“Carol” is a Marvel (and Perfect Holiday Treat)

Carol

Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)

I have read two books by Patricia Highsmith – The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train – both of which I found thoroughly unsettling (or, less formally, they creeped me out). Highsmith has a way with vivid detail that allows her to plunder the depths of human despair and depravity and make it accessible to those of us not inclined to unleash our inner psychopath.  Given his own creative output, it makes sense that Alfred Hitchcock would have been attracted to Highsmith’s writing, but though his screen version of Strangers on a Train is wickedly entertaining and a worthy homage to the novel, it cannot approach the source text’s sharp insights into the evil motivations that lurk within all of us. Highsmith truly was one of a kind, and a masterful writer of the macabre.

But not only of the macabre. In 1952, Highsmith published The Price of Salt, about a lesbian love affair between a young shop clerk (and aspiring artist) and a married sophisticate. Highsmith, herself, was gay, but not eager to announce this fact, given the times, and so the book came out under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan. Sadly, I have not (yet) read the work, but imagine that it contains the same vibrant characters as her other books, with an equally powerful understanding of human desires (but without the violence). It certainly has given filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, where he similarly explored 1950s sexual mores) an apparently rich blueprint for his latest film, adapted from the novel by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy (Mrs. Harris). Starring two fine actresses at the top of their game – Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – Carol is a brilliant meditation on passion and its repression, and the consequences of both. It’s also a beautiful love story. Transgressive in the 1950s, the tale it tells is especially timely today, given the recent Supreme Court decision on legalizing gay marriage. Opening nationally on Christmas, it’s the perfect carol for the season of peace and joy.

When we first we meet Carol (Blanchett) and Therese (Mara), they are sitting in a hotel bar, deep in conversation. A male friend of Therese’s comes up, thinking nothing of interrupting them, and whatever spell they were seemingly under is immediately broken. Carol excuses herself, and Therese leaves with the man. As the taxi drives through the streets of New York, we catch flashes of the past – and Carol’s and Therese’s first meeting – as the camera holds on the latter’s melancholy face. And then, just like that, with no announcement, we ease into that past. This is a film for adults, where nothing is spelled out, and we just have to keep up.

And so the story really begins. Carol is married – soon to be divorced, however – to Haige (Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now), a paragon of masculine virtues. They have a young daughter. Carol, it turns out, can never be made happy by a man, and has a previous history with at least one other female lover, “Aunt” Abby (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave). One day, she walks into a department store where young Therese is working, and the two women immediately connect, though Therese, completely inexperienced, is unsure of what that spark means. She has a beau (Jake Lacy, Obvious Child), but avoids physical contact with him as much as possible. Every moment she spends with Carol awakens something new in her, and when the older woman leaves her gloves in the store, this allows Therese the chance she needs to further their acquaintance.

As the film progresses, we watch the slow dance of seduction between the two, the one (Carol’s) knowing, the other (Therese’s) innocent … but maybe not so much. Mara gives Therese pursed lips and clenched shoulders, until the moment when Carol’s attentions finally allow her to be herself. In their first lunch date together, Haynes chooses to compose the over-the-shoulder conversation shots with the women at the extreme edges of the frame, showing not only how marginalized lesbians are in this world, but women, as well. As Carol and Therese each fight for control of their destiny, they more and more claim that center part of the frame. Blanchett is a commanding presence, as always, an actress capable of projecting simultaneous warmth and frigidity (though the latter is here a measure of the repression of that natural warmth). Mara is easily her match, and at the end of the film, after they have battled society’s (and men’s) expectations, they can finally exchange perfectly balanced gazes, equals in tragedy and love. With beautiful cinematography and top-notch period production design to complement the glorious acting and moving story, Carol is a marvel, and I highly recommend.

Three Christmas Misfires: “Joy,” “The Danish Girl” and “Daddy’s Home”

I was all ready to give each of the movies, below, a full review, but then holiday travel got in the way, and I realized that they none of them deserve the effort, despite the (misguided) attention that Eddie Redmayne has been getting for one of them. Here are my very brief takes – one-paragraph capsule reviews – of each film:

Joy

Joy (David O. Russell, 2015)

Based on the life of Joy Mangano and the development of her Miracle Mop (which she sold, initially, on television), directed by David O. Russell (American Hustle) and starring Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) as Joy, this movie should have been good. Russell is the master of the unorthodox, frequently mixing tones and styles to great effect. Here, he just creates a mismatched mish-mash, where 90% of the story is a maudlin treatise on what is wrong with Ms. Mangano’s family (possibly the worst one in the world), and the other 10% is a lively portrayal of the workings of the then-nascent (in the 1980s) QVC Network. Sadly, there is no connection between those two parts, though the oddity of the details presented in the family section promises one, making the lack thereof even more frustrating. Many good actors – Diane Ladd (Rambling Rose), Virginia Madsen (Sideways), Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook), Édgar Ramirez (Carlos), Dascha Polanco (Orange is the New Black), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and Isabella Rossellini (Enemy) – lend their considerable talents to this mess, all to no avail. To be avoided.

Danish Girl

The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, 2015)

Another biopic gone wrong, The Danish Girl is based on the life of Danish transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (1882–1931) – born Einar Wegener – and features a performance by Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) that is so mannered and filled with telegraphed emotions that it must surely be an insult to trans people everywhere. If I had to watch Redmayne twitch his cheek muscles one more time while raising a trembling hand to his face in an agony of actorly discomfort, I was going to scream. Given the resultant complete void at the center of the story, we focus far more attention on the actual Scandinavian in the film –  Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) – who plays Einar/Lili’s long-suffering wife, Gerda. When hunky Matthias Schoenaerts (Far from the Madding Crowd) shows up, it’s all we can do not to root for him to get it on with Gerda. Which is too bad, since this is an important story, and Elbe an important historical figure. Then again, it should come as little surprise, given that the director, Tom Hooper, maker of Les Miserables (and, to be fair, the eminently watchable The King’s Speech), demonstrated, with that musical melodrama, a tendency towards extremities of overwrought emotion here given far too free rein. Also to be avoided.

Daddy's Home

Daddy’s Home (Sean Anders, 2015)

Finally, there’s Daddy’s Home, directed by Sean Anders (Horrible Bosses 2) and starring Will Ferrell (Get Hard), Mark Wahlberg (Broken City) and Linda Cardellini (Bloodline). In it, Ferrell plays Cardellini’s second husband, adoptive father to her two kids, who must deal with the unexpected visit of husband #1 (Wahlberg), back from a mysterious overseas (possibly mercenary) job. If the prospect of seeing flabby Ferrell go mano a mano with well-muscled Wahlberg strikes you as funny, don’t be fooled. The jokes are stale and the filmmaking is pedestrian. I haven’t seen it, but a friend just recommend The Other Guys to me – also starring Ferrell and Wahlberg – given my love of its director’s latest film, The Big Short. My advice? Watch that, instead.

“The Big Short” Is a Terrific Romp Through Financial Disaster

Big Short

The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015)

What is it about Michael Lewis? He’s an author of nonfiction bestsellers whose books keep on being optioned for fiction films (not counting Next: The Future Just Happened, an actual documentary): first came The Blind Side, then Moneyball and now The Big Short. Lewis is a great journalist and an excellent writer, and his works are filled with vivid details about their subjects; I can see why Hollywood would keep calling. I’m just surprised that we haven’t seen more documentary filmmakers attracted to his stories. Then again, sometimes the tales he tells are so outlandish that they seem like something only a screenwriter could invent. Still, if truth is stranger than fiction, then what is lost in its translation to a conventional dramatic form? In the case of The Blind Side, quite a lot (though the film was a hit), since the cloying three-act structure imposed in the name of inspirational narrative diluted the power of the unadulterated original. Moneyball, however, made with greater restraint (and much less of a hit), approached the fine nuance of its source. And what of The Big Short? It’s a giant whale of a story: the global financial meltdown of 2008, rooted in the housing crisis. What will work best? Restraint or bombast?

It turns out both, though they work wonderfully in tandem. When I first heard that the film was co-written and directed by Adam McKay – who gave us Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys and Anchorman 2, all films marked by outrageous comedy, subtlety be damned – I feared the movie would make a mockery of its theme and devolve into caricature and pastiche. I was wrong. McKay takes a difficult topic – including CDOsCDSs and other toxic assets – makes it eminently understandable to the layperson, and has a terrific amount of fun with it in the process (embracing, rather than ignoring, his roots in broad comedy). He also elicits fine performances from a strong ensemble cast that includes Christian Bale (American Hustle), Ryan Gosling (Drive) and Brad Pitt (Fury). Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) is better than he has been in many of his recent roles, but still can’t tone it down enough to suit me. He doesn’t, however, ruin the movie. Nor does McKay’s decision to switch tones in the last 15 minutes and preach at the audience about the sins of the financial sector. The previous almost-two hours are strong enough to leave an impeccably favorable impression.

If you’ve read the book, all of the major players are here. One by one, we meet a group of men (there are no women) who start to see that the housing bubble of the mid-2000s is built on corruption and lies. They all, at different times and in different places (though some do meet and collaborate), decide to “short” the system by betting against the housing market. They’re the smartest guys in the room, and our heroes. They’re also, in many ways, no better than the bankers who brought down the world’s economy, since they’re in it for their own gain. In fact, if you lost money back then, a lot of it could be in their pockets. But for much of the movie’s running time, the morality of who did what and for what reason is immaterial. McKay opts, instead, to revel in the utter ridiculousness of how the clearly fraudulent housing market could have thrived, in the first place. Brisk and flashy – though quiet when it needs to be – the movie frequently cuts away from the plot to real-life celebrities – Margot Robbie (in a hot tub), Selena Gomez – who stop the action by addressing the audience directly to explain this or that bit of financial mumbo-jumbo. They’re not the only ones to break the fourth wall: even the characters within the story sometimes stop what they’re doing to talk to us, as well. In short, there’s a delightful spirit of cleverness and fun that endlessly animates Lewis’ splendid research. You won’t win your money back by watching The Big Short, but you will have the consolation prize of a great time, and learn a ton about why you lost your money in the first place.

The Force Is with Rodricks and Reed: “Roughly Speaking” on “Star Wars”

Star Wars Collage

On today’s edition of Dan Rodricks‘ Baltimore Sun “Roughly Speaking” podcast, we discussed the new Star Wars film and its place in the overall legacy of the now 7-episode saga.

Here is the link. I come on at around 11 minutes.

There’s other good stuff on there, too, including information on the William Porter trial and a great book review by Paula Gallagher of the Baltimore Public Library.

You can also subscribe to receive these podcasts automatically (instructions at the bottom of the link’s page).

Enjoy!

In “Sisters,” Amy and Tina Are Definitely Doin’ It Just for Themselves

Sisters

Sisters (Jason Moore, 2015)

With my deepest apologies to Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin, but Sisters, the new film from Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect) – starring frequent partners Tina Fey (“30 Rock“) and Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation“) – exists as a vehicle for the two veteran comic performers to get together and hang out with their friends: in other words, they’re doin’ it for themselves. If you enjoy these (usually) fine and entertaining actresses no matter what they do, then there’s a good chance you will find plenty to love in their present collaboration. If you like a (somewhat) coherent narrative to go along with your mayhem, and want even familiar faces to offer more than just the comfort of their familiarity, then you may tune out as you watch or, worse (like me), begin to loathe every second of the experience. At nearly two hours, it is certainly not a short comedy, so you’d better hope you really like Tina and Amy.

