The Green Knight

We rallied the troops and hit The Green Knight on opening night, the new cinematic adaptation of the classic 14th-century poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” So the big question you are asking, I’m certain, is whether the film is faithful to the poem?

And my answer, of course, is that you are asking the wrong guy.

There is so much about this movie that I don’t have answers to, starting with who is this Green Knight? Is it the rocky, green-tinged shrub guy, or is it the inexperienced Gawain himself? Does his mother actually like him? Is she a lady or is she a tramp? What do you think happened to that little guy? And shouldn’t King Arthur be perhaps just a little more buff?

So L&D called a doctor for this emergency. Not an M.D., of course, but the type of doctor with command of lyric poetry and pop culture (!). So keep an eye on this space.

Meanwhile, a few of my unvarnished observations: Firstly, this is really great entertainment. Great story, great acting, great intrigue, great fun. It is not Hollywood fare in that you can’t really see where this one is going. And it is not Hollywood fare in that once you get where this one is going, it is unlikely you will be able to sort it out neatly. Yes, there is magic and there are spirits and there are even a handful of mushrooms for you and your handsome friend, so that doesn’t add to the clarity. But my advice to anyone overwhelmed by mushrooms, as always, is to stay put and see what happens.

Secondly, you should see this before it gets displaced by all of the (would-be) August blockbusters. Ugh. If it sticks around, I will see it again. Grab a friend and go.

And, finally, as we were watching, we started a running list of films that this one draws upon, including (but not limited to), Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Fantastic Planet, Midsommar, The Last Temptation of Christ, Phantom Thread, Cruella, Guardians of the Galaxy (I or II), and I’m sure this list will continue to grow.

Big ups from the entire crowd. It’s highly likely you will find this on the year-end list…

One Year Hence.

Minari

Minari is being touted as the next great Korean film, a story of a Korean family coming to America in Reagan-era Arkansas. There are big things and small things going on here, and it’s the small things that make this add up to a far greater movie than the basic storyline would suggest.

So here we go — what are you expecting from a movie about Korean immigrants in rural Arkansas? Go through your mental checklist and consider what you think will be in here. Whether you want to do this or not, you will consult this checklist with the introduction of each new character, each new setting, each new plot development. As Chekov says, if there is a gun on the mantle in the opening scene, that gun needs to go off by the end of the story. Watching this movie is like walking into a armory.

For the American in me, I see a movie about existential uncertainty, a meditation on the various roles that family, friends, and society play in insulating us from life’s inevitable agonies and traumas (as well as the emergent excesses of American agribusiness). It takes a little bit of work, but what does the father, Jacob, see here? What is he doing in rural Arkansas? What are all these other Korean immigrants doing? What exactly does America promise these folks? Does it deliver?

Does it ever!

What a great experience. It is both completely unpredictable throughout, but not all that surprising once it ends. Clear your schedule and dedicate some time to watching this one carefully.

Thanks to Dr. and Mrs. B for their generosity in providing food and libations and, of course, the stream!

The Farewell

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The Farewell is a haunting and personal story from Writer \ Director Lulu Wang. I’m sorry that I didn’t immediately come home and write a review but maybe I was hoping that our guests H & A would take me up on the offer of an Official L & D t-shirt for writing a guest review. Also, I was busy editing my own film. Then I was busy alternately vegging out and processing The Farewell. 

I don’t know how many of you have been in the situation, I have, where a loved one is dying and your family is telling you not to say anything to the dying person. Or perhaps you found yourself on the other side of that equation and your counsel was to keep the truth from the dying person and to instruct everyone, out of an old world sense of sympathy and responsibility, to not say a word. Maybe it’s even decorum. Maybe the person knows very well what is happening but they want to pretend not to know, so you can pretend not to know. So you can all hang out at the hospital room and speak nostalgically about the past and about a future that will never be. That’s not exactly what happens in The Farewell but it’s an example of how this type of situation can go down. 

In The Farewell, starring Awkwafina, who I have already gushed over in this blog, flys to China from NYC to say goodbye to her dying Grandmother —though she is not allowed to say goodbye. Her entire family is visiting China under the guise of being there for a wedding. A wedding that’s a ruse. And this plot device works absolutely well as a point of comedic pain. 

Ok, I’m going to gush a little. Awkwafina, who has the gait and delivery and comedic timing of Larry David, here eschews the easy Queens cranky laughs for a truly profound performance. One of my favorite radio shows is called De Película, it’s a two hour movie review and interview show on RNE, aka Radio Nacional de España aka the NPR of Spain. This show, whose title is a double entendre for “about movies” or more often an exclamation of disbelief that an event occurred, literally “Like a movie!” The show has been around for many years and they host a film fest too. Last week they were interviewing the judges, esteemed technicians and above-the-line players in Spanish Cinema. They all pretty much said the same thing. They weren’t concerned with a films’ technical achievement or in considering how well their own specialty was executed. They cared about if the film had soul. A heart. And that’s not something that can simply be conjured by mixing certain elements. There is still a magic to movies, even in this digi-tech age, success is pure alchemy. As a creator, to give a film a soul? …Well, you can at least create the conditions (to steal a little from Meisner) for something like that to occur in a narrative film but the movie has to create a soul for itself. Then one of the radio show interviewees said that a particular performance had transcended the screen. And that gave me chills because I felt that with Awkwafina in this film. It’s still the greatest magical power of this art form. The ability for actors and at times scenes or more rarely for entire films to transcend the medium. End of gush. 

Another thing. The Farewell is funny. In the middle of the poignancy, there’s always a nod to absurd behaviors, situations and the wacky things people do and say. I would watch it again but it’s out of the theater.  You should catch it when it’s streaming. I can’t recommend it enough. 

One actor in the film, Tzi Ma, seemed familiar to me. I was asked to be the cinematographer for 5 days of principal photography on a controversial film called #1 Serial Killer (not its original title and I’ll leave it at that). This film starred the insanely talented Jason Tobin and was directed by Stanley Yung, a fellow Bruin who I have a lot of admiration for. As the title hints, there was a lot of fake blood and somehow I ended up filming most if not all of the deaths in this slasher film over the course of a few evenings. Tzi Ma, who plays a mean boss, is one target for the ire of the killer. Overall it was a great experience for me as a cinematographer and I went on to shoot other pieces for this active Asian-American coterie in Los Angeles. There’s not a lot of representation for Latinos in Hollywood so I appreciated that the Asian community there took me under its wing. I do sometimes miss being part of all that insanity. On the other hand I can confidently say that I am the only person in Appleton, Wisconsin who goes to the movies and actually knows the people in the credits on a fairly regular basis! (Note: It has been brought to my attention by someone other than Frank, that my friend Frank L. Anderson, a constant L & D reader no less, would give me a run for my money in this category. I see you Frank!). I think D gets a kick out of that. In any case, yeah, #1 Serial Killer is not the height of cinema, but I believe The Farewell truly is. I hope the Academy has its eyes open and Awkwafina can take home some well deserved hardware.

They Shall Not Grow Old

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D and some of his taller brethren ventured out to the limited-engagement showing of They Shall Not Grow Old Monday evening, and it was an incredible experience.  Director Peter Jackson provides a brief introduction and then we strap on the 3D glasses and prepared to be wowed.  It doesn’t happen all at once, but, wow, it happens.  The film is just one incredible sequence after another.  Jackson draws on 600 hours of archival interviews and 100 hours of footage to depict a “generic” experience of a (surviving) combat veteran.  That depiction goes from enlisting in the armed services to training to the front lines and back again.  It is at once exhilarating, exasperating, numbing, nauseating, and humbling.

Once the film ends, Jackson tacked on a 30-minute mini documentary explaining some of the choices he made in putting the project together, as well as the methods for solving the problems of dealing with 100-year old film.  This turned out to be both bewildering and hilarious, and even of those of you used to the wonders of modern technology are likely to be impressed with what Jackson is able to accomplish and how he was able to accomplish it.  If you see the movie, definitely stay for the extras.  The New York Times provides a taste of what this is all about.

So, this will certainly go down as one of my top movie-going experiences of the year.    And unlike Free Solo, which documents an extraordinary event without being an extraordinary production, this one hits the target on both marks.  I will likely go see this again if it returns to our theater on December 27.  And given our theater sold out both the 4 p.m. and the 7 p.m. showings, I’m guessing it will.

Free Solo

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Free Solo is a movie that sneaks up on you. It’s a National Geographic documentary so you might at first be like, “Meh. How entertaining will this possibly be?” But it’s extremely entertaining and thought provoking. Suffice it to say that at an utter fraction of the budget of the next film we saw, Bohemian Rhapsody, Free Solo has enough raw intensity and emotion to make ten rock bio-pics. 

It actually took me a day or two to process everything I saw and experienced watching Free Solo.  I won’t say more because I don’t want to give anything away. There is one Achilles heel in the film for me and it’s the portrayal of the main characters’ girlfriend. There is a lot of drama built up around her, suggesting she is a bad influence or some type of bad luck that for me is unnecessary. Attempting the ultimate free solo, i.e. climbing the face of El Capitan in Yosemite without the aid of ropes, seems like more than enough of an obstacle for drama. She does however suitably relieve the intensity of the climb preparation in comical scenes where they contrast one another. For example, the scene where they buy a house in Las Vegas is pretty classic. You see Alex Honnold for the wild man he is, eating food out of a pot with a wooden spoon and talking about how he would be happy to sleep on the floor. 

