Belfast born luvvie Kenneth Branagh is probably not someone you would immediately expect to appear on a favourites list that started out with David's Lynch and Fincher ( although to be fair, he did portray the bleak "Wallander" on the oul telly-box! )
Branagh after all is most recognisable as the holder of the chalice of the bard, the one man amongst many who has been truly able to capture Shakespeare's plays on film without losing the power of the words, yet creating cinematic visions in their own right.
Think of the lush georgosity of “Much Ado About Nothing” ( while forgetting Joss Whedon's drab black and white home movie as quickly as you can ) and the powerful drive of Branagh's opus, the four hour unedited “Hamlet.” Or better still, think of the then twenty-nine year old's annoyingly assured debut movie, the truly excellent “Henry V.”
Yet there's so much more to Branagh than luviedom and Bill, and it's his constant striving – and sometimes failing – to experiment in mainstream film, that has drawn me to him time and time again.
He is also is a god damn awesome actor, often misused these days as the stuffy uppity Brit in shit like “The Boat that Rocked” or “Rabbit Proof Fence”. More on this anon.
So when looking at Branagh the best place to start is, obviously, “Thor.” As befitting much of his career, when he was announced as the director of Marvel's latest ( or at least, at the time latest, we've had so many fucking Marvel films out now it's hard to keep track these days or to care ) there were two very distinct camps of sayers out there : the Naysayers, looking at this limey luvvie and saying who the hell is THIS guy? Has he ever READ a comic book? ( probably – but have you ever read Shakespeare you inbred yank donks? Nah, you haven't, too busy reading lame picture books about impossible heros repetitively fighting various, dull, mirror-image villains ad infinitum, and pretending they're somehow art! ) What does this experienced veteran both on-screen and off know about making a film; and the fewer but equally passionate Yaysayers, those of us who recognised his penchant for pulp-genre, his ability to draw clear, distinct performances from his cast, his fresh-faced sense of mischief, and his makes-it-look-easy ability to present strange worlds as though they were the norm.
He was the perfect fit and it's only now, watching the miserably grim, illogical, grimy and poorly paced mess of a sequel that the Naysayers are beginning to understand what Branagh brought to the franchise, and what Marvel are quickly jettisoning in their pretentiously named “phase 2” in favour of post “Game of Thrones” TV directors.
Coming as he does from the world of stage, Branagh has a way with actors. He gently coaxes some terrific performances from his actors by allowing them to rehearse, ( not the done thing in Hollywood movies where money starts burning the instant a film is green-lit ) and in particular in his fondness for long-takes, which allow his actors to fully develop on-screen, as opposed to in the cutting room.
Branagh adapts fluidly to genre and although he can be accused of pastiche more often than not, the fact is he still manages to convince in each genre he chooses, be it the black and white back and forth of under-rated noir thriller “Dead Again,” the grand guignol OTT of his “Frankenstein” adaptation ( I LOVE this movie by the way, it's wild, emotional, bizarre, completely flawed, and sometimes unintentionally hilarious – but it's still awesome ), or the comic-book dutch angles and gentle, self-aware fish out of water humour of “Thor.” He convinces and that's a very important ability for any film director to master.
It is this self-awareness that is most attractive about Branagh's style, a clarity in his shooting that rarely under-estimates the audience and still finds time for the odd nod and wink. He understands his text, and understands what to present the audience, and how to keep them in suspense. He is never overly-reverential to the “text” yet respects it whole heartedly. Witness his incredibly sweet but on-the-whole awful musical update of “Love's Labours Lost,” interspersing the Shakespearean text with songs by Cole Porter and others of the era, while setting it – somewhat incongruously – in Japan. It's a failure to be sure, but damn, it's a brave and silly one all the same.
And I think that's what I love most about Branagh. He is a brave film-maker – his update of the classic, and rightly lauded Michael Caine/Laurence Olivier two hander “Sleuth” is brave on two levels, updating the original with a much darker, sexually cynical theme, while actually daring to update the original! And he is a silly film-maker – he's done “Thor,” “Loves Labours Lost,” and cast Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams in a Shakespeare film.
He is able to traverse film and theatre in a unique manner, best seen in his little-seen comedy “A Midwinter's Tale,” a film he wrote for his friends and fluffiilly following a group of am-dram luvvies as they attempt to stage a piece of Shakespeare. Funny and bittersweet in all the right ways, this is a low-budget gem.
What's more impressive however is that he has managed to direct himself in some incredibly strong performances, while still commanding a unique and clear vision for each of his movies. Sure, sometimes he goes a little bit beyond the call of duty – his insane performance of Viktor Frankenstein is almost diametricly opposed to that of De Niro's quiet agony as the Monster. He's kind of – weird – in “Dead Again.” And, yes, technically he was too old to play “Hamlet.” But he was awesome in that so we'll give him a pass this time.
Branagh has everything I admire ( and am slightly jealous of ) as a director – as an actor in his own right, he understands how to draw strong performances, often from ensemble casts; he understands the text and the language of film; he tells clear and compelling stories, and he is always experimenting and learning.
