Lady Macbeth


Here comes the bride.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer, Rebecca Manley, Fleur Houdjik, Cliff Burnett, David Kirkbride, Bill Fellows, Nicholas Lumley, Raymond Finn, Ian Conningham, Finn Burridge, Jack Robertson, Kima Sikazwe, Elliott Sinclair, Andrew Davis, Alan Billingham, Joseph Teague. Directed by William Oldroyd

 

In A Chorus Line, Cassie warbles “Can’t forget, won’t regret what I did for love.” The sentiment strikes a chord in most of us; we mostly will do just about anything for love. If all is fair in love and war as the saying goes, some of us will do unspeakable things for love.

Katherine (Pugh) really doesn’t know what love is and she wants someone to show her. The daughter of hard economic times, her family essentially sold her to wealthy Alexander (Hilton) and more to the point, his cold and demanding father Boris (Fairbank). She is treated pretty much like chattel, ordered to stay indoors – fresh air apparently being anathema to both father and son, although I suspect it is more of a control thing than a health thing.

When both Alexander and Boris are called away from the chilly, drafty home in the north of England on business, Katherine asserts herself as the lady of the manor, going out on long walks on the moor. Her Anglo-African maid Anna (Ackie), who is mostly mute, is witness to her transgressions but seems sympathetic. One afternoon she rescues a nude Anna from the abuse of the stable staff, particularly from Sebastian (Jarvis), an arrogant groomer. He later creeps into her room, presumably to rape her but she ends up seducing him and the two begin a torrid affair. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

When Boris returns home, he is nearly apoplectic and Katherine realizes that while her father-in-law and husband (who hasn’t consummated their marriage yet – to date all he’s done is masturbate while she stands naked facing the wall) live, she can never be with Sebastian. She therefore embarks on a course that is born out of equal parts desperation and terrible resolve.

Oldroyd – whose name sounds like a Jane Austen character – is known mostly for his stage direction, but you’d never know it here. Even though much of the action is limited to the fairly large house, the film never feels stagey although it is occasionally claustrophobic – purposely so, as no doubt Katherine is feeling restrained.

Initially, this feels like an adaptation of an Austen novel – I was surprised to discover that it’s actually an adaptation of a Russian novel – but as the movie wears on the feel changes. During the course of the movie Katherine does increasingly terrible things to the point where it becomes hard to have any sort of rooting interest in her. I began to think of the film as Quentin Tarantino’s Jane Austen – this is very much how I would imagine that Tarantino would direct an Austen-like thriller.

The pacing is pretty stately; at times it seems like the storyline is barely moving at all. There are endless scenes of Katherine sitting in boredom watching the clock on the wall or falling asleep. The point is made, Mr. Oldroyd. There are also elements of the story that are rather bewildering; Katherine, for example, being sexually attracted to a man who is obviously an utter bastard; how quickly she turns upon people who she supposedly cares about. At the end of the day, she ends up being an utter sociopath and because of her social status, society assumes that her claims are true and those of her servants are lies.

This is very much a class-conscious film and given that Sebastian is of mixed ancestry and that Anna is fully of African descent adds the race card in addition to the class card.. The most sympathy is reserved for Anna who really gets the shaft at the end of the film – something that African-American audiences know only too well. We even end up with some sympathy for Sebastian although once you think about what a rotten human being he is at the beginning of the film, that sympathy is somewhat tempered.

The acting here is actually quite swell and this may very well be a breakout role for Pugh. She has to play a role that is both sympathetic and not; at first, she is treated like a possession, little more than a slave to her husband and father-in-law and an ornament who is  meant to shine brightly without making much noise. However as her evil deeds begin to multiply it is difficult to see her as anything but an amoral sociopath. We question if she does all this for love of another, or for her own freedom. You get your answer to that by film’s end.

It should be noted there is a scene in which a horse is shot. The plot point is necessary to the film but the scene is done with particular brutality and is rather graphic. Those sensitive to animal suffering should be forewarned before going to see this. I found it unnerving myself although it is I must admit effectively staged, giving the audience an idea just how cold-blooded Katherine and Sebastian have become to that point.

That end is nothing like what you’ll expect. I don’t know how close it is to the ending of the original Nikolai Leskov story having never read it myself but certainly this didn’t go the way I expected. It’s certainly a lesson on class distinctions (and nobody understood that better than the citizens of Imperial Russia) but it is also a look at the effects of love as a kind of madness. As the Russians are wont to do, it is a bit of a downer but it also is a fascinating character study.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are uniformly solid. The story doesn’t go in the direction you expect it to.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is extremely slow and the plot is occasionally bewildering.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of nudity, sex and sexuality; there’s also a scene of animal abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in England during the Regency era, the movie is actually based on a Russian novel, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk by Nikolai Leskov.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mansfield Park
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Brave New Jersey

We Need to Talk About Kevin


We Need to Talk About Kevin

Sometimes the glass is neither half-full nor half-empty; it's just plain empty.

(2011) Psychological Thriller (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Alex Manette, Kenneth Franklin, Erin Darke, Ursula Parker. Directed by Lynne Ramsay

 

Being a parent is a terrible job. You try to guide your child into making good decisions but yet they insist on doing things that are hurtful to themselves and others. Your advice is sneered at and your opinions are unwanted. It’s a lot like living with a demonic entity. You only can hope and pray that they’ll grow into responsibility and maturity which they generally do with no help from you. However, there are cases that are special – and not in a good way.

Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) lives in a kind of half-light between twilight and full-blown night. She self-medicates with alcohol and pills; her face is a mask of numbed misery, the face of someone who knows life is horrible and full of pain and meant to be endured, not experienced.

She wasn’t always like that. She used to be carefree and full of life. She had the love of Franklin (Reilly), a decent man and a kindred spirit. She traveled the world. Then she got pregnant.

From the beginning, Kevin (Duer) was a handful, screaming constantly to the point where while on walks with her baby in his carriage she would pause by the jackhammers of construction workers to drown his squalling out. Then, her husband would arrive home and the screaming would end. “See?” Franklin would exclaim, “You only need to rock him a little bit,” while the exhausted new mother looks on in disbelief.

As Kevin grows into a young child (Newell), his development is out of whack – or so it seems. He doesn’t speak – not because he can’t but because he refuses to and he never utters the word “mama.” He chooses not to engage with his mother. He wears diapers until he’s in grade school – not because he doesn’t know how to go to the potty but because he can torture his mother by pooping in his pants at inopportune moments. He glares at his mother because of some unspeakable crime only he knows about and sets upon punishing his mother for the act of giving birth to him – torturing her and beating her down with misbehavior, but absolutely delightful with everyone else.

As Kevin grows older, into his teens (Miller) his petty acts of vandalism escalate, killing the beloved pet of his little sister (Gerasimovich) and “accidentally” causing her to lose an eye when she knocks some household cleaners into it. However, these are merely the opening acts for a spectacular finale that is still to come.

Ramsay tells this story, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, non-sequentially, allowing the story to drift from present to past over 18 years. Some have found it confusing but I actually think it a brilliant move. Past and present exist as one in Eva’s benumbed brain, as she tortures herself with what every parent does – what did I do wrong? How could I have done better?

It becomes apparent early on that Kevin has committed some horrible act that has turned the community against Eva, causing them to splatter her home and car with red paint, to slap her outside her place of work and to break all of her eggs in their carton in the grocery store. She puts up with all of this with the misery of a self-flagellator.

Part of why this works so well is the performance of Tilda Swinton. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work here and to my mind should have gotten an Oscar nod as well. Eva represses her feelings big time but we see them in her eyes; she’s haunted by the specters of what could have been and what has been. She can’t escape her past and she doesn’t think she deserves to. She’s racked with guilt and is in every sense of the word a broken woman, but it wasn’t an abusive spouse or boyfriend who did it – it was her son.

Both Miller and Newell are absolutely creepy as Kevin at various stages of life. This must have been completely alien to their way of thinking – without any regard for human feeling, delighting in the agony of others. How, at such young ages, do they gather the life experience needed to play someone like Kevin so well? Yet they both do. Kevin at all stages of his life is entirely believable as a sociopath and if he hadn’t have been, Swinton’s performance would have been entirely wasted.

As a parent I left the movie thinking to myself “what would I have done?” Probably very much the same as Eva I suppose. Franklin was completely oblivious to Kevin’s growing evil, mainly by design. Kevin’s final act of horror is to create a torture so ingenious and elegant in its complete evil for his mother, tying her to an area where she will be the object of scorn and hatred as well as the memories of those gone before her.

And that’s the haunting element of the film. How could someone do something like that? What drives them? How is it that you could torture someone you love knowingly? These are questions that are generated by this movie and perhaps are impossible to answer. Did Kevin become evil because of the way his mother brought him up (which the movie shows wasn’t always the most loving in the world) or was he born that way, wired for it? I don’t have any answers for that and I suspect we probably never will.

REASONS TO GO: Swinton is spectacular here. Leaves you with many questions after the film is over. Extremely melancholic.

REASONS TO STAY: Some might find it morbid and too intense.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing scenes of sociopathic behavior and some violence, as well as a smattering of sexuality and some fairly raw language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was in development for six years, delayed mainly with BBC Film’s concern over the budget.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100. The reviews are resoundingly good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Boy

RADIOHEAD LOVERS: The music for the film was composed by lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

British rioters make it to San Francisco.

