The King’s Daughter (2022)

I fully understand the mockery that met the mermaid fantasy movie The King’s Daughter when it was dumped into theaters this January.  Filmed at Versailles in 2014, the cursed production has been collecting dust for seven long, bizarre years, mostly waiting for the funding needed to complete its CGI.  The King’s Daughter was supposed to be released as The Moon and Sun in the spring of 2015.  Obama was president then.  Its star, Kaya Scodelario, was a hot commodity, fresh off the set of the hit TV show Skins.  Its bargain bin CGI would’ve been laughable even seven years ago, but getting displaced outside its time only makes it feel goofier than it already is.  It’s a movie made of leftover scraps, loosely stitched together with Bridgerton-style “Once upon a time” narration from Julie Andrews, turning over each scene like the brittle pages of a crumbling book.  The King’s Daughter is the exact kind of barely presentable debacle that cordially invites internet mockery; it’s more punching bag than movie.

And yet, picking on it feels unnecessarily cruel.  This is a cute, harmless (and, despite itself, gay) wish-fulfillment fantasy for little girls.  Its target audience is so young & uncynical that it mostly gets away with being outdated & uncool.  Adults might snicker at every “Meanwhile …” interjection from Andrews that clumsily lunges us towards the next disconnected scene, but young children are only going to see an aspirational tale of a rebel artist who makes friends with a magical mermaid despite her mean father’s wishes.  Pierce Brosnan stars as a highly fictionalized King Louis XIV, who commissions the capture of two very special creatures: his illegitimate, impoverished daughter (Scodelario) & a mermaid citizen of Atlantis (Fan Bingbing).  The daughter has a total blast at Versailles, celebrated by her estranged father for her musical talents & her Individuality.  The mermaid has less fun as the king’s prisoner—held captive as a potential fountain of youth—but forms a semi-romantic friendship with his daughter that almost makes her own constant suffering worthwhile; it’s a pretty thankless role.  The whole movie is in service of making the daughter’s new life seem magical & great, so little girls in the audience can live their mermaid-friend fantasies through her.

There are obviously much better mermaid movies out there, from the kid-friendly romanticism of The Little Mermaid to the disco-beat eroticism of The Lure.  Considering the wealth of better-funded, better-publicized titles between those two extremes, The King’s Daughter is harmless & anonymous enough to deserve a pass.  If there’s any reason for an adult audience to seek this film out, it’s to see Pierce Brosnan’s over-the-top, flouncy-wigged performance as King Louis XIV, but I can’t claim that he’s enough of a hoot to be worth the 90-minute mediocrity that contains him.  Otherwise, the only real draw for this film is if you’re a wide-eyed child with a long-running mermaid fixation, in which case no shoddy CGI or online dunking was ever going to stop you from seeing this anyway.  The only real shame of the picture is that it chickens out of making that mermaid-kids’ fantasy explicitly gay, choosing instead to romantically pair Scodelario with a Fabio-style hunk to de-emphasize her obvious attraction to the mermaid.  It’s not the romance novel swashbuckler whose heart-song calls out to Scodelario in the middle of the night, though, and even the youngest, naivest children in the audience will see right through that ploy.

-Brandon Ledet

Strawberry Mansion (2022)

I grew up in a time when Michel Gondry was a golden god to artsy teens everywhere and not a kitschy fad everyone’s embarrassed to admit they were super into.  Gondry’s proto-Etsy music videos for classics like “Everlong,” “Bachelorette,” and “Fell in Love with a Girl” might still hold nostalgic value, but there isn’t much of a vocal reverence for him as an established auteur these days.  No one’s going around sharing screengrabs from Mood Indigo or The Science of Sleep with copypasta tags like “We used to be a country, a proper country.”  I’ve always been on the hook for Michel Gondry’s distinct brand of twee surrealism, though, to the point where I still get excited when I see it echoed in films from younger upstarts who were obviously inspired by his work, like in Sorry to Bother You or Girl Asleep. Maybe I should be rolling my eyes at his visual preciousness now that I’m a thirtysomething cynic with a desk job instead of a teenage poetry student, but I’m happy to swoon instead.

So, of course I was won over by a twee fantasy epic about dream-hopping lovers dodging pop-up ads in a hand-crafted, near-future dystopia.  Strawberry Mansion continues the Michel Gondry tradition of playing with analog arts-and-crafts techniques to create fantastic dream worlds on a scrappy budget.  If you still get a warm, fuzzy feeling from stop-motion, puppetry, tape warp, and low-tech green screen surrealism, there’s a good chance you’ll be charmed by Strawberry Mansion too, regardless of whether Michel Gondry’s heyday happened to overlap with your internment in high school.  I have no evidence that directors Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney were consciously channeling Gondry here, but they demonstrate a similar knack for illustrating fantastic breaks from reality with the rudimentary tools of a kindergarten classroom.  Strawberry Mansion is likely too cute & too whimsical to win over all irony-poisoned adults in the audience, but if you can see it through the poetry & emotional overdrive of teenage eyes, it’s a stunning achievement in small-scale, tactile filmmaking.

In the year 2035, a humorless IRS bureaucrat is tasked with auditing the recorded dreams of an elderly artist who mostly lives off-the-grid.  He’s supposed to create a running tally of various props & cameos that appear in her dreams, each of which can be taxed for pennies.  However, he’s quickly distracted by how much freer & more imaginative her dreams are than his, which tend to be fried chicken & soda commercials contained to a single room (painted entirely pink like the sets in What a Way to Go!). It’s not surprising that his limited, commodified dreams are part of a larger conspiracy involving evil ad agencies and governmental control.  What is surprising is the romance that develops between the young tax man & the elderly artist.  They flee persecution for discovering the ad agency’s subliminal broadcasts by retreating further into the VHS fantasy worlds of the artist’s recorded dreams, forming a delightfully sweet bond in the most ludicrous of circumstances: demonic slumber parties, swashbuckling pirate adventures, cemetery picnics, etc.  The imagery is constantly delightful & surprising, even though you know exactly where the story is going at all times.

At its most potent, cinema is the closest we get to sharing a dream, so I’m an easy sucker for movies that are about that exact phenomenon: Paprika, The Cell, Inception, etc.  I’m also always onboard for a psychedelic Dan Deacon score, which adds a needed layer of atmospheric tension here.  Even so, Strawberry Mansion joins the rare company of films like Girl Asleep, The Science of Sleep, and The Wizard Oz that feel like totally immersive dreamworlds built entirely by hand.  They evoke the childlike imagination of transforming a cardboard refrigerator box into a backyard rocket ship, except that every single scene requires a new arts & crafts innovation on that level – more than history’s most creative child could possibly cram into a single adolescence.  No matter how sinister this film tries to make its corporate-sponsored dystopian future (or how grim Gondry tries to make his own doomed relationship dramas), nostalgia for that lost childhood whimsy cuts through.  The closest we can ever get back to it—without the aid of movies or drugs—is in lucid dreams.

-Brandon Ledet

The Spine of Night (2021)

There’s a character design in The Spine of Night that I swear was animated to look exactly like Sean Connery in Zardoz.  That should be a strong indicator of the genre-nerd waters this film treads, whether or not the reference was intentional.  A rotoscoped throwback to retro D&D fantasy epics like Wizards, Gandahar, and Heavy Metal, The Spine of Night is a for-its-own-sake aesthetic indulgence on the artistic level of a metal head doodling in the margins of their high school notebook.  If you’re not the kind of audience who thinks giant tits & giant swords make a badass pairing—especially when airbrushed on the side of a van—the movie will not offer much to win you over.  Its story is consistently thin & disposable, but it’s just as consistently good for flashes of metal-as-fuck imagery from scene to scene (“swamp magic,” beheadings, galloping horse skeletons, etc.).

The Spine of Night‘s voice cast is packed with always-welcome celebrity contributors: Patton Oswalt, Richard E. Grant, Joe Manganiello, Larry Fessenden, Betty Gabriel, etc.  I can only claim to have recognized a few of those voices without an IMDb cheat sheet, but the only contribution that really matters is the novelty of hearing Lucy Lawless voice a warrior princess in the 2020s.  She’s a perpetually naked swamp witch, the spiritual leader of her people, and a fearless warrior who unites oppressed communities from many disparate lands & eras to stop a power-hungry sorcerer from using magic for his own selfish, world-conquering ends.  At least, that’s the gist of what I picked up between all the beheadings & disembowelings that the movie’s actually interested in illustrating, with only the vaguest whisper of a plot reverberating onscreen amidst the gory mayhem.

I’m not entirely convinced by the visual majesty of the rotoscope animation showcased here, which I feel like is the entire point of the production.  The crisp, flat line work makes the characters less visually interesting than the detailed backdrops they disrupt (Zardoz references notwithstanding), which feels like a major problem.  There’s something clunky & leaden about the way they move too, as if the original footage they were traced over was accidentally slowed down a touch in the editing process.  Still, I’m enough of a sucker for heavy metal badassery to give the film a pass for what it is: bong rip background fodder.  There are plenty of “adult” animation curios from the 70s & 80s that enjoy ongoing cult-classic status for serving that same superficial function, so why not throw one more on the fire? The Spine of Night is not even the best nostalgic throwback to that era of fantasy animation from last year, though; that niche honor belongs to Cryptozoo.  It’ll have to settle for just being the more gleefully violent of the pair.

