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Benedict Cumberbatch HamletFor nearly four acts, Benedict Cumberbatch, starring in the National Theatre Live broadcast around the world yesterday, is the best adjusted – and best – Hamlet I’ve seen. That the production falls flat in Act V is a disappointment, but does not take away from the many accomplishments of this fine staging.

Any performance of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” succeeds or fails primarily on the strengths of its lead actor and Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is very good indeed. He fully and convincingly engages with all of the character’s emotions: Hamlet’s grief, his sorrow, his anger, and especially Hamlet’s humor which is the lightest and most sparkling of all the readings of the Danish prince I’ve seen.

This is the result of the intriguing choice of making Cumberbatch’s Hamlet extremely well adjusted, considering his circumstances. Hamlet is typically played as having been unhinged by grief over his father’s death, his mother’s quick remarriage, Ophelia’s rejection of his love, and the disturbing appearance of his father’s ghost. (It can be argued that the text demands this reading.)

This leads Hamlet to contemplate suicide and to embrace a half-madness which serves both to disguise the threat a sane Hamlet poses to his uncle’s stolen crown and to disguise the insane parts of Hamlet from easy recognition.

In Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, his madness is all tactic to confuse Claudius. This makes Cumberbatch’s “antic disposition” particularly playful and makes his Hamlet particularly likeable because the whinging, self-importance, and condescension frequently seen in the Danish prince are muted. It does mean, however, that Hamlet’s contemplations of suicide come off as passing thoughts, rather quickly forgotten.

Cumberbatch isn’t the only good performer in this National Theatre Live production. Ciaran Hinds is very good as a false, awkward, and cowardly Claudius unequal to the tasks of playing either the public or the private role of king. Sian Brooke’s is moving as an Ophelia whose vulnerability is evidence from the beginning of the play, and whose descent into madness is credible and heart-breaking. Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude manages to yell at top voice and convince us of her passion in her confrontation with Hamlet.

This is more than I can say for the actors playing Laertes and Horatio both of whom rely on volume when emotional connection with their roles seems to desert them. (Are bellowing Horatios the new style? It’s not a good style.) Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are played for laughs and deliver. The Player King is meant to be a bad actor and succeeds competently.

Like most staging of most Shakespeare, the National Theatre Live production tries new things, some of which work and some of which don’t. The generally accepted version of Shakespeare’s “original” text has been edited more than usual, with many scenes moved around and lines traditionally spoken by one character often spoken by another. This emphasizes the elements of Hamlet the director seems to want to emphasize and works just fine until Act V (more on that in a minute). For many of Hamlet’s soliloquies, Cumberbatch steps out of the action of a scene and is isolated in a spotlight (very effective). There is at least one instance where the characters are running frantically around on stage while music pounds and strobe lights flash (this should be banned from the stage by statute). The duel scene is so rushed and hugger-mugger that it felt like Gertrude and Claudius were alive one moment and dead the next. When Hamlet is exiled to England, the stage is inexplicably filled with black dirt, a gimmick making pretense toward grand visual metaphor though exactly what the metaphor might be, who can tell?

Finally, there is the problem of the Cumberbatch Hamlet in Act V of the National Theatre production. Or rather the lack of problem. The foundation to Hamlet’s universal appeal is his struggle against a life whose pain and demands are more than he can bear, but whose alternative – death – is unappealing. Hamlet’s personal drama comes from his eventual philosophical acceptance of or passive resignation to this condition (take your pick), culminating in Hamlet’s conversation with Horatio that ends with the words, “Let be.”

Since Cumberbatch’s Hamlet bears up reasonably well under his pain and the task of avenging his father’s murder, he never gets to acceptance or resignation. He simply dies from the machinations of Claudius and Laertes, about as happy and unhappy as he ever was.

This does not detract from my forming conviction that Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is the best and most appealing I’ve seen on screen. Not to mention the sexiest. I hope the National Theatre makes this production of “Hamlet” available for streaming eventually. I’d like to see it again.

 

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Henry V may be the most cinematic of all Shakespeare’s plays. It stars a young underdog hero who wins the battle and gets the girl. It is a spectacular piece of theater, with nearly a dozen stand-out scenes, some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, and battles just begging to be filmed. Henry V has drama, action, comedy, romance, heartbreak, and a rich vein of ambiguity – all of which give actors and directors wide scope to shape their own versions of the play. Here’s how three of them did it, in order of personal preference.

