Playing Catch Up With The Films of 2016: Race (dir by Stephen Hopkins)


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Do you remember Race?

It came out in February of this year and it was kind of a big deal for a week.  I think everyone was expecting it to be a big hit, just because there’s never much competition in February.  Race is a biopic of Jesse Owens, the African-American runner who sets world records and won gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, defeating a legion of Aryan athletes while Adolf Hitler watched from the stands.  Not only is that a compelling story but 2016 was also an Olympic year.  Eddie The Eagle had already been a success due to the Olympic connection.  Add to that, Focus Features promoted the Hell out of this film.  In they weeks leading up to its release, I saw commercials for it on a nearly hourly basis.  The reviews, when the came, were mixed but generally positive.

I’m not really sure how Race did at the box office.  According to Wikipedia, on its opening weekend, it was sixth at the box office.  Apparently, the film only had a budget of five million and ultimately made a profit of $20,000,0000.  I guess that would make it a success.  All I know is that it seems like, for all the hype, Race just kind of came and went.

In fact, I didn’t see Race until about two months ago.  It’s one of those films that’s not really great but it’s certainly not bad.  It’s pretty much the epitome of being adequate.  It was well-made and generally well-acted.  Director Stephen Hopkins occasionally struggled to maintain a consistent pace (Race is over 2 hours long and feels longer) but he still did a good job filming the scenes of Owens of running and competing.  In the role of Jesse Owens, Stephan James was well-cast.  You not only believed him in the dramatic scenes but he was also believable as a record-setting athlete.  He had some great scenes with Jason Sudekis, who was surprisingly believable in the role of Jesse’s coach.

With all that in mind, why didn’t Race make more of an impression?  I think that, too often, Hopkins allowed the film’s focus to wander away from Jesse and the inner conflict he felt as he won medals for a country where he was treated like a second-class citizen.  There were too many random scenes of Jeremy Irons and William Hurt, playing Olympic officials and debating whether or not to boycott Hitler’s Olympics.  During the second half of the film, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) showed up and we got a few scenes of her trying to film Jesse’s triumph at the Olympics despite the interference of Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbles (Barnaby Metschurat).  All of these extra scenes are supposed to set Jesse’s struggle in a historic context but they’re unnecessary and distracting.  All the context that the film needs can be found in the fact that Jesse was a black man living in America in the 1930s.

For the most part, Race is uneven but occasionally the film delivers a powerful scene or two.  One of the most powerful parts of the film comes when Jesse, after setting world records and being proclaimed as a hero across the world, is informed that he still can’t enter a New York club through the front door.  As well, the scenes depicting Jesse’s friendship with German jump Luz Long (David Kross) are poignant.  In fact, they’re so poignant that I initially assumed that they were fictionalized for the film but actually, Jesse and Luz Long did become good friends during the 1936 Olympics.

Race is uneven but it’s not bad.  Stephan James gives a good performance as Jesse and, if nothing else, the film provides a worthy history lesson.

Game of Thrones Season 4 “Foreshadowing”


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April 6, 2014 is when we return to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. We will see a continuation of the war and the storm of swords which troubles the lands. The Red Wedding will pose consequences for those who participated and across the Narrow Sea the Mother of Dragons begins her conquest and plans her inevitable return to reclaim the Iron Throne that is her birthright.

Here is a 14-minute sneak peek that foreshadows the events foretold for the upcoming season where Winter is still coming.

Review: Game of Thrones S2E10 “Valar Morghulis”


“We are the watchers on the Wall.” — Qhorin Halfhand

[spoilers within]

With last week’s explosive ninth episode, “Blackwater”, it was going to take much to make tonight’s season finale to really stand out. Just like the first season’s finale we get an episode that deals with the aftermath of the previous episode and also goes a long way into setting up events for the upcoming third season.

“Valar Morghulis” is the title of tonight’s episode and it’s spoken by Jaqen H’ghar to Arya as the two part ways. It’s a saying in Essos from ancient High Valyrian (a Roman Epire-like civilization which perished centuries before the series’ timeline) that translated means “All men must die”. Jaqen sees potential in Arya in becoming like him, a Faceless Man, assassins who follow the teaching of the so-called Many-Faced Gods. While Arya seems intrigued by the offer her need to re-connect with her family takes precedence over everything else. As the two part ways Jaqen imparts to Arya a coin that should she ever need passage to Braavos to start her journey into becoming a Faceless Man. In another instance that this series still has magic in it’s DNA we finally see why Jaqen is a Faceless Man as he walks away from Arya and her group wearing a new face.

Tonight’s episode lays the foundation that next season magic and sorcery may become more common place than the first two season of the series. We see Daenerys finally make her way into the House of the Undying to retrieve her dragonlings from the warlocks of Qarth. It’s a sequence that’s akin to spirit journey for the Targaryen Queen-to-be and Mother of Dragons as she walks the darkened halls and corridors of the House of Undying until an egress suddenly takes her North of the Wall to find a Dothraki tent where she discovers the two most precious things she has lost since coming to Essos. In what I could only see as a surprise that was kept by showrunners Benioff and Weiss from the press and bloggers (a feat nowadays) Daenerys sees her husband Khal Drogo and who could only be their son both alive and waiting for her.

Her reaction to this event was both poignant and tragic in that she finally has a chance to be with those she loves most but must give up the quest to retake Westeros with her dragons. Her decision to leave the tent and leave behind those she loves comes as her character finally realizing that sentimentality and the needs of her heart must take a back seat and wait. Daenerys comes out the other side a more confident ruler and one whose magic really is stronger than those warlocks who scheme to keep her and her dragons captive for themselves. It really sets up the Daenerys character on a much stronger footing for next season just like last season’s finale did. For all the moping around Daenerys did for most of season 2 the pay off in the end goes a long way into forgiving the show’s writers in their inability to write her character’s motivations consistently. Most likely the naive young girl being used by others for their own agendas and ends would be seen less and less next season while the Mother of Dragons reasserts her authority.

The same can’t be said for one of the five kings vying for control of Westeros. For those who have read the third novel the scenes with King Robb Stark were full of sentimentality but lacking in the cold-hearted logic that rulers must use in order to play the game of thrones successfully. Even his mother, Catelyn Stark, sees danger in Robb’s actions with the Volanti healer Talisa Maegyr. Catelyn knows well enough that Robb could destroy everything he has won and worked for since war begun because he has thought with his heart and not with his head. In what could almost be seen as more doom coming for the House of Stark, Robb cements his relationship with Talisa in secret even though we’ve come to learn through two season of this show that nothing ever remains secret for long.

