All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

MICHAEL ALMEREYDA ON MAKING A CONTEMPORARY “HAMLET”






“I can’t impress on you how low-budget this movie was,” writer-director Michael Almereyda said of his new filmization of “Hamlet” during a recent stopover in Dallas, where the picture screened earlier this month at the USA Film Festival. “It was shot in 16mm, and all the stars worked for scale.” Ethan Hawke appears as Shakespeare’s troubled hero in Almereyda’s version of the tale, which is set in contemporary New York and also stars Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrude, Liev Schreiber as Laertes, Julia Stiles as Ophelia, Bill Murray as Polonius, Karl Geary as Horatio, Steve Zahn as Rosencranz, Dechen Thurman as Guildenstern, and Sam Shepard as the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
Almereyda, whose earlier features include the 1989 comedy “Twister” (not to be confused with the big-budget studio storm movie) , “Nadja” (1995) and “Trance” (1997), was drawn to the idea of adapting a Shakespearean play for the screen, but at first shied away from the Danish tragedy because, among other things, Kenneth Branagh’s text-complete version had only recently appeared. “I was really adamant for a few weeks in avoiding it,” Almereyda explained. “But it just started chasing me…. Within a week there were just too many signs pointing to ‘Hamlet’ for me to ignore.””My feeling had to do with connecting to the hero as someone who is truly young, and that had never been done in a movie [version] before,” Almereyda continued. “That was the key starting- point.”
And that was what led the director to contact Hawke, with whom he had discussed a previous, but unfulfilled, project. The young actor jumped at the chance to do Shakespeare, and was instrumental in connecting Sam Shepard up with the picture, too; both were attached to “Snow Falling on Cedars” at the time.
From the beginning Almereyda had a strong idea of how different he wanted this “Hamlet” to be. He envisaged a version that would escape “the British tradition” of Shakespearean performance, one with “an entirely American cast–except for a few Irish people for good luck.” And so he approached “actors whose work I liked and who I knew could handle it…. I wanted a style of acting in this movie that’s different from conventional Shakespeare in that it’s American, it’s inflected by American tradition in movie acting which is more interior and more internal and more quiet than Shakespeare is usually played. I didn’t want a lot of bluster, I didn’t want hysterics and scenery-chewing. I wanted a kind of intimacy.”
If his “Hamlet” would differ from most in setting and acting style, however, Almereyda cherished the text of the play. “The easiest part of making the movie was the adaptation, because it’s just really straight Shakespeare–it’s condensed and clipped in some ways, but it really just felt like a kind of ventriloquism in that it was easy to translate it into contemporary terms. It’s all very natural and didn’t feel forced.” And he wound up believing that “there was room in the universe for this new version.”
As befits the picture’s low budget, the shoot was short (only 5 weeks), and often very hectic and demanding; and looking at the finished product Almereyda sees a good deal that he might have done additional takes of if given the chance. But he’s resigned to the fact that every film is bound to have regrets attached. “A director is deluded to think that he can control it all,” he mused. “I don’t want to get too philosophical about it, but directing is pretty much that you just have to be invisible and let things happen and trust the material.”
“And in this case,” he added, “there is no better material.”

COLOR OF PARADISE, THE






Films that accurately capture the painful chasm that separates
childrens’ perceptions from those of adults are rare and
precious things (think of such masterful examples as Rene
Clement’s “Forbidden Games” and Charles Laughton’s “The Night
of the Hunter”); but recent efforts from Iran such as “The
White Balloon” and “Children of Heaven” have been remarkably
affecting additions to the canon. This new picture by Majid
Majidi, who was also responsible for “Children,” is yet
another, a visually stunning and emotionally wrenching portrait
of an eight-year old blind boy (Mohsen Ramezani) whose self-
centered, desperately practical single father (Hossein Mahjub)
wants to pack off his son to an apprenticeship with a similarly-
handicapped carpenter so that he’ll be free to marry a younger
woman from a wealthier family.

Like Majidi’s last picture, “The Color of Paradise” is very
straightforward and unforced, but its simplicity is deceptive.
Its message–that the blind youth actually sees more, and
better, than his sighted father–could have easily become
heavy-handed, but the writer-director’s gentle approach keeps
it from descending into bathos; and its religious element–
the father’s self-pity has led him to question God’s very
existence, while his son, though unable to see the splendor
of the natural world which surrounds him, seems somehow to
feel the divine presence that infuses it–might have grown
preachy, but never does. Similarly, the figure of the white-
haired grandmother (Salime Feizi) who cherishes the boy and
warns her son against the mistakes he’s making would, in less
capable hands, be a hopeless cliche, but the delicate shading
that actress and director bring to the character makes her a
touchingly realistic, though obviously iconic, figure.

And Majidi has drawn brilliant performances from his two leads
as well. Mohsen Ramezani, who is actually blind and untrained
as an actor, brings a quiet, eloquent dignity to the boy,
honestly earning the tears he will draw from many members of
the audience; and Hossein Mahjub successfully captures the
torment of an essentially well-intentioned man whose virtues
are overcome by what he considers the unfairness of fate.
Mention must also be made of the luminous cinematography of
Mohammad Davoodi, which joins a crystalline clarity with a
luxuriant color palate, especially in the outdoor rural scenes.

The denouement of “The Color of Paradise” is a trifle
disappointing in that it manufactures a crisis which ends the
film on a note of devastating loss which could have been
achieved in a less contrived fashion, and with a final image
that is self-consciously poetic; “Forbidden Games,” with its
heartbreakingly simple close, is again the touchstone here.
But this is a minor blemish on an uncommonly graceful and
deeply moving portrayal of the hopes and desolation of
childhood.