Wow, ‘The Green Knight’ Sure Might Knock Your Head Loose

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The Green Knight (CREDIT: Eric Zachanowich/A24)

Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Ralph Ineson, Erin Kellyman

Director: David Lowery

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: R for Violence and a Little Bit of Sex Within a Fantastical Swirl

Release Date: July 30, 2021 (Theaters)

My experience of watching The Green Knight was just moment after moment that had me going, “I was not expecting THAT.” It starts off pretty quickly that way: Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) beheads the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), but the Green Knight keeps right on talking. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. If you’re familiar with the source material, this inciting incident won’t be surprising at all, but for the rest of us, it won’t exactly feel telegraphed. Then there’s the fact that this tale takes place around Christmas, which certainly surprised me as well. Although perhaps it shouldn’t have, considering that “green” is in the title and much of the poster is bright red. But other than that, this movie doesn’t feel very Christmas-y. Though I suppose that centuries ago the holiday was celebrated differently. (“Why not have a release date in December instead of July?,” I wonder out loud.)

The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight sits at a weird place in terms of cultural recognizability. It’s part of Arthurian legend, which is among the most enduringly popular mythologies in the English language. But this particular tale isn’t typically told in the most well-known adaptations. If you’re a fan of the likes of Camelot, The Sword in the Stone, or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you might be familiar with the name “Gawain,” but his encounter with a tricky tree-man hybrid could be totally undiscovered. It’s a trip to first encounter it via David Lowery’s highly stylized and uncompromising vision.

I’m willing to bet my sword that anyone who has read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight before seeing this movie also found themselves saying multiple times, “I was not expecting THAT.” (But they would have been saying it while reading.) There’s no way in Camelot that Lowery can take all the credit for every fantastical twist of gamesmanship and illogic. What is the Green Knight’s deal anyway? When he gets beheaded, he insists that Gawain must come find him one year hence to meet a similar fate. Is this a test of honor, and if so, how? I was not expecting that much confusion.

But it kept coming! Was Alicia Vikander playing two different characters? She must have been, as her personalities were so vastly different. I was not expecting such vagueness with her identity. Nor was I expecting an up-close shot of a very intimate moment. The mature themes and capriciousness in a medieval fantasy aren’t surprises in and of themselves, but their presentation in this version were a lot more surreal than I was prepared for. I’m still processing what I’ve witnessed, and I’m not sure that process will ever be complete, but I appreciate the singularity of the vision.

The Green Knight is Recommended If You Like: Embracing the weirdest and most inscrutable elements of mythology

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Beheadings

Matt Damon Seeks Some Tricky Justice in ‘Stillwater’

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Stillwater (CREDIT: Jessica Forde/Focus Features)

Starring: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud, Deanna Dunagan

Director: Tom McCarthy

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for Language

Release Date: July 30, 2021 (Theaters)

What should you do when the bartender you’re talking to is really helpful but also really racist? That’s the dilemma Bill Baker (Matt Damon) finds himself facing during one of Stillwater‘s most crucial scenes. His daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is in a French prison for killing her roommate/girlfriend, something she swears she’s innocent of. She’s got a lead about the real potential perp, though, as she may have encountered him while out drinking the night of the incident. The joint is under new management, but luckily for Bill, the old barkeep just hangs around the place. Less luckily, he doesn’t actually have any useful information, though he is willing to finger whatever Arab youth is under suspicion, as he attempts to ingratiate himself with Bill by positing that France has an Arab problem in much the same way that America has a Mexican problem.

Every conflict at the heart of this film is in full focus at this moment. What are you willing to sacrifice in the name of justice? Can you let go of justice to find peace? Would you trample over someone else’s justice in the pursuit of finding your own? Bill’s French companion Virginie (Camille Cottin) is insistent on leaving once she realizes the extent of the bartender’s prejudice, but for Bill, it’s not quite so simple. He’s met a lot of racists, he’s worked with a lot of racists, and he recognizes that if you want to get certain things done, it can be hard to avoid the racists entirely.

Stillwater is like Taken but if the father didn’t have a particular set of skills. Bill decides to take matters into his own hands when Allison’s lawyer tells him that it’s time for her to accept her fate, but he is way out of his depth. He spends most of the movie terrified of accepting that. He’s been a screwup dad who’s hardly ever been around for Allison, and now that he’s actually committed to being there for her, he can’t process the fact that the best way to do that is to just hang back and be patient. (Spoiler alert: he does not hang back and be patient.)

