A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 601 – Titus

Titus – October 21st, 2011

How better to follow up an enormous long slog of a movie than to watch a movie that’s only slightly shorter, right? Except where Jackson’s King Kong dragged on and on and made me doubt my will to live, I love this movie in all it’s horrifying, bloody, murderous, mixed-up-time-period, Julie Taymore glory. Oh, it’s not an easy one to watch, and some truly nasty things are done not just by the villains but by the heroes, but it is a beautiful movie and I would rather watch it ten times back to back than watch King Kong ever again.

Now, if you saw the name “Julie Taymore” and immediately thought of Spiderman, it’s okay. I understand. We all know about Turn Off the Dark, and I’m sure she’s very sorry. Having not seen her production of The Lion King, I can’t really say if this is any closer to that, but since that got good reviews and is known for being a hugely elaborate adaptation of the story, I’d say it’s a good bet that it is. My point is that Taymore has a somewhat mixed reputation, but I believe this falls on the “good” side of things. She’s also got a penchant for putting things on a grand scale and this certainly is grand. It is huge. It is lush. It is decadent. And that is absolutely perfect for the story being told. It is the story of an empire in decline and if you look up the word “decadent” you will see that its original meaning was a good deal more negative than its current meaning. It does share a root with “decay,” after all. And that right there is the point.

This is one of the few Shakespearean plays I never had to read academically. Having taken a fair deal of Shakespeare in both high school and college (with a few of his plays scattered throughout other classes not focused entirely on his work), I’ve read a lot by now. This isn’t one of them, however, which is a pity. I wish I had read this for a class. I wish I’d read it when I took my college Shakespeare class, which was the semester after I took a Victorian literature class in which we talked about the rotten core of decadence. I’d have written a far different final paper for the Shakespeare class and perhaps had a better time writing it. Ah well, no going back now. It’s just that this is the sort of story (and this version the sort of telling) that I absolutely love digging into. It’s full of horrible actions and questionable morals and unchecked vengeance and terrible consequences. Also, this version has Alan Cumming in a fabulous coat. What more could I ask for?

Okay, so I could ask for less racism. In modern writing I do ask for less racism. In Shakespeare I wish for less racism but I know better than to expect it. What I find fascinating about this story is that so many of the characters are villains. This isn’t really a story with a hero. This isn’t a story with good guys and bad guys. There are, instead, bad guys, badder guys and innocents. Let’s face it: Titus himself starts the story by killing Tamora’s son to make a point even as she pleads for mercy. That’s harsh. That’s not the way you set up an unambiguous hero. That Tamora ends up spending the rest of the movie working out a means to exact vengeance on Titus is fairly understandable at that point. That Titus then exacts revenge upon her for her acts of revenge? Again, understandable. That Aaron, a Moor living in the Emperor’s court, is one of the tools Tamora uses and that he is evil solely because of his race? Not understandable.

Fortunately for this movie, Aaron is played by the absolutely fantastic Harry Lennox. What he does with this part is nothing short of amazing. In this movie, I can begin to buy that Aaron’s motivations aren’t so cheaply explained as “Oh yeah, he’s a Moor, so of course he’s evil.” No. Here? I can believe that his race is involved, but it is because of decades upon decades of mistreatment that he acts as he acts. That he himself is exacting vengeance, not for his own life alone, but for his entire race. That to see an empire that treated his people so badly fall as this one does, is his aim. It is so much grander than the petty villainy of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. I would have to go back and read this play very close to see if I could tease all this out on my own, but without doing that I think I can rely on how this movie plays out to give it to me. And it is excellently done.

The idea of vengeance begetting vengeance begetting vengeance, until everything is in ruin, that is the story of the play. Titus, a Roman general, imprisons Tamora, queen of the Goths. He kills her eldest son and then goes home from war. Titus backs one son of the Emperor, but the other prevails and then weds Tamora, of all people. And it just goes downhill from there. Horrible things happen in this story and the movie doesn’t necessarily show it all on screen, but it certainly doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences. When Tamora’s remaining two sons brutally rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter? We don’t see it happen. But we do see Lavinia after, her hands gone, her tongue gone, clearly in horrible distress. We see her attempt to communicate to her father what has happened. And we know. We can’t help but know. Oh, there’s plenty of blood and gore in this movie, but it’s all stylized. It’s made obvious without this being a horror film.

Granted, the whole movie is stylized. Honestly, I think that’s for the best. Given how horrible some of the subject matter is, I think in order for the movie to have the depth that it has, that subject matter needed to be dealt with in a stylized manner. Otherwise this is just blood and guts and vengeance, not the meaning behind it all. In this, I really appreciate Julie Taymore’s flair for the dramatic. It’s made abundantly clear by the use of enormous sets and huge casts that Saturninus’ empire is dangerously over the top. I absolutely adore Alan Cumming as Saturninus, by the way. He’s not a likeable character, but he plays the horribly unlikeable Saturninus so well. Add that to Taymore’s choices of aesthetics, which blend time periods into bizarre yet effective visuals, and you have a truly beautiful movie to watch. But she’s also got an amazing cast, which makes it a fantastic movie to pay attention to as well. By the end, when nearly everyone is dead and Aaron gives his final speech, we’ve seen a movie full of people making terrible choices that they felt were justified. We’ve seen the effect those choices had not only on the people who made them but on their friends and enemies alike. It’s not a pleasant movie, no, but it is a good movie, and well worth the time spent watching it.

