Man versus Man. Man versus Nature. Shepherds and sheep. Live-action deliveries. Isaac and Abraham. 80s pop. At least four of the Ten Commandments, especially the tenth. Wrath of God. Wrath of Lamb. This film has it all.
Noomi Raplace (of Girl with the... fame) and Hilmir Snær Guðnason (I had to look up the spelling) carry heavy loads as the leads in a film where sheep outnumber humans by a pretty wide margin. As for Raplace and Guðnason, they play a staid married couple at what is certain to be a pivotal point in their marriage and their lives. In an early scene the couple has a breakfast conversation about time travel that gives you the sense that they are in no hurry to go forward, and they definitely don’t want to go back — perhaps they should just stay at the table.
The movie was shot in Iceland (and possibly Poland), and the film makers were not afraid to pull out the wide-angle lens. The continous canvassing of the landscape and the setting reveal many things that are otherwise otherwise left unsaid (the film has subtitles, but human dialog is pretty sparce). One thing we learn, for example, is that the own a fair swath of property that is pretty far afield from the bus stop that gets you to Reykjavík. And, of course, the lead couple tend to crops and have more than just a few sheep.
The pace is deliberate, to say the least, and there is not a lot of on-screen action. Indeed, pretty much everything that does happen would constitute a spoiler in one way or another, so describing the plot is out. Let’s just say the film opens with some live births in a manger on Christmas Day, and the religious imagery only gets thicker from there. I have a feeling if I had paid closer attention in Sunday school back in the day, I would have more to work with on this review.
L was no help on that front — still smarting from Midsommar, he left Dr. B and me in the proverbial Icelandic desert on this one. And, as such, we shared a fair bit of headscratching as we made our way to the parking lot. So I will close this up with a bit of the New Testament that I do remember, my favorite of the Lamb of God responses: Have mercy on us.
Alright, then. We headed off to opening night of the latest, but not the greatest, edition to the Bond canon, which gives a well-publicized sendoff to Daniel Craig in the title role. The movie is, in my estimation, the second or third best of the Craig era, and right about tenth in my personal rankings in the series.
I don’t really have a full-blown review here, but I do have some notes from some texts I shared with one of our loyal readers. First off, Daniel Craig is bored. This shows up intermittently throughout the film when he isn’t doing his best to pretend otherwise. Unlike the aging prizefighter looking for that last paycheck, however, he came in in excellent shape!
Second, the story is not a bad story, all told, but the villain by committee is both unsatisfying and uncharacteristic of the series. It’s like watching a baseball game where the manager keeps changing pitchers. I guess the writers sacrificed the prospect of one last great Bond villain in the service of a bunch of other things they wanted to include.
Third, the action is OK. There are a couple of very cool scenes, including the first part of the opening scene (this is a really long movie), but nothing that holds a candle to, say, the opening scenes of TheDark Knight Rises or Tenet.
I bring up those latter two because it is difficult to discern whether the many, many, many similarities and parallels to action films generally (including The Dark Knight Rises (!)), or Bond films specifically, are hat tips or homages or just mere coincidences. That said, many things happen in this movie that are new to the Bond series, the types of things you can probably read about in reviews that have ample spoiler alerts.
In my estimation, there are a handful of Bond films that are good, stand alone movies. Then, depending on the day, there are five-to-ten in the series that are durable as fun action movies, but aren’t terribly good stories and you wouldn’t consider watching them if it didn’t have the Bond pedigree. No Time to Die is probably in the former category for now. The novelties herein will probably have people revisiting this one more than they might have otherwise.
These films both held a lot of promise but ultimately illustrate the idea that sometimes the sum of a film is not greater than its parts. If you had a recipe like: one part Hugh Jackman, one part Steampunk art direction, one part underwater fight scene — instant hit, that’s what you’d get. It’s not lost on me that a film calledreminiscence, which includes all these ingredients, will soon be forgotten.
Reminiscence, which features spectacular special effects of a not-too-distant future where cities are half-submerged in water, lags due to the self-indulgent and confused tone of the story. It’s a dystopian action/comedy/romance/thriller/sci-fi — and none of these. It also needed to be at least 30 minutes shorter. I held in check the urge to walk out. And I’m the type of person who would enjoy watching a film where grass grows. It pushed my patience as the director followed up every loose strand and tacked on egregious monologues regarding Greek mythology. Not necessary. As was the constant voice over narration by Jackman. It became an almost instant parody unfolding in real time before me. A disappointing experience.
The Protégé at least had some interesting fun and games involving the incomparable Michael Keaton and the talented Maggie Q. Though at some point in this film it becomes apparent that the story hinges on an absurd fantasy that Maggie Q’s character, the take-no-prisoners fighter and intellectual Anna, would be interested in Keaton’s Rembrandt, who seems to be wearing an ascot. That’s when you realize it’s a story tailored for old guys though ostensibly featuring a strong female lead. The fight scenes with Keaton and whoever his stunt double is were ridiculous. On the other hand, the Maggie Q action sequences where on par with Die Hard and fun to watch. The film goes off the rails with a shark jump to rival the original shark jump of Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli’s. And Act III becomes predictable, preachy, involves gratuitous violence and is irrelevant. The filmmakers let this one slip through their hands and there was nothing that the great acting of Samuel L. Jackson could do to save it. Another bummer.
In this latest batch of releases I would recommend Free Guy for a fun action film. For a strong drama, look to Stillwater, where I think Matt Damon deserves to be nominated for an Academy Award.
I just played a game of online Asteroids to warm up for this review. It was on the Atari site and sponsored by AARP. Free Guy is a film that will either appeal to the 14 year old in you or your actual 14 year old. It’s a cross between Her, War Games and It’s a Wonderful Life. The film is loud and brash and original if not in plot, then at least in the graphics department (excluding the direct but well-timed references to Star Wars and Marvel) since it is not based on an existing game —or even amusement park ride!
The film doesn’t really poke fun at itself in the sense of breaking the fourth wall. However, it does have a point to make about breaking out of how you think your life is supposed to be. This theme will be obvious to those of us who know what AARP stands for but I think it’s a good message for people of any age.
Speaking of graphics, the special effects were flawless and fun. If you are the type of person who finds yourself playing a video game and trying to say, land a fighter plane on the Golden Gate Bridge…or figure out where the edge of the simulated environment is…and try to hack it, you will probably enjoy this film too.
The other interesting aspect for those who get into metaphysics and ontology…when is something real? If an AI character is evolving on its own and believes it is feeling, is it feeling? This question motivates Act III and is covered specifically by the NPCs (non-player characters) themselves in a strong scene between Reynolds’ Blue Shirt Guy and Lil Rel Howery’s Buddy the security guard.
This isn’t a totally dude-centric film either (though there is a very big dude in it). There is a strong female character, Molotov Girl, played convincingly by Jodie Comer. Finally, Ryan Reynolds, this time as producer and star, is able to unleash every facial expression imaginable. Overall, this film certainly had its moments and I enjoyed it.
I might be late to the party but Matt Damon is a great actor. I think anyone could do the Bourne Identity stuff. Is that even acting? That’s a lot of hours in the gym so you can look like your stunt double. But Stillwater. That’s acting. The story does get trying at times. Forced suspense that carries on for too long. But there are more times where you find yourself asking, “Where is this going?”, in a good way. The character of Virginie, played by Camille Cottin, who was outstanding in the Netflix series, “Call Your Agent!”, was a strong counterpoint and anchor Damon’s character Bill. But the scenes of Bill and Virginie’s child Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) goofing around, sharing language and advices and just playing the roles of a parent and child, absolutely stole the movie. They weren’t cliched scenes. They were real life and funny. Bittersweet really.
Which is how I would characterize this film. The characters are all flawed, very human. And even if the story twists seem improbable at times, the feeling of the place, in this case Marseille, and the everyday lives of the characters come to life. You can imagine yourself there. You can understand why the “fuck-up” can’t stop being one, though he is trying everything he absolutely can not to be. You can understand the philosophy of acceptance that the character of Allison (Abigail Breslin), tries to explain to her Dad from behind bars. “It’s not about justice, it’s about peace.”
I was surprised at the complexity in the story and of the characters, the humor in the film and the drama. A trip to Stillwater is definitely thought provoking and time well spent.
What follows is a guest post from the Good Doctor himself. For a Stoopid American, he sure knows a lot about English literature!
The Gawain doctor is in—and like most doctors, he’s running a little behind.
I should probably start with the patient’s question, which was about how faithful Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to the 14th-Century poem of the same name. It’s not particularly faithful, but since we’re not 14th-Century readers, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is deeply engaged with the original poem in ways that are probably more interesting than would be the case in a more direct adaptation. Knowing the poem will give you a framework and additional material to think about, but it won’t “explain” the film or leave you with nothing to do but listen to some English professor carping about what the director misunderstood or didn’t get right.
The original poem explores the themes of courtesy and mirth, reflecting on how a society genuinely inspired by the medieval Christian understanding of those virtues might operate (and on how the actual medieval world falls short). David Lowery’s movie has almost no mirth, and courtesy always turns out to be a deceptive mask (as it sometimes is in the original as well). It feels more like the world of Beowulf or Game of Thrones than the refined and civilized world of the movie’s source material.
Fittingly, Lowery’s Sir Gawain is a flawed everyman rather than an innocent embodiment of courtesy. He has a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend, and his drunken excess is always set in a brothel or a tavern to distinguish it from the equally-inebriated, Christian-sanctioned mirth of the original poem. I think this revision is probably designed to make Gawain a relatable character, allowing modern film-goers to identify with his trials and tribulations over the course of the film, in much the way that medieval readers were invited to identify with the courteous but inexperienced Gawain of the poem.
At the same time, Lowery nicely captures the sense in the original poem that things are rarely as simple as they seem, and that forces at the edge of our understanding—if not entirely beyond it—are at work shaping the course of events and giving them meaning. His approach is more in the form of a fever dream than the subtle and teasing allegorical undertone of the original poem, but it feels properly medieval in its rejection of naturalist or realistic plot in favor of symbolic or allegorical meaning.
There are definitely easter eggs for readers of the original poem. There is a brief mention of the five virtues, an important set piece from the original poem in which Sir Gawain’s shield is allegorized for its “endless knot” pentangle front and painting of Mary inside. When that shield is cracked and destroyed in the opening episode of his journey, it confirms what you had probably already guessed about how far those medieval virtues would get you in the movie’s world.
The film also follows the basic structure of the original poem: the Green Knight’s visit to Arthur’s court, fast-forwarding to Gawain’s departure a year later, a Christmas over-nighter at a mysterious castle, and a final conclusion of Sir Gawain’s “game” with the Green Knight. Readers familiar with the poem will find significant resonances with the critically important castle episode immediately prior to that final encounter, and may be particularly interested in the decision to cast the same actress as the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold and the lady of the house.
The final confrontation with the Green Knight is as confusing and counter-intuitive as in the original, but works to a different end. My own reading is that, where the original invites the recognition of our fallen nature in even the most virtuous of Christian heroes, Lowery is more interested in revealing the systemic injustice of patriarchy. Ironically, Lowery’s Gawain must pass his test if he is to succeed, whereas the 14th-Century Gawain can become a hero despite his all-too-human failings. But there is plenty of material (friendly robbers, lady ghosts, talking foxes, earth giants) to fuel other interpretations, which is one of the things that makes this movie so rewarding.
If you can figure out what those creepy giants are up to, you’re a smarter reader than I am. Len tells me that they’re Czechoslovakian anime, and who am I to disagree?
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.
Approximate Taco Bell Drive-Thru Line, 9:58 p.m., July 22, 2021
If you’ve seen the previews to the new M. Night Shyamalan feature, Old, then you pretty much know how the movie is going to unfold. There are some metaphors about the existential dread of aging, not particularly good ones, and some not terribly well fleshed-out antagonists. The beach is lovely, though. And although you know how it unfolds, what actually happens will perhaps surprise you.
