HENRY IV (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 4 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Richard Eyre

Written by: Richard Eyre

(based on the plays HENRY IV Part 1 and HENRY IV Part 2 by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, Julie Walters, Alun Armstrong, Joe Armstrong, David Bamber & Niamh Cusack

William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest writers in history for many good reasons. This playwright coined tons of new words, reshaped the English language as we know it, and told timeless tales of tragedy, comedy and love. His histories are usually regarded as his less interesting works, but that didn’t stop BBC from creating a series of TV movies titled THE HOLLOW CROWN. Featuring big names like Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch, this series has invigorated new takes on centuries-old material. Shakespeare was not without a few stinkers in his career (e.g. ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA) and HENRY IV Parts 1 and 2 are among those. Even with a talented cast and stand-out production values, HENRY IV is a strictly middle-of-the-road affair due to an unfocused narrative…courtesy of William Shakespeare’s original text.

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Decades after dethroning Richard II (seen in the previous HOLLOW CROWN movie), an aging Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) finds himself plagued by a series of problems. Tensions are brewing between Wales and Scotland, all while the noble Percy family plots a rebellion against the king. As if bloody chaos wasn’t enough to upset Henry IV, his son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) has become a drunken belligerent who hangs out in poor taverns amongst the trashier sects of society. Henry IV wishes to bring peace to his country, squash the violent rebellion and prepare his delinquent son for the crown. This is all easier said than done and begins to take a toll on the ailing Henry IV’s health.

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The title of Shakespeare’s play is HENRY IV, but the narrative focuses on every character who isn’t the titular ruler. This means that Jeremy Irons’ terrific performance takes a backseat to everyone else…who all happen to be less interesting characters. The only possible exception is Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal (a.k.a. future Henry V), whose transition from delinquent troublemaker to responsible adult feels a tad rushed and unbelievable. Part of this might be attributed to writer/director Richard Eyre, but I’d say that most of it falls onto Shakespeare’s shoulders. This really isn’t one of his better histories or plays in general and it really shows.

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Back to less interesting characters. HENRY IV’s potentially complex villain is portrayed in a mostly bland way. Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) not only serves as an antagonist towards Henry IV, but also comes off as would-be rival to Prince Hal. We only know about the latter through one powerful speech early on, but that is damn near forgotten by the time Hal and Hotspur actually encounter each other face-to-face. HENRY IV Part 1 is mainly where all of the rebellion stuff comes into play, as these battles are mentioned only during a few passing scenes in Part 2.

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A prominent character in both HENRY IV plays/parts is Falstaff (played by an unrecognizable Simon Russell Beale), who is a pompous oaf and also serves as a bad influence for Prince Hal. This comic relief drunkard is beloved by certain generations of Shakespeare critics, but has rightfully lost a lot of popularity over time. That becomes apparent in this buffoon essentially being Shakespeare’s equivalent of Jar Jar Binks. He’s annoying, aggravating, and got on my nerves during every scene. To make matters even worse, he’s featured in a majority of Parts 1 and 2. Not even the stellar battle sequence is safe from his over-the-top delivery and silly antics. Part 2 sees Falstaff stealing half of the running time in a subplot that’s entirely separated from the rest of the play. It’s safe to say that a majority of HENRY IV’s problems, pacing issues, and dull patches are direct results from Falstaff’s presence.

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Even when he phoned it in, Shakespeare always knew how to entrance the ears with his masterful use of the English language. His dialogue is pure poetry and certain scenes stand out as highlights in an otherwise very tiring viewing experience. The fight between Prince Hal and Hotspur is made even more intense by the battle of insults and threats occurring alongside the swords and shields. One conversation in Part 2 between Hiddleston’s Hal and Irons’ Henry IV is the best scene of the entire movie though as it captures what this whole story should have been about from frame one…and what Shakespeare attempted to do, albeit in a half-assed way.

