All is True


Will Shakespeare and his wife Anne share a tender moment.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Eleanor de Rohan, Gerard Horan, Lydia Wilson, Jimmy Yuill, Michael Rouse, Harry Lister Smith, Hadley Fraser, Sam Ellis, Kate Tydman, Phil Dunster, Doug Colling, Freya Durkan, Flora Easton, Matt Jessup, Sabi Perez, Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

William Shakespeare is possibly the most famous writer who ever lived but even given that remarkably little is known about his personal life. What is known for sure is that in 1613, following a performance of Henry VIII in which a prop cannon misfired, setting fire to the Globe Theater and burning it to the ground, William Shakespeare left London for good and returned home to Stratford-Upon-Avon, never to write again. It is also known this was 17 years after his only son Hamnet (Ellis) died tragically at the age of eleven.

=Kenneth Branagh is widely known to be one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the modern era, having brought the Bard to the screen in such films as Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It and Hamlet. For someone who so clearly loves the work of Shakespeare, it musts be tantalizing to say the least to speculate about his life. Why did he stop writing in 1613? What was his life like in Stratford after his retirement?

Branagh plays the Bard which must have been both daunting and deliciously illicit (sort of like doing an impression of a favorite teacher) pottering about the garden of his Stratford home where he means to create a memorial garden for his son. The return home has brought him no peace; he continues to mourn for a son he never really knew (Shakespeare spent most of his time in London and rarely visited home) 17 years after the fact. His sharp-tongued wife Anne (Dench), many years his senior (actually merely eight years in reality) has relegated him to the second-best bed in the house, refusing to sleep with a husband who is more a stranger than a spouse. His older daughter Susannah (Wilson) is married to a rigid Puritan physician (Fraser).

His younger daughter Judith (Wilder), Hamnet’s twin, shows nothing but contempt for her father and wishes fervently he had stayed in London. Raised by her mother, she seems as strong-willed and as iron-tongued as Anne. Shakespeare is haunted by the ghost of Hamnet and by his own failings as a father and a husband while coping with the fame that refuses to leave him alone.

The story is largely fiction although the salient facts are there; Shakespeare’s retirement in 1613, the death of his son, the loss of the Globe Theater in a catastrophic fire. The rest is invention by Branagh and writer Ben Elton. Serious Shakespearean scholars will probably raise an eyebrow or two at the creative licenses taken here but for most of us, it’s all good.

In many ways Branagh was born to play Shakespeare and he captures the wit and humanity that the writer displayed in his work. Surely this is the Shakespeare we all imagined he’d be: distracted, unable to cope with the tragedies in his life, largely lost without the outlet of writing. Branagh also makes his Will Shakespeare a product of his times; a bit misogynistic – unable to grasp the concept that the true inheritor of his talents might have been Judith, the distaff twin of Hamnet upon whom he place all his hopes of having a successor – and prone to being a bit self-absorbed. Branagh humanizes the Bard and makes him relatable.

Dench, as always, rises to the occasion, making Anne Hathaway Shakespeare a reflection of herself and the kind of wife you’d figure Shakespeare would have. She holds her own with Branagh – or rather, he with her – and the two are electric whenever appearing as a couple onscreen. Some of the most entertaining scenes in the movie are the two sparring with one another.

Cinematographer Zac Nicholson makes this a very pretty film to watch, from the recreations of Elizabethan England to the lovely bucolic English countryside which continues today to be a charming film locale. Nicholson relies on backlighting to create spectacular images of Shakespeare in Country. It’s a beautiful looking film which is never a bad thing.

There is a melancholic atmosphere here which is at times laid on a bit too thickly; Shakespeare is certainly in mourning for his son but for also the Globe and in many ways, for himself. The humor isn’t especially over-the-top and has a gentle touch (for the most part) although at times the acid tongue of Anne Hathaway gibes rise to some really potent zingers. While the dialogue can get a bit overindulgent at times (and there are an awful lot of Shakespearean references that are going to go over the average audience member’s head) there is nonetheless a charm here that made this one of my favorite films at the recent Florida Film Festival. I’m looking forward to seeing it again at it’s upcoming Enzian run.

