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Saturday, May 7, 2011

“Who’s a Good Boy?!” Kenneth Branagh and Thor

A lot of folks like redemption stories and resurrection myths: The accomplished hero tragically falters because of his hubris, seeming to be locked in a stagnant point of no return. And then, contrary to all logic, he ascends with new wisdom and consciousness, more powerful than he was before. I bring this up not because I want to have an in-depth look at the archetypal monomyth attributes of the summer movie season's kickstarter, the Marvel comic book production Thor, but rather because Thor has me thinking a little about its unlikely director, Kenneth Branagh, who has fashioned a movie (or has served as administrator on a movie with a whole lot of graphic artists) that aspires to be his redemption. Branagh is determined that life should mimic art here, for though Branagh is not acting in Thor, it's impossible not to see the film's star, Chris Hemsworth, as a beefed-up and Photoshopped revision of a younger Branagh at his heights with a world of promise to be fulfilled. Thor, the Norse god of Asgaard, is Branagh, whose pride leads him to go too far and be punished by having his powers stripped by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) – or the faith of the studio system. In exile, he finds humility and grace. In his lowest point, his hammer returns to him and he rises, coming back home to fulfill his youthful promise, this time with more temperance and self-awareness.

And it looks like Branagh, much as Thor, will succeed. There's little to say about Thor other than it's a somewhat enjoyable and wryly humorous popcorn flick with lots of explosions, loud noises, and spare-no-expense razzle dazzle. Even if the movie seems to be mostly constructed by a computer, with too many of those annoying panoramic sweeps of a virtual "Other Land," it structurally works in what it sets out to do, much like Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008), and to a lesser extent its sequel, a franchise with which Thor crosses over with the same characters. Thor is worth its matinee admission price (if not the nachos you buy with it), and will probably have an impressively profitable run over the next month. Its fine handling is only more remarkable when one considers how if ever a comic book adaptation would seem an ill-fit for contemporary audiences and can be screwed up all too easily, it's this one. The Teutonic gods and the gilded symmetries of Asgaard seem to be a little too much in the taste of Leni Riefenstahl for leisurely comfort. Over the past 70 years, Norwegians and Germans have gradually lost of a lot of points in the Stock Market of Pop Sexiness. Falafel, sushi, and Guinness are more attractive these days than lefse, bratwurst, and Heineken. The "blonde beast" distorted and appropriated by Hitler from Nietzsche has since become more heel than hero, as evidenced by the John Cusack comedies of the 1980s. But Hemsworth and Branagh do well in making Thor, who would be a douche ski pro in any other movie, kind of a cheekily endearing protagonist. He's the opposite to Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark from Iron Man. Whereas Stark's bratty and snidely arrogant self-consciousness makes him appealing, it's Thor's simplistic and linear lack of skeptical awareness that gives him an elevated charm. He suggests an in-shape Homer Simpson.

Thor begins in that otherworld of Asgaard (or Asgard, I don't know and I don't want to upset the geeks), the title character waiting for his father, Odin, to ceremonially pass along his kingship. Thor is an amazing warrior with his hammer, but that's his problem. He's too headstrong and proud, too eager to seek revenge and get his hands on glory. His dark-haired and clean-shaven brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleton), on the other hand is calm, cunning, and only subtly vicious. They are like a comic book Santino and Michael Corleone. Either way, there will be blood.

Asgaard's gates have been breached by some of their longtime foes, the blue-skinned Ice Giants with whom they've had a truce for a thousand years. Thor defies Odin and takes it upon himself to break the truce, exact revenge, and teach a lesson to the Ice Giant king (Colm Feore) and his army in a sequence that becomes one of the first video-gamey CGI animation battles not to make my stomach turn. Odin is enraged and chastises Thor, who in return cannot subdue his own anger. He grossly insults his father, resulting in his powers (and his hammer) being stripped. He then is banished to the mortal world of Earth.

We can probably talk about a George Bush I & II parallel within the Odin family, particularly when Loki takes the throne and becomes an even greater hawk than his brother. That Loki is in fact from Ice Giant blood and not a true Asgaardian (or as we say, born in Kenya as a radical Muslim, and raised in America) only makes the Bush/Obama war allegory a more alluring interpretive fallacy. Or we can have a psychoanalytical talk about Thor's impotence after his mighty hammer's been taken. In his exquisite mortal shape, even he can't get it up.

But those things, again, are best left to any number of other internet speculations. I choose to focus on the world outside of the film and on Branagh. Like Thor, in his youth Kenneth Branagh seemed like a superhuman force so successful that modesty was simply inessential: His pride obviously was not hurting him, so why put anything in perspective? He dominated the Shakespearian stage in the 1980s, pulling out all the stops in adapting, directing, and playing the lead in 1989's Henry V. Branagh was not about artfulness or subtlety. His Henry V roared with ambitious fury, grit, and glory. The sets were big, the lighting was stylish, the battles were epic, Patrick Doyle's music was nuclear, and the close-ups with spitting Shakespeare talk was perfectly carved ham. Henry V is arguably the best cinematic treatment ever afforded to Shakespeare, topping Olivier and Welles before it, and not being touched since.

It was so successful that while still years away from 30, Branagh penned an autobiography, Beginnings. He was hired by Hollywood to star in and direct a genre thriller based on a nifty Scott Frank screenplay, Dead Again, teaming with his wife Emma Thompson, who thereby established themselves as a glamorous power couple. Dead Again was an often comic and suspenseful reincarnation mystery set in Los Angeles, following private eye Branagh as he falls for amnesiac beauty Thompson and puts together a puzzle where it seems that the two of them were married in a past life, the snag being that he killed her and went to the electric chair for it. The movie is terrific, but if you detach yourself from its intriguing story that effectively sucks you in so as to not notice Branagh's flourishes, you'll see that Doyle's music and the director/star's weird choices during the more climactic moments are nothing short of immensely hyperbolic. As a filmmaker, Branagh's flair birthed in his theatrical training manifests itself in an unchecked face-falling-forward blaring tour de force of craftsmanship. His ego sublimates on his work like a child playing with his war toys, all alone, bombing the world and talking to himself shamelessly (I'm not saying that I'm talking from personal experience, but whatever). 

Even the 1992 nostalgia comedy Peter's Friends, with Branagh, Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, and Rita Rudner, takes a Big Chill-like premise of old college theater chums reuniting, and everything is pushed just a little bit (or a lot) too far, whether in silliness (where it's welcome) or sentiment (where it's kind of not). Branagh stages a reuniting sequence with superfluous joy, his Steadicam covering a little too much ground as his actors show off a little too much expression. The movie works though. Same with Much Ado About Nothing (1993), with Branagh again adapting Shakespeare and making it engaging and often funny as hell, while at the same time completely missing out on the Bard's key ironies and ending up with a little too much sugar in his stew. Whereas Shakespeare's play is a story about people much ado about nothing, Branagh just doesn't understand the "nothing" part. Again, who cares? The movie worked – and even as a comic romance when compared to the high action history of Henry V, the music was bigger, the close-up monologues were bigger, and the cast was bigger – or at least, certainly more expensive (Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard, and Michael Keaton joining Branagh's regulars, including Thompson, Richard Briers, Imelda Staunton, and Brian Blessed).

At this point in time, Branagh looked a hell of a lot like Thor: he was bearded and his blonde hair was growing longer, his pride and arrogance seemed to be tools working in his favor rather than against it, and at age 32 he was prime to take over the world. He was officially known as his own generation's Olivier and seemed to be riding a sustainable wave of success, wrapped in Teflon protection. In 1993, TriStar Pictures hired him to direct and star in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a movie that would cost more than his four previous films combined with a crew of nearly 800. Branagh would be working with Robert De Niro, producer Francis Ford Coppola, screenwriter Frank Darabont, cinematographer Roger Pratt, in addition to Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese, Aidan Quinn, Tom Hulce, and Ian Holm. Given the full confidence of his financiers, the wunderkind filmmaker would also have full creative control and final cut.

