Cinepocalypse 2018: Part One

The Ranger, The Devil’s Doorway, Hover, Await Further Instructions, and What Keeps You Alive.

The Ranger

The Ranger

Director/co-writer Jenn Wexler pits a pack of post-adolescent punk rockers (led by Chloe Levine) against a deranged park ranger (Jeremy Holm, who’s recently done turns on House of Cards and Mr. Robot) in her feature début. Wexler shifts between two different approaches here: the first posits the titular Ranger as a campy slasher who quotes Park Service regulations at his victims; the second explores the twisted psychological relationship between the Final Girl and her nemesis. Sadly, Wexler never balances the two approaches so that they feel like they belong in the same movie. On the plus side, Levine delivers a bravura performance, Holm both amuses and menaces, and I liked the effects work, so it’s not an entire wash.

Larry Fessenden appears in flashbacks as Levine’s uncle, kicking off my traditional genre festival Larry Fessenden Watch. My very first film brings Cinepocalypse 2018’s Fessenden Count to 1.

United States. Directed by Jenn Wexler.

The Devil's Doorway

The Devil’s Doorway

The found-footage trend has (mercifully) passed, but you can still find the occasional movie made in the format. Writer-director Aislinn Clarke sets her stab at it in Sixties Ireland, putting the camera—stocked with actual film, natch—in the hands of a pair of priests investigating an apparent miracle at a “Magdalene house” (a church-run workhouse for unwed mothers and promiscuous young woman—think Philomena). The story itself is a factory-standard demonic-possession narrative featuring two priests (one old, one young; one a true believer, one a skeptic), steely, cruel nuns, an innocent victim suffering the tortures of the damned, and enough secrets to fill an abbey. But Clarke makes The Devil’s Doorway worth watching by emphasizing the thick Irish-gothic atmosphere.

Ireland. Directed by Aislinn Clarke.

Hover

Hover

Set in an ominous near-future world of assisted suicide machines, AI-driven security drones, and slabs of thick plastic doubling as tablet computers, Hover practically begs comparisons to Black Mirror. Unfortunately for director Matt Osterman and writer/star Cleopatra Coleman, that comparison wouldn’t be a favorable one. The premise is sound, but the execution is faulty; the world-building is weak, the characters thinly-drawn and forgettable. (Even the script forgets about the protagonist’s incompetent trainee, abandoning her mid-film until the story requires a shock reveal at the climax.) You can pretty much guess every twist before it happens, most of the performances are lackluster, and even the effects are shitty. And there’s gotta be a more efficient way of killing vermin than exploding their heads with microwaves. It’s probably possible to make a good movie with this premise; but Hover sure ain’t it.

United States. Directed by Matt Osterman.

Await Further Instructions

Await Further Instructions

If you’ve recently found yourself thinking, “Gee, we sure could use a Videodrome for the Trump/Brexit/Fox News era,” director Johnny Kevorkian and writer Gavin Williams have the answer to your prayers. Await Further Instructions seals the fractious Milgram family (if you know get that reference, that’s your first clue) in its home at Christmas, their only contact with the outside world a series of increasingly bizarre instructions delivered by some unknown force through the television. Long-simmering familial resentments boil over in the form of a vicious power struggle as the paranoia and the craziness escalate, and everything culminates in a climax I could not have seen coming in a million years. Add brilliant performances (especially from Grant Masters and living legend David Bradley, aka Argus Filch, Walder Frey, the creepy guy from the first series of Broadchurch, and the third First Doctor Who), a light touch of throwback (note how all the TVs are CRTs), and some brilliantly original effects sequences, and you get something really special.

United Kingdom. Directed by Johnny Kevorkian.

What Keeps You Alive

What Keeps You Alive

Canadian writer/director Colin Minihan—one-half of the Vicious Brothers team responsible for the Grave Encounters series, Extraterrestrial, and It Stains the Sands Red—strips human conflict down to basics in this survival-horror exercise. Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen star as a married couple celebrating their first anniversary at a remote lake house, but a chance encounter triggers a series of events, culminating in a devastating betrayal. Minihan doesn’t develop the narrative as thoroughly as I would have liked—took me far too long to suss out a couple of major clues, so maybe it’s just me—but he makes the most of his beautiful remote locations, and Anderson and Allen both deliver strong performances. You like your horror intense? Here’s your movie.

