First Impressions: Norsemen

Discovering a good show to binge on Netflix…

Pretty soon, I’m going to have to review something I don’t like, otherwise this blog will become a vehicle for me to bathe films and TV I like in praise. With that said, here is a show I’ve just started watching which is very good. Norsemen is a comedy series set in the Viking period in Norway, and follows the lives of several Norse Viking raiders in the town of Norheim. The series is a pastiche of several shows on at the moment, including Vikings and The Last Kingdom. In much the same way that What we do in the shadows dispels the mystique of vampires, Norsemen punctures the romantic idea of rough manly warriors, by portraying these raiders as normal people with sensitives who talk about their feelings and stumble over their words. Having the main actor be much less traditionally good-looking also pokes fun at the slim leads with eye liner and magnificent hair from Vikings.

Most of the comedy comes from these characters reacting to old fashion traditions and customs with modern sensibilities, like the warrior Arvid, who, coming home from rape and pillage, talks about feeling lonely as everyone around him marries and settles down. However, there can be downsides to this modern perspective. For example, Rufus the slave acts as though he is on a commercial trip when he arrives at the village, and constantly puts his foot in it by running his mouth, seemingly unaware that he has been taken as a slave at all. He complains and demands, and it leads to some very funny moments, but the illogical way his character acts rubs me the wrong way.

The physical comedy is another strong point, and there are several slapstick jokes that work well because they play on our expectations. For example, when Arvid’s new wife drags him to a dinner party with another couple, the playful banter drives him to punch his wife’s friend in the face. Within the world of the story, the audience can sympathise because it isn’t modern day, and modern sensibilities don’t make sense within that world, but as the characters act in a modern way, the punch is still a huge deal.

The series is written and directed by Jon Iver Helgaker and Jonas Torgersen, and they bring a lot of humour to the script in the characters awkward interactions. The fact that these tough warriors act so timid and awkward creates a lot of humour, and the contrast between how these characters and the proud warlords from Vikings is apparent. Oddly enough they also feel more relatable, more like real people going through problems. The show even uses the same style of music as Vikings. Aside from the writing Helgaker and Torgersen use excellent cinematography to showcase the setting. Several of the overhead drone shots are incredibly beautiful, although I think that the dialogue scenes could be filmed much more interestingly, and perhaps add to the humour. For example, It would be great to shoot something mundane in slow motion or fast editing, similar to the way Hot Fuzz uses dramatic editing to make fun of action films.

I haven’t finished the series yet, but I’m interested to see where it goes, and side from a few issues, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s a decent bit of comic television and for the budget and scale, looks relatively high quality. The costumes are a bit bland, but that also adds to the charm of the show, it’s not interesting in complete historical accuracy or huge production values, this is a show that entertains first. The series has gotten a bit of attention online, but I think it deserves more, and I’d be interested what they could do with a larger budget, so If you get a chance, check this one out!

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The Defenders meets expectations, but no more…

The Defenders is about as good as I expected, although not much better…

I just finished binging Marvel’s The Defenders and it was very entertaining. While it lacks the depth and ambiguity of Daredevil and Jessica Jones in particular, the series follows up on character development extremely well. While I overall enjoyed it thoroughly, I have some thoughts I’d like to share, on what went well and what went wrong. This is a series which could very easily have been bogged down by the sheer amount of characters and fans expectation, but given the obstacles the show faced, the Defenders is a success. It manages to balance the four leads screen time and personalities well, and sets up future narratives with a strong emphasis on the close of a chapter.

This feels like the close of a story begun in the first season of Daredevil. For the longest time, the Hand have been in the background, pulling the strings, and now finally our heroes confront them, led by Alexandra (played by the brilliant Sigourney Weaver). She brings a restrained performance, giving us a strong leader on the verge of desperation, dying and unable to confront it. The first scene, showing her undergoing cancer testing is a vulnerable moment that humanises her as well as giving her firm motivation, and even a believable excuse for being rushed or making mistakes. Weaver plays this vulnerability perfectly, whilst also projecting strength when in the company of others. This is one of the reasons I feel it was a shame the way the show-runners dealt with her character. Beyond this point there will be spoilers…

The decision to kill of Alexandra was bold, but a misstep. If the show had a viable replacement under its belt I would be thrilled, but instead the villain who steps up, Elektra, is just not as engaging. It is the same mistake they made on Luke Cage, where Cottonmouth was bumped off early to be replaced by another snake themed bad guy with a less interesting character and ten times more insanity. Diamond-back was just an angry secret brother with an unstable demeanour, and it was unrealistic for this character to be a crime-lord. The same can be said for Elektra. Elodie Yung gives a smashing performance, but the character is the problem. Her motivation is unclear, does she love Matt Murdoch, does she want to kill him? We don’t know. She just can’t fill the Weaver’s shoes.

