Friday, May 6, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing Blu-ray Review

After showing the world what he could do with Henry V in 1989, Kenneth Branagh returned with another Shakespearean movie with Much Ado About Nothing, which was filled with a ton of talented people.  Some of these people like Denzel Washington, Emma Thompson, and Michael Keaton were perfectly cast while others such as Robert Sean Leonard, Kate Beckinsale, and especially Keanu Reeves were horribly miscast.  It’s a credit to his talents, that Branagh’s comedic film about warring sexes still works as well as it does despite the miscasting.  Once you add in this cast, and the beautiful surroundings of Tuscany, and a nice score by Patrick Doyle, you have a winning combination that makes Shakespeare more appealing to modern audiences and a fresh, cheerful, and fun film in its own right.

Film (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

This breezy yet faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, strikes the right balance between modernizing it for today’s audiences and keeping it true to its origins.  The 1990s held many re-tellings of Shakespeare’s plays including Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet which in my opinion failed to maintain that delicate balance and went too far in its effort to modernize the material.   It takes a light and sure touch to pull off and Branagh has shown time and time again that he is more than capable of it by focusing on details instead of making broad strokes which can upset the whole.

By setting the movie in the beautiful and lush Tuscany and populating the cast with an eclectic mix of both British and American actors, Branagh deftly made choices that only improved and widened the appeal for this movie.  While some believe that American actors had no place in this movie, Branagh disagreed and specifically made sure to include them as he felt they were just as capable of saying the words as the British actors and their popularity could only help the movie.

The film focuses on a pair of would be lovers, Benedict (Kenneth Branagh), Beatrice (Emma Thompson), Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), and Hero (Kate Beckinsale), all of whom have trouble expressing their love to their intended.  For Benedict and Beatrice, their inability to express their love has been transformed into a battle of verbal witticisms where they each criticize each other humorously.  For Claudio and Hero, they love each other so much that they can barely even talk to each other.  Their mutual friend Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) resolves to remedy both situations and he sets events into motion to make that happen.  

For Claudio, Don Pedro talks to Hero on Claudio’s behalf, much to Claudio’s relief.  That relief is short-lived when Claudio is told by Don Pedro’s half-brother Don John (Keanu Reeves) who insinuates that Don Pedro isn’t wooing Hero on his behalf but instead is asking for her hand in marriage for himself.  It’s never really explained why Don John acts the way he does other than he may have a crush on Hero but generally just likes acting like a dick to people. Reeves is unintentionally hilarious in this role as he spends every second of his screen time glowering at everyone no matter what’s going on.  He scowls while riding a horse, getting a massage, talking to people, walking around, and his wannabe evil laugh is sure to entertain you.

When that play falls apart after a minute, Don John sulks some more and tries to come up with another way to ruin everyone’s good time.  While he is doing that, Don Pedro enacts the second part of his plan of uniting Benedict and Beatrice by enlisting everyone’s help in a ruse that will make both of them aware that the other loves them.  By making sure both Benedict and Beatrice can overhear the supposedly private conversations, Don Pedro convinces both of them that the other person loves them but is afraid to tell them.  The realization that they are loved by the other person, makes both Benedict and Beatrice take a look at themselves and allows them to acknowledge their feelings for each other.  

Both of Don Pedro’s plans are a success and a wedding is set up for Claudio and Hero which of course gives the petulant Don John another chance to be a jerk.  He sets up a situation that makes Hero look less than virtuous which causes a ton of trouble for all involved since Don Pedro and Claudio were the witnesses to it and honestly believe what they saw.  The person that can possible unravel this mess (inadvertently) is Constable Dogberry (Michael Keaton), whose men overheard Don John’s conspirators talking about what they had done.  Will love triumph over evil with a little help from the bumbling Dogberry?  What do you think?

I’ve always enjoyed this film even though it has some uneven parts to it and the miscasting that still makes me cringe.  Much like his role in Dracula, Reeves was cast in a role that he never should have been considered for.  It’s unfair to him and to the audience and I wish I knew why Coppola and Branagh enabled that.  To be fair, Don John is a thankless underwritten role without much motivation other than to drive the plot, but it could be successful if done by the right person.  Robert Sean Leonard is a good actor and I enjoy his work in the TV show House, but here he is out of his depth as an actor and both him and Kate Beckinsale struggle at the end of the movie when asked for some serious emotional expression.  

On the other hand, Branagh, Thompson, Washington, and Keaton are uniformly excellent in their roles.  The banter and chemistry between Branagh and Thompson is incredible (it’s a shame their marriage didn’t last), and Washington is perfect as the noble, selfless, and yet charming man of influence.  As a personal favorite actor of mine, Michael Keaton is always a welcome presence in any movie he’s in and this one is no different.  He steals every scene he’s in and he is in full Beetlejuice mode here which really makes him stand out in this movie which some people resented.  I thought he was hilarious in this and his acting choices for this were both brave and inspired.  His character could be Beetlejuice before becoming the ghost with the most and his tendency to ride imaginary horses is right out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  That combination does seem somewhat out of place in this movie, but he’s so good that he makes it work.

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

This 1080p (1.85:1) transfer looks a lot better than the previous DVD release but it still could use some work.  There is a nice amount of detail present and some excellent clarity, but there’s white specks throughout the movie along with some minor scratches.  It seems that MGM used the previous transfer and just upgraded it to 1080p without any kind of full restoration which is unfortunate.  Black levels are decent and flesh tones are natural for the most part but there are a few scenes where they look a little too warm and orange for my tastes.  Overall this is an acceptable transfer that despite it’s minor issues is still a lot better than earlier releases.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Much Ado About Nothing’s DTS Stereo 2.0 mix is also not ideal but acceptable.  Since this is a dialogue heavy movie a full 5.1 mix isn’t necessary but it would have been nice to have.  In this case however, the mix does a pretty good job delivering what it’s required to do.  Dialogue is clear which is a plus since Shakespearean prose spoken rapidly can be difficult enough to follow.  Patrick Doyle’s nice work with the score is also well presented and never drowns out the dialogue.  Much like the picture quality, it would have been nice to have more effort spent improving it, but it’s a lot better than earlier releases.

Special Features (1 out of 5 stars)

Sadly, the only extra given on this disc is a short featurette on the making of the movie that while it’s nice to see, is basically just traditional EPK fluff.  I was hoping for at least some director commentary from Branagh.

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars)

It’s a shame that the lack of special features dragged my overall score down as this is a fun, romantic, and lush movie that all audiences can enjoy, even the ones who claim to not like Shakespeare.  Branagh did an excellent job bringing this material into modern age and making it more appealing to mainstream audiences.  While this movie may not have won any of its four Oscar nominations, it did do well at the box office and showed many people that they could enjoy Shakespearean plays more than they thought they would.

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