‘Catherine Called Birdy’: Kickin’ It Teen Style 1290 AD Edition

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Look at that Birdy fly! (CREDIT: Alex Bailey/© Amazon Content Services LLC)

Starring: Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Joe Alwyn, Dean Charles-Chapman, Paul Kaye, Lesley Sharp, Sophie Okonedo, Ralph Ineson, Michael Woolfitt, Isis Hainsworth, Archie Renaux

Director: Lena Dunham

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Power of Suggestion

Release Date: September 23, 2022 (Theaters)/October 7, 2022 (Amazon Prime Video)

What’s It About?: What was life like for a sassy, opinionated teenage girl in 1290 England? That’s what Catherine Called Birdy is here to let us know! Based on a 1994 children’s novel by Karen Cushman, it follows the always rambunctious days of the irrepressible Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey), aka (you guessed it) “Birdy.” She’s an unmistakably independent young woman, but what does that even mean in a patriarchal medieval society? Despite her unique wants and desires as a human being in her own right, the standards of the time insist that she’s little more than a bargaining chip for marriage. She might drive her parents (Andrew “Hot Priest” Scott and Billie “Companion Rose” Piper) batty, but they do love her. Although, they’re also in quite the financial bind, so they could really use that dowry moolah from even the oldest, ugliest, most grotesque suitor. What’s a little Birdy to do?!

What Made an Impression?: There’s something mystical about watching a story set in a time before mass telecommunication. Since there’s no video evidence of the era, any picture of centuries ago is a mere approximation. But this wasn’t exactly a problem for the people when they were alive in 1290. In fact, I would go so far as to say that nobody ever thought about that sort of thing, unless they were unusually philosophically inclined. Certainly, Birdy and her family and friends don’t concern themselves with such thoughts; instead, they mostly just go about their routines and live their lives as they are wont to do. So the fact that we get to have a peek into those lives arrives like a mysterious gift from the universe, even if it is all fully fictional.

On a more quotidian level, I also appreciate that Catherine Called Birdy is family-friendly without feeling like it’s holding back. There are several moments where it feels frighteningly possible that things could turn bloody and/or abusive. And while we’re spared the worst details, we’re not spared the vicarious experience of what it’s like to be a teenage girl at a time when that meant you were basically property. Ramsey boils it all together with a spirited, feral performance that should hook in plenty of viewers.

Catherine Called Birdy is Recommended If You Like: Rolling around on hills, Occasional swordplay, The scene with Dennis the Peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Dowries

‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ Review: Shakespeare in the Dark

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The Tragedy of Macbeth (CREDIT: Alison Cohen Rosa/A24)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Brendon Gleeson, Harry Melling, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Kathryn Hunter, Moses Ingram, Ralph Ineson, Sean Patrick Thomas, Stephen Root, Brian Thompson, Richard Short

Director: Joel Coen

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Bloody Swordplay

Release Date: December 25, 2021 (Theaters)/January 14, 2022 (Apple TV+)

When reviewing a new Shakespeare adaptation, especially one of the Bard’s most popular productions, it makes sense to ask: what makes this version different? So as Joel Coen goes solo to take on The Scottish Play, what uniqueness has he brought to the table? Well, he did cast his wife Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, so that could potentially be some fertile ground for psychoanalysis. Or maybe not! She’s already been in plenty of his films, and I’m willing to guess that this isn’t the first time that a director’s wife has been cast in something Shakespearean. Denzel Washington certainly brings some more melanin than usual to the title role, but ultimately that’s neither here nor there. He’s Denzel Washington after all, so why not cast him in one of the most dramatically hefty parts in all of English-language drama?

Overall, one word comes to mind when trying to identify The Tragedy of Macbeth‘s uniqueness, and that word is: surreal. I don’t know if that’s what Coen was specifically aiming for, and I in fact wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t a consideration at all. But no matter how it happened, it showed up. One huge reason for that is the dialogue itself; it’s strange to speak in iambic pentameter all the time, after all. On top of that, the geography within the castle walls never quite makes visual sense. Instead, it’s like a maze that the characters are perpetually stuck within. Combine that with Bruno Delbonnel’s stark black-and-white cinematography, and the whole film comes across as a dream that curdles into a nightmare. And as so often happens when I see a movie that lacks bright colors, I nodded off throughout, which only added to the sense that I slipped through some parallel dimension or underworld.

One more element that really stands out is Kathryn Hunter’s performance as the witchy weird sisters. She contorts herself into seemingly inhuman positions, which is a wise acting decision, considering that her characters are meant to be somewhere in between human and supernatural. I didn’t ask to see a huge disembodied toe stuck between someone else’s toes, but now I won’t be able to forget it. Nor will I be able to forget the shot of the one sister standing over a pool that reflects back the other two sisters. This is a striking Shakespearean adaptation, is what I’m saying.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is Recommended If You Like: Claustrophobia, Cruel fate, Maximum weirdness

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Usurpers

English Village High School Goes Drag When ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’

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Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (CREDIT: Amazon)

Starring: Max Harwood, Sarah Lancashire, Lauren Patel, Shobna Gulati, Ralph Ineson, Sharon Horgan, Richard E. Grant, Adeel Akhtar, Samuel Bottomley

Director: Jonathan Butterell

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Cruel Words and a Few Dustups

Release Date: September 10, 2021 (Select Theaters)/September 17, 2021 (Amazon Prime Video)

Drag is huge nowadays. But it wasn’t that long ago when playing around with gender expression in many public spaces was totally verboten. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is coming out in 2021, the same year as RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 13, but the stage musical it’s based on premiered in England four years ago, and the TV documentary that inspired it aired back in 2011, way before Drag Race broke into the mainstream. That is all to say, the story of 16-Year-Old Prom Drag Queen Jamie New (Max Harwood) is an Instant Period Piece. I don’t come anywhere close to batting my eye when I hear that a boy in an English village revealed in front of his whole school his propensity for dressing and performing in traditionally femnine garb, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. But not everyone is currently that open-minded, but nevertheless we know that Jamie is going to find his allies by movie’s end.

Since there’s not much need for worry, Jamie’s story will be satisfying so long as it’s compelling and features interesting characters. (And of course, also, if the tunes are catchy … which they are, if you’re into the whole modern rock opera sort of thing.) So we see him hanging out with his best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel), who’s always there to encourage him, just so long as it doesn’t get in the way of her Life Plan too much. And then there’s his mom Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) and her best friend Ray (Shobna Gulati), who are his biggest, most undying supporters. Meanwhile, Jamie’s trying to reach out to the dad that abandoned him (Ralph Ineson) while also dealing with some bullies and a teacher (Sharon Horgan) who simply must insist on always doing everything the proper way. This is, as I’m sure many viewers will recognize, a fairly typical teenage experience. These moments all feel like the biggest deals in the world when they’re happening, and prom feels like the massive culmination of all that. But really, this is a time when your mortal enemy could easily become your friend, and prom is mostly just an occasion to hang out with all your buds.

What’s not so typical of this tale is Loco Chanel, the veteran drag queen brought to dramatic, achingly heartfelt life by Richard E. Grant. Jamie is profoundly fortunate to encounter someone like this, and so are we. The mentorship Loco provides is invaluable. We should all be so lucky to be able to know someone who immediately encourages us to be our truest selves while also lavishly explaining the world that we’re about to enter into. So many kids today are excited to enter the world of drag, and watching Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a perfectly decent way to get a sense of what that might be all about.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is Recommended If You Like: Well-timed Bianca Del Rio cameos, Modern Rock-Style Musicals, Rebelling against the stuffy English school system

Grade: 3 out of 5 High Heels

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

‘Brahms: The Boy II’ Throws It in Reverse

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CREDIT: STX Films

Oh, Brahms-y boy, Brahms-y boy, Brahms-boyyyyy

(I promised myself that no matter how I ultimately felt about this movie, I would start off my review of Brahms to the tune of “Danny Boy,” so I pray that you were able to indulge me for a few seconds.)

To my eye, the biggest twist of Brahms: The Boy II is that it was written and directed by the same writer-director combo as the first Boy (a couple of folks named Stacey Menear and William Brent Bell, respectively). The original explained the antics of its creepy doll by assuring us that what seemed supernatural actually had a reasonable explanation. But in the sequel, what seems like it will have a reasonable explanation is actually supernatural. That sort of switch is not atypical in horror franchises, but it’s usually dictated by studios scrambling to extend a property and/or a new creative team applying a fresh coat of paint. Perhaps Menear and Bell chose to take a self-aware approach and get ahead of the inevitable or maybe they just never felt married to any one particular way of doing things. Whatever the motivation, it makes me optimistic that The Boy could become a long-running low-budget horror series even if it never reaches any significant heights. After all, while Brahms gave me more to think about than I was expecting, most of it is still just a series of waits for a piece of porcelain to move a few inches every once in a while.

I give Brahms: The Boy II A Hearty Pat on the Back.

This Is a Movie Review: The Witch

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the-witch-2016

The climax of The Witch is a lot like that of The Crucible, in which rampant paranoia fatally tears apart a New England colonial community. But in this case, there unequivocally is an actual witch. And it is perhaps even more tragic because the community is just a single nuclear family. With parent turning against child, and sibling targeting sibling, the witch almost feels superfluous. The extent of her powers suggests that she could wipe out the whole family in one fell swoop if she wanted to. However, there is also a hint that she must take advantage of familial betrayal to get herself into fighting shape. But perhaps the witch, like the audience watching her, loves a good horror film, and the 17th century equivalent of that is a tree-side view of the gradual dissolution of foolhardy settlers. In that sense her taste is beautifully freaky, with plenty of unforgettable moments (creepy twins relentlessly chanting about their prize goat, a raven pecking at a bloody breast, a cow’s udder squirting blood) proving to be fun for everyone!