Shakespeare week – Romeo + Juliet

This is Shakespeare week. One of the things I most enjoy about our local Shakespeare company is the unique spin they put on his plays. One of the more unique movie adaptations of Shakespeare is Romeo + Juliet by Baz Luhrmann.

WATCH: Romeo + Juliet (1996) – Rated PG-13 for scenes of contemporary violence and some sensuality.

“In director Baz Luhrmanns contemporary take on William Shakespeares classic tragedy, the Montagues and Capulets have moved their ongoing feud to the sweltering suburb of Verona Beach, where Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes) fall in love and secretly wed. Though the film is visually modern, the bards dialogue remains intact as the feuding families children pay a disastrous cost for their mutual affection.”

“The hurt cannot be much” – “Twill serve – ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.”

Right off the bat there is no mistaking Romeo + Juliet for the stately Franco Zeffirelli version (the previous gold standard for Romeo & Juliet adaptations – currently also available on instant Netflix). Romeo + Juliet opens with a TV newscaster reading from the prologue and quickly segues into a helicopter overview of Fair Verona Beach.

The hyper-kinetic stylings of Baz Luhrmann would seem to be antithetical to a proper rendition of Romeo & Juliet yet it works. The entire film can be watched just for the visuals as each scene is filled with explosions of color and music. There are many inventive modern updatings such as guns named “sword” and “rapier” and the truck called “Post Haste Delivery”.

Baz Luhrmann is clearly fond of male pecs – not only do all the young men appear partially or entirely shirtless but even Pete Postlethwaite as Father Laurence, a character one would imagine clothed in a particular fashion, is seen instructing young boys while half-naked. I will go ahead and guess that this movie predates the massive Catholic priest scandals. Juliet is also topless in a scene but only hr back is shown.

The performances are all over the map. Thankfully, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are wonderfully fresh faced and intense as the doomed couple. Diane Venora plays mother to Juliet quite well but her accent slips terribly from scene to scene, even from line to line. Brian Dennehy is wasted as Ted Montague but Paul Sorvino is surprisingly restrained as Fulgencio Capulet.

Many of the other actors have their performances turned up to 11. Harold Perrineau (Michael from the TV series Lost, also available on instant Netflix) does a delightful job of playing a deliriously over-the-top and seriously deranged Mercutio. John Leguizamo is filled with bitterest gall as Tybalt. Jaime Kennedy is his usual screwball self as Sampson, a “Montague boy”.

Afterthought: while I highly recommend this film, Romeo is hardly a sympathetic character. He mopes around coveting Rosaline, drops a tab of Ecstasy, crashes a party, and promptly forgets all about Rosaline when he spies Juliet. He then inadvertently causes the death of his friend, guns down an unarmed cousin of his wife, and performs a few more heinous acts on his way to the tragic finale.

People Watch: Look for currently popular comedian Paul Rudd as Dave Paris and noted character actor M. Emmet Walsh as the apothecary.

 

Die Hard 2 – Second Verse Same as the First week

This week I have decided to cover the unjustly derided vehicle known as the sequel. This is Second Verse Same as the First week. Die Hard 2 – Die Harder is currently available on instant Netflix.

WATCH: Die Hard 2 (1990) – Rated R for adult content.

“Bruce Willis reprises his role as John McClane, an off-duty cop gripped with a feeling of déjà vu when on a snowy Christmas Eve in the nations capital, terrorists seize a major international airport, holding thousands of holiday travelers hostage. Renegade military commandos led by a murderous rogue officer (William Sadler) plot to rescue a drug lord from justice and are prepared for every contingency except one: McClanes smart-mouthed heroics.”

A character in Scream 2 argues, ironically, that sequels are by definition inferior products. I do not believe that to be the case. Many sequels surpass their originals in part because they do not have to waste so much exposition time. However I will grant you that most sequels are inferior to their originals.

Unfortunately this is guilty confession time. I saw Die Hard 2 and liked it better than Die Hard. Die Hard 2 is by no means a better film but I saw Die Hard 2 under the ideal circumstances (a theater) and Die Hard on VHS in a room with a bunch of my friends chatting. So clearly environment was a factor. It was only much later that I realized how wonderful Die Hard was.

Renny Harlin takes over the directing reins from John McTiernan. His first big film (his previous film was Nightmare on Elm Street 4) is chock full of action and wonderful setpieces obviously inspired by the Hong Kong films of John Woo.

Die Hard 2 is based on the novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager with the events altered to fit and, in some cases, shoehorn in the Die Hard characters. The screenplay was written by Steven E. De Souza and Doug Richardson. The script and events are exciting but quite a bit more over the top than Die Hard. Not having read 58 Minutes, I am unable to tell if that is the author or the screenwriters.

Bruce Willis reprises his role as wisecracking cop John McClane. Die Hard made Willis an action star and he would reprise this role twice more. He manages the fine line of being witty while performing daring feats of fighting and marksmanship.

Unfortunately they stretch incredulity by not only having Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia) in one of the airplanes circling Dulles but also having Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) on the same plane. My eyes did roll when John McClane needs to get help (again) from Sgt. Powell (Reginald VelJohnson).

Since our villains were unlikely to return for a second film, we have William Sadler as Colonel Stuart and, in a brief role, Franco Nero as General Ramon Esperanza.

Dennis Franz essentially plays a cross between his cop in Hill Street Blues and his cop in NYPD Blue but he is always fun to watch. John Amos rounds out the cast as Major Grant.

I heartily recommend Die Hard 2 for Bruce Willis as John McClane and some wonderful over-the-top action. It is definitely not the classic that Die Hard was, in part because it trod the same ground and in part because Alan Rickman was incredible in Die Hard.

Trivia: There is a great scene in one of the trailers for Die Hard 2 that is not in the movie. John McClane is crawling around some ducts with a light and mutters “This is how I spent last Christmas”. There is a somewhat sim ilar line used in a different place in the movie.

People Watch: Wow a veritable smorgasbord of later known actors in small parts. Colm Meaney (Chief OBrien on Star Trek TNG & DS9) is the pilot of the Windsor plane. Robert Patrick (Terminator in T2) plays OReilly. John Leguizamo (Sid in the Ice Age movies) plays Burke. Last but not least yes that is Senator Fred Thompson lending gravitas to the role of troubled airport controller Trudeau.

Carlito’s Way – Brian De Palma week

Please accept my apologies for not updating over the past few days but we were part of the East Coast Blizzard. While 8-12 inches of snow won’t seem like much to Northerners, the Carolinas certainly aren’t prepared for it. There wasn’t any drama but my wife and I were trapped in house for three and a half days.

This is Brian De Palma week. Carlito’s Way is currently available on instant Netflix.

Carlito's Way

WATCH: Carlito’s Way (1993) – Rated R for strong violence, drug content, sexuality and language.

“Sprung from prison on a technicality, Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) vows to use his unexpected second chance to his best advantage. But every time he tries to get out of the rackets, the bad guys pull him back in. Director Brian De Palma stamps his signature electric visual style onto this searing drama about the challenges of trying to go straight in a crooked world. Sean Penn, Viggo Mortensen and John Leguizamo co-star.”

“A favor gonna kill you faster than a bullet”

Brian De Palma starts this film off wonderfully. The opening sequence is shot in black & white except for a color poster offering an Escape to Paradise, the treasure chest at the end of the rainbow throughout this film. The nightclub featured in the film is El Paraiso. There are many other touches of paradise being just out of reach for everyone.

De Palma is a wonderfully visual director. Watch all the wonderful touches as a simple drug deal early in the film starts to fall apart – a door is slightly ajar, some people’s reactions are just slightly off, the music on the jukebox is turned up a little louder. The suspense is palpable – most other directors would have played it as a sudden act of violence but De Palma lets you watch it unravel.

Al Pacino gives a wonderful performance here as Carlito Brigante. He manages to be almost as magnetic as he was in Scarface and yet is also restrained – something that Tony Montana could never be accused of. He also does a voice-over through much of the film that works quite well as a narrative trick.

Most of the other actors are a little over the top, especially Sean Penn, but it works for this film as De Palma draws in broad strokes. John Leguizamo is his usual flamboyant self. The usually solid Luis Guzman is the big surprise here. He wisely underplays to everyone and comes out in the end as the best of the supporting actors. If all you know of Viggo Mortensen is that he played Aragorn, you’ll be in for a shock when you see him in this film.

This is a very stylish gangster film. As with most modern gangster films, there is quite a bit of language. The F bomb is dropped 139 times according to IMDB. Violence is strong but not actually pervasive. I highly recommend this film as long as language does not offend you.

People Watch: Marc Antony aka Mr. Jennifer Lopez has a role in the Latin Band. Also Adrain Pasdar (Nathan Petrelli on Heroes) has a small role late in the film as Frankie.

Righteous Kill – Al Pacino week

This is the end of Robert De Niro week. As next week is Al Pacino week, a good segue would be The Godfather: Part II. Unfortunately that film is not available on instant Netflix but Righteous Kill is currently available on instant Netflix and it’s probably just as good since it has both of them in it.

Righteous Kill

AVOID: Righteous Kill (2008) – Rated R for violence, pervasive language, some sexuality, and brief drug use.

“Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Al Pacino drive this taut thriller as New York City detectives tasked with investigating a rash of vigilante killings that are linked to an old case, suggesting they might have put an innocent man behind bars. John Leguizamo, Carla Gugino, Brian Dennehy, Donnie Wahlberg and rapper-turned-actor 50 Cent also star in director Jon Avnet’s crime drama, penned by Russel Gerwitz (Inside Man).”

“You sort of get numb to it.”

Ah if only one could get numb to this. Just because you have two Oscar-winning actors starring in your movie doesn’t automatically make it good. Even a fine supporting cast can’t save this film.

Al Pacino plays a character nicknamed Rooster. This is appropriate as he struts all over the movie. He also crows many of his lines. It really appears as though the director just told him, “go for it!” instead of actually directing. The other actors just seem to walk through their performances.

The script is dreadful. It thinks it is witty and urbane and admittedly there are a few good lines in it. Overall the script doesn’t appear to have been written as a whole. It appears to have been written as a series of “ooh that’s a good line” moments, regardless of whether it makes sense for any particular character to be delivering that particular line.

Although women don’t feature prominently in this film, the movie comes across as terribly misogynistic. This is not unusual for a cop story as it is one of the last bastions of the good ole boy network. Unfortunately here it is not an extension of the job.

The main female character, Karen (Carla Gugino), is Turk’s (Robert De Niro) girlfriend and a crime scene technician. Gugino was 37 and De Niro was 65. This is annoyingly standard for Hollywood. Yes it is a common male fantasy for older men to want a much younger woman and of course it does occur. The problem is that Hollywood portrays the old enough to be your father or even grandfather relationship as the norm.

*SPOILER*

Karen makes fun of Turk because the most violent he gets in bed is pulling her hair. She also gets very turned on by a description of Turk beating someone up. She happily puts up with sexual harassment at work. Clearly she is ‘asking for it’ so you can imagine what happens to her late in the film.

There are only two other female characters in the movie (other than sexy dancers and a nude woman in bed). The first is a completely moronic drug-using attorney who also appear to be attracted to Turk in one scene (she appears to be younger than Karen). The second is an alcoholic who provided the alibi for her boyfriend while he killed and raped a 10-year old.

Obviously I can’t recommend this film. Seriously just AVOID this piece of cinematic garbage and place the blame squarely on director Jon Avnet.

People Watch: It really says something when the most restrained performance is given by John Leguizamo.

The Fan – Robert De Niro week

This week I’d like to celebrate one of our great American actors – Robert De Niro. Netflix has a slew of instant movies featuring De Niro including The Fan.

The Fan

PASS: The Fan (1996) – Rated R for strong language throughout and some violence.

“Directed by Tony Scott (Enemy of the State), The Fan follows obsessive knife salesman Gil Renard (Robert De Niro), who wants to turn things around for his favorite ballplayer, a slumping, high-priced star for the San Francisco Giants, Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes). De Niro befriends Snipes, but soon after, Snipes must struggle to keep the psychotic De Niro at bay.”

Thankfully Tony Scott tones down his normal directorial flourishes here – no bleached out color, no relentless jump cuts. Unfortunately he still loves his slightly off-kilter camera angles. He also pointlessly bathes an important sauna scene in red light. A pretty night shot of downtown buildings is severely overused.

Acting is good here. Wesley Snipes is quite good at playing the egomaniacal ball player. John Leguizamo is a lot of fun as the overactive Manny. Robert De Niro plays a obsessive baseball fan who gradually comes unravelled. Robert De Niro is excellent but the character seems like a simple aging/homage/ripoff of Travis (Taxi Driver) Bickle with a baseball twist. Ellen Barkin and Benicio Del Toro are good as well but aren’t really given anything to do.

The script is what ultimately sinks this film. It is clear that the writers have a love of baseball (though not Tony Scott as there are a huge number of baseball errors in the film). Wesley Snipes’ portion of the film is based on some old Babe Ruth chestnuts with some modern baseball commentary and Robert De Niro’s portion seems based on a combination of Taxi Driver and the more recent Falling Down (1993). Even though it is derivative the first two acts aren’t bad, just somewhat disjointed.

The third act is where it all falls apart and is utterly ludicrous – all suspension of disbelief is lost during a beach sequence (I try to avoid spoilers). Everything from that moment on will have you scratching your head and thinking, “what?!??”. Even if you try to accept what happens at the beach at face value, every scene after that gets even sillier.

Despite some really nice performances, I have to rate this one a Pass.

People Watch: Look for Jack Black who shows up briefly as a technician.