November 3, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

I’m going to go ahead and assume you’ve all heard of William Shakespeare. His timeless tales like “Hamlet”, “Romeo & Juliet”, and “Macbeth” have been performed probably thousands of times, and adapted multiple times, even in modern film. So many times, I’d say, that a lot of the luster is lost in some cases because we’re almost too familiar with the subject matter.

But while the stories may have resonated and will most likely be considered some of the greatest of all time, the man William Shakespeare still remains quite a mystery. Not much is known to the average person about Shakespeare’s life. There is a growing popular theory that Shakespeare wasn’t actually the author at all of these plays, and Sonnets. He was rather a charlatan, an actor, who took credit for these writings where he himself was illiterate and a bit of an idiot.

That’s the premise, at least, for Roland Emmerich’s new film, “Anonymous”, a film that tries to debunk the idea that William Shakespeare was indeed, The Bard. I thought the choice of Emmerich to direct was an odd one; he’s not only known for his blustery action yarns (“Independence Day”, “Stargate”, “The Day After Tomorrow”), but he’s also on record as not even really being a fan of Shakespeare’s plays. And so I walked in with a bit of trepidation, just hoping that the script (which was written and circulated around the time of “Shakespeare in Love”) would be enough to not be ruined by Emmerich’s aloof detachment from the material.

Unfortunately, I was right to have my doubts. The film stars Rhys Ilfans as an aristocrat named Edward De Vere, and he is supposedly the actual author of the plays that would come to be known as Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare himself (played very Tom Hulce in “Amadeus”-like by Rafe Spall) is an actor that doesn’t really care about much except money and living a hedonistic lifestyle. De Vere has a torrid love affair with Elizabeth I (played by Vanessa Redgrave as the elder Elizabeth, Joely Richardson as the younger) who loves his plays and falls in love with his way with words and his romance. Alas, their love affair is frowned upon. De Vere was originally taken in as a boy by a long time Baron of Elizabeth, William Cecil. De Vere becomes Cecil’s ward, alongside Cecil’s full blooded son Robert, who is jealous of De Vere’s ability to swoon.

The plot is complicated to say the least. We’re initially introduced to Ben Jonson, who was an important writer of that time (and well played, if a little gruffly by Sebastian Armesto) though you’d never know it from this film. Jonson is hiding the plays of De Vere to protect his name, and is interrogated to give up the name of who was behind the plays. We’re then taken back 5 years to see Jonson approached by De Vere who had attended one of his plays, to take De Vere’s plays and enjoy the success he’s sure to have by taking the credit. Jonson, unsure of himself and seemingly wanting his own work to be accepted rather than just taking someone else’s, instead passes the plays along to the boastful and arrogant William Shakespeare, who’s acted in a few of his plays. Shakespeare loves the limelight and the money he gets, but he isn’t told by Jonson who actually wrote the plays.

The intrigue grows as another rival, Christopher Marlowe, finds out about Shakespeare’s secret; the next thing you know, Marlowe’s no more. Meanwhile, De Vere has a troubled marriage with his wife Anne, who is the daughter of William Cecil, who wanted De Vere to lead a noble lifestyle and carry on his name, which we find has a long history (that involves Elizabeth) and needs to be carried on. De Vere, though, could never truly commit to Anne, and his love affair with Elizabeth could ruin the reputation of everyone. And his writing is looked down upon by Anne and William. De Vere complicates thing by impregnating Elizabeth, and then while Elizabeth is away, has an affair with someone resembles her. Elizabeth banishes him from the court, and De Vere is alone. He still has his work. He just doesn’t have the credit.

The film shifts between Jonson’s unsure self image and De Vere’s unsure legacy; but it never really comes together thematically. Instead of being moved by the complications of the plot, we’re left behind; only to try and play catch up while the film keeps going. There are all sorts of characters that are introduced, then forgotten about, then shown again, and we’re supposed to keep track of all of them all the while not really being sure of anyone’s actual motivations. It turns out to be just another Elizabethan costume drama, where everybody’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.

To be fair, it does help if you are already familiar with some of these characters in their own right. Ben Jonson is probably the key player to understand. It’s important to note that Jonson was known as one of the great writers of his era. However, if you don’t know who Jonson is, you won’t get to know him much by this film. And there aren’t any inside jokes that people that do know about the era to keep you interested. There is a scene toward the end when De Vere wants to genuinely know what Jonson thought of his plays…I think the answer, like a lot of this film most likely, was total fiction. He was actually, like Emmerich, not a huge fan of Shakespeare’s.

