Julian Fellowes’ ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is Seriously Lacking in Passion

William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a play which has been done to death. Keeping track of all the adaptations is aggravating, but on top of that, there are other plays or musicals which were, at the very least, inspired by this classic tragedy (“West Side Story” is the most obvious example). Since Shakespeare’s time, “Romeo and Juliet” has been done in many different styles and taken place in various time periods. It seems the only way to do a production of it these days is to break free of the way it was done during Shakespeare’s time. Baz Luhrmann’s modern take on “Romeo and Juliet” was absolutely entrancing in how it made us feel like we were watching the doomed story of two young lovers for the first time, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes never had a shortage of chemistry between them.

Taking all of that into account, that makes this “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Carlo Carlei and adapted to the screen by Julian Fellowes, come across as a renegade version for they have instead brought Shakespeare’s work back to its traditional and romantic version. It is filled with medieval costumes, balcony scenes and duels, and the filmmakers even got the opportunity to shoot it at the story’s original location of Verona, Italy. But for all the effort put into this umpteenth film adaptation of this famous tragedy, the whole endeavor feels like it is severely lacking in passion.

Perhaps the main problem is the lack of chemistry between the two leads, Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld, who play Romeo and Juliet. When they first meet at the dance, their attraction to one another is not all that palpable and feels rather forced. While both actors do their best to connect with one another, their relationship never felt believable enough for me to really care about what happens to them. In fact, towards the end, I started to get impatient and kept waiting for Romeo to do himself in already.

Steinfeld is a wonderful actress, having deservedly received an Oscar nomination for her performance in “True Grit” (though she should have been for Best Actress, not Best Supporting Actress). As Juliet, she does well and has quite a radiant smile which lights up the screen. At the same time, she seems miscast in this role when paired with Booth. While Steinfeld is around the same age as Juliet, she seems too young to be taking on this famous role now. It’s a shame to say this because she isn’t bad, but I came out of this movie thinking an actress a few years older might have fit this role more realistically.

As for Booth, it takes too long for him to come to life as Romeo. When we first see him, he doesn’t seem all that crazy about Rosalind even after we see him making a bust of her likeness. When it comes to the classic balcony scene, the attraction between him and Juliet feels awkward as they still don’t seem as madly in love as they are supposed to be. Booth’s performance does get stronger as the movie goes on, but he never digs deep enough into the character to where it seems like he is only touching the surface of Romeo’s dilemmas.

Carlei, whose work as a director I am not familiar with, does capture the beauty of Verona, Italy to where it made me want to get on a plane and visit it. His handling of the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues, however, is not clearly defined, and we never quite get a full idea of what made them hate each other in the first place. This is the original gang story for crying out loud! As for the battle scenes, they feel a bit too staged and could have been far more exciting.

Fellowes is best known for creating the popular show “Downton Abbey,” and he seems a natural to adapt any Shakespeare play let alone “Romeo and Juliet.” He preserves the dialogue for the most part, and it’s clear he has a deep love and understanding for the Bard’s words. At the same time, this film has been severely affected by a misleading advertisement which stated it would not be using Shakespeare’s traditional dialogue but would still follow the play’s plot. But having been exposed to this play many times myself, I could not tell the difference between what Shakespeare wrote and what Fellowes came up with. Go figure.

It is a real shame because this “Romeo & Juliet” has a number of great supporting performances which almost make it worth watching. Ed Westwick makes a fierce antagonist out of Tybalt, his eyes filled with rage over a betrayal he can never forgive. Lesley Manville, best known for work with Mike Leigh, is priceless as the Nurse and succeeds in taking this character from her ecstatic highs to her tragic lows. Manville never misses a beat every time she appears onscreen.

There’s also Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, and he gives the character of Juliet’s father a twisted feel which really makes his performance stand out. Kodi-Smit McPhee is very strong as Romeo’s good friend Benvolio, Natascha McElhone gives us a sympathetic Lady Capulet, and Stellan Skarsgård is a welcome presence as the Prince.

But it should be no surprise to see Paul Giamatti stealing the show as Friar Laurence, as it’s truly one of the best interpretations of this role I have ever seen. Friar Laurence is the moral center of “Romeo & Juliet,” and he sees the union between the two lovers as a way of bringing peace between the Capulets and the Montagues. I could tell just how much Giamatti put his heart and soul into this role, and I wept with him when his well-intentioned plans fall apart so tragically.

