Category Archives: 2010s

Caesar Must Die (2012)

*. Over the years there have been programs in a number of different countries involving prison inmates putting on Shakespeare. I don’t know how many of these have been filmed, but there was a version of Macbeth done in a Belfast prison called Mickey B that came out in 2004. And then there’s this film, Caesar Must Die.
*. I can see the attraction of Macbeth and Julius Caesar for prison theatre programs. Both are stories about the price of ambition and rising to the top in an age of violent tribal politics. There are several scenes in Caesar Must Die where the cast (who were actual inmates) reflect on how real it all seems. Does it help that they also look like a pretty rough bunch? One suspects the real Brutus was a tough guy, as much as he was the noblest Roman of them all. You can play Shakespeare different ways, emphasizing different aspects of the same character.
*. This parallel between modern crime gangs and Shakespeare’s vision of power politics is not, however, the film’s major conceit. Instead, I would say what drives Caesar Must Die is the liberating power of the dramatic imagination.
*. I don’t mean anything fancy by that. Just the common observation that we feel free to act/behave differently when we wear a mask. Inhabiting the roles in the play does, at least for a little while, set the cast free. Hence the bitter irony as the one-time Cassius says to us at the end “Since I have known art, this cell has turned into a prison.” Because knowing art is liberating, to have known it is to recognize the limits and constraints of our daily existence. I mean, we could say the same thing as Cassius as we leave the theatre.

*. That transforming power of the imagination works on the setting as well. This is a staple of Shakespeare productions, going back to the days of the Bard himself. Most famously, the Chorus in Henry V asks us in the Prologue “Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?” In both the Olivier and Branagh versions of Henry V we are introduced to the play in a way that draws attention to the stage, before dissolving the real world as we are absorbed into the world of the play.

*. I was surprised at how well this works in Caesar Must Die. We begin on stage, and in colour, before switching to rehearsals in prison that nevertheless achieve moments of the same kind of absorption that we get in those Henry V movies. The walls of the prison are still there, but they are transformed. We are in Shakespeare’s drama. There’s a brilliant part when Caesar gets killed and the prisoners all scatter, just like you’d see on a prison show like Oz. Some prison officials, observing from on high, muse over how all this will work out. It’s hard to tell if we’re still in the play or not. The blending of Shakespeare’s story and the setting is perfect.
*. Another good example is the set piece of the funeral orations. Even with the audience watching from behind bars this doesn’t feel at all like we’re in a prison, but rather in a public square. But, and this is important for how the film works, even when we do think of the bars and are aware of the setting we still think it works because what we’re seeing is prison politics in action. Either way, we don’t think we’re watching a play.

*. The directing team of the brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have been at it a long time. I believe their first film was in 1960. It’s natural at such a point in one’s career to become reflective, to want to examine a little more closely the very nature of drama and film. I think this is what Caesar Must Die is really about, more than it is a political film along the lines of Marat/Sade, for example. I began by thinking of Marat/Sade but by the end the movie I had more in mind was Waiting for Guffman, with the amateur cast of the city theatrical enjoying a kind of dramatic day-parole.
*. Is that depressing? I don’t think so. Whether it’s with the citizens of Blaine, Missouri or the inmates here I think such movies affirm one of our better human traits: the ability to see ourselves as potentially being something more or someone different, and imagine ourselves past present circumstances of despair.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

