“Monthly update, monthly update, wherefore art thou monthly update?”

Aside

Leaving aside my misappropriation of Shakespeare (“why are you a monthly update?” doesn’t make much sense), September 2015’s recap is going to be a few days late due to circumstances beyond my control — it’s a pretty big one and there’s been no time to finish it. Very frustrating for me (it’s so nice to be on time), and I’m sure you’re all absolutely desperate for it too.

Raging Bull (1980)

2015 #88
Martin Scorsese | 124 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

It would be boring if we all liked the same stuff, wouldn’t it? I’m sure there’s at least one ‘universally’-loved classic that we each dislike. Heck, tends to be every ‘universally’-loved classic has at least one Proper Critic that dislikes it. The flip side of this is that, in my opinion, if you don’t like something that everyone else does, there’s a fair chance it’s you who’s missing something. That’s a rule I apply to others, naturally, but I also try to bear it in mind myself (and, at the risk of sounding terribly arrogant, I think a few more people could do with thinking the same).

Given that introduction, I guess it’ll come as no surprise that I didn’t get on very well with Raging Bull. We’ve established before that I don’t like boxing (see: Million Dollar Baby, which (I’ll say now) I didn’t like more than Raging Bull, but has a higher score because I was softer back then), but I don’t think that precludes me from enjoying a film set in that world. Anyhow, I wouldn’t say Scorsese’s biopic pitches the sport as an aspirational one full of honour and wonder or something. And indeed, the boxing scenes were some of the bits I liked the most — they’re very well done; immensely effective. Unfortunately, they make up barely ten minutes of the running time, and it was the rest I didn’t care for.

Robert De Niro stars as wannabe-a-contender boxer Jake LaMotta, as he grows in stature — both his reputation and physically — and also grows ridiculously paranoid, which is probably the kind of thing that happens when you spend years being repeatedly punched in the head. This arc seems to unfold through interminable scenes of people mumbling semi-unintelligibly at each other, realised with a style of camerawork, editing, and acting that seems to be aiming for documentary-like realism, which has both pros (realism) and cons (s’boring).

The aforementioned fights, on the other hand, are full-on Cinema, and glorious for it. The make-up is also very good. Relatedly, De Niro’s physical transformation, from lithe boxer to washed-up fatso, is remarkable. Decades before the likes of Christian Bale and his Machinist/Batman Begins flip-flop, De Niro gained a then-record-setting 60lbs.

Mixed technical success aside, I was never sure what the film was really meant to be about. Things turn up and go nowhere — like, what happened with that 14-year-old girl in his club? One second he’s been arrested, then it’s a couple of years later and he’s slumming it as a stand-up in New York; then, just as fast, he’s doing some kind of literature recital to a packed house. I mean, what? I would say that this is a film only of interest to people who are already fans of LaMotta and want to see some of his life on screen, but clearly that’s not the case. That’s certainly how it felt to me, though; and it’s what I would believe too, were it not for 35 years of widespread appreciation that demonstrates I’d be wrong.

Based on where we find him at the end, I guess LaMotta would appreciate a Shakespeare quotation. For all the film’s “greatest of all time” acclaimedness, this is the one that came to my mind:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

You can’t win ’em all, right?

3 out of 5

Raging Bull was meant to be viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, but I missed it. I’ve righted that as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

Hamlet (2009)

aka The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet

2009 #90
Gregory Doran | 183 mins | TV | 12

Hamlet (2009)It doesn’t seem like 18 months since the RSC brought Hamlet to the stage with British TV’s biggest star actor (probably) as the titular Dane, but it is (more or less). Thanks to sold-out performances and largely positive reviews (theatre critics seem even less keen to agree on anything than film ones), we’re now treated to this film adaptation, shown on BBC Two on Boxing Day and released on DVD (but not Blu-ray, boo*) earlier this week.

