Dead Again (1991, Directed by Kenneth Branagh) “What I believe… is that this is all far from over”

 

I first plonked myself down in front of this enigmatically titled film because of the cast and the basic premise. I had no real idea what to expect. The opening didn’t help. Dead Again (1991, written by Scott Frank and directed by Kenneth Branagh) starts dramatically – there’s no doubt about that. An imposing score accompanies the tried and tested (if extremely clichéd) ‘newspaper headlines’ device, giving us the back story to a murder. What then follows is a scene of melodramatic 1940s noir, where a prisoner shrouded in shadow and mystery is having his final exchange with a journalist (Andy Garcia) before being taken to his death. This prisoner is Roman Strauss, played by Branagh, who is about to be executed for the murder of his wife, Margaret (played by Emma Thompson).

As Roman Strauss is walked to his execution, the scene twists into a nightmare and a woman wakes up screaming in modern day America. She has found herself with a religious order who take in waifs and strays – but she is far too troubled to stay with them. The Father presiding over the home calls in a favour from an ex-waif, Mike Church, now a private investigator. The hope is that this woman, who remembers nothing but is tormented by strange and violent dreams none the less, can be re-united with her family and, eventually, her memories. The private investigator, Mike Church, is also played by Kenneth Branagh. The amnesiac woman is also played by Emma Thompson. The seeds of a reincarnation-based thriller are sown. We’re talking; a murder mystery, past life regression, flashbacks, and – obviously – the ongoing eternal battle between good and evil. To explain too much would be to give everything away… this is a film which sometimes suffers for being over-egged but I’m not entirely sure I would change a thing about it. It’s possible Dead Again isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is, but I would defend it in a fight like a cinema-going She-Wolf protecting a tub of over-sugared popcorn.

This film is clearly part of the Branagh oeuvre. He directs and stars, as he often does – and he casts a lot of friends in his films. Fresh out of Henry V (1989), Dereck Jacobi plays an antiques dealer with a flair for hypnotism. Thompson, also fresh out of Henry V was married to Branagh at the time of shooting. Robin Williams also has a role in this film – almost fleeting enough to be considered a cameo – and would later work with Branagh again in Hamlet (1996).

The soundtrack of Dead Again is composed by Patrick Doyle – another talent who Branagh has gone on to work with many times. I am a fan of Doyle’s work. I enjoy his version of “Sigh No More” from Much Ado About Nothing (1993) far more than is normal and the soundtrack to Disney/Pixar’s Brave (2012) is wonderful. However, the Dead Again soundtrack is often invasive – signposting peril far too frequently and for far too long. Doyle also has a cameo in this film (as he does in other Branagh movies) playing two different characters, one from the present day and one from the past. This is another directorial touch which helps to reinforce the theme of duality, of two sides often in opposition, throughout the film.

The film uses plenty of character shortcuts. Thompson is the amnesiac damsel-in-distress, Branagh the washed up and loveless private eye. Both Branagh and Thompson, UK acting legends, use American accents in the modern day portions of the film. This is jarring at first, particularly in Branagh’s case, but this does wear off. This decision also enables both leads to have contrasting accents in flashback. Dereck Jacobi’s camp British cad also draws on pre-existing character types.

However, these abbreviations are developed and sometimes even distorted. For example, Doctor Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams) is a former psychiatrist now working in a grocery store. Church inexplicably calls on Carlisle for advice. In a classic case of overshare, Williams delivers a clunky back story, revealing to the audience (because surely Church knew already…) that he was fired for sleeping with a few patients. Combined with the fact that Williams plays Carlisle as almost entirely unreadable, his character adds to an overall unsettling tone and reinforces that theme of duality once again. ‘Piccolo’ Dugan (played by Wayne Knight, most famous as the guy who steals the dino DNA in Jurassic Park, 1993) is another of Church’s contacts, who again delivers more back story than is strictly called for. An interesting character detail about Dugan is is the endearing (but again, unsettling) whistle in his speech. The cumulative effect of these character overshares is to give the impression that every character has a past – sometimes a littered with dark secrets – which connects them to the past of others.

There are plenty of pleasing directorial touches and satisfying touches in the screenplay. For example, the reoccurring imagery of blades and scissors and the concepts of cosmic karma and fate. There’s also a great scene in which the sound of an annoying downstairs neighbour on her piano is coupled with an unnerving tracking shot to convey the ‘tipping point’ in an argument. Plus – Miriam Margoyles regressed into a little girl – what more could you possibly want?

The screenplay also takes time to develop the relationship between Church and his mystery girl. The best example of this is when Church attempts to take her out to the wooing establishment of his choice and finds it closed. The two drink tea and make small talk outside instead. The date eventually blossoms into a rooftop based slow-dancing-and-kissing-in-the-rain conclusion – very corny but also extremely enjoyable. There’s also a nasty on-camera moment which will make any smokers (or non-smokers for that matter) dry-heave and attempt to drop-kick any nearby packets of cigarettes as far from their lungs as is humanly possible.

During the film’s immense finale, Branagh well and truly wrings out every millisecond for its dramatic potential… there’s… just… so… much… slow… motion… as well as some flashy past/present day intercutting. It’s not subtle, but it’s certainly not disappointing. Dead Again is ridiculously farfetched, wonderfully melodramatic, and a corking story. Repeat viewings have only increased my enjoyment of the film (I would recommend paying attention to character’s surnames, for instance). The movie is a surreal combination of casting, plot and execution and I still can’t believe it actually exists… but I’m pleased as anything that it does.

Advertisements

Film Club: Rififi (1955)

Written by Auguste Le Breton (original novel and screenplay collaboration) Jules Dassin and René Wheeler

Directed by Jules Dassin

Cast

 

Jean Servais…                    Tony le Stéphanois

Carl Möhner…                   Jo le Suedois

Robert Manuel…              Mario Ferrati

Janine Darcey…                 Louise

Questions

  • What do you think of the infamous thirty-two minute long ‘heist’ scene? Is the decision not to include dialogue or music an effective one? Why? How does it compare to heist scenes in more recent and commercial films such as Snatch, Ocean’s Eleven, Inception? Why do you think it is placed roughly halfway through the film rather than at its conclusion?
  • How much of the film would you say now feels outdated? How much does the film suffer from cliché? Is this the fault of the filmmakers or because films which have followed afterwards have borrowed from it?
  • What does this film have to say about the subject of morality? Does it have a moral message? How are we supposed to feel about the film’s criminal leads?
  • What did you think of the film’s treatment of its female characters? Do what extent is this film sexist or misogynistic?
  • What elements of the film make it ‘noir’?
  • To what is extent is the setting of Paris in the 1950s also a character in the film?

Trivia

‘Rififi’ refers to a ‘macho’ style of brutal violence perpetrated by criminals and thugs.

How central is the violence and ‘rififi’ to this movie? Is it offensive?

Film Club: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) Written and Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour

Cast

Sheila Vand…                     The Girl

Arash Marandi…               Arash

Marshall Manesh…          Hossein (The Junkie)

Mozhan Marnὸ…             Atti (The Prostitute)

Dominic Rains…                 Saeed (The Pimp)

Rome Shandanloo…        Shaydah (The Princess)

Masuka…                             Masuka (The Cat)

 

Questions

  •  Why do you think the decision was made to name a lot of the characters as archetypal figures, for example ‘The Girl’ or ‘The Cat’? Likewise, what about the decision to set the story in a place known only as Bad City? Is there perhaps a fairy tale or fable quality to this story?
  • How does this fit into the canon of other vampire stories? Consider the fact that the word ‘vampire’ is never even mentioned.
  • The film was made in California, but how does the strong Middle Eastern influence change the way we watch the film? How does the setting relate to Western ideas of vampires as ‘exotic’ and ‘other worldly’? How about the political and gender political context of the film?
  • What do you think of the ‘relationship’ which is formed during the course of the film? How do we know they are in a ‘relationship’?
  • What did you think about the (slow) pacing of the film?
  • What did you think about the soundtrack and use of music and references to musical culture throughout?
  • How much of this film is ambiguous? Do you enjoy ambiguity in a film?
  • How attractive was the film to look at (cinematography)? Why do you think the film was made in black and white?

 

Trivia

 A series of graphic novels have been produced to accompany this film.

In what way does the film remind you of a graphic novel? How does it compare to other films with a similar visual style?

Anomalisa (2015)

Written by Charlie Kaufman, Directed by Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman

Cast

David Thewlis…                 Michael Stone

Jennifer Jason Leigh…    Lisa Hesselman

Tim Noonan…                    Everyone else

 

Questions

This was originally written as a ‘sound play’ and was later adapted for the visual medium. What is the role of sound and voice in this film? Are the accompanying visuals fitting and successful?

