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This week: Never-before-seen Jedi Knights in Star Wars: Visions, spooky tree knights in The Green Knight, nights out in China with The Farewell.
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Star Wars: Visions - Disney+
Okay, so, this is technically a series, but it’s a series of short films, so we're not breaking any Galactic bylaws. Kidding aside, Star Wars: Visions is a delightful and transportive experience in a way that Star Wars has not felt like in quite some time.
It feels inevitable that Star Wars would see itself get an anime anthology in the style of The Animatrix, in part simply because of the expansiveness of its fictional universe, and partly because of its roots in George Luca’s love of Japanese film, Akira Kurosawa specifically. Not to mention the recent (and sometimes problematic) Western interest in anime production, and the fact that much of the most loved Star Wars storytelling of the past couple of decades has resided in animation (the work of Genndy Tartakovsky and Dave Filoni) being the foremost examples. Where Star Wars: Visions stands apart is in its separation from ‘canon’, and as a result isn't bound by Lucasfilm's current franchise-building vision.
Watch a trailer for Star Wars: Visions
While the project is exciting overall, the standouts are clear: T0-B1 and Akakiri, the two contrasting entries from the relatively young studio Science Saru, are the first come to mind. The former is an inspiring tale of childlike optimism as a young robot dreams of being a Jedi, the latter draws on the vague outline of the ephemeral but galaxy-changing romance from the prequels, carrying a darker air that plays with the usually binary relationship between the Dark Side and the Light.
The Twins carries the trademark bombast of the work of Hiroyuki Imaishi and his usual collaborators, set apart simply by its sense of fun - and again, in contrasting fashion, Hitoshi Haga’s The Village Bride is a contemplative, and serene environmentalist fable, the harmony between a planet and its indigenous people being the point of observation. In a similar vein, Yuki Igarashi and Geno Studio’s Lop and Ocho matches a planet poisoned by the Empire’s industrialisation with a family broken apart by their rhetoric. While it’s not perfect - some shorts feel derivative, and some could perhaps push further into unexplored corners of the universe - it’s an exciting reaffirmation of the pet themes of Star Wars through the most exciting visuals it has had in some time.
Also new on Disney+: A Spark Story, Broken Arrow, Taken 3
The Green Knight - Amazon Prime Video
One of a number of American directors hailed as the second coming of Terence Malick, David Lowery’s various flirtations with genre film have generally proven more interesting than the films that earned him that lofty title.
The Old Man and the Gun was his most recent, a breezy throwback to the earlier films of its lead Robert Redford’s career, building upon his star power for a genuinely moving and bittersweet swan song for the Sundance Kid. Meanwhile, Pete’s Dragon stands apart as the only real worthy Disney live action remake of their old animated features. And now we have The Green Knight, which sees Lowery picking up the threads of John Boorman’s Excalibur in a strange, sensuous and frequently darkly comic spin on Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.
It should be noted that Lowery’s interpretation is not entirely faithful (for starters Morgan La Fey is here Gawain’s mother, lending the whole thing an Oedipal vibe), opting to shift slightly from a parable about honesty to one more interested in the original story’s mockery of chivalry, in turn becoming an examination of the performance of masculinity.
Watch a trailer for The Green Knight
It’s also just funny, seeing the (very beautiful) Dev Patel’s bumbling, burnout take on Gawain stumble his way through his quest to make a name for himself, leaping at the change to exchange blows with the eponymous Green Knight, a towering, tree-man with a twisted bark visage - as in the legend, whatever blow Gawain lands on the Green Knight, will be returned to him one year hence. Without thinking, Gawain beheads him, and dooms himself to death as the Green Knight picks up his head, and reminds him: “one year hence”.
So begins the quest, a series of vignettes ostentatiously announced with gigantic and borderline illegible letters on the screen. Some are more involving and evocative than others, all are concerned with Gawain’s masculine pride and what he’ll do to maintain it. Sometimes The Green Knight feels navel-gazing and enamoured with its own ‘artfulness’; but also feels oddly flat in other places; its lovely production design framed mostly in symmetrical medium shots.
Its texture does the heavy lifting in terms of its look, the actual blocking feels somewhat inert and perhaps even pedestrian. Still, it's an interesting enough work for a director who has not allowed themselves to be pigeonholed as any one thing.
Also new on Prime Video: Everest, Birds of Paradise, Man of Steel (26 September)
The Farewell - Netflix
Lulu Wang’s dramedy The Farewell, “based on an actual lie”, is a moving unspooling of intergenerational and international family dynamics. The young, New York-based art student Billi (Awkwafina) returns to China when her beloved grandmother (Zaho Shuzen) is given a terminal diagnosis.
Billi struggles with her family’s decision to keep grandma (referred to as Nai Nai) unaware of her own illness, and as they all stage an impromptu wedding as an excuse to all see Nai Nai one last time. Much of the film recalls Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, navigating the differences between a gay man who has migrated to America and his Taiwanese family, as well as its setup being based around his sham green card wedding to a woman from mainland China, and its uncomfortable extravagances.
Wang’s film feels just as assured in its visuals, and also finds the bittersweetness and difficulty of performing as family, and finding connection with a family whose traditions have become far removed from your own. In her portrayal of that tension, Awkwafina gives a great performance that makes one wish she would stop being booked as simple comic relief roles.
Also new on Netflix: My Little Pony: A New Generation, The Starling