Tuesday, May 10, 2022

'The Northman': Viking funeral


The Northman

Dir: Robert Eggers

Scr: Sjon, Robert Eggers

Phot: Jarin Blashchke

Ed: Louise Ford

Not a lot of gags.

None, in fact. ‘The Northman’ is very serious. So very serious that, if you don’t buy into its premises, you will spend your time with this movie tittering at the grandiose and gory events that unfold onscreen.

"The Northman" is a Viking saga, set in the late 9th-early 10th centuries, filled with larger-than-life characters. Our hero is Amleth (Amleth=Hamlet, get it?), who as a child, witnesses his king-father’s assassination at the hands of his brother, Fjolnir the Brotherless (so called after he offs his brother and takes his wife, natch). “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you Fjolnir,” the boy weeps, as he flees. Pay attention. This will become his mantra.

Fast-forward 20 years or so, and Amleth is now a big, beefy young man who likes nothing better than climbing palisades and cutting parts off of people in a wild berserker frenzy. He meets a seeress (Bjork, in case you couldn’t tell) who tells him that the time for his revenge has come.

Disguising himself as a slave, Amleth gets himself shipped off to Iceland, where Fjolnir, his mom, and a couple of step-brothers hang out. Amleth’s plan of vengeance is slow and deliberate, and involves such things as obtaining a magic sword, playing Marine lacrosse, and killing people with his forehead.

He is abetted in this by his soulmate, the provocatively titled Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is a witchy woman . . . well, at least she knows a little about psychedelic mushrooms. Nothing will stop the freight train of revenge, even the occasional vision or hallucination on Amleth’s part. Fate is leading him on, and it is a winding and windy path.

So what is the problem here? Director/co-screenwriter Eggers points out the strict attention to accurate period detail in the film. Onto this environment of medieval realism is imposed a two-dimensional story with two-dimensional characters. None of the characters change or grow. They spend a great deal of time staring directly and dourly into the camera, as though they were daring us to laugh. I laughed.

It gets to the point that your eyes wander over to all the background performers, watching to see if they break character or not. I kept expecting Monty Python to show up.

Oh dear, what else? Everyone speaks with varying generic “European” accents, and I think a little Irish and Scottish creep in there as well. Our hero is saved by ravens, like a Disney character, only one almost beaten half to death. Why does the Valkyrie wear braces? And what ever happened to Thorir’s heart? Most importantly, what are Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman doing in this movie?

These questions and others rattle around in the skull as the players roar and swear and make preposterous bombast about their intentions at each other. The real point of this is the violence, which is more than sufficiently brutal. The final showdown is a homoerotic symphony – two naked guys sword-fighting in front of a volcano. Get a room, you two.

Anyone seeking a corrective to the campiness of 1958’s “The Vikings” is in for a disappointment. “The Northman” is high camp in its own gritty fashion.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

'Everything Everywhere All at Once': a surreal triumph


Everything Everywhere All At Once

Dir: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Scr: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Phot: Larkin Seiple

Ed: Paul Rogers

Premiere: March 25, 2022

139 min.

The multiverse is hot right now: a large number of films, TV shows, and written works are exploring the possibilities of this sci-fi subgenre. Like the easily resurrected superhero, the multiverse is a neat way to get around plot problems, but rarely is it used in a truly imaginative way.

But bonkers, happily, gloriously bonkers is “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” an exuberant sci-fi comedy about alternative dimensions that manages to also be a moving family drama. It’s an inspired excursion across countless realities, all executed in the name of getting your taxes done properly.

Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) runs a laundromat, and lives in cramped confines above it with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Kwan, who you will remember as Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”) and their adolescent daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Joy is struggling with coming out, and Evelyn is hostile to the idea. Waymond is so desperate for her attnntion that he files for divorce. They are being audited by the IRS, and Evelyn must gather family and receipts and go down to the tax office to face the unfriendly Deidre (a hilariously uglied-up Jamie Lee Curtis), who cites them for multiple failings.

