#46: A Bunch of Amateurs (2008) September 13, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, 2000s, 3 stars, British films, films about films, Shakespeare, 2011 , add a comment
A faded action movie star (Burt Reynolds) thinks he’s been signed up to play King Lear with the RSC… but when he arrives in England, he finds it’s just a small village amateur dramatics group. Hilarity, and the odd heart-warming message, ensue.
To put it simply, A Bunch of Amateurs is entertaining enough and has its moments. It’s thoroughly predictable — most viewers could probably map out the plot before the film even begins, so it’s certainly easy to guess what’s coming next as it trots along — but there’s also something reassuring about that predictability — it’s exactly the sort of Quaint British Movie you expect it to be. Some will find that insufferable; I’m sure there are some who find it absolutely lovely and it’s the only kind of film they ever want to watch. I think it’s fine for what it is, a nice hour-and-a-half on a Sunday afternoon with something unchallenging but likely to raise a smile.
It’s certainly well cast. Well, mostly. Reynolds isn’t a great actor, is he? Appropriate casting when his bad-actor character is acting, then, but not so hot the rest of the time. (Reportedly he struggled to learn his lines and consequently many differ significantly from the play. So I’m not wrong, am I.) Luckily he’s made up for by a cast that includes Samantha Bond, Imelda Staunton and Derek Jacobi, all ceaselessly watchable, plus a supporting cast of faces you’ll likely recognise from British telly.
Late on, there are a couple of jumps in the plot that suggest cut scenes. Or bad writing. So we’ll go with the former. I appreciate the (presumed) desire to keep the running time tight, but there were a couple of glitches I observed and it would be nice if they’d been smoothed over. Ian Hislop is a credited writer — I guess we know the source of some light newspaper satire that’s sprinkled across the film (most notably in the final act), then.
The worst gap in the writing is that it goes unexplained why the am-dram group thought he was a good idea at any time. It’s ‘explained’ as the school-age daughter of the group’s director suggesting him, but no idea is given as to why — he’s not a great actor; he’s a wash-up who used to be in crap action films. If he’d been suggested by a version of Nick Frost’s character from Hot Fuzz, or by the B&B lady who fancies the pants off him, that might make sense, but why the schoolgirl? And why did anyone agree to it? It’s sort of ignored in the hope we won’t notice this massive whole in the logic, but… well, I noticed.
Probably the best bit is the series of films Reynolds’ character is known for: Ultimate Finality 4 plays as a nice, subtly-used background gag.
The 15 certificate is over-doing it. There’s a couple of instances of swearing that make it clear how that rating was achieved (according to the BBFC, ten in total, including seven in one sentence), but those aside it’s really not a 15 kind of film; it’s far too gentle for the vast majority of its running time to merit so high a classification. Not that anyone under the age of 15 is going to be dying to see it, but the implication of what a 15 contains is more likely to put off the real prospective audience. Maybe. Oh I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem right.
IMDb reports that “Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip requested a copy of this film after attending it’s Premiere 2008 Royal Film Performance so they could show it at Sandringham Castle for the rest of the family over the Christmas holidays.” Take from that what you will.
#90: Hamlet (2009) December 31, 2009Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, 2000s, adaptations, 4 stars, British films, Shakespeare, 2009 , add a comment
It doesn’t seem like 18 months since the RSC brought Hamlet to the stage with British TV’s biggest star actor (probably) as the titular Dane, but it is (more or less). Thanks to sold-out performances and largely positive reviews (theatre critics seem even less keen to agree on anything than film ones), we’re now treated to this film adaptation, shown on BBC Two on Boxing Day and released on DVD (but not Blu-ray, boo) earlier this week.
Hamlet hangs primarily on its central performance — so we’re constantly told, anyway; this being only the second production I’ve seen I can’t confidently assert so for myself, but I can certainly see where the consensus comes from. Equally, I can’t accurately compare David Tennant’s performance to any other, which often seems to be a central consideration in any review of the play. In near-isolation, however, it’s a thoroughly convincing performance. He glides seamlessly from withdrawn and grief-stricken in his first appearance, to intrigued and excited by the ghost of his father, to clever and wily as he plots, and finally to an alternation between assumed madness and serious introspection as he enacts his plans.
