Category Archives: 1990s

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990)

*. The oddest factoid I turned up when doing a bit of research into this title, which I first saw during its original release run, is that it received a “zero stars” review from Roger Ebert.
*. Huh? I could understand not liking Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, but it’s still a long, long way from Freddy Got Fingered and Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. I mean, Roger even gave Battlefield Earth half a star. Sure, he gave Walker the no-star treatment too, but what I mean is that he wasn’t in the habit of nuking decent flicks.
*. I’m beginning with Ebert’s surprising rating because of the way his review worries over the question of “What went wrong?” The answer isn’t simple. He likes the play and has nothing against its adaptation here and the direction by Tom Stoppard. He likes the cast. Finally he settles on the idea that it was a bad idea from the start: “I think the problem is that this material was never meant to be a film, and can hardly work as a film.”
*. I can see where he’s coming from, but I don’t think this cuts it. I don’t think this is an entirely successful adaptation of the play, and it may be that it was an impossible job putting it on film, but I think it’s easier than this to identify where it goes wrong. It’s too slow on its feet, especially given the nature of the dialogue, and the visual gags that Stoppard introduces, if they even rise to the level of gags, are pretty dull. Rosencrantz watching the paper boat rise and fall with the water level in his bath? What was the point of that?

*. I should jump in here and say I don’t hate this movie. In fact, I think it’s pretty good. It has a lovely, frosted look that perfectly walks the line between naturalism and the theatrical. The three leads are all excellent, Richard Dreyfuss surprisingly so. He strikes just the right impish note. The editing is a bit rough in places but the photography is first rate. And the play is still the play.
*. It’s a play that was almost twenty-five years old at the time. I wonder how Stoppard felt about going back to the work that was his breakout hit. I suspect he wasn’t very sentimental about it. On taking on the role of director (to date it’s the only movie he’s helmed), he remarked that “It just seemed that I’d be the only person who could treat the play with the necessary disrespect.”
*. Usually I’d consider that a good thing, but as I hinted at in what I said about the pacing I think this is a production that is, in the end, too solemn. It needed a lighter touch. Stoppard’s dialogue, for example, has the effect of making you feel like you’re always a step behind. I think this is intentional. But here it’s too easy to keep up.

*. A large part of the way the play works is by exploiting the friction between the almost slapstick nature of the comedy and the musings on death and the meaning and purpose of life. I’m not sure it’s all that profound in the end, basically just using the metaphor of the stage to show how we find ourselves thrust into various roles in life that we’re forced to go along with, losing ourselves in the process, and that some people just aren’t very important in the grand scheme of things, supporting actors in a greater drama. Still, it makes you think about where the boundaries of the world’s stage lie.
*. I can’t think of a better example of this than the game of Questions that plays out like a tennis match. Some reviewers objected to this being too obvious, but the thing is I always remembered this scene as having them actually playing tennis while they volley questions back and forth. I was, I think, confusing the scene with one from another movie, but still for nearly thirty years I had a memory of an imaginary game of tennis that I never actually saw. There is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out.

The Ref (1994)

