From the Archive — Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

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As the new version of Dumbo soar into theaters, it seems a long lifetime since a new directorial effort from Tim Burton was cause for excitement. When I was crafting reviews for my college radio station in the early nineteen-nineties, Burton was an exciting presence, developing playfully gloomy visions that seemed revolutionary, or at least smeared-eyeliner subversive. He cast quite a spell. At the time his film adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was released, Burton was over a decade removed from his last truly laudable feature and I was still beginning from an assumption of cinematic authorship worth studying. His next movie, which launched the increasingly regrettable Disney practice of raiding and remaking the most beloved artifacts in its back catalog, put a decisive end to that generosity. I think this assessment is still sound, but I’d also wager Burton’s fingerprints on the film look a little different to me now. This was written for my former online home.

I’ll say this for Tim Burton and company: They didn’t flinch. In bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from the stage to the big screen, it would have been so easy to soften the material, finesse away the darkest of the dark elements, demurely turn the camera away whenever the title character opened up another throat. Sure, accusations of cowardice would have been founded and the most fervent devotees of Broadway musicals and Stephen Sondheim would have been tempted to take up their own straight razors against the filmmakers, but so many more tickets could have been sold with a friendlier PG-13 rating. Just a tweak or two to the grim ending, even by simply completing the unresolved romantic subplot involving the earnest sailor Anthony Hope and the sadly imprisoned vision of blonde purity Johanna, could have sent general audiences out the swinging theater doors more likely to trumpet about their fun time in the movie house.

Instead, here is Sweeney Todd, all of its anger and brutality intact, even enhanced by the fearless proximity of the camera, getting so close to the acts of violence that the spilled blood sometimes coats the lens. This boldness is easily the greatest strength of Burton’s direction. It is a solid, commendable effort, but he also winds up constrained by the material. Save for the number “By the Sea,” with which Burton takes full advantage of the limitless possibilities of film, none of the staging is especially novel. Eventually, watching Sweeney again gaze longingly at one of his razors held up to the light or watching another fresh cadaver tumble through the trap door becomes redundant. Even Depp’s performance in the lead role falls prey to this problem. He alternates between dour, glaze-eyed contemplation and snarling cries for vengeance. He does well enough, but there’s not enough variety built into the role. Helena Bonham Carter has more to work with as Mrs. Lovett: More vulnerability, more devious humor, more spirit. She responds with her best work in years.

How this holds up as a representative of Sondheim’s swath of work is better determined by others more intimate with the land of orchestra pits and greasepaint. I most admire the song score when it’s flashing the sort of fizzy word acrobatics that I associate with Sondheim. It, and the story, is at its flattest when it turns to the tortured young lovers. Maybe the melodies in these sections achieve a grandeur or intricate beauty that’s beyond my tin ears.

What limitations Sweeney Todd has as a film seem built right into the very story construction that the filmmakers inherited. It’s hard to imagine a current director better suited to this material than Burton, with his proclivity for candy-coated darkness. He may very well have carried the film as far as it could go. If great films sing, Sweeney Todd hums.

From the Archive — Spider-Man 3

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I thought about dusting this review off a couple months back, during a weekend when a certain feature starring Tom Hardy became an unlikely smash hit. But then I realized the word “Venom” doesn’t appear anywhere in the few hundred words. That was perhaps a kindness to Topher Grace, or maybe just a tacit acknowledgment that director Sam Raimi didn’t really want the bulky marauder in his movie, a problem he recently noted was essentially insurmountable. So, there was really no point using this review to accompany the release of Venom. It was no real hardship. We now live in a universe that delivers a new Spider-Man movie approximately every six months, so I knew there’s be another opportunity. This review was originally written for and posted in my former online home.

For two films, Sam Raimi was a super-hero.

The director who inaugurated the Spider-man film franchise came to it equally accomplished in high art (A Simple Plan) and low genius (Evil Dead 2). Raimi achieved something wonderful that resided squarely in between those two extremes in adapting the amazing fantasy of milquetoast Peter Parker transformed into a web-slinging wisecracker who saves New York City from marauding goblins and metal-armed megalomaniacs. Bustling with energy, color and heart, Raimi’s first two films came closer than any other film to capturing the zippy appeal of four-color adventures of the utterly improbable. It helps that Spider-man is the epitome of the wish-fulfillment that gives super-heroes their resonant subtextual appeal: the bullied weakling who’s secretly a strong and dexterous daredevil, saving the prettiest girl in school. With that rich core, Raimi made a first film of uncommon urgency and a follow-up that maintained the drive while stripped away the shortcomings of its predecessor.

