1990s, Drama

Titus (1999)

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Director/Screenwriter: Julie Taymor

By Roderick Heath

Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus is one of his earliest works and, as its reputation well confirms, a shaky effort by a great talent. The training wheels were still squeaking badly: the characterisations lack the rock-steady motivation and complexity of his great works, the dialogue is fine but rather more drab and to the point than old Bill at full poetic flight, and the plot has some gaping foolishness. The young poet, taking refuge on the stage after his sonneteering patronage dried up, stacked on stage gimmicks, grotesquery, and madly proliferating plots and ideas in a fashion that borders on what we’d now call black comedy. It was also the biggest success of his career and helped give birth to Jacobean drama. The play also contains interesting sketches for almost all of his later works of note, from Richard III to Othello to Coriolanus.

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To this day, the gothic excesses–a doe-like daughter raped as a precursor to having her tongue and hands cut away, two sons slaughtered and fed to their mother in pastries, a supervillain who stabs a nurse in the stomach whilst gleefully mocking her cries as the squeals of a pig–exceed even the warped imagination of the average torture-horror director. Julie Taymor, who since her debut with this film has made the excellent Frida (2002) and the popular Across the Universe (2007), came to movie-making with all the freakish pomp of a theatre monarch advancing to conquer a new world. If Frida worked because the artist-subject’s oeuvre provided a ready-made template for Taymor’s visual compositions and narrative discursions, Titus is an excruciating disaster in large part because she takes the play’s weaknesses as an excuse to indulge her own shapeless conceptualism.

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The resulting film resembles a performing arts school project run amok, as Taymor’s approach is a mish-mash of other people’s approaches: Richard Loncraine’s 1930s flourishes in Richard III (1995); Peter Greenaway-esque animated visual inserts and avant-gardish wankerdom; the hyper-stylised modernist chic of Peter Brook seen in the Roman legions; Wellesian employment of architecture; Baz Luhrmann-derived Oz-punk loudness in the portrayals of villains Chiron (Jonathan Rhys-Meyer) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys); and sprawling decadence by way of Tinto Brass and an 1980s Park Avenue coke orgy.

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The story is, at least, still generally coherent. Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns to Rome from a victorious war against the Goths with Tamora (Jessica Lange) and her three sons, Alarbus (Raz Degan), Chiron, and Demetrius, as captives. Titus has lost 21 sons in the war, so he lets the survivors, Lucius (Angus Macfadyen, sporting excessive pomade), Quintus (Kenny Doughty), Mutius (Blake Ritson), and Martius (Colin Wells), sacrifice Alarbus.

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The reigning emperor has just died, so his sons Saturninus (Alan Cumming) and Bassianus (James Frain) compete for election. As a mark of respect, proposed by Titus’ brother Marcus (Colm Feore), Titus is also offered a chance at the throne by the Senate, but he puts his backing behind Saturninus as the proper heir and throws his daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser) into the bargain. But Lavinia’s in love with Bassianus, and her brothers help her run off with him in defiance of daddy. Titus, in a rage, stabs Mutius when he tries to hold Titus from pursuit. Saturninus, stung by his rejection, marries the wily Tamora and acquiesces to her plans for ruthless revenge on the Andronicii. This soon comes to pass as they have Martius and Quintus set up for Bassianus’ murder by Tamora’s Moorish henchman and lover Aaron (embodied with high style by Harry Lennix), and Lavinia left terribly mutilated by Chiron and Demetrius. After some down time to think and dither until the fifth act rolls around, Titus plans his own revenge.

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Taymor begins with a clodhopping point–a boy playing with his action figures is transported into the midst of a tale that analyses the true, self-replicating, morally corrosive nature of honour crimes. She then proceeds to suck from the film any real moral resonance, however, with relentless cartoonishness. Lavinia’s hideous fate is presented with a blackly witty idea–her rapists strand her atop a tree stump where she releases bloody, silent screams with tied twigs where her hands were, as a dark twist on the line “made her body bare of thy two branches,” uttered by Marcus when he finds her. But the CGI effects are clumsy, and the sequence has no impact because it’s robbed of all corporeal quality–it’s just another fancy visual effect. A later scene, in which Tamora and sons try to provoke Titus to madness by pretending to be incarnations of Revenge and consorts Rapine and Murder, was pretty dumb in the play too, but here’s it an absurd lysergic vision out of an arty music video.

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Shakespeare’s tragedies are, by and large, about how violations of social codes take on a terrible velocity, laying everything waste until the violation’s results are played out. His fecundity of imagination and characterisation always strained, and usually ignored, the rules of classical drama, but he obeyed their principles in this regard; indeed, he took this cause and effect of social disintegration to new heights of disturbing political cynicism in the Elizabethan world with its very early intimations of both imperialism and multiculturalism. Without a feel for the social element, any adaptation is doomed to misunderstand him. That Taymor is under the spell of the mantra that his plays have to be jazzed up to appeal is not so problematic as the lack of a decisive presentation. Loncraine’s Richard had thunderous impact precisely because it pursued its historical analogy with stylistic rigour and a melodramatic delight in the story at hand.

