Friday, July 30, 2021


Opening this weekend:

The Green Knight--A huge green guy on a horse crashes King Arthur's Christmas Party, inviting any of Arthur's knights to strike him in return for his formidable green battle axe. The condition: one year hence, the assailant must show up at the Green Knight's place and allow him to return a blow of the same severity. Most of the Knights of the Round Table wisely take a pass; the ambitious young Gawain agrees and beheads the intruder, who promptly rises, picks up his own severed noggin, and tells Gawain see you next Christmas.

This, as you may recall from English class, is the set-up for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the anonymous 14th-Century Arthurian poem. It's been filmed at least twice before, including as the kitschy Sword of the Valiant in 1984, with Miles O'Keeffe and Sean Connery as Gawain and Greenie, respectively.

This new adaptation, by the American writer-director David Lowery, tries a more idiosyncratic approach. The story unfolds in an austere medieval look and atmosphere, with the characters skulking around really cold and inhospitable-looking castles, or desolate forests. The stylized imagery often recalls Old Masters religious art; Dev Patel, who plays Gawain, here looks like he stepped out of a Last Supper mural.

And yet the people are entirely and unromantically human. Patel plays Gawain as a typical young man with proximity to power but no real position: not a bad sort, but vain, petulant, reckless, horny and a little entitled (his Mom, played by Sarita Choudhury, is Arthur's sister Morgan Le Fay). Sean Harris plays Arthur with a thick, bumpkin-ish accent (he calls our hero "GAR-win"), and his Guinevere (Kate Dickie) looks like she's escaped from a cautionary TV spot about the dangers of smoking.

Lowery seems to want to show how honoring one's word under all-but-impossible circumstances--like, say, not only submitting to having your head cut off, but undergoing an arduous and dangerous journey to do it--happens in the real world of ordinary people with ordinary motivations, rather than in the idealized world of chivalric romance. It's a daring idea, but the result is a deeply eccentric, borderline campy movie unlikely to please either medieval classicists or fans of the Tolkien and Outlander flicks and Boorman's Excalibur. For one thing, there isn't one decent sword fight in the film; this Gawain is decidedly a lover, not a fighter.

But patient, open-minded viewers will know they've seen something at the end of this slow, exasperatingly fussy movie. Don't misunderstand; it's a challenge, but it's also visually beautiful; it's full of many odd, effective little episodes, like Gawain's encounter with St. Winifred (Erin Kellyman); and the actors generate a surprising degree of eroticism. Lowery's style recalls earlier movies ranging from Rohmer's 1978 Perceval le Gallois to the Peter Greenaway films to Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ, and even Rene Laloux's Fantastic Planet. But it isn't quite an imitation of any of them.

The movie that The Green Knight most recalls, however, inevitably and unfortunately, is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As Gawain trudged through mist-shrouded woods, I kept waiting for The Knights Who Say "Ni" to show up. I would have been glad to see them, too.

Monday, July 26, 2021


Now in theaters:

Old--A family of four arrives at a tropical resort and is sent, with other vacationers, to a beautiful secret beach enclosed by cliffs. Weird stuff starts happening almost at once, and before long the crux of the weirdness becomes clear: the guests are aging, at a rate of about two years per hour. The little kids start sprouting into hormonal adolescents; the grownups start to get wrinkles. Worse yet, every effort to leave the beach is repelled by mysterious forces.

This latest from the King of High Concept, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, is adapted from a 2010 graphic novel known in English as Sandcastle, by French writer Pierre Oscar Levy and Swiss illustrator Frederik Peeters. The movie is like most of Shyamalan's efforts: a brilliant idea, unevenly but fascinatingly executed.

The story unfolds in a dreamlike style of short, disjointed bits of dialogue and oscillating camera movements. There are passages of dazzling originality and twisted, daring wit, dramatizing a familiar feeling: the terrifying and disorienting way that life seems to accelerate toward mortality as we get older.

The attractive cast includes Gael Garcia Bernal--strange to see the kid from Y tu mama tambien turning into an old man--and Vicky Krieps as the Mom and Dad, who are harboring a secret from their son and daughter, not very well. There are also amusing turns by Rufus Sewell as an unbalanced surgeon, Abbey Lee as his trophy wife, Ken Leung as a nurse, Nikki Amuka-Bird as his psychiatrist wife and Aaron Pierre as a rapper known by the stage name "Midsize Sedan." A variety of good actors play the kids at various stages of development, and Clint's freakily beautiful daughter Francesca Eastwood has a brief but striking role as a resort hostess.

