A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 554 – Hamlet (2000)

Hamlet (2000) – September 5th, 2011

We’re running rather low on Shakespeare adaptations in our collection. I think there are two more left on the list at this point? Maybe I’m forgetting one. I can think of one more we’ll be buying, but other than that, really, we’ve watched what we had. And we’ve seen some good stuff and some interesting stuff and the weirdest I can think of is still to come. But this is definitely its own creature. It’s not quite a modern retelling since the language used is Shakespeare’s and the editing is mostly to pare it down, not to change its plot. But the setting is thoroughly modern, with Denmark a corporation and the story taking place in New York City among high rises and city streets and the Guggenheim.

I first saw this while I was in college and I will admit, I’m sure it’s not everyone cup of tea. It’s not the most polished of adaptations. It’s got rough edges and I’ve got some issues with it and it’s a far cry from Kenneth Branagh’s epic version of the same play. Still, it’s an interesting idea and for the most part I think it’s well conceived and well executed and it has my favorite Ophelia ever, both in that I feel that Julia Stiles plays her well and I feel that the modern trappings given to the role work excellently to give her a solid character arc. It doesn’t work everywhere, but it does work there, and well in enough other places to make me feel like it’s worth watching.

I don’t think I need to really rehash the entire story of Hamlet here. Let’s face it: Hamlet’s one of Shakespeare’s most well known and oft-reproduced plays. It’s fodder for a ton and a half of literary allusions and references and academic works. The high school I went to offered a full year of Shakespeare as a senior year English option, but in addition to that it also offered a full semester on Hamlet alone. Personally, I love Hamlet. Not because I particularly like the main character, but because I think it’s an interesting play that has a whole lot going on in it. And the main character isn’t a black and white character. Not many of the characters in the play are. I’d have to say with the exception of Claudius everyone in the play is pretty grey. Even Ophelia, though she does skew towards the lighter end of the scale. I honestly think characters and plots are more interesting when they’re conflicted.

The alterations to place the story in modern day New York City are largely cosmetic, but oh do those cosmetic changes make an impact. It becomes obvious early on that we’re dealing with CEOs and pampered rich kids, that the castle is a skyscraper and the ghost is appearing on a security camera. Hamlet is an amateur filmmaker and Ophelia a photographer. And somehow the language all works even in apartments with views of the skyline and on crowded city sidewalks and in taxis. I wouldn’t have picked Ethan Hawke to play Hamlet if I’d been asked, but I think he does an admirable enough job with the part with one notable exception, which really isn’t his fault.

It’s the soliloquies. The soliloquies are largely done as voiceovers, which I’m not really in love with. It feels almost as though they were an afterthought, which they shouldn’t be. But they feel almost shoehorned into the movie, played over scenes of Hamlet brooding in various places. And I can see the intent there is to make the soliloquies his internal thought process, kept in his head and never spoken where anyone else could hear. After all, the scenes show him going about his life in the city and that much works. He goes to the library, strolls down the street, sits in an airplane with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and works on his film to try and catch his uncle out. As a New Yorker, clearly he has Things To Do and Places To Go. It wouldn’t really work for the tone of the movie to have him sitting in his room, moping aloud to his editing equipment. But at the same time having the soliloquies as voiceovers during scenes where Hamlet is out doing things ends up making them feel detached from the actions on display. They feel like they’re being added in post, which of course they are, instead of being his thoughts during the scene playing out on screen. Which makes them all feel less immediate and more rehearsed. Which isn’t at all how I want them. Hamlet’s soliloquies should be the thoughts of a mind in turmoil as they occur to him, not later on, carefully pondered.

Fortunately, that’s really my only quibble with the movie. Sure, it’s pared down quite a bit. It’s a short rendition of the play, really. But it does handle a lot of the key issues the play presents. I love the “play” Hamlet shows redone as a film collage. It cuts out the Players, but then they’re mostly important because of the play within a play bit. I enjoy seeing the ghost as an appearance on a security camera. I love that messages are delivered by fax machines and that the letter sent with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is on a laptop. And I especially love that when Ophelia is sent to talk to Hamlet and try to divine what his intentions are, she’s wearing a wire.

Let’s talk about Ophelia for a moment before I wrap up. Wearing that wire is a fantastic piece of character motivation. While the concept of her spying on Hamlet for her father and Claudius is, of course, going to cause her emotional anguish, having the apparent betrayal discovered by Hamlet in a tangible form makes it all the more damning. How can she deny it? How can she argue it? Hamlet’s already angry and dismissive of her. And now she knows that he won’t trust her, if ever he was inclined to again. And in turn, who can she trust? It makes her death (also handled nicely, and I love the conceit with the flower photos) all the more tragic to me. I truly love this Ophelia, both for the performance and for the presentation that allowed the performance.

Overall, like I said, this isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. If you’re looking for a traditional and complete (or close to complete) rendition of Hamlet then this is most certainly not it. Mark off a day on your calendar and go find the Branagh version if that’s what you’re looking for. But if you’d like a fascinating cross between an adaptation and a traditional performance, then this is it. It’s got good acting, excellent visuals and interesting choices, which is really all I ask from an adaptation. Do something interesting and at least do it well most of the time. I can forgive some flaws, but so long as the heart of the play is there, then it can be made to work. And this does.

September 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 293 – It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie

It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie – December 18th, 2010

While I do consider myself a Muppets fan, I have not seen everything they’ve ever done. I hadn’t seen The Muppet Wizard of Oz until we watched it for this project and I hadn’t seen this until today. I’m a little wary of the made-for-tv stuff, but I was pleasantly surprised by their take on The Wizard of Oz, so I had some hope for this one.

Unfortunately, I was not blown away by it. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s the truth. It wasn’t terrible or anything. I enjoyed it just fine. Parts of it I enjoyed quite a lot. It’s just that it wasn’t great. It was a little messy and a little jumbled and suffered from a lot of dated pop culture references and that’s a pity, because at its core it has a good concept. It’s just got so much else going on around that concept that it gets lost.

The basic storyline of the movie is a Muppet version of It’s a Wonderful Life. And the Muppets have done some great parodies and takes on classics, so I’m on board with that idea. The plot follows Kermit as he learns that the new owner of the theater wants all the money they owe her by midnight on December 24th or she’ll foreclose on them and tear down the theater to build a nightclub. Through a string of events the Muppets miss the deadline and they lose everything and Kermit wishes he’d never been born and you know where this is going.

The trouble here is two-fold: Firstly, the story doesn’t start with the threat of foreclosure. It starts with a dejected Kermit out in the snow and an industrious angel taking note and insisting that someone in Heaven help out. Then he helpfully shows God what’s happened and rewinds the story back to the start so we can follow along. It’s a bizarre choice, probably made to have the It’s a Wonderful Life reference super clear and give the movie a bit of a sense of urgency. But all it makes me think is that the movie laps itself and makes its own timeline needlessly complex. Sure, the original movie goes back a ways, but it’s to show George Bailey’s childhood and early years. We don’t go back and see Kermit as a tadpole or watch him meet Fozzie and ride off in his Studebaker. If we had I might have been more understanding of the narrative choice. As it stands, I think it could have started with the owner’s arrival and threat and we’d have been just fine.

The second half of my issue with the movie is that it is so overly referential it’s easy to lose sight of what the main reference source is. This isn’t helped by the circular timeline either. The movie starts out with a series of admittedly pretty funny Gifts of the Magi references, with various pairs of Muppets gifting each other increasingly bizarre items. There are references to Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer, A Christmas Story and likely a lot more Christmas movies I’m not as familiar with (as evidenced by Jack Frost and the upcoming Comfort and Joy and The Box of Delights, my Christmas viewing is a little atypical for my geographical point of origin). And those I’m down with. I like how the Magi stuff was popped in there, and the bit with the flag pole. It’s cute and definitely works as an overall Christmas parody theme.

The pop culture, on the other hand, dates the movie horribly. There’s a lengthy Moulin Rouge spoof and a scene on the set of Scrubs. A blatant reference to Steve Irwin shows up to track Fozzie through the streets and music that is decidedly Nine Inch Nails-esque plays in at least two scenes. I can live with the somewhat adult-oriented lines from Pepe and the rather dark alternate Kermit-less world. Let’s face it, the original show wasn’t necessarily for kids, even though I was a kid when I started watching it. And I forgive the cameos and celebrities playing themselves because there’ve always been cameos in the movies and the folks playing themselves is a clear reference to the original show. But the pop culture stuff just tries too hard.