*. Some interesting credits, even before you get to the cast. A Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheiser film. I guess they were having a Christmas break or something from shoot-’em-ups. Though Simpson said he could relate to this project as its “biting and sarcastic” tone was up his alley.
*. And then we have the cast. This was very much a vehicle, close to a launch, for Denis Leary. He was the main attraction and was set up to do his thing, playing a break-and-enter man who takes a bickering couple hostage on Christmas. They proceed to drive him crazy.
*. Unfortunately, as many critics were quick to point out, Leary’s stand-up persona didn’t translate that well to such a property. To my eye, he always seems waiting for a punchline that he isn’t being allowed to deliver. I blame the script, which isn’t funny at all and even finds itself recycling a number of old jokes. Before too long I was wishing Leary had just been left to improv the entire thing. He looks like he knows he’s dying (in the stand-up sense) and it’s killing him.
*. The couple are played by Kevin Spacey and and Judy Davis, talented actors not known for their work in comedy. Sometimes casting this way works and you get revelations like George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, but here it’s a flop. Again I think the script is mostly at fault, but Spacey and Davis can’t even sell the mediocre parts.
*. OK, I didn’t like it. The premise is really simple and gets increasingly strained as things go along. Then it’s wound up in the most predictable and feel-good way you could imagine (and likely were). It did poorly at the box office and some people thought that was because it was too dark. I think it needed to be a lot darker. I don’t know what Simpson saw in it, because for me it wasn’t nearly biting and sarcastic enough. Everybody knows married couples bitch at each other, that holidays with family can be hell, and that letting it all hang out can be a kind of therapy. So what?
*. Apparently the original ending, with Leary getting arrested, didn’t work with audiences so they reshot it and didn’t end up releasing the movie until March. Which I’m sure didn’t help the box office for what was clearly meant to be a Christmas movie. Honestly, they didn’t get anything right here. There are Simpsons Christmas specials with more laughs and social insight. It might have had a shot at attracting a following if it had been a little more perverse, but as it is I think it’s justifiably forgotten.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

*. Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is usually considered the most faithful film adaptation of the famous novel. I have to use the awkward double possessive though because this production is Branagh’s baby all the way. As screenwriter Frank Darabont put it: “That movie was his vision entirely. If you love that movie you can throw all your roses at Ken Branagh’s feet. If you hated it, throw your spears there too, because that was his movie.”
*. A popular paradox has it that it takes real talent to make a very bad movie. This is true if we’re talking about a special kind of very bad movie. The vast majority of forgettable (and now forgotten) Grade-Z productions of yesteryear were the product of a general lack of vision, effort, technical competence, and/or funds. But a movie like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had all of these in abundance. It’s one of those special bad movies.

*. It was primarily criticized for its manic grandiloquence and operatic qualities. Roger Ebert: “Branagh has always been a director cheerfully willing to shoot for the moon, to pump up his scenes with melodrama and hyperbole, and usually I enjoy that. . . . Here, however, faced with material that begins as lurid melodrama, he goes over the top.” Or Darabont again: “It has no patience for subtlety. It has no patience for the quiet moments. It has no patience period. It’s big and loud and blunt and rephrased by the director at every possible turn. Cumulatively, the effect was a totally different movie. I don’t know why Branagh needed to make this big, loud film . . . the material was subtle. Shelley’s book was way out there in a lot of ways, but it’s also very subtle. I don’t know why it had to be this operatic attempt at filmmaking.”
*.  An irony: the classic 1931 Frankenstein was based less on Shelley’s novel than on a stage treatment that had been popular. In going back to the source, Branagh, with far greater resources than Universal, chose to make a film that was even more theatrical. It may be closer to the novel, but it’s actually less novelistic.
*. The critical assessments made by Ebert and Darabont are fair, but it’s worth remembering that Bram Stoker’s Dracula had come out just a couple of years earlier and Coppola had been praised precisely for the operatic, over-the-top theatricality of his production. So I don’t think it’s fair to say Branagh was necessarily heading in the wrong direction.
*. And to be fair I’d even say that some of his efforts pay off. Frankenstein’s attic lab looks like it was a lot of fun to design, as much in debt to Dr. Seuss as Kenneth Strickfaden. And Elizabeth’s long human torch scene is one of the best there’s been, right up there with such classic burns as the ones seen in The Thing from Another World, Westworld, and Bubba Ho-Tep (to name just a few of my favourites).

*. But then there’s all the silliness, that need to pump up every scene, if not through set design (dig that staircase!) then through a constantly twirling camera or with overhead shots that beg for a character to tilt his head back and scream at the heavens (an appeal that does not go denied).

*. I remember seeing this when it first came out and how it finally lost me with the Monster standing before the burning cottage vowing “Revenge!” (though I should add that this scene does stay pretty close to the book). This is immediately followed by an aerial shot of his trudging through an alpine landscape. It all just seemed too, too much. Not too bold, but too clichéd, both visually and dramatically.
*. Robert De Niro as the Monster (or The Creature) was a bold bit of casting. He’s given plenty to work with too, as what makes this a more faithful adaptation of Shelley than most Frankenstein movies is the fact that the Monster is so articulate and sympathetic a figure. In at least one scene the clear referent is the Elephant Man. Of course the fact that he’s taught himself to read is the silliest part of the novel as well, but I think it’s to Branagh’s and De Niro’s credit that they get us to go along with it.

*. I wasn’t sure though why the Monster had so much visible stitching. Sure he’s had a brain transplant, but why would that entail carving up his face? His head was otherwise a single unit. As is Elizabeth’s head when it is stuck on Justine’s body, and her face is all stitched up as well. Chalk it up to a design element that doesn’t stand close examination.
*. Tom Hulce seems to have arrived here just off the bus from Amadeus. Helena Bonham Carter has the period look, but doesn’t project the sexuality the role needs. John Cleese is surprisingly effective as Waldman. I think maybe because he realized he didn’t have to overplay the part in such a production.

*. Branagh himself is hard to take seriously. He embodies the shift the film makes from Romance (the cultural movement) to romance (of the men with no shirts and bodice-ripping kind). It’s the sort of hammy, artificial performance that goes with the giant, all-too-obvious studio sets. So in that sense it comes with the territory.
*. I started off calling this a very bad movie, but of a special type. In fact, it strikes me more as a very silly movie. As such, I think I actually enjoyed it a little more this time than I did twenty-five years ago. But it’s still a joke. Maybe in another twenty-five years I’ll be able to take it seriously and change my mind completely. A revolution like that takes a while.

eXistenZ (1999)

*. Many years ago, I had a conversation with an award-winning porn actress whose name I will not reveal. At some point our talk, as it so often will do, turned to the subject of gangbangs and multiple penetrations. About which she said that the adult industry had gone as far as it could go unless they wanted to start sticking dicks in her ear or creating a new orifice.
*. If nothing else, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ has a jokey answer to that, giving people a new orifice or bio-port at the base of their spines so that they can jack into a gaming system by way of an umbilical cable. Technology to the rescue!
*. The main idea here about virtual reality being a dangerous new kind of drug/porn had already been explored by Cronenberg in Videodrome, but it was really big in the 1990s. In hindsight, this isn’t what happened. Instead of VR we got social media; instead of headsets, iPhones. There would be VR porn, but it would remain a niche. The real future of porn would be in its amateurization and ubiquity. The nightmare worlds of eXistenZ, or Strange Days (1997) remained unrealized (though I think Videodrome still has a cautionary message for us today).
*. So eXistenZ is a film of its time. It came out just after what I’ve called the Year of the Simulacrum, which also saw The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show. How could we be sure what was real anymore, and what was a media construct or game? That question gives this movie its punchline, which I found charming in an obvious sort of way. Unlike most of Cronenberg’s nightmares, eXistenZ doesn’t want to be taken all that seriously, and the threat level is low.

*. It is, I think, a black comedy. There are those ridiculous accents in eXistenZland. There’s the People Hit by a Car game box that references Crash. There’s the sight of Willem Dafoe about to ram bio-port virgin Jude Law (soon to be People Magazine‘s Sexiest Man Alive) from behind with that giant power tool. Jacking into the bio-port as anal sex, complete with lube and fingering, is a running gag that doesn’t run out of steam. And then at the end there’s that punchline I mentioned. So relax and enjoy.
*. One thing that is kind of hard to square is why the world’s greatest game designer has created a virtual reality that looks so much like a low-budget Canadian film. eXistenZ isn’t a dull or depressing movie, but the game eXistenZ seems like a real downer. You get to be a secret agent working in a fish-processing plant? Sign me up!
*. I like the cast. I think I’ve loved Jennifer Jason Leigh in everything I’ve seen her in. Jude Law is even prettier and makes a good foil. Ian Holm is fittingly alien. Willem Dafoe enjoys himself. Don McKellar and Sarah Polley are both so Toronto with their bland, superior air of intelligent, down-market affluence that they made me feel like I was back in university.
*. There’s the usual yucky stuff that’s kind of funny, a two-headed lizard that actually doesn’t look out of place, and some philosophical talk that never takes itself seriously. The result is a more lightweight Cronenberg, but one that’s perfectly enjoyable. In retrospect I think it marks a point where the future was starting to leave Cronenberg behind, but not leaving him without something to say.

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.

Othello (1995)

*. I’ve mentioned before the tension in Othello between the roles of the two leads and the way Iago tends to take over the play. Orson Welles’s 1951 version actually reverses the usual polarity, with his gruff and plus-size Moor dominating Micheál MacLiammóir’s somewhat weedy Iago. Of course, it probably helped that the film was Welles’s baby.
*. This version of the play achieves more of a balance. That isn’t how it was received, however, as most of the praise went to Kenneth Branagh’s Iago. Rita Kempley in the Washington Post put it most forcefully: “Kenneth Branagh doesn’t just steal the show; one suspects he might have sat in the director’s chair as well.”
*. Well, maybe he did. But I think not. This movie (directed by Oliver Parker, who, fun fact, first appeared on the big screen as one of the moving men in Hellraiser) doesn’t have the flair and quickness on its feet of one of Branagh’s productions at the time.

*. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. I’m not sure if Branagh is really the man for tragedy. And overall, I’m of the opinion that Branagh’s Shakespeare films describe a long downhill slide. His Henry V remains his best of them, in my opinion. And I really liked parts of Much Ado About Nothing. By the time we got to Hamlet, however, something was clearly going wrong.
*. I started feeling a little too used to his performances as well. Sort of like a singer whose voice you once fell in love with but who, when you hear more of their stuff, you start to get tired of all the same vocal tricks and limited range. I think Branagh is a fine actor, but his particular habits — the way he mouths his wide-chopped lines, or the way he turns his misty eyes up to the sky — start to seem too familiar and repetitive after a while. It’s also disturbing that he has the same mannerisms no matter what the role.
*. In any event, I think Laurence Fishburne makes a good counterweight. He plays Othello in a different register, which works because the character is meant to be someone who’s a bit exotic. He also has a brooding gravitas that balances Iago’s false amiability. In short, it’s a good pairing.

*. The film was lauded for being sexy, though I wonder if it was sexy enough. Then again, as a general rule, Hollywood doesn’t do sexy well. What it does well is romance, which is something different. Think nice clothes, candles, exotic locations, hands gripping preternaturally clean sheets. I guess in the play Desdemona is a bit of a romantic princess, but I think for the jealousy and the taboo element to really work there needed to be more heat. That’s not a complaint particular to this production though, which does at least make gestures in the right direction. Almost all of the Desdemonas I’ve seen have been too pure and fragile.
*. So Iago dies at the end? I can see that satisfying the audience’s sense of justice, and I think it’s often been presented this way (on film, for example, in the 1922 version). But it seems to me that if you’re going to go with this ending you have to edit out the lines that make it clear that he survives. Here they’re left in, and the ending only seems an excuse for that final tableau on the bed, where I didn’t think Bianca really belonged. I do think Emilia is a sadly underwritten character in the play, I’d love to have more of her, but as it is she’s very much a supporting role.
*. It did very poor box office, in part due to not having a wide release and coming out over the Christmas holidays. In any event, something about it doesn’t work for me. Of course, enjoying tragedy, especially one as depressing as Othello, is a figure of speech that has to be unpacked. But everything about this production just seems too heavy.
*. Were they trying to be too faithful to the text? Welles cut the play to pieces and made a far better movie out of the scraps. This Othello seems afraid to take chances, and while a production that’s hard to fault for anything in particular, I don’t think it’s much of a movie.

