Queasy Endings, Happy Endings in Shakespeare

As You Like It , 2019, an excellent musical version, free in the park by SF Shakespeare

Shakespeare is my jam, which is why I particularly like summer with its Shakespeare Festivals popping up in every district park and on every street corner. I also just finished a class, which knocked me on my ass, filled my head with iambic pentameter, and turned a lot of my bardic understanding upside down. Isn’t that just like a comedy?

There’s nothing like a good lusty Elizabethan comedy – boy falls in love with girl at first sight, girl dresses up as a man, twins get mistaken for each other, bears and donkeys gambol in the forests, and they all get married in the end. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s 38 plays had the comedy label slapped on them by the playwright’s buddies who helpfully subdivided his plays the early folios. We all learned about those divisions in school: comedies end in marriages and no (usually) deaths; tragedies center around a protagonist whose flaw causes mayhem and his own death; and histories were about the kings.

Yet comedies aren’t so easy to categorize. In fact, the last five chronologically are often recategorized by modern scholars as “romances” because they contained tragic elements. But, then, there are the three middle comedies, written before the romances, which have also been called “problem plays.” They are problematic indeed.

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Cleopatra & Godzilla: With or Without Backstory?

Most decidedly epic.

Cleopatra arrives in Rome, photo from 1963’s Cleopatra, 20th Century fox

I had the opportunity to watch both the 1963 Cleopatra and 2019 Godzilla, King of the Monsters this month and found myself loving them both. They share eerie parallels. Both are expensive movies, which also were wildly popular despite getting horrid reviews. Both reflect on the past and are engrossing films, even if you bring no prior knowledge to the viewing. But both really pay off if you know the history outside the story and let that backstory clothe your experience, almost like an extra dimension. Trashy pinnacles of cinema; perfect for summer watching.

History shows again and again
How nature points out the folly of men…

Blue Oyster cult

The 26th Most Expensive Movie Ever Made

By the time Cleopatra premiered in 1963, the film had overspent its $5 million budget by somewhere between $20 and $39 million. The lavish Roman epics that were popularized in the 1950s were driving up costs, but films like Ben Hur, which were costly and well-received, paved the way for Cleo. Variety puts the ultimate cost of the 1963 Fox epic at $44 million, so even before it came to the screen, it was rumored to be a disaster. Cleopatra was a huge box office success, the highest-grossing film of the year at $57 million, but was considered to have lost money. As you watch the scene where Cleopatra enters Rome on a giant barge, flanked by hundreds of costumed dancers, you can’t help but hear *ca-ching* with every painted golden trumpet.

Continue reading “Cleopatra & Godzilla: With or Without Backstory?”

Courage is a Muscle

What doesn’t kill us make us stronger

–old adage sung recently by Kelly Clarkson
Wrestling kids from movie Fighting with  my Family
Wrestling teenagers from Fighting with My Family, photo at Rolling Stone

There’s a temptation with sports movies to call them derivative, Rocky knock-offs, as if Rocky invented the concept of striving, training, working past obstacles, and succeeding. All good sports stories—and today’s blog is about two of them—reflect life, which is striving, working past obstacles, building courage, and succeeding. Then struggling again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The key element to well-made movies about athletics isn’t just about the success at the end, but about the development of character by the participants along the way. How they get there is really the story. Two films I recently watched, 2011’s Best Documentary Undefeated and the recently-released Fighting With My Family, both did an exceptional job of demonstrating how this works.

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The Metrics of Scrooge

pictures of "A Christmas Carol"
The many versions of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

What a favor I have done you, my gentle readers and Dickens lovers! I have taken it upon myself, in keeping with the situation, to evaluate the universe of versions of “A Christmas Carol.”

This was no easy task. There are four or five widely known versions of this holiday classic, but the off-versions, the non-Scrooge versions–the American, Scottish, musical, Rankin-Bass, Disney, Pixar, pop star, African-American, Canadian, mobster, Susan Lucci, British, and trailer trash versions have become plentiful, indeed!

Since the Seymour Hicks first non-silent ACC (“A Christmas Carol”) film debuted in 1935, another 43 film and television-based versions of Scrooge’s story have been produced, not counting several live once-on-TV teleplays done in the 1950s and also not including every single skit or sitcom-inspired takeoffs ever done.  (Ref. see Alex P. Keaton and French & Saunders).  My universe included anything recognized on IMDB (or Rotten Tomatoes) or on a Scrooge ten best list. Interestingly, at least five sites purported to have the complete list, but none did. Even Wikipedia under the heading “Adaptations of ‘A Christmas Carol’ only listed 25 of these 43 adaptations of “A Christmas Carol.”

Meanwhile, I have cracked my ol’ Excel Ninja knuckles and settled down to pivot table away to provide some Fascinating Analysis ™of these versions. Continue reading “The Metrics of Scrooge”

Bohemian Rhapsody Still Hard to Pin Down

Freddie Mercury is still an enigma. So is Queen. There’s a danger to pigeonholing the band as either hard metal or popular crowd pleaser, to using Freddie as a poster boy for the gay ’80s or Brian as an emblem for the big-haired glam rockers of the late ’70s. Queen was always hard to pin down.

Hey hey hey hey it was the D.N.A.
Hey hey hey hey that made me this way
–“Sheer Heart Attack” by Queen

Mercury/Malek comparison
Freddie Mercury and Rami Malek at Live Aid. Photo by 20th C. Fox at thenationalae.com.

In the new biopic of the band, “Bohemian Rhapsody,”  Rami Malek is terrific as Mercury, the spark of life and chaos that brings the lush guitar layers of the band’s musicianship to life. Gwilym Lee, Joe Mazzello, and Ben Hardy are lovely as Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor who create the sounds that now rank among the greatest rock songs–the greatest songs–of all time.

What Movie Were They Watching?

The critics have generally panned or dismissed the film. Rotten Tomatoes (a critical compilation) was barely 59% last week. Audience responses, in contrast, have been 94%. One of the greatest curiosities then, as we sat watching, tapping our feet, and singing along under our breath, was why?

The reality was perhaps more interesting, and more nuanced, but in any case the overall narrative architecture of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a Lego palace of clichés. A band strives to get to the top and tastes the sweet and sour sides of success. A misunderstood genius suffers for his art, alienates those who care for him most, and finds forgiveness and redemption. A lot of the story may be true, but none of it feels remotely authentic.–Review from A.O. Scott at The New York Times

A big part of the reason for the negativity is that the film fiddles with Queen and Mercury’s timeline, for dramatic effect. Mercury did not know he had AIDS in 1985 when they performed at Live Aid, the performance that a 2007 BBC poll ranked as the greatest rock performance of all time. One of Freddie’s sustained notes during his a cappella section became known as “The Note Heard Round the World.” Because that performance–in retrospect–looms large in the annals of rockdom and for the history of Queen itself, it would make sense to create it as a climax for their story. Hence, it’s the beginning and end of the movie, hence that glosses over the fact that Freddie lived another six years and that Queen continued to release albums during that time.

Ok, so be forewarned about that lack of historic “accuracy.” Continue reading “Bohemian Rhapsody Still Hard to Pin Down”