Monthly Archives: September 2021

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

*. The main story here has to do with the state of the franchise. Sony had the rights to the character of Spider-Man and were determined to follow up Sam Raimi’s trilogy with not just another trilogy but a whole spin-off universe to rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. That’s why this movie is effectively just a placeholder, introducing a bunch of new characters willy-nilly and ending on a “to be continued” note. But box office, though strong, was still disappointing (there was a drop off from the previous film) and Marvel struck a deal with Sony in 2015 so that the franchise got cancelled, or perhaps more properly absorbed into the MCU. Leaving these two movies as orphans, and I don’t think particularly much loved orphans at that. Though on balance I don’t think they’re much better or worse than Marvel’s output.
*. I won’t go into any more of this because most people know more (and care more) about these matters than I do. It is a necessary part of the background though. This movie really is a mess if you want to see it as a stand-alone effort. The “you-have-to-be-joking” appearance of the laughable mechanized Rhino at the end says it all.
*. I’ll admit that when I heard Jamie Foxx was going to be appearing as the villain Electro I really got my hopes up. That could have been great. Alas, Foxx is hidden behind a wall of CGI and make-up, to the point where they might as well have made him a totally animated character and not bothered hiring an actor, or at least one as good as Foxx, for the part.
*. Instead of Foxx stealing the show the preternaturally creepy Dane DeHaan upstages him playing Harry Osborn. Though it’s a testament to how cluttered an effort this is that even at 142 minutes Osborn’s transformation into the Green Goblin is just sprung on us at the end of the movie where it plays out at as an anti-climactic hook into the (never-to-be-made) next film. At least Foxx’s Electro would be back (he’s signed to appear in Spider-Man: No Way Home), but for DeHaan’s Goblin it was the end of the line. I guess he’s still locked up in the local Arkham bughouse.

*. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone back as Peter and Gwen. Apparently they were dating at the time but there’s little chemistry showing up on screen. I can’t help thinking that neither of them really wanted to be here. And Garfield looks even goofier than he did in the first movie, which is kind of bothering. I mean Tobey Maguire looked goofy too, but not this weird. Then there’s Sally Field back as worried Aunt Mae and Dennis Leary as an unwelcome ghostly presence. What’s the point of having Dennis Leary around if he doesn’t even get to speak? That makes about as much sense as what they did to Jamie Foxx.
*. It’s all weak. The original Electro had been a hydro engineer who was struck by lightning (or something like that) while repairing a line. Since then he’s been rebooted several times. Here he’s a nebbish guy who falls into a tank of mutant electric eels. Yes, really. (Oscorp, in this universe, is the great spawning ground for superheroes and villains.) Anyway, as origin stories go this struck me as pretty darn silly.
*. There’s nothing special about the action stuff. The fight scenes are very big but weightless. Spider-Man literally gets bounced around like a human pinball in his fight with Electro but he just shakes it off. Gwen dies and I couldn’t care less. Or, to be honest, I felt a bit of relief. I didn’t like their romance anyway. But try explaining how you messed that one up to the ghost of Dennis Leary, Pete!
*. A big cheeseburger of a superhero movie that throws way too much at us, wallows in clichés, and isn’t much fun at all. Even die-hard Spidey fans didn’t seem to want any more of this crap. So it was time to hit the reboot button once again. As Smilin’ Stan used to say; Excelsior!

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

*. Spider-Man has always been one of the most popular of the Marvel comics superheroes, and perhaps their most iconic. No surprise then that as the Marvel franchise saturated the movie market in the early twenty-first century Spidey would become a franchise in himself, swinging his way through more movies in these years than I can count.
*. Director Marc Webb: “it was a pretty quick reboot, I’ll admit that.” Meaning the turnaround from Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, which wound up in 2007, to the reboot only five years later with this launch of a new (projected) trilogy starring Andrew Garfield. You wouldn’t think a franchise needed a reboot every five years, but for a property like this why sit back and count your money when you can be out making more?
*. Because it’s a reboot this is yet another origin story, which is unfortunate given that origin stories are the least interesting part of any superhero franchise. Compounding things here, Webb thought of this film as not so much the origin of Spider-Man as the origin of Peter Parker, introducing the idea that the movie will be all about him finding out who he is. This is pretty ho-hum stuff, and luckily I didn’t see a lot of it going on in the movie. Maybe they were going to do more with his parents later in the trilogy, but seeing as they stalled out after two movies we may never know.
*. The villain of the piece is Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans). He’s missing an arm and so wants to gene splice himself with a lizard to grow a new one. Which turns him into the Lizard. It’s all pretty dumb stuff, and even though I know it’s a comic-book movie I was frustrated that I didn’t understand what he was trying to achieve in turning everyone in New York into giant lizard people. Because this is the next step of evolution? Because it will correct for any imperfections in our species? Somehow a city of lizard people doesn’t seem worth it.

