Caesar Must Die (2012)

aka Cesare deve morire

2016 #77
Paolo & Vittorio Taviani | 74 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | Italy / Italian | 12

Caesar Must DieOn the surface, this is a documentary about the inmates of Rome’s high-security Rebibbia prison — many of them with mafia connections — putting on a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. However, it becomes clear fairly quickly that it’s all been staged, which is only more apparent when you learn some behind-the-scenes details (at least one prisoner had been released years earlier and returned to participate in this project).

The question becomes: is that a problem? Because while it isn’t a documentary, it also is a documentary. These are real prisoners putting on a real performance, as they do every year (indeed, it was a previous production that inspired this film’s existence). Even if what we’re watching isn’t literal documentary footage, it’s surely been inspired by real experiences and conflicts, then re-worked into movie form. So it blurs the line between fact and fiction, which is also thematically appropriate: these criminals, some of them murderers, are now playing the parts of murderers in a fiction, and seeing reflections of their own lives in Shakespeare’s centuries-old text.

I don’t know if this gives us any particular insight into the minds of mobsters, or if the mobsters’ experiences bring a new perspective to Shakespeare, but it seems clear that being involved in the project has given new insight and perspective to the prisoners’ lives. For us as viewers, perhaps that suggestion about the power of art to improve anyone’s life — or to provide an escape or solace when in grim situations — is illumination enough.

4 out of 5

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Romeo + Juliet (1996)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #77

Hope & despair.
Tragedy & love.
Romeo & Juliet.

Full Title: William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 120 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 1st November 1996 (USA)
UK Release: 28th March 1997
First Seen: VHS, c.1998

Stars
Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Wolf of Wall Street)
Claire Danes (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Stardust)

Director
Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rogue!)

Screenwriters
Craig Pearce (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rogue!)
Baz Luhrmann (Australia, The Great Gatsby)
William Shakespeare (My Own Private Idaho, 10 Things I Hate About You)

Based on
Some play, apparently.

The Story
Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life, whose misadventured piteous overthrows doth with their death bury their parents’ strife. The fearful passage of their death-marked love and the continuance of their parents’ rage, which, but their children’s end, naught could remove, is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.

Our Heroes
Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, kids from feuding families who fall in love despite that conflict.

Our Villains
The rest of their families, whose animosity to one another, and thereby opposition to the coupling, results in tragedy.

Best Supporting Character
Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio, brought to flamboyant life by Harold Perrineau.

Memorable Quote
“Oh, what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet” — Juliet

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” — Juliet (rarely misquoted, regularly misunderstood)

Memorable Scene
The prologue, which sets out the film’s stylistic stall with a fast-cut and dramatically-scored montage of ultra-modern imagery to visualise the play’s prologue, as delivered by a TV news anchorwoman. It’s especially effective when paired with the first full scene, where the young men of the Capulet and Montague families clash at a gas station, which is similarly front-loaded with the film’s modern design, fast dialogue, and hyper-editing.

Memorable Music
The other films in the Red Curtain Trilogy (see Next Time) of course have a prominent role for music — one is about dancing, the other is a musical. While you’d think a Shakespeare adaptation would be all about the dialogue, the soundtrack plays a key role in Luhrmann’s vision, and certainly connected with viewers. They even once released a dedicated Music Edition on DVD. There is a score (memorable not least for its variation on O Fortuna, the much-reused O Verona), but it’s the songs by contemporary musicians — the kind of things the characters would listen to, I suppose — that have the greatest effect. Most recognisable is Des’ree’s Kissing You, which plays when the eponymous lovers first meet.

Technical Wizardry
The film is well known for its exuberant camerawork and editing. Obviously much of that is done in post-production, but it required on-set ingenuity as well. For the scene where Romeo and Juliet first kiss in a cramped elevator, the set walls were made in sections which could be raised to let the camera in. In the finished shot the camera circles the pair at speed, meaning the crew had to hurriedly raise the walls to let the camera past but speedily replace them to maintain the illusion.

Making of
Famously, the film modernises the characters’ use of swords and daggers by turning them into the brand names of guns. Shakespeare described Tybalt’s swordsmanship as “showy”, so to retain this for the film actor John Leguizamo worked with a choreographer, John O’Connell, to create a style of gunplay inspired by flamenco dancing.

Previously on…
Romeo + Juliet is the middle film in director Baz Luhrmann’s thematically-linked Red Curtain Trilogy. The first is dancing drama Strictly Ballroom.

Next time…
The Red Curtain Trilogy concluded with Moulin Rouge. There are also plenty of other modern-styled Shakespeare adaptations that you could argue owe this a debt.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Art Direction-Set Decoration)
4 BAFTAs (Director, Adapted Screenplay, Music, Production Design)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
1 Saturn nomination (Costumes)
1 MTV Movie Award (Female Performance (Claire Danes))
5 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Kiss — it lost to Independence Day!)

