Much Ado About Nothing (2013)
Written and directed by Joss Whedon, adapted from the play by William Shakespeare
I’ve been watching a lot of Whedon lately. About a year ago I fell in love with Firefly and Serenity. Since then I’ve caught up with Cabin in the Woods (a hilarious and smart deconstruction of slasher flicks) and The Avengers (not my cup of tea but an entertaining superhero spectacular nonetheless). Of course most of you know that I’ve recently started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer for my new podcast, Kat and Curt’s TV Re-View. In fact, I watched the last episode of the first season only yesterday. And I’ve only scratched the surface of his career. What’s astonishing about Whedon’s body of work is the sheer breadth and depth. He’s worked in every genre and medium (the ones listed above include science fiction, western, horror, satire, fantasy, superhero, both tv and movies) and yet brings his own unique voice and point of view to each of them in a way that makes them feel like parts of a whole. Perhaps there is no other filmmaker/screenwriter who has accomplished the variety Whedon can claim, and very few who can claim to have a voice as strong, distinct, and entertaining as his. Add into this his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing and the mind boggles. Made in two weeks and self-financed between production and post-production on The Avengers, this charming little film adds even more genres to Whedon’s resume: Literary adaptation, romantic comedy, realism (if a little heightened, of course), black and white cinematography. He pulls them off as adeptly as everything else, belying the fact that he is working in these techniques for the first time. As a testament to Whedon’s talent it is yet another triumph. On top of that, it is also a darn good interpretation of Shakespeare. The Whedon players grasp the language, delivering it clearly and effortlessly, which is always the key for an audience trying to follow the Elizabethan English. The light comedy shines – especially in the scenes of Beatrice and Benedick eavesdropping on their friends. It was always going to be difficult to compete with Kenneth Branaugh’s classic film version, but some aspects even work better. For example, Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry is hilariously bumbling but far more minimalist than Michael Keaton’s visually manic interpretation, and therefore we are allowed to hear the linguistic jokes much more clearly. I’m afraid I still prefer Branaugh’s Benedick to Alexis Denisof, but Amy Acker’s performance as Beatrice was definitely one of the highlights: A perfect mixture of wit, intelligence and warmth. Also she delivers one of the best pratfalls I’ve ever seen. For something made on a shoestring budget nearly overnight, Whedon’s first filmed foray into Shakespeare surprisingly stands alongside the rest of his work in quality. Although, given his track record, perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann, Written by Luhrmann and Craig Pierce, Adapted from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Another adaptation of a literary classic, there is a lot to like about Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby. The visuals, especially in the opening half hour, are what you expect from his previous films, which can be love it or hate it depending on your taste. Luhrmann is obsessed with hedonistic and materialistic cultures, whether they be the turn of the century Parisian underbelly (Moulin Rouge), urban teenage gangs duking it out in 1990’s U.S. (Romeo + Juliet) or in this case Long Island and Manhattan in the roaring twenties. He is equally interested in transforming and updating beloved stories, as all three of the above are literary adaptations (Moulin Rouge being a reworking of the myth of Orpheus). What I’m getting at is that Baz Luhrmann’s projects are really very similar: If his aesthetic pleases you then you will like this latest piece, and if it doesn’t then it won’t. Once he allows himself to calm down from his bombastic openings, I often quite enjoy his films. Underneath the glitz there is real substance, both in evoking the themes of a story and in some strong acting. As an adaptation (from what I can remember of my reading of the novel in high school) the screenplay follows the novel quite closely. What Luhrmann adds is mostly in visual flair that other, tamer versions don’t have the guts to add. But he also has the sense of when to allow scenes to just play, to let his actors do their thing and act. If anything is holding Gatsby back from being as viscerally satisfying as some of his earlier work then it’s in the original itself: None of the characters are worth rooting for. Tom and Daisy are expertly played by Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan, who allow themselves to be as despicable as needed. Toby Maguire gets Nick’s slightly annoying, wishy-washy qualities across, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby is earnest, suave, and horribly naive in equal measure. In the end the narrative is bitter and unsatisfying, but isn’t that the nature of the story and of Fitzgerald’s view of his modern times? Though perhaps Luhrmann’s style is now too expected to be of any huge impact, he nonetheless services the story and the characters well enough to make this film worth seeing.