A Brief Review of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)

To paraphrase the popular colloquial lingo: I’m no film critic, but I know what I like. To match that phrase against Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film Hamlet is to say, “Finally! Shakespeare on film done right!” The uncut script, rich settings and well-delivered acting provide a refreshing boon amongst the surfeit of abridged, revised and heavily altered incarnations of Shakespeare’s work that seem to dominate the film market. Of course, rendering a full text retelling on screen is no meager feat, for both film producers and their audience. Given that the movie spans a whole four hours, I suddenly became quite thankful that I live in a society and an era where technology and comfort have evolved to provide such creature comforts like pause buttons, coffee machines and portable screens across from comfy beds; unlike back in the old days…

 

 

The acting, while not necessarily perfect throughout, is more than convincing enough to connect the audience to the characters. Indeed, there are numerous places where I find the both the screenplay and score clarify and enrich the emotion and pace of the script. Select scenes include Hamlet’s maniacal conversion to vengeance after speaking with his father’s ghost; the double-standard hypocrisy of Polonius, deceptively seeking information on his son’s moral character while a prostitute leaves his room; the extent of Hamlet’s “tenders” towards Ophelia; and many more.

 

Two jobs, band gigs, university applications and 8 essays this month... I'm gonna look like this guy soon...

Two jobs, band gigs, university applications and 8 essays this month… I’m gonna look like this guy soon…

 

Most notably, in Act 5, Scene 1, Queen Gertrude enters upon Claudius and Laertes to deliver the news of Ophelia’s death. What may be flat and enigmatic on the page is suddenly transformed by Gertrude’s marvelous delivery. Her delay of the word “drowned” in her opening address to Laertes adds a poignant sobriety to the matter at hand, yet her following words serve as a sort of happy eulogy – as though she were trying to soften the emotional blow (the line, “mermaid-like,” is excellently delivered). Finally at the end of the scene, we see Claudius once again for the self-centric monster he is. Rather than sharing in the grief of Laertes and his queen, he acts with an utmost irritation and disdain. “How much I had to do to calm his rage!” and “Let’s follow!” sound an undertone of sheer ego and annoyance.

 

Late nights and messy desks.

Late nights and messy desks.

A Formulated Argumentation on Argument Formulation… Catchy…

One of the great dangers of self-analysis is that it is inevitably biased. Our own self-views judge our own self worth by our own personal experiences. It is rather natural for us to view ourselves with lenience, to rationalize away the very shortcomings we critically denounce in others, to see the speck in another’s eye while ignorant of the plank in our own. In many ways, this serves as a sort of evidence for why we should invest ourselves in others – to learn about them and to understand their perspectives, to use sober discrimination (note: not the stereotypical connotation of irrational, bigoted discrimination) about the choices and actions in their lives as a mirror to our own. For only by broadening ourselves in the lives and light of others can we truly begin to see ourselves for who we are. All this is to say that self-analysis is a business that should be conducted with particular attention and delicacy. In that respect, once again I tread into those perilous waters of self-examination to explore, and judge the worth of, my processes in critical thinking and argument formulation. In an ironic sense, I relish the challenge of presenting evidence to formulate and support an argument in defense of how I present evidence to formulate and support an argument. It is a kind of “chicken and egg” situation that suddenly reminds me of a humorous (albeit loquaciously obtuse) anecdote between Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ij1pZvv9m0g

 

The first step to argument formulation is, logically, to know about what it is you intend to argue. In one’s journey for knowledge, Research is the vessel. If I know little to nothing of the subject I will invest time in gathering a broad array of reputable source material (i.e.: evidence-based, fact-supported, bibliographically referenced, etc.). Gathering as many facts and perspectives as possible is a necessary beginning to any formidable argument. Upon first contact with the informative medium, be it literature, video, speech, or any other form, I will simply observe it for what it is. No note taking, no highlighters, just a focused attention to appreciate the source material for what it is. Upon completing a first read/viewing/listening, then will come a second and subsequent reviews. With any hope, something worthwhile was remembered from the first encounter and in light of the recently gained knowledge I can locate topics of importance more easily.

The caveat to this method may be if the “research” to be gleaned comes from a live source, such as a lecture or a field trip. In cases where it is not possible to repeat the informative experience (as one could with a book or film), one must find a safe division in their attention so as to capture important moments from the experience, but not to become lost by stepping out of its context for too long by busily notating fleeting thoughts. My philosophy is this: Let memory be your page and focused attention be your quill. The mind must be allowed to be open and receptive to what it is being presented. These are skills I find sorely lacking in the general population of the “internet generation” of today… Hey Facebook, stop telling me that breakfast cereal and artisan coffees are trending. I don’t care. Unless “Focused Attention” starts trending, stop distracting me with your pointless e-mails. Please. Seriously, the rise in ADHD in the last ten years has very little to do with drugs or diet by comparison to the outrageous fact that children are being conditioned to perpetually divide their attention to all things at all times, rendering their attempts at concentration (if indeed they can even concentrate) ineffective. But I digress…

