Old School Reviews: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

I think what I love about British crime movies is that they have no issue with building their film around a cast of good honest villains. Career criminals who don’t feel the need to lament their lot in life or the cycles of poverty, abuse and violence that led them to a life of crime, who don’t need to show guilt over their violent, thieving ways, to be likeable. American gangsters are relatable and empathetic. British crims, proper British crooks, are entertaining.

Case in point we have Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie’s 1998 classic (I’m pretty sure it made it into 1001 Movies to See Before you Die) about four mates, a crooked card game, violent loan sharks, drug dealers, the guys who rob drug dealers, and a pair of antique shotguns. Y’know, guns that fire shot.

Now, I don’t think at any point do any of the characters show any real remorse for the life they’d lived. Well, not ’til it all goes to shit at least. Even then, as the threads come together and the bodies start dropping no one blames ‘the life.’ For our four central characters this isn’t one final score that goes horribly wrong. This was a chance at the big leagues that goes horribly wrong, and you know they’re going to go straight back into scamming and thieving as soon as they’re out of the Barney Rubble. Heh, cockney rhyming slang.

Real funny thing though is that the points that in a Yank film would lead to a heel-face-turn (my family/friends/only people I care about are in danger!) and cause the career criminal to make a determined effort to get out the life (go legit, go to the cops, fake their own death) don’t even register. Shit, Big Chris (Vinnie Jones) takes his son out debt collecting with him, despite the danger this can and does lead to. At the end of the film though, the kid’s still coming along, even if the business has changed slightly.

Guy Ritchie has long set himself up as a solid (even if not always necessarily brilliant) director and writer, and his feature length debut will always be remembered as one of his best. He gets great performances out of the actors, most notably debuts Vinnie Jones as Big Chris and Jason Statham as Bacon (both of whom are now staple British hard men), and the script is tight and unapologetic of its origins. It starts with Statham rattling off a sale pitch for stolen jewelry (“It’s not stolen, it just hasn’t been paid for!” and according to the legend part of Statham’s audition) and in one notable scene preferring to use subtitles over dumbing down the language. Shit mate, that scene right there is how you do a character introduction. Forces you to pay attention, then reveals cunning, creativity and a predilection towards violence. Everyone’s solid though, sometimes a little stilted on occasion but they carry the emotional parts well. Then of course there’s the soundtrack. Guy Ritchie knows how to pick a song for a scene, switching through jazz, funk and rock’n’roll to pull you into a and a mood, and when to not bother with any noise at all.

But it all works out in the end. Except for the people who died, of course, but most of them deserved it. Not that anyone really judges, it’s just part of the life. The only lesson really learned for our luckless antiheroes is to pick their battles better.

So you should watch this film. It’s fun, a little absurdist, Sting tells someone to fuck off, and you get to watch some villains being villains. And then there’s a girl named Gloria with a Bren gun. Even if the rest of the movie was shit, it’s worth is for Gloria with a Bren gun.

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Old school reviews: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

It’s funny, once upon a time the only folk that could be regularly relied upon to turn beloved books into television series were the Poms. They’d often start (or remain) a made-for-TV movie and, if it earned enough interest from the right people, would eventually become a series. Murder mysteries for the most part, as with the Yanks for a long time, but there was also a much firmer place for fantasy and/or period pieces. The Discworld books, some stuff by Neil Gaiman, the odd bit of Arthurian legend, whatever work by the Bronte sisters was most popular that year (I really need to sit down and read Pride and Prejudice one of these days), and of course the works of C.S Forester and Bernard Cornwell. And that is what I find to be most peculiar about Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, that fact that it was a proper work of cinema and not a TV series.

Not to say that it’s a bad film. Quite the contrary, I think it’s fuckin’ fantastic. The violence is excellent. Damage to the ship is big and brutal, splinters flying, ropes snapping and masts cracking. At the same time it’s an intimate thing, closeups following the men as they fire the cannons and receive fire. Easy to follow, tense, and with little-to-no plot armour (name another film that will cut off a boy’s arm within the first half hour), but most of all detailed. The good doctor calling for more sand to make the floor less slippery, doors removed from the captain’s cabin to allow access to the guns stored there, ignoring the swords and grabbing the captain’s silver to be stored safely during an action. Good stuff, humanising stuff.

The soundtrack adds. Simple strings to fit the mood and drums that provide a rhythm to every desperate battle and gambit, with dead silences used to ramp up the tension right before something is due to happen.

The best part is the characters. Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany and Max Pirkis are the peak of an enormous and excellent cast. Director Peter Weir does a great job of getting so many great performances out of so many great actors creating so many great and (most importantly) memorable characters. The ship is a closed environment, with different politics, relationships and superstitions presented across four perspectives: the crew at the bottom, cannon fodder, driven by rum, fear of the lash and loyalty to their commander; the junior officers, the midshipmen, terrified and uncertain, walking a fine line (not always successfully) to earn the respect of the men beneath; the good doctor, outside of the traditional hierarchy and often in opposition to Naval discipline (in many ways a surrogate for the audience); and at the top of it all the Captain, the commander, bound by tradition, duty and his own orders.

Crowe does a fantastic job as “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, a charismatic captain able to summon incredible loyalty from the men beneath him, yet one that struggles to find his tongue when faced with the horribly maimed son of a dear friend who still idolises him. Bettany plays the doctor, the forward thinker, the only man on the ship allowed to question Jack’s command (within reason), but one that can never truly understand the men around him and whose protestations often fall on deaf ears. Their relationship is brilliant and real, arguments are common but the care is genuine. The bromance is probably the best part of the film.

But, as much as I enjoy this film and going back to what I was saying in the first paragraph, I cannot understand why and how this film was made. This is a film about relationships punctuated by the odd bit of action, based on a book from a series I’d never heard of until well after the first time I watched this movie. It lacks the epic scale of other period action-dramas like Gladiator, or the famous source material of other based-on-books like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or The Green Mile. Yet they spent 150 million dollars turning this into a film. A highly rated film, that made back its money, but still.

And it’s funny, ’cause I doubt I would have thought so back in 2003, before the current golden age of television shows was even a twinkle in HBO’s eye. I watch the film now and can’t help but feel that the adventures and relationships of the crew of the HMS Surprise would have made a fantastic television show, though of course when it was greenlit that wasn’t even close to an option. It’s funny how perspectives change like that. Maybe it’s because the film now feels far more like it was planning on becoming a series. Yes, the plot is self-contained, and half the named crew… well, yeah, lack of plot armour, but there’s still this air that they were hoping on bringing Jack, Stephen and the HMS Surprise back for another cruise around the Atlantic and/or Pacific. Maybe it’s just the second part of the title, The Far Side of the World. You don’t usually stick a colon there unless you’re planning on using the first part of the title again later.

Anyway, watch this film. Tell me if you agree, tell me why if you don’t and we can argue a bit. Regardless, it’s a film worth watching.

Old School Reviews: A Knight’s Tale (2001)

I recently found myself reading a book called Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle by Juliet Barker, a fascinating look into King Henry V’s famous victory over an overwhelming force of the French nobility. Great book, really interesting stuff, bloody hard to remember all the Johns, Henrys, Thomases and (delightfully enough) Lancelots. Anyway, it got me in the mood for some knights and chivalry, and I narrowed my choices down to a bit of Shakespeare or 2001’s Heath Ledger-led rock’n’roll-anachronism laden romantic-action-comedy/sports film, A Knight’s Tale. I made a decision, and I believe it was the right one.

As I said, Heath Ledger stars as William Thatcher, a peasant who poses as a noble born in order to compete in that most medieval of sports, jousting. Along the way he and his fellow peasant squires, Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), are joined by blacksmith Kate (Laura Fraser) and Geoffrey fucking Chaucer (Paul Bettany), love interest Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) and mortal enemy the Count of Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). He achieves fame, fortune and a loyal fanbase, including the Black Prince himself (James Purefoy). Gotta love the Medieval name drops.

There is a lot to love about the cast. Perfect fits across the board, fantastic chemistry and even the accents aren’t too bad. Shannyn Sossamon is able to convey so much through a coy smile or an irritated frown, and seems to be having an absolute ball in the role. Paul Bettany is always a delight to watch, a showman playing a showman with a gambling problem and an absolute conviction that his place in history is assured even if no one else can be convinced. Rufus Sewell plays the subtle arsehole like few others, maintaining a keen poker face so that every small display of overt emotion seems far more dangerous. Even smaller roles are well filled. James Purefoy makes for a prince who understands and respects the points and price of chivalry and knighthood. Scott Handy, playing Adhemar’s herald Germaine, is excellent, a little out of his depth compared to the swagger of Chaucer but a professional entertainer nonetheless. You feel quite proud of him when he gives his final introduction of the film. And of course there’s Heath Ledger. We lost a good one there and I will say no more.

The script is excellent. I mean the story is okay but the dialogue, the lines and delivery are brilliant. It’s actually surprising that this film never became one of my go-tos for quotes. I mean, “The pope may be French but Jesus is bloody English!” How fucking good is that? Very good. The answer is very good. And “why don’t I use some variation of that more often?”

The really genius part of this film though is its understanding of the subject matter, as demonstrated by, amongst other things, the music. Y’see, A Knight’s Tale is a sports movie. That’s what it is, dealing with class and privilege while pushing morals such as the joys of ambition, courage, bravery, determination and that good sportsmanship will always triumph over being a dickhead. We hear this in the music, with great rock anthems playing between, during and after the matches just as they do at any arena today. The film starts with ‘We Will Rock You’ and ends with ‘You Shook Me All Night Long.’ ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ plays during a parade and they dance to ‘Golden Years’ at a feast. And it’s fucking brilliant. Not just a fantastic soundtrack but one that forces the viewer to accept the analogy and frame of reference. The familiar absorbs the distant.

Sport is sport is sport. Something that I noticed reading that book I mentioned about Agincourt was that many of these nights and princes were, in fact, the honest to god sports stars of their time. Codes of chivalry and knighthood crossed borders, cultures and religions, and people of all classes held onto stories of epic deeds, duels and jousts. Fashion, sledging, rivalries and WAGs were as much part of the sport then as they are now. It’s honestly just a surprise that no one thought of this before (and no one’s really done it since). At the same time the film never forgets its time frame, the religion, filth and racism, making it all the grander.

If you like a sports film, watch this. It’s more light-hearted than Gladiator and just as quotable.

Good God! Are we getting back onto our regular schedule? We’ll see. We will see. 

Old School Reviews: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

I’ve had a little trouble opening this review because it comes with a troubling (for me at least) admission. I’d never watched this movie until a few days ago. I mean, sure, I’d caught a couple of scenes over the years – a snippet here, a moment there – but I’d never actually sat through longer than a few minutes of The Magnificent Seven, and never on its own merits. I couldn’t even make my usual claim, that I’d watched “beginning, middle and end, but not in that order and not in one sitting” like I can with so many other movies. Why does that trouble me?

Well, for one, I have a soft spot for Westerns. I find it to be one of the most adaptable genres in fiction (fuck I love a good space western, from Firefly to the Borderlands games), and even love the works that thoroughly tear apart the mythology built around it (Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West still stands as one my favourite books ever and I was probably way too young to read it when I did). The second reason is that The Magnificent Seven is such an excellent movie and I cannot believe it’s taken me this long to find that out for myself.

Based on classic 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai (which I also really need to watch, given how many films it’s influenced over the years) and released in 1960, The Magnificent Seven tells the story of unemployed gunslinger, hired by a small Mexican village to help defend themselves from bandits. He finds six others willing to help, and are paid a pittance of 20 dollars (“That won’t even pay for my bullets!”), food and board for six weeks of bloody work. In time, the seven fall for the village, coming back to defend it in a climactic battle even after (spoiler alert for a fifty-fucking-six year old movie) some of the villagers betray them to the bandit leader, Calvera.

