Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Murder Among Two Lifetimes

“The man I bought it from explained to me that when a man gives it to his wife, they become two halves of the same person. Nothing can separate them... not even death.” ~ Roman Strauss

“Well, I’m not going into hiding, Mr. Baker. I’m just getting married.” ~ Margaret Strauss

“Aren’t you afraid of dying?” ~ Gray Baker

 “Karmically, self-defense is quite cool.” ~ Cozy Carlisle

“Oh, and you don’t have to worry about forgetting her name. She’s already forgotten it for you.” ~ Pete

“This is fate we’re talking about, and if fate works at all, it works because people think that this time, it isn’t going to happen.” ~ Madson

“Grace? That’s what the teabag says? That my name is Grace?” ~ Grace

“I’m not looking for Miss Right. I’m looking for Miss Right Now.” ~ Mike Church

Dead Again is an unlikely mix of genres, bringing together elements of romantic fantasy and the supernatural with a good deal of film noir influences in this 1991 film from director Kenneth Branagh. The director stars in dual roles opposite his then wife Emma Thompson, who was also playing a dual role in a story that combines the mystery of an amnesiac woman with the notion of connections to past lives. With a good supporting cast, the film is quite entertaining, romantic, thrilling at times, stylish, and clever.

The film opens with newspaper headlines through the opening titles, detailing the 1949 murder of Margaret Strauss (Thompson), a classical musician stabbed during a robbery at her home. Her composer and conductor husband Roman (Branagh) is arrested and put on trial in the months that follow. Found guilty, he is sentenced to be executed. Before his execution, he is visited by a reporter, Gray Baker (Andy Garcia), who was acquainted with the couple.

Forty years later, an amnesiac woman (Thompson) has turned up at an orphanage, unable to speak, and plagued by nightmares. The priest who runs the place calls in a private detective who grew up in the orphanage, Mike Church (Branagh) to determine who she is. Church asks his friend Pete (Wayne Knight) to publish her photo in the newspaper to see if her family is looking for her. An antique dealer, Madson, with a sideline in hypnosis, approaches Church with an offer to help, and the first session determines that she can in fact speak- and is able to relive in third person the story of Roman and Margaret. It seems the tragedies of the past are coming back into the present through past lives.

The story is by Scott Frank, whose other work includes Get Shorty, Out Of Sight, Heaven’s Prisoners, The Wolverine, and Logan. The story weaves back and forth between past and present, primarily acting as a mystery, with elements of the familiar private eye genre as a strong influence. The cynical detective, the mysterious woman, the oddball characters, these are all aspects that nod back to the Forties era of hard boiled private eyes in cinema, as does the somewhat dark sense of humour throughout the film. And the narrative weaves in a love story (two, actually) and more to the point the unusual premise of past lives influences the current day, particularly in the sense of the inevitability of fate.

Branagh was already well established as a Shakespearean actor and director on stage and screen at this point- his masterpiece adaptation of Henry V was two years behind him when he directed this film. It has a theatrical quality in its pacing, fitting Roman’s character, since the man is a composer of dramatic opera. The theatrical quality carries over in the rest of the film, as the mystery unfolds, and particularly in the climactic aspects of the film, and Branagh’s directing style plays to that. I particularly like the use of black and white for those scenes set in the past (which mostly unfold in flashback through hypnosis) and colour for the present day sequences, as well as how he uses several scenes that are extended single take scenes. 

The production values are particularly effective in the past sequences, with a palatial residence well outfitted to look like a place out of the 1940s, or a masquerade party at the time looking quite at home in the past. And one of the prevailing visual themes- scissors- are carried over into the present in a creative way. Branagh uses some actors to play smaller parts in both past and present, including his frequent music collaborator Patrick Doyle, whose score for this film mixes together romantic, mysterious, and highly theatrical themes along the way.

The cast are exceptional in their roles. Hanna Schygulla appears mostly in flashbacks as the Strauss housekeeper Inga, who escaped from Germany with Roman and her son during the darkest days of the Second World War and has been loyal ever since. She has to play the character with a certain degree of distance as the film goes along- the audience isn't meant to get inside her head.

