Conjured necromantically from the medieval dawn, spook-raised from the Scandinavian subconscious, Valhalla Rising () is a film you must see to barely believe. God bless Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn – if that deity is applicable in a story of Vikings, fledgling crusaders and closing-reel American Indians – for giving us a surreal epic that measures its heft against Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God. Herzog wins, though only because Aguirre is a masterpiece for all time. Valhalla (at least here in Britain) is to date a seven-day cultists’ delight, almost lost after late-joining last week’s superabundance of releases.
Refn made Pusher, Bronson and other meat-and-bone modern thrillers before searching his cold locker for this tale of a one-eyed Viking warrior (Mads Mikkelsen, formerly a Bond villain, late of Clash of the Titans). Across land, water and psychedelic mindscapes, Mikkelsen leads a troop of primitive knights, plying their pidgin-English dialogue with Scottish accents, to a promised Holy Land that proves as weird, as hallucinatory as Herzog’s El Dorado. On the way there are fights, spites (beheading, disembowellings) and curdling twilights. Some scenes, seeming to be dreams, are shot in blood-red. Others are as pale as monochrome. Still others are lyrical and primitive like canvases from the American river painters.
Every critic I have read, even enthusiasts, misses what is surely the film’s point. Mikkelsen’s “One-eye”, so named and addressed, is either Odin or his earthly avatar. Here is the uni-ocular Norse god (Wagnerians, think of Wotan) leading the crypto-Christians by the nose to the edge of a lunatic revelation, a fire-baptism of faith, before himself meeting a god’s twilight on the cusp of a new dawn. The half-blind lead the half-blind: it is the story of religious evolution through the ages.
Don’t try to unscramble all this from your cinema seat. Let the images blow and bend you like winds, helped by electronic music from the depths of earth and time. Meanwhile, marvel at how director Refn has manufactured the whole movie on a budget, we don’t doubt, of about two euros. Valhalla Rising must be the first avant-garde film set in the early middle ages. Its geography is vague, its map co-ordinates mazy. It is mad Norse by Norse-west. But at the close you feel startlingly certain that you have been in the realm of wizardry.
Four Lions () is a knockabout farce on the theme of Islamic jihad. I guess we should applaud Chris Morris, the British satirist whose TV shows pressed the guffaw button on everything from parliamentary politics to paedophilia scares (outraging Mrs Grundy and the Daily Mail), for defining a new response to terrorism. Laugh. Giggle. In Morris’s own words: “Terrorism is about ideology, but it’s also about berks.”
Well, yes. Berks and burkhas. It trips off the tongue after a fashion. But when I first saw Four Lions at the Sundance Film Festival, with a stone-cold audience some of whom unfroze enough to leave early, I realised my unhappiness was not unique. Morris has four Britanistanis – three Muslim-Asian immigrants and an older white convert – set out on a crusade for Allah. Nincompoops all, they take off to a pratfall-intensive Pakistan training camp, later returning to prepare a bomb attack on the London Marathon.
Never mind that we have to step over dead bodies to laugh: the still-fresh, for many, corpses of London’s July 7 bombings. This is black comedy’s privilege, to strike the funnybone while the heart still feels pain. But Four Lions is not funny enough. The comedy needed heightening to reach the stature of the catastrophes. Following the “Carry On” calibre gags of Morris and co-writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (of TV’s Peep Show) into the heart of horror – a training-camp rocket launcher that accidentally kills a Muslim commander, the quartet’s attempts to learn Islamist invective (“You floppy camel sphincter”), the slapstick raid on a sex shop – is like accompanying a custard-pie clown into Conrad’s heart of darkness.
It is obvious these men are nitwits: suckers for martyrdom, terrorism tourists too daft to see the enormity of their deeds or the bankruptcy of their creeds. But do we really need help in despising the herd-like instinct that helps swell world terrorism’s number? Does making jihadists seem semi-lovable twerps do anything, ultimately, but trivialise the conflict? Perhaps if the film were funnier, we wouldn’t look for reasons why comedy and global cataclysm seem a less than perfect match.
J-Lo is back after a four-year screen absence. On the evidence of The Back-up Plan () she needs another sabbatical. As witty as Gigli, as Shakespearean as The Wedding Planner, this limp rom-com bumps from one piece of comic furniture to another. When the heroine’s test-tube pregnancy collides with her belated discovery of Mr Right (Alex O’Laughlin), conflict and hilarity ensue in subatomic quantities. The worst moment is a scene of new-age underwater birth, the moviemakers eager to midwife mirth but causing it to miscarry on every count.
Spare a thought, even an evening, for Jia Zhang-ke’s 24 City. () The Chinese director (Platform, Still Life) blends fact, fiction and fable in a touching chronicle of changing lives in and around a one-time munitions factory being converted into a new-era housing block. Place: Chengdu. Time: the last hundred years. History weaves in and out of faces that purl their monologues – real or scripted – as Jia presents the past as a giant, invisible river. Sometimes it is swollen with tears (war, hardship, death). Sometimes it re-fructifies, against the odds, a city and nation to whom modern history has given the gift of growing survival from despair.
From Russia, A Room and a Half () is another epoch-spanning story. The life of Joseph Brodsky, poet, memoirist, Nobel laureate, is reimagined in a two-hour intertwining of drama, animation and mock documentary. Remembrance of things past in Mother Russia (Brodsky’s family gamely surviving the Stalin decades); Brodsky in American exile and crossing the sea for an apocryphal return visit to Petersburg; best of all, the lithe cartoon flourishes – a speciality of director Andrey Khrzhanovsky – that offer the cinema screen’s own approximation to the teasing distillation of poetry.