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As a whole, HENRY IV is one of Shakespeare’s lesser works and this movie adaptation doesn’t do anything particularly special to entice one to watch both parts. There are definitely highlight scenes, amazing lines of dialogue and a great backseat performance from Jeremy Irons. However, the potentially great villain is one-dimensional, far too much time is devoted to horribly annoying comical Falstaff, and the overall experience drags throughout. Unless you’re a diehard Shakespeare fan, I’d say that you’re better off skipping HENRY IV Parts 1 and 2 in THE HOLLOW CROWN series.

Grade: C

MACBETH (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and brief Sexuality

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Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Written by: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie & Todd Louiso

(based on the play MACBETH by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki & David Thewlis

In the vast history of the English language, there has been no figure more influential or important than William Shakespeare. Reaching his popularity in Elizabethan London, Shakespeare penned 38 known plays. Some of these were histories (RICHARD III, HENRY V). Others were comedies (THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE). While these types of plays are great in their own ways, his tragedies have always struck a special place in my heart. Always revolving around one person’s downward (involving politics in CORIOLANUS, brought on by revenge in TITUS, etc.), these plays stand out as powerful works that function on both a primal level through their decidedly depressing emotions and on more sophisticated ground given the eloquent dialogue and complex characters. MACBETH, one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, has been adapted onto the stage and screen many times. With his second feature, director Justin Kurzel has impressively crafted what could very well go down as the definitive cinematic version of the “Scottish Play.”

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Macbeth is a Scottish general fighting for King Duncan in a violent civil war. After winning a particularly bloody battle, Macbeth and Banquo (his best friend and fellow general) come across a congregation of witches. These weird sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be crowned king. Initially writing off the strange premonition as the ramblings of some crazy women, Macbeth soon finds himself with an opportunity to dine with King Duncan. Spurred on by the urging of his cunning wife, Macbeth murders the Duncan and is crowned King of Scotland. Lady Macbeth starts to regret their evil deed, Macbeth slips slowly into madness, and a rebellion is beginning to brew in the countryside.

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The key to any good Shakespeare adaptation usually comes in the form of great performances. While there’s so much more to address in this movie, I need to praise the performers who perfectly encapsulate the complex cast of characters. Michael Fassbender easily brings the title tragic hero to life through stellar line delivery and little physical tics. Fassbender’s Macbeth isn’t simply a mad tyrant rising to power. He’s also a traumatized soldier and a father dealing with the untimely loss of his child. Paddy Considine is instantly likable as Banquo, while Sean Harris channels a quiet rage as Macduff. Though he doesn’t have a huge role, David Thewlis makes a strong impression as King Duncan. The real show-stopper is Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth. She’s remarkably unsympathetic in the first half of the film and then gradually earns some unexpected (and probably undeserved) sympathy from the viewer as the story moves forward.

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In any cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare, obvious changes need to be made in translating the original play onto film. What works on the stage won’t always work on the screen. Compacting Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy into a two-hour film leaves room for every important scene, but there are unconventional decisions in regards to how these moments are executed. The only major changes involving characters are there being more than three witches, only two assassins, and King Duncan having one son (as opposed to two). These are minor moves when you take into consideration how some of the play’s most famous speeches play out as well as a couple of dialogue-free sequences that add extra context to the characters. The Dagger speech is brilliantly translated with an addition that brings more weight to the words being spoken. Instead of following the play’s conclusion in a traditional way, a lot of ballsy decisions are made in the final 30 minutes of this film that somehow make Act V far more powerful than one could have possibly hoped for.

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On the technical side of things, the film is absolutely gorgeous. Every single frame looks beautiful. The fog-laden locations, elaborate sets, and convincing costumes are all aided by a soundtrack that sounds very appropriate to the time period of the story. As if the performances and unconventional choices weren’t doing enough to capture the melancholy tone of Shakespeare’s tragedy, these technical touches are icing on the bloody cake. It should also be noted that this is definitely one Shakespeare film that won’t be shown in many high school classrooms. The R rating is earned for graphic violence and two surprisingly sexual moments that fit perfectly into the context of the story. The former is demonstrated through a variety of scenes including a brutal finale that had me wincing. The latter comes from two sequences between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

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MACBETH is everything that I could have possibly hoped it would be and more. Unexpected twists on the often-visited Shakespeare tragedy make this interpretation stick out among its stiff competition. The performances are amazing, with Marion Cotillard being the best of the bunch. Stunning visuals, a beautiful soundtrack, and mature R-rated sensibilities only make it that much better. 2015’s MACBETH is as perfect as Shakespeare can be on the big screen.

Grade: A+

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-

RICHARD II (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Rupert Goold

Written by: Rupert Goold & Ben Power

(based on the play RICHARD II by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Ben Whishaw, Patrick Stewart, James Purefoy, David Morrissey, Rory Kinnear, David Suchet, Tom Hughes & Clemence Poesy

Previous reviews on this site might reveal that I’m a big fan of Shakespeare. The HOLLOW CROWN series of films had been kicking around on my radar for quite some time. I sort of skipped past them for one main reason. Out of all Shakespeare’s works, I feel that his history plays are some of his weakest. After all, Shakespeare is known for writing long stories of bloodshed and despair (in his tragedies) as well as big laughs and hilarious misunderstandings (in his comedies). Histories seem to be the ultimate appeal to high-brow crowds of Shakespeare’s time, sort of like how obvious Oscar bait movies are obviously…well, Oscar bait and aimed at current viewers. Who knows how well they will hold up over time? That doesn’t necessarily make Oscar bait or Shakespeare’s histories into bad stories, but it does put a slight damper on them when the competition promises original stories that will take us to crazy places.

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Richard II enjoys his high-maintenance kingly lifestyle. He’s a cocky ruler with a pompous ego and does immoral things to get what he wants. One day, Richard is presented with a dispute between two royals and in a hasteful decision decides to let the two men, Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, duke it out in a joust. However, in an even more poorly made last-minute decision, Richard cancels the joust and sentences both men to banishment (Henry for six years and Thomas indefinitely). This proves to be a dire mistake as Richard II becomes notorious among his countryman, especially after stealing away property and wealth from Henry’s newly deceased father. An uprising is coming. The pompous Richard has always appreciated the position of power, but neglected the actual responsibility that came with it. We watch as one king falls and another rises in his place.

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Proper adaptations of Shakespeare have always demanded ridiculously huge expectations for performers involved. HOLLOW CROWN’s first TV movie carries a remarkably strong cast. Each actor elegantly brings their roles to life in what feels like Shakespeare crossed with a slightly less violent version of GAME OF THRONES. Ben Whishaw elegantly carries the title character as a corrupt, villainous scoundrel who in time regrets his poor decisions and fears for his life. Whishaw’s line delivery is impeccable and lends a sense of brief comic timing during a couple of moments. A great example of this arrives when John of Gaunt (played by a brief, but strong-as-ever Patrick Stewart) dies. Richard (who has strongly disliked John) makes a seemingly sincere pause of emotion, before changing his tone completely (“So long for that”) and jumping immediately into seizing John’s possessions. The rest of the cast includes Rory Kinnear as the rising Henry, David Morrissey as a Duke fed up with Henry’s ways, and an all-too-briefly glimpsed James Purefoy.

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For a made-for-TV movie, RICHARD II certainly boasts higher production values than one might expect. Attention to detail has been given to every set and location. Stunning beauty can be studied in each of the period-accurate (one could assume) costumes. The cinematography makes this look like something that might have played in theaters (for a majority of the running time, anyway). Occasionally, a couple of technical flaws can be spotted. These mainly come in the camera work during the scenes where Richard confronts his traitorous countrymen. However, these are few and far between. This adaptation also gets graphically violent with one painfully sustained death scene as well as plenty of severed heads to go around. This isn’t one of Shakespeare’s most interesting plays. The pacing can drag, even for a slightly condensed take on the source material. All that being said, the bard’s words and dialogue still shine with a power that few can match. Great speech after great speech are what mainly make this film worth watching and these words are further boosted by great performances and professional production values.

