Category Archives: 2000s

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2005)

*. In the short interview pieces included with the DVD for this film (the last of the four ShakespeaRe-Told adaptations put out by the BBC in 2005), the writer remarks that A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t a play that made him laugh. This is a response I often hear from people I know who go to see Shakespeare comedies: that they’re not funny. Because if A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or The Taming of the Shrew, don’t make you laugh (and I don’t think they make many modern audiences laugh) then that’s a problem isn’t it?
*. Few things date like comedy. Old scary movies are often just as scary or scarier than today’s horror flicks. And drama can be just as intense today as it was in the 1940s. But it’s a rare comedy that still works. So a comedy written more than 400 years ago is going to need some work if it’s going to make us laugh.

*. This version of the Dream didn’t make me laugh. I did think it was a clever adaptation though, at least for the most part. The enchanted forest is a tourist getaway called Dream Park that’s hosting the wedding of Hermia. Everything gets mixed up because Hermia’s true love crashes the party and then the faeries start splashing some Love Potion No. 9 in the eyes of the young people.
*. In doing updates of Shakespeare the supernatural elements are the hardest to translate. Being modern usually means being more realistic and believable, so the faeries seem a bit out of place even in Dream Park. On the other hand, they’re also very human faeries. Almost too human. Oberon (Lennie James) is downright nasty to Titania in a way that he really isn’t in the play. This Oberon thinks she’s a slut that needs to be humiliated, and their dysfunctional relationship is mirrored in that of Theo’s marriage. The two husbands even get together for some mantalk that just doesn’t feel right. James and Bill Paterson (who plays Theo) are both likeable actors, but they really play against that here.

*. Better off are the Mechanicals, who are tasked with providing some entertainment for the wedding. Bottom (Johnny Vegas) is an aspiring stand-up comic who’s looking to be the next Ricky Gervais. What’s nicest about his transformation into an ass (which mainly just means having big ears) is that he doesn’t want to taste any of the physical delights the faeries have to offer. No, all he wants is someone to finally laugh at this jokes.
*. Puck (Dean Lennox Kelly) is a figure I’ve seen described as a “wide boy,” which is a British term I had to look up. I found him annoying. Not as annoying as Mickey Rooney, but still pretty bad. The upshot is that this is a smart version of the play but with a gritty undertone that often felt out of place. In the end there are only some good bits, and a lot that should have been reconsidered.

Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)

*. I went over the story behind the production of this film already, in my notes on Dominion, but just to recap: originally the film was to be directed by John Frankenheimer but he died so Paul Schrader stepped in. The studio, Morgan Creek, didn’t like what Schrader did so they hired Renny Harlin to do some re-shoots. Harlin’s re-shoots, however, turned into a complete do-over. Then Exorcist: The Beginning was panned so Schrader was asked to finish up his film, which was released as Dominion.
*. So what we have here is what I think is a nearly unique instance of the same project being filmed twice, back-to-back, and released as two different movies. The outlines of the script are the same, as are the sets and most of the cast. And yet they’re clearly very different movies.
*. Most critics prefer Schrader’s film. William Peter Blatty (author of The Exorcist) had a particularly extreme responds, judging Dominion a good film while considering The Beginning to be his “most humiliating professional experience.” On balance, however, I think The Beginning is clearly better entertainment. Schrader wanted to go off in his own direction, which didn’t include trying to be scary, while Harlin (given a task few would envy) knew what was expected and delivered. I don’t think The Beginning is a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but as popcorn horror flicks go it’s not a washout.
*. Some of the script should have been dropped. I was puzzled by a line in Dominion about the church being built at some point after the Byzantine Empire “adopted Christianity.” This made no sense, as the Byzantine Empire was always Christian. This bit of dialogue is expanded on here in an early scene where the antiquities collector hiring Father Merrin (a scruffier looking Stellan Skarsgård) says the recently discovered church was built “circa. 5 A.D.” To which Merrin responds that this is impossible since “the Byzantine Empire had adopted Christianity at that time [!] but they never got that far south.”
*. This is obviously wrong, as the Byzantine Empire didn’t exist in the year 5 A.D. In fact, it wasn’t even known as the Byzantine Empire until after it fell (it was the Roman Empire up till the end). Obviously someone knew this was wrong, as it’s later said that the church is 1500 years old and that it was built during the reign of the emperor Justinian (r. 527-565). These dates at least make some sense, though Merrin’s point that the empire never got so far south still stands. So obviously they were aware of the mistake in the 5 A.D. line and probably the bit about the Byzantine Empire adopting Christianity, but they still left that part in.

