Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 2)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic movie and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it! Good luck.

1. The Big Cat on a Snowy Day.

2. A Really Good Life Insurance Policy.

3. Italian Vacation.

4. Farewell for Conrad.

5. Writer on a Binge.

6. Murdered Man Walking...and Asking Questions.

7. The Lying--But Likable--Magazine Columnist's Holiday in New England.

8. Librarians vs. Computer.

9. Former Girlfriend of a Dead Mountain Climber.

10. Message on a Train Window.

11. Bodybuilders and Bikinis and Rickles.

12. A Glass of Glowing Milk.

13. We Are the Martians!

14. The Mysterious Dr. Frail.

15. Queen of Neewollah.

Monday, December 9, 2019

John Thaw as Kavanagh Q.C.

John Thaw as James Kavanagh.
While John Thaw was still appearing sporadically in episodes of Inspector Morse, he also starred in another, very different, TV series called Kavanagh Q.C. (1995-2001). The "Q.C." stands for Queen's Counsel and Thaw plays a middle-aged barrister who practices law in London. Unlike the solitary Morse, James Kavangh is a family man with a wife seeking a professional career, a daughter at university, and a teenage son.

The first three seasons feature Kavangh's private life as well as his cases. He copes with the after-effects of his wife's affair, his daughter's relationship with a married man, his son's academic challenges, and the death of a parent. Starting with the fourth season, the episodes focus more on his cases as both a defending attorney and a prosecutor. Unlike the U.S. legal system, British barristers can handle cases from either side--imagine Perry Mason as a prosecutor!

Oliver Ford Davies.
Kavangh practices law with two other senior barristers: Peter Foxcott (Oliver Ford Davies), who also serves as Head of Chambers, and the pompous, ambitious Jeremy Aldermarten (Nicolas Jones). Cliff Parisi (Call the Midwife) plays the chief clerk, who assigns the cases and manages the business affairs for River Court (the name of the practice). Other barristers come and go over the course of the series, to include Anna Chancellor as Julia Piper, Jenny Jules as Alex Wilson, and Valerie Edmond as Emma Taylor.

The writers of Kavanah, Q.C. handle some of the character departures in clumsy fashion. For example, the intelligent Julia Piper decides against moving to Africa with the man she loves. In a later episode, she suddenly decides to leave the law practice and work for a non-profit organization...in Africa. There's no mention of her former fiance. Then, a year later, Julia suddenly pops up in Florida, where she is married (but not to her one-time fiance) and pregnant. There's no explanation with how she got from Africa to Florida.

Despite such disruptive inconsistencies, the overall writing is above-average and there are several first-rate episodes. One of the best concerns a cover-up when a young man is injured on his job and suffers permanent brain injuries. Other engrossing plots find Kavanagh representing military officers in court-martial hearings and even a priest in a church tribunal.

Anna Chancellor as Julia.
The only episode that's truly bad is "In God We Trust," which finds Kavanagh traveling to the U.S. to help Julia with a death-row murderer's appeal. Although the setting is supposedly Florida in 1997, it comes across more like the Deep South during the racially-charged 1960s, right down to a bigoted governor running for re-election.

Still, that's a rare misstep for a solid TV series with a strong lead performance. For viewers only familiar with John Thaw as Morse, his performance as James Kavanagh will be an eye-opener. Whereas Morse was an introvert with few friends, Kavanagh is a outgoing family man and passionate barrister. It's a great role for a fine actor and the best reason to watch Kavanagh, Q.C. As of this post, it was streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Dead Again: Past Lives Remembered

Branagh as Roman Strauss.
It was inevitable that Hollywood would come calling on Kenneth Branagh after he made Shakespeare films fashionable again with 1989's Henry V. Branagh used his newfound influence to star in and direct the stylish contemporary mystery Dead Again (1991). He also made sure that two of his Henry V co-stars, then-wife Emma Thompson and the incomparable Derek Jacobi, were given juicy parts. That was a wise decision considering their considerable acting prowess.

The brilliant opening sequence is composed of newspaper clippings which tell the backstory of composer Roman Strauss, who was suspected, arrested, convicted, and executed for murdering his wife Margaret in 1949. The film then opens in contemporary L.A., with a woman (Thompson) awakening from a nightmare to find herself at the Saint Audrey's School for Boys. She will not speak, has no identification documents, and appears to be amnesiac. The school's headmaster sends for Mike Church (Branagh), a private eye who was once a student at the Catholic orphanage.

Branagh as P.I. Mike Church.
Church agrees to place an ad in the newspaper for information leading to the woman's identity. He also plans to drop her off at a mental hospital, but changes his mind after seeing it. He take the woman, whom he later names Grace, to his home. 

The next day, an antiques dealer named Madson (Jacobi) comes calling. He wants to help Grace through hypnosis. Church protests, but Madson puts Grace under a trance quickly and she regains her speech. She then accepts Madson's offer of help and the next day, while under hypnosis, reveals that she was Margaret Strauss in a previous life.

Emma Thompson as Margaret.
There's a Hitchcockian quality to the script and one suspects that's what drew Branagh to Dead Again. The decision to have Branagh and Thompson also play Roman and Margaret not only strengthens the narrative, but makes it easier for audiences to understand. However, it's disconcerting that only one person comments on the physical similarities when it's obvious from old photographs that Grace doesn't just resemble Margaret...but looks just like her!

The decision to film the extensive flashback in black and white serves two purposes. First, it also makes the somewhat convoluted story easier to follow. More importantly, it evokes L.A. in the 1940s as filtered through the lens of old black-and-white Hollywood films. It's Branagh's way of paying homage to classic cinema--especially the works of Hitchcock and Welles--in a contemporary mystery with film noir elements. The choice of scissors as a murder weapon is a obvious reference to Hitchcock (Dial M for Murder) as is the artwork in Grace's apartment (the giant scissors remind me of the Dali dream sequence in Notorious). Incidentally, some people claim that the decision to shoot the flashbacks in black-and-white was made after test screenings. However, I couldn't find a reliable source to confirm that claim.
A sample of the artwork in Grace's apartment.
Derek Jacobi as Madson.
Emma Thompson and Derek Jacobi dominate the screen, even though the former doesn't utter any dialogue for the film's first 30 minutes. An unbilled Robin Williams also impresses as an disconcerting former psychologist who stocks shelves in a grocery store. As for Branagh, it's a matter of two performances: he's perfect as the jealous Roman Strauss, but seems downright out-of-place as detective Mike Church. From his peculiar American accent to his verbal ramblings, the film would have been served better by someone who underplayed the role.

Dead Again is a stylish, often engrossing murder mystery--but also a forgettable one. I watched it again recently and, despite having seen it theatrically, I couldn't remember a single plot point beyond the general premise. It serves as a effective reminder of just how hard these kinds of suspense films are to make. We tend to forget that because Hitchcock and De Palma (to a degree), made it look so easy.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Just Another Stormy Monday

Sting as Finney.
It's "American Week" in Newcastle upon Tyne and the English town is abuzz with U.S.-themed parades, movies, and concerts. The mayor is also hosting a visit from Mr. Cosmos (Tommy Lee Jones), an American businessman with ambitious plans to revitalize the local economy. Cosmos has run into an obstacle, though, in the form of a nightclub owner named Finney (Sting). Finney has rejected Cosmos's lowball offer to buy The Key Club, which occupies prime real estate near the riverfront.

Meanwhile, Kate--a waitress who moonlights as a hooker for Cosmos--has a chance encounter with a young Irishman named Brendan. Newly arrived in the city, Brendan (Sean Bean) applies for a janitorial job at The Key Club and takes an immediate interest in Kate (Melanie Griffith). He also overhears two of Cosmos's goons planning to "convince" Finney to sell his nightclub.

Melanie Griffith as Kate.
Stormy Monday (1988), writer-director Mike Figgis's first theatrical film, features a fascinating, interweaving plot populated by characters whose backgrounds remain intentionally vague. The narrative's catalyst is the seemingly naive Brendan, who unintentionally works against Cosmos by warning Finney about the goons and then changing Kate's outlook on her life. It's interesting that Brendan interacts with every major character in the film except Cosmos, whom he doesn't meet until the climax.

Figgis goes out of his way to provide minimal background details about most of his characters. He reveals almost nothing about Brendan, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions based solely on Brendan's actions on the screen (e.g., he respects women, he knows how to use a gun). Likewise, Cosmos and Finney are painted with broad strokes. Kate is the only character who offers any meaningful revelations about her past and even she is guarded in what she confides to Brendan.

Sean Bean as Brendan.
The result is that the actors appear to have been given the flexibility to shape their performances. This approach works well for the most part. Melanie Griffith exposes Kate's vulnerability. Sean Bean captures Brendan's innocence as he tries to connect the dots. Sting adds a little compassion to his smooth, cool nightclub owner. Only Tommy Lee Jones falters by making Cosmos nothing but a stereotypical American gangster.

Running a snappy 93 minutes, Stormy Monday mostly succeeds in putting a different spin on the British crime drama genre. It was adapted into a 1994 TV series called Finney, with David Morrissey in the title role. The action takes place prior to the events in Stormy Monday.

Incidentally, I'm not sure if the movie takes place on Monday. There is some rain in it, but not persistent precipitation. Therefore, I'm guessing the film's title is just an ode to the song "Stormy Monday," which B.B. King sings over the closing credits.


Here's a scene from Stormy Monday, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel: