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

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The Great Gatsby

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writer: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, F. Scott Fitzgerald (novel)
Year: 2013
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan

★★★☆☆

Baz Luhrmann instinctively felt like the wrong man to direct The Great Gatsby but there was always something about the combination that made you really hope it would come off. His films, like Gatsby’s parties, are gaudy, vivacious extravagances, alluring because of their grandiosity and nothing more, sensory illusions designed to conceal the fragility of the visions behind them. Perhaps inevitably, the result is an ostentatious, almost flagrant adaptation that is consistently entertaining but only ever half works, and leaves you wondering what might have been.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan The Great Gatsby

Luhrmann’s excess is glaring from the outset, as we are thrust into a mansion overloaded with gratuitous 3D effects and countless waiters in tuxedos walking simultaneously through French windows. As the characters move out into New York, it is a garish, digital jungle, full of loud, ornate vehicles, shimmering surfaces and unnecessary camera swoops. It is not so much a city where anything could happen, but a city where everything is happening, all at once, and it seems to be giving you a headache.

The parties look like set pieces from a big-budget musical, too glitzy and unreal, even for Gatsby, an amalgamation of elements from innumerable other parties but, despite the costumes, they do not come close to resembling anything the Fitzgeralds would have attended. The Jay-Z-produced soundtrack is inspired and injects energy into scenes that would have otherwise struggled to come alive. It is innovative, exciting and ultimately the only contentious point of departure from the novel that genuinely succeeds.

Once the flashy effects are out of the way and the focus shifts from the setting to the characters, the film really grows into itself and starts to hint at the depth that the story requires. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as Gatsby, striking the right balance between portraying the monumental myth and the flawed, vulnerable man behind it. The object of his obsessive dream is the careless, cynical Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is bored by her wealthy husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) and his ongoing affair with a woman in the city. Mulligan, with her tragi-glamorous look, always effortlessly carries off this kind of role, while Edgerton gives a strong, oddly sympathetic performance as the crude, boorish Tom.

Like the novel, the film is narrated by Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), although his character is placed in a sanatorium where he is receiving treatment for alcoholism and depression, which presumably developed as a result of the events that take place. You have to feel for Maguire – his character is poorly written – but he gives a strange performance and looks completely out of place as he contemplates everything that is going on around him. Deliberately confusing narrator and author, Luhrmann has Nick write the novel as a form of therapy and some of the more choice phrases drift across the screen in typewritten font. It’s a clumsy device, unnecessary and false, which makes it seem as though the whole point of The Great Gatsby was the writing of the novel itself.

The Great Gatsby Joel Edgerton Tobey Maguire

Aside from that, the adaptation is faithful in terms of plot, as it builds up to the catastrophic conclusion that sees every relationship in the film shattered irrevocably. The climactic scene is superbly done, without any disproportionate effects; the showdown between Gatsby and Tom is accomplished purely through words and emotion. Gatsby and Daisy’s initial meeting is another fine scene, taking place against the backdrop of Nick’s ludicrously flower-stuffed cottage, the slapstick elements enhancing the awkward emotion involved.

Luhrmann’s Gatsby is ultimately a love story, at its best when it focuses on the sweeping romance at the foundation of its protagonist’s fantastic dream. The bombastic style is only ever faintly ridiculous, distracting from several excellent performances and the invigorating score. It is clear that no detailed reading of the novel has taken place; the story is stripped of any subtlety and much of its depth. Some scenes are poorly misjudged, particularly the ending, which shows not a dream fading like a wisp of smoke but love and glory consecrated eternally by death. It is a film that is easier to criticise than praise, seeming as it does to revel in its own downfall. But actually, it’s not bad at all once you get into it, just not great.

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

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

The Turin Horse (A torinói ló)

Director: Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky
Writer: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr
Year: 2011
Cast: János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos

★★★★★

“Script?” commented the woman sitting next to me after the relevant credit flashed up on the screen. She could probably have said the same about many of the others. Even I raised an eyebrow at “Supporting Cast”. The fact is that The Turin Horse is a film in which almost nothing happens that will bore most audiences to tears. By “The Third Day”, the title frames seemed to have become a running joke. By “The Sixth Day”, everyone had stopped laughing. It reminded me of going to see Melancholia – half the audience had been long asleep by the time “Part Two” came around, and a good portion of those still awake let out audible groans.

You can’t please everyone though and, as with Lars Von Trier, you get the impression that Béla Tarr isn’t really trying. The Turin Horse is intended to be the culmination of his career but it will only ever appeal to a dedicated few. “So what kind of film is it?” asked my flatmate when I came in. “Action?” “No,” I replied, “the opposite of that. Inaction!” If you were to attempt to place it in a genre, that is accurate as you are going to get.

The Turin Horse

Shot in a bleak-looking black and white, the film is made up of only 30 takes and, visually, it is mesmerising. Watching it is like being taken around an exhibition featuring a hundred astonishing paintings by a great artist, all depicting approximately the same thing. It is relentlessly repetitive – the characters move with a rigid circularity – but the subtle changes that take place between each scene are all the more noticeable for it. So intimately are certain actions depicted that even the slightest modification can be startling. The attention to detail and dedication to every shot is remarkable, while the set is flawlessly constructed to facilitate Tarr’s cinematic vision.

The starting point, as we are told but not shown, is the apocryphal story of Nietzsche’s descent into madness. Seeing a cab driver brutally whipping his stubborn horse in Turin, Nietzsche goes up to him, throws his arms around the horse’s neck and sobs violently. He collapses, is taken home and never recovers from the incident. Tarr never quite leaves Nietzsche behind, but chooses to follow the driver and his horse back to their meagre rural existence, oblivious to the significance of what has taken place.

The driver lives only with his daughter and they come into contact with virtually nobody else. Their lives revolve around looking after the horse, keeping the fire going, fetching water from the well and eating boiled potatoes with their hands. At the mercy of the elements, the interminable gale, they struggle on, doing the same thing day in day out. Can this be called existence? A man arrives to buy pálinka and delivers a lengthy monologue on the degradation of the world. Gypsies appear from over the hill to steal water and deliver an obscure book. As far as the plot goes, that’s about it. And you get the impression it’s been an eventful week. They live to toil on the land, to suffer in nature’s fearful symmetry. This is no pastoral – there is not a shred of romance – but the characters are not condemned either. Their torture is beyond their control, coming perhaps from God, perhaps from the outside world.

The Turin Horse Messenger

The narrative ultimately has devastating consequences, which are hinted at rather than acted out. The horse gradually deteriorates as the gale gets stronger, but it is only towards the end that we realise the significance of these events. It is a deceptively simple film with a fin de siècle narrative so original you might miss it altogether. Darkness descends on the house but in the end we are shown the light. The final scene is breathtaking.

The Turin Horse is a film of rare intensity and scarcely believable focus. Backed by Mihály Vig’s majestic score, which has a dramatic intensity akin to Clint Mansell’s Requiem for a Dream, it rewards whatever attention you are willing to give it. If it does prove to be Tarr’s last film, it is certainly not a bad one to bow out on. Nobody would dare to question the director’s credit, however difficult they found it to sit through.

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

Exit Elena

Director: Nathan Silver
Writer: Nathan Silver, Kia Davis
Year: 2012
Cast: Kia Davis, Cindy Silver, Nathan Silver

★★★★☆

Simplicity is the key strength of Exit Elena, a short feature directed by Nathan Silver, who also plays a version of himself with a different surname. Silver co-wrote the film with the lead actress, Kia Davis, who plays the eponymous character, and it also stars his mother, Cindy Silver, again as herself. The real life relationships among the small cast help to create the sense of documentary reality that permeates the film, as the characters are gradually drawn into a web of intimacy that we never doubt for a second.

Elena is initially hired as a nurse to care for Jim’s (Jim Chiros) elderly mother, Florence (Barbara White), but it quickly becomes clear that the family require more than a professional relationship. Elena remains an ambiguous figure and almost nothing is revealed of her origins or motivations, which proves frustrating for the other characters but interesting for the audience. She has an air of being lost, displaced and alone, but we are given no indication as to why that might be.

Exit Elena

The narrative progresses extremely well, as moments of drama and changes in tone are introduced before the audience have any opportunity to lose interest. Silver deftly brings out different sides to the characters just as the film needs to step up the intimacy, but the guarded dialogue ensures we never come close to feeling that we know all there is to know. The characters are familiar yet distant, like genuine acquaintances we have never had the opportunity to learn more about.

The drama is kept minimal and deals solely with everyday social situations, but becomes quietly powerful towards the end. The final scene is the only one which is ostensibly staged, but we accept it as real because that tone has been sustained for so long. It is a poignant, strangely liberating moment, even though Elena’s future remains very much up in the air.

The performances are vital to the film’s authenticity, and ensure it never deviates from absolute realism. The discomfort and claustrophobia of being confined in a small house with strange, or estranged, people is prominent in the early scenes, and the peculiar dependence that develops between the characters is believably executed, despite the blurring of normal social boundaries. It is Cindy Silver who gives the stand out performance, as her character develops from a fussy, overbearing housewife into a complex, likeable woman.

Silver resists the temptation to stretch the film out longer than is needed, keeping the runtime down to a modest 70 minutes. There is little excess, with the exception of some unnecessary date and title frames, meaning it remains focused on what it is trying to portray. The result is a meticulously observed piece of realism and as genuine a film as you are likely to see. Despite its tiny budget and refusal to resort to artifice, Exit Elena is a compelling portrait that never misses a beat.

Rob Dickie