-Brandon Ledet

Cryptozoo (2021)

I struggle with parsing out how sincerely to take Dash Shaw’s movies.  Both his debut feature, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, and its follow-up, Cryptozoo, present a bizarre clash of far-out psychedelia in their animation & laidback aloofness in their storytelling.  His hand drawn 2D characters casually stroll through apocalyptic crises rendered in expressive, kaleidoscopic multimedia meltdowns.  Meanwhile, their personalities are decidedly inexpressive, mumbling about their often-inane internal conflicts in apparent obliviousness to the chaos around them.  Cryptozoo at least pushes that internal fretting into bigger questions about the ethical & political conflicts of its psychedelic fantasy world.  It’s just difficult to determine how much those conflicts are intended to be taken seriously vs how much are an ironic joke about the film’s own sprawling, convoluted mythology.  Shaw’s films are never boring to look at, though, even if his characters appear to be bored within them.  His visual playfulness is a quality that’s increasingly difficult to find in modern animation, questions of sincerity be damned.

As the title alludes, Cryptozoo is an animated fantasy film about a futuristic zoo for cryptids: dragons, unicorns, sasquatches, gorgons, etc.  The battlefield for its central conflict is a world where cryptids are suddenly plentiful but violently distrusted by the general human public – X-Men style.  The warring factions in discerning how humans should relate to these mythical creatures are “conservationists” who want to centrally locate the cyptids in a Disney World-like “zoo” and militarists who want to deploy them as biological weapons.  It’s a distinctly capitalist paradigm, where every single resource—including living creatures—must serve one of two purposes: money or military.  The warmongers are obviously the “bad guys” in that debate, but the supposed “sanctuary” alternative of the cryptozoo must earn enough money to stay afloat, which leads to the cryptids’ captivity & exploitation in an amusement park setting by the supposed “good guys”.  This convoluted mythology is debated in solemn, conversational tones while extravagant, badass illustrations of the cryptids themselves roar in the background.  How seriously you’re supposed to take those debates and how meaningful their themes are outside the confines of the film are a matter of personal interpretation, something I’ve yet to settle on myself.

Part of my struggle with how sincerely relate to Cryptozoo might be a result of viewing it through a modern-animation context, where I’m comparing it against other recent psychedelic oddities like The Wolf House, Violence Voyager, and Night is Short, Walk on Girl.  Despite its crudely layered multimedia approach to animation, the film is more likely spiritually aligned with fantasy films of the 1970s & 80s – titles like Heavy Metal, Wizards, and Gandahar.  In that era, animated fantasy epics were all intensely sincere allegories about pollution, prejudice, and ethnic genocide.  Cryptozoo‘s messaging is a little more resistant to 1:1 metaphor, but I’ll at least assume that its musings on the corrupting force of capitalism is politically sincere.  It’s a little hard to immediately latch onto that sincerity when your film opens with a nudist stoner voiced by Michael Cera being gored by a unicorn, but that doesn’t mean the entire resulting conflict is meant to be taken as a joke.  Realistically, the only reason I’m putting this much consideration into its dramatic sincerity at all is because the imaginative color-pencil drawings that illustrate its conflicts are objectively badass, making the rest of the film worth contending with instead of outright dismissing as stoner nonsense.  I’m buying what Dash Shaw is selling, though I’m still not sure why.

-Brandon Ledet

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

It takes all the strength in my body & soul not to turn this blog into a total schlockfest.  My natural inclination when selecting what to watch is to reach for the shortest, trashiest genre pic available, which constantly threatens to backslide Swampflix into a bargain-bin horror blog.  I do like to challenge myself, though, especially coming out of October’s horror-binge rituals where I indulge in my preferred cinematic junk food for a month solid.  And so, I find myself contemplating and writing about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the 2010 Palme D’or.  Like previous detours into the works of Jarman, Tarkovsky, and Ozu, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a beloved arthouse auteur who I’m underqualified to assess, comprehend, or even appreciate.  Still, I crave the brain-cell alarm bells these alienating filmmakers set off in my brain; I can’t get by on a diet of Roger Corman cheapies & Chucky sequels alone.

Uncle Boonmee is the kind of calm, quiet, meditative cinema that always challenges my attention span and intellect.  Like Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, it’s a slow-cinema mood piece about a man dying in real time – in this case a Thai farmer succumbing to the gradual decline of kidney failure.  Static shots of the wealthy man’s inner circle & dialysis technicians sharing meaningful silences are scored only by whispers of waterfalls, car engines, and chirping bugs.  Harsh digital cinematography frames these exchanges with all the pomp & circumstance of a straight-to-YouTube documentary.  I am told that this is a deeply emotional film about life & the great mystery that follows it, but I don’t see the modern arthouse Ikiru in it that others are latching onto.  I mostly just felt as if Apichatpong were daring me to fall asleep with each lingering shot of meditative non-action & white noise.

To be fair to my emotionally distanced (and self-declared Communist killer) Uncle Boonmee, this movie at least met me halfway with some absurdly polite ghosts & magical creatures, who gather around the titular farmer as he approaches the gates of the spirit realm.  Death is not the end of the human spirit in this reality; Boonmee’s deceased family hold his hand through the transition into his next state of being, calmly sitting beside him along with his surviving acquaintances.  His dead wife appears as a classic, transparent ghost, materializing at the dinner table as if she had casually walked through the front door.  His dead son appears as a primate-hybrid “monkey-ghost” with glowing C.H.U.D. eyes.  I appreciated their magical-realist intrusions into the “plot”, since ghost stories typically are the kind of cinema I can comprehend.  They just did very little to disrupt the quiet calm of Boonmee’s slow demise.

I don’t know that I’ll ever revisit this film unless I can see it in a proper theater; I genuinely struggled to feel immersed & overwhelmed by it at home.  It was mostly worth the struggle, though, and it did often remind me of films I love that were likely influenced by Apichatpong’s meditative filmmaking style – namely the psychedelic ayahuasca drama Icaros: A Vision & Laurie Anderson’s memorial-doc Heart of a Dog.  There are individual images & ideas from Uncle Boonmee that will likely stick with me for a long time, especially its non-sequitur vignette in which a travelling princess makes love with a talking catfish.  If nothing else, that detour will stick with me as an all-timer of a sex scene.  My go-to horror schlock rarely reaches such glorious highs, even if they’re easier to digest en masse.

-Brandon Ledet

Lamb (2021)

It’s difficult to define what qualifies something as Movie Magic, but the dark fantasy film Lamb is electric with it . . . for its opening half-hour.  The first of the film’s three “chapters” builds all its magical-realist tension on our curiosity over what, exactly, is going on with its titular child-creature and the lonely farmer couple who raise it as their own.  Isolated on an Icelandic farm with only sheep to break up the monotony of their quiet, daily chores, a married couple adopt a newborn lamb and swaddle it as if it were a human baby.  We peer into the lamb’s crib wondering what’s going on under those tightly wrapped blankets, what makes it any different from the other lambs who’re routinely born in the barn. We’re invited to look into the eyes of the older sheep on the farm, anthropomorphizing their intellectual & emotional responses to the humans who feed & shepherd them.  The longer we stare, the more they begin to look like expressive, reactive puppets instead of natural creatures, blurring the line between documentary footage and Movie Magic.  The loss of that boundary sets up an endless realm of possibility in what’s going on with the one lamb the couple has decided to raise inside their home, the one that the camera obscures so that our own imagination can fill in the details.  Then, when the baby lamb is shown in full, the magic vaporizes.

My heart sank in Lamb‘s second chapter when it had to stop obscuring its centerpiece creature.  Conceptually, I am onboard with this low-key fairy tale about an isolated couple’s desperation to be parents despite the lingering pain of past attempts, but the practicality of visualizing the human-lamb hybrid they adopt onscreen is a mood-killer.  Specifically, it’s the choice/necessity to supplement its practical effects with CGI that really zaps the Movie Magic out of the picture.  This is the kind of film that really needs the tactility of the Babe animatronics or even the surreal stop-motion of Little Otik to work. Instead, we see a tactile human body toddle across the screen with a cheaply animated CG head superimposed on top of it, never convincingly integrating with the physical world it supposedly occupies.  In close-up, when the lamb-child is napping or quietly observing her adoptive parents, she’s perfectly believable as a real, tangible creature that has magically appeared in the couple’s lives – which is why her more obscured presence in the first chapter works so well.  It’s when the camera pulls back to show her hybrid body structure in full that the spell is instantly broken, leaving Lamb with all the Movie Magic of a Geico commercial.  And since this film isn’t working with a Babe-level Hollywood budget, I’m convinced that the only way to fix it would have been to crudely superimpose her parents’ heads onto different actor’s bodies to level the uncanny playing field.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to Lamb besides the magic of its titular creature-child.  It’s a quiet, unrushed film with very little plot or dialogue.  If you can’t gaze in wonder at the little lamb baby for all three chapters, there isn’t much else to do except wait for the credits (or hope for a scene where the lamb’s “mother” timidly asks her husband “Did . . . did you have sex with our sheep?”).  For a more truly magical narrative about an isolated, troubled Icelandic couple in which human actors dance with unconvincingly animated CG animals, I’d recommend watching Björk’s music video for “Triumph of a Heart”.  There’s way more heart, humor, chaos, and magic in those five minutes than there is in this entire two-hour snooze.

-Brandon Ledet

General Invincible (1983)

I’ve been greatly enjoying my time with Gold Ninja Video‘s Pearl Chang boxset Wolf Devil Director over the past year, and I’m a little sad to have now officially run through all four of the Taiwanese martial artist’s feature films as star/director/producer.  Maybe Pearl Chang was sad to see her career winding down in her own time too.  Her final film, General Invincible, is more somber than her previous work.  It boasts all of the gruesome bloodshed, fabulous costume changes, and low-budget psychedelia that make her films so delightful, but it lacks her slapstick humor that usually lightens their tone.  Although it shares no narrative continuity with any of the other films in her modest catalog, it plays like the final episode of a long-running TV show or the third act of a 3-hour epic.  It feels like a heartfelt goodbye to the low-budget wuxia auteur, who indeed did disappear from the public eye in the years following the film’s release.

Because all her work was rapidly produced in the same era & genre, it’s near impossible to discuss General Invincible on its own terms without comparing it to Pearl Chang’s other films.  As with all the titles in the Wolf Devil Director boxset, Chang stars as a reclusive female warrior who reluctantly returns to society to avenge the slaughter of her family, guided by the mystical teachings of a retired kung fu master.  In this particular instance she’s a war general named Sparrow, honor-bound to stop a wannabe emperor’s aspirations for the throne by laying waste to his mercenary assassins one by one.  There are a few distinguishing details in General Invincible you won’t find elsewhere in Pearl Chang’s oeuvre: an uneasy romance with a sensitive warrior who believes himself her equal, a vicious rivalry with the other warrior-woman who pines after that same loverboy, the usurping emperor’s obsession with obtaining magical “crystal knives” as the ultimate weapon, etc.  For the most part, though, this is the exact same rapidfire low-budget wuxia psychedelia Pearl Chang always delivers, just now with a somber tone.

As an unofficial, unintentional send-off for Pearl Chang’s career, you couldn’t ask much more out of General Invincible.  Sparrow’s inner journey in the film is a meditative, self-reflective effort to “reach the state of Infinity and discover Emptiness”.  She cannot become her most powerful warrior self until she “achieves Nothingness,” a state she doesn’t discover until she’s crucified and left for dead in the midday sun, recalling the blinding psychedelia of King Hu’s genre-defining wuxia epic A Touch of Zen.  When watching her filmography in order, it’s as if Pearl Chang doesn’t retire into anonymity, but rather transcends this Earthly plane through total inner enlightenment (after indulging in a few flying-swordsmen beheadings along the way).  It’s kind of sweet & touching, as long as you can distract yourself from the more unfair, practical limitations of her real-life career in an industry gatekept by men.

The Wolf Devil Director box set is a must-own, and Gold Ninja Video put a lot of care into contextualizing what makes the films within so unique to Pearl Chang as an auteur.  Still, it feels like an audition for a much better-funded boutique label to pick up these same films for a proper restoration.  I often found myself squinting through these public domain transfers imagining how much greater these same films would be with an HD clean-up.  It’s easy to see why Wolf Devil Woman is Pearl Chang’s most popular film; it’s her best work.  I believe that General Invincible & Matching Escort are pretty much on its level, though.  The Dark Lady of Kung Fu is her weakest for being a little too goofy, but I dug that one too.  All her films are good-to-great, and all of them deserve a higher genre-nerd profile with better-funded preservation & distribution.  The Wolf Devil Director boxset is a great start, but there’s more work to do.

Pearl Chang’s Filmography, Ranked:

1. Wolf Devil Woman
2. Matching Escort
3. General Invincible
4. The Dark Lady of Kung Fu

-Brandon Ledet

The Green Knight (2021)

It’s Christmas in July! Or at least it was last weekend when I saw David Lowery’s latest, long-delayed, gorgeous bombast, The Green Knight. There have been multiple failed attempts at bringing Arthurian stories to the big screen in a meaningful way in my lifetime (although that 2004’s King Arthur, 2006’s Tristan and Isolde, and 2017’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword all have exactly 31% on Rotten Tomatoes is impressive in its own strange way), with the most successful being the generally disappointing First Knight, which no one remembers. Fun fact: Ralph Ineson, who plays the titular pastoral paladin in this film, was in First Knight. Sorry to get into the trivia portion of this review so early, but I don’t really have a lot to say about this one. Shocking coming from an overtalker like myself, I know, but sometimes there are films that you don’t see so much as experience, and like Lowery’s A Ghost Story before it, The Green Knight is one such film. 

Which isn’t to say that there’s not a clear narrative here. There is, and it’s fairly easy to follow. Gawain (Dev Patel) is the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) by way of his sister (Sarita Choudhury), who is traditionally Morgause but appears to be a combination of Morgause and Morgaine le Fay (also usually—but not always—Arthur’s step- or half-sister). On Christmas morning, he awakens beside his lover, the commoner Essel (Alicia Vikander) and makes his way back to the castle, where he washes up before appearing before Arthur, his queen (Kate Dickie), and the other knights of the realm. The elderly Arthur invites Gawain to sit beside him and tell him a story of himself, so that he may know his potential heir better, but the younger man admits that he has no great deeds of himself to share. “Yet,” Guinevere corrects him, “you have no stories to tell yet.” Elsewhere, Morgause/Morgaine and a few attendants perform a ceremony that appears to invoke or invite a large, green knight (Ineson, as noted) to appear in the great hall, riding a massive steed. He issues a challenge, asking only that one of Arthur’s fabled knights strike him a blow with the caveat that the following year Arthur’s champion goes to the “green chapel” and allow the knight to return the blow in kind. All refuse, and Merlin (Emmet O’Brien) shakes his head slightly when Arthur himself seems prepared to face the challenge. Gawain asks that he be allowed to do so, and is given Arthur’s own sword to face the knight. When the Green Knight offers his neck to the boy, he first laughs, then grows angry at the visitor for mocking him before lopping off the larger man’s head. Undeterred, the knight’s body retrieves his head, laughs, and says he’ll see Gawain the next Christmas. 

After a “too short year,” Gawain sets out on his journey to find the Green Chapel and the knight therein, with gifts like a shield which bears an image of the Virgin Mary and is anointed by a bishop and a green sash that his mother makes, and into which she inserts sigils. After departing Camelot, he first passes some older towers and buildings in decline, then through a section of deforested woods which are in the process of being cut down, and finally comes upon a field in which a battle has been fought and in which a few fires yet smolder. There he encounters a scavenger (Barry Keoghan) who points him in the right direction, but after he gives the poorer man a single coin, and even then only because he was guilted, Gawain finds himself the victim of two of the poor man’s fellow highwaymen. Now divested of his shield, horse, belt, and even the Green Knight’s axe, Gawain eventually frees himself, but is weakened. Eventually making his way to a seemingly deserted house, Gawain avails himself of the empty bed therein, only to be awoken in the night by the spirit of a woman named Winifred, who asks him to reunite her decapitated head with the rest of her body, which he does; once this task is complete, the Green Knight’s axe is mysteriously returned to him. He ventures further, facing starvation and madness, eventually meeting and becoming the traveling companion of a fox, and even encountering a group of mysterious giants as they wander in an apparent migratory pattern (this was my favorite part). 

Eventually, he comes to a castle occupied by a friendly noble lord (Joel Edgerton), his wife (Vikander again), and an unnamed, unremarked-upon sightless woman (Helena Browne). As in the poem, the Lord enters into an agreement with Gawain that would mean that anything given to Gawain in the Lord’s house would be given by Gawain in turn, and the Lady of the house tempts Gawain’s virtue. On his final day within the castle, the Lady returns Gawain’s green sash to him, claiming that she made it herself, and reiterating that it will keep him from harm; he accepts it, but not before finally giving in to her advances (albeit in more of a shortstop way, in that it’s between second and third base). Leaving the house, he encounters the Lord for the last time, but does not give him the sash (or the hand job) as their deal would require. Gawain reunites with the fox, who accompanies him all the way to a stream where a boat waits to take him to the Green Chapel, and the fox suddenly speaks, to give him one more warning to turn back and avoid his fate, but Gawain soldiers on. 

At long last, he meets the Knight, and after he flinches, the Green Knight teases him, and then Gawain flees. He returns to the place where the boat was left and finds his horse returned. He makes his way back to Camelot, where he is reunited with Essel (in the Biblical sense), knighted by a bedridden Arthur, and eventually becomes king. Essel gives birth to a son that Gawain takes to raise, leaving behind a few shekels on her bloody birthing bed; as time goes on, Camelot begins to degrade, perhaps because of her dishonored king, or simply because it is in the nature of “Camelot” to wane when Arthur is gone. Gawain marries a lady of proper aristocratic birth and she bears him a daughter, while his son dies in a battle in which Gawain himself does not participate. In all these moments, which play out with no dialogue, the sash is never removed. He becomes a pariah in his own kingdom, lacking the respect that the middling folk who adored his uncle. He finally faces his end as Camelot prepares to fall to marauders, and as he finds himself seated alone on the throne he does not deserve, he removes the sash at last, and his head falls to the ground … and then we return to the Green Chapel, and the realization that all of these moments are, to paraphrase Dickens, the shadows of things that May Be, not necessarily which Will Be. Realizing that he cannot flee from fulfilling his debt of honor, he once more submits to the Green Knight, who playfully traces his finger along the royal nephew’s throat. Credits!

