Film Review – King John (1984)

We’re back to our good old standard, The Complete Dramatic Works of Shakespeare series from the BBC. Oh, BBC of the 1980s, sometimes I wonder how you went from making films that I suffer through in the hopes of something worth mocking to making awesome things like Sherlock. How does that happen BBC? And can we travel back in time to fix this series? Please?

This film is the level of bad where I gave it only half my attention and devoted the other half to Twitter, Draw Something, Solitaire, or twiddling my thumbs. Which is the not subtle way of saying that this film is boring as all get out. It’s so dull that there are absolutely no screencaps to be found of this two and a half hour odyssey. These films are the reason that students dread Shakespeare. It is more than possible to make these plays interesting, and dare I say it, even fun to watch, but this film is an epic fail.

Let’s start with the sets. They are very obviously stage sets, with castle walls that have no more width than your typical sheet of plywood, and large painted sheets being used as backdrops for the “outdoors.” The costumes aren’t worth writing home about and although many of them are designed to look rich and luxurious as befits royalty, they just look really fake and probably uncomfortable. The one exception to this is Blanch’s dress, which is actually quite pretty, but she doesn’t get enough screen time to really make a difference. Constance’s crown is the prettiest of all the crowns that are adorning heads (and there are quite a few) but all of them look pretty uncomfortable. Also, let it be noted that there are exactly three haircuts men have in this film: long hair and beard, short hair and beard, short hair and no beard. No faux hawks here, I’m afraid.

And with that over, let’s talk about the actual acting and film choices. The only character I actually liked was Bastard who actually has some charm and is interesting to watch. He cheekily addresses his soliloquies and asides directly to the camera, but the poor man cannot save this film. The actor playing John has about three expressions, one of which made me laugh out loud at its ridiculousness. He plays John as weaselly, cowardly, and downright irritating. Never does John have a sympathetic moment, even when he dies. Although his death is not the most ridiculous in the film. That prize will be handed out later in this post.

But what drives me crazy about this film is the lack of passion that all of the actors seem to have. Constance does not get nearly as hysterical as someone would expect of someone who is desperate to get her son on the throne, and later, as a woman whose son has been abducted and will likely be dead soon. And speaking of the abduction, this film sticks so strictly to the play, that we get absolutely no visual extras. We don’t even get “excursions,” and instead just cuts from one scene to the next. A play oriented around a war with no war scenes is so sad. But returning to the lack of passion, the worst culprit for this is the young actor playing Arthur. While he’s adorable in a young kid whose voice verges on the prepubescent squeak at times, he’s entirely too earnest throughout with absolutely no range in his emotions. Every line is delivered at the same level and when he’s standing around being talked about, his face is rather expressionless and he just tends to blink a lot more than normal. What particularly drove me crazy is that during the scene when Hubert is about to poke out his eyes with hot pokers, the kid DOES NOT FREAK OUT. Now yes, he has Shakespearean lines to deliver, but when someone brings red hot metal near your face (no matter how fake it looks, and it does look fake) you do not remain calm. But Arthur’s best moment is when he proves he is too stupid to live. As you’ll recall, Arthur jumps off the castle wall in the stupidest escape attempt ever. What I did not mention is that among his lines is “be kind to me dear stones” before he jumps off. From the moment the child actor said that line, I started laughing. This only got worse when he had the most unintentionally comic death scene ever. There is fake blood, a line delivered in a weak voice, and then overdramatic death flopping. And then there was loud and inappropriate laughter from me and I desperately wish this scene were on YouTube so you could all appreciate the ridiculousness of it.

So to sum up, skip this film. Unless you are connoisseur in bad death scenes. And then just skip to Act IV and fast forward until you see the blond kid with the weirdly dark eyebrows on the plywood castle walls.

Next week we’re on to Richard II. Get ready for more royal hijinks, war, and death, readers.

Film Review – The Comedy of Errors (1989)

I apologize in advance for the exclamation points in this paragraph. I promise the rest of the review will be devoid of them. But to begin with, this DVD is from CBC Home Video! Yay for Canadian content! And it’s the recording of a stage adaptation of the play done at Stratford! Double yay! For those not in the know, Stratford is THE place to see Canadian productions of Shakespeare. *Wistful sigh…* Also, the film is only 76 minutes! Yay for short Shakespeare films!

