Macbeth

No country for off-screen deaths

macbethI sometimes wonder what William Shakespeare would think of modern adaptations of his tragedies.  Patrick Stewart in a random Soviet dystopia, Ed Harris running a leather-clad biker gang for some reason, etc.  But then I remember that Shakespeare would probably be far more interested in seeing Bad Santa 2 or Office Christmas Party than a grimdark battle epic or a Michael Fassbender vehicle.  Seriously.  I dare you to find one work of Shakespeare that doesn’t contain a crude sexual innuendo.

Justin Kurzel’s version of the Scottish Play actually takes place in Scotland, which means OP out the window and inconsistent accents all over the place, but it strips away the self-awareness that so much of “filmed Shakespeare” has, and never do the characters wink at you, or otherwise seem like they know they’re in an adaptation.  On the other hand, the filmmakers know that you know, so if you’re not thoroughly familiar with the story, expect to feel like an alienated party guest.

Macbeth (Fassbender), supporting King Duncan (David Thewlis) in the civil war, receives a prophecy before returning home: he is the Thane of Cawdor and the true king, while the sons of Banquo (Paddy Considine) are future kings.  For context here: in the original text, the prophecy is spoken by three witches.  In Shakespeare’s time and place, witches would have been considered the most evil, antagonistic characters imaginable, maybe next to the Devil himself, thanks to general ignorance and superstition.  However, centuries later, when we can look at history more objectively (including the knowledge that “witches” were in fact healers, medicine women, and benevolent mediums), adaptation can serve old stories in intriguing ways.  Here, the women Macbeth sees are never called witches, and the “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene, in which they reveal that they’re interfering only to cause mischief, is cut.  So is Macbeth hallucinating, then?  Has this toxic ambition been inside him all along?  Later, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) sees the women as she wanders to an inevitable conclusion, muttering “to bed, to bed, to bed.”  Do the women represent the spirits L.M. prays to once she is aware of the prophecy?  Do they represent exactly the kind of power, albeit impartial, ambitious people call upon to achieve violent ends?  Something to consider.  It’s not every day a new Shakespeare film brings new questions with it.

Fassbender’s Macbeth is one of the most authentic on film.  He’s used to playing complex characters full of internal conflict and despair, and isn’t afraid to embrace the side of Macbeth that isn’t the badass warrior we’re introduced to at the beginning.  The character first becomes a cartoon of himself, his kingly clothing too large for his body, creating deceptions that only he thinks are clever, and in the end, he transforms further into a wretched, confused shell of a person, left with nothing but his instinct for fighting, and even that melts away in his final moments.  You can see why it doesn’t take MacDuff (Sean Harris) and Malcolm (Jack Reynor) long to puzzle out what exactly happened to Duncan.  And when the dust clears, no one’s sad that this mad dog didn’t get a chance to explain himself.

Marion Cotillard, while slightly underused, is the film’s foundation.  Rather than portraying Lady Macbeth as “crazy,” which is easy, Cotillard’s scheming queen is instead increasingly plagued by depression (after losing a baby, which is hinted at in the original text), which later transmogrifies into guilt.  It’s an incredibly layered performance that not only sets an interesting bar for this kind of character, but allows us to believe Lady Macbeth and her husband as a couple.  The film gives us a look into their private relationship, and it becomes easy to believe that Macbeth would take her plan seriously.  Subsequently seeing her with a “What have I done?” look on her face creates a portrait of a real person experiencing a staggering shift in control, rather than the borderline sexist caricature we often get.

The rest of the cast is appropriately unremarkable – not in their performances, of course, but part of the idea is that the rest of these people are just trying to live their lives and do their jobs, for the most part.  Sean Harris’s MacDuff is notable for being the one who looks the most like a person from 5th-century Scotland might actually look, but my dark horse favorite is Elizabeth Debicki as Lady MacDuff.  She doesn’t get much screen time, but the tear-and-mucus-filled mini-monologue she gives in the face of the rawest form of Macbeth’s madness is enough to make anyone step back and realize how unspeakably wrong this all is.