Fiction is fine, though, if it’s done well. “Shakespeare in Love” is a great example of having fun with Shakespearean plays, as well as telling a fun story. It’s great entertainment. This, however, seems labored and slow. While the acting is strong, the characters never seem to really come to life as they should have. The fact that this script laid around so long made me think that the poor screenwriter was doomed by too many Elizabethan projects (seriously, how many movies about Queen Elizabeth have there been in the past 10 years or so?). Now I’m wondering if it was because the script itself wasn’t very strong.

The best moments, I suppose fittingly, are the ones where we see Shakespeare’s immortal plays acted out in the little theatres in England, including Shakespeare’s own once he’s bribed his way into getting one (and his own coat of arms). It is a reminder that it’s the words that are important, not so much who wrote them. And that’s what the film is striving for as a theme–but while that element is obvious and the point is taken, nothing else in the film explores that. For example, we don’t get a sense that it was important that Ben Jonson was the writer of his own plays vs. De Vere never getting to amount to anything because of his poor judgment and by being a victim of his own romance.

What makes this a major disappointment is that the premise is a very strong one. It’s not like there’s going to be a subgenre of “Who Was William Shakespeare REALLY?”. Of course, there’s the possibility of the mockbuster version, probably called “Unnamed”. But that probably won’t star anybody bigger than Joe Estevez (some may argue a film cannot star Joe Estevez, however). So we are left with this disappointing film, which still doesn’t really answer the question it asks in the ad (“Was Shakespeare a Fraud?”) because there really isn’t any evidence that any of this is true. It accomplishes nothing as an historical drama; and it accomplishes nearly as much as being a dramatic drama.

Maybe if this film had half the heart of The Bard did(whoever he may be) we’d have a truly great tribute to one of the greatest writers of all time. Instead, it’s just a hollow effort that leaves one unmoved. To be or not to be. Not to be. (thank you, Jack Slater)

My rating: :?


January 6, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

“Doubt” is most talked about because of the acting, and that’s just. This is what you’d probably call an “actor’s” movie. These are movies with typically weak or thin plot lines, and only serves to promote the acting jobs of A-list actors/actresses who want Oscars.

I think that may be a bit unfair to “Doubt” because the movie is *about* something, not just an excuse to put some of the best actors together in the same movie. Now, that does not mean that the acting isn’t superior to the story, but the themes of invulnerability, the power of conviction over proof, and of course…doubt itself, is very well done. Writer/director John Patrick Shanley does a fine job of tying the film together with a nice MacGuffin that isn’t an object, but a suspicion. Meryl Streep is outstanding (may steal the Oscar from Jolie) as Sister Aloysius, the er…suspicious allowishus, literally.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, a charismatic and upbeat minister who wants to spread gospel about love and understanding, and begins the movie with a speech about how doubt can bring people together in a time of uncertainty and chaos (the film takes place one year after the Kennedy assassination). He builds a bond with one of the altar boys, the only black boy at the school, because he feels sorry for his disposition, and knows he has no friends. Sister James, played wonderfully and emotionally by Amy Adams, is the teacher who first notices a “change” in behavior of the boy, named Donald, after a private meeting with Flynn. He also has alcohol on his breath, due to an incident where he was caught “stealing wine” from the altar, in which case Donald would have to relinquish his altar boy status.

When Sister James tells Aloysius, she immediately is convinced that Flynn has abused Donald and wants to get rid of Father Flynn immediately. Sister James doesn’t know what to believe, as she’s more of the innocent and naive, and positive minded type. But Aloysius, who rules the Parish that they all belong to with an iron fist (she is principal of the school), knows without a doubt that he abused the boy. She thinks it’s for the well being of Donald to get rid of Flynn, ignoring the fact that Flynn has been the only one who has given the boy any attention at all.

There is never any evidence given, nor is there a scene in which Father Flynn has shown his guiltiness. The film, like the play it is based on (also by Shanley), simply plays on the lines of suspicion and not on proof. And that’s where the film is strong.

The ending scene seemed a bit unnecessary, but I saw where Shanley was going with it. The film, to me, concluded about ten minutes before it ended, but it didn’t drive me crazy or anything.

This is mostly a “thinking” and “talking” movie. Not a lot of action, not too much going on on the surface. It’s all in the words being spoken, and that is a dead giveaway that this was a play. Much like “GlenGarry, Glen Ross”, or “12 Angry Men”, there aren’t too many changes of scenery, and there is a LOT of dialog. But it’s a very well made film, and worth seeing if you want to see the best acting of the year.

My rating: :smile: