Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 4 February (11.45 pm)
Channel: BBC1
IMDb Link

Clint sure knows how to pick ’em. I remember reading John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil a couple of years after it was published and loving its part travelogue, part murder story structure, as did many people judging from the number of weeks it spent on the New York Times Bestseller List. As a fan of true crime, ‘factional’ books at the time (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was another title I adored), it was an instant classic and also came across as resolutely impossible to adapt for the screen – the highest number of eccentric characters this side of Twin Peaks, so many pages dwelling on the sun-soaked delights of Savannah, Georgia, clearly a world removed from the author’s city living in the Big Apple.

And so it’s to Mr Eastwood’s credit that he took it on, retained much of the book’s essence and stuck with the eyewitness perspective of telling it from the the point of view of John Cusack’s visiting journalist, John Kelso. Bits were changed, characters excised or amended, the book’s four murder trials were reduced to a decisive one, a romantic subplot was shoehorned in. Fans of Berendt’s work were horrified by some of the elements that had been lost in translation and the film was a box office bomb, but on its own merits that doesn’t make it a stinker.

The plot follows Kelso, a New York journalist for the socialite magazine Town and Country, who travels to Savannah in order to write about one of the famous Christmas parties hosted by colourful millionaire Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). Kelso is instantly struck by the otherworldliness of the city, the old world manners, its unique set of idiosyncratic denizens, for instance the man who walks an invisible dog because he’s paid $15 for doing so even after the mutt has long since passed away. He’s also impressed with Williams, a self-made charming man, though the assignment he’s in town to complete changes to something else entirely when a young man, Billy Hanson (Jude Law), is shot dead by Williams in his home. It emerges the two were lovers and an argument between them turned to violence and then death, so Kelso sticks around, covering Williams’s trial as the material for a book and, in the meantime, meeting more local eccentrics and soaking up the architecture and southern charms of Georgia’s oldest city (it dates back to 1733, when it was founded by the British General, James Oglethorpe).

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a long film, running for over two and a half hours, though the length is a necessity in order to take in the range of characters and get the ‘feel’ of the place. Cusack, through whose eyes we see everything, is a fine ‘fish out of water’, his mouth often hanging agape at the cavalcade of strange sights he witnesses in and around Savannah. Being in the Deep South, there’s still an intangible dabbling in the practice of voodoo magic. Williams takes Kelso with him on a visit to meet Minerva (Irma P Hall), a local spiritualist, the hard-bitten, big city writer scarcely comprehending what’s going on as she starts writhing on Billy’s grave in her attempts to commune with his spirit. The title of the film is derived from something she tells Kelso – either side of midnight is the dead hour, she advises him; the half hour before being for good deeds, evil thereafter.

There’s a nice attempt by the film to capture some of the book’s authenticity, various people from Berendt’s text popping up on the screen. Most prominent amongst these is Lady Chablis (Chablis Deveaux), a drag queen and local stand-up comic who also happened to live with Billy and who Kelso befriends in an attempt to find out more about the young man. Chablis is effectively playing herself, a bawdy presence who has somehow been accepted within a place that seems to thrive on old style manners and still appears to have regrets over the outcome of the American Civil War.

Where it’s less certain is in the attempt to find a love interest for Kelso. Whereas Berendt remained essentially an observer, Kelso is involved prominently in Williams’s trial from the start, actively advising  and helping him whilst falling for Michelle Nicholls (Alison Eastwood), who owns a flower shop. She’s Clint’s daughter, no doubt a lovely presence, but the subplot feels completely superfluous, adding nothing to either the story or the character, and making Kelso look just awkward in his faltering attempts at courtship.

On the surer ground of exploring the intricacies of the trial (it pivots on whether Williams shot Billy in cold blood, or if he was fired at first), Kelso clearly admires the older man and wants him to be acquitted. Spacey is excellent, charming and charismatic, wearing contact lenses throughout to fit Berendt’s description of him as having ‘eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine – he could see out, but you couldn’t see in.’ 1997 was a good year for Spacey. With L.A. Confidential also showcasing his talents, he was making leaps and bounds from the oddball characters he had become renowned for in the likes of Se7en and The Usual Suspects, creating in Williams a man so instantly likeable that Kelso refuses to believe he could simply have murdered Billy.

