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Rosaline (2022)

Rosaline is a new romantic comedy in the vein of the meta Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead, playfully re-imagining Shakespeare’s doomed romance in a much more light-hearted rom-com tone. For you see, dear reader, Rosaline (Kaitlyn Dever) was the young woman who Romeo (Kyle Allen) was infatuated with… until he met Juliet (Isabela Merched), and then it was all Juliet 24/7. Rosaline is the spurned lover trying to regain her former boyfriend with the help of a handsome suitor and her gay best friend, Paris (yes, the one supposed to marry Juliet away from Romeo in the end). Rosaline is a delight for several reasons, chief among them the quick-witted screenplay by the Oscar-nominated pair Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Disaster Artist, 500 Days of Summer) and the eminent charms of Dever as a forward-thinking, snarky, exasperated woman bumping against her society’s demands. Dever makes every joke that much better and is so charmingly diffident. We may know the story of Romeo and Juliet, but the fun of the movie is how it subverts our expectations or presents goofy answers around the peripheral of the main story, like how Rosaline was manipulating actions from afar, sometimes unintentionally. The tragic tone is replaced with something much more cheery and amusing, and that might irk diehard fans of the Bard. I found it to be a winning and irreverent low-stakes re-invention of a literary classic, elevated by charming performances and a beguiling and clever screenplay (I’m giving credit more to the screenwriters than the source material novel, as it had many one-star reviews on Good Reads). For fans of Shakespeare adaptations with a feminist twist, check out Rosaline and fall under its star-crossed spell.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

At this point, William Shakespeare’s tragedy of witchy regicide has been adapted into over 30 movies, most recently in 2015 with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotilard, so with any new Macbeth the question arises: what will this one offer? The pedigree behind this 2021 film is mesmerizing: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and director Joel Coen. That’s enough reason to see another rendition of the Bard, although the best acting comes from a surprise, theater vet Kathryn Hunter who portrays all the witches as one person (plus more). She’s captivating and haunting and the highlight of the movie. This is the most, for lack of a better term, ordinary film in Coen’s quirky career and his first without brother/collaborator Ethan. It finds a dreamy middle ground between film and theater, utilizing imposing and stark sound stages and striking chiaroscuro black and white photography to feel otherworldly. The eerie, shifting imagery and alien presentation makes the movie feel like a transporting dream oiled by the lugubriousness of Shakespeare’s brilliant words. This version also demonstrates some of the more violent actions typically reserved for offstage implications (poor Macduff son). This Macbeth is also shockingly fast-paced, barely clocking in at 105 minutes, about half of the running time for the unabridged stage play. The acting is uniformly good but I was slightly let down by the leads. I guess I was expecting more indulgence in the sheer thespian feast and was surprised they made more of a tiny meal of things. If you’re familiar with the source material, there should be enough here to appeal to you, though I still hold the Patrick Stewart BBC production as the best film adaptation yet. Go into The Tragedy of Macbeth expecting good, not transcendentally great, and lean back and enjoy the aural pleasures of theater.

Nate’s Grade: B

Macbeth (2015)

macbeth-posterIt’s a mighty task to boil the Bard’s classics down to a tight yet meaningful running time and maintain a degree of cinematic quality. You don’t just want to film a stage play with the mighty parameters of film, and yet giving in to the visual majesty means less time for Shakespeare’s stirring words and complex characterization. Woe unto thee who attempt an adaptation. It requires more skill than thou would believe. I had hopes for the latest version of Macbeth from its top-shelf cast, Michael Fassbender as the titular ambitious murderer-turned king and Marion Cotillard as his wife and co-conspirator. It didn’t take long for my hopes to be dashed. First, the good: the rolling hills of Scotland are lushly photographed, and the concluding battle is set amid a roaring hellish fire and flying embers that makes for a stunning backdrop. The actors are fairly fine. If you couldn’t tell from this faint praise, there’s not much to credit as an achievement with this Macbeth. It’s strangely narcotized and often listless. It doesn’t help that the actors speak 80% of their dialogue in whispers or mumbles, even when they discover the former king has been murdered. Director Justin Kurzel (the upcoming Assassin’s Creed movie, also with Fassbender) falls back on monotony, whether it’s an overabundance of mist, similar and low-rent locations, and a plodding score that feels like scorpions are in your mind. Some of the changes are also for the worse, especially making Lady Macbeth more “sympathetic” and neutering one of Shakespeare’s great characters. She no longer sleepwalks and instead confesses her unshakable guilt to a cross. Also Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of his dead son with the witches. And there’s some brief inclusion of awkward sex amidst monologues. The final showdown comes at the 90-minute mark and the entire proceedings feel rushed and yet miraculously boring. Even the bloody violence is pretty tame considering its R-rating. If you’re looking for a truly cinematic Macbeth that enlivens Shakespeare, check out the Masterpiece Theater version with Patrick Stewart adapted into a 1930s Stalinist era. Now that was brilliant. Kurzel’s version of the “Scottish play” is one that only signifies disappointment.

