Monday, June 29, 2015

Question (+ Review) for the Week of Jun 28-Jul 5: Film Promo Both Bad and Good

What piece of film promotion did you find equally bad and good?
This entry, which will also double as a review, takes me way back to 1996. At the time, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were my favorite film couple, something they had earned with their work in Dead Again, as well as their cinematic adaptations of Shakespearean works. And it's really the last part that cemented their place with me.

I had been reading Shakespeare a lot at the time, and Branagh's movies were all excellent productions. My love of Much Ado About Nothing is already well-documented, and I can only state again that it's one of my favorite films ever. And Mr. B also directed an exceptional version of Henry V. Even aside from the romance between Kenneth and Emma, that picture made me want to rush out and see everything that Branagh had ever been involved in.

Then the news came that KB would be helming a new version of Hamlet. Although I won't give Shakespeare's most famous tragedy the same treatment I gave to Romeo and Juliet, I also can't tell you how eagerly I anticipated this latest iteration. Unlike Zeffirelli's 1990 adaptation, this one would cast British folks who had been in the Royal Shakespeare Company and it would feature the complete text.

For the limited engagement screening, I went to a posh theater off Central Park with my then-girlfriend. On entering, we were both given a film program - a Broadway-esque playbill for the film. It was two glossy sheets of paper, printed together to form four pages. Classy move!

I don't know how I kept it all this time, but I did scan the four images you're seeing today. In addition to some production notes, it listed the entire cast of characters side-by-side with pictures of the actors portraying them. And this was when I got a bad feeling about what I was about to watch.

As I looked at the talent assembled therein, I was struck by the fact that there were too many big names there. Sure, MAAN starred Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves, but Much Ado's cast was also smaller, and it was, after all, a comedy. This new version of the old tragedy, however, seemed bloated.

Among the second-tier parts, we had Brian Blessed as the Ghost, Gerard Depardieu as Polonius' servant Reynaldo, and Rufus Sewell as Fortinbras. In tier one, we had Kenneth as Hamlet, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Julie Christie as Gertrude, and Derek Jacobi hitting the "haha, 'irony'" button as King Claudius.

Yet it was the third tier that convinced me that something was truly rotten in this filmic production about the fictional version of the State of Denmark: Charlton Heston, John Gielgud, and Judi Dench are Hamlet's wandering actors, which must have been a rough life for three people of their respective ages in the 1600's. Billy Crystal is the Gravedigger, which felt like so many different shades of wrong until I saw that Robin Williams was playing Osric, the courtier who invites Hamlet to his fateful duel.

And then I saw that Jack f--king Lemmon would play the wall guard who first sees the Ghost of Hamlet's father. As much as I love Mr. Lemmon's work, and as fine an idea as it is to have him present the opening dilemma in almost any picture, this was when I was convinced that Branagh had gotten way too celeb-happy. Aside from the fact that the cast was already far too stacked, just answer me this question: why the hell would a castle have a 71 year-old man guarding the walls? At night, when good vision is preferred?

What I did not know at the time was that Kenneth Branagh's narcissism was in full swing. Zeffirelli may have bastardized the text, yes, and he did cast an American/Aussie actor who wasn't as gifted as Branagh... But that 1990 picture demonstrates a fine use of its cast. Branagh is, apparently, such a mirror-kisser that he puts himself front and center in every bloody scene. Here's some bad visual effects and some ludicrous framing, all in service of narcissism:

Or you could observe the touching graveside scene between Laertes, King Claudius, and Queen Gertrude. The frequent cuts to Hamlet's reaction suggest a lot about what the writer/director/star thinks the audience needs to see and where he probably thinks the real drama is:

And let's not forget Hamlet's big moment with the Gravedigger and Yorick's skull. You'll notice that a nighttime scene set in a graveyard looks best when you have this really, really tight focus on the lead actor's face:

Or not.

Let's be blunt: when Ophelia meets her fate, I expected its depiction as occurring just over Hamlet's shoulder - her tragic self sinking in the background while we get to stare at Ken's big, smug face.

It was Kenneth B's obsession with himself, his need to put his mug in virtually every moment of the picture that was the true hallmark of how misguided and ill-conceived this venture was. I'm surprised Branagh didn't keep a picture of himself in the lower-right corner of the screen for the film's duration. Even remembering it makes me wanna gag a little - if he'd wanted to stage a one-man Hamlet, he could've just done that; lesser thespians surely have done it, so that would've been fine. Instead, even the "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy is rendered before a freaking mirror:

If I had only seen the trailer, I would've had inkling of what I was in for. And I probably would've guessed that I wouldn't have liked the finished result, which I certainly did not.

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