Canada. Directed by Colin Minihan.

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci takes the end of a bloody historical era and makes farce of it… ★★★★

The 1953 stroke that ended the life of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin left the country without a leader. There was an obvious (if not official) successor in Deputy Chairman Georgy Malenkov, but Moscow was full of ambitious men plotting to bring stability while carving out the largest slice of power for themselves. Chief among them were Internal Affairs Minister Lavrentiy Beria and Moscow party leader Nikita Khruschev. Vyacheslav Molotov, a former diplomat on the outs with Stalin, saw a chance to claw his way back to relevance. Stalin’s alcoholic son Vasily proved to be paranoid and erratic, and others struggled to control him. Loyalties turned on a kopek coin, and yesterday’s patriot could be tomorrow’s traitor. One false move—a mistake as simple or random as being in the wrong place at the wrong time—and you could be denounced as an enemy of the Revolution and shot. Even history could be rewritten, if you could convincingly deny that past events never happened.

Pretty funny, huh? Science fiction author Aaron Allston once said that the difference between tragedy and comedy is that tragedy is something awful happening to someone else, while comedy is something awful happening to someone else. Armando Iannucci, the Scottish satirist responsible for The Thick of It and Veep, puts this principle to work in his adaptation of the French graphic novel The Death of Stalin. Iannucci interprets these historical figures as comical characters and makes farce of the lengths they’ll go to avoid being killed.

To wit: on the last day of his life, Stalin “requests” a recording of a Mozart recital broadcast on Radio Moscow. The problem: Radio Moscow didn’t actually record it. So the producer goes great lengths to stage a second performance—pressing a new conductor into service, bribing the pianist, and filling empty seats in the concert hall with citizens literally grabbed off the street. The result: a recording of what the producer assures Stalin’s men is the performance as broadcast.

Iannucci doubles down on the absurdity by casting identifiable actors (often comedians) in the roles who don’t transform into famous men of history. Indeed, three of the leading actors play their characters as variations of what they’ve been doing their entire careers. Steve Buscemi’s Khruschev is brittle, high-strung, and Brooklyn-accented. Michael Palin’s Molotov is a neurotic buffoon not far removed from the dozens of similar characters he played as a member of a certain Flying Circus. And nothing would have surprised me less than if Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov started spouting random George Bluth Sr. quotes.

Despite these and other remarkable performances—Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin, Jason Isaacs as the cocky Field Marshal Zukhov, and strongest of all, Simon Russell Beale as the crafty, canny, and psychotic Beria—the main draw isn’t any one actor or actress but Iannucci himself, choreographing historical events as if they were scenes in Clue and writing deft, sharp zingers for his cast to lob off each other. While none of the characters prove as quotable as Iannucci’s most endearing creations, Alan Partridge and Malcolm Tucker, we do at least get Buscemi responding “And I want to fuck Grace Kelly” to Vasily’s request to deliver a eulogy at his father’s funeral, and Tambor inviting his rivals to kiss his Russian ass, and those are moments worth having.

Now, is it funny? I laughed quite a bit, but all comedy is in the eye of the beholder, and this specific kind of comedy won’t be to everyone’s taste. But I do assert that one of art’s most important roles in culture is to help us make sense of the senseless, and The Death of Stalin uses comedy to transform the end of an unthinkably large tragedy (this will be the last time that losers in Soviet power struggles will pay with their lives) into something that can be held in the mind and understood—and if we understand it, perhaps we can prevent it from happening again.

Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Adrian McLoughlin, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko. Directed by Armando Iannucci. 107 minutes.

I Am Not a Serial Killer

We all know the “monster-next-door” trope…but how do you handle the situation when you’re something of a monster yourself?

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Ireland/United Kingdom. Directed by Billy O’Brien, 2016. Starring Max Records, Laura Fraser, Christopher Lloyd, Karl Geary, Dee Noah, Christina Baldwin, Raymond Brandstrom, Lucy Lawton, Anna Sundberg. 104 minutes.

We’ve all seen movies or read stories about ordinary folks who suddenly discover they have monsters living in their neighborhood. But how do you handle the situation when you’re something of a monster yourself?

Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) finds himself in just such a situation in I Am Not a Serial Killer, the Anglo-Irish adaptation of Dan Wells’s novel. An awkward social misfit, with morbid obsessions (at least partially fueled by the family business of undertaking) and unreliable estranged parents, would have a tough row to hoe in any small-town high school. But John has been diagnosed with clinical sociopathy. Early in the film, he describes most people as being like cardboard boxes: boring—until you open them up and see what’s inside. So he takes great care to keep himself on the straight and narrow. When a serial murderer strikes in his hometown, he naturally finds himself drawn to the mystery. The discovery that his elderly next-door neighbor Bill Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) is responsible for the killings shocks him enough, but then it turns out kindly old Mr. Crowley isn’t even human…

Sociopathy is a tricky condition to portray in fiction, particularly when developing a character intended, to a large extent, as sympathetic to the audience: it’s hard to relate to a kid when he admits to suppressing an urge to abuse animals, even if you understand that the urge itself is not his fault. But on the surface, John doesn’t seem all that much different from any other misunderstood teenage outcast, which should give most of us a toehold in the task of accepting him as a character we can identify with. Records’s performance is the key to this, and he effectively interprets John’s central internal conflict, between his fascination with Bill Crowley and an intellectual understanding that Crowley poses a threat to John and the people around him—even if John doesn’t have much in the way of emotions for any of those people.

Bill himself proves to have more depth and complexity than your average movie critter. Lloyd delivers one of the best performances of his recent career in the role, subtly balancing Crowley’s harmless-old-timer exterior with a gradual creeping menace…and some other unexpected facets. The special effects work—with creature design provided by Toby “the bratty baby brother in Labyrinth” Froud—takes a minimalist approach, reminding us how specifically human a monster Bill is.

The strength of the character study doesn’t prevent the plot from going down a fairly predictable, X-Files-reminiscent path late in the game, but luckily the production has other cards up its sleeve to make up for that. The screenplay puts enough focus on John’s dysfunctional family dynamics to give the Cleaver household a genuine lived-in feeling. Director Billy O’Brien makes good use of his wintry rural Minnesota locations, giving the visuals a chilly vibe appropriate to the lead character’s psyche. Laura Fraser (as John’s mother April) seems to have carved herself a niche playing highly strung single moms (see also The Sisterhood of Night and her work as Lydia Rodarte-Quayle on Breaking Bad); her performance is solid, if not revelatory. Fine performances also come from Dee Noah (as Bill’s wife Kay), Anna Sundberg (as John’s sister Lauren), and Karl Geary (as John’s therapist).

Thought-provoking and quietly unsettling, I Am Not a Serial Killer delivers a fresh and unconventional take on the “monster next door” trope.

I Am Not a Serial Killer poster

Roger Waters: The Wall

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters updates his classic rock opera and is caught showing feelings of an almost human nature

Roger Waters stars in ROGER WATERS: THE WALL.

United Kingdom. Directed by Roger Waters and Sean Evans, 2014. 132 minutes.

Roger Waters, the famously megalomaniacal former bassist, songwriter, and creative generalissimo behind Pink Floyd, spent the early 2010s touring the world with The Wall, the Floyd’s 1979 magnum opus. Waters updated the legendary stage show (so complex and expensive in 1980 that the band could afford to perform it in only four cities) for a new generation. He added a renewed focus on the tragedy and injustice of war and the corruption of government and the media, the topics that have dominated his work over the last three decades. This wasn’t the work of an irrelevant classic-rock dinosaur milking his back catalog for a quick buck. Waters (for all his faults) has never lacked passion and fury, and the performances crackled with a vitality surprising for a sixty-something artist touring a thirty-year-old record. He even managed to get his former bandmates Dave Gilmour and Nick Mason to join him for a night.

You had to be there, as the saying goes, but if you weren’t—or if you were (like I was, in 2010, at the United Center in Chicago) and want to relive the memories—Roger Waters: The Wall is an acceptable substitute for the real thing. It doesn’t possess the artistry of the top rank of concert films (Stop Making Sense, for example), it does approximate the experience with a minimum of fuss. The politicking is heavy-handed even by Waters’s standards. And I’m not sure why Waters and co-director Sean Evans think we’d rather watch Rog sing “The Trial” instead of watching the film projected on the Wall behind him.

