Tag Archives: Shakespeare on film

Biker Cymbeline a Real Drag

6 Nov

Daniel J. Rowe

Want to watch an excellent play full of life, energy, violence, intrigue, decapitation and romance and make it boring? No? Neither did I.

That’s why Cymbeline, the biker/cop adaptation of the Shakespeare play of same name that could have been oh-so-cool, was so disappointing.

How did this happen?

The idea for the film had everything you want in a Shakespearean adaptation: good play, good idea, good actors and nice set pieces, and yet, it failed in almost every respect.

A brief synopsis.

Directed byMichael Almereyda and starring Ed Harris (Cymbeline), Ethan Hawke (Iachimo), Milla Jovovich (the Queen), Penn Badgley (Posthumus) and Dakota Johnson (Imogen), the film centres on Cymbeline’s motorcycle club’s fight to get out from under the colonial weight of Rome (the cops).

Without getting into specific plot points, let’s just say there are fights, prodigal sons, almost rapes, poisoning, faked deaths, hide-and-go-seek games, and a chopped off head.

How did this film fail?

First, the delivery of lines.

Anyone not entirely sure what the term “vocal fry” means will have a definitive answer after watching this film. The cast, almost without exception, mumble, grumble and sometimes whisper their way through lines I guess in an attempt to make sure everyone knows they’re a tough sort used to rumbling through life. You know, like motorbikes. Sort of.

Vocal Fry:

In speech, a low, scratchy sound that occupies the vocal range below modal voice (the most commonly used vocal register in speech and singing). Also known as vocal fry register, creaky voice, pulse register, laryngealization, and glottal fry. (See Examples and Observations, below.)

David Crystal notes that American actor Vincent Price “produced excellent creaky voice in his especially menacing moments” (A Dictionary of Language, 2001).

I kind of hoped there would be a bit more energy to the characters. It’s not like there is not energy in the lines!

The film’s stars never seem to have any passion while speaking, and there is a good chance a few snoozes could be had while getting through the film.

All of the actors seem good fits for the roles. I mean Dan Humphrey on Gossip Girl is practically Posthumus, and wouldn’t you know it, Penn Badgley plays him. Just cut and past, and swap some dialogue. I won’t lie, when Dan and Serena van der Woodson broke up I stopped watching. Their love was just so real and perfect. Dangit TV! Why do you ruin everything. Then again, they might have got back together in the end. Maybe I should finish watching the series.

Where was I? Oh right. Shakespeare.

Imogen as well is lacking, but maybe I was spoiled by Lily Rabe’s stellar performance in the park this year. Johnson, however, is very drab.

And then there’s Iachimo, a very creepy and crazy character. I was expecting a lot out of Hawke given the quality of his performance in Hamlet. He was dull. I was sad.

Anton Yelchin as Cloten is perhaps the biggest disappointment. Cloten is one of Shakespeare’s most underrated characters. He can be buffoonishly funny, terrifyingly dangerous, or menacing depending on how you play him, and Yelchin is none of these.

The Queen is played by this woman, and has to be called out as a miss. She is on screen very little and given so few lines that it’s unclear what she did, why it mattered, and how her plot was foiled.

John Leguizamo‘s in it too, and adds another ‘guy who was cool in other Shakespeare play, but dull in this one’ credits to the film.

Argh. I know all of these actors are better than this, and I DEFINITELY know the play is better than this.

Second, direction.

This, I don’t understand. Almereyda did a kickass version of Hamlet in 2000, and the hope was that he’d be able to bring the same energy and style to one of Shakespeare’s weirdest and most interesting plays. He had the actors for it, but the film just didn’t wind up picking up any steam. It lacked energy and style, which is baffling as the concept had both.

Even the scenes of violence, confrontation and passion play out very low key. By the end, there is little impact when prodigal sons return, heads are lopped off or doting and devoted husbands prove their infidelity.

You want to see this play, and you want to see it done right, and Almereyda fails. This makes me sad.

Other things.

The constant scene and locale changes don’t help those trying to piece together what is actually a very complicated plot. It’s hard to connect with any of the characters when they get very short scenes, mumble their lines, and have no emotion be it humourous or dramatic.

The bikers aren’t that badass, and the cops don’t have the intimidating power due to Rome. The film is a miss, and, for someone who anticipated its release so much, discouraging.

It was original released as Anarchy, Ride or Die, which is a pretty dumb title and doesn’t really make any sense when you think about it. The story is more about controlling and asserting a state’s existence within an empire.

Please make another version of this play. It deserves it.


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A time when whistling dance routines and blackface meet the bard

27 Jun

Daniel J. Rowe

Whistling, snapping, switchblade fights, pastel sweaters, slacks, gelled hair, soda pop shops, black faced Puerto Ricans and a bunch of teenage thugs singing. Yep. We must be talking about the most famous adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: West Side Story (insert whistle riff).

Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s 1961 film version of the musical is full of colour (Technicolor even), long panning shots, clean and arm-swingy choreography, bright blue eyes, and everyone’s favourite feature of 60s era film with racially specific characters: face paint.

No, not this face paint.

It’s the kind of makeup choice that just makes you want to ask, ‘why oh why didn’t you just hire an actual Puerto Rican actor?’

So it goes. It was 1961. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Face paint aside, we brawlers have to ask: is West Side Story a well done adaptation of Shakespeare’s most misunderstood love story? That being done, you have have to ask if this movie is very good, and if it is something that sustains the test of time.