*. It’s a weird thing to start off by saying, but let’s pump the brakes. The tag-line for this documentary on the not-making-of an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune by Alejandro Jodorowsky has it that it was “the greatest science fiction movie never made.” Within the documentary itself we see it canonized as a lost classic, with Jodorowsky working so far ahead of his time that we may never catch up.
*. Nonsense. I think the best they might have come up with was a camp hit, and at worst a piece of epic trash. Jodorowsky assembled an impressive stable of talent — his “spiritual warriors” — but how they were all going to work together and their contributions be made to cohere into something that made any sense is more than I can imagine. Nor do I think Jodorowsky was ahead of his time, or his work on Dune all that influential. A number of the people he got together went on to work on Alien, but that was a very different picture. Aside from that . . . Flash Gordon (1980)? Masters of the Universe (1987)?
*. No, I think Jodorowsky was actually looking backward. What he wanted was to make an SF head picture (Dr. J: “I wanted to make a film that would give the people who took LSD at the time the hallucinations that you get with that drug, but without hallucinating. I did not want LSD to be taken, I wanted to fabricate the drug’s effects”). In other words, if he’d been given a green light he’d have ended up with something like Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968). As it turned out, he did follow that route in reverse, taking elements from the art and script he prepared and turning them into a comic book.
*. Also no: the studios weren’t philistines for turning down the whole project. They were asking for $15 million, and everyone must have been sure they’d go over that. And Jodorowsky was not a proven commodity. Nor were the suits and bean-counters “scared” by Jodorowsky’s genius (Nicolas Winding Refn: “they were afraid of his imagination, they were afraid of his mind”). If I’d been offered the cinder-block Dune book that was making the rounds I don’t think I would have bit either. Even Star Wars was a movie the studio didn’t really believe in that much, and it was pure popcorn compared to this.
*. Of course it was never going to be Frank Herbert’s Dune. It (meaning the film, not this doc) was always Jodorowsky’s Dune. He felt free to adapt and revisualize the novel any which way, which I guess was made easier by the fact that he hadn’t read it when he first suggested making it into a movie.
*. An eminently quotable figure, I’ll let Jodorowsky explain in his own words: “It’s different. It was my Dune. When you make a picture, you must not respect the novel. It’s like you get married, no? You go with the wife, white, the woman is white [he is referring to a bridal dress, nor race here]. You take the woman, if you respect the woman, you will never have child. You need to open the costume and to rape the bride. And then you will have your picture. I was raping Frank Herbert, raping, like this. But with love, with love.”
*. Many of his fellow spiritual warriors were no better equipped to deal with a book that producer Michel Seydoux describes here as “the Bible of science fiction for all big devotees . . . a worldwide publishing success that you could find in every country.” SF artist Chris Foss hadn’t read it. Nor had musician Christian Vander. Salvador Dalí hadn’t even heard of it. These guys were all free to go their own way, and they did.
*. So I don’t see this as a lost treasure or missed opportunity. It is, however, an interesting bit of film history to take a closer look at, and this is a fun movie. Even at the age of 84 Jodorowsky projects the magnetism and charisma that seduced so many of the people he got to sign on to this project. He was filled with an authentic sense of mission and his enthusiasm was clearly contagious.
*. Whatever happened to that sense of the art of film being a higher calling? When Jodorowsky pulls a fat wad of bills out of his pocket and refers to it as filth he might even mean it. You have to respect that. You don’t, however, have to assume that just by rejecting the system and pursuing other goals you’re going to come up with something good, or even have an original failure. As I’ve said, if Jodorowsky had made his Dune I think it would have been a fantastic train wreck, not great art. There still may be something useful in such train wrecks though, and something noble in the attempt . . . as David Lynch would go on to prove.

Little Monsters (2019)

*. Shaun of the Dead is a movie that keeps looking better in the rearview mirror. I say that for two reasons.
*. First of all, I don’t think star Simon Pegg and (this will be shocking to many) director Edgar Wright have done anything as good since.
*. Second: zombie comedies, which one would have thought easy pickings, have not fared well. Zombieland and Zombieland: Double Tap were both lousy and The Dead Don’t Die was a dud (in fact I gave it my worst film of the year award for 2019). This despite the fact that all three movies had talent and money to burn. Meanwhile, the best thing about Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was their titles. Aside from that they were crap.
*. So I wasn’t going into Little Monsters with high hopes. This turned out to be a good thing, as it’s trash. Even without being disappointed I still couldn’t wait for it to end. The premise is the joke: a zombie outbreak in Australia threatens a kindergarten class visiting a petting zoo. So a juxtaposition of cute little kids and flesh-eating zombies. LOL.
*. The zombies, by the way, escape from a U.S. military base. Which struck me as having something bad to say about Americans abroad, but if there’s any deeper political message I missed it.

*. The rest is just a mess of clichés. The small group barricaded in a building while the zombies mill about outside. The presence of a jerky children’s entertainer named Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) who’s only looking out for himself. A pair of leads who fall in love. She’s Lupita Nyong’o, a teacher. He’s Alexander England as a dude who used to front a death metal band but who now busks for spare change. His girlfriend just dumped him and he’s sleeping on his sister’s couch before taking her son (his nephew) out on the doomed day trip.
*. I don’t know what was supposed to be funny here. The running gag that has the kids singing out “bad word” at every instance of profanity doesn’t work the first time, and it’s repeated quite a bit as there are a lot of bad words. Teddy McGiggle is too unpleasant to be humorous. England’s character, complete with droopy pants, is too big a loser for Nyong’o to bother with, but when you see them admiring how good they both are with kids and assessing fitness for breeding you know how it’s all going to go down.
*. I’m even more mystified at who the target audience was supposed to be. People who like zombie movies? Unlikely. People who like funny movies? They’d be out of luck. Maybe just people who like kids and singing along to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”
*. As for me, I called peak zombie years ago and I’m starting to despair of there being any life, or life after death, left in the genre. Double-tap to the head and put it out of its misery already.