Hamlet (1996)

*. The full text — meaning the First Folio text-plus, the so-called “eternity version” — done in four hours. And shot in Panavision Super 70. At Blenheim Palace and a giant stage at Shepperton. Which is great, on the one hand. On the other: is it all too much?
*. I don’t mean that it’s too long. Kenneth Branagh not only makes Shakespeare play as perfectly natural, he whips the action along at a lively pace that has this movie feeling much quicker than its running time. What I find too much is the spectacle.
*. This, the spectacle, was a conscious choice, and is defensible. Branagh didn’t want the usual gloomy, gothic Elsinore. He wanted light, and wide open spaces (which feel even wider in 70 mm). He also wanted something more political in a modern sense, more backroom and boardroom than Game of Thrones. But is all change good? Lloyd Rose called this version “the film equivalent of a lushly illustrated coffee-table book . . . the spacious, orderly palace isn’t used either atmospherically or ironically, and it’s awfully pretty for the story that unfolds.”
*. I mostly agree with Rose here. It’s a distinctive look, but I don’t know what the purpose of that look is aside from being different. It also made me wonder why it was being shot in the large format. It made me think of the other movies that have been done since in 70 mm in recent years: The Master, The Hateful Eight, and Branagh’s own Murder on the Orient Express. In which of these did 70 mm make any sense?

*. The plan was to cast big names in small parts and less well-known actors in the major roles (this was Kate Winslet at 17, just before she did Titanic). You have to shake your head at the theatrical release poster with all the stars listed: Julie Christie, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal! No mention of Richard Briers (Polonius), Nicholas Farrell (Horatio), or Michael Maloney (Laertes), even though these are the third, fourth, and fifth biggest parts in the play respectively.
*. I don’t think the cameos have the same shock-and-awe effect as the sets. In fact, I enjoyed nearly all of them. Heston gets to out-Herod Herod as the Player King. Gérard Depardieu is a quietly slimy Reynaldo. Many people thought Lemmon miscast as Marcellus but I thought he was believable as a superannuated legionnaire. Not fit for the front line, but good enough to keep watch over the palace (or at least as good as anyone else they have doing that job). The only minor part I had trouble with was Billy Crystal as the First Gravedigger. I think he does well but still seems out of place.

*. The stars help take some of the attention away from Branagh, who I think comes close to going over the top. Or perhaps by this time I was getting to feel I knew his mannerisms too well, so that I’d become less patient with them. Or perhaps it was that ridiculous soul patch. I found that made it hard to take him seriously.
*. So it’s a movie where a lot of the big things were things I didn’t like. The bigger they went, the worse things got. Brian Blessed appearing not on the battlements but in a wood riven by earthquakes, and delivering his lines in a heavy whisper. I didn’t like that. And the finale is a total mess, beginning with the attack on Elsinore that seems taken directly from Launcelot charging the castle in Monty Python in the Holy Grail. The invaders appear out of nowhere and then take over the palace in mass stealth mode, at least until they come smashing through the windows like an army of ninjas. Perhaps Lemmon’s Marcellus was having a nap, but as Russell Jackson admits on the DVD commentary, Elsinor really is “a bit of a pushover.”

*. Then, to cap things off, there’s Hamlet using his sword as a javelin to spear Claudius at long range, pinning him to his throne with a chandelier (!), and swinging down on a rope to administer the coup de grâce. Yikes! This really puts the spectacle in spectacularly bad climaxes. Branagh says he wanted a “physical release” at the end, “a physical orgasm, a crescendo that is part of what Shakespeare is orchestrating.” What he got is a joke. I didn’t even understand the toppling of Hamlet Sr.’s statue at the end, like he was some Eastern European dictator. Is that what he was supposed to represent?
*. But when you look away from all the big things that are being done wrong (at least in my opinion) there’s a lot here to enjoy. Little things like the look Marcellus gives Horatio when Horatio describes him as being “distilled almost to jelly” in fear. Or Jacobi’s Claudius when Polonius asks if he’s ever known him to be false and he says “Not that I know,” or his response “no place should murder sanctuarize” when Laertes says he wants to cut Hamlet’s throat in the church.

*. Actually, Jacobi pretty much steals the show here. I think he plays the part, as imagined by Branagh, perfectly. Branagh thought of Claudius as “a good man gone wrong,” which is at least a fair reading, and Jacobi does full justice to the various ambiguities it involves. Was he motivated more by Gertrude or the crown? I guess it’s hard to separate the two.
*. Along with this attention to the smaller things I’d also mention Branagh’s use of close-ups. He wanted to pull in to more of these than Olivier would allow. Olivier thought they could be overwhelming, which they can be. But here, perhaps because the rest of the movie plays so large, Branagh gets away with them.

*. The best thing about such a production though is the fact that it is the full text. You get to see and hear parts of the play that are rarely performed, like Horatio explaining why there’s so much overtime in Denmark getting ready for war. In only one place (the performance of The Mousetrap, which I’ve always thought of as a painful redundancy after the dumbshow) this is a treat. As I’ve said, the extra length is not a problem, and playing the full text means it can develop the themes that the play obsesses on more completely, in particular the nesting boxes of situations that duplicate themselves (fathers and sons, revenge), and the idea of surveillance and spying.
*. So it’s very much a mixed bag. On balance though I have to rate it pretty highly. Despite its length it’s the film version of Hamlet that I’ve returned to the most often, if for no other reason than just to listen to it. Branagh really does the language well, with the long takes making the dialogue even easier to follow. When it goes wrong it goes disastrously, bombastically wrong, but it remains fundamentally right.

Hamlet (1990)

*. Hamlet is a very long play. So even at two hours and fifteen minutes this is a radically cut version, even skipping or rearranging a number of its “greatest hits,” not to mention scrambling important plot points.
*. Some of the cuts here are obvious and (I think) justifiable. The dumb show, for example, is redundant to the point where it makes no dramatic sense at all. But I missed the opening scene with the first appearance of the Ghost, which is one of the greatest curtain-raisers ever. And whatever happened to Fortinbras?
*. To be fair, a full-text production of the play (like Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film), on stage or on screen, is likely only of interest to specialists, and Franco Zeffirelli’s version is probably a lot closer to the kind of thing Shakespeare’s audience would have seen. So the Hamlet we get here is not only defensible but smart.
*. To be sure, something is lost. I’ll give just one example of how the editing of the text weakens the reinforcing layers of the revenge theme. This is developed in the play by presenting a series of different stories dealing with the same situation: a son avenging his father. But Fortinbras, as I’ve said, is gone, so that angle is lost. Also the big embedded speech from the Player telling the story of Pyrrhus (Achilles’ son) avenging himself on Priam is left out, so another layer is lost. Hamlet’s only real foil is Laertes.
*. This is also very much a movie and not just a filmed play. This is most obvious in the rapid editing. Many Shakespeare films (and Branagh is representative of this) like to stick with long takes, allowing actors to play out scenes as complete units of speech and blocks of action, which is (obviously) how they play on stage.

*. According to one study I saw, the average shot length here is less than six seconds. This has been partly attributed to the fact that Mel Gibson is playing Hamlet and he was known as an action star (Zeffirelli cast him after being impressed by his performance in Lethal Weapon). I’m not sure that’s the reason for all the cuts though. I think they’re more likely just a concession to shortening attention spans.
*. I’m not sure if any long speeches from the play are kept intact. Alas, poor ghost! Paul Scofield only has a handful of lines. Which does allow him to drag them out in an interesting way. His enervated Hamlet Sr. is a far cry from the commanding figure we’re used to seeing.
*. Another way in which it seems more like a movie is the effect of location shooting. I think something is gained from this as well. When Hamlet claims that Denmark is a prison while standing in the great outdoors on a beautiful sunny day you get a clear picture of just how messed up he is.
*. I give Gibson a lot of credit here. He could have easily fallen on his face but he doesn’t. I don’t think he’s a great Hamlet — he doesn’t project melancholy, or excessive thoughtfulness well, and I didn’t care for his clowning around in the duel scene — but he doesn’t embarrass himself either.

*. The rest of the cast is very good. Helena Bonham-Carter is Ophelia. I’ve always thought it a terrible part (despite being an iconic one), without enough lines to make the disintegration of her character believable, but Bonham-Carter gets a jump start on all this since she’s an actress who gives an impression of fragile mental health even at the best of times. Alan Bates looks appropriately gregarious and seedy. Ian Holm is a perfect Polonius.

*. Of course it’s a post-Freud Hamlet so Glenn Close’s Gertrude isn’t a dowdy queen but a medieval MILF. This at least helps lubricate the incest angle. Close is only nine years older than Gibson, which isn’t as strained an age differential as with Olivier’s version.
*. Seeing Hamlet lock lips with his mom I had to wonder just how this reading of the play ever got traction in the first place. Is it all Sigmund’s fault? It’s not something I find in the play, but then Gertrude has always seemed to me the great mystery in Hamlet.
*. I like the look of the film. There’s an interesting vertical motif adopted throughout, using the layout of the castle to position characters looking down (or eavesdropping) on others from above. The interior stairways also give a kind of Piranesi-effect that suits the proceedings well. And I never found the setting too heavy or obtrusive, despite the castle’s rough-hewn quality.
*. So, not bad at all. I saw it when it first came out and watching it again I thought it held up very well. It actually succeeds in presenting a fresh take on the old warhorse. It works well as both an interpretation of and a more basic introduction to the play. Purists may object to all the liberties taken, but I don’t think any damage was done to the spirit of the play. Gibson doesn’t quite hold his own, but that’s mainly due to just how good the rest of the cast is. Not the best Hamlet on screen, but there’s still a lot here to treasure and enjoy.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

*. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays on stage. Why then has it been so poorly served on screen?
*. I don’t have an answer to that. I do have some ideas as to why this particular production is so bad though.
*. It is, in a word, too heavy. While Shakespeare’s play isn’t without its dark side, for the most part it’s a very light early comedy. Here, however, it doesn’t seem like anyone is having a good time.
*. Don’t blame Christian Bale. He’s never any fun, but the role of Demetrius is so small I didn’t even notice him. Instead, the first place I’d look is to Kevin Kline, who plays Bottom. Kline received a lot of praise but I think he’s totally miscast and the role itself is badly misconceived.
*. Why introduce Bottom’s wife, and hint at an unhappy marriage? I suppose to explain why he’s such a dreamer. But it has the unfortunate effect of making him into a melancholy figure who drags the play down.
*. The rest of the casting is nearly as bad. Most of the actors seem very uncomfortable doing Shakespeare and labour over their lines. Rupert Everett looks hunky as Oberon, but can’t play the part. Stanley Tucci’s Puck looks like he’d knock Oberon flat. David Strathairn is awkward and American as Theseus. Michelle Pfeiffer can’t do anything with Titania.
*. Two I did like: Calista Flockhart surprised me, acquitting herself well as a neurotic Helena, and Dominic West actually looks like he’s having fun some of the time.
*. I’m sure they were going for something like Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. Some of the exteriors even seem to be of the same Tuscan villa. But there’s none of the same energy, none of the same snap in the language, none of the same gusto in the direction. You know things have bottomed out (I wasn’t going for the pun) when the catfight between Hermia and Helena turns into a mud wrestling match. How awful.

*. Few if any of the artistic decisions work. Why bicycles when so much of the action takes place in the forest? Those aren’t mountain bikes. Why forego the usual donkey’s head to just give Bottom a pair of ears and a messy ‘do? Yes, it lets Kline do more, but he just ends up mugging through that part anyway.
*. Even the script is oddly cut. The most famous speech in the play is Theseus’s “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact,” and it has disappeared. And yet it’s so central to the play!

