The Bard’s Cabaret
Relentlessly searching for new ways to make Shakespeare fun
for the uncultured masses in a contemporary commercial market, filmmakers have
taken liberties with the Bard of Avon before (the court of Richard III became
the Third Reich and Ethan Hawke’s recent Hamlet drove Ophelia wild on a cell
phone), but by turning Love’s Labour’s
Lost into an MGM musical pastiche with songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin,
Jerome Kern and the Gershwins, Kenneth Branagh has created neither fish nor
fowl. The movie has some flavor, but it’s mostly a pretentious cabaret act. The
songs are indestructible, but what he’s done to Shakespeare is enough to make
the descendants of Anne Hathaway sue for damages.
When one of Will’s worst
and least-performed works is dedicated to Martin Scorsese and Stanley Donen,
anticipation rises. Astaire and Kelly are obvious inspirations, and there is
more than a passing nod to Busby Berkeley that is welcomed under any condition.
But this misguided mess is mostly a yawn. The king (a dashing Alessandro
Nivola) summons his princes (Matthew Lillard, Adrian Lester and Mr. Branagh) to
a court in France in 1939 for a three-year program of intellectual study,
banishing all contact with the opposite sex and causing much alarm.
Costumed for a garden party in The Great Gatsby , Mr. Branagh shows horny frustration by dancing
his way through the palace library on “I’d Rather Charleston With You” and Mr.
Lester warbles a charming “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” The local ladies are even
more compromised-how to invade this monarchy of celibacy and virtue? The answer
is simple: Lure the guys back to sanity with more song and dance! Everybody
falls in love, while the court clown (Nathan Lane) delivers their love letters
to the wrong people and the court tutor (the estimable Geraldine McEwan) reads
them aloud, singing “The Way You Look Tonight” to the local vicar. On a rousing
“Cheek to Cheek,” the four guys literally fly through the air like Peter Pan, and
at the court ball, Mr. Lane leads everyone through a star-spangled “There’s No
Business Like Show Business.”
effects, an Esther Williams water ballet and a number of awkward Fred and
Ginger ballroom steps lead to World War II and the fall of France. The boys
become bomber pilots, the girls plant victory gardens and everyone is reunited
on V-E Day to “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” There is much to admire in
the concept, and most of the cast members move gracefully and sing sweetly in
tune. Two glaring exceptions are the obnoxious Timothy Spall as a bulbous,
hysterical and moronic Spanish don, grinning and camping up “I Get a Kick Out
of You,” with faces so gruesome and an accent so corny and indecipherable he
makes Jim Carrey look like a model of restraint, and Alicia Silverstone, who
reads Shakespeare like Little Lulu and moves musically like Peg Leg Bates.
Cutting her hopelessly adrift without an anchor in a musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost is like drafting
Arnold Schwarzenegger to play the title role in Little Mary Sunshine . These two misfits must have Cole Porter
screaming in his grave.
Mr. Branagh’s obvious passion for songs from movie musicals
is contagious, and he films some of them with the Technicolor panache of Vincente
Minnelli. Unfortunately, he hasn’t found a viable way of wedding the musical
segments to the text. You find yourself wishing they had either left
Shakespeare out and kept only the songs, or vice versa. With two, you not only
get egg roll, you get ice cream and mustard.
Ain’t No Sunshine,
Even From Fiennes
With so much junk armed
and ready to clog summer marquees, it’s almost a relief to sit through Sunshine , an epic multigenerational saga
spanning more than 100 years in the turbulent political history of the
Austro-Hungarian empire, as seen through the eyes of four generations of
Sonnenscheins, a family of Jewish brewers in Budapest whose name means
“sunshine.” Written (with some help from American playwright Israel Horovitz,
who also translated the text) and directed in English by the celebrated
Hungarian director István Szabó, it runs for three hours and stars Ralph
Fiennes, who plays three roles in three different time frames. It’s not Rocky
and Bullwinkle, but it’s not Gone With
the Wind with goulash and paprika, either. Bring a clean change of
underwear and No Doz.
Painting a canvas of 20th-century politics, social upheaval,
internecine family tumult and two world wars is no easy task-for the filmmakers
or the audience. Mr. Fiennes heads a distinguished international cast that
includes Rosemary Harris, Jennifer Ehle, William Hurt, Rachel Weisz, Molly
Parker, James Frain, John Neville and Deborah Kara Unger, all doing their level
best to keep a multitude of characters and an always-changing climate of
revolution in focus. They don’t always succeed.
Make sense, if you will, of the plot. We open in the 1800’s,
when the great-great-grandfather, a tavern keeper, dies in a fire, leaving
behind a bound notebook containing his secret recipe for a popular herbal tonic
called “a taste of sunshine.” That curing elixir becomes the inheritance for
the Sonnenscheins, but none of the future generations wants to carry on the
family trade. (What happened to the recipe becomes a generational link
throughout, like the red violin.) Great-grandfather Emmanuel is mortified when
his oldest son, Ignatz (Mr. Fiennes), studies law in Vienna, becomes a judge,
marries his own adopted sister-an orphaned cousin named Valerie (played by Ms.
