Monday, March 28, 2016

Berkeley Rep - Macbeth

Lady Macbeth
Didn't I just review Macbeth? Indeed I did, but that was the recent movie version starring Michael Fassbender. I also got to see Berkeley Rep's production yesterday, so here's what I thought about that one.

Overall, I thought it was really good. It's a bit hard for me to evaluate this play, I realized, because I know it so well after having taught it for so many years. I constantly find myself anticipating lines and even thinking which act and scene we happen to be on at any given moment. Still, I found myself getting lost in the story, and this really zipped by. (The entire show was over two hours, which is actually one of Shakespeare's shorter plays.) My wife agreed, and she really liked it a lot. The two ladies sitting next to us seemed to enjoy it too, and I got a chance to talk to them a bit about the play when one of them said to me after the show, "You seem to know a lot about this play." (She overheard some of my comments to my wife during the intermission.) So, I answered some of their questions and got to give a bit of subtext and some of my own interpretation of what's going on.

It was a pretty straightforward telling of the story, keeping the historical setting (anachronisms and all). It made good use of Berkeley Rep's stage and even incorporated some video during the scene where the apparitions deliver their prophecies to Macbeth, but other than that, there was no modern twist. That's neither good nor bad, but I figure worth noting. And while I don't necessarily have the play memorized line-by-line, I know it well enough to know that they really didn't cut out a whole lot. Little bits were trimmed here and there, but it had every scene - minus that one with Hecate that Shakespeare probably didn't even write.

One particular wise move that I caught was when Macduff asks Ross to not hold back the truth in the fourth act. The actual line is, "Be not a niggard of your speech." They changed it to "Be not a miser of your speech." That's pretty smart considering that: 1, most people don't know the word "niggard" and don't know that it has no connection to the word "nigger" aside from an unfortunate homophonic coincidence; and 2. both Macduff and Ross were played by black men. Sure, Shakespeare nerds like myself would know that nothing racial was said, but much of the audience would no doubt get distracted by that and taken completely out of a colorblind interpretation where black men can be thanes of Medieval Scotland.

Here's what I thought of the key players in the production:

Conleth Hill as Macbeth - I definitely got to see something here that I haven't seen before. He was actually a pretty jovial guy, which might seem like an odd choice, but Hill was able to also fill him with a nervous sort of energy at the same time. It was like his jolly nature was a cover for the dark thoughts that were constantly percolating deep within him. I did feel like some of his lines toward the end felt more recited than acted, but overall it was a really good performance and he created a believable dramatic arc.

Macbeth, the witches, and an apparition
Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth - She was one of the main reasons why my wife and I wanted to see the show, and I'm pleased to say that she did the entire part in her Fargo accent. Nah, just kidding. She was great, of course. McDormand didn't do anything surprising or risky with the performance, but it was still one of the best parts of the play. The one thing that I did like, which might not have been entirely her but part of a collaboration, was how her madness seemed to stem from the fact that her husband was shutting her out of his plans once the first murder was complete.

Korey Jackson as Macduff - This is an important part to get right. Obviously, Macduff is key to the plot, but you also need to have somebody who contrasts sharply with Macbeth. I don't know if the choice was deliberate, but I love the fact that he wore a red cape throughout the story, which might make a modern audience think of a superhero. Because in many ways, that's what Macduff is. If you ever watch some of those old episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, the story will follow the villain's fall from grace, and then it's up to Batman to come in and stop him (or her). That's Macduff's purpose here as well, and he should carry a certain nobility and sense of decency about him. Jackson was the right choice if that's what they were going for.

Honestly, there wasn't a weak link in the entire production. It was cool seeing a lot of familiar faces from Calshakes as well, and these actors always deliver. Was it cool to see some big-name celebrities? Sure, but everybody else was up to the same level.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - Movie Review

I was going to wait a few more days to see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice but I found myself getting involved in too many online discussions about it that I was getting bombarded with spoilers. So, I seized the opportunity to see it this afternoon and just got back home about an hour ago.

