Outlaw King (2018)

2018 #232
David Mackenzie | 121 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Outlaw King

If Netflix’s latest original movie is known for one thing, it’s for featuring a shot of Chris Pine’s penis. It’s no slight on the chap to say its appearance has generated more column inches than he possesses, though admittedly it’s hard to be certain when (penis spoilers!) it only appears for a split second in a long shot as he rises from a lake — who knows how far beneath the surface it may continue?

If the film is known for two things, the second would probably be the muted reception its premiere screening received at TIFF back in September. Director David Mackenzie scurried back to the edit suite, motivated as much by personal displeasure with how the film was playing as by the critics’ reaction, and chopped out around 20 minutes ahead of its wide Netflix debut. By the account of people who’ve seen both cuts, this has definitely improved the film’s pacing.

If the film’s known for three things, the next might actually be what it’s about. Picking up more or less where Braveheart left off, it’s the story of Scotland’s (possible) rightful king, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) — or, as the English king seems to keep calling him, Robert da Bruce (yo!) — and his attempt to unite the Scots and take back their land from the English (what else is new, eh?) Robert’s new English wife, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), must decide whose side she’s on as King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) and his petulant son, the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), employ any means necessary (with preference to brutally violent ones) to keep Scotland English.

Penis King. Er, I mean, Pine is King.

Outlaw King kicks off in style, with a superb eight-minute single-take that moves in and out of a candle-lit tent during daytime (a feat of camera operating to seamlessly handle the changing exposures required… assuming it wasn’t faked), during which we take in important scene-setting political discussions, a playful (but not really) sword fight, and the siege of a distant castle by a gigantic trebuchet. As opening salvos go, this is first rate. The whole movie is gorgeously shot by Barry Ackroyd, in particular some stunning aerial shots of wide-open scenery — all of it genuinely Scottish, too. In terms of individual sequences though, the opener is not challenged until the climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill, a bloody, muddy, sometimes confusing (deliberately, I think) scrap between the small Scottish forces and the huge English army. How can the Scots possibly win? Tactics. I love a good medieval-style battle with proper tactics (rather than just a free-for-all of troops running at each other), and I’d say this delivers.

In between these bookends, the film is almost a Robin Hood movie: after Robert has himself crowned King of the Scots, he’s declared an outlaw, and ends up on the run with a small band of followers, which leads them to use guerrilla tactics against occupied castles. There’s also a subplot about the relationship between Robert and Elizabeth, his second wife, forced upon him by the conquering English king at the start of the film. Apparently this is one thing that’s suffered from Mackenzie’s new cut, with less time given to seeing their relationship blossom early on. It didn’t feel fatally underdeveloped to me, but it might not’ve hurt to add an extra scene (one would probably do) to help connect the dots between their initial wariness and later trusting devotion.

The overall effect doesn’t feel rousing and celebratory in the way classical historic war epics (like, of course, Braveheart) normally do, but I also don’t think that’s Mackenzie’s goal. He’s talked about endeavouring to make it reasonably historically accurate, and real-life is seldom as clear-cut and triumphant as those movies would have us believe. That said, there’s no doubting who the heroes and villains are here, with the honourable Robert trying to regain his homeland and keep his people safe, while the ineffectual Prince of Wales flounders around, all bluster and no success, slaughtering people for kicks. Boo, nasty English!

Muddy; bloody

As that Robert, I thought Chris Pine made a more convincing Scotsman than Mel Gibson. I did praise the latter’s performance in my review of Braveheart, but nonetheless I never quite forgot that William Wallace was being played by American Movie Star Mel Gibson, whereas here Pine — and his (to my non-Scottish ears) perfectly passable accent — blends seamlessly with the rest of the cast. With supporting roles filled with quality performers like James Cosmo and Tony Curran, you can be assured there are no small parts. Stephan Dillane doesn’t grandstand as the villain, making him more genuinely threatening thanks to an air of calm menace, whereas Billy Howle as his son is a bit more outré, desperate to show his worthiness as heir to the throne, and failing.

Most memorable, however, is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James Douglas. Even when the other Scottish nobles are being allowed to surrender and have their lands returned, Edward remains so disgusted by Douglas’ father’s traitorousness that he refuses to grant him the same. That makes him keen to sign up to Robert’s cause, where he’s a screamingly effective fighter. Taylor-Johnson, caked in mud and blood, wild eyed and screaming at the top of his lungs as he slaughters the English, is a sight to behold. “What’s ma fuckin’ name?” he bellows. No one’s going to forget.

Finally, a lot of praise has been reserved by others for Florence Pugh. She’s certainly a rising star, having attracted great notices in Lady Macbeth last year and currently leading the cast of the BBC’s Little Drummer Girl, but something felt off here. I don’t think it’s her fault, though. This Elizabeth feels dropped in from another time, with a very modern confidence and headstrong attitude. If Pugh was playing a woman from a few hundred years later, I’d buy it entirely, but in this setting, I’m not sure. But this is perhaps less her fault and more that of the five(!) credited screenwriters.

