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Non-Review Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

There is something inherently cinematic about Macbeth.

More than the other three of Shakespeare’s “big four” tragedies, Macbeth is a movie that lends itself to bold cinematic adaptations. To be fair, there are great cinematic adaptations of Hamlet and King Lear, but there don’t seem to be quite as many of them that linger in the consciousness. It’s interesting to wonder why cinema seems to be such a perfect form for this Jacobean tragecy. Maybe it’s the overt supernatural elements, or the grim setting, the intersection of stark morality and brutal violence. It might even be uncanny imagery suggested by the dialogue. Perhaps it’s all of these. Perhaps it is none of them.

Black and white morality.

Whatever the reason, from straight adaptations like those of Orson Welles through to Justin Kurzel and more abstract interpretations like Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Shakespeare’s historical tragedy is one that really pops within these heightened and formalist adaptations. It helps that the play works in any number of registers: as tragedy, as horror, as drama, as morality play. Indeed, in the context of The Tragedy of Macbeth, it’s tempting to argue that Macbeth fits surprisingly well within the Coen Brothers’ larger filmography of inept and over-confident criminals undermined by their own incompetence.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is a worth addition to both this list of impressive adaptations and the filmography of director Joel Coen.

A doorway to madness…

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268. Incendies (#110)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies.

Following the death of their mother Nawal, twins Jeanne and Simon find themselves dealing with dark family secrets bubbling to the surface. Nawal’s will includes two instructions for her children, to find both their father and their long-lost sibling. While Simon dismisses this last request as another manipulation from an emotionally-distant mother, Jeanne embarks on an epic journey to trace her family’s history and perhaps change its future.

At time of recording, it was ranked 110th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: West Side Story

In some ways, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story is a match made in heaven, a union that feels as perfect as the story’s central romance.

After all, West Side Story is one of the quintessential American texts. In its review of the classic Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins adaptation, The Hollywood Reporter described the film musical as “the one dramatic form that is purely American and purely Hollywood”, and West Side Story is a musical that takes that idea to its extreme, with a show-stopping number literally titled In America. More than that, the previous cinematic adaptation stands as one of the virtuoso examples of classic Hollywood studio filmmaking, with its beautiful production design, large cast, and beautiful backlot.

“Do you want to dance or do you want to fight?”

Steven Spielberg is perhaps the most purely American and most purely Hollywood director of his generation. He is just as much a monolyth of American popular culture as West Side Story or even the cinemative musical. Writer Arthur Ryel-Lindsey might have sarcastically declared that “Steven Spielberg is American culture”, but there’s a great deal of truth in it. Depending on who you ask, Spielberg is “the defining American populist of his generation”, “possibly the greatest American director”, or even simply “synonymous with cinema.” So West Side Story feels like a wonderful synthesis of material and director.

Plus, you know, Spielberg knows how to direct sharks.

“Maria, you gotta see her…”

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Non-Review Review: House of Gucci

At its core, House of Gucci is the story of how the handbag is made.

Trying to convince his nephew Maurizio to take the reigns on the family business, Aldo Gucci explains that the cows that provide the leather for the company’s products are part of a long dynasty. Much like Aldo and his brother Rodolfo inherited the company from their own father Guccio Gucci, these cows are the direct descendents of the animals upon which the brand was established. To Aldo, Gucci is a fmaily business, right down to the cows that are fattened for slaughter. Aldo insists that the cows deserve praise for what they have given their owners. However, the cows still inevitably get skinned.

Where there’s smoke…

House of Gucci returns time and again to this animal imagery. “Gucci is a rare animal,” Domenico De Sole warns Patrizia Reggiani at one point, as the family consider how best to maintain the brand. “It must be protected.” It’s no coincidence that, towards the climax of the movie, the investors debating the future of the family’s ownership of the brand enjoy delicious cuts of steak. It’s rare, of course, the blood visible as they cut into it. The imagery is hardly subtle. Perhaps Aldo and his family have more in common with the cows than they’d like to acknowledge.

House of Gucci feels like something of a companion piece to two other recent Ridley Scott films, The Counsellor and All the Money in the World. Both feel like extrapolations of themes that have bubbled across the director’s filmography, from his earliest work on movies like Alien and Blade Runner. They are cautionary tales about the terrible things that people will do to one another for money, shaped by the ironic understanding that even after all these terrible things are done, nobody really wins. House of Gucci is not a particularly subtle movie, but it doesn’t need to be.

Glass act.

House of Gucci is similar to The Counsellor and All the Money in the World in other ways, as a movie that feels significantly less than the sum of its parts. Then again, what parts they are. House of Gucci doesn’t really hang together cohesively as a movie, often feeling like several smaller movies wrestling for control of the narrative. Every major member of the cast feels like they are the star of their own movie, but not necessarily an essential part of this movie. House of Gucci puts Howard Hawks’ “three great scenes” hypothesis to the test, compiling a number of compelling individual scenes that rarely add to something greater.

House of Gucci is an interesting, disjointed, uneven but strangely compelling study of what wealth does to people – particularly when it no longer needs them.