If you take the time to watch this movie it’s something that will actually give back to you and enrich your life. There are not many movies you can say that about. And definitely catch it in the theater so you can truly appreciate the scale of this almost unimaginably epic undertaking.

Crazy Rich Asians (D)

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Crazy Rich Asians is a movie with an audacious nose.  Despite its roots as a boilerplate romantic comedy – outsider navigates partner’s family’s idiosyncrasies on the path to true love – this film undoubtedly has set the path for where movies on the big screen are headed.

The outsider and protagonist and principal focus of the movie is an Asian-American NYU economics professor (!), Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who will accompany her ridiculously gorgeous boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), to a wedding in Singapore.  She will also meet his family for the first time.  Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick is the golden child in the family of obscenely wealthy Chinese real estate moguls, though he has been passing himself off as your run-of-the-mill Cambridge-educated New York City financier type.   Ho hum.

So, after a stop in the first-class mile-high club, Rachel lands in Singapore and spends a jovial evening sampling the best that the food court has to offer, which is a lot.  The food scenes in this movie are outrageous.   In the morning, she heads over to see her college roommate, Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina), who lives with her extravagantly wealthy, but not that wealthy, family in a gated estate.  It is here that Rachel learns that Nick hasn’t been forthright with her about his insane levels of wealth. Indeed, it seems that all of Asia (and, as we have seen, all real Asians) is in on the fortunes and trajectory of Nick Young and the Young family.  Awkwafina is the star of the show, for sure, and the time she, along with her family, are on the screen provides the best comedy the movie has to offer.  Her dad is Ken Jeong!  And, the stop-off at the Lin compound is sort of halfway house between Rachel’s real world and the complete fantasy world of obscene wealth and opulence that we step into on the run-up to the wedding.

Unfortunately, the owners and benefactors of all of this wealth are not beautiful people, but instead are highly territorial and not at all charitable to those outside of their sphere.  First and foremost, although Rachel is an NYU economics professor, an alpha position if there ever was one, her considerable achievements are seen as singularly American in nature, and not something to be either admired or valued by the Young family.   Despite her trappings of an upper income existence by being a highly paid professional in New York City, she is effectively a non-entity in the face of real wealth and privilege.  There are probably some ironies here of the economics professor coming to terms with real wealth that will pop into my head after I post this.  Plus, she’s an American.

Second, there are all sorts of matriarchal machinations going on here that I am sure I haven’t put together.  The movie features Nick’s mother and grandmother as the major power brokers, and I don’t even think Nick’s dad appears on screen (does he?). To put it another way, Ken Jeong is the only face of the male head of household portrayed, and his face looks a lot like a past-his-prime Elvis.  Third, Nick’s possibly wonderful sister has a husband who can’t seem to get his male mojo working as the non-primary breadwinner, although he seems to work out a lot.  And, of course, there is Rachel herself, whose mother took to America as the safety valve out of her own personal cultural entrapments.

On the man side, I don’t think we have a single admirable male character. Nick, I think, is left deliberately undeveloped, because the inevitabilities here (and what the final scene seems to suggest) is that there is just no way out of this particular box of luxury.  His destiny is that of a rich dickhead, a class which most-to-all of his male brethren have established their bona fides in the course of the film. Maybe this is why Dudley Moore’s Arthur spent his life in a bathtub drunk out of his skull? Or why Michael Corleone just gave in and stepped into his father’s shoes?

Well, anyway, there is a lot going on for a formulaic rom com – centuries of culture and history to untangle, after all.

And, yes, we laughed until we cried.

The movie features also some behavioral economics and non-cooperative game theory that I imagine is fleshed out a bit more in the book.  In the opening scene, Rachel wins a poker hand by bluffing as a way to explain the concept of “loss aversion” to her class, a phenomenon that people are harder hit by a loss of $10 than on an equivalent gain of $10.  I just read a piece on female poker players, and it turns out that female poker players don’t win a lot of hands by bluffing alpha males.  This was a minor nagging bother as things marched on, but it wasn’t until finishing up this post that I realized that when Rachel was not bluffing when she eventually went toe-to-toe with the movie’s alpha male, Nick’s mother (playing Mahjong, however, not poker.  Okay, the real showdown wasn’t about Mahjong, but, whatever).  So the movie gets the economics right after all!

