Few filmmaker trajectories in recent decades have been as odd as that of Kenneth Branagh, who came onto the scene with numerous acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations. If his literary side hasn’t fully receded — seen in his taste for Agatha Christie lately — on a bad day, he goes mercenary, diving into properties like Thor, Jack Ryan and now Artemis Fowl. His latest movie, based on a novel in the young-adult series by Eoin Colfer, projects absolutely nothing beyond a desire to kick-start a new hotshot franchise with numerous sequels. Artemis Fowl is a film that stockpiles ingredients from other solidified successful series, whether it be Star Wars, Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Even the suits-and-shades aesthetic of Men in Black finds a place. Somewhere in this overstuffed yet weightless grab bag is the titular character (Ferdia Shaw), a twelve-year-old boy genius and, by the end, a professional criminal mastermind.
The film’s screenplay, written by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl, sets up Artemis as a character who theoretically is always a few steps ahead of the audience: a child so smart he can beat a chess champion in five moves or clone a goat. An introductory scene finds Artemis matching wits with a therapist and quickly besting his knowledge of antiques. He points out that a chair that appears to be three centuries old shows evidence of industrial tolling. (It’s also a scene that first displays the problem of the weak, wooden lead performance by Shaw, of which will only grow continually worse as the film progresses.) But after the boy’s father, Artemis Sr. (Colin Farrell), disappears, the protagonist and his bodyguard (Nonso Anozie) are reduced to following clues that themselves progress with the clunkiness of grinding gearshifts. Or maybe Artemis is simply so smart that he can’t waste time allowing the audience to share the fun of solving mysteries. Essentially, the film’s opening thirty minutes, if not just the whole runtime, is filled to the brim with nothing but dragging exposition. And soon we find out that Fowl Sr.’s disappearance relates to his knowledge that Earth’s core is filled with fairies, centaurs and other fantasy creatures. All of which make up the other significant supporting players, who include Judi Dench as the boss of a special-forces unit called LEP-recon, Lara McDonnell as Holly a LEP-recon officer, and Josh Gad as an untypically large dwarf.
At best, Artemis Fowl can be bizarrely cheesy. But more often the film dully swipes to be the next big franchise and falls flat on its face. The only real area to which the film seems to devote any consistent effort in its brisk but slogging ninety-minute runtime is to Gad’s Mulch Diggums character, which allows Gad to amp up his shtick so severely that the rest of the film bends toward him, mostly for worse. Reverentially treated like a master criminal, given his own incongruous black-and-white interrogation sequences and snarky lines that are used as the film’s framing device. Diggums takes up so much narrative space that he serves as more of a protagonist than Artemis himself. But then, when your main character is as dull as that snotty, blank kid, even an irritating narrator who eats dirt and shoots it out of his rear while burrowing through the Earth looks like better hero material. Bland, incoherent and half-baked in just about every element, Artemis Fowl is ultimately a charmless, glossy and empty chore of weightless world-building.
Artemis Fowl is available to stream on Disney+
In telling the story of ex-KKK member Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) and his rejection of the white supremacist ideology that once defined his life, Andrew Heckler manages to avoid a few of the more obvious stumbling blocks for a drama about racism from a white writer-director. Burden has to take the first step of cutting ties with the Klan before Reverend David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), an idealistic Black minister with an unshakeable belief in nonviolent resistance, reaches out and offers shelter to him and his family. And the film makes it clear that Burden’s renunciation is merely the beginning of a process of rehabilitation, through which forgiveness — which is not guaranteed — has to be earned. But let’s just say that’s the extent of the thoughtfulness the film lends. Heckler’s first directorial mistake is telling the story from Burden’s perspective rather than Reverend Kennedy’s. Which means we spend a significant portion of the film’s runtime with Burden and his redneck buddies, in humanizing scenes where they break bread, fix cars, and generally show themselves to be more than the sum of their bigotry. In fact, the first act of Burden is so sympathetic to these men that it’s then quite shocking when the first vile slur is first said. Kennedy, meanwhile, is introduced patiently mediating a racist dispute between a cashier and a customer at a local store.
And it’s from there where subsequent scenes that feature Kennedy and his family tend to hinge on discussions of the racism that’s infested their small South Carolina town, of which the construction of a KKK museum — to which Burden holds the deed, a gift from mentor-in-hate Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson) — is only the most visible manifestation. As a result, the story ends up lopsided, defining its Black characters by their struggle while giving the town’s racist white characters a more fully formed humanity. And then there’s also the assumption that the love of a good woman can cure any malady, including violent racism. That good woman is played here by Andrea Riseborough, who does solid work as Judy, Burden’s girlfriend and ultimate savior. And while Riseborough offers a more grounded working-class Southerner than the slack-jawed, swaying and staggering Hedlund, the thorniest and most complicated questions about her character also remain unaddressed. The film lets Judy off the hook for continuing to date Burden after finding out about his KKK ties, both explicitly in its dialogue and implicitly in its storytelling; the suggestion is that she’s not a racist herself, so it’s no big deal that she’s romantically involved with one. Much like Burden itself, Judy walks up to the line of accountability, only to turn away from the difficult questions when a simpler affirmation appears in their place.
A more less significant aspect, but one that’s equally puzzling, is the fact that Judy is living with the father of her young son Franklin (Taylor Gregory) when she and Burden meet. But by the end of their impromptu first date a few scenes later Dad has completely dissipated into deleted-scene purgatory, never once mentioned or though of again. Burden is detailed when it wants to be and perfunctory when it doesn’t, and Heckler’s passion of minutia mostly seems to come out at any opportunity to present 1996 South Carolina as an impoverished backwater. There’s never a clean shirt, groomed beard, or unpeeled patch of wallpaper in this film — with the exception of the Kennedy residence. Burden, which premiered at Sundance two years ago and only now as gotten distribution, isn’t much to look at either. There’s a lot of shaky handheld camerawork — a trite cliché for this type of indie drama. Meanwhile, the editing privileges the temporary impact of cutting from, say, a cross burning to a bonfire prayer meeting over maintaining a consistent tone. The film is peppered with splashy stylistic moments, from a slo-mo breakdown in the rain to a grainy VHS overlay in a deposition scene. They’re all fine enough in the moment but don’t do anything to elevate the storytelling — an expected flaw, perhaps, in a film that has such a difficult time grasping the big picture. Asking questions that it never comes close to answering or properly exploring, Burden is bluntly simplistic with direction that arrives in dull fashion and only further undermines its attempted nuance.
Burden is available on VOD