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harsil (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

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Hamlet (1969)
Hamlet (1969)
DVD ~ Anthony Hopkins
Offered by Fulfillment Express CA
Price: CDN$ 37.20
19 used & new from CDN$ 17.66

4.0 out of 5 stars Hamlet the Scot, April 9 2015
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This review is from: Hamlet (1969) (DVD)
I've read of the 1969 Tony Richardson film with Nicol Williamson and Marianne Faithfull that it’s some sort of admirable but failed experiment; but I saw very little experimentation, and even less failure, in this worthwhile production. It’s really quite good, and has some fine moments. It’s also been described as “low-budget”, but low-budget is usually a good thing in Shakespeare, as he was a pretty low-budget kind of guy himself. The more-or-less total absence of sets — there are some brick walls and I detected a few tunnels, but mostly, I didn’t think about sets, or much notice their absence — focuses one’s attention on the words and the characters and the psychology, and of course mirrors Shakespeare’s own bare stage pretty well; and it all comes off pretty successfully here, in my view. The film is shot in very tight, close spaces, and this emphasizes the all-important atmosphere of the play really quite well. It’s the anti-Branagh.

The cast is remarkably strong, even if the actor playing Hamlet was only a year or two younger than those playing his mother and Claudius (though he actually looks older than them, especially Claudius, and seems a bit old for the part). Once you get past that, though, he is very good in communicating the character, and the soliloquies are mostly well done.

Anthony Hopkins is excellent as Claudius, and does better than any of the other film Claudii in capturing both the character’s cynical-murderer side and his luxuriant-bon-vivant side, as well as his guilty conscience; Hopkins really is a fine actor.

Maybe I prejudged her, but Marianne Faithfull is surprisingly convincing as Ophelia, and also does better than her competition in capturing the character’s fragile-reed-pulled-apart-by-all-the-men quality. Her mad scenes are much tamer than theirs, but are no less effective for that. Hers may be the truest portrayal of the character on film.

The Ghost is interestingly done, just a bright light and a disembodied voice; in itself, it works well enough, but the sound effects that are added on top make it hard to notice the words, which anyway seem to be cut.

The Gertrude has a bit too strong a whiff of Morticia Addams about her to be wholly convincing to me, and is probably the weak link in the cast (not that she’s all that bad).

The big negative, as usual, is the cuts; the film’s running-time is just under two hours, and it feels a bit rushed toward the end. I actually felt that the whole last part of the film was a little weaker than the rest. The graveyard scene is a bit of a jumble, though this may have been intentional; Hamlet and Laertes do a pretty good job of throttling each other in the grave, and overall the scene gets pretty grotesque and macabre. The film closes with a close-up of Hamlet’s deceased head that is arguably the single most ridiculous shot I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Having Horatio and Hamlet played by a pair of shaggy red-headed fellows named Gordon Jackson and Nicol Williamson occasionally had me wondering if there wasn’t something rotten in the state of Scotland rather than that of Denmark; but overall this is a very worthwhile production, taut and dark and focused; as long as you’re OK with the cuts, you needn’t hesitate. No subtitles on my copy.

DVD ~ Laurence Olivier
Price: CDN$ 28.26
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4.0 out of 5 stars Solid, but standard, April 5 2015
This review is from: Hamlet (DVD)
Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film is very good, though it didn’t strike me as quite the masterpiece it’s often said to be. The acting is mostly strong and the lines are generally well delivered, and the way Olivier conveys Hamlet’s moods and sensibilities in a subtle and sensitive way throughout is probably the best thing about it. The general atmosphere and darkness are well captured.

But the film didn’t strike me as truly exceptional. This could be in part because I saw it shortly after watching the David Tennant film, which is so human and naturalistic; the Olivier doesn’t really compete. It also has some touches of the mid-century acting style that seem a little over the top today. William Walton’s overwrought score seems ill-suited to the play to me. The soliloquies are delivered unexceptionably but unexceptionally. Jean Simmons (as Ophelia) is a good actress, but she’s made to look and act like a fairy princess here, and when she cries, as she does quite often, she sounds uncannily like a baby.

Having said that, the Polonius is great, and I liked the Ghost as well, especially the way his voice is treated. The sword-fighting looked good to me, though the exchange of rapiers is inauthentic. Overall, a solid but standard production.

Hamlet (BBC)
Hamlet (BBC)
DVD ~ Various
Price: CDN$ 22.62
24 used & new from CDN$ 12.77

5.0 out of 5 stars Revelatory, April 4 2015
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This review is from: Hamlet (BBC) (DVD)
The 2010 Royal Shakespeare Company film with David Tennant is very good indeed, largely because of the contribution of Tennant. He’s prepared this role to a T, and most of the lines are brilliantly read and performed, especially the famous soliloquies; his delivery is extremely thoughtful and naturalistic. (It makes a sharp contrast to his Richard II, which felt a little phoned-in to me.) The overall feel of the production, with its grey-painted walls and subtle lighting, conveys the atmosphere of the play perfectly, and details like the ubiquitous security cameras add to the feel of constant spying and poison everywhere. Music is often used effectively.

The performance seemed to me to fall off somewhat in the second half, largely because of cuts — the Act IV soliloquy is butchered into meaninglessness, for example (though it can be argued that it's redundant anyway), and the episode on the ship to England is cut completely, which is astonishing — but also because of a certain slackening of the tension in the performances.

But overall, this is extremely worthwhile. If you only watch one performance, try to make it this one; it’s one of the most revelatory Shakespeare productions I’ve seen.

Hamlet (1990) by Warner Home Video
Hamlet (1990) by Warner Home Video
DVD ~ Franco Zeffirelli
Offered by JnP Store Canada
Price: CDN$ 30.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Another strong Zeffirelli entry, despite cuts, April 3 2015
Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 Hamlet makes for a pretty useful introductory run-through of the main themes and ideas of the play. At two-and-a-quarter hours compared to Kenneth Branagh’s four, it’s severely cut, but surprisingly (at least to me), Mel Gibson gets closer to the feel of the character (at least as I understand him) than Branagh does, even if he doesn’t necessarily act as well. (I might add that Zeffirelli seems to have a much better grasp of the material than Branagh does.) Gibson comes across as intelligent and sensitive, though he “emotes” a bit too obviously, spending too much time with a single bewildered look in his eyes. Overall, though, the lines are very well read, and the film feels vivid and vital; though as always, the Americans can’t really hold their own next to the British actors. Helena Bonham Carter at 20, as Ophelia, runs rings around Glenn Close at 43, as Gertrude, though she may be a bit too strong a personality for fragile Ophelia; and Gibson can’t really compare either. Bonham Carter arguably gives the best performance in the movie, though I think that — arguably — Kate Winslet, in Branagh’s film, is more convincing in the mad scenes.

The film is similar to Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet in many ways: it’s gorgeous to look at, without undermining the play, and the sets have a very authentic feel; it’s clearly structured and very judiciously cut; and the main themes and plots mostly survive the cutting. And since Zeffirelli doesn't have any underage girls to cast here, there are no serious casting concerns. Having said that, the cuts do make the film feel somewhat choppy; and though all the famous speeches are there, they feel a little crammed together in the shortened running time; at times it feels a little like a highlights reel.

Szco Supplies 242508 Leather Tri-Fold Wallet, Black
Szco Supplies 242508 Leather Tri-Fold Wallet, Black
Price: CDN$ 7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars These are really cheap!, Jan. 11 2015
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These are really cheap! The credit-card slots are too narrow and ill-made to actually take a credit card properly; and the black dye comes off all over your hands when you try to put one in. I imagine it will come off on your clothes as well.

4 used & new from CDN$ 20.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Complete, but flawed; and far from definitive, Dec 31 2014
This review is from: Hamlet (VHS Tape)
The chief virtue of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet is that it’s essentially complete, though this could be construed as a mixed blessing, given that Shakespeare is unlikely ever to have produced a complete production himself and that it may never have occurred to him that anyone would ever try to do so. Its key weakness, though, to my mind, is the other aspect of its ambition: Branagh has a tendency to focus on gorgeousness over interpretation (or faithfulness) in his Shakespeare films, and in this case, all the luxury and the focus on beauteous film-making distract both him and us from the substance of the play, and take the whole thing down several notches. The play, as written, has a heavy atmosphere of darkness and sickness and paranoia and claustrophobia, and this atmosphere is a key element of it; this film has too much glamour and glitz, too much space, and way, way too much light. It completely excises the flavouring that ought to overhang the play. (The film was shot at Blenheim Palace, which is, admittedly, gorgeous.)

I’m not sure that Branagh is all that strong an actor, either, and in this case his talent doesn’t match his ambition; though there’s nothing really wrong with his performance, there’s nothing particularly right about it either, and you never get the feeling that he’s really gotten to the heart of the character; he misses much of the nobility, as well as the existential angst; there’s nothing underlying his antic, and you lose sight of the method and the seriousness, the melancholy and the profundity of the character — and thus the point. Having said that, there are several good passages: he’s strong in the scene right after the play within the play, for example, if not so good during it.

Hamlet and his friends also seemed to me to be too old for their parts; they’re supposed to be university students (albeit oldish ones), and making Hamlet look older (not to mention Horatio, who looks like a prosperous accountant who should be at home with his very proper wife and his 2.7 lovely young children, not skulking around Elsinore with someone with issues like Hamlet’s) takes away from the whole philosophical-university-student-suffering-from-melancholy-and-idealism thing, which is a pretty important context of everything he says and does.

There are other misjudgements. The sex scenes between Ophelia and Hamlet seriously distort their relationship and her character, and they're simply gratuitous. The fight scene at the end starts off ridiculous, passes through ludicrous, and ends up just plain laughable (think balcony, rope, chandelier…). Fortinbras is made to take Denmark by force, which undermines the character’s role in the play, and seems to me to contradict the text explicitly. Music is frequently used poorly; it’s often sentimental and well beneath the tone of the play, and sometimes the mood of the music contradicts the spirit of the scene it’s in. Music is also sometimes used to add unnecessary emphasis to a scene, in keeping with Branagh’s tendency to point up key scenes too much; it doesn’t work, and just seems silly. The music in the Act 4 soliloquy struck me as ridiculous.

As for the other actors, Brian Blessed is absolutely fantastic in the role of the Ghost, once he starts talking in Act I (the film’s almost worth watching for those few minutes alone, though again, one might argue that it’s not quite the effect Shakespeare was going for); the initial appearances of the Ghost struck me as a little bizarre and incoherent, though. Derek Jacobi is fine as Claudius, though it doesn’t look like a very difficult role to me. Julie Christie could have been a little wispier as Gertrude. Kate Winslet is strong as Ophelia, though perhaps a bit too strong; the character could do with a little frailty. As usual, the Americans can’t quite hold up their end alongside the British actors. Billy Crystal seemed particularly weak to me as the Gravedigger; the fellow who plays his second fiddle would have been a better choice.

For all my carping, the film’s probably worth seeing — just — because of its completeness; but it’s certainly not a definitive performance, and I sometimes wonder how much Branagh really cares about Shakespeare; his Shakespeare films seem to be more about Branagh.

Romeo and Juliet (Special Edition) (1996)
Romeo and Juliet (Special Edition) (1996)
Price: CDN$ 6.99
3 used & new from CDN$ 6.97

2.0 out of 5 stars Amusing but odd, Dec 30 2014
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The 1996 Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes features L.A. drug gangs and lots of guns, and can’t really be taken seriously as Shakespeare; but it does have a certain lurid appeal. There are some good Shakespeare moments, too; but mostly it’s just odd. Neither lead is much of a Shakespearean.

Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet
Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet
DVD ~ Megan Porter-Follows
Offered by VideoWorks
Price: CDN$ 19.99
4 used & new from CDN$ 19.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Why was this released?, Dec 30 2014
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This review is from: Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet (DVD)
I can’t say that I was much taken with the 1993 Stratford Festival Romeo and Juliet with Megan Follows and Antoni Cimolino. It isn’t exactly bad, but I can’t think of a single reason to prefer it over the Globe, the Zeffirelli, or the Castellani.

The leads seem seriously mismatched: Follows comes across as way too serious and mature for the character (except, oddly enough, at the very beginning, where she seems appropriately youthful), older even than her own 25 years, let alone Juliet’s 13; while Cimolino plays Romeo as a goofy adolescent, too much so to be taken seriously as a romantic lead. His approach neither meshes with Follows’s Juliet, nor works in itself, in my view; and there’s really no chemistry between them, either. Neither reads the lines particularly well, and they seem to forget to fall in love before launching into the ball-scene sonnet.

Also, the costumes jump around between historical periods, which is jarring in itself; and some of the styles, notably a sort of 1920s look that starts off the play and that evolves to include Mussolini-style uniforms, just seem bizarre, and in contrast to the play.

Colm Feore, as Mercutio, is a lot livelier than he usually is, and is probably the strongest of the group; but he dies at the beginning of Act III. The Nurse stands out a bit as well. Most of the actors always seem to be acting, though, and they rarely read their lines with anything more than basic competence.

I’m not too sure why this was released on DVD.

Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet
DVD ~ Norma Shearer
Offered by M and N Media Canada
Price: CDN$ 58.39
7 used & new from CDN$ 37.85

2.0 out of 5 stars Get the Globe, the Zeffirelli, or the Castellani, Dec 30 2014
This review is from: Romeo and Juliet (DVD)
If your idea of the leads in a film about the passions of youth is a semi-catatonic 43-year-old man and a woman who’s pushing 30 but who thinks that behaving like a simpering twit the whole length of the movie (to predictable effect) will make her convincing as a 13-year-old girl, then the George Cukor Romeo and Juliet from 1936 is undoubtedly the film for you. If you’re still having trouble deciding, note that the first shot of Juliet has her wearing a fairy-princess dress and feeding her pet deer while holding a toy bow and arrow that she soon starts to wave around pointlessly.

Unfortunately, the acting doesn’t redeem these two. Although it’s sometimes fairly good (especially on the part of that 43-year-old man), it never really fully inhabits the characters or the play; it’s often strangely bloodless. Oddly, though, the Juliet does develop a genuinely child-like quality at exactly the point in the play when she’s supposed to start to grow up. They read their lines fairly well, but again, oddly dispassionately and academically; the ballroom sonnet is professionally done, but no more. They appear to be somewhat in love, but at the same time, they lack chemistry. The whole thing is more professional than animated. (Maybe it’s just me, but I never find that North American actors quite manage to pull Shakespeare off; they just don’t have the material in their bones the way the British actors do, and the language is often awkward for them.)

The other characters are a mixed bag. Tybalt and Capulet seem quite strong to me, though the Nurse is grating and irritating, even though she acts well at times, such as in the fake death scene. (The parents don’t get too worked up about that death, though; nor does Romeo for that matter, when he finds out about it.) Mercutio appears to be Irish, for some reason. He’s also 54 years old.

The best thing about the film is probably the fact that it benefits from the tendency in Hollywood in those days to lavish money on productions of this sort; some of the public and crowd scenes are rich and authentic-feeling, filled with extras and great costumes and having elaborate sets. The first scene of the film is great (despite that fact that it reassigns lines), and due emphasis is put on the main fight scene, which is well done. Unfortunately, this all seems be in lieu of the other aspects of the play, mainly the acting; it seems as though the producers thought that if they lavished money on the scenery, that would be enough. The fight scene at the mausoleum is too long, and is made too much of; it should be fairly brief. The last two acts are rushed, and much is lost as a result.

Overall, a deeply uninvolving production, though it might have played better eighty years ago than it does now.

Romeo & Juliet [Import]
Romeo & Juliet [Import]
Price: CDN$ 18.35
20 used & new from CDN$ 9.56

3.0 out of 5 stars Worth seeing for the leads and the sets, Dec 30 2014
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This review is from: Romeo & Juliet [Import] (DVD)
This film has by far the strongest Romeo and Juliet of the available films, though some may feel they have a little too much 1950s prissiness to them. That aside, though, they read the lines very well, particularly in the intertwined sonnet at the ball (truncated here) and the dialogue (heavily edited) in the so-called balcony scene (actually a window in the text); and they manage to generate something resembling genuine chemistry throughout. (They’re the only ones who do, in my view.)

The authentic settings are generally very attractive; they and the cinematography were expressly designed to recreate the look of a Renaissance painting, and the result is quite appealing.

The main weakness is the severe cutting; pretty much everything except the main plot-line is stripped out, and it wreaks havoc with the pacing and with the broader content of the play, which matters.

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