Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Karmically, self-defense is quite cool


Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Scott Frank

Spoilers: moderate

Dead Again
 can be approached from several different ways in terms of Kenneth Branagh's career: it's his sophomore directorial effort; it's his first American film, and it would remain his only film set in America for many years, though as both a modest commercial and somewhat more resounding critical success, it confirmed him as a name to look out for on any side of the Atlantic; it was his only major work for sixteen years that was not an adaptation of significant literature (or opera), but continued to sit there, proving that he could do other things; and while they appeared together and even did romance in Branagh's first film, Henry V, it was the first time he and his then-wife Emma Thompson really co-starred in any movie together, as well as the last and only time that a romance between their characters would be expressed in comprehensible, contemporary English.  Perhaps too comprehensible, if you get my drift.

So that's the one to begin with, because it's simply the most fun.  What we have here is a watershed for Branagh: in Dead Again Branagh plays the lead, an Angeleno detective named Mike Church, who was born in Los Angeles, and so we find Branaghfor at least the first time in a feature film, and perhaps the first time altogetherdoing dialect work.  He sports an American accent, and by that I mean an American accent.  It is not a well-researched American accent, and by no means is it an American accent that situates him in Los Angeles, or frankly, as an inhabitant of any part of the West Coast I'm aware of, and yet it is nevertheless full of specificityI think it's "supposed" to be some part of New York, even as it's hard to argue it's supposed to be anythingand it is in service to a character and a script that, true, does ask for a native-born American (though, again, a native-born Angeleno), but never requires one in any absolute sense, for it wouldn't have taken three minutes' rewriting to get to "Irish-British" if it so happened that the person who was cast to play him was, in fact, an Irishman from Britain.  It's pretty bad, it's distracting, and it's vaguely offensive that he thinks we sound like this: Dead Again gives one a hint what Walloons must think of his Hercule Poirot, American Southerners (hey, that's still also me) his Arliss Loveless, or Russians his villain in Shadow Recruit, except I will say that it's his least funny hammy bad accent, because "generic American" isn't that much of a joke.

But who knows: perhaps to Branagh, it is funny, and I just don't get it; but it's also my belief that Branagh doesn't do them for yuks in the first place, and since he presumably doesn't do them out of a genuinely sincere belief he sounds like what he's trying to sound like, he must do them out of a desire to get into a character from a particular angle even if that particular angle isn't always germaneit has never occurred to me till now that Branagh the actor actually might be just as much of an "if it feels good, do it" artist as Branagh the director isand because sounding weird might be simply personally enjoyable to him as a performer.  I mean, half his career is Shakespeare, so enjoying that is probably prerequisite.  Anyway, by circumstance, I've seen the movie twice over the past year (on top of numerous times in my childhood), and while it hit me like a slap in the face eight or nine months ago, it's less of a problem on a second go 'round.  Branagh also plays another character here, who's German.  Incidentally, Emma Thompson also plays two characters; one of them also has an American accent yet after two recent viewings I guess didn't notice, because I had to triple-check to be sure of that, thanks to Branagh so thoroughly wrecking my meter for what "American" even sounds like.

So: we meet Branagh's German first, in a flashback that turns out to be a nightmare that turns out to be a memory that itself turns out to be... and, look, we'll get there, but right now, our German is refugee composer Roman Strauss.  We're already aware, thanks to an opening credits sequence full of floating newspapers and the best or at least most Bernard Hermannesque strains of Patrick Doyle's score, that Strauss has been convicted of the murder of his wife, Margaret (Thompson), and when we catch up to him he's minutes away from being executed for the crime.  He consents to a final interview with the reporter, Gray Baker (Andy Garcia), which is not very satisfying to the journalist, and on his way to the chair he somehow sees his victim alive, and stabs her, again, with the scissors that took her life.  That's when we realize it's a nightmare, suffered by a woman who'll eventually get the name "Grace" (Thompson again), but only as a matter of convenience because right now all she can do is scream in the night.  She's otherwise a mute amnesiac in the care of the local Catholic orphanage, whose lap she mysteriously fell into.  Enter Mike Church (Branagh's American), a private investigator and himself an orphan raised by this institution, tasked with dispensing their moral obligation to "Grace" and with finding out who she is; unwilling to dump her into the mental health system, and also because this is a 1991 Branagh/Thompson picture, Mike winds up taking her in.  But out of the deluge of bullshit responses to a newspaper notice he put up on Grace's behalf, one man seems to be able to help, one Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi, just British), a hypnotist, spiritualist, and antiques dealer who lives in a house full of sinister junk.  Madson proves his worth by hypnotizing Gracegiving her back her voiceand at least bringing back someone's memories, except those memories are of the late 1940s, and of a life cut short half a century prior.  It becomes increasingly clear that to find out who Grace is Mike's going to have to help her find out who she was, and, in fact, who they were, to each other.