There’s such a huge cast that going through everyone would take longer than I’m willing to put the effort into, so let’s just mention the ones that stood out. Yul Brynner as the Seven’s leader Chris, who brings gravitas, kindness and practical authority to the role. A character with a firm grasp of the benefits of “teaching a man to fish.” Steve McQueen as Vin Tanner. Fuck, do I need to say anything else? Just, those eyes mate. Those eyes. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos as one of the leading villagers, Hilario, a brave man desperate to create a better life for his children and people, incredibly loyal, intelligent and overall one of the most well-rounded characters in the film. He also shares one of the most endearing scenes in the film with Steve McQueen, while they’re hunting a trio of Calvera’s snipers. Eli Wallach as Calvera is something great as well, swagger and smalltalk unable to hide his willingness to commit violence at a moment’s notice, and utterly unable to comprehend why such talented killers are defending a pisspoor village with nothing to offer but three squares and gratitude, who then don’t even show a great deal of gratitude for most of the film.

The direction and fight choreography is about as good as you’d expect from 1960, and in more than a few ways even better. The deaths are over-dramatic and ridiculous, clutching and staggering and swooning in grand, sprawling heaps. But let’s not discount the absolute talent that was required to be shot off a horse without breaking your neck. Seriously, stuntmen were fucking amazing people, and still bloody are. The final battle is big and chaotic and as gritty as they could be before stuff like squibs were seeing wide use, and the fights before that are just as dramatic. There’s one moment in the first big fight between the Seven and Calvera that just made my jaw drop. Calvera and one of his henchmen are racing their horses through the village, perfectly synchronised as they hurdle over stone walls and whatever else is in their way, the camera following them as they go, and it’s both an amazing example of horsemanship and camerawork.

But what I really love about this film, what I really love, is the honesty of the film. I mean, the characters are all open about their motivations for the most part. Charles Bronson’s character is broke and desperate. Robert Vaughn’s Lee has lost his nerve and is on the run, and simply needs somewhere to hold up. Brad Dexter as Harry Luck thinks there’s more value to the village than what Chris is telling him (a gold mine, precious jewels, something) and that he’ll get a piece for defending it from Calvera. James Coburn as the lanky, laconic Britt is looking for a fight. As for Chris and Vin? Well, they’re never quite clear on why. This is just the work they do, and this cause is good as any other excuse to do it. Better, in Chris’ mind. The only one who seems to be there in some quest for heroism and glory is Chico, played by Horst Buchholz, something that is heavily discouraged by the others.

It goes further than simple character motivations though, greed or a lust for violence. Calvera’s men are starving, they need the villager’s corn or they wouldn’t survive the winter. We meet Chris and Vin driving a hearse to a graveyard, simply because they’re the only ones willing to risk getting shot by a bunch of angry bigots who don’t want an Indian buried on a ‘white’ hill. Charles Bronson’s character, Bernardo O’Reilly, berates a group of boys who call their fathers cowards for doing their very best trying to protect their sons, that being willing to back down for the right reasons requires its own kind of bravery that O’Reilly certainly doesn’t possess. When Chico discovers one of the village women, and learns that they’d been sent to hide in the hills because the village men said that the Seven would rape them he’s outraged by the lack of trust. Chris just goes, “well, yeah, we might” (paraphrasing here). He’s not saying they’re going to rape the villages women, but he acknowledges it as a valid fear that a bunch of well-armed, underpaid strangers might feel entitled towards taking additional payment from the village women. Shit, can you remember the last time a movie acknowledged this? That male heroes are often depicted being entitled to sex? I can’t. And here’s this guy not angry, just going, “I completely understand and you made the right decision given the information available to you.”

This film rips the shit out of toxic masculinity. And it’s a fucking western from 1960, the genre and tail-end of a decade that is responsible for so many of the most harmful tropes. I mean, yeah, there aren’t a whole lot of female characters, but still. This is definitely going in the pool room. Somewhere besides Mad Max: Fury Road.

Seriously, why have I not watched this film before now? This is my jam.

Old School Reviews: Titan A.E. (2000)

It’s funny, there’s a lot of bad things I can say about Titan A.E. Part of that can be blamed on the time it was made and who it was meant to appeal to. Part of it is a feeling of shoddiness that the film never seems to get past.

The tone is caught in a strange space between child-friendly animation and that gritty, grimy place we usually call “young adult” in a rather obvious attempt at pandering to adolescents with disposable income and a desire to be treated like a grown-up. There’s no swearing and the sexual innuendo is no worse than Monsters Inc. but the violence is surprising. We see one alien get comically blasted into goo, eyes and teeth, a number of sentient bat-bird things blown out of the sky, a few bloody wounds, and, at the end someone getting his fucking neck snapped. At the same time the sense of humour, when it occasionally appears, is as childish as a straight-to-DVD Disney movie. Throw in a high-concept sci-fi plot and moral that’ll fly over the heads of most “young adults” and you end up with a tone that, while not messy as such, is too far one way and not far enough another to have the kind of emotional weight that the movie seems to want. Add in the music, safe post-grunge rock that I’m honest to god surprised didn’t include Pearl Jam, and you end up with some late-nineties/early-aughts executive committee’s definition of cool.

The animation is a similar hodgepodge of traditional (and probably budget friendly) 2D and what was not-even-really-cutting-edge-anymore 3D computer generations. It’s a mix that swings wildly between tolerable and jarring. A few of the 3D models, the individual Drej drones for example, fit into the environments and move about smoothly enough, but more often than not it’s that ugly, undetailed rendering typical of much low budget fare. This get’s even worse when you consider some of the films that were coming out at the same time (the above mentioned Monsters Inc.Shrek, even Fox’s own Ice Age). Meanwhile Titan A.E. can’t even seem to render a pretty cliff. What makes it worse is that the 2D animation, which still makes up a majority of the film’s visuals, is similarly lacking in quality. Movement and outlines are often choppy, sloppy and overall just lacking in a layer of polish. All in all, not as pretty as a film with a 75 million dollar budget should have been. You can’t help but wonder if they had used 2D animation for the whole thing it would have been a much better looking film, and more fondly remembered as a result. But 3D rendering had become the fashion by that point, and so this is what we got.

So yeah, there are problems with this film. But there’s also a lot of good things to say as well. The character designs are excellent, both human and alien, with little details and consistencies that add to each. The alien character Preed for example is voiced by the charming, extravagant and educated Nathan Lane, but his character is ugly badly dressed and battle-worn (one of his ears is missing, replaced by cybernetics in his scalp), showing him to merely a thug pretending at being a gentleman. The alien designs are familiar enough (Stith looks like a kangaroo, Gune looks like turtle) for us to identify them and identify with them while still looking sufficiently unreal, and their voice actors commit to the roles and personalities beautifully. Would have been nice if the asian character Akima had been voiced by an asian actress, but this is the world we live and at least the crew allowed for some multiculturalism. The character development feels as natural and unforced as is possible in 94 minutes, the plot develops quickly enough. The use of lighting and colour is excellent and the script and dialogue is snappy and a pleasure to listen to.

But it is that high-concept sci-fi that I really love about this film. The message about humanity that it is trying to push. Y’see the film starts with the alien antagonists, the Drej, deciding that the human race has become to much of a threat to be allowed to continue to exist, so they come over and blow up Earth. Now, a thousand books, movies and video games that have come before usually fall within the grim’n’gritty themes of humanity probably deserving it a little bit, claiming that our propensity for violence and destruction would shake up any galactic order. But the Titan that the Drej fear so much is not a tool of destruction, it is in fact a tool of unparalleled creation damn near close to magic. To the contrary, it is the Drej who are only capable of destroying, who are incapable of creating, and terrified at what those creators are capable of.

And it is so fucking refreshing for a science fiction plot that’s not “human beings could have such potential if they just stopped killing each other and everything they meet”, and is instead “human beings reached their potential ages ago, it was fucking amazing and now we need to protect it.”

There’s something very hopeful about that. Something very encouraging. And a great lesson to be remembered as science moves forward. It is not the destroyers who wield true power, but the creators. And those that build will ultimately triumph over those that tear down.

Old school reviews: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Not long before I left Australia the family gathered around and slid our copy of Mel Brook’s 1974 monster movie satire, Young Frankenstein, into the player. Early in the film, Frederick Frankenstein, is giving a lecture to a group of medical students only to have one of them stand up and begin asking questions about the work of his late grandfather, the famous Victor Frankenstein. The scene goes on, poor Mr Hilltop gets kneed in the balls (“give him an extra dollar”) and irritating medical student becomes even more irritating. And then, at some point as he brings up Dr Frunk-en-shteen‘s heritage, my dad points out that “He looks like Kevin Rudd!”

We all watch the scene, and the actor a little closer. “Oh my god,” I think it was my mum then said, “he even talks like Kevin Rudd!” The whole family cracked up laughing. Then cracked up again when Gene Wilder stabbed himself with a scalpel.

There’s no point to this anecdote really, beyond saying that loving this film has always been a family affair. Y’see, this is my dad’s favourite film. It’s not all that hard to make my dad laugh, but when he really loves a bit of comedy, when he’s really enjoying himself, well, let’s just say it’s fucking infectious. As a result Young Frankenstein became something of a family meme. I’ve talked about how my best mates and I are able to talk almost entirely in movie and Simpsons quotes, but amongst my family the go-to was always something from this movie.

Goddamn, especially that scene where he’s dreaming in bed. “DESTINY! DESTINY! NO ESCAPING THAT FOR ME!”

I think that a great film, a really great film, always has this communal aspect. That ability to fit the jokes into other situations, or simply cause a chuckle by invoking memories. Group reverence rather than individual reverence.

This is also the mark of a great actor. It’s an amazing thing that even, what, twenty years after he was last in a cinema, Gene Wilder’s death has marked so many people so deeply. He had and still has such a profound influence on the popular consciousness. I mean shit, every actor that plays the role of Willy Wonka from now until forever will be compared to the Gene Wilder version, a role that has become subject to some of the longest running memes I’ve seen on the constantly evolving internet.

A true entertainer and clown, and I say that in the best way possible. Watching him be hilarious seemed like the best tribute I could think of. Watching with my family will be one of the first things I do when I get home.

Old School Movie Reviews: The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

I don’t normally do sequels, do I? I mean, I can’t think of any I’ve done so far. Definitely none in the next review after the original. So this is a first.

Released five years after The Three Musketeers, 1998’s The Man in the Iron Mask is more spiritual rather than direct sequel. Different actors, slightly different relationships, some similar treason.

In this case we have Gerard Depardieu as Porthos, John Malkovich as Athos and Jeremy Irons as Aramis pitting themselves against Gabriel Byrne as D’Artagnan in a plot to replace King Louis the IV, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, with his twin brother Philippe (the titular Man in the Iron Mask), also played by Leonardo DiCaprio. We also have Anne Parillaud as the Queen Mother and Judith Godreche as the lovely Christine, who becomes Louis’ mistress after he murders her fiance (Athos’ son Raoul, played briefly by Peter Skarsgard). Great actors at the worst of times, some of them obviously having an absolute ball with the characters (Jeremy Irons and Gerard Depardieu in particular). The best has got to be a young but still talented Leonardo DiCaprio, going from the petulant and arrogant Louis to the gentle, kind and generally overwhelmed Philippe. He plays two genuinely different characters and showed his skill early on. Great actor.

The action is, if I’m to be perfectly honest, a little disappointing. There are fewer fights than you’d expect, and most of them are honestly a little disappointing, except for the final desperate fight against the King’s Musketeers in the bowels of the Bastille. It’s meant to be more of a heist film, more character driven rather than a straight up action film and it more or less works. But you still expect a little more swashbuckling from any movie that involves the famous musketeers (something that even Porthos complains about at one point).

I don’t know. This film is a weird one. It’s not as good as I remember it being but I can’t exactly put my finger on why. Probably lot’s of little things. Like, it’s got a good sense of humour but a few of the jokes fall a little flat. It does a good job of setting up Louis as a monster who believes his crown (ordained by god) makes him immune to consequences both in this world and the next, but a couple of his decisions are just stupid for the plot’s sake. At one point some rotten fruit is thrown as D’Artagnan and he skewers it with his sword. This is used as a moment to remind both the audience and a mob of rioters what a fucking badass D’Artagnan is supposed to be, but the fruit spends so much time flying through the air (while shocked rioters look on and D’Artagnan decides which piece of fruit he’s going to skewer) that it becomes less impressive than it should have been. Little shit like this, it adds up.

But, as good as I remember or not, I still like this film. Helps that I’m a big fan of Jeremy Irons though. I’ll push through some pretty awful fucking movies if it means I get to enjoy a bit of Jeremy Irons, and this is far from awful.