On the plus side, the four leads bring their A-game, and even Finn Jones’ Iron Fist, the weakest of the four characters is much more enjoyable here. The way the writers have all four bouncing off each other works very well and it’s interesting watching their different perspectives and ideologies clash. The action is splendid for the most part, except when for some reason the shots are shaky close ups in dark rooms. This happens more during group fights, which makes the one on one moments oddly much better. The one exception is the moment all four first meet, during the fight in Midland Circle, which show-cases all of their differing fighting styles and abilities, whilst leaving room to see clearly.

The show wraps up a lot of loose ends from the previous series and starts new narratives, and many of the side characters get interesting conversations, even in the finale. Honestly the biggest problem with this mini-series is that it never gets better than fine. It is a perfectly fine series that has some memorable and even really great elements, but as a whole, it doesn’t quite reach the level of Daredevil season 1 or even Jessica Jones. It just feels like the story lets it down; it’s too basic, too by the numbers to really impress, and I must confess I hope this is the last of the Hand story-line. I’m sick of ninja assassin cults and immortal criminals, these shows need to embrace the grittiness that makes them so refreshing in the MCU. But for what it’s worth, I probably will watch it at least once again.

Baby Driver: Bad Title, Good Film…

Edgar Wright’s latest project is so good, it makes me overlook the ridiculous title…

I always look forward to Edgar Wright films, but after I heard the plot and title of Baby Driver, I admit I was a little sceptical. The idea of a young car prodigy called Baby, who suffered from tinnitus seemed just a little too weird to me, and I wasn’t a fan of the main actor, Ansel Elgort. I’d only seen him in bland teen dramas like the fault in our stars, and young adult dystopias like Divergent, and he didn’t stand out as particularly interesting. However, I finally saw it a week ago and I am pleased to say my scepticism was entirely misplaced. This film is an absolute blast from start to finish.

By far the best thing about this film is the sound design. Because Baby has tinnitus, he listens to music constantly to drown it out, which the audience can hear. Now, I’m not a music geek so I didn’t recognise a lot of the songs chosen, but for the most part I liked them and what amazed me was the way Wright managed to sync up all the actions of the characters and the events of the film with the songs played. In fact, there is even a joke at one point in the film where Baby actually stops his team from carrying on with the heist until the right moment in his song. This is what makes this film unique, and it flavours every scene with an appropriate tone. I especially love the use of a song by Focus called Hocus Pocus (try saying that after you’ve had a few) which is one of the silliest and yet coolest I’ve heard.

The performances are for the most part, extremely well done. Two stand-outs for me were John Hamm and Lily James. John Hamm as Buddy is intense and dark, with a false smile and casual attitude that hides deep anger and resentment, reminiscent of his portrayal of Don Draper from Mad Men. In fact, you can make the argument that his character is really Don Draper, as Buddy comes from a similar background. On the other end of the scale, Lily James plays Deborah, the waitress love interest with a sweet innocence that never comes across as naivete. She has a natural sunny attitude and her relationship with Baby is heart-warming; the two have a good chemistry. She also isn’t played as a damsel, her character takes action into her own hands on more than one occasion, and she is willing to go far. As far as other actors go, Kevin Spacey is always great and although he’s not convincing as an unhinged killer, Jamie Foxx is intimidating as Bats.

Ansel Elgort, though not given much vocally to do, is nonetheless one hell of a physical performer, and scenes in which he dances to music are very charming. His expressions are very well done, and he manages to convey a feeling of cockiness without it seeming arrogant. Elgort can also portray moments of vulnerability and anger with an intensity that almost makes you forget his age, holding a stare with a deranged John Hamm at one point.

The visuals of the film, and the direction in general are exceptional as always with Edgar Wright. With bombastic action shot from very creative angles, and a superb use of lighting and colour to evoke the spirit of ridiculous 80’s action films. One of my favourite sequences is the chase scene in the multi car park, which uses brilliant cinematography, zooming in quickly on the two men in their cars, one lit in blue, the other red. Powerful stuff.

Baby Driver is a film I didn’t think I would enjoy as much as I did. The story is conventional, but the way in which it gets to each convention is surprising and refreshing. Like most of the best films, it takes what has been done before, and does something new with it. The direction, acting and music are splendid, and if I did have one complaint, it’s that the ending can’t help but feel a little anticlimactic. Overall though, I would definitely watch this again!

Making A Scene: The Spoils of War…

Breaking down a truly spectacular Battle…

I was hoping to write another movie review, but I haven’t had a chance to actually get out to the cinema, so none of the films I could review would be very recent. I have on the other hand been keeping up with the latest summer TV, in particular Game of Thrones. The latest episode The Spoils of War was a high point for the entire series and I thoroughly enjoyed the jaw dropping battle sequence. However, since I don’t want to spend forever writing long episode recaps about every episode in a season, I’ve come up with a new segment called “Making a scene” in which I will look at specific scenes from films and television episodes. And this week, I will be looking at the “Field of Fire” sequence from Game of Thrones Season 7 episode 4. As I’ll be talking about a scene from season 7 of Game of Thrones, be warned, there will be spoilers!

This episode has many amazing and well-crafted scenes. It may well be one of the best episodes the series has ever produced, and the gob-smacking ending is what captivated me most. To recap, after spending three episodes holding back, Daenerys Targaryen finally has enough and decides to attack the vulnerable Lannister army as they transport food and supplies to King’s Landing. Caught on the road unready for battle, the Lannisters are decimated by the horde of Dothraki screamers and literally burned to cinders by Drogon’s fire. By the end of the episode the entire army is routed and although Bronn manages to wound the dragon, the day definitely belongs to Daenerys.

The scene is masterfully directed and the director Matt Shakman should be extremely proud. His shots make the battle feel the way it does, and in terms of emotion, if not scale, I would say this sequence eclipses the Battle of the Bastards by miles. To be fair, it was always going to be hard to compete with a dragon. The camera-work is balanced between sweeping views of the action from up high as we fly with Drogon, to claustrophobic shaky cam and tracking shots, as we follow Jaime Lannister and Bronn through the fiery battlefield.

The tracking shots keep us close to the characters, allowing us to see the approaching army as they see it, and it is terrifying. The landscape shots of Drogon let us know what is happening and are immensely beautiful. Fans are calling this scene the Field of Fire after another battle from Westeros history. It’s easy to see why. The fire engulfs soldiers and explodes wagons, creating enough smoke to blot out the sun. the CG work with the dragon and the flames are extraordinary, especially for a TV show, and blend seamlessly with the live action. The practical makeup and props are also incredible, and the shots of men burning alive in agony are enough to make us wonder if Daenerys is really the good guy here!

The pace of the battle is quick and tension building. Rather than the slow slog of the Battle of the Bastards, where two armies pushed at each other until one gave way, this battle is decided fast. The pace keeps us from relaxing, creating tension, especially as we are unsure who to route for here. After all, both sets of characters are important to the viewer. All of this gives us a sense of dread as the Dothraki charge at us, and everything in this scene is tailored to increase that dread. From the moment we first hear the horde coming, we feel awestruck. The thunder of hooves, the eerie shriek of the Dothraki before we see them, and the roar of a dragon all feel bowel-loosening. The stunt work by the horsemen is sheer brilliance; the men stand on the back of the horse and shoot bows. Now we can see why many advise never to face the Dothraki in an open field.

There are many elements that can make part of a battle scene memorable, but rarely do all these elements come together so perfectly. Each aspect of the scene is honed to the highest standard, and I caught myself actually sitting on the edge of my seat as it went on. I can give Matt Shakman no greater praise than that this scene has affected me in a profound way, and it’ll be long while before I see anything so good again.