To look at Frankenstein is to ask, "What the hell does Branagh think he's doing?" And not in a "well, he's being revolutionary" kind of way either. The director/star did not take his task of adapting Mary Shelley lightly, though he pounds his screen content with such confident and frenetic energy that the rich literary themes from the original text could use some levity in order to be taken seriously. The music is beautiful--but then overreaches. The art direction does the same, then the actors do, and finally the story does. The action following Victor Frankenstein is tender, but it's awfully tender, almost laughably so. And yet when things get grim, gothic, and bloody, again Branagh pumps up the volume to the max in the opposite direction. The fluctuation of moods is so immense in Frankenstein, coupled with a roving Steadicam that only accelerates with the running time, one has to ask, "Is this deliberate?" Is Branagh pulling a David Lynch? Maybe this is supposed to be an unnerving affair.

This ironic take would carry more water if Branagh's company of actors didn't seem like they were in a smug theatre group, behaving much too familiar with each other to convince us of anything. Branagh's own intensity as Victor Frankenstein, determined to defy God and create life because "no one need ever die" (he has poor coping mechanisms), feels too close to his strategy as director. Indeed, there's something perversely beautiful to the wreckage of Frankenstein. Branagh is that boy wonder genius who's never failed, taking it upon himself to create something huge, the result being a breathing abomination that seeks vengeance on the creator. Frankenstein is destroyed by his enthusiasm, genius, confidence, and creation. Frankenstein too put a stop to Branagh's burgeoning career. There's something so poetic about the symmetry that I'm tempted to believe that Branagh purposely sabotaged himself in an effort to make Frankenstein a movie very pertinent to his life. He should feel guilty. After all, it is when Branagh finally is out of the movie for a long period of time and De Niro's creature explores the world, that Frankenstein's soul seems to develop. Then, goddammit, the ill-fated creature finds out who his creator is: "Frankenstein!" De Niro might as well have torn his shirt and yelled "Branagh!" The director again makes his presence known in the movie – both as Victor Frankenstein and as a force behind the camera, and Frankenstein once more becomes a perplexingly attractive yet over-heated fiasco.

The outrageousness of Branagh's pull-no-punches interpretation finally seems to reconcile with its perversity during an invented climax, as a desperate Victor resurrects his bride, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), popping her head on top of the dead servant-girl that was framed by the monster for the murder of Victor's young brother. Though Frankenstein is a failure, the bizarre dance of Victor and his unconsummated creature/bride, as De Niro's monster looks on, is so fantastically over-the-top and representative of absurd beauty in a way that few surrealist filmmakers can attain, that I almost want to read deeply or ironically into it again. I want to tie this perversity in with Victor's unhealthy coping mechanisms, the fact that he wants to marry his adopted sister, and how secluded his whole existence has been. I want to take all of that stuff and tie that in with the superfluous nature of the whole movie, which has a kind of frustrated sexual energy, magisterially suggested by the creation sequence where Branagh's Victor stands on top of a gigantic cock and balls ejaculating electric eels into a vat containing Robert De Niro and ambiotic fluid, the director/star yelling "Live! Live! Live! Yeeeess!" with orgasmic delight. The scene suggests how goddamned bold Branagh was, even if he was wrong-headed. Branagh on Frankenstein is Max Fischer from Rushmore. Look here and see what I mean:

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein disappointed critics and audiences, a failure aggravated by Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire, a far less Norse/Kraut-looking horror film released a week later. Branagh was so frustrated with the result, his first bona fide failure on a film that was his heaviest responsibility, that he fired his secretary. The movie seemed to carry with it a whole saga of bad ideas, as during production Branagh allegedly began an affair with Helena Bonham Carter, while Emma Thompson seemed to respond by having her own hanky panky with Greg Wise on the set of Sense and Sensibility. To make things even more maddening for the wonder boy, his wife had won an acting Oscar in 1993, for Howards End (the same year Branagh lost in the Short Film category for Swan Song). What more, a year after Frankenstein's debacle, Sense and Sensibility was embraced by everybody and Emma Thompson had a one-up on her failing husband as an artist both in front of and behind the camera, winning a second Oscar for writing Sense and Sensibility's screenplay. They divorced soon after.

Fuck this.

I seem to remember an Empire magazine interview with Branagh from that time having that same expletive title. Kenneth Branagh, the unstoppable and zealously confident prodigy had hit rock bottom. When asked if Frankenstein's failure had something to do with studio interference, he admitted no. The movie was his monster and final rough stitch. Consequently, screenwriter Frank Darabont, whose final draft is so well regarded in the industry that Guillermo Del Toro plans on making his own version of it, hates Branagh to this day. Producer Francis Ford Coppola, who originally offered the film to Roman Polanski and ultimately has something of a self-destructive affinity with Branagh, is rumored to have demanded that Branagh cut Frankenstein's over-Branaghed first half-hour completely, going straight to De Niro's creature. When Branagh refused, apparently Coppola disowned the picture.

Much as, curiously enough, Odin disowns Thor. The cinematic father Coppola, according to myth, chastises and disowns his progeny Branagh, just as Hollywood, meanwhile in love with Emma Thompson, would. The wonder boy goes into hiding, directing but not showing his face (or even much style other than black and white cinematography) in the miniscule A Midwinter's Tale, about a down-on-his-luck film director (Michael Maloney) who directs a countryside church's theatrical production of Hamlet. I've seen A Midwinter's Tale (which is the American renaming of the more interesting original title of In the Bleak Midwinter) only once and in my distant teen years, my impression being that it was Branagh's most successfully enjoyable film since Dead Again, and probably of all his films following, including the accomplished comeback bid of the all-star and unabridged Hamlet (1996). Branagh's Hamlet may feature the "new Olivier" in his greatest acting performance in addition to showcasing his best directorial marks, such as the general outlay of the chessboard court of Elsinore, but the film is still so necessarily uneven and pompous in its occasional execution and casting (Jack Lemmon as Bernardo? Gerard Depardieu as Reynaldo?) that it proves Branagh is not at all interested in playing nice or choosing muted subtlety over the cinematic equivalent to a Sunday morning jog in a dangling jock-strap and nothing else.

The point is that Kenneth Branagh refused to conform, even if his lack of conformity was not nearly as interesting as that of the outcast rebel directors he worked with in the next few years, like Robert Altman (The Gingerbread Man, an extremely good film starring Branagh as a morally bankrupt lawyer) and Woody Allen (Celebrity, a mediocre one, starring Branagh as, um, Woody Allen). Under the auspices of Martin Scorsese and Stanley Donen, he returned to Shakespeare for a musical adaptation of Love's Labor's Lost, cutting a lot of the play's text and putting in some Irving Berlin and Cole Porter dance numbers. I'm one of this flop's few admirers, believing it's a conceit that should not work (and for most everybody, it did not), but the dance-happy silliness that Branagh embraces is the pleasure of pure champagne-induced drunkenness, though the somber wartime conclusion somewhat blows. But again, it's the ambitious work of a man out of touch with practical boundaries.

The negative reception to Love's Labor's Lost kept Branagh away from directing for some time, and when he did direct he noticeably stayed off camera: 2006's As You Like It is, in spite of its title, not particularly likable and in America stayed out of theaters and went straight to HBO. Branagh can only be seen on screen at the end, viewing a monitor as he directs Bryce Dallas Howard's Rosalind during a closing monologue, the metamovie/theatrical quality of self-reflexivity in Shakespeare being realized on a movie set, just as it was in Henry V. Sleuth (2007) remade the 1972 original, with Jude Law and Michael Caine replacing, ahem, Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. Branagh's claustrophobic direction is heavily stylized, but the director again remains noticeably absent from the proceedings (he's seen on a television, being questioned by the film's screenwriter, Harold Pinter). Again, Branagh failed to find a positive reception or much of an audience.

