Hamlet (2000)

*. I’ve always thought the title of this movie should be Hamlet 2000. The year is that important.
*. The reason it’s important is because of the film’s major motif, which is media and communications technology. Cutting edge in 2000, so dated as to be obscure today.
*. There’s a scene that gives a good illustration of how far director Michael Almereyda wants to pursue this angle. After Hamlet has killed Polonius and lugged the old man’s guts from his mother’s bedroom we see him using a payphone in one of the Elsinore Hotel’s hallways, the corpse at his feet. When we cut to this I was wondering what part of the play was coming next and assumed he was calling his uncle to have their big fight. But instead he’s calling his mother and finishing up the previous scene in her bedroom.

*. In other words, there was no point in cutting to the shot of Hamlet with the body in the hallway except to play the rest of the scene on the phone. Why? Because this is a mediated Hamlet. The Ghost first appears on a surveillance camera feed. Ophelia wears a wire to her meeting with Hamlet. The Mousetrap play is a video collage Hamlet, who is an amateur videographer, cuts and puts together on his computer. Several speeches are played as answering machine messages or on speaker phones. Hamlet notifies Claudius of his return to New York by fax, and this is also the means used to send the challenge to the duel. It’s that kind of thing.
*. But like I say, the year 2000 also dates the film because of its heavy use of the technology of that time. Hamlet carries around a camcorder and is apparently shooting everything on tape. The “To be or not to be” speech is delivered while Hamlet is wandering through the aisles of Blockbuster. I know people today who don’t have any idea what Blockbuster, or, for that matter, a fax machine, were. And while phones are used a lot throughout the film, they aren’t cell phones, which had still not been widely adopted. People certainly weren’t filming with them, as they would by the time Almereyda made Cymbeline, when their new functionality would be given an essential plot function.
*. As with most modern updates of Shakespeare a big part of the fun is seeing how they’re going to play famous scenes in a contemporary setting. My favourite here is Hamlet listening in to Claudius’s “confession” while he’s driving Claudius’s limo. I thought that was neat.
*. What was odd about that scene is that we don’t get Hamlet’s “Now might I do it pat” speech, which is the main reason for introducing Claudius’s confession in the first place. It’s a cut that the 1964 Russian version also made and I didn’t understand why they left it out there either. It’s one of the play’s highlights.

*. There are a lot of stars but I have to say they don’t acquit themselves that well. They all sound like they’re fighting their delivery. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Shakespeare performed with so little music in the lines. I suppose they were going for something more natural, but whenever you do that with Shakespeare it just ends up sounding awful.
*. In addition, most of the performances are far too laid back. Liev Schreiber as Laertes seems like he’s been tranquilized. I didn’t understand him at all. Sam Shepard is the most unimposing Ghost ever. Kyle MacLachlan tries to just be smooth. Julia Stiles, who was the Shakespeare “It girl” at the time — she also starred in film adaptation of Othello (O) and The Taming of the Shrew (10 Things I Hate About You) around the same time — is one of the few bright spots, but I didn’t buy her insanity here. It’s a really tough part though.
*. Bill Murray may be the most surprising name in the credits. He plays Polonius, and he doesn’t do very well either. He sounds like he’s working hard just to remember his lines.
*. A bunch of other names have nearly invisible parts. Paul Bartel, in his final role, is Osric. I think they only left him with one line. Jeffrey Wright is the gravedigger, but if you blink you’ll miss him. Really, we only hear him singing for a few seconds. And Casey Affleck is Fortinbras, who is only a face on the news.
*. I read somewhere that Ethan Hawke, who was 29, was the youngest actor to play Hamlet on film. I don’t know if that’s true. He’s basically a hipster Hamlet, very low key and scruffy and self-regarding. And I have to say that his hat really bothered me. I wonder if Ophelia knit it for him.
*. The action is set around Hallowe’en. Which I guess makes sense here, with the idea of ghosts rising up. For some reason Almereyda also played Cymbeline over Hallowe’en. I don’t know what the fascination is, as it doesn’t end up having much significance in either movie.

