Borat  (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's notes

Let me start with a simplified version of the plot (with some sub-plots ignored in the interest of brevity).

General Titus Andronicus, a fictional creation based in some non-existent ancient Rome which is based on a hodge-podge of different time periods, is offered the empire upon his emperor's death. He declines, citing his age and unworthiness, and instead supports the orderly passing of power to the emperor's oldest son. This is not so good for Rome and won't turn out so good for Titus, either, because the eldest son is a scheming and lustful sybarite in the decadent Roman tradition, but ol' Titus does what he conceives to be honorable.

The new emperor is so thrilled with Titus' loyalty, that he decides to make Titus's daughter Lavinia his queen. Unfortunately, this daughter despises the emperor and is in love with emperor's chaste-hearted younger brother, so she simply runs away. Titus is bound by his sworn allegiance to the emperor, so he swears that he will bring her back. Unfortunately, all of his own family opposes him, and he ends up killing two of his own sons in the pursuit.

Not that the emperor really cares. He's forgotten Lavinia before she's out the door, and has fallen in love with a captured Goth queen named Tamora, so he tells everyone he's had a change of heart, and that SHE will be his new queen. This is really, really bad news for Titus Andronicus, because Titus is the one who captured this queen and three of her sons, and subsequently killed one of the sons as a sacrifice to the gods, turning a deaf ear to his mother's pleas. Gotta love those gods and their demands. Anyway, mom was understandably hacked off about this incident, and had sworn to take the most awful revenge on Titus, either death or torture or possibly even forcing Titus to eat at Denny's for all eternity. So when the emperor falls in love with her, she really gets a chance to kick Titus's ancient butt. So poor Titus has had a major reversal of fortune. Offered the throne about ten minutes earlier, her is now at war with his own sons, and is also being hunted down by the emperor's new queen. Tough turn of events for the old boy.

Meanwhile, Tamora's two remaining sons need to get an appropriate revenge on Titus for killing their brother, so they rape Titus' daughter, cut out her tongue, and chop off her hands (this part of the story is based on an old Greek myth). She still manages somehow to communicate to her dad, and Titus really doesn't take the news well at all. He makes his way to the lair of Tamora where he first kills her sons, then roasts them into a pie and feeds them to her. At any rate, Titus then kills Tamora. Then the emperor in turn kills Titus. Then Titus's son kills the emperor, and declares himself the new Big Cheese. So it goes.

I didn't make this stuff up. Shakespeare was not always in flight with the brighter angels of our natures, and Titus isn't one of his enduring treasures. Instead of the typical Shakespearian hero in the Aristotelian model, a powerful man falling from his pinnacle because of his own tragic flaw, Titus Andronicus is a good man who was punished for his virtue and honor until he can bear no more and overreacts in his revenge, thus provoking a concatenation of events in which everyone in the play starts to overreact and counter-overreact with disproportionate acts of vengeance. These are not the sorts of themes that resonate through the centuries. Big Billy Shakespeare was still in his twenties when he wrote Titus, and had not yet found his voice. If he had died after writing it, he would now be a long-forgotten Elizabethan obscurity known only to specialized scholars. 

On the other hand, Titus was highly popular with the masses in its own time. In the Elizabethan era it was one of Shakespeare's most popular and most frequently produced plays. Titus was so popular, in fact that while it was not the first play written by Billy Boy, it was the first to be put up for sale in written form. Its strong themes and exaggerated violence had powerful appeal to mass audiences, and inspired other writers. In an imaginary conversation in the film Shakespeare in Love, the boy Webster, a generation younger than Shakespeare and future master of the Senecan school of body count theater, says that when he grows up he wants to write all his plays like Titus.

He succeeded.

Looking back on Shakespeare's complete body of work, one might compare Shakespeare to Steven Spielberg in the sense that he made powerful masterpieces as well as mass entertainments. If Hamlet and King Lear are his Amistad and Schindler's list, Titus Andronicus is his Jaws.

I found the filmed version of Titus to be  perfect interpretation of the spirit of the original, although its bolder conceits take some getting used to. The film not only takes place in a Rome of mixed time periods, but it introduces additional time periods long after Shakespeare's own. 20th century Fascist Rome also makes an appearance, for example, complete with electric lights, radio broadcasts, art deco parties, saxophones, motorcycles, and tanks. Is this just craziness. No. Not at all. Director Julie Taymor can tell a hawk from a handsaw in any wind. The most difficult task in presenting a Shakespearian play to modern audiences is to find a way to bring us up to speed on all the assumptions that were second-nature for those in The Globe. Shakespeare had always intended to convey the mythical nature of the time presented in this play, and it was obvious to his audiences that he was not talking about any characters that really existed. On the other hand, it is not common knowledge to us that these characters are completely fictional, or that the power of the Senate in one scene never co-existed with the Goth invaders in another, or that the senate-emperor relationship that prevails in the film never existed at all, or that Shakespeare mixed in details of his own time with those of Roman times. Shakespeare's audience could see this clearly. It was obvious to them that this play was about a pseudo-Rome, not the real Rome.

But simply mixing the time periods of ancient Rome would not do this for the modern audience. Except for a few scholars, we can't see this at all. The filmmaker wanted and needed a more powerful way to deliver the message to us across the centuries. Done.  All the gimmicky anachronisms simply allow her to speak to us the way Shakespeare would if he has been writing for us instead of  Elizabethans. 

In addition, the various connections to modern times (there are more I haven't summarized in the interest of economy) also serve to remind us that the play is about all men, not only ancient ones. The extreme violence and cruelty portrayed in Titus reside still, inside our very natures. The 20th century scenes may be a bit forced, in my opinion, but they are not without a point. If the director had dressed everyone up in Roman clothing, it would have allowed a member of the audience to think, "This isn't about us. It's about them. Those primitives. They were not far removed from animals!" The director didn't want to do that. She wanted it to be crystal clear that the play is about them, but it is also about us, and that the 20th century was in many ways as barbaric and decadent as the first.

And she is right. The Nazi regime existed in my parents' lifetime. The Taliban exist today.

I read some of the negative reviews, and I think they just didn't get it, and didn't do their homework. The visuals in this film are splendid, and some of the acting is outstanding. I was especially moved by the beautiful performance of Colm Feore as Titus' brother, Marcus, so vivid that I can't picture anyone else in this role. I agree with the three and a half stars awarded by Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli. It is a good movie. Exceptionally good. Creative, thoughtful, bold and exceptionally faithful to the author. It could easily earn some Oscars in a better world. I read some of the negative reviews, and I think they just didn't get it, and didn't do their homework. Kudos to those who did. Here are two who, in my opinion, got it right, and stated their cases eloquently.

 So if you like the Bard, and don't know that much about this particular play, here's your chance to see it done well, with the same kind of visceral and cerebral impact that it had on its original audiences.


DVD info from Amazon

  • Two discs.

  • 2.35:1 anamorphic

  • Excellent clarity and colors

  • Full-length director's commentary

  • Scene-specific commentary by the actors

  • Making-of documentary

  • Costume gallery


  • Jessica Lange's breasts are seen in the orgy scene. (And she still looks pretty damned good.)
  • There is additional miscellaneous nudity in the scene.
  • Matthew Rhys and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers show their butts on more than one occasion.

Tuna's notes

Titus (2000) is a bold interpretation of Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus. This was an interesting choice for director Julie Taymor in that this play, which was immensely popular in Shakespeare's own time, is neither highly regarded nor well known today, and is full of violence and gore. Since Shakespeare himself had presented an ancient Rome that was some amalgam of history and myths dating from ancient Rome through Elizabethan England, Taymor took this to its logical conclusion, and created MTV Shakespeare. We have Roman characters playing video games, drinking Coke from pop-top cans, and riding motorcycles. Weapons range from swords and crossbows to automatic firearms.

The short version of the plot is that the black guy did it.

If you want more detail, it goes like this:

General Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns to Rome victorious over the Goths. He brings the bodies of several of his sons who were killed in battle, and he has captured the Goth Queen Tamara (Jessica Lange) and her sons. He is convinced that he must sacrifice her oldest son to the gods to compensate for his own sons' deaths. Tamara is not amused. It is proposed that Titus be made emperor, but he declines in favor of Saturninus, who is so honored that he decides to marry Titus's daughter. The daughter has other ideas, putting Titus in a bad light with the emperor, who then decides to marry Tamara. This seals Titus's fate. Tamara is after revenge, and using the combined influence of her husband the emperor and her Moorish lover (Harry Lennox), she will make Titus pay dearly. The highlights of her revenge plot include Tamara's remaining two sons viciously raping Titus's daughter, before cutting out her tongue and cut off her hands, followed by Tamara giving birth to the Moor's son, and the Moor convincing Titus to cut off his own hand to appease the emperor and save the lives of his two sons.

It was the feel-good hit of the summer of 1585!

I am of two minds about this film. On the positive side, it is a fairly painless way to experience one of Shakespeare's lesser plays. The film is richly set and beautifully photographed. The performances are all at least adequate and some are outstanding, like Anthony Hopkins who seems to have gotten it exactly right. On the other hand, I found many things about the too-hip, anachronistic production distracting. The entire film was overly long in general, and the lengthy sequences without dialogue served to make it seem even longer.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus:  3.5 stars out of four. James Berardinelli: 3.5/4, Roger Ebert: 3.5/4, BBC: 4/5, N.Y. Times: recommended.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. In general, critics didn't like it much. 48% positive overall, and only 20% from the top critics.


The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it impressive 7.1. It's amazing to me that the rank-and-file voters get it perfectly, even though many critics did not.
  • With their dollars ... an extremely limited release, never reaching more than 35 screens. It took in $2 million domestic gross. No budget is listed, but it must have cost plenty more than that!
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C+. It is a terrific film, but for a very small audience.


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