"My Own Private Idaho"
Keanu Reeves. Love him or hate him, you definitely have to deal with him in Gus Van Sant's low-budget adaptation of "Henry IV." Though many would argue its Reeves' best movie (and performance), "My Own Private Idaho" is better known as one of the great films in River Phoenix's tragically short career. Phoenix plays Mike Waters, a street hustler and stand in for Shakespeare's Falstaff as both a coward and soon-to-be repudiated friend. Reeves' Scott Favor is the future traitor as well as an heir to his father's fortune, making him an updated version of Prince Hal. The film features only flourishes of Shakespearean dialogue and plays out as more of a blend between "Henry IV" and Van Sant's original story, but "My Own Private Idaho" owes much of its success to Shakespeare's structure -- even if its Van Sant's "doomed lovers" narrative that stays with you.
Though many directors have certainly left their visual stamp on Shakespeare's immortal words, none have managed to do it in such an aesthetically profound manner as the great Akira Kurosawa. In "Ran," Kurosawa's stunning adaptation of "King Lear," an aging patriarch of a decaying clan decides to split his kingdom among his three sons in an attempt to unify his family and strengthen their house. Instead, the sons begin a jealous feud that leads to the eventual downfall of their father's clan. Kurosawa reportedly planned the film as an original screenplay before realizing his writing had taken him into Shakespearean territory. He then spent 10 years hand-painting storyboards for "Ran," an incredible effort that pays off with a rich, vibrant color palette seen distinctly in the costumes and mise en scene. "Ran" earned Kurosawa his only Academy Award nomination for Best Director as well as three more nominations with a win for costume design.
"Romeo + Juliet"
Give me balls-to-the-wall Baz any day. Unlike his latest adaptation, Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" pulls no punches in its flamboyant portrayal of young, wild love amidst class warfare of a quite literal kind. Unlike Shakespeare's original, there's no hints toward satire here. Luhrmann creates a dizzying world of disparaging passion via his now trademarked quick cutting and Catherine Martin's (Baz's wife) beautifully ravaged production design. It's this wondrous array of imagery that makes it fitting both to the world created by William and the hormonal teenagers the film is aims to please. The only way to read Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" as a romance is to make it the epitome of all romance, and when do you feel more fiercely romantic than when you're first in love? Baz channels these feelings better than anyone when he's at his best. If only he'd done for F. Scott Fitzgerald what he did for the Bard.