*. Were the television sets playing images from what look like burning Iraqi oil fields meant to have some deeper meaning? A breakdown of political order, the time out of joint? Just a visual correlative to the “blasts from hell” Hamlet mentions when he first sees the Ghost? I don’t know. I think I got the joke about his wandering through the “Action” aisle at Blockbuster while The Crow: City of Angels plays in the background. But was it that great a joke that they had to build this scene around it?
*. Despite all the liberties taken there isn’t much in the actual interpretation of the play that surprises. I suppose the biggest thing was having Gertrude drink the poison knowingly. But I’m sure even that had been done before by someone.
*. I wanted to like this one more, but it really is a slow-moving mess with no feel for the language and no dramatic highlights. The way the text is cut up and rearranged it’s both hard to follow and difficult to engage with. Was some of this intentional? I certainly never felt any sense of urgency about Hamlet getting his revenge, but maybe the point was that he didn’t either.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

*. I don’t want to get too deep into the epic back story of this movie. Justice League had been released in 2017, after lots of reshoots, cuts, cost overruns, and other problems. Many of these problems arose after Zack Snyder had to leave the project in post-production due to the death of his daughter, with Joss Whedon taking over.
*. After a mostly negative response to Justice League, fans started asking for a director’s cut (or what came to be called the “Snyder Cut”) of the film. I was not one of that crowd, for various reasons.
*. First: director’s cuts aren’t that good, as can be seen by looking at the deleted scenes included with many DVDs. What gets cut is usually something that should have been cut. But every auteur imagines they’re Orson Welles and the studios have butchered their version of The Magnificent Ambersons or Touch of Evil.
*. Second: the studio had found the Snyder Cut “unwatchable,” and gone to great expense to fix what they thought was a huge problem. That’s not a good sign.
*. Third: Zack Snyder hadn’t shown me anything in his previous (or subsequent) work to suggest that more was going to be more. I mean, his previous effort, the lead-in to this film, was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Enough said.
*. Fourth: there was a lot more coming in a Snyder Cut, with the run time ballooning to a full 4 hours. Put another way: the Snyder Cut was a block of film that seemed not to have been cut at all.
*. In any event, (some of) the fans got (some of) what they wanted, as this film came to be released, four years after Justice League, on HBO Max. So what is there to say . . .
*. I should say, first, that I didn’t see Justice League, so I can’t compare the two films. What I can say is that this is a dull, dark, poorly written and bloated turkey of a movie that does nothing to justify its four-hour length. Is this what fan culture hath wrought? Then to hell with it. Now I’ll quickly go through some of the pejorative adjectives I just employed.
*. Dark: There’s a moment in Deadpool 2 when Cable tells Deadpool that dubstep is for pussies and our hero replies “You’re so dark. Are you sure you’re not from the DC universe?” That was a joke everyone in the audience could be expected to get. Damn these movies are dark. I don’t mean morally dark, but just dark dark. Does the sun ever rise on the DC empire? If a scene here isn’t at night then the skies are overcast, giving everything the same grey tinge as the new uniforms. Where’s Batman’s Batman symbol on his chest? I can barely make it out. And as for Superman’s iconic red and blue tights with a big gold “S” you can forget it. Everything here is just . . . dark.
*. Dull: You know what’s duller than an endless parade of superhero fights and posing? Endless superhero fights and posing done in slow motion, all to the strains of what the subtitles tell me is “ancient lamentation music.” The Flash even runs fast in slow motion! Now imagine this stretched out for four hours.
*. And it’s not just the slow motion but the very structure of the story. The damn “epilogue” here (yes, it’s titled, like all the different chapters) runs half an hour. That’s not an epilogue, it’s a whole other movie!

*. Poorly written: Did they even try to come up with some original villains and a new idea to go with their massive budget? No, they did not even try. We’re right back with Sauron attempting to get his hands on all the Rings of Power, or Thanos trying to get his hands on the Infinity Stones, or Xu Wenwu trying to collect the Ten Rings. Thistime it’s Darkseid (or mainly his flunky Steppenwolf, not to be confused with the band) trying to grab hold of the three Mother Boxes. These boxes have been protected since the ancient days by the elves, the dwarves, and the men. Or the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the men. It’s easy to get these mythologies confused.
*. What do these Mother Boxes do, you ask? Well, when they’re combined they form something called the Unity. Which, in turn, gives Darkseid the power of the Anti-Life Equation, which is apparently the key to controlling all life throughout the multiverse. What will Darkseid do with this immense power, when “all of existence shall be mine”? No idea. But in any event, the more immediate effect of the Unity is to — you guessed it! — open a portal to Darkseid’s dimension, so that he can invade Earth. No way you saw that coming!
*. Like I say, they weren’t even trying. And it gets worse. The team needs to resurrect Superman in order to fight Steppenwolf and the way to do that is for the Flash to run really, really fast, which will allow Victor Stone/Cyborg to use one of the boxes to bring Supes back to life. How? No idea. Then, at the end, the Flash has to run really, really fast (faster than the speed of light!) to reverse time so that the good guys win and the portal is shut. I got the sense this was an homage to the end of Superman (1978), which was perhaps the stupidest ending for a superhero movie ever. But the basic point is that running fast is really useful.
*. So we have the same idea they keep trotting out for all these movies, with bad guys who are all the same as well. Steppenwolf has moments where it seems like he’s going to be given a bit more depth because of some problems he’s been having with Darkseid, but nothing is made of it and in fact it’s never even explained. This makes the final battle with him a drag because I was starting to feel some sympathy for him before the League teams up to kill him four times over.
*. As for the heroes, there’s nothing much to them either that we haven’t already seen. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Henry Cavill’s Superman seem to be having a “biggest tits” contest (Momoa wins, but Cavill is looking pretty busty). Gal Gadot is on model-pilot. I actually did like Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman here. He comes across as having a kind of weary charm. Ezra Miller provides the only comic relief as the Flash. Ray Fisher as Cyborg has the most depth, but that doesn’t make him interesting. Superman for some reason turns full heel when he’s resurrected, which is just an excuse for another fight and to give Amy Adams as Lois Lane some reason for being here. She’s “the key,” you see. Bruce Wayne had a dream about it.
*. A waste not just of 90 minutes then, but 4 hours of my life. As I’ve said, the epilogue goes on for half an hour of that, introducing new characters like Deathstroke and the Martian Manhunter, plus marking a very unwanted return of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor and Jared Leto as the Joker, in what appears to be an entirely new multiverse timeline. One which basically makes everything that happened in the movie we just saw moot.
*. As it stands, I’m not sure that timeline is going to get a chance. I couldn’t help but think of the possibilities of getting Will Smith’s Deathstroke (from Suicide Squad) together with Amber Heard’s Mera and Ezra Miller’s Flash (both members of the new team) so we could have a triumvirate of stars we lost in 2022, all in one picture. Will Warner Bros. want to spend $300 million on that? Wait and see!

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.

Antlers (2021)

*. Antlers is a movie loosely based on a briskly efficient short story called “The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca (who also had a hand in writing the screenplay). You can probably find it online and I recommend reading it, as briskness and efficiency are two words I wouldn’t apply to Antlers.
*. No, this is a film by Scott Cooper, the same Mr. Brooding-and-Intense that brought us Out of the Furnace and Hostiles. It’s hard not to watch Jesse Plemons as the sheriff in this film and not wonder if Christian Bale wasn’t available. He certainly belongs here.
*. “Here,” in this case, is the logging/mining town of Cispus Falls, Oregon, a magical place where it can go from afternoon to middle of the night in a single scene cut. This is the same sort of working-class wasteland as in Out of the Furnace, doubly hit because the two main industries seem to be forestry and mining. I thought this an odd combination, and in any event the mine has been shut down, providing a handy place to summon demons.
*. The story is set in West Virginia. I guess Oregon (or British Columbia, standing in for Oregon) was more photogenic. Or cheaper. Or both. Anyway, it seems Cispus Falls has raised the spirit of a Wendigo, which I didn’t think were native to the Pacific Northwest but luckily Graham Greene is on hand to be the Wise Old Indian Man who tells us it’s all legit.
*. I don’t know what got the Wendigo riled up. There’s a hint dropped about it being upset at the desecration of the natural environment, but nothing much is made of it. Instead, he’s more of a metaphor. People on drugs become monsters who take it out on their kids. The Wendigo is a junky hooked on blood, as well as a domestic abuser. This is nothing new for a horror film, and I thought the story was edgier (if less progressive) for suggesting the politically incorrect notion that people stuck in poverty are scary and disgusting. Which, from the vantage point of Hollywood, is probably how they do appear.
*. As an aside, the problem with horror movies that present their monsters as metaphors is that they tend to fall apart at the join between what’s “real” in the movie and what is only supposed to be representing something else. Here there clearly is a giant antlered monster, except that’s not what we’re supposed to believe he really is. This is unsatisfactory.

