Outlaw King: It’s Not Braveheart

This Netflix film praised for its historical accuracy is missing that essential ingredient to make it great.

Robert the Bruce’s fourteenth-century rebellion against England is cinematically recounted in this Netflix feature that tries to cram as much history as possible in 121 minutes. Directed by David Mackenzie, Outlaw King (2018) brings to life all the intrigue and violence of late medieval feudalism. Though the film comes across as authentic and makes a genuine effort to get the history right, it lacks some essential ingredients to break into the top tier.

As the film opens, the defeated Scottish lords are vowing fealty to King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane), including Robert Bruce (Chris Pine), Lord John III Comyn (Callan Mulvey), and Aymer de Valence (Sam Spruell). Robert has history with King Edward I’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), a weaker man who just wants his father’s approval. As a parting gift, King Edward I sends his goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), to become Robert’s wife.

Things get complicated when Robert’s father dies, and Robert is left competing with Lord Comyn for the Scottish throne. When Robert learns King Edward I executed William Wallace, he senses an opportunity to renew the rebellion. Lord Comyn wants to remain loyal to England, so Robert brutally murders him in a church and then gathers an army. Unfortunately, Aymer de Valence has also remained loyal to England, ambushes Robert’s army in a forest, and destroys it.

Robert and a few companions are forced to flee. He sends his wife and daughter into hiding, where Edward, Prince of Wales captures them and brutally murders Robert’s brother. Robert decides to fight a guerilla war, culminating in the Battle of Loudoun Hill, where Robert uses the boggy terrain and clever tactics to his advantage. He defeats the English army and humiliates the Prince of Wales, who is revealed to be a miserable coward. Robert and Elizabeth are reunited and live happily ever after.

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Three historical films I’m looking forward to in December, and two I’m not

There are a couple “based on a true story” movies being released in December, three of which pique my interest, but two look like complete eye-rollers. There’s nothing worse than a flop that had the potential to be good, especially when it comes to historically-based films, and there are some major red flags here. I can’t wait to see if my predictions come true.

Interesting:

  • Mary Queen of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke and staring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. A historic epic about the rivalry between Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I sounds compelling if done right. I’m not familiar with Saoirse Ronan’s work, but Margot Robbie has been great in everything she’s done. I’ve already read a couple reviews that set off alarm bells. My fingers are crossed that the filmmakers didn’t try to shoehorn a modern social or political message into this.
  • The Mule, directed by and staring Clint Eastwood. Based on the true story of 90-year-old drug mule Leo Sharp. Clint Eastwood usually hits it out of the park, but we’ll see if his age has finally caught up with him.
  • Vice, directed by Adam McKay and staring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Sam Rockwell. This film purports to tell the story of how Dick Cheney became George W. Bush’s vice president. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Vice will portray Cheney, Bush, and company in an unflattering light, but the cast is filled with talent so maybe it’ll end up being a compelling political drama.

Eye Rolling:

  • On the Basis of Sex, directed by Daniel Stiepleman and staring Felicity Jones. The film follows a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she teams up with her husband to bring a discrimination case before the U.S. Court of Appeals. I don’t understand the celebrity worship surrounding Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and I couldn’t care less about this. Courtroom dramas are boring and the only people who will watch this film are female undergrads at Harvard.
  • Welcome to Marwen, directed by Robert Zemeckis and staring Steve Carell, Diane Kruger, and Eiza González. This pretentious art film tells the story of Mark Hogancamp, a guy who worked through the trauma of an assault by replicating a WW2 Belgian village in miniature in his backyard. The special effects are cool, but this obvious Oscar bait looks like it belongs on the Hallmark Channel. I think I’ll pass.

Mary Shelley: The ‘Sturm und Drang’ that Inspired Frankenstein

The early life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of the Gothic novel Frankenstein, is recounted in Mary Shelley (2018) a period drama/romance written by Emma Jensen and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. It was originally titled The Storm in Our Stars, and focuses mainly on the relationship between Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and how their relationship inspired Frankenstein—the story of a mad doctor who reanimated a corpse using electricity. It left me wishing someone had shot a jolt of electricity into this sullen and mediocre film.

The year is 1814. Sixteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin (Elle Fanning) lives in London with her father, writer and book seller William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), her stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt), and stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley). Mary greatly admires her birth mother, early feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died when she was a baby. Her rebellious streak sets her at odds with her more conventional stepmother, and her father sends her away to Scotland.

In Scotland, Mary meets 21-year-old poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), who follows her back to London under the pretense of becoming her father’s student. The two fall in love, but things get complicated when Percy’s wife Harriet (Ciara Charteris) shows up with their young son. Bucking social convention, Mary, Percy, and Claire run away together and face financial hardship and the death of their first child.

Meanwhile, Claire attracts the attention of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) and becomes pregnant. Together with John Polidori (Ben Hardy), they spend a few tumultuous weeks together in Geneva, where Byron challenges them to a ghost story writing contest. This inspires Mary to begin writing Frankenstein. After becoming estranged over Percy’s deplorable personality, the two reunite in her father’s bookshop and live happily ever after.

Historically, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was the daughter of radical political philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. She met Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley as a teen and they married in 1816 after Percy’s first wife, Harriet, committed suicide. Mary Shelley is mostly known for writing the Gothic novel Frankenstein (1818), which was published when she was twenty years old. Percy died in a boating accident in 1822 and Mary returned to England with their fourth and only surviving child. She went on to publish several other novels, in addition to promoting her late husband’s work.

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Summer of 84: A Suburb Can be a Dangerous Place

A gang of bicycle-riding teen boys try to track down a neighborhood serial killer in this suburban Gothic send up to 1980s horror.

Written by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith and directed by a trio known for their 1980s-style films, casual viewers will undoubtedly accuse Summer of 84 (2018) of ripping off the Netflix series Stranger Things, but it is far more subtle in its nostalgia and grounded in reality. There are no supernatural elements here, only the real-life horror inflicted by unassuming suburban dwellers like John Wayne Gacy and William Bonin.

The year is 1984, and a serial killer stalks the fictional county of Cape May, Oregon. Fifteen-year-old Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), an avid follower of conspiracy theories and reader of the Weekly World News, becomes convinced his neighbor, police officer Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer), is the “Cape May Slayer” after seeing a photo on the back of a milk carton of a missing boy he previously noticed inside Mackey’s house.

He enlists the help of his skeptical friends, Dale “Woody” Woodworth (Caleb Emery), Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew), and Tommy “Eats” Eaton (Judah Lewis) to spy on Mackey. They follow him on his nightly jog to a storage unit, where they find several suspicious items, including the missing boy’s bloodstained shirt. Davey presents their evidence to his parents (played by Jason Gray-Stanford and Shauna Johannesen), but his plan backfires when they become angry and force him to apologize to Mackey.

Davey’s friend and former babysitter, Nikki Kaszuba (Tiera Skovbye), also tries to convince Davey to abandon his pursuit, but after several strange interactions with Mackey, Davey convinces his friends to give him one last chance to prove Mackey is the killer. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is sickeningly real and terrifying. Summer of 84 pulls no punches when it comes to delivering an emotionally impactful climax.

Summer of 84‘s undercurrent of child abductions and neighborhood pedophiles is uncomfortably familiar to anyone who grew up during the 1980s. The only thing missing is a creepy white van and rumors of Satanic cults. High profile cases of missing kids in the late 1970s and early ’80s led to the “Stranger Danger” panic, and the use of milk cartons to spread photos of missing children. Before the Internet, a photo on a milk carton was the most assured way of reaching every home in America.

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Tragedy Girls: A Fresh, Trendy Take on the Horror Genre

Two teen girls set social media on fire by kidnapping and unleashing a pet serial killer. Will they—or their friendship—survive this newfound notoriety?

Written and directed by Tyler MacIntyre with contributions by Chris Lee Hill, Tragedy Girls (2017) is a fresh, contemporary take on the genre. MacIntyre and Hill also collaborated on several other projects, including the horror-comedy Patchwork (2015), and the film undoubtedly benefited from their rapport.

Sadie Cunningham (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla Hooper (Alexandra Shipp) are high school cheerleaders who run an unpopular true crime blog. They hatch a plan to kidnap local serial killer Lowell (Kevin Durand) and convince him to work together. He refuses, so Sadie and McKayla opt for plan B: commit sensational murders and blame them on Lowell, all while increasing their readership with exclusive inside information on the crimes.

The plan goes awry when Lowell convinces McKayla that Sadie wants to take all the fame and notoriety for herself. He eventually escapes and tracks Sadie to her friend Jordan’s house. Jordan (Jack Quaid) is son of Sheriff Welch (Timothy V. Murphy). He has a crush on Sadie but suspects McKayla is really the serial killer. Lowell stabs Jordan, but Sadie wakes Sheriff Welch and he chases Lowell off.

The girls’ rift deepens as Sadie and Jordan fall in love and McKayla continues her life of crime with Lowell. I won’t spoil the ending, but Tragedy Girls concludes with a fiery prom night that will make anyone sensitive to the topic of school violence cringe. The film’s ending reinforces the notion that attractive, popular girls are perceived as incapable of being vicious killers.

Tragedy Girls tries to upend the traditional horror movie trope of male killers attacking female victims. Here, the killers are teen girls and their victims are predominantly men. Coupled with the relationship between two best friends, it’s stylistically similar to films like Jennifer’s Body (2009) and Ginger Snaps (2000), but without the supernatural elements. However, it shares with Ingrid Goes West (2017) the theme of social media triggering insanity.

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Chappaquiddick: A Sober but Colorless Docudrama

The tragic death of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne is recounted in this historical drama supporters of the late Senator Ted Kennedy don’t want you to see.

Written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, and directed by John Curran, Chappaquiddick (2017) is competently handled but falls into the trap of “and then” storytelling, with only a halfhearted conflict between Ted Kennedy’s character and a funny but oddly out of place Ed Helms.

The year is 1969. Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) is still mourning the loss of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, the second brother to fall to an assassin’s bullet. The country is preparing to fulfill his late brother President John F. Kennedy’s dream of putting a man on the moon. He plans a party on Chappaquiddick Island for Robert’s former campaign staff, including Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). He is joined by Massachusetts US Attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and his cousin, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms).

Kennedy and Mary Jo drive off alone together, and although it’s implied there might be an affair brewing (Kennedy was married), it’s never shown. Kennedy, drunk, accidentally drives off a bridge. We see him lethargically return to the beach house where, despite protests by Markham and Gargan, he waits until morning to report the accident. Gargan, his family’s longtime “fixer,” is unable and unwilling to help Kennedy make this “problem” go away.

Kennedy returns to his family home, where he seeks help from his nightmarish and stroke-disabled father Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (Bruce Dern). Kennedy, Sr. summons a damage control team led by ruthless Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), who attempts to gain sympathy for Kennedy in the press. Joe Gargan urges him to resign, but Kennedy ultimately chooses to run for re-election. “Even Moses had personal flaws,” he argues, but Gargan retorts, “Moses didn’t leave a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.”

Chappaquiddick is based on the July 18, 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, in which Massachusetts-born Senator Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy drove his car off a bridge into Poucha Pond, resulting in the death of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended jail sentence. Although he spent the rest of his life in the U.S. Senate, many credit this horrible incident to dooming his presidential aspirations.

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The Death of Stalin

You’d be wrong if you thought there was nothing funny about a regime responsible for the deaths of 6 to 9 million people.

Events surrounding the 1953 death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin are recounted in The Death of Stalin (2017), a dark and irreverent dramedy written and directed by Armando Iannucci, et al. A talented cast perfectly captures the chaotic and absurd at this pivotal moment in Russian history.

Joseph Stalin, born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, was a principal figure in the rise of communism in Russia and served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1952. He led the Soviet Union through World War 2, oversaw massive industrialization and collectivization programs, and instituted state terror to maintain control. After his death, his successors undertook reforms and denounced his crimes.

The Death of Stalin depicts events from the night of Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) cerebral hemorrhage to Nikita Khrushchev’s (Steve Buscemi) coup and the execution of NKVD (Soviet secret police) chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). It portrays how paranoid and aware of their precarious position members of Stalin’s inner circle were, and the struggle to find a leader among a group of frightened sycophants.

Lavrentiy Beria was a truly monstrous figure. As soon as Stalin fell ill, he moved to eliminate his enemies and position himself as Stalin’s successor, while currying favor with the public with a general amnesty for all prisoners. While the helpless and inept Georgy Malenkov (played brilliantly by Jeffrey Tambor) acted as Premier of the Soviet Union, his rivals fought behind the scenes to take control. They made a critical error by putting Nikita Khrushchev in charge of Stalin’s funeral, where he was able to organize a coup with WW2 Soviet military hero Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs).

The Death of Stalin effectively blends comedy, farce, and drama. In one memorable scene, the amnesty order arrives while secret police are executing a line of prisoners. The executioner stops abruptly just before shooting the next man. We see the look of confusion, relief, and disbelief on the prisoner’s face, and can only image how we would feel in that situation. Get that man an Oscar!

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