In the first installment of DVD reviews in a couple of weeks, we cover a Shakespeare adaptation, a long distance romantic comedy, and a documentary about capital punishment. Time to play catch up:
Into the Abyss - This is the second Werner Herzog directed documentary I've seen this year, and while it was a perfectly respectable effort, it did not quite live up to his work in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It's not that this exploration into the death penalty was a documentary of poor quality, but it was a little more standard fare. It is organized pretty much entirely into interviews with death row inmate Michael Perry and the people involved with his case and his life, a tried and true, if a slightly uninspired format. Herzog himself conducts the interviews from off camera, and this became problematic for me as a viewer. His perfect English spoken with educated German accent was so at odds with the...um...let's be tactful and say...rural American accents and syntax employed by most of his interviewees. The effect was a bit like an alien had landed in Hazard County or James Lipton had ended up on the set of Hee-Haw. It was difficult not to feel as if the subjects were being condescended to, no matter how much the director was obviously trying not to.
Herzog lets us know early on that his stance is against the death penalty, and it sets you up to expect an activist sort of documentary, but it doesn't turn out that way. He actually ensures that no accusations of partisan reporting can be lobbed at him by choosing a thoroughly reprehensible convict as the center of his investigation. Looking into the terrifyingly sociopathic gaze of Michael Perry's eyes, I found myself questioning my own convictions that capital punishment is barbaric. Maybe that is the best thing about Into the Abyss: whichever side of the debate you would normally be on, you leave the film having taken a long hard look at your own opinions. 3 1/2 of 5*
Coriolanus - Choosing to take any Shakespearean work on as a film adaptation is a courageous choice. Taking on one of his lesser known works that doesn't have the same fan base built into it that, say, MacBeth or Romeo and Juliet does is even bolder. Working from an adaptation that sets the play in a more modern setting, but utilizing the original language is braver still. Then casting yourself in the lead? Fearless. Doing it all on your first directorial effort? Insanely ballsy. Ralph Fiennes did it all last year with class, style, and great success.
While I cannot say enough good things about Fiennes direction, I am left with mixed feelings about the screenplay by John Logan. While I applaud some of his choices enthusiastically (having newscasters handle most of the boring but vital bits of exposition on background televisions while the main actors react in the foreground was inspired), I am left feeling as if only the two main characters really got any chance to shine in this adaptation. In his defense, it is impossible to fit any work of The Bard into a two hour film without some major editing of the text. I also must admit to being less than perfectly familiar with the original play. Maybe there was not a lot of meat in there for the supporting cast. Still, nonexistent character arcs left me feeling that some of the talented actors involved (Jessica Chastain in particular) were underutilized.
Ralph Fiennes (as Corialanus) and Vanessa Redgrave (as his mother) were outstanding in the leading roles. They didn't overplay it, but also didn't underplay it, creating moments that were very dramatically Shakespearean in tone but still believable in the modern setting. All in all, I thought this was an excellent attempt to produce a highly challenging project that mostly worked well. 4 of 5*
Like Crazy - I have not seen any of the previous work of director Drake Doremus so I approached Like Crazy without any previous conceptions beyond the fact that it had played well at Sundance last year. I found it to be charming and highly watchable, but unlikely to inspire multiple viewings. In this film, the writer/director tells the story of two lovers who meet while one is in America (from England) on a student visa and the difficult long distance relationship they try to maintain once she has to go back home.
The two lead actors (Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones) do excellent work here. They have great chemistry when they should that is also appropriately muted when the characters feel disconnected. I think that the only reason I failed to connect more fully to them and their story was the time jumps that the script utilized to move the story along. I am all for playing with chronology for dramatic effect, but context clues are needed in this sort of format to help the careful viewer keep up. There were times in Like Crazy that I felt as if I spent too much time trying to figure out how far I had jumped in time to really key in to the emotional energy of the scene I was watching. Mostly though, it was a good effort by a young, developing film maker. 3 1/2 of 5*