Another character who spans both past and present is Gray Baker, played by Andy Garcia. When we first meet him, he’s a young reporter with a cynical world view, fondness for smoking, and a womanizing attitude. This carries over into his interactions with Margaret and Roman, as he doesn’t show much respect at all for boundaries. Garcia makes him thoroughly jaded in his performance, and when we see him in the present day, he’s a wreck of a man, ruined by smoking, but still as jaded as ever. His present day appearance could be said to be the best cinematic argument against smoking.

Robin Williams gets a cameo appearance as Cozy Carlisle. Where Baker is jaded, Carlisle is bitter and acerbic in a way that makes the reporter seem happy. A disgraced therapist who comes into the plot as the subject of a routine search by Church early on, he’s a man with little in the way of scruples, no ethics, unconventional ideas, and the source of much of the dark humour of the film’s present day sequences. Williams gives the character a bleak, serious air in the way he plays it- Carlisle’s not a pleasant person, nor does he pretend to be.

Wayne Knight is best known for a couple of roles, the opportunistic hacker Dennis in Jurassic Park and as the perpetual irritant Newman in the Seinfeld series. Here he plays a very different character as Pete Dugan, the newspaper staffer who’s best friends with Church. He’s loyal and friendly, a genuinely likable guy, with an ironic sense of humour and something of a speech impediment. Knight gives the character a lot of levity as he goes along.

Derek Jacobi is a frequent collaborator with Branagh, having had co-starred with him in films like Henry V and Hamlet, as well as being in the cast for Branagh’s directed Cinderella. He gives the role of the antique dealer Madson a dry air. When we first meet him, he’s hypnotizing a woman at his shop for one reason, while gathering information on potential jackpots for himself. It’s a bit underhanded but amusing, the act of a grifter, but a good way to introduce a character. Madson explains his interest in past lives and how they can influence present day actions. Past life regression through hypnosis is key to unlocking the secrets of the story, and the actor plays the character with dignity but secrecy, playing things close to the vest.

Emma Thompson gets the challenge of two roles- Margaret Strauss in the past and the woman known as Grace in the present. Her Margaret is playful but professional, quickly falling for the conductor Roman, and the bond between them becomes believable as their story unfolds. Grace is a different story- she starts out as plagued by nightmares, in a vulnerable state, not knowing who she is or what’s happening to her. And yet under that, as the story goes along, the actress gives Grace a different kind of playfulness, mixed with uncertainty as she falls for the private detective who’s trying to determine what’s happened to her. The chemistry between the actors, in both eras, works very well indeed.

Branagh also gets to play two roles, giving Roman a certain amount of distance when we first meet him- we’re meant to wonder at his guilt. The character has his stormy, frustrated side that seems to fit in with his composer profession. Mike Church is a different character altogether, a private eye who tends to see the worst in people. He’s a cynic, but not above taking in a stray- a true cynic might be inclined to leave the amnesiac in a mental hospital, but he doesn’t, so this cynic has principles. Branagh plays the two characters in different ways, and Church, who finds the supernatural idea of past lives to be laughable at first, must come to terms with the idea of it as it becomes less implausible and fate closes in on him.

Dead Again got mostly positive reviews and box office at the time, and the film itself is stylish, moody, smart, entertaining, and dramatic, fitting the acting credentials of its leads. It’s a well paced film that skilfully goes back and forth between past and present, giving two lead actors the chance to play two roles across two lifetimes. It’s a hidden treat you might not know of personally, but it’s well worth seeing.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Day in The Life Of A Cat

And so it is the cat's time to have her say. Your Grace? The floor is yours. Along with everything else...

7:19 AM. Waking up. Dreamed of being in a vast field of catnip. Pure heaven. Why can’t dreams like that come true?

7:21 AM. Sitting on the back of the couch, staring out at the lawn, taking in the breadth of my domain. Those flying lunches are picking around at the grass. Ah, if only the door were open. I would be stalking you right this very minute.

7:28 AM. The staff comes down the stairs. Well, it’s about time, staff. I see you’re presentable for the work day. But first you must feed me breakfast. To be followed, I suppose, by your eating your own breakfast, but priorities first! Which means my breakfast.

