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 Hangover Part II’ – Not Bad For a Remake

I think by now everyone has figured out that “The Hangover Part II” is essentially a remake of the first film. This creates a dilemma; do we dislike this sequel automatically because it brings nothing new to what came before or the characters we have come to love? Or, do we just accept it for what it is and have fun regardless? Most sequels are pale imitations of the movies which somehow justified their existence, and they usually have the actors and filmmakers just going through the motions for an easy paycheck. You can either bitch and moan about it, or just put up with what has ended up on the silver screen.

For myself, “The Hangover Part II” was actually pretty good for a remake, and it helps that the same director and actors are on board for this sequel. Granted, the law of diminishing returns does apply to this installment as the surprise is no longer there, but I did laugh hard at many scenes, and this was enough for me. It also threatens to be even raunchier than the original to where you laugh more in shock than anything else. Seeing what they got away with before, this time it looks like they got away with murder.

This time the Wolfpack are messing things up in Thailand, or Thighland as Alan (Zach Galifianakis) calls it (I have made this same mistake many times myself). The occasion is the wedding of Stu (Ed Helms) to the love of his life, someone other than Heather Graham (WHA??!!). Both Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) are invited, and Alan comes along even though the guys are seriously uncomfortable in bringing him after what happened in Las Vegas. Before the wedding, they have a bonfire on the beach with some bottled Budweiser to celebrate.

Next thing they know, the three of them (Doug was smart enough this time to go back to his hotel room) find themselves waking up in some disgusting apartment in Bangkok. Alan finds his head shaved, Stu now has the same face tattoo Mike Tyson has, and Phil just wakes up all sweaty because he’s just too sexy to do anything reckless. There’s one big problem though; the younger brother of Stu’s fiancée who went along with them is now missing. Once again, they need to find the missing member of their party before the wedding commences.

The first thing going through my mind when they end up getting hung over again was this, how can Budweiser beer get our main characters this messed up? Once they come to see the things they did which they cannot remember, I seriously thought these guys were the cheapest drunks imaginable. They can’t bother to get any Thailand beer instead? They don’t even have to wait for this stuff to be imported to them! Of course, the real reason they got wasted does come to light later on, and it has nothing to do with Budweiser. Regardless, they are none the wiser than last time.

I really can’t talk too much about “The Hangover Part II” as I will simply be giving away the funniest parts of the film. Many of the events which befall our characters do have some resemblance to the original, and some of them come with a seriously eye-opening twist. Just when you thought movies could not be any more shocking or raunchy, this one shows how far the envelope can be pushed.

Zach Galifianakis once again steals the show as Alan Garner, the man child who means well but is seriously demented in the way he gets closer to people closest to him. His endlessly awkward ways guarantee this wedding will have serious problems, but his reaction to what goes on around him is constantly priceless. You know he’s gonna do something screwy, and the tension which builds up to those moments had me in hysterics.

Actually, the one actor who threatens to steal this sequel from Galifianakis is Ken Jeong who returns as gangster Leslie Chow. For some bizarre reason, Leslie and Alan became really good friends despite the stuff which went down between them in Vegas. Some may find Jeong’s character of Chow offensive, but he is so off the wall and hard to pin down to where labeling him as some sort of caricature feels impossible. Under the circumstances, Jeong’s bigger role in this sequel is very well deserved.

It is also fun to see Ed Helms back as Stu, and that’s even though he’s no longer with Heather Graham’s character of Jade. Having conquered and left his annoyingly snobby girlfriend from the first movie, he now has to face down his future father-in-law who compares him to rice porridge in front of the wedding guests. What the hell is it about being a dentist which makes one pummel on them like they have no reason to live? Do these characters even known how hard it is to become a dentist?

Bradley Cooper is fun to watch as well as Phil, but I still cannot understand how he gets out of these incidents relatively unscathed compared to Phil’s friends. I mean, nothing bad happens to him right away, but unlike Alan and Stu, all that happens is he wakes up with a headache and all sweaty, ruining a perfectly good white-collar shirt. Even when his character acts like a jerk, Cooper still has us along for the ride.

Director Todd Phillips knows what made the first “Hangover” work, and he keeps things snappy throughout. There is a bit of a lull in the middle when the laughs start to feel few and far in between, but things do pick up in the last half. Regardless of how well we know the formula, this sequel is still entertaining from start to finish.

To say “The Hangover Part II” is not original is beside the point. It’s a sequel, and it is coming out at a time when Hollywood does not seem to be all that interested in anything original. What matters is everyone involved still put on a good show, and many laughs will be had. I don’t know about you but I can’t really argue with that.

