The Tragedy of Macbeth (15) ***
The Electric Life of Louis Wain (PG)**
Starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, the Scottish play gets a makeover in Macbeth’s Tragedy, Joel Coen’s stripped-down take on Shakespeare’s treacherous tale of boundless ambition and maddening guilt. Unlike Justin Kurzel’s recent muddy and bloody update with Michael Fassbender, this version embraces its stage origins, with Coen shooting in monochrome on minimalist sets that he lights up like a Fritz Lang film – all white space and eerie shadows. .
Its decision to use the boxy academy aspect ratio is also intriguing, turning the screen into a cage-like proscenium, which allows us to observe the uncomfortable close-up characters, trapped by fate and rapidly disassembling. And its older stars change the dynamic, too: Washington’s Macbeth is a more pitiful figure, a stalled soldier plagued by jealousy, while McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is now a hardened co-conspirator whose rapid descent into madness continued to her husband’s regicidal tendencies suggests an early stage of dementia rather than the more common subtextual explanations that tend to situate her decline in her childless life.
This is powerful territory for Coen, directing for the first time without his brother Ethan. But while he revels in the stylistic challenge of making a traditional Macbeth movie shot through with crime-movie conventions (there’s a direct line to the Coen Brothers’ cerebral films about villains caught in downward spirals of their own making) , the cold insularity that can sometimes make the Coen brothers’ work easier to admire than the love is so obvious, with Washington and McDormand’s moderate readings and performances oddly disconnected from the heart-stabbing intensity of the source material.
Also based on a play, Humans sees its author Stephen Karam transform his 2016 Tony Award winner into a startlingly cinematic chamber piece charting the gradual breakdown of a stoically sad family over Thanksgiving dinner. Setting the expressionist tone with a corkscrew camera shot in the courtyard of an oddly shaped building, the film wastes no time delving into the lives of the Blake family, whose decision to reunite for the holidays in The run-down New York apartment of youngest daughter Brigette (Beanie Feldstein) soon unleashes a tsunami of passive-aggressive pointing.
Economics, religion, disease, betrayal and unrecognized PTSD are the root of their collective woes as Brigette’s city-hating father (Richard Jenkins), God-fearing mother (Jayne Houdyshell), chronically unfortunate (Amy Schumer) and grandmother with Alzheimer’s (June Squibb) struggle to keep a lid on their problems for the sake of the family unit. It’s brilliantly acted across the board (as Brigette’s drugged boyfriend, Steven Yuen is like the fun, calm center of this particular storm) and Karam’s directing reveals the psychological nuances of his storyline in a way that transcends any hint of stagnation.
Benedict Cumberbatch produces and stars in The Electric Life of Louis Wain, a quirky, kitschy, and somewhat chaotic biopic from the late-Victorian illustrator famous for his adorable portraits of cats. Playing Wain as a frenetic eccentric whose failed brain allows him to see the world in a different way to everyone else, he’s about a degree from Sherlock or Alan Turing or Thomas Edison or any of the other non- conformists he played.
Alas, this film doesn’t really explain why we should care about Wain or his legacy, nor does it justify him being a true artist as opposed to a good artist, like the Big Eyes did. by Tim Burton. for the equally populist and despised painter Margaret Keane. Wain’s feline affinities are more of a personality quirk, a shorthand way of signifying the undiagnosed mental health issues that may have left him ill-equipped to deal with the patriarchal responsibilities of supporting his family of strident sisters. or dealing with the grief he clearly battled over his wife’s untimely death from cancer.
Co-writer and director Will Sharpe gives the film a sort of manic energy that might suit its subject matter, but is exhausting to watch. Toby Jones, Claire Foy and Andrea Riseborough co-star.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is on selective release from December 26 and airs on AppleTV+ from January 14; The Humans is available on demand on Curzon Home Cinema from December 24 and in theaters from December 29; The Electric Life of Louis Wain is in theaters from January 1
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