I really wish they’d kept it to Christmas references and Muppet homage. Because the references back to the older shows and movies are fantastic. There are a couple of Muppets who show up during a rehearsal for the big Christmas extravaganza the Muppets are planning and they’re straight out of the original show, all long-limbed and fluffy and probably controlled by puppeteers dressed in black using large rigs. In the Kermit-less reality there’s a Doc Hopper’s Frog Legs kiosk at the mall. The whole movie takes place at the Muppet theater, and it’s wonderfully familiar as well as expanded. That and the basic plot of Kermit seeing how much joy he’s brought to the world and how sad it would be without him? That’s really all this movie needed. It’s obvious from the outtakes and additional material that the crew who came together for this movie had a blast making it. They had a good human cast with David Arquette (not a stranger to Muppet films) as the angel, Whoopi Goldberg as God and Joan Cusak as the villain, Rachel Bitterman. I loved having Kermit back in the lead role and it was great to see the Muppets in their home environment. I just wish it hadn’t ended up with such a messy mish-mash covering all that up.

December 18, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 287 – Austin Powers in Goldmember

Austin Powers in Goldmember – December 12th, 2010

And so we come to the end of our Austin Powers weekend. I’ve got to say I think this one is my favorite. Bizarre, I know, but it has two connected storylines I love and it has Michael Caine. Seriously, how could I not love Michael Caine? Anyhow, it has some bits I like, a fun female lead, some time travel, some flashbacks and sharks with frikkin laser beams on their heads. What’s not to like? Aside from more Fat Bastard and the titular Goldmember?

No, I still don’t like Fat Bastard here. I gave my reasons why yesterday and they still apply here. As for Goldmember, I’m pretty sure he’s supposed to be creepy and discomfiting. I’m almost 100% certain that’s his point in the movie. He eats his own skin flakes and has a gold fetish and an awkward high pitched laugh. And I don’t know, I just find him more cringe-inducing than funny. He has a line or two, but mostly he’s just bizarre. Fortunately, like the first movie and the second movie, the bits I find unfunny are outnumbered by the bits I find hilarious.

Now, by the third movie it’s fairly clear that Dr. Evil will come up with a convoluted plan to take over the world and Austin Powers will thwart him somehow. A new sexy female companion for Austin will show up at some point and a new villain sidekick will show up too. Puns will be made, sex will be talked about, nostalgia-based references and humor will abound. And so it goes here. Except Austin thwarts Dr. Evil in the beginning, right at the outset, and is knighted for his efforts, bringing in a family plot that I love. Austin’s father skips the knighting ceremony, setting off a wave of daddy issues for Austin. Eventually Dr. Evil and Mini Me escape from jail and then the movie goes as expected, with Austin gaining his new companion, Foxy Cleopatra, from the 1970s, and Dr. Evil gaining Goldmember from the same time period.

It’s the family stuff I really enjoy here. Austin and his father, Scott Evil and Dr. Evil. They’re great combinations of characters and casting and when everything comes to a head and Scott goes full on Evil it’s just perfect. I love Seth Green as Scott and he does a great character arc here, from Dr. Evil’s skeptical son to the heir to the family business (that would be the business of evil). He even gets his father sharks with frikkin’ laser beams. It’s fantastic. And then there’s Austin and his father, played fantastically by Michael Caine. Adding to all of that are some flashbacks to Austin and Dr. Evil (as well as Number 2 and Basil Exposition) all at school together as boys. It’s great fun and some good humorous character development for a comedy.

Of course there are the usual dick jokes and sex jokes and poop jokes and puns and fourth wall breaking gags (like the unreadable subtitles that Austin messes up). It’s that sort of movie. And it’s not at all unexpected. Verne Troyer is still great as Mini Me (and I love his fight scene with Austin) and Robert Wagner is still great as Number 2. I still like Michael York as Basil and I actually really like Beyonce Knowles as Foxy. The meta opening, with the Austin Powers movie opening being filmed by Stephen Spielberg, is a fantastic bit of inanity full of cameos, and if you look close you can spot two actors from Heroes in small roles. So really, I can handle two characters I’m not fond of. Just like in the other movies, there’s enough funny to block them out and keep me laughing.

December 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 219 – The Men Who Stare at Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats – September 5th, 2010

I remember when this came out. I recall seeing ads for it on television and thinking it had a great cast and an amusing premise that I was sure must be based somewhat on reality. Being the straightlaced kid that I was, I never got into drugs, but I read a hell of a lot about the drug culture of the 1960s. I probably worried my parents sick with my reading choices. Illuminatus! was a staple (though looking back, I far prefer The Schrodiner’s Cat Trilogy), and I bought myself a copy of Timothy Leary’s autobiography. I found the whole time period and culture fascinating. I read up on MK ULTRA and the government’s experiments with LSD. I wrote a poem about Abbie Hoffman for a creative writing class in high school. Why didn’t anyone ever attempt an intervention? Probably because it was painfully obvious that I was a total square. But I was a total square who’d done research!

So, when I heard about this movie, I had a vague idea that yeah, the US military has a history of having done some weird stuff that ultimately led nowhere. And conspiracy theorists will always be glad to share their thoughts on how it didn’t lead nowhere, that’s just what they want you to think! And so it’s great fodder for a story, right? Sure! And there’s the great cast! Ewan MacGregor, Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey! Stephen Root! Sounds like fun. And I’ll be honest. It was fun. It was fun enough that I’m glad we own it and I’m a little sorry that we missed it in the theater. But, well. It’s got some flaws.

For one, the movie is trying to be a couple of things and I’m not sure it can be all of those things at once. It’s a commentary on the US presence in Iraq, both military and private sector. It’s a guys bonding with guys movie. It’s about a midlife crisis, or really a bunch of midlife crises. It’s also a farce and a parody and a story about redemption. That’s a lot. The trouble for me is that the redemption and midlife crisis bits are fairly heartfelt and the rest of kind of tongue-in-cheek. It’s an odd balance. It tips sometimes. And then there’s how it’s told.

The movie is narrated by Ewan MacGregor. The conceit is that he’s a journalist named Bob whose wife leaves him for his editor and who embarks on a journey to the Middle East to try and do something daring to prove his manhood. By chance he meets a man named Lyn Cassady, whom he’d heard about from a guy he’d interviewed for his paper. A guy claiming he had psychic powers and had been trained to use them in the Army. Lyn sees that Bob’s been doodling pyramids with eyes and off they go to Iraq on a mission. What mission? Who knows! It’s just a mission. Scenes of the two of them bumbling their way into and out of trouble in Iraq are intercut with flashbacks (haha, flashbacks, in a movie with lots of LSD, oh, man, hilarious) to the development of the US military’s psychic warfare program, the New Earth Army. These scenes are introduced and explained by Bob as told to him by Lyn.

Really, for the majority of the movie there are two stories. There’s Bob and Lyn in Iraq, getting kidnapped and into car accidents and shot at by rival security contractors and driving over landmines, and there’s the background to the story. There’s Lyn’s whole history with the founder of the New Earth Amy, Bill Django, and his rival in the program, Larry Hooper. We see the soldiers grow their hair long and dance and pinpoint the locations of personnel at the orders of their commanding officers. We see them identify photos and do a much better job than that girl Peter Venkman hits on in Ghostbusters. It’s the story of psychic escalation. Sort of like nuclear escalation, only with people convinced they can walk through walls or kill goats with their minds. That’s all fun stuff, but it’s doled out in bite size chunks, almost episodic in nature.

I get the concept. I understand that the movie is trying to give the audience the background and the foreground at the same time before bringing them together. The trouble is that by the time Bob and Lyn show up at Larry’s camp in the desert, where he’s a private contractor specializing in psychological warfare and has Bill working for him, there’s about twenty minutes left in the movie. We’ve spent the whole film going back and forth and back and forth and now that we’re all in the same place everything has to come together very quickly. Oh, Bill’s a drunk now and has lost faith in his powers? Lyn might have been making it up all along? Bob has to find it in himself to believe enough that he can give the two of them their redemption and Larry his comeuppance at the same time? Right! Let’s get on that and make it snappy!

It’s a very self-aware movie, from the Jedi jokes made by and to Ewan MacGregor’s character to the mention of Timothy Leary. This is a movie that knows all its own jokes and is already laughing at them before they play out. It knows that people today will find the idea that the military even entertained thoughts of psychic combat hilarious. But there was a time when people were dead serious about it. Which is sort of where the humor lies, really. And yes, it is humorous. The movie hits a lot of notes right. Clooney, Bridges, Spacey and MacGregor all give great performances, each investing a different depth and kind of belief in the whole thing. Clooney and MacGregor have some great comedic chemistry (and Clooney really is a fun comedic actor – I’m reminded muchly of his performance in O Brother, Where Art Thou? here). Bridges throws himself into the character of Bill Django and Spacey is thoroughly invested in being a total dick. It’s all good fun. I just wish it wasn’t quite so sloppy in the telling.

October 5, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | 2 Comments