The movie thrashes around in its final act, as Shyamalan tries for overt horror effects that are neither very frightening nor very coherent. He also tries to tie things up with a slapdash explanatory finale. This wasn't necessary; the idea was more evocative without this literalism. There's a moment near the end that seemed to me like the perfect, touching point to close the story, but Shyamalan carries on for another twenty minutes or so, unable to let his movie age gracefully.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021


What follows here is the product of an extremely low-level case of buyer's remorse, about a half-century old. Sometime in the very early '70s, when I was eight or ten, I was poking around in an airport newsstand on a layover during a family trip. I don't remember which airport--somewhere in the south, most likely--or where we were going or headed back from, or why. I don't remember much about it at all, really, except for a comic book that I didn't buy: The Classics Illustrated version of Wild Animals I Have Known, by Ernest Thompson Seton.

Classics Illustrated was a long line of comic book adaptations of respectable literature put out by Gilberton and, later, Frawley Publishing from the early '40s until around the time of my airport layover. They were aimed, mostly, at boys, stuff like The Three Musketeers and The Last of the Mohicans, though they did do versions of Jane Eyre and Lorna Doone. The drawing was variable but often pretty bad; the colors were garish; the stories not only ridiculously abridged but also expurgated. The best thing about them, in many cases, was the dramatic painted covers (in this regard they were like Gold Key comics, which I also loved as a kid).

They were an influential part of my childhood: My stack included the line's numerous versions of the tales of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre DameMoby Dick, The OdysseyJulius Caesar and A Midsummer Night's Dream, among many others. Well, there was a rack of them in the newsstand, and I was able to secure a quarter from my Mom to buy one for the flight. But which to buy? I was drawn to Wild Animals I Have Known, with its striking orange-tinged cover featuring the snarling face of a wolf. But there was another one that I also wanted.

I think there may have been an application to my Mom for a second quarter so I could get both; it was declined. In the end I chose the other comic, not Wild Animals, as my purchase. What the other title was I cannot remember at all, but through all these years the cover of Wild Animals I Have Known stuck in my memory, though I never came across the comic again, or knew anything more about the book upon which it was based.

Then a few weeks ago I was going through a stack of old comics in a junkshop, and there it was: That same looming wolf face, in a near-mint copy. Classics Illustrated used a heavy, durable "slick" paper for their covers, with the result that used editions are often in much better shape than other old comics. Needless to say, I bought it.

And I took it home and read it. Good Lord. I made the right choice back at the newsstand.

Or maybe not; it was, in any case, memorable, which the comic I bought apparently wasn't.

Wild Animals I Have Known, the book, was published in 1898. Seton, a Brit who came to the U.S. after many years in Canada, was a naturalist and folklorist, and a co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America. He was one of the nature writers targeted by the likes of John Burroughs and Theodore Roosevelt in the long-running "nature fakers controversy" of the early 1900s, on the charge that he sentimentalized and anthropomorphized his subjects, attributing to animals such human traits as love, loyalty and self-sacrifice, as well as vengeance and spite.

Classic Illustrated's version of his best-known book is not, however, the warm and fuzzy collection I was expecting. It begins with this declaration:

"These stories are about real animals. Almost all meet a tragic end, for this is nature's law concerning wild things. But in each is the stamp of greatness."

He isn't kidding. Spoiler and trigger alert: I'm going to give away the endings of several of his tales, and if you're one of the many people who can't abide depictions of animal suffering or death, this won't be your cup of tea.

Take, for instance, "Lobo," the story of the wolf on the cover. Seton recounts how he was hired to kill this cunning and ferocious leader of a wolf pack by ranchers in New Mexico around 1890. The creature outwits several of his efforts to trap him, but finally our narrator uses Lobo's great love for his mate Blanca against him; she's the only wolf Lobo will permit to run ahead of him, allowing Seton to trap her. He kills Blanca...

...then drags her body over more traps, and the grief-stricken Lobo is ensnared the next day. Lobo submits to be taken back to the ranch alive and chained up, but...

"When morning dawned he was still there, but his spirit had gone. The old king wolf was dead."

That's the characteristically blunt final line.

Another heart-warmer is "Wully," about a Scottish sheepdog of tireless devotion to his master Robin. When they take their flock to market, a stampede occurs and scatters them. Wully gathers them in. Robin counts the sheep and tells Wully one is missing; the dog, "stung with shame," hurries off into the city to find the missing sheep. While he's gone, a kid recounts the flock and informs Robin that he miscounted; all 734 are accounted for.

To which the old git replies: "Wully won't come back until he finds another sheep, even if he has to steal it. That could make me a lot of trouble. I might even lose my job."

So the bastard leaves without him. Wully spends years homeless, then miraculously finds a new gig herding sheep, but he's damaged goods; he becomes a secret killer of sheep on neighboring farms, and at the end he leaps at the throat of the new master's daughter, leaving the guy no alternative but to strike him down. The last line:

"A second blow stretched him lifeless on the hearthstone where so long he had been a faithful and honored retainer."