REASONS TO SEE: Branagh and Dench deliver wonderful performances. The cinematography is stunning. The humor is nice and gentle. The story is oddly affecting.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is a bit dense in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are adult, some sexual references and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Ben Elton was also one of the main writers on the Blackadder series, which frequently spoofed Shakespeare’s plays.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shakespeare in Love
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Ode to Joy

The Golem (2018)


The Golem gets a star turn.

(2018) Horror (Epic) Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Brynie Furstenberg, Lenny Ravitz, Alexey Tritenko, Adi Kvetner, Konstantin Anikienko, Olga Safronova. Directed by Doron Paz and Yoav Paz

 

The Golem is a mythological figure of Eastern European Jewish folklore that goes back at least as far as the middle ages. It may even have directly or indirectly influenced Mary Shelley in the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. It is a creature that is created to protect but often its definition of protection can stretch a little bit.

Hannah (H. Furstenberg) is a woman living in a Lithuanian Jewish settlement in the 17th century. She is married to Benjamin (Golan), an upstanding man in the community. The two are childless; well, not always – they did have a son named Josef but he had died seven years previously and Hannah wasn’t eager to have another one, surreptitiously taking contraceptives from the village healer (B. Furstenberg).

Hannah isn’t like most village women who essentially do the lion’s share of the work and submit to their husband’s wishes in all things. For one thing, Hannah wants to learn and she attends the rabbi’s lessons – hiding under the floor of the temple while the men were discussing the Torah (and occasionally the Kabballah) and reading her husband’s sacred texts by night.

The village regards her with suspicion and scorn but they have bigger fish to fry. The gentile village nearest them has been stricken with the plague; because the Jews have learned to essentially be self-sufficient and have little contact with anyone else, they have been spared. Naturally, the Christians believe the Jews responsible for the plague. One of them, an anti-Semitic named Vladimir (Tritenko) has been driven to near-madness as his darling daughter has been afflicted and is on the verge of death. He brings the girl to their village along with some of his like-minded cohorts and threatens the villagers and the healer – cure the girl or die.

Some of the Christians don’t wait for an outcome, embarking on a spree of rape and murder. The unarmed Jews determine to wait out the ordeal, hoping that God will save them. Hannah doesn’t believe as they do – she wants direct intervention and so using the forbidden knowledge she obtained from the Kabballah she brings to life a Golem – a being made out of clay, blood and a scrap of paper with the secret name of God.

Rather than a hulking giant, the Golem (Anikienko) turns out to be a young boy about the age Josef would have been had he lived. However, the Golem is as deadly despite his innocent appearance, ripping victims limb from limb, tearing out their still-beating hearts and literally making their heads explode psychically. The Golem and Hannah develop a mother-son relationship and when the villagers discover what Hannah has done, they urge her to destroy it but how can a mother destroy her own son? When the Golem begins to destroy other villagers, Hannah is faced with a horrible choice.

This Israeli horror film was shot mostly in the Ukraine as well as in Israel with a multinational cast most of whom are not well-known in the States. The cast actually does a solid job with few exceptions. Furstenberg brings the headstrong and individualistic Hannah to life making her a sympathetic but flawed lead. Golan is a ruggedly handsome but somewhat dithering husband and as the monster, Anikienko with coal black irises in dead eyes is creepy as all get out.

The atmosphere is somewhat Gothic without the obvious Gothic trappings of most horror films, which merits kudos. Yes, there is a good deal of gore, enough to sate even the most bloodthirsty of horror fans but the pace might not be to their liking – the film develops at a very leisurely pace and allows the horror to build to a rip-roaring third act.

This is a very solid, very atmospheric horror film which has essentially flown under the radar. Now widely available on VOD, this is one you should check out if you’re one of those horror fans who doesn’t mind going out of the box once in a while. As an extra added bonus, the movie was shot in English so there are no pesky subtitles you have to read. Fans of Jewish mysticism might also get a kick out of this as well.

