Parky At the Pictures (7/1/2022)
Updated: Jan 8
(Reviews of The Tragedy of Macbeth; Munich: The Edge of War; Titane; Shane; and The Story of Film: A New Generation)
How did it get to be 2022? More to the point, how did 37 years (or almost two-thirds of a lifetime) manage to slip by while I was busy reviewing films? Heaven knows how many titles have been discussed in various publications and websites since Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider (1985), but the overall word count easily tops a few million.
Since 2008, much of this copy has been expended on the weekly reviews produced for my long-running Oxford Times columns and, more recently, for the Parky At the Pictures blog. Each January, a new year resolution to write less has quickly fallen by the wayside. This time, however, brevity will finally get to prevail over the well-meant intention to give each new release its due.
Significant arthouse features will still be examined in appropriate depth. But lesser titles will no longer be afforded comprehensive analysis, even though they will still be covered with integrity, respect and, hopefully, some insight. No doubt everyone will be able to put the writing and reading time saved to profitable use. Thanks for understanding. With luck, you'll stick around (especially the new subscribers - a warm welcome to you all) and bring a few friends along.
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH.
After making 18 highly distinctive, if not always particularly consistent features with his brother, Ethan, Joel Coen strikes out on his own with The Tradedy of Macbeth. `Based' on the play by William Shakespeare, this is more visually striking than psychologically persuasive and suffers from a distracting mix of accents that emphasises the differing acting approaches taken by the two principals and the supporting cast.
Having vanquished the foes of King Duncan of Scotland (Brendan Gleeson), Macbeth (Denzel Washington) is informed by three witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter) that he will be rewarded with the title Thane of Cawdor. However, the weird sisters also predict that he will ascend to the throne, while his friend, Banquo (Bertie Carvel), will beget a line of kings.
Disquieted when Duncan duly promotes him, Macbeth writes to his wife (Frances McDormand) about the prophecies and she vows to ensure that her husband fulfils his destiny. Thus, when Duncan comes to stay at their castle with his heir, Malcolm (Harry Melling), she goads Macbeth into murdering the monarch and despairs when he makes the mistake of slaying Duncan's servants in an ostentatious display of righteous fury.
Fearing for his safety, Malcolm flees to England, while Banquo tries to escape in order to protect his son, Fleance (Lucas Barker). Cognisant of the witches' dynastic prediction, Macbeth sends Ross (Alex Hassell) to kill the pair. But Fleance escapes and Banquo's ghost returns to haunt Macbeth at a banquet for his courtiers, who are so disconcerted by his antics that Lady Macbeth has to reassure them that he is still fit to rule.
While under the influence of a tranquilising potion, Macbeth is revisited by the witches. They warn him to beware Macduff (Corey Hawkins), but console him with the news that he will only be toppled if Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane Castle. Moreover, they promise that he will never be killed by anyone born of a woman. Yet Macbeth remains paranoid and sends henchmen to slaughter Macduff's wife (Moses Ingram) and family.
Appalled by the massacre, Ross defects to Malcolm's cause and visits him at the English court, where they plan an invasion. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth's troubled conscience causes her to sleepwalk and her doctor (Jefferson Mays) and lady-in-waiting (Susan Berger) overhear her confessing to Duncan's death, while she attempts to wash his blood off her hands.
Macbeth is too preoccupied with Malcolm and Macduff's army to tend to his wife and his confidence is shaken when the troops are ordered to use Birnham branches as camouflage to cover their march on Dunsinane. Mourning his wife's suicide. Macbeth prepares to defend his castle. But Macduff reveals that he was prematurely ripped from his mother's womb and Macbeth realises that fate has conspired against him, as he falls in battle. Malcolm is proclaimed king, but Ross elects to smuggle Fleance out of the country to keep him safe.
As James I claimed to be descended from Banquo, Shakespeare was clearly seeking to flatter the new Stuart ruler with this detail. But there's rarely room for such nuances in Joel Coen's adaptation, which often feels as pared down to the essentials as Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948). This was released in the same year that Orson Welles produced his version of Macbeth and the influence of this film is as palpable on Stefan Dechant's production design and Bruno Delbonnel's monochrome photography as German Expressionism, the paintings of de Chirico, the stage sets of Edward Gordon Craig and the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Val Lewton.
