Shakespeare Saturday: What to Watch?

Hello, Cactus-ites, and welcome to the second week of Shakespeare-a-palooza! As you might have noticed, we here at Nerd Cactus have dedicated this week to one of Shakespeare’s…less noticeable works: Love’s Labour’s Lost. We actually didn’t know much about this play (I still haven’t read it, truth be told) and even my rudimentary knowledge of its workings leads me to believe that it won’t be one of my favorites. That being said, I look forward to the performance because, if there’s anything I believe about Shakespeare, it’s that a good performance can change everything. Come the end of the month, I’ll let you know if the Bard’s linguistic gymnastics are, indeed, enough to change my opinion.

For the record, my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies is Twelfth Night. Yes, it’s basically a stereotype, full of cross-dressing and mistaken identity and everyone ends up happy (except maybe Malvolio), but I love it. It gives us one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s lines: “If music be the food of love, play on.” And it includes that one you’ve all heard: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” The fun part about that particular quote is that it comes to us via a fake letter from Olivia to Malvolio, as part of the massive prank everyone pulls on him. So the person purportedly saying it has no idea it’s even been written.

But I digress. Yes, I know, dear readers, I do that a fair bit. Please forgive me, for I do eventually reach my point, even if I do take a while. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but at least I recognize the irony of Polonius being the one to say it.

Anyway, as you no doubt know, Saturdays during the month of August are reserved for movie adaptations of the play we paired the day before. Last week was Hamlet, which has had enough adaptations to sink a small battleship (preferably taking the Mel Gibson version with it). This week, well…I ran into the opposite problem. There is exactly ONE film version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and…it’s not even considered that good. Released in 2000, it was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who, though normally considered an unimpeachable source of the Bard’s works, had a bit of an off week. While it’s certainly not awful (come on, it’s Branagh doing Shakespeare, it won’t be awful), it’s not one of his best. That being said, when it’s good, it’s good; the problem is, it cuts out half the play, and there’s not much there to begin with. On the plus side, it’s staged like an old Hollywood musical and there’s plenty of Cole Porter and Gershwin to keep anyone happy. Even at his not-so-best, Branagh delivers style and sumptuous beauty. (Last I checked, it was still on Netflix, but don’t quote me.)

But…I can’t just recommend ONE movie to you, can I? No! Not when the Bard is involved! So…having recommended (and I do recommend it, even with its problems) the one version of this week’s play that made it to screen, I shall recommend some others that aren’t this week’s play. Don’t worry, no repeats of last week.

First up is an adaptation, not a filmed version of the play. Why? Because. That’s why. One of my favorite not-the-play Shakespeare movies is She’s the Man. OK, shut up…don’t judge me. It’s one of those movies that made me realize I’d judged Channing Tatum too harshly. Also, it’s quite amusing and it stars a pre-whatever-happened-to-Amanda Bynes Amanda Bynes. Perhaps not the greatest piece of cinema, it is nonetheless entertaining…and, again, Channing Tatum. Remember, if all else fails, enjoy his face. (But seriously, his character–Duke Orsino–is adorable. You’ll enjoy him.) (More parentheses! I’m not sure where to catch this movie. Try the internet. I saw it on TV the other day, but…I’m not good at finding things on the internet. Sorry.)

Moving on to filmed versions of the plays! Do you love Joss Whedon? I know I do. Sure, Avengers: Age of Ultron was a bit problematic, but was that Whedon’s fault or the studio’s? I’d be willing to bet a director’s cut of that movie would be a damn masterpiece, is what I would bet. Anyway…did you know that his idea of a party is to get together with his friends and act out Shakespeare? Did you also know that, to deal with the stress of directing the first Avengers movie, he filmed a low-budget version of one of these parties starring…pretty much everyone you’ve ever seen in a Whedon anything? That’s right. And it’s my OTHER favorite Shakespeare comedy: Much Ado About Nothing. I love it. It’s not one of those versions of Shakespeare set in space or re-imagined as an interpretive dance, but you can tell everyone had a good time filming it, and that counts for a lot. And, if you don’t like this version, there’s always Branagh! Good ol’ Branagh. Pretty soon, he’ll be filming the sonnets. (Like Love’s Labour’s Lost, I believe this is still available on Netflix.)

I would be remiss if I didn’t remind everyone that West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet with knife dances. It’s got my one of my least favorite songs in a musical ever (“Maria”), but also one of my favorites:

So, I think that’s enough about that. Finding West Side Story isn’t hard.

Next up is the play with my FAVORITE SPEECH IN THE HISTORY OF SHAKESPEARE. The “band of brothers” speech, in the hands of a good actor, is magical. Henry V is Shakespeare’s Overture of 1812, a bombastic celebration of England’s greatness, full of rousing crescendos and cannons. OK, so there were no cannon in the play, but evidence suggests they absolutely were part of the Battle of Agincourt in some capacity. And, remember, King Henry promises to turn tennis balls into cannon shot. I’ve got two versions of this to recommend: 1944’s version with Laurence Olivier (because, um, Olivier) and 2012’s version with Tom Hiddleston (because it’s Tom Hiddleston). I’d argue that Olivier’s is better, but the more recent version has the benefit of not being something Captain America could have watched before going into the ice. If neither of those are your cup of tea, guess what? Branagh has a version of this, too (from 1989)! Again, to the internets with you if you want to watch it!

Moving on to my OTHER must-know-and-adore speech, I recommend to you Julius Caesar, starring a…just spectacular Marlon Brando as Mark Antony. His version of the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech will leave you breathless. A lot of people were worried he wouldn’t be able to keep up with some of his more prestigious co-stars, but he blew those guys out of the water. He is passionate and angry, and his performance washes over you like a sandstorm, scouring away until you’re left raw and choking with the force of it. I love it. I love it, I love it, I love it. As I’ve mentioned before, this speech inspired a life-long love of Mark Antony that continues to this day. (OT: This is not Shakespeare, but James Purefoy’s Antony in HBO’s Rome is amazing. I love that they didn’t try to show his speech over Caesar’s body, though, because they could never beat Shakespeare.)

My second-to-last pick is Olivier’s Richard III, made in 1955. Why, you may ask, when I have made known my distaste of Shakespeare’s felonious mis-characterization of King Richard III (in the name of Tudor propaganda) many, many times, and with varying degrees of anger? Well, because it’s still a damn good play. And because Laurence Olivier is a damn fine actor. Also, because it’s on Hulu as part of their Criterion Collection! Yay, Hulu!

Finally…and this may shock a number of you, I’m going to Japan. No, this is not Branagh’s version of As You Like It, which I do recommend. In fact, I could recommend versions of Shakespeare until my eyes bleed. There’s Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet as well as Baz Lurhmann’s from 1996, staring Leonardo diCaprio and Claire Danes. Al Pacino plays Shylock in a 2004 version of The Merchant of Venice that somehow managed to keep me from getting too angry at the whole notion of Shylock’s stereotypical existence. There are so many versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I don’t know that I can pick one (though the 1935 version is…well, it’s got Cagney as Bottom, and that should tell you enough). I haven’t even mentioned Orson Welles! Oh God, Orson Welles. Why do we seem to remember you solely for Citizen Kane?! But if I went through every version of Shakespeare worth mentioning, I’d be here forever, so instead…I go to Japan. And Akira Kurosawa.

Kurosawa is not just the director of Seven Samurai (which later became The Magnificent Seven in the West and DOESN’T NEED A REMAKE, HOLLYWOOD, EVEN IF IT WILL HAVE CHRIS PRATT IN IT!), and other such wonderfully Japanese movies. He also did a version of Macbeth that will haunt you. You will find yourself thinking about it for days afterward, loving both the fact that the movie is spectacular and the sheer universality of Shakespeare’s themes. Throne of Blood is not just a version of Macbeth set in the Far East; it is completely reworked to fit the political and social realities of a post-WW2 Japan. Shakespeare is turned into a condemnation of postwar imperialism and the leaders who’d led the nation into such a disastrous war, all for glory. And Throne of Blood‘s Lady Macbeth…man. What a performance. It is just SO GOOD. And proof that Shakespeare is not just an amazing English playwright, but an amazing storyteller the world over.

Wow. I…did not intend to write this much, guys. I also did not intend to take this long to write this. I got caught up in the research I was doing, I guess. I’ve watched a lot of Shakespeare adaptations (where I live affords me little chance to see him live, so I’ve made do), so it took me a while to go through and pick the ones I loved the most. I hope you guys enjoy these. Some of them are easy to find (Netflix and Hulu and YouTube, oh my!) and others are a bit of a search, but trust me…they’re all worth it.

Next week, we bring you Taming of the Shrew! I promise to find something worthwhile to say that I haven’t said before. Until then, happy viewing!

C

ps: If all else fails, watch Doctor Who! As mentioned already, Love’s Labour’s Lost is featured in Series 3, Episode 2, titled The Shakespeare Code. Want to watch it? Here you go!

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