What the Critics Said
“While Shakespeare might well have applauded Aussie filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s souped-up version of Romeo and Juliet, traditionalists [including many critics, if you check out Rotten Tomatoes] are sure to despise the psychedelic tunes and the flashy sets of this audacious adaptation. Not to mention Mercutio as drag queen. For all of its departures, Luhrmann’s largely successful reinterpretation is far from irreverent. He takes liberties with the world, but never the words of this achingly beautiful love story. […] Luhrmann, who pitted youthful brio against conventional wisdom in Strictly Ballroom, clearly enjoys thumbing his nose at authority. Perhaps he’s an eternal teenager, or merely a bit mad. In any case, his excesses only prove Shakespeare’s profundity and the timelessness of his themes.” — Rita Kempley, The Washington Post

Score: 72%

What the Public Say
“in the play, and almost every adaptation, Romeo visits Juliet’s tomb, poisons himself and dies, and then Juliet wakes up, sees Romeo dead, and stabs herself to death. In this version, however, Juliet wakes up just as Romeo downs the poison, so she watches him die in her arms. Seeing her slowly start to wake as Romeo prepares to kill himself is almost unbearable. Especially the way the dialogue is manipulated; all the lines remain the same, but are just said at slightly different times (when Juliet laments the fact that Romeo didn’t leave any poison for her, she’s talking to him directly this time). And when Romeo dies, Juliet is left without her monologue, because she’s said everything to Romeo already. So instead, she cries and then wordlessly shoots herself in the head. It’s pretty gut-wrenching.” — Elizabeth, Chris and Elizabeth Watch Movies

Verdict

Shakespeare got a do-over for the MTV generation in this textually faithful re-imagining of arguably the Bard’s most famous work. Above, I alluded to critics’ dismissal of this adaptation — here are some choice quotes: “the kind of violent swank-trash music video that may make you feel like reaching for the remote”; “a classic play thrown in the path of a subway train”; “destined for the trash heap of Shakespeare adaptations”; “a monumental disaster.” I’d argue its subsequent, and largely enduring, success has put those old fuddy-duddies on the wrong side of history. Certainly, the fact it starred heartthrob du jour Leonardo DiCaprio ensured it reached an audience that otherwise would’ve had no interest. Oh, and it won BAFTAs — the film awards of Shakespeare’s homeland — for direction and screenplay. Shows what you know, yankees. Cultural impact aside, it’s a wildly inventive, daring work, which keeps it fresh and exciting even when its mid-’90s antics should by all rights have dated it into oblivion.

#78 will… kick it Jesus-style!

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #64

A romantic comedy for anyone
who’s ever been in love.

Country: UK & USA
Language: English
Runtime: 111 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 26th May 1993 (France)
UK Release: 27th August 1993
First Seen: VHS, c.1997

Stars
Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Hamlet)
Emma Thompson (Howards End, Sense and Sensibility)
Kate Beckinsale (Underworld, Love & Friendship)
Robert Sean Leonard (Dead Poets Society, House)
Denzel Washington (Glory, Training Day)
Keanu Reeves (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Matrix)
Richard Briers (Watership Down, Hamlet)
Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Birdman)

Director
Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Thor)

Screenwriter
Kenneth Branagh (In the Bleak Midwinter, The Magic Flute)

Based on
Much Ado About Nothing, a play by William Shakespeare.

The Story
When Don Pedro and his chums visit his friend Leonato at his villa in Sicily, they wind up arranging a marriage between Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and one of Don Pedro’s men, Claudio. To bide time until the nuptials, the happy friends attempt to reconcile argumentative pair Beatrice and Benedick — but Don Pedro’s good-for-nothing half-brother, Don John, plots revenge by ruining Hero’s reputation…

Our Heroes
The plot hinges on the romance of Claudio and Hero, and the machinations of Don John to disrupt it, but the central characters are Beatrice and Benedick and the witty verbal sparring that characterises their love-hate relationship.

Our Villains
Don John, the bastard. Because he’s an illegitimate son. But also because he tries to ruin someone’s wedding by faking infidelity, which isn’t exactly the nicest way to behave.

Best Supporting Character
Don Pedro, a prince who has just quashed an uprising by his duplicitous half-brother (see above), seems to be an inveterate matchmaker, first arranging Claudio’s marriage to Hero, then plotting to see Beatrice and Benedick coupled — despite quietly professing his own feelings for Beatrice.

Memorable Quote
“He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man. And he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.” — Beatrice

Memorable Scene
The plan to dupe Beatrice and Benedick into loving each other in action: in the villa’s gardens, Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio ensure Benedick is eavesdropping while they stage a conversation about how much Beatrice loves him, and Hero and her maid Ursula do the same to Beatrice.

Letting the Side Down
I’ve always thought the scenes featuring Michael Keaton and Ben Elton hamming it up are a bit… broad.

Making of
The CliffsNotes on the play also cover this film, and notes that “the [opening] scene is cut by more than half, and yet the omissions are seamless to any viewer who has not memorized the lines or is not following the script. Branagh has omitted or cut to the bone several subsequent scenes and their lines, sometimes inserting in their place a visual scene that conveys the incident more dramatically than the words. At other times, he has cut lines and thinned out long speeches to keep the story moving and to eliminate unnecessary details.” Other major cuts are listed at the link.