7:30 AM. The staff has put down a bowl of tuna, with a side bowl of milk, and despite the many times I have personally pointed this out, a bowl of those field rations. Staff? Kibbles are what we feed dogs. Do I look like a dog to you? Of course not. Dogs slobber all over the place and knock things off coffee tables accidentally with their wagging tails. I am a cat. We push things off the coffee table deliberately.

7:31 AM. I have settled into eating my breakfast with peaceful contentment. I will leave those field rations aside as a back-up in case I get hungry later in the day and the staff is not home yet.

7:34 AM. Watching the staff with precision and purpose while she eats breakfast. No real reason why, just making her think there’s some reason I’m doing this when it’s nothing more than playing around with her head.

7:46 AM. Delivering a head bonk to the legs of the staff while she’s on her way out. You won’t catch me trapped outside for hours on end today, staff. I prefer the indoors, with some outdoor access. It would be nice if you left the door ajar for me to come and go as I please, but as the old song goes, we can’t always get what we want, right?

7:47 AM. Sitting on the windowsill watching the staff drive out onto the road. Okay, so....  a few hours to myself. Just how much trouble can I get into today?

7:53 AM. Looking out onto the lawn, brooding. Somewhere in the distance I can hear the barking from that annoying mutt down the road. Probably chasing his own tail again.

8:06 AM. Musing on the meaning of life. Is the universe is a ball of string theory valid?

8:18 AM. Sitting on a windowsill at the back at the house. Gazing out over my lawn. Movement at the treeline. Hmmm, what’s that?

8:19 AM. The movement makes itself clear as the intruder emerges. It’s that foul mutt. I deliver the icy cold glare of contempt and derision. Leave now, or face my eternal wrath.

8:20 AM. Despite my expectations that he’d walk up to the house wagging that tail of his, the dog withdraws back into the woods. Good riddance.

8:37 AM. Launching an assault on the scratching post. Doing so releases some of the dormant catnip in the carpet on it. This, of course, unleashes a catnip frenzy in me. Before losing temporary control of my senses, I must say, I cannot be held responsible for what happens next.

8:54 AM. Lying on the floor. Coming down from that catnip frenzy. I have succeeded in knocking over the scratching post. I am now slightly knackered. I think a nap would be called for at this particular moment. Yes, a nap would do quite nicely indeed.

12:07 PM. Waking up from my nap. Big stretch. Post catnip frenzy naps do seem to be long naps, but hey, like I always say, you can never have too many naps.

12:09 PM. Despite my reservations, I help myself to some of those field rations.

4:02 PM. Too early for the staff to be home yet. Another hour or so. Unless something happened like a fire alarm going off requiring the evacuation of her building and an early return home. Or, on the other hand, a flood that I was completely unaware of washing out the only bridge between here and town which would mean it might be days before she gets home, in which case I will be quite displeased.

5:17 PM. The staff walks in the front door. I deliver a head bonk to the leg as a means of greeting her. Well, there you are, staff. I was beginning to think you’d never get home. Now then, I have been all by myself all day, and I am long overdue for being spoiled.

5:20 PM. The staff readjusts the fallen scratching post. Yes, well, it’s a lot easier for a cat in a catnip frenzy to knock that over than it is for a cat who’s come down from one to set it back upright. Besides, that’s what you’re here for.

5:49 PM. In the kitchen supervising the staff. Looks like she’s getting dinner ready. I approve of this.

6:38 PM. Dinner time. The staff has made lasagna for herself. Since pasta’s not that good for me, she has given me a plate of ground beef. This pleases me greatly. I don’t get what humans see in garlic or onion anyway.

7:03 PM. Supervising the staff while she does the dishes. I’d help, staff, really I would, but I lack the opposable thumbs to hold dishes, and I don’t like putting my paws into hot water anyway. Or cold water for that matter. Let’s just say that my paws and any water don’t really mix that well and leave it at that.

8:11 PM. The staff is reading in the living room. I choose this moment to break out into the beginning of a sprint through the entire house at breakneck speed.

8:14 PM. Have returned to the living room after four complete circuits of the house, including the basement. The staff looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. My mind is perfectly sound, staff, I assure you. 

11:35 PM. The staff is off to bed. Very well, staff. I will stay down here for now, but do keep the door open. I like being able to walk all over you at four in the morning, and that’s hard to do if you’ve closed the door on me.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Day In The Life Of A Dog

It is time again for the point of view of the dog and the cat. As always, the dog comes first. Beware the wagging tail.

7:23 AM. Waking up at home. Dreamed of chasing my own tail, and nearly catching it. Better luck next time, Loki, better luck next time...

7:26 AM. Looking out the window, gazing out at the lawn. There’s no sign of that infernal squirrel, but that doesn’t mean he’s not around, plotting like all squirrels do, scheming to take over the world. But that’s the purpose we dogs serve in the world: to thwart the rise of the Squirrel Cabal. That, and wagging our tails.

7:28 AM. The human comes downstairs. Hello, human! Top of the morning to you. Isn’t it a fine day? Say, have you given any thought to breakfast? Because, and this is for the record, I’m feeling kind of peckish right about now.

7:31 AM. Wolfing down a big bowl of kibbles. Yum yum yum!

7:34 AM. Out the door for a run. See you later, human! 

7:42 AM. Running through the back fields, barking with glee.

8:05 AM. Stopping by to see Spike the Magnificent, Tormentor of Squirrels. Hello, Spike!

8:06 AM. Spike and I confer on the movements of the enemy. He says he spotted two of the squirrels last night when he was in the house. His humans wouldn’t let him out to go on the warpath. Well, Spike, sometimes humans can be really odd.

8:12 AM. Spike and I agree to keep each other up to date if the enemy should be up to no good. Well, I’d better get back. You never know when a human’s going to need some serious canine supervision, after all.

8:19 AM. Passing by the house where that cranky cat lives. Pausing at the tree line. Gazing up at the house. Hmmm, there she is glaring at me.

8:20 AM. Discretion being the better part of valour, I think I’d better just leave well enough alone and not irritate the cat.

8:29 AM. Returning home. Barking to alert the human to my presence.

8:31 AM. Back inside. I’ll have you know, human, that I was on my very best behaviour. No teasing cats, no splashing about in creeks. Yes, perfectly well behaved, and if you don’t believe that, may lightning strike the mailman.

8:53 AM. Turning around three times on the living room floor and settling down. A nap is in order, if I must say. Just as long as I wake up in time to mooch something or another. Such as lunch. Lunch is such a good meal, after all...

11:35 AM. Waking up from my nap. Slept exceedingly well. And from the time on the clock, I see I have enough time before lunch to begin preparing my mooching face, sad eyes and all. It works every single time.

12:12 PM. I have successfully managed to mooch a cheese sandwich from the human. Yum yum yum!

1:25 PM. Barking up a storm at the mailman as he arrives at our mailbox in that car of his. Yeah, if you weren’t driving, I’d be chomping down on that leg inside of three seconds.

1:26 PM. Barking some more as that evil mailman drives away. And don’t come back, you hear me? Don’t come back!

2:51 PM. I am supervising the human while she’s out doing some work around the barn. Humans do need regular supervision, after all.

3:17 PM. The human is having tea. I am wolfing down the cookie I have so expertly mooched from her. Oatmeal is a tasty cookie.

4:29 PM. Looking outside from the couch. That obnoxious squirrel is on my lawn. 

4:30 PM. Sprinting out the front door at full speed, barking my head off. The squirrel is dashing for a nearby tree. Oh, no.... too much space, too little time.... and the little annoying bastard is up the trunk. Damn you! Did you hear me? Damn you!

4:53 PM. Back inside after spending twenty odd minutes circling around that tree and getting heckled by that vile squirrel. I hate squirrels. I hate them.

5:49 PM. The human is busy making dinner. Is that the smell of pork chops I detect?

6:26 PM. Chunks of pork chop all for me. Very tasty. I don’t know why the human’s having salad with hers, but humans can be very strange at times.

11:35 PM. The human is off to bed. Well, sleep well, human. I will stay down here and keep guard of the house. If that vile squirrel turns up on the windowsill at four in the morning, I assure you, I will bark up a storm that will wake the dead.