Then there's "Raggylug," about a rabbit that lives in a swamp with his mother, who defends him from predators. He eventually learns to lead vicious dogs and other hazards against other rabbits intruding on his turf. At the end he and his mother are fleeing a fox, and she tries to escape by swimming across an icy pond. She doesn't make it...

"She drifted backward, and now her strength was spent. In a little while the weak limbs ceased to move and the soft brown eyes closed...when he got back to the pond he could not find his mother, for she slept in the arms of her friend, the water that tells no tales."

On the other hand, the final panel, informing us of Rag's own fate, is as as close as these stories come to a happy ending...

"Rag lived on in the swamp. He found a wife and raised many children and grandchildren who, perhaps, live there to this day."

And finally, for you horse lovers, there's "The Pacing Mustang," set back in New Mexico in the 1890s. It's about the efforts of a cowboy named Jo Calone to capture a black wild mustang who "paces" instead of gallops. The creature eludes many attempts to catch him before ultimately going full Thelma & Louise...

"...with the last of his strength, he made for the top of a cliff. There he sprang into the vacant air to land upon the rocks below--lifeless, but free."


Having said that, while I don't think I would have "liked" this comic had I read it back then, in the usual sense of the word, I don't think I would have would have been traumatized by it, either. I think I might have felt respected by its unflinching presentation of the tragic, and I think I might have agreed that Seton's animal characters had the "stamp of greatness."

One other observation, with regard to the "Nature Fakers Controversy": I suspect that, whatever specific exaggerations, projections or romanticizations Seton may have indulged in these stories, in general he and his fellow "sentimentalists" have been shown to be in the right over the last few decades. The factor that has shown them to be right, curiously enough, is the rise of home video.

Thousands and thousands of widely circulated amateur videos of pets and wild creatures alike have suggested, to a degree that precludes fakery and in ways that would previously have been dismissed, that animals share the same emotions, personalities and potentials as humans. Turns out that Seton and his ilk weren't "anthropomorphizing" at all; they weren't attributing human traits to animals, they were simply recognizing that such traits weren't exclusive to humans.

Friday, July 9, 2021


Opening this weekend:

Black Widow--Introduced in Marvel's Tales of Suspense in 1964 as a Cold-War-era enemy for Iron Man, Soviet assassin Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, was later allowed to defect, and eventually became a member of The Avengers. She's been played in the movies by Scarlett Johansson since 2010.

This eponymous vehicle, technically a prequel to the Avengers flicks, offers a backstory for the character. We see her enjoying an idyllic childhood in small town Ohio; we soon learn that her family is a sham spy cell. Forced to flee, she and her younger sister Yelena end up in the "Red Room," training as brainwashed Russian agents. Years later, the grown-up Natasha teams up with Yelena and their "parents," to stop the cruelties of the Red Room.

Directed by Cate Shortland from a script by Eric Pearson, Black Widow is everything that Marvel movies usually are: well-made, absorbing, overlong, uneven. The main unevenness here is of tone, early on. It starts with screaming little girls hauled away from their families and shoved into horrible captivity, and it takes a while for the silly action and jocularity that follows to counter this grimness. Or it took a while for me, anyway.

But once Natasha's freaky family reunion takes place, and everybody's speaking English with radio comedy Russian accents, the movie does start to get fun, and by the gratuitously multiple climactic scenes I was invested. As usual, the acting is what makes it worthwhile. David Harbour and Rachel Weisz have a blast as the ebullient Dad and the haunted Mom, respectively, and Ray Winstone makes one of the more thoroughly despicable villains ever in a Marvel movie as the loathsome master of the Red Room.

Johansson is lithe and confident in the title role, but the movie is utterly purloined from her by Florence Pugh, sporting a delicious accent, as Yelena. Just as Pugh's Amy was the liveliest element of 2019's Little Women, she stands out in Black Widow as another upstart little sister.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021


 Check out the July issue of Phoenix Magazine... on the stands; it's the much-anticipated "Best of the Valley" issue. See if you can guess, out of the hundreds of entries, the eight for which Your Humble Narrator is responsible. One of them was actually written by The Wife, but I still consider myself responsible and will certainly accept payment for it...

Sunday, July 4, 2021


Happy Independence Day to our beautiful, broken, crazy, desperate, freedom-loving, fascist-hating, horribly imperfect, gradually progressing beloved country!

Long may Abraham Lincoln ride the tyrannosaurus!

Friday, July 2, 2021


Opening this weekend:

I Carry You With Me--Ivan and Gerardo grow up gay and closeted in Mexico. They meet, fall passionately in love, have to keep it secret from their families, and eventually immigrate, separately and illegally, to the U.S. Over many years, Ivan finds success in the restaurant business; later the two of them reunite in New York.

The director is veteran documentarian Heidi Ewing, of Jesus Camp and other chronicles. She began this one as another non-fiction feature about two of her friends, but eventually decided the film had to dramatize their younger days. So various excellent young actors play the characters at different stages of their lives, and Ewing employs some of the initial documentary footage she shot of the real guys as well.

