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The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings, Part 3)
The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings, Part 3)
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Edition: Paperback
151 used & new from $0.01

63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Gift for the Ages, May 8, 2006
"The Lord of the Rings" is so secure at the pinnacle of all fantasy that any review of it risks presumption. The measure of this work's greatness can be found in the thousands of lesser works it has inspired, some in imitation, most in homage--all pale reflections of the world, the wisdom, the wonder of Middle Earth.

Over the years, I have re-read this masterwork at least two dozen times. Yet it never ceases to delight me with new revelations. Over time, these revelations have evolved from discoveries about the book to reflections about myself. This is art in its highest form: it inspires, indeed, demands self-understanding.

In my younger days, I was drawn to the clash of armies, the glory of battle, the valour of Aragorn and Eowyn, the sacrifice of Theoden and Faramir. But as I have aged, it is the suffering of Frodo and Sam that most moves me. The deepest courage is not found in battle, but in the act of bearing the heaviest burdens alone, beyond help, beyond hope, beyond endurance, beyond even despair--"that which we are, we are; /One equal-temper of heroic hearts, /Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will /To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

This work is perfect in its completeness. It lacks nothing and is endowed with themes both timeless and universal.

Consider the role of pity. We contemplate this theme for the first time when Gandalf reflects that Bilbo spared Gollum's life for pity. Then consider Frodo's first meeting with Gollum: "now that I see him, I do pity him." Or Gandalf's rebuke of Denethor, "...for me, I pity even [Sauron's] slaves." Faramir's pity for Eowyn--"do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart"--lifts despair from her soul and permits her to live and to love again. And the pity between Frodo and Sam is the bond that endures at the last when even flesh and spirit crumble. Not least, Tolkien commands our pity: and we, in the act of offering it--to Frodo, to Sam, most especially to Smeagol--take the world of Middle Earth as our own.

Consider also that the little people do the bravest deeds and tread where the great dare not: the quest of the ring is undertaken not by Aragorn, nor even by Boromir, but by a timid hobbit from the Shire, whose quality is not in his pedigree or his strength of arms, but in his will and his strength of character. "If you do not find the way, no one will", Elrond tells Frodo, and, "This is the hour of the Shire-folk". Sad that since Tolkien wrote his majestic work, his erstwhile followers and imitators have fallen back on such tired cliches as swashbuckling heroes and impossibly clever heroines. The magnificence in Tolkien's creation is not to be found in the strong, but in the humble. It is about a gentle hobbit like Sam, who likes his beer and tends his garden and thinks simple thoughts, but who would stare down death while fighting orcs and trolls and giant spiders, not because he thinks himself noble or brave, but because he is far beyond the noble or the brave. Frodo and Sam are names for you and I.

Consider finally, the sacrifice: Gandalf's sacrifice in Moria, Boromir's sacrifice at Amon Hen, Theoden's sacrifice on the Pelennor fields, Aragorn's readiness to sacrifice himself times beyond count. But the theme of sacrifice is most profoundly embodied in Frodo. He willingly assumes a burden that endangers not only his life, but his soul. His ordeal through Mordor and his piteous struggle up the slopes of Orodruin successively leave him with no possibility of relief, of return or, towards the end, even of release. He has long left behind any hope for himself. He goes on because he alone is charged with undoing a great evil and must destroy it or die in the trying. Beyond the terrible burden of the ring, he bears the more terrible burden of his duty to all the peoples of Middle Earth. And at the last, when he saves Middle Earth, he does so for others, but not for himself.

In the end, "The Lord of the Rings" is not about highbrow thematic concepts, mythic saga or epic heroism. While it is all of these things, it is also something better and simpler: a story for you and for me, centred not on impossible superheroes, but on little people--"The Odyssey" reshaped for the common folk. The enduring power of this work is ultimately founded in its simplicity. In "The Lord of the Rings", Tolkien successfully reaches the heights that all great art attains: he captures the essence and purity of transcendent truths; yet brings them home to the simplest and most innocent of sensibilities--a timeless creation not just for us but ultimately of us.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 25, 2013 8:57 AM PDT

The Two Towers (The Lord of the Rings, Book 2)
The Two Towers (The Lord of the Rings, Book 2)
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Edition: Audio CD
Price: $49.99
26 used & new from $22.47

5.0 out of 5 stars Enlarging Our Spirits, May 8, 2006
Consider, if you will, an imposing book so flawed that it is filled with uber-heroes, beatific heroines, irredeemable villains, archaic diction, puffed up prose, overwrought melodrama, entire races consigned to evil, and motivations that are told rather than shown. I am thinking, of course, of... "War and Peace", or perhaps it is "Les Miserables". Then again, it may be "The Odyssey", or "The Merchant of Venice". Come to think of it, this is a pretty accurate description of the Bible.

As its detractors so tediously note, "The Lord of the Rings" has flaws. However, these critics get so absorbed in picking their nits they fail to notice that, like its fellow classics, this work's pre-eminence renders its flaws inconsequential. If one is intent on fault-finding, faults one will find. But one is thereby blinded to the greater glory.

"The Lord of the Rings" is indeed one of the most glorious of literary classics. It attains a majestic tone matched only by a handful of its peers: "Le Morte d'Arthur" perhaps, or "Paradise Lost", where the dimension is epic, and the settings, characters and themes pass into the collective consciousness as archetypes. Such archetypes are not formed by chance; they occur only when a creation taps into universal truths and the most essential elements of human nature.

Middle Earth, the One Ring, Hobbits and Wraiths, the quest not imposed but willingly undertaken, strength not of body but of will, courage not of battle but of endurance, the smallest in stature carrying the heaviest of burdens and doing the greatest of deeds: these images and themes have passed into the common culture. How we respond to these archetypes depends on the person we are.

"The Lord of the Rings" offends by turns: effete intellectuals because it is unashamedly mainstream, the attention challenged because it is lengthy, and jaded cynics because it wears its heart on its sleeve. If you hold membership in any of these clubs, then this book is not for you. Like the best classical literature, this work demands qualities in the reader that are sadly now out of fashion: things like tolerance for detail, a sense of history, a linguistic ear, a love of epic grandeur and an appreciation for literary convention. Most of all, it requires an innocence and an exuberance that runs counter to the existential nihilism of the day. There are no angst-ridden antiheroes in Tolkien, no moral malaise, no self-absorbed ghouls paralysed by the futility of existence. If you must have these things, then look to Michael Moorcock and his Elric sagas. What you find in "The Lord of the Rings" is Tolkien's rejection of such thinking.

Ultimately, Tolkien's creation is for the life affirming. It comes from a perspective where life has meaning--where even suffering and death have meaning--and the act of living is not an end in itself but is dedicated to a higher purpose. For those willing to embrace such virtues, "The Lord of the Rings" makes a sublime connection to our hearts through its grace, its compassion and its incomparable genius.

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, Part 1)
The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, Part 1)
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Edition: Paperback
87 used & new from $0.01

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beyond Fantasy; Beyond Fiction, May 8, 2006
"The Lord of the Rings" has never appealed to the literati. Your English professor would hate it. It is wordy, conventional, direct, stereotypical, repetitive, bombastic and overly descriptive. But with so many faults, why is it still so good? Because ultimately, these are faults only of style, not of substance. Judged by its substance, this book has few peers.

You must not approach this book lightly. Those who take up this work expecting the easy rewards of "Harry Potter" will quickly bog down in its philology, its faux history, its detours into song and verse, its cast of thousands, its sheer quantity of verbiage. "The Lord of the Rings" is not a book that is read; one must be prepared to soak in it and absorb it through one's pores. Tolkien has painstakingly created a world so vivid that it exists in a parallel universe of heightened reality. It is more vibrant and more vital than our own world, but this sense unfolds slowly through a meandering plot filled with flashbacks and disjointed narrative. The opening chapters that introduce us to Hobbits, to the Shire and to the back-story consume over seventy pages and constitute a small novella of content. Yet nothing much happens in this time: it is all about history and premonitions and plans. If this sort of sustained and protracted build-up bores you, then frankly, you should save yourself the bother of starting.

But if you have the determination to stick with it, the rewards are without equal. No other book in the past century so effectively addresses questions like "For what do I struggle", "For what do I live", "Why go on", and "Who am I"? Most writing struggles with simply asking such questions; "The Lord of the Rings" gifts us with the most inspiring of answers.

