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4 stars

The Tragedy of Macbeth' Apple TV+ Review: Stream It or Skip It?

Joel Coen’s stark, bleak, black-and-white world of Scotland is discomfiting, eerie and arresting, immediately drawing your eye to it. As the characters emerge from the shadows, their agendas become apparent, that of Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand) being the foulest. Washington is capable, and as his descent into suspicion and madness progresses, he fully occupies the role. When revenge comes for him, he is lost and distracted, fending off portents and omens and a clever and novel rendition of one witch as three (a terrifying, freakishly limber Kathryn Hunter). Yet, he is still ferocious. I very much enjoyed how Washington played Macbeth, tortured and brooding but still lethal, even as his conversation becomes one largely with himself.

Better, Coen never lets the language become turgid in the mouths of the actors nor an obstacle to the story. You are carried along with genuine feeling for the fates of the protagonists, even though you know them in advance.

However, there are issues, the primary one being pace. Coen is almost too expeditious and the film zips along at 1:45 minutes. As my daughter rightly pointed out, more time should have been devoted to the persuasion and seduction of Macbeth. As it is, his objections feel perfunctory, and it is here Washington is weakest. Similarly, I thought Lady Macbeth’s descent into guilt-ridden madness was also rushed.  She is the progenitor of the conspiracy, and her frustrations at Macbeth’s missteps and then mental breakdown still reflect a woman who is totally in command, or at least, strategically keeping it together for her increasingly unstable husband. And then, next time we see her, she’s a total wackadoodle. Given Coen’s nifty expansion of Ross (Alex Hassell) from mere messenger to sociopathic near-puppet master, there is no reason he could not have given us more of Macbeth cajoled and Lady Macbeth degenerating.

Also, while I liked Stephen Root’s brief scene as Porter, it’s one of those Shakespeare adaptation conceits where someone cameos and really lets us have it, which is discordant.

Very good. Currently streaming on Apple.

Tick, Tick...Boom | Official Website | November 19 2021

Let’s first start with Jonathan Larson’s Rent, which was at its very best, catchy and urgent, and at its worst, cheezy, inbred, bombastic and cloying.  Its’ influence, the greater rock/popification of Broadway, is undeniable, if not universally acclaimed.  But it is what it is, and I always found it to be meh.  

As did the South Park guys.

tick tick  . . . BOOM! is Larson’s solo work just before Rent, as directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and tells Larson’s story as he tries to get a musical off-the-ground.

The picture is a love letter to theater and theater kids. It is populated by scads of Broadway regulars and icons, in what comes off as a tribute to Larson, who tragically passed away from an aortic aneurysm before his triumph Rent opened.  

The film’s exuberance is near-irresistible. As Larson, Andrew Garfield is so winning, so all-encompassing in his love and enthusiasm for the character and the numbers, that even without Miranda’s clever and engaging staging, he would have carried this thing on his back and across the goal line.      

Of greater moment is the dawning that his one-man musical before Rent was better, in total. The numbers are strong, less gloppy and a little more introspective, and Larson has a better handle on communicating his own artistic struggle than in conveying the plight of the East Village bohemians. For example, this clever, Sondheim-esque ditty is better than most of Rent.

The film suffers from some of the same moral simplicity and noxious casualness that Rent evinced at its worst (who can stand La Vie Boheme when all the self-satisfied, insular riff-raff take up an entire table and “never buy” – Fuck you, waiter! We’re artists!) but it is brief and unobtrusive. In tick tick . . . BOOM!, Larson writes a funny, fantasy piece about escaping the miseries of the City and all of its indignities. In Rent, he has a bunch of pretty, smug faces ennoble the crud.

Great fun. On Netflix.

The Power of the Dog - The Rough Cut

Jane Campion’s The Piano was released 28 years ago and it put her on the map, garnering her an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Director and a statuette for screenplay. It was beautiful but I found it sluggish and, given the stagey performances of Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel, even a little tiresome. It screamed gothic arty.

