Sunday, December 30, 2007


"I've come home again."

Let me be clear. Tim Burton's film of SWEENEY TODD is magnificent. Funny, terrifying, deeply moving and deeply disgusting. I felt the way I felt when I saw RAN or TITUS or THE GODFATHER PART II or PSYCHO. I felt purged. I felt pity and terror. It is not everybody's cup of tea. It is the absolute cinematic embodiment of My Cup Of Tea. I love every single fucking frame of it.

I'd been dreading this film. I didn't know if Tim Burton had the real chops to make this film what it needs to be: a rip-snorting blood-gushing tear-wrenching High Musical Tragedy Slaughterhouse. Could Burton handle SWEENEY TODD, getting the right balance between Blood and Tears? His films tend to either really really work (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD) or really really not work (BATMAN, MARS ATTACKS, PLANET OF THE APES) and sometimes both (BATMAN RETURNS, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, SLEEPY HOLLOW). SWEENEY TODD is his least compromised, most assured film to date. And it is also the single finest live action musical film made in, well, at least as long as I can remember.

Burton does what no other filmmaker of the current alleged Musical Renaissance has done: he has put the focus back on the characters, the story, and the songs. When Sweeney Todd sings the heart-rending ballad "My Friends" to his razors, Burton actually allows me to see Johnny Depp sing. And then he does something even more astonishing. He allows me to continue seeing Johnny Depp sing. And then, to cap it all off, he lets me see Johnny Depp sing with Helena Bonham Carter. Two people sing. At the same time. And you can see them both! Singing! Burton keeps the camera in tight, creating an intimacy that is quite simply lacking in the other recent musicals that have gotten so much attention. This is a film, after all, that is set in a series of small, cramped rooms: a barber shop, a pie shop, a basement bakehouse, an insane asylum rather than the series of showbiz stages, imaginary or otherwise, in CHICAGO, DREAMGIRLS, HAIRSPRAY, or PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

Tim Burton is reminding the world of how to make a musical. There's none of the hyper-caffeinated gonzo MTVwannabe editing and incompetent framing that demolishes the sense and feeling of the songs in CHICAGO (really now, didn't that film look like the work of a blindfolded babboon?), or the fear of singing on display in DREAMGIRLS (where someone beginning to sing is a cue for a cut to a shot of the back of the singer's head) or PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (where the drapes get as much screen time as the actors), or the appalling miscasting that finally sinks HAIRSPRAY. Where these other films make the mistake of laying on the "cinematic" trappings of Attention Deficit Editing and Over-Ornate Camerawork, Burton strips it all down, creating a lean mean musical machine.

That isn't to say that the film is cinematically inert, though. There are plenty of fluorishes, including a wonderful opening credit sequence, a marvelous journey through nocturnal London, spectacularly gory throat slashings, etc. I mean, really, this is Tim Burton after all. Burton, however, knows when to go for broke, and when to back off and let me watch these people do their stuff. There are plenty of small spine-tingling pleasures, among them Sweeney's lovingly careful shaving of the area on Judge Turpin's throat that he is hoping to slash open. Just imagining what Rob Marshall would have done with a song like "Pretty Women" makes me nauseous.

Johnny Depp makes a splendid Sweeney Todd, the only actor I've seen apart from Len Cariou (the Broadway original) to capture the pain behind the rage. Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett is a marvel, showing me a woman who grinds corpses into pie filling in one moment and whose eyes fill with tears over the fate of a young boy the very next. Alan Rickman's surprisingly dashing Judge Turpin and Timothy Spall's repellent Beadle Bamford work beautifully. Not the least of the performances comes from the young boy playing Toby, who delivers possibly the most moving "Not While I'm Around" I've ever heard. I hope this film banishes once and for all the complaint that Burton doesn't deal effectively with actors.

I could go on and on and on. I loved it. I'll leave it to you to discover the joys of the color scheme, the art direction and costume design, and all of the other elements I haven't got space to mention, because just when I get something down here a thousand other delights come flooding back to me. I can't wait to see it again. And again. And again.

Friday, December 28, 2007


For years I have lived under a curse. The Bad Audience Curse. I've posted on this before. Whenever I go to the theatre or movies or any place involving mass spectation, I can always count on being surrounded by only the most annoying people. Plastic Bag Rattling Morons, Loud Talkers, Cellphone-Equipped Vermin, they all seem to seek me out. This is no fantasy. My partner has remarked, more than once, that he had never had such a problem with difficult audiences as he had when we started seeing each other. Over time I've come to mostly accept this as just part of my life, c'est la vie, hey, I wonder what I did in another life to get this curse thing.