  • Why was it important to make this film with stop-motion animation rather than flesh and blood actors? What do you feel about this style of animation? Is this a beautiful film?
  • What about the voice casting decisions? Assess the performances of Thewlis and Leigh, as well as the decision to have Tim Noonan voice every other character.
  • How would you sum up the ‘atmosphere’ created by Kaufman in one word only?
  • What do we want from a film? Do we need to feel good and the end to feel we’ve had a worthwhile cinematic experience?
  • Why do you think Kaufman chose to set this story in a hotel?
  • To what extent did some of the sexual elements in the film jar with the fact that it was an animation?
  • A quotation from the main character, “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.” To what extent do you think this is true of Anomalisa? Is it a film without a lesson?
  • How would you compare this film to Lost in Translation?

Trivia

 The hotel where Michael stays is called the Fregoli. The ‘Fregoli delusion’ is when someone believes different people are all actually the same person in disguise. How does this relate to Michael’s state of mind? Is this what he believes is happening?

Film Club: Send Me No Flowers (1964)

Based on a play by Norman Barasch and Carroll Moore, Screenplay by Julius Epstein

Directed by Norman Jewison

Cast

 

Rock Hudson…                  George Pemberton Kimball

Doris Day…                          Judy Kimball

Tony Randall…                   Arnold Nash

Paul Lynde…                       Mr Atkins

Edward Andrews…          Dr Ralph Morrissey

 

Questions

 

  • Which character did you enjoy watching the most and why? To what extent did you ‘like’ George, our main character? Is this important?
  • To what extent are the 1960s negative stereotypes in the film offensive? To what extent are they funny? Consider presentation of: women, homosexuals, hypochondriacs, alcoholics…
  • Compare the gender politics of the film with other movies made in 1964, for example Goldfinger, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady and Straight Jacket. What are the different perceptions of women being represented?
  • Which elements of the film did you find funny and why? How does it compare to 1964’s iconic ‘Dr Strangelove’ in terms of comedic style?
  • This film was originally a play. Is this apparent?
  • Apparent, Rock Hudson did not like this movie, feeling that the film’s morbid subject matter was in bad taste. Do you think it’s important for comedies to deal with taboo subjects? What examples can you think of where questions of taboo and taste have been well and truly pushed in recent times?
  • If you could change the ending, would you? What would be your alternate ending?

 

Trivia

 

Although Rock Hudson and Doris Day are often remembered as a famous double-act who made countless films together, this is actually their third and final movie outing. The actor Tony Randall (who played Arnold in Send me No Flowers) is also in all three. You may wish to compare this film with Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961). Both of these films also depict Hudson and Day in a fraught love/hate relationship, played for comedy value.

Film Club: Lars and the Real Girl

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Written by Nancy Oliver, Directed by Craig Gillespie

Cast

Ryan Gosling…                   Lars Lindstrom

Emily Mortimer…             Karin

Paul Schneider…               Gus

R.D. Reid…                          Reverend Bock

Kelli Garner…                     Margo

Patricia Clarkson…            Dagmar (Bianca and Lars’ doctor)

 

Questions

  •  Is this film a love story? What types of love do we encounter is this film?
  • Does this film fit easily into a specific genre? How does it fit into the context of ‘quirky’ comedies? Is this film funny? If so, does the comedy come from the ‘cringe’ factor, the shock factor, out of sympathy/pathos or from somewhere else?
  • How does this film deal with the issues surrounding ‘growing up’? Think about invisible friends, comfort blankets/teddies, playing pretend. Consider the fact that Gosling apparently improvised the teddy CPR scene… would the film lose something without this?
  • How would this situation be dealt with in ‘real’ life? To what extent is the audience being asked to suspend their disbelief? Think about the representation of a small town community and the Church (not to mention medical bills.)
  • Consider representation of gender politics, sex and sexuality. Does any part of us condemn Lars’ purchase?
  • How much does the success of the film rely on the strength of Ryan Gosling’s performance?
  • How do we deal with mental health issues? If someone is happy and they are not hurting anyone else, is their mental health issue a ‘problem’?
  • Just for fun – Discuss the variety of sweaters worn by Lars and Margo.

 

Trivia

 Listen out for Ryan Gosling’s weird and wonderful singing voice. For more of this, check out the Dead Man’s Bones self-titled album. It’s perfect for Halloween.