The third time is charmless. It may seem that Raimi has incorporated too many elements with villains old and not-as-old added to the mix (although, that “not-as-old” villain has still been around for about twenty years, a realization that had me reeling a tad) while still making room to have movieland’s Harry Osborn follow in the purple footprints of his printed predecessor. With classic supporting characters Gwen Stacy and her police officer father also debuting, the threat is clearly there for pure overload, but that’s not where the endeavor stumbles. It’s not overly busy, it’s just flat. It’s hard to think of another film with so much plot and yet feels like there’s very little actually going on.

The story itself is full of plot holes and strains credibility with its heavy reliance on coincidence. The attempts to explore Peter Parker’s darker instincts — fueled by municipal adoration and ego, and exacerbated by a sentient alien tar that contributes to a costume change — are marred by poorly crafted comedic digressions and muddled purpose. Raimi’s playing with ideas, but he has no real point to make with this side trip. The danger of the parasitic substance never comes across. Like many of the details, it’s just there. There’s nothing meaningful or memorable; it’s just filling space and killing time.

As opposed to the first two installments, Spider-man 3 suffers from a pronounced lack of humanity. The earlier films had ample FX house eye candy, but they also had the splendid schism of Peter’s joyous freedom and burdensome guilt in his super-hero role. His fearful longing for Mary Jane was as critical as the expertly crafted action sequences. Raimi still knows how to construct airborne battles with ingenuity and audaciousness, but his sure touch for the people populating the adventure is plainly gone. In its place is trumped-up conflict, hackneyed motivation and platitudes masquerading as wisdom (poor Rosemary Harris has to suffer through playing Aunt May as nothing more than a clucking dispenser of arduous advice).

This is hardly the first film franchise to fall apart when it gets to its third outing, but I had been a true believer in Sam Raimi’s eternal ability to shepherd the wall-crawler’s onscreen adventures, which makes it all the harder to see him spin a spectacular failure.

From the Archive — No Country for Old Men

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It’s easy to forget now, but shortly before the release of No Country for Old Men, it appeared that Joel and Ethan Coen might have reached the end of their run as vital filmmakers. They’d delivered two critical and commercial duds in a row (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers), and the ideas didn’t seem to snapping with the same frequency as early in their career. It turns out all the fretting was premature. The siblings crafted what might well stand as the best film they ever made and launched a string of consistently superlative features. As their latest feature (repurposed from a planned Netflix series) hits theaters ahead of broader streaming availability, I’ll dig out my original review of No Country for Old Men, written for and first posted at my former online home. 

No Country For Old Men is unmistakably a movie about Texas, or at least steeped in Texas, just as Fargo was fraught with the chill of Minnesota winter and the chipper attitudes of those who persevere through it. It may not be a Texas of reality (though it all feels as real as bullet piercing skin) and it’s certainly not a Texas of myth and fable. It’s a Texas of literature, the weight of decisions made and repercussions faced.

It comes from literature, of course. Joel and Ethan Coen have made many movies that felt like novels in their structure and detail, but this is the first time they’ve actually looked to a book for a story to tell. It’s not hard to understand why this Cormac McCarthy book would appeal to them. Every riveting page had to make them think of their lean, sharp debut Blood Simple. They have certainly transferred it to the screen with the care of zealots adapting their scripture of choice.

Like many films from the Coens, it is a movie about crime and a pile of money with a shadow of darkness cast across. It is stark, unrelenting, a Texas landscape. Men talk to each other about the horrors they’ve seen, the rot they can’t quite avoid. The rot they can’t quite resist. They survey the problems, the mounting inevitability. They are matter of fact. They see the world as a series of truths, even if those truths are unkind. Their words are curt and weary. The world is harsh, brutal, merciless, unrelenting. The film, with intelligence and confidence, conveys it all.

The casting is perfectly, exquisitely right. Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem all bring a fire-blasted authenticity to their major roles. The care in this aspect is so thorough that all the smaller roles are uniquely well-realized. They may have less screen time, but character actors like Stephen Root, Garret Dillahunt and Barry Corbin make major impressions. Their deft work is very much a part of the fabric of the film’s accomplishment. In a film unforgivably about hard men, Kelly Macdonald finds the grace in the patient, tired logic of her character, the only one to challenge the fervent inhumanity she sees before her.

Cataloging the achievements here can exhaust the supply of celebratory words, but too many words feels like an inappropriate tribute. These most verbal of filmmakers, champions of dense, precise language, make more with less this time around and a similar discipline should be undertaken in response, especially since all these cluttered terminology can be effectively replaced by a one-word review.