I guess there is probably a metaphor about playing poker and counting up gains and losses along the way that would help us to explicate the movie better, but with the sensory overload of food and culture and trappings of wealth it is hard to keep everything straight.

A better title for the movie would probably have been Filthy Rich Asians, because I get the sense that there is nothing particularly crazy about how the wealthy – or any of us – close ranks to protect their own and keep the outsiders out.   Gates are a good start.  Armed guards don’t hurt.  And if that doesn’t work, there is the straight up nastiness.  Most of us don’t get past the gate, so the movie ostensibly puts us in the place of the rest of the world, on the outside looking into a world at this different plane, this alternate reality reserved for what is essentially modern royalty.

So, you can blanch at the naked celebration of wealth inequality, or you can sit back and enjoy the show for what it is.   I recommend the latter, though I must admit that the more I write about it, the less confident I am in that recommendation.

Deadpool 2

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Deadpool 2 hit the theaters Thursdays, and L&D (with special guest, F) were totally prepared.   Unlike the MCU compendium buckshot mess that came out a few weeks ago, this one did not disappoint.   After a brief L&D&F discussion about how rare it was to see a quality movie trailer, we were treated to an R-rated (?) trailer for The Happytime Murders, featuring an extended puppet silly-string money shot — one of many indignities on display — that really set the stage for the evening’s entertainment.   Next up was the requisite Greg Marcus appearance, this time featuring him in a comedic role as an opera singer, possibly his best work yet as the affable opening act.  Did he do this just for DP2?

And on with the show.

Deadpool 2 is a seriously hilarious follow up to the original that co-topped the L&D list for 2016, for its action sequences targeting 15-year old boys and jokes targeting middle-aged men.  For instance, this is pretty much straight up a Terminator rip off, with Cable (Josh Brolin, who else?) playing Arnold and Deadpool playing the intermediary instead of that Kyle guy.  It also pays a fairly serious tribute to the James Bond films.  And Superman.  I was catching references to and fro throughout, which leads me to believe I missed a lot of stuff that you will find funny that I simply missed.  I ran into a college student who saw it and loved it and she didn’t know it was one big hat tip to Terminator.

How could you not know that?   Kids these days.

Overall, we are treated to the same cast of characters and follow pretty much the same formula. Can you follow up that brilliant opening sequence from the first one?   Yes, you can.   I wouldn’t exactly call it brilliant, but I laughed and then re-laughed as the gag went along.   All of our favorite characters from last time were back, and aside from T.J. Miller I think they were all as good or better than what we saw in the first movie.  The X-Men in training scene was outstanding, and the super gang sequence that you keep seeing in trailers is superbly ridiculous and fantastic.

This is so much better than Infinity War that I can’t even tell you.  That Infinity War has a 68 Metacritic score right now compared to only a 66 for DP2 is both disgraceful and instructive. Once again the theater was packed on opening night, but this time the crowd was raucous and festive and roared throughout the closing credit sequence, which really couldn’t have been any better.  The biggest disappointment of the evening is that it didn’t last longer, though the final shot was pretty much a perfect ending.  Maybe Marvel will do us all a favor and have Pool come in and save the next Avengers movie.

UPDATE:  Not everyone thinks the puppet finishing its business is all that funny.

Blockers

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This film is hilarious. I would put it up there with some of my favorite comedies like last years’ underrated Office Christmas Party and the Will Ferrell classic Old School. Though it has more in common with American Pie. With Blockers I felt like I was watching an instant classic.  The film has a great innocence to it mixed in with plenty of full frontal dudity. Not the nudity we were expecting but comedicly perfect.

We don’t get paid (yet) for writing the L & D but let’s say we are a known quantity at the movie theater. From the moment we entered until we took our seats, we were asked several times what we were watching tonight. And I will speak for myself when I say that I blushed. It’s just the word cock. There, I said it, cock, cock, cock.  Even when you just have to say Blockers, cock is implied. Even sometimes, you know, I live on Hancock Street and sometimes I feel funny when I have to spell it out for someone. I mean, self-conscious.  “Sir, did you say Hancock?” “Yes, H. A. N. C. O. C. K.”

So what happened is that neither one of us would say what we were going to go see and just sort of walked away. But they knew. They knew. And would yell to us, “It’s supposed to be really good!” And really good it was. I laughed out loud and knee slapped like there was no tomorrow. It seemed to capture this zeitgeist and generational gap flawlessly and easily, while taking side steps to ask a few profound universal questions —in between bouts of anal abuse and projectile vomiting.

I want to congratulate the filmmakers and actors on a smart, inclusive, funny, irreverent and enjoyable work. I look forward to watching it again sometime. And that is rare.