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A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies: Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, all films Kenneth Branagh, Sleuth, Joseph Mankiewicz, Thor, and superhero movies (every one)

[You want to read the earlier installments, and we want to help you: Part 1, Part 2]

[Drumming our fingers on the tabletop, humming along to Debbie Gibson, we contemplated just walking out on our waitress, when Jeremy remembered a Payday he had in his pocket. Passing it back and forth, we resumed our conversation.]

Jeremy: All this work, and still no appetizers. So we might as well talk about Kenneth Branagh, as this feeling of weary emptiness reminds me so much of his films …

A D: I remember adoring his Dead Again. I saw it on VHS, not too long after it came out. I had to pause it halfway through, I got so excited. I was, I think, all of sixteen.

Sure, but plenty of early-age exposure to cinema that’s, well, effective, self-aware, and so forth, can be formative without being especially good. (Remember the Coen Bros.?) I like Dead Again too, but what it really demonstrates is that whatever effectiveness Branagh’s Henry V had was due to the constraints of his budget. If he could have made it like his Hamlet, he probably would have. We already have a De Palma, thank you! (And he has style.)

I liked that Hamlet better than you did.

You couldn’t help but like it better than I did. Aside from Laurel Canyon, it was the only film I’ve ever (nearly) walked out of.

I walked out of A Simple Plan. But that had more to do with two guys in front of me being obnoxious. I returned for a later screening (and wasn’t rewarded for it).

That was one of the first signs that we were losing Sam Raimi. His Darkman is still the only good comic-book movie.

That and Scott Pilgrim.

And Ang Lee’s Hulk. And Batman Returns.

Oh, all right, yes. Agreed. And Diabolik.

And Superman I and II

Are those really comic-book movies? Superhero movies, perhaps, but it’s hard to consider them adaptations. But yes, they will always have my affection. It’s instructive to compare them to the tripe we are handed nowadays.

But let’s get back to talking about movies that annoy the hell out of me. I’ve never actually walked out of any movie. But I should have walked out of Hamlet. There was even a nice intermission during which this would have been possible. Foolishly, and loudly, I told my companions that “the only way I’ll get any return on this investment is by sticking around till all of these stunt-casted scenery-chewers kill each other off!”

Then I turned around and asked the other people in the audience whether I’d ruined the ending for them. (It was a small theater.)

See, I saw it in a big theater, a humongous theater, and in 70mm, in New York City. That made all the difference.

More square footage to contain one’s hate. Sounds satisfying.

What was it you do disliked about his version?

I’m not even sure where to start. My antipathy is wider than my vocabulary. And, in fact, I’ve only seen the film once, so I can hardly analyze it closely or rationally. But I remember it making the Mel Gibson version seem a miracle of subtlety, compassion, compression.

Everything, in fact, that is called to mind by the phrase “the Mel Gibson Hamlet” is contained in the Branagh version, not the Gibson version—which is a canny bit of popularizing that in no way outstays its welcome. The Gibson version could, in fact, stand to be longer, whereas the Branagh … well, it’s hard to imagine the full text was even used as anything more than a publicity stunt. It’s not a movie that jives, cinematically, with using the full text of ANYTHING. Save perhaps a Meatloaf song.

Using the full text does feel more like an obligation than anything else. As though someone dared Branagh to do it, and no one backed down.

If you cut any two minutes out of the thing, those two minutes would stand very well in another movie as the punchline to a joke about a Hollywood adaptation of Hamlet. When Prince Branagh kills Claudius in a way that Errol Flynn might have thought “a little much,” I think I made a horrid cackling noise that to this day can be heard in row two (right side) at the Savoy, on moonless nights …

See, I didn’t mind that stuff. I liked how silly and how over the top it was, to be honest.

Which would seem at odds with including every damn word.

It’s perverse, to be sure. But I can’t help but like its perversity.

Almost as perverse as remaking Sleuth with a Harold Pinter script. (Although that one I kinda like.)

I’ve not gotten around to that remake. I barely like Joseph Mankiewicz’s original.