The result is a verite epic with the flavor of a good long novel. There are many powerful, even harrowing scenes, as when the child Gerardo is terrorized by his father, who already suspects the truth about him, or Ivan's and his friend Sandra's desert border crossing. Ewing's technique makes high drama feel lifelike, and more significantly, reminds us that real life is high drama. 

The Forever Purge--The Purge series, launched in 2013 by screenwriter and director James DeMonaco, is set in a theocratic near-future America in which, once a year, anarchy is sanctioned; for a twelve-hour period, nothing, including murder, is illegal. The idea, supposedly, is that this will purge people of our rage, and society will be stable the rest of the year.

There's been something vile all along about the way these movies offer this loathsome outrage for our delectation; they're also, alas, efficiently made and very watchable. This fifth entry has a western flavor; it's set in a small Texas town, and deals with Mexican immigrants and the suspicious, bigoted, affluent Anglos for whom they work.

This time, when The Purge ends, it...doesn't end. A faction of nationalists and white supremacists declares that the Purge is now permanent, and uses the opportunity to try to "cleanse" America racially. An anglo rancher and his family, attacked by the "Purgers" for being rich, band together with a few of their undocumented employees and desperately try, in what DeMonaco probably regards as blistering irony, to flee across the border into Mexico.

The movie is full of shaggy bikers out of a Mad Max film and nightmarish masked riders out of a spaghetti western fever dream. Seven months ago I might have still dismissed this as hokum, crude theatrics; now the "Purgers" look disgustingly but unmistakably like the January 6 rioters. It's hard to escape the conclusion that what The Forever Purge presents as horror is what these people want. Even though the movie's diverse heroes are the sort of people that reactionaries regard as the bad guys, this movie still might serve that audience as porn.

The Boss Baby: Family Business--Expanded from a children's book by Marla Frazee, 2017's The Boss Baby was a pretty laborious animated saga, but it had a hilarious character at its center: toddler Ted Templeton, who swaggered around in the persona of a corporate honcho. The diminutive tycoon spoke in the peerless silky growl of Alec Baldwin, tossing off lines like "I need upsies" as if he were asking an administrative assistant for a cup of coffee.

In this sequel Ted, now grown up, is transformed back into a baby, and his older brother Tim (James Marsden, replacing Tobey Maguire in the original) is transformed back into a little kid so that they can infiltrate the school for overachieving kids that Tim's daughters attend. Tim's younger daughter (Amy Sedaris) is, it turns out, herself a boss baby.

In short, it's even more laborious than the first film; I wouldn't recommend unless you need to kill a slow afternoon with a six-year-old. But if you go, you'll see gags referencing everything from Pulp Fiction to Norma Rae, and the movie still has Baldwin going for it, delivering quips like "I'm in the dum-dum holding tank!" with effortless authority. He gets to square off with another great Hollywood voice, Jeff Goldblum, as the oily, passive-aggressive headmaster.

Also, it has kind of a pretty song, called "Together We Stand." 

Thursday, July 1, 2021


Now in theaters:

Zola--To be clear, this movie is not a prestige costume biopic on the life of Emile Zola. But that Zola might well have envied the scandalous and scary plot.

There is a literary/cinematic distinction here, however; this may be the first movie ever based on a Twitter thread. The "viral" 2015 saga, which ran to 148 tweets, was the work of Aziah King, aka Zola (Taylour Paige), a beautiful Detroit-based waitress and sometime stripper who, she claims, got invited on a road trip to Tampa by Stefani (Riley Keough), another stripper she had just met at the restaurant where she worked. The plan, or so she thought, was to dance a little, make some money, party a little, come home. It didn't work out that way.

Also on the trip was a mysterious Nigerian man (Colman Domingo) who Zola soon realized was Stefani's pimp, and Derek (Nicholas Braun), Stefani's numb-skulled nominal boyfriend. In a very short time, Zola realized that she had been lured into a sex trafficking ring, and was in serious trouble.

The gifted director, Janicza Bravo, links natural overheard rhythms, like two kids dribbling a basketball, to the rhythms of the editing and music to generate a nerve-jangling, ominous tension. She also creates a cringe-inducing sense of what sex work looks like from the sex worker's point of view, and most intriguingly, a convincing, non-melodramatic sense of how an intelligent person might find themselves caught up in sex trafficking, just like anybody might stumble obliviously into something they don't want to do but can't safely get out of.

Bravo and the actors, led by the self-possessed Taylour Paige, bring this cautionary tale to life, with plenty of harsh comedy but also a very real tone of menace. There is some question about how much the real-life Zola (who is credited as an executive producer) may have fictionalized her account; all I can say is that I was deeply invested in this woman getting away from this situation.