Kenneth Branagh (1989)

henry v branaghBranagh’s Henry V is not only the best film version of the play by far – it is one of the finest film versions of any of Shakespeare play – because it flawlessly executes Branagh’s vision of the hard consequences of war.

Every element of the film reinforces this theme. Branagh’s screenplay presents many of the play’s darker elements: the English traitors, the hanging of Bardolph, the deaths in battle. The mood and production design are somber throughout: Branagh splashes mud all over Olivier’s bright Technicolor Henry V. Branagh assembles a remarkable cast of A list actors for all the major roles, who all bring their characters to specific human life. Branagh fully exploits the dramatic possibilities of each scene. And he delivers the knock-out punch with a four-minute tracking shot of King Harry carrying the body of a young boy killed by the French across the battlefield and through a tableau of almost every character in the play, living, wounded, or dead, while the non nobius is sung.

If you require nitpicking, there are traces of Branagh the insufferable ham within his very fine performance of Henry V. And Branagh doesn’t quite convince us Harry and his princes go only reluctantly to war. They prosecute their campaign against the French with too much vigor to make us believe that.

Laurence Olivier (1944)

henry v olivierLaurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V was a remarkable achievement, and greeted with great acclaim, when it first appeared during World War II. (The film was intended to raise the morale of wartime Britain.) The problems are that so much of Olivier’s version is out of step with modern taste, and so many of the scenes fail to make effective use of film as a medium, that contemporary viewers will see it as a half-success at best.

This Henry V still makes an impact, however. Olivier is excellent as an unambiguously heroic Henry V playing his role as public leader of the English army to perfection, most especially during the St. Crispin’s Day speech. He is very good showing us the private King Henry the night before Agincourt and the appealing young conqueror who wins the heart of his young French queen. Olivier’s charging knights and mounted sword fights still impress in an era of massive digital special effects. And the diction, presence, and physicality that made Olivier a star on the English stage are all on rich display.

Unfortunately, the phrase “stage star” sums up the difficulties with this Henry V. Much of the acting, including Olivier in many scenes, is the “presentational” style well suited to clearly communicating every word and gesture to the last row of a large theater but which on film comes across as loud, stiff, flat, and dull. Olivier’s clowns are worse. They play their lines for the broadest and most obvious comedy and the clowns include not just Falstaff’s retainers, but also most of the French nobility as well as the English clergy seeking to divert King Henry’s attention from their wealth by provoking a war with France. (The “Salic law” scene is hysterical, though.) All the comedy and the many actors playing “types” rather than individual men and women make this Henry V only rarely moving.

Finally, Olivier’s production design is a fascinating mess. He uses three distinct styles. Most of the scenes in England are played in a reproduction of the Globe Theater, with the actors and audience interacting with each other, and the acting suited to that situation. The sets of the interior scenes in France resemble famous illustrations from Les Tres Riches Heures and the acting is again stage style. Exterior scenes in France, all around the battle, are filmed outside or on realistic sets, and the acting humanizes the characters by taking advantage of the power of the movies to make the smallest gesture big. All this further reduces the emotional impact of the play. But it does prove the old axiom that an interesting failure is superior to a dull success.

Tom Hiddleston (2012)

shakespeare henry v hiddlestonTom Hiddleston is reasonably good as King Henry in the 2012 BBC production of Henry V (which is part of the “Hollow Crown” series), and many of the actors and scenes are persuasive. Overall, however, director Thea Sharrock has made a cock of her version of the play.

Sharrock doesn’t seem to have quite decided what she wants her Henry V to say or who she wants her King Henry to be. The film starts on promising notes. Sharrock opens with Henry V’s funeral (which The Chorus describes in the closing lines of the play) suggesting we are going to get an “all is vanity” approach. She reinforces this idea by giving us a King Henry who goes to war out of a sense of obligation to his own and his country’s honor.

But then she doesn’t follow through. Instead, much of this Henry V has the look and feel of Branagh’s. Sharrock underplays many of the scenes, most notably the St. Crispin’s Day speech, losing the drama without gaining new insight. And Sharrock muffs the Harfleur scene, where she has Hiddleston threatened the French citizens with genocide from within the walls of their own town if they don’t surrender . Didn’t anyone notice that the English army had already captured Harfleur?

