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

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 Raven

Director: James McTeigue
Writer: Ben Livingstone, Hannah Shakespeare
Year: 2012
Cast: John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans

★★☆☆☆

Taking its title from Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven is a rather imaginative dramatisation of the author’s mysterious last days. Just before his death, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in a delirious state, wearing clothes that were not his own. However you want to try to explain that, the events portrayed in the film certainly don’t come close.

Serious explanation, though, is not the point. The Raven is a shameless attempt to squeeze in as many of Poe’s gruesome scenarios as is humanly possible in the best part of two hours. The premise is that a serial killer is copying the murders in his stories in an attempt to draw the author into his game. Poe undoubtedly influenced this kind of scenario, as well as virtually everything else in the detective genre, but he would not have written it. It is too fast-paced, too convoluted, lacking Poe’s scrupulous detail and obsessive focus.

John Cusack

While he is best known for the creating the elaborate set-piece murders on show here, Poe’s work relies on psychological interiority and that unique melancholic atmosphere no copycat can reproduce. The problem with The Raven is that it doesn’t even try to do this and, were it not for the protagonist’s name and the continual references to his stories, you’d be hard pressed to tell it has anything to do with Poe at all.

John Cusack plays the title character, and looks the part with the familiar neckerchief and sickly grey countenance. He gives a quirky performance, toying with Poe’s famous verbosity and injecting him with a more playful nature than you might expect. His co-star Luke Evans is less assured, unconvincingly playing a character that most actors could play in their sleep; Detective Fields is not exactly C. Auguste Dupin. Better might be expected from V for Vendetta director James McTeigue, but he is unable to create any sense of mystery or tension, relying too much on source material which he is unable to successfully recreate. The ending is very much a case of pulling a killer out of a hat.

It is perhaps unfair to judge the merits of a film against the work of a great 19th century author and, despite its shortcomings, The Raven is not all bad. It’s a watchable, if not exactly thrilling, thriller and there are some good scenes, usually, well always, carried by Cusack. Poe’s relationship with Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) is given a poetic edge and his descent into melancholy gives the film an extra dimension. It has the right look too, especially during some of the set pieces, although it must be said that some of the bigger ones are a let-down. The Pit and the Pendulum and The Premature Burial are given disappointing treatments, flawed in that they appear insignificant. McTeigue removes from the former story the horror and (necessarily) the dimension of time; the audience want nothing more than to see the pendulum fall, which is a fatal flaw. And we know exactly how the latter will pan out, eliminating the sense of claustrophobia.

As a by-the-numbers serial killer flick, The Raven would have been adequate enough, but it promised much more. When treated like this, the references to Poe cannot make up for the lack of originality, and, whether you are a fan or not, there is nothing new to see here.

Rob Dickie

Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 13 March 2012

Coriolanus

Director: Ralph Fiennes
Writer: John Logan, William Shakespeare (play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave

★★★☆☆

Ralph Fiennes makes a strong directorial debut and also stars as the title character in this contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedy Coriolanus. The bard’s language and Roman names are retained, but the setting and minor characters are given a distinctly eastern European look, while the soldiers are kitted out with modern uniforms, rifles and explosives.

Coriolanus suffers from the idiosyncrasies common to all cinematic modernisations of Shakespearean drama, but the setting gives it a raw edge. The news sequences, showing amateur footage of popular uprisings, are all too familiar, and the tragedy of the proud tyrant is as contemporary as it has ever been. Certain shots feel immediate and real, but they are juxtaposed with the clear archaism of the language. You get the impression that lessons should have been learned. The extent to which Coriolanus captures the aesthetic of the past year is slightly fortunate – it was shot in the first half of 2010, prior to the beginning of the Arab Spring – but the effect is nevertheless powerful.

Coriolanus Ralph Fiennes

The film opens with a march on a grain silo, which is blockaded by Caius Martius (later Coriolanus for those unfamiliar with the play) and his forces of riot police. The march is suppressed violently and Martius confronts the crowd, openly contemptuous of their demands, and leaves them defeated. Shortly afterwards, he is called upon to fight for Rome against a Volscian army and bravely leads a raid on the city of Corioles, which is being held by his old enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). His heroism in battle earns him the position of consul from the senate and, temporarily, from the mercurial populace.

After these loud, gritty action sequences, the film develops into a fascinating character study. Perfidious tribunes manipulate the will of people and Coriolanus reacts explosively against their demands for popular rule. In a sense, he epitomises the kind of uncompromising tyrant that it is currently fashionable to overthrow, but he also possesses integrity in that he refuses to rule by a lie. Fiennes gives a powerful skin-headed performance in a role he knows well, and is supported elegantly by Brian Cox as the objective senator Menenius. Vanessa Redgrave also gives an outstanding performance, with her portrayal of Coriolanus’s domineering mother, Volumnia.

The film loses its way slightly as it goes on, and the personal vendetta appears strangely distant compared with the intensity of the political struggle. Gerard Butler’s Aufidius is a curious character throughout; he is as placid as he is menacing, and his true role remains ambiguous until the very end. The rivalry is talked up but does not effectively fulfil its promise.

Placing Coriolanus in a familiar world was an intelligent move. Regardless of his faults, his bravery and integrity make this a true tragedy and, in that sense, it deviates from the mood of the times. We are given his perspective, and it is he, not the populace, that we sympathise with. The script, for better or for worse, was already written. It feels like it would have been more correct to see the tyrant fall at the hands of the people, although the fact that he doesn’t raises interesting questions and ensures there is no absolute sense of déjà vu. But regardless of any interplay with contemporary events, the strength of the drama makes Coriolanus very much worth seeing.

