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REVIEW: Merchant of Venice

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Al Pacino and Shakespeare have at least one thing in common:
they’ve both been devalued by hacks. Shakespeare has been tarnished
by bad
productions and deliberate misinterpretation.
Pacino’s genius has been obscured by… well, Al Pacino. But both redeem
themselves
in Michael
Radford’s The Merchant of Venice.

   

Most Shakespeare movies fail. They either collapse under the weight of
egomaniacal director/stars like Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh, are too
stagy like Midsummer Night’s Dream with Kevin Kline, or get poorly
“modernized” like 2001’s O. Fascinated with the idea of doing Shakespeare
and intimidated by his language, directors forget that these are great
stories best served by being told well. It seems obvious, but apparently it
isn’t.
   Baz Luhrmann succeeded with Romeo + Juliet because his film was as energetic and passionate as the young lovers themselves. Radford’s Merchant of Venice is the first period Shakespeare film to work since Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. Like Zeffirelli, Radford meticulously recreates the world of the
play, in this case sixteenth-century Venice, and he keeps the focus on the human
story.
   Merchant, while ostensibly a comedy, is also a ruthless examination of
cultural conflict and how social forces shape character. Radford has created
his mise-en-scene so convincingly that in the climactic moment when Shylock
insists on receiving payment of his pound of flesh beyond all reason, we
understand the forces that have driven him to this end.

   

It is Pacino who, after a succession of forgettable recycled performances,
gets back to the business of acting and brings Shylock to life. Pacino is
often shackled by his iconic status and his seeming willingness to rest on
his laurels — it is hard to see the character behind the actor. But here he
actually portrays a character, not relying solely on flashy pyrotechnics and
stock expressions.

   

The human impact of cultural intolerance is a contemporary theme. A lesser
director might have tried to make this theme more obvious by dressing the
movie in contemporary clothes or recontextualizing it in a politically
expedient location. But Radford gives Shakespeare his due and sticks to the
story, succeeding where others have failed. — Andy Horwitz

REVIEW:
Phantom of the Opera

Batman director Joel Schumacher’s filmed version of The Phantom of the Opera is
a singular achievement: It is the only film to ever cause me physical
pain. I have been to rock concerts by hair-metal bands that were
subtler. Here, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s score, with its thudding ’80s drums
and its Emerson, Lake and Palmer keyboards, drove me into submission.
By the end of the overture, I had a headache. By the middle of
the film, I feared death.

    While Phantom‘s Harlequin-romance plot and overwrought score may work on stage, they don’t translate to film. Nor does the musical-theater emoting of Patrick Wilson. While Shumacher has tried to recreate Moulin Rouge-style magic with his sumptuous sets and imaginative costumes, the film ends up looking more like a commercial for the inevitable Phantom ride at Universal Studios Theme Park.

    Barely-legal ingénue Emmy Rossum is fetching as she flees from the Phantom wearing little more than a white lace peignoir and garter set from Frederick’s of Hollywood. But her dewy-eyed looks and lustrous voice can do little to flesh out a barely two-dimensional character. The actor playing her hunky boyfriend Raoul (she pronounces it “rowl”) wouldn’t look out of place in porn. As the diva Carlotta, Minnie Driver delivers the only true performance. She is vivacious and brilliantly funny, providing a much-needed dose of levity and animation to this ponderous and painful endeavor. — Andy Horwitz

REVIEW: A Love Song for Bobby Long
The latest testament to Scarlett Johansson’s nubility begins with a rather sinister premise: a sexy high-school dropout inherits one-third of her dead mother’s house, which she decides to share with her estranged mother’s old boyfriend and another (quite hot) male roommate.

   The two men, Bobby Long (John Travolta) and Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), live in filth and squalor amid empty liquor bottles and crusty yellow paperbacks. Long is a lecherous old coot, a disgraced former professor who doesn’t take much of a liking to young Purslane Hominy Will (Scarlett Johansson, everywhere this month). Lawson, who greets the teenager at the door in an unbuttoned shirt, likes her very much.

    Set outside New Orleans, the film is langorous
and moody, filled with sullen silences, twangy guitar music,
curling blue cigarette smoke and amber shafts of light filtered
through dirty windows. But the movie turns out to be much sweeter
than its initial foreboding, and pretty soon aged Travolta’s baby
blues are twinkling with fatherly affection for
Pursy, who quickly discovers a love of reading and home improvement.
Johansson’s deadpan serves her well here. Reveling yet again in the irresistable-younger-woman role, she exhibits the
toughness and vulnerability of a girl who barely knew her mother, and she and
Macht have great chemistry as they circle each other like prey. — Sara Eckel
REVIEW: In Good Company
When a potentially dark, involving story is done in a brisk, lightweight style, is it reason to rush out to the cinema? In Good Company is a well done but mild new film whose pleasures are compromised by the film’s timidity about themes Office Space and Clockwatchers nailed years ago: power dynamics in work and personal relationships.

   
Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) is a twenty-six-year-old corporate salesman, installed as the VP of ad sales at a sports magazine, demoting Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid), fifty-one. Hotshot Carter knows he’s on thin ice, and is humbled on the home front by his wife ending their short marriage (Selma Blair in a funny bit). Carter embarks on the road to raising ad sales, laying off several of Dan’s crew. Dan would love to tell Carter to go to hell, but he’s got multiple family expenses to consider. The broken-home-spawned Carter secretly looks up to Dan, and longs for his approval, and access to his warm hearth. And then there’s Alex (Scarlett Johansson), Dan’s sexy college-age daughter, who flirts with Carter and then retreats.

   
It’s a good idea — plausible, modern and juicy. But Paul Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie) seems averse to his characters’ dark sides here, and the film suffers from an excess of likability. Carter is so decent he only reluctantly gets into bed with Alex. Interestingly, the younger woman is the aggressor, the one with the ready music, lighting, and dorm-room moves. But even after that awkward beginning, there’s little heat between Johansson and Grace.

   
The conflicts come in typical Hollywood embarrassments instead of personal explorations: Carter has a fender-bender
in his brand-new Porsche, Dan pulls his back out on the basketball court. The story would have been much more involving had Carter
bragged to just one person about his tasty young piece; or if Dan had enjoyed
watching Carter flail in a team meeting; or if Alex had snacked on the perks
of dating a connected, young rich guy.

   
In the old days a movie would at least have had fun with the notion of two guys
jockeying for power and a young girl’s affections. Now it’s full of bits about
family devotion and doing right by the underlings on the staff. Grace is affable
in
the Tobey Maguire mold, if a bit more alert. Quaid and Johansson are a pleasure
to watch, but the movie settles for less than their best.
Daniel S. Housman
REVIEW: The Assassination of Richard Nixon
By
virtue of craft and camera attention, dynamic actors can take
a small character study and make it cinematic. Sean Penn is
clearly one of these elite. But, other than his master-class
technique, there’s not much for the viewer to latch onto in
this slight, sad study of a man sliding down the banisters
of sanity. The titular targeted killing, of course, never came
close to happening, though it’s chilling to consider the story
of Samuel Bicke, the lonely man who plotted to crash an airplane
into the White House in 1974. Penn’s ability to inhabit the
alienated main character is gripping —¬†as Bicke becomes
disillusioned with his life as a low-level salesman, he focuses
his rage on President Richard Nixon, the embodiment of mendacity
and the unfair status quo — but the movie wastes the
top-notch talents of Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle, as Bicke’s
ex-wife and only friend.

   
Haunted by past failures, Bicke quits his job and waits for a loan he has jeopardized by his behavior. He dictates long taped messages to Leonard Bernstein, a figure of integrity he has fixated on for his beautiful music and apparent freedom.

   
In one clever scene, Bicke’s blustery boss tries to teach him a lesson in salesmanship, using the ubiquitous President as an example of the highest form of wheeler-dealership. Another sadly funny interchange involves Bicke’s visit to the Black Panther party headquarters, a failed attempt to reach out to an activist by suggesting the party reconsider their symbol. The zebra, suggests Bicke, in all earnestness, will signal a more inclusive approach and double their membership. Watching Bicke try and fail to connect is affecting, but the movie hits the same note repeatedly. Like Bicke’s plot, it never gets off the ground.
Daniel S. Housman
Date
DVD #13:
Garden State
I
have good friends who say the oddball romance Garden State makes
their skin crawl. Too cute. He’s trying too hard. But
I wonder if they’d say this if the debut writer-filmmaker-star were
some unknown film-school grad, and not Zach Braff, who plays
that
goofball on the hospital sit-com Scrubs. Because I was
sold about ten minutes in.

   
Braff, playing a suburban Jersey boy turned Hollywood actor,
returns home to visit his family after the suicide of his mother — and
ends up falling for Natalie Portman. But in the beginning, our
man is slowly coming off the antidepressants that have bogged
him down his whole life, standing in this futuristic bathroom
at the airport, all clean blue light and crisp surfaces — like
something Kubrick or the W Hotel might have dreamed up.

   

Braff, wearing sloppy stubble on his slack-jaw, just stares in the mirror, blank
as his surroundings. He washes up at the last sink in a long line of identical
sinks, and as he walks out, the high-tech faucets’ motion-detectors sense his
movement. One little spurt of water after another erupts as he makes his way
out of the
white light.

   

To me, this scene was as thrilling as the
classic waterspout in The Producers: The moment after Gene Wilder says “I
want my life to be like the movies” and a massive geyser erupts out of
a little fountain in midtown Manhattan. I adore the way Braff obsesses on details
like
water faucets and goes for the big visual gimmick in such a low-budget wonder.
I love the way his ugly shirt matches the ugly wallpaper of his home, the way
Peter Sarsgaard, cast perfectly, actually seems to ham it up a little for maybe
the first time in his career.

   

The romance between Braff and Natalie Portman is fine, but Braff’s romanticism
consumes every corner of this obsessive little film (and it’s amazing how many
slapdash first films aren’t obsessive
in this way). Yes, the film is overambitious and precious at moments, but I have
a feeling it’s also a great litmus test for a first-date. I bet people who don’t
buy into its unabashed romanticism are generally callous and black-hearted (like
my cynical friends). And that people who do who buy into Braff’s strange love
story at least stand a slightly better chance of buying into yours.Logan
Hill



 
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