*. Sticking with the matter of a clumsy script, do you think when they said that Bession was in a sanitarium that they meant a sanitarium/sanatorium, or (what I think was meant) an asylum? I seem to remember this being a mistake that pops up when Tony Montana comes to America in Scarface. I don’t think Monsieur Bessoin is suffering from tuberculosis.
*. As I’ve said, Harlin took on this job with a basic understanding of what the job demanded and I think he did his best to make something out of a dog of a script and a cast that didn’t seem very enthused about the project the first time around. I can’t imagine how bored they were with having to go through it all over again. But there are some jump scares and you get to see the lady doctor go nearly-full Linda Blair at the end before Merrin finds his faith and rids her of the demon. There are some scenes that are even a bit spooky.
*. The effects are just as bad as in Dominion. As I’ve noted before (The Possession, The Haunting of Sharon Tate), CGI does not do swarms of insects well and I wish they’d just give up trying. The hyenas are back and they’re silly, but quick editing and only showing them at night helps. Some of the gore looks pretty good. I wanted someone to ask how all those birds were found to be living in the church after it was uncovered but I guess given the other goofs this has to be taken in stride.
*. Elizabeth II was Queen of England for a long time. When the British officer says that the natives will “have to answer to the might of his majesty King George” I did a double take before twigging to the fact that he was referring to George VI, he of the speech made by Colin Firth. The film is set in 1949.
*. This is a dumb bit of trash that would probably have passed without notice if not for its name. As it is, even with being part of the Exorcist franchise I think it is now almost completely forgotten. I didn’t even know of its existence until I came across it by accident. Still, I think it’s better than Dominion for being aware of the fact that it’s only meant to be trash, and Harlin tricks it out so that it looks pretty slick given all of the limitations he faced. I don’t think it’s worth anyone bothering with today though.

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

*. I kicked off my notes on First Reformed by saying that I hadn’t heard Paul Schrader’s name in a while. In fact, I hadn’t seen anything he’d done since Affliction (1997). Well, one of the things he’d done was this movie. Turns out I hadn’t missed much.
*. Dominion was, appropriately enough, a cursed production. John Frankenheimer was originally slated to direct, but he got sick and died so Paul Schrader replaced him. I’m not sure this was a wise choice, as Schrader didn’t seem much interested in directing a horror movie and was more attracted to the idea of following Father Merrin’s spiritual journey when an archeological dig in post-War Africa being watched over by some knobby-kneed British soldiers turns up a demon’s crypt.
*. The studio didn’t like what Schrader came up with, and so hired Renny Harlin to come in and do some re-shoots. What happened is that Harlin ended up making an entirely new picture, which was released as Exorcist: The Beginning. This was panned, and bombed with audiences, so they had to go back and get Schrader to finish his picture. They didn’t give him enough money, however, to do it right, which is apparently why, for example, there’s such a patchwork score and the CGI is so bad.

*. Apparently William Peter Blatty (author of The Exorcist) hated Harlin’s film but found this to be “a handsome, classy, elegant piece of work.” He was one of the few to think so, but I’ll grant it does look better when set alongside The Beginning (and it’s a fascinating exercise to watch the two back-to-back). Now for the record I actually enjoyed The Beginning a lot more than I did Dominion, but such a comparison is likely all you can say in that movie’s favour.
*. Given Schrader’s difficulties I was a bit surprised, and definitely intrigued, by the fact that the DVD has a commentary. I figured he’d have a lot to vent about. Alas, that is not how these things work. The commentary was recorded in early 2005 when he was still in the process of completing the final mix on the film so maybe he hadn’t experienced a full measure of frustration yet. More surprising is the fact that he never mentions how the movie was taken away from him, or makes any reference to Harlin’s effort whatsoever (which by this point had been released). That would have been fun to listen to!
*. The only disappointment Schrader lets on is with the hyenas. These are digital and they look terrible. They might have thought it was a bad idea in the first place, given that hyenas aren’t that trainable (unlike all the bad dogs in the Omen movies), and besides they’re cowardly animals individually. But instead we get CGI hyenas. And cows eating dead hyenas. A scene that Schrader thought was going to be really creepy but that he admits doesn’t work at all. It looks silly.

*. It’s a very bad movie even without the uniformly poor effects. I get that Schrader wanted to focus more on Merrin’s struggle with his faith, and that the demon (which I guess is the same Pazuzu who winds up in Georgetown) is just there to effect his return to the cloth. But this doesn’t work. Merrin here, played with granite restraint by Stellan Skarsgård, has a far less compelling struggle with his faith than Father Karras in the original movie, and that still managed to be an effective horror flick. Schrader wanted Merrin to be like John Wayne, even sending him off through a doorway in homage to the shot at the end of The Searchers, with a rosary as his six-gun, but how often did you ever think John Wayne was threatened with spiritual backsliding?
*. Part of the problem is the same as in The Exorcist, and indeed it’s a problem I have with a lot of movies like this. That is: given the existence of such a powerful, supernatural force (be it a demon or alien or whatever) why is it even bothering to do what it’s doing here? Hasn’t Pazuzu something better to do than test Merrin’s faith, especially given that he’s already lapsed? And let’s face it, in the final showdown Pazuzu doesn’t put up much of a fight. Basically Merrin just has to read a bit from what I take is the exorcism ritual and that’s it for Mr. Perfection, even if he can make the Northern Lights come out in Kenya. They’ve seen queer sights, but never as queer as this!
*. So a dead movie and a dead commentary make for a dull day indeed. At one point Schrader remarks that he’s less interested in action than interpersonal drama. “Just give me two angry actors in a kitchen and I’m happy,” he says. I would have taken that over this as well. I also was interested to hear that Mel Gibson was shooting The Passion of the Christ at Cinecittà at the same time as this movie (the exteriors here were shot in Morocco, but the studio stuff in Rome). Two productions that were going in very different directions.

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

*. Shylock is one of those few Shakespearean characters who have taken over the plays they appear in, Falstaff being the other most obvious example. It’s easy to forget that The Merchant of Venice is not about Shylock, that he is not the merchant of the play’s title, that he in fact only appears in a handful of scenes and doesn’t have that many lines (13% of the total, which is the same as Bassanio and less than Portia), and that he disappears from the play entirely at the end of the fourth act, not even being mentioned again indirectly.
*. Shylock takes over the play, or has taken over the play (the way he’s been played has evolved over the centuries) for a couple of reasons. In the first place because he’s a well-written, compelling character. But also because he’s surrounded by a bunch of wallpaper. Antonio (the merchant) is a drippy Christ figure (with that aspect really played up in this production by Jeremy Irons). I’ve never understood what anyone sees in Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes here), who strikes me as little more than a possibly bisexual gigolo (or “ambassador of love”). Portia (Lynn Collins) is a bit more lively, but the feisty crossdresser was a Shakespearean stock player. Shakespeare himself doesn’t seem much interested in the clown Launcelot, and in this production he’s almost invisible.

*. And so naturally Shylock becomes the focus of our attention. Today it’s usually played as a message play about the evils of anti-Semitism, and that’s again the direction taken here. The film even opens with a bunch of pre-title text giving the status of Jews in Venice in this period, and a scene (not in Shakespeare’s play) showing Jews being harassed and abused (including Antonio spitting on Shylock).
*. The effect of this is to get us to sympathize with Shylock. Other choices made advance this further. For example, we never hear Shylock equating the loss of his daughter with that of his ducats except in such a way as to strongly imply that he in fact never does so. This is a fair interpretation of the text though, as the scene is only described to us indirectly in the play, and from a biased source. A heavier finger is put on the scale however when Shylock’s reasons for hating Antonio are elided. In the play he confesses in a soliloquy, cut here, that “I hate him for he is a Christian” and for his naive generosity. None of this is made out in the film, and instead we’re led to see his actions as driven by his need to revenge himself on Antonio for the abduction of his daughter. Which is a bit of a stretch, given Antonio’s vague complicity in that plot and the fact that Shylock’s revenge was already being planned before Jessica elopes.

*. One can certainly understand a modern production not wanting to present Shylock as a caricature, and in truth that is not Shakespeare’s Shylock. On the other hand, he is a villain. He has his reasons, but he’s still a miserable piece of work. Drawing too sympathetic a Shylock loses this. Pacino wanted to play him as someone suffering from depression, but I find this still falls short of his vindictiveness.
*. Well, doing Shakespeare means making choices and I can’t argue much with the ones made here. There were some eyebrows raised at Bassanio kissing Antonio, but I think the film does a good job of suggesting the nature of their relationship without being any more explicit. There are a number of subtle interpretive touches like this. Another example is the way Shylock seems aware of Jessica’s duplicity before she runs away. There’s nothing explicit there either, but you sense something you can’t put your finger on.

*. The Prince of Morocco’s accent is irritating and takes something away from his scene. Apparently the producers wanted Eddie Murphy for the part, and David Harewood ends up playing Murphy playing a caricature African prince. In its defence, however, it is one of the few comic scenes in what is, at least formally, a comedy (meaning the pairs of young lovers overcome various difficulties and the play ends up with everyone getting married). I don’t think The Merchant of Venice is a very funny play though, so you have to pick your spots to go for laughs.
*. On the plus side, I don’t think I’ve seen the cross-dressed female leads done more convincingly as male. The facial hair helps.
*. Since this is Shylock’s play/film that means it’s also Al Pacino’s. I think he’s very good, playing the part in the same low-key register as the rest of the cast. Even in his big scenes he doesn’t tear up the scenery. He’s not Tony Montana, who takes pleasure in cutting people up, but more Michael Corleone, for whom everything is just business. As I’ve already indicated, my own impression of Shylock is that he’s a darker figure than this, but I found this Shylock perfectly defensible.

*. As with this tone, the photography is also kept consistent. There was a conscious reliance on painterly compositions throughout, with the final image being a gilded Carpaccio. This has the effect of slowing things down, but not in a bad way. We often seen the actors blocked out as though frozen on a canvas. On the DVD commentary director Michael Radford even mentions a static quality. Again, maybe not the way I’ve come to think of the play, but something I can appreciate.
*. Radford also mentions that this was the first time a film crew had been allowed to shoot in the Doge’s Palace since Orson Welles made Othello fifty years earlier. An interesting connection.
*. In my notes on L’Inferno, the 1911 Italian production of Dante’s poem, I registered my surprise that after over a hundred years it remains the only feature-length production of such famous material. I was even more surprised when doing a bit of reading about this movie to find that it was the first big-screen adaptation of the play. That seems impossible to me, and I’m still not sure it can be right. It is, however, the only movie version I’ve seen and while I found myself resisting it at several points it finally won me over. It doesn’t jump out at you, but it’s quietly accomplished and a faithful rendering.

The Taming of the Shrew (2005)

*. Modern adaptations of Shakespeare can be strict or loose, and the looser they get the more I’m likely to question them. But Sally Wainwright’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew (part of the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-Told tetralogy) impressed me. It takes the old, very politically incorrect tale and manages to update it without ever feeling like it was forcing the material in some direction it didn’t want to go.
*. The story is told more from the female point of view, with Katherine Minola (Shirley Henderson) playing a termagant of a rising British politician who could become party leader if she’d only settle down and get married. Given how violent a temper she has, this seems unlikely. Meanwhile, her sister is a glamorous supermodel that men are tripping over, but she’s only interested in a brainless Italian toy-boy. Rounding the family out, their mom is played by Twiggy, who has a casual attitude toward men as well.
*. Enter Petruchio (Rufus Sewell), who has come to wive it wealthily in London. He has a title (which still means something in England) but has fallen on hard times and has no expectations, which is why he wants to dig some gold. And that makes some sense out of something I could never figure out about the play, which has it that Petruchio is already a wealthy man. In any event, here he makes a hard play for Kate, and after some rough wooing they’re a happy couple. She’s on her way to becoming PM and he’s going to raise the kids.
*. The attraction between Kate and Petruchio is complicated. We do get the sense that he likes her, while I guess she sees him as a nasty bit of Rufus. The script has to tread carefully here, as it would be too easy to make Kate into someone who’s repressed and just in need of a good shagging to set her straight. As it is, she isn’t tamed so much as invited to see how much better life would be if she just loosened up a bit. And all of that works.
*. To just expand a bit on setting Kate “straight”: there’s suspicion at one point that she might be lesbian, and this is expressed by one character as wondering if she “shops around the corner.” I’d never heard this term before and had to look it up. Apparently it’s British slang for homosexuality, but I don’t think it’s widely used or even known. At first I thought it meant that someone was shopping too close to home — that is, dating someone of their own gender. But one explanation I found said it refers to anal sex (that being “around the corner” from the main entry). So I guess it initially was used as a way of referring to gay sex and then was extended to cover lesbian relationships. But I’m not sure. A new one for me anyway.
*. As for the declaration of love at the end, that’s also well handled without being overly arch and ironic. It takes the form of a squabble over who’s going to sign prenups, with the point being that Kate and Petruchio trust each other enough to forego that necessity. Meanwhile, Kate’s mom and sister seem doomed to keep running on the mating treadmill.
*. In sum, it all struck me as a very weird Taming of the Shrew, more smart than funny but certainly interesting and better than I was expecting. As I say, it’s a fine line they have to walk with re-imagining the gender politics but they manage it surprisingly well. Sewell is a manly man, and having him spend half the film in drag keeps us off balance when he becomes a little too aggressive. Meanwhile, Kate is obviously someone who needs to be humanized more than feminized and that works too. I didn’t come away liking either character very much, but did feel that they deserved each other.

Pearl Harbor (2001)

*. Pearl Harbor has caught a lot of flack (to use an appropriate metaphor) for having what is considered one of the stupidest lines in movie history. As the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and chaos reigns, ace pilot Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) exclaims “I think World War Two just started!”
*. Of course, by December 7, 1941 World War Two had been in full swing for a couple of years, and most historians today would backdate it even further. And while I’d cut the character of Danny some slack by saying it’s clear in context that he means the Second World War has come to America, it’s still surprising he expresses himself this way as we’ve seen him watching newsreels of the war in Europe and Asia, and we also know that his best buddy Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) is fighting overseas flying for the RAF. But no matter. For Danny the war has just started, and that’s what counts.
*. In other words, I really don’t think it’s quite as stupid a line as it’s accused of being. That said, Pearl Harbor has plenty of genuine native American dopiness to spare. But why? Tora! Tora! Tora! came out in 1970 and is widely credited for its historical accuracy and (a Japanese-American co-production) balance. Then thirty years later Hollywood came out with this confection, which makes a hash of history and is filled with jingoistic applause lines. Had America gotten dumber as well as more nationalistic? Note that this movie came out just before 9/11, so all the rah-rah stuff wasn’t in response to that.
*. Some of the change was just Hollywood being Hollywood. And with Michael Bay at the helm you can take what you think that means and double it. There is a story built around a romantic triangle, with Danny and Rafe vying for the love of beautiful nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). In contrast, I think there was only a single speaking female part in Tora! Tora! Tora! (the flight instructor, who was a real historical figure). The other big change here is the happy ending, because after the attack on Pearl there’s an extended second half that deals with the Doolittle raid. Because let’s face it, you couldn’t end a movie on such a downer note as the U.S. Pacific Fleet sinking in shallow water. Even the producers of Tora! Tora! Tora! knew that was going to be a tough sell, and it was.

*. Finally, there’s lots of CGI action and things being blown up. This was state-of-the-art in 2001, and still looks OK in the usual artificial sort of way today (though the planes seem to me to be flying much too fast when we’re in the cockpit). But of course today you can also play games online that are equally impressive visually. Personally, I was more impressed at the propeller rolling across the tarmac after the plane explodes in Tora! Tora! Tora! than I was by any of the pyrotechnics here.
*. I don’t know, but video games might even come with better dialogue too. What we get here is sappy True Romance stuff alternating with Men in Combat cheer lines. When Danny and Rafe take to the skies in their P-40s the dogfight is punctuated with lines like “We’re ain’t gonna let these sons of bitches get home!” “How do you like someone shooting back at you?” “Come on! Come on!” “Oh, I’m on your ass now!” “Yeah! I got one!” “Whoa!” and “I got you, you son of a bitch!” Meanwhile, Cuba Gooding Jr. brings the fire down below playing a ship’s cook who’s not allowed to fire the big guns (boo!) but then gets his chance when the Japs attack (yay!).

*. Now I don’t doubt that people in the heat of battle say things like this, but they aren’t meant to be realistic here so much as to provide the action equivalent to a sitcom’s laugh track. You’re supposed to pump your fist along with all this action, and for all I know audiences did. Even the sailors cheer along in cutaway shots, and FDR gets up out of his wheelchair in the ultimate act of courage and defiance. Mein Führer, I can walk!
*. Twenty years later I don’t think this movie registers in people’s minds much at all, having joined most of the rest of Michael Bay’s forgettable output. The only thing that impresses is the handsomeness of Hartnett and Affleck, who, to give them their due, never looked better. But at just over three hours this is a trial to get through, stuffed as it is with corn and claptrap. It did good box office though, which brings me back to the only really interesting thought I had watching it: were audiences getting dumber? Or was it just our movies?

Macbeth (2005)

*. This adaptation of Macbeth is part of the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-Told line-up of four of the bard’s most popular plays. The tetralogy consists of Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Taming of the Shrew.
*. Now which of one of those plays is not like the others? Well, they all have their unique qualities but Macbeth is the only tragedy while the other three are all comedies. And early comedies at that.
*. There’s a bit of a challenge here then, because while Macbeth has been adapted many times in modern settings the spirit of these ShakespeaRe-Told productions is far lighter. Just take the set-up here. Joe Macbeth (James McAvoy) is a chef in an upscale eatery that I believe is supposed to be in Glasgow. The culinary setting recalls the Britcom Chef! from the 1990s, so we’re already primed for some laughs. Ella (Keeley Hawes) is Joe’s wife (she “has massive bollocks” and sings “Lord won’t you buy me a Mercdes Benz”), while Billy Banquo is a fellow chef. Duncan is the owner of the establishment, where his two sons also work.
*. One night Joe and Billy are met by three bin men taking away the garbage in the alley behind the restaurant. They make some enigmatic pronouncements on the future of both chefs and then drive off. Macbeth and his wife decide to kill Duncan and take over the restaurant, and soon find themselves wading into blood so deep there’s no going back. Finally, Macbeth is killed by Macduff when a seemingly impossible prophecy comes true.

*. I think you can tell from this that there was a lot of comic potential. The witches as bin men, for example, with the local landfill standing in for the heath. And the Britcom qualities of some of the kitchen dialogue. At one point someone mentions Gordon Ramsay and they are warned not to mention his name but only refer to him as “the Scottish chef.” Which is a play on the idea that you’re not supposed to say “Macbeth” in a theatre but instead refer to it as “the Scottish play.” So that was cute, and news to me since I didn’t know Gordon Ramsay was Scottish.
*. But then things take a darker turn. This isn’t a comedy. The drunken porter turns into an exterminator, which seemed like a joke that I wasn’t getting. There are are the killers, who have been imported from the 11th century, meaning Yugoslavia. I wasn’t sure what was up with that. Of course people get killed, albeit offstage, and there are bloody visions. Most bizarre of all, we find out that Lady Macbeth did have a child that she lost, which is another down note.
*. Along with the shift in tone there’s a loss of energy. The movie feels like it’s running out of gas in its second half. The ways they update the play don’t work as well. Having Banquo’s “ghost” appear at the feast by way of a video message he recorded on his phone must have seemed like a clever idea at the time, but it doesn’t play well. And the prophecy that comes true is such a stretch I wasn’t even sure what was going on.
*. McAvoy is quite good. In fact, his performance made me think he’d probably do well playing the role straight. He’d look interesting in the part anyway. But the rest of the cast don’t stand out and the production itself feels quite constrained. In the end, I don’t think the kitchen setting was a wise move, as it’s too big a stretch to have key plot points make sense and it’s too limiting in terms of the action. Every modern re-telling of Shakespeare is a roll of the dice, and while there have been many that have turned out worse than this, I don’t think they did anything that stands out as special here either.

Much Ado About Nothing (2005)

*. This BBC adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing was the first instalment of the four-part Shakespeare Retold (or, too clever by half, ShakespeaRe-Told). The idea was to rework the plots of Shakespeare’s most popular plays into modern settings. Something that has been done before many times, but they gave themselves a bit more liberty than usual and were obviously having some fun with it.
*. So the story here has Benedict (Damian Lewis) and Beatrice (Sarah Parish) as bickering co-hosts of the news program Wessex Tonight. They’re obviously meant for each other, but it’s up to their co-workers to bring them together. Meanwhile, the subplot has the dopey sports guy Claude (Tom Ellis) pining after the weather reporter, Hero (Billie Piper). They seem headed for matrimony before a former fling of Hero’s named Don steps in to spoil things.
*. I thought they did a good job with this set-up, striking the right note right from the start with Tom Jones singing “Just Help Yourself.” The idea of having the court transformed into a television set works really well, with the office politics and all the in-fighting/in-fucking going on. And aren’t TV personalities the minor royalty of our own day? Close enough.
*. I also liked Lewis and Parish, though they didn’t have much chemistry with each other. The scene of them reading Shakespeare together was very well imagined. Claude and Hero were both pretty and dim. Don isn’t evil so much as just a loser, but no less dangerous for that. Dogberry is an officious security guard but thankfully speaks in regular English.
*. The plot revolves around the attempts to trick the two couples into falling into and out of love, but the paired gulling scenes, usually the highlight of this play in production, were a bit of a let-down. Those are the scenes that everyone remembers the most from this play, and here Benedict listening in on a conversation that’s taking place in the sound booth with the mic (deliberately) left on seemed awkward, while Beatrice overhearing her girlfriends talking while sneaking a smoke in the washroom was just kind of grim.
*. The wedding train-wreck is always a tough watch, but they get through it quickly. Claude has been fooled by some bogus sexting. But overall I thought there was a credible job done of updating the sexual politics for the twenty-first century. Hero actually did have a relationship with Don in the past, though it took the form of the much despised pity fuck. And after being such a jerk at the wedding it’s not clear if Claude is going to get back in her good graces. He still has some growing up to do.
*. An easy-listening, small-screen entertainment. Which I think makes it pretty close in spirit to what Shakespeare was aiming for. No need to make much more ado than that.

Zoolander (2001)

*. While I can appreciate that they do have talent, work hard at their craft, and are “really, really ridiculously good looking,” let’s face it: male models are kind of funny. Give “male model” a bit of a push and you don’t even need any jokes. Just have Derek Zoolander doing one of his trademark pouts (Blue Steel, Ferrari, or Le Tigre) at the camera and otherwise have him being dense. That’s all the joke you need. That’s the movie.
*. There is more to Zoolander. Lots more. But even though this movie is only 87 minutes and has an overload of plot (which might have been influenced by Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, a novel I actually liked at the time) involving Derek being brainwashed by a cabal of evil fashion designers into killing the Malaysian prime minister, it’s all just running hysterically in place. Ben Stiller plays Zoolander, and he also co-wrote and directed, but despite the fact that he’s a very funny guy he’s upstaged here throughout by Owen Wilson as his fashion rival/bosom buddy Hansel and Will Ferrell as the mad designer Mugatu. Throw in more, way more, cameos than you can shake a press card at, and Ben/Derek actually disappears a bit from his own movie.
*. Which I think a good thing, on balance, since there’s no there there. That’s on purpose, of course, but it makes it hard to get that interested in whatever Derek’s up to. I’d also add that I found his voice to be really annoying. That might have been deliberate too, in the way that you wish models wouldn’t talk because whenever they do it’s like what legendary porn critic Al Goldstein called spiritual bad breath.

*. Twenty years later, I don’t think the funny stuff holds up that well. Which, given the talent assembled, is disappointing. It’s sketch comedy where only a few of the sketches work. The brainwashing stuff, which I guess was riffing on The Parallax View, was the best. Otherwise, there’s not much going on. Christine Taylor as the straight girl is reduced to just being a cutaway for far too many reaction shots. David Duchovny’s hand model wasn’t interesting. And to be honest, the clips included with the DVD from the VH1 Fashion Awards were just as funny as anything in the movie itself.
*. That final point leads into another thought I had watching the DVD. I was amazed while listening to the commentary track to find out how much of the material here was worked and reworked for years. They had all sorts of ideas, like a climax on Mount Rushmore and stuff about Derek’s father (Jon Voight) having been a model himself, that didn’t make it in. Given all they left out, you’d think that what was included would only be the best stuff, but with comedy I find that’s not always the case.
*. What’s left today are the memes. “Obey my dog!” “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too. Not much, but enough for some good box office and the catchiness of the name alone pretty much guaranteed a sequel.

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.