Monthly Archives: October 2022

Strange Days (1995)

*. I want to come at Strange Days mainly by way of Roger Ebert’s contemporary review. Ebert gave it a full four stars and called it out for its fascinating treatment of the then-new technology of virtual reality. Yes, Disclosure played around with VR as well just a couple of years earlier, but Strange Days takes things further.
*. The plot revolves around a machine called a SQUID (Superconductive Quantum Interference Device), which records someone’s physical sensations (basically whatever they see) onto a minidisc so that someone else can later re-experience them with a special neural cap and player. Predictably, this means that these discs turn into a new kind of porn, and there’s even a snuff variety (or “black-jacks”) where you get to go inside the head of someone who actually dies. Things then get even kinkier when a serial killer records himself offing people and sends the discs to a scruffy disc bootlegger named Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes).
*. It’s actually a pretty good idea for a future-noir thriller and Ebert thought it fascinating. “This is the first movie about virtual reality to deal in a challenging way with the implications of the technology,” he wrote. The problem is that, nearly thirty years later, this isn’t how VR turned out. Are we just taking our time getting there, or was something fundamentally wrong with the whole projection?
*. More than that though, Ebert declares that “Strange Days does three things that will make it a cult film.”
*. First: “It creates a convincing future landscape; it populates it with a hero who comes out of the noir tradition and is flawed and complex rather than simply heroic, and it provides a vocabulary. Look for ‘tapehead,’ ‘jacking in’ and the movie’s spin on ‘playback’ to appear in the vernacular.” Alas, none of these have appeared in the vernacular. And the “convincing future landscape” only looks retro now, crossing the streets of Blade Runner with the L.A. of the 1992 Rodney King riots.
*. Second: “At the same time, depending more on mood and character than logic, the movie backs into an ending that is completely implausible.” Wait . . . this is something that makes a movie a cult film? Why? I’ll admit the ending is over-the-top, but for a big-budget movie of this sort I don’t find it completely implausible. Especially in an age of comic-book action.
*. The third point has to do with it being the first VR movie, and again I’d wonder why this would make it into a cult film. What other movies that were first to deal with new technologies turned into cult films? Don’t most such cutting-edge efforts just come to seem embarrassing?
*. I bring all this up precisely because Strange Days bombed when it came out and what reputation it has today probably is due to fans wanting to think it has some cult value. I will confess that when I came across the DVD I pulled a complete blank on it. I couldn’t recall anything about its initial release and hadn’t heard of it since. This despite the impressive credits: co-scripted and produced by James Cameron, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, and starring Fiennes, Angela Bassett (looking very buff, or in top James Cameron-leading-lady form), Tom Sizemore, and Juliette Lewis. All this and a considerable budget should have at least made some kind of impression, even if only as a bomb. But it just sank without a trace.
*. Where does it go wrong? It’s big budget but it looks cheap. The mystery is kind of obvious since there’s only the one suspect. The potential for a fresh take on Peeping Tom is never fully developed. As a writer, Cameron handles structure really well but his characters are, as usual, thin and his dialogue atrocious. Fiennes is a decent actor, but here the twitchy weasel Nero only seems a low-rent James Wood. Tom Sizemore’s hair is a joke just waiting for its punchline.
*. Just to return to the James Wood reference for a moment: wasn’t Videodrome (1983) a more likely candidate for the first film to deal in a challenging way with the implications of a proto-VR technology? Or at least the addictive blending of hardware and wetware? That’s a movie that still seems a lot more relevant than this one today.
*. Most of all, however, Strange Days is a movie that for all its billing as being cutting edge now looks hopelessly retro. That Cameron had apparently had the script kicking around for a decade before being greenlit comes as no surprise. Remember when Y2K was a big thing? And when the thought of gas being over $3 a gallon was a sure sign of the apocalypse? Or when minidiscs just were? The future imagined and described here didn’t last very long. Nor has its cult.

Marnie (1964)

*. I’ve written quite frequently about the process of critical revision, whereby films that were panned when they were first released go on to climb the heights of critical (and, though less frequently, popular) glory. It’s a sort of comeback story that people get particularly invested in, as we all seem to like the idea of snooty critics (or unwashed masses, or both) not “getting it” the first time around, and that we’re involved in a project of righting a historical wrong by rewarding unrecognized works of genius.
*. Well, if you want a movie that can stand as a test case for revision, I give to you Marnie.
*. The initial reception was mixed in a pretty dramatic way. People thought it was either very good or very bad. Or even a mix of the two, a good-bad movie, as was expressed in the opinion of Edith Oliver in the New Yorker, who called it “an idiotic and trashy movie with two terrible performances in the leading roles, and I had quite a good time watching it. There is something bracing about Hitchcock at work, even when he is at his worst”.
*. Was Marnie the last of a stretch of Hitchcock classics, in the words of biographer Donald Spoto his “last great masterpiece” coming immediately after Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds? Or was it the beginning of a sharp decline? Next up would be the clunkers Torn Curtain and Topaz. Should we be looking forward or back?
*. Proponents of the former position might point to how Marnie was the end of a number of important collaborations, marking the last score for Hitchcock by Bernard Herrmann, and the last time Hitchcock would work with cinematographer Robert Burks and editor George Tomasini. But by the same token you could argue that the old gang were played out, and that what we were getting was a lot of old tricks amplified to the point of absurdity as a way of pumping life into them. Herrmann’s score, for example, was deliberately written as a way of overcompensating for what the conductor thought a lack of emotion on screen. Pauline Kael was just one critic ready to put Marnie into an obit column with her capsule review: “Hitchcock scraping bottom.”

*. But then there was the turnaround and revision, which Peter Bogdanovich credited largely to the influence of Truffaut’s book. In a BBC list of the 100 greatest American films done in 2015, Marnie would come in 47th. Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker in 2016, would call it Hitchcock’s “best film,” and credit Tippi Hedren’s performance as “one of the greatest in the history of cinema.” Not to be outdone, Robin Wood concludes the documentary on the making of the film, “The Trouble with Marnie,” by saying “If you don’t like Marnie, you don’t really like Hitchcock. I would go further than that and say if you don’t love Marnie, you don’t really love cinema.”
*. I quote these raves to play fair, because I think Marnie is terrible. Indeed, I’m with Oliver in finding it hysterically awful. To take just one example, when Marnie breaks down after her abrupt analysis session with Mark, crying out “Help me! Oh God, somebody help me!” I laughed out loud. This is camp on a level with Mommie Dearest.
*. Now if you’re a real film critic you take all the overplaying here and instead of calling it camp you describe it as expressionism, with Hitchcock going back to his formative influences in the early days of German film. And there’s no question he’s building up that nightmarish quality, especially with the strangely deserted locations. Why is there absolutely no one in that train station? Just so we don’t — heaven forbid! — lose sight of that handbag? And why is the cruise ship totally empty? Did Mark rent the whole ship for his honeymoon?

*. But the movie keeps doubling down in ways that I find hysterical. I mentioned the score, which just BLARES at every big emotional moment. But in case that wasn’t enough, you also get lightning and smashes of thunder in the background as punctuation. And the screen being washed in red! Red! Even a drop of red ink on her blouse will trigger poor Marnie. Which makes you wonder how she manages to put her lipstick on. But we know what Hitchcock thinks about plausibility.
*. What I mean is, Hitchcock didn’t think audiences cared about stuff like that. Or Sean Connery’s strange accent. Or the shot of the big ship at the end of the street (that the production designers wanted to reshoot). Or the horse-riding scenes. But how can you not laugh at the horse crashing into the wall, with the camera tilting crazily all over the place? It’s just too much.
*. For a movie this tightly strung, you’re always in danger of falling a long way into absurdity, and I think Marnie falls all the way. Marnie freezing as she reaches for the money in the safe at the end is another silly moment. Did audiences take this seriously at the time? Oliver apparently didn’t. I sure don’t. But the line between being expressive and overly expressive is a fine one.