*. Garfield is fine as Peter Parker, sporting some truly crazy hair, but he doesn’t seem quite the thing. Sort of like George Lazenby playing Bond. He’s no Tobey Maguire anyway. But I guess Maguire couldn’t stay young forever. Or could he? He’s there with Elijah Wood and Daniel Radcliffe as one of those perpetual young people.
*. Emma Stone is girlfriend Gwen Stacy, and of course she’s brainy and helpful too because this was 2012 and they had to give her something to do. Denis Leary seemed miscast to me as her father, the chief of police. Sally Field and Martin Sheen are America’s Mom and Dad. They’re good for producing the sort of canned moral precepts that these movies seem to feel are obligatory. Don’t tell lies, do the right thing, be true to yourself. That sort of stuff.
*. After his first fight with the Lizard, Spider-Man goes to Gwen’s place (he’d revealed his identity to her right away) so he can recover. She frets about her poor wounded boyfriend and he remarks “You should see the other guy.” Which is the cool thing to say to your girlfriend, but it made me laugh. You mean the other guy who just kicked your ass and that you barely escaped from? I’d say he’s feeling pretty good right now. This is the one scene in the movie that I honestly enjoyed.
*. Otherwise: standard comic-book stuff. Lots of CGI, most of it pretty good. The usual plot, complete with a bomb about to go off and a countdown and a climax at the top of a tower. Instantly forgettable, but it made a lot of money so they were able to roll out a sequel that didn’t do as well. After which the trilogy died and things had to get rebooted yet again.

Macbeth (1971)


*. I think it’s easy to miss how bold an interpretation of Shakespeare this was at the time. You see the medieval muckery, and the armies massing before Macbeth’s castle with their banners and funny helmets, and you automatically think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). But that movie hadn’t changed our view of the Middle Ages forever yet.
*. Macbeth has a reputation as Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, but even so a lot of people were shocked by the violence in this film. You get your nose rubbed in it right from the beginning, with that severed hand the witches bury, and the (literally) gratuitous macing of the dying man on the beach. There will be more blood to come, and it’s brought home with some impressive effects throughout. Macbeth’s decapitated head strikes me as particularly well done.


*. In addition to the violence, the nudity of Lady Macbeth also raised some eyebrows, especially from people who attributed it to Playboy‘s funding of the project. They were wrong to do so (nudity had already been written into the script), but all the same I’m not sure it’s necessary. I guess it emphasizes Lady M’s ripening vulnerability, but it seems distracting to me. On the other hand, her body makes an effective contrast with those of the shaggy, saggy witches.
*. The real creative change-up Polanski (and screenwriter Kenneth Tynan) threw at the play was to make the Macbeths into a young power couple. I think this was a terrific idea, as a way both to liven things up and introduce a new wrinkle to these characters. Of course the Macbeths are ambitious, but it makes sense that they’re hungry young people on the make. The story could still make sense with an older couple playing this game (think of Francis Underwood and his wife in House of Cards, or Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in the 2010 Macbeth), but I think it makes more sense that they’re young.


*. It helps tremendously that Jon Finch and Francesca Annis come through with such great performances. Their characters’ arcs perfectly intersect (as they should), with Finch becoming weary and cynical while Annis goes from calculation to fragility. But in each case you can see the seeds of their later fall in their first appearances, perhaps not their tragic flaws so much as their inherent weakness. Macbeth is too easily led, his wife too good at fooling herself.
*. How many children has Lady Macbeth? None. She’s too young, or perhaps she’s too much a career woman. Her line about knowing what it’s like to give suck has been taken out.