Nate’s Grade: C

Coriolanus (2011)

William Shakespeare’s little-known play has a surprising amount of cultural relevance: attacks on the border, suspension of civil liberties, political scheming, populist uprisings and riots, and a military elite arguing against the principles of appealing to the uneducated, mob-ruled masses. Plus Ralph Fiennes, taking on the hat of director for the first time, sets the play in modern-day. It seems like a struggle between Scotland and England, judging from the two mortal enemies, Coriolanus (Fiennes) and Tulius Aufidus (Gerard Butler). So it’s the Scotland/England struggle, termed ancient Rome, but set in what looks like the war-ravaged Balkans. Hey, at least Fiennes gets to have a nose in this film. The Shakespearean verbiage is certainly beautiful to hear, especially coming from the mouths of excellent thespians, notably Fiennes, Brian Cox, and Vanessa Redgrave. The actors achieve that synergetic level of excellence where it feels like they were always meant for the parts. Butler acquits himself well though his character sort of disappears unless needed by the plot. The elements that work best reside in Coriolanus’ refusal to play the game of political optics, neither serving a crowd of ignorant peasants he feels should remain out of the political process or the wily, double-crossing, self-serving politicians inflaming populist unrest. The movie sets itself up for some serious wrath to befall Rome, and besides the Greeks (and Koreans), nobody does revenge like this guy Shakespeare. We’re chomping at the bit for a cataclysm of death, but then the plot just sort of skips to a hasty conclusion, ditching the wrath. It makes you realize that, except for the intriguing title character, this isn’t one of the bard’s better plays. The characters are hard to empathize with, their conflicts too repetitive without deeper insight, and an ending that would be best described as a bit of a rush job. Still, even Shakespeare’s lesser work towers above most writers’ best material. Fiennes does a fine job as director, choosing lots of disorienting close-ups to communicate the rage of his character. Coriolanus is an interesting stab at something more, it’s just that sometimes it swings and misses.

Nate’s Grade: B

O (2001)

“I did what I did and that is all you know. From here on out I say nothing.”

The story behind O has become more infamous than the film itself. The film has had twelve different release dates and was actually finished in 1999. It had the dubious nature of having the themes of jealousy and violence set in high school around the time Columbine had polarized the nation. Miramax subsequently kept pushing the film back until it finally jettisoned it over to Lions Gate films, the same people who rescued ‘Dogma’ when Miramax felt it was too hot to handle for corporate parent Disney. Finally now O is getting the release it has waited for.

O is the modern update of Othello but is by no means in the same brethren of the bubbly Shakespeare ripped teen comedies proliferating the screen big and small. O is a serious tale told with earnestness in its portrayal, and with its conviction and refusal for exploitation, executes the best modern day transition of Shakespeare to date. What better setting for lust, jealousy, love, betrayal, murder and tragedy than a high school? It is almost chilling how well the tale translates to the high school setting, particularly with the notices of race and jealousy.

Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) is the only black student at an all white prep school in Charleston, South Carolina. Odin is the senior leader of the school’s basketball team and an all-star in the making. Odin, or “O” as the crowd chants at games, is dating Desi (Julia Stiles), the daughter of the dean. She’s a spitfire but they love one another with great intensity. Everything seems to be going well for Odin with school, his relationship, and his team entering into the state playoffs. His coach (Martin Sheen) proclaims his love for Odin like a son at a pep rally with the denizens in the stands cheering along. Everyone appears to be cheering for their popular hero, except for Hugo (Josh Hartnett).

Hugo is the coach’s son and perennially looked over on the basketball team. He looks at Odin and is fueled with jealousy for the admiration and love his father would rather bestow on him than his own son. Dinner at home is a more a cold silence than a family activity. Hugo is jealous of all the things Odin has that he cannot have and some that he will never have. So he sets forth in motion a plan to bring the downfall of the popular kids he despises. Hugo enlists the aid of gullible Roger (Elden Henson) who’s picked on heavily from the same people Hugo wishes to topple. Hugo coaxes Mike (Andrew Keegan), ousted form the basketball team after a staged fight with Roger, that the best way to regain the good will of Odin and his father is to cozy up to Desi and convince her. He then plants the seeds of doubt in Odin with Desi. He draws Desi’s roommate Emily (Rain Phoenix) into the scheme by seducing her into stealing a rare handkerchief that Odin had given Desi as a show of love and commitment.

With every pawn somehow moving in the directions Hugo wishes the jealousy boils, love turns to heartbreak, and the game ultimately ends violently. It isn’t called “tragedy” for nothing folks.

Othello is, at its heart, the tale of a villain and his masterminding. The center figure is not on our hapless Moor or his lovely Desdemona, but on the treacherous Iago as he plots the tragedy of those around him with woeful precision. Shakespeare’s Othello has quite possibly the greatest villain in all of literature with Iago. He is a man who positions an elaborate staging of jealousy, insecurity, mistrust, and ultimately murder – and all this time he is given center stage to propel his masterwork. And it’s exciting, giving genuine evil a face, a name, and more importantly than anything else, a vicious intelligence to play out. This is why Othello transcends its problems in story staging and character turning points, because it is a tale told from the hands of its most essential leg: the villain.

Hartnett takes the reigns of the picture and gallops with them with great care. Though shot and filmed years before many of his latest pictures, O shows Hartnett in his most methodical and enticing acting turn. He portrays Hugo smoothly giving equal shades of bitterness and envy with his sullen performance. Harnett is so invigorating as the villain that one almost sides with him, but that is the attraction of evil. O decides to pump more motivation for its villain than Shakespeare had included, and it works in a startlingly believable way. A student plotting the demise of a more popular and athletic student and seeking the love of an inattentive father – maybe this is why Miramax shelved it for two years. The motivation in this setting is totally believable to a chilling point.

Phifer is a charming presence and reflects the descent of Odin with good emotion. One can feel the rage just resonating from him during a slam dunk contest which he brings down the backboard and sternly glares at Desi in the stands. His final declaration with all the chaos that has swarmed around him is almost heart breaking. Stiles, on the other hand, is not given too much to work with but seems to make decent use out of her part. Sheen blusters about like the spawn of Bobby Knight, but shows a more frightening side in his ambivalent relationship to his son.

O is deftly directed by Tim Blake Nelson who might be more well known as the “other” chain gang member in O Brother where Art Thou? Nelson periodically adds little touches of great artistic exchanges that elevate O into something more than another teen film. It even achieves a certain level of poignancy and power as Hartnett is led away and speaking reflective about his deeds to the audience. The script from debut screenwriter Brad Kaaya drops Shakespeare’s prose but for the best. The film has a greater sense of realism and authenticity when the main characters aren’t talking in iambic pentameter.

The film isn’t perfect by certain means. Hugo’s plot seems a tad too elaborate and easily achieved, and Odin seems to fall for some questionable pieces of doubt. I mean, what else will an old hanky be used for in a modern film? But these faults can be blamed on Shakespeare as much as the principals involved behind the film. Despite these minor stumbles O is indeed a great film that deserves to be seen and thought over afterwards.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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