Down From the Shelf ~ The Green Knight (2021)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men.

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

Director: David Lowery

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  I grew up watching the 1963 Disney film The Sword and the Stone almost on a loop but have oddly kept much of Arthurian legend at a distance for most of my adult life.  I’m not sure why I’ve avoided the sword and sorcery films to date, perhaps it’s the medieval setting and just seeing too much torture and carnage in cheap action/horror films over the years.  Yet when I come across one of these films, I find that I’m definitely up for a nice battle between knights and a good (bad) witch or two and the bigger the production the better.  That’s why I was so surprised that I let The Green Knight slip through my fingers in its initial release in July 2021 where it received a round of enthusiastic reviews.

Recently re-released into theaters timed to the Christmas holiday, I decided to give a blind-bought 4K UHD BluRay a spin to go with the spirit of the season and putting the disc into the player felt a bit like cracking open a gold-leafed copy of a well-told tale.  Gorgeously conceived, tremendously performed, and beautifully told, The Green Knight is one of those films you stumble upon and then stumble out of, shaking your head in disbelief at just how wonderful it actually is.  Often when I hear of these types of indie endeavors and how instantly cult-status-approved they become, I’m wary about giving them too much consideration.  However, in this case all the ballyhoo and flag waving was well-earned – this is lighting in a bottle good stuff and as intricate in its design narratively as the costumes are in their fine details.

Take this as a litmus test.  If you don’t get a little tingle anywhere in your body watching the first minute of the movie, a spooky, moody introducing of the tale of Sir Gawain, then perhaps you aren’t quite in the headspace for it that day.  Only go forward once you feel the tingle.  That way you can be prepped for the story of the impetuous Gaiwan (Dev Patel, The Personal History of David Copperfield) the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris, Macbeth) who has lived his life unimpeded until the day his mother (Sarita Choudhury, Evil Eye) conjures the titular character.  When the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, The Tragedy of Macbeth) arrives in Camelot and challenges the Knights of the Round Table to a daunting task of bravery, it is Gaiwan who steps up and faces the magical Knight. Tasked with reuniting with the Green Knight in a years’ time on his home turf, Gaiwan spends the next year partying with his commoner love (Alicia Vikander, Tomb Raider) and not thinking too much about the fate that stands before him.

When the year is up, Gaiwan is set to keep his promise and treks forward through a perilous journey that will present adventure, deception, and distraction leading up to his second encounter with the Green Knight.  Through various episodes with a mourning ghost (Erin Kellyman, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier), a rascally fox, a rogue scavenger (Barry Keoghan, Eternals), and a Lord (Joel Edgerton, Boy Erased) and Lady (Vikander, again), Gaiwan will be tested not just on his strength of spirit but on his willingness to stay the course in the face of a certain fate that was foretold to him. 

For those following his career, director David Lowery is keeping his fans always surprised.  Scoring an indie hit with 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints before turning course with the lovely 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon, he followed that up with 2017’s A Ghost Story and then the quiet but bold Robert Redford caper comedy The Old Man & the Gun.  Now he’s taking on this project, which is completely different than anything he’s done, and he’s presented a completely realized take on Arthurian legend…and it feels so clear and concise that you’d think he’d been planning it for decades. 

Though not an obvious candidate from the outside, Patel is the right choice for Gaiwan, getting to the heart of the boy as he becomes a man through his journey of self-discovery.  The transition isn’t easily achieved and not without a great deal of fear, all nicely conveyed through work by Patel and Lowery in conjunction with a crackerjack production team.  The cast member with the longest association to the piece was Vikander and using her in multiple capacities was a good call; it plays with the magic surrounding the world that’s been created and also allows for Vikander to get a first-rate monologue in the second half of the film.  Like me, you likely won’t realize you’ve been holding your breath until she’s done speaking. 

Clocking in at the perfect length and never lingering on any shot or sequence longer than it has to, The Green Knight is proof positive that Lowery continues on a winning streak and remains a director that must be tracked.  His attention to the production side is exquisite but how he pairs that with the emotional way into the story is also worth taking note of.  We need more of these kinds of directors that can work to meld both disciplines, the physical and emotional, together.  The Green Knight is an example of it being done to perfection.

Movie Review ~ Eternals

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A team of ancient aliens known as the Eternals have been living on Earth in secret for thousands of years. When an unexpected tragedy forces them out of the shadows, they reunite against mankind’s most ancient enemy, the Deviants.