And with the exclamation point overload over, let’s move on to the play proper. Due to the combination of this production being more than 20 years old and it being full of stage actors, none of the characters are played by recognizable actors. That being said, they all do a great job and bring a lot of the qualities necessary to make the comedy work. Both Antipholuses are played by the same actor, similarly for the Dromios, with stand-ins that keep their backs to the audience for the final revelation scene.

The costumes and set design are actually very rich and give off a bit of a Louis XVI feel, right down to red heels on the shoes of one of the minor characters. The production has also put a strong emphasis on time in the play, with a clock on stage that chimes several times, emphasizing that all the crazy happens in the course of a single afternoon.

There’s quite a bit of slapstick, to which the play definitely lends itself and did make me chortle in a few spots. The play also makes the interesting decision to have all other characters freeze when a character has an aside or a soliloquy with the lighting changing as well. The lighting change doesn’t work as well on film as it simply looks darker if the actor is even slightly outside of their spot but would probably be very effective live.

Obviously to fit into 76 minutes, the play has been cut down but it works well and keeps you from becoming slightly irritated that no one has figured it out yet. Actually better than some of the BBC’s Complete Works of Shakespeare productions, the film isn’t a bad way to expose yourself to the play. Especially as it’s short. But I wouldn’t be rampaging out to get a copy.

Geordie Johnson, Goldie Semple, Lucy Peacock & Keith Dinicol in Comedy of Errors

Adriana, Astipholus, Luciana, and Dromio.

While I still owe a film review for The Winter’s Tale (someone actually checked it out from the library!) which will show up next week, this is the conclusion of the comedies. Next week I’m on to the histories, starting with King John.

Film Review – The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

Our film this week is actually a bit of a classic, starring Elizabeth Taylor and the man she married twice, Richard Burton. Enjoy the sample of what a trailer was like in the 1960s and then we’ll move on to the review.

Unsurpisingly, the film (like almost any adaptation of the play I’ve seen) skips the Induction and jumps directly into the film proper with Lucentio and Tranio arriving in Padua. While Taylor and Burton are the only recognizable names in this film, fans of Gilmore Girls will recognize the actor playing Lucentio as Asher Fleming with some crazy facial hair going on. I didn’t particularly dig the actress playing Bianca, who came across as simpering and a little irritating. Elizabeth Taylor is really brilliant at playing the wildness of Kate, although the changes in her character still seem a little too quick. However, her crazy eyes and thousand-yard stare should be studied. Richard Burton’s interpretation of Petruchio didn’t really work for me. I have always seen Petruchio as a relatively sane man acting outlandishly in order to get his wife to chill out a little. However, Burton has made Petruchio a crude and frequently drunk man who’s just as crazy as his wife. There are brief flashes of his softer side, but overall, I didn’t find Petruchio particularly sympathetic.

Elizabeth Taylor, Taming of the Shrew

Crazy eyes.

The film focuses far more on the preliminaries and on Kate and Petruchio than any other aspect of the play with the first two acts taking up more than half of the film. Dialogue has also been played with, and while it’s all still Shakespeare, some lines are cut while others are repeated multiple times over the course of a scene. What I found most interesting was the inclusion of songs from other Shakespearean plays (I specifically noticed the closing song from Twelfth Night creeping in). Perhaps the most interesting touch was taking the first verbal exchange between Kate and Petruchio into a physical chase as well, which takes them all over the house, including up onto the ridgepole of the roof. Taylor and Burton’s chemistry is riveting of course and they truly make the scene work better, although a little less inarticulate huffing from Taylor would have been nice.

Taylor and Burton, Taming of the Shrew

The end of the chase sequence.

The costumes are very rich in that  style that many films from the 60s seem to have. Elizabeth Taylor’s gowns are gorgeous, particularly her wedding dress (although the fact that the dress later gets dragged through water and mud makes me just a little sad). She’s also the only actress (ignoring the harlot with the crazy platform shoes) who has her cleavage shown off. All. The. Time. Burton’s costumes tend more towards the ridiculous, adding to the craziness of his character. One other notable look is Hortensio’s scholar disguise which looks a bit like a cross between Rasputin and a Marx brother.

Taylor and Burton, Taming of the Shrew

That gorgeous wedding dress.

As mentioned before, Kate’s transformation still seems a bit sudden and although Taylor does her best, that final speech still seems to come out of left field. However, the film makes the interesting choice of after having Kate make that speech and kiss Petruchio, she then disappears off into the crowd, leaving Petruchio to chase her once again in a way highly reminiscent of their first encounter.

Taylor, Taming of the Shrew

Still not sure I buy this transformation.

