Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Joss Whedon's 'Much Ado About Nothing' - A Non-Whedonite's Take

I've been looking forward to watching this movie for a long time. I love Shakespeare, and although I've never read the entire text of Much Ado About Nothing, I'm somewhat familiar with the play from the 1993 film version, starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson as Benedick and Beatrice.

I'm not a fan of Joss Whedon per se. I have no reason not to like him, I just never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, or any of his other series. Buffy was my mom's show; she never missed it. I can honestly say I never watched a single episode, but not because I was against it for some reason. I just liked other things at the time it was popular, and I've never felt any particular urge to watch it.

I have seen The Avengers three or four times now - I'm quite fond of it - and I did start watching this fall's new Agents of SHIELD show.

The person I am a fan of is Amy Acker. If you're not watching Season 3 of Person of Interest, you should be. (If you're missing it on Tuesday nights, you can catch up on iTunes.) Her character Root is really stealing the show this season as she calmly but creepily talks about her relationship with The Machine to her therapist.

Acker is a slim, dainty woman - very elegant and beautiful - and when she gets in character, she looks like a ballerina with murder eyes. I hated Root at first. (I'm overprotective of Harold Finch.) Then I saw how interesting she was. Now, while I still think her character does a lot of bad things, I like Root, and I'm protective of her, too.

(Cf. the character Rebekah on The Vampire Diaries and The Originals, whom I started off hating but ended up liking and respecting probably more than any other female character in the series.)

"Root" as Beatrice? That had to be interesting.

The DVD came out on Tuesday the 8th, and I got it from Netflix today. I watched it almost immediately. I'm going to watch it at least once more before it goes back - I loaded the Shakespearean text (this one - 99 cents!) into my Nook so I can read along.

It was everything I hoped it would be. It's a beautiful movie - visually striking (filmed entirely in black and white), true to Shakespeare's intentions (a dark comedy with moments of joy, and a lot of double entendres), yet fresh and original. Not only is Amy Acker a perfect Beatrice, but Alexis Denisof is a perfect Benedick. I honestly doubt I could ever get tired of watching those two together.

Alexis Denisof appears in The Avengers as the Chitauri leader - a minor role - but I remember him best as vile, promiscuous Sandy Rivers on How I Met Your Mother. I understand he's the real-life spouse of Alyson Hannigan, HIMYM's Lily Aldrin and a Buffy alumna. This is my first exposure to his serious work.

The other Avengers veteran, of course, is Clark Gregg, who plays Agent Phil Coulson in the Marvel movies (and spin-off TV show) and heroine Hero's father Leonato, the governor of Messina (a province of Sicily), in this film. Hero is played by Jillian Morgese, making her debut in a feature role; her paramour Claudio is played by Fran Kranz. I'm unfamiliar with Kranz - apparently he appeared in the Whedon projects Dollhouse, which I know nothing about, and Cabin in the Woods, which I understand to be a horror film. I couldn't help but keep wishing for Robert Sean Leonard, who played Claudio in 1993 (after Dead Poet's Society, before House). I just loved RSL in that role. I loved Gregg as Leonato, though.

I had a hard time not tearing up with joy when Agents of SHIELD brought Coulson back from the dead.

Another actor I recognize is Reed Diamond, here playing Don Pedro, the Prince. He was also in Dollhouse, but I don't know what that is. I remember him from Homicide: Life of the Streets, my major TV obsession of the 1990s. He was Mike Kellerman, a character who came in about mid-series when he transferred from arson to homicide.

Speaking of investigators, Dogberry the constable is played here by Nathan Fillion. Although I think the actor is very good-looking, I haven't really seen him in anything. I never watched Firefly, I don't watch Castle, and the one episode I watched of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog failed to capture my interest. I like Michael Keaton in general, but I found him very hard to understand as Dogberry. I think Fillion does a much, much better job.

The constable and his deputies do bring up one of the down sides of this movie, though: it lacks even the remotest whiff of ethnic diversity in casting. There are two or three people of color who appear as extras in the entire film, none of whom have speaking roles. Really, Joss Whedon? Although it was a clever choice to make Dogberry and his constables look like the cast of a modern police procedural, what cop show since 1985 do you know of that's entirely lily-white? None. Cop shows, with their ensemble casts, are usually on the more progressive end of representational casting. And that's just one idea of how at least one person of color could have been cast in a speaking role in this film.

I mean, in 1993, Don Pedro was Denzel Washington and his brother, Don John, was played by Keanu Reeves (biracial; Caucasian and indigenous Hawaiian). We want the colorblind casting. We expect it. And yet, actual Renaissance-era Messina was more diverse than this movie, I'm sure. (Which makes sense, if you think about it, because even though we think of Italy as a predominantly Caucasian country, all the Mediterranean countries are equally accessible to European, North African, and Middle Eastern peoples who can navigate the Mediterranean Sea.)

For the villainous Don John, Whedon cast Sean Maher. I don't know who that is, but apparently he was on Firefly. What I know about Firefly is that it was set on a spaceship and Nathan Fillion played the captain.

So I'm probably missing some of the fun by not knowing all the Whedonite in-jokes with the cast, but I still felt like I got exactly what I wanted out of this movie. It was visually beautiful, clever, witty, and fun - everything you want out of a Shakespeare comedy, even though this is probably the darkest of the comedies. 

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Hollywood Classics Title Index to All Movies Reviewed in Books 1 - 24 by John Howard Reid. $0.99 from
Another essential book for a film buff's library, this one is packed with information and reviews. Some of the entries are quite extensive. JHR provides all the information you need, including complete cast and production staff. I find JHR's information invaluable. I like to read not only who acted in a movie, but who made it, both top-billed and lesser mortals. -- Ross Adams in DRESS CIRCLE mag.

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