Rufus Sewell

A Knight’s Tale (2001, Brian Helgeland), the extended cut

I’ve always found A Knight’s Tale’s lack of popular (or critical) success surprising. Besides the obvious–Heath Ledger when he was still doing the young Mel Gibson thing, only mixed with a more mature Gibson’s consciousness of his charm–it’s absolutely hilarious. Helgeland had a problematic relationship with Gibson, but certainly knew how to write for him (Conspiracy Theory) and he knows how to write for Ledger here.

Helgeland’s script is also impressive in how it portrays its villain. Rufus Sewell is as evil as any big film villain, but Helgeland and Sewell discreetly humanize him just enough he’s not intolerable to be around. The audience knows, watching the film, Ledger will best him… it’s just how he’s going to do it.

Unfortunately, the romance between Ledger and Shannyn Sossamon weakens the film. Helgeland just can’t figure a way to make it work and he just pretends it does. The film doesn’t lose its charm, but it does wobble.

The best thing in the film is Paul Bettany, whose performance as Geoffrey Chaucer is a constant delight. The entire supporting cast is solid–Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk are Ledger’s sidekicks, who take demotion in screen time once Sossamon shows up, but remain excellent. Laura Fraser is their girl Friday (who gets shortchanged in terms of character development). James Purefoy is good in a small part.

Helgeland’s direction is good without being extraordinary, but there’s not a bad shot in the film.

Oh, and the Olivia Williams cameo is wonderful.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland; director of photography, Richard Greatrex; edited by Kevin Stitt; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Tony Burrough; produced by Todd Black, Helgeland and Tim Van Rellim; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Heath Ledger (William Thatcher), Rufus Sewell (Count Adhemar), Shannyn Sossamon (Jocelyn), Paul Bettany (Geoffrey Chaucer), Laura Fraser (Kate), Mark Addy (Roland), Alan Tudyk (Wat) and James Purefoy (Colville).


Dark City (1998, Alex Proyas), the director’s cut

I’m not sure if anything actually goes wrong with Dark City. There’s the significant music problem (Trevor Jones’s score seems more appropriate for a car commercial; it’s missing any subtext or delicacy), but there’s nothing else wrong. The acting is all fantastic–Richard O’Brien gives the best performance, making his evil alien human–and Alex Proyas composes fantastic shots.

The action-packed ending does seem a little off, both in terms of story and direction, I suppose. Proyas seems to be making a loud action picture instead of the quiet, peculiar one he was making a few minutes before. He’s got to visualize super-telepathy and it comes off poorly. Dark City‘s probably filled with references to other films–the one I noticed during the majority of the film was Metropolis, but the end mimics the Krypton destruction from Superman. The tone really doesn’t fit.

But where I wish Proyas had taken more time was with the characters. The last line implies the whole film’s been about characters, but it wasn’t. One of the major reveals (in this director’s cut, anyway… in the original version, there aren’t any reveals) makes the characters having great importance, overall, problematic if not impossible. And the end sort of ignores that condition, even though the end only exists because of that condition.

It’s very confusing… as is the problem of food in the film. No one seems to eat.

Proyas opens Dark City as a Panavision, vividly lighted film noir (or tries to) but there’s clearly something off. He loves the style though, as his introduction of Jennifer Connelly demonstrates. She’s a lounge singer and he goes through great lengths to bring that scene–an absolutely useless one, narratively–in as well as he can. But its narrative superfluousness is almost immediately apparent (Connelly subsequently has a real scene); tight as he is with his direction–until that last fight scene–Proyas is exceptionally loose with the script. He concentrates on the unimportant. There’s one particular scene–O’Brien and Rufus Sewell–where O’Brien tells Sewell his secret and it’s such a bad, expositional, needless line, I sat bewildered for the next thirty seconds.

The film’s very romantic–Sewell and Connelly, William Hurt’s solitary noir detective–but Proyas’s handling of the material is cynical. He’s not interested in the human component, except in minute doses. Sometimes, like O’Brien’s frequent ones, it works. Most times it simply isn’t enough.

