Is that a Dagger I See Before Me?

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Courtesy of Apple/A24

Macbeth, directed by Joel Coen and shot entirely on a sound stage, was certainly a sight to behold. It was filmed in luscious black and white giving the movie an instant classic look and taking the viewer out of the realm of reality and plunging them straight into the surreal and pathological world of the Thane of Cawdor.    

This was Joel’s first foray into film without his brother Ethan at his side and what a miracle of rare device it was. With his emphasis on camera angles, close-ups, medium shots, long shots, and long and dark shadows, I was reminded of past movies of film noir and German expressionism, such as the films of F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Orson Welles. The aspect ratio of 1.37:1, almost square, recalls the classic films of old.

The performances by all the actors were uniformly excellent. Frances McDormand put in a very solid performance as Lady Macbeth. One might quarrel with her interpretation but really, I don’t see how it could be improved. I thought Denzel Washington excelled in his role as Macbeth and both actors played well together. I loved what Coen did with the weird sisters, all three played by the diminutive Kathryn Hunter.

The overall piece was visually stunning, full of sound and fury, and filled with an abundance of symbology.

A very satisfying cinematic event. Highly recommend!

August Strindberg

Sunday. 2/6/2022. 2:58 pm Riot Café. Reading August Strindberg – Miss Julie and Other Plays. Notes to follow.

Riot Café. Photo by the author

The Red Room, A satirical novel written by Strindberg in 1879. It is not a far cry to go from Red Room to Redrum to Murder. Just saying.

“Strindberg’s naturalism is not a slice of life, but rather the intense, immediate drama associated with what he called, ‘the battle of the brains.’ This is fought, not with theatrical swords or daggers, but with the equally lethal mental cut and thrust of two implacably hostile minds, bound to each other by desire and hatred. It is a battle in which one of them ultimately destroys the other’s will and commits ‘soul murder.’” One is immediately put in mind of Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Indeed, Translator Michael Robinson makes the very same observation writing about, The Dance of Death, a play written by August Strindberg in 1900, as a depiction of a marital inferno. He cites the numerous critics who regard it as the forerunner to Eugene O’Neill’s, Long Day’s Journe into Night and Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

Why read Strindberg today? Because he is as relevant today as he was in 1887.

Strindberg was one of the most extreme theatrical innovators of the late 19th century and ultimately the most influential. The five plays presented here mark his transition from naturalism to modernism.

In The Father, Strindberg shifts away from social and political questions towards more psychological writing. Strindberg was more concerned with the discussion going on in Scandinavia at the time about the “woman question,” sexual morality, marriage, and the shifting psychological states of his characters (Robinson).

The Father is a three-act play with eight characters. The two principal characters are the Captain and his wife, Laura. It is a naturalistic tragedy about the struggle between parents over the future of their child.

The Captain is a scientist and freethinker whose marriage has gone south. He is engaged in a power struggle with his wife, Laura, over their daughter who wants to keep the girl home under her own influence whereas he wants to send the girl away to school. In an attempt to dominate her husband and get her way, Laura decides to drive her husband insane by first insinuating that he is not the girl’s father. The mother (Laura), uses her cunning to subdue and finally destroy the father (The Captain).

Strindberg is a great purveyor of naturalism, but in The Father, he is reaching for “greater naturalism” which is intense, immediate, and associated with a battle of the brains. (Battle of the sexes, battle of wills). The two main characters can be seen as representing the male and female principles.             

Strindberg believed that life is a series of struggles between weaker and stronger wills.

What initially brought me to revisit Strindberg were the films of Ingmar Bergman. Always a big fan of Bergman I began to realize what an influence Strindberg had on the filmmaker. I began to do a little research and it turns out in his lifetime Bergman directed eleven Strindberg plays for the stage, eight for radio and two for television. He was responsible for altogether twenty-eight Strindberg productions. He often returned to the same plays, producing A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata four times, The Pelican three times and Miss Julie, Playing with Fire and Stormy Weather twice.

My favorite Bergman movie is The Seventh Seal. It has many similarities to the play, The Saga of the Folkungs. They are both set in the 14th century, the plague is present and religion is a major component.

Sources:

  1. Michael Robinson, Translator, Introduction and Notes to Miss Julie and Plays by August Strindberg.
  2. Strindberg and Bergman, Egil Tornquist, November 2012

Nomadland (2020)

Movie Review

Nomadland (2020)

Directed by Chloe Zhao, starring Frances McDormand, David Strahairn, Linda May

This is a movie about America. There are two Americas. The haves and the have nots. This about the have nots who choose a life on the open road and freedom. It is not a life I would choose but it is a fascinating portrait of those who do. They are called American Nomads.

Frances McDormand turns in another brilliant but understated performance as Fern, the strong and determined woman, who takes to the open road after she loses her job at US Gypsum, a plant where she and her husband, who has recently died, had worked for years. The plant closing in Empire, a small town in Nevada, causes the economic collapse of the town. This is the sad reality of so many small towns in America.  

