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10 - Masterpiece
9 - Great
8 - Very good
7 - Good
6 - Watchable if you like the genre
5 - Mediocre, don't bother
4 - Bad
3 - Terrible
2 - Garbage
1 - Genuinely offensive
O, full of scorpions is my mind
Justin Kurzel's adaptation of the Scottish play features interesting visuals and fine performances.
The movie captures some striking images, with mist-draped moors and battlefields soaked in a nightmarish red light. It does "look good" in the simplest, most earnest meaning of the phrase, although it lacks the exquisite movement and composition of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood and Ran or the ingenious way Orson Welles' Othello played with architecture.
Fassbender is forceful and charismatic - a strong turn with moments of sheer brilliance, like the mirthless, desperate laughter he delivers when uttering the line I put in the review's title. Cotillard is powerful as long as her Lady is ruthless and manipulative, but gets sidelined when she spirals into madness. Harris and Considine are excellent in supporting roles.
For the standard of cinematic adaptations of the Bard I would call this moderately faithful, but there are a few dubious choices. Here Malcolm flees to England after discovering a still bloody Macbeth next to Duncan's corpse, which reflects very poorly on him and makes little sense (why would the Thane spare him at this point?). Macbeth's last stand also feels too much "tragic hero" and not enough "villain protagonist"; he essentially commits suicide and is given a curiously dignified ending. It is true that, in spite of his deeds, Macbeth is meant to engage, to an extent, our sympathy... but he is not supposed to be Brutus.
Macbeth and his wife losing a child (the movie opens with his funeral), on the other hand, is a reasonable interpretation of the source material - see the Lady's "I have given suck, and know" (1.7).
As far as Shakespeare on the big screen goes, this is, overall, a respectable effort. If in the future Kurzel will handle other plays, they will be worth watching.
Playing it safe
The Force Awakens avoids the prequels' most glaring mistakes, so hooray for that. It features no dreary dialogue about sand being rough and irritating; no clunky space politics with elected queens; no overuse of CGI and set-pieces so outlandish they become boring; no obnoxious fish-faced critter as comedic sidekick; no whiny, petulant protagonist. In fact, George Lucas made J.J. Abrams' work a lot easier, because the best thing about Episode VII is what is NOT there. Although, to be fair to Lucas, Episodes I-III were weaker than this new entry, but also more ambitious.
The movie is competent but safe, and failed to resonate in any major way for me. The plot is a rehash of A New Hope, beyond the "following common fantasy / sci-fi tropes" justification and more into "stealth remake with new protagonists" territory. And, before anyone name-drops Joseph Campbell, I did read The Hero With A Thousand Faces and it says nothing about epic sagas needing fugitive droids hiding valuable data while escaping on a desert planet, or the construction of *yet another* Death Star (something which felt already stale in Episode VI).
Still, the movie features likable characters and a few effective moments. The early scenes on Jakku (aka Tatooine 1.2) are fine, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) as a scavenger prowling the humongous wreckage of a Star Destroyer and striving to survive.
Funny how sequels of classic blockbusters are becoming self-conscious: Jurassic World mocked the need to introduce new dinosaurs to capture the audience's interest; Episode VII features a bad guy, Kylo Ren, who is obsessed with a character from the original trilogy (Darth Vader) and tormented by his inability to top him.
Speaking of Kylo, I UNDERSTAND what they were trying to do (the volatile, unpredictable villain who, like the young heroes, may be way over his head). I even respect the attempt to do something novel. But he is too lightweight as the main bad guy, he lacks charisma, gravitas, dignity (he would have been fine as a secondary villain). When your antagonist is an emo with fluffy hair who elicits scornful laughter (see his temper tantrums) it's never a good sign, unless you are making a spoof. The Emperor-like "Supreme Leader" is a weak CGI creation; also, he is called Snoke, which sounds like something you might buy at IKEA.
Music has always been a crucial element of Star Wars; unfortunately, John Williams - whose soundtracks were among the few bright spots of the prequels - is below his par here. The old iconic themes are there, but none of the new material feels memorable.
I can't muster up much enthusiasm about The Force Awakens, but it may be setting up some interesting progression for the next episodes.
It's not often one needs an elephant in a hurry
Everyone enjoys taking a cheap shot at the Academy Awards, and this movie offers a great chance to do just that - Around the World in Eighty Days won Best Picture, while in the same year John Ford's The Searchers, one of the most iconic classics in the history of American cinema, didn't receive a single nomination.
Around the World is three hours long, and feels like it. Every few minutes the movie stops to gawk at its exotic locations and smugly chuckle at its endless celebrity cameos ("Look, isn't it funny that the saloon pianist is Frank Sinatra?"). It has certainly aged badly. I remember enjoying it as a kid thirty years ago; rewatching it recently, I was surprised by how overlong it feels. I had a similar reaction to another on-the-road adventure/comedy of the same era, The Great Race, except the latter is propelled even today by Jack Lemmon's villainous glee as Professor Fate and by the sight of the adorable Natalie Wood in her lingerie. Around the World features also-adorable Shirley MacLaine - but, distractingly, she is unlikely cast as an Indian princess.
Overall, though, this Jules Verne adaptation isn't a bad movie - a mildly entertaining travelogue with luscious vistas and a tone-perfect David Niven as a British gentleman so prim and fastidious that, if you tossed a couple of eggs in his luggage, two minutes later he would produce from it still immaculate clothes and a perfectly cooked omelet on a silver platter. In fact, Around the World is at its best when it focuses on Niven's Phileas Fogg dryly dealing with annoyances, obstacles and threats, and at its worst when it pauses to showcase the physical skills of co-star Cantinflas as Passepartout - so we have a dancing number, a bullfighting number, a circus number, and so on.
The result is drawn-out; we complain that Peter Jackson added at least a whole hour of bloat in each Hobbit movie, but Hollywood was already doing that sixty years ago.
The Banner Saga (2014)
One of those captivating little games you can't put down until you have completed them, The Banner Saga boasts great visuals and compelling gameplay.
Inspired by Nordic mythology, the game follows two caravans of men and Varls (giants) as they escape an invasion by monstrous creatures, the Dredge, in what looks like the beginning of the apocalypse.
Gameplay is a mix of effective turn-based combat (whose only misstep is limited enemy variety) and interesting decisions: how you manage your companions and address various issues faced along the road, like quarrels, bandits, lack of supplies, helping fellow refugees.
This choice-and-consequence system is sneakily clever. The best decision is never immediately obvious (although it generally does make sense in retrospect). Also, results may take a long time to develop, defeating the usual "well, I'll just reload" trick.
The Banner Saga features lovely hand-drawn animation, which reminds me of Disney classics, and an atmospheric soundtrack. Don't miss it if you enjoy turn-based combat in an unusual fantasy setting.
San Andreas (2015)
Crushes interest, shatters patience
Here's the thing: in fiction, disasters are only as compelling as the characters involved in them.
San Andreas is more mediocre than flat-out awful, but the script has the raw storytelling power of the blurb on a box of cereals.
The Rock is the stoic working-class alpha male, caring father and action hero, the kind of tedious protagonist who is always brave, is always right and always knows what to do next (his character introduction features an interview praising his accomplishments). I'm surprised that, in the climax, he doesn't simply pull at the San Andreas Fault and put it back in its place.
Carla Gugino is the divorced wife who plans to settle down with Obviously Slimy Ioan Gruffudd. Paul Giamatti is the geologist who warns the city of the impending catastrophe before spending the rest of his short screen time crawling under a table - it's as if movie makers suddenly realized in the last stage of production: "Oh wait, disaster movies need multiple plot lines, right? Paul, you busy?".
Not even Alexandra Daddario's turquoise eyes and luscious curves managed to resuscitate my attention.
I'd suggest skipping this.
The Winslow Boy (1999)
On the surface, this legal drama by David Mamet (based on a play by Terence Rattigan) is as straightforward as it gets: in early 20th century Britain, cadet Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards) is accused of theft and expelled from the naval academy; his family, led by father Arthur (the great Nigel Hawthorne), starts a legal crusade to prove the boy's innocence, hiring famed lawyer Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam).
Mamet and Rattigan operate a deconstruction of the genre in both structure and themes. Court scenes are almost nonexistent; what we do see are preparations and aftermaths in the Winslow household, and the fallout of the case on the family's welfare.
For every character, there is something more at work than the pursuit of truth. Is Arthur Winslow motivated by paternal devotion and sense of justice or merely by pride? Does Sir Robert care about the case, or he just fancies Ronnie's spirited sister Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon)? Catherine herself, the idealist, at one point appears ready to drop everything to save her imminent marriage with a conservative officer; the mother (Gemma Jones) worries about their waning wealth; the other son (Matthew Pidgeon), forced to abandon his studies, becomes eager to join the impending conflict and will probably end up on the trenches of WWI a few years later.
Even sneakier, is Ronnie truly innocent? The movie seemingly implies he is, but leaves a trail of breadcrumbs leading in the opposite direction as well. There is no explicit "Har har I did it!" twist - but, at the very least, it leaves you wondering.