“What’s ma fuckin’ name?”

Another thing those scribes haven’t really included are gags. Some have criticised the film for being too serious, lacking in levity, which… I mean, have you not noticed what it’s about? I’m the first person to argue that a film about serious things doesn’t have to be 100% serious — that it’s always okay to include a variety of tones, just like real life — but it’s also okay to, well, not; to create a different experience. I don’t think Outlaw King is shooting for portentousness, which I guess is what those critics mean, but it does aim for a certain kind of intensity. After all, it’s about a small band of men trying to stand up to the greatest army in the world, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. And if Pine referring to someone as “ye cheeky wee shite” doesn’t raise a smile, well, you don’t know the Scottish well enough.

Even in its new tightened form, Outlaw King is not the outright-success Oscar-hopeful Netflix once touted it as. It’s unlikely to attain the crowd-pleasing success of Braveheart, a film that remains an obvious point of comparison but not an unreasonable one, though on balance I’d struggle to say which of the two I preferred. What this lacks in its spiritual predecessor’s grandstanding, it makes up with grit and guts (literally), making an historical war movie that frequently thrills.

4 out of 5

Outlaw King is available on Netflix everywhere now.

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Kidnapped (1917)

2018 #159
Alan Crosland | 64 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English

Kidnapped DVD

The first screen adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous adventure yarn, the 1917 film of Kidnapped was believed by some to be lost. It was nothing of the sort, having been held in the Library of Congress’ collection since the ’40s. That’s not readily available to most of us, of course, but thankfully there are individuals like Movies Silently’s Fritzi Kramer who have the dedication to not only unearth these things, but to then spend the time and effort required to put together a DVD release. Such enterprises aren’t achieved through hard work alone, however, hence a Kickstarter campaign that was thankfully successful. And for those who missed out on that, the finished DVD is now available to purchase from Amazon.com. (For the benefit of UK readers, the cost of importing it currently comes to £26.12, though if you’re lucky it might slip through customs unnoticed and Amazon will one day reimburse you £4.35. Or you could wait for the exchange rate to improve, but, given Brexit, hahaha, good luck with that.)

Anyway, what of the film itself? Running just over an hour, it’s a brisk dash through Stevenson’s story. I’ll cop to not being familiar with the original tale, but apparently this version sacrifices no more than an average adaptation, despite that comparatively speedy running time. For the benefit of those as unacquainted with the text as I: it’s the story of David Balfour (Ray McKee), a young man who should inherit the Scottish castle inhabited by his uncle Ebenezer (Joseph Burke), but the latter has no intention of giving it up, instead arranging for David to be kidnapped (hence the title) and carted off to The Colonies.

“Yep, kid — you've been napped!”

Chance sees David moved up from being cargo to serving as the ship’s cabin boy (what to do when the cabin boy brings you a dirty cup? Accidentally murder him, then in his place promote the young lord you’ve kidnapped to sell as a slave, of course), which allows him to run into adventurer Alan Breck (Robert Cain), who’s found his way aboard the same vessel (Breck’s introduction: “I’m vexed, sir. Ye’ve sunk my boat, and drowned my man. Be so kind as to land me at once!”) The ship’s dastardly crew plot to off Breck, but he and David team up, escape, and embark on a journey to reclaim the young Balfour’s inheritance. Along the way there’s swashing of buckles and encountering of real-life historical events, albeit bent slightly to suit the plot, and bent again to suit the moral mores of the film adaptation, which was advertised as being “for all the family” and “guaranteed censor proof!”

While some bits may look silly with today’s eyes (or maybe they did at the time too, I don’t know — did a sailor dying instantly from being shot in the arm ever play well?), there’s plenty of adventurous fun to be had, and the production values are good. Mostly. I mean, at one point our heroes are taken to meet a Highland chieftain who lives in a cave with a window and dresses like a lumberjack in a skirt, but what’re you gonna do? Caves-with-windows aside, most of the sets aren’t half bad, and the location work is really good — it must’ve been shot somewhere in the US, but with bare trees, snow, and a genuine castle, it looks Scottish enough. While the action sequences obviously aren’t going to challenge a modern blockbuster for their creative choreography, there’s some effective swashbuckling when David and Breck escape the ship, and a decent chase through the snow thereafter. Cain definitely looks the party of a dandyish adventurer, and acquits himself well where it counts too — by which I mean, he seems pretty handy with a sword.

Swashes being buckled

Kidnapped may not be an unheralded classic begging for rediscovery, but it’s a fun jaunt nonetheless. Proof, if it were needed, that there’s often worth to be discovered by digging into the more forgotten and esoteric corners of film history.

4 out of 5

Kidnapped was the feature presentation of Conquest Program No.9, which you can read more about here. It is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.

The Death of Stalin (2017)

2018 #85
Armando Iannucci | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci, the writer-director-creator behind political comedies like Veep, The Thick of It, and the latter’s Oscar-nominated movie spin-off, In the Loop, here turns his attention away from fictional present-day politics to real-life historical ones — as the title suggests, the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and the power struggle that followed. Sounds like a laugh riot, don’t it? Dark comedies don’t get much darker than this!

It plays a bit like Horrible Histories for grown-ups, teaching you the facts of an interesting period of history, containing very serious events, while also sending up the objective ludicrousness of what went on. The flip side to that is one has to wonder about its accuracy. It’s officially adapted from some French comic books, rather than, say, an academic work, and various historians have commented on its veracity with regards to historical fact — some have said it’s littered with minor errors that can be excused as cinematic licence, others that it misses the mark entirely. For his part, Iannucci claims he actually “chose to tone down the real-life absurdity” because audience’s wouldn’t’ve found it believable.

Over Stalin's dead body!

The Death of Stalin probably isn’t the best text to cite in a history essay, then, nor a valuable piece of work for anyone interested in a proper understanding of what went on. As a comedy about the ridiculousness of dark times, however, it functions in a similar way to Iannucci’s other work. Functionally it’s very like The Thick of It, in that it’s about a group of semi-confident politicians trying to scheme against each other. Of course, the results of their machinations are a bit more serious and murderous than any of the problems Malcolm Tucker ever faced.

I’m sure some viewers must find the irreverence with which the film treats such matters to be a turn-off. Personally, I think its perspective is more profound: these are silly men playing silly power games, but the end results are often unthinkable and horrific. You only have to look at the recent news headlines — in which the gibbering orange blob who is the supposed “leader of the free world” has enacted a Hitlerian policy of tearing small children away from their parents and locking them up in cages at concentration camps, only to serve his own futile political ends — to see similar situations playing out to this day.

Perhaps, in this climate, The Death of Stalin is a reminder that we need to laugh at the preposterousness of monsters in power. It’s not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the best of The Thick of It or In the Loop for me, but that point is, unfortunately, as relevant as ever.

4 out of 5

The Death of Stalin is available on Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

The Duellists (1977)

2018 #26
Ridley Scott | 96 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

The Duellists

It’s 40 years this month since Ridley Scott’s debut feature appeared in British cinemas, which perhaps makes now the most appropriate time to have awarded him the BAFTA Fellowship (as he was this past weekend, of course).

Adapted from a short story by Joseph Conrad, which was itself inspired by a true story, The Duellists stars Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel as a pair of soldiers in Napoleon’s army who, for reasons only properly known to one of them, end up fighting a series of duels — or, really, one duel constantly reignited — over the better part of two decades. They become renowned for it (Conrad discovered the story through a newspaper article noting the death (by natural causes) of one of the real-life pair), to the chagrin of Carradine’s reluctant duellist. He dreads every potential encounter, aware of the fight’s futility and danger, but honour keeps drawing him back.

Ultimately, honour and the futility of fighting are what The Duellists is most about, if it’s about anything — if you like, you can enjoy it as merely a series of well-staged combats between two men, each stubborn in their own different way. They also each have slightly different ideas of honour, it would seem, but they’re compatible enough that it keeps drawing them back to the fight. “Acting with honour is all well and good,” the film seems to be saying, “but look where it gets them.” It doesn’t completely ruin their lives, but it does take a serious toll. A bit of common sense goes a long way, and acting with so-called honour, which might seem to be the moral course, doesn’t actually involve a great deal of common sense.

The bad duellist

Scott also intended the pointless, never-ending fight to represent a microcosm of war. Speaking to Empire magazine, Scott described Conrad’s story as “a very nice pocket edition of the Napoleonic Wars” because it “somehow encapsulated the craziness of an argument and how at the end of a 20-year period one of them forgot the reason why they were fighting. Isn’t that familiar?” Fighting for fighting’s sake; not wanting to be the one to back down… it seems it’s human nature, just as much in a conflict between two men as in between two nations. A bit of common sense would go a long way…

The other aspect of the film most worthy of comment is its photography. Reportedly Scott set out to imitate Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, released just a couple of years earlier. It’s an appropriate inspiration: both tales are set in the same era, and Lyndon looks incredible. Scott undoubtedly succeeds in his goals — both that of copying Kubirck’s visuals and that of such copying being a good idea: much of The Duellists looks gorgeous, particularly wide scenery shots. Although the cinematography is credited to Frank Tidy, Scott says he operated the camera himself for the entire shoot, so who’s to know where exactly the credit for that achievement lies.

The good duellist

Resemblances to Barry Lyndon extend beyond just the visuals, mind. As noted, it’s set in the same era, so various visual trappings are similar, from costumes to some of the locations — if not direct copies, they certainly evoke Kubrick’s film more than once. There’s also the story itself: a tale focused on just one or two characters but spanning decades, and during a particularly tumultuous and eventful period in history. As Tim Pelan puts it (in this piece at Cinephelia & Beyond), “while Barry Lyndon advances with the forward momentum of one of Napoleon’s columns in its telling of a fool’s misfortune and slow glide towards the destruction of all he worked for and holds dear, The Duellists dashes pell-mell between the very different clashes of the antagonists.” Scott’s film feels like it thinks it is, or wants to be, an epic, just like Lyndon, even though it only lasts a little over 90 minutes.

Comparisons to such a lofty cinematic success would damn a lesser film, but The Duellists is a very fine work in its own right. Despite the similarities I’ve highlighted, it’s really a very different film: Barry Lyndon has a kind of leisurely elegance, whereas The Duellists is more economical and straightforward. It’s certainly not Scott’s greatest film (his next two immediately put paid to that), but it’s perhaps his most under-appreciated one.

4 out of 5

Napoleon (1927)

aka Napoléon vu par Abel Gance

2016 #184
Abel Gance | 333 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 + 4:1 | France / silent (English) | PG / G

Napoleon

At one point in time, arguments over rights made it seem unlikely you’d ever be able to see Abel Gance’s epic biopic of French leader Napoléon Bonaparte if you were a regular person not prone to attending all-day cinema screenings with a live orchestra and multiple intermissions. But a year ago this week things panned out so that the BFI were finally able to release it on Blu-ray. While a theatrical marathon is probably still the best way to see the film (if only for the full effect of the famed triptych finale), this release is certainly more convenient and accessible. Apparently it sold better than expected, too — I guess that’s what happens when you combine years of anticipation with being a worldwide-exclusive release of a film of this stature. It’s also a daunting film to review — for the aforementioned reasons, plus its length and its artistic importance. Nonetheless, here are what thoughts I had.

At 5½ hours, Napoleon is rather like a miniseries from the silent era — a comparison that feels more apt than ever in this age of binge-watching. It’s divided into four acts, each running anywhere from 49 to 114 minutes, but it could even be subdivided into further episodes: Napoleon’s schooldays; his observation of the French Revolution; his opposition to Corsica being sold to England; the siege of Toulon (which takes up all of Act 2 and is the best bit, in my opinion); the reign of terror (a half-hour section that barely features Napoleon); a chunk where he falls for and woos Josephine that plays like a rom-com; the invasion of Italy… Yet despite that length, the film doesn’t even reach the Napoleonic Wars. No wonder Gance wanted to do six movies — or six seasons, as we might interpret it today. (In the end, he went over-schedule and over-budget on this first film, covering just two-thirds of the story he’d intended and spending the budget for the entire series. I imagine I’d outrage some silent film fans/scholars if I called him the Peter Jackson of his day…)

Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon

Part of the fourth act is that triptych climax, a 21-minute sequence shot with three cameras side-by-side, and therefore designed to projected on three 1.33:1 screens side-by-side, to create a 4:1 widescreen image. It’s undeniably less powerful when rendered as a thin strip across a 16:9 television, suddenly shrinking the height of the image rather than suddenly tripling its width, but what other choice is there? (Well, if you’ve got three sets of equipment, the three-disc Blu-ray contains each screen full size, one per disc, so you could set it up yourself.) Even shrunk like that, the imagery in the sequence remains stunning. I bet the effect is marvellous when seen as intended. (There’s an alternate single-screen ending, which is quite different. It contains fundamentally the same ‘plot’, but there’s one whole new sequence, and the others are truncated or slightly rearranged. Worst of all, it loses the tricolour-inspired finale.)

Widescreen properly arrived when CinemaScope was invented in 1953, so Gance was about 25 years ahead of his time with that technique. It’s Napoleon’s most striking innovation, but the whole film shows off a surfeit of cinematic techniques: a wide variety of shot lengths (close-ups, medium, long, wide, etc, etc); tracks and pans, many of them fast; handheld photography, including what we’d now call ShakyCam; swaying back and forth, in and out of focus, or swinging over a large crowd; mounted on fast-moving vehicles, including dipping under the waves on a boat; in the thick of the action rather than observing it from a distance; multiple exposures and superimposition; animated maps to indicate Napoleon’s strategising; split screen; split-second impressionistically-fast cutting… and most of that’s found in just the first hour! Some of this is stuff that would still feel revolutionary when filmmakers were doing it 20, 30, even 40 years later. The fast-cut pulse-racing action scenes, like a horseback chase on Corsica, are not what you commonly expect from a silent movie, especially an ‘artistic’ one rather than a swashbuckler, say.

Epic

Lest you think a film of this vintage must be in black and white, Napoleon features a lot of tinting and toning, which works very well at times to create striking and meaningful imagery: golden sunlight illuminating the debut of La Marseillaise; the burning red of revolution forged in a furnace; a tumultuous purple ocean… Similarly, Carl Davis’ original score is great, helping to emphasise the emotion and lend the images a storytelling shape. Again, the sequence with La Marseillaise is a good example; a particularly effective tour de force. Davis makes good use of other familiar tunes for shorthand — there are variations on Rule, Britannia whenever the British are involved, for instance.

