Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

As one of those people who knows all the words to Sondheim’s 1979 musical, I was certain to hate the movie, even as I secretly hoped for the opposite. I had heard clips of Johnny Depp singing and it had incensed me, and I threw myself into repeated listens to the Len Cariou original cast recording. “Why are they compromising on voice?” I asked anyone who would listen. “It’s a musical!”

Because, as I found out last night, the mechanics of Depp’s vocal cords make no difference when a movie is this beautiful. I hardly noticed the little deficiencies of his and Helena Bonham Carter’s instruments in the thrill of seeing a movie of a musical I loved and loving it, too.

Burton’s London is a comic book inhabited by his personal avatars (Carter and Depp) looking strangely attractive despite their deathly pallor and moral decrepitude. For those who don’t know, Sweeney Todd concerns the return and revenge of a mild-mannered barber turned to bloodthirstiness by the machinations of a lustful judge, who sent him away on a trumped-up charge to gain access to Todd’s wife. He now holds Todd’s daughter, Johanna, in his house, and may have designs on her as well. Todd’s neighbor, Mrs. Lovett (Carter), is an unsuccessful meat pie seller who remembers Todd and aligns herself with him in a scheme to kill the judge and revitalize her pie shop. Oh, and they sing.

For those who fear the musical part, I should inform you that the music and lyrics are significantly darker than anything you’ve seen on screen. It’s not Mary Poppins up here. One song cut from the film includes the line “Lift your razor high, Sweeney/Hear it singing, ‘Yes!’/Sink it in the rosy skin/Of righteousness,” and Burton doesn’t shy from demonstrating what happens when you do so. Gallons of red blood suffuse the dim landscape of blacks, whites and blues. The design rides a fine line between realism and Burton’s characteristic style—very successfully, in my opinion. The supporting cast is excellent, young Johanna resembling a blonde Christina Ricci and Alan Rickman deliciously lecherous as Judge Turpin. Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli the rival barber is outrageously perfect as well.

What works about Sweeney Todd despite my prior reservations is that the actors on screen are arresting, no matter how they sound. The music alone could support worse, and the experience of watching Depp mitigates my problems with his singing. I wouldn’t, couldn’t listen to this soundtrack on its own. But in the course of the film I hardly noticed. Likewise the numerous cut songs, some of them among my favorites—I will allow it in the interest of finally seeing a good movie made of a musical I like. And this is a good movie, surprisingly so in my opinion. And I think that if musical geeks like me can get around our vocal dubiousness, non-musical fans might be able to get over their resistance to people singing their plans to one another. It won’t be all things to all people, but it’s an amazing accomplishment and I, for one, am happy to have been proven wrong. Read more!

Friday, December 21, 2007

I Am Legend (2007)

Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella I Am Legend is one of the best stories I’ve read recently. It concerns the last man in a post-apocalyptic world which has been decimated by a vampire-like infection, but it deals with the details of his extraordinary yet mundane existence in such a gripping fashion I didn’t want it to end. So I was cautious about the new film version. I steeled myself for the changes, and consoled myself with the fact that the trailer looked good, even if it didn’t look like the book. That was fine, I thought. The transfer between mediums can excuse a lot.

The extra background info, for instance, might be a consideration for Hollywood audiences who don’t want to jump right into the post-apocalypse trope. Robert Neville’s dog, Sam(antha), gives Will Smith something to act against, essential if we’re to know him without the benefit of narration. And New York City in ruins is inherently interesting. The film could certainly have Hollywoodized things more than they did. Essentially, we watch a surprisingly good Smith wander around the city with his dog, stuck in an endless loop of video “rentals,” zombie-hunting and a futile search for a cure. He is the only one left, but he cannot give up. Because what else would he do? It is only when someone else does show up that we see how damaged Neville really is; how far apart he has grown from “humanity,” just like the creatures he hunts. What’s entertaining about the film (and book) are the little details of execution; Neville’s daily life, his rituals, the archived television broadcasts and clipped newspaper articles. Though I was disappointed to see that Hairspray is still on Broadway in 2009.

Now, this all sounds like I’m pretty happy with the film. And I was, until about ¾ of the way through. The minute Neville shouts that there is no God, that we did this to ourselves, I knew that the film was going to have to prove him wrong—no mainstream movie in America could get away with that sort of sentiment unpunished. Indeed, the film moves from being understandably updated from the book to being a complete repudiation of Matheson’s essential, and essentially dark, point. Neville is not a legend because he is a beacon of hope to guide humanity into some promised land; he is a legend to the inhuman creatures who seek to wipe him out. Hollywood has, for once, preserved enough of the original to make my sense of betrayal that much greater.

Because for an hour, I thought someone had gotten something right. And that little beacon of hope turned out to be less real than that which Neville offers humanity. It’s almost better when I know they’ve only stolen the title and don’t have to see the travesty. Read more!

