Saturday, December 29, 2007
Sweeney Todd etc. (USA, 2007, Tim Burton)
And so it has finally arrived, Tim Burton's ghoulish take on Stephen Sondheim's revered musical. And while I'm no Sondheim expert, in fact I'm something of a neophyte (and if you are as well, Noel Murray over at the Onion's AV Club offers up a stellar primer on the man's career), I have to say that I was endlessly entertained by the film. This comes as something of a surprise given that the leads are clearly actors first, and singers second, which, given that the film's story is presented almost entirely in song, is a rather large hurdle that the filmmakers have managed to overcome.
How did they do it? Well, first and most importantly, the source material provides a tale that is full of unforgettable characters, terrific songs, and a love-gone-wrong story that mixes equal elements of class conflict and gothic violence. This is regarded as one of Sondheim's greatest accomplishments for a reason, and Burton, who is right at home in this gothic milieus, is smart enough to get out of the way and let the story tell itself through the plethora of splendid songs. Secondly, while Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman may not be great shakes as singers, each has a very strong and distinctive screen presence, and Burton knows well how to bring out the best of Depp and Carter in particular, with whom he has worked several times before, while Rickman is as close to a bullet proof selection as you can get when it comes to cast a villain. Finally, as alluded to above, the 19the century context and the brooding gothic romanticism of the source material play right into Burton's cinematic wheelhouse. It's like asking Kubrick to deliver icy cold, and Burton seizes the day to often admirable excess.
Speaking of which, fans of the musical must be forewarned not only about the middling quality of the singers, but also of the fact that many of the tunes from the original production did not make the final cut of this film, which comes in at slightly under two hours. Finally, I left the film feeling that I should have worn a plastic sheet for protection. This film is chock a block full of blood. And while the killing moments are carefully choreographed and easily anticipated, it should be noted that appearing at regular intervals are geysers, fountains, and volcanic eruptions of the stuff, so the squeamish among you should beware.
The Kite Runner (USA, 2007, Marc Forster)
Marc Foster, whose attempt The Kite Runner is to adapt Khaled Hosseini's award-winning novel, is the same man who helmed the treacly Finding Neverland, the fitfully entertaining Stranger than Fiction, and the earnest but slight Monster's Ball. Which is to say that Forster's output hasn't really given us any indication that his films contain any of the earmarks of an auteur. The Kite Runner does little to give us a firmer sense of Forster's directorial vision, unless you consider that it suffers from some of the same maladies, including a shaky grip on the difference between authentic emotion and melodrama, and a tendency towards an earnest self-importance, that afflicted many of his previous efforts.
Ignoring for a moment the obvious invitation to compare director Marc Forster's movie to Hossein's award-winning and consistently riveting novel because movie's should be judged on their own basis, and not through the filter of the source material, I must report that unfortunately, even on its own terms, Forster's film fails at the most basic levels. The Kite Runner is a film awash in a sense of its own significance, and that sort of righteous reflexiveness rarely serves a movie well.
As for the story, The Kite Runner has a strong opening act, wherein it tells the tale of Amir, the son of a successful Afghan businessman, and his closest friend Hassan, whose father has worked for Amir's family for forty years. Race and class conflicts converge in the form of a brutal assault on young Hassan that Amir witnesses, but fails to intervene in. The incident presages the disintegration of the decades long relationship of the servants to Amir's family, as Amir's pervasive sense of guilt leads him to provoke the family's firing. The assault also acts as a symbol of the Soviet invasion in 1979, and the large scale flight from the country of the Afghan middle and upper classes. The film hints at, but does not directly address the political implications of this flight, as this abandonment left the country's defense in the hands of Muslim extremists, who have been able to claim the moral high ground ever since. It is this inability to clearly establish socio-political contextual relevance that does this sort of film, which purports to be giving us the real goods on the situation in Afghanistan, great harm. That said, at least the situation isn't played for light-hearted mirth and self-congratulatory back-slapping, as it sometime is in Mike Nichol's Charlie Wilson's War. Now if only Forster had Nichol's directorial chops, we might have had something with the Kite Runner.
The remaining two acts of The Kite Runner has a narrative that is often quite fascinating, but the story is constantly submarined by Forster's sluggishly paced and self-conscious direction. He lets scenes play on far too long, draining rather than filling the cup of audience interest, while hammering home images, ideas and themes that could have been far more economically developed. The film becomes throbbingly painful in its California-based sequences, as the familiar and exotic are never mesh in any sort of cohesive or coherent manner.
The best of the actors, such as the Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada, who plays the young Hassan and Homayoun Ershadi, who plays Amir's father Baba, display a naturalism that carries us through some of the film's most awkwardly staged and ploddingly directed moments. Unfortunately, they are merely the film's supporting cast, which leaves the bulk of the film in the hands of actors, such as the two merely adequate actors who portray Amir, and none are skilled enough to distract us from the film's thudding pace and obvious kite-flying metaphors.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (USA, 2007, Sidney Lumet)
Before the Devil Knows Your Dead sure sounds like a great idea, a neo-noir examination of the disintegration of the American Dream as filtered through the tragically dysfunctional relationships of a "typical" American family, with the added credibility of the hiring of wizened cinematic veteran Sidney Lumet to helm the project. Indeed, there is little doubt that the accoutrements are there for a fine noirish thriller. Firstly, we have the surprise casting of Marisa Tomei as the sexpot femme fatale with (with apologies to Teri Hatcher) spectactular breasts that she shows off with brazen aplomb throughout the film's opening act. Alas, breasts aside, Tomei does not really seem up to the challenge, with the frustrated grunt that signals her departure from the film mirroring the audience's response to her unconvincing performance. Secondly, we have the wonderfully claustrophic nature of the central plot device, a jewel heist devised by older brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and foisted upon a financially desperate younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) which relies upon an Oedipal twist that would make any Greek tragedian proud. Thirdly, in the remarkable performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, we have a vivid and unforgettable portrait of a damaged and increasingly deranged character who in chasing his dreams lost hold of his ethical moorings.
So why is it that the film feels fractured and incomplete, much like Andy's character, who opines at one point that "all my parts don't add up"?
Part of the problem is the film's unwillingness to dig more deeply into the non-familial context of this tragedy. We catch glimpses of the work that Andy does, and have a few tantalizing hints about Hank's struggles to make ends meet, but these avenues of character exploration are given short shrift, with the focus instead being upon the brothers' lurid sexual triangle first, and their damaged relationship with the pater familias second. This reticence to dig into the character's social milieux is particularly strange given that this would normally be right in the wheelhouse of director Lumet, one of film's better social commentators. And while the staggered chronology forces the audience to pay a little closer attention to the juxtapositions of scenes set several days apart, it really doesn't contribute significantly to our understanding of this tale's inevitably grim conclusion, serving more as a self-conscious attempt to snazz up an otherwise pretty straight forward scenario.
The film is not without its rewards, primarly to be found in the terrific work of Hoffman, Hawke and Albert Finney to bring to life archetypal characters who feel like they stumbled out of a production of East of Eden meets Oedipus Rex. And it is great to see Lumet down in the muck and the mire, slogging through the filth, searching for the shiny gems in the mud. However, rather than a shiny diamone, this time he seems to have found himself a cut of zirconium.
I am Legend (USA, 2007, Frank Lawrence)
The first act of I am Legend, director Francis Lawrence‘s interpretation of Richard Matheson‘s oft-filmed apocalyptic novel, is remarkably compelling. Lawrence (Constantine) presents a city that is going to seed, but which still retains much of its majesty. After a pandemic is inadvertently loosed upon the world by a scientist who believed she had found the cure for cancer, it is left up to the brilliant and impressive physical specimen Robert Neville (Will Smith) to fine a cure for the cure, so to speak. And one must confess that Will Smith, playing a scientific variation of a muscular Christian, moves with a tricky blend of assertiveness and wariness through this city’s wasteland of 2012. Whether hunting game or checking DVD’s out of a mannequin-run video store, Smith does a capable job of capturing his character’s intensity and increasing uncertainty. The film is at its best when it is in observational mode, watching the emotionally fragile Smith move through this world alone, Omega Man style. However, when Lawrence moves into the action mode, things begin to fall apart.
Accompanied by his trusty canine sidekick Sam, Neville also fills his days with experiments “at ground zero” (echoes of 9/11 are unmistakeable but not necessarily explicable) to find a cure for the rabies-like plague that has devastated the planet. It is the subject of these experiments, survivors of the plague who have devolved into a 28 Days Later-type id-fuelled fast-moving cannibalistic zombies, whose introduction into the film ushers in the films own devolution into convention and predictability. It is not just that these CGI are unconvincing, but that their vendetta against Neville is so unconvincingly portrayed. And while the film’s most exciting sequence involves the creatures momentarily turning the tables on Neville by using his own trap against him, it also opens the door to the story’s illogic, as one must wonder why they haven’t caught up with Neville before this, or simply moved on to easier game.
And when I am Legend reaches for the tissues in the third act, Lawrence loses his grip on the film entirely. The introduction of other humans, while seemingly inevitable in every “last man on the Earth” film (see the aforementioned Omega Man for more proof of same) is unfortunate, as it dilutes our concern for Neville’s character, and distracts us from really interesting ethical dilemmas Neville may have to face for experimenting on creatures who were once human, and who might in fact be more human than he’d given them credit for. Instead, we are given the standard woman and child in peril scenario, made even more hackneyed as they are clearly intended to be surrogates for Neville’s own long-dead family, and it telegraphs the sort of happy ending that the rest of the film simply does not support.
Monday, December 24, 2007
The Darjeeling Limited (USA, 2007, Wes Anderson)
And so I finally got around to seeing the latest joint effort from Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. Keeping in mind that this is the first (mini-) review I've written in three months, I will say that while I enjoyed it at the level of pure whimsy and it is undeniably charming, due in no small part to the appealing cast and Anderson's oh so twee visual and aural compositions, it is easily the slightest of the four Anderson films.
The story takes place in India, and Anderson seems out of his element here. According to elder brother Francis, played by Wilson, the brothers are on a spiritual quest, but there's little to indicate that Anderson understands exactly what makes India such a locus of spirituality. Having never been there myself, I hesitate to--nay, I completely refrain from--hazard any guesses myself. I'll leave that to folks like yourself, who have been. All I can say is that in all the India-set literature and cinema I've enjoyed has allowed me to feel something of a vicarious witness to India's complexities and contradictions, and Anderson never really gets inside of them here.
That said, the playful sibling antagonism of the three leads (each delightful in his own way, with Schwartzman in particular conveying a surprising soulfulness, but Wilson easily has the strongest screen presence) helps to paper over a lot of the thematic flaws, and there is little doubt that Anderson knows how to craft an interesting audio-visual experience. I just wish the journey through this land had taken me someplace a bit more substantial and memorable