Any number of scenes show off Tennant’s abilities, particularly the way he treats other characters. He resolutely takes the piss out of both Polonius and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, but plays each in subtly different ways: the former is like someone intelligent teasing with someone who doesn’t get it, which sounds distasteful but is enjoyable because of Polonius’ plotting and influence; while the latter is like a cat toying with a pair of treacherous mice, who are aware they’ve been caught out but struggle on regardless. Hamlet’s pair of ‘friends’ can be seen as insignificant characters by some — it’s part of what led Tom Stoppard to pen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, after all — but with a few silent additions around Shakespeare’s dialogue and the way Tennant, Sam Alexander and Tom Davey choose to play the original lines, their roles seem to have increased importance.
The other notable facet of Tennant’s interpretation of the character is humour. Hamlet’s madness here is almost unrelentingly funny — even in deadly serious situations, like capture following a murder, Tennant’s Hamlet can’t resist taunting the other characters, keeping the viewer onside by keeping his apparent insanity entertaining rather than scary or darkly intense. If anything, however, this screen version fails to capture just how funny Tennant was on stage. Perhaps its the loss of a bigger audience, or the energy of performing on stage, or perhaps Tennant has reigned in, switching from Stage Acting to Screen Acting. He’s still funny, certainly, but its not as striking as it was live. In fact, more laughs are earnt by Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. As his lines dither on like many a real forgetful old man, it’s difficult to imagine the part played any other way.
The other stand-out is an award-winning Patrick Stewart in the dual role of Claudius and the Ghost, though the fact he plays both feels relatively insignificant. His cool politician of a King makes a perfect contrast to the crazed energy of the Prince, the latter constantly bounding around while the former remains still and collected. In my view it’s a shame Stewart has a beard in the filmed version (a necessity forced by his concurrent appearance in Waiting for Godot, I believe) — on stage he was clean-shaven and therefore somehow more reminiscent of numerous other political villains, both real and fictional, whereas his bearded visage is more reminiscent of a traditional Kingly role. Still, it’s a minor aesthetic point that doesn’t hamper his wonderful performance.
Director of the original stage production, Greg Doran, also helms this version. It’s a convincing adaptation too, making good use of sets, locations and, vitally, camerawork, rather than employing static shots of the original theatrical blocking. A quick shoot (18 days for an over-three-hours film) and single location combine to reduce the number of on-screen locations, unfortunately, though the main set is fairly well rearranged to stand in for a number of rooms. It does branch out occasionally, but it’s a shame this couldn’t have been done more often, as consecutive scenes on the same slightly-redressed main set occasionally confuse whether we’ve changed location or not.
Doran’s main screen gimmick, however, is security cameras. Every so often our viewpoint switches to a grainy black & white high angle as we survey the scene via CCTV. It’s a neat idea to convey the concept of Elsinore as a place where everyone is under constant scrutiny, and it’s occasionally used very well indeed — during the Ghost’s appearance to Hamlet, for example, or when he rips a camera down to declare “now I am alone”. Unfortunately, it’s not as consistently thought-out as one might like. When Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet and Ophelia, for example, they do so from behind a two-way mirror (as in Branagh’s film, incidentally) rather than, say, from a control room with a bank of security monitors, an idea which seems to naturally flow from the presence of CCTV. Following this, when Polonius talks to Hamlet he delivers several asides to camera — not the security camera, mind, just to the audience. It would have been more effective to have him offer them to a security camera, knowing Claudius to be viewing in another room. It’s moments like these that turn the omnipresent video surveillance from a clever idea to little more than a gimmick. And by the time it’s cut to during the climactic sword fight, you just want it to go away.
It’s almost certain that this production will be remembered as “The Doctor Who Hamlet” thanks to its leading man. Whether that’s unfair or not is another debate, though it shouldn’t mean this version goes ignored. Tennant’s excellent performance reminds us that he was an accomplished performer with the RSC long before he gained televisual fame, and a strong supporting cast ensure this can’t just be dismissed as a popularity-seeking vanity venture by the RSC. Indeed, if there’s one good thing about the “Doctor Who Hamlet” label, it’s that the potential viewership is increased massively, bringing some to Shakespeare who never would have bothered otherwise. Surely no true theatre aficionado could argue with that.
(Originally posted on 8th January 2010.)