Does it?

It is actually a very fun movie, and the directors are clever with their choices of shots, colours, characters, sets and style. The deep zooms, pans, close ups, and trick where one character is in focus while everything else is blurry are all very nice. The movie is colourful and crisp and clean and always nice to look at.

Now, if you do not like musicals, you will not like this movie. I go through times where I really don’t like the Leonard Bernstein scores, and then I hear a tune in the car on the radio, and can’t help but turn it up. In the end, I think I will submit, suck it up, and say that I do like the songs.

The acting is overall pretty good. Richard Beymer (Tony) is the… Wait a second. Is that Benjamin Horn from Twin Peaks? Yes it is. And is Riff Dr. Lawrence Jacoby? Indeed he is.

Allow me to indulge for a second.

Man that show’s fun.

I wonder if Shakespeare would like Twin Peaks? I wonder if he would like West Side Story?

I want to say yes and maybe.

The thing that hurts the musical is the romantic and idealized love story – that is in R&J – with no hints at the irresponsibility of the teenaged characters. As discussed in some legendary Bard Brawl podcasts, Romeo and Juliet is full of lines and situations that suggest the romance is nothing but an irresponsible romp by two hearts that are bigger than brains of teens who fall hard and fast with tragic consequences.

Ok. Rant done.

I will say those Tony – Maria songs are borderline unwatchable. You know that’s not even Benjamin Horne singing? Weird. It hurts me to say that Maria (the lovely and late Natalie Wood) is my least favourite pieces to the film.

As for the rest of the ladies, I d0 like Anita (Rita Morena). Hey! An actual Puerto Rican! And if you’re asking if that’s Sister Peter Marie Reimondo from Oz, you are correct. I wonder if Shakespeare would like Oz. I have to say a definitive yes on that one. Tobias Beecher. Classic Shakespearean character if I’ve seen one.

One more thing.

How the H did George Chakiris (who’s Greek by the way) win the Best Supporting Actor oscar over George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason in the Hustler? I don’t want to say Bernardo deserved that knife in the gut, but come on! Never trust awards shows.

Now was this a good adaptation? I’m going to go with a reserved yes. Is is a good film? yes. Does it hold up over time? Reserved yes.

In the end, there are problems with West Side Story. But I can’t say I hate it. I appreciate the adaptation of Shakespeare in such an interesting way, but wish it were a touch tougher.

Oh, and there’s no way people should be playing basketball in jeans!


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Act I, scene iii; Mad King.

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She’s the Man (2006), Andy Fickman (director)

29 Dec

Twelfth Night is fast approaching, so now’s the time to approach Twelfth Night. (See what we did there? Of course you did!)

In order to celebrate along with Shakespeare – and buy us some time while we get our act together for 2105 –  we’ll be reposting our Twelfth Night podcasts starting tomorrow.

Want to get back into the swing of things before our sweet voices hit your ears again?

We got you covered.

Check out Zoey Baldwin’s review of the film She’s The Man (an adaptation of Twelfth Night). And once you’re read that, watch the full film which we have so helpfully linked at the bottom of the page!

Enjoy and see you next time!

Zoey Baldwin

High school soccer movie She’s the Man’s hardly a match for Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will—Shakespeare’s hilarious tale of mistaken identity and unrequited love—begins with a shipwreck on the shores of Illyria.

Or, in the case of the 2006 film She’s the Man, on the soccer pitch at Illyria boarding school. No one is presumed dead in this case; Sebastian Hastings (James Kirk (not the captain of NCC-1701-A)) has gone to London to play with his band without his parents’ knowledge.

After the girls soccer team at her school gets cut, his twin sister, Viola (Amanda Bynes), takes this as an opportunity to play soccer on her level—with the boys. And a wig. And a rather unconvincing voice timbre.

Viola hatches the switcharoo idea after her mother, who is dying for a debutante daughter, says, “Sometimes I think you might as well be your brother.” And one gratuitous salon montage underscored with an uppity chick rock cover of “You’re Gonna Make it After All” and complete with stick-on Yosemite Sam moustaches later, Viola sets her plan in action.

She tells each of her conveniently divorced parents she’s at the other’s house, and sets off for Sebastian’s new school. (Of course, this only works because no one at Illyria has met Sebastian yet.)

When Viola starts posing as Sebastian, she suddenly dons an awkward, half-southern accent and saying things like “Word, g-money.” Problems arise when her dreamy roommate, Duke Orsino (Channing Tatum) spots her tampons. To get out of the awkward situation, Viola sticks a tampon up her nose, claiming she uses them for nosebleeds.

Much like the play, Viola and Duke work out an arrangement. Viola will help Duke woo the gorgeous blonde Olivia (Laura Ramsay), and Duke helps Viola improve her soccer skills so she can make first string and kick her ex-boyfriend’s butt in the season opener. Too bad Viola is falling for Duke the whole time, and he thinks she’s her brother. Ruh-roh! Drama, drama, drama, happy ending ensues. I won’t spoil it for you.

There are a number of components in the film that could leave you scratching your head. Tatum’s Duke never seems suspicious that he’s living with a co-ed. I’m willing to suspend disbelief a little bit, but she’s not remotely convincing. The wig isn’t bad, sure, but how do the heart-to-hearts and awkward moments in the locker room not tip Duke off? And how does Olivia not realize she’s flirting with a girl?

As is the case with the original play, there’s no use trying to make sense of how a set of fraternal twins (of opposite genders) would be confused for one another. Or how when Sebastian suddenly returns from London/his watery grave, Olivia has no idea she wasn’t crushing on him all along. And so on.

This is all well and good. The play is not meant to be deep. But though the Bard’s original version is a light romp, it is filled with genuine laughs, pranks and chaos. She’s the Man, on the other hand, relies on kissing booths, debutante balls and chemistry lab partner dynamics. (Yes, Olivia falls for Viola/Sebastian in chemistry. What are the odds of that?!)

 

In addition to a fair dose of cheesiness:

a number of my favorite characters aren’t done their full justice—namely the staff in Olivia’s court like Feste, Maria, and the perpetually drunk Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. True, in She’s the Man Duke has two teammates named Toby and Andrew, but they are in high school and, sadly, never drunk. (Just kidding! Stay in school, kids.)

We do get a solid dose of Malvolio in Olivia’s obsessive sidekick Malcolm Festes, but we never get to see him in yellow, cross-gartered stockings, which is disappointing. He even has a pet tarantula named Malvolio, which he pretends to lose in an attempt to prevent Viola/Sebastian from hooking up with Olivia.

 

The most famous verses work their way into the film, as expected, but it’s actually the only one that does. “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” is used as a cliché line from Duke after Viola’s true identity is revealed in the middle of their season opening soccer game. A bit out of context, if you ask me, considering that we see that line in Malvolio’s big speech when he reads the letter Maria writes to fool him into thinking Olivia holds a torch for him.

You might be asking yourself, why should I support a celebrity who’s spinning off the rails? But people, this is Amanda Bynes pre-bizarre Twitter habits. Whatever she claims has not snapped inside her head definitely hadn’t snapped yet, so this movie’s pretty easy watching.

She was cute once! I promise. Any All That fans out there?

If Bynes’ presence puts you off, perhaps your attention might be redeemed by Channing Tatum’s irresistible charm. Besides Tatum, the only other beacon in the movie is David Cross (Oops. I mean David Cross) as Illyria’s overly friendly headmaster, Horatio Gold. But even an Arrested Development alum can’t fully rescue this awkward, unconvincing adaptation.

Plus, let’s face it, no high school Shakespeare film will ever touch what 10 Things I Hate About You did for The Taming of the Shrew. (Heath Ledger’s adorable serenade of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” is forever burned on my brain.)

She’s the Man is pretty bland. I’d recommend it for sick days, if it comes on TBS or Bravo or something. Don’t go out of your way.

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The Hollow Crown S01E01; Richard II (2012), Rupert Goold (director)

26 Aug

Daniel J. Rowe 

The Hollow Crown series kicks off the tetralogy with a bang on the backs of incredible acting talent, savvy directing and an overall appreciation of just how great the histories of William Shakespeare can be.


 

It has long been a question tossed around in the vaunted halls of the Bard Brawl: Why doesn’t anyone produce Shakespeare’s histories?

It seems the only ones who appreciate the brilliance of the history plays are certain medieval re-creation societies, monarchy scholars or the basketball and hockey fans who mistake the Kings in the titles for the sports franchises in LA and Sacramento (though who in their right mind is supporting the Sacramento Kings these days? Am I right?)

The Hollow Crown series answers the question with an exclamation point that looks a lot like an bullet hole. The tetralogy of Richard II, Henry IV part I and II, and Henry V is produced with style, substance and power.

This humble brawler gives his official thank you to whoever pitched the idea first and second to those involved with the project.

Rupert Goold directs Richard II, the first episode in the series, and dang is it good.

Ben Whishaw plays the arrogant, naive, and ultimately tragic king, who first sits comfortable on the throne in glory and pomp, and then laments his kingdom’s passing into the hands of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear).

I know many of you are asking, “why would we ever need more out of Richard II than what the Bard Brawl has already offered us?” To answer: I know, I know, but to watch simply adds to the overall genius of the Bard Brawl’s audio podcasts. That’s all.

Goold’s episode is fantastic.

The performances in the episode are fantastic.

The sets, scenery and style are all, yep, fantastic.

The actors from the leads all the way down to the Gardener (David Bradley), who for some reason gets lead billing, leave no opportunity to show their quality unchecked. The opening scenes between Richard, Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray (James Purefoy) can be really confusing and a little boring. It’s hard to understand what the offence is (CCCCEO Eric Jean explains the whole thing if you’re still confused). The three actors with subtle movements and clever reactions put the turmoil in the kingdom into such clear focus it makes those that miss some of the language and real politic of late 12th century England understand what’s going on. These are real people fighting for their honour in a system where the king is head and his subjects below.

There’s a beauty bit early where Mowbray is pleading his case before Richard, and Richard turns to his pet monkey and feeds it. Very nice.

Then there’s this scene:

Shivers. If I don’t meet Captain Picard before I or he dies, I will be sad.

Whishaw and Kinnear’s performances are brilliant. As one’s power crumbles and the other’s rises, their personas and gravitas do the opposite. For one actor to pull this effect off is great, for two in the same production is simply brilliant. Actors out there should study these two talents. I just watched Kinnear in Southcliffe, he was great. Whishaw is in one of my favourite series, the Hour.

Whishaw is tasked with three great soliloquies (never an easy task) starting with the following where the series gets its name:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown (BING!)
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
– Act 3, Scene 2

A certain brawler I know loves this monologue and it’s not hard to see why.

