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Alexandra DuPont takes a gaze at LOVE'S LABOURS LOST and CHICKEN RUN

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.

Alexandra DuPont.

Readers Talkback
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  • June 22, 2000, 4:20 a.m. CST

    first and foremost..

    by swingerrrr

    if any more 'chicken run' is shoved down my throat i am going to turn to vegetarianism

  • June 22, 2000, 7:08 a.m. CST

    NIMH-MAN is right, Harry! Bring on the "Titan A.E." Talkback!

    by Dave_F

    It ain't great, but it's very entertaining and pretty gutsy to boot. It deserves support, and I'm ready to go to the mat with critics of it!

  • June 22, 2000, 8:47 a.m. CST

    Informative, well-written, and witty as always, Alexandra

    by r_dimitri22

    I'll check out Chicken Run, but I can't say I'm too excited about this Branagh musical. You described my feelings about Gladiator precisely, though I might have been a little less forgiving. By the way, Harry, I usually don't care about grammar/spelling, but seeing as how I just recently finished Heinlein's famed work: wouldn't the past tense of "grok" be "grokked" rather than "groked"? I've been using that word a bunch lately. Titan A.E. was visually gorgeous, but I didn't much care for the plot and the dialogue.

  • June 22, 2000, 9:47 a.m. CST

    It's about time....

    by NightOwl255

    ...somebody wrote a review that did have to include the inevitable "*spoiler*". I hate a review that is really just a narrative of the movie, "the movie begins with a young boy playing in a field. He sees his father killed at the hands of.......etc. I have enjoyed many of this reviewers post in TalkBack's and I look forward to reading more of their reviews.

  • June 22, 2000, 11:17 a.m. CST

    Alexandra, thee rock in a most wondrous fashion

    by KingMenthol

    Good heavens if I could read "Rumblings from the Boudoir" by Ms. DuPont every week I would be quite satiated. I believe that you've hit the proverbial nail on the head with your Gladiator commentary. However, I was even more disappointed than you. I'll definitely see Love's Labours. I'm still leery of Chicken Run, though, being that these AICN types have touted the shit out of it. But with Alex's approval, I'll go and check it out. Great day in the morning when Ms. DuPont shows up.

  • June 22, 2000, 12:20 p.m. CST

    Correct me if I'm wrong....

    by Redwood

    weren't the guys in the original 'Love's Labour's Lost' play monks? Or was that just a very bizarre dream?

  • June 22, 2000, 12:26 p.m. CST

    Hamlet whooped the lamas ass!!!!

    by chavacano

    I'm not sure but I think Branangh made a little movie called Hamlet after the split and it's probably the best interpretation of Hamlet ever made. Anyone should see it but make sure you have time cuz its like 4 hours long. The new Hamlets good but Branagh's whooped the lamas ass!!!!!!

  • June 22, 2000, 1:13 p.m. CST

    Alexandra, I trust thy judgement completeley.

    by segundo

    I shall now check out Love's Labours, despite having written it off. That is the power of a DuPont review. Fawn, fawn and much adulation.

  • June 22, 2000, 3:36 p.m. CST

    Chicken Run, or Why I'm Jumping Up and Down in my Seat as I Type

    by All Thumbs

    "Chicken Run" sounds like it has everything a movie geek could want. I love movies that seem simple and almost cheery on the surface, but have subtle references to something important that is usually dark and sinister in its own right. I know: I'm strange. I just think it's wonderful to have a perfect example of something that can appeal to both kids and adults and on very different levels.***Now, on "Love's..." I will have to say that I'm not going to see this movie in the theatres because of the bad things I've heard. If it's the only thing on and I have the money, sure, but not when there are so many others I want to see coming out in the next couple of weeks. Plus, I've heard from friends who are Shakespeare fans who loathe this movie, and the do so not because of the addition of music, but because of what is cut out. Adaptation is fine, they say, but this movie takes out some things that screw up the logic of the story a bit. I don't know...anyways, I so ditto you on your Branagh bringing Shakespeare into the maintstream statements. Have you ever seen the posters he has out that have an entire play, such as "Romeo and Juliet," written to fit on the poster. They're wonderful. I think I'm going to buy the one of Hamlet, frame it and hang it in my living room.

  • June 22, 2000, 5:22 p.m. CST

    foxy, lady...

    by tommy five-tone

    damn, ms dupont, i'd forgotten all about dahl's 'fantastic mr fox' until you brought it up in your witty, informative reviews. park should bring this book to the screen for his next project! to a youngster going through his single digits in the '70s, roald dahl's book were the equivalent of 'harry potter'. fine work once again, ma'am. (and once again we see the dissenting tones of amazing larry in the talkback - whaddaya got again alexandra, larry?)

  • June 22, 2000, 6:35 p.m. CST

    Alexandra DuPont is AICN's best reviewer

    by Skywalker,Anakin

    Miss DuPont, I can't wait to see Chicken Run now! I was a little skeptical because of everyone's completely-praising reviews but knowing Alexandra is a great reviewer who watches both the advantages and faults of a film, I know I will be getting an honest review. Also, I don't see why Silverstone and Lilliard are doing in movies anymore. They are burn-outs and by now it should be pretty obvious that they have very little talent. I'm looking forward for a musical shakespeare movie, specially with the latest crappy adaptations of shakespeare's work (10 things I hate about you, Ethan Hawke's Hamlet, etc)

  • June 22, 2000, 11:17 p.m. CST

    A defense of the play.

    by The Pardoner

    First off, yet another congratulation for Mademoiselle DuPont. I'd love to see the kind of child you and Moriarty might have together... =P --- I *adore* LOVE'S LABOURS LOST. It's easily my favourite of Shakespeare's comedies (aside from HAMLET... more on this in a few weeks, perhaps). When Ebert said he hated the play, I nearly hurled a coffee table through my TV. The beauty of the text is its language - its incredible, boundless linguistic humour. The plot is pretty thin, and so are the characters, but that can be said of every one of Willie's screwballs. Maybe he thought love made people a little silly and transparent. I'd agree with that - I've seen pictures of myself with the women I've loved, and I always look like a grinning twit with exactly one thought in my head. So why am I upset about what Branagh's done? He gutted the text. He hacked away the luxury and left only the vehicle - sure, it moves along and gets people from Point A to Lover B, but it's ugly and pointless and silly. Maybe the song-and-dance numbers are goofy fun. Maybe the actors are charming. But this is a play of words, on words (just look at the title!), and for words. It's just very, very sad. --- Radix malorum est cupiditas.