giphy

Babysitter? I’m sure there’s an app for that…

Is-Your-iPhone-Poisoning-Your-Baby

Perhaps in more ways than you know…

The next step in the argument formulation process is what one might call “brainstorming”, though I prefer “pensive reflection”. What information did the source material convey? How do you feel about it? What are your views toward the material and why? Are there any counter arguments? Could you construe the information in a different way? By playing the devil’s advocate with yourself a great deal of perspective and balanced rationale can be gleaned, along with defensive rebuttals to those who will inevitably attempt to poke holes in the bubble of your logic.

One must always be well prepared!

One must always be well prepared!

Following this critical analysis of the facts, I will at last take to the page. Sometimes at this stage my words flow like a fountain – a stream of prose (or sometimes poetry) may come coursing out of me and I’ll scarcely look back to read my rhetoric until paragraphs or pages have been compiled, my brain paused to recollect itself (I confess, that is the case in this instance). Other times, the topic will be broad and evasive. Then, with nothing more than a general idea of some points I’d like to touch upon, the document I begin to compose is a Frankenstein monster of disparate, disproportioned parts, barely held together by coherent grammatical seams. But slowly, as words are set to the page, ideas begin to congeal. Thoughts become sentences, sentences paragraphs. It is here that the initial writing process begins to marry with editing. In truth, I edit constantly. For me, editing is a stream of consciousness that manifests even as I think and speak. As new ideas flow, after a section is finished, after a rough draft, and a second draft, and a third and fourth – as long as there are ideas to be shared and words to share them there are edits to be made.

Of course, one cannot revise indefinitely. To quote Leonardo da Vinci (if I correctly recall): “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.” One can only ever hope to reach a state of relative satisfaction with their work. Yet with every work attempted, one sets their own standard. While there may be other standards to appeal to, such as the expectations of an audience or the critical eye of a grading professor, the highest standard is the one you set for yourself. In that regard, with continual practice, your work should continually push new boundaries. However, the new heights are rarely achieved by some magical transformation. Much more often they are the byproduct of a fundamental technique, honed to an immaculate precision. But again, the practice is, in itself, a work of art never finished.

 

How then shall I give an example of this process by way of actions from my own history? Should I speak of the many times I have sat in theaters, reviewing and analyzing concerts, operas, and ballets? Should I address the countless hours spent in libraries, classrooms and quiet spaces where I would read and research for thesis papers while many a tree was sacrificed in the name of note paper? Or should I simply reminisce of the night where more than ten hours were happily whiled away with a friend in a discourse about the Wizard of Oz – of how the book differs from the 1939 MGM film, the Broadway musical Wicked and the terrifying 1985 “Return to Oz”; of how the storied locales and characters would make a fine setting for an adventure/survival horror video game? It was an evening where we used each other’s knowledge, creative ideas, counter arguments and the source material at hand to build upon and further a common topic, ridiculous as the topic may have been…

Alas, like Mercutio, I talk of nothing. Indeed, to craft a well-pointed argument does not necessarily correlate to a point of discussion worth arguing. Or to put it another way, you can shout all you want, but who cares? Certainly, it is the mantra of many activist groups. “We want our voice to be heard!” But is your voice saying anything meaningful? Truly? In the grand scheme of this ball of rock hurtling around a nuclear fireball in the sky, amongst a universe of nature and the billions of other, equal voices of your human race, where we all long for meaning and truth to our existence, are your self-serving, ignorant, divisive by diversity propaganda tirades really worth speaking? Worth hearing? Social media would certainly like us to believe so. And yet how ironic that the “social” aspect of the media creates a unilateral field of anonymity and ignorance – where experts are replaced by individuals’ unsupported opinions; where facts are replaced by 140 character sound bites; where character (new context) is overshadowed by charisma; and where a general lack of communication skills is not only tolerated, but is indeed catered to.

Social media, if we were honest about it.

Social media, if we were honest about it.

So to answer the original question, and to all that has followed here, I say: let this account, this rant, this spilling-of-the-guts stand as an argument and as evidence unto itself. Let these words, so carefully chosen, be a monolith, stalwart against the ignorance, deviance, condescendence and obscenities that are wantonly and irreverently cast out to the masses by the very same minds that have drank such intellectual poison. To those that are still reading these words: I thank you for you attention. I could not ask for a greater honor. Now take these words and judge the truth of them for yourselves. Take note of the world around you, the messages that impact, that bombard you. Take note first with your brain, and with your spirit, before with a pen.

 

“And whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is noble, whatever is admirable, whatever is true; if anything is worthwhile or praiseworthy, think upon such things…”

 

…Whew! Got a little carried away there…!

 

Images sourced from Google.ca

A Film Review of Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy. That is no new news, and yet the statement gains a fresh connotation when it is made in light of (or indeed, when it is making light of) the 1996 Hollywood retelling: Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Taken out of its original Renaissance setting, modernization has not been kind to fair Verona. The once bustling Italian city-state now becomes a southwestern coastal American metropolis where dreamboats and freak-shows intermingle in a bizarre symbiosis (not unlike the general Hollywood area). Unfortunately, the newfound cultural setting does nothing to enhance, or even justify the use of Shakespeare’s anachronistic poetry, and any merit that may be gleaned from the modern revision is quickly diminished by the confused and uninspired performances of the title characters. This review briefly examines the first half hour of “the two hours traffic of [the] stage” (1.0.12). Personally, I would rather be stuck in traffic for two hours than endure this film.

Gregory eagerly welcomes you! Get used to men of his ilk...

Unless, of course, I’m stuck in traffic with Gregory and the men of his ilk…

On a broad scope, Lurhmann has made some distinct and deviating interpretive choices from his source material. For the setting, the “two distinguished houses” of Capulet and Montague are now represented as powerful mega-corporations that dominate the city of Verona. There is an interesting element of racism now squeezed into the drama; the Montagues are predominantly Caucasian while the Capulets seem to have a mixed Hispanic background (as evidenced by Lord Capulet’s accent, along with Tybalt and his posse).

John Woo is not impressed.

Enter Tybalt.  John Woo is not impressed.

With respect to the text, ironically, it seems as though there is indeed little respect to the text. Substantial portions of the lines are cut (as may be expected for a film adaptation), but there are numerous other liberalities taken that are more jarring. Lines may be switched from one character to another (Capulet’s line “Give me my longsword, ho” [1.1.61] is given instead to Montague, the Servant with the party invite from 1.2 is now delivered via a TV news broadcast), settings may be altogether changed (Prince’s chastisement of Capulet and Montague occurs in a private police office, away from the battleground), and extra-textual lines may be added in (Abra[ham] quotes from Macbeth in the opening scene with “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble”, Rosaline’s name is specifically introduced by a TV news broadcast and boy who writes her name in chalk at the pool hall).

We must also regard Lurhmann’s camerawork. We see every sweaty, freckled, eye-twitching detail of actors’ faces through the use of plenty of close-up shots. Actions are exaggerated with sudden and sporadic transitions between regular and fast-motion sequences. Like the frantic characters onscreen, the camera jerks back and forth wildly on tracking shots, cuts are rapid enough to induce seizures and a yellow gradient basks every moment with a vibrant, unnatural brightness that distorts the grim reality of the feudal conflict.

The costuming choices seem equally invested in draping the film in the surreal. The Montague Boys (as they are referred to) set the stage with busy-patterned, unbuttoned beach shirts, while the Capulets follow with snakeskin boots and leather jackets. Tattoos and shaved heads bear crosses and corporate logos. Mercutio arrives in drag at the Capulet party. The world Lurhmann has fashioned is one of shock value, iconography and overkill.

As for the score, it is soundly cliché. Bullets zip and ping as though Yosemite Sam were firing them, the camera cuts and heads turn with a comedic “whoosh” effect. The music ranges from gaudy and self-referential (the Montague Boys delivering their lines by rapping along to the music in their car in Act 1.1), to goofy (a Mexican-style shootout theme, also 1.1), to flamboyant and exaggerated (Mercutio’s entrance and subsequent dance routine 1.4 and 1.5).

It is the prerogative of the film director to shape his movie according to his own artistic tastes, however, in many ways this attempt seems to use its Shakespearean source material as nothing more than a thin veneer for what is otherwise intended as a sexy, summer romance flick for teenage girls. I use the words “attempt” and “intended” deliberately as they indicate an effort or endeavor but not necessarily a success.

Hey Baz! Let's do ALL the crack!

Hey Baz! Let’s do ALL the crack!

The first few moments of the movie appear promising – a television news broadcast serves as the Chorus, delivering the prologue in a modern, yet unobtrusive style. Unfortunately, the boon of revision ends there as the prologue is then unnecessarily repeated, with a flurry of quick camera cuts giving lightning-fast glimpses at the setting of this new Verona, along with dramatic flashes of things yet to come further in the script. The entire prologue essentially serves then, as a commercial for a movie the viewer is already watching – a pointless and irritating redundancy (unless the point is to irritate, in which case, well done).

