Kenneth Branagh, the director of movies like “Thor” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is best known for bringing the works of William Shakespeare to the silver screen. With movies like “Henry V,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet,” he has succeeded in opening up the works of this famous playwright to new generations of actors and artists. Considering how passionate he is as an actor and filmmaker about Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, I always wondered what his first experiences of reading and performing them was like. He gleefully told us about his introduction to Shakespeare when he visited the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica back in 2011.
Born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Branagh said his family had no interest in Shakespeare, and that there were no books in the house. Then the family relocated to Reading, Berkshire where Branagh said he got bullied a lot. As a result, he withdrew into himself and became fascinated with literature, and he soon found himself developing a love for words. He even recalled buying his very first book, but his father didn’t understand why he was so excited and asked him, “What did you buy that for? Why not just go down to the public library?”
His first exposure to Shakespeare came in a class where everyone read from “The Merchant of Venice.” Branagh remembered being terrified to perform it out loud, and he also freely admitted that he “didn’t understand the language.” But regardless of his fear, he ended up surviving the experience and was soon bitten by the acting bug.
When he did a school production of “Romeo & Juliet,” Branagh recollected how the director played “You Are Everything,” a song sung by Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. When the song was finished, the director told everyone, “The song was about sex, it’s a mating call. Now that you know what ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is about, open up your text and let’s read!”
Through all the yelling and screaming during the rehearsal, Branagh said the play was actually not hard to understand. It came down to this gang hating that gang, of two young people in love, etc. From there, the words of the Bard enthralled him like nothing else, and he has since made vastly entertaining movies which clearly reflect his infinite passion of Shakespeare’s literature.
Kenneth Branagh said that he would like to do more Shakespeare in the future. While he is a number of years off from playing “King Lear,” but I would love to see him adapt another Shakespeare play in the future like “Macbeth” or even “Twelfth Night.” He even portrayed Shakespeare in the 2018 film “All is True” which he also directed. We still have “Death on the Nile,” the sequel to his version of “Murder on the Orient Express” to look forward to, but hopefully he will tackle one of the Bard’s favorite texts sooner rather than later.
“Let The Right One In” did not need a remake. The 2008 Swedish film was a brilliant atmospheric piece of cinema, and I find it endlessly frustrating when American audiences can’t embrace foreign movies more often. Do subtitles really have to be an impediment when they come across so much better than dopey English dubbing?
Regardless, its American remake “Let Me In” turns out to be a big surprise. Just when I was convinced Hollywood studios would simply dumb the story down to attract a youthful demographic, Matt Reeves’ take on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, which in turn inspired Tomas Alfredson’s movie, is amazingly respectful to its source material. Moreover, you can see throughout how the story deeply affected Reeves and how he personalized the actions of the characters on screen.
The story remains the same, but the characters’ names have been changed to protect the original. The setting has been moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico which, amazingly enough, appears to be as snowy as Sweden. The year is 1983 and Ronald Reagan is President of the United States, talking about the “evil empire” on television. The advantage of this film being set in the 1980’s, however, is that the characters don’t have to worry about not getting any cell phone reception because they don’t own cell phones. This makes it especially lucky for the filmmakers because they won’t have to make any stupid excuses for cell phones not working.
Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a 12-year-old boy who lives with his alcoholic mother (we never get a clear view of her face) and has no real friends to speak of. At school, he is constantly harassed by bullies who thoughtlessly subject him to even more humiliating tortures than what Oskar dealt with in “Let The Right One In.” Eventually, he comes in contact with Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a girl who looks to be around his age, who has moved into his apartment building next door to him. Although she tells Owen they can’t be friends, a strong bond soon forms once he gives her his Rubik’s Cube to play with. She ends up solving it in a way which doesn’t involve cheating. My brother would have just taken the stickers off the cube and put them back on with the colors altogether.
I really do mean it when I say the humiliations Owen endures here are even worse than what Oskar went through to where I came out of this remake believing Oskar had it easy. Reeves, who has directed “Cloverfield,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War of the Planet of the Apes,” really captures how kids can be utterly cruel to one another, and it will bring back memories for those of us who were humiliated in ways which left a wealth of psychological scars. Seeing him practice his revenge on the bullies all by his lonesome makes made me sadder as what we imagine doesn’t always jive with reality. While the kids at times put up a tough façade, their vulnerability is clearly evident in their eyes.
As the movie goes on, the fact Abby is a vampire, or a bloodsucker if you want to call her that, becomes a side issue. She and Owen are just two kids, one whom is older than they appear, who are struggling through the painful awkwardness of growing up. When they come in contact, they for once have someone they can relate to. Both Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz are perfectly cast, and each has moments where their faces say more than words ever could.
McPhee previously starred in for “The Road” where he played Viggo Mortensen’s’ son, and he inhabits Owen with all the isolation and helplessness the role has to offer. Chloë Grace Moretz did this after her amazing breakout performance in “Kick Ass,” and as Abby shows a strong maturity beyond her years. But I really have to applaud the adult actors who, while they don’t have as much screen time as their younger colleagues, give depth to characters that could have just been simple clichés. Richard Jenkins, still one of the most dependable character actors, plays Abby’s guardian, Thomas. Through his scenes with Moretz, he shows a caring man whose relationship with this girl has lasted longer than we could ever imagine. Jenkins makes us sympathize with this man even as he commits horrible acts for the sake of Abby’s survival. When we first meet Thomas, he has become wearier with the passing of time and the dark deeds which have weigh heavy on his soul.
Equally impressive is Elias Koteas who plays a police detective whose name never gets mentioned. The beauty of his acting here is how incredibly subtle he is to where he fully inhabits his character with what seems like relative ease. This could just have been the typical policeman whom the audience is manipulated into despising, doing all the stupid things cops do in movies. But Koteas instead gives the character a deep humanity to where you respect him even as you fear what he will do this Romeo & Juliet couple in the making. This is just a regular guy doing his job, and this makes his eventual fate all the more tragic.
“Let Me In” is not your typical jump-out-of-your-seat horror movie. There are a few jump scares, but the horror comes out of what cruelty people are subjected to, be it on the playground or anywhere else in town where you get your blood drained (and not by the Red Cross mind you). It also comes from where the line between what’s right and wrong becomes blurred as we ask ourselves if we can pull away from the people we love so much just to set things straight. What would we give up in the process?
As an American remake of a foreign film, I figured Hollywood would just change the story to where the good guys get the bad guys and justice wins out in the end. You know, the typical kind of plot designed to make us all feel good. To my astonishment, Reeves never veers in that direction once, and he has made a film whose climax is left up to the viewer to interpret. Nothing is ever easily spelled out for the audience, and I admired him for staying true to the source material.
If there is a drawback to “Let Me In,” it’s that in being respectful to “Let The Right One In,” not much has changed. For those who loved the 2008 movie as much as I did, there is much to admire but few surprises to be had. Many of the situations remain the same as before while certain characters in the background get more or less depth than they previously did. And there is all that snow like before, but it looks very beautiful and it’s a character of sorts in this movie. While Reeves doesn’t break new ground with this interpretation, we can see how deeply he relates to Lindqvist’s novel and its characters. In the end, “Let Me In”’ is not a vampire movie as much as it is one about childhood and how rocky a road it is for some more than others, especially for those who don’t grow old. It’s Reeves’ depth of feeling which informs this film, and it gives this remake a power I never expected it to have.
Oh yeah, there is 1980’s music to be heard throughout, but I kind of wished they put some more of it in here. I still love listening to music from that crazy decade, and it would have been cool to see some bloodletting done to the music of REO Speedwagon, Hall & Oates, or even Journey. How about something by Air Supply or Chicago? Oh well…
Ever since he played Johnny Lawrence in 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” actor William Zabka has forever burned himself into our collective memories as the quintessential school bully. From there he went on to play characters who were equally antagonistic in movies like “Back to School,” “Just One of the Guys” and “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” in which he does the unthinkable when he dumps Audrey Griswold as his girlfriend. All these movies serve to make you completely forget that Zabka started off his career acting in commercials which portrayed him as the all-American nice guy.
But the truth is there is more to Zabka than just playing the bully we all love to hate. Ever since “The Karate Kid,” he has gone on, unlike many of his co-stars, to earn a black belt in Tang Soo Do. On top of that, he speaks Czech fluently and is also an accomplished musician. Furthermore, he has gone on to become a noted filmmaker, and his short film “Most” earned numerous awards as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.
All these years later, we catch up with Zabka in “Where Hope Grows,” a film written and directed by Chris Dowling, which has him playing Milton Malcolm. Milton looks like a successful businessman, but we come to see his life is falling apart very quickly. He descends into alcoholism with his best friend Calvin Campbell (Kristoffer Polaha), a former major league baseball player whose career was undone by panic attacks. But when Calvin finds a way to sobriety thanks to his newfound friendship with a simple-minded supermarket employee with Down syndrome who is known by his nickname of Produce (David DeSanctis), Milton ends up feeling more isolated than ever, and this sends his life into an even deeper downward spiral.
Looking at this, it becomes clear Zabka has a more complex role than any other actor in “Where Hope Grows,” and I told so during a roundtable interview held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Unlike his most famous characters, Milton cannot be easily labeled as a good or bad guy in this movie. I asked him what the challenges were for him in playing such a complex character, and he liked that I found this to be the case with Milton.
William Zabka: This character is very complex. He has it all or appears to have it all. He’s got a beautiful wife and kids but he’s in trouble at work, he’s in the bottle, neglecting his wife, there are all kinds of stuff going on. To live in the moment of that and to feel the pain of that… The one scene where I almost come off really brazen in the scene at the golf course, I was saying to Chris, “Give me another line.” We were banned from saying the “R” word on the set. It was like no “R” words and here I am delivering it. I said, “Can’t we just find something softer? Can we be ignorant but not so brazen?” Chris really wanted that contrast for the ending and payoff. That’s a vulnerable place to go as an actor because as an actor you want to be liked or at least relatable. I’m glad you said that you could see the complexities because he wasn’t a good guy and he wasn’t a bad guy. He was misinformed. Produce’s story is kind of a second story to him. He is struggling with his own stuff, and it’s later when they come face to face and this kid gives him a gift. So, hanging onto that was the key to allow me to go down to some of those darker places.
It was a real honor to be in the presence of Zabka whose performance in “The Karate Kid” remains forever burned into my memory. But while many remember him best for playing such a hateful bully, there’s certainly much more to him than we realize.
“Where Hope Grows” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. And of course, you can see him on the YouTube Red series “Cobra Kai” as Johnny Lawrence.