Outlaw King – The Monarch Of The Pointless Long Take

‘Outlaw King’ starts with an eight-minute “long take”, in the vein of such classics as ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Chilren of Men’ and ‘The Revenge of the Sith’.

I mean, it’s not a single take, and the sweeping camera movements and lighting transitions make it painfully obvious where CGI has been used to stitch multiple takes together, but that’s okay. Kind of.

This scene covers some fairly dull talk of land ownership and tax revenue, then transitions outside into a fairly dull, low-stakes practice duel between two characters we don’t yet know, then transitions briefly back into the dark tent for some more chat, followed by a CGI Trebuchet launching a CGI fireball hitting a CGI castle that we know nothing about and which we never see again. And every single character (and actor) is bored throughout all of this.

Which raises the question: what’s the point?

In the X-Files Season 6 episode ‘Triangle’, the 45-minute episode is shot in 4 long takes (with a few clever edits to allow for scene redresses), and this adds a wonderful tight energy to the ticking-clock story that makes an already interesting premise fun and compelling.

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‘Children of Men’ uses several long, complex single takes to ramp up the tension to a palpable level, to the point that you realise it’s been twenty seconds since you last took a breath and your buttocks are clenched like a vice.

‘Serenity’ opens with a nice steady long single-take scene (actually split into two as it was filmed on two separate sets) which introduces us to all of the ship’s crew but also the ship itself, taking us on a journey through the titular vessel and letting the audience get to know intimately the principal setting of the movie.

The point is, all of these examples are impressive on a technical level and add significantly to the substance of the story being told, either by augmenting the atmosphere, adding to the tension or helping to convey important information.

The opening to ‘Outlaw King’ does none of that. Nothing is being decided, so there is little-to-no tension to speak of. The “duel” might feature an element of danger but it’s pretty obvious that it’s going nowhere. The muddy campsite location is never revisited, and the characters who are introduced could all have had introductions in conventionally-shot scenes.

And the damn thing is clearly stitched together from smaller chunks, meaning it isn’t even that technically impressive, especially given the lack of action beyond a slow and boring swordfight.

To see what I mean about lighting transitions, take a look at this transition from outside in a muddy campsite to inside a candle-lit tent. We start off outside, in the natural light of an overcast day:

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See how the inside of the tent is nearly pitch black? You’d expect a degree of that – even on a cloudy day, daylight is much brighter than candles in a dark room.

Then we start moving closer:

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Still pitch black, bar a little light seeping through the canvas at the back. But note how there’s now much less natural light in-shot? And also note that steely-eyed, rock-steady guard, standing completely motionless and emotionless?

Closer still:

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There’s a bit more light internally now, but bear in mind that there’s no longer any natural daylight creeping into the shot, which means the bulk of the light is coming from the tent itself.

Finally:

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And BOOM! Suddenly everything’s fully illuminated. Note the shoulder in the far right, which belongs to that conveniently rigid guard whose tall figure also conveniently covers the entire height of the frame.

What this all means is that the interior scenes and the exterior scenes can both be filmed separately, or at the very least can be stitched together from multiple takes to account for errors. The editor can then make use of lighting changes combined with CGI and what are effectively “wipes” made by characters or objects which cover the whole screen in order to “seamlessly” stitch different segments together.

The same is true when going from inside to outside:

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Here, the candelabra is illuminating the tent brightly despite the open doorway to the exterior. But just a few frames later:

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Note that the doorway isn’t letting any more light into the tent than it was previously. Also note the glorious James Cosmo, moving from left to right:

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Another convenient slab of a man taking up the full height of the frame, providing a “wipe” around which an edit can be stitched.

Even outside there are clever little edits hidden in rapid camera movements, such as this moment just after the 5:00 minute mark, which is hard to capture in a still image:

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Notice how pretty much everything is blurred. That’s because at this point, the camera is tracking from right to left, following the guy with the bowl-cut – although even he is weirdly blurred

However, in this shot, a handful of frames earlier, and withing everything moving at roughly the same speed:

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The blur is greatly reduced. For the full effect, go find ‘Outlaw King’ on Netflix and track to 4 minutes and 50 seconds in and just watch the next 20 seconds of footage, and you’ll see that at this exact moment, the camera takes on a weirdly stilted motion uncharacteristic of its smoother movement in the rest of the scene.

For a better explanation of this particular kind of motion-trickery, look no further than Captain Disillusion:

(One of these days, I’ll have to figure out how to actually make animated gifs.)

Now, I’m not a cinematographer, and neither do I want to criticise the hard work of carefully choreographing a scene such as this, which is still technically impressive in many ways.

However, as discussed earlier, the fact that this scene is a “single” long take adds nothing to the storytellng – it doesn’t enhance the narrative in any way.

And so the question is: “What was the point?”

And the best I can answer is that it was just for the sake of the director’s ego – or because the film needed some kind of hook beyond being a gritty reboot of ‘Braveheart’ with a few changed names.

Indeed, in the first couple minutes of the below interview, you can even bask in director David Mackenzie’s inability to coherently provide any narrative justification for the long take at all:

“Plus there’s a sword fight and a big Trebuchet thing and there’s something really interesting about doing that without the cut and so the audience have to kind of absorb it all in one thing.”

You’ll also notice that he admits to initially filming it in four separate sections as a “backup”, which I’m assuming are broken down into the initial indoor segment, the first outdoor segment, the second indoor segment, and then the second and final outdoor segment with the CGI Trebuchet – all of which are separated by those conveniently drastic lighting changes and a frame-spanning James Cosmo.

The whole purpose of this article is to say “Don’t be fooled!” Don’t let two-bit film makers with nothing to say trick you into thinking that their creation somehow possesses artistic merit with cheap gimmicks! Look for the seams, root out the true heart of the story and see if it measures up.

I’m not actually finished writing about ‘Outlaw King’ just yet, as there are plenty of other issues with the narrative which can be torn into – but they can wait, for now, until a later date.

Partial Recommendation: ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’

A pre-emptive admission: I haven’t read any of the Dirk Gently books. Because of course I haven’t, if you’ve read any of my other articles you’ll appreciate that I’m barely literate to begin with. I also haven’t seen or heard the many other adaptations of Douglas Adams’ novels – I’m looking at the BBC America version entirely on its own merit.

‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’ (DGHDA) has a wonderful first season. None of it makes sense, even after the explanation of the plot in explicit detail. But despite that, each character’s journey makes perfect sense (or at least did to me). Indeed, the show itself seems to be about people finding their true identities despite the chaos and confusion around them, and becoming the best versions of themselves as a result.

I started off hating the titular character, whose uselessness and presumptuousness combine into a manifestation of all that is wrong with over-privileged people – except that by the end, I found him genuinely endearing. Similarly, Elijah Wood’s performance is marvelous as an initially endearing protagonist who we eventually learn is truly “a piece of shit”, in his sister’s words.

The entirety of the support cast is fantastic, as well, from Richard Schiff’s invariably skeptical detective to Aaron Douglas’ turn as the grouchy, rotund, corgi-owning antagonist (it should be noted that Douglas’ character Gordon Rimmer bears a strikingly similar voice to that of Mr Plinkett, which is almost certainly not an accident given that Max Landis, the creator of this show, appeared with the RedLetterMedia crew roughly a year before the release of DGHDA).

And don’t even get me started on Bart, the holistic assassin.

There isn’t much else I can say about the first season, except to say that if you try it, do so without too many hopes for an in-depth mystery. It’s almost entirely character-driven, but fortunately each character is engaging enough that it still manages to be an incredibly rewarding experience.


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Sadly, the same can’t be said for the show’s second season. The ultimate issue with it, I think, is that the first season’s strength was in letting us get to know so many different, memorable characters.

The second season’s weakness is that we’ve already gotten to know them, and they don’t do a good enough job of developing and growing from their Season One incarnations, particularly Ken, who doesn’t so much develop as face-heel turn into a fairly straightforward villain. And sadly, the new characters to which we are introduced are mostly forgettable.

That may seem like a subjective assessment, but that’s nothing compared to my primary complaint with Season Two, which is what I will call “The Parody Paradox.”

So, in Charlie Brooker’s 2015 series of ‘Weekly Wipe’, there were segments by Morgana Richardson in which she did impressions of both Russell Brand and a fictional Youtube personality in the annoying model of someone like PewDiePie, I can only presume. Now, Russell Brand is, to me, an incredibly annoying piece of human trash, and Richardson’s impression of him did what all good comedic impressions do – amped up all of his most annoying traits.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with Richardson’s performance – she’s a great comic actor – but I quickly learned to skip past these segments because they were taking all of the worst traits of people who already annoy me and condensing them into compact little sketches. Which means that whilst I can appreciate the humour and the insight, the sketches themselves are unbearable.

The issue with satire and parody is that if it doesn’t go beyond imitation – if it never breaks free of the thing it’s trying to send up – then it’s going to struggle to function as entertainment. Which I think is why ‘Galaxy Quest’ is one of those iconic pieces of parody: it doesn’t just imitate Star Trek, it actually pursues a story of its own, with characters that exist outside of the satire, and so manages to be a lot more fulfilling.

Getting back to DGHDA’s second season, one of the big weaknesses for me was the decision to hang so much of the story around a child’s make-believe fantasy world come to life. It manifests as, in essence, a parody of the fantasy serials best exemplified by ‘The Legend of the Seeker’, so derivative and mediocre and yet trying so hard to be interesting, mostly by filling themselves with adolescent indulgence.

As Season Two of ‘Dirk Gently’ progresses, more and more of the story takes place in this parody-esque fantasy realm. Amanda finds herself in this wacky land of strange creatures, and ends up being trained in mystical arts. But her journey is all so much waffle and pseudo-philosophy, spelled out for the audience in a completely po-faced manner by Hannah Marks, who was excellent in Season One and is sadly wasted here.

All of this is entirely subjective, however. If you want to see a send-up of the overly serious and yet inherently ridiculous TV fantasy drama, then you may love every moment. But I don’t, particularly, and it made it very difficult for me to enjoy the second season as much as I did the first.

