Top 5 Shakespeare Films (or Best of The Bard Onscreen)

1) Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

If there was just one word to describe this film, it would be “luminous.” Filmed during a Summer in Italy, the FAB cast includes Kenneth Branagh (who directed), Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves (whose presence is odd, yet doesn’t spoil the movie). You have the innocent/fresh-faced lovers: Hero (Kate Beckinsale- SO adorable and young) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard- who ages quite slowly), In contrast to this hopeful pair, there is the sharp-tongued/witty older couple: Beatrice (Thompson) and Benedick (Branagh). Her father fears that her sharp tongue will render her single for life. Benedick declares that he’ll die a bachelor, BUT his jovial friend/lord Don Perdo (Denzel- looking esp. FAB in leather pants) has other plans. Who doesn’t LOVE Denzel doing light-hearted roles!? Almost everyone (aside from Keanu- DUH!) does well w/ the (complicated) words, incl. the newbie Beckinsale. The veterans (all Brits) in the cast add authenticity and Keaton brings in eccentric humor. Aside from the gorgeous scenery, the music (composed by Patrick Doyle) is amazing (I had the CD back in the day).

2) A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

This is another visually gorgeous film (w/ a talented cast from BOTH sides of the pond), though NOT as seamless as Much Ado (also a popular comedy). There are several pairs of lovers, incl. fairies: Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) and humans: Lysander (Dominic West- famed for The Wire) and Hermia (Anna Friel- Brit stage actress); Demetrius (the FAB Christian Bale) and Helena (American TV darling Calista Flockhart); Theseus (character actor David Strathairn) and Hippolyta (Frenchwoman Sophie Marceau). The naughty fairy, Puck, is played by the always great Stanley Tucci (FYI: he even published an Italian-American cookbook a few yrs back- WOW!) I really liked Kevin Kline’s portrayal of Bottom (the weaver who wants to play every part in the play- LOL). Kline is a theater pro, just like Denzel (and it shows). Pfeiffer admitted that she never understood Shakespeare, BUT hey, she does a good job (w/ the best costumes/hair).   

3) Titus (1999)

This movie is NOT for the faint of heart- it’s one of The Bard’s bloodiest tales come alive (thanks to Broadway’s Julie Taymor). Come for the spectacle, BUT stay for the (terrific) acting from a cast that includes Americans, Canadians, Brits, and Scots. Anthony Hopkins is in the title role of the war-weary Roman general, Titus Andronicus, who has captured the queen of the Goths, Tamora (Jessica Lange), her three sons, and her secret/Moorish lover, Aaron (Harry Lennix). Though Tamora begs for his life, her eldest son is slaughtered; Titus, who lost MANY sons of his own during years of battle, shows no mercy.

Tamora vows revenge against Titus and his kin, along w/ her other sons: Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Titus’ household includes his kind-hearted brother, Marcus (Colm Feore), his remaining sons: the grown-up/practical Lucius (Angus MacFadyen) and a pre-teen boy, and his only daughter-sweet/innocent- Lavinia (Laura Fraser). She is in love w/ Bassanius (James Frain), an honorable young man running to become ruler of this city against the vain Saturninus (Alan Cumming). Titus’ family become outcasts when Tamora (who is BOTH smart & gorgeous) convinces the new/gullible emperor, Saturninus (Alan Cumming), to marry and ally w/ her family. Who knew that Lange could be SO wonderfully evil!? I loved her chemistry w/ everyone, incl. Lennix (who worked as a teacher before getting into film). Fraser impressed me a LOT also; you hear NO hint of her (real-life) thick Scottish accent.

4) Romeo & Juliet (1996)

The actor who really sells this Baz Luhrmann adaptation is Claire Danes (great at ANY age)! Sure, Leo was the draw for the younger gen, BUT she is the one who raises the game w/ her interpretation of an innocent teen girl in love for the first time. Even is you’re NOT a fan of modernized Shakespeare, give this one a chance (IF you already haven’t). I know MANY high schools are using it to appeal to teens. 

5) Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1996)

Some of you may NOT have seen this film from Brit director Trevor Nunn (which is shot in Ireland and England), BUT it features two strong female performances. A young foreign noblewoman disguised as servant boy, Viola (Imogen Stubbs), unwittingly sparks the interest of a noblewoman from Illyria, Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter). Gender confusion is a common theme in Shakespeare; in The Merchant of Venice, a woman even disguises herself as a male lawyer and wins a court case for the man she wishes to marry. Viola finds herself falling for her boss, Duke Orsino (Tody Stephens- still looking cute w/ quirky facial hair) who pursues Olivia, though she spurns all men (b/c mourning her brother). Look out for Sir Ben Kingsley in the supporting role of Feste, the fool in Orsino’s court. 