I like the idea of the film very much, and I of course adore the acting, but I don’t like actually sitting through it, especially once I’m one-eighty minutes in, and that sailor doll has laughed for the three-millionth time.

I have an affection for it, but yes, it does rather go on. Which is precisely what Branagh’s does not. (Though even it manages to drag.)

In fact, I’m like that with nearly every Mankiewicz film (that I’ve seen). I find watching All About Eve a form of penance.

A form of penance that leaves you more burdened than when you began. Mank wrote some funny lines in his youth but beyond this I do not see the attraction of his films. Jacques Rivette nails it (Rivette usually nails it) in that interview at Senses of Cinema:

I knew his name would come up sooner or later. So, I’m going to speak my peace at the risk of shocking a lot of people I respect, and maybe even pissing a lot of them off for good. His great films, like All About Eve (1950) or The Barefoot Contessa (1954), were very striking within the parameters of contemporary American cinema at the time they were made, but now I have no desire whatsoever to see them again. I was astonished when Juliet Berto and I saw All About Eve again 25 years ago at the Cinémathèque. I wanted her to see it for a project we were going to do together before Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974). Except for Marilyn Monroe, she hated every minute of it, and I had to admit that she was right: every intention was underlined in red, and it struck me as a film without a director! Mankiewicz was a great producer, a good scenarist and a masterful writer of dialogue, but for me he was never a director. His films are cut together any which way, the actors are always pushed towards caricature and they resist with only varying degrees of success. Here’s a good definition of mise en scène—it’s what’s lacking in the films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Whereas Preminger is a pure director. In his work, everything but the direction often disappears. It’s a shame that Dragonwyck wasn’t directed by Jacques Tourneur.

He’s absolutely right!

Most things should have been directed by Jacques Tourneur. Even my bar mitzvah.

Which was directed by Paul Verhoeven?

I got out before the castration scene. I think.

Rivette was also right about Verhoeven:

[speaking about Starship Troopers] I’ve seen it twice and I like it a lot, but I prefer Showgirls (1995), one of the great American films of the last few years. It’s Verhoeven’s best American film and his most personal. In Starship Troopers, he uses various effects to help everything go down smoothly, but he’s totally exposed in Showgirls. It’s the American film that’s closest to his Dutch work. It has great sincerity, and the script is very honest, guileless. It’s so obvious that it was written by Verhoeven himself rather than Mr. Eszterhas, who is nothing. And that actress is amazing! Like every Verhoeven film, it’s very unpleasant: it’s about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that’s his philosophy. Of all the recent American films that were set in Las Vegas, Showgirls was the only one that was real—take my word for it. I who have never set foot in the place!

That whole interview is a treasure. I love his comments about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which I agree with completely: if it isn’t Lynch’s best movie, may I be cast into the Black Lodge.

Rivette happens to agree with you about Jane Campion, you’ll have noticed: “The Portrait of a Lady (1996) is magnificent, and everybody spat on it.”

The Portrait of a Lady is magnificent. It’s my favorite of her films, and one of the greatest ’90s films.

Joseph Mankiewicz is from the city where I was born, you know (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania).

Where you saw Willow!

The one and only.

Like Krull, it was denied the sequel that we all clamor for. Nay, demand.

Wilkes-Barre was denied a sequel?

That, too.

Well, that’s not such a loss. But these days, Willow or Krull would be a franchise, no doubt about it. Is it possible to even pitch single films like that any more? Hollywood wants to know they’ll be getting a return on their investment.

I wonder how one pitches a Shakespeare movie, at this point. “It takes place in the future!”

Shakespeare’s a franchise in his own right: the plays are known commodities that can be remade over and over again. Just like Jane Austen. So it shouldn’t be long before we get Hamlet vs. Zombies. … Dibs! I call dibs! Dead King Hamlet’s already a zombie; it opens with him devouring Horatio’s brains …

And Horatio, once infected, infects Hamlet in turn, yes—

Who infects Ophelia, who infects the gravedigger—

—and from him to the entire kingdom.

It writes itself.

I guess you haven’t seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead, huh?

Curses! I thought I had a bankable property there …

People rob banks, Adam.

Speaking of bankable properties: I, too, prefer the Mel Gibson version of Hamlet, you know. Indeed, it’s one of my favorite filmed Hamlets. (And it was another movie that confirmed me as a fantasy nut—those castles look so moody!)

Speaking of speaking of which, Branagh’s take on the ghost should have been enough to send anyone running from the theater. How can you cast Brian Blessed in a movie and do that to him?

He should have done it this way:

No, he should have done it this way:

Blessed’s wearing the same armor, practically, in all of these scenes.

Blessed is always wearing the same armor. I think he even wears it to bed. I would.

He hangs out with Patrick Stewart a lot, I’ve heard. That must be a hoot.

If it weren’t for Branagh’s Hamlet, I would be willing to say that no entertainment could not bear a little Blessed.

My favorite film Hamlet is the one going on in Stoppard’s adaptation of his own Rosencrantz. Gibson’s is second. The Bad Sleep Well should figure in there somewhere. I’ve never seen Grigori Kozintsev’s Shakespeares, but I am prepared to be fond of them, when I do. Good and ready.

That sums up my state of mind regarding any new Hamlet. I just adore that play, love it to death. I’ll watch and probably enjoy any movie version.

I’ve always wanted to see this one. You’ll appreciate the title: One Hamlet Less.

Which is what Branagh’s should have been called.

I saw it only once, but I thought Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost clever enough. Transforming it into a musical is inspired (since it’s already in rhyming couplets):

And it contains a wonderful class critique.


Branagh relocates the action to the late 1930s, equating Ferdinand’s decision to retreat from the world for one year with Europe’s intelligentsia’s appeasement of fascism.

He really equates it? Or that’s your reading?

No, it’s intended. He equates it as much as a movie can equate anything.

Like a plate of soup, a girl, and a little girl’s coffin?

Something like that. At least it’s a class critique. Like Thor.

Rise up, ye Frost Giants. You have nothing to lose but those little Xs they stick on you so they can do motion capture.

I don’t think they did any motion capture on the Frost Giants, though. In fact, I think they were all practical effects: men in blue makeup and prosthetics. Which I kind of liked. They looked like Star Trek villains.

Yes yes, I know all about you and your thoughts. The close ups of the Big Bad were not motion capture, most of the rest surely was.

Oh, sure, that, yeah, sure. See, I’ve already forgotten all of those scenes. When I see a movie these days with computer-generated throngs of men doing battle—which is to say, when I see a movie these days—I start tuning out.

The more you tune out, the more you can pretend you are watching Myrna Loy’s lost underwear scene from Love Me Tonight. At least, that’s my philosophy.

You and Myrna Loy’s lost underwear!

Imagining it is the foundation of my entire intellectual life.

Mine is comics; I spent my childhood nose-deep in them. Although I don’t think I’ve ever read a single Thor comic. I majored in the X-books. And The Incredible Hulk.

I did an independent study in Thor. Read a bunch. I owned an early trade paperback of the “Beta Ray Bill” saga, too. What a shame the movie isn’t about him.

The Mighty Thor #337 (1983) (cover). Art by Walt Simonson.

But then, I think the only way to make a decent super-hero movie is not to give us an origin story. Just start the thing in media res. Thor is a god who hits stuff. Move it along, folks.

I allow myself to feel clever precisely once per year. This year, it was when I wrote this:

[C]anonical movies and books and comics and games are, above all, safe, usually written by committees intent on guarding lucrative franchises. (Hence the tendency to reboot even successful series, and constantly retell established origin stories.)

You broke the code.

It’s all in code.

We await silent Trystero’s empire.

Hey. Don’t ever antagonize the horn.

No wonder we can’t get served in this place.

If you had asked me when I was fourteen what I most wanted, I would have answered, “An X-Men movie.”

And I would have answered, “Doctor Who with a decent budget and worldwide popularity.”

What I like best about the present culture is that it’s taught both of us how terrible it is to get what we want.

Quite so. And, you know, that was certainly Lucas’s thesis in the Star Wars prequels. Really, he is a Swiftian moralist: he is helping the culture mature!

I’m rather grateful to him for it. I was just out of college and still a Star Wars fan when the prequels started coming out. Although I think (like to think?) that I was wavering, beginning to realize how silly my fandom was. It took me a couple of weeks to go see The Phantom Menace. And the first five minutes of that film—they just burned away my fandom. By the time the credits rolled, I felt clean. My whole body was just a-quiverin’ with cleanness.

In my spare time I’m working on a graph demonstrating that the decline in Robert Mitchum screentime has resulted in the sorry state of cinema. And the world.

I’d say the same thing about the recording industry and his calypso records.

My Phantom experience was just the same. It put paid to an entire part of my life. Thank goodness for that.

But did you like Thor? Sitting alone in the dark with me and the Norse gods of Marvel?

I didn’t dislike it. I think it’s probably the best Masters of the Universe remake we could expect.

Funny, I didn’t see Skeletor in there. Or Frank Langella.

They are one and the same, spoilsport.

He’s said it’s one of his favorite roles!

What, his favorite role wasn’t the see-through god-king in The Box?


Wow. Damn. Sorry. Everyone’s, uh … looking at us, now.

I don’t want to get into that film, or Richard Kelly, here. That’s a whole other conversation, a whole other … problem. We might never get back to Thor.

Well, flow my tears—

the God of Thunder said. I myself actually kind of sort of enjoyed Thor Movie (though not as much as the He-Man flick). It’s not a good movie, mind you, by any means. It isn’t even a movie, as you’ve already defined it: “with direction, art design, lighting, camerawork, editing, actors giving performances, an aesthetic commitment.” Rather, it’s a catalog of scenes that don’t hang together at all. But I liked moments in it, and none of it ever really annoyed me (although some stretches bored me).

Now this is a ringing endorsement. But I would tend to agree.

The first thirty minutes or so were too dull; it took forever to get started, and then there was that nonsense frost giant monster battle. … God, I hate how bodiless Hollywood cinema has become.

The body is so passe. At least until we run out of potable water. Then: the return of the repressed!

Film are now often no more than close-ups of actor’s faces (as they recite dialogue) intercut with footage of CGI bodies bounding and bouncing around. … Thor got better once Mr. T got exiled.

Yes, once it stopped being a better-rendered Lord of the Rings rip-off. Or else: would that it had committed to being all “Tales of Asgard.” I could get behind that …

Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy ruined contemporary cinema. Or, rather, LOTR was a prophecy of how contemporary cinema was going to be ruined. The computers have taken over: they like generating vast armies and then flying “the camera” over them, so that’s what’s going in your movies …

Not to mention giant monsters that quiver and roar with every step.

Hope you like what they like!

Silly boy, the computers don’t care.

The design of Asgard is, if not excellent, at least fun to look at. And occasionally, for a few seconds here and there, it looks almost like something Jack Kirby might have drawn.

Not dynamic enough. And not enough Kirby dots.

The Mighty Thor #131 (cover) (1966). Art by Jack Kirby.
The Mighty Thor #136 (cover) (1967). Art by Jack Kirby.
The Mighty Thor #145 (cover) (1967). Art by Jack Kirby.

I kind of liked Loki as the villain. He (Tom Hiddleston) remained interesting until the end; his motives were never clear (because they changed scene to scene, but that works for him).

He never quite has the joie de vivre of the comic-book version. But maybe he’ll grow into it. By the time Avengers 6: Council of the Cross-Time Kangs comes out.

Oh, god, that’s right; this is all “going somewhere.” Marvel will screw up their movies the same way they’ve screwed up their comics, turning them into one giant crossover.

Actually, I’ve heard tell that Galactus vs. Sinistar is going to be hand-colored. Frame by frame.

