Review : The King on Netflix

FalstaffI haven’t been around much lately, and for that I apologize.  I’ve missed a few big stories that I hope to come back around to as part of the year end.

One of those is finally getting to watch The King, an adaptation (?) of Henry V now playing on Netflix and starring Timothée Chalamet as Henry and Robert Pattinson as a psychotic Dauphin, among others.

My ability to watch and appreciate these movies for review is limited.  The only time I’ll get to watch is when the family is safely stowed away for the night, because they don’t want to watch, and I can’t concentrate when I’m getting pulled in various homework directions.  But then during those limited hours I’m typically trying to do several other important things, so the best that I’m going to be able to spare for a movie I don’t really care to watch is “put  it on in the  background while I sit at the laptop.”  For  bonus points I’ll  use closed captions so I don’t have to keep saying “What did he say?”  (Compare to Branagh’s All Is True, which the whole family sat and watched through, uninterrupted.)

So, on to our story.  I’ll admit to not knowing the Henriad story as much as some of Shakespeare’s other plays, so I really have no idea where this one just invents stuff out of whole cloth (for the most part — you’ll see).  We open with Hotspur doing his rebellion thing, leading to the king chosing Hal’s brother Thomas to be the next king and do something about it. Cut to the battlefield where Hal challenges Hotspur to one-on-one battle instead, beating him, and causing a hissy fit from Thomas who screams that his brother stole this victory from him.  This doesn’t last long, as Thomas goes off and gets killed and Hal ends up king anyway.

What of Falstaff? Of course there’s a Falstaff.  But here’s the thing right away – Falstaff looks like he’s maybe ten years older than Hal?  He doesn’t look remotely like a father figure, he looks like one of those guys that graduated college right as you got there and then just kind of hangs around with the young people because he’s got no ambition to do otherwise.  Falstaff roams around doing his Falstaff thing, not paying his bar bill and whatnot, until he hears that Hal has been appointed king.

And then we get my favorite scene, the wonderfully sad “I know thee not,  old man…” scene…..only no wait, we don’t.  At all. Falstaff is appointed to join Hal’s council as one of his trusted war tacticians. Huh?

Cut to France. It’s complicated, but we all know the story ends up in France. That’s where we meet Robert Pattinson’s psychotic Dauphin, who has literally come to meet Hal and tell him that he’s basically going to torture him until he goes home.  There’s even a scene right out of a horror movie where Dauphin and his men, skulking about in the woods around Hal’s camp, send one of the children (why did he bring children??) back to camp with a sign for Hal — the head of one of the other children.  Charming.

Everything builds to Agincourt.  We knew it would. The most entertaining part to me was a nod to the expectation of a big speech moment where Hal basically screams at the men,  “You’re probably expecting a big speech right now!”  And then goes on to give a reasonably modern version of “We’re all going to die someday.”

There’s more to it, but I don’t want to spoil the whole movie in case people want to watch. I found it reasonably violent, but not in a Fassbender’s Macbeth way.  There’s a beheading (in a god awful special effects scene), and one poor dude gets stabbed in the *top* of the head in a scene that made me cringe.  Aim for the soft bits, man!  Ouch!

As with most of these movies the bits of dialogue where people are trying to sound like Shakespeare are painful to the ear. The battles are brutal,  muddy and bloody. I don’t know that I can say it was bad.  It’s more like, ok, somebody made a movie that used Henry as a structure and then kind of did their own thing with it. That’s not a sin.  If you swapped it for Romeo and Juliet that’s basically the plot of many, many movies. I think Falstaff probably had the best character arc. There’s one particular scene, and one particular expression on his face, that makes me wish I was paying closer attention (see opening notes) and maybe want to go back and follow his arc closer.  Just because they gave him a new story doesn’t mean we can’t imagine he’s the same character.

 

Review : Ophelia

Ophelia by Lisa Klein
Maybe the book was better?

I first referenced Daisy Ridley’s Ophelia back in May 2017. I never expected it to be great, but I always hold out hope. I think it’s important for Shakespeare Geeks to support projects like this and let the studios know that the Shakespeare Universe has plenty of opportunity for story telling of many sorts. How else will we ever get another Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?

Unfortunately it wasn’t worth the wait. Ophelia joins a very small list for me – namely, the list of Shakespeare movies I literally can not finish.

One of them is Anonymous, the piece of garbage that came out some years back arguing for the Earl of Oxford as the rightful author.  I love the part where he wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream at 6 years old  Moving on.

Another is the 2013 Romeo and Juliet starring Hailee Steinfeld. This one had me tying myself to the chair just to finish the trailer.  Let’s just say that I was done when I realized that it opens with Mercutio winning a joust.  Huh? Exactly.  I didn’t even get to the awkwardness of 14yr old Juliet crawling around the bed trying to look sexy.

And now we have Ophelia.  It’s based on a young adult novel so I suppose we can give it some leeway for being one step removed from the original material.  But…still.  Gertrude in this one is obsessed with remaining young and beautiful. We know this because she confides in Ophelia, who is her preferred confidante, because Ophelia knows how to read.  Gertrude appears to be using some sort of magic potion to retain her beauty.  Yeah.  This potion, I think, is made by Gertrude’s twin sister.  Still with me? As I write that I’m still assuming that I misunderstood what I was watching, because that can’t be right.

That’s not what got me, though. What got me reaching for the STOP button was the random interrupted rape scene.  This one should be on TV Tropes. Random girl finds herself surrounded by random guys, who harass her. Then, as these things go, suddenly she’s on the ground, held down by several of them while one starts to climb on top.  Does anybody remember what act and scene this was?  Enter Ophelia, carrying a huge jug of water making her look like something out of Ode to a Grecian Urn.  Because she’s a strong independent woman she, of course, confronts our primary rapist, who immediately loses interest in girl #1 and starts bantering with Ophelia.  She says that he stinks and needs a bath and you think, “Ok, here’s where she dumps the water on his head.”  No, the dialogue isn’t that intelligent.  Here’s where Hamlet enters.  Then you think, “Ok, here’s where we see Hamlet’s irrational temper, he’s gonna kill the guy.  Or at least we get a sword fight.”  Nope, neither of those things.  We just get Ophelia dragging Hamlet offstage by the arm, exactly like Hermione and Harry Potter.  COMPLETELY IGNORING THE GIRL BEING HELD ON THE GROUND BY SIX GUYS.

I had to go back and rewatch that scene because it couldn’t possibly be that bad.  We see the girl get up.  That’s it.  We don’t see her leave.  Ophelia and Hamlet don’t cast her a second glance. It’s truly as if that scene should have been followed by the guys saying, “Now, before we were so rudely interrupted…”

It’s not Shakespeare. It’s not well written or acted, it does not move the plot along or say anything useful about either of the main characters.  So for those reasons, as they say on Shark Tank …. I’m out.

 

Review : How To Stop Time by Matt Haig

I’m sure that How To Stop Time by Matt Haig showed up on my lengthy book list because there was something in it about meeting Shakespeare.  I will almost always check those leads out at some point or another, even though I’ve been burned before. I’m looking at you, Neal Stephenson

So I’m happy to report that this is a good one. Not just because of the Shakespeare content, of which there is more than a little, but because it’s also a good book by itself.

The premise feels like it’s been done before, but I can’t quite put my finger on a specific example. Our narrator ages….very…..slowly.  He’s not immortal. He’s not a vampire. He just ages about 1/15th the pace of everybody else. He’s part of a society of such people known as “albatrosses” who live almost a thousand years.

What do you do with your time when you live for a thousand years? Mostly you go looking for other people like you. You try not to let yourself “anchor” by falling in love with a “mayfly” – a regular human whose lifespan will be trivial compared to yours.  Much like Forrest Gump, you find yourself witnessing historical events firsthand. Much like Groundhog Day, you occupy your free time learning how to do, well, basically anything you want.

But there are downsides, too. The human brain is not made to hold a thousand years of memories, so the older you get, the greater the odds of losing your mind (first come the headaches, then comes the blurting out of things you’re supposed to keep secret, then the trip the asylum…)  Worse, you live in constant fear of anyone – including those you love – of finding out your secret. Whether it’s seventeenth-century witchfinders or nineteenth-century “scientists”, your existence is something they wish to see come to an end.

I suppose I should mention Shakespeare after all that. Our narrator does spend some time not just in Elizabethan England, but literally in Shakespeare’s company. Shakespeare is a character (as are Kemp and Burbage), and not just at the edge – he plays a role in the plot (granted, not a large one). A significant part of the early takes place in and around the Globe where we’re treating to the sights, sounds, and smells of our favorite era.

I’m also happy to learn that a movie is in the works – starring Benedict Cumberbatch!

Glad I got around to this one. Definitely recommended.

 

Review : Most of All Is True Is Probably Not True

When Shakespeare geeks heard that Sir Kenneth Branagh would be bringing us a story of Shakespeare’s final years, written by Ben Elton (who brought us Upstart Crow and Blackadder) and starring Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen, hearts skipped more than a few beats. How could it be anything other than a dream come true?  A modern Shakespeare movie to replace Shakespeare In Love in the “Shakespeare fan fiction” movie pantheon. All in all, I liked it. Parts I liked a lot. Parts I loved. My wife liked it, my kids liked it. But I don’t think it will be remembered as a great movie.

We open in 1613 after the Globe has burned down.  The text tells us that Shakespeare never wrote another play. We instead return to Stratford Upon Avon, where he’s basically gone to retire and be with his family again. His reputation follows him – both as the world’s greatest writer, but also as the son of his disgraced father. Both fans and enemies alike follow him around and annoy him.

Judi Dench is excellent as Anne Hathaway when she stops Shakespeare from coming into the bedroom, telling him, “Twenty years, Will.  You can’t just back and pick up like everything is normal. You’re a guest here.”  Later she’ll have more speeches about what it was like to be married to the world’s greatest writer and not know how to read, or how she felt when someone else read the sonnets to her. Answers to the “second-best bed” question are given but I didn’t find them satisfactory.

The daughters also do an excellent job, but Judith is given much more to work with. Susannah is already trapped in an unhappy marriage to a Puritan, while Judith still lives at home and is an angry young lady who has no problem shouting things like, “Why don’t you just say it, father? The wrong twin died.”  Yikes. Her relationship to Thomas Quiney was played brilliantly, I thought, and could easily have been the subplot of any modern drama.

That’s basically your plot – man ignores his family for twenty years, during which time his only son dies, and in his final years, he tries to set things right. One daughter is trapped in an unhappy marriage, one is rebelling at every opportunity, and his wife, their mother, is just trying to keep it all together in the name of reputation and honor. There’s some really heavy-handed symbolism right out of the gate where he says, “I think I’ll plant a garden.” Later, “I’m not a very good gardener…” and you can just imagine how it goes from there. Oh look, people came to help him… and so on.

There’s enough Shakespeare bio here to appease the fans.  All the important areas are touched on – what did Anne think about the sonnets? What was Shakespeare’s relationship to Henry Wriotheseley?  The coat of arms, the glove making, even Thomas Lucey’s poached ponies are referenced. Stuff is quoted, from sonnets to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titus Andronicus makes an appearance. To the extent where you want to see this movie just to count the references, it’s enjoyable.  Whenever there was a pause in the dialogue I’d do my own filling in the blanks for the kids. “Ok, that must be Thomas Quiney, look for him to do something that dishonors the family name and for Shakespeare to change his will…”

The problem, ultimately, is that everybody making this film knows that they are riding a line between “Here’s what we know” and “Here’s what we don’t, so we’re going to fill in the blanks.” Most of that “blank” surrounds Hamnet’s death and Shakespeare’s dealing with it (with second place going to “how could all the women in Shakespeare’s life be illiterate?” and third “what exactly was Shakespeare’s relationship to the Earl of Southampton?”)  The more time they spent on Hamnet, the more I thought, “See, now, this is the stuff they’re just making up.”  Hamnet wrote poems! Shakespeare and Hamnet had a favorite pond they used to walk to!  How lovely … for an audience like my wife, who doesn’t know which parts of the story are true and which are not, so for her it’s basically all true and she can let herself enjoy it. But for those of us that are keeping a running fact checker in their heads because we can’t turn it off, the more time they spent in made up land, the weaker the movie becomes.