Hamlet hangs primarily on its central performance — so we’re constantly told, anyway; this being only the second production I’ve seen I can’t confidently assert so for myself, but I can certainly see where the consensus comes from. Equally, I can’t accurately compare David Tennant’s performance to any other, which often seems to be a central consideration in any review of the play. In near-isolation, however, it’s a thoroughly convincing performance. He glides seamlessly from withdrawn and grief-stricken in his first appearance, to intrigued and excited by the ghost of his father, to clever and wily as he plots, and finally to an alternation between assumed madness and serious introspection as he enacts his plans.

Any number of scenes show off Tennant’s abilities, particularly the way he treats other characters. He resolutely takes the piss out of both Polonius and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, but plays each in subtly different ways: the former is like someone intelligent teasing with someone who doesn’t get it, which sounds distasteful but is enjoyable because of Polonius’ plotting and influence; while the latter is like a cat toying with a pair of treacherous mice, who are aware they’ve been caught out but struggle on regardless. Hamlet’s pair of ‘friends’ can be seen as insignificant characters by some — it’s part of what led Tom Stoppard to pen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, after all — but with a few silent additions around Shakespeare’s dialogue and the way Tennant, Sam Alexander and Tom Davey choose to play the original lines, their roles seem to have increased importance.

The other notable facet of Tennant’s interpretation of the character is humour. Hamlet’s madness here is almost unrelentingly funny — even in deadly serious situations, like capture following a murder, Tennant’s Hamlet can’t resist taunting the other characters, keeping the viewer onside by keeping his apparent insanity entertaining rather than scary or darkly intense. If anything, however, this screen version fails to capture just how funny Tennant was on stage. Perhaps it’s the loss of a bigger audience, or the energy of performing on stage, or perhaps Tennant has reined in, switching from Stage Acting to Screen Acting. He’s still funny, certainly, but its not as striking as it was live. In fact, more laughs are earnt by Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. As his lines dither on like many a real forgetful old man, it’s difficult to imagine the part played any other way.

The other stand-out is an award-winning Patrick Stewart in the dual role of Claudius and the Ghost, though the fact he plays both feels relatively insignificant. His cool politician of a King makes a perfect contrast to the crazed energy of the Prince, the latter constantly bounding around while the former remains still and collected. In my view it’s a shame Stewart has a beard in the filmed version (a necessity forced by his concurrent appearance in Waiting for Godot, I believe) — on stage he was clean-shaven and therefore somehow more reminiscent of numerous other political villains, both real and fictional, whereas his bearded visage is more reminiscent of a traditional Kingly role. Still, it’s a minor aesthetic point that doesn’t hamper his wonderful performance.

Director of the original stage production, Greg Doran, also helms this version. It’s a convincing adaptation too, making good use of sets, locations and, vitally, camerawork, rather than employing static shots of the original theatrical blocking. A quick shoot (18 days for an over-three-hours film) and single location combine to reduce the number of on-screen locations, unfortunately, though the main set is fairly well rearranged to stand in for a number of rooms. It does branch out occasionally, but it’s a shame this couldn’t have been done more often, as consecutive scenes on the same slightly-redressed main set occasionally confuse whether we’ve changed location or not.

Doran’s main screen gimmick, however, is security cameras. Every so often our viewpoint switches to a grainy black & white high angle as we survey the scene via CCTV. It’s a neat idea to convey the concept of Elsinore as a place where everyone is under constant scrutiny, and it’s occasionally used very well indeed — during the Ghost’s appearance to Hamlet, for example, or when he rips a camera down to declare “now I am alone”. Unfortunately, it’s not as consistently thought-out as one might like. When Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet and Ophelia, for example, they do so from behind a two-way mirror (as in Branagh’s film, incidentally) rather than, say, from a control room with a bank of security monitors, an idea which seems to naturally flow from the presence of CCTV. Following this, when Polonius talks to Hamlet he delivers several asides to camera — not the security camera, mind, just to the audience. It would have been more effective to have him offer them to a security camera, knowing Claudius to be viewing in another room. It’s moments like these that turn the omnipresent video surveillance from a clever idea to little more than a gimmick. And by the time it’s cut to during the climactic sword fight, you just want it to go away.

