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Posts Tagged ‘Kenneth Branagh’

Tommy Wiseau, perhaps infamously, paid for The Room to run in a Los Angeles cinema for two full weeks, simply (or so the story has it) so it would qualify as a potential nominee for the Academy Awards. Well, you can’t argue with optimism, can you; needless to say The Room did not overly trouble the Oscars that year. Other films also pitch their release with an eye on the awards season, perhaps with better reason, and yet still struggle to make an impact. This brings us to Kenneth Branagh’s All is True, starring – and this may not come as a surprise to you – Kenneth Branagh.

Branagh is known as one of the great cinematic interpreters of Shakespeare of our time (as well as the fellow in charge of the first Thor; the one with the crazy moustache in that film on the train; and the guy in charge of the giant mechanical tarantula in Wild Wild West – this is what you call an eclectic CV), but on this occasion he turns his attention to the man behind the plays. The film opens in 1613 with Shakespeare’s beloved Globe Theatre just having burned down when the special effects turned out to be a bit too special. Now he returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon and a wife (Judi Dench) and two daughters to whom he is essentially a stranger.

Shakespeare decides to create a garden in memory of the son who he still has such fond memories of, despite his dying of the plague nearly twenty years earlier. Elsewhere, scandal threatens to engulf the family on a couple of occasions, there is a brief visit from his former patron the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), and scenes depicting Shakespeare’s continuing concerns about his legacy, both financially and artistically.

Perhaps the key thing you need to understand about All is True (NB: title is almost certainly not accurate) is that it is the work of Ben Elton, not a man especially associated with the traditional style of costume drama. Elton’s own place in posterity has long been assured simply by his work on the various iterations of Blackadder (and some musicals, if you insist); most recently, though, his highest-profile offering in the UK has been the sitcom Upstart Crow, a comedic take on the life of… William Shakespeare.

I haven’t been able to find much out about the origins of All is True (the film was virtually made in secret) but it’s impossible to believe that Elton’s research for the comedy show hasn’t informed and possibly inspired elements of this film. However, one does get a sense of the writer being hyper-alert to people drawing comparisons between the two, or perhaps with Shakespeare in Love (is it twenty years already? Mercy), and this being the reason why All is True seems to go out of its way to not be remotely funny practically all the way through.

This is the main problem with the film: almost totally bereft of lightness and largely shot in drab, naturalistic colours, with Branagh making much use of long, static shots, it feels like very hard work. Maybe the director was going for a theatrical feel – but instead it just feels inert and mannered, lacking in vibrancy or interest. This is really compounded by the material that Elton has to work with. We still know relatively little about Shakespeare the man – this is one of the reasons why the debates about the authorship of his plays have creaked on into their third century – and what we do know is relatively quotidian. The film makes the point of the fact that Shakespeare led a very ordinary life considering his status as one of the greatest artists in history – here, he is obsessed by his social standing, worried about money and his reputation, and so on. There’s only one really interesting part to the whole of Shakespeare’s life, namely the death of his son Hamnet (five years or so before the writing of Hamlet), and virtually every piece of fiction concerning his later life includes this as a key point; All is True is no exception. As usual, the film smoothly obfuscates the difference between the generally-established historical facts concerning Hamnet Shakespeare and his relationship with his father, and the dramatically fictionalised version of the story Ben Elton has dreamed up.

Oh well. The least you can say about the film is that it looks good (it’s a British costume drama, so no real surprises there) and there are certainly some good performances. There’s nothing wrong at all with Branagh as Shakespeare, even though he is saddled with some slightly iffy prosthetics so he more resembles our image of the great man. Judi Dench is solid in support, while contributing a typically classy cameo is Ian McKellen, who I have to say slightly resembles Vincent Price in Witchfinder General on this occasion. It does seem to me that the film is stretching a bit to cast big names in these supporting roles – Mrs Shakespeare was a bit older than her husband, it is true, but not by the twenty-plus years that separate Branagh and Dench – was there not a slightly younger actress with a bit of gravitas they could have employed? (I’m tempted to suggest Anne Hathaway might have been a good choice.) When it comes to McKellen as the Earl… well, the movie adopts the theory that there was indeed something going on between Shakespeare and Southampton, and that the nobleman was indeed the ‘fair youth’ mentioned in the sonnets. Fair enough, but on what planet would Kenneth Branagh ever refer to Ian McKellen as a youth of any kind? He’s old enough to be his father, whereas the historical Earl was nearly a decade younger. The film awkwardly tries to negotiate its way around this by having McKellen declare ‘I grew old’ but it really doesn’t fix this problem.

Still, at least Branagh’s scenes with McKellen serve to lift the film a bit – much of the rest of it is genuinely quite dull, not helped by the turgid directorial style Branagh has chosen to adopt and the lack of any real incident for long stretches – there’s a lot of gardening, and a slander case, and a scandal about one of Shakespeare’s sons-in-law, and some tensions about the fact that the other is a Puritan in favour of closing all the theatres – but if it was about anyone else but Shakespeare, this story would never have been filmed. I am not really surprised this film has failed to make much impression, either critically or with the wider audience, despite all the talent involved. The problem is that the reason we remember Shakespeare is not because he led a fabulously interesting life and did many interesting things, but because he lived a fairly quiet life sitting in a room writing brilliant stories. The best way to do a movie about Shakespeare is to tell one of those brilliant stories, not make up a distinctly so-so new one about the man himself. I still don’t believe the title of All is True is accurate, but even if it is, it just goes to illustrate why writers are sometimes better off making things up.

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‘Allo everybodee! Do not paneek. Your regulair correspondent is busy writeeng ze tradeetional awfool novel as part of somezing called ze Nanowrimo, and so I, ze great Hercule Poirot, ‘ave been asked to feel in for ‘im. Ze timeeng is, ‘ow you say, fortuitous, for zees allows me to investigate ze strange case of ze new movie of one of ma most celebrated casees, Kenneth Brannair’s Murder on the Orient Express, based on ze novel by ma old choom Agathair Christie (or ‘Aggie’, as I always used to call ‘er).

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-New-Film-Poster

Why ‘ave zey decided to do anuzzair version of zis, ‘ow you say, old chestnut? What is ze appeal? Well, I suppose zere is always ze fact that Aggie’s books steel sell by ze truckload, so zere is kind of ze built-in audience, to say nothing of ze marquee value in ze Murder on the Orient Express name. So it is ze safe bet for ze big box office, maybe.

Playing me, ze great Poirot, is M. Brannair ‘imself (we shall come back to zees). At ze start of ze movie he is sorteeng out some nonsense in Jerusalem, which I do not recall telleeng Aggie about, leadeeng me to deduce that ze scriptwriter ‘as made it all oop for some reason. I suppose it is to do wiz subtext or whatevair.

Anyhow, soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is summoned back to Britain, which requires ‘im to travel on ze famous Orient Express. On ze train with ‘im are a right boonch of dodgy characters, ‘oo are played by what you call ze all-star cast. Zere are the much-loved acteeng veterans (Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi), ze big-name ‘Ollywood stars (Johnny Dipp and Michelle P-fiffer), and a few oop and comeeng new stars. ‘Ere, for instance, is Daisy Ridley, possibly because ze studio would like to see if she can ‘ave any kind of career beyond what I am apparently obliged to refer to as ze ‘stellair conflict franchise’ (your regular correspondent is a very odd and rathair silly fellow, n’est-ce pas?).

Well, I ‘ave to say we are quite a long way into Murder on the Orient Express before zere is actually a murder on ze Orient Express, but soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is on the case, findeeng ‘e as to contend with a baffling multiplicity of evidence. Can ze Brannair-Poirot breeng ze killair to joostice? Or ‘as ‘e bloondered into somewhat deepair philosophical watairs?

Hmmm. Ze first thing I ‘ave to say about M. Brannair’s movie is zat I was not at first terribly impressed by his performance as me. ‘E ‘as given ‘imself a moostash which makes it look like some minkeys are ‘ideeng oop ‘is nuzz, and ‘e plays me as if I ‘ave ze OCD. It almost makes me zink M. Brannair is takeeng ze mickey out of ze great Poirot. It is ze very big and broad performance.

Zen again, zis is ze fairly big and broad movie, made on ze laveesh scale wiz plenty of ze CGI, which if nuzzink else means it does not look like ze Sunday night telly, a trap into which many of zese period movies fall. On ze othair ‘and, it does ze tradeetional period movie zing where all ze production value and set designs are carefully stook oop on ze screen. Zere are many shots of people foldeeng ze napkins and so on; it often looks more like a big commaircial for ze train ‘oliday zan ze actual murdair-mystery.

Ze sense that M. Brannair is once again playeeng it all rathair safe as a director is confirmed as ze movie goes on, for zis seems very much like ze Christie movie done by ze numbairs. Zere is, as I ‘ave mentioned, ze all-star cast; later on zere is ze bit where I, ze great Poirot, assemble all ze suspects and reveal ‘oo it was that actually dunnit. Of course zees is modern ‘Ollywood and so there is some fisticuffs and shooteng which I do not recall actually ‘appening at ze time, but c’est la vie, especially if you are a fictional detective.

Zis is of course ze very famoos story, and I am willeeng to bet that many people who ‘ave nevair read Aggie’s book already know this story and ze somewhat unusual tweest in ze tale. ‘Owever, ze actual mechanics of ze mystery seem to get a leetle bit lost beneath all ze gloss and ze big performances (I ‘ave to say I did warm oop to ze Brannair-Poirot once I ‘ad got used to ze ridiculous moostash). Certainly I get ze sense that the actual ‘oodunnit is fighteeng for prominence alongside everything else in ze movie.

I did ask your regular correspondent what ‘e thought of ze story, which ‘e apparently read in one sitting on a dull day in Bishkek some years ago. ‘E said ‘e thought it was okay, but was left a little morally queasy by ze conclusion of ze tale (I cannot say more wizzout it being a spoiler alert). Well, if zere is one thing to be said for M. Brannair’s take on ze movie it is that it does not shy away from the moral ambiguity at ze ‘eart of ze story, and indeed elevates it to a rathair central position in proceedeengs. Maybe zees makes me, ze great Poirot, look a bit lackeeng in moral authority, but frankly this is less worrying for me than zat stupid moostash which M. Brannair ‘as insisted on wearing.

Well, in ze end, I suppose zees movie will do okay: it looks nice, it ‘as ze good cast giving ze crowd-pleaseeng performances, and ze ‘ole zing works very ‘ard to give off ze touch of class in every department. All I will say is zat ze studio seem to think zey are making a jolly, cosy, tradeetional murdair-mystery film, while M. Brannair sometimes appears to be under ze impression he is making ze very serious film about ze absence of ze moral absolutes and ze wounding of ze soul which can be caused by guilt and grief. Wiz a very big moostash. If zese two things do not go together perfectly, zen that explain why ze new version of Murder on the Orient Express sometimes feels like a train with an engine at each end, pulleeng it in more than one direction at a time. Maybe as a result it doesn’t really end up goeeng anywhere much, but at least ze scenery is nice dureeng ze trip.

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There is something odd in the English mentality that sometimes makes us more enthusiastic about celebrating our narrow squeaks and mitigated disasters than commemorating our genuine national triumphs. (I’m almost tempted to suggest this because genuine English national triumphs have been thin on the ground for some time now, but I feel besieged enough right now, thanks.) Perhaps it’s just our famous national sense of fair play that makes us want to stick up for the underdog. Especially when the underdog is us. At the moment there may be very particular reasons for this sort of thing – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The latest example of someone getting nostalgic about a pretty bad day is the new movie from Christopher Nolan. Having already treated us to Insomnia, Inception, and Interstellar, Nolan’s new movie is entitled InDunkirk (in some territories – specifically the interior of my head, but I digress). Oh, all right, it may actually be called Dunkirk, but it’s set in and around the town of that name, at the back end of May 1940.

The story of Dunkirk has genuinely become a part of the British national myth, but I’m genuinely uncertain as to how well-known it is around the world. Nolan wisely takes no chances and opens the film with a set of captions filling in the story so far – with the Nazi war machine sweeping west across Europe, the British army and its allies find themselves surrounded in the French port of Dunkirk. With the enemy closing in, the need to get the men off the beaches and over the channel to England is becoming desperate. But how is the miracle to be accomplished?

Nolan’s movie focuses on a handful of different storylines, set on land, sea, and in the air. A young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) makes his way to the allied enclave, and desperately attempts to get onto one of the ships taking soldiers off the beach, as discipline begins to falter amongst the trapped men. The owner of one of the ‘little ships’ (Mark Rylance) sets off across the channel, determined to do his bit and save as many of his countrymen as he can. And a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) attempts to protect the ships taking off the army from the depredations of Luftwaffe dive-bombers.

As you can perhaps discern, this is not quite a traditionally epic war movie, built around a specific narrative. Instead it seems to be trying to offer up an almost impressionistic experience of what it felt like to go through the ordeal of the Dunkirk evacuation. The storyline of the movie is quite straightforward, and there is correspondingly little exposition, just a succession of set-pieces. Nolan is, characteristically, attempting to do something clever and tricksy with the film’s handling of space and time, but it takes quite a while for this to become completely clear.

It comes as no great surprise to find regular Nolan collaborators like Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy in the movie (apparently Michael Caine also contributes a vocal cameo), nor, really, distinguished thespians like Ken Branagh or Mark Rylance. It has to be said that these gentlemen are occupying the somewhat-coveted ‘With’ and ‘And’ section of the cast list, with many of the main roles played by younger, less famous actors such as Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Barry Keoghan. Also making a fairly substantial appearance is the quadro-mammaried popstrel Harry Styles, who apparently used to be in some boy band or other. Styles is actually perfectly acceptable in this movie, which I fear is only going to encourage him to keep acting. You can’t have everything, I suppose. It is notable, I think, that Christopher Nolan has managed to make a major film with a cast almost exclusively composed of white men, without anyone kicking off about it – maybe he really does have magic powers. (It’s enough to gladden the heart of a thundering misogynist.)

