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4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011)
remembering this oddity
Perhaps it was because I generally like his films from the 80's and 90's (let's think - Ms. 45, King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral, even obscurities like Dangerous Game and China Girl), I was curious about 4:44 Last Days on Earth by Abel Ferrara, so I saw it in a (brief) theatrical run. It's a bizarre, even experimental film that's set pretty much all in the apartment of Willem Dafoe's character, Cisco. Ferrara sets this tale of existential angst and contemplation with images of the apocalypse on-coming. There's also a female companion, Shanyn Leigh.
It's not a long film, so there is that if you're wondering if it will be a slog. I didn't find it to be, in large part because Ferrara was making an honest, subtle attempt at trying to change the form of an apocalypse story. He had clearly a small budget to work with, so why not use the prowess and talent of someone like Dafoe? He's really the reason to see this, if you like his work here he delivers a soulful, bare-all performance that doesn't go TOO far like Antichrist for example.
If anything else, this film is a departure for Ferrara to try and explore desperation in an untenable situation - human beings knowing and faced with their end. Is it the strongest representation of how to stage this? Probably not. The director is indulging himself into just exploring things and themes and ideas through his characters, through the paintings we see the girl paint, through, well, Skype chats (if I remember correctly). But there's poignancy to this odd little movie that doesn't shy away from emotional truths, from exposing raw nerves, which is always what Ferrara is good at.
a good movie... and then that last monologue
It's best to look at Compulsion in two halves: the first half starts off with Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman just coming off of their crime and the former holding his stolen typewriter (this isn't shown at all, so maybe, for just half a second, one might wonder if they're the killers... until they move their mouths and look at one another). In short, they kidnapped and killed a little kid, and they spend the first half - as preppy college kids in 1924 Chicago - trying to trace their tracks and not look guilty as hell (the latter part they fail at, miserably). The other half is the court case when they're brought up on their charges and facing the hangman's noose. But enter in Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles), inspired by Clarence Darrow - as the case is the Leopold-Loeb inspired one - who is here as the Best Trial Lawyer In The Country (in caps) there to not say they don't deserve to be punished, but that they don't deserve to die so quickly.
Many will remember this for the final courtroom monologue that Welles delivers. And no wonder, as it's reported often as one of the (if not THE) longest in cinematic history. What marks this as being so extraordinary and gripping is the basic humanity of his delivery. We get some of the dry wit that we may see in other Welles performances (i.e. Third Man), but here it's different as his character Wilk gives his impassioned plea.
It's as if he can barely argue anymore, and he's just trying to talk to the people of the court - the judge especially, as due to reasons there's no jury for this case - and why Capital punishment shouldn't occur here, despite the heinous act. Watch how Welles goes about the courtroom, exerting his authority, but his delivery is carefully measured, almost saddened by the horrors of all humanity. It's the most humble we may have ever seen Welles on screen, and it's all the greater for it; you want to rewind it to see every nuance, every moment where that usual blustering, almost over-the-top (albeit towering and great) Welles is replaced by something... compassionate.
It is such a great set piece, and the trial before it is sensational too, that you almost forget that the first half is just alright. Both Stockwell and Dillman are fine, with Stockwell kind of anticipating Norman Bates in a strange way (I have to wonder if Hitchcock watched this, not just as it is a retelling of the case of Rope, but for the aspect of a skinny, pathological guy into birds). These scenes are directed with competence, skill, even some sort of artistry with black and white scope, but it feels like we're waiting for the main show to happen. Perhaps Dillman is just so pushy, or maybe spot on, with his sociopathic killer that it gets almost tiring after a while.
So, in other words: 1st half, 3 stars. Second half, 4 stars. Thus, this rating (or put into 10/10)
Evelyn Prentice (1934)
a 'minor' work saved by the actors
There's nothing particularly *awful* about the script or story of Evelyn Prentice, but there's nothing that sparks out that it's particularly deep or original either. It runs just shy of 80 minutes and it was surely one of those "programmers", a movie that was put through by the studio to get some select butts in seats - not too dissimilar, of course, from much of the history of Hollywood, just that it doesn't really distinguish itself in any artistic way outside the box. In other words, William K. Howard puts the camera where it goes, gets his mediums and close-ups, and moves along to the next set-up once he's got what he needs. Scenes even fade-out and fade-in at the point where, perhaps with a more confident or creative director, they might go on or start a little sooner, give a little more depth to the characters. Not all terrible filmmaking, but, perhaps still not so impressive, it's... standard.