Awards
Nominated for the Palme d’Or
1 BAFTA nomination (Costume Design)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actor (Keanu Reeves))

What the Critics Said
“Shakespeare’s comedies were always meant for the people […] the subject matter was low: sexual politics, power games, nasty betrayals, romantic deceptions and other quintessentially human activities. […] Maybe these plays were classics of the future, but they were the Benny Hill of their time. With Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh has, once again, blown away the forbidding academic dust and found a funny retro-essence for the ’90s.” — Desson Howe, The Washington Post

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“For those who don’t find Shakespeare’s comedies funny, this is the film to see, because it’s hilarious. It isn’t just the lines that create laughter, but the manner in which they’re set up and delivered. Expressions and actions often play a large part in the comedy, some of which is decidedly physical. These are the kinds of things that don’t appear on the written page. The film also contains its share of drama, and the pathos and poignancy come as easily and naturally as humor. […] I’m not sure if ‘feel good’ has ever been used to describe a picture based on the Bard’s work, but the expression fits.” — James Berardinelli, ReelViews

Verdict

There’s a lot of comedy in Shakespeare — not just in his Comedies, but scenes in his Tragedies too (even a pretty dark one like Macbeth sees the story put on pause to indulge in a comedic monologue). The problem is, to modern ears at least, it’s just not funny (that one in Macbeth is commonly cut). So it’s an even greater achievement that writer-director-star Kenneth Branagh here produced a film that was both accessible and genuinely funny. Combining intelligent cuts to the text with assured performances produces a film that, at its best, plays like a period screwball comedy. Consequently, it was that rare thing: a Shakespeare adaptation that became a box office success. That’s something worth making much ado about.

#65 is… number one. All others are number two, or lower.

Scotland, Pa. (2001)

2016 #61
Billy Morrissette | 99 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | USA / English | NR / R

Scotland, Pa.Shakespeare gets transposed to 1970s Pennsylvania in this blackly comedic reimagining of Macbeth, which converts the Thane of Glamis into a diner chef and the Scottish throne into ownership of a new concept: drive-thru.

Writer-director Billy Morrissette cleverly reconfigures aspects of the original (the witches are hippies; the ‘spot’ on Mrs Macbeth’s hand is a burn from spitting oil), but dodges being literally beholden to the text, allowing the humour and new situations to drive matters — you don’t need to be a fan of the Bard to get it.

It’s probably a little too long, but still an amusing variation.

4 out of 5

Hamlet (1964)

aka Гамлет / Gamlet

2016 #96
Grigori Kozintsev | 142 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | U

A black-and-white, two-and-a-half hour Shakespeare adaptation in subtitled Russian? No, wait, come back! Actually, don’t bother, because if you’re turned off by any or all of that description then, yeah, this isn’t for you. If you don’t object, however, then you’ll find a film that the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, and Sir Kenneth Branagh have hailed as the greatest film adaptation of arguably the Bard’s most revered play.

I shan’t bother to summarise the plot, because if you don’t know the story already this isn’t a film for you. Even for those who have no problem with black-and-white, or Shakespeare, or subtitles, the latter occasionally race by at a rate of knots, making them hard to keep up with. Unless you fancy regularly pausing and/or rewinding, you’ll have to accept that you’re going to miss a line here or there. (If you do keep up with them throughout, well done, you’re better at quickly parsing Shakespearean dialogue than I am.)

For those in a position to appreciate it, however, this is a great version of the play. Based on Boris Pasternak’s translation, it moves through the narrative with reasonable speed, but without losing anything fundamental (as far as I was aware). Director Grigori Kozintsev expressed a particular interest in the political themes, in contrast to their de-emphasis in Olivier’s 1948 film (which I’ve not seen). He particularly highlights Elsinore’s role as a prison, framing characters through bars, constraining Ophelia in a metal corset, and staging Hamlet’s dismissal to England on a courtroom-like set. I felt like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had bigger roles here than in other versions I’ve seen, with Hamlet’s plot to have them dispatched also given focus. Ophelia’s storyline is more present than normal too, whereas the roles of Gertrude and Horatio felt consequently reduced. This is partly down to which sections of the text are used, but Kozintsev also features dialogue-free realisations of elements of the story, which build up these parts further.

In the famously complex lead role, Innokenty Smoktunovsky gives a Hamlet who you really feel is more intelligent than everyone else around him — like a student fresh home from his studies, who has surpassed his parents and old acquaintances in sheer learning and attentiveness to philosophical topics, but doesn’t yet have a firm handle on his swirling thoughts. It’s possible he’s going genuinely mad with it, too, rather than the playfulness some choose to interpret in the part. Anastasiya Vertinskaya embodies sweet innocence as Ophelia, who Hamlet seems to genuinely care for, but has a poor way of showing it. Conversely, Mikhail Nazvanov makes for a somewhat neutered Claudius — he’s almost bumbling, outwitted by Hamlet but with enough innate power (he’s King, after all) to mask it. I suppose that emphasises the “student who’s outstripped his parents” point, but it doesn’t exactly make for a powerful villain. Still, different interpretations are always interesting.

As a film it looks incredible, with Jonas Gritsius’ cinematography bestowing grandiosity on the striking castle set (built on location over six months), without losing sight of the characters who inhabit these spacious environments. Nighttime scenes are a visual standout — it’s a time of day that’s always set to look good in black-and-white, with light cutting out details from the pervading darkness, and Gritsius doesn’t waste the opportunity. The outdoor staging of the play-within-a-play, and the events around it, is a particularly memorable sequence. Whereas Branagh would use editing to guide us around the various observers in his film, Kozintsev more often achieves it with well-chosen pans and tilts. The visitation of Hamlet’s father’s ghost is another tour de force moment, the kind of visual impact that benefits not a jot from being described in text.

I don’t normally comment on my method of viewing when reviewing a film, but the UK R0 DVD of Hamlet has at least one aspect worthy of note: in an era when widescreen TVs are the norm, someone at Mr. Bongo had the bright idea to release this 2.35:1 film in fullscreen, and to let the subtitles fill the black bar underneath the picture to boot. Practically, this means you have to watch the film in a small box in the centre of your TV — and, at 2.35:1, that’s a very small box. It’s not as if Mr. Bongo do it with all their releases, so goodness knows what made them think it was a bright idea in 2011 to release a fullscreen DVD of a widescreen film. However, I was fortunate enough to catch BBC Four’s screening, in HD, as part of the current BBC Shakespeare Festival. If you missed it, it’s unfortunately not available in HD on iPlayer, but I’d wager the BBC’s SD version is at least the equal of the DVD in terms of resolution, and it doesn’t have the problem of stupidly-placed subtitles.

In many respects this is a 5-star adaptation — it brings vitality to the text, there are several strong performances, the staging is highly cinematic — but the language is something of a barrier to entry. This is most certainly not a neophyte’s Hamlet. But then, why should it need to be? That’s not a fault of the film, just a factor in deciding when to watch it. Even with the subtitle issue feeling like an obstacle to engagement, this was perhaps the most enjoyable Hamlet film I’ve seen. Maybe that’s because it has an advantage in that I’m now more familiar with the play (something which hindered Branagh’s version, as that was the first time I’d seen it), but it speaks to the film’s overall quality that it has more to offer than just Shakespeare’s words.

5 out of 5

Hamlet is available on BBC iPlayer for another seven days.

The Past Month on TV #4

It’s the moments we’ve all been waiting for, as David Tennant returns to Doctor Who and Game of Thrones returns to our screens. Spoiler-free reviews of both (and more) follow…

Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor Adventures Volume 1

One of Doctor Who’s most popular eras is revived this week, as David Tennant returns to the headline role for the first time since 2013 for a debut series of Big Finish audio dramas. By his side is Catherine Tate’s Donna — what initially sounded like terrible casting but turned out to be a fantastic Doctor/companion pairing. (I know not everyone’s convinced by her even now, but you can’t win ’em all.) Given Tennant’s enduring popularity as the 10th Doctor, it’s no surprise his return to the role has brought Big Finish more attention than ever — their website even went down for a few hours on Monday, unable to cope with the rush of fans downloading the new stories. (And yes, I’m kinda bending the rules by reviewing audio drama in a TV column… but, a) these are designed to recreate a TV series in audio form, and b) it’s my column and I can review what I like.) So do they live up to expectations? Thankfully, yes. Setting out to emulate the era they’re from, they follow the model set out by the first three episodes of every Russell T Davies-helmed season of NuWho: a present day one, a future one, and a past one.

The first is Technophobia by Matt Fitton, which is set in our recent past (and therefore Donna’s near-future) when the new M-Pad tablet computer seems to be causing the populace to forget how to use technology. Tennant and Tate hit the ground running — it’s a cliché, but it really does sound like they’ve never been away. Their sprightly performances contain little of the stilted “I’m reading this script aloud for the first time” acting that sometimes plagues audio drama. Fitton captures the style and tone of their single TV season to a tee — if they’d done a second year together, you can well believe this as its first episode. Even Howard Carter’s incidental music is a mostly-fitting substitute for Murray Gold’s iconic work.

The middle tale is sci-fi adventure Time Reaver by Jenny T. Colgan, a best-selling romantic novelist who’s turned her hand to multiple Who projects (including a 10th Doctor and Donna novel published last week to tie-in with these dramas). For me, this was the weak link of the trilogy, though it’s by no means bad. There are some fantastic ideas, but at times their inspirations show through too clearly, and the execution is sometimes lacking. This was Colgan’s first audio drama, and dare I say it shows. Sequences like an action-packed barroom brawl are a little too ambitious to convey in an audio-only medium, and the dialogue is regularly forced to describe what’s going on. On the bright side, Mr Carter offers more magnificent sound design — the noises made by cephalopod villain Gully are immensely evocative.

The final episode is the group’s historical outing, Death and the Queen by James Goss, and it may be the best of the lot. Our intrepid duo find themselves in the kingdom of Goritania in 1780, when it comes under siege from a destructive cloud that contains Death himself. Goss mixes comedy with peril in just the right quantities to create a story that is an entertaining romp but also manages to expose different facets of the Doctor and Donna’s relationship. If Fitton has bottled the essence of RTD, here Goss evokes Steven Moffat, with a time-jumping opening ten minutes that you can well imagine on TV, but which also work perfectly in audio. Things slow a bit later on, with the dialogue sometimes going in circles — a fault of all three of these plays, actually. They could’ve benefited from a trim to fit within the TV series’ 45-minute slot, rather than allowing the freedom of not having to conform to a schedule let them to slide to 55-ish.

That’s only a niggle, though, and one that pales beside the excitement of having Tennant and Tate back in the TARDIS. This is a run of adventures that largely evoke the pair’s time on TV without being a needless carbon copy of it, meaning they work as both a marvellous hit of nostalgia and exciting new adventures in their own right.

All three stories are currently available exclusively from the Big Finish website, going on general release from 1st September. They can be purchased individually (either as a CD+download or download-only), or as part of a limited edition box set (CD+download) that comes with a 78-minute behind-the-scenes documentary and an hour-long introduction to other Big Finish works, all encased in a book with exclusive photography and articles.

Eurovision Song Contest: Stockholm 2016
Ah, love a bit of Eurovision, even if the songs weren’t as good this year. Ok, you might say they never are, but there’s often one or two half-decent ones (I still listen to Conchita Wurst’s Rise Like a Phoenix sometimes, mainly because it’s the best Bond theme released in the last decade). Even then, the winner wasn’t the best of that middling bunch, though it probably had the best message. In fact, the best song of the night was the Swedish hosts’ half-time number, Eurovision-spoofing Love Love Peace Peace (watch it here). The much-heralded new voting system worked like a charm… at least for audience tension purposes. Poor Australia with that last-minute lose… though as they shouldn’t really have been there in the first place, it’s hard to feel too bad for them.

Game of Thrones (Season 6 Episodes 1-4)
Good luck to you if you’re not watching Game of Thrones but still trying to avoid spoilers this year, with the huge and widely-covered news that [REDACTED] was [REDACTED], or that [REDACTED] killed [REDACTED], or when [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] were [REDACTED] for the first time since [REDACTED], or when [REDACTED] was [REDACTED] but [REDACTED] the [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] of [REDACTED] in the process — even if more people seemed interested in discussing her [REDACTED]s.

Trying not to add to the tumult of spoilers (just in case), I thought that The Red Woman was the now-standard GoT season opener (a mix of recapping/establishing where everyone is, and just beginning to shuffle those players around the board for their next moves) done as well as it’s ever been. Home was where the season really kicked into gear, though — quicker than some other years have managed, that’s for sure. One particular moment was much discussed, understandably, but events elsewhere — both in Westeros and Essos — would’ve been enough to excite interest without it. Oathbreaker engaged more with its flashbacks than its ‘present day’ actions, though another episode-ending scene at Castle Black reiterated the series’ warts-and-all vision of the world. Finally, Book of the Stranger was an immensely satisfying hour — the kind of thing Thrones allows us all too rarely, considering how often its heroes are crushed. Apparently the writers have said this is the year the series’ female characters finally begin to really ‘fight back’, and it would seem this episode is where it begins.

Upstart Crow (Series 1 Episodes 1-2)
I can’t remember the last time I saw a new multi-camera sitcom that wasn’t either, a) a bit meta (like Miranda or Mrs Brown’s Boys), or b) a revival (like Red Dwarf X). I don’t know if that says more about the current TV landscape or the kind of things I watch, but either way it surprised me when that was the form Upstart Crow took. It’s just one element that gives it the feel of Blackadder, which I don’t mean as a criticism. Even if it feels a little dated in its execution, there are plenty of laughs — some easy, some clever — and, really, what more do you want from a comedy than to laugh? It may not be up to Blackadder’s highest highs (yet — there’s still time; you never know), but I’d wager it stands fair comparison to the classic’s comparatively-lesser instalments… which I mean to be a less critical assessment than it sounds.

Also watched…
  • The British Academy Television Awards 2016Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky’s barnstorming defence-of-the-BBC acceptance speech set the tone for the evening, which consequently was one of the best BAFTA ceremonies ever. The BBC broadcast had to cut some of his speech, no doubt out of fear of the government, but the full text can be read here.
  • The Flash Season 2 Episodes 15-19 / Arrow Season 4 Episodes 15-18 / DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Season 1 Episodes 6-9 — this is all getting a bit much now… and next year they’re probably adding Supergirl to the mix, as it’s moving to The CW too. I may have to give up on one or two of them at that point, I think.
  • Gilmore Girls Season 6 Episode 10-Season 7 Episode 7 — the much-maligned seventh season really is not good. I just want it to be over so I can switch to being excited for the Netflix revival.
  • Person of Interest Season 4 Episodes 16-22 — with the cancelled-after-filming final season underway in the US now, one of the showrunners was talking about how the series will nonetheless come to an ending, because they’ve tried to conclude every season with a suitable stopping point. I really, really hope they’ve done something different with season five, though, because the cliffhanger endings of seasons three and four would actually have been terrible places to end forever.

    Things to Catch Up On
    This month, I have mostly been missing the second run of The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s all-star adaptation of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays… though as I still haven’t got round to watching the first run from 2012, that’s no real surprise. In fact, Upstart Crow aside, I’ve not yet watched any of their still-running Shakespeare Festival, other highlights (so I’ve heard) of which have included the Shakespeare Live from the RSC celebration and spoof documentary Cunk on Shakespeare. There’s also Russell T Davies’ new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is on Monday 30th.

    Next month… as was just announced yesterday, AMC’s Preacher adaptation comes to the UK via Amazon.

  • Macbeth (2015)

    2016 #23
    Justin Kurzel | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 15 / R

    Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play. Not that I’m a great scholar of the Bard, but I’ve seen and/or read enough to have a favourite. I also think it’s one of his most accessible works: its story and characters are relatively straightforward without being devoid of complexity; it’s got some immensely effective imagery and dialogue, including a solid compliment of famous lines; and it’s not excessively long either (it’s Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, in fact). I also studied it twice over in secondary school, so I know it fairly well. Now, this doesn’t mean I have exacting standards when it comes to film adaptations (Shakespeare is plenty open to interpretation), but it does mean I have my expectations up, especially as there isn’t a film version of Macbeth that could reasonably be described as “definitive” (though I know Polanski’s has its fans). After this latest effort, that’s still the case — but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit. Far from it.

    For thems that don’t know, Macbeth is set in 11th Century Scotland, where the eponymous character (Michael Fassbender) is a lord and general in the army of King Duncan (David Thewlis). After winning a decisive battle, Macbeth and his BFF Banquo (Paddy Considine) bump into a coven of witches, who forecast Macbeth will receive a new title and eventually become king. Although the men are naturally dubious, they soon learn that Macbeth has indeed been granted the prophesied thaneship. With the prospect of being king too tantalising to ignore, Macbeth’s ambitious spouse (Marion Cotillard) eggs him on to plot regicide…

    Although director Justin Kurzel (of Snowtown, a film I have no intention of watching thanks to ghost of 82’s review) wasn’t hired until after the film was in development and Fassbender had been cast, the final film has been very much guided by his vision. The text is heavily cut (a copy & paste & delete-bits job that somehow took three screenwriters), to the displeasure of some critics, though this is primarily because Kurzel chose to supplant some of the dialogue with Filmmaking. In a film?! How very dare he! What I mean, more specifically, is that he’s visualised parts of the text; applied the old rule of “show don’t tell”. So rather than a messenger giving the King a full account of Macbeth being awesome in battle, we see some of the combat; Banquo has hardly any lines early on, but we still understand his friendship with Macbeth just from the way they look at one another and go into battle together.

    Throughout, it’s the imagery that Kurzel and DoP Adam Arkapaw have crafted that’s the real standout of this particular adaptation (however good the cast are, and I’ll come to them). The compositions, the unusual use of almost tableaux-like blocking, the lighting, the colour palettes, the rhythm of the editing and the use of slow-mo… This is a highly filmic film, in a good way. At times, it manages to turn Shakespeare into an action movie, a feat rarely (if ever) accomplished previously. At others, it’s just mighty purdy. The pictures are well complemented by the score, composed by the director’s younger brother, Jed Kurzel (he’s also scored the likes of The Babadook and Slow West, so it’s not just nepotism). His work here is appropriately haunting and folksy.

    To say the text has been cut and the film is strongest in its visuals does not mean this is an empty-headed version of Shakespeare, however. The director and his cast have some interesting variations on the usual depictions of the characters, in particular Lady Macbeth’s motivations. Normally shown as greedy and power-mad, here she is grief-stricken — there’s a single line in the play that’s interpretable as the Macbeths having lost a child, which here is both made explicit and highlighted in an opening funeral scene. These characters are acting out of some kind of desperation or emptiness rather than pure greed. When, later, she (spoiler!) goes mad, it’s subtle and sad, rather than frantic and delirious. Cotillard is fantastic in all of this, and certainly worked hard for it: the way the French language applies emphasis is not suited to delivering iambic pentameter, apparently, so she worked hard with a dialect coach to nail her delivery. Her accent clearly marks Lady Macbeth as the only non-Scottish character here, which becomes another layer added to this interpretation.

    As Macbeth, Fassbender negotiates well the accomplished general who is also dominated by his wife. Here the guiding concept was Macbeth The Warrior; to portray him both as someone looking to replace what he’s lost by the battle being over, and as suffering from PTSD after what he’s witnessed, hence repeated hallucinations of a boy killed in battle. This isn’t out of place with the text, of course — “is this a dagger I see before me” and all that. Fassbender is on furious form, particularly as Macbeth gives in to his paranoia later on. A word too for the supporting cast, in particular Sean Harris as Macduff, who makes the character feel more essential to the story (as he should, considering the climax) than I remember him being in previous versions.

    Some of this analysis is thanks to the short handful of featurettes found on the UK Blu-ray (the US release, out tomorrow, has different special features, so I’ve no idea what the overlap will be, if any). There’s no commentary track, which is a real shame. I don’t often get round to listening to them, but I’d be interested to hear Kurzel talk through his and his cast’s decisions on a scene-by-scene basis. The special features that there are give some insight into how thoroughly they thought through their adaptation and prepared for it, but that only means the lack of further insight is even more pronounced. And Kurzel, Fassbender, Cotillard, and Arkapaw are all now working on the film of Assassin’s Creed, out this December, which is an intriguing prospect — is it going to be an arthouse video game adaptation? I suspect not, but maybe it will be the rarest thing in cinematic history: a good film based on a computer game.

    I was initially on the fence about whether this Macbeth was a 4-star or a 5-star achievement, especially as I maintain it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of Macbeth on screen. But it’s one of those films that, whatever the experience of actually sitting and watching it is like (at times: odd), its imagery and feel really stay with you.

    5 out of 5

    Macbeth is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the US tomorrow, and is out in the UK already.
    Next month, Polanski’s
    Macbeth is one of the initial releases in Criterion’s new UK range (yay!)

    St. Trinian’s: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold (2009)

    aka St. Trinian’s 2*

    2014 #74
    Oliver Parker & Barnaby Thompson | 101 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | PG

    St. Trinian's: The Legend of Fritton's GoldI found the first St. Trinian’s reboot to be a bit of a surprise; a good-for-what-it-was entertainment rather than an abominable write-off. Sadly, the law of diminishing returns applies to this hasty sequel.

    Clearly aiming for a slightly younger audience with a lower PG certificate (the film was initially rated 12A, like the first one, but the distributor chose to make some cuts), the plot sees the anarchic schoolgirls on the hunt for a treasure hidden by the piratical forebear of headmistress Fritton (Rupert Everett), racing against a secret society of women-haters headed by said pirate’s rival’s descendant (David Tennant). Cue hijinks.

    Despite an occasionally slicker appearance, including some CGI-aided pirate-y flashbacks, and bigger sequences, like a commando raid on the school or a large flashmob musical number at Liverpool Street station, the whole doesn’t come together quite as well as the first movie. (Plus, the use of the term “flashmob” instantly dates it.) Everett is still having a ball, but Colin Firth’s role feels contractually obligated and Tennant, hot off his time on Doctor Who, performs at the level of his Comic Relief appearances rather than, say, Hamlet. Which I guess is appropriate.

    St Trinian's girlsThe rest of the cast are a mix of old and new — clearly, some managed to wriggle out of a second go-round. Talulah Riley, Tamsin Egerton and Broadchurch’s Jodie Whittaker weren’t so lucky, while Gemma Arterton, since moved on to bigger and better, has managed to get her appearance reduced to a cameo. The new recruits include Girls Aloud’s Sarah Harding making a failed bid to transition into acting (though she’s no worse than anyone else), as well as Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton as the head of the chavs and Love Soup’s Montserrat Lombard as the top Goth, both at least bringing some comedic chops to their ensemble-cast roles. Plus there’s an increasingly rare chance to see Juno Temple go a whole film without taking her clothes off.

    St. Trinian’s 2 isn’t without merit, offering the occasional laugh or amusing sequence; but even if you found the first to be surprisingly entertaining, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the same from the second. Unless you’re an under-12 girl, that is — and they are, in fairness, the target audience.

    2 out of 5

    St. Trinian’s 2 (or whatever else you want to call it) is on Film4 today at 6:55pm.

    * Although commonly promoted as St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, the actual title displayed on screen at the start of the movie omits the numeral. I’m a stickler for accuracy. ^

    Macbeth (1948)

    2013 #79
    Orson Welles | 103 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    MacbethTwelve years on from his innovative, acclaimed, career-bolstering ‘Voodoo Macbeth’, and with the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast and films like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady from Shanghai now under his belt, Orson Welles tried to interest Hollywood in something they’d only attempted a handful of times since the advent of talkies: a Shakespeare adaptation.

    “Tried to interest” and “attempted” are not inapt phrases here. After failing to elicit interest in an adaptation of Othello, Welles switched to pitching the ever-popular Macbeth as “a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein,” interesting Republic Pictures because of their desire to move from producing low-budget Westerns to being a prestige studio. The end result was Welles had to shoot his film in just 23 days for only $700,000. The end result was a movie that struggled against Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, released the same year, and for which poor critical reception led to nearly 20 minutes of cuts and the remainder being dubbed to change the actors’ accents.

    Restored in 1980, the original version is a compromised but interesting adaptation. Welles has chopped and changed the play, cutting scenes, transposing others, assigning speeches to different characters, even creating new ones. This array of modifications scandalised critics at the time, though nowadays it’s much more common for film (and stage) versions of Shakespeare to mess around with the text as needed, usually to make the works a manageable length. Macbeth is one of the more sensibly-sized plays, however, though I suppose this is the legacy of Welles’ 23-day schedule.

    Moody MacbethThe low budget and quick schedule affect the film across the board, for good and ill. There’s much dramatic staging, with grand sets and doom-laden lighting. The shadow-drenched cinematography may well be a result of the cheap production, but the resulting effect is marvellous. Indeed, all the camerawork is great. There are some striking long takes, including the majority of the night of the murder occurring in one long unbroken shot. The costumes, on the other hand, look like a ragtag bunch of Past Clothing from the studio’s store… which is because they essentially were.

    Welles chose to have the cast speak with Scottish accents, which unfortunately end up a bit squiffy. I suppose it’s an attempt at authenticity at least, and if you don’t allow them to bother you then they won’t bother you. I certainly wound up not noticing them after only a few minutes. In spite of that, many of the performances are quite strong. Of their era — they can be a little stagey and histrionic, lacking the subtlety we might expect today — but good. The dialogue was pre-recorded for the sake of the schedule, with the actors miming their lines on set. Seems like a ridiculous idea, and no doubt had an effect on performances, but I only noticed it once in the entire production.

    Much of the score (by Jacques Ibert, after Welles failed to secure Bernard Herrmann for contractual reasons) is appropriately atmospheric, but at one point it goes all Comedy. Mad MacbethMacbeth himself is hardly in possession of all his faculties at that point, acting like a drunkard; but rather than make the sequence appropriately sinister (it’s in this state that he orders the execution of Banquo and Fleance, for example), it plays up the silliness, which is a shame.

    For a variety of reasons, stemming from both the production situation and Welles’ creative choices, this is a flawed film. That said, its successes outweigh its problems to create a memorable adaptation that is justly regarded as one of the more significant films in Welles’ oeuvre.

    4 out of 5

    September 2013 + 5 Great Shakespeare Films

    Bah-da-bah-da (bah-da-bah-da) bah-da-bah-da-daaa!

    For most of the month I’ve been playing, virtually on loop, the Iron Man 3 main titles, Can You Dig It.

    Turns out, yes I can.


    What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?

    There’s no doubting that WDYMYHS has been a success in terms of making sure I see more films I’ve long been meaning to see (I may not have watched one every month as intended, but I’ve still seen 7 of the 12, with 3 months to go), but it’s been less satisfying in terms of my enjoyment. City Lights and Dr. Strangelove were comedies that left me fairly cold; Bicycle Thieves and The Seventh Seal are films that surely helped define our cliches of Arthouse Cinema; and though I was suitably awed by both Once Upon a Time in America and Touch of Evil, for neither would my watchword be “enjoyed”.

    That changes this month, however, with a film that was pure enjoyment from start to finish: Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Unsurprisingly it’s my favourite WDYMYHS film to date, and it’s up there with the Welles and the Leone in terms of sheer filmmaking quality too.

    Also this month, my review of Dr. Strangelove, trying to fathom what I didn’t see that so many other people do.