The Wonder Boy actor/director, once set alongside Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, was now likely to find his legacy in television series aired on A&E, or as the narrator for scientific programs on public television. Oh, if Frankenstein had never happened, how different things might have been. But now we've caught up to the present, and how Branagh would take a trajectory free from doing peas commercials. Branagh signed to direct the Marvel Comics adaptation of Thor, a very important possible film franchise connecting to the immensely popular Iron Man movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and directed by Jon Favreau, and the hotly anticipated Avengers movie to be released in 2013, a comic book nerd's 10-minute ejaculatory wet dream featuring Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and quite a few superheroes I haven't heard of, but that the cumming geeks certainly have. Oh, if Orson Welles had such an opportunity in the 1960s….

But this was Kenneth Branagh, and he could only direct it as Kenneth Branagh, right? Meaning, he would have to screw this up as only Victor Frankenstein (or Kenneth Branagh) could. Casting a near-unknown as Thor was not a good start. And then, returning to my introduction, there's that whole Aryan/Nordic douchebag problem.

And yet Thor works. Even if Branagh cannot resist some stylistic touches, like an overabundance of canted Dutch angles, or those damned Steadicam circular tracking shots from Frankenstein, Chris Hemsworth has his aww-shucks buff Homer Simpson charm, and the movie has the escapist delight of a whole bag of Doritos – while not even really having that bloated gassy feeling so many other comic book movies unfailingly provide. And yet…

And yet that's the sad sense of Thor. It is a manufactured movie. It's a good bag of Doritos, but it's still a bag of Doritos. It's engineered to make money, offer escape, and take us away from real life. That's fine. I like the occasional bag of Doritos myself; at least Thor isn't White Castle. But other than those Dutch angles, Kenneth Branagh has succeeded in disappearing. Like Thor, and unlike the Kenneth Branagh who acted in and directed Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, he's learned humility and agreeably conforms to the will of his father. But that father is not Francis Ford Coppola, who has abandoned the studios to indulge in his own eccentric will, being defiant until the end. Branagh is answering to the studio system, a force that is as one-eyed as Odin. I do not think anyone, including myself, would say that Branagh's Frankenstein is better than Branagh's Thor. But the gross perversities and madness of the earlier film almost demanded us to ask if what we were watching was on the level, or if it was indeed the work of a madman. That's quite thrilling. A favorite film quote of mine is from Anthony Hopkins' Ptolemy (playing a similar elderly sage as he does in Thor) in Oliver Stone's Alexander as he speaks about the title character: "His failures towered over other men's successes." Stone must have chuckled in directing the line, knowing he was referencing the fate of his own epic.

It's also applicable to Branagh, whose idiosyncratic and foolhardy work could be authored by a madman. Thor has Branagh taking meds to cure his psychosis. He's grown up and learned humility, like the Theatre Major who's become an adult and decides to take a full-time job as an administrative assistant with a 401(K), buying a house and settling down with a wife and kids. He's a lot less stupid nowadays and a lot more successful – and hey, even more fun. But in his stupider days, he was just maybe more interesting in his madness. Frankenstein is the work of a madman who wants to be God. Thor is the gods constructed by a very proficient autopilot.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your review, although sorry, but Hemsworth just seems like some over-sized, bleach-blond irish redneck, plaid shirts and all, than he does a mythic Nordic god. And yes, though Branagh is (mercifully) more reined in here than on that hyper-ventilating "Frankenstein" remake, somehow his overwrought "Shakespearean" bravado still manages to come thru again. BTW, does Portman (another example of "much ado about nothing"), have to appear in dam near every movie these days?!