I’ll tell you one other thing: I did not expect Stillwater to be a charming and affecting love story as well, but it in fact does pull that off. Bill and Virginie couldn’t be more anti-perfect for each other: she’s a French stage actress, while he’s an itinerant blue-collar worker from Oklahoma who’s never set foot inside a theater. But somehow he forges a connection with Virginie’s daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) despite them not having a common language, while he also makes himself essential as their go-to handyman. Against all odds, it’s a picture of domestic bliss, but worn uneasily. This is a probing movie about the challenge of accepting that your fate might be very different than what you expected it to be.

Stillwater is Recommended If You Like: The Amanda Knox trial, Genuine connections forged through a language barrier

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Suspects

‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ … But a New Legacy for Whom?

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Cartoon LeBron (CREDIT:
Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: LeBron James, Bugs Bunny, Don Cheadle, Sonequa Martin-Green, Cedric Joe, Khris Davis, Ceyair J. Wright, Harper Leigh Alexander, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Lola Bunny (Zendaya), Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Elmer Fudd, Marvin the Martian, Tweety Bird, Granny, Speedy Gonzales, Tasmanian Devil, Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza, Bob Bergen, Candi Milo, Gabriel Iglesias, Anthony Davis, Diana Taurasi, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Nneka Ogwumike, Ernie Johnson, Lil Rel Howery, Sarah Silverman, Steven Yeun, Harry Potter, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, King Kong, Ilsa Lund, Austin Powers, Dr. Evil, The Iron Giant

Director: Malcolm D. Lee

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG

Release Date: July 16, 2021 (Theaters and HBO Max)

The first Space Jam was unhinged; the second Space Jam is also unhinged, but it could be more unique. Or, it could be more committed to its own singular vision. What reality is it tethered to? Are these the same Looney Tunes from 25 years ago? When we get any sense of continuity, I’m intrigued. As for that journey through the Warner Bros “Server-verse”? Why not just fully commit to it and have Tony Soprano play point guard while the Droogs take up the frontcourt? Look, Al-G Rhythm’s plan makes no sense, LeBron’s conflict with his son makes no sense, the scoring system makes no sense, why not take that nonsense to the nth degree? I believe they could’ve flown blind.

Grade: Where’s the Basketball?* (*Said like the “Where’s the Beef?” Lady)

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 7/23/21

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Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Old (Theaters) – Shyamalan on the Beach.

TV
Ted Lasso Season 2 Premiere (July 23 on Apple TV+)

Music
-David Crosby, For Free
-Jackson Browne, Downhill from Everywhere

Sports
-2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics (July 23-August 8 on the NBC family of networks) – Thousands of hours of athletics, hopefully not as many infections.

 

Who Better to Make Us Feel ‘Old’ Than M. Night Shyamalan?

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Old (CREDIT: Universal Pictures)

Starring: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff, Abbey Lee, Eliza Scanlen, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Aaron Pierre, Kathleen Chalfant, Emun Elliott, Embeth Davidtz

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Intense, Strange Violence and a Bare Buttcrack Running Into the Ocean

Release Date: July 23, 2021 (Theaters)

After delivering one of the most iconic twist endings of all time in The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan became straitjacketed by his reputation for the last-second reveal. But now that he’s a little bit older (wink, wink) and wiser, he’s quietly and consistently embraced that reputation. And why not? He truly is one of the all-time masters of the technique, and Old might just be his greatest trick since The Sixth Sense. But Old doesn’t rely on the twist for the entire movie to be effective (which was also the case with his breakthrough film). If the conclusion hadn’t told us what was really happening on this beach that ages people at a rate of about 2 years per hour, I would’ve been disappointed. But I also probably would’ve quickly gotten over that by appreciating everything else there is to offer in this meditation on the passage of time.