It’s a strange concoction of a film, on the one hand trying to cosy up to book lovers by possessing much of its spirit whilst adding mainstream elements for cinema audiences. Perhaps, as has been suggested elsewhere, adapting the book as a straightforward documentary might have made it more of a success. Then again, the film contains such a strange assortment of characters that it’s impossible not on some level to be charmed and intrigued by it. The sight of veteran actor and occasional Eastwood collaborator, Geoffrey Lewis, playing a man who attaches flies to strings and lets them buzz around his shirt whilst carrying a bottle that, legend has it, he could use at any moment to poison the city’s water supply, needs to be seen to be believed.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: ***

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

When it’s on: Thursday, 1 January (4.25 pm)
Channel: BBC1
IMDb Link

As a child I was always more into Asterix than Tintin, the little bequiffed Belgian journalist as conceived by Hergé in 1929. The adventures of the Roman-smiting Gaul just wormed its way into my affections easier, perhaps I think in hindsight because of the creative names of his tribesmen – you’d trust a herbalist called Getafix, wouldn’t you? That said, all I wanted to do back then was draw my own cartoon strips, and the Tintin books were the ideal inspiration, with their clean lines, bright colours and panels that individually seemed to contain so many things happening at once. The dream ended as my painstaking efforts to produce some new comic book hero made me realise I could appreciate the form but not produce anything close to it, but my pleasure for the stories has lingered, and my wife is a massive Tintin fan. Several years ago, we sat through much of the animated series, enjoying the affection for the source material whilst missing Tintin in his natural book form. Conveying the character’s relentless sense of movement was difficult to do, but Hergé captured it magnificently.

French reviews of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 compared Indiana Jones’s fast moving antics to those of Tintin, and it was through reading these that Spielberg first came across Hergé’s books and acquired the adaptation rights in short order. Then he sat on the project for twenty years, convinced it was nigh on impossible to do the character and books any justice via a live action movie. The particular problem was Snowy, Tintin’s dog, virtually impossible to replicate with a trained animal but accessible more and more thanks to advances in animation. Ultimately, he went to Weta Workshop in New Zealand, famous for its work on the Lord of the Rings films, and from there to the series’ director and creative force, Peter Jackson. After showing Spielberg what was possible by sending him a film of Jackson dressed up as Captain Haddock, performing alongside a fully animated Snowy, the pair decided to collaborate and develop Tintin using motion capture technology. The planned movie was conceived as a number of features, with Spielberg and Jackson alternating directorial roles, and the first of these became The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

As a director of many years and hits at the box office, with critical acclaim to match, helming an animated film must have been something of an unusual ‘first’ for Spielberg. Fortunately, it mainly works. Not content to simply make a cartoon, Tintin features many scenes where the animated form creates images that would otherwise be almost impossible, such as Haddock’s memories of his past-life as Sir Francis transforming the Saharan sandscape into the rolling ocean, his ship the Unicorn bobbing up and down the dunes/waves. It also serves the action sequences very well, injecting an urgency to moments that might have been limited by the restrictions of what would be possible in a live action film. The rendering is smooth and realistic; the characters all look great, those ‘dead eyed’ cartoon people from the earlier likes of The Polar Express now brought vividly to life whilst retaining enough artistic commonality with their Hergé originals to become every inch the books exploding into life.

Added to that, it’s a lot of fun. From the moment Tintin happens to purchase a model boat, the plot shifts happily from one fast-paced caper to the next, very rarely letting up and allowing itself to be dictated by the action rather than lengthy exposition from characters in conversation. It seems clear Tintin was made as a labour of love. Jackson was a fan from childhood, Spielberg from the moment his interest was piqued by those Indiana Jones reviews, and the results are a love letter to Hergé, the spirit of the books retained. I had no idea that Daniel Craig was playing Sakharine/Red Rackham until the credits mentioned it, so buried is he within the performance, but Jamie Bell makes for a fine Tintin, whilst frequent Jackson collaborator Andy Serkis is in excellent form as a perpetually sozzled Haddock. The Thompson Twins are the comic relief, supplied by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The film’s writers, Edgar Wright, Steven Moffat and Joe Cornish, ensure a heavyweight combination of talent loaded into the screenplay.

