By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Trends in movie themes are peculiar things. Sometimes they don't manifest themselves in predictable or expected ways, but they're there right on the screen, looking you straight in the face, begging to be noticed.
Case in point: Less than a week after Dallas' first and only showing of Abel Ferrera's philosophical vampire flick The Addiction--about a grad student whose thirst for blood becomes all-consuming--two seemingly unrelated but strangely similar films debuted. One, Kenneth Branagh's black-and-white comedy A Midwinter's Tale, deals with a small troupe of actors struggling to put on a new staging of Hamlet; the other, John Dahl's Unforgettable, concerns a doctor's obsession with finding his wife's murderer by--get this--using an experimental drug to relive what dead people have witnessed.
Despite their diverse natures, both movies have one thing in common: The force driving each is the characters' addiction to the narcotic of The Unknown, whether a murder mystery or a seat-of-the-pants theatrical production. In the race to keep this theme fresh and absorbing, A Midwinter's Tale wins hands-down, while Unforgettable never comes close to fulfilling its title.
With only five films to his name, Kenneth Branagh has proven himself an adept visual storyteller with an eclectic but singular voice. After his debut with Henry V, he tackled one of Shakespeare's most romantic comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, and the crackling reincarnation thriller Dead Again. His two failures--the ponderous Gothic epic Frankenstein and a nauseatingly bland Big Chill rip-off called Peter's Friends--suffered from dull scripts and no sense of purpose. Branagh didn't help those movies much, but he surely didn't hurt them, either; they were goners before he touched them.
A Midwinter's Tale returns Branagh to a more personal style of filmmaking. It sings of keenly observed truths that can only be culled from a hundred disastrous auditions and well-intentioned but fatally bad stage productions. In it, Joe (Michael Maloney) is an out-of-work actor and director whose hopes of directing a big-budget Hollywood sci-fi picture are dashed when the job goes to a rival. To soothe his tensions, he convinces his agent (Joan Collins, in a sly, mocking performance) to finance a no-budget version of Hamlet to play in his provincial hometown. Because it's the Christmas season, the A-list actors (and most of the D-list as well) are unavailable, leaving Joe with a ragtag troupe of devoted but underused actors whose talents are, to put it gently, subtle. Joe refuses to waver in his dedication to the very idea of a cooperative version of the play, and his passion infects the cast into a giddy frenzy. His enthusiasm does the impossible, turning a group of mismatched people into real actors.
Separating the fiction of Branagh's film from the fact of what it symbolizes is an impossible task and, ultimately, a counterproductive one. You simply cannot disregard the autobiographical aspects of Midwinter, nor should you: that Branagh's next film (and first great stage achievement) is Hamlet; that Branagh interrupted his stage career to pursue Hollywood fame in all its kitschy glory; that Maloney bears an uncanny resemblance to Ralph Fiennes, about whose interpretation of the melancholy Dane Branagh is undoubtedly well-acquainted; or that his leading lady falls for Hamlet much as Emma Thompson did--but that she looks like Helena Bonham Carter, whose romance with Branagh allegedly precipitated his divorce.
Including its opening credits and its old-fashioned soundtrack, A Midwinter's Tale shares much stylistically with Woody Allen, not the least of which are the riotously funny gags and dialogue (upon learning that the "Christmas play" will be Hamlet, one character moans, "Sure, kids will stop watching Power Rangers to come see a 400-year-old play about a depressed aristocrat"), intertwined with the poignantly handled lives of all the characters. He shifts from the outrageous slapstick of a spit-take to touching expressions of love and pathos with enviable smoothness, and like Allen, Branagh, who does not appear in the film, shows both maturity and willingness to rewrite his own history as a bittersweet fable. He puts himself on display within the parameters of a fictional rendering of a life as it ought to be, and it's rather charming to see how modest his conception of happiness is.
The film is not so much an autobiography as it is a distillation of the dynamics all actors endure for their art. It's as though Branagh suffered through all the pain and unrequited heartbreak so that he could deliver this, a Valentine that understands how the same adversity that makes something at times so miserable can transform it into a magical thing, a moment of wonder, that fleeting, ethereal, beautiful memory called the theater.
If Joe in A Midwinter's Tale could be called an addict, then David Krane (Ray Liotta), the hero of Unforgettable, is a junkie--one who's trashy, base, and in the end, undeserving of our attention. Krane is a medical examiner whose obsession with his wife's death (everyone thinks he murdered her and got away with it) acts as a mere conduit through which the truth of his nature--his deep-seated self-loathing seasoned with self-pity--can find an outlet.
Krane meets a researcher--Linda Fiorentino, in a petulant, whiny role that is wholly reactive--who has developed an experimental drug that, when mixed with the spinal fluid of a test subject, can transfer memories from one lab rat to another. It's still unsafe for human trials, of course, but Krane steals it anyway in an effort to solve the mystery that haunts him. As it turns out, the shots don't just trigger the memory (recalled, oddly enough, from a third-person, rather than first-person, point-of-view), but also physically manifest themselves; Krane feels like he's being killed or beaten, just like his victims.
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