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The Green Knight (2021)

The Green Knight is an indie drama heavy on atmosphere and mood and a little lax on pacing, falling into yet another A24 discrepancy between critics and audiences. Much like the contentious differences of opinion over It Comes at Night and Hereditary, it seems like general audiences are a little more indifferent to hostile for this arty release than the critics. Maybe they were expecting something more conventional, which is a mistake considering it’s written and directed by David Lowery, who has dabbled in a studio sphere (Pete’s Dragon, the upcoming Disney Peter Pan remake) but seems more at home with introspective, quiet, occasionally overly obtuse art-house pictures, the kind like 2016’s A Ghost Story where Rooney Mara eats a pie for ten minutes (I will never forget this puzzling movie moment). It’s not surprising then that The Green Knight would be a polarizing film of differing expectations. It’s got good graces, an artistic vision, and a preponderance on atmosphere that can feel a little strained at points.

Gawain (Dev Patel) is the nephew to the King of England (Sean Harris). He longs to be accepted as a respected knight but he has no adventures to his name. Then one Christmas, a Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) enters the kingdom and challenges any daring knight to a game. That knight can inflict whatever blow or mark upon him, but then the Green Knight will return the exact favor in one year’s time. Full of bravado, Gawain takes mighty Excalibur and decapitates the Green Knight. Turns out the knight is not dead. He only picks up his fallen head and promises that in one year, he’ll deliver the same to Gawain. The months pass and Gawain is drinking and sleeping away his last remaining time before finally accepting to meet his fate. He rides out of Camelot in search of the Green Knight and perhaps a solution out of his predicament.

Where The Green Knight excels is with the distillation of mood and myth-making while not losing sight on its own sense of humanity. This is an Arthurian legend that is potentially a thousand years old, and when it comes to big screen adventures steeped in the mythology of cultures, it’s easy to get swept up in the fantasy spectacle of monsters and heroism. The vulnerability of the heroes is often cast aside to provide further attention to the grandiosity of the experience and entertainment. Lowery positions his movie from the perspective of an eager naïf yearning for a proper adventure to bring him respect and legacy, but he’s also a scared young man who is dreading the worst possible outcome that could be his only outcome. As Gawain sets off on his quest, he sets off proud, striding along his horse, not looking back at his home as he rides off to face his destiny, and then he’s immediately beset by treachery that removes the pristine shine off the tales of old. He’s taken advantage of by highway robbers and placed at an even greater risk of failure. As the movie progresses, Gawain becomes more and more anxious about the potential of getting himself out of his predicament. It truly seems like he’s marching off to meet his executioner, and that realization forces him to quickly adapt into the heroic mold he’s been aspiring for, the legendary knight, bold and brave and meeting death square in the eye. That sounds good in theory but it’s a lot harder to realize in real life. If any one of us, dear reader, knew that our lives were coming to an end with certainty, summoning the courage to meet that would be a herculean effort, and many of us would crumble under the pressure. It all doesn’t seem like enough time. This is what I appreciated throughout The Green Knight. It has its weird, atmospheric mythology and fantasy elements, but it also grounds the drama in relatable and nervous human emotions.

Where the movie goes astray, at least for me, is the time it devotes to achieving its poetic atmosphere. This is a two hour-plus movie that feels every bit of it, even if you’re enraptured by all the pretty style and ponderous pontificating. That’s because the movie is very episodic by nature, which at least breaks it up into manageable chunks each with something new to draw our attention, but it also makes it feel like less is being earned or amassed. In one segment, Gawain rescues the head of a ghostly woman (Erin Kellyman). In another segment, this one quite awkward to experience, he is tempted by both the lord (Joel Edgerton) and lady (Alicia Vikander) of a household, keeping his vow while something most distracting is taking place simultaneously. Another segment has Gawain interacting with giants, including one breastfeeding a little giant. There’s also a fox who occasionally talks and tries to plead with Gawain to turn away from meeting the Green Knight. I suppose if you’re being charitable you could surmise each of these stops is like a test of his skills of knighthood, from compassion to chastity to dedication, but it feels less like an accumulation and more like Lowery is simply finding time to explore other weird offshoots of this crazy fantasy medieval world.

A term I first used describing the films of Nicolas Winding Refn (Neon Demon), a filmmaker I’m not particularly fond of, is the use of empty space, where the narrative feels stretched out and the audience is intended to provide that extra level of meaning for the dead air. To me, it’s narrative forfeiture. The Green Knight could have been trimmed down, it could have been reordered, it could have been given more specific meaning, but that would potentially detract from its tone poem qualities. If that cinematic sensation works for you, and you fall under the film’s sway, then congrats. If you’re looking for more or at least more meaning in the plot and chain of events, then you’re going to be left grasping for more significance. Sometimes things just feel put into the movie because, beyond all else, it’s simply cool. That’s fine, though I found too many of the asides to be lacking once the initial obstacle was established. Lowery has a larger thesis under the surface about environmental awareness considering the Green Knight is literally made of wood and plants, he goes out to the forest to live on his throne amongst the wilderness, and there’s even an extended fiery monologue by Vikander about the enduring power of “green” and how it will outlive us all and grow over our corpses (if you were being pedantic, you could argue that all color will outlive us as I doubt there will be a nightmare future without, say, the color orange). The larger thesis, however, doesn’t feel supported by the asides and episodes of Gawain. I guess it’s about thinking of the consequences of our actions and, in a way, proportionality or response. Maybe more people would reconsider their carbon footprint if nature was going to cut off their heads as a consequence of using too many plastic straws. Maybe.

Where Lowery’s plot and ambition do come together, thankfully, is with his conclusion, which I will spoil in the following two paragraphs. In the original Medieval legend, Gawain meets the Green Knight who proves to be the lord of the manor in disguise. The man playfully chides Gawain for flinching and wearing a sash he felt would spare him of harm. He then says Gawain is “the most blameless knight in all the land,” which makes little sense, and then Gawain joins the other knights, and they all have a big laugh about the jape played on Gawain. That’s not exactly a satisfying ending and takes away any personal growth Gawain might have earned. In the movie, the Green Knight is for real. Gawain initially lowers his head, trying to summon the courage to meet his death, but he flees and apologizes, escaping the Knight’s retribution.

In a nearly wordless epilogue, we watch Gawain’s life over the course of decades, inheriting the throne, siring an heir, abandoning the mother, leading his people to war, losing his son, and eventually being such a disliked leader that his own people revolt including his own family members. All the while he wears that magical sash to thwart his own demise. This epilogue is revealed to be a flash forward for Gawain, who returns to the moment of consequence with the Green Knight. Rather than flee his fate, he now chooses to accept it, to avoid this future where Gawain goes down a path of corruption and neglect. Better to die now than become a cruel despot that will harm others. He even removes the sash. It is here where the Green Knight finally acknowledges Gawain with respect. It’s this ending that really hits home the themes and the character arc for Gawain. He’s become a knight worthy of legend but has no audience, and is choosing to have no audience, to die alone rather than live in infamy. He’s found his sense of bravery at long last because of his fear of what avoiding his fate will cost. It’s an ending that feels earned and when the Green Knight is giving him an “atta boy” you want to join in.

The Green Knight is going to be a different experience for each viewer depending upon your patience for ambiguity and pacing. I found myself at points marveling over the mood and visual style of Lowery’s vision, and at other points I found myself getting restless with the episodic side quests and the stalled character development. It all comes together by the end with a finale that really cements Lowery’s big ideas and drives homes the personal journey of Gawain. It’s all a mixture of bold and beautiful and a little bit boring.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Last Airbender (2010)

Let The Last Airbender be a shining example of how NOT to adapt a children’s fantasy series into a standalone 90-minute movie. M. Night Shyamalan was hired to write and direct the popular Nickelodeon cartoon into a major movie with a major budget. It’s astounding how poorly made on every front this movie is. Seriously, people should be taking notes because Shyamalan has given a blueprint of blunders to avoid. The first blunder, and perhaps the source of all the others: hiring Shyamalan to begin with.

The film takes place in a fantasy realm where human beings are divided into four different nations based on the natural elements: earth, fire, wind, and water. Each nation has a special select group of people that can control that element. These people are known as benders. The one figure who can control all four elements is referred to as the Avatar, and this figure is reincarnated into a different nation each generation. In the absence of the last Avatar, the fie nation has invaded the other nations. Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) has dishonored his father, leader of the fire nation, and been banished. He seeks redemption by attacking the water nation, where siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) live. They discover hidden among the ice a small bald child named Aang (Noah Ringer). This kid is the last of the airbenders and is believed to be the last reincarnation of the Avatar. For obvious reasons, Prince Zuko is after the Avatar to regain his father’s acceptance.