But the band is in top form (although, really, would it have killed anyone to include the performances with Gilmour and Mason in the film proper instead of relegating them to DVD special features?) and the show contains many fine moments: dancing schoolkids banishing a giant teacher puppet; Waters performing a duet with a recording of himself from a 1980 gig; the “fascist” song sequence that leads up to the story’s climax. And let’s not forget Gerald Scarfe’s animations, grotesquely psychedelic yet timeless. It won’t be the last time you watch some blinkered authority figure talk out of his anus, I guarantee you that.

But the most compelling footage doesn’t document the performances. Interspersed between the concert sequences are scenes of Waters taking a road trip across Europe to visit the gravesites of his father (who died in Italy during World War II) and grandfather (who died in France during World War I). Waters’s songwriting has always been haunted by his father’s death, a loss he has often mourned through bombast. The sight of the seventy-year-old rock star blowing the funereal notes of “Outside the Wall” at a memorial in Anzio could be the most powerful artistic expression of that grief, due to its intimacy.

And what could be more appropriate? After all, the central theme of The Wall is the importance of reaching out and connecting to others instead of living “comfortably numb” but isolated lives. One hopes that Roger Waters: The Wall represents one more brick removed from its creator’s wall.

Roger Waters: The Wall

Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part Two

A scathing horror-satire and a gritty eastern European crime drama

As promised, here are my capsule reviews of the two films I saw during the second half of CIFF 2016: Prevenge, a particularly dark horror-comedy written and directed by Alice Lowe, and Amok, a brutal crime drama set at a rough boarding school for orphaned boys.

Prevenge

Prevenge

United Kingdom, 2016. Directed by Alice Lowe. 88 minutes.

Culture probably fetishizes pregnancy more than any other concept, but when you think about it, it is a rather odd thing to carry the larval form of a complete stranger inside your body for the better part of a year, while it throws your internal chemistry all out of whack. (My friend John Bruni—I can’t tell you how many NSFW things are on the other side of that link, so consider yourself warned—used to sell bumper stickers that read It’s a Parasite, Not a Choice, a play on a classic anti-abortion slogan.)

Alice Lowe, the British writer/actress partly responsible for the awesome Sightseers, subverts the mystique of motherhood in her feature directorial début, Prevenge. Lowe (who was herself pregnant during the film’s production) directs herself in the lead role of Ruth, a single expectant mother and spree killer spurred on by the voice of her unborn child. As with Sightseers, Lowe deals in a specifically uncomfortable brand of dark comedy, playing with the audience’s sympathies as we learn more about Ruth and her motives and her victims become progressively less nasty. It’s a tough balance, and Lowe doesn’t always get it right, but when Prevenge works (and it works more often than not) the gallows humor and churning unease feed into each other for a unique frisson.

Amok

Amok

Macedonia, 2016. Directed by Vardan Tozija. 102 minutes.

Writer/director Vardan Tozija tells a familiar story in Amok, but that familiarity doesn’t dilute its power. Set in a rough-and-tumble subculture centered around an “adoption center,” a Brutalist monstrosity where orphaned teenage boys (nicknamed “rats”) live and are educated, the film follows its troubled—but essentially sympathetic, up to a point—protagonist Filip as he consistently runs afoul of a series of corrupt, exploitative, or indifferent authority figures. When a corrupt police detective finally pushes him too far, Filip strikes back the only way he knows how: with violence.

There’s only one way this story can end, but Amok isn’t so much predictable as it is tragic. Tozija brings a savage realism to an environment where even a high-school teacher has to be able to kick literal ass just to survive day-to-day. Actor Martin Gjorgoski gives Filip a dead-eyed stare that makes the character more terrifying than most horror-movie monsters. The moral of the story is clear: if you give the young and marginalized nothing to live for except violence, don’t be surprised when they deal violence in return.

Under the Shadow

Caught between an endless war, a repressive regime, and a vengeful spirit

Avin Manshadi and Narges Rashidi star in UNDER THE SHADOW
Avin Manshadi, Narges Rashidi

United Kingdom/Jordan/Qatar. Directed by Babak Anvari, 2016. Starring Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi. 84 minutes.

Life in Tehran, the capital of Iran, was dangerous in the late ’80s, caught between the repressive regime of the Ayatollah Khomeni and the destruction of the seemingly-endless war with Iraq (as Saddam Hussein prepares to pelt Iranian targets, including Tehran, with Scud missiles). Air-raid sirens are a familiar sound; innocuous luxuries such as a Betamax recorder and Jane Fonda workout video must remain out of sight, lest one gain the attention of the wrong authorities. Against such a backdrop, the horrors of a supernatural monster might seem almost mundane.

That’s the environment in which Under the Shadow, the début feature from writer/director Babak Anvari, plays out. When Iraj (Bobby Naderi), a doctor living comfortably in a Tehran apartment block, is called to the front to tend to the causualties of war, his wife Shideh (Narges Rashidi) must raise their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone. Iraj’s departure coincides with the apparent arrival of a djinn, a malevolent spirit, seeking to do harm to the building’s residents; and it seems particularly interested in Dorsa.

We recognize this archetype, the fiercely defensive mother-figure fighting to protect her young, and Under the Shadow has earned several comparisons to The Babadook, the current “reigning” definitive treatment of the trope. Both films use its monster as a metaphor for larger issues, and neither shies away from the darker aspects of parent-child relationships.

But Under the Shadow’s subtext possesses a few more layers than we might expect from a horror film. Danger besets Shideh and Dorsa from all sides, with one peril feeding into the next. If it’s not the djinn, it’s the threat of the missiles (and the film’s most affecting shot depicts a Scud having broken through the roof of a top-floor apartment), and if it’s not the missiles, it’s the culture. We may breathe a sigh of relief when Shideh grabs Dorsa and flees the haunted block of flats, but our hearts almost immediately sink when we realize Shideh forgot to don her hijab first.

While Anvari subjects his ideas to complex development, his visual style relies a bit too much on the fundamentals, deploying jump-scares and “it was all a dream!” fakeouts several times too often. That doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have visual merits, and his use of peculiar camera angles to emphasize the off-kilter nature of a situation that’s already skewed to begin with stands out. He also indulges in a few creative visual set-pieces, memorably imbuing a simple head-scarf with a sense of palpable menace.

Under the Shadow provides a valuable window into a culture and time period not familiar to most Western audiences, and is quite excellent (even if it didn’t blow my mind as I’d hoped). As a fresh new talent, Babek Anvari has announced himself as someone to watch and I look forward to his future work.

Under the Shadow poster

Estranged

Despite its strong visuals and cast, Estranged simply isn’t memorable, and its shortcomings stick out more than its strengths.

estranged.jpg
United Kingdom. Directed by Adam Levins, 2015. Starring Amy Manson, James Cosmo, James Lance. 101 minutes. 5/10

Dysfunctional family relationships often prove fertile ground for psychological thrillers, with first-time director Adam Levins providing his take on the trope in Estranged. Amy Manson (Being Human U.K., Once Upon a Time) stars as January, a young woman left wheelchair-bound and amnesiac by a motorcycle accident, returning home with her boyfriend Callum (Simon Quarterman) to a family she hasn’t seen in six years and has no memory of. I probably don’t need to tell you that the family has some huge skeletons in their closet…the biggest being the reason January left in the first place.

The screenplay, by William Borthwick and Simon Fantauzzo, has the requisite twists and turns and gothic trappings (long-buried secrets, huge mansions), not to mention the occasional scene of genuine shock. Unfortunately, I occasionally found the plot a bit hard to follow; not incoherent, exactly, but I never shook the feeling that there were things I should have figured out before the characters did. There were times when the plot seemed needlessly complex and the pacing and editing seemed somewhat off. It seemed to me as if Levins had problems developing the narrative effectively.

While his storytelling has issues, Levins has a keen visual sense. The interior sequences, in particular, work very well, with the mansion’s massive, cavernous spaces generating a sense of foreboding. He also works the cast very well, with Manson breezing through an emotional range and keeping Jan sympathetic even when her behavior becomes difficult. But the real star of the show is James Cosmo (better known as Jeor Mormont on Game of Thrones) as Albert, the family patriarch, who deftly maneuvers his role from “stern” to “menacing” with nary a hitch. James Lance also makes quite an impression as Laurence, Jan’s slimy brother.

Unfortunately, I can’t find much else to say about Estranged–perhaps it simply caught me on a bad day–and that could be its biggest problem: despite the film’s strong visuals and cast, it’s simply not very memorable, and its shortcomings stick out in my mind more than its strengths. I wouldn’t advise people to steer clear of it, but I can guarantee I’m going to have a difficult time remembering it in a month or so.

ESTRANGED.

