Saturday, September 25, 2021

Perfect Antidote to Covid Lockdown Blues

The Tsugua Diaries (2021) - Fazendeiro, Gomes tsugua diaries Miguel Gomes, no stranger to mixing real life and fiction in such films as Our Beloved Month of August and Arabian Nights: Volume1-3, with co-director Maureen Fazendeiro, whips up a delightful antidote to Covid lockdown blues with a slight romp The Tsugua Diaries. Taking place in a small remote farm in Sintra, near Lisbon, this sun-drenched little cinematic exercise has more ingenuity and charm that's probably made with an equivalent of 1/100th of a Marvel movie-catering budget I am sure.

We start with the day 22 of the diary. There is a rotting quince someone placed on the table. Christa (Christa Alfaitate), Carloto (Carloto Cotta, of Diamantino), and João (João Nunes Monteiro) are first seen at a makeshift party dancing and drinking the night away in the infectious tune of The Night by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. To hunky Carloto's dismay, he witnesses the beguiling Christa making out with nerdy João. And it turns out, that that was the end of the movie. Don't worry I didn't blow the ending. Even though The Tsugua Diaries is told in reverse, it's not like an intricate puzzle piece or anything. Fazendeiro and Gomes are simply showing the variations and possibilities of day-to-day existence on an isolated movie set in the Covid era.

As the days progress backwards, we get to see the three of them doing house shores, working on butterfly enclosures together and enjoy their time in the pool. It's Joao's diary we are following. But is it João the actor's diary or is it the character João's? We slowly realize that they are actors in a film. It's the trio's affair for a while, being in the film we are watching, Jules et Jim style love triangle maybe? There is an air of aimlessness of an improvisational project where anything and everything is permitted, and nothing is normal because of the pandemic. 

The Covid element doesn't kick in until the talk of Carloto the actor sneaking out of the compound to surf, breaking the Covid protocols Portuguese Government Health Ministry put out. Now they can't have kissing scenes with Carloto anymore because everyone's rightfully afraid and angry. This explains why Carloto is sleeping separately, alone in a van in the beginning of the film.

Fazendeiro is seen looking at the director's monitor in a separate room laid out in a couch. Later we learn that it's because of she is an ego maniac or lazy, because she is pregnant and told to lie on her back by her doctor. 

The crew and cast meeting gets heated up with the actors not knowing the direction of the film and not well-defined guideline for anything and everything. As the diary goes back, counting down to Day 1, the unused dirty pool is drained and scrubbed by the crew and cast to be used. The rotting quince slowly turns into a fresh one, getting fresher by the day.

Wryly reflecting the nature of 'expect the unexpected' in both life and filmmaking, Fazendeiro and Gomes create a delightful little summer movie that is cinematically inventive while reflecting the state of the worldwide pandemic and its effect on filmmaking. The Tsugua Diaries is a perfect antidote of a movie in our trying times.

Sound and Fury

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) - Coen the-tragedy-of-macbeth-film With The Tragedy of Macbeth marks the solo outing of Joel Coen as a director, one half of the brothers team behind such classics as No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man. It stars indomitable Denzel Washington as the ambitious, murderous Scotsman and the great Frances McDormand (also the director's wife) as the Lady M. With a great ensemble of the British, Scottish, Irish and American actors, including Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Bertie Carvel and Kathryn Hunter, I have to say, acting in this is fantastic.

But there have been many famous screen adaptations of the Shakespeare’s play before this reiteration. So the first question anyone would naturally ask is, is another adaptation of the famous Scottish play really necessary? Most recently we had a sexy, action packed version directed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cortillard that no one saw.

Macbeth and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) return after victorious battle over invading Norwegian forces, then encounters witches (?) in the forms of crows. They instill the ideas in the returning warriors that Macbeth will be king and Banquo's offspring will take over down the line. The rest of the film is predicated on that foretelling and Macbeth acting upon it. From the get-go, Lady Macbeth is all over the idea of killing off King Duncan (Gleeson). But after the deed is done and Macbeth assumes the throne, they get increasingly paranoid with guilt, with imaginary approaching heavy steps and bloodstains that never washes away. Sleep no more. Macbeth can never rest easily.

There is nothing wrong with Washington and McDomand's acting, eschewing the bard's juicy monologues with gusto and ease. His greying hair and beard and her wrinkles give their performances more edge, accentuating the aging couple's desperate last shot at glory. But it's Kathryn Hunter who steals the show. She portrays the manifestation of three witches. Her contortionist body movement and cadence of her gravelly voice in the beginning sets the uneasy tone of the whole film.

Shot in black and white in academy ratio, it is closer to filmed stage play than a cinematic adaptation. Its German expressionism inspired, minimalist set design and CGI fog and a murder of crows come across as cheap. And digital cinematography (nonetheless shot by usually great DP Bruno Delbonnel) looks extremely flat and surprisingly uninspired.

Unfortunately, there is nothing special about Coen's directing: there are no battle scenes, the weird vibe has been done much better both in Polanski's and Welles's version as well as in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. It's as if Coen couldn't decide what direction he wanted to go and took the most boring, lazy route. The result is boring, flat adaptation with hodge-podge styles from other classic period pieces, as if Macbeth the film is wearing an ill-fitting suit.

Even any semblance of Coen-ness is only briefly found in the appearance of Stephen Root, a character actor and frequent collaborator of the brothers as Porter, a comic relief.

At best, The Tragedy of Macbeth feels like a vanity project where a director trying to please his wife a role she always wanted to play (for 15 years apparently). It also gives a clue to which Coen might be a Garfunkel of the duo.