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

NEXT:Mongol

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Eragon


Eragon

Eragon asks Sephira for a light which proves to be a mistake.

(2006) Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Ed Speleers, Jeremy Irons, Robert Carlyle, John Malkovich, Rachel Weisz (voice), Sienna Guillory, Garret Hedlund, Alun Armstrong, Djimon Honsou, Chris Egan, Gary Lewis, Richard Rifkin, Stephen Speirs, Joss Stone.  Directed by Stefen Fangmeier

Since the advent of Harry Potter and the onscreen Lord of the Rings trilogy Hollywood has been scrambling to cash in on the fantasy bandwagon. Whereas young adult fantasy fiction has all but dominated bestseller charts, other than J.K. Rowling’s juggernaut that hasn’t translated to box office gold as of yet.

This challenger for the title starts in the magical land of Alagaesia, although the inhabitants thereof would find little magic in their lot. Once a prosperous, kindly land, it has sunk into darkness and despair. Where once wise and just Dragon Riders maintained peace and justice, a despotic King rules with an iron fist. The most terrible thing is that Galbatorix (Malkovich) was once a Dragon Rider himself, but he betrayed and slew all the dragons save one egg, which his sorcerer Durza (Carlyle) is unable to destroy. The egg waits patiently for a Rider to bond with it before it will hatch.

In a feat of daring, Princess Arya (Guillory) steals the egg. With the King’s guards and his pet sorcerer hot on her trail, she finally runs out of time. Summoning the last of her strength, she uses a magic spell to transport the egg out of danger. The spell leaves her exhausted and she is captured by Durza.

Eragon (Speleers), a young farm boy, is out hunting when a bright light attracts his attention. He finds a bright blue stone, the like of which he’s never seen before. When he touches it, it burns him in a strange, reptilian pattern on his palm. He decides not to tell his Uncle Garrow (Armstrong) about what he has found, but rather goes into town to try to sell the item. When the shopkeeper finds out that Eragon picked it up in the King’s Preserve, he turns pale and tells him to get it out of the village at once lest it bring ruin on them all.

Disappointed, Eragon is sitting in the local tavern when he overhears Brom (Irons), the village whacko, talk about the near mythical Dragon Riders. This is broken up by King’s Guards, who don’t like the mention of the Riders. Eragon goes home to discover that what he thought was a stone was in fact an egg and it has hatched – a dragon. The dragon grows remarkably quickly into adulthood, and to Eragon’s astonishment, he discovers he can hear the dragon’s thoughts. She tells him her name is Sephira (Weisz) and that he is her rider.

Confused, Eragon seeks out the only man who seems to know anything about dragons – Brom. When Brom finally is convinced that Eragon is not lying, he warns him that his life is in danger – the King will want him and his dragon slain. Eragon realizes that his Uncle Garrow is in mortal danger and races back for the farm, but is too late. Garrow has been murdered. The two must flee, and Brom is dead set on taking Eragon to the Varden, rebels against the King who live in inaccessible mountains. Durza, however, is hot on their trail and his spies are everywhere. Eragon is hot-headed and impulsive, and clashes with Brom at nearly every turn. Add to that visions of Arya that move Eragon to seek her out with some urgency and it looks like his destiny to reclaim justice and peace for Alagaesia may end before it begins.

The big knock on this movie has been that it borrows quite heavily from both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars mythologies. Quite frankly, the story of Eragon seems to have been lifted from the original Star Wars virtually intact. That’s not a sin in and of itself; both of those stories were plundered from mythologies even more ancient than their own. Still, Eragon doesn’t seem to have any sort of fresh perspective to the tale; instead, this seems to be a re-telling more than anything. One has to keep in mind that original author Christopher Paolini was a teenager at the time; for his age he’s a terrific writer but let’s face it – he’s got a long way to go to be up there with Tolkein, Brooks and Jordan. Still, you have to give the kid some slack.

To the good, it has some nice performances from Irons, Carlyle and Malkovich. Speleers doesn’t do spectacularly well, but he at least fares better than the wholly wooden performance of Hayden Christensen in the second Star Wars trilogy. The CG dragon Sephira is also magnificent; she looks like a cross between a bird and a dinosaur, and comes off as a magnificent creature with an underlying personality. She’s half the reason to see the movie.

As fantasy movies go, this one doesn’t fare too badly thanks largely to some of the veteran actors in it who at least give it the old college try, even if the material is somewhat cliche and unremarkable. However, if you’re looking for another Lord of the Rings or even another Harry Potter, look elsewhere. Fox hedged their bets by only committing to filming the first book. I didn’t see a particular reason to continue with the second, and unless the box office picks up and I would imagine the accountants at Fox won’t either.

WHY RENT THIS: Spectacular CGI dragon and sterling performances from Irons, Malkovich and Carlyle.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Uninspired, derivative storyline lifting unashamedly from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Speleers doesn’t make a particularly charismatic leading man.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some semi-graphic battle sequences, a few images that aren’t for the squeamish and some fantasy violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Alex Pettyfer was offered the role but turned it down because the movie was filming in Budapest and he was afraid of flying, a fear he has since gotten over.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s an interview with Paolini on the trilogy of books he has written (for which Eragon is the first) as well as a look at the second book in the triology (which would never be filmed and doesn’t look like it will be anytime soon).  This is available only on the two-disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions.

FINAL BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $249.5M on a $100M production budget; the movie was only slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Insidious