The Bard’s Cabaret Act

The Bard’s Cabaret

Act

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.”

Kaleidoscopic aerial

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

exhaustion.

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.