A scene from MACBETH.

Macbeth

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.

A scene from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.

The 2015 OFCS Awards

2015’s awards season is well underway, and since I belong to the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), I’ve spent the last few weeks catching up with the year’s best non-genre offerings. I was able to put together a slate of nominees I was very happy with, and I’m not completely embarrassed by my votes.

Today the OFCS announced its winners, and I think we did pretty well.

Continue reading “The 2015 OFCS Awards”

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson star in FRANK.

Frank

Ireland/United Kingdom. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, 2014. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal. 95 minutes.

A long time ago, in the north of England, there was a guy named Chris Sievey. He was a musician, a comedian, and a songwriter. Frank Sidebottom was the name of his signature character. When performing as Frank, Sievey would wear a gigantic cartoonish fiberglass head. Sievey died in 2010 at the age of 54.

Frank, co-written by Sievey’s longtime keyboardist, isn’t about Sievey or Frank Sidebottom. It’s about a guy named Frank (played by Michael Fassbender), frontman and songwriter for a band called the Soronprfbs. They’re kind of like the sound of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band married to the lyrics of Daniel Johnston. Like his namesake, Frank wears a gigantic fake head onstage. He also wears it offstage. As far as aspiring songwriter Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson), the latest addition to the Soronprfbs, can tell, Frank never takes the head off. And yet it seems that Frank is the most normal of the posse, which includes a theremin player with an anger-management problem (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a sound engineer with a sexual attraction to mannequins (Scoot McNairy), a French guitarist who speaks no English (François Civil), and a drummer who doesn’t speak at all (Carla Azar).

Frank doesn’t wear the mask to call attention to himself, the way KISS does, or to distract from his real identity, the way the Residents do. Instead, the mask and the identity are the same. The head is his confidence, his charm, and his charisma; with it, he leads his motley crew of adoring weirdos on their journey. When Frank débuts his “most likable song ever,” you can see exactly how Frank would see it as “extremely likable music.” Even if it’s a full minute of squelching synths and shouted random references to Coca-Cola, the Beatles and ancient Egyptian royalty.

By now you can probably tell Frank is more about mental illness than about the absurdities of the music industry, which I think is a rare tack for a film about popular music to take, although I could be wrong. Fassbender and Gyllenhaal, as the craziest members of the band, have the toughest jobs. The crazy rock star is an archetype unto itself and it would be too easy to take their performances over the top. Instead, they modulate appropriately. Fassbender turns in probably the best “actor in a mask for most of the movie” performance I’ve seen since Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta. Gyllenhaal’s extreme tendencies take a tender turn when we come to understand what motivates her. Gleeson brings the audience-identification character, a wide-eyed optimist who somehow becomes the yardstick for normal.

Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is top-notch and the production is solid all around. Of course, a movie about music needs good songs and Frank delivers several, mostly provided by Irish composer Stephen Rennicks, with impeccable drum work by Azar and vocals by the cast members. Fassbender’s delivery perfectly reflects Frank’s psyche, turning the haunting closing theme “I Love You All” into the highlight. Yes, the songs are weird, but do you expect any less from a band called the Soronprfbs?

Frank is a sensitive yet unflinching examination of the relationship between artistry and anxiety, a glowing tribute to outsider music and those who dare to blaze their own path…even if they have to wear a fake head to do so.

 

Frank poster