Back in King’s Landing we see the balance of power shift once more as Tywin Lannister’s opportune arrival to take victory from the jaws of defeat at the end of last week’s episode sees him back as Hand of the King to Joffrey. Tyrion has lost all the advantages he had worked and gamed for all season as even Bronn has been removed as Commander of the Goldcloaks. We’ve not seen Tyrion laid so low as we have in this episode and the horrible scarring of his face looks to go deeper as he finally realizes that as much as he would enjoy running away with Shae and leave the politicla intrigues and backstabbing of the kingdom it’s something that he would miss terribly because it’s the one thing he’s best at. With Tywin now in charge of the kingdom and Petyr Baelish having earned himself the king’s good graces for manufacturing the alliance between the two most powerful houses in the kingdom with the Lannisters (Baratheon by name only) and the Tyrell’s of Highgarden. It’s going to be interesting to see how Tyrion readjusts to the new power dynamics in King’s Landing for season 3. If there’s one thing we’ve come to learn about Tyrion over two season’s worth of episodes it’s that he’s a survivor first and foremost.

Lastly, we come to Jon Snow and his dilemma North of the Wall. A captive of the wildlings and seen as someone very important for the still unseen Mance Rayder the so-called King-beyond-the-Wall, Jon must do the only logical thing (something Qhorin halfhand agrees as the only thing that could save Jon and maybe give him time to warn the Wall) and earn the trust of Ygritte, Rattleshirt and the rest of the wildlings even if it means killing one of his own to do so. In what would be one of several sweeping scenes that show the epic nature of this series lest we forget Ygritte shows Jon over the lip of a glacier the army of wildlings Mance Rayder has gathered.

Yet, it’s not that army that gives tonight’s episode that cliffhanger send-off that last season’s finale did with Daenerys coming out of the funeral pyre with her three dragonlings perched on her unharmed body. No, tonight’s episode gets a cliffhanger that is more ominous and reinforces the House Stark motto of “Winter Is Coming”. We see poor Samwell Tarly (having been abandoned by the two other Night’s Watch Brothers once they heard the three horn blasts in the distance) scared out of his wits as he realizes that the three horn blasts that hasn’t been heard for thousands of years could only mean one thing: the White Walkers are on the march towards the Wall. In a final acknowledgement that as realistically the show has tried to portray the series in terms of warfare and political intrigue there’s no getting away from the fact that magic is still alive in this world born out of George R.R. Martin’s fevered mind as a massive army of undead slouches south towards the Wall and the kingdoms beyond it.

This scene just ups the ante on what we could only imagine what would be season three of the show. Across the Narrow Sea we have Daenerys Stormborn gradually detaching sentimentality from how she operates and this could only mean more bad news for the warring kingdoms of Westeros. The power struggles against King Joffrey looks to be going the mad king’s way as Lannisters and Tyrells ally together to retake the rest of the rebelling kingdoms. Now we have two armies, one living and preparing to go south towards the Wall (most likely to get away from the gathering White Walker horde) and the other undead and also heading towards the only bastion (one that is ridiculously undermanned) protecting the southern kingdoms from a gathering darkness.

If there was a complaint about this season’s storytelling it was that so much of the novel this season was based on was condensed to make it fit in a ten-episode season. Despite lulls in character development with Jon Snow and Daenerys we get major pay-offs for these two with tonight’s season finale. It’s good news that showrunner Benioff and Weiss has decided to split book three, A Storm of Swords, into two with the first half comprising season three with the latter half set aside for season four. Even with missteps along the way tonight’s season finale goes a long way into proving that HBO’s Game of Thrones is currently the best genre show on tv and one of the best tv shows airing now.

Now we have ten months of waiting to see how Westeros and Essos will deal with the events that ended season two. One thing for sure is that we’ll see more people die before all questions get answered if ever.

Review: Game of Thrones S2E05 “The Ghost of Harrenhal”


“Anyone can be killed.” — Arya Stark

The first four episodes of the second season of Game of Thrones has been consistently good to great despite the addition of a large number of new characters to a cast already considered massive by tv standards. Last week’s “Garden of Bones” was the weakest of the four and worked more like a set-up episode for the rest of the season. With tonight’s fifth episode in “The Ghost of Harrenhal” we get another set-up episode that looks to be the weakest entry in this new season.

The episode’s title comes from the novel and what Arya calls herself during her stay in Harrenhal. She becomes the ghost of the title as she takes the offer made to her by the engimatic Jaqen H’ghar. But before we get to Arya and her adventures within the cursed halls of Harrenhal we start the episode back at the Renly Baratheon camp where the younger Barantheon entertains Catelyn Stark with an offer to take back to her son Robb in the North. Before the armies of Renly and Robb could come together to fight against their common enemy that the shadowy thing from the end of last week’s episode finally make it’s appearance to end the fight between the Baratheon brothers once and for all.

As Arya comments to Tywin in Harrenhal thus Renly’s fate early in the episode prove her words correct. Anyone can be killed and it would seem anywhere.

The rest of the episode from then on is all about setting up what I can only guess would be the two set piece events for the season. There’s the planned amphibious invasion of King’s landing being planned by Stannis Baratheon with his reinforced army now that Renly’s bannermen has flocked to him after their former liege’s assassination. Then there’s the stuff brewing up north of the Wall with the entire Night’s Watch searching for and preparing for the massive wildling army being formed by former Night’s Watch brother and self-proclaimed “King Beyond the Wall”.

Most of the dynamic writing for tonight’s episode occur down at King’s Landing and Harrenhal where we see both Tyrion and Arya adjusting to the ever-shifting status in both places. With Tyrion he must now contend with an older sister in Cersei who seem to be waking up to the fact that she cannot bully the current Hand of the King and realizes that she too can play the manipulative game as her deformed younger sibling. The fact that a weapon of mass destruction has been in production for quite sometime without his knowing and put into motion by his sister has put the usually cocky and confident Tyrion on his heels. But as we’ve seen since this show began airing the dwarf Lannister is very quick to adjust his footing. It’s going to be interesting how the writers will keep the personal battles between Tyrion and Cersei for control of King’s Landing to not feel like wheel’s spinning in place. Sooner or later one of them will find the chink in the other’s personal armor and make the “killing” stroke.

Further up north we see Arya do her own dance around the shifting circumstance she finds herself in as the personal cupbearer for the man who heads the house she despises and blames for the death of her father. The back and forth between her and Tywin was one of the highlight’s of tonight’s episode even though it didn’t move the story forward, but did add another layer of character growth on the youngest Stark daughter. Maisie Williams as Arya continues to impress in the role. She looked like she belonged in the scene with the older veteran actor in Charles Dance. It’s a small wonder that she’s become one of the show’s favorite characters.

With tonight’s episode we hit the halfway mark of the season and even though there’s still another half to go so much stuff occurred with tonight’s episode that it’ll be a surprise if the season finale gives all of them a satisfying resolution. I haven’t even mentioned the scenes with Theon trying to find his footing with his crew before setting off to raid the coastline near Winterfell as his father has ordered him to do.

If there was ever a weak point in this season it’s that we seem to get a new subplot introduced with each new episode and tonight’s episode was a perfect example. Not saying that tonight was poorly written and acted. Everyone seemed to be in top form, but instead of streamlining what is already turning out to be a season with an ever-growing number of storylines we get more. It’s going to be a wonder how the show’s writers will be able to juggle everything as the season enters it’s second half. Maybe they won’t find a resolution for every thread introduced this season and I’m betting that is how it’s going to pan out, but that could also mean delaying some of these threads for next season.

If there’s one thing people should know about George R.R. Martin’s novels it’s that plots, subplots and side stories only continue to pile on each other even when some past ones get a resolution. Sooner or later the showrunners will have to make a tough decision to abandon certain storylines from the novel even if it means angering and alienating the fans of the books who are already grumbling about some of the changes the show has already made in adapting the series to television.

I’m all for fidelity to the source material, but as Arya said in tonight’s episode, “Anyone can be killed”, and I say the same thing should go in how the show moves on into the second half and beyond. Any storyline can be cut and I’m all for it if it keeps the series from becoming a narrative bloated mess.

Notes

  • Looks like Renly Baratheon will not be able to play at war again.
  • Brienne is not a woman that any man should anger if what she did in Renly’s tent was any indication.
  • Littlefinger and Margaery Tyrell would make for quite a formidable couple if these two manipulative kids ever decide to get together.
  • We don’t see it happen often but Tyrion definitely looks like he’s not in control of the situation during his conversation with Cersei and then later on with Lancel and his talk of wildfire.
  • For all his work to try and protect the people from Joffrey’s madness Tyrion still ends up on the short end of the stick.
  • Stannis is turning out to be quite a conundrum. One second he’s willing to use underhanded tactics to win over his younger brother’s bannermen to his army, then turns around and becomes his rigid self once again. It’s a wonder that he still has Ser Davos’ loyalty.
  • Tywin at Harrenhal with his war council is a major change from the novel, but it makes sense now that we get a sort of confrontation between the Lannister patriarch and Arya Stark.
  • Highlight of the episode has to be Jaqen and Arya making an arrangement where the former shall repay his life-debt to the latter with the deaths of three names Arya will give the enigmatic soldier.
  • Tyrion finally gets his footing on solid ground again as he takes control of the wildfire production from his sister. I’m thinking King’s Landing would be better served to have the volatile wildfire in the hands of Tyrion than his more equally volatile sister and her insane son.
  • Daenerys gets another lesson in the cutthroat world of diplomacy as she gets a tempting offer from Xaro Xhoan Daxos.
  • Her next lesson on how to be a capable ruler comes from her trusted knight and advisor Ser Jorah who thinks Daxos’ offer will contain strings that she may not be able to cut once accepted.
  • Bran’s dreams seem to portent the coming Ironborns and the former ward and friend in Theon leading them.
  • Rickon Stark looks like he’s becoming wilder and wilder with each appearance.
  • A surprise for the lack of any sort of sexposition or even nudity. Might be a first for this show.
  • One down and two to go.

Review: Game of Thrones S2E04 “Garden of Bones”


“A naked man has few secrets. A flayed man has none.” — Lord Roose Bolton of Dreadfort

I will say that tonight’s latest episode of HBO’s medieval fantasy series, Game of Thrones, probably qualifies as a set-up episode. The episode was quite good, but it was also one that moved around the world of the series to help establish some upcoming storylines for characters in the show. What each of these set-ups had in common was how much they dealt with death both the past, present and future. Tonight’s episode lacked any sort of balance to it’s downbeat and doom-laden tone.

“Garden of Bones” was the title of tonight’s episode and it comes from the description the people of Qarth called the area outside their city-state’s walls. It’s an area full of death and the bones left behind by the enemies and unfortunate individuals who were barred from entering the city’s gates. The show has been very good with introducing those fans who have never read the book to the culture of the many peoples in Game of Thrones. While these many disparate cultures have differences that make them unique they also seem to have a common denominator and that’s with how they view the concept of death. This is a world where death has become the norm and almost a currency for those in power. It’s no wonder that death would be described in such interesting and flowery ways.

We see death on the battlefield as Robb Stark’s army opens up the episode with another major victory over forces of Tywin Lannister and his bannermen. While the battle itself wasn’t shown the aftermath is something we do see in very grim and detail. Bodies of the dead from both sides litter the battlefield and we get a mention about how the butcher’s bill for the battle itself was 5 Lannister men dead for every Stark men. It’s a grim reminder that the world Martin has created with his novels is one that doesn’t glorify or sugarcoat the nature of warfare, especially the medieval kind, and how it grinds away men both soldier and civilian alike. We get a sense of how even the very one king out of the five vying for control in this season has no clue as to the consequences of his actions. A nurse who is tending to the wounded and crippled of the battle’s aftermath pretty much calls bullshit on Robb Stark’s assertion that he’s the good guy in this war. A good guy the nurse calls out for not having a proper exit plan if and when Robb defeats Joffrey. Even Robb’s compassion towards his defeated enemies seem to ring hollow considering that it’s his reaction to his father’s death which has brought about all the death we see in this episode’s beginning.

It’s that exit plan that Tyrion seems to be working on whether his family wins the war or not. Once again it’s the one person everyone (well except Bronn) seems to not take seriously due to his appearance and undeserved reputation who sees clearly that if the war continues the only one who would have won would be the dead and that’s because they won’t have to deal with the post-war mess Joffrey and the other claimants to the Iron Throne (or carving out their own kingdoms from the ashes) have made with the execution of Ned Stark in season 1.

The theme of death continues to permeate even when it comes to the younger roles in the show. Across the Narrow Sea we see Daenerys and her khalasar on the brink of starvation and death until news comes from one of her outriders that the city-state of Qarth wants to meet with her. It’s a meeting that doesn’t go well for the young Targaryen queen as those in power in the city (a city of merchants) are not overly impressed by the so-called Mother of Dragons. It’s a misstep in her attempts to negotiate diplomatically that threatens to add her and her khalasar to the ever-growing Garden of Bones which encircles the walls of Qarth.

It’s from the youngest of the Stark daughters that we see the death and brutality of this war come into vivid view as Arya arrives with the rest of the prisoners into the cursed castle of Harrenhal. We see torture in full display as a prisoner is brought into questioning as Harrenhal’s current lord wants information on a band of warriors who call themselves “The Brotherhood” who continue to harry the Lannisters in the region. Arya’s journey from being the rambunctious and wild young daughter of Ned Stark in season 1 to the damaged and old-before-her-time survivor continues as she witnesses the torture of the prisoners and the utter disregard for human life some of the men of Harrenhal have towards the prisoners and villagers living nearby. It’s ironic that the very person who actually shows a semblance of compassion (though probably less compassion and more of a pragmatist who sees waste in killing of prisoners) would be the head of the house which killed her father and took her away from family and home. Yet, it’s her near-ritualistic repeating of the names of everyone who has wronged her from Joffrey and the Lannisters to Ser Amory Loch who killed Yoren in the previous episode.

