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Summer 2021 – Week 11 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. With One Piece finally in the rear view, the floodgates were opened this week, as we replaced hours of dedicated One Piece time with even more feature films. I actually watched even more films than I had time to write about this week, but don’t worry! All the excess Content will surely pop up in next week’s article. In the meantime, this was a week of recent highlights, as we checked out two of 2021’s top films, as well as a magnificent work from 2020.

It’s difficult to express how exciting it is to feel my art critique muscles being stressed and rebuilt this rigorously; with every film we screen, I feel just a sliver of added context, and that much more attunement with the infinite tapestry of artistic form and influence. There’s just so much to see, so much I don’t know, and grappling with that is both exhilarating and kinda terrifying. The world of storytelling is vaster than any person could chart, but as long as I know more today than I did yesterday, I think I’m on the right track. But enough starry-eyed rambling, let’s break down some films!

Our first project this week was one of 2021’s finest films, David Lowery’s The Green Knight. Dev Patel stars as Gaiwan, a nephew of King Arthur who seeks to establish his own legend. When the mystical Green Knight appears at a Christmas feast, Gaiwan agrees to its game: he will strike one blow on the knight, and one year hence, Gaiwan must journey to the knight’s sanctum to see the blow return. Flush with confidence, Gaiwan heroically severs the knight’s head from its shoulders – only to hear the creak of laughter from the head’s lips, and a warning to keep his oath.

The Green Knight draws on fantasy traditions older and darker than our current models, trafficking in fables with unclear morals and brutal conclusions. It is simultaneously a stirring fantasy in its own right, and also a story about stories, about how we construct legend out of history, which then informs our own attempts to turn action into legend. The cinematography is gorgeous, presenting a vision of Arthurian England that is both bleak and beautiful, a harsh landscape spotted with old ruins and new grudges. Though Lowery’s visual reach is sometimes failed by his CG’s grasp, the overall effect is captivating. I found myself lamenting our lack of hundreds of competitors for such a film – The Green Knight demonstrates CG as a tool to assist the imagination, not a crutch to avoid paying union rates.

Along with its visual beauty, The Green Knight possesses a fascinating sense of moral ambiguity, which twines neatly with its reflections on the power of myth. Dev Patel is brilliant as Gawain, a boy who shows no propensity for greatness, whose elders insist on thrusting greatness upon him. He is perpetually uncertain as to the nature or meaning of his quest. Where one might expect a traditional fantasy hero to rise into gallant form over the course of his journeys, and discover the purpose of his own life along the way, Gawain undergoes no such transformation. To the end, he responds to questions of his quest’s purpose with an uncertain “…honor?”, and feels only fear and regret when his trial comes.

Gawain’s journey could be considered a fable about the uncertain nature of fame and power. Gawain departs from a life where he was content on a journey of self-discovery, but with his future decided by others, he is incapable of becoming a self-determined instrument. You could also say it is a reflection on mortality, and how only through embracing uncertainty can we achieve greatness. Or you could hone in on Gawain himself, exploring how his journey seems almost the reverse template of growth, as he discards all that once defined his humanity. The fickle nature of stories as moral guides, the tempestuous relationship between time and memory – The Green Knight could be interpreted through any of these lenses, as its greatest strength is that it doesn’t conform neatly to any of them. It defies easy thematic categorization, presenting a series of ambiguous trials and contradictory lessons that seem intended to challenge the audience just as much as Gawain. It is grim and solemn and beautiful and irreverent, ranging from high fantasy to horror to black comedy and back. The Green Knight is a triumph for Lowery and Patel, and simply one of the best fantasy films you’ll find.

We then checked out an even more recent feature, James Wan’s just-released Malignant. As I’ve discussed previously, Wan is one of the biggest names in 21st century horror, but feels somewhat divorced from the recent art horror trend spearheaded by folks like Jordan Peele and Robert Eggers. Wan’s stuff trends towards more traditionally crowd-pleasing efforts like The Conjuring – which made Malignant a delightful surprise for me, as it saw Wan experimenting far outside his usual boundaries.

Malignant is an unabashedly messy horror film, and better for it. The film starts off as a relatively conventional Wan feature, as we are introduced to a woman who is haunted by some strange, shadowy specter. The traditional scares of the film’s first third or so are quite effective, but the film really takes off when its reality starts to disintegrate, and Wan begins pulling from a wider array of horror subgenres.

