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As You Like It (2006)
Branagh imaginatively revitalises another Shakespeare play
Kenneth Branagh seems to get a fair bit of stick in some places, and I'm never quite sure why. Whether it's because he picks unfashionable projects to direct or star in, or because he comes across as a theatrical English "luvvy", I don't know. But for me, his lonely (almost solitary) championing of modern big screen Shakespeare adaptations has always been cause for celebration. Time and again he has sought to make the bard's literature not only appealing and comprehensible to the audience of today, but also relevant - to show that Shakespeare has always got something to say about society and people. If nothing else, English teachers worldwide must be relieved there are alternatives to showing kids the more archaic Olivier golden oldies.
His latest adaptation, As You Like It, is no exception. For those unfamiliar with the play, it's basically a romantic comedy, with a bit of political drama thrown in for good measure. Here the action is relocated from Middle Ages France to 19th century Japan (stay with me), when the country was being opened up to the West. A small group of Western settlers have more or less set up their own private kingdom here. You can find a detailed plot synopsis elsewhere on the web I'm certain, but I'll try and summarise it anyway: Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the daughter of Duke Senior (Brian Blessed, with long white hair), who is usurped by his own treacherous brother, Duke Frederick (Blessed again, with dark hair this time, doing the usurping in a neat wordless sequence). Senior is exiled to the forest with his followers, while Rosalind is forced to remain and keep Frederick's daughter Celia (Romola Garai) company. Frederick becomes paranoid though, and banishes Rosalind as well shortly afterwards. Celia, best friends with Rosalind, decides to accompany her; naturally, both are forced to disguise themselves, which causes complications when the one Rosalind loves, Orlando (David Oyelowo), declares his undying love for her.
Bright, breezy and instantly accessible, Branagh has come up trumps. Staying behind the camera this time out, the cast is led by Bryce Dallas Howard, in a performance that will surely (if there is any justice in the world) attract awards attention. The part of Rosalind is one of the most popular and sought after female roles in all of Shakespeare. She is sweet and kind, but not simpering - she's quite decisive too. She is the dynamic behind the play's actions, and Howard seizes the role with everything she's got. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent too - the legend that is Brian Blessed is always great value, and he does well here in his dual role, particularly the evil Frederick. David Oyelowo is also excellent, while Alfred Molina is very funny in the comic relief role of Touchstone, the court fool. Look out too for Patrick Doyle, the film composer who provides the score here but also performs on screen in the singing role of Amiens.
Obviously the unique spin on this adaptation is the setting. The play is mostly set in the forest of Arden, so nature is a prominent theme throughout. Branagh highlights this by moving the action to pre-20th century Japan, where beauty and peace can be readily found in nature. The film is gorgeous to look at, not only in the forest settings, but also in the 'court' during the first act's coup d'etat - the sets and costumes look brilliant.
I won't try and argue that this is going to be the best film of 2007, because I'm sure that would be nonsense. The film has faults, although some of these might be attributed to the source material (with which I'm not familiar) - one or two characters seem to disappear halfway through, while Duke Frederick's fate is a cop-out even by Shakespeare's standards. But the important thing is that Branagh has made the play very easy to follow, very humorous and also given it a contemporary edge, as well as making an entertaining film in its own right. And for that, he surely deserves a cheer at least.
I urge anyone to seek the film out, whether you're interested in Shakespeare or not, because it is simply great fun. Here's hoping Mr Branagh continues to get his films funded and made.
An intriguing, thought-provoking science-fiction series
Forget the moanings and groanings of Trekkers who do nothing else but whinge about this latest installment of the Star Trek saga. If you actually take the time to watch this show, you might be pleasantly surprised to find a good old-fashioned sci-fi series that wonders what exploring the 'final frontier' for the first time might actually be like. Besides filling in the history of Starfleet and the Federation for Star Trek fans, the stories have often presented credible problems and difficulties that could be faced in trying to make first contact with alien species, and attempts to illustrate just what human society might bring to an intergalactic community, both good and bad. It is not afraid to show that the learning curve might be quite steep at times.
These serious elements are complemented with a small but healthy dose of humour, and a nice side dish of action to help things slip down all the more easily. But one of the biggest pluses this show has is the cast and characters.
This is without doubt the best crew of a Star Trek vessel since The Next Generation. Scott Bakula leads the way as Captain Archer, basically one-half Kirk and one-half Picard; the energy and headstrong do-it-yourself attitude of the former, tempered with the wisdom and cerebral approach of the latter. T'Pol (Jolene Blalock) the science officer brings a bit of sex appeal to proceedings, as well as the typical Vulcan view of mankind's efforts to explore the stars. Connor Trinneer as Chief Engineer Tucker is fantastic; a great character, as memorable in every way as Scotty was aboard the original NCC-1701. Supporting cast are also excellent; John Billingsley as Dr. Phlox deserves special mention.
Perhaps this commendable series doesn't have the action quotient that some fans would prefer. It suffers from a terrible, terrible theme over the opening credits, and it may well be buckling under the enormous weight of baggage that now comes with Star Trek's previous four series and ten movies: so much continuity and so many expectations to satisfy. And there has been the odd dull episode. But the good far outweighs the bad. I would say this is the best sci-fi series on TV at the moment, giving us classic science-fiction 'What if?' scenarios, played out by a memorable cast with great SFX and action complimenting, not overpowering, the stories. Recommended.
Vanity Fair (1998)
Thackeray would have been proud
Rarely has a classic work of literature been adapted for television so well. This is a marvellous retelling of William Thackeray's 19th century novel, successful in almost every possible way. Purists may quibble that any attempt to adapt this sprawling bane of literature students' lives will always be doomed to failure simply because of the sheer size of it. But what makes this so good, particularly for those familiar with the novel, are two things: its total commitment to the spirit of 'Vanity Fair', and joyously perfect casting and acting.
As readers of VF will know, the narrator plays a very important part in the book. His sly comments on the 'puppets' (as he often refers to the characters) that perform in his 'play' are frequently funny, exciting and always engaging. If VF is indeed 'a novel without a hero', it is no less engrossing for it. For the story is literally a Fair: characters come and go as the narrator sees fit while we the audience look on with amusement. We start with both Becky Sharp (the main character but not the traditional heroine as Thackeray's contemporary audience would have expected) and Amelia Sedley, and we follow their fortunes and interaction with other characters over some twenty or thirty years. Characters come, characters go; some die, some are born. But nearly always the narrator is there to invite us to feel something towards them: sympathy, repulsion, anger, love. And though he is notable by his absence in the book's most powerful scenes, he will return shortly to talk about something else that another character is getting up to. This is where this adaptation nails the spirit of VF so precisely; it never forgets that these characters are puppets in a play, performing for our entertainment. Traditional bandstand music plays over scenes to reinforce this impression. The comedy elements make us laugh (Jos Sedley and his enormous, well-fed behind trying to mount a horse or carriage), the battle scenes are visceral, the dramatic scenes are engrossing. And the sly comments of the narrator are subtly retained in bizarre camera shots: the fat pig snuffling outside Queen's Crawley, or the beggar playing 'Rule Britannia' with his little bells as the soldiers march off to fight the Battle of Waterloo.
But this would have been for nought if the casting had not been spot on. Natasha Little IS Becky Sharp. Beautiful, alluring, charming, witty, cunning, deceptive and manipulative, she is every man's dream on the outside (I fell in love with her, and I can see all she is getting up to!). One look from her eyes is all that is required to get her climbing the social ladder, which ultimately is all that she wants. Frances Grey is also perfect as Amelia; not as beautiful as Becky, but still pleasant, sweet and kind-hearted, and forever doting on George Osborne. Tom Ward as Osborne was not what I was expecting, yet he got it right: a dashing English officer, strikingly handsome, and not totally devoid of morals, but very easily succumbs to his vanity and pride. Philip Glenister as the only genuinely heroic character in the book (though still not without faults), Dobbin, again is not how I pictured the character, but again nails it perfectly: slightly clumsy, socially awkward, but clear thinking, level-headed and always ready to do the right thing. The rest of the cast play their respective grotesques with equal perfection and relish - to single out each and every one is impossible, though all deserve it.
As a lover of this book, I congratulate all on a job well done. I cannot comment on how someone who has not read VF will like this series, but I can understand that they may be a little bewildered by it all: the occasional dizzy camerawork and loud brass band music. So long as you understand that we are the audience of a colourful, vibrant fair populated by a rich assortment of people, all with faults, all with redeeming features (however materialistic they might be), then I think you should derive great pleasure from it, because more than anything, this is great fun.
Mission to Mars (2000)
Good try, but not too successful
This film got a lot of stick when it came out, and perhaps rightly so. However, being a fan of cinematic sci-fi, I felt I ought to at least say a few things about this film in its defence.
Let's start with the easy things first. Visually, this film is very watchable. The space scenes are directed by DePalma with his usual style and technical excellence, and he brings lot of tension to the piece. The scenes on Mars itself are also very good; the martian landscapes were beautiful yet chilling, something we haven't seen for a quite a while. 1979's Alien is the best in this area, but M2M gives it a good shot. I hope he isn't deterred from trying his hand at sci-fi again. Special effects are, needless to say, also of high quality, except in one scene perhaps.
The acting is also good, particularly from Sinise. He is an underused leading man, who can bring weight to many a thankless roles.
Which brings me on to the bad points. The music is at times effective, at other times downright annoying. But otherwise I would lay the blame for the flaws in this film solely at the door of the script. The cliches spouted out here are at times mind-numbingly awful, and you can't believe the actors managed to say them without laughing or cursing. The build-up to the climax of the film is gradual, and done pretty well, but the pay-off really doesn't work in the way it would wish, and reports of laughter from cinema audiences are unsurprising.
To remedy this (and admittedly this is drastic), I suggest you see it by yourself. Not a good sign for a film, I know, but if you enjoy a good sci-fi adventure, then you could certainly do a lot worse than to see this. There is a fair bit to like in M2M, and I just wanted people to know this.
Love's Labour's Lost (2000)
Charming throwback to 1930s musicals
Thanks heaven for Kenneth Branagh; without him, cinema would be far less interesting and rewarding. His adaptations of Shakespeare will undoubtedly be his lasting contribution to the history of film, and this is no exception.
Having never read the play, I was quite pleased that Love's Labour's Lost was as easy to follow as it was. This has a fair amount in common with Branagh's earlier Much Ado About Nothing; mainly the highs, lows and plain ridiculousness of love. That film also featured Hollywood star casting (Keanu Reeves among others), but like that film, does not suffer from it. Indeed, it only seems to boost the feel-good nature of this film, as the actors joyfully get their collective teeth stuck into some of Shakespeare's wonderful dialogue.
What really makes this a must-see though is how the text is broken up into easily digestible chunks, interspersed with classic musical numbers from the 1930s. I wasn't prepared for how much of a joy it was to see some wonderfully romantic songs (sung pretty well actually) being put to some great dance numbers - Adrian Lester in particular was good. If, like me, you're too young to feel particularly nostalgic towards a time and genre of film that has long since gone, then I urge you to watch this and learn. And if you are old enough to yearn for those days, then do yourself a favour and go see!