Tonight’s episode doesn’t treat it’s young characters with kid gloves and with Arya we see how much she’s becoming accustomed to all the death around her and even uses it to keep herself focused on her personal quest of vengeance. For one of the youngest characters in the show she’s turning out to be the one who is learning to understand the power the concept of death has over everyone. It’ll be interesting to see if the show does the brave thing and really follows the novel in terms of Arya’s journey into what I can only call the dark side.

“Garden of Bones” wasn’t as streamlined as the previous two episodes this season, but it does set-up some major plot threads for the rest of the season. While it they all seem to be lines of story that look to not interconnect they all seem to agree on the fact that more death will be forthcoming as the season heads toward what I can only see as a bloody, fiery conclusion. Oh, plus it did have quite a major turning point in the show and another step towards making magic and the supernatural part of the show’s narrative fabric as Melisandre show’s Ser Davos Seaworth the true extent of her powers.

Notes

  • We get two new locations and clockwork cities in the show’s intro sequence: Harrenhal and Qarth.
  • Love the detail of the clockwork Harrenhal being made to look like the dead and cursed castle and land that it is with no clockwork motions given to it in the intro.
  • Another battle that is done off-screen. The Battle of Blackwater Pass better be epic.
  • Great to see Greywind actually being used as part of Robb Stark’s army.
  • We get another new character introduced that fans of the books should know very well: Lord Roose Bolton of Dreadfort
  • Joffrey takes another step into Emperor Nero-level of royal madness.
  • If anyone ever wonder just how crazy the Mad King Targaryen was then Joffrey may be giving glimpses of that very madness when it was still in it’s early stages.
  • Fans of the show may still not be enamored with Sansa Stark, but Tyrion is beginning to understand just how much a survivor she’s becoming in the dangerous world Joffrey has turned Westeros into.
  • Tyrion and Bronn continue to be one of the highlight’s of this new season with Tyrion once again having some of the best dialogue. You’d think the show’s writers were making sure Dinklage wins another Emmy for his work on this show.
  • Natalie Dormer in the role of Margaery Tyrell continues to own the role as she more than holds her own during a verbal joust with Littlefinger in the Renly war camp.
  • We hear the first mention of something called “The Brotherhood”. It will be interesting if the writers decide to make them a major part of the tv series considering it would add another half dozen or so characters to an already large cast for the season.
  • We see how much Daenerys has to go to be a political queen as she deals with the Thirteen of Qarth.
  • Some more great work from young Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in tonight’s episode. She continues to be the star of the cast of young actors on this show.
  • Stannis may be a rigid man in terms of whats right and wrong, but not when it comes to battle or war it seems.
  • Davos’ reaction to what Melisandre has planned all along in the secret mission Stannis has sent him on was classic. It had all sort of WTF written all over his face.
  • One of the most important scenes in Martin’s story was done quite well and disturbingly so.
  • Which ends the episode that was shorter by a few minutes than previous ones.

RANT BEGINS

Some major changes in tonight’s episode in regards to the books and in this season as a whole. I’ve seen many on Twitter complain about this. All I can say to these people: they had to be made and Martin has been involved in making sure they fit into the overall story he’s been telling. Either stop watching the show looking for the next book-to-tv change and bitch and moan about it when it happens or just treat the show as it’s own thing separate from the books they love so much. As a fan of the book series from the very beginning I understand the changes for tv and don’t see it as making the novels worse in the end.

What’s the point of watching something that’s suppose to entertain and bring about discussion when one already going into with a negative bias about the show. Get off the show’s jock and watch something else if you can’t get passed the changes. No point in spoiling things for those who have never read the book and must read and listen to the complaints.

RANT ENDS

Review: Game of Thrones S2E03 “What Is Dead May Never Die”


“For they are the Knights of Summer and Winter is coming.” — Catelyn Stark

Yes, they are the Knights of Summer and Winter is coming. It’s a foreboding observation made by Catelyn Stark as she visits Renly Baratheon who also happens to be one of the five kings jockeying for control of parts or all of the Kingdom of Westeros. It’s an observation that perfectly fits tonight’s episode (third of the new season) as we see characters who are either better prepared for the war coming or still just playing at war. It’s a war that doesn’t just fit North versus South or Ironborn versus Wolves, but a war that’s coming straight down from beyond the Wall to engulf everyone in the kingdom no matter one’s allegiances.

“What Is Dead May Never Die” is part of the religious ritual performed by those of House Greyjoy and those who live and die on the Iron Isles. We see Theon Greyjoy having to prove himself worthy of his father and family’s trust that he is still an Ironborn and not the throwaway son turned soft by the Wolves of the North. It doesn’t help Theon’s confidence that his own sister Yara (forever Asha in my opinion) has been put above him in both succession and power by the very father who gave him up and bent knee to the people who he grew up with. He’s a prodigal son whose return to his family is not just wanted but ridiculed. Whether his taking of the oaths to become Ironborn in the ceremony of the Drowned God will show his true allegiance or further show that his father was correct about him and how he has changed from one who “Doesn’t Sow” to someone who has turned soft through the teachings of the Wolves and the Westerosi.

Theon is definitely not ready for the true war about to descend on Westeros.

In Winterfell, we get a brief interlude with Bran confessing to Maester Luwin about his peculiar dream where he sees himself running through the Godswood but not as himself but as an animal (most likely his direwolf Summer). This part of tonight’s episode once again shows that while the show hasn’t been focusing very much on the supernatural and magic which seem to still exist in Westeros and beyond it is definitely going to be part of the main narrative being spun since season one. Bran has begun to accept that he is more than just a young boy playing as lord of his House, but someone who has been tapping into something old and clearly forgotten (or dismissed as old supersitions by many). It’s a thing of the Children of the Forest and something that doesn’t frighten Bran. Even in this interlude we see Bran as someone more prepared for the true nature of the winter coming while those he looks to for counsel remain still a knight of summer.

While we’re up north, we finally get to see Jon Snow’s fate after last week’s episode. He’s definitely not dead, but he probably wishes he was as Craster evicts all the Night’s Watch from his home after Jon’s curiosity about what happens to boys born from Craster’s incestuous pairings with his daughter-wives. The reaction he was hoping to get from his Lord Commander wasn’t what he expected. Once again Jeor Mormont gives Jon a lesson in leadership and how with it comes the responsibility of having to make some very tough decisions for the greater good. A greater good that sometimes supersedes the evil next door as long as it that evil remains a convenient ally North of the Wall. It is a lesson that could go a long way into making Jon someone truly prepared for the Winter that is coming or fail to temper his idealism and put him on the path of failure.

But the true signs of power being wielded comes from characters in the South.

