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Akira Kurosawa’s Ran opens with four soldiers on horseback atop a hill. They’re all looking in different directions, and presumably represent the four disparate factions that will later develop after powerful warlord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) relinquishes power to Taro (Akira Terao), the eldest of his three sons. The society depicted – built on a series of violent and unforgiving acts in the first place – descends into chaos, with the three brothers and their father at loggerheads, and by the end castles are burned to the ground, bodies are strewn everywhere and pretty much every character of note (save for one or two) lies dead. Famously this is Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s King Lear, though it’s even bleaker than the English playwright’s tragedy, firmly putting forward the idea that its characters are being punished for past actions and laced with a pessimistic, nihilistic streak that many believe to be a by-product of the illness and death of Kurosawa’s wife Yōko Yaguchi during production. It’s also a film that subscribes to Nietzsche’s maxim that God is dead, and humans are responsible, an idea that is hinted at via the dialogue throughout and overtly reinforced through the closing shots of blind Tsurumaru (Takeshi Nomura), who accidentally drops a Buddha scroll from a cliff edge.

Ran is late-period Kurosawa, filmed in 1985, and widely considered to be the director’s last great work. Set during the turbulent Japanese Sengoku period of the 16th century and shot in colour, it was the most expensive Japanese film ever at the time, a factor that meant Kurosawa had to wait just under a decade before he could raise the necessary finance to make it. You can see where the money has gone, with countless glorious costumes evident (designer Emi Wada won an Academy Award) and huge castle sets, built especially for the film before being torched during the epic battle sequences (for which thousands of horses were imported from the USA). Despite their colour-coded costumes and armies the three warring brothers at the heart of the story seem a little grey and interchangeable, though it doesn’t help that the most interesting of all, straight-talking and hot-headed Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) is absent for most of the film. Still, those influencing proceedings around the three brothers are interesting, such as Mieko Harada’s scheming Lady Kaede (the only character who manages to get what they want, despite her grisly end), Shinnosuke ‘Peter’ Ikehata’s foolish Kyoami (whose meta-textual commentaries on characters and the action are as astute as they are honest) and Nakadai’s Hidetora, whose descent into madness is enjoyably overplayed, the colour gradually draining from the character’s costume as his face turns a ghostly, pallid white. There are numerous excellent scenes that contribute to Ran‘s greatness, from the initial hunt and its peaceful-then-fractious aftermath to the battle at the film’s mid-point, for which Kurosawa cut the diegetic sound to foreground Toru Takemitsu’s Mahler-esque score. That turns into a quite spectacular montage of death, filled with arrow-strewn soldiers spurting blood, samurai committing seppuku and their wives and concubines committing jigai before flames engulf them all. Rather brilliantly, the ambient sound comes back in at the point one of the major characters dies, shot accidentally from distance. The acting is uniformly very good, and though there’s plenty of stagey histrionics going on, much of it feels necessary (e.g. to illustrate Hidetora’s insanity, to reveal Kaede’s duplicity, etc.) and it works well within the film while also furthering the link between Ran and Shakespeare’s original work. The cinematography, jointly by Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, Asakazu Nakai, is excellent, whether they’re tracking the armies as they fight, setting the scene with their mid- and long shots, or picking out the gathering storm clouds in the sky.

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa.
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide. Based on King Lear by William Shakespeare.
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Mieko Harada, Daisuke Ryu, Masayuki Yui, Shinnosuke ‘Peter’ Ikehata, Takeshi Nomura, Hisashi Igawa.
Cinematography: Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, Asakazu Nakai.
Editing: Akira Kurosawa.
Music: Toru Takemitsu.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 156 minutes.
Year: 1985.

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MacBethFassbender-xlarge(Warning: If you haven’t read Macbeth or watched an adaptation before and are intending to see this new film, please aware that I’ve discussed the plot openly below.)

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been adapted for the big screen many times before, most notably by Orson Welles, Roman Polanski and Akira Kurosowa, yet this new version a suitably meaty and visually arresting piece by director Justin Kurzel certainly feels worthwhile enough. It has only been on general release for a few days but has already been attacked by fans of The Bard, with some expressing disappointment at the decision by writers Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie to include scenes that purport to answer long-standing academic speculation with regard to the childlessness of Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), though claims that there is a lack of reverence for the original text at play seem over-the-top to me (and given the director’s nationality also seem to come replete with sneery anti-Australian undertones). In actual fact Kurzel and co have decided to stress the play’s connections with children throughout this adaptation, and Macbeth opens and closes with a pair of scenes that show how crucial they are to the play’s twin themes of fate and cyclical violence. The famous ‘Out, damned spot’ line is coupled with a disturbing image that suggests infanticide, while there are other less obvious touches, such as an increase in the number of the murdered offspring of Macduff (Sean Harris), that further emphasise the play’s focus on children.

