Reviews

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Boar? 'Richard III'

O glorious restoration! Laurence Olivier's eye-popping, frightening, rousing and at times, quite moving Richard III gets the royal treatment.


Richard III

Director: Laurence Olivier
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: Unrated
Release date: 2013-04-13

Though when it comes to cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare my heart belongs to Orson Welles, Sir Laurence Olivier holds an incontestable second place. Welles may be more weirdly, idiosyncratically cinematic, but Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) is undeniably spooky and moody, and his Henry V (1944) an eye-popping rouser. But his adaptation of Richard III, newly restored and released by Criterion, is all this and more: an eye-popping, frightening, rousing and, at times, quite moving experience.

Having already attained a huge success with the play on the stage, Olivier, along with producer Alexander Korda, adapted it for the screen as just one of a series of proposed Shakespeare films, before Korda died tragically in 1955 (as film critic Amy Taubin relates in her booklet essay for this DVD release).

It’s a shame to think of the films we might have had, as Olivier is so assured with the material. Both Welles and Olivier played notoriously loose and irreverent with the Shakespeare texts. Here Olivier doesn’t just transpose the stage version wholesale to the screen, but makes crucial recalibrations in character and execution that render the material more cinematic while still firmly theatrical. He provides “interpolations”, including a scrolling introduction setting the historical stage, and also trims the text here, re-situates there, cutting the play to force the focus onto Richard and his nefarious machinations.

Cinematically, Olivier relies generally on long takes and fluid tracking shots, allowing the actor’s line deliveries to flow rather than chopping them up or over-punctuating through montage. There are more strictly cinematic elements, such as the optical overlays of the visitation of the ghosts on the battlefield at Bosworth, but the camera movement is mostly unobtrusive or minimal as when, for example, it subtly dollies forward and back onto Claire Bloom’s Anne as she delivers her lamentations.

Yet Olivier doesn’t ignore the camera, rather much the opposite. In the film’s greatest cinematic strategy, Olivier transmutes Richard’s stage asides -- necessarily more projective and distributive in the theater, ordered to reach the bleachers -- into cinematic direct address. Richard dispenses his darkly eloquent sarcasm right into the camera, his unflinching gaze pinning us to the screen. The close-ups are especially disquieting, his nimble morbid mind and his pointily accusatory nose too close for comfort, as he gives us and only us privileged glimpses behind closed doors both actual and mental. Yet such privilege is fatally proscribed, as we’re really prisoners to his treacherous wit. Thus he doth implicate us, and render us accomplice!

Other changes are more physical. One of the many DVD extras is an episode of the BBC series Great Acting, hosted by critic Kenneth Tynan, in which Olivier talks of his career in general, and Richard III in particular. The interview is fascinating, as it gives insight into his performance rationale and working methods. He speaks of altering his putty nose for the camera (like Orson Welles, Olivier never met a false nose he didn’t like), and reveals that one of the models for his conception of Richard was the Big Bad Wolf. In the end, all these importations make of Richard a multi-animal mélange: wolf, rat, pig, and stalking, molting owl or vulture. At times, he even recalls the vampire Nosferatu, exploiting that hawkish profile like a grotesque parody of John Barrymore.

Aiding and abetting this conception is Olivier’s vocal delivery. Taubin links Richard’s adenoidal squawk to Hitler’s abrasive bark, a vocal attack that is tyrannical and paranoid, monomaniacal but vexed, exhibiting a will to power yet a terror of usurpation. Richard may remain confidently irredeemable throughout the play, but especially as played by Olivier, he is also somewhat of a whiny tyrant who oscillates between murderous connivance and physical insecurity. Because he has “No delight to pass away the time / Unless to see my shadow in the sun / And descant on mine own deformity,” he can’t resist inflicting his deformity on others, through merciless, malformed actions.

Shadows are stressed visually throughout the film. They precede their persons into scenes or see them out, giving different shape to the characters, a sort of secret self truer to internal form. In one concise visual metaphor, Richard’s lumpen shadow muddies the hem of Anne’s pristine gown.

Claire Bloom’s Anne, though underdeveloped, provides a kind of through-line of grief. A steadily weakening wraith, she floats heavily, druggily throughout the film, particularly after being wooed by Richard, the man who has decimated her entire family. Her interactions with Helen Haye, as the Duchess of York (likewise underdeveloped) are like small bits of grace in a film without redemption.

Ralph Richardson, as Richard’s rube Buckingham, is nearly as brilliant as Olivier. Willingly assisting Richard with his murderous climb to the throne, Richardson’s Buckingham is brought short when pressed to murder the two children, Edward and York. So when Richard dismisses Buckingham with the famous “I am not in the giving vein today,” Richardson’s registering of betrayal is bloodcurdlingly palpable. Similarly, John Gielgud, as the doomed Clarence, imprints and elevates every truncated scene he’s in.

But there is no doubt as to whose show this is. Olivier is one of those special performers with both stage and camera presence. His gestures can be bold and big, concentrated and riveting. After tricking the townspeople into accepting him as king, he straightens his hump-backed frame, a proud Quasimodo, pressuring Buckingham to his knees and offering his deformed hand for a royal kiss. When he finally takes the throne, he does so with a histrionic flourish the sheer wind of which forces Anne, his enforced Queen, to collapse.

As evil as is Richard before being crowned, he is twice that afterward. Knowing he is more vulnerable as visible King than as invisible villain, his paranoia and savagery increase accordingly. He nonchalantly orders the children’s deaths (played here as a ghastly double smothering), and shouts, “Off with his head!” to anyone he perceives as obstacle. Olivier progressively isolates the character, with Richard murdering every ally, until he’s left with not even a horse. His insecurity manifests most strongly on the night before battle, as the whispering ghosts of his victims are all “sitting heavy in thy soul.” The power with which Olivier plays a villain he inverts here into a timorousness just as forceful. Only the thought of battle, of more killing, restores him (“Richard’s himself again…”), though not for long.

Richard’s death would seem horribly ignominious -- the opposing forces slit his throat like a pig, then set upon him -- yet Olivier transforms this “muddy death” into a thing of violent beauty. He plays the death throes to the hilt, literally. In a gesture that manages to be both elegant and ugly, he arches his humpback, balances his sword delicately near the hilt in his malformed hand, and strikes a ghoulishly theatrical, nearly balletic pose. In the Great Acting extra, Olivier characterizes Gielgud as celestial or spiritual, and himself as more “earth [and] blood.” In Richard III’s final scenes, Olivier combines all these elements into something unnerving, universal and close to the bone. It’s impossible to hate his hatefully human Richard.

Besides Olivier, the other star of the film is the restoration itself. In a demonstration extra, hosted by director Martin Scorsese, we see comparative frames, before and after restoration. While the old print had become a yellowy incomplete mess, the newly restored original Technicolor and VistaVision are now bright and beautiful, with the luscious vibrancy of an illuminated manuscript. ‘Tis a visual feast, indeed!

This royal treatment is adorned with extras. Besides Amy Taubin’s essay, there is audio commentary by playwright Russell Lees and John Wilders of the Royal Shakespeare Company; the BBC episode of Great Acting; production stills captioned with excerpts from Olivier’s autobiography; the restoration demonstration; and a rich selection of trailers.

10

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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