I wasn't in too much of a rush to see this one, honestly. I was disappointed with Man of Steel and this looked to be more of the same from director Zack Snyder. I didn't think that I would hate it, just that it wouldn't live up to its potential. When I started to see the reviews pour in, I really started to fear the worst (actually, that started with a few somewhat lame looking previews).

Basically, I'm disappointed in the direction that DC/Warner is taking with their shared cinematic universe. They're trying to catch up with Marvel Studios, but they're not necessarily learning the right lessons. They see that it's cool to have a bunch of superheroes in one movie, but they don't want to take the time to build up those characters in their own movies first before rushing to the Avengers goal post. Plus, they got off to a rocky start with the aforementioned Man of Steel and the trainwreck that was Green Lantern. (Which I'm pretty sure is considered apocrypha by now.)

So, what did I think now that I finally saw it? I actually really liked it a lot, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again. This isn't to say that it doesn't have problems - because it definitely does. It also doesn't mean that I'm going to echo the cries of "the critics don't know what they're talking about!" Most of the criticism that I read was pretty fair, and while the negative points don't bother me as much as they did some people, I can see how they might detract from somebody's enjoyment of this film.

Here's what I thought about various aspects of the movie, in no particular order. Oh, and SPOILERS.

Batfleck - Unlike a lot of fans, I did not bemoan the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman. I thought it was an interesting choice. This doesn't mean that I thought it was a good idea, but I have been surprised by so many unconventional choices (Heath Ledger as the Joker anybody?) that I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now it sounds like a lot of people are praising him for his performance. So, what's my verdict? I definitely lean more toward the praise than the lamentation. I don't know if this is the "best" Batman, but I can't say that it's worse than either Christian Bale or Michael Keaton. He certainly looks the part more than Keaton, and his Batman voice is less over the top than Bale's. Overall, good job, Ben. If I ever see you while crashing the movie set to Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season, I shall shout: "Affleck, you were the bomb in Batman v Superman, yo!"

Gal Gadot - I had a good feeling about this casting choice, and those feelings were justified. While I might have preferred a bit more of a muscular Wonder Woman, I can overlook that. (If I can overlook Michael Keaton as Batman, I can get over a more slender Amazon Princess.) Aside from that, she's exactly what I wanted in a Wonder Woman - beautiful and yet totally convincing that she could kick your ass. I also got a bit more than I hoped for, as she has an accent (the character isn't American, after all) and she actually looks Mediterranean. Props to Linda Carter, but we don't need another Wonder Woman who looks like she's of Northern European stock. (Personally, she's one character where I wouldn't mind if they cast a woman of any ethnicity.) Oh, and the best part of her performance was how she clearly relished being in combat. Now THAT'S Wonder Woman.

Luthor - I actually think that this was one of the weak spots of the movie. I was actually pretty excited that an unlikely choice like Jesse Eisenberg got to play the part, but I feel like he's just doing "Generic Super Villain" with this role. I was kind of hoping that he'd basically do what he did in The Social Network only more menacing.

The Story - There's a lot that works. For one, Batman is given a really good motivation for wanting to take down Superman. I'm not sure if his sudden change of heart was all that believable though unless one takes in the entire Batman mythology as a whole. Aside from that, this movie did suffer from trying to cram too much into one movie. The fight with Doomsday would have felt totally anticlimactic if it weren't for the chance to see Wonder Woman kicking some serious butt. I'm sure that with subsequent viewings, I'll notice more plot holes and inconsistencies, as that sort of thing happens when you try and put too much into one movie.

And yes, much of this was a setup for the future Justice League movie. Do those parts work? Yeah, sure. Could the movie have done without them? Yeah. All they needed to do was make a brief mention of the fact that other metahumans exist. We didn't need a whole scene that served as a preview of franchises to come.

I guess I felt the same as I did with Man of Steel. There were parts where I felt emotionally invested, and then there were parts where it just felt like it was dragging on.

