Movie Night: Mortal Engines

Year: 2008
Genre: Fantasy
Cast: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving

In a post-apocalyptic world where cities ride on wheels and consume each other to survive, two people meet in London and try to stop a conspiracy.

As odd as it might seem, I’ve never really fully embraced steampunk. I mean, I appreciate the aesthetic, the blend of the modern and the antique, and the way in which it borrows from fantasy to allow things to work without true explanation, or scientific backing. And yet somehow I’ve never read a steampunk novel, or watched a steampunk movie. Until now.

I will admit that I have a soft spot for anything by Peter Jackson, and the way in which he brought Philip Reeve’s classic to life is a visual feast. From the conglomerate blend of London, reimagined as an enormous tank (hundreds of feet high) with all the classic landmarks of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the London Underground (and was that a piece of the Gherkin I saw fronting the whole thing?), to the airships that combine hot air balloons with jet engines, this is, to the eyes at least, a steampunk dream come true.

But of course, stunning visuals is only to be expected with anything involving Peter Jackson (see The Lord of the Rings), but of late it seems he’s struggled to tell a compelling story. Many of his more recent films have been critically panned, including the unfortunate Hobbit movies, and even The Lovely Bones, all of which were based on long-beloved books. In fact, Peter Jackson seems only capable of creating remakes and adaptations, but I don’t fault him for that, because to me, I think he does a bang-up job (that’s a good job, in case you were wondering).

You see, I think a lot of people misunderstand what Peter Jackson is trying to do. He doesn’t create films for the box office, nor does he pander to the lowest common denominator. I’ve read scathing reviews of Mortal Engines by supposed critics who clearly didn’t take the time to research the original source material, or appreciate in any way that Peter Jackson is making the films that us, the readers, have always wanted.

And therein lies the beauty of this film. It doesn’t explain; it doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. Mortal Engines is a faithful adaptation, true to the aesthetic and true to the plot. If you really want to understand the depth and complexities, you really need to read the book. Many of the events, character motivations and indeed scenarios don’t make 100% sense without context, even though Jackson does manage to cram a lot of world-building and exposition into a (for him) rather modest 2-hour runtime. And if the plot seems kitsch or predictable, it’s because it’s an adaptation of a 20-year-old book whose plot is essentially the same.

I wish I’d seen Mortal Engines when it was released; Peter Jackson, and director Christian Rivers, deserve considerably more credit than they were given for this film, and to see it on the big-screen, I imagine, would have been spectacular. That being said, it’s still a delight in HD or 4K, and I’m glad I finally got around to watching it, because it’s now taken a special place for me in my film collection.

Of course, it’s never going to get a sequel, which is a shame as there are three more books to adapt, but Hollywood is run by the box office, and when a film actually loses money, you can’t expect much more to come from it. Here’s to hoping it becomes a cult classic over time, because it deserves it.

9/10 would watch again.

Movie Night: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Year: 2018
Genre: Fantasy
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler

The  second installment of the “Fantastic Beasts” series featuring the adventures of Magizoologist New Scamander.

I was curious at the critical dislike for this movie, considering how successful “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was back in 2016. In fairness, I didn’t go to see this movie in theaters when it was released, although I do regret that – if nothing else, the Wizarding World films have proved to be some of the most visually spectacular in recent cinema history.

After a while, I began to assume the hate was directed at poor casting choices, or controversial thematic material (e.g. Dumbledore’s alluded-to romance with Grindelwald), but I never really paid much attention until I finally watched the film the other night.

I thought it was great.

No, really – I actually very much enjoyed it. I do think I understand some of the criticism levied at it – in particular the plethora of characters, the inexplicable rewriting of wizarding history, and the bizarre, one-line reference to homosexuality (I mean, either dive in and embrace it, or just forget about it) – but for me, it was a worthwhile installment in what I hope will become an excellent series.

I was afraid that Johnny Depp would bring his characteristically outrageous performance to Gellert Grindelwald and ruin the character; I was also disappointed at the casting of an American in a distinctly European role. I was also afraid that Jude Law, who in my eyes can really only play a villain, would ruin Dumbledore for me.

I’m glad to say I was wrong. Depp was surprisingly understated and reserved – just what was called for. Law was able to be both charismatic, charming and dangerous – exactly what I wanted Dumbledore to be. And the supporting cast all performed admirably, as well.

The movie isn’t without imperfections; as a sequel to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, Newt Scamander’s role is becoming somewhat relegated to the sidelines of another story. In fact, it really seems like the first film should have stood on its own, and this one been called something else entirely. I agree with the criticism of having a large number of characters, but not with the idea that there are too many to care about; I’m used to plentiful characters from Rowling’s novels, and it fit the feel of what she’s created in the past.

In the end, I’m glad I watched it, and although it’s no “Deathly Hallows”, it holds a dear place in my heart as a continuation of Rowling’s admirable magical world.

8/10 would watch again.

Movie Night: First Reformed

Year: 2017
Genre: Drama
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer

A minister of a small congregation in upstate New York grapples with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns and a tormented past.

We had just finished watching Gattaca (a truly world-class movie) when we came across First Reformed on the iTunes New & Noteworthy section, and thought to give it a try – more because of Ethan Hawke than anything else.

I will say Ethan Hawke seems to truly dedicate himself to whatever role he takes.

The plot – such as it is – centers around a middle-aged minister of a fading congregation whose son was killed in Afghanistan (or Iraq – I can’t remember). Whilst he tries to comfort and help the few remaining members of his flock, he clearly is battling an almost unbearable inner despair – something that becomes painfully evident as he fails to reach the people he tries to help.

First Reformed is really more of a character study on depression and the loss of faith, and the events that take place are at once surreal and hauntingly believable. When Ethan Hawke’s character, Minister Toller, comes across a suicide vest in the belongings of one of his congregation, he doesn’t report it – he takes it. Combined with the stark contrast between his own poorly-attended worship and the wildly successful for-profit church in the neighboring town, and things take – as you can imagine – a nasty turn for the worse.

The final few scenes are nail-bitingly intense, and equally bizarre – suffice to say bombs, churches and barbed wire are involved. This isn’t a happy film, but it subtly underplayed by the entire cast to great effect. You truly believe the emotional rollercoaster of every character, even if you don’t particularly like any of them; the person I felt sorry for the most was ultimately Amanda Seyfried’s Mary, who really didn’t deserve the punishment inflicted on her by Ethan Hawke’s misery and rage.

Sad, despondent and dark.

6/10 would watch again.