The Northman

The Northman ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Director: Robert Eggers. Cast: Alexander SkarsgårdNicole KidmanClaes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke

“The Northman” is based on the 10th century Nordic legend, which eventually became the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But don’t expect anyone mulling over a skull here. This is a pulpy, gory, violent revenge story, which shares more with Conan the Barbarian , Gladiator, Braveheart and Game of Thrones than anything the Bard might have written.

That should not surprise those who’s familiar with director Robert Eggers’s previous films, from the fascinating (and rather gruesome) “The Witch”(2015) to that descent to madness that was “The Lighthouse”, both of which were just as unsettling and intense as “The Northman” is.

The film starts with a rather long prologue, during which I struggled a bit to find my bearings. We are introduced to Amleth, the 9 year old boy, son of a Viking King (played by an unrecognisable Ethan Hawk). After witnessing his father being slaughtered by his uncle and barely escaping with his own life, Amleth swears.

Fast forward a few years and the film finally gets going as we find Amleth, now grown into a bundle of muscles (courtesy of Alexander Skarsgård and his bulging abs), grunting and screaming as he and his tribes attack another Viking village somewhere in the North.

This is possibly one of the most impressive sequences in the whole film: a one-take wonder (clearly the preferred style of film-making for Eggers), which seems to go on forever and immerses the audience in a middle of a violent spree across the village with extreme realism.

It’s an ambitious shot which, like the rest of the film wants to show the not just the chaos of the attack, but the uncompromising brutality of the Vikings too.

Interestingly the film is “only” rated 15, because whenever actually look closely you rarely see the most gruesome details. There’s a lot of suggestive sound off-camera, silhouetted body shapes being knifed and slaughtered and people killed relentlessly left and right, but the camera rarely lingers on.

It is possibly one of the most authentic depiction of the Viking world we’ve ever seen on screen. “I did try my damnedest to do everything as historically accurate as possible.” Eggers said in a recent interview. And his works clearly shows off.

Right next to all this stark realism, Eggers also fills the film with several hallucinatory scenes, either the result of psychedelic drugs taken by the Vikings during various ceremonies and rituals or feverish nightmares dreamt by the some of the characters.

This is where the film goes almost abstract, aided by sinister lighting and a nerve-racking soundtrack blasting through the speakers.

If I have to be honest, I didn’t think the mix between the two styles always work for me and often I found those sequences took me from the film. They did however give a little breathing space from the all the blood.

All realism and accuracy aside, the story itself is pretty simple and the characters are fairly sketchy and two-dimensional. The only two main women in the film, Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit) and Nicole Kidman, do their best with the little they’re given. This is for better or worse (definitely worse) a world that belongs to men.

Kidman in particular felt a bit miscast here: her clean, glamorous and porcelain-like beauty felt a bit out of place among all the dirty, muddy grunginess), and yet despite this she commanded the screen every second she appeared. Watch out for her astonishing and revealing monologue in the third act, but also for a brief appearance by Bjork (she came out of her acting retirement just for this) and another short speech by Willem Dafoe as a jester… and later as a… erm… head.

To conclude, while on a technical level this is an impressive film, I found it a little bit empty. Also, for a story that is born out of a passionate declaration of revenge, “The Northman” isn’t actually very emotionally engaging.

I couldn’t help thinking back at Leonardo di Caprio in the Revenant and drawing parallels between his character and Skarsgård’s Amleth: two similar depictions, both pushing themselves to the limits and both looking for revenge. But the truth is that beyond his transformative appearance, all his grunts and roars, Skarsgård is really not that interesting to watch for the 2 hours and 17 minutes.

Coming out of my local cinema where I watched this I heard somebody commenting to his friends: “Wow, what a f**ked up film”. While it might not be the most highbrow or complex review, I must confess I do share that feeling a little bit.

Navalny

Navalny ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Director: Daniel Roher. Stars: Alexei NavalnyYulia NavalnayaDasha Navalnaya 

I’ve been making documentaries for about 28 years, but if somebody asked me what kind of films I’d like to make, I would probably answer “one like Navalny”. Which might give you an idea of how much I liked it.

It doesn’t even feel like fly-on-the-wall documentary, but it’s constructed, edited and scored more like a real edge-of-your-seat thriller. In the cinema where I watched it, the audience gasped, laughed, held its breath and was gripped, as we followed Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, recovering in Germany after an attempt on his life, putting the pieces together trying to find out who tried to poison him (and almost succeeded) and finally getting ready for his return home… whatever the consequences.

Right at the start of the film Navalny is asked by director Daniel Roher what kind of message he wants to send his Russian people if he gets killed. Navalny stops him straight away “Oh, come on, Daniel! No, no way. It’s like you’re making movie for the case of my death! This is a thriller!”. And boy, it really is!

There’s a sequence half way through in which he’s trying to catch a possible murderer red-handed, with a phone call, which is so tense that I must have held my breath as if I was underwater for minutes for fear of making any noise.

One of the (many) striking things about this film is the incredible access they managed to get (though we will find out right at the end, that some was concealed from them too). You really feel privileged to be so up-close and personal with this Navalny.

The picture that comes out is one of a confident man, with great charisma (he’s very good in front of a camera), a wonderful sense of humour and exceptionally brave.

Of course we also watch this with a little bit of hindsight. 18 months after his interview for the film Navalny is still in a Russian prison with little hope of coming out anytime soon. All of which makes the documentary even more poignant. At the same time everything that’s going on in Ukraine right now, adds an extra layer of urgency to the whole thing.

It is obvious that Roher has an agenda and his anti-Putin sentiments are very apparent throughout the film, but that doesn’t stop him to ask Navalny some uncomfortable questions about his nationalist past. At some point Roher even leaves his camera running and films some revealing behind the scenes with his man, showing how much he’s aware of being in front of camera (“your eyes are too harsh” he’s whispered at some point by an assistant. “Smile a bit”) as well as some of his insecurities (“My English is not good enough”). They are small moments, perfectly calibrated and intentionally well-placed in the film, which make Navalny even more human and likeable than he already is.

Whether it’s actually Roher directing or Navalny himself pulling the strings behind the scenes is not 100% clear, but that doesn’t make this film any less gripping, entertaining and infuriating at the same time.

“Navalny” won both the documentary audience award and the festival favourite award at the Sundance Festival and it’s not hard to see why.

It is a timely, important, daring and inspiring piece of work, as well as a terrifying and depressing testament to the power that the current Russian leader still holds over his country (and the rest of the world).

On a side note, it’s interesting to notice how this film has glorious reviews everywhere (rightly so) and yet it mysteriously scores only 5.6 (out of 10) on the IMDB website. Spooky.

One thing you can do is go and watch it and tell your friends too!

Navalny is showing at the Curzon and it’s available for streaming on its website.

Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story

Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story ⭐️⭐️1/2

On a normal day (let alone a week-end) I would never have chosen to watch anything on Savile to be completely honest. Just the sight of the man alone creeps me out beyond belief.

But it just happens that I’m currently working on a TV series which is all about the moments in history when the BBC became the news, instead of broadcasting it, so I guess this two-part documentary (nearly 3 hours which I’ll never get back) however bleak and unwelcome, felt like homework that I had to do.

I’m finding it quite hard to talk about it mostly because I strongly believe it feels wrong to use such a national tragedy for what’s essentially just “Netflix entertainment”, without any real lessons to learn.

The series is of course handsomely crafted and meticulously researched, but to me the biggest problem was the actual concept of documentary itself and what it choose to focus on.

It’s clearly aimed at people outside the UK, possibly Americans, who have very little (if not zero) knowledge about Savile himself. But even with that in min, I found very problematic how it spent the best part of the first two hours pretty much going through the honours and glories or the man, without hearing a single testimony from any of the victims.

In fact the first episode could almost be mistaken for one of those obituary pieces they usually release when a “standard” celebrity dies. Of course today we are watching it with the “privilege” (so to speak) of hindsight. The knowledge of what we know, even if just the headlines, helped by gloomy music, horror-like sound effects and creepy freeze frames, film burns and other visual tricks, put us in a position to juxtapose the celebratory images we see on the screen. with the bleak reality.

Unfortunately much too often the documentary makes no effort to break that spell, to stop the charade and to shout “hold on a second, while this man is being so revered by everyone, he’s also abusing around 400 hundreds victims, some as young as 5!”.

We all know that’s where we are heading to, but unbelievably the revelations (the “horror” from the title) are relegated to the second half of the last episode.

Before we get there we have to sit slow successions of examples over examples of how enraptured the nation was by this monster (all preeented in a slightly confused cronology): his close friendship with Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles, his many appearances with all possible celebrities from the Beatles to the Pope, his 40+ years on television from “Jim’ll Fix it” to “Top of the Pox”, to the countless guest appearances, as well as his charities work, his MBE and so on. The film is full of repetitions and after a while one story of his successes looks like the next one.

I could have done with a quick 5 minutes montage at the front to do all the work that the first 2 hours did.

In fact if you look at the trailer for the series, it does a great job at conveying all that in just a couple of minutes. That man doesn’t really deserve such detailed analysis of his work. Also, what about his life before his all that fame?

Once the revelations finally do come, the documentary feels rushed, avoiding any psychological analysis or any specifics, not so much on his crimes, but on how we was able to get away with it beyond the fact that he was basically too huge.

The documentary fails to answer crucial questions, like the BBC mishandling for a start, and to acknowledge the danger of the silence from all those people who suspected something, those who brushed it under the carpet and those who pretended they didn’t see anything.

This is an important story, but only if we use it to learn from it. Learning about Savile’s accolades is pretty pointless at this stage.

I think there is a better documentary to be made, not so much about Savile and his crimes, but about how we can prevent this shameful history to repeat itself again.

On Netflix

The Invisible Thread

The Invisible Thread ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Director: Marco Simon Puccioni. Cast: Filippo TimiFrancesco SciannaFrancesco Gheghi Jodhi May

Hidden away somewhere inside the never-ending well that is the Netflix catalogue, is the first feature-length “dramedy” by Italian documentary-maker Marco Simon Puccioni, a semi-autobiographical coming of age that explores that “invisible thread” from the title (il Filo Invisibile in Italian) that binds us together, whether genetically connected or not.

The story centres around Leone, a teenage son of two fathers, played by Francesco Gheghi, an Italian version of Timothèe Chamalet, the only type of young actor independent film-makers seem to go for these days.

Leone making a documentary for a school project about what he calls “My Colorful Family”. It is through this device that, earlier on in the film, we learn how an American woman helped his two dads to bring him into the world.

We also have a peek into the apparent idyllic daily life of this family, seen as an example of unity, openness and complicity, despite the many legal and social struggles gay families have to go through in Italy, a country still steep in prejudice, confusion, misunderstandings and rhetoric when it comes to any LGBTQ+ issues.

It is a rather messy film which can never quite get its tone right, sometimes broad comedy, other times insightful and even rather touching. As I was watching I was constantly pulled in all sorts of directions, often laughing at some of the film’s over-the-top (and very Italian) portrayal of family dynamics, rolling my eyes at some really cheesy lines in the scripts and stumbling through gaping holes in some of the characters’ motivations (Leone’s girlfriend, for example, is probably being the worst offender). But I was also occasionally pleasantly surprised by some very smart choices, genuinely funny moments and acute observations about society today and people’s feelings in general.

It is clear that the material is very close to the director’s heart and despite the overall messiness, the many subplots and some slightly heavy-handed sentimentality (and over-acting by some of the players), I have to confess that by the end I was actually won over and even moved by its warmth and well-intentioned honesty.

This sort of melodrama probably plays better to an Italian like me, but the feelings the film talks about are pretty universal and will certainly make it likeable to anyone else too.

On Netflix

The Bad Guys

The Bad Guys ⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2

Director: Pierre Perifel. Cast: Sam RockwellMarc MaronAwkwafina Craig Robinson Richard Ayoade Anthony Ramos

Not every animated film needs to be a life affirming experience, nor does it necessarily need to have any deep, profound or meaningful metaphor underneath. And of course it doesn’t have to break any ground with new technical achievement. In other words, not every animated film can be made by Pixar or Miyazaki.

Sometimes it’s OK to have something that is just mindless fun, pure entertainment and… with lots of fart gags!

Based on children’s book series by Australian author Aaron Blabey and riffing on the heist-movie genre, “The Bad Guys” follows a band of bank robbers, Mr. Wolf, Mr. Piranha, Mr. Snake, Mr. Shark, and Ms. Tarantula, all of whom look like they could be straight out of one of the Ocean’s films.

After a heist gone wrong, they’re sent to prison. In an effort to avoid doing time behind bars, they’re forced to turn good … or at least pretend to, until the next con.

French animator director Pierre Perifel, channels a 70s vibe both in the soundtrack and the visuals, arcing back to the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons and taking inspiration from those classic car chases from films like “Bullit” or “Gone in 60 seconds” and even “The Blues Brothers”.

It is an incredibly fast-paced film, with never a dull moment. Occasionally it risks to drift into complete chaos (the final chase, for example, is a bit “over-the-top”), but it’s beautifully constructed, never confusing and often even surprisingly clever.

The film might not that emotional layer we’ve grown to appreciate in the post Pixar-era and in some of the most recent animated films, but what lacks in depth and subtlety, certainly gets compensated by the kinetic frenzy and the exuberant sense of fun.

It’ll also keep you guessing thorough a series of (mostly) unexpected twists and turns right to the end credits (In fact, make sure you stick around for epilogue).

All of that is then topped up by a great voice cast, with names like Marc Maron, Anthony Ramos, Craig Robinson, Awkwafina, Richard Ayoade and led by lead by Sam Rockwell as Mr. Wolf, who oozes coolness and swagger to shame even George Clooney’s Ocean character. They may be voicing “bad guys”, but there’s certainly not a bad performance among them.

I went in, taking my son and his friends, expecting the worse, and we all left the packed Chiswick Cinema with a big smile on our faces.

A pleasant surprise!

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