Macbeth: The Film (It will save you time)





Macbeth (2015)

Directed by Justin Kurzel

StudioCanal, 113 minutes, R (violence, brief sexuality)



I’ve noted this before. Though it horrifies several of my friends and relatives, Shakespeare doesn’t make my heart sing. I love all things Scottish, but I recall a three-hour plus production of Macbeth that was so turgid it made me want to sneak out the back and grab a plate of haggis. I was thus recently surprised to enjoy the 2015 movie version of Macbeth. I’m sure a lot of that had to do with the fact that director Justin Kurzel pared it down to under two hours.


It also had plenty to do with Michael Fassbinder in the title role. He was so intense that he made me believe in what were arguably overly abrupt transitions in his moods and motives. (Hey, you’ve got cut somewhere!) I was also surprised that French actress Marion Cotillard pulled off Lady Macbeth. Her English was very good and she was excellent as a manipulative temptress and villainess.


For those who don’t know, Macbeth is set in 11th century Scotland. Kurzel doesn’t have to do much more than aim his camera at the rugged hills and moors of the Isle of Skye to convey the wildness and primitive conditions of the day. His characters brave the wet, the mud, the blood, the battle scars, and the close-to-the-margins living that marked Scotland at the tail end of what is sometimes labeled the Dark Ages. It’s not a particularly accurate term, though it suggests the semi-tribal nature of authority. In theory, Duncan (David Thewlis) is King of the Scots, but he serves by nature of having defeated a pretender and only so long as he can keep ambitious thanes (land-grant nobles) at bay.


Macbeth is known for the role of its three witches accompanied by a small girl akin to Greek oracles who utter vague prophecies. Courtesy of Macbeth’s valor in a battle in which he loses his son, Duncan has just defeated a recent challenger and executes the old Thane of Cawdor for his treasonous alliance with Norsemen. Duncan bestows the title of Cawdor upon Macbeth. The latter grows troubled, though, by the witches’ proclamation that Macbeth will be king and his friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) the father of kings plural. The implication is that Macbeth’s line will not inherit the throne.


That and some steamy seduction are all that Lady Macbeth needs to manipulate her husband into killing Duncan and assuming the throne. Pro tip: If you’re going to kill a king, don’t make Macduff (Sean Harris), the powerful Thane of Fife suspect you, or allow the king’s eldest son Malcolm (Jack Raynor) to slip off to England to raise an army. Before you know it, you have to kill a lot of people, including Macduff’s entire family and, eventually, send assassins competent enough to dispatch your old friend Banquo, the Thane of Lochaber, but not swift enough to keep his son Fleance from fleeing.


Things like that can drive you crazy and there’s nothing like a mad king to bring out the long swords. Lady Macbeth tries to keep her husband focused but when she too starts to lose her royal marbles, you can bet the pewter that things won’t go well. Plus, those bloody witches insist on uttering non-specific prophecies that provide no solace whatsoever. There three twists toward the end before none of Lady Macbeth’s damned spots will come out. There’s never a stain stick when you need one.


Okay, I’m being cheeky. I really did like this production. It had the right balance of skilled theatre actors­–­Considine, Elizabeth Debicki (Lady Macduff), David Hayman (Lord Lennox)–and film/TV stars such as Cotillard, Fassbinder, Sean Harris, and Reynor to mix both dignity and thrills into the production. To be sure, it doesn’t have the skillful theatrics of the Laurence Olivier/Vivien Leigh production, but even those who’ve never seen Macbeth know the famed soliloquys, hence Fassbinder and Cotillard don’t have to match anyone else to be perfectly competent at delivering them. Kurzel’s use of Northumberland’s Bamburgh Castle adds another dose of sparseness to a play that, at heart, is about ambition, murder, and lust for power for rather thin gain. Did I mention it’s only 113 minutes?


Rob Weir


Oppenheimer Lives Up to the Hype



Oppenheimer (2023)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Universal Pictures, 180 minutes, R (nudity, adult situations, language)



Critic Richard Roeper called Oppenheimer “one of the best movies of the century.” The hype is justified. Director Christopher Nolan has made a film of epic proportions, social significance, and one so expertly paced that three hours race by.


J. Robert “Oppie” Oppenheimer (1904-67), has been called “the father of the atomic bomb,” which is accurate and ironic for his role in assembling the greatest scientific minds of his generation, though they were often like unruly children in need of cajolement and discipline. Not to mention Oppie’s own misgivings when his horrible weapon became a pawn in the arms race, not an instrument of world peace.


Herding massive egos wasn’t easy. Oppenheimer had id issues of his own and was probably on the high-functioning end of the autism scale. Irish actor Cillian Murphy is letter-perfect in depicting him as overly attuned to sound and light, literal, insensitive to others, and convinced of the rectitude of his every decision. It didn’t help that he had skeletons in his closet, or that many who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the A-Bomb fell outside the category of well-adjusted. Brigadier General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), the military director of the project, found it difficult to switch between his command duties and political pressure; Rear Admiral Lewis Straus (Robert Downey, Jr.) was a schemer; and each of the scientists were brilliant but temperamental: Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), David Hill (Rami Malek), Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), Giovanni Lomantz (Josh Zuckerman), Izzy Rabi (David Kumholtz), Edward Teller (Bernie Safdie)… Hans Bethe, Enrico Fermi, Kurt Gödel, Werner Heisenberg, Roger Robb, Leo Szilard, and snake-in-the-grass Klaus Fuchs.