Stars: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Ma Dong-seok, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, Bill Skarsgård, Harish Patel

Director: Chloé Zhao

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 157 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: A year ago at this time I was getting so burnt out on the Marvel adventures that were coming at us left and right (and center and above and below and diagonally) and, not that I didn’t find them entertaining, but I just felt like they were all starting to blend together into one amorphous mass that looked like a large black hole where a franchise used to be.  The kick of the discovery was gone and what remained were good guys and bad guys, buildings falling, worlds ending, then not ending, and happy finales for a moment until the post-credits scene revealed something we needed to start worrying about six months or more down the line.  It was just a constant state of “NEXT!” before you’d even had time to digest the meal you’d been served.

Announcing indie director (very indie) Chloé Zhao as the director for Eternals, a film that represents a significant shift in tone and temperament for Marvel isn’t all that out of the ordinary.  The studio has done a good job over the last decade at picking interesting (read: new) filmmakers to helm their movies and the bet has largely paid off in spin-offs and major pivots that have their own style and calling cards.  You can bet the studio heads were jumping on their gaming chairs when Zhao rode a tidal wave of good notices in 2020 to an Oscar win for Best Director and another one for producing Nomadland, the quiet Frances McDormand drama about a woman traveling the country not quite aimlessly but without any true destination. It’s a feeling the superheroes at the heart of Eternals are familiar with.

Instead of losing that indie vision and voice, Zhao applies it liberally to this superhero film which feels altogether different and quite special, and one that will certainly divide many.  For starters, and this isn’t a bad thing, its pacing is off from your typical Marvel film.  It’s not that it’s too long, it’s as long as a number of its brethren, but there are long stretches where its characters are allowed to be human as well as superhuman and use their words instead of their wonder.  Drama instead of dramatics doesn’t always sell tickets or inspire amazement in those that come for hyperbolic extravaganzas and while Eternals does have some incredible moments of special effects wizardry, it’s far more interested in what can be created through connection.

Five thousand years before the birth of Christ, ten beings from a distant planet arrive on Earth to rid the still developing world of creatures known as Deviants.  Sent on a mission from a powerful ruler and waiting for their next message delivered to Ajak (Salma Hayek, Savages), their leader on Earth that will send them home, they remain on our planet over the next seven thousand years, watching humankind evolve but barred from using their advanced knowledge to help them progress in their growth.  Taking place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, Eternals picks up with Sersi (Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians) living in London and dating Dane (Kit Harrington, Pompeii) while watching over Sprite (Lia McHugh, The Lodge). 

When a Deviant emerges unexpectedly from a canal in the River Thames and goes after Sersi and Sprite, old friend (and former Sersi flame) Ikaris (Richard Madden, Rocketman) flies to their rescue just in time.  The three decide this Deviant appearance isn’t a coincidence and set out to reunite the rest of the Eternals who have scattered across the globe…but not all want to be reunited and as the Deviants grow stronger the race is on to protect the humans from a global extinction event that makes The Snap look like child’s play.  Mistrust, old grudges, and their own failing health keep the Eternals from full strength, and it will take their collective energy to stop an enemy that feeds off of their power.

Even as some will convince you otherwise, there’s a whole lot going on in Eternals.  Like, a whole lot.  First off, the representation on display here is wonderful and doesn’t feel forced in the least.  Diversity in casting is joyous, as is the normalcy in characterizing Brian Tyree Henry’s (The Woman in the Window) Eternal Phastos as a married gay man living with his husband raising their son.  You have Lauren Ridloff (Sound of Metal) as hearing impaired Eternal Makkari, Kumail Nanjiani (Dolittle) as an Eternal now living as a popular Indian Bollywood actor, and Angelina Jolie (Those Who Wish Me Dead) playing Thena, an Eternal waylaid by a disease that comes across suspiciously like early onset Alzheimer’s.  Add to that the conflict between the never-aging Sprite and the love triangle she creates in her head with Sersi and Ikaris and there’s enough drama off the battlefield to keep things hoppin’ even with a well-designed Deviant breathing down their neck.

The well-utilized visual effects pair nicely with Ben Davis’s (Captain Marvel) gorgeous cinematography (absolutely the best in any Marvel film, period) and you’re crazy if you don’t see Eternals in IMAX where you can enjoy it to the full extent.  What I noticed early on was how “small” the movie feels in comparison to others. This could be the Zhao effect, but for much of the movie it’s really just the main characters and that’s it.  There’s not a lot of swarming extras (real or computer generated) and when there are large crowd scenes, everyone looks to be really there and present.  That energy helps fuel all who are on camera, giving it all a reality bounce that pushes the movie ever forward.

I haven’t checked recently (I just can’t bear to) but shortly after seeing Eternals I read it was the lowest rated Marvel movie to date and had heard about all these negative reviews that were coming out – and I was stunned.  Near the end, there are moments of such transformative beauty that are simply not in the scope of presence in Marvel films to date…and this is the movie that gets ravaged?  I can’t help but feel like it has something to do with the diversity of the cast and its far-reaching scope of inclusivity – I thought (and hoped) fans that celebrated light triumphing over dark would be better than that.  I hope these early reviews were just the loudest voices of a minority of viewers that have seen the film so far.  On the eve of the release, here’s wishing Eternals and future adventures eternal good will.

Movie Review ~ The Shadow of Violence


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In rural Ireland, ex-boxer Douglas `Arm’ Armstrong has become the feared enforcer for the drug-dealing Devers family, while also trying to be a good father to his autistic five-year-old son, Jack.

Stars: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, Kiljan Moroney, Anthony Welsh, David Wilmot

Director: Nick Rowland

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Even though we’re in the midst of a national health crisis, household chores still need to be done just like movies need to be watched and reviewed.  So the other night, I knew I had The Shadow of Violence coming up in my queue to screen and thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and do a little cleaning while I watched the film.  Now, when a movie is involved I’m not the kind of multi-tasker than can truly do two or three things at the same time…I’m more of a one and a half tasker-type so anything I pair with a movie has to be something that’s truly mindless.

Reading the description of The Shadow of Violence (previously titled and released in some international territories as the more interesting Calm with Horses, which is taken from the short story the movie is based on) I thought I’d be safe going about my movie and a half task.  After all, you’ve seen one quiet thug working for a dangerous family who turns out to be not so bad crime drama before, you’ve seen them all.  Right?  Well, in the case of this hard-nosed and surprisingly intriguing film from Ireland it shows there’s still room for effective storytelling within a genre that’s seemingly been played out.  It wasn’t too long into things that I found myself absorbed into the action, leaving all thoughts of my other work behind and intently watching director Nick Rowland’s unpredictable corker.

You’d be forgiven if you watched the first ten minutes of The Shadow of Violence and thought you’d found your way into yet another cliché-ridden film about small-time gangsters in an even smaller town.  Beefy brawler Arm (Cosmo Jarvis, Annihilation) is the muscle the notorious Devers family uses when they want to send a message.  Haunted by a past he can’t change and living in a present he can’t fix, Arm goes through the motions as a means to an end in order to provide for his  developmentally challenged son and estranged girlfriend (Niamh Algar).  Struggling to be a good father that shows up for his son but lacking the maturity to deal with a child that needs his full attention, Arm takes his guilt out on whatever sad soul the Devers send him to rough up.

In service more as a henchman to Dympna Devers (Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer)  than to any one of his more fearsome elder relatives, we first meet Arm doing menial bloody knuckle work on those that have run afoul of the Devers good will.  Things turn dark though as Arm is drawn into a web of betrayals when he becomes part of a family dispute that sours quickly.  Forced into a life or death situation that winds up putting him in a moral dilemma, Arm makes a choice that has a ripple effect throughout the Devers family, the town, and his own home.  Now, having to navigate through a system of deceit while ensuring the safety of his family, Arm brings those he fears closer while trying (perhaps in vain) to shield everyone around him from a wrath waiting to be unleashed once he is discovered.

It’s nice to find movies like The Shadow of Violence which, despite their dime-a-dozen title, and less than inspiring tagline turn out to amount to far more than what you see on the surface.  Working from screenwriter Joseph Murtagh’s adaptation of Colin Barrett’s short story, Rowland lets the film’s first act develop at a leisurely pace…almost too leisurely at times because with so many characters introduced you start to lose track of who is related to whom.  He snaps things back nice and taut, though, for the final half and delivers an unexpectedly rich examination of a bruised soul that sought redemption in the worst place possible who winds up finding some semblance of hope where it had been all along.

I had no trouble buying Keoghan as the unhinged enfant terrible of an already nasty family.  The actor’s tendency to oversell his intentions winds up working for him here and Dympna makes for an interesting quasi-villain you kinda can’t stop wanting to see more of.  Speaking of seeing more of, Algar’s performance as Arm’s fed-up significant other is gutsy and boldly memorable, a not easy task when sharing the screen with the likes of the scene-chewing Keoghan and the quiet magnitude of Jarvis.  It’s Jarvis that makes the movie work when all is said and done – you have to buy this thuggish bloke would have a brain and heart to go with his muscles and in scene after scene Jarvis keeps us rapt.

There’s a bleakness to the film that will be off-putting for some and I can understand not wanting to go to that place right now.  However, if you’re up for something that feels familiar but is handled with a fresh and feisty spirit, you’re going to want to find your way to The Shadow of Violence to meet the Devers familyIt’s a gritty visit to the Irish countryside that packs a nice punch.

Movie Review ~ The Killing of a Sacred Deer


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A teenager’s attempts to bring a brilliant surgeon into his dysfunctional family takes an unexpected turn.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone, Raffey Cassidy, Bill Camp

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  We’re moving into a busy time for movies and that means a packed screening schedule. On these plum-full days this part-time critic has to get creative with his multi-tasking if doesn’t want to go hungry between movies. That’s how I found myself unwrapping and justa bout to sink my teeth into a sandwich when Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer began. Lanthimos opens the film with a graphic (and real) shot of open heart surgery, his camera lovingly lingering on the organ coming back to life and pulsing with blood. It’s an arresting image and one that pretty much demands your attention, as does the rest of the movie. Clearly, my sandwich was going to have to wait.

Surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks) has it all.  A successful career, a beautiful house, a loving wife (Nicole Kidman, Stoker), and two children that haven’t yet met their trouble-making days.  He’s also taken a young boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) under his wing for reasons not entirely clear as the movie begins.  All we can tell is that Murphy obviously feels paternal toward the boy, a boy that has a strange way about him.  Actually, everyone in Lanthimos’s parable on suburbia and privilege has a strange way about them.  Murphy and his wife play out some kinky fantasy with her lying prone on the bed as if under general anesthesia, their daughter (Raffey Cassidy, Tomorrowland) is on the cusp of womanhood and awkwardly makes her first steps into her femininity with Martin as her fellow traveler, and Murphy and his wife speak about family matters in public with little regard for privacy.  There’s a staid, robotic-like quality to the line delivery and it’s not unintentional in the slightest.

For the first half of the movie we’re just getting our feet wet with these people and trying to figure out why Martin’s actions feel so odd and what his game plan could be.  When it’s revealed why he’s getting so close to Murphy and his family the movie almost instantly gets a bit less interesting in plot but not necessarily in character.  Martin makes a proposition, an impossible request, to Murphy and the rest of the movie is about how Murphy chooses to respond.  One by one Murphy’s family members start to come down with a mysterious, near-supernatural illness that Martin seems to have control over…or is the other way around?  Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou leave audiences with little concrete answers and we’re never quite sure who the man (or woman) behind the curtain is.

While the plot tends towards the formulaic in its skeleton, it’s the sinews of muscle and tissue that the cast brings to this that make it one that has nagged at me almost daily since I saw it.  The movie can be seen as a twisted take on suburban perfection and personal responsibility or as an outright Fatal Attraction-like potboiler where no one is a winner by the time the credits roll.  Having worked with Lanthimos on his previous film (the equally mind-bending The Lobster), Farrell is aces as a flawed man asked to take action no father or husband should ever be tasked with and Kidman continues her streak of finding the deepest complexities in a seemingly straight-forward role.  Keoghan is a bundle of nerves and energy, presenting a character obviously on some sort of spectrum that feels just in his actions so has no fear of judgement.  That frees him to express himself openly and unfiltered, a refreshing presentation to be sure but unsettling all the same in our current climate of niceties above all else.  Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) has a brief but memorable scene as Martin’s mother, grieving the loss of her husband (whom Murphy operated on) and following her son’s lead on a plan to unite the two families in his twisted imagination.

