HAMLET (1996) - I'M NOT RAPPAPORT - MARVIN'S ROOM
FIERCE CREATURES - EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU

HAMLET (1996)

Actor/Director Kenneth Branaugh adapts his third Shakespearean play for the screen with "Hamlet." This sixth filmed version of the play is distinguished in that it was shot in epic wide-screen 70 mm, is the first full-text version of the play, and is set in the 19th century.

Branaugh plays the young Prince of Denmark who seeks revenge for the murder of his father by his uncle, who has subsequently wed Hamlet's widowed mother a scant 2 months after his father's death. Attempts to explain Hamlet's apparent descent into madness as his love for Ophelia go awry and set off a series of plots, recriminations and murder.

Laura LAURA:
I'm sure people who know this film runs 4 hours with a 10 minute intermission want to know if it's worth sitting through. The answer is a reverberating "Yes!" I found the 4 hours to fly by - I've seen many a 2-hour film that seemed far longer.

Kenneth Branaugh has a major talent for naturalizing Shakespearean text and manages to bring that ability out in his cast as well. That said, I found his "Hamlet" is a tiny bit less accessible that his first two adaptations ("Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing"), although this could very well be due to the density of the work and large cast of characters. It's great to find all the common catch-phrases that have become part of daily lie embedded in Shakespeare's text! ("I must be cruel only to be kind." "Sweets to the sweet." "The play's the thing." "Neither a borrower nor a lender be.") "Hamlet" has more 'lines' than "Casablanca."

This "Hamlet" is spectacular looking and is sure to be noted by the Academy for many technical awards. England's Blenheim Castle stands in for Elsinore and the interiors were shot on the largest set ever built in Britain, allowing for lots of dazzling camera movement. This is a vibrant looking, as opposed to the usual bleak, "Hamlet," right down to Branaugh's peroxide job.

With few exceptions, this is a terrifically chosen, if unusual, cast. Branaugh's mammoth undertaking in the director's chair may have hurt his performance slightly - while the movie bogs down when he's not on-screen, he does overplay a few scenes. Still, it's a fine, impassioned performance. Kate Winslet creates a very moving Ophelia. Richard Briers is a perfect Polonius. Derek Jacobi is a very political Claudius. Nicholas Farrell is a standout as Horatio. Julie Christie is an effective, if understated, Queen Gertrude. Michael Maloney's earnestness makes his Laertes a bit of a one-note character. Bill Crystal works surprisingly well as the Gravedigger. Charlton Heston adds a note of grandeur as an actor. Robin Williams throws a head-scratchingly eccentric performance into the mix.

One amusing aside I feel compelled to add. It occurred to me that maybe Branaugh has chosen "Hamlet" as a vehicle for an homage to "Star Wars" on its 20th anniversary. When Hamlet's murdered father appears to him, the costume and voice put me in mind of none other than Darth Vadar. When Hamlet fences with Laertes at the film's climax, their oddly designed fencing vests made me think of the starship troopers.

B+

ROBIN:
Kenneth Branagh has taken on one of the ultimate ambitions in filmmaking and darn near pulls it off, completely, in "Hamlet".

This is the longest of all of Shakespeare's many plays and is the kitchen sink of all of his works. "Hamlet" is an event of epic proportions with a story that involves incest, ghosts, regicide, murder, revenge, rebellion and invasion, among other things.

Like a modern epic novel, "Hamlet" has many story threads and many characters going in many directions, but nearly always with the focus on Hamlet.

Considering the magnitude of bringing this work, in its entirety, to the screen, kudos must be given to Kenneth Branagh. Branagh is a director with enough ambition and talent to be great. "Hamlet" is a major milestone in his career.

Branagh, as the downer Dane (he transcends melancholy), literally, holds the screen when he's on, to the point where, during an extended (about 30 minute) absence, the play starts to falter. Fortunately, when he returns to the screen for the climax, things pick back up, again.

Kate Winslet, as Ophelia, gives a dynamic performance, ranging her emotions from happy to inconsolable to insane effectively.

Julie Christie, as Queen Gertrude, gives a surprising, if understated, performance, too. She isn't allowed the emotional range that Winslet is given, but is convincing, nonetheless.

