Much Ado About Nothing

Director: Joss Whedon
Writer: Joss Whedon, William Shakespeare (play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz

★★★★★

Filmmakers have always had a tendency to take Shakespeare very seriously indeed, diving deep into the texts to develop their own intellectual interpretations or contriving new settings and scenarios to make the plays appear more relevant to modern audiences. This can result in rich, thoughtful pieces of cinema – see Branagh at his best – or wild strokes of genius, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, but, when done badly, Shakespeare translates awkwardly to screen; there is often some disparity between the language and the action, a fatal flaw that forces you to suspend your disbelief.

Fran Kranz in Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is a triumph because it avoids all the usual trappings, taking the text at face value and letting it largely speak for itself. Filmed over 12 days at the director’s Santa Monica home, on a scheduled break from the production of Avengers Assemble, it is a refreshingly straightforward adaptation, modernised due to practical necessity rather than any conceit, dramatic and comedic without ever feeling forced.

Whedon makes excellent use of his surroundings, exploiting the theatricality of the open plan interiors and utilising every layer of the impressive grounds. The film is shot in monochrome, at least partly to ensure greater consistency with limited resources, but this adds an element of noir-ish glamour to the overall look and conceals anything in the environment that might otherwise have been visually distracting. The modernisation is handled deftly, using things like smartphones and electric torches when necessary, without ever making them seem incongruous to the script.

The film plays out like an extended party; the characters are continually drinking wine and engaging in one festivity or another, with Whedon’s own light jazz score providing the soundtrack. It begins as a homecoming, with Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) returning from war, accompanied by the villainous Don John (Sean Maher) and his two associates. Claudio is instantly infatuated with the beautiful, virtuous Hero (Jillian Morgese), while Benedick renews his prickly relationship with her sister, Beatrice (Amy Acker), which Whedon embellishes by revealing in flashback that they once had a passionate one night stand. Claudio quickly wins Hero’s hand in marriage and, along with his friend, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), and her father, Leonato (Clark Gregg), they vow to play Cupid with Beatrice and Benedick, while their enemies conspire to break up the happy couple.

Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof

Much Ado About Nothing never shies away from turning dark and moody, particularly when the drama reaches its peak, but it will be remembered primarily as one of the funniest Shakespeare adaptations ever committed to film. The exchanges between Benedick and Beatrice are brilliantly timed and accentuate the biting wit of the original dialogue, while the slapstick scenes in which they are allowed to hear of their supposed love for one another are inventive and genuinely hilarious. Nathan Fillion gives an inspired performance as the easily-offended police officer, Dogsberry, playing the clown with relentless sincerity, and the entire cast go about their work in such good humour that it is difficult not to be drawn along with them.

It is a evidently personal project for Whedon and he is working with actors who are behind him every step of the way. The film has a spontaneous, liberated quality, stemming from the natural intimacy between the cast, which helps the audience connect with the language and engage emotionally with the characters. Like no other adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy, it fully understands the playfulness of the dialogue, the sheer foolish joy of the language, without coming close to overstating it. Never seriously putting a foot wrong, Much Ado About Nothing really is a delight.

Rob Dickie

The Iceman

Director: Ariel Vromen
Writer: Morgan Land, Ariel Vromen, Anthony Bruno (book), Jim Thebaut (documentary)
Year: 2012
Cast: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta

★★★☆☆

Michael Shannon is a force of nature as the remorseless hitman, Richard Kuklinski, known as ‘The Iceman’ due to his propensity to store his victims’ corpses in an industrial freezer to disguise their time of death. He is one of few actors who can make you cower in the cinema, without having all that much to work with; his co-star, Ray Liotta, is pretty good, but needs the right line of dialogue and a gun to someone’s head to get close to producing the same effect.

Michael Shannon

Directed by Ariel Vromen, this Goodfellas-style biopic opens with Kuklinski awkwardly manoeuvring his way through a date with his future wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder), reluctantly charming her by saying she looks like ‘a prettier version of Natalie Wood’. He is a man of few words, reserved and intimidating, but courteous enough to convince her to see him again. In the next scene at a pool hall, we learn they are engaged, and, when a man insults Deborah, Kuklinski initially resists the provocation, but later calmly slits his throat with a knife.

While working processing bootleg porn films, his cold-blooded talents come to the attention of mafia boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), who hires him to collect debts and solve problems, using predictably brutal methods. Fast forward ten years or so, and he has made a good living from this line of work, enough to buy a large house in the suburbs for his family and send his two daughters to private school. The turning point comes when a 17-year-old girl witnesses one of Kuklinski’s hits and, in a rare display of pity, he allows her to flee the scene. As a result, DeMeo puts him out of work and he is forced to strike out on his own, forming a partnership with the elusive Mr Freezy (Chris Evans) and getting increasingly embroiled in the dangerous machinations of mob politics.

The plot moves rapidly through the chronology of Kuklinski’s unquestionably fascinating life, but much of what makes him so interesting is lost along the way. Despite Shannon’s mesmerising performance, it is difficult to know what really lies beneath his character’s exterior, where that all-conquering rage rises from. His true darkness is hinted at, such as in the scene where he makes one victim (James Franco, in a cameo role) pray to God to deliver him from his imminent death, but, mostly, we are given the straightforward story of a contract killer whose career takes a turn for the worse.

Chris Evans

Throughout the film, Kuklinski claims that his family are the only people he feels anything for and he certainly goes to extreme lengths to protect them, even when that means, paradoxically, putting them in immediate danger. It adds a sympathetic dimension to the character, although we are never quite sure how sincere his feelings are, and gives Shannon an outlet to viscerally display the tension caused by balancing his private and professional lives. Winona Ryder is exceptional as his unsuspecting wife, innocently spoiled and naively in love with a man who appears so dedicated to providing for her. The rest of the ensemble cast also perform strongly, particularly Liotta and Evans, while David Schwimmer, Robert Davi and Stepehn Dorff have memorable supporting roles.

The film falls short as a biopic, lacking the necessary detail, and, as a gangster film, it struggles to gain momentum, rigidly following the structure of its subject’s life. The ending is anticlimactic and fails to translate the growing tension into a dramatic payoff. The Iceman is all about Shannon though. He gives a powerhouse performance as a ruthless killer who is always on the edge, capable of instantly becoming a threat to himself and everyone around him. His version of Kuklinski is a family man with an addiction to violence; he simply cannot function without it or walk away from it, and you get the impression that the idea never seriously crosses his mind.

Rob Dickie

Byzantium

Director: Neil Jordan
Writer: Moira Buffini (screenplay and play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones

★★★☆☆

Neil Jordan’s latest film, Byzantium, is a spirited if convoluted return to the vampire genre that seeks to rewrite much of the old mythology.

Saoirse Ronan Byzantium

Adapted by Moira Buffini from her own play, Byzantium was shot in Hastings, a setting that is overtly rooted in an illustrious history but appears grungy and anonymous in its present condition. As in his 2009 feature, Ondine, Jordan captures his surroundings beautifully, particularly near the beginning, contrasting the timeless qualities of the environment with those that are acutely modern. As the film flickers between past and present, grand ships, pristine sand and tranquil fisherman contrast with  concrete blocks, cheap amusements and the burned-out pier, while, at the same time, nothing really changes for those who inhabit the seafront – women can be bought for a price and the tide beats on. There’s a disorientating monotony to eternal life.

Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are two centuries old vampires, on the run from a mysterious brotherhood that are intent on making them suffer for their past transgressions. After Clara is discovered working as a stripper, they are forced to flee their high-rise flat and end up in a small seaside town, where Clara quickly integrates herself into the criminal underworld. She sets herself up as a prostitute and exploits a local loser, Noel (Daniel Mays), by taking over his late mother’s guesthouse and turning it into a brothel populated by desperate women from the streets.

