Monday, January 24, 2022

Reviews: Recent films include a "Novice" with No Bounds, a "Jockey" with No Options and a "Macbeth" with Three Witches in One

Short Takes:  The Tragedy of Macbeth, The Novice, Jockey 

The Tragedy of Macbeth (c) A24

The Tragedy of Macbeth 
In Cinemas and Apple TV+ 

For a play that was once known as cursed (and dubbed “The Scottish Play” for the play that thou not speaketh its name), I have been inundated by Macbeth from all sides, including theater (Isabelle Fuhrman playing a school girl Thane as well as a more traditional one by Corey Stall) and film (Michael Fassbender being the last cinematic one in 2016, and one can’t forget Florence Pugh playing –at least in name only–a variation of Lady Macbeth in the 2017 film of the same name,) as well as opera (with superstar Anna Nerebko as Lady M and Zeljko Lucic filling in for Placido Domingo at the last minute after sexual harassment accusations forced him out). So, to say I didn’t want to see another Macbeth would be an understatement. And while Joel Coen (without the assist of his brother Ethan) gets the mood right with the stale, fecund air of a black and white Scotland, I wonder if anyone who wasn’t familiar with the play would catch all the names of the key players before the double-crosses in this truncated version start happening. Denzel Washington is just great as Macbeth, even though his turn from wide-eyed innocent flower to cold-blooded serpent seems to happen off-camera. At least Frances McDormand as his wife always had a notion that the crown can only be won by assassination, which may make her performance a bit one-note, but she has some fine moments as she tries to shield her husband’s madness from her guests. And the fine stage actress Kathryn Hunter (she had a memorable cameo as an undercover wizard in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) steals the movie as a Gollum version of the three witches, including one of Coen’s best directorial moments that incorporates her reflection. I liked looking at the movie more than I was engrossed by it. So, I’m taking a break from the Macbeths for now. Wait, Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga are doing the play on Broadway this spring? Sigh. 

The Novice (c) IFC Films

Film: The Novice 
In Cinemas and On Demand 

Most of the women who are on the novice rowing team at this vaguely Ivy League college are doing it for fun or to try something new. Not Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman). Alex is a Type-A+ personality. Everything she does is competitive and once she accepts a challenge, she will do everything in her power to win. Alex is the complex, borderline obsessive-compulsive character at the center of Lauren Hadaway’s directorial debut, “The Novice,” which is compelling in a rubbernecking, car crash kind of way. I try to avoid people like this in real life, so a movie where we’re in the company of such an intensely self-centered personality spiraling out of control holds no joy for me. Sure, I can admire the ferocity and commitment of Fuhrman, who made such a crazy impression as the title character of 2009’s “Orphan,” or be fascinated by the toxic environment of degradation of the rowing community in general that would produce a personality like this. This is “Black Swan” on a rowboat, complete with a lesbian side plot between Alex and her TA (played by the single-named Dilone), who I would have thought would have run far away from Alex after the crap she puts her through in class. Hadaway with cinematographer Todd Martin shows both the beauty and the grueling nature of the sport in equal measure, with the camera swirling around the athletes like a whirling dervish. I admired that they don’t water down Alex’s single-mindedness, but it also kept me at a rowing pole’s distance from enjoying or even caring about what transpired. 

Jockey (c) Sony Pictures Classics

Film: Jockey 
In Cinemas 

In recent years, there have been two excellent (if not the most upbeat) movies about men and their horses: Chloe Zhao’s beautiful “The Rider” with an indelible performance by Brady Jandreau and Charlie Plummer’s heartbreaking performance in Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete.” “Jockey,” Clint Bentley’s directorial feature film debut, follows in this tradition, but even with a career-best performance by Clifton Collins, Jr. as the title character, the movie doesn’t reach the poetic and universal height as the previous two, which I admit is a high bar. Collins plays Jackson, who is not only squarely in the last chapter of his jockey career, he’s in the last paragraph, as his doctor ominously tells him that unless he quits riding horses, he will probably not survive another injury. Although we are expertly immersed in this world of minor league horse racing, Jackson’s story feels like it’s cut from any number of sports movies about an athlete past his prime. Still, Collins imbues his character with such grit that you hope he can have one great ride. There is a wonderful mentoring relationship in the film with a fine Moises Arias as a young rider hungry to race. And Molly Parker shines as Jackson’s sympathetic but no-nonsense trainer. But “Jockey” never veers from the formula, which is a shame since Collins, who was nominated as Best Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards, is never better than he is here.

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