Macbeth (2015)

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There have been precisely umpteen-plus film and television productions of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy: straight up and sly and silly and surreal variants, from 1955’s Joe MacBeth (Macbeth in a “modern” gangster setting) to 2001’s Rave Macbeth (Macbeth in a rave). Then there’s the three-and-a-half hour futuristic Japanese Mad Max-inspired Metal Macbeth (2007), Siberian Lady Macbeth (a Russo-Shakespearean noir set in 19th Century Mtsensk!) from 1962, and this year’s Macbeth Unhinged, which takes place entirely in the confines of a stretch limousine.
     And, of course, there are the classics: Polanski’s Macbeth and Welles’ Macbeth and Kurosawa’s Macbeth (aka Throne of Blood); the imaginings and the re-imaginings and the re-re-imaginings truly seem endless.
     Australian director Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth is mostly about the look and the feel—gritty, grimy, misty, bloody, sexy—and the performances, with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, the Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn of their generation, playing the ambitious, immoral Thane of Glamis and his outed, damn-spotted missus, respectively. This is good ‘n’ earthy stuff, with Fassbender and Cotillard both fully committed to their 21st Century interpretations, spitting and whispering and yelling and sobbing alongside a fine supporting cast made up of Paddy Considine as Banquo, Jack Reynor as Malcolm, Sean Harris as Macduff, and David Thewlis as Duncan. There are some excellent witches too.
     In Kurzel’s version, the language lives and his vision is brutal and Braveheart-y (right on down to the Caramel deLite-ful war paint), with enough fresh flourishes and subtle upgrades to keep the story alive (the Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill explication is inspired). Adding to the whole immersive experience is the film’s haunting score (by the director’s brother Jed), an electronic thrum that slowly claws its way into your upper midbrain, and Adam Arkapaw’s stunning cinematography—dust motes, snowflakes, and wood ash all hang tentatively in the air, battle scenes are slowed to sublimity, and there’s an outrageously orange ending.
     If you have to justify yet another Macbeth to Bob and Harvey Weinstein then this ain’t a half bad way to do it.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Legend (2015)

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Ronnie and Reggie Kray were a pair of organized crime lords who operated in and around the East End of London in the 1950s and ’60s, gaining notoriety, celebrity, and (finally) a couple of life sentences between them. They owned nightclubs and dabbled in protection rackets, armed robbery, arson, extortion, and murder. A feature film, The Krays, was made about the charismatic identical twins in 1990, with the inspired casting of Gary and Martin Kemp, guitarists for the New Romantic band Spandau Ballet, in the leads.
     Academy Award-winning director Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) now offers up his take on the infamous twin gangsters’ story, with Tom Hardy in an ebullient dual role.
     What soon becomes violently clear in Legend, however, is that the gimmick of Hardy playing both Ronald and Reginald, often in the same scene, often interacting with each other, is the only thing Helgeland’s ill-advised film has going for it.
     The narration, by Reg’s short-lived wife Frances Shea (Sucker Punch‘s Emily Browning), is stilted and uninspired. The go-for-broke soundtrack, of popular songs from the period, just tosses out its hits willy-nilly, irrespective of what’s actually happening on screen, and Carter Burwell’s original music sounds woefully out of place. Indeed, the whole film feels flat, from the look—too clean and efficient for a gangster pic—to the dialogue, which alternates between bland and banal. Scenes drag on tediously. Minor characters are given unnecessary focus. Major ones seem positioned simply to explode into violence every half hour, on the half hour.
     Paul Bettany—blink and you’ll miss him—is wasted as a rival mob boss. David Thewlis (Naked) is an obsequious money man, forever provoking Ronald’s mistrust and disgust. Chazz Palminteri is a thuggish Philadelphia caricature. But throughout all this, despite the lack of context and the garbled gangster tropes and the muddled tone and the flawed direction, Hardy shines.
     And not once, but twice.
     He’s the reason to see Legend. He plays Ron as a slack-mouthed psychotic in NHS frames, a ticking time bomb of repressed hatred. His brother, ten minutes older by birth, is less off his head, making cavalier promises of going straight, but the biz is in his blood. Hardy’s terrific, having fun while we’re not. Even my daughter bailed thirty minutes from time and she loves Tom Hardy with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. That’s how disappointing this Hardy boys’ mystery is.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

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In Maggie’s Plan, written and directed by Rebecca Miller, daughter of renowned playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman), Greta Gerwig plays, well… Greta Gerwig. And she’s simply adorable. She pretty much played herself in Greenberg (2010) and Damsels in Distress (2012) and Frances Ha (2013) and she was adorable in those movies too. There’s just something about her—the wool tights, the flats, the prosaic delivery? Adorable. You’d have to be a psycho to think otherwise. Ethan Hawke is in Maggie’s Plan too. He’s also adorable… to look, at that is. Character-wise he’s a piece of work. Should I leave my wife? Should I get back together with my wife? Oh tell me what to do, Maggie, do. John’s kind of pathetic that way. He’s married to Georgette (Julianne Moore), who’s about as far from adorable as you can get, as tight as the bun that sits atop her immaculately groomed head. What accent is Moore doing? Scandinavian, maybe? Does she have a lisp too? It’s hard to tell. Maggie’s friends are played by Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph. They’re adorable. Actually, they’re always adorable. Hader’s really come into his own. He was surprisingly good in The Skeleton Twins alongside Kristen Wiig. And also in Trainwreck. Funny guy. Funny and adorable. Rudolph’s already made the successful switch from indies to mainstream films like Bridesmaids and Grown Ups 2 and Shrek the Third. Travis Fimmel is neither a familiar face nor a familiar name. He grew up the youngest of three brothers on a dairy farm in Australia. How adorable is that? In Maggie’s Plan he plays Guy, The Sperm Donor. That’s Maggie’s plan, see, to have a baby without the complications of, say, a partner, until things get complicated. But it’s fun to watch Greta and Ethan and Bill and Maya, and Julianne is good but she’s less fun to watch, and Travis is also good but he’s not in it much. I guess he’s kind of cute though, in that Peruvian chullo he’s always wearing. Adorable.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Ghostbusters (2016)

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Don’t stick Melissa McCarthy into a big summer remake of a classic ’80s comedy and then hide her light under a bushel. Do the right thing. Give her a funny script and let her loose.
     Ghostbusters, the 2016 reboot (technically Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, although nobody’s doing anything with that), is watchable for the first fifteen minutes or so and then devolves into an effects-laden snooze-a-thon with obligatory cameos from the original 1984 cast—Murray, Aykroyd, Weaver, Hudson, and Potts. It’s not just McCarthy who’s shockingly subdued though, as if in deference to her co-stars. Kristen Wiig—often called on to play the straight man—is mediocre at best, and SNL’s Kate McKinnon is in a world of her own, over-gesticulating as if her paycheck depended on it (perhaps it did). A broad Leslie Jones, unfortunately stuck in a sidekick role, fares no better.
     Frequent McCarthy collaborator Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy) helms, but it’s his script, co-written by Katie Dippold, that fails to bring anything new to the paranormal nonsense—no creativity, no cleverness, nothing particularly fun or funny (except, that is, for Chris Hemsworth as the investigators’ bimbo receptionist, Kevin; he’s super cute). Oh wait. There is something new of course. The Ghostbusters are all… women! Wow. Who saw that coming? How 2016.
     I know what you’re all thinking: another guy critic hating on the gals. Not at all. Ghostbusters isn’t bad because they changed genders. It’s bad because the filmmakers are so in awe of their source material (which, let’s face it, wasn’t genius to begin with) that they’re afraid to upset the apple cart.
     If you truly want to see Ghostbusters remade in a fresh and reverential way, rent Be Kind Rewind.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Unhappy Birthday (2010)

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Separated from the mainland by a three-mile stretch of causeway that’s impassable at high tide, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the English coast of Northumberland, provides an irresistible setting for a horror film. Wandering into some sicko sitch is bad enough, but what if you’re compelled to stick it out for twelve hours until the tide turns? Lindisfarne provides the captive atmosphere of Unhappy Birthday, a psychological sectarian thriller that draws inspiration from the original ‘Wicker Man (1973), itself set on the fictional island of Summerisle. The tidal island in Unhappy Birthday, Mark Harriott and Mike Matthews’ 2011 film, is renamed Amen—which would have been a better name for the film, with its unambiguous religious associations and dread sense of closure.
     The film’s location is special, therefore, as is the way in which the surrounding landscape is filmed, often with artful time-lapse photography and effects. Its soundtrack, which rings out with creepy and discordant sound effects, is also very effective. Less so is the storyline, which—and you can skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid spoilers—can best be summed up by its 28 IMDb plot keywords: shower, male frontal nudity, gay sex, island, birthday, tide, pubic hair, male pubic hair, male nudity, kiss, boyfriend girlfriend relationship, pregnancy, threesome, birthday cake, blowing out candle, long lost sister, sister sister relationship, bisexual, scarecrow, religion, rural setting, gay, gay kiss, driving, car, england, sex, picture of jesus. In fact, Unhappy Birthday is a little too much like the aforementioned Anthony Shaffer-penned paganfest in the script department—odd villagers, cultish conspiracy, shocking denouement, all to a playful score. It’s been done before, and it’s been done better.
     Mark and Mike’s Lindisfarne love-in stars Christina De Vallee, Jonathan Keane, Jill Riddiford, and David Paisley. The only claim to fame among the four of them is Paisley’s same-sex kiss on the British TV hospital drama Casualty, which drew the ire of 114 viewers, according to the BBC. Prudish low-budget horror buffs should be advised that there’s more than mere mano-a-mano kissing—and a picture of Jesus—in the erotically-charged Unhappy Birthday.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

I Give It a Year (2013)

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Any film that makes Rose Byrne unappealing has its head well and truly up its bum… and I Give It a Year manages to do spectacularly that. Frankly, the lovely lead of two recent Seth Rogen “slobedies” (Neighbors 1 & 2) was more charming as the charmless, foul-mouthed Russian assassin in Melissa McCarthy’s spy spoof Spy. In Dan Mazer’s romless-com, Byrne is Nat, a marketing exec who falls for successful writer Josh (Rafe Spall, son of Timothy) at a party—cue the fireworks! Seven months later they’re getting married despite misgiving from family and friends (the minister’s coughing fit during the critical “I Now Pronounce You…” part of the ceremony hints at sour notes to come also). Those hints and misgivings prove to be fitting—flash-forward to a couples counseling session in which Nat and Josh explain how things went “tit up,” to use a phrase in keeping with the film’s déclassé tone. Classy, it turns out, is not first-time director Mazer’s go-to writing style; the man cut his teeth brokering scripts for Sacha Baron Cohen (Bruno, Borat, and Ali G Indahouse: The Movie). There is some funny stuff in I Give It a Year, mostly courtesy Stephen Merchant as a no-holes-barred buffoon of a best man, misheard song lyrics, and a game of charades. Minnie Driver’s pretty droll too. But where the film falls down is in its singular lack of chemistry among its leading foursome, which include a believably frumpy Anna Faris as Josh’s former girlfriend Chloe—she knobbed off to Africa for four years without any kind of closure—and Simon Baker (TV’s The Mentalist) as a hunky potential client (he’s in solvents) who falls for Nat’s cynical lack of wedding ring—she jettisoned it to improve her chances of getting the account. Mazer’s script thrusts the parties together regularly and manages to reduce almost everyone to unlikeable stiffs. Australian actor Baker, in particular, struggles woodenly with his American accent, and Byrne, as stated from the outset, was never unlovelier. Your tolerance for misdirected romantic comedies may vary considerably, of course, but ‘a Year seems especially generous.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Love & Friendship (2016)

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Love & friendship : in which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is entirely vindicated : concerning the beautiful Lady Susan Vernon, her cunning daughter & the strange antagonism of the DeCourcy family is the rather mouthy title of writer/director Whit Stillman’s novelization of an early Austen novella, Lady Susan. The beloved British novelist never submitted Lady Susan for publication—it was issued posthumously some fifty years after her death—and perhaps there was good reason for that. The potential for a frothy comedy of manners is evident despite the fact that our heroine is a selfish and conniving adulteress—in short, pretty darned despicable. But even Stillman recognized Lady Susan (the book) as “flawed,” and while the filmed version of his treatment, abbreviated to Love & Friendship to save marquee owners a headache, is impeccably appointed and grandly scored, Stillman’s trademark talky-ness falls mostly flat, with little of the wit or erudition of his earlier works (cf. Metropolitan, Barcelona). Despite the film’s excellent press, “Hilarious” it is far from.
     The widow Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a beauty, is obligated to leech off her in-laws when rumors of her dalliances with Lord Manwaring (handsome Lochlann O’Mearain, barely in the film) begin to surface. While temporarily residing at Churchill, the DeCourcy’s stately home, Lady Susan continues to make waves by seeking a suitable match for herself and her reluctantly-eligible daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Chloe Sevigny, reteamed with Beckinsale some 18 years after Whitman’s ‘Last Days of Disco, plays Lady Susan’s American friend and confidante Alicia Johnson and Stephen Fry, like O’Mearain rarely onscreen, is Alicia’s much older husband. Rounding out an excessive roster of family members and suitors are Xavier Samuel as Reginald DeCourcy, whose allegiances change with the weather, Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin (a boob), Emma Greenwell as the straight-laced Catherine DeCourcy Vernon, and Justin Edwards as her stuffy husband, Charles.
     Like the book that spawned it, Love & Friendship doesn’t feel quite finished, which is part of the reason Stillman chose to expand Austen’s novella in the first place. It ends abruptly, glosses over some significant hook-ups along the way (all the important conversations appear to have been conducted off-screen), re-stresses odd lines of dialogue that don’t bear repeating, and underutilizes its one creative motif (on-screen transcription of written communications). And there’s certainly nobody to root for in any of this: you feel manipulated by Lady Susan, sorry for Frederica, irritated by Reginald, and embarrassed by Sir James (although Bennett’s delightfully awkward turn is one of the film’s few highlights).
     All told, this is a rather lazy ‘Susan.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com