The story, such as it is, revolves around two sisters – Kate (Fey), the elder, and Maura (Poehler) – who find themselves back in their childhood home, on the eve of its being sold by their parents, and decide to throw one last party. To explain why these two 40-somethings would want to behave so recklessly requires more effort than the movie deserves, so l’ll stop there. Expect to find alums from “Saturday Night Live” – one of the many shows where Fey and Poehler have previously worked – including Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids), Rachel Dratch (Spring Breakdown), Bobby Moynihan (Adult Beginners) and John Lutz (Sleepwalk with Me). Expect other recognizable comedic supporting players like Samantha Bee (“The Daily Show“), Ike Barinholtz (“The Mindy Project“) and John Cena (Trainwreck). It’s nice that James Brolin (The Reagans), Dianne Wiest (Hannah and Her Sisters) and John Leguizamo (John Wick) show up, too, but their talents are largely wasted, so it doesn’t matter. It’s not that working with the same people over and over again is a bad thing – in the old Hollywood studio system, that happened all the time, and the comedies of Preston Sturges, to name just one director, are filled with the same repeating cast – it’s that there is a danger that your friends may not push you to make something interesting.

That, unfortunately, is very much the case here. As the party goes from bad to worse, the jokes and performances are pushed to the limits of stupidity. And then, as so often happens in these kinds of movies, everyone reconciles at the end in scenes of unearned sentimentality. I like dumb comedies as much as the next person, but most successful dumb comedies are actually pretty smart in how they dish out the craziness. And when will Hollywood stop with the offensive stereotyping of non-white/non-American characters? In this film, it’s Koreans who come in for caricature. I normally enjoy the two leads, but wanted out of this mess within 20 minutes. See it if you really must, but I suspect you’ll be at Star Wars: The Force Awakens, instead. Good call.

The Pleasures of “Youth” Are Fleeting

Youth

Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015)

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino – winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2014 for his marvelous epic The Great Beauty – is back with a new film, his first in English, entitled Youth. It shares many themes with its predecessor – aging, nostalgia for the past, the importance of art and and the appreciation of it – and aspires to offer the same profound meditations on the meaning of life. Sorrentino is clearly fascinated with the films of Fellini: where The Great Beauty felt like an homage to La Dolce Vita, this latest one clearly evokes . As before, Sorrentino works with the wonderful cinematographer Luca Bigazzi to create images of unparalleled beauty. Unfortunately, whereas the previous film was a profound study of life’s greatest questions, this latest is neither profound nor great. It’s not without interest, but mostly feels like a series of sketches in search of a script.

We are at a luxurious spa hotel in Switzerland (in real life a combination of both the Schatzalp in Davos and the Waldhaus in Sils Maria), where the wealthy – in particular, wealthy artists – go for peace and relaxation. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, Interstellar) is a retired British conductor/composer, in attendance with his lifelong best friend, Mick (Harvey Keitel, The Grand Budapest Hotel), an American filmmaker a little past his prime, and flanked by his assistant/daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful). Also at the hotel are Hollywood star Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano, Love & Mercy), Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea, Dom Hemingway) and the gaggle of young screenwriters that Mick has brought to help fine-tune his next script. Jane Fonda (“Grace and Frankie“) shows up towards the end, as well, as an aging tyrant of an actress on whom Mick has pinned his hopes for that script. There are also the many staff, including one masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic, Traumland) with whom we spend an especially long amount of time in a thread that looks like it might lead to some interesting “Upstairs, Downstairs” kind of moment, but doesn’t. 

As the film begins, an emissary from the Queen of England is begging Fred to come out of retirement to conduct a concert for Prince Philip’s birthday. In return, he will receive a knighthood. Fred’s not buying. It turns out that the requested music selection is a series of “simple songs” he composed years earlier that he no longer – for reasons of his own – wishes to perform. End of story. Jimmy Tree watches, nearby, amused. He, too, is frustrated for being known primarily for a blockbuster hit – Mr. Q, in which he played a robot – rather than for his edgier work. He’s here to prepare for his next big role – to be shot in Germany – and when we discover what that role is, it provides one of the best gags in the movie. Sadly, though, it is just a gag, with no meaningful connection to the larger story.

Fred and Mick take long walks in the beautiful countryside, sometimes together, sometimes with others: Fred with his daughter, whose marriage is falling apart, a fact which leads to many accusations from her to him about his infidelity to his own wife, her mother; Mick with his young cohorts; Fred with Jimmy, who is fascinated by the older man and his relationship to his own success. It’s a genuine pleasure to spend time with these fine actors as they discuss their receding youth and passions, and individual scenes are brilliant. The landscapes are stunning – anyone who saw Clouds of Sils Maria, earlier this year, will know what to expect – and the grandeur of the visuals is a lovely backdrop to the sometimes mundane problems of everyday life that even the rich and famous must face. But none of this ever feels connected to a significant higher purpose. It just is. And that is a greater tragedy than any of the onscreen drama: that so much talent should be spent on something that falls so short of the greatness it clearly seeks. Youth is a gorgeous mediocrity, and nothing more.

A Rousing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (Mostly) Shakes Off the Prequel Snooze

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015)

Approximately halfway through the new Star Wars, when Han Solo and Princess – now General – Leia meet for the first time in this film, they proceed to tell each other (for our benefit), everything that has happened since we last saw them, 32 years ago, in The Return of the Jedi. This is called exposition, folks, and when it exists for no other reason than to provide story information to the audience, it feels clumsy. As it does here. Rarely, except in weak screenplays, do actual living and breathing human beings state things openly: when you share history, you don’t have to. And we don’t need to be told all of the reasons for which these two beloved characters of the original franchise have become estranged. That’s what was so wonderful about the second film (my favorite) in the series, The Empire Strikes Back: Han and Leia had full conversations where they either didn’t say much, or said the opposite of what they meant.

So that’s part of what doesn’t work. What does work, I am happy to say, is much of the rest of the film. Unlike the three prequels, this new film is mostly well acted and coherently told. Perhaps it’s time to take a moment for a little (appropriate, of course!) exposition of our own, just to catch everyone up on the Star Wars universe, though if you haven’t seen the previous six films, then Star Wars: The Force Awakens is probably not for you … yet.

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” … that would be California in the 1970s … a young filmmaker named George Lucas, fresh off the success of his second feature, American Graffiti (his first one, THX 1138, had bombed), wrote and directed Star Wars, a film inspired by Lucas’ love of the sci-fi films of his 1950s youth and Joseph Campbell’s seminal text about narrative storytelling, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The movie was not just a hit, but a blockbuster. Indeed, along with Jaws – directed by Lucas’ buddy Steven Spielberg – the film helped launch our current blockbuster era. It told the story of young Luke Skywalker, an orphan living on a desert planet, who finds himself swept up in the rebellion against the evil “Empire.” At the tale’s center lies “the force,” a mystic energy that only some trained adepts – known as Jedi Knights – can use to its full potential. Young Skywalker is befriended by one such Jedi – Obi-Wan Kenobi – who trains him so he can confront a former Jedi – Darth Vader – who was once trained by Kenobi, as well, before he went over to “the dark side” and pledged allegiance to the Empire. Along the way, Skywalker joins forces with Princess Leia, a leader of the rebellion; Han Solo, a swashbuckling smuggler; Chewbacca, Solo’s “Wookie” (like Bigfoot, only slightly friendlier) sidekick; and two droids (as in, robots) named C-3PO and R2-D2, as well as assorted others.

At the time – 1977-1983, the release period of the first three films – we just called the films by their original titles. Now, we have to refer to them as Episode IV, Episode V and Episode VI, since their place in the overall chronology sits in the middle. In 1999, Lucas released Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace – the first of three prequels – forever changing the nomenclature of the series. That film was followed by Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, in 2002, and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, in 2005. In these films, we discover the young Anakin Skywalker – Luke’s father – as he meets and is trained by a much younger Obi-Wan Kenobi before going over to the “dark side” and becoming part of the nascent Empire. The prequels, as they are now known, were not nearly as beloved as the first trilogy, because, well, they weren’t very good. While the arc of each story was compelling, the actual screenplays were exposition-laden and wooden, and the central character of Anakin – whether as a boy or a young man – was never played by an actor up to the challenge.

