Category Archives: 1990s

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.

Naked Lunch (1991)

*. In my notes on Burroughs: The Movie I mentioned how I really don’t care for the writing of William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch is by most accounts his best known work and I’ve made two determined efforts to get through it, both of which failed. In fact, they failed very quickly, which is really out of character for me. I can stick with a bad book for quite a while. I never came close to finishing Naked Lunch.
*. Is that a barrier to my enjoying Naked Lunch, the movie? Not at all. In the first place, it’s not really an adaptation of the book at all, but in David Cronenberg’s words an “amalgam of many writings of Burroughs” fused with biographical material. This was an approach Burroughs himself approved of, claiming that “all of his work was one work” anyway.
*. But even more than just a Burroughs mix-tape, it’s an amalgam of Burroughs and Cronenberg. The bug-typewriter that talks through it’s (human) anus? I think that’s all Cronenberg. Or take this bit from the DVD commentary track he did: “Joan was a junky, whether she shot up in her breasts or not I don’t know. But . . . the strange drug, the sexual, perverse, sadistic, masochism of it appealed to me so that’s why I wrote the scene this way.”

*. Not saying that Burroughs was uninterested in strange drugs and perversity, but this was definitely a meeting of kindred spirits, at least in terms of some of their obsessions. So when Cronenberg goes off on his own, like inventing the character of Cloquet (Julian Sands) he could do so with the assurance that while Cloquet was “not a character I think that appears directly in Burroughs [he was] very much a Burroughsian type character.”
*. In short, I think this film version is a triumph in taking unfilmable material and making it over into something both entirely new and at the same time true to the spirit of the original. And if I came away from it thinking it was maybe a bit more Cronenberg than it was Burroughs, then that’s all to the good.
*. If anything, I think Cronenberg was too deferential in some ways. He met Burroughs before filming and clearly admired him, even saying he found him sweet and vulnerable. On the commentary track he glides over the question of what sort of culpability Burroughs had in killing his wife. Maybe it was an accident. Who knows.
*. I did, however draw a line at what he says during the scene where Bill Lee (Peter Weller) gifts Cloquet the boy Kiki. “I suppose now this scene would be seen something along the lines of two sexual predators and their prey, but of course times have changed and in Tangier in the ’50s the relationship of the locals and the boys and the gay men who tried to seduce them, I think it was a very complex, intricate relationship and set of dynamics amongst them.” Oh, David. It’s really not complicated at all. They were sexual predators in the 1950s too.

*. Another pleasant trip back to that wonderful time before CGI (for some of Cronenberg’s thoughts on CGI, see my notes on The Fly). I think the puppets here — the typewriter-bug and the Mugwumps — still look terrific thirty years later. The only scene I don’t like is Cloquet and Kiki in the bird cage. On the commentary track Cronenberg admits it’s “the weakest scene in the movie in terms of effects” but that they ran out of time and money and couldn’t do it right. Which really is too bad because visually this is a movie that hardly ever puts a foot wrong.
*. I was surprised to find out that they were actually intending to go to Tangiers to shoot the Interzone stuff (the trip got called off because of the First Gulf War). I think having it look like a studio makes more sense, and visually it’s more of a piece with the rest of the film. But the disjunction of making Interzone more documentary in style might have been fascinating too.
*. Outstanding casting. Peter Weller nails Burroughs, the man as the mask. Judy Davis manages to avoid being just a victim, despite getting killed twice. Ian Holm is surprisingly sinister as Paul Bowles (or Tom Frost, as he’s called here). I thought Roy Scheider may have been enjoying himself a bit too much as Dr. Benway, but it’s a movie that was aiming for black comedy and he plays well off Weller’s dryness.
*. I’m a bit surprised Cronenberg got away with the Mugwump jism-milking scene. That’s pretty explicit fellatio. But I guess the Mugwumps were weird enough to let it get through.
*. Nice credits, made to mimic the style of Saul Bass. Which means they aren’t all that original, but they do fit the period. Naked Lunch was published in 1959 which was also the year of North by Northwest.
*. The DVD box says it’s “from the director of Crash and eXistenZ.” Both of which were still to come. I would have played up Cronenberg’s previous two films, The Fly and Dead Ringers, both of which were commercially successful at the time and have better name recognition today. Along with Naked Lunch I think it’s these three movies that mark a middle peak in Cronenberg’s career. I still might enjoy the early horror flicks like The Brood and Scanners more, but after this film I found him getting a lot less interesting. Still, he has more good movies to his credit than any other Canadian director I can think of. And I give him high marks for making something this good out of Burroughs’s mess.

Looking for Richard (1996)

*. Looking for Richard presents itself as an exercise in taking Shakespeare, specifically Richard III, to “the people in the street.” Many people met there see the language as too difficult and the plays as unrelated to everyday life. Hence the popularity of Shakespeare being translated into “everyday English” and discussions about his continuing “relevance.”
*. I think Looking for Richard addresses these issues in a responsible way, though it ironically does so in the form of a movie that I don’t think anyone outside of Shakespeare’s usual audience will find all that interesting. Put another way, I found it fascinating, but I’m not sure the man or woman on the street would feel the same way about it.
*. Basically what we have here is a documentary look behind-the-scenes at a fictional production of Richard III. It was Al Pacino’s first turn at directing and he shot it over a four-year period, ending up with over 80 hours of footage. A remarkable job of editing then, if nothing else, as it flows seamlessly, as though shot in a couple of months.
*. The politics behind the play Richard III are notoriously complicated, so some of the background material consists of interviews with historians and the like explaining what’s going on in the scenes we see being performed. Just what was “the winter of our discontent”? Now you know. It’s sort of like Coles Notes on video.
*. What I found more interesting though is the discussion behind how the play was going to be presented. For example there’s the letter Edward gets warning him that G of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be. Should the G be changed to C so as not to confuse people who don’t know that the Duke of Clarence’s name is George? Or would that be taking too big a liberty?
*. If there’s a disappointment in this approach it’s in the fact that this sort of discussion only revolves around issues relating to a stage production of the play. There is little to no talk of how to make Richard III into a more engaging or popular sort of movie. I missed that. For example, I really liked the angle of the shot of the soldiers coming downhill to finish Richard off after sticking him with arrows. But to what extent was that a conscious decision, for whatever reason, and how much of it was dictated by the location?
*. Pacino’s brand of Method acting can run very hot or cold, but in his favour I think he managed to pull Shakespeare off very well, both her and playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (2004). He does give a good sense of Richard enjoying himself, or Pacino enjoying himself being Richard. This led me to wonder whether this was really Pacino behind the scenes, or if he was still hamming it up for the camera, or if there is a difference. I have a hard time imagining Pacino not being “on.”
*. The cast runs hot and cold too. Winona Ryder, who specialized in being miscast in her career, is hopeless here as Anne. And I say that as a Ryder fan (she should have won an Oscar for her turn in The Age of Innocence). Alec Baldwin is also hopeless as Clarence. Some people should probably avoid Shakespeare.
*. Meanwhile, I know that he’s a fallen star now but I would have liked to have seen more of Kevin Spacey as Buckingham. A good choice for the part, especially as he would go on to play Richard on stage in a Sam Mendes production that ran from 2011 to 2012, and reprised the role in House of Cards. You’d think he’d have some real insights into the part.
*. Another interesting angle I wish they’d developed a bit further has to do with the different attitudes toward Shakespeare taken by British and American actors and producers, informed by snippets of interviews with the likes of Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, and Kenneth Branagh. At one point it’s suggested that Brits are less deferential to the Bard, and I think this may be right. Perhaps it’s a comfort thing. I’d note that Pacino originally wanted to just make a film of Richard III but then didn’t think he could compete with Olivier’s 1955 version. But Olivier took some pretty big liberties with the text, as he did with all of his Shakespeare adaptations (especially Hamlet). Ian McKellen would too.
*. All of which underlines the point I began with. I find Looking for Richard to be a real treat, but I doubt it does much to bring Shakespeare to the people. For all its jokiness and backward ball-cap style points, I think it plays better as a master class.

Richard III (1995)


*. An hour and a forty-four minutes. That’s impressive. Richard III is a long play (second longest in the Shakespearean canon, after Hamlet) and they had to cut half of it out. They even got rid of the ghosts!
*. The cuts, however, are no great loss. Richard III isn’t a fun play to read as it’s thick with a lot of impossible-to-follow historical (or pseudohistorical) detail, dull rhetoric, and unnecessary characters. It has, however, always been popular on stage and screen because of the magnetic character of Richard, the villain-hero who enjoys being bad. So keep the grinning soliloquies and the general House of Cards atmosphere (the original 1990 BBC television series, itself a re-imagining of Richard III), but lose the stichomythia.


*. In theory, casting the American actors Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr. as representatives of the Woodville clan (Queen Elizabeth and Earl Rivers) makes perfect sense. Being American cousins even helps explain the accents. But Bening just barely holds her own in what should be a stronger part and Downey . . . should not do Shakespeare.
*. Not that the casting makes much of a difference. Richard III has always been a one-man show, and it is again here with Ian McKellen giving a standout performance. How can his interpretation be characterized? He doesn’t have a scrap of sexuality, unlike Olivier’s Byronic version, but he can still seduce. Instead of sexual magnetism he charms with lively pathos. He does have an authentic martial air and can create the (false) impression of someone who would like to be better than he is. This works because like most such figures you can understand why he despises the people he fools so much: their sympathy has made them into his enablers.
*. Not that he’s entirely asexual. When he’s having his arm massaged the shot is introduced in such a way that it looks like he’s receiving sexual favours. And while looking at pictures of the dead Hastings’ corpse he might almost be masturbating.


*. A telegraph, and then a tank crashing through a wall of books. Surely a Collected Works of Shakespeare was in there somewhere. This lets us know we aren’t in the 1400s any more.
*. I think on the whole the 1930s setting works very well at least in terms of the look of the film. The Cyclopean locations (a couple of deserted power stations, including the iconic Battersea) and Masterpiece Theatre costumes actually complement each other. The Nazi angle though is a bit trite. I guess it helps to reach a mass audience with all the old familiar imagery, but the historical parallels aren’t there. Though Olivier apparently wanted his Richard to remind us of Hitler.
*. There are other bits thrown in for the mass audience that I didn’t care for. Did we need to see Richard made over into a wild boar? That’s exactly the kind of thing that I don’t want to see; actors should be left to do their own thing without the aid of such crazy prosthetics.
*. The other scrap thrown in for popular tastes is the murder of Rivers. Now obviously Shakespeare had no problem with special gory effects. See Titus Andronicus. But the old stabbed-from-under-the-bed trick, a staple of slasher cinema going back to Friday the 13th and laughably unrealistic, just seems out of place here.


*. I like Richard’s laughter as he falls into the flames of hell. He had fun playing the game, and if he didn’t win at the end, well, at least he got to go out with a bang. But what of Richmond’s smile? In the play he’s less a character than an embodiment of divine providence, putting an end to the Wars of the Roses and inaugurating the Tudor dynasty. We’re spared his final address (“Now civil wounds are stopp’d; peace lives again.”) but given something in a quite different spirit. Richard recognizes in him a kindred spirit and passes him the baton, suggesting that Henry VII is going to be no better. Or perhaps McKellen makes his exit with thoughts of the all the money he was soon going to make playing Magneto. Meanwhile, Dominic West (in his first feature film) may have been thinking of The Wire. They both had something to smile about.


Everest (1998)

*. Everest is an IMAX movie, which I think tells you nearly everything you need to know. But I’ll go into a little more detail here.
*. IMAX is a super-large film format used to shoot movies that were originally designed to be shown in special cinemas on huge screens. Hence the popularity of nature documentaries dealing with subjects that exploited this format.
*. An expedition to the top of Mount Everest was an obvious choice of subject matter, but one that presented enormous logistical difficulties given the weight of the camera (a special miniature version was constructed that “only” weighed 40 pounds) and the film (10 pounds of film were needed just to shoot 90 seconds of footage). In the thin air of high elevations lugging around this kind of weight was a major problem, not to mention operating the equipment in extreme cold.
*. That the film team managed to summit, while filming, was a tremendous achievement. And adding to the drama is that the 1996 Everest climbing season was the most dramatic ever. Just days before the IMAX team made their ascent several other groups met with disaster, as recounted most memorably in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air.
*. All of this should have made Everest a documentary classic. But it isn’t, and partly for the most obvious reasons. Given the extreme conditions it would be too much to ask for the hours of great footage that go into most documentaries. Instead we only get a few great shots and some filler, in a movie that is only 44 minutes long to begin with. Add in the fact that you’re likely not watching this on an IMAX screen and I think the results are going to strike most people as disappointing.
*. Also, despite the DVD box telling us that this is “The True Story of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster that Killed Eight Climbers” that’s not the story the team was sent to capture, and they didn’t. It’s a part of the story, but only a chapter.
*. Ten years later the Discovery Channel would turn Everest expeditions into reality TV with the series Everest: Beyond the Limit. Comparing the two doesn’t show this film to advantage, at least on a small screen. In Beyond the Limit they had a lot more time to tell a much fuller story, and a lot more footage that was more easily captured with devices like high-def helmet-mounted cameras. It pains me to say it, but I got a lot more out of watching the series.
*. So it’s not as spectacular as you might be expecting — especially for audiences used to the current state of the art for filming nature documentaries — and doesn’t engage that much with the drama of the historical event that it was a part of. The fate of Rob Hall is addressed, for example, but Scott Fischer doesn’t come up. But the elisions are even a bit worse than that.
*. I’ve read Krakauer’s book, and the companion volume to this movie by Broughton Coburn, Everest: Mountain without Mercy. The story as told here is streamlined quite a bit, presumably to make it more audience-friendly. I understand this, but for a documentary, however given over to scenery, I found it misleading.
*. The biggest thing to note is that the leader (or co-leader) of the expedition, David Breashears, who also co-directed the film, isn’t included. I mean, his name isn’t even mentioned (though it appears in the credits). Nor is that of cameraman Robert Schauer. Also, the four camps set up on the ascent are reduced here to three. I’m not sure why, as it doesn’t make the story that much simpler or easier to understand.
*. This streamlining seemed excessive to me, taking things to the point where it didn’t seem like an accurate a portrayal of the events. It seems as though the three stars — Ed Viesturs, Araceli Segarra, and Jamling Tenzing Norgay (son of the famous Tenzing Norgay) — were almost on their own the whole time. The Japanese climber Sumiyo Tsuzuki was part of the team but broke some ribs in the early stages and couldn’t make the final ascent. She was on radio duty then, as the movie says, “despite her cracked ribs.” As I understand it, she was left behind because of her cracked ribs. She couldn’t physically make the summit.
*. A final point that keeps coming up with any book on Everest is the contribution of the Sherpas. There’s usually some lip service given to how they’re essential to the expedition, or even the real heroes, but that’s it. This is a point that’s always bugged me. I mean, the Sherpas are climbing with the others, and even having to lug the majority of the gear and pre-secure the ropes for the summit push. Would playing that up diminish from the achievement of the Americans and Europeans? Because it does seem kind of racialized, to use a trendy word.
*. None of this is meant to take away from what I think was an incredible physical achievement, both in climbing Everest and filming it the way they did along the way. But there’s no denying that given that effort and the surrounding story this movie registers as a major let-down. The fact is, the “making of” featurette included with the DVD is a lot more interesting than the film itself, and almost as long. It’s more accurate and more detailed too. Which is a plus if you have the DVD, but it’s not the way things are supposed to work.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)