At The Reach we see Renly Baratheon and his queen, Margaery Tyrell (played by Natalie Dormer), holding court at a knight’s tournament where we also see the introduction of fan favorite (of the books, at least) Brienne of Tarth. A lady knight who seem to best even the talented Knight’s Flower, Loras Tyrell, and thus earn the right to become one of Renly’s Seven Kingsguard. It is not Brienne’s ability to fight the coming conflict that we see in this part of tonight’s episode but that of two powerful women trying to guide their respective king’s through the murky and dangerous waters of power. On one hand, we have Catelyn Stark who has arrived to offer terms of alliances with Renly for her son Robb Stark. On the other side we have Margaery Tyrell whose grasp of political intrigue surpasses that of her husband king and could be more than a match for both Catelyn and Cersei over at King’s Landing.

Catelyn doesn’t seem overly impressed by Renly’s show of power or his declaration that he has under his command over a hundred thousand men ready to march toward’s King’s Landing and take the Iron Throne and/or that of Joffrey’s head. What Catelyn sees around her are the Knight’s of Summer. Young men as bold and full of idealistic fire as their king, but wholly unprepared for the true nature and horrors that war brings. It doesn’t matter whether it’s war against the Lannisters or the true war that the gathering wildlings would give everyone south of the Wall. In the end, Catelyn Stark knows that for all the pomp and shows of strength that Renly has displayed at her arrival would count for nothing if their unpreparedness gets everyone butchered. To say that this doesn’t sit well with the young king would be an understatement.

Then there’s Margaery Tyrell who knows more about her husband’s personal proclivities in the bedroom than he thought she knew. She understands that despite the men rallying to Renly’s banner his hold on power remains tenuous if he’s unable to secure a line of succession by conceiving a son with her. This would be a difficult proposition considering how much Renly prefers Margaery’s brother Loras, but showing some iron strength as a queen she’s willing to do whatever it takes to give Renly that very son to secure their hold on the Iron Throne. She’s go to such lengths that she’ll invite Loras to their bedchamber if that would make Renly perform his kingly duties more comfortably.

Catelyn Stark and Margaery Tyrell may be two women who don’t wield weapons of war on the field, but they show that they’re two individuals who know the stark realities of the current state of the kingdom and more than willing to do the necessary steps to ensure success for their respective rulers. They’re definitely not knights of summer.

Finally, we return to King’s Landing where one Tyrion Lannister has begun to flex the very power that the Hand of the King wields in the kingdom. He may be sitting in the role because his father is off fighting Robb Stark, but Tyrion fully intends to do the job without interference from those inside the castle whose allegiance is more with his sister Cersei than with him. Tyrion has shown that while he detest having to play around in the circles of power in King’s Landing he has grown to be quite adept to it. His plan to root out Cersei’s spies amongst the Small Council was the highlight of tonight’s episode. His manipulation of Maester Pycelle, Varys and Littlefinger was some of the best performances Peter Dinklage has had in the role of Tyrion. With his plans and sting Tyrion has shown not just Cersei that he was someone not to be trifled with and at the same time show that he more than knows how the Game of Thrones works and as good playing such a dangerous game as Cersei, Varys or Littlefinger. He may have made enemies with those involved, but he’s also put them on notice that he is once again not Ned Stark and he may be better at this game than them.

The episode ends not with a character exercising their power over others or failing to do so, but of one of the youngest beginning to understand that in times of war even the young must begin to set aside childish things for hardship and violence. It is fitting that we see the episode end with Arya as she loses another valued mentor to violence, but shows her capacity to play those who think they have power over her. It’s another step that fans of the book will recognize that would lead this fan favorite (of both show and book) to places and sights, seen and unseen, that would make her one of the most important characters in George R.R. Martin’s medieval fantasy saga.

Notes

  • Great performance by James Cosmo as Lord Commander Jeor Mormont in the scene with Jon Snow after Craster kicks them out of his home. We see the weight of command of the Night’s Watch etched in every line on his weather-beaten face as he Jon’s news about what Craster does with newborn baby boys doesn’t come as a surprise. This is a man who pragmatism has become his new religion as he sees their true war against those North of the Wall has superseded what idealism he might have had when he first arrived on the Wall. This dawns on Jon Snow’s face during their conversation and it’ll be interesting if Jon sees what could happen to him when he looks at Jeor Mormont.
  • A sweet moment with Sam and Gilly, one of Craster’s young daughter-wives.
  • We have a Hodor sighting! HODOR! HODOR! HODOR!
  • We get the introduction of two new faces to the growing cast this second season: Natalie Dormer as Margaery of House Tyrell and Gwendoline Christie as the very imposing Brienne of Tarth.
  • Dormer definitely makes quite a first appearance as Margaery in something that Jennifer Lopez would consider quite the daring fashion. The fact that even with such a plunging neckline it doesn’t detract from the skill and power she wields to keep her peculiar husband from misstepping when it comes to prosecuting the war against King Joffrey (most likely against his older brother Stannis as well) and cementing their hold on the Iron Throne with a clear line of succession.
  • Christie’s first appearance as Brienne of Tarth was pitch perfect. This was a role that fans of the novels were going to scrutinize from the time it was announced who would play the Brienne the Beauty to how she would look in her knight’s armor. When I say she’s quite imposing it wasn’t being colored by hyperbole. She literally towers over Loras and Renly and probably most of the men in the scene she was in. She shows the same stance towards honor and duty tha Ned Stark showed during season 1. Time will tell whether this honor and duty-bound warrior would suffer the same fate as Ned Stark before the war sees it’s end.
  • We get a Sansa Stark sighting. Sophie Turner continues to play the role of Joffrey’s hesistant queen beautifully. People may hate her for how she acted during most of season 1, but this season has shown that Sansa has learned to navigate the dangerous corridors of King’s Landing in order to keep her true feelings about Joffrey, Cersei and the Lannisters from getting her killed. Like Theon, she becomes more and more sympathetic with each appearance this season.
  • Peter Dinklage is the man. The Emmy’s should just put his name on the best supporting actor in a drama series (or maybe on best lead actor) in the next awards show. His scenes with Pycelle, Varys, Littlefinger and Cersei wasn’t just fun to watch but a marvel as well.
  • Outmaneuvering the slippery Littlefinger made for quite the verbal joust between Dinklage and Aiden Gillen. It must be such a blow to Littlefinger’s ego to have not just one Lannister show where true power lies, but now a second has manipulated him not through violence but through intrigue.
  • Interesting to note how Tyrion treats the whores he comes across with more respect and care than those in power he finds himself surrounded with.
  • Tyrion and Varys may not like each other but tonight’s episode shows that they have come to respect each other’s abilities. Quite the odd couple the two make.
  • The show continues to show more than imply the relationship between Renly and Loras. Some fans of the books may howl at this, but it made the scene which comes after Loras leaves Renly’s bedchamber that much more powerful as Margaery literally throws Renly’s relationship with her brother back at her king and doesn’t see anything wrong with it as long as he performs his kingly duty with her. Loras may be the Knight’s Flower of Highgarden but Margaery is the true steel of this House.
  • Once again Gemma Whelan continues to impress in the role of Yara Greyjoy. She continues to be one of the stronger new faces this season. Her treatment of Theon in tonight’s episode has made who had been an annoying hanger-on to Robb Stark with a wide streak of misogyny to someone brought low by his family less than gracious welcome. We’re seeing in how Gemma Whelan plays Yara why Balon Greyjoy prefers her over his only son, but at the same time she has also made Theon a sympathetic figure.
  • While Theon continues to get browbeaten by both Yara and Balon he at least gets a shot in at Balon. He reminds the old man that for all his talk of the Greyjoy’s taking what they want he’s still somewhat of a hypocrite for bending knee to Robert Baratheon after his failed rebellion a decade’s past. Not just bending knee but giving up his remaining son to live amongst the very people who defeated him.
  • His decision in the end to take the oath and not warn Robb puts Theon on a collision course with the very person he calls brother and a House he’s known longer than his own birth.
  • “What is dead may never die but rises again.”
  • This Drowned God ritual takes on a more symbolic gesture than how it appears in the novels which literally involves
  • Yoren of the Night’s Watch, just like Syrio Forel of Braavos, you went out like a BOWSE. Arya may have lost another badass mentor, but she’s now been taught by them both how to survive and tell death not today.
  • Jaqen H’ghar appears briefly and I wouldn’t be surprised if he shows up more as the season continues.
  • Gendry is going to miss that bull’s helm.
  • Last and most important observation, the men may hold the power in Westeros but there seem to be a very powerful woman standing behind each and every throne and seat of power: Catelyn Stark with Robb, Melisandre with Stannis, Margaery with Renly and Cersei with Joffrey.

Review: Game of Thrones S2E02 “The Night Lands”


“You shouldn’t insult people bigger than you.” — Gendry

Tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones saw some major power plays from old stalwarts fans have grown to love since season 1 and from newly introduced character from this season’s premiere episode. The show has continued to go on its own pace with some episode bereft of action and heavy on character interactions and exposition. Tonight’s episode was one of them.

“The Night Lands” was tonight’s episode and it comes from the Dothraki term for death. It’s interesting to note that the title itself didn’t lead to much death with tonight’s episode. What it did was set-up plans that would lead to the death of hundreds, if not thousands, and also reveal that all the power plays all the self-proclaimed kings and queens south of the wall will be for naught if the true danger posed by the gathering wildlings north of the Wall doesn’t get it’s due focus. Then there’s the problem of a long winter arriving and with it the prospect of the Others (renamed White Walkers for the show) posing the greatest danger to everyone on Westeros, if not, the world itself.

Tonight’s episode gave quality time, some of it brief, to several characters. We got to see the continuing hardship being felt by Daenerys and her khalasar as they travel the Red Waste. Their very privations would get compounded by the dangers posed by rival khals led by the very commanders who once called Daenerys’ husband, Khal Drogo, their liege. She had the briefest time during tonight’s episode but we got to see some growth to her becoming a true leader as she refuses to run from the very people hunting her for just being a leader in a land where men have always held power.

We also get an exercise in personal power from Littlefinger who was rudely disabused by Queen Regent Cersei that for all his talk about knowledge being the source of power in the end he held no more than what’s allowed him by those who are of higher station and of noble birth. Littlefinger gets back a semblance of his personal power by telling quite a horrific tale to his favorite whore in Ros. One who has earned his disfavor by not doing well what he has trained and paid her to do. The quiet way Littlefinger tells the story of another whore of his in the past who failed to do her job and thus forced him to have her used and abused was chilling and definitely gave Ros the hint that she better shape up or the same would befall her.

A power play of another sort involved the plans and machinations of Ser Davos Seaworth has he successfully gets the pirate captain Salladhor Saan to commit his fleet of 30 ships to fight for Stannis Baratheon when they make for King’s Landing. While his loyalty towards Stannis is borne out of gratitude and one well-earned his son looks to be more loyal towards the new religion sweeping Dragonstone and Stannis followers. Even Stannis has begun to tire of Melisandre’s talk of faith in the Lord of Light to grant him the victory he so wants, but knows he cannot achieve unless he pries the 100,000 or so men who have pledge loyalty to Renly into his own army. Melisandre’s own move to cementing her influence and power over the elder brother plays upon Stannis’ longing to have a son his sickly wife hasn’t been able to give him. For all his talk of black-and-white when it comes to the realities of the world Stannis is still more than willing to deal with cutthroats and pirates. He’s even willing to forgo his marriage vow if it means Melisandre will give him the son he wants.

But tonight’s episode was about two men whose attempts to tip the balance of power in the kingdom and in the war was met with success for one and abject humiliation and defeat for another.

We finally get to see the Iron Islands from whence Theon Greyjoy’s family holds power and where he is returning home to offer King Robb Stark’s terms for an alliance against the Lannisters. Theon (played by Alfie Allen) has always come off as the wanna-be hanger on who thinks the leftover crumbs left by the Stark boys meant he has power and influence. He’s disabused of this notion when he gets a less than ostentatious welcome when he arrives on his land of birth. His penchant for bragging about his self-importance has made him into a lecherous joke when his initial encounter with his younger sister Yara (who he doesn’t recognize as such and thus his lame attempt at seduction makes for a very funny and uncomfortable scene) shows him to be soft, no iron in his make-up and a fool as well. His father, Balon Greyjoy, further insults his western ways and attire and parades Yara as his new heir and one worthy to lead the Greyjoy fleets. A fleet Theon had hoped would fight with Robb against the Lannister, but instead strike at a much more inviting and less defended target (not said but implied that Winterfell will soon get a visit from the men of the Iron Isles).

Farther south, we see Tyrion further cementing his power in the role his father has appointed him. While Tyrion has always seemed the one person in the whole series who sees the joke kings, queens and lords have made of themselves and the kingdom, he seem to be perfect in the role of the new Hand of the King. As he proclaims to Varys during their brief weighing of each other at his room in the castle, Tyrion is not Ned Stark. He knows how to play the game of thrones and he’s not honorable to fall for whatever plans Varys and others may have for and against him. He even exercises his new found power by banishing the Lord Commander of the City Watch (the Goldcloaks) Janos Slynt for his role in the massacre of King Robert’s bastard sons. Tyrion may be an imp who no one takes seriously and, who himself, doesn’t take his role as seriously as he thinks he should, but he draws the line when it comes to the slaughter of innocent babes and children. The fact that he has correctly guessed the pulse of the people has made him Cersei’s biggest ally in the Royal Court in reining in the power-mad King Joffrey, but familial resentment between sister and younger brother means Tyrion will forever by trying to clean up after his family and it’s a job that he knows he cannot hope to win.

