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.


The Iron Giant – Size Matters week

In honor of the wonderful Valentine’s/Birthday/Father’s Day/Christmas present my wife gave me, I am featuring giant things this week. Today it is a giant robot. The Iron Giant is currently available on instant Netflix.

The Iron Giant

WATCH: The Iron Giant (1999) – Rated PG for fantasy action and mild language.

“In rustic 1957 Maine, 9-year-old Hogarth finds a colossal but disoriented robot (of unknown origin), and the two form a strong bond of friendship. Before long, however, a government agent is on their trail — and he’s intent on destroying the automaton. This beautifully rendered parable based on British poet Ted Hughes’ feted short story features the voices of Jennifer Aniston, Vin Diesel, Harry Connick Jr. and Cloris Leachman.”

“A peaceful stay at home kind of day in a town very much like your own but then, suddenly, without warning ATOMIC HOLOCAUST!” – Beginning of a duck and cover school film.

“This is espresso – it’s like coffeezilla.”

Director Brad Bird made this film after an eight year run as executive consultant on The Simpsons (among other things). He does an absolutely marvelous job here. Later he would go on to both write and direct The Incredibles and Ratatouille.

Bird’s most important accomplishment here is capturing a wonderful sense of nostalgia. Even though it’s for a different era (late 50s instead of 40s), the closest comparison for this film would be A Christmas Story. We have a lovable beatnik (shades of Maynard G. Krebs), a duck and cover school film, worry about Sputnik. The best one is a brief glimpse of a horror movie on TV (The Brain from Planet Arous).

The details are simply marvelous. The cars aren’t generic – there are representations of an Oldsmobile 98, Chevy Pickup, Chevy Fleetmaster and more. There is a scene echoing and lit like the classic Bambi. The headline in Dean’s newspaper is a double joke – not only does it foreshadow an event but it also echoes a scene in The Lady & The Tramp.

Bird also has a wonderful time with directorial flourishes not normally found in animated features. There is a wonderful scene where our government agent gets back in his car. The camera then pans over to reveal half the car is missing. A scene of Kent Mansley explaining things and pointing his finger in the air cuts to a scene of Hogarth in the same pose.

This is one of those, admittedly few, animated features that appeal just as much to adults as they do to children. Don’t be put off by the fact that this an animated movie. Like most good science fiction, this is a parable.

Vin Diesel (with some manipulation) provides a wonderful voice for the robot. Harry Connick Jr. is the voice of our beatnik, Dean McCoppin. Jennifer Aniston is our harried waitress mother, Annie Hughes. Even with all the big names, it is Eli Marienthal who has to carry the film as Hogarth Hughes and he does a very good job.

I highly recommend this classic science fiction story. Netflix is nice enough to present it not only in its original aspect ratio but also in HD.

People Watch: The marvelous character actor M. Emmet Walsh voices Earl Stutz.