Other cast members, including Richard Briers as Polonious, Derek Jacobi as King Claudius, Nicholas Farrel as Hamlet's confidant, Horatio, and, in an effective turn, Billy Crystal, as the gravedigger, are top rate across the board. Charleton Heston makes an appearance as, of all things, an actor.

A minor casting complaint that I had heard, and concur with: Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, one of the three who first see the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father, is wrong for the role. He's too old for the character and his delivery is sub-par, especially considering the other performers involved.

"Hamlet" will likely go down in the annals of film history as the biggest, most complete adaptation of any of Shakespeare's works, and, through Branagh's force of will, one of the major films of this decade.

"Hamlet" is not a perfect film, but, for its length, breadth and depth, it is a spectacular event which is, surprisingly for me, not hard to take despite its 241 minute run time. It clocks in as, officially, the second longest American released film - two minutes shorter than Cleopatra.

I give "Hamlet" an A-, but an A+ for effort.


I'M NOT RAPPAPORT

In "I'm Not Rappaport", Walter Matthau plays 81-year-old Nat Moyer, an old Jewish radical with a compulsion for spouting fanciful tales and taking on false identities. Nat spends his days bench-sitting in Central Park with his newly acquired companion, Midge Carter, a black, half-blind, octogenarian apartment house superintendent.

Where Nat is unpredictable, Midge is realistic and down to earth - the perfect foil for Nat. Together, the duo take on a world of muggers, drug dealers, forced retirement and the loss of their independence.

ROBIN:
"I'm Not Rappaport" is an odd little film and a little difficult to review. As I say, this is a little film. Its a character study by two venerable actors conveying a simple tale of aging in urban America.

The bittersweet near-friendship that develops between Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis is a meandering story following the 80-something pair as they face Central Park thugs, shakedown artists, drug dealers and the physical ravages of old age.

Matthau, as Nat, is an old radical who still believes in the ideals of Communism, despite the fact that it no longer exists as an world influence. Nat still practices the philosophy of Karl Marx on a daily basis. He's whimsical and has no problem with speaking his mind or standing up for his and others' rights. My only problem with Matthau is that he may be a bit young for the role.

Ossie Davis is wonderful as the old night-shift superintendent of an apartment building. He's nearly blind and is so afraid of losing his job and home, he has hidden himself in the womb of his building, even foregoing raises to keep from being noticed. When Midge is finally confronted with the cruel reality of losing his job, Nat's misguided help also loses him his severance pay. Davis conveys all of the emotional range needed to flesh Midge out into a real person.

Aside from these two fine performances, there is little else of substance in this adaptation of the successful stageplay to warrant the film's main problem - at about 131 minutes, its just too damn long. There is not enough of a story to justify the length. This could have been much more entertaining film if the makers exercised some thrift in the editing room. The propensity for panoramic shots of the New York skyline and Central Park are very pretty, but contribute to making the film approach tedious. A run time of around 100 minutes would have been advisable.

Supporting cast, including Martha Plimpton and Craig T. Nelson, is unspectacular, adding little to the film or story.

I don't dislike "I'm Not Rappaport", but, besides the two main performances, I can't say I really like it, either. Matthau and Davis, do earn "I'm Not Rappaport" a B-.

Laura LAURA:
"I'm Not Rappaport" wouldn't be worth a second thought if not for two very nice turns by the senior Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis in the lead roles of Nat and Midge. Matthau, while obviously typecast, is perfect as the mischievous eccentric. Ossie Davis brings a bit more humanity to the story as an apartment building super who's trying to hide his dispensibility from the new cooperative committee.

The story is a bit twee - hasn't the adorably rascally codger become of bit of a stereotype?

The films also suffers by wearing its stage roots on its sleeve. The filmmakers had New York City (mainly Central Park) to work with, yet most of the action seems confined to a park bench. The series of appearances by a colonially-garbed violinist, a human and life-size doll dancing team and a sax player are also more of a stage than film device.

The four main supporting characters are divided into two groups. Amy Irving as Nat's well-meaning daughter and Boyd Gaines as the head of Midge's Coop committee play for the stage and come across as stilted. Craig T. Nelson as a pusher and Martha Plimpton as one of his former clients are a lot more natural and pleasing in their roles. Elina Lowensohn (of the Indie vampire flick "Nadja") adds a nice grace note as a Russian emigrant sweat shop striker in flashbacks.

The two hour and 10 minute run time is excessive for the material.

C+


MARVIN'S ROOM

Directed by Jerry Zaks and adapted for the screen from his play by Scott McPherson, "Marvin's Room" stars Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio as members of a family thrust back together after a 20 year estrangement.

Keaton's Bessie has been caring for her ailing father Marvin and wiggy Aunt Ruth for the past two decades when she finds out she has leukemia. She contacts her sister, Lee, to ask her, and her sons, for help as possible bone marrow donors.

DiCaprio, Lee's rebellious son Hank, manages to connect with his Aunt Bessie, revealing a whole new side of his nature to his mother as well as being the impetus for breaking down the barriers between the two sisters.

Laura LAURA:
"Marvin's Room" enjoys a truely brilliant ensemble cast with each individual providing top-notch acting while generously supporting their fellow actors. Diane Keaton redeems herself for her insipid work in "The First Wives' Club," Leonardo Dicaprio redeems himself for almost everything he's done since "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and Meryl Streep is dead on perfect as she usually is (I'm beginning to think that Streep's work has become neglected because her audience has just come to accept brilliant work from her as the norm - she's so good, she can't top herself).

Robert Deniro refreshingly plays against his usual psycho/lowlife type as Bess' Dr. Wally, who together with Dan Hedaya as Dr. Wally's brother Bob provided the broadest of the comic relief. Even Hal Scardino, who was so wooden as the star of "The Indian in the Cupboard," creates a believable and charming character as Hank's younger brother. It's an oddly quirky performance evoked with about 2 lines of dialog!

"Marvin's Room" gives us the opposite of what we got in "I'm Not Rappaport" - an adaptation of a stage play that belies its roots by opening up the action to include visits to the clinic, a road trip to Florida, a trip to Disneyland and even a drive along a beach that manages to avoid the smariness such scenes display when Shirley MacLaine's in them.

One aspect of movie making that I appreciate when its done well is the opening credit sequence, which too often is a boring helicopter shot of the terrain, but with effort can be a mini-work in its own right. "Marvin's Room" begins with a slow pan of bottle after bottle of Marvin's prescription drugs that dictate the structure of Bess' life.

I was expecting "Marvin's Room" to be a perfectly solid film, but was pleasantly surprised to have a much more favorable reaction. In the hands of a good director and fine cast, you can actually enjoy an intelligent film about the dreaded 'dysfunctional family.'

B+

ROBIN:
"Marvin's Room" is an unexpected treat. On the surface, it has the makings of a made-for-TV-disease-of-the-week movie, with the added dimension of dysfunctionality thrown in. Instead, director Jerry Zaks and writer Scott McPherson, adapting his own play, have coupled an exemplary cast with a multi-dimensional, multi-layered story that provides both angst and laughs, with the latter issued in measured doses given at uniformly correct, if sometimes irreverent, moments.

The three key players in this family drama, Bessie (Diane Keaton), younger sister, Lee (Meryl Streep), and her son, Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio), form a triangle of personalities. Lee and Hank are in conflict with each other and the world. Bessie is the catalyst whose honest warmth and devotion changes the other two profoundly.

Diane Keaton gives one of her most assured performances ever. Her Bessie is strong and sensitive, with a real love of life. You feel her regret, when she meets her nephews, of a missed past. She gives her all to gain a sweet, hard trust with Hank, culminating in a potentially cliched driving-the-car-on-beach scene. Here it works quite nicely, thank you.

Streep, once again, shows herself to be, possibly, the best American actress performing today. Her Lee is pretty, vain, hard and vulnerable, not knowing how to fix her life and family, but doing her best, good or bad. For Lee, its mostly bad.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives his best performance since "What's Eating Gilbert Grape". His track record between "Gilbert Grape" and "Marvin" is checkered, at best. DiCaprio's Hank is torn between his need for love and his fear of being refused. He strikes out with anti-social behavior in an effort to get attention to substitute for the attention he missed as a child. Its a strong performance and renews my hope for his future.

Hume Cronyn, as the incoherent Marvin, would have done himself a favor if he had been an off-stage character. Except for one scene where Lee, Hank, and little brother Charlie (Hal Scardino) first meet grandfather Marvin - its done almost like an alien encounter - Cronyn simply makes a lot of incoherent noises and not much else. I was embarrassed for him.

Coming on strong in a little side-bar role is Robert DeNiro as Bessie's physician, Dr. Wally. His comic delivery, with wonderful second-banana, Dan Hedaya, really helps to lighten the burden of the imminent fatality of Bessie's Leukemia. This is the most pleasant, funny work DeNiro has ever done.

Technically, "Marvin's Room" is straight-forward, if unremarkable.

Its an actor's/writer's movie, but, oh, what acting and writing

I give it a B+


FIERCE CREATURES

"Fierce Creatures" is the follow-up effort by the makers of the very successful 1988 film, "A Fish Called Wanda". Reuniting John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin, "Creatures" starts out at England's Marwood Zoo, which has just been acquired by a ruthless Rupert Murdock-style media mogul, who demands that the zoo earn a 20% profit or be shut down and turned into a Japanese golf course.

This is the catalyst for the trials and tribulations the zoo folk must go through as they join forces to save the zoo, the animals and their careers.

ROBIN:
Being a big fan of "A Fish Called Wanda", I had high hopes for "Fierce Creatures". It seems that the wacky premise about cuddly zoo creatures and hostile takeovers would, at least, provide enough entertainment to sustain an amiable 90 minutes.

"Fierce Creatures" starts off well enough with this premise - the dedicated zookeepers working their hearts out to save the zoo's inhabitants despite the machinations of international finance. This works quite well for the first third of the film. Using the friendly, little, cuddly zoo creatures - coatimundis, meerkats, lemurs, a baby ostrich and baby wallaby - to grab the viewers attention and affection while the intrepid keepers try to save the zoo, by pretending these cute little guys are killers, provides lots of laughs and amusing slapstick antics.

The film runs into problems when it gets away from cute animals and into the human factor. Once the "Wanda" stars start interacting, we get a literal rehash of the characters they portrayed nearly ten years ago. >From Cleese to Palin, they add nothing new to their characters. Kevin Kile does get to mug a bit more as the Rupert Murdock-clone half of his dual role as father/son.

I became a little concerned at the start of the film and I see that two directors (Robert Young and Fred Schepisi) are given credit. This rarely bodes well for a film and does not here. There is a disjointed feel to the second half of the film that may be the product of the separate directing influences.

All in all, "Fierce Creatures" is a mildly amusing (especially the first half) little comedy that doesn't have the firepower that "A Fish Called Wanda" had and, as such, pales in comparison.

I try to give it the benefit of the doubt, but I can't, more than marginally, recommend "Fierce Creatures". I give it a C+.

Laura LAURA:
"Fierce Creatures," the non-sequel that reunites the four leads of the hugely popular "A Fish Called Wanda," is a broader English sex farce without the inspired, free-wheeling wit that made "Wanda" such a delight. It still has its moments, but it's like eating a Dunkin donut after a piece of Viennese Sachertorte.

While their characters are ostensibly four completely different people (than in "Wanda"), the four principals are essentially playing the same characters. The almost wantonly sexy Jamie Lee Curtis is chased by Kevin Kline, but desires John Cleese. The bumbling and staid John Cleese looks like a playboy in a series of slapstick circumstances which are mistakenly interpreted by the other characters. The stupid but studly Kevin Kline lusts after Curtis while doing everything short of selling his own mother for financial gain. Michael Palin has a different kind of speech impediment - he talks so much no one else can get a word in edgewise.

Kline comes off best with his goofy and exuberant take on his dual father and son roles. Jamie Lee Curtis performance falls flattest, as the script doesn't make her motivations clear nor allow her to be as duplicitous a sex kitten as she was in the earlier film. John Cleese is fun waving his expansive limbs around, but is now a bit long in the tooth to be playing Curtis' love interest. Palin seems to be just along for the ride.

The script's the major problem here. It seems to string together a series of skits rather than to be building an actual plot. The film's title refers to Cleese's idea to make an English zoo profitable by only featuring dangerous animals, but after a few very inspired gags in the film's first third, that idea is dropped with no explanation as to whether the idea was succeeding or failing.

The animals add some zest to the affair (animals were also an important, if less concentrated on, element of "Wanda"), but when the focus is taken away from them, the movie sags and shows its weaknesses.

B-


EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU

For his 26th film, Woody Allen decided to make his first musical as a vehicle for a frothy tale of the love-lives of an extended Upper East Side family and his own music collection.

Non-singers Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Edward Norton, Julia Roberts, Tim Roth, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Gaby Hoffman and Woody himself warble such tunes as "My Baby Just Cares For Me," I'm Thru With Love," and "All My Life" in Woody's beloved Manhatten as well as such uncharted Allen territory as Paris and Venice.

Laura LAURA:
The first half of "Everyone Says I Love You" is Woody Allen in orbit! It ranks among the creme de la creme of what Allen has ever put on the screen. Unfortunately, the second half begins to droop, but is still enlivened by a great trick o' treater song and dance number. Then the film pulls up its bootstraps and delivers as its climax a glorious movie-magic ending sequence.

The cast had no idea they were being cast for a musical. Woody wanted his characters to sing in character rather than create the artificial 'Broadway showtune' feel that most movie musicals have. Only Drew Barrymore panicked over singing on screen and was consequently dubbed in her musical moments. Everyone else gamely sang their bits with wildly varying success. The concept still manages to work, even if not everyone has the natural singing ability of Alan Alda.

Edward Norton ("Primal Fear," "The People vs. Larry Flynt") shines the brightest as the joyously in love yuppie Holden, planning to wed Barrymore. His singing voice is strong and he makes his way through a dance number with aplomb. Trudie Klein is funny as the Bavarian housekeeper Frieda who informs Alda he's eating pasta without sauce because it's Bavarian pasta and only the weak Italians use sauce. Goldie Hawn is fine as Alda's wife and Woody's ex - she does amazing work in the technically difficult climatic dance on the banks of the Seine. Tim Roth is amusing, if a bit broad, as a crude parolee also smitten with Barrymore.

Woody Allen is his usual nebbishy self still managing to capture the attention of such beautiful co-stars as Hawn and Julia Roberts. His dialog sparkles, particularly in an early scene where he tries to figure out which time zone he can jet off to to more quickly be able to commit suicide.

The song and dance numbers (mostly featuring characters outside of the main action) are fantastical and feature some of the most unusual backgrounds ever used for such a purpose - a hospital, dispensing Halloween candy, and even a wake!

In "Everyone Says I Love You," the story may be Woody light, but the execution is that of a master filmmaker. I had a song in my head and a lift to my step departing the theater.

A-

ROBIN:
I could nitpick "Everyone Says I Love You" and complain about how Woody Allen can be a self-indulgent auteur who uses the medium of film to fulfill his sick fantasies of seducing a younger woman by invading her privacy, finding out her deepest secrets and desires, and using that information to stalk, then dupe, her just to satisfy his carnal desires.

OK, so I may be delving a bit too deep into Allens psyche, but, it's an aspect of the film that bothers me, though, enough to not show the same enthusiasm for "Everyone..." as other critics have.

Despite my complaint, "Everyone Says I Love You" is also a imaginative 90's musical comedy that is a throwback to the escapist hoofers of the 30's and 40's. Allen requires all the principle cast to do one or more musical numbers, including singing. (The exception is Drew Barrymore, who was dubbed. After hearing Julia Roberts sing, I can only think that Barrymore is REALLY bad.) This effort manages mixed results, with Roberts (and Allen) the worst, Alan Alda and Goldie Hawn the best, with Ed Norton giving the pluckiest effort at both song and dance.

The dance numbers are clever, fun and, sometimes, funky and are cleanly choreographed.

The relationships among the characters are also a throwback to those escapist films where everyone is rich and no one worries about money, just where they are going to have cocktails and dinner. Nice work, if you can get it.

Unfortunately, my opening nitpicks are real, so I do have mixed feelings about "Everyone Says I Love You" and give it a B.


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