Valhalla” is a bright showcase for fresh talent and affectionately goofy humor. Indie pic might require imaginative marketing (tie-ins with local opera and symphony companies would be naturals), but extra effort could pay off with respectable coin in urban markets.
There’s definite sleeper potential in this oddball yet heartfelt comedy, which makes the most of a seemingly limited premise.
First-time filmmaker Jonathan D. Gift tells his story as the extended flashback of a dutiful son. Paul (Christopher Thornton) returns to his old family home and recalls four evenings in 1984 when he and his brothers staged a scaled-down, lip-synched production of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle for his ailing opera buff father (Charles Carmine).
It helps that Paul works as a movie effects designer and can utilize his abilities to stage the Wagner marathon in a cramped space–his father’s living room.
Older brother (Kevin Symons), a yuppie stockbroker, initially has misgivings. Before long, however, both he and another brother (Frank G. Gallagher), a cynical writer for a supermarket tabloid, get into the spirit of things. A more determinedly commercial pic might have played the situation for broader across-the-board yocks and backstage flubs. But the film is after gentler, subtler humor. With actors so caught up in the roles that their private lives are affected, pic resembles “Jesus of Montreal,” but here, the result is less profound and more playful. The show is aided by Billy Boy (George Parker), a biker who knows all about Wagner but admits he’s “sort of partial to Puccini.” Snowflake (Lisa LeCover), a striking biker chick playing Brunnhilde, begins to understand the opera when someone suggests she think of it as the musical version of “Conan the Barbarian.”
Pic works surprisingly well on different levels. As narrator, Thornton offers a respectful yet tongue-in-cheek guide through the complicated “Ring” plot. Despite a few naughty words, pic might actually work as an instructional tool in high school and college music classes.
The actual opera productions resemble low-budget, high-energy efforts by storefront legit theaters. The stagings get increasingly more complex and detailed as the cycle continues, and the amateur actors immerse themselves in their parts. By the time they do “Siegfried,” Thornton and F/X partner Suzanne Averitt fall in love, master their roles and even manage to build a rubber dragon with flashing eyes and smoke-spewing mouth.
Still, the film never allows anything to get so elaborate that it cannot be persuasively contained within a large living room. That, too, is part of the pic’s charm.
Performances are spirited and on target. Thornton and Parker make particularly strong impressions. Deron McBee, an “American Gladiators” alum, is amusingly well cast as a muscular Malibu surfer who really enjoys playing Siegfried.
Pic ends on an ironic note that’s no less emotionally effective for being predictable. A silly subplot involving nosy neighbors could be left on the cutting room floor without being missed.
Tech credits, especially Bryan England’s resourceful lensing and Cat Dragon’s witty production design, are first-rate. More than just a promising debut, “Valhalla” is a good pic by any standard.