Who didn't wind up seeing Laurence Oliver's Hamlet or Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet in some junior high school English class? Once, my teacher strategically stood in front of the television to block Olivia Hussey's revelatory nudity as she finally sealed the deal with Leonard Whiting's Romeo. It was literally the only thing that would have made sitting though that film worth my 16 year-old boredom with The Bard of Avalon.
Shakespeare has a deeply delineated cinematic history; one that mostly lends itself to literal rather than anachronistic interpretation. Before Coriolanus, the new adaptation of Shakespeare's 17th Century tragi-drama and directorial debut of Lord Valdomort himself, Ralph Fiennes, the only memorable mass market example of The Bard being successfully transposed to the contemporary was 1996's Leo DiCaprio/Claire Danes-starring hit, Romeo + Juliet. Other than that, you're left with Olivier's Hamlet (or Mel Gibson's) and the collective works of Kenneth Branagh, all quite literal and which, while adept, are sometimes impenetrable in their slavish reverence to their source.
But with Coriolanus, Fiennes adopts a gritty, near future sci-fi frame into which he re-paints his source with a brush not unlike that of Alfonso Cuarón in his dystopian, Children of Men. In other words, it's dour and kind of great.
Casius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is the ultimate warrior, fighting for the security of Rome and it's citizenry against the threat of the Volscian armies led by his arch-enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). The only problem is that Martiaus has a stick up his ass; a plutocratic ideologue whose spectacular valor and unabated victories on the battlefield are merely a reflection of his piety to the state and its Gods, not its common people, for which he has little but contempt.
Recently having repelled Tarquins, The Senate has cut the rations of grain to the pissed-off citizenry and Martius, the practical poster boy for their discontent of the 1 percent, is tasked with quelling the hordes. This only incenses them, but his clear contempt for what he views as the petulance of the unwashed (which boils down to: "You want to eat? Join the fucking Army") is the only thing that diffuses the anarchy, by the sheer force of fear. Martius has little use for the will of the people and they know it.
His mother, Volumnia (the typically regal Vanessa Redgrave) is the only person Martius pays reverence to, she being the King Maker-type of mom. The noteworthy hole created by the absence of a father is somewhat filled by Menenius (Brian Cox, in the 10,192nd film of his career), a Senator who is guiding Maritus to a Counsellorship in the Senate. That case is made easier after Martius almost single-handedly annihilates most of Aufudius's forces at the Battle of Corioles, thus garnering Martius a promotion to General and the moniker, Coriolanus.
But steering Martius into a desk job still requires the will of the people, and his rigid integrity and sense of honor, combined with his disdainful view of citizen rule ("Thus we debase the nature of our seats and make the rabble call our cares fears; which will in time break ope' the locks o' the senate, and bring in the crows to peck the eagles.") make a sunny, man-of-the-people Coriolanus, a tough sell. Utilizing that weakness, two rogue Senators, Brutus and Sicinius (Paul Jesson and James Nesbitt) take Martius to trial for his tyrannical leanings and succeed in sentencing him to exile while his mother and family look on.
Divorced of loyalty to his fractured family and country, while stinging from his underappreciated sacrifices to the Empire, the wounded Martius seeks out an unlikely ally to help him take revenge and conquer Rome.
The anachronisms of Coriolanus and its underlying themes are allegorical to a United States equally bent on its own sort of hegemony, though Fiennes employs a somewhat well-worn visual skillset to bring them to the big screen. The news is fed to everyone by Fidelis TV, Rome's FOX, which delivers propagandist news of victory in the seemingly endless War on Whatever; while giving condescending lip service to the uprisings of the increasingly disenfranchised masses. Fiennes extracts the prescience of the source, crafting a parallel to a buckling of American Empire. When Martius is finally thrown to the wolves, it's on a daytime talk show.
Still, on a visual level, the look of Coriolanus recalls half dozen post-apocalyptic epics where the elite reside in mansions while the rabble riot in the streets. It never really sets itself apart. Is it cool that Fiennes patterns that battle sequences like a game of Black Ops? Sure, but it's still derivative. His direction, though, is completely adept in terms of performances and he elicits powerful turns from the likes of Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave and most especially himself. But in contemporizing such a bleak narrative Fiennes could have tried to turn a few worn visual tropes on their ear.
Coriolanus, with its inspired adaption by screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator) nails the themes of The Bard's mythical tragedy and lyrical narrative. It's a joy to hear Redgrave kill her final, desperate soliloquy to her son while the solipsistic, hard-assed gravity of Fiennes Martius is often impossible ignore.
If the rules of drama were laid down by Aristotle's Poetics, than Shakespeare made them accessible. Ralph Fiennes furthers that tradition: thrillingly, admirably and -- despite almost no sense of humor at all -- quite accessibly. Semper Fi.
Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie
Comedy is the most subjective arena of film. One man's gut bust is another man's blank fart. Whilst the world throws billions at rote, borderline retarded Adam Sandler flicks, discerning weirdoes tend to find themselves soaking up truly absurdist sketch comedy through the small screen. Kids in the Hall and The State are American forebears to Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and set the bar for its sketch comedy (and sometimes anti-comedy) delights, while across the pond that mantle is held up by the likes of Snuff Box, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace and The Mighty Boosh.
They're all doing something inherently different from the mainstream, but the bloodlines of their drug-friendly, tripped out ethos, fearless need to shock and cultural self-referentialism forge a unique place amongst family tree of subversively cliquish, nearly underground comedy series.
Now, fans of the defunct Adult Swim series Tim and Eric Awesome Show -- all 37 of you -- can rejoice. You have delightfully sick, esoteric, tailor made feature-length treat as reward for your fandom, Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie.
Tim and Eric (Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim) blow a billion dollars on a three minute movie (they hired a fake Johnny Depp in the lead and bought a ton of real diamonds for his suit that they can't return, then blew even more on a personal spiritual guru played by Zack Galifianakis and A-List makeovers). When their corporate overloads at the Schlaaang Group, led by an ancient looking Robert Loggia (Lost Highway) and the equally stunt cast William Atherton (Real Genius), find out their billion was wasted, they get vigorous about getting their investment back.
In order to pay back the budget, Tim and Eric go to work for Damien Weebs (Will Farrell) a huckster they see on an infomercial offering a billion dollars to run a dilapidated mall, loaded with squatters, stores that sell swords and used toilet paper and haunted by a wolf-raised, freak named Taquito (John C. Reilly). What starts out as a scheme to turn over a quick billion soon turns into a labor of love as Tim and Eric cement their bromance, renovating the mall and changing their lives with love -- all well and good until The Schlaaang group catches up with our dimwitted and bizarre heroes. Or something like that.
There's plenty to love about the stream of consciousness, barely graduated from television sketch comedy of Billion Dollar Movie. Having their own film means Tim and Eric can push beyond the limitations of Cartoon Networks standards and practices and into some truly twisted, queasy and profane realms to get laughs that sometimes come with a twinge of guilt. Or just pain.
Another part of the fun is the game cast ranging from Farrell and John C. Reilly to Jeff Goldblum and Ray Wise (Leland Palmer of Twin Peaks fame, touching on Tim and Eric's proclivity for referencing David Lynch). Seeing these guys ham it up, and go way over the top is a joy.
As a comedy it's somewhat hit and miss (often purposefully) and it looks so cheap that one is assured it's big names worked for scale--and the one Amy Mann song on the soundtrack must have been donated out of kindness. But it hits more often than it misses, though its mark will be found with a certain type of comedy geek. Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie has enough laughs, but they are aimed at a pretty specific audience. For that reason it succeeds, as a scrappy, weird, pretty sick little puppy of a movie--if you are a scrappy, weird sick little comedy lover.
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