“Lady Macbeth” (2016) starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, & Naomi Ackie

Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants. -Synopsis

In the north of England, a young woman named Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold into marriage (along w/ some land) to a middle-aged man, Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton- a character/theater actor). Sadly, there is no love or even common kindness involved here; this marriage was arranged by Boris Lester (Christopher Fairbank), Alexander’s domineering father. Katherine is prevented from leaving the house. Boris scolds her for not giving Alexander a son, but her husband doesn’t even touch her! One day, both men have to leave the estate for separate business matters, leaving Katherine alone with the housemaid, Anna (Naomi Ackie- also in an early role). Finally, Katherine is free to explore the area to alleviate her boredom!

This indie film (streaming on MUBI) is based on the Russian book Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov. I learned that iFeatures is a collab btwn the BBC and the BFI; every year, they produce 3 feature films for £350,000 as a stepping stone for 1st time directors. Lady Macbeth (directed by William Oldroyd) was chosen out of over 300 applicants- wow! It was filmed over 24 days on location at Lambton Castle, County Durham and Northumberland, UK. Shaheen Baig was the casting director on Florence Pugh’s 1st film, The Falling (2014); when the script came her way, she suggested Pugh (then just 19 y.o) to Oldroyd.

I loved the fact she was naked all the time. At that point in my life, I had been made to feel sh*t about what I looked like and that film was perfect. There was no room for me to feel insecure. -Florence Pugh, in an interview (ES Magazine)

This is a V dark tale; the first 35 mins. are quite slow and NOT much happens (w/ little dialogue); the next 45 mins. is an unbridled (and often) violent trip! There is almost no music to be heard. The setting is oppressive, the tone is foreboding, and there are bursts of violence (which will be quite jarring esp. to sensitive viewers). Unlike most period dramas you may be familiar w/, this film uses colorblind casting. Ackie is a Black woman from the UK w/ Caribbean roots, Cosmo Jarvis (Sebastian- the horse groomer) is of British/Armenian heritage from the US, and Golda Rosheuvel (most recently Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton) is a British biracial woman. The acting is quite effective, esp. from Pugh (mature beyond her years); I wanted to see more of Ackie’s character (as she does a fine job also). Ackie (only early 30s) went on to work on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. She plays the lead in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

[1] The film seems to be a pre-feminism manifesto for women’s rights. […]

The interesting thing is how Katherine evolves from victim to culprit. She seems to have learned from her husband how to use and misuse power. The lack of social conscience of which she at first is a victim, becomes a driving force for her own behaviour.

[2] Lady Macbeth features a mesmerising and beguiling performance from Florence Pugh. It is far away from these slushy chocolate box romantic period dramas. Katherine is steel edged and deadly.

[3] Several archetypal themes arise in this somber, artfully-photographed drama. For instance, one that emphasizes the wages of sin is prominent; another about the subjugated rising against the oppressor; and another about the danger of socially imprisoning smart women in a paternalistic society. A leitmotif also surfaces about the dangers of debilitating class distinctions, which are never a good thing in the long haul.

Ari Wegner’s cinematography is portrait-like if considering only the recurring shot of Katherine sitting on her Victorian couch in a consuming dress that seems to deteriorate with each similar shot. Underneath the dress is the corset, so long a symbol of the era’s tight hold on women.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

Spoiler-Free Review: “Decision to Leave” (2022) starring Park Hae-il & Tang Wei

From a mountain peak in South Korea, a man plummets to his death. Did he jump, or was he pushed? When detective Hae-joon arrives on the scene, he begins to suspect the dead man’s wife Seo-rae. But as he digs deeper into the investigation, he finds himself trapped in a web of deception and desire. -Official Synopsis

If I cannot avoid it, then I embrace it.Park Chan-wook (director), when asked re: modern technology in this film

This film (streaming on MUBI) is the official submission of South Korea for the Best International Feature Film category of the 95th Academy Awards in 2023. I’d previously seen The Handmaiden, also directed by Park Chan-wook (who is in a league of his own); here we find a V different (yet also compelling) story. I was curious to see it, as I heard it was a blend of mystery, noir, and (slow burn) romance. The inspo for Decision to Leave was the Swedish crime novel series The Story of a Crime by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which is re: aging police detective Martin Beck and contains social critique. At first, Chan-wook didn’t like the idea of using text messages; he’d considered a period piece (where the characters send hand written letters). When he decided on a modern setting, he put in a smart watch, voice recordings, and translation apps. Chan-wook used cell phone POV shots to show that the characters are NOT only looking at the screens, BUT to give a sense that they’re looking at the other person.

I envisioned it to be slow and gradual, but the actor [Hae-il] held the look for a moment too long before asking for the pattern to unlock her cell phone. -Chan-wook, when asked re: the possible “love at first sight” element

Jan Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is an experienced cop in the big city of Busan; he’s in middle-age, wears custom-tailored suits, BUT can also run/fight better than some of the younger men. He’s a “dignified” man who is perhaps TOO invested in his work; one reviewer was reminded of Det. Vincent Hanna in Michael Mann’s Heat. Like many modern marrieds in South Korea (as my friend explained after her recent trip to Seoul), he and his wife (a scientist) live/work in separate cities, so see each other on weekends. The femme fatale is Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei, co-star of Lust, Caution), who reminded me of those beautiful/mysterious women of classic Hollywood. Both of the leads are able to portray vulnerability so well! It’s obvious that some of the authorities are suspicious of Seo-rae b/c she is Chinese (a foreigner) and much younger than her wealthy/powerful husband. There is a younger cop partnered w/ Hae-joon who provides comedy, as he has a LOT to learn and improve upon in his work.

This film is esp. well-edited and creatively shot, as many critics noted. There is much natural beauty to admire, going from city to mountains and- finally- the sea. There is no doubt that these filmmakers have an unique take, as they embrace, yet also subvert, the tropes of the crime drama. I esp. enjoyed the (gentle) romantic scenes in the 2nd act; Chan-wook said he was inspired by David Lean’s Brief Encounter. Many viewers were reminded of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, though the director said that wasn’t an influence.

Quick Reviews of Three Noir Films

Impact (1949) starring Brian Donlevy, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn, & Helen Walker

A unfaithful wife plots with her lover to kill her husband, but the lover is accidentally killed instead. The husband stays in hiding and lets his wife be charged with conspiracy.

This is a B-movie w/ a lead actor (Donlevy) who usually plays the 2nd lead. Walker is the cold-hearted femme fatale in the big city; Raines is the charming small-town widow/businesswoman (good girl). Raines is esp. lovely, even wearing overalls! As usual, Coburn does a fine job; here he plays a wise (yet also kindly) cop. There are a LOT of twists and turns that keep it interesting. I was reminded of Out of the Past in the country life scenes. If you want to take a deeper dive into noir, then check this out.

Niagara (1953) starring Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten, & Jean Peters

As two couples are visiting Niagara Falls, tensions between one wife and her husband reach the level of murder.

This is a rare (technicolor) noir which highlights Niagara Falls and Monroe- two gorgeous sights (no doubt)! Two V different types of marrieds staying at a mobile lodge in Canada get to know each other… and vacay drama ensues! There are many close-ups on Monroe’s face (always w/ glam makeup), her figure, and signature walk- the typical “male gaze” comes to mind. Monroe does a good job, as does Cotten as her troubled/PTSD-affected war vet husband. Peters is beautiful also, BUT she gets the “girl next door” role and some action scenes. Unfortunately, Casey Adams (more known for his light/TV roles) acts like he’s in a totally different movie! If you’re a fan of Monroe and like suspense/psychological dramas (such as Hitchcock), then I esp. recommend this movie.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) starring Jeanne Moreau & Maurice Ronet

A self-assured businessman murders his employer, the husband of his mistress, which unintentionally provokes an ill-fated chain of events.

This film ushered in the French new wave; it was directed by Louis Malle (who was ONLY 24 y.o.) I’m a fan of his 1992 erotic thriller- Damage (starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche). The music was composed by an American jazz great- Miles Davis. Malle shot Moreau (before fame) in close-up and natural light (often w/o make-up). The scene of Moreau walking down the Champs Elysees at night was shot using fast film in a camera mounted on a baby carriage; it used ONLY natural light from the street and store windows. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something different.

Spoiler-Free Reviews of 2022 Movies: “Nope” & “Don’t Worry Darling”

Nope starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, & Michael Wincott

After random objects falling from the sky result in the death of their father, ranch-owning siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood attempt to capture video evidence of an unidentified flying object with the help of tech salesman Angel Torres and documentarian Antlers Holst. -Plot Summary (Universal Pictures)

I saw this movie a few mos. ago (w/ 2 gal pals) when we got discounted tickers. IF you’re expecting a story (somewhat) like Jordan Peele’s previous work (as I was), you MAY be V disappointed. The (slow) pace of the film is a big issue, until perhaps the last 30 mins. (which was a BIT interesting). Kaluuya plays a quiet/reserved man, more comfortable w/ horses than people. The actor can express a LOT w/ his eyes (though I don’t think this role is an acting challenge for him). Palmer (who had success as a child actor) plays the total opposite; she’s extroverted, quick to joke, and a (potential) risk-taker. It’s rare/refreshing to see a brother-sister relationship in movies.

I had issues w/ the (dark) lighting, BUT I think that was done on purpose. At 2 hr. 10 mins, it’s much TOO long; this is the case w/ current movies. Though it’s categorized as a horror/mystery/sci-fi movie, there are few thrills. However, IF you like a look at behind-the-scenes (BTS) of the movie biz, then it MAY be of interest. Peele has some V interesting themes and ideas, BUT the execution didn’t work (for me) this time.

Don’t Worry Darling starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, & Chris Pine

A housewife living with her husband in a utopian (1950s style) experimental community begins to worry that his glamorous company could be hiding disturbing secrets. -Plot Summary

I saw this movie a few wks. ago on HBO Max; as some of you MAY know, there was BTS drama btwn. Wilde (actor/director), Pugh, and Styles. At 2 hr. 3 mins, it’s still a BIT long. This is (another) case of style over substance; I think the cinematographer did a great job. Pugh is already a V respected actress; she does a fine job (w/ what she is given) here. Sadly, she and Styles have NO romantic chemistry; their (much talked about) love scenes are boring. In one particularly dramatic scene, you can see that Styles (known more for his music) is in over his head. There are ONLY 2 scenes btwn. Pugh and Pine that have any tension! There is a twist which MANY viewers could see coming. I see a LOT of critics were mad (some calling it Don’t Watch It Darling), BUT I simply didn’t care b/c it was banal!

Brief Reviews of Recent Views (DEC 2022)

Dead End (1937) starring Sylvia Sydney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie, & Claire Trevor

The Dead End Kids (a teen ensemble of actors who’d also appeared on Broadway) are introduced in their Midtown East (NYC) slum, overlooked by the new apts of the ultra-rich. Their antics, some funny, some vicious, alternate w/ subplots: jobless architect Dave (Joel McCrea- one of Hollywood’s “Everyman” actors) is torn btwn Drina (Sylvia Sydney- a big star of the ’30s), his hard-working/childhood friend and Kay (Wendy Barrie), the glam mistress of a rich man; gangster “Baby Face” Martin (Humphrey Bogart- before his leading man days) returns to his old neighborhood and finds that nobody is glad to see him. Then violent crime, BOTH juvenile and adult, impacts the neighborhood and its inhabitants.

Samuel Goldwyn acquired the rights to Sidney Kingsley’s play for $165,000 – a V large amount at the time (equivalent to nearly $3M today). The play had been a huge success on Broadway; its content had to be altered b/c of censorship in film. As some of my fellow classic movie fans know, producers had a LOT more power than directors in the Hollywood studio system. William Wyler (director) wanted to film on location on the streets of NYC, but Goldwyn insisted that the movie be made in the studio. Richard Day (art director) was assigned to design the sets, which were the some of the MOST elaborate sets in film history. Bogart (who was borrowed from Warner Bros.) got his role after George Raft turned it down; James Cagney was Goldwyn’s 1st choice. In order to get past the censors, references to Francey (a young Claire Trevor) being a prostitute were veiled (though mentioned in the original play).

The Mark of Zorro (1940) starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, & Basil Rathbone

The Jagged Mark of His Sword Struck Terror to Every Heart – But One! -A tagline for the movie

I’m a big fan of The Mask of Zorro (1995) starring Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Anthony Hopkins. Many of you will know re: the premise of this movie: a young Spanish aristocrat, Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power- 26 y.o.), pretends to be a “fop,” BUT protects the poor/powerless folks of Los Angeles (then a part of Mexico) as the masked vigilante- Zorro (“fox” in Spanish). Many viewers have commented that Zorro (who hails from the early 1820s) is a precursor to the superheroes we know/love today. Lolita Quintero (Linda Darnell- just 16 y.o.) is the love interest; she meets Zorro (in disguise) and is impressed by his words. Lolita’s greedy/corrupt uncle, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), has taken over Diego’s father’s job; his elegant/shrewd wife, Inez (Gale Sondegaard), dreams of being presented in the royal court of Spain. However, the main threat to Zorro is Don Luis’ right-hand man- Capt. Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone- a trained fencer). The swordfight btwn Power and Rathbone will amaze you- WOW!

Blood and Sand (1941) starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth, & Anthony Quinn

Love flamed in the shadow of death! -A tagline for the movie

Illiterate Spanish peasant Juan Gallardo (Tyrone Power) rises meteorically to fame and fortune as a bullfighter, ONLY to sow the seeds of his own downfall. This movie didn’t impress me as much as the previous one; Power and Darnell are paired up again, BUT then Hayworth comes into the mix. The costumes looked great (IMO), esp. the ones worn by the bullfighters. There is a steamy (for that time) dance btwn (real) Latin hotties- Hayworth and Anthony Quinn (who plays Power’s friend/competitor). Power was Irish-American, though this dark hair/eyes and gorgeous looks got him cast in “exotic” roles.

The Racket (1951) starring Robert Mitchum, Lizabeth Scott, & Robert Ryan

The big national crime syndicate has moved into town, partnering up with local crime boss Nick Scanlon (Robert Ryan). There are ONLY two probs: First, Nick is the violent type, preferring to do things the old-fashioned way instead of using the syndicate’s more business-like methods. The 2nd prob is Capt. McQuigg (Robert Mitchum), an honest cop and the loyal Officer Johnson (William Tallman). They take on the Nick and try to foil the syndicate’s plans to elect Welch, the crooked prosecutor running for judge. I wanted to see it b/c of Mitchum and Ryan; Eddie Muller (TCM) commented that they should’ve switched roles. Muller also noted that it had 3 different writers and 5 directors over its (V troubled) production! Mitchum later said there were many reshoots.

Back from Eternity (1956) starring Robert Ryan, Anita Ekberg, & Rod Steiger

A South American plane loaded with an assortment of characters crash-lands in a remote jungle area in the middle of a storm. The passengers then discover they are in an area inhabited by cannibals, so MUST escape before they are found. Ryan is giving it his 100% (as he does in every role), BUT he doesn’t come in until 15 mins. into the movie. He speaks a BIT of Spanish- V cool! Swedish model Ekberg (sadly) can’t act and is NOT confident w/ her English. That doesn’t matter to the director/producers, as she’s there mainly for her looks (tall, blonde, and curvy). Later on, there is an (unneeded) catfight btwn Ekberg and another actress- ugh! The standout here is Steiger (looking youngish w/ dark/curly hair); he gets the best lines and is the most interesting (yet potentially volatile) character. Beulah Bondi (mom/grandma in MANY classic films) finally gets out of the house- LOL!