By now, the plot is so well known that it is unnecessary to describe it. However, it would be a mistake to think that the book is just an adventure story about hobbits who save Middle Earth, or just an epic saga about courage and sacrifice. It is essentially a spiritual quest in which heroes--especially little ones--affirm what we struggle for, what we live for, why we go on, and ultimately, who we are.

This work is so strongly identified with its genre that we tend to overlook its genius as pure literature. The themes that Tolkien evokes are the kind typical to the great books: life and death, good and evil, preservation and corruption, redemption and sacrifice. Not least we deal with pity and grace. We could be speaking of "Les Miserables". But in setting his creation to fantasy, Tolkien imbues it with a mythic aura that allows "The Lord of the Rings" to share in the conventions of fantasy while going beyond the genre's limitations. Few other works manage to surpass their genres, and none do so more skilfully.

I used to think that to read this book is to love it. Time and age have taught me that this is not so. This book requires a determination and a forbearance that does not come easily to the modern mind. We are now so addicted to instant gratification that we no longer savour expectation--nor are we prepared to toil for our rewards. But if you are one who can still appreciate the art of waiting and can see beyond the book's stylistic faults, "The Lord of the Rings" will inspire you with a transcendent experience unique in all of literature.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Penguin Classics)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Penguin Classics)
by James Joyce
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.35
238 used & new from $0.01

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Arrogant Genius, May 8, 2006
To understand Joyce, a reader must appreciate one overriding truth: James Joyce was a literary snob who wrote for fellow snobs. When one understands this, there is no disgrace in professing perplexity or even contempt for his works. Joyce wouldn't have cared: he would have returned smugness for perplexity and contempt for contempt. He was not a humble man, and his writing was as much an edifice to his own ego as it was an attempt to communicate anything important to his reader.

This is not to say that reading him is a worthless exercise. "Portrait" is a brilliant book. But it is also an insufferably elitist and arrogant one. This book takes bold risks, and stretches the landscape of literature the way Shakespeare did in his day, pushing into the undiscovered country with heedless abandon. But unlike Shakespeare, Joyce makes no effort to keep the groundlings happy. If you can keep up with him, fine; if you can't, too bad. Your loss, not his.

"Portrait" is a thinly veiled autobiography that uses a fictional alter ego to promote Joyce's literary philosophy and his larger artistic philosophy in general. This philosophy is derived from Nietzsche and the Romantics, and it posits the artistic impetus as a uniquely personal act. The artist has no obligation to make himself understood to the masses. He is not constrained by anything so crass as convention, literary or otherwise. He is the artistic Superman, defining his own rules, following his own path, creating his own literary world. His writing need only sustain himself, and if others derive any enjoyment or inspiration out of it, this a secondary benefit and not the primary purpose of the artistic impulse.

The trouble is that Joyce holds on to enough convention and self-discipline that he makes "Portrait" understandable, and by very virtue of doing so, contradicts his own thesis. "Portrait", though hard, is by no means unreadable--that would come later with "Ulysses" and especially "Finnegan's Wake"--but in this work, he obviously doesn't mean what he says. Had he done so, this work would have contradicted itself; spun off into irrelevant side channels; vary in form and style from chapter to chapter and even sentence to sentence (exactly what he does in "Ulysses"). In short, "Portrait" is great and engaging precisely because Joyce sets aside the worst of his artistic excesses. This work is still firmly grounded in reality and fences experimentation within the bounds of conventional understanding. Joyce is obviously still interested in communicating with us.

This is not a work for everybody. I found it fascinating, but this may be due to a masochistic disposition in me rather than anything inherently valuable in the book. I am torn in recommending it. Since I personally value clarity over obscurity no matter how ingenious the experiment may be, I found "Portrait" elitist, artificial and, yes, even mean-spirited. However, I did not find the obscurity so thick or so difficult that it prevented me from seeing the genius at work. And to see such genius at work is a rare and pungent experience.

Try it for yourself. If after the first two-dozen pages you don't like it, you should feel no obligation to finish it. Joyce wrote for snobs, and those who don't account themselves elitists have a justifiable claim against it. But if you persevere, you may just find that it makes up for its drawbacks with some truly remarkable revelations. Personally, I found it both ingenious and inspiring.

