Thursday, June 27, 2013

Much Ado About Whedon

The film many die-hard Avengers fans have been waiting over a year for was not Iron Man 3. It was not even Man of Steel. No, many fans of last summer's blockbuster were waiting on director Joss Whedon's next movie. And what does an overnight sensation like Whedon do when he's given the keys to his parent's kingdom? The answer is: anything he wants, which in this case involves taking some of his favored actors and filming a modern-set, black-and-white adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which he filmed at his Santa Monica residence in a span of twelve days. Just to set the record straight; the man behind legendary and cult favorite science fiction shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, not to mention the most beloved superhero movie of all time, took time to create a stripped-down version of one of the Bard's best comedies for the big screen. I'm not sure what's more surprising: that the above is 100% true, or that over two hundred theaters are now playing a movie that likely wouldn't have made it into twenty just two years ago.

Hey, it's Fred from Angel!
For those unfamiliar with this particular Shakespeare play - it's not quite as well-known as Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar or Hamlet - it focuses on a villa in Messina, and on two pairs of lovers. When Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), the prince, visits the home of Governor Leonato (Clark Gregg), his companion Claudio (Franz Kranz) falls in love with Leonato's fair daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese). Meanwhile, they conspire to pair Leonato's foul-tempered niece Beatrice (Amy Acker) with the roguish lothario Benedick (Alexis Denisof), though the two can't stand each other's company. Just as things are beginning to look happily-ever-after for Claudio and Hero, however, Pedro's bastard brother Don John (Sean Maher) seeks to cause mischief that would cause the two houses to go to war. In between, there's a lot of drinking, music and dancing. I think Whedon might have added that last part.
Hey, it's Agent Coulson from The Avengers!
There's quite a bit to like about this newest rendition of a Shakespeare classic. Whedon almost word for word translates the original play into his film, and he also arranged the music to two songs Shakespeare had written for the play, performed by past contributors Maurissa Tancheon and Jed Whedon (Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). His choice to film in black and white denotes the classical elements of the play, while the modern settings and set pieces succeed in creating an ultimately modern feel to the world he presents. Also, as the director (who also wrote the screenplay), Whedon infuses the tale with a theme of sexuality that goes hand in hand with the original love story. Doing so really helps modernize the play, and makes Much Ado more enticing to the audience as a whole, and not feel quite as old-fashioned as it could have. It's one of Whedon's few additions in a largely faithful screenplay, and alongside his penchant for physical humor (in absence of his usual clever dialogue, which is understandable), he makes a Shakespeare flick that everybody can get into.
Hey, it's Mal Reynolds! And that little guy from Buffy and Angel!
Whedon fans will also spend about 90% of the movie pointing out characters from several of the director's films or shows. With a few exceptions, just about everybody here has worked with Whedon, whether it was ten years ago or just last year, and you may experience intense bouts of nostalgia or just sudden outbursts ("Hey, that's the waitress from The Avengers!") while watching this in the theater. But beyond that, and while most of the actors here aren't particularly well known, there are a number of quality performances to be found from seemingly unlikely sources. Tops among them are The Cabin in the Woods star Franz Kranz, whose role as Claudio at first seems ill-fitting until you actually pay attention to him for a moment. If Cabin was the only thing you've seen him in, you might not expect Shakespeare to be his forte, but he works the audience beautifully, and has one of the best showings I've seen so far this year. Amy Acker is also excellent, proving her adeptness at switching between dramatic and comedic at will. Though nobody else quite reaches up to that level of quality, the film is positively full of good performances by the likes of Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher and Ashley Johnson.
Hey, it's Wesley!
But for a movie filmed in a little under two weeks, there are bound to be some problems. One of the big ones is... it's Shakespeare. Yes, the Bard is arguably the most prolific storyteller of all time, but his use of the English language can be barely coherent to modern audiences in this day and age. Fortunately, viewers can get used to this after a short time and follow along well enough, but there's no hiding that some of the actors were just not cut out for reciting Shakespeare. There are a number of offenders, but the worst might easily be newcomer Jillian Morgese, who doesn't appear to be acting so much as she is reading off of cue cards. Poorly. This is why Kenneth Branagh brought in an all-star cast in his 1993 adaptation of the same play: Morgese is certainly no Kate Beckensale. There are moments where the film feels entirely amateurish, from (purposely?) missed lines to the camera lingering a bit long on a comedic bit. But that's also part of its charm, and what makes it so enjoyable to audiences in the first place.
Hey, it's Topher from Dollhouse!
And that's the word to describe Whedon's latest effort: charming. Not perfect in the least, and not quite up to the snuff of better indies released this year (The Place Beyond the Pines or Mud, for instance), but Much Ado About Nothing definitely has its charm, and is certainly impressive when you consider it was done on a lark during a vacation from the post-production of The Avengers. If anything, this film proves the kind of loyalty a great director can garner from his actors when he's concerned more with putting on the best story than he is at breaking box office records. It's a fun, funny, smart and sexy movie that all of Whedon's fans should see, and others should check out when they get the opportunity to do so. It won't be playing everywhere, but seeing a cool, modern adaptation of Shakespeare should not be a difficult choice to make if it does come to your theater. And Joss Whedon is most definitely a bonus.

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