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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

Charlie Wilson’s War [dir. Mike Nichols]


Politicians will forever be known as slick speaking, backslapping, good old boys, re-feeding the coffers that got them into office with promises, perks and mindless policy decisions. Anything they accomplish is instantly compromised by shady dealings, special interests, and the ever-present perfume of scandal. Charlie Wilson had that undeniable aroma. He was a loose living, morally ambiguous Congressman carousing in a town overflowing with such specious experts, and he would have served out his terms in relative anonymity if it wasn’t for Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded the tiny Arab country, Wilson saw it as an affront to the cause of freedom. His eventual efforts on behalf of the nation resulted in one of the first major defeats of Communism ever recorded. And according to the new political comedy by American original Mike Nichols, he had a damn good time making it happen.


While on a ‘fact finding mission’ in a Las Vegas hot tub loaded with strippers and cocaine, Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson learns of the ongoing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Wondering why the US hasn’t responded to such a blatant act of invasion, he soon discovers that no one considers the situation a threat. But when Houston socialite Joanne Herring asks him to look into some covert funding for the freedom fighters, their longstanding relationship fuels Wilson’s interest. Before long, the Congressman is visiting refugee camps and bringing his fight to the floor of his House Subcommittee. With the help of CIA operative Gust Avrakotos and many insider connections, Wilson discovers what the Afghanis need - surface to air missiles that can take down the plague of Russian helicopters decimating the landscape. Getting the money won’t be easy, but with his reputation both in and outside of the Rotunda, if anyone can do it, Charlie Wilson can.


At this point in his illustrious career, Mike Nichols can cruise into legend and no one would blame him for such passivity. He’s often considered the original rebellious voice of the emerging ‘60s/‘70s post-modern movement (thanks in part to his brilliant proto-slacker statement, The Graduate), but has also helmed other symbols of cinematic significance like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge. Yet when it comes to politics, Nichols is less than nimble. His tendency is to beat people over the head with his stances, showcasing how corruptible and craven the system can be (Primary Colors) vs. how righteous and reverent his characters are (Silkwood). It’s not a terrible habit - many of the movies he’s made have the same entertainment spark as his commercial successes (Working Girl, The Birdcage). But those looking for insight usually wind up settling for irony, satire strangulating even the most powerful of big picture pronouncements.


Perhaps this is why Charlie Wilson’s War feels like such a triumph. It’s the first legitimate marriage between Nichols the comedian and Nichols the commentator. Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritan PC times, this story of a lecherous Congressman and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort. Nichols can be accused of pandering or taking sides. The script by West Wing/A Few Good Men scribe Aaron Sorkin is unapologetically insular in that regard. And Wilson may have been, in real life, a cad of unconscionable proportions, but the message this movie delivers is loud and crystal clear - the US funded covert war against the Soviets in the early ‘80s led directly to the rise of the Taliban, the establishment of Al-Qaeda, and the events of 9/11.


It’s not that obvious at first. Tom Hanks, handling the lead roll like he’s just been cast in The Rat Pack Swing Washington, is all beaming smiles and smacked female backsides. He’s James Bond without the continental charms and license to kill. At first, Wilson seems to be formed out of swaggers and excess appetites. Even when he takes up the cause in Afghanistan, it’s more of a show of personal power (he’s the key vote that many of his fellow politicians count on) than a real concern or cause. During these sequences of backdoor wheeling and debauchery fueled dealing, Nichols lulls us into a sense of satiric complacency. We wonder how a movie so mired in moxie is going to turn around and deliver the proper policy denouement.


And then we move to the battlefield. In one of the most effective moments in the entire film, Wilson views a Pakistani refugee camp firsthand, and the brutality and carnage is unbearable: Children missing limbs, adults minus eyes, faces shorn off by shrapnel and bodies battered by an inability to properly defend themselves. These scenes are crucial to Charlie Wilson’s War and its effectiveness. A 2007 audience, already sick to death of the morass in the Middle East, has to buy a non-Red State rationale for our lead’s heroics. Jingoism and the pull of the patriot just won’t fly. But when given a human image, and a human toll, we instantly side with the concerned Congressman. Ethics violations or not, his role in Washington has to prompt the appropriate change.


