REVIEW: “The Green Knight” (2021)

Few movies on the 2021 docket have captured the anticipation and curiosity of a segment of film fans quite like “The Green Knight”. This fresh retelling pulled from the rich and complex Arthurian mythology comes from writer-director David Lowery, an indie visionary who proves himself to be just the right person for the material. Surrounded by an almost deafening buzz from certain circles, “The Green Knight” is a savory feast sure to tantalize the taste buds of arthouse crowds while leaving some casual moviegoers frustrated and hungry.

“The Green Knight” is a dark and sometimes twisted medieval fantasy based on the 14th century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Or as the film itself states it, “the chivalric romance by anonymous”. Lowery puts his own unconventional spin on the material, focusing more on imagery, mood and atmosphere than dialogue, character building and traditional storytelling. It results in an eye-popping puzzle box of a movie with much to say about humanity, self-discovery, honor and what it means to be a legend. But gleaning its meaning through Lowery’s artful yet sometimes muddy lens can be a chore.

Who better to lead this beguiling dark fantasy twist than Dev Patel who has excelled at playing conflicted characters who often carry heavy burdens. The 31-year-old possesses a wide-eyed openness that makes him the perfect conduit between the audience and the material. Here he’s the key piece that keeps us connected both narratively and on a human level. Most of the other players we meet, though captivating, are shallow hulls who work more as representations than genuine characters. That may sound like a criticism and in a wishful way I suppose it is. But it’s an approach that fits well with the journey Lowery takes us on.

Image Courtesy of A24

Patel plays the impetuous Gawain, nephew to the sickly King Arthur (Sean Harris) and his equally unwell looking queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie). Gawain is next in line for the crown but shirks his royal duties, choosing to hide his insecurities by drinking and cavorting with the waifish Esel (Alicia Vikander). But his life turns on Christmas morning when the king’s round table festivities are interrupted by an unexpected visitor. He’s a menacing yet entrancing creature surrounded by a dull forest green glow. He has the head of a Tolkien Ent sitting upon a giant’s body that creaks like thick bending tree limbs whenever he moves. His face is covered in tree bark, his eyes unexpectedly soulful, and his voice reverberating with the deep booming tones of Ralph Ineson.

With the full attention of the room, the creature issues a challenge. He offers anyone in the King’s court a free strike with their blade but it comes with one ominous condition – he’ll return the same blow exactly one year later at his chapel deep within a faraway forest. The impulsive Gawain jumps at the opportunity and with one swift slice of a sword decapitates the creature and begins his own legend. The still-living body of the hulking knight picks up his detached head and rides off, leaving a ‘see you in a year’ laugh echoing through the chamber.

The bulk of the film follows Gawain’s journey to keep his end of the agreement. Will Gawain remain a selfish entitled slacker or will he become a poem-worthy Arthurian legend? To answer that, Lowery takes his protagonist across a plethora of breathtaking landscapes, each using nature (a strength of Lowery’s) and the individual uniquenesses of the Irish locations to create this absorbing visual language. That may sound like nonsensical critic-speak, but it’s exactly what Lowery and his DP Andrew Droz Palermo do. Their camera (with a little help from Daniel Hart’s gnawing score – one of the year’s best) communicate a lingering feeling of dread that bleeds through every doom-soaked composition.

Image Courtesy of A24

Equally effective are the countless visual touches scattered throughout Lowery’s moody epic. Tracking shots of Gawain riding across the dreary cloud-covered countryside. Holding certain shots slightly longer than we’re accustomed to. Exquisite camera pans including a particularly brilliant one (you’ll know it when you see it). The incredible use of darkness and shadows. There’s always something grabbing your eye and it says something that the film’s most indelible moments come through the camera.

