Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"I'm not colorblind either"

Melinda Dillon is the MVP of A Christmas Story for many reasons, but the one line that always gets me laughing is her reading of that one.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

So this is Christmas, and what have you done?











Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight (now on DVD) shames us. The film starts with two-second shots of talking heads whom we will grow to know over its running time -- Pentagon officials, journalists, military, diplomats. The talking heads aren't talking yet, though. They are staring with a range of emotions: contempt, guilt, grief, helplessness. It is an extremely powerful sequence. Self-examination is something we as a nation need to do, Ferguson implies. Regardless of our position or status in society, we are all responsible for what this country has done to another. The film's last line? "That makes me angry." We aren't -- and have never been -- angry enough.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Who gets eaten and who gets to eat?

Had Baz Luhrmann directed, we might've had something sensational. Instead, with fauxteur Tim Burton at the helm, Sweeney Todd is a makeup-caked dirge, an Edward Gorey strip come to life, the type of musical a depressed and/or homicidal high-schooler might enjoy. Critics are reacting favorably not because of Burton's interpretation, but because of the baseline strength of the material. The story and score are magnificent even when communicated without a sense of fun or humor. The film occasionally flirts with fun, but in the end it's a drag instead of a thrill, a downer instead of a throttled, heart-pounding ascent to madness.

Yet it's neither disaster nor sacrilege, even though I was expecting both as soon as the opening credits played (they mimic those of Burton's Willy Wonka, with blood substituting for liquid chocolate). Sondheim's score — arranged faithfully by the man himself and not Danny Elfman, thank goodness — sounds fantastic in a surround-sound setting. And screenwriter John Logan did not try to sweeten the ending nor dial down the volume of bloodletting. This is a far grislier Sweeney than you'd ever see onstage, and I applaud Burton's attempt to fully realize the Grand Guignol-ish aspect of the story.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: No one in this film can sing, and much of Sondheim's notes and words are either thinned (in Johnny Depp's case), swallowed (in Helena Bonham Carter's) or raped (in the case of a timid Sacha Baron Cohen, who has no idea what to do with the work's most patently entertaining role).

Given his youthfulness and the fact that he refined his generic English accent by playing a pirate, Depp's performance was sabotaged from the start. Sweeney is supposed to be an older, grizzled, angry man, not a depressed dullard suffering from an acute case of ennui. Anthony Lane hits the nail on the head: "Depp’s Sweeney comes across as one more mournful Burton wacko. His singing gives off the Cockney yowl of someone who has listened to too much early Bowie, and his ivory-pale face is crowned by a stiff black mane with a white blaze in it. If you had sat Susan Sontag down and broken the news that not everyone in New York reads Hegel, you would have got the same effect."

That's some funny shit, and correct. "Early Bowie" is a good description. Depp sounds like the frontman of an indie band that needs louder music to mask his lack of vocal refinement. There's a fine line between re-imagination and confusion, although Depp's Sweeney is 1,000 times better than his Willy Wonka. As for Carter, she seems to have a passing interest in the material. This lackluster comes to a head during the "A Little Priest" number, which is a showstopping climax onstage but here plays like a half-baked segue. I've said it once and I'll say it again: I would've killed to have had Russell Crowe and Emma Thompson in these roles, with Luhrmann directing. Watch the clip below. I can't even listen to Carter sing. It's like she's sucking in air instead of expelling it.

Why Luhrmann? For his energy. For his flair for the dramatic. For his understanding of how a movie musical needs to move and look in order to be successful. Watch this and imagine how his vision might've transformed and elevated Sweeney:

Burton and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski create a rhythm that is unimaginative and often static — as if they were too preoccupied by the set decoration, costuming, makeup and performances to worry about the film's pacing. A musical needs to sing out. This one whistles a bit. "A Little Priest" is evidence of this, as is the staging of "Not While I'm Around," which, ironically, is much too staged and inert. And "Pretty Women" should've turned into the most suspenseful movie scene of the year. The suspense is built in musically (God, those strings), but Burton isn't savvy enough to harvest it on celluloid. The result is rote, satisfactory, even elementary.

There are things to admire (love Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford), but they are canceled and trumped by what is lazy or uninspired. Suffice to say: The uninitiated will revel in Burton's Sweeney Todd. They will be exposed to Sondheim's virtuosity and its marriage to stylized gore and they will react gleefully. The film is a breath of fresh air if you're aware of it only as a new and original creation rather than a variation on a theme. But for the Sondheim superfan, I think perhaps we were hoping for more than a breath of fresh air. I wanted my breath taken away.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

One of my favorite moments of the year


"Can I help you?"
"No."
And then we get these two beautiful reaction shots, so very pregnant with meaning. Each of Zodiac's 180 minutes is fascinating for one reason or another -- a palatable Jake Gyllenhaal, a matured Mark Ruffalo, a virtuosic attention to detail by director David Fincher -- and this end is no different. As Roger Ebert aptly said, Zodiac is the All the President's Men of serial killer movies.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Upcoming, plus DDT: The Third Man

Hey-nonny ho-honny
dilute some insulin;
then stage your death so
you never do time.
Stay out of doorways or
tragic-ironically
find yourself sewer-bound
like Harry Lime.