*. The script, based on a Winston Graham novel, is sheer trash. Not a fatal problem, as Robert Bloch’s Psycho was trash too (but good trash). I don’t see how anyone today could take it seriously though. To be honest, I’m not sure how seriously Hitchcock took psychoanalytic claptrap. He was certainly interested in it, but in previous films like Spellbound and Psycho he seemed to have his tongue in his cheek when dealing with it. Here I guess we were supposed to be responding to Marnie’s plight as being like that of Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve. But that comparison only highlights how inferior Marnie is. It’s closer to Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Which, by the way, is also a better movie.
*. Even the repressed childhood trauma made me laugh. Though Bruce Dern is certainly a scary dude. His death, oddly enough, was also the catalyst for repressed memories in Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte as well, which came out the same year. How odd.
*. So there’s where I come down on revision. I think Marnie is a joke, but it does score some points as camp. The script is hysterical psychobabble, the stars are both miscast, and the production has a cheap look to it that jars. Students of Hitchcock may get a kick out of seeing how often he quotes himself, and to what crazy ends, but to claim this is a great movie is being perverse.

Collateral (2004)

*. I started off having a bit of a knee-jerk reaction against Collateral. The hitman Vince (Tom Cruise) shoots his first victim, which causes him (the guy he shoots) to fall through a window right on to the hood of the cab being driven by Max (Jamie Foxx) that’s parked in the alley outside? As coincidences go, isn’t that a bit silly?
*. After a while though I started to get into the spirit of things. Coincidences like the falling man were going to keep coming, building up to Vince’s final target being Max’s earlier fare, who just happened to leave her business card with him after he made an absurd bet with her that his route would get her to her destination faster. If he loses, there’s no charge! And this is a long taxi ride. No wonder Max isn’t getting ahead in life. And what was he supposed to get if he won the bet anyway? What sort of a bet is that? And sticking with bets, how come the guy who knows everything about Miles Davis didn’t know some basic trivia about his life that Vince did? Come on.
*. In other words, this is a fantasy or dream, all taking place on the weirdly empty streets of L.A. Instead of other action thrillers, it made me think of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. Vince is the sort of weirdo who belongs in such a setting: a man with no past or future, given to spouting platitudes about how nothing really matters in life anyway, and nobody cares about anyone or anything. This makes him comfortably indifferent about killing, which he likens to just “taking out the garbage.” Critics praised Cruise for being chilling, but while I did like his performance, I didn’t take Vince seriously for a second.
*. I mean, a better plan, after smashing Max’s cab, would have been to kill Max and get another cab to finish the job with. Cab drivers do get killed by their fares and Vince would have had time to finish his night’s work before the police started putting things together. Vince also wouldn’t have had to deal with any of the hassle of dragging Max around as an unwilling accomplice. But then the dream logic of the film goes into effect. Max later asks why Vince hasn’t killed him and Vince responds that their fates are “intertwined” through a process of “cosmic coincidence.” So there.
*. It’s silly, but somehow it still works. I think in part because of the way the fantasy plays off the look of the movie, not to mention director Michael Mann’s usual Mann-erisms. The music-video interludes and what Will Self called the ubiquity of “cards ‘n’ chords” all fit with the dreamlike flow of the film. As do clichéd moments like Vince’s dangerous-man-not-looking-for-a-good-time walk across the nightclub/disco floor. What was the first movie to do that? Nighthawks? It was before The Terminator anyway.
*. More than Mann’s contribution, however, I credit Cruise and Foxx for a pair of great performances. I really don’t think they had a lot to work with in terms of the script, but Cruise projects a wonderfully bemused sort of professionalism and intelligence, while Foxx (outrageously nominated as Best Supporting Actor by the Academy) takes us on Max’s arc in a way that makes him seem somewhat believable. An arc that concludes in his getting rid of his glasses, showing that Clark Kent has now become Superman. Playing alongside, Mark Ruffalo and Jada Pinkett Smith are both disposable (I would even rate Pinkett Smith annoying) as plot place-fillers. The movie doesn’t have any time or interest in them, and neither did I.
*. So: a violent dream-vision of L.A., put forward with talent in most departments. I honestly had trouble understanding if Cruise was dying at the end or just falling asleep, but I think that might have been the point. He may still be on that train, going around in circles and popping up in sequels or a reboot. That’s the ultimate L.A. metaphor of the dream factory in action.

The Northman (2022)

*. I was intrigued going in. I’m not into Vikings at all, but it seemed like a movie made out of the source legend for Hamlet could have been interesting, along the lines of what The 13th Warrior (not at all as bad a movie as its reputation has it) did for Beowulf. Plus, there was an interesting cast, and Robert Eggers was directing. I thought The Witch was pretty good, and while The Lighthouse was overrated by critics there was still something to it.
*. Alas, nothing interesting came of this. The Northman isn’t just a disappointment, it’s a terrible movie, and watching it was like being slapped in the face with a wet fish. In fact, it’s so bad, so laughably bad, I don’t know where to begin. I don’t even know if I want to begin.
*. The cast? Some interesting choices, but Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman don’t look like they belong here. Alexander Skarsgård, meanwhile, is just big. Amleth has obviously completed the 300 training course and has abs like winter-tire treads and his traps rival those of Tom Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Indeed, they seem so overdeveloped they’re pressing his head down into his chest. Did Vikings really look like this? They do now.
*. The scenery? I’m going to repeat myself here but it’s worth trotting out here again because it’s so much in play: “great photography should be about more than making things that are already beautiful look beautiful” (that’s from my notes on The Revenant). A lot of highly praised epic movies do this today, showing characters riding their horses through pristine valleys that look like they’ve been painted by some fantasy artist but are real locations in New Zealand, Iceland, or (mostly here) Ireland. You can go “ooh!” and “ahh!” at the mountains and streams and grandeur of nature, but it’s just a bunch of calendar shots.
*. Or, as I said in my notes on Valhalla Rising (another Viking warrior flick that looked much the same, and that I liked slightly more than this one): “Does it look pretty? Sure. But as I’ve had occasion to remark (many times) before, I’m tired of empty movies with beautiful cinematography. And could anything be emptier than this?”
*. The fantasy landscapes also undercut any notion that this is somehow a “gritty” or “realistic” look at the Middle Ages, words that basically only mean that there are some scenes that feature buckets of blood and muck. Because who cares how bloody or mucky you get if you can relax afterward and enjoy some nookie in a beautiful Icelandic hot tub, au naturel?

*. The script? It was a hoot. I thought the characters were talking in runes half the time, saying things like “Let my words be whetstones to your biting rage . . .” There’s a lot of bilge like that, at least when people aren’t barking or howling like dogs at each other.
*. Nor is the dialogue the worst of it. Amleth’s plan for getting revenge on his uncle means he has to brand himself and be taken as a slave to his estate in Iceland? That’s the best he could come up with? My mouth fell open when I saw what he was up to. Then he seems to just give himself up to get captured so that he can receive the full Mel Gibson treatment in the woodshed before Odin’s magic ravens come to rescue him? I understand that he’s a guy who really believes in his fate, but this is a script?
*. There wasn’t a minute of all this hooey I could take seriously. Not with Amleth blossoming from a skinny teen to a hulk in the ten or fifteen years he’s in exile while his mom doesn’t age a day. Not with Anya Taylor-Joy’s accent. What was that supposed to even sound like? Not with Amleth jumping into the North Atlantic and breaststroking a couple of miles to shore. Bit chilly! And especially not with Amleth fighting his uncle at the top of an exploding Mount Doom at the end. That’s right, the final swordfight takes place on top of (or in) an erupting volcano! They have to jump over the streams of lava flowing underfoot! It’s like Obi-Wan and Anakin at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Now I would have thought fighting in such an environment kind of hard, you know, just for breathing. But it looks great! And there’s no kick-ass he-man dialogue either, but (and I think I’m transcribing this correctly): Arrgggh! Arrggh! Ah-wooooo! Arrggh!
*. The thing is, trash like this is fine as long as you don’t pitch it so high. But with a cast like this, a huge budget, the latest wunderkind director at the helm, and all sorts of high critical praise, you need to do a lot better than this. I mentioned how I thought Valhalla Rising was a better movie, and I thought Valhalla Rising was bad. Which makes this one a real dog. Ah-woooooooo!

Time Trap (2017)

*. Time Trap is the sort of movie you don’t see much of anymore. It’s also a movie that could have gone wrong in a lot of ways but remarkably stays upright for 87 minutes.
*. Why do I say that? For starters, it’s a little SF picture that’s quite technically ambitious, which is usually a recipe for disaster because going big when you don’t have the budget for it almost always ends in disaster. It’s also a time-travel story without a script that makes a whole lot of sense, and those have a habit of going wrong as well. But despite all this, I thought Time Trap stayed the course as a nice bit of fun.
*. The story has an archaeology professor (Andrew Wilson) going into a cave looking for the remains of his missing sister, who along with some hippies was looking for a fountain of youth when they disappeared back in the 1970s. Then, when the prof disappears a group of his students go into the cave after him.
*. As it turns out, the cave is a place where time passes a lot slower than in the outside world. I’m not sure they ever work out just how much slower, but from what I’ve been able to gather it’s somewhere around the order of one minute in the cave equaling 15 years anywhere else in the universe. So the ropes the spelunkers use quickly rot and they can’t use them to climb back out.
*. The rescue party find the professor and a whole lot more, including a bunch of cave people and some conquistadors that have been fighting in a frozen tableau for hundreds of years. There’s also an actual fountain of youth that not only reverses time but brings the dead back to life. And then there are spacemen who are entering the cave from our own future.
*. As I said, I don’t think the plot makes a whole lot of sense, but it’s quick enough that you don’t have much time to ask pesky questions, and I found the idea of the future raiding into the present while the present goes looking for the past to be quite interesting.
*. The writing-directing team of Mark Dennis and Ben Foster originally planned on doing it as a found footage movie (a bit of which still gets worked in), but by 2017 that fad was pretty much done. I’m glad they didn’t go that route, though I thought it might have made an intriguing experiment. Pulling off a story like this in that fashion would have been really complicated though.
*. The whole thing has the goofy, wholesome feel of an after-school TV special, with no bad language or gore and a super-happy ending. They were going for a cross of The Descent with The Goonies, and that’s another mash-up that should have spelled disaster but doesn’t. Not that I’m saying this is a great movie in any way, but if you just look at it as a bit of fun it’s quite alright.

Capone (2020)

*. Tom Hardy. As Al Capone, if you will. As an old Al Capone, suffering from syphilis, dementia, and multiple strokes. Sure Capone died at the age of 48, but in the 1940s that was the equivalent of being in your 80s today. He was a wreck.
*. So a young, sturdy British actor playing an old, decrepit Italian-American who he doesn’t resemble in the slightest. That’s bold casting. Admittedly, Hardy had played gangsters before, in Bronson and Legend (where he was both the Kray brothers), but Al Capone was more than a reach.
*. It makes no sense at all. You watch Hardy like you watch Anthony Hopkins playing Richard Nixon or Tobey Maguire playing Bobby Fischer, as though it’s some kind of weird experiment, not because you believe in it. Now sometimes these wild casting decisions do work — Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster is a good example — but most often they’re only weird. Not train wrecks, but weird.

*. Hardy’s Capone is weird. As noted, he’s far gone into dementia, and has trouble verbalizing beyond an odd throaty grunt that may not have any meaning. It’s the kind of performance that begs Hardy to let go, and he does. The script even sends him off like Tony Montana, firing his gold-plated Tommy gun at his Florida mansion (this, I believe, is a dream). But what the point of it all is, is anyone’s guess, since given the nature of the proceedings it can’t function as any kind of biopic.
*. There isn’t even any plot to explain, which is one reason it drags so badly. Honestly, this is one of the dullest gangster movies I have ever seen. Nothing happens. Capone might have a secret son, or he might not. He might have hidden away some $10 million, or he might not. He might even be eaten by alligators at the end. Who knows?
*. As a star vehicle, none of the supporting characters are given any chance to make an impression. Linda Cardellini is Mae, Al’s wife. Kyle MacLachlan is his doctor, who is also working for the Feds. For some reason. It’s not really explained. Matt Dillon is the ghost of Johnny Torrio, whose connection to Capone is never explained. The movie basically consists of Hardy staggering about in his bathrobe, dreaming of events in his past and looking shell-shocked in the present. “Nessun dora” gets played over and over on the radio because it’s the one bit of Italian opera that pretty much everyone knows.

*. I don’t like dumping on a movie like this because I think writer-director Josh Trank (perhaps still reeling from Fantastic Four) really believed in the project, to the point where he even put some of his own money into it. But it’s terrible, without even being fun in a camp sort of way. I kept wanting Hardy to blossom into Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, but how can he given Capone’s ruined physical and mental state? His most expressive moments are unwanted bowel eruptions.
*. If only Trank had allowed the movie to derail completely and let Hardy bellow out “Say hello to my leetle friend!” as he stalks his grounds in a diaper with a carrot in his mouth at the end. Why not go crazy in a crazy way? If you’re going to cast Tom Hardy as Al Capone you might as well swing for the fences and not just hold hands with ghosts on the porch.

San Andreas (2015)

*. San Andreas is a disaster movie, a genre reinvigorated long after the glory days of Irwin Allen by the advent of CGI effects. As I’ve said before, one of the very few things CGI does well is trashing cities. Well, that’s a disaster movie for you.
*. Disaster movies aren’t known for scripts with lots of character development and complex plotting. Far from it. You expect generic characters and some sketchy set-up before everything goes to hell. There’s basically a two-part structure of before and after. To its credit, San Andreas starts off with some action (a helicopter rescue crew saves a young woman who is dangling in her car from a cliff, the Hoover Dam collapses) and keeps things going pretty strong throughout, but otherwise it follows the formula pretty closely.
*. Our lead is Dwayne Johnson, who is good in this kind of thing and certainly looks like he’s capable of fighting vast geological forces. An earthquake might take out California, but we can be sure that even as skyscrapers crumble the Rock will be the last man standing. He plays Ray Gaines, a helicopter rescue pilot with the Los Angeles Fire Department. When the big one strikes, he’s off with public property (the ‘copter) on a long journey north to San Francisco to go rescue his daughter. Because that’s what we expect of such a man.
*. That’s the plot. There’s not much more to say. I thought the CGI was pretty good, especially when a tsunami throws a freighter at the Golden Gate Bridge. Let’s face it, that’s why you watch a movie like this, and the FX department delivers. And while the script has some howlers, and makes a total hash of the science and geography, it has a couple of good moments too. I like how Blake’s newfound boyfriend uses the car jack to get her out of the car she’s stuck in. That was clever, and clever was unexpected.
*. I wasn’t expecting originality either, which was good because there was little on tap. A couple of clichés did seem to me to be worth commenting on though. I think I’ve talked about these before, but I think they’re worth flagging again.
*. In the first place, there’s movie CPR. As anyone who has trained in it knows, CPR is a violent process. Those chest compressions are dangerous, which is why you never see anyone in a movie doing anything that looks like a real chest compression. Dwayne Johnson would be breaking Alexandra Daddario’s ribs like bread sticks. I guess it’s hard to fake CPR but still, the way it’s presented in movies may give a lot of people the wrong idea of how to do it.

*. The other cliché is a male fantasy that gets a lot of play in movies like this. Basically, the hero is a divorced man, or a man going through a divorce, whose wife is shacking up with some new guy. There are a bunch of key elements in what follows: (1) no one is quite sure why the couple broke up in the first place, though it usually has something to do with the man being too dedicated to his demanding, heroic job; (2) the new guy is a moneybags but also a wimp and a coward; (3) there’s a crisis and the woman realizes how much she really needs/loves the man she broke up with, and how useless the new guy is; (4) there’s some kind of reconciliation.
*. It’s amazing how common this formula has become, especially in movies of this type. In Greenland and Moonfall, to take a couple of more recent examples, we see the same thing: a muscular, action hero who, with the fate of the world at stake, both saves the world and proves his superior manliness to his estranged wife, who realizes that trying to cash in with a higher-earning partner maybe wasn’t such a great idea.
*. Obviously this speaks to a real anxiety among men today, but my problem with it is that it is a fantasy. As I said in my notes on Greenland, this just isn’t the way things work in the real world. How many women want to get back together with a man they left? Not many, in my experience. I always think of that scene in The Squid and the Whale when Jeff Daniels is getting his hopes up that Laura Linney is going to get back together with him and she starts laughing. The only thing I find interesting about the whole idea is the question of where it got its start.
*. Otherwise, for fans of seeing cities stricken by earthquakes and tsunamis, San Andreas mostly works. I didn’t see the point of introducing the scientist (Paul Giamatti), as he doesn’t tell us anything we can’t gather from the odd news report, and he totally disappears at the end anyway. Aside from that, it’s a tight production. Checking out the special features on the DVD, it was interesting to see how short the scenes that were cut were, as director Brad Peyton really wanted to keep things moving along. Mission accomplished. Next up for Brad and Dwayne it would be a giant gorilla taking on Chicago. Clean up in aisle twelve!

Hamlet (2009)

*. I didn’t care for this production of Hamlet. It’s very much a filmed play, of the Royal Shakespeare Company for the BBC, and I didn’t like it as a movie or as a play. So there’s a lot of blame to go around.
*. At first sight of him I thought I might like David Tennant as Hamlet. He has a shaky, neurotic look to him in his inky cloak. Then, when he gives his “too, too solid flesh” soliloquy it seems as though they’ve set it up so that he actually will melt, resolve, and whatever into the mirrored black floor (apparently borrowed from a Vegas casino). The way he bends over and then kneels down was at least suggestive of such an idea. But nothing in the direction or camerawork, which is pedestrian throughout, tries to sell such an image and in the end I’m not sure if anyone was aware of it. It’s not mentioned on the commentary or the “making of” featurette.
*. Alas, Tennant wore on me very quickly. I found him antic and annoying when he (or Hamlet) wasn’t trying to be. Look at the way he works his face in the grave scene, for example. It’s all bug eyes and a stretched mouth, the sort of big emoting that works on stage but looks almost grotesque on screen.

*. Wardrobe also lets him down. It’s a problem presented in any modern-dress production of Shakespeare: how do you render important cues in the play for antique styles of clothes? What does it mean when Ophelia talks of Hamlet appearing to her with his garters undone and his stockings down around his ankles? Well, here it means he changes out of his mourning suit and into jeans and a t-shirt.
*. And it gets worse. The t-shirt has a really awful muscle-man print on the front, which I can’t imagine a modern-day Hamlet (or David Tennant) ever wearing. It makes him look silly and goes against the producers’ desire to not want the costumes to be “distractingly modern.” That shirt is as distracting as you can get (though it may be better than the Superman t-shirt they were originally thinking of). Then there are the jeans. I hate Hamlet in jeans. And he even has them on at the end for the fencing match with Laertes! Who fences in jeans? And he’s barefoot too! It’s like I’m watching a rehearsal for a Little Theatre production.

*. The fact that it remains a filmed play means the few somewhat creative decisions fall flat. There’s a use of CCTV cameras throughout, but to no good purpose aside from underlining the obvious point that everyone is spying on everyone at Elsinore. The idea of Hamlet using a handheld camera to film himself and others (notably Claudius during the Mousetrap performance) is good, but I didn’t think it worked well in practice. As with the security cameras they should have either tried to do more with it or not bothered.

*. One-way mirrors are used in several scenes, in the same way as they were employed in Branagh’s film. I doubt Branagh was the first to introduce them but I wonder who can make that claim. In any event, I thought the CCTV cameras might have been used here as a substitute in those scenes, but I guess they didn’t feel comfortable with that.
*. I don’t want to give the impression that this Hamlet is all bad, though even at a trim three hours I can’t say I enjoyed myself much. There were some nice touches. Ophelia finding a condom in Laertes’ luggage. Gertrude indicating that she knows Claudius has poisoned the drink she was offering to Hamlet before drinking it herself. Claudius’s wonderful shrug as he quaffs the same poisonous drink at the end. Because at that point Why not? I was reminded of Patrick Stewart’s turn at the end of Green Room, and he may have been thinking of how he played this scene there.

*. I thought the cast were quite good. Stewart is great playing both Hamlet Sr. and Claudius, which makes perfect sense (they’re brothers after all) but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done before. Oliver Ford Davies is excellent as Polonius, though he seems to be old enough to be Ophelia’s grandfather, an impression added to by his seeming to suffer from mild dementia. Penny Downie and Mariah Gale as Gertrude and Ophelia are both very good in what are difficult roles.

*. Still, I can’t rate this as anything but a disappointment. Tennant doesn’t seem out of his depth so much as out of his proper element, and the rest of the cast get no help from the director. I think I might have liked this on stage, but for some reason they seemed to really want to make a filmed play and so that’s what they got. Given the talent assembled that’s an opportunity missed.