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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Criterion Sunday 319: 悪い奴ほどよく眠る Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well, 1960)

Toshiro Mifune gets a lot of recognition for his roles in Kurosawa’s samurai epics, but in some ways he’s even better in a business suit and tie — it seems to be a milieu that all the actors familiar from samurai films slip into with great ease (Masayuki Mori here plays the big boss, Takashi Shimura his creepy co-conspirator, and Ko Nishimura a craven stooge). Unlike the period samurai films, however, this contemporary tale of corporate double-dealings pointedly lacks any kind of honour. It’s a revenge story, and apparently loosely based on Hamlet, though it seems to invert just about everything in that particular tale. Mifune’s character is the one out for revenge (for the death of his father of course), and so you imagine the worst for his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) — who surely must be about to be driven mad at any moment — but Kurosawa and his co-writers visit the story’s punishments instead on its hapless salary men, hoping for a break by pleasing the boss. It’s all carefully controlled and framed, and though it runs long it never fails to be stylish in its widescreen black-and-white.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Hideo Oguni 小国英雄, Eijiro Hisaita 久板栄二郎, Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三 and Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍; Cinematographer Yuzuru Aizawa 逢沢譲; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Kyoko Kagawa 香川京子, Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Ko Nishimura 西村晃; Length 150 minutes.

Seen at home (BFI Player via Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 316: 乱 Ran (1985)

Twenty years on from first watching this film on (pan-and-scanned, no doubt) VHS at home, my chief memory of the film is a lot of horses rushing back and forth with primary-coloured flags — and yes there’s quite a bit of that in the film — but seeing it on the big screen seems to make a lot more sense of its human machinations. Those battle scenes do get a little repetitive by the film’s close, but the use of the coloured flags makes the engagements easier to follow, and there’s a real sense of physicality that you don’t get with massed CGI encounters of more recent films. Ran also feels like Kurosawa’s swansong (he’d do a few more, smaller-scale, films before his death a decade later), and at the very least it’s his farewell to the samurai period epic he’d become most well-known for after the break-out success of Seven Samurai (1954). The story, as is well known, follows the contours of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with an elderly warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) ceding control of his kingdom to his eldest child — the three here are sons — and in so doing, banishing his youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). When the elder two turn on him, he’s left almost alone, except for his fool, wandering in the wilderness of the Azusa Plain, driven almost to madness by the treachery. The staging is exemplary, with some spectacular and memorable imagery, such as a scene of Hidetora staggering out of a bloodied rampart as it burns to the ground, or an opening hilltop meeting amongst all the local warlords. As the film progresses, the second son’s wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) unexpectedly comes to the fore, quickly becoming the most notable obstacle to peace in the kingdom and pushing the film to its chaotic ending (the Japanese title means “chaos”). And all along the way, Kurosawa presents images of Buddha, implacably and serenely unconcerned with what is going on in the muddy, windswept plains beneath, as they increasingly run with blood.

(Written on 18 April 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Masato Ide 井手雅人 (based on the play King Lear by William Shakespeare); Cinematographers Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄, Masaharu Ueda 上田正治 and Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Daisuke Ryu 隆大介, Mieko Harada 原田美枝子; Length 162 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 17 April 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).

Criterion Sunday 277: My Own Private Idaho (1991)

It’s time for me to try something with my regular weekly Criterion Collection posts. I’m not changing the way they look or anything fundamental, but I have decided I am going to try to post two a week (both on Sunday, morning and evening). After all I’m fairly sure Criterion are adding around four new films every month, so it’s not looking like I’m going to catch up with them anytime soon. Therefore, I’ve taken the difficult decision to double my output on this, which means I’m going to need to watch twice as many each week if I’m to keep up. Therefore we’ll see how long this period of double-posting lasts.


It’s an odd one this, a film from the burgeoning independent gay cinema that was starting to move towards the mainstream, but looping in references (and sometimes entire speeches) from Shakespeare’s histories, without very much blurring between these two disparate registers. Its chief protagonists are Mike (River Phoenix), a directionless street hustler in Portland Oregon, who meets Scott (Keanu Reeves), who has chosen a life of hedonistic pleasure in defiance of his wealthy father, and both end up on a sort of road trip, though much of the trip seems to be more inside these characters’ heads. A Falstaffian figure is provided in the shape of Bob (William Richert), who acts like the boss of this loose coalition of street denizens, though beyond that it’s difficult to clearly set out what happens in the film given its fragmentary narrative structure, somewhat akin to the narcolepsy that afflicts Mike periodically. However, there’s enough looseness to allow small roles to odd and amusing characters, not least of all Udo Kier’s Hans, who does a dance with a lamp that’s probably the film’s comedy highlight. Elsewhere there are soliloquies and deadpan line readings that impart a rather glorious bathos to the proceedings, discursive as they are.

(Written on 8 February 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Gus Van Sant (loosely based on the plays Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V by William Shakespeare); Cinematographers John J. Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards; Starring River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, William Richert; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 6 February 2016.

Criterion Sunday 213: Richard III (1955)

These grand and handsome stagings of Shakespeare made Olivier something of a predecessor to Kenneth Branagh towards the end of the century, and as with Branagh, I feel a little underwhelmed. It’s not that the acting is stodgy (there have been some patchy adaptations, but on the whole Richard III is well acted, without egregious hamminess), and it certainly doesn’t lack in visual splendour. In fact, the Technicolor Vistavision looks gorgeous, all saturated colours on beautifully theatrical sets (not quite the Brechtian level of, say, Rohmer’s Perceval, but still mightily stagy and unreal-seeming). I just find Olivier’s adaptations unengaging, with too many scenes that don’t really seem to grab much attention (Loncraine and McKellen’s adaptation seemed much stronger in that regard). I still think this is one of his better ones, and I prefer it to Henry V, so maybe I’m just being churlish.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Otto Heller; Starring Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke; Length 161 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 11 June 2018.

Criterion Sunday 190: 蜘蛛巣城 Kumonosu-jo (Throne of Blood, 1957)

The most striking aspect of this (very loose) adaptation of Shakespeare is the mist that swirls about the characters, especially at the start as they ride about, lost, in “Cobweb Forest”, and again at the end with its strange uncanny trees. The costume design, too, is richly detailed, as Kurosawa transposes the story to feudal Japan, with a number of competing warlords seeking to usurp one another’s power and thus Shakespeare’s story doesn’t seem out of place at all, even within Kurosawa’s own oeuvre. Toshiro Mifune has never been more expressive in his facial acting — perhaps too much so at times — and the persistent sense of imminent danger, as well as those atmospheric effects, remain the finest achievements of this adaptation.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍, Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 (based on the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Isuzu Yamada 山田五十鈴, Takashi Shimura 志村喬; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 January 2018 (and years earlier on TV).

Criterion Sunday 82: Hamlet (1948)

If Olivier’s 1945 Henry V was filled with brightly patriotic colours, Hamlet plunges us back into Stygian monochrome gloom, albeit very attractively shot. However, for such a canonical text of English literature, it’s very difficult to inspire a viewer (well, me) to any great excitement, and this feels like a dutiful adaptation of the original, if thankfully somewhat shorter. No doubt many generations of schoolchildren have been marched into this and left feeling bored and uninspired, which isn’t really fair to the play, which has much to like in its writing. However, no one comes off as particularly likeable or sympathetic, least of all its petulantly entitled title character, and it really needs a younger actor to make the drama work (Olivier here is older than the actor who plays his mother). Still, the film is not entirely without merit, and there are some fine supporting turns.

Criterion Extras: Absolutely nothing whatsoever, except for a short essay in the booklet. Still, it’s a fine transfer of the film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson; Starring Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons; Length 155 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 February 2016.

King Lear (1987)

It’s not uncommon for one to praise the ravishing cinematography even in films one doesn’t understand, but although there is some fine imagery in King Lear, by this point in Godard’s career — after a period in the 1970s co-authoring films with his partner Anne-Marie Miéville during which they seemingly resisted all kinds of ‘professionalism’ — it is Godard’s soundtracks which are most apt to be called beautiful. The distinctive reliance on texts now manifests as overlapping layers of spoken word, washing over the soundtrack like the Swiss lake by which this film is shot — primarily the recitation of Shakespeare by a stentorian voice, sometimes at the same time as Burgess Meredith’s Don Learo or Molly Ringwald’s Cordelia are speaking the same lines, though sounds of nature and of seagulls vie too for our attention from all sides. The plot, such as it is, has Peter Sellars (the theatre director, not the actor) as Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth seeking to rediscover his ancestor’s works after some vague Chernobyl-related calamity has befallen the planet. Godard himself steps in as a Shakespearean fool/savant, Professor Pluggy, with cables for a wig, farting ostentatiously, and muttering out of the side of his mouth. It’s not that this is exactly an adaptation of Shakespeare, so much as a play on the idea of authorship (“a cLEARing” as one of the film’s interchangeable subtitles has it), and a grand thumbing of the nose to great traditions (whether of cinema or theatre). It also looks forward a little bit to Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma with its use of overlapping film images and oblique commentary. One of Godard’s finest films of the 80s.

Screening alongside the feature is a short film from the year before, Meetin’ WA, in which Godard interviews Woody Allen, though it’s unclear the extent to which this is staged. The encounter is at times awkward, with Godard leading Allen down some rambling metaphorical lanes regarding the radioactivity of television and its effect on Allen’s own filmmaking, and when Allen’s answers don’t seem interesting to him, he fades out the volume or slows down the speed, or irises in (the film starts with an empty black hole over Allen’s head), or smash cuts to an intertitle and a burst of jazz. It’s a comic short, really, in which it’s Godard as the director who is the comedian rather than Allen as the subject.

King Lear (1987)CREDITS
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 22 February 2016.

King Lear (1987)
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux; Starring Peter Sellars, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Jean-Luc Godard; Length 90 minutes.

Meetin’ WA (1986)
Director Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Pierre Binggeli; Starring Woody Allen; Length 26 minutes.

Bill (2015)

As far as kids-oriented comedy/thrillers based around the life of William Shakespeare go, this one is pretty good fun. In fact, for the quality of filmmaking and even set and costume design on show, I’d say it gives Shakespeare in Love a decent run for its money, and is frankly more enjoyable in many ways. If there’s a style it’s going for, then probably early Blackadder with a hint of Monty Python would about sum it up. Mathew Baynton’s Bill is a down-on-his-luck provincial type with a dream of making it in the big city as a writer, and so he ups sticks, leaving his wife Anne (Martha Howe-Douglas) behind and tries his luck — running into little success, but meeting Christopher Marlowe (Jim Howick) along the way. Meanwhile the Spanish King Philip (a properly moustache-twirling bad guy with a nifty line in stupid disguises, played by co-writer Ben Willbond) is plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth, all laid out courtesy of an actually rather thrilling pre-credits sequence. He duly takes advantage of the foppish Earl of Croydon (Simon Farnaby), who has been picked to write a play to be performed in front of the Queen (the perfect place for Philip’s plan), but knowing nothing of the dramatic arts has enlisted as ghost-writer… Bill! So it’s all very silly, and silliness really is the watchword, for while the film is not always as historically far-fetched as you might expect, it’s just mostly very silly indeed. Which turns out to be a good fit to the subject matter, hence an enjoyable film. I’m not sure if it’ll really play well to kids though, but what do I know. All I mean is, there’s plenty for grown-ups too.

Bill film posterNEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Richard Bracewell; Writers Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond; Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Mathew Baynton, Ben Willbond, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Thursday 24 September 2015.

Criterion Sunday 41: Henry V (1944)

When Kenneth Branagh filmed his own dark and politically cynical vision of this play in 1989 it kick-started his career and marked a resurgence of Shakespeare on film, but Laurence Olivier was the original actor/director and puts the play and its hero in quite a different light. Of course, being made at the height of the Second World War, you might expect a more triumphant hue to proceedings. There’s also an admirable commitment to theatrical non-naturalism in the sets and setting — again, this may have been motivated by avoiding anything reminiscent of the actual conditions of war — but brings to my mind Rohmer’s later experiments in staging the Mediaeval story of King Arthur in Perceval le Gallois (1978). Indeed Olivier’s film itself starts through a recreation of a performance at London’s Globe theatre in the early-17th century (strikingly similar to the reconstruction now on the South Bank), before at length moving away from the theatre, without ever quite relinquishing the stagy feel, though that’s as much to do with the beautifully saturated Technicolor cinematography as with anything in the performances. Whatever its limitations, and however carefully it works to work around the more melancholy notes in the play (most obviously its coda of how Henry promptly lost France shortly afterwards), it’s still a fine staging of a classic English play.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Laurence Olivier; Writers Alan Dent and Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Robert Krasker; Starring Laurence Olivier; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 June 2015.