We Recommend: The Merchant of Venice and The Assassination of Richard Nixon

The Basics: Sean Penn and Al Pacino can't do regular movies anymore, not the kind with plots, dialogue and maybe even a little romance. They are showstoppers. They eat scenery. And they're only fit these days for character dramas wherein they're the main draw as some angry or depleted or outrageous soul. The roles just keep getting better (especially for Penn), because all the best directors want to work with these men.

Michael Radford's movie version of the Shakespeare play The Merchant of Venice is a dark, lush and controversial affair, filmed in Venice, that supposes the Merchant (Jeremy Irons) as a homoerotically charged sad sack and Pacino's Shylock as a tortured father who really just wants to protect his daughter. Screenwriter Niels Mueller takes his first turn as director for The Assassination of Richard Nixon, an extremely grim true story of a failed salesman who plans on shooting the president in 1974. Penn starts falling apart from the moment he appears onscreen and disintegrates into a raving madman by the end.

The Catch: It's almost hard to concentrate on anything else in these two films besides the acting of the leading men.

Why They're Good: For Merchant, that's a plus. Pacino gives such weight to Shylock, with his brooding and his tantrums, that it evens out the landscape of a play that has painted the character as a simple cartoon villain for the last several hundred years. Penn's film, on the other hand, has a lot of other things going for it, namely Don Cheadle as Penn's mechanic buddy and Naomi Watts as his ex-wife. As Penn's character unravels, they provide reliable touchstones of reality.

iVillage Mood Meter: Will make you want to take an acting class

The Merchant of Venice
Stars: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes
Director: Michael Radford
Screenwriters: William Shakespeare, Michael Radford
Release date: December 29, 2004, in New York and L.A.; wider in January 2005
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics


The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Stars: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle
Director: Niels Mueller
Screenwriters: Kevin Kennedy, Niels Mueller
Release date: December 29, 2004, in New York and L.A.; wider in January 2005
Distributor: ThinkFilm
Rating: R

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