Macbeth begins like a cross between Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and a hyper-stylized episode of Game Of Thrones, a TV show whose own writers have clearly been influenced by the Scottish play (see the most recent plot revolving around the character of Stannis Baratheon for several examples). Loyalists to King Duncan (David Thewlis) are led into battle by Macbeth and Banquo (Paddy Considine) and the subsequent clash with the traitorous Macdonwald and his army is loud, bloody and gory, the director occasionally opting for slow motion hacking and slashing. In the aftermath of the melee we see bodies strewn across 40bc840a534642dd5228b2ffe7dbe70fac69445c.jpg__1920x1080_q85_crop_upscalethe battlefield, some being picked at by wild dogs, and it’s clear that the play’s brutal acts will not be taking place off screen here, as per some other adaptations. And the violence keep on coming: Duncan’s murder is carried out, unusually, by a sole perpetrator and shown in detail, while Macduff’s family are gruesomely burnt at the stake. (It’s curious, then, that the climactic fight between Macduff and Macbeth is less bloody than you would expect. Set against a blood orange backdrop there are precise slashes, headbutts and bone-crunching punches, so you certainly feel the power of the two clashing figures, but it’s odd that Kurzel allows the head of this Macbeth to remain firmly attached to his shoulders.)

The mass fighting serves as parenthesis; for the rest of the film we’re watching duplicitous, smaller acts of violence. Naturally the story follows Macbeth’s interactions with the three witches, his subsequent traitorous seizing of the throne and his changing relationship with the complicit Lady Macbeth as Macbeth-paddythe titular character slowly goes mad. Fassbender is suitably intense, confident and muscular as power is snatched from Malcolm (Jack Reynor, recently excellent in Glassland) before the actor is forced to reveal Macbeth’s inner torment in a disappointingly obvious fashion (nightshirt hanging low, pacing up and down a room, talking to himself, etc). Cotillard is superb: she isn’t playing an evil schemer here and she is more understated than her fellow lead, though she shares almost as much screen time; this fine actress doesn’t demand the viewer’s attention and is often seen in the background or at Macbeth’s side, but her physical responses to the dialogue and facial gestures reveal just as much as anything that is spoken. Harris also impresses, though his decision to turn the intensity dial up to 11 at times will not be appreciated by everyone; in the final scenes it is his Macduff, and not Fassbender’s Macbeth, who interests the most, which shouldn’t really be the case.

For all the entertaining battle sequences, strong acting, period production design and magnificent scenery (with Northumberland’s striking Bamburgh Castle standing in for Dunsinane), the usual caveat applicable to (relatively) straightforward Shakespeare adaptations is worth mentioning: if you have an ear for the dialogue you’ll probably enjoy it, whereas if you don’t you may well struggle through long passages of this film. As a fairly short tragedy, though, Kurzel has wisely decided to rely on a strong visual element vistas of boggy moorland, witches in the mist, and so on)  and the cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom and Snowtown, Kurzel’s previous film) is up to the challenge. This Macbeth looks good, even if there’s a teeny, tiny hint of Zack Snyder in there, and the quality of the acting will be discussed many years from now, while the score by Jed Kurzel (the director’s brother) even surpasses his earlier work on The Babadook.

Directed by: Justin Kurzel.
Written by: Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie. Based on Macbeth by William Shakespeare.
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, David Thewlis, Elizabeth Debicki, Jack Reynor, Lochlann Harris.
Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw.
Editing: Chris Dickens.
Music: Jed Kurzel.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 113 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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This low-key adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing caught plenty of people off guard when it appeared in film festivals a little over two years ago, primarily because of director Joss Whedon’s association with a string of fantasy, sci-fi and comic book-related hits on both the small and the big screen. A black and white take on one of the playwright’s more joyful comedies is one of the last things I would have expected from the man behind The Avengers and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, too, but thankfully the surprise is a pleasant one: Whedon has a keen ear for Shakespeare’s jokes and oversees an enjoyable and energetic cinematic translation.

A light, humorous play with occasional flashes of darkness, Much Ado About Nothing focuses on the burgeoning relationships between squabbling lovers Beatrice and Benedick, as well as the impending nuptials of Beatrice’s cousin Hero and Benedick’s companion Claudio. Benedick and Claudio are travelling with Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and are staying at the residence of Leonato, Beatrice’s father, for a week. Various characters connive behind the scenes to engineer a romance between Benedick and Beatrice while Don John, Don Pedro’s scheming bastard brother, attempts to sabotage the other couple’s wedding plans for his own nefarious and spiteful reasons. Much of the humour in the original work arrives courtesy of the character Dogberry, a constable and a favourite among fans of Shakespeare thanks to his ability to fashion malapropisms out of thin heir.

The director calls upon regular colleagues from his previous excursions in TV and cinema to act in this film: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz and Nathan Fillion will all be familiar to Whedon’s fans and each is given a prominent role, while there are also smaller parts for the likes of Tom Lenk and Ashley Johnson. The cast’s familiarity with each other (as well as the two-way link with the director) is evident from the off, with excellent chemistry between the actors and, it would seem, a general sense of collective ease with the aims of the project itself; perhaps this shouldn’t be all that surprising given that we are essentially watching the TV/film equivalent of a theatre company that has worked together for many years, but there is a sense of togetherness here that is worth mentioning. The chemistry between Acker (Beatrice) and Denisof (Benedick) is particularly enjoyable, with flirty insults traded throughout much of the film before their fabricated love takes on a more serious edge. It’s also interesting to note the assured performance by Jillian Morgese, who was employed as an extra on The Avengers as a waitress fleeing a typical scene of utter carnage, and was picked out by Whedon for the important role of Hero here.

Whedon shot the film during a two-week break from The Avengers in 2011 (he had finished filming Marvel’s hit-in-the-making but had yet to begin work on the post-production). Increasing the sense of familiarity for all involved, and perhaps ensuring a welcome dose of relaxation, Whedon used his own Hollywood mansion, built by his wife Kai Cole, as the location for the adaptation; its open spaces and beautiful exterior double for the Sicilian city of Messina, and it never feels for one second as if the film is an extended brag of the couple’s wealth and status, or an ill-judged episode of Through Ye Olde Keyhole.

In fact the incongruous choice of location works very well indeed. The kitchen is packed with modern equipment, while amusingly the characters of Benedick and Claudio (Kranz) must sleep in a young girl’s bedroom, replete with dolls and other toys (naturally they are oblivious to their surroundings and actually interact well with them). The garden and outdoor pool area are large enough to stage the story’s grand parties, while the director’s knowledge of the best spots in and around his house for light ensure that the contrast is crisp when needed; every time the duplicitous Don John appears, watching over events inside the house, the chiaroscuro is redolent of that used on criminals or during dramatic moments in 1940s and 1950s crime thrillers, but the blacks are never crushed.

Despite being performed in the original English the play is set in the modern day, so the suits and cocktail dresses reflect sharp, current fashions while the guests drink tequila and nonchalantly use modern technology (a list of soldiers returning from battle is checked on a smartphone, for example, while laptops are also employed). In one scene a couple of characters even share a joint, but importantly these glimpses into the good life enjoyed by Hollywood A-listers actually feel natural, and the use of such props does not dominate or come across as being gimmicky. In fact at times it is easy to forget that the house interiors and fashions are from the 21st Century, such is the cast’s poker-face ability to speak their lines in a natural and convincing way whilst ignoring the fact that the language they use doesn’t tally with their surroundings.

Whedon’s direction is sure, and he coaxes good performances from the assembled cast; the lines are delivered and captured clearly, and as a result it’s quite an easy adaptation to get into, even if you are unaware of the plot beforehand or if you (like me) find Shakespeare’s dialogue tough to follow. There are exaggerated moments of farce here that still remain funny today, an incredible feat given such scenes were written over 400 years ago, and Whedon captures the intended spirit very well. Occasionally the director’s background in TV drama shows through – a quick prologue hinting at a one night stand between Beatrice and Benedick that falls outside of the original story, for example, is informed by countless cheesy jewellery adverts as much as anything else – but again much of his input is welcome, and the task of staging the play so that it is accessible to a modern audience (particularly one that may not be too familiar with Shakespeare) is one that Whedon clearly approached with relish. He even went as far as scoring the film as a result of budget constraints, creating modern versions of two songs Shakespeare included in the play that are performed by his brother Jed Whedon and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen with ever-so-slight hip-hop stylings.

It’s hard to think of a more successful recent cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, certainly out of the ones that I’ve seen anyway; I’d have to go back as far as Baz Luhrmann’s camp and extravagant MTV-style take on Romeo And Juliet if I wanted to find a better film, though this is like an earnest mumblecore effort by comparison. Shot crisply, engagingly-performed and creatively-staged, this is well worth a try if you’re a fan of Shakespeare (or even just Bard-curious) and a sign that Whedon may have started down an interesting and broad mid-career path. The production company he shares with his wife has already made and distributed this year’s low-budget paranormal rom-com In Your Eyes, so it’s nice to see the huge sums of money generated by The Avengers series trickling down to smaller, personal projects. Much Ado About Nothing appears to be a good example of it, too.

The Basics:
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Written by: William Shakespeare, Joss Whedon (screenplay)
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Jillian Morgese, Fran Kranz, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 106 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 7.1

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