Richard’s final scenes as king, and following where he’s forced into advocating the crown are incredible. Goold does not spare on the Christ imagery including a shot of the crownless Richard riding a white donkey to meet the new king Henry IV. It may border on heavy handed symbolism there, but it works (particularly because Whishaw seems destined to be cast as Jesus at some time in the future. It’s the all in the hair and beard).

Oh, and there are heads falling into rivers, and rolling all over the ground for all you gore fans.

As a side note: Al Gore fans might also appreciate the anointed king being supplanted storyline as well. No, tea party members, I am not suggesting your beloved U.S. president is in any way shape or form similar to a king or that dynastic rule full of courts dominated by powerful families is what the land of stars and stripes is destined for. Wait a second…

After watching the first episode of the Hollow Crown, the appetite for more is unavoidable.

Listening to, and reading the histories can be tough. The characters’ names are hard to follow and the plots can be very convoluted. However, that does not mean they are not as great as any of the big gun, seat filling tragedies or comedies.

Richard II is rarely done (although I found this trailer for one that looks crazy interesting). The Hollow Crown episode one was the first time I’d ever seen the play on film or stage, and Goold makes it utterly compelling, incredibly interesting and as powerful as Lear or Othello.

I have, gentle brawlers, become a fan of the Hollow Crown series.

 

Othello (1981), Jonathan Miller (director)

18 May

Daniel J. Rowe

It’s always sad when a bard legend leaves us. Unfortunately for us youngins’ we will simply have to suck it up and get used to it, as the legends who brought us great stage performances since the 60s are turning 70, 80 and 90.

So it goes, as another great writer once put it. So it goes.

Bob Hoskins has 114 acting credits to his name, and he played arguably the greatest villain in all of Shakespeare, Iago. It was in the BBC’s 1981 production of Othello. Wanna Watch? Full version below.

That was fun. You’re welcome.

First off, the makeup.

I’ll admit, it takes a second and a little swallowing of appropriateness when Anthony Hopkins (not Moorish) steps on camera as the Moor, Othello. Othello has been portrayed in a number of ways with some actors going full on blackface (always a ‘treat’), some producers amping up the orientalist look (still not completely appetizing), and some productions getting a black actor to play it. The last choice is the best to be sure, but some of the others are not all bad. Are Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier or Paul Scofield racist for wanting the best role or maybe just arrogant to think that they can pull it off?

Pick another part guys. Hey! Why not Iago?

That being said, Hopkins is very good in this Othello. He travels the gauntlet that is the role, and encapsulate the power of the tragedy. He works well alongside the other impressive talent in this play, and is great on-screen with Hoskins.

Speaking of which.

(Hey! Hopkins and Hoskins. That’s fun)

Iago is one of the most complicated and important roles in all of Shakespeare, and if you miscast the sadistic murdering villain, the production’s doomed. Just ask Kenneth Brannagh (Actually, don’t ask. he won’t admit he was the wrong choice. It’s best not to ask).

Hoskins is able to nail the key question about Iago: why does anyone like/believe him? The answer is in the performance. Hoskins is blunt, crude, and a little nasty, but not in the way any of those friends you know you have are. It’s that bluntness and hamminess that allows Iago to throw the other characters off his scent, so he can mess with them and litter the stage with bodies.

That, and the verbal missiles he fires through the fourth wall are great.

Take Act V, scene i, the scene where all of Iago is on display.

Hoskins will be missed as an actor for simply being able to pull of this scene. He, as Iago, first manipulates Roderigo into doing something he’s not entirely sure he wants to do, then laughs at his plan, then realizes he might get found out, decides to kill Cassio, actually kills Roderigo, tears his shirt in two to help mend Cassio (everyone totally buying the act), blames Bianco for being a strumpet and has her carted off, and then nails this killer line:

This is the night that either makes me, or foredoes me quite.

…And scene.

Man this play is great.

It’s worth the three hours to watch Hoskins in this scene. He uses his whole body, and can deliver so much expression with his face. It’s really quite a performance, and he hasn’t even killed his wife yet.

The rest of the cast is also very good.

Just before Act V,i, check out Penelope Wilton (yes Isobel Crawley to those Downton Abbey devotees (poor Matthew)) nail the heartbreaking IV,iii all while being stared at by a skull. Very good.

Sheesh this play is intense.

Oh, and then there’s the final scene. Not to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen the play or movie version, but let’s just say the final line is not, “all in all it was a really weird trip to Cyprus.”

Demand me nothing; what you know, you know:

From this time forth I will never speak word.

– Iago.

Rest In Peace Bob Hoskins (1942-2014).

You will be missed.