As for Gawain himself, his path is marked by a string of encounters that challenge him in a variety of ways. On a dank and muddy battlefield littered with corpses he runs into a chatty scavenger played by Barry Keoghan. Later he crosses paths with a transfixing spirit (Erin Kellyman) in need of his help to retrieve something of immense value to her. One that doesn’t quite land as it should comes later when an exhausted Gawain happens upon the remote estate of a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and his lecherous wife (also Alicia Vikander). There’s a subtext of temptation versus a knight’s honor, but the sequence drags and gets caught up it’s own cryptic weirdness. But the movie quickly gets back on track and ends strong.

“The Green Knight” is a movie destined to be exalted by some and loathed by others. It’s utter indifference to mainstream acceptance will hurt it at the box office, but it’s part of what makes it special. David Lowery uses every ounce of his creative freedom to make something audacious, challenging, and unlike any Arthurian adaptation we’ve seen to date. It can be confounding and a touch too captivated by its own enigma. But you’ll be entranced from the very first frame, and once you fall under it’s hypnotic spell, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Gunpowder Milkshake” (2021)

A killer cast (bad pun absolutely intended) leads the way in the upcoming Netflix film “Gunpowder Milkshake”, an action/black comedy packing plenty of girl power and one of the best titles of the year. It comes from director and co-writer Navot Papushado who puts together a stylish shoot-em-up that borrows from an assortment of action movies that came before it. That proves to be both part of the fun as well as the film’s biggest weakness.

It’s impossible to watch “Gunpowder Milkshake” without thinking about “John Wick”. The similarities are just too pronounced to miss. The key difference is this is a female-driven version of that world. Here Karen Gillan plays the John Wick character, a lethal assassin named Sam. She had no choice but to grow up in the killing-for-hire business after her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey), also an assassin, left her 15 years earlier. Now she takes contracts from a shadowy underworld outfit called The Firm (you gotta love the comically vague names these organizations come up with).

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The movie kicks off with Sam finishing up her most recent contract. She takes out her target but is quickly confronted by a horde of armed thugs on her way out. She kills them all but leaves a pretty big mess behind. The Firm’s not too happy with the results even though they’re the ones who sent her in with bad intel. And little do they know, among the dead is the son of an Irish gangster named Jim McAlester (Ralph Ineson). And as these mob bosses are prone to do, McAlester wants revenge. “Now bring me the heads of the men who killed my boy”, he snarls.

Sam’s mentor Nathan (Paul Giamatti) is able to smooth things over with The Firm, even securing her a new contract. It sounds like an easy enough job – an accountant has stolen a satchel full of cash from the Firm. They want her to kill him and get their money back. But once again the job gets messy after Sam learns an innocent 8-year-old girl named Emily (Chloe Coleman) is caught in the middle. Refusing to leave her behind, Sam saves Emily but loses the Firm’s money in the process. You can probably see where this is going. Soon she finds herself on the run from both the Firm and a revenge-fueled McAlester. And as you might expect, lots of bullets, blood, and dead bodies follow.

Sam and her self-anointed “apprentice” Emily seek help from a sisterhood of assassins consisting of the bitter and brash Anna May (Angela Bassett), the soft-spoken but deadly Florence (Michelle Yeoh), and the hilariously genteel Madeleine (Carla Gugino). It’s a bummer, but this lethal sisterhood isn’t given much of a backstory. We learn there’s some bad blood between them and Sam’s mom. We see they operate out of a beautiful bygone-era library. Oh, and they’re extremely efficient killers. But thats about it. Thankfully the actresses inject the group with enough personality to get by.

Rather than focusing on story Papushado goes heavy into style both visually and in his choreography. We get a lot of sequences bathed in neon especially early on. He also does some clever things with his camera, specifically with different angles, perspectives, and movements. When it comes to the action the fight sequences and shoot-outs can be a little too tightly scripted but for the most part are still fun. And some are completely absurd (which I say as a compliment). My favorite may be a bloody hospital sequence between a partially paralyzed Sam and three hitmen who are high on laughing gas. It’s so ridiculous you can’t help but love it.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Yet there are moments of indulgence that seem utterly pointless. Take the occasional slow motion shot that seems to be there just to have a slow motion shot. Do we really need to see some enter a diner and then suddenly start walking to their booth in slo-mo? Also the frequent nods to movies like “John Wick”, “Kill Bill”, and even “Sin City” keep this movie from having an firm identity of its own. Sure, there is the all-female protagonists and the mother/daughter dynamic. But story-wise there isn’t much to set it apart and you get the sense that you’ve seen it all before.

