Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

2019 #30
David Yates | 134 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 12 / PG-13

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

The first Fantastic Beasts movie felt like a standalone adventure, even though it was promoted as a five-movie series from the get-go. Not everyone liked it, but I thought it was an enjoyable adventure that also served to expand the world of the Harry Potter universe — or the Wizarding World, as we’re now to call it. Unfortunately, this first sequel can’t keep that up. Here’s where the five-movie arc really kicks in, and the film suffers for it.

Normally I’d explain the plot round about now, but, frankly, I can’t be bothered. It entirely spins out of what transpired in the first movie; having not seen that since it was in cinemas over two years ago, I frequently struggled to keep up, scrounging around in my memory for the ins and outs of a story I didn’t realise I needed to thoroughly revise. That’s to say nothing of all the other stuff it dregs up from the depths of Harry Potter mythology. As a fan of that series, who’s seen the films multiple times and what have you, I have a fair idea what it’s all about, but even I was frequently left feeling confused. I pity casual viewers.

Further plot details and where to find them

Sometimes movies can gloss over this kind of stuff — the mythology and backstory enriches it, but there’s still an adventure to be going on with — but The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t seem to work that way. The adventure is tied up in the previous film and the overall backstory, and that generates a lot of tedious exposition to explain how things are connected. But that exposition is sometimes rushed over, apparently to allow time for some empty spectacle — there’s still plenty of CGI-fuelled magic action here, it just doesn’t seem to have any weight in the story, or what weight it should have is unclear.

It doesn’t help that the film feels jumpy, like loads of little bits and pieces have been chopped out. I’m not surprised there’s an extended cut, which hopefully will smooth some of that out. It probably stems from the film having so many characters and stories to juggle. The downside of making the previous film feel standalone is that most of its characters need to be reintroduced and reconnected to each other; at the same time, there are new characters and storylines being introduced and set in motion; all while also trying to deliver an action-adventure movie.

Wizard Hitler

There’s stuff to appreciate here nonetheless, including likeable returning characters, some appreciable additions (Jude Law is good as a young Dumbledore), and some impressive effects (the spectacle may be empty, but sometimes it’s still spectacular). Fans of the world J.K. Rowling has created will appreciate getting to see more of it, too — in this case, it’s wizarding Paris, albeit briefly — although there are also some additions to the mythology that are of questionable value. Well, there are three more films yet to come that may reveal that Rowling has somewhere to go with them.

Indeed, I wonder if Crimes of Grindelwald will ultimately play better once it’s placed in context with the following instalments. Or maybe it really is a bit of a mess, with too much going on and not enough time or space to do it, which sometimes makes it hard to understand the significance or value of what we’re watching. I hope that it’s at least put all the pieces in place now, so the next three films can move forward with fewer problems.

3 out of 5

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is released in the UK today on DVD, Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and as an extended cut.

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

2018 #15
Guy Ritchie | 126 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

After years of making fundamentally similar movies, director Guy Ritchie found renewed success reinventing Sherlock Holmes for Warner Bros. I presume that’s directly responsible for the studio tapping him to kickstart this long-gestating project: a series of films inspired by the legends of King Arthur. Unfortunately for them, plans for a six-film series were scuppered when this initial entry went down like a lead balloon with critics and consequently was a box office flop. Nonetheless, some people who I think are worth listening to reckoned it was actually pretty good. Turns out… eh…

Set in a vaguely-defined historical Britain (the capital is called Londinium, but the king resides at Camelot, which is… somewhere else…?), Legend of the Sword begins with King Uther (Eric Bana) being deposed by his scheming brother Vortigern (Jude Law), with only his young son Arthur escaping. Arthur grows up in a brothel and on the streets, going from a weedy kid to… some kind of, like, gang boss type figure, I guess? Basically, we’re in familiar Guy Ritchie territory: lads up to criminal hijinks with a London accent, only now in medieval costumes. Anyway, long story short, Excalibur — the eponymous sword — reveals itself stuck in a stone, every young man is forced to try to pull it out, which obviously Arthur succeeds at, marking him out for death by Vortigern but also as the true king to those who remain loyal to Uther, who now have a Robin Hood-esque underground army — and so they begin a Robin Hood-esque campaign against Vortigern. Seriously, it wouldn’t take too many tweaks to make this as passable a Robin Hood film as it is a King Arthur one.

King Arthur and his merry men

So, to no one’s great surprise, if you’re looking for a broadly faithful adaptation of Arthurian legend then you’re out of luck here. There are obviously famous bits of the legend thrown in — the aforementioned Excalibur and its stone; the Lady of the Lake pops up too; and… um… other than that it’s pretty much just people’s names, really. I don’t know how much critics were hoping to see a more recognisably Arthurian tale, but I have to wonder if this massive deviance from the well-known stories of the eponymous hero is at least partly responsible for the film’s poor reception.

Part of why I wonder this is that, if you approach Legend of the Sword less as a King Arthur film and more as a Guy Ritchie-flavoured fantasy movie, there are bits of it I think are really, really good. Some of it’s great, even, like an efficient and exciting montage that shows Arthur growing from child to adult. Or any other time there’s a montage, really — that’s the best one, but others are equally as effective. Second best, for instance, is one where Arthur has to go on a quest in some alternate dark dimension or something, battling giant bats and other such nasties. That’d be the whole of act two in other films, or at least a significant action sequence, but its basic content is all so rote — so Ritchie instead burns through it in a montage, which feels like a nod and a wink to the audience: “you know how this goes”. Editor James Herbert certainly gives his skills a workout making these sequences fast, clear, and cinematically thrilling.

He's gonna need a montage

Of course, if you really dislike Ritchie’s trademark style then him slapping it on the fantasy genre isn’t necessarily going to enrapture you. Reportedly the project was pitched to the studio and cast as “Lord of the Rings meets Snatch” and they’ve pretty much delivered on that promise, transposing Ritchie’s modern London laddish schtick onto medieval Londinium plebs. Personally, although I’ve somewhat tired of his recognisable approach in a contemporary setting, the temporal disjunct was a fresh enough variation for me, breathing new life into both Ritchie’s MO and fantasy tropes.

Unfortunately, for all the verve of his own style that Ritchie injects, there are also bits that typify CGI-blockbuster blandness — the final fight is a nothingy blur. The speedy, montage-driven style also allows for only so much character development. What time there is gets focused on Arthur and Vortigern, which I suppose is appropriate enough, with a large supporting cast fighting over the scraps. It seems obvious to me that a mysterious female character known only as “The Mage” was meant to be revealed as Guinevere (a conceit broadly nicked from the Jerry Bruckheimer King Arthur, I think), and indeed that was apparently nixed in post-production. I guess they thought they could bump it to one of the five sequels… which now aren’t happening.

Come and 'ave a go if you think yer 'ard enough

My final three-star rating is maybe a bit harsh, but then maybe I’ve been too generous with my fours lately (or always). If Legend of the Sword had been able to carry through on the impetus of its best bits then it may even have been looking at a full five stars, they’re that good, but it doesn’t come together as a whole. It’s not the failure mass opinion painted it as, but it’s not quite a success either — it’s an interesting “good try”.

3 out of 5

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Road to Perdition (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #74

Pray for Michael Sullivan.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 117 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 12th July 2002 (USA)
UK Release: 20th September 2002
First Seen: DVD, March 2003

Stars
Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Bridge of Spies)
Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Daniel Craig (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Casino Royale)
Jude Law (Gattaca, Closer)
Tyler Hoechlin (Everybody Wants Some!!, Fifty Shades Darker)

Director
Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall)

Screenwriter
David Self (Thirteen Days, The Wolfman)

Based on
Road to Perdition, a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner.

The Story
1931: Michael Sullivan is an enforcer for mob boss John Rooney, who thinks of him like a son. When Sullivan escorts Rooney’s unstable real son, Connor, to a meeting, the guy snaps and the other side are murdered — an event witnessed by Sullivan’s own son, Michael Jr. In an attempt to cover it up, Connor kills Sullivan’s wife and other son, while Michaels Sr and Jr escape, and begin a journey to take revenge.

Our Heroes
Michael Sullivan Sr is, on paper, not much of a hero: a mob hitman, his trade is death. But when half his family is murdered, he’ll do what’s necessary to protect his surviving son and get justice — his kind of justice, anyway. In the process, he bonds with Michael Jr, finally developing the relationship they never had before. Perpetual nice guy Tom Hanks tones that way down to give what I think must be one of his best performances, which brings out the heart in Sullivan without tipping over into regular Hanks territory, in the process allowing the viewer to empathise with a man who in lesser hands would just be a cold-blooded murderer.

Our Villains
Connor Rooney is a liability, a deranged coward and crook who wishes he was a hard man. But he’s no threat — his father, mob boss John Rooney, is the one with the power and means. At heart he’s no villain to Michael Sullivan — he’s essentially his father — but after Connor murders Sullivan’s family, Rooney feels he must protect his own blood, despite caring for him less than Sullivan. With an actor of Paul Newman’s quality in the role, every nuance of Rooney’s complex emotional position is subtly explored.

Best Supporting Character
To try to stop Sullivan, the mob set hitman Maguire on his trail. He’s a crime scene photographer who uses his job to cover his crimes, and is a nasty, rat-like creep. Jude Law rejects his frequent pretty-boy-ness to really inhabit that part. (Basically, everyone is fantastic in this film.)

Memorable Quote
John Rooney: “This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.”
Michael Sullivan: “Michael could.”

Memorable Scene
Heavy rain falls as Rooney and his men cross an empty street to his car. When they reach it, the driver inside is dead, the door locked. They spread out across the street, guns ready, but there’s no one to be seen… Then a muzzle flashes and the men are slowly cut down — leaving only Rooney standing. As the shooter emerges from the shadows, the camera tracks in on Paul Newman, his posture and expression saying it all: he knows who it is, he knows his time has come, and he’s resigned to it. All of this set to just the sound of Thomas Newman’s mournful piano-and-strings soundtrack. Only when Rooney turns around does the rain begin to bleed onto the soundtrack, and we see the man is (of course) Michael Sullivan. “I’m glad it’s you.” With tears in his eyes, Sullivan finishes his job.

Technical Wizardry
There are several reasons the above scene works so well — the pace of the editing, the sparse sound design, the music, the performances — but one of the biggest is the cinematography. The work of Conrad L. Hall, this is just one of the most obviously beautiful sequences in a film full of gorgeous imagery. He won a well-deserved posthumous Oscar for his work, his third from a career that garnered ten nominations.

Making of
One of the locations found was considered physically perfect but the wrong way round, with room only to shoot from right to left and not vice versa. Rather than, say, find somewhere else, production designer Dennis Gassner and his team dressed the location to be flipped, not only reversing street signs and car number plates, but even changing the side of the steering wheels on all the vehicles.

Awards
1 Oscar (Cinematography)
5 Oscar nominations (Supporting Actor (Paul Newman), Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound, Sound Editing)
2 BAFTAs (Cinematography, Production Design)
1 BAFTA nomination (Supporting Actor (Paul Newman))
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Performance by a Younger Actor (Tyler Hoechlin))

Despite some initial build-up, Road to Perdition wound up an awards season also-ran, losing out to that well-remembered classic Chicago and everyone’s desire to try to give Martin Scorsese an Oscar for Gangs of New York.

What the Critics Said
“The greatest gangster film since The Godfather.” — News of the World

“To call this the greatest gangster film since The Godfather would be an overstatement, though not by much. It is, however, the most brilliant work in this genre since the 1984 uncut version of Sergio Leone’s flawed but staggering Once Upon a Time in America. Road to Perdition, a less sprawlingly ambitious movie, is without major flaws.” — Eric Harrison, Las Vegas Sun

Score: 81%

What the Public Say
“In a film about the mob and hitmen, the violence is generally kept to a minimum. And when it is done, it’s either very quick, or it’s shown partially offscreen or via a reflection. […] Throughout the film, the violence is never glorified as something heroic. But instead, it’s something that’s done only when it is necessary, and the weight of it is always felt. During the first killing in the film, the first one that Michael sees through a crack in the wall, it’s done unexpectedly and the victim falls to the ground in slow motion. When Mike brings out his Tommy Gun, it’s not something he does with glee, it’s something very deliberate as he solemnly takes the pieces out of the briefcase to assemble it.” — Bubbawheat, Flights, Tights, & Movie Nights

Verdict

Road to Perdition feels like a film that didn’t get its due at the time, and has become almost something of a cult favourite since. Not “cult” in the traditional “gaudy fun B-movie” sense, but in that it has a dedicated following of people who realise its power. On the surface it’s a revenge thriller, replete with ’30s mob style and Tommy Gun massacres, but under that is a more emotive tale about masculinity as it pertains to the father/son dynamic. It’s all handled with sensitive artistry by director Sam Mendes, supported by first-rate technical merits across the board (the design and music are particularly noteworthy, in addition to the cinematography I already mentioned), and career-best-level performances from a strong cast. It lacks the sheer scale and scope to go toe-to-toe with The Godfathers as the definitive gangster movie, but as a smaller, personal tale, it’s exceptional.

#75 will be… Bayhem.

Spy: Extended Cut (2015)

2016 #106
Paul Feig | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

The cinema was blessed — or, depending on your point of view, blighted — by an abundance of espionage-related movies last year (see: the intro to my initial thoughts on Spectre for more on that), and even writer-director/star team Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy got in on the act with this comedy.

McCarthy is Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who provides desk-bound support for Bond-esque super-spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is killed while investigating the villainous Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), Cooper insists she go into the field to finish what he started. This doesn’t impress experienced agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who goes rogue to deal with Boyanov himself.

Technically speaking, Spy is a spy comedy rather than a spy spoof — a perhaps subtle distinction, but one that does inform the kind of comedy you’re getting; i.e. rather than a send-up that relies on you knowing the material being parodied to get the jokes, this is almost a workplace comedy… just one where the workplace is international espionage. Put another way, less Naked Gun or Austin Powers, more Kingsman with the comedy dialled up higher in the mix.

This is perhaps why it’s sporadically amusing rather than regularly hilarious; on the bright side, it only occasionally slides too far into dull toilet/gross-out ‘humour’. Similarly, it means that there are a handful of fun and/or exciting action beats scattered throughout the film, which you might not expect. They’re typically brief, but — even more surprisingly — there’s a fight between McCarthy and a henchwoman in a kitchen which is a genuinely good action sequence. It’s also surprisingly gruesome. Yes, it’s R-rated, but in the world of comedy that usually just means an overabundance of the F-word. Here we have at least one clear headshot, a dissolving throat, a knife through a hand, and more photos of a henchman’s penis than you ever needed to see. (That last one’s only describable as “gruesome” depending on your personal predilections, of course.)

Apparently Feig is a fan of James Bond and developed, wrote, produced, and directed Spy because he knew no one would ever let him do a real Bond movie. I guess that explains why some of it does work passably well as a genuine action/thriller. Composer Theodore Shapiro does an equally good job of evoking Bond’s musical stylings throughout his score. In my experience most comedies don’t show such consistent commitment in their music. Talking of music: as I mentioned in my June monthly update, there’s a random cameo by Verka Serdyuchka, Ukraine’s Eurovision entry from 2007. That gets the film some bonus points in my book.

The quality of the cast’s performances are variable in ways I didn’t expect. Statham almost steals the film, playing essentially himself — but exaggerated, I’m sure. McCarthy is a solid lead, at her best when sparking off Rose Byrne, who makes anything more watchable. Miranda Hart has a large supporting role as McCarthy’s CIA colleague, but I’m not sure that her strengths are wholly played to. I guess if you like her you’ll like her here (and if you don’t…) Peter Serafinowicz’s lecherous Italian is disappointingly overplayed, however, and I’m not sure why you’d cast ever-so-British Jude Law as a James Bond type and then give him an American accent.

The extended (aka unrated) cut contains almost 10 minutes of extra material, detailed here. Reading that list really demonstrates how some bits were tightened up for the theatrical release. I’d even wager that some parts are the result of improvising to find one good line, but in the extended cut they’ve strung half a dozen of the options together. I don’t think any casual viewer would miss much by sticking to the theatrical cut. That said, despite it running to two hours, I didn’t find it to be too long. It still wouldn’t hurt if it was tighter in places, but I didn’t get that “oh dear God why is this longer than 90 minutes?!” feeling you can get from 120-minute comedies.

