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

Lagniappe Podcast: The Secret of NIMH (1982)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the animated fantasy film The Secret of NIMH (1982), the directorial debut of Disney defector Don Bluth.

00:00 Welcome

01:56 Big (1988)
04:40 Avengers Grimm (2015)
06:52 247°F (2011)
07:41 Jacob’s Ladder (2019)
08:30 Fracture (2007)
09:45 The Net (1995)
11:26 The 6th Day (2000)
12:25 The Block Island Sound (2021)
13:50 The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)
18:29 Love & Monsters (2020)
23:15 Pinocchio (2020)

25:45 The Secret of NIMH (1982)

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: The Cat Returns (2002)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the Studio Ghibli novelty The Cat Returns (2002), an anime fantasy film about a kingdom of anthropomorphic cats.

00:00 Welcome

02:40 My Winnipeg (2007)
03:40 The Twentieth Century (2020)
05:40 The Snyder Cut (2021)
11:30 Hannibal (2001)
13:15 Red Dragon (2002)
14:30 Hannibal Rising (2007)
15:40 The Boy Next Door (2015)
18:20 What Lies Below (2020)
25:00 Godzilla vs Kong (2021)
28:00 Mothra vs Godzilla (1964)
30:15 Godzilla vs Mothra (1992)

32:17 The Cat Returns (2002)

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

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Wizards (1977)

As a lifelong fan of both hand-drawn animation & flippant transgression, I’ve long been curious about Ralph Bakshi’s art. However, there’s a strong whiff of edgelordism wafting from his work that’s becoming less & less enticing as a I grow older, making me wonder if I could have only ever become a true Bakshi devotee if I had caught his films on late-night cable when I was still a teenage shithead. Maybe that’s why I thought the fantasy film Wizards would be the best introduction to Bakshi in his prime, as it’s the most mainstream he was willing to go as an artist (at least before his professional nadir with the notorious flop Cool World, which I have seen before, unfortunately). Even Bakshi himself pitches Wizards as a “family picture” meant to prove that he can make good art without stirring up moral outrage as a crass provocateur. Judging only by that metric, the film is a failure. It’s just absolutely swarmed with buxom nudists, battlefield gore, and Nazi iconography, making its PG rating an absolute joke even by 1970s standards. It’s at least a gorgeously animated provocation, though, surely inspiring many margin doodles in metalhead stoners’ notebooks to come.

Wizards is set on a distant-future Earth after we’ve all nuked each other to near extinction, then mutated into grotesque beasts in the radioactive remains of our former world. The movie ascribes to a very simplistic Cute = Good, Ugly = Evil philosophy, contrasting the grotesque humanoid leftovers of humanity with adorable elves & fairies who return to our realm as an sign of Nature reclaiming the planet. This contrast is extended to a clash between magic (Good) & technology (Evil), with both sides represented by respective twin wizards who are destined to battle in the post-Apocalyptic wasteland. The Good Wizard loves Peace and is frustratingly reluctant to fight his wicked brother despite the ongoing destruction of their shared planet (and the promise of “a second Holocaust”). The Evil Wizard loves War and hypes up his mutant humanoid frog army with vintage Nazi propaganda, wielding a “dream machine” film projector as if it were a weapon of mass destruction. The resulting D&D campaign illustration is neither as obnoxiously crass as Heavy Metal nor as deliriously fun as Gandahar, falling somewhere between the two as a wonderfully animated mediocrity (although it was likely a direct influence on both).