Best Branagh film : “Henry V” for shakespeare, “The Bleak Midwinter” for theatre buffs, and “Thor” for Marvel-heads.
Worst Branagh film : a confession – I pretty much like everything he does. If I had to call it, I'd say the Big Chill-esque “Peter's Friends.” But I still kind of love that too. Sue me.
Brian De Palma
Brian De Palma should be a bigger household name than he is. He came from the same experimental, rough-edged milieu as Scorsese, Stone, Lucas, Spielberg, Schrader, and Coppola. He has made some of the best and most influential films out there, from “Scarface” to “The Untouchables,” and like Spielberg has an instantly recognisable, slick, and commercial style.
Unlike Spielberg, however, De Palma has ploughed a singular trail along defiantly un-family friendly salacious, sexually mischevious, often brutally violent pulp fiction movies, part Hitchcock and part Italian Giallo, and although most people will be familiar with his movies, his name is usually bandied around film buffs and gangsta rappers alone.
As a direct result of the crumbling studio structures over the sixties and early seventies, a new breed of film makers were emerging. Fans first and foremost, they took their cues from various masters of the form ( who ironically often created their best works under the studio umbrellas ), but added to this a new naturalism, a fascination with deconstructing form, and an angry voice often screaming at the America that was left after their entrance into and defeat in the Vietnam War. This resulted in some of the most electrifying movies of my generation, from “Taxi Driver” to “Apocalypse Now,” “Blue Collar” and “Jaws” to, pushing into the eighties, De Palma and Oliver Stone's “Scarface.”
Starting out, oddly enough, with ensemble comedies starring a very young Robert de Niro, De Palma started to make his name with small budget, slightly sleazy horror movies like “Sisters.” A student of Hitchcock – an albatross that would be hung around his neck across his entire career, yet something he has never denied and has in fact played up to, using similar compositions, shots and even locations to Hitchcock, sometimes acting as homage sometimes as outright plagiarism – his films often play with the concept of voyeurism.
This has developed across his movies in several ways, often by framing his shots within the composition to give the viewer the sense that they are within the scene; by utilising POV shots of a character stalking another ( an interesting side-note here, very often De Palma allows his camera to be seen in reflections during these POV shots, only for a split second – this could be seen as shoddy film making, or could be a little in-jokey fourth-wall nod on De Palma's behalf. Look out for it in “The Untouchables” as Sean Connery is being stalked around his apartment, and in “Carlito's Way” during the train sequence. ) We often see characters in compromising states of undress, or through windows, unaware that they are being watched. This level of voyuerism often adds an uncomfortable aspect to his movies, yet it is a clever fourth-wall breaking technique that both reminds the audience that what they're watching is titillating – yet suggests perhaps they shouldn't be titillated by what they're watching.
De Palma has an operatic style of film-making that started in the experimental seventies, and which he has kept up throughout his career. From his still prevalent use of split-screen filming ( most apparent in the excellent “Carrie” ), to his fluid steadicam shots and use of very long-takes to insinuate the audience into the film, to his incredible talent for slowly building suspense through camerawork and editing ( best seen in his Eisenstein homage in “The Untouchables” and the final, incredible chase scene in “Carlitos Way”. He has a predilection for dopplegangers and body horror, could be accused ( rightly ) of being sleazy in his approach, but befitting the time in which he started movie-making, his films often feel angry and even politically charged. Witness the opening to “Carrie” in it's slow motion, Porkys-esqe crawl through a girls locker-room as they shower, ending in the horror that is Carrie's adult awakening; or the coiled fury that is the vastly under-rated, brilliant “Casualties of War,” exploring a true-life story of violence and rape during Vietnam.
Looking at his oeuvre, we can see that De Palma has always been on the cusp of commercial breakout, and has in fact worked with some of the most interesting people of his peers. “Untouchables” was scripted by David Mamet, “Scarface” by Oliver Stone, and more latterly he has worked on the film adaptation of James Ellroy's classic crime novel “The Black Dahlia.” Where Spielberg seems terrified to work with someone other than John Williams, and Scorsese puts his mp3 player on shuffle and hooks it up to his current film, De Palma has shown an interest in tying his movies to their score, from Giorgio Moroder's wild-and-crazy synth bosh “Scarface” soundtrack to Ennio Morricone's sympathetic “Casualties of War” and rich, lush “Untouchables” scores, all the way to the Bernard Herrmann pastiche scores of his most frequent collaborator Pino Denaggio.
What seems to keep him just shy of true populist breakout are his pulpy sensibilities, the very things that make his movies far more interesting and enjoyable than many of his peers. He is at his best when he is in the comfort zone of thrillers like “Raising Cain” or the peerless “Blow Out”. He is most definitely at his worst in his vacuous attempts at commercial success, from multi-razzie winners such as “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Mission to Mars” to – arguably – the blandly thrilling “Mission Impossible.”
De Palma's movies straddle an interesting bridge between “adult” movies and adult movie-making, a world apart from Spielberg's saccharine whimsy, or Scorsese's cocaine-fuelled whirlygigs.
