Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Mads Mikkelsen’

It’s always an interesting moment when power and success which once seemed limitless suddenly comes up against a non-negotiable limit; when implacable might is firmly and unexpectedly put in its place. This rarely happens in the world of the blockbuster franchise – the major studios rely on these to keep going, so their progression forms part of the business-plan years in advance. Disney’s decision to suspend their yearly production of Star Wars movies sent a shockwave round the world, at least that of those people who take an interest in such things – the whole reason Disney had bought the franchise in the first place was that it seemed like an infallible license to print money.

I rather get the impression that Warner Brothers are having a similar experience when it comes to the whole Harry Potter/Wizarding World franchise. The comparison seems to me to be a valid one, as one of the few figures who must be able to understand what it feels like to be JK Rowling is George Lucas: the popularity of Star Wars amongst the hard-core fanbase has never appreciably wavered, but Lucas – who, and I feel the need to remind people of this occasionally, is the originator of the whole concept – was for a while being mocked and scorned and treated with casual contempt by people who clearly loved much of his work. No-one loves something quite as much as its most dedicated fans, obviously – but what is also true is that no-one has the same capacity for sheer hatred as a fan.

Which brings us back to the odd position of JK Rowling. If anything she is in a tougher bind than Lucas ever was: Lucas was castigated by his erstwhile fans for the understandable reason that they didn’t think the later films were very good. Much of Potter fandom’s beef with Rowling has nothing to do with the quality of her actual work as a writer of fiction, but is ideological in nature. There’s no arguing with ideology, particularly the fierce and uncompromising kind that Rowling has found herself on the wrong side of, hence attempts at what looks very like a coup: an attempt to wrest control of the Potter/Wizarding franchise away from Rowling and place it with the people who supposedly understand it best – the most dedicated fans, of course.

Rowling’s travails are fairly well-known, but some of this is taking place a distance down the rabbit-hole – so why should it have any effect on the current big-screen incarnation of the series, the Fantastic Beasts franchise? Well, it was always fairly obvious that a film series based on the back-story of some of the characters from the novels and their movie adaptations was going to be reliant on the goodwill of the hard-core Potter fanbase to succeed – but here again perhaps we are getting things backward. The Fantastic Beasts series only exists because it looked like there was a huge built-in audience for it. Six or seven years ago it appeared to be the safest of safe bets.

These days, of course, it looks like a distinctly iffy proposition. Quite apart from the controversy surrounding Rowling – whose name has greatly dwindled in prominence on the publicity material as a result – the series has also had to cope with the fact that de facto star Johnny Depp has had troubles of his own and been asked to leave the franchise as a result, while another key member of the cast got themselves arrested (and not for the first time) just the other day. The projected series of five films may be looking at a sooner-than-anticipated termination.

Once you start looking at the new movie – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, directed (as usual) by David ‘Safe Pair of Hands’ Yates – with the idea in mind that it represents a franchise which is taking on water, you can’t help spotting sign after sign that something is amiss. It’s there in the way that Mads Mikkelsen has been parachuted in to replace Depp without the character’s change of appearance being addressed or referred to (this might have been less of an issue if this wasn’t effectively the third Grindelwald in three movies), it’s there in the strange, arcane, convoluted backstory of some of the characters – it’s vital to the plot, but never properly articulated – it’s there in the structure of the piece, which seems to be built around long, lavish, dialogue-free set-pieces which are stately rather than thrilling. It’s even there in the credits, which open a chink into a peculiar world of fine legal points and seemingly desperate attempts to cling onto as much credit as possible – ‘Screenplay by JK Rowling and Steve Kloves, based on a screenplay by JK Rowling’.

It would be nice to say that Kloves’ involvement has resulted in a movie with a bit more tangible story to it than the previous one. But we’re talking about a marginal improvement. Some time after the last movie, evil wizard Grindelwald is still set on his plan to become undisputed leader of the world’s magical community and bring about a fairly stringent programme of ethnic cleansing, directed at the non-magical population. (Some of this takes place in Germany in the 1930s, presumably because you just can’t be too on-the-nose sometimes.) In the Harry Potter books, the leadership position was apparently known as ‘Supreme Mugwump’ but they keep quiet about the exact title here, presumably because they’re gunning for a more mature tone.

Out to stop Grindelwald is his former boyfriend Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) – at least, he is if you’re not watching the film in one of those nations which has insisted on cutting the LGBT plot elements – but they are sort of magical blood brothers which stops them from confronting each other directly. And so Dumbledore is forced to rely on a selection of characters, some of whom we have seen in previous films, and some of whom we haven’t (at least, if we have, they made no impression on your correspondent) – Eddie Redmayne’s gratingly mannered magical naturalist, various magical cops and other experts, and a baker from New York with no actual magical skills.

Dumbledore’s plan is to defeat Grindelwald’s precognesis by doing things which are deliberately confusing and contradictory – I’m sure a smart cookie like you can see the problem with this kind of scheme in a film which is already densely packed with back-story and baggage from the previous two episodes. It all ends up revolving around a trip to Bhutan, Dumbledore’s family history, and something called a ‘chillun’ which looks like a cross between Bambi and a stegosaurus.

Needless to say all of this transpires over a murderously long running-time. Now, I must say again that this is a very good-looking film with some decent performances in it – Mikkelsen in particular makes the best of what’s arguably a bit of a hospital pass – and the very occasional surprising moment (for example, Peter Simonischek, star of Toni Erdmann, gets a brief cameo). But Rowling still seems to be writing long and densely-plotted novels, rather than screenplays, and doesn’t do nearly enough to make the piece accessible to non-fans of this setting.

That’s the thing about this film, and Fantastic Beasts in general – they’re not awful, they’re not stupid, they’re not offensive in any way – although some might argue that doing an allegory for the rise of Hitler in this particular context was possibly inappropriate, to put it mildly. Aesthetically and artistically they are frequently pleasing. But unless you’re really, really committed to Rowling’s world they’re just not that interesting. Nothing commands your attention and drags you in, nothing ever actually surprises you.

Well – as the film finally came to a close, I was actually pleasantly surprised when the plot showed every sign of, if not actually being resolved, certainly being brought to a point where there were no major loose ends. The jury is still out on whether Fantastic Beasts 4 and 5 ever get made, depending on box office for this one, but it looks very much like Warner Brothers are getting ready to quit while these films still make a profit. Part of me would regret that, because in a way these films are certainly weirder and more singular than the typical Hollywood franchise movie, but then again it does look like JK Rowling’s days of having creative carte blanche are over. But I can’t honestly say there is any sign that not having further instalments would in any way impoverish our culture.

Read Full Post »

When we talk about genre movies we’re usually talking about highly distinctive genres with very definite conventions – something can be a good example of a western, or a rom-com, or a martial arts movie. These kinds of films often get looked down somewhat – I remember being rather condescendingly nicknamed Genre Boy by a colleague whose own tastes in film were, they clearly felt, somewhat more elevated and refined. At the risk of sounding like a cross between China Mieville and Bertrand Russell, I don’t have much time for this: if the concept of genre is to have any validity, then it applies to everything. You can’t write a book that doesn’t belong to a genre; nor can you make a non-genre film – it’s just that the genre conventions are looser and less obvious in some cases.

‘Drama’ is one of those loosely-defined genres; ‘comedy’ may well be another. It’s not that often that we see one of the less reputable genres smashing into either of them; your genre mash-up is usually something like a kung fu-western or a horror-road movie. But such a thing is possible, and Anders Thomas Jensen’s Riders of Justice (title pa Dansk: Retfærdighedens Ryttere) is a pretty good example of it.

Mand dagens Mads Mikkelsen plays Markus Hansen, a veteran officer in the Danish army – ‘tough guy’ doesn’t begin to do him justice; he is as hard as stone. This doesn’t always make him the easiest person to live with, but his wife and daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) seem quite fond of him anyway. However, everything changes when Mathilde and her mother are caught up in a train crash, which only Mathilde survives.

Markus flies home on compassionate leave and the two of them attempt to process their loss, which is probably easier for her than him. Something unexpected enters the situation with the arrival at their door of Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a statistician who was on the train as well, and who gave up his seat for Markus’ wife. He believes the accident – which caused the death of a man due to give evidence against a biker gang involved  in organised crime – was too improbable to be anything of the sort, and the gang – the Riders of Justice – were responsible.

