Twenty Feet from Stardom

September 2nd, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

An engrossing and thoughtful look at the backup singers whose voices grace some of the most familiar recordings of popular music, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” is certainly a must-see for rock fans. Tracing the enormous and all too often unheralded contributions of the supremely talented vocalists whose job requirement more or less demands a kind of selfless anonymity, director Morgan Neville’s documentary opens up a conversation on the mysterious alchemy of stardom and the painful realities of a cold-blooded industry. Colorfully supported with vintage film and video footage, archival photographs, and interviews with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Sting, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” shines a light on a segment of the music world long overdue for just this kind of consideration.

With the possible exception of 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Darlene Love, the incomparable voice cruelly exploited by Phil Spector, most of the singers profiled by Neville are unknown to a general audience. Along with Love, the performers who receive the most screen time include Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill, although Neville includes many more figures whose individual tales could easily support entire films of their own. “Twenty Feet from Stardom” makes the case that any one of these women could have – or should have – achieved the stratospheric levels of adoration and compensation enjoyed by the rock stars they complement, but as Sting points out, there is no way to figure the luck and timing and fortune that smile on some and ignore others, regardless of talent.

In a document filled with lore and legend, no anecdote is more potent than the story of Merry Clayton receiving an invitation to a late night session for “Let It Bleed.” Clayton describes being pregnant and dressed for bed, but determined to hold nothing back with each take. Without her scorching contributions to “Gimme Shelter,” particularly the lacerating wail of “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away,” the track is unthinkable, unimaginable. Neville treats the viewer to a sample of Clayton’s vocal isolated from the mix, and the sound sends a chill up and down the spine of any appreciator of the Rolling Stones’ apocalyptic hurricane.

Many of the most complex skeins involving race and gender are at least acknowledged if not completely and satisfyingly untangled by Neville. The movie opens with a brief discussion of the famous line “and the colored girls go…” preceding the Thunderthighs “doo do doo” backup on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and any time the director reaches for the details of songcraft and collaboration – Bowie’s “Young Americans” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” are two of the other examples – the movie soars.

Slightly less successful is the handling of the sticky question confronting the extent to which the women were used by the performers who hired their services. Even though Neville does not directly make note of it, Claudia Lennear’s intimate relationship with Mick Jagger inspired him to pen “Brown Sugar” (she is also regularly cited as the inspiration for Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul”). Lennear, who would leave the music business and find work as a tutor and teacher, carefully and tactfully alludes to her time in the orbit of the Stones, leaving one to marvel at her grace and class. Robert Christgau once called “Brown Sugar” a “rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis.” After spending a little time with her in “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” one could say the same thing about Lennear.

Blue Jasmine

August 26th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

The tremendous Cate Blanchett supplies a tour-de-force performance in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” a Blanche DuBois meets Bernie Madoff moral tale that represents one of the writer-director’s strongest and most sustained efforts since 2005’s “Match Point.” Allen’s ever-prolific late period contains more clunkers than gems, but the misfires (“To Rome with Love,” “Whatever Works”) haven’t tarnished the delights (“Midnight in Paris,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”). “Blue Jasmine” doesn’t surpass “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” perhaps Allen’s finest exploration of the psyche’s darkest corners, but the new film is a worthy addition to the filmmaker’s oeuvre.

Blanchett appeared as DuBois in the Sydney Theatre Company’s revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (performed in 2009 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) and many commentators have drawn comparisons between Tennessee Williams’ tipsy, fading belle and Jeanette “Jasmine French” Francis, Allen’s richly imagined hothouse flower. While the “Streetcar” allusions in “Blue Jasmine” can keep Williams aficionados busy – see Manohla Dargis’ review in “The New York Times” for a thorough account – Allen has shaped the homage into a stern portrait of desperation both loud and quiet.