As the baffles which this character careens off of, Nichols provides two stellar stalwarts. Looking a lot less glamorous than her rich witch Texas money baroness would bear out, Julie Roberts is excellent as Joanne Herring. With untold wealth to waste and Wilson as her power pawn, she’s more than just a bank account. There’s a brilliant scene where a post-coital Herring reapplies her face, and the diligence and dedication she shows in putting on this powder and pancake façade is just fabulous. Besides, Roberts has great chemistry with Hanks. One could easily see the two helming a series of retro-romantic comedies. They’re so winning, so endearingly effervescent that you can’t help but love them.


But the real maverick here is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s the gruff, gritty Greek CIA analyst Gust Avrakotos, the kind of man whose done it all and seen it all. His no nonsense, world weary wisdom is a breath of protocol breaching candor in rooms full of stagnant Washington air. He’s the cutting edge to Wilson’s wide-eyed optimism, the calculated con to the Congressman’s cheerleading pro. If he wasn’t already an established star, it’s the kind of performance that would elevate an actor’s game. As the fulcrum between Hanks and Roberts, the realistic against their pert smile optimism, Hoffman is sensational.


And so is the rest of the film. Nichols does a good job of balancing moments of meaning against just plain partying. Wilson is viewed as a hard drinking womanizer, but there are times when the director let’s Hanks get reflective and hurt. They work to keep the film from falling over into parody. Similarly, the last act revitalization of the Afghan forces has a wonderful Fox News fakeness to it. It makes it easy to forget that this is the same rebellion that will eventually revert to Islamic fundamentalism and provide a proving ground for future terrorists in training. Nichols doesn’t let us off the hook either. During a balcony scene between Hanks and Hoffman, a sound is heard that reminds us of why Wilson’s fervor eventually became his folly.


Of course, the movie doesn’t martyr the man. Instead, it continues his position as prescient and prophetic. A final quote before the closing credits reveals such insights, and the cleverly crafted scenes before said statement show just how shortsighted our government can be. Still, audiences shouldn’t come to Charlie Wilson’s War expecting the kind of political resonance achieved by directors such as Oliver Stone or films like All the President’s Men. Nichols is more than happy to stay solidly in entertainer mode. If some minor message gets out, all the better. Some may see this solid bit of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking as all celebrity smoke and mirrors. In fact, it’s much more biting - and brazen than that. 


 



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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [dir. Tim Burton]


The reemergence of the musical as a viable, awards season showcase has been fraught with inconsistency. For every example of the genre that seems to click with voters and moviegoers (Chicago), there’s ambitious flops (The Phantom of the Opera) and pandering populism (Dreamgirls). Finding the right balance between Broadway and the big screen is never easy, mainly because the source material inherently thwarts a carefree translation. What works on a stage before a live audience turns odd and even ineffectual within the two dimensional medium. Similarly, even the most gifted filmmaker can fail in capturing the true spirit of a piece. 


So fans of Stephen Sondheim had ever reason to be worried. His Tony Award winning masterwork Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is perhaps the most difficult and obtuse of his shows to make the cinematic leap - and with a track record that includes the unbalanced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the miserably miscast A Little Night Music, he’s far from foolproof. Luckily, the right auteur came along, a director so perfectly in tune with the composer’s layered conceits that one imagines it was written specifically for him. Many have dismissed Tim Burton as a goofy Goth visionary who has never met a narrative he couldn’t defang. Even worse, some have suggested that, as his mainstream acceptance has grown, his artistic acumen has faded.


Not true - and his brand new version of Sweeney Todd is more than enough proof. As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007. It is an outright masterpiece, a work of bravura craftsmanship by a man whose been preparing for this creative moment all his directorial life. Like soulmates bound at the most primal, bloodlusting level, Sondheim and Burton merge to form a cohesive, craven whole, the show’s thematic undercurrents of malice, corruption, and revenge splashing across the screen in monochrome mise-en-scene and torrents of arterial inevitability. Stripped of its need for constant self-referencing (fans may balk at the cutting of some key expositional numbers) and reduced down to its nastiest nature, it’s the reason that film continues its status as art.


When we first meet Sweeney Todd, he is returning to London after a long stint in prison. Jailed by a jealous Judge named Turpin for crimes he did not commit, the former Benjamin Barker learns that his beautiful wife was raped, and later committed suicide. Even worse, his equally attractive daughter Johanna has been taken in as the Magistrate’s ward. Desperate for retribution, Todd decides to take up his old profession - barbering - only this time, his clients won’t be leaving his shop through the front door. Upon meeting and conspiring with the impoverished pie merchant Mrs. Lovett, Todd attempts to reestablish his trade.


