People get their knickers in such a twist over Kenneth Branagh, and I've never really understood why. Yes, Peter's Friends was unforgivable, but there was the uncut Hamlet to compensate. It seems to me that the really frustrating thing about him is actually the way he speaks verse. He hurtles through soliloquies in search of "modern" phrasing, and then hustles and milks it - the pop-pop of his tiny, gentle plosives undercutting everything else. It's a scam. He should have more faith in the natural rhythm of the text.
Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost is a musical comedy set during the Second World War. He has cut the majority of the lines from Shakespeare's play and added a score of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin hits, getting his cast (Alicia Silverstone, Timothy Spall, Natascha McElhone and the superb Adrian Lester) to shimmy and sizzle with tum-de-tum-tums. The play shows how a young king and his courtiers vow to devote themselves to self-denial. Enter the princess of France and her ladies, and they'll say you couldn't be cuter, couldn't be smarter, baby, than you are ...
Love's Labour's Lost is a thoroughly ensemble play, full of different styles and moods and word-muddles. But Branagh seems unusually uninterested in the text - ashamed of it even, as though it were some unknowable thing. He keeps whipping out buttocks in fishnet tights and fake PathÃ© newsreel to distract us. And then there's this breathless, end-of-term-play atmosphere (I know! We'll physically syncopate the iambic pentameter! Hang on, can we borrow some tap shoes?) which has you nervously rooting for the cast, flushed and proud when Lester manages to do something foot-fracture-threatening with a chair and sing at the same time. (That's our Adrian. He wants to go to drama school.) The play emerges as silly, redundant, odd. It doesn't really emerge at all.
It seems that Branagh's heart has grown terribly heavy since the days when he ruled at Stratford (I saw his RSC Henry V in 1985 - he was brilliant, full of unresentful love), like a man with no plausible address, no real source for his boom and chime. You can imagine him at home in a tumble-dryer-shrunk T-shirt reading the Sonnets to the cat and scribbling notes in pencil (Is there an explicit link between sonnets and complaint? Must remember to feed fish.) Branagh has forgotten the very thing he is most famous for. "Make but my name thy love, and love that still;/ And then thou lov'st me, for my name is Will."
Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday follows a season with a troubled American football team. Al Pacino plays the coach (with an up-rush of hair like a cockatoo, almost as attention-grabbing as it was in Dog Day Afternoon back in 1975. Pacino has the best head of hair ever caught on celluloid, and he uses it like a prop. It just about makes up for his continued abuse of his voice). Cameron Diaz plays the general manager; James Woods the doc - the cult names just roll on. Much of the film happens on the pitch, any narrative taking place in what feels very much like the intervals - and an hour-long game of American football can have as many as 20 ad-breaks. The crazed and combative world of sponsorship and tie-ins and seamy egos is good ground for the scatty Stone, and he weaves ferociously, his sweaty eye always on the clock. Stone's worst film, Natural Born Killers (1994), with all its lunatic cutting, suggested a director terribly frightened of being seen as behind the times, a director who had to disguise out-moded political and social concerns behind a tirelessly Ã la mode style. Stone is like a hippie on the internet, a man whose (ripped) jeans were too small for him.
Any Given Sunday, with its freeze-frames and video footage and sound-effects and split-screens and sex and rap and drugs (great moment: a needle tries to puncture the arm of a thundering meatball of a quarterback, an arm as unyielding as a well-upholstered sofa) is as bitter and histrionic and racially distrustful as the United States that Stone lives to criticise. And yet the film has an entirely compelling emptiness and exhaustion.
The Miracle Maker shows the life of Jesus as told by Luke. The characters, all clay-headed 3-D animated puppets (this is the same Welsh-Russian company that brought us the animated made-for-television Shakespeare) are voiced by good actors (Ralph Fiennes, Anthony Sher, Miranda Richardson) and the results are sincere, and sometimes spooky - these clay figures move so ponderously, so dreamily. Nevertheless, it's a powerfully engaging film, one that correctly sees the gospels as spiritual autobiography, and Jesus's skill with parables as an art both fundamental and devastating.
Lake Placid is a superbly witty sub-Jaws flick set on a lake in Maine frequented by a huge and hungry Asian crocodile. Bill Pullman must catch the monster, assisted by the brisk Bridget Fonda, who still has that lovely, paintable nose - upturned, as though there were a little piece of toffee stuck on the end.