Thankfully the action and the cast carry most of the load. Gillan pours herself into the role and really shines in the fight sequences. She’s a bit stiff and cold in the handful of dramatic scenes (partially by design), but she makes up for it with her grit and physicality. Headey is tough as nails and the sisterhood have some good moments despite seriously lacking depth. And that’s ultimately the movie itself. There just isn’t enough story to sink your teeth into. Instead it puts all its money on its eye-catching action and some fun performances. Thankfully that’s enough to keep the film afloat. “Gunpowder Milkshake” premieres on Netflix tomorrow (July 14th).

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Gaia” (2021)

There’s something sinister in the woods.” It’s not a direct line of dialogue from NEON’s upcoming eco-horror film “Gaia” but it could have been. This eerie new chiller from director Jaco Bouwer utilizes the tried-and-true creepy forest setting to great effect, sucking us into another bizarre and unsettling deep-woods scenario that melds mystery with the macabre. And while not as good as Ben Wheatley’s “In the Earth” from early this year, “Gaia” has a skin-crawling sense of dread that reverberates through the entire film.

I had to do a little research to learn Gaia refers to a deity known as the ancestral mother of all life. In Greek mythology she’s the personification of earth which makes her name a fitting title for this film. Written by Tertius Kapp, this South African feature begins with two forest rangers canoeing down a river that snakes through a dense forest. As Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) does the paddling Gabi (Monique Rockman) mans her drone as it descends from high overhead into the trees. She maneuvers it down a trail and gets a glimpse of man who promptly knocks the craft out of the air. Determined to get her drone back, Gabi hops out of the canoe to retrieve it while Winston goes ahead to check their game cameras.

Image Courtesy of NEON

Now anyone who knows horror movies understands that splitting up is never a good idea. That definitely proves to be the case here. After a nasty foot injury, a hobbled and frightened Gabi encounters a father and son, both thin as tails, covered in grime and wearing nothing more than tattered rags. They nurse her back to health beginning this unconventional journey where uncoiling the film’s mystery is more central than a focused plot.

From there the chilling tension sets in as Bouwer and Kapp slowly and methodically let us in on the secret of the woods. Much of it is channeled through the father Barend (Carel Nel) who clearly knows more than he’s telling. He has a zealous connection to the forest, even penning his own mysterious manifesto on what looks like ancient parchment. His son Stefan (Alex Van Dyk) is mostly silent and reserved; impressionable despite being raised under his father’s rigid fanaticism.

“Gaia” pours a lot into its uneasy atmosphere which burrows deeper under your skin the further we get into the story. That anxious feeling is helped by Pierre-Henri Wicomb’s ominous score and the rich sound design which fills the forest with spooky sounds of creaking wood, slithering roots and unidentifiable screeches. Meanwhile the special effects and makeup are spectacular, suggesting nature is to be both admired and feared; that it is simultaneously a thing of beauty and a terrifying force.

Image Courtesy of NEON

While the setup and much of the execution is intensely effective, the movie doesn’t hit all of its marks. It’s underlying message about both nature and modern civilization is obvious on the surface but gets murkier as it plays out. The film clearly presents a meddling humanity and a ticked off Mother Nature, but as characters go in certain directions it’s easy to lose sight of the deeper meanings. There’s also a relationship between Gabi and young Stefan that’s really hard to figure out. It’s not helped by a trippy hallucinogenic dream sequence, the kind where the director gets to do all sorts of weird things with the camera and to his characters. It’s something we’re seeing more and more in horror flicks these days and I’m kind of over them.