*. Keri Russell plays a teacher who gets creeped out when one of the kids in her class starts drawing scary pictures. She investigates and discovers that the boy is keeping his Wendigo-daddy and kid brother locked up in his house. The Wendigo escapes and goes on a rampage, but Russell, a survivor of parental abuse herself, will stand up to the boy’s bogeyman.
*. The Wendigo itself isn’t in Antosca’s story. The critter there isn’t related to drug use or child abuse but is apparently a demon that has been summoned through an occult ritual. But it does have antlers. It has antlers here too, which it uses to gore its victims before eating them. I didn’t care very much for its appearance, but I did appreciate the practical effects. A CGI Wendigo would have looked out of place in such a setting.
*. As you might expect by now from Cooper, the pacing is leaden. And it’s not helped this time out by the clichéd presentation. There’s a scene in the classroom where Russell talks about folklore and fairy tales, which introduces that motif. Then throw in the radio news used to give us more information, the disturbing drawings the boy makes, the scene at the morgue where everyone wonders what could have possibly done this, the aforementioned Wise Old Indian Man along with the dismissal of Christian mythology (God is dead and Jesus has left town), the monster behind a locked door and the threatened child, and even a few overhead car shots (never out of place in a horror film). These all make it feel as though Cooper is just going through the motions, and I can’t say he has a great feel for suspense in the first place.
*. Nothing special, in short, and actually a bit less than that. But I’ll leave you with a recommendation in case you are interested in watching another horror movie that has an antlered creature in it, and one that was also shot in British Columbia. Go check out Black Mountain Side. It’s creepier, and deserves to be better known.

Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)

*. The words “courtroom drama” go together because the trial process (civil or criminal), while quite dull in most cases, has an inherently dramatic structure in its quest for truth, with lawyers performing before an audience of judge, jury, and assembled media.
*. I don’t think Murder on a Sunday Morning, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, does anything special or new with any of this formula, but it’s a great story and hits all its marks.
*. A husband and wife visiting Florida are accosted outside their hotel and the wife is shot and killed. The police go looking for a Black man, and yes, as things turn out any Black man will do. They pull fifteen-year-old Brenton Butler off the street and the husband of the victim identifies him as the shooter. Butler is arrested and signs a confession. Luckily for him a pair of dogged public defenders (Patrick McGuinness and Ann Finnell) take up his case.
*. As I say, there’s nothing exceptional about Murder on a Sunday Morning as documentary filmmaking. Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade just follows the course of the trial. He gets a lot of access from McGuiness, who candidly explains how he’s going about preparing and presenting the case. But there are none of the surprise twists or turning points that have become essential to true crime documentaries like this. Nor are there any stylistic flourishes. This lets us focus on the case itself.
*. One item that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the psychology of the false confession (no spoiler alerts necessary in letting you know that Butler didn’t kill anyone). Perhaps this was just because we’re meant to think that it was beaten out of him. But while Butler was beaten by the police, there’s usually more to a false confession than that, and it would have been interesting to dig into this a bit deeper. But then this isn’t a doc that goes beyond the story itself to interview experts on other matters.
*. The other point that stands out is just how bad the police were. My own sense is that when the police screw up like this it is less the result of incompetence or malice/racism than sheer laziness. Investigators like to take short cuts and get tunnel vision looking for the quickest and easiest way to wrap things up. As became clear in the cross-examination of the detectives working this case, nobody wanted to do any work. Just punching a suspect up and getting a confession was a lot simpler.
*. Every great documentary has to have at least one moment where you are struck in amazement. This doesn’t have to be a big, splashy moment, and in fact is often a bit of quiet but intense drama. That moment in this movie is the long shot of Butler’s face as his mother testifies, which is a scene of overwhelming emotion. It’s enough alone to recommend Murder on a Sunday Morning, and does more than anything else, even Butler’s quick acquittal, to restore a little faith in humanity in the midst of a dark picture of state justice. Because let’s face it: Butler was one of the lucky ones.

Death on the Nile (2022)

*. We begin in the trenches of the First World War, with a young Hercule Poirot explaining to his commanding officer why the planned attack on the Germans should take place at once because he’s noticed the local birds behaving oddly and that means the wind is blowing in the right direction for the use of poison gas.
*. Wait. What? What an absolutely absurd deduction. Might the wind not change? And the idea that Poirot was fighting in WWI is totally uncanonical. As is the wound to his face that his (soon to be deceased) girlfriend suggests he conceal with his trademark moustache. Where did all of this come from?
*. And more to the point, Why? This intro must have cost a bundle to film and it properly introduces nothing but just gives us a ridiculous and totally unnecessary back story. Poirot had a girlfriend that he lost in the war? Why invent that? Just to show that he understands something about love? And also: hair doesn’t grow on scar tissue, so the moustache-as-disguise idea wouldn’t have worked at all.
*. So Death on the Nile gets off to a bad start. I thought it looked likely to turn into the same sumptuously-appointed train wreck as Kenneth Branagh’s previous turn as Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express. Big production values, an all-star cast, and the full use of large-format film that stretches the screen — all of which overwhelms the characters and story and leaves poor Dame Agatha in the dust.
*. But I did enjoy the middle stretches of the journey a bit more. It really is a wonderful movie to look at, and I actually missed seeing it on a big screen (as it was, its release was postponed several times, mainly due to the pandemic stopping it from getting into theatres). But all the glossy (CGI) locations and glossier stars are stuck in a honeyed atmosphere and ramshackle script.

*. Despite all the room in that widescreen image, and just over two hours of running time, none of the performances are allowed enough play to hold our attention. Gal Gadot gets the most attention, but since she’s the (first) murder victim, all the time spent building her character up is a sunk cost. We’re left with a bunch of supporting players, none of whom sticks out as particularly noteworthy. Even Russell Brand fades into the wallpaper. Even if you hadn’t read the book, your options as to whodunit would be pretty thin.
*. Thinning those options out even more are a few other changes made to Christie’s text. First off, a romance writer is changed into a Black blues singer (Sophie Okenedo), whose daughter (Letitia Wright) is the too-good-to-true love interest of Poirot’s friend Bouc. Also, a pair of older women (the comedy team of French and Saunders) are revealed to be lesbians. Now I have nothing against diversity, but the problem with it here is that you know the two Black women and two lesbians can be taken off the list as suspects. As can the Indian lawyer. So that leaves us with . . . you know. Armie Hammer. Before he became better known for talking about eating people.
*. Quickly (and I mean quickly) Poirot interviews all the different subjects, revealing their individual motives for murder, which he’s pulled from clues we haven’t been privy to. Were we supposed to notice the absence of hospital corners made on the one suspect’s bed? What information was in the accounts book he stole? Did you know what colour blood on a handkerchief turns when thrown in the Nile?
*. Then the great detective draws everyone together to reveal the killer. That he has to fire a pistol in the air to get everyone’s attention gives some indication of the level we’re playing on here. It’s not that the “real” Hercule Poirot wouldn’t have resorted to such theatrics, but that the movie has to because Branagh must have felt that by this point the audience’s attention would be wandering.
*. Things get even worse in the big reveal scene. Poirot has only the flimsiest circumstantial evidence to build his conclusion on (evidence that, again, we in the audience haven’t been introduced to), and the killer would have been wise to take his chances in court. Then there’s a Mexican stand-off and two people are (impossibly) slain at close range by a single .22 bullet from a lady’s pistol.
*. So a nice movie to look at, but a worthless script that seems to want to say something about the wages of love but only does so in the most banal terms. Meanwhile, for a Christie mystery it doesn’t even attempt the fundamental job of introducing the suspects and presenting us with the evidence (including red herrings) so we can have fun playing along. There’s no sense of whodunit at all, leaving us with a cruise down the Nile for some celebrity sightseeing.

Othello (1965)

*. You know your Shakespeare and you know what you want your Shakespeare to look and sound like. You want the straight text, without any cuts or rearrangements. You want period dress, not some reimagining of the story in Victorian or contemporary costume. You don’t want a Shakespeare movie to look like a movie, you want a production shot on stage, with lots of long takes and no fancy camera tricks. Maybe the odd close-up, but that’s it.
*. Well, even if that isn’t what you want it’s what you get here, as Laurence Olivier no longer had the clout to get the budget to make a proper movie out of Othello. So instead they shot the currently-running National Theatre Company production, using the same sets and not so much as bothering to add a musical score. I’m not sure if anyone even thought they were making a movie. People shout their lines and their gestures all remain exaggerated and oversize, which is right for the stage but looks hammy on a big screen.
*. It’s a production today that will appeal to the purist, being a barely altered text that even includes most of the lines that are almost always cut. The cast is stage royalty, and snagged Academy Award nominations in all four acting categories. It also marks the screen debut of Derek Jacobi.

