All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

Watching Kenneth Branagh’s musicalization of Shakespeare’s
middle-drawer comedy is a bit like seeing old newsreels showing
the failed efforts of pre-Wright brothers would-be flying
machines failing to get off the ground. You gaze on with a
mixture of bemusement and morbid fascination as the rickety
contraption rumbles along, straining to get some altitude;
but with a kind of awful inevitability it ultimately collapses
in a pathetic heap. “Love’s Labour’s Lost” tries desperately
to be airy and charming, but it never takes wing.

It’s entirely appropriate that Branagh should have been struck
by the notion of turning the Bard’s complicated (and none too
frequently staged) farce into a musical while the actor was
filming Woody Allen’s “Celebrity,” because the finished project
seems reminiscent of the New Yorker’s feeble “Everyone Says I
Love You” (1996), which also dropped old standards into a
comic storyline and, as here, had them sung mostly by people
possessed of very little voice. But at least Allen wrote his
own script and could arrange the plot to make each song at
least vaguely appropriate to the spot where it was inserted,
however poorly performed. In the present instance Branagh
merely prunes Shakespeare’s elaborate verse down to the bone,
eliminating virtually all the dialogue between Holofernes and
Nathaniel (a definite blessing, since most of their Latin-
pocked, learnedly overblown conversation would be practically
incomprehensible to a modern audience) and leaving only the
skeleton of the tale, involving the inevitable romance between
four men (a king and three friends) sworn to avoid women and a
like number of gals (a visiting princess and her three
attendants), intact. He then proceeds to plop tunes from the
thirties and forties into what remains, having the characters
burst into song periodically and engage in dance numbers in the
style of film musicals of that period; he also changes the
setting to the era immediately preceding World Wat II–a
rather nutty notion which involves, among other things, positing
a King of Navarre and a Princess of France existing during
that time, but that allows Branagh to hasten the story along
by regularly inserting bits of faux news footage (a clumsier
version of the “Citizen Kane” technique) whose narrator
describes, and comments upon, the action. As if all this
weren’t bad enough, he tacks on a sadly obvious post-war coda,
unwilling to leave the audience (of whom he obviously has a
rather opinion) with the Bard’s bittersweet, ambigious close.

Most of the ideas that have found their way into this
adaptation weren’t very good to begin with, but Branagh
compounds the difficulty by miscalculations in casting and
direction. Certainly Allen’s debacle should have suggested that
this sort of pastiche requires the services of real singer-
dancers (as well as people who can recite the Shakespearean
shards that remain), but with a few exceptions he’s chosen
performers who lack one or more of the needed qualities. As
Berowne, the writer-director himself handles the dialogue
well enough, but his warbling and hoofing are amateurish.
Alicia Silverstone (as the Princess), Alessandro Nivola (as
the King), and Matthew Lillard (as Longaville) are pretty
much hopeless in all respects; when Lillard croaks out the
Gershwin lyric about singing off key in the final musical
sequence, you can only shake your head in absolute agreement.
Only Adrian Lester, as Dumaine, exhibits real song-and-dance
experience, and his turns just point up the inadequacies of
his co-stars.

The comic relief is no better. As the conniving Don Armando,
Timothy Spall chews the scenery to no end, and for some
reason he sports an accent so thick and garbled that it might
do the Jon Voight of “Anaconda” or Jeff Bridges of “The
Vanishing” proud (nobody else has any trace of a Spanish
accent, of course). Nathan Lane is intensely irritating as
the jester Costard, encouraged to prattle about like a circus
clown (this character one case in which Branagh hasn’t cut
enough), while Jimmy Yuill is incongruously Cockney in the court
of Navarre as the jailer Dull. Somewhat less out-of-place are
Geraldine McEwan, as a female version of Holofernes, and
Richard Briers as Nathaniel; though not much of their dialogue
remains, they recite it nicely, even if their attempts at
singing and dancing are decidedly ragged. The only cast
member who comes off unscathed is Richard Clifford, who’s
suave and charming as Boyet, the princess’ advisor; he reads
his lines smoothly, and thankfully isn’t forced to do any
musical routines.

As if the casting problems weren’t enough, Branagh exacerbates
them with poor directing choices. The dialogue scenes are
handled decently enough, but the intercutting newsreel
sequences are clumsy, and the song-and-dance bits are, by
and large, disasters–not only because the singing is usually
second-rate at best, but because they’re also badly staged.
For some reason Branagh chooses to shoot most of them with a
minimum of editing, so that mistakes are magnified (“The
Way You Look Tonight,” assigned to McEwan and Briers, has a
certain dippy charm, but comes across like a sketch from an
amateur revue as a result of the performers’ extreme caution;
in a case like this, judicious cutting would help enormously).
At other times (as in Spall’s “I Get a Kick Out of You”) the
visuals are simply sophomoric. And in the worst moments,
Branagh invites invidious comparisons: the cheesy flying bit
in “I’ve Got a Crush on You” reminds us of one of the few good
moments (between Woody and Goldie Hawn) in “Everyone Says I
Love You,” and the elaborate but too-carefully choreographed
ensemble number to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” pales
beside the brilliant realization of the same song that Steve
Martin and Bernadette Peters achieved in Herbert Ross’
hugely underrated “Pennies from Heaven” (1981)–a picture
which (unlike this one) melded period tunes and a new story
with enormous success. (Of course, in that case the much-
missed Dennis Potter put the oldies to far more profound
emotional use to capture the moods of the depression-era
characters.)

One can imagine what Branagh had in mind in “Love’s Labour’s
Lost”–something akin to the miracle of “Cosi fan tutte,” in
which a similarly silly plot about the romantic battle between
men and women is raised to a transcendent level by the sublime
music of Mozart. But though the tunes of Gershwin, Porter,
Kern and Berlin on display here are great too, their mere
presence can’t overcome the problems of adaptation, casting
and direction that mar the picture. Instead of Mozart,
Branagh manages to give us a result more like an amateurish
rendering of some second-rate Gilbert and Sullivan; check out
“Kiss Me Kate” instead.

GROOVE

Regular participants in the rave scene, or those interested in
studying the phenomenon from a sociological perspective, may
well find “Groove,” Greg Harrison’s debut feature, pleasurable
or enlightening. Others of us, while appreciating the dexterity
with which the young writer-director has captured the atmosphere
of the San Francisco underground dance milieu, will nonetheless
find the drama that he’s chosen to portray within it to be
considerably less intriguing.

The picture aims, quite simply, to depict the shape, tone and
general feel of the rave experience by combining elements that
are nearly documentary in presentation with others that, while
perhaps based on fact, are clearly script contrivances. The
former aspect involves showing us how a secretive underground
bash is planned and organized, and then presenting a succession
of DJs–all of them real rave participants–who offer “sets”
involving different types of music and effectively controlling
the pace of the party and the mood of the crowd by the choice
and juxtaposition of material. This almost clinically-
observed part of the project is very nicely rendered, giving
a genuine taste of how collaborative a venture a rave is and
how the promoters, DJs and dancers work off one another to
produce an event with a spirit, tempo and shape of its own. By
the time that the last DJ, a well-known, almost mythic figure
named John Digweed, shows up to offer a final set and we see
the crowd maniacally caught up in a a kind of ectasty as the
music pulses, a viewer can easily feel at least a bit of the
excitement involved in the event.

Unfortunately, to make the piece a conventional narrative
Harrison has devised a series of mini-dramas which he inserts,
in intercut fashion, within the overall structure of the rave,
and it’s here that his effort fizzles. Simply put, the
various characters aren’t sufficiently compelling to engage
our interest for long: it’s hardly surprising that David
(Hamish Linklater), a straightlaced guy reluctantly dragged
to the party by his brother Colin (Denny Kirkwood) to celebrate
the birthday of Colin’s girlfriend Harmony (Mackenzie Figgins),
should find pleasure (only partially drug-induced) and incipient
romance with free-wheeling New York transplant Leyla (Lola
Glaudini); nor does it shock us that before the night’s out
Colin and Harmony should experience some rough patches in their
relationship. The four young performers seem able enough, but
the characterizations are sketchy, and they can’t overcome the
formulaic situations in which they’re placed or the mostly
functional dialogue they’ve been given.

If this central quartet lacks fire, most of the secondary
figures are drawn equally feebly. (A particularly lame
sidebar involves our watching a gay couple celebrating their
anniversary in a futile search for the site of the party.)
The only spark in this respect is provided by Steve Van Wormer,
playing promoter Ernie, and his sidekick Guy (portrayed by DJ
Dmitri), whose attempts to divert the attention of a suspicious
cop (Nick Offerman) are sporadically amusing.

The end result is that while “Groove” succeeds in capturing
some of the urgency of the rave itself, the picture’s energy is
periodically sapped as its interlocked characters engage in
desultory recitations concerning their lives and hopes, not
unlike a slightly older but more pallid version of the kind
of dialogue the highschool students in John Hughes’ early
pictures spouted. (As in “The Breakfast Club,” it even takes
the intervention of a drug, in this case Ecstasy, to loosen
people up so they reveal the truth.) And while the picture is
decently put together, it doesn’t exhibit anywhere near the
visual panache and virtuoso technique of Justin Kerrigan’s
“Human Traffic,” which portrays, in a far more cinematically
vigorous way, a weekend of club partying by four Cardiff
friends, who are delineated with greater skill (and provided
with far more amusing dialogue) than the stick figures on
display here.

So while those involved in the American rave scene will
probably enjoy “Groove” as a souvenir of their own experience,
others may view the picture in a less charitable light despite
its success in capturing the flavor of the event, and find the
technical vivacity of Kerrigan’s film more arresting.