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Movies to watch in quarantine: ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower,’ ‘Locke’

This week, Mark York and Nitish Vaidyanathan review ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower,’ and ‘Locke’

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Intro: Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you, we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every week on Wednesday. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!

(Photo: Michael White Productions/Allstar)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (Released in 1975; watched by us on March 23, 2020)

A comedy by the group, Monty Python. We watched it on Netflix! So at this point, we’ve decided that we can’t really go at a movie-a-day pace. We’re going to be trying to do 3-5 movies a week, and we hope that you have plenty to watch. 

Mark:

Finally, I made it to the Holy Grail. After years and years of thinking about watching this movie — and sitting through the entirety of high school, in which Johnny insistently quoted this movie at me — I finally sat my rump down and watched it. At least I got something out of social distancing. Are you happy now, Johnny

I mentioned in my review of “Life of Brian” that I was curious to see similar works as produced in this particularly oddball era of British humor. I admired the surrealism and the rampant narrative rule-breaking found in that strange, loony movie… Perhaps, I was hooked. So, I turned to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” expecting a similar experience — in a sense, I got that. But I did not expect this film to be the most insane of the two. 

And I mean this in a positive way, without a doubt. This movie is based loosely on the legends of King Arthur and the search for the Holy Grail — and when I say loosely, I really mean it. Our heroes, for lack of better words, come across some similar threats with newly invented quirks, such as the Black Knight. But there are many more and completely original creations, such as the dreaded Knights Who Say “Ni!” and a murderous rabbit that, rather unceremoniously, murders nearly half of our cast. 

While “Life of Brian” tells an unconventional story, it for the most part grounds its narrative into its setting and mostly strays from the fourth wall… well, if you ignore the aliens, which is generally a good strategy with these things. “Holy Grail,” on the other hand, plays more with the filmmaking itself. 

The movie is packed to the brim with subversions of the craft. In the beginning of the film the audience watches a set of generic-looking opening credits with foreign subtitles, but as the sequence goes on the subtitles get intentionally flubbed — it personally took me a while to notice. Then, as the film editors (supposedly in real time) attempt to fix the picture, we are exposed to new technical issues and different aesthetic styles. All this before the film proper even begins. As “Holy Grail” progresses there are sudden musical numbers, delightfully chincy effects (of God in particular), and the score is constantly interjected. Budget limitations are wholeheartedly embraced, as our knights use the clopping of coconuts to mimic riding horses. Exposition scenes and transition cards are poked fun at too. In one scene, as a hand turns the pages of backstory, a beastly claw snatches said hand away. In another, a transition card becomes a random — and entirely unnecessary — animated sequence. Even the ending occurs completely out of left field and shuts down the film abruptly, leaving out even the end credits we come to expect. 

“Holy Grail” feels simultaneously intentional and haphazard, and the film itself felt constantly on the verge of collapse. But this sense of unsteady teetering adds so much more to the comedy. Monty Python, it seems, will never settle for a portrait without its fair share of warts — perhaps because they understand that an event that goes completely as planned is hardly as memorable. 

I love this style of comedy, and I look forward to checking out Monty Python’s individual sketches during my free time. Though I am concerned that I might become the same as Johnny — sending “I fart in your general direction!” gifs and saying “Ni!” to my dearest friends. I do hope somebody is there to catch me before I fall. 

Nitish:

This movie is hilarious. My friends have been trying to get me to watch this movie for years now, and have been showing me clips for a while, but this is the first time I finally got to watch it in full. It was well, well worth it. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is an absurdist romp through a hilarious rendition of Britain through history. 

“Grail” has impeccable writing. It’s not exactly mind-bending, or particularly incisive, but it is just routinely excellent. I’ve watched the opening scene where two castle guards who are impressively versed in ornithology inquire about the origins of a coconut maybe three or four times now, and every time I can’t help but descend into peals of laughter. In a sign of the quality of this movie, the first time the movie had me in peals of laughter was during the opening credits. This movie is the comedic equivalent of Pusha-T “ethering” Drake before he starts his verse in the “Story of Adidon”: You know it’s got you way before the good stuff. 

One of the best qualities of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is its timing. Every time a particular gag feels drawn out, it’s shifted to make it work. The best example of this for me is the tale of Sir Galahad. The premise is funny enough: Galahad the Chaste is trapped inside “Castle Anthrax” with “eight-score young blondes and brunettes, all between 16 and 19 1/2, cut off in this castle with no one to protect us.” As you might expect from the setup, the gag is that Galahad’s commitment to his chastity is aggressively put to the test. A few minutes in, I just wasn’t laughing as much, and I remember thinking that the gag was probably the least effective of the movie. And then the lead nun (?) looks right into the camera and asks if we think the scene should be cut. It’s a brilliant moment to break the monotony, and right after the scene resumes it ratchets up in intensity. Yet again, peals of laughter. 

The direction is great too, and the frame always manages to cram the funniest bits into it. My favorite cut in the film is where the camera pans to a just-convicted witch and she looks at the camera and admits: “It’s a fair cop.” Earlier in the movie, there’s a shot of “Arthur: King of the Britons” proudly proclaiming his heritage, but he is in the background; in the foreground is a farmer shoveling manure. 

But what I enjoyed the most about “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is just how funny it is. I wish I knew more about comedy so that I could tell you precisely how the directors were able to consistently turn me into a giggling child. But some of this stuff is so out there that I just can’t fathom how they came up with it. The weight ratios and migratory patterns of European Swallows? The Knights of “Ni”? The “Holy Hand Grenade”? “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberry”? How on earth did they come up with this stuff? Other comedies have made me laugh, but no other has inspired in me the same awe at the sheer absurdity at play. 

“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is probably one of the funniest things I’ve ever watched. You should definitely watch it too. 

(Photo: Studio Ponoc)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower” (Released in 2017; watched by us on March 25, 2020)

A Japanese animated film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

For a moment, it seemed as though legendary animation director, Hayao Miyasaki, was going to retire. 

Of course, this did not last long. In fact, it felt like a foolish assumption in hindsight! Imagine that — legendary director, Hayao Miyasaki, after a lengthy career and having formed a phenomenal legacy, even thinking about settling down and passing the torch. This is the same man, after all, who said the infamous quote, “anime was a mistake.” This was not the first time Hayao Miyasaki changed his mind on retiring — and this will probably not be the last.

Still, there will come a time when Miyasaki — the mind behind “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and “Spirited Away” (the latter being my personal favorite film of all time) — will leave for good. And the field of animation — nay, the art of filmmaking itself — will have a hole in need of filling. So who, dear reader, will fill that hole?

One potential contender could be Miyasaki’s own son, Goro. This young up-and-comer had already made two feature films under Studio Ghibli, “Tales from Earthsea” and “From Up on Poppy Hill,” even earning public comments from his own father. “It’s good that he made one movie,” said the big man himself. “With that, he should stop.”

Ok. 

With that, my search continued and I eventually came across Hiromasa Yonebashi and his recent work “Mary and the Witch’s Flower.” Yonebashi is an animator who has played crucial roles in Studio Ghibli’s most influential films, and he has since made his directorial debut with “The Secret Life of Arrietty” before leaving the studio. Based off of Mary Stewart’s novel, “The Little Broomstick,” this film follows a young girl named Mary who discovers the fly-by-night — a mysterious flower that grants any normal person the powers of a witch for a night. She then stumbles across a university for witches and gets caught in the ambitions of witches who are seeking this very same power. 

This movie undeniably has that similar, Ghibli-esque flair in its visuals. “Witch’s Flower” is filled to the brim with out-there character designs, surreal monsters, and a fluid (almost water-like) sense of movement. Every reaction has a reaction; every person has a sense of weight; every single frame feels meticulously engineered. Yonebashi paints a picture of fantasy realms and humble towns alike with masterful strokes. However, while “Witch’s Flower” captures Ghibli’s spirit on the outside, its method of storytelling is vastly different — and, I would personally argue, inferior. 

Unlike the likes of “Totoro” or “Ponyo” this film is arguably more conventional. “Witch’s Flower” is much more plot-based, with emphasis placed on plot-twists and establishing the rules of the world — one can definitely tell this was adapted from a fantasy novel. These elements are very well done; what it is missing, unfortunately, is character progression. Mary does not necessarily change from the beginning to the end of the film. There is no significant trait she needs to develop (like Chihiro’s independence in “Spirited Away”) or a lesson she needs to learn… The most that really happens is that she stops hating on the neighbor boy so much. Traditional Ghibli, on the other hand, tends to rely on wordless storytelling to carry its narrative. There is one scene, for instance, where Mary is given a tour of the witch’s university, accompanied by a guide to explain the mechanics. If this were a classic Ghibli, we would instead simply have our characters walk to their destination, and the film would follow them. The school would speak for itself. Through wordless storytelling, the rules of the road are conveyed visually and organically. 

But, I realize I am not being entirely fair to “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” am I? The entire charm of the works of Hayao Miyasaki is that his works cannot be replicated — and if I seek to replace him, I will inevitably be left disappointed. I could not help it… When I saw this film, a rush of nostalgia had overcome me. I had to get this out of my system! But, I’m done.

While “Witch’s Flower” retains that classic aesthetic, its contents are entirely different — and as the film stands on its own two legs, I conclude that this is a love-able and well-done fantasy story, but it does little to stand out (despite some beautiful animation, anyways). I will keep my eyes on Hiromasa Yonebashi, however. I do hope he continues to improve his work, and take this classic animation technique the world has grown to love so much in new, unique directions. Sure, I do not know how he will do it, but there is enough potential here to be optimistic about, even though it has not quite been reached yet. 

Nitish:

This film has beautiful animation, a rich color palette, some of the most inventive art I’ve ever seen, excellent voice acting, and a creatively realized world. So imagine my surprise when “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” was the most underwhelming film I’ve seen in years. It’s just…there. After this movie, I got the curious feeling that I had just watched Muhammad Ali get outboxed in a unanimous decision by a toddler with asthma. “Witch’s Flower” has all the tools it needs to be stellar; that it struggles to achieve mediocrity is just embarrassing. 

The biggest problem with this movie for me is that there’s no real narrative. There is a plot in the loose sense that things happen in a chronological sequence, and there are some stakes involved. But I echo Mark’s criticism that there really isn’t any character progression. The characters are just bland, and aside from their wonderful artistic design, have very little to distinguish themselves from arbitrary plot devices. For stories to work the characters need to face difficulty and overcome them with some kind of personal growth, not with the existence of a random magical spell. 

And although the beautiful and inventive animation might make you think there is heart and depth to the world, it isn’t there. The tour of a magical university should have inspired the same awe as when we first saw Hogwarts. Instead, it was played with the same dullness as a course catalog. If that assessment is unfair, it’s unfair to course catalogues, not to “Witch’s Flower.” I mean seriously — magic! It’s magic! Magic that’s animated beautifully and creatively! But everything is somehow so disenchanted, like they came up with cool animations and forgot to give the world any substance to it. Why is everyone in the advanced magic class in a robe and mask? Why is Mary asking about extracurricular activities? And beneath the glitz, the magic is also just there. I’m just thinking of magic in other media that I love like in “Avatar”; each bending discipline has a history and a culture. It has a unique feel to it, each movement has emotional thrust. In “Harry Potter,” magic is admittedly poorly defined but there are powerful undercurrents of love and friendship and loyalty that can overpower even the most dangerous spells. In “Lord of the Rings,” magic seeps out from the pores of the world, and it is brought to life in an epic manichean struggle. In “Witch’s Flower”? It’s just sort of…there. 

I just didn’t get this movie. After seeing Hogwarts, Endor College just felt listless. Mary seemed, for some reason, profoundly disinterested in the fact that she had just become an incredibly powerful witch and seemed to want nothing more than to go back home. It felt like if Hagrid burst into the cottage, told Harry he was a wizard, took him to Diagon Alley, and then Harry looked up and said, “You know what? I’m good actually, but thanks for the offer!” and then went right back to the cupboard under the stairs (yes I know that he has moved to Dudley’s spare room by this point). When Mary flies back home at the end and is just like, “Yeah well that happened, better get to school,” with the only meaningful change in her life being that she’s now better friends with the newspaper boy, the movie just feels hollow. If the titular character of the movie scarcely seems to give a damn, why should we? 

I’m probably giving this movie a worse review than it deserves. I rewinded the first scene twice because it was just that jaw-droppingly artistic. There were a bunch of animations that I’d like to watch again. But this movie is more frustrating to me than bad movies I’ve watched because it clearly had a group of creative and dedicated artists working on it. Bad movies waste my time. This movie, even though it was better than a lot of bad movies, sinned more egregiously: It wasted heaps of raw talent on an emotionally empty story.

(Photo: A24)

Locke” (Released in 2013; watched by us on March 29, 2020)

A drama directed by Steven Knight. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

Dear reader, I have been a film nerd for many years. And if there is one thing I’ve learned from these experiences, it is that “Locke” is a bad idea for a movie. I mean, it turns out that this film is one of the most intense and gripping character studies that I have ever seen, so I was not completely right… but it is still a bad idea. 

“Locke” follows its title character, Ivan Locke, throughout a 90-minute drive. He has suddenly abandoned his crucial post in a massive construction project — in a time when he is needed most — in order to be there for his prematurely born baby, which he conceived in an affair (uh oh!). Now, he must awkwardly balance between calls from his panicking construction team and his various family members, of whom he’d suddenly broken the news. His life is unravelling in real time before our very eyes, but he drives on anyway, because he believes this is the right thing to do. 

The reason I say this is a bad idea for a movie is because it hardly takes advantage of film as a visual medium. “Locke” relies solely on its writing and its performances, all of which are stellar, but it sticks its only on-screen character inside a car. There’s not much a crew can do there but switch between facial shot and road shot — if that is what you are looking primarily at, things will get real dull real fast. Generally, “Locke” would be stellar as a play, and seems almost designed for that instead. 

With that said, though “Locke” might resemble a boring car ride from the outside, its contents are anything but. Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Ivan Locke is very intimate, to the point where I frequently forgot I was not watching a real person. And the screenplay gives you so much meat to chew on. 

Throughout this admittedly simple narrative, Ivan Locke often says, “I wasn’t acting like myself” to explain his mistakes. The other characters (portrayed through the phone) constantly comment on how they would have never expected this from him. His prior good behavior does not stop them from casting the most intense of judgements, however; Locke is fired from his job, and his wife kicks him out of the house. I believe the biggest question posed here is if this is warranted. Can Ivan Locke be accurately judged as a person by a singularly dreadful mistake and a 90-minute car ride of phone calls? 

“Locke” certainly gives you enough material to dissect and make your own conclusions. The littlest details are the most telling here, giving ample ammo for both sides. On one hand, Ivan Locke is committed to completing this construction project even after he is fired, which is admirable. On the other hand, he has only said sorry twice… once after a sneeze, and the other to a business contact. He never apologizes to the people he’s hurt the most. 

I certainly have my beliefs (for the record, I do believe Ivan Locke is a rather wet turd) but the narrative has pushed me to question some previously held beliefs about what counts as moral and good. It is a brilliant case study of character, and I certainly have some ethical debater friends who would eat this stuff up. Perhaps, you will too?

Nitish:

So I’m the ethical debater friend that Mark is talking about — I do it in competitions and stuff (try out for Ethics Bowl next year! It’s great!). The titular character, Ivan Locke, is stuck in a 90-minute car ride as he navigates the collapse of his family and livelihood resulting from a bad decision he made. This movie seems targeted at the subset of moviegoers that want to watch arthouse films in order to make themselves seem cool, but don’t actually have the knowledge of arthouse films to find a good one, and then arbitrarily pick a movie that seems to have an artsy premise. I am squarely in this audience. That being said, I was underwhelmed. The direction is serviceable, the writing is good enough. Tom Hardy does an excellent job acting. But unfortunately, this movie is really only a draw for the concept. 

So why exactly does this movie fall flat? In my eyes there are a few reasons. With regards to the ethical questions at play, they honestly felt pretty flat to me. The story unfolds as the result of an unethical choice that our titular character makes, but the movie is really only concerned with the aftermath of those choices. He makes decisions that the movie tries to impress on us are the right and honorable ones to make if an individual is in such a circumstance. But it feels like a too-earnest, almost self-congratulatory exhortation directed at the audience. Part of this is that it feels like there are no real emotional stakes. 

If you’re familiar with Tom Hardy as an actor, you might be a little confused at that assertion. His performance as Max in “Mad Max: Fury Road” was extraordinarily engaging, and he primarily communicated in grunts. His performance in “Dunkirk” was similarly captivating and I don’t think I saw his face for more than a frame or two. With command of his voice and face returned to him, surely Tom Hardy, one of contemporary film’s most impressive thespians, should be able to spin a story such as this into emotional gold.

And he does…sometimes. There are a few deeply moving, tragic scenes. But they are far and few between. Every scene in “Locke” is what my fourth grade english teacher described as “falling action”: Everything that transpires on scene is merely the result of an action made off-screen. It’s not so much as watching a man’s life careen into flames as it is reading through an exhaustive after-action report. This has two main effects. The first is that it robs the movie of a real ethical dilemma. Ivan Locke has made his decisions and he sticks to them. Alternative options are dismissed with a sort of incredulousness, as if Locke cannot fathom why someone would be stupid enough to suggest them. Compelling ethical dilemmas, well, require dilemmas; choices have to be made. Maybe the ethical question that the movie asks could be about the constraining of choices, or perhaps it could call into question the very existence of choices. There’s an interesting moment in the movie that brings up questions of nature vs. nurture. But these questions are never explored or dealt with. The result is that this movie never actually does interesting ethical work. 

This isn’t necessarily bad — ethics are everywhere, and a movie doesn’t have to deal with them head on by putting characters in trolleys, literal or figurative. Instead, “Locke” seemed to be trying to analyze the results of his actions by looking at the emotional effect it had on the character. But, as the second consequence of the movie’s plot structure, this didn’t really work either. After all of the different emotional pieces are set up, the movie spends about 45 minutes talking about…concrete. The problem here is that Ivan Locke did what I imagine is an emotionally healthy thing to do if you’re in this sort of situation: He carefully compartmentalized his emotions so that he could continue working. And he did this before the camera started filming. The result is that character boundaries are never pushed. There’s no change in Locke’s character. It’s all just fallout, carefully controlled fallout. To his credit, Tom Hardy portrays this realistically. Locke feels like a living person, a man who made up his mind, considered the consequences of his actions, and then went on to deal with them in as professional a fashion as he could. At times, Locke is pushed a little to a place of interesting character development, but then he calms down and remembers that he had already budgeted for the possibility of, say, losing his family. He might shout a bit, maybe cry a bit. But this display of emotions is not the result of a change in Locke’s character but instead, a simple physiological change — too much emotional content entered Locke’s neatly organized life, a little bit spilled out, but never enough to rock the boat. To tell a compelling story, boats need to be rocked, characters need to change. 

I’ll leave you with this: When I picked “Locke” as the movie we were watching, I did it because I remembered reading about the really interesting concept in high school. I even remembered starting the movie, watching Tom Hardy grit his teeth and impress me with his acting talent. So I booted it up again, and then halfway through the movie I snap-chatted an old friend, telling him that it was a really good movie. But I started to get this weird sense of deja vu, and I started to grow increasingly dissatisfied with a movie that seemed to be wasting an interesting premise. It wasn’t until the end of the movie that I remembered that I had actually watched “Locke” before. I had also snap-chatted that same friend to tell him that the movie was good. Both times, I didn’t do it because the movie was good, but because I was trying to convince myself it was good. 

I remembered that Locke had an interesting concept, excellent acting, and had set up interesting emotional stakes. But after that? “Locke” starts to punch below its weight, and becomes very forgettable. The brief moments of intense character conflict that were peppered throughout the film, like when Locke first reveals his affair to his wife, or when he says a horribly cold thing to the mother of his child, become exceptions to a fairly dull rule. I think the first 30 minutes of this movie is a diamond in the rough — but you’ll probably forget the rest like I did. 

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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