Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Romeo and Juliet (dir by George Cukor)


You know the story that’s told in this 1936 film already, don’t you?

In the city of Verona, Romeo Montague (Leslie Howard) has fallen in love with Juliet Capulet (Norma Shearer).  Normally, this would be cause for celebration because, as we all know, love is a wonderful thing.  However, the House of Capulet and the House of Montague have long been rivals.  When we first meet them all, they’re in the process of having a brawl in the middle of the street.  There’s no way that Lord Capulet (C. Aubrey Smith) will ever accept the idea of Juliet marrying a Montague, especially when he’s already decided that she is to marry Paris (Ralph Forbes).  Things get even more complicated with Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt (Basil Rathbone), kills Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio (John Barrymore).  Romeo then kills Tybalt and things only grow more tragic from there.

It’s hard to keep track of the number of films that have been made out of William Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers and tragedy.  The plot is so universally known that “Romeo and Juliet” has become shorthand for any story of lovers who come from different social sects.  Personally, I’ve always felt that Romeo and Juliet was less about love and more about how the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets forces the young lovers into making hasty decisions.  If not for Lord Capulet throwing a fit over his daughter’s new boyfriend, she and Romeo probably would have split up after a month or two.  Seriously, I’ve lost track of how many losers I went out with in high school just because my family told me that I shouldn’t.

Producer Irving Thalberg spent five years trying to get MGM’s Louis B. Mayer to agree to greenlight a film version of Romeo and Juliet.  Mayer thought that most audiences felt that Shakespeare was above them and that they wouldn’t spend money to see an adaptation of one of his plays.  Thalberg, on the other hand, thought that the story would be a perfect opportunity to highlight the talents of his wife, Norma Shearer.  It was only after Warner Bros. produced a financially successful version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Mayer gave Romeo and Juliet the go ahead.

Of course, by the time the film went into production, Norma Shearer was 34 years old and a little bit too mature to be playing one of the most famous teenagers in literary history.  Perhaps seeking to make Shearer seem younger, Thalberg cast 43 year-old Leslie Howard as Romeo, 44 year-old Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, and 54 year-old John Barrymore as Mercutio,  (In Barrymore’s defense, to me, Mercutio always has come across as being Verona’s equivalent of the guy who goes to college for ten years and then keeps hanging out on the campus even after dropping out.)

In short, this is the middle-aged Romeo and Juliet and, despite all of the good actors in the cast, it’s impossible not to notice.  There were few Golden Age actors who fell in love with the authenticity of Leslie Howard and Basil Rathbone is a wonderfully arrogant and sinister Tybalt.  Norma Shearer occasionally struggles with some of the Shakespearean dialogue but, for the most part, she does a good job of making Juliet’s emotions feel credible.  As for Barrymore — well, he’s John Barrymore.  He’s flamboyant, theatrical, and a lot of fun to watch if not always totally convincing as anything other than a veteran stage actor hamming it up.  The film is gorgeous to look at and George Cukor embraces the melodrama without going overboard.  But, everyone in the movie is just too old and it does prove to be a bit distracting.  A heart-broken teenager screaming out, “I am fortune’s fool!” is emotionally powerful.  A 43 year-old man doing the same thing is just not as effective.

Despite being a box office failure (it turned out that Mayer was right about Depression-era audiences considering Shakespeare to be too “arty”), Romeo and Juliet was nominated for Best Picture of the year, the second Shakespearean adaptation to be so honored.  However, the award that year went to another big production, The Great Ziegfeld.

Film Review: The King (dir by David Michod)


Imagine a version of Shakespeare’s Henry V where Prince Hal is a lot less regal but a lot more whiny.  Also imagine a version where Falstaff is never publicly rejected by Henry but instead becomes one of his leading generals.  Furthermore, imagine that Robert Pattinson shows ups and does his best imitation of the obnoxious Frenchmen from Monty Python and The Holy Grail.  Also, finally, imagine a film that’s based on three of Shakespeare’s most popular plays but which does’t include any lines from those plays.  Imagine all of that and you’ve got The King.

Yes, The King is an odd film indeed.  It’s also a very long film.  You might expect that from a film based on three Shakespearean plays but, then again, since the film actually doesn’t feature any of Shakespeare’s celebrated language, you have to kind of wonder if it can actually claim to be a Shakespearean adaptation.  For instance, if I made a film about a sullen prince named Hamlet but totally leave out “To be or not to be” or the part where he sees his father’s ghost, am I truly adapting Shakespeare or am I just making a film about a guy named Hamlet?  Interestingly enough, while The King isn’t faithful to Shakespeare, it’s also not faithful to actual historical records.  It’s not Shakespeare and, despite using the name of actual kings and nobles from the 15th Century, it’s not really historical.  It could just as easily be about King Kevin and his struggle to lead the Land of Homily to victory over Possum Kingdom.  It’s hard to really understand what the point of this film is.

