The Sound of Lady MacBeth

I talked recently, on Wirral Radio’s Film Friday, about how impressed I had been with A Dog’s Purpose for not going overboard with its score. Instead of the rising and falling strings you would expect from such an emotive film, what we got was a jukebox of hits from the five decades of the film’s time span.

As someone who hates to be told by the music how I am supposed to feel at any given time, I very much admired this aspect of, what I have to admit, was a surprisingly good film.

So you can imagine how much more impressed I was when I came across the virtually scoreless Lady MacBeth. Despite the trailer suggesting that this film is what it would be like ‘if Alfred Hitchcock directed Wuthering Heights’, there were no screaming ‘Psycho’ strings and no tension building kettle drums.

Instead, you hear every step on the bare floorboards of the house, every drop of the pointedly poured tea, and every squeak of the perfidious bedsprings. Which together created far more of an atmosphere than any orchestra ever could have.

The score was not the only way in which this mesmerizing film is pared back. The setting feels very bleak and rudimentary, with no grand Merchant Ivory style exterior shots of the country house. Inside, the rooms are sparse and barely furnished, with neither carpets nor curtains to soften their edges. Perhaps most impressively of all, Florence Pugh’s performance is equally understated, with no outbursts or hystrionics, just a cold, calculated sense of purpose, shared with the Shakespearian character of the title.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t shine in this remarkable film. She is quite simply delicious as she quietly moves from victim to manipulator, oozing self-serving malevolence, while managing to play the innocent throughout. The chilling final, forth wall breaking scene – a rare occasion where music does appear – leaves you feeling quite disturbed, as if you have somehow been complicit in what you have just witnessed.

It is no surprise to find that director, William Oldroyd, comes from the theatre. Lady MacBeth feels very theatrical in its presentation, yet it’s none the worse for that. Its claustrophobic interior scenes make you share the leading lady’s sense of entrapment, while its sparse dialogue respects the audience, and trusts you to work things out for yourself, without needing the characters to explain the plot to each other in that clumsy way that spoils so many modern films.

It’s fair to say that Lady MacBeth will not be everyone’s perfectly poured cup of tea, and it may well be the case that the Shakespearian title will put off some filmgoers who would otherwise have given it a chance. But if you’re looking for a break from the CGI superheroes and the adrenaline fueled action movies, you’ll do a lot worse than giving this subtle story an hour and a half of your time.

If nothing else, you’ll be able to nod knowingly when Florence Pugh inevitably becomes a mega-mega-star, and say that you knew it would happen all along.

 

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Hidden Figures should be seen

Hidden Figures is the story, or rather three connected stories, of the African- American women who worked for NASA at the start of the space race in 1961. Each struggles to be recognised for their talents and accepted as equals, both to the white employees and to the male workers, while also trying to hold together homes and families of their own outside of work.

Films exposing the race struggle in America are quite common these days, with Moonlight and Fences both joining Hidden Figures amongst this year’s Oscar nominations, and classics like The Help and Selma picking up statues in recent years.

Yet what marks Hidden Figures out from the crowd is that it doesn’t feel like a race struggle, at least not the angst-ridden radical kind we see so often on the big screen. Certainly, the three main characters want to be accepted as equals, but this is not because they are black and demanding their newly enshrined rights, but because they know that they are every bit as good, if not better, than their white, male co-workers.

Taraji P. Henson leads as Katherine Johnson, a gifted mathematical mind who helps NASA solve the unsolvable. She is ably supported by Janelle Monáe as spikey aspiring engineer, Mary Johnson, and Oscar winner and 2017 nominee, Octavia Spencer, as unsung ‘supervisor’ and IBM programming pioneer, Dorothy Vaughan.

All three manage to conduct themselves with quiet dignity in the face of outrageous prejudice, including a half mile walk to the ‘coloured restroom’ and even a segregated coffee pot, and it’s hardly a plot spoiler to say that all three succeed in changing hearts and minds through their understated actions.