The title splash screen flashes and cuts away to the representation of Act 1.1. What was originally a clever, pun-filled repartee between Sampson and Gregory is now discarded in place of a frenetic shouting match with the servants of Capulet. Shakespeare’s quiet asides between the “Montague Boys” along with the feigned and fatuous honorifics passed in the dialogue with Abraham, once served to build a growing tension between the two warring factions. Now, the tension is permanently set at maximum as though the entire cast is high on methamphetamines, screaming at friend and foe alike, delivering some of the most confused lines ever inflected in the history of English drama. Adding to the disaster are bizarre, extra-textual attempts at physical comedy (Sampson being repeated hit on the head by a lady’s purse, or his shooting the gas station sign), along with a grievously outlandish gun battle that aims for “cool” and hits upon “cringe-worthy”. This scene also causes one to wonder why the two most powerful business magistrates in the city have characters as bizarre as these Sampson, Gregory, Benvolio, Abraham and Tybalt as hired help (though perhaps we may excuse Tybalt’s narcissism under the pretense of his privileged nepotism).

Benvolio, the "Voice of Reason." Heaven help us all...

Benvolio, the “Voice of Reason.” Heaven help us all…

Now, enter Leonardo DiCaprio, assuming the role of Romeo – though more accurately, serving as the eye-candy for all female viewers in the audience; because a sexy lead can compel an audience to stay for a full duration of a film that lacks any other redeeming qualities. His opening reveal casts him as a silhouetted figure on a beach, dressed in a casual black suit that, rather than signifying his melancholy, serves more to set him apart as an attractive figure by comparison to the gaudy fashions of all the other characters. We see his face, flawless and perfectly obscured by a golden sunset from behind.

The real reason girls came to the theater.

The real reason all the girls came to the theater.

Sadly, those baby blues and wavy golden locks are the only charming things about this Romeo. The moment DiCaprio delivers his first line of dialogue it will likely make the objective viewer cry “Aye me,” as well, and cause them to wish instead for more cocaine-induced antics with the strung-out Sampson and Gregory. In his discourse with Benvolio, covering material from Act 1.2, it causes on to question if DiCaprio can even act, let alone do adequate justice to Shakespeare’s language. Emphases on important words are skimmed over, unimportant words are stressed, and iambic rhythm is altogether forgotten. The rushed pace of verbiage along with DiCaprio’s wry smile and aloof behavior all betray the melancholy that is meant to loom over him. Indeed, Shakespeare’s intended Romeo was already a trying character to like but DiCaprio’s delivery borders on insufferable.

Sure, he's dashing... Until he starts to speak.

Sure, he’s dashing… Until he starts to speak.

This unconvincing display from DiCaprio’s Romeo is matched equally by the bored and homely Juliet of Claire Danes. In the scene immediately following Romeo’s debut we are introduced (as per Act 1.3) to Juliet, alas, not before enduring her shrieking, frenetic mother calling her name (again, an extra-textual decision). By comparison to the way the camera casts Romeo as rival to Adonis, Juliet is presented as rather plain or average. Her stark white gown, in contrast to the sharp black suit of Romeo, may have a symbolic reference, though functionally, it frames Juliet in a sort of blemished purity. Her freckles and moles are shot in close-up for all to see, her hair unkempt. I’m sure the underlying message here is that “she’s beautiful on the inside,” but there is nothing on screen that visually suggests that her beauty might “teach the torches to burn bright” (1.5.42), especially when her dialogue is delivered with the same unconvincing ennui as her Romeo.

It's okay, Juliet. I'd want to drown myself too.

It’s okay, Juliet. I feel like drowning myself too.

Lurhmann has attempted in this film to combine rich, historic poetry and a well-known, sordid love story with a modernized twist. Sadly, he has, I submit, failed on every count. There is nothing wrong with a uniquely outlandish setting, but here it is too unbelievable. His directorial vision has derailed the spirit of the original script and his casting choices leave much to be desired. In a sea of buffoonery and poor acting, the title characters take center stage – a demigod “man of wax” falls madly in love with an “average Jane” and together they deliver such underwhelming lines that Shakespeare himself is liable to turn in his grave. All these elements combine to create a whole that could arguably be rationalized as nothing more than a film designed to realize the pubescent sexual fantasies of teenage girls whilst attempting to add enough machismo to fool a few sorry males into the theater.

N'Sync covers the Village People! ...Or is it the other way around?

N’Sync covers the Village People! …Or is it the other way around?

Oh, wait, they're pulling an "Abbey Road".

Wait, I was wrong.  It’s the Beatles’ “Abbey Road”.  Is that Pete Best??

 

Film watched at http://niter.co/all/movies/1263521-romeo-juliet on June 5, 2016.

 

Text referenced from “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare. Ed. Daniel Fischlin, Oxford University Press, 2013.

 

Images sourced from Google Images, s.v. “Lurhmann Romeo and Juliet”.

 

Q: What's the difference between Sampson and Blue Stahli?

Q: What’s the difference between Sampson and Blue Stahli?

A: One of them knows how to manically scream with a sense of rhythm.

A: One of them knows how to maniacally scream with a sense of rhythm.