Judge Daryl Loomis is sometimes referred to as "Ol' Twighands."
If one good deed in all my life I did I do repent it from my very soul.
After years of success directing stage production, Julie Taymor (Frida) took her talents to the silver screen in 1999 with the release of Titus, adapted for film from her own stage production of Shakespeare's derided Titus Andronicus. Whether or not one actually enjoys the experience depends on one's art tolerance, but there's no question it was an audacious directorial debut and a Shakespeare adaptation the likes of which cinema had never seen. It stunned me when I originally watched it, but something like this doesn't always age so well. Will Titus? We'll find out with this limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time.
Facts of the Case
After grand success against the Goths, Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins, The Elephant Man) returns to Rome with Tamora (Jessica Lange, King Kong), queen of the Goths, and her two sons in chains. They want to make him their new emperor, but he refuses and, instead, nominates Saturninus (Alan Cumming, Spy Kids), who is then crowned. Saturninus is a cruel king, though, and when an act of sheer brutality against Titus' daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser, Breaking Bad), leaves her mutilated, Titus wages a war of revenge against her attackers.
Julie Taymor rides a very fine line in Titus, coming so close to going over the top, but never quite tipping into the absolutely ridiculous. Her excesses are crucial to the film's success, though, as bringing Shakespeare's most disturbing, horrific play to the screen would play as terribly melodramatic if staged in anywhere close to a standard manner. And pretty much everything about Titus is as non-standard as you can get.
Normally, Shakespeare is presented either in the originally intended setting or updated into modern times (or, oh so often, gangland Chicago or something). Taymor, on the other hand, combines both the Roman Empire and some mashup of the first half of the 20th Century. The resulting fantasy world that she created highlights the more absurd elements of the story, making it often feel more like a modern horror film than a Shakespearean tragedy.
These elements are further strengthened by Taymor's choice of cinematographer. Luciano Tovoli isn't a household name in the U.S., but when you employ the services of the man who photographed Suspiria, the most unique and beautiful looking horror movie ever made, you are clearly going for a certain something. Her broad vision for the film was already set in her stage production, but Tovoli brings it to incredible life with his high-style photography and eye for the surreal and horrific.
Taymor achieves such an amazing feel with what she calls "Penny Arcade Nightmares," isolated setpieces of surrealism to get across the more disturbing and frightening aspects of the story. For as violent as Shakespeare's play is, though, with its clear themes of rape, murder, and even cannibalism, Taymor is actually quite restrained in this regard, letting these Nightmares take the place of the more gratuitous business. It's just as effective as showing it, while displaying a deliberate level of artistry that makes it unique in the world of Shakespeare adaptation. It's more Kenneth Russell than Kenneth Branagh and that's what makes Titus my personal favorite of the genre. Her intent was not to simply stage the play, but to add to it and make it her own. Whether the outrageous style rings with an individual is unclear, but there's absolutely no question that she succeeded there.
But for how nutty Titus often is, Taymor, exclusively using Shakespeare's language, never lets her direction get in the way of the actors, who have all the room in the world to do their work. While a Shakespearean trained actor and longtime stage lead, this is, as far as I know, the only time Anthony Hopkins has appeared in an adaptation and he is outstanding here in the lead. His Titus is very much part of the Roman world, only occasionally appearing in the future scenes, grounding the production and letting the more outrageous performances work around him. This is best represented by Jessica Lange, whose torment and rage are only matched by her vindictiveness, and Alan Cumming, who is about as sniveling a villain as I've ever seen in a Shakespeare film. They have a delicious chemistry together; they're filled with a hate-based lust and they're hilarious to watch. With a supporting cast that includes talent like Harry Lennix (Man of Steel), Jonathan Rhys Myers (Mission: Impossible III), Angus Macfadyen (Saw 3) and Matthew Rhys (The Scapegoat), there is plenty to feast on throughout the movie.
All of this makes it a terrible shame, then, that Twilight Time's Blu-ray for Titus is so unfortunate. While there's nothing about it that one can actually call bad, per se, there are few places that I can honestly call an upgrade over the original DVD for the film. Weirdly, the 2.35:1/1080p transfer has far more dirt and damage than should be acceptable in a movie this young. There's an overall softness to the image, as well, that makes the plentiful night scenes murky. That said, close-up detail is excellent and the deliberately washed out colors come across accurately. The sound fares far better, with strong Master Audio mixes in both surround and stereo options to choose from. The surround mix is preferable to me, with its full range of atmospheric effects and a stronger score, but the stereo sound has brighter dialog that some might prefer.
The slate of extra features, while good, it's very nearly the same slate as the original DVD. They're a good set, no doubt, but it doesn't give fans much reason to upgrade. It starts with three audio commentaries. The first, with Taymor, is an exhaustive discussion of her filmmaking decisions. It becomes immediately clear listening to her that, agree or disagree with her, she knew and achieved exactly what she wanted. It's excellent and very detailed, which is more than I can say for the other two which, combined, might barely make up one commentary. The discussion with Anthony Hopkins and Harry Lennix was recorded separately and goes almost half an hour at times without a word, while the one with composer Elliot Goldenthal (Heat) is sparse enough to fill in a few of those gaps. Both are good; there's just not enough of it. Moving on, we get Goldenthal's score as an isolated track in DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio, the making-of documentary from the original disc, and a question and answer session with Taymor, in which she goes into many of the same issues as her commentary. A brief featurette on the Nightmare sequences and a group of trailers close out the disc.
Pretentious mess or cinematic glory? I say Titus is the latter, but your mileage may vary. By shining the light of Shakespeare through a horror filter accentuates the bizarre cruelty of Titus Andronicus, doing the kind of justice to this early Bard play that few other directors would have the guts for. As we've seen from some of her later movies, her vision, while always audacious, does not always work. Here in her debut, though, she succeeds brilliantly. Officially, the movie was released on Christmas 1999, but was put into wide release at the start of 2000, making Titus the first truly great film of the 21st Century.
The disc could be so much better, but the movie is still not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Twilight Time
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