Still, despite all the great performances, this “Romeo & Juliet” never really comes to life in the way a truly great Shakespearean production does. The language in his plays is so rich, and it can be so intoxicating to take in when done right. This is how I felt after watching Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, but Carlei is not as successful in making this famous playwright’s words come alive, and he is working from a script by Fellowes for crying out loud!

Every generation definitely deserves their own version of “Romeo and Juliet,” but this one is not going to do it. They will be better off with Baz Luhrmann’s version which ended up breaking my heart as it made me wonder if things might take a different turn from what we remember. Or perhaps it was just that big crush I had on Clare Danes which made Baz Luhrmann’s movie affect me so much. Oh well…

* * out of * * * *

The Coen Brothers’ ‘True Grit’ is a Far More Faithful Cinematic Adaptation Than What Came Before

Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s version of “True Grit,” it suddenly occurred to me I had read the book it was based on back in my sophomore year of high school. I can’t believe I forgot that as I usually remember every book me and my fellow classmates were made, or forced, to read such as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men” or “A Day No Pigs Would Die.” This book, which was written by Charles Portis, however, seemed to have escaped my memory of having read it. When I think of the book now, I am reminded of how Mattie Ross, when she saw the body of her murdered father in his coffin, simply told the undertakers, “Put a lid on it.”

Damn! Mattie seemed cold as ice; hell bent on pursuing her father’s killer no matter what and without ever shedding a single tear. But she is also a human being endowed with an undying sense of purpose, determined to find fairness in a world which often seems devoid of it. Now everyone remembers Rooster Cogburn more than any other character in “True Grit” because John “The Duke” Wayne portrayed him in the 1969 movie as it won him his only Oscar. But those who have read this novel know full well it is really about Mattie Ross, not the easiest person to get along with, but hard not to admire. It’s her story more than it ever was Cogburn’s, and the Coen brothers understand this completely in their cinematic adaptation which proves to be very faithful to its source material.

Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin may have top billing, but the weight of “True Grit” rested on the soft shoulders of then 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Her astonishing performance brings Mattie Ross right off the written pages of Portis’ book and to vivid life. This was not necessarily the case when Kim Darby portrayed her opposite Wayne in 1969. Our sophomore English class watched some, but not all of, the original film, and once we saw Mattie cry in a way she never would have in the novel, we all knew one liberty too many had been taken with the source material. I guess having a character appear stronger willed than one played by The Duke must have seemed unthinkable at the time.

But seriously, Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie, and the movie would have completely failed were she not as fantastic as she was here. Seeing her stroll into the town with her no-nonsense attitude and wise beyond her years, the actress sells the character perfectly and has us eager to follow her every step as she pursues Tom Chaney before he escapes the hand of justice. Her eyes show a willful determination which I never doubted, and any sadness she shows is somehow restrained. Steinfeld takes a character who is not altogether likable and makes her one of the most compelling characters I saw in any 2010 movie. She doesn’t so much play the character as much as she inhabits the role. Now how many other 14-year-old actors do you know who can pull this feat off?

As the story goes, Mattie tries to procure the services of Rooster Cogburn because she believes he possesses “true grit;” someone who has courage, fearlessness, and guts. As played by Jeff “The Dude” Bridges, who owned the 2010 holiday season with this and “Tron: Legacy,” Rooster is a drunken lout who never appears to be fit for his line of work, but his sense of duty does manage to keep him sane in an increasingly violent world. The relationship he has with Mattie is not one based on kindness, and he would as soon as leave her in the dust than bring her along. But something about Mattie’s dogged determination, illustrated by her riding her horse across a river while keeping her head above water, wins the whiskey loving Marshall over.

I’m not going to bother comparing The Dude and The Duke because frankly I don’t have the energy. Wayne made his mark in one film after another, and Bridges’ performance works so well because he never tries to outdo what Wayne did. Like any smart actor, he makes the character his own, and his Rooster Cogburn threatens to be every bit as inebriated as Val Kilmer was when he played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” From the start, I was almost afraid Bridges might turn the character into a parody of sorts, and perhaps rely too much on his “Big Lebowski” persona to get him through the day. But this never was the case as Bridges makes his Rooster Cogburn into a wonderfully complex character who, despite his grungy appearance, still knows the Indian territory like the back of his hand.

Also along for the ride is Matt Damon who portrays Texas Ranger LaBeouf. I thought he would stick out like a sore thumb here, but he makes his character a wonderfully engaging one even as he keeps coming and going throughout. Seeing LaBeouf get his ass handed to him by Mattie Ross is a major highlight, only if to see the shocked expression on his face when he realizes he truly got suckered by a 14-year-old.

Josh Brolin, who previously worked with the Coens on “No Country for Old Men,” makes Tom Chaney not just a simple one-dimensional villain as his crime was motivated more out of jealousy and fear than anything else. Even he can’t intimidate Mattie as she has the strong resolve and moral fortitude he seriously lacks, and his life has lost its sense of purpose. Brolin manages to convey all this in the limited time he has onscreen.

Another guy I was happy to see here is Barry Pepper. As “Lucky” Ned Pepper (no relation I’m sure), he gives us a nasty outlaw and a vicious guy who will not allow anyone to undo his authority any more than he appears willing to brush his teeth; man, his teeth look hideous!

The main difference between the 2010 and 1969 movies is in how the wild, wild west is portrayed. The 1969 movie was more about watching Wayne blow away the bad guys just as he had in every other movie he starred in. But the 2010 version portrays the world it inhabits much more realistically, treating violence as a brutal and very vicious thing. This one is more akin to “Unforgiven” than “Rio Bravo.” Violence is a way of life for all these characters, and it defines the way they see the world around them. We also see how it affects their souls as the specter of death hangs over their every move. There’s no attempt to sweeten up the narrative or make it the kind of western many of us grew up watching.

Still, the Coen brothers have succeeded in making one of their most accessible movies to date for the mainstream audiences with “True Grit.” They also managed to do it without compromising themselves as this film sees them getting the widest audience they ever had before. They continue to employ their regular collaborators who never fail them such as cinematographer Roger Deakins, editor Roderick Jaynes, and their longtime composer Carter Burwell who contributes another in a long line of great movie scores.

If there was any problem I had with this “True Grit,” it was in the way it ended. We see one character many years later, and the effect is disorienting. It was the same thing that happened at the start and the end of Frank Darabont’s “The Green Mile,” and it just took me out of the moment. The effect wasn’t too bad in this one, but I was hoping to see the actor who played said character get more of a proper send off.

Remaking a movie like “True Grit” seems like the last thing the Coen brothers would ever do, but I believe them when they say this was never intended to be a remake. They stayed very true to the source material and even made the language Portis scribbled down seem very much alive and sharp witted. Whether or not you value Wayne’s take on Rooster more than Bridges’, you have to give the Coens credit for staying true to a book written back in 1968.

The Academy Awards showered a number of nominations for this film including Best Actor for Bridges and Best Picture. While I was happy to see Steinfeld nominated for Best Supporting Actress, I still think it was a travesty she was not nominated for Best Actress instead. Once again, this movie rested on her shoulders, and she was cast in a role which 15,000 other actors auditioned for. Seriously, Best Actress, not Best Supporting Actress. Her male co-stars were supporting her instead of the other way around.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Takes the Webslinger to New Heights

Spiderman Into The Spiderverse poster

Alongside Superman and Batman, Spider-Man is one of my most favorite comic book characters. Peter Parker was an ordinary teenager before he got bit by a genetically modified spider, and from there he was gifted with super powers anyone would be envious to have. But in the process, he learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and this includes leaving the love of his life, be it Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy, at a distance in order to keep her safe from his devious enemies. While it must be very cool to be Spider-Man, it is also a very lonely existence as he needs to keep the people he is closest to in the dark as their safety will always be at risk once his identity is revealed to all.

One of the real joys of watching “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is realizing Peter Parker’s existence is not as lonely as we believed it to be. While attempting to thwart the efforts of Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) who is using a particle accelerator to access parallel universes in an effort to bring back his deceased wife and son, we learn there are many different versions of Spider-Man here, there and everywhere, and there is something very reassuring about Peter realizing he is not the only one of his kind.

The main character here is Miles Morales (“Dope” star Shameik Moore), an African-American teenager who is at ease in his inner-city neighborhood, but struggles to fit in at the elite boarding school he was enrolled in following a well-received essay he wrote. Miles wants to fulfill the expectations of his police officer father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and his nurse mother Rio Morales (Lauren Valez), but he looks to his beloved uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) to encourage his creative side more than anyone else.

As you can expect, Miles also gets bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes the superhero he admires, Spider-Man, but he is of course not the least bit ready to take on such a part. Who would be anyway? But when the real Peter Parker is eliminated with extreme prejudice by Kingpin, Miles has no choice but to take his place even as he passes off the changes in his body as being a part of puberty. If such things were easily explainable, the realm of adolescence would be easier to live through.

Miles does however get help from Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), but being a Spider-Man from an alternate universe, he is not the equivalent of the one portrayed in previous movies by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland. This Peter has gained a lot of weight and is hopelessly alone after a painful divorce from Mary Jane, and he is not quick to help Miles on the superhero journey he himself has taken, but he slowly becomes enamored at Miles’ spirit and determination to where he ends up helping him put an end to Kingpin’s evil and selfish reign.

With the many parallel universes exposed, we get introduced to the different incarnations of the webslinger which include Gwen Stacy and her spunky alter-ego Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), Peter Porker and the gleefully animated Spider-Ham (the hilarious John Mulaney), the young Japanese girl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who hails from an anime universe where she pilots a biochemical suit with a radioactive spider, and the dark and monochromatic Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage in a truly inspired voiceover). Seeing them all interact with one another here adds more heart and laughs to an already highly entertaining film.

The late Stan Lee, who does have an animated cameo here, once said Peter Parker should always be white, but that he wouldn’t have minded if the character were originally “black, a Latino, an Indian or anything else.” What this movie shows us is how anyone can be Spider-Man, and there’s something truly inspiring about that as superhero roles can at times feel ridiculously limited. It also helps that this animated movie comes on the heels of the brilliant “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” as the role of superhero is no longer, and never should have been, limited to one gender or ethnicity, and this was especially the case when it came to battling Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

I was not sure what to expect when walking into “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” as the thought of an animated “Spider-Man” seemed a little far-fetched and seemed like another attempt by Sony and Columbia Pictures to create a cinematic universe a la “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and we all know how that one turned out. In a way it is satirical as it plays around with many comic book tropes and has fun dealing with the web-slinger at his best and worst. The filmmakers even take a hilarious dig at the character’s emo-dance from “Spider-Man 3” which Peter Parker is quick to distance himself from (can you blame him?).

But what makes this movie so good is how deeply it invests us in this particular Spider-Man’s life. Miles Morales is not just another Peter Parker clone as he still has his mom and dad, and he is forced to live in two different worlds the same way Amandla Stenberg’s character had to in “The Hate U Give.” While I have long since grown tired of origin movies which deal with a superhero’s beginning as we know they will eventually accept their anointed role, this one rings true emotionally as we watch Miles be understandably hesitant about becoming the next Spider-Man, but his transition from someone blaming his body changes on puberty to a young man eager to save his universe from the devious acts of Kingpin is never less than compelling.

It really feels great to see Spider-Man on a roll right now. Following the much-too-soon reboot known as “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the webslinger made a terrific rebound in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and had one of the most achingly emotional moments in the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avengers: Infinity War.” In a time where the franchises of “Star Trek” and “Halloween” seek to alter the timelines of their iconic characters to take things in another direction, it’ll be interesting to see where Spider-Man will go from here. “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is arriving in theaters next year, and I imagine we will see him again in “Avengers: Endgame.” Whatever the case, it puts a smile on my face to see Peter Parker and his alter-ego continue to be infinitely popular in pop culture as this is a hero blessed with super powers as well as with the foresight of the importance of responsibilities. Regardless of whoever takes on the role of Spider-Man, we come out of this movie with the solid belief said person will take it seriously, and we have to be thankful for that.

And yes, there are post-credit scenes for you to enjoy and, like “Once Upon a Deadpool,” this one features a thoughtful tribute to Stan Lee. May his legacy never be forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *