26 August 2013

Sister Act

Sister Act 1992
  • Director: Emile Ardolino
  • Based on book: No
  • Cast: Whoopie Goldberg, Maggie Smith, Harvey Keitel, Kathy Najimy, Wendy Makenna, Mary Wickes, Bill Nunn
  • Personal “oh yeah him/her” reaction, i.e. have seen this actor/actress in:
    • Whoopie Goldberg – Pauly Shore Is Dead, Girl Interrupted, Moonlight and Valentino, Boys on the Side, Corina Corina, Ghost, The Long Walk Home, The Color Purple
    • Maggie Smith  – Harry Potter 1-8, Hotel Marigold, A Room with a View, Gosford Park, Keeping Mum, David Copperfield, Tea with Mussolini, Richard III,  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
    • Harvey Keitel – Moonrise Kingdom, Be Cool, Lulu on the Bridge, Cop Land, Clockers, Smoke, Pulp Fiction, The Piano, Reservoir Dogs, Thelma and Louise, The January Man, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore etc.
    • Kathy Najimy – just this
    • Wendy Makenna – NYPD Blue
    • Mary Wickes – Little Women, Postcards from the Edge, old TV series
    • Bill Nunn - Spider Man, Kiss the Girls, Mo’ Better Blues, Do the Right Thing
  •  Why? Whoopie Goldberg and Maggie Smith
  • Seen: Twice. First time about 15 years ago. Now: August 25, 2013

     After the grimness of six Othello films we definitely needed a comedy. But as a card-carrying atheist and a history teacher well aware of the agony organized religion has caused throughout history, it’s embarrassing to admit how much I like this movie. Whoopie Goldberg and Maggie Smith get most of the credit, as do the rest of the exuberant cast. They are obviously having a lot of fun.
Much of the appeal is probably that we all have a mixture of the Puritan (sorry, Catholics won’t like being called that) of Smith’s Mother Superior being wonderfully Professor McGonagallish, and the strict old nun from the wilds of the north, and the gluttony for the glittery material world of Goldberg’s nightclub singer. We’re timid but harbor the secret longing to be able to belt out pop songs like Makenna’s earnest novice nun and no matter what our job we’d love to let loose with a jive dance like Najimy’s Sister Mary Patrick. Besides, don’t we all imagine ourselves – at least all of us teachers – going out into the slums to reach and lift up the kids in danger of sinking out of society entirely?
And the music. Who can resist that? Nobody, evidently. Not me, for sure. With the added uncomfortable but humorous twist that pop songs like “I Will Follow Him” and “My Guy” can so easily be turned religious. There’s a point here.  The need in our romantic world to find and Love the One and Only is only a step away from believing in God.  Pop culture money makers and churches have been encouraging and exploiting this for centuries.
Oh for heaven’s sake, this isn’t a political movie! Well, yes it is. Everything is political. But for now I’ll just go with the flow and enjoy the fun.

3 ½ * of 5

19 August 2013

Othello (Parker)

Othello (Oliver Parker 1995)
  • Director: Oliver Parker
  • Based on play by William Shakespeare
  • Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh, Irène Jacob, Anna Patrick, Michael Maloney, Nathaniel Parker, Nicholas Farrell
  • Personal “oh yeah him/her” reaction, i.e. have seen this actor/actress in:
    • Laurence Fishburne – Akeelah and the Bee, The Matrix Trilogy, Mystic River, What’s Love Got to Do with It, Class Action
    • Kenneth Branagh  – everything. Here are a few: My Week with Marilyn, Frankenstein, Henry V, Valkyrie, Wallander, Swing Kids, The Boat That Rocked, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Rabbit Proof Fence, Shackleton, How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Fortunes of War
    • Irene Jacob – My Life So Far, Trois couleurs: Rouge,
    • Anna Patrick – just this
    • Michael Maloney - The Young Victoria, Babel, In the Bleak Midwinter, Hamlet (Branagh), Hamlet (Zefferelli), Henry V
    • Nathaniel Parker – Merlin, Stardust, Inspector Lynley, Hamlet
    • Nicholas Farrell – In the Bleak Midwinter, Twelfth Night, Sex Chips and Rock’n’Roll, Driving Lessons, Hamlet
  • Why? Shakespeare
  • Seen: twice before. Now: August 17, 2013