Into the Abyss (2011)

*. Hollywood has a fondness for glorifying crime and criminals going all the way back to The Great Train Robbery. Today we’re used to seeing serial killers as mad geniuses like Hannibal Lecter or Jigsaw, while heists are meticulously planned down to the last second by perfectionist masterminds.
*. The reality is that most bad guys are pretty dumb, and most crimes just random and stupid. Never was this more obvious than in the case of the triple murder committed by Michael Perry and Jason Burkett in Texas in 2001, which led to Perry’s execution and Burkett receiving a life sentence. The two teenagers had wanted to steal a woman’s sporty red Camaro and only after their initial plans went awry decided to kill her first. Then, after disposing of her body, they found themselves locked out of her gated community and had to kill another couple of young people (who were their friends) in order to get a clicker to open the gate. All so they could go for a joyride.
*. Grim and stupid then. Not the stuff for a Hollywood crime story, or really for anything edifying. And yet Werner Herzog, a director always keen to discover and explore deep spiritual truths in the human soul, saw this as fruitful ground. One wonders at times what he thought of the banality of evil he found. The almost mocking grin of Perry and his flippant assertions of being a Christian and going to heaven after his execution. The blank stare of Burkett. Burkett’s hybristophiliac wife who somehow gets knocked up, fulfilling the romantic script she has prepared. In the real world these are people you wouldn’t get much out of meeting.

*. I’m not saying Herzog looks down on them, because I don’t think he does. But what do they reveal of the “ecstatic truth” of the soul? Even the prison chaplain who kicks things off by telling a story about almost running over a squirrel with a golf cart and how that made him reflect on the value of life seems faintly ridiculous.
*. No, if there’s any revelation here it’s just how cheap a thing life can seem in certain eyes. One of the most telling interviews comes when a friend of Burkett’s tells of how Burkett stabbed him in the torso with a screwdriver. But no big deal. He didn’t go to the hospital, but only headed to work the same as usual. And for the state executioner death is literally just a job, until he finally can’t take it anymore. That is, after more than a hundred executions. He isn’t sure of the exact number. But it’s one of the few moments in the movie where you get to see something of Herzog’s grail of a religious moment, of looking into the soul, or of witnessing a soul awakening.
*. Into the Abyss is a movie I found hard to like. Mainly for a reason that goes counter to what most critics had to say about it. Roger Ebert’s review can be taken as typical: “Herzog keeps a much lower profile than in many of his documentaries. He is not seen, and his off-camera voice quietly asks questions that are factual, understated and simply curious. . . . Herzog never sensationalizes, never underlines, expresses no opinions. He listens.”
*. While it’s true that Herzog doesn’t appear on screen here, his voice is a constant presence and his questions are highly leading. He asks Burkett’s father to close his eyes and tell him to imagine something. He asks Burkett’s wife to describe the feel of her husband’s hand. This is not the interviewing style of someone who just listens. He is writing a script. Not to mention the fact that he doesn’t actually interview that many people, including no one from Perry’s family.
*. Though he’s against capital punishment, Herzog didn’t want to make a platform film. Though that might have been interesting, seeing as Perry’s guilt is unquestioned so there’s no specter of killing the innocent hanging over things. Instead, Into the Abyss seems more about the randomness of fate and the profound unhappiness that goes along with an awareness of this. It’s not just that redemption is hard work, but that it doesn’t always lead us to a happier place. Perry seems better off just thinking of other things, whatever they may be. I really don’t want to know.

Saint Maud (2019)

*. It’s probably not fair to any movie to want to stick it in a genre box, or compare it to similar movies. But . . . that’s what I like to do.
*. I even like to do it with a lot of the new wave of art-house horror flicks. I appreciate that they’re trying to do something different, but even when successful I’m finding these productions starting to look and even more sound more and more the same. For example, I really liked the score here by Adam Janota Bzowski, but boy the louring base that feels like it’s bottoming out somewhere in the depths of the ocean sounds like a lot of horror movies these days.
*. Anyway, I started off watching Saint Maud and was thinking of the sub-genre of nurse horror (type film Misery, recent example Alleluia). This was when Katie/Maud (Morfydd Clark) takes up a job as a private homecare nurse to the dying Amanda (Jennifer Erle). We sense something isn’t right with Maud, and there are mutterings about how, like Annie in Misery, she has something hidden in her past that caused her to lose her last job. So much for vetting the help. But then, homecare is a desperate market.
*. From there, however, things quickly spin into female breakdown horror (type film Repulsion, recent example Darling). Maud is a newly-minted religious nut — her friend is taken by surprise at the Catholic kitsch she keeps in her room — though we never see her reading or hear her quoting anything from the Bible. She casts an unapproving eye on Amanda’s hedonistic parties and ends up getting fired. But this only makes her more determined to effect Amanda’s redemption.
*. But while I think these are operative genres, writer-director Rose Glass doesn’t lean into them. Apparently Glass originally planned to make Maud more of a Carrie figure, victim of a strict religious upbringing, “but it just felt like a story I’d seen before, and it wasn’t one I was particularly interested in retelling.” So we have to just take her as given.
*. Some people might like this open-endedness, but for me it led to the question of where Maud was coming from. A lot of critics, most notably Mark Kermode, who called this his favourite film of the year, declared that Saint Maud wasn’t a horror movie but a movie about loneliness. Well, sure. Amanda even calls Maud the loneliest girl she’s ever seen. But where did that loneliness come from? She’s young, good-looking, educated, and has no trouble making friends.

*. So what caused her breakdown? A flashback suggests that she failed to save a dying patient when her attempt at CPR didn’t work. But how often does CPR work? And isn’t this a rather fragile response from a nurse? Amanda’s new caregiver has a more realistic attitude toward death: “that’s the way the cookie crumbles.” I get that Maud doesn’t want to accept this, but then she’s in the wrong profession.
*. Accepting that Glass simply isn’t interested in how Maud got here, what is she interested in? I think the answer is faith, which leads me to the movie that Saint Maud most reminded me of: Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. There are obvious resemblances in the levitation scene and the (imagined) act of self-destruction at the end, but more than that there’s a deeper exploration of the consequences of being a believer.
*. Unfortunately for Saint Maud, it doesn’t hold a candle to what Schrader did in developing this theme. Glass settles for a lazier conclusion. Unless I’m missing something, the point here is that faith is a lie and believers are dangerous psychotics. If you hear God talking to you, chances are you’re just listening to voices in your head. A point made pretty clear here because God speaks in Welsh and his voice is actually Clark’s with the pitch lowered.
*. As I say, this is unfortunate. I think Saint Maud is a really good film. Glass sets the mood well and the two leads are great. I was disappointed that Erle didn’t have a larger part, but I can’t say enough about Clark. This is a real career-making role. I was surprised when looking over her filmography to see that she’d been in two previous movies I’d reviewed — Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Crawl — and hadn’t registered at all. Well, maybe not that surprised.
*. Worth seeing, and a movie that can be enjoyed if you forget about some of the hype and don’t think you’re seeing a horror flick or even a particularly taut psychological thriller. On the other hand, if it’s something more, what is it?

The Remaining (2014)

*. So we’re at this wedding and there are these three dudes (Dan, Jack, and Tommy) and these two girls (Skylar and Allie, for sure!) which means there’s an odd man out (that would be Tommy) and he’s there to hold the camera and everything is going fine except for the fact that Tommy isn’t just carrying a camera but a torch for the girl who isn’t getting married (that would be Allie) and then people start dropping dead from what the news people are calling “instant death syndrome” and fire falls from the sky and it’s a shaky-cam shitstorm and before you can scream Cloverfield! or Rec 3! someone else with a deeper gnosis says “No it’s not zombies or aliens it’s the Rapture!” and so you think is this Left Behind? and now you’re on the right track because who wouldn’t want some of that Christian end-of-days cheddar? but you’re still thinking this would look better with zombies in it so when the alt-chick who didn’t go to church enough to be hoovered up says not to be afraid of a corpse because it won’t bite, you feel a bit disappointed, but to make up for not having zombies you do get the Fallen who are these creatures from Revelation that have a toxic bite that doesn’t turn you into a zombie but does turn your skin a nasty colour and kills you but it doesn’t matter anyway because you already missed the bus didn’t you? and hiding out in a church isn’t going to help much because even if you go to church (or, LOL!, consider yourself to be “spiritual”) it doesn’t matter unless you’re in a right relationship with Jesus, which is something the pastor of the church has just figured out! so you can choose Jesus and it seems like you probably should but you should also know that in getting baptized or confessing your faith you’re going to be the first (well, after the one Black person hiding out in the church, natch) to get torn apart by demons because faith is blood in the water to demons, churches offer no sanctuary, Bibles turn to ash, and the U.S. military isn’t going to be able to save you from these powers of spiritual darkness that have taken over the world and that can strike you dead any instant with a tentacle descending from a cloud so maybe you should reconsider all of this, including why you’re watching a Christian horror film in the first place when Christian rock didn’t work out that well either and though to give them credit the production values are actually better than you’re probably expecting here The Remaining is a crazy mess in terms of its messaging and not very uplifting either which may be why the MPAA PG-13 warning is for “intense sequences of terror, violence and destruction throughout, and thematic elements” because I don’t really know what thematic elements would need a warning here except for the one that says you need to choose wisely when picking what movie you’re going to watch tonight.