Due to the length of individual moments and monologues, combined with the film’s relatively short runtime (under two hours), the story feels a bit truncated.  But it’s the power of those individual moments that keeps it afloat.  The play’s most famous speeches – “Out, damned spot,” “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” and others – are captivating and meaningful even when you know they’re coming, because Kurzel’s characters weave them into moments that already exist, rather than creating moments around them.  Cotillard and Fassbender practically whisper words that in other versions are expressed as booming, profound pontifications.  No room for that here.  Despite the film’s emphasis on battle scenes and violence (in a play where most, if not all, of the deaths take place offstage), everything feels intensely personal.

Maybe that’s the key going forward with Shakespeare adaptations on film: not trying to make them cool and different (i.e. looking at the macro, the outward, the exterior), but to turn inward and examine what we can get from these characters now.

220px-macbeth_2015_posterMacbeth (2015); directed by Justin Kurzel; starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris, and Elizabeth Debicki.

 

 

Don’t Think Twice

I’m so small

dttFinally, someone had the guts to come out and say Saturday Night Live isn’t all that funny [anymore].  But Don’t Think Twice, Mike Birbiglia’s from-the-heart comedy about the final year of an improv troupe’s time together, doesn’t just create a world of facsimiles and call it drama/hope it’s funny – that Bob-Dylan-esque title reminds us that these characters, unique and true in the face of the TV comedy machine, are real people with real lives, and there are no promises that everyone’s making it through this in one piece.  That’s what I’m talking about: a comedy with stakes.  Yes please.

Sam (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) are members of the Commune, a borderline legendary underground improv troupe of the NYC old school. Along with them are Miles (Birbiglia himself), the founder, unfulfilled and sleeping with students fifteen years his junior; Allison (Kate Micucci), a talented cartoonist; Lindsay (Tami Sagher), a comedy scribbler and pothead who comes from wealthy parents; and Bill (Chris Gethard), the group’s hard-luck Eeyore.  During one fateful show, Sam and Jack are fingered by the producers of Weekend Live, the aforementioned SNL clone run by a truly loathsome exec who surrounds himself with arm candy and gets off on threatening to fire people.  This is the life Jack has wanted, though: according to Miles, he becomes a “one-man audition tape” when TV scouts show up.  His audition goes well, and he’s immediately onto “better” things.  Sam’s audition is never shown, though it doesn’t seem to go well, and whatever actually happened becomes something of a Noodle Incident that looms over the characters until its inevitable revelation.

Don’t Think Twice not only looks at improv as an art form unto itself, but does comedy in the style of an old “last days of the Samurai” film: improv isn’t exactly dying, but the cornball, penny-candy humor of Weekend Live and other easy-to-digest TV shows have become the aspiration of comedians and artists who could be making much better work (while making less money, obviously).  Sam realizes this, and although she could spend her days listening to crappy synth-pop with Lena Dunham or getting stock compliments from Ben Stiller, she knows that very real people are counting on her to walk out onto the stage and ask whether they’ve had a particularly hard day.  And furthermore, it’s fulfilling to her – she didn’t come here for “the bigs.”  So while the film is never unsympathetic towards Jack, it rages against the culture of immediacy and the idea of selling out when so many proverbial riches are already in one’s hands.  But everyone has hills to climb, and you have to respect the realism.

Performance-wise, Jacobs/Micucci/Key play the characters we really want to see win, and Jacobs finally gets to exhibit her dexterity at silly voices and physical humor (even though Britta was my favorite Community character, she wasn’t exactly allowed to be the goofball Sam is here).

Because of that sense of realism, it isn’t a film you go into expecting every piece to fall into place and everyone to have a happy ending.  Even in a comedy, every single thing can’t work out.  Maybe Shakespeare would disagree, but nobody asked him.

220px-don27t_think_twice_28film29Don’t Think Twice (2016); written and directed by Mike Birbiglia; starring Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, and Mike Birbiglia.

Much Ado About Nothing

Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons

Amy AckerShakespeare is one of the only writers whose work can be acceptably “interpreted” to fit new adaptations.  One of the more popular ideas about Much Ado About Nothing – among the most effective of Shakespeare’s comedies – is that Beatrice and Benedick are rediscovering an old love as opposed to finding it for the first time.  Joss Whedon plays with this in his new adaptation, which he shot at his own home in Santa Monica in record time.  Much of the great nuance stems from Whedon’s film technique, including his use of black-and-white, which may remind one of the great comedies of old (Shakespeare’s play is unarguably one of the earliest examples of screwball comedy), namely the 1930s.  Finally, a Shakespeare film adaptation by a director that not only understands the text, but also understands the conventions of the film genre in which he works and how employing those conventions might bolster the effectiveness of the movie.

The story follows the original, down to the exact word aside from some interesting shifts – the various songs from the play, sung by characters, are here absorbed into the film’s soundtrack – and Whedon’s inspired choice to switch Conrade’s (Riki Londhome) gender, rendering her the lover of the mostly-offscreen scoundrel Don John (Sean Maher).  This enables some wonderful opportunities in blocking, and also some invention on the part of the filmmakers, which is always important in an adaptation, and usually leads to vicious abuse of the source material.  Not here.

Beatrice and Benedick, the leads, are played warmly and familiarly by Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, who just might be the new sweethearts of the screen (think Peppy and George, but not quite so forced).  Acker’s Beatrice is steadfast, opinionated, and witty beyond belief.  Denisof’s Benedick is relentlessly hammy, and never misses the mark with his nearly endless quips.  I’d have watched a movie comprised of nothing but these two, but we get much more, namely in Riki Lindhome as the infamously straightforward Conrade, whose facial expressions in the film are as good as any of her lines, and Nathan Fillion as Constable Dogberry, written by Shakespeare to be the dumbest, most inept character of all time, who inadvertently (along with his underlings) saves the day by revealing Don John’s dastardly plot to frame naive and frustratingly-silent Hero (Jillian Morgese) for an adultery she never committed.  Fillion delivers Shakespeare’s arduously-crafted malapropisms more naturally than anyone I’ve seen in the role (don’t take that the wrong way, Nathan).  Fran Kranz appears as Claudio, the play’s Boring Hero, and delivers most of the film’s straight-played dramatic dialogue more than convincingly.  The role of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon – who functions mostly as Claudio’s drunk friend whose lot in life is to provide bad advice with high-school-level maturity – is taken up by Reed Diamond, who keeps an appropriate presence and doesn’t upstage the less overt Claudio when he isn’t supposed to.  Clark Gregg of The Avengers plays Leonato, governor of Messina, who decides on all of the ridiculous stipulations in the story.

The resulting movie is the best onscreen comedy in years, in a world wherein screwball comedy has lately been defined by lowbrow sex jokes, hit-or-miss improv, and increasingly preposterous situations.  Here is something low key, accessible, cultured, and smart.  Here is something heartfelt, truly funny, and furthermore, relevant – Shakespeare’s poking fun at the incompetent police forces of his day (which at the time were made up of respectable citizens who took up the job for a few nights a year despite being all but completely unqualified to do so) doesn’t quite pinpoint the more serious missteps of our current enforcement, but Dogberry’s ineptitude (not least of which is his famously redundant list of Conrade and Borachio’s felonies) and eventual day-saving suggest that social order and emotional normalcy can and will be restored by sheer providence/circumstance.  It also showcases women in a medium (Renaissance comedy) wherein many folks may not have thought prominent female characters would exist (or at least not as wives and damsels, as they do in much of Shakespeare’s work).  Moreover, all the wit and wordplay still dazzle, right down to the title: “nothing” and “noting” were homonyms when the play was written, and here we have a story in which every character’s emotional stability is upturned due to something that did not actually happen (i.e. “nothing”), and every major turning point in the story is triggered by characters spying and eavesdropping on one another (i.e. “noting”).

May Whedon continue along this road.  This is real superhero work.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013); written and directed by Joss Whedon; adapted from the play by William Shakespeare; starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, and Riki Lindhome.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Time and tide wait for no man…or woman

Emily Blunt and Amr WakedSheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) tells us, about two-thirds of the way through Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, “I wanted them to understand that this wasn’t about fishing.”  In writing, this is what I might call a “thematic passage” – the character is speaking in context, but also telling the audience how to read the story.  Indeed, Lasse Hallström’s film, based upon a new-ish novel by Paul Torday, is anything but a movie about fishing.  It is primarily about patience, but also about love and different kinds of faith (the most interesting kinds being non-religious).

The story begins with financial adviser Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) typing an email to widely respected fisheries expert Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor), seeking advice for a project that will involve bringing (you guessed it) salmon fishing to the Yemen.  These scenes feature a charming technique: the typed words pop into the air alongside the face of the character typing them, allowing for intimate closeups of the character in place of a still shot of their email inbox.  Fred considers the project ridiculous and impossible (his exact words in the email are “fundamentally unfeasible”), even after being bullied and blackmailed by his boss, Bernard (Conleth Hill, whose fans are probably not used to seeing him with a full head of hair) into supporting it.  This leads to an immediate conflict between Harriet and Fred, and the wordplay between them (Fred being overly formal and unfeeling to the point that Harriet accuses him of having Asperger’s, and Harriet keeping the tone light while simultaneously housing a superior knowledge of the Yemen region that she only wields when Fred thinks he has the upper hand) is adeptly written and delightful to watch.  Meanwhile, Patricia Maxwell (Kristen Scott Thomas), the British Prime Minister’s hot-tempered and impulsive press secretary, comes upon the salmon fishing project while trying to find a puff piece that will keep Anglo-Arab relations supposedly friendly in the eye of the public, even after a recent mosque bombing in Afghanistan.  However convenient this might be to the story, it ties together in more than one way: Harriet’s new boyfriend, Robert (Tom Mison), is posted to Afghanistan on military assignment, and after the Meet Cute we recently witnessed between Harriet and Fred, we must suspect that Robert will not be coming back.  Additionally, Fred’s apparent issues with his wife, Mary (Rachael Stirling) are showcased, which also bodes well for a potential relationship between the two main parties.

The problems between the two couples, however, are handled better than they would be in a garden-variety romcom.  Take, for instance, the fact that neither Robert nor Mary fit the Spiteful Sleaze archetype.  Both are good, sympathetic people who deserve to be happy; they just can’t seem to work things out with their partners.

Fred, as he must, comes around to the potential of the project after visiting the sheikh’s estate, fishing with him, and learning that the well-water in the area is cold enough to support salmon.  The trick now is obtaining salmon that will “run” (swim upstream), but since the British media has run a smear campaign on everyone involved due to the inevitable failure of another of Bernard’s blackmail attempts, the only option is to use farm-raised salmon who have never run in their lives, and have faith in the fact that swimming upstream is their natural instinct.  Despite the sheikh’s earlier polemic concerning Fred’s lack of faith, the former is risking his reputation and life (including enduring assassination attempts) in order to see this project realized, and does not approve.

What follows is a story about trust.  The characters must trust each other to survive, to attain love (not just any love, but the kind they all feel they deserve), and to see their hard work pay off.  The audience must trust the filmmakers (and original author) to convince us of the unlikely, the impossible, and even the absurd.  McGregor and Blunt play their characters with complete commitment and seriousness, which has led to a Golden Globe nomination for each of them this year.  Thomas’s Patricia is hilarious, well-used, and has a few greatly inspired scenes featuring Instant-Message sessions with the Prime Minister, who only ever appears as a still image and delivers some delicious political humor; as well as a scene with her family, which not only fully deepens her character’s personality as an alpha female and overzealous worker, but is such a gem of comedy that a viewer like me wishes for some deleted scenes (in the scene, Patricia tells her son, who refuses to put his cool-looking hood down and act like an adult, “Don’t you suck your teeth at me, young man.  I’m not one of your bitches from the Baltimorlow Rises, you feel me?  I’m your fucking mother”).    Waked, an Egyptian actor known mostly for playing villains, creates a handsome, excitable, and absorbing shiekh, snatching a victory from what could have been a stereotype.  His inherent mysticism, which would be grating in real life (he occasionally says things like “You will know when the time comes”) is key to understanding the film’s depth: suspend your disbelief, he seems to say, and the ensuing magic will not seem so ridiculous.

The film, in the public eye, seems to follow that old Shakespearean-age rule that any story with a happy ending is considered a “comedy,” regardless of content.  Despite my protests about this film being pure comedy, I’ll concede if the Globe nominations accrue more viewers for one of 2012’s most genuinely heartfelt, and, I must say, “nice,” films.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2012); screenplay by Simon Beaufoy; based upon the novel by Paul Torday; directed by Lasse Hallström; starring Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Amr Waked, and Kristen Scott Thomas.