‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: Film Review | LAFF 2017

A Midsummer Night's Dream_Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of 5B Productions
A vibrant dose of California dreamin’.

All of L.A. is a stage in a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare featuring Lily Rabe, Finn Wittrock, Rachael Leigh Cook and Hamish Linklater.

Reportedly the Bard’s most-produced play and translated to the screen many times, A Midsummer Night's Dream makes perfect sense as a Hollywood-set story, with its mix of high and low, worldly and magical, and the play within the play. Transposing the Athenian comedy to Southern California, Casey Wilder Mott takes his bow as a feature director with a sensuous, silly and superbly cast version, one whose visually vibrancy matches its feel for the language. Abridged and spiked with nods to other works by Shakespeare, his Dream will enchant everyone except the most inflexible purists, and will likely turn on the uninitiated to the charms of the Elizabethan playwright. 

The canyons, beaches, mansions and high-rise offices of Los Angeles make a dynamic setting, and there isn’t a weak performance in the film. The actors playing the central quartet of star-crossed, potion-dosed lovers — some of them regular performers of the Shakespeare canon — infuse their lines with a sharp contemporary pulse. In the parallel spirit world, a fine trio bring the fantastic to life, while the hammy actor Bottom (a fearlessly over-the-top Fran Kranz, who also serves as a producer) sets off the story’s meta subplot, hiring indie filmmaker Quince (Charity Wakefield) to turn his dream into a movie. 

The main action opens far from Bottom & Co.’s striving ineptitude, in a nexus of Hollywood polish and power: the office of a big-deal producer, Duke Theseus (Ted Levine), where Paz de la Huerta’s Hippolyta floats in and out like a long cool drink of trophy beauty, weird and knowing. 

The problem at hand concerns Rachael Leigh Cook’s movie star Hermia, who plans to wed the scruffy photographer Lysander (Hamish Linklater) over the wishes of her father, Egeus (Alan Blumenfeld). Dad sees better marriage material in the hotshot agent Demetrius (Finn Wittrock), who loves Hermia while the screenwriter Helena (an especially memorable Lily Rabe) pines for him shamelessly. 

Love requited and not plays out through the thrashing of keystrokes on computers, phones and the odd typewriter before the four converge in nighttime Topanga Canyon, the woods filtered through deep reds and purples as the resident spirits do their mischief. Actor and slam poet Saul Williams makes a tender and quietly fierce Oberon, the fairy king. As the queen Titania, singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd is compelling, as well as being a captivating onscreen musical performer (she also wrote the film’s lovely, well-deployed score). 

In every setting, from Echo Park cafe to private screening room to Pacific-facing mountaintop, Mott’s assured cinematic sensibility is fluently realized, with excellent contributions from designers Glen Hall and Kate Mallor and eloquent camerawork by Daniel Katz. The director accompanies Titania’s lament over humans’ folly with a potent montage of nature under siege, bringing the material further into the present moment. But he embraces pure fantasy, too: When Oberon explains the romantic powers of a floral serum to his assistant, Puck, Mott uses animated illustrations, strikingly simple and effective. In his telling, the mischief-loving jester Puck is a seductive surfer, charmingly inhabited by Avan Jogia

Mott is almost as much of a prankster as Jogia's Puck. He peppers his screenplay with some of the Bard’s most quotable lines, jokingly recontextualizing them in dialogue or displaying them on a coffee mug or in a tattoo. In a bit that Angelenos and movie-biz-sters will appreciate, he includes a promo spot for the Athens Film Institute (using AFI’s logo). And in his audaciously goofy update on the play’s most obvious gag, he turns Bottom into the literal butt of Puck’s joke. Winningly obvious practical effects and Kranz’s game performance make this gambit work, not to mention Todd’s rapture as Titania, under the influence of that magic potion and certain that the transformed Bottom is the most beautiful creature she’s ever seen. 

A feat of transformation as much as a celebration, this Midsummer Night’s Dream is alive with spot-on comic performances. It’s fully in sync with Shakespeare's dazzling wordplay, but also with the particular slant of light in Los Angeles, where, if they’re lucky, career-building movers and shakers meet pagan spirits on dark canyon roads.

Production companies: 5B Productions, Empyrean Pictures
Cast: Rachael Leigh Cook, Paz de la Huerta, Avan Jogia, Fran Kranz, Ted Levine, Hamish Linklater, Lily Rabe, Mia Doi Todd, Charity Wakefield, Saul Williams, Finn Wittrock, Alan Blumenfeld, Charlie Carver, Max Carver, Justine Lupe, Christine Marzano, Brianna Barnes
Director-screenwriter: Casey Wilder Mott, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Producers: Fran Kranz, Douglas Matejka, Casey Wilder Mott, Joshua Skurla
Executive producers: Simon Fawcett, Michael Lee Jackson
Director of photography: Daniel Katz
Production designer: Glen Hall
Costume designer: Kate Mallor
Editors: Curtiss Clayton, Saul Herckis, Casey Wilder Mott
Composer: Mia Doi Todd
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (LA Muse)

104 minutes