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Posts Tagged ‘Nathan Fillion’

For a two-screen independent cinema dwarfed by the major chains around it and not exactly in a prime spot (off Leicester Square itself and well on the way to Chinatown), the Prince Charles has acquired a massive reputation as a place to watch and otherwise enjoy films. I think this is partly because the place is clearly run by people who understand why people still go to the cinema and what films they are prepared to pay and watch over and over again: on the schedule just this week are quotealong showings of Anchorman and Flash Gordon, a free-beer-and-pizza revival of Terminator 2, and a whole bunch of shrewdly-assembled double-bills – RoboCop and Dredd showing together, for example.

Despite the fact that one of the screens is really tiny and has hugely inadequate legroom for someone my size, I regret not being able to go to the Prince Charlie more often. I have very fond memories of watching The Wrath of Khan there two years ago, and had a fairly good time the other day watching the new version of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon.

muchado

Low-budget black-and-white modern-dress Shakespeare adaptations not featuring anyone you could honestly call a star name do not usually get the kind of release, or indeed media attention, that this one has drawn. Then again, the average low-budget black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation not featuring anyone you could honestly call a star name is not adapted and directed by the creative brain responsible for the third highest-grossing film of all time. That sort of thing gets you noticed.

On the other hand, I suspect the new Much Ado would have been guaranteed at least cult hit status regardless of the existence of The Avengers, for such is the effect of being touched by the hand of Joss Whedon. Let’s be straight about this: Whedon is a brilliant writer, director, and producer, and his career is littered with deservedly-celebrated films and TV series from Toy Story to Cabin in the Woods, taking in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-offs and Firefly along the way. No argument there.

However, I’m a bit less comfortable with the cult of adoration that seems to have developed around Whedon himself as an individual: several people I know are wont to publish gushing blog posts about the formative influence Whedon has had on their lives, and in the same way members of the faith tend to refer to him simply as ‘Joss’, as though he really were the intimate personal friend they clearly wish he was. I am very wary of this sort of thing.

Nevertheless, a built-in cult following does help when it comes to getting films financed and released, and I can’t help but suspect this has aided Much Ado along its path to a theatrical release. Still, one gets the sense that simply making a film as simple and intimate as this one was its own reward for Whedon: it was shot in and around his own house and the cast is largely comprised of people he’s worked with in the past.

The plot of the film is… quite famous and widely available on-line. But go on, I’ll spoil you anyway (not that this is likely to stop members of the Cult of Whedon coming round the garret with axes). Hey ho. Members of the household of prosperous gentleman Leonato (played by Agent Coulson from The Avengers) rejoice when popular nobleman Don Pedro (Dominic from Dollhouse) comes to visit with his retinue of followers. Romance blossoms between the young count Claudio (Topher from Dollhouse) and Leonato’s daughter, which inspires everyone to bring about a rekindling of romance between Pedro’s associate Benedick (Wesley from Angel) and Leonato’s niece Beatrice (Fred from Angel). Doing his best to scupper these matrimonial machinations is Pedro’s wicked brother John (Simon from Firefly). Will true love win through? Not if they have to rely on moronic local policeman Dogberry (Mal from Firefly) for help, that’s for sure…

Now, it doesn’t seem that long since the last film of Much Ado About Nothing – the Ken and Em version which came out in 1993, which I remember quite well. On the other hand, I’m currently working alongside people who weren’t born back then, so possibly another new take on the play is justified. Whedon’s version is distinctly different from Branagh’s, anyway: Branagh’s was very jolly, colourful, and straightforward, while Whedon’s is much cooler and more ‘classic’ in its look and feel. The Branagh film was mocked at the time for its endless choruses of hey-nonny-nonny, but a few of these (in an appropriately jazzy arrangement) have crept into the new version, too: clearly they are integral to the text.

For a while it looks like the stylisation of the new film is going to get in the way of Whedon’s take on the story, with only his most obvious directorial choices making it through to the audience. First and foremost, where the potential for slapstick comedy in the tale is concerned, Whedon goes for this in a big way: people falling down stairs and so on. Nathan Fillion’s performance as Dogberry is pretty broadly comic, too – but then, as I recall, so was Michael Keaton’s in the 93 version, and Fillion is at least less manic.

However, on reflection, suggestions that this is a feminist take on the play do not seem to me to be entirely unfounded. There seems to me to be an implicit critique of the differing positions in society of Beatrice and Benedick – the two are well-matched, equals in every practical way, and yet Beatrice is forced to ask others for assistance simply because there are some things a woman is not permitted to do. The crushing effect on a woman of acquiring a ‘reputation’, whether deserved or not, is also explored. All in all this isn’t much, and given that Whedon leaves Shakespeare pretty much as he finds him, it’s mostly grace notes anyway. But it’s a valid take on the play.

The film looks good and is impeccably put together, and the performances are fine as well: Shakespeare’s verse comes to life, which is a good sign. But I laughed at it a lot less than most of the other people at the showing I attended, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was a clever and admirable film rather than a really good one. If I had started watching Much Ado About Nothing on TV I’m not sure I wouldn’t have bailed out before the end. In the end, it seems to be the case that left to his own devices, Joss Whedon makes remarkable, hugely enjoyable films about hot, wise-cracking chicks battling armies to a standstill – but in association with the greatest writer who has ever lived, he just comes up with something which is interesting and fairly clever. Much Ado About Nothing is a nice little film – but for sheer entertainment value, give me something with the Hulk in it any day.

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As I have mentioned before, this seems to be a landmark year for the superhero movie – not necessarily because they are coming out in record numbers (although this year has already seen the release of The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern, with Captain America still to appear) but because they’re now such a part of the cultural landscape that their makers seem more willing to experiment, in terms of both tone and setting.

All of the foregoing, however, are quite big studio pictures aimed fairly and squarely at a mainstream audience. Boldly going where virtually no superhero film has gone before (note the qualifier; we shall return to this) is James Gunn’s Super, which is surely the stuff that cults are made of.

Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a rather nondescript short-order cook who has not had the happiest of lives. What happy memories he has revolve around his being a law-abiding citizen and relationshipo with his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler). However, Sarah’s own personal problems result in her leaving him for the clutches of slimy local gangster Jacques (Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon).  Utterly distraught and bereft, Frank is at a complete loss, and…

Well, here the movie gives you a choice of options. Either, a) God appears to Frank in a vision, embodied by Christian network figurehead the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion, as his fans have never seen him before), and tells him he’s been chosen to be an evil-battling superhero, or, b) Frank has a mental breakdown and imagines that God appears to him in a vision, etc etc.

Needless to say, Frank is a singularly inept and rubbish superhero. He has a rubbish costume (spandex not favouring his fuller figure). He has a rubbish gimmick (his signature move is to whack people about the head with a pipe wrench). He has a rubbish battlecry (‘Shut up, crime!’). Even his kid sidekick, when he eventually acquires one, is rubbish: she is the girl from the local comic-book shop (played by Ellen Page), who is strong on enthusiasm but even shorter on sanity than Frank himself. Nevertheless, the Crimson Bolt and Boltie begin to make a name for themselves as crime-fighters, and their ultimate showdown with Jacques and his thugs draws closer…

I only really know James Gunn from his comedy-horror movie Slither (which I enjoyed very much when not actually fighting the urge to gag), and in many ways Super is clearly the work of the same creator. There are the same deft shifts in tone between absurd comedy, splatter, and genuine emotion, and the same strong content. This is a very graphic movie in nearly every department. Calling it extreme isn’t quite enough – then again, calling it extremely extreme just sounds stupid. Suffice to say there is a scene where someone sees a vision in a pool of vomit, and this is not the most twisted moment in the movie by a long way.

Most of the publicity material I’ve seen for Super describes it as an out-and-out comedy, which I think does the film a disservice. If you turn up expecting wall-to-wall laughs, as I did, you’ll probably be very disappointed. The film isn’t afraid to explore the emotions of the main characters in some detail and with great sympathy, and Wilson gives a terrifically well-rounded performance as a man who suspects he’s gone off the deep end but doesn’t know how to stop himself. It’s probably a coincidence that of the other main players, Page and Bacon have both been in X-Men movies and Liv Tyler was in one of the Hulks: the film itself never winks to the audience.

The obvious comparison to make here would be with Kick-Ass, but, readers, I have a confession to make: haven’t seen it (yet – review coming next month) . On its own terms Super is very accomplished, and manages something significant within the genre. Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novel made the point very strongly that any real-life superhero would not be cool. Anyone driven to dress up in that sort of outfit and beat up small-time crooks must obviously have profound mental problems. Even those movies which have addressed this point (including the Watchmen movie itself and The Dark Knight) have still implicitly gone to imply ‘…but they’re still cool, though, right?’ In Super, the Crimson Bolt is sometimes a clown and sometimes a disturbing psycho, but he never approaches coolness.

