Posts Tagged Shakespeare

Macbeth

Year of Release: 2015     Directed by Justin Kurzel. Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, and David Thewlis.

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When I heard there was a new adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, my excitement knew no bounds. Macbeth is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, it is highly cinematic, Cotillard and Fassbender are great actors, and the news that it would be an old school adaptation set in the 11th century were all highly encouraging.

This was the biggest cinematic disappointment I have ever experienced. The only quasi-redeeming aspect was Cotillard’s performance as Lady Macbeth, and even she could not save the disaster that was the rest of this movie.

First of all, this is not adapted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth; it’s adapted from the Sparknotes version of Macbeth. Several crucial scenes are missing (the conclusion of Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy, all of “Double double toil and trouble,” the exchange between Lady Macduff and her son, and that’s just for starters .) Considering the film is still two hours (roughly the length of the play), the missing scenes are replaced with new lines by the screenwriters quickly filling in any information that is needed, and two LONG battle sequences that frame both ends of the film, both of which are shot and jarringly edited with absurd slow-motion video game like sequences which look terrible. If watching someone else play a video game is your idea of a good movie then maybe you will appreciate this.

So much of Shakespeare’s play is missing that for this Shakespeare lover a suitable analogy would be watching a film adaptation of the Gospels which removes “The Baptism in the Jordan,” “The Sermon on the Mount,” and “The Agony in the Garden.” Or a film of Les Miserables which cuts “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home.”

Speaking of Les Miserables, many people complained (to some degree deservedly) about Hooper’s sloppy editing and camera work, but compared to this, Hooper looks like Orson Welles. Justin Kurzel relies on an overabundance of close-ups, and his idea of quick pacing is to extremely over edit — I’d be hard pressed to name a single shot that lasts longer than 5 seconds. (I think there were two or three, but I couldn’t swear to it.)

For the hype about setting this in the 11th century, the Gothic architecture for the castle looked more 14th or 15th century to me.

As I said, Cotillard is good, but it’s hard to tell because the camera is constantly interrupting scenes by jumping to new shots. Kurzel also doesn’t allow her to become as unhinged as she needs to. She merely becomes wracked with guilt; she never loses her mind. I don’t have any idea what Fassbender was doing. He plays Macbeth as a cipher, which I thought was grossly inappropriate, and he has no progression or descent into evil at all. He recites the lines about Macbeth’s guilt and hesitation, but then carries out the murder of Duncan without any hesitation, and he’s not even shaken by having done the deed. The portrayal of the Macbeths ruined the opposite character arcs that the two are supposed to have as they both lose their minds in different ways.

In fairness, I will add that it probably did not help that I watched the very, very good Polanski adaptation for the first time a few weeks ago.

 

Content Advisory: Much intense, highly stylized battlefield violence, gruesome and gory images, and a brief non-graphic sex scene.                           MPAA Rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: D+

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Much Ado About Nothing

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Joss Whedon.            Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Clark Gregg, Sean Maher, Reed Diamond, Riki Lindhome, Spencer Treat Clark, and Nathan Fillion.

The greatest risk in reviewing a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is comparing it to the 1993 film adaptation by Kenneth Branagh.  There are enough characters and distinctive scenes that I could easily take a full review comparing and contrasting each one.  However, that would tell you little about either movie, but only that I love Shakespeare’s play.

In the ways of comparison, I will say this: the main thing that stops me from preferring Whedon’s adaptation over Branagh’s is Beatrice and Benedick.  Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh own the roles of the sparring lovers.  Amy Acker is nearly on par with Thompson, but Alexis Denisof, while good, is not even remotely in the same league as Branagh.  In other points of comparison sometimes Whedon’s film is superior, sometimes Branagh’s.  Overall, it averages to about a tie.

Whedon shot Much Ado About Nothing in twelve days at his home during a break from filming The Avengers, which alone is an impressive feat.  The cast is comprised of his friends and people who have worked with him on his past television shows.  Whedon wrote the music himself and had the songs performed by his brother, Jed.  This level of intimacy adds a very effective touch to the entire production.  All the actors are very comfortable with their roles and with Shakespeare’s dialogue, and they are a pleasure to watch.  The songs from the play are set to a syncopated, pop vibe which reflects the modernized setting, but it is still relaxed, suggesting the frivolous nature of the play.

Amy Acker leads the cast as Beatrice, the feisty niece of Leonato (Clark Gregg) and cousin of Hero (Jillian Morgese).  Acker masters all of her lines, capturing the wit, sarcasm, and bantering nature of Beatrice.  She is insecure when she needs to be, and brazen when she challenges other characters.  Acker plays very well off all the other actors, adding both to the comedy and the pathos in the story.

As Benedick, Alexis Denisof is good.  He delivers his lines naturally and clearly enjoys himself.  However, he does not have the feistiness that Acker has as Beatrice, and their sparring is somewhat one sided.  Whedon also added a goofiness to the portrayal of Benedick that seems out of place.  Since Benedick needs to be an equal sharp-witted arguer with Beatrice, making him the clown of the story is misdirecting the source of his humor.  Admittedly, he does have a couple scenes in which he should behave comically, but they are overdone.

Jillian Morgese and Fran Kranz are excellent as the naive lovers Hero and Claudio.  (Yes, they are both a step up from Beckinsale and Leonard in Branagh’s film.)  Kranz in particular captures the impetuousness and gullibility of the foolish Claudio, perfectly capturing the character that Shakespeare wrote.  Morgese is appropriately doting as Hero, but she also shows tremendous range in her acting.  She is convincingly playful as she baits Beatrice with her maid.  Hero’s heartbreak, too often glossed over, is very poignant and tragic due to Morgese’s skilled performance.

Sean Maher is phenomenal as the brooding, manipulative, and sinister Don John the Bastard.  (A million times better than Keanu-emotionless-monotone Reeves, and I promise I won’t make any more comparisons to the 1993 film.)  When he says his brother’s joy makes him sick, his disdain for others as a tortured, hate filled individual comes across clearly.

The decision to change Conrade’s character, one of Don John’s two assistants, to woman played by Riki Lindhome works well.  It gives Don John an extramarital love story, which removes his character even further from the marital joy that the others wish to celebrate.

Nathan Fillion commands every scene he is in as the bumbling constable Dogberry.  He plays the character in a droll deadpan, suggesting a character completely oblivious to his own foolishness and ignorance.  His Dogberry clearly has no clue what is funny about a line such as “Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption!”  Fillion’s interpretation is very different from Michael Keaton’s aggressive slapstick.  (Okay, that really is the last comparison to Branagh’s film.)  Even if Keaton is slightly over the top, both interpretations work well.  However, when Conrade insults Dogberry with the line, “You are an ass,” there is much less provocation here for that insult, which makes Don John’s companion seem more villainous.  The interpretation that one prefers is really a matter of personal comic taste.

The only thing that slightly misfires is the movie’s attempt to give Beatrice and Benedick a back story.  From the play, it is clear that they had past disagreements, but the opening scene, along with a later flashback, suggests that past one night stands have left them bitter with one another, and Beatrice views Benedick as a callous womanizer.  If that had been the source of their quarrel, the attempted setup for them would almost certainly have failed.

The two scenes in which Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into believing the other loves them are hilarious.  Whedon nails the comedy both physically and in highlighting the humor in Shakespeare’s dialogue.  Both Acker and Denisof respond with absurd shock and slapstick, clearly showing why they are a perfect match for one another, which had previously failed to come through in their bantering.

The last thing that warrants mention is that the film is shot in black and white, which helps create the lighthearted, romantic atmosphere necessary to the story.  This camera work, along with Whedon’s skilled directing and the talented performances from the entire cast, easily overcomes the few minor misinterpretations that very slightly mar an otherwise excellent adaptation of my favorite comedy by the Bard.

 

Content Advisory: A few implied sexual encounters, some suggestive dialogue.                                MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Romeo and Juliet

Year of Release: 1968     Directed by Franco Zeffirelli.  Starring Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, Milo O’Shea, Pat Heywood, Michael York, and John McEnery.

Why is the romance of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet doomed?  Yes, their quarreling families do contribute to their tragic end.  But an even more important and oft overlooked reason is the wrathful, impatient, and impulsive nature of their families.  This nature has been passed on to both Romeo and Juliet from their parents, the heads of the warring families.  In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968, the rash decisions of both protagonists are portrayed and emphasized just as much as the conflict between the families.  By doing so,  Zeffirelli’s film underscores the tragic role that Romeo and Juliet play in incurring their own downfall.

Romeo (Leonard Whiting)  first meets Juliet (Olivia Hussey) at a masked ball he impetuously attended to meet his former love, Rosaline.  However, when Juliet and Romeo see one another, they instantly fall in love.  Considering the quickness and lack of foresight with which they make other decisions, this love at first sight is believable.  After Tybalt  (Michael York) kills his best friend Mercutio, (John McEnery) Romeo rushes against Tybalt in a swordfight without having a sword.  In the play he presumably has his own sword; in the film his family members hand him one.  Juliet eagerly grabs for the dial of medication to induce her deathlike state, whereas she could have allowed her father disown her, in which case she would have been free to leave the city and go be with Romeo.  She also risks their love being discovered on several occasions by encouraging Romeo to stay with her for longer periods of time.  Of course, their most tragic and most rash act is the climax of the film.

All of these actions are in the same spirit of their families.  The opening scene is fight caused by the refusal of both sides to let the other one have the final word or blow.  The fight is caused by slight aggravations such as tripping someone.

The actors are all convincing.  They handle the Shakespearean dialogue very well; it flows naturally from their tongues with properly placed pauses and correct emphases.  The decision to cast age appropriate actors paid off in spades.  Whiting and Hussey were sixteen and fifteen respectively when the movie was filmed.  Both of them capture the passion and impetuousness of the young lovers.  The romance, which can seem incredulous in some productions, is believable and realistic here.

The choreography of the dances and of the fights shows a direct influence from the film of West Side Story seven years earlier.  At the ball where Romeo and Juliet meet, the girls dance in an inner circle; the boys surround them; they move in opposite directions; and then they dance with their partners.  Romeo intervenes in the fatal fight in a very similar way to Tony’s intervention in West Side Story.  In both films, the members of both sides advance and retreat as a unit.

Zeffirelli’s sets and costumes are colorful and engaging.  The beauty and art of the medieval setting, along with the Italian countryside, is captured with gorgeous cinematography.

Nina Rota composed an lively and romantic score, which is fitting for the young lovers.  Interestingly, he gives the romantic theme to Romeo and the bubbly, energetic, frolicking theme to Juliet.  This decision is appropriate since Romeo is lovesick and Juliet is a whimsical girl full of vigor.  The contrasting themes never completely reconcile, foreshadowing the end of the film.  Much of the score is the style of Italian folk song, like his most famous score for The Godfather.

The decision of later Shakespeare films to modernize the setting is not employed in this film, which is refreshing.  In my opinion, that has only worked once, and it was only partial modernization.  I do not mind modernization if the story is changed and the new work is clearly an adaptation, such as West Side Story.  However, I do find it strange when the Shakespearean dialogue and names are placed in a modern day setting.  With an authentic atmosphere, impressive camera work, a good score, and incredible performances, Zeffirelli crafted the definitive film version of Romeo and Juliet.

It is also worth mentioning that the film is often shown in high school English classes to students who have read Shakespeare’s play.  While it is an excellent adaptation that would certainly help the students understand the plot, the film is best for adult Shakespeare lovers, and possibly similarly minded mature teens.  There is a brief scene the morning after Romeo and Juliet have consummated their wedding vows, in which both are briefly shown naked.  Juliet refused to do this until they were married, and it was nice to see that respect for marriage and sex in the film.  If a teenager has a mature understanding of sexuality, this scene should not be problematic.  However, a class of high school students will normally not exercise the necessary maturity and critical discernment.

Content Advisory: Brief post-marital nude scene, fatal swordplay, mild gore, and some veiled sexual dialogue.                  MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with much discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A

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