Miraculously, Blanchett wills the elitist, entitled Jasmine into spaces of pathos and vulnerability. The fallen Park Avenue socialite’s doomed marriage with a swindling financier (Alec Baldwin) has left her without means and a place to live. After fleeing New York for San Francisco to crash with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), Jasmine’s sense of privilege collides with the working class world inhabited by her sibling, a grocery clerk whose boyfriend, an auto mechanic named Chili (Bobby Cannavale), deeply resents the needy Jasmine’s inconvenient imposition. Jasmine’s plans to rediscover herself are by turns pathetic and misguided, and Allen nails the clash of classes in a series of jittery outbursts and cruel recriminations.

Allen explores a number of his pet themes, including self-delusion, wealth, opportunity, greed, and the fallout from amour fou. The fortunes and misfortunes of both Jasmine and Ginger are examined in detail, and Allen includes numerous flashbacks to explain Jasmine’s precarious and deteriorating mental health. Even though both blue and white collar stereotypes abound in the outward appearances of the film’s inhabitants, Allen wisely withholds judgment on his players, allowing the viewer to understand the motives of all significant parties, most of whom make poor decisions at one point or another. Along with Hawkins, Baldwin, and Cannavale, support is provided by Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, and Peter Sarsgaard.

“Blue Jasmine” belongs to Blanchett, however, and although it’s far too early to make award season predictions, nobody would be surprised if she earns an emphatic series of accolades later this year for her work as Jasmine, a role David Denby has called “the most complicated and demanding performance of her movie career.” Allen currently holds the record among living filmmakers for directing the most Oscar-winning performances (six total, five by women), so it is little wonder that actors seek opportunities to appear in his movies. Blanchett, like Dianne Wiest before her, makes room for humor while striking the perfect notes of seriousness and sadness. By the time we join Jasmine on a park bench in the movie’s stirring coda, she has become very difficult to forget.

Jobs

August 19th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

An embarrassing, half-baked product that stands in diametric opposition to the stamp of quality and user experience demanded of its subject on his company’s game-changing devices, “Jobs” is not the biopic Apple fanatics, or anyone else for that matter, wanted or needed. Director Joshua Michael Stern violates every law of competent filmmaking, stacking his movie with surface-level historical highlights instead of thoughtful ideas and explorations of what might drive and inspire a visionary person to innovate within a dynamic and highly competitive industry.

“Jobs” is so uninvolving, it could inspire a game in which participants tally the number of times the title character is shown barefoot, applauded by staff, nearly comes to tears, or breaks out a combination of the smirk/intense gaze. Ashton Kutcher’s passing resemblance to the younger version of the man (the actor is currently 35 and Steve Jobs died at 56 in October 2011) does not translate into a nuanced performance, and a portion of the blame belongs to screenwriter Matt Whiteley, who insists on giving Jobs a string of uninterrupted zero-to-sixty escalations from tranquility to rage. And Kutcher’s misguided exaggeration of Jobs’ ambling walk is just a bad joke.

If “Jobs” has a single redeeming feature, it can be described in the willingness of the filmmakers to remind viewers that Jobs could be selfish, savage, mercenary, and deluded. When told he is his own worst enemy, we are all inclined to believe it, since so many of the movie’s interactions are predicated on Jobs being a massive tool in matters of interpersonal communication. One gets the feeling that the nonstop loops of scenes exploring Jobs’ battles with Apple suits, his shabby and abusive treatment of employees, and his grotesque disloyalty to the people in his circle of closest friends are in the script to illustrate the man’s complexity and the burdens of genius, but the effect is cartoonish.

Stern and Whiteley eschew any close examination of Jobs’ personal life except in tiny glimpses when it suits their larger design. The movie hints that Jobs carried around a chip on his shoulder regarding his status as a child given up for adoption. Additionally, Jobs’ cruel rejection of his daughter Lisa (born 1978 to Chrisann Brennan) is minimized. Neither Brennan nor Laurene Powell are seen as significant in the life of Jobs, although Brennan (played by Ahna O’Reilly) has a small scene in which she is comforted by Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas) after Jobs kicks her to the curb. It is certainly debatable whether the filmmakers’ decision to omit content dealing with the pancreatic cancer that would claim Jobs’ life was a wise decision.

