Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About NothingIf you buy the cliché that young people who argue and harp at each other are actually flirting, then William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing might have been the first great play to use it.  In Joss Whedon’s modern dress adaptation, he has whittled the play to under two hours and presented it in a witty original format.

The story concerns two young lovers who are both possessed of too much wit for their own good and their sharp tongues frequently cut others to bits, but none moreso than themselves, for Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) constantly cut each other to ribbons.  After sleeping together, the two part ways, then, when the victorious army returns from the war, they continue as if nothing had happened.

Beatrice lives with her uncle, Leonato (Clark Gregg), who is the Governor of Messina.  Although they are excessively wealthy, she shares a room with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese).  The Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) comes to visit, bringing with him his disgraced brother, Don John (Sean Maher), and the celebrated war hero, Count Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick.  No sooner have they arrived at this beautiful villa than Claudio reveals that he is deeply in love with Hero.  Now that the war is over, he wants to marry her and asks Benedick’s advice.  A confirmed bachelor, Benedick can only speak of himself, stating that he will never get married, that it is an odious state that can only ruin a man.  Unperturbed, Claudio tells Don Pedro about his love and the Prince volunteers to intercede with her at the costume party later that night.  He is successful and the marriage is set for a week later.

Don John has brought along two of his associates to help him plot revenge on the lot of them, his girlfriend, Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and a vicious young man named Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark).

For his own amusement, Don Pedro hatches a plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together: he and the men will have a conversation that Benedick will overhear in which they opine about Beatrice’s secret love for Benedick.  Meanwhile, Hero and her maidservant, Margaret (Ashley Johnson) will do the same for Beatrice, letting her know that Benedick is desperately in love with her, but is afraid to tell her because of her acid tongue.

When Don John hears of the intended marriage between Claudio and Hero, he tries to find some way to derail the marriage.  Borachio has the answer.  He has been involved in a relationship with Margaret and he can set up a scene where she dresses in Hero’s clothing and they make love in Hero’s room, so that Claudio will believe Hero is unfaithful.

The night before the wedding, local security chief, Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) has set out the night watch.  Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John all witness what they assume to be Hero making love with a stranger and Claudio decides to humiliate Hero by exposing her at the wedding.  Later that night, Borachio and Conrade are smoking a joint outside as Borachio brags about how he set up the Count Claudio for a fall, when Dogberry’s watch finds them, having overheard Borachio’s confession of villainy.  Arrested, Borachio and Conrade are brought in for questioning.  Dogberry has a few problems with English in that he frequently says exactly the opposite of what he means, thus confusing the two during their “interrogation.”

Intrigued by what they have heard, each of the other’s secret love, Benedick and Beatrice come together and discover that they really, truly are in love.  They pledge themselves to marry.

At Hero’s wedding, Claudio goes through with his threat and roughly accuses Hero of infidelity before the entire assembled wedding party.  He and Don Pedro race away and Hero collapses of shock.  The minister comes up with a plan that Hero should pretend to be dead, then Claudio will regret his actions and when he finds out she’s alive, they’ll marry anyway.  Beatrice, livid with anger over Claudio’s actions, forces Benedick into a duel with Claudio to prove his love to her.  Benedick confronts Claudio, telling him that Hero is dead and challenging him to a duel which will take place later.

Before there can be more mayhem and mischief, Dogberry brings Borachio and Conrade to Leonato and reveals that Hero was not immoral on the night before her wedding.  And so, there is a double wedding at the end.

There are many things to be loved in this modern day version of the Shakespeare classic.  For one thing, many aspects of the story are clear as a bell, rather than buried in pages of language.  Whedon has created a beautiful black and white modern world for this play to be set in and it looks beautiful, more like a classic French film than anything American.  The actors are all extremely sharp and the characters are extremely well-drawn.  Good, young actors contribute a  great deal to the success of this movie.  Both the men and women are incredibly handsome or beautiful throughout the movie.  I don’t think there is one “normal” looking person in the film, which is something that normally bothers me a great deal.  Does everyone always have to be supernaturally beautiful?  Apparently so.

The movie is quite funny, for the most part, although at times the black and white medium makes it feel like the story is a bit darker than it actually is.  Some of the parts are a bit overdone, such as Benedick’s extremely foolish eavesdropping on the conversation that sets him up with Beatrice.  Fillion plays Dogberry a little low-key for me and many of the lines that are funny in Shakespeare just look a little dumb with Fillion’s dry delivery.

As with all modern dress versions of Shakespeare, language is a problem.  I give full credit to Joss Whedon for doing an excellent job of cutting and compressing the play to get it down into very good length, but when when someone who is apparently modern gives out with “thee” and “thine” and “by my troth” it just doesn’t remotely ring true and frankly, it seems ludicous.  From the DVD special features, it seems that this project was put together very quickly using Whedon’s friends who had often read Shakespeare together as a fun thing to do.  Perhaps if it had been given a little more preparation, Whedon might have rewritten Shakespeare even a bit further and brought the language into line with the way we talk.  But if they just wanted to film friends doing Shakespeare, I guess it wouldn’t be Shakespeare without the language.

This isn’t really Whedon’s fault.  Many others have attempted to set Shakespeare in a modern day environment and each of them ultimately fail because Shakespeare’s language is over 400 years old and it sounds archaic and looks dumb when spoken by people dressed like us.  Much Ado About Nothing is far more successful than most attempts and I found it to be a highly entertaining, well-acting, well-cut film.

Even so, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief that is way beyond my own rich fantasy life.

All is Lost

All is Lost RedfordA man sleeps peacefully aboard his small yacht when it suddenly bangs into some sea debris, tearing a hole in the side.  This begins a great survival story where one problems piles upon another as he is tossed across the Indian Ocean toward shipping lanes and possible rescue.  But he must first face storms, sharks, and other menaces.  And even when he reaches the shipping lanes, will anyone see him?

Robert Redford gives a dynamic, riveting performance as the man fighting for his life in this 2013 film written and directed by J. C. Chandor.  With virtually no dialogue, the viewer is constantly engaged with the action, watching Redford’s eyes to see what he is feeling, trying to figure out from his actions what he is trying to accomplish in all of the little tasks that he takes on to try to survive.  It creates an inner dialogue that glues the viewer to the story, caught up in this extremely honest, thrilling film.

The cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco is extraordinary, catching all the moods of the sea and the storm.  The music, by Alex Ebert, is restrained, working within the overall sound created by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns of wind, waves, thunder, rain, grunting, and gasping.

Although the movie won various awards worldwide, it was seriously snubbed by the Academy Awards, though I can’t figure out why.  Clearly, it is one of the best movies of 2013, with a brilliant, gut-wrenching performance by Robert Redford, skillful directing, terrific special effects, great sound, and a story that is completely engaging from beginning to end.

This is a great movie that should be seen by everyone!

Notorious

Notorious 03The sexiest and most mature of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Notorious is also one of his most suspenseful movies.  It’s a torchy love story set among dangerous ex-Nazis in Rio de Janeiro, with Ingrid Bergman putting her life in danger to prove to the American agent she loves that she has become an honest woman.  Beautifully shot in black and white, all of Hitchcock’s mastery drives a story that is thrilling right up to the end.

This review contains plot spoilers.

When her German immigrant father is convicted of treason in 1945, beautiful Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) goes on a binge.  Her reputation as a party girl has been well earned, so American agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) tries to keep some distance as he prepares to recruit her to spy on her father’s old friends, but he can’t seem to help getting involved with her.  Although she claims not to care about it, Devlin has wiretapped proof that she is a patriot and so he gets her to fly to Rio de Janeiro for a job.

By the time she is settled in Rio, Alicia is in love Devlin and she goes off of alcohol and dedicates herself to him, but he doesn’t quite believe her.  He is still suspicious that she will take another lover when she can.

Her job is to hook up Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of her father’s friends who made advances to her in the past.  She practically begs Devlin to tell her not to take the job, but he thinks that she should refuse it on her own.  This test of wills leads her to accept the challenge.  She is successful with Sebastian, but he keeps seeing her with Devlin and suspects that she may not really love him.  He dares her to prove her loyalty by marrying him.  Alicia brings her dilemma to the American agents, all of whom want to leave the decision up to her, except for Devlin.  In love with her and angry that she has actually taken Sebastian for a lover, he advises her to go through with the marriage.

Notorious 01Alicia becomes convinced that whatever Sebastian is hiding is kept in his wine cellar, but he has the only to it.  On Devlin’s urging, she steals the key and plans to investigate during a large party.  She invites Devlin and the two of them sneak away during the party to look in the wine cellar.  He accidentally breaks a wine bottle and it is full of uranium.  Although he cleans up the mess and they make their escape, Sebastian has discovered that his key is missing when he goes to get more wine.  He sees Devlin and Alicia together and they kiss to cover their escape from the wine cellar.  Sebastian sees them and realizes that Alicia doesn’t really love him, then, when his key appears on his key ring the next morning, he realizes that she is a spy.

At the urging of his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), they begin a slow process of poisoning Alicia.  When she grows more and more ill, she cannot make a meeting with Devlin and he becomes suspicious.  He goes to the house to investigate and finds her deathly ill.  Confessing his love for her, he takes her from the house right in front of all of the Germans.  Sebastian begs to go along with them, but Devlin refuses, leaving Sebastian to face the wrath of his ex-Nazi friends.

In its restored version, this black and white film is absolutely beautiful.  Ingrid Bergman was made for the black and white film medium and the camera certainly loves her beauty.  Alicia is a very complicated role and her performance is dynamic and powerful.  Likewise, Cary Grant plays Devlin as a very complicated man and gives probably the best performance of his career, nuanced and detailed.  Hitchcock uses his camera masterfully, creating some of the best shots of any of his films.

Notorious 02The suspense in this movie is palpable, at times so thick that it is almost impossible to watch, but the story is so compelling it is difficult to turn away.  The kisses between Bergman and Grant are incredibly sexy.  In one shot, they kiss, nuzzle, talk, and kiss over and over again for minutes.  The movie also contains one of Hitchcock’s most well known shots, a long crane shot from the second floor of the house, moving inexorably down to a close-up of Bergman’s hand, behind her back, holding the key.

Written by Hollywood’s legendary screen writer, Ben Hecht, Notorious is a masterpiece that must be included among the very best of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and it should be seen by everyone!

Wallander

 

?????????????????????????This BBC mystery series is actually a chain of films based on the novels by Swedish writer Henning Mankell featuring Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander, a middle aged man coping with the deterioration of Sweden’s utopian ideals as the country wades into the 21st Century.  The Wallander novels have attained a world-wide popularity based as much on the character’s accessibility as the gripping nature of the crimes he solves.

Although many of the novels had already been adapted into Swedish films, in 2006 Mankell formed a production company called Yellow Bird for the express purpose of bringing the novels to the English speaking part of the world.  Producers Anne Mensah of BBC Scotland and Andy Harries and Francis Hopkinson of Left Bank Pictures were brought in to shepherd the project.  Although many distinguished British actors were considered for the series, Kenneth Branagh was a fan of the books and directly interceded the process.  He met with Mankell at an Ingmar Bergman film festival and literally talked the author into hiring him to play the role.  Various locations were considered for the movie including Scotland and the state of Maine in the United States, but the importance of the country the books were set in, Sweden, ultimately won out.  The country is so important that it is like a co-starring character.

The first three books to be filmed were Sidetracked, Firewall, and One Step Behind, although eventually the other novels would also be filmed.  This article deals exclusively with the first three movies.

Sidetracked introduces us to the character of Kurt Wallander by immediately dousing us in the beauty of a Swedish field abloom with rapeseed (a bright-yellow flowering member of the mustard family–see the photo) that dominates the camera.  Wallender has been called in because a young woman is hiding in the field.  He tries to approach her, declaring himself as a policeman, but she pours a can of gas over herself and sets herself afire.  Wallander is appalled and perplexed.  “What’s our country coming to,” he asks, “when fifteen year old girls set themselves on fire?”  In this first movie we discover that he is recently separated from his wife and that his grown daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) who is deeply concerned about his lifestyle, especially his hideous eating habits and his devotion to his job that frequently leaves him burned out and exhausted.  He has a very difficult relationship with his father (David Warner), but Linda eventually brings them back together and Kurt discovers that his father now has Alzheimer’s.  We also meet Wallander’s co-workers, most of whom are as devoted their work as he is.  Anne-Britt Hoglund (Sarah Smart) works most closely with him, but the group of detectives also includes Kalle Svedberg (Tom Beard) and Magnus Martinsson (Tom Hiddleston)  His investigation of the self-immolation eventually leads to a former police executive who is running a forced prostitution ring, supplying young girls, many foreign, to provide as virgins to wealthy businessmen.

Firewall begins with the murder of a cab driver by two young women who calmly turn themselves in and then wallow in a fatalist state that reveals nothing of why they did it.  In this movie, Linda sets up her father to participate in an internet dating site and he eventually dates the first woman to respond, but his faith that he might actually be able to start over is severely shaken by developments in the story.  His investigation of the murder uncovers a plot to bring down the European banking system by way of computer hacking.

The third film, One Step Behind, is a much more personal story as Wallander investigates a serial killer who is so random that no pattern can be discerned, even though they bring in a professional profiler to help them.  He forms a close bond with a girl who might lead them to the killer, but she is murdered practically before his eyes.  This leads him to a much deeper love for his own daughter, Linda.  He also meets a very interesting woman who seems to understand what he is going through.  Ultimately, the killer becomes more daring and brings his carnage to Wallander’s front door.

The directing, under the guidance of Philip Martin, is very smart, combining both documentary and drama film techniques to bring alive the landscape of Sweden.  The films capture the modern architecture and the nearly surreal beauty of the countryside by using a very lightweight, high resolution digital camera.  They create a kind of stark beauty that makes the movies each stand out as a visual delight, a rare and extraordinary imagery that doesn’t just bring the stories to life, but brings the landscape front and center.  The use of color in the imagery consistently keeps the viewer in a state of hyper-realism that is bold and addictive.

Branagh is perfect as Wallander, creating a character that is completely believable and engaging, so personally involved in his work that the viewer is allowed to see a fully realized person, with all of his faults as well as his good points.  He is very easy to identify with and that is part of what makes the movies so special.  All of the supporting actors are also well cast and believable.

If there is any fault to find with the movies, it is that the first two mysteries are pretty easy to solve and there are points where you wonder why Wallander hasn’t put it all together.  In those first two films, I knew who committed the murders long before the detective did, even though the directors did not tip it off.  At a certain point, I realized that even though I knew who committed the crimes, the films concentrate so well on the personal aspects, Wallander’s character, and the nature of the landscape that it just wasn’t important.  The third movie, however, works both as a mystery and as a great real-life drama and it makes me eager to see more.

I confess that I’m not a great fan of crime drama or murder mystery, but Wallander goes far beyond simple genre filmmaking, into a depth of character and landscape that makes each movie very special.  I look forward to seeing more of the Wallander movies in the future!