Criterion Sunday 514: Ride with the Devil (1999)

I’m not sure if Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and Jewel (the singer) counted as big stars back in 1999, but I suspect they may have had a greater lustre to them at the very least. In retrospect, though the casting is solid, their faded celebrity is perhaps now more appropriate to the Confederate bushwhackers they play: basically kids trying to mount a guerrilla offensive that starts out rooted in family but increasingly becomes a brazen attempt to profit by any means. This movement into banditry is where Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s slippery, traitorous character comes into his own. None of them are exactly people you want to root for, but Maguire and Jewel at least bring something a little bit empathetic, given their youth and evident inexperience at war. Of course, the real emotional centre of the film is Jeffrey Wright’s ex-slave, fighting on the side of the Confederates out of loyalty to his former master (a relatively brief appearance for Australian actor Simon Baker). There’s nothing particularly gung ho or patriotic about this film — it tells the story of a group of people caught up in events much bigger than them and which frequently seem too large even for this (fairly lengthy) film. In the end Lee is far more interested in the time between the battles and the effects of war than in mounting big combat scenes, and this is all the stronger a film for that.


  • On a disc fairly light on bonus features, one of the main extras is a 15-minute video interview with Jeffrey Wright some years later, as he reflects on his role and the place of African-Americans in the forces of the Confederacy, which is needless to say a fraught and nuanced subject.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Tobey Maguire, Jewel, Jeffrey Wright, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers; Length 148 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 12 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001).

Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

There are a number of balls in the air in this film — two teenage girls’ desire to play football professionally, a three-way love triangle they have with their coach, the clash of races and cultures between Sikh and anglo populations in West London, and a coming-out story — and it’s to the director and writers’ credit that everything works out so well. That’s not to say it’s perfect — some of those resolutions are a little strained, and I’ve never been a fan of the angular Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an actor or as a love interest (though at least here he’s playing Irish) — but on the whole it’s all rather sweet. Parminder Nagra plays Jess, the character who dreams, as in the title, of bending the ball into the back of the net like her idol David Beckham, while Keira Knightley is Jules, who happens upon Jess playing with her (male) mates in the park and invites her to join their semi-professional local women’s team. Jess’s family have other ideas for their daughter of course (a solicitor, married to a nice Sikh boy), but the film is about Jess realising her dreams and still making her family proud. It all wraps up rather too neatly — and there’s definitely more than a hint of lesbian romance to the two women’s friendship, though that is quashed by the script via Jules’s mother, an underwritten sub-plot featuring the coach, and ultimately sidetracked into another story about one of Jess’s male friends. However, all that can be forgiven, because after all it’s a comedy and thankfully it’s intensely likeable, in no small way due to Nagra in the lead role, not to mention the interest gained from seeing her family’s story.

Bend It Like Beckham film posterCREDITS
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Chadha, Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges; Cinematographer Jong Lin 林良忠; Starring Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 20 September 2015.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)

I’m not sure where to begin with this film. It’s too long for a start. It’s ridiculous, filled with all kinds of supernatural phenomena and pseudo-religious mysticism, and there’s seldom a moment when the protagonists are not running around doing something that defies logic or sense. There are scenes that are so overwhelmingly over-the-top that I can’t believe that everyone didn’t just burst out laughing when staging them. But then again, maybe they did and maybe that’s the point. I found the film likeable quite in spite of itself, somewhat the way I felt about the Twilight Saga. Maybe I’m just projecting, but amongst all the po-faced battles against demons, it seemed like the film had its tongue firmly in its cheek.

I was introduced to this oeuvre as having derived from Harry Potter fanfiction communities, but what The Mortal Instruments offers is more a pastiche of every fantasy film ever, via some classic horror thrills and action-adventure hijinks. It twists the Twilight paradigm in having the female lead be the most powerful character (though sure, she does go through a period of being weepy and defenseless while she learns her powers), but there’s scarcely a single shot or a narrative trope that seems original. Still, it keeps things moving at a swift pace, since the idea of recycling familiar narrative motifs is to avoid unnecessary explication — when the film does deign to explain the world of Mundanes and Shadowhunters, it’s all a bit surplus to requirements.

The dialogue, sadly, is the weakest element. And yet, although the characters mouth the most stultifyingly banal platitudes, somehow it works in the context of this kind of film. A central romantic scene takes place in a rooftop gardens of the Institute where all the Shadowhunters live (a large gothic cathedral invisible in the centre of New York City), where under a gauzy camera filter, mystical green lights play amongst the fecund flowerbeds, where the characters leaning in for a kiss is accompanied by unnaturally-coloured plants flowering and rain pouring (inside!), over the top of which plays a teasingly banal pop power ballad (“Heart by Heart”, by Demi Lovato, which I just listened to, and quite enjoy outside the context of this particular scene). As I said, it’s the very archetype of ridiculousness, but that’s fine. There need be no deep character insights — I have no idea what motivates any of them, and even central character Clary (pronounced “Clarry”)’s backstory is cast into some doubt by the end. Everyone just knows what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and the film is in a way bold by not explaining it.

I haven’t really mentioned the plot or most of the central characters yet, partly because none of it really matters. There’s a lot of supernatural hocus pocus and earnest entreaties that “the stories are all true”, but perhaps the most magical thing about the film may well be the fact that just off the packed avenues of Brooklyn is a verdant little street of cottages where Clary (played by Lily Collins) and her mother live. Clary is at the heart of the film in her quest for a sacred Cup (one of the titular ‘Mortal Instruments’), much desired by chief villain Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). She’s aided in her quest variously by the Shadowhunters — a group of pasty-faced goths, who as ever are headed by a wise older English character actor (here it’s Jared Harris) — and by some werewolves, who perhaps appropriately take as their human form what looks like a group of hipster craft-beer drinkers. And then there are her dalliances with nerdy best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) and pretty blond Shadowhunter Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), who has, in the finest style, a secret past. Or does he? I haven’t even mentioned the role Johann Sebastian Bach plays, but it’s probably the funniest bit in this whole ridiculous mess.

I’ve tried, though, to avoid giving the impression that I hated this film, mainly because I thought it to be rollicking great fun, like a supernatural Goonies. The possibility of further instalments comes via a line delivered by Jared Harris (along the lines of “it’s a war we can never win, but must keep fighting forever”), which rather suggests an infinity of sequels, but given this first film’s box office performance that may never happen. And yet, though it may not be a cinematic masterpiece, it’s an enjoyably silly ride through a fantasy-adventure theme park.

Director Harald Zwart; Writer Jessica Postigo Paquette (based on the novel City of Bones by Cassandra Clare); Cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen; Starring Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jared Harris; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Stratford East, London, Wednesday 28 August 2013.