Final note - I don't think that it's possible to give an "objective" movie review, as the nature of the beast is subjective. However, when reading my reviews of superhero movies, one should always keep in mind that I'm always going to be partial to them and find something good to say for the sheer fact that they put superheroes up on the screen. Perhaps a good gauge is for me to put it on my list where I rank the comic book adaptations. It would definitely be in the top half - but perhaps not too much higher than that. Time will tell if it rises or drops.

But I will say this - it currently ranks below Affleck's rendition of Daredevil on Rotten Tomatoes. That's crazy. Maybe it's just because the bar has gotten really high since then with the various Marvel studio movies and Christopher Nolan Batman films. But there is not a moment in this movie that's worse than Affleck and his wife fighting on a swingset.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Macbeth (2015) movie review

When I first heard about the latest film adaptation of "The Scottish Play" starring Michael Fassbender, I got pretty excited. I like the actor, and I've been hoping that a new version of the film would come along that I could show to my high school senior English class. I currently show them the 1971 version that Roman Polanski directed. While it still holds up, and I am fairly fond of it, I was hoping that one with a more modern sensibility would come along that my students could relate to a bit better. (The 2006 version starring Sam Worthington couldn't quite cut the mustard, and the 2010 PBS production starring Patrick Stewart, while good, didn't quite give me what I wanted either.)

I got even more excited when I saw the trailer. Were we actually going to get the battle scene that the bleeding Captain describes in the first act? It sure looked like it. Perhaps we'd even see poor MacDonwald get "unseamed from the nave to the chops". Other moments got me excited, like the way Fassbender delivers the line about how his mind is "full of scorpions". I've never quite seen it done that way before. Usually he's just lamenting his guilty conscience, but this version carried a "Man, I've really gone and done it THIS time!" vibe.

The big disappointment? It didn't play in any theaters near me. My local theater that would have normally played this sort of a thing closed down a few years ago, and the closest one that was playing it was all the way in San Francisco. (It's about an hour away from me. Not ridiculously far, but a bit inconvenient.) There may or may not have been other means of viewing the film that may or may not have been entirely legal, but those wound up not working out for various quality and/or virus-related issues. 

When I saw that it was coming out on Blu-Ray, I decided to just take a chance and buy the damn thing. (I can provide a receipt!) I figure even if I didn't like it, I'd be voting with my wallet to encourage the film industry to keep making Shakespeare adaptations. I started watching it late last night and finished it this afternoon. In short - I absolutely loved it. I don't want to make a hasty declaration that it's my favorite film adaptation of a Shakespeare play, but I wouldn't be surprised if I list it among my favorites a decade or two from now.

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that there are some SPOILERS. How the heck do you spoil a four hundred year old play? (He dies at the end!) Obviously, I can't spoil the basic story, but the reason why one sees a new version of any of Shakespeare's plays, be it on the stage or on film, is to see how a new director and actors will interpret something that's been done so many times before. Director Justin Kurzel takes a lot of liberties with the text, but I'd be disappointed if he didn't as there are plenty of versions that remain word-for-word the same. (Ever see the 1983 version that PBS did? Holy crap in a bucket but it's more boring than watching an inflatable swimming pool deflate.) Of course, there's always a certain irony in purists complaining about people putting their own spin on Shakespeare's material considering that's what he did with almost every play he wrote. Macbeth may be based in history, but it's even less historical than Mel Gibson's Braveheart. So, I'm going to give away some of the twists and interpretations, and if you want to be surprised, you should stop reading at this point.

I should probably also note that I'm somebody who knows this play backward and forward, and my review is really for people who are already familiar with the play. If you don't know it at all, you'll probably just wind up being confused.

Anyway, here's what I thought about various aspects of it, in no particular order:

The cinematography - Sweet Jeebus, but this is a gorgeous looking film. Watch it on your biggest TV, and be sure to watch it on Blu-Ray. This made me regret not seeing it on the big screen even more, but they really took the time to do what you can only do on film and can't do on the stage. If you're going to translate it to a different medium, then play to that medium's strengths.