It's interesting to see that in 1934 William Powell and Myrna Loy got not one, not two, but THREE leading vehicles with one another, two of them melodramas, and both of those were with Powell as a lawyer. But where one of those other films was a smash of a comic mystery (The Thin Man, of course, which set them off to be super-stars), and the other a story that also featured Clarke Gable (Manhattan Melodrama, an underrated effort all things considered), this one shows them having to do a little extra leg-work with the script. It gives them moments, to be sure, especially in the first act with those little moments that creep into a marriage like with the Prentices - he a successful but usually-at-work lawyer, her the stay-at-home mom with too much time on her hands - where the actors show doubt and dismay very subtly. A moment where Loy discovers a note and necklace with some shocking conclusions to take from it, her restraint and her eyes say it all. Powell, too, gets those moments.
It was them, and some decent supporting work from Isabell Jewel (as the woman on trial for killing her husband) and Una Merkel (best-friend comic relief, though not so much comic but more, um, less dramatic I guess), that kept me interested and engaged in the film. There is also, I should admit, a courtroom climax that even in its midst of... is there another word for melodramatic (?) surprises does make for entertaining viewing as far as how the script makes its quick turns. A movie like Evelyn Prentice, with its relatively cute scenes of father-mother-daughter interactions (those are actually some of the best, showing the warmth that Powell could have acting with children, Loy too) and the sort of stagy but fine moments of will-they-won't-they infidelity, that reminds me of the axiom that a fair script can be made into a good movie with good actors.
If you like Powell, and particularly if you love Loy, this shows them doing good, honest dramatic performances and interactions *despite* the constraints of the material. It also makes for a helluva surreal viewing if you watch it on the same night as, say, one of the Thin Man flicks.
After the Thin Man (1936)
almost on par with the first Thin Man, which means it's a helluva good time at the movies!
Once again, Nick and Nora get caught up in a case that the former doesn't want any part of and the latter does in 'After the Thin Man' (a title that probably works better than some of the others, like 'The Thin Man Comes Home', which doesn't make sense given what happens in Thin Man 1, on but I digress). Of course in this case the Nora element isn't simply being curious or inquisitive or feeling anxious to get back into the swing of things - it's her family, specifically the murder of her cousin Selma's husband, Robert.
And, naturally, other murders come up as well, some more expected than others. Of course, this all comes right around the time of New Years Eve, and wouldn't-ya know it, Nick has a few (lot of) drinks in him. Not that you'd notice by hearing him, his skills are sharp as a tack, if not his skills at detecting who he's kissing at the 'Happy New Year!' ring of the bell in the dark - oops, not Nora. Oh well.
But yes, this movie has some hijinks like that, and a good lot of he comedy comes from William Powell's impeccable skill at mocking things so dryly and lightly, yet there's a good sharp sting to it when he wants to get it there. It's a wonder Nick can function at all with the number of drinks he has - like the previous film, at least the subject of hangovers does come up, which is funny in and of itself, for the moment it is - but Powell is relentlessly charming in the role, giving a look like he may be aloof, and secretly he's the farthest thing from it, hearing every word of a policeman's inquiry into shady characters at a nightclub, or what's said during an interview. Oh, he may look all out of it here and there, but it's all part of the fun - not to mention Loy, and it would be unthinkable without her, especially as she has to contend with being by this wild-man's side and give the sometimes look of 'Oh, you'.
The case has a lot of good twists and turns, and this time the movie is longer than the predecessor. If you have an idea of the 'least likely one IS the one', then you may guess who-dun-it before I did. There's the revelations by just silently-moving detective work which WS van Dyke does without much (if any) comedy, just straightforward and solid detective movie-making of finding clues and searching for things, and then there's the more 'colorful' moments with the characters like the singer and the owner of the nightclub, who have the sorts of voices you'd expect them to have and sometimes misspell words like 'Married' (with a 'y'). It's all of a piece and it mostly works splendidly as a mix of serious character development and mystery, and the air of a delightful romp and hoot that might be best watched with a drink and a love-of-your-life by your side.
It's not perfect though, and there are a couple of scenes where, seriously, the dog becomes the star of the picture. It's cute, to be sure, to see all the other dogs and puppies and such, but it's diverting from seeing more of Loy and Powell and the other excellent character actors (a young James Stewart, right before breaking out as a leading man and already showing his chops, especially in the climax, as a 'blue-blood' is one of them). Not to say the dog doesn't have some fun with the characters from time to time, in large part as basically creating one of those convenient red herrings (but hey, it's a dog, what can you do). It's just two scenes that, for whatever reason the studio had in its thinking, take the film off track.
But this is mostly nitpicking; After the Thin Man is marvelous entertainment in the 1930's Hollywood tradition, where it takes itself seriously enough to not be camp or something too light, but remembers it's all fairly tasteful. Musical numbers help too, such as a version of "Sing Sing Sing", with lyrics (!) at the party Nick and Nora have, uh, happen to them when they come home.
Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
melodrama that rises above thanks to a stellar cast
What a year Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and William Powell had in 1934, huh? They all act together in this film, Manhattan Melodrama, directed by WS Van Dyke and co-written by a young Joseph L. Makiewicz, and meanwhile Gabe earlier in the year was in It Happened One Night (ironically Loy was up for the role Colbert played), and later that year The Thin Man, which kicked off in a major way the star power of Powell and Loy together, came out and became a massive hit. All the films either won or got nominated for Oscars, and yet this film is kind of now on the B-side/double-bill. And to be sure, it's not as smashing or have the same re-watchability as those other films, which are considered among the best of 30's Hollywood (rightfully so, especially for the Thin Man). But Manhattan Melodrama shouldn't be discounted too quickly - at the least it's more than the simple footnote of Dillinger's pre-death-flick (I can relate - I would be there to see Myrna Loy, too).
The film actually reminds me a bit of a later 30's flick, Angels with Dirty Faces - that film too was about two childhood friends, New Yorkers all the way, who go through paths in life that diverse, one to crime, the other to a more professional/helpful path. In this case, Powell and Gable play childhood friends who lose their parents in a boat accident, get raised by a new father, who also later on meets a sad fate. Powell becomes a lawyer, then a prosecutor for the state and, eventually, governor, while Gable is always the gambler, the gangster, the guy who just wants to have a good time. And Loy plays the girl who doesn't really come between them as stay friendly-if-neutral to Blackie while marrying Jim Wade - that, give the movie credit, would've been an easy direction for the melodrama as a love triangle, but it's more complicated, to be sure.
The script gives its actors some good dramatic dialog to chew on, and among all the roles Gable probably gets to have the most fun while playing a not-too-good guy. It's a decent script once it gets its footing - the early childhood scenes are quite weepy, if shot and edited strikingly for fast, hard effect (and featuring a young Mickey Rooney!) - and it's a case where the actors elevate the material just a little more. This has star power to burn; the actors all click together, and no wonder with Loy, but Gable and Powell work very well and believably together too, with the conflicts that come up between the brothers - of law and order vs the gangster way, albeit this isn't as harsh a look as 'Angels' - and how the dynamics subtly change over time.
You might not think there's any arc here, but there are, at the least with Powell's Jim Wade who gets on the rise as a law-and-order man but has this friend who could be his downfall. Loy is naturally beautiful without even having to try anything super-glamorous; she almost as a thing here like a young Diane Keaton, kind of sexy in a way that's hard to describe but plainly there in the sophistication of every movement and acting choice. And Gable... he's Gable - but watch for him in the last scene he has with Powell, he goes between a range of emotions that is just electrifying to watch (for me more believable than almost anything in Gone with the Wind).
