Review by Ken Burke Much Ado About Nothing
Shakespeare’s comedy of romance, duplicity, and easily-swayed (often wrong) conclusions is given a contemporary, yet black-and-white, treatment by Joss Whedon.
This Is the End
An unholy Apocalyptic tale, done in near-Animal House fashion, as Seth Rogen and a bunch of his friends play themselves trying to negotiate the traumas of The Rapture.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]
In my last posting (Man of Steel review, June 19, 2013) I went on at length—no surprise there—about a comic-book-based movie that could easily have been written about in shorter fashion, given that the whole premise is simply, “Extraordinary extraterrestrial decides to take sides with his new home on Earth rather than with his Kryptonian homeboys” (not that just about everything—no matter it’s original length—couldn’t be reduced to its essence if you really try, such as with The Bible: “Let there be light … for those who deserve it” [we’ll get back to that situation in this current review in a minute], Hamlet: “Damn it, Dad, what do expect me to do about it?” [more Shakespeare in this review as well, coming soon to a computer screen near you], or even Moby Dick: “Call me Ismael, but no more whale stew, thanks”). As a counterpoint to that, and shifting away temporarily from my previous recent shift to single-film reviews, I’m going to attempt to offer a concise analysis (Will reality ever match such ambition? Don't bet the farm on it.) of two films, both of which could be explored at length because the first is adapted from Shakespeare who has given writers over the centuries reason to fill vast amounts of pages with explorations of his work and the second deals with a topic that has also fascinated writers and readers for millennia, the end of the world. However, despite their lofty topics or structures (more so the latter with Much Ado About Nothing, clever in its construction but intentionally superficially-whimsical in much of its content), each of these films can reasonably be reduced to its effective essence so here are my summarized "Burke’s Notes" on them.
Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (originally written in 1598-1599) has been made into a good number of TV movies, but the cinematic versions most viewers are likely to be familiar with are the1993 one (directed, adapted by, and starring stage-trained, Bard-aficionado Kenneth Branagh) and the current rendition directed by seeming-unlikely-Shakespeare-enthusiast Joss Whedon (whose association with such fare as TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer [1996-2003], Angel [1999-2004], and Firefly [2002-2003], for all of which he was producer, as well as directing several episodes of each then directing a little superhero movie called The Avengers [2012; currently #3 on both the All-Time domestic list with roughly $623 million as well as #3 on the All-Time Worldwide list with about $1.5 billion, laying the foundation for an even bigger response to the much-anticipated sequel due in 2015]), but just because one director seems like a natural fit and the other doesn’t you shouldn’t jump to conclusions about who is best suited for the task because you have to remember that in appreciating quality work one must judge the result on its merits, not its production team’s Globe Theatre pedigree. If you prejudge anything by assumption about its creators you could easily be wrong (as Chuck Berry reminds us, in principle at least, that with just about anything you shouldn’t make rash judgments as “you never can tell” [sing along with a chorus or 2 of “C’est La Vie” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ckDwZDAUME or maybe you’d prefer to refresh yourself on how it was used in the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Pulp Fiction at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ik-RsDGPI5Y]). By chance, on the day that I saw Whedon’s version at an afternoon matinee my local PBS station was running Branagh’s film that night so I got a double-dose last weekend, helping me both comprehend a narrative that I’m not all that familiar with and furthering my conviction that while the Branagh version is effective, enjoyable, and true to the (unspecified but likely) early Renaissance period in which the play is set, the Whedon contemporary translation into Southern California characters and setting is equally effective, continuing the long string of creative successes that I’ve seen in various stage and cinema theatres of finding ways to make Shakespeare relevant, either by a forceful presentation of the original material in its intended environment or by wonderfully imaginative relocation to different times and/or places. Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, for example, is transposed from Messina (in Sicily), Italy to today’s Malibu, losing nothing except the assumed speech patterns of Southern California as suddenly actors in recognizable surroundings (at least if you’re a neighbor of Whedon’s, because it’s all shot at his house over the course of a mere 12 days) are declaiming in iambic pentameter rather than sentences punctuated with “like” and “you know.”
This is not a work I know that well (give me Hamlet or give me death—although there’s enough of the latter in Hamlet to leave little choice), but as adapted by Whedon (and Branagh, whose version uses and edits out much the same from the original as does Whedon’s, based on my “impeccable” memory of what I heard in the afternoon from Whedon and what I followed along with from my Complete Works of William Shakespeare that night when watching the Branagh version) I was reasonably able to follow what was going on and fully appreciate the brilliant structuring of language being employed (even while surely not catching every nuanced phrase), so whether Shakespeare is your métier or you’re just trying to keep up with something that’s the English equivalent of Greek to you, I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy what sci-fi/fantasy master Whedon does with these well-known-but-easily-duped characters as they generate romantic passion, hilarious idiocy, and satisfying closure to their rapidly-evolving story. In case this intertwined tale isn’t all that familiar to you, the quick version is that Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Prince of Aragon, has returned to Messina with his rebellious but conquered brother, Don John (Sean Maher), in tow, along with his trusted comrades Benedick (Alexis Denisof), Lord of Padua, and Claudio (Fran Kranz), Lord of Florence, to visit Leonato, the Governor of Messina, the Governor's daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese)—the for-a-time-secret-love of Claudio—and his niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker)—who gives constant verbal battle to Benedick every time she sees him. As far as I’m concerned the only other major characters (despite the presence of a good number of additional ones) are Margaret (Ashley Johnson), one of Hero’s maids, and the wacky local lawmen, Constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and his equally-bumbling partner, Verges (Tom Lenk)—shown in the photo above. Most of what goes on here has to do with various duplicities allowing intended lovers to connect (Claudio and Hero, despite an initial misunderstanding and then a calculated story about her death [shades of Romeo and Juliet, written a bit before this play, in 1594-1595]; then seeming-romantic-combatants Benedick and Beatrice admitting their mutual desire) or be apart for a time because of misunderstandings, although there is clear commentary in the narrative about the ease with which lies can spread and take hold despite the lack of proper vetting of evidence (which reminds me of my project of gaining some extra credit in my high school senior English literature class where I did a report on Othello, complaining that I couldn’t understand how such disastrous results could come from such flimsy situations of planted evidence and rumors; needless to say my teacher was not amused [although I was sincere in my naïve commentary, which was reversed (to her unknowing triumph) decades later when I saw the play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and cried at the horror of lives undone by the unquestioned assumptions that I now knew better to be one of the worst, unnecessary debasements of human dignity—the quality of that performance compared to my 17-year-old reading of the text probably was a factor as well in my different responses over those many years).
Ultimately, all of the problematical situations in Much Ado About Nothing are resolved, so that Beatrice and Benedict can finally let down their defenses and share the love that their previous snipings kept at bay, Hero and Claudio can resume the connection that was so callously interrupted by the scheme of Don John (involving one of his henchmen, Borachio [Spencer Treat Clark], and Margaret, with other characters mistakenly assuming she was Hero having a sexual fling the night before her wedding), Leonato can rest assured that his young female wards are now successfully in the arms of their true loves, Prince Pedro can also feel assured that his devious brother, Prince John, cannot be trusted in any circumstances so proper punishment must be proclaimed (tomorrow, after the dual wedding festivities have concluded), and the silly lawkeepers, Dogberry and Verges, can also feel fulfilled that they’ve been able to help bring about justice despite the general distain/contempt in which they are held because of their less-than-immediate-success in revealing the Hero/Margaret ruse (although, to their credit, they understood the scam that had been set up; if only Leonato had slowed down long enough to listen to their clumsy presentation instead of rushing forward to his daughter’s wedding, at which point completely-hornswoggled Claudio caused all manner of chaos by accusing poor Hero of moral crimes never committed, which disrupts all of the previous good feelings until everything is set right at the end, epitomized not so much by the reunion of Hero and Claudio but more by the dissolution of previous barriers between Beatrice and Benedick, even though it’s comical how their ongoing antipathy is so quickly dissolved when each of them is duped by carefully-planned gossip intended to change their initial bitter attitudes toward the other). The humor, satire, romance, and sense of successful closure remains intact here despite the incongruous juxtaposition of centuries-old language and a contemporary setting, helped greatly by the ease of dialogue delivery by these talented thespians, so that even though they are mouthing words that you’d never hear exchanged today between you and your inner circle the meanings still find clarity, the location and character interactions seem natural for the events depicted (Mr. Weadon, if I ever hit it big with the lottery and you want to consider a relocation, let’s talk about a price for that marvelous house), and the whole experience is enhanced by the sparkling black-and-white cinematography which helps convey the historical sense of the dialogue while still grounding the depicted actions in a social setting that seems easily familiar to us. “By my troth,” Much Ado About Nothing (despite its seeming connection to a Seinfeld TV episode’s title) is a delightful experience, easily embraced now on the silver screen or later in a DVD version. As for my usual cap-off musical number for the commentary on this film, I’ll go sophisticated for a change and offer the final song from the Branagh Much Ado About Nothing, “Hey Nonny, Nonny!” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Sm6uo JTS3I (the site even comes with lyrics if you want to sing along, and, if for some reason you wish to see some of the end credits for this version of the story, they’re right there for you as well).
Now, we'll stay in the L.A. area for our next cinematic exploration as we go from the sublime to—if not the ridiculous—at least a very unsanitized look at the Apocalypse, as predicted in the New Testament account of the end of our Earthly existence but here demonstrated in a completely non-spiritually-inspired story by Seth Rogen (co-written and codirected by him along with Evan Goldberg as the other dual co-) and a number of his friends portraying extreme versions of themselves as the ground around them is literally swallowing up their acquaintances. Essentially, it’s a sendup of trendy Hollywood types who suddenly find that the world they’ve been enmeshed in—with its media-product focus, its constant flow of stimulants, and its never-sure-how-sincere-the-relationships-may-be realities—matters not as the Earth is literally being destroyed with huge sinkholes to Hell, earthquakes, raging fires (actually, this does sound like typical California summers, even with the sinkholes—see http://news.sky.com/story/1091154/ california-sinkhole-swallows-hillside-homes for recent problems in Lake County, about 100 miles north of San Francisco), and vicious beasts roaming the streets (that smacks of reality also, given some of the freeway drivers I encounter out here). The conceit in this film (a nice double entendre—gee, I must be as brilliant as a movie star—given how its leads parody the cult of celebrity, including their own reputations) is that all of the main characters are actually the actors, simply playing exaggerated (we hope) versions of themselves as immanent doom threatens to engulf them. It all begins innocently enough when old pal Jay Baruchel (one of the least well-known of the celebrities to me, although he has been in a few things that I’ve seen) flies into L.A. to visit Rogen, leading to a lot of afternoon substance ingestion before stumbling over that night to a huge party at James Franco’s house where a good number of familiar faces—relative to dialogue opportunities, Mindy Kaling being one of the most notable—pass by quickly, with the most attention given to Michael Cera, whose coked-up rants do as much as possible to erase his nice-guy image (from TV’s Arrested Development [where I’ll recommend a download of their new episodes from Netflix over investing too much of your income with This Is the End] and movies such as Juno [Jason Reitman, 2007], Superbad [Greg Mottola, 2007], and Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist [Peter Sollett, 2008]). Attention is also given to a few who will continue to the end of the story (another double entendre, given the content of this film) such as Jonah Hill (another normally-nice-guy—with the clear exception of Cyrus [Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, 2010]) and Craig Robinson (a virtual unknown in my hermetically-sealed world, although I’m vaguely aware of him from watching a few episodes of TV’s The Office and Rogen films such as Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007) and Pineapple Express [David Gordon Green, 2008]).
The situation changes drastically when Rogen and Baruchel make a quick visit to a convenience store where, with no warning, chaos breaks out in the streets just as strange blue shafts of light appear to draw various customers up into the sky (not everyone of course, but a good number of them, leaving us with the assurance that if you just want to hang around good people then you should spend more time at convenience stores). Our very-undynamic duo race back to the party, but there’s no relief there as a huge hole opens up in Franco’s front yard, swallowing up many of the unfortunate revelers (no salvation-bound folks among the younger Hollywood elite apparently; a similar thing happened in Earthquake [Mark Robson, 1974] when L.A. was previously devastated by a huge trembler and many celebrities—including Charlton Heston—were swept away), just as foul-mouthed Cera finds himself in the wrong relationship with a streetlight pole. Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Hill, and Robinson barricade themselves in Franco’s mansion, trying to make sense of the horrible happenings, satisfied that their food and drug supply will tide them over until order is restored and name-brand actors are rescued, only to find that things get considerably worse in the following days with a sort of sulphuric fog covering the area, a beast wandering their environs when they attempt to get some tanks of water from a locked cellar, and Danny McBride now part of their crew as he had passed out in the house the night before with no one even being aware that he was at the party (except for passing awareness from such movies as Superbad and Pineapple Express, he hasn’t dented my consciousness much either, but he does make for a funny, disruptive presence within their boarded-up compound until his selfish acts result in being “kicked off the island” in this ultimate round of Survivor [which these guys would gladly trade for The Voice or So You Think You Can Dance given what they’re faced with, despite none of them being known for their musical talents]). Another major cameo comes along in the ensuing days as well when Harry Potter’s Hermione, Emma Watson, temporarily seeks refuge with them until a misunderstanding crops up about why they won’t try to rape her so she seeks shelter elsewhere. As conditions deteriorate the humor gets cruder (as noted below in my first recommended video clip for this film or with McBride’s explanation that his constant masturbation is based on his fear, so that his emissions are simply “tears from the tip of my penis”), the internal bickering gets more intense, and the accepted reality that they truly are engulfed in the End of Days (as Biblically-aware Baruchel has explained to them) pushes them to the edge of sanity.
(Sorry that all of these This Is the End photos look so much alike, but the available publicity stills don’t offer much variety—maybe I'd have more choices if I actually worked for Variety; see, Seth, I'm getting into the spirit of things here.) To be more precise, Jonah does go over the edge, possibly as punishment for asking God to kill his long-time-barely-accepted-as-a-friend Jay (or maybe because God was offended that he began his prayer with a self-shout-out for his Oscar nomination from Moneyball [Bennett Miller, 2011]), as he’s possessed by a demon, which leads the others to attempt a rescue modeled on The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), but given that there’s no priest among them and all they have to go by for process is what they saw in that film they don’t have much success, although the parody scene works well. Demon-Jonah is consumed by fire but so is Franco’s house; the 4 survivors run outside where they find a huge winged demon awaiting them, whereupon Craig volunteers to create a diversion while the others escape, resulting in his sudden-salvation exit via the blue-light express. Now knowing that it’s not too late to possibly redeem themselves with good deeds they press forward, only to find that Danny is now the Mad Max (George Miller, 1980; also directed the 1981 and 1985 sequels)-inspired leader of a gang of vicious left-behinds (with a great cameo of Channing Tatum as McBride’s bitch-slave), so Franco attempts the sacrifice-himself-for-the-good-of-Seth-and-Jay (as well as gain salvation for himself) trick, only to create his own destruction while levitating by taunting McBride, leading to his light beam shutting off, delivering him to the hungry gang who welcome him for dinner (so to speak). Seth and Jay seem to finally meet their doom as well when they encounter a gigantic demon—Satan?—who seems to be the walking embodiment of the Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain devil from Fantasia, but their last-minute-decency-dialogue and their willingness to help each other up to Heaven results in their escape (to the strains of “I Will Always Love You” followed by “Spirit in the Sky,” either of which I might have used for a sign-off song but I’ll leave those to your own investigations if you don’t care for the ones that I did choose below), where they meet up again with Robinson who tells them they can have a long-desired wish granted so Baruchel conjures up The Backstreet Boys for a final massively-choreographed song enjoyed by all of the angelic spirits, with likely encores for all eternity.
This Is the End never takes itself seriously, never softens the opportunity for a snide remark nor an absurdly-exaggerated situation, likely makes no friends among Rapture-devotees (unless they have a wicked sense of humor), and will play just as well (if not better) in the stoned-out privacy of your own home in a few months (or minutes, the way that fast-money-follow-up-re-releases are hitting the market these days), so I think you’ll lose nothing by not catching it at a theatre near you right away. It’s grotesque, it’s funny, but its concepts and humor get repetitious, and, ultimately, it works for (probably-stick-up-the-butt) me just as well in its low-budget, 2-actor original incarnation as Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse (Jason Stone, 2007; see it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zA9g4KWHk84 in supposed trailer form but really an attempt to raise interest in what finally became This Is the End). I enjoy crude, whacked-out humor as much as anyone, but I’m not on the general critical bandwagon for this one as much as I might be because while certain scenes are funny others just seem to pad the needed running time, plus I usually don’t get much into expensive vanity projects (see my review of This Is 40 [Apatow, 2012] for an example), but that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t have an enjoyable 107 min. with it if you’re just in a raunchy mood (if your more sophisticated side is ascendant, though, I’d give a stronger push toward Much Ado About Nothing as something that could uplift you without the help of a blue-light-special elevation into the clouds).
To wrap up, I’ll leave you with another song in your heart, which could be the obvious Backstreet Boys doing their original version of “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” (from the Backstreet’s Back album, 1997) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6M6samPEMpM (with a less heavenly setting than we get in the finale of This Is the End; actually, their music video version is more like something cut from The Rocky Horror Picture Show [Jim Sharman, 1975]), but if you’re willing to go a bit further afield how about R.E.M.’s “It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (from their Document album, 1987) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0GFRcFm-aY. What may be scarier than the Apocalypse for some of you, though, is my final option, Skeeter Davis and her wonderful 1963 hairdo with “The End of the World” at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=Qgcy-V6YIuI. Whichever one you prefer, keep whistlin’ a happy tune and I’ll see you again next week, assuming neither of us have fallen into a sinkhole before then. (Short reviews, huh? Well, I tried, but “concise” is not a language I speak very well, no matter how much I practice. I’m better at Esperanto—but that’s not saying much, considering I know only about 10 words of that, just because they overlap the little I've retained of Spanish. If you want concise, you can always get a subscription to USA Today; I’d help you but I’m still trying to finish yesterday's New York Times because the obituary for Tony Soprano runs on for so long.)
Even though it may be just Much Ado About Nothing, if you’d like to know something more here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mM4dXS9X2nM (47:51 interview at WonderCon late March 2013 at the Anaheim Convention Center; video quality isn’t that great because it’s shot with a phone but the audio is decent and the image is of what’s up on the huge video screen rather than attempts at zooming in on the actual wide view of the panel so it’s easy enough to see director Joss Whedon; actors Riki Lindhome, Nick Kocher, Clark Gregg, Tom Lenk, Spencer Treat Clark, Sean Maher, Jillian Morgese, Romy Rosemont, Brian McElhaney; and cinematographer Jay Hunter)
If you’d like to know more about This Is The End here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i24fo2W5EaE (be aware that you may have to sign in with Google to prove your age to even watch the trailer at this link because of the foul language in it, but I included it to show the true attitude of this very unusual, deviously wacky film; if you want a more-sanitized-language version here’s one at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6z5Wykasdls)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1lVVcvXYOA (53 min. Talks at Google May 31, 2013 with codirectors/coscreenwriters Seth Rogen [also one of the lead actors] and Evan Goldberg, along with actor Craig Robinson)
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