There was of course “The Hangover Part III,” and my reaction to it involves a whole other review. While I’m happy to give these guys a pass for doing the same thing this time around, even they knew they had to take things in a different direction if there was to be another installment.

Perhaps Phil, Stu and Alan could form a group helping those with hangovers they cannot come to grips with. These three could help others from making complete asses of themselves, and help them cover up their more embarrassing moments. I can see it now: “If someone’s hung over in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?  HANGOVER-BUSTERS!!!”

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ Has Way Too Much Going On

The Amazing Spiderman 2 poster

I figured after “Spider-Man 3,” movie studios and filmmakers would think twice before putting three villains in a film, but lo and behold they have done it again with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” a sequel to the surprisingly successful reboot which wasn’t necessarily needed so soon. Director Marc Webb is forced to deal with a story that doesn’t have much of a focus and contains too many characters for it to deal with. What results is a incredibly underwhelming superhero movie which plays more like a two-hour plus trailer for other movies, and while this is the fifth “Spider-Man” film in just over a decade, my disappointment with this one has little to do with franchise fatigue.

Not much time has passed since the events of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and we find ourselves catching up with Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) as they are graduating from high school. Of course, Peter is delayed a bit as his alter ego of Spider-Man has to fight crime when Russian mobster Aleksei Sytsevich, who will later be revealed as Rhino, tries to drive out of New York City with a case full of plutonium vials. Paul Giamatti plays Aleksei and he clearly is having a blast playing such an over the top character, but he’s barely in the movie. We see him at the very beginning and at the end, but nowhere in between.

This brings me to one of my major gripes with superhero movies today. Studios are so insanely desperate in starting the next big franchise to where they already have at least two sequels planned before their big tent pole movie is even released, and it has gotten to where everyone has forgotten how to make a self-contained movie. Rhino is basically here to act as a bridge to the future spinoff “The Sinister Six,” and it ends up taking away from a movie which already has way too much on its plate.

Then we get to meet Max Dillon, an electrical engineer who is invisible to everybody and has no real friends. But after a freak accident lands him in a tank full of genetically modified electric eels, he quickly mutates into an electric generator of a monster who calls himself Electro. Jamie Foxx plays this character who is considered one of the greatest villains in comic book history, and his performance in a way reminded me of Jim Carrey’s in “Batman Forever” where he played Edward Nygma/The Riddler. Both characters come to idolize the heroes which dominate their lonely lives, but when they feel betrayed by those same heroes, the affection they have toward them is revealed to be a deep-seated resentment that soon evolves into sheer anger.

Foxx is a terrific actor and this role could have given him a number of great avenues to explore, but once again this movie has too much to deal with which results in Max Dillon/Electro not getting enough screen time. In fact, Electro ends up disappearing for a good portion of the movie to where you wonder if he’s disappeared for good. When he does come back onscreen, he’s reduced to spewing out a lot of lame one-liners I kept thing were rejected from “Batman & Robin.” Electro could have been one of the most memorable villains to appear in movies this year, but instead he turns out to be one of the lamest.

Next, we come to villain number three which is Harry Osborn/Green Goblin who has just inherited his late father’s business, Oscorp Industries. Played by James Franco in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies, he is portrayed here by Dane DeHaan who has made quite the name for himself after his acting triumphs in “Chronicle” and “Kill Your Darlings.” DeHaan does excellent work as Harry in portraying his manipulative control over his newly acquired board of directors, and he makes us feel his desperation to escape the same fate which befell his father. But when DeHaan becomes the Green Goblin, he goes from giving one of the best performances in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” to one of the worst as his acting is reduced to hissing a lot at people. Don’t even get me started on his makeup because it made me miss that cheap looking mask Willem Dafoe was forced to wear in the first “Spider-Man” movie.

So, is there anything which works in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2?” Well yes, the scenes between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone which continue to be the best parts of this rebooted franchise. Whenever they are together onscreen, the movie comes to life in a way that doesn’t require a single special effect. Like Tobey Maguire before him, Garfield understands what makes Spider-Man such a relatable superhero as, aside from his amazing superpowers, he is a really down to earth guy who has problems like everybody else. As for Stone, she makes Gwen Stacy a wonderfully intelligent human being and the appealing girlfriend many of us hope to have.

Seeing them together also reminded me how Webb directed one of the best romantic movies of recent years, “(500) Days of Summer.” While his handling of this superhero franchise has become shoddy, he really does know how to direct actors to where their intimacy feels ever so genuine. I hope he goes back to directing character dramas very soon.

Actually, when it comes to the failure of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” I find myself blaming Sony and Columbia Pictures more than I blame Webb. In trying to make a hugely entertaining movie, everyone involved got so caught up in setting the stage for future sequels and spinoffs to where this feels like a coming attraction for something far more entertaining. Yes, there are some fantastic special effects on display here which look great in either 2D or 3D, but even they can’t lift this movie out of the muck. There’s never a shortage of fights, explosions and chases, and maybe that’s the problem. While Webb is looking to unlock his inner Michael Bay here, this sequel ends up getting robbed of much of its soul.

I really hate it when history repeats itself, be it in the real world or at the movies. Maybe you can get away with two villains in a movie, but you should not have three. “Spider-Man 3” and “Iron Man 2” should have taught us all this, but some people just don’t listen. Seriously, haven’t we learned anything? Are we destined to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again?

* * out of * * * *

The Ides of March

the-ides-of-march-poster

This movie’s title refers to the day Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators who feared his role as a dictator would forever destroy their constitutional government. Some of these senators were close friends of his which make their actions all the more shocking. In the political arena, then and now, you would think those running for office would have their friends and loyal advisors to instill their trust in. But as history shows, the quest for power can tear friendships apart and corrupt the seemingly incorruptible. In William Shakespeare’s play of “Julius Caesar,” a soothsayer warns him before he is stabbed to death:

“Beware the Ides of March.”

George Clooney’s film is based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, and it looks at how dangerous a political campaign can be for all those involved. They may not get stabbed in the back literally, but there is a lot of backstabbing to go around figuratively speaking. It all makes for an intense political thriller which never lets up.

Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, a Junior Campaign Manager for Governor Mike Norris (Clooney) who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. As the movie opens, Norris is campaigning in Ohio where a win there will all but guarantee him the nomination. Meyers is a strong believer in Norris and what he stands for, but his belief in him and the world of politics is in for a rude awakening. After a secret meeting with rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), trust becomes a precious commodity in very short supply. Meyers also stumbles on an even bigger situation which could destroy the campaign to where it can never recover.

This is Clooney’s fourth movie as a director, and the abilities he shows behind the camera are never in doubt. “The Ides of March” doesn’t necessarily break any new ground in the political movie genre, but Clooney does great work in generating tension throughout as characters suddenly find themselves on a precipice which threatens to fall out beneath them with little warning. He also gets great performances from the entire cast as they face off against each other as if they are playing a game of chess. Everyone is holding their cards close to their chest, and only the eyes can give them away in showing where they are most vulnerable.

Gosling had a heck of a year in 2011 with this, “Crazy Stupid Love,” and “Drive.” As with the latter, he brings a smoldering intensity to his performance as he takes Meyers from a political idealist to one who sells out his values when things get rough. With one look, he can let us inside his thoughts without saying a single word.

Two of my favorite performances in “The Ides of March” come from two of the best character actors ever: Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. Playing campaign managers for their individual candidates, they brilliantly bring out the moral complexities of each person as their agendas become clear as the story continues to unfold. Both of them also make what could have been seen as convoluted actions or maneuvers completely believable as they try to get the upper hand in a fragile political environment. They essentially represent the cynical side of politics where idealism vanished a long time ago and the path Meyers may be forced to go down if he wants to continue working in this realm.

The fabulous Evan Rachel Wood is great as always as Molly Stearns, a campaign intern whose confidence collapses when her secret is realized. Seeing her go from a sexy seducer to the campaign’s most vulnerable employee is handled by her like a pro, and she makes us see Molly as a person while others view as a crippling concern which needed to be quickly and quietly removed. The cruelty of politics comes to hit her character the hardest.

And then there’s the equally fabulous Marisa Tomei who portrays New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz. She enjoys a friendly banter with Gosling from the start which draws us in on a more personal level. It’s there where Tomei traps not just Gosling, but the audience as well. She provides us with a friendly face, but she is later revealed to be a manipulative journalist who wields more power than you might expect a journalist to have. I have yet to see Tomei give a bad performance in anything she does.

What I really like about the screenplay of “The Ides of March” is it’s not about good guys and bad guys. It’s all about shades of gray and how the hope in politics can be easily and quickly worn down to a cinder of what it once was. Some of the actions in the movie almost feel like something out of the “Saw” movies as they almost seem illogical and impossible to put together, but it makes sense in regards to the political realm it takes place in. This would make a great double feature with Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” as both movies deal with the moral compromises made in getting your candidate elected. But while “Primary Colors” sees a light at the end of the tunnel, “The Ides of March” doesn’t let the viewer off as easy.

* * * ½ out of * * * *