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Magnolia Wrap-Up 3

Hammer of the Gods


Following decades of emulating Hollywood trends, Italian filmmakers began cranking out historical epics that mimicked the likes of Ben Hur and Spartacus in the late ‘50s. These ‘Peplum’ movies invigorated the entire industry and led into a silver age that included spaghetti westerns and macaroni horror flicks. Nearly 50 years later, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator reinvigorated Hollywood’s interest in expensive, long-winded, period-set action films and, as that interest waned, the Italian B-movie tradition appears to have been transferred to the British film industry. Fat-budgeted, mainstream-friendly epics have transformed into modestly-priced, delightfully brutal movies with considerably smaller scope, like Christopher Smith’s Black Death, Neil Marshall’s Centurion, and Jonathan English’s Ironclad. Like the Pelplum, these films are entertaining and definitely the kind of thing I want to see more of, but they’re also pretty interchangeable.

This brings us to BBC television director Farren Blackburn’s Hammer of the Gods. This film takes place in 871 AD Britain and follows a young Viking warrior named Steinar (Charlie Bewley). Steinar is sent by his father, King Bagsecg (James Cosmo), on a quest to find his estranged brother in preparation for a battle with the Saxon hordes. Matthew Read’s script includes every cliché in the ‘guys on a mission’ playbook, but is respectable for its narrative constraints (according to the extras on this disc, the final movie represents a pared-down version of the script). It’s basically Heart of Darkness as played by Norse warriors. The simplicity is, unfortunately, hampered by the fact that it takes too long getting where it wants to go. Then, when it finally gets to its extended climax, Read and Blackburn begin referring a little too directly to Coppola’s take on Joseph Conrad’s story, Apocalypse Now. The cast is made-up of an entirely capable cadre of tough guys (they’re that perfect mix of ugly and pretty) that do their best to pull off the hopelessly aggressive dialogue, though the awkwardly contemporary parlance tends to defeat them at every turn. Hammer of the Gods isn’t heavy on effects – to the contrary, it utilizes gorgeous natural scenery in place of production values – but it is a bit more ‘hip’ than some of its ilk. Blackburn uses digital embellishments and some speed-ramping. Theoretically, these practices are meant to cover the budgetary limitations, but they tend to look cheaper than the film’s more straightly shot skirmishes – though these tend to be over-edited, anyway. A sequence where Steinar is subjected to ‘shroom-induced hallucinations recalls the oratorical extremes of Nicolas Winding Refn’s more experimental take on Norse/Christian relations, Valhalla Rising, but that just brings about further unfavourable comparisons, so I’ll skip that.

Hammer of the Gods was shot using Arri Alexa cameras and is presented in 2.40:1 (maybe 2.45:1?), 1080p video. Like most similar films, the image here is graded to appear grim and largely bluish, though Blackburn and cinematographer Stephan Pehrsson tend to embrace the smoother blends and unnatural hue variations the format offers them, at least more so than their contemporaries. The base palette is made up of blues, greens, and oranges that flecked the natural skin tones (in daylight, at least) and solid reds. The details are given a nice bump in sharpness, thanks to high contrast levels that fill every nook and cranny with deep black shadows. This creates a slightly chunky look in the backgrounds when focus is pulled towards tighter close-ups, but the overall effect is pretty even. The harsh contrasts don’t really gel with the digitally augmented colours, aesthetically speaking, even if the differentiations are quite punchy and rich. The cooler hues also then to bleed into the blacks. The stylized imagery is met with a big, noisy DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The stereo and surround channels are rarely bare as ambient sounds constantly flutter over even the dialogue-heavy scenes. This includes eerie winds and a constant crackle of lightning/thunder. This mix comes to life more aggressively when swords are clanging and blood is flying. The ‘shroom scene also crackles with electronic embellishments in the stereo speakers. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is strictly modern, mixing rock guitars with techno noises and super-obnoxious dubstep beats. Extras include Making of Hammer of the Gods (21:50, HD), Behind the Visual Effects (6:20, HD), four cast interviews (38:20, HD), an AXS TV featurette (3:00, HD), and trailers.


Magnolia Wrap-Up 3

Europa Report


Around the same time that the UK started putting out enjoyable, but derivative historical action movies, smart sci-fi films started being released outside the Hollywood system. Now, for every Transformers sequel, we also get a movie like Duncan Jones’ Moon. Seems fair. Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report follows the tradition with the story of six astronauts (Daniel Wu, Anamaria Marinca, Karolina Wydra, Michael Nyqvist, Sharlto Copley, and Christian Camargo), who are sent to one of Jupiter’s moons (Europa, naturally) to run tests for alien life. Like his counterparts, Cordero is nothing if not ambitious. With Europa Report he sets out to create a scientifically plausible, space exploration film via mockumentary techniques. He attempts to maintain that plausibility without risking suspense or thrills and does it all on a very modest budget. His ambition is so respectable that it’s easy to overlook the film’s various flaws in favour of praising Cordero’s more successful efforts. There is, of course, some convoluted storytelling required to achieve the found-footage aesthetic, but Cordero manages to make most of it feel natural via the mockumentary framing devices. If it wasn’t for recognizable actors and the fact that we would’ve heard about a space trek to Jupiter, Europa Report could probably pass an authentic documentary feature. It’s also tightly-knit time wise at only 89 minutes (with credits). Problems arise when Cordero overcomplicates the first half with a non-linear structure. This is meant to instill approaching dread in the viewer (real documentaries also tend to frame their narratives around a tragedy), but the imagery and performances already successfully and efficiently convey the total isolation of space, rendering additional storytelling gimmicks moot. In the end, the film’s greatest weakness is that reminds me too much of so many other movies. Despite being a handsome, expertly tweaked, and genuinely frightening experience, the mockumentary framing is really the only entirely unique thing the film has going for it. I’m just not sure it’s enough.

Europa Report was shot using a variety of digital cameras and this 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is indicative of faux-documentary footage, including minor inconsistencies in noise and other digital degradations. Some of these cameras are lower resolution than others, or at least the footage has been treated to appear lower res/more compressed, but the bulk of the footage is clean, static, and slightly distorted around the edges (a reverse fisheye effect). The palette is largely dictated by the interior designs of the spacecraft, including whites, blues, and purples. This extends to the extraterrestrial environments, as does the occasional presence of poppy red elements. These colours appear natural, not graded, and are crisply separated. Detail levels are sharp and very deep-set (only Sharlto Copley’s home movies utilize focus pulls). The completely cg-created environments mostly match the cool, sterile look produced by the cameras, but the high level of detail does expose the smaller budget’s lack of texture rendering. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also stylistically hindered by the film’s found-footage approach. There are some big, noisy sci-fi-ish sound effects, specifically the dangerous radiation that ‘attacks’ the astronauts, but most of the aural design attempts to recreate the ambient hum and buzz of genuine space travel mechanics. The louder, multi-channel embellishments usually come from within the spacecraft, maintaining the reality of the silent vacuum of space (these rules are occasionally broken). Composer Bear McCreary’s score has a bigger presence than you’d normally expect from a naturalistic, found-footage feature, but the mockumentary aspects allow an in-film reason for the music. Extras include Exploring the Visual Effects of Europa Report (6:40, HD), The Musical Journey of Europa Report (5:40, HD), an image gallery, and trailers.


Magnolia Wrap-Up 3

A Hijacking


Likely easily confused for a Danish version of Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, writer/director Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking is based on another true story of Somali pirates taking the crew of a shipping vessel hostage. From what I understand about Captain Phillips (I haven’t seen it), the two films are structured differently and told from different points of views, but similar in their cinéma vérité approach to the material (I’d even be tempted to call A Hijacking ‘Greengrass-esque,’ if I didn’t know better). The film follows the cargo ship MV Rozen as it is boarded and it’s crew held for ransom. Meanwhile, back in Stockholm, the shipping company’s heads use their business savvy to negotiate with pirates that have no interest in their company’s bottom line. Lindholm also doesn’t have a Tom Hanks-sized star in his cast (there are some recognizable faces, assuming you watch a lot of Danish movies, but they’re buried in beards), an invaluable advantage to the all-important suspension of disbelief. Lindholm takes pains to remove himself from the equation as a director and keeps the camera in the position of an observer, rather than a participant. He also avoids shooting most of the more actiony scenes (possibly for budgetary reasons), which allows the stillness and silence feed the dramatically overwhelming suspense. Bereft of wild camera movement and stylized action, the highly naturalistic, histrionic-free performances carry the film and press its realism. Lindholm’s script doesn’t really have any villains, just incredibly flawed people making mistakes while attempting to protect the things they think are important. These people aren’t defined by awkward Hollywood expositional back-stories, but by their on-screen actions. The only reason the pirates aren’t better defined is the language barrier (none of their dialogue is subtitled), which is, I suppose, a pretty strong metaphor for international incidents altogether, not just this particular microcosm (do note that the non-white crew members disappear from the film suspiciously early during negotiations).

A Hijacking was shot using Arri digital cameras and is presented in 1.78:1, 1080p video. The raw, handheld, source-lit shots don’t look anything like Europa Report’s static, hyper-clean/naturalistic digital images. This transfer isn’t oppressively noisy, but does feature quite a bit of digital grain that picks up depending on how dark the shot is. Lindholm and cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck don’t make any noticeable effort to colour-correct the film’s palette, opting instead for a plane and natural look. There are some cross-colouration effects in the digital grain, but nothing unexpected or particularly ‘chunky.’ Detail levels are dictated by focus (which is usually wide) and contrast. The sharpest details are crisp without haloes or jagged edges. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is not a particularly overwhelming aural experience, likely because Lindholm and his sound designers understand that too much noise would be distracting in a case like this. The majority of the sound, including dialogue and most of the effects, is situated in the center channel, where it sounds very crisp and organic. The stereo and surround embellishments are plenty loud when they occur, but blend realistically into the rest of the track. Hildur Guonadottir’s music is scarcely used, giving the LFE a nice, warm throb every once in a while. Extras include a five-part behind-the-scenes featurette, including interviews with the real-life people (14:20, HD), a trailer, and trailers for other Magnolia releases.


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