Million Dollar Baby (Two-Disc Widescreen Edition)
Million Dollar Baby (Two-Disc Widescreen Edition)
DVD ~ Hilary Swank
Offered by WeeBee CD's N Stuff
Price: $8.25
469 used & new from $0.01

8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ideologues Take Leave of Their Senses, May 8, 2006
It is morbidly fascinating to read the reviews condemning this great modern-era tragedy. For, of course, that is what this film is: a tragedy--recumbent with all of the classical hallmarks that distinguish the form--imperfect heroes who risk ruin because they cannot overcome their tragic flaws; fate leading to an enormity of suffering that exposes human frailty; sympathy earned, not through cheap sentiment, but through a painful reflection on our shared humanity.

The ideologues who condemn this film for promoting a specific view of life may as well condemn "Romeo and Juliet" for promoting teen suicide, or "Henry V" for promoting war. This film takes no stands. It only seeks to tell a tragic tale that invokes compassion for the broken souls at the centre of its misfortunes. It strives for the same goals to which all great tragedies aspire: it forces us to reflect on our own lives, to learn from the mistakes of others, to approach good fortune with humility and to accept misfortune with strength of purpose. This film meets these aspirations so well that it stands as one of the greatest works in cinema.

Clint Eastwood directs this story with a style so austere, so Spartan, that the film is stripped down to its purest fundamentals. This allows the essence of the film to not just shine through, but to scintillate. This is a man who truly understands that less is more. During his acting career, this led to some one-note performances. But now in his directing career, it leads to films of incredible power. By inviting us to fill the unspoken spaces with our own thoughts, we are forced to become participants in the story and not just observers.

The acting is sublime. Morgan Freeman is always a pleasure, but here, his bantering with Eastwood defies description. This isn't acting, but eavesdropping on two old soul mates whose friendship for each other fits like a pair of well-worn shoes. Eastwood turns his crusty and laconic mannerisms into one of the most effective character studies in recent memory. When he kneels in prayer and says: " use my repeating myself Lord--You know what it is that I want", this distils a lifetime of terrible choices and shattered hopes into a moment of poignant simplicity. But the real gem is Hilary Swank. If there is anywhere in cinema a better performance of white trash inexorably obsessed with rising above her meagre station in life, I haven't seen it.

This is not a boxing film. It is not a surrogate father/daughter film. It is not, even remotely, a message film. "Million Dollar Baby" is, first and foremost, an anthem to the human condition. All great tragedy is, and I daresay this film is on a par with O'Neill, Hugo and Shakespeare. Those who insist only on measuring it against morally soothing fluff like "Touched By An Angel" really need to get out of the house more often.

You won't like this film if you have an ideological axe to grind. It confronts us with excruciating choices. The choice that Frankie makes is not meant to expound a message. It's just the very imperfect choice of a very imperfect man. This may distress those who expect nothing more from art than effortless affirmations of their own comfortable prejudices, but it's a priceless gift to those who can deal with dilemmas and don't want their thinking done for them.

This is not just Eastwood's finest film, but one of the finest films of our generation.

Mystic River (Widescreen Edition)
Mystic River (Widescreen Edition)
DVD ~ Sean Penn
Offered by Viki's Little Shop
Price: $4.25
549 used & new from $0.01

17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterful Psychological Study, April 24, 2005
"Mystic River" aspires to transcend its genre so boldly that I found myself overwhelmed by its audacity. Those who expect a plot driven murder mystery or a crime story will be sorely disappointed. In this film, the plot recedes into insignificance. Like all great works of art, the heart and soul of this work is not its plot, but its characters and its themes. The result is one of the most powerful explorations of tragedy to come out of modern cinema.

Clint Eastwood has crafted a film of unique scope, examining multifaceted aspects of tragedy with a mix of depth and simplicity that, on the one hand, relentlessly examines themes of sin, guilt, victimization and vengeance, while on the other, combines directing and acting so clean and uncluttered that we are not so much audiences to a narrative as we are witnesses to broken lives.

This film cannot be approached lightly. It is unsparing in its intensity. Characters are trapped in the arc of tragedy as inevitably as in a Greek play, unrelieved by either redemption or reprieve. The darkness of the story does not result from some self-indulgent existential auteurism. Rather, it arises out of an uncompromising sense of authenticity. Eastwood takes this tragedy to its honest conclusion and does not give in to the Hollywood hankering for happy endings. This is an intelligent film for mature people who refuse to put up with cop-outs.

The acting is nothing short of inspiring. Sean Penn is unforgettable as a tormented Jimmy who claws his way out of evil through the love of his daughter, only to sink back deeper than ever in the aftermath of her murder. Tim Robbins, in a similarly pitch-perfect performance, is tormented by even crueller demons, and never finds any sort of relief, save for transient moments of grace with his son. Kevin Bacon gives a subtle and restrained performance as a cop who acts as our disjointed moral sense, never sure of guilt or innocence, counting on the law to separate good from evil, and silently praying that that will prove sufficient. The supporting women, from Laura Linney to Marcia Gay Harden turn in performances in every way equal to those of the lead male characters. Character flaws abound, suspicion builds to blind fury, events unfold and vengeance compounds into tragedy until we arrive at an ending nothing short of Shakespearean.

It's a shame that the typical film synopsis leaves the impression that this is another who-dunnit. This film is no more about story than "Hamlet" is just about some guy out to catch his father's murderer. In both cases, focusing on the plot is to entirely miss the point. This film is a modern work of art, sharing a deeper kinship to masterful psychological studies like "Heart of Darkness" or "Crime and Punishment" than to any crime story. What matters is not how characters act, but why they act. We are compelled not by the arc of the story but by the arc of tragedy. We sympathise not with the virtues of the characters, but with their tragic flaws.

Approach this film the way you would "Othello". Then prepare to be moved by a depth of insight rare to our superficial age.

Unforgiven (Snap Case)
Unforgiven (Snap Case)
DVD ~ Clint Eastwood
Offered by The Audio Visual Shop
Price: $5.98
155 used & new from $0.01

7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unforgettable, April 24, 2005
This review is from: Unforgiven (Snap Case) (DVD)
"Unforgiven" is no more a western than "Citizen Kane" is a biography. To reduce such complex films to such simple classifications would be to overlook everything important in them. "Unforgiven" is equal parts morality play, psychoanalysis, social critique and character study. But most of all, like "Citizen Kane", it is tragedy. It strives to show its central characters brought to ruin or death through tragic flaws: people doing horrible things not because they are evil, but because they cannot or will not overcome the worst of their natures. Eastwood's genius consists in his taking character flaws and turning them into moral flaws. This is the meaning of the title--what could easily have been called "Unredeemed" is transformed into "Unforgiven", because the rejection of redemption is unforgivable.

This extra insight is what makes the film great and allows it to transcend its genre. Prior to "Unforgiven", many westerns had already adopted the conventions of noire and showed anti-heroes unredeemed, riding off into the sunset, in no sense good men but generally none the worse for having killed others. In "Unforgiven", Eastwood shows us men who lose pieces of their souls every time they kill, and he doesn't shrink from applying this imperative to the anti-hero himself. Munny loses not only his old friend Ned, but the redemption that his wife had gifted him and that he had earned in turning his back on his past. This is the boldest statement that a man like Eastwood could make--as a director Eastwood figuratively disavows the characters that made him famous as an actor. This is no Man With No Name or Dirty Harry wreaking divine vengeance or cathartic retribution. This is a man who, in accepting his last bounty, kills unjustifiably, causes the death of a friend, and surrenders forever the right to forgive himself.

Eastwood would go on to make further films of incredible depth and stature. It is one of the most wonderful things to see a man, late in life, transformed from a one-note actor into a virtuoso director of subtle and almost infinite expression. "Unforgiven" is the first in a string of Eastwood triumphs, many of almost Shakespearean depth. But "Unforgiven" remains Eastwood's most well told story and richly deserves the boatload of awards that it harvested.

by James Joyce
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.12
291 used & new from $0.01

28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Good, The Bad & The Ugly of Modernism, March 30, 2005
This review is from: Ulysses (Paperback)
"Ulysses" is a deeply flawed work of genius that richly deserves both the bouquets and the brickbats that critics have hurled at it over the years. It is by turns a desperate struggle to free writing from the literary straightjacket of convention, and an unctuous exercise in literary hubris. It is one of the most definitive products of the modernist movement then in vogue and shares the inconsistency, contradiction and schizophrenia that plagues that movement, constituting a rejection of bourgeois conformity on the one hand while on the other yielding accessibility only to a literary elite.

"Ulysses" is many things: a literary experiment in variety and anti-style (different chapters are written in entirely different voices and forms); a rejection of Victorian conformity; a protest against method, structure and classicism; an attempt to transcend conscious boundaries; and not least, a gross and orgiastic display of literary exhibitionism.

There were few contemporary works that dared to take the modernist movement to such extremes. Faulkner wrote similar stream-of-consciousness works but ultimately anchored his writings to a foundation of literary convention that allowed ordinary readers to understand him. Joyce, while ostensibly writing ABOUT ordinary people, never wrote FOR them. He was the ultimate literary snob who, by this time, had grown so infatuated with obfuscation that he would follow up "Ulysses" with the utterly impenetrable "Finnegan's Wake".

There is something hypocritical about such an outlook: to extol the typical Irishman in writing that no typical Irishman could ever hope to understand; to reject not just established convention, but any appreciable sense of system at all; to push 'writing' entirely beyond the bounds of 'communication'.

What saves "Ulysses" is that, with this work at least, Joyce does not yet go entirely over to the dark side. He goes right to the edge, but only playfully puts one foot over. Despite its calculated obscurity, its see-how-brilliant-I-am experimentation, its auteur elitism, he doesn't quite abandon content for form. This would be the last work in which he holds on to reality, and his decision to anchor his work in at least SOME recognizable conventions allows us to see where he is trying to go.

This is a book that is far more important than it is either enjoyable or even readable. Its status as a "masterpiece" is problematic and misleading: since this honorific is earned if the work is judged by its incomparable technique and sheer audacity--but is undeserved if judged by its respect for the common man. This is a book written for literary highbrows--at times, one almost suspects that it was written solely for Joyce himself--and no one should feel obliged to wade through a morass of such literary contrivance. Those who do, however, can expect to glean many moments of brilliant revelation out of long stretches of teeth grinding frustration.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 19, 2012 2:42 PM PST

William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Two-Disc Special Edition)
William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Two-Disc Special Edition)
DVD ~ Kenneth Branagh
Price: $20.49
25 used & new from $14.71

233 of 244 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Baring Hamlet's Soul, October 11, 2004
There is a moment at the start of this film when Hamlet, until then holding himself rigidly erect through sheer force of will, seizes a moment of privacy and literally deflates with exhaustion and despair. In itself, this perfect gesture would mark Branagh's portrayal a masterful work. But what follows raises his performance to the sublime: He embarks on the "O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, /Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew..." soliloquy not with Burton's anger, Olivier's melancholy or Gibson's bitterness, but with an exhalation that embodies the emotion most genuine given the circumstances: overwhelming grief. This is a perfect note, and what follows shows an understanding of the play's mental and emotional landscape that puts other portrayals to shame.

I have seen many performances of Hamlet, but I have never seen one as perfectly pitched as this. Branagh's Hamlet is strong, resourceful, thoughtful and restrained. Branagh purposely rejects the psychological poses that other actors find so hard to resist. After all, Hamlet and Richard III are the two Shakespearean plays that afford actors the most range. It's hard playing the Dane on a leash when one can go wild with existential abandon and not only dodge the charge of overacting, but actually attribute such excess to the character. There are few meatier roles in the repertoire that simultaneously offer the actor such depth on the one hand and such leeway on the other.

For me, such moderation exemplifies Branagh's devotion to Shakespeare. It must have been tempting for a man of his talents to show off. But to forego such gestures, to offer in its stead restraint, is to put service before self.

For, of course, Hamlet is restrained. His very life depends on it. His whole course of action is based on it. His safety revolves around it. Hold off the will to strike, restrain the impulse for vengeance, apportion each action in only the most miserly measure. The walls have ears, conspiracies abound and death lurks around every corner. In such an environment, is it plausible that a man of Hamlet's intelligence would show his hand by indulging in excess? A restrained performance feels right because a restrained course of action is the only course possible for our hero.

This does not stop Hamlet from making bold gestures. But such gestures must always be made under cover, and here again, Branagh shows his creative mettle. The Player King scene provides a counterpoint. Branagh lets go here and shows his excitement when the occasion demands it. Likewise, his graveyard response to Ophelia's death: the cover of madness conflates with reality because Hamlet's act cannot be sustained forever. Branagh knows exactly when to allow the cracks to show.

