Archive for the Movie Reviews Category

What Ho? No Watch? No Passage? Murder! Murder!

Posted in Movie Reviews, Othello with tags , , , on 2014/01/12 by mattermind

I spent the weekend watching (and ruminating upon) three notable adaptations of Othello: The Orson Welles version from 1952, the Laurence Olivier version from 1965, and the Kenneth Branagh (Oliver Parker) version from 1995.  I hope you’ll forebear if I skipped the modernization from 2001.

What I discovered won’t be earth-shattering news for those who cry foul whenever a beloved book or play is “translated” for the screen.  Movies are a different medium – I understand that.  But the more you know and love the underlying material, the more unbearable the cuts, alterations and interpretations become.

This is especially true for what would today be unthinkable: the use of blackface makeup to allow white men (Welles, Olivier) to play the part of a black man.  Was the role of Iago not good enough?  Were no males of dark skin color available?  Why not cast boys as women?  Would that be possible – or desirable – too?  What may have been standard practices will no longer do today,  and can’t help but induce groans and grimaces, regardless of the quality of performance.

That said, the cast in the 1965 production is superb and comes closest to rendering the Shakespeare we read in the text.  I can imagine that Olivier’s interpretive skills must be the only thing keeping it relevant, managing somehow to outweigh the revulsion at seeing him in black makeup.

On par is the almost unforgivable CUT in quintessential dialogue between Desdemona and Emilia at the end of Act IV.

When I said that I ruminated upon these movies, I mean over decisions such as that one, since it’s a profound – and profoundly moving – Shakespearean proto-feminist statement from the early 17th century that belongs both thematically and contextually to the play.  Can it be that lines Shakespeare penned nearly four centuries earlier were too shocking, too scandalous to be shown to the public in 1965?  Blood, lust, revenge and sword fights were a-ok, but a bold exchange between two women over equal rights was too hot to handle?  I must be careful here though, because I have no idea what the justifications were for the choice.  Whatever they were, they must have been compelling.   We mourn their dreadful loss.

But then other little things irk too, such as Emilia dying on the floor rather than on the bed next to Desdemona.  Isn’t her placement crucial to render sense of Lodovico’s line:

O Spartan dog…

Look on the tragic loading of this bed.

Am I quibbling over small matters?  I think not.

If you’re going to line-edit Shakespeare – Shakespeare! – then make damned sure you pick the right lines to fiddle with.  That’s no easy task, granted.  But if it’s more than you can handle, don’t bother.  Read the play a dozen times and read it a dozen more.  Make sure there are compelling reasons why this and not that.  Go ahead, interpret.  But please don’t eviscerate crucial moments because you are pulling threads from a precious fabric that will come entirely undone.

For those wondering, I love Baz Luhrman’s Romeo, so I’m not averse to either modernization or stylization.  I’m smitten by Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing as well.  But there are certain limits that, when crossed, will push me straight over the edge.

Oliver Parker, in his 1995 adaptation starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago simply won’t do.  Sure, Branagh is deft with Shakespearean dialogue and Fishburne certainly looks the part, smoldering in his slow-boil portrayal of Othello.  Yet at the same time, the gravity of the tragedy is entirely missing – maybe because of the soft-core porn flashbacks and soundtrack playing cloyingly beneath crucial passages of dialogue.

One critic noted that over half of Shakespeare’s words were cut for that adaptation.  For me, I could almost survive those cruel cuts.  But somebody had to make a mockery by having Othello and Desdemona consummate their relationship in graphic physical terms.  Shakespeare notably left that open – not because he was a prude (he absolutely was not) but because the ambiguity adds a further wedge for Iago to insert his poison.

Othello asserts that he has lost his physical passion.  Desdemona confesses that she fell in love with his mind.  At various points when the relationship could be sexual, it gets interrupted by surrounding events that contribute to Othello’s mounting frustrations.