The eternal cycle of vice and the degrading, precarious existence it leads to causes tensions between Clara and Eleanor, who are worlds apart in terms of personality. Clara is feisty, seductive and violent, prepared to kill anyone who threatens to uncover their secret and use her body to obtain whatever they need to survive. Conversely, Eleanor is passive, introspective and refuses to use violence, feeding only euthansically, on the blood of elderly people who tell her they are ready to die. They are evidently extremely close, with the bond of centuries between them, but it is increasingly apparent that Eleanor needs something more to live for than the battle for survival that Clara appears to relish.

The divisions between the two protagonists are mirrored in the makeup of the film itself, as it moves swiftly between vivid action sequences and quiet, reflective scenes, which can be slightly jarring. Flashbacks are also used heavily, causing the film to lack momentum, particularly in the early stages, as the present-day storyline is continually broken up by lengthy elucidations of the past. However, these are essential to the narrative and become progressively more engaging as the film reaches its conclusion, tying up the loose ends in the plot and expounding an original mythology that contains some impressive imagery.

Gemma Arterton Cleavage Byzantium

The problem with Byzantium is that it tries to do too much and fails to combine each of its disparate elements into an entirely cohesive whole. There are scenes in strip clubs, further education colleges, nineteenth century orphanages, postmodern seafronts, all awkwardly juxtaposed with one another, and the changes in atmosphere when the film switches between them are just too drastic. The script is bloated and needed paring down to its essentials, with more focus on the relationships that keep it going and slightly fewer lines of clunky dialogue.

The strongest element of the film is the romance that develops between Eleanor and Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a haemophiliac who becomes attracted to her when he hears her playing the piano in a hotel restaurant. Eleanor is desperate to reveal her true identity to someone – she is continually writing down her story and throwing the pages to the wind – and he provides an outlet for her to do so. His initial disbelief about her supernatural status is well handled, while his unwavering faith in her basic goodness is touching, even when he can’t quite accept who she claims to be. The scenes in which his blood is spilled are the most visceral and moving in the film, the only moments that come close to portraying the tortuous nature of a vampire’s existence.

Jones’s performance is also the standout, bringing out Frank’s innocent curiosity and resigned fragility to create a compelling and genuinely believable character. Ronan is a haunted, withdrawn presence and her steely blue eyes are used to great effect, but her performance is a little too serious and lacking in variation. Arterton overplays her character from time to time, although she is full of zest and vigour, exuding sexuality in a way that is powerful and assertive, while Sam Riley is solid in his supporting role as the aristocratic Darvell.

Vampires are undoubtedly in vogue, although Byzantium, to its credit, strives to bring something new to the genre. The updated mythology is inventive and interesting; thumbnails extend into talons to pierce the skin and people are transformed into vampires through a meeting with their doppelgangers in an eerie island cave. It is shot well, as Jordan’s films usually are, and has plenty of interesting imagery. However, that doesn’t quite make up for the film’s structural flaws, especially as it occasionally descends into almost soap opera melodrama and the ending is something of a disappointment.

Rob Dickie

To the Wonder

Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Year: 2012
Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem

★★★★★

Released less than two years after The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder acts as a companion piece, retaining the visual cues, cinematic poetry and overriding themes of love and faith. While it does not have the grandiosity, the soaring ambition of the former film, it is equally uncompromising, and those who found The Tree of Life intolerable will probably find this equally, if not more, so. The characters communicate through whispered voiceovers, sparse fragments of dialogue; Malick through images of sky, running water, lens flares, juxtapositions of light. At times it does seem overly familiar but To the Wonder is less nostalgic, more pessimistic and, at heart, coming from a different place altogether.

To the Wonder Olga Kurylenko

It begins in Paris, rendered gorgeously in the opening sunlit sequence; we are shown a couple on holiday, filming themselves on the Métro, strolling in the Jardin du Luxembourg, fixing a padlock to the Pont des Arts. They drive to Mont Saint-Michel and walk on an idyllic beach of dark, springy sand, a scene reminiscent of The Tree of Life’s paradise. They climb the steps and revel in the isolated beauty of the setting and the glory of their love. Back in Paris, Neil (Ben Affleck) asks Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter to move to Oklahoma to live with him, an invitation they joyously accept, but, once there, the tensions in their relationship are stretched to breaking point.