Justin Kurzel's vision - I would hope that even people who do not like this version could admit that Kurzel definitely had a vision here and he achieved what he set out to do. It really streamlined what is already a pretty rapidly paced story (for Shakespeare's standards). The focus was sharply on Macbeth and what was going on in his mind, and various political and cultural subtexts are pushed aside.

Marion Cottillard's Lady Macbeth - I have a feeling that this performance will reward repeated viewings. I honestly wasn't thrilled about this piece of casting - not that I think she's a bad actor. Maybe it's just because I was more excited about Fassbender. That said, she and Kurzel created an arc for the character that hadn't ever occurred to me before. Oftentimes Lady Macbeth is portrayed as being totally wicked and just gets in over her head. However, it should be noted that she gets less and less involved with Macbeth's evil plans as the play goes on. I always attributed that to the fact that he shuts her out because of how manipulative and cold she was at the start. With this version, it's not so much that she gets pushed away as she wants less and less to do with him. This ultimately makes everything make even more sense when she completely loses her mind at the end, as she realizes that her initial push merely opened up Pandora's box.

Oh, yeah, what about Fassbender, anyway? - Overall, I think that he did a great job. I'll admit that there were a few parts where it felt like he was reciting lines moreso than performing the part of the character, but the good bits far outweigh the bad, and the REALLY good bits (like the scene with Banquo's ghost) made up for it even more.  I recommend watching the bonus features of the disc, as the actor explains that he was playing the part of a man who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which makes A LOT of sense when you consider how he was out there fighting on the front lines in a time where the battles were up-close and personal and the blood of your enemy would splatter all over you.

The music - Jed Kurzel's score is hard to ignore, and it really adds to the overall mood of the film. I am reluctant to compare this all to a music video, but there are certainly some comparisons that can be made. You can get a pretty good sense of it if you watch the trailer.

The changes - I'm not going to list off every change/interpretation of this film, but let me just make the general statement that a lot of it involves taking bits that were soliloquies directed to the audience and having the characters say them directly to another character. For instance, when Lady Macbeth talks of her husband being "too full of the milk of human kindness" she says it directly TO HIM. And you know what? It works. It even works better than having it just be her thoughts.

Another interesting bit is when Macbeth speaks to Banquo's murderer just before the dinner/Banquo's ghost scene. In the text, it's all an aside so only those two and the audience can hear. In this one, Macbeth says it loud enough for people to hear, as he's already losing touch with reality.

A more significant change involves the circumstances of Malcolm fleeing to England. (Donalbain is completely cut out of this version.) In the play, he leaves after everybody finds out that his dad has been killed. Honestly, I've always found that to be an all-too convenient plot point. With this version, Macbeth gives the line about how his dad is dead right in front of Duncan's murdered body, as if to say, "Yeah, I'm the one who did this. What the hell are you going to do about it? I'll kill you, too."

While there are a lot of other changes, I never felt like any of them were there just for the sake of doing things differently. Each one either raised the stakes or simply provided me with a new way to think about a play that I've read so many times. If you're a purist, you'll no doubt be upset, but I have a hard time empathizing with that point of view in the first place, as I've already pointed out.

So, will I show this one to my class now? Honestly? No. As much as I loved it, I'm afraid that it will just cause too much confusion. I'm already spending a lot of time emphasizing the difference between what Shakespeare wrote and what they see in the Polanski version as it is, and even with that, I still have students write about events in their essays that were merely an interpretation of the director and not what Shakespeare wrote. (They often write about how Lady Macbeth threw herself off a balcony, when the text simply says that she died and it's later revealed that she most likely killed herself.)

With this version, I will have to pause it every ten minutes or so and point out stuff like, "So, in the text, he says this only to the audience." It would get pretty annoying pretty quickly. So, while I won't be showing this, I will definitely recommend it to any of my students who like the play enough to want to explore it further. Perhaps an extra credit review assignment?