The ending wraps things up in a jiff!
This is not must see material, but if you must see a movie, you might consider this one. The summer release schedule has seemingly hit the point of tedious high-budget action films, and spooky would-be horror films. That would perhaps explain a rather full theater on opening night, but my guess is that the legs of this release are not long.
Heading over in the pre-10 p.m. hour, I did note that the Taco Bell sign was not illuminated. Yet, cars at the drive thru snaked well out of the parking lot and into the street. The tension between ridiculously low-priced fast food and the capacity to staff a restaurant that offers ridiculously low-priced fast food remains strong in the Fox Valley.
Black Widow is fun ride. Maybe like the new riverboat movie, Jungle Cruise, it will become an actual ride at Disneyland. But unlike that ride, I mean movie, it wasn’t a ride first. In any case, Black Widow boasts strong leading performances by Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour (of Stranger Things fame) and excellent action. The story includes women who kick ass all over the place and the highest caliber production value — except for the scene with the jail and even the avalanche stolen from War for the Planet of the Apes. They could have tried harder there.
But it’s one of those kick up your feet, eat your popcorn, turn off your brain blockbuster summer movies. Another 200 million plus budget movie that will return over 500 million most likely. And it needs to. There were more plasterers listed in the credits than…than…you get it, they hired plasterers.
This film did have a heart, did deal with family dynamics, with ethics and loyalty, with friendship. And had a sense of humor. All those good things. So it delivered on what you would expect, massive explosions for example and then some. Also, it’s simultaneously streaming on Disney+ but it’s a big movie that deserves a big screen.
Zola is a conundrum of sorts. In parts Midsommar and in others Spring Breakers, it’s an uncomfortable experience. The characters are two dimensional at best and even simple cut outs like a “fan” at a COVID era MLB game. It’s not totally surprising that the original screenplay inspiration was a tweetstorm.
What I found refreshing and interesting about Zola was that the representations were flipped. If you’re sick and tired of the male gaze in film, welcome to the female gaze. There is more full-frontal dudity in this film than I can remember at the cinema…including one montage that featured an eye-brow raising well placed on-screen heart emoji graphic. The other element that Zola has going for it is suspense. Which way will this Floridian Dante’s Inferno break? Is it a social satire, a comedy, a horror nightmare, exploitation — somehow all and none of these at the same time?
I particularly enjoyed the brief POV driving musical interludes. Those segues kept establishing that music can set the emotional tone of a film, every time. One danger though in telling Zola’s story in such a minimalistic way is that the story of Derrek, played brilliantly by Nicholas Braun, who also shined in the powerful HBO series Succession, at times took over. Derrek was the one character played with real emotion. He was the fuck up, the hero, the only person who was in the story for something other than a good time and/or making a buck. And that’s odd for a film that is supposed to be telling the story of a strong female protagonist, which there was and which it does. But I’m left to wonder, did it inadvertently tell the story of Derrek even better? Like Dante in Inferno, Zola is an observer, traveling through these circles of misery, though it seems like a missed opportunity to find out more about her. She asks Derrek pointedly during one dramatic scene, “What do you see when you see me?” As an audience, we can only answer that in a superficial way.
I do want to give a shout out to my old friend, Mike L. Germaine, who I worked on a few films with in the Bahamas back in the day. He’s a fantastic Key Grip and did a solid job here as usual, helping the cinematographer, Ari Wegner pull off strong visuals. And I’d be remiss not to note a stand out acting performance by Jason Mitchell, who also shined in Netfilx’s Mudbound.
Ultimately, Zola ended for me just as the story seemed to be taking off or at least morphing into something else. There’s no neat ending here so the experience leaves you more with the impression that this was a filmic sketch based off an epic tweetstorm. You’ll have to manufacture your own ending but maybe that’s okay too. Ultimately, I did enjoy a movie with a different perspective than your typical megaplex offering.