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Alexis Denisoff and Amy Acker in Joss Whedon's adptation of Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

There has been much dis­cus­sion in the circles in which I move about the quant­ity of films released to loc­al cinemas. Not only are there too many films com­ing out every week – too many for each one to gen­er­ate much heat at any rate – but the ones that are com­ing out aren’t always the right ones. Smaller dis­trib­ut­ors are push­ing everything they have into the sys­tem regard­less of their poten­tial and some of the majors – with big­ger mar­ket­ing budgets and over­heads to worry about – are ditch­ing their art­house and mid-range titles and push­ing them straight to home video.

[pullquote]Who says Americans can­’t do Shakespeare? Nonsense.[/pullquote]At the same time, mul­ti­plex screens are full of big budget com­mer­cial gambles, with box office estim­ates based on loc­al his­tory and the hope that Twilight-like light­ning might strike twice. See which ones in the list below fit into which cat­egory. (Clue: if your film has no hi-res English lan­guage poster avail­able online  and your only offi­cial web­site is in Japanese, maybe you can­’t really sup­port it in NZ cinemas.)

Farewell, My Queen posterBenoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen goes behind the scenes of Louis XVI and – more spe­cific­ally – Marie Antoinette’s court dur­ing the dark days of the revolu­tion as the régime tottered and fell. We see these events from the point of view of Her Majesty’s book read­er, a young ser­vant played by Léa Seydoux. Initially besot­ted by the Queen (Diane Kruger), her faith is shaken by the rev­el­a­tions of cor­rup­tion, waste and – intriguingly – Antoinette’s rela­tion­ship with the duch­esse de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).

A well-acted his­tory les­son with glor­i­ous pro­duc­tion design – much of the film was shot on loc­a­tion at the Palace of Versailles and sur­round­ing chat­eaux – this is a film that responds well to a big screen as intim­ate rela­tion­ships are played out on a grand stage. Based on Chantal Thomas’s best-selling nov­el, Farewell, My Queen is rather more sym­path­et­ic to Antoinette than the mob were in 1793.

Looking for Hortense posterKristin Scott Thomas’s suc­cess­ful French-speaking career con­tin­ues with Looking for Hortense in which she plays a thank­less sup­port­ing role as wife to Jean-Pierre Bacri’s ori­ent­al spe­cial­ist. When he fails to do a favour for a friend of his wife’s sis­ter who is threatened with deport­a­tion – and then tries to cov­er his tracks – the res­ult­ing domest­ic ten­sion threatens to break up his imme­di­ate fam­ily as well as wreck what remains of his rela­tion­ship with his fath­er (Claude Rich).

Who is Hortense? That’s the mod­est mys­tery at the heart of a nice little mid-life crisis story that is rather more sym­path­et­ic to its lost lead than to any of the oth­er characters.

Kick-Ass 2 posterI took a dis­like to the first Kick-Ass back in 2010 which seemed to me to wear its mis­an­thrope and crypto-fascism rather too eas­ily but the sequel (ori­gin­ally named Kick-Ass 2: Balls to the Wall) sat a little bet­ter. Firstly, Chloë Moretz has grown up a bit and the viol­ence she gives and receives seems less yucky. Secondly, she has come into her own as the most inter­est­ing char­ac­ter in the fran­chise. Thirdly, she’s a become a bet­ter act­or than Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) whose per­form­ance is as aim­less as his char­ac­ter. This Kick-Ass at least seems to know why it hates the world and also man­ages to thread a nice little sub­text about belong­ing, com­munit­ies and cliques amongst all the mayhem.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones posterThe Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is a pathet­ic attempt to cash in on the super­nat­ur­al teen romance genre that has been open­ing purses for the last five years. Constructed from a check­list rather than a script – and cast more on price than on tal­ent – this is a crappy mess that sells out teen audi­ences who aren’t yet old enough to know that they deserve more.

Tasting Menu posterI was also dis­ap­poin­ted in Tasting Menu – so much so that I walked out before the end which I nev­er do. A fea­ture set on the last day of one of those fam­ous top end res­taur­ants like El Bulli, where dozens of courses flow inex­or­ably out of the kit­chen and each dish is a mar­vel of chem­istry and well as gast­ro­nomy. Well, put that saliva away, Tasting Menu isn’t about food. It’s simply an excuse to get a bunch of dis­par­ate char­ac­ters (often lazy ste­reo­types) togeth­er in a room and indulge in the kind of romantic mis­taken iden­tity mis­ad­ven­tures that would­n’t be out of place in an English draw­ing room com­edy of the 1950s.

Much Ado About Nothing posterThank heav­en, then, for Joss Whedon and for a tiny little pro­ject he threw togeth­er in his spare time whole he was in the edit­ing room for The Avengers. Shot in only 12 days, at his own Los Angeles house, Much Ado About Nothing is so full of life and fun that it simply floated past me. I once appeared in a stu­dent pro­duc­tion of the play so I am very fond of it, a fond­ness which has been rekindled into a full-blown love affair thanks to this ver­sion. Who says Americans can­’t do Shakespeare? Nonsense. And who says a bunch of not-so-well-known American tele­vi­sion act­ors can­’t do really act? Even more non­sense. One of the high­lights of my year, this.

frances_ha_xlgWhedon has said that he chose to shoot Much Ado in black and white for budget reas­ons – it’s easi­er to hide the fact that there was­n’t much in the way of pro­duc­tion or cos­tume design when col­ours don’t have to match – and I won­der wheth­er that con­trib­uted to the sim­il­ar choice made for Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha. Maybe, maybe not. The black and white can­’t help but remind you of anoth­er great New York story, Allen’s Manhattan, but it – and the choice of Delerue’s music – also harks back to the French New Wave and the film tries to be sim­il­arly light on its feet.

Gerwig plays Frances, 20-something Manhattanite, still upbeat about her pro­spects as a dan­cer and cit­izen of the city that nev­er sleeps des­pite the grow­ing evid­ence that she does­n’t actu­ally have what it takes. If you can make it there, you can make it any­where, the song tells us, but what do you do if you can’t?

I’m not sure how gen­er­ally applic­able her story is – I’ve heard any­thing in a range from “quite” to “very” – but it cer­tainly works spe­cific­ally and Gerwig (co-writer) simply owns one of the great New York char­ac­ters. It’s over a year since I saw Frances Ha, con­sidered it a bit dis­pos­able at first, but moments keep com­ing back to me – there’s not many films I can say that about.