Movie Reviews by Mark Leeper

Twelfth Night (1996) -- Mother (1996)

We still don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!

Twelfth Night (1996)

This is a light rollicking
Shakespeare comedy turned leaden and dour
apparently intentionally by director Trevor Nunn.
The 1890s look creates some logical problems for
the film without doing anything interesting to the
meaning of the story. Dim lighting and overly
restrained performances sap nearly all the spirit
out of a play that is usually a lot of fun.
Rating: high 0 (-4 to +4).
New York Critics: 10 positive, 1 negative, 6 mixed.

This is the film to take a Shakespeare fan to see so he will understand why so many people do not care for Shakespeare. Trevor Nunn put a lot of unconventional touches into this TWELFTH NIGHT. He took risks and in many cases demonstrated just how they were risks. I previously saw TWELFTH NIGHT performed in a San Jose park by a bunch of unknowns who passed a hat at the end. And I saw the Trevor Nunn film with respected professionals and highly paid name actors. It is surprising how much better the play was done in the park. Nunn is a director whom I have respected in the past. He directed the TV version of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, the film LADY JANE, and more recently the PBS "Les Miserables in Concert." Each is good, and each is downbeat in tone. Perhaps that is the only tone with which Nunn feels comfortable, but TWELFTH NIGHT is about as downbeat a treatment as we could expect from this comedy.

The first of the problems is that Nunn had moved the story to the late 19th century for no apparent reason and adding no value to the story. A year ago Ian McKellan did a magnificent updating of RICHARD III, giving the film not just a beautiful look, but adding a great deal to the meaning of the story. No reason for the updated setting here is apparent and in some cases clothing details required by the story just do not fit with the dress of the characters in the film. While we are on the subject of the look of the film, the dim lighting does odd things to the tone of the film. Nunn chooses to light very much like this is a film noir production. There are a few sunlit scenes, but a great deal of the film seems to take place in semi-darkness with characters having half of their faces lit, the other half fading into the darkness of the background. Frequently there is one bright source of light in a scene and the rest is bathed in black. In a crime film it would have worked very nicely because it lends a powerful downbeat and oppressive feel. Using that sort of lighting in a light comedy is creative, but the effect fights what should be the tone of a film with characters like Sir Toby Belch (played by broad comedic actor Mel Smith) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant of "Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life").

The plot is as complex as many of Shakespeare's comedies. Viola and Sebastian are identical twins who are shipwrecked separately in a place called Illyria. Each is unaware that the other has survived, and each goes into the service of one of two rival dukes. In order to do this Viola has to dress as and pretend to be a man. She apparently does it very well since the Countess Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter) falls in love with her, thinking her to be a man. You can imagine the possibilities that a Shakespeare (or for that matter a Mozart) would see in male and female twins, otherwise identical and now actually identical since both now appear to be male. The Bard has his usual fun with mistaken identities and odd love alliances. For additional humor Shakespeare has peppered the plot with characters who often have humorous names and a subplot involving a puritanical servant, Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne).

Viola is played by Imogen Stubbs who gets surprisingly low billing considering that she really is the main character. Her best known role is as Lucy Steele in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, though if the reader wants to make a terrific film discovery, I can suggest her earlier A SUMMER STORY. Stubbs has the talent for the role, but has a hard time making herself even look like a man, much less make herself mistakable for Stephen Mackintosh, who plays her twin brother Sebastian. There is one really stunning performance in the film, and even that is not entirely obvious until the end: Nigel Hawthorne is actually very good as Malvolio. In his last scene he manages to turn much of the play upside-down. Another very good actor is used to much less effect. Ben Kingsley plays a sort of narrator and chorus, Feste. In the original he was the court fool, here turned into a wandering minstrel. This gives Kingsley what I think is his first and hopefully only singing role. Rounding out the cast is Helena Bonham Carter in a less pouting role than most of hers, but not one with which she did a whole lot. There is a lot of comedy in the play, but somehow nothing seems all that funny on the screen, due in large part to the restrained performances of the cast and the dour feel of the lighting.

Trevor Nunn's version of TWELFTH NIGHT does some things original but not a lot that really improve on the material. I rate it a high 0 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Mother (1996)

A doubly-divorced man decides to
return to living in his mother's house in an
experiment to understand his relationships with the
women in his life. MOTHER may well be the least of
Albert Brooks's generally reliable comedies. This
one has a serious message in the end which comes
off as a little contrived and superficial.
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4)

There is a very selective appeal to Albert Brooks comedies. They are low-budget, intelligently written pieces in which the humor mostly comes from dialogue. Like Woody Allen, Brooks usually plays an intelligent neurotic and the comedy ordinarily comes from the dialogue as it does in a Woody Allen comedy. Where Brooks differs is that his characters speak in a much more natural manner than Allen's and his humor is more subtle. Also his comedies often take a little longer to settle in. It is hard to judge on a first viewing how funny an Albert Brooks comedy will be the second time around. Usually like a Thanksgiving turkey they are a feast the first time around but are not at their best until the second or third partaking. Then some of his gags take on classic proportions. Bits like forbidding Julie Hagerty to use the words "nest" or "egg" are hilarious and at the same time ring very true.

That said, MOTHER is just a bit substandard for a Brooks-directed comedy. Brooks usually uses as a format the experiment that fails--the good idea gone awry. Of five Brooks comedies, only DEFENDING YOUR LIFE does not fall into this "it seemed like a good idea at the time" pattern. In MODERN ROMANCE the Brooks character decides to break up with a woman and then finds the single life is not all he was expecting. LOST IN AMERICA involved a wealthy advertising executive who drops out, buys a Winnebago, and tries to live on the road. This time around, in what could have almost been a sequel to MODERN ROMANCE, John Henderson (Brooks) is a man who cannot deal with the women in his life. To understand why he returns to the home of his mother (Debbie Reynolds) to live in his old bedroom, decorated just like the old days, in an attempt to discover what he will learn. What he finds is that his mother is hard to live with. Eventually he discovers why his relationship with his mother has been strained. But while the reason satisfies him, it turns out to be a not very satisfying or even interesting contrivance. Most people I know have problems to some degree in dealing with their parents not unlike those in this film, but Brooks's rather pat explanation for his case just does not explain very much of the problem. If the mother-son problems are dispelled a little too easily, at least the script does not place all the blame on the mother. Beatrice Henderson comes off as an intelligent and self- reliant woman who can run her own life just fine, thank you, and who once raised two bright kids, John and his brother (Rob Morrow of QUIZ SHOW).

While I have come to expect a fair amount of a Brooks comedy, somehow here his timing seemed just a bit off. A scene early in the film has John rearranging the one chair that his divorce has left him in a large empty living room. He tries the chair in four places before deciding that it worked best where it was. The joke takes too much screen time for way too little payoff. This is not the sort of perceptive humor we expect from Brooks. Later, when he is in his mother's home, the film tries to milk as much humor as possible from his mother freezing a big chunk of cheese and a salad. These gags are more miss than hit in this film's hit-and-miss humor. On the other hand, there is some perceptive humor in Beatrice's repeated references to writer John's lack of Stephen-King-like success in his writing profession and the greater success of her other son, the sports agent. There are a number of very clever gags including a very impressively managed allusion to the film THE GRADUATE--telling any more would spoil it. Like Woody Allen, Brooks seems to play the same character from film to film. Reynolds is, of course, a veteran actress. She holds her own against Brooks. One minor gripe: in MODERN ROMANCE the character was editing a science fiction film, in this film John is a science fiction writer, but in each film he seems to be very condescending toward science fiction. In his most recent novel they talk about the character "with the big head" and the one "with the big hand." It is hard to imagine he could make a living writing science fiction if he is writing at the level suggested in the film.

Since Brooks directs a comedy only once in about five years, it is a pity that this film is so frequently not up to his usual standard. His comedy about a mother and son learning about each other could have been a lot more memorable than this one was, but there are still more laugh-out-loud gags than most comedies, and there is a bit of a statement here also, so I give MOTHER a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.


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