Indeed, by confining the action within the kind of 1.19:1 aspect ratio that was used in the later silent era, Coen reinforces the sense that Macbeth is boxed in from the moment he hears the witchy prognostications. But, while Kathryn Hunter's contortionary excellence conveys the ethereality of the three sisters, Coen doesn't always succeed in presenting a world out of kilter, in which evil runs rampantly alongside ambition to transform a loyal servant into a murderous usurper. The suddenness of Macbeth's lust for power has always been a weakness of Shakespeare's scenario and Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are not on screen together enough here to suggest either the strength of the middle-aged couple's marital bond, the crepuscular desperation of their scheme or the direst unsexed cruelty that Lady Macbeth strains to summon in her Faustian soliloquy.
McDormand had previously played her role on stage, but the script seems to marginalise Lady Macbeth to the extent that her onset of guilty madness almost comes out of nowhere. Indeed, she increasingly comes to feel like a shrewish supporting player to Washington, whose Macbeth proves to be very much a Coen character, as he becomes ensnared by his own flaws. Yet, while he exudes grizzled dignity and defiant vulnerability, Washington brings little covetous intent or ruthless obsession to Macbeth's rapid rise and inevitable downfall. That said, the leads are head and shoulders above their ensemble cohorts, whose turns so veer between the hammy and the bland that one is left wondering what Coen was aiming for in seeking to accommodate so many jarring styles.
More seamless are Mary Zophres's costumes and the editing of Coen (using the name Reginald Jaynes) and Lucian Johnston, which buffets the viewer between the dislocatorily tenebrous angles achieved on the soundstage sets (which ingeniously solve the problem of Macbeth's unclutchable dagger) and echoed in the combination of Craig Berkley's sound design and Carter Burwell's score. If only the direction of the cast had been so inspired and assured and the rationale behind a screenplay full of rushed speeches and devoid of political subtext had been more emphatically underscored.
Olivier's failure to raise funding for a film of his 1950s Stratford teaming with Vivien Leigh ranks among cinema's most tantalising `if onlys'. And this production also stands as a missed opportunity, as it feels superior in many ways to both Roman Polanski's 1971 version, with Jon Finch and Francesca Annis, and Justin Kurzel's 2015 interpretation, with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. But it always seems to be a self-conscious effort on Coen's part to prove that he is capable of producing meaningful art, as well as the trademark brand of left-field indie entertainment that he has spent almost four decades serving up with his sibling.
MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR.
Around 45 years ago, documents relating to British foreign policy in the 1930s were made public for the first time. Among the declassified items were cabinet memoranda, ambassadorial communiqués and committee minutes and they made it abundantly clear that Britain was in no position to wage a winnable war in the period before September 1939.
As successive governments had placed their faith in the League of Nations following the Treaty of Versailles, spending on the armed services had been drastically reduced, as it was believed that the threat posed by Weimar Germany had been removed by disarmament. This situation changed rapidly after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933 and not only started to rearm, but also began making territorial demands that threatened the peace of Europe.
On becoming Prime Minister in 1935, Stanley Baldwin quickly recognised that Britain's military might had been dangerously depleted. In order to match the Third Reich in terms of munitions and manpower, therefore, Britain also had to rearm and use diplomacy to prevent potential flashpoints from provoking conflict.
Known as `Appeasement', this policy proved highly divisive, especially after Neville Chamberlain succeeded Baldwin in May 1937, with the likes of Winston Churchill openly criticising his own Conservative Party from the backbenches, as Hitler was allowed to remilitarise the Rhine and bring about an Anschluss with Austria.
When Hitler pressed his case with Czechoslovakia for the return of the border territory of Sudetenland in the summer of 1938, there was relief across the continent when Chamberlain and his French counterpart, Édouard Daladier secured `peace for our time' by convincing Hitler and Italian ally, Benito Mussolini, to sign the Munich Agreement on 30 September. Yet, because the Second World War broke out less than a year later, history has since judged Appeasement harshly, with Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax being demonised for their failure to stand up to the dictators.
While serving as political editor of The Observer, Robert Harris had drawn on the aforementioned state papers to make the TV documentary, God Bless You, Mr Chamberlain, to mark the 50th anniversary of the accord. They also informed his bestselling 2017 thriller, Munich, which made headlines for its attempt to salvage Chamberlain's reputation by showing how Britain had been in no position to oppose Hitler with a show of force. The same stance now bolsters Christian Schwochow's Munich: The Edge of War, which is due to stream on Netflix after a brief theatrical release.
At Oxford in the early 1930s, Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewöhner) had been inseparable pals, who even shared a crush on Lenya (Liv Lisa Fries). As they forged their careers in the diplomatic corps of their respective homelands, however, Legat and Von Hartman had lost touch. But, when the Englishman receives an entreaty from the German to secure a place within the entourage that Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) is due to bring to Munich to negotiate with Adolf Hitler (Ulrich Mattes), the workaholic Legat instinctively knows that he must risk alienating his frustrated wife, Pamela (Jessica Findlay Brown), in order to heed the call.
Once in Bavaria, Legat learns the full extent of the horrors that the Nazis are already perpetrating against elements of their own populace. Moreover, he is also informed of the Oster plot to overthrow Hitler that depends upon the proposed Munich terms being rejected by the British so that the conspirators can use the impending threat of war to justify their actions.
While he seeks to gain Chamberlain's ear, Von Hartman finds himself being promoted into the Führer's inner sanctum, where he runs into Franz Sauer (August Diehl), a member of Hitler's security detail, who immediately suspects that his old school chum is up to no good.
The problem that Ben Power's screenplay faces from the outset is that everyone knows how the story ends. Chamberlain returns to Heston Aerodrome to brandish his famous piece of paper in front of a cheering crowd, while Hitler repairs to his lair to prepare for the spring invasion of Czechoslovakia and the announcement of his demand for the restoration of the international city of Danzig from Poland. But, trusting in Harris's narrative ingenuity, he and Schwochow are able to construct an involving, if rarely suspenseful thriller around the idealism of two young men, the opportunism of a tyrant and the pragmatism of a career politician who recognised the long-term value of trying to give peace a chance.
Overcoming Covid restrictions to film in the Führerbau, production designer Tim Pannen and cinematographer Frank Lamm generate a credible sense of time and place that isn't overly compromised by Isobel Waller-Bridge's generic score. The problem is, however, neither Legat nor Von Hartman is even vaguely as interesting as Chamberlain or Hitler. As a result, whenever the action drifts away from the factual high-level brinkmanship, it quickly comes to feel contrived and inconsequential.
Legat's dealings with Chamberlain are particularly unconvincing, as he wangles his passage as a translator and then persuades the PM to read a dossier that Von Hartman has compiled about Nazi atrocities and the last chance that the Oster conspiracy represents for the whole world. But Von Hartman's brushes with the snooping Sauer, the unpredictable Hitler and sympathetic civil servant Helen Winter (Sandra Hüller) are no more compelling, while the nocturnal detour to discover the Jewish Lenya's gruesome fate seems more melodramatic than tragic.
Despite being saddled with feeble backstories, George MacKay and Jannis Niewöhner are suitably committed as the reunited friends furtively meeting in corridors and bierkellers to haul their countries back from the brink. But Jeremy Irons is so good as Chamberlain that one wishes Schwochow had opted to focus on him and his misplaced trust in both Hitler's honour and his own ability to make him see reason.
Maybe one day someone will make a film about Munich on a par with Conspiracy (2001), Frank Pierson's harrowingly authentic account of the Wannsee Conference. For now, this stands as a noble attempt to redress the balance of the Churchillian version of history that was so noxiously peddled in Joe Wright's overrated Darkest Hour (2017), which depicts Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) as a serial loser who tried to sabotage the war effort by lobbying for Halifax (Stephen Dillane) to be his successor. For an alternative take on proceedings, however, check out Petr Zelenka's Lost in Munich (2015), which revisits the conference through a fictional film about Daladier's grey parrot.
Having made an compellingly grisly impact with her debut feature, Raw (2016), French director Julia Ducournau became only the second woman after Jane Campion to win the Palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival with her sophomore outing, Titane. As Campion had to share the award for The Piano with Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine (both 1993), Ducournau actually became the first woman to win the Grand Prix outright and there was bemusement when she failed to make the shortlist for the Best International Film at the Academy Awards. However, this full-throttle chunk of psychosexual body horror was always going to prove divisive.
Having caused a crash by annoying her father during a family outing, seven year-old
Alexia (Adèle Guigue) has a titanium plate fitted in her skull and kisses the vehicle that had nearly killed her. Some years later, the still-scarred Alexia (Agathe Rouselle) lands a job as an exotic dancer at a motor show and uses a metal hair pin to murder an obsessive fan (Thibault Cathalifaud) who stalks her in the car park. While showering, Alexia hears a banging from the showroom and has sex with the vehicle on which she had been cavorting earlier in the evening.
Alexia still lives with her parents (Bertrand Bonello and Céline Carrère), who are oblivious to the fact that she is a serial killer. They also have no idea that she has been impregnated by the show car and has failed to perform an abortion with her hair pin. She clearly blames them for her plight and, after she returns home after killing lesbian co-worker Justine (Garance Marillier) and several other guests at a house party, Alexia torches the family home, with her mother and father trapped in their room.
Wanted for murder, Alexia cuts her hair, binds her breasts and breaks her nose to assume the identity of Adrien Legrand, who had disappeared as a seven year-old a decade earlier. On reporting to a police station, Alexia is relieved when Adrien's father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), immediately accepts her as his son and declines the invitation to conduct a DNA test.
Vincent is a fire chief and introduces Adrien to the crew at his station. However, Rayane (Laïs Salameh) is unconvinced by the silent and supposedly traumatised newcomer and is warned to curb his curiosity when Vincent begins entrusting Adrien with greater responsibility. Finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the oil black emanations from her vagina and hide her swelling belly, Adrien considers running away. But she recognises that Vincent is willing to protect her, especially after she saves him after he suffers a cardiac arrhythmia after overdosing on the steroids he injects to strengthen his deteriorating body.
Curious to see `her son', Vincent's estranged wife (Myriem Akheddiou) pays a visit to the station and sees the now heavily pregnant Alexia without Adrien's bandages. She agrees to say nothing because she is aware that Vincent needs to believe that he has found his child. However, he also sees Alexia naked and reassures her that he will continue to care for her, whoever she is.
During a party at the fire station, Adrien is persuaded to dance by his colleagues. However, Alexia allows her showgirl side to take over and Vincent is appalled that she would betray his trust and expose him to potential ridicule. Feeling desperate, Alexia has sex with a fire engine. Shortly afterwards, her skin starts to tear and she pleads with Vincent to help her when she begins having contractions. Resisting her clumsy attempt to seduce him, he cradles the newborn (whose spine contains exposed titanium) after its mother's head splits open during labour.
Combining elements from Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and David Cronenberg's adaptation of J.G. Ballard's Crash (1996), this is an uncompromisingly provocative deconstruction of such concepts as gender, sexuality, desire, fetishisation and parenthood that demands to be taken on its own terms.
Despite pushing boundaries, however, Ducournau refuses to foist a definitive interpretation upon Alexia/Adrien's actions or Vincent's reactions. Consequently, viewers are as likely to feel alienated as they are intrigued by the characters and what the film has to say about such themes as dysfunction and acceptance, identity and appearance, masculinity and androgyny, and loneliness, love and death. It's certainly makes for unsettling viewing, with Agathe Rousselle again refusing to be labelled - as she had done in Thibault Della Gaspera's short, Looking For the Self - in giving a largely mute, but courageously physical performance that is matched by the delusional compassion displayed by the ever-reliable Vincent Lindon.
The perversely romantic and archly transgressive story concocted by Ducournau and co-scenarists Jacques Akchoti, Simonetta Greggio and Jean-Christophe Bouzy demands that the audience buys into its more dementedly outré developments. But even those who refuse to go along for the ride can't dismiss so easily the brutal beauty of Ruben Impens's vibrant imagery, the brash boldness of Laurie Colson and Lise Péault's production design, and the imposingly sombre strains of Jim Williams's techno-operatic score.
With the Ashes already lost, the last thing most England cricket fans would want to see right now is a documentary about the Australian leg spinner who inflicted more than his share of misery on the Poms between 1993 and 2007. Yet, there's much to relish in David Alrich, Jon Carey and Jackie Munro's Shane, which affords Shane Warne the opportunity to set the record straight on the highs and lows of a remarkable, record-breaking career.
Shane Keith Warne was born in the Melbourne suburb of Upper Ferntree Gully in September 1969. As a boy, he developed strength in his wrists by pulling himself along on a trolley built by his father after he broke both legs in a playground accident. Undaunted, he dreamt of playing Aussie Rules Football and his failure to make the grade with the St Kilda club proved a major psychological setback. However, it taught the young Warne about the realities of professional sport and, when a chance arose to play in Bristol with some St Kilda teammates, he threw himself into developing his leg-spinning and partying skills.
Despite struggling to cope with the discipline imposed at the Australian Cricket Academy, Warne sought the advice of disgraced leggie Terry Jenner, who had served time for embezzlement, yet became Warne's `Mr Miyagi', as they worked on his range of deliveries. He made his mark at grade level before debuting for Victoria in the Sheffield Shield in February 1991. His Test bow came the following January, when he showed sufficient character against some pugnacious Indian batting to earn a place on the tour to Sri Lanka.
Warne and skipper Allan Border recall the tap he took before taking three wickets for no runs to win a Test that was slipping away. He returned to win the Boxing Day Test against the West Indies on his home ground and book his place on the 1993 Ashes tour.
His first ball of the series at Old Trafford memorably skinned Mike Gatting. Although the latter remains a reluctant sidekick in the story of the `ball of the century', the pair reminisce about the ripper that pitched outside leg stump before hitting off. Warne admits it was a fluke, as he never bowled anything remotely like it again. But wickets kept coming and he was suddenly the focal point of an attack that bowled Australia to victory in string of series that included a 1994-95 Ashes win that saw Warne take his first 10-wicket haul and an unmentioned hat-trick (even though middle victim Darren Gough is one of the talking heads).
Until this point, Warne had taken to Test cricket like duck to water and enjoyed the adulation. In 1994, however, he was offered $200,000 by Pakistan captain Saleem Malik to play out a draw and his fury at the risk of being compromised is still evident in his recollection of the incident. He would later be caught up in the so-called `John the bookmaker' scandal, when he and Mark Waugh took money for pitch and weather information. But he rode the episode to become only the second spinner to take 300 wickets in Tests.
Sachin Tendulkar remembers a less contentious moment during the 1998 Indian tour when he discovered Warne's aversion to spicy food when he invited him to dinner at his home. However, it would be a shoulder injury that sidelined Warne after helping Australia win the World Cup after a thrilling semi-final victory over South Africa and he spent a further period out of the game after failing a drug test after taking a diuretic given to him by his mother to help with weight loss.
Warne's relationship with his parents and ultra-competitive younger brother Jason provides insight into his approach to life. But his own family unit broke down after wife Simone returned early from England in 2005 after news broke of his infidelity and he was left to spend the most mesmerising series in recent Ashes history crying into the hotel minibar. He is honest enough to accept responsibility for his error and discloses that his decision to retire from cricket was prompted by a need to spend more time with his children, Summer, Jackson and Brooke.
They are affectionately frank in appraising his parenting skills and accept that he had to make sacrifices to become the first to reach the milestone of 700 Test wickets. Andrew Strauss reflects on being the landmark victim before Warne takes justifiable pride in leading an under-strength Rajasthan Royals team to the inaugural Indian Premier League title in 2008.
Brief mention is made of his commentary and poker careers, while fleeting images allude to his brief engagement to actress Elizabeth Hurley. But this is very much a celebration of Warne's sporting achievement and the circumstances that shaped it. Consequently, nothing is said about hair transplants, even though he has always been open on the subject in the past. Having clearly set out the parameters, the man himself speaks with clarity and honesty about triumphs and setbacks, with his raconteurial élan and moments of insouciant introspection making him much more engaging than celebrity mates like Coldplay's Chris Martin and Ed Sheeran, whose contributions are, frankly, excruciatingly pointless.
More valuable are the opinions of his family members and old pros like Ian Chappell, Ian Botham, Mark Taylor, Ian Healy, Merv Hughes, Kevin Pietersen and Mark Nicholas. Longtime teammates like Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting, Brett Lee and Adam Gilchrist are notable by their absence, however. They feature heavily in the sporting action, of course, which has been somewhat rationed, but crisply edited by Mike Brook, Matthew Dale and Gretchen Peterson to capture the blokeish attitude that Warne brought to the game, as this ruthless competitor sought to use every trick in his armoury to get batsmen out.
Cricket had seen nothing like him and those who saw him play were fortunate to have witnessed greatness in action. He has his flaws, some of which had been strengths in his pomp. But he appears to be on an even keel, as he moves unrepentantly further into his fifties, and one can only hope he finds another worthwhile focus for his unique and undisputed talents. It's a shame he can't do something to help save Test cricket. After all, he's already done it once.
THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION.
While it provides a solid overview of 21st-century cinema, Mark Cousins's addendum to his epic 15-hour TV series, The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), is more of an astute summation of shifting technological, aesthetic, intellectual and commercial trends than an incisive insight into the reasons for such changes and their overall impact.
As ever, the irrepressible critic-cum-documentarist makes judicious use of extracts from a wide range of features (over 110 in all), including several that went unseen outside the festival circuit. But, while these are impeccably edited by Timo Langer, the enthusiastically eclectic, occasionally hyperbolic and sometimes simplistic focus on stylistic and thematic details blurs any impression of the bigger picture, as the dots don't always join as neatly as Cousins would have us believe.
In addition to looking back (although he omits developments like the latest flirtation with 3-D and the potentially game-changing advent of streaming), he also speculates about the medium's future direction(s). Yet, for all his passion and optimism, this feels more like an assemblage of jotted notes than the concerted theses offered in The Story of Looking (2021) or the resistibly mansplanatory Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (2018).
For all its sincerity and generosity, Cousins's cinephilia has always been showily impressive and self-consciously provocative. But if this 160-minute outing (which was made during the pandemic) inspires viewers to follow up the more obscure references, then it will laudably have served its purpose.