At one point christened with the moniker of “the next Spielberg,” the writer/director has been slipping and sliding down into the pits of his self-deluded grandeur and stubbornness. After Lady in the Water and The Happening, who in their right minds would give this guy $150 million to direct a special effects-driven summer action movie AND let him adapt the show too? Even if you somehow managed to convince yourself that Shyamalan sitting in the director’s chair was a feasible solution, why on Earth would you let this man near the screenplay? I must repeat: did people see Lady in the Water and The Happening (this is a rhetorical question, because nobody wants to remember seeing them)? The Airbender series is a very well regarded television show that has appealed to audiences of all ages, including those old enough to buy their own beer, thank you very much. What purpose does it serve to ditch the show’s creators and longtime show runners in place of giving the responsibilities for coming up with plot, characterization, and God help us, dialogue, to the man that last gave the world The Happening? The Happening, people! What did you think was going to happen? Even with the lowest of expectations, The Last Airbender will still confound with its dead-on-arrival acting, zero character development, and overly serious spiritual mumbo jumbo. Who at the studio read Shyamaln’s adaptation and thought it was ready to move forward?

The Last Airbender begins with an opening scrawl informing the audience of the four different nations and the significance of the Avatar. Then it sprints forward without ever establishing context. Spending time to explain the rule and makeup of a new world is essential to the fantasy genre; we need to be able to know the rules of this universe and the dramatic stakes. Shyamalan establishes his villains via a lame text crawl. How hard would it have been to open the movie by showcasing the Fire Nation being big and bad? Most films open by establishing the bad guys in true villainous form. This movie would have started out so much better by establishing the villains, their mission, why they’re so bad, and introducing the general audience to the family of bad guys. That way our first introduction to them isn’t so perfunctory. In the film as it is, Shyamalan just sort of slides his characters into the plot in the most bumbling, awkward fashion. We don’t even learn about Prince Zuko’s banishment firsthand. In grand Shyamalan style, characters explain to the audience at every opportunity. Because why would you rather watch Zuko try to impress his father, fail and become scared, and have his father banish him from his nationality, promising to return and win back his father’s approval… when you could just listen to a character recite what took place? Isn’t that way better than watching something in a visual medium? There are a terrible amount of moments that feel clumsily strung together, like several important scenes were taken out at the last minute.

This is emblematic of the entire movie because unless you’re well versed in the Airbender story, you will be as clueless as I was. I had no idea what was going on for most of the movie. Suddenly characters appear. Suddenly they can do some magical ability. Suddenly they can’t. Suddenly they’re gone. Suddenly we’re somewhere new. Suddenly this character’s dead/ Suddenly the Earthbenders are all kept together in a prison that lies atop plenty of bendable earth. Where’s the correctional planning on that one? I couldn’t explain why anything was all of a sudden happening, or what the exact rules were that helped or hindered characters, and I was left grasping for any sort of workable motivation among all the ridiculous and reflexive New Age spiritualism. Shyamalan and the film’s producers do not set up a damn thing. The film operates on a false assumption that the audience is already familiar with the source material, so it never stoops to setup plot or explain characters and events. That would be a waste of time when they have more substandard water effects to show. Because why would you want to spend $150 million on a movie that appeals to people outside a narrow margin of fans? And when you try and try and cannot understand what’s happening on screen, it’s only natural to lose interest. When the film is as dopey as The Last Airbender it only speeds up the process. I was deeply apathetic all the way through this ungainly mess.

I don’t think there’s anything that irritates me more in a fantasy film than when characters treat everything with such general indifference: “Ho hum, we just found a bald kid and his flying buffalo in a block of ice. Ho hum, he can master all the elements. Whatever. What’s on TV?” If the characters can’t be bothered to care then why should I?

I don’t know what this movie spent on special effects but whatever it was it clearly wasn’t enough. Last Airbender has some of the worst special effects I’ve ever seen in a major Hollywood summer release. Did the ILM gurus pass along their effects work to their interns? The green screen work, featured early with Katara and Sokka in some Icelandic realm, is ridiculously shoddy. People look like they have halos as they stand out against the all-too fake backdrops. The special effects in general are missing a polish and resonance that helps to disguise the illusion. I have to admit that it gets pretty boring watching one character hurl blue water orbs while another hurls red fire orbs. You would hope that a movie where people can control natural elements for combat they could do something more imaginative than fling different colored blobby orbs at each other. You have the power to control fire, the power to command the oceans or the wind, why must you low-ball it? I saw infinitely better choreographed elemental fighting on old episodes of Captain Planet and the Planeteers.