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RICHARD II is not exactly Shakespeare’s best work. It’s not even his best history play (RICHARD III takes that title for me). However, HOLLOW CROWN’s production of it is certainly worth watching for fans of the bard. Somehow, I found myself shocked at how beautifully written and profound this dialogue still remains over four centuries later. This movie is a long one (running over two hours with a couple of patches that drag) and it has spots that show the signs of a made-for-TV film (though most of the scenes might convince you that this should have played in theaters). Great performances, attention to detail, and nice period setting ensure that RICHARD II is an enjoyably powerful adaptation.

Grade: B+

OTHELLO (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Sexuality

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Directed by: Oliver Parker

Written by: Oliver Parker

(based on the play OTHELLO by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Irene Jacob, Kenneth Branagh, Nathaniel Parker, Michael Maloney & Anna Patrick

OTHELLO is by-the-numbers Shakespeare tragedy in many ways. There’s the naïve protagonist with no idea of the sadness that the future holds for him, the diabolical villain who breaks the fourth wall to explain his deeds to the audience, those unlucky victims who get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and acts of bloody revenge. When held next to most other Shakespeare tragedies, OTHELLO pales in comparison. This makes this 1995 film adaptation that much more impressive in turning a lesser tragedy into a good movie that’s enjoyable for those who might not necessarily care for the play.

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Othello is a Moorish general known for his great deeds in the battlefield. Though the color of his skin brings prejudice from the very country that he’s fighting for, Othello has fallen in love with a Senator’s daughter, Desdemona, and the two secretly wed. This development pisses off Rodrigo, a gentleman who also desired Desdemona, and opens the door for revenge from the villainous Iago. Iago was passed up on a promotion from Othello for another man named Cassio. Thus, Iago manipulates everyone around him to his advantage and convinces Othello that Desdemona might be unfaithful. These ideas planted in Othello’s head and Iago’s need to keep his true intentions secret can only lead to a depressing demise for nearly everyone involved.

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There are two main performances that stand out in OTHELLO. The first being a young Laurence Fishburne as the title character. Infusing a bit of an accent and never once faltering from professional delivery, Fishburne proves himself to be an exceptional Shakespearean level actor. His performance as the inherently good, but easily misled Othello is of such high quality that it makes me wonder how he might have played Aaron the Moor (a villain) in TITUS ANDRONICUS. The best actor/character of the entire film is given to Kenneth Branagh as Iago. At this point in his career, Branagh had directed and performed in multiple Shakespeare productions. In OTHELLO, he’s strictly performing and milks the wickedness of Iago for everything that it’s worth. His villain can fake any kind, worried, or nervous emotions as needed for his sinister desires. Every other cast member and side character is absolutely forgettable though. This sadly includes Desdemona, Othello’s wife, who the viewer should feel some shred of sympathy for. Irene Jacob is just plain bland in her role.

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Given the iffy source material, director/writer Oliver Parker adapts OTHELLO with style. While one of his choices doesn’t necessarily work (more on that in a moment), the production values are high. The soundtrack also provides enough momentum to enhance the feeling of the more exciting scenes. Certain pieces of dialogue are incorporated by Iago looking into the camera (at the viewer) or a voice over going through his head as an event plays out in front of him. One interesting addition is that this doesn’t exclusively stay on the character of Iago. As his plan moves forward, a paranoid Othello also addresses the audience and develops an inner monologue as well.

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The biggest problems with OTHELLO come from the original play and in Parker’s choice to use excessive sexuality. The plot is predictable, way too predictable. Shakespeare usually threw some sort of irony or twist into his work, whether they be tragedies, comedies, romances or even histories. This is not the case with OTHELLO. It plays out in the most straight-forward and simple sense possible. You know where things are heading from the very start and this makes a longer running time seem like a tad too much! We need to sit through Acts I-IV in which Iago uses those around him and a couple of people die in order to receive the so-so payoff in Act V. Parker tries to spice things up with a handful of sex scenes. These became way too excessive as well and play as an excuse for a quick flash of nudity, including one laughable dream sequence to hammer in a point that every capable viewer should already know.