If Manhattan Melodrama is successful, and I think it is, it's because watching these actors - stars - in these roles, acting their asses off to make this more than believable, rather natural work, and van Dyke has some nice directorial choices. Conventional? Sure. But it's a moving little effort.
Breaking Bad (2008)
arguably the greatest dramatic series... ever?
It's hard for me to be super objective about this show. Over the course of 62 episodes, right from the start, for me, Vince Gilligan and his team of writers and directors crafted a piece of neo-noir-western American tragedy that almost never, if ever, lost its footing. In its story of the rise and fall of Walter White (or his fun alias Heisenberg) and how he becomes a Meth "Emperor" in Albuquerque during his run of lung cancer, we get all kinds of dramaturgy here. There's conflict, conflict, conflict going on in this show, always, from the familial (what do I tell my wife, Skylar, or not tell her, what doesn't she tell me, how far do the lies and deceit and horrors go?) to the more genre-leaning (how much criminals go in their crazy s***, which is established early on with the throw of the particular chemical and the "This... is not Meth" explosion) to the dark comedy that gives the Coens a run for their money (Better Call Saul!) - not to mention how it made Aaron Paul just as much as star as Bryan Cranston, both working actors along with Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt and Bob Odenkirk. It all... fits.
Often with a show it's easy to let things slip, even (or especially) on the great shows when it comes to character dynamics, repetition, things that can be hard to control over the space of such a long period of time. But everything is so carefully mapped out, season after season, for the unpredictable to keep happening and for the dramatic beats to gain tension and mystery. Just take how the writers set up, so patiently, over a season, the opening clues of objects and debris all outside of a house, and when you finally find out what all this is about - BAM right to the gut.
What one comes away with, outside of the tremendous performances (you might gripe that Cranston got too many Emmys, but... what didn't he deserve with every fiber of his acting bad-assery?) and the consequences that are built up for all the characters, including those we think are made of rock and steel (Mike Erhmantraut), is the world of moral terror. What is morality in this world? There isn't any. It's the Wild West, but crossed with something like, I dunno, American Beauty. What happens when you take a hardcore drug-gangster tale of suspense and warp it with dark comedy about what it means to be a man in society today, or what it means to have a family (and believe me, there are many moments that are downright haunting, harrowing to the soul that speak to this, especially as it builds and builds in its last eight episodes)? You get... this. Perfection.
I wish I could tell you there's problems with the show, but rarely can I find any. I'm sure if I dug deep enough some might be there, a cliché exploited for the drug-war scenarios or having a baby around for easy drama or theatrics. But so many times on this show you - or I should say I - get thrown curve balls that really have no other way of working out except how they do. When a moment like Walter White in his crawl space discovering a terrible revelation and going from agony to abhorrent laughter arrives, it's just one of those amazing moments of drama in any American medium. It might be throwing praise like gravy on a Thanksgiving platter, but I'm reminded of Nicholson's comment once on Kubrick: everyone acknowledges he's the man, and I still think that underrates him.
Jupiter Ascending (2015)
the new Dune - I mean that in all its epic, grandiose, enjoyable folly glory
Is she "the One" again? Are human beings harvested for their energy once again? Will the One fall in love with whoever eyes match first? Will Eddie Redmayne ever top (or sink lower) than this? Good God, so many questions...
The Wachowskis - Andy and Lana - show with a film like Jupiter Ascending, as well as their others (even Speed Racer, yes I said it) that they're not hacks. At least, not hacks to the money-grubbing system of Hollywood. Or, well, they DO like making money, I suppose - two Matrix sequels speak to that - but they mostly speak to what they love, and as it just so happens Hollywood is usually down for what they do (Cloud Atlas even, up to a point, thanks to the cast, which was their most ambitious outing to date). This is a work by filmmakers who are given a budget so gigantic that they do make sure to put the money on the screen... and the script has enough words to match any descriptions of space and ships and planets and Eddie Redmayne's costume and Channing Tatum's fake teen-wolf jaw.