Supposedly, Aaron Sorkin’s own script about Steve Jobs consists of only three scenes – each one playing out in real time prior to major Apple product launches – but if the writing is even a fraction as good as Sorkin’s work on the screenplay for “The Social Network,” the future movie would still be better than “Jobs.” In 1981, Bud Tribble coined the term “reality distortion field” as a means of accounting for the uncanny way in which Jobs could seduce himself and others into total belief in and commitment to an endeavor, especially when the odds against success were high. “Jobs” the movie so completely misses that charisma, the result is all Zune and no iPod.

Fruitvale Station

August 12th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was shot and killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California. The incident was captured on several cell phone cameras while the train full of witnesses idled, and the footage from one angle is used at the beginning of writer-director Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station.” Coogler’s decision to start with the disturbing documentation of the gunshot that took Grant’s life permeates the film’s quotidian business of following one young person’s last day with foreboding feelings of dread, melancholy, and regret.

As Grant, Michael B. Jordan navigates the man’s frustrating contradictions with a keenly applied understanding of the knots and errors that contribute to any life’s mosaic. Grant’s mostly uneventful schedule is given several dramatic conflicts by Coogler that capitalize on the fresh-start promises afforded by New Year resolutions. Grant tries to come clean with girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), the mother of their daughter, about romantic infidelity and the loss of his supermarket job. Additionally, we bear witness to Grant’s tendency toward prevarication and poor choices, as he struggles to leave behind the drug dealing that placed him behind bars in one of two prison terms served.

First-time feature filmmaker Coogler demonstrates maturity and confidence periodically offset by a few unnecessarily manipulative portents of Grant’s destiny. A scene in which Grant comforts a pitbull that has been struck by a vehicle flirts with both emotional artificiality and symbolic transparency. The narrative unity of several “it’s a small world” coincidences converging in one transit car is also a stretch, but the core of Coogler’s agenda, expressed by his thought in a New York Times interview with Joe Rhodes that “When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something,” is omnipresent in the film.

While some critics have negatively responded to Coogler’s affirming portrayal of Grant, “Fruitvale Station” is no different from any “based on a true story” historical dramas that, as narrative fiction, imagine and invent dialogue, details, and demeanors of “real” people being portrayed by talented actors. Coogler shrewdly and soberly turns “Fruitvale Station” into a meditation on the full range of one individual’s humanness instead of an inquiry into racial division, use of force principles, and police brutality and misconduct.

In the New York Post, Kyle Smith made several dubious assertions, including the statement that “videos of the shooting don’t support a claim of outrageous policing.” The validity of Smith’s comment depends upon one’s definition of “outrageous,” but plenty of eyewitness testimony and the videos taken that day corroborate the fact that Grant was unarmed and on the ground when Mehserle pulled the trigger (the defense team made the argument that the officer confused his Taser with his firearm). Coogler’s take on the chaotic prelude to Grant’s death unfolds with markers of urgency and unpredictability, identifying the filmmaker as an artist to watch and “Fruitvale Station” as one of 2013’s key movies.

The To Do List

August 5th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Maggie Carey’s feature film debut “The To Do List” has received attention for gender-inverting the common masculinity of the “pursuit of sexual experience” trope that has fueled the plots of several raunchy comedies including “Porky’s,” “The Last American Virgin,” and “American Pie.” “The To Do List” is not the first rite-of-passage movie to be shared from the perspective of a female protagonist – “Little Darlings,” “Stealing Beauty,” “Juno,” and “18-Year-Old Virgin” represent a range of tones and agendas – but Carey’s unapologetic heroine Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), is so matter of fact about wanting to understand and acquire carnal knowledge on her own terms that the film has been called both “fake feminist” by Rafer Guzman and “radically feminist” by Inkoo Kang.

Carey, who wrote the screenplay on spec before it ended up on Franklin Leonard’s influential Black List survey, met Plaza in an Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre class and cast the future “Parks and Recreation” performer in a web series called “The Jeannie Tate Show.” In “The To Do List,” Plaza continues to hone her deadpan style, but overachieving valedictorian Brandy is considerably less sarcastic and cynical than April Ludgate. Brandy shares some movie DNA with Ione Skye’s Diane Court from teen hallmark “Say Anything…” and even though Skye was age-appropriately cast as a high school graduate, one of the gags of “The To Do List” is the “Beverly Hills, 90210”-style use of performers ranging in age from their mid-20s to their mid-30s as teenagers.

Set in Carey’s high school graduation year of 1993, “The To Do List” uses that specific date to mine music and fashion nostalgia as well as provide a framework for a plot that simply could not exist once Internet search engines began to provide instant access to definitions and illustrations of any and every possible sexual behavior. Brandy’s quest to check off the likes of French kissing, motorboating, hand jobs, pearl necklaces, dry humping, and cunnilingus (outside of a committed relationship and with multiple partners) will vex certain conservatives opposed to what might be perceived as the movie’s permissive/progressive affirmation of sex positivity. On the way from “straight A’s to getting her first F,” as the double-entendre of the trailer puts it, Brandy may very well challenge Kathryn Schwartz’s argument that virginity is a “vehicle for misogyny.”

Pursuers of raucous comedy and onscreen vulgarity will find many opportunities to laugh, although Carey mostly steers clear of using Brandy’s rendezvous for the most graphic jests. Instead, an errant bikini top and a gross-out tribute to the Baby Ruth scene from juggernaut “Caddyshack” provide Brandy’s biggest humiliations. Surely it is no accident that Carey constructs “The To Do List” in a way that tries to depict a contextual authenticity for Brandy’s sexual roadmap. The most compelling example of this occurs during the intercourse that Brandy imagines will conclude her homework: she has the presence of mind to be on top to increase the likelihood of orgasm.

The most disappointing dimension of “The To Do List” is the borderline apathetic treatment of the talented secondary cast members. Brandy’s BFFs, played by Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele, importantly avoid slut-shaming their curious pal, even though Shawkat’s Fiona lashes out with the S-word in anger and humiliation when she feels betrayed by one of Brandy’s particularly clueless moves. Fiona and Steele’s Wendy are never developed beyond slight and flimsy approximations of self-actualized persons, and the lack of meaningfully communicated interpersonal relationships prevents the film from achieving the kind of richness and depth of character associated with the 1980s movies of John Hughes.

The Silence

July 29th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Based on a popular 2007 novel by Jan Costin Wagner, German-made “The Silence” is an ambitious, accomplished procedural significantly more restrained and purposeful than the majority of its American counterparts. Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Baran bo Odar, the film juggles a potentially precarious number of characters and interlocking storylines to explore the grim and lurid contours of an unsolved rape and murder that eerily, impossibly is recreated almost a quarter of a century later. The Swiss-born writer/director reveals a visceral command of the somber material, and while he does not quite achieve the sustained poise and profundity of Gotz Spielmann’s “Revanche,” his talent is considerable.

The most remarkable dimension of Odar’s work is the inquisitive, non-judgmental manner in which every individual personality is treated. From pedophile to police detective, “The Silence” spends significant time with each of its inhabitants, although the gambit risks occasional audience alienation when some storylines unfold in stronger and less predictable ways than others. Not every viewer will appreciate the constantly shifting point-of-view, a technique that feels more at home on an episodic series like “The Wire,” in which multiple episodes afford an opportunity to fully explore the lives and motivations of those involved in a complex case.

The film’s opening scene establishes the identities of the two men responsible for the killing of 11-year-old Pia in 1986, and that choice shifts audience focus and concern away from the who and toward the inexplicable why. Apartment caretaker Peer Sommer (Ulrich Thomsen), a patient, calculating predator, befriends lonely student Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring), instinctively recognizing in the young man a kindred spirit with a similar appetite for vulnerable girls. Peer projects home movie reels of child pornography for Timo, and one afternoon they go hunting, taking advantage of a quiet, seldom traveled road and the unfathomable horror of a child being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Certainly the most thought-provoking figure in “The Silence” is Timo. Though no less guilty than Peer in the assault, Timo does not directly participate, remaining frozen in Peer’s car during the murder of Pia. When reintroduced many years later, we are surprised and taken aback to learn that Timo has become an architect, is married, and has two children. Like Peter Lorre’s unforgettable Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece “M,” Timo represents the rare cinematic monster we are not asked to forgive or understand, but whose presence as a human being makes hatred and contempt more difficult propositions.