Tonight’s episode was once again helmed by Alan Taylor who also directed the season premiere. Like that episode, tonight had the show moving from different points on the map. We go from North of the Wall to King’s Landing then to the Iron Isles, the Red Waste and Dragonstone. Taylor seems able to juggle these different threads that could easily have made tonight’s episode hard to follow. It’s a testament to Benioff and Weiss as writers to have been able to cram all these scenes together and make them easy to follow.

Next week’s episode sees a new director at the help and a new writer. It’d be interesting to see if the show can continue such a high level of execution without Taylor, Weiss and Benioff manning the till.

Notes

  • Tonight’s opening title sequence gets a new location added to it’s clockwork mechanism with the inclusion of Pyke on the Iron Isles.
  • It was great to see Arya getting some screen time as she deals with hiding as a boy with the rest of the caravan being led by Yoren to the Wall.
  • We get our first introduction to someone who will have a major impact in Arya’s future with the mysterious prisoner Jaqen H’ghar play by Tom Wlaschiha.
  • The elder brother-little sister dynamic growing between Arya and Gendry was also good to see especially with Arya’s whole world being turned upside down and her not knowing if her own brothers still live.
  • Bronn appear briefly to take over as the new Lord Commander of the City Watch and his brief dialogue between himself and Tyrion was a welcome sight. If they ever made a spin-off series about the adventures of Tyrion and Bronn it would be well-watched.
  • North of the Wall, Jon’s direwolf Ghost makes an appearance that looks better executed than the CGI used to enlarge Robb’s Greywind.
  • The introduction of one of Caster’s young daughter-wives (a piece of detail that’s sure to make many viewers disturbed for even knowing) and Sam as her potential savior is another brick laid down for the show’s future.
  • Interesting to note that Salladhor Saan is played by a black man instead of the fair-skinned man of Lys as originally described by Martin in the novels. I’m all for the change, but I’m sure the less-educated fans of the books would find the change none to their liking. I call it the “Hunger Games Rant”.
  • Great turn by Gemma Whelan as Yara Greyjoy (Asha Greyjoy in the books). Her manipulation of Theon was pitch-perfect especially during their disturbingly inappropriate horse ride to Castle Pyke.

Review: Game of Thrones S2E01 “The North Remembers”


“The night is dark and full of terrors old man, but the fire burns them all away.” — Melisandre

George R.R. Martin’s medieval fantasy epic novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, made a triumphant debut on HBO with Game of Thrones in the Spring of 2010. The show was headed to be a big success due to the huge fan-base that have read and re-read the novels, but the show was able to attract those who wouldn’t know George R.R. Martin or his books. This was the show that further cemented the notion that genre has become the ruling king of quality tv.

A new season of Game of Thrones now arrives with the premiere episode titled “The North Remembers” and while it shows Robb Stark (now proclaimed King of the North by his bannerman and liegelords) flush with success against the forces of House Lannisters and thus King Joffrey at King’s Landing the episode also weaves in an ominous tone that looks to dominate this second season. It’s a season based mostly on the second novel in the series titled A Clash of Kings and tonight’s episode has set-up not just King Robb Stark of the North against King Joffrey Baratheon at King’s Landing, but the old king’s two surviving brothers (elder brother Stannis Baratheon at the Isle of Dragonstone and younger brother Renly Baratheon at Storm’s End) as these four kings begin their path into a clash for the Iron Throne.

One thing to be said about tonight’s episode is just how much happens throughout it’s running time. We see how life since the execution of Ned Stark has changed the kingdom of Westeros for the worst as refugees fleeing the war between Lannister and Stark has made things near-untenable in King’s Landing. While the peasants and commoners of the kingdom suffer we’re quickly re-introduced to the author of the war in King Joffrey (played with an almost psychotic glee by Jack Gleeson) who hold’s knightly games to commemorate his naming day and plays at being a conquering monarch by redecorating the throne room. Trying to manage this petulant boy king is both his manipulative mother, Cersei Lannister, and his dwarf uncle Tyrion Lannister who also has been appointed the latest Hand of the King to help advise.

While we see the North with Robb sending peace offerings and terms to the Lannisters in the hope of getting his sisters (Sansa and Arya) back we also see him in a nice scene confronting Jaime Lannister still his prisoner and still trying to gain an upper-hand on the young king. It’s a huge difference winning battles can do to a young man’s confidence as Jaime’s veiled insults about his age only amuses Robb. It helps that his direwolf looks to have grown double in size since we last saw Greywind. The episode went a long way to showing Robb not just becoming King of the North in name, but also in manner and deeds.

Tonight’s episode might have been called “The North Remembers” but it’s the arrival of Melisandre of Asshai (Carice van Houten), the priestess of R’hllor (Lord of the Light) and her sway over Stannis Baratheon that adds a sense of the magical to what had been a series steeped heavily in medieval realism. It’s the addition of Melisandre and her seeming real gift for magic plus a glimpse of Daenerys’ dragons that offers glimpses to a world of magic and shadows behind the reality of war and the suffering it puts a kingdom’s people through.

As one could see this is quite a lot for one episode to juggle, but series director Alan Taylor has done a great job of keeping things from becoming too confusing to follow. Even the dark turn into infanticide and bloody purge in the end of the episode was a consequence born out of one of the king’s advisors in Petyr Belish (aka Littlefinger) who thought himself witty and clever by telling the Queen Regent Cersei that he knew exactly what had gone on between her and Jaime and the true parentage of King Joffrey. Taylor kept the episode from being bogged down in one area but at the same time still gives each character in the episode some character growth. Everyone looks to have aged and grown since last season and some for the better (Tyrion enjoying the fruits of being Hand of the King but also reveling in the fact that of all his father’s children it is he who is now trusted and not the disappointment) while others for the worst (Joffrey continuing his path towards Caligula-level mania).

One thing tonight’s busy episode has done is re-introduce the show’s audience to the world of the Seven Kingdoms and it’s many interesting characters and stories that came out of season one. It’s a world that continues to be a complex web of intrigue, moral greyness and ambiguity. While we see certain character on the extreme spectrum of right and wrong (Stannis and Joffrey respectively) we’re truly shown by tonight’s season premiere that everyone has their own agenda. Even characters we might have been led to believe as good show signs of cruelty while those we’re to see as amoral show signs of benevolence.

“The North Remembers” was a great start to what looks to be a season that will blow the first season out of the water (I don’t just mean because of the epic Battle of Blackwater that would highlight the season), but it also showed that despite being a show that had a legion’s worth of characters and subplots it still remained must-see and captivating to watch. Let the clash of kings commence.