Retro Review: The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Bowie we see in this weird sci-fi film is more genuine than any other persona he’d adopt over the course of his career.

United Kingdom. Directed by Nicolas Roeg, 1976. Starring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey. 139 minutes. 7/10

David Bowie scored his first hit single in 1969: “Space Oddity,” in which Major Tom flies to space and doesn’t come back. Over the next few years, Bowie would continue in an overtly science-fiction-inflected vein, creating characters like Ziggy Stardust and developing a musical version of 1984 (eventually aborted). By the mid-’70s, you could probably be forgiven for assuming he actually did come from another planet. The logical progression of his image would then be to play an alien in a movie; with his unnatural hair coloring, emaciated frame, angular, androgynous features, and permanently dilated right eye, he certainly looked the part.

Legend posits many actors either considered or approached to play the title role in Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth: Peter O’Toole, Robert Redford, Mick Jagger, even author Michael Crichton (Roeg’s first choice). In retrospect, however, the character of Thomas Jerome Newton–an alien from a dying, war-scarred planet who comes to Earth in a desperate bid to save his people, only to become tempted and corrupted by the vices of humanity (alcohol, television, and sex: note how Newton’s true form lacks genitals and most orifices)–could only be played by David Bowie.

In a sense, the film could serve as a thinly veiled biography of Bowie, who’d become rich and famous seemingly overnight, who possessed a lucrative brilliance…and who also developed an addiction to cocaine. (Indeed, Tevis later came to realize that the story served as a metaphor for his alcoholism.) Bowie approaches the role with a specific naïveté, that of the artist who wants to act but has no real idea how to go about it. Constantly zonked out on nose candy, able to interact with the world around him but not feeling part of it, the otherworldly alienation that Bowie/Newton exhibits isn’t an act.

An auteur who made his bones under Roger Corman and came into his own as a filmmaker in the wake of the French New Wave, Roeg complements Bowie’s performance (or lack thereof) with the perfect aesthetic sense and set of visuals. Having perfected the art of hazy, hypnotic, mildly psychedelic atmospherics with 1971’s Walkabout, he gives the flashbacks to Newton’s home planet a sense of having been filmed on location after the apocalypse. He gives the film a steady, deliberate pace, always keeping emotional distance from the characters even in their passionate moments.

Roeg’s distinct, singular vision of the film has its drawbacks. Candy Clark, playing a hotel housekeeper who becomes Newton’s lover, careens wildly between “embarrassing” and “atrocious.” Roeg often employs symbolism too obscure for its own good, and occasionally falls prey to self-indulgence. Most notably, at nearly two and a half hours, the film is at least 30 minutes too long, and particularly drags during its final act.

Yet, ultimately, The Man Who Fell to Earth serves as an important document of what David Bowie represented, and–perhaps inadvertently–who he actually was during this stage of his career. Bowie contained multitudes–Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Goblin King, the sophisticated crooner of Let’s Dance–yet in a very real sense, the Bowie we see in this weird sci-fi film is more genuine than any other persona he’d adopt over the course of his career.

R.I.P. David Bowie (David Robert Jones) 1947-2016

The Man Who Fell to Earth poster

Macbeth

Justin Kerzel’s interpretation of the Scottish Play doesn’t quite achieve the greatness for which we might have hoped. But built on a strong visual foundation, it remains eminently enjoyable.

United Kingdom/France/United States. Directed by Justin Kurzel, 2015. Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Thewlis. 113 minutes. 7/10

It’s a classic story, one many of us have known since our schooldays. In medieval Scotland, a war hero, fresh from a major military victory, receives a cryptic prophecy whose message is nonetheless crystal clear: he is to become King. Yet if he is not part of the royal succession, how will this come to pass? His wife states what he already knows: the surest way to ensure his destiny is to murder the current king and sieze his throne.

This is Shakespeare’s tragedy of the Thane of Glannis and Cawdor, very loosely modeled on the historical High King of Alba Mac Bethad mac Findlaích; who through ambition and treachery becomes King of Scots, and whose subsequent paranoia and madness lead to his downfall.

Director Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders) and his team of screenwriters conceive their adaptation of the Scottish Play mostly as part war movie, part bloody thriller. That’s not to say they entirely can the tragedy’s political and psychological elements, although Mr. and Mrs. M’s descent into insanity develops rather quickly, with this adaptation putting special emphasis on the couple’s inability to conceive. But Kurzel is clearly most comfortable behind the camera when people are killing each other.

