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Posts Tagged ‘David Mackenzie’

It is, as I have observed in the past, often difficult to ensure a new movie gets enough publicity to guarantee its success, even if you are a talented director and you have the resources of a major studio backing you up. It helps to have some kind of unique angle that jaded movie critics and other journalist can latch onto and discuss in their initial reviews of the film. Well, the good news for the makers of Outlaw King (presented on screen as Outlaw/King, which I’m not sure is necessarily a better title), an aspiring historical epic currently appearing at both a cinema and on a major streaming service near you, is that the forces of the media do seem to have found something in this film to get their teeth into. The bad news is that the item in question is star Chris Pine’s winky, which makes an appearance when the actor goes skinny-dipping at one point. The winky is ‘dazzling’, in the words of one usually reputable website, and ‘the belle of the ball’ according to Vanity Fair (a curious choice of metaphor to say the least).

I would imagine that all these winky-focused reviews are not what the makers of Outlaw King anticipated when they released their film into the world, for this shows every sign of being a seriously-intentioned costume drama, directed by David Mackenzie (who in the past has made films as diverse as the laboriously weird Perfect Sense and the rather good neo-western Hell or High Water). Things get underway and we find ourselves in Scotland in the early 14th century, where bad King Edward of England (Stephen Dillane) has seized control of the country after a lengthy struggle with the rebel leader William Wallace. Now all the local nobility are being forced to swear loyalty to Edward, amongst them dour, brooding, well-endowed claimant to the throne Robert the Bruce (Pine). Just to show there are no hard feelings, the King marries his god-daughter Elizabeth (the fabulous Florence Pugh) off to the Bruce.

An uneasy peace persists for a bit, but when Wallace is finally apprehended and bits of him are posted all over Scotland to deter other insurrectionists, the country is in uproar. Robert the Bruce decides that it is time for him, as an honourable Scotsman, to stand up and do the right thing. In this case the right thing is for him to break his promise to Edward, murder his rival claimant to the throne, and have himself declared King of Scots by the local church dignitaries. King Edward is as cross as two sticks at this act of treachery and dispatches an army under the command of his son (Billy Howle) to sort the situation out. Soon enough Robert the Bruce and his band of followers are forced into hiding, desperately trying to rally support for their dream of Scottish independence (hey, the more things change…), while the new king’s wife and daughter find themselves caught in the path of the advancing English army.

This, you would have thought, would be a good place for the scene where Robert the Bruce learns the value of persistence and determination from watching a spider trying to spin its web under difficult circumstances. I would hazard a guess that this is the one and only thing most people outside Scotland know about Robert the Bruce, and yet while the story is alluded to (very obliquely) it doesn’t make it into the film. This is not the only interesting omission from Outlaw King: filmed, but not included in the final version, was an encounter between Robert and William Wallace.

I find this rather significant, because Outlaw King is clearly pitching itself very much as a film in the vein of Braveheart (Bravewinky, perhaps), with some of the same historical figures appearing in it. I might even go so far to say that this is the work of people who liked Braveheart so much they decided to make their own version (which is what this is). Obviously comparisons are going to be made, and actually having Wallace show up in the movie would only add to this.

Nevertheless, Outlaw King‘s mixture of gritty mediaeval detail and gory battlefield violence (the ‘arterial splatter’ CGI function gets a lot of use) can’t help feeling a bit familiar, and there are a lot of faces in the supporting cast who are exactly the kind of actor you would expect to find in this kind of film – James Cosmo, Tony Curran, and Clive Russell. That said, some younger faces are more prominent – as well as Pugh and Howle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is second-billed as one of Robert the Bruce’s more homicidally zealous followers. Most of the performances are pretty solid, although the actors are somewhat hindered by the fact that they are essentially playing stock types – the ambitious young man chafing for recognition from his father, the young woman forced into an arranged marriage who slowly finds her feelings for her husband deepening, and so on.

It must be said that Florence Pugh is customarily excellent in this film: she is one major role away from global stardom, I would suggest. That said, she is excellent in a rather underwritten and unrewarding part. Her character’s role in the film feels rather like an afterthought – she’s there not because it’s particularly important to the plot (she isn’t), but because it seems to be received dogma that you can’t do a big movie like this one without at least one significant female character.

If we’re going to talk about the acting in this film, however, we should probably spend some time considering Chris Pine’s contribution. Now, regular readers may know that I am far from an unconditional fan of this particular actor – I believe in the past I may have said that on those occasions when I enjoyed a Pine movie, it’s been despite rather than because of his presence. So I may be a little biased. However, the problem here is that Robert the Bruce is a dour, internal sort of character, who spends a lot of the film brooding (he’s also arguably an ambiguous and compromised figure, although the script works hard to finesse the murder of John Comyn into an act of self-defence). Chris Pine is not a natural brooder. He is a smirker, a swaggerer, a schmoozer, and a wise-cracker. Rough-hewn Scottish monarchy is well outside his comfort zone and his performance is really only functional, which means there is an absence at the heart of the film.

Dedicated Pine watchers may feel there is an absence in other ways as well. Yes, I think the time has come when we must address the issue of Chris Pine’s winky (and those are words I never thought I’d type). Well, the first thing I must say is that the prominence of Pine’s masculine appendage seems to have been rather overstated by excitable hacks. The appearance of the winky definitely falls into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it category, to say nothing of the fact it only appears in long shot. I would also suggest that this whole winky-related fuss only serves to highlight a rather quaint double standard in how we treat screen nudity. Florence Pugh’s exposed knockers get much more screen time than the Pine winky, but no-one’s talking about them at all – and, in the age of the Unique Moment, I imagine I would get flayed alive if I even mentioned in this review the fact that they look superb. Yet someone can go on about the ‘dazzling’ winky and the response only seems to be a mixture of amusement and bemusement.

With the Bruce himself not a particularly compelling character, and the plot being a fairly uninspired mixture of action sequences and political wrangling, the result is that Outlaw King is just not that gripping as a piece of drama. It looks great, with all the usual Scottish scenery, armies of extras, and some deft special effects. Mackenzie does a slightly showy-offy very long take at the start of the film, but on the whole he marshals the film very competently, and the climax – a recreation of the battle of Loudon Hill – is genuinely very good, really giving you something of the sense of what it was like to be a peasant infantryman facing a cavalry charge by armoured knights.

There are many good things about Outlaw King, and it passes the time fairly agreeably (I imagine many people may have issues with the violence and gore that punctuate the movie, however). I am also fully aware that many people like Chris Pine and this kind of mud-and-chainmail movie rather more than I do, so I expect the film will probably be quite successful. Nevertheless, I think it wears its influences a bit too openly, and is much more impressive in terms of its production values than its actual storytelling.

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Summer has come to an end, and there are few more reliable signs of that than the disappearance of the really big studio films, in favour of a somewhat more mixed slate of releases: unashamed genre movies, smaller comedies, unnecessary remakes, and the odd serious quality film which has somehow snuck past security.

Definitely falling into the latter category is David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, a brooding, thoughtful thriller which oozes a very particular kind of Americana. The director’s name didn’t ring a bell and I was rather surprised to learn he’s actually Scottish – he was responsible for the slightly bonkers apocalyptic romance Perfect Sense – but I suppose it only goes to show you never can tell.

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The film is set in Texas in the present day. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, a pair of brothers who embark on a spree of bank robberies in order to finance a get-extremely-rich-moderately-quickly scheme. Pine is taciturn and thoughtful, worried about his estranged family – Foster is a not-too-bright headcase with a short fuse. Luckily Tanner has form in the bank robbery department and things initially go according to plan, more or less.

Then the law gets on their trail, in the form of Texas Rangers Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Bridges is crusty and close to retirement, Birmingham is long-suffering. Bridges soon figures out there’s more than meets the eye to the brothers’ activities, but will he be able to get one step ahead of them and put a stop to their scheme?

The most obvious thing that Hell or High Water has going for it is a very strong set of lead performances. For quite a few years now it has been generally accepted that Jeff Bridges has become one of the best and most reliable character actors working today, and his performance here does nothing to cast doubt over that. Initially it looks a bit like a collection of quirks and tics, but as the story progresses Bridges manages to make it very clear that much of this is a front his character affects, masking a very sharp and dedicated cop. Ben Foster isn’t a particularly well-known actor, but he has done some big movies – he was one of the X-Men for about ten minutes, not to mention starring in The Mechanic and Warcraft. He comes across as a fairly serious actor, though, and this film suits his talents better. You would have thought the weak link might be Chris Pine – there were, last time I checked, billions of people in the world who are not William Shatner, but Pine is the only one for whom this is a professional impediment. He’s never made much of an impression on me in the past, but here he is very good – there’s a two-hander between him and Bridges in which he holds his own very comfortably.

The film is, as you may have gathered, something of a western-inflected heist movie, with perhaps a bit of a resemblance to No Country for Old Men. Nearly everyone wears cowboy hats, some people even ride horses; many of the characters routinely carry heavy-duty firearms. Texas seems lost in the past – or not quite up to date with the present day, certainly.

This seems to me to be more than just background colour, for it’s quite clear that there is more going on here than a simple crime story: the script obviously has things to say about the state of the American economic system. The Howards are targeting one particular banking corporation, simply because they feel it ruthlessly exploited their late mother, and their ultimate motivation is to provide security for Toby’s sons. Pine even gets a speech about how poverty is like an inherited disease, one that can destroy lives. The subtext is woven through the film consistently, and if I had a criticism of it, it would be that it almost becomes text – the various characters are always driving past vistas of industrial decay, prominently featuring billboards with slogans about Debt Relief and so on.

This probably makes the film sound slightly heavier and more worthy than is actually the case, for there is some humour along the way (most of it courtesy of Bridges’ character and his somewhat unreconstructed attitudes), and some extremely well-mounted action, too. Mackenzie stages a very tense bank-robbery-goes-wrong sequence, which concludes in (perhaps) unintentionally comic fashion as it turns out practically the entire town is packing heat and seeking to stop the robbers’ escape. But the film doesn’t shy away from the consequences of violence, either.

If there’s a sense in which the film’s deeper concerns gradually overwhelm its identity as a straightforward thriller – it opts for a ending steeped in ominous ambiguity rather than conventional closure – this doesn’t stop it from being a highly accomplished and intelligent script, brought to the screen with skill and energy. Well worth catching.

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There’s nothing wrong with niche film-making, of course, but sometimes the box office figures tell a story of their own: as modern budgets go, $10 million is barely a trifle, but even so, if your film only pulls in $3000 you’re still going to be having a long and uncomfortable conversation with the head of the studio. Such was the fate of David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, and it suggests that there just aren’t enough fans of pretentious arthouse apocalyptic SF movies featuring Eva Green getting ’em out for such a project to be financially viable. The revelations one stumbles across sometimes.

Eva Green brings her usual off-kilter emotional intensity, imperious sexual magnetism and peculiar accent to the role of Susan, an epidemiologist in contemporary Glasgow. Her life is quite nondescript, as is that of Michael (Ewan McGregor), a chef she encounters via a slightly laboured cute-meet early on. Both of them have commitment issues; hey ho.

However, a strange affliction takes hold across the globe: people experience sudden surges of melancholia, followed by the total and permanent loss of their sense of smell. No-one knows what’s causing it, or how it’s spreading, but spreading it is – and soon everyone is affected. However, people adapt and life returns to a close semblence of what it previously was (although one assumes that sales of deodorant take a bit of a knock). Michael and Susan embark upon a relationship. But then it becomes apparent that the phenomenon is progressive: people are now starting to lose their sense of taste, as well. The obvious question is on everyone’s minds – how long can society survive if the other, more vital senses are lost?

Now, this sounds like the premise for a bleak SF catastrophe movie, and to some extent Perfect Sense delivers on this – the scenes of collapsing civilisation towards the end of the film are well-mounted and convincing – but this is really not a genre piece in quite that sense. I’ve heard this movie compared to Melancholia, in that both films combine what are ostensibly SF themes with a more psychological, internal focus, but this film is not as accomplished.

The main problem is that it’s too obvious that the writer and director are not interested in the collapse-of-society story per se: it’s just a device by which they can explore their real concerns, which are all to do with what it is that makes life worth living, the nature of relationships, the power of emotions, and so on – and it’s written to suit those concerns. Judged as a proper piece of SF, Perfect Sense is sorely wanting – one could perhaps excuse the lack of cause given for the progressive sensory shutdown, but not the fact that it’s such a precise and coy little affliction, much inclined to entice histrionics from the cast. No reason is given as to why the loss of each sense is accompanied by everyone experiencing the same emotion to a heightened level, but one is invited to draw the obvious conclusion that a point is being made about feeling on a personal as well as a perceptual level.

Am I saying that this film is heavy-handed? Er – yes. Several moments have the lead characters pausing just to fully appreciate whichever sense they’re fearful of losing next, and these are Loaded With Significance to a much greater degree than they require. One sequence about the pleasures of being tactile turns into an extended bout of whoa-ho-ho between McGregor and Green. There’s quite a lot of this sort of thing, to the point where it even becomes a bit desensitising: certainly by the end I found myself playing Whose Leg Is That? rather than feeling particularly stimulated.

A further problem is that, even if you’re prepared to meet the film halfway and buy into the improbable central premise as an idea, the way it’s actually implemented is actually quite preposterous. A grave voice-over by an omniscient narrator doesn’t help much when her account of ‘a single moment of hunger… and then taste was gone forever’ is accompanied by scenes of McGregor, Green, and various other players squirting mustard down their throats, eating lipstick, seizing hungrily on live rabbits, and so on. It just looks ridiculous – a scene later on where the leads try to make the most of their new situation by eating soap doesn’t help, either.

Now in theory I’d be prepared to forgive Perfect Sense a lot, because attempting to combine genre SF ideas and proper character-based emotional drama seems to me to be a potentially interesting area, but whatever it’s trying to say about relationships and emotions is either so subtle and profound I completely missed it, or utterly obvious and banal. And the central romance does not engage: the two characters are not quite, as McGregor at one point suggests, Mr and Mrs Arsehole, but neither are they people you’d particularly want to spend time with. She has no vulnerability, he has no depth; they are quite self-absorbed and humourless.

At least the romance plotline gives a counterpoint to the otherwise progressively more downbeat story of the death of civilisation. The fact that the film attempts to end on a positive, upbeat note, at a moment when the life expectancy of the human race can probably be measured in weeks, tells you everything about the preoccupations of this film. It’s nicely made and the performances aren’t awful, but it is quite pretentious and much more concerned with theme than narrative. Not a complete waste of time by any means, and it does have a certain sort of originality – but annoying and bemusing much more often than actually satisfying.

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