Markus wants to see Otto’s evidence, of course, which involves bringing his associates into the picture: fellow computer and data experts Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). Soon the nucleus of a very unlikely vigilante revenge squad is forming, with the others in awe of and possibly slightly frightened by Markus’ hard-man charisma, and him dependent on them to get him where he needs to be…

We were talking very recently about the phenomenon of the bus-pass bad-ass movie, which this is sort of heading towards being (Mikkelsen is 56 this year), but – the fact he’s the father of a teenage girl notwithstanding – the movie isn’t really about his age as much as the fact he’s a man with a certain set of skills and a very compelling incentive to use them. From some angles it looks very much like a straight down the line revenge thriller, complete with suitably heinous villains to be dealt with.

However, looked at another way, this is a very different kind of film – or at least, a combination of two or three very different kinds of film. Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler are a trio of oddballs and misfits, much given to geekish squabbling over absurd minutiae and obsessing over niche details (Lennart has some sort of monomania when it comes to well-constructed barns, for instance, though there are hints that this stems from his own very troubled past). Their various fallings out are absolutely played for laughs, and are all the funnier for being set against Mikkelsen’s baleful restraint. It’s a bit like the Punisher going into action backed up by Dad’s Army or the characters from The IT Crowd.

But it’s not just a simple black comedy-thriller: throughout the film the script takes a keen interest in the chain of cause and effect, and the reasons why things really happen, and appears to conclude that while the world is deterministic and comprehensible, this doesn’t occur on a scale which is accessible to the human brain. We may never know exactly why things happen, tragedies included: the deaths of our loved ones will always seem savagely random.

How people cope with grief and the cruelty of the world is really what this film is about: the revenge thriller bit is very engaging and the comedy business between the different characters extremely funny, but at its absolute heart this film deals with Markus’ inability to process his emotions and come to terms with the death of his wife, or establish any kind of bond with Mathilde. He refuses the offer of trauma counsellors for either of them; the irony is that he’s forced to pretend his new associates are exactly that, to explain what they’re all doing in the barn all day. The triumph of the film comes not just through the resolution of the biker gang revenge plotline, for this is a very ambiguous and dark kind of triumph, but through the bonds that have developed between Markus, Mathilde, her boyfriend, Otto and the others, and even a Ukrainian former sex slave they pick up in the course of the story.

The big challenge of this kind of film is to find some kind of consistency of tone, given the swift transitions between drama, comedy and action which occur throughout the film – Jensen pulls this off extremely well, unafraid to push the boundaries of each (some of the comedy is extremely droll and silly, some of the drama genuinely affecting, and some of the violence quite difficult to watch). There is a sense in which some of the connective tissue of the plot seems a little dubious – this is pretentious pretend film-critic talk for ‘the story depends on a couple of whopping coincidences to function’, but then again… I run the risk of committing spoilers here, so I must stop.

Riders of Justice gets more serious and less funny as it goes on, more or less, but it’s still a distinctive and highly original film filled with good performances and interesting ideas. It’s the sort of film I can imagine them remaking in America with only a fraction of the subtlety and wit, to considerably less effect, so it might be best to catch the original now while it remains unsullied. A very hard film to describe, but well worth seeing.

Read Full Post »

You may relax, your calendar is not broken: there are, as usual, two Marvel Studios films on release this year, it’s just that one of them hasn’t come out until now – not quite the first time the studio has done something like this, but not exactly their standard practice either. Anyway, not content to rest on their laurels and do another sequel with an established brand, Marvel have opted to press on with bringing what sometimes feels like their entire catalogue of characters to the big screen (well, except the ones that Fox still have the rights to, anyway). This time, Scott Derrickson has been put in charge of adapting one of Marvel’s less prominent properties, a bit of a cult character from years gone by, if the truth be told. Yes, finally, it’s a movie version of Night Nurse!

Well, not quite, although one of the Night Nurse characters does appear (another one is sort-of in the Daredevil TV show, of course). No, the new movie is Doctor Strange, based on one of the few major Marvel characters not to primarily be a Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation – on this occasion Lee worked with Steve Ditko. This was the same pairing which created Spider-Man, so you would think that the omens were good. Well, sort of, but we’ll come to that.

doctor-strange-poster

Stephen Strange, a brilliant but egotistical and obnoxious neurosurgeon, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is probably overdue to be making a major appearance in this kind of movie. (Yes, this does mean that Dr Strange is technically one of those superheroes who operates using his real name.) Strange has sort of nibbled around the edges of a romance with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) – the Night Nurse character to whom I alluded earlier – but having a relationship is tricky as he is really much more in love with himself.

Things inevitably change when Strange is involved in a serious road accident which leaves him with severely damaged hands, thus ending his surgical career. Exhausting his fortune in pursuit of some kind of treatment for his condition, he eventually learns of a school in Nepal where apparently-miraculous cures have been known to happen. (The school obviously isn’t in Tibet, because Marvel want to sell their movie in China.) There, he encounters a mystic teacher known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciple Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and rapidly discovers that this is actually a school for your actual magicians and sorcerers…

Well, this isn’t enough to rattle a character played by a performer of the magnitude of Benylin Thundercrack, and so Dr Strange signs on to learn to become a magician, though he is excused the scene with the Sorting Hat and also quidditch practice. What he doesn’t know at first, however, is that a fallen disciple of the Ancient One (played by Mads Mikkelsen) has entered into a pact with the dread Dormammu, tyrant of the Dark Dimension, and is planning to conspire in the world’s destruction in exchange for eternal life. Is there a doctor in the house?

It may seem a little odd for Marvel to have held Doctor Strange back until eight years into their franchise-of-franchises undertaking, especially when more minor characters (Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy) have already made their movie debuts. Maybe so, but Dr Strange has always been a slightly tricky proposition as a character – Steve Ditko’s extraordinary psychedelic artwork in the early issues from the 60s led many observers to assume that the only magic involved came from mushrooms, while from a story point of view, Dr Strange is often presented as so nebulously omnipotent that he can be very difficult to write for.

So, very nearly full marks to Derrickson and his team for coming up with a movie that is distinctively Strange while still remaining wholly accessible (I would guess) to the uninitiated viewer. (I’m sure casting a very popular performer like Cumbersome Bandersnatch won’t hurt the box office numbers either.) Marvel’s policy these days seems to be to offer up something which is partly very familiar and partly rather new, and it continues here.

I feel I should mention that one of my friends who I saw the film with disagreed, suggesting that every Marvel adaptation sticks close to exactly the same formula, basically that they all end with a city on the verge of spectacular destruction, and that this one is no exception – I should quickly add that he still thought this film was enjoyable. Personally I don’t agree – neither Ant-Man nor Civil War ended that way – but on the other hand, I do think Marvel have played it a bit too safe in the characterisation of Strange himself. At the beginning of the film, at least, he is wise-cracking and self-centred in exactly the way Robert Downey Jr was at the beginning of the first Iron Man, to the extent where they almost seem like the same character. I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio were attempting to position things so that Bellyhatch Cummerbund can take over as a mainstay of the series once Downey Jr’s salary requirements finally prove too exorbitant, but even so: for me this doesn’t excuse a scene where the traditionally reserved and courteous doctor calls an opponent a name for a body part which is not normally found in a medical textbook.

On the other hand, this film isn’t afraid to make some slightly eccentric choices, and I don’t just mean using a harpsichord on the soundtrack: there’s a very trippy sequence early on which seemed to me to be very faithful to the spirit of Ditko’s artwork, while the climax itself is considerably weirder than anything comparable from other Marvel movies. The film is well played by a strong cast and visually very striking, rather skilfully repurposing some Inception-style visuals in a more traditional fantasy-adventure context. I can even just about forgive the decision to make much of Dr Strange’s sorcery look basically like CGI-enhanced kung fu. (Not all – by the end of the movie his ability to warp space and time is so developed that one wonders just how they will be able to meaningfully challenge him during future appearances, although as mentioned this is a problem with the comics version of the character too.)

Once again – and by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, how do they keep doing it?!? – Marvel have produced a movie which is very comfortable with its own identity while meshing seamlessly with their wider franchise – although, to be honest, the rest of the world is kept in abeyance, at least until the closing credits. Dr Strange looks like being an engaging addition to the ensemble, and I’m looking forward to seeing Clumsylatch Bandicoot spar with some of the more established faces of the series. No one in the world is making more consistently entertaining and accomplished genre movies at the moment – Doctor Strange won’t change your life, but I suspect you’ll have a good time watching it. A good adaptation of a challenging book.

Read Full Post »