Masterpiece.

From the Archive — Lars and the Real Girl

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As Ryan Gosling blasts into theaters as Neil Armstrong, I’ll take advantage of this space to look back to when he was still venturing on occasion into a different kind of character role. I think this might still represent his strongest acting to date. The review here was originally written for my former online home. 

Lars and the Real Girl has an absurd premise. Withdrawn to the point of being socially maladjusted, Lars is an office drone in a small Wisconsin town. He’s paralyzed by the plainest pleasantries from his coworkers and practically runs away when his sister-in-law tries to coax him from his tiny garage apartment to a family dinner in the main house. He begins to open up a bit when he gets a new girlfriend. Unfortunately, he gets her by ordering from a Website. She’s a life-size plastic doll that he’s dubbed Bianca. To Lars, Bianca is completely real. She communicates with him, often showing a hearty inquisitiveness about him, and has a full life story that precedes the time she came into his world via a packing crate.

It is a delusion, but it enlivens Lars and the local doctor advises his family to play along. Eventually the entire community has willingly bought into the illusion of Bianca, showering her with appreciation and affection as a means to embrace Lars.

For any of this to work at all dramatically requires delicate, thoughtful work from all involved, and that’s exactly what’s on display in Lars. The actors have a particularly heavy load. It must be tempting to approach this material with an air of condescension, pushing the comedic elements. It’s easy to imagine this transformed into a broad, hateful Adam Sandler comedy, and what a woeful beast that would be. Instead, everyone onscreen makes a supreme effort to find the emotional truth in the scenario. Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer, as Lars’ brother and sister-in-law, adeptly play the frustrated caring that would reasonably lead them to accommodate the delusion. The integrity of the performance in the lead role is even more important, and it’s perhaps no surprise that Ryan Gosling is absolutely stellar. He burrows into the physicality of Lars, capturing the sorts of pained, twitchy movements that are a signal of extreme discomfort in the company of others. He makes Lars a touching portrait of someone lost in pain and finding an unlikely path to emerge from it. To Gosling, it seems, the character is as true and potent as any you would find at the center of a heavy drama.

The script by “Six Feet Under” writer Nancy Oliver is shrewdly constructed, not only mixing its comedy with warmth and pathos, but also building in a psychology that makes sense. With a few deft scenes, it becomes understandable how Lars could reach this strange point, how his only way to reach out is through an inanimate companion. She “tells” him the things he cannot tell himself, that he has never mustered the strength to hear from anyone else. That none of this ever comes across as contrived is an astonishing accomplishment. The script is incredibly kind-hearted and director Craig Gillespie captures and accentuates that tone.

In a way, Lars and the Real Girl is everything last year’s beloved misfire Little Miss Sunshine was striving to be: charming in its very goofiness, affectionate towards the idiosyncrasies of its characters and finding unexpected comedy in the details (the heinous winter coats that cocoon the characters are sadly accurate). While Sunshine was in love with its own offbeat sensibility to an unappealing degree, Lars and the Real Girl is in love with every person, even the plastic one, that populates the film. It’s a far healthier affection, and it definitely led to significantly better movie-making.

From the Archive — The Savages

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I’m always pleased when I discover something in one of these old reviews that carbon dates it to the era in which is was written. I think the reference to Blockbuster in the lengthy opening paragraph accomplishes that feat nicely. For today, I though about dredging up my old review of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, the first cinematic appearance of the character Venom, but it turns out I didn’t type word one about the character or the performance by Topher Grace (who, amusingly, is so different from new Venom portrayer Tom Hardy that the two could be photo negatives of one another). So instead, I’ll commemorate Netflix once again providing a distribution outlet for a tremendous filmmaker whose material doesn’t fit comfortably into the current grasping-at-tentpoles strategy of most studios. You know, like I did three weeks ago. It has been too long between films for Tamara Jenkins. I hope that was her choice. I fear it wasn’t.

Categorizing films, placing them into broad, encompassing genres, is a tricky — arguably futile — endeavor. The new film The Savages has been casually referred to as a comedy, a dark comedy to be sure, but a comedy nonetheless. The official movie poster is sure to including laudatory critics’ quotes the words “funny” and “humor” and features art by comic artist Chris Ware, which is sure to signal something safer to most moviegoers — for whom the phrase The Acme Novelty Library is about as meaningful as any four randomly selected poetry magnets — than it actually should. The Golden Globes were even more decisive, slotting Savages into the “Comedy/Musical” categories in their film awards (and, as an aside that will tip my hand as to what I thought of The Savages, you may not a stronger example of the ineptitude of the Hollywood Foreign Press as arbiters of excellence than their omission of Laura Linney from the relevant Best Actress category in favor of, well, at least four of the five honored performers, but especially the I’m-just-happy-to-be-here enthusiasm of Hairspray‘s Nikki Blonsky). It’s a strange situation for this smart, fairly grim film. I laughed appreciatively many times during The Savages, but I can say the same about No Country for Old Men and I don’t see anyone laying groundwork for it to be filed somewhere between Meet the Fockers and Old School in the local Blockbuster’s comedy section a few months from now. I imagine more than a few people will go to The Savages expecting a film much lighter and thoroughly comic than it really is and wind up blindsided. Hopefully, that harsh surprise won’t distract those people from noticing that’s it’s also terrific.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings who are called upon to retrieve their elderly father from Arizona, in part because he’s suffering from dementia that has made it impossible for him to care for himself. It’s a simple beginning for a film that’s anything but simple. For one thing, this is neither a warm-hearted story of family coming together or a pummeling exercise in opening old wounds. It’s far more complicated. Hoffman and Linney’s characters are basically estranged from their father, but don’t carry the resulting personal emotions from that distance like heavy, burdensome overcoats. It is part of who they are, it has shaped them, but it doesn’t inform every scene in highly dramatic ways. They go about the business of getting him into a nursing home and interact with him during his descent in ways that are revealing largely because their gestures are more about giving themselves comfort than building additional happiness into his waning days. It is a hard truth that, like everything else in the film, is largely presented as just another facet of life.

The whole film can be described as a big slab of life. Hoffman’s character is a college professor specializing in Bertolt Brecht, and he helpfully writes a lesson on a blackboard about “plot” versus “narrative.” He never gets around to explaining that difference to questioning student, but The Savages serves nicely as its own lesson plan for the classroom of the movie audience. Don’t look for the scheme of the storytelling to following a familiar framework, necessarily. Instead, watch these characters live out a piece of their time, their frailties heightened by their situations, their patience tested and torn. Hoffman’s professor defends himself with his pragmatism, alert to criticism but largely too weary to dispense his own judgment. Linney’s struggling playwright is a mountain of vulnerabilities with occasionally reserves of potential fortitude exposed. These pro actors dig into the roles with disciplined gusto.

Writer-director Tamara Jenkins creates with her own disciplined gusto. A long-gestating follow-up to her feature debut, the sloppy but somewhat endearing The Slums of Beverly Hills, the film is focused and unsparing, a gut punch of lingering dysfunction. As opposed to another recent film that could be described that wayThe Savages never pushes the problems or personality flaws to such extremes that it strains credibility. There’s an understated truth to the storytelling that makes its moments of heartbreak and tentative redemption all the more potent.

From the Archive — Primeval and Bats

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Sometimes I wish I’d had a silly online outlet for tapping out my impressions of visual entertainment back in the days when my household regularly hosted small, snarky crowds for double features of cinematic misfortune. Sadly, I have no old review of Shadow Conspiracy to share. Technically, Bats was included in one of those original evenings, but I didn’t remember that when we put this combo together several years later. An attendee of the first go-round reminded me, noting it was paired with Lake Placid. Anyway, this very loose reflection was written for and posted at my former online home.

Last night’s Bad Movie Night was more of an impromptu affair than our previous exercise in movie masochism. Our first feature has been on our DVR for a couple weeks now because any movie attached to a poster with that many discarded human skeleton bits on it is a movie that my partner-in-all-things is going to need to watch at some point. After deciding we didn’t have the mental wherewithal for our patiently waiting Netflix DVD and indulging in several minutes of a familiar good movie, we decided it was time for some cinematic ugliness.

We pressed play on Primeval (Michael Katleman, 2007). It begins efficiently enough. The filmmakers have only cursory interest in pesky things like character development and backstory. Instead, they introduce the characters and give them a reason to jet off to Burundi to track down a gigantic killer crocodile. That no-nonsense approach stops when the trio of bickering unlikely adventurers touch down in Africa. More characters get introduced and the filmmakers keep taking stabs at media, social, or geopolitical commentary like a disaffected teen trying on so many interchangeably bland tops at the local ShopKo. When the discernible I.Q. of your film is in the Pauly Shore range, you’re probably better off spending time considering your freakishly large reptile than the smothering danger of man’s inhumanity to man played out across the savanna. That array of jokes that revolve around the way that “croc” rhymes with “cock”? That’s your strong suit.

Avoiding the crocodile is a little more understanding as it moves into the spotlight for its star turn in the second half and the low-budget CGI emerges in all it’s snowy shimmer. The actors do their best, but since the cast is assembled from the sort of aspiring-to-the-B-List, happy-to-be-working variety folks who usually populate these films, best is a very relative term. For all I know, Dominic Purcell is a broody sensation on Fox’s “Prison Break,” but he’ll always be John Doe to me, which means that any of his numerable moments of exposition earns some extra giggles in our household. You can also pass time by considering how recently it was that Orlando Jones was considered someone on the way up in Hollywood.

For the second film (double features are a necessity on Bad Movie Night) we could have gone to one of the sorry standbys. Before pulling that ripcord, we checked the various cable channels to see if there may have been a fortuitous showing of something that would pair nicely with Primeval, which leads us to Bats (Louis Morneau, 1999).

Bats stars Lou Diamond Phillips (perhaps thinking about the days when Oscar votes weren’t an unlikely result of his efforts) as a Texas sheriff working with a foxy chiroptologist to combat an invasion of super-intelligent bats created by every moviegoer’s favorite evil warden. These adversaries with glowing red eyes and glistening fangs seem about as formidable as that rubbery photo above indicates. At one point, Phillip’s character snarls about being up to his chest in bat shot. He could have been speaking for anyone watching the film.

From the Archive — In the Valley of Elah

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For many, Paul Haggis will forever be the person who directed the most egregious Best Picture Oscar-winner of the past twenty-five years. He’s not. That honor belongs to Ron Howard. I’ll over no further defense of Crash at this time (although I’ll admit I can) and will instead note that Haggis’s follow-up directorial effort is a solid film and boasts a couple tremendous performances. This review was written for my former online home.

The sophomore directorial effort from Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah, takes on the Iraq war with a pointed urgency. More specifically (or more broadly, depending on how you look at it) the film grapples with the cost of war on the people who wage it, those who love them and the very psyche of the country immersed in it. Like Haggis’s Oscar-grabbing Crash, the film is heavy with ambition, examining a multitude of layers in addressing the social ills it puts in its sights. Unlike Crash, it largely overcomes any tendency towards oversimplification or, worse, manipulating the characters and the situations to craft scenarios that state the filmmaker’s thesis with a leaden thump. Instead, it tells a wrenching story with grace and integrity. Even when a scene rings a bit false, it at least feels like it’s still part of the story at hand rather than a Crash-like attempt to show off every bit of the politicized pinwheel.

The story focuses on a man who finds out that his enlisted son has one missing after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Not one for adjusting to others’ paces when a problem needs solving, he loads into his pickup truck and begins investigating the situation for himself. The film is structured as a mystery, with the discoveries of new details regarding the son’s disappearance going hand-in-hand with discoveries about the life the son was leading. The father is played by Tommy Lee Jones as man of conservative dignity, addressing the topless waitress in a topless bar as “ma’am” and unwilling to be seen in his undershirt. Watching him encounter the seediness his son moved through is to realize the film is less about clues to this young soldier’s death and more about clues to his damaged life.

Jones gives a great performance in the lead role. I’ll grant that I only have so much authority to make an decisive statement on his recent career, having remorselessly bypassed many performances, but I still feel confident calling this the finest work he’s delivered since getting a shiny little statue several years ago. Jones subtly shows the crumbling belief system of his character as time and again his personally held truisms about his son, the military, the country and his own approach to the world are proven tragically, hopelessly wrong. Jones has never been shy about infusing some bombast into his characters and there are few actors more capable of spinning warped line readings into revelatory character moments, but here he withdraws and plays everything tight and perfect, showing his inner wounds through his eyes. Charlize Theron is excellent, too, playing a police officer who gets drawn into the case and struggles against the inherent sexism in her department.

That last detail, however, also represents one of the weaker elements of the film, the portions where those who bristle against Haggis’s social-statements-by-numbers soapboxing will find ample evidence that there’s still plenty of weight left in those heavy hands of his. While some of the scenes with her hostile cohorts have the snap of genuine exasperation in the way they depict the reflexive nature of the misogyny, enough others stumble along as undercooked nonsense from a screenwriter laboring to make a point. There are other less glaring moments, as well, but the most significant test of patience may be the final shot. It is the obvious close of the film from the moment it is set up in the first act, and the gesture depicted underlines Haggis’s arguments with blaring emphasis. This is a major punctuation mark attached to the end of the film, as if Haggis has closed with a graphic of a exclamation point. As opposed to the glistening fakery of the cleansing snow at the end of Crash, though, it still feels in character and holds enough hard truth to make it feel less like a manipulation and more like a man coming full circle, returning to a moment from the beginning of the journey that changed him forever.