Still, there was no denying Campion’s eye. For the last 12 years, she has directed exactly one project, the television series Top of the Lake. But now she is back, and again, she has produced a film breathtaking in its visual scope. But she has also remedied some of the infirmity of The Piano. Her latest is intensely personal and after perhaps too methodical of a start, weaves a stunning tale of abandonment and devotion.

Two brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemmons) run a Montana ranch in the 1920s. The former is a sadistic bully plagued by his own demons and the latter, a sweet, formal character who finally goes his own way to marry a local widow (Kirsten Dunst). In the marrying, he announces his independence from his insecure, brutalizing sibling. But Cumberbatch is not done, because Dunst and her effeminate and quirky son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are soon ensconced in the family manor. Cumberbatch’s domineering brings each to different breaking points. 

This is ultimately a haunted house film, with its secrets strewn about the surrounding property, Cumberbatch the malevolent force of the manor. But Campion is interested in more, and at the moment of the greatest dread, we learn of Cumberbatch’s past pain and longing, which is surprisingly resurrected by Smit-McPhee. The villain is humanized, and redemption seems possible.

I can’t rave enough about the performances. Cumberbatch simmers with frustration as his world is shattered by the disaffection of his brother. Plemmons is poignant in his utter joy at getting out from under Cumberbatch, and his simple resolve to love is almost aching in its insistence. Dunst is affecting as she is worn down, and her feeble attempts to strike back are studies in anguish. And the performance of Smit-McPhee is a revelation. He is the embodiment of sweet sensitivity but it masks a courage and cunning that you don’t quite suspect but then realize was always there.

As for the look, New Zealand is Montana and it matters not a whit. Campion is every bit as accomplished in the dark crevices of the great house, where Cumberbatch is always waiting to deliver psychological punishment, and outdoors in the vistas and valleys of the ranch and mountains.

One of the best of the year. On Netflix.

West Side Story' Is Not for Puerto Ricans Like Me

Steven Spielberg‘s vibrant, fluid update subtly modernizes but stays traditional to the original in all the right places.  The “daddy-o” is largely excised but the film still feels like a night at the most expansive Broadway theater.

To be fair, it’s hard to miss the mark too wide with such rich source material. Unlike most musicals, in West Side Story, no number is unmemorable. There isn’t even one that is weak.

The dance at the gym and “America” are particularly good. In the first, Tony and Maria do not melt into the frantic gyrations of the Jets and Sharks, but rather are drawn beneath the bleachers, where, smitten, they have a charming conversation. Before the scene becomes too standard, a snap of Maria’s fingers beautifully cements their attraction and we are returned to the fantasy of dance. In the latter, the call and refrain of the Sharks as to the merits and drawbacks of their new home starts small in an apartment and blossoms in a wondrous, joyful romp culminating in the intersection of a city street.

Screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) makes several changes to the original, placing the gangs in the peril of urban renewal, beefing up the role of Chino, humanizing Officer Krupke, and providing a critical backstory for Tony which tempers his infatuation with an internal struggle that explodes at the rumble. While more talky, none of the updating is balky or detracts from the music and choreography, which remains front and center.

Three nits. First, Tony (Ansel Elgort) takes a while to imprint. His first number (“Something’s Coming”) doesn’t help. It is geographically limited, stuck as he is in the basement of the drugstore, and Tony just feels a bit muted. It is only until he meets Maria that he starts to connect with the audience.

Second, Spielberg gives us a sparse “Cool”, and moves the song back to before the rumble. It feels like a missed opportunity.  The 1961 film placed the number after the killings, smartly delaying it from the stage play so the Jets could exercise their frustration and hate after the murders in a bravura ensemble dance. Here, the song is a little bit lackluster, and you pine for the highly stylized original, Worse, it’s Tony and Riff, a couple of Jets relegated to onlookers, gymnastically squaring off over a gun. 

Finally, the placement of “I Feel Pretty” is awkward, falling right after the rumble. It’s a delicate, ingenious number, but you are jarred to be placed into such a moment of hope and beauty given where Spielberg has taken you tonally just seconds before. 

Everyone is good and despite my fears, Rita Moreno as Doc’s widow never nears gimmick (she’s a lock for best supporting actress ). The picture is perhaps not doing as well as it would with a marquee name (Elgort is the best known of the young troupe and that ain’t saying much). But one can hope it makes stars, in particular, Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose as Anita. It is difficult to take your eyes off of either. Zegler was selected from over 30,000 applicants for the role and invests Maria’s innocence with a blossoming independence and steel that pays off ten-fold in “A Boy Like That.” DeBose is never less than commanding. And, unlike the original, they, like all the actors, expertly do their own singing.

House of Gucci Release Date: All You Need To Know

Ridley Scott would not seem to be the first choice to helm this story of an Italian fashion family’s tragica fine, but he does quite nicely, even without a canvas that would more naturally fit his visual talents. The Gucci empire, such as it is introduced to us, is a lucrative endeavor, but held in check by the natural infirmities of family and conservative stewardship. Enter the middle-class ambition of Lady Gaga, who marries Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and then systematically steers him into fratricidal maneuvering. She opens the doors for massive expansion and wealth while also inviting the germ that will ensure no one in the family, including her, shares in it. It’s sad, sometimes very funny and black, and well-acted.

On the “well-acted” part, there may be some pushback, primarily because 1) none of the characters are Italian and 2) all of them give an Italian accent that sometimes nears Chef Boyardee (or, in the case of Jeremy Irons, lapses into Downton Abbey). Eh, it’s fine, and often, hilarious; there’s not a moment Jared Leto is butchering his accent that you aren’t transfixed (his comic turn nearly steals the film).

Apparently, Lady Gaga worked with a dialect coach to help her perfect the Northern Italian accent, which is ridiculous, because for the most part, she’s not speaking Italian, but rather, English with an Italian flair. No matter. She has advanced leaps and bounds beyond her energetic yet balky performance in A Star is Born. She’s the heart of this picture and as Lady Macbeth of the fashion industry, she’s ferocious and indelible.

You don’t have to rush to the theater for this one. There are no sweeping Scott battles, sea voyages or other vistas that must be viewed on the big screen. The film is made for streaming release and take-out pasta.

Amazon.com: The Sand Pebbles [DVD] [1966]: Movies & TV

They really don’t make these kinds of films anymore. The broad, historical sweeping epics which found fashion in the 80s were for the most part not very good and none had any of the leisurely quiet moments or ambiguity of this picture. They blared big budget bloat and were neither smart or interesting. If you don’t believe me, give Gandhi, The Last Emperor, A Passage to India, The Mission, or Out of Africa another whirl without getting heavy-lidded. And if you want to venture into the 90s, three words of warning: Oliver Stone’s Alexander.  Or, Braveheart, The Patriot, Gangs of New York, Rob Roy, all blood and volume and ghastly excess. Titanic, beautifully photographed, with a script written for the mind of a chipmunk. Dances with Wolves? Lush, dull and uninvolving.

The 2000s? They remade Ben Hur into Grand Theft Chariot.

There are outliers. The Last of the Mohicans is very good and Master and Commander stellar. Gladiator is fun, but the fights and the CGI are what you remember.  

That’s about it.

The decline of the historical saga makes sense. The universality of social media and technology supplanted the novelty of on-site location in foreign, exotic locales, and today,  perhaps the quickest way to shut down a pitch meeting would be to explain that your film opens in/with “China 1926” and is 3 hours long.

The story revolves around the American naval presence in China in the 1920s and the travails of one particular vessel, the San Pablo (think hard to an old history course and see if you can dredge up “gunboat diplomacy”). Steve McQueen is the quiet, unsophisticated engineer, a grit-under-your-fingernails loner who has a good heart. An impossibly young Candice Bergen is an American missionary schoolteacher who takes a liking to him. Their relationship is interrupted by her missionary father, who believes the  American presence is creating havoc and, naively, that they are immune to the brutalities of war, and McQueen’s captain (Richard Crenna), a by-the-book leader losing his grip on the men with a vainglorious streak that proves lethal. Then, there are the tensions amongst the crew (which includes Richard Attenborough, Simon Oakland and the just recently deceased Gavin MaCleod), as some settle on McQueen as their own bad juju Jonah.

The visuals are stunning, the drama authentic, even in the show-ier style of the time. There’s also great but subtle cynicism in the picture, which quietly indicts American imperialism and cultural bigotry while reinforcing its values, and it has a decided championing of the little guy, be he Chinese or American.

But what really struck me were the visuals and the leisurely pace.  To watch a movie on the big screen where the grandeur and beauty of a foreign land was a star equal to the actors and 3 hours at the movies was just ducky must have been quite something in 1966.

An aside; when I was was a kid, I’d come from grade school and religiously watch the 4 o’clock movie, which included this picture. To be precise, it included parts of this picture, because you had to fit it into 2 hours, with commercials.

The movie, directed by Robert Wise, was nominated for best picture, cementing McQueen as a star (he was nominated for best actor his one and only time here).

On Amazon Prime. Turn the phone off, order Chinese and give it a go.

the gambler james caan – FM For Music

Meditative and deliberative, Director Karel Reisz gives us entree’ into the world of Axel Freed (James Caan), college literature teacher by day and degenerate gambler by night. Though it may be too much of a throwback for some, writer James Toback paints an anguished and multi-faceted portrait of a moth perpetually drawn to flame, a man who has internalized his addiction as a statement of freedom, verve and iconoclasm. However, Caan seems to sense he is a fraud, and as the film progresses, he gets himself into the kind of trouble where his family and not even his sympathetic bookmaker (a young, manic Paul Sorvino) can help.  It is here where the heart of the picture beats.  You watch Caan agonize, humbled, and then terrified as the wise guys become menacing rather than an ornament to his cool. Soon, there is a dawning, if not the expected one.

Caan is unsympathetic yet engaging, and he is always a star. He’s the grandson of a furniture magnate, and his mother is a doctor, and when things get very bad financially, he always has them as a crutch, an out, making his consort with flashy thugs and the more dangerous element of 1970s New York City a bit of a conceit. No matter what he wagers, his philosophizing about risk and chance is just so much b.s. because he high wires with a net.

But his net are people of substance – an up-by-your-bootstraps Lithuanian immigrant and a physician tending to the poor – and you can see his shame in comparison. It is Caan’s mother who, when bailing him out, reminds him of where his money is going, into a criminal element that preys on the weak.

It nags him, but he seems to revel in slumming, which includes his relationship with his Texas girlfriend, a very good Lauren Hutton, a good time gal who has been around the block and down into the sewer with an addict before. Her revelation of that journey and her eventual, limp, exhausted rejection of a spiraling Caan are piercing.

Caan is compelling as a self-deluding addict desperate to survive his debts and his own moral rot (he was struggling with cocaine when he made the picture). Toback smartly gives us the opportunity to watch him teach. Caan seems like a really good professor of literature, which is important because there has to be some “there” there in which to invest. When I heard they remade this film with Mark Wahlberg, I assumed the script was revised so he was a high school shop teacher.

Jerry’s Fielding’s soundtrack is spot on, evoking the dread and juice of gambling.

The ending is a bit rushed, but otherwise, this is a solid picture and a worthy third of the triple feature of California Split and Mississippi Grind. On Amazon Prime.

Let us stipulate at the outset that pre-CGI disaster movies sit in the softest spot in my heart. When I was a kid, you couldn’t keep me away from them.  The first movie I saw without a parent was The Poseidon Adventure (’72) at The Avalon on Connecticut Avenue. My mom had a small gift shop appended to that theater, so they let me and a friend come in to see whatever we wanted. In that dark movie house, sitting with Jimmy Sullivan, jujifruits in hand, I was IN that dank, doomed ship and with that besieged group led by another cool priest (Gene Hackman, though he never rivaled Jason Miller in The Exorcist).  With poor Roddy McDowell and his shattered and bloody kneecap and Stella Stevens, Ernie Borgnine’s tough talking, busty wife, who had the moxie to tell the heavier Shelly Winters that, um, no, she’s going into the tube first:  “I’m going next. So if ole’ fat ass gets stuck, I won’t get stuck behind her.”  I’m 9 years old.  That was something.  Throw in pre-Nancy Drew (Pamela Sue Martin).  