See the problem? They built the entire movie around Shakespeare’s relationship to his lost son.  In that context, we learn about his relationship with his own father, and with his daughters, and with their children. But there’s that legal term “fruit of the poisonous tree”, and if all of your evidence traces its way back to a source that isn’t really legitimate, well, you have to throw it all out.  I can’t totally fault them for it – the movie has to have a plot, after all – but it ends up being the weakest part, to me, because I couldn’t help thinking all is not true. Could it have been true? Sure.  They do a better job there than Shakespeare In Love which I don’t think was at all suggesting that’s what really happened. But I’ll give Branagh that – he tells a perfectly reasonable story. But the title of that story is not Could Be True.

One thing that did surprise me – this film is *gorgeous*. I don’t know who is responsible for making the colors on the screen do what they do, but damn they did a fine job. Some shots are near breathtaking. For a play about a man of words, somebody decided, “We’re going to make sure we show just how beautiful the world around him is.” At times it reminded me of the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come (also a Shakespeare line!) with its literally out-of-this-world colors. Given that much of the story takes place inside – lit by candles, thus making the scenes pretty dark – the cuts to outside shots are always a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.

In the end, and maybe this was deliberate, I don’t know, but in the end, this is an average story about an average man. You could tell the “man tries to reconcile with the family he ignored for twenty years” about anybody. In this case, it just so happens to be the world’s greatest author. It might even have been a better movie if they pulled back on the Shakespeare and let that story shine through. There are parts where it was good, but plenty where it was contrived.  There’s a scene where Judith screams, “Nothing is true!” just so we get our juxtaposition with the title of the movie for Heaven’s sake, but come on, who talks like that? What does that even mean? There’s the aforementioned garden. Lots of heavy-handedness like that. But I guess there’s an audience that likes that?

Go see it.  Go see it with someone you love, who doesn’t know as much about Shakespeare as you do :).  Spot the references, enjoy the colors.

 

Review : Pop-Up Shakespeare

A long, long time ago, when my kids were still in single digits, I had a pop-up book featuring Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I used to take it in to their classrooms as a prop.  I knew it had made an impact when a few months ago, my oldest daughter – who is now driving, and looking at colleges – came to me and said, “Do we still have that pop up book? I want to bring it in to class.”

So when I heard about Candlewick Press’ Pop-Up Shakespeare (by Jennie Maizels and the Reduced Shakespeare Company) I reached out to see if I could review it. They were happy to oblige!

I admit that it’s been a little while since I’ve purchased pop up books for my kids, but I have to say that this is one of the best I’ve seen. Let’s start with the amount of information provided. It covers everything (*). I learned things. We get some bio on Shakespeare himself, we get all the plays – including the questionable authorship plays – and we get the long poems.

Surely for a book with that much information it must be densely packed, right? Right. In a fascinating way. Much of the book is “lift the flap” style, and each spread is dominated by a huge, two-page pop up feature. But ready for the twist? The text is on both sides of the pop up, rotated accordingly. It’s hard to explain, but the best way is to think of this as a book to put down on the table and have the kids gather around from all angles and take turns reading what they see, because there’s stuff about Shakespeare just literally all over the place.

This would have been a great prop for me back in my volunteering days. If you’re still in that place, where you’ve got an audience that will enthusiastically gather around to start exploring things that pop up and looking for flaps to lift, I think this one is an excellent choice. I really do love that they covered everything everything. It would have been so easy to consider the audience for a book like this as not being old enough for Titus Andronicus or Timon of Athens, and spend all of its time on Midsummer or Romeo and Juliet. If you believe that you’re never too young to learn about the whole breadth of Shakespeare’s work, these authors are on your side.

(*) “The gift is small, the will is all: Alexander Aspinall.”  I may have heard that once upon a time? But it was definitely a surprise to see it referenced in this book. Gives you just a little idea of how much information is hiding under those flaps.

POP-UP SHAKESPEARE. Text copyright © 2017 by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Jennie Maizels. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.