Rob Dickie

Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 24 January 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writer: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan, John Le Carré (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch

★★★★★

On the face of it, John Le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, makes for a very difficult adaptation. Set in the 1970s, it’s a complex, slow-burner of a spy thriller, with little action and a plot that hinges on subtle realisation rather than dramatic climax. The formula works perfectly in the novel and, actually, in the film itself. It is remarkably faithful in both plot and style. Tomas Alfredson, best known for his coming-of-age vampire drama Let the Right One In, was perhaps not the obvious choice to direct a big British spy film, but he is apparently a master at  building an atmosphere in any environment. He meticulously recreates the shadowy world of Le Carré’s novel and uses the camera to instil that sense of conspiracy necessary for the film’s success.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens with Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on an assignment in Budapest, designed to identify a mole believed to be operating at the very top of the intelligence service. It goes badly wrong; Prideaux is shot, assumed dead, and the identity of the mole remains in the dark. There are also repercussions for the intelligence service as Control (John Hurt) and George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced out of their jobs, and a new order, headed by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), takes over, using the political capital acquired from their too-good-to-be-true source of Soviet intelligence, Operation Witchcraft. However, rumours of the mole persist, and Smiley is called out of retirement to discover its identity and the truth behind what happened in Belgrade.

No need to tinker: Le Carré’s original story is just as gripping on the big screen.

After the opening sequence, the most conventional of the film, it becomes difficult to follow. Lots of characters are introduced, the pace is slow and nothing much happens for a while. It appears to be style over substance, relying on a strong aesthetic to keep you interested. Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) is introduced at just the right moment and, from then on, it starts to reel you in. Tarr’s back story is superbly done, giving Oldman and Hardy an opportunity to play off against each other, and the retrospective action provides genuine intrigue and a welcome change of scene. Oldman is wonderful throughout, initially playing Smiley as a world-weary spy in retirement, but, like his character, really comes into his own when given something to get his teeth into. The plot gets closer, more personal, and it is then that he comes to life. He barely moves but quietly dominates every scene, an old master among young prodigies in more ways than one.

By the end, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is gripping. The multiple layers of the plot come together to clarify the overall picture, and the little details begin to make sense. There is no need to introduce any genuine action, as the nuanced drama becomes extremely effective, enhanced by the superb performances and Alfredson’s direction. It has been described as overly complicated, and perhaps it does help to have read the book, but its complexity is a virtue. Once it engages you, it is as intense as any genuine thriller.

The Rum Diary

Director: Bruce Robinson
Writer: Bruce Robinson, Hunter S. Thompson (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard

★★★☆☆

Thirteen years on from his starring role in the adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Depp was the main driving force behind the production of The Rum Diary, an adaptation of one of Thompson’s early novels, written in the 1960s but unpublished until 1998. Depp was Bruce Robinson’s main motivation to write and direct the film, something he has not done since struggling against studio interference during the production of Jennifer Eight, which was releasedin 1992.

As a friend and avid fan of Thompson, Depp’s heart was certainly in the project and it shows. He gives a droll, understated performance as journalist, Paul Kemp, who relocates from New York to Puerto Rico to work for the island’s major newspaper. Its editor and journalists are going through the motions, printing the stories their American audiences want to read, while trying to enjoy the island life, principally through the medium of rum.

Is The Rum Diary worth getting out of bed for?

The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film; Kemp gets out of bed, staggers to the window and, as he tears open the curtains, the light reveals a bruised lip and a bloodshot eye. The action revolves around drinking and, while it does not approach Fear and Loathing levels of debauchery, it is creative enough to keep you entertained. Sala (Michael Rispoli), Kemp’s partner in crime, is a strong supporting character, while Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), a Nazi fanatic whose alcoholism distinguishes him even in this environment, adds an extra comic dimension. It is silly without going over the top; the weirder elements are presented with enough restraint that they appear natural – merely products of the environment.

The Rum Diary is not a straightforward comedy and it would be doing Thompson a disservice if it was. Kemp is looking for a serious story and stumbles across a wealthy businessman, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who tries to use his position at the newspaper to aid the fraudulent development of a lucrative tourist resort on an untouched island. Kemp’s interest in the project is understandably enhanced by the proximity of Sanderson’s beautiful girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard). She adds character to the wealthy side of Puerto Rico, and symbolises its ultimate attraction.  The relationship that develops between Chenault and Kemp is initially interesting but ultimately never goes anywhere.

Robinson maintains a strong atmosphere and utilises the setting well, perfectly recreating a degraded paradise. The characters are perpetually sweating; they retain that essential grime of humanity, so prominent in Thompson’s writing, as they move around the islands that it will be their legacy to have destroyed.

On many levels, The Rum Diary is a vibrant and entertaining film, but it always lacks an edge. It is well made but somehow monotonous; there is no genuine crisis or conflict, no scenes that will live long in the memory. The ending is sentimentalised but lacks an emotional kick, perhaps due to the departure of too many key players. In the end, it cannot match Thompson’s energy – not many films, or books for that matter, can – but it is nevertheless a worthwhile adaptation that will keep you entertained.

Rob Dickie

Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 15 November 2011