In fact, if Spielberg could be called “Pop,” Scorsese “Rock,” then De Palma – the craftsman, perfectionist, and ham could definitely be called “prog.”
Best De Palma film : “Scarface”
Worst De Palma film : “Mission to Mars”
Technically, Walter Hill only makes one type of movie. With a career spanning from the mid-seventies and still going, he has made chase-thrillers such as “The Warriors” and “Southern Comfort”, comedies such as “48 Hours” and “Brewsters Millions”, sort of musicals “Streets of Fire” and “Crossroads”, an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that actually explained his accent ( he was russian in “Red Heat” ) and most recently, a lunk-headed Stallone vehicle not worth the ink on the screenplay, “Bullet in the Head.”
Yet – and I think he would agree if he was reading this – Walter Hill has only the western at heart. Yet technically, "The Long Riders" is his only true Western to date.
From all accounts, Hill is a gruff, sometimes disagreeable presence. An old school alpha male akin to someone like John Huston, he is also a craftsman who makes unusual variations on a theme and – although he might not admit it – within his often cynical frameworks lies the heart of an optimist. His characters must endure hellfire and if they can do so, will emerge – bruised, battered, and changed – as better, more mature individuals.
Like most westerns of the modern era, Walter Hill's films can all be seen as a metaphor for the growing up of America, from naive, childishly violent creatures to bruised, cynical, and mature humans.
His films can be categorised, generally speaking, as having a spare, hard-boiled and beaten quality. His is not a flashy style, could even be described in some cases as clumsy. But his films have a singular drive, a pulse that draws the viewer along, sometimes kicking and screaming.
Where De Palma above could be described as voyeuristic, so Hill could be described as detached.
Generally his movies are about men, hard men put in difficult situations beyond their control, and more often than not losing something along the way. His characters, generally speaking are not entirely good people; they are just the best of a bad bunch. They are often put to the test, sometimes almost biblically. Very often the antagonists in his movies can be seen as mirror-images of his protagonists, the existential reading being that in reality they are fighting against themselves.
In “The Warriors”, a fantasy set in a world almost entirely populated by themed gangsters, a low-rent gang of twenty-somethings calling themselves “The Warriors” are falsely accused of murdering gang overlord Cyrus and are pursued through the mean-streets as they attempt to make their way home. Each character must face a trial of their own and, if they pass, can move on. Some fall always as a result of their own failings; while others survive through acknowledgement of what is going on around them. As the film progresses it becomes obvious that the various groups they are struggling against represent elements of their own personalities.
In “Southern Comfort”, a kind of more-direct and manly version of “Deliverance”, a group of American territorial army volunteers on maneuvers in Cajun-country, manage to piss off a group of trappers, who pick them off one by one until they start turning on each other and everything around them.
Even in Richard Pryor comedy “Brewster's Millions”, the main character is faced with an impossible set of odds to overcome, and as a result finds himself maturing and becoming a better person.
Hill's films are often characterised by a conflict between two different schools of thought, most explicitly in the pairing of the racist bully-cop Nick Nolte with fast-talking, black petty criminal Eddie Murphy in “48 Hours” and it's mildly awful sequel “Another 48 Hours”. Not only are The Warriors being externally pursued, there is a constant conflict within between the level-headed, pragmatic current leader, and the more aggressive, hot-headed second in command. And of course, in “Red Heat” there is the ultimate clash, between none-more American slob James Belushi and Arnold Schwarzenegger's tightly wound Ruskie.
This conflict can be seen, too, in the way he runs that “Western” throughline across all of his movies, whatever the genre, most notable in his wide-screen framing, pared down man against man plots, and crunching violence.
Hill's movies are often very violent, but in a marked difference to the slightly glamorised violence of a De Palma or a Lynch, he often shoots his violence in detached, grubby long-shots. In fact, generally it is in the pulsing and pulverising way he edits his films that the violence hits hardest, though he is not afraid to show the effects of a gunshot or the consequence of a punch. He tackles violence, racism, and cruelty head-on in almost every one of his movies.
Yet there is a whimsy there too, in the comic book style of “The Warriors” or his off-the-wall bonkers and brilliant one-off “Streets of Fire”, the optimism at the heart of “Brewster's Millions”, or the allegory at the heart of “Southern Comfort” that continually reminds both characters and audience that it was their own fault they got themselves into this mess.
There again is the conflict in Hill's approach – that whimsy, fighting with his sparse and hard-boiled nature. Generally, the hard-boiled is what comes out on top.
Even in lesser-quality movies like the Bruce Willis starrer ( and “Fistfull of Dollars” remake ) “Last Man Standing” there is a striking, singularly hard-boiled atmosphere, a strangely other- worldly tone and ambience that draws the viewer in, even as they fight against the sluggish pace and over-familiarity with the material.
That, I think, is Hill's great achievement as a film-maker. He keeps you watching even when you've seen it before.
Best Hill film : “Streets of Fire”
Worst Hill film : “Bullet to the Head”
ps - fans of "The Warriors" this is just funny.