While doing my research for this piece (quiet at the back – of course I do research), I discovered that Dunkirk is based on a script which Nolan wrote donkey’s years ago, long before his rise to prominence as a director. Apparently he put it on ice while he gathered enough experience making large-scale Hollywood blockbusters (can’t argue with a confident man, I guess), and in some ways it feels like something written in a different mode – it has some of the audacity of Nolan’s most celebrated work, but not really the narrative density or thematic strength which you associate with those films. He appears to be trying to make the film work more on a visceral level, but it is a qualified success at best in this regard.

And I have to say that, while it still feels unlikely that Nolan will ever make a film which is less than accomplished and engaging, I left this one without the same joyous sense of having had the possibilities of cinema confirmed for me that I felt after all the other Nolan films I’ve seen. Naturally, I seem to be in a tiny minority on this one (just for a change), as many professional film-watchers are announcing this is Christopher Nolan’s best film yet, and a sign of him finally realising his promise as a film-maker. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I do think it’s a bit suspicious that it’s Nolan’s first film in fifteen years that isn’t on some level a fantasy or an SF movie that has been hailed as marking his admission to the grown-up’s club. It seems you just can’t get respect making certain kinds of genre movie, even if they’re as exceptional as Inception or The Dark Knight.

Then again it may just be that this is one of those films which it is just unacceptable to give a negative review to, not just because of the director and cast, but because of the subject matter itself – slightly absurd though it sounds, giving the thumbs down to Dunkirk could be interpreted as disparaging one of the defining moments in the modern British narrative, along with everyone involved in those events. We are in the middle of a bunch of movies about the Second World War at the moment – recently we’ve had Churchill and Their Finest Hour, with yet another Churchill bio-pic (Darkest Hour) being trailed before Dunkirk itself. Is it just a coincidence that all these films about Britain heroically going it alone should be making an appearance at the moment? I’m sure Nolan is not setting out to make particular political points with Dunkirk, but I note that the film’s parting shot – a reminder that this muddled withdrawal of Britain from Europe was not a triumph, and should not be treated as one – is not one of the elements being lionised by its supporters in the media.

As I say, Christopher Nolan seems incapable of making a bad film, and watching Dunkirk should prove a memorable experience for virtually anyone: it is full of striking images, heart-felt performances, moments that stay with you. By almost anyone’s standards it is a good, if somewhat unconventional war movie and historical drama. But I have to say that of all the Nolan movies that I’ve seen, it’s the one I can least imagine myself sitting down to watch again and again, even if that says more about his exceptional track-record than anything else.

 

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Not many people can claim to have a movie genre with their name on it, especially if they work across a whole range of styles and tones. If you make a serious gangster film, then people say you’ve made a crime drama, not something that’s essentially a Martin Scorsese film; if you make a giant monster movie, then they call it a monster movie (if they’re feeling charitable), not an Ishiro Honda-type picture. But if you make a comedy-drama about the lives of New Yorkers, fairly understated in tone, probably focused on their relationships, and very likely in black and white, it’s probably going to be suggested that you’ve made a Woody Allen movie, no matter whether you’re Noah Baumbach (a director who seems to visit Allenesque territory more than most) or whoever.

One of the things which has come to characterise Allen’s movies in recent years is that the director himself has made fewer and fewer appearances in front of the camera – he’s only been in one of his own films in the last ten years, narration duties aside – and this has led to the slightly odd phenomenon of the Proxy Allen, whereby another performer comes in and plays the character whom Allen would clearly have taken on were he still in his thirties or forties. Sometimes the actor involved is such an obvious substitute for Allen that the results are more or less seamless – for example, Jesse Eisenberg often seems to be doing his take on Allen’s schtick even when he’s appearing in other movies, so for him to do it in, say, Cafe Society, is hardly unexpected. John Cusack’s attempt at the same thing in Bullets over Broadway is likewise not a particular stretch.

However, we are here to talk about Allen’s 1998 film, Celebrity, made during one of the periods where his touch and instinct generally seem to have deserted him a little. The film concerns a couple of characters and their various encounters with celebrity culture of the period. As as not unusual for an Allen movie, there is a not-especially-subtle structure to the story: Lee (Kenneth Branagh) is a writer and journalist, who – perhaps almost despite himself – really aspires to fame and everything associated with it, but finds it always just out of reach as he blunders through a series of farcical encounters with models, actresses, and celebrity authors. Judy Davis plays Lee’s ex-wife Robin, whom he leaves at the start of the film – Judy has no desire to be famous whatsoever, which means she inevitably ends up rising without trace to a genuine degree of prominence (though her own experiences along the way are also fairly absurd).

The Proxy Allen character in this movie, in case you haven’t figured it out, is played by Kenneth Branagh, who in the late 90s seemed to be making a genuine attempt to become a proper Hollywood star (he turned up in Wild Wild West the following year). Now, I like Kenneth Branagh, and enjoy his work as both an actor and a director very much, but I have to say he is not someone who naturally comes to mind as a substitute for Woody Allen. Nevertheless, Branagh shows his quality by turning in a performance which is frequently very funny indeed, hitting just enough of the Allen beats to work, despite the obvious differences in appearance and performing style. The biggest difference, for me, was that Lee is slightly shabby and sleazy in a way that Allen characters generally aren’t – lots of Allen characters behave pretty badly towards women whom they’re involved with, but it’s almost as if the director gives himself a pass. Branagh seems more willing to acknowledge the unpleasantness of the character he’s playing, possibly because it isn’t on some level a version of himself.

It’s fairly clear that Allen believes he is making a sophisticated and insightful statement about the nature of fame and our society’s relationship with it, rather than just making a knockabout comedy. This probably explains why the film is in black and white, because nothing projects significant artiness like making a movie in black and white (to Allen’s credit, there is a neat gag about the pretentiousness of directors who still insist on making black-and-white films). On the whole, though, I’m not sure the director succeeds in achieving his ambition.

This is a fairly picaresque movie, and as usual with this sort of project, it stands or falls by the quality of the individual episodes along the way – and, I have to say, it’s a pretty mixed bag. There’s a very funny sequence where Lee is dragged along on a debauched weekend away by a self-absorbed young star (Leonardo DiCaprio) whom he’s trying to sell a script to – at one point Lee tries to hold a script conference in the middle of an orgy – but too often the satire is just too broad to be really effective, or Allen just seems to be indulging himself in the usual themes of how socially awkward guys who can write are sexually irresistible to attractive young women. Some of the comedy is rather broader and coarser than you normally find in an Allen movie, too – there’s a scene in which Bebe Neuwith nearly chokes to death on a banana while giving tips on how to perform oral sex, for instance. Then again, it was the late 90s, and this may just be a sign of the director attempting to adapt his style to a cinematic landscape he was now sharing with people like the Farrelly brothers.

It is terribly late 90s, too – quite apart from Leonardo Dicaprio, whose career was just post-boat at this point, there are also people like Winona Ryder in the cast. There’s probably something slightly ironic about the fact that so many people in minor and supporting roles in this film have since gone on to be genuine celebrities themselves – Debra Messing, Charlize Theron, Jeffrey Wright, JK Simmons, and so on.

However the film’s biggest, blackest joke for modern audiences comes towards the end, when Robin finds herself interviewing a succession of prominent New Yorkers in a chic restaurant. The film is about the general worthlessness and corrosive toxicity of celebrity, and its negative effects on society. So it seems somehow utterly appropriate that the only famous person who appears in this movie as himself is the Insane Clown President, Donald Trump, who turns up for an entirely unfunny cameo. On some level, I suppose, we have to concede Allen’s overall point, even if in this case the joke is on the entire world. On the whole, though, a fairly insubstantial and inconsistent movie.

 

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You often hear people talking about proverbially unfilmable books – Ulysses, or A Suitable Boy, or whatever – although, of course, there is a long history of ‘unfilmable’ stories actually making quite decent and occasionally exceptional films, given the right treatment. What seems to me to be less commented-upon is the phenomenon of certain novels being endlessly adapted for film and TV, but never both well and faithfully.

We’re usually talking about ‘classic’ literature here – though it’s getting to the point where certain superhero comics also qualify – and I’m thinking particularly of 19th century Gothic Horror. There have been umpty-tump versions of Dracula, to say nothing of sequels and spin-off movies, and generally the ones that have really succeeded have been the ones with a less reverential approach to the source. The same goes for Frankenstein: this is one of those novels which, in many ways, defines the modern age, and yet I’ve never seen a film adaptation of the book which has really impressed me. (The best version I’ve seen was a TV mini-series from 1973, with Leonard Whiting and Michael Sarrazin in the two lead roles, and even this diverged a lot from the novel in many respects.)