And it will star Galactus as Galactus.

Typecast again!

Along those lines, the fellow who played Thor (Chris Hemsworth) made a fine Thor. His fish out of water sections in the middle were some (small) fun.

Sure, but they never should have replaced Geneviève Bujold.

[For those not in the know, Jeremy’s making a witty reference to this:


The most Brechtian Star Trek ever!

It’s pure détournement. But let’s not get too sidetracked; we can devote a whole conversation to all things Trek later on—no doubt there’s another film in the works.

Has someone already made the “Hey J.J. Abrams, the BFI wants its lens flare back!” joke?

Probably not, and we’ll not make it here. … Anthony Hopkins did well as Odin. There’s something to be said for being able to deliver lines while dressed like that.

Okay, but … to what end? Thor is certainly a top-shelf super-movie, we must agree.


It has a home in the pantry. So why is it that it feels so small, so begrudging? A few CGI passes over Asgard do not an epic make.

It does feel like a very tiny film, small in scope and size. A lot of that’s due to the fact that it’s shot almost entirely in a greenscreen studio.

Most of these movies are like that, despite their supposed epic scope. I was always saying that the Lord of the Rings films should have felt like Lawrence of Arabia, not video-game cutscenes.

Granted, it costs a lot of money to shoot master shots on locations or practical sets with all your actors present, and doing those things alone do not a great movie make … but really, can no one tell the difference?

I can tell the difference. Just like on the Holodeck, you can feel the walls, even if you can’t see them. Thor and 300 and Crystal Skull and The Phantom Menace and all the rest—they all feel claustrophobic to me.

May I suggest we use “claustric” as our adjective for “small, confining; inspiring claustrophobia”? It always bugs me to call a space “phobic.”

See, this is why I hang around with you—to learn new words.

Like “frottage?” Vocabulary aside, I agree with you. There’s so much talk about “world building” these days, in the context of sci-fi and fantasy films … and yet, what we actually get are nice hardbound production-design gift books marked down at Barnes and Noble, telling us about all the details that were neither emphasized nor (generally) shown in the film itself.

I’m glad so many production designers are getting to express themselves, but, you know–do we even need the movie? I’d prefer we get more Codex Seraphinianuses than more “The Art of Avatar”s.

Did you see Ebert’s panning of Thor?

Yes, I did. It was rather gentle and commonsensical, I thought. Did you see his later response to the drubbing he took over that panning?

Yes, I did. I liked these two paragraphs:

There is a larger question here. Does it make a movie “good” because you “like” it? No, it doesn’t, and I have liked a lot of bad movies. It is helpful to separate one’s immediate amusement from more lasting standards. “Thor” is a minor superhero movie with a boring back story and an underwhelming weapon (his hammer). Eventually Hollywood will exhaust every last one of its superheroes and start on remakes (there has already been a new version of the Hulk which is much inferior to the Ang Lee version). The reason we get so many comic book superhero movies is that they all share the same High Concept: “Here is another one of those comic book superhero movies.” The TV ads can hammer viewers with a lot of special effects.

Such movies are also useful for marketing purposes. Hollywood lives in thrall to the concept of a Franchise. It is difficult to get a movie made in the first place, but more difficult to prevent it from spawning sequels. Some moviegoers have a reluctance to see a film unless they have a very good idea what they’re going to get. That’s why trailers deliberately give away so much of the story.

We await noisy Thor’s empire. Thor 2. (By which I mean, Avengers 1.)

It’s inevitable. Is this what doom feels like? That’s a good old Norse word. And that’s what the sequel should be called: Thor 2: Your Doom.

You’re only saying that because of that dusty old Altered Beast cabinet in the corner.

My favorite game when I was twelve!

And not now?

Again, if you had told me when I was twelve what the future would be like, I would have delighted by the fact that I could spend most of my adult life playing video games for free on my computer. And yet I don’t ever play them. … There’s a lesson in there, somewhere, appropriate to superhero flicks like Thor.

I thought you said you liked it?

I did, I did, but it’s not a movie I ever need see again. Although, to be fair, I was in something of a bad mood before I saw the film—and I came out feeling better. It was mildly cathartic, but it was cathartic, and I appreciated that.

I’m sure you’ll find yourself in another bad mood soon enough.

I would have appreciated more some silliness or camp or zaniness or self-awareness or strangeness or poetry or anything unexpected.

I would have appreciated a less glossy, sci-fi’zed version of the gods and Asgard. Eric the Viking, whatever its flaws—

Which are legion (though I’m fond of that one).

—“got” the Norse gods, and their stomping grounds, far better … but then, Terry Jones is actually a historian (or plays one on TV).

John Gardner opens On Moral Fiction with a wonderful story about Odin:

It is said in the old days that every year Thor made a circle around Middle-earth, beating back the enemies of order. Thor got older every year, and the circle occupied by gods and men grew smaller. The wisdom god, Woden, went out to the king of the trolls, got him in an armlock, and demanded to know of him how order might triumph over chaos.

“Give me your left eye,” said the king of the trolls, “and I’ll tell you.”

Without hesitation, Woden gave up his left eye. “Now tell me.”

The troll said, “The secret is, Watch with both eyes!” (3)

There’s nothing anywhere near that good in Thor.

Actually, I found it rather irksome that Odin loses his eye in battle, in this version, rather than giving it up willingly to become all-knowing.

Battle is wisdom.

That rather sums up the approach to the film, I fear. Not to put too fine a point on it, but: what would this Odin need with, you know, knowledge?

But I agree, John Milius should have directed Thor. How perspicacious of you.

Poor John Milius. We certainly don’t need a Conan the Barbarian remake. And when is that Red Dawn remake coming out?

Yesterday. Note too the absence of talk about Ragnarok, which defines the Norse gods—I mean, aren’t they all supposed to be burdened with the inescapable foreknowledge that they will be consumed in a great, Asgard-destroying Armageddon thanks to Loki, Wagner, and the first pages of Jack Kirby’s New Gods issue #1?

Well, the film doesn’t say that Odin lost the eye in battle, but it’s strongly implied.

They don’t say it, they don’t imply it, they show it. He gets a face full of +4 CGI frost mace in the first fifteen minutes.


I am beginning to think you saw this in 3D, hence were spared many of the details that sufficient brightness and contrast would have made plain. Again, I am filled with envy.

Tadanobu Asano (“the Japanese Johnny Depp”) is in Thor, too. I saw him, at least.

You saw him stand around, looking bored. There’s no consequence whatsoever to his being one of Thor’s friends—except to give Marvel another toy to make. (Which, granted, they would have done regardless of who was casted …)

Hogun, the Hero

I might buy that toy. Buy it and turn it into an Ichi the Killer figurine.

Myself, I want the sisters from Last Life in the Universe as action figures. Or roommates. But to each their own.

[The check came. We’d been charged for everything, yet had received nothing. Then Jeremy realized that his wallet had gone missing. I myself never carry money on me; we did a runner.]

[Next: Join us in two weeks, when we talk about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Midnight in Paris, and X-Men: First Class…]

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Jeremy [M. Davies] is the author of the critically-acclaimed film-centric novel Rose Alley, and an editor at Dalkey Archive Press in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

A D [Jameson] is the author of the prose collection Amazing Adult Fantasy, the novel Giant Slugs, and a lot of film and book reviews. He lives in Chicago.

Other Installments:

  1. Source Code, Friends, Woody Allen, The Man from London, Sucker Punch, Zardoz, Tron, Willow, and Shoot ‘Em Up
  2. Source Code, Moon, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
  3. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, all films Kenneth Branagh, Sleuth, Joseph Mankiewicz, Thor, and superhero movies (every one)
  4. Midnight in Paris (and other recent Woody Allens)
  5. Extra: Ranking Woody Allen
  6. The Tree of Life
  7. Extra: Linda’s Voice-Over Narration in Days of Heaven
  8. X-Men: First Class
  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.