Some directors can attract A-listers thanks to their previous collaborations, their industry reputation or by the way in which they make films. The acclaimed yet divisive Terrence Malick falls into this category and has pulled together Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman to make up possibly the most star-studded cast in recent memory. His latest feature is romantic drama Song to Song, which unfolds against the backdrop of the music scene in Austin, Texas. At the centre of it all is Faye (Mara), a rising musician who embarks on a relationship with fellow performer BV (Gosling) but who is also seeing his manipulative producer Cook (Fassbender); hence a complicated love triangle ensues.
The acclaimed filmmaker Ridley Scott resurrected his iconic sci-fi franchise five years ago and the project was hugely divisive amongst audiences. Now he is back again to direct the sequel to his prequel with Alien: Covenant, which takes place a decade after the events of Prometheus. Set in 2104, the story follows the crew of a colony spaceship as they embark on a mission to find a new home for humankind. After they suffer a tragic setback on their quest, first mate Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) and second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston) must work together to reach their destination with the help of resident synthetic android Walter (Michael Fassbender). Their plan changes when they intercept a strange radio transmission from a nearby planet, leading the expedition on a deadly detour into the unknown.
In his relatively short but impressive career to date, writer and director Derek Cianfrance has intelligently toyed with narrative conventions, playing with linear structure to get the desired effect from his tales of family, love and loss. He ventures into the period drama genre for his latest feature The Light Between Oceans, adapting M.L. Stedman’s novel of the same name for the screen. Set in Western Australia shortly after World War I, veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has posttraumatic stress disorder due to the loss he has experienced. As a coping mechanism he takes up a post as a lighthouse keeper to remove himself from civilisation. When he meets his new boss’s daughter Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), the pair fall in love and get married. They face a dilemma when a dead man and a newborn baby wash up on the shore in an old rowboat. Desperate to start a family together and in mourning after suffering two miscarriages, the couple make a perilous choice that changes their lives forever.
In co-founding Apple and giving us the Mac, the iPod and the iPhone amongst other gadgetry, Steve Jobs arguably changed the landscape of modern technology. Following his untimely passing in 2011, it was only a matter of time before his story was immortalised in cinema. The list of talent involved reads like the film equivalent of the perfect iTunes playlist with Danny Boyle in the director’s chair, Aaron Sorkin on writing duties and Michael Fassbender in the eponymous leading role. Loosely based on the biography of the same name by Walter Isaacson, the story unfolds through his conversations with his loyal marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the former Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) and fellow co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), exploring the personality behind the products.
Whether you’ve seen it in the theatre, watched a television or film adaptation or studied it at school, the work of William Shakespeare is a quintessential part of British culture, and no play of his is more iconic than Macbeth. In the latest cinema outing for ‘The Scottish Play’, Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel directs. Following a brutal battle, the warrior Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) receives a prophecy from the Three Witches, who tell him he will one day be the King of Scotland. His wife Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), then hatches a plan, taking matters into her own hands to speed up their monarchical ascent. This leads to a psychological power struggle as his friendship with Banquo (Paddy Considine) is tested, and his controlling behaviour results in conflict with Macduff (Sean Harris). This reimagining tells the story from a slightly new angle, on a glorious Skye backdrop.
The blood spilled in Macbeth was as deep and red as the carpet at Edinburgh’s star-studded premiere at The Festival Theatre, where crowds gathered to celebrate the release of the latest adaptation of William Shakespeare’s iconic play. In its introduction, Australian director Justin Kurzel jokingly calls his latest work ‘The Scottish Film’ in reference to the well known theatre superstition of never uttering the play’s name, but jokes are nowhere to be found in his bold and brutal retelling of the story.
The highly acclaimed Michael Fassbender stars in the titular role, with Marion Cotillard by his side as the influential Lady Macbeth. The supporting cast includes Paddy Considine, David Thewlis, Sean Harris and Elizabeth Debicki. Their Skye shoot was marred with horrid wind and rain, beating down to give the perfect weather-beaten backdrop for events to unfold. The premiere was much to the contrary as the sun shone on the stars to greet the fans, Fassbender revelling in signing autographs and taking selfies with his Scottish admirers.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to chat to the director of the piece Kurzel, who had an interesting take on the central character, comparing him to Breaking Bad’s Walter White, who is arguably the greatest television anti-hero of the 21st century. Discussing the odd similarity, he said, “I was watching a lot of Breaking Bad to have some freedom away from the torture of the edit and found that, like Macbeth, it is about a man going mad and descending into an evil that he can’t find a way back from.”
Bringing a Shakespeare classic to the big screen is no mean feat and the filmmaker was quick to discuss his reasons for giving it the cinematic treatment.
“It kind of read like a Western when I read the screenplay, and felt really modern. The Scottish setting made it feel very honest. It didn’t feel contrived or as if it was a prisoner to the words. The writers had a new take on the themes of ambition in the play, making it less about control and more about what you do with grief and trauma, especially being a warrior. We found that to be a really fresh and interesting take on the original material.”
He also spoke freely about the universal appeal of Macbeth, and how the story has the longevity to be told again and again without becoming stale.
“I read something the other day that stated that every four hours across the world a production of Macbeth is taking place, so I think already it is the biggest blockbuster around. I think it is whether people are engaged enough to want to see a new one because it carries a lot of baggage. People think if they’ve seen it, or read it, or studied it at school that they’ve done it so I think it’s always about offering up something fresh and new.
For us it’s about placing it back in the time in which it existed, and finding something very human and real in it. I’ve seen it now three times and it’s amazing to me how much Shakespeare keeps on repeating itself but people always want to go back for a second or third time to watch it. I think it has a lot to do with the verse because you don’t always hear or understand the verse the first time so you want to go back and get something new from it each time.”
Macbeth is available on DVD, Blu Ray and on demand.
Last year, the subject of slavery was tackled in very different ways by award winning directors Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino and both lost out in the big race for the most coveted Academy Award. This year, the British artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen presents his honest take on the topic with ’12 Years a Slave’, a gruelling adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same name, and a strong contender to take the top prize at this year’s ceremony. Northup, portrayed exceptionally by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was a wealthy free man with a loving family and in 1841, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. McQueen shows off his expertise in what is only his third feature, creating something which is brutal and beautiful in equal measures, taking a more hard-hitting approach at highlighting the dark side of America’s history than those before him.
The film is episodic in its structure, as Solomon Northup, or Platt as he is renamed is shunted around from pillar to post, encountering one horrible man at a time. His collisions with these powerful men are filled with tension and help take the plot forward. It slowly develops, from one year to the next, the straight forward narrative lacking invention but reflecting the prison sentence like environment. In between these emotionally charged meetings with kidnappers, slave traders and owners, we mostly see Platt suffering in silence which carries a lot of weight, keeping his head down and hiding his background and education in order to stay under the radar but never giving up hope.
In contrast to his trauma, a young female slave is more vocal in her struggle, wailing about how much she misses her children. Her vulnerability makes her a favourite of wicked plantation owner Edwin Epps and prime target for his merciless abuse. His character, as cruel as he is, is at times garish and over-the-top whereas his wife Mary lurking in the background is far more chilling, Sarah Paulson giving an exquisite depiction of evil. Epps relationship with Patsey builds to a disturbing resolution which severely tests Solomon’s character and puts the physical horror of slavery at the forefront of the audience’s mind. The big moments are heightened by a colossal yet familiar sounding score from Hans Zimmer.
McQueen’s directorial vision is well complimented by a series of stupendous performances, with Chiwitel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o as clear stand outs as Solomon and Patsey, both earning their countless nominations. Ejiofor wears the emotions of his character through the expressions on his face superbly doing great justice to the mental strength it must have taken to overcome the hardships, and Nyong’o gives a stunning turn as the long suffering victim. Michael Fassbender is also impressive as Edwin Epps, a frequent collaborator of McQueen’s having starred in both his films before this, but showing an entirely different side to his talents. Sturdy support is given from Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and Paul Dano, all briefly but suitably fitting the bill. Dano, in particular, is very strong as John Tibeats, a man who takes unnerving pleasure in dishing out pain to his slaves. His clash with Solomon is memorable, and one of the highlights of the entire film.
’12 Years a Slave’ is uncomfortable but necessary viewing, cementing Steve McQueen as one of the most forward-thinking filmmakers in the game, and by achieving this level so early on in his career, it will be interesting to see which controversial matter he will turns his focus to next. His methods are bold and fearless, and his visual background is evident in his craftsmanship. His latest effort is his most striking work of art to date.
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Highly regarded as one of the best filmmakers of his generation, Ridley Scott has brought us classics such as Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator yet his reputation has strangely taken a beating of late. Last year, his sort-of prequel to the Alien series Prometheus failed to satisfy the loyal fans of the franchise and his latest piece, ‘The Counsellor’ has been poorly received to say the least, though I for one, thoroughly enjoyed it. It stars Michael Fassbender in the eponymous role, as a man who gets in over his head in the drug trafficking industry around the Mexico/Texas border succumbing to greed and temptation with very little persuasion. He heads an all star cast which includes Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, who all revel in delivering well constructed passages from veteran novelist Cormac McCarthy’s complex screenplay as The Counsellor’s glamorous lifestyle collapses around him.
It seems that the recurring criticism is that as well written as McCarthy’s script is, it is said to struggle to translate to the big screen. In the past, his dark novels have been adapted into screenplays, with the most acclaimed example of this being No Country For Old Men, which the Coen brothers transformed into a multi-Oscar winning delight, but this is his first attempt at writing for the cinema. This results in an intelligent dialogue driven film and the A-list cast lap up every sentence, articulately conversing with one another brilliantly. I liked the flow of the dialogue, my personal favourite line belonging to The Counsellor himself as he lovingly tells his adoring fiancée Laura (Cruz) over the phone ‘life is being in bed with you, everything else is just waiting’. The on-screen spark between the two is electrifying from the explicit pre opening credits scene.
The excellent script is accompanied by wonderfully sticky cinematography, as if every frame has been dipped in a sticky gloss. The shallow almost cartoon-like characters are well suited to the plastic environment that Scott creates, where money is everything, morals mean nothing and every room of every house looks like a page ripped out of a designer catalogue. The narrative does have gaps, and virtually no sign of back-story or character arcs, but I enjoyed piecing it together whilst allowing the visuals to wash over me. The structure reminded me greatly of equally stylish Brit crime thriller Layer Cake as I drew comparisons between the unnamed leads – both opportunistic charismatic males who like to dabble in a criminal underworld believing they are too smart to suffer any consequences, and both terribly, yet predictably, underestimate the realities of their actions.
A gangster flick with such an established crew was always likely to attract an equally established cast, and the list of names does not disappoint. The utilisation of the female stars raises eyebrows as if filling places of both a feisty femme-fatale and a naive innocent lover, it’d be easy for one to assume that Penelope Cruz would take on the former and Cameron Diaz the latter, but here the stereotypes are reversed with a pleasing outcome. Cruz’s vulnerability is stunning, and Scott’s use of the extreme close up is successful in getting the most out of her natural beauty, whereas Diaz plays ‘the bitch’ in a way I could never have imagined, her cheetah obsessed diamond witch is like a younger version of Kristin Scott Thomas’ sadistic blonde matriarch in Only God Forgives. She also gives us one of the finest film moments of the year, involving a Ferrari windscreen, that is hard to forget.
Of the male members, Brad Pitt is expectedly solid, but unfortunately underused, though his part is integral to the plot and he takes centre stage in one of the films best scenes. Bardem’s portrayal perhaps has the least depth as he fills the boots of the generic kingpin, his segments are so clunky that they are vaguely reminiscent of GTA cut scenes where you are nearing the end of the game play and are introduced to the end of level boss. The least sensationalised is Fassbender who gives a powerful turn as a man losing control but he is so responsible for his actions that it makes it difficult to empathise. No matter how flawed or underdeveloped the characters are presented, they all look amazing, except Bardem, and do justice to a uniquely mesmerising script.
This is far from the expected crowd pleaser the cast and crew suggested, and will not be to everyone’s taste. McCarthy chooses to keep the audience guessing, refusing to offer up a spoon fed plot and Ridley Scott directs in a way that is pleasing to the eye, and occasionally terrifically violent, but this is well judged and he handles the graphic elements perfectly. Ultimately, he presents the film in an attractive package and lets the script most of the talking which bring out well measured performances all round and is chockfull of cleverly formed philosophical snippets commenting on the dirty Juarez layer in the which a group of cheap selfish individuals inhabit an expensive, materialistic society.
See the trailer: