A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

There Will be Blood

November 2, 2011

There Will Be Blood

This movie came out in the same year as No Country for Old Men. Both were nominated for a ton of Oscars. It was just a big year for dark, bleak movies. I bought both before watching them, owned them for ages and didn’t manage to get all the way through them until we reached them in our movie a day project. Both of them are heavy going. My impression when I watched the first half or so of each of them back in 2008 was that No Country had more tension and more bloodshed, but this movie was the more intense. There’s a reason that Daniel Day Lewis wins Oscars – and it’s that he’s a powerful actor who picks challenging films and completely dominates them.

Daniel Plainview – the man that Lewis portrays – is a character made up of loneliness and rage who wants to have the world for himself. This movie follows him from his days as a prospector on his own in the wilderness through his time as a wheeling and dealing oil man with his son searching for that next big strike and his eventual success. He’s a smooth-talking swindler whose only passion is his own legacy. He craves success and power for himself and his son.

A young man comes to him with a tale about oil seeping up out of the ground on his family’s property and Daniel goes out to the little Pentecostal town of New Boston and finds that it’s true – the find of a lifetime presented to him on a silver platter. He only needs to bilk the simple hayseeds out of the deeds to their land so that he can drill there and set up a oil pipeline to the coast.

The actual happenings of the film – the tragedies, disasters, betrayals and deceptions – are incidental because the whole movie is really just about Daniel’s descent. He starts the movie utterly alone, and he ends it even more so. This is a powerful character study of a deeply disturbed man who doesn’t realize that no matter how successful he becomes it will never ease the rage that drives him.

This was Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow up to Punch Drunk Love, which Amanda and I have already reviewed. I remember thinking when I first bought this and watched the beginning of the movie that it was an impressive divergence from Anderson’s earlier work. I was familiar with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, which we haven’t watched yet for the project but which I have watched many times, so I thought of P. T. Anderson as a maker of quirky ensemble pieces. Having since watched Punch Drunk Love I can very clearly see the evolution. Punch Drunk Love was a film meticulously designed to elicit an emotional response (a panic attack) and this film seems a natural extension of that concept. It’s a character study that strongly displays P. T. Anderson’s mastery of the filmic toolkit that he uses to manipulate his audience. The movie is full of intense scenes using atonal music and complex hand-held shots that draw us into Daniel Plainview’s upsetting world.

Of course the center of the whole movie is Daniel Day Lewis. There’s no dialog at all for the first fourteen minutes of the movie as it shows us Daniel working on his first drill sight – and when he finally does start talking his tones are so earthy and engaging that you can easily see how all the people he meets fall under his sway. Every single line that he delivers is deep, rich oil welling up from some magical font of actorly prowess. This movie may be long and intense and at times unpleasant, but it’s also a gift to the world from a pair of amazing craftsmen, and as such I can’t help being drawn to it. It’s not a movie I’ll watch often, but it’s a movie that will haunt me. Which is exactly what I think Anderson and Lewis were going for.

November 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Ghost World

October 26, 2011

Ghost World

I love absolutely everything about the first two thirds or so of this movie. I bought it for Thora Birch, and she is awesome. I also bought it because it was based on an indie comic book, and it has that strange quality to it, which I also enjoy. It has Steve Buscemi, who is always cool. There are parts of this movie that feel like almost a live action Daria – full of cynicism and angst.

On the other hand, this movie is pretty painful to watch. The character that Thora Birch plays, Enid, is so completely jaded that she ends up being pretty nasty to just about everybody. She’s bitter and mean, often without really meaning to be. Over the course of the movie she befriends an eccentric loser that she starts the movie tormenting and ultimately she proceeds to destroy his life.

At the start of the movie Enid and her best friend Rebecca graduate from high school, with all the social awkwardness that such an event holds for a pair of cynical girls who are too smart to really be dealing with high school peers. They have no plans to go to college, instead they intend to move into an apartment together and live their own quirky life. They spend their time being snarky, following strangers and making fun of them, and generally trying not to be a part of the pathetic suburban lives of everybody around them.

I fully understand that aloof angst, and although Enid is fairly cruel a lot of the time there’s a good amount of humor in seeing the way she dismisses the shallow world she finds herself inhabiting. In general Rebecca is the stable one of the two and Enid is a the instigator who thinks it would be hilarious to follow that strange looking couple or prank call some guy who placed a desperate singles ad.

So Enid calls the guy and pretends to be the woman he saw one day on a bus and watches as he sits sadly waiting for the woman to show up. After that she follows the guy home and eventually discovers that he’s actually kind of cool in his own pathetic and lonely kind of way. He collects all kinds of cool kitchy stuff. Old timey records (he has a collection full of items that are one of only two known remaining copies for example) and pictures and posters – everything in his apartment has a sort of patina of things left over from a lost age.

Enid befriends Seymore because, really, he’s just so awesome. She spends a lot of the movie hanging around with him. Going to his awkward record collector party. Trying to fix him up with women. Throwing him a birthday party. He ends up with a kind of crush on her, which she doesn’t really understand because she’s so caught up in being miserable about her own life.

Amanda found this movie almost physically painful to watch. I fully understand why, too, because it’s all about depression and embarrassment, or at leas appears to be for huge swaths of the movie. I find it hard as well. At the same time, however, I love these characters, and the actors that play them, so much that I can’t stop watching because these are the kind of people I’d like to spend my time with. My best friend in college, Christine, was basically a less depressive version of Enid. She had that same love for kitch and that same inability to say no to the craziest of impulses. I suppose that most of the reason I enjoy this movie is that it reminds me of the adventures Christine would drag me into back in those days. It’s a nostalgia thing.

October 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

Curse of the Golden Flower

April 27, 2011

Curse of the Golden Flower

We’ve reviewed a couple of Yimou Zhang movies for the project by now so although I haven’t seen this before tonight I thought I knew what to expect tonight. I was expecting something lush and gorgeous with spectacular and well choreographed martial arts sequences. And I got that, but this movie is also so much that I had not expected. I had not expected an epic tragedy full of intrigue, secrets and betrayal. I was not expecting something of this scope and grandeur. I could not have anticipated anything of this opulence and sheer scale – simply because there isn’t anything else like this out there. The closest I can come is Akira Kurosawa’s grand Shakespearean adaptation Ran, and that was constrained by the practical limitations of the time. Here, with the modern technology that made possible the epic battles of the Lord of the Rings series with apparently unlimited resources and a cast that appears to reach into the tens of thousands Zhang has made one of the most impossibly colossal movies of all time.

At the same time there is a surprisingly intimate story buried in this grand and extravagant movie. It’s a story about a family torn apart by secrets. We’re introduced to the imperial family slowly, getting a feel for each of them and the burdens they carry. At the center of the movie is the Empress – consort to the Emperor and mother to two of his sons. She has been having an affair with the Emperor’s other son, Wan, the eldest who was born of another Empress. Her elder son, Jai, is a steadfast and honest young man freshly returned from the frontier where he has been commanding the imperial armies. Then there’s the eager and youthful Yu, the youngest prince, who longs for glory of hos own and chafes at always being in the shadow of his elder siblings.

It would seem that the Emperor is aware of the Empress’ affair, and he has commanded his physician to start administering a gradual poison to the Empress in the cordial she is required by the Emperor to drink every two hours. With time, the physician tells his daughter Chan, the black mushroom being fed to the empress will destroy her mind. Meanwhile Chan has also been having an affair with Wan, who seems to be somewhat of an irresponsible layabout.

Things really get complicated when a mysterious woman in black shows up in the palace. She is the wife of the Imperial physician, mother of Chan, but the brand on her face hints at a darker past which she does not wish to initially divulge. She wants to help the Empress because she bears a grudge against the Emperor, and it is the root of that grudge that drives the film towards its inevitable and tragic conclusion.

To ground such a grand tragedy Zhang needed a stellar cast, and he clearly has that here. Chow Yun Fat portrays the Emperor. He’s so wonderfully imposing – a cold and aloof man isolated by his power. On the other side we have Li Gong as the Empress. She’s the primary character, and her quiet desperation and determination is almost palpable.

Add to this great story and great cast some astonishingly detailed production design, elaborate period costumes and an enormous apocalyptic battle and you have this movie. The sets are astonishing. In particular the halls of the palace with their glowing glass pillars are so detailed that it humbles you just to look at it. The vast courtyard of the imperial palace is apparently the largest movie set ever constructed in China and was big enough to dwarf the thousand professional soldiers involved in the battle scene there. (Their ranks were augmented by computer to fill the space.) The costumes too are intricate, detailed and ornate. Apparently they were also quite heavy and cumbersome.

This movie is an amazing accomplishment. It tells an interesting story of corruption, decadence and decay, and it tells it on a scale not often to be found even in the modern era of hundred million dollar blockbuster movies. I’d say that this is a movie that could not be made here in the United States. It’s so quintessentially Chinese. Not just in language and design, but in thought. Only in modern China, I think, could such a film exist. I’m glad it does exist too, because this movie makes the entire world a richer place.

April 27, 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

The Prestige

December 29, 2010

The Prestige

This movie starts right out of the gate being clever. It dives right into the fantasy of the movie world without any of that mumbo-jumbo of having opening credits. It just has a title card – two words in bold type hovering over a field filled with top hats – the first hint in a long series of clever slight of hand that slowly reveals the secret behind this movie. Even without opening credits however this movie absolutely screams Christopher Nolan. It plays with time, jumping forward and back through the story in a very Chris Nolan way (familiar to anybody who’s seen Memento of the more recent Inception.) It stars some of his favorite actors in Christian Bale and Michael Caine. It has a fun mystery to it and a cool reveal at the end of the movie.

There are several tricks Nolan uses in the telling of this tale. I mentioned how he bounces back and forth in time. The plot revolves around a pair of rival magicians and their constant bitter and nasty attempts to destroy each other’s careers and lives. They discover much about how their lives played out by reading each other’s diaries. So we get narration, flash backs, flashes even further back, jumps forward… just keeping track of it all takes a lot of concentration. Just editing this together into a film that makes sense to the viewer must have been a herculean task. What’s even more astonishing though, is that all this cleverness is just misdirection. It’s the magician waving a handkerchief about while the real trick goes on in his other hand. Nolan wants you concentrating on all the plot threads, he wants you concentrating hard trying to figure out just what the actual sequence of events is so that he can cleverly work the real magic of the film right out in the open without you seeing it.

This movie is part mystery, part tragedy, part dark fantasy and all magic. It’s an homage to the art of magic, with detailed reveals that explain how some of the tricks work, but also a warning about the danger of becoming obsessed with that world. There’s an underlying theme that in order to become a truly great magician one has to be willing to make sacrifices. One of the rivals – Alfred Borden aka The Professor – understands this from the very start. His rival, Robert Angier, never seems to grasp it until near the end of the film. He wants to believe that great magic is possible even when his wife, early in his career, is tragically killed onstage while attempting an underwater escape. He has a great grasp of the necessary theatricality necessary but not of the sacrifice. Magic, this movie says to us, is a gruesome and brutal art form based on deception. The two lead characters are men consumed and destroyed by this constant deception.

There are layers upon layers to this film, with deep motivations for the characters that are not entirely clear in some cases until quite late in the movie. It must have been a wonderful pleasure for the actors to dig into these characters and bring them to life. Hugh Jackman plays the pathetic Angier, who is destroyed by his wife’s death and commits all of his efforts from that point on to the destruction of the man he holds responsible. Borden is played by Christian Bale, who in many ways has the hardest job here since his character is so hard to understand. Michael Caine is their mentor in the ways of magic and an inventor of clever contraptions to deceive the audience. Throw in a cameo by David Bowie as Nikola Tessla, the real life eccentric genius and inventor and a wonderful performance by Scarlett Johansson as Angier’s attractive assistant and you have probably one of the best casts you could possibly assemble. It’s their job to sell this warped, sad, tragic world of deception and betrayal.

I had this film spoiled for me before I watched it. I truly wish that I had not. It would have been so much more fun if I hadn’t known the trick behind it. But as you know if you’re a fan of Penn and Teller the best magic tricks are the ones that are still fascinating and fun to watch even when you know how they are done. Perhaps especially then because you can appreciate all the more the craft of the magician. Chistopher Nolan is a wonderful master of his craft, and it’s a joy to watch him work, so even with the ending spoiled for me in advance I completely loved this movie.

December 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 284 – Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading – December 9th, 2010

When this movie was coming out in theaters I remember seeing previews for it and they were utterly baffling. They didn’t seem to know exactly how to sell it. Was it a comedy? Was it about espionage? Was it murder mystery? Who knew? All I could really tell from the previews was the cast, which looked amazing, and that it was a Coen Brothers movie and therefore probably thoroughly bizarre. And what do you know? I was right. This movie is almost as baffling as the previews, except it isn’t trying to present itself as anything in particular. Like every other Coen Brothers movie I’ve ever seen, it just is.

The plot here is quite complex in its specifics but the root of it is in a couple of simple points: A bunch of people are sleeping around with each other, one of them is a former CIA analyst, and one of them really wants the money for some cosmetic surgery. Sound nonsensical? It is! In fact, through the whole movie, while supposedly classified information is falling into the wrong hands and people are blackmailing other people and affairs are happening and people are being followed, two men in the CIA are tracking all the events in astonishment. They’re sort of the audience’s stand-ins inside the movie, stating for us that this is just plain ridiculous. It makes no sense. And in the end when it’s all over? Well, they’ve learned not to do this again. If only they knew what it was they’d done. I can only imagine what they’d have made of the nihilists in The Big Lebowski.

But really, the specifics are wild. This plot could have been played straight. It could have been utterly serious, with extortion and state secrets and all. But that wouldn’t be Joel and Ethan Coen’s thing. So instead we get this. Linda Litzke, a woman who works at a gym, believes she is in need of a good deal of cosmetic surgery in order to find a man. And she wants to find a man. That’s the next step in her life. Really, Linda’s the catalyst here. Sure, there are the Coxes, Osborne and Katie. And sure, there’s Harry, who’s sleeping with Katie but also married and then sleeping with Linda too later on. And they’d all end up tangled together anyhow. And then there’s Osborne’s memoirs from his days in the CIA as an analyst. But only when a CD with a copy of the memoirs falls into Linda’s hands do things get bad. Her coworker, the affable doofus Chad, wants to simply hand the CD over and hopefully get a reward. Unfortunately the CD belongs to Osborne, who’s a total douche, and Linda really wants some money. And thus we have an extortion and espionage plot that’s over some truly trivial information.

Linda’s a bit of a Typhoid Mary in this movie. It’s sort of a theme I’ve noticed in Coen Brothers movies that innocents tend to get hurt or die. Sad, but true. And here it’s all linked back to Linda. The two nicest characters in the movie are Chad and one of Linda’s other coworkers, Ted. And they get hurt. Sorry to spoil things, but this is a Coen Brothers movie. It all goes back to Linda, really. Without her insistence that the CD with Osborne’s memoirs get used for extortion none of the really nasty stuff would have happened. Of course, there’s a lot more going on, but Linda’s at the heart of it all.

I honestly don’t think this movie could have worked without the cast it had. Indeed, apparently every major role except Katie Cox was written specifically for the actor cast. Frances McDormand plays Linda and does a fantastic job with her. She’s frustrated and a little angry and desperate for life to pick up for her. She’s a little mousy and hates it. George Clooney plays Harry, who gets some fantastic wild-eyed paranoia eventually. John Malkovitch plays Osborne and, as he says in one of the documentaries on the DVD, he spends a good amount of his time on screen screaming at people. He’s an out of control jackass and Malkovitch is not shy about playing him to the hilt. Richard Jenkins plays Ted, who has a thing for Linda and oh, oh do I feel for him. Jenkins is in a quiet role here, because Ted’s all about not saying what he wants to say. He gets a little overshadowed by the louder and flashier roles, but really, I felt for him as soon as he showed his hand. Because I knew what was coming for him. And then rounding out the cast are my two favorite performances: Tilda Swinton as Katie Cox and Brad Pitt as Chad. Chad is, as I mentioned, a doofus. He’s dorky and over-animated and not very bright, but he’s a nice guy and he’s just trying to help out Linda. And Brad Pitt totally threw himself into every ridiculous moment of that character’s performance. Swinton, on the other hand, is totally buttoned up as Katie. I love her. I love that she gets off relatively unscathed. I love the reveal as to what she does for a living. It’s an amazing ensemble cast, almost all either playing people who aren’t terribly likable or playing people who aren’t terribly smart.

It is a baffling movie in many ways. The CIA agents who frame the rest of the action provide some great commentary on it all as well as some great throw-away humor of their own, but they’re right. What the hell just happened really? And how can you avoid it when you have no idea how it happened, or what it meant? At least, you know, it’s over. And nothing serious was at stake anyhow. After all, they took trivial information to the Russians. Who does that? Linda Litzke. That’s who. And all she really wanted was a couple of surgical procedures. Is that too much to ask?

December 9, 2010 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