The weekend before last I had the good fortune to catch two stellar screenings at the Philadelphia Film Festival in less than 24 hours. While I was unsuccessful in finding the time to see any of the other titles I’d been interested in, I did succeed in doubling my number of PFF screenings from last year…so that’s something. Anyway, I hope you enjoy Moving Pictures’ decidedly modest coverage of PFF 24, and let us know your thoughts about any films you saw in the comments section!
Writer/Director Josh Mond delivered a humble, soft spoken introduction to James White at the Ritz East to a nearly packed house. A young man, bearded and beanied, Mond told us that his new film was “made with a lot of love” and appealed to those in attendance to “give it a chance”. As the film progressed I found myself wondering if its story of a rudderless, twentysomething New Yorker caring for his dying mother was at all autobiographical. The titular character, played by Christopher Abbott (many may know him as Marnie’s first boyfriend, Charlie, on the HBO series Girls), in many ways resembles Mond in appearance and mannerism. The fact that I had occasion to make this connection at all is a prime example of the perks of the festival format, how closer proximity to the filmmakers themselves can add meaningful context. But regardless, James White stands on its own as a formidable achievement.
Films that deal with terminal illness can skew sappy, but Mond and his actors understand that the story’s heaviest aspects work well enough without embellishment. The writing, too, puts the bulk of the focus on characterization, filling the smallest of moments with just as much detail as the more vital ones. The look of the film is appropriately naturalistic, but with just enough flourish to feel the filmmaker’s identity. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camera often stays tight on Christopher Abbott’s face, blurring everything outside of his immediate sphere. This technique is fantastic in the opening sequence, paired with impressive sound design that allows both the character and the audience to drift between thumping club beats and the sweet croon of Ray Charles.
James White boasts a truly breakout performance from Abbott, who showcases an exhaustive range of emotion without ever chewing scenery, and Cynthia Nixon as James’s mother Gail has never been better (sorry Sex and the City fans). But standouts aside, it’s the dynamic between all of the characters (the best friend and girlfriend are smartly given equal shrift) that allows the film to reach an impressive level of authenticity. The ending may feel like it comes a little early, but I admire the film’s focus on a very specific and intense period of the protagonist’s life and the director’s restraint in refusing to give us any closure. James White is Mond’s first feature length directorial effort (he was a producer on the excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene); it’s a fine debut, and I look forward to whatever it is he’s able to cook up next.
The following morning I attended a noontime screening of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, at the Prince Theater on Chestnut Street. Given the playhouse venue and storied curse on the material, our PFF representative referred only to “the Scottish film” during his cautious introduction. Many know the broad strokes of the play from high school English class, but the blood red titles outlining the initial scenario were a welcomed preface for something as dense as Shakespeare. I’ll admit at the outset, I am far from an expert on The Bard’s work; I often lost track of what characters were talking about, having to rely on context clues. Shakespeare’s work can be hard to understand primarily because it’s written in Elizabethan English, but it’s also packed with allusions, metaphors, puns and other devices that create a sort of literary onion, and there are always more layers to pull back. Add to this the thick Scottish accents and Kurzel’s straightforward, period rendering (so many Shakespeare adaptations these days are modern interpretations) and it’s admittedly not the most accessible piece. It’s a testament to the performances and the direction, however, that instead of feeling alienated, I wanted to watch it all again.
If you’re not familiar with the story (maybe your English class read Romeo and Juliet or The Tempest), here’s my two sentence synopsis: a high ranking military leader in medieval Scotland is goaded by his wife to kill the king and assume his crown after receiving a prophetic message from three witches. Having taken the throne, the tyrannical King Macbeth is driven mad with guilt and paranoia as his misdeeds pile upon themselves. Kurzel takes some liberties by creating a handful of wordless scenes not found in the source material that help orient the audience without having to invent new dialogue. The inclusion of an opening scene of a child’s funeral speculates most liberally on the characters’ motivations. It’s followed by a slow motion depiction of an important battle that is merely recounted in the original text; it’s a muddy, bloody and beautiful sequence almost reminiscent of the prologue of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.
Fassbender is excellent as Macbeth, quite subtle for a role that could easily be played as fully unhinged. I did, however, find his reading to be almost too understated at times, though that could possibly be attributed to my muddled understanding of a significant chunk of his lines. The royal banquet scene, where Macbeth is haunted by the apparition of a slain compatriot, is a standout. Cotillard is fantastic in the iconic and revered role of Lady Macbeth; fittingly cold, but also infusing the character with a level of sexuality that helps explain the sway she holds over her husband. The actress’s rendition of the “Out, damned spot” speech is the climax of a very special performance. And despite the strong lead performances from internationally famous actors, the lesser known Sean Harris actually ends up stealing a number of scenes (his tortured reaction after discovering the king’s murder) as Macduff, Macbeth’s ultimate foil. There were just a few moments in the film’s third act that dragged for me, though I wouldn’t presume to blame it on the writing.
It was a strange feeling to walk out into the beaming 2:00pm sunlight of a brisk fall day having just witnessed such a visceral imagining of one of fiction’s most towering tragedies, but it left me with an even deeper appreciation of Shakespeare’s massive role in Western Culture five hundred years later.