Amusing rather than hilarious, but with a pleasing commitment to its genre, Spy isn’t going to tap into the zeitgeist in the way Austin Powers did almost 20 years ago(!), but it does provide a largely entertaining couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Feig and McCartney’s latest collaboration, the Ghostbusters reboot, is in UK cinemas from today, and launches around the world over the coming weeks.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #50

Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Title Commonly Abridged To: Lemony Snicket
Title on IMDb: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 108 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 16th December 2004 (Australia & New Zealand)
UK Release: 17th December 2004
US Release: 17th December 2004
First Seen: cinema, c.2004

Stars
Jim Carrey (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
Liam Aiken (Stepmom, How to Be a Man)
Emily Browning (Sucker Punch, Pompeii)
Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow)
Billy Connolly (Mrs Brown, Quartet)
Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice, Mamma Mia!)

Director
Brad Silberling (Casper, Land of the Lost)

Screenwriter
Robert Gordon (Galaxy Quest, Men in Black II)

Based on
A Series of Unfortunate Events, a series of novels by Daniel Handler Lemony Snicket. In particular, the first three: The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window.

The Story
After their parents are killed, the three Baudelaire siblings are placed into the care of a series of kooky relatives, while the scheming Count Olaf attempts to track them down and murder them for their money.

Our Heroes
This is the story of the three Baudelaire children: resourceful, inventive eldest sister Violet; bookish Klaus; and baby Sunny, who is very perceptive and can also bite things. No one knows the precise cause of the Baudelaire fire, but just like that, the Baudelaire children became the Baudelaire orphans, and were put into the care of…

Our Villain
Count Olaf, the kind and friendly guardian who wants to kill the orphans for their inheritance. A master of disguise… sort of.

Best Supporting Character
The film is wittily narrated in the erudite English tones of Lemony Snicket himself, who gets all the best insights.

Memorable Quote
“This would be an excellent time to walk out of the theatre, living room, or airplane where this film is being shown.” — Lemony Snicket

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“I will raise these orphans as if they were actually wanted!” — Count Olaf

Memorable Scene
The end title sequence re-tells the film in a pop-up book / shadow puppet show kind of style, which is awesome.

Memorable Music
The film has a great, fun score by Thomas Newman. The downside to it is you can hear the style bleed in to other, less appropriate work, like Skyfall.

Technical Wizardry
The entire film was shot on soundstages, including exterior scenes, utilising forced perspective and matte paintings, as well as greenscreen. No doubt that helped create its surreal, fantastical, timeless style. Indeed, the whole thing looks great, with superb gothic/steampunk-inspired design work across the board (and all of it Oscar nominated). If you want to be critical I suppose you could call it “Burtonesque”, but if it works… Plus, it was shot by Emmanuel “three time Oscar winner” Lubezki, so you know that’s good.

Truly Special Effect
Baby Sunny was largely played by a pair of twins, but certain sequences that were either dangerous or required specific actions necessitated the use of various effects techniques. Several scenes were created with an entirely CGI Sunny (motion captured from the animation supervisor’s own baby daughter); some shots of her talking have the lower part of her face replaced with a virtual version; and they built an animatronic baby, too.

Making of
Olaf: “I must say, you are a gloomy looking bunch. Why so glum?”
Klaus: “Our parents just died.”
Olaf: “Ah yes, of course. How very, very awful. Wait! Let me do that one more time. Give me the line again! Quickly, while it’s fresh in my mind!”
That’s Carrey genuinely asking for the line again, in character. Director Brad Silberling liked the moment so much he kept it in the film.

Next time…
Although plans for a sequel and/or sequels were mooted, the kids long ago aged out of such things. Instead, the books are being re-adapted as a Netflix series, starring the legen- (wait for it) -dary Neil Patrick Harris as Olaf and with Patrick Warburton narrating. It’s being produced/directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who Handler Snicket had originally developed this film adaptation for. An eight-episode first season is due later this year. Personally, I’m quite excited for it.