Once again Shyamalan completely betrays the trust of his actors (don’t think Zooey Deschanel can give an awful performance? See The Happening). He gets lost in the whirlwind of special effects and fantasy worlds, so his actors get short shrift when it comes to direction. Ringer look the part and can perform the tricky martial arts moves with ease, but is that the best reason to hire an actor? Can’t makeup take care of perfecting a look? Can’t a stunt double fill in for the more challenging physical stunts? I’d rather have somebody who can act rather than just look like the human form of an animated character. Ringer is an annoying messianic figure to have at the center of your franchise. His counterparts don’t fare much better. Peltz (Deck the Halls) is impassive and routinely hits the wrong note for a scene, and Rathbone (Eclipse, New Moon) is fairly wooden and plays too many scenes like he was given one note (“bigger eyes”). Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) gets to glower and his voice kicks up in volume at weird intervals. It’s another example of unmoored actors struggling for direction. But the worst offender in the film is Aasif Mandvi, though through no real fault of his own. He is dreadfully miscast as the movie’s chief villain, and wickedness is not in Mandvi’s repertoire. He’s a cutup on TV’s The Daily Show but here Mandvi couldn’t seriously menace anyone. His tone, demeanor, and even very look lack intimidation. He has a glint of mischief that you can’t take seriously. I’m usually not one to point and shout “racism,” but the fact that Shyamlan and the producers have whitewashed the film’s casting is troublesome. Caucasian actors have filled in for the series’ predominantly Asian characters, and all the villains happen to be transformed into dark-skinned figures played by Indian actors.

I can’t explain most of M. Night Shyamalan’s thinking when it comes to the finished product. The Last Airbender seems intended solely for fans given how forgetful it is when it comes to plot setup and explanations and back-stories. Why should an audience be able to follow along? Comprehension is overrated (David Lynch being a lone exception). At the same time, Shyamalan gives nothing back to those fans who have looked forward to a big-budget realization of the popular TV fantasy series. Shyamalan even seems downright disdainful, again falling victim to his own ever-swelling hubris. Why shouldn’t he write the script? Why would the creators have any clue about how to condense their mythological dense show into a satisfying two-hour taste? If you’ve never watched the TV show, you’ll leave the theater wondering why the hell anybody would give a crap about all this junk. The movie presumptuously sets itself up for a series of sequels that I doubt we’ll ever see, certainly not with Shyamalan’s involvement at the least. Shyamlan once again defies his critics and lives on to make yet another artistic disaster. If three straight duds couldn’t detract somebody from throwing $150 million and artistic license his way, then I don’t know if this man and his ego will ever be humbled or tamed.

Nate’s Grade: D

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

If there is one independent movie that seems to be picking up momentum this awards season, it’s Slumdog Millionaire. The film seems destined to break out into the mainstream, especially in a time where audiences could use a happy story given the ongoing news of economic downturns. Slumdog Millionaire is a highly spirited rags-to-riches tale that marries Hollywood and Bollywood into one fantastic product.

Jamal (Dev Patel) is an 18-year-old kid who grew up impoverished in India’s favellas. He’s also on the verge of winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Game show. The TV host reminds Jamal that lawyers and doctors have never gotten as far as he, a lowly “slumdog” from such humble origins. As each question emerges we discover more about Jamal’s life, from escaping a riot, touring India as a stowaway on a train, conning American tourists at the Taj Mahal, to his assistant work at a call center. Throughout Jamal’s life are two constants: Salim (Madhur Mittal) and Latika (Frieda Pinto). Salim is Jamal’s scheming older brother who has a loose sense of morals. He finds a life of crime as a suitable escape from poverty. Latika is a young orphan girl that Jamal befriended as a child. He declared that she was the “third Musketeer” in their group and has always sworn to love her. This is complicated because Salim’s crime boss wants Latika for a prize, and Salim keeps his younger brother away from Latika. Ultimately, as an entire nation watches with baited breath, Jamal explains that he is appearing on TV because he knew that Latika, his love, would be watching somewhere.