*. That said, and without wanting to be contrary, I don’t care much for the performances. To each their own, but here are my reasons.
*. Olivier plays Othello in blackface, which, while not something we need be offended by today, does look ridiculous by modern standards. They also didn’t get it right for the lighting, as his skin has a sickly greyish tinge that recalls the shopping-mall zombies from Dawn of the Dead.
*. Aside from his appearance, I didn’t like his portrayal of the Moor. He was aiming for something exotic with his voice and mannerisms, and got it, but I don’t know how well any of it works or fits with the play. His gait makes him look like he’s injured, and from his first appearance smelling a flower he comes across as conceited, even foppish. There’s little of Othello’s requisite gravitas and more of a smirking, cocksureness in the early scenes. Pauline Kael: “As a lord, this Othello is a bit vulgar — too ingratiating, a boaster, an arrogant man.” A bit like I imagine Cassio should be played. Then, after being emotionally poisoned by Iago, he turns into a gibbering wreck, unbalanced but not dignified.
*. Maggie Smith is miscast. For starters, she looks too old. She was thirty at the time, but she’s one of those actors who has always looked older or more mature than her age (Angela Lansbury is another, someone who could have played a grandmother in her twenties). My reading of Othello is that Desdemona is young and naive, drawn to a much older man (Olivier was in his late 50s so that part is right). Desdemona is also a head-turner of a beauty. She is a major prize that Othello has won, and she’s the kind of beauty that other men notice and that makes their husbands jealous. That’s not Maggie Smith. She does do pathetic well at the end though.
*. Even if you don’t agree with this reading of Smith, it’s hard not to feel that she fails to express any sort of passion for her husband. In the early scenes she seems almost repelled by him. It’s so glaring it makes me wonder what she was thinking. I can only imagine a director yelling out “Come on, Maggie! You’re supposed to be head over heels in love with this guy!”

*. Frank Finlay would be OK as Othello in most productions, but here he feels out of place, as the only serious character in the film. He is surrounded by fops and fools. Kael calls him “pale, parched little Iago,” but he looks like he could beat the tar out of the rest of the cast with one hand. He also doesn’t have any of Iago’s charm and charisma. Who would be sucked in by such an obviously nasty piece of work?
*. Derek Jacobi as Cassio is a lightweight, foppish character. I doubt anyone could have pulled the part off while labouring under that wig, but he still overplays it (that is, indulges in stage acting). This is especially noticeable in the big scene where he gets drunk. I also didn’t like this scene because it’s quite obvious that there’s nothing in their flagons and cups. Of course there wouldn’t be in a stage production, but as I’ve already said, didn’t they know they were making a movie?
*. Joyce Redman does her best with Emilia, a minor role that is hard to get right because it’s not that coherent in the play. Unfortunately, her one big scene in Act 4 is cut completely. She does get to play the lines in the previous scene that show her awareness of her husband’s perfidy though.
*. I don’t usually call out those places in movies where you can see a dead person still breathing if you look really hard, but at the end here, after Othello has killed himself and fallen on top of Desdemona’s corpse, you can see a corner of his bright white tunic lying against his black skin and it’s obviously moving in and out with his breath. It’s near the center of the screen and the contrast makes it unmissable. Indeed, it’s hard to take your eye off it as it moves in and out. I can’t understand why someone didn’t see that. Did they not know they were making a movie?

*. I don’t care much for this film, because it’s not much of a film. It’s the opposite of Orson Welles’s 1951 version, which scrambled and even ignored the text at times in order to overwhelm us with a startling visual rhythm and style. Welles’s Othello was also the result of working with limited resources, though in his case it made the production of the film paradoxically more expansive, shooting in various locations over a period of years. But Welles took these limitations and made something fresh and totally cinematic out of them. This Othello is so visually dull, and so determinedly un-cinematic, you want to look away.
*. Stuart Bruge was mostly a stage and TV director. The only other major Shakespeare film of his that I know of was the 1970 Julius Caesar, which was awful. He doesn’t seem to have been much interested in what film could do, and to be honest I found myself just wanting to have this movie on in the background while I made dinner, so that I could listen to it as I would to a radio play.
*. To all of this the usual defence is that it’s the film of a staged play and so you have to judge it as such. True, but that’s not the kind of thing I go to the movies to see. I think I might have liked this Othello on stage, but I’d have been happy if it had stayed there too.

Eternals (2021)

*. Despite the poor reviews and box office, and despite my weariness with Marvel movies in general, and even despite the presence of Barry Keoghan, I had some hope for Eternals. I knew the original run of comics by Jack Kirby pretty well and thought there was some potential.
*. A lot of that imagined potential evaporated in the early going, when it’s revealed that the Deviants, who were an interesting and even sympathetic race of villains in the comics, are presented as the usual rabble of snarling CGI monsters. Instead of fighting Deviants, the Eternals here are up against a plan by the Celestials to use Earth as a sort of cosmic egg to give birth to a new Celestial. I’d break this down more for you, but it’s too stupid to bother with.
*. It’s 2021 so our Eternals here are multiethnic and multinational lot (white, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Pakistani, Irish, Scottish, Korean, whatever) and gender-balanced (equal male and female members, plus one gay and one possibly gender-fluid character). Hell, they even thrown in a deaf hero, though why an Eternal would be deaf is beyond me, unless they just don’t like listening to anyone. But, as the media alerted us, Phastos was “the first openly gay character in the MCU” and Makarri “the first deaf character in the MCU.” So: progress!
*. All this diversity doesn’t lead to a slate of complex or interesting characters though, or any particular chemistry between them. Gemma Chan as Sersi and Richard Madden as Ikaris in particular seem a romantic couple with little real interest in each other. A point that the script also fumbles with, I might add, since Sersi has a human boyfriend too. What’s up with that?
*. 156 minutes. Please. It feels like every superhero movie cliché is tapped into here and played back in super slow-motion. And by the end I wasn’t even sure who was fighting who, or why. Shouldn’t Kro have been a good guy, helping the others fight Ikaris? Confusion like this made it hard for me to feel very involved in the action.
*. Marvel has a proven track record of hiring on (or co-opting) name actors. Meaning the respectable type who win awards. Salma Hayek appears here as the Mama Bear of the Eternals, though I wasn’t sure what her special power was. Angelina Jolie is less credible as a warrior woman with an extra helping of the Jolie weirdness (her character is schizophrenic, or something, which is another Marvel first and might have been used to signal more diversity, this time in the field of mental health, if Marvel had been more with it). Both actors escape total embarrassment only by the skin of their teeth. Meaning they’re both really bad.
*. The sole bright spot is Kumail Nanjiani who plays Kingo, an Eternal who has refashioned himself as a Bollywood star. Or a whole dynasty of Bollywood stars. He injects the only moments of humour (best of all working opposite Keoghan) in an otherwise very glum production. Madden’s dour Ikaris stood out the worst in this regard. This guy couldn’t fly into the sun fast enough for me.
*. I wonder who thought Chloé Zhao, hot from winning a Best Director Oscar for Nomadland, would be a good fit for this material. Apparently she let herself be influenced by Prometheus, which is a bit odd since Prometheus wasn’t a good movie and following its lead resulted in the introduction of a new, darker, mythology than was in the Kirby comics.
*. For what it’s worth, the action scenes are pretty good even if they’re still just more of the same. It’s the human story that’s the big letdown.
*. I watch movies mainly on DVD, where they are divided up into chapters. This makes it easier to take a rest from them and come back another day because the chapter breaks are like bookmarks. As I watch a movie I sometimes register where those chapter breaks are, especially if I’m really bored. It’s like calculating how many pages left you have to read in a book you’re not enjoying. For most if not all DVDs the end credits are the final chapter, even if they’re sometimes split up with mid-credit and post-credit sequences, as they are here. Well, for this DVD chapters 24-27 — the final four chapters! — are all credits! I just mention that to give you some idea of how bloated the whole thing feels.
*. In sum, it’s not a movie I hated so much as one I felt nothing at all about. It’s much too long, the story makes it impossible to care about anyone (the one interesting character, Kingo, simply disappears at the end), and the tone is unrelievedly dreary. Of course the promise of a sequel is dangled before us, but I won’t be bothering as I’m checking out of the MCU for a while now. Surely there are some good movies still being made. Or at least something better to watch than this.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

*. Oh, Marvel. Would you please stop already?
*. What I mean is, there is clearly nothing left in the tank. After Avengers: Endgame a new “phase” in the MCU was launched, but it looks the same as the old phase only more confusing because it has even more moving parts. Otherwise we have the same tired formula stretched out to two hour-plus length and a couple of hundred million dollars worth of CGI splashed on the screen.
*. So, Shang-Chi. His dad, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung, looking really uncomfortable in the part) took possession of the infinity stones . . . no, I’m sorry, the ten rings of power, a thousand years ago. Since then he has used their awesome might, which makes him eternal and invincible even when facing off against armies, to take over some criminal gang in China. Because if I had that kind of god-like power and eternal life that’s exactly what I’d want to do. Instead of writing a book or learning how to play guitar.
*. Xu Wenwu was married to another eternal (not Eternal, but just someone who lives forever) named Ying Li (Fala Chen). They have two kids: Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and then Ying Li gets killed by rival gangsters (she’s eternal, not unkillable) and the kids go their separate ways: Shang-Chi to park cars in San Francisco, where he has a gal pal named Katy (Awkwafina), and Xu Xialing to run a fight club in Macau.