This isn’t the only time Hiddleston’s King Henry shows irrational anger and a taste for violence. He also shows it when he orders the execution of the French prisoners at Agincourt. Then at other times, Hiddleston’s King seems deeply and sincerely pious. Then at other other times, we see flashes of the old charming rake Prince Harry from the Henry IV plays. The total effect of this is not a character who is complex and mercurial. The effect is that Hiddleston’s Henry V comes across as incoherent: a person who can be radically different from scene to scene, sometimes from moment to moment.

Big fans of Shakespeare, and of Tom Hiddleston, will not be unhappy with this version of Henry V. But for those who want to watch just one movie, Branagh’s is the version to choose.

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Flight Behavior Barbara KingsolverBarbara Kingsolver is such a good writer that she can make you forget — or forgive — some pretty substantial problems in a novel. This is a good thing because Flight Behavior has several although it is still a book well worth reading.

Flight Behavior has a number of shortcomings, but these do not include its language or characters, which are solid, complex, persuasive, and satisfying.

The novel’s central character is Dellarobia Turnbow who like many Kingsolver characters is a woman with an intelligence, spirit, and sex drive too large for her circumstances. In Dellarobia’s case, these circumstances are a small Appalachian town, an ill-matched husband acquired through a high-school pregnancy, a small confining house with two young children, and subsistence farming on the land of her resentful in-laws.

As Flight Behavior opens, Dellarobia is set to destroy (and so escape) her marriage through a particularly reckless and desperate act of adultery. When she climbs up the wooded hills of her husband’s family’s land to meet her lover, she discovers the entire Monarch butterfly population of North America, which has settled for the winter in rural Tennessee rather than deep in Mexico, because of climate change. The vision of the butterflies turns Dellarobia around, literally and figuratively, and send her life in new and remarkable directions.

There is a great deal in Flight Behavior to enjoy and admire. Each of Kingsolver’s characters walk on to the page fully formed, convincing, and distinct: from Dellarobia’s husband Cub, to her best friend Dovey, to her family and the people in her church, to Dr. Ovid Byron, the lepidopterist who appears to study why the Monarchs have so radically changed the migration patterns hard-wired into their DNA. Kingsolver makes it easy to understand and empathize with her characters even when they aren’t necessarily likable. Her conversations are a pleasure to read. And she makes the emotional arc of Dellarobia’s story moving and real.

The problems in Flight Behavior come from its plot construction, which is a bit of a mess, and its “big themes” which are didactically over-emphasized to the extent that readers might feel the need to take notes in case there is a test at the end.

The plot problems begin with Dellarobia’s reaction to the butterflies, which she feels is some species of religious revelation, which causes confusion in Dellarobia and controversy in her church.  This is a fine and intriguing idea, and fair enough. The problem is that the religion angle fizzles out before we are a third of the way through Flight Behavior with no more explanation than Dellarobia and everyone just seemed to forget about it.

Another plot line that fizzles is Dellarobia’s romantic obsession with Ovid Byron that goes on for a tantalizingly long time before we discover it is the shaggiest of shaggy dog tales. Then for good measure, when we are in the home stretch, Kingsolver drops on us one of those shocking personal secrets that typically form the “big surprise” of 19th-century novels, only to have all the characters involved immediate disappear for the rest of the book, the surprise unexplored and unresolved. In a novel that clearly demonstrates its commitment to conventional plot architectures, these qualities can only be seen as flaws.

The biggest of Flight Behavior‘s big themes is global warming, which is not only disrupting the life cycles of the Monarch species but seemingly the weather of Dellarobia’s home as well, making the precarious economics of the Turnbow and neighboring farms more precarious still. Kingsolver clearly believes the globe is warming and human activity is a cause (as does the consensus of the scientific community and me too, by the by) but she pursues this theme through long conversations between Dellarobia and Ovid, which weaken the novel while having no impact what-so-ever on public opinion. The novel is weaker because Kingsolver’s management of the exposition is ham-handed and her talking points way too obvious. As for public opinion, climate-change deniers are thin on the ground among readers of literary fiction to begin with, and the few members of that choir who might be in need of a sermon on global warming are not going to be moved. Few things are less persuasive than a lecture. Particularly when your audience is captive and you had promised them a story not a seminar.

