Haiku Review: Elden Ring

Such long wanderings
through unknown territories,
the five stars aligned.

My deaths undeserved,
punishments random, unearned,
much like life itself.

Beast madness, dark souls,
crystal magic, lords of blood—
the past is present.

Death is the fell foe
which bear-coated allies face—
no Guts, no glory.

Read the runes of fate
like a blind woman’s fingers,
clutching in despair.

Twice victorious,
yet the gold crown sits aslant
above frenzied eyes.

Dune 2021 Review

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Dune 2021 Review

“They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.”

From the poem Desert Places, by Robert Frost

Imagine this: a sweeping panorama of desert places, the camera scouring the curves of dunes like the sensuous contours of a lover’s body as she lay in the imitation of some elusive profundity both mysteriously silent and, ultimately, pointless. Which panorama is in question? Choose one at random within Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune and it will suffice, being that they are all indistinguishable from each other. This movie pretends to have something to say, and something to feel. It has neither. It is a vapid exercise in eco-fetishism; a lingering voyeuristic conceit of substance suffused with a director’s ego at the cost of plot and character. Lingering special effects shots and character reaction shots are abundant and shallow, reminding of the gawk-fests that riddle so many Shonen anime adaptations. Some scenes are iconic—scenes with figures and spaceships arrayed around them—but like the religious iconography of the Bene Gesserit it is planted superstition with little import except to impress gullible minds with eye-glazing rituals. Only, it is not so successfully manipulative as the Bene Gesserits. And the reason why is that the director is more concerned with making desktop backgrounds for fanboys than actually telling a compelling story.
There is a willful juxtaposition of the impersonal, hostile environments and gigantic technology with cosmically-dwarfed characters. This is commendable. The world of Dune is impersonal and hostile. The problem is that the movie fails in the attempt to anchor audience via empathy to the plight of the characters. There are characters in the dunes of Dune, but they are lost in the rumbling sandstorms like Fremen shadows. Few actors are characters in Dune. The only exception that demonstrates impressive range is Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica. She is, by turns, motherly, defensive, capable, noble, powerless, powerful, and conflicted. She is the embodiment of the desert, though she is a Bene Gesserit witch that has never been on Arrakis before. She protects her son, but is also compromised by her Bene Gesserit loyalties. She makes for an interesting character, just as she does in the novel. The conflict on her face during the Gom Jabbar scene is excellent. It is too bad, then, that no other actor has the opportunity to demonstrate their acting range, mainly because the camera is obsessed with scenery more than the script and acting.
Paul Atreides is the presumptive protagonist of the movie. Timothee Chalamet is competent as the figure who will eventually become the god in a Fremen religion. He is scarcely believable as a warrior, however. For a young man trained by Duncan Idaho, Gurney Halleck, and trained in the Weirding Way by his mother, he should not be so slight of frame and bearing. It is difficult to suspend disbelief at his martial prowess. Being a martial artist myself, it is not unbelievable that someone such as Bruce Lee could generate extraordinary power (despite never weighing more than 150 lbs in his life), but Chalamet is not Bruce Lee. He is built more like Mick Jagger than Bruce Lee. While one might lend credence to his prowess via the Weirding Way and its advantages, there is nought in the film that recommends the Weirding Way as any substantial advantage except in use of the Voice. Within the novel the reader is at liberty with Paul’s thoughts and, so, can be familiarized with his character, his motivations, and his pain throughout the narrative. In the movie we have no such privilege. Chalamet attempts to convey Paul’s conflicts with self, his circumstance, and his enemies, but not so much as is needed for it to win over the audience. The problem with Paul is the problem with several characters: not enough screentime to develop them and to invest the audience into their plights. This is a terrible oversight when we consider that Paul is the protagonist of the film (insomuch as he is The One prophesied to lead the Fremen against their enemies). And what is more lamentable is the fact that there are character moments neglected by the director. For instance, when Paul kills Jamis, Paul does not cry as he does in the novel, something which signifies his loss of innocence as a 15 year old having to kill for the first time in his life. This is a conjuncture point where his character grows alongside his legend, for his tears are misinterpreted by the Fremen as a sign of honor for the dead Jamis. Offering water to the dead, by crying, is something the One would do. Fremen rarely afford the dead such extravagances. Thus, a needful character moment is excised at the detriment of the character. Lynch’s Dune movie attempted to avoid the chasm between character motivation and audience awareness with scenes narrated by the characters’ thoughts. While this has been derided by some, it may be the only way the characters’ motivations might be explained more fully in the cinematic format, however gaudy it seems. When the main character is diminished because his range is limited by the script, the film suffers by its director’s poor choices.
Another character that suffers from the script is the seemingly primary antagonist, the Baron Harkonnen. Played by Stellan Skarsgard, he is visually intimidating (at first), floating while draped with a long space muumuu tapestry, but his menace is soon squandered; or, at least, never fully realized. He should inspire dread—with his guttural vocalizations and his unearthly, almost phantasmal mobility, and his black oil (?) rehabilitation baths—but ultimately he is nowhere near as disturbing as the flamboyant Baron Harkonnen in Lynch’s version. The latter is outlandish and creepy, whereas Villeneuve’s Baron is aesthetically impressive, but ultimately shallow. Like Paul, Vlad is never given enough screentime to be menacing. We are supposed to be afraid of him because we are supposed to be afraid of him. The Harkonnen world is likewise interesting—from the scene of Aztec-like battle preparations and the throat-singing, to the plastic-veiled women-in-waiting and the Baron’s gimp-suited multi-limbed pet—but it passes by so quickly that it seems underdeveloped. While Feyd is not necessary to the narrative yet, it would have been nice to foreshadow him as a threat in some way. There is Bautista’s Glossu Rabban, but he is both over the top and, simultaneously, has such little actual screentime that he seems almost extraneous.
As for the other characters, they are cursory, superficially-glancing sketches taken from the novel. Stilgar, as played by Javier Bardem, is enigmatic and mysterious, and manages to make an impression despite little screentime. Oscar Isaac is fine as Leto Atreides, and the scene where he asks Lady Jessica—whom he starts to doubt after the Gom Jabbar trial—to protect their son is impactful, especially since he asks her not as Paul’s mother, but as a Bene Gesserit. The alienation and desperation within the scene is palpable. That said, Leto’s death seems hollow and does not resonate. Duncan Idaho does not impress. Jason Mamoa plays Jason Mamoa, much the same as in every film in which he appears. Some have said Mamoa brings “humanity” to the film, but he seems to bring only bad jokes and a cowabunga mentality. His death is hollow as well. No death seems impactful in the film. Josh Brolin should be a good Gurney Halleck, yet he also plays himself: a grumpy old warrior who does not seem to have any capacity to play music. The joke about Halleck’s inability to smile is overplayed and misplaced. Bathos and melodrama dog the film. The slow-motion dream sequences are overdone, overused, and bring the film to a lethargic halt too many times. The whole film swoons into an imbecilic stupor at these moments. The bagpipes scene is jarring and absurd. The scene concerning fig trees is needless. The lingering vista shots could have been halved, making for a leaner runtime and better pacing. The soundtrack is overbearing and histrionic. Either it blares with loud, distortion-pedal foghorns or it trills with melodramatic lamentations. The dirges ring hollow as they attempt to project the emotions which the characters fail to elicit. No one wants to be told how to feel when watching a movie. They want to feel it naturally as a consequence of the characters and the plot. The cues are, thus, try-hard and mishandled.
For all of the criticism leveled at Lynch’s Dune (and often rightfully so), the costumes of the Bene Gesserit witches and other characters are iconic and otherworldly. The Bene Gesserits of Villeneuve’s Dune are overtopped with boxes and fabric as if they are mobile tents. The still-suits are bland compared to the Lynchian version. The ninja helmets are laughable, as is Chalamet’s superimposed face on the stuntman’s head. The sets are sometimes impressive, such as the Harkonnen world, and sometimes bland (Caladan). The mural of the sandworm with a its maw arrayed with a halo is an excellent use of iconography to encapsulate the Fremen religion, as well as the themes of the film. The cgi is inconsistent. It oscillates between beautiful and lacking verisimilitude. It is nowhere near as bad as the SyFy series, but at least the SyFy series manages to convey the character drama competently. Villeneuve’s movie holds the characters at the distance, in the midground or the background, letting the backgrounds paradoxically assume prominence in the foreground. Space is an impersonal place, but the desert places need to be somewhat welcoming to their audience. The desert mouse is not convincing, especially since the camera lingers on it so closely. The director, therefore, is too in love with the special effects and aesthetics to ever be in love with the characters. It is the same problem plaguing Prometheus. Appropriately, one of the writers of Prometheus shares writing credit on Dune, alongside the director.
For being so reliant on slow-moving spectacle, one would hope that the action sequences would be riveting. They are not. The action sequences are few and far between. They are the crests of the dunes, whereas the rest of the plodding sequences are spent meandering through vales. And even the crescendos of action are fumbling, stumbling exercises for the actors. The fight choreography is inept, closer to the cartoonish acrobatics of the Power Rangers than the low standard of passable Hollywood mediocrity. The flipping and the spinning, the languid motions of the fighting (particularly Paul’s fight with Jamis), and Mamoa’s flying knee-strike on wires are all examples of underwhelming moments of action premised to quicken the blood only to leave the audience tepid, if not cold. There is no catharsis, like intended, but laughable turgidity that often is concealed in other Hollywood films (like the Dark Knight trilogy) by quick-cuts of the camera. Here, however, as always in this film, the catatonic camera lingers on the slow, clumsy movements as if they are of great import. Perhaps it is due to the limitations imposed by the actors and their inelegance with stunt work. Roger Yuan, the fight choreographer, has credits in many movies with impressive action set-pieces. The only logical conclusion to this is that a master craftsman can only accomplish so much with the material given to him.
Overall, the film could have benefitted from an editor, more competent screen-writers, and a voice in the room to tell Villeneuve that his shit does, in fact, stink (shit or get off the pot, Villeneuve). The runtime could have been halved and the characters could have been humanized more thoroughly. My wife said it was like looking at postcards for three hours while a woman occasionally screamed at you. I suppose that is how someone covers the hollowness of desert places: yell enough times and the echoes layer atop one another until it seems like there are many people in the hollows speaking to one another when, in fact, it is just a director in love with his own voice. As it so happens, no character really speaks to another, and the film never really speaks successfully to its audience. The sand settles slowly in the hourglass as the runtime winds down. The camera zooms in on each grain as if it is of great meaning, but it isn’t. When the hourglass runs out, what do we have? A single dune at the bottom and nothing loftier in the other half of the hourglass.

The Green Knight Review

The Green Knight Review

“Where I see a story can be improved, I improve it.”

While the above is a paraphrase of the original dialogue, I could not be bothered to return to this pretentious movie to provide the exact quote. The intention of the writer/director, David Lowery, is encapsulated by the paraphrase, regardless, and I see no reason why the gist of his thesis for this movie cannot be represented best by the paraphrase provided. After all, the arrogance with which I assign the quote is no more overlarge than Lowery’s in his reimagining of Sir Gawain as a cowardly, perfidious, hot-headed, and prideful knight. At least my paraphrase is not slanderous, unlike Lowery’s paraphrase of the original epic poem (meaning that this film is not a paraphrase at all, but mean-spirited slander). And, truly, Lowery’s film is a slander of the original “Maiden’s Knight” himself, for it is a subversion of expectations that subverts itself through a strawman fallacy. Gawain, as depicted in Lowery’s vision, is not compassionate, nor chivalrous, nor brave, and, therefore, earns no such sympathies likewise from the audience. Rather, he is altogether irredeemable, being a much-maligned embodiment of “toxic masculinity”. Therefore, there is not much to be learned from Gawain himself, being that he is a hollow dummy upon which Lowery can make passes with a lance lowered lazily against him. It is a one-sided jousting tournament. This is not the Gawain of the original story, nor of the “The Greene Knight” poem, nor of the other famous Gawain story involving the Dame Ragnelle where he gifts the greatest gift of women to his loathly wife (sovereignty). This Gawain is a soulless caricature, and not much else. He feels the need to “be a honorable knight”, but his primary character traits are antithetical to the “honorable knight” he aspires to be (known as). He would rather have the reputation, superficially, than put in the effort for reform and self-improvement (primarily because he has no “self” to improve).
The female characters, on the other hand— while also being empty-souled exercises in moral concepts akin to Gawain—are by and large high-handed remonstrations against “toxic masculinity”. They have little in the way of personality or character. The Lady Bertilak, for instance, is the character through which Lowery speaks the abovementioned paraphrase. She is the aristocratic version of Gawain’s favorite prostitute, Essel. She is learned and skilled in calligraphy and water/light magical photography. She is an agent of Gawain’s mother, and of the director, serving their dual purposes simultaneously. She does nothing throughout the film but tempt Gawain to his baser nature and then reprimand him, all the while providing recursive meta-textualization of the story itself and voicing the director’s self-involved views on the story. It is disingenuous at best, and bad storytelling besides. This modern/post-modern fascination with metanarratives has yet to be proven worthwhile, especially when such fixations distract from the primary goal of a storyteller: telling a cohesive, coherent story with fully-rounded characters. Truly, symbolisms and themes and “deeper meanings” will emerge on their own, naturally, if the writer/author/director/whatever focuses on telling a good story. When a storyteller is more concerned with a “message” the story suffers more often than not, regardless of whether the “message” is needful or apt to the time period. Lady Bertilak is a casualty of Lowery’s predilection to preach, becoming a captious, bipolar cardboard-cutout by the close of the second act.
Contrasting with Lady Bertilak, in both station and disposition, is the prostitute Essel. Essel loves Gawain. This much we know about her. It is her defining attribute: her love for Gawain and her frustration with his reluctance to marry her. She asks only that she have his ear, his hand, his heart, and be his wife. But she is lowborn and, as stated, a prostitute atop that. This is a fantasy movie, of course, but it is also one that purports to deal with human themes and modern problems of “toxic masculinity”. What the movie fails to address (even as it is premised to address it) is Gawain’s duties as not only a knight, but as royalty. What of his obligations to the kingdom? As the nephew of a childless king he must consider his marriage carefully, for with it come alliances that may make or break not only Camelot, but the lives of his people. In the vision Gawain sees toward the end of the film a war occurs. We are not provided reasons for this war, but it certainly cannot be because he chose to marry a noble lady and NOT a prostitute. Yet, this is what may be easily implied by the sequence of events. The director provides no direct reason for this subsequent war, nor the ensuing dissolution of Camelot, but that is likely because he could not think of one that would justify Gawain’s marriage to Essel rather than to a noble lady of a foreign court. Is it because Gawain had not matured enough from his quest to make better decisions? Is it because he had a bastard son that raised arms against him for the right to the throne, much as Mordred is known to do in the superior movie “Excalibur”? Best not to ponder it too much because Lowery certainly didn’t. And that is the primary problem with this film: it pretends to be deep, but swims in the kiddie pool of spectacle and, admittedly, beautiful cinematography.
Another character (loosely speaking) is Saint Winifred. She appears near the halfway point after Gawain has been laughably disarmed, hogtied, and humiliated by a trio of adolescent urchins. Her character within the story seems to exist solely to state that men can do bad things to women, such as beheading them when they refuse to lie with them. This seems needless, to be frank, in the context of this film. Thus far, while Gawain shows cowardice and arrogance and other dishonorable traits, he never demonstrates violence toward women (or children, since, again, he has been easily disarmed), so the inclusion of this segment as part of his lesson is baffling. Does Gawain’s mother suspect that her son would harm women if given the chance? Or does Winifred exist so the jarring exchange may take place? It is a strange little interrupting interlude, especially when he tries to touch her face to test if she is real and she reproaches him for presuming he may touch her. He clearly suspects that she is a spirit, and is proven correct afterward, but it passes as another strike against Gawain’s morality. Moments later she requests that he retrieve her head from the pond. He asks what she will give him in exchange and she reproaches him again. While this scene is supposed to be a comment on “male entitlement” it is jarring and does not fit with the rest of the movie, particularly Winifred’s modernized tone and wording. It exists solely so the director may preach (to the choir) about how wicked it is for a man to think he should “get something from a woman in return for a favor”. But the truth is that Gawain is risking his life to retrieve Winifred’s head and put her to rest. He could simply walk away, and would have been wise to do so, especially since she was so skittish as to flinch from his innocent attempt to ascertain if she was real or not. Overall, this scene is completely disjointed from the narrative and serves no purpose except as an indulgence for the director. After all, Gawain was seeking shelter and Winifred surprised him after he had explored the house and found it isolated and abandoned, laying down to sleep. Lowery seems to want the narrative to go out of its own way (and pacing) to provide reasons to dislike Gawain.
Speaking of narrative, the whole narrative is set into motion by Gawain’s mother. In the original mythology Gawain’s mother is Morgause, so I will condescend to dub her Morgause for the sake of this review, even if she is treated within the film as if she is Morgan Le Fay. Morgause wants to test her son. She wants him to mature to be a man, but not just any man: an honorable man. What is an honorable man? It is difficult to discern within this film, mainly because the film is dead-set against Gawain ever becoming an honorable man. If anything, the film wishes to prevent him from being an honorable man as if to subvert the character arc with which it is misleading the audience (literally heading the Hero’s Journey off at a stroke). Morgause sends the Green Knight to challenge King Arthur’s court (while she is absent from her own throne at the right hand of King Arthur) and her hot-headed son steps forward to prove himself to his uncle and to defend the honor of the court (speciously). Morgause uses her son’s pride to ensnare him into a “game”, as King Arthur deems it, to prioritize his life to more selfless service (I suppose). The problem with this premise, however, is that it shows that the “toxic masculinity” of Gawain has been allowed to flourish erstwhile. Why has he degenerated so pathetically? Where was his mother during this time of ongoing moral decay? What happened to parental responsibility? Why did she wait so long to assert herself over her son? Is it because Camelot is a “patriarchy”? How so? There are three thrones in front of the Round Table, two of which are habitually occupied by women. Indeed, Arthur’s wife (Guenivere, presumably) takes the Green Knight’s scroll from Arthur’s hand and reads it herself rather than allowing Arthur to read it. Her voice is then subsumed by the Green Knight’s, whose voice, in turn, is controlled by Morgause. Morgause wrote the letter herself, and she and her fellow Fae/witches conjured the Green Knight, or, at least, they control him. The power of the women in Camelot, in the wild, and in Bertilak’s castle is quite prominent. The giants, for instance, all seem to be female. Gawain asks to ride upon a giantess’s shoulders, but the fox forbids him from doing so. Elsewhere, the men are devoid of agency. King Arthur is enfeebled, his own body being “unwilling” to meet the Green Knight’s challenge. Lord Bertilak is rendered utterly harmless in the movie, whereas in the original story he is imposing. In the film Lord Bertilak poses little threat, whereas Lady Bertilak and her “blind” waiting woman are seemingly omniscient, watching Gawain while he sleeps, appearing unprompted and unseen in the background, and even overpowering him sexually (as Lady Bertilak does when she grips him with her hand while offering him the green sash). The aristocratic women in the film are quite powerful. The lowborn women (such as Essel and Winifred) have no power and can only make requests for either Gawain’s love or service. Is there a message in this dynamic? If so, it is muddled. Not all women can be aristocratic to escape victimization, and yet those women that are aristocratic are as manipulative as the aristocratic men. What is the answer? I doubt there is even a question, to be honest. Lowery just likes to blow smoke and pretend it is genie powder, even as you are choking on the intake.
And what about the ending? It is as inconsistent as the rest of the film, both in terms of narrative and themes. My fiancee and I both concluded that Sir Gawain did not bow his head to the Green Knight and doff his enchanted sash because he had matured to the point of being willing to lay his life down for honor, nor had he reconciled his pride with Nature and the erasure it brings to mankind. No, Gawain simply did not want to live such a life as was shown to him in the vision. His cowardice and his pride, thus, spurred him to accept his premature death rather than attempt any modicum of growth. Of course, the conclusion of the film is open-ended and welcomes interpretation, but Lowery has demonized the “Maiden’s Knight” so much by the culmination of the film that Gawain is irredeemable to the last. He is a strawman of lust and privilege and cowardice. Why else would the fox—who is likely his mother in disguise, though they do not list the voice actress anywhere—attempt to dissuade Gawain from meeting the Green Knight? She was attempting to humble him, but by the end he realized what she could not realize: he could not change. Hence why he says “It wouldn’t matter if it was a single year or a hundred years”. He was not only talking about his cowardice, but his core identity, which was chaff to the very end. He knew he could not change, and so he would rather die than face a future of disgrace. The question, then, becomes: what is the point? There isn’t one. It is just the shallow spectacle of wild gesticulation pretending to be Art. It is a straw knight: posed upright and plated in gleaming armor, but hollow, ultimately spun about like a weathervane by the cultural winds. It is the rustling of chaff and only fools would believe it has anything important to say.

Haiku Reviews: Michael Mcdowell’s Blackwater Series

Heavy rains fell long,
churning the blackwater whorl,
yet tears fall longer.

Changelings and snatchers,
by theft a family grows,
as does a deft tale.

When the levee breaks
and the town washes away,
so, too, does the heart.

Water oak seeds sown
in Perdido sands, each plot
sprouting an orchard.

Matriarchs battle
with poisonous courtesy;
nought is as it seems.

Faulkner and Lovecraft
and the murmurs of lost souls
neath conjoined rivers.

A junction of wills
aswirl with an undertow,
consuming readers.