Ehle, who looks amazingly like Meryl Streep)-and changes his name to something
less Jewish to further his career.
Emperor Franz Josef
declares war after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and as
the Hungarian monarchy collapses, so does the marriage of Ignatz and Valerie.
Their son, Adam (Mr. Fiennes No. 2), converts to Catholicism and becomes a
national fencing champion, winning an Olympic gold medal for Hungary in
Hitler’s controversial 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Although he, too, indulges in
an illicit affair (with his sister-in-law, played by lusty Rachel Weisz),
Adam’s heroic fame exempts the family from persecution when anti-Semitism drags
Hungary’s Jews into ghettos, but not for long.
Adam is brutally tortured to death during the Nazi
occupation, and his son Ivan (Mr. Fiennes No. 3) survives Auschwitz to dedicate
himself to a new kind of Communist police work, heading a witch hunt that will
unmask the anti-Semites and German sympathizers who killed his father. When he
is forced to betray the comrade who trained him (William Hurt) as a “Zionist
agent,” Ivan realizes that by embracing Stalinism he has merely traded one
dictatorship for another. In postwar Hungary, as the tanks of counterrevolution
arrive to fire on the Communists, Ivan decides to liberate himself from the
tyrannical boot of yet another corrupt government and come to terms with the
lies and secrets of the Sonnenschein family history, bringing honor at last to
a tragic century in the lives of a once-proud family that lost the ability to
discern idealism from crime. In the end, after 120 years of speeches, the
allegory seems forced and the art-film ambitiousness of Sunshine becomes punishingly overwrought.
Whew! Paralleling the landscape of Hungary’s various
political regimes with events in the passionate lives of a vast portrait
gallery of domestic family members, unraveling the tensions and currents that
pull the children in different directions and cataloguing the ideological
conflicts that tear the Sonnenscheins apart by personal ambition and a sense of
duty to country, family and self, Mr. Szabó has bitten off more than anybody
can chew. The best way to get through it is to let it roll over you, sift
through the morass and thrill to some wonderful performances.
A stroke of casting genius has the delicate Jennifer Ehle,
as the young, headstrong Valerie, replaced partway through the film by the
elegant Rosemary Harris, Ms. Ehle’s mother in real life, who plays Valerie in
later years. Valie becomes the family’s surviving matriarch, having endured so
much pain and sacrifice. Oddly enough, it is Ralph Fiennes who disappoints.
Instead of delivering a nuanced set of interpretations that delves into the
inner depths of his three disparate characters, he plays them all the same way.
Full frontal nudity, which he displays eagerly and often, may generate prurient
interest, but only proves he’s no babe magnet.
Animated by Lajos Koltai’s gorgeous cinematography and
punctuated by a lush Maurice Jarre score,
Sunshine provides much to see and hear and think about, and Mr. Szabó’s
keen eye for the shifting eras is consistently evocative, even when the script
is not. Genuinely gripping moments (the Auschwitz atrocity in sub-zero weather
will leave you shaking) alternate with clumsy dramatic contrivances (the final
section, set during the 1956 Hungarian uprising, is woefully misconceived and
strangely hurried). As a result, the film feels crammed and slack at the same
time. Lofty themes are reduced to flat polemics, like a political science
lecture. What a viewer takes away from such a mural of moral and political
complexity is all that matters, I suppose, but what I took away from this
lavish and confusing Canadian-German-Hungarian-Austrian co-production was total
Rosie Clooney: As
Good As It Gets
Rosemary Clooney singing Brazilian sambas, cool and sad, is
a heat quencher that puts lemon in your lemonade. In her new act, Brazil, at Feinstein’s at the Regency
(through June 10), she is joined by seven ace musicians in a celebration of
both the bossa nova and her new CD of the same title on Concord Jazz.
Don’t expect anything
familiar. “DeSafinado,” one of several dreamy duets she sings with guitarist
John Pizzarelli, is musically on target and full of surprises. Even the
overexposed “One Note Samba,” with John singing a warm countermelody, is
anything but routine. “Once I Loved,” taken in her usual unique style, offers
poignant lyrics taken in small doses, like sips of wine. Heavily influenced by
the legendary albums Sinatra recorded with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Rosie even
“lifts” Frank’s arrangement of “I Concentrate on You” because, she insists, “it
can’t be improved,” then proceeds to give it her own spin. Straying from the
act’s theme she interpolates “I Cried For You,” “Who’s Sorry Now” and “Goody,
Goody” into a gently swinging jam session that stops the show.
On her early recordings, her voice may have been younger and
springier, but the way Rosie Clooney sings today shows more of life’s
experience, while her short breathy line readings lend more of a jazz tempo and
heartbreaking lyricism to her polished, durable style. She’s probably tired of
all the analysis and flattery she’s getting in her autumnal years. My guess is
she’s just happy to get out there and get off in one piece.
But I kid you not. This is as good as it gets, and the
gratitude I feel for her uncomplicated, syncopated artistry stretches from Park
Avenue to Rio.