The Green Knight

Posted on July 28, 2021 at 12:44 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R (Graphic Nudity|Violence|Some Sexuality)
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/adventure peril and violence, swords, battle axe, graphic and disturbing images including severed heads, reference to rape
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: July 30, 2021

Copyright 2021 A24
Looking at “The Green Knight” is like being immersed in a gorgeous, mysterious medieval tapestry. Watching it is like being immersed in a Jungian dream filled with Erik Erikson-style choices, enigmatic patterns and symbols.

It is based on one of the classic works of world literature, a 15th century poem by an unknown author about a knight from the days of King Arthur. While most tales of the Knights of the Round Table are about daring quests for a grand purpose like rescuing a maiden or finding the Holy Grail, Sir Gawain’s quest is stranger and more mythic, perhaps best seen as a metaphor for an internal quest. Gawain is as confused as we are, and his head is on the line. Literally.

Dev Patel follows his sensitive, compelling, and joyful performance as David Copperfield last year with another showing his unquenchable screen chemistry and fearless honesty in portraying characters who confront painful lessons of loss and defeat. As both actor and movie star, he is never less than completely authentic, and pure magic on screen.

David Lowrey (“The Old Man and the Gun,” “A Ghost Story,” “Pete’s Dragon”) wrote and directed this version of the story, at least the fourth filmed adaptation, indicated by the increasingly modern fonts showing the title. Lowery’s gift for exquisite images imparting a mythic quality to film is well-suited to this tale. The first image is so still it could almost be a medieval painting, with Gawain in royal robes and a crown that looks like the halos in icons of saints. It burns. The next image is so still it might also be a painting, with geese and horses in an old courtyard. It takes a moment to realize that there is a fire on a roof in the back.

Gawain is wakened with a splash of water on the face by Essel (Alicia Vikander), whose pixie haircut, rough clothes, and accent tell us they are not in the same class. There is genuine affection as well as a careless condescension in the way he grabs at her. But she reminds him that it is Christmas morning, and he is expected at the castle. When he arrives there, he lies to his mother (a majestic Sarita Choudhury), telling her he has been at mass all night. We can see that he is impetuous, a bit spoiled, and utterly untested.

As the courtiers gather for Christmas dinner, King Arthur (Sean Harris) unexpectedly gives Gawain the honor of sitting beside him, and invites him to share a story with the group. “Tell me a tale of yourself so that I might know thee.” As he looks out at the “legends” among the knights at the round table, Gawain has to admit he does not have a tale to tell. And so, when the castle door opens and a mysterious man who looks like an enormous tree enters the dining hall on horseback, Gawain realizes this could be the beginning of his story.

The tree-man, The Green Knight, proposes a “game.” He will allow any man in the room to strike him as he will, and then, in exactly one year, they will meet again to give the Green Knight the change to return the same blow. Gawain takes the challenge, and the King offers the use of his own sword. Gawain beheads The Green Knight, who cooly picks the head up from the floor of the dining hall and rides away. Gawain has a year to think about what will happen at their second meeting, amusingly conveyed in part through a Punch-and-Judy style puppet show for the local children. Gawain has, in medieval terms, gone viral, his portrait painted and the story of his beheading of the tree-man told everywhere.

It is the end of “a too-short year” and time for him to keep his promise to meet The Green Knight and receive his blow. His mother gives him a sash that she promises will keep him from harm. “Is it wrong to want greatness for you?” she says. “I fear I am not meant for greatness,” he answers.

And so he is off, with the adventures along the way the heart of the story. Barry Keoghan continues to be one of the best at creating a truly disturbing, creepy presence on film, able to make the battlefield strewn with dead bodies seem normal by comparison. Other people or simulations of people he meets include two who seem to welcome him but impose conditions like The Green Knight’s “game” that may be more freighted than they appear.

At one point one of the people he encounters asks what he will achieve from his second encounter with The Green Knight and he answers without hesitation: honor. But what does that mean? Why is the bargain they have made called a game? How does it “rhyme” with the bargain he makes with a generous host on his journey?

What is the meaning of the doubling of characters and experiences, evoking the intricate alliteration and rhymes of the original poem? What is “real” in the world of the film and what is imagined? Are they “real-life” events that we are supposed to think are actually happening to the character or are they the demons his spirit is wrestling with to achieve self-actualization?What is honor in his time and in ours? How should he answer Essel? What does he learn from each encounter and what is the significance of the possessions returned to him?

This is a movie to be not just watched but experienced, absorbed, pondered, and argued over. It challenges us in the way the Green Knight challenges Gawain, in the way the King challenges him, to tell our story and to make it one that is worthy enough to continue to intrigue us after seven hundred years.

Parents should know that this film includes violence with graphic and disturbing images, with beheadings and a reference to rape and murder. There are sexual situations, some graphic, and references, some nude characters, and a non-explicit childbirth scene.

Family discussion: What does honor mean to you and how does it compare to Gawain’s idea? What tale could you tell?

If you like this, try: “Excalibur”

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Black Beauty

Posted on November 25, 2020 at 12:01 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: NR
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Animal abuse, sad deaths of humans and animals, fire
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: November 27, 2020

Copyright 2020 Disney
The latest “Black Beauty” is the sixth film adaptation of the classic Victorian novel by Anna Sewell, told by a horse who goes from owner to owner, some kind, some cruel. This latest version, streaming on Disney+, updates and relocates the story, set in contemporary United States (but filmed in South Africa). And this time, the two main characters are female.

Kate Winslet provides the narration, and we first meet the black horse with a white star on her forehead living wild in “an endless golden meadow,” taught by her mother that “a mustang’s spirit can never be broken.” She promises to tell us the secret to this inner strength by the end of the story. It will be tested, though, as she is caught by cowboys, who sell the horses they capture to riders if they can be tamed and to be killed if they cannot. The black horse is about to be relegated to that second category as untamable. But a kind-hearted trainer says that she is just frightened and angry. “Wouldn’t you be if a UFO came down and stole you from your family?”

He is John Manly (“Game of Thrones'” Iain Glen), something of a horse whisperer, and a scout and trainer for a rescue ranch in New York. He buys the horse, but even his patience and gentleness do not make much progress and the owner of the ranch says the horse will have to go. But then John learns that his sister and brother-in-law have been killed in a car accident and he is now guardian for their teenaged daughter Jo (Makenzie Foy of “Intersteller”). She, too, is frightened and angry. “Now I have two girls who want nothing to do with me,” he sighs.

Those two girls, Jo and the horse, are too sad to develop a relationship with anyone. But they immediately recognize the sadness in each other. Jo, who has had no experience with horses, is able to calm the horse she names Beauty. And Beauty calms her, too.

Jo tries to keep Beauty, but when that is impossible she promises to find her and get her back. Beauty is sold to one owner after another, some kind, some cruel.

The theme of the film is empathy, and as Beauty tells her story is is clear she knows the difference between those who do not intend to inflict damage and those who do not care. Her travels take her from a wealthy family with a snobbish mother whose daughter is incapable of understanding the Robert Smith quote John shares with Jo: “There is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse,” to a mountain rescuer and a New York horse-drawn carriage driver. And the end will make you cry.

The biggest problem is that the screenplay tells us what it has already shown us and then tells us again. We get the message from the performances and from David Procter’s beautiful cinematography, which surrounds the story in golden light and makes us feel the danger of treacherous mountain rapids. The love story between Jo and Beauty is told with sincerity and affection. There is not much new here, but the message of courage, kindness, and loyalty is always worthwhile.

Parents should know that while the bad behavior and cruel treatment is mostly off-camera, described rather than shown, both humans and horses are injured and there are sad deaths.

Family discussion: Why did Jo and Beauty understand each other so well? Why does Jo want to use the word “partner” instead of “break?”

If you like this, try: “The Black Stallion,” “National Velvet,” and “Emma’s Chance” as well as “A Dog’s Journey” and “A Dog’s Way Home”

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The Witches (2020)

Posted on October 22, 2020 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Magical potions
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comedy/fantasy peril, children and witches transformed into animals, sad death of parents in auto accident
Diversity Issues: Diversity issues of the era briefly referred to
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2020
Copyright HBO 2020

The witches are back. First there was the the 1963 book by Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, the BFG, Matilda, and some creepy stories for grown-ups, too). Then there was the 1990 movie, starring Angelica Huston (and making a significant change to the ending). And now, CGI fantasy-master Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Back to the Future”) gives us his version, starring two Oscar-winners and co-written with Kenya Barris of “Black-ish” and “Girls Trip.”

“Witches are as real as a rock in your shoe…They’re here and they live amongst us,” the narrator immediately identifiable as Chris Rock tells us. And “witches hate children. They get the same pleasure from squishing a child as you get from ice cream with butterscotch sauce and a cherry on top.”

Then we go back in time to 1968. The setting of the book and the first movie has been moved from Norway and England to a Black community in Alabama. Jahzir Bruno plays the unnamed boy whose parents are killed in an automobile accident in the first few minutes. His grandmother (Octavia Spencer) comes to get him. He’ll be living with her, in the house where his mother grew up. He describes her as “quick to give you a spanking if you deserved it or a hug if you need it.” She comforts him. And when he has a scary encounter with a gloved woman in a hat who offers him candy, she starts to tell him what she knows about witches.

She had her own encounter with a witch as a child, when one turned her best friend into a chicken. And so, to keep him safe, she takes him to a grand hotel. Unfortunately, it turns out the hotel is also hosting a convention of witches, led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway, relishing the opportunity to vamp up a storm).

One element of the story that has not aged well is the way it dwells on the physical deformities of the witches, bald, with scabby scalps, huge, gaping mouths, claw hands, and no toes. Even though the witches are not human, the association of disabilities with evil is less palatable than it once was. (Anne Hathaway has apologized for the insensitivity of this portrayal.)

Zemeckis sometimes gets so caught up in the visual effects that he overlooks the story, but here the visuals are almost entirely in service of the story, especially after the boy is turned into a mouse (which, adorably, he quite likes) and we get to see things from his angle. Dahl’s story provides a strong foundation, and Spencer, who could easily have phoned in a role like this, gives it her substantial all. I’d still give the 1990 version the edge, but it is good to see the original ending restored and this is a worthy Halloween treat.

Parents should know that this film has fantasy peril and violence and some disturbing images. A child’s parents are killed in a car accident. Children are turned into mice. Witches have physical deformities including huge, scary, gaping mouths. There is some schoolyard language and there are understated references to racism of the era.

Family discussion: Why did the boy like being a mouse? What was the scariest moment in the movie? Why do the witches do what the Grand High Witch tells them?

If you like this, try: the 1990 film with Angelica Huston and the book by Roald Dahl, as well as the movies based on his other books, including “Matilda,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “The BFG”

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The Personal History of David Copperfield

Posted on August 27, 2020 at 5:51 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material and brief violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and alcoholism, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Brief violence including a fight scene and some abuse, sad offscreen death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Race-blind casting
Date Released to Theaters: August 28, 2020

Copyright 2019 FilmNation Entertainment
There is no higher praise than to say that Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop,” “Veep”) has adapted the book Charles Dickens said was his favorite of all the novels he had written, the book closest to his own history, in a manner as jubilant and shrewdly observed, as touching, as romantic, as exciting, as the novel itself.

For those who made not be familiar with the story: David Copperfield is a Bildungsroman that begins with the birth of the title character to Clara, a sweet but naive weak-natured young widow (played by Morfydd Clark, who also plays David’s first love, Dora). They have a blissful life together until she marries the stern and cruel Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who, with his equally formidable sister (Gwendolyn Christie), takes over the household.

Murdstone sends David to work in a bottle factory, where he lodges with the impecunious Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi). Years later, he runs away to his only relative, the formidable Miss Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who lives with a kind-hearted but rather vague man named Mr. Dick, who struggles with intrusive thoughts about King Charles I.

Miss Betsey sends David to school, where he meets the indolent Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard of “Dunkirk”) and is befriended by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar). After graduation he goes to work for Mr. Spenlow, and is immediately overwhelmed with love for his daughter, Dora. During all of these adventures and more David changes names and positions in society several times, and the concerns he and others have about their status in society is a recurring theme.

David Copperfield is one of my favorite books of all time, and I well understand it would take a trilogy as ambitious as “Lord of the Rings” to fully do justice to all of its characters and events. But even I had to admit that it has been judiciously pruned (the characters of Rosa Dartle and Mrs. Steerforth have been combined, no Barkis or Miss Mowcher, Tommy Traddles only mentioned, etc.). I strongly concur with dropping the “Little” from Emily’s name, and quickly got used to the idea that she was nearly an adult when David was a child. And I even applauded some happier resolutions for some of the characters. After 170 years, they deserve it.

And the cast! Not since the grand 1935 MGM version with Freddie Bartholomew as young David, Lionel Barrymore as Daniel Peggoty, Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey Trotwood, and Basil Rathbone as Mr. Murdstone (no one has ever been as good at naming characters as Charles Dickens), has there been such fitting richness of acting talent. Iannucci’s decision to use race-blind casting, without regard to the genetic realism of biological connections only adds to the universality and ample bounty that is fitting for Dickens, who populated his works with more vivid and varied characters per page than any other author in the English language.

Dev Patel is a superb choice for David, who is thoughtful, open-hearted, and innocent but with a strong core of honor and optimism. We first see David, like the real-life Dickens who went on very popular speaking tours, reading the book’s famous opening line on stage before an appreciative audience. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” That framing, that self-awareness is fitting for an authorial voice that opens a book by challenging us to make up our own minds about what is to come. Iannucci’s theatricality and gift for telling stories cinematically shimmers through the film, with occasional images projected onto a wall, a hand reaching down into a model of the set, Patel talking to his younger self, played by Ranveer Jaiswal.

Class as it is perceived and as it is in reality is a theme of the film, but so is story-telling itself. Mr. Dick struggles to tell his story without reference to Charles I, and David comes up with an ingenious way to help him. Even as a young child, David wrote down memorable turns of phrase he heard on scraps of paper. His realization that those pieces of paper and pieces of memories are the basis for understanding his past, his purpose, and his future is a deeply satisfying answer to the question he poses at the beginning.

Parents should know that this film includes some tense and sad moments including an abusive stepfather and the offscreen death of a parent. There are financial reversals, confrontations (one fistfight), and a character embezzles.

Family discussion: Is David the hero of the story? Why is it so important to him to be considered a gentleman?

If you like this, try: The MGM version and the book, as as well as other film adaptations of Dickens books including the David Lean “Great Expectations” and the many, many versions of “A Christmas Carol” and a film about the writing of “A Christmas Carol” with Dan Stevens as Dickens, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”

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