H4


The play is ever the thing.

(2012) Drama (Random) Harry Lenix, Angus Macfadyen, Keith David, Amad Jackson, John Jordan, Geno Monteiro, Terrell Tilford, Candice Coke, Sharon Ferguson, Heavy D, Jeryl Prescott, Victoria Gabrielle Platt, Jahmela Biggs, Susan Dallan, Justin Alston, Diarra Kilpatrick, Evita Castine, Toyin Moses, Owisa Odera, Kimani Shillingford, Tarnue Massaquoi, Donna Rowe, Heather Ankeny  Directed by Paul Quinn

 

There is no doubting that William Shakespeare is perhaps the greatest playwright in the English language. The proof? His plays are as relevant now as they were when he wrote them more than 500 years ago.

This Kickstarter-funded adaptation of two of his plays – Henry IV Parts I and II – transplants the action from medieval England to modern Los Angeles. Henry IV (Lenix) is the king of the African-American community, but uneasy is the head that lies the crown. He is wracked by guilt that he took power by assassinating his predecessor and has been fighting meaningless wars in the Holy Wars. Now, many of his alliances are crumbling and it is taking all of his skills to hold his kingdom together.

Young Prince Hal (Jackson) is proving to be a wastrel. Uninterested in learning to be King, he hangs out with lowlifes, partying and fooling around, seduced by the promises of an easy life by Falstaff (Macfadyen), a gluttonous, cowardly criminal. With Henry in failing health, what will become of his kingdom when he’s gone?

Writer Ayanna Thompson chooses to retain much of the original Shakespearean language despite the modern setting, which is wise – there is not a writer alive who can match the Bard. However, she does tweak the dialogue with local reference (Hal becomes the Prince of Watts rather than the Prince of Wales) which leads to some odd lines, as when Falstaff calls for “a cup of malt liquor and a capon,” a line you will hear nowhere else, I guarantee it.

That’s also a double-edged sword; reading Shakespearean dialogue is much like reading a whole other language. Some of the actors handle it very nicely but others have troubles with it, which is to be expected. Still, it will be jarring for purists and to all others may just sound a little bit off.

The movie has a pretty bare bones budget and that doesn’t work to its advantage in all things. Sure, it forces the production to do more with less and at times they achieve that but in other places the film lacks the scope that other productions have been able to achieve. Some prefer their Shakespeare to rely on the language rather than the spectacle; your own preference will definitely come into play here. If you are more inclined to a grander scale, you may end up disappointed.

The score is also an annoyance. It sounded better suited for a Saturday morning cartoon than a historical Shakespearean play. It simply doesn’t fit the mood and setting at all. I think a more hip-hop oriented score would have done the film more of a favor. If you’re going to set the play in a modern African-American experience, go big or go home.

To the good side though there are some performances that really stand out. Chief among them is Lenix in the titular role. Lenix does have experience in Shakespearean productions and it shows here; he gives Henry a powerful mien and even with the affectation of an eyepatch commands the screen whenever he’s on it. He rarely has much in the way of set decoration with him, so your focus naturally goes to him.

Keith David also has the kind of powerful delivery that is perfect for Shakespeare, and he makes the most of it for the time he has onscreen which is not as much as I would have liked but then again, it’s as much as the role calls for. Geno Monteiro, as rebel knight Hotspur, also is impressive. I wouldn’t doubt he has experience with the Bard as well.

This is clearly a passion project and as to its point that Shakespeare translates not only to modern times but to different experiences is well-made. It’s too bad that there wasn’t a white knight to deliver a more adequate budget for the film in order to do their thing, but I will say they do a credible job given what they have to work with. While I can’t blame them for trying for something more, they might have benefitted from re-creating a stage performance and filming that. It might have worked out better.

REASONS TO SEE: Lenix delivers a powerful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some actors don’t handle the Shakespearean language as well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ayanna Thompson, who adapted the material and co-wrote the screenplay, has a PhD and is a Shakespearean scholar who has been interviewed on the subject for a variety of programs.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Plus, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hamlet in the Golden Vale
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Old Man and the Gun

Life (1999)


 

Life

Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy ponder the meaning of Life.

(1999) Comedy (Universal) Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatunde, Nick Cassavetes, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Brent Jennings, Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Michael “Bear” Taliferro, Guy Torry, Ned Beatty, Bokeem Woodbine, Lisa Nicole Carson, Noah Emmerich, Clarence Williams III, R. Lee Ermey, Heavy D, Sanaa Lathan. Directed by Ted Demme

 

Once upon a time in America, life in prison meant precisely that. There was no early parole, no time off for good behavior. If you were sentenced to life, you could pretty much count on dying a prisoner in some godforsaken camp, farm or prison.

Rayford Gibson (Murphy) is a small-time crook in Prohibition-era New York trying to get out of debt to a Harlem mobster (James). He sets up a scheme of driving some Mississippi moonshine to the mobster’s speakeasy in New York. He ropes in as his driver Claude Banks (Lawrence), a bank teller (a bank teller named Banks? haw haw!) who has also fallen afoul of the mobster because of an unpaid gambling debt.

Gibson’s weak nature gets the better of him and after receiving the liquor shipment, he decides to do some gambling in a rural club. He gets cheated by a local card sharp (Williams) who later mouths off to the town sheriff, who murders him. Banks and Gibson have the misfortune of discovering the body, and being seen with it. They get, you guessed it, life in prison.

The two, initially antagonistic to one another, are forced to rely upon each other in the brutal work camp to which they are sentenced. Time passes and they dream of the freedom it seems will be denied them for a crime of which they aren’t guilty. Prison changes them – but will it be for the better?

There are a lot of poignant moments in Life and with Murphy and Lawrence, even more funny ones. There is social commentary in the form of how black men are treated in the South, but it isn’t strongly told or terribly compelling. Other movies explore that subject in greater depth and with greater insight.

The problem with “Life” is that the filmmakers aren’t sure whether they wanted to make a comedy, an examination of prison life in the Deep South of, say, 50 years ago, or a political/social commentary on the shaft given African Americans. They decide to do all these things, and in fact their reach exceeds their grasp.

Rick Baker does a great job of aging the two actors for their 60 year stint in prison and both actors have made a career of doing old age well; in fact, the make-up got an Oscar nomination that year. The various eras portrayed in the film are captured pretty nicely, and despite the fairly large cast the pace moves along at a good clip.

Some of the best African-American comics and comic actors in the country show up in the film, including the late Bernie Mac in a small role at the beginning of his career. The acting certainly isn’t the problem here. No, I think that the big problem is that this is kind of a Song of the South fantasy that glosses over the big issues – these guys are in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, after all – and goes for more of a sweet feeling that simply doesn’t mesh.

Life really doesn’t give you any new insights into anything. It’s mainly an excuse to pair two of the brightest comic minds at the time in America. Watching the two at work individually is fascinating, but Lawrence and Murphy don’t generate enough chemistry to hold any interest as a team, which is why they never teamed up in a movie again. Still, these two remain some of the best comedians of the past 20 years and seeing both of them together in the same film has some attraction right there.

WHY RENT THIS: Any opportunity to see Murphy and Lawrence is worth taking. Excellent supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ignores the larger issues. The chemistry between Murphy and Lawrence isn’t quite as good as I would have liked.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence as well as plenty of salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rick James’ limp as Spanky was genuine, as he’d just had hip replacement surgery.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some outtakes in which Lawrence and Murphy try to crack each other up – and in all honesty, some of these are funnier than what you’ll find in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.3M on a $75M production budget (estimated). The movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Dark Knight Rises