Saturday, April 30, 2016

Looking for Richard

Looking for Richard (Al Pacino, 1996) Early on, actor Al Pacino is waiting in the wings, waiting to go on-stage in a small theater. He peeks through the curtain, only to see William Shakespeare sitting (alone) in the middle of the theater, waiting to see his performance. He lets loose one long crudity of indeterminate origin (Anglo Saxon? Flemish? Germanic?) that the Bard never used in one his plays, comedy or tragedy (although he did skirt around it quite a bit). It's as good a view as any of actor intimidation, looking at a text and being confronted with the mystery of what the author might have meant and of that same author's passing judgment on any possible misunderstanding.

Plus, Shakespeare was a director...and actor. And his voice (being dead and all) is silent. Except for what is there on the page. The actor is left, very much alone on-stage.
Looking for Richard
is a unique film. A documentary (and barely that—a docu-drama? docu-tragedy? vanity project?), not a staged play, of Al Pacino "finding his way" through Shakespeare's "Richard III," which, as Pacino's friend and co-conspirator
Frederick Kimball describes it, is "Shakespeare's most popular play" (as it's the most often produced). 

The movie is, at once, enormously ego-driven—it's all about Al and how cutely eccentric he is—but it is also just as much a display of humility and quite generous in its company-feel. For as much as Pacino is ever-present in the film, he is rarely alone and almost never in the position of authority—he's always the inquisitor. One rarely sees actors seeking, rehearsing "in the raw" (usually it's staged to make the process seem seamless), but Looking for Richard frequently has impassioned table-reads in which subtext is debated, and that is interesting. Pacino is enthusiastic about exploring the complexities of the play, especially in regards to the other characters involved in this supposedly "one-man play", and he gives a lot of screen-time to not only the actors picked for his own iteration (like Alec Baldwin, Kevin Conway, Winona Ryder, Penelope Allen, Estelle Parsons and especially Kevin Spacey), but also interviews with other actors, in interviews, renowned for their mastery of the Bard: John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi, James Earl Jones, Rosemary HarrisViveca Lindfors, Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline.
That's a cast bigger than most Shakespeare plays—with maybe the exception of "Julius Caesar"—and corralling them is a tough endeavor for the movie's stated task, which is to make Shakespeare accessible to the man on the street (and the "man on the street" interviews are fascinating, veering between the extraordinarily articulate to the kid who might like it if it were a first-person shooter). But, the way to make Shakespeare accessible is for it to be performed well. And so the fallback becomes the thespian exploration of character and relationships, breaking it down, getting inside the skin of the character through their expressed words. 'Twas ever thus.
With all the advice and words of wisdom, the one who comes off the worst is Pacino. He's excellent in most scenes playing Richard, but once he ascends the throne, he drops the measured wiliness too far, affecting a smirking blitheness while giving orders of "head-offing," that seems to indicate he has forgotten all the history that has gotten him to where he's sitting, and with little regard to the impression that would leave with any Lancaster that might want to snuff out that son of York.  Bad playing on both the actor's and the character's part. One should be leavening the other...if it is to be true with what has gone before.

Especially with the exceptional way Pacino has played the part up to that point.
But, overall, despite that hump, the interpretations are a success, lending understanding to the feud between the Yorks and Lancasters, an empire-defining feud that has long since past in its importance, other than in providing lessons on the dangers of acquisitiveness. Shakespeare still speaks to us 400 years past his passing, bringing us cautionary tales that still resonate and are given new breath by whatever voice utters those words. It doesn't matter what voice, in what era—the plays the thing wherein they capture our conscience.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Hamlet (1990)

Hamlet (Franco Zeffirelli, 1990) So, the big question was NOT "to be or not to be", it was: "Mel? Mel Gibson? Hamlet?" Zeffirelli was no slouch when directing Shakespeare with The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet already in his film-list. But Mel Gibson? Lethal Weapon/Mad Max Mel Gibson? How can this come to any good?

Turns out it can.

Zeffirelli's Hamlet for the first time is a film-long surprise at how good Gibson is in the role--his performance of the Elizabethan verse often inspired. He's backed by a stellar cast: Glenn Close (nine years older than Gibson) as Gertrude, Alan Bates as an on-guard Claudius, Ian Holm as a much more competent, even wily, Polonius, Paul Scofield, a brilliant ghost, Stephen Dillane as Horatio, and best of all, Helena Bonham Carter's Ophelia.

A second look at the film years later shows the seams. Gibson's Hamlet is all open-mouthed "busy" acting, a bit too manic and protesting too much. But it does make the case that his Hamlet is Glenn Close's son for she does exactly the same thing, gaping for the loges in Zeffirelli's rough-hewn settings. Dillane's "trying-to-take-it-all-in" Horatio and Bates' slimy, wary Claudius come off the best. But they're blown off the screen by the radical turn of Bonham Carter:
Ophelia--From the get-go, Helena Bonham-Carter plays the daughter of Polonius (and object of Hamlet's affections/mental torture), not as a frail flower, but a practical girl, down-to-Earth and obedient to her father, and loving to her brother. Bonham-Carter's line readings of the verse are flat and conversational, not lilting. Her reaction to Hamlet's bi-polarism are confusion, and incomprehension, not histrionics, and when her psyche snaps, there's no poetry in it. You could find her Ophelia on a city street-corner--agitated, rattling, eyes darting and fingers flailing; it's a powerful performance--a radical interpretation, scary and threatening. When she hands out flowers to the royal couple and her brother, she hands them weeds...and bones.
No wonder Tim Burton fell in love with her. Bonham Carter has never steered clear of the dark waters of her characters, and, in fact, will jump into the deep-end and maybe--maybe--swim up to the light. There's never been an Ophelia like this one, and disappointingly, I haven't seen one since. This is a feminist interpretation of Ophelia, one of real power while not sacrificing Shakespeare's text or the role's tragedy. I don't know if the Bard would recognize his creation in this performance, but the actor in him would be amazed.
Here are this film's other "Hamlet" touchstones:
The Ghost--Portrayed by Paul Scofield deep in the shadows, it is a heart-breaking performance, as the grasping King begs for satisfaction from his son, damned as he is for his sins. His Old King Hamlet has all the fear of Hell in his eyes, and a quavering in his voice, a King broken by the tortures of perdition. He's not a formal apparition of the supernatural, but a ghost who is, himself, haunted, and seeks out his son for a last chance at salvation. That's quite a guilt-trip he lays of Hamlet--even more so than a revenge mission. No wonder Gibson's Hamlet looks panicky through the whole movie.
Polonius--verbose he may be, but he's no fool. In fact, as played by Ian Holm, he's a bit of a snake-in-the-grass, currying favor with a calculated duplicitousness. And quite capable of sacrificing his daughter in order to further the fortunes of his son Laertes. And he lets her know in no uncertain terms that she must perform her duties as bait for the good of her family, though not necessarily for her own. His fate seems particularly deserved, rather than an unfortunate ironic happenstance in Elsinore's machinations.
The "To Be Or Not To Be" speech--Gibson walks down stone stairs into the dark to contemplate action/inaction and life/death and does well with "the" speech. His Hamlet is usually at wit's end (heh), but here he is hushed and still, as if not to wake the dead. Apt, as the location he's chosen to do his ruminating is the burial site for old King Hamlet. That's the King's sarcophagous in the back-ground of the screen-cap. Hamlet might be in his own version of Hell during the speech.

Gritty, grimy, with the drama accentuated rather than the artifice of the verse, this Hamlet is a fine interpretation. Gibson might have been the star (and the chief draw), but the humanization of the ghost and the bodice-ripping interpretation of Ophelia make it one to remember in the further explorations of The Great Play.

Hamlet (1948)

Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948)

This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind" intones
Laurence Olivier at the beginning of his Production of Hamlet (In a case of over-reach, the man who would be Lord Olivier gets the opening card over Wm. Shakespeare).

Well, yes, that's an easy way to look at it. And while it's essentially true, it negates the fact that Hamlet is struggling with the moral implications of killing, especially since the object of all the daggers he's throwing out with his eyes is, himself, a murderer, traitor, and is sleeping with his mother.* Hamlet tries every trick in the book to expose the treachery, even takes a stab at killing him himself (with collateral damage**) Hamlet is wrestling with his conscience the whole way--while depressed, grieving--and with not good reason: his quest is based on the flimsiest of evidence--the word of a ghost. A ghost that even his
Spock-like friend Horatio saw, to be sure (or not to be), but a ghost nonetheless. Such evidence would never stand up in the Court of Elsinore. The Dark Prince must also wrestle with the consequences of his actions--from his father he knows of the existence of Hell and the damnation murderous actions would lead to.