GREAT Films about the Immigrant Experience

Avalon (1990)

This is a gorgeous film directed by Barry Levinson (Diner, Homicide, Liberty Heights, etc.)  It’s a talent-laden (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Aiden Quinn, and a very young Elijah Wood play the male leads) drama set in ’50s Baltimore.  The film explores 3 generations of a tightly-knit, middle-class, Jewish-American family.  My dad really liked this story; it’s suitable for all ages!   

Mississippi Masala (1999)

I tell all my desi friends (and anyone who likes good films) about this one!  I first saw it as an undergrad.  This small-budget/educational/realistic film was directed by Mira Nair; she also plays a small role as a catty auntie.  The screenwriter, Nair’s close friend/collaborator Sooni Taraporevela, said the basis for the love story between Meena (Sarita Choudhury) and Demetrius (Denzel Washington) was partly inspired by a fellow Indian gal pal at Harvard who fell in love with a black (Jamaican) man.  The dialogue is spot-on and the sweet romance between Meena and Demetrius is as hot as the setting (small towns of Mississippi).  There is another kind of love in this story- Jay (veteran Indian actor Roshan Seth), Meena’s father/lawyer-turned-motel manager, desperately trying to get back property/citizenship in his native Uganda (scenes were filmed in Nair’s own Kampala house).

Sidenote: I saw Sarita at a staged play reading in NYC (back in 2006).  Film does NOT do her justice; she’s stunning in real life! 

My Family/Mi Familia (1995)

Unfair deportation, police aggression, gangs/crime, Catholicism, and the ties that bind families are explored in one of my all-time favorite films.  I saw this first during my 12th grade American History class; later I saw it w/ my family (they all liked it a lot, too).  It was directed superbly by a Californian of Mexican heritage, Gregory Nava (Selena, Frida).  The music is an integral part of the story, as is the moral compass/strength of matriarch Maria Sanchez, who is played by Jennifer Lopez (younger) and Jenny Gago (older).  The male leads are played by Jacob Vargas (Jose), Esai Morales (Chucho), and  Jimmy Smits (Jimmy).  Edward James Olmos plays the aspiring writer, also the narrator.  Scott Bakula plays the husband of Toni (Constance Marie).  The setting is primarily East L.A. (a long-established Latino neighborhood). 

Nuovomundo/Golden Door (1996)

Don’t let the language (primarily Italian) deter you from this unique/educational film; it contains some magical realism.  It was produced by the famed Martin Scorcese, himself a proud Italian-American.  The (nearly unspoken) love story in the film is between kind-hearted Italian peasant Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) and mysterious/redheaded Englishwoman Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Salvatore decides to sail to the U.S. so his family, which includes two teen sons and mother, can survive.  Crops won’t grow on his land, and his brother is already settled in NYC.  However, after their ship lands on Ellis Island, there are more tests/tribulations ahead! 

Liberty Heights (1999)

Another of Levinson’s fine films- this time focusing on brothers who live in a Jewish-American enclave of ’50s Baltimore.  The narrator, 17 y.o. Van (Ben Foster), and his college-going brother, Ben (Adrien Brody) are good kids trying to figure themselves out. You will relate to this film, especially if you are a 1st generation American, as the Kurtzman brothers navigate around heritage, parents, and wider racial issues of the ’50s.  Van befriends Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the only black girl in his class.  Ben makes new friends at a party and eventually falls for Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy), a gorgeous/troubled WASP.  Yussel (David Krumholtz), Ben’s best pal/smart-aleck, provides a lot of the comedy.  The parents in the film are portrayed by Joe Mantegna and Bebe Neuwirth.       

The Namesake (2006)

This is the first film exploring two generations of an Indian-American family (Bengali in heritage); it is based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel and directed by Mira Nair.  I saw it in 3 different theaters w/ different groups of family/friends (who all loved it).  Gogol/Nikhil (Kal Penn) and his little sister, Sonia, grow up on Long Island, the children of successful/overprotective immigrant parents, professor Ashok (Irrfan Khan) and homemaker Ashima Ganguli (Tabu).  Though the novel’s main focus was Gogol, Nair takes a deeper focus into the slow-burn love story between Ashok and Ashima (I enjoyed their scenes most).  Irrfan Khan is amazing; too bad he decided not to come to Hollywood!     

Absolute Power (1997)

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I recall first seeing this film, based on the book by David Baldacci (a former lawyer), a few months after it came out (with my mom).  We liked it a lot- the acting (it has a fantastic cast), pacing (editing), and  even soundtrack (which enhances the film, but isn’t invasive).  It’s directed by Clint Eastwood, who also plays the lead role of master thief Luther Whitney. 

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While robbing one of the homes of billionaire philanthropist Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall; one of the 12 Angry Men), Luther witnesses the brutal assault and murder of the elderly man’s young wife, Christie.  The cover-up involves the President’s cold-blooded Chief of Staff, Gloria Russell (Australian Judy Davis) and two Secret Service agents- stoic Vietnam vet Bill Burton (Scott Glenn) and sadistic eager beaver Tim Collin (Dennis Haysbert).  This was one of Haysbert’s first movie roles, but you can sense the strong screen presence- something that can’t be taught. 

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Do you know what it was like to be the only kid in class that got to talk about visiting day? -Kate bitterly comments to Luther

I love true crime.  -Luther works his charm on Det. Seth Frank

To make things more complicated, Luther’s daughter Kate (Laura Linney, also in one of her first big roles), is an ambitious young DA!  At first, she wants nothing to do with him, but then learns of the gravity of what her father has experienced.  This is the movie that made my mom a fan of Linney.  Kate’s a very relatable young lady, trying to do the right thing.   

Since Luther is such a skilled thief, the cops decide to question him about the crime.  The lead investigator on the case, Det.  Seth Frank (Ed Harris), seems to admire Luther a bit (he was a war hero).  He also develops a big crush on Kate-  a (needed) sweet/humorous aspect to the story. 

Every time I watch this movie the highlight for me is the scene between Clint and Ed Harris.  Their little cat and mouse is not only fun to watch, but they both genuinely seem to be enjoying the scene.  Eastwood’s line about being the star of his AARP meetings is priceless, as are Ed Harris’s reactions.  -IMDB comment

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…despite his criminal behavior he’s an “honorable” thief…  -IMDB comment

One of the scenes that stands out in my mind is the dance/talk between Davis and Gene Hackman, who plays President Alan Richmond.  It’s especially well done, and fun to watch.  Davis’ character is a source of humor in a few moments, too. 

Oops, I almost forgot to say how great Glenn (one of Eastwood’s close friends) is in this movie!  Now you have it.  His character is very conflicted- a good guy who takes a terrible turn at the end of his career. 

luther_kateI couldn’t have my daughter thinking I was a murderer.  -Luther explains to Kate

I also enjoyed all the father-daughter scenes in the film; Luther and Kate’s strained relationship grew and changed over the movie.  After all, it’s very difficult (perhaps impossible) to turn your back on family.  When Kate tries to help the police peacefully arrest her father, she puts her own life in danger.  This kicks Luther into high gear- he has to protect his little girl and clear his name.  After all, he’s a thief, not a murderer!       

Some Quick Film Reviews

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)

Well, you really CAN’T go wrong w/ such a stellar cast!  (Dev Patel, just 21 y.o., said how BIG of an honor it was to work w/ all these legends, in a recent NPR interview.)   My fave characters were portrayed by Judy Dench, Bill Nighy (he surprised me w/ his skill), & Tom Wilkinson.  Some viewers commented that Patel’s acting was very one-note (& I mostly agree w/ that).  Perhaps he got bogged down in the Indian accent (he’s a British desi, after all); perhaps he just needs to learn more.  The complete change of heart from Maggie Smith’s characters didn’t ring QUITE true IMO.  There are some GREAT life lessons in this film, BUT it’s NOT schmaltzy or stereotypical. 

Empire Falls (2005)

Fans of Paul Newman will be surprised by his (antihero) role in this HBO miniseries!  There are some  fine performances, esp. from Ed Harris, Aidan Quinn, Robin Wright Penn, & a young Danielle Panabaker.  I thought it started out quite strong, BUT there is something disjointed about it.  It’s set around two VERY different families in a working-class town of Maine. 

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Three reasons to see this film (in order): 1) Russell Crowe 2) Kevin Spacey 3) Guy Pearce.  I’m pretty sure this film was a star-making turn for Crowe.  Also, this is one of the BEST edited films I recall seeing.  I was surprised that Kim Basinger was so capable- she didn’t annoy me in this film!   I think you need to see it twice to appreciate it- I don’t think I paid attention the first time.

The Horseman on the Roof (1995)

This historical French film is GORGEOUS (& not just b/c of the two leads)!  There’s a LOT of natural beauty- greenery, mountains, snow, etc.  Olivier Martinez, who you may recall from Unfaithful,  portrays a true “romantic” (a individual of high ideals).  Juliette Binoche is perfect (as usual), though there is NOT much dialogue.   Plus, you have to give props to a woman who’s not afraid to act w/ a man prettier than her- LOL!   La Binoche never disappoints.