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As the story demands a modicum of focus, the film settles down for a patch in the middle: for all the play’s faults, it has an inexorable drive that pushes the film along here, particularly when Aaron the Moor is on screen. A clear precursor of such disparate Shakespearean characters as Richard Gloucester, Iago, Shylock, and Othello, Aaron is a dramatic engine, the relentlessly unsentimental, cultural outsider flaying the values of that culture with fearless bravado even as he meets his comeuppance. Lennix struts through the film as if he owns it, and with good reason: he’s the only actor, as well as character, with the guts to admit it’s all a joke. But just when the actors find an island where they can work their craft properly, Taymor throws in a showy sequence of Titus being is presented with his sons’ heads by an Italian circus clown.

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Taymor’s film is more intent upon examining its own theatre-queen fabulousness. The flourishes are often clever, but never escape the status of gimmickry. Take the sequence in which candidates for the Imperial throne appeal to the people. Saturninus (a performance of über-camp spectacle from Alan Cumming) is backed by the bullyboys of Berlin circa 1933, whereas brother Bassianus (James Frain) has the trappings of 1950s America; their followers wave the flags of two different contemporary Roman football clubs. The clash of symbolism and intellectual intent with these grab-bag touches (Is this serious analogy of political styles? Jokey send-up of clannish loyalty?) is actually a kind of opportunism. It has nothing much to do with either the story at hand, nor with the populist elements of both fascism and American democracy: it’s merely a pseudo-intellectual shorthand.

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Despite the champion’s league cast, the acting styles seem snatched from as many corners of the earth as the set decoration. Cummings’ hyped-up showiness suggests Jay Robinson by way of his Cabaret emcee, clash madly with the gravitas of Hopkins who, for once, is the one trying to bring something like intensive emotional modulation to someone else’s showing off. He’s too often left floundering in the mess. He can’t be the tragic hero at the centre of the drama if the drama is deflated.

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Hopkins is finally outshone by the simpler, more effective characterisations of a bracingly calm Colm Feore as Titus’ brother Marcus and Laura Fraser, who has a straight Old Vic accent as Lavinia, but rather subversively presented as a faintly racist, self-impressed princess fit for a bit’a the old ultra-violence at the hands of Tamora’s droogs. Jessica Lange, with all her ripe maturity, seems primed to steal the film as Tamora, but the film seems almost embarrassed by her campy ferocity, backing away at any opportunity. One moment that’s both fiendish and fudged finds Lange lying on a couch bare-breasted in an orgiastic embrace with both husband Saturninus and one of her sons, but it’s also cuts away so quickly it’s hardly registered. Taymor keeps her centre-frame provocations relentlessly ineffectual, replete with gaudy homoerotica, bouncing bums, and digitised boobs.

O, this offence is rank.

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2000s, Drama

Don’t Come Knocking (2005)

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Director: Wim Wenders

By Roderick Heath

Like, I think, many other viewers, I gave up on Wim Wenders after the overlong, over-everything sci-fi work Until The End Of The World (1991). I had barely watched any of his work since then, a sad thing considering that two of his films from the 80s, Hammett (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984), are amongst my favourites of all time. Don’t Come Knocking was selected for Cannes a couple of years back and greeted by some as a comeback, all the more promising in that it reunited Wenders with Paris, Texas’ scribe, Sam Shepard.

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Since that film’s chilly, unremitting look at humanity lost in wasteland culture, and the counterbalancing magic realism of Wings of Desire (1987), Wenders had become lost in a simultaneous desire to critique modern culture and still be a kind of pop cinema icon, doodling in inflated arthouse projects that lack both the scrappy appeal and economy of a outsider’s low-budget work. Like his mates in U2, he seemed to have long exchanged the appeal of a good hook and well-crafted tune for a desire to be cooler than God and duller than dishwater.

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Don’t Come Knocking isn’t on its face so hugely promising either. It’s laced with flourishes of the fable, always the stickiest, most potentially irritating of narrative modes, and tells a pretty familiar story. Hell, after Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, it’s the second film of 2005 to have the same plot and feature Jessica Lange. Tim Roth plays an unplayable part—a film-studio lawyer who acts like a secret service agent, a remorseless, culturally hermetic enforcer of a plastic, unfeeling corporate culture. Yeah, right, like groovy, gotta watch out for the Man, y’dig?

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And yet, Don’t Come Knocking maintains a poise of expression, a precision of pace, and a lightness of touch that are beguiling. Shepard plays a Western movie star named Howard Spence who indulges in all the modern excesses. Yeah, I know, there are no Western stars anymore, and this kicks off the film’s edge of fable, as Howard, in costume and on a horse, flees a movie set full of irritating movie types, clueless groupies, and a red-faced, infuriated director (George Kennedy!).

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Howard, swaps clothes with a drifter and proceeds on foot to the nearest car rental lot. He drives to Nevada to visit his mother (Eva Marie Saint), who he hasn’t seen in 30 years. We learn that although Howard’s family used to own a ranch, his pose as a cowboy is bogus. His mother has long since sold the property and lives in a bungalow in a Nevada gambling town. She’s kept a scrapbook of his newspaper clippings detailing innumerable drug and drink problems, brushes with the law, fights, and general catastrophe. Howard’s a bundle of nerves and angry impulses. He’s on the run from his reputation. Deeply uncomfortable in the shallow glitz of the local casino he stalks through, he nonetheless likes it when young women recognise him. It’s only with an old school friend that he loses it. He is eventually arrested for getting too emphatic with a slot machine.

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Howard soon finds from his genteel, utterly honourable mother, that he has a son, or so she was told by an ex-girlfriend of his in Butte, Montana, where he shot one of his most successful films, “Just Like Jesse James.” Simultaneously, a young woman named Sky (Sarah Polley) sets out with the ashes of her recently deceased mother, to scatter them in the mountains where her mother had mentioned being happy. Soon, both she and Howard are in Butte—she carrying a blue urn with the ashes, he driving his father’s long-unused Cadillac. Finding his old flame, Doreen (Lange), isn’t difficult; she runs the M&M Bar where they met when she was a waitress. She soon leads him to their son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), who’s a singer-songwriter in an alt-country-blues band, escorted by his girlfriend Amber (Fairuza Balk), who’s so flaky she could blow away. Earl’s a bundle of dynamite, fuelled by long-festering resentment, ready to go off at Doreen, Amber, or Howard.

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Like Paris, Texas and other Shepard works, Don’t Come Knocking is about regeneration, featuring Shepard’s signature ruined man struggling to recover from the wounds of the past that have reduced him to a vagabond or madman. The demons that drive Howard are obscure, but slowly reveal themselves. In fleeing a rural life, Howard has lived a modern dream, found it hollow, and is panicked contemplating the emptiness of old age. He’s a manifestation of a lost America, whilst Earl is young America—confused and consumed by disillusion and frustration. Sky attempts to serve as intermediary, recognising that the two men, instantly and violently at odds, are her brother and father. The generations are all at odds; Howard’s mother is infinitely forgiving but as easily appalled (by rudeness) as Earl is compulsively unforgiving.

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Don’t Come Knocking is essentially a love letter to an America of the mind, much like Bob Dylan’s recent albums, where, on the outskirts of town, western heroes, blues musicians, punks, and hippie chicks hold court in a mystic kingdom of Cool. Many of the visual compositions are highly reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s work, recreating Hopper’s sense of the alien in the familiar. Wenders’ eye, aided by Franz Lustig’s gorgeous cinematography, captures a West that seems simultaneously beauteous, mystical, eerie, and sparse. The film isn’t so stylised that it seems to happen on another planet, but it does unfold in a dreamy altered state into which manifestations of modern life (chintzy casinos, gyms full of programmed exercisers) appear as epigrams of absurdity. Shepard’s poetic dialogue reinforces the mood, but its feel for detail is strong, like Earl’s boho apartment, on the top floor of a weirdly severed terrace house.

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Most vitally, though unhurried, the film unfolds with a sleek, unruffled ease, moves insistently, and never quite comes to a dead stop until Howard does, in one of the film’s strangest images: Earl, in a rage, ejects first Amber from his apartment and then every item of furniture through an open window, including his couch, upon which Howard falls in bleak, exhausted depression and sits as the day drains away, having realised his son and future might be beyond reach. He’s already been dressed down by Doreen after he said they should have gotten married; she insists there’s no way she’s becoming an emotional crutch for his sorry ass (a spectacular bit of acting from Lange), before kissing him passionately and leaving him in solitude, simultaneously affirming her feeling for him whilst jabbing a thumb in the eye of menopausal male self-involvement.

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Most of the last act occurs in the open-air travesty of a home Earl’s destructive fit provides, where a ragged family accumulates in an exploded living room. Howard tries to leave town, but crashes his car in a boozy daze, and is hauled from the car by Roth, who has finally caught up with him to drag him back to the movie set. Howard manages to convince Roth to give him enough time to say goodbye to his kids. Sky delivers an impassioned soliloquy gushing her desire for Howard to be her father and end a lifelong ache, which Earl also felt but suppressed. Her words melt both Howard’s and Earl’s hearts, even as Howard is hauled off by Roth. He finishes the movie, effortlessly recapturing his style, as Sky, Earl, and Amber drive the Cadillac to come rescue him.

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It’s an unabashedly sweet and cheering ending, all the more affecting for the film’s caginess about its tone and intent—its semi-surreal portrait of modern America is sort of like David Lynch on happy pills. The acting, apart from Roth’s inevitable discomfort, is great. In addition to his skills as an author, Shepard is always a tightly wound, unusually minimal, and truthful-seeming acting presence. His underplaying works well against Mann’s souped-up bravura, and Polley radiates sunshine from her pores.

It’s a treat.

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