Making Abel Gance’s Napoleon was an epic undertaking, as was its decades-long reconstruction, as is the viewing experience (it is 5½ hours, after all). It may not be perfect for all of that immense running time (which does not merit adjectives like “indulgent” or “excessive” but is, nonetheless, long), but it is a monumental achievement in cinema that undoubtedly deserves full marks.

5 out of 5

That completes my reviews from 2016, finally.

Dunkirk (2017)

2017 #102
Christopher Nolan | 106 mins | cinema | 2.20:1 | UK, USA, France & Netherlands / English | 12A / PG-13

Dunkirk

Batman Begins. The Dark Knight Rises. Memento. The Prestige. Interstellar. Inception. The Dark Knight. Of his previous nine feature films, Christopher Nolan has seven on the IMDb Top 250 (in descending order as listed). I’m sure Following and Insomnia have their advocates as well. Nonetheless, many reviews are hailing Dunkirk as his best film yet. Some are even say it’s his first genuine masterpiece. Some that this is the film where he finally lives up to those endless Kubrick comparisons.

And some just harp on about how we have to see it in bloody IMAX, even though most of us can’t.

Personally, coming out of it I felt pretty much the same way I have about every Christopher Nolan film bar The Dark Knight: it was very good, but was it great?

We shall wait for them on the landing grounds

I don’t know how well the Battle of Dunkirk is known outside British shores (a lot better after this film, I’d wager), but I think it has a kind of ‘national myth’ status here; the sort of thing the phrase “our finest hour” was invented for. In 1940, British and allied troops retreated from the Nazi advance across Europe, ending up with their backs to the sea on the beach at Dunkirk, France, waiting for rescue from the British Navy. As their ships were plagued by German bombers and U-boats, eventually civilians were mobilised, with hundreds of fishermen and hobbyists sailing their tiny craft across the Channel to save as many as they could — in the end, over 330,000 troops. That’s ‘The Story’, anyway — I’m sure the truth is more nuanced. It’s also what provoked Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, which is probably even more famous.

So why hasn’t Dunkirk been more widely depicted on screen before now? Well, it didn’t involve the Americans, so I imagine that’s a big part of it. Also, it was technically a defeat — not exactly uplifting fodder. And where do you lay your focus? To take D-Day as a counterpoint: sure, it was a massive operation involving multiple beaches and thousands of troops, but you pick a handful of men to follow and you’re depicting the general experience. With Dunkirk, you’ve got the men who made it on to boats, those left on the beach, the civilians coming to their rescue, the sailors, the airforce… Or maybe I’m trying to make it sound more difficult to film than it actually is, and it all just comes back down to “the yanks weren’t there”.

Wherever did they find sand for all those bags?

But Christopher Nolan is allowed to basically do what he wants nowadays, and so Christopher Nolan is the one who’s finally made a film of Dunkirk. (I say “finally” — there have been others, a long time ago.) Despite it being the shortest film of his Hollywood career, Nolan gets round the perspective problem by making it an epic, driven by spectacular visuals and universal themes rather than a focused tale of just a character or two. In aid of this, it’s a three-pronged affair: in separate storylines we follow the soldiers on the beach and in the boats; a civilian craft on its way to rescue them; and a pilot providing air cover.

To complicate matters, Nolan stages each of these stories at a different time period — respectively, one week, one day, and one hour before the film’s climax — but intercuts them all as if they were happening at once. At times, literally: rather than limit each storyline to whole scenes one by one, events in each (like, say, a boat sinking with the soldiers on it and the pilot in a dogfight) are intercut as if they’re occurring simultaneously. It’s… an unusual choice. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I’m not sure what its goal is, exactly. For the film as a whole, it works effectively, especially spotting background details in each story that then crop up again later when other storylines catch up to them.

Background details

I think the main effect Nolan was aiming for is intensity. Not of war, so much, but of survival. That this is a PG-13 war movie caused some to balk — how can you depict war nowadays without blood and gore? But this isn’t a war movie per se, it’s an escape movie. It’s not about the reality of someone getting their arm or head blown off, it’s about escaping a sinking ship, or running out of fuel, or keeping going when the odds are against you. Couple this with the aforementioned visual spectacle, and a thunderous sound mix, and Dunkirk is definitely an Experience.