  • June 24, 2000, 4:20 a.m. CST

    Holocaust? Titan AE best piece of animation since Iron Giant? Ca

    by TheGodling

    Okay, I doubt I'll get much response as this seems to be buried already, but as a guy who was at the Chicken Run sneak preview and watched the movie with a far more scrutinizing (and awe-inspired, god I loved this movie) eye than the rest of the attending audience, I failed to notice the gasp-worthy Holocaust imagery mentioned in the above review. I think the fact they got trapped in the oven at the end of the chase scene was the result of a logical procession of places you can go in a machine that BAKES Chicken Pies. Watching it, there's NO reason to believe that this was imagery harkening to the Nazi Ovens (it was an oven where pies were baked. The only reason live chickens were there was because they stumbled in. If there were no lives chickens, this would just oven that bakes pies) I know I'm beleaguring the point, but it just disturbs me. This is what happens if you build too many walls around yourself to block out unpleasantries. You start seeing everything as unpleasant if you didn't invite it personally behind your goddamned wall. And as for Titan A.E.? I enjoyed myself in the theatre, but was this the greatest piece of animation since the Iron Giant? No. I thought, like many others, that beyond entertainment value, the movie was very empty. It lacked a message or a coherent vision. The characters were very poorly developed. And...well, here's my biggest problem: Why was the Titan built? The only reasonably acceptable answer I've heard is that it was created to relocate the Human Species by creating a new planet (how the hell it accomplished this is unknown to me, more on this later) after the destruction or pacification of the Dredge. So...let me get this straight...the fate of humanity (once again) is entrusted in one man who (once again) has no idea (once again) of his role until (once again) a guy who worked with his father tells him about it. He's (for a change) reluctant to help out because (for a change) he was abandoned by his father at a young age. But, of course, his mind changes. Though this may sound familiar, there's this one piece that makes it all different: The Titan. So, keeping in mind the above excuse, let's discuss the Titan. An incredibly massive structure, the Titan was apparently designed by one man. Why do I say this? Well, the key to finding the Titan was found in that man's son's hand. The key to starting the Titan? That son's ring. Granted, there could have been a hundred other sons with a hundred other maps with a hundred other rings, but we're not told about this. So the government entrusted the fate of humanity in a single scientist...and he in turn brought them the brilliant plan that was: Highly Respected Scientist: Hey! I'm going to build a huge Death Star/Noah's Ark, and I'm going to fly it to a location undisclosed to everyone but myself and whoever can trigger a few buttons in my son's techoring, which I designed myself to not only illuminate my son's genetically encoded map ::coughs:: but to activate the Titan. I'll leave it in the hidden place until....well... someone goes out and finds my son. Oh, and the Dredge have to be destroyed first, because otherwise they'll come destroy the new planet that my ship somehow creates. Government: Well, that sounds great. But, why don't you find a way to stop the Dredge? Scientist: Because...uh...we need to get off Earth quickly! Besides, I'm sure someone will figure out that all we need to do is reroute the discombulator to the flux capicatator, thus absorbing the Dredge. Government: Wait, the Dredge may be pure energy, but they're also SENTIENT pure energy. Even if you reroute the thingie to the other thingie and absorb them, what's to say that the sentience won't still exist and be a bit more ticked then before? Scientist: Don Bluth. Government: Touche. Well, since we're entrusting your son with the fate of humanity, are you setting up some way to keep him safe? Scientist: I figure I'll abandon him. But not before ensuring that he fall into the wrong hands eventually. Government: Eventually? You mean we're going to have to wait until we can use your son? Scientist: Well, I figure it'll be about 15 years until someone, more than likely a corrupt, swarthy partner of mine finds my abandoned son and keeps him alive for no apparent reason whatsoever other than if he died the movie ::coughs:: er...I mean...the...I don't know...something would be over.Well, after he finds him, I'm banking on the fact my son will get over his intense hatred of me and disenchanted view of the fate and worth of humanity and uses his technoring to start the Titan. Government: Supposing someone has stopped the Dredge by then. Scientist: Or unless he reroutes the-- Government: Yes, yes. A lot's banking on your son not dying in the next 15 years and changing his mind about you. Why not take him with you? Scientist: Because I'm just going to park the Titan somewhere, forget about it, and get killed. Nothing more. I don't like him anyway. Government: Got you. So what happens when he finds it and figures out how to work it? Scientist: It shoots fire out, melts some ice, and boom, you got a planet suitable for all previously earth-dwelling life. Government: That's how it works? Scientist: Are you a highly respected scientist like me? Government: No. Scientist: Then shut up. Government: Well, all in all, sounds like a brilliant plan. Here's a couple trillion dollars. Scientist: Thank you. Do you validate parking? Alright, so you can tell I'm very angry. And I wasted a lot of space when no one will see this. Feel free to email me if you want to argue. I want to argue about this, lol. Oh...and since it's already been discussed about the Dredge's motivations being undisclosed ("They're afraid of what we might become" mean paranoid and all too willing to destroy those who may take their place? I guess no one else but those humans were capable of replacing the Dredge. They seemed to leave everyone else alone) I won't get into it, but...seeing as the individual dredge looks very, very cool...why the incredibly crappy graphics for the Dredge leader? Why not have Tim Curry voice it, because this is a rehashing of the Kilokahn graphic from Superhuman Samurai Cybersquad (how's that for obscure?) It looked really, really cheesy. Just my two cents. Go see Chicken Run.

  • June 24, 2000, 11:16 a.m. CST

    Branagh's bags and Gladiator

    by monodreme

    I did enjoy Loves Labours Lost despite the bags under poor old Ken's eyes. The guy's just too old for the part. At the idea of him closetting himself away for three years to study I just couldn't help looking at his wrinkling face and wondering what on earth he had left to learn that would take all that time - though I'm sure some of you might have a suggestion or two. Still, a good piece of entertainment. But with regards the comments on Gladiator I want to say that the biggest cop-out in that film is that the issue of having to face, and battle to the death, people that you have bonded with in training, was completely avoided. That is the big juicy problem that could have been examined, and instead it was slipped away out of sight under a carpet somewhere so that we wouldn't have to worry our poor little heads about it. The gladiators that Maximus does despatch are not only complete strangers to him, but we don't even get to see their faces. We care nothing for them. They're either helmeted, or far away or zipping by on a chariot so fast that you can't see the fear or humanity on their faces. The heart of the film should have been the fact that they were real people in the arenas, our hero and the poor bastards he was cutting in half. But it was circumvented completely, and that's why it's a heartless, not to mention gutless, film.