Definitely a film that will appeal more to people that love other films that came out of the 60s, it’s a decent adaptation of the play, but ultimately it comes off as a vehicle for earning funds off the publicity gold mine that was Burton and Taylor’s first marriage. Next week we’re on to The Winter’s Tale. Until then, fair reader.

Film Review – As You Like It (2006)

Fair readers, I present to you part the third of my ongoing love letter to the awesomeness of Kenneth Branagh and his work with Shakespeare. Take a look at the trailer and then on to the review.

The film begins with some title cards establishing the setting in 19th century Japan and the merchant settlements that were established during that time. We then get a haiku that concludes with “all the world’s a stage” (which conveniently is five syllables) and then we get some truly beautiful establishing shots. Branagh has made the choice to actually show the deposing of the Duke by Duke Frederick, so we get to see the court as they watch a sort of silent play (I’m poorly versed in Japanese culture so I’m sure there’s a name for this but I don’t know it) intercut with shots of warriors creeping towards the house ominously (there’s even a scene with moving bamboo straws in the pond, I thought that trick only worked in cartoons). We then see the Duke deposed, and move into the play proper. Branagh has shifted a few scenes around in the first act to make it flow a little better for film and fit with his opening, but otherwise the film is very faithful to the text.

Celia and Touchstone, As You Like It

Celia and Touchstone

The casting of this film is, of course, brilliant. Bryce Dallas Howard is a brilliant Rosalind and Romola Garai takes the smaller role of Celia and brings a brilliant level of comedy to it. The two actors cast as Orlando and Oliver are super attractive and have wonderful screen presences. Alfred Molina makes Touchstone amusing to watch, if only for the epic hairdo. Brian Blessed plays the dual roles of the deposed Duke and Duke Frederick and makes the one sweet and sympathetic and the other truly menacing. The other actor of note is Kevin Kline as Jacques, who brings the right dose of melancholy and delivers the “All the world’s a stage” speech with a great level of gravitas.

Kevin Kline, As You Like It

Jacques during the "All the world's a stage" speech

The locations, sets, and costumes for this film are absolute gorgeous. IMDb informs me that the film was shot in England, and the locales are beautiful. While there is the general feeling that it is inhospitable without being truly harsh. The costumes run the gamut from late 19th century British garb to more Asian influenced kimonos and military garb. Branagh lets the setting creep into the play in several ways to make some of the details more acceptable for a modern audience. Charles is now a sumo wrestler, which makes Orlando’s defeat of him even more impressive. And the lion attack seems far more likely in the wilds of Japan than in France (although in both cases, I still think it’s pretty slim. The major suspension of disbelief required is that anyone believes that Rosalind is actually a boy. While her clothes hide her curves pretty well, her face is still so feminine that she just looks like a woman in period clothes and a ponytail. But she’s so pretty and charming, it’s easy to let it go.

Rosalind and Orlando, As You Like It

"You really believe she's a boy? Really?"

The film rolics along and with some of the silent touches makes the alterations in characters like Oliver and Orlando, more believable. Branagh makes the decision to imply that Duke Frederick has beaten Oliver to get information about Orlando’s whereabouts out of him. Also, the mildly scary scene of the lion attack depicted in the film makes Oliver’s willingness to forgive Orlando far more believable. Additionally, both he and Celia manage to really sell the love at first sight angle and make it truly charming. As for Duke Frederick’s conversion, Branagh makes a point throughout the film of having every group of characters that enter the forest to encounter a monk that sits in front of a tree. Thus, when Duke Frederick encounters him we’re prepared for his sudden conversion to pacifist.

The conclusion of the film is beautiful with all four couples in their wedding finery and tall white flags with red and pink streamers fluttering in the background. And in the true amazingness that is Branagh directing Shakespeare, he makes the concluding song part of the film without it being ridiculously over the top or annoying. Of course, I could have just been distracted by how pretty everything was.

Rosalind and Orlando, As You Like It

Look at all the prettiness.

Next week we’re on to All’s Well That Ends Well. Until then, fair reader.

Film Review – The Merchant of Venice (2004)

Merchant of Venice Poster

Being a more serious play, this film has some serious actors. Check out the trailer and then we’ll dive into the review.

