What did writer-director Joss Whedon do for R&R between the end of principal photography and the start of post-production on last year’s global mega-smash The Avengers? He got his friends together and filmed the latest version of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado AboutNothing. Shot in twelve days at the Los Angeles home of Whedon and his wife, producer Kai Cole, the first movie made from this work of the Bard since Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation twenty years ago will open theatrically across the US beginning June 7.
Shot in stylish black and white by Jay Hunter, the 400-year old play receives a joyous, utterly contemporary treatment. Martinis, cell phones, Jacuzzis, aerial artists and wedding photographers are all right at home in this tale of manipulative matchmaking. The plot in brief for those unfamiliar: Leonato, the governor of Messina, hosts his friend Don Pedro, two of Don Pedro’s officers, and the villainous Don John, whom Don Pedro has just captured. One of the officers, Claudio, quickly falls in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero. Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s other officer, Benedick, develops a tense relationship with Leonato’s niece, Beatrice. While Leonato & Co. conspire to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love, Don John and his allies plot a nasty revenge against Don Pedro and Claudio.
The terrific cast of Whedon regulars from such prior endeavors as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, The Avengers and The Cabin in the Woods includes Amy Acker (a superb and funny Beatrice), Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg (now best known as Agent Phil Coulson in the various Marvel movies), Fran Kranz and gay actors Sean Maher and Tom Lenk. Of course, Nathan Fillion (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, TV’s Castle) also appears and is hilarious as the bumbling detective, Dogberry.
Whedon’s geek fan base may be perplexed by their icon’s turn to Shakespeare, but it makes perfect sense for the more-literate-than-most genre auteur. While the production’s bare-bones budget shows at times (though not during the extravagant party scenes), Much Ado About Nothing is clearly a labor of love on the part of all involved. It also serves as a more than decent, thoroughly enjoyable transposition of the classic text.
Speaking of geeks, the rapturous response J.J. Abrams’ current Star Trek Into Darkness has received from some fans and critics would lead one to believe it represents the Second Coming. Well, it does if one is referring to the second coming of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Warning: potential spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the new movie.)
The sequel to 2009’s hit reboot Star Trek, also directed by Abrams, finds the younger incarnations of James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Lt. Uhura and the traditional USS Enterprise crew up against no small number of adversaries. Their initial foil, a terrorist dubbed John Harrison who first bombs Starfleet’s archives and then tries to take out its top command, is eventually revealed as the genetically-engineered superman Khan. British actor Benedict Cumberbatch has porcelain-like skin and a sinewy physique, and speaks in low, intentional tones. He works in the role for anyone unfamiliar with Ricardo Montalban, who originated the megalomaniacal guru in an episode of the original Star Trek TV series and was resurrected in 1982’s big-screen Wrath of Khan.
What Khan absolutely lacks in the new movie -- written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof -- is a sense of humor, which in my opinion is what made Montalban’s Khan so memorable (yes, even more so than his big, buff, waxed chest). Khan relished being ruthless and didn’t hesitate to let Kirk, in particular, know it. The new Khan also doesn’t exhibit the literary proficiency (notably of Milton and Melville) that distinguished some of his repartee with Kirk during the villain’s original appearances. Cumberbatch’s Khan is being ballyhooed by some as one of the greatest cinematic villains ever. Better than Montalban’s? I stab at thee!
Comparisons to Wrath of Khan aside (and Into Darkness’s climax is essentially a role-reversed, shot-for-shot remake), I found the current sequel to be very well-made and exciting. I enjoyed it considerably more than the last film, which I felt spent too much time introducing the almost-juvenile versions of the classic characters and indulging Abrams’ personal fetishes. The female cast members are also treated more respectfully, despite an embarrassing scene where Kirk (Chris Pine, really making the role his own) spies on Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus in her underwear. Kirk’s/Pine’s bromance with Spock/out actor ZacharyQuinto is further and nicely developed here, and the film’s 3D effects are truly special.
I’m not hating on the geeks, especially since I’m pretty much one myself. I do hope, though, that the inevitable next entry in the re-configured Star Trek series boldly goes where no previous episode or movie has gone before.
Much Ado About Nothing: B+
Star Trek Into Darkness: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.