Timothee Chalamet plays Prince Hal, who will eventually become King Henry V.  Considering just how acclaimed Chalamet’s previous work has been (including receiving an Oscar nomination for Call Me By Your Name and probably coming close to getting a second one for Beautiful Boy as well), it’s a bit strange just how dull Chalamet is in this film.  As played by Chalamet, the future King of England is alternatively petulant and whiny.  He’s not happy about becoming king.  He’s even less happy about having to behead those who have been accused of conspiring against him.  He hopes to avoid war, even after the King of France taunts him by giving him a ball as an coronation present.  Chalamet wanders through the film with an eternally glum expression on his face.  When he has to rally the troops, he is unpleasantly shrill in a way that will remind viewers of one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s lesser performances.

Joel Edgerton, who also co-wrote the script, is a bit more convincing in the role of Falstaff.  Instead of the cowardly (but wise) buffoon who appeared in Shakespeare’s plays, The King portrays Falstaff as being a great warrior who merely likes to drink too much.  This, of course, means that Hal doesn’t have to publicly rebuke Falstaff or any of his friends but it also makes Falstaff a bit of a pointless character.  In Shakespeare’s plays, both the rebuke of Falstaff and the subsequent hanging of Bardolph were meant to show that the once irresponsible Hal was now placing his role of king above all else.  By removing that aspect of the tale, The King also removes the entire heart of the narrative.  That said, Edgerton is at least convincing as a warrior.

As usually happens when it comes to British historical epics, the film leads up to an eventual battle between the British and the French.  Robert Pattinson plays The Dauphin and gives one of the most brilliantly strange performances of 2019.  Wearing a blonde wig and speaking in an exaggerated French accent, Pattison gets all of the dirtiest lines and he has fun with them.  (“You have zee big balls,” The Dauphin says at one point, “and zee little cock!”)  In fact, Robert Pattinson seems to be the only person in the film having any fun whatsoever.  Chalamet looks miserable.  Edgerton comes across like a professional.  But Pattinson appears to be having the time of his life and you’re happy to see him if just because he provides a (too brief) respite from the film’s otherwise dour atmosphere.

As I said, The King is a strange film.  I’m not really sure what the point of it was.  The battle scenes are effectively bloody and the sets are all convincingly 15th century.  But otherwise, this movie is too pointless and too long.  Just because it’s about the 100 Years War doesn’t mean that film has to feel like a 100 hours.

Film Review: Hamlet (dir by Michael Almereyda)


What if Hamlet was a hipster douchebag?

That appears to be the question at the heart of the 2000 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s most famous play.  In this adaptation, a young Ethan Hawke plays a Hamlet who is no longer a melancholy prince but who is instead a film student with a petulant attitude.

As you probably already guessed, this is one of those modern day adaptations of Shakespeare.  Denmark is now a Manhattan-based corporation.  Elsinore is a hotel.  Hamlet ponders life while wandering around a Blockbuster and, at one point, the ghost of his father stands in front of a Pepsi machine.  While Shakespeare’s dialogue remains unchanged, everyone delivers their lives while wearing modern clothing.  It’s one of those things that would seem rather brave and experimental if not for the fact that modern day versions of Shakespeare have gone from being daring to being a cliché.

At the film’s start, the former CEO of the Denmark Corporation has mysteriously died and his brother, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), has not only taken over the company but he’s also married the widow, Gertrude (Diane Venora).  Hamlet comes home from film school, convinced that there has been a murder and his suspicions are eventually confirmed by the ghost of his father (Sam Shepard).  Meanwhile, poor Ophelia (Julia Stiles) takes pictures of flowers while her brother, Laertes (Liev Schreiber), glowers in the background.  Polonius (Bill Murray) offers up pointless advice while Fortinbras (Casey Affleck) is reimagined as a corporate investor and Rosencrantz (Steve Zahn) wears a hockey jersey.  Hamlet spends a lot of time filming himself talking and the Mousetrap is no longer a player but instead an incredibly over-the-top short film that will probably remind you of the killer video from The Ring.

I guess a huge part of this film’s appeal was meant to be that it featured a lot of people who you wouldn’t necessarily think of as being Shakespearean actors. Some of them did a surprisingly good job.  For instance, Kyle MacLachlan was wonderully villainous as Claudius and Steve Zahn was the perfect Rosencrantz.  Others, like Diane Venora and Liev Schreiber, were adequate without being particularly interesting.  But then you get to Bill Murray as Polonius and you start to realize that quirkiness can only take things so far.  Murray does a pretty good job handling Shakespeare’s dialogue but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s totally miscast as the misguided and foolish Polonius.  One could easily imagine Murray in the role of Osiric.  Though it may initially seem a stretch, one could even imagine him playing Claudius.  But he’s simply not right for the role of Polonius.  Murray’s screen presence is just too naturally snarky for him to be convincing as a character who alternates between being a “tedious, old fool” and an obsequious ass kisser.

Considering that he spends a large deal of the movie wearing a snow cap while wandering around downtown Manhattan, Ethan Hawke does a surprisingly good job as Hamlet.  Or, I should say, he does a good job as this film’s version of Hamlet.  Here, Hamlet is neither the indecisive avenger nor the Oedipal madman of previous adaptations.  Instead, he’s portrayed as being rather petulant and self-absorbed, which doesn’t necessarily go against anything that one might find within Shakespeare’s original text.  Hawke’s not necessarily a likable Hamlet but his interpretation is still a credible one.

At one point, while Hamlet thinks about revenge, we see that he’s watching Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet on television.  There’s Olivier talking to Yorick’s skull while Hawke watches.  It’s a scene that is somehow both annoying and amusing at the same time.  On the one hand, it feels rather cutesy and more than a little pretentious.  At the same time, it’s so over-the-top in its pretension that you can’t help but kind of smile at the sight of it.  To me, that scene epitomizes the film as a whole.  It’s incredibly silly but it’s so unapologetic that it’s easy to forgive.

Outrageous Fortune: Vincent Price in THEATER OF BLOOD (United Artists 1973)


cracked rear viewer

Vincent Price  traded in Edgar Allan Poe for William Shakespeare (and American-International for United Artists) in THEATER OF BLOOD, playing an actor’s dream role: Price not only gets to perform the Bard of Avon’s works onscreen, he gets to kill off all his critics! As you would imagine, Price has a field day with the part, serving up deliciously thick slices of ham with relish as he murders an all-star cast of British thespians in this fiendishly ingenious screenplay concocted  by Anthony Greville-Bell and directed with style by Douglas Hickox.

Edward Lionheart felt so slighted by both scathing criticism and once again being stiffed at the prestigious Critics’ Circle award, he broke up their little soiree by doing a swan dive into London’s mighty Thames. His body was never found, and everyone assumed they had seen Lionheart’s final performance, but unbeknownst to all he was fished out of the river…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Hamlet (dir by Laurence Olivier)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1948 best picture winner, Hamlet!)

Hamlet is a film of firsts.

It was the first British production to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  In winning, it beat out three American films (Johnny Belinda, The Snake Pit, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and one other British film (The Red Shoes).

It was also the first adaptation of Shakespeare to win Best Picture.  Of course, it wasn’t the first Shakespeare adaptation to be nominated.  That honor would go to 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Adaptations of Romeo and Juliet would be nominated in 1936, 1961, and 1968.  Henry V (which, like Hamlet, was directed by and starred Laurence Olivier) was a 1946 nominee.  Then there was 1953’s Julius Caesar.  The Dresser featured scenes from Shakespeare.  Shakespeare in Love imagined the circumstances behind the writing of Romeo and Juliet.  However, Hamlet was the first to win.

It also remains the only traditional Shakespearean adaptation to win.  West Side Story updated Romeo and Juliet while Shakespeare in Love … well, let’s just not get into it.

It was the first Best Picture winner to be directed by the man starring in the movie.  Laurence Olivier was nominated for both Best Director and Best Actor.  He lost the directing Oscar to John Huston but he won for his performance as Hamlet.  In winning, he became the first actor to direct himself to an Oscar.

Finally, Hamlet was the first of 24 films to feature both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee!  In fact, this was Lee’s film debut.  Now, before anyone gets too excited, I should point out that Cushing and Lee don’t actually interact.  In fact, Lee doesn’t even speak in the film.  He appears in the background as a Spear Carrier and it’s pretty much impossible to spot him.  He has no dialogue and wasn’t even listed in the final credits.  From what I’ve read, I don’t think Lee and Cushing even knew each other at the time and, when they later met, they were surprised to learn that they had both appeared in the film.  For his part, Cushing plays Osiric, the courtier who everyone remembers because he had such a cool name.

It’s always fun to play “what if.”  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not appear in Olivier’s adaptation of the play.  To modern audiences, that might seem strange but, really, that’s just because we’re all familiar with the two characters from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  When Olivier filmed Hamlet, he excised portions of the play in the interest of time.  (Hamlet uncut runs over four hours.  Olivier’s version clocks in at nearly three.)  Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Fortinbras, and the second gravedigger are all dropped from Olivier’s version and, to be honest, none of them are particularly missed.

And yet … as I watched Hamlet, I found myself wondering what would have happened if Olivier had kept Rosencrantz and Guildenstern around and had cast Cushing and Lee in those roles.  It probably wouldn’t have happened, of course.  Cushing maybe but Lee was a total unknown at the time.  Still, how amazing would that have been?

As for the actual film, Olivier’s Hamlet turned out to be far more cinematic than I was anticipating.  Olivier’s camera snakes through the darkened hallways of Elsinore Castle while Olivier’s Hamlet veers between self-righteous fury and apparent madness as he seeks revenge on his Uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney).  As Hamlet grows more obsessed with death and vengeance, the castle seems to grow darker and the hallways even more maze-like, as if the castle’s changing shape to conform with the turmoil in Hamlet’s mind.  Among the cast, Jean Simmons is poignantly fragile as Ophelia while Eileen Herlie is the perfect Gertrude, despite being 12 years younger than the actor playing her son.  Olivier gives a wonderfully physical performance as Hamlet, killing Polonious with a demented gleam in his eye and literally leaping towards his uncle at the end of the film.

If you’re one of those people who thinks that Shakespeare is boring … well, Olivier’s Hamlet probably won’t change your mind.  One thing I’ve noticed about the “Shakespeare is boring” crowd is that nothing can change their minds.  But, for the rest of us, Olivier’s Hamlet is an exciting adaptation of Shakespeare’s more difficult play.

You won’t miss Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at all.  And seriously, Fortinbras who?

Cleaning Out The DVR: O (dir by Tim Blake Nelson)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  This could take a while.  She recorded the 2001 high school film O off of Cinemax on July 6th.)

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

O (Mekhi Phifer) is one of the only black students attending an exclusive high school in South Carolina.  Despite a past that involves petty crime and drugs, O appears to have his life on the right track.  As the captain of school’s basketball team, O is the most popular student at his school.  Everyone looks up to him.  Everyone wants to be him.  He’s even dating Desi (Julia Stiles), the very white daughter of the school’s very white headmaster (John Heard).  At a school assembly, Coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) describes O as being like a son to him.  When O is awarded the MVP trophy, he shares it with his teammate, Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan).

Watching all of this with seething jealousy is Hugo Gaumont (Josh Hartnett).  Hugo is a teammate of O’s.  In fact, he even thought that he was O’s best friend.  That was before O shared his award with Michael.  Making Hugo even more jealous is that he happens to be the son of the coach.  For every kind word that Duke has for O, he has a hundred petty criticisms for Hugo.  Whereas O has overcome drug addiction and is proclaimed as a hero for doing so, Hugo is secretly doing steroids, trying to do anything to improve himself as a player and hopefully win everyone’s love.

So, Hugo decides to get revenge.  Working with a nerdy outcast named Roger Calhoun (Elden Hansen), he manipulates O into thinking that Desi is cheating on him with Cassio.  He also tricks Cassio into getting into a fight with Roger, leading to Cassio getting suspended from the team.  To top it all off, Hugo gets O hooked on drugs, once again.  Finding himself consumed by a violent rage that he thought he had under control, O starts to obsess on determining whether or not Desi has been faithful to him…

If that sounds familiar, that’s because O is basically Othello, transported to modern times and involving privileged teenagers.  Even though the whole modernized Shakespeare thing has become a bit of a cliché, it actually works pretty well in O.  Hugo’s obsessive jealousy of the “cool kids” feels right at home in a high school setting and director Tim Blake Nelson and writer Brad Kaaya do a fairly good job of transporting Shakespeare’s Elizabethan melodrama to the early aughts.

(Actually, O was filmed in 1999 but it sat on the shelf for two years.  After a spate of school shootings, distributors were weary about releasing a film about high school students trying to destroy each other.)

Admittedly, O has its share of uneven moments.  Martin Sheen, playing the type of role that always seems to bring out his worst instincts as an actor, goes so overboard as the coach that he threatens to sink almost every scene in which he appears and Rain Phoenix is miscast as Hugo’s girlfriend.  Even Julia Stiles struggles a bit in the role of Desi.  However, both Mekhi Phifer and Josh Hartnett are perfectly cast as O and Hugo.  Phifer brings just the right amount of arrogant swagger to the role while Hartnett is a sociopathic marvel as Hugo.  Tim Blake Nelson’s direction is occasionally overwrought, relying a bit too heavily on a groan-inducing metaphor about taking flight and claiming the spotlight.  However, both Nelson and the film deserve some credit for not shying away from directly confronting and portraying the source material’s cultural and racial subtext.

O is hardly perfect but it is always watchable and, at its best, thought-provoking.