It’s almost certain that this production will be remembered as “The Doctor Who Hamlet” thanks to its leading man. Whether that’s unfair or not is another debate, though it shouldn’t mean this version goes ignored. Tennant’s excellent performance reminds us that he was an accomplished performer with the RSC long before he gained televisual fame, and a strong supporting cast ensure this can’t just be dismissed as a popularity-seeking vanity venture by the RSC. Indeed, if there’s one good thing about the “Doctor Who Hamlet” label, it’s that the potential viewership is increased massively, bringing some to Shakespeare who never would have bothered otherwise. Surely no true theatre aficionado could argue with that.

4 out of 5

* A Blu-ray was eventually released in April 2010. ^

Hamlet (1996)

2008 #50
Kenneth Branagh | 232 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Hamlet (1996)Following his success with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh tackled arguably Shakespeare’s most revered play, Hamlet. And he didn’t do it by half. It’s the first ever full-text screen adaptation, which means it clocks in just shy of four hours; he unusually shot it on 70mm film, which means it looks gorgeous; and, while he grabbed the title role himself, he assembled around him a ludicrously star-packed cast from both sides of the pond — in alphabetical order, there’s Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Nicholas Farrell, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, John Mills, Jimi Mistry, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, Don Warrington, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet — not to mention several other recognisable faces. Even Ken Dodd’s in there!

But, with impressive statistics and name-dropping put to one side, what of the film itself? Well, it’s a bit of a slog, especially for someone unfamiliar with the text. While there is much to keep the viewer engaged, the high level of attention required can make it a little wearing; certainly, I took the intermission as a chance to split the film over two nights. Amusingly, the second half uses the original text to provide a sort of “Previously on Hamlet“, which was very useful 24 hours later. None of this is the fault of Branagh or his cast, who do their utmost to make the text legible for newbies — for example, there are cutaways to events that are described but not shown by Shakespeare, which, among other things, help establish who Fortinbras is (Rufus Sewell, as it turns out) before he finally turns up later on.

That said, some of the performances are a bit mixed. Branagh is a good director and not a bad actor, but his Shakespearean performances are variations on a theme rather than fully delineated characters. While there a new facets on display here thanks to the complexity of the character, there are also many elements that are eerily reminiscent of his Henry V and Benedick. The Americans among the cast seem to be on best behaviour and generally cope surprisingly well, while Julie Christie achieves an above average amount of fully legible dialogue. Perhaps the biggest casting surprise is Judi Dench, appearing in what is barely a cameo — one wonders if the film-career-boosting effects of a certain spy franchise would have changed that.

The best thing about this version, however, is how it looks. Much credit to cinematographer Alex Thomson for using the larger 70mm format to its full, loading every frame with vibrant colours and packing detail into even the quietest moments. Not every frame is a work of art — there is, after all, a story to be told — but there’s more than enough eye candy to go round. Also, a nod to the editing (the work of Neil Farrell), which makes good use of long takes — many of them full of camera moves — but also sharply edited sequences, such as the all-important play. The fast cuts make for a joyously tense scene in a way only cinema can provide, which I suppose is rather ironic during a ‘play within a play’.

For fans of Shakespeare, I suspect Branagh’s Hamlet is a wonderful experience, finally bringing the complete text to the screen and executing it all so well. For us mere mortals, it’s a beautifully shot and engagingly performed film, that I’m sure would benefit from a greater understanding of the text.

4 out of 5

West Side Story (1961)

2007 #53
Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins | 146 mins | DVD | PG

West Side Story“Everything’s free in America,” goes the famous line; but this film is probably more accurately summed up in its following line: “For a small fee in America”.

For, surprisingly, underneath the song and dance numbers (some impressive, some embarrassing), the Shakespearian romance story, and the vibrant and beautiful cinematography, beats the heart of a gritty, political, social drama about gangs, racism, immigration, and more — issues that seem as pertinent today as ever.

It’s a brilliant film, which falls short of full marks only thanks to some of those weaker song & dance bits (and I might be being a tad unfair there).

4 out of 5