iTunes Movie Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

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Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil

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When Kevin Spacey's Jim Williams welcomes John Kelso (John Cusack) to Savannah, Georgia, Clint Eastwood may just as well have welcomed me right along with John-- not to Savannah but rather the iTunes world of digital downloads.

Like everyone else, I'm no stranger to iTunes for their irresistible ninety-nine cent songs, short films and more and as a critic, I've streamed a great deal of video online. However, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil marked my inaugural voyage into the iTunes store's feature film department.

Apple iTunes

And thanks to the urging and movie sponsorship of Warner Brothers to explore an Eastwood film as another tie in to their recent release of 35 Films, 35 Years, I was given the opportunity to see what I still believe is one of the filmmaker's most underrated works, along with A Perfect World.

Obviously the downloading time took longer than I expected since the movie in question runs two and a half hours but I was thrilled to discover it transferred smoothly without any hiccups or disconnections. However, much to my dismay, the sound balance of the film--without using extra speakers-- was poor even when cranked to the highest levels my built-in monitor speakers would allow.

Yet, once I plugged the computer into the television where I could brighten the fittingly Midnight color palette and crank the volume even more, the experience was nearly on par with a DVD or a lower quality instant streaming Netflix movies on my Roku player.

As a fan of the film, I was thrilled to get the chance to explore it once again, especially considering the fact that I've seen it in every single format from theatrical to VHS to DVD (with the exception of Blu-ray).

However, the fact that it worked best when I plugged the computer back into the television-- where my DVD player is already hooked up-- made me realize that iTunes wasn't the ideal viewing format for most individuals, irregardless of how relatively inexpensive film purchases are.

Still, given the ability of the iPod, iPhone, and numerous other portable devices to transfer video content, I can certainly see the appeal in not just iTunes but also Warner Brothers' new Digital Copy feature added to multi-disc DVDs and Blu-rays, which enables you to bring all your media with you on the go.

While my Flintstones-era iPod wouldn't be quite up to the task, it's a cool option to have even though I think filmmakers would most likely prefer that you view their films in a format and style that closely matches the final print released in theatres.

Moodily atmospheric and visually intense, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is based on the eponymous nonfiction work by John Berendt which reigned supreme for roughly three years on New York Times' Bestseller List.

Changing the name of the New York freelance writer and author (played by Cusack) from John Berendt to John Kelso, we chronicle his journey through what he calls “Gone With the Wind on mescaline.”

Arriving in Savannah to do a 500 word literary postcard on a famous Christmas party for Town and Country magazine, Kelso is surprised to be greeted by a lawyer urging him to sign a confidentiality agreement. However Kelso stands firm, not willing to compromise his ethics with a signature on a piece of paper.

And although we'd normally predict that the lawyer's client Jim Williams (Spacey) would be furious at Kelso's refusal, given the twinkle in his eye, sideways smile and Great Gatsby like praise in calling Kelso “Sport,” we realize he's bemused by the man's spunk.

Likewise, it soon comes as no surprise that Kelso's assignment for Town and Country was no accident as Williams shares that since the magazine's been wanting to cover the party for years, he made the deal contingent on the hiring of Kelso, whose work he admires.

And while the ambitious Kelso refuses to get intimidated by lawyers and the wealthy inhabits whether they're “old money” or "nouveau riche,” which is how Williams describes himself, he's similarly chameleon-like enough to slip in and out of various circles.

Essentially, Midnight feels like a Robert Altman film that Altman never made given the amount of quirky characters that populate Savannah. And while at first you assume that Kelso and Williams are the two main characters and both men do have the most screen time in the film, it's really the setting of Savannah that is the film's most valuable player.

Yet after Williams gets arrested for shooting his young male lover dead, the closeted antique collector, self-made businessman and our dry reporter begin to fade into the background as we're never quite sure if we're watching a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, an ensemble piece, an outsiders-on-the-fringes travelogue or throwback to Film Noir.

Soon we meet a voodoo priestess who communes with the dead, a drag queen getting shots to become a man, bisexual hustlers, a piano man, a sultry lounge singer and more as Eastwood's sprawling opus threatens to spin out of control, lost in the boozy, secretive, and haunting haze of twilight in Savannah.

Originally offered to Edward Norton who passed on the lead role, perhaps not wanting to visit similar legal terrain around the time of both Primal Fear and The People Verses Larry Flint, Cusack does what he can out of a bland part compared to the rest, filling in for us as the audience surrogate being pulled behind the curtain of the city's wildest mysteries.

Given the number of yarns being spun in the film by characters of all walks of life, we realize that it's going to get tangled, which it does in its second, slower-paced half. Still, we're nonetheless fascinated by the sheer number of interesting threads we encounter from one moment to the next, whether Eastwood sets us up for them, drops them by the wayside or has us fill in the holes with extra stitches in our mind.

To achieve this, we're using the same type of creativity we see in each and every frame of this wandering yet addictive tale that can only occur when you're welcomed to Savannah by Jim Williams or iTunes.

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FTC Disclosure:
Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.