Romeo + Juliet (1996), Baz Luhrmann

23 Mar

Miki Laval When I was 15, I knew exactly what loved looked like. Love was a slim blond boy with lanky legs, and hair I wanted to sweep back from the sides of his pretty face. He walked quickly and sat quickly. He came and left rooms quickly, every muscle always ready to go. To me, his speed was beauty and grace. Yet love was also languid and brooding, a poet, of course, who scribbled in a notebook between long stretches of staring into space while smoking a cigarette. In other words, this: Sigh… To a 15-year old girl, one still plastering her walls with rock star posters, love sure looks a lot like a young Leonardo DiCaprico. He’s my generation’s definition of a heartthrob, and so a delicious fit for the world’s most epic teenage love story. Yes, he’d already shown rare talent in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and The Basketball Diaries, yet he and co-star Claire Danes were essentially darlings from TV land back in 1996. Then Romeo + Juliet hit theatres, and both actors proved they had serious chops, capable of moving from puppy love to the grand passion all tragedy requires. So how did the duo handle the Elizabethan dialogue? Well, at the time, there was a lot of clamour from outraged purists, but I’ve re-watched the film twice in the past few days and the Bard’s iambic pentameter sounds pretty good to my ear. Or I’ll say this, though neither Danes or DiCaprio have perfect elocution, the words flow with an intensity and ardor you don’t learn in theatre school. Besides, the point of Romeo and Juliet (the play) is that the central characters are children, and what acting skills Leo and Claire bring to the film is all in their baby faces, their creamy skin, their youth, not in their tongues. Yes, they are that pretty. Just watch them steal looks at each other in the infamous fish tank scene. Forget Leo as Romeo. Isn’t Danes as Juliet melting loveliness? She clearly lusts for Romeo, yet despite what’s coming – a head spinning series of kisses that will leave her in a state of prickly heat – she keeps her wits about her. Later, the two swirl around each other from ballroom, to elevator, to balcony, to swimming pool, all the while bandying words back and forth with passion and spirit. Danes and DiCaprio understand that language is foreplay and an artful, erotic pleasure. To the naysayers who claim the dialogue isn’t up to snuff, I say these two make Shakespeare sound sexy. As for the film itself? There are throbs of neon in the night. Gobs of neon. Blazing fireworks explode across the black skies. There is all the razzle-dazzle, costumery, bubbles, bells and whistles anyone could dream of. Director Baz Luhrmann opens his film like the bullet-spraying master Tarantino; he choreographs the fight scenes as beautifully as John Woo, meanwhile, the frenzy of jump cuts make MTV (you remember MTV) seem like a stumble on Quaaludes. All this whirlwind action serves to convert the play’s intense emotions and language to vision. This is a play you see more than hear. And, boy, in the switch from the ear to the eye, does Luhrmann go wild with the modern images. Instead of gold, wads of cash are flaunted. Instead of swords, flashy semi-automatic pistols are drawn. Horses are doffed for retro convertibles that burn up the urban streets. It’s a nice touch too, having the two gang families dress in opposing “colours,” the Montagues favouring Hawaiian shirts, while the Capulets mobster up in dude suits. The film also features a gifted gaggle of players, most notably Harold Perrineau as a black gender-bending Mercutio, Pete Postlewaith as the splendid, scene-stealing Father Lawrence, and a corpolent Paul Sorvino who plays Juliet’s daddy like a bizarro wiseguy from Goodfellas. “Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody,” Henry Hill. Throw in some castles, some choppers, some bulletproof vests, and boom, Luhrmann shakes up a 400-year-old play without bowdlerizing or breaking its central and touching innocent idea. Which is what exactly? Only that love, sweet love, still blooms despite the violent world that usually steamrolls over it. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is nothing new, of course. Besides the innumerable theatrical productions, it’s been made over as a ballet, as well as a Broadway musical, and now there’s a new British film adaptation based on a Julien Fowles screenplay. To the latter, I say, Yea Gads! go rent Baz Lurhmannn’s rabidly flamboyant version instead. The fervour and grace of his Romeo and Juliet will have you free falling into the giddy, head-tripping, crush of epic love.

Much Ado About Nothing (2012), Joss Whedon (director)

19 Jul

Miki Laval

The rumours started as soon as the cameras stopped rolling: Josh Whedon had just wrapped a modern day adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Famously, the play pits one of Shakespeare’s best written female characters, Beatrice, against Benedict in a full out war of wit and disdain for all things love related. Whedon’s reputation is for delivering hot female characters who are strong and complex. Endless discussions surround the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and feminism, but for now I’ll just say the combination of Whedon and Shakespeare sounded promising.

Also, “Whedonites” are diehard. As soon as the press release went out, the internet lit up in speculation.

Adding to the hype: the mere twelve shooting days the director took while on a post-production break from The Avengers, and the fact he cast no big names stars, but instead rounded up friends and family. Plus, he used his own home as the principle location. Oh, and he shot the whole thing in black and white. Basically the creator of Buffy Summers broke all the Hollywood rules when it comes to making a Shakespeare movie.

Still, despite a guaranteed audience, given the source material, the summer movie release, and the lack of pyrotechnics the film played here in Montreal, for one week only. There’s a good chance you missed its speedy run through the theatres, so here are four reasons why you should definitely rent, download, borrow, or by some other means get at look at this sexy, dark, and at times absurd love story:

1. It’s gorgeous. Just take a look at the perfectly stylized images on the film’s web site. Each shot looks as carefully composed as a still photograph, but speed is actually part of the aesthetic. There’s a spontaneous and off-handed feel to the scenes that combined with the 60’s style wardrobe gives the film a French New Wave vibe. A few stand out moments: Benedict casually sitting next to a little girl’s dollhouse while he delivers his speech on bachelorhood; the dazed Claudio in the pool, with snorkel gear, sipping from his martini glass; a masked ball with sequined clad Cirque du Soleil type acrobats, twinkle lights, and smooth jazz.