"Couldn't make up his mind." He wanted to slit the King's throat, not his own.

Every production of "Hamlet" must wrestle with the text *** that ballooned with many versions, asides, and blind alleys. Olivier stripped it bare: No Rosencrantz, no Guildenstern, no Fortinbras, no battle on the plain in Denmark and so, no "Let my thoughts be bloody" speech. In this version, Hamlet does not compare his plight with the futility of war, and in 1948, considering Olivier's "rally-the-troops" version of Henry V, an anti-war statement must have seemed in bad taste, after surviving the blitzkrieg.

And just as every Hamlet must pick and choose what sections to explore, every actor playing Hamlet must contend with ghosts;
**** not the play's, but the players of the past. Like baseball veterans chasing old records, each Hamlet is a reflection of the past, and a portent to other Princes. The current crop of actors taking on the role must have considered Olivier's take, or Richard Burton's, or Nicol Williamson's, just as Olivier must have thought about John's Gielgud and Barrymore. Olivier does take chances given the film medium. His "Frailty, the name is woman" speech is done in voice-over with some choice epithets that burst out of him on-set. That's a good choice for the scene, where Hamlet is in a public space following a celebration and could conceivably be overheard by some hanger's-on. He is much more verbal in his further monologues when he is thought to be crazy, or alone. The "To Be or Not To Be" speech is performed on a parapet overlooking the sea, with dagger in hand. It's a good concept to have the prince "on-edge" at that juncture.

The unique staging of that speech is one of those elements that absolutely separate the filmed Hamlets from each other.***** To me, there are three others: the presentation of the Ghost of the murdered Old Hamlet, the use of Polonius, and the approach to Ophelia. Here's how Olivier treats them.The Ghost: Olivier wraps him in vapors of the real and optical variety, dressed in his battle armor, looking sepulchral, and emaciated, like a classic death figure, with a low-whispered voice--supplied by Olivier (although Gielgud is rumored to be speaking the lines) and played back slowly.
Polonius: As played by Felix Aylmer, and directed by Olivier, Polonius is a comic figure, whose verbosity is played for laughs, and most treat him with a feigned patience, and wish he'd get to the point.
Ophelia: As played by the 18-year old Jean Simmons, Ophelia is very much the traditional Ophelia as delicate flower. She goes crazy with the loss of Hamlet, the death of her father, and no Laertes to bolster her. She is an Ophelia too frail to stand on her own and crushed by the whirl of events, and her cracked sanity is portrayed by a far-away gaze and "fairy-princess" demeanor. How influenced she is by Hamlet's shifting moods is hard to say. But she is "ingenue-as-victim" in the Hollywood tradition.

The other thing I hear about Olivier's Hamlet is that it is somehow a "film noir" interpretation of the play. Except for some fine deep-focus black and white photography, I don't see it. No play of shadows--in fact, everyone is extremely well-lit. And the movie's very set-bound; nobody's walking down the "mean streets" of Elsinore.

Laurence Olivier's Hamlet won the Best Picture Oscar in 1948, with Olivier winning Best Performance by an Actor. He was the first person to ever direct himself to an Oscar-winning performance. Only one other actor has done it: Roberto Benigni.

* Gertrude. One of the interesting things to note about the various "Hamlet's" is the varying ages between mothers and sons. They're starting to get it right, but it wasn't always thus: In the 1990 Hamlet, Gertrude (Glenn Close) is only nine years older than Hamlet (Mel Gibson). In this one, Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) is fourteen years younger than Hamlet (Olivier)! I guess it's an improvement when your realize in the original stagings Gertrude was probably played by a man! And incidentally, Herlie also played Gertrude to Richard Burton's Hamlet--he was five years younger.

** I've always called "Polonius," the verbose father of Laertes and Ophelia, "Collateralous."

***Unless you're Kenneth Branagh, whose 1996 all-star "Hamlet" used the second Quatro version (1604) (with additions from the First Folio version), clocked in at 4 hrs., 2 mins., was filmed in 70mm, with 6 track Dolby sound, but at least had Rosencrantz, Guildensterm, Fortinbras, the "Let my thoughts be bloody" speech, and had a Gertrude who could have conceivably (heh) been Hamlet's mother!