Casting for this one is superb. Al Pacino is a truly impressive as Shylock and I have a massive soft spot for Jeremy Irons, so I was really pleased that he was playing Antonio. Joseph Fiennes is entirely capable as Bassanio, and while he does have a tendency to deliver his lines at a weird volume (he whispers for probably half the film), he’s not hard on the eyes. Although his wig does look weird in the back for a couple scenes. The actress playing Portia is very pretty and she carries the role very well. And for once, we have believable female crossdressing! But more on that later.

Jeremy Irons, Merchant of Venice

Jeremy Irons is endearing even when riding in a plush gondola.

The film very firmly sets itself in Italy in 1546. The film starts with footage establishing the antisemitism in Venice with some expository text over it to explain the time period and the situation between Jews and the other residents in Venice. We also get the footage of Antonio spitting on Shylock, that Shylock mentions in his big speech later, and Pacino  and Irons are both brilliant and make the scene truly discomfiting. In fact most of the scenes that involve these two men leave you slightly uncomfortable. Both sides of the conflict are flawed and the film definitely emphasizes this.

The other side of the coin to Shylock and Antonio’s conflict is Portia and her suitors. The film makes every effort to bring out the humour in these scenes and giggling at the pomposity of these various men, helps to lighten the mood. Also, her romantic scenes with Bassanio are actually pretty sweet. And her dresses are amazing. I must also mention briefly the actors playing Gratiano and Nerissa who are also delightful. It took me a bit to place the actor who plays Gratiano and then realized that he is “Colin, God of Sex” (and if you don’t get that reference, I’m very sad for you).

Merchant of Venice

The very pretty lovers.

The film definitely goes for a more gritty and realistic feel. I found it to be a period film first and a Shakespeare film second. Not that the film is unfaithful to the play, but rather that the focus seems to be on portraying the reality of the time and place (goat slaughtering and prostitutes hanging their boobs out, anyone?)  rather than exploring the richness of the language and characters as much. The film will definitely appeal to fans of Elizabeth.

That said, the high point of the film is the court scene. All of the actors bring their best and Pacino makes Shylock, who is at his most vengeful, a sympathetic character. Jeremy Irons does likewise, and as a viewer you are disappointed in both of them for the decisions that they make. The actress playing Portia also really knocks it out of the park. First off, she really does look like a man in her garb (a very pretty one, but a man nonetheless), and in this scene that is filled with rampant testosterone from the various onlookers and the painful conflict between Shylock and Antonio, she is a strong presence that believably makes the judgment that is the crux of the play.

Merchant of Venice, Court Scene

Powerful, but not easy to watch.

The ending for the film feels a bit odd. Partially because of how Shakespeare has written it, as the comical conflict between the two sets of newlyweds makes for an odd contrast after the emotional heights of the court scene. But the film problematizes it further by giving us shots of Antonio and Shylock that make us pity them and wonder what exactly will become of them. What is even more ambiguous is the final shot of the film which shows us Jessica and it is unclear if she is regretting her decision to elope or simply misses her father after hearing about him. Also, the shot of men shooting arrows into the water (to catch fish?) is probably symbolic but I can’t figure it out. Ultimately, an unsettling film, but one that does justice to the complicated source material.

Merchant of Venice, Shylock

One of the ambiguous final shots.

Next week it’s on to the lighter side of the comedies with As You Like It.

Film Review – Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)

Love's Labours Lost Movie Poster

It’s time for part two of my ongoing love letter to the awesomeness that is Kenneth Branagh doing Shakespeare. And in a truly impressive feat, he’s managed to take a play I didn’t particularly like and turn it into a film that utterly charmed me. So take a peak at the trailer below and then we’ll dive into the review.

This film very firmly sets itself in 1939 right from the opening credits, which have a very old Hollywood feel. Following the credits, we are treated to a pre-WWII style news reel (narrated by Kenneth Branagh, of course) setting the stage for the film. This clip and the following news reels that are used as transitions between most of the acts of the play are not in Shakespearean dialogue, but rather use all the delightful cadences of the period.

The casting is really well-done. Kenneth Branagh is as a delightful as always playing Biron (are we at all surprised that the character I liked is being played by Kenneth Branagh? I though not) and the cast of couples are all sweet and charming. I was especially happy to see Alicia Silverstone and Emily Mortimer, both of whom I’ve always liked. Nathan Lane plays Costard and is just a pure joy to watch. Also the guy who played Peter Pettigrew is Armado and makes him delightfully ridiculous.

Love's Labour's Lost

Nathan Lane is all about the comedy.

Now, in case you didn’t catch it from the trailer, this film is a musical. I admit, despite the fact that it was Kenneth Branagh who can do no wrong with Shakespeare, I was leery as I had a bad experience with a musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona. But I needn’t have worried. Somehow the film manages to merge Shakespearean dialogue with the songs of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter (among others) seamlessly and with a bucket load of charm.

Love's Labour's Lost

Yes, this is most definitely a musical.

While having four couples is still quite a few people to keep track of, the costumes provide handy visual cues. Each girl wears a set colour (red, green, blue, and orange) and her corresponding guy also wears that colour. If only picking someone to date were so easy in real life.

The sets are all beautiful. I particularly wouldn’t mind living in the library set, which is just gorgeous. Locales that are supposedly outdoors are also definitely sets, but it helps lend that old Hollywood feel to the film. And homages to iconic films of the period peak through every once in a while. One dance number has a very Fred and Ginger feel to it, there’s a synchronized swimming musical number, and one of the final scenes is a major tip of the hat to Casablanca (right down to the panama hats on all the guys). In the old film tradition as well, there is a fair bit of slapstick moments which all made me giggle.

Several scenes from the original play are cut out, which I think went a long way towards making me like the film much more than the play. However, if you’re a purist, there are 20+ minutes of deleted scenes on the DVD and you can watch the guys in Russian disguises attempting to court the ladies. I much preferred the rather sexy dance number to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”  used in its stead. Also, removing the rather long play within the play from the final act makes for a nice choice, especially as it’s replaced by Nathan Lane singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” which is just amazing.

Love's Labour's Lost

Sexy dance instead of furry Russian hats? Yes, please.

The shift in tone in the final act is still very abrupt. Going from light and frothy comedy to the much darker pall that comes with the announcement of the king of France’s death is not an easy turn. However, it’s made less weird and in fact given a nice melancholy tone by having the four couples sing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” as they part. The ending is also improved by another film reel of actual WWII footage intercut with shots of our 8 main characters being involved in various tasks (French underground, trenches, hospitals, etc). And we do get a silent happy ending, as the final scene is of our four couples celebrating together on VE day. Once again, Kenneth Branagh can do no wrong.

Love's Labour's Lost

We are charming even when we've rolled up the pants of our tuxes to go wading.

Next week we’ll be in the market for a pound of flesh with The Merchant of Venice. Until then, fair reader.

Film Review – The Tempest (2010)

The Tempest Poster

Time to hop into the time travel machine and go back to the first play I reviewed at the beginning of this project because I finally got my hands on a copy of the DVD. So if you need to refresh your memory, you can take a look at my original post on The Tempest. Now, if you have all the crazy details fresh in your brain, take a look at the trailer and then move on to the review.

So obviously the biggest thing about this adaptation is that Prospero is now Prospera, which adds a whole whammy of gender politics to the fact that she was ousted from her dukedom and banished to the island. Helen Mirren does an excellent job of carrying the role, but I almost feel as though she hasn’t been challenged enough in the production. She’s wonderful as always, but not quite the level of awesome I’d hoped for. There are quite a few big name actors hanging out in this film, which makes for interesting viewing. I particularly liked Felicity Jones, who plays Miranda and does an excellent job of being of being both pretty while also keeping the character from being a bit of a limp prop. However, I did feel bad for her as she spends the entire film in bare feet and some of the locations do not look like they’d be kind to the feet. The actor playing Ferdinand is also pretty and the two of them make a nice couple and they also manage to keep the chess scene from being completely ludicrous.

Miranda and Ferdinand, The Tempest

We're just so pretty.

The costumes for the most part (ignoring Miranda who hangs around in very cute but thoroughly modern dresses) are Elizabethan with a twist. There are capes and doublets but of unusual fabrics, and when Prospera finally puts on a dress, it’s very proper but there are zippers all over it. The odd exception is Russell Brand as Trinculo who just appears to be wearing some of his regular clothes. It’s also important to note that Brand is the only spots of funny in the entire film, which makes him far more endearing than usual. A final point about appearance and then we’ll move on. The make-up for Caliban is gross, intriguing, and thoroughly creepy, which really makes a character whose essentially wearing a loin cloth, much more interesting to look at.

Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban, The Tempest

"Why do you decide to serve him? I'm the funny one."

There is no denying that the locations used for this film are stunning (unsurprising, since it was made in Hawaii) and really run the gamut from sharp coastal lines, weird desert-like spaces, and dense jungle. They play a tremendous role in making the weirdness that happens over the course of the film, far more plausible. The score is also a little different, with a heavy reliance on electric guitar which is an interesting choice for a Shakespeare film. It’s used really effectively during the storm scene at the beginning of the film but comes off as a little weird in the other places where it appears. The set design for Prospera’s “cell” is also really gorgeous and again contributes to the believability of the magic.

However, the best thing in this film is Ariel. The character is made visually intriguing by the effects that are used to show his movement (as you can see in the trailer), but he also varies in levels of transparency when actually visible to Prospera. While the actor does have to do some interesting contortions with his legs in order to keep man bits from sight in a few scenes, he’s intriguing to look at, and after Miranda and Ferdinand, is the most sympathetic character in the film.

Ariel, The Tempest

My hair is only one of the interesting things about me.

Visually intriguing but definitely on the weirder side. Probably best viewed only by real film fans or those really interested in seeing an adaptation of The Tempest. Also interesting from a feminist standpoint of having Helen Mirren play a role originally intended for a man. Shakespeare would approve, I think.

Prospera, The Tempest

Yes, I am awesome.

Back to the plays again next week when I’ll be talking about Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Film Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

A Midsummer Night's Dream poster

Apologies for lateness on this post. The first DVD I checked out from the library was so scratched you couldn’t get to the menu. Luckily, they had another copy so we are not without some fun viewing. So take a look at the trailer and then continue on to the review.

The cast for this one is actually pretty impressive with a lot of big names, or people who I now recognize and love and had no clue who they were when this film originally came out. So let’s just go through the stand outs. Rubert Everett and Michelle Pfiefer make an excellent Oberon and Titania, with Everett using all of his brooding powers to his advantage and it takes no imagination at all to believe she’s a fairy queen because she’s just gorgeous. Callista Flockhart is Helena and she actually manages to make a character who comes off as a bit of a doormat on the page into a sympathetic character with some gumption (of course, that could just be the bicycle – more on those later). Anna Friel is Hermia (awww Chuck! before she was Chuck! And if you have no clue what I’m talking about go watch Pushing Daisies right now, Shakespeare would totally approve) and is of course adorable. She also rocks some pretty awesome hats. Christian Bale plays Demetrius and he’s all young and adorable and his look is a little reminscent of when he played Laurie in Little Women (which is a big part of why I love Christian Bale). Sophie Marceau plays Hippolyta (who in this film has lost the whole Amazon queen thing, sadly). Kevin Kline manages to keep Bottom from being too annoying and actually makes him mildly sympathetic which is hard when the character is such an ass (oh, I’m so funny). Last but not least, Stanley Tucci is Puck, which might seem an odd choice (or am I the only one that thinks Puck should be hot?). I actually went into this film (which I watched the first time when I was 12 or 13) convinced that Rupert Everett played Puck (I’m still convinced he could have done an awesome job with it too, based on his roles in The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband). But of course, Stanley Tucci is charming and sweet and knocks it out of the park like he always does.

Puck, A Midsummer's Night Dream

Puck and all of his charm

The first thing to talk about with this film is the time period chosen. There is some text just prior to the title card that puts the film in Italy (although the town is still referred to as Athens) “at the turn of the 19th century.” I find that phrase problematic (my brain thinks it means late 1700s-early 1800s) but that could just be my issues with numbers, so to clarify, the film is set in the late 1800s/19th century. There’s then another text card mentioning the decline of the bustle which has allowed for the increased popularity of that new device, the bicycle. And bicycles are used a lot in this film. All four lovers head off into the woods with one (although none of them leave with one, so apparently fairies really like bicycles). The costumes for the mortals are all really gorgeous. Even the guys have rocking suits (and they wear tails for the wedding!). The fairies are a little odder in dress but they must order gold body glitter in bulk because every single one of them wears some.

Oberon and Titania, A Midsummer Night's Dream

Oberon and Titania

The film deals pretty well with all of the craziness. They use cuts and some special effects to make the fairies more magical (when they go any great distance, they turn into tiny golden fairy lights). While it’s very easy to tell that “the woods” are definitely sets, they’re so pretty, you don’t really mind. My only big complaint with this film is that it literally has a chick fight in a mud pit. Hermia and Helena deserve so much better. However, when the two young couples are found by Theseus, they’re all naked which means there were some shots of Christian Bale’s abs, so I’ll forgive the mud fight. But just barely.

Four lovers, A Midsummer Night's Dream

That awkward moment when you don't know why you aren't wearing your clothes. Fairies!