Awards
1 Oscar (Makeup)
3 Oscar nominations (Score, Art Direction, Costume Design)
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Make-Up)
1 Teen Choice Award (Choice Movie Bad Guy)
2 Teen Choice nominations (including Choice Movie Liar)

What the Critics Said
“As the title suggests, Unfortunate Events belongs to the grim but vital strain of children’s literature in which children suffer terribly, parents and kindly adults have the same life expectancy as villains in action movies, and courage and ingenuity are all that keep kids alive. […] At its best, A Series Of Unfortunate Events is the stuff nightmares are made of, a sick joke of a film that realizes the best children’s entertainment doesn’t hide from the bleaker side of life, but plunges into the void and respects kids enough to assume they can handle it.” — Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club

Score: 72%

What the Public Say
“While there are certainly dark currents under the surface of this fantasy, the director Brad Silberling doesn’t let them overtake the film. Yes, bad things happen—people die and children are in jeopardy. But there’s a dry wit that balances out and also a sense of fun in how the kids use their abilities to discover a new way to survive whatever comes next. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a strange, dark film, and I recommend it for being just that.” — Tanner Smith, Smith’s Verdict

Verdict

I’ve never read A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I get the impression some of its fans aren’t too enamoured with this film adaptation and its changes. As a movie in its own right, however, it’s a clever, witty, gothic adventure… for kids! Jim Carrey is on fine form as the evil Count Olaf, there’s quality support from some recognisable thesps in guest-star-level roles, the kids are a likeable bunch, and baby Sunny’s subtitled observations are frequently the highlight. Some reviews describe it as “superficial” or a “pantomime”, but even if it is, it’s devilishly entertaining.

#51 will be… professional.

Contagion (2011)

2015 #108
Steven Soderbergh | 102 mins | streaming | 16:9 | USA & UAE / English | 12 / PG-13

Director Steven Soderbergh takes the methodology he used to depict the drug trade in Traffic — an ensemble cast divided among a portmanteau of colour-coded storylines to examine different aspects of the theme — and applies it to the outbreak of a devastating global pandemic.

It’s a little bit terrifying because it feels pretty plausible, riffing on real-world ‘false alarm’ viruses to suggest there may be a time we’re not so lucky. It’s not as focused as it could be, with some threads too melodramatic and eminently cuttable (one with Marion Cotillard in particular), but it remains sporadically illuminating and largely engrossing.

4 out of 5

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

2015 #33
Clint Eastwood | 146 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Midnight in the Garden of Good and EvilSent to write “500 words on a Christmas party” in Savannah, Georgia, journalist John Kelso (John Cusack) instead finds himself covering a murder trial where he’s become friendly with the accused (Kevin Spacey).

Based on the bestselling book of a true story, Midnight in the Garden (as my TV’s EPG would have it) benefits from that reality to guide it through the quirky locals and unusual turns of its true-crime plot — there’s no doubt that Spacey killed the man, but the exact circumstances of the act are disputed. There’s been some movieisation in the telling of the events (the shooting happened in May; there were four trials, here condensed to one; a romantic subplot for Kelso is a (clichéd) addition), but the sense that enough of the truth remains keeps the film inherently captivating.

That’s handy for the film, which almost leans on the “it’s all true!” angle as a crutch to help the viewer through its own production. Eastwood’s direction might kindly be described as “workmanlike” — it’s strikingly unremarkable. Cusack is as blank as he ever seems to be (have I missed his Good Films that once marked him out? I say “once” because he’s only a leading man in shit no one notices these days). He’s fine, just borderline unnoticeable, which is why the romance subplot feels so misplaced — he’s an audience cipher to access this interesting location and set of events, not a character in his own right. Apparently Ed Norton turned down the role — now he might’ve brought some personality to it. Spacey is worth watching, at least.

What's in the jar? WHAT'S IN THE JAR?Like many an “adapted from a bestseller!” movies, I guess Midnight in the Garden was a big deal in its day that’s faded to semi-obscurity since (see: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, increasingly The Da Vinci Code, and on and on). It’s no forgotten masterpiece, but has enough going for it to merit a rediscovery by the right people who’ll enjoy it. Like me. For that, much thanks to Mike at Films on the Box, whose insightful review I naturally recommend.

4 out of 5

Rage (2009)

2009 #81
Sally Potter | 98 mins | streaming | 15

RageI really didn’t expect to like this: a series of straight-to-camera monologues, performed in front of just plain-coloured backgrounds, about the fashion industry, written and directed by the writer/director of Orlando, which I thoroughly disliked. But I watched because it was going free and, despite the concept’s innate pretentiousness, it’s an intriguing one. Once Rage settled into its stride (or, perhaps, I settled into its stride), however, I loved it.