That’s more of a summary than a review, but it was an exercise for myself as much as it is a recommendation for you, dear reader. When I walked out of the theater with my friends, none of us was completely certain what to make of it. When recording our recent Lagniappe episode about Stoker, Brandon referred to Nicole Kidman’s third act “I can’t wait to see the world break you down” speech as a “barn burner,” and this film has a monologue of the same caliber delivered with delicious righteousness by Vikander as the Lady; although, an equally apt comparison would be to call her speech this film’s version of “Rooney Mara eats a pie for 5 minutes,” as she describes all of the potentialities of what the color green could mean—nature, entropy, life, death, rebirth, sickness—in a way that becomes completely hypnotic. Is it “good”? I’m not sure, but it sure was huge. It’s so soporific that I’m not completely certain it even manages to tie into the film’s larger themes, but I certainly experienced something. 

This is a story about honor, and from whence it flows and how one can come to be anointed by it. Gawain, as a member of the aristocracy, fails to consider the small folk, which is traditionally the province in which Arthur succeeds, and from which his honor (and thus his power) flows. From the moment he first appears on screen, his casual disregard for those outside of the landed aristocracy is made apparent, as he ignores the burning of a commoner’s hut as he wends his way back to the castle proper. When he is followed into the plains by children who are entranced by the fledgling, yet-unbuilt legend of Gawain, he spares not a smile or a wave for them. When he meets the scavenger, he must be guilted into giving him a pittance, even though, as heir apparent to the king and a queen who has passed her child-bearing years, his funds are virtually limitless, and the man’s pitiable existence is explicitly the result of being a resident of the medieval equivalent of fly-over country during a skirmish fought in the name of kings he will never see or know. When asked by Winnifred to retrieve her head, he asks what his reward will be, and she’s shocked by his lack of chivalric benevolence. He even fails to uphold his end of the bargain he makes with the Lord in whose house he finds healing and comfort. 

Still, there is a seed of honor in Gawain which, if properly nurtured, could yet germinate and grow within him, just as the Green Knight is composed of the branches and trees which also make up the Green Chapel. After all, what is honor? What is courage? These things are not conferred upon a person by a higher power, or by that power’s earthly representative sprinkling holy water on a shield. They are not conferred upon a person by the stature of their lineage or through gifts from a progenitor, despite that this was the method by which power was transferred for much of human politik. They are not conferred by drawing a sword from a stone, or from the hand of the one who previously did so, nor are they conferred by regal clothing; although these things may stem from that which resides within, they are the noble flowering, not the source of the vine. Gawain may only complete his quest out of fear of the shame of returning home without having made good his word, but therein lies the nature of all courageousness: if we act with honor, even if it be for spite or in avoidance of shame, the performance of the thing becomes the thing itself, be it for the better and green in growth or for the worse and green in rot. Despite many opportunities to turn back and persistent discouragement from his pursuit, Gawain presses on, even passing what could be called his last temptation. He sees his life as it could be, and once more chooses to press on, and in so doing, becomes more than he had been. 

Lowery has said that, in his vision, Gawain does not survive this encounter. Which, first of all, how dare he? But secondly, this is your semiannual reminder that, as for me and my house, we will follow Roland Barthes, so I reject that interpretation and substitute my own. I feel that, textually, we are seeing Morgause/Morgaine test her son, as the Green Knight is clearly summoned or even created by her magics, and Gawain is told explicitly that the Knight is someone he knows. Our very first image is of Gawain on Arthur’s throne and bearing his crown before he is, unflinching, covered in flame, as if all that was weak and chaff within him has been burned away. To see this purification trial to its end, in order to prevent her unready and unworthy son from pulling a total Mordred and ascending to the throne and hastening Camelot’s decline, she creates this series of tests that not only prove his mettle but create it. It’s worth mentioning, in case it’s been a long time since your last literature class, that Morgaine is revealed to be the blind woman in the house of Sir Bertilak (the rough equivalent of the unnamed Lord in the film), and that she was pulling the strings of the entire narrative all along. 

I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed that there was little exploration of the relationship between Albionian pre-Christian paganism and the rise of Arthurian Christendom. (Did I already give away that Mists of Avalon is my favorite Arthurian story by insistently calling her “Morgaine” and not “Morgan”? A pox on Marion Zimmer Bradley’s grave, though.) The very concept of “England” is thoroughly tied into the rise of Christianity as an influence on politics and world events, and the application of those motifs to Arthurian legend, which is thoroughly and inexplicably tied to pre-Christian magic, makes for a truly fascinating, if muddled, historiography. The way that Gawain was first girded by both his mother’s smoke-and-incense dark magic sash and the Marian image on his shield seemed to be setting up a narrative in that vein, but if that element was carried through in any way, it’s that religion, as a creation of man, is doomed to be destroyed and reclaimed, as demonstrated by the scavengers breaking his shield almost immediately, and the way in which the foliage of the Green Chapel is superimposed over and suffused through a Christian house of worship. 

I don’t know if you’ll like this. I don’t know if I liked it. But I did experience it, and I would again. After all this time being isolated, and with the possibility that we’ll have to do this all again on the horizon, if you need to be transported, take this journey.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Lagniappe Podcast: The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the children’s fantasy film The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), a gently magical folktale about selkies from director John Sayles.

00:00 Welcome

01:00 Beastly (2011)
01:40 House of the Witch (2017)
02:22 The Eagle (2011)
03:28 Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
05:51 The Core (2003)
06:51 Deadcon (2019)
08:30 The Wretched (2019)
09:50 Death Machine (1994)
12:00 The Hidden (1987)
13:55 The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988)
15:00 Over the Garden Wall (2014)
15:45 The Exorcist (1973)
18:22 Candyman (1992)
20:17 Promising Young Woman (2020)
22:23 Teeth (2007)
25:25 The Power (2021)

27:43 The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Mortal Kombat (2021)

Must every cinematic property receive the extended-universe Marvel treatment now?  It’s getting exhausting.  The new movie adaptation of the Mortal Kombat video game is absolutely doused in the stink of the MCU, functioning more as a desperate franchise starter than a standalone film.  This is a near two-hour shared origin story for longtime Mortal Kombat characters like Scorpion, Jax, and Sonya Blade (as well as the entirely new, entirely forgettable protagonist Cole Young).  They spend the entire runtime learning to summon & hone their personal superpowers for the titular fight tournament, which never actually occurs; you have to wait until the next film for a proper payoff.  Meanwhile, the cyborg jackass Kano sarcastically quips his way throughout the entire process to constantly remind the audience to not take its supernatural martial arts genre tropes too seriously, distancing itself from any potential for genuine nerdiness.  It’s all explained-to-death and relentlessly undercut with corny “That’s so random!” humor to the point where you never really feel like the movie has actually started in earnest; it’s only the first piece in a planned 20+ film franchise, more concerned with justifying its sequels than satisfying its audience in the moment.  The only MCU touchstones it’s missing are a post-credits teaser and a Stan Lee cameo.

It’s especially difficult to not look at the new Mortal Kombat film as an example of everything wrong with contemporary franchise filmmaking, since we have a clear example of how much better this same property would’ve been treated just a couple decades ago.  Paul WS Anderson’s Mortal Kombat movie from 1995 only briefly introduces its central Human cast before diving headfirst into its titular fight tournament, working its story beats & character moments into the structure of a supernatural combat competition instead of delaying that payoff for another film.  The 2021 version can’t help but over-explain every single step of its characters’ journey towards that competition, as if it were cowering from hack YouTube critics’ inevitable critiques of its “plot holes.”  As a result, all of the film’s fun genre payoffs feel delayed & rushed, pushed out of the way to make room for the downplayed, normalizing drudgery of post-MCU franchise filmmaking.  To put it in pro wrestling terms, it’s like watching an hour of promos followed by a few quick squash matches – the kind of lopsided booking that can drain a Pay-Per-View of all potential excitement no matter how may fun, crowd-pleasing payoffs are crammed into the final half-hour.

Despite the MCUification of its tone & plot structure, there were just enough over-the-top gore gags scattered throughout Mortal Kombat to make the film passably okay as dumb-fun entertainment.  The film would’ve been a total disaster had it not leaned into the hyperviolence that made its arcade game source material controversial to begin with in the early 1990s, but it gets by okay.  Combatants are disemboweled, sawed in half, stabbed in the skull, frozen & shattered, and just generally separated from their blood & vital organs in every way the 12-year-old hedonist still lurking in the back of your brain can imagine.  It’s fun to watch.  Too bad the film appears to be embarrassed of its source material’s more out-there details, so that it has to go out of its way to explain the practical reason for Scorpion’s chain-spear weapon or to have a character joke that Mortal Kombat is “spelled wrong.”  By the time all that normalizing groundwork is laid out, there’s very little space left for the actual climactic fight scenes, which are edited together in a simultaneous, overlapping flood of violence that would’ve been much better served as individual action set pieces. 

Maybe now that all the plot-obsessed foundational work is out of the way, the second film in this series will be able to just jump right into the ultraviolence fantasy fight tournament promised here without wasting any valuable time.  It’s just a shame that we used to be able to pull that off in a single 100min goofball action movie without any concerns for appearing level-headed or respectable; now you’ve got to put up with at least an hour of eating your vegetables before you get even a small taste of the good stuff.

-Brandon Ledet