*. I could go on, but you’ll have already got the point that I really, really didn’t like this movie. In fact, I found it nearly impossible to finish watching. The magic of the play had disappeared. About the only moment I thought it might come back was at the end when the lovers seem to recognize in the play something of what had happened to them the night before. But the moment is fleeting, and its originality seems mainly to stem from its improbability.
*. “The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” That’s what Theseus says to Hippolyta by way of trying to excuse the play put on by the mechanicals. That I had to think of it as a way of mitigating the damage here tells you something. That it’s a wonderful line that has been cut from the film tells you something more. Enough.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

*. Samuel Johnson remarked that “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” This wasn’t an accurate prophecy, as Tristram Shandy has lasted, but, as always, Johnson did have a point, and since he provides the epigraph for this film I thought I’d start with his observation.
*. Johnson planted his own critical flag on a preference for observations of general human nature, and so had little time for more idiosyncratic works. He was less interested in the ways that people, and the times they live in, are quirky and unique. It would take a cultural revolution, Romanticism, to open this side of things up.
*. But I think of what Johnson said when considering works like Hunter S. Thompson’s/Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or William Burroughs’/David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. Do these movies, reflecting very particular cultural and historical moments, have much to say to us today?
*. The drug culture in particular has changed so much. Today the madcap bohemianism of the ’60s is dead. A death that is, of course, part of what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about, with its long build-up to a poetic envoi for the children of Timothy Leary: a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, and freaks in the freak kingdom.

*. So can we say that this film has lasted? Yes and no.
*. Yes because the initial response to it was mostly negative (Roger Ebert: “a horrible mess of a movie, without shape, trajectory or purpose — a one joke movie, if it had one joke”) but it has gone on to become a minor cult favourite, with these earlier takes dismissed as not being able to “get it.”
*. But no because the world that it elegizes, the drug culture of the ’60s, isn’t even a memory now, and not just because if you still remember it then you weren’t there. In the ’60s drugs were fun and liberating. Today they’re a tragedy. A movie made about the meth or opioid epidemic wouldn’t be quite so madcap.
*. Terry Gilliam took over directing duties from Alex Cox, which resulted in some extra levity. I could definitely see this as an Alex Cox movie but it would have been darker (and if Oliver Stone had made it, it would have been angrier, but he’d been here already in Salvador). I think Gilliam made a good fit though for the material. Or at least as good a fit as I can imagine. As with Naked Lunch it’s hard to imagine just what a faithful adaptation of the source would look like. I think this is probably as good as any. To the point where I’d rather re-watch these movies than re-read the books they were based on.

*. It’s a road picture, with Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego) and Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo, a Samoan attorney who’s based on a real person (the activist Oscar Zeta Acosta) but who seems to be more of an imaginary friend in the film.
*. As a road trip it’s engaging and breezy. Depp gets to ham it up non-stop and he doesn’t hold anything back, though he starts to feel reduced to the level of his props: the hat, the sunglasses, the cigarette holder. The narration has a lot of rambling highlights. It’s visually inventive. But granting all of this I still find it kind of disappointing. David Thomson on Gilliam’s penchant for indulging art direction at the expense of any other values: “There are times when ‘visual imagination’ is a diversion from failures of content or sensibility.”
*. I don’t mind that it’s tacky and full of cameos. Vegas is tacky and full of cameos too. But how many of these cameos work? I was left shaking my head at Tobey Maguire and Gary Busey. Cameron Diaz and Christina Ricci are just faces. Ellen Barkin’s waitress I couldn’t figure out.
*. But more than this, it feels in need of greater weight. I mentioned how Alex Cox would have made it darker and Oliver Stone angrier. Those were different visions of the ’60s. So were Ralph Steadman’s drawings, which had plenty of darkness and anger too. Where Gilliam falls down, I think, is in making this version of the ’60s just seem silly. The paranoia, so big a theme in the thrillers of a previous generation, is now entirely self-induced, with our protagonists afraid of themselves and filled with self-loathing. Instead of taking aim at The Man, the system, or the government, Duke and Dr. Gonzo are entirely complicit in everything bad that’s happening, authors of their own destruction, and that for no larger purpose.
*. I wouldn’t deny it cult status though, because it’s certainly offbeat and not quite like anything else out there. But I’m not a fan of the book and it’s not a movie I come back to, mainly because I just don’t think there’s anything much here aside from the bats in the desert and the lizards in the bar.