Violence is the order of the day, and blood the major symbolic element; even the sky takes on the distinctive hue of spilled claret. The battle scenes which bookend the picture are remarkably gorgeous, with Braveheart exerting particular influence, most obviously in the facepaint Mackers wears during the battle with Macdonwald’s forces. The production design embodies a rough beauty, reflecting the characters’ baser urges. Even the ceremonial reflects the practical.

In terms of plot, the screenplay mostly hews to the shape and form of its source material, although as always changes must be made. It includes most of the play’s most memorable text. Notable omissions include Banquo’s final exchange with his assassins (“There will be rain to-night…”), and, less forgivably, the witches’ introductory dialog: staging the Scottish Play without “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” and “Something wicked this way comes” is a heresy on the level of omitting “To be, nor not to be” from Hamlet. More successful changes include an increased role for the Witches, and an ominous final scene playing on their prophecy regarding Banquo’s children.

A top-rate adaptation of Shakespeare requires a top-rate cast. Kurzel assembles a strong ensemble led by the great Michael Fassbender as the King and Marion Cotillard as his Lady, supported by Paddy Considine as Banquo, David Thewlis as King Duncan and Sean Harris as Macduff. While excellent, none of the performances are what you’d call revelatory or iconic; Considine perhaps comes closest.

As good as Kurzel’s intepretation of the King of Scotland’s tale is, it doesn’t quite achieve the greatness for which we might have hoped. But built on a strong visual foundation, it remains eminently enjoyable.

MACBETH poster.

Legend

As a gangster film, it hits almost all of the gangster-film beats; it’s not a great crime drama, but it is a good one.

United Kingdom/France. Directed by Brian Helgeland, 2015. Starring Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri. 131 minutes. 7/10

So once upon a time there were these twin brothers who were gangsters in London. Their names were Reginald and Ronald Kray. Reggie was suave and charming, while Ronnie was gay and liked to beat the crap out of things. They held this weird sort of position in London’s social strata in the ’60s. I’d tell you more, but that would defeat the point of reviewing Legend, Brian Helgeland’s biopic about the Krays starring Tom Hardy as both of them.

In Godfather terms, Helgeland sees Reggie as the Michael Corleone of the outfit (the leader who always tries to pass the outfit off as legit business even though everybody knows better), with Ronnie being a sort of combination Sonny and Fredo: uncontrollably violent, completely devoid of pretension, eccentric, sensitive, and a little damaged. Reg spends six months in prison, and it’s clear he’s incapable of holding down the fort, but he’s much smarter than anyone gives him credit for. The dual role of Reggie/Ronnie is the meaty sort of beast that any actor worth his salt would love to sink his teeth into, and Hardy has his knife and fork ready before he digs in. For me, these are the leading-man performances of the year.

Indeed, Helgeland conducts Legend as an actor’s showcase in general. Old-reliables Christopher Eccleston (as Leonard “Nipper” Read, the Krays’ nemesis at Scotland Yard) and David Thewlis (as Leslie Payne, the twins’ lawyer, tolerated by Reg and despised by Ron) are just the tip of the iceberg. This film is a veritable Who’s Who of “I know that guy/chick from somewhere” Commonwealth actors: Emily Browning, Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Tara Fitzgerald, John Sessions. None of them can compete with Hardy when they scare a scene with him, but arguably their jobs as actors are to frame his performance, which they do very well. Browning, in particular, nails the “naïve gangster wife quickly worn down by the reality of the situation” trope.

It’s good that the roles are so well-cast and directed, and the Swinging London of the late ’60s so meticulously recreated, because–as I implied earlier–you’ve seen Legend before, just under different titles like Goodfellas or Casino. As a gangster film, it hits almost all of the gangster-film beats: leader of the crime family promises his wife he’ll go straight; high-ranking loose cannon wants to take a more aggressive attitude towards the competition; everything gradually turns to shit. The biggest differences are the accents and Helgeland’s affinity for jarringly anachronistic scores. (Let’s remember, this is the guy who wrote and directed A Knight’s Tale.)

Legend may not be a great crime drama but it is a good one, thanks to the design, the ensemble, and the heavenly gift of awesomeness that is Tom Hardy. It’s plenty enjoyable even if it does put style above substance.

LEGEND poster.