Each of the vacationers who find themselves on Old‘s private beach are in situations that are ripe for prompting considerations of mortality. Prisca (Vicky Krieps) has a tumor in her stomach, which is contributing to the troubles with her husband Guy (Gael García Bernal). Charles (Rufus Sewell) is beset by mental illness while attempting to keep both his much younger wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee) and elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) happy. Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) are trying to enjoy themselves without worrying too much about Patricia’s frequent seizures. Big deal rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) is decompressing from the pressures of fame while also dealing with a blood clotting condition. And on top of all that, we’ve got Prisca and Guy’s two kids and Charles and Chrystal’s daughter running around, which is the perfect formula to make any parent get a little verklempt about how the days are just whizzing by.

So just how would people really react if their lifespans suddenly became overwhelmingly compressed? As Old sees it, their first instinct would be to escape, which is probably why Shyamalan decided to make it nearly impossible for them to do so. As they attempt to make peace – or not – with their doom, their reactions are filled with violence and terror. And of course that’s the case; this is a panicky and desperate crisis, a fabulous escape room of mammoth proportions. But there are also moments of  reflection and tenderness, as the families attempt to make the best of the time they have left with each other.

From the first frame to the last, Old is richly satisfying as both metaphor and thought experiment. The questions it raises are plenty of fun to puzzle out as the characters do so on screen. If our biological ages suddenly become so much older, would we become correspondingly more emotionally and mentally mature? Just what is it that makes us mature when time passes at its normal rate anyway? Life experiences, for sure. And well, there’s a lot of life experience packed into each grain of sand on this beach. And the same is also true of the richest cinema in the world. You’ll probably feel a little older after watching Old, and I bet you’ll be thankful about that.

Old is Recommended If You Like: Feeling both scared and enriched by the passage of time

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Hours

‘Snake Eyes: G.I. Origins’ is Too Much Origins, Not Enough Random B-Grade Delights

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Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (CREDIT: Ed Araquel/Paramount Pictures/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Skydance)

Starring: Henry Golding, Andrew Koji, Úrsula Corberó, Samara Weaving, Iko Uwais, Haruka Abe, Takehiro Hira, Peter Mensah

Director: Robert Schwentke

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Swordplay

Release Date: July 23, 2021 (Theaters)

At one point in Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins*, the titular hero is dropped into a pit where he must face off against some very big and very hungry anacondas. And that’s about the only moment that I understood. Well that, and the other scene with the anacondas. Couldn’t this entire movie have been about Henry Golding fighting snakes? Instead, he and his crew square off against the classic G.I. Joe foe known as Cobra, who I really wish were actual cobras. Now that’s a movie that I would recommend. As it is, though, all I can say is that maybe this will be really fun for G.I. Joe obsessives, but for everyone else, I imagine it will be pretty impenetrable.

(*-It’s a rather unwieldy title, but I’m happy to write out the whole thing to differentiate it from the delightful 1998 Brian De Palma/Nicolas Cage thriller.)

In its bare-bone basics, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins isn’t too hard to comprehend. It’s a classic origin story, after all: dead parent, living off the grid, training in a foreign country, passing a series of tests to prove warrior bona fides, et cetera, et cetera. In sussing out why I found this so much less compelling than, say, Batman Begins, I determined that it might just have something to do with the amount of time spent on the actual origin of it all. How a hero became a hero in the first place can be interesting, but generally insofar as it provides context for where that hero is headed. And this movie doesn’t really tell us where Snake Eyes is headed, nor do I care to find out.

Anyway, back to those anacondas. They’re absolutely HUGE, in case I didn’t make that clear enough already. If you can  manage to watch only their scenes and then fill out your taxes during the rest of the movie, then I would say go for it. It’s also worth noting that at one point, Cobra is described as employing the tactics of “violence, extortion, and fear,” which is just poetically wonderful. Who knew that such a shadowy collective would focus so much on something as concrete as extortion?

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is Recommended If You Like: G.I. Joe lore, I guess?

Grade: 2 out of 5 Dice

Review (of ‘Pig’)

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Pig

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin

Director: Michael Sarnoski

Running Time: 92 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: July 16, 2021 (Theaters)

Alex Wolff is Salt Bae. That could be the entirety of my Pig review!

Oh, but Nic Cage is in this, too, so I think I might like to talk about that as well. (Erbviously.)

But back to Mr. Alex Wolff for a second. He wears these fantastic skinny round sunglasses that sure look like Salt Bae’s. And he’s already got the dark tuft of hair and olive skin to complete the Chef Nusret Gökçe resemblance. Not for nothing does much of this movie take place in the fancy-schmancy restaurant world.