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Intruder (1962)

In 1962, b-movie mogul and directorial impresario Roger Corman made a black and white “problem film” about, well... black and white. It is notable for two reasons: it tackled the tricky subject of a small town's reluctant school integration, and it starred one William Shatner.

Yes. That William Shatner.

The “intruder” of the title is double—the “intrusion” of the African American into white society (or at least high school) and the devilish Northerner who comes to rile the townsfolk over what would otherwise be a somewhat uncomfortable non-issue, like a racist Harold Hill. (Interestingly, the film version of The Music Man was released the same year, but it's amazing how blunt and “modern” this one is in comparison.) Shatner arrives with no other apparent motive than to stir additional discord. He is eventually thwarted, not by man's innate goodness but by the unpredictable nature of the mob; the would-be orchestrator becomes the na├»ve bystander as things hurtle out of control.

But let's cut to the chase, shall we? The only reason you're still reading this—the only reason I watched the movie, which is decent but unremarkable—is to see how Shatner fared, pre-Kirk. Well friends, let me tell you--

He is amazing.

Shatner's craft is finely honed even at this early stage of the game, and his vocal delivery is just fantastic. There are nuances here that denote careful thought and sharp instinct. He's riveting. And he's not Kirk, either; Shatner's an actor, and between this and Kirk it should be obvious that he didn't start playing “himself” until he was forced to by virtue of the public not allowing him to disappear into anyone else. Early Shatner, I'd say up until season 3 of Star Trek, is a marvel and I think he could have been huge as a “serious” actor. The oft-parodied pauses and grimaces aren't absent in his early work, but they're subtle and well-placed. They have weight and meaning. And he's got an animal magnetism which works equally well as the immoral seducer and the wily captain. He's built like an all-American cornfed boy but there's a crafty, almost feminine charm which maybe has to do with him being Canadian. I'm not sure.

I'm on the edge of fangirling here, if I haven't jumped over it already. But I'm not sure I care, after that performance. I am sold. And if you have any curiosity about what “might have been,” if you've ever mocked Shatner, go get this movie. I dare you to laugh.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Golden Compass (2007)

I have a bad habit of reading books just before seeing the movies they’re made in to. It’s the perfect formula for disliking something—the comparison is almost never flattering. In the case of The Golden Compass, I hadn’t been blown away by the first book in the trilogy. Even so, the film is a mishmash of prettily illustrated Cliffs Notes; interesting as a companion, but incapable of standing on its own.

In this super-compressed narrative which avoids any hint of subtly, we are informed straightaway of all the exciting things about Philip Pullman’s new world that, in the books, we were forced to learn as we went. There are parallel worlds, and in one particular world, much like ours but without a Hindenburg disaster, humans’ souls are external, animal-shaped daemons. The ruling power of this world, the Magisterium, is concerned about the fact that when children grow up and become dirty and wicked, their daemons “settle” into a particular form; and a mysterious invisible particle called Dust collects around them. At the center of a growing storm is Lyra, an orphan who, as played by Dakota Blue Richards, is the brightest spot in this film. She is worth the whole thing; she’s adorable and yet maintains the requisite hardness the inveterate survivor and liar needs. She’s more likable than in the book, but she has to be, to hold the scattered film together.

Lyra’s adventures are certainly interesting, but they seem haphazard, even for a children’s fantasy epic. Plot points turn up at convenient times, like an engine. We don’t ask how the train got here; we just get on and off at the right stops. And just in case we notice some lack of cohesion to the script, the score is one of the most blatantly manipulative pieces of film music I’ve ever heard. It sounds as if it’s been cobbled together from a hundred previous films via a blueprint for just what heightened emotion we’re supposed to feel when; and most offensively, the Tartar armies are always accompanied by a throat-singing sound, I suppose to heighten their Otherness. And like most primarily-CG films, there are numerous unnecessary “helicopter” shots and expansive camera sweeps. Because they can. The CG itself is fairly good, especially with the main characters, but the background animals couldn’t help but remind me of dogs from the Sims2 computer game in the way they moved.

Incidentally, I had become concerned upon hearing reviews that the film attempted to “secularize” the Magisterium, but I saw little evidence of this on screen. It is clearly a Christian organization; their headquarters, in one town, is clearly a Greek Orthodox Church (which gets smashed to bits). There is no overt naming of the Magisterium as a religious organization, but there is no other explanation for things like the repeated use of the word “heresy.” Controversy about what it’s saying about religion may reign as far as I’m concerned; what I don’t think can be debated is whether it is saying something.

There is definitely an audience who will thrill to the concepts introduced here, which are enthralling. But what is good in the movie is present in the book. That doesn’t make enjoying the movie a bad thing, and there is enough of interest here to make it not a complete waste of time. But regarded as a movie rather than a spectacle, it fails. And there are bigger spectacles out there; albeit none with souls in the form of talking ferrets.

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