There’s something adorable about Bakshi believing this is a family-friendly variation on his work, the same way it’s adorable that Richard Kelly believed he made a toned-down mainstream thriller in The Box. The gleeful gun violence, slack-jawed ogling at erect fairy nipples, and edgelord deployment of Nazi propaganda is all exceedingly queasy, stubbornly faithful to the confrontationally grotesque vision of Bakshi’s earlier films like Coonskin & Fritz the Cat. You could never shrug his work off as lazy provocations, though, at least not in terms of their technical artistry. Every hideous mutant, bodacious fairy babe, and Nazi war crime is wonderfully detailed in their illustration, often paired with gorgeous greenscreen backdrops of smoke & rolling clouds. Even when the budget wears thin and devolves into narrated slideshows & rotoscoped battlefield extras, Bakshi makes it appear as if it were all an intentional inclusion in his multimedia psychedelic tapestry. I didn’t fall in love with this animated prog rock album cover the way I did with René Laloux’s Gandahar, but it also didn’t quash my curiosity over Bakshi’s pricklier cult classics. He obviously deserves a closer look, even if only for the form and not the content.

-Brandon Ledet

Holy Virgin vs. The Evil Dead (1991)

Given the title, you’d expect Holy Virgin vs. The Evil Dead to be a schlocky zombie movie. It turns out it’s more of a horror-tinged nudie cutie. This “erotic” martial arts fantasy horror stars Donnie Yen and a gaggle of Topless Babes (give or take one warrior princess) in a fight against a supernatural horndog Moon Monster. The monster is more of a moon-dwelling cannibal wizard with glowing eyes than a walking corpse, and he’s far more interested in ripping blouses off unsuspecting women than he is in eating brains. If it weren’t for the gore & the fight choreography, this film could pass as an old-fashioned nudist comedy along the lines of The Immoral Mr. Teas or Nude on the Moon. It’s incredibly sleazy late-night trash that’s so endlessly fascinated with bare breasts it’s also somehow adorably quaint.

If there’s any element in Holy Virgin that justifies the “Evil Dead” half of its title, it’s in the drastic comic book camera angles and low-to-the-ground tracking shots it lifts directly from Sam Raimi’s playbook. Those images only come in flashes during the Moon Monster attacks, though. The rest of the film is an oddly straight-forward police procedural in which a college professor (Yen) is suspected of stripping & murdering his female students. Meanwhile, the audience knows the truth: a cult that worships a mustachioed goddess has summoned a boobs-obsessed lunar ghoul to do the job. Duh! Thankfully, a badass virgin princess with a laser sword takes over the investigation halfway through to save the professor’s hide (and to put an end to the violent strippings, of course). Rapid-paced fight choreography & wuxia-style wire work ensues, until the whole thing concludes with a police shootout in a cave decorated with giallo-style crosslighting.

It’s impossible to describe Holy Virgin vs. The Evil Dead without overselling it. Even its own impatient opening credits sequence that previews the gore & nudity to come feels like hyperbolic hype the movie never lives up to. Still, it’s a delightful late-night curio that touches on an incredibly vast range of genre payoffs: dark fantasy, 80s splatter horror, police procedurals, martial arts epics, softcore porno, etc. The fact that its Skinemax-era sexuality and post-Raimi horror signifiers have become increasingly outdated in the decades since its release only make it more charming to the modern schlock-gobbling viewer. It’s a weirdly adorable film for something so gore-soaked & sexually violent, almost as if it were produced for an audience of perverse children. I wish I had first seen it when I was 10 years old, anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Pink Narcissus (1971)

I’ve been seeing a lot of Pride-themed recommendation lists circling around the internet in recent weeks, many of which are taking into account the peculiar circumstances of this year’s Pride Month concurring with COVID-19 related social distancing and the additional pandemic of police brutality meant to squash the global upswell Black Lives Matter protests. In general, this year has been a difficult time to recommend any specific movies to watch in light of our current Moment, both because cinema feels like such a petty concern right now and because the nuance of the moment is so vast & complex that it’s impossible to capture it in just a few titles. The intersection of racist & homophobic institutional abuses should certainly be pushed to the forefront of this year’s Pride Month programming – something directly addressed in titles like Born in Flames, Paris is Burning, Tongues Untied, and countless others that film programmers & political activists far smarter than myself could point you towards. However, I was also struck by how much James Bidgood’s art-porno Pink Narcissus feels particular to this year’s quarantine-restricted Pride Month, even though it is a film that has nothing useful or direct to say about race discrimination. It’s too insular & fanciful to fully capture our current moment of mass political resistance, but those exact qualities do speak to its relatability in our current, simultaneous moment of social isolation.