A familiar ring to it.

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Non-Review Review: Encanto

One of the most interesting and overlooked entertainment trends in the past decade has been the extent to which Disney’s animated films have quietly become the studio’s most reliable output, ahead of higher-profile properties like Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed, it’s possible to argue at least convincingly that Disney’s animated films have been more consistent in quality than those from Pixar, even allowing for Pixar’s success with movies like Inside Out.

The studio entered the twenty-first century in a state of crisis over its traditional animated features. There was a perception that the studio’s classic “princess movies” like Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid or Pocahontas or Mulan were outdated, and that the studio needed to reconfigure its image to appeal to young male demographics. The acquisition of other brands like Star Wars eased the pressure somewhat, and the studio’s animated output has become more comfortable in its own skin with female-led animated projects including Tangled, Frozen, Moana, Frozen II and Raya and the Last Dragon.

Family portrait.

The studio’s animation division has spent the past decade tinkering with the formula and assumptions that drive these sorts of films, in some ways cutting to what was always the heart of the genre. Love stories are now optional for female leads. Villains are more complex and multifaceted. Themes are richer and more ambitious. It’s perhaps too much to suggest that Disney has spent the past decade quietly and carefully deconstructing and then reconstructing the familiar “princess movie” storytelling engine, but it’s also not inaccurate. The studio has done this in a careful and considered manner, never feeling false or cynical.

In some ways, Encanto feels like the culmination of this larger trend. It is a movie that is instantly recognisable as part of the familiar animated “princess movie” template, a musical about a young woman in a remote location coming into her own to find her identity. It’s a stunning piece of animation, with a charming cast and some catchy musical numbers. However, it’s also a surprisingly thoughtful and clever subversion of some of the core ingredients in these sorts of movies. It’s a story about a lead character whose epic adventure begins at home, who finds herself without needing to leave the house.

Food for thought.

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Non-Review Review: King Richard

King Richard is an interesting take on the classic sports biopic.

On the one hand, King Richard is a very conventional film. It’s a movie that hits all of the marks that one expects for an inspiring look at two sports icons like Venus and Serena Williams. There is family tension. There are debates about whether the young athletes are ready. There are training montages. Made with the active participation of the Williams family, King Richard was never going to be a gritty “warts and all” interrogation of its subject. Instead, it’s a charming and charismatic star vehicle for Will Smith, one of cinemas most charming and charismatic stars.

King Richard holds Court.

However, there’s also an interesting tension at play within the film itself, one that derives from the film’s understand of just how inevitable the success of Venus and Serena Williams actually is. To be fair, most sports biopics are stories of triumph over adversity, given that they tend to focus on successful sports stars. However, Venus and Serena Williams exist in such rarified company, dominating culture to such an impressive degree, that the conclusion of King Richard doesn’t just feel predetermined but inescapable.

Cleverly, King Richard doesn’t try to fight this idea. Instead, it leans into it. King Richard is a character study of Richard Williams, the hustler who boasts eagerly and enthusiastically that he is “in the champion-raising business.” To any outside observer, Richard’s confidence borders on insanity. When an observer remarks that he’s claiming to have raised “the next Mohammad Ali”, Richard is quick to correct them and boast that he’s got “two” of them. There’s an interesting frisson at play here, because King Richard trusts its audience to know that – no matter how surreal his claims might appear to his contemporaries – he is entirely correct.

A Rich(ard) character study…

In hindsight, it seems almost absurd to point out how severely the odds were stacked against the success of Venus and Serena Williams. The two were born into a large working class family in Compton, surrounded by drugs and violence, with nowhere to train but community tennis courts. Richard and his wife Brandy didn’t have the money to send the pair to upper-class academies, so had to teach the girls themselves with an obsessive devotion to recording and playing back the work of professionals. However, none of that really matters, because any audience watching King Richard knows the outcome of this story.

The result of all of this is a sports biopic that hews quite close to the familiar rhythms and template of other sports biopics, but which operates according to a different internal tension. It’s a movie which sticks close enough to events that there’s no second act humbling of Richard, Venus or Serena. The movie never tries to build suspense around whether its stars are going to succeed in the face of the enormous odds against them, but instead about when and why. It’s a subtle shift in emphasis. However, coupled with the film’s strong casting and powerhouse lead performance, it’s enough to help King Richard stand out from the crowd.

The perfect Ten(nis)?

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New Escapist Column! On “The Wrath of Khan” and “The Voyage Home”, and the Soul of “Star Trek” in “First Contact”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Given that this month marks the 35th anniversary of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: First Contact, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at their relationship within the Star Trek franchise – and how they connect to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

For many Star Trek fans, The Wrath of Khan remains the most beloved and most brilliant entire in the franchise’s cinematic canon. However, it’s notable that The Voyage Home was a much more populist hit, resonating with general audiences. For a decade following the release of The Voyage Home, it provided a template for the franchise for a decade. However, with the release of First Contact, the balance of power shifted. Suddenly, the franchise found itself caught in the gravity of The Wrath of Khan, which exerted a powerful gravity on the franchise’s direction and development.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Spencer

Spencer introduces itself as “a fable based on a true tragedy.” The official synopsis describes the movie as “an imagining of what might have happened.”

The obvious point of comparison is Jackie. Both are movies directed by Pablo Larraín, offering a tightly-focused profile of their young, famous, female subjects. However, while Jackie is very much about a character who is cannily and carefully cultivating a mythology out of tragedy, Spencer is perhaps about a character failing to do just that. Jackie Kennedy was able to build the myth of “Camelot” in the wake of her husband’s death, a monument that would last generations. Spencer imagines its female protagonist crushed beneath the weight of a national myth, learning that “no one is above tradition.”

A sorry estate of affairs…

Diana Spencer remains a fascinating figure. She has a strong hold on popular culture. Her narrative is a driving force in the second half of The Crown. There was a spectacularly ill-judged attempt at a more conventional biopic with Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana. Her ghost haunted The Queen. Diana is often described as “the people’s princess”, but there’s something unsettling even in that affectionate appelation. It is, after all, possessive. It opens up the question of whether Diana was every truly allowed to be herself, or was instead beholden to everybody else – the royals, the public, the ghosts of royal consorts past.

Spencer is very much a companion piece to Jackie, but it feels more like a ghost story. It is haunting and ethereal, its subject flinching even from Larraín’s gaze. The result is enchanting, but also deliberately and effectively frustrating. Spencer is a fable, complete with all the echoing space that such stories usually contain.

Christmas Mourning.

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Non-Review Review: Eternals

Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is a small, but necessary, step forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There has been a lot of pre-publicity around Eternals, most of it centring on Zhao as an auteur. Zhao has given interviews insisting that she directed all of the film’s action. Kevin Feige has talked about how her work convinced Disney executives to shoot in real locations rather than simply rendering a lot of the movie in post-production. As such, Eternals has become a weird battleground for the idea of authorship within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

When Marvel saw the breadth of its domain…

It is easy to understand why this is. There have been Marvel Studios movies directed by Oscar-winners before; Joe Johnson won an Academy Award for visual effects on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Taika Waititi recently won a Best Adapted Screenplay award for JoJo Rabbit. However, there is something tangibly different about seeing a big budget blockbuster coming from an artist who won both Best Picture and Best Director at that year’s Academy Awards.

It also makes sense in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There have undoubtedly been Marvel Studios films with strong senses of authorship: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. However, those movies all feel quite a long time ago. Although one can perhaps pick up traces of Cate Shortland’s personality in Black Widow or Daniel Destin Cretton’s interests in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, those films feel very familiar and very rote.

Red eyes in the morning…

There is tangible sense of opportunism at play in way that Marvel Studios has positioned Eternals as an auteur-driven project. After all, the studio has a long and complicated history with directors who have distinct visions; Patty Jenkins, Edgar Wright and Ava DuVernay have all suggested that the company’s culture is not particularly welcoming to creatives. In particular, Zhao’s assertion that she oversaw the movie’s action sequences exists in the context of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who recalls being told that if she chose to direct Black Widow, she would not be allowed to direct the action scenes.

Again, context is important here. Eternals is really the company’s first director-driven project since Black Panther, which is a big deal given the studio’s history of beginning pre-visualization of scenes and special effects “before the cinematographer or director has signed on to the project.” While movies like Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, Ant Man and the Wasp, Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home are all varying degrees of entertaining, none of them feel like the work of a filmmaker who has something particularly pressing to say about the modern world.

Superfriends.

All this tension plays through Eternals, the fine balancing act between a director with a very distinctive artistic sensibility working with a studio that appears eager to launder its reputation by association, while also being anxious that this auteur doesn’t get to go too far. In some ways, Eternals feels like a limit case for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an example of just how far the studio will allow a creative talent to stretch a rubber band before aggressively snapping it back into the default position.

This is the challenge facing Eternals. It goes further than any Marvel Studios film in recent memory, but that’s still not far enough.

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Non-Review Review: Last Night in Soho

Last Night in Soho is a fascinating snapshot of the siren lure of nostalgia, and how it is so often filtered through a presumptive male gaze.

Last Night in Soho follows a young student named Eloise who moves to London for the first time to follow her dream of becoming a fashion designer. After some tensions with her roommate, Eloise moves out of her apartment into a small bedsit, with warnings that past tenants have had some strange experiences in the flat – disappearing in the dead of night, as if fleeing from something that shares the space. Eloise has always been sensitive to otherworldly presences, and it is no surprise when she seems to connect with the memories imprinted in her new bedroom.

Who nose?

Night after night, Eloise is seduced by memories of a young woman named Sandy, who came to London to pursue her own ambitions of becoming a singer. Sandy met a handsome talent agent named Jack, who promises that he can make all of her dreams come true. As Eloise sinks deeper into this nostalgic fantasies of the swinging sixties, she notices that the lines are begin blur – between her waking moments and her sleeping thoughts, between herself and the girl who visits her at night, between dreams and nightmares.

At its core, Last Night in Soho is a meditation on the idea that it is not always so easy to escape the past.

Bad romance.

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