Sunday, August 08, 2010

Unintentional Double Bill: Sword and Sandals Edition

Actors go through phases, and for Mads Mikkelson, he must be going through his Spartacus phase. With two consecutive 'sword and sandals' films under his belt, the now recognizable actor takes this genre into two vastly different worlds. With "Valhalla Rising", he plays a savage warrior in a painterly art-deco 1000 AD world seen through the visually sumptuous eye of director Nicholas Winding Refn. And in Louis Leterrier's "Clash of the Titans", he plays second fiddle (but no less efficiently ruthless) to Persius (Sam Worthington) and his band of warriors as they set out to trump the gods. In cinema (as in life), synchronicity is charming sometimes, and it happened with these two films.

Now, before I get ahead of myself, it should be noted that one of these films is far superior to the other. "Valhalla Rising" is close to something very special... Refn's blisteringly brutal editing combined with framing compositions that seem to be borne out of exactly which way the clouds looks behind the actor rather than anything else are epic in scope. And running at a relatively quick 93 minutes, "Valhalla Rising" covers alot of territory in very spare, meditative style. Either you give in and submit to the film's patient, trancey style or give up. I loved every moment of it. On the other hand, Leterrier's "Clash of the Titans" was a virtual chore to get through. I understand that any film remade from a childhood favorite (and a favorite I watched probably 30 times over the course of 2-3 years as a kid) has the deck stacked against it. In all fairness, the executives at Warner Brothers were probably only counting on fan base favoritism for 15% of the film's success. It's a summer movie, loaded with CGI and featuring an action avatar star (Worthington) fresh off two successful movies. Still, the childlike wonder inherent in the original "Clash of the Titans" has dissipated. There is something eerily beautiful about Ray Harryhausen's stop motion animation that CGI simply cannot replace. In the new version, the creatures (especially the witches and Medusa, a character that haunted my dreams for years) appear weightless and quick without any real sense of danger. And that's the problem I've had with CGI for years. No matter how flawless it appears mixed in with the action on-screen, it still feels off to me. Not to mention the real characters in Leterrier's amped up version lack a genuine connection. Scuttled is the relationship between Andromeda and Persius in the original. Why do I really care if he saves everyone in this new version? The owl-so important and inviting in the original- is treated to the usual off-the-cuff post modern joke that dots so many remakes today. And as Persius, Worthington again brings zero gravity to his leading man... there to scowl and pout and fight. If this guy never gets work again, we may all be the better off.

In "Valhalla Rising", nothing is treated as a joke and the locales- fog covered Scottish mountains and grimy, black mud- authenticate a real story. I understand this comes off as yet another lobby for low-budget artistic style over big budget commercialism, but in this case, watch both films and tell me one doesn't agree. As One Eye, Mads Mikkelson is a caged slave warrior who escapes his captors, reluctantly joins up with a band of marauding Christian Vikings and ends up stranded in the New World as religion and faith falls apart around him. Spare imagery, clashing electric guitar drones and violent cuts between quiet and action create a tension within "Valhalla Rising" that's impenetrable to escape. Like his previous film "Bronson", "Valhalla Rising" is a character study of a violent male that tells you very little about the man outside his own self aggrandizing. One Eye is a mute, prone to precognitive visions about his own fate and "Valhalla Rising" keeps this hermetic sense of time and self intact. Bouncing from violent adventure to the next, "Valhalla Rising" has been described by Refn himself as a science fiction film without the science, and its numerous static shots of men talking off-screen in stream-of-conscious thought or One Eye's blood red visions of the future certainly place the film in a very netherworld atmosphere. All in all, this film's rugged savagery and auteur-like imagery put the mascara-clad acting and unimaginative CGI of "Clash of the Titans" to shame.


Bob Turnbull said...

Saw Valhalla Rising last year at TIFF and really enjoyed it. I was a bit tired that day and so I drifted in and out during a few parts of it - which of course was perfect for the very dream-like nature of the film. And one of those red-drenched visions rudely shocked me out of a hazy moment...That one section (in "Hell" I believe) where the music just builds and builds and builds is absolutely amazing and completely restored my energy.

I'm reading numerous reviews of it now that it is more widely available and I'm really keen on catching it again. There's a great piece on it and Winding Refn in the recent Film Comment, but it isn't online...

Joseph B. said...


I read the Film Comment piece and found it interesting, especially Refn's love for Dennis Hopper's "The Last Movie"!