In the midst of this mundanity, a cosmic storm is brewing. Evelyn is visited by Alpha Waymond, from an alternate universe. It turns out that every choice you make in life spawns a new universe, a new timeline for your life. Our Evelyn is the least successful of all possible Evelyns, explains Alpha Waymond, which gives her the greatest power to change. Somehow, Evelyn must fight her way across the multiverses to stop an evil avatar of Joy from destroying the multiverse with an Everything bagel, and reconcile herself with her life choices and with her daughter. (Trust me; it all makes sense in context.)

All these development crowd the frame with rapid-fire imagery and complications, and the film tears through its premises at breakneck speed, trusting in the viewer’s intelligence, daring us to keep up. Directors/screenwriters Dan Kwan and Daniels Scheinert take the enormous risk of making what could easily be an incoherent mess, rendering instead a dizzying but satisfying trip through all of Evelyn’s alternative futures.

Of special note are Larkin Seiple’s exquisite cinematography, Shirley Kurata’s out-of-this-world costume designs, and the dryly humorous performance of the prolific James Hong as Evelyn’s wheelchair-bound father, Gong Gong.

This film is nutty, unlike anything you’ve seen before. And even though its premise is well-used, it is used well.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

'The Tragedy of Macbeth': a noble effort


The Tragedy of Macbeth

Dir: Joel Coen

Scr: Joel Coen

Phot: Bruno Delbonnel

Ed: Joel Coen, Lucian Johnston

Premiere: Jan. 14, 2022

105 min.

 I am a Shakespeare nut. Just turned out that way. He sends me.

But it’s not easy. To get the most out of him, it’s best to study him a little, something few seem to have the time for these days. A pity, for he is infinitely rewarding to patient fans.

I have seen more Macbeths than you can shake a stick at, if that’s your idea of a good time. Joel Coen’s new version of Shakespeare’s tragedy is intriguing, but so impeccably crafted and restrained that it drains away the vital energy that drives this, one of Shakespeare’s most violent (and quotable) plays.

 The play is famously cursed (one is supposed never to mention its name in a theater – referring to it as “the Scottish play” will do), and many productions, on stage and on screen, have gone south on its creators. Orson Welles’ “Macbeth” (1948) was clunky, talky, and soundstage-rooted (as is Coen’s version). Roman Polanski’s infamous version (1971) was hallucinatory and gory. To date, the best balances of fantasy and violence in “Macbeth” have been in Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation, “Throne of Blood” (1957) and filmed records of stage performances such as those by Ian McKellen (1979), Nicol Williamson (1983), and Patrick Stewart (2010). (OK, I haven’t seen the 2015 version with Michael Fassbender.)

So what’s the story? What makes this play such a difficult endeavor? It is steeped in forces of dark magic, for one thing. Three witches tell the Scottish chieftain Macbeth that he is soon to become king, and that his friend Banquo will sire a line of kings. As Duncan is already on the throne, this presents a problem. Macbeth tells of the witches to his equally ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth, and the two plot to murder Duncan, throw suspicion on Duncan’s sons, and lay claim to the crown themselves.

Coen seals the action in the studio, and all characters appear from and disappear into a gray mist. The monochrome approach, and Bruno Delbonnel’s artful cinematography, gives us a movie that looks like an album of 19th century engravings. Coen’s adaptation streamlines the story, but carefully ensures that the viewer is never lost in the story.

Kathryn Hunter plays all of the three witches; her sinister croak and splayed limbs give a rough foretaste of doom. The rest of the cast is solid, and includes Brendan Gleeson as an affable Duncan. But the film lives or dies on the performances of its two leads. Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as his wife are a conundrum.

The dynamics the would-be royal couple move through are extreme. Lady Macbeth disintegrates into madness, and Macbeth moves away from weakness and uncertainty, clinging to his doom ever more stubbornly as the acts progress. But these are assured, sedate interpretations, a middle-aged pair of Macbeths. They do not seem to be descending into evil or madness; they seem instead to be making an increasingly bad series of business decisions. It is easy to go over the top acting-wise in “Macbeth,” with its multiplicity of horrors to enact. However, the maturity and restraint the two leads display tamp down the manic edge that animates the story. These Macbeths are too mundane to matter.

Filming Shakespeare is tough. It’s very easy to slip into dutiful versions that dull the mind instead of inspiring. Coen’s effort here is an honorable slog.