2. It’s fun. Whedon obviously gets Shakespeare’s slap-stick type humour. There are pratfalls down stairs, buffoonish jumps behind bushes, and ridiculous exercise lunges. As Beatrice and Benedict loose their cool they begin to literally trip over their own feet, and their transformation into love struck happy goofballs is laugh out loud funny. Then there are the winks to modern day technology that play like inside jokes between Whedon and the audience: messages arrive by smart phone; music plays on ipod speakers; cops and mobster types adjust their Miami Vice sunglasses. Though the film definitely takes a stark look at the dark underbelly of love, the physical comedy, and the modern touches play up the production’s fun side.

3. It’s sexy. Usually when the Bard gets the Hollywood treatment it’s time to roll out the magnificent landscapes, the castles, the crinolines, and other grand and elaborate Merchant-Ivory-type tricks from the director’s toolbox. Here, instead, the camera is mostly hand held, and the lighting is natural. The pared down aesthetics create a sensual mood inviting you inside the scenes. Plus the film bounces along as one long extended boozy party in a spare but elegant house where everyone looks fabulous.

4. The acting is stellar. Unless we’re talking BBC version, often there are a few weak links in any given Shakespeare movie. (Sorry Keanu, I’m a fan, but I sill haven’t forgotten your stilted interpretation of “the Bastard Prince” in Branagh’s 1993 version.)

Special mention goes to Amy Acker’s Beatrice who is all sting and verve, then glowing devotion. Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk are hilarious as the blumbering constables. Sean Maher as Don John is pure menace. And Clark Gregg plays Leonato with a languid slightly tipsy ease until he turns frighteningly heartless.

 

Despite the film’s numerous charms I did wonder how a modern audience would react to the emphasis on virginity. When asked about the play’s anachronistic narrative Whedon himself said he wanted to stress “the human, not the not the hymen.” Then I remembered the numerous online slut-shaming tragedies covered by the media and realized the play wasn’t dated at all. Hurt, betrayal and jealousy are, of course, still with us, but the harsh truth is, even today a girl accused of sleeping around can have her reputation broken along with her spirit. That’s when I realized that Whedon had captured a level of contemporary meaning in this famously saucy story I hadn’t considered.

Of course, Much Ado About Nothing is not a tragedy, but a comedy, so yes, all the calamities schemes and deceptions are eventually smoothed out. But along the way, Whedon delivers an endearing film that crackles with wit, passion, betrayal, humour and heartache, in one smooth package. In the end, the much ado over the movie is definitely about something.

Here’s a taste.

 

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She’s the Man (2006), Andy Fickman (director)

12 May

Zoey Baldwin

High school soccer movie She’s the Man’s hardly a match for Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will—Shakespeare’s hilarious tale of mistaken identity and unrequited love—begins with a shipwreck on the shores of Illyria.

Or, in the case of the 2006 film She’s the Man, on the soccer pitch at Illyria boarding school. No one is presumed dead in this case; Sebastian Hastings (James Kirk (not the captain of NCC-1701-A)) has gone to London to play with his band without his parents’ knowledge.

After the girls soccer team at her school gets cut, his twin sister, Viola (Amanda Bynes), takes this as an opportunity to play soccer on her level—with the boys. And a wig. And a rather unconvincing voice timbre.

Viola hatches the switcharoo idea after her mother, who is dying for a debutante daughter, says, “Sometimes I think you might as well be your brother.” And one gratuitous salon montage underscored with an uppity chick rock cover of “You’re Gonna Make it After All” and complete with stick-on Yosemite Sam moustaches later, Viola sets her plan in action.

She tells each of her conveniently divorced parents she’s at the other’s house, and sets off for Sebastian’s new school. (Of course, this only works because no one at Illyria has met Sebastian yet.)

When Viola starts posing as Sebastian, she suddenly dons an awkward, half-southern accent and saying things like “Word, g-money.” Problems arise when her dreamy roommate, Duke Orsino (Channing Tatum) spots her tampons. To get out of the awkward situation, Viola sticks a tampon up her nose, claiming she uses them for nosebleeds.

Much like the play, Viola and Duke work out an arrangement. Viola will help Duke woo the gorgeous blonde Olivia (Laura Ramsay), and Duke helps Viola improve her soccer skills so she can make first string and kick her ex-boyfriend’s butt in the season opener. Too bad Viola is falling for Duke the whole time, and he thinks she’s her brother. Ruh-roh! Drama, drama, drama, happy ending ensues. I won’t spoil it for you.

There are a number of components in the film that could leave you scratching your head. Tatum’s Duke never seems suspicious that he’s living with a co-ed. I’m willing to suspend disbelief a little bit, but she’s not remotely convincing. The wig isn’t bad, sure, but how do the heart-to-hearts and awkward moments in the locker room not tip Duke off? And how does Olivia not realize she’s flirting with a girl?

As is the case with the original play, there’s no use trying to make sense of how a set of fraternal twins (of opposite genders) would be confused for one another. Or how when Sebastian suddenly returns from London/his watery grave, Olivia has no idea she wasn’t crushing on him all along. And so on.

This is all well and good. The play is not meant to be deep. But though the Bard’s original version is a light romp, it is filled with genuine laughs, pranks and chaos. She’s the Man, on the other hand, relies on kissing booths, debutante balls and chemistry lab partner dynamics. (Yes, Olivia falls for Viola/Sebastian in chemistry. What are the odds of that?!)

 

In addition to a fair dose of cheesiness:

a number of my favorite characters aren’t done their full justice—namely the staff in Olivia’s court like Feste, Maria, and the perpetually drunk Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. True, in She’s the Man Duke has two teammates named Toby and Andrew, but they are in high school and, sadly, never drunk. (Just kidding! Stay in school, kids.)

We do get a solid dose of Malvolio in Olivia’s obsessive sidekick Malcolm Festes, but we never get to see him in yellow, cross-gartered stockings, which is disappointing. He even has a pet tarantula named Malvolio, which he pretends to lose in an attempt to prevent Viola/Sebastian from hooking up with Olivia.

 

The most famous verses work their way into the film, as expected, but it’s actually the only one that does. “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” is used as a cliché line from Duke after Viola’s true identity is revealed in the middle of their season opening soccer game. A bit out of context, if you ask me, considering that we see that line in Malvolio’s big speech when he reads the letter Maria writes to fool him into thinking Olivia holds a torch for him.

You might be asking yourself, why should I support a celebrity who’s spinning off the rails? But people, this is Amanda Bynes pre-bizarre Twitter habits. Whatever she claims has not snapped inside her head definitely hadn’t snapped yet, so this movie’s pretty easy watching.

She was cute once! I promise. Any All That fans out there?

If Bynes’ presence puts you off, perhaps your attention might be redeemed by Channing Tatum’s irresistible charm. Besides Tatum, the only other beacon in the movie is David Cross (Oops. I mean David Cross) as Illyria’s overly friendly headmaster, Horatio Gold. But even an Arrested Development alum can’t fully rescue this awkward, unconvincing adaptation.

Plus, let’s face it, no high school Shakespeare film will ever touch what 10 Things I Hate About You did for The Taming of the Shrew. (Heath Ledger’s adorable serenade of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” is forever burned on my brain.)

She’s the Man is pretty bland. I’d recommend it for sick days, if it comes on TBS or Bravo or something. Don’t go out of your way.

 

 

The Tudors S03 E05 (2009), Jeremy Podeswa (director)

23 Mar

Daniel J. Rowe

Do we sometimes decide that things look like Shakespeare because they are or do we try to make things look like Shakespeare because we can?

The Tudors created by that lover of historical English drama Michael Hirst (not the “atmospheric” musician by the way) had to have a little of the bard in it. Queen E One is in the freaking show after all.

Without going into a whole synopsis of the series, I’ll just say that it’s about King Henry VIII. Take three minutes for a refresher if you like.

In season three, Henry (played by love him or hate him Jonathan Rhys Meyers) fresh off lopping the head off the woman he created a religion to marry, finds a new girl, who dies and he is sad; being a king is hard.

Episode Five  (Jeremy Podeswa, director)

Henry secludes himself with Will Somers, the fool played by David Bradley (the one from Harry Potter not the country music superstar).

The fool’s first line: “I don’t think – are you mad – thinking is dangerous. But I’ll wink.”

Sound familiar?

Lear and madness go together like Henry and... You know.

Lear and madness go together like Henry and… You know.

When watching this episode I kept saying, ‘Lear!’

Wait a second, maybe it was me that was going crazy.

Here me out.

The ‘mad’ king Henry finds comfort with his fool after the death of Queen Jane (3 of 6). Henry rants about building a castle that will be the envy of all the world and draws on the floor; oh the vanity of kings.  The fool mocks the king (naturally); a king all rightly fear. The fool says what all else want to (should?) say. The fool has a handful of scenes, but finds ways to deconstruct the entire series to that point in them.

Consider this exchange.

  • Fool, “You find the perfect wife. She’s sweet, pliable, she even has good t*ts. On top of that she gives you the son you’ve always wanted and you let her die…And she’s not the only one, poor abandoned Katherine.”
  • King, “Careful”
  • Fool, “And that other one, who’s name escapes me…As her head escaped her. All lost! All lost!”
  • Henry, “Go to hell.”
  • Fool, “What? Go there? I thought I’d already arrived.”

The Tudors’ fool as well as Lear’s function on a different plane than the rest of the cast. The fools are not bound by the laws of decency  censorship or tact. This dropping of curtains pushes both the play and show. Henry VIII and Lear are disrobed and their insecurities are played on. This is why we love us some fool. They say such cool things, and they GET AWAY WITH IT. To be a fool and not king would be oh so great thing (I just made that up).

Somers never returns in the series, and we are left with a very singular episode that is unlike all the others. The plot moves on in the other scenes, but it is the scenes with the fool that define the identity of Henry’s character. They move the show beyond plot, and embrace character. One thing I despise about many TV shows is there obsession with just chugging the plot along in a series of twists and turns that lead nowhere (sheesh 24 got stupid).

The success of the Tudors is the success of its characters. I was not prepared to like this show, but did as it went on. Season three, episode five turns the plot yes, but not in a gaudy, awkward way. It just moves the character(s).

I’ve always thought that there is a lot of Henry VIII in Lear. Both have three kids, both have issues with them, and both are erratic and grapple with madness and tyranny. I like the comparison, and this episode shows how the comparison can work if done right. Shakespeare, as all living at his time, must have been tempted to slide a little Henry into his plays. He was not far removed after all.

Bard Brawl c0-creator and bearded master of English Renaissance and TV hater Eric Jean says the only good season of the Tudors is season one featuring Cardinal Wolsey. Yeah, I get it, but no, you’re wrong Eric. Wolsey is alright, but the wives, Thomas Cromwell, that creepy Seymour brother and a ton of others not to mention the fool, make the show worth watching to the end.

Full disclosure: I’m a total sucker for historical dramas. I even watched that horrible Camelot series.

