Tuesday, January 01, 2008

December Movie Omnibus Part II

A very merry Christmukkahwanzaa and happy new year to all...Once again, I'm going to have to pile all the movies I've seen recently into an "omnibus" review. There have just been too many, there are still more I need to see (most notably, "There Will Be Blood"), as well as some I've missed that I probably won't be able to catch in theaters anymore. Damn the December deluge!

But, for now, here are my thoughts on my latest round of Awards Bait films, again in reverse order of viewing:


directed by Tim Burton
starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen
based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim

When I first heard that Tim Burton was directing a film version of Sweeney Todd, my first thought was “Of course!” What better fit for Sondheim’s macabre, pitch-black wit and the Grand Guignol antics of the legendary Demon Barber than the macabre, demented fairy-tale sensibility of the man who brought us Edward Scissorhands, Jack Skellington, and the original big-screen Batman? (Let us charitably forget a certain putrid remake of a Charlton Heston classic involving apes.) I’m pleased to report that Burton and Sondheim deliver on the brilliant promise of their pairing. With the aid of production designer Dante Ferretti and DP Dariusz Wolski, Burton creates a dank, shadowy, hyperstylized Victorian London in shades of mostly dark, pale, and gray—except for the jets of ketchup-colored blood that appear in increasing quantities when Sweeney (Depp) gets to work with his razor. The effect would almost be humorous if the throat-slittings weren’t so graphically detailed. Indeed, Burton stays in tune with Sondheim’s twisted sense of humor, as he films Sweeney’s serial killings and disposal of the corpses in perfect counterpoint to one of the musical’s most lyrical songs, “Johanna.”

Still, Burton’s Sweeney generally leans a bit more heavily on the melodrama than the satire. Depp is compelling and at times truly terrifying as the wronged barber who, unable to extract immediate revenge against his mortal enemy (Alan Rickman), decides to take revenge on the whole world. (Well, on all the unsuspecting Londoners who drop by for a shave, anyway.) Yet he also brings out the subtle comedy of Sweeney Todd’s one-track mind, especially in one brightly colored sequence (“By the Sea”) in which he stalks unresponsively through someone else’s romantic fantasy. Helena Bonham-Carter is a longer study as Sweeney’s fantasizing landlady and partner-in-crime, Mrs. Lovett, the enterprising pie-seller who gives a whole new meaning to the old adage, “Waste not, want not.” While her role on stage is more often played as a blowsy, Madame Thénardier type, Bonham-Carter’s Lovett is a tiny, melancholy thing, devious but not completely unscrupulous, her unrequited yen for the butchering barber ultimately more pathetic than comic. Oddly, her more wistful approach works, perhaps because aesthetically and tonally it matches the dead-faced beauty of Depp’s Sweeney Todd, though it doesn’t quite jive with some of Mrs. Lovett’s brassier numbers (“The Worst Pies in London,” “A Little Priest”).

While neither Depp nor HBC have strong voices, they can carry a tune well enough, and they’re both remarkably adept at importing their singing into their acting and expression of their respective characters. The rest of the cast falls at varying points on the spectrum between singing as an extension of acting (Rickman, Timothy Spall) and raw vocal talent (Ed Sanders as a very young, beautifully crystalline-voiced Toby), with Sacha Baron Cohen striking perhaps the best balance between vocal and acting chops as the flamboyant charlatan Signor Pirelli. The mix of film-acting and musical performance may not blend completely smoothly, but ultimately it helps Burton retain the theatricality of Sweeney Todd while lending the story a more fluid, cinematic feel. The result is what all good movie musicals should be—something that feels like both a movie and a musical.



directed and written by Tamara Jenkins
starring Laura Linney, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco

“The Savages” may be the most sobering film I’ve seen all year. It also just may be the truest. Be forewarned: although the movie is beautifully acted and not without a wry sense of humor, it may be more painful than pleasurable for those seeking the comedic elements emphasized in the trailer. Funny as it often is, it’s more a comedy in the way that Chekhov styled his plays comedies. But it will resonate with anyone who’s confronted or even contemplated the problem of caring for an elderly parent who’s no longer capable of looking after himself or herself. It poses all the relevant questions without presuming any answers.

Writer and director Tamara Jenkins (“Slums of Beverly Hills”) sets her sights on John and Wendy Savage (Hoffman and Linney, respectively), a brother and sister both pushing into middle age, who learn one day that their father (Philip Bosco) has begun to show signs of dementia and no longer has a place to live or anyone to look after him. The rest of “The Savages” traces their efforts to figure out how to do right by him and work through their own mixed feelings of guilt and resentment towards a parent who was at best neglectful and at worst abusive. All this unspools rather slowly, and as it does, the film reveals all three of the main characters in progressively more unflattering lights. (In that respect, it reminded me a little of Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” and not just because both movies star Linney as protagonists you hate to love, or maybe hate to hate.) But the film, while unsparing, is never mean-spirited, and never loses sight of the Savages’ humanity even as it forces them (and us) to take a hard look at not only the choices they face immediately before them but the choices they’ve been making all their lives. Linney and Hoffman, two of our finest actors working today, have a wonderfully convincing dynamic as brother and sister, capturing the mix of affection, rivalry, and conflicting personalities that arises between two siblings who have always been close almost by necessity, even as their lives have grown apart. For their interactions alone, these Savages are worth watching.



directed by Julian Schnabel
starring Mathieu Almaric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Max von Sydow

It’s hard to know whether to describe “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” as inspiring or depressing, so exquisitely calibrated is it between the ever-shifting moods of suffocating despair (the diving “bell,” which I think just means a diving suit) and transcendence (the butterfly). The film, helmed by painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel (“Basquiat,” “Before Night Falls”), is based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Baudy (known as “Jean-Do” to his friends and intimates), a former French editor of Elle who at 40-odd suffered a debilitating stroke that left him with “locked-in syndrome”— an aptly and terrifyingly named condition in which one’s mental powers are left completely intact but trapped inside a paralyzed body. Le scaphandre et le papillon is the memoir Baudy wrote, dictating painstakingly word by word through blinking his left eyelid, the only part of his body he could move freely.

To its great credit, the film depicts Baudy’s near-superhuman effort without an ounce of false sentimentality, and is remarkably successful at depicting the mixture of whimsical fantasies and fleeting, poignant memories that kept him going from day to day. Schnabel’s visual techniques (not unlike his paintings) are a bit show-offy, but they work well in counterbalancing the film’s unavoidable reliance on voice-over by Almaric. Not that the voice-over is ever tedious in itself: even locked in, Baudy’s inner voice emerges as sardonic and witty as before the stroke, if not more so. And in his more reflective moods, especially as he’s dictating his book, his language—even in translation—is so lovely and evocative one wonders if it was his physical imprisonment that paradoxically freed a dormant poet inside him.

The film, presumably in keeping with the memoir, doesn’t gloss over Baudy’s faults as a man, including the heartbreak he inflicts on his loyal ex-lover (Emmanuelle Seigner), both before and after the stroke. Nor does it shy away from the wrenching tenderness and pain of Baudy’s interactions with his aged father (an excellent Max von Sydow), a man himself failing in health who’s still somehow lived to see his son in such a state. Ultimately, however, “The Diving Bell” focuses not on Baudy’s enforced isolation from the world but his fierce will to bridge that isolation through communication. For Baudy, communicating was living, and the film’s most impressive feat is to convey the intensity of that desire: the butterfly struggling to emerge from the cocoon.



directed by Jason Reitman
starring Ellen Page, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons

This tale of a teenage pregnancy has got to be one of the most overhyped movies of the year, and yet I can’t deny I enjoyed it. Not at first: I don’t know whether it was the scripting or Ellen Page’s acting or both, but the character of Juno, with all her would-be-witty quips and flow of cultural references that date her creator rather than herself, really, really grated on me, as did the strained quirkiness of her interactions with family and friends. (The brief appearance of an Asian American character as a pro-life protestor who can’t speak idiomatic English didn’t help, either.) I’d been advised by many, however, that the film “gets better” as it goes on, and can now confirm that it does indeed…when it stops trying to be clever and starts being serious about the relationships between its characters. Ellen Page gets better, too. But it’s Jennifer Garner who really comes down to earth—and takes the movie with her—as Vanessa, the prospective adoptive mother to whom there’s more than the type-A yuppie that meets the eye. Her evolution as a character is nicely juxtaposed with an understated (and underrated) performance by Jason Bateman as her seemingly cooler, hipper, more appealing husband, and solid turns by Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons as Juno’s level-headed stepmother and gruff but caring dad. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Bateman’s character is supposedly based on the screenwriter’s ex-husband: he feels like a very real person, in a way that Juno never really does, and his relationship with Vanessa palpably recognizable. It’s like a more balanced and nuanced take on the type A female-type B male pairings that have dotted so many rom coms recently, and for that alone I applaud the screenwriter.

(You will notice that I have not yet identified the screenwriter by name, and that is because in my humble opinion she’s been named FAR too often lately in the media – see Vern’s hilarious take on that phenomenon, along with a spot-on evaluation of “Juno”’s merits and limitations.)

To be fair, Juno herself finally does turn into a fully developed character, and becomes more appealing as she becomes more visibly vulnerable. There’s a conversation between her and her father, when all her ideals seem to have crashed and burned, that brought tears to this old softy’s eyes. And there’s something sweet and endearing about (slight spoiler) what ends up being a high school love story that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Hughes flick. That said, the movie left the grouchy stickler in me with some unanswered questions: Like (BIG SPOILER) how will Vanessa manage single motherhood? Will Juno and Paulie start having sex again (presumably with protection)? Should they be having sex, and don’t any of their parents care? Why didn’t they use protection in the first place? (END OF SPOILERS) But its basic sincerity is impossible to resist – and really, why would you want to?



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