And now here we are. Lucas, himself, directed the prequels (he had relinquished directing duties after Star Wars, allowing others to tackle the first two sequels), but he has wisely allowed someone else to take the reigns for this latest entry (he’s not even credited on the script). J.J. Abrams (Super 8) is in charge, and we sense from the start that we are in good hands, much as we did when he took on the Star Trek franchise. We still have the signature blue “long time ago” title, and then the crash of John Williams’ iconic score as the yellow-outlined “Star Wars” splashes onto the screen, receding into the distance to make way for the expected introductory text crawl. Welcome to Episode VII.

So what do we learn in this opening (the perfect – and only – place for straight-up exposition)? It turns out that a new and sinister replacement to the Empire – defeated in Episode VI – called the “First Order,” has arisen, and is slowly reconquering the galaxy. Luke Skywalker, lead Jedi of the Republic, has been missing for years (which answers all of the fan questions about his absence from the promotional materials), having fled into exile for mysterious reasons of his own (sure to be answered – don’t worry – in the film to follow). His sister, Leia, has mobilized forces to find him, knowing that there is no way the Republic can resist the First Order without Jedi help. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in other words, could just as well be entitled Star Wars: The Search for Luke (and this way, Abrams could combine both “Star” franchises …).

Very quickly, this explanatory history over, we launch right into action. And very quickly, we find that we are in a film rich with visual and narrative echoes of the original Star Wars. It’s not an out-and-out copy, but it has no compunction about cannibalizing its own past. We’re on a desert planet again – Jakku, this time – where we meet a young orphan – a woman, Rey, this time – who suddenly finds herself part of the rebellion – against the First Order, this time – in large part due to a droid – BB-8, this time. Rey is played by newcomer Daisy Ridley (Scrawl), and she is quite good, immediately allaying our fears about another Anakin disaster. Soon she is joined by another excellent new recruit, Finn – or FN-2187, as he is originally known, since he starts out as an imperial stormtrooper – played by John Boyega (Attack the Block). Their scenes together are a delightful combination of comedy and action, taking what was old and making it fresh and new.

Speaking of old, it is not long before we meet up with our good friends Han Solo – played, as always, by Harrison Ford (so great in recent years as a grizzled veteran in films like 42) – and Chewbacca – played, as always, by Peter Mayhew – and soon, when the aforementioned reunion happens between Han and Leia – played, as always, by Carrie Fisher (now as much of a writer as actress) – the gang is almost all together again. Except for Luke, whose whereabouts the frantic members of the fractured Republic still seek. The First Order, you see, has developed a new planet-destroying weapon that will mean the end of all resistance unless the rebel fighters can find a way to destroy it first (again, “echoes” of film #1 with its Death Star).

And who is the face of evil here? First and foremost is Kylo Ren, a black-clad figure meant to he Darth Vader 2.0 – he even keeps his fallen idol’s old helmet as a keepsake – who has a connection to the Republic which I will not spoil here, but which I wish the filmmakers had held off on revealing until the big climax. Once we discover his origins, it’s not hard to guess what the main tragedy of this film will be. I was sad when it happened, but not surprised. In general, Kylo Ren is the other part of the film that doesn’t quite work for me. As played by Adam Driver (While We’re Young), he’s a mess – sorry, mass – of contradictory impulses that leaves him more neurotic than frightening. It’s too easy to see the trajectory the writers are building for him. One of the things I loved about Darth Vader in films 1-3 (now 4-6) was the slow way we got to know him and understand the complexity of his narrative. Here, we’re told everything about Kylo Ren, diminishing his mystery. Still, the climactic battle – predictable though it was – is a marvel of production design, special effects and cinematography, so there’s always that.