(2011) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlett, Ty Olsson, Madison Bell, Karin Konoval. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Most of us have seen Planet of the Apes in one form or another, from the classic 1968 original to the less classic 2001 remake. But how did it get from humans ruling the planet with apes and chimps mute and unreasoning to them becoming the dominant species on the planet?

Dr. Will Rodman (Franco) works for one of the main players in Big Pharma. He’s working on a viral component to gene therapy that if successful will cure Alzheimer’s Disease. He has a stake in this because his own father (Lithgow) suffers from that dreadful disease.

Steven Jacobs (Oyelowo), the CEO of the firm is more interested in the bucks than the cure. He wants something that will improve the corporate bottom line which a cure for Alzheimer’s will certainly do. Rodman has brought his most promising formula, ALZ-112, to testing on chimps – PETA protesters take note. Everything looks pretty copacetic until the chimp goes on the rampage at the worst possible moment – during a board meeting to decide whether or not to fund further tests on human subjects. The project is then shelved and the chimps are put to sleep.

However, one of the chimps left a little present – a baby. The corporate chimp handler (Labine) can’t bring himself to put another animal down and so Will is left with the prospect of putting up the baby chimp for a few days until another home can be found for him. That’s not the only thing Will takes home with him from work – a few vials of the ALZ-112 also make their way into his pocket and then into Will’s dad.

The serum works on Will’s dad and before long it becomes evident that Caesar (the baby chimp that Will “adopted”) is much smarter than the average chimps. Apparently the ALZ-112 was passed on from mama chimp to baby. Caesar’s accelerated learning curve allows him to become fairly fluent in sign language. All in all it’s a pretty idyllic home life for Will; dad is doing fine, Caesar is a loving addition to the family and Will has found a girlfriend in Caroline (Pinto), a primatologist who helped treat some injuries that Caesar incurred as a young ‘un.

As Caesar (Serkis) grows into young adulthood, he becomes more and more aggressive as chimps are wont to do. An incident with an overbearing neighbor leads to Caesar being taken from his happy home and left in a primate care center run by the diffident John Landon (Cox) and tended to by his sadistic son Dodge (Felton). There the apes – and Caesar – are brutalized by Dodge despite the objections of Rodney (Harris), the other caretaker in the primate center.

To make matters worse Dad is turning for the worse; his own antibodies are wiping out the ALZ-112 in his system which is allowing the disease to return with a vengeance. Will is running out of time; he needs a new delivery system that will overcome our own immune system. In the meantime, Caesar is turning out to be much smarter than anyone – even Will – ever suspected and the brutality and betrayal are going to bring things to a head and the fate of humans as the dominant species on this planet hangs in the balance.

This is a nicely done story that explains how the apes came to be intelligent and able to speak; in that sense the movie is realistic. Where it falls flat, surprisingly, is in the CGI. Not the motion capture performances so much (we’ll get to that in a minute) but some of the movements of the apes looks like they were captured on an old silent-era movie camera; they’re downright choppy.

That’s basically the reason that the movie didn’t get one of the higher scores of the summer from me because everything else about it from the acting to the script is outstanding. Serkis in particular does a magnificent job of capturing Caesar as a character and giving him personality and allowing the audience to sympathize, leaving us in the odd position of rooting for our own extinction.

Franco, recently Oscar nominated, remains one of those actors who doesn’t do things the way other actors do and that makes him memorable in most of his roles. Here he has a character that is essentially second banana (pun intended) to Caesar and is terribly underwritten as an impulsive mad scientist type (see Bruce Banner and Victor von Frankenstein) but has a good heart. I would have wished to see his relationship with Caroline fleshed out a bit more but that’s a minor quibble.

The movie is particularly well-written in the sense that it is logically drawn and while there isn’t much in the way of surprises, it is at least tautly written. It is certainly well-acted with Serkis getting kudos for one of the best motion capture performances ever. Franco and Pinto do fine jobs and Lithgow does his best not to make a caricature of a role that could easily become one. Was this great summer entertainment? You bet. Was it better than I thought it might be? Yes, I’d say that was true. Was it all it could have been?  No, it definitely could have been better but for my money, it’s more than good enough to head on down to the multiplex for.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis is phenomenal as Caesar. Nice backstory to explain how the Apes took a giant leap forward on the evolutionary ladder.

REASONS TO STAY: The CG movements of the apes didn’t seem natural in a lot of places. The story was rather predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, with some scenes that might be disturbing to more sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dodge Landon is named for the two fellow astronauts of Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes while Maurice is named for Maurice Evans who played Dr. Zaius in the original. Dodge also snarls “Take your stinking paws off of me you damned dirty ape!!” arguably the most iconic line from the original.

HOME OR THEATER: Hmmm. Tough call on this one. I think that the final battle scene on the Golden Gate Bridge might be better on the big screen but much of the rest of it would probably be just as effective at home. You make the choice.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Jack Goes Boating