Category Archives: Archived Movies

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

C-

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.

THE BEACH

Grade: C

If you combined “Lost Horizon” with “Lord of the Flies” and added
a bit of “The Blue Lagoon” and “Apocalypse Now” to the mix,
you’d have something akin to Danny Boyle’s adaptation of the
celebrated novel by Alex Garland. Not having read the book
myself, I can’t tell whether the picture is faithful to it or
whether it accurately reflects the original tone. What’s
clear is that as a movie “The Beach” is very handsome to look
at, with lots of cinematic style and pizzazz. But it’s equally
apparent that as a narrative the film is extremely silly and
disjointed. A viewer leaves the theatre filled with admiration
for the effort that must have gone into shooting it and for
the luscious texture cinematographer Darius Khondji has
contrived to bring to the screen, but also wondering why so
much effort was expended on such feeble material.

The plot centers on the search for paradise–in this case, an
attempt by a callow, shiftless young American (Leonardo
DiCaprio) bumming about in Bangkok to locate an island,
supposedly the most perfect, unspoiled beach in all the world,
to which he’s been given a map by a nutty Scotsman (Robert
Carlyle). Taking along a French couple he’s just met (Gauillaume
Canet and Virginie Ledoyen), he finds his way to the isle,
half of which is under the control of drug farmers and the
other the site of a hippie-like commune led by the autocratic
Sal (Tilda Swinton). The trio join the community, a bunch of
back-no-nature oddballs, and find contentment until various
forces intervene to destroy the locale’s pristine perfection.
One is that old demon of sexual attraction, which breaks up
old affections and creates new couplings; another is the
threat constantly posed by the drug-farmers, aiming to
protect their financial interests with rifles if necessary;
a third is the violence nature can suddenly bring, with its
intimations of mortality; and a fourth involves the arrival
of outsiders who threaten the stability of the community
and for whose coming the DiCaprio character is blamed. As a
result he’s ordered to see to it that the newcomers are
gotten rid of–an assignment which leads the protagonist to
live in isolation and eventually to “go native” in a fashion
familiar from Golding’s book and Coppola’s Vietnam epic.

From all this it’s apparent that “The Beach” wants to confront
Big Ideas like the conflict between nature and civilization,
the quest for perfection, the destructive impact of human
intervention and the thin line between culture and barbarism,
but it deals with these issues in such a goofy, scatterbrained
fashion that it becomes cartoonish rather than profound. The
island commune, for instance, seems like something out of a
sixties timewarp, and Swinton’s character, in particular, comes
across as unduly shrill. Similarly, the native wisdom of the
farmers, despite their criminal conduct, is a complete cliche.
The whole plot, in fact, strikes the viewer as simulanteously
juvenile and pretentious.

As for DiCaprio, he’s certainly boyish and enthusiastic in his
first starring role since “Titanic” (there was “The Man In the
Iron Mask,” of course, but that was filmed, I believe, before
Cameron’s epic), but though he glowers and struts about
confidently (especially when put into his “Lord of the Flies”-
“Apocalypse Now” mode), he still seems lightweight and
scrawny for the role, and the narration he’s forced to recite
through the picture is alternately flat and ponderously poetic.
The only other cast members who make much of an impression are
Swinton, who quickly becomes grating, and Robert Carlyle, who
chews up the scenery in a way he neglected to do in “The World
Is Not Enough.” Canet and Ledoyen, by contrast, are physically
attractive but dramatically inert.

“The Beach” represents something of a comeback for the
“Trainspotting” team of Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and
scripter John Hodge after their dismal last feature, “A Life
Less Ordinary.” But though very competently put together and
never boring, the picture is oddly hollow despite its glossy
surface. As a parable of Paradise (and Sanity) Lost, it’s
superficial and thematically muddled, and it can’t really be
recommended except for its considerable virtues as a travelogue.