Like I said before, all the acting’s good, with Sewell an excellent leading man, Connelly even better when she’s in the lead (but it doesn’t last long, only until Sewell can assume the protagonist role), and Hurt steady. Hurt’s performance is a fully competent, completely assured turn… but he seems the wrong choice for it. Of course he can do the performance, but it’s William Hurt–he can do a lot more. When it’s him and Connelly for the first third, it’s real good. Kiefer Sutherland’s fine as the mad scientist too. But towards the end he sort of becomes the lead character for a while and that approach might have been a better one for Proyas to take.

I haven’t seen Dark City for eight or nine years–about twenty minutes in, I remembered the original DVD was an early reference disc–and I’m not sure I watched it more than once initially. Its epical plot concerns itself so much with providing an intriguing journey–not to mention the visual sumptuousness–there’s something missing in terms of emotional engagement. The acting makes up for some of that absence, but given how often the script works intentionally and directly against such an engagement… it can only do so much.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Proyas; screenplay by Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, based on a story by Proyas; director of photography, Dariusz Wolski; edited by Dov Hoenig; music by Trevor Jones; production designers, George Liddle and Patrick Tatopoulos; produced by Andrew Mason and Proyas; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Rufus Sewell (John Murdoch), William Hurt (Inspector Frank Bumstead), Kiefer Sutherland (Dr. Daniel P. Schreber), Jennifer Connelly (Emma Murdoch), Richard O’Brien (Mr. Hand), Ian Richardson (Mr. Book), Bruce Spence (Mr. Wall), Colin Friels (Det. Eddie Walenski), John Bluthal (Karl Harris), Mitchell Butel (Officer Husselbeck), Melissa George (May) and Frank Gallacher (Chief Insp. Stromboli).


The Illusionist (2006, Neil Burger)

I don’t know where to start talking about The Illusionist. I mean, I only have two choices, so it’s really just a coin toss. I’ll start with Neil Burger. Burger adapted the script from a short story, which means he was probably confined to some degree. The Illusionist is not a “wow“ of a film in its story. It’s a fine, predictable, enjoyable magician movie with some nice special effects. So I don’t want to talk about Burger and the film on those issues. The writing ones. Burger’s direction is something special. It’s a very geeky approach to cinema–I was reminded of The Call of Cthulhu, the recent film, not the short story–because Burger directs the flashbacks and most of the romantic scenes between Ed Norton and Jessica Biel like a silent film, in terms of lighting, framing, editing and transitions. It works to an okay effect. It’s more impressive in its competence initially than anything else. Then Burger transitions to the present action of the story and he films a lot of the establishing scenes much like a Universal horror picture of the 1930s. The Vienna scenery lends itself perfectly to that approach. Then he goes on. The silent film techniques are still there for certain scenes, but Burger immerses the audience in historical Vienna–to the degree I even believed Biel lived there too. I didn’t quite believe Norton would love Biel or even that Rufus Sewell’s Prince Revolting would tolerate her even for political gain, but I did believe she was in 1800s Vienna.

Now for the second part. Paul Giamatti. His performance in the film is something singular. It’s a privilege to see Giamatti perform. He manages to chew scenery in a reserved manner, making his performance wholly believable but also joyous to behold. His performance is so good, it’s like the rest of the film doesn’t matter–it’s gravy the rest of the film is a perfectly reasonable diversion. The Illusionist wraps a piece of escapist storytelling in Burger’s masterful direction (which is in Dick Pope’s sumptuous lighting–sumptuous is the only word for it, absolutely stunning to look at), and a good Philip Glass score. Some of the Glass score seems redundant and repetitive of his previous work, but it’s fine.

I’ve only mentioned Norton in passing, but he’s real good here. Even if the only time he gets to act is in the scenes with Giamatti. Watching the two of them work together is wonderful. Like I said, Biel isn’t unbelievable and there are only a handful of moments when she’s ridiculous (I had assumed it’d be every minute she was on screen). Rufus Sewell’s evil prince is a lot of fun for a couple reasons. First, Sewell plays the perfect hissable villain (hard to believe, ten years ago, he was the best up-and-coming leading man Hollywood). Second, it’s like he’s doing a Freud impression. Loads of fun.