REASONS TO GO: The cast is rock solid for the most part. The filmmakers achieve a Gothic tone without resorting to Gothic clichés.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace may be too slow for modern American horror fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as a goodly amount of violence and bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brynie Furstenberg, who plays Hannah’s mentor, is her mom in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dybbuk
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Song of Parkland

Admiral (Michiel de Ruyter)


Frank Lammers smells something rotten.

Frank Lammers smells something rotten.

(2015) Historical Epic (XLRator Media) Frank Lammers, Charles Dance, Barry Atsma, Sanne Langelaar, Rutger Hauer, Derek de Lint, Roeland Fernhout, Hajo Bruins, Egbert Jan Weeber, Nils Verkooijen, Daniel Brocklebank, Colin Mace, Filip Peeters, Tygo Gernhardt, Victor Löw, Pip Pellens, Aurélie Meriel, Will Bowden, Ella-June Henrard, Lieke van Lexmond. Directed by Roel Reiné

You’ve probably not heard of Michiel de Ruyter unless you were schooled in the Netherlands or are a European history buff, but you likely should have. One of the most revered figures in Dutch history, he was a naval genius who kept his country from being invaded on several occasions by the English and the French, and at a time when his country was in political turmoil he was a stabilizing figure whom many credit for keeping his nation from plunging into civil war during a turbulent era.

As the movie opens, the 20,000 ship Dutch navy is under the command of Maarten Tromp (Hauer) but during the Battle of Scheveningen he is mortally wounded, although he does succeed in repelling the English. While King Charles (Dance) schemes in England, new prime minister Johan de Witt (Atsma) knows that the Dutch Republic, already a government teetering on the edge of a possible civil war with the Orangists, a monarchist group that wants William of Orange (Weeber) to rule, needs an admiral to defend the Netherlands from the rapacious British and their allies of convenience the French.

He recruits de Ruyter (Lammers), a stocky and unlovely man who is more interested in retiring to the country with his wife Anna (Langelaar) and two daughters. However, he is also a deeply patriotic man and is convinced by de Witt and his brilliant brother Cornelis (Fernhout) that the sailor is desperately needed.

Time and time again de Ruyter uses brilliant naval tactics to stave off the Brits while court intrigue between the de Witt brothers and the Machiavellian Kievit (de Lint) keep the Netherlands in chaos. As the years pass, the monarchist party slowly begins to take the upper hand – but will that advantage come at the expense of the entire nation?

Los Angeles Times reviewer Robert Abele characterized the movie as a Michael Bay treatment of Dutch naval history and a more succinct summation of this film couldn’t be asked for. There is a good deal of large scale mayhem, with ships being hit by cannon fire, bodies flying in the air in all sorts of directions, splinters and wood dust coating everything. Some of the warfare sequences are pretty grisly, although not as much as the depiction of a historic lynching which ends up with various body parts being pulled out of the bodies of those possibly still conscious.

For most Americans, the history is going to be a bit vague. I doubt that the average American knows anything about the Anglo-Dutch War, let alone that there was more than one. Some of the stuff I learned here about the politics of Europe in the 17th century was fascinating; certainly, I never knew any of it which goes to show you how ignorant of history we Americans really are. Of course, I love this stuff and eat it up like candy but I’m sure those moviegoers who find history to be a bore will not have the same appreciation for it that I do.

War buffs will appreciate the naval strategy that is shown here, much of it innovative for its time. The rest of us may not be quite as appreciative of the overhead shots of the deployment of ships. However, film buffs will definitely be a little hosed that the CGI of the various fleets and the damage done to them is not very impressive; there are some very fine effects houses in Europe and certainly there could have been a better job done with the special effects.

The acting is very solid. Some of the finest actors in Europe appear here. While most in America are familiar with Hauer, de Lint and Lammers are two of Holland’s most respected actors. Lammers in particular does a good job with the stocky, somewhat awkward de Ruyter who was nonetheless beloved by those who sailed under him – his men nicknamed him ‘Grandfather,” a sign of affection and respect. Lammers physically captures the look of the man but also the indomitable spirit of one of the Netherlands’ greatest heroes.

The big problem here is that the movie is way too long. It is just over two hours long and captures 24 years in the life of de Ruyter but it feels like a good half hour could have been trimmed. There are only so many naval battle scenes you can take before they start to run together. Even with that there is some solid entertainment here that with a judicious pair of scissors and a little extra dough in the effects budget might have been a lot more.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty decent production values. Lammers and cast do fine work. Insights into Dutch history most of us are unaware of here in the States.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too freaking long. The score is annoying. Underwhelming CGI
FAMILY VALUES: War violence, a graphic and gruesome lynching scene, some foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A special version of the film was created that was less gruesome in depicting several historical deaths so that schoolchildren in the Netherlands could view the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 300: Rise of an Empire
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The Witch


Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

(2015) Horror (A24) Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Julian Richings, Wahab Chaudhry (voice), Sarah Stephens, Jeff Smith, Ron G. Young, Derek Herd, Brooklyn Herd, Viv Moore, Madlen Sopadzhiyan. Directed by Robert Eggers

I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to make an exception; if you haven’t seen The Witch and are wondering if you should, the answer is yes you should. Don’t read another word – just go and see the movie and come back here and read this when you do. The less you know about what’s going to happen to you, the better.

There; I’m assuming most of you reading from here on out have already seen it, have no desire to see it or are choosing to ignore my warning. That’s on you then. The Witch is set on a farm on the edge of a dark sinister wood in New England in the year of our lord 1630 – and I’m not kidding when I say the year of our lord. For farmer William (Ineson) and his pious wife Katherine (Dickie), the Lord is ever present and watching over their every move, their every thought. Banished from the settlement because of some unspecified disagreement in terms of religious dogma – I got the sense that William and his family thought the Puritans were far too loose and relaxed about the worship of God and baby Jesus – they are forced to try and make it on their own with a few goats including an ornery ebony-hued one they call Black Philip – and crops of corn and whatever else they can grow.

But the crops are failing. The goat’s milk has turned to blood and worse yet the baby has disappeared literally right from under the nose of teen and eldest child Thomasin (Taylor-Joy).  Katherine is inconsolable and William stoically makes the best of things, taking son Caleb (Scrimshaw) hunting in the woods, or ordering the twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson) about. The twins speak to each other in a secret language only they understand and constantly annoy Thomasin, whom they won’t listen to. But then something else happens in the woods, something dark and sinister and the family begins to turn on itself, their faith tested to the breaking point. Here, on the edge of darkness, they will look into the abyss with trepidation.

I won’t say the horror film has been undergoing a renaissance in the last few years because clearly the overall quality of horror movies tends to be been there-done that to a large extreme, but there have been several movies that have come out that have really invigorated the genre. This is the latest, having won raves at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and only now getting released. It’s very much worth the wait, folks.

First-time feature director Eggers makes some impressive accomplishments, conjuring forth the world of the early colonial days and 17th century New England, from the English speech patterns down to the rude farming implements, the primitive living conditions and the homespun costumes. More importantly, he builds a creepy atmosphere that begins with unsettling events and moves into things far more sinister. The family dynamic changes as we watch with suspicion being dropped from one family member to another as accusations of witchcraft and deals with the devil begin to fly.

The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is top-notch. In fact, this may very well be the most beautifully shot horror film in history, which is saying a lot. The unsettling musical score by Mark Korven further enhances the mood particularly as the movie spirals deeper into its story. He utilizes a lot of unusual instrumentation, from Eastern European folk instruments to the hurdy-gurdy.

The actors are largely unknown, but there are some solid performances here. Anya Taylor-Joy is remarkable here, with an innocence about her that cracks from time to time; her expression in the very final scene simply takes the movie up another notch. Ineson is gruff and gritty as a farmer who knows he is incompetent at just about everything but chopping wood and his family is suffering from his inability. Dickie has the shrill look of a religious fanatic, neck veins bulging and eyes bugging out. She looks like someone who is wound far too tight and Katherine is definitely that. Finally, young Harvey Scrimshaw shows some incredible depth as young Caleb; hopefully he’ll appear in some big budget event films because he so has game for that kind of thing.

This is the first movie of the year that I think has a good chance to end up on my end of the year top ten list. It’s scary as all get out and has subtexts of religious intolerance, suspicion and family ties strained by adversity. It’s smart, well thought out and doesn’t waste an instant of it’s 90 minute running time. So yes, go out and see it if you already haven’t. Every horror film fan should be flocking to this one for sure.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderfully atmospheric. Really captures the feel of the era. A beautifully layered script. Some lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Takes awhile to build which may frustrate the impatient sorts.
FAMILY VALUES: Creepy atmosphere, some graphic nudity and violence as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were plans to use more of Black Philip (the goat) but because the animal proved to be not as well-trained as the filmmakers would have liked, those plans had to be scrapped.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood on Satan’s Claw
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Last Rites of Joe May

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei)


 

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Why do Japanese swordfights look so much better in the snow?

(2011) Samurai (Tribeca) Koji Yakusho, Naoto Takenaka, Hikari Mitsushima, Eita, Ebizo Ichikawa, Kazuki Namioka, Hirofumi Arai, Munetaki Aoki, Ayumu Saito, Takashi Sasano, Takehiro Hira, Baijaku Nakamura, Goro Daimon, Yoshihisa Amano, Ippei Takahashi. Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Honor is a word whose meaning varies from culture to culture. For some, honor means keeping one’s word – when it suits them. For others, honor is all about the written word. If it’s on paper, the it’s binder. If not, a verbal agreement is worth the paper it’s written on.

For the Japanese honor has a much more stringent connotation, particularly among the samurai – their warrior class. Honor is the be-all and end-all to life for them; without it, they couldn’t exist, much less function. The samurai have always been an object of fascination, even to the modern Japanese. Of late, there has been a revival in the samurai film, the genre of film that is perhaps as uniquely Japanese, a signature to their entire national film identity as Bollywood is to India.

Hanshiro (Ichikawa), a ronin (masterless samurai) shows up at the castle of Lord Kageyu (Yakusho) asking leave to commit hara-kiri – ritual suicide by disembowling himself with his own sword – in the castle courtyard. Kageyu is willing but regales him with a story – of a young samurai who had recently come to his door asking the same thing. There had been a rash of false suicides – ronin who came to their door asking to commit hara-kiri but not intending to go through with it, instead using the ritual as a means of getting money or employment. The lord and his samurai made sure, however, that the young samurai followed through. He begged that three ryu be sent to his family to pay for treatment of his sick wife and son, then he committed the ritual disembowelment – although he only had a bamboo sword, adding to the agony of the act.

Hanshiro also has a tale to tell; one of his daughter Miho (Mitsushima)  who had fallen in love with the gentle, bookish Motome (Eita), her childhood friend. They got married and had a baby, but the clan both Motome and Hanshiro served had displeased the shogun. He ordered that their castle be dismantled so that a new clan might build their own, the samurai dispersed. Samurai have no skills other than those they’d been previously using; finding work was next to impossible for them.

They were getting desperate; Motome was selling off the few possessions he had to get food but Miho, who had always been sickly, is having trouble taking care of the home and the baby. As winter arrives, their struggle becomes life or death but Motome has a plan.

Miike is best known for his cult classic Ichi the Killer and more recently the samurai epic 13 Assassins. He has a reputation as a director who doesn’t let convention get in the way of telling a good story. He constantly pushes the edge, with varying degrees of success. He certainly is prolific; something like 54 films already under his belt and he’s just barely passed 50 and his pace is picking up. Most of his films don’t make it to America – about one in five do.

The ones that do are always interesting. They don’t always connect with me but they always have something that grabs my imagination. This one is no different and in many ways actually exceeds expectations. It’s not my favorite of his movies but it’s right up there.

The cinematography, like many Japanese movies, is superb. The landscapes lend itself to beautiful images. Even the impoverished village where Motome lives with his family has a kind of serene beauty. I think one of Miike’s conceits is that beneath the beautiful veneer are ugly things – like Motome dropping an egg he’d purchased with a book he’d sold and licking the yolk from the ground because he was starving.

The performances here are quite restrained. Ichikawa is at times the concerned father, the proud father-in-law, the wise sage and the fearsome warrior. Each co-exists within the other within Hanshiro and each appears as needed. Yakusho captures the essence of a powerful man; by his own rigid code of honor he has done nothing wrong and is convinced that he has acted properly. The conflict between Kageyu and Hanshiro is inevitable but also understandable. Hanshiro has learned through grim experience the fearsome cost of the rigid code of the samurai.

The hara-kiri scene is excruciating. The young samurai is forced to kill himself with a bamboo sword which bends and splinters while he is exhorted to twist the blade by a sadistic second. It is one of the few scenes in the movie that have any gore involved (Miike is well-known for showing realistic carnage in his films) and it is hard to watch at times. The more sensitive readers might want to give some thought before seeing the movie.

But the rest of the movie is much more character driven rather than action driven, which makes that scene all the more jarring – and all the more intense. I think by doing that, Miike made the scene far more powerful because it’s not just one stomach-turning scene among many. It’s unforgettable but again, I must stress that it’s not for the weak-stomached.

The nature of honor is a powerful question, but particularly in Japanese society so it’s no wonder that these sorts of film appeal to them as a nationality. For me, this is a compelling look into the samurai culture which shows the darker elements of the samurai code, which sets it apart from the many films that celebrate it.

REASONS TO GO: Subdued performances make for a subtle character study rather than a typical bloodbath. Well-choreographed action sequences as well.

REASONS TO STAY: The hara-kiri scene is brutal and hard to watch. The pacing is slow and it’s possible that the middle section could have been trimmed some.

FAMILY VALUES: Not a lot of gore but when it’s there it’s quite intense. Definitely not for small children although teens who aren’t too squeamish might enjoy it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there was another movie of that name from 1962 with a similar theme, this isn’t a direct remake.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are very good in general.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lone Wolf and Cub

SWORD LOVERS: The swords used in the film are modeled on genuine samurai swords of the period. Motome’s bamboo sword was not uncommon in the era either.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Tempest (2010)


The Tempest

Helen Mirren is one hot Prospera.

(2010) Fantasy (Miramax) Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Reeve Carney, Felicity Jones, Ben Whishaw, David Strathairn, Djimon Honsou, Chris Cooper, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, Jude Akuwudike, David Scott Klein, Bryan Webster, Kevin Cannon. Directed by Julie Taymor

 

William Shakespeare was a man who understood human nature perhaps better than any writer in history; certainly he understood his own and it isn’t far-fetched to theorize that when he wrote his play, The Tempest, he was fully aware that it would be his last and accordingly, gave himself leave to discourse on our own mortality which he did in a way that was beautiful and neither grim nor morbid. Visually acute director Julie Taymor has stated that it is the most visually beautiful of Shakespeare’s plays and she would certainly know – she has already directed a filmed version of Titus Andronicus (as Titus with Anthony Hopkins in the title role).

Prospera (Mirren), once the Grand Duchess of Milan, has been exiled to a barren Mediterranean island along with Miranda (Jones), her daughter. The machinations of her wicked brother Antonio (Cooper) are what landed her there; he longed for her political power and wealth. However while on the island Prospera has amassed power of a different sort – magical and so when King Alonso of Naples (Strathairn) – complicit in Antonio’s usurping of her position and subsequent placing in a raft to die – returns from the wedding of his daughter with Antonio along, she uses the opportunity to summon a great storm that wrecks their ship. The passengers of the vessel are washed onto the rocky shores of the island, separated by the magicks of Prospera and her fairy servant Ariel (Whishaw), whom she previously had rescued from a tree where he’d been imprisoned by the evil witch Sycorax who died long before Prospera’s arrival.