Anyway, Cage plays a truffle hunter who really wants his pig back, as you can surely tell by the profoundly simple title. Considering the actor and the premise, you might think he spends the whole movie shouting at everyone all over everywhere, but instead he prefers much subtler tactics. He has an uncanny knack for peering into the souls of anyone he comes across. He knows how to conjure emotional memories that bring the universe back into equilibrium. He’s like a wizard that way, and it’s kind of breathtaking to witness.

Grade: 3 Tablespoons of Facial Scars, 5 Cups of Psychology

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 7/16/21

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Sexy Beasts (CREDIT: Netflix)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (Theaters)
Pig (Theaters)
Space Jam: A New Legacy (Theaters and HBO Max)

TV
McCartney 3, 2, 1 (July 16 on Hulu)
Schmigadoon! Series Premiere (July 16 on Apple TV+) – All episodes directed by Barry Sonnenfeld.
Sexy Beasts Series Premiere (July 21 on Netflix) – Looks like the dating version of The Masked Singer.

‘Escape Room: Tournament of Champions’ Repeats Its Predecessor’s Formula and Keeps Hinting at a Greater Conspiracy

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Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (CREDIT: Sony Pictures)

Starring: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Indya Moore, Holland Roden, Thomas Cocquerel, Carlito Olivero, Deborah Ann Woll

Director: Adam Robitel

Running Time: 88 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Violence That Cuts Away From the Most Graphic Parts and Profanity Including One (1) F-Bomb

Release Date: July 16, 2021 (Theaters)

I mostly enjoyed Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, but I’m a little worried about what this franchise will be like by the time we get to Escape Room 2000: Ultra Super-Duper New ‘n’ Improved XTreme Tournament of Ninja Warriors, which will arrive much sooner than we’re prepared for. I’m rooting for our plucky heroes to take down the evil cabal behind the whole game, but the dictates of horror sequelization demand that it can never quite be defeated. So subsequent entries will surely be some combination of overly repetitive or increasingly ridiculous to justify the continuation. Tournament of Champions mostly repeats the formula established by the first Escape Room, while ostensibly inching ever so closer to the Big Bad Behind It All, and also ultimately mostly being about teasing the next chapter.

I wouldn’t be going through all this fretting if I were living in a post-Escape Room Cinematic World. If I could watch all of the theoretical absurd sequels in the comfort of home one right after the other, I could easily treat it as an anthropological excursion. Instead, I’m still motivated by my genuine hope that everything will work out for the plucky Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller), the survivors from the first go-round. Let’s call it the Nightmare on Elm Street Rule, wherein the relatively crappy latter-day sequels are mostly endearing if you watch them at least 20 years after they were released. That’s not to say that Escape Room has already reached that period with Tournament of Champions. It’s just that I can see The Inevitable, and it’s in my nature to get hung up on it.

But if I can pull myself back into the present for a moment, I can happily take in the vicarious thrills of a scrappy group puzzling out all these deadly traps. Both Escape Room flicks are basically PG-13-ified, less relentless versions of Saw. The tone is thereby one of cleverness and adrenaline, rather than gory sadism. In that vein, Escape Room also has a tendency to occasionally venture into the cheesy and overly cute, especially when Zoey and Ben miss some Major Clues that are right in front of their eyes. But that’s part of the charm! Honestly, I don’t think I would have it any other way. (Hey, maybe I’ve already learned to stop worrying and love the Silliness of It All…)

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is Recommended If You Like: Horror movie franchise churn

Grade: 3 out of 5 Clues

21st Century ‘Black Widow’ Movie Review

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Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, Olga Kurylenko, Ray Winstone, William Hurt

Director: Cate Shortland

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: July 9, 2021 (Theaters and Disney+ Premier Access)

“Plug it in, plug it in.” That’s the classic slogan of the famed Glade air freshener line of products. I currently find myself revisiting it in light of having recently watched the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero film Black Widow, as my primary reaction to that movie was, “Well, that character has now been plugged into the MCU.”

Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova? She’s been plugged in. David Harbour as the Red Guardian? He’s certainly been plugged in. And Rachel Weisz as Melina Vestokof? Yet another character that’s been plugged in! Yes indeed, they plugged ’em all in.

Grade: 4 or 5 Tasks out of 1 Taskmaster

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