The Third Man is playing on the big screen tonight at the AFI and I can't go. Boo hoo. Also, all I do is make promises, so here are some more: Within the week, expect a review of Sweeney Todd, the latest installment of The Triple Crowners series and a "still life" rumination on one of the funniest, sweetest performances in one of the funniest, sweetest holiday movies.

Friday, December 14, 2007

See Juno this weekend...

...if only to see Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons cement their statuses as two of the best character actors around.

...if only to see Jennifer Garner in a whole new, lovely light.

...if only to have a steady stream of quality belly laughs.

...if only to remind yourself that sometimes there's nothing like a good movie. Yes, the hype, like Juno's tummy, has probably grown too large, but just go into it openly. It's no masterpiece, but it's exactly the caliber we should expect all movies to attain or exceed.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

First blush: Sweeney Todd

Johnny 'n' Helena sound like narcotized, poor-man's versions of Ewan 'n' Nicole, which, if you think about it, is doubly troubling in a Sondheim setting. A full review comes later.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

(Excuse me one f*cking second)

Same-sex relationships — like nuclear arms proliferation and environmental pollution — constitute "an objective obstacle on the road to peace," wrote Pope Benedict XVI in a statement released by the Vatican yesterday.

This from the man who wears Gucci sunglasses and red Prada loafers. Did I mention he's also calling for an "equitable distribution of wealth" throughout the world?

Your Holiness:

Surely you've already sold your couture wardrobe and given the proceeds to the poor, so let's not waste time on that. As someone who was raised Catholic, I must politely register my displeasure over the first part of your statement. You are in a remarkable position; a great number of people listen closely to and follow what you say. You advocate peace, but you do so at the expense of a vast sector of society that includes not only the GLBT community but also the straight people who stand with it. You, as the leader of a religion that calls for loving one's neighbor as one's self, have the power to very bravely say, "Love manifests itself in many forms, and its power or worth does not diminish as it shape-shifts. We are finished with senseless discrimination and effrontery. It is beneath us. We welcome all people who choose to believe that life is better lived with and for others rather than above and apart. A love for God and the espousal of the altruistic tenets of Jesus Christ are all we ask for — we do not care about your race, sexual orientation or any other personal aspect over which you have no control. We only care about the part you can control: the manner in which you conduct your life. Conduct it peacefully, with an open heart."

Instead of leading us into the future, Your Holiness, you have chosen to remain rigidly anchored to dusty, antiquated prejudice. You have chosen to inculcate intolerance. You are tilling the soil of society so it remains fertile for the seeds of hate. I look forward to the day when you realize your mistake — your sin — and I pray that time comes soon, on this Earth, rather than in the afterlife, when your god will no doubt purse his lips, shake his head and break the news that you were very, very wrong.

With love and in hope,
J.J.

Lift your razor high

Tonight I attend the tale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which, thank the Lord Almighty, was not renamed Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd during its first transfer from stage to silver screen. For the uninitiated, "Sweeney Todd" is a 1979 Stephen Sondheim musical based on a penny dreadful about a barber who avenges the death of his wife and kidnapping of his daughter by slitting the "less honorable throats" of his customers. It's a grand guignol masterpiece about how the meek and wronged rise up to devour (literally) the arrogant and rich. It's thrilling, gruesome, hysterical and utterly moving.

Suffice to say: I am nervous about this adaptation. Right off the bat, Depp is too young and, from leaked footage, appears to be doing his Captain Jack Sparrow accent. Said footage also hints at the disinterested and waif-like performance of Helen Bonham Carter, who should be playing Todd's accomplice Mrs. Lovett with muscular, caterwauling brio (I love HBC, but this was a part for Emma Thompson or Toni Collette). However, based on the trailer, Sondheim's score -- perhaps the grandest and most accomplished of the entire musical theatre canon -- seems largely unaltered or diluted by its blockbusterization. This gives me hope.

I will report back with a review tonight or tomorrow. Til then, do yourself a favor and sit down with the original Broadway recording of Sweeney Todd, starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury (who I would've cast in a second, despite her age). Or watch these clips of Lansbury and George Hearn (who surpasses Cariou) in this filmed-for-television production. The first scene is when Sweeney misses an opportunity to kill his nemesis; the second is the first-act finale, in which Mrs. Lovett comes up with the brilliant idea to grind and bake their victims into meat pies. It's a triumph of punnery.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Double Dactyl Tuesdays: Thank God It's Friday

Night fever night fever
Goldblum and Winger both
started careers without
tongues in their cheeks.
Disco queen Donna S.
diva-maniacally
ruins a decade with
each word she speaks.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Double Dactyl Tuesdays: House of Games

Higgledy piggledy
"Glengarry" play-writer
first wrote and directed
with con on his mind.
Drama queen Lindsay Crouse
Mametologically
proves with her pantsuit that
love is not blind.

On my third and most recent viewing of House of Games, David Mamet's directorial debut, it was plain to see why we could easily dislike and mock it. The dialogue? Stilted. The performances? Affected. The plot points? Contrived and improbable. Yet, for some reason, I love the wooden way Mamet wrote and directed the leads: Crouse as a repressed psychiatrist and best-selling author, Joe Mantegna as a classy con artist. I love the way Mamet puts all the focus on the words, the characters' cadence, to create a chord-like progression over the steady bassline of visuals. What results is a strange rhythmic precision. The movie sounds like Bach, looks like Edward Hopper and feels like nothing I've seen before or since.

Monday, December 03, 2007