*. Things start off in a fun way with Shang-Chi (or “Shaun,” in America) revealing his kick-ass alter ego to Katy in a streetcar fight brought on by members of the Ten Rings gang who have been sent to steal his jade necklace. So Shaun and Katy go to Macau and then the same gang shows up to steal Xu Xialing’s jade necklace because only with these can a magic map be activated that will allow Xu Wenwu to visit a fairy-tale land full of Dr. Seuss creatures that guards a portal to an evil dimension that the armies of Gog and Magog are itching to escape from. Once the portal is opened, a soul-eating creature with the Lovecraftian moniker of the Dweller-in-Darkness will escape to destroy all life on Earth.
*. That’s it. I don’t want to write any more. Yes, it’s another damn story where the villain’s goal is to open a portal to another dimension. Haven’t we seen enough of these by now? And then there’s the magic map, and the back-and-forth between the hero and his normie girlfriend/sidekick (they both seem curiously asexual), and a fluffy creature that looks like a fat tribble with wings, and a Distinguished Actor (Ben Kingsley this time out) appearing in a pointless supporting role, and another couple of mid- and post-credit sequences to tease us with what’s coming up next from the comic-book factory.
*. I can’t tell you how predictable, stale, and nonsensical I found all of this. But where Shang-Chi really feels like it’s jumping the shark is that it flunks all the stuff that you can usually count on Marvel to deliver. The CGI just looks cartoonish. The fight scenes are the usual leaping cable work and fast editing, with no blood or real violence and occasionally turning hand-to-hand combat into what can only be described as dance numbers.
*. Of course none of it looks real. The bad guys are from comic-book central casting, including a bodybuilder with a sword for a hand and another guy who’s a Darth Maul knock-off. Awkwafina’s Katy is very poorly written, without a single funny line or quip to make in the entire movie. She’s just luggage until the final fight, where she improbably saves the day.
*. Indeed the whole script is crap. Is Ben Kingsley’s character supposed to be funny? Because he isn’t. And can’t we move beyond this fortune-cookie ancient Chinese wisdom about following your heart? Marvel comics from the 1970s were more original and inspiring than this.

*. I want to expand just a bit on what I said about the fight scenes not being anything special. They really aren’t. I was struck by Mark Kermode’s review, when he appreciated their “physicality” and talked about how the fight on the streetcar reminded him of the bus fight in Nobody. The two scene chimed in my mind as well, but only because of their similar settings. The fight in Nobody is terrific, and it is physical. The fight here is just the usual comic-book nonsense, with the guy with a sword for an arm carving the streetcar in half while Awkwafina goes careening down the streets of San Francisco, flattening cars along the way. The two scenes have nothing in common aside from both taking place on public transport, and the Nobody fight is far better in every way. I’m starting to think that Kermode needs to ask how much longer he wants to keep doing this. Critics do burn out.
*. In short, Marvel threw everything they had into Shang-Chi and came up with nothing but crap. Which is a shame because I kind of like the Shang-Chi character and Simu Liu is a likeable enough actor, if not gifted with the usual Hollywood-star charisma. If Shang-Chi had been better written Liu could have sold him to us, but as it is I had no idea who he really was, as he’s basically born before our eyes out of nowhere. Why is he parking cars anyway? And all of what I just said also goes just as much for Awkwafina, who I genuinely like but who is put to no use here at all.
*. I’ll conclude by saying that I’ve pretty much given up on Marvel entirely now. They seem incapable of coming up with anything really new, and the writing in particular is so bad as to be almost inhuman. Meaning it feels like it was just spat out by a software program. Though a lot of the movie is in Mandarin, aimed at the lucrative Chinese market, so maybe something was being lost in translation.
*. What watching Shang-Chi really brought home to me though is the question of who would ever watch a movie like this twice. It was everything I could do to get through it once, and even then I had to spread it out over three days viewing. I had no interest in anything that was going on whatsoever. But audiences loved it. Oh well. At this point I think I’m close to being out for good.