A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)


A Midsummer Night's Dream

Why is it that beautiful women always fall in love with asses?

(1999) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Christian Bale, Dominic West, David Strathairn, Sophie Marceau, Roger Rees, Max Wright, Gregory Jbara, Bill Irwin, Sam Rockwell, Bernard Hill. Directed by Michael Hoffman

 

At first glance, you’d think that A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be an excellent choice for a modern interpretation of Shakespeare. In fact, with the glut of Shakespeare adaptations that were in theaters at the time – Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V among them — it’s actually amazing this one didn’t get the star-studded, splashy treatment sooner.

In fact, of all of Shakespeare’s body of work other than those named above, only Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth and The Tempest have more resonance to 21st-century sensibilities than this in my opinion. Of course, you may have an opinion of your own.

A talented cast makes this a Dream worth having. Updated to a late 19th-century Italian setting, Hermia (Friel) is betrothed to Demetrius (Bale), but is in fact in love with Lysander (West). Demetrius is being pursued by Helena (Flockhart), who loves him unrequitedly. Hermia and Lysander plan to flee her intractable father (Hill) and Lord Theseus (Strathairn) – who as it turns out intends to wed himself, in his case the astonishingly beautiful Hippolyta (Marceau)  – because they are forcing Hermia to wed her betrothed.

Perchance all four young people flee into a nearby forest, where Titania, Queen of the Faeries (Pfeiffer) has been carrying on, much to the chagrin of her husband Oberon (Everett). Oberon dispatches Puck (Tucci) to fetch a particular flower that when its essence is rubbed on the eyelids causes that person to fall in love with the first person they see. Mischievous Puck makes sure that the wrong lovers are paired up by the potion and that the Queen espies a would-be actor (Kline) who has been given the head of a donkey by Puck. Make sense yet? It’s Shakespeare – pay attention.

And by that I mean of course not. Truthfully, all you really need to know is that All’s Well That Ends Well and you won’t understand half of what’s going on and that’s quite okay. Still, it’s great fun to behold and I found myself laughing at lines written 500 years ago that are still uproariously funny. I’m not sure whether to be comforted or saddened that human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the intervening centuries.

Kline, Tucci and Everett are wondrous to behold; their classical training is in evidence and all of them take their roles and run with them. Pfeiffer does surprisingly well as the promiscuous Titania; she is at the height of her beauty here and to add fuel to the fire, she is showing signs here of her immense talent which had often to this point been overshadowed by her looks. Strathairn, one of John Sayle’s repertory actors, shows a great deal of affinity for Shakespeare which should not really be surprising – a great actor will rise to the occasion when given great material.

The element of fantasy is not as intrusive here as it might be in other romantic comedies and the filmmakers wisely shy away from turning this into a special effects extravaganza, using technology sparingly and subtly to enhance the story instead of overwhelming it. Kline and Tucci are particularly enjoyable in their performances – both are terrific actors but have never been regarded as Shakespearean classicists. They handle the challenge well here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is anything but boring although an atmosphere free of distraction is preferable when viewing it – having a 10-year-old demanding my attention probably deducted at least half a star from the rating which is patently unfair. Nevertheless, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is frothy, lighthearted and enjoyable – a perfect introduction to the Bard for those who have had little or no experience with him.

WHY RENT THIS: Light, frothy entertainment solidly acted. A good introduction to The Bard if you are unfamiliar with his work.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be awfully confusing for those with short attention spans and an impatience for language.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a bit of sexuality involved.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the incidental music is taken from composer Felix Mendelssohn’s score for the 1843 staging of the play.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.1M on an $11M production budget; the movie was a mild box office failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tempest

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Argo

The Emperor’s Club


The Emperor's Club

This teacher has eyes in the back of his head as his students have found out to their sorrow.

(2002) Drama (Universal) Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Emberth Davidtz, Rob Morrow, Edward Herrmann, Harris Yulin, Paul Dano, Rishi Mehta, Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Millman, Chris Morales, Luca Bigini, Roger Rees, Patrick Dempsey, Caitlin O’Heaney. Directed by Michael Hoffman

 

In the end, the measure of a person is in their actions, not just their ideals. It’s a fine thing to have lofty moral values, but another to live by them. The difference between doing what’s right and doing what’s right for yourself can be a very hard line indeed.

Professor William Hundert (Kline) lives a very ordered existence. As assistant headmaster and history teacher at the exclusive St. Benedict’s School for Boys, he is passionate not only about teaching Greek and Roman civilization, but also about making the right choices for the greater good, Hundert is beloved amongst his students and respected among his peers.

Into this existence comes Sedgewick Bell (Hirsch), the brash son of a powerful U.S. Senator (Yulin). Bell has little respect for anything or anyone, least of all himself. At first irritated by the constant challenges to his authority, Hundert grows to see the potential for excellence in Bell. Hundert attempts to inspire the young man, urging him to take part in a prestigious academic competition. It is here where his most cherished ideals are put to the test, both by the student and the teacher.

Based on the excellent novella ”The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin, The Emperor’s Club is all the timelier for the recent spectacular examples of the lack of ethical behavior in business, government, Wall Street and academia which was sadly as true in 2002 as it is now. Kline’s performance as Hundert is memorable, although it borrows a bit from the Goodbye, Mr. Chips/Dead Poets Society line of teachers.

Hundert believes very deeply in his principles, but abandons them for what he thinks is the greater good of another person. However, when that greater good is betrayed, Hundert is challenged more than ever to keep his belief system intact. He does so in a marvelously human manner, one to which all of us can relate. Hundert is no saint, but he is a good man – better than most in fact – but fallible. That sets him apart from Mr. Chips and other such dedicated super-teachers who Hollywood has showing his or her students that the high road is the right road. Hundert makes a moral choice that turns out to be wrong but one with which most of us can identify with – it is made out of hope.

It should be noted that several young actors that are coming into their own in Hollywood appeared in this movie, not just including Hirsch but also recent Oscar nominee Eisenberg and Paul Dano, so good in Little Miss Sunshine. The extra added attraction of seeing them early in their careers is appealing to movie buffs such as myself.

I was blessed to have a father who also had a very highly developed moral sense. He used to tell me that the harder road was usually the right one. It has been a principal that has guided me through some sticky situations. In that sense, I can identify with Hundert because of my father’s example.

Everyone should be lucky enough to have examples such as these in our lives. Lacking them, one can use this movie as inspiration to take the moral high ground. If seeing a movie can cause us to look in the mirror, then watching that movie is a worthwhile endeavor and The Emperor’s Club is that, and more.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performance by Kline and early performances by several Hollywood stars. Presents a great teacher as fallible and human. Unexpected twists for the classroom drama genre.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit melodramatic in places. One wonders if Sedgewick Bell learned anything valuable in his time at St. Benedict’s and if not, why bother?

FAMILY VALUES: There is bit of sexuality in the content, but not enough to make the movie uncomfortable. There are also implications of teen smoking and drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie was filmed at the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York where the prep school scenes for Scent of a Woman were also filmed. Kline stood in as an English instructor for several classes at the school to prepare for his role, for which he got rave reviews from his students.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.3M on a $12.5M production budget; the movie didn’t recoup it’s production budget in it’s theatrical release.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Incredible Hulk

The Prestige


The Prestige

Hugh Jackman and Andy Serkis examine a field of light.

(Touchstone) Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansen, Piper Perabo, Andy Serkis, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Roger Rees, Samantha Mahurin, Jim Piddock, Mark Ryan, Jamie Harris, Christopher Neame, Ron Perkins, Ricky Jay.  Directed by Christopher Nolan.

A magic trick is much like a three-act play, with the initial explanatory portion (the pledge), the turn – what you might call the plot complication – and the payoff, which is called in the business the prestige. As wily old Cutter (Caine) says, “It isn’t enough to make something disappear. You have to make it come back.”

Magicians Alfred Borden (Bale) and Robert Angier (Jackman) are both learning the craft of magic from a veteran stage performer in London in the late 19th century. Robert is a married man, whose passion for Sarah (Hall) is matched only for his ambition to be in the limelight. Sarah is also part of the act, but she must often act as a sort of mediator between her husband and Borden, who have become fierce rivals. When one of the most dangerous tricks in the act goes terribly wrong, a distraught Robert blames Alfred for it.

Time passes and Alfred, a great natural magician with little talent for showmanship, is beginning to develop a reputation and a following. He meets Julia (Perabo) and eventually marries her. They have a daughter named Jess (Mahurin) and as Alfred gets more and more popular, he buys his bride a home. Then, one terrible night, Alfred is performing his bullet catch, his most dangerous stunt. A mysterious stranger comes out of the crowd to assist with the trick, and things go awry for Alfred, resulting in the loss of two fingers on his left hand. The mysterious stranger is revealed to be Angier.

As Bordens’ fortune sours, so Angier’s soars. With the assistance of Cutter, he puts together a show that has the potential to be the toast of London. Angier is an adequate magician but a tremendous showman, charismatic and handsome. With pretty assistant Olivia (Johansen) urging him on, he is on the brink of success – when a mysterious stranger who looks a lot like Borden causes another trick to go wrong, maiming an audience member in the process. Angier’s show is closed by the disgruntled theater owner.

When Borden returns with an astonishing trick that neither Angier nor Cutter can figure out, Angier does his best to replicate it, but his attempts are exposed to a bemused audience by Borden. Humiliated and furious, Angier leaves London to find out the secret of the trick. He sends Olivia to work for Borden as a spy and she manages to retrieve Borden’s diary. Scorned and feeling used, she leaves Angier for Borden, creating an untenable situation for Borden’s wife.

Cracking the diary’s cipher, Angier travels to America to meet with the great Nicola Tesla (Bowie) and his acerbic assistant Alley (Serkis) to try to replicate the device that he built for Borden. Despite Tesla’s warnings, Angier persists. Finally, Tesla reluctantly relents. From that moment on, the confrontation between the two rival magicians is inevitable and there is no doubt that tragedy is certain.

As much as being a movie about magic, this movie is about obsession and the cost it takes on those who are gripped by it. Director Nolan keeps things taut and simple. Although there is a bit of a twist that arrives near the end (which just keeps on twisting, don’t you know), the plot is elegant in its simplicity. As with his previous classic Memento, Nolan’s writing is so flawless that no event is wasted, and everything eventually makes sense in its own internal logic.

Bale and Jackman both deliver performances that keep you interested in their characters. Neither character is written as a hero nor a villain, but with shades of both in their personality, leaning towards the villain more in both men. It is hard to root for either one of the magicians as they do some Very Bad Things to each other, but the story is so interesting and the acting so powerful that you just want to see where the story takes them.

Inevitably, this will be compared to The Illusionist which was released at nearly the same time and features a similar turn-of-the-century European backdrop and a magician as a central character. With a larger budget, Nolan is more reliant on special effects than the other, which is a bit of a throwback in feel and in direction to silent movies. The Prestige is all modern, a big ole Hollywood blockbuster, make no mistake.

What makes the movie work is that the characters are so single minded on their quest that they have forgotten what their quest truly was. In the end, they are just flailing away at each other, motivated by hatred, greed and the baser parts of man’s nature. It is inevitable that men who fall from grace so completely will come to a bad end. It is not unlike watching an auto race and waiting for that crash. You know its coming; you just don’t know when it will come and how bad it will be when it gets there.

WHY RENT THIS: Nolan ratchets up the tension and Bale and Jackman do some fine movie star-style work. A fascinating look at the inner workings of a magician’s trade.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is difficult to root for either of the leads, who behave very badly towards one another. The McGuffin of Tesla’s machine stretches the line of credibility a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very disturbing imagery and violence, but definitely fine for teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Christian Bale played DC Comics’ Batman; Hugh Jackman played Marvel Comics Wolverine; in the Amalgam series in which characters from both universes were merged, Wolverine and Batman were mixed to create the single character Dark Claw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Nine