The plot of this flick is about the discovery of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis, and why she has the last name 'Jones' and is the daughter of Russians, hey, why carp, I guess). Turns out, she's royalty in the universe, and what a giant universe it is: various 'Houses' are on planets throughout the system, and the House Abraxas has its eye on Jupiter Jones - turns out she is the reincarnation of the mother to the children of the throne (or something, I guess, far as I could follow), James D'Arcy, Tuppence Middleton, and Redmayne. But she's eyed to be killed for reasons that involve things with the Earth and populations and things that I shouldn't go into for too many useless spoilers.
All that you need to know is - she's "The One", if not AS 'The One' as Neo was in the Matrix, and the reasons for so many other outside-Earth-beings wanting a piece of Earth are also similar for the main conflict of The Matrix (human harvesting, in short). And also as soon as the "Hunter" Caine (Tatum) shows up and sweeps Jupiter off her feet through (legitimately) breathtaking chases through Chicago or across star systems, you should know what you're in for: a big mashed potato mix of a science fiction space opera blockbuster. Characters explain quite a lot, in the second act at least, about how the universe really works and yet, ultimately, it all comes down to elements familiar as we've seen in many other space operas: rigged marriages, fiendish power plays, blue-blood royalty, dogged male determinism, and some enjoyable hijinks.
And yet the Wachowskis aren't doing a put-on, or even a wink-and-a-nod like we saw last year with Guardians of the Galaxy (which, if Warners had the gall to release it last summer would've surely had that awesome juggernaut to deal with). This isn't to say there aren't homages, oh heavens no - even down to an appearance by a wonderful iconoclast film director, and a reference to his own science fiction masterpiece come up pretty blatantly, albeit his appearance made me smile ear to ear for his full five minutes. And surely this guy/gal duo have read Dune, all of them, and sunk their teeth into Heavy Metal and Flash Gordon and, to their credit, they stick to their visions. This is hardcore sci-fi spectacle filmmaking, and they put clearly a great deal of love and thought with John Toll their DP and the special FX team. You do get your eyes worth here.
As far as substance? That'll depend on how much the viewer can take things like (I'm not kidding) telepathic, royalty-sympathetic bees, mind-wipes and easy-to-fix solutions for skyscrapers, and uh, well... Eddie Redmayne. I should let this go, but I can't. The nominee for best actor in a leading role this year also gives one of the most baffling, awful performances, and yet I'm not sure how it goes wrong. I can see why he was cast as this guy - he can pull off this snotty, fey royalty for sure, but trying to voice it like Lord Voldemort's kid doesn't do any favors. It's a glorious watch to see him act evil and conniving, and is surely on level with the most guilty-pleasure villain performances since... well, David Lynch's Dune, I suppose, or the more baffling Star Trek pictures. I almost recommend the picture just for him.
As for the actual leads, they're fine, far as it goes. Kunis is given kind of the short-shrift really with her character, basically a damsel in distress (mostly, she can defend herself if she has to), and Tatum does deliver some sincere work alongside the likes of Sean Bean. They seem to be trying, but with what? Jupiter Ascending is beautifully crafted fluff made by (I mean this in the most complementary way possible) grown-ass geeks who may have tapped out what they have left in the genre. It's a I-can't-recommend-it-but-I-won't-stop-you type of review here.
This Is the End (2013)
outrageous fun, and a solid satire on fame
You don't expect that a movie that purports to be a silly comedy about the end of the world happening to the "real" Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson and Jay Baruchel to have poignancy or a satirical message, but that is what you actually get here. As the directorial debut for Rogen and long-time collaborator Evan Goldberg, they really put the work into this. A 30 million dollar flick that looks bigger and bolder than it does, though weirder than you'd expect at times. Mostly, it's full of gross-out gags and tasteless jokes.
But why then does it work so well, as a laugh-a-minute (even more sometimes) comedy that, up to a point, even takes it characters seriously? Because the actors have, naturally a rapore, and don't mind making knuckleheads of themselves. It's also an example of dumb being done smart, which can also be seen in Superbad and Knocked up and up to a point in The Green Hornet (The Interview, their follow-up, is even bolder and mostly works as well).
