DVD Releases: Monsters, Valhalla Rising, Sweetgrass

Monsters (on DVD February 1): The most notable thing about this sci-fi film by Gareth Edwards is its budget of $15,000. Considering the movie was made for less than half of a public school teacher’s salary, it looks terrific. However, if all you can get from your money is a C-grade District 9 knockoff, then what’s the point? Edwards creates an interesting world, and his use of sound certainly makes the effects seem better than they are– he even manages to create a few compelling moments. However, without characters that we care about or performances that are engaging by the lead actors, all that we have is a gimmick: a movie that we know was cheap but doesn’t look it. In terms of being a jump-off point for a potentially promising directing career, Edwards succeeded admirably with Monsters. However, in terms of making a watchable suspenseful film, it succeeds only intermittently. More of that fifteen thousand bucks should’ve been spent on the script.

It’s been a few years since aliens came to Earth, and they’ve been effectively quarantined in a large part of New Mexico called the Infected Zone. Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is a photographer who’s been sent down to take photos of the aliens, when his corporate employer asks him to bring home his daughter Samantha (Whitney Able), who’s there for some reason. They can take a ferry around the Infected Zone, but due to a series of circumstances, they have to set out through the Zone. On the way, they have some encounters with aliens as they try to break into the United States through the big wall they’ve built to keep the aliens out– an enormously obvious metaphor that they kind of beat us over the head with. The film’s structure and ending are the most interesting things about it; it’s an ambiguous ending pertaining to the aliens with an unexpected twist regarding our main characters. Still, the characters are cliched and predictable (and not enormously likable). This is the type of movie that’s easier to admire than it is to enjoy.

Valhalla Rising (on Netflix Instant Watch now): As the film begins, Valhalla Rising seems like a Gladiator for the arthouse crowd, with a charismatic Mads Mikkelsen playing the escaped slave warrior One-Eye, mercilessly beating opponents in bone-crunching and brain-spraying fashion. The first twenty minutes or so are as fun and violent enough to appease any fan of this genre. However, this movie eschews plot for a focus on extended allegory and sensory experience. It wants you to feel the fear, feel the violence, feel the dehydration, feel the dread. It doesn’t really bother building too much character or conveying too much storyline (even though it’s divided into six titled segments to try to give it a semblance of plot). While the visuals in this movie are great, and certain sequences definitely had me engaged, other parts of the movie are mystifying, boring, and self-important. Fans of Mikkelsen will definitely appreciate his performance, which is easily the best thing about the film, but unless you want to see a Gladiator-esque epic that focuses more on sensory experience than dialogue or plot, Valhalla Rising may bewilder you.

It takes place in 1000 AD. One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) is a mute warrior who escapes his chains and roams free with a boy named Are (Maarten Stevenson) who speaks for him. The first sequence, entitled Wrath, where he takes part in warrior battles and escapes, is bloody, violent, intense, and a lot of fun. Then, he encounters some Crusaders, who want One-Eye to come with them to the Holy Land, where he can help them in battle and at the same time cleanse his soul. They don’t make it to Jerusalem, instead finding a wooded place infested with violent Aborigines, which results in a lot of repetition of characters believing that One-Eye led them into Hell. The final couple of sequences, while shot gorgeously and maintaining an intense elemental mythology vibe, were difficult to understand to me, as I vainly tried to find a through-line of plot to grab hold of. There’s no point to that– enjoy the cinematography, the violence when it occurs, Mikkelsen’s silent and immensely watchable performance, and the sensory experience. It’s a mixed bag of excitement and boredom, elegance and self-indulgence. Outside of the first sequence, I’m not certain I’d sit through the whole thing again. Still, if the description sounds interesting to you, it’s worth a shot, as the movie is never bad.

Sweetgrass (on Netflix Instant Watch now): After reading Jim Emerson’s rave about Sweetgrass, I was intrigued while enormously hesitant. A documentary about sheepherders moving their sheep told through a series of long shots with zero narration? As I started the film, I was afraid I would get bored and fall asleep. After the first ten minutes had passed, I immediately realized just how wrong I was: Sweetgrass is strangely compelling, a brilliant example of storytelling through pictures. It’s not so much a movie as it is an experience– you really feel like you are there with the sheepherders, going through their routine, feeling what they feel. The herders themselves are hilarious and foul-mouthed, real salt-of-the-earth folks that aren’t often depicted in such a gentle and loving fashion. It’s hard for me to fully endorse this to everyone, since most of you will unquestionably be bored by it– you’ll either be sold after the gorgeous, oddly elegiac first twenty minutes or you won’t. Think Planet Earth, focused only on sheep and their caretakers. The images really do pack that hard a punch.

In Montana, these sheep over the summer must be moved through a narrow mountain pass to pasture and then come back. We witness the routine in the film. In the most unexpectedly exciting bit of film I’ve watched all year, we watch sheep get shorn, sheep get moved, sheep get born, and baby sheep try to fit in with different mothers, as the sheepherders keep life moving. Jim Emerson said his favorite shot of the year was the shot before the title where a grazing sheep suddenly looks at the camera. I knew it was coming and wondered how it could be so thrilling as Emerson described it… but it is. It manages to make you feel like you’re a character in the film, that you’re watching and moving the sheep with these guys as they walk a massive herd through city streets and rocky passes alike. Between the constant threat of predators eating the sheep and the sheer grueling nature of having to move these creatures as a pack through treacherous terrain, it helps you appreciate just how difficult this task is. For the last half hour or so, the sequences vary in strength, but overall the experience of the film is extraordinary. It may not have strong repeat value, but the first viewing, slow parts aside, was really unforgettable for me. Side note: just as stoners watch Planet Earth and get their mind blown by the images, this movie should be strongly recommended to anyone using mind-altering substances– I felt like my mind was blown having a stone-cold sober viewing.

~ by russellhainline on January 16, 2011.

One Response to “DVD Releases: Monsters, Valhalla Rising, Sweetgrass”

  1. […] Best Cinematography: 10. Robert Richardson, Shutter Island 9. Adam Kimmel, Never Let Me Go 8. Pawel Edelman, The Ghost Writer 7. Greig Fraser, Let Me In 6. Stephane Fontaine, Un Prophete 5. Anthony Dod Mantle & Enrique Chediak, 127 Hours 4. Michael McDonough, Winter’s Bone 3. Hong Kyung-Pyo, Mother 2. Roger Deakins, True Grit 1. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Sweetgrass […]

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