There’s an undeniable giallo streak in Malignant, with the film making excellent use of dramatic labyrinths filled with colored lights, and embracing conventions like the perspective sequence as the killer claims their signature weapon. And there’s also plenty of body horror courtesy of some horrifying prosthetics, as well as a couple brutal action sequences. Malignant feels like Wan throwing all of his passions at the wall and seeing what sticks, and though the resulting film is unsurprisingly a little disjointed, it’s also compelling and just plain fun from start to finish. A surprisingly earnest and proudly over-the-top horror film, and a welcome change of pace from a director who tends to play things a little safe.

Next up was Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s brutal saga of four black Vietnam veterans who return decades later, determined to find their squad captain’s body, as well as the cache of gold they buried back in the war. As you’d expect from Lee, Da 5 Bloods is a brutal interrogation of international race relations. The four former GIs are still treated with understandable suspicion in Vietnam, yet also live as second-class citizens in America, having fought in an unjust war for rights they don’t actually possess. The scenes of mutual resentment borne of their poisoned history are electrifying; the scars here are too deep to be forgiven, and instead are simply agitated into new violence when memory is brought to the surface.

Most fundamentally, Da 5 Bloods is a character study of Paul (Delroy Lindo), one of the returning soldiers. While his fellow squadmates have all tried to move on in their own ways, Paul is relentlessly haunted by his memories of Vietnam, and feels incapable of reintegrating into civilian life. Paul’s rage is the driving force of this film in a narrative, emotional, and thematic sense, as his righteous yet misaimed sense of grievance destroys both his own life, as well as the camaraderie shared by his brothers in arms. Paul is a study in contradictions, the fatigue in his eyes reflecting half a century of loss and betrayal, with his paranoid actions only validating his old fears. Through Lindo’s incredible performance, we see how America beats down and poisons its underclass, robbing people of opportunities even as it suggests new targets for their rage.

In terms of direction, Da 5 Bloods seems to draw from the lessons of the revolutionary “Third Cinema” model, understanding that films can be vehicles for education and solidarity-building as well as entertainment. Lee regularly slots in historical documents or photographs, allows his characters to engage in extended monologues about political ventures, or cuts to political speeches as a cynical punchline, making his film an overt conversation about the relationship between African Americans and the Vietnam War. Though these choices may not feel “organic” in a dramatic sense, not all films are seeking such a goal – and in an era where video is the principle method of conveying information, turning films into political documents feels like an essential innovation. The conclusion of Paul’s journey had me sobbing, while Lee’s integration of historical data points makes for a thematic argument that is as convincing as it is furious. A heavy and incredibly rich film.

After that we stepped back a bit, checking out the ‘80s pseudo-classic Gremlins. Gremlins is the quintessential “family horror-comedy,” created by a trio of Hollywood’s most dedicated crowd pleasers. Chris Columbus wrote the script, Steven Spielberg bought it, and Joe Dante was brought in to direct, resulting in a film that feels playful and eager to please from start to finish. In the film, a teenager named Billy is gifted a “mogwai” named Gizmo for Christmas. A mogwai is an adorable little furby-like creature that makes happy chirping noises, and comes with three unbreakable rules: don’t expose them to light, don’t get them wet, and never, ever feed them after midnight.

As you might expect, Billy soon breaks these rules, and finds his town beset by a mob of devilish gremlins. The film proceeds like a series of mid-century cartoon gags, with the gremlins’ variable intelligence leading them from film spoofs to slapstick to recreations of Dogs Playing Poker. That’s far from the film’s only goofy reference; Gremlins is deeply in love with blockbuster film history, featuring nods to Indiana Jones, The Wizard of Oz, ET, Aliens, and much else besides, all scattered in as irreverent background texture. With a propulsive script, solid cast, and some impressive last-act setpieces, Gremlins is an altogether agreeable slice of horror-comedy, featuring just enough horrifying imagery to give you something to think about on the ride home.

Finally, our last film of the week was Under Siege, which I chose to settle an idle curiosity. Steven Siegal is generally not associated with high-quality film productions, but he’s an enduring presence in action films, and so I figured I should give his work a shot. Under Siege is widely considered the best of his films, and it’s easy to see why: the film is a workmanly, energetic rollercoaster, featuring a fine performance from Garey Busey and a genuinely excellent one from Tommy Lee Jones. Unfortunately, the movie also has the misfortune of featuring Steven Siegal.

The thing about Steven Siegal is, he can’t act. Like, at all. He reads most of his lines in a monotone, has no range of emotional expression, and seems to think that appearing grumpy or vaguely constipated is the mark of a true warrior. They construct some fine action scenes around him, but Seagal’s lack of charisma keeps Under Siege from ever rising above background viewing. Can’t recommend this one, but it’s nice to confirm I’m not missing anything with Seagal.