Monday, 27 January 2014

Much Ado About Nothing (Beaucoup de bruit pour rien) (2013)

I have to admit that going into this film I was not expecting to like it. I simply dislike modern day Shakespeare adaptations that keep the language. Updating the stories is great, and gives us films like 10 Things I Hate About You, but keeping the old time dialogue always jars for me. I hated Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. I have also been falling steadily out of love with Joss Whedon over the past few years. I enjoyed some of Dollhouse, but it wasn’t in the same league as his previous shows. I found The Cabin in the Woods funny but unoriginal, just a good beer and crisps flick, while The Avengers is a jolly good way to spend a couple of hours but, again, little more. In spite of these reservations, however, I was won over by this cute, funny and charming little film. Let us talk upon it further!

Don Pedro, along with his underlings Benedick and Claudio, returns from a successful campaign and is invited to stay at the house of Leonato. Leanato’s neice, Beatrice, has an ongoing campaign of her own with Benedick, an exchange of witty barbs that covers a strong attraction. Claudio, meanwhile, is taken with Leonato’s daughter Hero, and asks for her hand in marriage. Don Pedro proposes to win Hero’s hand for Claudio, and the scene is set for all sorts of confusion and intrigue, with Don Pedro’s scheming bastard brother, Don John, stirring up trouble from the wings.

Whedon films this classic, ripe set-up with a pleasant simplicity. I have long dreamt of attending one of the Shakespeare reading sessions he hosts for his actor chums, and in this film I feel that he has captured something of the magic that must abound therein. Filmed in his own house in the break he took between filming and editing The Avengers, Much Ado is very much the antithesis to that explosive picture. Here words are king, and emotion their vessel. It is very, very fun. Not forgetting the bawdy nature of Shakespeare’s comedies, Whedon paints everything in a faintly ludicrous hue, lurching between wry humour and slapstick antics. This high and low dynamic is pure Shakespeare, and carries across well. I’m not quite sure what inspired Whedon to film one scene in a swimming pool, but it’s brilliant.

Everyone is going to have their favourites from the cast, composed almost entirely of members of Joss Whedon’s unofficial rep company; I enjoyed Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson from most of the Marvel Universe films and recently headlining Agents of SHIELD) and Reed Diamond (Mr Dominic from Dollhouse) as Leonato and Don Pedro respectively. Sean Maher (Simon Tam from Firefly) didn’t have much to do but gave a nice turn as an oleaginous fiend, while Fran Kranz (Topher in Dollhouse) was touching as Claudio. Nathan Fillion (Mal from Firefly) appears and fillions for a while, which is always nice. The highest praise must surely be kept for Amy Acker (Fred in Angel), who quite literally throws herself into the role of Beatrice and ably captures her complicated character .

And what fares poorly, in my humble esteem? Well, on a personal note, I do find it difficult to listen to American actors doing Shakespeare; their accent is too harsh and just inappropriate for the words. In this respect I find it especially hard listening to Alexis Denisof (Wesley in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel) – as an actor I can’t fault the man, and his Benedick is a great match for Acker’s Beatrice, but transatlantic living has made him sound very odd. Tom Lenk (Andrew in Buffy) is quite weak in a supporting role, showing less comedic ability than he does in that Pepsi Max advert he’s in. Otherwise this is a very well performed and put-together piece, all the more impressive for the short time it took to make.

A final note of praise for the music – Joss Whedon himself contributed, along with his brother Jed and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen. This latter couple provide the most delightful rendition of Shakespeare’s poem ‘Sigh No More’, which underlines the action beautifully and has stuck with me. We’ll let you listen for yourselves!

Pleasantly surprising and surprisingly pleasant, this is crowd-pleasing Shakespeare. Hats off to Mr Whedon and company for making it work, and for keeping it so funny. Now go forth and enjoy it, and hey nonny nonny.



Monday, 13 January 2014

Gravity (2013)

Image: Warner Bros.

In space, no-one can hear you scream. It was only in watching Gravity that I considered the true genius of this tagline. Superbly effective for the little space-set horror film it was promoting, it carries the deeper significance of the true loneliness that can only really be experienced out there in the void. The horror is not that which makes us scream, but rather in the fact that nobody will ever hear us.

Gravity sees bereaved mother and first-time astronaut Dr Ryan Stone and old pro Lieutenant Matt Kowalski up in space fiddling about with a MacGuffin. When an exploding Russian satellite knocks out their communications and gets rid of their ship and team-mates, the two are left to navigate their way through the vacuum, towards the tiny hope of getting back down to Earth.

In terms of pure spectacle alone, Gravity is a winner. While the 3D didn’t strike me as entirely necessary, it is true that immersion helps this one. There are moments of awesome beauty, and Alfonso Cuarón’s idiosyncratic eye captures some wonderful compositions. Where the film falters is in its tonal shifts. The first half is painfully tense, which means that the second act can really only be a disappointment – the first half a terrifying glimpse at life beyond the stratosphere, the second a traditional sci-fi race against time rollercoaster. It is still a brilliantly crafted piece of cinema, but the terrifying realism of the start bleeding into a rip-roaring actioner means that we lose the believability.

For a film which really rests on only two performances, this one is lucky enough to have two that convince almost entirely. Sandra Bullock as Dr Stone reminded me why she got so famous in the first place, bringing back the Wild Cat that we loved in the 90s, while Clooney brings all his usual handsome charm and assuredness to Lieutenant Kowalski, convincingly channelling the unflappability that one sees in most astronaut interviews.

The ideal length for this sort of thing is around half an hour, at the end of which Rod Serling should pop in to remind us that anybody foolish enough to become an astronaut is buying themselves a one-way ticket to The Twilight Zone. Even at a relatively brief 90 minutes, Gravity feels a bit flabby. As with all these people-stuck-in-an-isolated-place films (Open Water, Frozen), devices are needed to keep the plot from ending too quickly. While the acting never falters, the plot mechanics begin to grind (oh no, that pesky shower of debris is back AGAIN!). However, the ending, while ludicrously schmaltzy, does have that punch-the-air joy that makes for a satisfying cinematic experience.

Reminding me of Event Horizon, Black Water and Apollo 13 at all the right moments, Gravity might just be the definitive space picture for a generation (though it remains to be seen if any gems will be kicked up in the flurry of films that will inevitably surround NASA’s projected moon mission in five years’ time).