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The plot of OTHELLO is alright at best, but that’s true of the original play as well. The sex scenes are upped to a silly degree and most of the characters are completely forgettable. This being said, Laurence Fishburne is more than capable as Othello and Kenneth Branagh kills it (literally in a couple of scenes) as Iago. The fourth wall breaking and inner monologues are a nice creative touch, especially when Branagh is mugging in front of the camera. Production values are solid as well. Altogether, the good qualities far outweigh the bad. OTHELLO is a good adaptation of Shakespeare’s phoned-in tragedy.

Grade: B

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-

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1967)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Franco Zeffirelli

Written by: Paul Dehn

(based on the play THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Natasha Pyne, Michael York, Victor Spinetti, Alan Webb & Michael Hordern

TAMING OF THE SHREW isn’t exactly the easiest Shakespeare comedy to discuss in this day and age. In this day and age, positive movement is going strong in squashing sexism. It’s fairly well-known that Shakespeare’s era was not a pleasant one for women. This is apparent in torture devices like the Scold’s bridle (an iron cage that was locked onto the head of accused nagging wives to keep them from speaking) and in the fact that TAMING OF THE SHREW was absolutely hysterical at its time of origin. The play and its film adaptations are pretty much a humorous take on spousal abuse. As you might imagine, that light-hearted concept hasn’t exactly aged well over time. Thankfully, this 1967 film tries its best to add laughs that are not included in the original text and winds up being a decent effort. However, a slow pace and uncomfortable overtones remain.

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The film begins with the lord Baptista trying to marry off his two daughters. While everyone pines for the younger Bianca, they are all petrified of the older Katharina as she has a fiery temper and terrorizes anyone who comes near her. Baptista will only allow Bianca to wed if someone will first marry Katharina. Lucentio, a potential suitor for Bianca, has devised a clever plan and recruits the eccentric Petruchio to woo Katharina. Through sneaky tactics, Petruchio is wed to Katharina and uses manipulation to tame his new shrewish wife. Meanwhile, Bianca is the center of many suitors’ attention as they squabble for her hand in marriage.

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One of the biggest problems with Shakespeare adaptations are inherent in source material being rather lengthy. The length can work better in a play environment with performers standing in on a stage and an intermission halfway through, but might be a mixed bag on film. In SHREW, scenes have been omitted from play and that’s a both a blessing and a curse. The positive is that the introduction jumps right into the main story as opposed to the corrupted text’s actual, pointless opening scene. However, a side story with Bianca and Lucentio is almost completely skipped over. This wouldn’t be a problem if there weren’t the same amount of set up given to those side characters. While the actual taming of the shrew is the main focus of the play, there are other scenes detailing Bianca’s side-story that do pay off in the end. This film just ignores that almost entirely, which makes the conclusion a tad anti-climactic. Nice touches are made in how certain dialogue exchanges play out, particularly Petruchio’s introduction to Katharina, as the actors use the sets around them to their advantage.

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The biggest issue prevalent in 1967’s TAMING OF THE SHREW is the same problem that many have with the actual play. Of course, this is the blatant sexism on display. The marketing even went as far to have the tagline of “A motion picture for every man who ever gave the back of his hand to his beloved…and for every woman who deserved it.” That attitude is pretty much on display in jovial fashion here. At least one can take solace in Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor being married at the time this was filmed. Burton is clearly having a blast as the crazy jackass Petruchio and Elizabeth Taylor steals the film as Katharina.

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In spite of blatant sexism and a long running time taking some of the fun out of this Shakespeare comedy, the film makes the honorable effort of saving an ending that was played out as rather depressing in most productions. The creativity on this point offers a bit of wink-and-nudge that Zeffirelli, Burton and Taylor were all aware of the play’s questionable issues in treating domestic abuse with a light-hearted lens. Tudor times were horrible for women, but at least there’s an attempt to pretty parts of it up with the slightly redeemable final scene. This is far from the best Shakespeare adaptation, but it’s currently the best version of SHREW available.

Grade: B-

RICHARD III (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Sexuality

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Directed by: Richard Loncraine

Written by: Ian McKellen & Richard Loncraine

(based on the play RICHARD III by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, John Wood, Nigel Hawthorne, Adrian Dunbar, Edward Hardwicke, Tim McInnerny, Jim Carter & Dominic West

One of the common misconceptions about Shakespeare is that his plays are all old, dusty and can only be told in the same way every time. This is simply not true. The coolest thing about his material is most of it remains relevant (in one way or another) and the stories are phenomenal. There are many different ways that his work can be interpreted and this has been seen in plenty of unique takes on the bard’s tales. Shakespeare’s history plays were very much in the same vein as “based on a true story” movies are today. RICHARD III introduces one of Shakespeare’s best villains ever and this 1995 movie interpretation has Ian McKellen in the title role. As if that weren’t enough, the location has been shifted to 1930’s Britain and Richard III resembles a sort of Hitler archetype. A little creativity goes a long way.

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It is the calm after war, during which Richard III was a killing machine and admired by his family for it. Now that peace has come, he’s reviled by most. Being physically repulsive (hunchbacked and a deformed hand) and so ugly that dogs bark at his appearance, Richard III takes it upon himself to become the villain. He’s hatched many plans to turn one family member against the other and wipe them all out. With the help of his slimy associates (mainly, the Duke of Buckingham), Richard III is literally executing his way into the top position of king. As we’ve seen with folks like this (in both actual history and Shakespeare’s plays), things don’t exactly work out for them in the end.

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The fourth wall was less omnipresent when plays were being performed on stage with little to no props, in daylight, featuring men cross dressing as female characters. All that the audience of the 1500s wanted to see was a good story that would entertain them, hence the reason that Richard III is such an obvious villain here. He was not well-liked by the people and Shakespeare’s version of this king constantly breaks the fourth wall. Ian McKellen delights in using this to his full advantage, compete with winks and smirks. Richard is making us silently complicit with his horrible deeds. He’s the main character and the story completely follows him, so everyone else falls by the wayside as he parades around in his wicked glory. This doesn’t mean that the side performances aren’t good for what they’re worth. Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., and Dominic West all deliver in their roles, whether they’re fighting Richard or aiding him.

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The updated setting lends itself to a dark sense of humor, but things get downright grisly given that the main focus is a psycho slicing his way to the top. RICHARD III is actually Shakespeare’s third longest play, but this film edited down the not-so-vital pieces. The screenplay goes as far as shortening lengthier exchanges of dialogue, cutting scenes out and combining two characters into a single person. It’s an approach that works in transforming this into cinematic form. As much as I love the source material, it plays out better on the stage with a longer running time that risks becoming tedious on film. My problem (it’s sort of a big one) is that the conclusion feels a bit sudden. The film excitingly stretches a single sentence scene into an intense cat-and-mouse sequence. This being said, there’s not a hugely satisfying ending. I wanted an epilogue (which the play does have) in order to close events out in a better way. It’s not hugely detrimental flaw to the movie, but I noticed enough that some enjoyment was sucked out for me when the end credits began to roll.

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RICHARD III is far more fun and brilliantly stylized than most of the traditional retellings of Shakespeare. That very style also negates the conclusion (feeling a tad off thanks to a missing final scene). Otherwise, the cutting, trimming and combining different scenes/characters works well in translating this into a film. It’s still very much Shakespeare, but a side that you may not have known from the man’s work. This should entertain fans of the source material, as well as possibly interest those who think Shakespeare is just for old farts. Highly recommended!

Grade: A-

CORIOLANUS (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Bloody Violence

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Directed by: Ralph Fiennes

Written by: John Logan

(based on the play CORIOLANUS by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, John Kani, James Nesbitt & Paul Jesson

Shakespeare’s last recorded tragedy, CORIOLANUS, has never fully gone on to receive the acclaim of HAMLET or MACBETH. There are quite a few reasons for this. The biggest of which being that this play is not the easiest story to read or watch. The original text suffers from some of the same issues that RICHARD III and ANTONY CLEOPATRA have: far too many scenes that serve as quick exposition and lead for a longer running time than necessary. Ralph Fiennes wisely decided to take on CORIOLANUS as his directorial debut, as well as performing as the title character. Screenwriter John Logan and director Fiennes turned a very complex play into something accessible. The story has been relocated into an alternate present day Rome and modern technology has made its way into the war scenes. Action movie elements and a gritty atmosphere make for a thrilling experience that will delight Shakespeare fans and possibly intrigue those who don’t exactly care for Shakespeare.

