Monday, July 29, 2013

Fruitvale Station

By Ryan Coogler

                Fruitvale Station opens with actual footage taken by a nearby witness of Oscar Grant’s shooting on New Year’s night of 2009. As a result, the film is marked by a pervasive sense of dread. We know where it is going, and due to the raw and upsetting nature of the video, that moment never leaves the forefront of our minds. Yet, while this prologue effectively provides viewers with the needed context and mindset to process the film, there is also a feeling throughout that debut feature director Ryan Coogler’s script is overly fixated on this tragic incident. Such a narrative preoccupation hampers our perception of Grant, for it is impossible to shake the sense that the film is primarily concerned with doing all it can to optimize the emotional impact of the event.
                This cheapens the film and makes it feel manufactured, a particular cinematic sin that ironically characterizes many films based on real events. This is a problem because the film is first and foremost a character study exploring the attempts of Grant to mend a life impacted by the allure of fast money. As such, the film’s persistence in reminding us of its upcoming tragedy distracts us from what is an otherwise interesting portrait of a struggling, but mostly good-hearted young man and his loving family. Yet, rather than delve into the effects of his internal conflict and frustration, the film uses his problems and resulting resolutions as hurried footnotes to anticipate its tragedy. We never fully understand, for example, what compels Grant to turn from his ways. While the film hints it is his family, this is presented as a matter of fact rather than mined for any depth, and to be honest, feels a bit too simple. It is a shame, because I think the tragedy of Oscar Grant’s death could have been far more impactful if the film portrayed Grant as someone with the complexity he was sure to have in reality.

*** out of ****

                Race is the topic of the day these days, and it is unfortunately a topic that trends toward dividing lines and vitriol. The timing of the film, coupled with recent news events, makes it tempting to draw parallels and make this film into a “race issue film.” However, Fruitvale Station avoids this label by markedly portraying Oscar Grant as somewhat of an everyman, downplaying his race so that it is just one piece of who he was; not the defining aspect of his character. This, I think, is admirable. By making Oscar Grant multi-faceted and creating a slice-of-life drama, Coogler has allowed the story of his film to penetrate the hearts of its audiences, not so much with pity from a distance, but with horror and empathy only closeness can provide.
Octavia Spencer as Wanda, the level-headed mother. 
                Fruitvale Station is not a “great” film, but it is a very good one. Although it has some flaws – most notably the underlining foreshadowing and on-the-nose dialogue that feels less than genuine, it nonetheless manages to be affecting. Each of the main actors is well cast, and Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer give particularly notable performances as Oscar Grant and his mother. It’s not groundbreaking cinema, but it is an important story that is nevertheless skillfully told.

A strong *** out of ****

                While this is certainly an engaging narrative, Coogler’s whole approach feels somewhat misplaced in the story of Oscar Grant because of the inherent socio-political meaning his death carries. The more I think about it, the more I am uncomfortable with the idea of Grant’s tragic death being used in the tear-jerking way Coogler uses it. While I agree it provides empathy for Grant’s plight, its climactic moments and its subsequent politicism feel misaligned with the rest of its story, which has little to do with race relations. In other words, the fact of Oscar Grant’s death and the resulting outcry for justice along racial lines seem to have little to do with this film, which instead uses his death as a means to increase the emotional impact of its narrative. The film is a simple tragedy, but the tragedy of Oscar Grant in reality is farther reaching. I couldn’t help but think Grant’s death would be better handled in a thoughtful documentary about its aftermath, and that this film’s story would have been better if it did not conclude with a real, widely known incident. While its focus on the end of Grant's story is necessary due to it being the reason this story came to light to begin with, its narrative focus on Grant’s personal resolutions throughout make the film feel somewhat manipulative and, dare I say it, a little exploitative.

Oscar Grant and his daughter Tatiana. 
                I can definitely see what you mean by that. I think it’s difficult, though, because if you want to bring attention to this kind of incident, it needs to be a personal story, not a formal essay. Regardless, it’s hard to know what to do, because I agree that there seems to be a disconnect between Oscar Grant’s last day and the meaning many will read into the film by virtue of it being about Oscar Grant. Perhaps some better and more insightful transitions or more frequently broadening its thematic scope would have helped. I didn’t, however, find it particularly exploitative.

                In the very least, I do not think Coogler had exploitation of his subject in mind - it is simply the task of making a real story, especially such a provocative one, into widely palatable cinematic fare that by nature makes it feel manipulative. One solution would be, I think, to also evenhandedly tell the concurrent story of the cop who shot Grant, but that would be a tricky venture due to the emotions surrounding the case. By doing this, the film could have incorporated larger themes of race relations in America without these elements feeling out of left field. Instead, it took the safe way out.

                I think that would mostly miss the point, because as I see it, Fruitvale isn’t really even about race. In fact, as far as an “issue” film, I think the story lends itself much more to the issue of police brutality and crime as a cycle. I would have loved for the film to have more thoroughly explored its glimpses of cyclical crime as well as police brutality, but it does feel a bit tacked on.
                Perhaps part of the reason this discussion may seem negative (even though we both quite enjoyed the movie), is that we had very high expectations. Having won Sundance, Fruitvale set the bar quite high with its audiences, and it just didn’t quite hit its marks.

                Indeed, our assessment of the film may be marred by the hype it has received. I feel two competing forces fighting against sincerity in my critique of this film. On one level, the overwhelming acclaim the film has received to this point makes me want to look at it with a more microscopic lens than is fair, but on another level, its politically sensitive focus makes me want to be lenient to avoid riling up any of the vitriol you mentioned. In the end, I have to judge the film’s worth, not the worth of its message.
Moments before the tragic incident.
                Doing this was difficult, as I realized that I feel a tendency to assess the film in relation to its real-life inspirations. As it tells a story that implies so much socio-political subtext, I could not divorce what I was seeing from what I knew about the actual shooting of Oscar Grant. While I usually try to treat films as confined texts, this film’s subject carried inherent meaning. If this were a completely fictional story, I would probably have processed it far differently, and a lot of what I see as flaws would not even be on my radar.

                I completely agree that it was difficult to divorce my own personal feelings about the Grant case from my estimation of the film. It is because I found the story so tragic, and the use of police force so over-the-top, that I wanted to overestimate the merits of the film.
Where's Wallace?! 
                Much of this goes back to how the film opens. Let’s talk about the opening real-live footage. The scene was very affecting. I felt similarly after viewing the actual footage here as I did after hearing the sounds of the real 911 call from someone trapped inside the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 that kicked off Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. However, Coogler didn’t quite follow the thread and the result was a bit more muddled here than in that film. This may just be because Coogler is so inexperienced. There was a lot in this film that suggested that with a bit more time and refinement, he could make some really good films. His coaching of the actors and his honest and nuanced portrayal of characters, for instance, was excellent.

                All things considered, there is definite promise here for Coogler, who as you said handles intimate moments well, but could use a bit more refinement in weaving these moments together. I look forward to seeing what he does in the years to come.

                Let’s not lose sight that stories like this need to be told, and that there was so much good in the way it was told. Telling stories that are so human is the only way to begin building bridges so that we can all begin to speak honestly about heated topics that hit close to home. The nuanced intimacy of this film, though not perfect, was worlds apart from the us vs. them war language used so frequently in media (social and journalism). It’s something I admired, and I, too, look forward to seeing what Coogler does next.

Two-as-One Rating: *** out of ****

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Chelsea's Top Ten - #3 - Persona (Bergman, 1966)

3.  Persona - Ingmar Bergman, 1966

                If Ingmar Bergman cares about anything, it’s humanness and identity, the basic essence of who a person is.  Few films explore the essence of who a person is more thoroughly than Persona, period.  (Admittedly, though, I am a bit behind in viewing the Bergman canon).  The story is simple: a famous actress (Liv Ullman) stops talking, a nurse (Bibi Andersson) is hired to care for her, and they live together in nearly complete seclusion.  As the two live together, the actress Elizabeth, doesn’t speak, and as a result, the nurse, Alma, begins to chatter incessantly.  She talks about everything, she talks and talks and talks until she has told Elizabeth every single embarrassing, honest, dark secret about herself.  Eventually, the characters begin to meld together, relayed in striking visual sequences where even their faces are melded.
Breaking the fourth wall.
                This all sounds so incredibly pretentious, and perhaps it is.  Even now, I’m getting a bit overwhelmed by ideas as I try to remember the film.  To add in another wrench, Bergman frequently pulls the viewer out of the “story” and reminds us that he, the identity who guides this universe, is making the film himself.  It’s a film that undoubtedly rewards repeat viewings, as the viewer can piece together who each of the characters are, as well as piece together who Bergman is showing us he is through his art.  It’s complex, and layered, and endlessly interesting, as the psychoses of Alma and Elizabeth are nuanced.  Not to mention all the Freudian craziness by which one can analyze and interpret the film.  It’s one of those films that can work as literature, with reevaluation and reinterpretation through lens after lens.

David's Response:

                Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is an overwhelming venture.  It is first and foremost about identity formation and malleability, but on a meta level, it is about the language and impact of narrative film itself.  First establishing the assumed reality of its characters’ merging psyches within the world of the film, Bergman then pulls back to reveal the man behind the curtain pulling the puppet strings (himself).  It begs the question of why he would do this in a film that is fundamentally about the influence of those close to us in shaping who we are and how we understand ourselves.  After all, the development of Alma and Elizabeth’s personalities shaping each another, both by discarding past behaviors and creating new commonality, is enthralling and insightful, not to mention a bit alienating and discomforting.  (Who really wants to admit that who they are is not their choice, but the result of countless human interactions?)  So, why not simply stop there?  Why remind us we are watching  film?  Why be so postmodern?

Visualizing the internal.
              I think Bergman does this to make his themes real, and relate them to the immediate experiences of the viewer.  In other words, his point is that what we see happening between Alma and Elizabeth is in some sense happening with every viewer who sits down to interact with the work of an auteur.  As viewers, we are influenced and shaped by what we consume, and in some way, everything we interact with can change us, for better or worse.  This is doubly true of the darkened chambers of a cinema, for such a setting monopolizes your senses and demands your full mental attention – something that cannot be said of an art gallery.  Just as Alma talks and talks and talks to a silent Elizabeth, Bergman acknowledges the fact that with every film, he is playing the role of the loquacious Alma to the viewer’s silent and introspective Elizabeth.  So, since Bergman recognizes he has a captive audience, he also recognizes his potential power to influence them and in some small way impart some of himself to them.  And while I think many would be best leaving their inner Bergman at the door (who wants to be that existentially lost?), the man has a point.  For attentive and responsive viewers, artful cinema is the path of least resistance for artists to interact with and influence the inner workings of their audiences.  And if this is true, though few recognize it alongside Bergman, filmmakers carry with their craft both an overwhelming opportunity and a terrible burden.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Way, Way Back

By Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

                There is a point in every child’s life when they look at their parents making a dumb decision or saying something out of line and think, “This is the person who tells me what I can and can’t do?”  Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back is about this sentiment, and how it is compounded by the presence of strange new people that come with divorce. Using this as a jumping off point, the film examines the forces that draw people together, both good and bad.  The good being empathy that brings comfort and meaning, while the bad being insecurity that brings alienation and discontentment.
                Children, as the film’s title suggests, are generally relegated to the back seat, and by nature are destined for resentment.  The back seat not only implies children are to acquiesce, but that they are to quietly witness their elders interact, bicker, and in some cases manipulate each other.  The reality this film recognizes is that many times the vantage point of the back seat is the best place to assess the intentions of others, and children have far more insight than they are usually given credit for.
                Lest all this sound too dour, it must be iterated that this film is a comedy, and a quite funny one at that.  With a wealth of witty sarcasm and situational humor that flows from the oddities of its characters, it strikes a many times nice, but sometimes shaky balance between family drama and madcap hijinks.  Yet, the film has an easy rhythm to it and its plot is believably propelled by the impulses of its teenage protagonist Duncan (Liam James) to act out once he recognizes he cannot interject or object without a seeming lack of respect.  Many similar “coming of age” films would succumb to the pressure to provide simple answers for family troubles, but this film demonstrates it is many times better to be heartfelt and bittersweet than pad or preachy.  More than anything, in the overload of action-based adventures this summer, it was a welcome change of pace to think about characters for a while.