King Alonso, along with Antonio and Antonio’s co-conspirator Sebastian (Cumming) and Prospera’s former advisor (and Alonso’s current one) Gonzalo (Conti) find themselves beset by evil visions brought upon them by Ariel at Prospera’s command; drunkards Trinculo (Brand) and Stephano (Molina) have discovered the island’s sole other inhabitant, the horribly deformed Caliban (Honsou) who had been enslaved by Prospera after he attempted to rape Miranda years earlier; the three plot Prospera’s downfall and assassination while partaking of much liquid courage.

Finally there is Ferdinand (Carney), Alonso’s son who has fallen for Miranda and vice versa, a union Prospera is not opposed to. The three groups will make their way to Prospera’s home and laboratory where Prospera will be faced with an awful choice upon which the fate of most of the castaways hangs upon.

Taymor is one of the most visually innovative directors working today; her images in Across the Universe are nothing short of spectacular. She works her magic here as well, showing Prospera dissolving into a flock of crows, or Ariel morphing into a variety of forms, or Prospera’s Escher-esque home. The visuals are often beautiful and dazzling, sometimes changing the night sky into alchemic equations that spin around the actors like locusts.

The cast is impressive but none more so than Mirren. An Oscar winner and along with Meryl Streep perhaps the most respected film actress of the 21st century to date, Mirren infuses Prospera with wistfulness, rage, motherly concern ad political savvy. The casting of a woman in the role completely changes the dynamic of the relationship between Prospera/Prospero and Miranda from father/daughter to mother/daughter and as we all know, those relationships are a different kettle of fish entirely. Whishaw plays the ethereal Ariel as androgynous and otherworldly; it is a scene-stealing performance that often ends up as the visual center for Taymor’s imagination.

Strathairn and Cooper are magnificent actors, both Oscar-nominated and in Cooper’s case, an Oscar winner. Strathairn has done Shakespeare before onscreen (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) and both capture the essence of their characters nicely. Brand shows little affinity for Shakespeare, reciting his lines as if he is performing a stand-up routine. Honsou as well carries Caliban’s rage and torment to fruition, although he occasionally goes over the top.

“Over the top” often describes the visuals that Taymor inserts into the film. Some are wonder-inspiring but after awhile I found myself somewhat inured to them; some of the most beautiful dialogue in history is here in this play – “We are such stuff that dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded by sleep” being one of my favorite lines of dialogue ever spoken in any play, ever – and yet these exemplars of language take a back-seat to special effects. Taymor may as well have set the movie on Tatooine and been done with it.

However, the prose of Shakespeare is ultimately what makes this movie worthwhile. That and some of the fine performances using those words. Usually I’m all good with special effects eye candy but here it detracts more than it creates wonder and that is where the film has its greatest failing; Taymor fails to trust Shakespeare to carry the movie on its own merits. If you can’t trust the greatest playwright in history, who can you trust?

WHY RENT THIS: Some wonderful eye candy. Mirren, Cooper, Whishaw and Strathairn are tremendous actors and show why here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many visuals and not enough substance; after awhile the effects distract from Shakespeare’s beautiful prose.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of nudity, some scary content and images and a little bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Prospero was originally written by Shakespeare to be a man. Taymor encountered Mirren at a party and the conversation turned to Shakespeare; Mirren mentioned that she had previously played Caliban in a stage version of the play and thought she might like to do Prospero as a woman. Taymor, who was thinking along the same lines, told Mirren so and the two essentially cemented Mirren’s participation right then and there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some rehearsal footage (one focusing on Russell Brand alone) as well as a music video of “O Mistress Mine” which runs over the closing credits.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $346,594 on a $20M production budget; the movie was a financial flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

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