Kingsolver also has a reasonable amount to say about the conflicting world views, mutual misunderstanding, and reciprocal lack of respect between the religious, conservative, working-class (at best) residents of rural Tennessee and the wealthy, well-educated liberals who descend on Dellarobia’s home to study the butterflies, agitate to protect them, or use the Monarchs as an occasion to indulge their self-righteous narcissism. Like with her handling of climate change, the problem with this theme is that it is too often explored through explicit, long expository comments from Dellarobia. There’s nothing wrong with big ideas in novels, but big ideas in novels work best when they are implicit and handled with subtlety.

The good news is that there is so much good stuff going on in Flight Behavior, and Kingsolver’s talent is so mature and sturdy, that your pleasure will be only mildly diminished by the novel’s problems. And you’re likely to be impress by how well the book succeeds in spite of them.

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the wolf of wall streetMartin Scorsese’ 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street (now on streaming) is not a morality tale. It is not a caustic satire. It is not even a black comedy. It is – simply – a Three-Stooges, gross-out, id-driven comedy. Full stop.

There are a whole bunch reasons why this is hard to see. The film is based on a real-life figure (the penny-stock impresario and fraudster, Jordan Belfort) whose crimes are emblematic of the Wall Street which brought ruin to middle-class American prosperity and much of the world economy. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio rather than Will Ferrell. It is directed by Mr. Scorsese who is rightly celebrated as a master of American cinema (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver). And it gives high-minded critics the rope of just enough material – largely the result in my eyes of the film editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s yeowoman’s work imposing some order on the magnificent, exhilarating, and exhausting chaos – to hang themselves.

This rope includes the moral queasiness we feel laughing at pain and cruelty – and ignoring victims – which straight-up comedies avoid by making themselves obviously straight-up comedies (in which we are laughing at “types” rather than “real” men and women). It also includes certain characters and situations which seem to have been imported from an entirely different movie: in particular, the FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) who pursues Belfort with an intensity, complexity, and ambiguity missing from the rest of the movie, but also the briefly presented dissolutions of Belfort’s two marriages. And it includes the possibility of seeing The Wolf of Wall Street as a meditation on three human themes – appetite, addiction, and selfishness – that resonant with all the Three-Stooges, appalling, and hysterical excess.

It is, however, only the appalling and hysterical excess that makes a durable impression in The Wolf of Wall Street. The celebrated scenes are all outrageous, horrifying comedy. Matthew McConaughey tutoring a wide-eyed DiCaprio on the essentials of Wall Street success: greed, client manipulation, cocaine, and masturbation. DiCaprio whipping up his traders into a berserker frenzy. All the glossy, sleazy, tawdry parties, the highest density of f-bombs ever recorded in cinema, and the massive drug consumption that makes Al Pacino’s Scarface look like a teetotaler. Most especially, the already famous extended scene in which DiCaprio and his business partner (Jonah Hill) consume way too-many Quaaludes and deliver a genius piece of physical comedy that is likely to become standard in film-school curriculums.

Perhaps you can wrestle legitimate meaning from all the exuberance of making in The Wolf of Wall Street, but that work has been entirely assigned to the audience it seems to me. “We made it. You figure it out,” is the final message. Which makes The Wolf of Wall Street a kind of Benny Hill Goodfellas, a far-better Scorsese film with which it shares the same basic story arc and a similar character as anti-hero. But instead of taking us deep into the life of Henry Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street serves up a bunch of running around, yucks, and tits.

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twelve years a slave mcquIs it possible for a movie to tell a truth its audience does not want to hear?

We know that movies can sell the pretty lies of propaganda more persuasively than other medium. In fact, you could say the definition of a movie is a “pretty lie”. But can a film tell an “ugly truth”?

12 Years a Slave, the newest winner of the Oscar for best picture, directed by Steven McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, is the rare film that allows us to answer “yes” to this question.

There are a lot of reasons films like 12 Years a Slave are so rare. The essential one, however, is the simple fact that you have to sell tickets to movies.

The average price of admission to a movie in America last year was $8.35 and if you were an adult attending a non-matinee showing, $12.00 to $15.00 was more like it.