James Bidgood’s D.I.Y. gay porno reverie was filmed almost entirely in his NYC apartment over the course of six years. Using the illusionary set decoration skills & visual artistry he honed as both a drag queen & a photographer for softcore beefcake magazines, Bidgood transformed every surface & prop in his living space into a fantastic backdrop for his rock-hard fairy tale. Pink Narcissus is a pure, high-art fantasy constructed entirely out of hand-built set decoration & an overcharged libido, a Herculean effort Bidgood achieved by living and sleeping in the artificial sets he constructed within his own living space. If there’s anything that speaks to me about the past few months of confinement to my home, it’s the idea of tirelessly working on go-nowhere art projects that no one else in the world gives a shit about. Bidgood was eventually devastated when his film was taken out of his hands by outside investors who rushed the project to completion without his participation in the editing room (so devastated that the film was credited to “Anonymous” and was rumored to be a Kenneth Anger piece for decades), but I’m still floored by the enormity, complexity, and beauty of the final product. A lot of us having been building our own little fantasy worlds and arts & crafts projects alone in our homes over recent months; I doubt many are half as gorgeously realized as what Bidgood achieved here.

There is no concrete narrative or spoken dialogue to help give Pink Narcissus its shape. The film is simply pure erotic fantasy, explicitly so. A young gay prostitute lounges around his surrealist pink apartment overlooking Times Square, gazing at his own beauty in his bedroom’s phallic mirrors and daydreaming about various sexual encounters while waiting for johns to arrive. This is more of a wandering wet dream than a linear story, with the erotic fantasy tangents seemingly having no relationship to each other in place or time. The sex-worker Narcissus imagines himself caressing his own body with delicate blades of grass & butterfly wings in an idyllic “meadow” (an intensely artificial tableau that resembles the opening credits of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse). An anonymous blowjob at a public urinal drowns a gruff stranger in a sea of semen (staged in a baby pool full of thickened milk in Bidgood’s kitchen). A premonition of a dystopian Times Square where ghoulish hustlers openly jerk themselves off below advertisements for artificial anuses, frozen pissicles, and Cock-a-Cola flutters outside his window. A few of these tableaus uncomfortably skew into racist culture-gazing, treating matador costumes & a sultan’s harem as opportunities for bedroom dress-up scenarios. That’s par for the course in the context of old-fashioned porno shoots, though, especially before no-frills hardcore became the norm. What’s unusual about it is how Bidgood transforms those artificial, fetishized vignettes into high art.

If there’s any one movie deserving of a Blu-ray quality restoration treatment, it’s this. Bidgood may be frustrated by the way his vision was never completely realized thanks to outside editing-room meddling, but even in its compromised form it’s an intoxicating sensory experience. It stings that you have to look past the shoddy visual quality of its formatting to see that beauty, as it’s been blown up from its original 8mm & 16mm film strips into depressingly fuzzed-out & watered down abstractions on home video. Looking at the gorgeously crisp, meticulously fine-tuned prints of Bidgood’s beefcake photography (collected in the must-own Taschen artbook simply titled James Bidgood), it’s heartbreaking to see his one completed feature film so shamelessly neglected. Even in its grainy, sub-ideal state it’s still a fascinating watch that pushes the dreamlike quality of cinema as an artform to its furthest, most prurient extreme. It’s also a testament to how much just one artist can achieve when left to their own maddening devices in isolation for long enough. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll emerge from this year’s stay-at-home chrysalis period with some equally beautiful, surreal art that some horned-up weirdo has been anonymously toiling away at in private. Considering how shitty & distracting the world outside has become, however, the likelihood of that possibility is highly doubtful.

-Brandon Ledet

The Head Hunter (2019)

I was a little surprised to find the online enthusiasm for the cheap-o swords & snow fantasy horror The Head Hunter so muted & reserved, at least among the critics & bloggers I follow. Early reviews from the festival circuit praise it as an underdog gem that barely scraped together a $30,000 budget but somehow make a compelling feature out of it. Since it’s hit VOD, however, it’s been met with a polite 3-star shrug, which is strange since this is the exact kind of scrappy, make-do filmmaking genre nerds usually celebrate. Admittedly, I had a similar muted reaction to the low-budget, high-ambition fantasy-horror Hagazussa earlier this summer, so I’m guilty of this exact crime elsewhere, but I really do think The Head Hunter strives to be more of a traditionally entertaining crowd pleaser in its own cheap-o way than that fellow curio. Its scope is limited and it’s extremely light on dialogue, but it moves for its entire 72min runtime as it reaches for one grand, grotesque payoff to release all its atmospheric tension. That concrete payoff totally worked for me in a way the loftier Elevated Horror ambitions of Hagazussa did not, and I was surprised to find there wasn’t more of a fist-pumping, whooping-and-hollering reception out there to reward its budget-defying efforts.

In this post-Game of Thrones swords & snow fantasy horror, a medieval monster slayer seeks to add the head of the beast that killed his daughter to his trophy collection. That’s it; that’s the entire plot. It’s such a simplified, constricted premise for a feature film that it combines both the fridging & the macho-warrior-humanized-by-raising-a-daughter tropes that weigh down most modern action blockbusters into a single meat-headed motivator. What’s interesting about The Head Hunter is that it turns that setup into a picture about the process of beast-slaying instead indulging in full-on action-horror (which would require effects work far beyond its budget). This is essentially the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen video of monster-hunting. One gruff medieval warrior with a Nick Offerman-level scowl makes healing potions out of animal carcasses and hangs the ooey-gooey severed heads of his beastly opponents on his trophy wall of spikes. Of course, audiences would generally prefer to see those offscreen battles than the daily preparatory chores & bloody cleanup aftermath we get instead, and the monster slayings themselves do essentially amount to an [IMAGINE A BIGGER BUDGET HERE] insert. Personally, I found this setup to be an impressive device in low-budget filmmaking shrewdness. It knows it can’t convincingly stage battle scenes on its limited production scale, so it makes up for it by leaning into what it can do well: grotesque creature designs & a nihilistic mood.

Readjusting my expectations to The Head Hunter’s budgetary limitations & emphasis on process set me up to be absolutely floored by its climactic monster battle—which is onscreen, extensive, and shockingly cerebral in its brutality considering how shallow the premise can feel in the lead-up. After all the film’s withholding & obscuration, it really digs deep into the hurt & anger shared between our beast slayer & the monster who killed his daughter. All the frustration of feeling left out of previous battles melts away as you’re invited into a cramped, chaotic space for an up-close look at the only one that matters. There’s plenty to praise in The Head Hunter in terms of low-budget filmmaking craft: the attention to detail in its practical gore & costume design; its handheld cinematography that alternate POVs between Evil Dead monster cams & heroic video game screengrabs; its utilization of fog machines & natural lighting to enhance its no-budget forest sets; etc. What’s most impressive to me, however, is how physically & psychologically brutal its climactic showdown feels after that slow, methodical build to the moment – something it could not achieve without withholding the other monster battles before it (especially considering its budget). That choice seems to have alienated a lot of potential genre nerds hoping for more straightforward action-horror, but I personally found it to be incredibly impressive in both craft & effect.

-Brandon Ledet

Steven Universe: The Movie (2019)

If you’ve been watching the Cartoon Network fantasy series Steven Universe since its 2013 debut, it’s difficult to think back to when the show was a collection of one-off adventures instead of a complex intergalactic epic with five seasons of mythology guiding its every move. Insular adventures like Steven begging for French-fry bits at the wharf or raising an island of adorable Watermelon Stevens have gradually given way to emotionally tough, intellectually challenging tales of queer love & war across the endless canvas of Space & Time. It would be a total shame to roll back all that careful incremental progress from the canon adventures of Steven & The Crystal Gems at this point in their saga, which is entirely the point of Steven Universe: The Movie. Most “The Movie” addendums to television shows dial the clock back to their respective mythologies’ starting point to welcome in new audiences at a late stage in their run, once they’ve earned that larger platform. Steven Universe: The Movie isn’t screening in cinemas across America or anything, but it does mark the occasion of having gradually earned a sizeable audience by reaching for the grandiose spectacle of a feature-length musical. It also leans into its “The Movie” designation by resetting all character development & plot complications back to a square-one factory default setting. What’s most impressive about the movie is that this reset is treated as a devastating tragedy for longtime fans, not an ingratiating plea for a new audience.

As accustomed as we’ve become to our favorite pop culture institutions extending themselves into perpetuity through reboots, network jumps, and crowd-funded movie sequels, the harsh truth is that Steven Universe pretty much wrapped up the story it needed to tell by the end of its fifth season. This feature-length follow-up to that arc about says as much. All the work of dismantling an intergalactic empire is through; all the characters have reached a personal & communal place of self-acceptance; there’s nowhere left for the show to go. All that can be done at this point is to tread water solely so that we can spend more time with the Crystal Gems whom we love so much, or to dial the clock back and ruin all their progress for the sake of establishing a worthwhile conflict. Steven Universe: The Movie expertly demonstrates the folly of both approaches. It opens with the Crystal Gems on Earth in peaceful communal health and the empirical Gems in space no longer searching to destroy deviants outside their colonial rule. Steven announces that he hopes things never change, aligning himself with the satiated fandom. Then, a Fleicsher cartoon-style villain, Spinel, arrives on Earth to cause havoc by erasing all the memories & personal progress the Gems have earned over the course of the show as vengeance for a past wrong. It’s heartbreaking to lose all that progress at an instant, but at least the challenge of rebuilding the Gems’ memories & personae gives Steven something to do besides reveling in how perfect his life is now and how he never wants anything to change. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Steven saves the day by empathizing with & healing Spinel (as is his usual M.O.), once again resetting the scenario back to normal with characters settled exactly where you’d want them to be. It’s an incredibly smart, concise demonstration of why the show needs to end as soon as it will (after its sixth, final season), as it looks back at all the work it’s already accomplished – work we don’t want or need to see cyclically destroyed & restored.

Unlike most “The Movie” mutations of ongoing television shows, I don’t think this will necessarily win over anyone who hasn’t already converted to the cult of the Crystal Gems. The show has gotten so detailed & insular in its own mythology that even slight changes in costume & character design have massive implications for fans of the show (especially regarding Steven’s physical maturity in this instance), whereas a casual viewer or newcomer would likely shrug those details off or fail to notice them at all. Because this movie resets its characters to their factory-default settings, it does somewhat work as an introduction to its featured players, but the recaps are so compressed that they mean more as a reminder to fans of how far we’ve come than they’d signify to the uninitiated. The best chance a Steven Universe newbie would have of being reeled in by the movie is in director (and series mastermind) Rebecca Sugar’s songwriting. The film’s structure as an Old Hollywood musical (or a Golden Era Disney throwback, depending on its whims) allows for plenty of space to feature Sugar’s emotionally potent songs, which have always been a vital cornerstone for the show. In particular, the fictional band Sadie Killer and The Suspects’ number “Disobedient” is legitimately the best song I’ve heard all year—in a movie or otherwise—and should work just as well for someone who doesn’t know how much personal progress Sadie had to achieve in order to perform it (a lot!). Otherwise, the movie is clearly aimed at an already converted audience. It reminds us of how far the story has progressed, allows us to briefly celebrate that victory, and then demonstrates why continuing the show past this point could only lead to stagnation or heartbreak. It’s apparently possible to love Steven Universe and still be happy that it’s coming to an end.

-Brandon Ledet