingly willing to sacrifice anyone in order to build the new Jerusalem he so blindly believes possible.

He's called One-Eye for a reason in Valhalla Rising

He’s called One-Eye for a reason in Valhalla Rising

Perhaps tellingly, the final two remaining Christians, when everything else is lost, take to following the heathen One-Eye, whether it be out of fear of death, an utter loss of faith or both.

The success of Refn’s follow-up Drive (2011) has cast a large shadow over the director’s career and sadly pulled the focus away from the likes of Valhalla Rising. It’s a pity as the film is powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of his oeuvre so far.

Review – Suicide Squad

The DC cinematic universe is in danger of collapsing in on itself if its terrible run of big screen duds continues much longer.

The performances are among the only highlights of what is a mess of a film, one which flits about as wildly as its jukebox-laden soundtrack. Even the Joker would balk at the amount of chaos going on in Suicide Squad

The performances are among the only highlights of what is a mess of a film, one which flits about as wildly as its jukebox-laden soundtrack. Even the Joker would balk at the amount of chaos going on in Suicide Squad

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy may have been a critical and commercial smash for DC and Warner Bros, but its shadow has continued to loom large over its output ever since.

Entrusting the DCU to ‘visionary’ director Zack Snyder was their first and most fatal error. His ponderous and humourless approach mixed with an overtly storyboard style was no doubt a big selling point post-Nolan; however, substance and subtlety are things Snyder hasn’t been particularly blessed with as the misfiring Man Of Steel and this summer’s lumbering Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice have proven.

The gang's all here in Suicide Squad

The gang’s all here in Suicide Squad

The critical mauling and patchy box office for Batman vs Superman almost certainly set off panic alarms for DC and Warners, which undoubtedly explains the hasty reshoots that took place for David Ayer’s Suicide Squad to presumably inject the sort of levity that makes much of Marvel’s output so enjoyable.

One can see how the tone of the movie has shifted in its trailers, which started out at the start of the year employing the Snyder formula, before evolving over time to become a far more light-hearted affair. The problem is that in the process of bolting on extra jokes the film’s narrative thread has frayed to the point of incomprehensibility, while the direction chops and changes more than a Donald Trump speech.

Jared Leto plays the Clown Prince of Crime in Suicide Squad

Jared Leto plays the Clown Prince of Crime in Suicide Squad

Ayer has insisted the cut of the film is entirely his, but it’s difficult to believe from the man who is evidently far more at ease making visceral, uncompromising flicks such as Fury and End Of Watch. There’s the germ of a good movie here and he’s assembled a talented enough cast, but the stink of recuts, drastic editing and compromise sinks Suicide Squad.

The most notable example is in the use of Jared Leto’s Joker. Leto hasn’t been shy in voicing his bewilderment at the sheer amount of footage involving the Clown Prince of Crime that has been left out of Suicide Squad and his extended cameo leaves you wondering what the hell he’s doing in the movie – financial reasoning notwithstanding of course.

The wall: Viola Davis as the decidedly unpleasant Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad

The wall: Viola Davis as the decidedly unpleasant Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad

Whilst some purists were never sold on Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, believing him to be too far removed from the comic book origins of the character, Leto’s Joker (in the limited screen time he’s given) is essentially nothing more than a glorified gangster with lots of tattoos and a loose screw. The power he has over his psychiatrist Dr Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie) to willingly throw herself into a vat of acid and transmogrify into Harley Quinn is frankly unbelievable.

Quinn, alongside a rogue’s gallery of super villains, including assassin Deadpool (Will Smith), fire starter El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), whose skill is to, err, throw boomerangs, are recruited by the stone cold Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to carry out super dangerous missions in exchange for leaner sentences.

Their first mission sees them going up against the ancient, powerful Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), who decides the world needs to be destroyed in order to save it (that old chestnut) and builds a huge machine made of trash to make it so.

Dr June Moone (Cara Delevigne) is positively enchanting in Suicide Squad

Dr June Moone (Cara Delevigne) is positively enchanting in Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad‘s influences are front and centre, most prominently The Dirty Dozen and, to a lesser extent Escape From New York, and while certain scenes work, particularly the bar chat wherein the gang take a break from trying to save the world in order to learn a bit more about each other, they are few and far between among the myriad moments that singularly fail to hang together.

Robbie is fun as Harley Quinn, although a bit KER-azy, while Smith exudes an authority over proceedings that the likes of Courtney can’t hope to match. He’s given a run for his money by Davis though, who is the ice queen personified in a role that she digs her teeth into with relish.

The performances are among the only highlights of what is a mess of a film, one which flits about as wildly as its jukebox-laden soundtrack. Even the Joker would balk at the amount of chaos going on in Suicide Squad.

Review – Jason Bourne

As Jason Bourne’s fellow action spy James Bond once said, never say never again as the former CIA assassin emerges from the shadows to deliver his own particular blend of gritty retribution.

Jason Bourne - a hugely enjoyable hurrah for the franchise and a superior action movie in a summer that is sorely in need of one. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, eh?

Jason Bourne – a hugely enjoyable hurrah for the franchise and a superior action movie in a summer that is sorely in need of one. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, eh?

The sight of Matt Damon’s amnesiac swimming away to an uncertain, but seemingly triumphant future at the conclusion of 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum perfectly capped off a trilogy which redefined action cinema.

That was it right? Damon certainly seemed to think so, pointing out in numerous interviews that this chapter in Bourne’s story had reached its natural end. The door was admittedly left ajar (Damon and director Paul Greengrass have been open about how much they love working together), but Ultimatum‘s denouement was the franchise’s perfect top and tail, while its poorer relative The Bourne Legacy suggested the well had been tapped enough.

The sleeping giant awakes in Jason Bourne

The sleeping giant awakes in Jason Bourne

Almost a decade on, however, and Bourne’s back; older, just as tortured and surviving on the fringes of a world that is almost unrecognisable to the one he swam away from years earlier. Whilst Bond gets around this by flipping the reset switch to make way for a new era and a new actor, Bourne’s return is a continuation of where we left off, with his fellow CIA-agent-turned-fugitive Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) tracking Bourne down in Greece to tell him that he still has unfinished business and that his former employers are, surprise surprise, up to no good.

Another day, another dodby CIA Director: Tommy Lee Jones plays spook Robert Dewey in Jason Bourne

Another day, another dodgy CIA Director: Tommy Lee Jones plays spook Robert Dewey in Jason Bourne

Bourne just wants to be left alone, but finds he must once again go in search of answers and confront the CIA’s shadiest characters, in particular Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones – exhibiting capital ‘C’ craggy features), while up-and-coming Agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) seemingly has somewhat muddy motivations.

In keeping with the overarching thread of the series, previous deeds have continued to echo throughout the Bourne franchise, whether it be the similar way certain ‘assets’ are dispatched from film to film (strangulation), the aftermath of the car chases in Ultimatum and The Bourne Supremacy when he confronts his respective nemesis, or even the scene in Ultimatum when Nicky dyes and cuts her hair which harkens back to Marie having done the same in The Bourne Identity.

Double/triple cross: Alicia Vikander plays CIA agent Heather Lee

Double/triple cross: Alicia Vikander plays CIA agent Heather Lee

In Jason Bourne, these echoes continue to reverberate, from the tragic fate of a character who gets caught in the hunt for Bourne, to the European locations he revisits in his quest for the truth (Berlin, London).

Many have criticised this latest adventure for ultimately leaving Bourne back where he started – a fugitive who must stay off the grid in order to survive. It’s an argument that certainly holds some water, but when it’s executed with as much adrenaline-fuelled effortlessness as it is here then this ‘problem’ feels largely insignificant.

Back together again: Bourne (Matt Damon) and Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) in Jason Bourne

Back together again: Bourne (Matt Damon) and Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) in Jason Bourne

Did we really need to know any more of Bourne’s past? Probably not; too much information has a way of diluting what makes the character interesting in the first place. However, Greengrass and fellow screenwriter Christopher Rouse, much like in the original trilogy, have managed to deliver a full-throttle action movie that taps in to the societal and political concerns of the day; in this case unrest with austerity and our ongoing unease with the impact on privacy in the rapidly evolving digital world (personified here in a plotline involving Riz Ahmed’s social media magnate Aaron Kalloor).

The extended opening salvo in Athens is masterfully handled, with Bourne and Nicky trying to evade Vincent Cassel’s unrelenting asset whilst the city descends into anarchy in the wake of an anti-austerity demonstration. Likewise, the cat and mouse game played out on the streets of London is reminiscent of the inspired Waterloo Station sequence from Ultimatum.

The asset (Vincent Cassel) goes after our hero in Jason Bourne

The asset (Vincent Cassel) goes after our hero in Jason Bourne

Of course, no Bourne movie would be complete without a car chase and this latest chapter delivers its biggest one yet. Bigger doesn’t always make better, however, as the scene involving a destructive SWAT vehicle ploughing through the neon-lit streets of Las Vegas not only outstays its welcome , but also has an incredulity to it that certainly wasn’t there in the previous films.

It’s a duff note, but one that doesn’t spoil what is a hugely enjoyable hurrah for the franchise and a superior action movie in a summer that is sorely in need of one. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, eh?

Review – Ghostbusters

There can’t be many films out there that arrive on the big screen with as much internet-fuelled ill-will as Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters.

Whilst not the car crash that many haters had hoped for or expected, Ghostbusters regretfully compromises itself by trying to be all things to all people - what a shame

Whilst not the car crash that many haters had hoped for or expected, Ghostbusters regretfully compromises itself by trying to be all things to all people – what a shame

Whilst 2014’s The Interview incrediby led to a diplomatic incident between the United States and North Korea, Feig can’t have imagined the seismic social media explosion that awaited him when he announced he would be directing the third installment in the Ghostbusters franchise – featuring (dun dun duuu…) an all-female cast.

Ivan Reitman’s massively successful 1984 original remains a much-loved touchstone in the lives of many a cinemagoer, but the unfiltered rage meted out to Feig and, later, the reboot’s core cast of Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones came from a particularly ugly place.

Who ya' gonna call? That's right.

Who ya’ gonna call? That’s right.

Watching Ghostbusters, it becomes clear that, far from ignoring the rampant negativity of YouTubers with too much time on their hands, the film has instead chosen to embrace it.

Feig and Katie Dippold’s script features more than one reference to shallow comments left by internet trolls who can’t seem to get their heads around the concept of females bustin’ ghosts. Such an approach, whilst admirable, is also systematic of a film that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.

Indeed, it could be argued that the film’s chief villain, Neil Casey’s Rowan North, is the embodiment of the nerdy, disgruntled misfit Feig and co perceive to be 2016 Ghostbusters‘ biggest hater. As it happens, Casey is actually pretty good in the part, although the spectral chaos he unleashes in the final act makes little or no sense.

Chris Hemsworth as nice-but-dim secretary Kevin Beckman in Ghostbusters

Chris Hemsworth as nice-but-dim secretary Kevin Beckman in Ghostbusters

The decision to feature cameos from the surviving members of the original Ghostbusters is a serious mis-step (Harold Ramis is saved from this on account of his being dead, although a bust of his head is a lovely touch), with Bill Murray looking bored as a flamboyantly dressed sceptic, while the film virtually grinds to halt to make way for Dan Ackroyd’s laboured cameo.

The film borrows liberally from Reitman’s original, with scientist Erin Gilbert (Wiig) stumbling onto taking down ghosts with the help of estranged friend and colleague Abby Yates (McCarthy) and live wire inventor Jillian Holtzman (McKinnon) – they are joined later by public transport worker and keen historian Patty Tolan (Jones).

Kate McKinnon gives a breakout turn in Ghostbusters

Kate McKinnon gives a breakout turn in Ghostbusters

Wiig and McCarthy are gifted comedians, but they are given little to get their teeth into here and it’s left largely to the excellent McKinnon to deliver some of the film’s best sight gags. Jones, meanwhile, does her best with what is a limited role and plays off nicely against her co-stars.

Alongside McKinnon, the film’s biggest revelation is Chris Hemsworth as their nice-but-dim secretary Kevin Beckman. His interview scene is hands down the funniest scene and Hemsworth gives an inspired performance brimming with physical humour, whether it be wearing glasses without the lenses, asking his colleagues which ridiculous headshot works best or enquiring as to their policy on bringing pets to work (wonderfully surreal).

The special effects have been accused by some, a little unfairly, as looking like something from Scooby Doo, although the multi-coloured ghosts wouldn’t necessarily look out of place in a film featuring the Mystery Machine gang. The appearance by the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is pointless, but fun, whilst the cameo by Slimer (who has got a wife and kids now, seemingly) is a sop to the original and should have been consigned to the containment unit.

Slimer makes an unwelcome appearance in Ghostbusters

Slimer makes an unwelcome appearance in Ghostbusters

Slimer’s extended appearance takes place during a final act that is terribly edited (a sequence involving a group of soldiers and police who are frozen mid-disco move is baffling simply because the scene leading up to it was cut) and is devoid of any real threat. The Ghostbusters flee from the 10-storey high big bad ghoul, but quite clearly cause it serious distress with their proton packs, while the less said about the getting-sucked-into-another-dimension ending the better. Simply put, it doesn’t work.