We are left to wonder why Timo keeps for so long the awful silence referenced in the title, a conspiracy that revisits hell many years later on the people (especially Pia’s mother Elena, played by the sensational Katrin Sass) whose lives were forever changed in an instant. The time-spanning unsolved crime narrative of “The Silence” will remind many of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Memories of Murder,” the latter a direct inspiration noted by Odar. Like Joon-ho Bong’s film, “The Silence” does not provide any comfort or closure in its haunting conclusion, only an invitation to reflect on the nauseating, senseless cruelties that sometimes befall the innocent.

The Kings of Summer

July 22nd, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A safe and toothless coming-of-age story that leisurely juggles a teenage love triangle, a strained father-son relationship, and all the “how to be a man” cliches that go along with the genre territory, “The Kings of Summer” uses several of the same key components explored to more satisfying and sophisticated effect in “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Mud.” Blending the kids-run-away-from home plot (without any of the urgency or wistfulness of Wes Anderson’s terrific film) and the it’s-hard-growing-up liminality of “Mud,” first-time feature director Jordan Vogt-Roberts grossly overestimates the likability of central character Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), a selfish, unnecessarily cruel jerk.

Like “Mud,” the crisis point of “The Kings of Summer” involves a life-threatening, poisonous snakebite designed in part to reveal Joe’s mettle and signify his transition from callow childishness to maturity, but the misshapen sequence – ominously and obviously alluded to earlier in the movie – unfolds much like the convenient and pat summary of a lesson-learned television episode. The rest of the action alternates between scenes of teenage boy views of domestic drudgery and the sweet escape of hatching a plan, however unlikely, to live off the land. Joe enlists best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and tagalong weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias), an ambiguous misfit who speaks almost entirely in non sequiturs, to join him in his plan to build a house hidden in the nearby woods.

Cobbled from construction site leftovers and other pilfered scraps, the cabin miraculously comes together almost overnight, courtesy of a time-compressing montage. The result, a marvelous ramshackle fort adorned with a pickup topper-roofed second story loft, a swimming pool slide connecting the upper and lower floors, and an air hockey table (no idea how that particular item was dragged through the forest) is a prime example of the sort of “perfect imperfect” engineering that only exists in the universe of movies. As the representation of a half-real, half-dreamed arcadia, the abode offers the boys respite, refuge, and most importantly, freedom from overbearing parents.

Vogt-Roberts, working from a script by Chris Galletta, struggles to calibrate the movie’s tonal balance, grinding gears from the droll, deadpan sarcasm of Nick Offerman’s grieving dad Frank Toy – easily the most entertaining aspect of the film – to the caricature of nightmarish parenthood provided by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson (who banter like cartoon stereotypes from a Saturday Night Live sketch).

Alongside the mash-up of broad comedy and straight-faced drama, the least convincing dimension of “The Kings of Summer” is derived from the sizable gaps in logic following the disappearance of the teens. Even though the police are involved and the story makes the local news, Frank remains as calm as Patrick’s folks are alarmist. The stakes are apparently so low that at one point Frank goes fishing with Patrick’s father, showing a bizarre lack of concern during the ongoing search for their boys. Weirder still, when Patrick returns, a newscast relates Patrick’s claim not to have seen his best friend, and there is no indication that the authorities or Frank press for information from the last person to see Joe. Of course, we are not supposed to scrutinize any of this, but the movie’s relaxed pace gives us little else to do.

Much Ado About Nothing

July 15th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Considering the many cinematic adaptations of the plays of William Shakespeare, it is surprising that Joss Whedon’s film of “Much Ado About Nothing” is only the second theatrically released, English language, synchronous sound version of that popular text produced as a film (and not a filmed stage production). The previous iteration, Kenneth Branagh’s charming, funny, and fearlessly cast movie of 1993 might have deterred most others – especially Yankees – but Whedon’s effort, shot in less than two weeks during a contractually required break from the massive, nearly all-consuming post-production tasks on “The Avengers,” distinguishes itself in all sorts of ways, some effectual, some not so much.

Peopled with Whedon’s favorite actors from many of his previous projects (including “Angel,” “Dollhouse,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” “The Avengers,” and “The Cabin in the Woods”), “Much Ado” was also shot in and around the director’s Santa Monica home, making efficient use of the dwelling’s many rooms and outdoor spaces for all manner of drinking and eavesdropping. Striving for, if never quite fully achieving, the kind of rapid-fire banter associated with the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, “Much Ado” will most likely be sought out by Whedon’s fans and Shakespeare-on-film completists.

Jay Hunter’s black and white photography accentuates the sharp fashions – suits and ties for the men, dresses for the women – but also reminds the viewer of several of the show’s potentially outmoded and antique social customs, most unmistakably the significance of Hero’s virginity as a prerequisite for marriage. While it certainly makes sense that the insecure, unworthy Claudio would be upset when confronted with the idea that the woman he desires has been intimate with others, a great deal of the text’s prose alludes to an expectation of chastity that proves as tough a sell in the modern setting as the idea that the well-dressed fellows have just returned from battle.

The trailer for “Much Ado” tantalizingly promised a carnival of erotic gamesmanship and lusty, masked ball flirtations, but the action is buttoned-up with the notable exceptions of a post-coital disappearing act prologue that confirms Benedick and Beatrice’s intimacy and a rendezvous between Don John and a gender-swapped Conrade that breathes some life into the antagonists’ camp. Given the large number of male roles in the play, Whedon might have re-imagined even more of the boys as girls, since outside of Beatrice and Hero, the latter gender is represented mainly by servants. Fortunately, Amy Acker’s Beatrice is this production’s most luminous and memorable character.

Curiously, Whedon retains Claudio’s racist declaration that he is prepared to marry the veiled “niece” of Leonato even if she is revealed as “an Ethiope,” and while the filmmaker’s intention is to comment on the ugly sentiment rather than condone it, the moment serves as a weird reminder of the cohort’s white, privileged homogeneity and cements Claudio as more than just a fool and a jerk, adding prejudiced bigot to his list of epithets. As noted by Camille Martinez, “Shakespeare’s dramatis personae betray a Eurocentric vision that 21st century audiences may find trouble with.” In 1993, Branagh’s inclusion of Denzel Washington as Don Pedro served as an arguably token example of so-called “colorblind” casting, but given the prince’s rank, authority, and heart, Branagh was making a deliberate statement.

David Sprunger on Much Ado About Nothing

July 15th, 2013

Amy Acker as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.

Interview by Greg Carlson

Joss Whedon’s adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” is only the second theatrically released, English language, synchronous sound version of the text produced as a film and not a filmed version of a stage production, distinctions that have prompted excitement for fans of Shakespeare at the movies. High Plains Reader film editor Greg Carlson asked Concordia College professor David Sprunger, a scholar whose research interests include, among other things, medieval literature, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, to share some of his thoughts on the production.

 

Greg Carlson: In your opinion, how does “Much Ado About Nothing” rank among Shakespeare’s comedies?

David Sprunger: “Much Ado” deserves its reputation as the best of Shakespeare’s love comedies. It has the bickering sexual tension of “The Taming of the Shrew” but with a kinder resolution. It also has the distinction of containing far more prose than verse, so the language is more accessible than in other Shakespeare plays.

 

GC: In Whedon’s film, one of the things you notice immediately is that Beatrice and Benedick have already slept together as the action gets underway. How did that choice alter perceptions of their subsequent courtship in this version?

DS: The play contains several lines in which Beatrice alludes to a possible earlier relationship with Benedick, but the context of the lines leaves some question as to whether Benedick is aware of Beatrice’s perception of whatever happened in the past. The opening scene in Whedon’s film shows Benedick’s rather cowardly conclusion to the relationship. His subsequent unwillingness to acknowledge their encounter or to attempt to explain his departure makes him a less sympathetic character.

 

GC: Whedon is so regularly described as a filmmaker who respects women I could not help but wonder about the ways in which womanhood and femininity are treated in contemporary productions of “Much Ado.” Can you comment on the sexual politics that interested Shakespeare and whether or to what extent they are effective in the show today?

DS: Shakespeare’s love comedies are predicated on Elizabethan attitudes toward courtship and marriage as largely economic transactions with important implications for entire families. One reason why “Much Ado” probably maintains its appeal is that Beatrice seems to be largely outside of such a system. She is the ward of her uncle and no mention is made of any dowry or other financial component of her marriage.

Shakespeare also sets high value on same-sex friendships, particularly between men. Beatrice’s “kill Claudio” command calls competing loyalties into question. The rapidity with which Benedick declines Beatrice’s request shows that although he loves Beatrice, he is not yet willing to put her interests above his friendship with Claudio.

 

GC: The modern setting really highlights all the language revolving around Hero’s chastity and the social “value” of her virginity. Other than the convenience of plotting, why doesn’t Claudio take Hero’s word over Don John’s when her honor is called into question?

DS: It’s not that Claudio takes Don John’s word over Hero’s but that he trusts his own senses. The power of what he thinks he sees is enough to overcome all other reason.  When Hero protests her innocence, she is not arguing with Don John the Bastard but with visual evidence, with what Shakespeare calls elsewhere “ocular proof.”

In Shakespeare’s day, “nothing” would probably be pronounced as our modern “noting,” so there’s a suggestion that we not make “much ado” about what we see. The play is rife with misunderstandings that result from conversations overheard and events seen at a distance. The trick played on Claudio is parallel to those played on Benedick and Beatrice, but it has far darker implications. The play’s title would seem to downplay all these notings.

One way that Whedon keeps this sense of noting active through the film is in the device of an omnipresent photographer whose job is apparently to document all events of Don Pedro’s visit to Leonato’s.  She reminds us that within the film’s world, everything is open to scrutiny and nothing is really private.

 

GC: Were there any significant changes or omissions that really stood out to you?

DS: Every production of a Shakespeare play is an adaptation with details being dropped or rearranged. Whedon makes small changes between the text and the film, but nothing seemed particularly daunting. Leonato’s brother is dropped and we get less Dogberry than in some productions. You’ve already brought up the opening scene and subsequent flashback to Benedick and Beatrice’s prior relationship. That element was the most important to me.

The decision to cast Don John’s follower Conrade as a woman was a curious choice, but I liked it. One wonders why anyone is willingly aligned with Don John, the political loser of the war that precedes the play’s action. Conrade’s gender and relationship with John gives one such motive. Borachio, the other person in John’s party, is portrayed as younger and less military than the other male actors, which gives him a sort of intern-like appearance.

 

GC: How do you think Whedon’s interpretation fares next to the Branagh production of 1993?

DS: It’s hard not to watch Whedon’s film and make mental comparisons to Branagh’s. In the end, I prefer Branagh’s interpretation, which develops more leisurely and more spaciously.

 

GC: Who managed the best performances in this version?

DS: Amy Acker does a great job as Beatrice. She brings some physical comedy to the role. The comic center of the play is the scenes where their friends trick Benedick and Beatrice into thinking each loves the other. The duping of Beatrice was my favorite scene in the film.

Also, Nathan Fillion’s portrayal of Dogberry is the best I’ve seen on stage or screen. Call me a contrarian, but Michael Keaton’s exaggerated portrayal in Branagh’s film is a blot on that production. The way Fillion underplays the bumbling logic and malapropisms makes the character more palatable.

 

GC: This production has received attention for its low-budget, speedy shooting schedule, and the use of Whedon’s own residence as the location and his gang of actor friends as the cast. Do you think that homemade ambience was an asset or a liability?

DS: The low-budget elements worked for me. A friend who saw the film mentioned that it really helps to know the play before seeing the movie because the plot moves quickly and jumps about a bit.

I came away from the film thinking about the tremendous amount of alcohol displayed and consumed in the film. Perhaps this is the way the Hollywood elite live during their down time, but it seemed as if every room in the house had a bar or decanter with an inexhaustibly varied supply of glassware immediately at hand. Perhaps the intent was to signal a sort of prolonged party/carnival atmosphere but it undercut the love story for me a bit.

 

GC: What is the most memorable production of “Much Ado” that you have seen?

DS: Last fall I had the pleasure of seeing a production set in twentieth century India. The emphasis on family honor gained extra significance in the Indian context. I’ve been thinking about that production this week since Benedick was played by Paul Bhattacharjee, the British actor whose mysterious disappearance and subsequent death have recently been in the news.

The Lone Ranger

July 8th, 2013

THE LONE RANGER

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following his radio debut on Detroit’s WXYZ in early 1933, the Lone Ranger has enjoyed widespread American cultural popularity with children and adults, branded in film serials, novels, television shows, animated cartoons, comic strips, comic books, records, toys, and even a video game. From his ever-present disguise to his supply of silver bullets – a visual reminder that life is precious and the gun should only be fired when absolutely necessary – the Masked Man contributed to the American lexicon several enduring, iconic tropes of justice, honesty, and moral absolutism. Gore Verbinski’s new film retains John Reid’s square jaw and square comportment, but also slathers it with so much mugging, buffoonery, and slapstick that lighthearted irony is transformed into derisive cynicism.

One of the tenets of the Lone Ranger’s creed suggests that God put the firewood there, but that every man must gather and light it himself [sic]. If one applies this notion to the Gore Verbinski, Johnny Depp, and Jerry Bruckheimer interpretation of the legend, the filmmakers collected soggy, substandard kindling and poured the gasoline when it wouldn’t light. For everything that project initiator Depp does right, several things go very wrong. Aside from Tonto, Native Americans are on hand for some old-fashioned combat with the U.S. Cavalry, and Verbinski treats the slaughter as part of the “fun,” don’t-think-about-it spectacle. Women don’t have it any better. Only two females have significant speaking roles (no, they don’t talk to one another) and the majority of other women glimpsed as background extras play frontier prostitutes.

Depp’s dubious, disputed, and longstanding claim that he has some Native American heritage in his family bloodline is mentioned in Daniel D’Addario’s recent “Salon” essay, a sharply written and convincingly argued consideration of the legacy of Tonto in terms of racial and ethnic stereotyping, the false claims of “honoring” marginalized cultures, and the pervasive Hollywood practice of casting white performers in roles that could and should be inhabited by actors of color. Undoubtedly, it is not Depp’s intention to ridicule or demean American Indians no matter how loopy his character design (the plan is assuredly the very opposite), but as D’Addario notes, the actor still uses the Jay Silverheels brand of grammatically infantilizing pidgin English devoid of most definite articles, missing an opportunity to truly re-imagine Tonto in a new century.

Eighteen years ago, Johnny Depp starred in another movie featuring an unlikely partnership between a white, fledgling cowboy and a savvy First Nations “guide.” In Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man,” Depp appeared as the uncoordinated tenderfoot from Cleveland who learns to speak through his weapon on a foreboding journey toward death. The great Gary Farmer played Nobody, a half Blood, half Blackfoot outcast (whose tribe-less status parallels Tonto) with an impressive and adequately explained fluency and command of four languages. It may be unfair to compare a black & white indie with a Disney juggernaut (there are no “Dead Man” Lego sets, although there should have been), but if one wants to see how a non-Native filmmaker explodes the traditional stereotypes of American Indians in the movies, you have to watch the one where Depp is the white man.

Finally, when the William Tell Overture sounds and the film’s most impressive sustained action set piece gets underway – complete with some double-steam locomotive chase hjjinks and massive trestle explosion that pay direct tribute to Buster Keaton’s “The General” as reverently as Depp plays Tonto as a nod to the Great Stone Face himself – “The Lone Ranger” hints at the kind of fun we should have had during the rest of the labored, stiff, blow-by-blow. Too much of what remains calls to mind the horrors of Barry Sonnenfeld’s joyless, phony “Wild Wild West” and is as artistically nourishing as the seed Tonto insists on feeding to the desiccated crow perched on top of his head.