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 ~ Macbeth

macbeth_ver6

The Facts:

Synopsis: Macbeth, a Thane of Scotland, receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders his king and takes the throne for himself.

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor, Sean Harris, Elizabeth Debicki

Director: Justin Kurzel

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Everyone has their favorite Shakespeare play (or they should) and while I’ve always gravitated toward the comedies more than the tragedies, if I had to pick one of his darker works I’d go with Macbeth without much hesitation. There’s something so sinister about the plot, something so overtly wicked about it that it has kept me interested in whatever iteration is released.  I’ve seen it on film, and onstage as a play and an opera and it’s malicious deeds always give me the chills.

There have been several screen adaptation of Macbeth over the years (as well as some clever twists on it, see Scotland, PA for a fun one) and they’ve all made their own mark.  Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth is the shortest adaptation so far, truncating Shakespeare’s prose down to its barest core and taking some liberties with the action that may have purists sharpening their knives.

While watching the film, I was decadently disengaged.  I went in thinking I would instantly love it, especially considering the leads were cast with two of my favorite actors working today.  Yet throughout the two hours I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the proceedings like I expected to.  It usually takes me a few minutes to acclimate to Shakespeare’s dialogue but I struggled mightily, even knowing the play fairly well.  Artfully made and shrewdly performed, it didn’t grab me.

Then I had some time to think about the film and slowly but surely I realized just how effective the piece was.  It’s not your typical Macbeth adaptation and more’s the better for it.  Sure, it’s been slashed to smithereens but what Kurzel cuts he makes up for with imagery and imagination that fill in the gaps for us.

I’d always considered Macbeth more of a pawn to his wife’s ambition but Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) plays the Thane of Scotland as conflicted yet not contrite.  He may have needed the initial push from his significant other but once he gets going he finds that he can’t stop his mission to rise to power.  In typical Fassbender form, it’s an all-in approach that gives the character fearsome depth and calculated strength.

Equal to (and possible besting) her co-star, Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night) takes on the famous role of Lady Macbeth and chooses to add anxiety into her ambitious ways.  Her urging her husband to commit heinous acts comes from a survival instinct…but she realizes too late the machine she’s helped start will bring about their downfall instead of their ascension.  Cotillard has a thrilling monologue late in the film that’s simply shot but complex in its delivery.

The rest of the cast has to take whatever remnants screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso have left of their roles, with Sean Harris (Prometheus, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) getting the most out of his turn as Macduff.  Good cracks from Paddy Considine (The World’s End), Jack Reynor (Transformers: Age of Extinction), and a most minor appearance from Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) round out the supporting players.

Not everyone will love this Macbeth…I sure didn’t when it was happening in front of me.  However, taking the time to ponder it in the hours/days after I found that my appreciation for the work only grew.  It wasn’t what I expected and that wound up working in its favor.

Movie Review ~ Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

mission_impossible__rogue_nation_ver9

The Facts:

Synopsis: Ethan and team take on their most impossible mission yet, eradicating the Syndicate – an International rogue organization as highly skilled as they are, committed to destroying the IMF.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Tom Hollander

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I’ve said time and time again in this here blog it’s that Tom Cruise knows how to deliver a spectacular action film.  Off-screen antics aside, Cruise proves with each new release that he knows how to build off of his strengths and give the audience what they came for.  Never less than 100% committed to the work (see his bold turn in the otherwise blah Rock of Ages), he’s best when he’s going the extra mile.

That being said, for this fifth installment of the TV show turned blockbuster franchise I felt that Cruise and company didn’t take as strong a step forward as they did with 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.  That film felt fresh, with a renewed interest in inventive action sequences coupled with an intriguing plot of crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses.  Cruise tried out some cool stunt work and director Brad Bird produced a nice mix of over the top action and sly spy work.

With Bird off directing Tomorrowland, Cruise brought old pal Christopher McQuarrie into M:I5 and that’s where some problems surfaced.  All four previous installments had brought Cruise together with different directors he had no prior shorthand, but this is the first time Cruise is working with a director he has history with.  McQuarrie wrote 2008’s Valkyrie and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow for Cruise and wrote/directed the underappreciated Jack Reacher back in 2012.