Still, until recently I hadn’t seen the 1994 version of the story, helpfully titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to distinguish it from all those other stories with the same name by other people. Or, perhaps more fully, Francis Ford Coppola’s Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as this was the key talent involved as producer and director.

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Ken Branagh being Ken Branagh, he naturally casts himself as Victor Frankenstein, here a precocious young scientist (there’s no mention of him being nobility this time around, but he is still clearly rich and posh). And Branagh being Branagh, the cast list is also stuffed with British thespians: this does actually resemble a dress-rehearsal for a Harry Potter movie, so many of the performers here moved on to that series.

This movie sticks to the original structure, which opens at the North Pole with some explorers happening upon a desperate Frankenstein being pursued across the ice by… what? Scenes of sled dogs meeting a sticky end suggest we may have wandered into Mary Shelley’s The Thing by mistake, but no. Frankenstein tells his story, with accompanying flashback: traumatised by the premature death of his mum (Cherie Lunghi) – a motivation-bolstering amendation of Shelley – a youthful Frankenstein puts aside his romantic feelings for his adopted sister (Helena Bonham-Carter) and heads off to university, where he finds himself drawn to forbidden areas of research. Despite the misgivings of his mentor (John Cleese, playing it straight behind some rather peculiar dentures), he sets about manufacturing a perfected form of human life – and when that mentor is pointlessly murdered, Frankenstein instantly sees a way for his patron to live on. Well, bits of him, anyway…

The artificial man created by Frankenstein’s experiments is not quite what our hero was expecting, and in the context of the movie he cuts a striking, unusual figure, mainly because he is played by Robert de Niro rather than another of Ken’s luvvie mates. Frankenstein tries to get rid of his creature almost at once, and believes it has perished in a cholera outbreak. Henceforth swearing off unholy experiments and demarcation disputes over the provision of the vital spark, our man heads home to marry his sister. Sorry, adopted sister.

However, the Creature has survived, and wandered into an 18th century episode of The Good Life. Hiding out in the pig sty of elderly smallholder Richard Briers, the Creature learns to read, speak, and generally make sense of the world around him. Yes, this bit does stretch credulity a bit, but the film tries hard to make it work, and I think there’s an even dodgier subplot in the book about a fleeing Arabian princess which has actually been cut. Eventually the Creature decides he has not been treated properly by his creator and sets off to demand reparations…

This is a good-looking, pacy movie, and for the most part reasonably faithful to the book – much moreso, it has to be said, than either of the most famous versions from Hammer or Universal. The cast is good and there is nothing particularly bad about the script or direction either.

And yet I couldn’t really say this was a great Frankenstein. I know this film has drawn a good deal of sniggery criticism for the sheer number of scenes in which Ken Branagh runs around in leather trews with his shirt off, the suggestion being that this is evidence of a certain self-regard on the the director’s part. I’m inclined to cut Ken some slack on this front, not necessarily because there is something thematic about overweening vanity going on – though I’ve heard this argued – but because it does tie into a sort of Romantic hyperactivity which is central to this film.

Ken’s a bright bloke and he has clearly settled on the famous connection between Frankenstein and the Romantic poets as being a worthwhile line of attack. And so it is that the emotional pitch of this movie is never knowing understated. People are never happy in this film, they are convulsed with ecstatic joy; they never just dance, they hurl themselves across the screen while the camera swoops around them; they never just grieve, they are consumed with devastating, paralysing despair. The film is always turned up to 11, and considering how fast the story rattles along the results are desensitising, not to mention exhausting – you never have a moment to catch your breath and really think about what’s happening in the story.

This is a shame, as Frankenstein is obviously a story loaded with ideas, and this version of it doesn’t really get a chance to explore them. The handling of the relationship between Frankenstein and the Creature is, surely, central to whether or not a version of this story works – and this one is just about there, but no more, simply because they don’t really share enough screen time.

And this doesn’t really work as a horror movie for most of its length, either. The film tries hard to be credible and avoid the cliches of other versions – but substituting the iconic bolt of lightning with a shoal of trained electric eels is not a decision I would personally have gone for. The moment in which the eels are let loose is central to all of the creation sequences in this film and I suppose it’s a minor miracle they do not become unintentionally funny as a result. Needless to say, the eels are not in the book; nor is a sequence in which Frankenstein and the Creature find themselves in a very strange love triangle with a ‘bride’ character. This is the bit of the film which actually does work as a piece of horror, all about twisted passions and dangerous obsessions – but it comes very late and it’s over too soon.  (In contrast, the major plot point that Frankenstein is in a quasi-incestuous relationship with his adopted sister is barely explored.)