While it has its issues, “Gaia” is still a quality slice of modern horror. This modestly budgeted import uses its single location and four-person cast to tell a story of a vengeful planet taking back what has been stolen from it. The visuals, the sound, the score, and the performances all suck us into this foreboding location where nature has began its revolt. It’s the storytelling and messaging that gets a little clunky, keeping the film from fully delivering the punch it hopes to. Still, as a pure horror experience, Bouwer knows how to make his audience squirm. “Gaia” opens in theaters June 18th and on VOD June 25th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Georgetown” (2021)

Christoph Waltz stars in and makes his directorial debut with “Georgetown”, a too-crazy-to-be-true crime drama that’s actually based on an true story. Well, sort of. The film is written by screenwriter David Auburn and is taken from a 2012 New York Times Magazine article by Franklin Foer titled “The Worst Marriage in Georgetown”. I haven’t read Foer’s piece so I’m ill-suited to parse fact from fiction. But clearly Waltz and Auburn have added their own spin to the story. Look no further than the film’s opening disclaimer: “This story does not, in any way, claim to be the truth. Nonetheless, it is inspired by actual events.”

“Georgetown” tells the story of Ulrich Mott (Waltz), a smooth-talking con-artist who wins the heart of a wealthy and much older Washington DC journalist and socialite Elsa Brecht (Vanessa Redgrave). Against the wishes of her daughter Amanda (Annette Benning) who’s wise to Ulrich’s game, Elsa marries her much younger suitor (In the real-life account they wed in 1990, when she was 70 and he was 26). After several years of marital ups and downs, 91-year-old Elsa is found dead in their Georgetown home. At first it looks like natural causes, but the DC police uncover enough to open up a homicide investigation and despite his firm denials, Ulrich quickly becomes their chief suspect.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The movie unfolds to a rather unconventional structure. The main story begins at a dinner party on the night of Elsa’s death and then follows Ulrich’s arrest and eventual trial. It’s broken up by chaptered flashbacks that flesh out the couple’s peculiar relationship. It starts with Ulrich’s time as a Congressman’s intern hitting it off with Elsa after sneaking into the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Later we see him as her butler, wooing her with breakfast in bed and driving her around town. Before long they’re married and he’s using her connections and resources to setup his own consulting firm, hobnobbing with senators, ambassadors, journalists, and White House officials to climb his way up the social ladder.

Things only get wackier from there as Waltz (both actor and director) chronicles the absurdity of his weirdly fascinating character. Whether Ulrich is masquerading as a Brigadier General for the Iraqi Special Forces (yep, you read that right) or driving his hapless defense attorney (Corey Hawkins) mad with his bewildering antics. In one sense Ulrich proves to be a sneaky charmer who could talk his way into relationships with rich and powerful people from all over the globe. Yet at times his smarmy unscrupulous facade leaves you wondering how Amanda is the only one who sees through him.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Speaking of Amanda, the tension between her and Ulrich is compelling and from the earliest scenes it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t trust him. But that conflict gets tossed aside and Amanda all but disappears for most of the second half. It’s a really good performance from Benning who could have used more screen time. And as you can probably guess, Waltz is well suited for his icky two-sided role. You can’t help but laugh as he strolls around his neighborhood in military duds that look official but are impossible to recognize. But then you get these brief burst of venom that show the character’s nasty core. The movie doesn’t always strike a good balance for him but he’s always fascinating.

“Georgetown” isn’t the easiest material to adapt yet Christoph Waltz manages a solid behind-the-camera debut. His movie gets a little bogged down after taking a strange geopolitical turn but in a weird movie like this it oddly fits. Solid performances from Waltz, Redgrave and Benning help sell this story that almost feels otherworldly. But its craziness is part of what makes it so compelling and it’s what keeps you glued to the screen even during its rocky patches. “Georgetown” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Gully” (2021)

Three troubled teens unload years of pent-up rage over 48 hours of drugs, violence, and mayhem in “Gully”, the first narrative feature film from director Nabil Elderkin. Best known for his Hip Hop and R&B music videos for big acts like Kanye West, John Legend, and The Black Eyes Peas, Elderkin teams with screenwriter Marcus J. Guillory to tell an inner-city story with big aspirations that it never quite reaches.

The three close friends at the film’s center seem doomed from the first moment we meet them. Calvin (Jacob Latimore) is a charismatic kid with a mental health condition who routinely skips out on his medication despite the pleas of his concerned mother (Robin Givens). Jesse (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is quiet and full of pain which he keeps bottled up and hidden even from his two buddies. Nicky (Charlie Plummer) witnessed unspeakable violence as a child and while we get glimpses of a playful and carefree exterior, especially at home with his addict single mother (Amber Heard), inside he’s a swirl of volatility just waiting to implode.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The movie works overtime stacking the deck against these kids. Abuse, poverty, no real father-figures – just a few of the things touched on to show the hard lives they’ve had. They’re essentially abandoned, stripped of any childhood, trapped within their rough Los Angeles neighborhood, and left to exist by the dictates of an uncaring and unreliable culture and society. The problem is the destructive elements that have led to their delinquency are never examined the way they should be. Instead the film is content with wedging in a brief scene here and there in an effort to earn our sympathies. It helps us to understand the boys better, but not enough for us to like them the way the movie wants us to.

Elderkin seems far more interested in soaking us in the debauchery and violence than exploring its root causes. This leads to a frustratingly muddled messaging. I don’t want to say the film glamorizes their sordid behavior, but there are scenes where it certainly comes close. And their sudden shift from mischievous juveniles to violent criminals comes without so much as an explanation. One second they’re letting out their rage and angst through a Grand Theft Auto styled video game. The next scene they’re beating a complete stranger to a pulp and stealing his truck. And it only gets worse from there. Are we supposed to excuse it all simply because a handful of brief scenes show the three were dealt bad hands? The movie never finds that much needed balance.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Strangely there’s another running story that almost feels like it’s own thing. In it we see a terrific Jonathan Majors playing a recent parolee determined to live straight. In many ways his story is the most interesting and watching his character reacclimate to neighborhood life is more compelling than anything the three teens do. Sadly his story never really goes anywhere and it’s connection to the main story is minimal at best. We also get Terrence Howard randomly popping up as a homeless street profit who pushes his shopping cart around and speaks incoherent musings on street life. It’s a thankless role.

Nearly every facet of “Gully” works noticeably hard to be as gritty as possible – the dialogue, the direction, even the performances. It’s unfortunate because it handcuffs the three terrific young leads who otherwise do the best they can with what they’re given. As a director, Elderkin knows his way around with the camera and there are a number of striking images and visual choices to prove it. But overall it’s hard to figure out exactly what the movie is saying. Is it speaking out against violent video games? Is it a warning that violence begets violence? Is it just another story about hard times in inner-city neighborhoods? It touches on all of that and more but never with enough conviction. So we’re left with a lot of questions and too many ideas that never get the full treatment they deserve. “Gully” opens in select theaters June 4th and on VOD June 8th.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Godzilla vs Kong” (2021)

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Sometimes a movie’s title says it all. That’s definitely the case with “Godzilla vs. Kong”, the fourth film in Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse following two “Godzilla” movies and 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island”. It should go without saying, but you don’t enter into something called “Godzilla vs. Kong” with expectations of an emotionally layered and deeply nuanced story. Instead this is exactly what the title advertises. It’s 100% geek food and I was more than happy to fill my plate.