A few critics have pointed out that consummation undermines any doubts in Desdemona’s fidelity.  Othello would experience her virginity as a fact and know firsthand the ardor of her devotion in the most intimate terms possible.  Othello would then have the physical evidence he lacks and needs to outweigh his wavering mind.  Iago’s flimsy circumstantial evidence would have no dry tinder with which to catch flame.

There are other odd interpretive decisions, some of which work, while others end up far too distracting.  While I can understand breaking long scenes or soliloquies into smaller, more digestible pieces or staging a scene on the beach or in a stable or armory, I cannot fathom why others are interpolated, manufactured out of wholecloth and inserted as if Shakespeare had written them or left holes that needed filling by more qualified artists.

This, ultimately, is my quarrel with Orson Welles. While Citizen Kane is the work of an undisputed genius, Othello comes across as the overreach of a bombastic ego, adding scenes, deleting scenes, obliterating dialogue, fabricating narration out of thin air.  You can get away with doing almost anything to Shakespeare but please don’t dice him into baby food for me.

These are just my opinions, of course, and many people, perhaps the majority, will disagree.  That’s as it should be.

But as I post these reviews, I take comfort from a review of 1995 Othello by Roger Ebert, who mentions that Harold Bloom holds the texts of Shakepeare so sacred that he cannot bear either filmed or staged versions, but prefers to hear them spoken instead.  I suppose I follow in his footsteps, then, when I confess that this rings true and close to home.

Every edition of a Shakespeare adaptation ought to come with a warning label stating: THE ORIGINAL WILL ALWAYS BE BEST.


Movie Review: 12th Night

Posted in Movie Reviews, Twelfth Night with tags on 2010/02/01 by mattermind

If music be the food of love, play on.

The theme of 12th Night didn’t really hit me until I watched the brooding and over-dramatic opening to this filmed version directed by Trevor Nunn. Non-sequential and interpolated from later backstory, it causes the play to stumble out the gates from a contextual weight that takes time for the otherwise breezy story to shed.

Shakespeare intends that the first words intone the prevailing mood that saturates the telling: like the wine that intoxicates Sir Toby, this will be a take on how love makes fools of all of us. It never goes where we will it (thus provoking the clever and self-referential alternative title of “What You Will.”)

It’s a a romp, a sendup, a mockery, a debauch, a celebration and ultimately a surrender to love’s fate being in the hands of destiny or the gods or whomever the powers that be (and quite fitting for St. Valentine’s Day, don’t you think?). I could see the play as perfect material for Blake Edwards, who directed the rollicking early Pink Panther movies — or maybe Hal Ashby, with a dry, deadpan wit so captured by the marvelous and sorely missed Sir John Gielgud.

That said, it may have taken me awhile to warm up to this version, but before long I fell madly in love with the casting.

Who can argue with Ben Kingsley as the Fool? Or as anyone? His stripped, weathered and sardonic take on the jester is a riot, his singing a revelation. As in the play, he becomes the character you miss most when he’s not onstage.

This also occurred to me when I was watching, but that I missed while I was reading: who but the fool to make sense of love’s chicanery? He belongs in this play… he’s vital to this play… for he alone recognizes the nonsensical quality it brings to our lives. It gooses our reason, fondles and pinches our serious aspirations beneath the table. If love makes fools of us all, who better than the fool to sort the madness out?

And yet, while watching Kinsley play his character with such aplomb, I also realized something else that I missed from the play: there is a sadness to the fool as he observes others caught in the emotional whirlwind: he alone is unaffected by the pangs of the heart. Detachment is his stock in trade — but oh, there’s a cruel irony and a heavy price to pay for it.

While I wasn’t smitten by Helena Bonham Carter’s Ophelia, I delighted in her as Olivia. Her beauty here is just that side of rarified that makes it so convincing as the distant object of Count Orbino’s obsession, and yet she transitions so easily into the smoldering pursuer of the trapped and suffocating Viola/Cesario. In scene after scene, she balances her roles so well, one minute arched and distant from the hot pursuit of the lovelorn count, while in the next falling madly for the “boy” whose wordplay matches her own. She is captivating and magical in this role.

Toby Stevens is a riot as the overwrought Orsino. He’s pouty, hunky, smitten and bitten. He could easily transition into a pitch-perfect Pepe le Pew.

I could rave on and on about the rest of the cast as well: Nigel Hawthorne as a vexed and vexing Malvolio; Richard E. Grant as an effete and blundering Sir Andrew Augecheek; Mel Smith as a riotous Sir Toby Belch. The casting here is spot on.

I did not love Imelda Staunton’s Maria, perhaps because I loved her on the page too much. She was more matronly and guarded here than I was expecting. Less playful and the feminine match for Toby’s punch-drunk outrageous behavior. Perhaps she suffered through editing, but her character seemed to change gears on a dime. I didn’t feel the chemistry between Maria and Toby at all. I’m blaming it on Maria — but it could be that the two just didn’t fit together the way they should.

If there’s a weak link here on the whole, it’s the thorny casting demands of the twins, Viola and Sebastian. Viola has an almost impossible task: convincing the characters that she’s a man while maintaining the secret that she’s a woman. Even on the page, where you can suspend your disbelief, you wonder how that would look in real life.

An audience at a play must forego a bit of realism for the play to work. The central farrago has to be credible or all falls apart. Thus, Olivia must confuse the sister for the brother while Orbino fails to recognize the girl as a boy, even as he pulls her ever closer into his inner circle.

And here is where we come full circle, in that the movie is bitten by its central directorial decision: by going for realism, the setting and backdrop become reality. And measured by reality, the tomfoolery of Twelfth Night suffers — if only slightly — from the grounding of its wings.

Certain elements, like Ben Kingsley’s Fool, are enhanced by the realistic setting. He is a mature fool, a bittersweet fool, and in this way steals the whole show. It adds to the elements already there in Shakespeare’s presentation, gives it an extra twist that makes you come away with added meaning from the reading and the play, which is what a good film ought to do.

And so, when all is said and done, I was delighted and captivated by this performance, and recommend it heartily to all who wish to watch it.

I would just warn not to be too dismayed in the beginning by the weight and substance which serve as the setting. For the point is still — and even more so — to banish the prude and Puritan in our spirits that would squander and limit love.

And to remind ourselves, before it’s too late, that the whirligig of time will bring in his revenges for the fancies of our youth.

Calling Dr. Freud

Posted in Hamlet, Movie Reviews with tags , , , on 2010/01/22 by mattermind

Glenn Close is nine years older than Mel Gibson, give or take a few months. (Shhh — don’t tell her I said that.) This span of not even a decade makes them an odd pairing to be cast as mother and son.

What in tarnation possesses older men to insist on playing Hamlet?

That said, he hits the ball way out of the park in this version. Many a moment took my breath away. It’s a pure pleasure to watch from start to finish. But, me being me, there are still a few aspects with which I’d like to quibble.

First: I’m not terribly fond of how Helena Bonham Carter played Ophelia. Fine actress, no doubt. But her reading robbed the girl of a great measure of her innocence. She seemed far too knowing, far too insightful into Hamlet’s behavior than the role warrants.

Second: Most of the abridgements were handled smoothly, and didn’t call too much attention to their absence. Gone again, understanably, is the outer doubling with Fortinbras and the Norwegians. To the good, we have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern back, who were notably absent from Olivier’s. But I take umbrage at how the burial scene was mangled. This, I believe, is more than a quibble. Watching it, I even got angry.

Here’s why: Laertes’s actions are in part driven by the cold-heartedness of the Priest, who insists that Ophelia did not deserve a Christian burial, and indeed, was only receiving anything more than a pauper’s burial because of her connections. Laertes, in reply, defends his sister’s purity and honor, saying she’ll be among the angels singing in heaven while he rots away in hell. It’s powerful stuff.

Maybe Mel didn’t like it because he’s a devout Cathlolic. But the tone of the scene turns wrong from the moment the funeral procession comes in singing a requiem. The Priest’s lines state specifically that she didn’t get one because she didn’t deserve one, at least according to the letter of the law.

Shakespeare indicates that there is stealth to the procession, that it has to occur under a cloak of secrecy due to the circumstances. Yet in they come, this long freight train of mourners, singing away.

Laertes does not jump into the grave. And his passionate words are not what motivate Hamlet to reveal himself in a bit of a pissy who-loved-her-more sort of a duel. Leaping into the grave and grappling in the midst of a burial — yeah, that’s over the top. But it also foreshadows the duel ahead and the ever-spiraling tragedy engulfing them. It’s one of my favorite moments of the play, and this telling did not do it justice.

The finale, however, was a huge improvement over Olivier’s — with one exception. The swordfight, the death of the King, Hamlet’s final speech… these were all superlative and fitting. But whoa whoa whoa, I did not like the alternative reading of the Queen’s innocent victimhood with the poisoned wine. It’s a viable option and it deserves credence. But it sounds a sour note in my heart.

Gertrude’s pivotal moment occured just prior, when Hamlet serves as a mirror to repent and change her ways. That she does so, we can see in her tenderness for Ophelia, her devotion to her son, and (we can only interpolate) her withdrawl of affections for the King.

It would in part explain why Claudius puts up such faint-hearted resistence when she takes the cup to drink. But then again, he’s such a foul and corrupted man at this point, all he really cares about is saving his own skin.

I’m not saying that there’s definitive proof in the text for either reading. Certainly a case can be made for Gertrude’s shock and surprise at the level of treachery uncovered by her own unwitting demise. There is poetic justice in her falling victim to her own husband’s trickery.

But I guess what I miss is her own immolation as a form of ultimate repentence. That’s the note that feels more right in Olivier’s telling. First, she suspects that Claudius is up to no good yet again. Second, she willingly intercepts the cup and sacrifices herself, in her mind with the hope of saving her son.

Take that away, she becomes yet another pawn in the villainy.

But maybe that’s just me.

I recommend both Zefirelli (Gibson) and Olivier DVDs very highly. If I protest, I do protest too much. I am cruel only to be kind.

Hamlet Marathon on TNT

Posted in Hamlet, Movie Reviews with tags , , , on 2010/01/22 by mattermind

Actually, no.

In case you hadn’t guessed, that’s an obscure reference to one of my favorite lines from Alan Ball’s American Beauty. With it, Lester expresses his displeasure at being dragged to a high school basketball game to watch his daughter cheer. He’s irritated because the act feels obligatory, plus there’s a Bond marathon on TNT.

And then his world went blonde.

I mention this because I’m in the midst of catching up on a pair of Hamlet movies so I don’t get yelled at for clogging up the Netflix queue.

I watched the Olivier version last night. My initial reaction can best be summed up by this factoid from Wikipedia:

Eileen Herlie, who plays Hamlet’s mother, was 28 years old when the movie was filmed. Olivier, who plays her son, was 41.


Hamlet, um, is a student at the University of Wittemburg, people… What’s this creepy fascination to play him so old? I mean, I realize it’s a great part and all but c’mon!

Aside from the obvious age-related casting issues, I liked this filmed version all-in-all. The castle looked a wee bit too Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but then hey, it’s a play with a ghost. I’m down with that.

But what I didn’t like, however, was how the final act played out.

The King’s murder seemed like an afterthought, hardly worthy of a mention. The gory multiple stabbings were decidedly not indicated by Shakespeare’s direction.

Hamlet did not force Claudius to drink from the same cup as his mother. We don’t even get to see the reactions of either Hamlet or the King as all the underhandedness is finally avenged.

Olivier directed it. I praise him for his emphasis on the Queen, bringing out her intential act of what suggests suicide.

But I fault Olivier for staging a flat finale that seemed to be more about Hamlet’s demise and, incidentally, his last soliloquy.

My favorite casting in this filmed version was of Laertes. Unlike Horatio, who was preposterously too old as well and looked a bit like a Latin Lothario; and Ophelia, who seemed a little too blonde for my tastes.

The ghost, it should be mentioned, was superbly done.

The Mel Gibson version “airs” tonight.