Friday, January 28, 2022

A Tale of Sound and Fury: The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen’s first filmmaking venture apart from brother Ethan, owes something to Akira Kurosawa and something to Alfred Hitchcock. Of the many cinematic versions of Shakespeare’s famous tale. Kurosawa’s 1957 Throne of Blood seems the closest match to what Coen has accomplished. The Japanese-language Throne of Blood, freed of the need to grapple with Shakespeare’s challenging but beautiful language, is marked by spare, spooky stylistics. Shot in black & white, it fills the screen with bleak, ominous visuals. The scene of a fog-shrouded “Birnam Wood” slowly creeping toward the new lord’s Spider’s Web Castle is as spectacular as it gets. Calling on Kabuki tradition, Kurosawa alters the familiar tragedy to enhance the bombastic acting style of the classical Japanese stage. But it’s the look of his film that has stayed with me, and clearly with Joel Coen too. (The American Society of Cinematographers has just named this Macbeth one of  5 nominees for this year’s ASC award, along with Dune, Nightmare Alley, Belfast, and The Power of the Dog.)

 As for the Hitchcock influence, let’s simply say that in The Tragedy of Macbeth there will be birds.

 Visually, Coen strips his Macbeth down to the bare bones: even the unusual aspect-ratio makes for a movie screen—almost square—that hints at long ago and far away. Realism is hardly the point here. Props and set décor are kept to a minimum. Color is bleached out: this is one of several  important 2021 films that stick (as Kurosawa did) to stark black & white. Characters wander through nearly empty halls photographed from often-exotic angles.

 And what about those characters? Commendably, Coen has chosen to be color-blind in his casting, peopling his landscape with actors of different races. The fact that a Black Macbeth (Denzel Washington) is closely allied with a white Lady Macbeth (Coen’s wife Frances McDormand) is never held up for comment. Though the screen is shared by British and American actors, no attempt is made to unify their speech patterns. For this I have some slight misgivings. Though I’ve never been a fan of old Hollywood’s “mid-Atlantic” accent that makes everyone seem vaguely British (see Price, Vincent), I appreciate the vocal precision that the English actors in this cast bring to their roles. McDormand (who can do no wrong in my book) does a magnificent job of articulating her lines while not departing from basic American speech. Alas, I had a harder time with Washington, who sometimes seemed less comfortable in “speaking the speech” while pulling away from the naturalism he brings to present-day American-based stories. 

 I wanted to love Washington’s performance, as many critics have.  But in the play’s key early moments, I couldn’t quite feel the tug-of-war going on in him between Macbeth’s ambition and his fundamental civility. It was only in the later scenes, wherein the newly crowned king lashes out at anyone who stands in the way, that I felt the full force of his portrayal.  McDormand, though, is from the start a forceful Lady McDormand, in love with her husband and his potential for greatness, however he achieves it. There are many fine supporting players, including Brendan Gleeson as King Duncan, Corey Hawkins as a well-spoken Macduff, and Alex Hassell as an enigmatic Ross (whose role is given an extra twist by Coen).  

But many kudos have rightly gone to British stage actress Kathryn Hunter, who uses her voice and a highly flexible body to channel all three of the Weird Sisters who accost Macbeth on that heath. Hers is an otherworldly performance just right for this somber, exhilarating tale.



Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The Very Public (Screen) Life of Charles Laughton

 I admit it: I’m in love with Charles Laughton. It doesn’t make a lot of sense—for one thing, he’s been dead for sixty years. And despite his long marriage to frequent co-star Elsa Lanchester, I’m not sure how much he liked girls anyway.  But in the course of his screen career (1928-1962) he was brilliant in such a wide range of roles that I’ve decided he was one of the best actors on the planet. For good measure, he also tried directing, helming a remarkable 1955 suspense flick called The Night of the Hunter.

 My personal obsession with Laughton does not involve such late-career Hollywood blockbusters as Advise and Consent (1962), Spartacus (1960), and 1957’s Witness for the Prosecution (for which he received his third Best Actor Oscar nomination). But I was duly impressed by his drunken bluster as the pater familias in 1954’s Hobson’s Choice, a whale of a man whose selfishness finally sparks a rebellion among his long-suffering daughters. Having seen Laughton play a tyrannical lout, I was not at all prepared for 1935’s Ruggles of Red Gap. In this charming film, directed by screwball-comedy expert Leo McCarey (see Duck Soup and The Awful Truth), Laughton is a Victorian manservant who stays loyal to a caddish English earl until he’s won in a card game by a social-climbing matron from a frontier town in Washington State. Polite, formal, veddy British, and totally self-effacing, Ruggles at first can’t get past his obligations to his new employers. Soon, however, the rough-and-ready locals have confused him with a Civil War hero, and are treating him with the kind of respect he’s never before enjoyed. Suddenly he has a new view of himself and his place in the world. Before long he’s quoting Abraham Lincoln, courting a local widow (Zasu Pitts), and planning to go into business for himself. Hooray for the democratic spirit!

 This is hardly the message of the film that won Laughton an Oscar. In 1933, he starred in a lavish British film, directed by Alexander Korda. The Private Life of Henry VIII, a rousing international success, was meant as Britain’s answer to the worldwide clout of the American film industry. The romantic epic, focusing on the ins and outs of Henry’s six marriages, launched major careers for both Korda and Laughton.

 This movie’s attitude toward English history is seen from the start, when Henry’s first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon is dismissed in a title card. Catherine was “a respectable woman,” we’re told, which is why she never appears onscreen. Instead, the action begins with Anne Boleyn’s execution, on trumped-up charges of adultery, quickly followed by Henry’s marriage to her successor, Jane Seymour. The script rides roughshod over actual historic facts (Henry did not wed Jane on the same day as Anne’s beheading), but takes great pleasure in surveying the gossiping ladies of the court, as well as the common folk who love watching their betters get their heads chopped off in the public square.

 Laughton’s Henry is a gluttonous tyrant given to eating with his hands and tossing chicken bones over his shoulder. But he’s not just a man of voracious appetites. Laughton shows us his vanity, his insecurities about his manhood, and his regrets. There’s also a wonderfully comic moment where, muttering “The things I’ve done for England,” he shows up to bed new wife #4, the homely German princess played by Elsa Lanchester. To their mutual relief, she’d rather play cards on their wedding night, and happily agrees to a divorce. This may not be genuine history, but it’s great fun.



Friday, January 21, 2022

Fleeing Toward a New World

So you think you’ve got troubles? Thoughts of the Omicron variant getting you down? Well, stop and consider the plight of Amin, who as a young boy fled Afghanistan with his mother and older siblings, after his father disappeared into the clutches of a cruel regime. Paying traffickers for safe passage out of the country, the family ends up in Russia, where they endure in hiding, hassled by cops looking for bribes. As the years pass, their lives become no less harsh. Two sisters barely survive a ghastly trip to Sweden in a shipping container. For the remaining trio, including the aged mother, there’s a forced march involving guides ready and willing to shoot stragglers, followed by a grim winter sea voyage in the hold of a leaky ship. (The bedraggled refugees make it almost to Norway, and are photographed by excited passengers from the deck of a luxury liner, then are promptly sent back to Moscow.) 

 Amin’s story is told in Flee, an international co-production guided by a writer/director, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, who befriended the actual Amin in Denmark and slowly learned the details he’d hidden within himself for so long. Part of what haunts Amin, though now living a pleasant life in the Danish countryside, is the fact that he was once sternly instructed never to disclose that his family members were still alive, for fear of endangering his refugee status. Deeply feeling the debt he owes to his elder siblings, who risked their own happiness to secure his future, he can’t get past a strong sense of guilt and thwarted obligation.

 It's partly to protect Amin’s identity that his story is told through animation, with the tale’s actual hero never appearing on screen. The framing device is simple: a graphic version of the adult Amin, often staring straight forward as if into the lens of a camera, haltingly discloses the twists and turns of his life to his filmmaker-friend. Rasmussen’s gentle questions lead us into enactments of various segments of the life Amin is recalling. What’s striking is the way the style of animation shifts from scene to scene. Family members are portrayed hyper-realistically—we see beard stubble and adolescent skin blemishes—and the characters are often set against backdrops that are nearly photographic in their realism. Then, as disaster strikes yet again, the animator’s palette shifts briefly into blacks and greys, with fleeing figures looking almost ghostly as they butt up against enemies both human and metaphoric. There are also interspersed moments of documentary photography, showing the crowded streets of Kabul, the gloomy byways of Moscow, the bright lights and skyscrapers of New York City.

 It's not all gloom. We experience the swirling excitement of a Swedish gay bar (yes, that’s another aspect of the challenges Amin faces), and we also revel in the peaceful landscape of Denmark. And sound design too contributes to the kaleidoscopic effect: we hear actual clips from newscasters and politicians, and Amin (especially in childhood) finds a happy, though short-lived, retreat in the American pop music that blasts through his headphones.

 Flee is an artistic tour-de-force, while also being a provocative look at one man’s personal refugee crisis. No wonder the film has won so many critics’ awards, and seems likely to be nominated for Oscars in more than one category. It’s, at one and the same time, a foreign language feature, a hard-hitting documentary, and an animated film that’s worthy of going up against Pixar’s usual brilliance. And if you watch Flee—for a while, at least—your thoughts of COVID will be far away.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

A Stroll Down Nightmare Alley: The Deceiver Deceived

Director Guillermo del Toro is in love with the fantastic and the macabre. Sometimes his grotesque figures turn out to be benign, even heroic, as is the case with his sexy aqua-man in the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water. In the magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth, a girl in retreat from the brutality of everyday life finds solace in the make-believe world of magical creatures. In his new Nightmare Alley (based on a 1946 novel that was previously filmed in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the central role), del Toro turns to film noir stylistics to explore the surreal lives of carnival folk. One big difference from his previous work: in this film the magical tricks and stunts all are given logical explanations. Though they seem eerily supernatural, they’re in fact 100% bogus.  Each is cleverly designed to fake out the credulous, all the better for unscrupulous men (and women) to exploit their “marks.”

 The setting for most of Nightmare Alley (probably too much, given the film’s excessive length), is a seedy traveling carnival, circa 1940. It’s the depths of winter: snow, slush, and torrential rain are constant reminders that the natural world can be harsh indeed. Into a tumble-down tent stumbles Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man who’s clearly seen better days. He’s desperate for work and a sense of belonging. Soon he’s part of a team led by the carnival’s owner, played by the always sinister Willem Dafoe. Among Stan’s new comrades are midgets, fortune-tellers, a pretty young woman who conducts electricity through her body, assorted freaks, and (literally) geeks. (If you don’t know the grotesque original meaning of that currently popular term, you’ll certainly learn it here.)

 Though the season remains winter, matters considerably heat up when Stan falls for Molly, the electric girl (Rooney Mara), and takes the tricks he’s learned as a carny into the wider world. Quickly he evolves into “The Great Stanton,” charming uptown folks with a flashy mentalist act in which he divulges secrets and facilitates conversations with the dead. The point seems to be that credulity knows no boundaries of class or economic status. Wealthy, powerful men approach Stan, desperate to initiate contact with lost loved ones. Stan is, of course, more than happy to oblige, though the results are not quite what he anticipates. I will not go into the role played here by the protean Cate Blanchett (so very different from the flashy TV host she plays in the current Don’t Look Up.), except to say that it reinforces the movie’s overall theme: that no one can really be trusted. It should not surprise us that when the film’s ending finally rolls around, Stan’s essentially back to where he started, with one grim difference. At least he’s wised up enough to know where he stands in the carny hierarchy . . . and in the universe.

 Nightmare Alley is effective, if you know in advance you’re in for a long sit. In addition to Bradley Cooper (who dynamically conveys his character’s weaknesses as well as his strengths), the carnival folk include such reliable presences as Toni Collette (as Zeena the Seer), David Strathairn (as her hapless husband Pete), and Ron Perlman (as Molly’s hulking guardian figure). The world of the rich is inhabited by Mary Steenburgen (in a poignant and ultimately shocking small role) and an almost-unrecognizable Richard Jenkins, a del Toro favorite. Visually, the seedy carnival world, juxtaposed with the art deco elegance of Cate Blanchett’s office, is not easily forgotten. It’s the stuff that can haunt your dreams.