And yet, and yet in the end, it’s the animation that emerges as the film’s main weakness. One of the great charms of Raiders of the Lost Ark was that it all took place within a working world, a fully realised 1930s backdrop of Nazi villains and Indiana Jones suffering for his cause. That sweat on Harrison Ford’s face as he faced off with a king cobra – that was real sweat. The blood he let as a consequence of being pummelled during the fight to wrest the Ark from the Germans looked well earned. The grains of the desert dusted over everything – all real. In cinematic terms, if Tintin resembles anything then it’s those old Jones adventures, a combination of great acting, writing, direction and stuntcraft, with special effects dialled down and everything grounded in grimy authenticity. As much fun as it is, Tintin never quite captures this because it’s a cartoon. What you’re watching has been produced by a computer, actors doing everything they can to make it come to life but ultimately playing in front of green screens with the detail filled in by skilled engineers later.

There’s no escaping that reality, or lack thereof, and the result is a joyful confection from men who have obvious affection for the stories and give their all to it, but a confection all the same.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn: ***

Millions (2004)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 July (11.35 pm)
Channel: BBC1
IMDb Link

The first entry on this site for a film screened on BBC1 (it’s arrived!) is one entirely out of context with its place in the schedule. Millions is the closest thing Danny Boyle has ever made to a family film, so its appearance at nearly midnight is baffling and almost as daft as the fact it’s a Christmas flick being shown in the middle of (what passes for) the British summer!

It’s also Boyle’s forgotten film, or the nearest thing in his Filmography to one. I did a bit of cross-referencing on IMDb to back this up, and sure enough less people have rated Millions than A Life Less Ordinary, his one directorial effort that I didn’t enjoy. At 6.3, the latter is one of two films – the other’s The Beach – that fall below Millions’ 7.0 approval rating, which suggests not many people have actually watched the thing and those who have thought it was decent enough.

A fair assessment? Well, Millions is no outright classic. For a start, it isn’t quite sure what it’s trying to be. The hard edge and adult themes mean it doesn’t sit well in the Children’s section, whilst the focus on its primary school protagonists imply that’s precisely where it belongs. Perhaps that’s the film’s problem, because looking beyond the uneasy categorising it’s great fun, rather suspenseful and ultimately about as poignant as anything Boyle has put his name to.

The story concerns Anthony and Damian, whose mum has recently died. Together with their dad (played by James Nesbitt), the boys move into a new housing estate in Widnes, in an attempt to start over. But as time passes, it becomes clear the passing ever hangs over the family, Damian coping by ‘hanging out’ with various Saints, about whom he has an encyclopaedic knowledge. and then into the boys’ world comes a bag of money, literally crashing into Damian’s cardboard house by the rail track and apparently dropped from the heavens. It’s the millions of the title,  money they start spending, Anthony sensing the business opportunities that come with wealth whilst Damian tries to focus on good causes. Only the cash hasn’t come from nowhere – a mysterious man (sinister Christopher Fulford) starts sniffing around for it, a trail that leads him to Anthony and Damian…

All this is set against a Britain that is going to convert to the Euro in the New Year, a change celebrated by a winning series of television adverts featuring some brilliantly realistic cameo performances by Leslie Phillips. Further fun is to be had from Damian’s chats with the Saints. St Clare of Assisi surprises him by being a smoker and informing him you can do anything ‘up there.’ Alun Armstrong turns up as a Geordie St Peter and explains the reality behind the feeding of the 5,000 miracle. And then there are the spending scenes, which threaten to turn the corporate-minded Anthony into a pint-sized pimp, whilst Damian makes various ham-fisted efforts to be charitable.

Boyle takes to the material with a light touch, the creepy presence of Fulford’s ‘poor man’ only steadily growing, though towards the end his level of threat becomes almost unbearable. The bits based around the school’s Nativity play are only too charming and authentic, whilst there’s a nice feeling of the family having a hopeful future as Nesbitt sparks a relationship with a kindly charity worker played by Daisy Donovan. It’s an altogether charming piece of work, though the attempts to depict a family in real mourning are too realistic to let it slide into drippy sentimentality. The two child actors, in particular Alex Etel as the angelic Damian, are fantastic.

Millions: ***