If Dead Again did nothing elseand it would automatically have to do something else, because it's doing one cool thing already just by having such a great little titlethis is just such a fun premise for a romantic thriller to explore, bouncing us between the 40s and 90s and two different iterations of a romance the movie swoons about insisting couldn't be bound by anything as mere as time, even if out here in the future of the real world, we're pretty well aware that, no, time indeed wounds all heels.  But for the present, we do get to have some fun, with Branagh's recreation of the 40s finding a nice middle-ground between period noir and period romance, though maybe its formal recreation has already hits its peak in its first gesturesthe expressionistic lighting in Roman's prison cell, that introduces him by way of unmotivated shadows so sharply-edged they're like a black maskand if you pick up on something subliminally "off," and you might, that's likely because while Branagh has marked his time periods by putting one in color and one in black-and-white, the 40s stuff wasn't shot in black-and-white, but desaturated later due to the hostile confusion of test audiences.  One guesses that Branagh must've assumed that the 90s being "the cartoon American accent and no beard" part would be differentiation enough, but it's kind of disappointing that the single most obvious thing in the world failed to occur to him (even more obvious than I've made it sound, since Dead Again wants you to understand it's in conversation with Psycho, a most famously black-and-white film), though some of the 40s sequences lend themselves so readily to black-and-white that you can wonder whether once the director said to himself after the test screenings, "oh, right," he didn't go back and add at least a couple of newly-filmed shotsRoman's first appearance looming out of darkness, the graphic abstraction of blood spatter on a silk curtainas a remedial measure.  And it's not like it's unhandsome, though I'm frankly more impressed with Matthew Leonetti's actual color photography, particularly in its hazy rendition of Madson's candlelit hypnosis den in the back of his creepy Amicus Horror-style antiques shop, and with the combination of long cross-dissolves with an orbiting camera to get at the slipperiness of time for these souls who've undertaken a long voyage together through eternity.

Pitching their voyage more as a mysterymaybe Roman/Mike didn't kill Margaret/Grace, but maybe he did, or maybe we even misunderstand this entirelyis a natural way into the story, and the ideas the movie gets to play with on the way to its destination are unusual enough that even if it weren't a good mystery, it would make it incredibly easy to enjoy it for the journey.  And that's extremely fortunate, because the mystery, not to put too fine a point on it, fucking sucks, insofar as once we arrive at the conclusion of our tale, it's difficult not to be mad that the movie only happens at all for the most incredibly stupid and contrived reasons.  (Not to spoil anything, though I feel like the main thrust is pretty obviousand it's blazingly obvious if you know who Branagh's favorite actor is, and while that actor's turn as Hamlet was what set Branagh on his path, the reason he went to go see Hamlet in the first place was because of his stammering Claudius in I, Claudius on TVbut while the movie more-or-less outright begs you not to think too hard about it, you will ask it, "Hey, you realize that memories dredged up through past-life regression aren't evidence, don't you, you moron?"  That's before we even get into the fundamental motivations pointing more in the direction of some satisfying sleaze than being actually, satisfyingly sleazy, so it's at this point that I'd like to openly question why the movie even got an R rating.  It's certainly violent but unless it's literally all down to the rad death that closes out the film, it's hardly unsustainably gory, whereas Thompson doesn't take her top off, and they don't even say "fuck" often enough, and when they do it's more like wallpaper, that it would've been particularly hard to cut the swearing down to an acceptable level.)

It feels like all I'm doing is bitching about it with the occasional compliment thrown in, and I'm sure that gives off the wrong impression: I kind of adore Dead Again, and wish its problems weren't so salient that I could adore it more.  Its strengths are mostly to the side of being a mysteryI would not necessarily commit to saying its strengths are to the side of being a supernatural thriller, which is at least somewhat differentbut the very fact that its crimes are (mostly) buried in the past, and are presently being exhumed only by some frankly rather silly means, gives it a certain permission to not be too urgent about being a supernatural thriller.  A lot of the film's best moves happen in the space this opens up, between "so what's the deal with this spousal murder?" and "this movie has been openly designed as a love token from Kenneth Branagh to Emma Thompson."  It can commit to the latter mode to an extent that it can downshift into something almost like an Angeleno hang-out movie, and one given some genuinely likeable, if slightly jagged, romcom textures by way of Mike's kooky supporting cast, notably the wink-wink-nudge-nudge antics of his ultimately decent-hearted sidekick (Wayne Knight) and the disgraced psychiatrist who now holds his sessions in the meat freezer of the grocery store he works at (a keenly stunt-cast and extra-grubby Robin Williams), who unexpectedly turns out to believe pretty wholeheartedly in all this goofball spiritualism.

Even the arguably off-putting notes this sometimes results inwhat Branagh might call "laddishness," were his American dialect not so unnoticeably flawlesscomes off to me, in Branagh's execution of Scott Frank's screenplay, more along the lines of "guys, tell my wife she's hot", and if you don't want to interpret that as sweet, well, it's a movie with a surfeit of personality, which is its own reward anyway.  It eventually arrives at a point with the (vastly) better of the film's two twistsso vastly better that I wish it had been the only twist and they'd elaborated out from that insteadthat goes into some dark, emotionally ugly places that could make you irresponsibly speculate that Branagh and Thompson's marriage was already having problems, or, of course, it could just be two terribly good actors comfortable enough with each other's styles and physicalities to credibly pretend; it finds its ways into some very lovely, loving places, too.  Likewise, Branagh isn't not doing that thriller, and eventually both his movie's principal goals merge, with some (literally) operatic cross-cutting across the gulf of decades to heal hurts that even death hadn't salved.  And by the end"dumb" or not, it's stirring and just plain good thriller filmmakingyou can tell Branagh's definitely seen some Brian De Palma movies, which I absolutely mean as a compliment.  Though I'd never have had to ask why a De Palma movie was rated R, and he always got his wife to take her top off.  What?  She is hot.

Score: 7/10

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