Tag Archives: macbeth

New “Macbeth” bloody, beautiful, lacking purpose

Shakespeare has been adapted for the screen so often that the purpose for doing so is often simply because it’s been a few years since someone has done so. The problem then is in trying to do something with the material that hasn’t been before. For director Justin Kurzel, that solution is to deposit some modern-day war allegory into the plot and fill the frame with lush cinematography. Is that enough of a purpose?

“Macbeth” tells the familiar tale of the title character (Michael Fassbender) who is prophesied by three witches to be king. Edged on by his wife (Marion Cotillard), Macbeth murders King Duncan (David Thewlis) and usurps the throne. As madness overtakes the pair, opposing forces push in around them.

The film focuses on the war aspect of Macbeth’s background, showing how the terrors of conflict can drive a man to do reprehensible acts. In addition, the film features the Macbeths burying their young child, adding further fuel to Lady’s declaration to cleanse her femininity. Does Macbeth having PTSD factor into an interpretation of Shakespeare’s play? Does Lady Macbeth’s lack of childbearing contribute to her vengeful disposition? The underlying currents of such notions are certainly present in the story. It’s an interesting take.

The star of the film is certainly the cinematography. Whether it is bright blues and whites, dark reds and oranges or lush greens and browns, the film is a lived in, ethereal canvas. It paints the environment as an active participant in the story, intensifying the power of nature and fate. But it’s also distracting. The visuals are so detailed and so refined that they pull the viewer out of the story because they can tell that what the director is really after is the image at the expense of story in a way. The over-stylization at times also speaks to being more of a show-off than a storyteller. The story of Macbeth’s power lies not so much in the screen as much as the words of Shakespeare, his ability to infuse each line of dialogue with nuance and sublimation. In that sense, this version of the story offers little that’s new.

So even though 2015’s “Macbeth” lacks purpose, it is still definitively Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The forlorn, despotic tale lives in the narrative and for those unfamiliar with the original work, it is not a bad introduction to the story.

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Movie Essentials: Seven Samurai

Akira Kurosawa is cinema’s Shakespeare. Not in terms of language or world influence, but in terms of narratives. Kurosawa himself was an unabashed Shakespeare fan, adapting two of his plays into films (Macbeth into Throne of Blood (1957) and King Lear into Ran (1985)). Kurosawa tackles universal themes that transcend their setting and time, crafting stories that are relevant across different cultures, much as Shakespeare did. In addition to this, both storytellers used ensemble casts, presented themes of social class, love and honor and posed more questions than answers.

Seven Samurai is the most recognized of his films and arguably his finest. While it does not feature the intense dramatics of Ikiru (1952) or the ground-breaking aspects of Rashomon (1950), it still stands as the finest samurai film ever made, a genre-defining, epic presentation of class struggle that illuminates the past and present.

Set during the 16th century, the film focuses on a small village. A group of bandits pledges to return in just a few months time to pillage their crops and destroy their town. The townspeople, defenseless, come up with a plan to recruit samurai to their cause. The first samurai they recruit, Kambei Shimada, played by the magnificent Takashi Shimura, believes that with seven samurai, the villagers stand a chance of survival.

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Each of the samurai in the film is a complete character with a storyline and an arc. There’s Katsushirō, the young one, who seeks to become a samurai and to learn from Kambei. He must deal with his love toward Shino, a peasant girl whose father does not want her involved with the dangerous samurai, going so far as to cut her hair and masquerade her as a boy (further alluding to Shakespeare). Kyūzō is a master swordsman and a seemingly super human individual who Katsushirō admires. Kambei’s friend Shichirōji is able to rouse the villagers to battle. The great Toshiro Mifune is Kikuchiyo, a poser of a samurai, the orphaned son of peasants himself, who treads both the world of the farmers and samurai with comedic flair. Heihachi illuminates dark times for the samurai and Gorobei, envious for death in battle, completes the seven.

The film explores the relationship between different class structures; the poor, the warrior, the rich. Finding a peaceful coexistence between farmer and samurai is a constant struggle, the farmers worried that the samurai will take their women, the samurai concerned that the farmers have killed their brethren for armor. In the middle is Kikuchiyo, Mifune mesmerizing as a man who wants to be a samurai, but is filled with the doubts of a peasant. He calls out both clans on their sins towards one another (Mifune and Kurosawa made a total of 16 films together).

Toshiro Mifune The Seven Samurai

The climactic battle scene at the film’s conclusion remain breathtaking even by today’s standards. Utilizing quick editing, harsh sounds and violent death, the film makes no excuses about the brutality of violence and the cost it has on both the samurai and the farmers. Filmed in the thick of mud and rain, entire buildings going up in flames, the dramatic outcome is near apocalyptic.

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One of the criticisms often levied against Kurosawa is that his films are too Western. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by the films of John Ford (the samurai are nearly identical to the myth of the American cowboy- this influence would in turn reverse itself as Kurosawa’s work influenced Westerns made by Sergio Leone and John Sturges). And while his films are not as ethnic or narrative as other Far East endeavors, they instead present themselves as universally intelligible. Whether viewed in the Western world or Asia or the Middle East, just as classic fables and Shakespeare’s plays, Kurosawa’s themes are eternal and have given his work a staying power.

At the film’s conclusion, four of the samurai have lost their lives. All of the bandits are dead. The townspeople celebrate, but Kambei has again lost his chance for a glorious death in battle. He must instead bury younger friends still full of life. He remarks that the samurai may have won, but they have lost as well, the farmers the only true victors of the fight. Shino looks past Katsushirō, displacing their love in order to remain in her social class, the bond between samurai and farmer now over. One can only sense that Katsushirō will end up as Kambei, full of regret, haunted by the death of old friends and suffering from fleeting happiness that cannot be found again.

The final shot lingers on the graves of the four samurai, Kikuchiyo among them, posing eternal questions about death, love, loyalty and social dynamics that continue to vex the world to this day. It is up to the audience to answer these questions, just as we must answer questions about the virtue of Hamlet, the treachery of Iago and the humanity of Brutus in Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa presents us with a wide tapestry of characters and social consciousness, but leaves us to decipher for our ourselves the answers to life’s questions. Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa’s films will continue to linger in our minds.

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