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Knight at the Movies: Anonymous; classic DVDs
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2011-11-02

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With his mega-blockbuster films like 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, et al., the idea of out writer-director Roland Emmerich using a literary figure like William Shakespeare as the basis for one of his movies is akin to Rodney Dangerfield yelling, "Shakespeare for Everyone!" in the '80s frat comedy Back to School. As it turns out, that's exactly the result that the well-intentioned but misguided Emmerich has achieved with Anonymous.

The movie poses a question ("Was Shakespeare a fraud?") that Emmerich's regular moviegoing audience—the masses who have made his movie behemoths billion-dollar winners—might only not be particularly interested in answering: "Let's see, Shakespeare was…is…oh, whatever." Although this assessment certainly sounds more than a tad jaundiced and cynical, I can assure you that the cacophony that ensues as Emmerich's movie dances around this sorta tantalizing idea won't likely satisfy those that are in the dark about our greatest playwright—nor those who are.

As I sat, watching Emmerich's huge budget lavishly expended on the eye-popping sets and costumes, classy cast and sequences, I found myself lost in the intricate plot that had something to do with a battle over Queen Elizabeth's successor. Tossed into an excessive amount of court intrigue is the idea that Elizabeth (played by both Vanessa Redgrave, having a hammy good time, and in flashbacks by daughter Joely Richardson) just loved old Willy's plays. However, they were maybe dangerous or too distracting or, oh, whatever. Rhys Ifans—as the effete, titled Edward de Vere—loves the plays, too. That's because, as the film has it, he's the real author of not just the plays but the sonnets as well; unfortunately, those to the manner born during the Elizabethan period weren't, heaven forbid, allowed to do something so low-class as write plays or think of acting in them.

So, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes machinations as de Vere gets Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to pretend to be the author of the products of his vivid imagination—which, in turn become wildly popular plays, thus killing Jonson's own playwriting prospects. Then, in an accidental moment, the drunken womanizer himself, old Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) takes credit for Ed's work and becomes a sensation, adding even more intrigue to the movie.

The plot raises some intriguing questions but is so dense that you finally throw your hands; stare at the beautiful scenery; enjoy the over-the-top acting from the pedigreed cast and the beautiful boys (in and out of their codpieces—there's plenty of homo subtext here, m'lord); and sit in awe of the wads of cash necessary to pull together this bombastic claptrap. Anonymous, as it turns out, is an apt title for this entertaining nonsense as that's likely to be the swift fate of Emmerich's Edsel of a movie.

Classic DVD recommendations:

Warner Archives has led the way with its DVD on Demand service (although I still contend the price point is too high). The success of its service has inspired other studios to follow suit. (The lone hold-out seems to be Paramount, which continues to keep tons of its classic titles locked in vaults. What's the delay, Paramount?) Although the Warner Archive titles are rarely remastered or have much if anything in the way of special features (like their imitators), they allow classics fans to at long last add these much desired titles to their collections—reason enough for movie maniacs like myself. Recent titles I'm recommending include:

—Obsession: Writer/director Brian DePalma's 1976 mystery-thriller homage to Hitchcock's Vertigo (down to the Bernard Herrmann film score) includes a fine performance by the recently departed Cliff Robertston, whose tricky Hollywood career is due for reassessment. Genevieve Bujold has the dual role and is fantastic.

—The Phantom of Hollywood: Jack Cassidy stars in this 1974 TV movie parody of The Phantom of the Opera as a once-great actor who lives among the shadows of MGM's once glittering backlot and goes nuts when the powers that be decide its time to turn the sets into a parking lot. For nostalgia addicts like myself the movie is a must-see, as it features actual footage of the real MGM backlot being torn down and has a dazzling array of classic stars making cameos in what amounts to as a sad wake for MGM's golden era.

—Berserk!: Late-stage Joan Crawford (1967), showing off her still shapely 70-year-old gams, is the head of a tatty little circus plagued by a murderer who keeps killing off her acts in front of a horrified/thrilled public. It's bottom-of-the-barrel stuff but Crawford—who romances cocky new aerialist Ty Hardin without batting an ironic eye at their age difference—gives it her all, as usual. This movie's campish rather than camp.

—The Catered Affair: Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine star in Paddy Chaefsky's 1956 film adaptation of his TV play as a world-weary Bronx couple—a harried housewife and her cranky cab-driver husband—who haggle over how lavish a wedding to give their only daughter (Debbie Reynolds, who is the tough realist of the family and who gives an Oscar-worthy performance). Rod Taylor plays the fiancĂ©. Andre Previn contributes an emotionally ripe score that underscores the bitterness of the character's lives. Decades later, gay icon Harvey Fierstein realized a dream of turning the piece into a musical that, alas, didn't resonate with Broadway critics or audiences and closed after a brief run.

—Julie: Just days after marrying a dreamy concert pianist (Louis Jordan), Doris Day, as the title character, is hysterical after being terrorized by said husband, who is insane with jealousy. An early version of both Sleeping with the Enemy and Airport '75 (really), this little 1956 programmer ups the tension from its first frame and never lets go. Also, it also has an eerie, dream-like title song (sung by Day, natch) that haunts long after the movie ends at the end of a screeching runway. Juuuuuuullllliiiieeee.

—Athena: This rather oddball 1954 MGM musical focuses on astrology, numerology and, most important for gay audiences, the fitness craze. The latter plot point finds Louis Calhern (dressed in ruffled gold shirt and pants) training a bevy of live-in bodybuilders at the family spa for the impending Mr. Universe pageant. The he-men (including Steve Reeves) stand around posing in their bikinis and, once in a while, offer scenic support for the movie's musical stars—Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and Vic Damone—who give it their all.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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