Thursday, June 23, 2011

Black Death: no game of thrones

The HBO series "Games of Thrones" is all the rage these days. I'm not as into swords and sorcerers as many people I know and I don't have HBO, so I haven't seen it.

Perhaps you are in the same boat. Perhaps you still want to see Sean Bean in Middle Ages gear, carrying a big sword and kicking ass. If so, watch "Black Death."

Bean plays Ulrich, a knight during the first outbreak of the bubonic plague in England. Some actors were made for period pieces. While bean has done excellent work in contemporary films such as "Ronin" and "Patriot Games," it is when he gets his medieval on that he blossoms. For many, he'll always be Borimir.

As Ulrich, Bean travels the country with a young monk to visit a village in which the dead have been reported to return to life.

You didn't know zombies were that timeless, did you? I will leave all that fun for those who choose to watch the movie. I'll just say that you won't recognize the living dead in "Black Death" until it's almost too late. Or maybe it's just witchcraft? Honestly, the movie didn't really need that plot direction. Instead, director Christopher Smith and screenwriter Dario Poloni could have focused more on the bigger picture question posed in the movies opening minutes.

"Is God punishing us," a young woman asks.

Great question. The people of the era were deluged with Old Testament stories of the Lord smiting evildoers. If someone treading water during the great flood asked that question, the answer would have been, "Yes. God is punishing us." It is not far-fetched to assume many people afflicted with the plague believed the same.

"Black Death" keeps the theology on the surface. Eddy Redmayne as the monk Osmund is a constant presence and proves more important as the film goes on, but he can't save anyone from God's wrath, whether by disease or other attackers.

Smith, as a director, has left his audiences with big questions before. He was behind the camera for "Severance," one of my favorite survival horror pics ever.

"Severance" was what people tired of "The Office" wish would happen to the drones at Dunder-Mifflin. "Black Death" is what people who hate Renaissance festivals wish would happen to all the wanna-be minstrels and wenches who invade public parks and pretend to live in the past.

Other than Bean, who is completely believable in his role, the biggest strengths of "Black Death" are its locations and costumes. The water is clean, the people are dirty and all the clothes look handmade.  The camera picks up small details (crows strung by their feet) that add to the ominous atmosphere.

Altogether, "Black Death" is the kind of movie one hopes to find by accident. When there's nothing else to watch, the dead walk through Middle Ages England. Pick it up at Redbox or on Netflix. You won't be wasting your time or your money.

Threat level: ORANGE. Best to see it before you forget it exists. (For an explanation of Warning Signs ratings, visit our Warning System page.)

"Black Death" is rated R. Directed by Christopher Smith, written by Dario Poloni and starring Sean Bean.

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