**** There are other ghosts at Elsinore if one is to believe Olivier's camera-work. Elsinore is an enclosed castle with labyrinthine corridors and vast open emoting spaces. Between acts, we flit down corridors and up spiraling staircases as if the audition is, itself, an apparition, seeing everything in turn with an omniscient view-point. And in a reversal of stage tradition, we go to the actors, rather than them coming to us.

***** Most actors address the audience on-stage. Mel Gibson's Hamlet performs it in a burial catacombs, Kenneth Branagh, while looking in a mirror, and Ethan the video store.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

The Merchant of Venice (Michael Radford, 2004) Wm. Shakespeare's most problematic play for modern audiences gets a sumptuous presentation (without PC-intended cuts) in this production, the first sound version of this oft-quoted play; problematic in that, taken merely by folio content, it has a vitriolic anti-semitic tone that runs counter to its classification as a "comedie." But, director Radford, with one stroke—and, indeed, one shot—manages to restore some semblance of perspective, if not judicious balance to the piece.

It is 14th century Venice and ardent Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) is in love. The object of his desire is fair Portia (Lynn Collins, replacing—very well—Cate Blanchett), an heiress in the village of Belmont. But, a fool with money, he can ill afford to make the trip, and so turns to his frequent benefactor Antonio (Jeremy Irons) to lend him three thousand ducats to make the trip. Antonio, a wealthy merchant, is a bit strapped for cash at the moment—he has three ships in transit on a business venture that will surely reap great profits. 
So, the elder man agrees to guarantee a loan from whoever Bossanio can get one, and he does so from Shylock (Al Pacino), a money-lender in the Jewish ghetto of Venice. But, Shylock and Antonio have issues: the city is divided between Jew and Gentile with much tsuris and animosity between the two groups, the former frequent victims of abuse and scorn by the latter, and Shylock is miffed that Antonio undercuts his business by offering loans with no interest. So, the agreement comes with an odd rider—should Antonio default on the loan, Shylock will extract from him "a pound of flesh." Given the going rate of flesh in the meat and prostitution markets (both of which Radford sees fit to show), it seems like a pretty good rate, and with a deal in the works, Antonio, readily agrees to "the bond."
But, if there weren't complications, it wouldn't be Shakespeare: for Antonio, his ships go missing; for Shylock, his beloved daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) follows her heart, defying her father, running off with her suitor, a Gentile, and converts to Christianity. That news is devastating to Shylock, who, when the loan defaults, takes Antonio to court to get his due, and some measure of satisfaction for the wrongs that have been meted out upon his people.
It's extraordinarily well-done, with the context of Venician abuse of the Jewish community made explicit and evident, and the feelings displayed, especially during the hearing, angry and ugly. But, the players' interpretations are all-important here, especially Pacino's. His Shylock has hurt etched into his eyes, and the actor's power is never more evident as when he's displaying grief—Dustin Hoffman wanted this role, but one can't imagine Hoffman capable of the towering rage—especially when his voice reaches the upper registers—that Pacino can command. One never loses the context of past humiliations against Shylock here, and that, now, this time, he will exact his revengePacino's Shylock is sympathetic, even, if, during the trial, he is cast in the role of "villain."
It is at the end, though, where Radford has his bond. While the citizens of Venice, wink and cajole and tease and wench, there is a single shot of Shylock, presumably in Temple, as his brethren leave him, and, in a cinematic move that seems to recall Pacino's Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather, but more appropriately, John Wayne's racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, the doors of the Temple are shut on him, first one, then the other, isolating him. The message is clear. His own tribe is shunning him. The root of it is not that he is "The Jew," but that he is uniquely Shylock, and his own character, not his race, not his religion, not anything but himself is the cause of his implacability. And it is rejected by his community. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars (or our God) but ourselves. The quality of mercy certainly is not strained. It can be given, but if it is not offered in kind, it can be taken back.