*. It’s all a giant pissing match. Having to pour Malcolm a drink is what turns Macbeth back to his plan to kill Duncan, and Ross being slighted for promotion is what turns that climber against Macbeth. None of this is in the play, but it works marvelously here.
*. There were other changes in emphasis as well. Chief among these is the centrality of Ross, a minor figure in the play who becomes the necessary man here. Not everyone can be top dog, but there are rewards enough for those who can run with the pack.


*. In his Criterion essay, Terrence Rafferty mentions how the soliloquies are presented as interior monologues was a nod to Olivier’s Hamlet, but that doesn’t catch all of it. Olivier’s interior monologues are still soliloquies in the sense of being delivered on stage (or screen) alone. Here we see Macbeth still part of the action, but withdrawn into himself, mentally removed.
*. False seeming is the essence of Shakespeare, his sense that everyone is acting. There are nods to this theme in Macbeth (“There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”), but Polanski really makes it front and center. This is a Macbeth where everybody seems to know what’s going on. It’s built out of knowing looks. When Macduff takes his leave of Ross you know what they’re both thinking, just as we know what passes between Banquo and Ross when Macbeth is elevated, and between Macbeth and Malcolm when Macbeth fills the prince’s glass. Nothing needs to be said.
*. When Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V came out much was made of its realistic look, which mainly meant the muddy, bloody field of Agincourt. Polanski had done it all before. And I think this was a creative decision, though the mud was at least partially the result of all the rain they had to endure during filming.
*. Given the downscale look of so much of the movie (I really like the witches’ stone hovel), I thought making Macbeth’s eyrie a rather romantically situated and decorated version of Lindisfarne Castle was one of the few mistakes in the film. It looks like Camelot.
*. The swordfight between Macbeth and Macduff is wonderful because it captures how awkwardly people moved in all that gear and how clumsy an affair it could be. Dropping one’s weapon and just wrestling was as good a tactic as any. Macduff doesn’t even take a weapon when one is offered him. And I also like how Macbeth has to just sit down at one point because he’s out of breath. That armour is heavy!



*. I have no problem with the epilogue that has Donalbain off to see the witches. The will to power is eternal. There will be new pretenders to the throne. And presumably Ross will be there with an eye to the main chance.
*. Pauline Kael thought Polanski reduced “Shakespeare’s meanings to the banal ‘life is a jungle.'” Perhaps, but every production of Shakespeare has to settle on some interpretation, has to choose from among Shakespeare’s many meanings. And I think Polanski made a prescient choice.
*. It’s often said that Hamlet was a nineteenth-century play. And I think it was Northrop Frye who thought King Lear belonged to the twentieth. It seems to me that Macbeth, for all its limitations, may best fit our own time.
*. It’s precisely that “life is a jungle” banality that captures the social Darwinist spirit of our age, one that embraces the ruthless and destructive struggle for primacy in the corporate and political worlds and declares that this is it: that’s all there is. And when we get to the end, and look at the wreckage of our lives, our civilization, our world, there’s nothing to do but shrug at the pointlessness of it all and go out guns blazing. Like Scarface‘s Tony Montana, Macbeth has no children. What marks our age isn’t so much our resignation to the law of the jungle but our giving up on posterity.


Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)

*. War is in the offing, and it’s interesting, from a historical point of view, to look at this movie and see how everyone knew where things were going even before Pearl Harbor. In any event, Charlie is stationed in Panama helping to protect the canal against sabotage by a spy named “Reiner” (or “Ryner” as it appears in the subtitles; I’m not sure if the film gives any indication how it’s to be spelled so I go for the more likely option).
*. Reiner’s identity is unknown, as is the matter of who they are working for (though the German-sounding name is a big hint). The reason they can’t be identified is because the man sent to Panama to give Charlie a heads-up is killed by a poisoned cigarette. Finding Reiner is then what drives the plot, with the usual cast of suspicious types to choose from and the bumbling of Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) being of little assistance.
*. Though it’s the usual formula, and you’ll guess who Reiner is by keeping that formula in mind, there were a few noteworthy things about this one.
*. In the first place, hats off to the stunt man doubling for Manolo who jumped from that balcony. I’ve mentioned before about how much attention spectacular stunts get, when it’s really the more obvious things, like jumping from any kind of height onto a hard surface, that I find most impressive. Like Cornel Wilde dropping from one level of the waterfall to another in The Naked Prey, or the man jumping out of the plane onto the tarmac in Bullitt. I like how the commentaries for both those movies point out just how impressive those jumps were. Well, the jump from the balcony here is just as eye-popping. I really don’t know how he managed to get up after that.
*. Another thing I’d credit this one with is the villain, who is more interesting than usual. Now that’s really not saying much because almost all of the villains in these movies are instantly forgettable. Indeed, I can’t think of any off the top of my head except for Cesar Romero in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (remember that Bela Lugosi in The Black Camel and Boris Karloff in Charlie Chan at the Opera were not the principal villains).
*. Finally, it seems as though Sidney Toler was starting to relax a bit into the role of Charlie Chan. He’s still pretty robotic, but there are moments, like the sly look he gives Jimmy when he ribs him about a dangerous older woman, where he shows more of a human side.
*. So not a bad entry in this series, with some added historical interest. It was neat watching an aircraft carrier entering into the locks and realizing that war was on the way and that these ships would soon be seeing action. I wonder what aircraft carrier that was and what its story was. Otherwise, though the series was now in full gear, Charlie’s time, at least at Fox, was running out.

Free Solo (2018)

*. There is a pleasure in watching any great exercise of skill. This is most obvious in sporting events, but can also be experienced watching a chess grandmaster playing, or a virtuoso musician soloing, or indeed in any number of daily occurrences. I’m particularly impressed by people whose job it is to operate heavy machinery with a light touch. If you’ve worked in a plant where the machines aren’t all robots, or just watched a garbage truck collect bins along a crowded curbside, you know what I mean. This is the sort of thing that operators get so good at, because they do it every day, that it’s a kind of magic seeing it at work.
*. Alex Honnold’s whole life was rock climbing. It seems to have been pretty much all he did. Add some freakish physical attributes (huge hands and a giant wingspan) and you’ve got someone whose accomplishments on a cliff-face seem supernatural. Then throw in the fact that he’s climbing an impossibly sheer cliff (Yosemite Park’s El Capitan) without a rope and you’ve got a spellbinding movie.
*. At least the climbing part, anyway. Honnold himself presents a bit of a stony façade. But I don’t think that’s the result of any mental abnormality, though that is duly suggested here, as this was a time when being good at anything required being placed somewhere “on the spectrum.” It’s the trope of autism as a super power. Personally, an amygdala which makes it hard for someone to get excited about anything seems to me to put one at a definite evolutionary disadvantage.
*. In any event, Honnold just comes across as a low-key sort of guy. Unfortunately, the filmmakers try to compensate  and add human interest by showing him interacting with his girlfriend. She is highly irritating, as though auditioning for the part of “annoying girlfriend,” but as they did later get married I guess things worked out.
*. Even knowing in advance that Honnold made it to the top on his own doesn’t diminish the anxiety one feels, especially with the vertigo-inducing shots the film team managed to capture of the feat. One of the few really introspective moments in the movie comes when one of Honnold’s friends, watching the climb from the base, keeps turning away from the cliff, looking into the camera at one point and asking how we (by extension, us, the audience) can watch this. Well, “we” watched Grizzly Man too, and that didn’t have a happy ending. I’m sure if Honnold had fallen to his death they would have destroyed the footage and there wouldn’t have been a movie.
*. In fact, I think the most intensely felt part of the movie is co-director Jimmy Chin’s anxiety over being possibly complicit in a tragedy. But I guess for obvious reasons they didn’t want to foreground that, choosing to go with the girlfriend.
*. Combined with the natural beauty of the setting this is a great film to look at. To the question of “Why?” the answer seems to be only for the rush and a way for Honnold to test himself. It’s certainly a spectacular hobby to take up, and the movie lets you enjoy lots of vicarious thrills. And yet, at the end I was left with a feeling less of triumph than of emptiness. I hope it inspires others to get outdoors for some exercise (though they should always climb with a rope), but is the movie an antidote to excessive screen time and video-game playing or does it just translate the demanding physical experience it documents into those same terms?

A Quiet Place Part II (2021)

*. I began my notes on A Quiet Place by saying I enjoyed it, but that I didn’t think it was very original or well written. It also didn’t call for a sequel, which is something the director-star John Krasinski was comfortable with. But it did good box office so a sequel was soon in the works.
*. Krasinski didn’t want to be involved. Neither did his wife and co-star Emily Blunt. But money talks. So he came back and even wrote the screenplay for this one too.
*. I think it’s obvious from the screenplay that he had absolutely no new ideas. So we basically have the same idea as the first movie, only Krasinksi’s character (who died at the end of A Quiet Place) has been replaced by a buddy named Emmett (Cillian Murphy). Otherwise, Mama Abbott (Blunt) shepherds her three kids through the usual post-apocalyptic wasteland, trying to avoid the monsters. They get into various jams and then get out of them.
*. Starring Emily Blunt and John Krasinski. At least that’s what it says on the poster. Doesn’t mention any other names. This despite the fact that Krasinski’s character, who died at the end of the first movie, only has an appearance shoehorned in by way of a pre-title sequence taking us back to the aliens arriving, and Emily Blunt is very much placed in a secondary role. Krasinski clearly stated that Millicent Simmonds (who plays the deaf daughter Regan) was the lead, but let’s face it, she wasn’t putting any bums in seats. Hence, starring the two Hollywood stars.

*. Simmonds is great, but she’s all this movie has going for it. This really is just a retread of the first movie — which was itself planned to be part of the Cloverfield universe — right down to using the same strategies to kill the monsters. Krasinski also seems stuck on the idea that cutting back and forth between two (or even three) parallel suspense sequences makes them that much scarier. It really doesn’t. It just drags things out.
*. There are also more niggling questions, some of them the same ones that bothered me in the first film. How did such admittedly ferocious but basically primitive creatures that are so vulnerable to annoying noises and small arms fire wipe humanity out so quickly? Why do the islanders broadcast using code? And why do all the main characters act like such idiots? How have they survived this long being so stupid?
*. Even if there hadn’t been a first movie this would still play flat. The presence of Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) and ruthless gangs with haircuts and beards from The Road only underlines how many times we’ve been down this particular road before. Our culture seems in love with the end of the world as we know it, the breakdown of civilization and a return to a savage state. I’m sure that tells us something about where we’re at as a society. A not very nice place.
*. In any event, it premiered on the eve of the pandemic but then waited over a year for its theatrical release (which is why I’m dating it as a 2021 movie). When it did come out it did great box office, all things considered, and since there’s no ending to speak of here (as there was no real plot), I imagine there could be more of these to come. Two is more than enough for me though. I’m checking out.

Quiz the one hundred-and-forty-sixth: The wedding album (Part two)

Something old, something new, something borrowed, and maybe even something blue in this week’s quiz. I love weddings. They’re like graduations. That last celebration of joy and hope for the future before disappointment and bitterness come crashing into your life. Let’s see if these pics can do the Big Day justice.

See also: Quiz the eighty-ninth: The wedding album (Part one).

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Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

*. I don’t see how I need to say much here that I haven’t already said in my notes on the previous MonsterVerse entries Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. But here we go.
*. The two monster stars had clashed sixty years earlier in King Kong vs. Godzilla, and the inversion of names in this movie may reflect the continuing drawing power of the lizard, and perhaps the lessening cachet of the ape. But it might also indicate that in the battle for alpha supremacy (how sick I am of hearing this metaphor!), Godzilla kicks Kong’s ass not once but twice. Admittedly the first time Kong is dopey with drugs and has to fight part of the time underwater, but in the second clash it’s a pretty even fight and Kong still loses conclusively.
*. I won’t say much about the plot here, as it’s an irrelevance. The script is laughably bad — I really did laugh out loud on a couple of occasions — but is it any worse than the Toho Godzilla movies? Not a bit. In fact, it might be a bit better, depending on how you’re feeling. A Hollow Earth inside our own that may be an actual place or maybe just some alternate or parallel CGI dimension? Sure, why not. It’s just the Lost World. Or the New World from Monster Hunter. Same place, different town sign.
*. No, what this movie is about is giant monsters fighting, and it delivers. Also to its credit is the fact that it comes in at a surprisingly tight two hours. I was honestly expecting a three-hour, Avengers: Endgame load of overkill. But no. This is actually the shortest instalment in the MonsterVerse thus far.

*. I think it’s worth quoting director Adam Wingard on this matter: “A lot of the fans online were all asking me is this going to be a three-hour film? When it was announced that it was a little under two hours they immediately thought when is the director’s cut coming out? I like movies under two hours. I think if you do a movie over two hours, you better have a damn good reason for it to be that long. At the end of the day, if you’re going to make this movie into three hours, you’re not going to get an extra hour of monsters fighting. You’re going to get an extra hour of people talking about monsters.”
*. Thank goodness we didn’t get that! Even as it is there’s a surprising amount of unnecessary filler here. Characters are introduced with no particular function. Alexander Skarsgård shows up as a Hollow Earth scientist with a back story involving a brother who died failing to “breach the veil.” Why did we need to hear from this guy? Apex seems to have figured everything out already. Then the head of Apex has a daughter who turns out to be every bit as expendable as she seems, and Mechagodzilla (yes, he’s here too) has a pilot who doesn’t have much to say or do. And I wonder how much they paid Lance Reddick to show up as the head of Monarch and pronounce one line (“This is the day we feared . . .”).
*. Any script editor could have pruned all four of these characters and not lost a thing. And I’m even inclined to think they could have done without the cute little deaf girl Jia who is the Kong whisperer. She’s just here to look cute and/or concerned in cutaways. Do we need to have her telling Kong what to do? He’s not stupid.

*. I suppose Jia is just there to be someone kids can identify with. The same with the trio of conspiracy chasers who just sort of follow along without contributing anything to what’s going on. I suppose you could argue Josh unplugs Mechagodzilla at the end, but here I’d say that’s less than nothing because I would have liked it better if Godzilla and Kong had teamed up to take out Mechagodzilla on their own without any help.
*. Do you ever watch those Internet videos of cats and dogs watching cats and dogs on TV? Watching Godzilla vs. Kong I couldn’t help wondering what a gorilla would think of this movie. Would they be cheering for Kong? Or just annoyed at all the sound and fury? Well, I can only say that my own response fell somewhere between these two poles, and we’re not that far removed from our ape cousins.
*. A couple of quick notes on geography. (1) I had thought Skull Island a more remote location. In the opening credit montage we see it clearly marked on a map as just off the coast of Hawaii. (2) Could Apex have found a more in-the-way spot to locate their HQ than Hong Kong? Some place with a little lower population density maybe?
*. But like I say, it’s all about the fights. Godzilla and Kong duke it out on the ocean and then destroy Hong Kong. That’s it. That’s the movie. It’s a CGI epic, filled with the stuff that CGI does well: monsters and mass destruction. This part seemed top-notch to me. The rest of it is silly filler, but at least it isn’t overly dramatic or dull. I don’t think we needed the whole Hollow Earth mythology, and the business about Kong’s magic axe was way too much (especially since he’s not “King” Kong anymore), but you do get what you came for, as well as the promise of more.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

*. The story is an old one, originating in an 1865 novella by Nikola Leskov but with tentacles reaching even deeper. Katherine is less Lady Macbeth, climbing the social ladder only to be overtaken by conscience and events, than Medea, with a bit of Lady Chatterley and Madame Bovary thrown in. She is destructive female passion, overthrowing the traditional — yes, we can even use the word patriarchal here — order.
*. This time out (Leskov’s novella has been filmed several times, and made into an opera) we’re moving in a different direction. I mentioned in my notes on the 1962 film directed by Andrzej Wajda that Katrerina is larger than her fate. Which is to say there is something of the tragic hero to her. Not so this Katherine, played by Florence Pugh.
*. For one thing, as the message is made more determinedly feminist, she’s not a victim. For another, we’re no longer in the boonies of old Mother Russia but in an altogether more barbaric and backward place: the north of England. In Wajda’s movie the barren Katerina seeks fertility by chanting to a mare and rubbing its belly. In Wiliam Oldroyd’s telling she can’t get pregnant because her husband only masturbates as she stands in the corner. Get it? Her stepfather is also a much nastier piece of work, running the household a bit like a domestic Guantanamo and, thanks to the casting of black actors as the hired help, he’s not just a misogynist but a racist to boot.
*. Some of these changes seem intended to make the story more contemporary. Others only make a mess of things. Instead of a nephew showing up on their doorstep looking for his share of a business his family had invested in, Katherine and Sebastian (he’s the hired help, or stud) have to deal with an illegitimate child who apparently has some kind of claim to be adopted. I was really fuzzy on that part though and thought it didn’t make a lot of sense. I didn’t think an arrangement like that would fly in Victorian Britain.

*. In some ways it’s a film that’s a lot more obvious in its messaging. When the maid meets the stud in the forest he remarks of his dog that “the bitch gets restless if she’s tied up too long.” In case you missed the point, the maid responds “She was.” Ah-ha!
*. Luckily the rest of the film doesn’t content itself with pushing such a simplistic message. We suspect something is a little off when Katherine is basically raped by Sebastian . . . and she likes it! That doesn’t seem very progressive (or does it?). But the big change comes at the end, where Katherine reveals herself to be a boss bitch in the extreme, inverting the fates of the characters in the original story.
*. The point being? Better bad than dead. Much better, in fact. Morality and politics seem to have become separated in our time. Which is too bad for morality.
*. Well, at least there’s an honesty to such an approach. The problem here is not with the message but with the rather leaden presentation, which really blunts the impact of what should be the highlights. But then this Katherine is, finally, not a creature of passion like Medea but a calculating survivor. Pugh’s face is a composed mask, which makes it even more threatening. Many of her most dramatic actions are inaction, like not opening a door. She’s a negative force, mostly by being inert. She doesn’t even have to defend herself from the charge of murder. Instead she just denies it and the system takes care of the rest.
*. The way the film is shot reinforces this static quality. Pugh is often presented as something unmoveable, like a corseted statue, or flattened in a strong horizontal. The interiors have the appearance of Vermeers in their quality of moments that have been frozen in time. It’s a world that isn’t going to change, so one had best adapt to it.

Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962)

*. A Siberian Lady Macbeth? The source is an 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. I don’t believe the Mtsensk District is anywhere near Siberia. I guess the title refers to Katerina and Sergei being packed off to Siberia at the end, though they never get there.
*. As for this movie, it was shot in Yugoslavia and directed by a Pole (Andrzej Wajda). The score borrows from Shostakovich’s opera, derived from the same source and later filmed by Petr Weigl. There was also a silent film version of the novella in 1927 and an updated English adaptation, Lady Macbeth, in 2016.
*. A popular story then, and I think for obvious reasons. And I don’t mean the Shakespeare tie-in. Despite the title there isn’t a strong connection to Macbeth. Katerina is cunning and murderous, but out of lust rather than social ambition. And Sergei is certainly no Macbeth. Instead of linking up with Macbeth then this is a dive into primordial urges and emotions, set in a bleak landscape with nowhere to hide from God or nosey neighbours.
*. It’s a stark story, but Wajda makes it even more raw. In the novella I believe the husband is buried in the cellar of the house. Here he’s thrown into the pig-yard. We see Sergei doing a bit of digging, but is he really burying his former boss? He’d have to dig pretty deep. I think he may just be feeding the corpse to the hogs.
*. I’ve often seen this described as noir, and I guess Katerina (Olivera Markovic) is a kind of femme fatale. But this strikes me as something earlier than noir, more like a kind of Naturalism in the vein of Zola or Dreiser. Those authors are at least its more obvious literary forebears.
*. I think it’s a wonderfully powerful and atmospheric movie, with two perfectly cast leads. You wonder what someone as beautiful as Markovic is doing in a crumby dustbowl village like this, and no doubt she’s wondering the same thing. Meanwhile, Ljuba Tadic is great as the seedy wimp who only gets to play the stud because he’s the tallest guy in town.
*. It does feel a bit stagey at times, but Wajda makes the village into a big stage and knows how to block out the action. I can’t judge the script, but the story is so elemental I hardly noticed the fact that I didn’t know the language. You don’t need subtitles for material like this. Katerina is still our contemporary, and her world doesn’t even feel that alien, especially for anyone anxious about our own slide into neo-feudalism.
*. If it doesn’t play as well today that may be due to the way we don’t care as much for archetypes in our fictions. But Katerina here is complicated. It’s hard to think of another role so dark that we can still find sympathetic. I think in the 2016 version they had to try harder to make this work, and finally went for something very different, an ironic twist to make us feel even worse. Here it’s more complicated. Katerina is larger than her fate.