Welcome to New York (2014)

*. When you look at the start of Abel Ferrara’s career and films like The Driller Killer and Ms. 45, then middle work like Bad Lieutenant, and stand these alongside Welcome to New York do you see continuity? Evolution? Or only a slightly different kind of monster in a tonier NYC neighbourhood?
*. Welcome to New York tells a story torn from the headlines, being a scarcely veiled fictionalization of the Dominque Strauss-Kahn affair. I won’t go into the details, but it is worth noting that the charges against Strauss-Kahn were dropped and that he threatened the film’s producers for libel. I don’t know how all that worked out.
*. But back to the monster. In this case it’s an apex predator named George Devereaux played by Gérard Depardieu (they kept Depardieu’s initials, not Strauss-Kahn’s, perhaps because Depardieu has had his own issues with rape and sexual assault allegations). Devereaux is a man of ginormous sexual appetites, nicely symbolized here by Depardieu’s gargantuan gut. You get to see all of Depardieu in this movie, including full-frontal nudity, and there is a lot to see. I mean, he’s huge. A veritable mountain of flesh. But it’s what’s inside that counts.
*. And what’s inside? Not much, and what there is isn’t pretty. Is Deveraux pursued by inner demons and addictions, like Harvey Keitel’s lieutenant? Or is he just a hungry, horny hippo in heat? We never find out, and I have to wonder if part of the problem with the role was Depardieu’s obvious difficulty and discomfort with his English lines.
*. I think the point may be however that we shouldn’t expect there to be much there. Devereaux is a balloon, his world the bubble of privilege. The word “privilege” gets thrown around a lot these days, most often attached to “male” or “white.” What it’s really all about is the power to shape and fashion one’s own reality, wherein other people are just support staff. In such a world, what’s the difference between a prostitute, a personal assistant, a cleaning lady, and a wife? None that Devereaux can imagine. When he asks the cleaning lady “Do you know who I am?” you get the feeling he could be asking his wife (Jacqueline Bisset) the same. And does even she know who he is? If she doesn’t she’s just been kidding herself. Shades of Carmela Soprano there.
*. Deveraux is no Tony Soprano though, despite puffing on a fat cigar. He doesn’t have, or isn’t given, the same intelligence or depth. This is a shame, as he might have been more interesting as a lily that had festered. The long speech he gives that shows his slide from idealistic professor to disillusioned World Bank official (“I understood the futility of struggling against this insurmountable tsunami of troubles that we face”) comes across as potted and beneath a figure of his presumed intellect. It’s barroom philosophy.
*. It never seems as though he belongs in a world that he’s apparently only married into. The film juxtaposes high and low and, but (as long as he stays quiet) Depardieu looks more at home in the New York penal system than he does in his $60,000/month rental.
*. And that may be the point. That our elites (political, financial, cultural) are really no different than the shoddy types you’d find in any big-city drunk tank or wandering the street looking to buy drugs or sex. Such figures can call themselves individualists or anarchists (as Deveraux does), but this is just casuistry. Which leads to a final question: Where does Deveraux “belong”? Not in one place or the other, but in both.
*. Stylish in Ferrara’s understated way, and with a strong performance from Depardieu to give it the necessary fleshy anchor, Welcome to New York is the sort of movie that doesn’t make a big impact but nevertheless gets under your skin. Deveraux’s conclusion that there’s no changing the world is based on his belief that people don’t want to change or be saved. Even a gentrified New York City is still a sty from top to bottom because people are pigs.

The Red Pill (2016)

*. The Red Pill is a creation of the Internet. I mean several things by that. First of all, it was inspired by documentary filmmaker Cassie Jaye’s being sucked down the “rabbit hole” of the online men’s movement. Second, it was funded on Kickstarter. And third it is very much part of a debate that is mainly taking place online.
*. The red pill movement is an Internet phenomenon, where it’s sometimes designated the manosphere. Jaye’s movie goes to talks and rallies and interviews real people not over the Internet but by sitting down and talking to them, but the world she’s dealing with is a mostly digital one. And in fact you can watch hours of extra footage at the movie’s website, making the whole project an extended online resource.
*. Some explanation of the title is necessary. It comes from the scene in The Matrix where the hero Neo is given the option of taking a blue pill and remaining in a state of comfortable mental torpor fed by illusions, or taking a red pill and waking up to the true nature of reality. This is, of course, Plato’s parable of the cave booted into the world of virtual reality, signifying that most people live in a state of conformity with illusions while a select few are able to see life directly and see it whole.
*. In the context of the men’s rights movement, being red pilled means rejecting the notion of this being a man’s world. It means pushing back against critiques of the patriarchy (or the patriarchy, at its most monolithic). Or at least that’s what being red pilled meant in 2016. Another part of this being a movie born of the Internet is that it is timely in the extreme. Today, red pill philosophy has mushroomed into a whole garden of beliefs, complete with a special language for those possessing the proper gnosis. There are even black pills now for men who aren’t just unplugged but who are living off the grid. It’s also less about custody battles and domestic violence against men these days, which are the main focus of this film, and more focused on dating and relationship advice from PUAs and MGTOW gurus.
*. What’s driving all of this, aside from the power of the Internet at disseminating combative ideas that upset people, are two things: stats and science. In particular: the data gleaned from dating sites and an increased interest in the various “truths” of evolutionary biology. Much of this, however, belongs to a discussion of the red pill community today, and it’s not something that we need dwell on here.
*. Jaye structures her film around the idea of a personal journey. She’s a feminist investigating the world of “toxic masculinity,” with MRAs being a misogynist hate group painted as the gender equivalent of white nationalism. But as she goes on she becomes sympathetic to the messaging of the men’s movement, documenting her own doubts about their demonization in a video diary. By the end she has come to renounce the label of feminist, which seems like a fairly big deal even if it’s not clear what being a feminist means anymore.
*. Without taking either pill, I found it a ramshackle film. Jaye interviews people from both sides of the debate but doesn’t do a lot of fact checking for either. In general the men’s movement interviewees come off a bit better as they are presented as mellow and non-confrontational. Indeed, they seem a very sad and beaten-down bunch of guys. Protestors at men’s rights talks come off less well. “Cancel culture” hadn’t fully blossomed by 2016, but you can tell where things were heading. Indeed, screenings of The Red Pill were canceled at universities all over the world. With enemies like this, you had it made. Just ask Jordan Peterson (a bit conspicuous in his absence from this film, given how much of it was shot in Toronto).
*. Polarization makes money in the new media because it ramps up outrage, which draws eyeballs and engagement. One example of how this works can be seen in the reception given The Red Pill. Just look at the huge gap between critical and audience/user ratings of it on any of the aggregators. Such a division is often taken as evidence of the sort of media bias that the men’s movement calls out. You see: They’re getting the shaft from the mainstream media again because they’re trying to defend men!
*. I call it a ramshackle film though because it doesn’t make a clear case about much of anything and tends to wander around a fair bit. I’m sympathetic with Jaye’s view that infant circumcision is a barbaric practice, but I don’t see why she threw in a couple of minutes of footage of it at the end along with the story of a boy whose penis was mostly severed in a botched job. What did that have to do with anything?
*. Another thing: It’s one thing to mispronounce “perpetrate” as “perpetuate” when you’re reading text that’s right on the screen, but how did that get left in after editing? And totally as an aside, what did the one fellow mean when he said he was teaching his early-teen son who was having obesity issues how to read a scale? Is that something you have to teach kids how to do? Who can’t “read” a scale?
*. I also wish Jaye had pursued some parts of the story a little more. Erin Pizzey suggests that what changed in the feminist movement in the 1970s is that it went from being class-based and anti-capitalism and became focused instead on attacking men as a more direct route to gaining money and power (a very capitalist strategy). And the idea that Boko Haram only turned to targeting women and girls, after killing men and boys for a decade, as a way to get media attention from the woke West was worth developing. I would have been interested in hearing more about this as I remember it bothering me at the time and getting into arguments with people about it.
*. For all of Jaye’s earnestness, empathy, and DIY spirit I didn’t find this a very stimulating or eye-opening documentary. I didn’t think any of the speakers were very persuasive, though they all seemed sure of themselves. I think both sides probably have good arguments and counter-arguments to make, but they weren’t making them, or being allowed to make them here. My feeling is that the MRAs who are trying to help men in need are doing good work, as are feminists trying to do the same for women. When the two sides just go after each other I tune out. Call me a critic going my own way.

Coriolanus (2011)

*. I’m not a huge fan of the play. I don’t think many people are. I believe this is the only feature film adaptation there’s been of it, which is a distinction it may hold for a while.
*. And yet, there’s something about Coriolanus that bugs me, in a good way. It always leaves me with the sense that’s there’s more going on than you get on the surface. Coriolanus himself is so simple and transparent that he bears comparison to Shakespeare’s other noble men of authority (Titus, Brutus, Othello) who are tragically out of their depth in the duplicitous world of politics. But even more than in those other cases I’m left feeling that somehow there’s something more to him. Maybe it’s the awareness of his tragic destiny in his line at the end “But let it come.” Thanks mom! Like Hamlet, he knows that ripeness is all.
*. I think Ralph Fiennes captures this sense of something extra, something deeper in the part, while at the same time giving us a Coriolanus who is the pre-eminent man of action not words. This is all the more important since with the exception of his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Grave), one of Shakespeare’s greatest female roles but still one-dimensional, this play is a one-man show.
*. It’s a proud family. Volumnia’s pride is in thinking she knows her son better than he knows himself. She doesn’t, and he realizes at the end that this is her delusion, one she is herself unaware of. He chooses however to play along with her. I think this is more than just a sense he has, which is how Fiennes describes it in the commentary. But you can judge for yourself from what he gives us.

*. As an updating of Shakespeare to the present day I think it’s great. In almost every regard Fiennes’s translation of the play works, or at least works as well as I could imagine. I especially liked the use of the newscast, with real-life anchorman Jon Snow doing the honours. And the way the robe of humility Coriolanus has to wear in the market place is changed to a suit was perfect.
*. However, it is still an updating of a 400-year-old play and there are always going to be real limits on how much can be done. The idea that one man can be such a gamechanger on a modern battlefield, for example, doesn’t hold much water. But in all such adaptations you have to play along. Shakespeare’s battles weren’t realistic in their day either.
*. The battlefields here are in Serbia, as the film was shot mainly in Belgrade (with Montenegro standing in for Antium). Another plausible update? Sure. What it also leads to is that the proles, who are mostly played by local Serbian talent, tend to speak with accents, which (ironically) makes them seem like immigrants.
*. Some purists objected to the suicide of Menenius, but while this scene is not in the play, it’s not not in the play either and since it’s done without dialogue it seemed fair play on the part of screenwriter John Logan to me. In his book on Shakespearean tragedy Northrop Frye calls Menenius being rejected by Coriolanus, which he sees as “a miniscule version of the rejection of Falstaff,” “an annihilating snub which destroys his self-respect and even his reason for going on living.”
*. While the words are all Shakespeare’s it’s an aggressively truncated text. For example, none of Menenius’s fable of the belly speech remains. But there are few long speeches that are maintained. You can do Shakespeare with a more theatrical sensibility, in a bunch of long takes that let scenes play out as they would on stage. Branagh likes to do this. Or you can edit “aggressively” (Fiennes’s word for what he does here). And if you cut a scene up into a lot of fast cuts you might as well remove some lines while you’re at it. There’s no need to preserve continuity. As a result you keep the big lines but lose a lot of the content and flow of the big speeches. Fiennes thought this made the language more accessible. I’m not so sure, but I guess he may be right.

*. The DVD box has a pull quote hailing this as “William Shakespeare’s Rambo.” Ugh. Who would even want to see that? And yet this was a selling point.
*. For the most part I liked the casting. Fiennes and Redgrave are both solid. Jessica Chastain has nothing to do as Virgilia but that’s the part. Brian Cox is good as the avuncular senator Menenius. I really liked James Nesbitt as the sniveling, trouble-making tribune. I’m ashamed to confess that I couldn’t place Lubna Azabel though I was sure I’d seen her before (she played Nawal Marjan in Incendies). She’s good here, but not at all a sympathetic figure. I have to say the proles don’t fare that well in this production. Which is interesting given that they look like contemporary protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Coriolanus, as usual, appears to be a quasi-fascist.
*. I only really had my doubts about Gerard Butler as Aufidius. I didn’t think he had enough of the schemer about him. The character is obviously a complement to Coriolanus, but he’s not as given to wearing his heart on his sleeve. I wanted to see more of that.
*. Well, as I started out by saying this is likely the only Coriolanus you’re going to see on the big screen for a while. I think it’s a good production of a troublesome play, though one that I think tilts too far toward the fast-pace and abrupt editing of modern cinema, leaving a lot of the language scrambled or in the dust. Updating Shakespeare always runs some risks but I think they came through as well as they could have in that regard. In sum, it’s not without its flaws but it has a couple of strong performances and is successful in giving us a Coriolanus for our time.

The Tempest (2010)


*. This is one of my favourite adaptations of The Tempest — but I don’t think it’s ever a great movie, despite having so much promise. I don’t care for the play much in the first place, and for all its strengths this version feels too much like a film of its time.
*. Julie Taymor had directed stage productions of The Tempest before this, and as a film director had shown a strong, creative approach to Shakespeare in her interpretation of Titus Andronicus (Titus). In short, she knew what she was doing.
*. The casting is near perfect. I had no problem at all with Helen Mirren as the sorceress Prospera and think she does a marvelous job here, striking just the right note of forgiving but unapologetic sternness. Djimon Hounsou and Russell Brand both give great physical performances (and I love how the camera work matches this in the scene where they hide under the tarp together). Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney (suffering under a hilarious mop) both look pretty as the pair of drippy young lovers. The court party are all good, and I especially like Alan Cumming’s interpretation of Sebastian, making him a bit dimmer than usual and more easily led astray by the charismatic Antonio.
*. The costumes stand out, and the art direction is always interesting. The script is manipulated only a bit, and nowhere in a way that hurts the play.
*. So . . . why do I feel less than enthusiastic about this one?
*. A few little things stand out. The special effects aren’t that good. The devil dogs in particular are totally unconvincing, and I get the sense from listening to the commentary that Taymor thought so too. The Ariel effects were achieved through a complicated process that was not CGI, but still looks like CGI, and not in a good way. Aside from his turn as a harpy he just didn’t turn out right.


