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Valhalla Rising: A Silent Warrior
In film school, they teach students that every scene in a film has to serve a purpose. A scene has to push the story further by presenting new conflicts, revealing new information, or reversing a situation. This is the filmmaking-by-numbers formula that most mainstream films tend to fallow. Valhalla Rising, however, is the antidote to such a formulaic approach.
Valhalla Rising can be described as meditative, but in this case meditative would be a euphemism for slow and painstakingly boring. It’s a European art-house film made by a scholar of the dogma school of filmmaking; so the contemplative and challenging nature should come as no surprise. However, halfway through watching, your mind might trail off and question if the film has anything to say at all; and if so, is it enough to sustain 90 minutes?
The lack of events in Valhalla Rising is not just an exercise in ambiguous storytelling; the film hardly has a story. It’s set in 1000 AD somewhere in Europe during a time where Christian Vikings were mobilising to Jerusalem. A mute Norse worrier (Mikkelsen) is enslaved by a group of elders, who put him in fights against other criminals for their amusement. The worrier has no name, so they call him One-eye due to his disfigured right eye. One-eye never speaks a word; but his face projects so much fury that you start to believe that he really might have descended from hell.
One-eye breaks free from the chains and slays all his captors except for one young boy, who follows him around from that point on. He stumbles upon a group of Christian Vikings and joins their ranks just as they are about to board a ship to the holy land. The trip seems to go off course, and after weeks in the midst of the misty sea, they end up in a strange place. They seem to have accidently discovered the new world, but they think that One-eye has dragged them back to the hell that he came from.
As it is always the case with films of this calibre, the cinematography is truly breathtaking. Shot in the Scottish highlands, the vivid green landscapes covered by hazy clouds make for a tranquil backdrop contrasting with the film’s gruesome and gritty events. Valhalla Rising toys with some existential themes, but the painful subtlety makes for a very challenging experience; one that mimics the unfortunate fate of the Crusaders depicted.
This film was doomed to fail from the start. It takes an icon, known for both her sex appeal and her wish to be viewed as something more than that, and tells her story from the point of view of a man who’s in thrall of the screen siren side of her. When the protagonist sees Marilyn in this light, it becomes almost impossible for the viewer to perceive her in any other way, no matter how many Marilyn-the-person as opposed to Marilyn-the-star scenes the film may have. The film falls into the same trap as the general public, even when it takes special care to avoid doing so. And while this doesn’t make the film a complete failure, it does severely impact it and give it a sense of futility.
Colin Clark (Redmayne), a lowly assistant director on the set of The Prince & the Showgirl, grows close to Marilyn Monroe (Williams), the film’s female star. He quickly gains her trust and with it, a front row seat to her handler-approved, pill-popping loneliness and crippling confidence issues. Despite her status as a married woman and a myriad of warnings against doing so, he falls in love with her.
Marilyn occupies a very strange place in the public consciousness;
everybody’s heard of her and seen the picture of her standing over an air vent
with her dress billowing about, yet not many people have seen her films, let
alone know anything about her considerable comedic talent. Still, as an icon,
she’s ubiquitous and it’s mainly because of this that Williams’ portrayal of
her hews closer to mimicry.
Williams is a fantastic actress and there are some scenes in which the resemblance between the two is uncanny, both in looks and mannerisms, yet Monroe is too big a part of pop culture for such a straightforward take on her life. An approach such as the one used in the Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There, may have been more effective. Six different actors, of varying ages, genders and races, were chosen to portray different aspects of the legend. Such a radical approach makes it easier to let go of the image ingrained in your mind and leaves you more open to a different idea of the film’s subject.
There’s also the fact that Colin is the film’s narrator and so, by
default, we’re not getting to know the ‘real’ Marilyn; we’re seeing his
perception of the ‘real’ Marilyn. The film is apparently based on a true story,
which is rather hard to believe when Colin is everything that Marilyn is said
to have hated. In the film, she rails against people who only see her as the
sum total of her sex appeal yet Colin seems star struck, bordering on servile.
He seems completely spineless and Redmayne doesn’t do much with him to make him
The film doesn’t get deep enough into Marilyn’s issues to explain why she would tote him around everywhere when she has a couple of cronies at her beck and call. The main explanation we get is something along the lines of a sweet girl caving under the excess of Hollywood and the pressure of fame which could have been about anyone from Britney Spears to Lindsay Lohan. It’s shallow and doesn’t say anything that Monroe’s most casual fan didn’t already know.
On the plus side, the film is beautiful, as all period films are. It’s soft, warm, richly coloured and showcases some gorgeous costumes and make up. The film-inside-a-film structure allows for greater diversity in the costumes and setting adding to the amount of pretty.
The characters in My Week with Marilyn frequently marvel over Marilyn’s innate talent and natural gift. We marvel along with them but more in blind agreement than as a result of any real conviction.
The English language adaptation of the first book from Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millenium trilogy, which spawned three Swedish films, is a murder mystery filled with a group of highly reprehensible people. Mikael Blomkvist (Craig), a disgraced journalist, is hired to find a woman, Harriet Vanger, who has been missing for forty years. Assisted by a brilliant computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Mara), they uncover more about the case than anyone was counting on; ultimately connecting Harriet’s disappearance with a serial killer of women, and risking their lives at every turn.
Director David Fincher’s past as an iconic music video director - he directed some of Madonna’s best videos including the all time favourite, Express Yourself - is plainly evident here. The editing is timed perfectly with the music, and the title sequence is the kind of thing you’d expect from a Bond film; only edgier. It’s stylised and this only adds to the overall coolness that pervades the film. Style was obviously high on the list of priorities in producing this film; the editing is just one manifestation of that, while the soundtrack is another.
The soundtrack is what pushes this film from being a slightly above average thriller into something that is really worth seeing. Yes, it’s filmed beautifully - though it has to be said that the sheer amount of product placement is insanely distracting - and it’s cast with some really good actors, but the matching of the music with the images is really something special. It’s the dark, electronic take on the score that elevates the experience; it is icy cold, calculated and goes perfectly with Fincher’s blue toned, sterile imagery. The film as a whole is filled with cold characters, icy landscapes and a blue palette. Even its taglines - ‘Evil shall with evil be expelled’ and ‘What is hidden in snow, comes forth in the thaw’ - are frigid, and not to mention some of the best in recent memory.
The one enraging point in the film, and it’s major, is that Salander is just a supporting character. The focus on Salander is actually the one area where the Swedish version beats the American one; which is superior in nearly every other aspect though the former is quite solid as well.
Having Blomkvist as the lead makes this thriller somewhat conventional; Daniel Craig’s portrayal of him is hardly more than a bespectacled, divorced Bond – highly entertaining but nothing that we haven’t seen before. Salander on the other hand is completely new. How many times have you seen an antisocial, sexually fluid, tattooed, pierced, mohawked, female hacker in a film? Never. She deserves, not only to be seen, but to be the uncontested lead of the film. Besides Rooney Mara does a smashing job as Salander.
books describe Salander as a waifish woman who looks like a teenage boy. She
projects a tough, antisocial appearance with her choice of clothing, hairstyle
and makeup yet, despite her best efforts, she still looks vulnerable and is
underestimated often. Mara completely nails this combination of vulnerability
and toughness; she’s frail enough to believe that people would take advantage
of her, yet strong enough that retaliation doesn’t seem like a laughable
prospect. She is Salander.
When you have a star this great, why take the road
well travelled? And this is where the film is a bit disappointing; it’s pretty
badass yet has all the trappings of a regular thriller when it could have been so
much more. Films like these don’t come round that often so it‘s unfortunate to
see an opportunity watered down like this.