Looking for Richard (1996)

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

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)

*. In my notes on Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy I talked about how great a falling off it marked from the comedy-horror heights of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. But Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde actually came out two years before Meet the Mummy and it’s even worse, so it wasn’t a consistent decline.
*. This is grim stuff. Not just a clunker in terms of the humour — I don’t recall smiling once at it — but for the desperation of the comedy and general sense of unpleasantness. We begin with Mr. Hyde killing a man in the street, which isn’t a joke at all. In Britain the film would actually receive an X rating. In 1953!
*. The plot has our heroes, two characters named Slim and Tubby (I’ll leave you to sort them out), playing American cops who are visiting London and working with the bobbies as part of some kind of study-abroad program. But they are soon removed from the force after a chaotic riot at a suffragette rally. Meanwhile, one of the suffragettes is the ward of Dr. Jekyll (Boris Karloff), and she has caught the eye of a dashing young reporter. That’s the love interest. Dr. Jekyll wants to keep his young ward for himself though, and enlists the aid of Mr. Hyde to rid himself of the reporter. But, trying to get back in the good graces of the police chief, Slim and Tubby are on the case.
*. That’s the plot, and it’s dreadful. The would-be laughs involve very little wordplay and instead rely mostly on pratfalls and the like. One scene takes place in a wax museum so we get double-takes at wax figures being mistaken for living creature, and then vice versa. There are also a number of predictable scenes involving something scary coming up behind Slim or Tubby that they remain oblivious too. Ha-ha.
*. At one point Tubby (yes that’s Lou) gets turned into a mouse-man. Here’s how laboured the humour is. When they go back to explore the doctor’s secret lab they find it’s all been dismantled and made over into a wine cellar. No idea how, but there it is. Trying to find some explanation for how Tubby got turned into a mouse, Slim picks out a bottle of Moselle wine and says “See, Mouse-ell! That’s what turned you into a mouse!” So he then keeps giving Tubby glasses of Moselle to see if he’ll turn into a mouse again but it only makes Tubby drunk. I mean, it doesn’t make sense on any level.
*. Leonard Maltin: “Special effects are film’s main asset.” Which is noteworthy for two reasons: (1) if you’re watching an Abbott and Costello movie for the special effects, you’re in trouble; and (2) the effects are terrible. The transformation scenes are a considerable step down from what had been done in 1931, and the full Mr. Hyde is just a guy (not Karloff, by the way) wearing a mask.
*. Watching this one I was actually surprised it came out as late as 1953. It feels at least ten years out of date. Seventy years later on, it hasn’t improved a bit.

Force of Nature (2020)

*. A hurricane is bearing down on Puerto Rico. This made me question how many movies I’ve seen set in Puerto Rico. I can’t think of many (or really any) off the top of my head.
*. I really should have hated Force of Nature. Almost everyone else did. And for what are obvious reasons.
*. The plot has a cop with a tortured past (we first see him contemplating suicide) pairing up with a new kid. Haven’t seen that before. Anyway, their job is to go around telling residents to flee for safety from the hurricane. Upon arriving at one apartment building, however, they find themselves meeting up with a crusty old ex-cop (Mel Gibson) being nursed by his daughter (Kate Bosworth). He’s not leaving. Meanwhile, also in the building is an old German guy with a lot of stolen artwork, another guy with a big cat locked up in a spare bedroom, and a bunch of bad guys who are looking to steal the artwork. The stage is set.
*. It’s all as contrived as it is clichéd. Every now and then the action just stops and we have characters explain their back stories. As soon as we find out about the cat in the spare room (is it a tiger? I wasn’t sure), and the fact that it’s been trained to attack people wearing police uniforms, we know that’s going to become important.
*. Nor does any of it make a lot of sense. Why don’t they tie something around the tiger guy’s leg to stop it from bleeding? Why does someone have to literally hold on to his leg? How is that guy keeping a tiger in his spare room anyway? How can he afford to feed it that much grocery-store beef? And isn’t that whole set-up cruelty to animals?
*. At one point Bosworth and the tiger guy are trying to get away from the bad guys and they go into the basement, which has been filling with water throughout the hurricane. By the time they get to it the water is nearly up the ceiling. “If there’s water coming in, there’s a way out,” Bosworth says. Um. No. Not really. In fact, not at all. It just means there’s water coming into the basement from outside. But there is a way out! Of course.
*. I’ve joked before about the late career choices of Bruce Willis. Apparently he was originally cast as the ex-cop here. So now you know what happens to the roles Bruce Willis doesn’t take. They go to Mel Gibson.
*. Which is too bad for Bruce, actually. The thing is, despite being so hokey that it feels at times to be meant as a joke, with Emile Hirsch’s performance bordering on comic, I kind of enjoyed Force of Nature. I certainly thought it was a better movie than Cosmic Sin, which is the kind of thing Willis was doing instead. And whatever else you want to say about Mel Gibson, he’s like Tom Cruise in that he gives every part his all. He’s like the anti-Bruce in that regard.
*. The ending underlines the sense of it not being meant to be taken seriously. The lights go out, the panther leaps, and then . . . break to the next day. On the plus side, at least we didn’t get one of those terrible CGI tigers or jaguars. On the other hand . . . what the heck?
*. Bosworth is surprisingly good, meaning she keeps her dignity intact. The fact that her husband Michael Polish was directing might have helped. Gibson is watchable, and at least gives the impression of someone who is trying, which is more than Willis would have bothered with. The budget was obviously tight so there’s not a lot of production value. But keep your expectations low and it goes down easily enough.

Madame Hyde (2017)

*. I did a double take when I saw when this film was released. 2017! Really? Even with the rap singers in the projects (or banlieues) I would have guessed 1990 at the latest. The packaging of the DVD didn’t help either. It looked badly dated, even for a foreign art film.
*. A review by Christy Lemire also put Madame Hyde in the ’80s context, likening it to Zapped! and Weird Science (1982 and 1985 respectively). You could also invoke The Nutty Professor (either version, 1963 or 1996). Whatever your referent, it doesn’t feel like 2017. And the cheap effects, with glowing figures and arcing bolts of electricity, might push things even further back.
*. But, here we are in the twenty-first century getting a revamp of the Jekyll and Hyde story as Madame Géquil is gifted super powers after being hit with a storm surge. One supposes there’s some kind of feminist message here, with the doormat schoolteacher being literally empowered by her accident, but I have trouble drawing this part out. How is she fighting back against the patriarchy? What wrongs is she righting?
*. I got a smile out of the Lycée Arthur Rimbaud. Then for the heck of it I did an Internet search and found out that there really is such a school. Colour me impressed.
*. As the references to Zapped!, Weird Science, and The Nutty Professor suggest, Madame Hyde is a comedy. Or at least I think it is. I got the impression that perhaps a lot was being lost in translation. What was supposed to be funny aside from the school principal?
*. Most reviewers regretted the lectures on science, finding them dull. I thought they were interesting, though I’ll admit that not knowing a lot of science probably made them more so. My problem with them was that I couldn’t see their point. When Géquil is talking about the operation of a Faraday cage, for example, what connection does that have to anything? I couldn’t see how it was relevant, even thematically, to the film’s argument or plot. Then again, I couldn’t be sure if Madame Hyde had an argument.
*. Most reviewers did like Isabelle Huppert. I thought she seemed barely awake most of the time, even when going into full Dark Phoenix mode. That’s another way this movie just left me pulling a blank. It could be I was missing something, but I have a hunch there wasn’t anything to miss. Either way, something wasn’t working and the target wasn’t being hit.

Richard III (1995)

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

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

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

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

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Kajillionaire (2020)

*. Kajillionaire should have been good. The cast is excellent. It was nice to see Debra Winger again, Richard Jenkins is always fun, and though I’m not as familiar with her I was impressed by Evan Rachel Wood in the cable series Westworld. I didn’t know Gina Rodriguez at all, but she more than holds her own, playing the only normal person in the ensemble.
*. That ensemble consists of the Dyne family — dad (Jenkins), mom (Winger) and “Old Dolio” (Wood) — plus Rodriguez as a girl they pick up, improbably, on a cross-country flight. The Dynes are scammers, a term I use to denote a sort of down-market version of con artist, hustler, or grifter. Despite being committed to a life of crime they live hand-to-mouth in a building that is constantly being invaded by a blob-like spread of some kind of toxic-seeming waste.
*. This led me to once again reflect on why there are people who work so hard to make money illegally when they’d have an easier go of it just taking a part-time job for minimum wage. I’ve known people like that. I guess they like living by their own rules, or are hoping (as the Dynes are) at somehow striking it rich by pulling in some legendary score. In which case they’re stupid, which again would seem to describe the Dynes pretty well.
*. Alas, I said this movie should have been good. But it is not. Wood in particular is wasted, and I wish I had a stronger word for her misuse. Most of the movie I spent wondering just why she was playing Old Dolio the way she was. Presumably this was at writer-director Miranda July’s instruction, but I didn’t get it. Sure Old Dolio is an emotional cripple given how she’s been raised, but here she’s like some kind of autistic feral child, complete with a ridiculous Cousin It mane of hair that I think would make it hard for her to blend in anywhere.
*. Years ago I remember seeing a broadcast of Siskel and Ebert where they talked about how they’d made an agreement not to use the word “quirky” in a review. I think because it constitutes a sort of critical surrender. Why do I like this movie? I don’t know. It’s quirky. Well, quirky is a word that critics loved to throw at Kajillionaire. Maybe they were trying to seem hip with the alt-lesbian love story. In any event, audiences seemed to like it a lot less than the pros, and this time I think the hoi polloi got it right.

*. The quirkiness is also where I think Kajillionaire goes wrong. It tries too hard. Kate Lloyd, writing in Time Out, targeted this, and I think what she says in this respect is spot on. In her review she calls it “a painfully slow family drama where idiosyncrasy trumps emotion and themes of isolation and family dysfunction get lost in the zaniness.” Rodriguez provides “the only injection of realness and vibrancy in a film that’s hampered by its own obsession with being weird.” In sum, “Kajillionaire takes a heartbreaking story – a child of abuse trying to escape her sociopathic parents – and bloats it so full of Little Miss Sunshine kook that any emotional sharpness is left soft and doughy.”
*. So is Old Dolio an original creation? Yes, but only in the sense that original means quirky. Or weird. But not real or relatable. I get the sense that Kajillionaire wants to say something about the hot (or cold) mess that is the contemporary American family, but whatever message it has in this regard was lost on me. In one respect you can think of the Dynes as an old-fashioned nuclear family. They’ve certainly stayed together better than most. But there’s no sense of what holds them together. None of them seem to like each other, or to be getting anything out of being together. So Old Dolio has to reject her wretched parents to find true love with Melanie, in a climax of girl-meets-girl sweetness in the checkout line. And it really is sweet. Only I wasn’t buying that part either.
*. The potential for some fierce satire was there. The family is under stress today in lots of ways, and at the time of its release America’s “first family” was itself a model of sleaze and grift that the Dynes could easily have been cast as a reflection of. But I don’t see where satire was ever in play here. What was July sending up? Entrepreneurialism? The pursuit of money at all costs?
*. I guess I ended up just being confused by Kajillionaire. There’s a birth motif that’s developed throughout, of pushing out of the dark and into the light. Which I think related to Old Dolio’s being born again at the end. But it’s so obvious that she has to break free I didn’t see this as any kind of revelation. I didn’t understand the characters or their world, and more generally I didn’t see what the point of it was. That we all need a hug sometimes? That’s true, but like one of the Dyne cons it doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Charlie Chan in Rio (1941)

*. The penultimate Fox Chan film, and they were running so low on material they had to recycle, or remake, The Black Camel. It’s the same basic plot, complete with the pin stuck in the shoe that leaves scratches on the floor, though some of the roles are a bit different.
*. This is kind of disappointing, both for showing a lack of creativity and for the fact that The Black Camel was a better version of a not very good story in the first place (though one that was actually based on one of the original Earl Der Biggers novels).
*. Harold Huber is back again. He’d been a police chief in Monte Carlo in Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo, a police detective in New York in Charlie Chan on Broadway, a gendarme in Paris in City in Darkness, and now he’s the chief of police in Rio. He gets around almost as much as Charlie. That’s versatility.
*. This isn’t one of the better Chan movies, but it has a few nice touches. There’s a gag they use a couple of times when someone asks for a presumably alcoholic beverage and Charlie changes this to lemonade and coffee. There’s the first use of subtitles to show Charlie and Jimmy exchanging information in what I assume is Mandarin in order to fool the guests, with a joke at the end that the Chinese maid doesn’t know what they’re saying, as she was raised in the U.S.
*. Victor Sen Yung has more to do, and while the role is as limited as ever he’s pretty good at carrying things. We leave off with him being called up by the army, which would have been a good note to end on.

Quick Picks 2021

Time for my fourth annual end-of-year awards for the best (and worst) of what I was watching. You know the drill: only movies released in the past year that I saw in the past year are eligible. And since I have to wait for most of the movies I see to come out on DVD, that means November and December usually have me sprinting to the finish trying to play catch-up. It also means that no movies with a theatrical release late in the year are likely to be in the mix.

I worked hard in the last few weeks and managed to catch 24 movies out of all that 2021 had to offer. That’s pretty good for me! Unfortunately, the moves I saw were . . . well, here’s this year’s stellar line-up.

Black Widow
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
Cosmic Sin
Cruella
Don’t Breathe 2
False Positive
The Forever Purge
Godzilla vs. Kong
Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard
Ice Road
Judas and the Black Messiah
Jungle Cruise
The Little Things
The Marksman
The Mauritanian
Nobody
A Quiet Place Part II
Space Jam: A New Legacy
Spiral
The Suicide Squad
Those Who Wish Me Dead
The Unholy
Voyagers
Wrath of Man

As has become usual there are a lot of sequels and franchise entries. But does that mean they were all bad? Not quite.

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False Positive (2021)

*. Sometimes movies get forced into unfair comparisons, but other times the shoe, unfortunately, fits. That’s the case with False Positive, which is a modern retelling of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s not just that the comparisons are unavoidable, but that none of them are in this film’s favour. They did try to go in a different direction, but nothing worked.
*. Lucy (Ilana Glazer) and Adrian (Justin Theroux) are a young couple not having any success having a baby. They go to see a fertility specialist named Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan) who used to be one of Adrian’s teachers. I guess Adrian is a doctor himself but he doesn’t seem to do anything, or even know much about anything. But then he’s a man. The film has a randomly feminist point of view, which includes Lucy being treated unfairly at the ad agency she works at.
*. Obviously all is not right. Dr. Hindle oozes patriarchal menace, complemented by his fetish-doll assistant Gretchen Mol. Adrian doesn’t seem on the level after we see him using violent pornography to get a sample. It’s those men again!
*. Then there are Lucy’s nightmares and fantasies. The result of her foggy mommy-brain? The drugs she’s taking? Or is there really something sinister going on? Could it be that Dr. Hindle’s clinic is actually a front for a coven of devil-worshiping New Yorkers?

*. Nothing that interesting, unfortunately. There’s actually less going on here than meets the eye. Even the more provocative of Lucy’s visions (like witnessing a homosexual tryst in a hotel room) turn out to be just air. This left me disappointed and confused. Just what was I watching? With the talent involved, including director John Lee, I think a lot of people were expecting a sort of dark comedy. But it’s not funny. And it’s not scary. And its politics are muddled. Are all male doctors heels? And just because a Magical Negro character (the “midwife with soul”) says “I am not your Magical Negress” doesn’t make it so.
*. It will likely be uncomfortable viewing for many. Obstetric horror gets a lot of mileage out of stirrups and speculums and jelly (though I’ve always liked the jelly being rubbed on my belly when getting an ultrasound). But the story is just too layered with confusing dead ends and suggestions that are more intriguing than what (I think) is really going on. Plus, when you realize that every time something really disturbing starts to happen it’s inevitably going to be “just a dream,” the film is effectively neutered.
*. There are more ideas and motifs in play (like the twins/mirrors) than they seem to have known what to do with. I was actually looking forward to Lucy as Medea and pulling a double Andy Warhol at the end, but that’s another door that opens onto an empty room and they finally opt for a bit of gooey weirdness to wing things up with. I give everyone credit for trying, but the results are a classic example of too much and not enough.