Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Shakespeare on Screen: Romeo & Juliet (2013)

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for Romeo and Juliet

Part of the pleasure of watching a staging or film adaptation of Shakespeare's work is seeing how actors and directors interpret the characters and their dialogue through performance and setting. While Shakespeare's plays are rooted in a historical context- directors have updated the setting while retaining the language. And most of the time it works. That's part of Shakespeare's greatness. His words can be spoken in any setting- his works are universal and the emotions of his characters still relevant to us. All that matters when you're adapting Shakespeare is retaining the language. It can be cut down but the words still have to be the same.

This is the fundamental flaw of director Carlo Carlei's 2013 film version of Romeo & Juliet. The language has been changed in this adaptation, with new lines added and certain passages simplified. This problem lies not with the director however. It's an issue with the screenplay by Julian Fellowes, the Oscar winning screenwriter of Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001) and the creator of the TV series Downton Abbey. While I'm not up in arms about Fellowes' adaptation I don't think he did in his screenplay really adds anything or improves upon Shakespeare's text. In fact, it lessens the text and robs it of its poetry.

I can see changing Shakespeare's text if you were attempting to do a meta-critique/parody of Shakespeare but that's not what Fellowes or the film is doing. There's nothing clever or unique in how it approaches the language. It's essentially Fellowes attempting to "simplify" things for younger viewers or those not well versed in the Bard, while at the same time wanting to compete with Shakespeare, saying "I can sound like you and nobody will notice." While many probably didn't notice- I'm well read enough in Shakespeare that the changes and additions feel very jarring.

Another reason the text change is a bad decision is the classical approach director Carlei has taken to the material. This is not the hyper kinetic world of Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Romeo  Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the doomed lovers. If anything, this is closer to the spirit of Franco Zefferelli's 1968 version, which also took a classical, old school approach to the material. The classical setting, combined with these new lines, makes the  play feel like a neutered and twisted version of itself.

There are good things about the film however. I do love that Carlei- instead of placing the story in an modern setting- created an unabashedly old fashioned take on the story. Hailee Steinfeld, who received an Oscar nomination for her role in the Coen Brothers' 2010 remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit, has a lovely presence as Juliet- and she and Douglas Booth as Romeo have decent chemistry. Paul Giamatti gives an enjoyable performance as Friar Laurence and the look of the film is very beautiful (the cinematographer is David Tattersall). Unfortunately, Romeo & Juliet doesn't leave the viewer with much to dwell on or cherish. It's sadly on the lower rung of Shakespearean film adaptations.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Some Thoughts on My Mixed Feelings Towards Marc Webb and "The Amazing Spider-Man" Franchise

Just this past week it was announced that Marc Webb- the director of 2012's Spider-Man reboot The Amazing Spider-Man and this year's sequel The Amazing Spider-Man 2- had signed on to direct the third installment in this new series. This wasn't a huge surprise since this series is so obsessed with universe building- Sony definitely wants to keep on the same director for at least one more film to keep things consistent. But if you remember, Webb almost didn't return to direct The Amazing Spider-Man 2 due to his contract with Fox. For me, this announcement brought my conflicting feelings towards Webb being the director of this franchise-for now- to the surface. Unlike a lot of people I am not really on board on the Webb love train.

Now- to be completely clear- I don't have anything against Webb personally or professionally. I remember really enjoying his debut feature- 2009's (500) Days of Summer- and he deserves a hearty congratulations for breaking in to Hollywood in such a big way. The reasons I'm not in love with the idea of him directing Spider-Man films are somewhat paradoxical. For one, I don't exactly like the idea of a upcoming director wasting the first stage of his film career directing sequels- particularly when they're essentially films that aren't personal works but are films essentially made for Sony. I'd like to see him take on more interesting projects and forge his own path apart from Spider-Man. Of note is that Webb- aside from signing on to The Amazing Spider-Man 3- has also been linked to the project Cold Comfort, based on the book How to Catch a Russian Spy co-written by Ellis Henican. The project sounds interesting and it'd be nice if we could see a non-Spider-Man film from Webb before the third Amazing is released.

My other problem regarding Webb directing the Spider-Man franchise- and this is where things get contradictory- is I don't find Webb that exciting or interesting a director. This isn't to say he's a bad director- he did fine work on (500) Days and there were certain directorial touches in The Amazing Spider-Man I really liked- but overall I just wasn't blown away by his direction in that film. To be fair I don't think The Amazing Spider-Man was ever going to be a director's film. Due to the circumstances regarding its inception the film was always going to be mostly a studio controlled film. That- and the fact it was Webb's first Blockbuster. He likely wasn't confident enough to really bring forth a particular vision-nor would Sony let him.

I am glad, however, that Webb got another go at this universe. With superhero franchises the first film is more of a test run while the second film emerges as a stronger effort- think Bryan Singer's X-Men United and of course Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does look more promising- more colorful, more action-packed and we're past the origin story stuff. Moreover, people have suggested Webb has more control over this film than the previous installment. Ideally Webb will bring more of his own ideas in to the mix and the film will have a more confident feel. Still, while The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will likely be a good film I get the sense from watching the trailer that'll still feel like it came off a conveyor belt and be more of a  Hollywood product than a singular vision from a great artist.  

Maybe it's superhero fatigue or that I shouldn't be watching trailers. I just can't help but wonder what someone Alfonso Cuaron or Edgar Wright (who's directing Ant-Man with Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas for Marvel) would do with this franchise. When Cuaron came on board the Harry Potter franchise for the third film- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban- he made what is- in my eyes- the most imaginatively directed and re-watchable of all the Harry Potter films.

For the sake of transparency my mixed feelings towards Webb and these films have a lot to do with the backlash against the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man films. I'm okay with seeing someone else's take on the character and universe but the hatred towards those films has turned me off this new franchise to a large degree. Especially when it comes to Cinemablend critic Sean O'Connell being the walking definition of "conflict of interest" as he has become practically a "cheerleader" (his words) for this franchise and acts like The Amazing Spider-Man was completely his vision. I feel O'Connell's love for The Amazing Spider-Man has to do with certain things absent from the Raimi films being present in this new franchise- mechanical web shooters, Gwen Stacy as Peter Parker's first major romance and more sarcastic jokes from Spider-Man. But I don't think these elements being present in the film makes Webb a brilliant auteur. Nevertheless, Raimi is now seen as the man who butchered Spider-Man, the man who couldn't less about fans while Webb is a man of the people who can do no wrong.The film gave what certain fans wanted and now Webb is hailed as some sort of visionary.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could be a truly mind-blowing and great film. But it'd have to reach that level for me to get completely excited for a third Marc Webb-directed Spider-Man film. Webb is a solid director and may grow in to a great one in time. But first I think he needs to get out of the Sony/Spider-Man wheelhouse before he can truly bloom.