Thoughts on The Green Knight, The Suicide Squad, Central Park, Pig, and more.
The Green Knight
I can probably only play this card once, but for me anyway, the hardest part of writing a review is just… starting. Once I have my lede, the rest of it comes pretty quickly. But as I write this, it’s been over a week since I returned to my Alamo Drafthouse (for the first time in 17 months!) for David Lowery’s The Green Knight, and while I can’t stop thinking about it, I’ve had a devil of a time turning those ideas and images into words. The film’s an overwhelming experience — an enthralling, brilliantly performed phantasmagoria that reimagines not just a single myth, but the entire Arthurian mythos. It’s a blending of the sacred and the pagan; the strength of Man against the unyielding wilderness. Many viewers may be completely baffled by it. I adored it. But how to talk about it? It’s like the parable of the blind men and the elephant; I can grope around it and make observations, but I won’t feel like I’m doing it justice.
Ah, forget it. I’m being pretentious — a critique that I’m sure has been leveled at Lowery more than once. (After all, his 2017 film A Ghost Story featured a several-minute take of Rooney Mara eating a pie.) The main idea of The Green Knight, without going into too many spoilers of the centuries-old poem or the film inspired by it, is spoken aloud early in the film: “Why greatness?” asks Essel (Alicia Vikander), the lowborn girlfriend of aspiring knight Gawain (Dev Patel). “Isn’t goodness enough?” The unknown author of the original poem believed the two were intertwined, treating Gawain’s march toward uncertain death as an allegory for chivalric virtue. Lowery does as well, but with one critical change: our Gawain is not yet a knight, but a layabout disappointment to his mother (Sarita Choudhury) and the uncle/King he hopes to one day serve (Sean Harris). Like Shakespeare’s Henry V, Gawain’s journey will call upon him to cast aside childish things and finally live up to his potential, believing up until the critical moment that his innate honor will carry him through.
But before he can answer the summons of the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), the being with intimidating countenance and a big-ass axe whom Gawain rashly and temporarily decapitates, the royal nephew will be sorely tested. He will encounter scavengers, and spirits, and a parade of naked giants; he will be tempted by the mysterious wife (Vikander, again) of a garrulous Lord (Joel Edgerton). And through it all, Lowery’s deliberate pacing and stunning cinematography (from Andrew Droz Palermo) kept me enraptured. The Irish locales are breathtaking and otherworldly; Daniel Hart’s score bores into your brain. And then there’s the bravura final act, a sequence which should be equally praised and analyzed down to the enigmatic last shot. (I’ve got thoughts, but I promised I wouldn’t get too spoiler-y here, so hit me up.) The Green Knight is The Seventh Seal with a talking fox; The Last Temptation of Christ with Treebeard, and will be hard to beat for my favorite film of the year.
The Suicide Squad
This will be a lot easier: It’s a good time! In fact, I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. I never got around to seeing the first, poorly-received Suicide Squad, and despite James Gunn’s involvement in this quasi-sequel/soft reboot, I may have never gotten around to this one either if there weren’t so many people I take seriously spreading the good word on my Twitter feed. But I did — and while The Suicide Squad’s chaotic hyper-violence wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea, it’s cleverly structured, really well-paced, and Gunn is so good at finding the emotional hook in the most absurd situations that I couldn’t help but grin throughout.
It helps, of course, to retain one of the only things in the first film that apparently worked, and that’s Margot Robbie’s gleefully deranged Harley Quinn. In more ways than one, she’s the lynchpin of the entire blood-soaked enterprise — even amongst a cast as sprawling and idiosyncratic as this one. No stranger to assembling a technicolored ensemble after the Guardians of the Galaxy films, Gunn here doesn’t really put a foot wrong in his character selections, or how he bounces them off (or sometimes through) each other. He makes great use, especially, of Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 (she loves rats!), Idris Elba’s Bloodsport (he loves weapons!), David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man (he hates his mom!), John Cena’s Peacemaker (he sucks!), Sylvester Stallone’s(!) King Shark (he’s… a shark!), and… wait, hang on. I’m just naming everyone now. Even Joel Kinneman (Rick Flag, a returnee from the original) is having a good time! Peter Capaldi (Thinker) is using his natural brogue! Viola Davis is still in these movies!