I was shocked to see Burger’s only done one film before this one, I have unrealistically high expectations of him now. As for Giamatti, I’m even considering seeing Lady in the Water, blasphemy of a considerable level.

I do wonder if the film could have been done without the red herrings and the twists, but I doubt it. There’s not much of a story in the end (for example, is Giamatti’s police inspector married?). So, it’s just a diversion and a better one than most.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Neil Burger; screenplay by Burger, based on a short story by Steven Millhauser; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Naomi Geraghty; music by Philip Glass; production designer, Ondrej Nekvasil; produced by Michael London, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Bob Yari and Cathy Schulman; released by Yari Film Group.

Starring Edward Norton (Eisenheim), Paul Giamatti (Chief Inspector Uhl), Jessica Biel (Sophie), Rufus Sewell (Crown Prince Leopold), Eddie Marsan (Fischer), Jake Wood (Jurka), Tom Fisher (Willigut), Aaron Johnson (Young Eisenheim) and Eleanor Tomlinson (Young Sophie).


Cold Comfort Farm (1995, John Schlesinger)

Do the Brits have any major film movement? In the 1920s, the Germans had the expressionist movement. In the (what?) 1960s, there was the French New Wave. In addition to contributing more Greenhouse Effect-causing pollutants to the atmosphere, the United States has perfected the over-produced blockbuster. The British, however, have never really had a movement. There are some great (and good) British filmmakers, but the Archers never caused a revolution…

Cold Comfort Farm has no distinct style. It’s inoffensively directed, with a poor narrative structure, and some decent performances. It might be–obviously silly ones aside–Kate Beckinsale’s worst performance, because her character is as flat as an LCD screen. Rufus Sewell (whatever happened to him?) turns up with a similarly depth-less character. On the other hand, Ian McKellen has a lot of fun with his character. I always find it amusing when Ian McKellen’s good, since he’s since become such a ham (thanks, in no small part, to Bryan Singer).

So, while British cinema seems to lack any spectacular definition, Britain itself certainly contains quite a bit. There’s something charming about the British countryside, it’s a very definite setting and very obvious. Batman Begins used a British manor for an American mansion, something quite impossible. See, I’m even using words like “quite” and “definite.” That’s a bit of the problem with Cold Comfort Farm, it tries really damn hard to be charming. Even the theme. I listen to the theme and think, how charming. But that’s because of the theme, not because it’s the Cold Comfort Farm music.

Beckinsale improves (somewhat) throughout the picture, but she’s miscast. There’s no mischievousness, not even the hint of it, and the character needs some. Without it, she’s boring (and wholly unaffected by the momentous changes–though for good–she’s causing in people’s lives).

In the end, Cold Comfort left a defining plot thread undefined, something that gets it brownie points, but not enough to really change my opinion of it. Damn nice music though and British countryside. Shame about their cinematic output.

I realized, during the film, Britain’s best efforts seem to be in television, not film. Makes you wonder what PBS could do if nitwits weren’t trying to kneecap it.

Still, Cold Comfort is one of the last undefined films… Made in 1995, I don’t watch and think about that production date, something hard to do with current film output. Hmm. Maybe not “one of the last,” but certainly a fine example of an undated film.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Schlesinger; written by Malcolm Bradbury, based on the novel by Stella Gibbons; director of photography, Chris Seager; edited by Mark Day; music by Robert Lockhart; production designer, Malcolm Thornton; produced by Richard Broke and Antony Root; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Kate Beckinsale (Flora Poste), Joanna Lumley (Mrs. Smiling), Rufus Sewell (Seth), Ian McKellen (Amos Starkadder), Stephen Fry (Mybug), Eileen Atkins (Judith Starkadder), Sheila Burrell (Ada Doom), Freddie Jones (Adam Lambsbreath) and Maria Miles (Elfine).


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