So what we have is a star and a writer/director that kinda already had it all figured out before starting up production and the final effect feels like an overly safe but still better than average film that could have been great.  No matter how many of his own stunts he was reported to have performed himself, Cruise isn’t challenged much by McQuarrie to truly push the limits so the resulting movie feels slightly tentative and more in service of protecting the profitable franchise instead of doing something truly original.

Not that McQuarrie’s script is your run-of-the-mill spy tale.  Sure, there’s a lot of intrigue to go along with the spy movie checklist items but it’s more intelligent than its predecessors and aims high in covering a lot of thoughts and ideas.  Each previous Mission: Impossible film has had its share of twists and turns and this is no different, it’s a credit to the filmmakers that even when the plot points feel rehashed from similar films they still manage to be effectively entertaining.

Building off of an idea introduced in the final moments of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation starts with Ethan Hunt and his IMF (Impossible Missions Force) compatriots attempting to prevent a stash of nuclear armaments from falling into the hands of the shadowy organization known as The Syndicate.  At the same time, the future of the IMF is called into question by a high ranking government official (Alec Baldwin, Aloha, doing his best impression of Alec Baldwin) and soon Hunt becomes a wanted man by The Syndicate and his own government.  Teaming with a skilled agent with a questionable allegiance (Rebecca Ferguson, Hercules), Hunt hops around the globe in search of the head of The Syndicate (rat-faced Sean Harris, Prometheus, a mostly forgettable villain).  Saying more of the serpentine plot would take up too much room here but suffice it to say that the quest isn’t easy and more than a few lies will be told along the way.

Where the film really excels is the breath-taking stunt work.  From the opening airplane sequence (already more than a little spoiled by the trailer and poster) to an underwater operation to thwart a complex security system to an edge of your seat motorcycle chase through the Moroccan desert, the film is a must-see on the biggest screen possible.  I didn’t catch it in IMAX but will seek out a screening later to really appreciate the scale of the work that went into these stunts that are more than worth the price of admission.

While Cruise may be the star of the show, Ferguson manages to swipe the film right out from under him.  Previous movies have placed the females as little more than damsels in distress (no matter if they’re trained super agents or not), but Ferguson represents a character that’s Hunt’s equal in every way.  Sure, her presence in a variety of skin baring costumes gives Cruise and audience members something to swoon over but McQuarrie wisely keeps it all business, adding to her mystery.  We never really know quite what side she’s on, so we never know what to expect when she appears onscreen,

While I’ve loved Simon Pegg’s work as a supporting cast member in Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and two previous Mission: Impossible films, it was an unfortunate mistake to beef up his role here as Cruise’s nervous ally within IMF.  Sure, he’s a valued element of comic relief but he’s made too much of a central figure here, taking time away from Cruise, Ferguson, and the forward motion of the plot.  It’s not all Pegg’s fault, but I’m sure Jeremy Renner (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Ving Rhames (Won’t Back Down) would have liked a little more screen time of their own.

I felt like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol heralded the start of a new chapter of Ethan Hunt and the IMF and thankfully that’s continued here in Rogue Nation.  I do, however, wonder whatever happened to Paula Patton from Ghost Protocol, and Maggie Q from #3…not to mention Hunt’s wife (Michelle Monaghan, briefly seen at the end of the last film).  I kept hoping for a hint at what’s to come next but sadly the film leaves us with more questions than answers.  I’m invested enough in the series to keep accepting future Missions…but hope that the next outing feels a bit more challenging.

The Silver Bullet ~ Deliver Us From Evil

deliver_us_from_evil
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBxTF_DxN8k

Synopsis: A NYC police officer joins forces with an unconventional priest schooled in the rituals of exorcism to combat the possessions that are terrorizing their city.

Release Date:  July 2, 2014

Thoughts: I can’t help it.  I eat these based on a true-story-demonic-horror-films up with glee.  I appreciate that it appears we’ve moved past the B-movie trash filmmaking these slick horror films have employed for years and into a more sophisticated take on the scare.  Scott Derrickson earned high praise from me for directing two of the more superior horror films in the last decade, Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, so I’m inclined to have faith that Deliver Us From Evil will follow suit.  This first teaser trailer may be longer than I’d have liked but it has a nice little payoff.