If South By Southwest has taught us anything, it’s that this is Joss Whedon’s world and we’re just lucky enough to be living in it. For a man who has cemented his status as a geek god as well as a capable Hollywood director, Whedon is ready to do anything except rest on his laurels. After directing two of the best and most entertaining films of 2012 (The Avengers and The Cabin in the Woods), Whedon has unveiled his super secret adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at SXSW 2013.
Shot in just 12 days in his own home, Whedon gathered some of his most reliable collaborators from the so-called Whedonverse to tackle the Bard’s most forward-thinking and entertaining comedy. Stark black and white cinematography echoes the stubbornness of the film’s leads Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof). So many of Whedon’s usual cadre of actors are present that, at times, it is distracting to play Spot the Dollhouse/Firefly alum. Overall, though, the film is quite enjoyable even if Whedon has to rely on physical comedy in the anticipation of mass audiences being unable to comprehend Shakespeare’s verbal wit.
The next film I saw was a documentary called Hawking about physicist Stephen Hawking, the man who proved the Big Bang and is considered the smartest person living today. Hawking’s work has been integral to the study of the universe since his days at Oxford University. The film, directed by Stephen Finnigan, is narrated by Hawking himself and tells the story of his life from his point of view: from his early days growing up in a home full of intellectuals to his wild days at college to the slow realization that he developed the degenerative disease ALS.
Watching the film, you realize that Hawking does not consider his physical restrictions a handicap. Though he is unable to move without assistance, his mind functions perfectly and this arrangement has allowed him to solve some of the most dizzying puzzles of the universe.
Films like A Teacher are the reason festivals like SXSW exist. Writer/director Hannah Fidell’s understated film follows Diana (Lindsay Burge), a high school English teacher, who is having a very sexually charged relationship with one of her students. Fidell’s script doesn’t judge or condone what Diana is doing; any judgements about her character come from the audience who attribute their own morals to her actions. The film moves with at a very measured pace as Diana’s relationship with Eric (Will Brittain) — a brash, confident jock-type — devolves from an idyllic secret life into a dangerous situation with more weight than either participant cares to acknowledge. A Teacher is a wonderful film that will surely spark much discussion and debate from a variety of perspectives.
The British comedy I Give It A Year is the directorial debut of Dan Mazer who also wrote the original screenplay. Mazer was co-writer on films like Borat (sorry, I can’t type the whole title) and Bruno with Sacha Baron Cohen and he brings the same unique brand of humor to his latest project. The perfect antithesis of the Hollywood romantic comedy, I Give It A Year follows the doomed trajectory of Nat (Rose Byrne) and Josh’s (Rafe Spell) marriage. We watch as they blindly rush into getting married after knowing each other for only seven months and then try to suffer through their first year of marriage despite Nat developing feelings for a client (Simon Baker) and Josh rediscovering his love for ex-girlfriend Chloe (Anna Faris).
I think Borat was the last time I laughed so loudly and unapologetically in a theater. The cast is fantastic and supporting actors like Minnie Driver and Stephen Merchant deliver some of the most hilarious dialogue I’ve heard in a long time. Like Love Actually (another great UK comedy about love), I Give It A Year blends biting humor with genuine emotion and a story that will resonate with a wide array of audiences.
The final film I saw was Some Girl(s), directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer. Based on his own play, Neil LaBute also wrote the adapted screenplay which follows a man (Adam Brody) as he tries to find solace in reconnecting with some of the many, many women from his past. A successful writer, he fears he has been less than a good guy in the past so he tries to set his own conscious at ease before his pending wedding by making amends with the five women he feels he most wronged. LaBute is known for his brutally truthful depictions of human relationships (on both stage and screen) and Some Girl(s) continues that trend. Though it doesn’t have the typical LaBute darkness, it is a very genuine examination of how a man’s ego can hurt others indiscriminately and unknowingly. Like most of his plays, the male character does not come off in a positive light nor does he learn any life lessons.
The cast was wonderful, especially Brody who, aside from his GQ looks and pop culture presence, I was pretty much unaware of before this film. Jennifer Morrison, Zoe Kazan, Emily Watson Kristen Bell and Mia Maestro play the women with whom our protagonist is meeting in hotel room after hotel room. All five women are fantastic in each of their uniquely drawn roles. Morrison and Kazan give the most emotional performances while Watson, as usual, adds a great deal of weight to the film.
Much Ado About Nothing: B-
Some Girl(s): A-
I Give It A Year: A+
A Teacher: A
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”