Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)

Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.

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Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

I concede this is a fairly tenuous connection to make in order to lump together reviews of these recent films by two of the most successful of recent Black women directors, but I wanted to give them some attention during my week of Black American women filmmakers, despite having reviewed already a good number of their more famous works.

Obviously Ava DuVernay has become the most well-known of the two, primarily for Selma (2014), but she made some low-key dramas like Middle of Nowhere (2012) and I Will Follow (2010) which I like even more, as well as documentaries starting with This Is the Life (2008) but recently the high-profile 13th (2016), and graduated to the big budgets with this Disney-produced fantasy adventure film.

Meanwhile, Dee Rees made a splash with one of the best coming-of-age movies of the decade, Pariah (2011), before turning her attention to the (in my opinion) underrated biopic of Bessie Smith, Bessie (2015). Her budget for her World War II-set period drama Mudbound may only have been a fairly modest US$10 million, but you can see a lot of that up on screen, one of the earlier films in Netflix’s recent run of big prestige productions which have had some crossover between online streaming and big screen presentation.

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

I remember when Kenneth Branagh used to make serious awards-bothering films. I watched his four-hour version of Hamlet (1996). Twice. I even watched the two-hour cut as well, for some reason losts to the mists of time. I mean, that was almost 20 years ago now, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore, very sensibly having re-focused his talents on fun, hammy roles. There was his wizard in the second Harry Potter film, or his Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. It would probably be fair to add the Russian oligarch bad guy Viktor that he plays in this film to that list, though what with all his precise financial machinations, it’s a more underplayed role of brooding intensity and clears the way for Chris Pine’s action heroics.

In truth, though, no individual performance does end up dominating Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit — as far as the title goes, it’s more about the shadow than the recruit. Aside from Branagh, we have Kevin Costner playing the guy quietly running the show, while Keira Knightley is an afterthought of a girlfriend. Amongst all this, Chris Pine has his running-around-making-stuff-happen shtick down from the rebooted Star Trek series, but he’s a curiously inert presence. Part of that is do with the way the film downplays the heroics and the patriotic flag-waving. Sure, he’s trained as a Marine following 9/11 and ten years later, gets the chance to save the day in a frenetic sequence based more-or-less at Ground Zero NYC. Yet his character is more of a back office wonk, tracing financial transactions and trying to explain it to Kevin Costner’s Commander, who — no doubt on our behalf — gamely exhorts Jack to use simpler words. And the final confrontation is between the two men, Jack and Viktor, rather than really about global geopolitics or high finance. It makes for a more interesting central character, I think, but perhaps a less satisfying action movie.

Of course, the character is based on famous Cold War-era conservative Tom Clancy’s gung-ho patriotic spook of the same name, developed over a number of novels (and already adapted into a number of films). If some of the jingoism has been toned down by the British director, then we still get some gloriously old-school villains, what with our Soviet Russian baddie, meaning a large chunk of the plot takes place in a Moscow whose modern shiny glass-and-steel edifices jostle with the more picturesque charms the film is at pains to present.

No one’s going to try to argue this is a masterpiece, and it has its longueurs. But it does what it needs to do without too much fuss. The style is all fairly straightforward and unshowy. Pine does his stuff, Knightley scrubs up quite well as a (medical) doctor, and Costner broods effectively. And, like the director he is, Branagh plays a character who thinks he’s in control, but just maybe someone will come along and find a hole in his plotting.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit film posterCREDITS
Director Kenneth Branagh; Writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp (based on characters by Tom Clancy); Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos Χάρις Ζαμπαρλούκος; Starring Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 12 February 2014.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

When growing up, I was always more of a fan of Star Trek than the other popular sci-fi franchises available. Specifically I watched a lot of The Next Generation television series, which was airing just at the right age for me, really. A lot of the vague ethical issues bandied about in this newest film (the twelfth overall, and the second since its ‘reboot’ in 2009) are familiar from that show in particular, though perhaps the 40-minute small-screen format was better able to handle such complexities. Added for the film is a lot more action and a lot more explosions, but a whole lot less sense.

What’s good about Into Darkness remains the key players, particularly Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Zoë Saldana’s Uhura, whose at times prickly relationship is a lot better drawn than any of the other pairings (the Spock/Kirk antagonism which provided the heart of the previous film is less prominent here). Unfortunately, it’s only glimpsed on occasion, but the time given it is among the film’s better minutes. Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk, too, who (as one might expect) is more indebted to Shatner than Stewart, has an engaging derring-do spirit. I had a passing sense that the other actors (particularly Karl Urban’s McCoy) were largely underutilised, though Simon Pegg’s Scotty was given more to do as the broad comic relief and did pretty well at it (aside from the accent of course), so maybe the problem is more that the screenwriters don’t seem to know what to do with them aside from putting some of their characters’ more familiar quotes in their mouths (if McCoy hits only one note, at least it’s a fairly amusing one).

The way that these minor ensemble cast members are deployed is a reminder of the difficulty inherent in trying to accommodate kitschy caricature in a big budget setting. The clunky one-liners, the 60s-style utopianism of the uniforms (not to mention the entire ineffective Starfleet organisation) and the perfunctoriness of the antagonists’ character motivations might have worked if this were, say, Austin Powers, but nestled amongst so much po-faced sobriety, it comes across as really quite jarring.

Sombrely leading the way into the title’s darkness is Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison, a villain who appears to have sprung from nowhere, his character having no apparent past (though hiding a strained over-abundance of it). Certainly, he looks and acts the part well, clad in leather and carefully enunciating. All. His. Words. For he is, after all, evil. There’s also an evil starship in the film, and it too is all in black. There are even Klingons, but they aren’t really evil, just a bit stupid. However, I welcome them as it handed the excellent Saldana another scene.

I suppose the screenwriters may have had some reasoning behind all their decisions, but in the frantic cut-and-thrust of the action film genre, it all blends into so much noise and confusion. Just taking the opening scene set on a vibrantly-coloured alien planet populated by primitives in face-paint, it’s unclear why any of it is really happening, why the Enterprise is hiding underwater (rather than in, say, space), or why Spock needs to go into the volcano himself. There’s a bit of to-do about needing to be able to see someone to teleport them, but that’s the kind of detail which is conveniently dropped when it suits the writers. There’s just so much stupefying plot detail throughout the film which even a moment’s thought would render incoherent, that the film ends up relying too much on director J.J. Abrams’s admittedly deft touch with propulsive narrative momentum. There’s no moral quandary, ethical decision or life-saving action that isn’t heavy-handedly foreshadowed by exposition so clunky as to show contempt for the audience.

But all of that is probably to overthink the whole enterprise. As a series of setpieces interspersed by the vamping of a number of talented actors, it all comes across as perfectly entertaining, provided you just don’t think too much about what’s going on, and why. And if they can give a movie to just Saldana and Quinto, that would be a move in the right direction.


CREDITS
Director J.J. Abrams; Writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof (based on the television series by Gene Roddenberry); Cinematographer Daniel Mindel; Starring Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Zoë Saldana, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue (2D), London, Wednesday 15 May 2013.