Anyway, somehow, it all more or less works. After a surprising bait-and-switch of an opener, the plot is refreshingly non-convoluted: the Squad must infiltrate a South American island nation in the middle of a coup to shut down a dangerous “weapons experiment” called Project Starfish (spoiler: It involves a giant starfish), and more or less turn everyone in their way (accidentally or on purpose) into viscera. Like in Guardians, Gunn has a lot of fun with the idea of independent chaos agents discovering their consciences when forced to work together in common cause, and it all builds to a climax that is as emotionally satisfying as it is visually thrilling. (There’s some fairly potent anti-imperialism in there, too; it’s probably not a coincidence Peacemaker’s logo looks like something you’d see in a LifeWay bookstore.) You already know if this kind of thing is your thing; me, the entirety of my Letterboxd diary entry was to note that this was surely the first use of a Decemberists song in a comic book film. James Gunn, you minx.
Central Park, Season 2 (Apple TV+)
Somewhat under the radar, Apple has developed an exceptional slate of television shows: Ted Lasso, sure, but also For All Mankind, and Mythic Quest, and Loren Bouchard’s Central Park, a big-hearted animated musical. Drawn in the same simplistic but colorful style as Bouchard’s Bob’s Burgers, Central Park boasts an all-star cast, catchy songs (many penned by luminaries like Alan Menken, Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, and Fiona Apple), and a bounty of “warm fuzzies” that slots the series neatly next to Lasso, Parks & Recreation, Detectorists, and others I’ve championed in the past.
It centers on the Tillerman family, who live within the park itself (in a house that, at least on the outside, resembles Belvedere Castle). Neurotic father Owen (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is the official park manager, constantly dashing off to deal with one problem or another — snakehead fish, trash overflows, graffiti in the form of genitalia, etc. Hard-charging mom Paige (Kathryn Hahn) is a small-time journalist looking for her career-making scoop. Daughter Molly (Kristen Bell in Season 1, before bowing out to be replaced by Emmy Raver-Lampman) is a creative loner, preferring to draw comic strips featuring herself as a superhero. Her little brother, Cole (Tituss Burgess), craves adventure and loves animals. The family is watched over/narrated by busking violinist Birdie (Josh Gad at his least obnoxious), and loathed by wealthy hotelier Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci), who plots to buy the park and turn it over to the forces of capitalism; meanwhile, Bitsy’s long-suffering assistant Helen (Daveed Diggs) has problems of her own.
Each cast member is often given dynamic, ear-wormy songs that run the gamut from 70’s disco-soul (“Do it While We Can”) to Broadway showstoppers (“Weirdos Make Great Superheroes“) to just clearing the lane for Diggs to do his thing (“Weehauken Rap“). The series’s second season, the first half of which just
aired streamed on the service, raises the bar both in the music and the storytelling; instead of focusing primarily on Bitsy’s corrupt machinations, the series opens up into a more standalone structure that sacrifices narrative momentum for giving each discrete episode its own unique emotional punch. In the third episode, “Fista Puffs Metes Out Justice,” Molly channels her social anxieties into a hand-drawn allegory that culminates with her drawings (and the drawings those drawings make!) talking back to her. But I’d be hard-pressed to say that I was knocked more for a loop than by the final ten minutes of “The Shadow,” which for most of its runtime is a moving piece of humanization for Bitsy, then suddenly shifts its focus to Birdie the busker — and a beautiful, Up-caliber sequence of nothing but music and raw, human storytelling. Remarkable stuff.
I’m not sure whether to blame the marketing or our own preconceptions, but Pig is not the movie many people (including myself) thought it would be. For better or worse, Michael Sarnoski’s stunning debut feature became quickly viewed as another John Wick clone, with Nicholas Cage subbing for Keanu Reeves and a different animal pet. Cage plays Rob, a man living alone in the Oregon wilderness, content to get by by selling truffles to a young entrepreneur (Alex Wolff) until his porcine partner gets stolen (pignapped?), and then he’s off on a mission of righteous justice.
But a bloody revenge fantasy this is not. The Oscar-winning Cage is regrettably known by younger filmgoers as the king of direct-to-video schlock, demonstrating his full commitment to every terrible part through his unhinged intensity. And in scene after scene, Pig sets up what you expect (especially after 2018’s blood-soaked Mandy) will be opportunities for Cage to go, well, Full Cage. As we slowly learn more about Rob’s backstory, what (and who) he left behind and why, he becomes an object of awe, even intimidation; yet every time I thought we were about to dive into B-movie excess, Rob makes the healthier choice. Pig isn’t just “not a John Wick clone,” it is, seemingly intentionally, the anti-Wick. And Sarnoski and co-writer Vanessa Block tell their story with such subtlety and grace, it’s frankly an insult to continue to compare the two.
