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Thursday, Dec 27, 2007


No critic can see every movie in a single year. There are only 365 days from 1 January to 31 December (366 with that added leap), and even if you saw two movies a day, you’d barely get through the entire 2007 release calendar. Someone with much more time on their hands calculated that over 750 films were offered over the last 52 weeks - nearly 15 per 7 day cycle. That includes direct to DVD entries, long shelved titles finally seeing a perfunctory distribution, and standard Cineplex offerings. Toss in a few ‘yet to find a release’ efforts and those given a mere limited showcase for award consideration and you can see how the numbers add up. SE&L struggled to see 125 films theatrically this year - that’s just over 10 a month. When you add in digital releases and other options (pay per view), the number moves closer to 250.


Still, we didn’t see everything - and as a result, we didn’t get a chance to review everything. Yet over the next five Fridays (with the occasional break for a noteworthy new 2008 film), we will try and play catch-up. These left-overtures, made to guarantee a more informed, inclusive assessment of 2007 will cover heretofore unknown documentaries, several celebrated movies that simply slipped through the cracks, and more than a few unknown quantities. First up, however, are four highly anticipated and high profile releases. Each one stands as a significant part of the current cinematic calendar, and no overview of the year in film would be complete without at least a marginal discussion. Granted, a few of the remaining major titles will get the full review treatment (There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), but this section hopes to address the more glaring aesthetic gaps quickly and efficiently. It all begins with:


Once [rating: 8]
Once is a nearly flawless little film - emphasis on the word ‘little’. It’s not out to tell a grandiose tale of unrequited love or star-crossed passion. Instead, it lets lonely people - in this case, a struggling street musician and an earnest immigrant from the Czech Republic - discover each other, connect, and then slowly drift apart. It uses songs to tell of their growing affection and respect, and the music also fills in the blanks regarding emotional context and personal angst. There is a real familial texture to the film - writer/director John Carney was in a band with lead actor/featured busker Glen Hansard, and the lead collaborated with actress Markéta Irglová on several of the key numbers. Performed live, with as much raw power and synergy as possible within a very low budget scheme, what we wind up with is an epic told in incomplete lyric lines, a classic fable forged out of slowly strummed guitar, lilting piano, and strained, struggling voices.


Both Hansard and Irglová deserve a lot of credit for how open and honest they are, artistically speaking. Music is a tough undercurrent in any film, its sonic significance meaning the world to some, a cloying, clumsy conceit to others. Here, Carney lets it do most of the heavy lifting, leaving his actors time to bring the nuances of the narrative to life. There are dozens of memorable scenes here - Hansard playing his songs (for the first time, supposedly) to his dad, the hastily cobbled together band impressing a hardened studio exec. - but it’s the morbid, moving tunes scattered throughout that leave the biggest impression. If you’re hoping for overblown romance set inside an equally grandiose or glamorous setting, Once will fail to deliver (Ireland is very cold and claustrophobic here). Love is not the main driving force between these two empty souls. As a matter of fact, both believe they can overcome the sentiment’s inherent limits and rediscover (or restart) it’s fire. No, what this film wants to champion is the collaboration in creativity, and how substantial (and superficial) it can be. For Once, it’s wonderful.


The Kite Runner [rating: 6]
It would take a viewer with the aesthetic skills of an Olympian to overcome the horrendous hurdles placed in entertainment’s way by this well-meaning but misguided adaptation of the famed bestseller. First and foremost, the story is full of purposeful convolutions. Events happen without rhyme, reason or clear set-up, simply stated for automatic acceptance and rote response. Characters aren’t dimensional - they’re mechanical, purposely created to fit certain narrative demands and manipulative paradigms. Our lead is a coward - and never changes from youth to adulthood. And child rape and sexual abuse are the poisonous plotpoints du jour. While many who love Khaled Hosseini’s novel will be happy with the adaptation (many of the main beats have been kept almost intact), fans unfamiliar with the tale of two boys - well off Amir and servant boy Hassan - living life in a pre-Soviet/Taliban Afghanistan will wonder why everything has to be so cruel. Seeing older kids bully younger ones is standard schoolyard shtick. Letting those threats end up in sodomy and defilement seems outrageous, and without proper dramatic foundation.


The Kite Runner is indeed a film dense with cultural disconnect. Perhaps if filmmaker Marc Forster had abandoned the books manipulative material and dealt with the elements of the story that were really interesting (what happened to the young victim during the reign of the Soviets and the rise of Islamic extremism) instead of focusing on the mopey, depressed, guilt ridded Amir, we’d feel more engaged. The featured transition from whiny kid to dour adult is neither compelling nor credible. Even when given the chance to fight for what he wants toward the end of the story, he lets another little boy do the defending. While the kite tournament material is intriguing (even with all the obvious CGI sophistication) and the history harrowing, Forster can’t find a way to make the many divergent threads work in complete consort. The end result feels incomplete, missing important moments and a real message. While it’s wonderful to see the Middle East painted in less than jingoistic images, the parts don’t add up to a substantial sum. This is one Runner that stumbles before hitting the finish line.


Atonement [rating: 8]
For those of you who miss the bodice ripping regality of a good old fashioned period piece weeper, Atonement will fulfill your Merchant/Ivory five hankies hankering quite nicely. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s beloved novel, and dealing with a love that transcends Earthly trappings (like class, law, and war), we witness the story of destined lovers James McAvoy (as Robbie Turner, the educated servant’s son) and Keira Knightley (as upper crust babe Cecilia Tallis). Skittering around the fringes is jealous tween Briony, longing for the much older man she can’t have and jealous of a sister whose much more refined and beautiful than she. During a dinner party, the child witnesses something that sets her off. One false accusation later and Robbie is in jail, Cecilia has disowned her family, and Hitler is invading France. The film then fast forwards to a world ravaged by conflict as the couple attempts to get back together (he’s a soldier, she’s a nurse). Along the way we get reminders, both subtle and starkly repugnant, that nothing in a time of international crisis ends up sunshine and secret rendezvous by the sea.


If there is one glaring flaw in this otherwise faultless film, it’s the character of Briony. She’s a monster, more brazen Bad Seed in her purposeful destruction than scared, green-eyed innocent. We watch her, soulless sense of entitlement driving her to acts of unconscionable cruelty, and wonder if she’ll ever be redeemed (or as the title suggests, held accountable for her numerous sins). The answer, sadly, is no. Even when Vanessa Redgrave shows up two hours later to give the girl an older, wiser veneer, we still see someone who barely comprehends how horrendous their actions really were. Luckily, Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright distracts us with lots of amazing cinematic statements. There’s an incredible tracking shot that follows Robbie and his fellow soldiers through a Hellish maze of military mayhem along a French coastline, and the final images of our long suffering lovers are simply stunning. Yet one can’t help but feel the impenetrable pall cast by Briony over the entire affair. It’s a necessary contrivance to keep the plot moving (and the tragedy fertile), but without a sense of justice, Atonement just doesn’t pay its penance. It turns a potentially magnificent movie into something that’s merely good.


Juno [rating: 8]
Juno is a snarky afterschool special for the Pinkberry crowd. It’s Knocked Up for the non-Britney brigade. It’s a movie with its own built in sense of Mystery Science Theater 3000 self-referential satire and one of the brightest humoresques in a genre stumbling for a rebirth. Some may see it as the nu-millennial notion of irony as genuine wit taken to ungodly extremes, and others will read the name “Diablo Cody” on the credits (born Brook Busey, she’s the screenwriter swimming in all the Tinsel Town juice right now) and wince at the proto-porn moniker. Yet as with any fairytale, no matter how supposedly nascent, you have to take the flights of fancy with the familiar. After all, this is the story of a teenage gal (the title trooper, played to perfection by Ellen Page) getting pregnant, and no one really having a conniption as a result - clearly a work of fabulist fiction. Deciding against abortion and going for the other “A” word (adoption), our hyper-spunky heroine looks for the perfect parents. Thus begins the film’s biggest paradigm: who makes the best parent - the cool guy who loves alternative rock and exploitation gore films, or the stuck up career woman who emotionally understands the burden of a baby. Tough call.


Yet thanks to Cody’s quirky dialogue, driven by one too many games of Trivial Pursuit and a couple of correspondence courses from the Quentin Tarantino School of Slam Speak, and Page’s flawless manipulation of said mouthfuls, we sail along on rays of Kevin Smithey sunbeams. Director Jason Reitman doesn’t let his outward love of Wes Anderson’s static tableaus undermine the mirth. Instead, his is a cinematic comic timing practically bred into his DNA (his Dad is Stripes/Ghostbusters’ Ivan). With equally engaging work from an all star cast - JK Simmons, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney - and a story which sells none of its problematic potential short, we wind up with something that’s smart, sassy, a tad too big for its broadminded britches, and a clear companion piece to the year’s other kings of much cruder comedy. In a world where every underage choice gets its own issue oriented movie of the week on Lifetime, Oxygen, or a combination of the two, Juno’s jaded joking is a breath of really fresh air. It stands as one of 2007’s brightest, best - and frequently, most baffling.


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Monday, Dec 24, 2007

The Great Debaters [dir. Denzel Washington]


Sometimes, a movie can be too ambitious. It strives to take on so many heavyweight issues and important causes that it ends up underselling each and every one. The story of all black Wiley College and its historic win over the University of Southern California in a 1935 university debate challenge sounds like the stuff of a surefire inspirational spectacle. There’s human interest, compelling characters, hot button historical context, and an attractive “overcoming adversity” angle. Toss in the always dramatic issue of race, and you’ve paved your way to awards season glory with nothing but the best intentions.


So why does Denzel Washington’s most recent turn both before and behind the camera, the crudely labeled The Great Debaters, seem so shallow? Why does a story that should soar plays as stodgy, grounded, and lacking in the basics of insight? It could be the star’s limited experience behind the lens. After all, he’s only directed one other film - 2002’s Antwone Fisher - and the lack of expertise means he’s more journeyman than genius. There is very little visual or artistic flair here as he barely skims the surface of the subjects being explored. Of course, it’s not all his fault. Screenwriter Robert Eisele substitutes grandstanding for guts, going for the cheap shot vs. the choice moment. The result is a message movie that unnecessarily stacks the deck in favor of feelings that no one would ever challenge.


Young James Farmer Jr. (a revelatory turn by young Denzel Whitaker) is desperate to be on the Wiley College debate team. At 14, he’s the youngest student at the school, where his father (Forrest Whitaker, no real life relation) is President. Into his life comes three compelling figures. One is teacher Mel Tolson (an oddly disheveled Washington), the inspirational head of the forensics squad. In his spare time, the Professor champions the rights of sharecroppers and supports Communism. The others are fellow students Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and the sultry Samantha (Jurnee Smollett). He’s a womanizing drunkard, spending far too much time at out of the way juke joints. She’s a big city gal with even bigger personal dreams.


Together, they form the basis of a team that succeeds beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Of course, there is trouble and intolerance all around. Yet even in the dangerous Jim Crowe South, they manage to make a name for themselves - so much so that Harvard comes calling, issuing a challenge: be the first ever black university to take on the prestigious Boston college. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up - even if events conspire to make the journey more difficult than it should be. 


Right away, the gratuitous manipulation is noticeable. Wiley did not debate the 317 year old institution back in the ‘30s, and the team’s triumph over USC was undermined by charges that the competition fell outside the parameters of the proper governing bodies. Both facts find no purchase in this overly earnest exercise. The filmmakers argue that the modifications keep the ‘spirit’ of the story intact. Truthfully, it only makes things maudlin and melodramatic. Since we’ll instantly care about these kids no matter what (bigotry has that kind of sway over an audience) there is no need to make the triumph any bigger, the stakes any higher. Yet that’s exactly what The Great Debaters does.


Similarly, Washington is far more interested in showing Texas as a raging hotbed of horrifying injustice than dealing with the intricacies of debate. There’s a diabolical drawling sheriff (John Heard) who has “failure to communicate” written all over his puffy red face (never mind the neck) and a typical Southern citizenry who use gentility to mask outright personal disgust. We even get the mandatory moment when the educated, erudite black man - in this case, the direct and dignified university president - gets demeaned by a couple of card carrying bumpkins, the better to establish the obvious social dynamic at play.


Let’s face it - racism is a repugnant part of our nation’s notoriety, and no story like this can avoid the subject. But you’d figure with individuals behind the scenes like Washington, Whitaker, and producer Oprah Winfrey, there’d be more thought behind how it’s portrayed. Instead of a constant, the prejudice around Wiley appears like an occasional inconvenience. The only time the fear factor works is during a late night drive when the team comes upon a particularly disturbing lynching. The mob mentality is pure evil incarnate.


In addition, you’d figure a film about the power of words would have something more solid to say on the subject. But aside from a midpoint putdown of a student’s desire to know more about Tolson, and the last act oration, the speeches are constantly compromised. Washington wants to have it all - the great performances, the stellar cultural commentary, the obvious underdog vs. the establishment take down, the smaller interpersonal moments that make a movie sing. And while his cast is quite capable and willing to work with him, (young Whitaker is especially good, encompassing great wisdom while still lost in an adolescent’s torn psyche), he shutters their performances. In its place are questions left unanswered and inferences all but unexplored.


Still, what’s on the screen is engaging and interesting, almost from rote. We know where the movie is going from the minute the team is announced, and the dynamic between the students is as clear cut as broken glass. There will be petty jealously, personal doubts, and the last act decision to rise above both. The debate scenes feel truncated and underdeveloped, as if the creative team figured no one would sit through an actual exchange of ideas. It’s a mainstream, middle of the road approach that keeps this film from finding the inspiration inside the situation.


And yet we cheer. We want Wiley to win, to take down the decent (if slightly stuffy) Harvard men and show them that color creates no boundaries, just plausible positivity. We enjoy the acting and delight in seeing fresh new faces tear into the established stars. There are moments of great joy, great sorrow, great interest, and great contrivance here. Oddly enough, only the debaters themselves wind up being similarly grand. As a movie, The Great Debaters misses too many possibilities, and harps on too many ancillary issues, to be stellar. It’s solid, but that’s all.


 



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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 13, 2007

THE SINGING REVOLUTION [dir. James Tusty]


The fall of the Berlin Wall. The break up of the Soviet Union. The independence of the many former Communist satellites. To Western eyes, these were events that were never going to happen in their lifetime…or even their children’s lifetime. Yet with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the openness and tolerance presented as part of the new policy led many dissidents to test the limits of their ruling regimes. What makes the case of Estonia’s fight for independence so unusual is that it wasn’t based in acts of overt defiance. Instead, they relied on history, tradition, and a rich musical heritage to start their own Singing Revolution - and once it began, there was nothing any army could do to stop it.


As portrayed in James Tusty’s memorable documentary of the same name, Estonia suffered greatly throughout the course of its harried history. Directly in the middle of the fray between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s armies during World War II, they were occupied by both factions before finally succumbing to Communist control in the ‘50s. From that point on, a nation previously devoted to peace and personal freedom found itself under the heavy dogmatic thumb of Moscow’s ruling junta, and the lack of sovereignty sparked a sense of national pride that lingered, underground, until the 100th anniversary of the annual Singing Festival became the focal point for a call to change. From there, all that was required to unseat Soviet rule was a commitment from brave members of the citizenry, and the use of nonviolent protest in light of a mighty military crackdown.


Though it proposes to discuss how music made all the difference in Estonia’s fight for independence, The Singing Revolution is actually more focused on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that helped determine the end of Russian influence in the Baltic region. While the annual celebration and its symbolic performance grounds did become an aggregate space for spontaneous protests and planned rallies, the backdoor machinations that resulted in secret deals, unusual alliances, and dangerous stands were far more responsible for the eventual change than the actual reliance on traditional folksongs. What the singing did symbolize, however, was the previously unknown national consciousness. People who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as activists could use the cover of communal participation as a means of protest.


Tusty goes into great detail here, speaking with individuals who were actually there on the front lines. As much as story about Russia’s fall as Estonia’s rise, he is careful to include contextual information, how Gorbachev’s calculated move to make the Soviet Union more modern opened a can of free speech worms he couldn’t contain. Indeed, while there are several other factors that helped form Estonia’s break, the ability to freely and openly address the nation’s rich cultural past was the catalyst that many newly formed factions used to advance their call to arms. Even more astounding, Tusty gets everyday Estonians to describe the terror they lived under, the undeniable knowledge that the KGB sat at every corner, recording their every move and word.


Indeed, what a film like The Singing Revolution reminds us of is that, unlike life in America, the threat of overthrow by an imperialistic or theocratic system is typically a political campaign away for these minor nations. Even when Gorbachev’s reforms seemed to suggest a lack of reasonable response from Russia, Estonia knew there was still a chance that tanks and troops would sweep across the border and take back control forcibly - and that’s just what happened…almost. One of the most compelling parts of the narrative is the last ditch effort by Communist hardliners to take back the Union. A coup led to Gorbachev being placed under house arrest, and with the Central Committee in the hands of those who’d return power no matter the consequences, things looked grim. It was thanks to two industrious police officers, given the task of protecting Estonia’s radio and television tower, and Boris Yeltsin back in Moscow, that truly saved the day.


As with any political thriller, this is incredibly compelling stuff, and Tusty doesn’t amplify or marginalize the material. Instead, he lets narrator Linda Hunt provide the plainspoken facts. Then he will accentuate the ‘you are there’ moments and newsreel/television footage with the voices of those who were actually involved. The humble cop who secured the nation’s sole source of information is relatively down to earth regarding his part in history. Similarly, those who staged the concerts and the rallies are on hand to describe the feeling of seeing hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women coming together for the noblest of citizenry causes.


In fact, if there is one minor flaw in Tusty’s approach, it’s that we don’t get enough of the title element. Songs are indeed sung, but they are only offered in snippets. It would be wonderful to see just one of these important melodies completed all the way through. In addition, there is very little input from the Russian side of things. Though their handling of the matter is not what’s important here, a little more scope would seal the documentary’s importance. Still, it’s hard to deny the human drama that plays out over the course of these mesmerizing 90 minutes. Just listening to the participants casually rattle off their stints in Siberian labor camps and as political prisoners (some for many years) is inspiring enough.


It’s the kind of confrontation that makes one question their own commitment to country. The United States has been incredibly lucky in that no foreign nation has ever literally tried to invade and take over. We’ve stood by across decades as other countries claim rights to and overthrow empowered governments for completely incomprehensible or selfish reasons. It’s clear that there’s authority in the voice of dissent, and when matched to a tune that proclaims native roots and right to self-determination, the force is strengthened further. Without its annual proclamation of music, Estonia might still be a Russian stronghold today. But thanks to The Singing Revolution, it’s a proud, prosperous democracy. It proves that power always remains where it begins - with the people.


 



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