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Times are tough in Rome due to a war with the nearby terrorist-like Volsci. Civil liberties have been revoked and food is being withheld from citizens. One general in particular, Caius Martius, despises the ordinary citizens and is very public about his low opinion of them. Being sent yet again into battle, Martius confronts the Volscian commander Tullus Aufidius, whom he has encountered on numerous occasions. After coming back home wounded and victorious (despite losing a whole lot of men), Caius Martius is awarded the official name of Coriolanus and runs for consul in the Roman Senate. Unfortunately for the newly named Coriolanus, public opinion is largely negative of him and he is soon betrayed by his own people. Banding with the now disgraced Aufidius, Coriolanus lays siege to his once proud country on a quest driven purely by revenge.

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Deciding to tell a Shakespeare play in a unique setting can play out brilliantly (TITUS, RICHARD III) or have a few negative connotations (ROMEO + JULIET). Luckily, CORIOLANUS is brilliantly executed. The incorporation of modern technology serves as a nice way to give exposition in a far more interesting fashion than a stage production or a traditional telling. For example, key information (delivered by messengers in the original text) is glimpsed in news broadcasts giving enough details to further along the plot and not diminishing any momentum. Another stylistic choice used is to play two separate scenes (one of which comes far before the other in actual play itself) at the same time. This means we cut between a relatively interesting conversation between two side characters and Coriolanus on a bloody battlefield littered with explosions. Far be it from me to criticize the work of one of the most celebrated writers in history, but this version of the story plays out somewhat better than the original text.

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The cast includes a variety of names that are a little unexpected to see in a modern version of Shakespeare, which also lends to the enjoyment of watching this performers have at it. Ralph Fiennes is astounding as Coriolanus. His character isn’t necessarily meant to be a sympathetic or likable person. Fiennes does lend real human emotion to the man shaped from both war and his domineering mother (played by the great Vanessa Redgrave). Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain are welcomed additions, even if they don’t receive a ton of screen time. Cox gives the most emotional and cynical performance of the bunch, jeering at his idiotic peers and feeling great sadness at witnessing Coriolanus transforming into an all-out monster. The biggest mixed bag is Gerard Butler. In moments, especially the battle scenes, Butler does what he does best in yelling and acting like a bad-ass. In the more quiet and subtle moments, he’s a bit flat.

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It’s not as if the film is loaded with action, but there’s a decent amount of on-screen bloodshed and implied violence. These war sequences are extremely well-staged and feel like a genuine modern epic mixing with Shakespeare. Shaky camera work botches a couple of otherwise cool moments, one knife fight is almost confusing as to which character is lunging and which person is being hurt. The biggest compliment I can give CORIOLANUS actually goes to the bard himself. It regards how shockingly relevant this story is in today’s world. It’s not as Shakespeare already hadn’t tackled universal themes (power, love, revenge, guilt, etc.), but there are huge political and social issues brought to life on the screen here that are possibly more prevalent now than they were at the time. The most obvious being the “glory” of war and the debate of dying for those who use you as a pawn. There’s also a not-so-subtle view on classism too. Props to both Fiennes and Logan for revamping an already relevant old text in an even more compelling setting.

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CORIOLANUS isn’t going to convince someone who already doesn’t care for Shakespeare into automatically loving the man’s work. It’s an interesting take on a lesser known play that will delight fans of the bard and interest people who are indifferent to old English literature. I’d argue that the film is worth watching purely to see Fiennes and Butler firing guns at each other while shouting Shakespearean dialogue. It’s pretty awesome that an adaptation like this still can be made in modern times and be absolutely compelling. There are a couple of problems (Gerard Butler’s mixed bag performance and some shaky camera work), but Fiennes dominating role and the fantastic social commentary far outweigh them. The story of CORIOLANUS holds up far better today than it probably did in Shakespeare’s era. This film comes highly recommended for those interested in this sort of thing.

Grade: A-

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