Review: ‘The First Omen,’ starring Nell Tiger Free, Tawfeek Barhom, Sonia Braga, Ralph Ineson and Bill Nighy

April 4, 2024

by Carla Hay

Nell Tiger Free and Nicole Sorace in “The First Omen” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The First Omen”

Directed by Arkasha Stevenson

Some language in Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Rome, in 1971, the horror film “The First Omen” (a prequel to “The Omen” movie series) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young American nun arrives at a convent in Rome to take her final vows and finds out sinister things are happening at the convent. 

Culture Audience: “The First Omen” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “The Omen” movie series and horror movies that blend religious teachings with body horror.

Ralph Ineson in “The First Omen” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Creepy, gruesome and suspenseful, “The First Omen” has as much to say about demonic possession as it does about institutional control of female bodies. Impressive acting and some unpredictability make this horror movie one of the better “Omen” films. The end of “The First Omen” makes it clear that there’s a lot of potential for more storylines for multiple characters who are introduced in “The First Omen.”

Directed by Arkasha Stevenson, “The First Omen” is her feature-film directorial debut. Stevenson, Tim Smith and Keith Thomas wrote “The First Omen” screenplay. “The Omen” franchise started with the 1976 movie “The Omen,” which spawned sequels, TV series and a 2006 movie remake. In 1976’s “The Omen” (directed by Richard Donner and written by Davd Seltzer), a U.S. ambassador to Italy named Robert Thorn (played by Gregory Peck) and his wife Katherine Thorn (played by Lee Remick) adopted a son named Damien (played by Harvey Spencer Stephens), and the parents are horrified to discover that Damien is a child of the devil. “The First Omen” shows how Damien was born and there is more to the story than what many viewers might assume.

“The First Omen” (which takes place in 1971) begins with a slow-burn harrowing scene of two Catholic priests having a confessional conversation at a church in an unnamed location, as one of the priests talks about a woman who “volunteered” to be impregnated. But what really happened is shown on screen: A masked woman is strapped to a table and looking like a very unwilling volunteer. An elderly British priest named Father Harris (played by Charles Dance) is telling this story to a middle-aged Irish priest named Father Brennan (played by Ralph Ineson), who listens as Father Harris says about the impregnated woman: “She wasn’t conceived naturally.”

Father Harris, who claims to be one of the people involved in getting this mystery woman pregnant, adds this information about how the woman was impregnated: “What I can tell you is that the pregnancy happened quickly.” Father Brennan thinks that Father Harris has told him this story to ask for forgiveness. Father Harris says with an eerie smirk: “You think I want to be forgiven? It’ll be all over. You’ll understand soon enough.”

Father Harris then steps outside and something bizarre happens: Shards of stained glass come plummeting down on his head. Father Harris seems to be uninjured, until the back of his head shows a large, gaping wound that he cannot survive. Before he dies, Father Harris gives a disturbing smile that shows his teeth are bloody.

This scene sets the tone for the rest of “The First Omen,” which has some uniquely effective horror images and scenarios, along with some horror clichés. Although “The First Omen” takes place in 1971, many of the movie’s themes are timeless. It’s not a preachy movie, but there are some very obvious messages about discontent with government, as well as how much religion can or should have control in people’s lives.

Because it’s not a secret that “The First Omen” is about how the anti-Christ known as Damien was born, much of the mystery in the movie is about who will give birth to Damien. Observant viewers will figure out the answer to the mystery when the birthdate of a certain character is shown. The movie is not as simple and straightforward as it first appears to be.

After the scene showing Father Harris’ death, “The First Omen” then takes place in Rome (where the movie was filmed) and shows the arrival of a young American nun in her early 20s named Margaret (played by Nell Tiger Free), nicknamed Maggie. She is warmly greeted by a British clergyman named Cardinal Lawrence (played by Bill Nighy), who meets her at the train station. Margaret has arrived to live at a convent, where she will be taking her final vows.

Cardinal Lawrence, who invited Margaret to Rome, is the one who will officiate the vow ceremony. As she and Cardinal Lawrence drive through the streets of Rome, they see crowds of activists (mostly young adults) holding protest marches in the streets and sometimes blocking traffic. Cardinal Lawrence explains to Margaret that the activists are protesting unfair wages. He laments to Margaret that the younger generation is turning against religious institutions and “no longer looks to us for guidance. Perhaps you’ll win back their trust.”

It’s later revealed through conversations that Margaret grew up as an orphan in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Margaret has lived a very sheltered existence and is a virgin who has no experience with dating. The thought of doing something such as going to a nightclub terrifies her, because she thinks it’s sinful activity. Margaret is devoutly religious and does a lot of fervent praying every time she thinks she commits a sin, no matter how minor the sin might be.

Margaret will soon have her boundaries tested when she meets her free-spirited Italian roommate named Luz Valez (played by Maria Caballero), a novitiate who is also in her 20s and is about to take her final vows. The first time that Margaret and Luz meet, Luz has just arrived in their room after a night of partying. Luz is dressed in a black leather miniskirt and is wearing fishnet stockings.

Luz tells a shocked Margaret that there’s nothing wrong with having fun and showing off their bodies before they take their final vows, since the nun outfits they have to wear will cover up ther bodies. Luz convinces a reluctant Margaret to dress in a sexy outfit, put on makeup, and go with Luz to a nightclub. At the club, Margaret and Luz immediately attract the attention of two young men named Paolo (played by Andrea Arcangeli) and Alfonzo (played by Guido Quaglione), who offer to buy Margaret and Luz some drinks.

Eventually they pair off: Luz and Alfonzo end up dancing together, while Margaret and Paolo start off with an awkward conversation but loosen up with each other when they both find out that they are fans of Barbra Streisand. Margaret eventually begins drinking some alcohol too and begins dancing seductively with Paolo. Based on the way Margaret acts, this is the first time she has had these type of experiences.

The convent operates Vizzardeli Orphanage, which is the home of 62 girls, mostly in the age range of 6 to 11 years old. Margaret is one of the nuns who teach the orphans. Margaret strikes up a friendly acquaintance with a young priest named Father Gabriel (played by Tawfeek Barhom), who often visits the convent and who seems to know more than he is telling. Someone who isn’t very friendly to Margaret is Sister Anjelica (played by Ishtar-Currie Wilson), who has a very cold attitude to Margaret and who appears to be mentally ill.

Margaret soon begins to notice strange things are happening at the convent, which is ruled by an abbess named Sister Silva (played by Sonia Braga), a stereotypically stern nun. Not only does Margaret have nightmares, she also sees some terrifying things happening in real life. A few of those things have to do with what Margaret witnesses in the maternity ward’s delivery room.

One of the orphans is slightly older than the rest. Her name is Carlita Skianna (played by Nicole Sorace), who is about 14 or 15 years old. Carlita is quiet and appears to be a troubled child. Margaret slowly beings to get Carlita to communicate with her, but Margaret sees that Carlita is being secretly punished on orders of Sister Silva. Carlita frequently draws illustrations with some unsettling images. Based on one of the illustrations, Margaret begins to suspect that Carlita might be pregnant.

The release of “The First Omen” happened just two weeks after the release of “Immaculate,” another horror movie about a young American virgin nun arriving at a Catholic convent in Italy to take her final vows and then finding out about a very unholy pregnancy. Both movies also have issues about women losing control of their bodies when powerful forces want to dictate what can be done with their bodies. However, “The First Omen” is a genuinely scarier horror film than the somewhat campy “Immaculate.”

“The First Omen” starts of a bit slow and repetitive, but the second half of the movie is much better than the first half. “The First Omen” benefits greatly from Free’s riveting and believable performance as Margaret, who transforms from vulnerable and naïve to someone whose innocence is lost as she has to learn to defend herself against forces of evil. There’s an intense scene toward the end of the movie that is absolutely stunning in the physical and emotional acting involved to make the scene as effective as it is.

“The First Omen” (which has gorgeously Gothic-inspired cinematography by Aaron Morton) also explains why Damian was conceived in the first place. This explanation might be controversial with some religious conservatives. What makes “The First Omen” intriguing is how this movie opens up the possibility of spinoffs or sequels for characters whose stories need to be told. “The First Omen” succeeds not only as a prequel but as a gateway for another potentially fascinating world in “The Omen” franchise.

20th Century Studios will release “The First Omen” in U.S. cinemas on April 5, 2024.

Review: ‘The Creator’ (2023), starring John David Washington, Gemma Chan, Ken Watanabe, Sturgill Simpson, Madeleine Yuna Voyles and Allison Janney

September 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

John David Washington and Madeleine Yuna Voyles in “The Creator” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The Creator” (2023)

Directed by Gareth Edwards

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and other parts of Earth in 2065 and in 2070, the sci-fi action film “The Creator” features a predominantly white and Asian cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy. 

Culture Clash: In a post-apocalyptic world, artificial intelligence (A.I..) beings fight for their rights to be treated as equal to human beings, who are hunting and killing rebel A.I. beings on behalf of the U.S. government.

Culture Audience: “The Creator” will appeal primarily to those who like sci-fi films that have a lot of visual spectacle but not much of a cohesive plot.

Allison Janney in “The Creator” (Photo by Oren Soffer/20th Century Studios)

“The Creator” takes a big swing and misses in its commentary on whether or not human beings and artificial intelligence beings can peacefully co-exist. The last half-hour of this sci-fi misfire is a mess of plot holes, while the film irresponsibly ignores other real-world prejudices. The movie’s visual effects and cinematography are fairly impressive, but “The Creator” is truly a case of style over substance.