Strong *** out of ****

                Jim Rash and Nat Faxon are increasingly establishing themselves as fantastic new writing talents.  Having already won Oscars for their screenplay for The Descendants along with Alexander Payne, Rash and Naxon continue to capture the idiosyncrasies of everyday life in a poignant way and with comedic sensibility.  Now, Rash and Naxon jump into the director’s seat with beautiful results – The Way, Way Back is an earnest coming of age story that frequently moved me to tears.
                In general, the character work is fantastic thanks to both writing and acting, as each person has depth and an arc that is honest, even occasionally heartbreakingly so.  Noticeably, the film is filled with pitch-perfect performances from nearly everyone in both the main and supporting casts.  Even the teen-protagonist played by Liam James is filled with believable humanity and awkwardness that is never overdone.  Necessarily, nothing that happens is particularly “big” – but the film manages to make the small gestures and choices into big things that the characters in its world are likely to see them as.  It was refreshing to see such loveliness and essential smallness amongst the big action films and wreckage we have seen so far this summer.  Beautifully paced and gingerly told, I highly recommend this as a respite from the string of blockbusters you have most likely undertaken.

*** ½ out of ****

Duncan and Owen, the magical mentor.
                I am glad to see we both enjoyed this film.  While it is not an essential film by any means, it is the kind of indie comedy that cares about its story in a way few larger productions do.  There is no spectacle here, as its most impressive moments are not grandiose, but involve the subtle appearances of reluctant smiles or gestures.  I particularly liked the performance of Sam Rockwell as waterpark owner and unlikely mentor Owen, who inserts himself into Duncan’s life and offers connection and purposeful direction despite his own childlike habits.  I always find it impressive when a performance is nuanced despite a character’s big personality.  Some may complain that Owen fulfills the trope of a magical mentor, but after some thought I would disagree.  We are given short glimpses of why Owen would reach out to and identify with Duncan, but the film simply seems to recognize these hints are of little importance in the end to its main thread of Duncan’s identity formation – Duncan badly sought to be accepted and loved, so when he does not question or research Owen’s motives, neither must we.  Few youth think deeply about the motivations of others, as they are too concerned with hiding their own insecurities, and I thought this film captured that well.

Blunt Betty.
                Rockwell’s performance as a man-child in the tenderest sense was one performance among many
that I found excellent.  Especially great is Toni Collette, who plays Duncan’s mother, Pam.  Pam is a recently divorced woman with a teenage son, dating Trent (Steve Carell).  She is clearly trying really hard at this “girlfriend” thing, which is mostly new to her, as well as juggling how to make the relationship work between Duncan and Trent, who don’t seem to like each other all that much.  In addition, she is a human who is fearful and uncertain and insecure herself.  I loved the moments between Pam and Betty (Allison Janney, also wonderful).  Betty is lost herself, but is less uncertain about it, choosing instead to put her problems right out there instead.  Blunt Betty makes Pam feel more valued, more normal, not necessarily because Betty is so out-of-control, but she has this easiness that allows others to be themselves around her.  Also great is the final sequence (that I won’t spoil), and that’s mostly because Toni Collette acts the hell out of it.  Exquisite work.

Collette and Carell, as childish adults.
                You know a film has an impressive ensemble when the weakest performance comes from Steve Carell, though he was not at all bad.  I tend to think his effectiveness was simply held back by viewer expectations.  I find it interesting to hear snickers from the crowd at the mere presence of a comedic actor, almost as if the crowd is eagerly asking, “Okay buddy, what you got for me?”  In that way, casting a comedic star of Carell’s magnitude in such a loathsome part may have been a mistake.  Apart from that, though, I couldn’t agree more that this film thrives on its performances, and nearly everyone was pitch perfect.

                And Steve Carell was actually good!  The experience was odd though, because while I went into the film knowing more or less what to expect, a lot of people probably went because their expectation was to see a Steve Carell comedy vehicle.  And it wasn’t that at all – it was funny, sure, but Carell was mostly a side character, and he was probably the least funny part of the film.

                Apart from that possible miscasting, most of the movie was pitch perfect.  Only in rare moments does the film feel contrived (the climactic “race” sequence being the major culprit), and while some of its sequences may seem odd from a distance, they make sense because they come about by the natural movements and motivations of its characters.  This character consistency was a welcome change of pace for summer viewing.
                Yet, the film is not simply a study of characters, but rather has something meaningful to say about age, perception, and human connection.  I would say its main message is that adults and children can be immature, but the reality is that when adults act in this way, their actions deeply affect the children who look to them for love and support.  Furthermore, we cannot define immaturity by way of awkwardness or goofiness, for the film’s most thoughtful characters were both of these things, while its more socially refined characters were the most selfish.  Yet, the world many times fails to see this and looks down on goofiness and elevates manners despite what may lie beneath.

                I appreciated the message that parents need to be parents, not best buddies, with their children.  We saw this a lot in the relationship between Trent and his teenaged daughter, who knows that she can basically do anything she wants when he’s around because he just wants her to like him.  This urge to be liked by your kids is a tough one to not indulge, but part of being a parent is knowing what is best for your children, not just following what they want.

                That is definitely a message to take to heart, especially if you are a people-pleaser like myself.  At some point, I will need to be comfortable saying no, as this is a very important word in a parent-child relationship.  Not to say I plan to be a strict disciplinarian, but rather that my ultimate purpose will not be to please my children.

Summer lovin'/happened so fast!
                As usual, a “small” movie has given us far more to talk about than the “big” blockbusters.  We didn’t even talk about the romantic aspects of the film, which are all subtle, nuanced, and provide further insight into character motivations.  In fact, I found pretty much everything in this film worked well.  It’s a beautiful, honest, human, and mostly light fare that should be on your view list for the summer.

Two as one rating: ***1/4 out of ****


Thursday, July 18, 2013

David's Top Ten - #4 - Ordet (Dreyer, 1955)

I googled "Clue" and this came up... And it is amazing.
For the third and final time, a film on my top ten is on Chelsea’s list at a higher rank.  So, for the third and final time, we have for you a series of clues!  What film could possibly be good enough to be in both of our top fours?  The answer is somewhere hidden in these ridiculously difficult clues!

Clue #1: The film’s production was kickstarted by profits from a movie theater given to the filmmaker as a government reward for his artistic contributions.
Answer:  The Danish government gave Carl Th. Dreyer an art-house movie theater called Dagmar Bio because of his lifelong work.

Clue #2: The film is the second film adaptation of the source material.  The first adaptation starred an actor who is best known for his work as an influential silent-era filmmaker who adapted multiple works written by the first female to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature.  (And who also happens to star in one of David’s yet-to-be-announced top three films.)
Answer:  The First adaptation to Kaj Munk's I Begyndelsen var Ordet (In the Beginning was the Word) starred Victor Sjöström, who, as a director, adapted multiple works by Nobel Prize writer Selma Lagerlöf. Sjöström also was the star of Bergman's Wild Strawberries, #3 on David's Top Ten.