The group of fourteen people who appear before the camera are almost entirely self-centred and/or not very nice, which you may guess from the outset considering their industry, though almost all still have something to reveal as the film progresses. It’s surprisingly funny too. The off-screen action is conveyed by a very effective sound mix — we see nothing but talking heads (until an incongruous final shot, at least), but there’s always background noise, however subtle, and the key action in the wider world is revealed to the viewer through this, plus comments from some of the talking heads. But time isn’t wasted spelling out what we can’t see; instead, a bit of the viewer’s own imagination is required in addition to the sound and dialogue clues to create a version of events.

A starry cast (Steve Buscemi, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law, John Leguizamo, David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest… plus recognisable (depending on what you’ve seen, of course) faces like Simon Abkarian, Bob Balaban and Babel’s Adriana Barraza.) provide exemplary acting across the board, even if some of the accents (mainly Brits playing at yanks) are frequently dubious. It seems unfair to pick anyone out, but Lily Cole is perhaps the most surprising, her fragile character aided by her Pipling-esque eyes and pale skin, but it’s her actual performance that ultimately delivers more than her autobiographical-seeming first appearance would suggest. And one can’t ignore Jude Law playing a Russian/American female(?) fashion model — for once I actually thought he was quite good. Maybe this is his niche. The majority of the performances err toward the theatrical — something certain film viewers seem to struggle with — though the intercutting and passage of time, reflected in intertitles and costume changes, make the whole experience more suited to film; indeed, with the cameraperson being such a major character (as it turns out), it is technically unstageable. (It could be staged, of course, but it belongs as a film.)

And, talking of how things turns out, the most intriguing character of all is Michelangelo, the cameraman and only main character we never see on screen — indeed, it’s a considerable amount of time before we realise he’s a character at all and not just a filmmaking conceit. His presence and the filming style (supposedly shot on a mobile phone (or, I suppose, ‘cell phone’) camera) is not just a gimmick, but, as it turns out, vital to the story. It’s probably the only film ever made that perhaps works better viewed streaming online. All the characters are in some way unveiled throughout the film, but, almost without the viewer releasing it, so too is our supposedly-inconspicuous cameraman. By the end, what seemed to be a critique of the fashion industry — and a well-worn one at that — has something else to say too.

At least, one hopes this ‘critique’ of the fashion industry isn’t the main point, because it may be the film’s biggest problem. There’s very little, if anything, new to be found in the comments and criticisms made — we well know it’s a business filled with too-thin weight-obsessed diva-ish models, self-obsessed pretentious designers, money-grabbing moral-less Murdoch-alikes and no-hope fame-hungry wannabes, and Rage doesn’t have much more to say about it than this. Sure, no one sits around pontificating on why it’s all so evil, but it doesn’t take much to see the subtext. At least it’s often funny about it; though based on comments I’ve read online, it seems this humour may be too subtle for some. Perhaps they can’t see the inherent ludicrousness of it all, with the performances flying closer to realist than the My Family-level bluntness some require from their comedy.

It’s hard going at times, even if one is enjoying it — after all, it’s still just a succession of people talking to camera. Obviously what they say — and, indeed, don’t say — reveals things about themselves, others, and events off screen, but while I was never bored there were several occasions when my eyes strayed to the clock out of curiosity over how long was left. I’ve still seen much duller films.

I don’t doubt that Rage isn’t for everyone. Indeed, you only have to look at IMDb to see how many people loathe it with near-religious fervour. (Prepare yourself if you do, because some of the criticism is irritatingly brain dead. But hey, that’s IMDb!) Some people just won’t get on with its style, or find it too slow, and with 14 characters in 98 minutes, awarding them an average of under seven minutes each, you’re not going to get Alan Bennett-level character deconstruction. But Rage unapologetically is what it is, and I liked it.

5 out of 5

If you’re interested in an in-depth (and spoiler-filled) review of Rage which features phrases like “extraordinary testament to the mindbrain”, “Mugel and Potter use sound to build an entire lifeworld”, and “it enlivens, emboldens and enriches the film, engaging ear, heart, mind, memory, intelligence, even skin and senses as a brilliant texture”, try this one from Little White Lies.

Rage placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

2009 #63
Kerry Conran | 102 mins | TV (HD) | PG / PG

Sky Captain and the World of TomorrowIf the Indiana Jones series was a bit more sci-fi (even than Crystal Skull, that is), it might be rather like this. First time writer-director Kerry Conran evokes ’40s cinema serials more thoroughly than Lucas or Spielberg ever dared with a globe-hopping tale of a mad scientist’s giant robots doing all sorts of damage in a quest for… well, that would spoil the ending.

In the telling, Sky Captain is every inch a Boy’s Own adventure, packing every facet of that genre of storytelling into its brisk running time. There’s secret bases, ray guns, giant robots, flying aircraft carriers, snow-bound Himalayan treks, creature-infested secret jungle islands, huge underground bases, space rockets, planes that are also submarines, tree bridges over impossibly deep gorges… If it’s part of the genre, it’s probably here, and all finally executed with ’00s-level special effects. In some respects it does move between set pieces and locations in an episodic fashion, but then that’s more a trait of the films it emulates — i.e. episodic serials — than a flaw in Conran’s plotting.

Still, some might view Sky Captain as little more than an exercise in filmmaking — it was one of the first movies to be shot entirely on blue-screen, around the same time as Sin City and a couple of others. There’s more to it than that, but it’s also hard to ignore the style this creates. The shooting process is far from perfect if one were trying to recreate real life, but here the whole look is so stylised that it hardly matters. The period setting is nicely evoked, combining myriad influences into an intricately realised retro-future style, coupled with a lovely sepia sheen over everything. It’s beautifully lit, while individual shots and editing are frequently reminiscent of a style from the ’40s (and earlier). Again, Conran is being deliberately evocative of films of the period, rather than a modern film set then; more La Antena than Star Wars.

Another much-discussed feat of technology is the resurrection of Sir Laurence Olivier as the film’s villain. Unfortunately, his brief appearance is underwhelming. Perhaps we’ve become too accustomed to modern technology resurrecting deceased actors for ‘new’ performances (not that it happens that often); but then again, what was done with Oliver Reed for Gladiator — four years before this — seemed more impressive than the small amount of hologram we see here, even though the digitally created shots were equally brief. It’s a shame, because using Olivier for this key role is quite neat, certainly better than casting a glorified extra. In fairness, then, it’s a part so small that very few appropriately-big names would agree to it, which perhaps permisses resurrecting Olivier after all

Among the real performances, the acting is a bit flat. Perhaps this is deliberately in-keeping with the emulated style, though Jude Law is always this bad so maybe not. Similar comments could be made of the screenplay, if one were being unkind. What it does manage is a good amount of humour — an essential part of the genre, as any Indiana Jones fan will tell you, but it’s by no means guaranteed in these over-serious times (thankfully, the likes of Star Trek and Transformers are occasionally breaking down this barrier to fun).

Breaking free of any self-imposed period constraints, Conran also produces a few exciting action sequences, such as a plane chase through the streets of New York. It’s incredibly hard to create spectacle these days, but Sky Captain occasionally manages it. There are also lots of fun little references to other things for the keen viewer to pick out. 1138 crops up, inevitably, but my favourite is some dialogue lifted from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.

Sky Captain is a healthy dose of retro-styled fun. Perhaps that makes it an acquired taste, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

4 out of 5

My review of the proof-of-concept short that inspired Sky Captain can be read here.

Wilde (1997)

2007 #90
Brian Gilbert | 112 mins | TV | 15 / R

WildeStephen Fry leads a starry British ensemble in this biopic of poet, novelist, playwright and genius Oscar Wilde. The film focuses not on Wilde’s literary achievements and public life, but on his private relationships with various men, and in particular his obsession with the young Lord ‘Bosie’; of course, eventually, all of these things collide.

Fry is perfectly cast as Wilde and Jude Law is suitably horrid as the spoilt, stroppy and thoroughly dislikeable Bosie, whose selfishness brings about Wilde’s downfall. Also worthy of note is the ever-excellent Michael Sheen in a smaller but vital role; he’s a criminally under-acknowledged actor.

4 out of 5