Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Tempest (2010)

Director Julie Taymor’s Tempest is the perfect storm: the cast, the effects, the costumes, the make-up – everything about this production is phenomenal.  The shame of it is that with Taymor busy trying not to kill anybody on Broadway in her exceedingly dangerous musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and with virtually no distribution for the film’s December 10th 2010 release – can you even call four theaters in the whole country a release? – the spectacular Tempest has yet to receive the attention or the reception that it deserves.  Having been severely disappointed to realize on December 9th, that my geographical region was not to be one of the four graced with a single theater playing The Tempest, I was furious to read blurbs in the press about the financially disappointing performance of the film after the opening weekend.  So allow me to briefly vent to all of those writers before I proceed with the review:

Hello, film industry geniuses.  If a film isn’t released in more theaters than I can count on one hand, THEN IT CAN’T POSSIBLY MAKE ANY MONEY!  That is, unless there are some 100,000 seat theaters somewhere in America that I don’t know about.

Sorry about that, I just love this film, and I was super salty that people were trashing it just because none of the power players involved made its release a big enough deal.

The irony is that the film itself is a testament to the power of great decision making. 

First of all, the decision to adapt Shakespeare’s The Tempest for the screen is a great call.  The Tempest is filled to the brim with magic; it’s like a lost Harry Potter book where his mentor gets medieval on all of their adversaries (a book which I would call Harry Potter and The Revenge of Albus Dumbledore).

Dark wizards everywhere are about to get schooled
Since special effects are one thing modern cinema does seem to know how to do well, this was a great time to do this film.  The effects in Taymor’s Tempest are fantastic.  One of the best scenes in the film sees the spirit Ariel as a harpy (a big, dark, evil bird) haunting those who betrayed his master.  Producers knew they nailed it with this scene, as it figured prominently in the trailer and Harpy-Ariel made the top of the movie poster.

Do you see what I did there?
The choice to switch The Tempest’s male lead Prospero, to the film’s female Prospera was destined to be a make it or break it call.  It’s a pretty major element to change, and when you’re messing with Shakespeare like that, you’re playing with fire.  However, when your lead is Helen Mirren, and you can manage to remain very faithful to the play despite the change, you’re making a much safer bet.  Mirren is fantastic, and is as frightening and powerful a sorcerer as any dude could have hoped to be.  The bonus is that there is something in Prospera’s betrayal and exile by her brother and his male accomplice, in the relationship between Prospera and her daughter, and also in Prospera’s battle back against male adversity that seems that much more profound because she is a woman.  It’s an element of the film that feels relevant and modern, without being at all, in my mind, unfaithful to Shakespeare’s play. 

Mirren could not have been better supported than she is by the phenomenal cast around her.  There really isn’t a weak link in the tempestuous chain.  What is not to love here?  Djimoun Hounsou as Caliban?  Chris Cooper (the bad guy from The Bourne Identity) as Prospera’s shady brother?  Alan Cumming as a weasel of a monarch?  

l-r: Hounsou, Cooper, and Cumming
These actors are exceptional, and they all bring their A-game in The Tempest, as expected.  In fact, the cast is so spot on, that for The Tempest, the Most Valuable Player award doesn’t go to director Julie Taymor, or Academy Award Winner Helen Mirren, or Academy Award Nominee Djimoun Hounsou, no –  I haven’t even finished telling you about all the awesome people in the cast here – the MVP for The Tempest  is casting director Gillian Hawser who put together such a brilliant ensemble.

Gillian knows she's awesome.
Hawser’s crowning achievement here is casting the comedy duo of Alfred Molina and Russell Brand has the king’s drunken servants Stephano and Trinculo.  These two are hilarious, as is their ill-fated conspiracy with Caliban.  With Hounsou bringing the drama as that alternately frightened and frightening “monster,” this motley crue is a major highlight of the film.

For further award purposes, I need to disqualify Hounsou for being too much of a main character.  Of the dynamic drunken duo, Molina is more of the straight man (though he proved he could tow the comic line all on his own in Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It).  What that means is that the Shawn and Shakespeare Show Stealer Award for The Tempest goes to Russell Brand. 

Russell Brand as Trinculo
Brand is a perfect fit for the off the wall Trinculo, but it’s more than just great casting here.  Where Brand really impresses me is in managing to bring the larger than life swagger he is known for, while simultaneously handling the Shakespearean dialogue with skill.  He’s not just Russell Brand being Russell Brand, he’s brought his best to the Shakespearean arena with all due reverence; for that I applaud him and present him with this intangible award.   He is fantastic in The Tempest, and his accolade is well earned.

Take a peek at this clip from day one of Tempest rehearsal to get a better idea of Brand's commitment to his character:

All told, the fact is that Taymor’s Tempest is a phenomenal presentation of Shakespeare’s play.  It is a faithful adaptation, but manages to also bear Taymor’s modern signature.  The film carries all the gravity and provocative questions of the play, and is itself profoundly entertaining and visually stunning from start to finish.  While it may lack the real-life danger of Taymor’s Spider-Man play, it makes up for it every way possible.

For more, check out The Tempest's official website

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