Though it seems the plays of William Shakespeare have been slogged through by every high schooler from Adam and Eve on down, one which has lately fallen out of favor (and which has been outright banned in some cases) is the Bard’s most politically disturbing effort: “The Merchant of Venice.” With what many see as a vile symbol of patent anti-Semitism at its heart — the character of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender — “Merchant” is one play that many shy away from in our age.
A new version, premiering in Little Rock this weekend at Market Street Cinema, should serve to help redeem this most troublesome of ol’ Will’s works, however. With a knockout and nuanced performance by Al Pacino in the role of Shylock and an equally brilliant Jeremy Irons in place as his adversary Antonio, this is “Merchant” for a new century, meant to provoke the very discussion that political correctness and censorship of the play have stifled in the past.
In 1596, young Venetian man-about-town Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) wants desperately to get to far-off Belmont to woo and win the wealthy Portia (Lynn Collins). Down on his luck, however, he comes to his merchant friend Antonio (Irons) for a loan. With several ships at sea and a cash-flow problem, however, Antonio is just as broke. Eager to help his young friend, however — screenwriter/director Michael Radford throws in a bit of homoeroticism here for effect — off they go to the Jewish ghetto, where they seek out Shylock (Pacino) for a loan. During a recent near-riot, Antonio has spit on Shylock and called him a dog. With that insult in mind, Shylock tells Antonio that he will lend him 3,000 ducats without interest — on the condition that if he defaults, Shylock will extract from Antonio the famous “pound of flesh.”
Antonio: “I’ve got cargo coming in, and soon I’ll be rich! What’s the worst that could happen?” You can see where this is headed, right?
Though the outright vileness of Shylock has been toned down a bit by Radford, it’s Pacino who turns literature’s most famous Jew into a human being. This is accomplished mainly by Pacino’s look, gesture and tone, which manages to transform Shylock from a spawn of Satan into a vulnerable and fragile man with a sheen of bitterness that he uses to keep out the world — a downtrodden man who has finally gained an upper hand against just the sort of hypocrite that has kept him down for years, and who intends to squeeze it of every drop of satisfaction.
While not the feel-good performance of the year, it is a powerful and careful thing, worthy of study by Shakespearian actors for decades to come. In the end, with great performances all around, a lavish $30 million production, and some of the best language in all of Elizabethan theater, this is a must-see for fans of Shakespeare, of Pacino and acting in general.
— By David Koon
As seen in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” it’s an American nightmare: Once a sane person gets locked up in the Academy of Laughter, how can he prove himself sane enough to get out? That well-plowed furrow gets dug a little deeper — with some dark and interesting twists — in “The Jacket.” While it’s a pretty good film with some moments of jarring clarity, more could have been done with the interesting time-travel conceit at its core and the mechanics behind those fantastic goings-on. As it stands, it’s a little disjointed.
Adrien Brody plays Jack Starks. Shot through the head during the first Gulf War, Starks miraculously survives and gets shipped stateside, only to catch a lift from a homicidal driver while hitchhiking across New England. Before long, a cop winds up dead and Starks lands in an institution for the criminally insane, under the care of the kindly Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the mad scientist Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson). As Starks quickly finds out, it seems that Dr. Becker has been attempting some radical therapies, meant to put patients in a “womblike” state to treat their mental illness. That fits only if you consider being pumped full of anti-epileptic drugs, strapped into a full-body straitjacket and stuffed into a tiny morgue locker “womblike.”
The plot really gets rolling when Starks realizes that while he is trussed up like a sausage inside the locker, he can travel physically forward in time, popping up in the year 2007 like a prairie dog popping out of its hole. Once there, with the help of a waitress named Jackie Price (Keira Knightley) who he had crossed paths with before, Starks realizes that he has less than a week to live back in the “real” time of 1992. This sets Starks and Jackie off on a kind of detective story to find out who killed him.
Though there are a lot of holes in the story (we never find out, for instance, what Jack’s head injury in the war has to do with anything, or why — of all the people in the world — he seems cosmically connected to Jackie Price), this is still a better effort than the similarly themed out-of-body time-travel flick “The Butterfly Effect.” In many respects, especially given the subject matter, what I’m calling holes could just as easily be seen as the mystery surrounding the subjects the film deals with: fate, paradox, providence. Too, Brody is pleading and honest in a movie that works on the strength of his performance — though his leading lady comes off a bit too punk for a girl who is supposed to be working as a waitress in some nothing town.
Overall, this is a pretty good time at the movies. Claustrophobics, however, should probably pass this one by.
— By David Koon