SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexuality

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Directed by: John Madden

Written by: Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard

Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton & Tom Wilkinson

I’ll address the elephant in the room first. A lot of people feel that SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE stole the 1998’s Academy Award for Best Picture away from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, thus some backlash has generated against this film (similar to backlash that’s generated against TITANIC and FORREST GUMP). While I definitely don’t think that everyone will enjoy SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, I will say that it enraptured me from the first frame and was a hugely entertaining experience as a whole. I imagine that the film will work a similar spell upon fans of Shakespeare’s work and 16th century period dramas. The film is a romantic comedy that succeeds in being more than just a stereotypical chick flick (though it does contain a few well-worn clichés), but rather a beautiful love story featuring one of history’s most famous influential writers.

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The year is 1593 and William Shakespeare is a struggling playwright trying to make his way in London. Though he has a way with words, Shakespeare is encountering a particularly nasty bit of writer’s block as he tries to construct a new comedy (titled ROMEO AND ETHEL, THE PIRATE’S DAUGHTER). Through a few passing circumstances, Romeo finds a muse in the lovely Viola de Lesseps, a royal woman with a penchant for plays. In a forbidden friendship and secret romance, Shakespeare constructs his most famous play. We see how inspiration, tragedy, and timeless love hits William as his relationship with Viola evolves.

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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was shot on a budget of 25 million and that seems nearly impossible given the film’s sheer beauty, attention to detail, and elaborate costumes on display. The Elizabethan setting comes to colorful and dank life (depending on the scene) as every piece of jewelry and grimy smudge of dirt shines on the camera. Not once, does it ever appear that this film was shot on a sound stage. Instead, it makes me question as to whether director John Madden used a time machine to shoot this film in 16th century London. It looks that friggin’ good. The spectacle alone is worth watching, but that’s far from the most enjoyable aspect of this film.

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The cast includes many big names (some of whom weren’t nearly as famous as they are today). Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as William Shakespeare and exudes the kind of eccentricity that one would assume the brilliant playwright had on a daily basis. Gwyneth Paltrow is great as Viola. Though the character was invented purely for the purposes of this film, I couldn’t help but see her as one of those rare nobles with a deep appreciation for the theatre. Colin Firth is fantastic as a pompous jerk with his eye on Viola. Though he’s in a small role, Ben Affleck is enjoyable as an actor who takes his craft very seriously. Imelda Staunton and Geoffrey Rush serve as two very different types of over-the-top characters. While Rush is a grimy theatre owner, Staunton serves as Viola’s kindly nurse. Tom Wilkinson has an enjoyable part as a thuggish brute who slowly develops an appreciation for theatre over the course of the film. Finally, Judi Dench is phenomenal as Queen Elizabeth and seems born to play the role.

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The screenplay isn’t immune from common tropes that show up in every romantic comedy. These mainly include problems that stand in the way of Shakespeare and Viola’s true feelings for each other as well as an ending that probably got more than a few people to cry in the theater. I also didn’t buy one of the sillier sequences that really stretched plausibility midway through. However, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE feels very much like one of Shakespeare’s comedies that happens to star the playwright and other historical figures. In that sense, it’s truly a brilliant film. I especially enjoyed the use of Christopher Marlowe (another acclaimed playwright who lived during the Elizabethan era). The plot itself weaves elements of both ROMEO & JULIET (obviously) and TWELFTH NIGHT into a love story that feels familiar, but beautiful and touching all the same.

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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is a cinematic treat for those who adore the bard’s work or enjoy romantic comedies in general. This is definitely not your average “chick flick,” though it has some familiar clichés. Instead, the film is a very clever, well-crafted love story about a real-life writer who penned clever, well-crafted love stories among other brilliant plays. The performances are outstanding from everyone involved. The period details are fantastic. The movie has impeccable comedic timing and a genuine heart behind all of the emotions on display. This might be an obvious way of stating it, but SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is a creation worth loving.

