BLACK DEATH & Fundamentalist Faith

Black Death. 2010. Directed by Christopher Smith. Screenplay by Dario Poloni.
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Carice van Houten, John Lynch, Tim McInnerny, Kimberley Nixon, Andy Nyman, David Warner, Johnny Harris, Emun Elliott, Tygo Gernandt, Jamie Ballard, & Tobias Kasimirowicz. Egoli Tossell Film/HanWay Films/Zephyr Films.
Rated R. 102 minutes.

posterI’m a big fan of Christopher Smith’s work from his eerie 2004 flick Creep to Severance and Triangle a few years later. All of which have their strengths, weaknesses. Overall, they’re awesome. Smith has a will to try and be original.
We see that break through widest with his 2010 film Black Death; a horror-mystery set in 1348 as the bubonic plague ripped its way through Europe. In England, religious superstition runs high when a small village in the marshes is rumoured to be untouched by the black death, so a group of knights, cobbled together with fundamentalists and psychopaths alike – plus one monk whose love for a woman tests his own faith – are sent to investigate. To mad result.
Being a fan of all things medieval, having studied a great deal of medieval literature, Smith’s film is highly entertaining. I feel like it’s close to being a perfect bit of horror cinema, with some history (not all entirely accurate) and action to make it all the more intriguing. Any medieval film has to at least touch on the brutality of the time. Ingmar Bergman did it. The Name of the Rose, too. Even Monty Python in their infinite comedic wisdom gave us “‘Tis but a scratch!”
The best of what Smith does is give us a savage, genuine reflection of the times, allowing for maximum nastiness and a few excitingly bloody moments. Shooting in the most perfect locations with a grainy sort of aesthetic, his directing makes this feel like something you could have seen 20 years ago. But it’s also refreshingly modern, as Smith brings into question whether anything has changed after so many centuries. Still, one group runs around with fundamentalism in their heart to a deadly extent and the other condemns them with an equally heavy, morally ambiguous hand.
So where does it end? Nobody knew then, and nobody knows now, either.
pic1There’s a large juxtaposition of faith in Black Death. Eddie Redmayne’s monk Osmund is unsure of his own at the start. We discover he’s conflicted between the vow of chastity and a woman with whom he’s fallen in love, deeply. This all troubles him, clearly. Everything gets intense when he’s up against men who are so sure of their faith they will kill to honour its tenets. We see various measures of faith, as well. For instance the picture above – a group of flagellants crossing through the river, carrying a cross and brandishing the straps with which they whip themselves religiously (pun intended). Meanwhile, those knights whose faith drives them aren’t exactly pious. They’re murderers. Torturers. Within the shaky faith of Osmund, even he can’t condone what these men are doing. They revel in it, too. Not like their duty is tough. They enjoy almost every last bit. When death comes they smile, as if a reward for their loyal service. Along their journey Osmund discovers a group of villagers about to burn a woman up for supposedly practising witchcraft. When the men fend everybody off, Ulrich (Sean Bean) still kills the woman; one of the first glaring omissions of faith on his part. Through all these men, Ulrich and Osmund included, we’re shown a scale of morality through the eyes of men who believe themselves religious. All the while many of them persecuting people who do not follow their own. On the other side are those in the village, led by the mysterious beauty Langiva (Carice van Houten). They renounce any Christian faith, and in their eyes the knights are nothing more than mercenaries from their God. Part of why I find Smith’s film great is that the atheists are sometimes no less ignorant and brutish than the ruthless knights, which can be the case in real life; some atheists I know are far bigger annoyances than the Catholics and Protestants I know. Many themes are wrapped up in Black Death, although the aim at religious extremism is pretty dominant.
pic2As I mentioned, the blood flows freely in certain scenes. The violence and brutality of the medieval period come across vividly. Practical special effects are the star of the show during the fights we witness. The knights are ruthless, as is everybody else. Those times often necessitated violent conflicts. Some of the nastier moments actually involve early scenes when we see gruesome results of the plague ravaging England; close views of lumps under the skin, bodies wrecked by its spread. Of course, images such as those crop up several times throughout the film. What all out action we get is frenzied, barbaric. There’s a more angry feeling than anything choreographed, as swords fly and gore is spilled on the ground. Later in the plot, the torturers become the tortured, and a few of them are dealt a vicious hand. One in particular involves an amazingly tense, grisly bit of crucifixion. Fantastic. That’s not the end, either. Not by a long shot. Ulrich provides us all with a final showing of macabre entertainment. I won’t ruin it by saying any more.BLACK DEATHThis is one of the best horror films since 2000, by far. I’ll say it loud and proud. Not everything is perfect, not every single bit is tight as possible. Mostly, Smith makes a fantastic piece of horror cinema, one that involves morbid history and a discussion on faith in many senses. Fundamentalism, extremist faith, these sit at the core of the film, and isn’t it great it could bring out these themes in Christianity? Nothing has changed to this day. When you see the finale, how the character of Osmund in particular ends up, you see how people of all walks of life, of all degrees of faith, are tested; it’s how you come out on the other end that matters. Ultimately, we are all judged by the great test of our own personal faiths, whatever that may be. We can either rise to the challenge, or admit ourselves false. Osmund makes his choice, just as many today still make their choices. And they must live with them. You can let religion cloud your judgement. In opposition, you can choose for yourself, judging what you can see, hear, touch for yourself. Black Death is more than horror, action, adventure, any of the tags we pin to its jacket. It is all those things and so much more.


Catch Me Daddy: A Grim Ride Into the Reality of Honour Killing

Catch Me Daddy. 2014. Directed by Daniel Wolfe. Screenplay by Daniel & Matthew Wolfe.
Starring Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, Connor McCarron, Gary Lewis, Barry Nunney, Adrian Hussain, Anwar Hussain, Ali Ahmad, Shoby Karman, Wasim Zakir, Nichola Burley, & Kate Dickie. Emu Films/Film4.
Unrated. 110 minutes.