Clue #3: The film won the grand prize at a major international festival.  Within the last ten years, that same prize was awarded to a filmmaker who frequently collaborates with an actor who famously sang a Madonna song in a film that garnered eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.
Answer: The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1955.  In 2004, this award was given to Vera Drake by Mike Leigh, who frequently collaborates with Jim Broadbent, who famously sang "Like a Virgin" in Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge, which was nominated for eight Oscars.

Clue #4: The film has only one name in its credits: the author of the source material.  This author was martyred for his faith by the Gestapo in World War II.
Answer:  Kaj Munk was a Lutheran pastor who was martyred in 1944 for preaching against the Nazi Occupation and the Nazi's persecution of the Jews.

Clue #5: The director’s final film starred an actress in its titular role who was married to an actor who appeared in another film in Chelsea’s Top Ten.  “Hallelujah!”
Answer:  Dreyer's final film, Gertrude, which starred Nina Pens Rode, married to Ebbe Rode, who had a role, Christopher, in Babette's Feast (and Gertrude, actually).

Good googling to you!

The film is Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet, which comes in at #1 on Chelsea's Top Ten of All Time.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Pacific Rim

By Guillermo del Toro

                “Terraforming” seems to be a common scientific mechanism running through this summer’s blockbusters.  This trope involves a foreign species altering a habitat (Earth) to make it suitable for colonization.  While it is always a ridiculous idea, the difference between its use in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is that the latter has a lot more fun with it, treating all of this sci-fi mumbo jumbo (and itself as a whole) as a bit of a joke.  This humor is why Pacific Rim ultimately succeeds where other big-budget action movies have fallen flat.  Director Guillermo del Toro knows that his movie’s premise is exceedingly silly, so amongst the wreckage and giant robots, I found myself smiling more often than not.
                The premise is that monsters from another universe are using a portal in the bottom of the ocean to come to Earth and attack its cities.  Humanity binds together to create giant robots to destroy these monsters and protect Earth.  As the monsters get bigger and stronger and smarter, the people behind the robots look for a way to stop the monsters from coming to Earth at all.  It’s ridiculous and is just an excuse to feature giant robots fighting terrifying giant monsters, but it generally worked for me.  The monsters and the robots were well rendered and many of the action sequences were impressive. The character development wasn’t anything that hasn’t been done a thousand times, but it was decent and featured mostly strong acting.  Del Toro builds suspense well, and being an old pro in creating frights, knows how to increase tension gradually and efficiently.  I enjoyed myself quite a bit, but who wouldn’t with the addition of a badass Hong Kong mob king played fabulously over-the-top by Ron Perlman?

Strong *** out of ****

Look, it's Stringer Bell!
                 For better or worse, this film plays like a mad scientist’s ungodly daikaiju hybrid of Top Gun, Transformers, and Independence Day.  As you would suspect, this brings some pretty interesting results, and guided by Guillermo del Toro’s assured visuals and distinctive quirk, many aspects of it work.  Unfortunately, these moments of enjoyment are fit periodically into a film that feels harried; like a condensed adaptation of a much larger and fully fleshed source work.
                The problem is not that the world of the film is uninteresting, but that it is far too fascinating to be handled as the footnote it is. The exposition the film provides, both with regard to character and historical context, is simply too rushed to support its narrative.  For example, the film’s premise includes the entire world’s governments working together to overcome an alien invasion, and it is shown that the United Nations was the vehicle for this collaboration. This intriguing reality is provided as a matter of fact; a mere obstacle in the path to giant robots fighting monsters.  While this may be enough rationale for many, it made the film feel slight, especially when films with comparable plots have been made to be both entertaining and insightful (Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Niell Blomkamp’s District 9 come to mind).
                Yet, I can hear many responding with a simple, “But it has robots fighting monsters.”  To that I say, indeed it does, and these aspects were pretty great, but its other elements, from weakly developed characters to an artificially propelled plot, didn’t live up to a similar level of awesomeness.

Strong **1/2 out of ****

                I’m willing to forgive a little lacking in character development for the level of awesomeness this film
obtains.  I mean, you have to admit that Ron Perlman was absolutely fantastic, giving the right blend of creepy intensity and absurdity to be quite amusing.  Another awesome piece of the movie was the visual rendering of the monsters.  I loved that each of the monsters was unique, while still clearly being cut from the same cloth.  They moved absolutely beautifully in the fight sequences, creating fantastic visual spectacle every time they were onscreen.

I don't think it gets any more awesome.
                First off, I agree that Perlman pretty much steals the show.  His madcap black market boss is a fun addition to the story, even if it is mostly a needless digression.  I am glad Travis Beacham and del Toro’s script added this touch, because not only is Perlman’s character entertaining, but the context we meet him in is a rare look into the world of the film beyond the immediate conflict of military vs. aliens.  I wish there were more of these touches, for as I said before, this world is awfully fascinating.
                As far as the monsters go, I am right on the same page with you as well.  Their lizard-like design coupled with the complex mechanical movement of the “Jaegers” (the giant robots) made these scenes unique, and far more interesting than most other action sequences I have seen this summer.
                That being said, I still can’t get over the lack of character development.  The main problem with the film is that its protagonist is pretty bland – an archetypal hunk with a tragic past to overcome.  The film relies on this trope rather than making this character’s motivations believable, and the film suffers as a whole.

Rinko Kikuchi
                I agree that the main character was mostly there to look good and play the hero – he wasn’t particularly interesting or deep.  However, I thought some of the character work was decent, and the main character was not integral enough to throw the whole film off.  I did, for instance, particularly appreciate the terrifying back-story sequence for female pilot Mako Mori (played by the wonderful Rinko Kikuchi, Oscar-nominee for Babel).  I thought it was effectively scary, and tension was built expertly through increasingly striking images of disaster as well as a close encounter with one of the aforementioned fantastically rendered monsters.

Yep, probably terrifying for old Joe.
               I wish there were more ground-level sequences like that one in the film.  One thing I thought the film lacked was capturing the feeling of being someone who wasn’t piloting a Jaeger.  It certainly must be terrifying for the average Joe to face the fact that his home is under the threat of a giant monster (“Kaiju”), and the flashback you mention is one of the only scenes to relay this.  Most of the cutaways from fight sequences are not to endangered citizens, but to high-tech control rooms.
                Scenes like this are not anything new, and are not particularly interesting here, especially if you consider that there is far less for someone in a control room to relay to a Jaeger pilot than to a fighter pilot, as a Jaeger pilot is essentially engaging in hand to hand combat.  Once the fight begins, the control room can communicate vital information to the pilots, but other than that, they largely can only sit back and watch the fight.  (They are even less engaged than a boxing coach would be, neglecting to offer even a single “Keep your left up!”)

                There are a few cutaways from fight sequences to terrified citizens.  For example, I enjoyed an instance where one of the Kaiju scientists is trapped in a shelter in underground Hong Kong.  However, I agree that replacing some of the cutaways to the control room in favor of more scenes with the average Joe in various cities would have been a good use of time in the film.
Mad scientist Charlie Day
                Speaking of scientists, I quite liked the interplay of the two scientist characters in the film.  It is an old trope to have two people with extremely different ways of doing things working together, but it worked, again because of the “wink, wink” nature of the whole thing.  The actors both played their characters wildly over-the-top, and I thought this lack of seriousness in light to the ridiculous pseudoscience worked well.

                I thought the scientists provided some nice comic interplay to contrast the action, but this also presented some off-putting tonal dissonance for me.  There were many scenes that took themselves too seriously, and the film ultimately didn’t seem to settle on what it wanted to be.

                Any tonal dissonance you were distracted by, I didn’t notice, mostly because I was so caught up in its ridiculous joys.  While the film took seriously the plight of humanity – the threat would wipe out the population of Earth entirely – del Toro effectively created comic relief by drawing attention to the silly sci-fi tropes inherent to a premise like this one.   The introduction to the scientists was especially sharp – chalkboards filled with complex mathematical formulas that somehow predicted when and how monsters would be coming out of the bridge in a week’s time.  Love it!

                I loved those little pokes at the genre tropes as well, but its straight-faced reliance on other formula conventions that are just as ridiculous (the rival bully, ala “Iceman,” for example) made these comic asides seem like temporary diversions rather than essential parts of the film.  For me, it just didn’t come together as a whole as much as I wanted it to.  That being said, it does have an oddball Ron Perlman performance and giant robots fighting monsters, so even though it is disappointing in some ways, you could do a lot worse.
Then again, it does have these.

And this.

And this scary guy.

And this.

Well, and him.
Two-as-One Rating: **¾ out of ****  

Note: Be sure not to miss, as I (Chelsea) did, the short tag that follows the first part of the credits.  It sounded very funny.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Chelsea's Top Ten - #4 - The Night of the Hunter (Laughton, 1955)

4. The Night of the Hunter - Charles Laughton, 1955

                After a viewing on this film, “Leaning on Everlasting Arms”, the beautiful old hymn, will never be the same.  Directed by Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter is to this day unlike anything else ever made – it has rhythms and movements and styles all its own.  In Hunter, a twisted Great Depression-era preacher (Robert Mitchum) seeks out, seduces, and marries a meek, outcast of a woman (Shelly Winters) whose bank-robbing husband (a young Peter Graves) had stolen and hidden $10,000 prior to his hanging.  The location of this money is known only by her two children.  Following a long, satirically cynical prologue that introduces the oddities of its rural setting is a dreamy, expressionist journey down a dreary, hypnotic lazy river that leads miraculously to a farm home watched carefully by the faithful and strong old Ms. Cooper (an impeccable Lillian Gish).  Hunter is bone-chillingly beautiful, and demands other such oxymoronical descriptions.  One of the most striking things about the film is the indelible images it leaves you with:  the hair of a dead woman in a car floating amidst reeds at the bottom of a lake, a horrific wedding night, children in the cellar, hand tattoos, and a battle hymn are just a few of its many treasures.  The performances are fantastic, and the film has an underlying sense of dread and darkness that was unexpected in 1955.  Although it was rejected both critically and commercially when it was first released, it is now a timeless classic that has left an imprint on many films today and is regarded by many as one of the greatest.  It is one of cinema’s true tragedies that Laughton never made another film.

David’s Response:
                It would be easy to see this film simply as a morbid warning against false teachers.  After all, the film opens with a short scriptural prologue of Matthew 7:15: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”  Yet, to view the film in this way would be narrow sighted and miss its larger thematic base – that society, specifically adult society, is marked by a dangerous tendency to conform.  Laughton’s film is not so much about how terrible preacher Powell is, though he is truly abhorrent, but rather about the dangers of groupthink.  When you consider the McCarthyist historical context of the film, it is this theme that elevates the film to something not only aesthetically, but also culturally significant.
                Laughton handles this matter by creating a strict dichotomy amongst adults – those who fulfill culturally accepted standards and those who don’t.  Because of his mother’s sordid history, the child protagonist John’s deeper interactions with adults are confined to the world of outcasts, and it is through this world that we are given Laughton’s most insightful warnings.  John’s mother finds a means to regain cultural status in marrying Powell, who has asserted himself as somewhat of a charismatic savior in their town.  The lure of societal acceptance overpowers all else, blinding her to the destruction done on her own psyche and the endangered lives of her children.  John’s other adult connection is also instructive – Birdie, the town drunk, recognizes that his status has made him a menace in the eyes of many and does not divulge pertinent evidence for fear of being accused himself.  In both the case of John’s mother and Birdie, the masses dictate the actions of the few, to the detriment of all.
                Laughton’s hope is in children and those who mirror their innocence and humbly care for them, for children are immune to such influences.  As the final words of the film say of children: “They abide, and they endure.”  What else could they do?  John and his sister Pearl do not yet know they should care about such things, but are forced to feel their effects nevertheless.  The film tells much of its story from this confused childlike perspective, exaggerating the words and actions of adults to the point of absurdity (Mitchum’s physicality as Powell being the prime example), visually elongating sets with expressionist flair, and highlighting the naturalistic details of life so many adults neglect to notice.  This does, indeed, create a unique space for a viewer -  a space to view the horrors of life through the lens of ignorance.  It simultaneously dampens the impact of the film’s gruesome details and makes them more haunting, for just as the children of the film see them, they are also oddly foreign to us.

This film also comes in at #7 on David’s Top Ten and is the answer to this mystery film.  Answers to the mystery clues are now included on that post.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Reflections of a Normie: David Attends an Anime Convention

David recently went to an anime convention with his sister Erica, who is what those in the know would call an “otaku” (someone who really loves anime and other such things).  It took place over three days, and David attended one and one half of them – Friday night and all day Saturday.  During that time, he attended panels, judged a video contest, and cosplayed. This interview details his experience at the convention.  Keep in mind that David is not an otaku, though he really likes Miyazaki and some other anime he has seen.

So first of all, tell me about this specific convention – where was it and how many people were there?

This particular convention was called “Animinneapolis”, though it was hosted in Bloomington, MN at a large hotel/convention center for the first time this year due to increased attendance.  For a “mid-sized” convention, I was surprised to see what had to be well over 1,500 people there, with an estimated 75% in full cosplay.  Needless to say, it quickly became evident that this subculture is vibrant, large, and actively growing.  This particular hotel, for example, hosts at least three conventions like this throughout the year, and all are well attended.

With 75% in costume, your decision to cosplay probably helped you blend in.  What was the cosplay experience like and why did you do it?

Anime lovers have a word for non-anime lovers – “normies.”  I was at a panel on convention etiquette and they warned against using this “derogatory” term, but I find the term rather endearing, as it recognizes the oddities of the subculture while simultaneously celebrating them.  I can see how such terms could create an “us vs. them” mindset, but I think more people simply see it as a way to celebrate their own uniqueness.

That being said, I was glad I was in costume, hiding the fact that I was a “normie”.  I had made a decision to go on this adventure out of interest in my sister’s life, but also because subcultures in general interest me.  I figured that if I was going to study a subculture, I might as well go out and get the full experience.

And let me tell you, it was a lot of fun.  I chose a cosplay that I knew and that others would recognize (Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid video games, which I used to play religiously), and apparently it was a pretty good effort (thanks, Erica!), because I was asked for my picture more than any other day of my life, including my wedding day!  There was something satisfying about being stopped and complimented.  Such exchanges seemed to take three basic forms:

1) The compliphoto
Sneaky Snake.
“Oh my God, are you Snake!?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Can I get your picture!?”
“Of course!”
Make Snake-like pose for picture.

2) The shout-out
- “Snaaaaaaake!” (A repeated line from the games which I did not know how to react to – it is, after all, a line you hear only when Snake dies.)
- “Love the cosplay, man.  Really nice job!”
- “Where’s your cardboard box??” (In-joke about the game.  I eventually found a box for some photos.)

3) The stop-and-talk
- “Have you heard about Metal Gear Solid 5?” (I had not beyond knowing a new trailer had been recently released.)
- “Would you ever cosplay Big Boss?” (Another MGS character.)
- “Has anyone ever told you look like Hawkeye from The Avengers?” (That would be Jeremy Renner, and this comment made me particularly happy because Renner has for years been my answer to the question of which celebrity would play me in a movie.)

Of course, while it was truly fun, not every part of the cosplay experience was enjoyable.  Just as I had an experience similar to a bride in being constantly stopped for pictures, I also experienced some other bride-like things – I was regularly adjusting my outfit and found it nearly impossibly complicated to take a crap.

Do you think you understand more the appeal of cosplay now?  Why do you think people cosplay?

Definitely.  I think people have a tendency to see cosplaying as pure escapism, but I saw few, if any, method actors in attendance.  Rather than escaping into a character, cosplaying seems to be about sharing; a way for convention-goers to say, “Hey, look at what I did!”

We all do this, whether it is in performing songs, making a meal, or writing a blog.  The desire to produce and display our creations is universal, so the cosplay phenomenon is no surprise, especially if you consider the convention context.  Not only does cosplaying mean you are actively participating in and contributing to the quality of the convention, but at a convention, it is assumed that other attendees share and appreciate your interests, so there need be no fear in displaying your “fandom.”

This is, perhaps, also why many traditionally socially awkward types find their way in to this particular subculture.  By wearing a cosplay, you proclaim your interests, and people instantly know something about you.  It is a way to communicate without words; a built-in conversation starter.   Plus, there is always the fun of spotting characters you know and love – a game that I failed miserably.  Luckily, I had my sister by my side to explain the many strange sites.

What were the oddest things you saw?

What had to be the oddest thing was what is called “furrydom.”  These cosplayers are not necessarily in costume as anyone in particular, but simply like to don full-body, furry costumes similar to what you would see at an amusement park or a high-school basketball game.  There was a panel on this practice meant to explain its appeal, but I was not able to attend, so I am still at a loss.  As these cosplayers have their face hidden and are not cosplaying recognizable characters, it is hard to think of reasons analogous to other cosplays for why people would do this.

What panels did you attend?  What did you find interesting and not so interesting about them?

Panels were almost entirely devoted to specific aspects of the anime culture.  There were fan-run panels meant to give crash-courses in specific series or mangas, anime voice-actor celebrity panels, instructional panels on relevant skills (makeup, drawing, voice acting), and comedy routines.  I went to a lot of panels so here I’ll give a lowlight, highlight, and favorite moment.

Lowlight: Disorganized Fan-Run Panels
These were usually devoted to specific “fandoms” and were attempts to convince others attendees to enjoy the things they have come to love, and also geek out with others who already share their love.  Unfortunately, most of these panels followed the same format: first, there was five minutes of cursory descriptions of an anime or manga, then there was five minutes of pleading to watch/read it, and then there was 50 painful minutes of struggling to fill space, mostly involving trying to remember and describe specific scenes or story arcs to support their arguments.

Highlight: Misogyny Panel
This panel proved that not all fan-run panels are so bad.  Run by a grad-student researching a paper, this panel focused on trends in women-written fan fiction.  The specific focus was on misogynistic trends in women-written “Yaoi” or “Slash” fan fiction.  This specific brand of fan-fiction involves writers making two straight male characters fall in love with one another.  It was a brainy reprieve from the rest of the happenings, and covered topics of contemporary feminism and gender roles.  It was compelling to hear both the concerns and rationalizations of those in attendance.  It would have been interesting to have similar discussions of other troubling aspects of anime culture – mainly the rampant objectification of women and the glorification of violence.

Favorite Moment: LittleKuriboh and Marianne Miller After Dark
Dave's first celebrity shout-out.  Badass indeed.
LittleKuriboh (real name of Martin Billany) creates YuGiOh! The Abridged Series and ran an informal panel with his wife and American voice actress Marianne Miller.  (Abridged series are shortened and exaggerated anime series re-voiced for comic effect, and Billany is behind one of the web’s best and most entertaining abridged series.)  Their late-night session was mostly fans asking provocative questions (“Do you two ever slip into character voices in the bedroom?”), but the highlight was when the panel ran out of time.  Billany and Miller decided to continue until told to stop, and as some in attendance began to leave, they took it as an opportunity to call attention to this.  When my sister and I decided to leave, Billany called out, “And where are you going Snake?”  I responded by ducking down snake-style and sneaking out.  As soon as I exited, I heard the voices of over 300 fans: “Snaaaaaaaaaake!!”

Alright, let’s switch gears.  Tell me about the video contest.  Describe what it was, what was your role?  What were your impressions?

I assisted my sister in running an AMV contest (Anime Music Video), participating as a judge and general helper.  AMVs consist of repurposed footage from various anime series set to music.  Prior to the convention, I watched 35 of these videos (averaging about four minutes a piece) and assessed them based on technical skill, creativity, and overall effect.

For the most part, I was impressed with what I saw, and most editors seemed to understand the importance of editorial rhythm.  Yet, I have to admit that after watching these 35 AMVs all over again at the convention, I have probably had my share of such videos for a long while.  As the videos more often than not rely on a prior knowledge of the footage to draw viewers in, I was mostly lost and found my mind wandering amidst of all the mayhem and sentiment. ("Best in Show" winner below.)

What was your overall impression of the people there?  What did you find good and bad about it?

David and his sister Erica, enjoying a much needed drink.
If there was anything I would take away from the experience, it is that this subculture is filled with people who may seem strange on the outside, but are much like everyone else on the inside.  People generally search for community, and conventions are a way to facilitate this community.  There is something appealing in having commonality in groups, and conventions such as this are a way for people with specifically defined interests to convene in the comfort of peers.  Chat forums and online gaming do not, it seems, eliminate the deeper desire to make personal connections face to face (even if that face is covered in makeup and topped with an oversized wig).

Thursday, July 4, 2013

David's Top Ten - #5 - Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948)

5. Bicycle Thieves – Vittorio De Sica, 1948

                Following World War II, a film movement now known as neorealism dominated Italian cinema.  This movement brought earnest filmmakers to the streets, filming stories of the impoverished populations affected by a newfound lack of identity and need to rebuild what was destroyed in battle.  Partly out of necessity and the crumbled Italian economy, and partly because these filmmakers understood the need to address important issues rather than escape from them, these directors created a new and influential low-budget aesthetic.  Using non-actors and filming on location, viewers from all around the world were confronted with and challenged by harsh present-day realities.  We see the impact of these pioneers in the many directors today that use handheld camerawork to tell ground-level stories of poverty and war, and while this aesthetic has perhaps become cliché, it is nevertheless powerful in the hands of the right artist.
                Enter Vittorio De Sica, a comedic actor turned director who, for a time, drew from his own lower-class upbringing and the pains of war to create some of cinema’s most lasting and affecting images.  While 1952’s Umberto D., a film that studies the convergence of lonely poverty and old age, is certainly moving, De Sica produced one bona fide masterpiece – his devastating examination of fatherhood and poverty, Bicycle Thieves.  It is, to this day, the very best film about fathers and sons I have ever seen, and has so many moments of pure emotion, both tragic and endearing, that it is impossible to shake. 
                What makes a great neorealist film is not simply a raw assessment of poverty, but a study of the real people fighting for meaning in the midst of their struggle.  Parenthood is, thus, the perfect topic for neorealism, for parents cannot escape the reality that they have inherent meaning in the eyes of their children.  This film potently asks what happens if a parent recognizes this reality, but finds his own perceived identity slipping away.  Much of personal meaning is found in what we produce, and what meaning can a father pull from to instruct his child if he has no means to produce for his family?  Bicycle Thieves communicates the frenzied despair of fighting against a sense of hopelessness, and the desperate cyclical abuses that result.  What this film so poignantly conveys is that the pains of its father protagonist are universal – all fathers have at some point disappointed their sons, and all sons have at some point had to accept that their fathers are many times as lost as they are.

Chelsea’s Response:

                Having recently seen Bicycle Thieves for the first time, I find devastating to be an apt descriptor.  I was moved to tears by the film's tender and flawed father-son relationship facing oppressive poverty and an inability to escape from it.  The story takes place in post-WWII Rome, where unemployment is at an all-time high.   In the film, a man with a wife and two young children is offered a job, but needs a bicycle for his duties.  He immediately sells some of his possessions (bed sheets) in order to buy a bicycle and begin work, only to have his bicycle stolen on his very first day.  From this point, it is a desperate search for the bicycle he so badly needs to feed his family and a gradual realization that there may be nothing he can do. 
                The film communicates that everyone in Italy is in the same boat as Ricci (the protagonist), struggling to get by amongst people who are desperate to survive, even if that means that they will resort to stealing.  De Sica clearly wanted to show, as simply as possible, the plight of the people around him. The non-actors are perfectly cast, and fit well into the time period, allowing viewers to see the real problem driving of the plot - the cyclical power of poverty.  There is a scene in which Ricci visits a police station to report his bike stolen and get help finding it, but the police turn him away, saying they are too busy with more important matters than stolen bikes, and that his report will simply allow him to claim it when he finds it.  This sends Ricci into further desperation as the plot progresses, and De Sica emphasizes that this tiny incident that is so easily brushed off by the authorities can mean a spiral into devastation for his family.
                Let us not forget that films like this may not be fun to watch, but they are important and shed light on darker aspects of the human condition that need light and should be talked about.  And should all this poverty and heartbreak sound boring or tedious to you, let me just lighten up a bit and point out that the little kid who plays the son is CUTE.  You will fall in love with him and want to pinch his chubby little cheeks and dry his eyes when he cries.  Take a look - it's a beautiful film that is soon to be added to my list of personal favorites.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

By Joss Whedon

                Shot over the course of twelve days at Joss Whedon’s own Santa Monica home, Much Ado About Nothing captures the wit and merriment inherent to Shakespeare’s comedy.  Following two pairs of lovers (or potential lovers) over the course of less than a month, Shakespeare plays with mistaken identity and mischievous schemes, as well as the nature of marriage and love itself.  The two couples in the movie couldn’t be more different.  Beatrice and Benedick (both skillfully displaying a knack for wordplay) have a “battle of wit between them” far before the action takes place.  The two seem to be obsessed with one another before the show starts – and they continue to cut one another down upon meeting, mutually sharing that neither really believes in love or marriage.  The other couple, Claudio and Hero, are a wide-eyed and innocent young people who fall in love seemingly at first sight.  They have a sweet and easy romance, despite some attempts by outsiders to pull them apart.
                There is much good to be said of the film, which feels intimate, light, and fun.  It’s very humorous, often due to some excellent physical acting by the leads and several of the supporting characters as well.  The black and white photography is lovely and rich, working well with the source material to relay a classic sensibility that makes the dialogue work even in this modern context.  There were a few problems with the villains in the film, as playing the villainy and darker elements straight doesn’t quite play well in context, but this was a minor issue, and I was rarely distracted by it.  It’s an aptly funny adaptation of Shakespeare’s fantastic comedy, and I found myself laughing and smiling warmly throughout.

A strong *** out of ****

                I would like to know what led Whedon to embark on a project so dissimilar to his previous works.   Did he have a lifelong affinity for Shakespeare?  Did he feel like he needed to prove himself as a versatile cinematic talent?  Did he simply recognize that the dry wit of Shakespeare’s comedy aligns nicely with his own comic sensibilities?  Did he just really need a change of pace from CGI and senseless destruction?  Whatever the impetus, it is refreshing to see this move, and he proves to be a good fit to adapt this very funny play for the screen.
                The strength of the film is found in the performances, which provide knowingly couth, winking deliveries of Shakespeare’s fiercely witty wordplay.  I couldn’t help but recognize that these actors and actresses simply seemed to be having fun with the material, and it was a privilege to be let in on their process.  The film has the feel of something shown at a private gathering, made only for the benefit of close friends, and it was a warm feeling to be invited to celebrate Shakespeare’s amusing work alongside this creative crew.  You can simply tell they love the material and were excited to explore it together, and with us.  (This mutual affection for the process is, I think, also why people tend to love when actors on live shows “break” and try to suppress a smile – it is reassuring to think that actors actually enjoy what they do.)

A weak *** out of ****

                From what I have read, Whedon has always loved this particular play – it has always been his pet project.  That is the rumor anywho.  If I were to harbor a guess, I think it would be because it has the dry wit you mention, as well as the fact that the main character is a smart, strong, quite independent woman; a character Whedon has always been particularly drawn to.  I think, in that way, it translates well to a modern audience.  Such a witty, smart woman is a rarity for the silver screen even today, and I really liked that part of it.  And Beatrice is played wonderfully by Amy Acker.

Acker as Beatrice
                I think Acker’s performance is a revelation, and impressively captures the nuance of being both confident and unsure.  It, for me, was the strongest performance among many strong performances.
                Yet, while her character does translate well to a modern audience, not everything does.  Despite the film’s strengths, it is hard while watching to dismiss the fact that storytelling has changed since The Bard’s times.  We no longer passively accept the contrivance that a couple could fall in love on sight alone and be married within a week.  If this were to happen today, we would all be wise to caution these lovers to slow down!  While I recognize Shakespeare’s attention is not on the feasibility of his plot, or the wisdom therein, it proves to be a bit distracting for modern eyes.  And while it is hard to fault Whedon for faithfully carrying out Shakespeare’s vision, the modern context of the film makes it all seem a bit off.  As you said, the black and white cinematography somewhat helps, but even that cannot hide the archaic trope that romantic affection is so powerful a force that a man would duel his best friend over it, despite it not existing only hours prior.

                I think what saves this from being overly contrived for me is that it is presented that the couples had known each other previously, but only fallen in love quickly at a later time.  It’s more believable that way.  I didn’t have trouble with that so much, as the romances were a springboard to have spirited flirtation and feisty disputes.
How could you want to kill this jolly Claudio?
                I think, for me, the inconsistent part of the film is that *SPOILER* Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio, even though she knows Hero is alive and still seems to love Claudio, despite his rejection of her.  I feel like it would have worked better had it been more clearly a test of Benedick, not as something she seriously wanted.  In addition, Shakespeare completely drops that subplot later.  It’s all a bit odd.

                It is telling that Whedon added the backstory of Benedick and Beatrice to the story (in a short prologue and later flashback), even though it was not overtly stated in Shakespeare’s dialogue.  It seems that Whedon recognized certain weaknesses in the plotting and tried, in this instance, to provide some much needed rationale.
                Why he didn’t also do this with Beatrice’s request for a duel is beyond me, as I concur that this is the most out of place aspect of the story.  I like your idea of changing it so Beatrice is testing Benedick, but even then it would still make her rather petty.  What we actually see from Shakespeare’s play, and what was relayed in this film, was a spiteful and irrational twist – something unbefitting of a romance we had until that point enjoyed due to its screwball repartee.  If it weren’t literary blasphemy, I would say Whedon should have struck the scene from Shakespeare’s work altogether.  As you mentioned, the play seems to forget this happened as it progresses anyway, so it wouldn’t have been too disorienting.
                With that said, I did enjoy the complicated yarn spun by Ol’ Willy Shakes, filled with gripping webs of deception and miscommunication.  The wedding scene, in particular, was delightfully uncomfortable and built suspense effectively, with Whedon hitting his marks by allowing this tension to build slowly.  Despite any contrivances that led to that scenario, it nevertheless worked well in the heat of the moment.

Our bumbling security officers.
                I agree - the wedding scene was particularly tense.  Overall, in fact, I felt like the film had a good measure of tension, which added to the appeal of its contrasting humor.  I loved the silliness amongst the security officers, as its provision of comedic relief shows how seriously Shakespeare himself regarded the darker aspects of his script.

                I thought Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk’s security officers were priceless, providing comic relief in a film that didn’t necessarily need it, but definitely benefits.  The bumbling detective has been overdone so much in moviedom, and it was nice to see it done right here as a peripheral aspect of the plot.  And because their ineptitude adds further suspense to the plot, it is even more amusing.
                Of course, all these joys are what to expect from a “minor” work, even if the writer is a literary giant such as Shakespeare.  The focus of the film is, after all, on its clever plotting.  While the romantic aspects of the story never materialize to communicate much more than warm fluffy lovey doveys, and the villains are poorly drawn, its plotting is ingenious and banter is sublime.  For this critic, that is more than enough, especially in a time when formula plotting and recycled dialogue reign supreme.

Two-as-one rating: *** out of ****