Friday, October 29, 2010

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Blu-ray Review)

Baz Luhrmann’s version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a highly stylized retelling that sets the story in modern times.  The second movie in Luhrmann’s self-described Red Curtain Trilogy (preceded by Strictly Ballroom and followed by his masterpiece of Moulin Rouge).  In this movie, Luhrmann was stretching his wings and trying out new and innovative ideas and assembled an all-star cast to realize his vision.

This new hyper-stylized approach took a well known play and amped it up about 100% to make it more relevant to modern audiences.  Now with guns used instead of swords (although the guns have sword descriptions etched on them), and an MTV editing style, Luhrmann was successful in bringing in young kids to see the movie but also alienated the more traditional purists that felt he took too many liberties with the material.

Film  (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

If you had asked me in 1996 when this movie was released and when I first saw it,  I would have given it a rating of five but not anymore.  It is very rare that my opinion of a movie changes as I’m usually very consistent no matter how much time passes but in this case, after watching it again after a period of not seeing it for fourteen years, I was very surprised to discover that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had before.  I don’t know if it’s because my tastes have changed or that I’m not as willing to overlook things that bother me about the movie like I did in the past, but I suspect that it’s the later.  When the movie came out, I was five years out of high school and I was heavily involved in the drama program and enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s plays.  I think that I was so happy to see another play brought to be the big-screen (I had also really enjoyed Mel Gibson’s Hamlet in 1990), that I dismissed a lot of issues I had with it.

The movie definitely had a strong cast going for it with Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire Danes as Juliet and a lot of really good actors in supporting roles.  It was amusing to see actors in the movie that I had forgotten were even in it like Paul Rudd as Paris.  Although Luhrmann  assembled a high-caliber cast, I believe that some of those casting decisions and the direction of some of those characters hurt the movie.  Actors like Diane Venora, Jamie Kennedy, John Leguizamo, and Harold Perrineau ruined the movie for me.  I don’t know if they were told to overact or if it was a creative decision on their own, but not only were they miscast but also chewed up so much scenery that it’s a wonder any was left.  Actually, that could apply in different amounts across the board so I’m guessing that it was a decision by Luhrmann himself to have the cast act as if they were on speed.

The traditional tale of two young lovers from opposing families getting together has been told many times so I won’t rehash the details, but suffice it to say that DiCaprio and Danes do an excellent job despite being surrounded by dramatic hams.  What’s interesting to me is that Luhrmann carried over this style to Moulin Rouge and it worked beautifully.  Right after watching this movie, I went back and watched the new Blu-ray of Moulin Rouge and I still loved it.  It too is highly stylized but it works in that movie whereas, it misses the mark in the movie.

The last week or so I’ve seen a lot of movies that were very ambitious in what they tried to do so I still can appreciate what Luhrmann was trying to do with this movie but it just doesn’t work for me anymore.  It’s also one thing to try to modernize the play but the movie also takes liberties with some of the characters like Sampson and especially Mercutio that I don’t understand or agree with. In conclusion, this was a bold experiment that worked as far as getting more people to see and enjoy some of Shakespeare’s work, but those changes were a bit too extreme for me which diluted my enjoyment of the movie.

Video (5 out of 5 stars)

This is a huge step up from the previous DVD release! The film has been color corrected to remove the excessive pink and blue hues of the earlier release.  The colors pop with amazing clarity and the contrast is spot on.  The black levels are now as dark as they should be and no longer washed out like before.  This is definitely one of the best catalog transfers I’ve seen.  Fox did an outstanding job on this one.

Audio (5 out of 5 stars)

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix is just as impressive as the picture quality.  The dialogue (which is especially important in a Shakespeare film) is front and center and clear as day.  Although the emphasis is on the dialogue, the surround channels also are well utilized between the songs, the gun shots, and the rest of the action that is spread out between the speakers.  The sub-woofer also is used well during the action sequences and the music as well.

Special Features (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

A lot of previous material from earlier releases has been included here including the interesting picture-in-picture commentary.  That and the music documentary are the best things on here but seeing some of the uncut footage was interesting as well.
  • Shaking Up Shakespeare Picture-in-Picture Mode with Audio Commentary by Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Donald M. McAlpine and Craig Pearce and featuring Behind-the-Scenes Footage and Stills
  • Uncut Footage from the Bazmark Vault
  • Romeo + Juliet: The Music Documentary
  • Filmmaker and Interview Galleries
  • BD-LIVE**: Live Lookup powered by IMDb®

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

While the movie is too stylized for my tastes and has a ton of overacting that makes me cringe, I still can appreciate the effort and imagination that went into making this movie.  I think a lot of it works and there’s some that doesn’t, but Baz Luhrmann didn’t take the easy way out and his ambition should be recognized.  He would later triumph with Moulin Rouge which is better than this movie in every way possible, so perhaps this movie was an essential stepping stone to move on to better things.  If you love this movie and want to own it, I highly recommend it as both the video and audio quality far surpasses the earlier releases you may own.
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