*. Did Patrick Doyle nail the score for this one or what? Now that’s what I call an overture! It’s one of my all-time favourites. And indeed the entire opening credit sequence is terrific, triumphantly drawing us in to its world while introducing us to the playful gals and Don Pedro’s colour-coded courtiers. We see the different sides getting dressed up in their respective uniforms and then the doors open like curtains parting, with the music sounding a fanfare. It’s all wonderfully theatrical and natural at the same time.
*. That’s Doyle, by the way, playing the musician Balthasar and singing the “Sigh no more” song. Nice of Branagh to get him in there.
*. Now on to other matters of casting.
*. I don’t mind American actors doing Shakespeare. What usually doesn’t work is mixing British with American actors in the same production. The accents can become discordant. It would be easy to use this film as a case in point, but would that be fair? Yes, Keanu Reeves is out of place. But then Don John is out of place, isn’t he? He’s a melancholy bastard, which means he’s always out of sorts. And Michael Keaton overplays Dogberry something awful, but then Dogberry overplays himself, what with his always using big words that he doesn’t know the meaning of. He’s a caricature.
*. And finally there’s Denzel Washington, who is perfect as Don Pedro: formal and reserved and oozing authority. He dominates every scene he’s in, and not in a flashy or annoying way. This is as it should be, since Don Pedro is very much the man in charge. But he is also cut off from the others, notably in the beautifully played scene when he asks Beatrice if she would have him as a husband (a response to her own signaling, it should be said), and in the final shot of him standing apart from the nuptial revels. If only Branagh was more comfortable with such subtlety.


*. OK, I’ve been playing devil’s advocate here. I do love Washington but in fact I think Reeves is much too heavy as the heavy here, with a scowl that never lifts and black leather pants that set him and his fellow malcontents (Borachio, Conrade) off from the good guys. He also seems to have real difficulty with the language, like he’s fighting to get the words out of his mouth. Keaton, meanwhile, is more Caliban than Dogberry, all dirty teeth and greasy hair. I do think it’s a part that’s hard to play subtly, though I think Nathan Fillion does just this, and effectively, in Joss Whedon’s film version. Keaton just seems to be too much of a distraction here, less tedious (as he should be) than grotesque.
*. Claudio and Hero are the Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton of the drama. Nobody gives a damn about them. We all just want to get back to Scarlett and Rhett (Beatrice and Benedict). But the drab couple are well cast. Robert Sean Leonard looks suitably drippy and dim as Claudio and Kate Beckinsale, in her film debut, is hard to recognize as someone who would turn into an ass-kicking fury in the Underworld franchise and the remake of Total Recall.
*. The weakness of the main plot, especially in comparison with the Beatrice and Benedict story, has always been a problem with the play. The paired gulling scenes are the highlight — as they are here — and they occur at the halfway mark. This is hard for any production to bear, but Branagh manages it as best he can.
*. I think Branagh is a great populizer of Shakespeare. He has a knack for making the bard work on screen, seeming to translate the lines into a modern idiom just by having them delivered in a hyper-realistic way. Sometimes, however, he tries too hard. I love his Henry V and this movie, though even here you can see signs of his trying to be too broad. His Hamlet (1996) was an epic production, but one that finally collapsed under its own weight. I didn’t like his As You Like It at all.
*. The script is a smooth adaptation. Most of the cuckolding stuff is dropped, which I think makes sense for a modern audience. I wonder, however, why Leonato’s quick rejoinder to Benedict’s asking if he had any doubts about being Hero’s father was cut: “Signor Benedick, no, for then were you a child.” That’s a zinger! Did Branagh not want us to think of Benedict as that much of a playboy? There is a sort of innocence about him. In Whedon’s version I think it was a mistake to show him at the beginning in bed with Beatrice. Yes, there’s some textual support for it (“I know you of old”), but I think it’s putting the cart before the horse.
*. I’ve said I love this film and I do, but even the play itself is a mixed bag and the movie is full of hits and misses. I think the good outweighs the bad though. Branagh and Thompson (married in real life at the time, though not for much longer) are as good a Benedict and Beatrice as you’re likely to ever see. The setting nicely captures a rustic court life not so much of luxury as of recreation and ease. Everyone is having a good time. Don John will be dealt with another day. Until then, we dance.