Performances are impeccable; the movie is worth multiple viewings to appreciate its tricky undertones.
Compare with Sean Penn's The Pledge, which came out two years later; it's very different in terms of style but performs a similar deconstruction/autopsy on a branch of the crime genre (for The Winslow Boy it's legal dramas, for The Pledge detective stories).
Ex Machina (2015)
There is a neat moment in Alex Garland's remarkable Ex Machina when schlubby programmer Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) objects he is not really performing a Turing test on robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), as he already knows she is an AI; his boss Nathan (the great Oscar Isaac) replies they're already past that: the real test is to SHOW Caleb she is artificial and THEN see if he still believes her to have consciousness and feelings.
Now, isn't that a variation of what movies (and fiction in general) do? They show us characters we know aren't real, and yet for a couple of hours we believe in them, root for them, bestow our empathy on them. There is an interesting meta layer, with Ava beguiling Caleb just as Garland's disquieting script captivates us viewers.
Ex Machina succeeds thanks to strong character work and excellent performances. Gleeson is fine as the audience surrogate; lovely Vikander is both vulnerable and uncanny as Ava; Isaac, who is becoming one of the best actors of his generation, absolutely kills it as smug demiurge Nathan, a brilliant man hiding a sinister streak behind is cool bro facade.
Jûsan-nin no shikaku (2010)
While most modern action movies feel bloated and overlong, with unnecessary subplots sprouting on every scene, 13 Assassins has the opposite problem. An epic Jidaigeki homaging Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, the film follows veteran warrior Shinzaemon Shimada, entrusted with the task of eliminating a bloodthirsty powerful nobleman, untouchable by the law; Shimada assembles a team of fighters for the dangerous mission.
Structure is simple. In the first act, 13 Assassins introduces the major players and displays the nobleman's atrocities (one moment in particular is truly disturbing, cementing the movie's R rating); in the second, Shimada and his men reach an isolated village to prepare the trap, while the nobleman's right-hand man Hanbei attempts to anticipate their moves. The last act is a bloody, pulse-pounding battle which, in spite of its length (over thirty minutes), maintains a great level of tension.
While action is spectacular, characterization is lacking. Kôji Yakusho is excellent as Shimada, but only three or four of his men - including his nephew and a clownish bandit who is a clear homage to Seven Samurai's Kikuchiyo - get any kind of development; the rest are simply guys with swords. With deeper characterization, the last battle would have been even more powerful.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Grampa Miller shows how it's done
I guess I'm the living proof Fury Road is an action masterpiece, as I never particularly cared for the post-apocalyptic setting and I'm usually bored by car chases, and yet this movie blew me away.
Hardy, Hoult and especially Theron are great; set-pieces are varied and exciting, pacing is phenomenal.
Storytelling is brilliantly sparse and economical: in a cinematic age heavy with exposition and talking heads, writer/director Miller keeps everything focused, leaving minor details to the viewer's imagination. The War Boys spray some silver stuff in their mouths before attacking... what is it? We can guess it's some kind of drug used as part of their kamikaze ritual, but the movie (smartly) doesn't stop to explain. A secondary villain is named The People Eater... why? Another blockbuster would have dished out his backstory, but here we can only imagine it, as it's not relevant to the plot. The same goes for The Bullett Farmer, for the mysterious stilt walkers inhabiting the swamp, an so on.
And that's why Fury Road MOVES like no other action film in years.
John Wayne's Platoon
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Fury is how the last wave of murderous Nazis is not led by Hitler himself, with Brad Pitt's heroic Sarge chucking a spear at Adolf and nearly killing him.
A movie with major identity problems, Fury starts off as some kind of Casualties Of War drama with a wide-eyed rookie (Logan Lerman) pushed around by hardened comrades and a ruthless sergeant; then, with a complete 180, it turns into over-the-top schlock as Pitt and his men slaughter like a million enemies who charge at them with much trampling of boots and ominous singing - there is a priceless bit when the approaching Germans sound like they are intoning the Carmina Burana acappella style. The last act plays like a zombie movie, as the scarred, barking Nazis besiege the protagonists, whose brave deeds are accompanied by a soundtrack of heroic trumpets and mournful strings. It's so portentous I chuckled quite a bit, such as when a shovel-wielding Nazi dives into the tank attempting to club Pitt.
The best sequence is a tense confrontation between tanks attempting to outmaneuver each other. It's a solid set-piece, and lacks the rah-rah rhetoric of the final battle.