So let’s talk about what Pig actually is, without revealing too much (misconceptions aside, you should try to go in cold). A better comparison would be First Cow: It’s a fully-formed, beautifully lensed (by Patrick Scola) allegory about grief and loss. It’s deliberately paced, but a strikingly efficient 92 minutes. It presents the underbelly of a world we kinda know — Portland fine dining — but with enough heightened originality to keep us on our toes. And from the first frame to the last, Cage is magnificent. No bombast, no crazy eyes, just a perfectly controlled performance. Wolff as well is fascinating as Amir, a guy who learns by helping Rob that there are no shortcuts from mediocrity to a life of meaning. “We don’t get many things in life to truly care about,” a bearded, bloodied Rob tells a former kitchen protege, and looking into Cage’s eyes, you feel every ounce of his pain, but also his empathy. My harebrained take is that Rob might be an analogue for God; the film’s climax, which joins Ratatouille and Babette’s Feast in the pantheon of cathartic dinner scenes, is practically a religious experience.
- Last night I checked out Ride the Eagle, directed by Trent O’Donnell and co-written with star Jake Johnson. As ever, the erstwhile Nick Miller is highly watchable as Leif, a guy coming to grips with the death of the mom (Susan Sarandon) who abandoned him as a child; he learns she’s leaving him a wildly expensive-looking cabin, but only if he completes an arbitrary list of tasks like “Express Yourself” and “Eat What You Kill.” I’m not sure if COVID-19 made this more of a mumblecore experience than it would have been otherwise, but there’s only so much of Johnson and the D’Arcy Carden talking on the phone one can take before your attention starts to drift. Still, amusing. 2.5 stars.
- I don’t know how Ted Lasso (Apple TV+) does it. Not content with simply redefining masculinity, Bill Lawrence, Jason Sudeikis, and company are using their second season to question their own conclusions, while still making Lasso the most goshdarned wholesome thing on the air. Roy Kent forever. MUCH more next month.
- Created by Taiki Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu) is a fresh and inventive new half-hour dramedy that knows exactly what it is and what it wants to do. There’s a lot of Atlanta in its DNA, but its appealing cast of young Native Americans make this a world I already want to hang out in. Two episodes in, I think this is something special.
- Loki opened the floodgates to the MCU multiverse, and animated series What If…? (Disney+) is eager to step into the gap. We’ve only seen the first Peggy Carter-centric episode so far, but the animation is cool, and there’s infinite potential even if we should expect some episodes to be hit or miss. I don’t think it’s appointment viewing, but it should be more satisfying than The Bad Batch as spinoffs go.
- Three years after its debut overseas, the first two seasons of Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s Wellington Paranormal are finally airing on The CW (and HBO Max next-day). If you haven’t heard, it’s a TV spinoff of the original What We Do In the Shadows film, and reader, it is a gem. Mike Minogue and Karen O’Leary are brilliant as the unflappably good-natured, terminally dim detectives getting up close and personal with zombies, aliens, demons, and — of course — vampires. A hilariously oddball time.
Looking ahead to… Sandra Oh plays a harried university department head on The Chair (Netflix, 8/27)… Steve Martin and Martin Short are amateur sleuths/podcast hosts in Only Murders in the Building (8/31, Hulu)… What We Do in the Shadows returns for Season 3 (9/2, FX)… Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings brings a new hero to the MCU (9/3)… American Crime Story tackles Clinton (Clive Owen) and Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) in Impeachment (9/7, FX)… PR headache Paul Schrader follows up First Reformed with the Oscar Isaac-starring The Card Counter (9/10)… I can’t believe it, but Y: The Last Man is actually, finally coming to television (9/13, FX)… Ashley Zukerman takes over for Tom Hanks (sans wig) in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol (9/16, Peacock)… Jessica Chastain & Andrew Garfield look creepy as hell as the Bakkers in The Eyes of Tammy Faye (9/17)… Dear White People is getting a fourth season… as a musical?? (9/22, Netflix)… the long-awaited Asimov adaptation Foundation looks… man, I don’t know, but it’s got Jared Harris and Lee Pace! (9/24, Apple TV+).