Marina is oppressed by her new environment, an outsider shackled by the walls and fences of nondescript houses, the vague, flat landscape and the faithlessness of the modern world. She is passionate, sensual, free-spirited; to those around her, merely unhinged. She is unable to cope with the failure of her love. Neil is an atheist, a modern American brute, handsome and physically strong but without an outlet for his passion. He works on construction sites, investigating the damage caused to the natural environment. He is complicit in the violence that is done to the earth.

Malick is idealistic in the philosophical sense and, with every shot, To the Wonder seems to hint at what lies beyond the range of our perception. ‘Life’s a dream’, says Anna (Romina Mondello), a minor character who appears in just a single scene, but the only one who comes across as truly liberated. Through the purest images and experiences, we intuitively sense the divine presence in the world, the love that exists within us and around us. The cinematography is designed to bring it out. However, modernity has distorted the phenomenal world and made it virtually impossible to believe in the noumenal. The film’s central motif is the veil, whether it consists of a pane of plastic in a chapel window, a pixelated image from a cheap video camera or a translucent sheet of white material across the eyes.

To the Wonder Ben Affleck Rachel McAdams

The film is littered with shots of dug earth and deserted, impoverished houses; we are shown herds of buffalo and constrained horses, domestic violence and callous sex.  These images pollute the purity of the light that Malick makes his ultimate subject. Love, more often than not, is damaging, because it is impossible to truly believe in it; perhaps it would be better to say truly perceive it. Arguably, the most significant character is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest wracked with existential doubt and the pressures of an expanding parish in an increasingly deprived area. He knows he should perceive God all around him, but he has never been able to. ‘You shall love, whether you like it or not’, he commands. ‘Emotions, they come and go like clouds…Know each other in that love that never changes’. To do so takes a lifetime of struggle. Without faith, it is impossible and love can only destroy.

The film is put together like a series of memories, transient and impressionistic, concerned not so much with narrative as symbolic representation of significant events. Names are only revealed in the final credits and it is difficult to guess the order in which everything happens. It is flawed, certainly, occasionally frustrating, and promotes a worldview that will unfortunately put a lot of people off. But, like its predecessor, To the Wonder is bold, original and technically astonishing — idealism in cinematic form. Malick’s last two films have been fearless, groundbreaking works, attempts at pushing cinema beyond its limitations.

Rob Dickie

I, Anna

Director: Barnaby Southcombe
Writer: Barnaby Southcombe, Elsa Lewin (novel)
Year: 2012
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Gabriel Byrne, Eddie Marsan

★★★★☆

Screening in both Edinburgh and Glasgow as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, I, Anna is a neo-noir thriller with a psychological twist. Charlotte Rampling stars as the title character, a mature femme fatale who is suffering from amnesia and dissociation due to a traumatic experience that takes place at the end of a singles night.

The film is directed by Rampling’s son, Barnaby Southcombe, who presents the story from Anna’s perspective and places the emphasis on her precarious state of mind. Reading the novel by Elsa Lewin, a psychoanalyst based in New York, he immediately identified the title character with his mother, even though the ‘story was not her own’. It is evidently a personal film, and this becomes increasingly obvious as the narrative develops and we realise that behind the mystery there is something far more significant at stake.

I, Anna Gabriel Byrne and Charlotte Rampling

The adaptation moves the action from eighties New York to present day London, emphasising Southcombe’s varied European influences. The director makes excellent use of his surroundings as the capital is transformed into a brooding concrete menace, centred around the brutalist towers of the Barbican complex. The environment is oppressive and has a looming, crushing sterility, which seems to serve as a warning to those hoping to find anything genuine in the warm, bubbly atmosphere of the singles bars.

However, there is an unlikely romance at the core of I, Anna. It begins inauspiciously, as Rampling’s character meets DCI Bernie Reid (Gabriel Byrne) at the scene of a murder and leaves with a discarded umbrella that clearly does not belong to her. With his own demons to battle, Bernie is no less unhinged than Anna and quickly develops an obsession with this elusive woman, who lives in a small one-bedroomed flat with her daughter and granddaughter. The camera is drawn to Rampling’s figure; it is often framed or shown in close-ups, sliding down her legs, demonstrating that older women too can be dangerously seductive.

The retro elements and heavily stylised look of the film work well, giving it an unreal quality that seems to reflect many of the characters’ states of mind. Anna is frequently found in phone boxes, no doubt a nod to the noir of the past, but it also serves to intensify the mystery and has a genuine narrative purpose. As an aesthetic device it is effective, particularly during the scene in which Anna and Bernie first meet, and, like all of I, Anna‘s initially improbable elements, it makes perfect sense by the end.

The soundtrack also pleasantly surprises, comprising a bleak, atmospheric score by French electronic duo K.I.D., interspersed with acoustic tracks by indie crooner Richard Hawley. Southcombe originally had something very different in mind, a lyrical piano score, but it did not work, and it is difficult to see how it could. The dark electronica seems to bleed from the dense concrete and Hawley’s voice is superbly aligned with those of the central characters.

There is a smart twist at the end which strips away the foundations of what has been constructed, but rather than complicating matters, it sheds light on much that had remained in doubt. It is, in fact, crucial to the success of the narrative, taking attention away from the comparatively weak murder mystery, which has been designed to facilitate the intriguing character study rather than the other way around.

I, Anna Charlotte Rampling

The performances of the leads are key to the film and they are able to carry it through the early stages when the narrative seems convoluted and the cast a few characters too big. Rampling and Byrne have excellent chemistry and we really feel for their haunted characters, particularly as the film reaches its climax. They are perfectly cast and equally comfortable in such uncomfortable roles.

I, Anna is worth persevering with as it quickly develops into a coherent drama that gives renewed purpose to its underwhelming beginnings. There are plenty of tense moments and a couple of shocking scenes, but what stands out is the delicate handling of the relationship at the heart of the story and, particularly in the midst of such a harsh landscape, the almost unbearable fragility of the mind.

Rob Dickie

Review originally published at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival

On the Road

Director: Walter Salles
Writer: Jose Rivera, Jack Kerouac (novel)
Year: 2012
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart

★★★★☆

Walter Salles’s On the Road is perhaps as good as could have been expected, a faithful and gorgeously cinematic adaptation that lacks the soul and energy of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel. Infused with jazz, sex, drugs, adventure, poetry and rolling prose, the film easily draws you into the world of the Beat Generation but, once the excitement has worn off, you will be left wondering what it was all for.

The necessarily episodic plot revolves around the character of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), the quasi-mythical incarnation of the hedonistic Beat pin-up Neal Cassady. He attracts a string of followers as he journeys back and forth across America, including Kerouac’s alter-ego Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), who is really Allen Ginsberg, and Marylou (Kristen Stewart), his young lover abound with sexual energy. Kerouac originally envisioned Marlon Brando in the role, one of the few actors who would have had a genuine shot at fully recreating Cassady’s intoxicating personality, but Hedlund does an excellent job, ensuring his character has a powerful presence and that mad glint in his eyes.

On the Road Garrett Hedlund Kristen Stewart Sam Riley

Riley also gives a good turn, resisting the temptation to take centre stage and feeding off the vibrancy of the other characters. Sal comes across as an observer, swept along by Dean’s charisma, but always trying to hold back from being drawn into the flame. He scribbles away in his notebook like some mad anthropologist on the brink of going native, taking down the philosophy of the road that will form the raw material for his book.

The lifestyle is seductive and certainly looks like a great deal of fun, while the romance of the journey is beautifully rendered. As they did for The Motorcycle Diaries, Salles and cinematographer Eric Gautier succeed in capturing America’s spectacular variety. We feel the icy winters, the heat of the endless desert roads, and sense the freedom that lies on the other side of the horizon.