In aggregate, people will lay down money to be entertained by a movie. They will especially slap down coin to participate in a filmed fantasy: sex, wealth, power, revenge or justice, adventure, romance, agency, freedom, lives lived with noble meaning and purpose.

Sometimes, they will pay to see the truths of their real lives expressed for them by a film. Even less often, but still sometimes, people will pay to watch a movie that tells an ugly truth about someone else.

But people do not want to pay for the experience of confronting an ugly truth about themselves. Because it damages their self-esteem.

There is a growing body of social science research (see this recent piece on the vaccines-cause-autism myth as an example) that finds when people are confronted with evidence that contradicts one of their dearly held beliefs, they end up clinging even more strongly to that belief.

That’s why so many “issue” movies are sanitized, prettified, heavy-hand pieces of didactic crap in which an exceptional, self-sacrificing hero from the victimizer class achieves some sort of redemption for the victimized class, often while a representative sample of the victims stand admiringly off to one side.

This is because it is nearly impossible to show an audience an ugly truth unless you give them a big, honking, obvious, unambiguous way of disassociating themselves from that ugly truth. Thus the self-sacrificing hero from the victimizer class and thus the speech (or speeches) in which said hero firmly articulates the principles we all eagerly embrace so we can feel like good people.

The remarkable, harrowing, painful, brilliant achievement of 12 Years a Slave is how little of this it does and consequentially how powerfully it succeeds as art and history and moral persuasion.

As you doubtlessly know by now, 12 Years a Slave, tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York state who is kidnapped into slavery. The film focuses on the brutal daily reality of Solomon’s life as an enslaved man: the what-should-be-impossible to endure physical, emotional, and psychological suffering that Solomon and the men, women, and children who are enslaved with him do endure until they die.

Director Steven McQueen keeps the focus on Solomon’s suffering and refuses to allow us to look away. We are immersed in Solomon’s experience, in a firestorm of words he cannot risk speaking, of emotions always felt but seldom expressed because their expression will bring him destruction, either from the hands of white slave-owners or his own enormous interior pain.

As Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor is simply astounding. The role requires Mr. Ejiofor to do everything and nothing. To feel and to show us that feeling and to show us Solomon hiding that feeling. To not speak and to show us the words he does not speak. To show us a life in which every minute of that life is anguish and exhaustion – sometimes gentle but usually unbearable.

There are many indelible scenes in 12 Years a Slave, but for me the most unforgettable is the one where a slave-owner named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinger) forces Solomon to whip Patsey, a young enslaved woman with whom Epps is malignantly, sexually obsessed. (Patsey is played by Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for the role.)

The whipping nearly breaks Solomon and is devastating to Patsey as well. Solomon’s reaction, the red mist of blood that rises from Patsey’s back each time the lash strikes, her uncontrollably weeping, and the deep furrowed wounds from the whip McQueen shows us, all should put to an end – for the last time – to the lie that slavery was a just “particular institution” or a “benevolent institution”; or the lie that abolition was a less worthy cause for liberty than the liberty of slave-states to determine within their borders who did and who did not deserve the right to the freedoms promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; or the lie that slavery was a mere minor blemish on the glorious, now persecuted culture and history of the American south specifically and America in general; or the lie that the suffering of enslaved men, women, and children has been overstated and oversold, and in any case, slavery is in the past and so it is far past time for people to shut up about it.

McQueen does a good job of not letting his audience off the hook in this movie – and by “his audience” I should be specific and say the audience not escaping the hook is “American white people” and fair enough – but there are two stumbles in Twelve Years a Slave.

The first is in the characters of the slave-owner Edwin Epps and his wife, who both shade far enough into psychotic villainy that McQueen could allow his audience to say that it was only a few crazy bad slave-owners who did crazy bad things to enslaved people.

A bigger problem is the abolitionist carpenter name Bass who helps Solomon regain his freedom. Bass is played by Brad Pitt and as the exceptional, self-sacrificing hero from the victimizer class who achieves a redemption of sorts for Solomon – and who while at it, also delivers a few neat little speeches that articulate the principles we all can eagerly embrace and so feel like good people – Pitt stands out like a big fat sore thumb.

I get the feeling this was not exactly McQueen’s choice. Pitt was one of the film’s ten producers, and of the ten, the only generally recognizable big Hollywood gun in the group. When the best picture Oscar was announced, Pitt was the first producer on stage, the first producer to take his Oscar, and the first producer to speak — though he spoke briefly and graciously, and mostly to introduce McQueen.

If the price of getting 12 Years a Slave in theaters was to give Pitt a few glamour moments, it was a price well worth paying. But the movie would have been better served if Pitt had switched roles with Paul Giamatti, the slave-trader who knows Solomon is a kidnapped freeman and sells him any way. Pitt’s glamour would have made a bracing contrast to his character’s actions, and Giamatti would have made the audience-hero-surrogate less pretty, less preachy, less courageous, less unconflicted. Less like the person we would like to be. More like the person most of us are.

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Thelma Louise and Emma Bovary

Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, and Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary

There is a great depressing theme in 19th-century literature of woman who – thwarted in their efforts to achieve independence and agency – turn to suicide.

Lily Bart in House of Mirth dies from an (accidental?) overdose of a sleeping drug. Edna Pontellier in The Awakening drowns herself. Anna Karenina throws herself under a train. And Emma Bovary poisons herself with arsenic. There is no place for the lives they desire in the worlds they live, and so death becomes the only liberty they can choose.

This theme jumped up and slapped me in the face recently when for the first time since 1991, I watched Thelma & Louise, starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, and directed by Ridley Scott.

The film concerns two women who plan a weekend getaway together. Thelma (played by Davis) wants to escape from her bullying lout of a husband and Louise (played by Sarandon) is looking for a break from her job as a diner waitress.  When a man Thelma meets at a bar tries to rape her in a parking lot, Louise shoots him dead and sets the movie in motion.

Thelma and Louise travel cross-country from their native Arkansas, simultaneously fleeing from the law following them in pursuit and toward a freedom that the film embodies in the American West. But society – or the machine of the plot – drives them to a choice between prison and death. Thelma and Louise choose death.

Thelma & Louise & Emma Bovary

There are a whole bunch of differences between Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Ridley Scott’s film (including artistic quality) but the characters and in particular the situation of the characters are similar, and it is with the similarities among the characters that I would like to start.

Geena Davis’ Thelma is a more obvious match for Emma Bovary than Sarandon’s Louise. Like Emma, Thelma is trapped in a marriage to an (at best) mildly successful buffoon in a provincial town that severely circumscribes her choices. Also like Emma Bovary, Thelma knows vaguely – and feels deeply – that something is wrong with her life, but isn’t able to articulate what the problem is and lacks the power to make effective changes. So Thelma, like Emma, falls into a transgressive form of rebellion for her time: highway banditry in contrast to Emma’s adultery.

Susan Sarandon’s Louise is a more subtle, and so to my lights, more moving character. She is in her middle-late thirties and seems to feel the possibilities of her life shrinking around her. Scott frequently films Sarandon staring in the mirror and pushing at her just-beginning to age face – often surrounded by younger women. She works in a diner. Her apartment is scrupulously neat and empty. We learn that she was a victim of rape in Texas years before. Her life is circumscribed it seems by age, and loneliness, and trauma. Louise shows hints of complexity in Scott’s often too simple world.

Thelma & Louise is Full of Ridiculous Male Stereotypes … Oh, Wait a Minute

It is a fool’s errand for a man to say a movie (or a book or anything) is or isn’t a feminist movie (or book or anything) – because he can never be right – so I’m not going to even try – but I will say that Thelma & Louise provides a great deal of rich material for people brave enough to wade into the discussion.

Part of the material is the panorama of male villains who seem over-the-top until you start thinking about them, and then they start to look pretty typical. So we have the insulting, demeaning, and emotionally abusive husband of Thelma.  We have the self-entitled rapist who thinks Thelma owes him sex because he wants it. We have the charismatic stud who knows how to tickle Thelma’s nether regions, then steals her money without a qualm (Brad Pitt). And we have the cool boyfriend – Louise’s in this case – who just isn’t quite ready to commit, but who is just nice enough to seriously mess with a woman’s head (Michael Madsen).

Another part of the material is Davis and Sarandon’s appropriation of typically male film tropes. You don’t have to look very hard to see Thelma & Louise as a remake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (even the titles echo) or, for that matter, dozens of other films about men. You have the deep but platonic friendship. The cheerful flouting of the law in pursuit of their own best desires. Sexual liberty. The possession and expert use of fire arms combined with a reluctance to commit actual acts of violence. The freedom of the vast American west.

The comparison breaks down when it comes to motivation. Newman and Redford choose their outlaw status from what seems to be pure joie de vivre. Thelma and Louise are driven to it by an act of (wholly justifiable in my mind) revenge. Louise shoots the man who assaults Thelma – but only after she has safely rescued Thelma from him.

If Thelma & Louise were a typical revenge film, and Louise were a man, the movie would have been devoted to the male Louise tracking down the rapist and brutally killing him in a world where police do not exist. But since Louise is a woman, and Thelma and Louise take the tools of men into their own hands, the police track them down and put half a battalion of firepower on their asses instead. Particular, ain’t it?

Thelma & Louise: Deeply Subversive or Crassly Exploitative?

What prevents Thelma & Louise from being a great movie – as opposed to the moderately good to pretty good film that we have – is Ridley Scott’s weakness for empty, pretty spectacle and his heavy-handedness.

There is a glossy glamour in his shots that screams out “Hollywood!” instead of serving the story. Many times, Thelma and Louise seem as driven by the film’s desire to deliver a popular action movie as they are by the circumstances of their lives and society. You would be hard pressed to call any of Scott’s characterizations subtle (except for some of the details in Sarandon’s performance previously noted) and there is no ambiguity.

The problems are nicely contained in a scene near the end of the film, in which Thelma and Louise confront a trucker who has been making crude comments at them throughout the movie. The man is crass, sexist, and deeply stupid. When he refuses to apologize, Thelma and Louse shoot his truck which erupts in an enormous fireball while the man yells “Bitches from hell!” It’s sorta satisfying and sorta fun, I admit. But it also feels cheap.

As does the ending, when Thelma and Louise drive their convertible over the edge of the Grand Canyon and the shot freezes in mid-air, the frame brightens to white, and we’re treated to a montage of happy Thelma and Louises from earlier in the film instead of the wreckage of blood, bone, and metal which is their real end.

There is a lot in Thelma & Louise that can leave you unsettled and unhappy if you look for it. But when Scott has to choose between selling unsettled and unhappy – or selling KA-BOOM! Wow! Ha ha ha! – well, he chooses the ka-boom.

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ralph fiennes coriolanusIn his 2011 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, director and star Ralph Fiennes delivers a first-rate movie from one of the Bard’s second-rate plays.

Coriolanus is Fiennes’ debut as a director and his adaptation of Shakespeare’s play is impressive. The story concerns a 5th century Roman general, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, who earns renown for his victories over Roman’s enemies, the Volsci.

Coriolanus is encouraged to run for consul, but his extraordinary pride and inflexibility alienates the common people, whose nominal support Coriolanus needs to win office. Coriolanus is branded a traitor and expelled from Roman instead, at which point he offers his services to the Volscian general he previously defeated and leads the Volscian army’s attack on Rome.

Fiennes places his Coriolanus in a modern, unidentified European country that feels like the former Yugoslavia in which much of the film was shot, and creates a compelling portrait of a militaristic nation with weak democratic institutions threatened by both internal and external strife.

Viewers are likely to recognize the influence of such filmmakers as Paul Greenglass and Kathryn Bigelow on Fiennes’ direction, but his mastery of their techniques is so complete and so visceral that I can give him nothing but credit for his success.

Fiennes gets strong performances from all his cast, including Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, and especially Vanessa Redgrave, who delivers a knock-out performance as Coriolanus’ she-wolf of a mother. For good measure, Fiennes gives a harrowing, malignant performance himself as Coriolanus.

My only quibbles with Coriolanus derive from the source play, not Fiennes’ work, and even these quibbles arise from Shakespeare falling short of his best work rather than some intrinsic flaw.

Shakespeare’s poetry in Coriolanus is quite strong and his plot construction better than usual. What’s lacking is the signature “inwardness” of his best characters (to use Harold Bloom’s apt word) and these characters’ ability to change.

Coriolanus never “overhears himself talking to himself” (Bloom again) and certainly does not change. That Coriolanus is utterly inflexible and lacks self-awareness are the drivers of his tragedy, and so perhaps necessary to the play. But this means the work does not quite achieve Shakespearean greatness.

Still, that leaves us with a play very good indeed, and one to which Fiennes in this film does full justice.

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