Celebrity culture can be easy to lampoon, but the targets here are not exactly obscure or in-jokey, at least too much. When McBride shows up, practically unannounced, eating all of the character's stashed-away-for-the-duration food at Franco's place and proceeds to mock them mercilessly, every line is a zinger and is funny even if you don't know (by some chance) that Hill got nominated for an Oscar for Moneyball. Rogen and Golderg rely on the character's behavior, and a knowingness that the characters do dumb things.
The difference in quality between this and more super-low-brow stuff - let's say the Scary Movies flicks - is in the timing and quick-witted spontaneity and the embracing of the crude humor. When a demon shows up with a big swinging, uh, phallus, it certainly isn't subtle. But if just reading that you chuckle, then you know what you're in for. The actors are all game for being made jokes out of one another, and recognizing their idiocy especially in the back-drop that is presented here. And it's a real MOVIE as well, the filmmakers take the back-drop seriously and present it not as a joke - it can be rather terrifying to see some of the crazy things happen around these character (rapturing, holes in the ground sucking people in, fires, demons, crazy CGI creatures).
Among all this, the "characters" are, to varying degrees, self-obsessed ego-heads (Hill especially gets a fun part to play as himself with a 'Oh, I act nice, but really I'm this" sort of guy), all basically not equipped for such an apocalypse as is happening to them, and Rogen/Golderg have great enjoyment, but take seriously within the scope of what they set out to do, in making the character dynamics count. So, within the scope of the story, every character has something to do, a viewpoint, even (gasp) arcs to go through, all leading up to that wonderful plot device known as the Rapture.
Ultimately, This is the End is all in good fun, revels in the ups-and-downs of these characters and their conflicts that bring them down to base levels, and the mockery is knowing and clever. It's also stylish and fun, and shows young filmmakers really strapping in and taking people for a ride. It's the kind of flick you can watch over and over. Especially if you have been aching to see PIneapple Express 2 featuring Woody Harrelson.
Filming 'The Trial' (1981)
q & a with a funny-serious and really ego-free master
I'm not sure if Orson Welles meant for this film to be more like the 'Filming of Othello' that he made in the late 1970's, which featured almost all footage of the director talking about the process of making the film to no one in particular but the camera and footage. But it should be noted that this is a different sort of project (you can find it on Youtube, albeit it says it's "unedited", which may be the best we can get). It's presented far as I could see more like when Fritz Lang was interviewed by William Friedkin - it's a question and answer session shot on film, which means that every ten minutes (give or take a few seconds) the reels of film and sound have to be changed. So there are some breaks at times that can be a little jarring, especially in this case as a person may be asking a question, or Welles is answering it, and it's cut off.
But really, for the substance, this is a must watch for Welles fans and admirers of the Trial should check out. He's witty and serious, deadpan and charming, a raconteur and a straight-shooter. For a man who may be only known to some audiences today, unfortunately, for his outtakes of wine and frozen peas commercials, or for his problems with the studios and in taking quick projects to finance his (not all finished) independent productions, he's rather down to Earth and humble about his work. He is an artist and he lets you know it, but there's never a trace of there being much ego, and can even be self deprecating here and there, though about the Trial it's clear he is happy with the finished product (though, again his humble-ness and as with Othello, he says it's up to the critics to decide whether it's good or not).
There's stories about the casting, Perkins and his 'gay' characterization by critics, how the Salkinds (who later did Superman) got involved, and he can get into discussions about craft with clarity and decidedness. Kafka, of course, comes up quite a bit, as well as his style and what he thinks of 'Escapist' movies (oh if only he could see it today). The range of questions is fair for a Q&A - they range from thoughtful to surprising to a little long-winded and crazy (about him being constantly against corporations, that one gets lost), but Welles always manages to answer best he can, and he's having a good time with a frank and honest and sobering discussion about what it means to make a movie in all its terms. The filming conditions aren't totally ideal - the cuts make a good argument for why video is necessary for such LONG Q&A's, there's no need for artistry in such a setting on Gary Graver's part - but no matter.
Welles holds court, and is about the most interesting watch you can get with a master of the American (and world) cinema.
Orson Welles' Sound and Fury
Macbeth was always the play of Shakespeare's that I read in high school that connected with me the most. Not that I was any sort of scholar, but between this and Romeo and Juliet, I took witches and ambitious-madness in a rise to power any day of the week. Hamlet may be deeper and more evocative of so many more things existentially speaking, but Macbeth, a story of self-fulfilling prophecy, is like the grimier, harsher cousin to that Danish tale of Kings and Queens and life and death, and speaks to another level of what it means to obtain and hold on to power that has lasted for centuries for good reason.
So fitting then that in 1948 while Olivier made his legendary Hamlet film, Orson Welles, on the outs with many in Hollywood, toured quickly and then shot a Macbeth film in 21 days (!) So the fact that this isn't one of his best films is, perhaps, a disappointment unto itself. And yet this is a very worthy film because it has many of the hallmarks of an Orson Welles creation, in all of its operatic, even surrealistic and harrowing scope.
Indeed in embracing the rank and dank Scottish caves and corridors and chiaroscuro, we get a fecund mix of Welles in Shakespeare but also a kind of film-noir take on it as well, even as it's in the 12th century and in an area of the medieval and barbarian times. Welles also plays the title character, and rightfully so, it's one of those roles he went into Shakespeare in the first place to play - much like he would later play Faltaff (though, arguably, to much greater and three-dimensional effect than here). And much of the film is Welles himself, first the doubting and fearful would-be king, then the shattered 'Oh wow, now I AM King', and then the whole bag of Madness chips as he descends with the ghosts of those he has killed (Duncan, Banquo), and his wife. Oh, the wife.
I must say a criticism right off here: I didn't think Jeanette Nolan was up to par for the role. Is she a BAD Lady Macbeth? No, of course not. But she often comes off kind of stiff in the part, at least for me, even as she does her best to imbue the traits asked of this this iconic Lady - who is really the brains and cruel, dark heart behind the king, that furtive witch who has more than meets the eye behind the horrible encouragement. Is it because it's Welles, who with one look can both eat up part of the scenery and still manage to convey a range of subtlety that is remarkable and more intriguing than can be given enough credit for, is hard to match to? Maybe so. It's like she needed to really get up to a certain level with the part, and got to a level that was just good enough to get the scene by; see when she has to deliver the "Out, spot" monologue that is the show-stopping climax of her character, and it's there.
But no matter - even with this, and what threatens to be an overabundance of performance from Welles and darkness from the sets, it's still an absorbing chronicle of this masterpiece of characterization. He's giving all he's got and, unlike some other critics have pointed to, it's not all that hard to follow at all, long as one has some general familiarity with the play (I'm not sure which version I watched - I imagine at 112 minutes it's the one that has the restored footage - but the dialog was easy enough to hear). And other cast do help along like Roddy McDowell as Malcolm and, for his handful of scenes, Dan O'Herlihy as Macduff, who really does stand toe to toe with Macbeth for a few minutes of shared screen time.
This may not be the best place to immediately dive in if you haven't seen Welles before, or even Shakespeare films. Hell, it's not even the greatest of the Macbeth adaptations; Kurosawa's Throne of Blood still stands tall above others, and Polanski's adaptation is close behind. Yet it is in that company of bold Shakespeare films - the start to what would be an informal trilogy with Othello and Falstaff - and Welles really digs in with all he has in his low-budget disposal to make it MATTER. So what if he has sets that look it, or lightning when it strikes that shows the sheet on the wall? The theatricality of the whole production, to the horror/film-noir movie cinematography that feels like a monster lives in the caves as opposed to a Royal figure, to the scene of the 'trees' walking forward in unison towards the castle, it all adds up to a unique experience that, while flawed, is totally and wholly remarkable.
In other words, maybe not a lot of "fun", per-say, but then it probably never should be. Turn off all the lights, let Welles' terrified and monstrous eyes fill the screen, and get sucked in. If it were made by any less of a filmmaker, it'd be considered a major triumph - for Welles, it's another day at work.