It’s like City of God and Forrest Gump had a baby that was raised by Oliver Twist. The film is given a dynamic energy thanks to director Danny Boyle’s exuberant camerawork and skillful style. Boyle is a director that knows how to make images jump and Slumdog feels like it is coursing with life. The feel-good fantasy nature of the rags-to-riches plot is offset by some pretty harrowing violence, and Boyle makes great pains to show the realities of living in squalor. At one point a very Fagin-esque local crime lord collects young orphans to be beggars and he has a foolproof scenario to make these kids sympathetic and thus big earners — he blinds them with hot liquid. Despite the fantastical elements, Slumdog is rated R for a reason and that’s because it does show the cruel reality of a life in the slums, granted it’s nowhere near as bleak and formidable as something like City of God. After all, the kid gets to win on a game show, though the movie does open with Jamal being tortured by the police. Boyle has a tremendously natural eye for crafting visuals that delight the senses; he can make his shot compositions feel interesting without ever truly calling attention to being flashy. The views of India are beautiful and fascinating. Plus, having a majority of the movie in a foreign dialect was appreciated (Boyle provides different color background for different character’s subtitles, a nice touch). There’s a magic feeling to the film that definitely takes hold of the audience, an uplift that channels smiles and gasps of joy. While I’ll still credit Millions as Boyle’s best film since Trainspotting, his work on Slumdog is deserving of praise. I don’t know if another director could have made a film with so many contradictory elements (feel-good flick with child prostitutes?) run so smoothly.

The movie is also given a brilliant story structure by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty). The movie is built around a steady stream of flashbacks linked to the questions Jamal tackles on the game show. So the host will pose a question and then we’ll be treated to a 10-15-minute flashback to Jamal’s life to discover how he knows the answer. The approach is fresh and it reinforces the magical notion that Jamal’s life has all been leading up to this moment of glory. Beaufoy’s script smartly weaves many storylines together to give us an emerging sense of who Jamal truly is. He manages to write an uplifting and hopeful tale that stays clear from easy sentiment. Indeed, Slumdog is an accomplished feat of writing as well as direction. Working from the Indian novel Q&A, Beaufoy has written a modern-day fairy tale in the same fashion as the Brothers Grimm, which means he didn’t skimp on the unpleasantness and hardship. Yet Slumdog is able to find great human spirit amidst the squalor. I doubt I’ll see a climax more rousing and crowd-pleasing all year. Seriously, you’d have to have a pretty hard heart not to feel some excitement and jubilation in the closing moments.

This unlikely fantasy is aided by sharp performances by a collection of actors. Jamal is an unassuming yet plucky underdog, and Patel nicely handles these elements. He’s a stringy kid but he carries himself with charm and fortitude. As he grows confident he spars with the combative TV host, and it’s fun to watch. Pinto is a swell looking beauty with a great smile but I wish the story had given her more to do as an actress. The young actors who play Jamal, Salim, and Latika as young children actually give the best performances.

And now after all my effusive talk comes the time where I must voice my minor reservations. First off, the structure is ingenious but having Jamal interrogated by the police after the fact seems unnecessary, plus it also tips off the audience from the beginning that this kid has already won it all, which sucks some of the tension out of the game show format. I really think the movie would have been better served just playing out the game show in real time instead. Also, it’s a bit too convenient that every one of the quiz questions triggers a memory in a linear fashion. Jamal can tell his life’s story from beginning to end, but the movie would have been more challenging and interesting if the quiz questions forced Jamal to bounce around in his own memory. That way the script would provide more mysteries that could lead to even more satisfying answers. The Millionaire game show also goes on a commercial break and Jamal is astoundingly allowed to leave and go to the bathroom after he knows one of the high-money questions. In the age of wireless Internet, no game show would ever allow the contestant to leave its sight. Finally, the movie is presented like a Dickensian fable told in chunks, which means I found it hard to fully embrace the central romance that drives Jamal. I will readily follow the romantic notion of locating your true love, however, I will feel more involved in that search if the combined time Jamal and Latika spent together was longer then like a week. Seriously, they see each other every few years for a moment and then are broken apart, only to find each other again for a few moments to be broken apart. She’s more a symbol than a fully translated character, though this did not stop me from rooting for a happy ending.

Slumdog Millionaire is a thrilling, funny, and triumphant story that courses with lively electricity, thanks to the deft direction of Danny Boyle. This movie is enormously entertaining while still baring a social conscious about the plight of those impoverished, though I hope people don’t get the mistaken idea that all that character-building impoverished life styles will lead to future fortunes like Jamal. The movie is hopeful and uplifting while also balancing tense violence and improbable circumstances. While I’m not on board with the critics calling this the best film of 2008, it has some minor flaws in approach to storytelling and character, Slumdog Millionaire has all the right markings to be a crowd-pleasing sensation. After all, it is destiny. And that’s my final answer.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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