So I would say this movie is okay, both as a movie and as a version of Frankenstein. I suppose this is a bit of a disappointment given the magnitude of the talents involved in making it, but there you go. Full marks for trying to be faithful to the novel (eels excepted), and also to Ken for finding an interesting new take on the original material. But it doesn’t quite (ha, ha) bring Frankenstein or his creation fully to life.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 28th 2002:

As dedicated readers of my collected works may recall, I wasn’t tremendously impressed by Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the series of films based on J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books: it seemed too pleased with itself, too doggedly devoted to the text of the novel, and – above all – much too long. Not to mention that it came out very close to The Fellowship of the Ring, next to which almost any fantasy film would be found wanting.

Obviously, though, I was in the minority on this (as with so much else) and the film duly proceeded to become the second biggest money spinner of all time – and now, implacably, inevitably, the machine has geared up and produced Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, directed once again by Chris Columbus.

So off we trundled to see it, pausing only to pack sleeping bags, iron rations, and a supply of batteries for our electric razors – because the first film had its moments, after all, and Chamber of Secrets is probably my favourite of the books. Breath was duly bated – would it live up to the hype this time?

Well, calloo callay, and so on, because in nearly every way this film improves on its predecessor. It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to describe it as ‘darker and funnier’, but that’s what it is. In it, Harry Potter (still played by Daniel Radcliffe, still afflicted with a dodgy barnet) finds that the onset of puberty means he must do battle with an alarming, malevolent serpent. But in his case this is more than mere metaphor. The new menace is inextricably linked to Harry’s own heritage and the history of Hogwarts, and will place Harry and his friends in deadly peril…

The producers seem to have redoubled their efforts to get every single British actor of note to appear in the series1, and joining the likes of Maggie Smith, Richard Griffiths, Julie Walters and the late Richard Harris in this installment are the likes of Mark Williams, Miriam Margolyes, Jason Isaacs, Robert Hardy, Julian Glover, an almost unrecognisable Shirley Henderson, and, best of all, Kenneth Branagh, who gives an uproarious turn as the vainglorious Gilderoy Lockhart. The downside to all these new faces are that some of the cast (most noticeably Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman) are somewhat eclipsed (the chemistry between Rickman and Branagh is a delight and very under exploited).

But at the heart of the film are the performances of the various young actors in the principal roles. To be honest, some of these performances are irritatingly over-emphatic or one-note, but this made up for by Radcliffe’s increasing assurance as a performer. A brief thumbs up to newcomer Christian Coulson, too, who hits exactly the right pitch in one of the film’s crucial roles.

Chamber of Secrets is, even mores than its predecessor, arse-murderingly long, but you’re aware of this fact much less often. Only at the very end does the pace let up, and (a brief glance at the book tells me) this is mainly because a lot of extraneous material has been cut. At the same time the story has been subtly tweaked to make it more cinematic – the beefed-up encounter with Aragog and family easily surpasses anything in Eight Legged Freaks. My only complaint on this front would be that the ultimate villain’s motivation has been snipped, reducing him to the level of troublemaker rather than Machiavellian schemer. Ah well.

The technical side of things has been spruced up as well – the special effects are much less cartoony, which was probably inevitable given the wide array of CGI beasties in the story. Columbus’ direction displays new-found flair – am I the only one who sees the influence of a certain Kiwi director in the swooping camera movements around Hogwarts and its exterior? The soundtrack occasionally seems like a selection from John Williams’ back catalogue, but it does the job.

Any film based on the Harry Potter books would be pretty much guaranteed to rake in money, no matter what its quality, so it’s nice to see genuine effort has gone into trying to make a film that does justice to J K Rowling’s remarkable prose. I still can’t see how they’ll be able to tackle the other books in this much detail – at this rate Goblet of Fire won’t be so much a night out as a weekend away – but, for the time being, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a big step in the right direction.

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Regular readers may have come across my observation that, in the past, Hollywood shows odd tendencies when it comes to rewarding young actresses who have proven themselves to have considerable talent. Are these women given the chance to shine in thoughtful, mature dramas, that offer us a deeper insight into life when seen from a feminine perspective? They are not. They are, more often than not, stuffed into a big-budget knuckle-dragging special-effects-focussed genre movie. To wit: Halle Berre in Catwoman (and much else besides), Charlize Theron and Sophie Okenodo in AEon Flux, and Anna Paquin in the X-Men series, amongst others. Now you would have thought that recent Oscar laureate Natalie Portman would be spared this kind of treatment, having already served her time in the Star Wars prequels, but apparently not: already in the can when she won, and now erupting onto the screen in boisterous 3D, is Marvel Studios’ latest offering, Thor, in which she is the leading lady.

This is not so much a case of Mallett’s Mallet as Branagh’s Hammer. In line with their usual policy of, er, interesting directorial choices, Marvel have recruited Ken Branagh to bring this movie to the screen. (Still no sign of Edgar Wright’s take on Ant-Man, alas.) The logic behind this seems a little suspect to me but Ken makes a pretty good fist of telling what, at first glance, sounds like an immensely stupid story.

Peace reigns in the Eternal Realm of Asgard, along with Odin the All-father, King of the Gods (Anthony Hopkins, not quite phoning it in). But there is discord between his sons, the proud and braggartly warrior Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the devious and roguish sorcerer Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Jealous of his brother, Loki manipulates Thor into attacking Jotunheim, realm of the Frost Giants, nearly provoking war with Asgard. Odin is not best pleased by this sort of behaviour and not only strips Thor of his rank and privileges but banishes him from Asgard, casting him out into a terrible, primitive wasteland…

…also known as the southern USA. Yup, this is that kind of film. Thor crashes to Earth in New Mexico and is nearly run over by passing physicist Jane Foster (Portman) and her friends. Deprived of his godly powers Thor ends up in the local hospital, while his magic hammer Mjiolnir attracts the attention of the good men of SHIELD, led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), whom you may recall from Iron Man 2 where some of this got set up. While Jane, her friends, and SHIELD are trying to figure out what’s going on, and Thor’s trying to get his hammer back, Loki seizes his opportunity and usurps the throne of Asgard from Odin (who is conveniently laid low by a plot device). Will Thor learn humility and wisdom in time to stop Loki’s evil plan?

Well, it’s difficult to go into too much detail here without spoiling the plot, but Loki’s evil plan is really the weak link in the film: it’s just not the sort of thing you’re really going to care about. One of the film’s major strengths is the way in which it is set in vastly and obviously different worlds – Asgard, Earth, and Jotunheim – and it derives much of its energy from the moments when they brush up against each other – armoured Aesir wandering down the main street of a present-day town, for instance. But, come the climax, events move back to Asgard with no immediate threat to Earth or any of the characters there – and it all becomes a bit of an exercise in special-effects virtuosity without any real grounding in reality or emotional weight.

It’s not even as if Earth and Asgard – the two main settings – are presented as contrastingly as they might. Earth isn’t as grimy and mundane, nor Asgard as soaringly otherworldly, as it could be, and I suspect this is mainly due to Thor‘s nature not as a film in its own right but as the latest chapter in Marvel Studios’ ongoing continuity. In addition to the elements continuing from Iron Man 2, Samuel L ‘Mr Post-Credits Sequence’ Jackson pops up once again as Nick Fury, there’s a heavily veiled reference to the Hulk, and Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner) pops up in a role just too small to be satisfying but just big enough to be slightly distracting. More importantly, the end of the film seems structured to leave several of the major characters in the places they need to be for next summer’s Avengers to work.

Having said that, this is a fun and fairly satisfying film with the epic fantasy element giving it an identity separate from most superhero adaptations. There’s relatively little of the large-scale action I was expecting – the sole examples being an opening-reel battle with the Frost Giants and a final act rumble between Thor and a giant metal Asgardian construct (‘Is that one of Stark’s?’ asks a confused SHIELD agent upon seeing it – one of the moments where the film uses continuity to its advantage). Instead there’s more of a focus on character and humour, and the cast Branagh’s recruited is impressive. Stellan Skarsgard is rather good as Portman’s mentor, and also in the movie are people like Rene Russo (who barely gets any dialogue, sadly), Idris Elba from The Wire, and Ray Stevenson. Rather surprisingly, Branagh hasn’t cast Brian Blessed anywhere in this movie despite the abundance of roles he’d be perfect for. What gives, Ken? In the title role, Chris Hemsworth looks striking enough, and his performance isn’t actually bad, but he’s got nothing like the presence of, to pick a wild example, Robert Downey Junior or Samuel L Jackson. Hopefully Hemsworth won’t have an issue with being blasted off the screen, thesp-wise, in future appearances.

I have to say that you wouldn’t recognise this as the work of a director with a record as distinguished as Branagh’s. For a summer blockbuster the direction is fine, and Branagh seems to have worked hard on performances, to the film’s advantage, but it’s not really what you’d call distinctive. Again, the film’s identity as a Marvel product swamps everything else. But I suppose this is the price one pays for a unique experiment such as the one Marvel are currently engaged upon. I enjoyed Thor, but I don’t think it’s a great film by any means, and I’ll be surprised if it makes the kind of money required to turn it into a genuine hit (then again I wasn’t that impressed with the first Iron Man, which everyone loved). In the end, what is my opinion of this movie? I say thee ‘Mmm, well, okay.’

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