The other night was the last straw. We had tickets to see a revival of Harold Pinter's THE HOMECOMING. Really great seats, organ-donor quality tickets. Bob and I, our good friend Scott and my brother. We settle in to our seats, the lights go down, the play begins. I gradually become aware of a very faint electronic sound, like a sustained beep that varied in frequency. It sounded like a smoke detector had gotten stuck somewhere in the building. As the play continued, the sound got gradually louder, and it became clear that it was coming from the gentleman sitting directly behind me, who was wearing a pair of those infra-red hearing device headphone things (it turned out later that the sound was feedback caused by his failure to turn off his hearing aid while using the headphones). The gentleman's wife at least once told him that the headphones were making noise, but he didn't do anything about it. He also managed to compound the electronic distraction by talking out loud, ruining one of the highlights of the play, when a woman takes a particularly symbolically loaded drink of water, by talking out loud, full blast, remarking on the similarity between the woman's behavior and his wife's family.

So there we were. Watching a play by an author famed for the importance of his SILENCES, being distracted by audience noise.

Over the years I have developed a way of dealing with the type of moron who disturbs at the theatre. I say politely but very firmly, "Excuse me, but (your plastic bags, candy wrapper, talking, etc.) is making a lot of noise. Can you please keep it quiet." At the intermission I and my friends let the gentleman know that there was a real problem. He was apologetic, got up and went to have the headphones adjusted, The lights went down, the problem seemed to have been dealt with. Then of course it started again, very faintly but gradually getting louder. The feedback continued and got more and more distracting. I turned around and asked again for him to deal with them, and it got better, and then got worse.

I was sitting there writhing, feeling like piano wire was being wrapped around my head. Finally the noise reached an unbearable level. I turned around and noticed that the old bastard had taken the headphones off, and had them in his lap. I snatched the headphones out of his hands, wrapped them in my jacket, and shoved them under my seat. The old bastard tapped me on the shoulder, offering to turn them off. I told him to just sit back in his seat.

And blessed silence reigned. I and my friends could concentrate on the final quarter of the play. But. 40 plus years of audience horror was demanding to be avenged. There was just no way I could let this go, it had been too serious a series of irritations. When the lights came up, I stood up and made a show of unwrapping the headphones and dropping them into the old bastard's lap. I told him that he owed me money, that he had completely ruined my enjoyment of the play. He was getting kind of flustered, clearly not being used to being called on his bullshit, and then I delivered the final stroke: "I hope that for the rest of your life, whenever you go to the theatre or to the movies, that someone does to you what you did to me this evening."

Glowing with self-satisfaction I left in a justifiable huff. I no longer have to worry about What Goes Around in this regard, as I have finally been the deliverer of That Which Comes Around, and it came around all over that old bastard. I have worked the curse through, it is now done and has been passed on to someone else who can spend the next couple of lifetimes paying it off. The Albatross of Hateful Audience Behavior is now rotting around the neck of a nearly deaf 87 year old bastard. Good riddance! Hello bold new era of blissful silence and proper audience behavior!

Yeah, right.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is amazing. I'd seen bits of it on TCM on occasion, but never really sat down and watched it until I saw it at Film Forum in an excellent print. It looked like it had beenshot the day before, very sharp and clean. I wasn't prepared for how really excellent this film is.
I knew thebasic outlines of the plot, the famous device of the pen-pal lovers who don't realize they know and dislike each other in real life. This was handled beautifully, with real feeling and humor byLubitsch, Sam Raphelson, and most especially the actors. I don't think I'd ever seen Margaret Sullavan before, and was very taken with her. James Stewart blew me away all over again. Neither one of them makesa single false move.
But the real surprise for me was finding the darker shadings in the story. This is not a sweetness and light romantic fantasy. Well,yes of course it is, but what am I to make of a sweetness and light romantic fantasy in which a long-established marriage goes belly up, driving the husband to attempt suicide, winding up hospitalized with a nervous breakdown? These darker elements are handled with an honesty and directness that never overwhelm the joy of the film, and don't come off as cheap attempts at seriousness, but actually serve to make the experience more profound and ultimately moving.
Frank Morgan's performance is flat-out brilliant, moving from comic bluster to genuine pathos. For his performance to have not been Oscar-nominated is, to me, one of the more grotesque oversights in Oscar history. A great film and a great movie, no more no less. The kind of movie that makes one look around and bemoan the current sorry state of cinematic affairs.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


"I!! AM!! BEOWULF!!!!!!"

Yeah, right, okay. You're Beowulf, I'm happy for you.

It was inevitable I suppose, considering the incredible success of Peter Jackson's adaptation of LORD OF THE RINGS, that the American Fantasy Meisters would have to show that they can make big fantasy extravaganzas as well as any New Zealand guy. It was also inevitable that they would fail pretty drastically, considering the general immaturity of the American Fantasy Meisters, people who are, as I write, preparing yet another Indiana Jones film. Zemeckis' BEOWULF is a disaster, to be sure. But it isn't quite the disaster I was expecting.

The easy stuff first. The film is very very weird to look at. The much-touted motion-capture technology that is supposed to make the computer-generated characters more "life-like" is a dismal failure. Character motion is terribly stiff, facial expressions only occasionally register any sign of life. The characters look kind of like the actors providing the voices. That certainly seems to be Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich, and a good deal of time has been spent on making a CGI version of Angelina Jolie's naked body. There's been some dickying around with their features and physiques, to be sure. The Beowulf figure looks less like the voice actor Ray Winstone and more like the actor Sean Bean (a memorable Boromir in Jackson's trilogy), but Beowulf's body is right out of your local video store's gay porn section. The lingering loving shots of Beowulf's muscular torso are worthy of the equally conflicted 300. I'm not really sure what they were after with Grendel. He looks like something that lumbered off a disturbed pre-schooler's sketch pad: Frankenberry as reimagined by George Romero. And what on earth am I to make of the fact that Grendel's Mother is shown to have not just a prehensile ponytail, but high heels as well?

The figures and faces just don't really work, they don't convey enough emotion or even just plain life. They flounce around a lot, to be sure, and there's a lot of activity, but there's something missing. I was reminded of Travolta's appearance in HAIRSPRAY, that he was plainly visible under a lot of unlifelike latex, he seemed weighted down with unexpressive dead weight. It all just seems off. Compare any moment of any character in BEOWULF with any single frame of Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis' Kong and you'll see what I mean. Ultimately, BEOWULF looks like a marginally more realistic version of SHREK. The technology is a failure, and I simply don't understand why any director would settle for such results. Does Peter Jackson own the only existing copy of the software to make convincing human/animal figures?

There are some cool 3-D effects, to be fair. There's one particularly cool scene involving a dragon's sudden appearance that was startling and very very effective. But way too much of it exists for the Whoa! 3-D! Whoa! effect, the "camera" goes to a lot of trouble to move around a lot to make sure the image is very very layered. One particularly elaborate moment is a long shot beginning in a rowdy hall and pulling back and back and back and back over hill and dale through forests and into a mountain lair where Grendel sits tearing his flesh in frustration over the noise.

Now for the weird hard part to write about. It has been a long time since I read BEOWULF, and I don't remember it terribly clearly. But I do remember that the story is a lot simpler than the story in this film, which adds a lot of other elements from other sources. Grendel's Mother comes off as a combination of Macbeth's witches, Morgan le Fay, and Mephistopheles. She makes a pact with Beowulf: in return for a specific golden cup and a night of good procreative sex (she needs to replace Grendel, after all) she will ensure that he reigns unchallenged and undefeated as king.

This sets up a very drastic switch in the film's tone. The schoolboyishly enthusiastic violence and sexuality (mostly latent homosexual during Beowulf's extended nude scenes, more overtly heterosexual during Angelina Jolie's notorious scenes) of the first half falls mostly away, and there's some nattering about the growing influence of Christianity and how it has affected the poor "hero" who now can't get any attention because of all the "weeping martyrs" that the Church is supplying. Poor hero, he's not getting any attention. Make no mistake. Beowulf has a need for attention that is downright Paris Hiltonian: when he arrives to destroy Grendel, he says in no uncertain terms that he is after glory, and glory alone. Little things like removing a pestilential evil from an undeserving populace are beside the point. So now we get King Beowulf feeling kind of bored and listless. Uneasy lies the head and all that. Then, to supply a big rousing finish, (Arthurian legend fans, get ready) his kingdom is threatened by a dragon, who turns out to be Beowulf's own son by Grendel's Mother, a la Mordred.

It seems that Mordred/Beowulf Junior can turn from Gorgeous Golden Youth to Dragon at will. Why Grendel couldn't pull this trick is never explained, nor are Dragon Boy's motivations for attacking Beowulf's people. Evidently being raised by a single Mom has left him with some serious Daddy Issues.

So the big climactic battle scene is Big, and Climactic, and Battle-y, in the manner of works by Hollywood Fantasy Meisters. Beowulf's very real guilt, his willing collaboration with the evident evil represented by the monstrous (if big-titted) Grendel's Mother, his responsibility for the deaths of a lot of his people at the hands of the monstrous offspring of his hellish pact, is mentioned but never really dealt with beyond one character's use of the phrase "The Sins Of The Fathers!!!" and the occasional furrowed Beowulfian brow. Okay, the point is made that Beowulf isn't humping his mistress as enthusiastically as he used to, nor does he sleep very well, but that's about it. We are meant to mourn the passing of the Great (Action) Hero and little things like moral ambiguity can't be allowed to be get in the way.
There is however one tantalizing final moment that hints at what the film has been rather desperately trying to be, and actually seems to think that it is: a serious exploration of the impulse to acquire power and use it, by fair means or otherwise, and the results of these impulses. Alas, that tantalizing hint remains only that, and is overwhelmed in the inevitable big Power Ballad over the end credits.