With such outstanding lead performances, it would be easy to overlook a fine supporting cast, but they deserve their share of the praise. Kevin Costner is calm and controlled in one of his best roles for a while as boss, Al Harrison, while Kirsten Dunst makes the best of a thankless role as the cold, institutionally racist, Vivian Mitchell.

The only wrong note is the casting of Jim Parsons, best known for his long time portrayal of Sheldon Cooper in the US comedy The Big Bang Theory. As Jennifer Aniston repeatedly proves, once you are associated with such a high profile character, it’s hard to shake it off, and I spent a lot of the film waiting in vain for Parson’s Paul Stafford to say something funny.

With so much domestic detail behind the main story at NASA, Hidden Figures feels a little bit like a TV mini-series in places, and could probably lose around fifteen minutes without losing its impact. As a sci-fi fan, I’d also like to have seen a bit more of the space stuff, but that’s probably just me.

Hidden Figures will ultimately leave you smiling and uplifted, and above all inspired that whether you are man or woman, black or white, if you’re good at what you do and work hard, you will always get recognised in the end. Even if you have to wait an unfair amount of time for that to happen.

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Fences

It is ironic that you can tell how moving a film was by how little moving goes on when it finishes, and in Monday night’s showing of Fences, no one reached for their coats until several minutes into the closing credits.

If you haven’t seen theatre on the screen before, like the many National Theatre Live or Globe Shakespeare broadcasts, then Fences will be a challenge. This is not a normal movie and for some, including critic Mark Kermode, that is a problem. There is no denying that it feels stagey and is clearly based on a play. But if you stick with it, you will be well rewarded.

Come expecting a blockbuster and you’ll be confused and quite possibly bored, but come prepared for writing and acting of the very highest order, examining the human condition in searing detail, and you will find Fences to be quite a profound experience. Perhaps this is why it’s had such a ‘Marmite’ reaction on IMDb, with most reviews either 10/10 or just 1/10.

Adapted from the multi-award winning Broadway stage production, and starring many of the original stage cast, Fences is heavy on dialogue and light on action. What’s more, most of the film takes place in a single location – the backyard of the main characters’ home.

There are no heroes and no extraordinary story to tell. But if anything, it is the sheer ordinary-ness of Denzel Washington’s Troy Maxson that makes this film so compelling. Frustrated by the missed opportunities of youth, resigned to the daily grind of providing for his family, living for Friday night when the week’s work is done and he can relax with his buddies, this is a man whose frustrations we can all share to some extent. Who hasn’t got a project on the go like Troy’s fence, which never quite seems to get finished? In a world where movie characters all too often achieve the impossible and overcome outrageous odds, it is refreshing to see someone struggle like the rest of us.

Troy is an intense, and intensely flawed character, supported by his loyal and long-suffering wife, played to Oscar-winning standard by Viola Davis. It is the slow unraveling of their relationship that provides the story, as we discover how their past, and their childhoods, have shaped them into who they are today, and see how they, in turn, try to shape the lives and temper the dreams of their own children.

After over a hundred performances on Broadway, the cast understands the emotions of the script intimately, and more importantly, know the nuances of the facial expressions and reactions even better. For all the Oscar-nominated brilliance of the script, it is often the quiet in between the words that speaks the loudest and says the most.

Fences is certainly not for everyone, and those who will appreciate it, will also appreciate the bored sweet-bag-rustlers staying away. But if you enjoyed theatre on screen productions like Gillian Anderson’s A Streetcar Named Desire then you are in for a real treat.

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You’ll Get Out What You Put In

Writer director Jordan Peele’s latest teen horror, Get Out, certainly ticks all the boxes for the genre. Good looking, young, sexy lead couple: check. Embarrassingly friendly olds: check. Perfectly innocent setting where things are not quite what they seem: check. Mobile phone that mysteriously stops working, cutting off the victim: check. Final act that gets royally carried away in a total bloodbath: check.

I was perhaps the only one in the audience old enough to be reminded of the 1989 horror, Society, though I’m sure that the presence of West Wing’s Bradley Whitford will have put many in mind of Joss Whedon’s clever, Cabin in the Woods. This is a film that knows its audience well and provides just the right blends of jump shocks, sinister tension and final gore to keep them happy, while staying on the right side of the BBFC to earn that all-important 15 certificate.

Get Out is a smart film, which rewards you for joining the dots and working out what’s really going on. In fact, the clues are there for all to see right from the start, and if you catch on late, as I did, you’ll kick yourself for not spotting them sooner.

Much has been said about the race themes of this film, but I’m not sure that these are all that relevant to the plot. True, the victim(s) are black and the bad guys are white. However, these are the kind of moneyed, society white people who think that anyone who is not part of their inner circle is theirs to use and exploit, black or white, male or female. As a satire on class and the pretensions of privilege, it certainly has a thing or two to say, but I didn’t see the race messages other critics have seen. If anything, the ultimate fate of the victims says that the white guys have no problem with being black.

Of course, you don’t have to see anything deep or meaningful in Get Out to enjoy the film. This is not brain surgery, well, ok, strictly speaking… but as teen horror goes it does exactly what it says on the tin, providing you with an hour and three quarters of great entertainment value for your ticket money.

If you want to analyse it more, and look for the ‘social thriller’ that the director describes, or the ‘piercing satire’ that Mark Kermode found, then that is there too. The point is that unlike some films, like Ben Wheatley’s High Rise for example, this level of engagement is entirely optional. If you just want to take your boyfriend/girlfriend to scream and cringe at the blood and guts on date night, then you won’t feel like you’re missing out by not engaging in the wider themes.

Of course, I could be wrong; Get Out could be the timely, thought provoking twist on ‘post-racial’ America that the internet would have us believe. Either way, it’s well worth the time and effort, and whatever level you decide to enjoy it on, you’ll Get Out what you put in.

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It’s Life, Jim, exactly as we know it…

At the end of the day, the new big budget sci-fi outing, Life, doesn’t ask many searching questions, but then perhaps the question should be, does it need to?

Life does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a gripping, convincing space action-drama, with a great monster, realistic cast and the kind of life-in-space special effects that are so good and so realistic, that you forget that they are special effects at all.

It sustains real tension from the get go to the final scene, and you feel a very tangible sense of jeopardy for the crew. It is visceral in its violent deaths and injuries, and best of all, it has a monster that is fully realised and beautifully crafted, unlike the creature in the shadows, suggested by a random tentacle, that you so often get fobbed off with in this type of film.

It certainly doesn’t stretch the boundaries or break the mould, but then maybe it doesn’t have to. After all, the Rebels have been pretty much blowing up the same Death Star for seven or eight films, and Star Trek has been boldy going where the original series went before for 50 years. Like both of these, Life is done well and doesn’t let you down.

You know what you are going to get, and you get it, nothing more, nothing less – and I for one am ok with that. All too often, sci-fi films try to be too clever for their own good and leave you scratching your head when you should be gripping your seat. Think Prometheus, Interstellar or the king of them all, the impenetrably pompous 2001 A Space Odyssey. Sometimes we just want a simple story of man vs aliens.

Much of the publicity plays on the similarity to the original Alien movie, but Life also owes a considerable debt to 2013’s Gravity. Like Sandra Bullock’s adventures, this is a space story that feels very grounded in today’s technology and our own planet. There are no laser guns or teleports, no galaxy far far away, just the familiar International Space Station that we have all seen on the news, where Chris Hadfield floats around with his guitar.

At just 103minutes, Life is able to maintain its tension and never outstays its welcome, though perhaps a little longer run time would let us get to know the characters a little better, before they are brutally picked off one by one.

My only complaint would be the choice of title sequence song. It’s hardly a plot spoiler to say that there is non stop carnage for an hour and a half, and the ending is as open and thought provoking as the original Planet of the Apes – so ending the film with Doctor and the Medics jolly ditty, ‘Spirit in the Sky’, seemed a bit jarring and banal to me.

Life, Jim, is exactly as we know it, but is none the worse for that, and sci-fi fans will feel on familiar, and enjoyable, territory

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The rules don’t apply to anyone

From the trailers you might think that Rules Don’t Apply is a classic Hollywood romance. But it isn’t. You might think that it is a biopic of Howard Hughes. But it’s not that either. Rules Don’t Apply is both of these rolled into one, with more than a touch of autobiography on the part of writer / producer / director / lead actor, Warren Beatty, who is thoroughly enjoying himself as an increasingly crazy Howard Hughes.

The title can be applied to each of the many layers of this fascinating film. The rules don’t apply to the lead actress, Lilly (daughter of drummer Phil) Collins, as she breaks the mould of stereotype, airhead, blondie-boobie Hollywood starlet. She has a mind of her own, and she’s not afraid to speak it, even to the mighty Howard Hughes. The rules of their strict religious upbringing don’t apply to her relationship with Alden (“would that it t’were so simple”) Ehrenreich, as they fumble through their prohibited romance.

The rules certainly don’t apply to Beatty’s Howard Hughes who, with echoes of Donald Trump that I just couldn’t shake all film, clearly sees himself as above and beyond the reach of any jurisdiction or accepted standards of behaviour.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the rules don’t apply to the film itself. It bucks convention by refusing to let either of its two storylines dominate, or even fully develop. Unlike the similar two-ambitious-kids-come-to-Hollywood storyline of La La Land, neither seems to achieve the success they came for. What’s more, much like in real life, Howard Hughes is kept in the shadows and behind the curtain, rather than being fully explored in typical biopic style.

Yet despite this ambiguity, or perhaps because of it, Rules Don’t Apply is a film that stays with you and grows in your mind for days after you first see it. You can’t help wondering how much of the autobiographical feel of Warren Beatty was deliberate. After all, Ehrenreich’s young buck arrives in Hollywood in exactly the same year that Beatty originally did, and from a similar background. What’s more, Howard Hughes enjoyed a level of power and control in Hollywood that Beatty himself currently enjoys today.

Biopic, autobiography or plain old 50’s Hollywood romance, Rules Don’t Apply can be whichever one you choose to see. But to really appreciate this film, maybe you need to be prepared to see them all at once.

 

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Their finest hour and a half

Their Finest is a very British film filled with the very British wartime sensibilities of stiff upper lip, soldiering on regardless and a healthy dislike of the Yanks. Hardly surprising when you consider it is directed by Lone Sherfig, the woman behind previous period Brit-flick, An Education, as well as the terribly British One Day.

As with so many period pieces from recent history, Their Finest tells us a story behind the story that most people will not know. We’re all aware of the heroics of the soldiers on the front lines, but few of us know about the heroes at home, who worked hard in their own way for the war effort.

Former Bond-girl Gemma Arteton’s Catrin Cole is one such hero, or more specifically, heroine, who wrote the scripts for propaganda films during the blitz. Working alongside Me Before You star Sam Calfin’s initially misogynist Tom Buckley, and Bill Nighy’s wonderful washed up actor, Ambrose Hilliard, she aims to take the ‘slop’ of traditional female roles to a new level that really shows their contribution to the war.

Based on the real life character of Diana Morgan, who wrote for Ealing Studios, and adapted from Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, this is certainly a heart warming, feel good romantic comedy. Yet at the same time, it pulls no punches when it comes to depicting how harrowing life was in London during the Blitz. In one scene Catrin tries to ‘keep calm and carry on’, as bombs fall around her, only to get caught up in the carnage. Seeing her left physically sick from what she sees is a poignant reminder that there is nothing romantic or comic about war.

The cast are charming and play the repressed manners and etiquette of the time well. No one blinks an eye when Catrin is told that they ‘obviously can’t pay her the same as the chaps’. However, it has to be said that the screen lights up every time Bill Nighy appears, and you do end up wanting him to be on that screen a great deal more. He is truly on home turf here as an inveterate luvvie, and he is clearly loving every minute of it. Although by his own confession he was a little uncomfortable with the casting: “They were looking for someone to play a chronically self-absorbed actor in his declining years,” he says. “The fact that they thought of me is easier to process some mornings than others”.

While it may not have the star studded cast, or the intense drama of other recent story-behind-the-story films, such as the Oscar nominated Hidden Figures, Their Finest is still a tale that needs to be told of lives that need to be celebrated.

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