Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost is a Treat for the Senses

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    It's a strange bird: a rather loose interpretation of the Bard's comedy that cuts the play to the bone and fills in any gaps with musical numbers done in the high style of lush Technicolor song-and-dance specials from the 30s to 50s. It's not as thorough as Branagh's Henry V or Hamlet, but it's a much better, more inventive film?less puffed up with cultural importance, it highlights the dizzying lightness of Shakespeare in swoony romantic-comedy mode. And the musical numbers?retro stagings of numbers by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern?are glorious. Branagh and his cinematographer, the great Alex Thomson, put the widescreen frame to superb use, capturing most of the routines in one or two long takes, shooting the performers head-to-toe so you can appreciate the choreography, and "cutting" by shifting camera position rather than by than dicing up the film.

    This is how musicals are supposed to look, like back when audiences had enough imagination to appreciate real musicals and Hollywood had the talent pool and financial impetus to justify cranking them out in large numbers. As in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, the cast is comprised mostly of people who aren't trained musical pros, but, unlike Allen, Branagh drilled the hell out of them and pushed them as close to professionalism as possible. The lanky, brawny Matthew Lillard moves like a potential Gene Kelly; Alicia Silverstone unleashes a killer romantic stare, all the more effective because of the luminous photography, which compensates for barely proficient singing; Branagh, with his unkempt forelock and neatly trimmed mustache, is a ringer for Laurence Olivier in the 50s?an Olivier with happy feet. All the performers seem to love what they're doing, and they take the business of musical performance seriously without ever betraying how hard they're working. When they burst into song, the heart leaps. Their singing and dancing seem less the affectation of a film buff director than a refinement of human expression?an objective correlative for the buoyant emotions people feel when they're in love, and in love with love.

    The story is set in 1939, on the eve of World War II. The young king of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) has retreated to the shelter of a university to better himself, taking his three best friends, Dumain (Adrian Lester), Longaville (Lillard) and Berowne (Branagh) with him; to ensure productivity in their studies, the men vow to fast one day a week and avoid all contact with women. This becomes a problem when Navarre is visited by the Princess of France (Silverstone) and her three friends, Katherine (Emily Mortimer), Maria (Carmen Ejogo) and Rosaline (Natascha McElhone). The purpose of the women's mission is diplomatic?to resolve a financial dispute between the two nations. But the talk soon turns to love, and the men and women pair off, with relatively few misunderstandings. Branagh skims over the text, summarizing significant plot developments via scratchy black-and-white, World War II-style "newsreels"; he treats the play mainly as an excuse to riff on musical styles, and to underscore the musicality of Shakespeare's language and link the expressiveness of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter to the elegance of song lyrics.

    An especially fine production number begins with Berowne standing on a table, reciting iambic pentameter and tapping out the rhythm with his hard-soled shoes. Some of Branagh's ideas are too literal, though?a musical dream sequence set to Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You," shows the Don Armado, the Fantastical Spaniard, a lovestruck supporting character played by Timothy Spall, getting no kick from cocaine, finding that mere alcohol doesn't thrill him at all, and so forth. But for the most part, Love's Labour's Lost represents one of those rare instances where Branagh's boundless ambition as a director and Shakespeare interpreter is matched by his inventiveness and concentration. He doesn't go for a lot of big effects here?a least not big effects that announce themselves as such. He lets texture, mood, performance and design carry the show. It's all about effect, and most of the effects are stirring.

    Adrian Lester, the best dancer of the bunch, performs an acrobatic solo that conjures the ghosts of Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers, complete with chair-tippings and splits. When the men catch each other in macho lies or have their schemes uncovered by the resourceful women, they let out panicked little whines that evoke the Three Stooges dreading punishment. A climactic stage show for the French delegation has Nathan Lane, as the scheming vaudeville clown Costard, performing a scorching version of "There's No Business Like Show Business," tapping out his enthusiasm before a chorus line of appropriately awestruck supporting characters. (The more Lane belts, the more he sounds like Ethel Merman; surfers could ride his vibrato.)

    Production designer Tim Harvey and costumer Anna Buruma demonstrate a rare understanding of color's possibilities. In a tearful final farewell, the women wear corsages whose vibrant colors match the shirts of the men they've fallen in love with. What the eye sees matches what the heart feels. This is what musicals are supposed to be: treats for the senses.

    Titan A.E. Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman Titan A.E. a lavish new science-fiction epic codirected by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, is proficient but forgettable. Set in the 31st century, the film takes on a grand theme?what becomes of human identity when the Earth no longer exists??and then muffs it with glibness, inattention and derivative visuals. The villains are the Drej, a race of energy beings that move like Japanimation robot warriors and look like they're made of neon-purple Krazy straws. At the start of the film, they blow up the Earth for reasons I'm still not clear on. The survivors disperse to the deepest reaches of space, preserving important remnants of Earth culture, such as soccer, late-90s slang and ethnic stereotypes (there's a space version of Bangkok populated mainly by Me-speakee-no-English types in coolie hats).

    The film's hero, Cale (Matt Damon), was devastated as a child by the loss of his heroic professor dad, who perished when the Drej nuked the Earth. The top-secret spaceship the old man was working on, the Titan, miraculously escaped and is rumored to be hidden somewhere in the galaxy. Cale, now a callow twentysomething working as a welder in a floating scrap yard, is contacted by his father's old sidekick, Korso (Bill Pullman), who's looking for the fabled starship. Turns out Cale's father hid a map to the Titan's location inside the boy's hand. Cale joins Korso's crew, which consists of three humanoid aliens (Nathan Lane, John Leguizamo and Janeane Garofalo) and a lovely pilot named Akima (Drew Barrymore), and together they set out to save humankind, evading the Drej at every turn.

    Sounds exciting on paper, but if you've seen one Star Wars ripoff, you've seen 'em all. And that's essentially what Titan A.E. amounts to. There are dogfight sequences modeled on World War II aerial combat, copious father-son resentment issues, a cynical dark-haired space pilot who keeps calling the young blond hero "kid," and a scene where a spaceship suffers engine failure and the heroine asks if it would help if she got out and pushed. The narrative, which is credited to three screenwriters and two story people, is heavy on pointlessly busy 3-D action sequences where the camera spirals around and around speeding starships and astral bodies while songs by Jamiroquai, Fun Lovin' Criminals, Electrasy and Wailing Souls blast on the soundtrack: it's "Walt Disney's Heavy Metal." The villains make the Borg on Star Trek look charismatic; mostly, they just show up and blast things. The human and alien characters are thin?much thinner than the weakest Star Wars or Disney characters?and the dialogue appears to have been polished by a fifth-grader. ("Okay, the Drej took Cale?but they're not gonna get away with it!")

    The chief voice actors disappoint. Pullman's cool-guy growl grows tiresome, and Damon, Barrymore and Garofalo project all the urgency of teenagers fast-walking through a mall to buy the new Limp Bizkit CD before closing time. Only Nathan Lane and John Leguizamo bothered to create complex and original vocal performances. Lane's first mate, a conniving, one-eared beast named Preed, suggests a moth-eaten marsupial version of Rex Harrison; Leguizamo's bug-eyed, squirmy navigator, Gune, sounds like Sterling Holloway's fey python from The Jungle Book after suffering massive head trauma.

    There's one astonishing sequence: a cat-and-mouse chase through a field of shimmering ice asteroids that resemble giant transparent Christmas stars. The ships' communication systems don't work, so they have to hunt each other visually, by watching the myriad reflections of the enemy gliding across the surfaces of the asteroids and deciding which one isn't a reflection after all. It's like the hall-of-mirrors scene in The Lady from Shanghai, only with spaceships, and filmmakers' investment in cutting-edge computer animation techniques pays off in spades. Elsewhere, though, the computer-molded, hyperrealistic sets and backgrounds don't mesh with the fluid, rough-edged, Disney-style characters?a stylistic mismatch that has afflicted recent Disney projects like Tarzan and Dinosaur.

    Even if Bluth and Goldman solved all their production, casting and momentum problems, Titan A.E. would still feel frivolous because it fails to take its central premise seriously. The characters gallivant like costumed children playacting in a backyard, squabbling and pratfalling and insulting each other. True, this tale is animated, chock-full of shameless motion and mayhem and clearly pitched at too-cool-for-Disney preteen boys. But Star Wars, as goofy as it was, occasionally wiped the smirk off its face and attained comic book grandeur; the destruction of Alderaan in the first movie probably spurred as many nightmares among 1970s kids as the death of Bambi's mom 35 years earlier. The annihilation of Earth would snuff out thousands of years' worth of collective memory and inflict unfathomable survivor guilt on anyone who escaped: multiply the Holocaust by a factor of one million and you're in the ballpark. Ponder that, then watch the final sequence of Titan A.E. and ask yourself whether the savior of humanity, upon rescuing his fellow ex-Earthlings from generations of intergalactic homelessness, would gaze out at a brave new world and crack a joke.

    Framed Big-assed comedy: If you've seen the trailer for Big Momma's House, the new comedy about an FBI agent going undercover as a deep South grandmother to nab a fugitive bank robber, you've already seen the funniest jokes, and you pretty much know what you're in for: a disguise-driven cop comedy, equal parts Stakeout and Mrs. Doubtfire, with star Martin Lawrence so hyped up on his own outrageousness that he practically bounces off the walls. Director Raja Gosnell edited most of filmmaker Chris Columbus' movies, including Mrs. Doubtfire, and his previous work includes Home Alone 3, so it's not surprising that Big Momma's House would alternate warm-fuzzy moments with farts, fat-ass jokes, horny-old-people jokes and vicious groin injuries. I laughed a lot; Lawrence is a dirty-minded imp who's both verbally and physically gifted, and character actor Paul Giamatti, who plays his goofy, nervous partner, is just as good. But the film whiffs a lot of opportunities. The surveillance aspects of the story aren't exploited nearly as well as they could be: one scene finds the hero flummoxed because he's dressed up as Big Momma, promising dinner to the bank robber's girlfriend (Nia Long, criminally wasted) even though he can't cook. Why Giamatti doesn't feed him recipes through an earpiece is a mystery. Also undeveloped is the script's curiously nostalgic view of black Southern life?Lawrence and Long's characters, both refugees from the evil big city, treat it like Eden, a point of view articulated in other recent African-American films starring people under 30, notably the 'hood movies, where gangsters and molls from L.A.'s mean streets got misty-eyed talking about moving to Kansas and getting a fresh start. Veteran gospel and Broadway star Ella Mitchell plays the real Big Momma, who disappears early in the movie and doesn't reappear until the end. Too bad: her fiercely matriarchal presence, sharp comic timing and glorious voice (showcased in a closing-credits church number) put the film's half-baked smutty clowning to shame.

    Smoke 'em if you got 'em: Grass, a documentary about marijuana now playing at Film Forum, isn't likely to draw any fans of the War on Drugs, but the scare footage through the ages (Marijuana is for commies! No, perverts! No, smack addicts!) is bound to please weedheads, libertarians and wiseacres of every sort. The list of celebrities who've proclaimed love for America's biggest cash crop is long and impressive: Cab Calloway, the Beats, Robert Mitchum, Gene Krupa and the trailer-park Gielgud, Woody Harrelson, who narrates. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall during that studio session.