#50: Hamlet (1996) August 21, 2008Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, adaptations, 4 stars, 1990s, British films, 2008, Shakespeare , 1 comment so far
Following his success with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh tackled arguably Shakespeare’s most revered play, Hamlet. And he didn’t do it by half. It’s the first ever full-text screen adaptation, which means it clocks in just shy of four hours; he unusually shot it on 70mm film, which means it looks gorgeous; and, while he grabbed the title role himself, he assembled around him a ludicrously star-packed cast from both sides of the pond — in alphabetical order, there’s Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Nicholas Farrell, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, John Mills, Jimi Mistry, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, Don Warrington, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet — not to mention several other recognisable faces. Even Ken Dodd’s in there!
But, with impressive statistics and name-dropping put to one side, what of the film itself? Well, it’s a bit of a slog, especially for someone unfamiliar with the text. While there is much to keep the viewer engaged, the high level of attention required can make it a little wearing; certainly, I took the intermission as a chance to split the film over two nights. Amusingly, the second half uses the original text to provide a sort of “Previously on Hamlet“, which was very useful 24 hours later. None of this is the fault of Branagh or his cast, who do their utmost to make the text legible for newbies — for example, there are cutaways to events that are described but not shown by Shakespeare, which, among other things, help establish who Fortinbras is (Rufus Sewell, as it turns out) before he finally turns up later on.
That said, some of the performances are a bit mixed. Branagh is a good director and not a bad actor, but his Shakespearean performances are variations on a theme rather than fully delineated characters. While there are new facets on display here thanks to the complexity of the character, there are also many elements that are eerily reminiscent of his Henry V and Benedick. The Americans among the cast seem to be on best behaviour and generally cope surprisingly well, while Julie Christie achieves an above average amount of fully legible dialogue. Perhaps the biggest casting surprise is Judi Dench, appearing in what is barely a cameo — one wonders if the film-career-boosting effects of a certain spy franchise would have changed that.
The best thing about this version, however, is how it looks. Much credit to cinematographer Alex Thomson for using the larger 70mm format to its full, loading every frame with vibrant colours and packing detail into even the quietest moments. Not every frame is a work of art — there is, after all, a story to be told — but there’s more than enough eye candy to go round. Also, a nod to the editing (the work of Neil Farrell), which makes good use of long takes — many of them full of camera moves — but also sharply edited sequences, such as the all-important play. The fast cuts make for a joyously tense scene in a way only cinema can provide, which I suppose is rather ironic during a ‘play within a play’.
For fans of Shakespeare, I suspect Branagh’s Hamlet is a wonderful experience, finally bringing the complete text to the screen and executing it all so well. For us mere mortals, it’s a beautifully shot and engagingly performed film, that I’m sure would benefit from a greater understanding of the text.
#33: Throne of Blood (1957) May 29, 2008Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, 5 stars, adaptations, 1950s, 2008, world cinema, Historical, Shakespeare , 1 comment so far
Kurosawa moves Macbeth from Scotland to 16th Century Japan in this retelling of Shakespeare’s infamous Scottish Play. I’ve heard this described as a loose adaptation — perhaps those reviewers have never read the play. Kurosawa sticks very closely to the structure of Shakespeare’s version of the story (though based on real events, Shakespeare changed key details), often choosing to adapt it scene-for-scene. It works well in the new setting, with some of the themes — honour, respect, betrayal — perhaps becoming more understandable when placed in samurai culture. Kurosawa changes other elements too — character names are understandably localised, there’s only one witch, there’s no version of the famous “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” monologue, and so on. It’s not all omissions however, as Kurosawa adds imagery and symbolism of his own. Again this helps to place the story in its new context, but also covers the loss of Shakespeare’s original language (a major sticking point for some critics).
Beyond the Shakespearean similarities (or lack of), there’s much to see in Throne of Blood — literally, thanks to the atmospheric cinematography. Most of the exteriors are doused in fog, and while this is sometimes over-done (an extended sequence of Washizu and Miki riding in and out of it goes on too long) it also makes for some amazing moments, such as when the trees of Cobweb Forest drift menacingly forward. The interior of the forest is suitably oppressive and scary too, the perfect location for encountering a witch. Kurosawa was inspired by Japanese Noh theatre in his construction of the film, so there are a lot of longer shots that allow the characters to be blocked as if on stage. It’s not overly theatrical, thankfully, and works suitably.
Cinematic techniques are not entirely abandoned however. The most memorable is the banquet scene, in which Washizu sees Miki’s ghost: we see Miki’s empty seat, the camera tracks forward to a shocked Washizu, then back to reveal the ghost of Miki sat at his place, before tracking and panning around the room to follow Mifune’s brilliant performance. It’s an infinitely more effective reveal than any amount of jiggery pokery with dissolves or CGI could provide. Similarly, Washizu’s iconic death scene — in which hundreds of arrows puncture him and the surrounding walls — is impressively achieved (using real arrows), including one seamless shot when an arrow pierces his neck.
Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play — it’s a great story, with great themes, imagery and language. Throne of Blood obviously loses some of this, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest — Kurosawa has constructed an excellent and well-conceived retelling with a few of his own flourishes.
A note on the classification: the UK DVD from the BFI is rated PG, classified in 1991. A few months after the DVD’s release in 2001, the film was re-submitted to the BBFC and received a 12. Quite way the rating was raised isn’t explained, and copies of the DVD still bear a PG on the cover.
#29: Henry V (1989) May 18, 2008Posted by badblokebob in : War, adaptations, 4 stars, 1980s, British films, 2008, true stories, Historical, Shakespeare, remakes , 1 comment so far
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, as I delve into a second version of Henry V in as many (viewing) days. (I dread to think how many reviews of this film began with a similar quote-based pun.) Inevitably, having watched them so close together, this is as much a comment on the relative merits of Branagh’s and Olivier’s interpretations of Henry V as it is a review of Branagh’s film in its own right.
Branagh’s version opens with almost a direct homage to Olivier’s, though with an important difference. Olivier opened with the Chorus’ narration on a stage ; Branagh opens with the Chorus’ narration on a film set. Rather than wasting half an hour with this conceit (as Olivier did), Branagh pushes into the ‘reality’ of the story before another actor has even entered. And his reality is much more real. The film looks as if it’s lit by candles and daylight, the castles and tavern are rough and dark, the battlefields muddy and grimy; everyone gets dirty and bloodied by the fights. On the whole it’s a grittier and more realistic version. Yet there’s room for more than that. The story still seems concluded at the Battle of Agincourt, but the proposal scene no longer feels tacked on. In fact it’s now laugh-out-loud hilarious, with Branagh and Emma Thompson demonstrating the undeniable chemistry that would help make Much Ado About Nothing so good a few years later. Unlike Olivier’s fluffy limp to the credits, this is an entertaining round-off to the plot.
The fact I’d never seen a version of Henry V before Olivier’s ostensibly gives Branagh’s the benefit of a better understanding on my part. Practically, it matters little that I saw Olivier’s first, as the more modern and film-friendly performances in Branagh’s version mean that, while Olivier’s allowed me to broadly follow the majority of what was happening, Branagh’s gives more access to the nuances of both plot and character. He’s aided in the latter by the inclusion of scenes deemed inappropriate for a World War 2 propaganda film: in one, Henry and co confront three traitors; in another, he hangs an old friend in order to make an example. Other scenes are played differently too, so that Branagh’s Henry is a more complex and morally debatable figure, unlike Olivier’s bright-eyed hero. Whatever your opinions on the two actors on the whole, these changes make for a better character and therefore a better film.
It would be remiss not to mention the rest of the cast. Brian Blessed is positively restrained as Exeter, one of Henry’s key associates — you’d never imagine he could turn in such a performance if you’d only seen his recent go at hosting Have I Got News For You. Paul Schofield, as the aging French King, and Michael Maloney, as the contemptible Dauphin, help flesh out the French side more than Olivier’s version managed, as does Christopher Ravenscroft’s Mountjoy, the French herald who all but switches his allegiance. The English ranks are swelled by Bilbo Baggins, Hagrid, and the current incarnations of ‘M’ and Batman (don’t worry, the French have Miss Marple); not to mention the recognisable faces of Richard Briers, Danny Webb, Simon Shepherd and John Sessions (and no doubt others I’ve accidentally missed). Of course, a starry and recognisable cast does not necessarily a good film make, but this is a dependable lot and there are good performances all round — even if Ian Holm’s Welsh accent is somewhat dubious (though it’s a lunar leap on from the one in Olivier’s version).
And deserving of a paragraph unto himself is Derek Jacobi’s masterful Chorus, who, with just a handful of narrational lines and a big black coat, is somehow one of the coolest characters I’ve seen of late.
