death thing isn’t a problem, is it? Corpse Bride.
by Tim Burton
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is his first animated musical
since 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,
and like that instant classic, it uses stop-motion puppetry
to create a richly imaginative alternate universe—this one
a droll send-up of strait-laced Victorian England that puts
the linear exaggerations of Edward Gorey into delightful ambulation.
Though the story is not as memorable as the rollicking Nightmare,
its macabre visual wit makes it a piquant pleasure.
The endearing protagonist is timid Victor (Johnny Depp), who
is carted off by his nouveau-riche, fish-merchant parents
to a rehearsal for his arranged marriage to Victoria (Emily
Watson), the daughter of insufferably stuffy but penniless
aristocrats. Fortunately for the betrothed, they fall in love.
But klutzy Victor is so intimidated by the imperious pastor
(Christopher Lee) that he can’t recite his vows properly,
delaying the proceedings. And so he retreats to the woods
to practice alone, placing Victoria’s wedding ring on a twig.
The twig is really a bony hand, and that hand erupts from
the earth with a corpse attached, the corpse of a once-beautiful
bride-to-be (Helena Bonham Carter). The corpse claims her
terrified bridegroom and spirits him away to the land down
under the graveyard. Though the Bride has a bum knee (her
tibia keeps falling off when she tries to dance) and a bad
eye (it pops out at the most inopportune moments), her cadaverous
curves are still alluring. And she adores Victor, whom she
regards as the fulfillment of the broken engagement that led
to her unfortunate demise. A proper Victorian gentleman, Victor
wants to honor his vow to his accidental fiancée, whose only
fault, after all, is that she’s dead. Yet he can’t help pining
Funny thing is, the land of the dead is more alive and colorful
than the repressed and ashen England above. New arrivals are
welcomed by a zany skeleton swing band and catered to by the
head of a Gay Nineties Frenchman whose joie de vivre is propelled
by beetles. Meanwhile, Victoria is in danger of falling into
the clutches of the opportunist Lord Bittern (Richard E. Grant).
Much of the charm of this gently morbid fairy tale comes from
the amazing puppetry and the amusing caricaturing. The songs
are appealing, and the story has a sickly sweet nuance befitting
its dankly fantastical Victoriana. But the plot tends to be
as wan as Victor’s melancholia. Important turns, such as the
Bride’s suspicious demise, are underdramatized. And though
Depp, Lee, and especially, Grant, are marvelous, none of the
characters possesses the sheer force of personality of Nightmare’s
Jack Skellington. Whereas The Nightmare Before Christmas
barreled along like a brightly burning jack-o-lantern on the
loose, Corpse Bride sweetly fades from mind like a
by Gus Van Sant
Days closes with a dis- claimer acknowledging that it
is inspired by the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
For an even casual fan of the band, the disclaimer would be
entirely unnecessary. Lead actor Michael Pitt has the lank,
dirty blond locks, the stubble and the narcotized mumble,
and is clad throughout in outfits recognizable in an almost
date- specific way: Hey, I think that’s the cardigan Kurt
wore on Unplugged; and those are the sunglasses from
the first Rolling Stone cover; etc. But the disclaimer
makes another point that will, sadly, likely be overlooked
and underplayed: Last Days is a work of fiction—and
a fine one.
However closely the movie hews to the look and feel of Cobain,
however many trivial biographical facts are incorporated (the
discovery of the corpse in a greenhouse by a gardener, for
example), what’s important about the film is the mood—created
brilliantly and subtly here by director Gus Van Sant, one
of the few true risk-taking American filmmakers likely to
be shown in your neighborhood theater.
Van Sant follows the Cobain-like character, Blake, through
a shambling Pacific Northwest mansion populated by spaced-out
hangers-on and couch crashers as he performs the expected
routine of a 20-something, drug-addicted musician: mutter,
Cocoa Puffs, fix, nod, noodle, mutter, mac ’n’ cheese, repeat.