And that, my friends, is a true bond, that no court can recognize.
I would be far more sanguine if some similar fate awaited if the spitters and sneerers and anti-semites among the goyim revellers received a harsher fate than some humiliation by their women-folk, but the play's the thing. And one brushes up their Shakespeare at their peril.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Olde Review: MacBeth (1971)

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the kid I was back in the '70's a bit of a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

MacBeth (Roman Polanski, 1971) Peter Brook's King Lear is brutal, and so, too, is Roman Polanski's MacBeth, probably excessively so. There is much graphic carnage in MacBeth, and I would recommend that if you are disturbed by such substance that you think twice before going.
But it is healthy to keep in mind that MacBeth is a play filled with violence. All Shakespeare's tragedies are; one need only to leaf through the last acts of them to prove itself out. But there is much to praise in Polanski's version; it is a fuller version of the play it is based on than King Lear. Peter Brook cut out a voluminous amount of Shakespeare's original prose. The cinematography and Polanski's camera placements are all very assured, and very fine in detail.* 
The acting of Jon Finch and Francesca Annis as MacBeth and his Lady are fine for what Polanski's interpretation is. But it is my view that MacBeth should be older (and) probably less crude than is Finch's portrayal; an older man could speak the "out, out brief candle" speech with more of a knowing world-weariness than the young MacBeth here could manage.**
Both these films are hard (and) tough with a gritty interpretation.*** The beauties of Shakespeare--his words--are still there to be enjoyed and marveled over, but the madness, the savagery, and the evil inherent in those words are presented with such ferocity, that one's view of the words on the page will be forever altered. Those sensitive enough to see the beauty of the words may not be able to stand up to what is graphically presented within them.

Broadcast on KCMU-FM November 18th and 19th, 1975.

* I smirked at that sentence, thinking: "What would an unassured shot look like?" and immediately came up with an answer: shaky-cam! One stray thought—MacBeth is a bloody play, but one other reason the film might be so graphic (and believe me, that shot of MacBeth's severed head isn't the worst of it) is that this was the first film Polanski made after the savage butchery inflicted on his wife, Sharon Tate, and friends in Polanski's home by followers of Charlie Manson in 1969.  It is not too big a leap that Polanski saw a similarity between Manson and MacBeth.
** But one should also remember this film was in production soon after Franco Zeffirelli's hit film of Romeo and Juliet, which did something radical--actually portray R & J as being still in their late teens, rather than, say, Liz and Dick. The tragedy is a bit more keenly felt when it's kids' lives that are being cut short so soon. Plus, to have the cast young and attractive might bring in audiences (it didn't). The film was a "Hugh M. Hefner Production" financed with "Playboy" money, so there's another reason for young attractive people in the leads (amusingly the most nudity in the film is contained in the scenes with the crone-like witches). But, I always imagine "MacBeth" as a brute (probably due to my favoring of the Welles version), not very political, and passed over to advancement because of it. Fatally ambitious, MacBeth enters into an arrangement with the witches to ascend to the throne. It plays a bit better for me if MacBeth is older, and a bit desperate to achieve his life's ambitions (and his wife's) at last.
*** This review is a companion piece to the review of Peter Brook's King Lear.

Olde Review: King Lear (1971)

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the kid I was back in the '70's a bit of a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

This Friday's films in 130 Kane are the Northwest Premiere of Peter Brook's King Lear and Roman Polanski's MacBeth, and for those of you who have never had an English course cross your academic path, these are recently filmed interpretations of two of Shakespeare's tragedies.

King Lear (Peter Brook, 1971) Peter Brook is one of those eccentric geniuses in our artistic society of whom it is supposedly required to say that "if he had never been born, we would've had to invent him." That's something of an easy out for critics who don't know enough to know what to praise about the man.

What there is to praise in the film is the play, of course. That's a given. Also a given is the fact that film has abandoned its formerly sterile view of past conditions* to show us the squalor of the times we have left behind us. Brook's interpretation of the squalor of "
King Lear's" time is to set it in the dead of winter and the snow mixing with mud and sand sets the dramatic mood and provides a proper backdrop for the icy acting by the principles.

In the initial stages of the film, Brook keeps the direction rigidly under control, leaving little room for the actors to full express their characters, giving the audience a feeling of claustrophobia--such is the confinement of Brook's images. But, as those familiar with "Lear" know, Lear's on-coming madness brings on a steady deterioration of that control; the camera can't contain the performers or the characters, and the onslaught of Lear's insanity is a thorough ripping apart of the control, cataclysmic in intensity, totally destroying what was before. And though it is certainly different from my expectations--my ideas--of how that scene should be handled, my gut reaction to the sequence is that it is right, for we tangibly feel the ripping of Lear's psyche for the film and the film's techniques we have seen before are also ripped apart and we are taken to new territory, just as Lear is.
When studying Shakespeare--when appreciating Shakespeare--I find the best thing I can do is to read it line by line, concentrating on each, finding its independent meaning and then its contextual meaning. Brook does something similar here. In a monologue he will (editorially) isolate phrases, though at times it is distracting, and cuts the flow of the total speech. I am sure it is something of a help to those unfamiliar with "Lear." Overall, it is an eccentric version of (the play), but one, at least, that I can live with.

Broadcast on KCMU-FM November 18th and 19th, 1975

Weird review. It smacks of insecurity being hidden by brio. But I had seen a couple versions of "Lear" and had read it in High School and College, so I was "familiar" with it, probably more so than the other plays, with the exception of "Julius Caesar." Still, it's an odd tone to set for a review--there's too much "me" in it. I was no Shakespeare expert then, nor am I now.

And Brook's technique for Lear was very much in keeping with his stage style. He famously said, "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage." Even more so with film. Take any expanse of space and put a frame around it and you have a film, even if it's nothing but a black background with a face in front of it. And the thing about film is, there doesn't have to be a strict adherence to the concept of "stage."
Olivier staged his Hamlet in a labyrinth of stages. He started his film of Henry V on a stage and opened it up to the outside world later in the film. Welles ignored any rules: his Othello was filmed in such a catch-as-catch-can manner (finaciers bailing) that he would shoot one side of a conversation in one country and shoot the over-the-shoulder reply in another. "All the world's a stage," indeed.

The other thing about Brook's Lear is the pedigree of the actors. One of those actors I always enjoy watching is Paul Scofield--winner of the Oscar for playing Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons--he'll show up later this week in another reviewed Shakespeare film. He plays Lear here; first, as a cruel, unfeeling martinet of a King, and lastly, as a pathetic, broken old man--off-putting and sad, but always with great stores of power. Scofield never lets you forget that though Lear is many things, he was always King for a reason. Jack McGowran plays The Fool. Cyral Cusack plays Albany and Patrick Magee plays Cornwall. Great cast. Maybe not stars, but extraordinarily powerful stage actors.

Someone's always staging Lear; it's the K2 of parts for older actors. Next year we're going to be seeing two productions: PBS will (supposedly, at this point)
show a video production of Sir Ian McKellan's Lear, and a new filmed version is due in a year, with Sir Anthony Hopkins as Lear...and as his daughters, the triple threat of Keira Knightley, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Naomi Watts. I hope they have enough sense to have Paltrow play Cordelia and Knightley one of the cruel sisters. (Update: No, Knightley will play Cordelia, Regan will be played by Paltrow, and Watts will play Goneril--ah, well!).

Update on the update: McKellan's version was made. The Hopkins was not.
* A throw-back to the stage-origins of the plays. Lately, Shakespeare has been getting gritty and grimy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

"...a Giddy Thing."
The Party @ Joss' House

Joss Whedon is a fine writer and a great director.  His output in movies is slim (in TV, of course, it's prodigious)—Serenity, Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog, and Marvel's The Avengers, meaning he's got range and he's no slouch—but there's a high-standard operating there whether budget is low or high, and there's an artistic determination to make "pop" that matters.  The story is that for a long time he's been staging readings of Shakespeare plays at his house with friends and acquaintances, just because he loves Shakespeare. That must have been the impetus to make this movie—Much Ado About Nothing—filmed in 14 days during the long arduous post-production of The Avengers.* 

Must have seemed like a lark during so much Hulking pixilation.
The story's virtually unaltered from the text. It's just transformed to modern day at Joss' house, where a weekend long party is being thrown for...not so much returning soldiers, but captains of industry—hosted by Leonato (Clark Gregg) and daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) and cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker). The chief guests are Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Claudio (Fran Kranz), the Don's nefarious brother John (Sean Maher), and Benedick (Alexis Denisof). Now, this is one of Shakespeare's comedies, so pay attention: Benedick and Beatrice have history, which didn't go well and they're still equally bitter about it, protesting too much that they're both above it all. Claudio becomes entranced with Hero, and is wooed on his behalf by Don Pedro. Things get complicated with two household conspiracies: Don John conspires to way-lay the lightning-fast nuptials of Hero and Claudio, and seemingly the entire party  has it in to throw the two grousers, Benedick and Beatrice, together.  Both plans work all too well, splintering one and making the other a matter of necessity.  In the meantime, the local constabulary, led by Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) are working overtime, trying to discover what all the skulking and whispering is about. 
The play may be the thing, but it is in Whedon's presentation that it shines. It is something of a revelation to see how well the early scenes play when everybody is a little bit liquored up, and the performances are surprisingly smooth, belying the pigeon-holing that these mostly television actors have had to suffer, when they can do deftly handle the meatier material—Acker, particularly, is amazingly versatile, and is the clear stand-out in the performances—you could actually believe she thinks in blank-verse—and is nearly note-perfect making the words her own. And Fillion plays his relatively small part in a cagily puffed-up manner the way you'd think William Shatner would (seriously or no) in order to squeeze every drop of comedy out of it. In fact, everybody's good, as there's only a couple minor roles that seem a little dodgy, but not for want of trying. Whedon is very adept at throwing in puckishly physical comedy into the background at a moment's notice to make the play three-dimensional, and sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Interestingly, if Whedon made this as a detox from The Avengers, it had the same effect here; after suffering through so many over-blown-up and bloated blockbusters, it was a delight to see this quick, brisk little film, with few pretensions and very high gains.  It's really something, well worth seeing, and one looks forward to another party at Joss' house.

* Danny Boyle took the opportunity of down-time planning the British Olympics to make Trance.  A few years ago, Robert Zemeckis took the delay-time for Tom Hanks to lose weight for Cast Away to make What Lies Beneath, and Barry Levinson took advantage of down time on Sphere to make Wag the Dog

As You Like It (2006)

It is the quadri-centennial of William Shakespeare's death and the Bard is still going strong. Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlive his powerful rhymes. Oh, there will be set-backs. Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins can't seem to get their respective productions of King Lear to be produced, but that's only because Ian McKellan cut such a wide swath through the role a couple years ago. But no, as long as Kenneth Branagh or Patrick Stewart draw breath, there will be a Shakespeare film made, and even if not under his name or title, he can be found as dependable source material—The Lion King is Hamlet, Forbidden Planet is The Tempest, Kurosawa made versions of MacBeth and King Lear in feudal Japan. Whether you believe Shakespeare wrote the plays or not—and scholars seem to be basing their theories on correspondence and bills (what, authors didn't consider their audience back then?) the entity that created the works in those folios was a dramatic genius, one who still enthralls, confounds, and moves in this step-step-step-step-step-step-generation and into the conceivable future.

This week, we'll look at a handful—a sampling—of Shakespeare films. Most of them will have to wait 'til we get that "Now I've Seen Everything: Orson Welles" piece done (and that's a film or two away). But, for now, we will brush off our

As You Like It (Kenneth Branagh, 2006) Branagh's films run hot or cold--his Henry V and Hamlet and Dead Again being good, and over-heated messes like his version of Frankenstein and 2007's Sleuth being where he just can't manage the material, or, in an attempt to light them up a bit, he starts being a bit too fusty with them, bringing in a swooping camera amid histrionic performances. Those are the Branagh movies where you want to grab him by his ascot and say, "why don't we call it a night, let everyone get some sleep and think things over."

Happily, As You Like It is not one of those over-baked Branagh's, but it feels a bit underdone as well, where the setting and the text don't seem to mesh as well as the director thought they might.
This Shakespeare comedy is set, by the director, in feudal Japan where a warlord sets another Duke and entourage out into the forest--a classical japanese garden--to talk over matters and wait until the complications abate and everyone can get married and live happily ever after in a nice frothy frolic, very much like his ending for Much Ado About Nothing. A lot of Branagh's past collaborators are here--Richard Briers, Adrian Lester, and Brian Blessed (playing both Dukes--and far less boisterously than one is accustomed to seeing him), Kevin Kline gets the "All the World's a Stage" speech, Alfred Molina plays Touchstone (looking like Brian Bolland's Mr. Mamoulian), and the lead of Rosalind is played by Opie's kid, Bryce Dallas Howard. Now, Howard has previously been cast in roles where she was merely meant to be frail or other-worldly, so to see her in full command and making As You Like It her own is something of a great triumph, acknowledged by Branagh by giving Howard the afterword, as she strolls through the trailers, bottled water in hand, and takes her bow, before going to her trailer.
Now that's updating Shakespeare.

This film never saw a release in America, but instead went directly to HBO, no doubt due to the poor performance of Branagh's Love's Labours Lost in theaters. Too bad. Branagh seems to be at his best adapting Shakespeare and breathing some life into it for modern audiences, and at his worst doing something else.