Indeed, for those without access to an IMAX — and, let’s face it, that’s the vast majority of viewers — the film’s sound is the main reason to see it in the cinema. It’s loud. I saw other people in my screening actually covering their ears at some points. That’s not just because my cinema had the volume too high (well, I don’t think it is), but I think it’s purposefully part of the effect. Of course, if you’ve got a decent sound system at home and are prepared to crank it up, maybe the Blu-ray will yet offer a similar experience. Certainly, in terms of the visuals, the disc release is likely to use the film’s IMAX Digital version, which features 80 minutes of 1.90:1 footage (vs. the constant 2.20:1 framing that you’ll see in most cinemas); and, if we’re lucky, they’ll include the IMAX footage in its full 1.43:1 ratio too (they did for Nolan’s Batmans, but not for Interstellar). It’s kind of ironic that this is a new-release film from a director hell bent on the sanctity of the theatrical experience (you probably saw his comments about Netflix earlier this week), where most of us will better see his intended visuals on a home video format than we will at the cinema.

We shall wait for them on the beaches

In trying to think how to sum up, I’ve come to the conclusion that early reviews have put too much weight on Dunkirk. I’m sat here pondering “is it Nolan’s best film?” or “is it the greatest war film ever made?”, rather than just “how was it as a film in itself?” On first blush, I wasn’t as enthralled by it as I was by The Dark Knight, or even Inception, but in some respects it’s a more mature, maybe even more cinematic, movie than either of those. As for being the greatest war film, I can’t help but instantly think of Saving Private Ryan, whose opening scene remains the one to beat, but also follows through with the rest of its story; and if we expand our scope to allow cinematic TV series, can anything top Band of Brothers? But, as I said earlier, Dunkirk isn’t trying to out-war those war movies.

So, setting aside questions of its place in film history, Dunkirk aims to be an intense experience about trying to survive events bigger than yourself. In that regard, it’s as successful as the evacuation itself.

5 out of 5

Dunkirk is in cinemas everywhere now. It’s also been released in IMAX, donchaknow.

It placed 9th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

A Knight’s Tale (2001)

2016 #160
Brian Helgeland | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

A Knight's TaleA squire fakes being a knight to win a jousting contest, and a lady’s affection, in this medieval comedy-adventure.

Renowned for its anachronistic use of rock music, there’s actually not much of that, but there’s plenty of comedy and adventure — too much: it’s a little long (that there’s an extended DVD beggars belief). An able cast keep it ticking: Heath Ledger hefts the derring-do and romance, with comic support from Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk, and Paul Bettany; but love interest Shannyn Sossamon is clearly miscast.

Though a favourite to some, I wouldn’t say it’s under-appreciated, but it’s a fun romp.

3 out of 5

Ben-Hur (1959)

2016 #143
William Wyler | 222 mins | Blu-ray | 2.76:1 | USA / English | PG / G

Oscar statue1960 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 11 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Special Effects, Best Music.
Nominated: Best Adapted Screenplay.

All that you have read about Ben-Hur, all that you have heard about Ben-Hur, is surpassed by the actuality.

Ben-HurSo claims Ben-Hur’s 1961 trailer. They were cocky back then, weren’t they?

The third (of, to date, six) screen adaptations of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the 1959 version is certainly the most famous, in part because it was the sole holder of the title “winner of most Oscars” for 38 years (until Titanic equalised, followed by Return of the King just six years later), and also because of its chariot race climax — which comes almost an hour before the end, because it’s also really bloody long (over 3½ hours even without counting the overture, intermission, and entr’acte). It’s also really rather good, though it’s a tale that would be better without the Christ.

Although it begins and ends with that Jesus fella, it’s really the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince of Roman-occupied Jerusalem in 26AD. When Messala (Stephen Boyd), Judah’s childhood friend (and, possibly, lover — I’ll come to that), returns as head of the city’s Roman garrison, he asks for Judah’s help in capturing dissident Jews. Judah refuses, his loyalty more aligned to his faith and countrymen than the glory of the Roman Empire. Consequently, a spurned Messala uses a slip-up during the arrival of the region’s new governor as an excuse to arrest Judah, condemning him to slavery. Cue a couple of hours of desert treks, rowing, sea battles, ethnic dancing, a blackface Sheik, gambling, that chariot race, leprosy, and Jesus getting crucified (spoilers!)

I’m being flippant, but most of this is suitably dramatic. It’s a proper epic, a grand story with huge set pieces and world-changing events, and it’s executed with a scale suitable to that narrative. Despite the length, it’s almost constantly engrossing. I had planned to split it over two nights at the intermission (despite the imbalance that causes — Part One is an hour longer than Part Two), but was so invested that I stuck with it regardless. There are things that have aged poorly, be that the model effects in the sea battle or using a white actor in heavy make-up to portray an Arab, but I think you have to take these things with a certain element of the spirit of the era — I’m sure no offence was intended (see also: Lawrence of Arabia).