He challenges Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli to a shaving competition, and with the win, must face the dandy’s considerable wrath. In the meantime, a young sailor has fallen for Todd’s teenage daughter, and warns the barber of the terrible news - Turpin is in love with her, and is planning on taking her as his bride. Through murder, the anguished father will work his way to the man he feels is responsible for his miserable fate. It will also help Mrs. Lovett’s failing shop, as meat for her pies is hard to come by…


There are two ways to look at Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd - both of them successful. Fans of the original may wince at a few of the obvious edits (no “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, a truncated “City on Fire”) yet should embrace the stark and quite stunning way in which the film illustrates Sondheim’s main symbol - the shedding of blood as a balm for the troubled soul. While the truth of this legend’s actual existence may never be fully known (people still swear Todd was a real person, without any proof of same), the notion of his mark as a frightening figure of unhinged justice is fully realized. Both tragic and terrifying, without pity and full of passion, Sweeney Todd is a crushed spirit working out his anguish in rivers of the red stuff, one slit throat at a time.


Anyone unfamiliar with the show, or simply showing up to see Johnny Depp deliver another remarkable acting turn will also come away more than satisfied. In a career arc that’s seen its fair share of experimentation and excess, the now marketable mainstream superstar is absolutely brilliant here. It’s a risky role - the music lacks a standard pop song structure, and for all his glorified depression, Todd remains a wicked, wicked man - but thanks to his undeniable talent, Depp turns a figure of immense evil into something somber and quite sad. He is not the bombastic vocal presence of a Len Cariou (the original Great White Way Todd) or George Hearn, but his performance of the musical material is heartbreaking. He syncs up flawlessly with Sondheim’s sentiments, resulting in the most menacing, mercurial Todd ever.


His is matched equally well by Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. Unlike the stage versions of the character, which hinge on a broad based sense of surrealistic bawdy cockney slapstick to sell the cannibalism, this version of the pie merchant is all grime and desperation. Lovett is not comic relief or audience friendly joviality. She’s a shattered soul, just like Todd, and her ready kinship and scheming with the barber is never forced or implausible. Carter may possess the smallest of voices, but like Depp, she delivers in the mandatory emotional ranges. During their brilliant bits of byplay (the clever ” A Little Priest”) or her shattering solo spots (the hilarious “By the Sea”), Lovett is the levelheaded version of Todd’s evil. She wants the same results that he does - and by some accounts, a whole lot more.


The remainder of the cast is just outstanding. Timothy Spall is like a vile Victorian woodcarving come to life as the disgusting, devilish Beadle Bamford. Alan Rickman is also marvelously malevolent as the vile Judge Turpin. The movie’s brief bits of comedy are handled with amazing adeptness by Borat‘s Sacha Baron Cohen, and little Ed Sanders is a sensational Tobias Raggs. He handles the seminal song “Not While I’m Around” with a beautiful bravery. Since their roles are reduced here, the actors playing Johanna and Anthony don’t get much screen time. But both Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower offer powerful voices and memorable moments.


But it’s Burton who ends up the true hero, his eye for the unusual and the downtrodden in full, flowering effect. Aside from the gallons of grue, he works in a very muted palette, the almost black and whiteness of his color scheme leaving room for lots and lots of blood. This is Grand Guignol glorification, a movie that celebrates arterial spray in ways genre efforts can’t embrace. Every spurting throat, every gaping wound, is an extension of Todd’s pent up anguish. He needs release, and the only way it can be found is via the blade. But Burton’s not just a slave to the slice and dice. He stages the many songs in a smaller, more minor note, keeping the multifaceted emotions inside Sondheim’s occasionally obtuse lyrics front and center.


The result is the year’s finest cinematic experience, a movie completely awash in its own outsized elements and internalized treats. Like all great artists, the talent involved here didn’t dishonor Sondheim, but instead, they make the material their own. That’s the true test of any adaptation. Perhaps the reason other recent musicals have failed is because of a disingenuous desire to stay true to the original while modernizing (or in other cases, pointlessly modifying) the source to satisfy unclear demographical concerns. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is proof that, when left to their own devices, the gifted will give over to something quite special. The undeniable greatness exhibited here certainly supports such a conclusion.


 



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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

It’s been a strange week in Book World, something I didn’t exactly anticipate when searching for news articles to post in our first News Round-up, set to continue Fridays in the New Year. I’m excited, though, that a simple Google news search using the word “author” can yield such interesting results. Either Google itself singles out the best stuff, or Book World strives never to bore. I’ll go with the latter, and leave you with Re:Print‘s very first news round-up.


Terry Pratchett struck with on-set Alzheimer’s:
Much has been written on Pratchett’s revelation. This article from the Bath Chronicle is particularly significant as the author is a former staff writer. Pratchett’s response to his condition is light-hearted. More can be found on Pratchett’s website.


George Bernard Shaw‘s biographer murdered:
Britain’s Ham & High newspaper reports: “Allan Chappelow, freelance photographer and the author of several books on the playwright George Bernard Shaw, was found dead in his home in Downshire Hill in June 2006 under a pile of papers”. The more you read, the more curious things get. Accused of Chappelow’s murder is a financial trader. The case may be the first murder trial heard in Central Criminal Court with cameras barred. Chappelow’s home was so badly in need of repair tthat it was on English Heritage’s At-Risk Register—it mysteriously burned down during the murder investigation.


Author of The Snowman remains flummoxed at book’s success:
The 25th anniversary of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman has forced the the author to comment on something he never wished to discuss ever again his life.


David Walliams of Little Britain signs children’s book deal:
Another one. Reports tells us the book will be aimed at 12-year-olds and will feature “an engaging boy hero”.


Laura Archera Huxley dies:
Aldous Huxley’s fascinating wife passed away this week. This brief article mentions many of her wonderful eccentricities, including her yoga and treadmilling into her 90s, and her dedication to “the nurturing of the possible human” through her children’s charities.


Pope hates The Golden Compass:
Not really a surprise. The Daily Telegraph reports that the Pope has ‘slammed Nicole Kidman’s latest movie The Golden Compass, with the Vatican labeling it “Godless and hopeless”’.


and finally ...


Lisa Welchel from The Facts of Life is proud of pregnant teen star, Jamie Lynn Spears:
Christian book author and former child star, Welchel (aka Blair), says “good on you” to Jamie Lynn for keeping her baby. Welchel is quoted on the ABC News website: “I’m so proud of her for stepping up and being courageous and taking responsibility for her choices, and I believe she’s being a good role model—a good role model in that situation, to choose to have the baby, and … I am supportive of her in that situation.”


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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

Despite the FCC’s sleazy victory in handing more power over to large media conglomerates, you can still work to stop this by having Congress step in to do something.  See info below from stopbigmedia.com:


The Federal Communications Commission approved new rules that will unleash a flood of media consolidation across America. The new rules will further consolidate local media markets—taking
away independent voices in cities already woefully short on local news and investigative journalism.


Congress has the power to throw out these rules—and if 100,000 people demand it, they’ll have to listen. Click on the link below to sign the open letter to Congress urging them to stop the FCC and stand with the public interest.


http://action.freepress.net/campaign/sbmopenletter/


http://action.freepress.net/campaign/sbmopenletter?rk=hpsEDbK1uyCvW


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Wednesday, Dec 19, 2007


When Santa sits back in his North Pole office and tallies up the boy and girl balance sheet every year, one wonders what exactly he uses as a means of measurement. It used to be that obeying one’s parents, doing well in school, and avoiding the pitfalls and problems of growing up were the essential benchmarks for a ranking of “good”, while putting a tack on teacher’s chair, pouring ink on Mommy’s rug and filling the sugar bowl with ants warranted a score of “bad” and a mandatory gift of furnace fuel. But now, in a world that excuses almost any behavior as part of the maturation process, it must be impossible to differentiate between disobedient and merely misunderstood.


The same thing applies to seasonal films. For everyone who wants nothing but visions of sugarplums and candy cane wishes, there are people who prefer their seasons greetings more mocking and satiric. Then there are a chosen few who can effortlessly manage between the two ideals, easily enjoying both the joyful and the jaundiced. Therefore, SE&L will separate its list of the best Christmas/holiday films of all time into two categories – naughty and nice. It’s the only way to cover all the jingle bell basics and make sure that everyone’s Yule is as cool as possible. While far from definitive, the undeniable delights of the divergent films featured guarantee no cinematic coal in any film fans stocking.


1. Nice: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Forget all the ridiculous remakes and stick with the sparkling and effervescent original. This terrific take on the commercialization of the season never fails to bring a smile to even the most mean, miserable face. Featuring Edmund Gwenn in a role that would redefine the personification of Santa for decades to come, this masterful little fable about belief and hope is a breathtaking combination of cynical and magical – the perfect combination of Christmas then and now. 


2. Naughty: Christmas Evil
Asking the disturbing question of how society would react to someone taking the role of Santa seriously, Lewis Jackson’s amazing motion picture assessment of one man’s descent into Kringle craziness remains a forgotten mistletoed masterpiece. In the lead role, Brandon Maggart spends his days in a toy factory, his nights making lists of the local school children. But when he finally ventures out on Christmas Eve, his moralistic intentions become confused, creating a memorable spree of Yuletide terror.



3. Nice: A Christmas Story
Few remember that Bob Clark’s now traditional cinematic treat was an unfettered flop when it first hit theaters in November of 1983. Apparently, audiences weren’t quite prepared to experience the knowing nostalgia of holidays circa the pre-War era. It took home video, and dozens of showings on Turner stations like TBS, to transform this clever comic take on holidays past into a timeless seasonal celebration. Now, devotees wouldn’t be caught dead missing a single moment of this festive familial farce. 


4. Naughty: Black Christmas (1976)
Bob Clark again, this time utilizing the holiday season for his inventive twist on the slasher film. Without the strict cinematic mandates that the genre would require throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Clark created the first subversive slice and dice, providing little explanation for the sorority attacks, and no actual resolution. With a narrative featuring eerie phone calls from a horrifying killer named Billy, this film is a perfect antidote for all the tinsel and treacle.


5. Nice: Scrooge
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has long been considered a Saturnalia standard. But of all the versions of his venerable Victorian allegory, this 1970 musical version starring Albert Finney is the most magical. Using an Oliver-esque approach to its recreation of London (read: grimy and grim) and amplifying the story’s supernatural elements, director Ronald Neame and composer Leslie Bricusse deliver a wonderfully winning effort, truer to the literary classic than any other adaptation out there. 


6. Naughty: Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas
Stealing the stop motion animation crown from those loveable TV titans Rankin and Bass, Burton scripted a timeless treasure that suits both Santa and Satan quite well. As poor misguided Jack Skellington, the King of Halloweentown, tries to unravel the secrets of Christmas’ festive feeling of fun, we are treated to a world loaded with artistic marvels and inventive iconography. Perfectly suited for October or December, this is one flight of fancy that grows more and more magical, year after year. 


7. Nice: The Polar Express
Some still find this first experiment in CGI rotoscoping to be a little disconcerting – the humans do appear rather stiff and disturbing in their zombie like blankness – but no one can fault Robert Zemeckis’ Christmas Card come to life look for the film. Thanks to the 3D imagery, this movie comes alive with startling seasonal symbols and moments of sheer cinematic bliss. Like most holiday treasures, its thrills are as universal as a smile and as special as the time of year.


8. Naughty: Lucky Stiff
Another forgotten masterwork, this time centering on an overweight lonely heart that’s invited to a Christmas celebration by a red hot honey he meets at a ski resort. Oh course, she and her family are cannibals, cruising the country for fatted ‘calves’ to clean and dress for their own festive flesh feast. Starring voice-over artist Joe Alasky as the blimp, and Donna Dixon as the blonde with an eye for prime man meat, this quirky black comedy delivers nonstop laughs.


9. Nice: It’s a Wonderful Life
Like A Christmas Story, Frank Capra’s look at the fragility of the American dream was more or less ignored by late ‘40s audiences. But once TV took up its cause, and a lapsed copyright allowed unlimited home video releases, the once overlooked gem became a true seasonal standard. Featuring fine turns by Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, what some found almost anti-American 60 years ago is now viewed as the perfect piece of old school Hollywood craftsmanship.



10. Naughty: Bad Santa
Nothing illustrates our post-modern mindset toward the holidays better than this crude family film about a drunk and debaucherous Santa who uses his department store position as a means of casing joints for his annual Xmas eve robberies. Unfortunately, a chubby little gingersnap known only as “The Kid” throws our Kris Kringle crook for a loop. The result is both hilarious and heartwarming, with just enough scatology thrown in to keep the Noel nasty

 


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