There are glimpses of the film you suspect Feig originally had in the back of his mind, but it plays too safe and ends up the worse for it.

Whilst not the car crash that many haters had hoped for or expected, Ghostbusters regretfully compromises itself by trying to be all things to all people. What a shame.

Review – The BFG

If anyone could be relied upon to capture the magic of one of children’s fiction’s most beloved stories it’s Steven Spielberg.

Dahl famously hated virtually every adaptation of his books - had he lived to see Spielberg's take on The BFG he would surely have deemed it scrum diddly umptious

Dahl famously hated virtually every adaptation of his books – had he lived to see Spielberg’s take on The BFG he would surely have deemed it scrum diddly umptious

Following a string of more serious pictures, Spielberg returns to the type of family friendly cinema he is arguably most loved for.

Perhaps learning from the mistakes of his last foray into such territory – 2011’s The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn – which was entirely computer generated and failed to escape from the dreaded uncanny valley, the bearded one instead has a human cast playing off a (literally) towering motion-captured performance by the great Mark Rylance and, to a lesser extent, a supporting cast of not-so-friendly giants led by Jermaine Clement’s Fleshlumpeater.

The BFG (Mark Rylance) and Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) in The BFG

The BFG (Mark Rylance) and Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) in The BFG

It’s fair to say that such technology has continued to evolve at a remarkable pace in the intervening years but, as Andy Serkis’ game-changing turn as Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings films demonstrated 15 years earlier, it’s the interplay between such characters that determines whether the audience is going to buy a 24ft giant interacting with a young girl.

The moment the film definitively answers that question comes near the start when, having spied the BFG late one night from the open window of the orphanage she calls home, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) runs to her bed only to be smuggled away by the giant.

The BFG (Mark Rylance) snatches up Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) in The BFG

The BFG (Mark Rylance) snatches up Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) in The BFG

It’s a technically bravura sequence (lent typically enriching musical support from John Williams), full of potential threat, that acts as a springboard for the BFG’s breathless journey out of London (in which he pulls various shapes to trick passing pedestrians and motorists that he’s a lamppost, for instance) and away into Giant Country.

The BFG, Sophie learns, is a dreamcatcher whose kindness and benevolence is in stark contrast to the “boys” – child-eating giants who pick on the “runt” and suspect he is hiding a human. Determined to stop the gang from helping themselves to more hapless youngsters, Sophie realises that she and the BFG must go straight to the Queen if they are going to stop them.

Orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) can't believe what she's just seen in The BFG

Orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) can’t believe what she’s just seen in The BFG

Roald Dahl’s stories have remained so beloved by kids the world over because they resolutely refuse to treat their target audience as small-minded children. In Dahl’s fiction, magic and danger exist side by side and his feisty young heroes are more than capable of thinking for themselves.

Featuring a lovingly crafted screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison (whose previous collaboration with the bearded one, 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, shares many The BFG‘s qualities), Spielberg is simpatico with Dahl’s sensibilities, which begs the question of why it’s taken so long for him to adapt one of the writer’s works.

The magical dreaam tree in The BFG

The magical dream tree in The BFG

The film perhaps spends a little too long establishing the relationship between the giant and Sophie (a curious complaint I appreciate bearing in mind the strength of both performances), while the special effects involving Sophie being transported in the BFG’s hand or evading the other giants feel a bit weightless. The final confrontation between the “boys” and a fleet of helicopters sent by Her Majesty is also a little underwhelming.

However, The BFG really comes into its own during the enchanting sequence in Dream Country and the potential stumbling block of the final act encounter between the Queen (the always wonderful Penelope Wilton), the BFG and Sophie (it’s arguably the weakest part of the book) which is handled with mastery and not a little hilarity as the whizzpopping effects of the giant’s fizzy frobscottle drink affects even the corgis.

The BFG and the not-so-friendly big giants in The BFG

The BFG and the not-so-friendly big giants in The BFG

The previously unknown Barnhill is lovely as the wide-eyed young girl whose wish to be taken care of is granted by a giant with his own unique version of English language, but it is Rylance who breathes warmth and an ageless kindness into the titular role and gives a performance equal in stature to his Oscar-winning turn in Spielberg’s previous movie Bridge Of Spies.

Dahl famously hated virtually every adaptation of his books – had he lived to see Spielberg’s take on The BFG he would surely have deemed it scrum diddly umptious.