I’ve really enjoyed the MonsterVerse movies so far, much more than I expected. The three previous films each fed the shared-world space while still feeling individually unique. Some of the creative choices (especially in the “Godzilla” flicks) didn’t resonate with everyone, but I love how they gelled the classic approach to Godzilla with a more modern perspective. Meanwhile “Kong: Skull Island” was a straightforward, high-energy blockbuster full of fun yet surprisingly interesting characters and stunning eye-candy from start to finish.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

“Godzilla vs. Kong” goes for all of that plus some. When it goes big (which it does often) it makes good on its promises of big monster action and an epic showdown between two pop culture titans. The problems seep in with some of the human characters. But come on, this is all about King Kong, Godzilla, and a story that brings them together in a way that at least makes sense. By that measure director Adam Wingard and a writer’s room full of talent manage to pull it off, delivering a rousing crowdpleaser that’s sure to have kaiju fans high-fiving in the theater or on their couches.

The movie starts with some necessary table setting. The title creatures are believed to be the last two Alpha Titans on the planet. Kong is being held in a massive virtual reality containment dome on Skull Island by the Titan-studying organization Monarch. The facility is overseen by Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) who has discovered a communication link with Kong via her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a young deaf girl orphaned on Skull Island. The sweet bond between child and primate highlights the human bond Kong has always possessed dating back to his original 1933 RKO Radio Pictures movie. In that regard it makes sense that he gets more screen time.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

Though it took two movies of convincing, Godzilla is now viewed as a protector of mankind (although a moody one). But something has him stirred up and nobody knows what. For the first time in three years the scaly King of the Monsters emerges from the ocean waters and attacks a Pensacola, Florida research facility of Apex Cybernetics, an international tech corporation ran by the dapper Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir). Godzilla’s seemingly random rampage on the Gulf Coast complex has people of earth a little concerned including a returning Kyle Chandler who’s really only here to deliver deliciously hokey lines like “Godzilla is out there, and he’s hurting people, and we don’t know why!”

Following the attack, Simmons recruits tarnished ex-Monarch scientist Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) to head an expedition to Hollow Earth, a deep subterranean world and secret home of the Titans. Lind’s mission is to study a new-found energy source believed to possess enough power to enable mankind to defend itself against Godzilla. But to get to Hollow Earth Lind will need a guide. So he contacts Ilene on Skull Island and convinces her to let Kong lead them to the earth’s core. One problem – once Kong is out of containment Godzilla will likely sense the new threat and come for him. And of course he does. As a convoy of aircraft carriers and destroyers transport a lightly sedated Kong across the ocean, Godzilla attacks which leads to an exhilarating heavyweight rumble, the first of several eye-popping CGI clashes we’re treated to.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

I won’t labor on the plot (and there is more plot than you might expect), but it’s all quite ridiculous and that’s part of the fun. The biggest misfire is a silly side-story with Brian Tyree Henry as a podcaster and self-proclaimed whistleblower teaming up with a returning Millie Bobby Brown and her unfunny tag-along pal played by Julian Dennison. The trio suspects Apex of hiding something regarding Godzilla’s attack and through a series of meant-to-be-amusing sequences effortlessly break into and infiltrate the corporation’s highest security areas. The whole scenario is absurd and too hard to believe, and that’s saying a lot in a movie about two 350-foot(ish) tall behemoths duking it out. There are some smaller touches that are a lot funnier, mostly involving the creatures (take Kong waking up on Skull Island and taking a morning stretch to Bobby Vinton’s “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea”).

And that leads back the movie’s biggest draw – Godzilla and King Kong. Few of the human characters will stick with you save for young Kaylee Hottle who brings a ton of heart and warmth to the movie. But it’s the Rock’em Sock’em creature combat that audiences are going to show up for and the filmmakers know it. People want to see Godzilla’s radioactive fire breath and Kong’s primal chest pound. We come to a movie called “Godzilla vs. Kong” for big action and giddy spectacle. Wingard does exactly what he needs to – give us just enough story to move from set piece to set piece and then deliver the goods on a massive and glorious scale. I caught myself cheering, pumping my fist, and letting out more than one audible “WOW“, and that from a screener at home. I can’t wait to see it again this weekend, this time on a big screen. “Godzilla vs. Kong” opens Wednesday, March 31st in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars