Hey there all you cuties.... I see morningeye still there... No... the other eye, That's good... You got it. Well, one of the finest damn writers to grace these pages, Alexandra turns in yet another wonderful review... but wait... she doubles it... Gives you the ol... 2 fer 1 bit. You all know my feelings for CHICKEN RUN, but I haven't spoken about LOVE'S LABOURS LOST yet, and the reason is... I haven't seen it yet. I'm dying to mind ya. So much so that I picked up the soundtrack to it the other day. THIS SHOULD BE A REQUIREMENT before going to a musical in my eyes. Ya see... so much of a Musical's story is told in music, that I like to acquaint myself with the piece before I see the film. In this case, I'm glad I did. You see, Branagh had Patrick Doyle re-orchestrate classic tunes like Irving Berlin's CHEEK TO CHEEK and Gershwin's I'VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU and Berlin's THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS... and the result is quite nice sounding, but at first listen it's sort of.... well... jarring. I mean, I know every word of those songs, and the new orchestration threw me initially. However, soon I groked it proper. Read Alexandra... and what she thinks....
AICN British Double Feature!
Alexandra DuPont Comments Briefly on the "Chicken Run" Hype Machine and Takes a Nice, Long Gander at Kenneth Branagh's "Love's Labour's Lost"
I. A Brief Note of Praise (and a Call for Temperance) w/r/t "Chicken Run"
I don't want to add too much to the whirling tempest of fawning verbiage (at AICN and elsewhere) swirling around Nick Park and Peter Lord's latest. Suffice to say, "Chicken Run" is an extremely clever, just-barely-feature-length extension of the Aardman Studios Style, as exemplified by the Wallace & Gromit shorts. The movie is thoroughgoingly British; subversive of a number of genre conventions; (kind of) disturbing at times; and features animation that draws as much humor from facial subtlety as it does from broad slapstick.
It's that last part -- the subtlety -- that worries me, however, w/r/t fanboy and -girl expectations. Allow me to explain. I think Harry and Moriarty and the rest of the AICN Gang would be the first to admit that excessive frothing over a good movie can send expectations so far into the stratosphere that they can't help but plummet. As an AICN reader, I must admit I had that experience with "Gladiator," which a number of writers and Talk Backers posited as nothing less than the Second Coming of Our Lord. To be sure, "Gladiator" was marvelous fun, but all this praise put me in that most cherished of geek mindsets -- nitpicking -- once I got to the theater:
"Say! Russell Crowe's character is surprisingly passive in the final hour, being acted UPON more than he acts!"
"Say! The montage-style editing of the action sequences massacres spatial relationships between the characters, thus undermining some well-deserved suspense!"
"Say! This film stands on shifting moral ground! Killing for sport and vengeance okay, but patricide bad!"
"Say! What are Middle Eastern slave traders doing PASSING THROUGH Maximus' expansive front yard?"
And so forth. Thus was a very, very entertaining movie undermined in my eyes by pre-release hype.
So anyway. I guess what I'm trying to tell you, gentle readers, is that if you liked the Wallace & Gromit shorts -- particularly that thoroughly reverent Hitchcock spoof "The Wrong Trousers" -- then you'll like "Chicken Run." If you like traditional animation that focuses more on facial tics and subtle emotional shifts than it does on gee-whiz visual pyrotechnics, you'll LOVE "Chicken Run." If you like gee-whiz visual pyrotechnics above all else, then temper your expectations accordingly.
Me, I adored the film; I've already awarded it a place in my mental instant-classics pantheon, right behind (in descending order) "The Iron Giant," "Toy Story" and "Nightmare Before Christmas." It reminded me of nothing so much as one of those Roald Dahl stories I devoured as a child -- in particular a very dark (and seemingly forgotten) little tale titled "Fantastic Mr. Fox." (Anyone read that one? Where a trio of farmers try to starve out a wily fox and his family and blow off Mr. Fox's tail with a shotgun and he's forced to create a vast network of tunnels under the area farms to survive? Gad, that was brilliant.)
Co-directors Park and Lord really have their Dahl down cold, mixing the simple, semi-surreal plot structure of a kid's film with some dark imagery and no small amount of suffering and death. And fuggedabout that "Great Escape" imagery – what about that Holocaust imagery?! I couldn't BELIEVE Dreamworks let Aardman get away with the bit where Ginger (well-voiced by "AbFab"'s long-suffering daughter, Julia Sawalha) and Rocky (Mel Gibson) find themselves trapped in a gas oven. I must admit, I mentally gasped. As other AICN contributors have identified, there's a very real specter of doom hanging over the proceedings – which, of course, makes it all the more exciting when our heroines mount a last-ditch, no-holds-barred escape attempt.
In summary: It's always fun to exit a movie and suddenly realize that you were so absorbed by it that you calmly accepted all the stuff that should have de-suspended your disbelief. I mean, really: "Chicken Run" features rotund British females as action heroines and Mel Gibson as an American.
To hijack a phrase from a real movie critic, Alexandra says check it out. But keep your wits about you.
II. Love's Labour's Won, More or Less
For years, I've bored cocktail-party companions with my 90-percent-joking "theory" that actress/screenwriter/goddess Emma Thompson co-directed all of Kenneth Branagh's best films. It was the only way I could adequately explain how the director and star of the near-flawless "Henry V," the past-lives comedy thriller "Dead Again" and the uneven-but-marvelous "Much Ado About Nothing" could also be responsible for "Francis Ford Coppola's Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" -- a film that achieves a sort of queer perfection with its complete and utter wrong-headedness.
Still, as with Spike Lee after he made "Do The Right Thing," I'll always give Branagh the benefit of the doubt. For one thing, the Ken & Em onscreen partnership generated more romantic wit for me than pretty much any duo since Tracy & Hepburn. (Can't they just get over this ugly-divorce thing and make another movie together? Please?) And no offense, but Branagh brought Shakespeare into more homes than any lit teacher. I'll never forget when my father (my father!) admitted that the St. Crispian's Day speech in Ken's "H5" gave him chills; this from a fellow who paid full admission repeatedly for the oveure of Steven Seagal! God bless and keep you, Mr. Branagh.
Which brings us, finally, to our hero's latest Shakespeare adaptation, a musical version of "Love's Labour's Lost" -- now finally crawling its way through American art houses (and garnering some fashionably mean-spirited reviews) after tours of pretty much every other continent but North America. Here's the breakdown:
THE STORY: Academics tell us that "Love's Labour's Lost" is probably the most simple and trivial and shallow and abruptly tone-shifting and generally goofy of Shakespeare's plays. Buttressing this assertion is the fact that no one performed the play for something like two centuries (!) after the Bard's death. Anyway, here's the story: A king and his three buddies (Alessandra Nivola, Adrian Lester, Matthew Lillard and Branagh, who of course gives himself all the best monologues) swear off women for three years to devote themselves to study. Just as in real life, the moment they do so, four fetching biscuits (Alicia Silverstone, Emily Mortimer, Carmen Ejogo and the stunningly cheekbone-laden Natascha McElhone) show up at their door.
The guys all fall for them, eventually admit this to one another, and set about wooing the already-interested ladies -- and, save one grim twist, that's pretty much it for the storyline, which manages the rare feat of making "Much Ado About Nothing" look really, really deep.
THE STYLISTIC CONCEIT: Branagh, in my opinion, made a leap of mild genius by looking at "Love's" meringue-ish storyline and realizing that it's every bit as shallow as a Technicolor musical. What he did next was to (a) cut the text within an inch of its life; (b) set the film in the late '30s, complete with "newsreel" sequences to smooth over the exposition; (c) add songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin; (d) have the actors sing and dance all by themselves, come hell or high water, in sequences that blatantly salute classic musicals; and (e) shoot the whole thing in full-body, full-color widescreen.
With what I'd suspect was a little help from "Singin' in the Rain" director Stanley Donen (who "presents" the movie along with Martin Scorcese), Branagh largely pulls this conceit off. The singing and dancing only rarely (if ever) hits the highs of a classic musical, and the acting's just as uneven as it was in "Much Ado," but the complete commitment and seeming good humor of everyone involved won me over. If you're one of those pleasant folk who can suspend their disbelief for musicals and Shakespeare and set-bound productions, I believe you'll spend this movie in the same state I did: with a big, stupid grin on your face.
HOW'S THE ACTING? In some cases, it's hard to say. One of the reasons this is considered a "trivial" Shakespeare play is because its characters are numerous and paper-thin; Branagh's textual cuts only exacerbate the problem.
Basically, Branagh plays Benedick from "Much Ado," which is sort of the Royal Shakespeare Company equivalent of saying that Clint Eastwood is once again playing The Man With No Name. In other words, no complaints. Right behind Ken is Adrian Lester (memorable as the African-American George Stephanopulous in "Primary Colors"), who, as it turns out, can really dance. I mean, REALLY dance. There's a sequence in the middle of "Love's Labour's Lost" that sort of echoes the classic "Much Ado" sequence where Beatrice and Benedick were "gulled" into thinking each loved the other; each male lead walks into the palace library, declares his love for one of the newly arrived women and sings a line from George and Ira Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You" -- only to hide when the next male enters. Branagh just lets Adrian Lester walk away with the scene, tipping chairs and singing his talented little heart out. It's hands-down the best part of the film.
Of course, any right-minded geeks who are still reading at this point want to know how Gen-X has-beens Alicia Silverstone and Matthew "Scream" Lillard fare among all these classically trained actors. Well, they fare kind of poorly, truth be told, but they're rarely focused upon and don't derail the film. Silverstone needs to get her twitchy mouth under control; Lillard fails to offend, but he needs more vocal training if he's to tackle the classics.
AND HOW ARE SHAKEPEARE'S INSUFFERABLY WRITTEN CLOWN CHARACTERS, ALEXANDRA? Well, Broadway star Nathan Lane is just dandy, playing Costard like a tired used-car salesman who's too smart for his station. Timothy Spall is just ridiculous as the thickly Spanish Don Armardo, but he gets a nice musical number in "I Get A Kick Out of You" -- which probably features the first-ever cocaine joke in a Shakespeare film, for whatever that's worth.
WHAT'S GOOD? The aforementioned Adrian Lester dance sequence and surrounding set piece; the faux-newsreel sequences, narrated to perfection by Branagh; the sets; the color-coordinated costumes; Natascha McElhone's cheekbones; a marvelously sultry masked-dance sequence set to "Let's Face the Music and Dance"; Patrick Doyle's score and arrangements, which I purchased on CD two days later; the final sequence, which features a "Casablanca" homage and a scratchy WWII montage set to "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (it's heartbreaking stuff, if you're so inclined. Really).
WHAT'S BAD? Alicia Silverstone singing the opening lines to "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)"; the crotch-kicks and -grabs that seemingly all Shakespearean directors feel they have to have the clowns perform; the fact that Branagh cut the play so aggressively that some scenes don't really fit together (for example: I'm still not sure whether the aforementioned sultry masked-dance sequence was a dream sequence or not; in the uncut play, if memory serves, the four male leads disguise themselves as Cossacks and perform for the ladies).
IN CONCLUSION: This movie is a gorgeous, flawed, set-bound confection, and I loved it with most but not all of my heart and will take my dear mother to see it. Alexandra doth say thou shouldst check it out.