The final scene of episode five seals it for me. The fool sits on Henry’s throne wearing a crown maniacally laughing after Henry has just destroyed Cromwell’s reformation and rewritten the Lord’s prayer.

Very very nice.

Very Lear.

Artwork - Leigh MacRae

Artwork – Leigh MacRae

King Lear (1987), Jean-Luc Godard (director)

3 Mar

Zoey Baldwin

An Attempt to Wade Through Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear

Before watching Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear, I was a bit wary of the film’s length. How on earth did Godard manage to condense Shakespeare’s seventh-longest play into 90 minutes?

In short: he didn’t. Godard’s 1987 adaptation hardly resembles the Bard’s original work. But I don’t think that was the director’s intention. French cinema’s most revered, revolutionary (and occasionally reviled) filmmaker turned a tragic piece of theatre into an exploration of art as a whole. Which works in theory, but in execution is dense and bewildering.

Godard’s rendition is set in a post-Chernobyl world. All traces of art have been destroyed. Peter Sellars (not to be confused with the Peter Sellers of Dr. Strangelove fame) plays William Shakesper Junior the Fifth, a Bard descendant who has been charged with restoring the work of his ancestor. (Yes, the spelling of Shakespeare is off, but I looked it up on IMDb and apparently this is what the director intended.)

In a parallel and occasionally overlapping storyline, a woman named Cordelia (Molly Ringwald) and her father, a Russian mobster named Mr. Learo (Norman Mailer) are at a coastal resort. Shakesper appears to be in and out of the same resort, and Cordelia’s relationship with her father inspires him. Shakesper borrows words from their conversations (which he creeps on in cafés) to craft the lines in his restored King Lear. After a while, however, we are not sure whether Cordelia exists, or if Shakesper has invented her.

He sums up Cordelia’s relationship with her father in a way that mirrors my own confusion about the film: “Obviously this man was power. Obviously this girl was virtue. They’re fighting. I don’t know what the issue is.”\

Most of what has been preserved of Shakespeare’s Lear exists in the film in the form of voiceover. Many lines are uttered in the film, sometimes simultaneously, often behind unmatching images. Lear’s “You must bear with me, I am old and foolish” (Act IV, sc. vii) and the fool’s “Have more than thou showest, / Speak less than thou knowest, / Lend less than thou owest, / Ride more than thou goest, / Learn more than thou trowest, / Set less than thou throwest” (Act I, sc. iv) make eerie appearances. The words are often presented in an ominous fashion, whispering behind images of flickering candles and medieval paintings of angels.

Another aspect of the film that must be addressed is the narrative device of tableaus. Occasionally, words will flash across the screen: “King Lear : A Study,” “3 Journeys into King Lear,” “King Lear: Fear and Loathing,” “Nothing”  and “No Thing” are a few that we see.  These devices are used to mimic the human thought process of rediscovery, perhaps.

The idea of “nothing” and silence is a major concept throughout the film. At the beginning of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the king is old and has decided to divide up his kingdom amongst his three daughters. He will give the largest portion of the kingdom to the daughter who most convincingly swears her love. Goneril and Regan sing their father’s praises, but Cordelia, the youngest daughter, says nothing. The Godard film focuses largely on this notion.

The Shakesper character sums up the weight of Cordelia’s refusal to suck up to her father quite nicely. He describes her silence as “a violent silence”: “But Cordelia is not mute. It’s not that she hasn’t said anything. She has said nothing. No thing. Everything that conspires and organizes itself around her silence, that wants to silence her silence, this produces violence.”

There is also a segment of the movie (which is not in any kind of logical order) where Shakesper journeys into the woods and meets a man named Edgar (Leos Carax), another Lear character, sitting by the water. Edgar and his girlfriend Virginia (Julie Delpy) aid Shakesper on his path to discovery. It seems like these two people are meant to represent the simple minds we would all have if no art existed in the world.

Art makes us think and explore levels of reality. I feel like Godard is trying to make his audiences see the value of interpreting art in your own way and not just swallowing one artist’s vision.

But talk about avant-garde—yikes.

Godard’s King Lear is not suited for impatient viewers. I spent most of the 90 minutes scratching my head and struggling with the overwhelming cacophony of sound. The entirety of the film is punctuated by the sound of screeching seagulls, car horns and violent string music. This is only addressed at one moment, where Shakesper happens upon a crazy professor, played by Godard himself, and asks: “There’s a lot of noise around here, huh? What’s it for? What’s it all for, professor? Please!”

In case you hadn’t guessed, the professor never answers. Godard never tells us what any of it is for.

And, of course, like any deep film, King Lear closes with Woody Allen as a character named Dr. Alien, who edits all of Shakesper’s film that materialized out of nowhere on the ground in the woods a few minutes earlier.

Oh, and SPOILER ALERT, Cordelia dies.

There’s a repeated shot of her splayed out like Jesus on the beach in a white gown. Her father sits holding a large stick and looking out over the ocean.

“King Lear: a cLEARing” flashes across the screen. A seagull squawks in an attempt to pierce my eardrums.

Shakespeare would have been proud…?

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Zoey Baldwin is an unabashed grammar nazi, procrastibaker and television addict. She attended Shakespeare camp for five summers in her native California because she is allergic to mosquitoes. She’s in her last semester of the journalism graduate diploma program at Concordia University.

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Artwork - Leigh MacRae

Artwork – Leigh MacRae