Where Abrams and his co-writers do a far better job with mystery is in Rey’s story. Who is she, and why is she important? You may guess – again, I won’t spoil anything here – but not until the end of the film do we know – sort of, maybe – where she comes from. Finn, too, is a cypher, and though he shares a lot of motivations with the original Han Solo, he can still surprise us. Other new actors pop up, as well – Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina) and Domnhall Gleeson (also Ex Machina) among them – and acquit themselves honorably – but this is really the story of Rey’s and Finn’s awakening, and they more than hold their own and earn a place in the Star Wars canon. Thanks largely to them – and to the joy in seeing our favorite characters back in fine form – Star Wars: The Force Awakens is, overall, a success. There are plot holes and inconsistencies, for sure, but they recede as quickly as the opening crawl as we revel in the speed and excitement of a dazzling sci-fi adventure that promises more delights to come.

“Macbeth” Creeps in Its Pretty Face

Macbeth

Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, 2015)

If Mel Gibson (director/star of Braveheart) and Nicolas Winding Refn (director, Drive) met, bonded over mutual admiration of Shakespeare and had a love child, it might look like this new Macbeth. Gibson, of course, knows how to stage a battle or two and is the master at making his protagonist (often himself) suffer masochistic slings and arrows; no one does stylized sadism quite like Refn (well, maybe Tarantino – imagine him as the godfather, then). Visceral in the best way that cinema can be, though also completely nonsensical at times, it may be far from perfect, but is utterly compelling. Starring Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) as the titular psychopath and Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night) as his lady fair and foul, this adaptation of the “Scottish Play” offers startling visuals and brutal violence as complements to the great Bard’s already evocative text in a boiling broth of madness that is ultimately be a hot mess, but a gorgeous one (or, at least, one gorged with blood).

Fassbender and Cotillard are both terrific: his Macbeth is a brooding action hero, strongest when he is in motion; her Lady Macbeth is a serpentine sybarite, best when using her sex appeal to urge her husband to regicide. Together they are quite the power couple – simultaneously beautiful and creepy, like the film – until things go wrong. There is a deep note of sadness behind their power grab, however, as we open on the funeral of their dead child. Director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown), remarkably sure-handed though this be but his second feature, gives us, right away – in a departure from the source – the core tragedy of the terrible twosome: even if they were to succeed, what would it all be for? Or maybe he wants to motivate the insanity that follows. Out of death, more death. Perhaps that’s why Kurzel so often slows his footage down almost to the point of freezing the frame, creating not-quite-still tableaux that presage our final demise.

And death we get! Rather than worrying about seeing a dagger in front of us, we should look to our entrails, from which the blade may sprout. There are two color palettes here: gray and red. Scotland has never looked so beautiful nor so grim. Soot covers everything and everyone, with blood oozing out from underneath. It makes sense, given that this is the tale of a man who kills his king, seizes power, and then watches it slip away as the ghosts of his victims refuse to grant him pace. The spot on the conscience will not go out, and the hands will ne’er be clean, indeed.

So where do things go wrong? At some point, Kurzel – cutting and twisting the material to suit his needs – forgets to motivate Macbeth’s increasing lunacy. Why would anyone follow this man? And having set the bar so high with his wondrous opening, he leaves us suddenly weary when we depart the field of battle for the realm of politics. True, Macbeth succumbs to depression as well as madness, but that doesn’t mean the film has to, as well. By the time we reach the end, never has it felt truer that “twere well it were done quickly.” Instead, the final fight between Macbeth and Macduff (an excellent Sean Harris, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) drags on (in the play, “they fight”), and by this time the visual aesthetic and gore have worn a bit thin. Despite this, I would not only recommend this fresh take on the well-known drama, but recommend that one see it on the big screen, to better appreciate Kurzel’s ambitious – and mostly successful – vision.