I laughed a lot during Super, but I also found myself genuinely caring about the main characters even during their most psychotic moments. I suppose it could be argued that at the very end the film slides into out-and-out sentimentality, but by this point I was prepared to cut it some slack. Gunn’s movie contains some very strong stuff, but on the whole it’s good stuff too.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 18th 2006:

The spirit of the classic 50s sci-fi B-movie lives on in James Gunn’s Slither, although the flesh in which it is clad is, to put it mildly, somewhat contorted. Apparently Gunn has history with the notorious American indie company Troma, who were responsible for such unforgettable gems as the Toxic Avenger series and A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell and, indeed, one of their movies gets referenced here – but Slither is anything but cheap and cheerful trash. No, it’s very well-put-together and darkly witty trash.

Set in the small town of Wheelsy, this is the story of everyday American folk who lead ordinary lives right up until the occasion of their usually premature and invariably disgustingly horrific deaths. The cause of all this is a meteorite which lands in the woods outside town and which carries within it an alien organism with a life-cycle so grotesque it makes HR Giger’s famous creation look like prime family pet material by comparison. A voracious plague-parasite with a hive-mind spread throughout its victims, it wastes no time in infecting the first person it comes across – fairly objectionable local resident Grant Grant (Michael Rooker). Inevitably Grant’s lovely and wholesome wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) soon starts wondering why her hubby is acting so oddly and what those funny marks on his body are. Meanwhile, the local store is wondering why Grant’s buying such vast quantities of raw meat and everyone in the neighbourhood is wondering why their pet dogs and cats are vanishing. It looks like being a particularly stressful week for the Wheelsy PD and their chief Bill Party (cult superstar Nathan Fillion) – who, conveniently enough, has had a bit of a thing for Starla since way back when.

Gunn looks very much like a big fan of early David Cronenberg movies and pretty much the entire body of work of George Romero and he’s managed to come up with a story which allows him to filch the best bits of their work along with 50s sci-fi cliches. The first part of the film is modelled very much along I Married A Monster From Outer Space lines but, as it progresses and the spread of the organism accelerates (rapidly but plausibly), the plot changes from ‘what’s wrong with hubby’ to ‘there’s a monster on the loose!’ to ‘there are hundreds of small but disgustingly phallic monsters on the loose!’ to ‘zombie apocalypse!’ to, er… well, ‘complete body-horror splatterfest meltdown’, a subgenre I’ve probably just made up. (There’s also a brief gag where the soundtrack blatantly turns into the theme from Predator.)

To be fair, this film doesn’t have the psychological rigour of Cronenberg, or the political sophistication of Romero’s best movies, but it makes up for it with a refusal to simply copy the films it’s referencing – it brings something new to every scenario, and isn’t afraid to follow its ideas through to their logical conclusion.

There’s a sense in which Slither looks like one of those movies the script for which was commissioned by a special effects/makeup company simply as a showcase for them to show exactly what they’re capable of (the most famous example of this kind of thing being probably From Dusk Till Dawn). They certainly get the job done as the effects in this movie are universally accomplished and universally repulsive. You want ropily muscular ovipositors emerging from unexpected bodily orifices? Check! You want the grossly distended bodies of the human hosts of alien broodlings? Check! You want heads blown away by point-blank shotgun blasts? Check! People graphically sliced in two? Check! Cannibalism? Check! A crowd of people merging into a single fleshy super-organism? Check! Acid-spewing zombies? Check! I could go on but I’m planning to eat at some point in the future. God only knows how the most graphic horror movie I’ve seen in years got away with only a 15 certificate in the UK – twenty years ago this would have been on the banned list, I’m certain.

As you’ve probably gathered, this kind of film is not the sort of thing you would usually associate with either reasonable performances or subtle comedy, but it’s very much to Slither‘s credit that it has both. You’re either familiar with Nathan Fillion’s rumpled charms or you’re not and while he may have been hired here simply in the hope this would encourage Firefly‘s dedicated (to put it mildly) fanbase to bump up the box office (certainly his performance as Bill Party is very Mal Reynolds-ish in places), he gives the film a strong and likeable centre. Banks and Rooker are also effective, as is Tania Saulnier as a teenager caught up in the icky nightmare and Gregg Henry as Wheelsy’s Mayor. Elsewhere the film has some rather droll things to say about small-town life and never completely loses its sense of humour, even though that humour is tending towards darkness by the end.

In a way it’s a shame that Slither was released right on the doorstep of blockbuster season, as it’s bound to get squashed by the much bigger releases coming out over the next few weeks. That said, the mainstream appeal of a film like this was always going to be a bit limited, and the kind of people who watch this sort of thing are the kind of people dedicated enough to seek it out, if required to. I wouldn’t like to go and see this kind of film too often, and Slither is an unusually accomplished example of the genre anyway – but as something a bit different from the norm, I was hugely impressed, my enjoyment thoroughly eclipsing my nausea. Probably not for everyone, but those with open minds and strong stomachs will definitely be entertained.

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