*. Then there’s the setting. It was shot in Hawaii, on the island of Lanai, which is today privately owned by Larry Ellison (he bought it off the previous owner in 2012). Bill Gates was married there. So much for Caliban getting his island back! He may still be out there fetching firewood.
*. It’s a fantastic setting, but not natural at all. There’s nothing wrong with that part, as this is a fantastic play. But Taymor says she wanted a “natural roughness” in some parts and never got it. It all seems too pretty and nice, in a National Geographic style.
*. Also, the music. I guess they were going for a dreamy effect but the results sound insipid to me. The songs in Shakespeare, however, are very hard to get right. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any I’ve heard that I particularly liked (though a lot of movies based on Shakespeare have had great scores).
*. But my real problem, I’m afraid, is that I just don’t like this play very much.
*. Sure it has some great poetry and remarkable passages that rank among some of Shakespeare’s finest. But it is also his least naturalistic, least dramatic work. There are only two interesting characters in it (Prospero and Caliban), the rest of the cast just being types. And there’s no drama to the situation: it’s all just a show being put on by Prospero. Antonio and Sebastian, and Stephano and Trinculo, may plot their coups, but we know nothing is going to come of it. Prospero is too much in charge.
*. The form it takes is the courtly masque. One thing this means is that it’s a play not just featuring but about special effects and other forms of magical artifice. As Julie Taymor puts it in the “making of” documentary Raising The Tempest, “Shakespeare wrote a visual effects piece.” This is certainly our present cinematic dominant mode, so if The Tempest isn’t necessarily a film for our time, it may be a film for our cinema. It’s no surprise that the next big production of The Tempest on film before this, Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), was another such visual smorgasbord.
*. It was often remarked (by Roger Ebert, among others) that the effects and the design are over the top, but that’s not how I see it. I think that’s just the kind of play it is (though Ebert would disagree). And the imagery, as strong as it is, doesn’t overwhelm the play for me. It’s supposed to be a spectacle, and Taymor does keep some quiet moments.


*. Part of the problem with the magical visuals though is connected to what I said about this being a film of our time. This is very close to being a comic book movie. Helen Mirren reminds me of no one as much as Ian McKellen playing Magneto, while Ariel is a combination Nightcrawler and Mystique, and Caliban is The Thing. This too is what comes with being a film for our time.


*. Part of Caliban’s elaborate body make-up included having Elizabethan swear words scarred on to his skin. I didn’t notice any of this the first time I watched the movie. The second time, looking for it, I still couldn’t make anything out. In one shot I could see the suggestion of writing, but had no idea what the words were. I guess you can chalk that up to another one of those perhaps too-clever ideas that didn’t make much of a difference, though I was a bit surprised Taymor didn’t realize this wasn’t coming through. She could have either made a point of revealing the words or should have dropped it.


*. I like the way Taymor emphasizes the elemental schematics of the play. We begin with the earth dissolving in water, and then the storm mixes fire and water that makes the seas seem combustible. I was surprised to see the “airy spirit” Ariel jumping out of a pool, and continue to be presented by way of a watery effect, but he later adopts more conventional airy trappings (like transparency). Of course Caliban is a creature of the earth, and seems to have a skin of cracked clay.
*. I’ve called Ferdinand and Miranda drippy, but the play is not without sexual undertones. Taymor mentions on the commentary that there may be something going on between Antonio and Sebastian, and that’s something that does lend the seduction in the forest (one of the better uses of a natural location in the film) an extra spark.


*. The other sexual force is Heather Mirren’s Prospera. Taymor mentions the charge between the powerful older woman and the androgynous naked young man (Ben Whishaw). Personally, I think this all comes out of Mirren, who is a sexy beast even with minimal make-up. Ariel is the one character in the film I couldn’t get a read on. Of course he’s a spirit and never really one thing or the other, but I didn’t get the sense Taymor settled on giving him a particular identity.
*. I guess what disappoints me the most here is not that Taymor is too wild and free in her interpretation of the play, but too restrained. The preservation of ambiguity is a good thing, but at the end of the day every director of Shakespeare, for stage or screen, has to make hard decisions about what direction they’re going to take things in, what angle they’re going to play up. Like Prospero’s revels, or the magic sounds of the island, the visual magic here is bright and diverting but insubstantial. I was left wondering what, for Taymor, the play really means.