31 January 2011

The Mystical Viking: Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising (2009)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Starring Mads Mikkelson, Jamie Sives, Gary Lewis, Ewan Stewart, Maarten Stevenson.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn went into his film Valhalla Rising right as he was wrapping up post-production on Bronson, the bizarre biopic about British prisoner Charlie Bronson that turned into his biggest success and pushed star Tom Hardy into the front lines. But Bronson surprised many viewers, going against expectations of what a biopic about Charlie Bronson would be like. In the same way, Valhalla Rising flips around the conceptual idea of “Viking movie” and is unlike anything viewers might expect from an historical epic about skull-crushers like the medieval Norsemen. Valhalla Rising had its festival premiere in 2009 and a theatrical release in mid-2010, but it sits defiantly outside the mainstream. If El Topo is an “Acid Western,” then consider Valhalla Rising an “Acid Viking Movie.”

Although it clocks in at a lean 92 minutes with credits, Refn’s film moves at a slow pace and contains vast silences within a harsh landscape. The first twelve minutes contain only a single line of dialogue, and this sparse style remains consistent throughout the running time. Red-hued violence occasionally breaks out, done with no modern stylization, but there are no “action set-pieces.” This is a movie concerned with its tone and texture, telling an oblique story through implication. And for what it attempts to do, it succeeds: this is a transcendent film that creates an authentic sense of what Nordic life in the eleventh century must have felt like. Its taciturn introspection says an enormous amount about early Christian and late Pagan mysticism.

24 January 2011

Centurion Lets the Blood Gush over History

Centurion (2010)
Directed by Neil Marshall. Starring Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko.

If you did not see Centurion during its U.S. theatrical release, that’s probably because you blinked. The British film ran in only a small number of theaters in August on limited engagements, with a simultaneous release on Video on Demand. It played at the Nuart Theater a few miles from my home for a week, and I was unable to get to it. I regretted it at the time because the trailers got my thrill glands pumping: a bloody historical action movie starring a Roman legion. Now that is my kind of fun! I also had faith in director Neill Marshall; I had enjoyed all of his previous movies, and they more than proved that he could handle violent mayhem.

Now that Centurion is on DVD and Blu-Ray, I’ve been able to see what Mr. Marhsall did with the murky historical legend of the Ninth Legion: he made a bloody historical action movie out of it.

Centurion is as straightforward as they come, something the director admits: “It's not meant to be historically perfect. I'm picking up on a legend and exploring it . . . it’s an action thriller.” The Ninth Legion, which supposedly vanished on an expedition to Scotland in the second century, serves as a springboard for Marhsall to return to the territory of “soldiers-behind-the-lines” from his first movie, the werewolf thriller Dog Soldiers, and sprinkle it with Xenophon’s Anabasis and various World War II movies featuring tough guys doing what has to be done. It is a stripped-to-the-bone bloodletting, filled with decapitations, throat-slittings, head-crushings, and any other mutilation you care to mention.

Not every movie needs deep psychological character explorations or nuanced drama. Centurion knows what it wants, runs after it, and spikes it gorily to the ground. If you think you might enjoy this film, then you will enjoy it—Marhsall delivers the goods as promised.

17 January 2011

My favorite film scores for writing

I always write with music playing. That’s not much of an admission. A few writers prefer to work in silence, but most that I have talked to say that they need to have music in the background while they work at their keyboards or notebooks. Some writers like to listen with headphones on as an extra seal against the rest of the world, but I only do that if I’m working in a public environment. Otherwise, I let my massively stuffed iPod play through the huge speakers in my apartment to surround me with music as I work.

Just as every writer has a different method of writing, so does every writer have difference musical preferences for underscoring his or her work. But “underscore” is the key word, since I have discovered that film music is perhaps the number one choice for music to write by. One reason for this is that film scores usually lack lyrics (at least in English; Latin chanting is a standby, Ave Satani!) that can distract from the author’s own words. Film music, regardless of its style, also inherently has a dramatic feel that parallels how writers often think.

The situation is a bit different for me. I do listen to film scores while writing, but that’s because film music is my favorite form of music. I have listened to film scores more than any other type of music since high school, when I turned into an avid collector of soundtrack albums. My collection is now somewhere in the thousands, and ranges in obscurity from John Williams’s Star Wars scores to films nobody remembers except film score collectors (The Cassandra Crossing). The chronological scope of my collection is just as wide, from silent movie scores to films released a few weeks ago. Film music is one of my deep passions.

11 January 2011

Movie Review: Vampire Circus

Vampire Circus (1972)
Directed by Robert Young. Starring Adrienne Corri, Laurence Payne, Anthony Higgins, Thorley Walters, John Moulder-Brown, Lalla Ward, Robin Sachs, Lynne Frederick, Richard Owens, David Prowse, Robert Tayman.

It seems that any time I log into Netflix to manipulate my queue to get physical DVDs, I discover more treasures that I can watch with only a click of the mouse button. Sometimes films unavailable on DVD—or any home video format—for many years. Such as Vampire Circus.

Vampire Circus is one of the small treasures of 1970s Hammer Horror, and unfortunately few people on this side of the pond have had the opportunity to see it; the movie has remained frustratingly elusive in the U.S. When released theatrically in the States, the distributor de-sanguinized it to a PG rating. Netflix has oddly maintained the PG rating on their page for the film, even though the version they have is uncut and contains the copious amount blood and bare breasts that were the marks of Hammer in its latter days.

08 January 2011

Getting Wrecked in Cornwall: Jamaica Inn—The Novel

Jamaica Inn (1936)
By Daphne du Maurier

Although Daphne du Maurier had written novels prior to Jamaica Inn, she had her first major success with this historical romance published in 1936. It opened up the road to her massive bestseller Rebecca two years later. A November visit to the actual Jamaica Inn in Cornwall, the southwest peninsula of England where du Maurier spent most of her life, inspired her to write this romantic historical adventure of thieves and murderers and a young obstinate heroine trapped in the middle of them. Constructed in the eighteenth century as a staging-post for coaches traveling along the precursor to the A30, Jamaica Inn provided travelers with a stopping place for food and necessities. It also became a center for one of Cornwall’s most famous industries: “fair-trading,” a.k.a. smuggling.

The title of the book might make an unsuspecting reader imagine a tropical island adventure. The story has beaches, but they are the chilly and wind-beaten winter coasts of the author’s beloved Cornwall, where ships crack-up on the rocks and spill their cargo for waiting looters who had falsely lured them onto the jagged shores. (According to University of Exeter Cornish Studies Professor Philip Payton, “Although there is no evidence of Cornish folk deliberately luring ships to their doom, the Cornish were well-known as ‘wreckers’, routinely plundering those vessels that had the misfortune to come to grief on Cornwall’s treacherous coasts.”) The inn in question sits on lonely Bodmin Moor.

However, if the misleading thoughts of a Caribbean adventure bring pirates to mind, the potential reader has hit near the mark as to what happens in the novel.

03 January 2011

The most interesting books I read in 2010

As promised, I’ve done further analysis on the books I read during 2010.

Instead of rolling out a standard “Favorite Books Read During 2010” list, I’ve opted for a “Most Interesting Books Read During 2010” list. And I can interpret “interesting” in some, uh, interesting ways.

The whole report is right here, at Black Gate. . . .

I’ve already finished reading my first book of 2010, and I’ve promised myself to do many more reviews over this year, so be prepared to hear about Jamaica Inn very soon.