Directed by Gareth Edwards (who co-wrote “The Creator” with Chris Weitz), “The Creator” takes place in 2065 and mostly in 2070, in a world still recovering from an apocalypse. It’s explained in the beginning of the movie, through a montage of news reports, that a war began after a nuclear bomb was detonated in Los Angeles in 2055. A mysterious artificial intelligence (A.I.) genius named Nirmata, who is worshipped by A.I. beings as their god, is widely believed to be responsible for this disaster. Nirmata is the leader of a rebellious group of A.I. beings that want humans to stop treating them like slaves and start giving A.I. beings the same, equal rights as humans.

As a result of this bombing, the U.S. government has been at war with the rebellious A.I. beings that the U.S. military has been tasked with shutting down wherever they can find them. By contrast, a region called New Asia doesn’t believe in this policy and is sheltering A.I. beings. The U.S. government has said that they’re at war with the A.I. beings, not New Asia, but there’s an undertone of xenophobia in the U.S. military activities that take place in New Asia. Many of the movie’s combat scenes are deliberately made to remind people of the Vietnam War. (“The Creator” was actually filmed in Thailand and London.)

Early in the movie, a raid takes place in New Asia in 2065, where an undercover U.S. military sergeant named Joshua Taylor (played by John David Washington) and his pregnant wife Maya (played by Gemma Chan) experience a home invasion by U.S. military soldiers who have gotten a tip that Nirmata is hiding in this home. Joshua, who is originally from Los Angeles, lost his parents and brother in the nuclear bombing that hit Los Angeles in 2055. Joshua insists to the home invaders that Nirmata is not in this home.

The rest of the story takes place in 2070, and it involves Joshua becoming a fugitive and going on the run with a Nirmata-affiliated A.I. being that Joshua names Alphie (played by Madeleine Yuna Voyles), who has the appearance of a human girl who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Alphie has the ability to move large objects and change thoughts just by using her mind. She is considered to be Nirmata’s ultimate “weapon.” Alphie is also the catalyst when Joshua has to make a decision about which side of the war will ultimately get his support.

The chief “villains” in the story are U.S. military officials General Andrews (played by Ralph Ineson) and Colonel Jean Howell (played by Allison Janney), who are hell-bent on destroying as many A.I. beings as possible. Colonel Howell is sent to do most of the dirty work. One of her motives is that she lost a son in this war, and she blames A.I. beings for his death. Joshua has two colleagues who are also in the mix: Drew (played by Sturgill Simpson) is Joshua’s best friend and a former war buddy. Shipley (played by Robbie Tann) is a U.S. military sharpshooter. The characters of Drew and Shipley are very generic and almost forgettable.

“The Creator” is a movie that wants viewers to believe that racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and other harmful bigotries have somehow magically disappeared from Earth, and the only bigotry that matters is the prejudice that humans have against A.I. beings. These other prejudices aren’t just sidelined. They are completely erased in the movie, as if they never existed at all. Keep in mind that this story takes place only 42 to 47 years after “The Creator” was released in 2023. It’s highly problematic to suggest that these real-world problems no longer exist, in a movie whose very premise is about species bigotry. Other nations seem to have “disappeared” too, since there’s no mention of any other countries being allies on either side of this U.S. war against the A.I. beings of New Asia.

Furthermore, for a movie where some of it takes place in Los Angeles, there are hardly any Latinos in sight, when (as of 2023) Latinos are the majority race in Los Angeles and is a demographic that continues to grow in that area. Are we supposed to believe that this apocalypse mostly wiped out Latinos? The world’s racial demographics in “The Creator” are presented as mostly white and Asian, with a few people from other races scattered here and there. The great actor Ken Watanabe has a small, mostly thankless role as Harun, who is an ally of Nirmata.

The identity issues wouldn’t be worth mentioning if this entire movie hadn’t been built on its clumsily handled plot that the world is in a vicious war against beings because of different identities. Bigotry is based on ideas of superiority and power, but those ideas are just reduced to “shoot ’em up” scenes and chase scenes where humans and A.I. beings fight each other. The biggest bright spot in the movie is the performance of Voyles. She absolutely shines in her role as Alphie, who displays convincing human emotions, despite being an A.I. creation. All the other characters in “The Creator” are stereotypes, with mediocre performances to match.

“The Creator” is also one of those irritating movies that does enough “fake-out deaths,” it will make some viewers think that it’s trying to be like any of the most recent movies in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise. Even in the realm of science fiction, “The Creator” has too many plot holes that undermine what could have been a much better movie. The logic is sorely deficient in many of the action scenes, which often have sloppy editing, in order to cover up these glaring plot holes. Some people might praise “The Creator” for being brilliant and ahead of its time, but the movie’s story is actually quite backward-thinking, simple-minded, and somewhat insulting to the intelligence of viewers expecting a quality sci-fi story that takes place on Earth in the 21st century.

20th Century Studios will release “The Creator” in U.S. cinemas on September 29, 2023.

Review: ‘To Catch a Killer’ (2023), starring Shailene Woodley, Ben Mendelsohn, Jovan Adepo and Ralph Ineson

May 5, 2023

by Carla Hay

Shailene Woodley (pictured in front) in “To Catch a Killer” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“To Catch a Killer” (2023)

Directed by Damián Szifron

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Baltimore, the dramatic film “To Catch a Killer” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A cynical FBI agent teams up with a Baltimore police officer with a troubled past in an investigation to find an elusive mass murderer. 

Culture Audience: “To Catch a Killer” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of procedural crime dramas and the movie’s headliners, but the move lacks the realism that would make it a credible crime story.

Pictured clockwise from upper left: Jovan Adepo, Ben Mendelsohn, Shailene Woodley and Dawn Lambing” in “To Catch a Killer” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“To Catch a Killer” starts with the far-fetched concept that an experienced FBI agent would rely heavily on an inexperienced city police officer to help capture a mass murderer. The plot all goes downhill from there. Although the cast members try to make this drama believable, and there are some suspenseful moments, the movie is undone by a weak screenplay that has too many plot holes and unrealistic depictions of an investigation of this magnitude.

Directed by Damián Szifron (who co-wrote the “To Catch a Killer” screenplay with Jonathan Wakeham), “To Catch a Killer” takes place mostly in Baltimore. The movie (which was formerly titled “Misanthrope” and was actually filmed in Montreal) opens with a scene that takes place in Baltimore on New Year’s Eve. Party revelers who are on the roof and on balconies at a high-rise hotel are suddenly gunned down by an unseen sniper at a nearby hotel. In total, there are 29 murder victims.

It’s a scene reminiscent of the real-life horrific tragedy in 2017, when a sniper at a hotel murdered 60 people and wounded more than 400 people at the outdoor Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. This real-life tragedy is mentioned in “To Catch a Killer” when law enforcement officials arrive at the bloodbath crime scene to investigate. It’s probably the closest thing to realism that the movie gets.

The crime scene investigators find out too late that the sniper left behind a bomb in the 17th floor hotel suite, where the unknown sniper was, but fled the scene before law enforcement officials could get there. The bomb explodes, destroying a lot of possible evidence. It’s later mentioned that even if there had been no mob, the killer didn’t leave any fingerprints or DNA at the crime scene. However, witnesses who saw who was in the hotel suite say that the gunman was a white male who was alone.

One of the Baltimore police officers on the scene is Eleanor Falco (played by Shailene Woodley), who is one of the cops who goes into the hotel suite after the bomb explosion. By the time Eleanor gets there, the hotel suite is filled with debris and smoke. Eleanor hallucinates that she falls out of window in this hotel suite. She thinks she’s fallen on the sidewalk. Instead, she wakes up on a floor of the hotel suite, where a co-worker tells Eleanor that she has fainted.

Later, Eleanor gets reprimanded by a supervisor for not wearing a gas mask when she knew that she was walking to a place that had just been bombed. Eleanor is generally not respected by her mostly male co-workers. This animosity toward Eleanor is because she’s a woman, and partly because she’s a loner type in a job that requires that she work with a partner and as part of a team. Eleanor is almost never with a cop partner when she responds to a dangerous crime scene. It’s one of the many reasons why “To Catch a Killer” looks so phony.

The FBI agent who’s been put in charge of the investigation is Geoffrey Lammark (played by Ben Mendelsohn), a gruff know-it-all who thinks he’s the only person who has the leadership skills to find the killer. During a meeting with Baltimore police officials and FBI agents, Geoffrey gets a briefing from a criminal profiler, who starts rattling off the probable personality traits and demographics of this mysterious mass murderer. “He’s not a type. He’s a person,” says Geoffrey abruptly in response.

Eleanor speaks up in the meeting and refutes the profiler’s theory that the murderer is out for revenge. Eleanor says she thinks the murderer’s motive is relief. Geoffrey is intrigued by this observation. And so, the next day, Eleanor is called into meeting with Geoffrey, who decides after this one conversation that he’s going to consult with Eleanor on how to catch this killer.

It’s explained rather ludicrously in the movie that Geoffrey made this decision because he did a background check on Eleanor and found out that she has a lot of dysfunctional personality traits that are similar to a serial killer. Eleanor has a lot of violent anger issues, dating back to when she was a child. She says that something happened to her when she was 12 that motivated her to go into law enforcement for “protection” against herself.

Eleanor is also a recovering drug addict who has attempted suicide more than once. Of course, these experiences will not automatically turn someone into a killer of other people, but Geoffrey thinks that Eleanor would know better than any other investigator on team how the mind of a serial killer works. It doesn’t take long for Geoffrey to get some backlash for choosing Eleanor to be the Baltimore Police Department’s liaison for the FBI in this investigation. The Baltimore Police Department’s chief Karl Jackson (played by Mark Camacho) and other high-ranking employees in the department naturally feel insulted that they were passed over for this liaison job.

It’s the first time that Eleanor has worked on a mass-murderer investigation. Eleanor applied to the FBI Academy eight years about she was rejected because of her mental health issues. The FBI Academy personality test results found Eleanor to be “aggressive, vindictive and antisocial.” It’s eventually revealed what happened in Eleanor’s childhood that most likely affected her mental health at an early age.

Geofrrey knows that Eleanor will eagerly work with him because she hopes it might help if she ever decides to try out for the FBI Academy again. And he’s right about Eleanor wanting to help him. What Geoffrey doesn’t count on is that Eleanor will outsmart him in many aspects of this investigation.

“To Catch a Killer” moments of suspense often come a crashing halt when the movie awkwardly tries to balance the action scenes with the behind-the-scene politics of this investigation. Geoffrey’s boss Irene Michkin (played by Dawn Lambing) is skeptical from the beginning that Eleanor will make a good liaison. Irene thinks that Eleanor is not mentally stable enough for the job. Geoffrey and Irene predictably clash with each other in a battle of egos.

FBI agent Jack McKenzie (played by Jovan Adepo) is sometimes caught in the middle between the feuding of Geoffrey and Irene, but Jack generally goes along with what Geoffrey wants, because Jack has to interact more with Geoffrey than with Irene. Another person who gets into conflicts with Geoffrey is a colleague from the FBI named Frank Graber (played by Richard Zeman), who is in a power struggle with Geoffrey. Someone else who isnt a fan of Geoffrey is Baltimore’s mayor Jesse Capleton (played by Nick Walker), who resists Geoffrey’s recommendations to lock down the city after another mass murder, because Jesse thinks it will cause more panic than necessary and disrupt the city’s economy.

The mass murderer strikes again and again and again. In one horribly staged scene, the killer shoots people at a shopping mall and then nonchalantly bombs many of the law enforcement officials who show up in response. There are numerous suspects and persons of interest who are investigated, including a right-wing, anti-government extremist named David Lee Hicks (played by Patrick Labbé), a contractor named Dean Possey (played by Ralph Ineson) and a contractor business owner named Rodney Lang (played by Darcy Laurie).

A TV talk show host named Jimmy Kittridge affects the investigation when he makes incendiary comments about the killer and dares the killer to call him on Jimmy’s live talk show. “To Catch a Killer” could have made an interesting observation about how the media can help or hinder an investigation. Instead, the media angle to the story is used in a lazily conceived plot development that further lowers the movie’s already low credibility.

The performances in “To Catch a Killer” aren’t terrible, but they aren’t very convincing either. Woodley is just not believable as an emotionally hardened police officer who is supposed to have extraordinary perception about a serial killer’s mind. It just looks like she’s playing dress-up as a cop. Half of the time, Woodley’s acting is very wooden and stiff, which seems to be her attempt at trying to look “tough.”

Mendelsohn fares slightly better as a jaded and arrogant FBI agent, but for a guy who thinks he’s so smart, Geoffrey sure makes a lot of dumb mistakes. And some of those mistakes are deadly. Eleanor and Geoffrey have some personal bonding outside of their jobs when Geoffrey invites her to his home to have dinner with Geoffrey and his husband Gavin (played by Michael Cram), who has his own theories about who the killer is.

“To Catch a Killer” falls completely off the rails in the last 20 minutes, when the movie tries to cram in a not-very-believable conclusion of the investigation. “To Catch a Killer” might get some comparisons to the Oscar-winning 1991 serial-killer mystery thriller “The Silence of the Lambs,” but it’s like comparing junk food to a gourmet meal. Both movies also have very different female protagonists and how they do their investigating. “To Catch a Killer” (unlike “The Silence of the Lambs”) is mostly forgettable, often boring, and definitely won’t be nominated for any major awards.

Vertical released “To Catch a Killer” in select U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on May 16, 2023. “To Catch a Killer” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on July 11, 2023.

Review: ‘The Green Knight,’ starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris and Ralph Ineson

July 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dev Patel and Sean Harris in “The Green Knight” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Green Knight”

Directed by David Lowery

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unspecified ancient time in England, the fantasy horror film “The Green Knight” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Indians) representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: King Arthur’s adventure-seeking nephew Gawain volunteers to take a life-threatening challenge from the Green Knight, and Gawain encounters many obstacles and temptations along the way.

Culture Audience: “The Green Knight” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an atmospheric and heady reimagining of the King Arthur legends.

Ralph Ineson (forefront) in “The Green Knight” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Green Knight” brings an unconventional horror spin on the King Arthur legends by putting more emphasis on the human mind and spirit experiencing terror rather than on elaborate and bloody physical battles. People who are expecting “The Green Knight” to be a fast-paced action film might be disappointed by the movie’s slow pacing. However, viewers who are patient enough to go on this “head trip” of a movie will find a lot to marvel and ponder in this cinematic retelling of ancient literature.

Written and directed by David Lowery (who has a tendency to make deliberately paced films with complicated protagonists), “The Green Knight” is told in chapters, with each chapter title appearing on the screen. “The Green Knight” is a filmed adaptation of an anonymously written chivalric romance called “Gawain and the Green Knight,” which was published in the 14th century. Do viewers have to know this story or any Arthurian legends before seeing “The Green Knight”? No, but it helps.

“The Green Knight” begins during a Christmas season and ends one year later. In the opening of the movie, rebellious and stubborn knight Gawain (played by Dev Patel) has spent the night before Christmas getting drunk and being with his lover Helen (played by Anais Rizzo), who is a commoner. When Gawain comes home, his nameless mother (played by Sarita Choudhury) asks Gawain where he was all night. Gawain lies and says that he was attending Mass. His mother, who smells the liquor on him, replies sarcastically, “Have you been drinking the sacrament all night?”

Gawain’s mother is the sister of the king (played by Sean Harris), who rules over the kingdom with his queen wife (played Kate Dickie). Although these ruling royals do not have names in this movie, all indications are that the king is the legendary King Arthur. Gawain might have lived a carefree lifestyle as the nephew of a king, but that will soon change in this story.

On Christmas Day, the king, queen, the Knights of the Round Table (including Gawain) and other assorted people have gathered for a formal court meeting. The king summons Gawain to sit beside him on the throne and remarks that it’s the first time that he’s given this privileged invitation to Gawain. The king asks that Gawain give him a very specific Christmas gift: Gawain must tell a tale about himself.

No sooner does the king make this request when the Green Knight (played by Ralph Ineson) appears on horseback in the court. In this movie, the Green Knight doesn’t look completely human, but more like a cross between a human and a tree. The Green Knight, who tests the characters of men, has arrived to deliver a challenge.

The written message that the Green Knight delivers upon his arrival is read by the queen, and the voice that comes out of her mouth is a deep and eerie man’s voice, as if the Green Knight is reading it himself. It’s one of many spooky touches to the film that Lowery adds to ensure that viewers know that this isn’t a typical knight movie. Get used to seeing a lot of cinematography drenched in mist when watching “The Green Knight.”

The Green Knight’s challenge is simple but one that would strike fear in the heart of the average person. The Green Knight dares any knight to behead the Green Knight. And in return, the Green Knight will behead his killer exactly one year later, at the Green Knight’s Green Chapel. Gawain is the only person to voluntarily step forward and accept this challenge.

Why would anyone take this dare? The king whispers to Gawain, “Remember it’s only a game,” as he gives Gawain a sword to use for the beheading. The Green Knight lays down his axe in a sign of surrender. Gawain beheads the Green Knight, who gets up, picks up his own head, and then chuckles, “One year hence,” as he gallops away on his horse, leaving his axe behind.

The movie then fast-forwards to nearly a year later. Gawain is on a mission to find the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, where they agreed to meet for the promised beheading. Along the way, Gawain encounters various dangers and complications that could impede his journey. And all the while, viewers (even those who’ve read the book) will be wondering if Gawain really will be beheaded, or if his life will be spared if he sees the Green Knight again.

Gawain meets several new people in his travels, including a thieving, nameless scavenger (played by Barry Keoghan); a red-haired trauma victim in a long white nightgown named Winifred (played by Erin Kellyman); and a gregarious unnamed lord (played by Joel Edgerton) and his seductive wife Essel (played by Alicia Vikander), also described in the film credits as The Lay. An intelligent red fox ends up accompanying Gawain and becomes his companion for part of his trek.

The lord and his lady live in a castle with a mute, unnamed elderly woman, who is always blindfolded. (No explanation is given on who this woman is, and Gawain doesn’t ask.) The couple invites Gawain to spend the night in their home on December 21, just a few days before Gawain is supposed to make the Christmas deadline to meet up with the Green Knight. What happens in the home is a turning point in the movie, which makes some big changes from the original source material.

“The Green Knight” takes admirable risks in not following the conventional tropes found in movies about a knight on an adventure. There are no massive battleground scenes, no damsel in distress who’s the knight’s love interest, no kingdom whose leadership is in jeopardy. And although “The Green Knight” has many elements of a horror movie (including some bloody gore), the real fear in this movie is Gawain’s dread of holding up his end of the bargain. His integrity is at stake, as well as his life.

The movie has some strikingly haunting visuals that are times psychedelic. In a memorable sequence, Gawain encounters giant nude, androgynous people (who are the size of skyscrapers) while trying to find the Green Chapel. Gawain tries to talk to one of these giant people as they walk past him, but communication is difficult, and they can’t really understand each other. It’s a very hallucinogenic and effective scene.

“The Green Knight” also doesn’t shy away from references to brutality toward women, in an era where women were treated like property. When Gawain first meets Winifred, she mentions that a lord tried to rape her and beheaded her when she resisted. Gawain is initially confused because Winifred looks like a person who is alive, not a ghost. However, the way Winifred manifests herself in this story—whether she’s alive, dead or somewhere in between—is on her own terms, as if she’s taken back the power that was stolen from her.

Patel’s depiction of Gawain is as a flawed but well-intentioned hero. It’s an understated role where he rises to the occasion of expressing a wide range of emotions without distracting melodrama and while still portraying a character who must present a stoic demeanor to strangers. The other characters in “The Green Knight” are somewhat two-dimensional and/or have very limited screen time.

However, Edgerton’s portrayal of the lord and Vikander’s portrayal of his wife Essel are intriguing and make enough of an impact to suggest that this couple could easily have an entire movie about their lives together. But make no mistake: The humanity of “The Green Knight” resonates mostly because of Patel’s layered performance, which never lets viewers forget that Gawain is a human being who can falter, not as an unrealistic knight who will always put fear aside to rise to the occasion.

Some of the visuals in “The Green Knight” have themes of Christianity versus paganism, or humans versus the environment. Although there’s violence in the movie, it’s not gratuitous. Lowery is the type of filmmaker who takes his time in immersing viewers in the movie’s unique atmosphere instead of rushing from scene to scene and dialogue to dialogue. And there are no gimmicky jump scares.

Many other horror stories rely on the premise that murder victims don’t know when they’re going to die. “The Green Knight” skillfully presents a different type of horror: Someone who volunteered to die at a pre-determined date. Gawain spends most of this treacherous journey by himself, as he reflects on his own mortality, as well as his own morality.

In its clever way, “The Green Knight” is an artistically creative statement of how it’s human nature for people not to want to think about their own deaths. People who have to confront their own deaths usually have to face another fear: reflecting on their lives and holding themselves accountable for their misdeeds and mistakes.

A24 will release “The Green Knight” in U.S. cinemas on July 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Brahms: The Boy II,’ starring Katie Holmes, Owain Yeoman and Christopher Convery

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Katie Holmes in “Brahms: The Boy II” (Photo courtesy of STX)

“Brahms: The Boy II” 

Directed by William Brent Bell

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, the horror sequel “Brahms: The Boy II” has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A family with a troubled past moves to a new home and finds a doll that seems to be wreaking havoc on their lives.

Culture Audience: “Brahms: The Boy II” will appeal mostly to horror fans who like stories that aren’t too gory and follow a predictable formula.

Owain Yeoman, Katie Holmes and Christopher Convery star in “Brahms: The Boy II” (Photo courtesy of STX)

Around the time that Warner Bros. Pictures’ 2013 horror blockbuster “The Conjuring” became a hit that spawned sequels and the “Annabelle” spinoffs, independent film company STX decided it wanted to have its own horror franchise about an evil doll. Instead of a female doll, it would be a male doll. The result was 2016’s “The Boy,” a laughable stinker that made $64 million worldwide on a $10 million production budget, according to Box Office Mojo. Apparently, the profit margin was good enough that STX went ahead with this slightly better but still terrible sequel “Brahms: The Boy II,” which is one of many disappointing horror films that have been released in 2020.

You don’t have to see “The Boy” to know what’s going on in “Brahms: The Boy II,” which were both directed by William Brent Bell and written by Stacey Menear. In “The Boy,” American nanny Greta Evans (played by Lauren Cohan), who’s living in England, is hired by wealthy elderly couple Mr. and Mrs. Wheelshire (played by Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle) to take care of their underage son Brahms, only to find out that the boy is really a doll. The doll is named after the couple’s real-life son Brahms, who is said to have died under mysterious circumstances several years before. Greta thinks the job is weird, but she stays because she needs the money.

Slowly but surely, she finds out that not only can the doll move on its own, but strange things also start happening around the house, which is an isolated mansion in the woods. (Of course it is.) Even when she finds out that the doll is probably possessed by an evil spirit, she stays and starts to feel oddly protective of the doll. Family secrets are revealed, and there’s a plot twist/showdown that ranks as one of the most ludicrous in horror movies of the 2010s.

What happened in “The Boy” is referenced in “Brahms: The Boy II” with an update on something involving the plot twist at the end of the first movie. What makes “Brahms: The Boy II” a slight improvement over its predecessor is that the people’s reactions to the sinister doll are much more realistic. However, the movie’s screenplay is utterly predictable, using many of the same tropes and plot devices as dozens of other horror flicks about “fill in the blank” being possessed by an evil spirit.

In “Brahms: The Boy II,” housewife Liza (played by Katie Holmes) is an American living in London with her British businessman husband Sean (played by Owain Yeoman) and their son Jude (played by Christopher Convery), who has an American accent. (The movie doesn’t say how long this family has been living in England.) Sean’s work requires him to often be away from home, where Liza homeschools Jude.

One night, while Sean is away on business, two masked and armed intruders break into the home and attack Liza, while Jude witnesses the whole thing and can only stand by helplessly. The crime has been so traumatizing that Liza becomes depressed and distant from Sean, and Jude becomes mute. Jude’s therapist Dr. Lawrence (played by Anjali Jay) says that it’s unknown if Jude will speak again, but his chances of speaking again will increase if his parents create a positive environment and keep encouraging him to speak.

In an effort to start a new life, Liza agrees to Sean’s idea that the family move to the country. They choose a guest house on a vast property in the woods. On their first day in their new home, the family is walking in the woods when Jude finds a boy doll buried under a pile of leaves. The doll is buried with a list of 10 typewritten rules that include instructions that the doll cannot be left alone.

When Jude shows Liza and Sean the doll, they don’t say too much about it, because during the family’s walk in the woods, they’ve discovered the main house, which is a deserted mansion. Sean and Liza marvel at the mansion from the outside (even though it’s obviously in a state of neglect) and say they wish they could live there instead of the guest house.

Back at the guest house, Liza cleans up the doll and notices that it’s been broken before and put back together. Jude has immediately latched on to the doll and carries it with him wherever he goes. When Sean asks Jude what the doll’s name is, mute Jude (who communicates in writing) says the doll’s name is Brahms. How did Jude come up with that name? Jude says that doll told him that his name is Brahms. Although Sean privately admits to Liza that the doll is creepy, he and Liza both think that Jude could use it as a therapy doll that could help Jude to talk again.

Shortly after the family’s arrival, they meet the groundskeeper Joseph, nicknamed Joe (played by Ralph Ineson), and his German Shepherd named Oz. The dog immediately begins growling at the sight of the doll. Of course, the family doesn’t think anything of it and assumes that it’s the animal’s natural reaction to a strange-looking toy.

Meanwhile, when Jude is alone, he goes back out in the woods and finds a wardrobe with more of the doll’s clothes buried in the same area where he found the doll. Why did Jude go back in the woods to find this wardrobe? Brahms told him to do it.

Jude’s insistence in treating the doll like a real person who talks to him reaches a point where Brahms gets his own seat and meals at the dining table when the family eats together. Under other circumstances, the parents would look crazy for making these accommodations, but the story at least made it believable that these parents are so desperate for their son to talk again that they’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen, even if it means pretending that the doll is their son’s imaginary friend. Because the stakes are higher for the family in the movie (compared to a nanny who can just quit the job), it’s easier to see why the parents want take a chance by keeping the doll, if they think that it will help their son.

After Jude discovers a creepy doll mask (which is part of “The Boy” movie) and puts it on, he begins talking again, much to the delight of his parents. But his attachment to Brahms becomes even more disturbing when he tells his parents that they can never leave Brahms alone.

Meanwhile, strange things start happening. Joe’s dog Oz has disappeared. Liza notices that when she’s alone with the doll, it appears to move from one place to another when she’s not looking. It’s déjà vu to what the nanny experienced with the same doll in “The Boy.”

Feeling isolated and increasingly fearful, Liza invites a female British relative and her husband and their underage children for a visit. The relative’s kids are a bullying son and a pleasant younger daughter. When the bully begins taunting Jude over his attachment to Brahms and starts calling Jude crazy, let’s just say that things don’t go well for anyone who tries to hurt Brahms.

The cast of actors do a satisfactory job with the script that they’ve been given. The angelic-looking Convery is well-cast as Jude, since he’s able to portray the horror of an innocent soul being overtaken by evil. However, the way he looks is so similar to the Damien Thorn character in 1976’s “The Omen” that it’s bound to get comparisons.

The biggest problem with “Brahms: The Boy II” is that there is almost nothing in the movie that is fresh or original. It’s easy to know how the movie is going to end once secrets are revealed. The scares in the movie aren’t too gory, because the terror is more psychological and about what you don’t see instead of what you do see.

The ending has a few grotesque images that just look kind of freaky instead of truly terrifying. Although the screenplay and acting of “Brahms: The Boy II” are superior to “The Boy,” the movie still lazily wallows in overused clichés. And, like most horror flicks, it leaves open the possibility for a sequel. You’ve been warned.

STX released “Brahms: The Boy II” in U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020.

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