As you’ve probably guessed, The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t easy viewing and the ending is sure to prove problematic.  Lanthimos doesn’t let anyone off easy and that includes the viewer.  Still, it’s a handsomely made, eerie film and even when you know where it’s headed it still has one or two twists to keep you alert.  Darker than The Lobster but just as interested in social norms and providing commentary on justice, The Killing of a Sacred Deer might not be the hunt you thought you’d be going on but it’s worth the journey.

Movie Review ~ Dunkirk


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.

Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Director: Christopher Nolan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Coming off of the enormous success of The Dark Knight trilogy, director Christopher Nolan stumbled a bit with his next film, Interstellar.  Though far from a complete miss, the movie was a little too smart for its own good and is one of the rare Nolan films to get less interesting with subsequent viewings.  Three years later, Nolan is back in a big way with the release of Dunkirk, a superbly structured World War II adventure that almost assures a long overdue Best Director nomination is headed his way.

Instead of giving you the same old review, I’ve compiled a list of Dunkirk Do’s and Don’ts.

Do bring earplugs.  Nolan has continued his use of IMAX technology to film select scenes and with that comes a sound design that’s positively ear splitting.  Looking around the audience in several key moments I saw numerous movie-goers with their fingers in their ears yet still enraptured with the film.  Bullets whiz by with sharp zings and fighter planes streak across the sky with a sonic boom.  Your teeth will be rattling by the time the credits roll.

Don’t be late.  I’ve had some bad luck with technical problems plaguing screenings lately and the showing of Dunkirk I attended was delayed by almost a half hour due to sound issues.  When we were told that it would be another five or ten minutes before the screening would resume, many audience members (including my guests) headed for the bathroom only to have the movie start up the moment they were out the door.  That left their movie mates to quickly explain to them in loud whispers what was happening when they returned because Nolan’s script doesn’t repeat itself or explain the setting other than short title cards as the movie opens.

Do pay attention. Dunkirk is typically Nolan-esque with multiple overlapping storylines that take place at different times.  There’s three ‘pieces’ to Nolan’s puzzle, each capturing a specific stretch of time during the evacuation of British and French soldiers from a beach in Northern France.  The Mole covers a week stretch, following several young soldiers as they desperately try to escape the sand in any way possible.  The action in The Sea unspools over a day while merely an hour is the length of time The Air covers.  All three start and end at different places/times and if you aren’t fully paying attention you’ll miss the point at which they all convene.

Don’t look for star turns.  While Nolan has cast dependable actors like Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express), Mark Rylance (The BFG), Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins), and Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), the real stars are the young unknowns that make up the soldiers and civilians that played a part in the withdrawal of the armies from Dunkirk.  Even singer Harry Styles turns up as a tightly wound army man and acquits himself nicely as no mere bit of stunt casting.  Only Hardy could be considered a leading player as his ace airman eventually takes center stage in his storyline.  It’s unfortunate that Nolan didn’t learn from his critics in The Dark Knight Rises that bemoaned not being able to understand Hardy behind Bane’s mask.  Once again, much of Hardy’s performance in covered by an air mask, obstructing his words from coming through clearly.  The good news is that Nolan’s script is fat-free, never too speechy or preachy. So even though you can’t always understand Hardy, you aren’t missing  ton of exposition.

Do bring some kind of stress ball and clip your nails judiciously before the movie starts.  This was one of the tensest movies I’ve seen in some time…and it begins almost as soon as the first images appear onscreen.  With Hans Zimmer’s score switching back and forth between graceful and pulse-racing, the music is almost another character.  Even when nothing of note is happening, the score is always present to remind you that no one is truly safe.

Don’t miss this one on the biggest screen possible.  Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her) has lensed a staggeringly beautiful film with its overwhelming wide aerial shots of fighter pilots in action and smaller moments between soldiers hoping for a miracle trapped in the hull of a grounded boat.  Another name to mention is editor Lee Smith (The Dark Knight) who has cut Nolan’s film into a lean example of cinematic efficiency.  At 106 minutes, it’s Nolan’s shortest film to date and were it any longer it would lose valuable steam.

Do read up on the real-life story that inspired Nolan’s fictionalized screenplay.  While not a huge WWII buff, even I know that the events that happened on Dunkirk aren’t always mentioned in the same breath as other acts of heroism.  Nolan affords time to take on the perils of war but tops it all off with a message of sincerity and hope that feels justly earned by the characters and audience, considering all we’ve been through together.

In summary…Do go, Don’t delay.