Does a film need to have a massive plot? Can an entertaining bit of cinema simply have a small, intricate plot that runs on atmosphere? Catch Me Daddy is a movie that certainly has a plot. All the same, the events move towards a conclusion that doesn’t particularly satisfy. Nor does it let down, either. Essentially, director Daniel Wolfe, along with screenwriting partner on this picture Matthew Wolfe, crafts a chase into the extended series of events which frame the story of love, honour, betrayal, culture, and so much more. The tone of the film is gritty, its look equally as raw. In addition, Wolfe uses mostly a cast of relative to completely unknown actors, which further grasps that aim of realism. Most of all, this movie tackles the issue of honour killings and the culture clashes amongst the lower class in England without getting too controversial. Not that controversy is bad. But Wolfe’s film takes on a different air, instead of diving deep into dialogue or exposition on the cultural and racial issues, and what results is an endearing, tense, even brutal ride through the streets of England, the countryside, the caravans. Best of all? We’re never spoon fed all the ingredients. Rather, the crew of filmmakers alongside Wolfe give us plenty to look at, listen to, and leaves us with a hunger for understanding.
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Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed) is a young Pakistani woman living in Britain. She hides from her strict religious family in a caravan out in the country with her Scottish boyfriend, Aaron (Conor McCarron). They get by, as she works assisting a hairdresser, and Aaron does his best to track down a job.
But there are men looking for them, specifically Laila. Her brother Zaheer (Ali Ahmad) leads a group of his friends in the charge. Also, two white men named Tony (Gary Lewis) and Barry (Barry Nunney) are on the trail. When Laila and Aaron find themselves discovered, and she accidentally kills her brother, the chase is on. Unable to trust anyone, the two lovers rush like mad to escape their fate. Through the countryside, into the streets of London, Laila must run for her life. Or else she’ll lose it.
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Cinematographer Robbie Ryan takes us right into the world of these characters, offering up a beautiful style and at the same time giving us a gritty, dark visual atmosphere that you can almost chew. Ryan is particularly adept at capturing those gritty landscapes, as evidenced by his previous work on such films as IsolationRed RoadFish Tank, and he has a unique flair that’s quite noticeable in the recent Slow West. This film is almost a mix of those qualities. While Ryan finds all those raw, rough qualities that are worth seeing when tackling a story highly based in reality, he simultaneously infuses many of the scenes here with a gorgeous look, nearly radiant at times. The rich, vibrant look of certain shots combined themselves with the grittiness of all the lower class neighbourhoods, caravans and other locations, and this aesthetic creates an interesting space in which everything plays out.
Not only is the cinematography excellent, the score from first timers Matthew Waston (a.k.a Matthew Wolfe) and Daniel Thomas Freeman is wild. Whereas a few scenes contain popular music, it’s the music Watson and Freeman add that helps make so many of the scenes chug along filled with adrenaline, fear, and suspense respectively. When Laila is first forced to flee the caravan where she and Aaron hide, the frenetic music propels the entire film forward, and it prepares us for a chaotic cat-and-mouse thriller.
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I love the screenplay for this film. There are so many elements that are only alluded to briefly, which is always a plus. Stories that try jamming exposition and unneeded dialogue down the audience’s collective throat are the worst. Not to say there shouldn’t be anything concrete. On the contrary, I hate when scripts are vague simply for being vague’s sake. In direct opposition, Catch Me Daddy focuses very clearly on its present events, while all the past, the backstory, the characters and their lives remains distinctly behind them. We get allusions to previous events, the lives of the characters. Nothing is spelled out plainly, though. And all the better for it. Because once the end comes around, this film throws us for a curve. We want answers, we’d like to know everything. But what will that help? Will anything give us a clear path towards understanding Laila’s father? We already recognize her clear hopes to be her own woman, separate from the wants and wishes of her family, the expectations of her culture. Left with an ambiguous ending, no answers offered up, the screenplay defies explanation. Likely, we all know what happens after the credits roll. Although, Wolfe & Wolfe give us nothing perfect, nothing that fits entirely into the right box. The mystery surrounding some of the film’s plot and events is what makes it so intriguing. If everything were laid out, we might have come to a fully formed idea of what happened, perhaps even see exactly what comes next. Without that, director Wolfe leave us in a position where the agonizing questions, the lingering, sore emotions are still up for debate. Nobody here is trying to make a statement, so much as the filmmakers are presenting us with a harsh reality of what goes on within certain pockets of culture bent on fundamentalism, and the path hardcore belief can lead brothers, fathers, sisters, lovers on.
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The central performance from Sameena Jabeen Ahmed is quality. She is amazing, even just when it’s her eyes on camera. Her expressions, her demeanour, it is all perfect for this role. Her acting talent, as well as the excellent Gary Lewis, provide Catch Me Daddy with an anchor. Even when it feels as if not much is happening, the actors allow us to stay rooted, and the film carries you away.
A definite 5-star affair. From cinematography to acting to score, this is one hell of a ride. The slow burn nature of the plot may get to some, but trust me, if you hang in there every last bit is worth it. Again, if you prefer expository dialogue and having every last detail of the characters and plot explained in long-winded scenes, then this is certainly not your cup of tea. If you do like a challenge, a film that tries its hand at storytelling instead of dishing out concrete evidence for every last move, this is up your alley.
There is a ton of great stuff to enjoy here, and it’s impressive this small film is capable of holding the weight it does. Wolfe does a spectacular job in the director’s chair, giving us a glimpse into a world foreign to many of us, yet gives us enough that we feel involved in that world, at least for 110 minutes.