I was lost to it all.

I inhaled everything that came next.  Earthquake (’74) (in Sensurround!)  Oh my God, Charlton Heston, don’t you dare give up Genevieve Bujold to jump in the sewers and save a doomed Ava Gardner! 

All the Airports (’70, ’75, ’77, and ’79).  I loved George Kennedy and later, when I saw him in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, I was shocked that such a gruff teddy bear could play such an awful villain. 

You can throw in The Hindenburg (’75) as well, though I kind of knew how that was going to end.       

I even went to the theater to see The Swarm (’78). Killer bees are, apparently, an ever-present threat to nuclear reactors. 

Then there were the disasters created by bad men (not just the poor salesman who blew up the airliner in Airport because he needed to leave his wife an insurance payoff).

Juggernaut (’74) – an ocean liner is rigged to blow (red wire or green wire!!!) and the bomb squad, led by Richard Harris, has to be dropped on the ship in rough seas to defuse the bomb. I’m still haunted by the scene of a member of the bomb squad missing the ship and just being . . . . left.  Liners cannot turn around.

Black Sunday (’77) – a blimp threatens The Super Bowl, helmed by the deadly serious Robert Shaw and an intriguing Marthe Keller (first German I ever had a crush on)

Rollercoaster (’77) – Tim Bottoms blowing up my favorite rides, including King’s Dominion’s The Rebel Yell (since re-christened The Rebel Scum)

Okay, that’s a long preamble.  The Towering Inferno has it all. Let me count the ways.

1)  Stars.  Yuge stars!  Bigly stars!  McQueen. Newman. Dunaway. Holden. Come on.

2)  OJ Simpson as a good guy.  He knows the security is for shit.  He lets McQueen know the place is a tinderbox, and then he saves a deaf woman.  And a cat.

3)  Shocking deaths.  They kill Robert Wagner and all he did was sleep with his secretary in the upper offices after foolishly having the phones cut off for privacy (by the way, I think his secretary is 10 years older than Wagner, which is pretty advanced).  Jennifer Jones seems as safe as any character can be, and then, boom, she just falls out of elevator and they bounce her off the structure.  My Lord, the genial bartender who was later a regular on Barney Miller, he gets crushed.

4) Moments of great bravery. By the innocent and even those a little bit responsible.  Guess what?  In 1974, it was still women and children first.  Even Richard Chamberlain, Holden’s shit-bird son-in-law who took kickbacks on the crappy wiring and dysfunctional sprinkler system, waited to try and jump the escape line after the women and children were evacuated. Holden ain’t clean, but he rises to the occasion announcing, much like a ship captain, that he will go down with the skyscraper.  Robert Vaughan is a United States senator and he buys it trying to keep Chamberlain from jumping the line.   And Wagner’s attempt to save his secretary is akin to a singular Charge of the Light Brigade.

6)  It works. At its’ silliest (you only learn about the million gallons of water on the top of the building in the last 20 minutes), it is always watchable.     

7) Professional camaraderie.  Steve McQueen’s number two in the San Francisco police department in Bullitt was his number two in the San Francisco fire department.  

On HBO Max.

A mash up of You’ve Got Mail and Eddie and the Cruisers

Okay, not really. But kind of. Rose Byrne is a curator of the historical society in a small English seaside town, and she lives with her professor boyfriend Chris O’Dowd, whose primary passion is the work and life of an alt rock phenom of the 80s, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). Hawke went into hiding at the height of his underground fame, thus making him even more of an enigma and obsession for O’Dowd and like-minded fans. 

O’Dowd clearly loves Hawke more than Byrne, and his primary focus is on the blog he manages which is solely dedicated to his idol. In a fit of pique, Byrne posts a scathing review of Hawke’s work, and Hawke alights from his bunker to respond, thereby sparking an intimate long distance connection. 

To tell more would be a true spoiler. This is a charming, very funny, clever film. Byrne (the hardest working woman in pictures) is her winning self and O’Dowd painfully funny, but Hawke steals the film as the jaded, regretful but still hopeful former “star” (we are not talking David Bowie; think Jeff Tweedy, after the first two Wilco records, just disappearing). Chock full of wry observations on hero worship, the digital age, the concept of family, and intimacy.

I knocked this down half a point because Byrne has a sister who is just a little too “on” and the film ends rather abruptly.

On Amazon Prime.

Esquire Theatre

Mank is to the truth of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz what Citizen Kane was to the truth of William Randolph Hearst, which I suppose is fitting. What the film lacks in accuracy, however, it makes up for in the beautifully textured black-and-white photography of David Fincher, the inventive and alluring re-creation of old Hollywood, and the crackling dialogue of Fincher’s own father, Jack, who penned the screenplay. The picture makes much of Mankiewicz’s struggle between his own internal liberal ideals and the fact that he is, in essence, a kept corporate cog, one of a gaggle of screenwriters collected, fed, watered and otherwise maintained by the big studios in the 30s and 40s (see Barton Fink, for a darker rendition).  However, the real Mankiewicz was no liberal, he and Hearst were not nearly so enmeshed and cozy, and neither man cared a whit about the California gubernatorial campaign of progressive Upton Sinclair, which is presented as the cause of their rupture.  It is all hooey.

But boy, does this hooey have some moments.  Jack Fincher never engages in caricature.  Mankiwiecz is not tortured; as brilliantly played by Gary Oldman, he’s comfortable, irresponsible, casually cruel, and it nags at him.  And when his indignation becomes righteous, he does not subdue the opposition with his wit and moral force.  To the contrary, he’s compromised and often grotesque.  And the heavies, in particular Hearst (Charles Dance) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), give as good as they get.  In one scene, Thalberg tries to get Mankiewicz to toe the party line and, like all other studio employees, contribute to Sinclair’s GOP opponent.  Thalberg is both solicitous of Mankiewicz but put-off by his casual, self-serving and spotty high-mindedness, and he sticks it to him.  The scene reminded me of a great one in Good Night and Good Luck, between Edward R. Murrow (David Straitharn) and William Paley (Frank Langella) after the former has just been morally urgent and condescending and Paley reminds him that he is not above constraints:

MURROW

Let’s walk very carefully through these next few moments. The content of what we’re doing is more important than what some guy in Cincinnati…

PALEY
It’s what you’re doing, Ed. Not me.  Not Frank Stanton. You.  “CBS News”, “See It Now” all belong to you, Bill.

MURROW
You wouldn’t know it.

PALEY
What is it you want? Credit?  I never censored a single program. I hold on to affiliates who wanted entertainment from us.  I fight to keep the license with the very same politicians that you are bringing down and I never, never said no to you. Never.

MURROW
I would argue that we have done very well by one another.  I would argue that this network is defined by what the news department has accomplished.  And I would also argue that never saying no is not the same as not censoring.

PALEY

Really? You should teach journalism.  You and Mr. Friendly.  Let me ask you this: why didn’t you correct McCarthy when he said that Alger Hiss was convicted of treason?  He was only convicted of perjury.  You corrected everything else.  Did you not want the appearance of defending a known Communist?

Similarly, the scene where Mankiewicz really sticks it to Hearst is not the crowd-pleasing tell-off a lesser writer would have delivered. In fact, Hearst is nonplussed, a fact that underscores the drunken cowardice of Mankiewicz while Hearst witheringly dispenses with him.

The Finchers’ lack of fealty to the truth is almost Hearst-esque in a “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” sort of way (also fittingly, Hearst likely never said or wrote any such thing) and as such, its fanciful history is not offensive or overbearing. These are, after all, minor historical figures merely making a movie and imbuing false thoughts and actions to them doesn’t presage some sort of larger “truth” or ideological posture. Still, Orson Welles changed “Hearts” to “Kane.” Fincher probably could have called it “Monk.”

Still, the picture is dazzling to watch, often good fun, a decent companion to the Coen Brothers Hail, Caesar!.

On Netflix.