Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dead Again

Dead Again(1991)
Directed by
Kenneth Branagh
Written by Scott Frank
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi, Robin Williams, Wayne Knight
IMDB Entry

When Kenneth Branagh burst on the scene, he was a wonder.  Writer, director, actor, and a sensation for taking Henry V – a Shakespeare play that had already been filmed to production – and getting nominated for two Oscars.  People wondered what he’d do next, and the result was Dead Again.

Mike Church (Branagh), a private eye, is guilted into investigating the origins of a mysterious woman (Emma Thompson), who showed up, unable to speak and suffering from amnesia.  After some investigation, he is led to Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi), a hypnotist who thinks he can help.  Mike is skeptical, but it leads them to a long-ago murder Roman and Margaret in better dayswhere composer Roman Strauss (Branagh) is executed for the murder of his wife Margaret (Thompson).  With the help of disgraced psychiatrist Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams*), he begins to unravel the mystery, which seems to have continued to the present day.

The movie is often described as “film noir,” but it’s better called a Hitchcockian pastiche.  It feels like a Hitchcock film, with the suspense thick and the visuals dramatic.  Branagh’s roles are also well played, with Mike being a disheveled PI type, and Roman as a European artiste.  Emma Thompson was establishing herself as one of the top actresses of the time, and Derek Jacobi was as good as he always is.

The movie was a critical and commercial success.  Branagh’s directing career continued strongly with his Shakespeare adaptations, but dropped off at time went on.  His work outside of Shakespeare has not been successful, and he’s now better known as an actor, especially in Wallender.

But Dead Again is filmmaking at its best – bravura, cleverly plotted, and a pleasure to watch.  It hooks you in and keeps you guessing and never lets up.

*Williams was uncredited at his own request, so moviegoers wouldn’t be misled in to believing the film was a comedy.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Alice in Wonderland (TV)

Alice in WonderlandDirected by
Kirk Browning
Written by Lewis Carroll; based on a production by Eva La Gallienne
Starring Kate Burton, Eve Arden, Kaye Ballard, Richard Burton, James Coco, Tony Cummings, Andre De Shields, Colleen Dewhurst, Andre Gregory, Geoffrey Holder, Zeljko Ivanek, Nathan Lane, Donald O’Connor, Austin Pendleton, Maureen Stapleton, Sven Svenson, Fritz Waver, Alan Weeks, Richard Woods
IMDB Entry
Full Movie online

Alice in Wonderland is very hard to dramatize. There are many problems:  a picaresque plot* that has no dramatic arc, a main character who is smart but otherwise ill-defined, the need to interpolate materials from two books into one, etc.  But probably the most successful Alice was a PBS version in the early 80s that managed to add all the elements and have all the joy and whimsy of the book.

This version is based upon a version by Eva La Gallienne and Florida Friebus from 1932.**  The PBS version hewed closely to the two books and solved the problem of including elements of both by first showing scenes from Alice in Wonderland and then segueing directly into Through the Looking Glass.  Thus, the integration worked far more smoothly than most version.

But it’s the frame tale that makes this version.  We are introduced by a group of actors who are complaining that “she” – the actress playing Alice –is going to be terrible on stage.  We cut to her in the dressing room and she smokes and is trying to memorize “Jabberwocky” – and not doing a good job of it.  She looks in the mirror and turns into Alice, her short black hair becoming long and blonde.

The play follows the book pretty closely.  Scenes are cut, of course, but it’s done very well.  And the switchover to the second book works perfectly:  instead of waking from a dream, Alice goes into the looking glass world.  And it keeps many of Carroll’s poems by turning them into songs.

The set and costume design follow John Tenniel’s original illustrations.

The strength is the final scene where Alice recited “Jabberwocky,” turning a story with an “it’s all a dream!” ending into a triumph for her.

Kate Burton*** played Alice.  She was 26 at the time, and that was a smart move.  Too often, Alice is a child or teen, an actress who can’t work Carroll’s lines in a natural manner.  Burton may not be a child, but she understands the work better, and thus the dialog gets don’t correctly.

Alice and the White KnightIt’s hard to pick the best of any of the cast, but most notable are Nathan Lane (early in his career) as the mouse, Donald O’Connor as the Mock Turtle, Andre Gregory as the Mad Hatter, Maureen Stapleton as the White Queen, Colleen Dewhurst as the Red Queen, and Richard Burton as the White Knight (probably the most sympathetic character in Carroll’s works).

The special was taken from a Broadway production of the play, with all of the cast – except for Alice – changed.  It was videotaped in a TV studio, but didn’t try to change the “stagy” aspect of things.

But, like most things Alice, the special was ephemeral.  It was only aired a couple of times and forgotten.  But if you love Lewis Carroll, this is how it should be done.

*No, not picturesque.  A picaresque is a story where the main character goes from adventure to adventure, or place to place, but with no general arc.  Don Quixote is probably the best known in literature.

**Both were successful actresses with long careers.  La Gallienne was a legend of the theater, and got an Oscar nomination for Resurrection.  Friebus had a long career in films and TV, and played one of Bob Hartley’s patients in The Bob Newhart Show. The opening night cast of the play included Burgess “Penguin” Meredith, Howard da Silva, and Whit Bissell (a familiar face in many 50s SF films).  The next year, it was the basis for an all-star movie version made by Paramount.

***Daughter of Richard Burton.  I see in her IMDB entry that she is a “highly respected and talented audio book reader,” so her skill at reading lines has kept with her.