More harmful to the film’s quality is the Christ element. I guess this is seen as an integral part of the story by some people: it’s the subtitle of the original novel and the 1925 film; this version includes it on screen right after the title card; and both this film and the novel have received rare approval from the Vatican. Knowing this, I was prepared to be open-minded about it. At times, it’s fine. Jesus’ life is going on at the same time as Ben-Hur’s, and occasionally it intersects in ways that bolster the film’s story or help reflect some of its themes, like forgiveness (or otherwise). The problem comes at the end: the story climaxes, and then the narrative toddles on with what you might kindly call an extended epilogue that sees Judah realise Christ’s importance as he witnesses the crucifixion. Perhaps this could work in itself (though, without wanting to spoil developments, the way it’s used to solve some problems is incredibly pat), but it runs on too long with too little direct relevance. Apparently director William Wyler, who was Jewish, was keen to make a film that would appeal to all faiths, and insisted that it was the personal story of Judah Ben-Hur that was largely responsible for the film’s enduring success. I think he’s absolutely right about that: the story — the actual story — is wrapped up about half-an-hour before the film itself ends. It doesn’t prevent what comes before from being highly enjoyable, but it’s so tangential and long-winded that it becomes a problem. Ultimately, I knocked a whole star off because of it.

This Christian aspect contrasts sharply with the other subtext I alluded to earlier: the possibility that Judah and Messala were once lovers. The claim originates with screenwriter Gore Vidal, who may or may not have written some or all of the screenplay that was used for shooting. According to Vidal, he and Stephen Boyd discussed the idea before shooting began, and then Boyd played the scenes with it in mind. However, it was kept hidden from Charlton Heston because he’d never agree to it, and when the notion was put to him later he naturally denied there was any homosexual subtext. Whether this tale is true in the literal sense of that subtext being written into the screenplay and Boyd choosing to incorporate it into his performance, I don’t know, but the content of the film makes it easy to believe — the scenes between Messala and Judah, especially when they’re first reunited, absolutely play like there’s a romantic history between them. Bear that in mind and it seems to reoccur later, too: when the story returns to Jerusalem after several years, Messala seems particularly close to his deputy; and there are a couple of shots of Judah being chummy towards a random stableboy (I mean, they’re not much, but if you watch it with the assumption that Judah is gay or bi…) What does this signify? Perhaps not a great deal. I’m sure you can choose to completely ignore it. I imagine some would passionately deny even the possibility it’s there. Personally, I think it adds something to the characters’ relationship.

Believe that subtext or not, Boyd is excellent as Messala. He was overlooked at many awards in favour of Hugh Griffith as the aforementioned Sheik. Not that Griffith is bad, but there’s far more nuance, variety, and power to Boyd’s performance. He’s much more deserving of a gong than Heston, even, who’s a very capable leading man type, but I’m not sure his performance has the kind of depth that would pass muster for Best Actor today. That said, Mike at Films on the Box makes a good case for his defence! Either way, the technical awards the film scooped up are certainly merited. The cinematography is fantastic, with the landscape shots making particularly excellent use of the extra-wide frame. As for the chariot race, it stands up as an incredible action sequence even today, driven by thrilling camerawork and editing, and showcasing some daring stunt work.

When it’s dealing in this kind of material, the actuality of Ben-Hur does indeed surpass its reputation. It’s a shame there’s that other stuff that spoils the party.

4 out of 5

The new, sixth screen adaptation of Ben-Hur is released in the UK later this week.

Ben-Hur was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

2016 #55
Ridley Scott | 144 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG-13

Exodus: Gods and KingsFor his most recent historical epic, Ridley Scott tackles the story of Moses. It’s easy to nitpick, depending on your proclivities: whitewashed cast; lack of adherence to the Bible; Ridley’s typically flexible attitude to historiography; it was even banned in Egypt for the negative depiction of both rulers and slaves.

Those aside, it’s visually sumptuous and impressively mounted, with well-imagined semi-plausible versions of the tale’s fantastical elements. However, despite the epic length (and four screenwriters), it never gets inside characters’ heads — they’re just going through motions dictated centuries ago.

Primarily one for those already amenable to its genre or creators.

3 out of 5

Ridley Scott’s latest film, The Martian, premieres on Sky Cinema today. My five-star review is here.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

2016 #111
Stanley Kubrick | 185 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | UK, USA & Ireland / English, German & French | PG / PG

Barry LyndonStanley Kubrick made a good many exceptionally well-regarded films — indeed, with possibly the exception of his first semi-amateur feature, Fear and Desire, every one of his works can lay claim to being someone’s favourite. Nonetheless, although you wouldn’t guess it from its barebones also-ran type treatment on DVD and Blu-ray, three-hour period drama Barry Lyndon places among his top works in terms of consensus audience favourites, in that it’s on the IMDb Top 250. That said, it’s at #230, while the other six films on there are in the top 100, and he only made 13 features anyway — so it sits at the precise halfway point of his oeuvre, at least on IMDb.

Adapted from a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, commonly called The Luck of Barry Lyndon but whose full original title is going in a footnote because it’s so long,* Kubrick’s film narrates the life of the eponymous Irish rogue (Ryan O’Neal) as he falls in love, runs away from home, joins the army, becomes a spy, becomes a con artist, marries a wealthy heiress (Marisa Berenson), runs an estate, and is a man of dubious virtue and questionable likeability throughout the whole affair.

Apparently the novel is considered to be the first English-language ‘novel without a hero’, aka antihero, and Lyndon certainly fits that bill. He serves his own interests throughout the tale, which is rarely seen as a desirable characteristic but can certainly be an understandable one, though at times you may despair at how his stubborn dedication to certain causes actually works against his interests. On the other hand, he has a great propensity for blagging his way through a war, and the ensuing complications, so I guess he learns from his mistakes… some of them, at any rate. It would be tough to say that Barry is a character you empathise with, but that doesn’t stop him from being a fascinating one to follow for a couple of hours. Some of this dislike may stem from the film’s voiceover narrator, who often tells us less-than-favourable things about the lead character. Apparently this is an example of an unreliable narrator, and I suppose some of the things we’re told aren’t directly evidenced on screen, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave that seam to be mined by other writers, because (on a first viewing at least) I didn’t see where or to what effect the narrator was lying to the viewer.

As played by O’Neal, Barry’s accent places him as coming from the same part of Westeros as Littlefinger. Although I wouldn’t say he did a bad job, there seems little doubt he was miscast. The story of how he came to be in the film is more interesting than his performance, really: Warner Bros would only finance the film if Kubrick cast a top-ten box office star, based on the annual Quigley Poll of Top Money-Making Stars. O’Neal was second on the 1974 poll, just behind Clint Eastwood and ahead of people like Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, John Wayne, and Marlon Brando. Barbra Streisand was the only woman on the list, so you’d think Kubrick had nine options, but apparently they were all considered “too old or inappropriate for the role” with the exception of O’Neal and Redford. O’Neal was the bigger star thanks to also securing a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the past, but Kubrick was smart enough to offer it to Redford first, but he turned it down so O’Neal it was. Ironically, 1973 was the only year O’Neal appeared in that top ten, while Redford placed first in 1974, 1975, and 1976.

Whether it was the intention or not, O’Neal often gets by thanks to the style of the narrative, in which a series of variously-plausible events keep happening to Barry as much as he is proactive in making them occur. This is not a simple, narrow-focused, cause-and-effect kind of story, but a fictional biopic, that ranges across Europe and across time to… what effect? It’s a Kubrick film, so the ultimate goal of the tale, the message(s) it may be trying to impart, are debatable. You could see a story of the pitfalls of hubris. You could see an exploration of how a certain class lived in this time period. You could just see a man who led an adventurous life.

Whatever the merits of the tale, its telling is a frequent wonder. Its length and pace are surely barriers to entry for some — this is not a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride; it’s more analogous to a BBC miniseries, perhaps, albeit one where you’re watching all three episodes at once. Well, binge viewing is the TV watching style du jour, so that shouldn’t be a problem for anyone nowadays. Much has been made of the film’s candle-lit photography, using special lenses adapted from NASA, and rightly so; though perhaps it’s beginning to look less remarkable as we move into an era where digital cameras can produce exceptional range and quality. That’s not to say the potential commonality of such lighting decisions dulls the excellence of John Alcott’s photography, but, without knowledge of the production challenges, a modern viewer might not be so readily wowed.

Maybe I’m one of them, because for me the best shots are to be found elsewhere. The film is littered with recreations of art from the era — not obvious “ooh, I know that painting” recreations, but photographic imitations of the painters’ style, subjects, and composition. The opening shot, for instance, really looks like a painting. It’s incredible. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best shot in the film; which is not to say the ensuing three hours are a visual disappointment, just that it remains the best among greats. (That said, having looked up images online for this review, it seems slightly less striking to me now. That may be the quality of the screengrabs; it may be that the painterly quality is so remarkable at first appearance (before becoming more familiar when the whole movie has that quality) that its memorableness is heightened.)

With its measured pace, obfuscated meaning, and sporadically likeable characters, Barry Lyndon is not the most readily accessible movie ever made. Well, it’s Kubrick, isn’t it? There’s so much to commend it though, especially if you consider visual style a reason to watch a movie (not everyone is satiated by that, but, for a visually-driven medium, I think it’s a perfectly acceptable element to be particularly engaged by). It’s an imperfect film (for Ryan O’Neal if nothing else), but perhaps a brilliant one. Certainly I’d put it in the high-middle of my Kubrick viewing so far — and as his only films that I’ve seen are all on the IMDb Top 250, that’s an upgrade from me, at least.

5 out of 5

The restored 40th anniversary re-release of Barry Lyndon is in UK cinemas from today.

Barry Lyndon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

* The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. Of The Kingdom Of Ireland Containing An Account of His Extraordinary Adventures; Misfortunes; His Sufferings In The Service Of His Late Prussian Majesty; His Visits To Many Courts of Europe; His Marriage and Splendid Establishments in England And Ireland; And The Many Cruel Persecutions, Conspiracies And Slanders Of Which He Has Been A Victim. ^