Blake’s efforts to evade those who attempt to interact with
him by scooting through side doors and adjoining rooms, hustling
nervously out the door, across the lawn to sit at lake’s edge
alone and hidden in the vast hood of a snorkel jacket, are
both funny and sad. Van Sant has allowed for a lot of space
in this movie—there is little articulate dialogue, not much
in the way of action or plot and lots of medium and long shots—which
has the effect of suspending judgment. The viewer knows that
Blake’s alienation will lead ultimately to his death, yet
watching him scurry through his estate, like an eccentric
lord in an English manor-house comedy, is often more amusing
And the characters whom Blake is ducking provide an equal
mix of humor and poignance as well. They are, undoubtedly,
leeches and as such unlikable; but they are of the hapless,
fuck-up variety, and funny for it. Particularly good is Lukas
Haas as Luke, a bumbling, bug-eyed musician looking for Blake’s
help with a troublesome chorus.
The amount of direct commentary about Blake’s state and fate
is fortunately minimal. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon makes an
appearance as a record executive who questions Blake about
what he says to his absent daughter when they speak: “Do you
say you’re sorry that I’m a rock & roll cliché?” And Ricky
Jay, as a private detective, offers a story about a magician
indirectly killed by his own fame as an allegorical analog.
In a more aggressively commercial movie (even one of Van Sant’s
own, like Good Will Hunting), these points would have
been hammered into the viewer’s skull; but, here, Van Sant
lets them lie and gets Blake back into his doomed cocoon—no
Days will annoy many people with its restraint, its fundamental
quietude; but Van Sant’s emotionally sympathetic and technically
objective handling of a suicide has all the stately catharsis—which
is equal parts pity and awe—of a classical tragedy. So, those
people will be wrong.
Hot Meal, Either
by Robert Schwentke
The opening sequences of Flightplan are engulfed in
a claustrophobic veil of dread, loss and bewilderment. Newly
widowed Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) is understandably off-kilter:
She views her dead husband, and then imagines he’s guiding
her through snowlit and eerily isolated streets back home.
Dierctor Robert Schwentke uses Foster’s angular facial features
to crystalline effect; they seem to echo the sense that this
woman, as well as her bereaved little girl Julia (Marlene
Lawston), could literally crack. Combined with the icy blue
lighting and heavy silences, when Kyle and Julia board a flight
to New York, there is a palpable sense of isolation and grief.
But the pristine loneliness is broken irrevocably when, a
few hours into the flight, Kyle wakes from a nap to find Julia
missing. The frantic mother enlists the assistance of the
disbelieving crew, including the captain (Sean Bean) and an
air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard), but when it turns out that
Julia’s name isn’t even on the passenger manifest (and that
nobody on the flight remembers seeing the child), suspicion
turns toward Kyle herself. Indeed, the direction and the story
are ambiguous enough up to this point to make us, too, wonder
if perhaps Julia was just a figment of Kyle’s imagination.
Trouble is, Kyle is played by Jodie Foster, and there’s just
no way that this woman, who exudes supreme intelligence in
the face of vulnerability, is nutso.
This is one of the biggest flaws with Flightplan: our
inability to doubt Kyle’s sanity. Our only question is, why
has her kid been spirited away, and by whom? The script makes
halfhearted stabs at situations and issues that should have
been much more dramatic.
Foster really throws herself into the role of a woman in peril,
so much so that when she discards her black pullover to reveal
a short-sleeve T and nicely toned arms, we can rest assured
that Kyle is ready to kick some butt and bring Julia back
to safety. It helps that Pratt is an airline engineer who
just so happens to know the plane’s design backward and forward.
Why she would have been targeted, given her specialized knowledge,
is one of those nagging questions that keep you from giving
in completely to the insanity of the chase. Why would anybody
believe that Sarsgaard, who looks like a total stoner and
has really strange elocution, is an air marshal trained and
hired to protect the skies? The ultimate solution is both
farfetched and surprisingly weak, harkening back to old-fashioned
airline disaster pics. The film also seems designed more to
avoid offense than to sustain suspense or create surprise,
at one point raising the subconscious terrorist fears of many
travelers with an accusation against an Arab passenger, and
then backing away with an almost teary-eyed speech about the
rights of Arabs everywhere.
isn’t a first-class thriller, but one can almost overlook
that, given the fact that it does provide an opportunity to
watch Foster’s character analyize her way out of one hell
of a pickle. It’s so rare to see a thinking woman character
onscreen—one who retains her wits about her throughout the
movie and doesn’t get sidetracked or hoodwinked by sex or
peril—that this alone gives Flightplan wings.