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

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Asylum (2005)


Natasha Richardson takes in a little sun while contemplating a lot of sin.

Natasha Richardson takes in a little sun while contemplating a lot of sin.

(2005) Thriller (Paramount Classics) Natasha Richardson, Marton Csokas, Ian McKellen, Hugh Bonneville, Joss Ackland, Gus Lewis, Judy Parfitt, Sean Harris, Hazel Douglas, Wanda Ventham, Sarah Thurstan, Alwyne Taylor, Maria Aitken, Andy de la Tour, Anna Keaveney, Robert Willox, Roy Boyd, Rhydian Jones, Nick Chadwin, Veronica Fairhurst. Directed by David MacKenzie

Boredom can lead us to do things that we wouldn’t ordinarily do. As a species, we are particularly irritated by having nothing to do. We need stimulation and we will go to great lengths in order to get it.

Dr. Max Raphael (Bonneville) has just been appointed superintendent at a maximum-security insane asylum outside of London as the 1950s draw to a close. The facility, built in the Victorian era, is crumbling into ruin, but I daresay not nearly as much as Raphael’s marriage to Stella (Richardson), who is suffering from terminal boredom to her workaholic husband to the point of a kind of misery-induced trance, much to the dismay of her son Charlie (Lewis) and disgust of her mother-in-law (Parfitt). Dr. Raphael himself has to deal with the acid barbs of Dr. Peter Cleave (McKellan) who was passed over for Raphael’s job by the director of the asylum, Dr. Straffen (Ackland) and Cleave is not letting people know that this is a terrible mistake.

Maybe, but not as massive as the mistake Stella is about to make. A garden house a few steps from her on-site home is literally a standing ruin; keen on gardening, she wants to turn it into a rookery. Inmate Edgar Stark (Csokas) is assigned to do the grunt work. Charlie, who has been ignored pretty much by both parents, latches onto Stark as a buddy/father figure which disquiets Stella at first. After being assured by both Dr. Cleave and her husband that the man is perfectly safe, she begins to accept him.

Her acceptance is a godsend to Edgar, who treats her like a princess. Not used to being treated well, Stella slowly begins to fall for the handsome Stark, which leads to sex, lots of it and in all sorts of places. It isn’t long before their transgressions are being noticed, and Edgar’s yearning for freedom begins to match his passion for the psychiatrist’s wife. Stella has started a journey on a train that is very likely to run away on her; what will her passion eventually cost her and those she loves?

The cast, with the exception of McKellen, was not particularly well-known when this was made (although Csokas appeared with McKellan in The Lord of the Rings as Celeborn). Richardson is required to be sexy and passionate and her sex scenes are unusually graphic. Csokas is solid as the brooding inmate with the horrors burning just below the surface. McKellan has to play a conniving man with little or no scruples and he plays him with the kind of polite front you might expect from such a man – this is the kind of reminder that the man is so much more than Magneto and Gandalf. Most of the rest of the cast is solid, but unspectacular. I was tickled to see Ackland, a character actor best known for such movies as The Hunt for Red October and Lethal Weapon 2, working; he is a fine character actor who classes up a production whether he’s playing a villain, a hero or a supporting cast member. McKellen gives a very nice performance of a complicated and not very nice character. The brooding hospital is almost a separate character within the film, creating an atmosphere well-suited to the downbeat nature of the movie.

Much of the action takes place in the titular Asylum; production designer Lawrence Dorman makes sure that the hospital has that look of an older building gone to seed but like many old buildings used for that purpose, you can almost feel the decades of anguish and insanity breathing within its walls. The filmmakers also capture the period nicely with Consolata Boyle’s costumes, the period magazines and the abundance of cigarette smoking that goes on; in some instances, the cigarettes are almost like weapons used to convey the disdain of the smoker.

The story is actually preposterous. Richardson’s Stella doesn’t act like a normal, rational human being would act. Especially in the middle and final acts of the movie, her behavior leaves you clutching your head to keep it from spinning around on your neck. Given that there are no characters within the movie that you can really relate to or even root for in any way shape or form (except maybe for Charlie and even he is something of a caricature whose sole purpose in the film is to introduce his mother to her lover, and then serve as the means for driving the final denouement of the story. This really is hideously written.

This was a Netflix rental for me; it played in Orlando for only a week or two and even then only in a few theaters (maybe only one – I’m not completely sure on that instance). I can’t say as I can recommend it even on that level for anyone. Those who enjoy explicit sex scenes will probably find this irresistible, but you’re probably better served watching a porno for that. Those who like period psychological dramas would be better served renting the very long list of better movies in the genre. I suppose if you’re a big Ian McKellen fan, this might be worthwhile for his fine performance but there honestly isn’t very much else worth seeing here.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling performance by McKellen. Captures the period nicely. Some very erotic sex scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly written and preposterously plotted. Lacks relatable characters. May have too much sex for those who are sensitive to that sort of content.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a very strong sexual element to the story and much nudity. There are also instances of wife beating, infidelity and child endangerment.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Paramount bought the rights to the Patrick McGrath novel this is based on with the intention of having Stephen King write the screenplay and Jonathan Demme directing. When both of them were unable to work the movie into their schedule, Paramount shifted the property to their boutique/art house Classics label (which has since become Paramount Vantage) and appropriately reduced the budget.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on an unknown production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfaithful
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: I, Robot

The Odd Life of Timothy Green


The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Jennifer Garner. Alias. *sob*

(2012) Family (Disney) Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, CJ Adams, Odeya Rush, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rosemarie DeWitt, David Morse, Dianne Wiest, M. Emmett Walsh, Lois Smith, Common, Ron Livingston, James Rebhorn, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Directed by Peter Hedges

 

Raising children can be explained as an imperative drive programmed into our DNA. The urge to reproduce is part of our survival instinct – in this case, survival of the species. We are not always, however, able to reproduce in conventional ways. Sometimes we need a miracle.

Cindy (Garner) and Jim (Edgerton) Green need such a miracle. After years of trying everything to conceive a baby they’ve had to come to the hard realization that it wasn’t going to happen. This is devastating to them both as it was one thing they both desperately wanted. So they grab a bottle of wine and write down all of the components that the fruit of their cohabitation would have had – a big heart, artistic talent (Picasso with a pencil), honest to a fault, and the sort of boy who could make an old man laugh but also score the winning goal.

They take these scraps of paper and bury them in a box in their garden. Lo and behold, as such movies are wont to do, a magic storm arises and lightning strikes. From out of the garden a young boy (Adams), covered in dirt, emerges. They are, of course, aghast and at first think he’s some sort of runaway. But as he addresses them as Mom and Dad, they slowly realize that this is the perfect child they dreamed of.

Say you want about the good citizens of Stanleyville, Pencil Capital of the World, but this small town in the Heartland takes the sudden appearance of a child in their midst in stride. Amber alerts are for big city kids; why, the Greens say he’s theirs so he must be. Of course Timothy (that’s his name, after all – the only boy’s name on the Greens’ list of names – there are 53 girls names on there to give you an idea) has leaves growing out of his legs but he keeps those hidden. And he also has a tendency to turn his face to the sun and stretch, much like a plant. Me, I’d be looking for a pod somewhere.

However, Timothy isn’t there to take over the planet. In fact, it’s not quite certain what he’s there for. He apparently is there to figure out if Cindy and Jim are decent parents and they appear to be, although they tell everyone repeatedly that they make a lot of mistakes. They’re both under a lot of pressure though, particularly Jim. The pencil plant where he works, run by Franklin Crudstaff (Livingston), his father (Rebhorn) and his iceberg-cold Aunt Bernice (Wiest), is in danger of being shut down and layoffs are happening in waves.

Cindy works at the pencil museum which is run by Bernice, with whom Cindy doesn’t get along well. Take You Kid to Work day is a recipe for disaster when you have a kid who’s honest to a fault but that’s not Timothy’s doing so much.

Timothy is far more interested in wooing Joni Jerome (Rush), an outsider like himself who looks to be about five years older in the way of girls the same age. The two are both artistic, but in hidden ways and they bring out the best in each other. That lead to affection that is more than friendly. Still, Timothy has much to do and a limited time to do it in – because every bloom must one day fade to make way for the next bloom.

This was written by Ahmet Zappa, Dweezil’s younger brother. It has the quirky element his dad would have appreciated, but it’s much more mainstream than he would have liked. In fact, in a lot of ways, the story is pretty predictable which probably doesn’t matter for the younger demographic of the target audience but their parents might not appreciate it as much.

The good thing is that the movie is well cast. Edgerton and Garner play like a sincere but somewhat inept couple who are in turns overprotective and at other times wanting their son to be his own man. These aren’t perfect Ozzie and Harriet parents by any stretch of the imagination, which makes the movie far more accessible.

The story is told mostly as a flashback during an interview with an Adoption Agency official (Aghdashloo) who is determining if the Greens are ready for a child, so we know that Timothy is out of the picture in some way. Which way isn’t clear, but it won’t be hard to figure out.

The movie is frank about loss and grieving, and there are several scenes of pathos that might be a bit much for the really small children. The movie is frankly manipulative which I usually don’t mind so much but I think that they could have been a little bit less formulaic about it.

I like the Midwestern charm here; the film seems to exist in a perpetual sunny autumn, a Hollywood Indian summer that allow for beautiful rainless days and harvest sunsets. It’s beautiful to look at, and I’m a sucker for the fall anyway so my snide remarks about the seasons will remain unsaid.

This has the pitfalls and positives of the average 21st century family film. The elements of the supernatural harkens back to such Disney classics as Darby O’Gill and the Little People only with much better special effects. There’s enough schmaltz to make an atheist choke and the inherent messages of accepting those who are different and never giving up no matter what the odds pass muster for Disney kid messages. Despite the fine performances from the adults and the fine chemistry between Adams and Rush, at the end of the day the movie is merely adequate and certainly fine if you want to take the family to a non-offensive family movie that isn’t a blatant marketing ploy to sell toys and Happy Meals.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Garner and Edgerton, and Adams and Rush. Very sweet in feeling. Doesn’t shy away from pathos.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels manipulative. Not always true to its own internal logic.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some of the themes here might go over the heads of the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house used here was the same one where Halloween II was filmed.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100. The reviews are somewhat negative but more towards the mixed side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Race to Witch Mountain

SOCCER LOVERS: Timothy shows off some pretty impressive moves in his moment of glory on the pitch.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Burke and Hare