There’s no contest here for me. Olivier’s version is an over-stylised, propaganda-inspired, outdated version of Shakespeare, whereas Branagh’s is a comprehensible, realistic, textured and, perhaps most importantly, genuinely enjoyable interpretation.
#28: Henry V (1944) May 16, 2008Posted by badblokebob in : War, adaptations, 2 stars, 1940s, British films, 2008, true stories, Historical, Shakespeare , add a comment
Or The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France, as the title card (and therefore IMDb) would have it.
The works of Shakespeare tend to be a love-it-or-hate-it experience for most people, often based on one’s social class and/or experiences at school (obviously not exclusively). Just to be awkward, I’m going to say I have mixed feelings about his plays: on the one hand, I consistently enjoy Macbeth and find Much Ado About Nothing a diverting enough rom-com; on the other, I was bored by Richard III, even when played by Sir Ian McKellen, and never got on with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (to pick just two examples for each side). I imagine most people have their likes and dislikes of course, but I often feel I fall between the the dislike Normal people have for Shakespeare and the love that Cultured people have for him.
This may seem beside the point, but it does lead to Olivier’s Henry V. Simply put, I didn’t much care for it. It failed to engage me, and I’d put this down to Olivier’s infamous staging (literally) of it. The first half hour is a recreation of the play’s first performance in 1600, complete with fluffed sound cues and heckles from the crowd. The goings-on backstage and performer/crowd interactions heavily distract from the actual text being performed, as much as anything because they’re more entertaining. Then, cued by one of the Chorus’s lines, the film moves to showing the story in ‘reality’ — except this is a reality made of painted scenery, primary-coloured landscapes, and cardboard fairy castles. It’s a deliberate effect, designed to emulate pre-Renaissance painting, but it didn’t work for me — it’s over-stylised and distracting, and if you’re not familiar with the play (as I wasn’t) getting distracted is a problem. The concept of transition from performance to reality has potential (as would the idea of presenting the whole thing on stage with crowd interactions, actually, considering I missed them when they went), but I personally feel Olivier executed it poorly. For one thing, it spends too long bedding in the feel of the stage performance before it gets round to the shift to reality.
Stylised productions can work, and excellently, but here the direction and acting are sometimes as flat as the castles. Actors arbitrarily shout some lines, hush others, and put in emphasis of dubious relevance — it’s like Shakespeare-by-numbers, the sort of production that reveres the text so much it doesn’t bother to think about it. It hampers any understanding of what they’re saying, especially for newcomers. Perhaps more fairly, the performance style is incredibly stagey. My degree-related reading suggests this is one of the earliest proper Shakespeare films (previous adaptations being silent or even less complete), so perhaps the idea of a more subdued, screen-acting style had yet to permeate such productions. Things do pick up as the film goes on: the battles are effective, and the proposal scene is more comfortably performed than the pre-war politics. That said, the story seems to be over once Agincourt is won, so by modern structural standards the hasty single-scene romance that follows feels pointlessly tacked on.
Olivier’s Henry V has received plenty of praise in its time, as well as derision, largely for its conception as World War 2 propaganda. The latter is hard to ignore, with grand speeches delivered in a way reminiscent of Churchill’s and scenes removed so that Henry’s character becomes unquestionably good — both aspects that are distinctly less relevant to today’s more complex, war-dubious world. Even leaving the propaganda aside, the performances are outdated, the design several stylised steps too far, and on the whole the production failed to engage or hold my interest. However good it may once have seemed, I think this version has had its day.
Next I’ll be reviewing Kenneth Branagh’s all-star 1989 version of Henry V, here.
#53: West Side Story (1961) June 11, 2007Posted by badblokebob in : Musical, Drama, adaptations, 4 stars, 1960s, 2007, Shakespeare , add a comment
“Everything’s free in America,” goes the famous line; but this film is probably more accurately summed up in its following line: “For a small fee in America”.
For, surprisingly, underneath the song and dance numbers (some impressive, some embarrassing), the Shakespearian romance story, and the vibrant and beautiful cinematography, beats the heart of a gritty, political, social drama about gangs, racism, immigration, and more — issues that seem as pertinent today as ever.
It’s a brilliant film, which falls short of full marks only thanks to some of those weaker song & dance bits (and I might be being a tad unfair there).