Two Films Starring Timothy Hutton

Did you know that Timothy Hutton’s father was also an actor?  Jim Hutton was a contract player in Hollywood for many years; he got into acting while serving in the army.  He was said to have been similar to Jimmy Stewart- very tall, lanky, and a bit absent-minded in his delivery.  Unfortunately, Jim Hutton died young, before his son (at 18 y.o.) won Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ordinary People, a touching domestic drama directed by Robert Redford.  In that film, Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland played Tim’s parents- WOW!

Despite his “boy next door” type of looks, there is something mysterious about Timothy Hutton.  He’s the type of actor you see pausing and thinking about a scene.  But, that’s not a problem, b/c he’s VERY good at becoming a character.  I like the fact that Hutton gets intelligent, sometimes very understated, roles.

Beautiful Girls (1996)

The main character, a piano player living in NYC, Willie (Hutton), goes to his working-class hometown (Knight’s Ridge) to visit his dad, little brother (David Arquette), and friends.  Their high school reunion is coming up, too.

One friend, Mo (Noah Emmerich), is a factory manager who’s settled w/ a wife and 2 rambunctious young kids.  He admires Willie for following his dreams.  Tommy (Matt Dillon), a star athlete in his high school days,  has a snow plowing business and a girlfriend named Sharon (Mira Sorvino).  But he has an on-again, off-again relationship w/ his high school sweetheart, Darian (Lauren Holly), who’s married to a wealthy man and mother to a toddler.  Paul (Michael Rapaport) is another snow plower who recently broke up w/ his long-term girlfriend, Jan (Martha Plimpton), a waitress who wants to settle down.  Paul is immature; he’s still crazy about supermodels (posters are all over his bedroom).

Willie, who’s deciding whether he should take his own relationship to the next level, meets his father’s neighbor, Marty (Natalie Portman), a 13 y.o. “old soul.”  They have some interesting conversations; she reminds him of less complicated times (childhood, innocence).

Willie, and all his pals, are intrigued by a glamorous visitor to town, Andera (Uma Thurman), the cousin of local bartender, Stinky. She’s the personification of their dream girl, so they all try to impress her how they can.  Andera is spoken for back in Chicago and Willie has a girlfriend, a lawyer named Tracy (Annabeth Gish).

This film is quite good (have seen it 3x over the years); the dialogue is (mostly) true to life.  It’s VERY well cast, too.  You get to know something about each of these young people who are in transition.  (If you enjoyeded Diner, Barry Levinson’s 1982 film, you’ll like Beautiful Girls.)  Though the title refers to women, it’s mainly a story of male frienship and romantic issues (self-doubt, fear of commitment, etc.)  Rosie O’Donnell has a REALLY clever/humorous scene inside a drugstore.

The Substance of Fire (1996)

As a young boy living in Europe, Isaac Geldhart (Ron Rifkin), hides in an attic filled w/ books to evade the Nazis.  From his window, he sees crowds burning books written by Jews.  As an adult, Isaac is a respected publisher of finely-made/serious books in NYC, though the business (Kepler Geldhart) is losing money.  His wife died a few years ago, and he’s still taking it VERY hard, though he hides it (w/ his charm, intelligence, etc.)  His eldest son, Aaron (Tony Goldwyn, giving an understated performance), handles the financial affairs of the family business.  Another son, Martin (Hutton), is a landscape designer/college lecturer living in the Hudson Valley.  The youngest child, Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), is an actress on a local children’s TV show.

Aaron, who’s out as a gay man, wants to publish a novel written by his boyfriend, Val (Gil Bellows).  Isaac insists that his company will NEVER publish trash like that.  Aaron decides to take control (w/ the help of his siblings, who are also shareholders).  It’s a tough decision for the kids.  Isaac, whose behavior becomes domineering and irrational, is enraged; he even asks for his surname to be removed from Aaron’s company!  Isaac opens his own firm and cuts himself off from his children for many months.  With the help of his long-time secretary, the kids get into the house (a historic townhouse), which has become a total mess.  They realize that something could be seriously wrong w/ their father.

I saw this film last week on Netflix; it caught my eye b/c of its cast.  It has some strong acting, esp. from Rifkin and Hutton, BUT just tried to do a BIT too much (w/ not enough time).  I wanted to know some more backstory and character motivation (esp. when it came to the BIG sacrifice Martin made).   The premise is quite unusual/interesting; the (realistic) issues addressed are VERY emotionally-charged.