Grade: A-

SINBAD: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Adventure Action, some mild Sensuality and brief Language

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Directed by: Tim Johnson & Patrick Gilmore

Written by: John Logan

Voices of: Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Haysbert & Adriano Giannini

Throughout the years, DreamWorks has proven itself to be a nice alternative from the familiar animated Disney fare. DreamWorks Animation cut its teeth with films that were slightly edgier humor than many would initially expect in family movies. They are also notable for taking more risks with original properties (SHREK, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, KUNG FU PANDA) that usually turn out well. When all is said and done, DreamWorks Animation has earned a reputation as (mostly) reliable source of solid entertainment. However, they still have their fair share of duds. 2003’s SINBAD isn’t horrible, but definitely winds up on the lower end of their movie catalog. This film didn’t go as planned for anybody really. Though advertising was everywhere (including kid’s meal toys, action figures, and a bombardment of commercials), SINBAD never really seemed to find its audience. The film was largely ignored in 2003’s summer movie season (with stiff competition from the likes of FINDING NEMO and TERMINATOR 3) and received mixed response from critics. This box office fiasco lost the studio about 125 million (resulting in traditional animation being completely abandoned by DreamWorks). LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS is an okay piece cartoon for kids, but that’s about all it is.

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Sinbad is a heroic pirate sailing the seas, confronting monsters, and going on many perilous adventures. When he runs afoul of Eris, the goddess of Discord, Sinbad finds himself on his most dangerous quest yet. Eris steals the valuable Book of Peace and frames Sinbad for the crime. In order to save his friend’s life as well as his own skin, Sinbad sets out on the wide ocean on a to retrieve the stolen Book of Peace. Along the way, he confronts many obstacles including freaky CGI monsters, dangerous environments and all of the powers of Eris.

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SINBAD: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS has a pretty basic story that serves as an excuse for a rinse, lather repeat formula. Sinbad sails around, characters bicker amongst themselves and then encounter a monster. This process winds up repeating itself four times before the film is over. This is also a definite instance of traditional animation dying out as CGI has clearly been blended with 2D designs. The effect looks good in some areas, but not so much in others. A giant squid-like monster and a giant bird both have pretty lame designs compared to the rest of the creatures and environments. However, an encounter with sirens is awesome (serving as the best scene of the entire film). Eris is also beautifully animated.

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The biggest problem with SINBAD comes in the voices…mainly Brad Pitt. While Sinbad is typically characterized as a legendary strong-headed hero, there’s definitely less of a timeless feel to DreamWork’s interpretation of the character. Brad Pitt plays Sinbad as Brad Pitt. He’s a smart-ass with a lot of one-liners and a strong appeal to the sole female character. It’s very distracting when you’re watching a scene full of mythical creatures and you here a line like “Pretty cool, right!” or “That’s why you don’t let women drive.” Catherine Zeta-Jones is suitable enough as Marina, but doesn’t serve too much of a purpose other than being a love interest for Sinbad. The best casting decision comes in Michelle Pfeiffer as Eris, who serves as a memorable villainess. Oh, and there’s also Spike, a slobbery dog sidekick that becomes downright insufferable.

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SINBAD has edgy sensibilities (clever adult humor, more risk-taking, etc.) that DreamWorks is known for, but also falters under a scrambled mishmash of ideas that don’t necessarily work. The traditional animation looks stunning, but the CGI is cheap and doesn’t fit well into the film. A couple of the monster encounters are cool, but its by-the-number gets tired before the credits roll. There are good things to appreciate in SINBAD as it’s a slight step above a lot of mediocre garbage that you see passed off for colorful family entertainment, but that’s about the nicest thing that can be said about this film.

Grade: C+

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Nudity

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Directed by: Michael Radford

Written by: Michael Radford

(based on the play THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson, Kris Marshall, Charlie Cox & Heather Goldenhersh

Shakespeare definitely has his share of overplayed works with countless adaptations (ROMEO & JULIET and HAMLET being the biggest offenders), but also supplies a fair amount of underperformed stories. For a variety of reasons, these other plays only receive one or two quality film adaptations at most. MERCHANT OF VENICE is one of these works and there’s a valid controversy behind this play that has kept many filmmakers from attempting a proper movie adaptation of it. This 2004 dramatic take on the material is the first English-language film production of this particular play with sound. Though it does have a couple of minor flaws, MERCHANT OF VENICE is a beautiful take on one of my favorite Shakespeare plays!

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Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice, frequently bails his financially troubled friend, Bassanio, out of predicaments. As a result, Bassanio owes Antonio a large sum of money, but has thought of a get-rich-quick scheme that will also include a beautiful wife. A lovely woman, named Portia, lives on an island in Belmont and is extremely wealthy. To marry her, Bassanio must borrow the means to get to her home, but Antonio isn’t exactly in the best spot to lend cash at the moment. So the two visit a disgruntled Jewish creditor by the name of Shylock. Shylock hates Antonio for a variety of reasons, but makes a deal with him nonetheless. This loan includes a gruesome price. If Antonio should forfeit on his bond, then the punishment will be a pound of his flesh cut by Shylock. While Bassanio woos Portia, Shylock experiences despair that makes him even more bitter. This isn’t exactly helpful when Antonio must default on his loan…

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Firstly, MERCHANT OF VENICE is stunning to look at. Gorgeous locations and costumes give the effect of watching a living art gallery. Fog-laden streets, a beautiful island, and fancy clothing bring out an air of sophistication that is neglected in so many Shakespeare adaptations. This isn’t to say that every one of the bard’s stories on film needs to be a faithful to the location/time period. Though, seeing as this is the first English-language film with sound of this particular play, that was a nice touch. The soundtrack, made of various period appropriate musical pieces, adds to the already prevalent atmosphere seen in every frame. A nice addition to the source material comes in a brief text prologue that gives historical context for the period in which this play was written/set and lends to Shylock becoming the film’s strongest character.

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This also comes to the controversy involved in MERCHANT OF VENICE. The play depicts Shylock as an evil Jewish stereotype of the highest order and Anti-Semitism spews out of the supposed good guys. In writing and directing this film, Michael Radford has done his utmost to save Shylock from being an offensive one-note character. Al Pacino has mostly become an over-the-top ghost of the actor he once was, but is excellent in the role of Shylock. The Jewish loan shark is made out to receive the viewer’s sympathy as a horrible product of the scornful citizens around him. This being said, Portia is the film’s second best character and wonderfully performed by Lynn Collins. Playing Antonio and Bassanio are Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes respectively. These two actors deliver in their performances, but the characters remain slightly unlikable. The ending scene might also feel a little anti-climactic to some viewers, but that can be attributed to Shakespeare’s actual writing in that case. Nobody expects Michael Radford to write an entirely new closing scene that feels authentic to Shakespeare, but the final scene may leave some people shrugging their shoulders.

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MERCHANT OF VENICE is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, so I’m pretty much admitting there might be a tiny bit of bias in this review. This taken into account, I love the story and thought that Michael Radford brought it to the screen in a nearly flawless fashion. There’s not much you can do about two unlikable leads, but the character of Shylock is greatly saved into being far more complex than a radical Jewish stereotype. The cinematography, costume design, sets, and soundtrack all lend to this feeling like a completely authentic retelling of Shakespeare’s most controversial play. For those interested in Shakespeare and fans of this particular play, MERCHANT OF VENICE will not disappoint!

Grade: A-

HERCULES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Epic Battle Sequences, Violence, Suggestive Comments, brief Strong Language and partial Nudity

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Directed by: Brett Ratner

Written by: Ryan J. Condal, Evan Spiliotopoulos

(based on the graphic novel HERCULES: THE THRACIAN WARS by Steve Moore & Admira Wijaya)

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Ian McShane, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Aksel Hennie, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes

2014 has brought us not one, but two crappy takes on a Greek Demigod. Of both films (the first being January’s LEGEND OF HERCULES), this summer release had the greater chance of actually being a solid film. Enter Brett Ratner. This is the man who ruined the third X-MEN film and pumped out the lame TOWER HEIST two-years back. This is a director who has truly earned infamy in Hollywood. He’s not entirely to blame for the colossal screw-up that is HERCULES. Though Ratner’s mixed production values already reeked of a possible stinker to begin with, the script is what tanks this entire film. The ads have lied and the story is essentially a KING ARTHUR version of the legend of Hercules. Thus meaning that a more realistic angle is taken and the legend itself is merely a story told around a campfire. The problem with this approach is that Hercules was never a real person. The mythology is what makes him so interesting to begin with. The removal of Gods and monsters is only the start of a laundry list of problems of what doesn’t work.

HERCULES, from left: Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Dwayne Johnson as Hercules, Reece Ritchie, Rufus Sewell,

Based on a graphic novel by Steve Moore, the film follows Hercules and his trusty band of warriors serving as mercenaries. Under the promise of their weight in gold, the group is hired by Lord Cotys to defend a kingdom from an evil warlord. The battle may be harder than originally anticipated as they face an enemy from all sides. Hercules must take up the reigns, train an army, and keep the enemy at bay long enough to save the kingdom from certain destruction. The plot is by-the-numbers simple and contains just about every cliché in the book.

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By every cliché in the book, I mean there is not a single frame or concept that you haven’t seen before executed in a far better way. Dwayne Johnson plays Hercules as a reluctant hero fighting for what he believes is right. It’s the same shtick seen in nearly every cop, army, or war movie featuring this kind of hero who just wants to live in peace. The idea of portraying a more realistic version of Hercules is shaky from the beginning, but the portrayal of how this legend really happened is insulting to anyone remotely familiar with the mythology. In short, the legend itself would have been far more interesting, cool, and entertaining to see on the big screen. It’s the kind of story that perfectly lends itself to big summer blockbuster fare. This only makes every failed attempt that much more depressing. Throw in dusty attempts at comedy relief and some rather poorly done flashbacks, then you’ve got yourself the recipe for the level of awful that HERCULES dwells at.

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Besides Dwayne Johnson cracking one-liners and playing the same role that he already played in THE SCORPION KING, Hercules’ groups is populated by other figures from Greek/Roman mythology. It should come as no surprise that their treatment is equally as heinous as the title son of Zeus’ humiliating role here. There’s the Amazonian woman proving herself stronger than all of the men she’s around, a reluctant Spartan who only cares about gold, and the scarred, mute warrior. Ian McShane is a drug-using psychic who gives Hercules cryptic bits of advice when needed. The worst character comes in the form of Iolaus. He’s Hercules’ nephew and the bumbling sidekick who wants to be a warrior, but just isn’t strong enough. See what I mean by clichés? Joseph Fiennes and John Hurt should be downright embarrassed of their performances. They both chew the scenery. The film also has one of the most annoying child actors I’ve seen in quite a while as well. Thank the Gods that he doesn’t get a whole lot of material.

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One might think that the action scenes could possibly hold some saving grace, but you’d be mistaken. Though there is a bit of momentum near the beginning of a few battle sequences, everything quickly devolves into repetitive sword-waving and nothing of real interest. Part of this might be attributed to the playing-it-safe PG-13 rating, but I’d wager that there isn’t a whole lot of interesting things to do in a non-mythological take on one of the most famous Greek myths. Another thing that really bugged me was the modern lingo thrown in. There’s the one “fuck” that every PG-13 rated blockbuster seems to save for a certain moment and then “shit” appeared every now and then. These words didn’t exist at this time in Greece. If you’re going to make a movie set in this time period then have them speak in dialogue that somewhat reflects the era they’re living in. It’s the same problem I had with 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE and the underrated POMPEII nailed dialogue more than both of these films. The film also plays hilariously cheesy music in certain scenes and is book-ended by a voice-over that really sounds like Ian McShane was just in recording booth with his paycheck being waved in front of him as motivation to say such ridiculous lines.

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The production values look very cheap in moments and actually convey some palpable atmosphere in some notable scenes. That’s about the only nice thing I can say about HERCULES. The real question that is raised after sitting through this film is this: How did a Syfy Channel script make it to the big screen and why were so many big names attracted to it? There may be a bit of an unintentionally campy factor to this film, but that’s the last thing anyone wants to hear about a would-be epic. Sitting through HERCULES is a miserable and aggravating experience. It’s one of the worst movies of the summer and 2014 as a whole.

Grade: D-

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