Expectations are a funny thing, and they almost always get the better of us. Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing is a craftily made Shakespeare adaptation with great performances all around, but you would do well to expect more Bard, less Whedon.
That Whedon was able to make this adaptation on a micro-budget, film it in 12 days over his vacation from production of The Avengers, and gather a crew and a talented cast of this caliber is nothing (ha!) short of remarkable. This isn't the way films are made, not even indie films. So great is the success of Whedon's experiment that it's easy to assume the resulting film will be just as phenomenal, but it's not. It's a solid adaptation acted by a true ensemble, but that's it.
For folks who have seen or read Much Ado About Nothing aren't going to find any surprises, and those looking for Whedon trademarks will come up empty. After all, this is Whedon's first take on material he didn't himself write, and thus it feels very different from the rest of his work. The film is certainly very good, but it's more Shakespeare with a pinch of Whedon, rather than Whedon with a pinch of Shakespeare; anyone who enters expecting the latter, like I did, may find their enjoyment tinged with disappointment.
That isn't to say that the film isn't any good, because it is. The film is very well-staged, which is impressive considering they only had one central location. Shakespeare's plays only provide dialogue, so a director's voice in an adaptation really comes through in the blocking. Most visual gags are invented by the players, and Whedon's Much Ado has plenty to amuse the audience, even when the Bard's dialogue is particularly dense. Speaking of dialogue, it's striking that Whedon has updated the sixteenth-century play to a modern setting, yet left the dialogue unaltered. Whether motivated by a purist sensibility, or simply time constraints, the Elizabethan dialogue perhaps makes the case that the interpersonal difficulties people currently have are the interpersonal difficulties people have always had. The cast does exhibit some preliminary stumbling with the language, but after the first 30 minutes it fades into a natural groove.
The cast is the best reason to see this movie. For fans of Whedon's repeat players, this is fan service of the highest kind. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker own the film as Benedick and Beatrice, lending themselves to comedy and drama with equal weight. The rest of the cast doesn't have a blight among them, with Clark Gregg exuding genial authority as Leonato, Fran Kranz successfully pulling off leading man Claudio, and Nathan Fillion showing up to steal the show as the Bard's token comic relief character Dogberry. The normally mild-mannered Sean Maher, however, is the biggest surprise among the cast, with his expertly exuded villainy as Don Jon. Fans of internet comedy duo BriTANick will also be pleased to see them turn up as the First and Second Watchmen. A dinner party scene features even more cameos by Whedon regulars, so keep your eyes peeled.
Technically, while the film's short production period is impressive, there are moments where it shows in the final product. While Whedon is able to get multiple varied locations out of one house (he shot Much Ado in his own home), the cinematography does come up short. Lacking, I suspect, a steadicam, the film relies too much on handheld shots to the point of overuse. A dinner party near the start of the film is gorgeously staged and framed, perhaps enough to be one of my favorite sequences for cinematography this year, but the film as a whole is noticeably inconsistent in this regard. However, the score, composed by Whedon himself, is more than up to par, heightening neutral moments and never intruding on the more dramatic ones. Whedon also covered two of Shakespeare's sonnets for the soundtrack, "Sigh No More" and "Heavily". Featuring lilting vocals by Maurissa Tancharoen, the songs are beautiful. Hopefully they'll wet our tongues as we wait the long wait for the sequel to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.
Overall, although Much Ado About Nothing has flaws, I believe they had more to do with my expectations than they did the film itself. Whedonites may not find his voice very present here, but they should be more than delighted with the veteran cast of Whedon's old collaborators. And while the film doesn't showcase Whedon's usual style, it remains a perfectly enjoyable Shakespeare adaptation, an intriguing experiment in micro-budget filmmaking, and a wonderful showcase of a very talented ensemble.
Despite a positive reception from both critics and general audiences, J.J. Abrams' 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise was controversial amongst fans of the original series. While some embraced the film's modern style, others were turned off by what they perceived to be a rejection of the spirit of the original. Star Trek the television show was about philosophy and ideology. Its main characters were more likely to solve a dispute with diplomacy than with photon torpedoes.
Star Trek the 2009 film, however, is first and foremost an action film. The film contains numerous pitched battles between the forces of good and evil. The antagonist's motivation is barely existent, getting no more complex than "kill Spock." There's no denying that the film and the series come from entirely different worlds, but the complaints of fans were justified, to an extent. With Star Trek Into Darkness, it appears that Abrams and Co. have heard those complaints, and the film seems to serve as an apology.
Are there still exciting battles between enormous spaceships? Plenty, believe me. But without spoiling anything (and this review will be spoiler-free, worry not), our heroes are fighting to keep Starfleet true to its original intentions. When the film begins, the Federation is on the brink of war with the Klingons, and there are some people within Starfleet who want to weaponize the organization and turn it into a military. Isn't this exactly what fans thought the 2009 film was doing? Well, not on the watch of Kirk and his crew.
The cold open of Star Trek Into Darkness, which people who saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in IMAX have already seen, isn't an epic space battle, as most films like this would have opened with. The Enterprise is trying to save a primitive population from a volcano. That carries its own tension and stakes, but it isn't a violent fight like the opening scene of the last film. The crux of the film is ultimately about what Starfleet stands for. Fans of the original series won't be disappointed.
Speaking of which, the cast of the film is even better than they were the last time out. Our seven lead characters have all settled into their roles, and none of them are doing an impression of the actors who preceded them. Zachary Quinto's Spock is of particular note. Spock is the definitive straight man, and he gets most of the film's laughs. He's self-aware, but never in a way that feels disrespectful to the legacy of the character. Chris Pine has some trouble with the film's emotional beats, but he seems to have a solid understanding of who Kirk is. The screenplay does a great job of capturing him as a person, and not a caricature.
In fact, that could be said of pretty much all of the main characters. These people have become so ingrained in the popular culture that it would have been easy to write them as broad stereotypes and leave it at that. The crew's tropes we all know and love are still there, but they're rooted in actual three dimensional characters. The film also does a great job of giving each character their own moment to shine. It's reminiscent of last year's The Avengers, which had a similarly large roster of heroes to juggle, and succeeded in giving equal treatment to all of them. None of the main characters get the short end of the stick, and they all get to save the day at some point or another. This isn't an easy task, but Abrams and Lindelof pull it off without any of the spotlights feeling forced.
Benedict Cumberbatch is introduced as "John Harrison," so that's how I'll refer to him in this review. There's a lot to be said about how the film deals with his character, but it's nigh impossible to do without spoiling anything. I will say that I'm worried whether people who aren't fans of the original series will fully understand who he is and what his motivations are. His history is given a quick explanation, but it's easy to miss. It's possible that the filmmakers overestimated just how well-known this character was. I fear that a lot of people will be walking out of the theater scratching their heads as to what Harrison was trying to do. Trekkies will immediately pick up on Harrison's true identity (the mere mention of a certain number will tip die-hards off right off the bat), but the glossing-over of his whole motivation might baffle general audiences.
That said, Star Trek Into Darkness is a great deal of fun. It's a breathless story that dishes out moments of nail-biting tension with wild abandon. The production design, the performances, and the storytelling all feel far more polished and refined than in the 2009 film. If you're looking for two hours of thrilling adventure with solid writing and stunning cinematography to boot, you can't ask for more than Star Trek Into Darkness. It's a film that will please the Trek-illiterate and the hardcore fans alike.