Those used to earlier works may find Branagh's version overly long and laboured. Many directors have cut out scenes and soliloquies in a misguided attempt to "tighten up" the production. Branagh makes what I believe is the right decision: to leave them all in because every scene, every soliloquy adds texture and is indispensable to the whole.

The best Hamlet I have seen.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 19, 2010 6:09 PM PDT

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)
DVD ~ Annette Bening
Offered by WeeBee CD's N Stuff
Price: $9.25
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48 of 93 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Profound? Beautiful?? Honest??? Did we see the same movie???, October 11, 2004
This review is from: American Beauty (1999) (DVD)
What drives me nuts about this piece of snot--what gets my blood really boiling--is the way it deconstructs what are essentially Hollywood sins and then has the brazen gall to attribute them to suburbia. It's the Champagne set snickering at the yokels with slick condescension: "We also may lust after young flesh, pursue gross materialism and sell out to superficiality, but we are among the chosen elite and do it with so much more style that we are entitled to our vapidity."

I dare Hollywood to show me a better example of what it is that this flick purports to deplore than the behaviour of their own mewling overpaid oversexed self-worshipping stars. "Hypocrisy" doesn't cover it; the word "atrocity" comes close. Out-of-control mid-life crisis? Hollywood. Nubile young goddesses with trash mouths? Hollywood. Arrested adolescence? Hollywood. Manic materialism? Hollywood. Self-absorption? Hollywood. It beggars belief how many thinking people have been hoodwinked into going along with this perversion of reality.

This flick stands as a shining example of everything that is wrong with modern cinema. It is sanctimonious, stereotypical, pretentious, derivative, trivial, dishonest and phoney. Ohhh, let me count the ways:

Sanctimony--Annette Benning plays Carolyn Burnham, a grotesque parody of a domestic diva. She is a Stepford Wife run amok: so driven by appearances that she sells her soul to bourgeois hell. This flick wants to tell us that it is doing us a favour shoving its distorted mirror in our face. What a vile insult.

Stereotyping--A poor misunderstood dork has a father: who doesn't understand him; who is a sadist; who is a neo-nazi; who is a homophobe; who is a closet GAY sadistic neo-nazi homophobe; who is--gasp--a marine colonel. Why not also show him making blood sacrifices on a pentacle by the moonlight?

Pretension--"Beauty is not to be found in the perfect curves of a teenage goddess. Turn and look where you least expect to find it. See the plastic bag floating in the breeze?" In the context of a better movie, this might have amounted to something. Here, this film's tin-sentiment paper-thin superficiality just underscores the imagery's wretchedness.

Derivation--From "Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" to "Pleasantville" to "Edward Scissorhands", the supposed emotional bankruptcy of suburbia has been picked to complete and utter death. As targets go, it would be more challenging to hit the broadside of a barn.

Triviality--A man does not have the maturity to find the answers to the big questions in life by looking within himself. Instead, he blackmails his employer, lusts after a cheerleader, gets a McJob, gets high, gets a muscle car and gets dead. We are given to understand that this is terribly profound.

Dishonesty--The catering budget alone for this pestilent excretion exceeded what any suburbanite could hope to spend on a lifetime of redecorating, self-absorption and mid-life splurges. I wonder how much Kevin Spacey got paid. Hypocrisy, thy name is Hollywood.

Phoniness--Why do we need the fiction of an advertising man regressing to adolescence when we can see the real thing shining before us modeled by such luminaries as Jack Nicholson, Madonna and Cher? Muscle cars are, like, so passé. Travolta pacified his mid-life crisis with a private jet.

There are innumerable examples of good films that challenge us to re-examine our lives. But they do so with grace, with wisdom, and most of all, with humility--none of the smarmy, superior, condescending sanctimony that pervades this flick. Had this obscenity been set in Beverly Hills, with Kevin Spacey playing a director, Annette Benning an actress, Thora Birch their Hollywood brat, and Mena Suvari a rapacious starlet, it would have still stunk out the place. But it would have had the single grace of at least aiming for the right targets.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 30, 2012 3:53 PM PST

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