Arguably, the film has a more coherent narrative structure than the novel, but it still feels patchy. Characters are picked up and discarded along the way, which means we are never able to really feel anything for them. The segment featuring Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) passes by too quickly and without genuine purpose. Camille (Kirsten Dunst), like most women in On the Road, is treated disgracefully, but her story only appears as a coda to Dean’s own self-inflicted downfall.

Kristen Stewart On the Road

To an extent, the novel also gives rise to this fleeting feeling, but it is able to get away with it more. The Beat Generation represented a rejection of the entire construct of American society – its very existence was an act of rebellion. The film gives us little of this context and it often appears as if the characters are just out to have a good time. Experimenting with drugs and free sex was central to their liberating ideal, and, while it is clear in the novel that they resoundly fail to live up to it, it gave them a raison d’être that is sorely lacking in the film. Sturridge’s deeply complex Carlo is the only character worthy of the epithet holy.

Kerouac wrote that the only people for him were the mad ones, the ones that ‘burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars’. His characters burn brightly and then burn out, the flashes of madness become routine and the sense is lost in the indiscrete recklessness of it all. It is difficult for people of this current generation to fully understand the Beats, or even to empathise with them. On the Road is constrained by this significant limitation, but it is nevertheless an entertaining and superbly-made film that, unlike the novel, never once begins to drag.

Rob Dickie

Fred Won’t Move Out

Director: Richard Ledes
Writer: Richard Ledes
Year: 2012
Cast: Elliott Gould, Fred Melamed, Stephanie Roth Haberle

★★☆☆☆

Fred, the latest film by writer-director Richard Ledes, offers an unassuming snapshot of a multigenerational family coping with the effects of Alzheimer’s. It is a small film in every sense, never stretched remotely beyond its subject matter by a filmmaker who seems more comfortable producing an objective, sensitive drama than anything which would require greater scope.

Elliott Gould, who plays the eponymous character, is the film’s biggest draw, but, while Fred craves to be the centre of attention, he does not have as dominant a role as you might expect. He lives with his wife, Susan (Judith Roberts), in their modest home in upstate New York, a long way from the big city and, significantly, from their family. Both are ill, but Susan’s condition is far worse; she suffers physically as well as mentally and requires around-the-clock assistance from a live-in nurse (Mfoniso Udofia). This creates tension and an element of resentment in Fred – he seems to dislike the attention his wife receives and does not believe such a high level of care is necessary.

Fred Elliott Gould

Gould is a fine comic actor, but it is difficult to gauge his tone here. With some interesting mannerisms and ready quips, Fred clearly wants to be the larger-than-life character Gould is known for, but he is no longer able to perform that role. He struggles to adapt to his wife’s deterioration and is increasingly unable to provide everything she needs. He brushes off increasingly frequent slippages of memory, maintaining an outwardly stubborn demeanor, but it is clear he is suffering inside.

The drama centres around a visit from Fred and Susan’s son and daughter, Bob (Fred Melamed) and Carol (Stephanie Roth Haberle),who are grappling with the decision as to whether or not to move them into a nursing home. The additional care is vital but the difficulty lies in getting Fred to accept that he and his wife need to move on from the house they have always lived in. As well as being a peaceful environment, it is a treasure trove of memory, full of trinkets and relics, the embodiment of a life that is gradually slipping out of their minds.

Events do occur in Fred, but all are low key. In one of the main sequences, Bob has a  minor run-in with a music therapist, showing his failure to understand the purpose behind remedies which do not cure the disease – the entire film is about the impossibility of understanding the disease itself. As the family sing together, Ledes questions who exactly the song is benefiting, Fred, Susan, their granddaughter Lila, the music therapist himself? Bob sees only the sadness and discomfort that results from the joy the music induces, and he is not entirely wrong to do so.

Fred only loosely engages with these issues, presenting the surface but little depth. It has a dreamy, inconclusive quality but Ledes is not ambitious enough to make anything remarkable out of an interesting scenario. He is dealing with an illness he knows intimately but it does not come across on the screen. He gives us the tension and frustration, but fails to engage with the pain and love at the heart of it all.

Rob Dickie