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Non-Review Review: Outlaw King

Outlaw King opens with a very impressive tracking shot, or what at least appears to be a very impressive tracking shot. The sequence lasts more than eight minutes, wherein the audience follows the action at the Scottish surrender to King Edward I. The camera follows various actors at they move through the scene, from inside the tent with King Edward I to the congress outside in the mud. The scene features an impressive sword fight, before heading back into the tent and out the other side, to the point where Kind Edward I has a massive trebuchet waiting.

The Scottish have surrendered. The revolution has failed. The lords of the region have bowed before the British Crown and sworn fealty to the throne. This gigantic instrument of war seems redundant, pointless. It has no purpose in this particular situation. Nevertheless, King Edward insists that the trebuchet be loaded, and discharged towards a prominent Scottish castle on the nearby hill. Edward explains that this is a gesture of authority, making it clear that the surrender is “final.” He adds, “Also, it took three months to build. So I don’t want to waste it.”

Great Scot!

It is an interesting introductory scene for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it is incredibly technically impressive. Director David Mackenzie is really just showing off here, demonstrating how much control he has over the film, how carefully managed the choreography is, how perfectly he can time the rhythms of the action to the movement of his camera. The introductory scene very skillfully introduces most of the major players and key dynamics that will inform the action that follows, in manner that is graceful and never overwhelming. It’s technically impressive.

At the same time, the entire sequence feels just a little bit like Edward’s gigantic trebuchet and perhaps even a little bit like the film as a whole. It is a wonderfully constructed piece of work that feels over-elaborate and over-complicated for what it is doing. Outlaw is a beautiful film underpinned by some intriguing ideas about power and violence, much like Mackenzie’s work on Hell or High Water. Unfortunately, Outlaw King lacks the warmth and humanity of Hell or High Water. Like that absurd trebuchet, it feels a little overly ornate and never entirely sure of its purpose.

A Brucie Bonus.

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Non-Review Review: Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is a modern western, a tale of the land and the people shaped by it.

Hell or High Water revels in the old cowboy tropes. Repeatedly over the course of the film’s runtime, eye witnesses liken the outlaw pair at the centre of the story to “cowboys” or “cowpokes.” Set in West Texas, the film unfolds in a world of cowboy hats and rattlesnakes. This is a story about lonely men in the desert, land and self-determination. At one point, a half-Native American half-Mexican character pauses to reflect upon the idea that this is essentially the foundational myth of the frontier playing out again. The actors might change, but the roles remain the same.

No Country for Young Men.

No Country for Young Men.

Hell or High Water is bitter and cynical reflection on the concept of land and ownership, and the importance that it plays to the American identity. Towards the end of the film, bank robber Toby Howard justifies his actions by reference to generations of struggle; the generations that came before and the generations that will follow, and the land that has either condemned or sustained them. Toby is quite literally building his own future out there on the frontier, his bank robberies motivated by the urge to wrest back his family’s land so he might wrest a profit from it.

Like its lead characters, and like the land that drives them to this desperate course of action, Taylor Sheridan’s script is reserved and restrained. There is an economy to it, a sparseness and a leanness that suits this tale and the people inhabiting it. However, Sheridan’s script implicitly trusts director David Mackenzie, who manages to find a striking beauty and a stunning brutality in this rugged landscape inhabited by these rugged men.

At home on the Ranger...

At home on the Ranger…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I and In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II are an indulgence.

That goes almost without saying, this indulgence standing as one of the most searing critiques of the two-parter. After all, Star Trek: Enterprise had only five episodes left at this point in its run. One of those episodes would be given over to Rick Berman and Brannon Braga to bring in Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis as a way to allow Star Trek: The Next Generation to put a cap on the eighteen years of the Berman era. Devoting two of the remaining four episodes to the mirror universe was a choice that left the show open to criticism.

Archer's cosplay went down a treat.

Archer’s cosplay went down a treat.

After all, it is not as if the audience at home was crying out for more mirror universe episodes. Even hardcore Star Trek fans were still recovering from the trauma of The Emperor’s New Cloak, the seventh season episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that had the audacity to combine a mirror universe episode with a Ferengi episode. Discounting the somewhat divisive (and mirror universe free) Resurrection, the last time that a mirror universe episode really worked had been Crossover, which had been broadcast before Star Trek: Voyager was on the air.

So In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I and In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II are both episodes that feel excessive and gratuitous. And, for all their flaws, that is a huge part of the charm.

Gorn again.

Gorn again.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Borderland (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

Borderland establishes the format that will come to define the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise; the mini-arc, a single story told over two or three episodes before moving along to the next adventure.

Technically speaking, Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II established the format for the season. However, the franchise had done multi-part season premieres before. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was particularly fond of the format, seguing from a status quo altering season finale into a multi-part season opener; The Homecoming, The Circle, The Siege, The Search, Part I, The Search, Part II, The Way of the Warrior, Image in the Sand, Shadows and Symbols. This is to say nothing of the massive six episode arc that opened the sixth season.

Put your hands together for Mister Brent Spiner.

Put your hands together for Mister Brent Spiner.

Borderland represents a departure because it signals that the fourth season of Enterprise will be comprised entirely of multi-episode stories. Historically, Star Trek shows had typically done one or two multi-part stories in a season, give or take a cliffhanger to bridge two years of the show. The fourth season of Enterprise would tell seven multi-part stories eating up seventeen episodes of the twenty-two episode season order. It was certainly a bold departure for the series and the franchise.

In fact, Borderland begins the franchise’s first three-part episode since the second season of Deep Space Nine. (Although determined fans could likely stretch logic a little to suggest that Tears of the Prophets or Zero Hour were season finales that formed a three-parter when tied into the two-part premieres that followed.) It is a curious departure, and one that immediately helps to establish the fourth season of Enterprise as something quite distinct.

A slave to continuity...

A slave to continuity…

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Star Trek – Spock Must Die! by James Blish (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

Spock Must Die! is notable for being one of the first Star Trek novels published. Indeed, it is the first original novel published by Bantham Books. (For trivia hounds, the young adult original novel Mission to Horatius was actually published during the show’s run.) It’s written by James Blish, the British author responsible for those Star Trek episode novelisations I have been sporadically quoting over the past month or so. Blish was a published science-fiction author before he worked with Star Trek. Reading Spock Must Die!, you can definitely sense the writer’s fondness for high concepts and metaphysical quandaries.

Indeed, one of the defining attributes of Spock Must Die! is that Blish seems more preoccupied with the logic and implications of the show’s pseudo-science (and his own elements building on that) than he is with the characters themselves. It’s not necessarily a fatal flaw, but Spock Must Die! is more interesting and intriguing as a curiosity than as an expansion or examination of the Star Trek franchise.

tos-spockmustdie1

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Star Trek – The Alternative Factor (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

Well, here we are. The Alternative Factor. We’ve had weak episodes before. I’ll concede that shows like Court Martial and The Menagerie, Part II wouldn’t rank among my favourites of the season. However, there was always just enough there to make them interesting, if not compelling. There were good ideas, clumsily executed. There was something value to be found in watching these episodes. The Alternative Factor lacks those sorts of redemptive values, and it’s the first time on this re-watch I have actually wondered where my fifty minutes went, and lamented the fact that watching The Alternative Factor inched me ever-closer to death.

The Alternative Factor is – I’d argue – the weakest episode of a remarkably strong first season of Star Trek. While some would consider it one of the worst episodes the show ever produced, I’m reluctant to commit to that sort of certainty. After all, we still have the third season to come, and I’m hesitant to rank The Alternative Factor as that much worse than The Turnabout Intruder or The Way to Eden or And the Children Shall Lead or Spock’s Brain. Yep, there’s a lot to look forward to if I ever get around to finishing the third season of the show.

Still, the fact that The Alternative Factor might possibly not be the worst thing to happen to Star Trek in its nearly fifty years of existence is damning with faint praise. But I’m sure the episode will take whatever it can get.

It hurts!

It hurts!

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Star Trek – Shore Leave (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

When I talk about the surreal sixties energy that really holds quite a bit of Star Trek together, it’s quite possible that it sounds like a back-handed compliment, a cheap and easy gig at a cult television show. However, I mean that sincerely. When I argue that the illogical and somewhat scattershot dynamism of the last act of Court Martial can barely hold the patchwork script together, it’s quite possible that I sound like I’m being sarcastic. However, my affection for the mad-cap mayhem particular to the first iteration of Star Trek is entirely genuine. Although it makes no sense, the climax to Court Martial isn’t the problem. Everything leading up to it is.

I think Shore Leave is pretty much the perfect iteration of this concept. It is, from start to finish, absolutely insane nonsense that threatens to fall apart if one concentrates too hard on any particular detail. However, it’s executed with enough energy and drive that it becomes a compelling and surreal piece of television, and one of the best illustrations of the kind of weirdness that the classic Star Trek could pull off almost effortlessly.

No bunny business...

No bunny business…

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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – Into Darkness

Note: This is a spoiler-heavy review. If you want a spoiler-lite recommendation, click here. If not, continue at your own risk.

Towards the climax of Star Trek: Into Darkness, Kirk and the Enterprise flee an aggressor by entering warp. At that speed, several factors the speed of light itself, they surmise that they must be safe from their pursuer. Of course, they prove to be wrong – brutally so. Everything in Into Darkness moves fast, so fast that the Enterprise’s top speed seems more like a casual jog than a breakneck acceleration. The plot rockets along with incredible speed, from plot point to plot point, counting on the momentum to sustain the film and carry it across the line.

There is enough material here to produce a trilogy of films. Indeed, cynics might suggest that a lot of the movie’s iconography and plot points are indeed recycled from the central “trilogy” of the original Star Trek films, running from the homages to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan right down a climactic visual reference to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Abrams and his team of writer continue their work from 2009’s breakout blockbuster Star Trek by putting the franchise’s most compelling images and cues into a high-speed blender.

Into Darkness just substantially increases the concentration.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

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Star Trek – What Are Little Girls Made Of? (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

What Are Little Girls Made Of? is the first episode from a script written by Robert Bloch, perhaps best known as the author of Psycho. Interestingly, it wasn’t the first script Bloch wrote for the show. Apparently Bloch contributed Catspaw first, when the show asked him for a Halloween special, even though it wouldn’t be produced until the series’ second year. And, to be fair, you can sense that What Are Little Girls Made Of? is a bit more comfortable with the Star Trek conventions than Bloch’s other two episodes. An uncredited re-write from Gene Roddenberry probably helped.

With Bloch’s third script, Wolf in the Fold, serving as a loose adaptation of (or spiritual successor to) his celebrated short story Yours Truly, Jack the RipperWhat Are Little Girls Made Of? stands out among Bloch’s contributions to the show. It’s an iconic episode, one that has undoubtedly influenced the way that we remember Star Trek, serving as the source for all manner of Star Trek memes like Kirk overwhelming a hot android with his sexual charisma, and defeating a less physically attractive robot with a logic puzzle. It features some of the most iconic costuming of the original Star Trek show, and also serves as the root of the whole “what constitutes life?” philosophical strand that would find itself embodied by Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It helps that, like so much of this first season of Star Trek, it is just good pulpy fun.

A cold reception...

A cold reception…

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Star Trek – Charlie X (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

It really is incredibly difficult to divorce Star Trek from the sixties. I know that this has become something of a (very obvious) theme in these daily reviews, but Charlie X is the kind of Star Trek episode that could only have been produced for television in the sixties. It isn’t necessarily the presence of a single factor, it’s more the package as a whole. While the general concept (“The Day Charlie Became God”, to quote Roddenberry’s succinct synopsis from his 1964 Star Trek Is… pitch) could easily be adapted for any of the spin-offs (and Hide & Q clearly plays on the same idea), the execution is so firmly anchored in the sixties that it’s very hard to separate and parse.

Part of it is the weird use of coloured lighting on the mostly grey Enterprise sets, something that Inside Star Trek suggests was down to the fact that NBC was owned at the time by RCA, a major manufacturer of colour television sets. Part of it is the somewhat confused sexuality that is a weird mix of liberated and outdated. Part of it is the fact that the show features an impromptu musical and dance number. The idea of Charlie X might be fairly simplistic, but the execution is very clearly and very distinctively Star Trek.

Screaming to the Evans...

Screaming to the Evans…

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