Season One had a wonderful theme of the absurd breaking its way into the gritty, real world, and of highlighting the fact that life often doesn’t make sense, and you just have to get through it all and remember what, or rather who, is really important to you. Season Two seemed to just be about drowning the story in as much absurdity as is feasible, and never really managed to get its head above water.


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You may have noticed that I kept referring to “Season One” and “Season Two” above, and that was intentional. There is an excellent AV Club article about the mutation of TV shows in the Netflix age into what are essentially just long films, focusing primarily on the incredible ‘The End of the Fucking World’ (which you absolutely must watch at some point in your life).

This results in the particular peculiarity of DGHDA. Season One ends on a cliffhanger, but it’s a “forced cliffhanger” – the story had already been tied up quite adequately, and the characters are simply subjected to a short sequence of events that occur entirely within the epilogue and pretty much independently of anything that occurs during the season. Indeed, the epilogue of Season One could quite easily have been the cold-open of Season Two, and its inclusion felt more like a cynical attempt to build interest for the second season.

The fact that Season One had a mostly complete story (even Todd and Amanda’s resolution seemed fitting, despite the sense of “unfinished business”) separates DGHDA from the likes of ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘The Expanse’, or ‘Battlestar Galactica’. Where those shows have narratives lasting multiple seasons, DGHDA’s single-season package made it feel a lot more like a long film. Which consequently left Season Two feeling like a sequel.

And, like many bad sequels, the approach was to amp things up and try to outdo the original. With no story to be continued, bar the almost-standalone epilogue, Season Two seemed to fall into a “bigger is better” idea-trap and elevated its production costs without elevating its narrative.

The same happened, in part, with ‘Daredevil’ Season Two, which had an excellent, profound first half, introducing The Punisher, but which sadly devolved into a “We need to amp it up!” mindset in the second half, with the addition of The Hand and all of their unnecessary shenanigans.

I think this mindset could become worryingly pervasive as more and more TV productions are conceived as single-season “proof-of-concept” arcs for the binge-watching audience, with sequels forced as a result of commercial success.

Creating a satisfying sequel to a great story is incredibly difficult, and consequently very rare. That never used to be an issue for TV, which didn’t have to produce sequels but merely continuations. Indeed, the issue used to be that shows would start out badly and only truly “find themselves” once they had refined the formula.

Now, TV shows are starting out great, and having to try and repeat that greatness under threat of failure, and that’s how you get the likes of bloody ‘Die Hard 2’ and ‘The Matrix: Re-whatevered’. Sure, you might get lucky and manage an ‘Empire Strikes Back’ or ‘Aliens’, but you’re far, far more likely to pinch out a ‘The Lost World’ or ‘Speed 2’.

Recommendation: National Geographic’s ‘Mars’ Miniseries

Netflix likes to recommend lots of things to me, with varying levels of success. Fortunately, a really successful recommendation recently has been ‘Mars’, a National Geographic-produced series about the colonisation of… well, Mars.

It’s a split between documentary and sci-fi drama. The documentary covers current (or at least, 2016) efforts to advance humanity’s reach across the solar system, whilst the drama covers a fictional colony of Martian settlers twenty years from now, and the challenges and frequent crises they must face as they try to establish a permanent colony.

The documentary is a lot of talking heads and archival footage, so nothing ground-breaking, but it covers a lot of interesting topics, from the economics of space travel and the necessity for cheap, reusable rockets, to the harsh realities of living in space for long periods of time, separated from gravity and loved ones. This section covered Scott Kelly’s twelve-month stay aboard the ISS, and was particularly touching as it covered the strain it put on his relationship with his adolescent daughter.

The dramatic segments are of mixed appeal. Production qualities are high and sets and costumes all look suitably authentic. Sadly, the drama is frequently let down by a distracting amount of “bobblehead syndrome” – several of the lead actors seem incapable of delivering a line without either shaking or nodding their head throughout. The more experienced thesps do a perfectly fine job, particularly Anamaria Marinca, who plays the mission’s exobiologist.

The show also manages a decent stab at representation, with women taking most of the prominent roles of authority. Indeed, the typical all-American white bloke who unsurprisingly commands the mission is replaced by a Korean woman in the second episode, which was unexpected and refreshing.

After four out of six episodes, it’s certainly been enjoyable and interesting in equal measure. The first three episodes lean heavily on tension and danger, but the fourth deals with more domestic concerns, before setting up another major crisis to follow. Fortunately, a second series is coming next year, so the crew should be safe for now.

If Mars colonisation is a topic that interests you, there’s also ‘The Martian’, pretty obviously, as well as the book it was based on, whose author, Andy Weir, appears as one of the interviewees in ‘Mars’. For more hard sci-fi, there’s the Mars trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson, but that emphasis on “hard” is there for a reason. The ludicrous amount of detail he puts into the practicalities of life on the red planet is great for a space nerd like me, but I abandoned the second book, ‘Green Mars’, after what felt like a thousand pages of intensely in-depth geopolitics and legislation of a burgeoning Martian civilisation. Even I have my limits.