Othello is probably Shakespeare’s most painful play, even more so that The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew because here the coming tragedy is revealed so early and is so unstoppable.  It must be extremely hard to get just right when directing and performing.  I have yet to see a completely satisfying version.
This version is probably the best, overall but there are problems. It’s fast moving and at times exciting even though I know what’s going to happen, but there are too many cuts in the original and altogether too many added scenes. Though esthetically and visually pleasing, we really don’t need the sex scenes. They are so clearly added because it’s the fad and directors don’t seem to believe people will see the movie if they aren’t included.  This movie would have been so much better without them.
And why oh why did Oliver Parker kill off Iago in the end?  Why did Branagh go along with that? The image of the four people, two married couples, lying dead on the bed was just…wrong.
The roles are well cast. Fishburne is without a doubt the best Othello I have seen. It’s easy to relate to his power, his love, his doubts, his agony and his fall.  Visually he’s gorgeous with his earrings, tattoos, hooded capes and shaved head.
Desdemona is an extremely difficult role to get right and no one has that I have seen. Irène Jacob is quite good (sorry – damned with faint praise) and she’s feisty enough at times but is altogether too earnest.
Emila is such a key figure in the play and though her role is almost a parenthesis here Anna Patrick does well in the crucial moments. But I miss Zoë Wanamaker.
Maloney, Farrell and Nathaniel Parker are among my favorite actors and I simply enjoyed seeing their old familiar selves here. They did well even though Maloney was a bit more manic than I see Roderigo.
And the evilest of evils? Branagh as Iago. A greater contrast between Branagh and Ian McKellen or Bob Hoskins is harder to imagine.  Branagh is so low key here, so laid back, that his evil is truly scary.  Branagh’s genius is in making all of his characters totally believable as guys we could know and come into contact with, even be friends with. Hamlet, Benedick, King Henry – the situations are not ones we would find ourselves in but these guys are guys we know and recognize.  Hoskins’ Iago, while brilliant, is so loony that he would drive me crazy if he was somebody I knew.  McKellen, though worthy of every award in the world, is so sleazy and yucky that Iago becomes a tad unbelievable. Branagh, however, is an everyday type Iago.  He could be anyone – one of our neighbors, a co-worker, a cousin.  We like and trust him. We believe him and he destroys us. Branagh’s Iago is a masterpiece.
It’s a lush movie, much like Zefferilli’s Shakespeares or Radford’s Merchant with their lavish costumes and sumptuous scenery. It’s nice but actually I prefer Trevor Nunn’s minimalism. That and Zoë Wanamaker as Emilia.
Otherwise this one is just a bit better. At least this time around.

8 * of 10

Othello (Nunn)

Othello (Trevor Nunn 1990)
  • Director: Trevor Nunn
  • Based on play by William Shakespeare
  • Cast: Willard White, Ian McKellen, Imogen Stubbs, Zoë Wanamaker, Marsha Hunt, Michael Grandage, Sean Baker
  • Personal “oh yeah him/her” reaction, i.e. have seen this actor/actress in:
    • Willard White – only this
    • Ian McKellen  – King Lear, Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Extras, X Men, Richard III, The Ballad of Little Jo.
    • Imogen Stubbs – Sense and Sensibility, Twelfth Night
    • Zoë Wanamaker – My Week with Marilyn, the quiddich coach in the Harry Potter movies, David Copperfield, Wilde, Richard III, Othello and a lot of British TV series
    • Michael Grandage – Madness of King George
  • Why? Shakespeare
  • Seen: twice before. Now: August 11, 2013

Again I find this Trevor Nunn production powerful but flawed.  The flaws lie in the casting, or maybe the direction, of Desdemona mainly. Imogen Stubbs has many good qualities and in the end here she brings some force to her role but in her portrayal Desdemona is not strong, thoughtful, witty or profound as Shakespeare created her. Stubbs portrays her as an anxious, frightened deer and a silly coquettish schoolgirl. At most Othello would have had a passing fancy for her, not a deep passion. She is too shallow to have a passion at all.
Oh that was harsh.  Perhaps unfair.
But one more objection before going on to the film’s excellent qualities. It’s too long.  The play itself is long and the length is necessary in order to to build up the painful and very dramatic climax but it must be done swiftly and smoothly. Here many scenes are drawn out and feel repetitive though they are not.  Cutting a minute here and there would have been enough to tighten it up.
Now to the good stuff. Willard White as Othello is powerful and tragic and essentially right for the part though I must confess to a nervousness with great big guys with very deep bass voices.  He often speaks more like an opera singer than a regular guy but when he speaks in a normal voice he is very good.
Zoë Wanamaker is a terrific Emilia. Her whistling and pipe smoking add to her air of independence and sharpness in a marriage and job that puzzle and worry her. Her bitter views on men and relationships ring absolutely true.  She is awesome.
And now we have Iago.  Ian McKellen is just so…fill in here with any superlative you want.  He is completely sickening as the jealous sexually obsessed husband, terrifying as the manipulative false friend and utterly believable as the solicitous reluctant informer. With the smallest of facial expressions and leers, glares and stares directly into the camera, McKellen is the Iagoest Iago I have ever seen. He should have gotten an Oscar and everything else available.
A word on the visual and audio effects. Set in a Crimean-BoerWar type period, the minimalist black, white and beige colors serve admirably to accentuate the passion and make the black skin and white skin painfully beautiful.  The haunting cicada drone in the background throughout most (all?) of the play subtly builds up the heat and the drama.  Wise choices on Nunn’s part.
In the final act, the death scenes themselves don’t quite come off right but the power of Shakespeare’s words carry them through and I am, as always, left stunned and exhausted.

8 * of 10

11 August 2013

Jane Eyre (2011)

Jane Eyre (2011)
  • Director: Cary Fukunaga
  • Based on novel by Charlott Brontë
  • Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins
  • Personal “oh yeah him/her” reaction, i.e. have seen this actor/actress in:
    • Mia Wasikowska – Alice in Wonderland, Defiance, The Kids Are All Right
    • Michael Fassbender  – Inglourious Basterds, Fish Tank, Hunger
    • Judi Dench – Hotel Marigold, My Week With Marilyn, Cranford, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Ladies in Lavender, The Shipping News, Chocolat, Tea with Mussolini, Shakespeare in Love, Mrs. Brown, 84 Charing Cross Road, A Room with a View, Macbeth
    • Jamie Bell – Billy Elliot, Defiance, King Kong,  Hallam Foe, Undertow, Dear Wendy
    •  Sally Hawkins – Never Let Me Go, An Education, Little Britain, Vera Drake
  •  Why? A classic and favorite novel
  • Seen: other versions many times. This version: August 10, 2013 with Hal and YW in our read-book-watch-film circle. 

Could Hal be right that this film is better than the book?  It’s a classic! Is one allowed to say that??
Well…yeah.  And he’s probably right. YW said she is disturbed by the religious tone of the novel while I manage to ignore that with my usual, “That’s the way they talked in those days…” Hal is disturbed by the novel’s, Jane’s, class snobbishness; she may just be a governess but she’s morally superior to, well, everybody, in upper class or lower.  That’s harder to ignore.
The good news is that this film tones these two aspects way down. Both Jane and Rochester are indeed more likeable here than in the novel.  Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender are in fact the best J and R I’ve ever seen. They and Judi Dench and dear Billy Elliot all grown up as priggish missionary (he’s hardly recognizable!) justify this umpteenth remake of the film.
At times I think that not only were the authors of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights sisters but the directors of the two movies must be too – the same slow, dark, atmospheric, deliberately suppressed passion – but that’s not logical. The novel WH has nothing suppressed about its passion but is wildly and savagely dramatic and Andrea Arnold’s film (reviewed earlier on this blog) was a shocking break with that.  Fukunaga (who probably isn’t even Arnold’s brother, much less sister) does this Jane Eyre to fit the novel perfectly.
And yes, improves on it. Almost as much as Thursday Next did.  And if you don’t know who Thursday Next is – Google her! Without her Jane Eyre would be a dreary flop and this film would never have been made.

4* of 5

7 August 2013

Island (2011)

Island (2011)
  • Director: Elizabeth Mitchell, Brek Taylor
  • Based on novel by Jane Rogers
  • Cast: Natalie Press, Colin Morgan, Janet McTeer
  • Personal “oh yeah him/her” reaction, i.e. have seen this actor/actress in:
    • Natalie Press – Red Road, My Summer of Love
    • Colin Morgan  – Merlin Seasons 1-5, The Tempest at the Globe, London
    •  Janet McTeer – As You Like It, Velvet Goldmine, The Woman in Black
  •  Why? Colin Morgan
  • Seen: August 6, 2013. (And November 24, 2013. See below).

A haunting film about three haunted people. Nikki has grown up in abusive foster homes, an outcast for as long as she can remember. She goes to the island to confront her birth mother.
The island, off the coast of Scotland, is harsh, not quite real.  The woman – the mother – is dying of cancer. The son, Calum, is a prisoner of his mother’s obsessive care, of the island, and of his own dream world.
The movie wavers between dream and nightmare. The slow very deliberate pace builds into an almost unbearable suspense.
We know there is tragedy coming.  We hope there is also some hope.
We know that Colin Morgan’s acting can wrench the heart. It does here.
The whole film does.
5 * of 5

PS Seen again with Hal November 24, 2013.  Knowing what to expect makes it even grimmer and sadder.  I do catch things I didn’t catch the first time though unfortunately the DVD doesn’t have subtitles either. Colin Morgan is brilliant at dialects, but this dialect is a bit too Gaelic for my unschooled ears and I miss some of what he says this time too. Nevertheless he, and the film, wrench the heart. Again.


O (2001)
  • Director: Tim Blake Nelson
  • Based on play by William Shakespeare (uncredited)
  • Cast: Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles, Josh Hartnett, Andrew Keegan, Rain Phoenix, Elden Henson. Martin Sheen, John Heard, Rachel Shumate
  • Personal “oh yeah him/her” reaction, i.e. have seen this actor/actress in:
    • Mekhi Phifer– 8 Mile, Clockers
    • Julia Stiles – Mona Lisa’s Smile, The Bourne Identity, Hamlet, 10 Things I Hate About You, Wide Awake
    • Josh Hartnett –Virgin Suicides
    • Andrew Keegan– 10 Things I Hate About You, Independence Day
    • Rain Phoenix – maybe only this one last time we saw it
    • Elden Henson – Déjà Vu, Under the Tuscan Sun, Cast Away, She’s All That
    • Martin Sheen – Catch Me If You Can, Wall Street, Gandhi, Apocalypse, Catch 22
    • John Heard – The Sopranos, Pollack, Pelican File, Waterland, Awakenings, The Trip to Bountiful,
  •  Why? Shakespeare
  • Seen: Twice. About ten years ago and now: August 5, 2013.

You’d think turning Othello into a teen-aged American high school basketball star would make this easier to take. It doesn’t. O is almost as powerful and painful to watch as the real one.
Mekhi Phifer is a likeable self-confident Odin whose sensitivity to racism and vulnerability as a ghetto kid in a white prep school is skillfully manipulated into a return to drugs and violent jealousy by the neurotic and ignored Hugo, well played by Josh Hartnett.  Julia Stiles doesn’t display the powerful subtlety she does as Ophelia but she gives a good convincing typical feisty American girl in her Desi.  Phifer’s painfully passionate love for her is more convincing than hers for him but that works.
Rain Phoenix as Emily is very good but unfortunately she was given an unclear role. A strong and key character in the original (see my text on her on Shakespeare Calling, coming soon), here she sort of hovers around the fringes and we don’t really see her relationship to Hugo. She is more a voyeur than a participant for most of the film.
The pigeon-hawk symbolism of the speech-over intro and conclusion is unnecessary and rather trite as is Hugo’s contrived set-up of the murders at the end.  Why not just let it stand as in Shakespeare? It just got silly with all the time synchronizing.
But mostly the modern story twists are very clever and I especially like one of the opposing basketball teams being called the Stratfords.
It’s a strong and sad film.
4 * of 5

4 August 2013

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

Battle for the Planet of the Apes 1972
  • Director: J. Lee Thompson
  • Based on characters in the novel by Pierre Boulle
  • Cast: Roddy McDowell, Claude Akins, Natalie Trundy, Lew Ayres, Paul Williams, Austin Stoker, France Nuyen
  • Personal “oh yeah him/her” reaction, i.e. have seen this actor/actress in:
    • Roddy McDowell – Overboard, The Poseidon Adventure, Inside Daisy Clover, Cleopatra, The Longest Day, the other Apes films
    • Claud Akins – old TV series
    • Natalie Trundy – the other Planet of the Apes sequels
    • Lew Ayres– All Quiet on the Western Front  and old TV series
    • Paul Williams – mostly his music
    • Austin Stoker - old TV series
    • France Nuyen – South Pacific and old TV series
  •  Why? Part of series
  • Seen: Now: July 28, 2013.

       Marginally better than the fourth one, this is at least an anti-war movie. Sort of.  It offers a few moral dilemmas, like is it OK to kill evil-doers and should humans be treated as equals by apes.  The old slave-become-master problem.
Let’s see, there must be something else good about it…
Nope.  Can’t think of any.  Trite, stereotyped, amateurish, insultingly simplistic.  And it ended with a happy ending – ape and human children sitting around in lovely nature listening happily to the orangutan lawgiver a bunch of centuries after the battle.  But it doesn’t explain how the humans once again became hunted and enslaved by the time Charlton Heston shows up.
On the other hand, who cares?
I’m glad we can go back to good movies next weekend.

1 ½  * of 5

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes 1972
  • Director: J. Lee Thompson
  • Based on characters in the novel by Pierre Boulle
  • Cast: Roddy McDowell, Hari Rhodes, Don Murray, Natalie Trundy, Ricardo Montalban
  • Personal “oh yeah him/her” reaction, i.e. have seen this actor/actress in:
    • Roddy McDowell – Overboard, The Poseidon Adventure, Inside Daisy Clover, Cleopatra, The Longest Day, the other Apes films
    • Hari Rhodes - old TV series
    • Don Murray – Peggy Sue Got Married, Happy Birthday Wanda June, and old TV series
    • Natalie Trundy – the other Planet of the Apes sequels
    • Ricardo Montalban – Sweet Charity and old TV series
  •  Why? Part of series
  • Seen: Now: July 26, 2013.

     Twenty odd years after Cornelius and Zira are murdered in the 1970’s their talking son Caesar leads the revolution of the pet apes-turned-slaves army.  The parallel to real slave rebellions is slightly interesting and the only good human, the handsome MacDonald, pleads for mercy for the humans as a noble descendant of slaves himself.  Caesar’s bitter and impassioned speech is pretty pathetic though and as a whole the movie is simply boring.
Only one left before we can go back to something interesting.  Hope the fifth lifts the series a bit but I’m not holding my breath.
1 * of 5