    September’s films

    Iron Man 3#72 Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
    #73 The Tempest (2010)
    #74 Iron Man 3 (2013)
    #75 LEGO Batman: The Movie – DC Super Heroes Unite (2013)
    #75a Marvel One-Shot: Item 47 (2012)
    #75b Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter (2013)
    #76 The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991)
    #77 The Falcon in Mexico (1944)
    North by Northwest#78 Real Steel (2011)
    #79 Macbeth (1948)
    #80 Wolf (1994)
    #81 North by Northwest (1959)
    #82 The Falcon in Hollywood (1944)
    #82a Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Deluxe Edition) (2013)
    #83 Flight (2012)
    #84 The Falcon in San Francisco (1945)


    Analysis

    You might not think it, but September is a surprisingly key month in my annual drive to 100 films: the only two times I’ve beaten 100, I reached the titular goal in September. That being said, in other years its use as an indicator is minimal: the past two years were both at #81 by now, but on one of those I made it to 100 and the other I failed. (In fairness, I did get to 97 — a margin of 3% isn’t that bad.) In 2008 I made it to 100 off a 64 in September, and in 2009 I only reached 94 off September’s 54.

    Having reached #84 in 2013, then, it looks like I’m pretty well set going into the year’s final quarter. It won’t be a record-breaking year (unless I average over 15 films per month from here on out — to put that in perspective, my best month ever was 17 films; my average for the year to date is just over 9), but I have fair hopes of at least making it to 100. Hey, that’s the title, and always feels doubly important when I failed the year before.

    Before now, I’ve noted that the first six years of this blog have followed a pattern: a year where I reach 120-something films, a year of exactly 100 films, a year of failure, repeat. What also happened is that both the 120-something years reached the titular goal in September, while both the 100-exactly years only got there on December 31st. This being the seventh year, I should be on 120 films and getting to 100 in September. Obviously, I haven’t. Something about humans always seeing patterns that aren’t there and all that, eh…

    Viewed in other contexts, however, this has been a very good September. It’s the second-best month of 2013, behind March’s stupendous 17; and in terms of Septembers past, 2013 is one for the ages. I watched 13 brand-new films, making it my most prolific September to date (previous best was 11 in 2010). The past two years I’ve watched four and eight films respectively, so this year is a marked improvement. Though somehow I doubt next September will continue the pattern by reaching 19 films. But you never know — I’ve done 19 in a month (once) before…


    Summer 2013 update

    I mentioned last month that my Summer 2013 was kicking off now, as the big films made their way to Blu-ray and I finally started to see them. I wasn’t necessarily convinced of my own prediction — the list of films I have accessible to me but still haven’t watched from the summers of 2011 and 2012 is too long to go in to here — but, lo and behold, look what’s up there: both Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3.

    Only two films, I know, but this month’s other big release was Fast & Furious 6 and I’ve not seen 4 or 5 yet. All the other high-profile releases are still to come, and, looking at the release calendar, there’s not much of particular interest until November. October can only offer After Earth and World War Z, both of which I intend to see, but neither are day-one purchases for me. Looks like summer will be going on until at least Christmas.


    5 Great Shakespeare Film Adaptations

    There are an awful lot of Shakespeare screen adaptations. I’ve not seen most of them. But nonetheless, inspired by this month’s viewing of Orson Welles’ Macbeth, here are a fantastic five:

    1. Throne of BloodThrone of Blood
      Kurosawa abandons Shakespeare’s setting, some of his characters, and, most contentiously, all of his dialogue in this nonetheless extremely faithful rendering of Macbeth. Dripping atmosphere from every frame and gorgeously staged throughout, this both illuminates and transcends the Bard’s work. I bet it’d look great on Blu-ray. Why isn’t there a Blu-ray?
    2. Romeo + JulietRomeo + Juliet (1996)
      As if using teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio to bring Shakespeare to a whole new generation wasn’t admirable enough, Baz Luhrmann also produces a remarkable rendition of Will’s most famous play. The entire film is a feast of invention (who can forget the swords-as-guns thing?) and fabulously cinematic.
    3. Much Ado About NothingMuch Ado About Nothing (1993)
      The ’90s offer us a veritable banquet of Shakespeare adaptations, and the man involved with a good many of them was Kenneth Branagh. Here he takes one of Shakespeare’s most accessible works and, while retaining period costumes and a classical directorial style, still produces a movie capable of entertaining any modern audience.
    4. The Lion KingThe Lion King
      Apparently Disney now deny this is an adaption of Hamlet, but tosh and piffle, the similarities are numerous — too numerous to go into here. There are more faithful adaptations of Hamlet out there (loads of them), but I’d wager few are as purely entertaining as (and none less depressing than) this indisputable masterpiece.
    5. Looking for RichardLooking for Richard
      Not strictly an adaptation, though chunks of the play are performed, in this documentary/adaptation Al Pacino looks into “Shakespeare’s significance and relevance to the modern world”. If that sounds dry, it’s actually quite engrossing. Also, much better than that dappy horribly-mid-’90s poster might suggest.

    And one I disliked…

      Henry VThe Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France
      Oh sure, most people love Larry Olivier’s wartime version of Henry V, but I didn’t take to it. Indeed, in my review I asserted that “however good it may once have seemed, I think this version has had its day.”
      So there.

    Want to tell me how wrong I am about Romeo + Juliet, The Lion King, and Henry V? Or just tell me which adaptations I’ve missed and really ought to check out? That’s what the comment section is for.


    Next month on 100 Films in a Year…

    Just 16 films remain this year!

    Probably not one month’s work, but October could dictate whether I reach #100 in November, or December, or not at all…