Film Reviews: ‘Around a Small Mountain,’ ‘Vengeance,’ ‘Valhalla Rising’ Play Siskel Film Center

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CHICAGO – With the last days of August remaining, the dreaded days of post-summer dreck are upon us, with studios dumping some of their least promising products into theaters, while making way for the approaching Oscar season. During a decidedly dull weekend such as this, cinephiles are on the lookout for films that offer an exotic escape from humdrum mainstream fare.

Luckily, Chicagoans have a great deal of art house venues to choose from, including the Siskel Film Center, which is currently screening the latest work from several of the world’s most fascinating and innovative filmmakers. Here are three highlights fresh off the film center’s calendar that are well worth marking in yours. The first is from one of the great yet under-appreciated founders of the French New Wave, the second is from a filmmaker who emerged during the Hong Kong New Wave, and the third is by a bare-knuckled hotshot from Denmark who’s been hailed in some quarters as the next great European auteur. And what’s the best part about all these films? Sylvester Stallone isn’t in any of them.

We begin with the gentle whimsy and subdued magic of “Around a Small Mountain,” (a.k.a. “36 vues du Pic Saint Loup”) which has its first Chicago run from August 27th to September 1st. It is the new work from Jacques Rivette, one of the greatest living filmmakers in world cinema, who’s enjoying a small resurgence of sorts, on the heels of his well-received 2007 effort, “The Duchess of Langeais.” It was Rivette who first began production on a film identified as part of the French New Wave, 1961’s “Paris Belongs to Us,” which had the misfortune of being released in the aftermath of more popular works by his peers: Truffaut, Resnais and Godard. This bout of bad timing has haunted the rest of his career, and is reflected in “Mountain,” which features a small circus troupe who perform for even smaller crowds that watch the performers in eerie silence (is this audience meant to mirror the moviegoers Rivette anticipates to show up for his films?). As the picture progresses, the silence begins to take on a surrealistic quality. Imagine the kooky commune in “Mister Lonely” crossed with Club Silencio in “Mulholand Dr.”, and you’ll get a flavor for the offbeat charm of Rivette’s performance sequences.

Around a Small Mountain
Around a Small Mountain
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

Loosely based on the life of author Raymond Roussel, “Mountain” stars Sergio Castellitto as Vittorio, a businessman with an uncharacteristic appetite for spontaneity. He spots a woman, Kate (Jane Birkin), whose car has broken down, and without a uttering a syllable, he walks up to her vehicle and fixes it on the spot. For the next ten days, he proceeds to fix her. Tormented by a past tragedy that occurred in the circus tent where she performs, Kate has yet to overcome her fears. Even when she escapes from her claustrophobic life, she’s still a prisoner of her own psyche, a fact made all the more apparent when Rivette’s lens views her from behind bars. Though the story is a simple one, the filmmaker milks every moment for its multi-layered nuances, even at an unusually short running time of 84 minutes. Birkin is wonderful as a damaged soul who’s grown all too comfortable in her isolated agony. “Mountain” may be a minor work in the wide spectrum of Rivette’s career, but it resonates as a fitting end coda for the 81-year-old master of cinema, much like how “A Prairie Home Companion” was a fitting farewell for Robert Altman. Many of the characters’ lines about theatre could easily parallel Rivette’s beliefs about film, particularly when Vittorio refers to the surrounding circus ring as “the most dangerous place in the world, but also the place where everything is possible.”

Just as Rivette recently recovered from somewhat of a cinematic slump, so did Hong Kong action director Johnnie To, who found renewed success with his “Election” crime saga. His new thriller, “Vengeance,” will have its Chicago premiere engagement from August 28th to September 1st. It stars Johnny Hallyday, a pop icon/actor who may have gained a reputation as the “French Elvis,” but harbors a steely stare reminiscent of David Carradine. He plays Costello, a French chef who cooks up a recipe for vengeance after his daughter, Irene (Sylvie Testud), is nearly killed during a home invasion that wiped out her entire family. After her magnificent performance as the wheelchair-bound heroine in “Lourdes,” it’s sort of a sad irony to see the radiant, able-bodied Testud so swiftly confined to a stretcher in “Vengeance,” though her brief appearance supplies the film with its most powerful and devastating moments. Once Hallyday hires three mafia hit men to assist him on his quest for the unknown killers, the film’s body count becomes coldly calculating, interrupted only by the squeals of children, evoking memories of Irene’s deceased offspring.

Vengeance
Vengeance
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

The film’s atmosphere will be familiar to any fan of To’s work, since “Vengeance” marks the latest of several collaborations the director has had with screenwriter Ka-Fai Wai, and actors Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Suet Lam and Simon Yam, as the smirking villain, George Fung. There are various sequences of elegantly choreographed gunplay that are accompanied by falling leaves, pounding rain, and in one case, flying scrap paper, all of which seem to symbolize the fragments of Costello’s fading memory blowing in the wind. It’s eventually revealed that Costello suffers from a short-term memory loss that requires him to carry around polaroids reminding him which characters are his allies and enemies. Sound familiar, “Memento” buffs? Regardless of its derivative elements, “Vengeance” is a thoroughly entertaining ride, benefitting greatly from the gravity of Hallyday’s presence and To’s inventive visual style. It opens with a bang and ends with a cathartic laugh.

Yet there is nothing cathartic about the final film in this highlight preview, which is the latest unrelenting portrait of human brutality and corruption from cheery old Denmark. “Valhalla Rising,” which has its Chicago premiere run from September 3rd to the 9th, is the movie that director Nicolas Winding Refn had in pre-production when he made “Bronson,” an audacious portrait of the notorious titular prisoner, which served as a launching pad for star Tom Hardy (who later stole scenes in “Inception”). One of the common elements in Refn’s work is an utterly uncompromising depiction of violence. This element has remained consistent throughout his entire career, starting with his 1996 debut film, “Pusher” (Refn was only 24 when he shot the picture). That film marked the first of several collaborations between Refn and actor Mads Mikkelsen, who has proven himself to be a riveting actor in a variety of films (such as Susanne Bier’s exquisite “After the Wedding”), though he’s unfortunately best known for playing the one-eyed villain in “Casino Royale.” As the one-eyed prisoner-turned-warrior in “Vahalla Rising,” Mikkelsen is simply used as a human prop. He sports elemental powers beyond our comprehension, as he slices his way through various Pagan captors before joining a band of Viking Christian zealots on their ill-fated journey to the supposed Holy Land.

Valhalla Rising
Valhalla Rising
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

As in “Bronson,” Refn is far more interested in visual composition and abstract symbolism than he is with character and plot. The vast majority of the film is wordless, and when the characters do talk, the dialogue is banal. Yet the film stealthily casts a visceral spell on the patient, strong-stomached viewer that ultimately compensates for its multiple shortcomings. Like Lars von Trier’s equally gloomy sagas of spellbinding depravity, “Valhalla Rising” is divided into chapters, charting the characters’ literal journey into hell, which follows a trajectory Joseph Conrad would be proud of. Morten Søborg’s brilliant cinematography creates a harsh and threatening landscape in which even the looming sky, often obscured by ghostly fog, seems to be conspiring against the animalistic humans. The heightened sound design brings mesmerizing texture to even the quietest moments, such as when a dying man sits atop a hill, as flies begin to buzz around him. While the film is not for all tastes, and certainly not for moviegoers who consider themselves even remotely squeamish, “Valhalla Rising” is definitely worth a look, and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

By MATT FAGERHOLM
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
matt@hollywoodchicago.com

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