Oppenheimer was not a safe choice for the project. In addition to his personal quirks, he had red flag friends in several senses of the word. It was legal to join the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in the 1930s and the Soviet Union (USSR) was allied with the U.S. during World War II, but those in high places distrusted Josef Stalin, the USSR, and American communists. Oppenheimer probably never joined the CPUSA, but his brother Frank did (Dylan Arnold), as did Oppie's friend Hakan Chevalier (Jefferson Hill), and Oppie’s longtime lover Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). Oppie wasn’t good with people, but he did like sex. He continued dalliances with Tatlock and another scientist’s wife after he married Kitty (Emily Blunt), who was married three previous times, once to a CPUSA member.  


In other words, Oppenheimer’s life was as messy as the physics theories that tortured his mind. Complicated individuals plus an enormously complicated project equals a large cast. If your grasp of the history of physics is weak, you could get lost in trying to keep track of who’s who in Oppenheimer. My advice is don’t try. The film eventually boils down to the competing objectives of three people: Oppenheimer, Groves, and the oily Straus. All you need know is that everyone else in the film–including humorless intelligence officers–align themselves according to their own agendas, loyalties, and grudges. Know also that what was tolerated during the war changed dramatically when the threat of Nazism gave way to a postwar Red Scare. Oppenheimer was among those who went from hero to victim. 


Director Christopher Nolan signals the shift by subtly dividing Oppenheimer into two chapters: Fission and Fusion. The atomic bomb was a fission weapon that split atoms into two pieces. Metaphorically the race for an A-bomb meant winning or losing the war. Fusion bombs such as the more powerful hydrogen bomb “fuse” two atoms to create a third. Think Oppie (science), Groves (military), and Straus (political ambition).


Murphy and Downey Jr. have been nominated for Best Actor and Supporting Actor Oscars respectively. They are deserving choices. I’m less enthusiastic about Emily Blunt for Best Supporting Actress, but not because of her acting. Oppenheimer violates the Bechdel Rule with its aggressively male story line. Only Florence Pugh is less than an appendage to the men and would be a better choice to be honored.


Don’t cavalierly dismiss Oppenheimer as sexist. Blunt’s performance was in accordance with gender roles of the time period. Nolan’s film is masterful for capturing the social milieu and for its innovative use of 65 mm IMAX and large-format cameras. Oppie left a contestable legacy that Nolan incisively captures.


Rob Weir


P.S.  See if you recognize who plays President Truman!


A Man Escaped a Masterpiece



A Man Escaped or The Wind Blows Where It Listeth (1956)

Directed by Robert Bresson

Gaumont Film Company, 99 minutes, not-rated



If you’ve ever wondered why I watch a lot of classic movies, A Man Escaped is your answer. The late Roger Ebert declared it “like a lesson in the cinema” and the British magazine Sight and Sound listed in among the top 100 films of all time. That’s extraordinary praise for a film whose “action” occurs in a very short period of time.


Part of reputation of A Man Escaped rests upon the amazing use of light by director Robert Bresson. He has been called a “religious” director, though he labeled himself a “Christian atheist.” For what it’s worth, the film’s alternative title comes from the New Testament Gospel of John and one of the minor characters is a pastor. Bresson, who was once a photographer–not to be confused with Henri-Cartier Bresson–masterfully mixed darkness with slanted beams of light that illuminate in numerus meanings of that term. He is considered a pre-New Wave director, but A Man Escaped could be a film noir offering were it not a World War II thriller. Bresson’s camerawork dazzles. There are lots of verticals, horizontals, and acute angles, but Bresson seldom used wide angle lenses and preferred close shots. Moreover, Bresson often worked with non-trained actors. That allowed him to draw viewers into the cinematic experience rather than merely stargazing. All of these things come into play in A Man Escaped, which in many ways is a psychological drama enhanced by omniscient voiceovers. It is based on French Resistance fighter André Devigny and is in French with subtitles, but you need not worry: Dialogue is sparse as it takes place inside a Nazi-run prison where talking is verboten.


In the opening scene we do not yet know why Lt. Fontaine (François Leterrier) has been arrested by the Gestapo or why he isn’t handcuffed, but he makes his first escape attempt by trying to bolt the vehicle as it drives along a street in occupied Lyons. All that comes of that is a blood-covered entrance to prison on a stretcher. What unfolds next is a portrait of life on the inside: coded tapping on walls, furtive passing of notes, the sounds of machinegun executions, stolen conversation while washing or walking in circles for “exercise,” and the daily grind of carrying two buckets each morning: one to dump human waste and one for water. Unless an approved package comes, prisoners wear the same clothing every day–a blood-stained shirt in Fontaine’s case.


Prisoners are “interrogated” on a regular basis, though the files over which Nazi officials pore predetermines what their sentences will be, death in Fontaine’s case. What the Nazis have not discovered is that Fontaine is carefully planning his escape. In snippets of conversation and nighttime observations through peep holes, his fellow prisoners first think he’s deluded but come to think he might pull it off, especially after he fashions a stolen spoon that he sharpens to allow him to prise a few boards from his cell door. You’ll have to watch to see how he hides this from the guards. Ditto how he makes enough rope for the walls he would have to scale.


A complication arises. It’s 1943 and enough new prisoners arrive that it is necessary to double up in the small cells. His new roommate is 18-year-old François Jost. Rumors abound that some of the new arrivals, including Jost, are actually Nazi spies. Fontaine, though, has just two choices: convince Jost to escape with him or stay put and face a firing squad. Talk about your Hobbesian choices.


Do either of them survive? I’m not telling! I will say that seldom has such an interiorized and slow-paced film been so fraught with tension. Everything about A Man Escape exudes Bresson’s genius, from its emotion-delivering camera work to its stripped-to-the-bones script. Numerous critics noted the ways in which Bresson discarded everything he did not need. It reminded me of times in which I have an amazing meal with few ingredients. How are such things possible? Observe and learn.


Rob Weir