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Indie Focus: Dev Patel’s mystic adventure in ‘The Green Knight’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

We’ve talked quite a bit here recently about the relationship between movie theaters and moviegoers. This week the dynamic between movie theaters and movie makers came into the spotlight as Scarlett Johansson sued Disney, with the actress accusing the company of breach of contract by releasing “Black Widow” simultaneously in theaters and on the Disney+ streaming platform. Johansson’s suit alleges that she was deprived of additional revenue by the decision, and this could potentially be an early shot in an ongoing dispute between talent and studios over streaming platforms and how to determine compensation.

“It’s no secret that Disney is releasing films like ‘Black Widow’ directly onto Disney+ to increase subscribers and thereby boost the company’s stock price — and that it’s hiding behind Covid-19 as a pretext to do so,” John Berlinski, an attorney for Johansson, said in a statement. “But ignoring the contracts of the artists responsible for the success of its films in furtherance of this short-sighted strategy violates their rights and we look forward to proving as much in court.”

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Berlinski continued, “This will surely not be the last case where Hollywood talent stands up to Disney and makes it clear that, whatever the company may pretend, it has a legal obligation to honor its contracts.”

In a statement, Disney responded by saying, in part, “The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Disney has fully complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract.”

The American Cinematheque wraps up its recent series on movie comedies this weekend with a fantastic lineup of movies and guests, including “Clueless” with a Q&A featuring Amy Heckerling and Alicia Silverstone; “Hollywood Shuffle,” with a conversation between Robert Townsend and JB Smoove; plus “His Girl Friday,” “Dr. Strangelove” and the astonishing “Four Lions,” with an early performance by Riz Ahmed. The Cinematheque also just announced their first programs for August at the Los Feliz 3, including Elaine May movies on Mondays.

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‘The Green Knight’

Written and directed by David Lowery, “The Green Knight” is an adaptation of the 14th century epic poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain, a restless young adventurer who enters into a pact with the mystical Green Knight, sending him off on an extended journey. The supporting cast includes Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson, Sarita Choudhury, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton. The film is playing now in general release.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “What does it mean to be a knight, or even just to be human? It isn’t an easy question, and ‘The Green Knight,’ in taking it seriously, isn’t always an easy film. But by the time Gawain reaches his journey’s end, in as moving and majestically sustained a passage of pure cinema as I’ve seen this year, the moral arc of his journey has snapped into undeniable focus. He plays the game; he accepts the challenge. His example is worth following.”

For Slate, Dana Stevens wrote, “The poem ‘The Green Knight’ is based on blended pagan myth, Christian allegory, and courtly romance, with a subtlety of characterization that still feels modern, and Lowery’s script makes the hero’s ambiguity even more central to the story. Gawain’s main conflict is not with the verdant bad guy of the title but with the monsters of his own fears about masculinity, maturity, and, above all, mortality. The coming of age that Patel’s Gawain undergoes on his journey is more existential than physical: He starts off as an undisciplined young carouser with fixed ideas about honor and courage, and he ends as a man shaken to his core by the mysteries he has witnessed, both in the outside world (where there are naked giants, enchanted sashes, and a talking fox) and within himself. This transformation would have nowhere near the resonance it does without the depth of Patel’s performance. He communicates both the fervor of Gawain’s desire for worldly respect and acclaim, and the doubts he harbors about whether there might not be a better way to live a human life.”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “There are more straightforward Arthurian tales out there, but Lowery is clearly drawn to the ambiguity of this one, drawing from the version told by a 14th-century poet that history has also left nameless. Rather than tease a particular reading out of Gawain’s journey, the beguiling work functions as a meditation on the search for meaning and direction itself. … Gawain longs for notoriety, and when he gets it by stepping up and beheading the Green Knight, is dissatisfied and frightened and longs instead for honor. ‘The Green Knight’ is about someone who keeps waiting for external forces to turn him into the gallant, heroic figure he believes he should be. But at the film’s heart is a lesson that’s as timeless as any legend — travel as far as you like, but you’ll never be able to leave yourself behind.”

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A man, left, and a woman in a white, 14th century-style dress sit in the woods.
Dev Patel and Alicia Vikander in the movie “The Green Knight.”
(Eric Zachanowich / A24 Films)

‘Nine Days’

Written and directed by Edson Oda in his feature debut, “Nine Days” is an ambitious story that imagines a metaphysical outpost where a man named Will (Winston Duke) makes decisions on who will be sent to Earth to live a life and who won’t. The supporting cast includes Tony Hale, Benedict Wong and Zazie Beetz. The movie is playing now in limited release.

For The Times, Carlos Aguilar wrote, “A life-affirming epiphany, ‘Nine Days’ is cinema of a higher calling, spiritual without denomination. Oda’s great alchemy consists of turning ideas that in someone else’s hands would yield platitudes into observed lyricism that factors in the negative counterpoints. His optimism chooses to root for kindness knowing evil exists. Transient as our time here may be, from the moment the color bars of our genesis ignite on the screen of destiny to when the light of our flawed broadcast goes out, our every breath, in pain and in pleasure, is a miraculous privilege.”

For Pay Or Wait, Robert Daniels wrote, “Oda, even in his first feature, displays a steady handle on ‘Nine Days’ magnificent craft. … Nevertheless, it’s Duke, in the best role of his young career, who completely enraptures and elevates his work. In Ryan Coogler’s ‘Black Panther’ he was the one-note yet scene-stealing M’Baku; while in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ he portrays a goofy dad. Here, the contours of his character are deeper, and his performance more expansive. It’s difficult to go from quiet to loud, as Duke does with the roar of his voice. Nevertheless, when he’s in emotional turmoil, broken from his stoic veneer, the scenes are never contrived. He exemplifies regret; he exhales depression. And in the existential dread of his trainees, each unnerved and desperate, he’s magnanimous and concerned. In short, Duke must be everything to everybody, including himself, and in this challenge, his talent is put on view — especially in one cathartic scene where the meaning of Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Song of Myself’ bursts like rays across the dusty open plains.”

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For the AV Club, Noel Murray wrote, “Where ‘Nine Days’ excels is as a showcase for its cast, who under Oda’s direction give their roughly sketched-out characters enough dimension to make the whole oddball job interview genuinely affecting. … These performances work so well because they’re grounded in specific reactions to the immediate circumstances. It’s admirable that Oda so often goes broad and grand with his depiction of the human experience, focusing more often than not on the extremes of depression and ecstasy. And again, many viewers are bound to be moved by the choices he makes, which are clear and confident. And yet it’s oddly more touching when Hale’s person-in-training asks if he can ditch the tests for an afternoon and just have a beer with Will. This too is part of life: to want to chill for a bit, rather than facing the big questions every waking second. A ‘Nine Days’ that played more of the soft notes alongside the bold ones might’ve resonated more clearly.

A man in a vest and glasses in a desert
Winston Duke as Will in the 2021 fantasy drama “Nine Days.”
(Michael Coles / Sony Pictures Classics)

‘Stillwater’

Directed and cowritten by Tom McCarthy, “Stillwater” stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker, an American father who travels to Marseille to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), imprisoned for five years after being accused of murdering her girlfriend. He chases down a small piece of new evidence, determined to prove her innocence. (The film is loosely based on the circumstances around the 2007 murder of the British student Meredith Kercher in Italy, which has drawn a compelling response from Amanda Knox, the American who was convicted and later exonerated for the crime.) The movie is playing in general release.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “The movie effectively merges the patient investigative rigor of McCarthy’s Oscar-winning newsroom drama ‘Spotlight’ and the cross-cultural humanism of his earlier film ‘The Visitor.’ Put another way, it’s a somber crime thriller wrapped around a sly fish-out-of-water comedy, in which Bill is invariably the butt of the joke. … Bill’s outsider status, a source of pathos and comedy in the first two acts, threatens to become a moral liability in the third. McCarthy pushes the thriller narrative in directions more extreme and harrowing than plausible, bringing Bill and Allison’s story to an unexpected point of reckoning. It’s possible to be genuinely moved by that reckoning — and to admire the obvious intelligence and care that have been brought to bear on ‘Stillwater’ — without fully buying the trail of contrivances and compromises it leaves in its wake.”

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Josh Rottenberg spoke to McCarthy, Damon and co-star Camille Cottin. On McCarthy’s collaboration with screenwriters Thomas Bidegain and Noé DeBré, Damon said, “The film upsets expectations, and I think that’s the beauty of this great American screenwriter and these two great French screenwriters coming together. You think it’s going to be: ‘Give me back my daughter! I have a very particular set of skills.’ And it’s like, no, Bill Baker doesn’t have any of those skills. But he loves his kid and he’s doing the best he can in a world that he doesn’t quite understand at all.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Like ‘Nomadland’ and any number of Sundance movies, ‘Stillwater’ seizes on the classic figure of the American stoic, the rugged individualist whose self-reliance has become a trap, a dead end and — if all the narrative parts cohere — a tragedy. And like ‘Nomadland,’ ‘Stillwater’ tries to say something about the United States (‘Ya Got Trouble,’ as the Music Man sings) without turning the audience off by calling out specific names or advancing an ideological position. Times are tough, Americans are too (at least in movies). They keep quiet, soldier on, squint into the sun and the void. Bad things happen and it’s somebody’s fault, but it’s all so very vague.”

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “’Stillwater’ delves, both directly and indirectly, into the fraught racial politics of contemporary France, as new information in the case leads Bill into a housing project largely home to Black and Arab people pushed into the margins of French society and very often unfairly targeted by police. In these scenes, the film treads dangerously close to a hoary cinematic form: communities of color used as exotic, menacing backdrop for white heroics. I think McCarthy is aware of that, though, and is using a bad, tired structure to turn the commentary back on Bill and Allison — and on their country. … ‘Stillwater’ collapses into a bleak conclusion, McCarthy closing his film as bluntly and hauntingly as the Coen brothers ended ‘No Country for Old Men. ‘Stillwater’ certainly doesn’t compare to that masterpiece, but it still startles, teasing that this whole thing may have been a grand allegory all along.”

A man in a Carhartt shirt and a baseball cap walks through a crowd.
Matt Damon in the movie “Stillwater.”
(Jessica Forde / Focus Features)
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