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-

TITUS (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violent and Sexual Images

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Directed by: Julie Taymor

Written by: Julie Taymor

(based on the play TITUS ANDRONICUS by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Harry Lennix, Angus Macfadyen, Alan Cumming, Laura Fraser, James Frain, Colm Feore, Johnathan Rhys-Meyers, Matthew Rhys, Kenny Doughty, Blake Ritson & Colin Wells

When one thinks of Shakespeare, the first plays that usually pop into mind are ROMEO & JULIET or HAMLET. While those are without a doubt two of his most popular works and most of his catalogue are considered masterpieces, the man also had to make a living. Sometimes, that meant appealing to what new entertainment trend (plays were the equivalent of movies in Shakespeare’s time) was popular. Violent revenge stories were in and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was a response saying something along the lines of “You want blood? You got it!” This exploitative grotesque tale of madness and sorrow was debated by critics as not even being penned by Shakespeare as it was so disturbing. However, it was indeed from the mind of the most celebrated playwright and Julie Taymor’s 1999 adaptation is probably going to be the only movie based on this work.

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Titus Andronicus is a revered Roman general who has conquered the Goths. Following a post-war ritual, Titus executes the proudest warrior among his defeated enemy and draws the ire of scorned Queen Tamora. Titus declines an offer for position as Emperor of Rome and wants to live the rest of his days out in peace. In a cruel twist of fate, Tamora is made wife to Saturninus (the newly crowned corrupt Emperor). Using her limitless power and untouchable status, Tamora and her lover Aaron enact an intricately painful plan of revenge on Titus’s loved ones. Titus won’t take this lying down and things go from bad to horrible for everybody involved. Revenge is met with worse revenge and by the end of this movie, it will be a miracle if anybody survives. The details in the plot are much more complicated than I’ve just made them out to be, but giving any of the twists and turns (of which there are plenty) away might spoil the fun for some viewers.

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The first thing that needs to be stated upfront is that TITUS isn’t a traditional adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Following a similar pattern to 1996’s ROMEO + JULIET, this adaptation of Shakespeare’s work is not set in the intended time period or place. Yet it isn’t fully set in the present either. Instead, this world is a mix of modern technology (cars, guns, arcade machines, pool tables, etc.) and ancient Rome (Colosseum-like structures, paved walkways, swords, armor, etc.). It’s a strange blend that offers slight distancing to the audience from the barbaric deeds being showcased. The plot is still devastating in many ways (expect a bit of recovery time afterwards), but plays out exceeding well. Running at almost three full hours, there’s hardly a dull moment.

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Besides the impeccable Anthony Hopkins (in full lunatic force as Titus), the cast is filled with many performers that may be more than familiar to many of current TV viewers. Matthew Rhys (seen in THE AMERICANS), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (THE TUDORS), and Jessica Lange (AMERICAN HORROR STORY) play the main antagonists of the story in Tamora and her two sons. Oddly enough, the flamboyant Alan Cumming plays the ever-infuriated Emperor. Angus MacFadyen stars as Titus’s eldest son and I find it hilarious that a victim from SAW III acted in a Shakespeare film. That is truly awesome. The always underrated Colm Feore is given time to shine as Titus’s brother, though he mostly comes out as the often-ignored voice of reason in his well-spoken role.

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Besides the extravagantly strange set design, another element that thankfully makes the disturbing content more tolerable is a wicked sense of dark humor. Some of these oddball moments launch TITUS from being wholly dark into downright entertaining. There is plenty of violence, gore and sex to be had though. Tamora’s main act of vengeance involves one of the movie’s most horrifying scenes that is shot beautifully, making the gruesome sight look stunning. This is very much a tragedy from Shakespeare and the movie is indeed very sad, dark and bleak. The three-hour running time may never be boring, but it does beat the viewer’s emotions down into a fine paste. This isn’t a bad quality at all, because the movie greatly accomplishes what it set out to do. It’s also one of the most imaginative visions of Shakespeare ever made.

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For fans of the play and Shakespeare in general, TITUS is sure to delight as much as a story centered around madness, murder, sacrifice, revenge and tragedy can. This film does justice to the writer’s most overlooked play. The execution is entirely original, though sometimes the style can be a little too over-the-top. It’s definitely not for everybody, but there are bound to be those who love it (including myself). This is Shakespeare unlike you’ve ever seen him before and likely will ever see him again.

Grade: A

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