October 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

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

Hamlet (2000)

September 5, 2011

Hamlet (2000)

We own about four versions of this most famous Shakespeare play. We’ve already reviewed for our project the complete and uncut play as produced by Kenneth Branaugh. We’ve also reviewed the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) wherin Adam Long and his compatriots do a very much abbreviated version of Hamlet, then do it faster, then do it faster still, then do it backwards. Although we haven’t reviewed it (because our vast MST collection is not a part of this project) we even have a black and white version of the film produced for German television. So come we tonight to this, the millennial adaptation of the film set in the modern day and starring, amongst many others, Ethan Hawke as Hamlet.

This version of the takes the tale replaces the medieval kingdoms of the play with the modern royalty of today – the uber-rich aristocracy of the corporate aristocracy. Denmakr, therefore is a corporation, the head of which has recently died. The son of the head of Denmark Corp, Hamlet, returns from school for the funeral and is shocked to find his mother already being betrothed to his dead father’s brother. The story is unchanged of course, and the dialog is all Shakespeare, but it is much truncated and the order of some scenes is altered (for example it begins not with “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt” but with Hamlet’s speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about what a beast is man.)

Hawke’s Hamlet is not so much mad as sullen. He’s an artist and a angst ridden recluse, but he never seems insane. He toys with video cameras and monitors and a small portable editing deck. The play-within-a-play takes the form of a home-made film. (The players are gone entirely.) Hamlet’s melancholy airs fir perfectly into the generation-why mould of an idle teenager in the late nineties. His many soliloquies are split between voice-overs of his inner monologue and video diaries.

Ophelia, for her part, is a photographer in this version. The flowers she presents to her brother during her final speech are polaroid pictures. When she is sent by her father and Hamlet’s uncle the new king to spy on Hamlet they listen on on a concealed wire. It is during these two scenes that I am most moved by this production. Julia Stiles is an exceptional actress, and her Ophelia is almost painful to watch in her desperation as Hamlet, in his obsession, first denies his love for her and then accidentally kills her father. Really hers is the most tragic story in the entire tale of Hamlet – an innocent who is used and discarded – who looses everything she holds dear.

The modern day setting of the story works pretty well for the most part. The substitution of faxes for messengers, computer documents for missives, planes for ships all do not feel inappropriate. There is a very odd couple scenes that take place in a Blockbuster store which feel particularly strange to me, since I worked in a store that looked just like that (beck before DVDs replaced all the tapes on the shelves. Only for the climactic scene does it seem a little odd that Laertes and Hamlet choose to duel using foils. (The first time I watched this I wondered through the entire film how they were going to make this scene work since they had replaced swords throughout with guns. They do modernise it somewhat using electric fencing gear and dispensing with the poison-tipped sword, but the duel itself seems an anachronism in the world of the movie.

As is often the case with high profile Shakespearean adaptations there’s a fantastic cast gathered together here. Bill Murray in the role of Polonius does what I think is the best job of taking the Shakespearean dialog and making it feel understandable and natural in the mouth of a modern character. There are all kinds of familiar faces throughout the production from Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius to Liev Schreiber as Laertes and even brief appearances by Tim Blake Nelson and Paul Bartel. My favorite moment in the entire film is the epilogue, delivered by Robert MacNeil (familiar to any fan of PBS news in the eighties and nineties) as a news report.

I do admit that Hamlet is not my favorite play of all time. I’m just not a fan of tragedy in general, and there is so much angst and pain in this script. I do enjoy seeing different interpretations of the same work though. I like seeing how a new cast and director can breathe new life into a familiar subject. This is a great example of that, and it makes me want to see other versions as well. I don’t think we’re likely to get the Mel Gibson one, but I’d very much like to get the Laurence Olivier some day. For now we’re done with Hamlet though. More’s the pity.

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

Movie 493 – Merchant of Venice (2004)

Merchant of Venice – July 6th, 2011

When I was visiting England in high school the girls I was traveling with and the British girls we were staying with decided to go see a play being put on by the boys at a school nearby. The school we did the exchange with was all girls, but they had a boys’ school they had a connection to and the schools generally attended each others’ events. So off we went to see a bunch of 16 year olds perform Merchant of Venice more for class credit than love of the Bard. It was about as bad as you might expect. Someone involved had chosen to set the play in London in the 1970s, with the characters all turned into stockbrokers and the like and sporting horrible orange tans and speaking in inexplicable and horrifically bad Cockney accents. I didn’t get along terribly well with some of the other girls, but that night it didn’t matter. We all agreed that it sucked and we all left during the intermission. It was just too painful to sit through the rest.

I would say that I’ve been scarred by that performance and the tans and the awkwardness, but I went on to take a full year of Shakespeare after that. And then I did more in college. Given how much Shakespeare we’ve watched for this project already and how much I’ve enjoyed it all, from Twelfth Night to Macbeth, I’d have to say I didn’t suffer too badly. Still, I’ve always wondered about the choices made for that performance. This is a problematic play no matter how you look at it. A key plot point involving the title character involves a racial stereotype and his mockery and undoing. Take this as a comedy and you’re faced with the dilemma of how to handle the character of Shylock and his plot. Take this as a drama, which this 2004 production has done, and you have a host of other issues to deal with. And if you try to have it both ways, well, I suspect that the results would be patchy and uneven. Which really is my issue with the play in general.

I was somewhat dreading watching this for the above reasons. I have issues with the play. I find it to be a strange and troubling one from many sides and I am of the opinion that any performance of it would need to be done carefully. And this movie tried. It tried so damn hard. I can find no fault whatsoever with any of the performances here. I can find no fault with the sets or the costumes or the cinematography. It is a beautiful film and excellently performed by a cast full of people I recognize, whether they’re big names or not. But it is impossible to perform this without running into the play’s issues and while this movie presents the story entirely as drama, and I appreciate that, the issues are still present, causing the whole thing trouble.

Since this movie is working so hard at making this story entirely drama/tragedy there is obviously going to be a strong Shylock. If you’re not familiar with the plot, it involves a merchant in Venice loaning his friend an enormous sum of money in order to woo an heiress (whose father’s will specifies that she marry the suitor who chooses the right chest in a riddle/test – so wooing seems to be somewhat unnecessary). Not having the money himself, he goes to a moneylender, who demands that the merchant promise a pound of his own flesh as bond if he cannot repay the money with a set amount of interest. Of course the merchant ends up not being able to pay and the moneylender demands his pound of flesh, but thanks to the wiles of the heiress, the moneylender is not only denied his bond but also forced to leave his faith and sign over his home, wealth and belongings to the merchant and the city. And then there’s a whole chunk after that where the heiress and her maid trick their new husbands into giving away their wedding rings so they can lambaste them later on.

I do like the idea of playing the Shylock plot in historical context, as a real tragedy. Where it’s more about the fall of a man who’s been driven to extreme ends due to mistreatment and prejudice. As Shylock, Al Pacino delivers an excellent performance. The movie goes to great pains to explain just what sorts of restrictions and hatred Jewish people faced in Venice in this time period. Restricted to a specific part of the city, forced to wear identifying clothing, unable to make livings in many ways, reviled and scorned. And while there is a line from Shylock later about the merchant, Antonio, spitting on him, the movie actually shows it. There’s no doubt here that the audience is supposed to sympathize with Shylock to an extent. Antonio, and the friend he’s taking out the loan for (Bassanio) aren’t really supposed to be seen as all that great. In fact, in conjunction with the later marriage plot, Bassanio’s portrayal here strikes me as fairly negative. He gets his friend to take out a loan since he’s apparently driven his own estate into debt. He lets said friend put his own flesh on the line. And he spends an enormous amount to woo a woman who can’t choose her own husband. And then he goes and gives away the one thing she made him promise not to lose.

I really do think that Al Pacino gives an fantastic performance here, which I’ve mentioned. And I think there are many amazing actors arrayed around him and the play’s focus is put on him as much as it can be. The thing is, it’s not a play about Shylock. Not entirely. It’s about Antonio’s plight and Bassanio’s romance with Portia. The rest of Shylock’s plot involves his daughter, Jessica, running away and stealing all his money. He’s betrayed by his daughter and obsessed with revenge and it all focuses on his religion. There is no way to get away from that, so this movie dives right in. But it forces the focus onto Shylock, which makes everything else that happens seem like it doesn’t quite belong.

The trick at the end, with the heiress (Portia) and her maid (Nerissa), is very much a classic comedic device you can find in a lot of Shakespearean comedies. Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream come immediately to mind. The whole romance plot is mildly comedic, with the three chests and the over-the-top suitors that Portia doesn’t like and tries to sabotage. There’s a lot going on there, through the whole movie, that’s clearly meant to be taken lightly. Except because this movie is doing everything as a drama the romance plot is done dramatically as well – with only a tiny touch of comedy. But the ending, where Portia and Nerissa are angry at their husbands? That’s not played as comedy. Which leads to it feeling like a very weak drama indeed. Which in turn weakens the whole attempt to make the entire movie dramatic. Honestly, I think it would play a whole lot better if Portia was treated less as a romantic figure and more as a Puck, causing trouble wherever she goes.
I find this movie very frustrating, largely because I find the play very frustrating. It has some amazing speeches and they are performed excellently. It has some interesting turns and the movie shows them well. But it’s uneven in terms of tone. If one took out that ending, and kept Portia’s suitors more serious then perhaps it could work. If Portia was portrayed as more devious and mischievous then maybe it could work that way too. But both options would require some fairly heavy editing. As it is, I have to admire a well-crafted movie while remaining irritated by the script. Yes, I am criticising Shakespeare. It’s likely a product of its time but that doesn’t mean I have to refrain from criticism. It’s still a troublesome play that requires anyone performing it to really consider their choices carefully. And no, setting it in London in the 1970s does not qualify as a careful choice.

July 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

July 6, 2011

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

I bought this movie at a time when I was collecting Shakespearean adaptations. I picked up some real gems at that time. Things like the Ian McKellen Macbeth and his Richard III. I had never seen or watched Merchant of Venice before I watched this for the first time about five years ago, so I didn’t really know what to expect. What I got is a valiant attempt to make a play that is powerfully dated by its racist stereotyped villain work for modern audiences. This movie tries oh so hard to make this play palatable but the end result is a strange sort of tragedy with incongruous comedic romance plots wrapped around it.

A quick plot summary: young Bassiano is a rogue with money problems. He believes that he has found the solution to his money woes though – he has heard about a rich princess who he hopes to woo and wed. He goes to his dearest friend (and lover according to this adaptation – and there’s a lot of material there to support that assertion) the merchant Antonio to borrow the funds necessary to appear to be a prince when wooing the princess. Antonio is fairly over-extended though with several ships out on various trade missions around the world, and doesn’t have the money to lend. Instead the two of them got to Shylock, a mad Jew, who agrees to lend them the money for three months on one stipulation: if Antonio does not repay the debt Shylock will claim a pound of Antonio’s flesh as his bond.

Meanwhile Shylock’s manservant Launcelott decides, for no reason that this adaptation cares to make clear, to defect to Bassiano’s court rather than continuing to serve Shylock. Then Shylock’s daughter Jessica elopes to wed Lorenzo, a friend of Bassiano’s. This drives Shylock into a rage and he swears to exact revenge by taking his bond, the pound of flesh, from Antonio, whose ships have all been lost and who is destitute and unable to repay his debt.

All this is, I think, meant to be a mildly serious tangent to the play that provides some tension for the third act. Somewhat like the whole thing with Don John tricking Claudio and Hero in Much Ado. The actual main comedy romance part of the plot is about Bassiano gaining his new fortune and the unlikely means by which he does it. The goal of his affections, the princess Portia, is bound by a promise to her deceased father to wed the man who chooses from three chests the one which contains her portrait. She has suitors from all corners of the world, most of whom she despises, but only Bassiano correctly chooses the plain copper chest instead of the fancy gold or silver ones. It’s a flimsy fairy tale plot that doesn’t feel like it fits in the same movie as the dark tale of betrayal and vengeance that is the Shylock plot. After Bassiano has won the love and the hand of Portia, and his philandering right hand man Gratiano has abruptly decided to settle down with her handmaiden Nerissa, the boys rush back to Venice to try and save Antonio from the mad Jew.

All seems lost in Venice, and it appears that Shylock will be given permission to cut out Antonio’s heart as the pound of flesh specified in the contract until a brilliant young doctor and his companion arrive in court (actually Portia and Nerissa in unconvincing male drag) to save the day by using the very loopholes of Venician law that Shylock himself was exploiting to not only deny him his bond but to divest him of half his property and put his life at the mercy of the local governor.

The big problem is that the movie exerts so much effort to humanise the ranting, grasping stereotype that is the play’s villain Shylock. I’m pretty sure that he’s written to be a sort of doddering single minded fool along the lines of Dogberry from Much Ado. The play is supposed to be a farcical comedy after all with cross dressing and romance and this crazy man who would rather exact revenge on perceived slights than accept a perfectly reasonable offer of money. I’m pretty sure that we’re meant to loathe Shylock and celebrate in his eventual defeat, but we have no particular reason to do so aside from his being Jewish. In fact, and this is where things get really difficult, Shakespeare gives him some reasonable motivations for being such a bastard and even provides him with a couple of speeches that very well describe his plight. This movie concentrates a lot on those hints and those speeches to make Shylock a sympathetic character, which makes his ultimate downfall feel like the tragic end to the play.

Al Pachino, as Shylock, is the undisputed star of this movie. Everybody else provides wonderful performances as well, particularly the noble and gracious interpretation of Antonio by Jeremy Irons, but it is Shylock who is the most fascinating character. This film spends a lot of effort placing the tale in a historical context and stressing that Jews in Venice were much persecuted, so that when Shylock rants at the start of the play about being a cur in the eyes of Antonio we know what he’s going on about. Pachino makes Shylock a tragic, broken figure, driven mad by the loss of his daughter. He’s not a laughable buffoon at all, and his obsession with his bond seems less insane and more desperate. The material is there in the play to support this interpretation, in particular the “if you prick us do we not bleed” speech right smack in the middle where Shylock implies that his desire for vengeance is fueled by prejudices piled upon him by the Christian aristocracy. He even has a speech in the courtroom that has abolitionist tendencies, talking about the two facedness of the court in denying him his inhuman legal right to cut out a man’s heart while at the same time engaging in the inhuman slave trade. By the end of the courtroom scene, when Shylock is broken and weeping on the floor, you can feel nothing but pity for this man for all the wrongs done to him simply due to his creed. This is meant, I believe, to be a great victory for the heroes of the play, but in this interpretation Shylock is as much a victim as a villain and the entire courtroom scene is high tragedy (in spite of the levity of the female drag.)

Then the play goes on for another half an hour after Shylock gets his comeuppance with nonsense about Portia and Nerissa playing malicious pranks on their new husbands. The romance plot is so inconsequential and whimsical after the drama and tragedy of the lengthy courtroom scene that precedes it that it simply doesn’t fit in this adaptation. It feels like inappropriate and flippant padding, leaving the movie with an unsatisfying feel to its resolution.

I would be curious to see a version of this play which tries to do the whole thing as comedy. It would be uncomfortable to watch because we’re supposed to hate the Jewish money lender for being Jewish, which is the only reason that his ranting would seem comedic rather than tragic, but perhaps it would not feel so disjointed and awkward. Perhaps the play could be adapted to make Shylock a money-grubbing Scrooge like banker and drop the Jewish aspect entirely. Make him Bernie Madoff – a banker we can feel comfortable hating. I’d really like to see if that would make the play funny again.

July 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

10 Things I Hate About You

June 14, 2011

10 Things I Hate About You

Amanda is feeling pretty miserable because of her oral surgery yesterday so we decided to use one of our few reliable comfort movies. This light-hearted, fun, irreverent movie is the nineties answer to the old John Hughes brat pack movies of the eighties. It’s cute, silly, romantic, and probably one of the most perfect teen movies ever made.

The story is purportedly inspired by the Taming of the Shrew. Cameron, A young man at a new high school, instantly crushes on a girl named Bianca he sees on his first day there, only to discover that her over protective father has mandated that until Bianca’s shrewish sister Kat starts dating she may not date either. Cameron (with the help of his friend Michael) strikes upon a plan. He convinces the slimy male model Joey Donner to pay somebody to take Kat out. The guy they pick to tame the shrew is Patrick Verona, a dangerous loner and outsider. It’s all a frothy silly romp, but that’s part of the appeal of the movie.

This movie has two things going for it – the cast and the astonishingly witty script. I can’t really decide which is better. Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah Lutz have crafted a script where just about every single line of dialog is pure gold. It’s clever, funny and very quick witted. It highlights the many cliques at Padua High School and treats them with pretty much equal disdain. The leads of our movie here are all outsiders. Kat and Patrick choose not to sink to the level of fitting in, Cameron is too new in the school to be part of a clique and his friend and guide Michael is an AV geek (though he denies it.) Only Bianca is really popular, and over the course of the movie she comes to realize that perhaps that is not all that it is cracked up to be. This is very much a movie about standing up for yourself and having the courage not to fit in, and I love it for that.

Also fun is the fact that all of the adults in the movie are almost as funny as (if not funnier than) the younger roles. There’s Allison Janney, the sad beaten wife from American Beauty as Ms. Perky the guidance councilor. There’s Daryl Mitchell, Young Lorado from Galaxy Quest, as the very cool English teacher Mr. Morgan. There’s Joe Isuzu himself, David Leisure, as the gym teacher and detention hall monitor Mr. Chapin. And stealing every scene he’s in there’s Larry Miller as Kat and Bianca’s father Mr. Stratford. Theyr’e all fantastic parts, and the source of so many oft quoted lines in our daily lexicon. Things like “What’s another word for… engorged” or “I’m confiscating this” are just somehow applicable to daily life for me and Amanda. Possibly because of the great deliveries of the actors involved. I think that Larry Miller is one of my favorite parts of the whole movie – and that’s really saying something.

Then there are the other actors. I completely fell in love with Julia Stiles here. She’s an actress who, like the character she plays in this movie, doesn’t seem to feel the need to choose safe or acceptable roles. I admire that. She plays my favorite ever Ophelia, and even the Desdemona role in another Shakespeare inspired modern retelling that we own. It was such a pleasure seeing her in the Bourne movies, where she just kept getting larger and larger parts in each film. And there’s that young Australian soap opera star Heath Ledger who went on to win an Oscar playing a villain in a comic book movie – that’s really impressive right there. Heath has such casual confidence and charm to him, it’s not hard to see why he rocketed to super-stardom.

There are certain movies that simply define the genre they’re in. Movies that are so perfect from beginning to end that they never fail to delight. This would be one of those. A perfect movie to watch on a bad day.

June 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 393 – Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love – March 28th, 2011

I saw this movie in the theater when it came out. I saw it while visiting Andy’s grandparents when I was in college. They were with us. And let me tell you, watching a movie with a sex scene – even a sex scene as romantic as this movie’s – with one’s future grandparents-in-law? Just as awkward as one might expect. And still, it didn’t ruin this movie for me. Yes, it’s a romantic comedy, which is not usually my thing, but it’s a period romantic comedy and it’s Shakespeare based. And I do like my Shakespeare.

Were I to be a cynic, I would dismiss this movie as pure speculative fluff and nonsense. And I am often cynical, but there is something about this movie that makes me ignore that little critical voice in my head and just run with the fantasy. And it is fantasy. It is a melding of period setting and Shakespearean reference to the point where it’s clear that this is far outside the realm of reality. And that’s the point. I honestly believe this movie was made for people who love Shakespeare. Or who at least know a good deal of his work. Sure, people who don’t know it can watch it and enjoy the romance between Will and Viola, but from the perspective of someone who knows more than a few of the plays, it’s full of references and nods, some clever and some obvious. I like those references. I even like the blatant and cheesy ones like the Stratford Upon Avon mug. It all just makes me smile.

We put this in tonight because I needed an antidote to our weekend of Spider Man crap. I needed something well written, with a solid plot and people to root for. And it helps that there’s a nice solid villain here. One you’re meant to loathe. The story has echoes of Romeo and Juliet, but also touches and tidbits of various other plays as well. When we begin, Will Shakespeare has writer’s block. He can’t seem to get his latest play written, rival playwrights are doing better and gaining acclaim, and he’s low on funds as well. He’s working on a new play called Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. It’s rubbish. And then we meet Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. She loves plays and theater and when Shakespeare manages to write enough for auditions to be held she shows up dressed as a boy. And that’s where the trouble begins.

I’m not going to try and explain the plot in intricate detail. Suffice it to say that it’s a cross between Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night and Viola and Will end up passionately in love. And you know from the start that this is doomed. Viola’s a gentlewoman with money and Will is a penniless playwright. And Viola’s hand has been promised to Lord Wessex. It’s all a matter of money and prestige and reputation and it’s hateful. Her father pretty much sells her to Wessex with the promise that he can send her back if she doesn’t breed. And while I find that disgusting, I know that it’s not inaccurate to the time period. And it’s also presented as horrible. This is no romanticized vision of a marriage for money. Viola doesn’t miraculously end up falling for Wessex and he’s certainly not a sympathetic figure. The one jarring thing for me about this movie is the utter certainty that the only things keeping him from striking Viola in just about every scene they’re in together is that they’re not yet married and/or they’re in public. The thought of her having to actually live with him for any amount of time makes me sick, as he is clearly written to be a nasty, coldhearted and cruel man. Not an ideal husband, to be sure.

But that’s the contrast to Viola and Will, whose short time together seems magical and dream-like. In fact, they comment on that several times, with those comments ending up as lines in the play Will is writing. With romance in his life his work turns the same way. And it’s fun to watch Viola dressed as a boy, playing out Romeo’s part on stage and living Juliet’s off stage. It’s a doomed romance entwined with another doomed romance. But played out beautifully by Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. It’s a lovely bit of work, having the two act as inspiration to the parts they play within the movie’s stage performance.

I feel like I’m failing to adequately review this movie but to be honest I’m tired and it’s been a long day and I didn’t put this in to spend a lot of time analyzing it. It’s sweet and pretty and romantic and funny. It’s got a fantastic cast and a lovely score and some fun cameos and performances from actors I recognize in smaller roles. There’s a wonderful performance from Judi Dench as Elizabeth II (though I don’t know if it was truly Oscar-worthy). And it ends with a vision of Viola’s future that leaves me hopeful that while her romance with Will is at an end, there is more for her than a cold and likely painful marriage to a man who cares only about her father’s money and breaking her spirit. It’s a sad ending for the romance, yes, but a better ending for the people in it than Romeo and Juliet got.

March 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 350 – Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Romeo and Juliet (1968) – February 13th, 2011

Back in my college days I worked for a video store. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating here because of how we shelved our movies. We didn’t keep them out on the floor like Blockbuster did. We kept the boxes out there and the actual cassettes behind the counter, so customers had to come up and ask us for the movies they wanted. Sometimes, when it was a movie with a unique title and only one version/volume, it was simple. But anything Shakespearean was a pain in the ass. And since we were near several colleges, we got a lot of requests for various productions of pretty much every Shakespearean play ever filmed. We all got to know which versions were most often assigned and needed and this version of Romeo and Juliet was very popular indeed. And yet, even though I took classes on Shakespeare and enjoyed watching the plays, I never saw this one. Maybe because it was always out.

Like much of our Shakespeare, this is a long-ish movie. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing. While I do love the Reduced Shakespeare Company version of the play, when done for dramatic purposes instead of comedic it’s certainly nice to let the characters have time to build the romance and tragedy. While this story has been done and redone and overdone to the point of being a cliche, when done well it can have some true tragic weight to it. Sure, it’s easy to poke fun at how emo Romeo and Juliet are, with the weeping and the whirlwind romance and all, but when you pay attention to the motivations as written, it’s a lot better than the cliche.

We all know the story, but let’s go over it anyhow. I’ve got things to say. The play is set in Verona, where two feuding families, the Capulets and the Montagues, have been bickering for some time. The Prince of Verona is pretty fed up with it all and issued bans on fighting in the city, but the Capulets and Montagues don’t seem to care and get into it all the time. In the middle of this we meet a Montague, Romeo, and find out that he’s kind of a hopeless romantic. He sees Juliet while at a Capulet party he shouldn’t have been at, falls totally in love with her at first sight, and earns the enmity of her cousin, Tybalt. Romeo and Juliet meet secretly, get married secretly, and spend their wedding night together secretly before the whole feud comes to a head and Romeo, Tybalt and a Montague named Mercutio end up dueling in the public square. Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo kills Tybalt and it all ends with Romeo banished and still the only ones who know Romeo and Juliet are married are themselves and Friar Laurence, who performed the marriage. When Juliet’s father declares that she will be wed to Paris, Juliet is understandably distraught and begs for the friar’s help. He gives her something to help her feign death, planning to let Romeo know so the two can then run off together. And then, as we all know, there’s some serious communication fail (oh if only they had twitter) and Romeo thinks Juliet’s actually dead and kills himself. When she wakes up she realizes what’s happened and kills herself too and the tragedy of it all brings the families together.

So we’re all clear on the details here, let’s look at the real plot points. Pointless and nasty feud that results in violence, young love defying said feud, feud resulting in deaths, and then Juliet’s father tries to marry her off against her will. Leaving aside this particular production’s rendition of it, that’s some dramatic stuff. And not leaving aside this production, I think it’s done well here. For one, it’s an absolutely gorgeous production. The costumes, locations, everything. It’s just lovely to look at and thoroughly sets the stage for the whole play. And then there’s the acting. Aside from the repeated and incredibly overwrought weeping, I really like the two leads. And I’m willing to allow for the weeping in some cases given the situations. I mean, if I’d gotten married in secret and my father then told me I was going to be getting married to someone else in like, two days? I’m sure I’d be a mess too. And Olivia Hussey, as Juliet, has a sort of wide-eyed wonder at the love she and Romeo have that suits the character well. Leonard Whiting (who looks so much like Zac Efron it’s creepy) plays Romeo as a romantic who finally feels truly passionate instead of just enamored. They both do an excellent job of making their parts believable, and in a play where the entire plot hinges on an love-at-first-sight romance that’s important. I also greatly enjoyed Michael York as Tybalt and Pat Heywood as the nurse.

Overall, it’s just a well put together and well acted production of a play that’s so easy to overdo or dismiss due to the cliches that have been born from it. Granted, the movie was made in 1968, but the play had been around for hundreds of years by then. So finding a way to present it and have it make an impact is impressive. There’s enough different between the play and the movie to make for good discussion and good performances to critique and make the plot and motivations clear. I greatly enjoyed it, and I can see why it would be assigned viewing for classes reading the play.

February 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

February 12, 2011

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

It’s been a little while since we’ve reviewed some Shakespeare. As we were combing our collection for something appropriately romantic movie for Valentine’s Day weekend, though, we realized that we have practically no traditional romances. I would have recommended The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a great Valentine’s movie, but we’ve already reviewed that (and Amanda didn’t particularly like it.) We both generally disdain the entire genre of romantic comedy. So we turn instead to this most famous of romantic tragedies.

I have to admit that although I have owned this lush and beautifully produced adaptation of Romeo and Juliet for years, but have not watched it until today. This is not because I feared that I would not appreciate this production because I had heard many times what a great job Franco Zeffirelli had done here, but more because it requires a lot of preparation for me to embark on a tragedy like this. My first exposure to the story of Romeo and Juliet was when I was probably about seven or eight years old and there was a production of the ballet on PBS. My mother had to explain to me a lot of what was going on. In the end my assessment was that it was a very sad story. Why, I wondered, would anybody want to watch something so upsetting? In the intervening decades I still haven’t come up with an adequate response.

Shakespeare frames his tragedy within a homily about the pointlessness of feuds between families. In that regard there is a sort of moral here. Nevertheless it is undeniably a sad tale of innocent young lovers and their inevitable doom. As such it is not something relaxing that I’m likely to put in of an afternoon. It’s a movie I’m proud to own and one that deserves to be in our collection, but it’s not one I think I’m likely to watch very frequently.

A couple things stand out in this particular adaptation. First and foremost is the elaborate production and costume designs. This movie manages to combine both a realistic medieval renaissance look and a fantasy feel. For example there are the intricate and wonderfully tailored doublets – color coded so that you can tell at a glimpse who is a Montague and who a Capulet. The Capulet revels in particular are a lushly produced feast for the eyes full of gorgeous visuals. Looking at Zeffirelli’s credits on IMDB I note that he has done production design on a large number of television adaptations of classic operas. I can clearly see this operatic influence in the design for this movie.

The other standout is the cast. Much has been made in the past about the youth of the lead actors Zeffirelli chose to cast. Shakespeare’s script clearly states that Juliet is only thirteen years old and it does change your perception of these characters to see them as impetuous young rebellious kids. In general I would say that this choice raises this adaptation above many others. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting do a great job showing us this irrational young love… for the most part. My one complaint would be that Juliet is a weepy young character prone to hysterics and Olivia’s loud crying almost never felt believable to me. Perhaps it has to do with the post-production additional recording that goes on for much of the dialog in the film. Maybe she just couldn’t weep into a microphone in a sound booth. The result was that by the fourth or fifth time that Juliet threw herself down racked by sobs I had to roll my eyes and throw my hands up. It’s a pity because in general I loved her performance. She is wonderfully expressive and able to deliver Shakespearean dialog as though it completely natural language. It’s just the crying.

Indeed I have something shameful to admit. This movie did not make me cry. This is unusual because it’s not terribly hard to coerce my tear ducts to action – but this film felt more like melodrama than tragedy. Maybe it’s that I had braced myself so much before even putting the movie in. Maybe it’s that I spent more time analysing the adaptation than empathising with the characters. Still – I am surprised. I never fail to tear up for Shakespeare in Love during the scene where they act out the closing of this play. I wish we were watching that tomorrow night, but we have other plans for Valentine’s Day itself.

February 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 242 – The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) – October 28th

This DVD, along with our vast MST3K collection, often gets put in as background noise while we’re doing other things. We’ve seen it a million times and we know it well enough that we can quote whole sections of it verbatim on a whim. In fact, when watching some of the Shakespeare we’ve already done I found myself hearing the lines and jokes from this production in my head over the real lines. Branagh’s Hamlet suffered from this particularly severely. I mean, I loved Branagh’s Hamlet, but I will forever now think of Hamlet as “Omelet the cheese Danish.” I can’t help it.

As with last night’s movie, this one tells you what it is right on the cover. It is the complete works of Shakespeare, but very much abridged. For one, only two plays are presented in anything close to complete form, with lines exchanged and scenes performed, albeit in truncated form, and the rest are sort of whipped through or mentioned in passing. Some get individual mentions, like Othello being done as a rap and Troilus and Cressida getting some interpretive dance performance art. But the comedies are almost all done as one big mash up that I would very much like to actually see performed. The histories are done as an American football game, with the crown passed as a football. All that stuff happens in the middle along with a lot of fake vomiting, screaming, bad wigs and running around. The play is bookended with two of the most well known of Shakespeare’s works.

We open with Romeo and Juliet. Well, actually we open with some introductions for the cast. There are three, which is the source of much of the humor, since the three of them have to play every role and present every play, but also bicker like siblings on a car trip. There’s Austin, the “expert”; Adam, the goofball; and then there’s Reed, who sort of corrals the other two. Personally I like Adam’s introduction best. But then there’s Romeo and Juliet, which is certainly well done and a good indication of the sort of humor the show will have, such as when Adam as Juliet does the balcony scene standing on a chair behind Austin. And then there’s the fake dagger. Anyhow, it’s certainly a familiar play, so it makes for a good intro to the show. Then, after all the wacky hijinks and pantaloons it’s time to celebrate! They’ve finished early! Everyone can go home! Ha ha. No. Because then there’s Hamlet.

Really, Hamlet does deserve its own act, and its own paragraph. It’s a big hulking beast of a play and if Branagh’s full version is four hours long then of course the abridged version needs a little more space than, say, All’s Well That Ends Well. They spend a lot of time on it, and well, they do a really excellent job, for all that it’s a parody and abridged and has an interlude in the middle where they pull up an audience member to play Ophelia and get the whole audience involved in motivating her. While I think it’s probably a given that the folks behind this whole thing know their Shakespeare, it’s Hamlet that really hammers it home. They get into the motivations and what they see as flaws. They distill what is an exceptionally complex play into a very short period of time and manage to get across what’s going on while still presenting it with tons of jokes and interruptions. And then they do it faster. And then even faster. And then backwards. It is a thing of beauty.

What I really love about this play is that it clearly required a love of and in depth knowledge of Shakespeare. The Reduced Shakespeare Company is a group of very funny people who know how to do good humor, but they also know their source material. And as I love Shakespeare, but am aware of some flaws in the plays, I do so love watching people lovingly parody it. Sure, some of the jokes are a bit dated. There’s at least one Bill Clinton reference that’s from my college years and it probably won’t age well the further we get from the incident in question. But then this is also a snapshot of the production at a particular time. I’m pretty confident that they keep their jokes fresh with newer performances. So regardless of all that, the humor is great and the Shakespeare is fun and I do so love it. Makes me want to put in Branagh’s Omelet.

October 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment