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This death thing isn’t a problem, is it? Corpse Bride.

Beautiful, But Dead
By Ann Morrow

Corpse Bride

Directed 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 for Victoria.

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 wilting nosegay.

Living Isn’t Easy

Last Days

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Last 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 than pathetic.

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 lesson learned.

Last 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.

—John Rodat

No Hot Meal, Either

Flightplan

Directed 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.

Flightplan 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.

—Laura Leon


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