Notes

  • It was great to see the opening title sequence once more and this time with the addition of Dragonstone to the stable of clockwork strongholds that has become famous.
  • We see Sansa Stark still pretty much a hostage of King Joffrey and trying to keep her head by parroting what he wants to hear. She did redeem herself somewhat by keeping a drunkard looking to become a knight from being drowned to death in wine and instead becoming Joffrey’s latest court fool.
  • Tyrion’s entrance in the same scene may not have had him slapping Joffrey (a meme that grew out of a slapping scene early in season 1), but his veiled insults at Joffrey’s ability to rule as king shows us why Peter Dinklage was deserving of winning that Emmy for his role as Tyrion Lannister.
  • The scene with Tyrion visiting his mistress Shae in the manor he had set her up in King’s Landing was brief but showed just how much Tyrion seemed happiest when close to her. Though it still doesn’t stop him from keeping her secret from everyone especially his father.
  • Once again I like to point out just how huge the direwolf looked as it growled menacingly at Jaime Lannister while Robb Stark held onto it. It’s almost as if Robb had to keep Greywind from lunging forward to rip the Kingslayer’s throat out. Maybe Greywind thinks Jaime was partly responsible for the death of Sansa’s direwolf Lady in the first season.
  • Speaking of direwolves…we get more clues that the Stark boys may be closer to their direwolves more than we thought as Bran Stark back in Winterfell dreams of roaming the forest near the God’s Wood and seeing it all through the eyes of his direwolf Summer.
  • HODOR! HODOR! HODOR!
  • Great sequence between Littlefinger and Cersei in the castle courtyard. Littlefinger may think of himself as the smartest and cleverest man in King’s Landing, but he still finds himself outmaneuvered, manipulated and laid low by Cersei. Those who doubted that Lena Headey would make for a great Cersei shouldn’t be having any more doubts about that casting choice with tonight’s episode.
  • We get a hint at the future introduction of what could be another self-proclaimed king in what looks to be quite a busy batch already with Theon Greyjoy asking to be sent back to the Iron Isle to speak with his father, Balon Greyjoy, on behalf of Robb who will need those hundred of Greyjoy ships to take on King’s Landing.
  • Was surprised to see Robert Pugh as Craster. I thought he looked like Shipmaster Mr. Allen from Master and Commander.
  • Also great to see Liam Cunningham as Ser Davos the Onion Knight who looks to be the clear-headed counsel to Stannis Baratheon.
  • Was disappointed there was very little of one of the show’s more interesting players in Varys the Spider, but it looks like he gets to have a juicy little scene in next week’s episode, “The Night Lands”.

Quickie Review: Black Death (dir. by Christopher Smith)


British filmmaker Christopher Smith has been flying under the radar of most of the film-going public. He’s already a filmmaker with five films to his credit of varying quality, but each showing his growth as a director with each successive release. In 2010, Christopher Smith released his sixth film in the UK with some film festival showings in the US soon thereafter. Black Death continues Smith’s work in the horror genre with this latest film a historical horror piece which tries to take a look at the subject matter of the Black Death of medieval Europe in a realistic, gritty light.

The film is set during in 1348 plague-ravaged England where a Osmund, a young monk, has a crisis of faith as he agonizes over his celibate vows to God and his love for Avrill, a young woman in town who also has feelings for Osmund. Avrill gives Osmund a week to find the answer to his dilemma and will wait for him at the marshes in that alloted time. Osmund finds his answer as templar knight Ulric (played by Sean Bean) and a group of his soldiers arrive at the monastery on a mission to find a village said to be untouched by the plague and one which might be providing a safe haven for a necromancer who has brought the dead back to life. Osmund seizes on this chance to leave the monastery and lead Ulric and his men through the marshes and to this village.

During their travel the group loses a couple men to bandit attacks and to the plague itself. They also come across a band of villagers about to burn a young woman for witchcraft. At first, Ulric seems to take pity and show compassion to this young woman, but instead kills her himself for the crime she is accused of. Ulric reminds Osmund and his men that they have no time for such distractions as they a much more important task ahead of them. A task which soon brings them to the very village which seem to be free from the plague many attribute to God punishing the sinners and other’s as the Devil tormenting the faithful.

It’s this ambiguous theme of how the Black Death was seen by villagers, soldiers and faithful which becomes an overriding theme in the film. Smith, using Dario Poloni’s screenplay, goes about exploring how those in power on both sides of the question — of whether God or the Devil was responsible for the plague — hold such a major influence on the minds of the uneducated populace. Ulric, Osmund and the group do find their necromancer, but it’s not all what they’ve expected and, for Osmund, this mission becomes a tragic one which tests his faith in God, his church and all that he’d been taught (indoctrinated some would call it) to believe. Osmund becomes the spiritual battleground from which Ulric and the necromancer fight over his eternal soul and the effect this has on the young monk turns out a surprising fashion which brings to mind Michael Reeves own historical piece and one of the greatest horror films of all-time in Witchfinder General.

Christopher Smith’s direction continues to improve and shows in Black Death as he’s able to make not just the subject of this horrific era in Europe’s medieval past, but at the same time use a deft hand to explore themes of faith, spirituality, role of religion as control and how fundamentalism doesn’t just affect those with religious conviction but also those who follow the secular path. It helps that Smith had a capable ensemble cast led by Sean Bean’s usual strong performance. Eddie Redmayne as Osmund seemed to be a one-note cipher through the first-half of the film, but once he arrives in the village his character begins to open up in complex ways that we’re never sure if he’ll fall on the side of the angels or the demons even right up to the end and even then it’s left ambiguous.

Black Death marks the latest in Christopher Smith’s tour of the horror genre and it’s many varying subjects to hone his growing craft as a filmmaker. The film ended up being entertaining despite having such an oppressive atmosphere and tone to not just the story, but to the very setting. There’s enough blood and gore spilled (using practical effects and not a sign of CGI to be seen) during scenes of fighting and torture to satisfy gorehounds who might come across the film. It also should work the mind of those also looking not just for the grue but also something to stimulate the mind. It’ll be interesting to see what Christopher Smith has next to follow-up this well-done and executed historical horror film.

Black Death: Trailer


There’s a film called Black Death that came out sometime around 2010 that seems to have fallen below the radar of most everyone. It’s a British historical horror film from upcoming genre filmmaker Christopher Smith. The film stars Sean Bean in the role of a knight during the Black Death era of Europe.

From what I’ve seen of the trailer and read about the film it seems to be a horror film that looks at the Black Death era of history with a slightly supernatural bent to it. Even the trailer gives gives the film a certain Wicker Man vibe to it. Holy warriors of the Christian faith coming into a village untouched by the Black Death. A village whose inhabitants might be dabbling with powers from a much older and earthy religion to keep the village safe. It definitely sounds like this film might have been influenced by that classic horror film starring Edward Woodward.

I like the look of the film as seen through the trailer. It almost looks black and white with splashes of vibrant colors here and there. Black Death hasn’t been announced as having a North American theatrical release date so this film looks like it will be a blu-ray release for me to finally see it.