The play at the end of the film is actually pretty entertaining, with the best performance coming from Sam Rockwell who makes Thisbe’s death scene so sympathetic. Also, Kevin Kline hams it up in his death scene and is probably at his most entertaining during this part of the film (as partial as I am to ass jokes).

Pyramus and Thisbe, A Midsummer Night's Dream

"Too much ham, you say?"

Of course, Stanley Tucci rocks Puck’s closing speech, breaking the fourth wall easily and without any awkwardness. He definitely makes the film worth watching (if Christian Bale’s abs don’t get you, of course).

I’m taking one of my six weeks off from reading Shakespeare next week, but there will still be a blog post next Wednesday with a special treat for you. Because you can’t go an entire week without a good dose of Shakespeare.

Film Review – Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

File:Much ado about nothing movie poster.jpg

Ok, fair reader (well, I call you fair but maybe you’re burly or something. If fair doesn’t work for you, insert the adjective of your choice there), if you thought I gushed a lot in my post about the play on Sunday, you are in for a new load of gushing because this is our first dose of Kenneth Branagh and Shakespeare!!! Seriously, put Kenneth Branagh and Shakespeare anywhere near each other and you have some really fantastic film going on. So consider this the first of a multiple part fan letter to the awesomeness of Kenneth Branagh.

Now for once, I’ve picked a film new enough for you to be able to watch the trailer. Sadly, the person who posted said video on YouTube has disabled embedding, so go and watch it and then come back. I’ll wait here. Have you watched it? Do you need to watch it again? All good? Ok.

So in an interesting choice, the film opens with Emma Thompson (in addition to geeking out over Kenneth Branagh, I will also geek out over the awesomeness that is Emma Thompson who is just adorable. And she and Kenneth were married to each other when this film was made, which is just so delightful because their chemistry… I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s return to the original sentence). Ahem. So in an interesting choice, the film opens with Emma Thompson doing a voice over, reciting the lyrics of the song from II.iii as poetry with the words appearing in white print on the black screen as she says them. After reciting the first verse (with a “hey nonny nonny”), we’re treated to some gorgeous Italian scenery as Emma continues to recite and we eventually get treated to a sight of the ladies and gentlemen of Messina lounging on a hill, with an eventual pan over to Emma Thompson as Beatrice. Who is reading poetry. While sitting in a tree. And she is awesome.

Emma Thompson in a tree

"Robert Pattinson wishes he could pull off sitting in a tree like I do."

So with that intro out of the way, we dive immediately into the actual play with the messenger coming and letting everyone know that Don Pedro has returned from war. And then begins the slow mo sequence. Slow mo of all the main male characters riding horses. Slow mo of women racing around Leonato’s house stripping out of their clothes and hopping over beds. Actually everyone is stripping off their clothes, as all the returning soldiers bathe in a fountain and the women take a communal shower (multiple shower heads, think the shower area at a swimming pool but less modern). There are a lot of naked backsides in the first five minutes of this film. What keeps the slow mo and the nakedness from being worthy of eye-rolling though is the fantastically cinematic score that adds a wonderful layer to the film that keeps it from melodrama but still adds that extra flavour.

Ok, so moving away from the scene-by-scene recounting of the film, I’m going to rave about the cast a little bit. KENNETH BRANAGH AND EMMA THOMPSON. The awesomeness is almost too much. But moving along, Kate Beckinsale plays Hero and she is SO young (IMDb informs me that she was probably 19 or 20 when the film was made and that it was also her first film) but she really pulls off the naive sweetness and gravity of the character. She also does an impressive job of going into hysterics after Claudio ditches her at the wedding and her dad accuses her of being a whore. Speaking of Claudio, it’s Wilson from House! Except at this point, he was probably better known as the guy from  Dead Poets Society. He also is very young and very nicely matches Kate Beckinsale in the naivete and innocence department. Moving along, our other big names are Denzel Washington as Don Pedro and Keanu Reeves as Don John. The fact that Branagh cast these two actors as brothers is just undeniably awesome. Ok, turning down the gush a bit. Oh and Michael Keaton is in there too, playing Dogberry of “remember, I am an ass” fame.

The Men of Much Ado

Hello gentlemen.

The film really has beautiful production value. Not only does Branagh (yeah, he directed this film in addition to playing Benedick. Awesome!) really show Italy to its advantage but the ball scenes are particularly lovely with the detailed and sometimes mildly creepy masks. Also, I totally love the garden in which Benedick and Beatrice are initially tricked by the other characters. Plus, it will always have my affection for being the site of the slapstick that is Kenneth Branagh and the folding chair. Really funny that is.

Now I will admit to the fact that Keanu is not my favourite actor on the planet, as he seems to possess about three different facial expressions, but he actually manages to work it to his advantage, as his default expression works pretty well for playing the villain. The beard helps too. While Michael Keaton plays the fool character of Dogberry, I don’t find him overwhelmingly funny (I much prefer the sparkle and wit of Beatrice and Benedick as you’ll recall). However, he and the actor that play Verges, whenever they go from place to place, pretend that they are riding horses as they trot about (sadly without the benefit of coconuts) which I did find amusing. Every time it happened.

Dogberry, Don John, and Claudio

"This guy says he's an ass."

What I particularly love about this film, apart from the awesomeness that is Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, are some of the really subtle moments that Branagh includes, all of which happen during the ball scene. First is the subtext he includes that Beatrice loved Benedick once before when she was younger and he disappointed her. While the dialogue does support this interpretation, I’ve seen the scene interpreted other ways with Beatrice being far more flippant about Benedick giving her his heart to cut her teeth on. Emma Thompson, however, makes it a moment of vulnerability that plucks the heartstrings just a little. Shortly afterwards, comes the moment when Don Pedro asks Beatrice if she’ll marry him. Again, a scene that can often be overlooked or made to be funny, Branagh chooses to make it sweet and heartfelt. It’s easy to believe that Denzel as Don Pedro really does care for Beatrice and Emma Thompson is wonderful in tactfully and sweetly declining him. Superb acting all around.

But of course, what truly sparkles in this film is the brilliant chemistry between Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. They verbally spar and flirt and fall in love so convincingly and you fall in love with them. They bring Benedick and Beatrice to life and give them a real passion and yet also make them very sympathetic and they’re both just a joy to watch, either alone or together.

Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick

Awesomeness overload

And thus ends the glowing review of Much Ado About Nothing. On Sunday, it’s time for another dose of crazy sauce with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Film Review – Measure for Measure (1979)

Measure for Measure Poster

For a comedy that isn’t very funny, this film is actually pretty decent. Although given the costuming, the movie should really be about hats. I kid you not, everyone has a really epic hat from the Duke to Angelo to Lucio. And depending on whether you consider the veil of a novitiate’s habit to be a hat, Isabella has one too.

Costumes for this one are pretty decent. The men all wear clothes that vary on Governor Ratcliffe from the Disney version of Pocahontas, with the splashiest outfits going to the Duke and Lucio. The actress playing Isabella wears a novitiate’s habit for the entire film (apparently only in Sound of Music do novitiates get to wear clothes made from curtains). I’d pity her but it actually looks pretty comfortable and she gets to wear flip flops. So yes, the film is totally about the awesome hats. And maybe a little bit about the many different options for facial hair.

The Duke

My hat is so awesome I must be the Duke.

Actually the acting in this one is surprisingly good compared with some of the other films in the Complete Works of Shakespeare series. The actor playing Angelo is impressively conflicted in his soliloquies about his sudden attraction to Isabella. The director also makes the intriguing decision to have Angelo address part of his soliloquy to himself in a mirror which actually works very well. Similarly, the actor playing Claudio, who impressively manages to have stubble while in prison and then have none when the bag is pulled off his head at the end, really exercises his emotional range. In the scene where Isabella tells him about Angelo’s demand for her body to spare her brother, he goes from moral outrage and a desire to protect his sister’s honour to a genuine fear of death in a way that makes him almost sympathetic to the audience. The change is not lightning fast but rather a slow evolution that the actor does exceedingly well.

What made me happiest, however, was at the end of the film when the Duke out of the blue tells Isabella he wants her to be his wife. At the first statement, her expression doesn’t change from the default one she’s had for most of the film. At the very end, when he offers her his hand there is a very long pause in which she simply looks at him and lets his hand hang there. For a moment I was very excited and hoped that the director may have decided to interpret the text differently and leave the possible marriage between Isabella and the Duke as ambiguous but he isn’t quite that risque. After the long moment (in which I desperately wish one of the people in the crowd could have said, “Awkward”), Isabella smiles and takes his hand, and the entire main cast walks out in a procession. For those of you keeping track, out of the 5 film adaptations watched so far, 100% have ended with a procession.

The Duke and Isabella

Awkward pause. And feminists rejoice.

There endeth the review. On Sunday I move on to another of my favourite comedies, Much Ado About Nothing.