Fern sells her stuff and buys a van and takes to the road searching for work. She outfits the van to live in. She first takes a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment center through the winter. Whenever I buy anything at from Amazon, I cringe a little bit thinking of the workers at the fulfilment center, although Fern seems to thrive in this environment. A co-worker invites Fern to visit a desert winter gathering in Arizona organized by Bob Wells, which provides a support system and community for fellow nomads. At the gathering, Fern meets fellow nomads and learns basic survival and self-sufficiency skills for the road.

Fern later takes other jobs down the road: an RV camp host, a worker in a beet harvest, and a worker in a fast-food restaurant. It is a tough life living at the margins. She continues to run across some of the other nomads she has met along the way as she continues her travels and they become her friends and kind of a family or tribe. She does have a chance to settle down a couple of times along the way but continues to choose a life on the road to be free and independent if, lonely.

There is not much of a dramatic story here, more of a character study and a documentary on the nomadic existence in America. Even if we can’t identify with her way of life we can empathize with her very human feelings of loneliness and her desire to be free. As Bob Wells so aptly put it, “I’ll see you down the road.”

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Movie Review

LaKieth Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah

Directed by Shaka King, starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKief Stanfield, Jessie Plemons.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) is an important movie about a chapter of the Black Panthers in Chicago and the charismatic leader who led it, Fred Hampton. Part documentary and part bio-pic it delivers a history lesson on that volatile period in America when race relations were at an ebb. It is an interesting juxtaposition of events to the events happening today when once again the tension between the races is at a snapping point. The organization Black Lives Matter draws eerie parallels to The Black Panther Party.

The Messiah in this case is Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya in a resplendent performance. Two other black messiahs who came before him were scarified on the altar of white supremacy, Martin Luther King and Malcom X. His betrayer, or the Judas of the title, is FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKieth Stanfield) who infiltrated the Black Panthers and gained the trust of Hampton. It was O’Neal who provided the layout of the apartment to the FBI which was crucial information that led to his assassination by the FBI and the Chicago police.

When law enforcement entered the apartment on Monroe Street where Fred was sleeping guns blazing, I was put in mind of the Breonna Taylor case where Louisville police officers entered her apartment while she was asleep on a “no knock” warrant and assassinated her. Police brutality and extra-judiciary killing continue to be a problem for the black community to this day.

Fred Hampton’s rhetoric was indeed inflammatory but he never actually declared war on the United States. He merely threatened the status quo. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wanted get rid of Hampton because  he thought the rise of another black messiah would unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement. Fred Hampton was an upstart crow, but he didn’t deserve to die. The FBI now has other fish to fry with the rise of white nationalism, which poses an even graver threat to American security.

LaKieth Stanfield was excellent as the informant William O’Neal delivering a nuanced performance of an underwritten part. Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s coworker and eventual lover I thought was particularly good and Jesse Plemons as the baby-faced FBI agent who compromised O’Neal into betraying Hampton, played his part with equal parts menace and moral queasiness.

Excellent movie. Highly recommend!

The Painted Bird (2019)

Movie review

I don’t review every movie that I see, only those that I have a strong reaction to, good or bad. Had I seen The Painted Bird in 2019 when it was first released, it would have jumped to the top of my Top 10 list. As it stands, it is very high on my all-time best film list. A rare bird indeed.

The Painted Bird (2019) is a film by Vaclav Marhoul based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinsky. It runs just short of three hours and is unrelenting in its depiction of the horrors encountered by a young boy as he makes his way across war torn Eastern Europe trying to find his way back home. If it were not for the occasional modern references such as a plane flying overhead, or a vehicle on a road, we would think the action was taking place in villages found in the middle ages.

Central to the story was a starling that was painted white and released back into its flock only to be pecked to death because it was different from the others. This is the analogous to what happened to the boy who was subjected to unimaginable horrors along the way because he was different and didn’t quite fit in and wasn’t from around wherever he found himself to be. And one could say that is true of minor groups not fitting in to larger groups such the Jews of Eastern Europe and in Germany.

This is a movie of cruelty, inhumanity, and bitter truth. It is not an easy watch. As a matter of fact, when the film was shown in Venice large parts of the audience fled the theater. But the film has to be admired for the unvarnished truth it portrays and the artistry and craftmanship that went into its making. The acting is superb by all the participants. All the characters were believable and real. The crisp black and white cinematography by Vladimr Smutny is extraordinary. Each frame is composed as a masterwork of inspired creativity and shades of grey.

I can’t recommend this film to everyone due to its strong content, but it has my rating as an artistic achievement.

La Notte (1961)

The Night

La Notte (1961) (The Night) Directed by Michelangelo Antonio, starring Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti. I don’t know how I missed this masterpiece of the Italian cinema but I am happy that I did finally get to see it recently on the Criterion Channel. This film is second in the Trilogy of Alienation bookended by  L’Aventura (The Adventure) (1960) and L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) (1962). La Notte is about the dissolution of a marriage through indifference and boredom and the alienation of society in both the bourgeoisie and the upper classes. The film takes place in a 24-hour period culminating at a party at a rich industrialist’s house in Milan. Crisp black and white photography and excellent framing visually projects the loneliness and the alienation of the characters and the boredom of their respective lives.  

Jeanne Moreau’s inner feeling of sadness are well on display as she comes to realize she no longer loves her husband and that he no longer loves her. Marcello Mastroianni is perfectly cast as the husband who walks through life in a daze of bored indifference.

This movie is cold as ice, but it speaks the truth. Highly recommended!

DEATH IN VENICE (1971)

Movie Blurb

Death in Venice, directed by Luchino Visconti and starring Dirk Bogarde, is based on the Thomas Mann novella of the same name. A Gustave Mahler like character, named Gustave, goes to Venice for a rest. There he becomes infatuated with a teenaged boy who for him personifies his very idea of purity and beauty. The movie deals with the themes of death, beauty, decay, youth, old age, art, and oddly enough the plague.

Slow moving but exquisitely beautiful to watch. Some say Venice has never been so beautifully photographed. The score by Gustave Mahler is divine and is in perfect combination with the majestic beauty unfolding on the screen. There are long stretches with no dialogue, only visuals and music.  A true classic of the cinema.

Available on the Criterion Channel or Amazon Prime.

INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION (1970)

Movie Blurb

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). Directed by Elio Petri, starring Gian Maria Volonte and Florinde Bolkan. This is a nice little piece of Italian surrealism. Kafkaesque and so direct. Beautifully photographed in Technicolor. The colors are muted but strong. Score by the inimitable Ennio Morricone, which I found bit quirky but, given the material works. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. .

A chief of detectives, homicide section, kills his mistress and deliberately leaves clues to prove his own responsibility for the crime.

A little heavy handed politically but all satire is hyperbolic, that is what makes it satire

Highly rated and recommended.

Available on the Criterion Channel on Amazon Prime.

Da 5 Bloods

Movie Blurb

Directed by Spike Lee, starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, and Clarke Peters.

I am a Spike Lee fan, but you got to admit the brother is a little hit or miss. Coming off the success of BlacKkKlansman, Da 5 Bloods is a miss. And it’s mess. Which is very disappointing considering the material he was working with and the timeliness of his subject. Other directors have taken on the Vietnam experience and other directors have done a better job. The one saving grace is Delroy Lindo who is a terrific character actor and lights up the screen in every scene he is in. Even when he is chewing the scenery.

The movie suffers from poor writing and mediocre directing. Spike throws everything he has into this movie including the kitchen sink. Part Treasure of the Sierra Madre and part Apocalypse Now, it never does find its own footing. Except for when one of the Bloods makes a fatal misstep. That was quite a heartstopper and a show stopper as well. The shootout at the end was well staged I thought and executed very well. The photography was well done but you got to ask yourself, why did he need four different aspect ratios? Oh, I get it. He wanted to demark different times and places. An artistic decision as it were. Well, it didn’t work for me, just made the whole thing more confusing. And in the flash backs it was impossible to distinguish the younger version of Da Bloods from the present-day version of themselves.

If you are going to steal, steal from the best, just use a little finesse when you do it and don’t make it so obvious. When the leader of a group of Vietnamese marauders are asked by a member of Da Bloods, “Where are your official badges?” The answer comes back from the leader, “Badges? We don’t’ need no stinking badges!” In another scene, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries accompanies the action.

This might sound like a pan but not totally. I’m going to give the brother a 6 on a 10. Better luck next time Spike.

Un flic (1972)

Movie Blurb

un flic poster

Directed by Jean- Pierre Melville, starring Alain Delon, Richard Crenna, and Catherine Deneuve.

Un flic translates to “A cop,” but it is a heist movie that features the bad guys as well. Alain Delon is the icy cop who doesn’t mind issuing a slap across the face from time to time to gain cooperation. Richard Crenna is the mastermind criminal and nightclub owner. Catherine Deneuve, who is impossibly beautiful and completely vacuous in this role, is the femme fatale that each man is in love with.

Catherine

The movie starts with bank robbery in a small French town near the ocean on a foggy day. It is brilliantly conceived and executed with a minimum of dialogue.  Another set piece was a train robbery, which features lowering Richard Crenna onto a moving train and picking him up again from a flying helicopter overhead. Wow! Never saw anything like that. Models were used in the filming, but I didn’t care, it was still pretty exciting. When planning the train robbery, the gang calculated a time frame of 20 minutes. When the robbery actually takes place, the sequence is exactly 20 minutes long. Pretty impressive stuff. Not Melville’s best film, but it was his last, and definitely memorable!

un flic